The Roar of the Lion, and the Sound of a Whisper

September 12, 2014

Dear Friends:

When President Obama described our role in assembling the coalition the United States will lead into war, he called it “America at its best.”

But, when a State Department spokesperson took a question about U.S. cooperation with Cuba on an issue of “security and safety,” she reacted like a character in Harry Potter reluctant to say Voldemort, because “We do not speak his name.”

The backstory, reported below in greater detail, involves a private plane flying from upstate New York to Naples, Florida that lost contact with air traffic controllers. As it headed off its flight plan, two F-15 fighter jets were sent to investigate “an unresponsive aircraft [then] flying over the Atlantic Ocean.” Three persons were unresponsive and presumed dead before the plane crashed into the seas off Jamaica, after flying through Cuba’s airspace.

It should have come as no surprise that U.S. authorities were in contact with their Bahamian and Cuban counterparts. “Obviously,” Marie Harf said at the State Department podium, “this is an issue of security and safety, and so we were in touch as well.”

Nor was it a secret. The FAA had already gone on record with a policy statement, “FAA International Strategies 2010-2014, Western Hemisphere Region,” outlining its objectives relating to Cuba:

  • Work closely with the Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of State (DOS) and other U.S. Government agencies to support the Administration’s Cuba initiatives and policies as well as FAA mission critical operations.
  • Negotiate for the sharing of radar data with key partners adjacent to U.S. delegated airspace: Bahamas, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Haiti, Mexico, Saint Maarten.
  • Continue to work with the DOS to facilitate safety-critical operational meetings between the FAA and Cuban air traffic officials on a regular basis.

Yet, the terse answers to questions about the plane incident, and if it could be a model for future cooperation, sounded like the State Department was protecting state secrets. Read the full transcript of the briefing here and judge for yourselves.

For example, when Ms. Harf was asked about the flight incident, she offered a sparse 68-word recitation of the facts, before quickly referring reporters to NORAD and the FAA. After saying, “We have been in touch” with Cuba and the Bahamas, she replied, “I don’t have more details on those conversations,” and never mentioned the FAA’s strategy, publicly released in 2010.

As the reporter pressed further on whether the kind of cooperation that took place on the flight could expand to other “issues of national interest, like … security in the region,” she responded with boilerplate about talks on postal service and migration, but concluded, “I don’t have more for you on that issue than that.”

Apparently, there’s a fine line between putting together a Middle East coalition, an occasion to trumpet national pride, and an example of healthy cooperation with Cuba, which got little more than a meek mention at State.

It’s hard not to notice the contrast. CBS News labeled nations in the coalition as “frenemies” of the United States. As the State Department reported this year, citizens living in at least one of those nations, “lack the right and legal means to change their government; [face] pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”

While the Administration has engaged with Cuba effectively, on a limited basis and in discrete areas like migration, environment, drug interdiction, and law enforcement, the White House and State Department prefer to keep these activities hidden below-the-radar, as if Parental Discretion was advised in their dealings with the American people.

The U.S. can and should do more. As we said in “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” it would be in the U.S. national interest to work with Cuba openly and closely on counterterrorism, military affairs, greater exchanges among scientists and artists and the like, while also developing what the countries have lacked for so long: a language for their diplomacy based on engagement instead of preconditions.

Doing this would reflect the values of Cubans and Americans alike. Such public diplomacy would also strengthen those in Cuba who take risks by supporting reform at home and engagement with the U.S. abroad.

Yes, this will be opposed by Members of the U.S. Congress who conflate engagement with appeasement. But, whispering about working with Cuba has never gotten them to stand down, and it never will.

So we say, stop whispering; engage more, unabashedly. If the Administration used its remaining time to make a more forceful commitment to diplomacy with Cuba, that would give all of us something to shout about.

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Tilting at Windmills

May 16, 2014

At a time when Russia is strengthening its security alliance with Cuba and the European Union is moving to replace its Common Position of isolation with intensified diplomatic engagement, why is the United States still tilting at the windmills of the Cold War?

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When our Cuba program began visiting the island over a decade ago, it was hard to find a Cuban who had a kind word to say about Russia. They felt betrayed.  Once the Soviet Union fell, and its subsidies were withdrawn, the Cuban economy and living standards collapsed.  “We lost our sense of the future,” a professor memorably told us.

Of course, during the Cold War, most Americans hated the Soviets (and Cuba) too.  As Dr. Lou Pérez reminds us in “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Cuba’s alliance with the U.S.S.R., and especially the Missiles of October in 1962, focused U.S. policy on “arresting and reversing” Soviet encroachment in the hemisphere and on “punishing Cuba for aiding and abetting Soviet expansion.”

For decades, we acted out this U.S. obsession, leaving deep scars across the hemisphere and punishing Cuba with sanctions that remain in place so long after the Cold War ended.

This history came to mind when Russia’s Security Council and Cuba’s Commission for National Security and Defense met in Moscow to sign a cooperation deal on security; a development that attracted virtually no press coverage; except, poetically, by the Voice of America. Cuba, for its part, is pursuing its self-interest and looking forward.

Europe has also put the Cold War in its rear-view mirror.  For years, former Eastern bloc nations kept the European Union from changing its policy of diplomatic isolation toward Cuba, what it called the “Common Position,” adopted the same year as the Helms-Burton law, though crafted with a lighter touch.

This year, however, the EU decided to replace isolation with engagement.  Its diplomats are directly talking to Cuban counterparts about trade and investment, development cooperation, governance and human rights.  A joint meeting concluded in Havana two weeks ago with a roadmap for moving forward, formal negotiations planned every two months, and an agreement to have “informal contacts,” as the Latin Post reported, in between.

It’s not possible from this vantage point to see where the EU-Cuba negotiations will lead.  But, they represent an important transformation by both sides; Cuba, as Carlos Alzugaray observed, entered the talks without preconditions.  He quotes Vice President Díaz Canel as saying the government would favor anything that can be constructed on the basis of respect.

What this means, ironically, is that Cuba and the EU have taken John Kerry’s advice, offered in his remarks before the OAS, when the Secretary of State envisioned Latin America as a region with  “Countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues, and adhering not to doctrine, but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.”

This is what the United States ought to be doing, too.  To his credit, President Obama restarted talks on migration and restoring mail service; he is also allowing scientists and environmentalists, even some with U.S. government jobs, to collaborate on the environment.

But, he has gone this far and not further.  Just this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, said publicly that Cuba must meet political preconditions before the U.S. will consider advancing the relationship.

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens are paying for costly schemes – like a self-help video with its “incredible disappearing $450,000 contract” discovered by Tracey Eaton, and ZunZuneo, USAID’s Twitter Trojan Horse, uncovered by the AP – that reflect the Cold War mentality of sneaking into Cuba through the backdoor, when our government ought to be engaging with Cuba openly and respectfully and with the region on the interests we share.

That means working with Panama to avert a region-wide boycott at next year’s Summit of the Americas by ensuring that Cuba, as Francisco Álvarez de Soto, Panama’s Foreign Minister, said, is “brought into the OAS and all their forums.” It means directly engaging with Cuba, as U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and her delegation advocated, without preconditions, so we can finally obtain the release of Alan Gross.

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People who seek a new relationship with Cuba are at worst called “appeasers.” At best, they are considered naïve.  That’s what his opponent called then-Senator Obama, when he talked about negotiating with Cuba in 2008.  We liked his position then, when he responded: “There’s nothing more naïve than continuing a policy that has failed for decades.”

But five years later, when Secretary Kerry told the OAS, “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is dead,” he couldn’t get many in the audience to applaud.  Perhaps they found him naïve.

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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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