March 2010

Will Congress Get Cold Feet on Cuba?

Photo credit: Reuters

In Sunday's Miami Herald, reporter Juan Tamayo has a theory:

“The recent brutish crackdown on the Ladies in White protest marchers, the latest in a string of abuses in Cuba, might delay or derail congressional efforts to ease sanctions on the Castro government, even supporters of a thaw acknowledge.â€Â

Tamayo cites President Obama’s disapproving comment last week on the human rights situation in Cuba, and a letter from 40 members of Congress urging the release of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been in prison in Cuba since December as evidence that the U.S. government is getting cold feet on Cuba.

Even Senator Byron Dorgan, who has nearly 40 senators on his bill to lift the U.S. travel ban on Cuba, has remarked that it sure would help if Cuba would release Mr. Gross. [Of course it would be helpful if Mr. Gross were released, or at least able to hear and defend charges against him in a court of law.] But do Dorgan and the majority in Congress, as the Herald article seems to suggest, now turn back from their efforts to change our policy?

That depends on what their motives really are, and what “easing sanctionsâ€Â really means in this case. If the drive to lift travel and food trade restrictions were simply intended as a gesture toward the Cuban government, whether to apply the brakes might be a legitimate question to ask, along with questions like, what is in the U.S. interest, and how are our interests best served?

A conversation that predictably begins and ends with whether touching a hair on our Cuba embargo’s head might risk helping Fidel Castro too often glosses over Congress's true objectives: strategically lifting certain sanctions (the travel ban is just one of many layers of the U.S. embargo) that would benefit Americans and help the Cuban people. Reformers argue that the overgrown thicket of sanctions in place against Cuba these 40-plus years actually harms U.S. interests, and the Cuban people, more than it has ever hurt the Cuban government. To be sure, Fidel Castro hasn’t missed a meal in 50 years.

Last week, I happened to catch Senator Dorgan delivering a speech on the Senate floor on why he wants to end the U.S. travel ban. It was an impassioned speech: Dorgan just can’t believe our government is spending resources enforcing a policy that would keep someone from sharing Bibles, or spreading their parents’ ashes or visiting family whenever they wanted.

It’s that conviction that our policy should be smarter that seems to drive Senator Dorgan forward. Even as he admonished Cuban officials at a Cancun travel industry meeting (Dorgan phoned in from Washington) over Mr. Gross’s situation, he assured U.S. travel industry representatives at the meeting that he and his Republican ally, Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming, will seek a vote on their bill this summer - and, Dorgan said, they have more than 60 votes for it.

Washington Post Misreads Cuba Again

Barack Obama in Berlin, from Matthias Winkelmann's photostream

The Washington Post was pleased that President Obama issued a statement critical of Cuba last Wednesday, in which he said: "Today I join my voice with brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus around the world in calling for an end to the repression, for the immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba, and for the respect for the basic human rights of the Cuban people." But the Post was left wanting more. "Those were the right words; what remains to be seen is whether -- and when -- the administration will follow up on them." The editorial board wants action!

And what would appropriate action look like, according to Washington's paper of record? They think the United States government should promptly resume feeding quarters into USAID's so called "Cuban democracy" program. In addition to being consistently mismanaged since they were inaugurated in 1996, these programs have become dramatically obsolete and even counterproductive in the age of the Cuban blogger. But they do feed ample channels of patronage for the members of Congress who now loudly demand they be continued. They also, as Phil Peters demonstrated in Foreign Policy recently, "play naively and directly into the hands of Cuban state security."

Peters points out that the Cuban state security apparatus thoroughly infiltrates the dissident community. In fact, fully 12 of the 75 Cubans jailed in the so-called Black Spring were undercover agents of the Cuban government. As a result, these U.S.-sponsored efforts to support dissidents are easily controlled, countered and used against those same dissidents and their supporters.

But the Post wants these programs to continue, unfettered by the reality Peters describes. What this tells us is that the Post is misreading the situation both in Cuba and the United States. Not for the first time. This is the third editorial on the subject, and a virtual carbon copy of the others. Sadly, it is unlikely to be the last. Maybe they're not listening to the right sources. El Pais published an article over the weekend that the editors of the Post should read. The article describes the growing impatience for reform that is coming from disparate social and cultural voices in Cuba -- some long associated with the Cuban regime, and others from a decidedly independent quarter, like the Catholic Church. Orlando Marquez, an advisor to the Catholic Bishops in Cuba, told the newspaper that now "is the time of consensus and sharing, incremental changes rather than continuity, mutual listening and sharing solutions." While the vague changes alluded to are not bound to result in the wholesale and sudden break with the past that the Post and many others would like to see, they are actually possible, would occur peacefully, and are in line with what most Cubans on the island (and increasingly, in the United States) would be inclined to see at a time of uncertainty and fear. Shouldn't we at least look into the possibility of not doing anything that would jeopardize that kind of transition?

Of course not, for the pro-embargo congressional leaders. For them, the word "change," at least as far as US policy is concerned, is nothing more than a synonym for defeat. If they have their way yet again, the U.S. will continue the failed USAID program, along with the rest of the failed embargo. That's a shame, because it won't change anything in Cuba. The unfortunate fact is, by following their policies, the United States government has very little influence on the island. But with the health care reform triumph, the Administration has new life. We know that Secretary Clinton has high standards for both U.S. development programs and U.S. diplomatic efforts, and neither she nor Senator Kerry seem inclined to continue the Cuba strategies that have failed in the past. The President has a new weapons agreement with Russia, is actually making progress in bringing a renegade Israeli government to heel in the interests of Middle East peace, and popped in on President Karzai yesterday to make sure he is aware of the problem of corruption. Free for the moment of the fight with the U.S. right on health care reform, he's moving on foreign policy goals. Dare we hope that at last he will support a long overdue change on Cuba policy?

It is more than unfortunate that the President has not demanded Cuba policy reform more promptly. As our policy drifted under the previous administration's headings, the United States was put back on its heels by the Gross arrest, which should never have happened. Mr. Gross should never have been sent into Cuba under U.S. auspices; if he'd gone in as a private citizen on a private mission to assist the Jewish community in Cuba, he would likely have had no difficulty with either government and he probably would have done some good.

There is hope, however, if the Administration moves ahead with its intention to reform our isolated and misguided initiatives and fold them into a comprehensive program to increase our influence on the island. El Pais quoted Orlando Marquez: "The moment is now; it is better to act and make mistakes early, rather than have the perfect answer when it is too late."

Even at this late hour, his advice is equally applicable on this side of the Florida Straits, though it is unrealistic to expect Senator Menendez and his House colleagues to accept it. It is clear why certain members of congress continue pushing the same buttons on the Cuba issue; we expect exactly that. It is more difficult to understand why the Post would push along with them.

Cuba post-Health Care reform

President Obama Signing the Health Care Bill
Photo Credit: McNamee/Getty

Post by Nicholas Maliska

It appears the health care reform saga is finally coming to a close. The House of Representatives passed the Senate version of the reform bill last Sunday night along with a package of changes known as a budget reconciliation bill. On Tuesday, President Obama signed the year-in-the-making bill into law, and the Senate approved the reconciliation bill on Thursday. Now all that is left is for the House to re-pass the reconciliation bill (there were two minor parliamentary mistakes in the original), which should be no problem, and then it will go to the President’s desk.

