Thanksgiving Edition: Shout-outs and holiday helpings of news

November 26, 2014

As we prepare for the holiday and gird for stormy weather in the U.S., we offer you light reading and simple gratitude in today’s Thanksgiving Edition.

In the final days of 2014, we have reached a moment to savor: the table has been set for President Obama to make decisive changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.

A remarkable group of women and men – here and in Cuba – began the good fight long before we hit send on the first edition of the Cuba Central News Blast.

This year, truly exceptional table setters drove progress in ways that built on their decades-long efforts. In the spirit of this holiday, we remember events and the people who took actions that made us thankful in 2014:

  • Big shifts in support for normalizing relations – nationally, and especially in Florida and its Cuban American precincts – documented precisely and honestly in surveys by Florida International University, the Atlantic Council, and the Miami Herald.
  • Bold leaders – retired U.S. officials, regional experts, and historic opponents of Cuba’s government – whose letter to President Obama demonstrates that real reforms are a mainstream expression of U.S. foreign policy interests.
  • Comics and pundits who made us laugh and think as they talked about ending the embargo.
  • Families who allowed reconciliation to replace revenge in their hearts; a once lonely process is now engaging thousands of families today.
  • Investigative journalists, whistleblowers, and others who did the bold and persistent work to bring the scandalous activities of USAID’s Cuba program to light.
  • The men and women who are working quietly and diligently so Gerardo Hernández,Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and Alan Gross can return home.
  • The New York Times Editorial Board for making the case, again and again, to the public and our national leadership that ending the embargo is in the national interests of the U.S.
  • Scholars and historians whose new books built a stronger foundation for change.
  • Smart, courageous allies who make the reform case in really creative ways.
  • Readers that support the Blast whose donations let us share what we learn and think with all of you.

In the days and months to come, we will keep working and continue urging President Obama to transform U.S.-Cuba relations. The times demand it and he has the power to do it.

We know you believe this, just as we do. We invite you to join us by raising your voices and supporting our work.

You won’t hear from us until the first Friday in December.  Between now and then, Alan Gross will mark the fifth anniversary of his arrest.  There are empty seats at his family’s Thanksgiving table and in the homes of the Cuban Three who have been locked away in the United States considerably longer.  A real reform must encompass a solution for them all.

The table is set and it’s time for the President to act.

Happy holidays!

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ICYMI: FATF Takes Cuba Off Its AML/CFT List! Wait, What?

October 31, 2014

Unless you cyber-troll the FATF website, you probably missed this item.

Last Friday, FATF congratulated Cuba for taking such strong actions to police its financial system that Cuba will no longer be monitored for its compliance with anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorist finance rules.

Be patient. Don’t flip to the “Recommended Reading” section just yet. This is about Cuba’s false and unfair listing by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terror.

FATF is actually a thing, not just a bad acronym: The Financial Action Task Force. It was created in 1989 at meeting of the G-7 nations to combat money-laundering and, after September 11, 2001, its mandate expanded to cover terrorist financing.

Countries that fail to embrace and enforce its rules suffer consequences. As the Wall Street Journal reports, it is “difficult for those nations to transact with the banking systems” of countries throughout the world, costing them billions.

If countries out of step with FATF are also subject to U.S. sanctions (e.g. the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states), their problems multiply. As a practical matter, they are locked out of the global financing sector, which could deny them “billions of dollars in potential investment,” according to one analysis.

Cuba knows this well.

Cuba was added to the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 1982, when the Reagan administration decided to play politics with counter-terrorism, a dangerous game taken up by every White House since. Listen to Dick Clarke, a career civil servant who advised three U.S. presidents on counter-terrorism policy, explain why Cuba stayed on the list in the 1990s; it wasn’t because Cuba supported terrorism, but rather it was for purely domestic political reasons.

Because no administration has been as candid as Mr. Clarke, they have kept Cuba on the list, but shifted their rationales for doing so as circumstances warranted.

