Handwringing over a handshake

December 13, 2013

At the exact time President Obama shook hands with President Raúl Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, we were in Cuba – where word of the handshake circulated fast, and the reaction among Cubans was electric, even ecstatic.

The President’s domestic political opposition felt quite differently.

The six seconds Barack Obama spent grasping Raúl Castro’s hand infuriated them in sadly familiar ways.

The Washington Post called the handshake “an awkward footnote to his tribute in Soweto.” Capitol Hill Cubans sniffed, “We believe this encounter was unfortunate and untimely – albeit inconsequential.” Rep. Matt Salmon (AZ-5)said it was “an insult to the people of Cuba who are denied liberty and oppressed daily by the Cuban dictator.”  Not to be outdone, it reminded Senator John McCain that “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), who found the Obama-Castro handshake “nauseating,” begged Secretary Kerry at a Congressional hearing, “Could you please tell the Cuban people living under that repressive regime that, a handshake notwithstanding, the US policy toward the cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship has not weakened.”

The rank opportunism of its fiercest critics seemed to knock the White House back on its heels.  An Administration official said “this wasn’t a pre-planned encounter.” An earnest White House spokesman downplayed its significance explaining “they didn’t have a robust, substantive conversation about policies, but rather exchanged some pleasantries as the President was making his way to the podium.” Secretary Kerry said Obama “didn’t choose who’s” at the Mandela ceremony.

Some reports spun the speech harder. The AFP said the speech contained a “clear swipe at states like Cuba.” Several pundits pointed to this sentence – “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people” – saying those twenty-two words in Obama’s nineteen-hundred word address had been aimed squarely at Cuba’s government.

But, when Ben Rhodes, the president’s Deputy National Security Advisor, addressed the traveling White House press corps, he said “I don’t think his intent was to single out specific countries.”

There’s no reason to be defensive.  The White House should be beaming with pride.

As countless commentators have written, what passed between the two Presidents could have been modeled on Mandela himself.  Nelson Mandela didn’t wring his hands over shaking hands with F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president.  He considered it essential to his goal of reconciliation for all of South Africa.  He was photographed doing so time and again.

Against the backdrop of history, the Obama-Castro handshake evoked a welcoming editorial reaction.

It caused the Kansas City Star to ask, “What if this greeting signaled another apparent micro-thaw in the half-century cold war with our island neighbor? Frankly, that would be good news. Small gestures add up. As time goes by, many Americans – and many everyday Cubans – are ready to get on with the future.” It led the New York Times to repeat its call to “Lift the Cuban Embargo.”

Most of all, the White House should be heartened by the reactions of the Cuban people.

Cubans who have lived their entire lives with the United States thumbing its nose at their country could not get over this small gesture of respect paid to their national leader by our national leader.

What made our visit to Cuba possible – President Obama’s people-to-people travel reforms – had been rolled-out by the White House two years earlier with a press release titled, “Reaching Out to the Cuban People.

This figure of political speech was vindicated by what we saw in Havana.

It was as if the president had reached past Raúl Castro and personally shaken the hands of each one of the Cuban citizens we talked to.  They were thrilled and empowered by what had transpired eight thousand miles away in South Africa.

Mandela’s life work continues, just like President Obama said:

“Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with.

“And finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

“After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves.”

So large, they felt his spirit in Havana.

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Castor’s Got Courage, But Has Kerry Got Game?

April 26, 2013

Kathy Castor, Tampa’s representative in Congress, has got courage.  Of the twenty-seven members of Florida’s delegation, only five have more Cuban Americans in their districts than she has living in hers.  None but Castor has made the effort, as she did a few weeks ago, to visit Cuba.

When Ms. Castor returned home, she wrote President Obama and urged him to modernize Cuba policy.  She asked the president to support Cuba’s economic reforms, end the travel ban, lift trade restrictions, engage Cuba in a dialogue on human rights, and, critically, to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List.

Such clear, forward thinking was too much for Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney, who “pinned the label ‘terrorist’ on Castor,” as the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported, and said “she joins all terrorists of the western hemisphere in solidarity with the (Castro) regime and tyranny that has brought pain and agony to my people.”

Such rhetoric was sad, but not surprising, and the tactic was all too familiar.  The noisiest critics of the system in Cuba like to stanch free debate in America to stop courage like Castor’s from becoming contagious.

In this case, the name-calling backfired, and emboldened constituents rose to her defense.  Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Tampa’s La Gaceta newspaper, donated space for a full-page ad in last week’s issue that saluted Castor “on her historic trip to Cuba” and he got more than 300 area residents to sign on…in Florida.

This is further proof that the politics around Cuba issues is changing, that the Cuba Lobby, which has petrified politicians and paralyzed policy for decades, can be challenged not just by rare instances of courage but by compelling examples of common sense.

It may take time for this truth to move from Tampa Bay to the halls of Congress, but we hope it’s heard in Foggy Bottom and that the U.S. State Department gets the message fast.

