February 2009

Cuba: Low Hanging Fruit for Obama

Ripe mangos in Cuba, by Lergik.

When President Barack Obama looks out the curved windows of the Oval Office and ponders where in the world he can get a decisive foreign policy victory, the landscape is pretty bleak. His special envoys, Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell have been assigned the most complex negotiations. Chris Hill, fresh off the six party talks over North Korea's nuclear program, is decamping for Baghdad, at last report. Dennis Ross is sitting in the cat bird's seat on Iran policy. Secretary of State Clinton has taken China on.

But none of those problems will yield a major victory anytime soon. That is not acceptable for a new, young president who has to send signals both to the international community and to the folks back home that not only can he deploy diplomats effectively, but that he can close the deal and win a principled victory for America overseas.

Cuba, however, is a different story. This article from Reuters makes the case clearly: the domestic politics and the changes in leadership here and in Havana are all lining up to give Obama the chance to get that win and change the perception of America abroad while ending a dysfunctional era in the politics of a state with 10 percent of the electoral college votes.

Here's a snip:

“Latin Americans would view U.S. engagement with Cuba as a demonstration that the United States understands their perspectives on the history of U.S. policy in the region and no longer insists that all of Latin America must share U.S. hostility to a 50-year-old regime,â€Â the Foreign Relations Committee staff report said. “The resulting improvement to the United States’ image in the region would facilitate the advancement of U.S. interests.â€Â

Portraying normal relations with Cuba as something that serves U.S. national interests strengthens the case of a growing number of lawmakers and business groups who think it is time to remove the last vestige of the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere. It would also provide backing for Obama if he were inclined to go beyond his campaign promises on Cuba â€â€ easing restrictions on Cuban Americans traveling to Cuba and sending money to relatives there.

In the words of Steve Clemons, a Latin America expert at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, Cuba is “the lowest hanging ripe fruit on America’s tree of foreign policy options. Change is easy there â€â€ and overdue.â€Â

Pork Over Politics: Omnibus moves from House to Senate


The House voted 245-178 on February 25th to pass the Omnibus Appropriations bill.

As summarized by Lesley Clark and Frances Robles in the Miami Herald, it will

* Prevent the U.S. government from spending any of its budget enforcing 2004 rules that keep Cuban-Americans from visiting their homeland more than once every three years.

* Create a general travel license for Americans who sell food and medical supplies to Cuba.

* Let Cuba pay for the American products it buys in cash when they arrive in Havana. Current law forces Cuba to pay upfront before products leave U.S. ports.

* Require the U.S. Treasury Department to issue a report showing how much of its staff and funding is spent on enforcing the ban on travel to Cuba.

Robles today diminished its significance by leading with a more cynical but possibly accurate view that the bill

tweaked U.S.-Cuba policy,making it easier for Cuban Americans to get away with illegally traveling to the communist country

The only Cuba related intervention during the debate came from Miami hard liner Lincoln Diaz-Ballart. However instead of denouncing the travel and agricultural provisions, he just wanted to be sure that $20 million of Cuba "democracy" funding that largely benefits his supporters in Miami was still in the bill. Rep. Nita Lowey, the manager of that part of the legislation, reassured him that his pork was safe.

His Democratic soul mate, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (photo above), also spoke but her comments were entirely in favor of the bill, skewering its Republican opponents. Not a word did she utter about the dastardly Cuba language .

The bill was debated under a no amendments rule so there was not much they could really do to challenge its content.

The test comes very soon in the Senate where Majority Leader Reid said he wants to complete work on the legislation by the end of next week when stopgap funding runs out. Senators have privileges that could allow travel opponents Martinez and Menendez to hold the bill hostage if the Cuba language stays in.

As reported by Bill Gibson in his Sun-Sentinel weblog

Florida Senator Mel Martinez this afternoon threatened to block a big spending bill that would ease restrictions on Cuban-American travel to visit relatives in Cuba....

Martinez, a Republican, said he would object to consideration of the bill. It’s a procedural move that would force the bill’s supporters to round up 60 votes to overcome delays that would kill it, a modern form of filibuster.

