USAID’s Hip Hop Hiccup and the “Smart Power Prom”

December 12, 2014

A new USAID scandal was exposed yesterday by the exceptional investigative team at the Associated Press.

USAID, acting through its notorious contracting partner, Creative Associates International, tried to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community to intensify the political messaging of its artists and use their fans to foment a rapper’s revolution.

The elaborate plan recruited Cuban musicians for initiatives that included trips to Europe for concerts and video workshops that were actually covers for anti-regime training. The Cuban participants did not know that the U.S. government was behind it.

Cloaked in elaborate secrecy using lawyers, front companies, and banks, the project was also concealed from Members of Congress whose job it was to scrutinize it.  Senator Patrick Leahy, the USAID oversight chairman who first learned of it Thursday, called the effort “reckless” and “stupid,” although the program ended in failure two years before. It seems that only the agency, its contractors, and Cuban state security knew what was going on.

There is a detailed item below that explains the story in nearly all of its troubling dimensions, so we’ll try to avoid duplicating it here. Instead, we focus on what comes through so clearly in the coverage and in AP’s accompanying documents, and that is the air of arrogance that permeates this latest example of the regime change program.

The U.S. completely misses the fact that Cuba has its own rap community that has been leading a conversation on the island about tough issues like race and the system’s stewardship of the revolution since the Soviet Union fell. Our government can’t imagine Cubans deciding for themselves what kind of country they want to build without our training them to do so.

As Phil Peters puts it, “This mentality views Cuban civil society as ours to shape.” You can see this myopic thinking at work in reports by the consultants (their writing is cleaned up for readability) who came to Amsterdam and Madrid to train their unwitting Cuban clients to be rappers for revolution. They found Cubans who were thoughtful, cautious, and not yet ready to take decisions that could put themselves or others at risk:

“Adrian is perceiving that their work is creating a change but he is not sure what type of change…It is my perception that he will need some time to think about change he wants to cause in his community and his personal responsibility.”

“They are perceiving themselves as young artists and they would like to stay in that role (without taking the burden of big responsibilities for societal processes) although they would like to see changes in their community.”

“Trainees were very receptive, motivated and enthusiastic… But, my impression is that they are not quite sure what this they would like to do together is? Or even better why they want to do it”

“My impression is that there is a consensus within the group they want to some changes in their society but it seems they never fully discuss what kind of changes they would like to see.”

What is slowing them down? Just take a look:

“In terms of group dynamic they are quite flat and democratic — they are bringing decisions through discussion. I am sure that was great environment to work within while executing A’s map project (a previous project) but I am not sure it would be best way for the future.”

The group was being too democratic. That must have made their democracy trainer really mad.

You’d like to think that there would be accountability, that somebody would take responsibility for this effort.

Not USAID. In making the debatable claim, “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false,” they refused to address the damage it inflicted on the existing discourse, or the risks placed on the Cubans from whom USAID involvement was concealed. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick: “It’s not something we are embarrassed about in any way.”

Not the State Department, whose spokesperson said in a briefing yesterday, “these programs are managed with appropriate discretion. So it was the responsibility of the grantee.” By grantee, we suppose she meant Creative Associates International. By responsibility, we think she was saying not the State Department’s problem.

Not the contractor, Creative. We visited the Creative website, and couldn’t find a trace of apology or even a Cuba program. Not in their news or press release page. We couldn’t even find a Cuba-Creative connection when we clicked on a map of the island on the page titled Where We Work. In the overt-covert world where they operate, Cuba seems to vanish without a trace.

We didn’t expect to find an apology because, truthfully, Washington really loves this stuff.

The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition held its annual tribute dinner the other night, an event which wags in Washington call the “Smart Power Prom.” Who was dubbed this year’s “Smart Power Prom King”? USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

The dinner was also a coronation of sorts for Senator Lindsay Graham, who will take the gavel from Senator Pat Leahy and chair the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee when the new Congress convenes in January. The subcommittee oversees Dr. Shah and the programs he administers at USAID.

