Is it a Plane? Is it a Paddleboard? Or is it Grounded?

August 2, 2013

Today, we consider Cuba policy from the sky, sea, dry land, and through the eyes of a friend.

In the sky:  Congress fled Washington this week without getting much done on the federal budget.  So, this was a well-timed moment for John Hudson, national security correspondent for The Cable, to start his essay “Anti-Cuba effort deserves to die,” with the following:

“It’s difficult to find a more wasteful government program. For the last six years, the U.S. government has spent more than $24 million to fly a plane around Cuba and beam American-sponsored TV programming to the island’s inhabitants. But every day the plane flies, the government in Havana jams its broadcast signal. Few, if any, Cubans can see what it broadcasts.”

Hudson notes that U.S. taxpayers have shelled out over a half-billion dollars to fund programming by Radio and TV Martí since 1985. The Martís were launched as part of the U.S. government’s on-going efforts to overthrow the Cuban government or, as the State Department’s Inspector-General wrote in 2007, to “Undermine the regime’s ‘succession strategy’.”

Unsurprisingly, the Cuban government jammed the signal from the get-go.  But, this didn’t daunt our policymakers.  After failing to overcome Cuba’s disruption of the signal by floating a blimp over the island, they moved to transmitting signals from airborne platforms flying under the banner of AeroMartí.  Since 2006, the government has owned up to spending at least $5.9 million annually to get the Martí’s broadcast content, still jammed by Cuba, to its intended audience.  So far, no such luck.

Ironically, Aero Martí is stuck at its base in Georgia due to the budget cuts – known in Washington speak as “sequestration” – which the gridlocked Congress couldn’t undo before it left on vacation.  You can see a picture of the plane here.  As we report in the blast below, even the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Martís overseers, want to kill the program.  But, Hudson says Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (FL-27) are forcing the boondoggle to continue.

Before leaving town, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen issued a statement announcing her support for unrelated legislation, The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but said nothing about taxpayers’ rights or saving money by grounding permanently AeroMartí.

On the sea: By the time you read this, we’ll know the fate of Benjamin Schiller Friberg.  Thursday evening, the thirty-five year-old surfer jumped into the water in the Martína Hemingway with a paddleboard aiming to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba to Key West.

Before departing Cuba, he explained why he was taking his risky voyage, “this trip is to promote peace, love and friendship between the peoples of Cuba and of United States, as well as a healthy lifestyle.”

We can only imagine how disdainful the embargo supporters must be – the ones who hold AeroMartí aloft –of a surfer seeking peace and love by traveling across the same waters that Cuban rafters have navigated seeking new lives in the United States.

We hope he reaches his goal safely. Even more, we hope people hear the message he’s sending.  Every day, we read stories (like this one by Jeff Franks of Reuters) about how people-to-people travelers jump through hoops, and carefully observe excessive government regulations, just to visit Cuba. They must do so because our government’s policy is based on the misguided premise of objecting to restrictions placed on Cubans by limiting the freedom of our fellow citizens to visit them.

Every surfboard, every trip like the one taken by Beyonce and Jay-Z, every effort by U.S. scientists to overcome obstacles to work with Cuban counterparts on projects that reflect U.S. interests – these are all reminders that there is much to be gained by promoting cooperation between like-minded Cubans and U.S. visitors, and our government shouldn’t be standing in the way of engagement between them.

On land: At least, President Obama has both feet on the ground when it comes to encouraging contact. Yes, he enforces the embargo with astonishing zeal, and keeps signing budgets that fund the Cold War-style regime change programs.  But, he also clearly gets how good policy can help every day Cubans by promoting two-way travel.

After acting in 2009 to allow unlimited family travel by Cuban Americans, and in 2011 to restore people-to-people contacts, this week his administration expanded opportunities for Cubans to visit our country.  As the Miami Herald explained, the president used his executive authority to “make non-immigrant visas valid for five years instead of the current six months, and good for multiple entries.

“Now, eligible Cubans will be able to visit South Florida — or anywhere in the United States — for the holidays, return for a family wedding or come to tend to a sick relative without applying in person for a new visa each time.”

As the State Department explained it, “this is part of our broader policy to increase people-to-people ties between Americans and Cubans, to increase communications with the Cuban people, to promote openness.”

This approach is far better than the loopy policy of transmitting signals from planes flying figure eights over the island, and offers a more permanent solution than piloting a surfboard across the Florida Strait, so we hope the president keeps at it.

Our Friend: We’re unabashed admirers of Saul Landau.  He’s been in the thick of the reporting and analysis on Cuba and Latin America, often exposing the tragic realities of U.S. policy toward the region, for decades.  In the course of a passionate and productive life, his candid explorations of our nation’s history have educated generations and earned him the respect of journalists and the human rights community.  He’s not feeling so well these days, and we hope today’s blast – like the others before it – gave him as much joy as his work has made us think.  And we’re thinking of him, right now.

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