December 2008

Disturbing Report from the Transition Team

Tim Shipman has a long story in the December 28th issue of the British newspaper The Telegraph that cites "a Latin American adviser to Mr Obama's transition team" who conveys disturbing information:

First to go under Mr Obama will be rules, brought in by George Bush in 2004, that say Cuban-Americans can only return home once every three years. In addition to annual visits, the amount of money they can take will be raised from $300 to $3,000.

An adviser to Mr Obama said: "Cubans will be less dependent on the state for money and they will have greater contact with their relatives in the US. That can only aid understanding." Those changes require only a presidential order. The adviser said: "He could do it on day one. Obama has a lot on his plate with the economy so Cuba will not be top of his list but I'd expect it to happen fairly quickly." During the campaign, Mr Obama vowed to maintain the economic embargo older even than he is which prevents other Americans from visiting the island.

Obama's campaign statements and the platform pledge were for unlimited travel and remittances. He also said he would do it "immediately after taking office", which makes sense if a primary motive is humanitarian.

It is also not clear whether the transition team source or the reporter obfuscates Obama's ability to just as easily allow other kinds of non-tourist travel. Certainly travel by tens of thousands of mainstream Americans for educational, humanitarian, religious, cultural and sports purposes is at least as great a contribution to mutual understanding.

I'd like to think this is just a rewrite of a Miami Herald story of several weeks ago rather than new reporting but some of the details are fresh. Since then Obama has gotten a lot of flack from his strongest long term supporters because of national security appointees and the Rick Warren invitation.

A bold step on Cuba that provides general licenses for all twelve categories of non-tourist travels is an effective way to remind his friends, the American people and international opinion that he will bring real change to tired and counterproductive policies.

--John McAuliff

[Members of the transition team are listed here.]

Raul Castro Offers to Free Prisoners if US Does


Raul Castro has responded from Brazil to Barack Obama's call for release of prisoners by urging the US do the same:

"Let's do gesture for gesture," Castro told reporters during a visit to the Brazilian capital Brasilia.

"These prisoners you talk about -- they want us to let them go? They should tell us tomorrow. We'll send them with their families and everything. Give us back our five heroes. That is a gesture on both parts," he said, referring to five convicted Cuban spies in U.S. prison.

Coincidentally, I wrote Presidents Castro and Bush on December 10th urging both grant pardons.

In the generous spirit of the Christmas season and the ending of the year, please consider granting pardons to the five Cubans imprisoned in the US and the fifty-five Cubans imprisoned in Cuba as agents of hostile foreign powers.

I am not proposing your actions be characterized as reciprocal or seeking to compare or judge the merits of the arrest, trial and imprisonment of either group. Suffice to say both situations are surrounded by politics in both nations. One country’s hero is the other country’s villain, and vice versa.

However, the prisoners and their families have suffered enough from the unresolved political conflict between our countries. Rather than waiting for their cases to be addressed as part of a bilateral normalization process in the future, I urge you to courageously remove this problem from the agenda of negotiation.

Castro's words are obviously directed at the next administration but wouldn't it be historic if such an important humanitarian breakthrough were accomplished by this one?

The deliberately provocative undiplomatic behavior by Chief of the Interests Section Jim Cason, conceivably at the behest of Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, provided the perfect excuse if not the reason for the 2003 "black spring" arrests in Cuba.

It would only be decent for the Bush Administration to clear the books by taking steps that will lead to the freedom of those remaining in prison in Cuba at no real cost to the US.

Keeping the five Cuban spies/heroes in our prisons accomplishes nothing except to provide an increasingly effective international propaganda theme for Havana.

--John McAuliff

The Price of Leadership in the Western Hemisphere

Yesterday, deep in the Brazilian hinterland, 33 leaders from Latin America and the Caribbean called on President-elect Obama to end the embargo on Cuba.

Their unequivocal call to end a policy that the UN General Assembly has voted against 16 times, that has failed for 50 years to achieve its objective, and that amounts to a self-imposed barrier to entering into a 21st century relationship with the rest of the Hemisphere -- seems to me to be a strategic no-brainer for the incoming administration.

