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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Snapchat, ZunZuneo, and Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

April 4, 2014

Living as we do in the “Snapchat” – or even ZunZuneo – era, where the present can disappear or be buried by new material in 1-10 seconds, history may not stand a chance.  This is not a new phenomenon.  In 1999, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni did a survey which revealed that seniors at 55 leading colleges and universities were more familiar with Snoop Dogg (98%) than with James Madison’s role in writing the U.S. Constitution (23%).  Even if Snoop’s numbers have drooped in the intervening fifteen years, it’s hard to imagine that Madison’s have seen much of a revival.  If the present disappears in an instant, what chance does history have?

Forgive us, then, our faith.

A couple months back, we at the Center for Democracy in the Americas were contacted by Louis A. Pérez, Jr., asking if we might be interested in publishing his article “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.”  Dr. Pérez is the J. Carlyle Sitterson Professor of History and Director of the Institute for the Studies of the Americas at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and editor of Cuban Journal. His research and award-winning publications examine the history and identity of the nineteenth and twentieth century Caribbean, with a special focus on Cuba.

We readily agreed.

In “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Dr. Pérez offers a powerful case that this country’s fixation with determining Cuba’s destiny did not originate with the Castro Revolution of 1959.  Instead, it began much earlier, dating back to America’s preoccupation with its own manifest destiny, starting with the acquisitions of Louisiana and Florida, three centuries ago.

In his article, you will hear the ringing voices of U.S. statesmen and figures nearly lost to history.  These include: John Adams, the second president of the United States, who called Cuba “An object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union.”  His son, John Quincy Adams who, as Secretary of State, said Cuba was a “natural appendage” of the United States.  John Clayton, Secretary of State under President Zachary Taylor, who promised the “whole power of the United States would be employed to prevent . . . Cuba from passing into other hands.” Senator Robert Toombs, the secessionist Senator, who declared “I know of no portion of the earth that is now so important to the United States of America as the Island of Cuba is.” And President James Buchanan, who said breathlessly, “We must have Cuba. We can’t do without Cuba.”

To them and others, making Cuba an American possession was a strategic imperative and a psychological obsession.

With this chorus from the 19th Century, the voices we hear of statesmen and political figures in our own era now come across with greater fidelity.  The Cold Warriors of the past like CIA Director John McCone -“In my opinion, Cuba was the key to all of Latin America; if Cuba succeeds, we can expect most of Latin America to fall” – as well as his heirs of today, who refer to efforts by President Obama to relax travel restrictions as “appeasement.”

This leaves us, as Dr. Pérez writes, with a Cuba policy that is an “anomaly of singular distinction: more than 50 years of political isolation and economic sanctions, longer than the U.S. refusal to recognize the Soviet Union, longer than the hiatus of normal relations with China, longer than it took to reconcile with post-war Vietnam. Cuba has been under U. S. sanctions for almost half its national existence as an independent republic.”

History does have a powerful claim on this policy; a claim that long precedes the emergence of Fidel Castro and the success of the Cuban Revolution. To make this assertion is not to disenfranchise the claims of Cuban Americans or their very real grievances; no, it is to recognize that what happens between the United States and Cuba affects and implicates all of us.

Understanding the history may not actually make changing the policy any easier.  After all, the resilience of this failed, fifty year-old policy springs from what the hardliners have built around it – the network of political action committees, fraternal organizations, relationships, elections, appointments, websites and more -to keep it in place for them to control no matter what the rest of us may think or want for the future.

Yet, we have this abiding faith that it will be easier for policy makers to find the way forward if they better appreciate how we arrived at this place where we’ve been stuck.

We “Snapchat” Americans may not remember or know what to do with this history upon being presented with it.  But, there’s one thing we can promise you: the Cubans have never forgotten.

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A Mother’s Day Message for President Obama and Vice President Biden

May 10, 2013

Earlier this week, Vice President Biden said Cuba had made some “small encouraging signs of change,” but that the administration still wants to see “real change.”

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make headlines.  It’s a little sad but it’s not news that their two-year-old message about Cuba, “your change isn’t big enough,” still permeates the administration’s talking points.

They must have decided, if it worked for President Obama in September 2011, “We have not seen evidence they have been sufficiently aggressive in changing their policies economically,” to just keep repeating the message, even if the point they are making really isn’t so.

You might ask, what does any of this have to do with Mother’s Day?  We were just getting around to that.

To its credit, the administration has spent part of the last four years advocating for women to be equal partners in more just, prosperous, and more effectively governed societies.  It was just last week when Treasury Secretary Lew said:  “The facts are clear: empowering women is not only a question of equity, it is simply smart economics.”

The State Department has been all in, too.  They tweet about women.  They herald investment in women-owned enterprises as “one of the best ways to achieve economic, financial, and social impact.”  They have created a partnership program to expand women’s political and economic participation.

But Cuban entrepreneurs or “cuentapropistas” – and especially female small business owners – are rarely offered a seat at any of these tables.  That’s not a big surprise either – if they are not willing to admit that economic reform is happening at scale in Cuba, where the biggest changes in its economic model are taking place since 1959 – it wouldn’t occur to them to reserve a seat for a Cuban.

That’s a shame.  Paradoxically, what is happening in Cuba – with men and women leaving the state payroll for jobs in the non-state sector –happens to be consistent with the oft-stated desire by the U.S. for greater independence of the Cuban people.  It’s easy for us to talk about.  But, they are the ones who are taking great risks, taking on new and unfamiliar responsibilities, and making a leap at a disruptive time in Cuba’s changing economy.

A lot of these businesses fail, as do small businesses here in the U.S.  But, when they succeed, as an entrepreneur named Barbara told us in our report about the future of gender equality in Cuba, Women’s Work, exciting things can happen:

“My life has improved over the last several years with the possibility of working as a cuentapropista….More than anything, the benefit of being a cuentapropista is the ability to manage your own decisions. I can decide how to invest, what hours to work, whether I want to offer specials and other decisions regarding how to manage the business. In other words, I’m my own boss and I suffer the consequences, but also reap the benefits of my decisions. Moreover, economically, there are few, if any, jobs in the state sector that can compare with cuentapropismo when it comes to salaries. I’ve been able to save a little money, invest in fixing up my house, buy my daughter what she needs and put food on the table. In the end, I’m a more independent woman. My husband and I help each other but we both contribute and I don’t have to rely on him.”

It would be nice, but only a start, if the President and Vice President credited Cuba’s government with making the changes it has, and then recognized that women like Barbara actually exist.

But they could go even further.  The administration should end the backlogs and delays that cause many people-to-people groups and research institutions to wait for months to hear back on renewals and new applications, so that more Americans could visit Cuba and utilize the services in the growing private sector, helping to empower individual Cubans, just like their talking points say.  If Miriam Leiva’s White House petition is any test, steps like these would be warmly welcomed in Cuba.

They could also facilitate the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba by allowing imports of products made by Cubans working in small businesses and cooperatives.  They could stop freezing financial institutions with the fear of fines for engaging in legal transactions with individuals and institutions in Cuba.  They could make projects that help women in Cuba eligible for remittances under the president’s 2011 policy.

In fact, there’s a lot of serious progress that could be made if they included Cuba, Cubans, and Cuban women in their vision of a more just world built on gender equality.

It’s a thought for Mother’s Day and we hope they think about it.

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