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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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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Labor Day Weekend “No Apologies” Edition

August 29, 2014

Dear Friends:

Thank you for welcoming us back.

While we were on holiday last week, the Associated Press reported, “The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general has determined Jay-Z and Beyonce’s fifth-anniversary trip to Cuba last year was legal under rules allowing educational travel to the island.”

Did the AP get this story wrong? After all, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart reached his own conclusion more than one year ago without going through the “formality” of an investigation: “It has become obvious that, in this case, the line into tourism was crossed. The Beyoncé and Jay-Z trip is a high profile example of why the ‘people-to-people’ category of travel should be eliminated. It amounts to tourism.”

Yet, after the Inspector General issued a report saying,we believe OFAC’s determination that there was no apparent violation of U.S. sanctions with respect to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba was reasonable (emphasis added),” we visited the Congressman’s Media Center and found no evidence that he’d retracted his statement.

As Stephen Colbert is fond of saying, we accept your apology.

Time and again, we’ve seen this “never explain, never apologize, never retract” strategy used by hardline defenders of U.S. sanctions over the years.

Remember when Cuba’s government scrapped the exit visa requirement established five decades ago that made it impossible for nearly all of Cuba’s citizens to travel abroad? At that time, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the reform as propaganda. She said, “These so-called reforms are nothing more than Raúl Castro’s desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing, but anyone who knows anything about the communist 53-year old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene.”

On behalf of the 185,000 plus Cubans who traveled abroad last year, including 66,000 to the U.S., and on behalf of Cuban dissidents –Guillermo Fariñas who received his Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought after he traveled to Europe last year, and Yoani Sánchez, welcomed from Miami to the White House – we accept her apology, too.

Remember when it seemed like every poll conducted in Florida and nationally supported rolling back the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba? When Florida International University’s 2014 survey showed that Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargo, ending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – by the widest majority the survey has ever recorded?

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who supports increasing sanctions on Cuba, told readers of his blog to dismiss the findings of this highly regarded poll, saying “FIU has gone from having its polls sponsored by ideological non-profit organizations to ideological, for-profit lobbyists.” As a lobbyist himself immersed in partisan and ideological causes, this was hardly a strong argument against FIU’s data, confirmed by so many others.

Not to be outdone, when a reporter with the New York Times said to Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, “Regardless of just the Cuban-American community, the American public, clearly a majority supports a change in policy in Cuba,” he responded, “That is an absolute lie.”

Gentlemen, you may start your apologies.

We could talk about the deceptive defenses of USAID’s Cuba programs, when Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, was fast to his fax machine to issue his statement,“There is nothing new here.” We could also talk about their attacks on Cuba’s economic reforms, which have already enabled about 500,000 Cubans to find meaningful work, better pay, and greater autonomy in the private sector, and much more.

But, we don’t expect to hear apologies or anybody saying “I am sorry,” during this Labor Day weekend. We expect, instead, they’re out traveling like everyone else.

But, after Senator Marco Rubio compared coming to Cuba to visiting a zoo; after he scolded Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for going to Cuba, because “the U.S. should not make it easier for the Castro regime to enrich itself and fund its repression with American dollars”; after Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cited the Smithsonian for engaging in legal travel to the island, saying “It is deeply disappointing that the Smithsonian [Institution], primarily funded by American taxpayers, is facilitating access to U.S. dollars, which enables the Castro regime to make a hefty profit,” it would be nice if they were called to account for what they have said about travel, and spent at least one weekend feasting on their own words and at their own expense.

Then, perhaps Jay-Z and Beyonce could tell them, “apology accepted.”

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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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No Americans Left Behind

June 6, 2014

What a week.  In her book Hard Choices, Hillary Clinton calls for an end to the embargo on Cuba. In reaction to the Taliban prisoner exchange to free Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the President’s political opposition is outraged; some are calling for his head.  Besieged by hate mail and other protests, the “Welcome back Bowe” celebration planned by the soldier’s hometown has been called off.

Will the bitter, partisan reaction to Bergdahl’s release or the principle he asserted in negotiating with the Taliban for his freedom carry greater weight in the President’s mind as he considers whether to negotiate for the release of Alan Gross?

If negotiations with Cuba are off the table, we might paraphrase Billy Malone’s question to Eliot Ness in The Untouchables, and ask the President, “What are you prepared to do?”

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We have neither the space nor the inclination to summarize what one commentator called “the manufactured brouhaha” over Sgt. Bergdahl’s release.  You’d have to live in a sealed container to miss the mud being thrown against the President, the freed prisoner, his father, even his father’s beard.  While their reaction to the negotiations could be consequential later, nothing the critics say or do– since the swap already happened and Sgt. Bergdahl is coming home – matters now.