The bill returns travel for Cuban Americans only to the less restrictive formula of the Clinton Administration, annual visits to a normal definition of family that includes cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles. However it does so by blocking enforcement of existing law and regulations rather than by changing them.

An Associated Press story suggests that the travel may need to go through third countries:

Tessie Aral, owner of ABC Charters in Miami, said that because of the way the measure is written, she worries individuals won't be prosecuted for traveling to Cuba, but companies arranging the trips may be targeted.

"This is not what President Obama promised," Aral said. "If it only stops enforcement, I still can't sell you a ticket knowing I'm going to break a law."

The leading voice for the campaign on behalf of family travel in Miami went further in an editorial in Progresso Weekly pressing President Obama to keep the promise of his campaign and the Democratic Party platform for unlimited Cuban American travel and remittances:

in our opinion, the Cuba travel piece should be removed completely from the Omnibus Bill making the rounds in Washington, DC.

Finally, what we would like to stress to the president is that every time a family member dies in Cuba, alone; a son, daughter or nephew sits in the hospital with little hope of seeing a loved one who lives in the U.S.; every minute that passes while family members are kept apart for political reasons, is yet another black mark on one of the most un-American and cruel pieces of legislation passed in this country over the last 20 years.

Methods of agricultural sales also are normalized by dint of preventing expenditure of funds for enforcement of politically motivated obstructions created by the Bush Administration. On the other hand, travel for the purpose of sales of agricultural and medical products received a general license, i.e. no application necessary.

Reuters saw the economic implications this way

The legislation approved by the House does not lift the overall embargo. But it would prohibit the Treasury Department from enforcing Bush administration rules requiring payment of cash in advance for agricultural sales to Cuba.

Analysts believe that U.S. rice sales to Cuba will soar if the provision becomes law. Rice sales declined every year after the cash-in-advance rules were imposed in 2005, because Cuba could turn to Vietnam -- a country with which it has close ties -- for rice on easier terms.

Lawyers will sort out the exact implications. The crucial element is that implementation will be by officials in the Treasury and Commerce Department answering to a different more pro-engagement political drum. Before they expire on September 30th, all provisions will probably be supplanted by more fundamental change available through executive orders and notices in the Federal Register or by new legislation.

The BBC went to the core of the issue:

The measures announced in the US bill represent a first move in broader efforts to ease the US trade embargo and end travel restrictions for all Americans.

However the path is not certain report Clark and Robles:

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who backs the current restrictions, said she believes the travel measure wouldn't pass on its own, because most Republicans and about 80 Democrats are opposed.

Winning the battle begins in the Obama Administration whose allies and supporters must insist to the White House and to Tom Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, that vision and boldness be the product of the interagency review, including general licenses for all non-tourist people to people travel.

The question is still in play, as the Miami Herald also reported today

Cuba watchers say it's unclear whether he will lift restrictions not just for Cuban Americans, but for American academics, church groups and others as well. Key administration posts in charge of such decisions have yet to be filled.


The link changed for Sen. Lugar's excellent letter calling for a new policy and Carl Meacham's far reaching report after the final text was issued, although the PDF appears to be the same version as the draft.

Omnibus Appropriations Bill First Step on Cuba


The House debate on the Omnibus Appropriations bill has begun on C-SPAN.com or TV
(and can be viewed later in its archive).

The bill contains language on Cuba with several positive aspects that was inserted by Representative Serano with the assistance of Representative Castor. It should be considered a significant forward step that shows how the majority can use the rules to its favor and is upsetting to the hard liners in Florida. Passage helps build momentum for stronger action by the Obama administration and Congress.

It will be interesting regarding prospects for legislation to end all travel restrictions to see whether Sen Martinez can use Senate rules to block the bill, Sen. Menendez (pictured above) gets involved and Sen Reid accommodates him. (See Miami Herald story and on line poll here.)

However if the legislation survives intact, it is only a partial victory. The section on Cuban American travel is non-enforcement language. It does not suspend or reverse the law. Oddly travel for agricultural sales receives a general license but not family or other non-tourist travel. OFAC's politically distorted role in the Bush Administration is also a target.