Health care reform has consumed the vast majority of Washington’s attention over the past year and little else has moved in Congress (or at least in the Senate). Now the question on everybody’s mind is what is next. Comprehensive immigration reform, a climate change and energy bill, financial reform, and of course jobs, jobs, jobs, remain high on the agenda. With these major initiatives and the midterm elections approaching in November, Congress certainly has its plate full. So, what of Cuba?
As we have noted on this blog before, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN), along with his colleague Jerry Moran (R-KS) are seeking to lift restrictions on travel and agricultural trade to Cuba with the 2010 Travel Restrictions Reform and Export Enhancement Act. A good indicator of the broad support for this bill is its predecessor, H.R. 874, which only removes restrictions on travel and has 178 co-sponsors. Given that the Peterson-Moran bill includes lifting restrictions on agricultural trade on top of travel, it can be expected that even more Democrats and Republicans from farm states are likely to come on board.

Senator Amy Klobuchar has introduced a companion bill to the Peterson-Moran Bill in the Senate, but more telling of the actual support for reforming U.S.-Cuba policy is the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which was introduced by Byron Dorgan in 2009. The bill has 39 co-sponsors, but as Dorgan announced yesterday at a tourism conference in Cancun, more than 60 Senators support the bill and he plans on bringing the bill to a floor vote this summer. Another way such Cuba policy reforms could move in the Senate is through the Senate Finance Committee: Chairman Max Baucus has a bill referred to his committee that includes the Peterson-Klobuchar provisions and has 22 cosponsors (10 of them alone sit on the Finance Committee).

So, with such significant support in both the House and Senate, one would think that U.S.-Cuba policy reform should be a no-brainer to pass. However, this is the familiar beginning of a story which has ended unhappily repeatedly over the past decade.

I am continually amazed at what I read in newspapers and academic essays from the early 2000s and even the 1990s. U.S.-Cuba policy reform was on the verge of passing, multiple times. The evidence was there that Cuba was no longer a security threat to the United States and that sanctions were not working to undermine the Castro regime. Bills were introduced every year and several times they even passed in the House, and the Senate. Yet reform slipped away again and again in the face of opposition from the few, yet powerful Cuban-American lawmakers and President George W. Bush’s standing veto threat.

While the Cuba issue breaks down the usual partisan divide in Congress, the large majorities currently held by the Democrats in both chambers and a Democratic President willing to engage rather than isolate “enemiesâ€Â represents an unparalleled opportunity to change our policy towards Cuba, one that will likely dissipate, if not disappear, come November.

The U.S. health care system has been broken for years and is getting worse (The World Health Organization ranked the United States’ health care system number 37 in the world, and, interestingly enough, Cuba was ranked just behind it at number 39). Congress has now attempted to fix it. U.S.-Cuba policy has also been broken for fifty some years. Lets not allow this opportunity for reform to pass, because who knows when another opportunity this favorable will come again.

Post by Nicholas Maliska



One of the strengths of thehavananote is that it has multiple voices. Not everyone thinks or writes the same way about the path to a more normal and rational relationship with Cuba. We each bring our own histories to the debate. I will explore mine below the break.

Anya Landau French and I don't really disagree, but there are two points in her post that merit clarification.

The first version of the Cuban prisoner proposal was communicated privately during the Bush administration through European diplomats, including the visiting papal Secretary of State. It was, as Anya writes, limited to mutual gestures regarding only the still incarcerated victims of the "Black Spring" of 2003 and the Cuban five. When President Raul Castro spoke publicly about the matter in Brazil at the beginning of the Obama administration he offered to release all prisoners the US considers political in exchange for the "five heroes". The same sentiment has been repeated by him and by National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon.

Raul Castro did speak of the prisoners and their families leaving the country. As far as I know he has not been asked whether that is an expectation or a condition. Past Cuban practices, and my discussions with Cuban diplomats, suggest exile is not a required part of the package. Most of the prisoners may well prefer to leave and they should be given that option. My guess is that Cuba at the end of the day will not insist on exile if the US Interests Section in Havana limits its relationship to them to normal diplomacy rather than the virtual sponsorship of the Bush era. Clarifying that question is an agenda item for serious negotiations.

Cubans have recognized in the past that not all dissidents are mercenaries, i.e. motivated largely by financial and other support received from a hostile US government and Interests Section. Under stress Cuba's defensive mode is to fall back on the rhetorical equation that organized opposition equals foreign-linked disloyalty, not unlike the situation in the US during the red scares of the McCarthy era. From that mind set, exile is assumed to be the preference of the prisoners and reinforces the stereotype of who they are. (This is not unlike the teapartiers or their predecessors telling leftists, or even the supporters of health care reform, to "go home to Russia".)
My attitude about the inconsistent moral posturing of the US about human rights is informed by the fact that my first political experience was with the civil rights movement. Like lots of others in the 60s generation, I was angered most by the decades long readiness of the rest of the country to accept, albeit with verbal disapproval, overt segregation, racial discrimination and suffrage denial in southern states.

The Soviet Union and its allies constantly berated us about our hypocrisy and anti-democratic behavior, needless to say while overlooking their own. Our democratic friends in western Europe were protective, telling their people the flawed US was their only defense against far worse. Neither adversaries nor friends intervened in the US in the way Americans of many political persuasions seem to think is our natural right to do in Cuba, even more than is the norm for other countries whose political systems we don't like.

Readers might wonder with my history why I am not in the forefront of complaints about Cuban violations of human rights. The primary reason is that I think each country has to solve the problem of freedom vs security and stability in its own way. The US has a recurrent history of repression when it feels threatened. What else should we expect from Cuba given its objectively far greater vulnerability and history of US intervention and domination?

The more we insist that our values and our system of government must be accepted, the more we corrupt internal debates by injecting the issue that informed our revolution but seems to have been long forgotten, the right of all nations to independence and self-determination.

Do I believe Cuba, Vietnam, China, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, etc. would benefit from multi-party systems and competitive elections? Sure. Do I believe that US democracy is compromised by the powerful role of private and corporate money and because our representatives spend far too much time chasing after donations? Equally as sure.

Although the richest and most powerful nation of the world, we are hypersensitive to any foreign intervention in our domestic politics. Every time I make a political donation, the form contains this language:

I confirm that the following statements are true and accurate.

1. I am a United States citizen or a permanent resident alien.

2. This contribution is made from my own funds, and funds are not being provided to me by another person or entity for the purpose of making this contribution.

As I have written before, if we had made the demands of China and Vietnam for internal political change that we make routinely of Cuba, we would not today have flourishing economic and diplomatic relations and a process within both countries of natural evolution toward greater openness.

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

President Obama, Human Rights and What to Do With Cuba

Photo Credit

Yesterday, President Obama released a strongly worded statement both in support of human rights activists in Cuba and to condemn what he calls Cuba's "clenched fist" response to the demonstrations of the Ladies in White last week, to mark the 7 year anniversary of the jailing of 75 dissident activists.

On this blog, John McAuliff finds inconsistency in U.S. rights policy, which inhibits the basic freedom of our own citizens - to whom our elected leaders first answer - to travel to Cuba (and only Cuba, I must remind readers). I couldn't agree more. But I must respectfully but strongly disagree with my fellow blogger when he says that the U.S. government "holds the keys" to Cuban jail cells.

John is referring to Raul Castro's public offer last year to trade the remaining 55 or so dissidents jailed in 2003 in exchange for the "Cuban Five" - five unregistered Cuban counterintelligence agents who received unusually harsh sentences, have been subjected to long periods of isolation, and two of whom have not been allowed visits by their closest kin. The Cuban government views these five men as heroes who were trying to protect their country, and, by contrast, views the dissidents as "mercenaries" who were acting in the pay of or at the behest of a hostile foreign power (guess who?).

The 55 were among 75 dissidents who landed in jail in part thanks to the U.S.'s intensely public and robust collaboration with the dissident community during 2002-2003 - making it all the easier to label the activists as agents of a foreign country's agenda.

