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  Once the Soviet Union fell, and its subsidies were withdrawn, the Cuban economy and living standards collapsed.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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Every Time You See Vietnam, Think Cuba

July 26, 2013

Yesterday, President Obama met at the White House with Truong Tan Sang, the president of Vietnam.  Later, Mr. Obama traveled to Jacksonville, Florida to deliver a speech on our nation’s economy.  What happened at these two events perfectly illustrates how what is wrong with U.S.-Cuba policy could easily be made right.

Speaking from the Oval Office, this is how President Obama described what diplomatic relations with Vietnam allows both countries to do:

“Obviously, we all recognize the extraordinarily complex history between the United States and Vietnam.  Step by step, what we have been able to establish is a degree of mutual respect and trust that has allowed us now to announce a comprehensive partnership between our two countries that will allow even greater cooperation on a whole range of issues from trade and commerce to military-to-military cooperation, to multilateral work on issues like disaster relief, to scientific and educational exchanges.”

But, as President Obama said, the subject of human rights was very much on the table:

“We discussed the challenges that all of us face when it comes to issues of human rights, and we emphasized how the United States continues to believe that all of us have to respect issues like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly.  And we had a very candid conversation about both the progress that Vietnam is making and the challenges that remain.”

Significantly, the U.S and Vietnam are making progress on unresolved issues from the war because our countries have normal relations.  Again, Mr. Obama:

“We both reaffirmed the efforts that have been made to deal with war legacy issues.  We very much appreciate Vietnam’s continued cooperation as we try to recover our Missing in Action and those that were lost during the course of the war.  And I reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to work with Vietnam around some of the environmental and health issues that have continued, decades later, because of the war.”

President Sang characterized the talks from Vietnam’s perspective:

“To be frank, President Obama and I had a very candid, open, useful and constructive discussion.  We discussed various matters, including political relations, science and technology, education, defense, the legacy of the war issue, environment, the Vietnamese-American community, human rights as well — and the East Sea as well.”

President Sang also affirmed the power of engagement:

“In a candid, open and constructive spirit, we have come to agree on many issues.  We will strengthen high-level exchanges between the two countries…(and) we will continue regular dialogue at the highest level as possible.  I believe that this is the way in order to build a political trust for further development of our cooperation in all areas.”

Following this meeting, President Obama flew to Jacksonville, Florida to give a speech about his plans for the economy.  He talked about how ordinary Americans benefit from trade:

“In a couple of years, new supertankers are going to start coming through the Panama Canal. Those supertankers can hold three times the amount of cargo.  We want those supertankers coming here to Jacksonville.  (Applause.) If we’ve got more supertankers coming here, that means more jobs at the terminals. That means more warehouses in the surrounding area.  That means more contractors are getting jobs setting up those warehouses.  That means they’ve got more money to spend at the restaurant. That means the waitress has more money to spend to buy her iPod. It starts working for everybody.”

Why talk about Vietnam or the benefits of trade in a publication devoted to news and analysis about Cuba?

Well, during the Vietnam War, over 58,000 Americans were killed, about 1 in ten Americans who served, and as many as 3.8 million Vietnamese died.  The war ended in 1975. It wasn’t easy, but once the United States and Vietnam shook off the burdens of their painful shared history they found they could engage with each other, respectfully and productively.

Today, our country cannot do this with Cuba, because U.S. policy requires Cuba to solve every one of our problems – with its political and economic systems, even with the presence of Raúl Castro as its nation’s president – as a precondition for normalizing relations.  This policy has a proven, fifty year record of failure as a policy, depriving the people of Jacksonville, Florida, and the U.S. of the benefits of free travel and trade, exchange, and everything else.

When President Obama closed his speech in Jacksonville with these words about the opponents of his economic policy, he might have also been talking about U.S. relations with Cuba.

“We’ve got to stop with the short-term thinking.  We’ve got to stop with the outdated debates. That’s not what the moment requires.”

Indeed.

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