Which President told the Cubans “I wish you well”?

May 30, 2014

Finally, a President went to Cuba and uttered the words we’ve longed to hear.

“I wish you well.”

Only, it wasn’t President Obama.

This message to Cuba’s people came from the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue.

It came up,  as he wrapped up his visit to the island with an appearance at the University of Havana, and took questions from the press. When Daniel Trotta of Reuters asked Mr. Donohue, “Is Cuba a good investment?” he responded as follows:

“Cuba would be a better investment if it had issues like arbitration, and agreements that would protect intellectual property, and ways that we could resolve our differences. But I believe that Cuba, 91 miles from our shore, with the new and extraordinary port that’s being built here, has the potential to develop as a very good investment not only for Americans, U.S. citizens, but from people around the world, and I wish you well.”

To borrow a phrase from Vice President Biden, this is kind of a big deal.

In our reports on economic reform and gender equality, we discussed how Cuba’s own policies produced enviable achievements in critical areas like education and health but at unsustainable costs.  Since he became Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro has authorized greater liberties – from legalizing cell phones to overseas travel – while at the same time cutting the size of the state’s payrolls and opening employment opportunities for Cubans in the non-state sector.

In simple terms, Cuba’s project going forward is about addressing its economic crisis and bringing its assets and expenditures into a balance that future Cubans can live with.

This is at odds with the core objective of U.S. policy.  For more than 50 years, its goal has been to sink Cuba’s system by strangling Cuba’s economy.  The era of reform ushered in by President Castro has, at times, posed a paralyzing dilemma to President Obama.

On one hand, President Obama diverted from the orthodoxy in his first term by opening talks with Cuba on some bilateral issues, and by taking truly useful steps to reform U.S. policy; by giving unlimited travel rights to Cuban Americans and restoring some channels of people-to-people travel for Americans not of Cuban descent.

On the other, he has left the embargo mostly in place, stubbornly enforced sanctions against financial institutions to tie up Cuba’s capacity to engage in global commerce and trade, and distressingly allowed many excesses of our regime change program to remain in place.

Changing circumstances in Cuba have occasioned no fresh thoughts – and no Hamlet-like indecision – among the pro-sanctions hardliners.

Tim Padgett wrote perceptively this week about their support for policies that exact sacrifice and impose suffering on Cuba’s people.

“Incredibly, [the hardliners are] convinced that denying Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs more seed money, cell phones and sage advice – that keeping them in the micro-economic Middle Ages – is the best way to change Cuba.

“[W]hy wouldn’t the Cuba-policy hardliners want to help accelerate that process? One answer is that it’s too mundane: It doesn’t fit their more biblical vision of a Cuban Spring in which the Castros are ousted by a fiery, exile-led uprising.”

How else to explain their vitriolic reaction to the U.S. Chamber’s visit?

“Sen. Marco Rubio, the Wall Street Journal reported, “blasted Mr. Donohue in a letter last week, calling the trip ‘misguided and fraught with peril of becoming a propaganda coup for the Castro regime.'” Capitol Hill Cubans taunted The Chamber with a note suggesting they invest in North Korea.  Senator Bob Menendez chastised Donohue, saying conditions in Cuba “hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any responsible business leader.”

Donohue was cheerfully immune to all of this. He said, “the Chamber of Commerce takes human rights concerns seriously,” as the AP reported, “calling it an issue that should be part of a ‘constructive dialogue’ between the U.S. and Cuba.”

He knows -in ways the hardliners simply cannot accept – that the political problems that divide the U.S. from Cuba will never be solved through diplomatic isolation but through negotiation and engagement.

In this sense, the voices criticizing Donohue, powerful as they are, represent the past – and neither the U.S. Chamber nor the 44 members of the foreign policy establishment who appealed for reforms in a letter to President Obama are going back.

Instead, our policy going forward will be defined not by pressing for the system’s failure, but by the principle that Cubans are better off – and U.S. national interest best secured – by respecting the desire of Cubans to succeed in a future of their own design.

It is up to President Obama to say the words, “I wish you well.”

But time is running out.  As Tom Donohue observed, “If [President Barack Obama] wants to get it done before the end of his term, he’s got two years, so he’ll have to get busy.”

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ZunZuneo: Is it Obama’s Elián moment?

April 11, 2014

We return to the Cuban Twitter story and begin with one remarkable, but obvious fact.  More than a week after the story broke people are still talking about it.  The obvious question: is why has it struck a chord?

