The Celebration and Challenge of Diplomatic Relations

I have been in Athens, Greece, watching yesterday's events on CNN and reading on line a sample of the tsunami of media on Cuba's flag raising and the press conference of the Secretary and the Minister at the State Department.  (video here)

Today is tremendously important in the one hundred and thirteen year US-Cuba relationship.   In many ways the two countries are starting afresh, although neither can easily escape the historical burden of the US client state era (1902-1959) nor of the mistakes made by and with the revolution that ended it.

It is worth emphasizing the language that is in the diplomatic relations letter of President Obama to President Castro, "respect for the territorial integrity and political independence of States, respect for equal rights and self-determinations of peoples, non-interference in the internal affairs of States".  Taken seriously it means that despite Congressional appropriations, so called democracy programs are over and other State Department funding must follow normal diplomatic protocol of host country approval. (see previoius post)

Back to Never Missing an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity

Re-Establishment of Diplomatic Relations With Cuba


Fact Sheet

Office of the Spokesperson
Washington, DC
July 6, 2015

"President Obama affirmed that the two governments had agreed to develop “respectful and cooperative” relations based on international principles, including the promotion and encouragement of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all...
The embargo on Cuba is still in place and legislative action is required to lift it. Additionally, rules for travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens remain in effect. The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control will continue to administer the regulations that provide general licenses for the 12 categories of authorized travel to Cuba.
The Administration has no plans to alter current migration policy, including the Cuban Adjustment Act.

The Potential of Diplomatic Normalization

This is truly, as the President said today, "what change looks like".  A fresh approach to foreign policy is one reason people voted for Barack Obama and why his poll numbers have steadily improved since his December announcement on Cuba.
Presidents Obama and Castro have achieved a sea change, freeing both countries from the dead hand of the past.   
Normal diplomatic relations means mutual respect for the institutions of governance and administration in each country, even if neither is a perfect model of freedom, democracy and non-discrimination.
President Obama has a lot of potential power to bring us closer to the full normalization of relations.
From my perspective of 15 years of regular visits and intensive work with Cuba, preceded by two decades of similar work with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, President Obama's priorities for the remainder of his term should be:
1)  Clarify that individuals as well as groups, have a general license for people to people travel.  That will permit significantly lower cost visits by individuals, families, groups of friends, etc.

An Incomplete Reform of Travel

President Obama and Ricardo Zuniga, Ricardo Zuniga, Senior Director for Western

President Obama and Ricardo Zuniga

Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs

National Security Council


President Obama took such an historic and heroic step on December 17th when he announced the normalization of relations with Cuba that it feels ungrateful to be critical of the implementation of his policy last week.

You can see my analysis of the travel part of the new regulations from the Office of Foreign Assetts Control (OFAC) here.  

Ironically, after the initial announcement I spent a lot of time trying to convince the media that they were understating the sea change wrought by the White House,   The best story was by Mimi Whitefield in the Miami Herald.

I got some of it right, the end of the special status of People to People licenses and of Travel Service Providers.  However, I apparently misinterpreted the official announcement (fact sheet here, Presidential speech here.)

General licenses will be made available for all authorized travelers in the following existing categories: (1) family visits; (2) official business of the U.S. government, foreign governments, and certain intergovernmental organizations; (3) journalistic activity; (4) professional research and professional meetings; (5) educational activities; (6) religious activities; (7) public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions; (8) support for the Cuban people; (9) humanitarian projects; (10) activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes; (11) exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials; and (12) certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines. 

"Educational activities" includes people to people, so it seemed clear that people to people would encompass a general license for individuals, those who do the actual traveling.  

Instead, by the time the regulations came from OFAC on January 15th, the bold promise had shrunk to a general license only for the organizations that send travelers -- not for the travelers themselves.  

Authorized trips are expected to be led by the organization and to have a full-time schedule of activities in which the travelers will participate

President Obama's new Cuba policy: What we heard, and what we didn't

President Obama’s press conference on Cuba today was rooted in the facts (our policy hasn’t worked), grounded by moral imperative (we shouldn’t try to push the Cuban people toward their own economic collapse) and guided by pragmatism (greater openness is good for both our peoples).

Today, the president announced that that the U.S. will take steps to re-establish diplomatic relations. He plans to reopen a U.S. Embassy in Havana, and to send high level officials to the island, both of which will go a long way to addressing U.S. interests more directly and urgently than we’ve been able to do in more than 50 years. (The Canadian government hosted talks between the U.S. and Cuba and even Pope Francis played an instrumental role in brokering the deal.) And, the president announced that he will direct Secretary of State John Kerry to examine Cuba’s presence on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Here President Obama emphasized he should be guided by “the facts and the law,” both of which plainly point to Cuba being removed from the terrorism list this spring. (There is an abundance of information on this point, but one quick starting point would be the terrorism section of this report I authored in 2009.)