[Text of Cuba language can be seen here.]

Passage will effectively enable at least annual Cuban American travel for the balance of the fiscal year. However, it does not remove from President Obama the responsibility to use his authority to enable general licenses for all twelve categories of non-tourist people to people travel, including Cuban American, educational, religious, humanitarian, cultural, sports and "support for the Cuban people".

The comment page of the Office of Public Liaison can be used to put all non-tourist travel on the agenda of the interagency review of Cuba policy through this link.

The urgency and importance of making your voice heard to President Obama is reflected in a report yesterday from our friend and colleague in Miami Silvia Wilhelm.

Senator Menendez was on Miami TV right now very positive that the only thing the administration is going to allow is a roll back to the Clinton era family travel and that absolutely NOTHING else is going to move and that if it came down to listening to Lugar or him and others in the community, Obama would listen to him and others.

Cuba Running Short of Cash

A homeless man in Vedado, Cuba, by Jay K.

In Senator Richard Lugar's excellent report on Cuba, his staff writes that the one persistent threat to the regime in Havana is economic discontent.

Of course, one could say the same about President Obama, but with a significant difference in degree. In Havana's case, we are talking about the potential for popular unrest leading to mass migration and possible political upheaval. Here in the States the threat would only the loss of political capital and not getting re-elected.

And yet, both presidents are running out of cash. Here in Washington, President Obama took the opportunity to start the week off defensively by saying that he intends to halve the federal budget deficit in five years, to balance out his massive massive new federal stimulus spending.

Across the Florida Straits, a new AP report paints another striking parallel. Instead of a housing bubble bursting, the immediate cause of Cuba's problems is the damage caused by the 2008 hurricane season which destroyed a third of the crops and a third of the housing on the island. Now Havana is forced to provide three-quarters of the food eaten by the Cuban people in the form of a monthly ration, up from one half before the storms. Between increased food bills and decreased tourism, falling nickel prices, and the lack of investment in Cuba's energy sector, this island nation is having a hard time of it.

In terms of setting the conditions for progress diplomatically, this is not so bad. We need to remember that the Cuban strategy is a neo-Yugoslav one. They never again want to be dependent on one patron, but need patrons to balance the books. So, they are diversifying their dance card, to include Russia, China, Venezuela. But also the EU, Brazil, and, as their fifth largest trading partner already, the United States.

But even this strategy is not enough to allow them to weather the hardship of falling export prices, rising import costs and massive reconstruction bills.

There is a lot of movement on Cuba right now. As the gentleman from Indiana put it, the leadership changes in both countries has created an opportunity for improving U.S. policy. There are a lot of other factors making this the time to move as well.

Lugar Calls for a "Return to Realism" on Cuba

lugar washington college.jpg

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Richard Lugar, a long time realist and serious strategic thinker about America's national security challenges, has just popped the bubble of those who have used Cuba for decades in their ineffective ideological crusades.

Lugar's team is releasing on Monday a new 'committee print' titled "CHANGING CUBA POLICY -- IN THE UNITED STATES NATIONAL INTEREST." (pdf here)

For US-Cuba policy junkies, the report is pretty breathtaking in its indictment of decades of American failure in trying to adjust Cuba's national government's behavior via sanctions and an embargo.

In his opening missive in the document, Senator Lugar states:

Economic sanctions are a legitimate tool of U.S. foreign policy, and they have sometimes achieved their aims, as in the case of apartheid South Africa.

After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of "bringing democracy to the Cuban people," while it may have been used as a foil by the regime to demand further sacrifices from Cuba's impoverished population.

The current U.S. policy has many passionate defenders, and their criticism of the Castro regime is justified. Nevertheless, we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests.

This report is important because it builds on questions that Richard Lugar asked in writing of Hillary Clinton during her Senate confirmation hearings. I noted then that buried in the many questions submitted by Lugar was an implied message to the administration that he would not accept any more illusions that the status quo in the relationship was working.

bayh clemons lugar goodheart.jpgIn response, Hillary Clinton promised a full administration review of US-Cuba policy which Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Tom Shannon is leading now. What is also interesting is that someone close to Shannon and those potentially contributing to this policy review told me it would be important for the administration "to hear from Congress."

