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.

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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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China Climate Deal a Model for Big Reforms on Cuba

November 14, 2014

The deal President Obama struck with China’s President Xi Jinping committing both countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enraged climate change deniers, elements of the coal industry, and its core supporters in Congress.

If you look at what made the breakthrough possible, how it happened, how it will be implemented, and what motivated both sides to reach the agreement, it should also make hardline supporters of Cuba sanctions very, very nervous.

President Obama went to China for the leaders’ meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which promotes economic cooperation in the region, and for bilateral talks with China’s president.

Preceding the bilateral meeting with President Xi, diplomats from China and the U.S. negotiated agreements on trade, visas, and security; the latter referring to a U.S. priority to get China’s military to adopt international norms and reduce conflicts over borders as well as disputes over fishing and land rights.

The climate change agreement, which came about after “nine months of quiet dialogue between the two countries,” was described by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations as “a serious diplomatic breakthrough after years of unsuccessful efforts to do something big and joint that goes beyond clean energy cooperation and gets to one of the most sensitive parts of climate policy.”

China and the United States are the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon pollution, the main driver of climate change. Opponents of climate change legislation in the U.S. consistently cite China’s reluctance to cap its carbon emissions as evidence that action by the U.S. would be a futile exercise. By negotiating a deal with Xi, Mr. Obama has taken that excuse out of play.

According to James Fallows writing in The Atlantic, China was moved to action because it recognized that “environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability — even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related.”

What most infuriates President Obama’s domestic political opponents is not just the forward movement he produced through bilateral diplomacy before the two summits in China, but the fact that the president can fulfill our part of the agreement by taking executive action.

By pledging to use the power of his office to do what Congress has proven unable and unwilling to do, the president’s climate deal was called by one analyst, “arguably as significant on pure foreign policy terms as it is on environmental terms. It sets a precedent of the U.S. and China not just cooperating on a difficult issue — as a very rich country and a poorer country, their climate policies are necessarily at odds — but cooperating on global leadership.”

Equally important, the president demonstrated that his foreign policy could walk and chew gum at the same time by scoring several critical agreements with China while also reaffirming his concerns about China’s record on human rights.

There is no clearer case for what President Obama should do in Cuba than what he just accomplished in China.

He used engagement and quiet diplomacy to reach agreements that reflected the national interest of both countries. He will implement the deal by executive action. By reaching an agreement that replaced inaction by China with a substantial climate change commitment, he removed the greatest barrier — at least rhetorically — to real action on climate by the United States. He managed to negotiate these complicated accords ahead of two key summits so that he wouldn’t have to travel to the region empty handed.

Today, the greatest obstacle to progress with Cuba is the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross on the island and the sentences being served by three Cuban spies in the United States. Gross broke Cuban law by engaging in regime change activities, and the Cuban spies broke U.S. law by failing to register as foreign agents as they investigated exile terror groups that had killed Cuban citizens.

President Obama can use the powers of his office to strike the deal that will free Mr. Gross and the Cuban prisoners while also removing the biggest impediment to greater U.S. engagement with Cuba on a variety of issues, including human rights.

There is nothing he can do to win over his most virulent opponents in Congress. Just yesterday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen denounced Cuba for its leadership in the fight against Ebola and criticized any effort to free Alan Gross that would include negotiations with Cuba.

But if the president wants to succeed at next year’s Summit of the Americas, where all of our nation’s hemispheric allies will be joined at the table by Cuba, he must make substantial changes in our foreign policy toward the island’s government, as Richard Feinberg argues here.

Just as he struck a deal with China to control carbon emissions over the objections of climate deniers while also restating our nation’s commitment to human rights, the president can overcome those invested in our current, polluted relationship with Cuba by changing the climate around U.S. diplomacy toward Cuba.

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Miami’s Democratic Opening

October 10, 2014

Not long ago – in places like Miami – it was dangerous to express views that deviated from the strict hardline that supported the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Human Rights Watch reported in 1994 that Miami-based participants in “The Nation and Emigration” conference in Havana returned home to find themselves “besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assaults, acts of violence, and economic retaliation.”

This is not ancient history for Vivian Mannerud, owner of a travel agency, who helped 340 people from Miami to attend Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit to Cuba, after which she found her office destroyed by fire. As she said at the time, “It looks like an atomic bomb exploded. It’s pulverized and the furniture is ashes. There’s not even a leg of a desk.”

