Time the Conqueror: Rumors, Reforms, and Realities

January 9, 2015

Little has preoccupied the American mindset toward Cuba like our morbid fascination with Fidel Castro’s mortality.

The CIA plotted to kill him, often haplessly, and never with “results”. It outsourced the job to contractors, which tied our government to terrorism in the hemisphere. Congress and President Clinton made his demise a predicate for lifting the embargo. The combination of presidential politics, Cuban American unity, and the frightening, persistent memories of the missile crisis ensured that the personalization of Cuba policy to shortening his lifespan would endure beyond relevance or imagining.

This Castro death clock cult often revealed itself in odd ways. There was the confident prediction in 2006 by the Director of National Intelligence (an office created after 9/11 to better coordinate facts and analysis) that “it will not be much longer…months, not years,” because Castro was ill and close to death.

There was the 2007 decision by the City of Miami to reserve the 72,000 seat Orange Bowl for a fiesta. “There is something to celebrate, regardless of what happens next,” said then City Commissioner Tomas Regalado who proposed the plan, because “We get rid of the guy.” Elected Mayor of Miami, he discovered in 2012 that his “Castro Death Plan” needed to be revised since the Orange Bowl had been demolished in 2008.

Predictably, none of this obsessing took into account how Cubans, even foes of the government, respected Fidel Castro for their country’s accomplishments under his rule. Little analysis offered to the U.S. public reflected the notion that even the most nationalistic Cubans could look past the days of his leadership and move on. “What would happen in Cuba when Fidel Castro dies?” Arturo Lopez Levy asked rhetorically. Not chaos. Not counter-revolution. “A funeral.”

Today, rumors are swirling again. The intense interest in Fidel Castro’s health – first triggered during the era of the teletype – is now “catching fire,” as one news organization writes, throughout social media. We’re long past the day when the news waited for evidence and government statements; now, just a tweet or two are enough to constitute journalistic probable cause.

Not all of this interest is prurient. Fidel Castro is without question a dominant figure in Cuba’s history and our own. But, we shouldn’t be blind to the future, as a poet wrote, because the past offers a path of least resistance. His life and his death are not beginnings or ends unto themselves, and other actors and events will illuminate the path forward.

President Obama charted a new course with President Raúl Castro just over three weeks ago. His politically courageous decision to remake the policy is already showing results.

  • On January 21st, the day after the President’s State of the Union Address, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, will begin negotiations in Cuba under the aegis of the migration talks, to work on the details of diplomatic recognition with her Cuban counterparts. Although she has been to Cuba before, in her current capacity she will be the highest ranking official to visit Cuba in decades.
  • Despite demands by Senator Marco Rubio to cancel the talks until all political prisoners are released by Cuba, the State Department, in rejecting this advice, made a broader commitment to delinking progress to acts of repression on the island or to the pace Cuba takes to implement its end of the agreement, while maintaining the historic U.S. commitment to human rights. This is a big departure from how diplomacy has been practiced toward Cuba since 1959, and emblematic of the revitalized role that the President’s Western Hemisphere Affairs foreign policy team is playing, described here by Fulton Armstrong.
  • The Senate has a new chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Corker (TN), who is now calling the Cuba embargo “ineffective.” That won’t shut down hostile reactions to the President’s policy by pro-embargo hardliners in his committee, but it does demonstrate how the Obama-Castro agreement has opened up political space in unexpected ways.
  • That political oxygen is affecting the status quo in Miami, once a unified bastion of hardline support. As USA Today described it, “In years past, merely mentioning the end of the economic embargo on Cuba or pushing for more diplomatic ties with the island would get you shouted down in Miami.” But now, with polls showing far greater diversity in opinion among the diaspora community, and new, powerful voices being lifted in advertisements and talking points, the changes unleashed by President Obama during his two terms in office will only accelerate.
  • Other powerful coalitions, like the one which emerged this week among agriculture interests committed to lifting the embargo in its entirety, will join them, thanks to the new possibilities people see in President Obama’s new policy.

These are just some of the healthy new realities that have become clearer, more evident, since Presidents Obama and Castro addressed their publics last month. Not everything going forward will look positive or new. The confrontation that played out between Cuba’s government and Cuban artists – this week and last – will not be the last incident we see.

There is no rationalization for repression, but we also know that incidents like this are inevitable; some will involve people acting conscientiously, others premeditated for the purpose of disrupting change. You can bet that hardliners here at home will seize on such incidents as evidence that U.S. policy should not change, or that it should be made even harsher.

This is not the time for second-guessing. The U.S. national interest will best be advanced by the new policy President Obama has crafted – not by the one he is trying to replace – and our focus now is on giving that policy a chance to work. Part of its brilliance resides in the fact that we didn’t wait any longer for the biological obsession of the old policy to bear fruit.