At the start, the U.S. government accused Cuba of supporting insurgencies in Africa and Latin America. While Cuba’s activist foreign policy once involved supporting armed insurrection abroad, Cuba has long since ended these practices, as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) explains.

In 2004, the Bush administration called out Cuba for publicly opposing Washington’s “War on Terror,” not for supporting terror but for voicing criticism of U.S. policies. This was a flimsy charge, but it took the State Department a few years to drop it.

As recently as 2011, the State Department has used Cuba’s failure to meet FATF standards to justify its presence on the terror list: “Despite sustained and consistent overtures, Cuba has refused to substantively engage directly with the FATF. It has not committed to FATF standards and it is not a member of a FATF-style regional body.” Then, things changed.

Just a year later, State reported that “Cuba became a member of the Financial Action Task Force of South America against Money Laundering, a FATF-style regional body. With this action, Cuba has committed to adopting and implementing the FATF Recommendations.”

By the time the Department issued its 2013 report, all references to Cuba’s compliance with FATF’s standards had vanished completely.

So, remind us again, why is Cuba still on the terror list?

Even the State Department seemed confused when it released this year’s terror report which said, “there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

In another sentence, State reported “Cuba has long provided safe haven to members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).” But, in the very next line, State said, “Reports continued to indicate that Cuba’s ties to ETA have become more distant.”

We also know that Spain’s government told former President Carter that “ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government,” and that Colombia, a close U.S. ally, is relying on Cuba as a host and facilitator for its peace talks with the FARC to help end their civil war.

This leaves only one allegation: “The Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States.”

Here, the report refers to Joanne Chesimard, convicted in the U.S. for her role in the murder of a New Jersey state policeman, and to other so-called “militant groups” active in the U.S. decades ago. But, Cuba’s decision to allow them to live on the island is not an act tantamount to supporting terrorism.

Terrorism is a terrible thing. In 2013, the data show there were over 9,700 terror attacks worldwide that caused more than 17,800 deaths and 32,500 injuries. But not one casualty, not one act of violence was connected to Cuba.

So, if Cuba has zero connections to terrorism, why is it that when a reporter asked Marie Harf, the Spokesperson for State, “How much longer are you going to keep Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism?” she replied by saying, “Well, it’s a good question that I know comes up a lot. The State Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list”?

Of course, she could have offered a more candid answer. There’s just one thing holding up Cuba’s removal from the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and it isn’t radical fugitives from the 1970s or 80s who found safe haven in Cuba.

It’s politics – and that’s a FATF, er, a fact.

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Rubio’s Secret: His China Policy Would Work Great in Cuba

September 5, 2014

Senator Marco Rubio is on to something. He’s already put together a smart replacement for his ineffective Cuba policy. He just doesn’t know it yet. It’s his China policy.

Late last week, we circulated the stunning news unearthed by the Tampa Bay Times captured by this appropriately stunning headline: “Chinese government pays for trip by aides to Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen”.

This was a story with a “why don’t I rub my eyes, am I dreaming?” quality to it. Yet, the Florida legislators, two fierce opponents of travel by Americans to Cuba, confirmed it was true. Sally Canfield, Deputy Chief of Staff to Rubio, and Arthur Estopinan, Chief of Staff to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), had both accepted free travel junkets to China with costs picked up by the Communist Chinese state.

But, they reacted to the story very differently.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pled ignorance of what she called “China’s involvement” in paying the costs for Mr. Estopinan’s trip, estimated at $10,000; this to a country she has accused of abusing human rights by harvesting human organs from prisoners.

Known for straightforward, even strident language, she issued a classic non-denial-denial: “As my legislative record shows, I disagree with the decision by my Chief of Staff to visit China and will take internal steps to ensure no trips like this happen again.”

Are we clear?

Rubio’s tack was entirely different.

