China Climate Deal a Model for Big Reforms on Cuba

November 14, 2014

The deal President Obama struck with China’s President Xi Jinping committing both countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enraged climate change deniers, elements of the coal industry, and its core supporters in Congress.

If you look at what made the breakthrough possible, how it happened, how it will be implemented, and what motivated both sides to reach the agreement, it should also make hardline supporters of Cuba sanctions very, very nervous.

President Obama went to China for the leaders’ meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which promotes economic cooperation in the region, and for bilateral talks with China’s president.

Preceding the bilateral meeting with President Xi, diplomats from China and the U.S. negotiated agreements on trade, visas, and security; the latter referring to a U.S. priority to get China’s military to adopt international norms and reduce conflicts over borders as well as disputes over fishing and land rights.

The climate change agreement, which came about after “nine months of quiet dialogue between the two countries,” was described by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations as “a serious diplomatic breakthrough after years of unsuccessful efforts to do something big and joint that goes beyond clean energy cooperation and gets to one of the most sensitive parts of climate policy.”

China and the United States are the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon pollution, the main driver of climate change. Opponents of climate change legislation in the U.S. consistently cite China’s reluctance to cap its carbon emissions as evidence that action by the U.S. would be a futile exercise. By negotiating a deal with Xi, Mr. Obama has taken that excuse out of play.

According to James Fallows writing in The Atlantic, China was moved to action because it recognized that “environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability — even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related.”

What most infuriates President Obama’s domestic political opponents is not just the forward movement he produced through bilateral diplomacy before the two summits in China, but the fact that the president can fulfill our part of the agreement by taking executive action.

By pledging to use the power of his office to do what Congress has proven unable and unwilling to do, the president’s climate deal was called by one analyst, “arguably as significant on pure foreign policy terms as it is on environmental terms. It sets a precedent of the U.S. and China not just cooperating on a difficult issue — as a very rich country and a poorer country, their climate policies are necessarily at odds — but cooperating on global leadership.”

Equally important, the president demonstrated that his foreign policy could walk and chew gum at the same time by scoring several critical agreements with China while also reaffirming his concerns about China’s record on human rights.

There is no clearer case for what President Obama should do in Cuba than what he just accomplished in China.

He used engagement and quiet diplomacy to reach agreements that reflected the national interest of both countries. He will implement the deal by executive action. By reaching an agreement that replaced inaction by China with a substantial climate change commitment, he removed the greatest barrier — at least rhetorically — to real action on climate by the United States. He managed to negotiate these complicated accords ahead of two key summits so that he wouldn’t have to travel to the region empty handed.

Today, the greatest obstacle to progress with Cuba is the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross on the island and the sentences being served by three Cuban spies in the United States. Gross broke Cuban law by engaging in regime change activities, and the Cuban spies broke U.S. law by failing to register as foreign agents as they investigated exile terror groups that had killed Cuban citizens.

President Obama can use the powers of his office to strike the deal that will free Mr. Gross and the Cuban prisoners while also removing the biggest impediment to greater U.S. engagement with Cuba on a variety of issues, including human rights.

There is nothing he can do to win over his most virulent opponents in Congress. Just yesterday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen denounced Cuba for its leadership in the fight against Ebola and criticized any effort to free Alan Gross that would include negotiations with Cuba.

But if the president wants to succeed at next year’s Summit of the Americas, where all of our nation’s hemispheric allies will be joined at the table by Cuba, he must make substantial changes in our foreign policy toward the island’s government, as Richard Feinberg argues here.

Just as he struck a deal with China to control carbon emissions over the objections of climate deniers while also restating our nation’s commitment to human rights, the president can overcome those invested in our current, polluted relationship with Cuba by changing the climate around U.S. diplomacy toward Cuba.

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Friends Don’t Let Congress Drive Cuba Policy

August 1, 2014

Congress spent a month spinning itself into a frenzy over the crisis at the southern border of the U.S.

But, after weeks of photo ops, accusations that the Obama Administration created the crisis and failed to stop it, and shameful efforts to marginalize the children who fled poverty and violence in order to get here, nothing happened.

The least productive Congress in modern history has spun itself into a ditch.  It has made the migration crisis so dire and so toxic that even punitive legislation to fix it became too hot to handle.  Backed up against their own deadline for the August recess, neither the House nor the Senate could find enough votes to pass even band aid-sized fixes to a greater than tourniquet-sized problem.

As of this publication, the House leadership is considering how to press forward – making the legislation meaner to migrants, which dooms the bill to failure – or by taking the moral highroad and driving off on vacation.  In the meanwhile, both House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (KY-5) and Speaker John Boehner issued statements telling the President to sweep up the mess by taking executive action (ironic, given the recent House decision to sue him for using his authority to implement health care reform).

There are media reports, such as here by the Wall Street Journal, saying the President will take broad action by September to address the crisis without waiting any longer for Congress to act.

