USAID’s Hip Hop Hiccup and the “Smart Power Prom”

December 12, 2014

A new USAID scandal was exposed yesterday by the exceptional investigative team at the Associated Press.

USAID, acting through its notorious contracting partner, Creative Associates International, tried to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community to intensify the political messaging of its artists and use their fans to foment a rapper’s revolution.

The elaborate plan recruited Cuban musicians for initiatives that included trips to Europe for concerts and video workshops that were actually covers for anti-regime training. The Cuban participants did not know that the U.S. government was behind it.

Cloaked in elaborate secrecy using lawyers, front companies, and banks, the project was also concealed from Members of Congress whose job it was to scrutinize it.  Senator Patrick Leahy, the USAID oversight chairman who first learned of it Thursday, called the effort “reckless” and “stupid,” although the program ended in failure two years before. It seems that only the agency, its contractors, and Cuban state security knew what was going on.

There is a detailed item below that explains the story in nearly all of its troubling dimensions, so we’ll try to avoid duplicating it here. Instead, we focus on what comes through so clearly in the coverage and in AP’s accompanying documents, and that is the air of arrogance that permeates this latest example of the regime change program.

The U.S. completely misses the fact that Cuba has its own rap community that has been leading a conversation on the island about tough issues like race and the system’s stewardship of the revolution since the Soviet Union fell. Our government can’t imagine Cubans deciding for themselves what kind of country they want to build without our training them to do so.

As Phil Peters puts it, “This mentality views Cuban civil society as ours to shape.” You can see this myopic thinking at work in reports by the consultants (their writing is cleaned up for readability) who came to Amsterdam and Madrid to train their unwitting Cuban clients to be rappers for revolution. They found Cubans who were thoughtful, cautious, and not yet ready to take decisions that could put themselves or others at risk:

“Adrian is perceiving that their work is creating a change but he is not sure what type of change…It is my perception that he will need some time to think about change he wants to cause in his community and his personal responsibility.”

“They are perceiving themselves as young artists and they would like to stay in that role (without taking the burden of big responsibilities for societal processes) although they would like to see changes in their community.”

“Trainees were very receptive, motivated and enthusiastic… But, my impression is that they are not quite sure what this they would like to do together is? Or even better why they want to do it”

“My impression is that there is a consensus within the group they want to some changes in their society but it seems they never fully discuss what kind of changes they would like to see.”

What is slowing them down? Just take a look:

“In terms of group dynamic they are quite flat and democratic — they are bringing decisions through discussion. I am sure that was great environment to work within while executing A’s map project (a previous project) but I am not sure it would be best way for the future.”

The group was being too democratic. That must have made their democracy trainer really mad.

You’d like to think that there would be accountability, that somebody would take responsibility for this effort.

Not USAID. In making the debatable claim, “Any assertions that our work is secret or covert are simply false,” they refused to address the damage it inflicted on the existing discourse, or the risks placed on the Cubans from whom USAID involvement was concealed. USAID spokesman Matt Herrick: “It’s not something we are embarrassed about in any way.”

Not the State Department, whose spokesperson said in a briefing yesterday, “these programs are managed with appropriate discretion. So it was the responsibility of the grantee.” By grantee, we suppose she meant Creative Associates International. By responsibility, we think she was saying not the State Department’s problem.

Not the contractor, Creative. We visited the Creative website, and couldn’t find a trace of apology or even a Cuba program. Not in their news or press release page. We couldn’t even find a Cuba-Creative connection when we clicked on a map of the island on the page titled Where We Work. In the overt-covert world where they operate, Cuba seems to vanish without a trace.

We didn’t expect to find an apology because, truthfully, Washington really loves this stuff.

The U.S. Global Leadership Coalition held its annual tribute dinner the other night, an event which wags in Washington call the “Smart Power Prom.” Who was dubbed this year’s “Smart Power Prom King”? USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah.

The dinner was also a coronation of sorts for Senator Lindsay Graham, who will take the gavel from Senator Pat Leahy and chair the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee when the new Congress convenes in January. The subcommittee oversees Dr. Shah and the programs he administers at USAID.

