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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Gates, Walls and Doors

January 10, 2014

Not long after President Obama returned to The White House from his holiday vacation, he was greeted by headlines in the national press about attacks on his leadership by his former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

In leaks from his forthcoming memoir, “Duty,” Mr. Gates writes of Obama’s skepticism toward his own policy on Afghanistan.  “For him,” he writes, “it’s all about getting out.”

While Bob Woodward, like others in the ranks of Washington pundits, reported this as a “harsh judgment” against the President’s leadership on national security, Ron Fournier, writing in the National Journal, took a more sympathetic view.

Where Gates attacks the President for complaining about a policy he inherited and for doubting his own commanders, Fournier writes:  “We need more of that.”

According to Fournier, the President was reflecting the desires of the public to exit two unpopular wars, and demonstrating the kind of skepticism, curiosity, and reflection that is the president’s job.  In other words, President Obama was leading by following the better angels of his nature to where they might lead him.

Before his election in 2008, President Obama said, “It is time for us to end the embargo against Cuba.”  He justified his position by saying the policy had not helped Cubans enjoy rising living standards; instead, it squeezed innocents and didn’t improve human rights.  “It’s time for us to acknowledge” he said, “that particular policy had failed.”

While then-Senator Obama adhered to the traditional goals of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, he also acknowledged the simple reality that the embargo failed to achieve them.

We don’t expect President Obama to seek repeal of the embargo anytime soon, but we do believe that 2014 could be a year of greater openings toward Cuba, even if it means the President has to be the same kind of leader that made Robert Gates so angry.

After all, he has done it before.  In reopening Cuba to travel by Americans of Cuban descent, restoring categories of people-to-people travel, and negotiating with the Cuban government on issues such as migration and postal service, we saw the President set aside the views of his opponents, and even members of his own party, like Senator Bob Menendez, to put forward important and effective policy reforms that reflect his principles, his pragmatism, and the views of the American public writ large.

Going forward, there is much that President Obama can do using his executive authority.

Like many of our allies, The Center for Democracy in the Americas supports making all forms of people-to-people travel possible using a general license.

We strongly support direct negotiations with Cuba’s government to produce an action plan on the environment –so essential as Cuba looks to resume oil drilling in 2015– and ending the bar on Cuba’s participation in next year’s Summit of the Americas, which would give the United States a greater opening in Latin America more broadly. In addition, our research on gender equality in Cuba has led us to support policies to help Cuban women weather the transition in the island’s economy and provide real support for Cubans who choose to open small businesses.

In his epic song, Muros y Puertas, our friend Carlos Varela writes, “Since the world began, one thing has been certain, some people build walls, while others open doors.”

In 2014, we hope the President’s policy continues to reflect just this spirit of openness.  It is better to open doors  than build walls, or even Gates, for that matter.

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Cuba A-Z (from Aruca to Zoo-bio)

March 15, 2013

The New York Times once described him as “a cheerful, box-shaped man with a face like a friendly bulldog.”  Like a bulldog, Francisco Aruca was resolute and courageous, friendly with strangers and, when provoked, he was a force to be reckoned with.

So, we were stricken when friends like Silvia Wilhelm, Bob Guild and Marazul Charters (which he founded), and the Miami Herald and Progreso Weekly (which he also founded), circulated the sorrowful news that he had died unexpectedly at age 72.

Aruca’s life reflected, La Jornada aptly said, “the fundamental trajectory of recent Cuban history.”  He supported the revolution.  Soon after, as the New York Times reported, “he organized student strikes against the government’s crackdown on free speech and was promptly arrested and sentenced to 30 years in jail.”  But, he wasn’t imprisoned very long.

He liked retelling the story of his escape; how his youthful appearance enabled him to convince his guards that “he was a child visiting family in prison.” He got away and spent more than a year in asylum in the Brazilian embassy, before he came to the U.S.

Studying at Georgetown University, he earned an economics degree, graduating in 1967.  He taught economics, as the Miami Herald reported, in Virginia and Puerto Rico.  Along with other Cuban-Americans in 1974, he founded a magazine, Areíto, from which he put forward the idea that the Diaspora had to talk with the Cuban government, an utterly radical idea at the time.  It was so controversial “among Cuban exiles that bomb threats forced its editors to move from Miami to New York (where it stayed until 1987).”

Aruca was among the pioneers who advocated dialogue leading to the reconciliation of the Cuban family.  He participated in those talks – including foundational ones in 1978, 1994, 1995 – because he wanted to do the hard and necessary work of building trust and clearing the obstacles that had existed since 1959.

