It would be hard to imagine a better opportunity to improve the people-to-people contacts between Cuba and the United States than the last two years. Barack Obama won the presidency with a foreign policy platform emphasizing soft power and dialogue with friends and foes alike over hostility and unilateralism. The Democratic Party enjoyed a significant majority in Congress, with real chances of passing legislation allowing more travel and relaxing the conditions for the sale of foods and medicines to the island. Washington aside, on February 24, 2008, Fidel Castro stepped down from his government responsibilities and new winds of economic reforms and social liberalization began to blow in Havana.
Yet by the end of 2010, as the House of Representatives is changing hands, Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy has not offered up an alternative agenda, based on engagement and U.S. national interests, forcing the promoters of the status quo, in Havana, Washington and Miami to defend their intransigence. The changes in U.S-Cuba relations have been minimal and essentially driven by Obama’s gestures toward the politics of Cuban American community not by a new policy towards Havana.
A question many Cuba observers ask is whether the current wave of economic reform is a mere repetition of a cycle in which the Castro government shows signs of openness for a while but it is ready to close them as soon as it finds a way to survive without them. This skepticism is legitimate because several times in the post 1959 history of Cuba, Fidel Castro’s government opened spaces to market practices in the middle of a crisis, only to close them as soon as the situation improved. In the 1990’s, this was the case when originally many Cubans attempted to create a vibrant private sector but their hopes were crushed by asphyxiating taxes, regulations and a hostile attitude toward the market.
For decades, any political debate about economic reforms in Cuba was biased in favor of the communist experiments. If someone advocated anti-market policies, but which would lead to economic disaster, he or she might be reprimanded for lack of realism but the leaders would look with benevolence to his mistakes since they were the result of some revolutionary fervor. On the contrary, if one advocated pro-market reforms, he could have been denounced as a follower of a capitalist deviation (I personally know the experience) and therefore in need of ideological re-education.
In Cuba, Fidel Castro is never a force to underestimate. The historic leader of the revolution is stubborn and there are things he will only accept with bitterness and pain. Nobody can guarantee that he cannot protest or lash out against some of the current changes.
Last week I read with interest Juan Tamayo’s article in the Miami Herald and the Cuban Triangle’s analysis about a new policy to further expedite Cuban immigrants joining nuclear family in the United States, by offering them immediate permanent residency (a green card on arrival). That’s pretty darn good treatment, wouldn’t you say?
But Florida's Director of the Department of Children and Families found something to worry about in this fast track arrangement. According to the Herald , the Director wrote a letter making the following points:
"The shift would deny those Cubans the right to health screenings and immunizations, Medicaid and Refugee Medical Assistance as well as employment services, English language, vocational training and help with child care, according to the letter.
Cubans affected will then have to turn to financially strapped public hospitals and clinics for care, it added, and to overburdened state programs for employment and language assistance."
In case you didn't know it, Cubans who arrive in the United States are afforded full refugee treatment, even if they aren’t actually fleeing a war zone or life-threatening persecution. (As Phil Peters points out, the idea of refugee resettlement benefits is to help people who arrive with literally the clothes on their backs, with no real support network to lean on.) But these days, most Cubans who arrive in the United States are economic migrants – they’re fleeing a stagnant economic model and joining family already resettled in Miami or elsewhere around the country.
But once a government benefit is conferred to a group, particularly one perceived to be influential to the political fortunes of Florida and national politicians alike, there's no taking it away.
P. J. Crowley is not a professional diplomat.
The principle spokesperson for the State Department, the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Public Affairs, is a political appointee who served in the Air Force for 26 years, retiring as a Colonel in 1999.
According to his official biography, Mr. Crowley’s professional expertise is national security. His previous position was as Director of Homeland Security at the Center for National Progress, a think tank that housed many Obama Administration appointees. During his tenure there he served with Dan Restrepo, now Director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, whose public statements on Cuba appear made for, if not in, Miami.
I have taken issue with Mr. Crowley before on his discussion of the Alan Gross case. He apparently does not have much depth on Cuba and when challenged at State Department press briefings falls back on language that sounds more like Bush than Obama.
Last Thursday he set an impossibly high bar to bilateral progress in responding to a question based on a wikileaks cable which says that President Raul Castro suggested through Spanish diplomats opening a direct channel to the White House.