Such a trade is no simple matter, because one country's hero is the other country's national security breach. And if the United States agreed to the trade, would the Cuban dissidents agree to the bargain - to be sent to the United States in exchange for Cuban government agents? What if some of the dissidents want to remain in Cuba? Some might, other might not. Nonetheless, the United States must see that in fact this may be one way of securing the release of a large number of dissidents all at once, even if it views the respective prisoners as apples and oranges.

I'm not so sure this Administration is ready to pay the kind of attention to Cuba that a trade like that would entail. But I'm not convinced that yesterday's statement signaled that the honeymoon is over (haven't I written this before?), since there hasn't really been a honeymoon, despite the media's concerted effort to report one.

Fifty years is a long record of discord and distrust to overcome, and it won't happen overnight. But neither is change coming to Cuba all that quickly. There's still time for us to play a more constructive role there. And with healthcare reform finally done and signed into law, it would be nice to see this President give a little more time to low-hanging foreign policy fruit like Cuba later this spring.

Consistency Required on Human Rights


President Obama’s criticism of Cuba on human rights (see statement below) is not surprising, and may give him space to act more positively, but raises three problems of consistency:

1) The human rights of Americans are grossly restricted by our own government as long as we are forbidden to freely travel to Cuba.

The President does not have the power to end all travel restrictions. However, he can urge Congress to pass legislation to restore a fundamental and traditional liberty.

Most importantly and urgently, by executive order Obama can undo harsh politically motivated Bush obstacles to travel for educational, cultural, humanitarian, sports and other non-tourist purposes. April, the one year anniversary of the announcement of unlimited Cuban American travel, is a fitting moment to provide equal rights to the rest of us.

2) The Obama administration holds the keys to open cell doors in Cuba.

All prisoners described as political in both countries will be free as soon as the US takes seriously Cuba’s offer of full reciprocity. More than two hundred victims of the pointless conflict between our countries can be immediately released from Cuban jails and five from American jails.

Both countries can continue to self-righteously insist that the cases are not equivalent morally or legally, but they should no longer delay a mutually respectful humanitarian solution for political reasons.

3) Human rights are violated on Cuban territory by the United States.

Prisoners have been detained at the Guantanamo base for years without trial. Five have died. More suicides from hunger strikes have only been prevented by aggressive force feeding.

We understand the domestic pressures that lead President Obama to retreat from his goal of closing Guantanamo and civilian trials. Can we also understand the domestic pressures on Cuban leaders to protect their right to national self-determination?

John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

Links and resources

Paul Hare, former British ambassador to Cuba, has published a thoughtful paper for the Brookings Institution U.S. “Public Diplomacy for Cuba: Why It’s Needed and How to Do Itâ€Â
Read it here

President Obama's statement on Cuban human rights

Recent events in Cuba, including the tragic death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the repression visited upon Las Damas de Blanco, and the intensified harassment of those who dare to give voice to the desires of their fellow Cubans, are deeply disturbing.

These events underscore that instead of embracing an opportunity to enter a new era, Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist.

Today, I join my voice with brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus around the world in calling for an end to the repression, for the immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba and for respect for the basic rights of the Cuban people.

During the course of the past year, I have taken steps to reach out to the Cuban people and to signal my desire to seek a new era in relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba. I remain committed to supporting the simple desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their future and to enjoy the rights and freedoms that define the Americas, and that should be universal to all human beings.

Peacemakers Welcome

Lula with Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad Photo: AFP

Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue heralds the visit of President Lula da Silva to the Middle East -- the first by a Brazilian head of state to the region -- as a signal that "the country of the future" has arrived. And Lula's visit had all the trappings of a visit by a major player on the world stage. But it was a bit different, too. The president crisscrossed between Israel and the Palestinian territories, spoke at the Knesset and visited the Holocaust Memorial of Yad Vashem. But, perhaps emboldened by the recent U.S. confrontation of Israel on settlements, he was not timid: after laying a wreath at Yasir Arafat's tomb, he called for a halt to Israeli settlement construction and decried Israeli violence against Gaza's civilian population and the Israelis' separation barrier. Of the Palestinians he only demanded that "brave steps" be taken toward peace. Apparently the Israelis didn't consider Lula out of line. (Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman did boycott the President's speech to the Knesset, but anyone who follows Israeli politics knows that Lula can only be thankful for that.)

In fact, at Lula's request, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to biennial talks between their goverments -- and more frequent meetings of economists from both countries.

And while economics are surely a big motivation for this visit and the forthcoming trips to Iran and Syria, Lula and Brazil are also staking out a global role in which they bear the responsibility that comes with power -- including for peacemaking. The world, the President said, needs "the intervention of new elements, and we can help with this."
Of course, Lula is right: the world does need "new elements" to solve old problems. As he said following his visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories, "there is nothing in this world that cannot be fixed." Surely, he's not excluding Cuba -- on par with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for longevity. He recognizes, as even Cuba's critics do, that Brazil is in fact one of the friendly actors on the world stage that may influence Cuba on the issues that so profoundly divide the island from the rest of the world. As the Council on Foreign Relations' Julia Sweig pointed out recently, that is precisely why Secretary Clinton visited the South American power last month.

Let's hope that Brazil can indeed help. It won't be easy. Lula stumbled badly in Cuba recently, when he foolishly compared prisoners of conscience with common criminals. But Lula -- and, more importantly, as Shifter points out, Brazil -- will not be dissuaded from engaging Cuba. Neither will they shy away from working with (and disagreeing with) the United States.

Brazil is an indispensable ally, and one to whom the U.S. can't dictate, as their resistance to support sanctions against Iran indicates. But they have a tremendous amount to offer the United States on issues of global security and peace. The world is getting complicated just in time.

Immigration Reform and the Cuban Adjustment Act: For Some, A Path to Citizenship


The Washington Post's Eva Rodriguez, a daughter of Cuban immigrants, served up some tough love to the illegal immigrant community in "The Mexican Flag Has No Place In Immigration March," following yesterday's Washington, DC march for immigration reform.

Did they not choose to come to this country, and did they not know that they either entered illegally or illegally overstayed visas? Of course they did. Do they not appreciate that one of the things that makes this country great is the rule of law -- unlike, sadly, some of the countries we leave behind? If so, undocumented immigrants must take responsibility for their plight.

I don't intend to debate the broader issue of immigration reform here, though clearly, our system is just as Rodriguez calls it: dysfunctional. (We're happy to have illegal immigrants come and - cheaply - move our lawn, clean our homes, wash our dishes, and gut and package our meat and poultry, until they get caught, sent home, and a new batch arrives.)

Rodriguez points out that she knows all too well the desperation that drives illegal immigrants to America - her parents left Castro's Cuba in 1960, and were lucky to be welcomed here in the United States. And that got me thinking about the one group you won't likely see represented at these marches: Cuban Americans. Why? Whereas all other illegal immigrants run from the law as long as they are in the United States, Cubans run to the law.
Thanks to the U.S. 'wet foot, dry foot' policy (and the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act which left the door open to Cubans who arrive by illegal means), as soon as an undocumented Cuban sets foot in the United States, no matter how he arrived, he will be entitled to government-funded adjustment assistance. After one year, he can apply for permanent residency. His path to citizenship was secure from the moment he arrived.

No other illegal immigrant gets that kind of treatment. It's just one of the many ways in which United States policy continues to help distort Cuban reality. Maybe I'm just doling out tough love here, but would it hurt to treat Cuban undocumented immigrants the same as we treat other undocumented immigrants? Yes, it probably would. But maybe that would lead us to face the supreme irony of our policy toward Cuba. When we ban nearly all trade and travel to the island, is it any surprise that tens of thousands of Cubans choose to leave the island for the one country that offers a guaranteed path to citizenship?

