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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Democracy: Is there an app for that?

July 3, 2014

We are on the cusp of our July 4th holiday here in the U.S., when we remember the revolutionary origins of our country and celebrate our independence with baseball, beer, and displays of fireworks accompanied by a spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Because we’re eager to finish the work week, we’re circulating our Cuba Central News Blast a little early so you can read the news now and all of us can join the party.

We start with Chip Beck, a U.S. citizen with ties to the CIA and the Navy.  According to this blog post on Wikistrat, between 1998 and 2001, while he was working as a freelance journalist, Beck traveled to Havana and received significant cooperation from the Cuban government as he investigated the disappearance of Americans in Asia, Africa, and Central America during the Cold War.  It’s a great story.

In Beck’s account of his five trips to the island, he describes familiar sounding offers by Havana to sit down and negotiate with Washington without preconditions, so long as the U.S. recognized Cuba as a sovereign nation.  He concludes by quoting a conversation he had on the Malecón with a Cuban he identifies only as a single mom with a college degree.

She said, “If you tell a Cuban what to do, he will do the opposite just to spite you. If you [Americans] stop telling us what to do, things will work out exactly like you want.”

Needless to say, this was very good advice which, a dozen years later, we’re still waiting for the U.S. government to heed.

Instead, President Obama, the 11th president in charge of foreign relations with Cuba’s revolutionary government, pursues the stale and failed policy he inherited from his predecessors.  On one track, he has made some important moves to promote two-way travel, family reconciliation, and modest forms of bilateral cooperation.  But, on the second track, he aggressively enforces the embargo with its international overreach to shut down Cuba’s access to finance and global trade.

As of last week, for example, his Administration had already imposed penalties totaling $4.9 billion against 22 banks for violating U.S. sanctions against doing business with Cuba.  That record was shattered by a penalty meted out against BNP Paribas, which pled guilty to two charges, agreed to pay a nearly $9 billion fine, and accepted bans for one and two years respectively on certain dollar clearing and processing activities – all for violations of sanctions against countries including Cuba.  This led the Bank of Ireland, which has “long-standing customers with legitimate business interests in Cuba,” to tell them it would no longer clear their transactions to or from Cuba, as the Independent reported.

At a time when tens of thousands of Cubans (like our friend Barbara Fernández) are working hard to take advantage of economic reforms – in cooperatives and private businesses – in order to live more prosperous and independent lives, tightening the screws on a policy that disregards their nation’s sovereignty and increases their daily struggles makes no sense.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive President, who just wrapped up a visit to Cuba during which he voiced support for an open Internet, underscored the contradictory goals of U.S. policy in a blog post about his trip.

“The ‘blockade’,” he writes, “makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”

We were in Cuba at the same time as Google and heard Cubans express similar ideas.  They want an Internet opening to complement their economic opening.  They want workers, especially working women, to be able to get online and connect to their jobs from home.  They want a more lively public debate. Just as Cubans are now free to travel overseas, they want to be able to access more information without having to leave.  Dumping restrictions – whether on technology, U.S. travel, or finance – imposed by the U.S. would put what Cubans want in greater alignment with the ostensible goals of U.S. policy and help them get it.

Writing about the architects of our nation and their ideals, former Senator Gary Hart described what the Founders saw in history’s great republics: civic duty, popular sovereignty, resistance to corruption, and a sense of the commonwealth; what we own in common that binds us together.  Every time we visit the island, we see Cubans who share these ideals as well.

July 4th is a great day to celebrate the virtues of our system, which are many, but it can also be an occasion for some humility. In Cuba’s case, that means to stop telling them what to do, and showing respect to Cubans and their ability to figure out their future and how they want to live for themselves.

If you need help figuring out why, when we celebrate Independence Day, we set off fireworks to music commemorating Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon, listen here.

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Washington, Cuba, and the Climate for Dysfunction

June 27, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Lots – we mean LOTS – of polling on Cuba!

June 13, 2014

This week, when the Miami Herald released its survey of 400 registered voters in Miami-Dade County, it contained startling results, including a finding that the Cuba issue is not having much effect on Florida’s race for governor.  (This is not something you would have guessed reading the Herald’s headline: Cuban voters weigh Crist down in Miami-Dade.)