In written comments, a spokesman for the statesman made a logical, three-point case for engaging with China, saying, in essence, ‘They’re bad, they’re big, so we have to talk.’

Point 1: “Senator Rubio has consistently condemned the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government, its record of systematic human rights violations and its illegitimate territorial claims.”

Point 2: “While he abhors many of the Chinese government’s actions, as a member of the Senate’s foreign relations and intelligence committees, he cannot ignore their growing geopolitical importance.”

Point 3: So, he “recognizes that staff travel approved by the U.S. government and Senate ethics is sometimes necessary in helping advance our advocacy on a host of foreign policy issues.”

This took guts. Yes, it was hypocritical for someone who had said that Americans who visit Cuba behaved as if they were visiting a zoo, getting “to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering.”

Yes, the timing was awkward. As the trip scandal made news, China was embroiled in controversies over rigging an election framework in Hong Kong, interfering with a U.K. inquiry into its relations with Hong Kong, ending a newspaper column by a Chinese hedge fund manager in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and using its anti-trust laws to curtail competition posed by U.S. businesses.

But, Rubio was being consistent. In the heat of the 2012 election, he broke with Mitt Romney, saying Romney’s plan to label China a currency manipulator was the equivalent of opening a trade war. In his recent comments about his staffer’s trip, he matches a plainspoken critique of China’s human rights practices and security threats with his practical and pragmatic support for dealing with China’s government.

Even after writing that in China, “Political persecution, including detention without trial and violations of fundamental human rights, are the norm,” Senator Rubio called upon “President Obama to speak frankly with President Xi about the areas where Washington and Beijing disagree.”

In other words, Senator Rubio does have a plan for dealing with China. It rejects sanctions, but supports travel, bilateral engagement, diplomacy, and straightforward talk.

Rubio’s approach on China would be an ideal replacement for his Cuba policy, if he had the guts to make the switch.

There is a lesson here for President Obama. On September 2nd, Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, took a question at her news briefing about Panama’s intention to invite Cuba to next year’s meeting of the Summit of the Americas, a forum from which the U.S. has worked to exclude Cuba since it began meeting in 1994.

Rather than supporting an opportunity for engagement with Cuba focusing on areas, as Rubio might say, where Washington and Havana disagree, Psaki declared that Cuba’s presence at the forum would “undermine commitments previously made” including “strict respect for the democratic system.”

Two days later, her colleague, Marie Harf, called the building in which the State Department’s new “Diplomacy Center” will be housed, “a very cool thing indeed.”

Amidst peals of laughter among the assembled journalists, she explained, “Cool. It’s a technical term.”

Fact is that President Obama has a workable alternative to his Cuba policy. It’s called engagement. Engagement’s cool, too. But, using it, well, that would take guts.

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The Engagement Party

June 20, 2014

These days, the President can’t shake hands with an adversary – much less negotiate freedom for an American prisoner – without being stung by fifties-era fighting words like appeasement.

This week, however, there was more evidence that the President has greater political space to negotiate with Cuba than he might have otherwise thought.

Florida International University, which has tracked opinion in the politically conservative enclave of South Florida since 1991, has just released its 2014 poll testing how Cuban Americans view U.S. policies toward Cuba.

According to FIU’s 2014 surveymajorities of Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargoending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – at the highest levels it has ever recorded.

FIU found support for diplomatic recognition among all respondents at 68%; among younger respondents at 90%; among all registered voters at 55%; and among non-registered voters at 83%.  Since the major thrust of U.S. policy has always been to isolate Cuba and stifle contact between our two governments, finding outsized support levels among Cuban Americans for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is a really big deal.

We believe, and believe strongly, in the U.S. using diplomacy to end our self-imposed isolation and recognize Cuba.  But even short of normalization, we advocate engagement to help us jointly solve the problems we and Cuba have in common.