When Will We Learn?

univ%20of%20havana.jpg / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

More than a year after he took office promising to put a welcoming new face on U.S. foreign policy, President Obama has left allies in higher education increasingly puzzled over one glaring omission.


So began the article in The Chronicle of Higher Education with which fellow blogger Ted Henken takes issue. While many of us agree that the Obama Administration is woefully delinquent on the President's promise to usher in a "new beginning" with Cuba, Henken has another bone to pick, and it's about the merits of educational research and exchange in Cuba.

You need a subscription to read the article in question. But Henken's thoughtful letter to the editor (more like an op-ed, as submitted and shared with readers of his blog) clues you in to debate: Is academic research - and is Cuban academia - in Cuba legitimate? Ted makes fine points, and I hope you'll read them below. Cuba has its warts, for sure. But shame on anyone who feels comfortable dismissing an entire national academic community as illegitimate, or who think two wrongs - U.S. and Cuban limits on academic freedom and exchange - could ever make a right.

The movement to ease draconian restrictions on academic restrictions put in place seven long years ago has at its forefront former U.S. Interests Section chief (and Adjunct Professor at Johns Hopkins University) Wayne Smith, who along with numerous distinguished academics across the country make up the Emergency Coalition to Defend Educational Travel, and NAFSA: The Association of International Educators, who, together, called on the Obama Administration last week to make good on the President's promise to change the U.S. - Cuba relationship, and start with freedom for educational exchange.
Here's Henken's submission to the Chronicle:

Dear Editor,

Re: "Push for Student Exchanges With Cuba Hits Obstacles, Both Political and Academic" by Paul Basken from The Chronicle of Higher Education (March 9, 2010).

Having done the bulk of my dissertation research in Cuba between 1997 and 2001 (though not through an affiliation with any official Cuban government or academic organization), my experience is that it is indeed possible to do "real" research in Cuba. However, as with any research it is the scholar's responsibility to remain clear sighted about the particular constraints and opportunities of any research context.

The key word in understanding the Cuban research and academic context is indeed government control. The Cuban government has a long record of controlling access to the island in order to keep unflattering data and analysis, especially from social scientists, to a minimum. It also arrogantly and unjustifiably gives itself the right to determine which of its own scholars can travel abroad to do research or participate in international conferences. However, these condemnable practices should not be used as a justification for continuing our own failed policy of isolation. Nor do they make fruitful research, collaboration with Cuban scholars, or student learning impossible. On the contrarly, Cuba's closed, insular environment often makes the island a richer and more vital learning and research environment for younger students and scholars coming from abroad.

In fact, from my experience doing research in Cuba (both in my past research on Cuba's underground economy and in my current research on its emergent blogosphere) and from helping to operate past academic (at Tulane University's Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute) and cultural exchange programs (with the CubaNola Arts Collective) in Cuba, I would argue that academic travel to Cuba by U.S. undergraduates and graduate students is among the very best and most intellectually challenging and stimulating experiences students can have.

It is also a quiet but very effective way to achieve one of President Obama's chief foreign policy goals vis-a-vis Cuba - to increase people-to-people contacts between the citizens of each country and contribute to breaking the Cuban government's own "blockade" - its monopoly on information and careful screening of outside contacts.

Finally, I reject Jorge Sanguinetty's insinuation quoted in the article that scholars or students aim to go to Cuba to simply lie on the beach, "under the guise of research." And I am frankly insulted by his categorical dismissal that, "You cannot do real research in Cuba."

In fact, the organization of which he is the current president, the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy, awarded me its highest student prize in 2002 when I was a graduate student for research I did entirely in Cuba ("A Taste of Capitalism: The Rise and Fall of Havana’s Private Paladar Restaurantsâ€Â). Indeed, after earning my Ph.D., I was elected to two terms on ASCE's Board of Directors (2004-2006 and 2006-2008) and have been a past member of the ASCE committee that seeks to recruit graduate and undergraduate students to submit their own papers (the vast majority of which are based on research done in Cuba) for that same annual prize awarded at the organization's annual conference in Miami.

While Sanguinetty beleives that there's a "tremendous amount of hypocrisy by the educational system in the United States" regarding the potential for authentic academic research and exchange with Cuba, I respectfully offer that it is perhaps himself who is the one being hypocritical when his own organization encourages and awards prizes to young scholars like me who do just that.

Ted Henken, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Acting Chair
Department of Black and Hispanic Studies
Baruch College, City University of New York

Advice and Consent

Syrian President Bashar al Assad and U.S. Senator Bill Nelson in 2006
Photo: Fox News

Al Kamen's column In the Loop in the Washington Post comments on the fact that Senators Bob Menendez and Bill Nelson don't want congressional staff to go to Cuba. In a letter sent to Senate colleagues last week, the lawmakers argue that in light of the death of prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata Tamayo and the arrest of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, a staff visit "sends the wrong signal to the Castro regime."

Kamen points out the ironies of the senators' request, so I don't have to. The staff delegation in question is being organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and it is hardly a junket. CDA has conducted many of these serious and exhaustive trips, and they cover a lot of ground. Schedules include discussions with civil society, diplomatic delegations, journalists and Catholic Church officials and they don't shy away from topics the Cubans consider controversial. Kamen adds that the United States bans travel by its citizens to only one country in the entire world: Cuba.

And surely members of congress and their staff, even more than common citizens, should be encouraged to visit countries that we're in conflict with.
Kamen pointed out that Sen. Nelson himself visited Syria in 2006, after President Bush had withdrawn Ambassador Margaret Scobey in protest over suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. President Bush asked Nelson not to go. But the senator was right: he went to Syria to see if he could secure Syrian President Bashar al Assad's help to stop foreign fighters from slipping through the border to Iraq, where they were supporting the Iraqi insurgency. After Senator Nelson visited, he was followed by others, including Senate Foreign Relations chairman John Kerry and -- for the 16th time -- Senator Arlen Specter. Sen. Specter felt compelled to explain in an opinion piece for the Philadelphia Inquirer that such travel, even to "unsavory" regimes, was nothing less than a constitutional responsibility for oversight of American foreign affairs.

President Obama named career diplomat Robert Ford Ambassador to Syria a few weeks ago, but this is not a partisan thing: The United States tried shunning Syria and recognized, to our credit, that it didn't get us anywhere. Even Israel was talking to Syria (albeit secretly) continuously between 2004 and 2006. When it comes to Cuba, though, we don't seem to learn, no matter how many decades pass, how many presidents come and go.

Senator Menendez and Senator Nelson are wrong to try and spook staffers from visiting Cuba and taking a fresh look at a country that has languished under comprehensive sanctions for fifty years. Both senators should know better, and one of them surely does.

In Spite of Ourselves

Photo credit: William Booth -- The Washington Post

Post by Nicholas Maliska

Cuba’s Agriculture Minister, Ulises Rosales, recently announced that the Cuban government was shutting down more than 100 inefficient state-run agricultural firms due to tight finances. The closures of the farms is not too surprising considering Raul Castro’s stated plans to reform the agriculture industry, and over the past year, there have been other cutbacks in the sector and pilot projects have been quietly implemented seeking to increase Cuba’s ability to feed itself (Phil Peters looks at some of these programs here).

In the long-term, these closures and reforms are hoped to increase productivity, but at least in the short-term, this move may make the already import-reliant island (Cuba imports roughly 80 percent of its food) further dependent on foreign produce.
Many countries have been capitalizing on Cuba’s food needs, and countries such as Vietnam, Brazil, China, Canada, and the European Union have seen their agricultural exports to Cuba skyrocket. Meanwhile the U.S. has stood by while its agricultural exports to Cuba fell a staggering 26 percent in 2009. If this makes you stop and scratch your head, it should. Cuba is importing more food, yet the U.S., Cuba’s natural trading partner, is seeing its agricultural exports to the island decrease? Why?