A trade reporter at the event quoted Graham as saying, “I challenge any other part of the American government to prove a better return on investment than USAID.”

He said that at dinner on Wednesday. If he stands by that statement today, well, that’s kind of sad.

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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.

***

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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ICYMI: FATF Takes Cuba Off Its AML/CFT List! Wait, What?

October 31, 2014

Unless you cyber-troll the FATF website, you probably missed this item.

Last Friday, FATF congratulated Cuba for taking such strong actions to police its financial system that Cuba will no longer be monitored for its compliance with anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorist finance rules.

Be patient. Don’t flip to the “Recommended Reading” section just yet. This is about Cuba’s false and unfair listing by the U.S. State Department as a state sponsor of terror.

FATF is actually a thing, not just a bad acronym: The Financial Action Task Force. It was created in 1989 at meeting of the G-7 nations to combat money-laundering and, after September 11, 2001, its mandate expanded to cover terrorist financing.

Countries that fail to embrace and enforce its rules suffer consequences. As the Wall Street Journal reports, it is “difficult for those nations to transact with the banking systems” of countries throughout the world, costing them billions.

If countries out of step with FATF are also subject to U.S. sanctions (e.g. the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorism-sponsoring states), their problems multiply. As a practical matter, they are locked out of the global financing sector, which could deny them “billions of dollars in potential investment,” according to one analysis.

Cuba knows this well.

Cuba was added to the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism in 1982, when the Reagan administration decided to play politics with counter-terrorism, a dangerous game taken up by every White House since. Listen to Dick Clarke, a career civil servant who advised three U.S. presidents on counter-terrorism policy, explain why Cuba stayed on the list in the 1990s; it wasn’t because Cuba supported terrorism, but rather it was for purely domestic political reasons.

Because no administration has been as candid as Mr. Clarke, they have kept Cuba on the list, but shifted their rationales for doing so as circumstances warranted.

At the start, the U.S. government accused Cuba of supporting insurgencies in Africa and Latin America. While Cuba’s activist foreign policy once involved supporting armed insurrection abroad, Cuba has long since ended these practices, as the Congressional Research Service (CRS) explains.

In 2004, the Bush administration called out Cuba for publicly opposing Washington’s “War on Terror,” not for supporting terror but for voicing criticism of U.S. policies. This was a flimsy charge, but it took the State Department a few years to drop it.

As recently as 2011, the State Department has used Cuba’s failure to meet FATF standards to justify its presence on the terror list: “Despite sustained and consistent overtures, Cuba has refused to substantively engage directly with the FATF. It has not committed to FATF standards and it is not a member of a FATF-style regional body.” Then, things changed.

Just a year later, State reported that “Cuba became a member of the Financial Action Task Force of South America against Money Laundering, a FATF-style regional body. With this action, Cuba has committed to adopting and implementing the FATF Recommendations.”

By the time the Department issued its 2013 report, all references to Cuba’s compliance with FATF’s standards had vanished completely.

So, remind us again, why is Cuba still on the terror list?

Even the State Department seemed confused when it released this year’s terror report which said, “there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

In another sentence, State reported “Cuba has long provided safe haven to members of Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).” But, in the very next line, State said, “Reports continued to indicate that Cuba’s ties to ETA have become more distant.”

We also know that Spain’s government told former President Carter that “ETA members are there at the request of the Spanish government,” and that Colombia, a close U.S. ally, is relying on Cuba as a host and facilitator for its peace talks with the FARC to help end their civil war.

This leaves only one allegation: “The Cuban government continued to harbor fugitives wanted in the United States.”

Here, the report refers to Joanne Chesimard, convicted in the U.S. for her role in the murder of a New Jersey state policeman, and to other so-called “militant groups” active in the U.S. decades ago. But, Cuba’s decision to allow them to live on the island is not an act tantamount to supporting terrorism.