He was among the group, later known as the Comité de 75, who negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners in 1978, and also made it possible for exiles to visit Cuba.  The next year, Aruca’s Marazul Charters was founded to provide travel for tens of thousands of Cuban Americans to visit their relatives for the first time since they had left Cuba.

This was (and still is) dangerous business, in Florida and elsewhere. Marazul’s windows were “routinely smashed.”  His offices were firebombed. Carlos Muñiz, an exile and colleague of Aruca living in Puerto Rico who operated a sister travel agency was shot in the head and killed.

In 1994, after Miami residents attended the first meeting between Cuban exiles and the Cuban government in nearly fifteen years, they returned home and were besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assault, acts of violence, and economic retaliation, as Human Rights Watch reported.

Aruca himself received a fax that called him “Communist, vendepatria [homeland-seller]…and traitor,” among other names, and went on to say, “Be very careful, as I think there are many who would like to see you dead.”

Advocating the right to travel or speaking your mind about improving relations with Cuba are  incendiary acts in some Miami precincts.  As WSVN reported:  “3 Miami companies doing business with Cuba were attacked by firebombs,” in 1996, “a string of bomb attacks attributed mostly to anti-Castro radicals haunted the city in the 1970s and 1980s. The violence recently earned Miami a rank among the nation’s top 5 terrorism ‘hot spots’ by researchers studying the last 40 years of attacks on American soil.”

Not one to be intimidated, Aruca was a champion of travel and free speech.  He started a morning program Radio Progreso, which debuted  in 1991, “where he discussed Cuba-related issues from a perspective that had never been heard publicly in Miami.”

As Vivian Mannerud, a fellow agency operator, whose own business was firebombed in Coral Gables last year, remembered, “Those were times when people tuned in to Aruca’s radio programs but kept the volume real low so their neighbors would not know.  It was a difficult time. It’s called democracy.”

For Aruca, it was about democracy, but more fundamentally, about family.  As he told the Hartford Courant in 1999, “We Cubans have a very strong sense of family,” Aruca said. “If there were 300 relatives [seeing off passengers] at the airport today, there are 600 waiting in Havana tonight.”

Aruca lived to see Cuba’s government abolish nearly all travel restrictions on its people, but not long enough to see his adopted country abolish every restriction on the rights of Americans to visit Cuba.

But, according to the most recent estimates, the pioneering work he did enabled as many as 440,000 Cuban-Americans visit their families in Cuba in 2011 alone, a figure that will only grow so long as legislators like Senator Marco Rubio don’t gain enough power to roll back family travel licenses.

Shortly after Aruca’s death became known, Senator Rubio addressed a luncheon fundraiser for the Cuba-Democracy PAC where he made light of people who visit Cuba.  He said:

“These trips that are traveling to Cuba: Look, God bless them, I know they mean well. But I have people come to me all the time and tell me and say, ‘Oh, I went to Cuba. What a beautiful place, I feel so bad for the people.

“Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering,” said Rubio, adding “Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly.”

Rubio’s disdain for travel is not news, but comparing travel to Cuba – a place Rubio has never visited – to visiting a zoo seemed especially odious and over the line, even more than his earlier declarations that travelers visiting Cuba were supporting the activities of a terrorist state.

Our experiences in Cuba are altogether different from Rubio’s fact-free imaginings.  We have been embraced by Cubans of all political persuasions and life circumstances every time we have visited their country and their homes.

To fill in what he does not know about zoos, Senator Rubio could join the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus, yes it really exists, or simply visit its Facebook page.

To learn something about Cuba and U.S. policy, he could listen to his constituents, for example, the faithful who joined Archbishop Wenski who went to witness the visit of then-Pope Benedict XVI the and 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint –the Virgin of Charity (la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) – Cuba’s patron saint.

Or, he could pay attention to Senator Patrick Leahy, who responded to Rubio’s preference for isolating Americans from Cuba by saying:

“It has been obvious to any objective observer for a very long time that isolation has not worked, and it is demeaning for a great and powerful nation like ours, for instance, to forbid U.S. citizens from traveling where they want to travel.  It is in our national interest to take a fresh look at how to effectively address our differences with the Cuban government, such as the imprisonment of Alan Gross and many other matters.”

That is the kind of engagement Francisco Aruca spent the better part of five decades fighting for.  His son, Daniel, emailed Alvaro Fernandez, editor of Progreso Weekly, with a reminder of Aruca’s words that defined his life:  “If I die tomorrow, I know I have lived a very full life and that I lasted much longer than anyone ever expected.”