Lugar has now provided much ammunition in his powerful commentary on the need for US-Cuba policy to change, using what was essentially a trip report by Senate Foreign Relations Committee senior staff member Carl Meacham as a vehicle to convey his views. Meacham traveled to Cuba as part of a staff delegation in January 2009, organized by the non-partisan Lexington Institute.

Key findings of the report include that the Cuban regime has become fully institutionalized; positive developments are occurring in Cuba but should not be mistaken as structural reform; that popular dissatisfaction with Cuba's economic situation is the regime's vulnerability; and the regime appears to be open to some bilateral dialogue and cooperation.

The report endorses the rather minimal steps already promised by Obama on relaxing restrictions on "Cuban-American" travel and financial remittances to family members -- but then pushes forward on many other fronts with a sopisticated and methodical review of other steps the administration should consider, most of which are possible even within the confines of the Congressionally-imposed embargo.

This is a brilliant piece of policy and political craftsmanship.

I call it the "slippery slope strategy" in which Lugar is shining a big spotlight on the inadequacy and failure of US-Cuba policy that for too long has been held in place by domestic constituencies who were working at odds with the American national interest. Lugar is pushing buttons and nudging Obama's team into put itself forward constructively -- and with these steps, it becomes easier to see the broader embargo as a serious anachronism and a mistake that needs remedy.

US-Cuba policy is the only place in the world where the nearly extinct Cold War actually got colder -- and it's time this relationship thawed.

In her piece on this not yet released report today, Washington Post national security correspondent Karen DeYoung finishes with:

In his letter to senators, Lugar noted that Obama's election and the replacement of President Fidel Castro with his brother Raúl have generated debate important to U.S. security interests, "broader U.S.-Latin-American relations, and global perceptions of U.S. foreign policy."

"Despite uncertainty about Cuba's mid-term political future," Lugar wrote, "it is clear that the recent leadership changes have created an opportunity for the United States to reevaluate a complex relationship marked by misunderstanding, suspicion, and open hostility."

Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel once told me at a cocktail party that we were working together to make "realism the new liberal ideology."

It has been working, and Richard Lugar has just done his team on the Minority side -- as well as his colleagues Committee Chairman John Kerry and Senator Christopher Dodd, who has long set the "gold standard" in US-Cuba policy legislation and proposals -- a great favor by pushing this report into our national debate.

It's time that we stopped letting other national leaders, like Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, colonize the affections and interests of Cuban citizens who are actually interested -- like the rest of the world -- in whether Obama has the guts and vision to generate some meaningful strategic shifts for the United States.

Cuba is the lowest hanging ripe fruit on America's tree of foreign policy options. Change is easy there -- and overdue.

-- Steve Clemons

Ed. Note: Photo above on the right side is of former Senator Birch Bayh, Senator Richard Lugar, New America Foundation/American Strategy Program Director Steve Clemons, and Washington College C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience Director Adam Goodheart at a November 12, 2007 Senatorial Colloquy at Washington College. The top photo of Senator Lugar was also taken at the same Washington College Senate Colloquy.

Polishing the dance floor


If I might stretch my blogmate Patrick’s metaphor two postings back, readers of The Havana Note cannot afford to be wallflowers at the dance between Congress and the White House if they care about its success.

The White House needs to know that real people, especially those who elected Barack Obama, are impatiently tuning their instruments because one month after inauguration the promise of immediate unlimited travel and remittances for Cuban Americans has still to be met.

It should also hear a grace note that Cuban American travel is a humanitarian obligation and not sufficient policy change. Two-thirds of all Americans (including Cuban Americans), 84% of Obama supporters, and virtually all the heads of state who will be meeting the President at the Summit of the Americas want better evidence of change they can dance to.

The ball room is witness to dancers spinning in the opposite direction. Previewing far reaching recommendations by Senator Richard Lugar and a Republican staff report scheduled for release on Monday, Karen de Young wrote in Saturday’s Washington Post

"An administration official said yesterday that it was "not unreasonable" to expect that Obama would ease constraints on family travel and remittances to Cuba before he attends the mid-April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago."