As we documented in our essay bidding farewell to Francisco Aruca, early efforts in Miami to have a democratic debate on what is the best Cuba policy took nearly a generation to bear fruit. But core values – most importantly, love of family – have gradually resulted in more and more members of the Cuban diaspora finding and raising their voices.

You can hear them, as measured by public opinion surveys conducted this year by the Atlantic Council, the Miami Herald, and by the prestigious Florida International University survey. FIU’s 2014 poll found towering majorities in Miami-Dade’s Cuban American community for lifting all travel restrictions for all Americans who wish to visit Cuba.

In the past, candidates standing for election in Florida, regardless of party or office, simply adopted the hardline position most suitable to meet their political needs.

But now, you can hear diaspora voices echoing in Hillary Clinton’s memoir, published in anticipation of her run for the presidency, in which she revealed her surprising support for lifting the embargo. As NPR said at the time, “There may be no greater sign of the declining power of the Cuba embargo as an issue in U.S. politics than Clinton’s openness about advocating for its end.”

You can also hear them in the decision by Charlie Crist, running for governor this year in Florida, who advocates “taking away” the embargo; and, in the public support offered by Alfonso (Alfy) Fanjul, along with many other foreign policy figures who previously supported sanctions, for increasing travel to Cuba and undertaking other forms of engagement with the island.

Not everyone sees these developments as representing progress (or even reality); remember, for example, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, who called the Atlantic Council’s findings of super-majority support among Miami Cubans for big changes in U.S.-Cuba policy, “an absolute lie.”

But, as our friends at #CubaNow proved this week with their new video, it is possible to have a robust, open, two-sided debate about policies like Cuban American travel to the island, even just one month before the 2014 midterm elections.

Their Spanish-language ad, titled “Protect,” urges registered voters in the Cuban American community to vote their interests by supporting candidates who will protect their rights to travel to the island without limits, rights restored in 2009 by President Obama.

Release of this ad, as we report below, helped lift the issue of family travel into the campaign for Congress in Florida’s 26th district, in which the incumbent Representative Joe Garcia will face Carlos Curbelo in next month’s mid-term elections. In in this race, it’s fair game to raise the question: where do you stand on family travel?

After Ric Herrero, #CubaNow’s executive director, issued a public challenge to Governor Scott and his opponent Charlie Crist “to clarify where they stand on U.S.-Cuba policy,” the candidates have been forced to answer the question – do you support the embargo? – in the Telemundo debate they recorded this morning for broadcast tonight.

According to the Tampa Bay Times’ initial coverage of their face-off, “Crist wants to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Scott says it should continue.”

We’ll find out from the election returns on November 4– in Miami’s 26th Congressional district and across Florida in the governor’s race – how the candidates with these contrasting positions fared. In its survey published in June, the Miami Herald reported that 2/3 of Floridians said that Crist’s position on the embargo would make “no difference” in how they’ll make their choices for governor in November. That could well be true.

However, what we think is worth noting – and celebrating – is this: When public officials in the U.S. work to stop travel to Cuba and oppose engagement with Cuba’s government, they are also trying to silence the growing calls for exchange between the citizens and diplomats of both our countries. Now their obstructionism comes with a price.

By contrast, as the inhibitions against having a real, two-way discussion on U.S.-Cuba policy have given way to a free, respectful debate, the Cuban American community and people across Florida are making an inspiring statement about our values and willingness to stand behind them.

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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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Rubio’s Secret: His China Policy Would Work Great in Cuba

September 5, 2014

Senator Marco Rubio is on to something. He’s already put together a smart replacement for his ineffective Cuba policy. He just doesn’t know it yet. It’s his China policy.

Late last week, we circulated the stunning news unearthed by the Tampa Bay Times captured by this appropriately stunning headline: “Chinese government pays for trip by aides to Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen”.

This was a story with a “why don’t I rub my eyes, am I dreaming?” quality to it. Yet, the Florida legislators, two fierce opponents of travel by Americans to Cuba, confirmed it was true. Sally Canfield, Deputy Chief of Staff to Rubio, and Arthur Estopinan, Chief of Staff to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), had both accepted free travel junkets to China with costs picked up by the Communist Chinese state.

But, they reacted to the story very differently.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pled ignorance of what she called “China’s involvement” in paying the costs for Mr. Estopinan’s trip, estimated at $10,000; this to a country she has accused of abusing human rights by harvesting human organs from prisoners.

