Cuban Doctors in Africa: A Transformative Moment for U.S. Policy

October 24, 2014

During the Cold War, Cuba’s decision to send its armed forces to Africa to support newly independent governments and movements fighting apartheid was used by the Reagan administration in 1982 to help justify putting Cuba on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

This false designation stigmatizes Cuba today and exacts an increasingly hard toll on its citizens and its ability to conduct commerce abroad.

Now that Cuba has returned to Africa three decades later with an “army of white robes” comprised of doctors and nurses fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone and heading to Liberia and Guinea, this is a teachable moment for the world to see what Cuba can do.

But, Cuba’s intervention against Ebola can also be a transformative moment for President Obama, if he uses it to redeem and reform U.S. policy toward Cuba.

When President Obama attended his first meeting of the Summit of the Americas, hosted by Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, Scott Wilson of the Washington Post asked him two questions at the final press conference of the event.

“What have you learned over two days of listening to leaders here about how U.S. policy is perceived in the region? And can you name a specific policy that you will change as a result of what you’ve heard?”

Although the President’s answer said nothing about how he’d change U.S. policy, he talked unexpectedly about Cuba’s medical internationalism:

“One thing that I thought was interesting — and I knew this in a more abstract way but it was interesting in very specific terms — hearing from these leaders who when they spoke about Cuba talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend.”

If the President did not know then about Cuba’s broad commitment to send doctors and other health professionals to help other nations respond to crises or provide health care to people in the developing world, many of whom never met a doctor before a Cuban physician showed up, he surely knows now.

As the BBC reported this week, “Cuba is now the biggest single provider of healthcare workers to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, more than the Red Cross or richer nations.” But, it’s not just Africa and Ebola. There are 50,731 Cuban medical personnel working in 66 countries — as John Kirk says, “more than those deployed by the G7 countries combined.”

Cuba can send well-trained doctors and health professionals who have volunteered for the Ebola mission because it has a vast system of medical education and the capacity to dispatch teams of doctors from its Henry Reeve Brigade for service abroad in the event of natural disasters.

The Henry Reeve Brigade was formed in 2005, as the Center for International Policy reported here, with the intention of sending 1,600 medical professionals to assist during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the offer was declined – then ridiculed – by the United States.

Soon after, Emilio González, who the Wall Street Journal identified as a staunchly anti-Castro exile, launched a plan to undermine Cuba’s deployment of doctors overseas. González, director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008, infamously called Cuba’s medical internationalism policy “state-sponsored human trafficking.”

Rolled out by the Bush administration in 2006, the “Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program” lures Cuban medical personnel off their posts by making them eligible for special immigration rights simply by presenting themselves at U.S. diplomatic posts abroad.

As Greg Grandin noted recently in The Nation, President Obama has left this cynical policy in place, defended by cynics like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others in Congress. It really needs to be terminated.

But, when the President attends his last Summit of the Americas next year, it would be good, but not nearly sufficient, for him to answer Scott Wilson’s question from 2009 by saying, “yes, one policy I would change is repealing that program that steals Cuban doctors from their posts in the world’s poorest countries.” The moment is demanding more from his leadership.

At a time when Cuban doctors are performing one of the great humanitarian missions of our day, when the UN General Assembly is about to condemn the U.S. embargo for the 23rd time and when public opinion – across the U.S. and within the Cuban diaspora – favors major changes in the policy as never before, the President has ample political space to do a lot more.

He has the authority to end most travel restrictions, remove Cuba from the terror list, and modernize trade and other policies, without risking the threat of political backlash that immobilized U.S. presidents in the past.

Steps like these would open the way for real dialogue with Cuba’s government, help reset our relations with the region and global community, and offer President Obama a meaningful foreign policy legacy. As his days in office dwindle down, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be offered a better time to act.

Join our friends at LAWG by signing their petition to get off Cuba off the list.

Read the rest of this entry »


The Download on Cuba and the News Blast

March 14, 2014

This week, the News Blast is bursting with developments in Cuba and U.S. policy.

We imagine you want to get to it, so we’ll keep our introductory remarks – harrumph – relatively brief.

Earlier this week, we came across a well-worn speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy at the University of Washington in 1961.  This address came about a half-year after the Bay of Pigs invasion, nearly a full year before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

You can listen to the entire speech here and reach your own conclusions.  When we read his address, these two paragraphs nearly jumped off the page, and seemed to be written with a pen that could have described the world we see today.

We must face problems which do not lend themselves to easy or quick or permanent solutions. And we must face the fact that the United States is neither omnipotent nor omniscient – that we are only six percent of the world’s population – that we cannot impose our will upon the other ninety-four percent of mankind – that we cannot right every wrong or reverse each adversity – and that therefore there cannot be an American solution to every world problem.

These burdens and frustrations are accepted by most Americans with maturity and understanding. They may long for the days when war meant charging up San Juan Hill -or when our isolation was guarded by two oceans-or when the atomic bomb was ours alone – or when much of the industrialized world depended upon our resources and our aid. But they now know that those days are gone – and that gone with them are the old policies and the old complacencies. And they know, too, that we must make the best of our new problems and our new opportunities, whatever the risk and the cost.

Though Kennedy was an architect of the Cold War, there is evidence – as Peter Kornbluh and others have reported – that he saw the futility of trying to impose our will on Cuba in his day.  One might predict his astonishment that we are still trying to impose our will on Cuba in our day as well.