A few days ago, Public Policy Polling released a poll showing a majority of Floridians supporting an end to the embargo.

Next week, the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University will release results from its 2014 survey of Cuban Americans in South Florida.

So, there’s a flood of new data. Since public opinion research had a rocky week in Washington – just ask Rep. Eric Cantor, or, even better, ask his pollster – we thought it would be a good time to look at recent surveys on Cuba policy and think about how public opinion affects public policy.

***

If foreign policy issues turned less on how politicians calculated their domestic political interests and more on how public servants weighed the national interest, U.S. policy toward Cuba would have changed long ago.

After all, Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Cold War before the invention of the Internet. U.S. intelligence agencies, in a report published in 1997, said “Cuba does not pose a significant military threat to the U.S. or to other countries in the region.”  Foreign policy elites – including diplomats known to fear communist influence in the region – recently united behind a letter to President Obama urging meaningful changes in the policy.

As with national experts, public opinion in the U.S. settled the Cuba debate decades ago.  Since 1974, as Gallup reported, “a majority of Americans have consistently said they support establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba, with the exception of one poll conducted in 1996.”

Yet, the policy, conceived in the Cold War, is largely unchanged. This produces truly loopy outcomes – consider a recent House-passed defense bill that prohibits U.S. cooperation with Cuba on efforts to control drug trafficking despite Cuba’s exemplary record in this area – along with the more troubling and continuing U.S. efforts to overthrow Cuba’s government.

Cuba continues to be, as the Atlantic Council says, “the third rail of Latin American foreign policy in the United States,” thanks, as the data consistently shows, to inaccurate positioning of Florida’s importance in electoral politics.

***

Until the 2008 presidential campaign, when Senator Obama promised to reopen family travel to Cuba, and expressed his willingness to negotiate with Cuba’s government, no serious candidate – Democrat or Republican – promised anything less to Florida voters than complete loyalty to the Cuba sanctions agenda.  Until former Secretary Clinton released her memoir last week, no serious contender offered to undo the embargo before declaring for the White House.

The received wisdom for standing behind a failed policy was simple.  Candidates were told they could not win office, nationally or locally in Florida, without carrying the Cuban American community, because it was resolutely opposed to normalizing relations with Cuba’s government.

That is why we suggest paying close attention to the data released this year, this week, and next Tuesday.

In February, the Atlantic Council released a comprehensive survey that found substantial support nationally for normalizing relations with Cuba (56% to 35%) but even greater support in Florida for re-engaging.  Floridians supported normalizing relations by a 63% to 30% margin, and approved of eliminating all restrictions on travel by 67% to 29%.

Public Policy Polling, which conducted a Florida survey this month, recorded 53% of Floridians, including 64% of independents and 57% of Democrats, supporting an end to the embargo with only 22% of respondents in support of maintaining the embargo.

But the bigger news came in a Miami Herald poll, which tested voter preferences in Miami-Dade County for Florida’s upcoming Governor’s race.  As we previously reported, former Governor Charlie Crist astounded observers when he called for ending the embargo and announced plans to visit Cuba in the midst of his campaign against the incumbent Governor Rick Scott.

Crist’s announcements have had no effect on the state’s most feared voters.  Despite losing the county’s Hispanic vote, the Herald reports that Crist leads Governor Scott by a 47%-35% margin; sustained by 84% support among African-American voters, 58% support among “White Anglo” voters, and a 49% to 49% split among voters of Cuban descent born in the U.S.  More telling, 67% of all respondents said that Crist’s Cuba position had no impact on their vote.

Given the link between public opinion in Florida and public policy on Cuba in Washington, these results are really important.

***

In recent years, hardliners have demonstrated they will not give up the perception of their lock on Florida’s votes without a fight.  In 2008, they predicted Obama would lose Florida when he promised to restore family travel.  He won 35% of the Cuban vote, won Florida, won the election, kept his promise, and family visits surged from 50,000 in 2004 to nearly half-a-million in 2013.

When the President restored people-to-people travel in 2011, Capitol Hill Cubans called it a sure way to lose votes. After he won Florida by a larger margin in 2012 than he did 4 years before, and split the Cuban vote with Governor Romney, Mauricio Claver-Carone said, “I have a problem with exit polls,” and his organization later issued a report aimed at disproving Cuban American support for the President.  When the Atlantic Council poll demonstrated vast support in Florida for changing the policy, he and others denounced it as a push-poll.

