Ending the Embargo: Can “Brand America” Bail Obama Out?

September 26, 2014

Not a great week for President Obama or his resilient support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

With heads of state and government gathering at the United Nations for the 69th Session of the General Assembly, Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, President of El Salvador, spoke out strongly against the U.S. embargo.

Santos said, “I have faith that the United States and Cuba can form a working relationship that allows the United States to lift the embargo that from my point of view has failed.”

In his first General Assembly speech as president, Sánchez Cerén said, “In the pursuit of peace efforts, and of equitable development there is no place for the disdain of fundamental principles and freedoms which is found in the economic, trade and financial blockade against the sister republic of Cuba.”

These strong words, coming from leaders of America’s staunchest allies in the hemisphere, merely echo what has already been said by influential foreign policy voices – like Hillary Clinton, Yoani Sánchez and, yes, John Oliver.

Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Clinton described to Jorge Ramos why she now favors lifting the embargo.

“I think it has propped up the Castros because they can blame everything on the embargo…You don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of expression, you know, you’re still having political prisoners, everything is blamed on the embargo.”

Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban dissident, who has gone from communicating with the outside world with flash drives, to winning a Yahoo! fellowship at Georgetown University, wants the U.S. to end the embargo for a similar reason.

“I come from a generation of Cubans that have grown up with an official discourse constantly running through my ears that has expertly used the embargo as its foremost excuse — blamed for everything from the lack of food on our plates to the lack of liberty in the streets.”

Commenting on President Obama’s decision this month to extend Cuba’s status as the only nation on Earth subject to trade sanctions under the World WWI-era Trading with the Enemy Act, John Oliver told his HBO audience this week:

“Cubans blame the embargo for everything — the economy, the weather, the complete collapse of Homeland in its second season which, to be fair, Cubans probably haven’t seen but if they do they’ll hate it and they’ll blame the embargo for it.”

Clinton, Sánchez, and Oliver make a point President Obama has not fully absorbed; namely, it’s possible to have differences with Cuba’s government, political system, and economy and still see that the embargo, started by the Kennedy Administration and held together by a law enacted in 1917, has completely “failed.”

If the President wanted to consider a “newer” approach, he might read the remarks on Burma by Charles H. Rivkin, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

As you may know, our State Department is extremely critical of Burma’s systemic human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, restrictions on speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement, and for its 45 prisons, 100 government labor camps, and 60,000 prisoners.

In Burma, however, Rivkin sees no place for an embargo. He’s heard “what American companies faced — or have faced in the wake of sanctions. They range from other foreign investors taking advantage of our absence to our own reporting requirements.”

Instead, he believes the U.S. business community – representing “Brand America” – will help take Burma where it needs to go: “towards a more connected, vibrant, and prosperous future.”

He argues this: “When people buy American, they buy into our values and beliefs as well as our culture of practicality and trust in the open market.”

Admittedly, this is the homeliest argument we’ve heard for ending sanctions and promoting U.S. investment in countries whose political systems we oppose. But, if the President buys it and applies it to Burma, he should seize it as a rationale for ending the embargo of Cuba — particularly now.

In the next few weeks, the UN General Assembly will turn its attention to Cuba, where resolutions condemning the embargo have been adopted by increasingly lopsided margins for 22 consecutive years.

As John Oliver observed Sunday night, “It’s been a while since Cuba was a genuine threat, and by continuing the embargo, we’re not just pissing them off, we’re pissing off almost the entire world.”

We can’t do any worse than the vote in 2013, which the U.S. lost by 188-2, even after the U.S. has spent the last year cranking up the embargo machinery against many of our closest allies.

But why even try?

If “Brand America” can ride to the President’s rescue, he should probably saddle it up.

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Lots – we mean LOTS – of polling on Cuba!

June 13, 2014

This week, when the Miami Herald released its survey of 400 registered voters in Miami-Dade County, it contained startling results, including a finding that the Cuba issue is not having much effect on Florida’s race for governor.  (This is not something you would have guessed reading the Herald’s headline: Cuban voters weigh Crist down in Miami-Dade.)

A few days ago, Public Policy Polling released a poll showing a majority of Floridians supporting an end to the embargo.

Next week, the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University will release results from its 2014 survey of Cuban Americans in South Florida.