Our national fixation on Cuba did not begin with Fidel Castro or the Revolution in 1959.  It has been a part of this country’s historical arc, indeed an imperative of the U.S. national interest, since 1803.  That is the argument – offered with a precise mind and graceful hand – by Louis A. Pérez, renowned scholar at the University of North Carolina, in his forthcoming article, “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”

Lou has offered us the opportunity to publish his study of how Cuba has coursed through our foreign policy and the veins of our national character for the better part of three centuries.  It reminds us of how we got here; how we arrived at the point when sanctions have lasted longer than our refusal to recognize the Soviet Union or China, years longer than it took us to reconcile with Vietnam, so long that Cuba has been under U.S. sanctions for almost half of its national existence as an independent republic.

This and more is captured in Lou’s piece, including the sadness in his description of why a failed policy has remained so long in place; “its continuance has no other purpose than to serve as a justification for its longevity.”

Much of what we do – what motivates our work, our trips to Cuba, our research, our passionate advocacy for reforming the policy, and especially the news blast we send you every week – is about living in the world John Kennedy foresaw in 1961, and finding new ways for Cuba and the U.S. to reach past this history and build a new relationship based on dignity and respect.

In the coming weeks, we will notify you in a separate blast about how you can download Lou’s piece absolutely free of charge.

In the meanwhile, we ask you this.

If you share our love of history and our belief in engagement; if you read the blast, support our work, and plan to download the article by Lou Pérez, why not give something back?

This news blast is a project of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) – a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in DC. We take no government money, of course, but instead depend on the generosity of readers like you.

We deliver this news and analysis every Friday, and we’re glad it’s useful to you. But we could also really use your help.

There are others who compile Cuba news, and they charge for it.  We never have.  But if you can help us, it would really make a difference. Please consider making a donation today – large or small. Consider a one-time gift or a monthly pledge of $5, $10, $20. Our website makes it really easy.

But first you have to want to give back, and we hope you do. Please donate today.

We thank you very, very much!

Read the rest of this entry »


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?

Read the rest of this entry »


As Manuel and Lisandra Plan Wedding, Hardliners wonder “Where is the love?”

February 14, 2014

We asked our friend Yamina Vicente, who runs Decorazón, an event-planning firm in Havana, if her business benefits from our Hallmark card-driven “holiday,” Valentine’s Day.

She wrote us back:

February 14th is a date chosen by many couples to celebrate their marriage. In Cuba, many couples fill spaces with flowers, music, and harmony. Our business,
Decorazón, gets asked for a wide range of services on Valentine’s Day. This year, we will celebrate the wedding of two young people – Manuel and Lisandra – who have decided to join their lives in marriage.

That’s romantic.  Even more, it’s a sign that Manuel and Lisandra believe that Cuba offers them a future.

***

This was an extraordinary week.  Hardly a day went by, here and abroad, without a hopeful sign that policy toward Cuba can change.

As the BBC reported, the European Union has agreed to reverse its 27-year-old “common position” and launch talks with Cuba to restore diplomatic relations with the island.

As the Miami Herald reported, USAID “has been left out of the $17.5 million appropriated for Cuba democracy programs this fiscal year, amid complaints over partisan political fighting and agency mishandling of the programs.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota returned from her recent visit to the island saying, “I think 55 years of this relationship is probably enough, and it’s time to now transition to a different relationship.”

The Sun-Sentinel reported, “A growing number of aging Cuban exiles are returning to their birthplace, no longer willing to wait for the end of the Castro regime or to outlast the U.S. embargo before seeing their homeland.”

The Associated Press also found there are “a growing number of powerful South Florida Cuban-American business, civic and political leaders breaking the long-held public line on U.S. relations with Cuba and the Castro government.”

As Politico reported, former Governor Charlie Crist, hoping to win election in 2014 and move back into the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, told Bill Maher this week: “It’s obvious to me that we need to move forward, and I think get the embargo taken away.”

None of these are trivial shifts. Then, the coup de grâce: the Atlantic Council released survey research which found, as the AP reported, that “56 percent of Americans and 63 percent of Floridians support engaging more directly with the communist island. In Miami-Dade County, home to the largest concentration of Cuban-Americans, 64 percent of adults said they favor changing U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.”

Oh, the frenzy – just like the invective unleashed against Alfonso Fanjul, the exile sugar baron condemned as a ‘pathetic tycoon’ for wanting to replant his family flag in Cuba, the hardline supporters of Cuba sanctions went after the poll with all guns blazing.

First, they called it a “push poll,” defined by Elliot Abrams as a poll designed to elicit a certain result and then advertised as achieving that result.  So did Capitol Hill Cubans.  So did Babalú Blog.  Second, they argued the poll “undermines pro-democracy efforts in Cuba,” and said that it “ignores the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people.”

Most of all, they dismissed the findings as irrelevant.

“I don’t see the poll as changing the public policy of the Congress of the United States,” Sen. Bob Menendez told the Miami Herald.  Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, argued public opinion in Miami didn’t matter, because “every single Cuban-American elected official — in any position — in Miami-Dade County supports the embargo.”

Think about that. In the fight against tyranny in Cuba, sanctions supporters made the unusual argument that majority opinion in the United States meant…nothing.

Just so you know; the survey is statistically sound.  As for the assumption that “if you don’t agree with the 52-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba…You too must be a communist,” that’s absurd as Tim Padgett wrote this week.  Just so you know, Miriam Leiva, whose pro-democracy credentials are stronger than most, wrote in an essay that changing U.S. policy would help the nascent Cuban private sector and create a better climate for Cuba’s civil society.

The poll – and hats off to the Atlantic Council for doing it – demonstrates there’s more political space to change the policy.  Most of all, there are plenty of ideas for what can be done to fix it.  Ask Rep. Sam Farr, ask Rep. Kathy Castor, ask the Brookings Institution, or ask us.

What a week!  It would come as no surprise if the hardliners ended theirs wondering, “Where is the love?”

