U.S.-Cuba Conflict: The Minefields in Our Imagination
As stunned Americans struggle to fathom the violence unleashed against the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya two nights ago – which, like anti-American protests in Egypt and Yemen, was sparked by an anti-Muslim movie trailer posted on You Tube – and which ended in the tragic deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other consulate staff, it boggles the mind that U.S. relations with our neighbor, Cuba, where the only violent extremists who threaten America are to be found at the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, can really be such a minefield afterall.
And yet they are. How else to explain the apparent backtracking of the Obama administration on a policy it, yes, this and not some other administration, rolled out more than a year and a half ago, to authorize people-to-people educational travel to the island. If the speculation is true that the administration bowed to pressures from pro-embargo lawmakers, specifically Senator Marco Rubio, who was holding up the nomination of our top Western Hemisphere diplomat at the time, one would have thought that the beefed up guidance on the policy offered this spring by the Treasury Department – including that travelers justify how any meetings with Cuban government representatives furthers the democratic cause in Cuba – should have been sufficient. But now it seems that scores of organizations are in the lurch, waiting for license renewals that don’t come, and forced to take a loss on their ventures.
An American no one believed would be in jail in Cuba this long remains there more than 2.5 years later – whether his employers complacently assured themselves the Cubans wouldn’t bother with his breaking the law or whether we analysts presumed the Cubans merely intended to make a point about their sovereignty and the U.S. government would admit its mistake (if only to itself) and get our man out. Because Alan Gross, whom his wife now fears won’t live to complete his 15 year sentence in Cuban prison, was our man, sending reports back on his USAID subcontract about the “very risky business” he was undertaking and the "catastrophic" results of discovery by the Cuban government. (Gross traveled to Cuba on a tourist visa five times in 2009 to set up several wi-fi networks that could go undetected by the Cuban government.) And we appear to have no plan yet – or if we do, it surely won’t appear until after the November elections – to secure his release other than to make demands that we know are backed up with zero leverage. There are those who imagine we have such leverage and insist the administration is too weak-kneed to wield it. It’s a convenient hypothesis that decades of unresolved strife with Havana ought to have dispelled by now.
Meanwhile, the semiannual migration talks, cancelled in a huff by the Bush administration – whose Cuba policy candidate Obama criticized – in early 2004 and restarted by the Obama administration in 2009, have again stalled for over a year now. Apparently stemming the tide of illegal Cuban migration, or even maintaining across-the-table talks for the sake of remembering how to do it, even if we vehemently disagree, is just not that high a priority anymore. It’s the sort of diplomacy that only hurts our interests.
And if we’ve had some trouble convincing the Cubans to give up their “terrorist” ways, maybe there’s something Colombia’s President Santos could teach us on the matter. Santos has embarked on an effort at peace talks with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to kick off in Oslo and thereafter continue in Havana this fall. Cuba and Norway will serve as "guarantor" of the process. Yet, according to the State Department’s latest report, Cuba remains on Washington’s State Sponsor of Terrorism list for its contacts with or presence in Cuba of FARC and ELN members, as well as former members of the Basque separatist terrorist group ETA (most of whom were exiled from Spain to Cuba in an arrangement with a previous Spanish government more than 20 years ago). Though State’s reports have many times noted a lack of evidence of Cuban support for terrorism and for these specific groups' activities, even noting Cuba's stance against international terrorism, the U.S. never seems able to remove Cuba from the list. When former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson suggested the U.S. might begin a process to remove Cuba from the list in exchange for Alan Gross, it undoubtedly rankled officials in Havana.
Benghazi, it’s not. That might seem surprising, considering the decades of suffering - real and imagined - the U.S.'s near total economic embargo has caused or contributed to in Cuba. Yet you won't find a U.S. flag in flames in Cuba.
It's difficult to think about anything else at a moment of profound and senseless loss such as this one. But it’s also at a gruesome moment in history like this that we must focus our energies on the real and deadly challenges we face around the world. Those challenges should remind us not to squander opportunities to be a force for progress where we have them.
What’s so tragic about the Benghazi murders is that Ambassador Stevens was such a recognized force for good and for hope in Libya. Libyans have rallied to condemn the attacks on our diplomats, and I suppose there’s some comfort in that. Surely Cubans would do the same in their shoes, for they love Americans, embracing our shared history and culture, even as they wonder why the U.S. government can’t bring itself to embrace the Cuban people directly.