So, there’s a flood of new data. Since public opinion research had a rocky week in Washington – just ask Rep. Eric Cantor, or, even better, ask his pollster – we thought it would be a good time to look at recent surveys on Cuba policy and think about how public opinion affects public policy.

***

If foreign policy issues turned less on how politicians calculated their domestic political interests and more on how public servants weighed the national interest, U.S. policy toward Cuba would have changed long ago.

After all, Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War before the invention of the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies, in a report published in 1997, said “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.”  Foreign policy elites – including diplomats known to fear communist influence in the region – recently united behind a letter to President Obama urging meaningful changes in the policy.

As with national experts, public opinion in the U.S. settled the Cuba debate decades ago.  Since 1974, as Gallup reported, “a majority of Americans have consistently said they support establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, with the exception of one poll conducted in 1996.”

Yet, the policy, conceived in the Cold War, is largely unchanged. This produces truly loopy outcomes – consider a recent House-passed defense bill that prohibits U.S. cooperation with Cuba on efforts to control drug trafficking despite Cuba’s exemplary record in this area – along with the more troubling and continuing U.S. efforts to overthrow Cuba’s government.

Cuba continues to be, as the Atlantic Council says, “the third rail of Latin American foreign policy in the United States,” thanks, as the data consistently shows, to inaccurate positioning of Florida’s importance in electoral politics.

***

Until the 2008 presidential campaign, when Senator Obama promised to reopen family travel to Cuba, and expressed his willingness to negotiate with Cuba’s government, no serious candidate – Democrat or Republican – promised anything less to Florida voters than complete loyalty to the Cuba sanctions agenda.  Until former Secretary Clinton released her memoir last week, no serious contender offered to undo the embargo before declaring for the White House.

The received wisdom for standing behind a failed policy was simple.  Candidates were told they could not win office, nationally or locally in Florida, without carrying the Cuban American community, because it was resolutely opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba’s government.

That is why we suggest paying close attention to the data released this year, this week, and next Tuesday.

In February, the Atlantic Council released a comprehensive survey that found substantial support nationally for normalizing relations with Cuba (56% to 35%) but even greater support in Florida for re-engaging.  Floridians supported normalizing relations by a 63% to 30% margin, and approved of eliminating all restrictions on travel by 67% to 29%.

Public Policy Polling, which conducted a Florida survey this month, recorded 53% of Floridians, including 64% of independents and 57% of Democrats, supporting an end to the embargo with only 22% of respondents in support of maintaining the embargo.

But the bigger news came in a Miami Herald poll, which tested voter preferences in Miami-Dade County for Florida’s upcoming Governor’s race.  As we previously reported, former Governor Charlie Crist astounded observers when he called for ending the embargo and announced plans to visit Cuba in the midst of his campaign against the incumbent Governor Rick Scott.

Crist’s announcements have had no effect on the state’s most feared voters.  Despite losing the county’s Hispanic vote, the Herald reports that Crist leads Governor Scott by a 47%-35% margin; sustained by 84% support among African-American voters, 58% support among “White Anglo” voters, and a 49% to 49% split among voters of Cuban descent born in the U.S.  More telling, 67% of all respondents said that Crist’s Cuba position had no impact on their vote.

Given the link between public opinion in Florida and public policy on Cuba in Washington, these results are really important.

***

In recent years, hardliners have demonstrated they will not give up the perception of their lock on Florida’s votes without a fight.  In 2008, they predicted Obama would lose Florida when he promised to restore family travel.  He won 35% of the Cuban vote, won Florida, won the election, kept his promise, and family visits surged from 50,000 in 2004 to nearly half-a-million in 2013.

When the President restored people-to-people travel in 2011, Capitol Hill Cubans called it a sure way to lose votes. After he won Florida by a larger margin in 2012 than he did 4 years before, and split the Cuban vote with Governor Romney, Mauricio Claver-Carone said, “I have a problem with exit polls,” and his organization later issued a report aimed at disproving Cuban American support for the President.  When the Atlantic Council poll demonstrated vast support in Florida for changing the policy, he and others denounced it as a push-poll.

