Havana and Washington in the New Year

New Year symbol



I was in Cuba three times in 2011 and have visited at least annually for the past 15 years.  From numerous private conversations with old friends and random encounters I received an impression of growing optimism that real changes were finally underway.  There is also a discernible growth of small scale entrepreneurial activity. 

Two lengthy year end reviews of economic change in Cuba in the Miami Herald convey a similar perspective. 

*  by Paul Havens head of the Associated Press bureau in Havana here

*  by the Herald's own Mimi Whitfield here

Based on extended personal observation in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the years of their economic transformation, I see a similar process beginning in Cuba that gathers momentum from its success and learns from its mistakes.  Everything will be justified as being done to strengthen socialism, just as the Vietnamese and Chinese still do, but as the process continues socialism takes on new forms and functions and society becomes more open.

It took the US eight years to recognize the significance of Vietnam's policy of doi moi (renovation) and lift our unilateral embargo.  I hope we are not equally obtuse with Cuba.  So far the signs are not encouraging.

President Obama could today easily use his power to really open travel for average Americans, end OFAC restrictions on Cuba's international use of the dollar (allowing $ CUC parity) and other extraterritorial annoyance measures, and make an exemption to the embargo for sales to and purchases from the emerging private sector. 

Attitudes in Washington do not help relaxation in Cuba.  President Castro announces 2900 prisoners are to be released and all the US does is criticize that Alan Gross wasn't included.  Don't 2900 Cuban families matter?  Couldn't President Obama have used that as a reason to let Rene Gonzalez of the Cuban 5 serve his probation at home with his family, a routine procedure if he weren't a dual citizen.

Embedded in the public justification for President Obama's important reforms of travel for Cuban Americans and purposeful trips for the rest of us is the underlying rationale of regime change.  The President made that objective explicit in interviews with Hispanic reporters several months ago.

Is that only political opportunism, attuned to an outdated analysis of Cuban American voters and the predilections of his primary ally in Miami, the Cuban American National Foundation?  Or does it reflect the dominance of "intelligence" and "national security" experts who believe this time Cuba really is on the verge of upheaval, or will be, any day now, when both of the Castros are gone?

If Cuba allows opposition groups to openly demonstrate, will Washington end all of its "democracy" programs and Radio and TV Marti broadcasts and make USAID expenditures subject to the normal vetting by the host government?  Or will Washington see that as an opportunity to increase its intervention in Cuba’s domestic affairs?

It was disappointing that long awaited migratory reforms were not announced last month by President Castro, but it is said to still be on his agenda.  Virtually every Cuban I know believes that Cuba's Cold War residue of exit visas / white cards and restrictions on return needs to be ended. 

It certainly would be embarrassing to Washington if Cuba permits greater freedom of travel than the US.  The White House could come close to the same thing by responding with a general license for all non-tourist travel.  It is long past time to end Jim Crow discrimination against non-Cuban Americans.

Rumors are circulating that the Pope's March 26-28 visit might be the occasion for Alan Gross's release. That would certainly be a wonderful consequence, especially if the President is prepared to make an equally compassionate gesture.  The papal trip also provides an opportunity for any Catholic church organization in the US to go to Cuba under the religious general license.

The White House has obviously changed its political calculus about the use of executive power and confrontation with the opposition.  Even with risk to a high priority year end comprehensive finance bill, the President overcame efforts by hard-liners in Congress to role back travel and remittances for Cuban Americans to the draconian levels of President Bush. 

This week the President moved against Republican obstructionism by recess appointments to important domestic positions.  He should show equal determination in foreign policy by making recess appointments of Roberta Jacobson as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Jonathan Farrar as ambassador to Nicaragua. 

Why should Marco Rubio, a first term Republican Senator who may be his party's candidate for Vice President, be able to claim credit for holding hostage a rational US policy in the Americas, and punishing professional foreign service officers for daring to be smart about Cuba?

Let's hope for a happier new year for all of us, and for US-Cuba relations

John McAuliff

Fund for Reconciliation and Development


Links and resources

*  Fulton Armstrong, former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, published a devastating critique in the Miami Herald of the misguided covert action program of USAID and its implications for Alan Gross.  

* Nelson P. Valdés and Sue Ashdown analyze the difficulty Cuba faces in distributing broadband, even after getting a fiber optic connection in Progreso Weekly

* Margarita Alarcon has created a blog to give voice to a progressive view of Cuba and the changes taking place.  Her essay on the impact of economic opening on the atmosphere of daily life can be found here.