Putin in Cuba, Groundhog Day in America

July 11, 2014

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Havana, and builds closer ties with Cuba’s senior leadership, it begs the question, “Haven’t we seen this movie before?”

Our six-decade stalemate with Cuba started at the height of the Cold War.  Cuba established formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union on May 8, 1960.  Washington, in turn, severed ties with Havana on January 3, 1961. By the time Vladimir Putin was a ten-year-old and Barack Obama was an infant, we had already lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the establishment of the Lourdes signals intelligence center near Havana, and more, which brought the heat of the Cold War within a hundred miles of our shores.

Back then, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations decided it just would not do to have what was called a “Soviet puppet” in what some still call our “backyard.”  President Kennedy, as Cuba scholar Daniel Erikson wrote, reinterpreted the Monroe Doctrine “to support American efforts to contain the expansion of Soviet influence into the hemisphere.”

From the Bay of Pigs invasion to diplomatic isolation to the tightest economic sanctions imposed on Cuba, driving the Soviets out and punishing the Cubans for inviting them in has been what U.S. policy was all about.  This was matched, year after year, by Cuba’s resolute resistance to whatever wallops Washington delivered, sustained for a decade by Soviet subsidies.

The fall of the Berlin Wall led, ultimately, to the collapse of Cuba’s economy.  When the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991, Cuba lost annual assistance estimated at approximately $4.5 billion. Its economy contracted by 35% more or less overnight.  Public transport essentially ground to a halt.  Calorie consumption in the average Cuban’s diet fell 30%.  Export earnings fell 80%.  By January 1, 1992, when the Soviets cut off all military and economic assistance to Cuba, the allies had gone through a nasty break-up.

This was the moment to declare victory. With Russia dislodged from Cuba, the U.S. could have reinvigorated diplomacy and reached a modus vivendi with Cuba.  The objectives of our Cold War era policy having been satisfied, we could have even brought some long overdue tranquility to our relationships in Latin America.

Instead, U.S. policymakers decided to try and finish the job, passing the Cuba Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo screws even further, with the expectation that Cuba’s economic travails would do Cuba’s government in. It could have been called “The Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity Act of 1992.”

What happened?  Well, Cuba’s government didn’t fall under the weight of the U.S. embargo.  Raúl and Fidel Castro organized a peaceful transition of power. Our insistence on shutting Cuba out of regional forums like the OAS backfired on us.  Now, a little more than two decades later, Russia is back.

Without apparent irony, Yuri Ushakov, a presidential aide, told a reporter that the Kremlin considers Cuba to be “one of Russia’s ancient partners in Latin America.”  To advance that partnership, even before President Putin landed on Cuban soil, Russia agreed to write off about $32 billion in debt Cuba owed to the Soviet Union.

This is a big deal.  The Voice of Russia news service references one analyst, Caroline Kennedy (no, we’re not kidding), Head of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and International Studies at the University of Hull, as it observed, “the writing-off of the historic debt is about trying to reinvigorate a relationship that had fallen into abeyance in the 1990s – something Putin himself has said that he regrets in recent speeches.”

In addition to writing off Cuba’s debt, Russia has been written into Cuba’s strategy for recovering oil from the vast offshore reserves it has sought to exploit in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1990s.  As Bloomberg reports, during Putin’s visit, two Russian state oil producers “plan to sign an agreement with Cuban company Cupet SA to carry out joint operations in Cuba’s offshore areas.”

It might interest you to know that on Putin’s last trip to Cuba fourteen years ago, he pulled the plug on the Lourdes signal intelligence center as his personal affirmation that the Cold War was over, a gesture he believed was snubbed and, as Progreso Weekly reported, he also reviewed the status of Cuba’s backlogged debt payments for previously acquired Soviet loans.

We have seen this movie before.  It’s called “Groundhog Day.”  In that film, history on February 2nd repeats itself day after day until our love-smitten TV weatherman sets aside his self-destructive behavior and ends the tragic time loop by repairing his relationships and doing right in the world.   The cold of winter gives way, finally, to spring.

“Keep in mind that when Castro came to power,” President Obama said last year in Miami, “I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

Whether it’s inviting Cuba to join the Summit of the Americas, engaging with Cuba directly to protect the coast of Florida from the potential risk posed by a Ruso-Cuban drilling accident, or using his ample executive authority to go bolder and deeper, surely President Obama can summon the imagination and courage, not to drive Russia out, but to get our country back in the game.

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Democracy: Is there an app for that?

July 3, 2014

We are on the cusp of our July 4th holiday here in the U.S., when we remember the revolutionary origins of our country and celebrate our independence with baseball, beer, and displays of fireworks accompanied by a spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Because we’re eager to finish the work week, we’re circulating our Cuba Central News Blast a little early so you can read the news now and all of us can join the party.