During most of the 41 trips to Cuba we’ve hosted, Cuban officials, academics, and others have identified issues – such as law enforcement, terrorism, drug trafficking, and much else – where both countries would benefit by increasing or starting bilateral cooperation.

Our 21st Century Cuba publications zero in on subjects – such as protecting Florida from oil spills, and working with Cuban women as they seek greater economic benefits and autonomy in Cuba’s new era of reform – where the U.S. could collaborate, help Cubans and serve our national interest, if only U.S. policy and sanctions didn’t hold us back.

Last night, as we celebrated our 8th anniversary, CDA honored three allies whose work exemplifies engagement: Wynn Segall, the eminent sanctions lawyer, who has secured the research and people-to-people travel licenses that enable us to visit Cuba; Mario Bronfman of the Ford Foundation, who supported our 21st Century Cuba research program; and Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator, who has joined her leadership on climate change to the cause of engagement with Cuba.

Their actions, to dismantle barriers to collaboration and move relations with Cuba in a more positive direction, are the model for making progress on U.S. policy.  With the FIU survey showing clear and increasing support in South Florida for dealing directly with Cuba, there is no political excuse left to hold the Administration back.

However, due to developments in the case of Alan Gross, there is even greater urgency for them to embrace engagement now.  Mr. Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 for regime change activities our government knew to be in violation of Cuban law.  He is in a hospital prison in Havana serving a 15-year sentence.

Since his arrest, our government has primarily called on Cuba to release him unilaterally, and dismissed Cuba’s offers to negotiate a solution that would bring him home.  This strategy has produced nothing.

Dismayed by our government’s disengagement, Alan Gross said in an appeal for help to the White House last fall: “With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government — the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare — has abandoned me.”

Having failed to stir action, Mr. Gross went on a hunger strike in April and later threatened to take his life if he found himself in prison by his next birthday.  On Wednesday, we received word that his mother died from cancer, and learned last night that his brother-in-law also passed away this week.

In a statement issued following Gross’s mother’s death, Cuba reiterated its willingness to negotiate, and clearly linked the humanitarian concerns of Alan’s case to the three members of the Cuban Five still in prison here.

Resolving the Gross case is a prerequisite for moving forward on normalizing relations with Cuba, a virtue by itself.  But, fruitful negotiations with Cuba could also restore faith here in presidential leadership and a core purpose of diplomacy: negotiating with our adversaries to get things done.

Consider the case of Colombia.  This week, Juan Manuel Santos won reelection as Colombia’s president after beating Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a runoff campaign.

Santos put his hold on power at risk and placed his faith in diplomatic negotiations with the FARC to end the civil war that has bloodied his country since 1964. Zuluaga, by contrast, as the Wall Street Journal reports, accused Santos of selling out Colombia at the bargaining table.

Rejecting allegations of appeasement, Santos said, “What is important, as Nelson Mandela said, is what is negotiated at the table.”  Apparently, a majority of Colombians agreed.

What a good reminder to President Obama who, just six months ago, shook hands with Raúl Castro at Mandela’s memorial.

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Notes from the Alternate Universe Known as Reality

November 1, 2013

Sometimes the news about Cuba, U.S. policy, and the region can be as bright as the sum of its parts.  This is what we mean as we put the news of this week together.

President Obama’s travel reforms are working.  When President Obama reopened people-to-people travel opportunities for Americans of non-Cuban descent, he included permission for more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market.  For the first time since 1962, as Sean Kinney reported this week, “regularly scheduled air travel between Key West and Havana is returning.”  The airline Air MarBrisa, which already is running flights out of Tampa, along with Miami-based Mambi Travel, will provide the service.

This is not entirely a surprise: statistics confirm that visits by U.S. travelers to Cuba are increasing, so demand is strong; polling by the Cuban Research Institute shows that there is broad support among Cuban-Americans in Florida for travel by all Americans to the island; and, the new flights from Key West bringing more travelers will generate economic activity in Florida and Cuba.