Aruca, the bulldog we remember and loved, lived a full, big, courageous, and uniquely American life.

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The Democracy Promotion Paradox – or why Americans hate politics

February 8, 2013

Sometimes our Cuba policy is so farcical, it’s impossible to keep a straight face.

Consider poor Pedro Adriano Borges, age 68 who, according to the Miami Herald is awaiting trial in federal court.  He is charged with ten violations of the Trading with the Enemy Act, money laundering, and other crimes for which he could spend 35 years in prison if convicted.  The underlying charge is this: he shipped $93,000 worth of goods – including light bulbs and diapers, spices and mayonnaise – to Cuba before Congress authorized food trade with the island.  Opening the market to mayonnaise might be considered a crime against Cuban cuisine, but he should hardly be facing jail time in 2013 for an activity that’s been legal for a decade.

Other times, however, the policy is not just farcical, but so internally inconsistent that it edges in the direction of tragedy.  Consider what we continue to learn about the USAID democracy promotion or regime change programs.

The Government Accountability Office issued a report on the programs this week.  Unlike prior studies, which disclosed that U.S. recipients of the funds were wasting them on Godiva chocolates, cashmere sweaters, and Nintendo Game Boys, GAO said the program was being operated with tighter internal controls.  This – along with headlines like “U.S. government report says America’s democracy programs have improved” –undoubtedly delighted USAID, which just last month read this story in the Washington Post:  “Interference with bid-rigging probe alleged at USAID.”

In fact, Marc Lopes, head of USAID’s Latin American and Caribbean section, told the Herald in a phone interview, “We have increased transparency and financial monitoring, and we are pleased that GAO has recognized that.”

But, remember, the GAO makes judgments about accounting, not about policy.  As the Miami Herald reported, U.S. taxpayers have spent more than $205 million dollars on democracy promotion activities since 1996.  There is no evidence that the programs are achieving their objective of hastening a democratic transition in Cuba.  Phil Peters says it well on his Cuban Triangle Blog:

“So the dollars are well accounted for, but as to whether they are being spent in ways that make a positive difference, well, that’s outside the scope of the report.

“Which is worth noting because in the case of USAID’s satellite Internet program run by Alan Gross and other grantees, the dollars may have been perfectly managed and 100 percent accounted for, but they were 100 percent wasted because these operations were rolled up by Cuban intelligence.”

Wasted and obscured from public view.  There is another version of the report, “sensitive but unclassified,” that GAO won’t allow U.S. taxpayers to see.  Even worse, Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, discovered that USAID hired an outside contractor to review the programs, which found “questionable charges and weaknesses in partners’ financial management, procurement standards, and internal controls.”   But when Mr. Eaton filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the outside audit, USAID fought him and then provided only ten pages of material that “omit most findings, recommendations and other key information, including the identity of the aid recipients named in the audit.”

This is more than a little odd coming from USAID which recently gave a $25 million grant to researchers at the University of Texas…(wait for it)….to develop tools that will “Increase Global Aid Transparency.”

Not only that, Mr. Eaton requested an interview with Mr. Lopes a little more than a week ago, and he declined.

Can someone stop the pain?

Not if what President Eisenhower might have called The Cuba-Industrial Complex has anything to say about it.  Although there was scant public mention of democracy promotion at John Kerry’s confirmation hearing, a new round of questions and answers about the program popped up in the Congressional Record, according to “Capitol Hill Cubans,” an eager supporter of regime change in Cuba.

In testimony apparently provided for the record –questions asked and answered in private – Senator Marco Rubio urged Mr. Kerry not to negotiate with Cuba to obtain Alan Gross’s release; not to shut down or rollback democracy programs; and to scrutinize the already legal people-to-people trips to Cuba.  You can read Kerry’s responses here.  We think he gave Senator Rubio no quarter.  To date, Mr. Kerry has made no public statements about whether he’d change the programs that he tried to reform as a member of the U.S. Senate.

But, the bodyguards surrounding USAID’s Cuba programs – the contractors, the pro-sanctions Senators, the array of publicists and polemicists aligned with them – will continue resisting the scrutiny and long-overdue public debate that ought to take place about these wasteful, ineffective, covert-but-not-classified programs that antagonize Cuba and which turn Latin America more broadly against us.

We are reminded of what E.J. Dionne wrote in “Why Americans Hate Politics” –

“With democracy on the march outside our borders, our first responsibility is to ensure that the United States becomes a model for what self-government should be and not an example of what happens to free nations when they lose interest in public life.”

Such is the democracy promotion paradox.

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