The Trust Gap and the Terror List

August 3, 2012

This is a cautionary tale about the trust gap between Cuba and the United States.

Last March, Cuban dissidents camped out in a church in Havana days before the visit of Pope Benedict XVI and demanded that he met with them to discuss violations of human rights in Cuba.  Once the Pope made it clear that he would not change his schedule, he was denounced by political figures in the United States for indifference to their cause, human rights.

A few months later, the head of Radio and TV Martí, a U.S. government agency, took to the airwaves to deliver personally a stinging attack on Cardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, whom he called “a lackey” who colluded with the Castro regime.  A copy of the vitriolic editorial was quickly removed from the Marti’s website once the Washington Post publicized it.  Despite Congressional criticism, the U.S. government never apologized or explained the verbal assault against the chief of the Cuban Catholic Church who had helped negotiate the release of political prisoners and arranged for the Pope’s trip.

Was the director of Radio/TV Martí on or off the reservation when he called Cardinal Ortega a lackey?  Why are we paying a government employee to attack the Church when U.S. policy supports the role it is playing Cuba?

Read on.  This week, the Associated Press reports on an editorial and video produced by Cuba’s government about four Mexicans who were detained during the Pope’s visit in March. It says they were “paid, trained and instructed” to stir up unrest during the Pope’s visit by the Cuban Democratic Directorate.  This outfit, according to Tracey Eaton’s blog, Along the Malecón, has been on the payroll of the National Endowment of Democracy (or “NED”), meaning it receives U.S. taxpayer money.

But wait; it gets worse.  Aron Modig, the Swedish politician who was riding with the late Oswaldo Payá when he was killed in a road wreck last week, met with representatives of the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, before coming to Cuba, which are funded by the aforementioned National Endowment for Democracy and USAID.  NED’s president quickly published an opinion column in the Washington Post suggesting the Cuban government was complicit in Payá’s death.

Modig was in Cuba distributing funds to dissidents when the accident took place.  Cuba, according to Anya Landau French, is the only country where Modig’s political party undertakes such activities.  USAID also subsidizes the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, and is responsible for the “regime change” programs that landed its contractor, Alan Gross, in prison.

These things happen in the background, largely invisible until tragedies like the death of Payá or the arrest of an American rise in the headlines.  The U.S. government conducts programs to instigate dissent in Cuba in a semi-covert fashion; conscientious reporters like Tracey Eaton bang their heads against the wall trying to disgorge budgets and other documents using Freedom of Information Act requests (all too often denied); and citizens like us are left guessing when events, often troubling in their appearance, suddenly come to the fore without any context at all.  There is no transparency and no accountability; especially, when neither the Congress, which funds these programs nor the Obama administration, which directs them, has any interest in answering questions like: Is the U.S. really subsidizing protests against the Pope in Cuba using hired agents from Mexico?

In the end, the biggest casualty is trust, leaving it immensely difficult for the U.S. and Cuban governments to engage with each other on issues that matter and should concern us all.  But, of course, that is exactly where the staunchest opponents of engagement want the two governments to be.  They are, in turn, the authors and funders of the covert activities that take place in Cuba without the consent of the governed here in the U.S.

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Haiku Hype: The Flutter over Fidel’s Twitter-Length Reflections

June 22, 2012

Whoa, Fidel Castro in the age of Twitter.

Headlines from Miami to London sound the alert.  “Fidel Castro leaves people guessing as he writes cryptic, Haiku-like notes.”  As the Miami Herald put it:

“In cryptic paragraphs of never more than 65 words, the former Cuban president has written about yoga poses, edible plants, a criticism by a Chinese leader who died 15 years ago and a former leader of communist East Germany who died even further back.”

Despite more contemporary concerns –such as this week’s meeting of bloggers in Cuba or the report that U.S. sanctions prevent Cubans from using Google analytics—it is no surprise that this development made news.  What Fidel Castro says and how he communicates has been engaging some and enraging others since before the creation of the computer, the fax machine, or the U.S. embargo.

According to Lars Schoultz, political scientist and renowned Cuba scholar, the U.S. government has been tracking what Fidel Castro thinks and says since 1947 when he was in college, sixty-five years.  That is longer than the time period extending from Morse to Marconi, from the invention of the telegraph to the invention of radio.

This preoccupation with Castro’s communications skills intensified after the revolution.

In 1959, as Schoultz records in his classic history on U.S.-Cuba relations, “That Infernal Little Cuban Republic,” the U.S. Embassy in Havana described one of his appearances as follows:

“Castro in his standard uniform of rumpled fatigues, radiating health and boundless energy, hunched over the table as he talks, waving his arms and hands, with the eternal cigar always at hand.  Words pour from him like a ceaseless torrent.  He appears literally capable of talking forever, on any subject under the sun.”

The volume of words was astonishing.  “This is, after all, the man who gave the longest speech in the history of the U.N. General Assembly,” Joshua Keating observed in his foreign policy blog.  But, of course, the effort to overthrow Castro and the Cuban system stemmed not from how much he said –or how he said it – but from his commitment to revolution and his resistance to the will of the U.S.

What followed has been decades of U.S. sanctions, and division between both countries, a collision between Cuba’s immutable faith in its right to self-determination and the immoveable desire of U.S. policy to upend its system.

Reporters inside Cuba tell us that Cubans are genuinely baffled by the former president’s messages on the Moringa tree, the cosmos, and yoga, published after his most recent full-length treatise on the use of drones by President Obama.

That’s probably right.  This interest is clearly shared by the boo-birds in Miami who’ve waited so long for the embargo to bring Cuba to its knees that they are now reduced to snickering about Fidel Castro’s twitter length pronouncements.

One “Miami analyst” said the former president needs to stay in the limelight.  “Like a mediocre starlet of cheap and superficial shows, [he] needs to feel like he’s in the center of the spotlight.”  Prof. Jaime Suchliki, Director of Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami, sniffs, “Evidently he does not feel coherent enough to write longer pieces.”

If the “Cuba wars” are now being waged with exchanges of snark and sarcasm, we suppose that’s progress.  But, after 65 years, if we’re still worrying about how Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former president is expressing himself, we’d humbly suggest that the policy of not talking to the current president of Cuba about matters that actually concern us merits reexamination.

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