Perhaps there is one surprise: Key West’s Representative in the U.S. Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who denounced people-to-people travel seven months ago for funding “the machinery of oppression that brutally represses the Cuban people,” said nothing about the opening of Key West flight service to Cuba, but did issue a statement about legislation in Congress reflecting her view that “supporting American jobs should be our top priority.”  The allure of travel may be more powerful than we think.

Cuba is changing – no, really. We reported last week that Cuba’s government is embarking on a process for ending its system of two currencies, initiated to protect the country’s economy from the fluctuations of world markets, but which produced distortions and bedeviled Cuban consumers.  Hardline supporters of U.S. sanctions often dismiss Cuba’s reforms as fake or insubstantial, but experts recognize that ending the two currency system is evidence of real change.

For those who remain skeptical, however, there were two additional developments this week that really ought to give them (all of us) cause to think anew.  As the Associated Press reported this week, thanks to the economic reforms, Cuban entrepreneurs are opening businesses where their countrymen can play video games, don pairs of 3-D glasses, and watch terror films such as “Saw 3D.” That might not float your boat, but as one Cuban told the AP, ”We have some more options these days, at least.”

These backroom video salons are competing with state-owned theaters, and offer another illustration that the reform process is not stalled.  In fact, Cuba also ended its monopoly on public toilets.  As the Miami Herald reported, the government issued a 7-page resolution that builds on a private sector public toilet pilot project started in Havana in 2011 to allow “the rental of state-owned bathrooms to private persons who hold government licenses as “public bathroom attendants” – one of 182 categories of self-employment permitted by the government.”  Truthfully, we don’t know why this was thought of as state monopoly in the first place, but allowing competition with state-owned facilities – as with 3-D movies, barber shops, and the like – demonstrates a further relinquishing of government control.

The U.S. knows how to say thank you — to Cuba! There was good news this week for the family of Kevin Scott Sutay, a former U.S. Marine, who was seized last summer in Colombia by the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.  As USA Today reported, Sutay was released to U.S. government representatives at Bogotá’s airport, examined by a doctor from the International Red Cross, and pronounced fit to travel so that he could be reunited with his family.

But the story does not end there.  Almost immediately, Secretary of State John Kerry released a statement thanking not only the Government of Colombia for its tireless efforts in working for Mr. Sutay’s release, but also recognizing “the contributions of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Governments of Norway and Cuba in securing” his freedom.  Unlike previous administrations and previous instances, where Cuba could have been recognized for a positive act but was instead marginalized by silence or hostility, this was a welcome departure from past practices.  As Cuba continues working as a peace-broker between the Government of Colombia and the FARC, ideally at some point we’ll see more of what should otherwise be common courtesy.

One last example of how reality isn’t really so bad:  this week, The Economist published a poll by Latinobarómetro with findings about the mood of Latin American publics toward democratic governance in the region.  The findings included that Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela have some of the highest public support levels in all of Latin America for the idea and ideals of democracy.  Publics are satisfied with the functioning of democracy in their countries; majorities believe their country is being run for everyone’s benefit; and, region-wide, sixty-nine percent view the U.S. favorably.

We share these results to remind our readers that the Cold Warriors who perennially view the region as if the sky were falling on democracies in Latin America, thanks to the pernicious influence of left-wing governments, simply do not have the facts on their sides. The U.S. can also take some comfort from the fact that even though the resolution condemning the embargo against Cuba won the unanimous support of Latin American governments and carried the UN General Assembly by a landslide margin (188-2), we do have a base of support in the region to build on.  Dismantling the embargo would put an even brighter shine on that reality as well.

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Adventures in Exceptionalism

October 25, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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What Obama can do to stop driving the world and Brazil nuts

September 27, 2013

This week at the United Nations General Assembly, Brazil’s president, Dilma Rouseff, earned global attention with a strongly-worded condemnation of the NSA surveillance program that violated the privacy of her own email, telephone calls, and text messages, and that of communications throughout Brazil.