So what is the price of leadership in the Western Hemisphere? It's a trick question, really. In dollar terms, the cost of renovating Hemispheric relations is practically nil. Ending the embargo is the right thing to do, still leaves us plenty of carrots and sticks for negotiations with Cuba, and costs the Treasury nothing. In fact, given the explosion of trade with the Southern United States that would accompany the change in status, America would profit from the move.

What we gain, on the other hand, is priceless. Over the past two decades, the embargo has been more of a wall separating the U.S. from Latin America than it has been a siege of Cuba. The lack of trust rooted in the senseless persistence of the embargo combined with our Cold War support for right-wing governments, our misguided insistence on the "Washington Consensus" and now our unwillingness to recognize that our immigration problem is a symptom of the lack of economic opportunity in sending countries is the biggest barrier to progress in the region.

What is important to note, however, is that the "ask" from these Latin American nations is decisive, not incremental. President-elect Obama's campaign promises, calibrated to appeal to an demographic shift within Southern Florida that was incompletely understood until the election results arrived, those promises are not enough to get the nations of Latin America to embrace the United States once again.

In the second week of April, then-President Obama will have the opportunity to address the OAS Summit of the Americas in Trinidad. If he does not make his move before then, the president must take the opportunity to answer this call from his fellow heads of state.

This will be one of the greatest tests for Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. She will have to put her family's record on Cuba policy aside, aggressively pursue the national interest and prepare the way for then-President Obama to claim a major foreign policy victory. She can be the architect, but Mr. Obama must be seen as the author. What we need is a clear signal from within Mr. Obama's inner circle that it is time for a decisive shift in policy, one that can capture the goodwill and imagination of the nations of the Western Hemisphere.

Mrs. Clinton's challenge will be to hear the signal and prioritize an easy win in the midst of all the foreign policy and economic crisis management.

An Obama Policy for Cuba

This just published by the good folks at McClatchy:

Commentary: An Obama Policy for Cuba

Lawrence B. Wilkerson and Patrick C. Doherty

With his national security team in place, President-elect Barack Obama's foreign policy principals will be immediately struck by how many complex and expensive challenges they will face. Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel-Palestine and Russia, will all require enormous energy, all the tools in our foreign policy toolbox, and will all take years to resolve, if they can be resolved. None of these crises will allow President Obama to signal swiftly to the world the kind of changes he proposes in American foreign policy. In contrast, U.S.-Cuba policy is low-hanging fruit: though of marginal importance domestically, it could be changed immediately at little cost.

At present, that policy is a major black spot on America's international reputation. For the rest of the world, our failed, obsolete and 50-year old policy toward Cuba goes against everything that Obama campaigned for, and the recent 185-3 U.N. vote to condemn the centerpiece of that policy, the embargo – the 16th such vote in as many years – makes that clear. The entire world believes our policy is wrong.

And the world is right. The fact is that since Cuba stopped exporting revolution and started exporting doctors and nurses, it ceased being a national security concern for the United States. And yet we restrict travel to the island - unconstitutionally - and constrain Cuban-Americans in the amount of money they can send to their families on the island. Moreover, the economic embargo hurts the Cuban people more than the Cuban leadership, and our Helms-Burton legislation imposes Washington's will on foreign businesses who wish to trade with Cuba, creating ill will in business communities from Canada to Brazil.

Our Cuba policy is also an obstacle to striking a new relationship with the nations of Latin America. Any 21st-century policy toward Latin America will have to shift from the Cold War-era emphasis on right-wing governments and top-down economic adjustment to creating a hemispheric partnership to address many critical issues: the revival of militant leftism, the twin challenges of sustainability and inclusive economic growth, and the rising hemispheric influence of Russia and China. But until Washington ends the extraordinary sanctions that comprise the Cuba embargo, Latin America will remain at arms-length, and the problems in our backyard - Hugo Chavez, drugs, immigration, energy insecurity - will simply fester.

The November elections shattered the old political constraints on Cuba policy. It used to be that Cuba policy was controlled by the Cuban-American community in South Florida. It had been gospel that to win Florida's 27 electoral votes a candidate for president had to win the Cuban-American vote. What was once gospel is now history. President-elect Obama won Florida with only 35 percent of the Cuban-American vote.