It’s in Havana.  Where, as Yamina told us, Manuel and Lisandra are heading toward a life of “tangible happiness.”  Maybe they can build a future without U.S. policy telling them how it should be done.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


As U.S. Marks Solemn Anniversaries, CDA Releases ‘Regime Change’ Documentary

November 22, 2013

We publish on the day our country remembers the life and death of President John Kennedy. As Secretary  Kerry recently reminded us, we are also days away from the 190th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine.  On December 3, Alan Gross will begin his fifth year imprisoned in Cuba, for his part in the U.S. government effort to bring about regime change on the island.  In unexpected ways, these solemn anniversaries fit together.

***

Today, the Center for Democracy in the Americas releases a short, two-part, video documentary by Tracey Eaton, an independent journalist, whose film examines the half-century-old U.S. effort to end the Castro government and replace Cuba’s system with one based on the political principles and free market preferences of the United States. We hope you will view and share them, here.

In Part 1, “Diplomacy Derailed,” Eaton explains how concerted efforts to topple Cuba’s government have consistently met with failure.  In one interview, Reinaldo Escobar – blogger, independent journalist, and the husband of blogger Yoani Sánchez – tells him:

“The United States has made huge mistakes in its policy toward Cuba.  The so-called blockade or embargo, the so-called Helms-Burton Act, all have a typically interventionist nature, of a very strong pressure.  The main mistake that the United States has committed regarding Cuba is to stubbornly refuse to recognize the legitimacy of the government of Cuba.  That’s everything.”

In Part 2, “Failure Compounded,” the documentary turns from Cuba’s resistance to attacks on its sovereignty to the constraints placed on USAID’s democracy promotion program in Cuba, which the country outlawed in 1999.   As Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive observes:

“The Cuban case has proved – year after year after year – that we are not doing this legitimately and we’re not doing it effectively.  Very little has been accomplished on the ground and, arguably, relations have been poisoned by the continuing effort to basically take a program that is supposed to be above-board and overt and transform it into a surreptitious, semi-covert operation, with people who are really not trained, supervised, and backed to undertake these kinds of operations.”

It is against this backdrop that Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba.

***

As USAID admits, its operations in Cuba are unique compared to how it works elsewhere in the world.  When it ran afoul of authorities in Russia, as the Los Angeles Times reported earlier this year, it packed up its operations and left, however reluctantly, understanding that it could not be effective at promoting democracy if it failed to act with the consent of the host government.  In Cuba, it makes no such concession.

While USAID coaches foreign governments and NGOs on the virtues of transparency, it operates in Cuba in a semi-covert fashion, it withholds and redacts documents requested by reporters like Tracey Eaton and U.S. news agencies, and it dissembled along with the rest of the U.S. government when Mr. Gross was detained in Cuba for his activities there.

From the beginning, as Professor Bill LeoGrande explains, the “U.S. government’s position has been that he did nothing wrong, was imprisoned unjustly, and therefore should be released unconditionally.” It has never admitted that “by setting up wireless digital networks for select groups of Cubans to connect to the Internet by satellite, independently of Cuba’s national Internet connections,” what Alan Gross was doing under a program funded by the Helms-Burton legislation was against Cuban law.

Cuba, of course, knew what Mr. Gross was doing and what USAID continues to do. Recently, when the agency sent grant applications and other internal reports to U.S. diplomats in Havana over an unencrypted line, it was assumed that Cuban intelligence agencies read them all.

Hardliners continue to demand his unconditional release (though it is unclear why Cuba would do this) and label efforts to work a deal with the Cuban government “a travesty.”  U.S. officials and others profess not to know what the Cubans actually want in exchange for his freedom.  For years, the Obama administration’s public position – besides denying he was doing anything wrong – was to say no changes in policy toward Cuba could happen without his release.  Now, even Rep. Joe Garcia from Florida is saying, “He’s an American prisoner, and we should do all we can to obtain his release but we shouldn’t let it guide U.S. foreign policy.”

We hear – from time to time – that efforts are underway to secure Mr. Gross’s release. Maybe something is happening below the radar, but on the surface his case seems deadlocked — as the moribund state of the “Bring Alan Home” website sadly seems to attest.

What might turn things around?

***

Our insistence that Cuba replace its political and economic system as a precondition for the U.S. reconsidering a diplomatic relationship with its government has kept our policy frozen in place, ever since it was conceived during the Cold War by the Kennedy administration.

Paradoxically, in the days before he died, President Kennedy may have been ready to undertake a new approach.  In an article released today, Peter Kornbluh reveals that Kennedy was “actively exploring a rapprochement with Cuba, and working secretly with Castro to set up secret negotiations to improve relations.”  While his “(T)op aides argued that the U.S. should demand that Castro jettison his relations with the Soviets as a pre-condition to any talks… the President overruled them; he instructed his top aides to ‘start thinking along more flexible lines’ in negotiating with Castro.”

We’d like to think that President Obama might think more flexibly too. When he spoke in Miami earlier this month he said, “Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, 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.”

It would make far greater sense if the administration applied the same principles to Cuba that Secretary Kerry articulated in his “end of the Monroe Doctrine” address, which will guide our relations with the other nations of Latin America. Instead of the U.S. declaring “how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states,” Mr. Kerry offered the promise of a new relationship with the region, with “all of our countries viewing one another as equals.”

Bringing our policy toward Cuba into alignment with the same norms we now promise to observe in our relationships with the rest of Latin America offers a range of advantages.  We could build trust with the rest of the region, find a stable and consistent way to engage with Cuba, and speed the day when Mr. Gross is able to come back home.

Read the rest of this entry »


La política no cabe en la azucarera

July 19, 2013

Last week, when we wrote about new legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to extinguish people-to-people travel to Cuba, we knew it was bad.