The official is silent about non-tourist travel, but so is the staff report which is also previewed by Steve Clemons in thewashingtonnote and can be seen in draft here.

Ask President Obama for more than a family travel only warm up dance by using this link to the White House Office of Public Liaison.

Congress needs to be likewise induced by constituents to improve its sense of rhythm in order to become a more convincing partner. HR 874 and S 428 require scores of bipartisan cosponsors, an essential objective. But they will take too long to obtain to have much impact in the current interagency review of Cuba policy. (text and current list accessible here )

Calls, faxes and e-mails to your Representative and Senators should include

1) Will you cosponsor HR 874 or S 428 to end all travel restrictions?
2) Will you ask the White House to quickly authorize general licenses for Cuban Americans and other non-tourist travelers?

Shards of glass are being thrown on the dance floor by the hard right US-Cuba Democracy PAC which contributed $753,500 in the 2008 election cycle, up from $569,624 in 2006. This PAC opposes liberalizing family and all other travel.

Its 177 House recipients featured 90 Democrats who received 59% of the funds, including key leaders Berman ($5,000), Clyburn ($10,000 + $5,000), Engel ($7,500), Hoyer ($6,000), Obey ($6,000), Wasserman Schultz ($10,000 + $10,000), and Sires ($10,000).

In the Senate, 9 of 24 recipients were Democrats, most notably Reid ($5,000), Menendez ($2,500 + $5,000) and Nelson ($5,000 + $10,000). The new Senator from New York, Gillibrand, received $9,000 as a House candidate.

You can see the full list, with some surprises, as well as the overwhelmingly South Florida Cuban American donor list here. Such relatively small special interest donations from out of town will have limited effect, and can even be an embarrassment, if counter-balanced by concerned constituents.

For more detail, check out my latest Right to Travel newsletter here and my thoughts about strategy and tactics here

An opportunity to discuss how to end travel restrictions will be available in Washington at the March 5-6 consultation and lobby day

Another chance to meet allies is the first annual Cuba Trade Expo Jon Bedard is organizing in Miami March 19-21. Virtually all of the speakers are well known to the advocacy community. Jon is discounting the registration fee for organizations that help publicize the expo.

Policy Change and Human Rights in Cuba

Image by juanelo66

During the Cold War, the principal rationale for maintaining the embargo on Cuba was that, as a revolution-exporting Soviet client 90 miles to our south, Cuba posed a clear and present threat to the United States.

That has all changed. To oversimplify, Cuba, now a nation of organic farmers, medical missionaries and welfare recipients governed by a inefficient communist regime, poses no direct threat to the United States, and is dead set against ever again becoming dependent on one patron.

In the absence of that Cold-War rationale, pro-embargo advocates have fallen back on the regime's human rights record for not changing policy. The argument goes that in order to improve human rights protections in Cuba we need to maintain all elements of our hard line policy as "leverage."

Here's what the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, Jose Miguel Vivanco, had to say about the relationship of the embargo to human rights promotion, back in 2006:

It is hard to think of a policy that has a longer track record of failure. Cuba is no more open now than when the embargo was first imposed four decades ago. If anything, the policy consolidated Mr Castro's hold by giving his government an excuse for its problems and a pretext for its abuses. Moreover, because the policy was imposed in such heavy–handed fashion, it enabled Mr Castro to garner sympathy abroad, neutralising international pressure rather than increasing it. While other governments may have been concerned about political repression in Cuba, they were unwilling to be seen as siding with a bully.

In other words, unwinding the embargo creates the opportunity to turn the anti-embargo coalition of nations into a pro-human rights coalition of nations.

That's the kind of interest-based, "smart," and sophisticated policy that should be the hallmark of the Obama administration. Incremental approaches that overemphasize the bi-lateral issues at the expense of strategic and that think of the embargo as "leverage" over human rights conditions are just not going to get us anywhere.

Literally. Slow, tit-for-tat diplomatic dances with Cuba simply grant Cuba the ability to drive the timetable and prevent the U.S. from improving its relations in the hemisphere that are much more important than any bi-lateral U.S.-Cuba issue will ever become.