“We face,” she told the General Assembly and an audience of world leaders, “a situation of grave violation of human rights and of civil liberties; of invasion and capture of confidential information concerning corporate activities, and especially of disrespect to national sovereignty.

We expressed to the Government of the United States our disapproval, and demanded explanations, apologies and guarantees that such procedures will never be repeated. The problem, however, goes beyond a bilateral relationship. It affects the international community itself and demands a response from it. Information and telecommunication technologies cannot be the new battlefield between States.”

Not since Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, likened then-president George W. Bush to the devil, and accused him of acting “as if he owned the world,” has a UN General Assembly address by a Latin American leader generated this much news.

What makes this development different – and, for U.S. foreign policy more disconcerting – is that President Rouseff cannot be dismissed as easily as President Chávez often was for representing what Cold Warriors called “the pink tide.”  She is the leader of the largest economy in South America, the sixth largest in the world. Her county is among those most likely to be next made a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.  Brazil is a huge export market for the U.S. – just ask Boeing – and they are the global destination for FIFA’s next World Cup and the IOC’s next summer Olympic Games.

Moreover, she is not alone, and what is dividing the United States from its natural partners in the region and other nations around the world is not just U.S. snooping but their growing willingness to diverge from the U.S. on issues where we have historically expected them simply to fall into line.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera urged greater reforms in the Security Council than the U.S. supports.  Others displayed divisions over reforming drug policy.  El Salvador’s President, Mauricio Funes, among our closest allies in Latin America, broke with the U.S. over Cuba policy, and called what he termed the blockade “a relic of the past.”

Sometimes, what is said at the UN can really matter.  So, it is heartening that when President Obama spoke to the General Assembly, he ruled out American support for regime change in Iran, as he pursued a diplomatic end to its nuclear weapons programs, and that he later declared, “We are no longer in a Cold War. There’s no Great Game to be won.”  Those of us who think about U.S.-Cuba policy could hardly help nodding our heads.

But, we can only gauge what words are worth by measuring the actions taken in their wake.  If the president can reach an accommodation with Iran’s government that acknowledges its legitimacy; if he can say to the world, in the context of Russian diplomacy on Syria, that the Cold War is over, how much longer must we wait for him to apply these conclusions to his management of U.S.-Cuba relations?

We know he knows better.  YouTube has the evidence on tape (take that, NSA!).  We know the world is impatient for the U.S. to come around; we face global condemnation in the next few weeks at the U.N. for maintaining the embargo against Cuba, and a regional boycott at the next Summit of the Americas if the U.S. tries again to exclude Cuba.

Now is the time for the president to act. It is time to take the good and important things he does below the radar – the negotiations, the travel reforms, the tamped down rhetoric – and make a public commitment to end the Cold War in the last theater where it is still being waged.  It will modernize a policy that has been flawed and failed for decades. It will help the Cuban people.  It is in our national interest for him to do this.

Even more, if in the course of normalizing relations, the president shows the world that we need not listen to their phone calls to actually hear what they are saying, the importance of this action will resonate loudly beyond the boundaries of Cuba.  That can – and should – be his legacy.

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Consider this: Castro Government and U.S. Embargo Likely to Outlast Obama Presidency

February 15, 2013

The clock is ticking.  By February 24, as Leonardo Padura observed in a column this week, there will be 1,823 days remaining in Raúl Castro’s tenure as Cuba’s president, thanks to term limits he pushed through at the 2011 communist party conference.

All things being equal, just five years from now, Cuba will be led by someone whose name is neither Raúl nor Fidel Castro for the first time in 59 years.

By then, whoever is elected U.S. president in 2016 could inherit the same ossified and wildly ineffective structure of sanctions passed down – like the Cold War equivalent of a family bible – from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush and left on President Obama’s desk when he entered the Oval Office.