Terrorism is a terrible thing. In 2013, the data show there were over 9,700 terror attacks worldwide that caused more than 17,800 deaths and 32,500 injuries. But not one casualty, not one act of violence was connected to Cuba.

So, if Cuba has zero connections to terrorism, why is it that when a reporter asked Marie Harf, the Spokesperson for State, “How much longer are you going to keep Cuba on the list of state sponsors of terrorism?” she replied by saying, “Well, it’s a good question that I know comes up a lot. The State Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list”?

Of course, she could have offered a more candid answer. There’s just one thing holding up Cuba’s removal from the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and it isn’t radical fugitives from the 1970s or 80s who found safe haven in Cuba.

It’s politics – and that’s a FATF, er, a fact.

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Cuban Doctors in Africa: A Transformative Moment for U.S. Policy

October 24, 2014

During the Cold War, Cuba’s decision to send its armed forces to Africa to support newly independent governments and movements fighting apartheid was used by the Reagan administration in 1982 to help justify putting Cuba on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

This false designation stigmatizes Cuba today and exacts an increasingly hard toll on its citizens and its ability to conduct commerce abroad.

Now that Cuba has returned to Africa three decades later with an “army of white robes” comprised of doctors and nurses fighting Ebola in Sierra Leone and heading to Liberia and Guinea, this is a teachable moment for the world to see what Cuba can do.

But, Cuba’s intervention against Ebola can also be a transformative moment for President Obama, if he uses it to redeem and reform U.S. policy toward Cuba.

When President Obama attended his first meeting of the Summit of the Americas, hosted by Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, Scott Wilson of the Washington Post asked him two questions at the final press conference of the event.

“What have you learned over two days of listening to leaders here about how U.S. policy is perceived in the region? And can you name a specific policy that you will change as a result of what you’ve heard?”

Although the President’s answer said nothing about how he’d change U.S. policy, he talked unexpectedly about Cuba’s medical internationalism:

“One thing that I thought was interesting — and I knew this in a more abstract way but it was interesting in very specific terms — hearing from these leaders who when they spoke about Cuba talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend.”

If the President did not know then about Cuba’s broad commitment to send doctors and other health professionals to help other nations respond to crises or provide health care to people in the developing world, many of whom never met a doctor before a Cuban physician showed up, he surely knows now.

As the BBC reported this week, “Cuba is now the biggest single provider of healthcare workers to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, more than the Red Cross or richer nations.” But, it’s not just Africa and Ebola. There are 50,731 Cuban medical personnel working in 66 countries — as John Kirk says, “more than those deployed by the G7 countries combined.”

Cuba can send well-trained doctors and health professionals who have volunteered for the Ebola mission because it has a vast system of medical education and the capacity to dispatch teams of doctors from its Henry Reeve Brigade for service abroad in the event of natural disasters.

The Henry Reeve Brigade was formed in 2005, as the Center for International Policy reported here, with the intention of sending 1,600 medical professionals to assist during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, but the offer was declined – then ridiculed – by the United States.

Soon after, Emilio González, who the Wall Street Journal identified as a staunchly anti-Castro exile, launched a plan to undermine Cuba’s deployment of doctors overseas. González, director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008, infamously called Cuba’s medical internationalism policy “state-sponsored human trafficking.”

Rolled out by the Bush administration in 2006, the “Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program” lures Cuban medical personnel off their posts by making them eligible for special immigration rights simply by presenting themselves at U.S. diplomatic posts abroad.

As Greg Grandin noted recently in The Nation, President Obama has left this cynical policy in place, defended by cynics like Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and others in Congress. It really needs to be terminated.

But, when the President attends his last Summit of the Americas next year, it would be good, but not nearly sufficient, for him to answer Scott Wilson’s question from 2009 by saying, “yes, one policy I would change is repealing that program that steals Cuban doctors from their posts in the world’s poorest countries.” The moment is demanding more from his leadership.

At a time when Cuban doctors are performing one of the great humanitarian missions of our day, when the UN General Assembly is about to condemn the U.S. embargo for the 23rd time and when public opinion – across the U.S. and within the Cuban diaspora – favors major changes in the policy as never before, the President has ample political space to do a lot more.