Congress Signals to Administration: Let's Dance

Friday afternoon, the 13th of February, Senators Byron Dorgan and Mike Enzi dropped companion legislation to a bill proposed by Representatives Bill Delahunt and Jeff Flake. The legislation's purpose is to repeal the law that forbids Americans to travel to Cuba unless licensed by the Treasury Department.

Last week, I commented on a U.S. News and World Report story that quoted a State Department official who in effect sent signals to Havana that the U.S. was listening to the Cuban leadership's statements and that they were looking differently at the U.S.-Cuba relationship. Click here for the full post.

Now we have this legislation coming from Congress. While it is a long way from becoming law, the timing of the Senate "drop" sends another signal. I think the timing is about reassuring the White House that there is real support in Congress for a decisive change in the policy towards Cuba and that they are willing to provide the president with meaningful political cover to start down the path of rationalizing our policy towards a Castro government whose revolution is now sustained by hoteliers, organic farmers and medical missionaries.

In other words, we are in a strange kind of constitutional cha-cha. House-State-cha-cha-cha. Senate-White House-cha-cha-cha. And, like a dancehall with loud music, there are lots of signals, but no real talking.

At least, however, it is clear what dance we are dancing. This is about ending one of the last remaining vestiges of the Cold War. And with 55% of Cuban-Americans in Florida backing an end to the embargo, Cuban-Americans in Florida have given the President and Congress as much space as they need.

Why the dance at all? Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, being risk averse, need to know that the other has their back. Congress needs to know the president will help move the legislation and the president needs to know that if he signs the legislation that he can engage Havana cautiously, but seriously--without risking a backlash from his domestic flank.

The need for caution comes from the fact that once powerful people and those they once influenced are trying to pretend like President Obama didn't just win Florida with only 35% of the Cuban-American vote. Senator Bob Menendez, the newly ordained leader of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is one such example--while as head of the DSCC he remains powerful, his pet issue has no electoral threat behind it. Only the money is left. And if the Obama primary showed anything, it is that with Obama in the game, money is not the deciding factor.

That is already pretty evident. The Cuba Study Group, once a bastion of the embargo, has now left the side of legislators like Sen. Menendez and is backing the repeal of the full travel ban.

But Capitol Hill is a funny place. Until either end of Pennsylvania Avenue acts, Congress won't really know that the world has changed. And the president won't act unless he knows he has support from Congress.

Those first, tentative steps were taken in these last two weeks. I like to call it the Cuba policy cha-cha-cha.

One final sidebar. This whole episode begs one little question...was the State Department interview for Havana's ears--or for Congress?

Smoke Signals from State Send Assurances

This fascinating story from U.S. News and World Report is the first public signal to the government in Havana that Washington is listening to the messages the Cuban government is sending.

It's good timing. The Cuba policy space has been very quiet on official U.S. statements--and actions--since the election. While it is clear that the administration and Congress have a lot of other issues to keep them busy and a keen observer can clearly hear the wheels of change turning, visible movement has simply not yet materialized. That can be misinterpreted.

The speaker, though cloaked in anonymity, made two important points with this short article. First, the official said that the new administration in Washington has heard the various statements in recent weeks from the brothers Castro, saying, "I think the statements are important. They've registered." The translation from the original diplomatic is, "we're serious about diplomatic engagement but we're a bit swamped right now." That is a positive, important assurance to Havana.

But there is a second message embedded in the U.S. News article. Here's how the reporter, Thomas Omestad concluded the article:

The State Department official's comments also offer a sense of how Cuba's modest economic reformsâ€â€in agriculture and consumer purchasingâ€â€are being perceived in official Washington. "The steps have been very small. They've been very controlled," said the official. "They're looking for ways to signal they're capable of economic change."

On the internal scene in Cuba, the official spoke of a "significant desire, and even pressure, on them [Cuban officials] for social and economic reform." The official added, "The Cuban government has to respond in some fashion."