It reminds us of the Elián González matter, over a decade ago.  How the six year old Cuban boy was plucked from the water after the raft that carried him from Cuba disintegrated and his mom died.  How his relatives in Miami clung to him for months denying Elián’s right to return to Cuba and live a peaceful life with his father.  How the Clinton administration seized him at gunpoint and finally returned him home.  How decisive majorities of the American public sided with Elián and supported the operation.  How the affair became a Waterloo for radical elements of the Cuban American community in Miami, causing many to reconsider their position of supporting any anti-Castro cause.

We may be wrong.  It’s too soon to tell.  But, we think the Cuban Twitter story has ushered in a similar moment for the broader community of Americans.  If that is the case, it should send a fairly clear signal to the Obama administration about its contradictory treatment of U.S.-Cuba relations.  This is a moment not simply to reconsider, but to choose a very different course.

USAID says it inherited the program from the Bush administration, a craven and deficient explanation, reminiscent of how the Kennedy administration’s hands came to be stained by the Bay of Pigs.  It made many other mistakes – more about those later – but a big one was thinking such a horrible idea could be kept a secret in the age of Edward Snowden, or that the traditional excuses for invading Cuba’s sovereignty (we did it to make Cuba democratic) would satisfy anyone at this moment in time.

We’re not saying every American is following the story, or knows the minute details of U.S.-Cuba relations in order to have a lasting reaction to what is being revealed.  But we – and we mean all of us – are experiencing a heightened sense of vulnerability with regard to our on-line lives.  Its familiarity is what makes the Cuban Twitter story so vivid and real to us all.

Just ask tens of millions of consumers who ran their credit cards through cash registers at Target thinking their information was safe.  Or think about a poll released last July showing that 70% of Americans believe that the surveillance programs exposed by Mr. Snowden are used for “other purposes” than investigating terrorism. Or that fifty-five percent of Internet users have tried to take steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the (U.S.) government.

Since much of what we’ve come to fear about the government’s surveillance programs and potential violations of our privacy has a familiar counterpart in the ZunZuneo scandal, this is what makes the Cuban Twitter episode so powerful.

The essential facts, as Phil Peters described them, are easy to understand.

“USAID created ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like information service for Cubans that operated by text message.  The U.S. government’s involvement was hidden ‘to ensure the success of the Mission.”  Cuban subscribers registered for the service, USAID gathered their personal data, and through interactions with subscribers it ranked their political tendencies….The idea was to build the subscriber base by offering interesting news content, gradually to introduce political content, and eventually to try to mobilize subscribers to political activism so as to ‘renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society’.”

The AP quotes a primary actor in the bungled affair, James Eberhard, who noted the “‘inherent contradiction’ of giving Cubans a platform for communications uninfluenced by their government that was in fact financed by the U.S. government and influenced by its agenda.”

After that, it gets worse.  Not only did the U.S. government go to great lengths to conceal its role in creating ZunZuneo from Cuban users of the service, putting at risk, “young, unsuspecting Cuban cellphone users who had no idea that this was a U.S. government-funded activity,” as Senator Pat Leahy said.  But, our government went to great lengths to conceal it from Members of Congress and the American people, and it continues to do so even after the secrets have come spilling out.  There are many.

The State Department said, “no political content was every supplied by anyone working on this project or running it.” Five days later the AP had the satirist who composed the text messages on record saying “Everything I do is politics,” and ran a series of them to prove the State Department wrong.

USAID tried to debunk a part of the story that said a Spanish company was formed to support the network, but the AP found expense reports for the costs of incorporating the firm, proving USAID wrong.

The White House said it wasn’t a covert operation; but it was. There was no other reason to hide the money that paid for it.  No other reason to conceal it from Congress.  No reason for the USAID administrator to come to a Congressional hearing and deny knowing who thought the program up.

Beyond the deceit, what makes this episode so galling is the incompetence of the contractor to whom our government outsourced this seamy side of our foreign policy.  As the AP reported, by basing the system on SMS messages received in Cuba, they ended up paying of tens of thousands of dollars in text messaging fees to “Cuba’s communist telecommunications monopoly routed through a secret bank account and front companies.”  They simultaneously poured money into the Cuban government’s pocket and exposed the operation to detection.

All of this is more than bad luck; many will pay the costs.  Just before the scandal broke, Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger, debuted in Miami her latest effort, a digital news project, so sensitive that she would not disclose its name.  She and every other on-line activist in Cuba and around the world will be bearing the burden of ZunZuneo every after.