Known for straightforward, even strident language, she issued a classic non-denial-denial: “As my legislative record shows, I disagree with the decision by my Chief of Staff to visit China and will take internal steps to ensure no trips like this happen again.”

Are we clear?

Rubio’s tack was entirely different.

In written comments, a spokesman for the statesman made a logical, three-point case for engaging with China, saying, in essence, ‘They’re bad, they’re big, so we have to talk.’

Point 1: “Senator Rubio has consistently condemned the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government, its record of systematic human rights violations and its illegitimate territorial claims.”

Point 2: “While he abhors many of the Chinese government’s actions, as a member of the Senate’s foreign relations and intelligence committees, he cannot ignore their growing geopolitical importance.”

Point 3: So, he “recognizes that staff travel approved by the U.S. government and Senate ethics is sometimes necessary in helping advance our advocacy on a host of foreign policy issues.”

This took guts. Yes, it was hypocritical for someone who had said that Americans who visit Cuba behaved as if they were visiting a zoo, getting “to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering.”

Yes, the timing was awkward. As the trip scandal made news, China was embroiled in controversies over rigging an election framework in Hong Kong, interfering with a U.K. inquiry into its relations with Hong Kong, ending a newspaper column by a Chinese hedge fund manager in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and using its anti-trust laws to curtail competition posed by U.S. businesses.

But, Rubio was being consistent. In the heat of the 2012 election, he broke with Mitt Romney, saying Romney’s plan to label China a currency manipulator was the equivalent of opening a trade war. In his recent comments about his staffer’s trip, he matches a plainspoken critique of China’s human rights practices and security threats with his practical and pragmatic support for dealing with China’s government.

Even after writing that in China, “Political persecution, including detention without trial and violations of fundamental human rights, are the norm,” Senator Rubio called upon “President Obama to speak frankly with President Xi about the areas where Washington and Beijing disagree.”

In other words, Senator Rubio does have a plan for dealing with China. It rejects sanctions, but supports travel, bilateral engagement, diplomacy, and straightforward talk.

Rubio’s approach on China would be an ideal replacement for his Cuba policy, if he had the guts to make the switch.

There is a lesson here for President Obama. On September 2nd, Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, took a question at her news briefing about Panama’s intention to invite Cuba to next year’s meeting of the Summit of the Americas, a forum from which the U.S. has worked to exclude Cuba since it began meeting in 1994.

Rather than supporting an opportunity for engagement with Cuba focusing on areas, as Rubio might say, where Washington and Havana disagree, Psaki declared that Cuba’s presence at the forum would “undermine commitments previously made” including “strict respect for the democratic system.”

Two days later, her colleague, Marie Harf, called the building in which the State Department’s new “Diplomacy Center” will be housed, “a very cool thing indeed.”

Amidst peals of laughter among the assembled journalists, she explained, “Cool. It’s a technical term.”

Fact is that President Obama has a workable alternative to his Cuba policy. It’s called engagement. Engagement’s cool, too. But, using it, well, that would take guts.

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Labor Day Weekend “No Apologies” Edition

August 29, 2014

Dear Friends:

Thank you for welcoming us back.

While we were on holiday last week, the Associated Press reported, “The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general has determined Jay-Z and Beyonce’s fifth-anniversary trip to Cuba last year was legal under rules allowing educational travel to the island.”

Did the AP get this story wrong? After all, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart reached his own conclusion more than one year ago without going through the “formality” of an investigation: “It has become obvious that, in this case, the line into tourism was crossed. The Beyoncé and Jay-Z trip is a high profile example of why the ‘people-to-people’ category of travel should be eliminated. It amounts to tourism.”

Yet, after the Inspector General issued a report saying,we believe OFAC’s determination that there was no apparent violation of U.S. sanctions with respect to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba was reasonable (emphasis added),” we visited the Congressman’s Media Center and found no evidence that he’d retracted his statement.

As Stephen Colbert is fond of saying, we accept your apology.

Time and again, we’ve seen this “never explain, never apologize, never retract” strategy used by hardline defenders of U.S. sanctions over the years.

Remember when Cuba’s government scrapped the exit visa requirement established five decades ago that made it impossible for nearly all of Cuba’s citizens to travel abroad? At that time, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the reform as propaganda. She said, “These so-called reforms are nothing more than Raúl Castro’s desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing, but anyone who knows anything about the communist 53-year old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene.”

