The Roar of the Lion, and the Sound of a Whisper

September 12, 2014

Dear Friends:

When President Obama described our role in assembling the coalition the United States will lead into war, he called it “America at its best.”

But, when a State Department spokesperson took a question about U.S. cooperation with Cuba on an issue of “security and safety,” she reacted like a character in Harry Potter reluctant to say Voldemort, because “We do not speak his name.”

The backstory, reported below in greater detail, involves a private plane flying from upstate New York to Naples, Florida that lost contact with air traffic controllers. As it headed off its flight plan, two F-15 fighter jets were sent to investigate “an unresponsive aircraft [then] flying over the Atlantic Ocean.” Three persons were unresponsive and presumed dead before the plane crashed into the seas off Jamaica, after flying through Cuba’s airspace.

It should have come as no surprise that U.S. authorities were in contact with their Bahamian and Cuban counterparts. “Obviously,” Marie Harf said at the State Department podium, “this is an issue of security and safety, and so we were in touch as well.”

Nor was it a secret. The FAA had already gone on record with a policy statement, “FAA International Strategies 2010-2014, Western Hemisphere Region,” outlining its objectives relating to Cuba:

  • Work closely with the Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of State (DOS) and other U.S. Government agencies to support the Administration’s Cuba initiatives and policies as well as FAA mission critical operations.
  • Negotiate for the sharing of radar data with key partners adjacent to U.S. delegated airspace: Bahamas, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Haiti, Mexico, Saint Maarten.
  • Continue to work with the DOS to facilitate safety-critical operational meetings between the FAA and Cuban air traffic officials on a regular basis.

Yet, the terse answers to questions about the plane incident, and if it could be a model for future cooperation, sounded like the State Department was protecting state secrets. Read the full transcript of the briefing here and judge for yourselves.

For example, when Ms. Harf was asked about the flight incident, she offered a sparse 68-word recitation of the facts, before quickly referring reporters to NORAD and the FAA. After saying, “We have been in touch” with Cuba and the Bahamas, she replied, “I don’t have more details on those conversations,” and never mentioned the FAA’s strategy, publicly released in 2010.

As the reporter pressed further on whether the kind of cooperation that took place on the flight could expand to other “issues of national interest, like … security in the region,” she responded with boilerplate about talks on postal service and migration, but concluded, “I don’t have more for you on that issue than that.”

Apparently, there’s a fine line between putting together a Middle East coalition, an occasion to trumpet national pride, and an example of healthy cooperation with Cuba, which got little more than a meek mention at State.

It’s hard not to notice the contrast. CBS News labeled nations in the coalition as “frenemies” of the United States. As the State Department reported this year, citizens living in at least one of those nations, “lack the right and legal means to change their government; [face] pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”

While the Administration has engaged with Cuba effectively, on a limited basis and in discrete areas like migration, environment, drug interdiction, and law enforcement, the White House and State Department prefer to keep these activities hidden below-the-radar, as if Parental Discretion was advised in their dealings with the American people.

The U.S. can and should do more. As we said in “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” it would be in the U.S. national interest to work with Cuba openly and closely on counterterrorism, military affairs, greater exchanges among scientists and artists and the like, while also developing what the countries have lacked for so long: a language for their diplomacy based on engagement instead of preconditions.

Doing this would reflect the values of Cubans and Americans alike. Such public diplomacy would also strengthen those in Cuba who take risks by supporting reform at home and engagement with the U.S. abroad.

Yes, this will be opposed by Members of the U.S. Congress who conflate engagement with appeasement. But, whispering about working with Cuba has never gotten them to stand down, and it never will.

So we say, stop whispering; engage more, unabashedly. If the Administration used its remaining time to make a more forceful commitment to diplomacy with Cuba, that would give all of us something to shout about.

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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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Washington, Cuba, and the Climate for Dysfunction

June 27, 2014

This headline – “Cuba plans to drill near Keys again in 2015” – helped us clarify the news this week about U.S. policy toward Cuba and the dysfunction that surrounds it.

As David Goodhue, reporting for the Florida Keys Keynoter, explained, Cuba will resume exploratory drilling off the Florida Keys next year.  But, the waters and beaches off Florida are still not protected against oil pollution were a spill to happen as a result.