You can watch Congressman Jerry Moran explain why here in his remarks during a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing, but the gist of the argument is that U.S. agriculture is losing its competitive advantage in Cuba. The self-imposed restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba, which require Cubans to pay cash in advance, prohibit U.S. institutions from providing credit, and force all payments to go through third countries have sent Cuba’s importing agency Alimport searching for new producers that can provide them with credit and comparatively cheaper products. Put simply, the U.S. is missing an opportunity, and Washington has no one to blame but itself.

Post by Nicholas Maliska

Smart Sanctions? Let's Hope.

Photocredit: Brettocop's photostream

As the enforcement agency charged with going after rogue states, sponsors of terrorism, illegal arms dealers and drug traffickers, the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department doesn't exactly have a reputation for finesse. So it was a bit incongruous to read that OFAC's director, Adam Szubin, seemed to be arguing in a speech this week that sometimes, a lighter -- or, at least, a brighter -- touch is better.

Rather than endlessly tightening the screws on offending countries, Szubin argued that designing smarter sanctions may be more in line with U.S. goals.

OFAC's recent moves to allow U.S. companies to export social networking technology to Cuba, Iran and Sudan are "exactly what I think OFAC needs to be doing," said Szubin, "not simply designating new targets or tightening sanctions, but also loosening sanctions when it can further our foreign policy goals."

The United States and our allies have been struggling with the appropriateness of sanctions for decades. Aside from the case of South Africa, where a committed and organized oppressed minority led the push for reform, sanctions have almost always failed to achieve their objective. Worse, they've generally empowered the wrong party: in the Balkans, organized crime benefitted from international sanctions against then-Yugoslavia. When a reform government tried to retake control of the country, the mob assassinated the prime minister. In Gaza, Israel's sanctions yield millions of dollars in revenue for Hamas, which taxes trade that comes through secret tunnels to Egypt. And while sanctions fail to hit their intended targets, they do cause collateral damage: life is harder for ordinary families, and innocents die.

Yet sanctions remain attractive as an emotional response and as a way of saying that we protest -- we will not participate in an immoral situation -- like Apartheid or state-sanctioned terror. That last point is a favorite of the pro-sanctions crowd on Cuba. Canadians might frolic at Varadero, you won't see any Americans going there for sun and fun. Let it be on Canada's conscience. Of course, that's a dim view of international travel, but it works for those who have single-mindedly supported our failed, comprehensive and unforgiving sanctions against Cuba.

And the sense of self-righteousness has gotten to be some pretty thin gruel, particularly after fifty years. Sanctions might feel right to some folks. But shouldn't they work, at long last? The debate goes on, but it is refreshing to hear a Treasury official argue for finess over raw power. Will the discussion lead anywhere? Let's hope OFAC's newfound finesse is a harbinger of smarter policy in general.

"Dammit, it's time to do this!"

Photo credit:

Post by Nicholas Maliska

The Congressional hearing on H.R. 4645, the legislation seeking to lift restrictions on travel and agricultural sales to Cuba, took place yesterday in the House Agriculture Committee. There was a strong consensus among the members that the U.S. should be doing anything it can to facilitate agricultural sales to Cuba, even among members who questioned allowing all Americans to travel to the island. In case you missed it, here are some of the highlights from the hearing:

Chairman Collin Peterson (MN), who introduced the bill, came out strong:

“The restrictions on agricultural trade with Cuba have failed to achieve their stated goal, and instead they have hand-delivered an export market in our own backyard to the Brazilians, the Europeans, and our other competitors around the world… It’s time we ask ourselves why we have in place policies that simply do not work and that only harm U.S. interests.â€Â

Rep. Jerry Moran (KS), the lead Republican co-sponsor of the bill and a candidate for Sam Brownback’s vacated Senate seat, was clearly in campaign mode and made a forceful case that this bill would help his constituents. He emphasized that the bill was not about (two-way) trade with Cuba, but rather “about sales to Cuba… When we don’t sell, somebody else does.â€Â Moran, who has visited Cuba multiple times believes that more the more interaction between Cubans and Americans will benefit the Cuban people. But he also underscored, “it is about liberty for American citizens" to travel wherever they want. Moran took some of his colleagues to task for questioning reforms that would provide food for the Cuban people, while they support the sale of Boeing aircraft to China, another communist country.
Congressman Boswell of Iowa also chimed in with his strong support for agricultural sales and the freedom to travel to Cuba, exclaiming, “Dammit, it’s time to do this!â€Â

Members on both sides of the aisle seemed to agree: we should be encouraging U.S. food sales to Cuba. But for some, such as ranking Republican member Frank Lucas (OK), doing so would test their long held commitment to isolating Cuba.

For his part, Representative Steve King (IA) felt pretty “comfortable with the biological solution,â€Â which is code for waiting for the changes in Cuba that may (or may not) follow the Castros’ deaths. Considering the U.S. has waited over fifty years for this, King figured he could wait a few more. Amused, Chairman Peterson joked with his colleague, "you must have supported the Russian grain embargo!" (President Carter's much maligned and ineffective embargo of the Soviet Union)

King and several of his colleagues seemed willing to peel off the travel ban from Peterson's bill. But listening to the witnesses (who were unanimous), it became clear that they viewed travel as a key component.

Bob Stallman, the President of the American Farm Bureau Federation put it well:

“Increased travel will also bring much needed funds to purchase U.S. commodities. Given that the United States would not extend credit to Cuba, Cuba would still be required to purchase product from the U.S. with cash. Those dollars received from U.S. visitors would be spent to meet those food needs.â€Â

One embargo proponent, Mauricio Claver-Carone, complained that “only supporters of expanding business ties with the Castro regime were invited to testify,â€Â while no voices of opposition testified at the hearing, which he compared to the “Castro regime’s information monopoly.â€Â That might be true, except its not: the minority always gets to invite at least one witness to hearings. But if people are wondering, where the human rights community is on this issue, you can find the statements submitted for the record made by Human Rights Watch here and the one by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops here.

Post by Nicholas Maliska

It's the Economy, Stupid

tractor%20for%20sale.jpg / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Two days before the House Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba (you can follow the hearing live today at 1pm), the U.S. Treasury Department has (coincidentally?) issued a rule that some observers have greeted with enthusiasm:

Today OFAC released a reinterpretation that is very favorable for US Cuba trade, specifically US agricultural companies and farmers. In simple terms, OFAC has amended the Cuban Assets Control Regulations that contains a rewording of the term “payment of cash in advanceâ€Â for US agricultural sales to Cuba.

The new rule, issued by the Treasury Department office responsible for enforcing sanctions (oh, and tracking terrorist funding networks), seemingly gives Congress and the agriculture community a victory over a 2005 Bush Administration rule which dampened U.S. agriculture exports to the island.

And yet – it does no such thing. Why? Because the rule is limited to contracts entered into during fiscal year 2010, after which, the rule snaps back to where it was. And that makes this new rule virtually meaningless.

Since I’ve lost most readers already at this point in the post, I might as well feel free to “geek outâ€Â and explain exactly what this is all about. (If you bore easily, feel free to skip the next couple paragraphs and tune back in to why this all could lead to you booking a ticket to Havana before the year is out.)
Food sales up, food sales down

Back in 2000, Congress passed legislation to limit food export restrictions against any country, including Cuba. Proponents reasoned both that food should never be used as a weapon against a defenseless people, and that the U.S. government should facilitate, not obstruct, U.S. export growth around the world.