Even Senator Ted Cruz, a deeply conservative Cuban-American just elected from Texas, acknowledged in a question submitted for Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, that the existing policy has failed in its goal of dislodging the Castros.

What will Mr. Cruz say in 2018 about the embargo, which was designed to force from power two brothers who will have instead relinquished their posts voluntarily?  Give it more time to work?

President Obama said nothing about Cuba in his State of the Union Address last Tuesday and, as Bloggings by Boz pointed out, he used just seven words, “Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico,” to refer to just one nation in the Americas, seemingly by accident.

On Cuba, however, the president doesn’t need to say something in order to do something. His administration often excuses its inaction by saying the policy is in the court of Congress, “our hands are tied” by Helms-Burton Act restrictions on normalizing relations with Cuba.

In fact, that’s not really the problem.  Policy makers should never harness the future of any foreign policy – not in Cuba or Venezuela or anyplace else –to the identity or mortality of any particular leader.  That’s called letting the tail wag the dog.

The national interest ought to be our guide.  That’s why Mr. Obama should use his executive authority to start making changes now, so when the presidency changes hands in Washington in 2016 and in Havana in 2018, there’s a plan already being implemented to normalize the relationship.

If he’s uncertain about where to begin, he needn’t look further than our roadmap for engagement with Cuba or to the editorial page of the Boston Globe, which this week offered simple and clear suggestions to “drag US policy into the 21st century” –

  • Remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List
  • Promote cultural exchanges
  • End the Travel Ban so all Americans can visit Cuba
  • Eventually allow trade in oil, gas, and other commodities

The Globe’s editorial ended with the suggestion that President Obama assign his Secretary of State John Kerry to make Cuba the focus of his first few months in office.  That sounds right to us.  After all, the clock is ticking and the president, like his counterpart in Havana, has a limited amount of time in office to get it done.

This week, in Cuba news…

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On Next Week’s Vote (the U.N.) and Last Week’s Vote (the U.S.)

November 9, 2012

On November 13th, the U.N. General Assembly will vote on a resolution titled the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.”

The General Assembly has voted against U.S. policy for twenty straight years.  In 2011, the resolution passed by 186 in favor versus 2 against (Israel and the U.S.), with 3 abstentions (Micronesia, Marshall Islands and Palau).

We can guarantee you two things about next week’s vote:  The resolution will pass in a landslide, and it will attract little notice in the U.S., which is a disgrace.

U.S. sanctions against Cuba are among the most restrictive our government imposes against any nation. With few exceptions (limited legal travel, some agriculture sales, and highly regulated medical trade) U.S. citizens and corporations are prevented by the embargo from buying or selling into the Cuban market.

The embargo is unilateral.  No one willingly joins the U.S. in enforcing it.  But our sanctions exert pressure on countries that trade with Cuba, foreign companies that do business in Cuba, the international financial system, and humanitarian agencies to try and stop the flow of money, commerce, aid, technology, spare parts, and the like to Cuba.  In doing so, we are trying to run the foreign policies of every state in the world community and they resent it. That’s the point of the U.N. vote; they get to say so.

Next Tuesday, here’s just a brief list of who will line up to vote their scorn of U.S. policy: Australia, Brazil, China, the entire European Union, all the governments in Latin America and the Caribbean, India, Japan, Russia, and South Africa, even the Vatican.

Here, we must point out:  when Pope Benedict the XVI visited Cuba this year, he didn’t have to apply to the U.S. Treasury Department for a license to travel before he went.  Perhaps the Holy See regards U.S. sanctions as a moral issue.

It’s that, and more.  U.S. policy is cruel to Cubans.  It imposes arbitrary limits on our freedom to travel.  It hurts U.S. industries that could do business on the island.  It thwarts direct U.S. engagement with Cuba’s government on security and environmental issues.  And, it’s failed to achieve what the Cold Warriors who designed it intended; namely, to replace Cuba’s political and economic system with parts designed in Washington and installed in Havana.