By contrast, we think the principle used to defend how the Administration engineered his release is worth repeating and amplifying.

General Ray Odierno, Army Chief of Staff says, “We will never leave a fallen comrade behind.” Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, calls it “the sacred promise that America has to its people.”

State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf echoed the military leadership when she said, “I think what we were focused on here is getting this American soldier home. Again, I think there might’ve been some confusion yesterday that the – how he ended up in Taliban captivity is wholly unrelated to whether or not we should’ve brought him home.”

Finally, from the Commander-in-Chief, “Regardless of circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American prisoner back,” he said. “Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that.”

Why wouldn’t that principle apply to Alan Gross?  Or, as Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus put it, “What is the justification for freeing these Taliban officials in exchange for Bergdahl and summarily rejecting the notion of a much more benign release in order to secure Gross’s release?”

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The question of whether Alan Gross and Bowe Bergdahl are equivalent is a trap. Alan Gross is not a soldier, even though the technology he brandished was like a weapon.  While his covert trips to the island were part of longstanding U.S. government efforts to overthrow Cuba’s government, he was not really a spy.  He certainly isn’t a hostage.  He is serving a 15-year sentence in a Cuban jail because he broke Cuban law.

“He traveled to Havana in 2009,” as Tracey Eaton wrote, “with satellite communication gear, wireless transmitters, routers, cables and switches – enough to set up Internet connections and Wi-Fi hotspots that the socialist government would not be able to detect or control.”

Stephen Kimber explains further, “He never informed Cuba of his mission, and invariably flew into the country on a tourist visa. To smuggle his equipment into the country without arousing suspicion, Gross sometimes used unsuspecting members of religious groups as ‘mules.’”

The programs that funded his activities were authorized by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, the statute that codified U.S. regime change policies. As Gross’s USAID overseers well knew, “Cuban authorities in 1999 passed Law 88, which prohibited ‘acts aimed at supporting, facilitating or collaborating with the goals of the Helms-Burton law.’”

Against this backdrop, the U.S. government has consistently maintained that Alan Gross is “wrongfully imprisoned,” as Secretary of State Kerry told Congress.  It has said that the Cuban government should unilaterally release him without conditions, and that we won’t swap him for three Cuban spies held by the U.S. because that implies “false equivalency.”

As Bloomberg reported, Scott Gilbert, Mr. Gross’s attorney, dismisses this strategy.

“The U.S. government has effectively done nothing – nothing,” he says, in the years since Gross was arrested, “to attempt to obtain his freedom other than standing up and demanding his unconditional release, which is like looking up at the sky and demanding rain.”

This suits the hardline supporters of sanctions against Cuba just fine.  “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,” says Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.

Six months ago, Alan Gross wrote President Obama to say, “I fear that my government – the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare – has abandoned me.”  Then he said in a statement released before his 65th birthday, “it will be my last birthday here.”  Now that the State Department has told reporters that the deal to secure Sgt. Bergdahl’s freedom means that “nothing has changed” when it comes to swapping Alan Gross for the remaining members of the Cuban Five, one can only wonder what he is thinking now.

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So, Mr. President, what are you prepared to do?

What justified negotiating with the Taliban, the editors at Bloomberg said, was not only getting Sgt. Bergdhal back, but preparing the stage for reconciliation in Afghanistan after the U.S. withdraws its troops.

The larger purpose in negotiating for the release of Alan Gross is removing the biggest impediment to improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba.  Although the President has not spent much political capital to obtain this end in the past five-plus years, he might choose to do so now, since Secretary Clinton has used the publication of her forthcoming memoir to disclose her privately-held view that the embargo no longer serves U.S. interests.  Obama can make the task of lifting or easing the embargo in the next administration easier by working to free Alan Gross during his.

Here, recent diplomatic history is a useful guide.  During the Carter Administration, a deal was structured with Fidel Castro in which Puerto Rican terrorists who shot up the Congress and Blair House were released and sent to Cuba, after which American spies held in Cuba for more than a decade were sent back to the States.  Both sides got what they wanted without admitting it was a swap. Such an artifice could help the President obtain freedom for Alan Gross.

In a telling comment about the furor that accompanied Bowe Bergdahl’s freedom, the President said, “We also remain deeply committed to securing the release of American citizens who are unjustly detained abroad and deserve to be reunited with their families, just like the Bergdahls soon will be.”

There is, after all, a principle at stake.  We don’t leave Americans behind.

