Happy International Women’s Day…for all

March 8, 2013

March 8th is International Women’s Day.

It started more than a century ago to call attention to the struggles of women who worked as garment workers.

Now, it’s a global celebration; it still shines a spotlight on the harsh conditions that women confront, but also reminds us that making progress on women’s rights as human rights, equal access to economic opportunity and political power, will bring us closer to a more just world.

To join the celebration, our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), released this report, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

It examines progress made by Cuban women toward gender equality since the 1950s and discusses how that progress can be sustained in the future.

We published the report after two years of fact-finding, collaboration with Cuban and U.S. scholars, and four research trips to the island, during which we interviewed dozens of Cuban women who spoke candidly to us about their lives, their gripes, and their aspirations.

In it, you will hear the voice of Emilia, an auditor who speaks three languages. She says, “I was born in the Revolution.  It has given me opportunities.” Mimi, an academic, who was told by a manager not to get married or have kids, discusses sexism in the workplace.  Barbara, a small business woman, who tells us about the decision making, the ability to save money, and the feelings of independence that come from being her own boss.

The story in Cuba is really interesting and really complex.  In the mid-1950s, the Cuban revolution made gender equality an important part of its political project.  After coming to power, Cuba’s government acted on its commitments and began addressing widespread attitudes that held women and a lot of other Cubans back.

If you just look at the numbers, the progress is extraordinary.  According to Save the Children, Cuba scores first among developing countries in maternal mortality, live births attended by health care personnel, female life expectancy at birth, and other factors.  It has tripled the number of Cuban women who work.  It has fulfilled the Millennium Development Goals for primary education, gender equality and reducing infant mortality.

These accomplishments are met with skepticism, even disbelief, by some in the U.S.; because Cuba has a tiny economy, it is not capitalist or rich and, by U.S. standards, it is not free.

But, it is also the case that these numbers don’t tell the full story.

Measured against key objectives of gender equality – do women have access to higher-paying jobs; can they achieve a fair division of labor at work and home; are they acceding to positions of real power in the communist party or government– Cuban women told us their country has a long way to go.

What about the future?  To address its economic problems, Cuba is taking steps to update its economic model – for example, cutting state jobs, and reallocating spending on health and education programs – that propelled women forward.  As Cuban scholars tell us, these actions could have real repercussions for women and gender equality.

So, the report concludes with recommendations about the role Cuban women can play in building their country’s future.

Because we believe that having a stable and prosperous Cuba ninety miles from our shores is in the national interest of the United States, our recommendations include steps the U.S. can take to signal its support for women and Cuba’s economic reforms writ large.

We are not alone in holding this view.  As Jane Harman, who served in the U.S. House and who is director, president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the New York Times:  “Whether or not one favors major change in U.S. policy toward Cuba (which I personally do), shining light on the need to make Cuban women full partners in Cuba’s future is in everyone’s interest.”

You’d think the administration would agree.  After all, President Obama released a statement for International Women’s Day saying “Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.”

But smart wouldn’t describe U.S. policy toward Cuba.  As Dr. Cynthia McClintock at George Washington University says, “It’s a contradiction. Here’s a country which has been doing well at this (gender equality) but we don’t want to deal with it.”

After failing for so long, it’s time for the U.S. to engage with Cuba differently.  If policymakers accepted Cubans’ humanity and ran U.S. foreign policy accordingly, we could support women, start repairing our relations with Cuba, and remove an irritant that has long divided us from the region.   That is why we hope Congress and the Executive Branch really pay attention to what we report and recommend.

Happy International Women’s Day.

Read the rest of this entry »


Not Like Oil and Water – Cuba and the US Can Cooperate on Drilling

September 7, 2012

During the research and writing phase for our report on Cuba’s plans to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, Daniel Whittle, Cuba Program Director for the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), provided invaluable information and guidance to us.