This is why we’re eager to see the 2014 results from the Florida International University poll, the longest-running survey of public opinion in the Cuban American communities of South Florida. When FIU began its project in 1991, 87% of Cuban Americans favored keeping the embargo in place without changes.  When FIU released its last survey in 2011, that figure had fallen to 56%.  We won’t be surprised if the 2014 results – in line with these other findings – show even less support among Cuban Americans for the embargo.

***

Two points in conclusion.  At t a time when more than 400,000 Cuban Americans are returning to the U.S. after visiting their families on the island each year, it’s hard to imagine that they are unaffected by what they see.  As these visits affirm that travel to Cuba helps their families, Cuban American support for further reforms in the policy, in our judgment, is likely to grow.  So, we predict more positive movement in the FIU poll (thanks, we should say, to President Obama’s family travel policy).

Alternatively, if you prefer to believe that nothing has changed, you can consult the Capitol Hill Cubans website.  There, you will find a presentation from 2009 showing that the existing embargo policies are strongly supported by the Florida Cuban-American community. Keep in mind, the analysis is based on a survey by McLaughlin and Associates, Eric Cantor’s pollster.

Still, you can’t predict polls.  With you, we’ll wait to see what the Florida International University survey says next Tuesday.

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Let the ends justify the means

March 7, 2014

“That is an absolute lie.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 14, 2014

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

She wrote us back:

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Most of all, they dismissed the findings as irrelevant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy Valentine’s Day.

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Jamming Bridges, Burning Bridges: What is it with politicians from New Jersey?

January 17, 2014

Aren’t there enough reasons to junk our Cold War-era policy toward Cuba?

You’d think so.  The policy doesn’t work.  It hurts the Cuban people.  It infringes on the liberties of Americans barred from visiting the island or doing business there.  It stops world-class Cuban pharmaceuticals from reaching patients here who need them.  It emboldens hardliners in Cuba to slow down their government’s economic reforms.  It boomerangs against the United States in Latin America.  It isolates the U.S. internationally.  It stops our government from negotiating for the release of the imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

The list goes on.  Each rationale for replacing the policy is powerful by itself.  But if you put them together, even after you add President Obama’s reasonable reforms on travel and remittances and negotiating with Cuba on matters like migration, the essence of the policy – harsh sanctions and diplomatic isolation – remains in place…undisturbed, seemingly impervious to knowledge and reason.

Is there nothing that will cause the executive branch to do needs to be done?  Is there no principle or no new fact, no new argument that will spur them to action?

Anything?  Anyone?

Two astute observers of national security, Yochi Dreazen and John Hudson, may have solved the puzzle.  Follow their logic.

In Pennsylvania Avenue’s Cold War, they depict a White House and U.S. State Department striving to salvage a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to keep Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” an agreement put at risk by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Bob Menendez, a member of the president’s political party, and the senior Senator from the State of New Jersey.

By introducing legislation (which has bipartisan support in the Senate) that will scuttle their diplomatic solution, Menendez, as the White House sees it, is dragging the U.S. perilously close to starting a war with Iran.

“The lobbying campaign against Menendez’s bill – which would impose expansive new sanctions on Iran if the current nuclear negotiations fail – highlights his surprising emergence as one of the White House’s leading congressional adversaries (on a number of Obama priorities, including Cuba).”

Dreazen and Hudson write that “Menendez’s hard-line positions on the Cuban issue could leave him vulnerable to White House retaliation,” and suggest “the administration could decide to punish Menendez for his support of the Iran sanctions bill” by making a series of overdue reforms in Cuba policy, such as opening the island to more travel by Americans or strengthening bilateral relations.

“If I’m president and I want to stick it to Menendez,” a Congressional aide says, “I would take it out on his Cuba policy.”

For burning bridges with the President on Iran, could the White House send some payback in Menendez’s direction by making progress on Cuba?

Yes it could.

Of course, they wouldn’t call it retaliation.  They wouldn’t have to; there are ample justifications to reform the policy on the merits.

They could point to last year’s travel reforms implemented by Raúl Castro’s government that have already enabled 185,000 Cubans to travel abroad in the last year alone.