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Which President told the Cubans “I wish you well”?

May 30, 2014

Finally, a President went to Cuba and uttered the words we’ve longed to hear.

“I wish you well.”

Only, it wasn’t President Obama.

This message to Cuba’s people came from the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue.

It came up,  as he wrapped up his visit to the island with an appearance at the University of Havana, and took questions from the press. When Daniel Trotta of Reuters asked Mr. Donohue, “Is Cuba a good investment?” he responded as follows:

“Cuba would be a better investment if it had issues like arbitration, and agreements that would protect intellectual property, and ways that we could resolve our differences. But I believe that Cuba, 91 miles from our shore, with the new and extraordinary port that’s being built here, has the potential to develop as a very good investment not only for Americans, U.S. citizens, but from people around the world, and I wish you well.”

To borrow a phrase from Vice President Biden, this is kind of a big deal.

In our reports on economic reform and gender equality, we discussed how Cuba’s own policies produced enviable achievements in critical areas like education and health but at unsustainable costs.  Since he became Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro has authorized greater liberties – from legalizing cell phones to overseas travel – while at the same time cutting the size of the state’s payrolls and opening employment opportunities for Cubans in the non-state sector.

In simple terms, Cuba’s project going forward is about addressing its economic crisis and bringing its assets and expenditures into a balance that future Cubans can live with.

This is at odds with the core objective of U.S. policy.  For more than 50 years, its goal has been to sink Cuba’s system by strangling Cuba’s economy.  The era of reform ushered in by President Castro has, at times, posed a paralyzing dilemma to President Obama.

On one hand, President Obama diverted from the orthodoxy in his first term by opening talks with Cuba on some bilateral issues, and by taking truly useful steps to reform U.S. policy; by giving unlimited travel rights to Cuban Americans and restoring some channels of people-to-people travel for Americans not of Cuban descent.

On the other, he has left the embargo mostly in place, stubbornly enforced sanctions against financial institutions to tie up Cuba’s capacity to engage in global commerce and trade, and distressingly allowed many excesses of our regime change program to remain in place.

Changing circumstances in Cuba have occasioned no fresh thoughts – and no Hamlet-like indecision – among the pro-sanctions hardliners.

Tim Padgett wrote perceptively this week about their support for policies that exact sacrifice and impose suffering on Cuba’s people.

“Incredibly, [the hardliners are] convinced that denying Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs more seed money, cell phones and sage advice – that keeping them in the micro-economic Middle Ages – is the best way to change Cuba.

“[W]hy wouldn’t the Cuba-policy hardliners want to help accelerate that process? One answer is that it’s too mundane: It doesn’t fit their more biblical vision of a Cuban Spring in which the Castros are ousted by a fiery, exile-led uprising.”

How else to explain their vitriolic reaction to the U.S. Chamber’s visit?

“Sen. Marco Rubio, the Wall Street Journal reported, “blasted Mr. Donohue in a letter last week, calling the trip ‘misguided and fraught with peril of becoming a propaganda coup for the Castro regime.'” Capitol Hill Cubans taunted The Chamber with a note suggesting they invest in North Korea.  Senator Bob Menendez chastised Donohue, saying conditions in Cuba “hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any responsible business leader.”

Donohue was cheerfully immune to all of this. He said, “the Chamber of Commerce takes human rights concerns seriously,” as the AP reported, “calling it an issue that should be part of a ‘constructive dialogue’ between the U.S. and Cuba.”

He knows -in ways the hardliners simply cannot accept – that the political problems that divide the U.S. from Cuba will never be solved through diplomatic isolation but through negotiation and engagement.

In this sense, the voices criticizing Donohue, powerful as they are, represent the past – and neither the U.S. Chamber nor the 44 members of the foreign policy establishment who appealed for reforms in a letter to President Obama are going back.

Instead, our policy going forward will be defined not by pressing for the system’s failure, but by the principle that Cubans are better off – and U.S. national interest best secured – by respecting the desire of Cubans to succeed in a future of their own design.

It is up to President Obama to say the words, “I wish you well.”

But time is running out.  As Tom Donohue observed, “If [President Barack Obama] wants to get it done before the end of his term, he’s got two years, so he’ll have to get busy.”

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Demonizing Travel: the Beyoncé and Jay-Z Anniversary Edition

April 12, 2013

The reaction, more precisely, the overreaction was brutal.

Just for visiting Cuba, Beyoncé and Jay-Z were serially accused of violating the law, taking a vacation, enriching a dictatorship, even ignoring or subsidizing racism.