Another cost is the constitutional principle of oversight and accountability.  When Senator Jeff Flake asked for all the text messages sent by the Cuban twitter, the USAID administrator said he doesn’t have most of them but promised to turn them over if he got any from the contractor.  By outsourcing critical foreign policy decisions to corporations who appear to be unaccountable, Congress is unable to control what is done in our name.

Another cost was exacted from Cuban citizens themselves.  As one said to the AP, when the service disappeared “In the end we never learned what happened.  We never learned where it came from.”  They were abandoned by the program when it lost its funding.  You can just imagine how Alan Gross feels.

The greatest deceit of all is that any of this had anything to do with breaking Cuba’s so-called information blockade.  You can expose Cubans to American information and values without exposing them to the risk of a U.S.-designed covert operation; simply by allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba without restrictions.  But that option is not currently on the table.

It should be.  The administration has to decide whether it can smother this story through deception, or whether it can seize the moment, start telling the truth, and change course on policy.  The Cuban Twitter saga is President Obama’s Elián moment.  Let’s hope he makes something of it.  It’s time to take regime change off the table.

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INTERNUTS – U.S. Sanctions Block Cuban Students from On-Line Courses

January 31, 2014

According to the Associated Press, technology experts are gathering in Miami today to “brainstorm ways to improve access to the Internet and information” for the people of Cuba.

Unless their solutions include ending the U.S. embargo, their brainstorms will amount to little more than a light drizzle.

Their meeting occurs at the same moment students in Cuba (as well as Iran, Sudan, and Syria) have lost access to on-line classes offered by Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company which, as Al-Jazeera notes, offers MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, to millions of students in over 180 countries.

When they try to go to class, students get this message instead:

“Our system indicates that you are attempting to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subject to U.S. economic and trade sanctions.  In order for Coursera to comply with U.S. export controls, we cannot allow you access to the site.”

This cut-off is, of course, big news and, as one Internet expert suggested, very hard to explain:  “My first reaction was anger that the Cuban government would block educational material — maybe they were trying to censor something from a Latin American history class?”

To be sure, Cuba is uncomfortable with the Internet and access to the web is meager compared to its neighbors in the region.  But Cuba is not the cause of this problem.

Cuban students got shut out of their classes because, as the company wrote on its blog, “Under [U.S.] law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries.”

We have often used this page to illustrate the costs and futility of our Cuba policy: the Cuban-American war hero barred from visiting his sons on the island, American diabetics unable to obtain a medication that could save them from amputations, the global condemnation of the U.S. embargo delivered annually by the UN.

But, after our country staked so much of our foreign policy on the Internet as an instrument of free expression, this story takes the cake.

Back in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made our position clear: “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” With this declaration as its guiding light, the State Department forged ahead.

The State Department built partnerships between the U.S. government and Internet companies to engage students globally through education. When the Department joined forces with (believe it or not) Coursera, this is what Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs said:

“The State Department and USAID promote a more peaceful, prosperous world, and we all know one of the best ways to get there is to ensure that all people have access to high-quality education.”

 How do we “ensure” such a thing?  We get tough.  In November 2012, the United States imposed sanctions on several people in Iran for Internet censorship.  Explaining the action, then-State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Washington was determined to stop the “Iranian government from creating an ‘electronic curtain’ to cut Iranian citizens off from the rest of the world.”

Or, we get crafty.  In Cuba, our government engages in risky schemes using taxpayers’ money to “boost Internet activism,” as the State Department advertised last year:

“Digital Tools for Safe and Effective Civil Society Initiatives (subject to the availability of funding, approximately $850,000):  The project should provide Cuban activists with ongoing capacity building and assistance to increase their level of technological proficiency and their ability to utilize new and existing technologies in a secure manner.”

This last clause is a reminder to applicants that the Helms-Burton program that funds these initiatives is illegal under Cuban law; just ask Alan Gross.

In other words, U.S. policy has made an implicit choice:  While our sanctions broadly restrict access by Cuban students to educational content on the Internet, the government funds covert activities to give that access selectively to Cubans reached by our regime change programs.

As CDA’s Lisa Ndecky Llanos told Inter Press Service:

 “The stated U.S. policy is that they want to enable Cubans to access information and be a part of a global community, but in this instance the policy is doing the exact opposite of that.”

When Meghann Curtis was interviewed about State’s partnership with Coursera, she told Fast Company magazine: “One of the classes is American foreign policy. I think that will make an extremely rich forum to debate the issues.”