A trade reporter at the event quoted Graham as saying, “I challenge any other part of the American government to prove a better return on investment than USAID.”

He said that at dinner on Wednesday. If he stands by that statement today, well, that’s kind of sad.

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Freeing Alan Gross — Does it hinge on what the definition of “equivalence” is?

December 5, 2014

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ANNOUNCEMENT: CDA has started a petition asking Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to end the double-standard they adhere to by allowing top staffers to visit China while opposing U.S. citizens’ right to travel to Cuba. Watch the video below and sign the petition here.

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A sad and troubling milestone was passed on Wednesday, which marked the fifth anniversary of Alan Gross’s arrest in Cuba.

This week, the State Department said, “[his] continued incarceration represents a significant impediment to a more constructive bilateral relationship.” Florida politicians demanded, predictably, that the administration tighten sanctions further rather than negotiate with Cuba for his release. As White House sources assured ABC News that the president and the National Security Council were working on a solution, his family said Mr. Gross is “wasting away.”

When members of a CDA delegation saw Mr. Gross in prison in 2011, it would have been unimaginable that this drama would last this long. After several other visits, it’s still inconceivable that his life — and the future of our relations with Cuba policy — now hinges on the definition of equivalence, when his route to freedom is simple and clear. Yet, this is where things seem to stand.

In 2009, Mr. Gross, a USAID subcontractor, was arrested in Havana for committing “Acts Against the Independence or Territorial Integrity of the State.” As Peter Kornbluh explained in the Nation, “Gross was arrested on his fifth trip to Cuba while attempting to create untraceable satellite communications networks on the island; a Cuban court subsequently sentenced him to fifteen years in prison.”

For years, Cuba’s government professed its willingness to negotiate for his release. A deal seemed imminent in 2010, as Newsweek reported, until U.S. assurances that the Helms-Burton-funded activities which led to Gross’ arrest would be trimmed back were undermined by USAID itself.

Then Cuba linked a solution to the fates of five imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents. They were arrested in 1998 and later convicted in a politically-charged trial that is still being reviewed due to allegations of misconduct by the U.S. government. For crimes that included failing to register as foreign agents to engaging in a conspiracy to commit espionage, the Cubans, known at home as “the Five Heroes,” received sentences from 15-years to life in prison.

While two of the agents, René González and Fernando González, served out their terms and returned to Cuba, Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, and Ramón Labañino remain behind bars.

The logical formula for securing Mr. Gross’s release – a prisoner exchange covering the three Cuban agents – is hardly a state secret. As the New York Times said in its editorial, “A Prisoner Swap With Cuba,”

“The American government, sensibly, is averse to negotiating with terrorists or governments that hold United States citizens for ransom or political leverage. But in exceptional circumstances, it makes sense to do so. The Alan Gross case meets that criteria.”

Hardliners call negotiating with Cuba to free Mr. Gross “appeasement.” As Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) has said, “Cuba is a state-sponsor of terrorism. We should not be trying to barter with them. We must demand the unconditional release of Gross, not engage in a quid-pro-quo with tyrants.”

In explaining its opposition to a swap, the State Department says, “We’ve always made it clear that there’s no equivalence between an international development worker … and convicted Cuban intelligence agents.”

Well, to paraphrase President Bill Clinton, it depends on what the meaning of the word “equivalent” is.

Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh argue in the Miami Herald today that the Gross and Cuban spy cases, while different, have greater similarities than our government admits:

“Both Gross and the Cuban spies were acting as agents of their respective governments – sent by those governments into hostile territory to carry out covert operations in violation of the other country’s laws. In both cases, their governments bear responsibility for their predicament and have a moral obligation to extricate them from it.”

To end the stalemate, LeoGrande and Kornbluh call for a “parallel humanitarian exchange,” based on deals between Cuba and the U.S. during the Kennedy and Carter administrations that led to the release of 31 Americans, including several CIA agents. One can easily see how an arrangement would work today.