We write today with a greater urgency.  A deeper analysis of the proposal by Dawn Gable, CDA’s assistant director, demonstrates how far-reaching an effort to gut travel this amendment represents.  Moreover, the political climate has become more uncertain after the seizure of Cuban cargo hidden beneath brown sugar that may violate the UN arms embargo against North Korea.

First principles first:  We believe in engagement.  We believe that Cuba and the United States are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of animosity and distrust because the two governments rarely talk and because both publics have historically been walled off from normal contact.  In the last five decades, both governments have circled each other suspiciously and bad conditions have often been made worse because of the absence of normal dialogue.

That is why we believe so strongly in the value of travel and engagement, because they bring people together, and why we are alarmed by efforts in the Congress to shut down people-to-people travel, stunt Cuban American family travel, and bury an already burdened government office under a mountain of paperwork which will hurt every day Cubans.

Dawn’s analysis highlights the trouble spots.  One provision of the Treasury Department budget bill ends people-to-people travel by defunding its licensing process.  The people-to-people program isn’t perfect and it only reaches a fraction of the U.S. citizens who are interested in visiting Cuba.  But, according to one estimate, more than 103,000 non-Cuban American visitors came to Cuba in 2012, and people-to-people travel made the overwhelming number of them possible.

Groups that sponsor travel including – colleges, museums, environmental groups, groups that do economic research and urban development groups, groups that support medical and other forms of cooperation, peace groups, and foreign policy groups – these and many others – would no longer have licenses to sponsor travel to Cuba.  The legislation would airmail us back to the travel ban days of President George W. Bush.

Wait, as the saying goes, it gets worse.  Today, Cuban American families can visit their relatives in Cuba as often as they wish and provide them unlimited financial support, also called “remittances.”  Family remittances help relatives make ends meet for the tight household budgets of Cuban families, and are increasingly feeding the growth of private sector businesses opened by every day Cubans under President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  The visits and the support do not require licenses or paperwork of any kind.

That would end.  If this bill became law, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) the agency inside Treasury charged with implementing U.S. trade sanctions would be required to report to Congress on “all family travel” as well as all travel involving the legal carrying of remittances to Cuba, including by family of USINT employees. The report would include: number of travelers; average duration of stay for each trip; average amount of U.S. dollars spent per traveler; number of return trips per year; and total sum of U.S. dollars spent collectively in each fiscal year.

OFAC could not compile the report without imposing new requirements on remittances provided by families and on remittances by Americans of all backgrounds to support new businesses or religious organizations or U.S. students studying legally in Cuba.  The only remittances that would not have to be reported would be those paid to Cuba’s political opposition.

To be clear, if you believe that Cuban Americans and all Americans should enjoy the right to travel to Cuba and support everyday Cubans financially, we ask that you heed calls for action by the Latin America Working Group (here) and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (here) and urge Congress to oppose this bill and President Obama to promise he will veto it.

“A larger, slow-moving thaw,” as the Associated Press reported, had recently seemed to return to bilateral relations in recent weeks.  A member of the Cuban Five returned to the island for good.  Diplomats from both countries, as we report below, had easier times traveling.  Mail service talks took place last month; migrations talks took place this week.

After the North Korean vessel was seized in Panama this week, however, with 220,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar piled atop a cache of weapons from Cuba, this pattern of progress is now at risk.  We report on this incident in detail later in the blast.

Unsurprisingly, supporters of sanctions on Cuba, its placement on the terror list, and ongoing efforts to overthrow the Cuban government reacted before the facts were in.  In her statement, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “I call on the Department of State to immediately cease its migration talks this week with the Cuban regime until it provides clear and coherent answers regarding this incident.”  She also joined several colleagues who wrote Secretary Kerry urging him to pour more sanctions on any country found to be violating the UN embargo.

Rather than gagging diplomacy, this seemed an appropriate time for the two countries to talk, and her demand was ignored by the Obama administration.   More to the point, the State Department refused to get ahead of the facts or to point fingers at Cuba, with Marie Harf, departmental spokeswoman saying, “I would underscore that the issue of the ship isn’t a U.S.-Cuba issue.”  As AFP reported, the UN took the same tack, stating “The Secretary-General awaits the outcome of the investigation into the matter in question and is sure the 1718 Security Council Sanctions Committee will promptly address it.”

Here, we end where we began.  We are heartened that the State Department called people-to-people travel in the national security interest of the U.S. just this afternoon.  Because, none of this will go any easier if this incident becomes a predicate for stopping Cuban Americans from visiting or supporting their families on the island, or cutting off educational travel; nor will we get to the bottom of it faster by cutting off diplomacy between the United States and Cuba.

Read the rest of this entry »


A Mother’s Day Message for President Obama and Vice President Biden

May 10, 2013

Earlier this week, Vice President Biden said Cuba had made some “small encouraging signs of change,” but that the administration still wants to see “real change.”

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make headlines.  It’s a little sad but it’s not news that their two-year-old message about Cuba, “your change isn’t big enough,” still permeates the administration’s talking points.

They must have decided, if it worked for President Obama in September 2011, “We have not seen evidence they have been sufficiently aggressive in changing their policies economically,” to just keep repeating the message, even if the point they are making really isn’t so.

You might ask, what does any of this have to do with Mother’s Day?  We were just getting around to that.

To its credit, the administration has spent part of the last four years advocating for women to be equal partners in more just, prosperous, and more effectively governed societies.  It was just last week when Treasury Secretary Lew said:  “The facts are clear: empowering women is not only a question of equity, it is simply smart economics.”

The State Department has been all in, too.  They tweet about women.  They herald investment in women-owned enterprises as “one of the best ways to achieve economic, financial, and social impact.”  They have created a partnership program to expand women’s political and economic participation.