Can he really do that? Obama's new Cuba policy

I know what you're wondering: how can President Obama have announced such a dramatic new policy toward Cuba today when there is a sweeping embargo on the island that was actually codified into law by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act? Very simple: because Helms-Burton codified a collection of regulations on commerce with Cuba (which included expenses incident to travel) that had been put in place by President Kennedy, and modified over time by later presidents. It codified the regulation of commerce, but it left intact each president's authority to tighten or loosen those regulations.

President George W. Bush used his presidential authority to tighten, and even to loosen, various regulations, including those dealing with travel, remittances and technology transfer (cell phones). President Obama used that same authority to loosen regulations on Cuban Americans' travel to the island 5 years ago. No one questioned his authority to do this; rather, a discussion ensued over whether the Cuban American community would punish him for the move. In fact, the community responded with unprecedented support; voting both with their feet, traveling to the island, and in the voting booth, where a record number - half - of Cuban Americans voted for a Democrat for president in 2012.

President Obama Can Help Crist Win Florida

Democratic candidate Charlie Crist


Progresso Weekly has published an optimistic assessment of how Charlie Crist can regain the governorship of Florida as a Democrat, an important contest for Americans who want more rational relations with Cuba.

It is worth considering whether a breakthrough by President Obama with Havana could help by demonstrating that Crist's call for a new approach to Cuba was realistic and relevant. Obvious White House options are opening travel with a general license for all purposeful travelers, not just Cuban Americans; movement toward normal relations; and suspending anti-private enterprise aspects of the embargo. 

If Alan Gross dies in Cuba...who is responsible?


Raul Castro, Barack Obama, Bob Menendez, Marco Rubio,  Ileana Ros-Lehtinenm,  Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Mario Diaz-Balart or Joe Garcia?

All of the above!!!!   But especially the last six.

The government of the United States and the government of Cuba should feel deeply ashamed by their inability to find a way for Alan Gross to visit with his mother before her death or to attend her funeral.
Either side could have broken the impasse.
It doesn't matter which was most at fault. Both lost the opportunity to show they put human compassion first. 
The question now is how they address his declining psychological and physical condition, as reported in the Baltimore Sun:
"I've never seen Alan in such bad shape during all the years that the Cuban government has kept him," [Judy Gross] said in a statement. "Our daughter, Nina, was unprepared to see how gaunt and physically frail her father has become. And his decision to say goodbye to us was wrenching."... Scott Gilbert said. "He's lost most of the vision in his right eye. His hips are failing and he can barely walk. He has stopped all attempts to exercise. Alan's emotional deterioration has been severe, and his mother's lingering and painful death has only accelerated this."
This is not the first time Alan's wife and lawyer have dramatically sounded the alarm about his health.  The Cubans correctly point out that the conditions of their three still imprisoned operatives are worse. Nevertheless, there is a sense that time is running out and the consequences could be dire.
Ideally the much desired and much rumored negotiated deal can be quickly consummated that allows each country to gain what is most important while maintaining its pride.
Under the law when and where they were arrested Alan and the Cuban Five were guilty. The fairness of both trials left much to be desired and the sentences were excessive. The bottom line is that all were witting and willing instruments of anachronistic policies but they have paid an undeserved price because of their governments inflexibility and self-righteousness.
The only people who will benefit from Alan's death in prison are the hard liners in Florida and New Jersey who seem to have immobilized the President.  
Three hundred rabbis have written to President Obama, enabling/pressuring him to take the necessary steps to achieve Alan's negotiated freedom:
Alan went to Cuba on behalf of our government. His immediate release from prison in Cuba and return to the U.S. must be a priority for our nation. Indeed, we believe this is a moral imperative. Our communities are gravely concerned that Alan continues to languish in a Cuban prison nearly five years after his arrest.
We ask, with all respect, that you take whatever steps are necessary to ensure a prompt end to Alan’s, and his family’s, continuing nightmare.
This implicit call for negotiations is very similar to a letter sent to the President last December by two-thirds of the Senate, authored by Senator Leahy and including Ted Cruz.
The question is whether the inability of the White House to respond is based on ignorance, ideology or political fear.

A Grand Bargain

The Presidents of Russia, India, Brazil, China and South Africa

at the BRICS meeting in Brazil


The visits of the leaders of Russia and China to Cuba prompted  a fair amount of media attention.  One long time analyst asked me whether such outside support would make it less likely Cuba could reach an understanding with the US.