For its part, the White House did not use the phrase “unconditional release” in its statement on Wednesday, but instead observed, “The Cuban government’s release of Alan on humanitarian grounds would remove an impediment to more constructive relations between the United States and Cuba.” A reciprocal humanitarian gesture would involve President Obama commuting the sentences for the remaining Cubans prisoners to time served.

In the end, the humanitarian concerns that bind the Gross and Cuban agents’ cases together define their equivalence. It is their common humanity that should motivate Cuba and the U.S. to set aside ideological differences and assert their nation’s vital interests in a bilateral negotiation that reunites all four prisoners with their families.

There are no known alternative solutions; no other ways to avoid further diplomatic drift that can only end in human tragedy. Not the equivalent of a tragedy, but the real thing.

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Will Immigration Blowback Affect the Chances for Cuba Reforms?

November 21, 2014

We couldn’t watch the President’s immigration reform speech last night without wondering what we could learn from his action – and the overreaction to it. What will happen if Mr. Obama also uses his executive power to make decisive changes in Cuba policy?

Here’s our take.

Get ready for a flood of bogus questions about presidential power. Immigration opponents hit hard at whether President Obama even had the authority to implement the reform program he announced last night. But these arguments were met with slam dunk responses firmly grounded in Supreme Court findings, and the fact that every president since Eisenhower — including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush —  has used his presidential power to defer the deportations of immigrants a total of 39 times in the intervening 60 years.

The President retains broad authority to change policy toward Cuba. The World War I-era Trading with the Enemy Act, the law on which the Cuba embargo is based, is applied by a discretionary act of the President on an annual basis.  While Congress codified elements of our sanctions policy under Helms-Burton, legal analyses by authorities including Bob Muse (writing here in Americas Quarterly), Hogan Lovells, and others make clear the President and his appointees, such as the Treasury Secretary, can make big changes in the policy based on powers they already have.

For example, President George W. Bush exercised that power by curtailing mercilessly travel by Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island, putting a damper on legal U.S. farm exports to feed the Cuban people, and authorizing the program to lure Cuban doctors from their foreign postings.

President Obama has also taken executive action on Cuba before. In 2009, he restored the right of the diaspora community to travel to Cuba and provide financial support to their families, and in 2011 he reopened people-to-people travel. Presidents do have the power to act.

There will be phony suggestions about upstaging the Congress. After six years of gridlock that blocked legislation on immigration reform, critics blasted the administration for fouling the chances for a bipartisan law to emerge from Congress.  However, as John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, the President is being traditional, not radical, in authorizing changes in the enforcement of immigration laws. As Thomas Mann writes for Brookings, “The cost of such unrelenting opposition and gridlock is that policymaking initiative and power inevitably flow elsewhere – to the executive and the courts.”

Time and again, an aggressive faction within Congress has tried repeatedly to repeal, resist, and delay actions taken within the discretion of the President – such as revising the rules for travels and remittances – or by blocking his nominees for Cuba-related and non-Cuba related foreign policy jobs.  Until the overdue debate begins on repealing Helms-Burton, the President knows that any far-sighted action he takes to modernize Cuba policy he will be taking alone.

He knows and we know what he can and should do: expand travel and remittances from the U.S. to Cuba, stop punishing foreign companies for doing legal business with Cuba’s government, remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, expand bilateral engagement in areas like the environment, and take the steps required to free Alan Gross.

In his masterful article in Americas Quarterly, “U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization?,” Robert Muse, a sanctions law specialist, lays out the legal basis for ending most of the counter-productive punishments inflicted on Cuba’s people by our government.  Mr. Obama’s power to act is not in doubt.

