Washington, Cuba, and the Climate for Dysfunction

June 27, 2014

This headline – “Cuba plans to drill near Keys again in 2015” – helped us clarify the news this week about U.S. policy toward Cuba and the dysfunction that surrounds it.

As David Goodhue, reporting for the Florida Keys Keynoter, explained, Cuba will resume exploratory drilling off the Florida Keys next year.  But, the waters and beaches off Florida are still not protected against oil pollution were a spill to happen as a result.

Although Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the United States and Cuba signed The Wider Caribbean Region Multilateral Technical Operating Procedures for Offshore Oil Pollution Response earlier this year (essentially a work plan for cooperation if an oil spill exceeds the boundaries of one nation and puts the territorial waters of others at risk), an effective emergency response is far from assured. The embargo remains a barrier to deploying U.S. technology and expertise as part of a timely effort to protect the oceans, fishing stocks, and tourist resources that contribute to Florida’s economy and well-being.

Floridians should already be worried. Many probably read about the report called “Risky Business” released this week that describes how much the Sunshine State is threatened by global warming and rising oceans.  It said, in part, “There is a 1-in-20 chance that more than $346 billion worth of current Florida property will be underwater by the end of the century.”  We know that Florida is already feeling the effects of rising sea waters and the dangers of an inadequate government response.

What is at stake – with oil spills and global warming – is more than just billions in property damage.  We need to protect the oceans because they are sources of food, employment, tourism, recreation, and more. They absorb carbon, which in turn helps dampen warming, and they foster biodiversity, which means they help sustain life.

This is why Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the “Our Ocean” Conference at the State Department this month, and why it was so sensible that Dr. Fabián Pina Amargós, director of Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research was invited to attend, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), among others, thought he should.  We do, after all, share an ecosystem and an ocean with Cuba.

Kerry’s conference produced an action plan (details here) whose recommendations are aligned with the agenda for bilateral cooperation that EDF and environmental leaders like Senator Whitehouse want the United States to pursue.  They want Cuba and the U.S. to collaborate and stop overfishing in shared waters, strengthen policies that facilitate two-way scientific research, develop a plan for an international network of protected marine areas, and strengthen cooperation on oil spill prevention and response.

Much of this could be accomplished by executive action, which the White House could put in motion, especially if the U.S. Congress didn’t get in the way.  Good luck with that.

While the Congress did legislate on Cuba policy this week, it was hardly a vote of confidence in engagement with Cuba (or good government for that matter).  The State Department budget written by House Appropriations directs the Secretary of State to cut down on issuing visas for Cuban officials.  It also tells the Department to spend more money on the democracy promotion work in Cuba that resulted in the conviction of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

The bill to fund the Treasury Department budget blocks licenses for non-academic educational exchanges and orders Treasury to produce a report in 90 days analyzing trips it has licensed trip to Cuba since 2007 with data specifying the number of travelers, amount of money spent, and more.

The two champions of this bill, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (FL-4) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), were clearly fighting the Cold War, not protecting their Florida constituents or the state’s marine environment and coastline, when they shepherded the legislation to passage.

They are among the shrinking number of Floridians who believe that if you give the embargo enough time to work, someday it will.  We don’t believe that.  Neither do majorities in their state, nor do the majority of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County.

What happens on Cuba defines how the U.S. Capitol is captured by dysfunction.

While Members of Congress prop up the embargo because they want Cuba to fail, Cubans are seizing opportunities created by their country’s economic reforms to try and build more successful lives. While House Members try to stop the State Department from issuing visas, our scientists are trying to increase contacts with their Cuban counterparts to calm and protect the troubled waters between our countries.  While Cuba is poised to drill again in waters close to the Florida Keys, Members of Congress write bills to leave its coast defenseless.

When you think about how useless the embargo has been since it was first imposed by the Kennedy Administration in the 1960s, it was almost funny to read how Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen scolded the Administration for sticking with its “ineffective” Libya policy for three years.

But, for her constituents and their beach front property?  Not so much.

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Let the ends justify the means

March 7, 2014

“That is an absolute lie.”

This is what Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart told the New York Times, after its correspondent, Damien Cave said “clearly a majority” of the American public supports a change in policy in Cuba.

Except it’s not a lie. The American public made up its mind years ago that the embargo ought to go. The results Mr. Díaz-Balart questioned from last month’s Atlantic Council poll weren’t off the mark; their results track just what Florida International University found in its 2011 poll and numerous others have, before and since.

Rep. Díaz-Balart disparaged the Council’s survey just as he did in February, using the same language Elliot Abrams used  on Valentine’s Day; how Robin Wapner described the poll in the Los Angeles Times today. They call it a “push poll.”

Except, it wasn’t.  Why would Glen Bolger, the highly-respected Republican pollster of Public Opinion Strategies — who’s worked for the Florida Republican Party, Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal — produce a survey that rattled the embargo establishment and relied on what experts call  “an unethical political campaign technique… masquerading as legitimate political polling.” Why would he do that? [Hint:  he didn’t.]

Then there’s the case of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who delivered a speech on the Senate floor after visiting  Cuba for a trip that examined “the strengths and weaknesses of Cuba’s public health system.”  This was not Harkin’s first trip to the island; he first visited Guantánamo as an active duty Navy jet pilot during Vietnam, flying missions in support of U-2 planes that spied on Cuba.

This was too much for Senator Marco Rubio (neither a veteran nor a visitor to Cuba), who gave a floor speech that  “ripped” Harkin, “destroyed” Harkin, “blasted” Harkin, and “unloaded” on Harkin, as his blogosphere fans said, for using what Rubio called unreliable statistics provided by Cuba’s government to admire the country’s infant mortality rate.