But Cuban entrepreneurs or “cuentapropistas” – and especially female small business owners – are rarely offered a seat at any of these tables.  That’s not a big surprise either – if they are not willing to admit that economic reform is happening at scale in Cuba, where the biggest changes in its economic model are taking place since 1959 – it wouldn’t occur to them to reserve a seat for a Cuban.

That’s a shame.  Paradoxically, what is happening in Cuba – with men and women leaving the state payroll for jobs in the non-state sector –happens to be consistent with the oft-stated desire by the U.S. for greater independence of the Cuban people.  It’s easy for us to talk about.  But, they are the ones who are taking great risks, taking on new and unfamiliar responsibilities, and making a leap at a disruptive time in Cuba’s changing economy.

A lot of these businesses fail, as do small businesses here in the U.S.  But, when they succeed, as an entrepreneur named Barbara told us in our report about the future of gender equality in Cuba, Women’s Work, exciting things can happen:

“My life has improved over the last several years with the possibility of working as a cuentapropista….More than anything, the benefit of being a cuentapropista is the ability to manage your own decisions. I can decide how to invest, what hours to work, whether I want to offer specials and other decisions regarding how to manage the business. In other words, I’m my own boss and I suffer the consequences, but also reap the benefits of my decisions. Moreover, economically, there are few, if any, jobs in the state sector that can compare with cuentapropismo when it comes to salaries. I’ve been able to save a little money, invest in fixing up my house, buy my daughter what she needs and put food on the table. In the end, I’m a more independent woman. My husband and I help each other but we both contribute and I don’t have to rely on him.”

It would be nice, but only a start, if the President and Vice President credited Cuba’s government with making the changes it has, and then recognized that women like Barbara actually exist.

But they could go even further.  The administration should end the backlogs and delays that cause many people-to-people groups and research institutions to wait for months to hear back on renewals and new applications, so that more Americans could visit Cuba and utilize the services in the growing private sector, helping to empower individual Cubans, just like their talking points say.  If Miriam Leiva’s White House petition is any test, steps like these would be warmly welcomed in Cuba.

They could also facilitate the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba by allowing imports of products made by Cubans working in small businesses and cooperatives.  They could stop freezing financial institutions with the fear of fines for engaging in legal transactions with individuals and institutions in Cuba.  They could make projects that help women in Cuba eligible for remittances under the president’s 2011 policy.

In fact, there’s a lot of serious progress that could be made if they included Cuba, Cubans, and Cuban women in their vision of a more just world built on gender equality.

It’s a thought for Mother’s Day and we hope they think about it.

Read the rest of this entry »


Breaking News: René González of the Cuban Five Renounces Citizenship, to remain in Cuba

May 3, 2013

Just before we hit send, there was an important development in the case involving René González, a member of the Cuban Five.

González, who was permitted by U.S. District Court Judge Joan Lenard to travel to Cuba for two weeks under strict conditions pursuant to his probation, will renounce his citizenship and remain in Cuba. González becomes, as the Havana Times reported, the first of the five Cubans to return and reside in Cuba following their convictions.

González, who served a 13-year sentence, was allowed to return to Cuba on April 22 to attend a service for his father who died at age 82.

But, González, a U.S. citizen, is permitted under the laws of the United States to renounce his citizenship to a consular official while visiting a foreign nation.  The court has the power to modify his probation accordingly, and enable González to serve the remainder of his term in Cuba without reporting to the court.

Attorneys for González filed a motion to modify his probation, to remove a requirement imposed by the court that he return to the U.S. by May 6th, clearing the way for him to renounce his citizenship and stay in Cuba.

The U.S. Department of Justice told the court that it would not oppose González’s request, and the “Government indicated that ‘the FBI has concluded that the national security interests of the United States are furthered if the defendant…does not return to the United States.”

That led Judge Lenard to issue an order today modifying his probation and allowing him to renounce his U.S. citizenship and not return.

According to the Associated Press, González is thrilled but wants a chance to review the judge’s decision.  “First I have to read the order,” he said. “If the order is real, it will be a great relief to me.”

González was convicted for acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government, conspiracy to act as a foreign agent and to defraud the United States.

González, along with Gerardo Hernández, Ramón Labañino, Antonio Guerrero, and Fernando González, were arrested in 1998, for their roles in efforts to track Miami groups who, according to Cuba’s government, were responsible for terror attacks against the island.

The case of the Cuban Five has been a significant obstacle in U.S.-Cuba relations.  As Peter Kornbluh wrote in The Nation last month:

“The Cubans are holding US subcontractor Alan Gross, now in his fourth year of incarceration for illicitly attempting to set up a satellite communications network in Cuba as part of the US Agency for International Development’s Cuba Democracy and Contingency Planning Program. And the United States is holding the ‘Cuban Five,’ who include four Cuban spies, now in their fifteenth year in prison for conducting espionage operations, mostly against exile groups with violent pasts…Raúl Castro has called for mutual ‘humanitarian gestures’ to resolve these obstacles to improved bilateral relations.”

This case is controversial in the U.S. and complicated for domestic political reasons in both countries.  The decision by Judge Lenard, available here, may not bring relief to the families of Alan Gross or other members of the Five who remain in prison in the U.S., but it is a welcomed development in any case.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba to remain on State Sponsors of Terrorism List

The State Department has missed its April 30th deadline to file its Country Report on Terrorism, and it is now expected to be released in late May.  Cuba watchers hoped the report would reveal a decision to drop Cuba from the state sponsors of terror list. According to The Hill, a State Department spokesperson indicated that release of the report is not used as a vehicle to announce decisions to add or drop countries, and that Cuba when the list is published will retain its designation.

But, as the Miami Herald reported, that does not rule out the possibility that at any time in the future, the U.S. government can decide that Cuba should be removed from the state sponsors list.

