Obama Administration Botches Cuban Visas
You know U.S.-Cuban relations have hit a bizarre new low when The Washington Post editorial board - which favors a harder line on Cuba policy than most - criticizes the Obama administration for taking too hard a line this time.
Late last week we learned that the State Department granted visas to Mariela Castro (a sexologist and GLBT rights advocate in Cuba, and, oh by the way, Raul Castro's daughter) and two other high level officials, Josefina Vidal (the Foreign Ministry's Director of its U.S. Section) and Eusebio Leal (the man behind the "living" restoration of Old Havana). Predictably, Cuban American critics in Congress fired off statements of horror, particularly over Mariela Castro. But they offered no gleeful appreciation for the administration's decision to turn away nearly a dozen of Cuba's most noted academic specialists in U.S.-Cuban relations, who were invited to the same conference, the annual meeting of the Latin America Studies Association, as Mariela Castro and some 60 other Cuban academics who did receive visas.
"The rejections send a message that a timorous Washington is somehow afraid of competing points of view from academics in a poor island nation with a shrinking population and an economy about the size of Arkansas’. It’s a message that conveys weakness, not strength.
So does the absurd outcry from Cuban American politicians, including members of Congress, bent out of shape that a visa was granted to Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and an advocate of gay and transgender rights. What are they so frightened of?
The State Department’s form letters to the rejected applicants said that their presence would be “detrimental” to American interests. A spokesperson, without offering any further explanation, fell back on boilerplate legalities which, in an almost Soviet twist, translated as: Rejected Because of the Law. Never mind that the 11 have traveled — quite legally — to the United States before."
If as some imagine, the administration was trying to balance its credit with hardliners for offering the higher level visas, it obviously didn't work - and wouldn't have. This administration seems slow to catch on the way this works: Cuba policy hardliners don't compromise; that is death by a thousand cuts. The 50-year old embargo has long been on borrowed time, and diehard embargo supporters know this. They therefore only operate in two gears: driving sanctions forward and reversing any perceived openings to Cuba.
Unfortunately, the administration appears to operate in just two gears as well, but they are diametrically opposed: one to increase avenues of constructive engagement with Cuba, and the other to shut them down. Another case in point, one year after authorizing people to people travel to the island, the Obama Treasury Department has just decided to update its travel guidelines to make sure no one abuses the rules it set up to open up more travel. It's an unnecessary enforcenment move straight out of the Bush playbook - though, four years ago, it was candidate Obama who relished criticizing Bush's conveniently tough talk on Cuba that produced no results for anyone.
Even as we scratch our heads over why State rejected the Cuban academics' visas, we should also ask, what are the implications for them and their American counterparts? These are not faceless apparatchiks; these 11, including Amb. Carlos Alzugaray, Dr. Soraya Castro, Rafael Hernandez, editor of Temas magazine, and Dr. Milagros Martinez and Carmen Castillo (two of the principal organizers of the Cuban delegation to LASA), are respected academicians with long records of exchanges with venerable U.S. institutions, and who now have a black mark by their names. The administration ought to correct its mistake, if not for this trip then for the next one (at least U.S. academia is unfailingly committed to the principle and practice of unfettered exchange). But even so, it will look just as confused saying yes next time as it did saying no this time.
It's like watching some silly scene out of an old movie where someone gets into a car and can't figure out how to drive it. The cars lurches this way and that, banging up the car and anything it touches, and in the end, it goes nowhere.