He has guest written the following opening essay on his organization’s analysis of foreign policy obstacles to cooperation with Cuba to protect the environment and some promising progress that is now being made because our country and Cuba are sitting at the table together:

The Environmental Defense Fund recently released a report called Bridging the Gulf in which we concluded that “current U.S. foreign policy on Cuba creates a conspicuous blind spot” that is detrimental to the interests of both countries.  A failure to cooperate on oil spill planning, prevention, and response in the Gulf of Mexico could result in devastating environmental and economic impacts on a scale greater than the 2010 BP oil disaster.

Recently, I witnessed a potential bright spot in US-Cuba relations that could lead to real and meaningful cooperation in protecting Cuban and American shores from future oil spills.

As the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA was preparing to drill off of Cuba’s northwest coast in August, U.S. and Cuban negotiators met in Mexico City to discuss how to work together to prevent and respond to future oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea.  The meeting was the fourth in a series of landmark talks hosted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), and included officials from Mexico, Jamaica, Bahamas, and other countries in the region.  I was among the handful of industry and environmental representatives invited to attend.

I was struck by the candid back-and-forth discussions on the risks involved in deep water oil drilling and by the constructive exchanges between delegates from Cuba and the United States.  I came away convinced that negotiators from both countries are operating in good faith and are committed to making progress on this issue.

That being said, more needs to be done.

Attendees agreed that the BP oil disaster was a wake-up call and that failure to heed the lessons learned from it would be an inexcusable and costly mistake. Chief among those lessons is that oil spills do not observe political boundaries and, as such, joint planning among all countries in the region is critical. The event also taught us that sufficient public and private resources must be available to contain and clean-up oil pollution as soon as possible.  In fact, the scale of response needed for the BP spill was unprecedented—6,500 vessels, 125 planes, 48,000 responders, and equipment resourced globally.

Several presenters in Mexico City emphasized that full and timely access to private sector equipment and response personnel, wherever they are located, is fundamental to responding effectively to future oil spills.

This lesson is particularly relevant to the current U.S.-Cuba talks.

If a major oil spill were to occur in Cuban waters anytime soon, the U.S. Coast Guard—as incident commander—would be able to marshal the resources needed to address oil pollution after it enters our waters.  The agency has neither the authority nor the mandate, however, to support response and clean-up activities in Cuban waters.  Furthermore, the Cuban government would be hamstrung in its ability to solicit direct help from private sector oil spill response companies in the United States.  Currently, only a few American companies are licensed by the U.S. government to work in Cuba (actual names and numbers of license holders are not a matter of public record.).

The Obama Administration could solve this problem by directing the Treasury Department to adopt a new category of general licenses to allow U.S. individuals from qualified oil services and equipment companies to travel to Cuba and provide technical expertise in the event of an oil disaster.  The Administration should also direct the Commerce Department to pre-approve licenses for the temporary export of U.S. equipment, vessels, and technology to Cuba for use during a significant oil spill.

The U.S. and Cuba have laid an unprecedented foundation for cooperation on offshore oil safety and environmental protection.  They should continue their talks in earnest and produce a written agreement on joint planning, preparedness and response as soon as possible.

What Dan describes here, unfortunately, is extraordinary.  In fact, it should be typical.  Engagement between the U.S. and Cuba on a host of issues is the right way forward, and a means to the larger end of bringing confidence to this relationship that will lead to a discussion of the differences that divide us and, ultimately, normalization.  We thank Dan for his leadership and his contribution.

Read the rest of this entry »


Fidel’s 86th Birthday; U.S. and Cuba in the Present

August 10, 2012

On Monday, Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, turns 86.  For decades, every milestone he celebrated and every difficulty he encountered was an intense source of interest in the United States.  When illness forced his retirement from office, U.S. officials gave him only a couple of months to live and some in Miami planned a party to celebrate his demise.  Six years later, even as the aging former president has largely faded from view, U.S. policy remains stubbornly Castro-centric.

The conversation in Cuba has changed enormously since Fidel Castro stepped down as president and was replaced by his brother Raúl.  Read the news items that follow:  they are debating how fast and how effectively Cuba is reforming its economy, what are the bottlenecks to expanding non-state jobs, how can Cuba support its aging population as it searches for an economic model that works.  These are ideas worth discussing, and some represent developments worth supporting.