On a related matter, Joanne Chesimard, a fugitive living in Cuba, was added this week to the FBI’s list of Most Wanted Terrorists.  Chesimard, a former member of the Black Panthers and the Black Liberation Army, who goes by the name Assata Shakur, escaped from prison in 1979, and received asylum in Cuba in 1984.  She was convicted of murder in the 1970s for her role in a shootout which left a New Jersey state trooper dead.

Although the Associated Press reported that Cuba does not have an extradition treaty with the U.S., according to the website of the U.S. Department of State, such a treaty is in place.  While the countries cooperate on fugitive cases from time to time, they rarely observe the treaty.

Although the issue of fugitives plays no statutory role in determining whether a country is a state sponsor of terror, the U.S. government said in last year’s report, “The Cuban government continued to permit fugitives wanted in the United States to reside in Cuba and also provided support such as housing, food ration books, and medical care for these individuals.”

59 in Congress sign letter urging Obama to end travel restrictions to Cuba

Representative Sam Farr (CA-20) sent a letter signed by 59 Members of Congress to President Obama urging the administration to expand the right of Americans to travel to Cuba.  Their proposal would build on Obama’s decision in 2011, which restored people-to-people travel, and allow all categories of permissible travel to Cuba be carried out under a general license. In a press release Farr points out that “there are no better ambassadors for democratic ideals than the American people” and that “a pragmatic policy of citizen diplomacy can be a powerful catalyst for democratic development in Cuba.”

The full text of the letter is available here.

Seasonal flights to resume between Tampa and Holguín, Cuba

The Tampa International Airport (TIA) announced that after a three-month hiatus, seasonal flights to Holguín, Cuba, will resume in June, reports the Tampa Bay Times. Until February of this year, TIA had offered five flights to Cuba each week, but discontinued two because of low demand and stiff competition.

IN CUBA

Over 2,000 of Cuba’s state-owned businesses now in private sector

Since 2009, over 2,000 formerly state-owned businesses in Cuba have been leased to private management, reports EFE. The initiative to shift the management of state-operated businesses began as an experiment with barbershops and hair salons in 2009. Since then, the changes have grown to include 47 economic activities, employing over 5,000 people. The shift gives employees of the formerly state-operated businesses the ability to manage the business and set prices, while collectively handling the costs of rent and utilities. Employees have some complaints, such as tax burdens and a lack of wholesale markets where businesses can buy supplies. However, both the government and workers have acknowledged that this new arrangement has improved service, reduced absenteeism, and increased employee salaries.

Cuba celebrates International Worker’s Day

As President Raúl Castro presided over Cuba’s May Day parade in Havana, First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel led the celebration in Santiago de Cuba, reports ACN.  This year’s theme was “For a more prosperous and sustainable form of socialism” and the late President Chávez of Venezuela was honored, reports Havana Times (article and slideshow).

Victoria Burnett of the New York Times reports on May Day in a changing Cuba, where private sector workers joined state sector workers in the celebrations in Havana.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Nicolás Maduro pays official visit to Cuba

Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro visited Havana last Saturday on his first official trip to Cuba since taking office, reports EFE. While in Cuba, Maduro met with President Raúl Castro and took part in the 13th Meeting of the Cuba-Venezuela Intergovernmental Commission. The commission signed 51 bilateral agreements, and pledged to spend $2 billion on bilateral social development programs this year, reports Reuters. The agreements regarding energy management and social programs follow Maduro’s campaign promise to continue the relationship Hugo Chávez forged with Cuba.

Cuba undergoes Human Rights Review at UN

This week, the UN Human Rights Council performed its Universal Periodic Review of Cuba, a process that takes place every four years for each member country. During the review, several governments recommended that Cuba extend an open invitation for visits by UN human rights experts. In response, Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Relations, extended a permanent welcome to such experts, on the condition that the purpose of the visits be “non-discriminatory” and impartial, reports EFE.

Rodríguez further stated that “Cuba will never accept a process of regime change,” from UN member countries, specifically referencing suggestions made by the U.S.

Rodríguez presented evidence of Cuba’s advances in human rights, citing the country’s universally accessible education and healthcare systems. His complete statement for the Universal Periodic Review is available here.

According to the Miami Herald, UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO affiliated with the American Jewish Committee, said Cuba had committed fraud “on a massive scale” to influence the Council’s review of its human rights record.

FAO Director General visits Cuba

On Friday, José Graziano da Silva, Director General of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations arrived in Havana to meet with Cuban government officials, reports Cubadebate. While in Cuba, Graziano will discuss food security programs with officials such as Minister of Foreign Relations Rodríguez; Vice President Marino Murillo; Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, the Minister of Agriculture; and Félix González Viego, President of the National Association of Small Farmers.

Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment ends contract with Canadian firm Tokmakjian

Cuba’s government has officially ended the operations of Canadian firm Tokmakjian Group, reports Café Fuerte. The conglomerate had operated on the island for the past 25 years, until a 2011 corruption scandal resulted in the closing of the company’s offices in Havana and the arrest of the company’s head, Cy Tokmakjian. Until now, the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment had not taken any major action against the company. Tokmakjian Group’s operations were the second largest of any foreign enterprise on the island, selling mining and construction equipment as well as cars and car parts.

President Raúl Castro has led a nationwide campaign against corruption, which has seen the arrest of several high-level foreign business representatives, as well as Cuban nationals. In a 2011 speech, Castro stated that corruption in Cuba “is equivalent to counter-revolution,” encouraging the government to be relentless in its campaign as corruption “could lead to self-destruction.”

China fulfills Cuba cargo ship order

Shanghai Shipyard Co. Ltd. has delivered the sixth of ten cargo ships that Cuba had ordered from China, reports Cuba Standard. The additional 35,000-ton grain cargo ships are expected to increase Cuba’s maritime trading capacity with nations far from the Caribbean. In addition, the ships will lower the cost of grain shipments to Cuba, which often come at a premium cost due to the sanctions prohibiting ships coming from Cuba to dock at U.S. ports.