He has the authority to end most travel restrictions, remove Cuba from the terror list, and modernize trade and other policies, without risking the threat of political backlash that immobilized U.S. presidents in the past.

Steps like these would open the way for real dialogue with Cuba’s government, help reset our relations with the region and global community, and offer President Obama a meaningful foreign policy legacy. As his days in office dwindle down, it’s hard to imagine he’ll be offered a better time to act.

Join our friends at LAWG by signing their petition to get off Cuba off the list.

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The anti-isolationist, pro-free trade, Cuba embargo supporters

September 19, 2014

This week, two staunch defenders of the U.S. embargo against Cuba came out against isolationism and in favor of expanding global trade.

Huh?

Not that he didn’t mean it – although the AP headline, “Sen. Rubio adopts role of foreign policy hawk,” suggests otherwise – Senator Rubio gave a speech and published an op-ed marking clear lines between those he deems “isolationist,” including President Obama, former Secretary Clinton, and Senator Rand Paul, and those who understand the dangers of the world by involving themselves and our country in them.

The speech, as it appeared to the Washington Times, was part of Rubio’s larger political strategy, because he is “considering seeking the 2016 presidential nomination.” That logic we understand. But, it’s hard to reconcile Rubio’s interest in stopping flights to Cuba by American travelers and condemning investment overtures by the U.S. business community, with his principled opposition to isolationism.

Then, his colleague, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, gave flight on Twitter in favor of expanding trade and creating more jobs in South Florida. This made perfect sense, economically and politically. In the metro area where her South Florida district is located, exports in 2013 alone totaled $41 billion and accounted for 67% of Florida’s total merchandise exports, according to figures from the U.S. Commerce Department.

We get it. It’s good to be for jobs. However, it’s hard to reconcile her tweet for trade with her deeply personal criticisms of Floridians who seek to sell agriculture exports to Cuba. She once said of these Florida farmers, “They mask their greed with this veneer of humanitarianism but Mother Teresa they are not.” More recently, she called Alfonso Fanjul, a leader of the exile community, “pathetic” and “shameful,” because he wants to return to Cuba as an investor doing business in the sugar industry.

What she’s done is more than throw shade on her constituents. All of U.S. agriculture is affected by food export restrictions she supports, put into place by President George W. Bush. Corn and soy producers are still working Washington to get these barriers taken down 14 years after food sales to Cuba were legalized.

In their statements, Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen are doing more than grandstanding. We focus on them now – as we did two weeks ago after their staff members visited China on a junket paid for by the Chinese government – because their risible double-standards shouldn’t distract us from the serious human impacts of their policies to isolate Cuba, diplomatically and economically.

They support immigration policies which incentivize Cubans to take to rafts to gain entry into the United States, policies that just contributed to the largest death toll from any migrant boat disaster in more than two decades. Those policies also resulted in a criminal indictment of a Miami businessman who financed the operation that smuggled Yasiel Puig out of Cuba, who was then held captive in Mexico to extort a promise to pay the smugglers 20% of his future earnings.

At a time when Cuba is sending 165 medical professionals to fight the Ebola outbreak in Africa, they also support the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which is still working to accelerate the Cuban brain drain, when the U.S. should be backing every country responding to this humanitarian crisis, including Cuba.

None of this will lift the spirits of Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, who is about to observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for the fifth consecutive year in a Havana prison. He was convicted for activities financed by the Helms-Burton law, whose purpose is to overthrow Cuba’s government, activities that Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen both support.

Mr. Gross, we’re sure, won’t appreciate the irony of Senator Rubio, a declared opponent of diplomacy with Cuba to gain his release, now pledging his allegiance to the cause of anti-isolationism. Or that Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, devoted to trade as she is, is also a proudly committed obstacle to a deal swapping the remainder of the Cuban Five to secure his freedom.

It is diplomacy, not irony, that will lead to his release.