Although Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the United States and Cuba signed The Wider Caribbean Region Multilateral Technical Operating Procedures for Offshore Oil Pollution Response earlier this year (essentially a work plan for cooperation if an oil spill exceeds the boundaries of one nation and puts the territorial waters of others at risk), an effective emergency response is far from assured. The embargo remains a barrier to deploying U.S. technology and expertise as part of a timely effort to protect the oceans, fishing stocks, and tourist resources that contribute to Florida’s economy and well-being.

Floridians should already be worried. Many probably read about the report called “Risky Business” released this week that describes how much the Sunshine State is threatened by global warming and rising oceans.  It said, in part, “There is a 1-in-20 chance that more than $346 billion worth of current Florida property will be underwater by the end of the century.”  We know that Florida is already feeling the effects of rising sea waters and the dangers of an inadequate government response.

What is at stake – with oil spills and global warming – is more than just billions in property damage.  We need to protect the oceans because they are sources of food, employment, tourism, recreation, and more. They absorb carbon, which in turn helps dampen warming, and they foster biodiversity, which means they help sustain life.

This is why Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the “Our Ocean” Conference at the State Department this month, and why it was so sensible that Dr. Fabián Pina Amargós, director of Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research was invited to attend, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), among others, thought he should.  We do, after all, share an ecosystem and an ocean with Cuba.

Kerry’s conference produced an action plan (details here) whose recommendations are aligned with the agenda for bilateral cooperation that EDF and environmental leaders like Senator Whitehouse want the United States to pursue.  They want Cuba and the U.S. to collaborate and stop overfishing in shared waters, strengthen policies that facilitate two-way scientific research, develop a plan for an international network of protected marine areas, and strengthen cooperation on oil spill prevention and response.

Much of this could be accomplished by executive action, which the White House could put in motion, especially if the U.S. Congress didn’t get in the way.  Good luck with that.

While the Congress did legislate on Cuba policy this week, it was hardly a vote of confidence in engagement with Cuba (or good government for that matter).  The State Department budget written by House Appropriations directs the Secretary of State to cut down on issuing visas for Cuban officials.  It also tells the Department to spend more money on the democracy promotion work in Cuba that resulted in the conviction of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

The bill to fund the Treasury Department budget blocks licenses for non-academic educational exchanges and orders Treasury to produce a report in 90 days analyzing trips it has licensed trip to Cuba since 2007 with data specifying the number of travelers, amount of money spent, and more.

The two champions of this bill, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (FL-4) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), were clearly fighting the Cold War, not protecting their Florida constituents or the state’s marine environment and coastline, when they shepherded the legislation to passage.

They are among the shrinking number of Floridians who believe that if you give the embargo enough time to work, someday it will.  We don’t believe that.  Neither do majorities in their state, nor do the majority of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County.

What happens on Cuba defines how the U.S. Capitol is captured by dysfunction.

While Members of Congress prop up the embargo because they want Cuba to fail, Cubans are seizing opportunities created by their country’s economic reforms to try and build more successful lives. While House Members try to stop the State Department from issuing visas, our scientists are trying to increase contacts with their Cuban counterparts to calm and protect the troubled waters between our countries.  While Cuba is poised to drill again in waters close to the Florida Keys, Members of Congress write bills to leave its coast defenseless.

When you think about how useless the embargo has been since it was first imposed by the Kennedy Administration in the 1960s, it was almost funny to read how Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen scolded the Administration for sticking with its “ineffective” Libya policy for three years.

But, for her constituents and their beach front property?  Not so much.

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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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LASA Edition: The US Needs a Cuba Policy Worthy of Its Ideals

May 23, 2014

Days before we arrived in Chicago for the Congress of the Latin America Studies Association, the New York Times ran an obituary for William Worthy, who died earlier this month at age 92.

Worthy, a path-breaking African-American journalist, interviewed Fidel Castro and filed stories on Cuba’s race relations, traveling to Cuba only with a birth certificate for identification. Upon his return, he was prosecuted for entering the U.S. without a passport, convicted, and sentenced to prison.

He won his appeal, as the Times explained, on the grounds that “the lack of a passport was insufficient ground to bar a citizen from re-entering the country.”