Despite welcome but modest reforms, in areas like travel for Cuban Americans and people-to-people exchanges, President Obama has kept the essential architecture of U.S. policy in place.  The goal remains using diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions to force the Castros from power and to cause Cuba’s economy to fail.  We cannot even directly discuss the human rights or political problems that divide us, because it’s our policy not to sit down and talk to Cuba.

For Fidel Castro, having both countries bound together in antagonism suited his outlook just fine. Six years into his retirement, we find it odd that U.S. policy continues to dance on a string he no longer even holds. On his 86th birthday, that is quite a testament to his longevity.   What it says about U.S. policy is something else indeed.

Read the rest of this entry »


Arson in Florida and the Shameful Sounds of Silence

June 29, 2012

In April, arson destroyed the offices of Airline Brokers in Coral Gables.  It was a disgraceful act of domestic terror.  But it hasn’t incited the outrage you might expect.

Terrorism, you ask?  Well, yes.

Terrorism has been defined under U.S. law as the “unlawful use of force and violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”  Arson and the bombing of property used in interstate commerce are among those offenses.

This attack was not a random street crime.  “I am afraid it was intentional,” Vivian Mannerud, the owner said at the time, “because of the indignation over the pope’s visit.”

Airline Brokers was famously involved in arranging travel for 340 Cuban American pilgrims, led by Miami’s Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who went to Cuba in March to witness in Pope Benedict XVI’s visit with the island’s faithful.

It didn’t take long for law enforcement to confirm the worst.  The Coral Gables Fire Department said the fire was deliberately set.

According to the Miami Herald, “A K-9 dog trained to detect accelerants led investigators to three separate spots where the fire at the Airline Brokers Co. began, including an area where a shattered green bottle was found.  Investigators also found a disposable lighter in a doorway outside the southeast corner of the company’s ground-floor office at 815 Ponce De Leon Blvd.” At the beginning of June, investigators released FBI photos of a ‘vehicle of interest.’  Nearly a month has gone by and no suspects have been arrested or named.

This incident might have receded from public memory but for Archbishop Wenski.  Yesterday, he visited Airline Brokers’ temporary office to bless the facility.  He said “that although we do not hate those who perpetrated this deliberate act of arson and we forgive those who ‘trespass against us’,” that those responsible for the act had to be brought to justice.  “Coming here today,” he concluded, “is a gesture of pastoral solicitude, and of solidarity with victims of a crime.”

In contrast, hardliners in the U.S. Congress have done and said nothing to denounce the arson.

Think about that.  Senator Marco Rubio and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and David Rivera – who condemn Cuba and its false designation on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List; who use incendiary rhetoric to accuse those who travel to the island of ‘filling the Castro’s coffers’ –have been conspicuously silent about this act of domestic terror visited upon a constituent’s business in their own State.

What about Bill Nelson, Florida’s other Senator?  If you visit his official website (and scroll down), you will find a list of his accomplishments dating back from his service as Florida Treasurer, Insurance Commissioner, and Fire Marshal (no, not kidding).  He earned, he says, top rankings in insurance fraud arrests and convictions, and mounted aggressive investigations of church arson fires.

We gave Senator Nelson’s office the chance to respond to an email asking for comment about the arson at Airline Brokers and heard nothing back.  No surprise.  Arson may be in his sweet spot, but speaking truth to power?  Not so much.  It’s an election year.

In a statement released today, Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFÉ) urged elected officials “to denounce this act of terrorism, no matter the ideology or political position of the victim or the perpetrator…and call publicly for total cooperation with the authorities in the identification and capture of the author or authors of this callous and cowardly attack.”

Someone is protecting the identity of whoever tossed that piece of pavement stone through the window at Airline Brokers and lit the fires that burned the business.  But they’re not telling; and apart from the stand-up citizens who are speaking out, no one representing the people of Florida really seems to care.

Read the rest of this entry »