This is why we’re eager to see the 2014 results from the Florida International University poll, the longest-running survey of public opinion in the Cuban American communities of South Florida. When FIU began its project in 1991, 87% of Cuban Americans favored keeping the embargo in place without changes.  When FIU released its last survey in 2011, that figure had fallen to 56%.  We won’t be surprised if the 2014 results – in line with these other findings – show even less support among Cuban Americans for the embargo.

***

Two points in conclusion.  At t a time when more than 400,000 Cuban Americans are returning to the U.S. after visiting their families on the island each year, it’s hard to imagine that they are unaffected by what they see.  As these visits affirm that travel to Cuba helps their families, Cuban American support for further reforms in the policy, in our judgment, is likely to grow.  So, we predict more positive movement in the FIU poll (thanks, we should say, to President Obama’s family travel policy).

Alternatively, if you prefer to believe that nothing has changed, you can consult the Capitol Hill Cubans website.  There, you will find a presentation from 2009 showing that the existing embargo policies are strongly supported by the Florida Cuban-American community. Keep in mind, the analysis is based on a survey by McLaughlin and Associates, Eric Cantor’s pollster.

Still, you can’t predict polls.  With you, we’ll wait to see what the Florida International University survey says next Tuesday.

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A Summer Reflection on the Right to Travel (in both directions)

August 16, 2013

When you last read the Cuba Central News Blast, our team headed out on vacation even as we awaited word about the intrepid Ben Friberg, trying to become the first paddle boarder to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba’s Port Hemingway to Key West, Florida.

With our vacation behind us, and summer’s end just before us, we were reminded how much we love travel and how the cause of restoring the rights of all Americans to travel freely to Cuba motivated us to create this news summary in the first place.

Ten years ago, travel rights hung in tatters. After President Clinton encouraged family travel, permitted all U.S. residents to send remittances, allowed more direct flights to Cuba, and opened broad categories of people-to-people travel, President George W. Bush totally reversed course.

His administration wanted to design a new, Made in America future for the Cuban people. He ended people-to-people travel.  He tightened limits on family travel and humanitarian assistance by executive action.  He convened a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which wanted to cut off travel in the belief they could bring the Cuban system to its knees by curtailing the flow of most tourist revenue to its government.

The Bush administration’s coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs calculated that travel restrictions cost the Cuban economy $375 million annually, and said in a speech in Miami: “To my way of thinking, these measures are already having their effect, and we are seeing it now in Cuba.  Will it move us toward that which we want, a democratic transition?  We don’t know…”

Well, we know: the policy didn’t produce changes in Cuba, but it kept blinders on the Americans who wanted to visit the island, so they couldn’t compare what U.S. government policy said about Cuba to the Cuban reality itself.  As Aldous Huxley famously said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  U.S. policy allowed for no such discoveries, which is why the pro-sanctions crowd really finds travel restrictions so useful.

But, they never could shut off the tourists from every other nation who could visit Cuba without asking their government’s permission to go.  Any void created by the absence of U.S. visitors continues to be filled by tourists from the region and the rest of the world, more than a million and a half of whom visited Cuba in just the first six months of 2013.

To his credit, President Obama has taken steps to restore unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, reopen people-to-people travel, allow more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market, and renew opportunities for sending remittances to qualified Cubans for all U.S. residents.

We still haven’t reached the goal – freedom to travel for Americans – and the restrictions on U.S. travelers to Cuba remain tight.  The Associated Press bureau in Havana said it well earlier this summer:

“While millions of tourists visit Cuba each year from Canada, Europe and elsewhere, Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo still outlaws most American travel to the island. However, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are now visiting legally each year on cultural exchange trips. These so-called people-to-people tours are rigidly scheduled to comply with embargo rules...”

That said, when American travelers in increasing numbers can see Cuba’s architecture and cultural origins, reach out to its Jewish and gay communities, and experience its environmental diversity, on trips licensed by the U.S. Treasury; and when U.S. policy goes further, and loosens restrictions on the ability of Cubans to visit our country, thanks to epic staff work at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as reported by Fox News, these are all steps in the right direction.

A year ago, the State Department told Congress that the president’s new travel policies were achieving its goals:  As Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “The administration’s travel, remittance and people-to-people policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information, taking advantage of emerging opportunities for self-employment and private property, and strengthening independent civil society.”