According to Mr. Crowley,
We have made clear to Cuba that, first and foremost, before we would envision any fundamental change in our relationship, it is Cuba that has to fundamentally change, and that we would respond accordingly to any actions that Cuba undertook to release political prisoners, to fundamentally change its political system.
Wikileaks Cable: U.S. Should Look Within Cuban Government, Not to Dissidents, for Post-Castro Leadership
The lastest Wikileaks cable on Cuba offers up hard truths that sound an awful lot like what experts outside of government have been saying for years. Reuters' Havana Bureau Chief Jeff Frank reports on the cable, which was published Thursday by El Pais:
U.S. Interests Section chief Jonathan Farrar said [in the cable] the dissidents deserved backing as the "conscience of Cuba," but Washington "should look elsewhere, including within the government itself, to spot likely successors to the Castro regime.""We see very little evidence that the mainline dissident organizations have much resonance among ordinary Cubans," Farrar said. Without changes, he said, "the traditional dissident movement is not likely to supplant the Cuban government."Farrar's comments, made in a cable dated April 15, 2009, raise questions about the wisdom of the United States' longtime policy of supporting Cuban dissidents as an alternative to the Communist government that has ruled the island since a 1959 revolution put Fidel Castro in power.Despite claims they are supported by thousands of Cubans, Farrar said "informal polls we have carried out among visa and refugee applicants have shown virtually no awareness of dissident personalities or agendas."He described the dissident movement as largely ineffectual, due to factors including internal conflict, outsized egos, preoccupation with money, outdated agendas and infiltration by the Cuban government."The greatest effort is directed at obtaining enough resources to keep the principal organizers and their key supporters living from day to day," Farrar wrote.
"It's been said that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
No case illustrates this suffering more than that of Alan Gross, a Maryland resident and USAID subcontractor who was working to connect the Cuban Jewish community to the Internet and was detained by Cuban authorities one year ago. Campaigning for his release these many months, his wife, Judy Gross, fears that her husband has become a "pawn" in the half-century Cold War between the United States and Cuba."
That's an excerpt from a commentary that fellow THN contributor Arturo Lopez-Levy and I published in today's The Baltimore Sun. The piece examines not just Alan Gross's case, but the history of the controversial USAID program for which he was working, and other major flaws in the program that impact not just US contractors but the Cuban "beneficiaries" too. Arturo, who has deep roots Cuba's Jewish community, is deeply frustrated over what he sees as the US government's failure to obtain the informed consent of Cubans on the ground. To read the whole piece, click here.
We're pleased that The Baltimore Sun wanted to dig a little deeper into complex and sensitive issues such as this one, which, in its myopic editorial of December 7, The Washington Post utterly failed to do. While we agree with the Post that it is long past time for the Cuban government to give Gross a fair hearing or let him return home to his family, this tragedy didn't transpire in a vacuum. U.S. policy and the Obama administration itself, which never conducted the policy review Secretary Clinton promised Senator Richard Lugar nearly two years ago at her confirmation, bears crucial responsibility too for landing Mr. Gross in his current predicament.
Judy Gross, who in a letter to The Miami Herald called on Presidents Obama and Castro to improve the tortured relationship of which she considers her husband a victim, also talked to The Forward recently. Here's a snippet from the Jewish Daily Forward website:
This is a Guest Post by Romina Ruiz-Goiriena
After fifty years with a single-party government and more than half the Cuban population born after the triumph of the Revolution, many followers of Cuba have fixated themselves with hopes of an emerging generation "hungry for change." However as I pointed out in an article for El Mundo that analyzed the state of opposition movements ten years after Oswaldo Paya launched the Varela Project, clearly delineated dissident movements have been ineffective in galvanizing an increasingly alienated and politically apathetic Cuban youth.
While scholars and analysts believe there are multiple reasons for this rift, for the younger generation; their formative years on the Island were marked by the demise of the U.S.S.R. The fall of the Berlin wall not only symbolized an end to Communism as they knew it but with it economic subsidies, education opportunities to the Eastern Bloc and the realization that their ideological identification with a bigger political movement had been obliterated. While their parents or grandparents had enjoyed the fruits of the Soviet-Cuban relationship, they would have to battle out brutal economic strife and a passé political narrative that had failed them--alone.