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The Roar of the Lion, and the Sound of a Whisper

September 12, 2014

Dear Friends:

When President Obama described our role in assembling the coalition the United States will lead into war, he called it “America at its best.”

But, when a State Department spokesperson took a question about U.S. cooperation with Cuba on an issue of “security and safety,” she reacted like a character in Harry Potter reluctant to say Voldemort, because “We do not speak his name.”

The backstory, reported below in greater detail, involves a private plane flying from upstate New York to Naples, Florida that lost contact with air traffic controllers. As it headed off its flight plan, two F-15 fighter jets were sent to investigate “an unresponsive aircraft [then] flying over the Atlantic Ocean.” Three persons were unresponsive and presumed dead before the plane crashed into the seas off Jamaica, after flying through Cuba’s airspace.

It should have come as no surprise that U.S. authorities were in contact with their Bahamian and Cuban counterparts. “Obviously,” Marie Harf said at the State Department podium, “this is an issue of security and safety, and so we were in touch as well.”

Nor was it a secret. The FAA had already gone on record with a policy statement, “FAA International Strategies 2010-2014, Western Hemisphere Region,” outlining its objectives relating to Cuba:

  • Work closely with the Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of State (DOS) and other U.S. Government agencies to support the Administration’s Cuba initiatives and policies as well as FAA mission critical operations.
  • Negotiate for the sharing of radar data with key partners adjacent to U.S. delegated airspace: Bahamas, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Haiti, Mexico, Saint Maarten.
  • Continue to work with the DOS to facilitate safety-critical operational meetings between the FAA and Cuban air traffic officials on a regular basis.

Yet, the terse answers to questions about the plane incident, and if it could be a model for future cooperation, sounded like the State Department was protecting state secrets. Read the full transcript of the briefing here and judge for yourselves.

For example, when Ms. Harf was asked about the flight incident, she offered a sparse 68-word recitation of the facts, before quickly referring reporters to NORAD and the FAA. After saying, “We have been in touch” with Cuba and the Bahamas, she replied, “I don’t have more details on those conversations,” and never mentioned the FAA’s strategy, publicly released in 2010.

As the reporter pressed further on whether the kind of cooperation that took place on the flight could expand to other “issues of national interest, like … security in the region,” she responded with boilerplate about talks on postal service and migration, but concluded, “I don’t have more for you on that issue than that.”

Apparently, there’s a fine line between putting together a Middle East coalition, an occasion to trumpet national pride, and an example of healthy cooperation with Cuba, which got little more than a meek mention at State.

It’s hard not to notice the contrast. CBS News labeled nations in the coalition as “frenemies” of the United States. As the State Department reported this year, citizens living in at least one of those nations, “lack the right and legal means to change their government; [face] pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”

While the Administration has engaged with Cuba effectively, on a limited basis and in discrete areas like migration, environment, drug interdiction, and law enforcement, the White House and State Department prefer to keep these activities hidden below-the-radar, as if Parental Discretion was advised in their dealings with the American people.

The U.S. can and should do more. As we said in “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” it would be in the U.S. national interest to work with Cuba openly and closely on counterterrorism, military affairs, greater exchanges among scientists and artists and the like, while also developing what the countries have lacked for so long: a language for their diplomacy based on engagement instead of preconditions.

Doing this would reflect the values of Cubans and Americans alike. Such public diplomacy would also strengthen those in Cuba who take risks by supporting reform at home and engagement with the U.S. abroad.

Yes, this will be opposed by Members of the U.S. Congress who conflate engagement with appeasement. But, whispering about working with Cuba has never gotten them to stand down, and it never will.

So we say, stop whispering; engage more, unabashedly. If the Administration used its remaining time to make a more forceful commitment to diplomacy with Cuba, that would give all of us something to shout about.

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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?”

***

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?”

***

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.

***

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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Flashback/Fast Forward: Obama, Cuban Docs, and the Summit of the Americas

April 13, 2012

As President Obama makes his way to Colombia for the Summit of the Americas – “to tout his trade record and convince millions of Hispanic voters back home he cares about the region,” as Reuters tartly reported – we found ourselves thinking back three years when he last attended this regional meeting.