They could highlight the decisions being taken now by the European Union that put normalizing relations with Cuba toward the center of its foreign policy agenda.

They could acknowledge the need for bilateral cooperation on matters like the environment by highlighting Cuba’s decision to resume drilling for oil in the Gulf of Mexico in 2015.

They could side with scores of his Senate colleagues who wrote President Obama that Alan Gross needs to be returned home, and he should “take whatever steps are in the national interest” to negotiate with Cuba for his release.

Foreign policy expert Steve Clemons has written about Bob Menendez and his efforts to thwart reasonable reforms on Cuba since 2007.  He argued recently that the senior Senator from New Jersey had become the Democrats’ Jesse Helms for his broader role as an obstacle to change from his perch on Senate Foreign Relations.  Clemons has wisely focused on how reforming Cuba policy would have strategic echoes benefiting the United States across Latin America and the world.

He and others make these arguments because, in the Obama era, substance matters.  The nuts and bolts of politics are known to be foreign to them; so much so, Politico reports, when Senators were invited to relax with the President at the White House and they read “cocktails” on the invitation, they thought they saw a misprint.

If even schmoozing seems like a remote concept is action on Cuba even conceivable as a message to Menendez on Iran?  We don’t know.  But, this could be even more exciting than Governor Christie stopping traffic on the George Washington Bridge.

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Gates, Walls and Doors

January 10, 2014

Not long after President Obama returned to The White House from his holiday vacation, he was greeted by headlines in the national press about attacks on his leadership by his former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

In leaks from his forthcoming memoir, “Duty,” Mr. Gates writes of Obama’s skepticism toward his own policy on Afghanistan.  “For him,” he writes, “it’s all about getting out.”

While Bob Woodward, like others in the ranks of Washington pundits, reported this as a “harsh judgment” against the President’s leadership on national security, Ron Fournier, writing in the National Journal, took a more sympathetic view.

Where Gates attacks the President for complaining about a policy he inherited and for doubting his own commanders, Fournier writes:  “We need more of that.”

According to Fournier, the President was reflecting the desires of the public to exit two unpopular wars, and demonstrating the kind of skepticism, curiosity, and reflection that is the president’s job.  In other words, President Obama was leading by following the better angels of his nature to where they might lead him.

Before his election in 2008, President Obama said, “It is time for us to end the embargo against Cuba.”  He justified his position by saying the policy had not helped Cubans enjoy rising living standards; instead, it squeezed innocents and didn’t improve human rights.  “It’s time for us to acknowledge” he said, “that particular policy had failed.”

While then-Senator Obama adhered to the traditional goals of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, he also acknowledged the simple reality that the embargo failed to achieve them.

We don’t expect President Obama to seek repeal of the embargo anytime soon, but we do believe that 2014 could be a year of greater openings toward Cuba, even if it means the President has to be the same kind of leader that made Robert Gates so angry.

After all, he has done it before.  In reopening Cuba to travel by Americans of Cuban descent, restoring categories of people-to-people travel, and negotiating with the Cuban government on issues such as migration and postal service, we saw the President set aside the views of his opponents, and even members of his own party, like Senator Bob Menendez, to put forward important and effective policy reforms that reflect his principles, his pragmatism, and the views of the American public writ large.

Going forward, there is much that President Obama can do using his executive authority.

Like many of our allies, The Center for Democracy in the Americas supports making all forms of people-to-people travel possible using a general license.

We strongly support direct negotiations with Cuba’s government to produce an action plan on the environment –so essential as Cuba looks to resume oil drilling in 2015– and ending the bar on Cuba’s participation in next year’s Summit of the Americas, which would give the United States a greater opening in Latin America more broadly. In addition, our research on gender equality in Cuba has led us to support policies to help Cuban women weather the transition in the island’s economy and provide real support for Cubans who choose to open small businesses.

In his epic song, Muros y Puertas, our friend Carlos Varela writes, “Since the world began, one thing has been certain, some people build walls, while others open doors.”

In 2014, we hope the President’s policy continues to reflect just this spirit of openness.  It is better to open doors  than build walls, or even Gates, for that matter.