We start with Chip Beck, a U.S. citizen with ties to the CIA and the Navy.  According to this blog post on Wikistrat, between 1998 and 2001, while he was working as a freelance journalist, Beck traveled to Havana and received significant cooperation from the Cuban government as he investigated the disappearance of Americans in Asia, Africa, and Central America during the Cold War.  It’s a great story.

In Beck’s account of his five trips to the island, he describes familiar sounding offers by Havana to sit down and negotiate with Washington without preconditions, so long as the U.S. recognized Cuba as a sovereign nation.  He concludes by quoting a conversation he had on the Malecón with a Cuban he identifies only as a single mom with a college degree.

She said, “If you tell a Cuban what to do, he will do the opposite just to spite you. If you [Americans] stop telling us what to do, things will work out exactly like you want.”

Needless to say, this was very good advice which, a dozen years later, we’re still waiting for the U.S. government to heed.

Instead, President Obama, the 11th president in charge of foreign relations with Cuba’s revolutionary government, pursues the stale and failed policy he inherited from his predecessors.  On one track, he has made some important moves to promote two-way travel, family reconciliation, and modest forms of bilateral cooperation.  But, on the second track, he aggressively enforces the embargo with its international overreach to shut down Cuba’s access to finance and global trade.

As of last week, for example, his Administration had already imposed penalties totaling $4.9 billion against 22 banks for violating U.S. sanctions against doing business with Cuba.  That record was shattered by a penalty meted out against BNP Paribas, which pled guilty to two charges, agreed to pay a nearly $9 billion fine, and accepted bans for one and two years respectively on certain dollar clearing and processing activities – all for violations of sanctions against countries including Cuba.  This led the Bank of Ireland, which has “long-standing customers with legitimate business interests in Cuba,” to tell them it would no longer clear their transactions to or from Cuba, as the Independent reported.

At a time when tens of thousands of Cubans (like our friend Barbara Fernández) are working hard to take advantage of economic reforms – in cooperatives and private businesses – in order to live more prosperous and independent lives, tightening the screws on a policy that disregards their nation’s sovereignty and increases their daily struggles makes no sense.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive President, who just wrapped up a visit to Cuba during which he voiced support for an open Internet, underscored the contradictory goals of U.S. policy in a blog post about his trip.

“The ‘blockade’,” he writes, “makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”

We were in Cuba at the same time as Google and heard Cubans express similar ideas.  They want an Internet opening to complement their economic opening.  They want workers, especially working women, to be able to get online and connect to their jobs from home.  They want a more lively public debate. Just as Cubans are now free to travel overseas, they want to be able to access more information without having to leave.  Dumping restrictions – whether on technology, U.S. travel, or finance – imposed by the U.S. would put what Cubans want in greater alignment with the ostensible goals of U.S. policy and help them get it.

Writing about the architects of our nation and their ideals, former Senator Gary Hart described what the Founders saw in history’s great republics: civic duty, popular sovereignty, resistance to corruption, and a sense of the commonwealth; what we own in common that binds us together.  Every time we visit the island, we see Cubans who share these ideals as well.

July 4th is a great day to celebrate the virtues of our system, which are many, but it can also be an occasion for some humility. In Cuba’s case, that means to stop telling them what to do, and showing respect to Cubans and their ability to figure out their future and how they want to live for themselves.

If you need help figuring out why, when we celebrate Independence Day, we set off fireworks to music commemorating Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon, listen here.

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Gates, Walls and Doors

January 10, 2014

Not long after President Obama returned to The White House from his holiday vacation, he was greeted by headlines in the national press about attacks on his leadership by his former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

In leaks from his forthcoming memoir, “Duty,” Mr. Gates writes of Obama’s skepticism toward his own policy on Afghanistan.  “For him,” he writes, “it’s all about getting out.”

While Bob Woodward, like others in the ranks of Washington pundits, reported this as a “harsh judgment” against the President’s leadership on national security, Ron Fournier, writing in the National Journal, took a more sympathetic view.

Where Gates attacks the President for complaining about a policy he inherited and for doubting his own commanders, Fournier writes:  “We need more of that.”

According to Fournier, the President was reflecting the desires of the public to exit two unpopular wars, and demonstrating the kind of skepticism, curiosity, and reflection that is the president’s job.  In other words, President Obama was leading by following the better angels of his nature to where they might lead him.

Before his election in 2008, President Obama said, “It is time for us to end the embargo against Cuba.”  He justified his position by saying the policy had not helped Cubans enjoy rising living standards; instead, it squeezed innocents and didn’t improve human rights.  “It’s time for us to acknowledge” he said, “that particular policy had failed.”

While then-Senator Obama adhered to the traditional goals of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, he also acknowledged the simple reality that the embargo failed to achieve them.