Youth looked elsewhere and Cuban hip-hop was born.
Obama’s policy proposals—whether on climate change,
energy, Africa, Cuba, or Iran—are forward-leaning; he proposes
adjusting old and static policies to new and evolving realities.
--Richard Holbrooke, Foreign Affairs, September/October 2008
The sad and unexpected passing of Richard Holbrooke brings to mind our periodic contact related to Indochina.
Holbrooke served as Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs during the Carter Administration and was involved in its futile effort to normalize relations with Vietnam seventeen years before Bill Clinton.
Given today’s warm economic and strategic relationship between the US and Vietnam, it is hard to recall that post-war US attitudes were at least as harsh as today’s prevailing views of Cuba.
When Carter first took office he boldly tried to heal the wounds of war by sending a commission to Vietnam in March 1977 led by Leonard Woodcock, then head of the United Auto Workers, later the first US ambassador to China. Woodcock and the UAW had actively opposed the US war in Indochina. He was prepared to offer Vietnam membership in the UN, normalization of relations and the end of the unilateral US embargo, asking only cooperation on American soldiers missing in action.
However Vietnam demurred absent US fulfillment of a promise made by President Nixon during the peace negotiations to provide $3.6 billion in reconstruction assistance.
Holbrooke followed up in May at a meeting with Vice Foreign Minister Phan Hien in Paris. He told Hien that the US was ready to announce on the spot normalization of relations without preconditions. Much to their later regret the Vietnamese reiterated privately and publicly that normalization required addressing the destruction of the war.
In subsequent personal conversations, Holbrooke insisted the Vietnamese were misled by Americans from the anti-war movement to believe they had enough moral and political support in the US to hold out for both normalization and aid. Certainly it was not a view I had conveyed to the Vietnamese during my encounters as a staff member of the American Friends Service Committee and I could never find any of their US interlocutors who acknowledged having given such advice.
Vietnamese friends, including Phan Hien, later told me their negotiating position had been a big mistake but insisted it was entirely due to internal debate and their conviction of US legal obligation.
You have to laugh (or, cigar aficionados, cry) reading this NPR headline: "New Anti-Terror RulesThwart US-Cuban Cigar Trade." The import of Cuban cigars has been illegal for more than 45 years, since President Kennedy asked an aide to buy him 1,000 Cubans, and signed an order tightening the embargo the next day. So it's difficult to imagine how rules adopted in 2010 could thwart trade that's been stymied for nearly half a century.
Apparently, thousands of Cuban cigars were making it into the United States, illegally imported from Europe, that is until recent new security measures applied to inbound air cargo shipments, which led to Customs officials discovering as many as 100,000 Cuba cigars destined for the United States. What happened to the cigars? They were incinerated, which, to cigar lovers, is the most heartbreaking outcome to this silly saga. (One great idea was eventually discarded, to send the Cubans to U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
On the plus side, these confiscations came not as a result of a Cuban cigar crackdown, but quite accidentally, in the course of heightened anti-terrorism procedures at the nation's airports. Now that seems like a far better way to spend U.S. government resources than to have U.S. Treasury Department personnel (who are also charged with rooting out funding networks exploited by global terrorist groups) spending their otherwise valuable time tracking down and adjudicating individual cases such as this one settled in early 2010:
From its title “Cuba’s Jewish hostage”, the Washington Post editorial of last Tuesday, December 7, about the situation of Alan Gross is an unfortunate distraction. It is more of the same politics without policy that kept Gross in prison for the last year while good opportunities of improving the bilateral relations between Cuba and the United States only deteriorated.
The editorial begins by attacking the attendance of Cuban president Raul Castro at the celebration of Hanukah with the Cuban Jewish Community as a mere charade to hide the injustice of Alan Gross’ detention without charge. It barely mentions Gross’ connection with the State Department USAID, without a single reference to the regime change declared goal of the program under which he was sent to Cuba. It finishes eulogizing the Obama’s administration decision to put further improvement of relations with Cuba on hold while pressing for Gross’ release.
The Minnesota Post reports that Rep. Collin Peterson has acknowledged that his bill to lift the Cuba travel ban and facilitate food exports to the island will die at the end of this Congress.