Five decades later, questions around Cuba and the free exchange of ideas continue to force distance between the U.S. government and our country’s ideals.

***

When LASA meets in the United States, it struggles to get visas for all of the Cuban academics invited to attend.

In prior years, under Republican and Democratic administrations, visa denials put a damper on Cuban participation; at times, the politics of exclusion were so extreme, LASA moved the conference elsewhere in the region rather than bring its scholars and intellectual dynamism to our shores.

Although the U.S. deserves credit for granting visas this year to the great number of Cubans who applied, four important intellectuals did not get in.  Their absence affects us directly.  Sitting as we did to hear a panel Thursday morning titled “Talking with Cuba: The Search for U.S.-Cuban Accommodation,” where scholars reviewed the history and the lessons from fifty-plus years of bilateral negotiations, we missed hearing Dr. Soraya Castro’s unique perspective.

Saturday, when our panel discusses economic reform and its impact on women, the audience won’t get to hear from Daybel Pañellas, a psychologist at the University of Havana.  She is helping us assemble an analysis of scholarly literature on reform and women. Also excluded were our friend, Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas, a Cuban social science magazine, and Omar Everleny Pérez, a remarkably candid economist from the University of Havana.

These academics – hardly threats to U.S. national security – could have brought their own intellectual energy and credibility to this year’s Congress; and we will never know why our government chose to make them non-combatants in LASA’s spirited exchange of ideas.

***

To be sure, the tolerance for dissenting views in our country has grown substantially since William Worthy was arrested after returning from Cuba.

This week, for example, an astonishingly diverse roster of former U.S. officials, some who once held pretty strong pro-sanctions views, signed a letter to President Obama offering their support for policies to increase the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba and boost the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba’s private sector.

While we favor more far-reaching reforms, and would’ve written a different letter, it notably attracted John Negroponte, the former Director of National Intelligence; Andres Fanjul, co-owner of sugarcane producer Fanjul Corp.; Michael Parmly and Vicki Huddleston, former heads of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana; former Clinton and Obama Cabinet Secretaries like Bruce Babbitt, Ken Salazar and Hilda Solis; as well as former Rep. Jane Harman, former EPA Director Carol Browner, and others to a clear statement favoring real changes in U.S. policy.

A similar shift can be seen among the Cuban diaspora in the U.S.  Sure, there are holdouts – heard in the shrill denunciations of the letter to the president and the debut of #CubaNow – but a new school of thought has clearly taken root where the old held sway.

As the BBC observed this week, “times are changing in Little Havana.  To be Cuban American in Miami once meant supporting the embargo, almost as an article of identity and faith. That is no longer the case.”  There was a similar finding in a poll this year by the Atlantic Council, which found even higher support for better relations with Cuba in Florida than it found nationally.  This change in sentiment can also be found among the men and women who met in Washington recently who came here in the Pedro Pan airlift decades ago.

At the center of both the Cuban-American community and the foreign policy establishment, we see evidence of how embracing a real debate and new ideas can drive a shift toward reform.

***

In “The Ballad of William Worthy,” the folksinger Phil Ochs captured well the conflict between how the U.S. behaves and the ideas it likes to profess:

William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door.
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore.
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say,
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

If the Obama Administration wanted to reconcile its actions with our values, sitting down with Cuba – acknowledging its sovereignty as a prelude to discussing our differences directly – would be a good way to begin.

Anyhow, that’s part of what the scholars on the “Talking with Cuba” panel discussed on Thursday. Too bad everyone wasn’t around to hear them.

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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?

***

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.

***

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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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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Special LASA Edition: Colombia Peace Talks and the 2012 Terror List

May 31, 2013

We’re delighted that many of our readers attending the Latin American Studies Association meeting in Washington can enjoy the Cuba Central News Blast as they participate in the conference.  If only about a dozen scholars from Cuba who were supposed to come, but were denied visas by the U.S. State Department, could be among them.

Just days after progress was reported in the Colombia peace process, the U.S. State Department Report rolled out its annual report called Country Reports on Terrorism 2012.

These are not unconnected events.