While some in Congress hope the President will take executive action to fix the border, we and others have been urging the President to use his authority to make further reforms to U.S.-Cuba policy.

But, as the 44 signers of the letter supporting executive action on travel, negotiating with Cuba, and other issues, reminded President Obama in May, “Timing matters and this window of opportunity may not remain open indefinitely.”

What could close the window?  U.S. politics, as bad as it is, is likely to get worse.  There are just ninety-five days until the midterm elections take place; 156 days until the new Congress is seated.

What happens if today’s gridlocked Congress gives way to a 114th Session of Congress dominated by one party, as even non-partisan pundits predict today, and it takes on President Obama aggressively as he ends his term and the parties nominate candidates to replace him?  Does the window close and, if so, what happens to the hope for executive action then?

What happens if Charlie Crist, candidate for Governor in Florida, who has come out as anti-embargo and considered traveling to Cuba, is defeated in November by incumbent Governor Rick Scott in what is then interpreted as a referendum on Cuba policy reform?  What happens then?

What happens as policy changes that take long lead times – for example, solving the problem of a hemispheric boycott of the Summit of the Americas by inviting Cuba to participate – are eclipsed due to the passage of time?  What happens then?

What happens if Alan Gross’s physical health and mental state are as precarious as his legal team indicates?  If his condition deteriorates further, what happens then?

What happens if there is an abrupt change in the political structure in Cuba given the advanced ages of its senior leadership?  How could the window stay open then?

The President’s authority to take significant actions that reform Cuba policy, that free Alan Gross, whose imprisonment remains the chief obstacle to warming relations, and that speed the U.S. toward normalization, is greater than most people realize.  Once the Supreme Court acts, perhaps later this year, on a case with implications for the foreign policy powers of the presidency, the extent of his authority to make really big changes in U.S. – Cuba relations could grow larger still.

However, it is not the President’s power but his willingness to use it, given the political space he has and the time constraints that face him, which is pivotal now.  What also matters deeply – and we’re told, may matter more than many of us know – is whether the government in Havana understands just how close we are to the window of opportunity slamming shut.

President Obama’s actions in his first term to expand travel for Cuban families and people-to-people exchanges – described as modest here and disregarded as domestic politics by some in Cuba – continue to provide big benefits.  But, he can and should do a lot more.

To get there, it is President Obama and not Congress who must drive policy.  But, he should start revving the engine now before it is too late.

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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!

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The Post, The Times, and the Cuba Consular Service Cut Off

February 21, 2014

This week, it seemed like the train left the tracks at the Washington Post.

In its editorial, “Cuba’s changes are no more than window dressing,” the editorial board’s routine scolding of Cuba’s government became unusually frenzied when it compared the digital alteration of pictures, removing a hearing aid normally seen in Fidel Castro’s ear, to “the modern day version of Stalinist airbrushing.”

A similar tone of desperation marched into coverage by TV Martí, which recently spent more than 3 minutes of its news broadcast questioning Rep. Kathy Castor’s motives for bringing Cuba’s top diplomat in the U.S., José Ramón Cabañas, to her Tampa, Florida district on a trip that was approved by the U.S. State Department.

We share the wonder of CAFÉ, Cuban Americans for Engagement, when one arm of the United States government, Radio/TV Martí, spends taxpayer money attacking a member of Congress for helping to carry out the policies of the executive branch.

While newspapers in our country don’t speak with one voice – and the Los Angeles Times showed again this week how it whips the Post in its understanding of what’s really happening in Cuba and globally – we do expect clarity and competence from the U.S. government in implementing its policy, and we think it should be called out when it doesn’t meet that standard.

For more than six months, the administration has known that M&T Bank was pulling out of the business of providing financial services to embassies’ consular operations.  While there’s never been a particularly clear explanation for its decision, we do know that M&T – like others in its industry – faced regulatory risks in the post 9/11 environment, and that M&T had a takeover delayed by the Federal Reserve because of its concerns with the bank’s anti-money-laundering compliance program.

Even as the State Department and Cuba’s government have labored to find a financial institution willing to submit to the risks which drove M&T from the business – and thus enable American travelers to Cuba to have their visas processed by the Cuban Interests Section – this is not getting to the larger problem.

We have an incoherent U.S. policy that promotes travel by Americans of Cuban descent and other hand-picked categories of U.S. travelers, but makes it illegal for most other Americans to visit the island; one U.S. policy that identifies travel as a unique means for reaching out to the Cuban people, while others – including Cuba’s false, politically-driven inclusion on the State Sponsors of Terror list –  put real restraints on the financial transactions needed for families to visit families in Cuba and for people-to-people exchanges to take place.

Of course, Cuba should be removed from the State Sponsors List. No, we don’t believe that Cuba’s government is engaging in “blatant emotional blackmail,” as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen alleged. Using the travel cut-off to pressure the U.S. into unwinding its position on the terror list simply doesn’t make sense because, frankly, tourism is good for Cuba’s economy and the businesses of its private entrepreneurs.