For several years, U.S. food sales grew to an average of $300 million per year – until in 2005 the Bush Administration issued a reinterpretation of the law guiding the sales. Congress had mandated that sales to Cuba could either be transacted by cash paid in advance or by foreign letter of credit (U.S. credits – government or private – were expressly prohibited for Cuba sales alone). U.S. exports prospered, many of them sold for cash in advance – of delivery. That is, the goods would be en route to Cuba, or even have arrived in Cuba, but the Cuban buyer could not take possession of the goods until payment had cleared in the U.S.

But the new Bush Administration rule required cash payment in advance of shipment, which Congress and the export community vehemently opposed. If Cuba pays for a cargo hold full of rice while the vessel is still docked in United States jurisdiction, the goods could be considered “Cuban assetsâ€Â subject to seizure by U.S. courts to satisfy unrelated claims against the Cuban government (I recently wrote about a Florida woman who has twice seized stolen or hijacked Cuban planes landed in the U.S.). Cuban buyers refused to take the risk, and the Bush Administration refused to change the rule, resulting in less market share for American exporters and greater market share for U.S. competitors.

Congress has repeatedly tried to reverse the rule - which many reasoned was designed to halt a warming between the American farm belt and Cuba. Most recently, it passed a provision in the 2010 Omnibus Appropriations Act that would require Treasury to revise the rule at least for the current fiscal year. (So, Treasury complied this week, and nothing more.)

Further dampening U.S. food sales to the island is that in the wake of the global downturn, Cuba has less cash on hand to buy U.S. goods, and has increasingly been buying from Brazil, Vietnam, China and elsewhere on revolving credit – something the United States exporters can’t do.

Bipartisan group pushing Cuba ag, travel reforms in Congress

Five years later, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, along with his colleagues, Jerry Moran of Kansas and JoAnn Emerson of Missouri, both Republicans, and Rosa DeLauro, a member of the House Democratic Leadership, has introduced a bill to change not only the cash in advance rule but two other policies that dampen U.S. food exports to Cuba. Peterson, whose committee is holding a Cuba hearing today, aims to let U.S. exporters collect their payments directly from the Cuban buyer, rather than routing payments through a third country financial institution (adding time and cost to the transaction). They also aim to end U.S. travel restrictions to Cuba.

Whereas some in Congress want to end U.S. travel restrictions because they imagine doing so will help open Cuban society for the better, and others simply chafe at U.S. government controlling its citizens movements abroad, Peterson and his colleagues see more direct benefits to their own constituents – namely more exports, and more jobs. The U.S. International Trade Commission estimated last year that U.S. food sales to Cuba could grow to more than $1.2 billion annually if we lift restrictions on the transactions and if we lift the travel ban.

Yet U.S. exports to Cuba have dropped – by fully one quarter – since 2008. Cuba is buying slightly less food, yes. But of greater concern to American exporters, it’s turning to allied suppliers who offer credit (which Peterson does not propose for American exports to Cuba). Mr. Peterson hopes that American exporters can still win back the advantage if his bill is passed.

What She Said (in The Miami Herald)

Image credit: A Sure Sign

It's not often I find myself with nothing further to say on the matter. But that's what happened when I read this powerful commentary in today's Miami Herald. Elena Freyre, a Cuban American activist based in Miami, says it all, and says it well:

Try Something New: Lift the Travel Ban

Originally Published in the Miami Herald
BY Elena Freyre

"Only in Miami is Cuba so far away.'' On no other issue are the words of Bette Midler's song truer than on the issue of Cuba travel. The 90 miles between Florida and Cuba are the longest distance between two points, both psychologically and objectively.

This issue deserves a truthful and dispassionate examination of the facts.

Supporters of the travel ban argue that there is no law that prohibits travel to Cuba, and that, indeed, only tourism to Cuba is presently forbidden by U.S. law. The truth is that a citizen or a legal U.S. resident cannot buy a ticket to travel to Cuba unless licensed by the government. And anyone traveling to Cuba, even with a license, risks a fine and even jail time for violating the law.

Many Americans have been fined for traveling to Cuba to visit churches, birdwatch, fish, take bike rides, visit historical sites or spread the ashes of their parents.

There is a concerted effort to have us believe that tourism is the main source of income for the Cuban government. Yet the main source of income for Cuba is oil subsidies from Venezuela.

Moreover, an International Monetary Fund expert estimates that in the Caribbean, including Cuba, only 15 percent of the income from tourism stays in-country. The remainder goes to hotel chains, airlines, travel agents, tour operators, cruise ships, etc. Thus, the real income from tourism usually ranks third or fourth after remittances and exports.

There is no compelling argument for allowing U.S. citizens to travel to North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Syria while not allowing Cuba travel.

There is, however, a valid and compelling argument that U.S. citizens should not be denied a fundamental right in order to pursue foreign-policy objectives that are not related to our national interest.

A policy that has been pursued and vigorously defended but has failed to achieve its objective in 50 years is the epitome of failure. Mauricio Claver-Carone, the lobbyist for U.S.-Cuba PAC, argued in a recent column in The Miami Herald that there is no viable alternative that can be proven to be successful. But according to that logic, if a patient dies during an operation, the death would not be a failure because there is no evidence of the likely success of an alternative treatment.

Supporters of lifting the travel ban to Cuba are honest in stating there are no guarantees that allowing unrestricted Cuba travel will bring democracy to Cuba. While this may be true, that's not a valid argument to not try an alternative to our failed policy.

What is also true and should be most important is that lifting sanctions will show respect for our own democracy at home.

Here are other facts to be considered when discussing Cuba travel:

(1) Lifting the travel ban will cause from one million to 3.5 million Americans to travel to Cuba the first year. If only two million use South Florida as their jump-off point, there will be an additional 20,000 flights, supporting the jobs of a substantial number of Floridians such as pilots, flight attendants, ground crews, baggage handlers, travel agents, etc. (2) Revenue from airport fees will be considerable. (3) There will be a huge boost to the cruise ship industry. (4) Florida's agricultural sales to Cuba could double as a result.

Lifting the travel ban to Cuba is an important issue that should be discussed with real facts using logic and reason, not solely ideology.

It is time that U.S. policy toward Cuba not be geared toward regime change, but to helping the Cuban people and defending the rights and liberties of all Americans.

One should not preach democracy while supporting undemocratic principles.

Elena Freyre is president of the Foundation for the Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations.

Who's a Terrorist Now?

Luis Posada Carriles
Photo credit:

From my time at the State Department (2001-2005), first as a policy planner and later as Secretary Powell’s chief of staff, I came to understand some of the politics of the U.S. terrorism list (State Sponsors of Terrorismâ€â€see the Export Administration Act of 1979).

These politics existed prior to 9/11 and took on, understandably, a decidedly more aggressive tone afterward.

“One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terroristâ€Â and vice versaâ€â€so well laid out in modern terms by Welsh journalist Phil Rees in his Dining With Terrorists: Meetings with the World’s Most Wanted Militantsâ€â€is operable here but not fully explanatory.

I found that, with regard to the United States, one has to dig deeper to discover the motivation behind that formulation. And the motivation is not, for example, that Ronald Reagan thought the Contras the descendants of the patriots of the American Revolution and Hezbollah the spawn of the devil (and we know today that he chose to deal with both).

The motivation, more often than not, is wrapped up in the traditional paraphernalia of politicsâ€â€money, power, influence, and greed. That it occasionally touches U.S. national security interests is a stunning thing because it almost always does so serendipitously and not by intent.