What is remarkable about this second quote is that the official never made a segue from economic reform to political reform. That says volumes. Under President Bush, the analysis of the economic reforms would have been to trivialize them and then change the subject to human rights. This speaker did not. Instead, the official said that the Cuban people will be putting pressure on the government to effect social and economic reforms, which tracks much closer to reality than what we've heard out of the White House since....well since the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown sank the Clinton administration efforts at dialogue.

Taken together, it looks to me that we've got an administration that will stick to its word and engage the Cuba issue seriously.

Right-wing Poll Tries to Claw Back Demographic Shift on Cuba

Ah, let the games begin.

The right-wing group, Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy released a poll this afternoon that attempts to whitewash the demographic shift in the Cuban American community that has freed the Obama administration to make Cuba policy on the basis of national interest rather than electoral votes. They say that 69% of Cuban Americans polled in Florida are against lifting sanctions against Cuba.

The poll was conducted by a prominent Republican polling firm that advertises that the Washington Times, the right-wing paper owned by the Reverend Moon, "cites McLaughlin and Associates as one of the best Republican polling firms." With clients such as the scandal-plagued Christian Coalition, the American Conservative Union, and Mario Diaz-Balart, it would be interesting to contemplate what "Republican polling" actually entails.

That's important, because the poll contradicts the recent Florida International University poll that says that 55% of Cuban Americans are in favor of ending the embargo completely.

The reality is, and this may be the motivation for the poll, that President Obama won Florida without the Cuban American vote, while at the same time increasing his percentage over the 2004 general election considerably. That, along with the handsome majority in both the House and the Senate, means President Obama does not have to worry about Cuba policy in Florida. He has to worry about the economy there.

NSC Starts Cuba Policy Review

The Obama administration has started an official review of U.S. policy towards Cuba, the Havana Note has learned.

The policy review is being coordinated by the National Security Council, but is being run by Tom Shannon, the Bush administration's Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who has been held over by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

That it is happening is confirmed. What is not confirmed is whether the Obama administration intends to apply its commitment to transparency and participation to the review. That will be critical.

A policy review was promised by both Secretary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner in their respective written statements during their confirmation hearings. It is a signal, albeit a vague signal, that change in the policy is desired and that the administration intends to spend some real effort in thinking through its approach.

Traditionally, a policy review allows an administration to start from scratch on a given issue, should it see fit. Most reviews are initiated by a national security principal and begin with some kind of intelligence assessment, but not necessarily a full national intelligence estimate. Given the other challenges facing the National Intelligence Council, this looks unlikely.

While the intelligence assessment is being prepared, the review team will inventory the existing elements of policy, which in the case of Cuba will include both executive aspects and statutory elements, for the lion's share of the policy--the embargo, Helms-Burton, Section 109 (USAID democracy programs) is enshrined in the U.S. Code. With these two pieces in hand, the review team would then canvass the interagency to elicit policy options from the broadest set of U.S. government stakeholders possible.

Cuba policy is not the issue to rely too heavily on the interagency process. The reasons are numerous. First, the interagency is still very conditioned to reflect the policy bias it perceives to be held by the President. In his campaign promises, President Obama talked about change but was very cautious in his language, given the then-unknown

A Day to Watch the Hill

Word on the street is that today is the day to watch Capitol Hill for movement on Cuba policy. I can't get into details, but I can smell the change a comin'.

I can mention two Cuba-related goings on up in the legislative branch. First is a hearing on U.S.-Latin America policy, held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. Here is the link to the program. Will be watching C-Span for this one.

The other is a delegation of religious leaders are making the rounds, a rare combination of Church World Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They have joined forces in support of ending the travel ban on all Americans to Cuba and are letting their elected representatives know.

Here's a snip from the Church World Service letter to President Obama:

We are convinced that it is time to change the ineffective and counter-productive U.S. policy toward Cuba and urge your Administration to take the following actions:

1. Freely allow religious travel to Cuba,
2. Liberally grant visas for U.S. travel to Cuban pastors and other religious leaders,
and no longer bar officials of the Cuban Council of Churches.
3. Lift the travel ban for all Americans.

Beyond these immediate steps, we urge you to move to end the embargo on Cuba. We believe that the time has arrived to restore normal diplomatic relations with Cuba and to allow full engagement between the people of the United States and the people of Cuba.