Obama now needs his own policy, not a retread of past failure. We see three important elements of such a policy.
First, Obama should call on Congress to end the travel ban on all Americans for any purpose. This action not only restores Americans' constitutional rights, it also unleashes the greatest ambassadors of democracy and free markets, the American people.

Second, Obama should call on the Congress to repeal two aspects of the Helms-Burton act to restore the Constitution's separation of powers and to end the disruptive use of extra-territorial sanctions.

Finally, Obama must sign an executive order to meet the urgent needs of the hundreds of thousands of Cuban people who were affected by a record four hurricanes this season. The Cuban people are suffering and even the wives of jailed political dissidents, in an October teleconference with first lady Laura Bush and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, pleaded for the United States to lift the embargo for humanitarian reasons. This can be done. But since the Cuban government will not accept traditional disaster assistance, the new president must use his "notwithstanding" authority enshrined in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 to lift the embargo for 180 days and allow Cuba to purchase civilian items with cash or credit on the American market. Such an action will instill immediate good will among the Cuban people.

With these three objectives accomplished, Cuba policy will once again be back in the hands of the executive branch, which can begin a deliberate process of negotiations to normalize relations. While some will say such a policy amounts to "free concessions" to the Castro brothers, we look at it differently. Fidel and Raul Castro are at death's door. Change is coming. Everyone seems to realize it but the United States. A new, decisive policy toward Cuba, wrought by the new "change" president, will send a clear signal to the world that America is back. Moreover, such change will liberate U.S. relations with Latin America and open the door to dealing effectively with our own hemisphere's many challenges.


Lawrence B.Wilkerson was chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell. He and Patrick C. Doherty chair and direct, respectively, the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, 1630 Connecticut Avenue NW, 7th Floor, Washington, D.C. 20009; Web site:

This essay is available to McClatchy-Tribune News Service subscribers. McClatchy-Tribune did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy-Tribune or its editors.

© 2008, New America Foundation

Bill Richardson: The Anti-Gutierrez?

[The following was posted yesterday on The Washington Note]

I just heard that Matt Cooper commented on MSNBC Live that Secretary of Commerce-designate Bill Richardson is the guy to lead on Cuba. I think Cooper nailed it--the outgoing governor of New Mexico it is a natural fit with an elegant dash of poetic justice rarely found in Washington.

Richardson, many will remember, was famous for his one-on-one negotiations with nasty international characters, including Saddam Hussein and John Garang of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, and traveled to Venezuela, Nicaragua, North Korea to handle tough negotiations on behalf of American interests.

Even Republicans agree he's got the skills. Assistant Secretary Tom Shannon, who heads up Western Hemisphere affairs for Secretary Rice at the State Department had this to say in a Reuters interview about Gov. Richardson's role in freeing American hostages in Venezuela earlier this year: "Governor Richardson is a skilled negotiator with a lot of experience in this field and I am sure he has a lot to offer in terms of understanding possible resolutions of the hostage situation." That will come in handy as many believe our entire Latin America policy is being held hostage by our failed Cuba policy.

But the poetic justice is really that Gov. Richardson will be replacing Carlos Gutierrez as Commerce Secretary. As the highest-ranking Cuban American in the Bush administration, he's been the great defender of the embargo at home and around the world. He even lobbied European ministers, unsuccessfully, to stop the EU from ending their remaining sanctions against the island nation that now exports doctors, not revolution. Secretary Gutierrez also co-chairs the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, a creation of the Bush administration that coincided with the administration's tightening of the Cuban-American travel restrictions that, in turn, heralded the end of the unified Cuban-American voting bloc in South Florida.

In fact it is thanks to the over-reach of Secretary Gutierrez that Gov. Richardson will be able to go to Havana knowing that domestic politics - not to mention U.S. national interests - are on his side: Obama won Florida with only 35% of the Cuban American vote and a poll released just today says that anyway, 55% of Cuban Americans in South Florida want an end to the embargo completely.