Time is the conqueror, and timing is everything.

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Deportations for Visiting Cuba?

June 1, 2012

It must be “Kick the Weak Week” in the U.S. Congress.

How else could one explain why Representative David Rivera’s bill, to rescind the residency status of Cubans living in the U.S. if they visit the island, could receive the dignity of a hearing in the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Enforcement Policy?

This is a uniquely bad piece of legislation.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. are allowed to remain in the country and can request residency a year after their arrival.  Following this period, they qualify for the liberty –denied almost all U.S. citizens— to visit Cuba freely under the rights restored by President Obama for unlimited family travel.

Rivera – like other hardliners – opposes all travel by anyone to Cuba and has tried various tactics in recent years to stop Cuban Americans from visiting the island.  Last August, he introduced legislation to revoke the residency status of any Cuban who returns to Cuba after receiving political asylum and residency in the United States.

As Rivera unapologetically describes it, “My legislation simply says that any Cuban national who receives political asylum and residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, and travels to Cuba while still a resident, will have their residency status revoked.”

This sets up a horrible choice for these Cubans living in the U.S.  As Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group explained to the Subcommittee, it would “force all Cuban immigrants who want to maintain stable legal status in the United States to give up visiting family in Cuba.”

The group Rivera is targeting is significant.   About 400,000 family visits take place each year.  As Alvaro Fernandez reported in Progreso Weekly, “I asked one of the executives who charters flights to Cuba what percentage of persons would be affected by H.R. 2831. His answer was a startling almost 50% of persons who travel to Cuba are not yet U.S. citizens.”

What is the justification for a law that would stop hundreds of thousands of Cubans from physically being in contact with members of their family in Cuba?

Rivera and his allies make a series of claims that the Cuban Adjustment Act is being abused and they are trying to save it by stopping Cubans living in the U.S. from visiting Cuba.

In his testimony, Rivera said “Increasingly, Cuban-Americans are citing family reunification to justify travel that in reality more closely resembles common tourism and other unauthorized travel involving everything from plastic surgery to fifteens parties and weddings, to even sexual tourism.”

He went on to claim “In many cases, those Cubans traveling are also recipients of U.S. taxpayer-funded welfare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Food Stamps, public housing and cash assistance.  In these cases, U.S. taxpayers are actually subsidizing travel to a country that has been designated a sponsor of terrorism by our government.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC advised the Subcommittee in his testimony that some of these individuals were committing immigration fraud saying that Cubans who returned to the island to visit their families could not have come to the U.S. as legitimate refugees from oppression.

This is not about protecting the Cuban Adjustment Act.  It’s not in any danger of repeal.  Nor is this about subsidizing travel to Cuba with Social Security funds; of course, naturalized Cuban-Americans can use their benefits to pay for Cuba travel anytime.  It will come as no surprise that Congressman Rivera himself on his webpage offers to help any senior citizen in his district to determine their Medicare eligibility, and never once refers to this program as “welfare.”

No.  This is a travel ban.  It is simply another backdoor attempt to stop people, any people, from traveling to Cuba.  The targets in this round are entirely vulnerable:  migrants seeking refuge in the U.S.  By definition, they’re not registered voters and they’re mostly powerless, so it’s pretty easy to kick the weak, call them welfare recipients and fraudsters, and threaten them with deportation for the simple and decent act of trying to visit their families.

It’s a travel ban using a pretty heavy stick.  As Rep. Lofgren said, it “turns the act of travel to Cuba into a deportable offense.” She added:

No matter what the reason for stepping foot in Cuba, you lose your status. If you go to visit family members you haven’t seen in years, you lose your status. If you go to attend a funeral or donate a kidney to a dying relative, you lose your status. If you go to meet with Cuban dissidents with the aim of transitioning Cuba to a democracy, you lose your status.

Fortunately, Rep. Lofgren was not alone in her opposition to the bill.  Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, expressed particularly powerful views in his testimony before the panel.   Working the case from the outside were members of CAFÉ, the newly formed Cuban American organization, which wrote the Subcommittee and urged them to defeat the bill.  Progreso Weekly has issued an action alert urging opponents to make their views known to policy makers as well.  Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas protested the bill in an interview with EFE.  Anya Landau French editorialized against it in the Havana Note.

Ideally, these efforts and others like them will prevent the bill from being enacted.  The legislation is unjust, its aim is to divide families, it is using strong-armed tactics against a weak population that is unrepresented in the U.S. Congress, and it won’t realize its goal – to stop travel and thereby undermine the Cuban system.   But that won’t stop the hardliners from trying.

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