Ending the Embargo: Can “Brand America” Bail Obama Out?

September 26, 2014

Not a great week for President Obama or his resilient support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

With heads of state and government gathering at the United Nations for the 69th Session of the General Assembly, Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, President of El Salvador, spoke out strongly against the U.S. embargo.

Santos said, “I have faith that the United States and Cuba can form a working relationship that allows the United States to lift the embargo that from my point of view has failed.”

In his first General Assembly speech as president, Sánchez Cerén said, “In the pursuit of peace efforts, and of equitable development there is no place for the disdain of fundamental principles and freedoms which is found in the economic, trade and financial blockade against the sister republic of Cuba.”

These strong words, coming from leaders of America’s staunchest allies in the hemisphere, merely echo what has already been said by influential foreign policy voices – like Hillary Clinton, Yoani Sánchez and, yes, John Oliver.

Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Clinton described to Jorge Ramos why she now favors lifting the embargo.

“I think it has propped up the Castros because they can blame everything on the embargo…You don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of expression, you know, you’re still having political prisoners, everything is blamed on the embargo.”

Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban dissident, who has gone from communicating with the outside world with flash drives, to winning a Yahoo! fellowship at Georgetown University, wants the U.S. to end the embargo for a similar reason.

“I come from a generation of Cubans that have grown up with an official discourse constantly running through my ears that has expertly used the embargo as its foremost excuse — blamed for everything from the lack of food on our plates to the lack of liberty in the streets.”

Commenting on President Obama’s decision this month to extend Cuba’s status as the only nation on Earth subject to trade sanctions under the World WWI-era Trading with the Enemy Act, John Oliver told his HBO audience this week:

“Cubans blame the embargo for everything — the economy, the weather, the complete collapse of Homeland in its second season which, to be fair, Cubans probably haven’t seen but if they do they’ll hate it and they’ll blame the embargo for it.”

Clinton, Sánchez, and Oliver make a point President Obama has not fully absorbed; namely, it’s possible to have differences with Cuba’s government, political system, and economy and still see that the embargo, started by the Kennedy Administration and held together by a law enacted in 1917, has completely “failed.”

If the President wanted to consider a “newer” approach, he might read the remarks on Burma by Charles H. Rivkin, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

As you may know, our State Department is extremely critical of Burma’s systemic human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, restrictions on speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement, and for its 45 prisons, 100 government labor camps, and 60,000 prisoners.

In Burma, however, Rivkin sees no place for an embargo. He’s heard “what American companies faced — or have faced in the wake of sanctions. They range from other foreign investors taking advantage of our absence to our own reporting requirements.”

Instead, he believes the U.S. business community – representing “Brand America” – will help take Burma where it needs to go: “towards a more connected, vibrant, and prosperous future.”

He argues this: “When people buy American, they buy into our values and beliefs as well as our culture of practicality and trust in the open market.”

Admittedly, this is the homeliest argument we’ve heard for ending sanctions and promoting U.S. investment in countries whose political systems we oppose. But, if the President buys it and applies it to Burma, he should seize it as a rationale for ending the embargo of Cuba — particularly now.

In the next few weeks, the UN General Assembly will turn its attention to Cuba, where resolutions condemning the embargo have been adopted by increasingly lopsided margins for 22 consecutive years.

As John Oliver observed Sunday night, “It’s been a while since Cuba was a genuine threat, and by continuing the embargo, we’re not just pissing them off, we’re pissing off almost the entire world.”

We can’t do any worse than the vote in 2013, which the U.S. lost by 188-2, even after the U.S. has spent the last year cranking up the embargo machinery against many of our closest allies.

But why even try?

If “Brand America” can ride to the President’s rescue, he should probably saddle it up.

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Cuba and Russia, a tale of two USAID programs; Obama Moves on Terror List (Not on Cuba)

September 21, 2012

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As we published this week’s blast, news alerts were issued that the “People’s Mujehedeen,” or MEK, is being removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations, based in part, the NY Times is reporting, on the MEK’s cooperation in moving 3,000 of its members out of its long time location in Iraq.  Now that Cuba has recently been recognized for its diplomatic role in peace talks soon to take place between Colombia’s government and the FARC, we would like to believe that Cuba will be rewarded for its cooperation and removed from the State Sponsors of Terror list (see more below).

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We’ve written before about the serious problems posed to U.S. interests by the “regime change” programs financed by USAID and undertaken in Cuba.  We return to this subject this week and want to explain why.

Days ago, the New York Times published this story, Russia Demands U.S. End Support of Democracy Groups.  $50 million in aid will be cut off.  This follows actions by Russia’s government to require organizations which receive such aid to register as foreign agents.  The article makes clear that Russia is now clamping down hard on dissent, but that a number of other U.S. allies have also objected to these programs run by “outside groups telling them how to run their affairs.”

Victoria Nuland, the State Department spokeswoman, is quoted saying about Russia’s decision to end the USAID role, “It is their sovereign decision to make,” and the Times went on to reflect her view that if Russia didn’t want the money, it could be better spent elsewhere.

