Tilting at Windmills

May 16, 2014

At a time when Russia is strengthening its security alliance with Cuba and the European Union is moving to replace its Common Position of isolation with intensified diplomatic engagement, why is the United States still tilting at the windmills of the Cold War?

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When our Cuba program began visiting the island over a decade ago, it was hard to find a Cuban who had a kind word to say about Russia. They felt betrayed.  Once the Soviet Union fell, and its subsidies were withdrawn, the Cuban economy and living standards collapsed.  “We lost our sense of the future,” a professor memorably told us.

Of course, during the Cold War, most Americans hated the Soviets (and Cuba) too.  As Dr. Lou Pérez reminds us in “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Cuba’s alliance with the U.S.S.R., and especially the Missiles of October in 1962, focused U.S. policy on “arresting and reversing” Soviet encroachment in the hemisphere and on “punishing Cuba for aiding and abetting Soviet expansion.”

For decades, we acted out this U.S. obsession, leaving deep scars across the hemisphere and punishing Cuba with sanctions that remain in place so long after the Cold War ended.

This history came to mind when Russia’s Security Council and Cuba’s Commission for National Security and Defense met in Moscow to sign a cooperation deal on security; a development that attracted virtually no press coverage; except, poetically, by the Voice of America. Cuba, for its part, is pursuing its self-interest and looking forward.

Europe has also put the Cold War in its rear-view mirror.  For years, former Eastern bloc nations kept the European Union from changing its policy of diplomatic isolation toward Cuba, what it called the “Common Position,” adopted the same year as the Helms-Burton law, though crafted with a lighter touch.

This year, however, the EU decided to replace isolation with engagement.  Its diplomats are directly talking to Cuban counterparts about trade and investment, development cooperation, governance and human rights.  A joint meeting concluded in Havana two weeks ago with a roadmap for moving forward, formal negotiations planned every two months, and an agreement to have “informal contacts,” as the Latin Post reported, in between.

It’s not possible from this vantage point to see where the EU-Cuba negotiations will lead.  But, they represent an important transformation by both sides; Cuba, as Carlos Alzugaray observed, entered the talks without preconditions.  He quotes Vice President Díaz Canel as saying the government would favor anything that can be constructed on the basis of respect.

What this means, ironically, is that Cuba and the EU have taken John Kerry’s advice, offered in his remarks before the OAS, when the Secretary of State envisioned Latin America as a region with  “Countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues, and adhering not to doctrine, but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.”

This is what the United States ought to be doing, too.  To his credit, President Obama restarted talks on migration and restoring mail service; he is also allowing scientists and environmentalists, even some with U.S. government jobs, to collaborate on the environment.

But, he has gone this far and not further.  Just this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, said publicly that Cuba must meet political preconditions before the U.S. will consider advancing the relationship.

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens are paying for costly schemes – like a self-help video with its “incredible disappearing $450,000 contract” discovered by Tracey Eaton, and ZunZuneo, USAID’s Twitter Trojan Horse, uncovered by the AP – that reflect the Cold War mentality of sneaking into Cuba through the backdoor, when our government ought to be engaging with Cuba openly and respectfully and with the region on the interests we share.

That means working with Panama to avert a region-wide boycott at next year’s Summit of the Americas by ensuring that Cuba, as Francisco Álvarez de Soto, Panama’s Foreign Minister, said, is “brought into the OAS and all their forums.” It means directly engaging with Cuba, as U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and her delegation advocated, without preconditions, so we can finally obtain the release of Alan Gross.

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People who seek a new relationship with Cuba are at worst called “appeasers.” At best, they are considered naïve.  That’s what his opponent called then-Senator Obama, when he talked about negotiating with Cuba in 2008.  We liked his position then, when he responded: “There’s nothing more naïve than continuing a policy that has failed for decades.”

But five years later, when Secretary Kerry told the OAS, “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is dead,” he couldn’t get many in the audience to applaud.  Perhaps they found him naïve.

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The Paralysis of Analysis and the Politics of Denial

November 16, 2012

As we predicted last week, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution condemning the U.S. embargo of Cuba.  This was not, we confess, a very difficult prediction to make, since the U.N. has made this statement for twenty years.  We also predict the U.N. will keep on doing so until the policy changes. In the meanwhile, we enjoyed The Nation’s stellar description of the vote saying the resolution was adopted by a “thumping majority.”  That was good writing.

Here’s something, however, we didn’t anticipate; namely, that people would still be pouring over the presidential election vote in Florida and, at this late date, arguing over what it means.  These are not unconnected events.

Ian Williams, a senior analyst with Foreign Policy in Focus put it this way:

“The UN vote on the Cuba embargo reminds us yet again that U.S. foreign policy is concocted in a bubble detached from the real world, where most nations recognize that the boycott is designed to pander to the most reactionary Cuban émigrés in Florida.”

This is why there is a lot of hand-wringing and hand-waving over who exactly won the Cuban American vote in Florida.  We know that President Obama won the Latino vote nationally, won Florida and, as former U.S. Senator George LeMieux put it, “it even appears that President Obama may have won the Cuban vote in Florida, a previously unimaginable result.”  His thinking was in line with Miami Democratic pollster Bendixen & Amandi International whose exit polls showed Mr. Obama won the Cuban vote, 51-49 percent over Romney.

The Miami Herald also reported, “Obama actually won Cuban-Americans who voted on Election Day itself, taking 53% of their vote compared to 47 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.”  But the Herald, like others, goes on to say that, in the end, “Romney narrowly carried Cuban-Americans, 52-48 percent, which is a decrease for Republicans when compared to 2008.”  Anyhow, as ABC News concluded, “Cuban-Americans (are) No Longer a Sure Bet for the GOP.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who runs the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp., and supported Governor Romney, said these historically high defections were the fault of Paul Ryan, Mr. Romney’s vice presidential nominee, who was against the embargo before he was for it.  That, he said, “created skepticism among some Cuban-Americans and gave them (Democrats) an opening to make a case on economic and social issues.”

This is actually quite clever.  Think about what Mr. Claver-Carone is arguing:  the biggest supporters of a hardline policy, who didn’t think the Romney ticket was hardline enough, voted instead for the candidate Mr. Claver-Carone had previously said was guilty of “unilateral appeasement” of the Castro government.

Will this mean anything for Cuba policy going forward?  It should. If the Cuban-American community that has insisted that the U.S. stick with the embargo policy for five decades is now divided, it will be exposed as a political façade, a Potemkin village, freeing the political system at last to the change the policy.

Back to Mr. Williams:  “Obama, embarking on a second term, and winning Florida despite the Cuban vote, owes them nothing. He should use his influence to call off the embargo and allow free travel to and from Cuba.”

That is an idea that would win a thumping majority not just in the U.N. but throughout our country as well.

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