On behalf of the 185,000 plus Cubans who traveled abroad last year, including 66,000 to the U.S., and on behalf of Cuban dissidents –Guillermo Fariñas who received his Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought after he traveled to Europe last year, and Yoani Sánchez, welcomed from Miami to the White House – we accept her apology, too.

Remember when it seemed like every poll conducted in Florida and nationally supported rolling back the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba? When Florida International University’s 2014 survey showed that Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargo, ending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – by the widest majority the survey has ever recorded?

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who supports increasing sanctions on Cuba, told readers of his blog to dismiss the findings of this highly regarded poll, saying “FIU has gone from having its polls sponsored by ideological non-profit organizations to ideological, for-profit lobbyists.” As a lobbyist himself immersed in partisan and ideological causes, this was hardly a strong argument against FIU’s data, confirmed by so many others.

Not to be outdone, when a reporter with the New York Times said to Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, “Regardless of just the Cuban-American community, the American public, clearly a majority supports a change in policy in Cuba,” he responded, “That is an absolute lie.”

Gentlemen, you may start your apologies.

We could talk about the deceptive defenses of USAID’s Cuba programs, when Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, was fast to his fax machine to issue his statement,“There is nothing new here.” We could also talk about their attacks on Cuba’s economic reforms, which have already enabled about 500,000 Cubans to find meaningful work, better pay, and greater autonomy in the private sector, and much more.

But, we don’t expect to hear apologies or anybody saying “I am sorry,” during this Labor Day weekend. We expect, instead, they’re out traveling like everyone else.

But, after Senator Marco Rubio compared coming to Cuba to visiting a zoo; after he scolded Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for going to Cuba, because “the U.S. should not make it easier for the Castro regime to enrich itself and fund its repression with American dollars”; after Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cited the Smithsonian for engaging in legal travel to the island, saying “It is deeply disappointing that the Smithsonian [Institution], primarily funded by American taxpayers, is facilitating access to U.S. dollars, which enables the Castro regime to make a hefty profit,” it would be nice if they were called to account for what they have said about travel, and spent at least one weekend feasting on their own words and at their own expense.

Then, perhaps Jay-Z and Beyonce could tell them, “apology accepted.”

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A Single Standard of Justice

July 18, 2014

In the news summary that follows, you will find reports about a new investigation into the USAID Cuban Twitter scandal, the growing impact of the increasingly tight enforcement of U.S. sanctions against Cuba and other nations on banks and global commerce, and the resumption of peace talks in Havana between Colombia and the FARC.

But first, we wanted to acknowledge what is unfolding in and near “a large wheat field dotted with purple flowers and Queen Anne’s lace,” in the lyrical prose of Sabrina Tavernise, a reporter for the New York Times.  This is where wreckage from Malaysia Flight 17 and the remains of some of its 298 crewmember and passengers came to rest in Eastern Ukraine after it was shot down a little more than a day ago.

The victims included 80 children, three of whom were infants, a number of AIDS researchers and activists, the spokesman for the World Health Organization, and a graduate student from Indiana University, who was a chemist and a member of the IU rowing team.

The circumstances surrounding the shoot-down of this airliner are reminiscent of an earlier tragedy during the Cold War, when a Korean Airlines Flight was shot down in 1983 by Soviet fighter pilots. That resulted in the loss of 269 people, including a Member of the U.S. Congress.

Today, our memories were also stirred by a catastrophe that took place on October 6, 1976; not half a world away, but here in the Americas. Then, like now, the victims, 48 passengers and 25 crew members, were civilians; many were also young, including all 24 members of the Cuban Fencing Team, five Guyanese medical students, the wife of a diplomat and others.

Their Cubana de Aviacion Flight 455 had just taken off from Barbados when at least one bomb exploded and knocked the plane out of the sky.  This was, as Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives has often said, the first mid-air bombing of a civilian airliner in the Western Hemisphere.  All aboard – 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and five North Koreans – were lost.

As we prepared this publication, the UN Security Council issued a statement calling for a “full, thorough and independent investigation” of the Malaysian airliner tragedy. Leaders from around the world called for an investigation and for accountability.

In the 38 years since the bombing of Flight 455, there has been no accountability for the loss of life; the families of the victims are not even mentioned in the news coverage of Malaysian Flight 17, as broadcast and print journalists recall similar incidents in the past.

Yet, Luis Posada Carriles, one of the two masterminds behind the bombing of the Air Cubana flight, continues to live and walk free in Miami, despite outstanding extradition requests from Cuba and Venezuela, which have yet to receive the response they merit from the U.S. government.