While it may seem to the average American quite unnerving that the U.S, composes lists that have considerable impact on hosts of other peoples but very little to do with the publicly stated purpose of those lists, it is nonetheless true.

One example with respect to the terrorism list that immediately comes to mind is Cuba.

I selected Cuba because Cuba is an especially egregious example. In fact, if it were the case that Cuba maintained such a terrorist list, Cuba would have more legitimate right to place the United States on that list than the United States has to place Cuba on one.

Simply stated, we, or those whom we have paid and supported, have killed far more Cubans through actions clearly meeting the definition of terrorist actions than the Cubans have killed through similar means.

So why is Cuba on the U.S. list of states that sponsor terrorism?

First, because the infinitesimally small group of Cuban-Americans who hate Field Castro and all that he represents, want Cuba to be on the list. Their arrogance, money and consequent political pull is such that no one dares defy them in meaningful ways.

Second, because we want to hide our own perfidy and, as Dick Cheney and Karl Rove taught us so well, the best way to do that is to accuse others of what you are doing.

Third, because no one really cares about Cuba and so all manner of heinous activities are possible in that environment of apathy. If power loves a vacuum so does perfidy.

The truth is that Cuba has not sponsored a terrorist activity in over 20 years, if, strictly speaking, it ever did.

Draconian government, dictatorial policies that impoverish the many and enrich the few, holding prisoners for political reasons, and ignoring the abject economic circumstances of a vast number of its farmers and workers, all indict Cuba’s leadership.

To be balanced, exporting medical care of the highest caliber to impoverished peoples is also a characteristic of the Cuban government, and for that praise is due. Also for raising the literacy of the Cuban people to an unprecedented level of around 99%.

But no terrorism.

On the other hand, the U.S. continues to either dither over, or indirectly protect, terrorists such as Luis Posada Carriles. Carriles was involved in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner (Cubana Flight 455) which killed more than 70 people. In addition, he is strongly suspected of involvement in the hotel bombings in Havana in 1997 that resulted in the death of at least one individual.

This is how we disguise our own crimes by railing at others. And we don’t just rail, we put them on lists. After all, we can’t possibly be condoning terrorism if the Cubans against whom we’re acting are terrorists. As Stephen Colbert has termed it, this “truthinessâ€Â is our new guidepost. If our gut tells us it’s OK, it’s OK.

And the terrorist list is another arrow in the quiver of the tiny group in Florida that wants U.S. Cuba policy frozen forever in its current failure mode. The strategy there is, simply, pile on every draconian measure imaginable and hold the fort. Let no one intrude. In particular, do not let common sense, decency, and U.S. national interests come into play.

What of the apathy quotient?

Colin Powell used to tell me that it was amazing what you could accomplish if you didn’t care who got the credit. The tiny group of Cuban-Americans with Cuba policy in its iron grip has turned that laudable principle on its head.

It is amazing what you can get away with if no one cares.

That should be the sign hanging above the offices of Ileana Ross-Lehtinen, Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Robert Menendez, and a host of other Cuban-American zealots.

Perhaps one of the most enlightening statements I ever heard issue from the lips of Ricardo Alarcón, the head of Cuba’s National Assembly, was when, late one evening in a protocol house outside Havana, he sipped a scotch, looked at me, and said that he knew “how wily and smart those Cuban-Americans in Florida are. “He knewâ€Â, he repeated for emphasis. He knew, he said, because “After all, they’re Cubans.â€Â

Year after year, the U.S. Department of State continues to place Cuba on its terrorist list, making a mockery of the list and the country that keeps it.

Long Way Home

Photo credit: camd's photostream
Roberto Barbon, a Cuban, was the first Latin player in the history of the Japanese professional baseball league. The New York Times told his amazing story this week. He arrived in the mid fifties hoping to perform well enough to attract attention from a U.S. team, but the Cuban Revolution intervened and Barbon remained to continue a Japanese career that was going well -- in 1958 he made the Pacific League All-Star team by stealing 38 bases and hitting 10 triples, among other achievements. He got married and settled down to a long career; in fact the Times says he's probably "the longest continuously serving figure in Japanese baseball."

The Cubans have been sending baseball players abroad for as long as baseball has been played. The U.S. Major Leagues have been enriched by players from all over the world, and particularly by Latin players. But most of them can go home and see their families. Not Cubans, as a rule. Barbon's unique story made me think of all the other Cuban players who can't go home again. recently highlighted Aroldis Chapman’s adjustment to the United States and the Cincinnati Reds. Another Cuban player, Yonder Alonso, the same age as Chapman but not a new arrival, has taken him under his wing. Alonso’s father Luis had been a player and coach for the Industriales, a storied Havana club, who left Cuba with his wife and their two children when Yonder was eight.

“My father…had the temptation of leaving the island [as a player], but he didn’t do it because he didn’t want to leave us…I don't think people really understand how hard it is to leave your family. I never saw my grandmother or grandfather after I left... Here, you can have favorite cousins or uncles or aunts, but you don't get that when you leave Cuba. You are gone and they are gone and you maybe never see them again."

More than 200 Cubans have left the island to play baseball professionally in the Majors since 1980, according to the blog BaseballdeWorld. (The site even has a list of all Cuban-born players struggling to make it in the show.) Twenty one left the island in 2009 alone. Chapman has received most of the attention, but others are mentioned here.

Peter Bjarkman doesn't like to use the term "defector" for the Cubans who struggle to escape the island at great personal cost. He's got a point that players from across Latin America and the Caribbean are motivated by the same desire to test themselves against the best and to make as much money as they can playing baseball. That leads them to the Major Leagues, even at the risk of severe sanction by the Cuban government if they try to leave without the required tarjeta blanca, or exit permit.

But it isn't just the Cuban government that gives baseball migrants from the island special treatment. Before a Cuban can play with a Major League team, the Department of the Treasury has to certify that the player won't share their signing bonus with their family back home in violation of Office of Foreign Assets Control regulations. It must be yet another hard lesson for the Cuban immigrant: we welcome them as defectors from a centrally planned economy, and then we tell them what they can or can't do with their money. Welcome to America.

In the Mail

black%20mail%20box.jpg / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Yesterday, I received a message that really touched me:

"Dear Ms. Landau-French,

I saw your letter to the editor ["Why U.S. Policy Doesn't Affect Cuba"] in the Washington Post of March 4 and was moved so much I wanted to write you a kudos.

I recently spent 2 years living in Havana (my husband worked at the U.S. Interests Section) and I cannot agree with you more on the U.S. 's need to reach out to, rather than isolate, Cuba.

Thank you and the U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative for working for the bettering of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. I applaud your work, and hope that very soon, thanks to the efforts of people like you, things will change for the better between our countries."

Here’s hoping that the writer gets her wish. With her permission I’ve posted her sentiments on The Havana Note because I so often wonder what our diplomats and their families posted in Havana REALLY think.

It’s their job not to tell us. When I travel to Havana, I press our diplomats - we dialogue, we agree and we disagree. (Funny, that happens when I meet with Cuban diplomats too.) But they don’t make the policy – it falls to them to implement the policy. And so I often check myself, reminded that they are nearly as powerless as I am to effect change.

The key value our diplomats bring, especially in a complex posting like Havana, is in their interaction with the host government and people. For as much as our policy hamstrings U.S. diplomats on the island, they are still our eyes and ears. But I wonder, just how often do we get to hear what they really think, and, how often do we listen?

An Olympic Disappointment

(Getty Images) Post by Nicholas Maliska No, I am not referring to the U.S.A.’s heartbreaking overtime loss in the Winter Olympics men’s hockey finals against Canada this past Sunday. Rather, I am talking about the recent announcement by the Cuban National Olympic Committee that Cuba will not be participating in the 2010 Central American and Caribbean Games. Set to take place in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico from July 17 to August 1, the 21st Games sought to bring together athletes from all 32 countries in the region. But Cuba’s participation has been uncertain from the start.