Will he do it?  To date the president has made modest but useful changes in the policy. There are ample reasons – substantive and political – for him to do more.  But Cuba has never been a high priority for his administration, and, after the upheavals prompted by the deal that freed Sgt. Bergdahl and his immigration speech, we can imagine that gun-shy White House advisers will counsel Mr. Obama not to do anything big on Cuba now.

Nevertheless, the climate around Cuba reforms has changed for the better this year, and we are also heartened by what Senator Marco Rubio said after his exchange with Tony Blinken at his confirmation hearing: “I am very concerned that President Obama’s nominee to be John Kerry’s deputy at the Department of State passed up several opportunities today to categorically rule out the possibility of unilateral changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba.”

We hope the President goes bold and acts soon.  We don’t expect a nationwide address – or that the networks would cover it if he did (they aired “The Biggest Loser,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Bones” instead of his immigration speech).

But bold action by President Obama would enable U.S.-Cuba relations to move forward, he’d get great coverage in the history books, and it’s exactly the right thing for him to do.

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End It! What the NY Times and UN say about the US Embargo

October 17, 2014

In its lead editorial on Sunday, “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba,” the New York Times reignited the debate on Cuba by calling for the U.S. embargo to be lifted to serve the national interest and provide President Obama with a foreign policy legacy worthy of the name.

In the News Blast below, we report on what the editorial said and what happened after the editorial board said it.

But here, we discuss the October 28th vote in the UN General Assembly on condemning U.S. sanctions against Cuba, and how the embargo complicates our relations with Cuba, our region, and the broader world. We do so having just obtained the Secretary General’s report on the impact of the U.S. embargo on UN member states and institutions that was compiled this summer.

To paraphrase Lincoln, when the General Assembly takes up the Cuba resolution for the 23rd consecutive year, we know “the world will little note, nor long remember” what the UN does. This resolution has been approved every year since 1991. The outcome is hardly in doubt.

In 2013, the resolution carried in the General Assembly by a margin of 188 to 2 with three abstentions. This year, the sole suspense remaining is whether there is any country left – among the ranks of U.S. supporters (Israel) or our agnostics from the Pacific (the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau) – who will defect from our side.

This drama offers little suspense for the UN press corps (see their forthcoming articles with the “yawn” emoticon). Yet, it leaves open questions about President Obama’s foreign policy and, as the Times argued, his legacy, that only he can answer.

In September, as President Obama challenged the world community in his General Assembly Address to confront Russia over Ukraine’s sovereignty, confront Ebola to stop the spread of the disease, and confront terrorism without inciting a clash of civilizations, what did he see?

However much he heard their applause –there was applause aplenty – the President was staring at heads of government and state utterly opposed to his policy toward Cuba.

In fact, this coalition of the unwilling extends from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe; from the Pope to Putin; from China to India, the world’s most populous countries to its most prosperous economies in the EU, Japan and South Korea; and all the way to our regional allies Brazil, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, and Mexico.

Yes, at least 188 UN members oppose us; but, more than the numbers, it is the words that our allies and adversaries use about us that illustrate how much the embargo turns the world against us.

Listen to just some of the language submitted by member states to the Secretary General’s report on why they oppose the embargo; it tracks what President Obama said to the General Assembly last month to rally the world to his side so closely that it’s eerie.

In defending Ukraine against Russia, the President said: “We believe that right makes might –that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones, and that people should be able to choose their own future.”

In the UN report, El Salvador criticized our Cuba policy saying, “Respect for a people’s freedom to determine its own history can never be disputed.”

While the President said, “Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so,” Egypt said the embargo is “morally unjustifiable and legally indefensible, and runs counter to the norms of international law.”

Where Obama said, “on issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule book written for a different century,” Russia wrote, “the embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba is counterproductive and a remnant of the cold war.”

If he picked up a copy of the UN report, the President could read how the embargo impairs Cuba’s ability to treat children with heart disease and leukemia, stops Cuba from purchasing vaccines from the U.S. that protect its livestock against viruses and its people against food insecurity, and disrupts legal, two-way trade, even in the middle of financial transactions, as passwords disappear from back office banking operations and Cuba’s letters of credit are rejected by institutions which honor them from everyone else.