Except, Harkin was right.  There are many statistics used to measure Cuba’s health system that are accepted globally — for example, to demonstrate that Cuba has fulfilled the primary education, gender equality, and child mortality Millennium Development Goals, or to gauge Cuba’s progress in achieving national literacy, expanding life expectancy, and reducing infant mortality, as the World Economic Forum has done.  This doesn’t mean the figures should not be debated, they should; but it’s hard to dismiss them outright.

Next, consider Cuba’s economic reforms.  More than ten percent of state jobs — close to 600,000 thousands positions — have been eliminated since 2009.   Estimates vary, but at least 450,000 Cubans can now work in private sector jobs because of liberalizations championed by President Raúl Castro.  This is a big change for Cuba, as we reported in Cuba’s New Resolve, and published this year on what the reforms mean for Cuban women.

We also hosted five Cuban nationals on a trip to the U.S.  last year, who explained to the Washington policy community how the ability to start a business, employ other Cubans, make more money, and take their own decisions gives them greater ownership over their lives.  Cuban-Americans in Florida sense that too; as the New York Times documented this week, “Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning to Help,” they are sending investment capital, sharing business expertise, and promoting bilateral engagement – many after spending decades fighting the Castro government.

The naysayers about economic reform in Cuba are not the people making the trips to the island, but rather are the elected officials and embargo lobbyists who refuse to go, who won’t concede the Cuban economy is reforming, and who seek instead to maintain the embargo just as it is.  Time and again, when Damien Cave asked about the Cuban-Americans who are traveling to Cuba and helping the reforms along, Rep. Díaz-Balart answered his question with a defense of the embargo.

This is a classic confusion of ends and means.  Even if you support the embargo — we don’t, and we’re part of a large majority that even includes Yoani Sánchez hoping for its demise — what you presumably want is good things for Cuba’s people, not a perpetuation of the embargo for its own sake.  And yet, if economic reform produces more prosperity and choice, or if public opinion among Cuban-Americans has shifted and they want to achieve their vision of Cuba through different means, the response of the hardliners is attack, discredit, rip, blast, and unload.

This strikes us as wrong.  Democracies function better when they debate ideas rather than deny them.  Without accurate information, democratic politics becomes impossible.  If the embargo is more important than that, then what’s the point?

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Feliz Día del Padre

June 14, 2013

As we begin Father’s Day weekend, it seemed right to open with a brief note about family, connection, and inclusion.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the financial and emotional support provided by members of the Cuban diaspora to their families on the island got caught in the twist of the tourniquet of U.S. sanctions.

Family visits to the island were limited to one trip every three years under a specific license, as the Congressional Research Service explained, to visit only immediate family members.   The ability to send remittances – transfers of money to kin in Cuba – was severely restricted, as was the amount of cash (from $3,000 to $300) that the limited numbers of authorized travelers could bring.  Ironically, these policy changes were driven, in part, by hardliners in the diaspora, but the sting could be felt in homes on both sides of the straits.

During the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama used his executive authority to permit unlimited family travel and remittances.  This action not only alleviated the suffering imposed on families divided by the Bush-era travel policy, but it also coincided with the process led in Cuba by President Raúl Castro to liberalize economic and social restrictions on the Cuban people.

According to a new report, Remittances Drive the Cuban Economy, issued by the Havana Consulting Group, cash remittances, from the U.S. and other nations, estimated at $2.6 billion in 2012, now compromise Cuba’s largest individual source of hard currency.  They exceed revenues derived from tourism and exports of nickel, pharmaceuticals, and sugar.

Beyond the simple and important role of helping families make ends meet, this report is not alone (see here and here) in finding that cash to Cuba from the diaspora is helping to drive the creation and expansion of entrepreneurial activity in Cuba that is enabling Cuban citizens to leave state jobs and seek their futures in Cuba’s changing economy.

For critics who carp that nothing changes in Cuba – their odd defense for keeping U.S. sanctions in place exactly as they have been for fifty plus years – the remittance report is a reminder that President Castro has engineered significant changes, that Cubans are responding, and families in the U.S. are contributing importantly to a transition that is making their family members and other Cubans more independent and ideally more prosperous.

While we believe strongly that President Obama should move further and faster on loosening the U.S. embargo of Cuba, his policy decisions in 2009 to provide unlimited family travel and remittances and create larger openings for travel and remittances in 2011 have become important drivers of economic reform and individual empowerment in Cuba, and capitalized on the family and financial strengths of the community of Cuban descent that resides in Florida and across the United States.

One last thing:  the Cuban American community, for political reasons, of course, has historically faced a different and less restrictive set of immigration rules than migrants seeking to come to the U.S. of any other nationality.

The Miami Herald noted this week that Miami-Dade county is, in their words, “a Spanish-speaking bastion where many immigrants legal and illegal can get by for years without having to speak English.”

In that bastion, they treasure family – not more and certainly not less – just like every other community that has come here from overseas.  Many of them are watching with concern as the debate on immigration takes place in Washington especially now as a new proposal is offered in the U.S. Senate to “require that undocumented immigrants be able to read, write and speak English before earning a green card.”  This amendment, paradoxically, is being written by their Senator, Marco Rubio.

We’re not experts in the field of immigration.  But, the fear being expressed by reform advocates is that adoption of this provision could scuttle chances for passing a bill or make the policy much less welcoming and generous than the authors of reform wanted and intended.

We can only hope that the wisdom behind the travel and remittance policies grounded in the values of family, connection and inclusion is brought to bear on the larger, historic immigration debate as well.

To the families reading the Cuba Central News Blast this holiday weekend, we close by saying Feliz Día del Padre, or Happy Father’s Day.

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