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Cuba’s Economic Reforms in the Human Dimension and 3-D

November 8, 2013

Five Cubans will visit Washington next week to talk about how their country’s economy is being transformed, and how their lives are being improved, disrupted or simply affected by the changes underway.

Four run small businesses; a fifth is a state employee.  Only one has ever traveled to the U.S.  All can visit our nation’s capital because Havana ended travel restrictions on Cubans this year, and because Washington gave them visas.  These visitors are:

  • Nidialys, who runs a car rental company, “Nostalgicar,” with her husband Julio.  Together, they have formed a fleet of self-employed drivers with pristine Chevrolets from the 1950s, who provide transportation services to tourists visiting the island.
  • Niuris is the owner of the successful paladar, Atelier, in Havana. The restaurant is run by Niuris and her siblings from their home, a former senator’s mansion.
  • Yamina owns and operates a party decorations company, “Decorazón”.  A mother of two, Yamina creates decorations, like balloon displays, party favors, and table centerpieces, for celebrations ranging from elegant weddings to children’s birthday parties. She also fills the role of event planner, contracting services such as cakes and clowns, for an almost entirely Cuban clientele.
  • Emilia works in human resources at an eye clinic in Havana. Having completed her education in the Soviet Union, Emilia, who previously worked as an accountant and an auditor, speaks Spanish, English, and Russian, and expresses great satisfaction with the opportunities she has received from the Cuban system.

At a forum to be held at George Washington University, and in private meetings with policy makers, they will discuss what the biggest changes in Cuba’s economic model since the dissolution of the Soviet Union mean to them.

What is taking place in Cuba is not change at the margin.  Since late 2010, more than 442,000 Cubans have obtained licenses to work at small businesses and cooperatives in newly-authorized categories of self-employment.  Cubans are leaving the certainty that comes with a state job, state wages, and state benefits, learning the joys and problems that accompany running a business and making more of their own decisions. They are living with the uncertainties that come with rules that evolve and change, as authorities decide how much and how fast to update the model.

The rules do change.  In this space, we wrote last week about decisions in Cuba to end its two currency system and to end the government’s monopoly on public restrooms, and about entrepreneurs who operate video salons and screen 3-D movies.  Just hours after we hit send, Cuba’s government moved to close the theaters, which had not been officially approved.

Our friends at Progreso Weekly quickly posted an analysis written by José Jasán Nieves Cárdenas, a Cuban journalist.  His topline “Yes, it IS an obvious step backward,” was just the beginning of a thoughtful reaction:  the decision will be unpopular in Cuba (especially among young people whose decisions to stay in Cuba are critical to the island’s future), it contradicted earlier government statements, and is likely to be disobeyed.  He might have added that this reversal is a reminder that reform needs to be encouraged; because, among Cuban decision makers, not everyone is a fan of reform.

In contrast, some hardliners responded not in sadness, at the loss of a valuable service for Cubans, but with glee because a “pro-Castro group,” their reference to us, had cited the 3-D theaters as evidence of reform, and their ability to operate had been taken away by Cuba’s government.

Let’s spend some time with that.  Whenever Cuba announces a significant reform, hardliners don’t acknowledge it, they denounce it.  Why?  To maintain U.S. economic sanctions as they currently exist, they feel duty-bound to argue that Cuba isn’t changing. Although, when you think about it, failure is hardly testimony for keeping a policy like the embargo when it doesn’t work.

We saw this when Cuba’s government ended travel restrictions on its people. Hardliners called it a plot. They said Cuba was just getting ready to “dump a new wave of refugees onto U.S. shores.” They continue to argue even today, November 8, that the travel reforms aren’t real.

You see, they operate under what Richard Feinberg calls “the old narrative” – that Fidel and Raúl Castro have to pass from the scene before any real change could occur – otherwise, if the reforms are actually producing more choices, more jobs, and the opportunity to earn more money for the Cuban people, why do we need their embargo?

For the hardliners, the suffering imposed by sanctions is an end unto itself, to be preserved no matter what happens in Cuba.

That’s why the visit by Nidialys, Julio, Niuris, Yamina, and Emilia to Washington is so important. For those of us who cannot see reform in 3-D, they are reform in its human dimension, a reminder that the process that has brought them to this point in Cuba should not be disparaged but encouraged by the United States.

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »


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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