In The Washington Post: Why U.S. Policy Isn't Affecting Cuba

Photo by Anya Landau French, of a Havana art fair where private Cuban entrepreneurs can earn hard currency income selling to foreign tourists

Last Friday, The Washington Post editorial board questioned the value of engaging Cuba, following the death of a hunger-striking Cuban prisoner of conscience last week. In light of Orlando Zapata Tamayo's tragic death, the Post asked advocates of greater contact with Cuba how the ongoing “thawâ€Â with the island nation is working out.

I offered my thoughts to The Washington Post, which published them today:

Why U.S. policy isn’t affecting Cuba

The death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo was an avoidable tragedy, one for which the Cuban government alone is accountable.

Yet the Feb. 26 editorial overlooked many Cuban dissidents’ views that that U.S. sanctions harm the people, not the government, of Cuba. Even if Congress eases travel and food export restrictions on Cuba, the larger trade embargo will remain among our toughest restrictions against any other country in the world.

The effort to remove U.S. restrictions on travel and food exports to Cuba is not driven by love for Fidel or Raúl Castro but instead by three ideas: the fundamental right of Americans to travel freely without our government’s interference, advancing the national interest at a time when America needs job growth and export opportunities, and a belief that we can do far more good in Cuba by reaching out to rather than isolating the people.

Another reader wrote to echo the Post’s earlier viewpoint, and called President Obama’s “Castro-friendlyâ€Â approach naïve. But what exactly has been so friendly? Other than easing restrictions on private humanitarian donations and families’ travel, allowing U.S. communications providers to try to service the Cuban population, and resuming migration talks held by Presidents Reagan, Clinton and G.W. Bush, what, exactly, has been so friendly toward Castro? (And besides, isn't our policy supposed to be about the Cuban people? The U.S. laser-like focus on the two Castro brothers always seems to come at the expense of 11 million Cubans.)

One year into this Administration, U.S. policy is still far cooler toward Cuba after than anyone expected. (In 2004, Barack Obama called for lifting the entire embargo because, he reasoned, it was harming the innocents in Cuba.)

The President who as a candidate called U.S. policy a failure and said he would be willing to meet Raul Castro is largely running the same Cuba policies he inherited from President Bush. The vast majorities of Americans are still not free to visit Cuba when they wish – and draconian restrictions remain on educational, cultural and professional travel that we encouraged fully a decade ago. And, the United States continues to hamstring food sales to the island in nearly every way imaginable, despite real hardship on the island (does it matter who inflicted it?) and despite a 38% drop in American farm income last year. This more aptly dubbed "South Florida-friendly" policy hardly constitutes tearing down the wall between our two countries.

Those of us who advocate freer contact with the Cuban people do so because we believe it will be good for us and good for the Cuban people. But the fact is, if you can’t see measurable results for U.S. engagement with Cuba, that’s because it hasn’t happened yet. Until we really try engaging Cuba, there’s nothing to judge.

With Allies Like This...

Israel's controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman suggested a not-so-novel approach to the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions recently. He wants to apply what he calls the Cuban model, in which "the United States alone can do everything in order to stop this (Iranian) program."

There are a few immediate contradictions. For starters, Lieberman believes that the Cuban model works best if it includes an international aspect, such that the United States would "shun foreign firms that continue to do business with Iran." That extraterritorial component was added to our Cuban Embargo in 1996 with the passage of the Helms Burton act. But, perhaps unbeknownst to Lieberman, it has been dutifully waived every six months since, at the behest of our allies.

Mr. Lieberman may also be surprised to know that one of the first countries to suffer the consequences of such a shunning would be Israel, a leading investor in Cuban agriculture. The USDA reports that Israeli capital has driven a reinvigoration of Cuba's citrus sector, to such an extent that an Israeli-Cuban joint venture now produces a third of the total citrus grown on the island. (Well, if they can make the desert bloom, why not Cuba?)

Fortunately, few policy makers -- even among Cuban embargo supporters -- are interested in repeating the fifty-year Cuba embargo experiment in the Middle East. In fact, irony of ironies, the example of Lieberman's own Israel is instructive on this point: When President Bush was doing his best to isolate Syria, the Israelis were conducting talks with them under Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in the hope of reaching a peace agreement.

Like Israel, the United States did come around to a different view of things in Syria. As David Broder points out in Congressional Quarterly this week:

By the end of Bush's presidency, it became clear to many in Washington -- both on and off Capiol Hill -- that his policy of isolating Syria had failed. Jeffrey D. Feltman, the assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, notes that French President Nicolas Sarkozy was openly engaging the Syrians, as were the Saudis. Even the Israelis were talking unofficially to the Syrians. "So you ended up at a point when it was no longer Syria being isolated; it was the United States that was being isolated," Feltman told a Washington audience at the conservative Hudson Institute in January.

Last month President Obama named career diplomat Robert Ford to be the first U.S. ambassador in Damascus since 2005, bringing a relatively swift end to an abject policy failure. But at least it is a failure that we learned from, without fifty years of trying it in different ways.

To be sure, our new engagement of Syria has not solved our problems: The previous US ambassador in Syria, Margaret Scobey, was withdrawn after former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in an operation presumed to have been set in motion in Damascus. Today, blame for that act has still not been officially assigned. And Syria and Israel are unlikely to come to a peace agreement (which would necessarily involve Israel's returning part or all of the Golan Heights) with the kind of right wing government in place that would have the likes of Lieberman in the position of foreign minister.

But even if engagement with Syria won't achieve all our policy goals in the region, there are concrete advantages to sending an ambassador to Damascus. As a Middle East expert points out in the CQ story, Ambassador Ford is now engaged in high-level contact with the Syrian government, which will give us insight into the country that we've lacked. And the fact that our policy is no longer all stick and no carrot can only help us in our effort to be more informed about all the other issues at play there, from Turkey to Afghanistan and beyond.

Lieberman's invocation of Cuba is instructive, though not in the way he probably hoped: it points out the futility of unilateral sanctions, wherever they unfortunately are deployed.

Spy's Wife Goes After Planes, Again

Washington Post Company photo found at

Ana Margarita Martinez, who unwittingly married a Cuban spy who had infiltrated the Cuban exile community (and fled the U.S. more than a decade ago), has opened a new chapter in her ongoing battle to make the Cuban government pay for her pain and suffering.

After her husband's betrayal, Martinez sued the Cuban government in U.S. Court and won a multi-million dollar judgment. But the only way to get her settlement of course, was to systematically sue for any Cuban assets over which the U.S. has authority. Which is exactly what her lawyer did in the spring of 2003, when two Cuban planes were hijacked (in one case by holding a knife to the pilot's throat) and landed in Miami, FL, rather than returned to the Cuban government.

The United States and Cuba signed an anti-hijacking accord thirty years ago, when American fugitives would hijack planes and seek political asylum in Cuba (for a tour down memory lane, here's more on 1960s and 1970s Cuba-bound hijackings and steps the U.S. and Cuba took to stop them). So, it was particularly surprising that just two years after the September 11th attacks on America, the U.S. government declined to return the hijacked planes to the island, and instead handed them over to Martinez to auction off and collect on her award.

Now, AP reports Martinez is trying to force U.S. charter companies that fly hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans home for the holidays each year to pay the bill. The charter companies are fighting it in court. Martinez's suit comes shortly after the charters fought off a Florida state legislative effort to make the charters pay huge - $250,000 - bonds to continue booking flights to Cuba.