350 Cuban doctors sent to Ghana

As a part of the recently-renewed Ghana-Cuba Medical Service and Educational Agreement, 350 Cuban doctors arrived in Ghana on Wednesday, reports the Daily Graphic. The agreement aims to improve Ghana’s doctor-to-patient ratio, which now stands at one doctor to every 10,000 patients. Ghana matched Cuba’s contribution by sending 250 young Ghanaians to Cuba for medical training. The Ghanaian-Cuban partnership began twenty years ago and is renewed every two years.

Around the Region

U.S. citizen accused of conspiracy against Venezuela’s government

U.S. citizen Timothy Hallett Tracy, arrested in Venezuela last Wednesday, was accused of sowing unrest in the country, reports La Jornada. According to The Guardian, Tracy was in Venezuela as a documentary filmmaker and spent time interviewing people on both sides of the country’s political spectrum. Gloria Stifano, Tracy’s lawyer, clarified that he is the subject of an investigation and so far “nobody has said that he is criminally responsible,” reports El Universal. She also stated that his human rights would be respected, and he will not be imprisoned.

National Electoral Council discloses timeline and procedures for secondary audit

Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE) has released a statement outlining a timetable and detailing procedures for a secondary audit of Venezuela’s recent presidential election. The audit was agreed to in response to a formal request by former presidential candidate Henrique Capriles. However, the CNE clarified that some of Capriles’s demands are “impracticable.”

Venezuela’s opposition claims to have lost last month’s election due to massive fraud, prompting the CNE to state, “Anyone who puts forward charges on such a scale must provide a minimum of necessary elements in order to ascertain whether these charges are indeed suppositions of fact.” According to the CNE, the investigation demanded by the opposition into alleged complaints of irregularities in the voting process is not possible given the incomplete documentation it provided which does not clearly indicate “which polling booths; which records; who is involved” and provides no “precision whatsoever regarding possible damage to the vote.”

Bolivia expels USAID

In a May Day declaration, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales announced the expulsion of USAID, reports BBC. Morales said the move is to protest a remark by Secretary of State John Kerry in which he described Latin America as the “backyard” of the United States. USAID’s operations in Bolivia focused on counter-narcotics and military initiatives. Bolivia, along with six of the eight ALBA countries, signed a resolution last June calling for all member states to expel the agency.  For further analysis of the USAID program, see our feature in Recommended Reading.

El Salvador Update: April, 2013, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, CDA’s Senior Policy Analyst on El Salvador, discusses developments that have taken place in El Salvador during the month of April, including President Funes’ visit to Washington, D.C. and his announcement of formalized support for the country’s historic gang truce and peace process.  The update covers developments in the presidential race and in the U.S. trials against former Salvadoran military officials. It also includes a detailed chronology of El Salvador’s (gang truce) peace process, and a map of municipalities that have joined the “Violence-Free Municipalities” program.

If you would like to receive the Monthly El Salvador Update via email, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org.  

Recommended Reading

Special Feature: Along the Malecón: In Cuba: USAID Flies Into the Cuckoo’s Nest

Investigative journalist Tracey Eaton examines how schizophrenic U.S. policy toward Cuba can be.  Eaton provides examples drawn from USAID’s program there noting that while typical development programs seek to alleviate poverty, USAID’s work in Cuba is framed by legislation whose real goal is “to increase poverty, not reduce it.”

Amid Fealty to Socialism, a Nod to Capitalism, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

Havana’s May Day Parade now acts as a curious metaphor for Cuba’s changing economy, writes Victoria Burnett. Private and government-owned businesses work together and learn from each other, as the inefficiencies of the purely state-run economy are being replaced with a new entrepreneurial spirit within the private sector. The growing number of private sector workers in the parade expressed that participating is a way to show solidarity with all workers on the island, public or private.

Havana’s Classic Taxis Get a Taste of Competition, EFE

For the first time in decades, taxis in Cuba – especially in Havana – are facing increased competition. As the city continues to experience serious transportation problems, a boom in licenses for private taxi drivers has made the competition for customers fierce. Private taxi licenses make up 11% of the 400,000 private licenses registered in Cuba.

Shakur’s addition to Most Wanted Terrorist List reeks of Cuba Lobby desperation, William Vidal, On Two Shores

William Vidal of On Two Shores analyzes the news of the past few months about Cuba’s place on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; beginning with reports in February that Cuba would be removed from the list and culminating in this week’s announcement that Cuba will remain on the list.

Political calculus keeps Cuba on U.S. list of terror sponsors, Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

Carol J. Williams examines the political considerations in keeping Cuba on the State Department’s list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, even as national security analysts call the designation “counterproductive,” and note that there is no evidence indicating that Cuba is a national security threat to the U.S.

The Impact of Telesur and Cuba’s Media Crisis, Fernando Ravsberg, Havana Times

Fernando Ravsberg of the Havana Times analyzes the effects of Telesur’s broadcast in Cuba, contrasting the news coverage with Cuba’s national television.

Recommended Viewing

A glimpse inside Cuba’s high security prisons, Sarah Rainsford, BBC

Leading up to Cuba’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN, the government opened several prisons for foreign journalists. Here, the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford gets a rare tour of one of Cuba’s high security prisons.

A FINAL WORD:

THE ROAD FROM NEW YORK TO PHILADELPHIA GETS SHORTER

For some time, the Equality Forum, an organization dedicated to advancing LGBT rights, planned a 2013 summit with Cuba as its featured nation and Mariela Castro, Director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX) as its honored guest.