By April 30th, Secretary of State John Kerry must decide whether Cuba should be removed from the list of countries designated as State Sponsors of Terror.

Kerry has previously spoken sensibly on terrorism.  Presiding over the confirmation of Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as Secretary of State, John Kerry, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said:

In the last seven years, we have spent the treasure of this nation – young American soldiers, first and foremost, and billions of dollars – to fight terrorism, and yet grave questions remain as to whether or not we have chosen our battles correctly, pursued the right strategy, defined the right goals.

Now that Kerry is running State, it’s time for him to pursue the right strategy and act decisively by removing Cuba from the terror list.  The merits are clear.

“None of the reasons that landed Cuba on the list in 1982 still exist,” as the Los Angeles Times explained recently. “A 2012 report by the State Department found that Havana no longer provides weapons or paramilitary training to Marxist rebels in Latin America or Africa. In fact, Cuba is currently hosting peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and President Juan Manuel Santos’ government.”

This is just the point Rep. Castor made to President Obama.  “One of the reasons used to justify Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors of Terror List was its support of the FARC.  This rationale is no longer valid, and it provides our nation with an opportunity to remove Cuba from the list and focus on global actors who need our attention.”

After returning from Cuba, on a trip led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Rep. Castor never stopped working.  She used contacts she made at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to connect grandparents in her district to Cuban and U.S. officials, trying to facilitate the return of Chase and Cole Hakken, children abducted by their parents in Tampa and taken by boat to Cuba.

The same Tampa attorney who called out Castor assured local media that the parents, who were fugitives in Cuba, were safe, “there’s no extradition…There’s nothing that can be done.”

Soon after, the Cubans arrested the parents and returned them to Florida where they face a variety of serious charges, and the boys, ages 4 and 2, were reunited with their grandparents proving, as Rep. Castor said, “the value of engagement” and the importance of reforming the policy.

Whether it takes common sense or courage, something can always be done.  Kathy Castor proved it, and so can John Kerry, if he’s got game.
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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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When Spring Comes to Washington

April 5, 2013

Tourists, from the U.S. and around the world, flock to Washington at spring time.  They come to hear echoes of this nation’s past, learn about its founding principles, and think about their relevance today.

Visitors to the monuments along the Tidal Basin often stop at the Jefferson Memorial.  Modeled after the Roman Parthenon, it speaks loudly to those who can appreciate his vital and open mind.  One panel reads:

“I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and institutions,” quoting a letter he wrote after his presidency, “But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind.  As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”  Otherwise, he concluded, “We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him as a boy…”

Is there a better metaphor for U.S.-Cuba policy, buttoned so uncomfortably into the straitjacket fitted for it by Senator Jesse Helms and Congressman Dan Burton?  You might have read about their Helms-Burton law using Netscape Navigator to “surf” the web when it passed in 1996.

Seventeen years later, the conditions that existed on the ground then – in Havana and Miami, where its passage was demanded – have changed as much as the technology we use to learn about them.

No, Cuba is not marching toward a multiparty democracy.  But, it’s economic system is being revamped, government payrolls are being down-sized, cooperatives and private businesses are on the rise.  State-owned media carry complaints about the slow pace of reform.  Houses and cars are being sold on the open market.  Cubans with cellphones pass in and out of hotels.  Most Cubans, including Cuban dissidents, are free to travel, even tweet their opposition to government policy, and return.  These changes are real, and a Vice President whose last name is Díaz-Canel, not Castro, is in place to carry them forward.

Yes, Florida too, once ground zero for policies like Helms-Burton, has a different look and feel.  President Obama’s travel reforms are speeding the reconciliation of the Cuban family and helping Cuban-Americans support relatives taking advantage of Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  Miami Cubans, including Carlos Saladrigas, who once led thousands to stop believers from visiting Cuba to witness Pope John Paul II celebrate mass in the Plaza of the Revolution, embraced the chance to see Pope Benedict XVI worship with the island’s faithful.

The last election saw President Obama split the Cuban American vote with his opponent; Miami elected a pro-family travel Democrat to a Congressional seat; and Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) is in Cuba right now pursuing the business interests of her district and the foreign policy interests of the United States.  Today, it is the hardliners who are increasingly marginalized, while Mr. Saladrigas and his Cuba Study Group join the ranks of those who have long called for Helms-Burton’s repeal.

These are big changes.  What might Jefferson have thought about them?  History teaches us that our Third President wanted to purchase or annex Cuba for reasons he expressed in his time, which might seem eerily familiar to us in our time.

And yet, spring has come to Jefferson’s capital.  It is easy to imagine that he would find the changes happening in Havana and Miami to be self-evident; that as evidence of what he called “discoveries,” and we might call, “new thinking,” were made, he’d want the policy to be more enlightened; that he’d have us slip from the confining coat of Helms-Burton, and beckon his successor in the White House (with apologies to Chance the Gardener) to turn over a new leaf as well.

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