We don’t expect President Obama to seek repeal of the embargo anytime soon, but we do believe that 2014 could be a year of greater openings toward Cuba, even if it means the President has to be the same kind of leader that made Robert Gates so angry.

After all, he has done it before.  In reopening Cuba to travel by Americans of Cuban descent, restoring categories of people-to-people travel, and negotiating with the Cuban government on issues such as migration and postal service, we saw the President set aside the views of his opponents, and even members of his own party, like Senator Bob Menendez, to put forward important and effective policy reforms that reflect his principles, his pragmatism, and the views of the American public writ large.

Going forward, there is much that President Obama can do using his executive authority.

Like many of our allies, The Center for Democracy in the Americas supports making all forms of people-to-people travel possible using a general license.

We strongly support direct negotiations with Cuba’s government to produce an action plan on the environment –so essential as Cuba looks to resume oil drilling in 2015– and ending the bar on Cuba’s participation in next year’s Summit of the Americas, which would give the United States a greater opening in Latin America more broadly. In addition, our research on gender equality in Cuba has led us to support policies to help Cuban women weather the transition in the island’s economy and provide real support for Cubans who choose to open small businesses.

In his epic song, Muros y Puertas, our friend Carlos Varela writes, “Since the world began, one thing has been certain, some people build walls, while others open doors.”

In 2014, we hope the President’s policy continues to reflect just this spirit of openness.  It is better to open doors  than build walls, or even Gates, for that matter.

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Adventures in Exceptionalism

October 25, 2013

We offer these thoughts a few days before the UN General Assembly votes on a resolution condemning the United States for the embargo against Cuba.

“For decades,” journalist Marc Frank reminds us in Cuban Revelations, “Cubans who left the island – especially for the United States – were considered traitors who were joining a foreign power’s attempts to overthrow the nation.”

In Cuba, this was the government’s rationale for restricting the liberties of all Cubans to leave and return to their country as they pleased.  But, a little more than two years ago, President Raúl Castro issued a strong signal that the weather was going to change.

Speaking before Cuba’s National Assembly, Castro said: “Today, the overwhelming number of Cubans are émigrés for economic reasons…What is a fact is that almost all of them maintain their love for the family and the homeland of their birth and, in different ways, demonstrate solidarity toward their compatriots.”

In January of this year, nearly all travel restrictions on Cubans were dismantled. Now, as we have noted previously, Cubans who want to travel to the U.S. face fewer restrictions than nearly all U.S. residents who want to travel to Cuba.  President Obama acted wisely to repeal the harsh restrictions his predecessor imposed on family travel in 2004. Now, the right of Cuban Americans to visit their families on the island is unlimited.  Upwards of 350,000 exercised that right just last year.

The president also reopened channels for people-to-people travel and, as we reported last week, non-Cuban American travel to Cuba has hit peak levels.  But, if you look at the numbers for 2012, you will see that the more than one million Canadians, more than 150,000 travelers from the U.K., and over one-hundred thousand tourists from Germany, Italy, and France exceeded the Americans (98,050) who got to visit Cuba, and none of them had to apply to their governments for a “license” in order to go.  We were the exception.

***

It is not new that the United States is criticized by friend and foe alike.  In October, however, the U.S. image has taken a pounding overseas; and, to be clear, this not a public relations problem.  The drumbeat got louder and more insistent over much larger issues.

Criticism of the U.S. spiked when the U.S. government was shut down, the nation’s credit rating was at risk, and Congress frightened bondholders and contractors with the threat that we would not pay our bills. China called for a “de-Americanized world.” A columnist in The Guardian wrote: “The rottenness of modern Washington makes outsiders gasp.”

Strong stuff, but nothing in comparison to the uproar caused by revelations that the growing global scandal over surveillance by the National Security Agency now encompassed the private communications of 35 world leaders.  This will multiply the backlash the U.S. already felt when Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit over reports of U.S. snooping in her country and her private office.

Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is especially incensed.  As USA Today reports, she told President Obama that “spying among friends cannot be,” there needs to be trust among allies and partners, and that “such trust now has to be built anew.”

Foreign Policy is reporting that Germany and Brazil are joining forces “to press for the adoption of a U.N. General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on the Internet,” that would extend the coverage of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to the online world.

This Article states “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation,” and that “everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

If the amendment happens what difference will make it?  The U.S. Senate waited sixteen years to adopt the covenant and, when it did so, it added fourteen reservations, understandings, and declarations that so denuded its force that scholars said the U.S. had perpetrated a fraud on the global community.

Two weeks ago, the United States was among 15 member nations scheduled to have their human rights records reviewed by a UN committee in Geneva, and NSA spying was already “slated for discussion.”  But, the U.N. Human Rights Committee cancelled the U.S. review and rescheduled it for March 2014.