If he read the Secretary General’s report, the President would see Vietnam, which ended its state of war with America through dialogue and negotiation, calling on the U.S. and Cuba to settle our differences “through dialogue and negotiation,” with mutual respect “for each other’s independence and sovereignty.”

Then, he could sit in the Oval Office and think about whether he wants to leave the White House in 2017 with the embargo he inherited from John F. Kennedy virtually intact; having failed in its purpose to overthrow Cuba’s government, but having damaged everyday Cubans and isolated the U.S. from the island and the region.

He might also think about how his next challenge to the world will be received, after the world’s challenges to the Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to drop the embargo have been disregarded over the course of 23 years.

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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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A Single Standard of Justice

July 18, 2014

In the news summary that follows, you will find reports about a new investigation into the USAID Cuban Twitter scandal, the growing impact of the increasingly tight enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and other nations on banks and global commerce, and the resumption of peace talks in Havana between Colombia and the FARC.

But first, we wanted to acknowledge what is unfolding in and near “a large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace,” in the lyrical prose of Sabrina Tavernise, a reporter for the New York Times.  This is where wreckage from Malaysia Flight 17 and the remains of some of its 298 crewmember and passengers came to rest in Eastern Ukraine after it was shot down a little more than a day ago.

The victims included 80 children, three of whom were infants, a number of AIDS researchers and activists, the spokesman for the World Health Organization, and a graduate student from Indiana University, who was a chemist and a member of the IU rowing team.

The circumstances surrounding the shoot-down of this airliner are reminiscent of an earlier tragedy during the Cold War, when a Korean Airlines Flight was shot down in 1983 by Soviet fighter pilots. That resulted in the loss of 269 people, including a Member of the U.S. Congress.

Today, our memories were also stirred by a catastrophe that took place on October 6, 1976; not half a world away, but here in the Americas. Then, like now, the victims, 48 passengers and 25 crew members, were civilians; many were also young, including all 24 members of the Cuban Fencing Team, five Guyanese medical students, the wife of a diplomat and others.

Their Cubana de Aviacion Flight 455 had just taken off from Barbados when at least one bomb exploded and knocked the plane out of the sky.  This was, as Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives has often said, the first mid-air bombing of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere.  All aboard – 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and five North Koreans – were lost.

As we prepared this publication, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for a “full, thorough and independent investigation” of the Malaysian airliner tragedy. Leaders from around the world called for an investigation and for accountability.

In the 38 years since the bombing of Flight 455, there has been no accountability for the loss of life; the families of the victims are not even mentioned in the news coverage of Malaysian Flight 17, as broadcast and print journalists recall similar incidents in the past.

Yet, Luis Posada Carriles, one of the two masterminds behind the bombing of the Air Cubana flight, continues to live and walk free in Miami, despite outstanding extradition requests from Cuba and Venezuela, which have yet to receive the response they merit from the U.S. government.

In some quarters, it will doubtless be controversial for us to remember that justice has still not been served in the case of Flight 455.

But our interest is in reforming Cuba policy to help the United States get past the double-standards that were deemed acceptable during the Cold War, but which are injurious to the national interest today, and adopt a single standard of justice in cases like this, now and into the future.  The dignity of the victims in these cases demands nothing less.

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Putin in Cuba, Groundhog Day in America

July 11, 2014

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Havana, and builds closer ties with Cuba’s senior leadership, it begs the question, “Haven’t we seen this movie before?”

Our six-decade stalemate with Cuba started at the height of the Cold War.  Cuba established formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union on May 8, 1960.  Washington, in turn, severed ties with Havana on January 3, 1961. By the time Vladimir Putin was a ten-year-old and Barack Obama was an infant, we had already lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the establishment of the Lourdes signals intelligence center near Havana, and more, which brought the heat of the Cold War within a hundred miles of our shores.