The administration should do more.  Members of Congress are urging President Obama to expand people-to-people travel by making it permissible under a general license, and now is certainly the right time for him to act. The summer travel season may be ending here, but the need to secure two-way travel rights for all Cubans and all U.S. residents goes on.

One other thing:  Ben Friberg will go down in history as the first paddle boarder to cross from Cuba’ to the U.S., Caribbean 360 reports. He made the 28-hour, 111-mile journey: “to promote peace and understanding between Cuba and the US and to promote a healthy lifestyle.”  In doing so, he also became a symbol for the right to travel.

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A July 4th Story About Democracy Promotion

July 5, 2013

A short time back, Digital Diplomacy was all the rage.  Personified by Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, who married social media to democracy promotion at the State Department, the U.S. government made a costly and public commitment to modernizing its tools of diplomacy.

Those were heady days for cyber-democrats, and the U.S. government wasn’t shy about its role in promoting change.  “As American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.”

Eric Schmidt, then CEO at Google, who brought Cohen and Ross to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View for a Q+A session with dozens of employees, asked them “Is it like calling up all the ambassadors and saying, Please use Facebook, Twitter, and Google?”

It wasn’t that easy.  The ideas behind so-called 21st Century statecraft turned out to be harder to implement than conceive.  Both men have since left the State Department.  Mr. Cohen got a job at Google.  Mr. Ross is writing a book and serving as a corporate consultant.  But, the structure they left behind may not be doing all that well.

If you saw the headline, State Department spent $630G to boost Facebook ‘likes,’ report says, you know what we’re talking about.  In a report recently made public, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors found that the Department spent $630,000 boosting its likes on Facebook, “artificially increasing apparent popularity of the Bureau’s English-language Facebook page from 100,000 likes to 2 million.”

The word “artificially” was well-chosen.  The report also found that the money produced little increase in engagement.  Members of the larger audience weren’t likely to be active politically. The Department didn’t understand how Facebook managed its news feeds, and it was poorly organized to make use of the effort.  The Inspector General found such pervasive problems that the report required over 80 recommendations for fixes.

The report showed a Department more interested in boosting its numbers – to measure just how energetically it was promoting democracy and using social media in nations overseas – than in thinking about or organizing what it was doing.  This had a familiar ring to us.

We mentioned the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) before, when we learned about its contract with Washington Software, Inc. to build up its social media effort in Cuba.  According to documents disgorged by Tracey Eaton, the investigative journalist with whom we are working, “the BBG paid Washington Software $14,474 for” – get this – “361,873 text messages sent to cell phones in Cuba during the month of October 2011” alone.

The numbers sound robust; just like moving up the State Department’s numbers on Facebook.  But, the Cuba programs are shrouded in secrecy, and U.S. taxpayers have no idea what the SMS messages said, to whom they were sent, or what the purposes of the messages were.

Apparently, we must simply trust Carlos García-Pérez, the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, who is certain these efforts are successful.  “With these new initiatives we are enhancing the way that people in Cuba can share information,” he said in comments reported by the Miami Herald.

We’re not so sure.  Earlier this spring, Mr. Eaton reported that the BBG has spent more than half-a-million dollars since 2005 to buy TV and Radio Martí the rights to broadcast Major League Baseball games for the Cuban audience, even though the stations are jammed by Cuba’s government.

Last Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Cuba broadcast a major league game on state television.  It was stripped of commercial advertising, neither of the teams involved fielded any Cuban players, and the game was two-months old.  Not surprisingly, Cubans who watched didn’t think much of it.

If the Martís are broadcasting the real thing live, why did Cuba need to run a May 2nd game on June 30th?  Because no one in Cuba hears them.  So why was the BBG bragging on July 2nd about its contract with Major League Baseball?  Because it doesn’t think that anyone here knows any better, and they are right.

As events unfolded in Egypt this week, we were reminded that democracy promotion is a tricky, unpredictable thing.  It’s inherently intrusive, as one scholar of the subject wrote recently, and causes pushback in the countries where we’re accused of meddling.

In Cuba, where these activities are illegal, they endanger the citizens who come in contact with them and put the personnel who carry them out at great risk.  In the U.S., because they are carried out in secret, most U.S. taxpayers are completely in the dark about what their government is doing, which hardly seems democratic at all.

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The Democracy Promotion Paradox – or why Americans hate politics

February 8, 2013

Sometimes our Cuba policy is so farcical, it’s impossible to keep a straight face.