Gov. Richardson will certainly benefit from the mission, should he in fact be offered it. In Congress, he led the House Hispanic Caucus and worked hard to bring the Latino community into the Obama camp. So look for an early negotiated trade with Cuba around the "Wet-Foot/Dry-Foot" policy that allows Cubans and only Cubans who elude the Coast guard or Border Patrol and set foot on American soil get fast-tracked to citizenship. No other ethnic group gets that treatment, and it's a thorn in the side of the Latino community that both Richardson and Obama can reap a lot of capital from plucking.

Welcome back to Washington, Mr. Secretary.

Nothing standing in the way of change we can believe in


Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton left office under a cloud but with permanent respect for their vision and courage in opening relations with adversaries China and Vietnam--not to mention with enduring appreciation from the affected nations.

AP's long time correspondent in Havana, Anita Snow, reminds us of Barack Obama's promise and potential to do more.

Obama said during the campaign that immediately after taking office on Jan. 20, he will lift all restrictions on family travel and cash remittances to Cuba ­ not just roll them back to previous rules that were tightened by the Bush administration.

A poll in Miami-Dade County confirms that neither politics nor policy should inhibit Obama from going further than his oft-pledged humanitarian step of family travel. The survey (detailed results here) undertaken for the Brookings Institution and the Cuba Study Group reveals Cuban Americans favor

* Ending the embargo 55%
* Normalizing relations 65%
* Ending restrictions on Cuban American travel 66%
* Ending restriction on travel for every American 67%

These numbers are virtually identical to Zogby's finding in October that 68% of all Americans favor unrestricted travel. Unlike previous polls, Cuban Americans did not give greater support to allowing their own visits

What more does Team Obama need? On January 21 the new president can send a bold signal that will be heard enthusiastically by 185 UN members, including every Latin American and Caribbean nation, two thirds of all Americans, 84% of his own supporters and by a Congress looking for leadership.

All it takes is an executive order to provide general licenses for twelve categories of non-tourist travel. Putting off the decision will send a different and less palatable signal.

Enabling non-tourist travel will encourage Congress to finish the job by removing remaining restrictions and open the way for the promised meeting between Barack Obama and Raul Castro. One can imagine Vice President Biden, UN Ambassador Rice and Commerce Secretary Richardson laying the bilateral groundwork.

--John McAuliff

[Note: nearly 600 persons have signed the on-line letter to the President-elect, often appending moving personal comments. We don't know how many Obama supporters have shared their vision on Cuba policy at his transition web site.]

Russia, Cuba and Obama

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's recent visit to Venezuela and Cuba received some attention from the press, but little from the Bush administration and none from the Obama transition.

That is as it should be. With the announcement that the U.S. economy is definitely in recession, the backdrop of two wars and a provocative attack in India, the lame-duck Bush administration needs to focus its limited ability to shape events and focus on the top priorities.

For the transition team, President-elect Obama has consistently said the transition will focus on people then policy. But even after yesterday's national security team roll out in Chicago, it will be still quite some time before policy positions take real form. Indeed, with the sometimes-honored pledge to respect the one-president-at-a-time rule, we may not hear much policy until the Inaugural address.

But they are planning. And it is becoming clearer that Russia and Cuba offer two separate but increasingly intertwined opportunities for the Obama administration to really define itself.

In both cases, Washington's policy has been out of step with the rest of the international community and our hands are not as tied as they are in the cases of Iran or Iraq. That's a great situation in which the new team can make a clear and bold statement to the world that there is a new leader on the Potomac.

Russia's gambit is the Kremlin's version of the Cheney doctrine: a focus on using energy as geopolitical leverage, the re-establishment of a sphere of client states, and provocative but incremental moves to confirm their seriousness and intimidate neighbors. The rationale is simple: Moscow has little it can rely on as an attractive force, will be hammered by a shift to a global green economy and with Obama coming into office, time is running out to use the leverage they have.

Think of it as the Exxon-Mobil of the international community. Russia's entire economy is based on the the price of hydrocarbons and its leadership has decided that it is politically easier to dig in than to adapt. In addition, Russia's population is aging and shrinking, and by choosing to return to autocracy, its ability to innovate is inherently limited.