Back then, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations decided it just would not do to have what was called a “Soviet puppet” in what some still call our “backyard.”  President Kennedy, as Cuba scholar Daniel Erikson wrote, reinterpreted the Monroe Doctrine “to support American efforts to contain the expansion of Soviet influence into the hemisphere.”

From the Bay of Pigs invasion to diplomatic isolation to the tightest economic sanctions imposed on Cuba, driving the Soviets out and punishing the Cubans for inviting them in has been what U.S. policy was all about.  This was matched, year after year, by Cuba’s resolute resistance to whatever wallops Washington delivered, sustained for a decade by Soviet subsidies.

The fall of the Berlin Wall led, ultimately, to the collapse of Cuba’s economy.  When the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991, Cuba lost annual assistance estimated at approximately $4.5 billion. Its economy contracted by 35% more or less overnight.  Public transport essentially ground to a halt.  Calorie consumption in the average Cuban’s diet fell 30%.  Export earnings fell 80%.  By January 1, 1992, when the Soviets cut off all military and economic assistance to Cuba, the allies had gone through a nasty break-up.

This was the moment to declare victory. With Russia dislodged from Cuba, the U.S. could have reinvigorated diplomacy and reached a modus vivendi with Cuba.  The objectives of our Cold War era policy having been satisfied, we could have even brought some long overdue tranquility to our relationships in Latin America.

Instead, U.S. policymakers decided to try and finish the job, passing the Cuba Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo screws even further, with the expectation that Cuba’s economic travails would do Cuba’s government in. It could have been called “The Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity Act of 1992.”

What happened?  Well, Cuba’s government didn’t fall under the weight of the U.S. embargo.  Raúl and Fidel Castro organized a peaceful transition of power. Our insistence on shutting Cuba out of regional forums like the OAS backfired on us.  Now, a little more than two decades later, Russia is back.

Without apparent irony, Yuri Ushakov, a presidential aide, told a reporter that the Kremlin considers Cuba to be “one of Russia’s ancient partners in Latin America.”  To advance that partnership, even before President Putin landed on Cuban soil, Russia agreed to write off about $32 billion in debt Cuba owed to the Soviet Union.

This is a big deal.  The Voice of Russia news service references one analyst, Caroline Kennedy (no, we’re not kidding), Head of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and International Studies at the University of Hull, as it observed, “the writing-off of the historic debt is about trying to reinvigorate a relationship that had fallen into abeyance in the 1990s – something Putin himself has said that he regrets in recent speeches.”

In addition to writing off Cuba’s debt, Russia has been written into Cuba’s strategy for recovering oil from the vast offshore reserves it has sought to exploit in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1990s.  As Bloomberg reports, during Putin’s visit, two Russian state oil producers “plan to sign an agreement with Cuban company Cupet SA to carry out joint operations in Cuba’s offshore areas.”

It might interest you to know that on Putin’s last trip to Cuba fourteen years ago, he pulled the plug on the Lourdes signal intelligence center as his personal affirmation that the Cold War was over, a gesture he believed was snubbed and, as Progreso Weekly reported, he also reviewed the status of Cuba’s backlogged debt payments for previously acquired Soviet loans.

We have seen this movie before.  It’s called “Groundhog Day.”  In that film, history on February 2nd repeats itself day after day until our love-smitten TV weatherman sets aside his self-destructive behavior and ends the tragic time loop by repairing his relationships and doing right in the world.   The cold of winter gives way, finally, to spring.

“Keep in mind that when Castro came to power,” President Obama said last year in Miami, “I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

Whether it’s inviting Cuba to join the Summit of the Americas, engaging with Cuba directly to protect the coast of Florida from the potential risk posed by a Ruso-Cuban drilling accident, or using his ample executive authority to go bolder and deeper, surely President Obama can summon the imagination and courage, not to drive Russia out, but to get our country back in the game.

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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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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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