I consulted with knowledgeable friends in Havana who shared my view that this would not be a factor.

Cuba's reasons for seeking mutually respectful, i.e. non-interventionist, relations remain the same.  Russian and Chinese trade and assistance will help growth, but they cannot overcome US damage to Cuba's economy from the embargo and interference with European banks.  Russia and China also cannot remove the stultifying impact on domestic politics of constant meddling and regime change pressures by the omnipresent neighbor.   They have worth as diplomatic tokens in bilateral negotiations but probably are not as important as the pressure on Washington from countries in the Hemisphere in the run-up to the Summit of the Americas, as reported by Xinhua, but ignored in the US media.

The majority of country delegations attending the 44th general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) [in Montevideo] agreed Thursday [June 5] that Cuba should take part in the regional bloc's next summit to be held in Panama next year...

At a meeting of the bloc's Summit Implementation Review Group ( GRIC), Panamanian* Foreign Affairs Minister Francisco Alvarez De Soto proposed Cuba be invited to attend the summit.
Cuban American ultra hard liners tried to flog the Russian card, nourished by irresponsible reporting in the Miami Herald.  Juan Tamayo wrote that Cuba had agreed to the return of a Russian intelligence base, citing the "respected Kommersant newspaper", apparently not aware of, or finding significant, its liberal opposition nature and possible anti-Putin motives for circulating the story.**  
A report that Russia will reopen a Havana base that eavesdropped on U.S. communications from Key West to Washington has triggered fresh warnings of Moscow’s expansionism and predictions of a continued freeze in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Deep within the story, and overshadowed by hard line fulminations, Tamayo noted indirectly that both Cuba and Russia denied the story and the State Department did not dispute them.
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki declined comment Wednesday on the Kommersant report, saying that neither Moscow nor Cuba had confirmed it. “I would … naturally have nothing to add on alleged Russian intelligence facilities,” she said.
The false allegation lived on in a question by a CNN intern of Fareed Zakaria during an insightful interview with Jorge Dominguez of Harvard.
The presence in Havana of President Putin and President Xi could as least serve as a reminder to the White House that Cuba continues to bat above its level and that there is a cost to inertia.

A Meditation on the Larger Problem of US Intervention

The Foreign Policy blog ran a provocative essay on July 1st by Dr. Stephen Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard University, "Democracy, Freedam and Apple Pie Aren't a Foreign Policy" which can be read here.  It has provoked a number of thoughtful as well as knee jerk comments.   My own follows, hopefully the former:


The article is a breath of fresh air and the comments are a fascinating array.  
A core problem with US democracy promotion as foreign policy is that it is the secular modern version of the white man's burden civilizing obligation used to justify colonialism.
It is also ahistorical about ourselves.  Fifty years ago I was in Mississippi working to end racial discrimination and vote denial.  Thanks to the current Supreme Court new ways are being found to restrict the vote and private and corporate money is disabling democratic control of our own government.  Civil liberties have been shredded by post-9/11 laws and regulations, c.f. NSA, Guantanamo. 
We have dramatically improved the rights and liberties of gays, lesbians and transsexuals in the last decade, but condemn Russia for not being where we have barely arrived, not to mention that large sectors of US opinion are not yet  on board the new enlightenment.  
We have the largest proportional prison population in the world, racially reflecting economic inequity, and disenfranchise its victims.  The best national health system we can come up with wastes billions on the self-serving insurance industry, to the cost of patients and practitioners.  Our comparative international standing in education, health and quality of life is declining in order to sustain a dramatically larger military budget than the whole world combined. 
We barely acknowledge the reality that the comfortable society we live in was built not only on freedom, creativity, economic productivity and open immigration, but also on slavery, ethnic cleansing (the Indian wars) and military conquest of a neighbor (Mexico).  This should not immobilize us but should lead to some humility in lecturing others.
Basing foreign policy on democratic moralism would be more credible if it were consistent.  Other comments have noted our tendency to overthrow democratic governments if their policies displease us.  We bemoan the chaos in Libya without acknowledging that we brought it about.  NPR just ran a story about why so many children and youth are fleeing Honduras without mentioning the coup that we at best acquiesced in against a progressive government.
We return to our embrace of Egyptian authoritarian rule and continue to ignore the repressive character of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.  
We use international institutions when they serve our purpose but ignore them when they don't.  We defy virtually unanimous international and regional condemnation of our embargo on Cuba, but aggressively punish foreign banks that do normal business with it, despite strong public support in the US for a more rational policy of engagement.