Later, the State Department released the transcript of her official briefing in which she explained:

“…we have committed to the Russian Government that there’ll be no new contracting, no new programming, as of October 1st. But we have also asked for some time to wind down the mission, to conclude the programs that we have underway.”

The U.S. government through USAID operates a considerably more aggressive program in Cuba, aimed explicitly at overturning the island’s government.  Cuba outlawed participation in these programs in the late 1990s, as the U.S. government well knows.  Yet, as previously accounted in Foreign Policy, the State Department and USAID have wasted about $200 million conducting these efforts over the past ten years and have little to show for them.

Because they operate covertly, and Cubans who are touched by these programs often know nothing of their provenance, they put the intended beneficiaries at great legal risk – but not only Cubans.  Alan Gross, a USAID contractor, is serving a fifteen-year sentence in a Cuban prison, after entering the island falsely using a tourist visa on five occasions, bringing with him high technology communications equipment, as AP reported, including a specialized mobile chip often used by the Pentagon and CIA when they need to make satellite signals impossible to track.

Mr. Gross has suffered greatly since his arrest on December 9, 2009.  But the administration seems, to put it charitably, somewhat disengaged toward his plight.  As Fulton Armstrong, a retired analyst formerly with the National Security Council and Senate Foreign Relations Committee, explained in the Miami Herald:

“When a covert action run by the CIA goes bad, and a clandestine officer gets arrested, the U.S. government works up a strategy for negotiating his release.  When a covert operative working for USAID gets arrested, Washington turns up the rhetoric….and refuses to talk.”

Alan’s wife, Judy Gross, recently returned from Cuba deeply concerned about his physical condition.  Long-time advocates of cutting off travel to Cuba colorfully call Mr. Gross a hostage, and urge the Obama administration to turn the screws of sanctions tighter to force his release.   The Obama administration’s public posture is to demand that Cuba’s government unilaterally release him, but has never explained why it would do so after he was convicted of violating their laws.

In the case of Russia, the Obama administration was presented with a problem – Russia’s demand to cut off the democracy promotion programs it operates in that country – and it responded by conducting a negotiation to end them, because they recognized Russia’s sovereignty and are willing to find another way to help Russian NGOs.

For Mr. Gross’s predicament, this is the model, and it starts by respecting Cuba’s sovereignty.

Just this week, Cuba’s government again offered to sit down and talk with the United States about resolving his case.  There is no rational reason that should deter our government from doing so.   The two governments should sit down, right away, and hash this out.  Otherwise, the Obama administration must be asked: if it’s prepared to negotiate with Russia on USAID programs, why is it unwilling to do so to free Mr. Gross?

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On Mother’s Day in Havana and Washington

May 11, 2012

In the U.S., Mother’s Day is a hallmark of our spring calendar, so we wanted to wish a happy holiday to every mother who reads and enjoys the weekly blast.

As you will read below, the organization called Save the Children has released its annual Mothers Index Rating and has once again listed Cuba as the best country in Latin America for mothers.

This will undoubtedly excite an exaggerated reaction from those who can’t stand seeing Cuba presented in a normal or flattering light.

After the New York Times published its piece earlier this month titled “Cuba May Be the Most Feminist Country in Latin America,” the heavy armor was rolled out.  While reasonable men and women of good will disagree about life and living conditions in Cuba, a discussion of the facts simply couldn’t be allowed to stand.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called women “the biggest victims of the Cuban regime,” the author and others holding this view were labeled as apologists, the perspective called “unspeakable,” the New York Times didn’t just publish the article, it ‘squealed,’ etc.

One can only imagine the hail storm that awaits Save the Children.

But this week the hardliners didn’t own the monopoly on absurdity.   Special credit was earned by the U.S. State Department which publicly rejected an offer by Cuba to negotiate with the United States on a broad range of issues, including the Alan Gross case.

Mr. Gross, imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009, for his work in a USAID-funded regime change program, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, pleaded for a brief release to visit his mother, aged ninety, who is suffering from cancer – a Mother’s Day gift they could both enjoy – and made his case in a telephone interview with CNN.

Reacting to the interview, Josefina Vidal, a top Cuban Foreign Ministry official, said that while Cuba was ready to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. on Mr. Gross’s case, Havana wanted “to sit down at the negotiating table with Washington to discuss all outstanding issues in an effort to establish normal relations,” according to CBS News.

Rather than seizing the initiative, the State Department “reacted sharply,” saying Vidal’s statement confirmed its belief that Mr. Gross is a hostage and there is no justification for his continued imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is negotiating with the Taliban on a prisoner exchange that could free an American soldier held hostage in Afghanistan.

Leaving us to wonder what principle is at stake when U.S. decides who to talk to about what.

Our policy of not talking directly to Cuba on subjects core to the national interest, such as protecting our shared environment against an oil spill, or as central to our humanitarian interests as freeing a pawn in our Cold War efforts to topple the Cuban government, both of which we discuss below, might be good politics in some precincts, but it’s a substantial and damaging  failure to communicate.

Our mothers never would approve of that.

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