Finally, the embargo hurts us in Latin America and the world.  So, after twenty years of getting a black eye at the U.N., isn’t it time to blink?  Or think?

Carlos Iglesias, a U.S. Navy Commander and a candidate for a Master’s Degree at the Army War College, believes that the time has arrived.  His thesis, submitted last month, said this about the “longstanding blowback” against the policy globally and concludes it isn’t worth the cost:

“…decades-long sanctions against the island have netted few if any national objectives, all the while depleting substantial national soft power. The cost-benefit analysis to U.S. national foreign policy will remain exceedingly unfavorable, if not outright counter-productive.”

We’re hopeful President Obama understands this intellectually.  Now, he can take command politically.  He’s been reelected to a second term.  He won Florida, and scored an unprecedented victory winning a majority of the Cuban-American vote.  There is no longer any justification for him to remain tethered to this failed policy.

He’s still stuck with much the same Congress, a lagging indicator, so often steps behind public opinion.  But after his victory, the president is free – not to be a laggard but a leader.  He can use his executive authority to start dismantling sanctions first imposed on Cuba before he was born and, by doing so, get our national interest and the international community into alignment.

That’s the right thing to do.

Who knows?  Maybe Rep. Paul Ryan will return to his original pro-travel, pro-trade position that he adopted at the start of his career in Congress, since the campaign is behind him, too.

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Hate in the Time of Cholera

July 13, 2012

Cuba, we’re told, is experiencing a nasty outbreak of cholera.  Under normal circumstances, the reaction here in the U.S. would be obvious and clear: empathy for those who are affected and offers of help to alleviate their suffering.  But since we are talking about Cuba, life is more complicated than that.

Some reports say Cuba is not being forthcoming with information about the scope of the outbreak.  A columnist published in the Havana Times wrote, “It seems they avoided telling us about cholera to spare us the worry.”

The Miami Herald is reporting, however, that confirmed cases now stand at 110 and counting; that general cases presenting symptoms of cholera are rising; and these reports are being carried on provincial television in Cuba as detailed by Ana Maria Batista, identified as a Granma epidemiologist. Details are coming out,as this report filed today by CNN demonstrates. So where is Washington in all of this?

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is providing some information and urging travelers to follow public health guideless and monitor sources of information.

But for others, as Albor Ruiz writes this week in the New York Daily News, the cholera outbreak has become “a propaganda exercise for those who, even after 53 years of a failed economic embargo, prefer a policy of hostility and isolation over one of dialogue and engagement.”

In this case, he is referring to the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), whose position accords her some notice in U.S. foreign policy and who also has tens of thousands of Cubans in her Congressional district with family members at risk on the island.

And yet, her office has issued  no calls for compassion, not when there’s a political point to be scored.  Instead, she was quick to issue a statement condemning the Cuban government – not just for its secrecy, which she asserts without explanation has cost lives, but for “the regime’s utter failure in areas such as sanitation and infrastructure.”  Attack, attack, attack.

Opponents of the Castro government have long enjoyed using the suffering of Cubans for sport, but cruelty at that level isn’t a tactic that everyone is used to.  Albor Ruiz quotes Romy Aranguiz, a doctor born in Havana, who says of the outbreak “there are a lot of people focused on it for anti-Castro propaganda instead of thinking of what they could do to help their brothers and sisters on the island….If they really care about Cuba they should be thinking about sending antibiotics to the island and stop talking so much nonsense,” she said.

But that is not how the hardliners view their role.  “These are the people,” as Yoani Sanchez wrote recently, “who see the Cuban situation as a pressure cooker that needs just a little more heat to explode…Sadly, however, the guinea pigs required to test the efficacy of such an experiment would be Cubans on the island.”

Such are the costs of hate in the time of cholera.  Can’t we do better?

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