For months, Colombia’s government has held peace talks, hosted in Cuba, with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, to end a half-century of civil war.  Last weekend, the parties announced a breakthrough agreement on agrarian reform.

As Adam Isacson wrote, this is a “very big deal.”

“This is the fourth time in 30 years that the Colombian government and the FARC (founded in 1964) have sat down to negotiate. And this is the first time that the two sides have ever reached agreement on a substantive topic. Yesterday’s announcement greatly increases the probability that this negotiation attempt will actually be the one that reaches a final accord.”

Tough issues remain unresolved.  As Marco Leon Clarca, a lead negotiator for the FARC, told the Associated Press, “these are not simple themes,” referring to political reintegration, drug trafficking, victim compensation and implementation of the accord, “and for that reason they are on the agenda.”

Months of negotiation lie ahead.  But, after the breakthrough, Colombia and the FARC released this joint statement which expressed their gratitude to Cuba and Norway:

“We especially want to thank Cuba and Norway, the guarantor countries of this process, for their permanent support and for the atmosphere of trust that they foster. The presence of their representatives at the Table of conversations is a fundamental factor for their development.”

With this in mind, let’s turn to the Country Reports on Terrorism 2012.  Year after year, the FARC’s presence in Cuba was a stigmatizing strike against the Castro government.

In the 2006 and 2007 reports, the State Department said:  “The Government of Cuba provided safe haven to members of ETA, FARC, and the ELN…”

In the 2008 report, the State Department said:  “Members of ETA, the FARC, and the ELN remained in Cuba during 2008, some having arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Spain and Colombia. Cuban authorities continued to publicly defend the FARC,” although the report did recognize former president Fidel Castro for calling on the FARC to release hostages.

In the first full year of reporting by the Obama administration, the State Department said in its 2010 Report:

“…the Government of Cuba maintained a public stance against terrorism and terrorist financing in 2010, but there was no evidence that it had severed ties with elements from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)…Available information suggested that the Cuban government maintained limited contact with FARC members, but there was no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support.”

In the 2011 Report, the State Department said: “Press reporting indicated that the Cuban government provided medical care and political assistance to the FARC.  There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training for either ETA or the FARC.”

In the 2012 Report, the State Department said: “In past years, some members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were allowed safe haven in Cuba and safe passage through Cuba. In November, the Government of Cuba began hosting peace talks between the FARC and Government of Colombia. There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

In past years?  It sounds like the State Department is walking the cat back.

The peace talks are far from finished.  So, as the two sides get closer, and the plaudits for Cuba’s role as a peace broker grow, this will bring renewed attention to the terror list and add to the growing pressure on the U.S. to drop Cuba from it.

In fact, the case for doing this extends well beyond Colombia and, as the Council of Foreign Relations, anti-terrorism expert Richard Clarke, Congressman Jim McGovern, and, most recently, the courageous Congresswoman from Florida, Kathy Castor, among others, have said, the argument for dropping Cuba from the list is irrefutable.

The president has the authority to change the list at any time.  Although he’s disappointed us before, the State Department’s own case for keeping Cuba listed is shriveling before our eyes.  We could be surprised by hope.

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Climate Change and Cuba

March 22, 2013

There is a scientific consensus that climate change is real.  Not everyone agrees, but the people who don’t believe it are answering to an awfully scornful title: climate change deniers.

Since assuming leadership in 2006, following the illness of his brother, President Raúl Castro initiated a gradual process to update the nation’s economic model and loosen restrictions on the Cuban people.

Restrictions on cell phone ownership, access to tourist hotels, ownership of computers and DVD players, the ability to rent a car, sell real property, travel and return to the island, have ended or begun to fall away.  A process involving Raúl Castro, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, and the government of Spain provided for the release of high profile political prisoners, including the remainder of those confined from a round-up that took place in 2003.  Some 400,000 Cubans have taken the opportunity to open small businesses in newly legalized professionals.  The former Pope Benedict XVI, who was warmly received in Cuba last year, spent part of his visit inspecting the San Carlos and Ambrosio Seminary, “the first building that Cuba’s government has allowed the Catholic Church to build since the 1959 revolution.”

Cuba is not the multi-party democracy the U.S. has been demanding it become at the point of a spear since 1959.