The summit, being held in Philadelphia, May 2-5, coincided with meetings related to United Nations population policy in New York.  Ms. Castro was granted a diplomatic visa that got her to New York to visit the UN, and she applied for permission from the State Department to go beyond the 25-mile barrier that prevents high-ranking Cubans from moving about the country as freely as diplomats and citizens from other nations are permitted to do in the U.S., so she could attend the summit.

Her request apparently posed too big a dilemma for the decision makers at State.  After all, this is the same Mariela Castro who was recognized in the Department’s 2012 Human Rights Report for being “outspoken in promoting the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons,” and who was granted a visa to attend the 2012 Latin American Studies Association conference in San Francisco.

But the 97 miles between New York and Philadelphia was simply too much for the Department to handle.  As the New York Times reported last week, State denied her request “without explanation.”  Understandably so; how could you explain why it’s alright for Mariela Castro to visit Manhattan and discuss population policy but not okay to attend an equality conference down the New Jersey Turnpike to talk about AIDS?

Their position was not sustainable.  It took less than four days for the State Department to change its mind, reverse the decision, and give Ms. Castro permission go all the way to the City of Brotherly Love to speak and receive her award.  CNN reported on the development here.

This made some hardliners very unhappy.  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) issued a statement denouncing the decision, “For a person like Mariela Castro to attend a conference on civil rights for lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender people, and to receive an award, is shameful, pathetic and a ruse. The words ‘equality’ and ‘human rights’ don’t exist in the vocabulary of the Castro tyranny.”  Inexplicably, the Babalú website protested the decision by publishing an old picture of Madonna kissing Britney Spears.   They were really upset.

Why? These opponents of engagement with Cuba have never been fans of Mariela Castro, but we suspect that something larger here is at play.

After all, the State Department didn’t give in to the impulse to stick with a decision that made the U.S. bad just to make the hardliners happy.  Instead, it changed its mind.

Think about that.  We know that State is keeping Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terror list for 2013, but the law enables the U.S. government to remove its designation by notifying Congress and reporting the reasons for doing so. It can change its mind.  Maybe State won’t.  But, at least it’s the other side that is going to be up at night thinking they might.


Castor’s Got Courage, But Has Kerry Got Game?

April 26, 2013

Kathy Castor, Tampa’s representative in Congress, has got courage.  Of the twenty-seven members of Florida’s delegation, only five have more Cuban Americans in their districts than she has living in hers.  None but Castor has made the effort, as she did a few weeks ago, to visit Cuba.

When Ms. Castor returned home, she wrote President Obama and urged him to modernize Cuba policy.  She asked the president to support Cuba’s economic reforms, end the travel ban, lift trade restrictions, engage Cuba in a dialogue on human rights, and, critically, to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List.

Such clear, forward thinking was too much for Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney, who “pinned the label ‘terrorist’ on Castor,” as the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported, and said “she joins all terrorists of the western hemisphere in solidarity with the (Castro) regime and tyranny that has brought pain and agony to my people.”

Such rhetoric was sad, but not surprising, and the tactic was all too familiar.  The noisiest critics of the system in Cuba like to stanch free debate in America to stop courage like Castor’s from becoming contagious.

In this case, the name-calling backfired, and emboldened constituents rose to her defense.  Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Tampa’s La Gaceta newspaper, donated space for a full-page ad in last week’s issue that saluted Castor “on her historic trip to Cuba” and he got more than 300 area residents to sign on…in Florida.

This is further proof that the politics around Cuba issues is changing, that the Cuba Lobby, which has petrified politicians and paralyzed policy for decades, can be challenged not just by rare instances of courage but by compelling examples of common sense.

It may take time for this truth to move from Tampa Bay to the halls of Congress, but we hope it’s heard in Foggy Bottom and that the U.S. State Department gets the message fast.

By April 30th, Secretary of State John Kerry must decide whether Cuba should be removed from the list of countries designated as State Sponsors of Terror.

Kerry has previously spoken sensibly on terrorism.  Presiding over the confirmation of Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as Secretary of State, John Kerry, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said:

In the last seven years, we have spent the treasure of this nation – young American soldiers, first and foremost, and billions of dollars – to fight terrorism, and yet grave questions remain as to whether or not we have chosen our battles correctly, pursued the right strategy, defined the right goals.

Now that Kerry is running State, it’s time for him to pursue the right strategy and act decisively by removing Cuba from the terror list.  The merits are clear.

“None of the reasons that landed Cuba on the list in 1982 still exist,” as the Los Angeles Times explained recently. “A 2012 report by the State Department found that Havana no longer provides weapons or paramilitary training to Marxist rebels in Latin America or Africa. In fact, Cuba is currently hosting peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and President Juan Manuel Santos’ government.”

This is just the point Rep. Castor made to President Obama.  “One of the reasons used to justify Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors of Terror List was its support of the FARC.  This rationale is no longer valid, and it provides our nation with an opportunity to remove Cuba from the list and focus on global actors who need our attention.”

After returning from Cuba, on a trip led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Rep. Castor never stopped working.  She used contacts she made at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to connect grandparents in her district to Cuban and U.S. officials, trying to facilitate the return of Chase and Cole Hakken, children abducted by their parents in Tampa and taken by boat to Cuba.

The same Tampa attorney who called out Castor assured local media that the parents, who were fugitives in Cuba, were safe, “there’s no extradition…There’s nothing that can be done.”

Soon after, the Cubans arrested the parents and returned them to Florida where they face a variety of serious charges, and the boys, ages 4 and 2, were reunited with their grandparents proving, as Rep. Castor said, “the value of engagement” and the importance of reforming the policy.

Whether it takes common sense or courage, something can always be done.  Kathy Castor proved it, and so can John Kerry, if he’s got game.
Read the rest of this entry »