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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Talk to Cuba

October 12, 2012

An article published this week by The Cable ran with the headline “Top Romney Advisor supports negotiating with terrorists.”  It told the story of Mitchell Reiss, named one year ago, to a top spot on the Governor’s campaign foreign policy team.

In a 2010 book, Reiss presented “an argument that the United States not only should, but at times must enter into conversations with hostile foreign elements.”  Reiss is not indiscriminate about negotiations and, in fact, published a tough piece in January criticizing the Obama administration’s negotiating strategy with the Taliban; not saying it was wrong, but arguing it was poorly conceived.

Even that was too much for his candidate.  Just four days later, at a debate in South Carolina, when a Fox News reporter asked Governor Romney if Reiss was wrong about talking to the enemy, he threw Reiss under the bus and said yes.

It is odd just how out of fashion talking to our adversaries has become.  We are able to celebrate a milestone this month, the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, because President John F. Kennedy thought that talking to the Soviet Union would be preferable to having our country and theirs blown to kingdom come.  Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev used diplomacy to avoid catastrophe.

This week, Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat, wrote about the missile crisis and what lessons it might offer to President Obama and Governor Romney as they think about U.S. foreign policy in 2013 and the years to come.

“Kennedy concluded,” Burns wrote, “that we had to think about the Soviet people in a fundamentally different way if we wanted to avoid nuclear Armageddon… Kennedy advocated building bridges to the Soviets, as the ‘human interest’ of avoiding world war had to eclipse the more narrow ‘national interest.’”

This is, after all, the conclusion that the Government of Colombia and the FARC reached, preparing as they are for peace negotiations next week in Oslo, and later this month in Cuba.  President Juan Manuel Santos is saying already he is confident that the FARC is willing to reach an agreement to end the decades-long civil war.

Direct diplomacy with Cuba is what President Obama promised in the 2008 campaign.  Nothing indiscriminate; “There will be careful preparation. We will set a clear agenda,” Obama said in a speech before the Cuban American National Foundation.  His view was endorsed by Jorge Mas Santos, son of the founder of CANF, once the epicenter of support for a hardline against the Castro government:

“The other centerpiece of U.S. – Cuba policy has been that there should be no negotiations and conversations with Raul Castro,” Mr. Santos said. “Although this may sound tough, on its own it is ineffective and plays into the hands of Raúl Castro.”

At the beginning of his term, Mr. Obama acted as if he could think about Cuba’s people in a different way.  He restarted Migration Talks that George Bush broke off.  He permitted U.S. participation in below the radar, multi-party talks including Cuba on oil drilling in the Gulf and protecting the environment we share.  The governments have spoken directly, about imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross, and at the margins of international conferences.

At times, Cuba’s government was probably uncooperative.  There’s undoubtedly more that we don’t know.  But it’s hard to discern the results if there is.  In a world where talking to “the enemy” is so discredited, this appears to have been all they could do.

Surely, as President Kennedy liked to say, we can do “bettah.”

In 2009, Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, and William LeoGrande, Dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University, published a compelling history of U.S. negotiations with Cuba and laid out a roadmap for how the two countries could sit down and really make progress.

Both candidates can read the entire article on the Internet.  Here’s hoping the victor has a working browser.  If Kennedy could deal with Khrushchev, and Colombia can talk to the FARC, surely the next U.S. president should talk directly to Cuba.  He might consider ending the Cold War and letting the citizens of both countries move along with our lives.  Bolder figures have done a lot more even when faced with greater stakes.

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Hate in the Time of Cholera

July 13, 2012

Cuba, we’re told, is experiencing a nasty outbreak of cholera.  Under normal circumstances, the reaction here in the U.S. would be obvious and clear: empathy for those who are affected and offers of help to alleviate their suffering.  But since we are talking about Cuba, life is more complicated than that.

Some reports say Cuba is not being forthcoming with information about the scope of the outbreak.  A columnist published in the Havana Times wrote, “It seems they avoided telling us about cholera to spare us the worry.”

The Miami Herald is reporting, however, that confirmed cases now stand at 110 and counting; that general cases presenting symptoms of cholera are rising; and these reports are being carried on provincial television in Cuba as detailed by Ana Maria Batista, identified as a Granma epidemiologist. Details are coming out,as this report filed today by CNN demonstrates. So where is Washington in all of this?

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is providing some information and urging travelers to follow public health guideless and monitor sources of information.

But for others, as Albor Ruiz writes this week in the New York Daily News, the cholera outbreak has become “a propaganda exercise for those who, even after 53 years of a failed economic embargo, prefer a policy of hostility and isolation over one of dialogue and engagement.”

In this case, he is referring to the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18), whose position accords her some notice in U.S. foreign policy and who also has tens of thousands of Cubans in her Congressional district with family members at risk on the island.

And yet, her office has issued  no calls for compassion, not when there’s a political point to be scored.  Instead, she was quick to issue a statement condemning the Cuban government – not just for its secrecy, which she asserts without explanation has cost lives, but for “the regime’s utter failure in areas such as sanitation and infrastructure.”  Attack, attack, attack.

Opponents of the Castro government have long enjoyed using the suffering of Cubans for sport, but cruelty at that level isn’t a tactic that everyone is used to.  Albor Ruiz quotes Romy Aranguiz, a doctor born in Havana, who says of the outbreak “there are a lot of people focused on it for anti-Castro propaganda instead of thinking of what they could do to help their brothers and sisters on the island….If they really care about Cuba they should be thinking about sending antibiotics to the island and stop talking so much nonsense,” she said.

But that is not how the hardliners view their role.  “These are the people,” as Yoani Sanchez wrote recently, “who see the Cuban situation as a pressure cooker that needs just a little more heat to explode…Sadly, however, the guinea pigs required to test the efficacy of such an experiment would be Cubans on the island.”

Such are the costs of hate in the time of cholera.  Can’t we do better?

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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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