In some quarters, it will doubtless be controversial for us to remember that justice has still not been served in the case of Flight 455.

But our interest is in reforming Cuba policy to help the United States get past the double-standards that were deemed acceptable during the Cold War, but which are injurious to the national interest today, and adopt a single standard of justice in cases like this, now and into the future.  The dignity of the victims in these cases demands nothing less.

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Democracy: Is there an app for that?

July 3, 2014

We are on the cusp of our July 4th holiday here in the U.S., when we remember the revolutionary origins of our country and celebrate our independence with baseball, beer, and displays of fireworks accompanied by a spirited rendition of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture.

Because we’re eager to finish the work week, we’re circulating our Cuba Central News Blast a little early so you can read the news now and all of us can join the party.

We start with Chip Beck, a U.S. citizen with ties to the CIA and the Navy.  According to this blog post on Wikistrat, between 1998 and 2001, while he was working as a freelance journalist, Beck traveled to Havana and received significant cooperation from the Cuban government as he investigated the disappearance of Americans in Asia, Africa, and Central America during the Cold War.  It’s a great story.

In Beck’s account of his five trips to the island, he describes familiar sounding offers by Havana to sit down and negotiate with Washington without preconditions, so long as the U.S. recognized Cuba as a sovereign nation.  He concludes by quoting a conversation he had on the Malecón with a Cuban he identifies only as a single mom with a college degree.

She said, “If you tell a Cuban what to do, he will do the opposite just to spite you. If you [Americans] stop telling us what to do, things will work out exactly like you want.”

Needless to say, this was very good advice which, a dozen years later, we’re still waiting for the U.S. government to heed.

Instead, President Obama, the 11th president in charge of foreign relations with Cuba’s revolutionary government, pursues the stale and failed policy he inherited from his predecessors.  On one track, he has made some important moves to promote two-way travel, family reconciliation, and modest forms of bilateral cooperation.  But, on the second track, he aggressively enforces the embargo with its international overreach to shut down Cuba’s access to finance and global trade.

As of last week, for example, his Administration had already imposed penalties totaling $4.9 billion against 22 banks for violating U.S. sanctions against doing business with Cuba.  That record was shattered by a penalty meted out against BNP Paribas, which pled guilty to two charges, agreed to pay a nearly $9 billion fine, and accepted bans for one and two years respectively on certain dollar clearing and processing activities – all for violations of sanctions against countries including Cuba.  This led the Bank of Ireland, which has “long-standing customers with legitimate business interests in Cuba,” to tell them it would no longer clear their transactions to or from Cuba, as the Independent reported.

At a time when tens of thousands of Cubans (like our friend Barbara Fernández) are working hard to take advantage of economic reforms – in cooperatives and private businesses – in order to live more prosperous and independent lives, tightening the screws on a policy that disregards their nation’s sovereignty and increases their daily struggles makes no sense.

Eric Schmidt, Google’s Executive President, who just wrapped up a visit to Cuba during which he voiced support for an open Internet, underscored the contradictory goals of U.S. policy in a blog post about his trip.

“The ‘blockade’,” he writes, “makes absolutely no sense to US interests: if you wish the country to modernize the best way to do this is to empower the citizens with smart phones (there are almost none today) and encourage freedom of expression and put information tools into the hands of Cubans directly.”

We were in Cuba at the same time as Google and heard Cubans express similar ideas.  They want an Internet opening to complement their economic opening.  They want workers, especially working women, to be able to get online and connect to their jobs from home.  They want a more lively public debate. Just as Cubans are now free to travel overseas, they want to be able to access more information without having to leave.  Dumping restrictions – whether on technology, U.S. travel, or finance – imposed by the U.S. would put what Cubans want in greater alignment with the ostensible goals of U.S. policy and help them get it.

Writing about the architects of our nation and their ideals, former Senator Gary Hart described what the Founders saw in history’s great republics: civic duty, popular sovereignty, resistance to corruption, and a sense of the commonwealth; what we own in common that binds us together.  Every time we visit the island, we see Cubans who share these ideals as well.

July 4th is a great day to celebrate the virtues of our system, which are many, but it can also be an occasion for some humility. In Cuba’s case, that means to stop telling them what to do, and showing respect to Cubans and their ability to figure out their future and how they want to live for themselves.

If you need help figuring out why, when we celebrate Independence Day, we set off fireworks to music commemorating Russia’s defense of Moscow against Napoleon, listen here.

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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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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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