A temporary work-around that gets banking services restored to Cuba’s consular services will be a good first-step, but more is needed.  As we reported last week, a majority of Americans and an even larger majority of Floridians believe that fundamental changes in U.S. – Cuba policy ought to be made.

Among them, as the Associated Press previously reported, is a Cuban-American powerbroker named Jorge Pérez.  His wealth just enabled him to open a museum in Miami and, unlike the Washington Post, Mr. Pérez probably knows a relic when he sees one.

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The Cuba Central Newsblast and a note to our readers

August 30, 2013

As ever, we are sending along a blast that is chock-a-block with news about Cuba, including a hint that more bilateral negotiations could be in store on the long-unresolved issue of restarting direct mail service in both directions.

It is good that both governments maintain their interest in talking especially now as clouds of war appear to be gathering half a world away.  War has oft been characterized as a failure of diplomacy or imagination.  The cold state of war between the U.S. and Cuba has always struck us as a combination of both.

We remember the anxiety and apprehension a decade ago as we visited Cuba on the eve of the war against Iraq.  We suspect those feelings are shared globally today as well.

For those readers who have the bandwidth to think about Cuba today, we are pleased to deliver the blast.  For those whose attention is turned elsewhere, we will surely understand.

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A Summer Reflection on the Right to Travel (in both directions)

August 16, 2013

When you last read the Cuba Central News Blast, our team headed out on vacation even as we awaited word about the intrepid Ben Friberg, trying to become the first paddle boarder to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba’s Port Hemingway to Key West, Florida.

With our vacation behind us, and summer’s end just before us, we were reminded how much we love travel and how the cause of restoring the rights of all Americans to travel freely to Cuba motivated us to create this news summary in the first place.

Ten years ago, travel rights hung in tatters. After President Clinton encouraged family travel, permitted all U.S. residents to send remittances, allowed more direct flights to Cuba, and opened broad categories of people-to-people travel, President George W. Bush totally reversed course.

His administration wanted to design a new, Made in America future for the Cuban people. He ended people-to-people travel.  He tightened limits on family travel and humanitarian assistance by executive action.  He convened a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which wanted to cut off travel in the belief they could bring the Cuban system to its knees by curtailing the flow of most tourist revenue to its government.

The Bush administration’s coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs calculated that travel restrictions cost the Cuban economy $375 million annually, and said in a speech in Miami: “To my way of thinking, these measures are already having their effect, and we are seeing it now in Cuba.  Will it move us toward that which we want, a democratic transition?  We don’t know…”

Well, we know: the policy didn’t produce changes in Cuba, but it kept blinders on the Americans who wanted to visit the island, so they couldn’t compare what U.S. government policy said about Cuba to the Cuban reality itself.  As Aldous Huxley famously said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  U.S. policy allowed for no such discoveries, which is why the pro-sanctions crowd really finds travel restrictions so useful.

But, they never could shut off the tourists from every other nation who could visit Cuba without asking their government’s permission to go.  Any void created by the absence of U.S. visitors continues to be filled by tourists from the region and the rest of the world, more than a million and a half of whom visited Cuba in just the first six months of 2013.

To his credit, President Obama has taken steps to restore unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, reopen people-to-people travel, allow more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market, and renew opportunities for sending remittances to qualified Cubans for all U.S. residents.

We still haven’t reached the goal – freedom to travel for Americans – and the restrictions on U.S. travelers to Cuba remain tight.  The Associated Press bureau in Havana said it well earlier this summer:

“While millions of tourists visit Cuba each year from Canada, Europe and elsewhere, Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo still outlaws most American travel to the island. However, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are now visiting legally each year on cultural exchange trips. These so-called people-to-people tours are rigidly scheduled to comply with embargo rules...”

That said, when American travelers in increasing numbers can see Cuba’s architecture and cultural origins, reach out to its Jewish and gay communities, and experience its environmental diversity, on trips licensed by the U.S. Treasury; and when U.S. policy goes further, and loosens restrictions on the ability of Cubans to visit our country, thanks to epic staff work at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as reported by Fox News, these are all steps in the right direction.

A year ago, the State Department told Congress that the president’s new travel policies were achieving its goals:  As Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “The administration’s travel, remittance and people-to-people policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information, taking advantage of emerging opportunities for self-employment and private property, and strengthening independent civil society.”

The administration should do more.  Members of Congress are urging President Obama to expand people-to-people travel by making it permissible under a general license, and now is certainly the right time for him to act. The summer travel season may be ending here, but the need to secure two-way travel rights for all Cubans and all U.S. residents goes on.

One other thing:  Ben Friberg will go down in history as the first paddle boarder to cross from Cuba’ to the U.S., Caribbean 360 reports. He made the 28-hour, 111-mile journey: “to promote peace and understanding between Cuba and the US and to promote a healthy lifestyle.”  In doing so, he also became a symbol for the right to travel.

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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.

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