Even so, the idea that any reform was taking place in Cuba has been too foreign for many in the U.S. to accept, so it’s been dismissed in recent years, much like evidence of rising temperatures and catastrophic storms could not persuade some people to worry about the weather.

Reform in Cuba, however, has just gotten a lot harder to deny.  Consider, for example, Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s dissident blogger, now visiting the U.S. in the midst of an 80-day world tour. What’s she doing here anyway?  Reform deniers were absolutely certain she wouldn’t get a visa when Cubans’ travel rights changed.  Well, as former Congressman Bill Delahunt wrote in The Hill this week, “it is now easier for Yoani to visit our country, than it is for most Americans to visit hers.”

Free to speak her mind on U.S. soil, is Yoani denying that changes are taking place in Cuba? Quite the opposite.  In fact, she told an audience at New York University that “Irreversible change” is transforming Cuba, because independent bloggers and democracy activists are forcing Raul Castro’s government to evolve. “Cuba is changing,” she said, “but not because of Raul’s reforms. Forget that.”

This line of thought clearly engaged the Washington Post, which wrote after she visited the newspaper:  “Cuba has lately seen some economic reforms and liberalizations; one of them allowed Ms. Sánchez to travel freely abroad for the first time. But she told us the real change in Cuba today is not from the top but rather from below.”

Serious analysts like Arturo López-Levy say it’s “nonsense” that conditions are changing in Cuba without the Cuban government changing its policies.

True, but there’s a larger point: For Yoani, the Post, and others, the question is different; it’s moved from “is reform even happening in Cuba?” to “who is responsible for the changes underway?”

That’s a huge and important shift.  The hardliners know it and they don’t like it.  Capitol Hill Cubans angrily labels the reforms “fraudulent change.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen calls her colleagues in Congress “Castro apologists” because they support lifting restrictions on Cuba.

Theirs is the language of denial.  They may be out in the snow and the rain stomping their feet in anger, but the debate on Cuba – like the weather – has really changed.

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Cuba A-Z (from Aruca to Zoo-bio)

March 15, 2013

The New York Times once described him as “a cheerful, box-shaped man with a face like a friendly bulldog.”  Like a bulldog, Francisco Aruca was resolute and courageous, friendly with strangers and, when provoked, he was a force to be reckoned with.

So, we were stricken when friends like Silvia Wilhelm, Bob Guild and Marazul Charters (which he founded), and the Miami Herald and Progreso Weekly (which he also founded), circulated the sorrowful news that he had died unexpectedly at age 72.

Aruca’s life reflected, La Jornada aptly said, “the fundamental trajectory of recent Cuban history.”  He supported the revolution.  Soon after, as the New York Times reported, “he organized student strikes against the government’s crackdown on free speech and was promptly arrested and sentenced to 30 years in jail.”  But, he wasn’t imprisoned very long.

He liked retelling the story of his escape; how his youthful appearance enabled him to convince his guards that “he was a child visiting family in prison.” He got away and spent more than a year in asylum in the Brazilian embassy, before he came to the U.S.

Studying at Georgetown University, he earned an economics degree, graduating in 1967.  He taught economics, as the Miami Herald reported, in Virginia and Puerto Rico.  Along with other Cuban-Americans in 1974, he founded a magazine, Areíto, from which he put forward the idea that the Diaspora had to talk with the Cuban government, an utterly radical idea at the time.  It was so controversial “among Cuban exiles that bomb threats forced its editors to move from Miami to New York (where it stayed until 1987).”

Aruca was among the pioneers who advocated dialogue leading to the reconciliation of the Cuban family.  He participated in those talks – including foundational ones in 1978, 1994, 1995 – because he wanted to do the hard and necessary work of building trust and clearing the obstacles that had existed since 1959.

He was among the group, later known as the Comité de 75, who negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners in 1978, and also made it possible for exiles to visit Cuba.  The next year, Aruca’s Marazul Charters was founded to provide travel for tens of thousands of Cuban Americans to visit their relatives for the first time since they had left Cuba.

This was (and still is) dangerous business, in Florida and elsewhere. Marazul’s windows were “routinely smashed.”  His offices were firebombed. Carlos Muñiz, an exile and colleague of Aruca living in Puerto Rico who operated a sister travel agency was shot in the head and killed.