Cuba, as I've written before, is surviving on what I've called a "Yugoslav" strategy. Like Tito's successful playing off of East and West during the Cold War, Cuba is profiting from its strategic position in the Caribbean and its potential to be a thorn in the side of Washington. This time, however, the patrons are China, Venezuela, and Russia.

My colleague at New America, Steve Clemons, likes to tell a story of being in Beijing recently and asking what some of the leading minds at the leading foreign policy think tank were working on. Their reply: figuring out how to keep the U.S. distracted with little wars in the Middle East. Beijing and Moscow also realize that Cuba offers a similar kind of diplomatic obstacle, but one tailored to the Western Hemisphere.

That is, to the extent that the U.S.-Cuba relationship sits in its Cold War deep freeze, the U.S. relationship with Latin America will get atrophy further and provide more opportunities for trade and patronage deals for entrepreneurial powers, like Caracas, Beijing, and Moscow. As long as these nations keep Havana afloat in the global credit markets, providing it critical economic inputs and especially food, the U.S. strategy of isolation and regime change will continue to fail and there will be no chance to transform our relationship with the Western Hemisphere.

Ironically, both strategies, those of Cuba and Russia, are dependent upon the U.S. acting against our own interest. We need to build a new, sustainable relationship across the Western Hemisphere and we need to reduce our consumption of and vulnerability resulting from, oil.

President-elect Obama now has the chance to negate both gambits, by changing our strategy towards Cuba and by aggressively pursuing a decisive strategy to end not only America's, but the world's addiction to oil. The question in my mind is not whether Mr. Obama will do something on either of these issues. The question is whether he will go far enough to make a strategic difference.

The Cuba Move: Gates, Clinton, Jones, Kerry, Berman, or...Biden?

Who will the Obama team ask to take the lead on forging a new relationship with Cuba? Both the 111th Congress and the team around the President-elect are facing a unique opportunity to end one of the last vestiges of the Cold War and get an easy victory under their belts early in the administration. The question will be who takes the lead.

Gates and Jones, coming from a military background will be the most likely and influential supporters of such an initiative. The broad feeling at the Pentagon is that Cuba is a) not a national security threat to the United States, unless it becomes a failed state, and b) represents an important opportunity to secure our long-term interests in the Western Hemisphere.

That said, neither the National Security Council nor the Defense Department will be taking point on the process of re-engaging Cuba. That will be left to the State Department at the end of the day. So the question of whether Secretary-designate Clinton will see Cuba as one of the "strategic opportunities" that she and President-elect Obama have identified is of major consequence.

But while the Department of State has to take the lead on diplomacy, the Secretary's hands will be tied when it comes to actually changing policy by the Helms-Burton Act, one of the few instances in American history in which the Congress has successfully curtailed the Constitution's separation of powers and constrained the President in the setting of foreign policy.

And that sets up a delicate dance between Congress and the Obama administration. Each branch of the incoming government will have to signal to the other just how far it wants to go on Cuba policy. Senator Kerry, the incoming Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, will have an enormous say in the matter, as will his counterpart in the House of Representatives, Representative Howard Berman. Both are broadly supportive.

The necessity of that delicate policy dance between the two branches argues for one particular champion of a transformed Cuba policy, Vice President-elect Joe Biden. As president of the Senate, Mr. Biden will have an office in the Capitol from which the kind of close coordination and confidence-building will be essential to make sure that both Congress and the Executive move their pieces on the chess board at the right time.

Vice-President Elect Biden has to carve out a niche for himself as the first post-Cheney vice president. His speaking part today in Chicago at the unveiling of the national security team signals that role will be in foreign affairs. While he will certainly be advising the president-elect on many issues, Cuba will be one that his office is particularly well suited for.

And, ironically, outgoing Vice President Cheney happens to agree with the need to change Cuba policy. Two trusted sources tell me that the architect of the "unitary executive" thinks the embargo and especially Helms-Burton legislation is, to paraphrase, the "stupidest @#$%& policy" ever.