At a concluding press conference, the president recounted what he learned about the activities of Cuban doctors in the region thanks to their nation’s commitment to “medical internationalism”:

One thing that I thought was interesting — and I knew this in a more abstract way but it was interesting in very specific terms — hearing from these leaders who when they spoke about Cuba talked very specifically about the thousands of doctors from Cuba that are dispersed all throughout the region, and upon which many of these countries heavily depend.

The Cubans have been helping nations around the world react to crises and natural disasters, and to meet their people’s primary care needs, since 1960. The achievements of this program -chronicled by scholars such as John Kirk, and non-governmental organizations like MEDICC -were well known outside the United States when President Obama heard about them in April 2009.

Following the earthquake in Haiti, however, when Cuban doctors already stationed there were the first to respond, became the backbone of the fight against cholera, and continued helping Haitians recover and build a new health care system long after many in the international community diverted their gaze, the full extent of Cuba’s commitment to public health outside its own borders was hard to ignore even in the United States.

With the president attending the 2012 Summit of the Americas, we have to ask this: Who benefits from his decision to continue a Bush-era policy of coaxing Cuban doctors to leave their medical missions and defect to the United States?

In 2006, the Bush administration started the “Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program” to encourage Cuban medical personnel saving lives internationally, most often located in rural areas or slums of the world’s poorest countries, to leave their posts. The Program promised special U.S. immigration rights for these Cuban doctors and health personnel, today numbering nearly 39,000. Although Cubans who reach the United States seeking asylum already enjoy preferential immigration status when they arrive, this program makes Cuban medical personnel eligible for parole abroad.

As Fox News Latino reported, the program was “the brainchild of Cuba-born diplomat Emilio González, director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008…a staunchly anti-Castro exile. He has characterized Cuba’s policy of sending doctors and other health workers abroad as ‘state-sponsored human trafficking’.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 1,500 Cuban doctors and health care personnel received visas under the program issued by U.S. consulates in 65 countries by the end of 2010. The promise to enter our country at the head of our long immigration line to practice medicine in the United States is a powerful inducement, as Cubans devoted to working in the medical system freely admit. “You’d go, too, if you could triple your pay,” said Juan Bautista Palay, chief of physical therapy at Havana’s 10 de Octubre Hospital.

It would be bad enough if this program simply functioned as its authors intended, to undermine an appealing, humanitarian feature of the Cuban system, no matter what it meant to patients in the developing world. But the story gets worse.

Once Cuban doctors arrive, many are prevented from practicing. Sometimes, records substantiating their credentials are withheld by Cuba’s government. Others are disqualified from gaining residency because they were once members of the Cuban communist party.

Yes, as the Miami Herald reported without a trace of irony, “Questions about party membership remain on residence and citizenship application forms, as relics from the Cold War, when the United States deemed communism its chief enemy.”

For Cuban doctors lured here, it’s Lucy and the football meets the “Red scare.”

But most often, the reason Cuban doctors cannot hit the ground running as practicing physicians in the U.S. is because one piece of crucial information was withheld in the “parole promise”: they cannot hang out their shingles until they pass the three-part US Medical Licensing Exam, for which many US medical students bone up for years, through special and costly preparatory courses…not to mention the several thousand dollars in exam fees themselves. Other health professionals face similar hurdles.

President Obama should have ended this nonsense unconditionally three years ago after encountering the region’s reaction to Cuba’s doctors; or two years ago after their heroic work in Haiti made such a decisive difference; or even this month before attending the Summit in Cartagena. He might have even laid out a program of medical cooperation with Cuba, as our friend Dr. Peter Bourne recommended, to make the most of what Cuban doctors have to offer for the medically-underserved in this hemisphere. But he didn’t.

The next time the heads of government from the region gather at the Summit of the Americas, we expect Cuba’s to be among them.

By then, our government should stop the shameful -and we think un-American- practice of plucking Cuban doctors from the world’s poorest countries where are they are serving patients and doing so much good.

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