In 1994, after Miami residents attended the first meeting between Cuban exiles and the Cuban government in nearly fifteen years, they returned home and were besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assault, acts of violence, and economic retaliation, as Human Rights Watch reported.

Aruca himself received a fax that called him “Communist, vendepatria [homeland-seller]…and traitor,” among other names, and went on to say, “Be very careful, as I think there are many who would like to see you dead.”

Advocating the right to travel or speaking your mind about improving relations with Cuba are  incendiary acts in some Miami precincts.  As WSVN reported:  “3 Miami companies doing business with Cuba were attacked by firebombs,” in 1996, “a string of bomb attacks attributed mostly to anti-Castro radicals haunted the city in the 1970s and 1980s. The violence recently earned Miami a rank among the nation’s top 5 terrorism ‘hot spots’ by researchers studying the last 40 years of attacks on American soil.”

Not one to be intimidated, Aruca was a champion of travel and free speech.  He started a morning program Radio Progreso, which debuted  in 1991, “where he discussed Cuba-related issues from a perspective that had never been heard publicly in Miami.”

As Vivian Mannerud, a fellow agency operator, whose own business was firebombed in Coral Gables last year, remembered, “Those were times when people tuned in to Aruca’s radio programs but kept the volume real low so their neighbors would not know.  It was a difficult time. It’s called democracy.”

For Aruca, it was about democracy, but more fundamentally, about family.  As he told the Hartford Courant in 1999, “We Cubans have a very strong sense of family,” Aruca said. “If there were 300 relatives [seeing off passengers] at the airport today, there are 600 waiting in Havana tonight.”

Aruca lived to see Cuba’s government abolish nearly all travel restrictions on its people, but not long enough to see his adopted country abolish every restriction on the rights of Americans to visit Cuba.

But, according to the most recent estimates, the pioneering work he did enabled as many as 440,000 Cuban-Americans visit their families in Cuba in 2011 alone, a figure that will only grow so long as legislators like Senator Marco Rubio don’t gain enough power to roll back family travel licenses.

Shortly after Aruca’s death became known, Senator Rubio addressed a luncheon fundraiser for the Cuba-Democracy PAC where he made light of people who visit Cuba.  He said:

“These trips that are traveling to Cuba: Look, God bless them, I know they mean well. But I have people come to me all the time and tell me and say, ‘Oh, I went to Cuba. What a beautiful place, I feel so bad for the people.

“Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering,” said Rubio, adding “Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly.”

Rubio’s disdain for travel is not news, but comparing travel to Cuba – a place Rubio has never visited – to visiting a zoo seemed especially odious and over the line, even more than his earlier declarations that travelers visiting Cuba were supporting the activities of a terrorist state.

Our experiences in Cuba are altogether different from Rubio’s fact-free imaginings.  We have been embraced by Cubans of all political persuasions and life circumstances every time we have visited their country and their homes.

To fill in what he does not know about zoos, Senator Rubio could join the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus, yes it really exists, or simply visit its Facebook page.

To learn something about Cuba and U.S. policy, he could listen to his constituents, for example, the faithful who joined Archbishop Wenski who went to witness the visit of then-Pope Benedict XVI the and 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint –the Virgin of Charity (la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) – Cuba’s patron saint.

Or, he could pay attention to Senator Patrick Leahy, who responded to Rubio’s preference for isolating Americans from Cuba by saying:

“It has been obvious to any objective observer for a very long time that isolation has not worked, and it is demeaning for a great and powerful nation like ours, for instance, to forbid U.S. citizens from traveling where they want to travel.  It is in our national interest to take a fresh look at how to effectively address our differences with the Cuban government, such as the imprisonment of Alan Gross and many other matters.”

That is the kind of engagement Francisco Aruca spent the better part of five decades fighting for.  His son, Daniel, emailed Alvaro Fernandez, editor of Progreso Weekly, with a reminder of Aruca’s words that defined his life:  “If I die tomorrow, I know I have lived a very full life and that I lasted much longer than anyone ever expected.”

Aruca, the bulldog we remember and loved, lived a full, big, courageous, and uniquely American life.

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