“The USA highlights its regret at having to make such a request, which is due to the ongoing government shutdown,” the committee said.  Fourteen other countries were reviewed.  For the U.S., they had to make an exception.

***

On October 29th, when the General Assembly votes on its 22nd resolution to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the U.S. will again stand virtually alone in asserting the rightness of our views.  In President Obama’s first term, Ambassador Ronald Godard argued that the U.N. had no business even debating the question, because the U.S. had a “sovereign right” to punish Cuba for its political system as part of its bilateral policies.  “Butt out;” he seemed to say, “this is America’s right to do as it pleases.”

This idea, grounded in the notion of American exceptionalism, so pervasive in U.S. foreign policy, combines our faith in the “rightness of our cause” with our overwhelming power.

Recent events demonstrate just how damaging this attitude can be.  It leads this country to impose its will in ways that hurt our interests internationally, harms the alleged beneficiaries locally, and causes them to turn against us politically.

The embargo may seem a small thing to many in the U.S.  It is, in fact, a much larger and more powerful symbol than many understand.  Reversing it will not only help Cubans lead better lives, it could be a small step in a bigger effort to change how the U.S. is perceived and received in the world.  Someday, we hope that President Obama acts to dismantle the embargo, remove all travel restrictions, and put us on course for a normal relationship with Cuba.

It won’t solve all of our problems.  But it would make him truly exceptional.

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If you shut your eyes tightly, nothing is changing in Cuba or here (so open them).

September 20, 2013

A controlling premise of U.S. policy is that Cuba must change – by which its Cold War-era authors meant giving up every feature of its governing and economic systems – before our country will even contemplate normalizing relations with Cuba.

So far, this approach doesn’t seem to be working.  But, hey, as the current crop of Cold Warriors seem to think: ‘just give it time.  We’ve only been at it for six decades.’

As written, these policies make it extremely difficult for U.S. residents to visit Cuba legally, nearly impossible to engage with Cuba economically, and pose enormous obstacles for our government in dealing with Cuba’s government diplomatically.

Consequently, they have a vested interest in persuading anyone (U.S. policymakers) and everyone (the rest of us) that Cuba is the same country in 2013 as it was more than fifty years ago when sanctions were first slapped on.

But the notion that Cuba hasn’t changed and isn’t changing is the hardliner’s illusion, not ours.  Nearly every day, changes are taking place on the island and even here – in Miami and Washington – where people are seeing this issue differently and behaving differently, too.

Just take a look at what we’re reporting this week:

Cuban Music Icon Rodríguez Challenges State Censorship

HAVANA — The best known musician in Cuba and a staunch supporter of the island’s communist revolution, Silvio Rodríguez, has challenged state censorship by inviting a recently sanctioned colleague to join him at two concerts this weekend on the Caribbean island.

Cuba’s Bishops Call for Political Freedom and New Relations With U.S.

HAVANA –The Roman Catholic Church in Cuba has issued a rare pastoral letter calling for political reform in tandem with social and economic changes already underway. Additionally, the letter praised the recent reforms of President Raúl Castro and called on the U.S. to end decades-old economic embargo on the island.

NPR affiliate apologizes and re-invites Cuba book author

MIAMI — The Miami affiliate of National Public Radio has apologized for canceling an interview with the author of a book that criticizes the Miami trial of five Cuban spies, and has re-invited him to appear on a news show.

U.S. and Cuba talk about resuming direct mail service

HAVANA – The United States and Cuba concluded on Monday their second round of talks aimed at re-establishing direct mail service between the two countries after a 50-year ban, but left for later the most sensitive issue – Cuban planes landing on U.S. soil.

These are just the headlines from this week.  Regular readers will remember what we have reported in the past: when Cuba’s government legalized cell phones, dropped prohibitions on Cubans selling their cars and homes, stopped denying Cubans entry into hotels, opened up jobs for Cubans in the private sector to earn their own living away from the state payroll, legalized travel for so that most Cubans can leave and return to Cuba, sold off some state-owned businesses, freed political prisoners, shuttered the Ministry of Sugar, and opened media channels to complaints by citizens about government inefficiency and corruption in the health sector, and the list goes on.

These are real changes and it’s very hard to connect any of them to trade sanctions, travel restrictions, Radio or TV Martí, or the “democracy promotion” (regime change) programs responsible for the arrest and lengthy prison sentence being served by Alan Gross, as much as the Cold Warriors might try.

This is not to say that everything is perfect, or that Cuba has become the multiparty democracy as specified under The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 or the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996.

What it does mean, however, is that when you hear their mantra “nothing has changed,” the Cold Warriors who repeat it are only admitting what the rest of us know – their policy has never worked and that time has passed them by.

Now that you’ve opened your eyes and read the headlines, we invite you to read the news.

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