Rich indeed!  One class that Cuban students can’t access is called “21st Century American Foreign Policy,” taught by Professor Bruce Jentleson, whose course description reads:  “What is American foreign policy? Who makes it? Why is it the way it is?”

Why is Cuba policy the way it is?  It tries to fix a Cold War problem with sanctions that do not apply to the Internet Century.  While Coursera meets with well-intentioned Treasury and State Department officials to make the service it offers “not a service,” we think the root of this problem is more akin to a “Flashing 12.”

Know the expression?  That’s when you walk into someone’s house and their VCR is stuck “Flashing 12:00,” because they cannot figure out how to program it.  You just can’t reprogram the embargo to make it work, you have to end it.

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Demonizing Travel: the Beyoncé and Jay-Z Anniversary Edition

April 12, 2013

The reaction, more precisely, the overreaction was brutal.

Just for visiting Cuba, Beyoncé and Jay-Z were serially accused of violating the law, taking a vacation, enriching a dictatorship, even ignoring or subsidizing racism.

Vicious words, and a familiar tactic.  Slagging celebrities has long been part of the larger effort to demonize virtually anyone for visiting Cuba; because, as opponents of better relations with Cuba understand better than most, there is no greater threat to the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba than giving more Americans the undisturbed right to see the island and its people for themselves.

We have seen dramas like this before. The NY Times examined the Beyoncé and Jay-Z controversy and called it “predictable.”  But, as we watched this story, we think it concluded with a happy ending.

Yes, in the future, less celebrated visitors to Cuba are still likely to be vilified; but, this tactic of demonizing travelers to stop Americans from going to Cuba may have finally run its course.

Here’s what happened.

Scene 1:  Express outrage and call for an investigation

As soon as the news broke, travel opponents found the chance to express indignation ahead of the facts too rich to pass up.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said, “I’m absolutely uncomfortable with the way, and concerned about, not just Jay-Z and Beyoncé but some of the travel, the ‘people to people’ travel, that has been occurring in Cuba.”

Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Díaz-Balart quickly sent a letter to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury Department agency that regulates travel to Cuba, in which they concluded the trip was illegal tourism but called on the government to investigate nonetheless.

Critics probably should have kept their powder dry, as Professor Ted Henken had the good sense to suggest, “J+Z’s” harshest critics ought to check out what they did in “#Cuba b4 sounding off.”

Scene 2:  Uh oh, the trip was legal.

Treasury complied with the request, and the investigation commenced.  But, it quickly became apparent, as Talking Points Memo and others reported the outrage was at odds with the facts.

Just days after receiving their letter, U.S. Treasury’s Assistant Secretary of Legislative Affairs Alastair M. Fitzpayne, wrote Reps. Díaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, and said:

“It is our understanding that the travelers in question traveled to Cuba pursuant to an educational exchange trip organized by a group authorized by OFAC to sponsor and organize programs to promote people-to-people contact in Cuba.”

Scene 3: Blame the investigators

Even before the entertainers were “absolved by Treasury,” Senator Marco Rubio worried that if the couple hadn’t violated the rules, then the rules were being misunderstood or mal-administered.

“If,” he said, the trip was fully licensed, “the Obama Administration should explain exactly how trips like these comply with U.S. law and regulations governing travel to Cuba and it should disclose how many more of these trips they have licensed.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen agreed:  If the tourist activities undertaken by Beyoncé and Jay-Z in Cuba are classified as an educational exchange trip, then it is clear that the Obama administration is not serious about denying the Castro regime an economic lifeline that US tourism will extend to it.”

Scene 4: Just Keep Throwing Punches

Why didn’t the Treasury letter put this issue to rest?  Why are reporters and commentators still talking about it?  Celebrities + Attacks = News.

If you say Jay-Z and Beyoncé just went to Cuba for a good time; if you liken travel to Cuba to visiting a zoo, or taking a tropical vacation, or if you call Senators “snowbirds” seeking warmer climes, even when they’re in Cuba trying to free Alan Gross, you’re going to make news.

Further, if you make the baseless charge that Rep. Kathy Castor, who supports removing the embargo, is acting like a foreign agent for the Castro brothers rather than pursuing the U.S. national interest, that’s fair game.

If you start listing places that Beyoncé and Jay-Z should have visited, like Senator Rubio did, it’s unlikely that anyone will remind him that he’s never been there himself.