Consider poor Pedro Adriano Borges, age 68 who, according to the Miami Herald is awaiting trial in federal court.  He is charged with ten violations of the Trading with the Enemy Act, money laundering, and other crimes for which he could spend 35 years in prison if convicted.  The underlying charge is this: he shipped $93,000 worth of goods – including light bulbs and diapers, spices and mayonnaise – to Cuba before Congress authorized food trade with the island.  Opening the market to mayonnaise might be considered a crime against Cuban cuisine, but he should hardly be facing jail time in 2013 for an activity that’s been legal for a decade.

Other times, however, the policy is not just farcical, but so internally inconsistent that it edges in the direction of tragedy.  Consider what we continue to learn about the USAID democracy promotion or regime change programs.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report on the programs this week.  Unlike prior studies, which disclosed that U.S. recipients of the funds were wasting them on Godiva chocolates, cashmere sweaters, and Nintendo Game Boys, GAO said the program was being operated with tighter internal controls.  This – along with headlines like “U.S. government report says America’s democracy programs have improved” –undoubtedly delighted USAID, which just last month read this story in the Washington Post:  “Interference with bid-rigging probe alleged at USAID.”

In fact, Marc Lopes, head of USAID’s Latin American and Caribbean section, told the Herald in a phone interview, “We have increased transparency and financial monitoring, and we are pleased that GAO has recognized that.”

But, remember, the GAO makes judgments about accounting, not about policy.  As the Miami Herald reported, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $205 million dollars on democracy promotion activities since 1996.  There is no evidence that the programs are achieving their objective of hastening a democratic transition in Cuba.  Phil Peters says it well on his Cuban Triangle Blog:

“So the dollars are well accounted for, but as to whether they are being spent in ways that make a positive difference, well, that’s outside the scope of the report.

“Which is worth noting because in the case of USAID’s satellite Internet program run by Alan Gross and other grantees, the dollars may have been perfectly managed and 100 percent accounted for, but they were 100 percent wasted because these operations were rolled up by Cuban intelligence.”

Wasted and obscured from public view.  There is another version of the report, “sensitive but unclassified,” that GAO won’t allow U.S. taxpayers to see.  Even worse, Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, discovered that USAID hired an outside contractor to review the programs, which found “questionable charges and weaknesses in partners’ financial management, procurement standards, and internal controls.”   But when Mr. Eaton filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the outside audit, USAID fought him and then provided only ten pages of material that “omit most findings, recommendations and other key information, including the identity of the aid recipients named in the audit.”

This is more than a little odd coming from USAID which recently gave a $25 million grant to researchers at the University of Texas…(wait for it)….to develop tools that will “Increase Global Aid Transparency.”

Not only that, Mr. Eaton requested an interview with Mr. Lopes a little more than a week ago, and he declined.

Can someone stop the pain?

Not if what President Eisenhower might have called The Cuba-Industrial Complex has anything to say about it.  Although there was scant public mention of democracy promotion at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, a new round of questions and answers about the program popped up in the Congressional Record, according to “Capitol Hill Cubans,” an eager supporter of regime change in Cuba.

In testimony apparently provided for the record –questions asked and answered in private – Senator Marco Rubio urged Mr. Kerry not to negotiate with Cuba to obtain Alan Gross’s release; not to shut down or rollback democracy programs; and to scrutinize the already legal people-to-people trips to Cuba.  You can read Kerry’s responses here.  We think he gave Senator Rubio no quarter.  To date, Mr. Kerry has made no public statements about whether he’d change the programs that he tried to reform as a member of the U.S. Senate.

But, the bodyguards surrounding USAID’s Cuba programs – the contractors, the pro-sanctions Senators, the array of publicists and polemicists aligned with them – will continue resisting the scrutiny and long-overdue public debate that ought to take place about these wasteful, ineffective, covert-but-not-classified programs that antagonize Cuba and which turn Latin America more broadly against us.

We are reminded of what E.J. Dionne wrote in “Why Americans Hate Politics” –

“With democracy on the march outside our borders, our first responsibility is to ensure that the United States becomes a model for what self-government should be and not an example of what happens to free nations when they lose interest in public life.”

Such is the democracy promotion paradox.

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