More Cuban Economic Progress

A small farm in Cuba, by Veebl

When you think of the transition glide path away from Cold War-era communism, the first period of reform is always economic. In Poland, it was the labor unions, in Russia it was the mass privatizations, in Yugoslavia it was the uncontrolled proliferation of privatniks and in China, private ventures are now half of the entire economy. Vietnam, too, has introduced small and medium sized capitalism.

So this report by Marc Frank of Reuters is a useful data point to confirm Cuba's glide path towards economic reform. Mr. Frank reports that 45,500 new leases of farmland have occurred over the last year or so, evidence that Cuba is turning to the private sector to handle one of its greatest challenges: feeding the Cuban people. That's the largest land distribution in Cuba since the start of the Castro government.

Of course, Cuba has a long way to go. Food is still scarce on the island after last year's hurricanes devastated one third of the productive cropland, and I am certain this program was accelerated out of the need to get more short-cycle crops in the ground to cover the storm-related shortfall. If Havana can cover its food needs, though, the next challenge will be finding the building materials still necessary to rebuild. Recent reports suggest 600,000 homes are still damaged or destroyed, which is just under a third of all houses. At this rate, Cuba will not have recovered from 2008 when the 2009 storms start to bear down in August.

Cuba is adapting to meet some serious challenges. In the midst of such change, the United States has a new opportunity to influence reforms in a positive way. The question now is whether Washington can wrap its mind around the strategic context and the economic context, integrate them and tap the opportunity.

Messengers, Message, and Presidential Attention

It's no state secret that the Obama administration has yet to announce its team for Latin America. The top positions at the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the NSC have yet to be filled. From where I sit and piece together the little third and fourth hand tidbits of information that cross my transom, it looks like the hang up is Cuba policy.

First of all, this alone is a strong message. If the defining issue determining the pace of appointments happens to be the same issue that regional heads of state are focused on -- U.S. policy towards Cuba --this is progress. In Secretary Clinton's confirmation hearings, her keystone issue for the region was energy, both fossil and renewable. If the crux issue really is Cuba, then down the road, regional talks on energy will be much easier and more productive if the United States can come to the table without this mid 20th-Century albatross of a policy.

The ball to watch seems to be the policy review. The Secretaries of State and Treasury both promised a review of Cuba policy in their confirmation processes. When will that policy review take place? Before the team is announced? After?

That seems an odd question for the Obama administration. The transition team's mantra was people first, then policy. Get your A-team on board and give them the reins. Mitchell, Holbrooke, Daschle, Holdren, Chu, all these incredible talents would hardly have accepted the job if it was structured the way President Bush structured John Snow's job when he was Secretary of Treasury: policy predetermined and held on a short leash.

Thinking about it, what it may reflect is the lack of presidential attention. In each of the cases above, President Obama has personally anointed his envoy, secretary or expert. On Cuba, Obama has been relatively silent since the election. That is certainly understandable, since this economic crisis would make any president want to keep all foreign policy issues off the front burner for as long as possible, Cuba even more so. In the absence of Presidential attention, the bureaucracies will eventually take over.

That would be a strategic mistake. Getting Latin America working in a real partnership with the United States is essential to a lasting economic recovery. The new locus of global economic growth will be sustainable urbanization, what Americans call "smart growth"--redesigning the transport, energy, communication, and housing patterns of our settled geography. Every major world region will, eventually, have to create a trading bloc, like the EU, to manage this new market expansion. When it does, Latin America is going to be an essential market for American products, services, and technologies. But today, the region is being cornered by China, Russia, and the EU. And the key to unlocking the door for a new Hemispheric relationship with the United States is Cuba.

Cuba does not need much attention, but it does need some. In fact, President Obama need only give the following instructions to a trusted envoy and his administration would reap global and regional praise while minimizing downside in Florida: "Find me some options on how to end the embargo and increase the pace of reforms in Cuba."

Initiating a policy review on Cuba without the right regional strategic concept is a recipe for incremental and bi-lateral thinking. It is also a waste of precious time. Let's hope this is not the message that the Administration is trying to promote.