Denigrating travelers makes good copy; demonizing travel costs the critics nothing.

The Surprise Ending:  An Old Tactic May Be Running Its Course

This is changing.  We may have reached the day our friend Stephen Rivers dreamed of – when cultural figures who visit Cuba open political space in our country to reexamine its policy of punishing the Castros by denying Americans their constitutional rights to visit the island.

The scholar, Arturo López-Levy calls it the ‘Beyoncé Effect,’ the chance to “take a fresh look at the U.S. policy toward Cuba with the candidness of an adolescent. It is difficult to defend a policy that stomps on the same rights it preaches.”

Senator Jeff Flake agreed, commenting on Twitter:  “So, @Beyoncé and Jay-Z @S_C_ are in Cuba? Fine by me. Every American should have the right to travel there.”

Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, is feeling it.  He told the Atlantic, “The awareness level has been raised [and] the future for people-to-people travel has never been brighter.”

By triggering the debate, their trip performed a real service.  We were reminded that what Beyoncé and Jay-Z did is legal; that celebrated leaders of Cuba’s civil society and many others want U.S. restrictions on travel to end; and that engaging with Cuba and focusing on problems that matter – like the threat of a scary hurricane season – is more important than slagging celebrities.

This tactic truly is storm and fury signifying nothing.

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What the FARC is going on in Cuba?

August 31, 2012

What the FARC is going on in Cuba?  And what does it mean for President Obama and the crowd of hardliners in Congress we call the Cold War warriors?

We figured something was up last Sunday, when former Colombian president Alvaro Uribe accused current president Juan Manuel Santos of holding secret peace talks with FARC rebels in Cuba, according to Colombia Reports. “This is incomprehensible,” said Uribe during a speech in the northern Colombian city of Sincelejo, “security deteriorating while the government is negotiating with the FARC terrorist group in Cuba.”

President Santos, who had initially dismissed the allegations as “pure rumors,” confirmed on Monday that the Colombian government has not only been negotiating with the FARC in Havana but that the two parties had agreed to restart formal peace talks, which had collapsed in 2002.

According to foreign sources, here and here, the deal was broken on Cuban soil with help from Venezuelan, Cuban, and Norwegian officials, and the talks are scheduled to commence in Oslo on October 5th. Santos also extended an invitation to the National Liberation Army (ELN) to participate.

Reuters reported that “U.S. President Barack Obama is aware of the process and is in agreement.”

We can’t know now what this breakthrough means for Colombia, although we surely hope it leads to peace.  What we do know is this: Cuba’s contribution to the Colombia deal undercuts a key rationale for U.S. sanctions against the island – with implications both for the anti-Cuba hardliners in Congress and the president himself. The irony is that it was Uribe, a staunch Cold warrior, who helped bring the talks to public attention.

Cuba has long been accused by the U.S. of harboring FARC members. These allegations are one of the State Department’s main justifications for designating Cuba a State Sponsor of Terrorism. The fact that Cuba has been providing neutral ground for a peace agreement between the two parties, however, creates serious problems for the State Department’s rationale for listing Cuba as a state sponsor of terror.

It’s also a blow to the Cold War warriors who use Cuba’s presence on the list to fuel their rhetoric and to oppose any relaxation of U.S. policy. When the Republican Party adopted its foreign policy platform in Tampa, it called Cuba’s government “a mummified relic of the age of totalitarianism (and) a state-sponsor of terrorism.”

The Colombia breakthrough also has implications for President Obama.

When his administration argues in public that having the FARC in Havana is a cause of keeping Cuba on the terror list, even as Mr. Obama approves in private a peace process brokered in Cuba to have the FARC and Colombia sit together to make peace, it damages our nation’s credibility – not just in Latin America but everywhere the U.S. encounters resistance to our policies against terrorism.  It’s a contradiction crying out to be addressed.

And it’s also a terrible position for the winner of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize who was, after all, honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

Early in his administration, President Obama should have taken Cuba off the list as he has been advised so often.  He should not have relisted Cuba every year since.

As naïve as it may be to suggest he act in this election year to remove them, he should consider this:  If the Colombian government has the courage to sit across the table to negotiate peace with the insurgency in its civil war, his administration should at least have the nerve to tell the Cold War warriors in Congress that the facts have changed and he’s removing Cuba from the terror list.

We’re reasonably certain that the hardliners are the only ones who will really care, and their offense will be drowned out by the applause of those who will appreciate a show of guts and the recognition of reality.

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