Vicious words, and a familiar tactic.  Slagging celebrities has long been part of the larger effort to demonize virtually anyone for visiting Cuba; because, as opponents of better relations with Cuba understand better than most, there is no greater threat to the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba than giving more Americans the undisturbed right to see the island and its people for themselves.

We have seen dramas like this before. The NY Times examined the Beyoncé and Jay-Z controversy and called it “predictable.”  But, as we watched this story, we think it concluded with a happy ending.

Yes, in the future, less celebrated visitors to Cuba are still likely to be vilified; but, this tactic of demonizing travelers to stop Americans from going to Cuba may have finally run its course.

Here’s what happened.

Scene 1:  Express outrage and call for an investigation

As soon as the news broke, travel opponents found the chance to express indignation ahead of the facts too rich to pass up.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said, “I’m absolutely uncomfortable with the way, and concerned about, not just Jay-Z and Beyoncé but some of the travel, the ‘people to people’ travel, that has been occurring in Cuba.”

Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Díaz-Balart quickly sent a letter to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury Department agency that regulates travel to Cuba, in which they concluded the trip was illegal tourism but called on the government to investigate nonetheless.

Critics probably should have kept their powder dry, as Professor Ted Henken had the good sense to suggest, “J+Z’s” harshest critics ought to check out what they did in “#Cuba b4 sounding off.”

Scene 2:  Uh oh, the trip was legal.

Treasury complied with the request, and the investigation commenced.  But, it quickly became apparent, as Talking Points Memo and others reported the outrage was at odds with the facts.

Just days after receiving their letter, U.S. Treasury’s Assistant Secretary of Legislative Affairs Alastair M. Fitzpayne, wrote Reps. Díaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, and said:

“It is our understanding that the travelers in question traveled to Cuba pursuant to an educational exchange trip organized by a group authorized by OFAC to sponsor and organize programs to promote people-to-people contact in Cuba.”

Scene 3: Blame the investigators

Even before the entertainers were “absolved by Treasury,” Senator Marco Rubio worried that if the couple hadn’t violated the rules, then the rules were being misunderstood or mal-administered.

“If,” he said, the trip was fully licensed, “the Obama Administration should explain exactly how trips like these comply with U.S. law and regulations governing travel to Cuba and it should disclose how many more of these trips they have licensed.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen agreed:  If the tourist activities undertaken by Beyoncé and Jay-Z in Cuba are classified as an educational exchange trip, then it is clear that the Obama administration is not serious about denying the Castro regime an economic lifeline that US tourism will extend to it.”

Scene 4: Just Keep Throwing Punches

Why didn’t the Treasury letter put this issue to rest?  Why are reporters and commentators still talking about it?  Celebrities + Attacks = News.

If you say Jay-Z and Beyoncé just went to Cuba for a good time; if you liken travel to Cuba to visiting a zoo, or taking a tropical vacation, or if you call Senators “snowbirds” seeking warmer climes, even when they’re in Cuba trying to free Alan Gross, you’re going to make news.

Further, if you make the baseless charge that Rep. Kathy Castor, who supports removing the embargo, is acting like a foreign agent for the Castro brothers rather than pursuing the U.S. national interest, that’s fair game.

If you start listing places that Beyoncé and Jay-Z should have visited, like Senator Rubio did, it’s unlikely that anyone will remind him that he’s never been there himself.

Denigrating travelers makes good copy; demonizing travel costs the critics nothing.

The Surprise Ending:  An Old Tactic May Be Running Its Course

This is changing.  We may have reached the day our friend Stephen Rivers dreamed of – when cultural figures who visit Cuba open political space in our country to reexamine its policy of punishing the Castros by denying Americans their constitutional rights to visit the island.

The scholar, Arturo López-Levy calls it the ‘Beyoncé Effect,’ the chance to “take a fresh look at the U.S. policy toward Cuba with the candidness of an adolescent. It is difficult to defend a policy that stomps on the same rights it preaches.”

Senator Jeff Flake agreed, commenting on Twitter:  “So, @Beyoncé and Jay-Z @S_C_ are in Cuba? Fine by me. Every American should have the right to travel there.”

Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, is feeling it.  He told the Atlantic, “The awareness level has been raised [and] the future for people-to-people travel has never been brighter.”

By triggering the debate, their trip performed a real service.  We were reminded that what Beyoncé and Jay-Z did is legal; that celebrated leaders of Cuba’s civil society and many others want U.S. restrictions on travel to end; and that engaging with Cuba and focusing on problems that matter – like the threat of a scary hurricane season – is more important than slagging celebrities.

This tactic truly is storm and fury signifying nothing.

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