Asked if his bill still had a hope of passage, Peterson replied, "Nope, they won't bring it up." Peterson has predicted in the past that the bill has the votes on the floor of the House, and although it cleared his House Agriculture Committee, it stalled in the Foreign Affairs Committee.
"They're bringing up all this other stuff that's not going to pass, you know, they found a way to bring up the DREAM act that's got no chance in the Senate, it's crazy," he said.
He’s got a point there. This bill would have the votes (which the Senate companion bill’s chief sponsor, Byron Dorgan, said he has) to break a Senate filibuster. But can anyone remember the last actual filibuster to take place in the Senate? Nowadays all you have to do is threaten.
As this Congress draws to a close, and Peterson’s effort with it, The Miami Herald’s Lesley Clark blogs on who’s got plenty of reason to celebrate – the pro-embargo U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC. The PAC will hold its annual luncheon, celebrating its allies in Congress, who will now include Marco Rubio in the Senate, and David Rivera in the House (and don't forget, Ily, as Democrat and felllow Committee member Eliot Engel affectionately calls her, will now chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Mario Diaz-Balart will land a seat on Appropriations).
"It's a three pronged celebration," said PAC director Mauricio Claver-Carone, noting that Lincoln Diaz-Balart would be thanked for his service and Rubio and Rivera welcomed to Congress. And three? "Having survived the 111th Congress."
At the start of this Congress nearly years ago, embargo fans were indeed staring down the barrel of a gun: a newly elected President who’d been critical of the embargo and won Florida without a majority of its Cuban American votes, flanked by a Democratic-controlled House and Senate, chock full of Cuba policy reformers whose day (you’d think) had finally come. Afterall, hardliners came so close to losing the travel ban battle in the early 2000’s that the near misses inspired creation of the PAC to shore up support for the embargo.
So where does that leave the reformers?
Down syndrome students blocked from future assistance by OFAC (photo Ted Lieverman)
What's even more puzzling is the apparent indifference of the Obama team to the effect of such gestures on their supporters. One would have expected a candidate who rode the enthusiasm of activists to an upset victory in the Democratic primary to realize that this enthusiasm was an important asset. Instead, however, Mr. Obama almost seems as if he's trying, systematically, to disappoint his once-fervent supporters, to convince the people who put him where he is that they made an embarrassing mistake.
Whatever is going on inside the White House, from the outside it looks like moral collapse -- a complete failure of purpose and loss of direction.
--Paul Krugman, New York Times, 12/2/10
Dr. Krugman was writing about the President yielding to Republican pressure on economic policy, but he might as well have been describing White House inaction on Cuba.
I don't want to join the pile-on unreservedly. Good and important changes have been made regarding Cuba by this Administration, most notably ending restrictions on travel and remittances by Cuban Americans and allowing many visits by Cuban academic and cultural visitors. The New York Philharmonic has finally received approval to perform in Havana. There is a quiet loosening of specific licenses for groups like the Chicago Bar Association to make trips and report to their members on changes in Cuba's economy.
I wish I could commend the Washington Post Editorial Board for shining a light on the plight of Bethesda-based Alan Gross, who has spent a year in a Cuban jail cell without charges. Truly, I do. Because on this I am sure most everyone can easily agree: it is long past time for Cuban authorities to give Mr. Gross his day in court or else set him free.
But Monday's editorial, "Cuba's Jewish Hostage," crossed a line when when it irresponsibly led readers to believe that Gross is in prison in Cuba because he's Jewish, and because he was working with the Jewish community.
"Raul Castro's attempt to win foreign favor and investment for Cuba's moribund economy took a particularly cynical turn on Sunday, when the dictator celebrated Hanukkah with Havana's tiny Jewish community. Broadcast on state television, the event was designed to prove that the regime doesn't share the anti-Semitism of allies such as Iran and Venezuela. There was just one problem: No mention was made of Alan P. Gross, an American from Potomac who passed the holiday in a Cuban military facility, where he has been imprisoned for a year without trial because he tried to help Cuba's Jews."
If we've explained it once here at THN, we've explained it a thousand times (as have countless other Cuba analysts): Alan Gross most likely ran afoul of Cuban authorities by traveling to Cuba on a tourist visa (when he was not a tourist) to complete a mission directed and funded by the United States Government. Whether we find its implementation draconion or not, Cuba has a law against that kind of thing (so do we, by the way, it's called the Foreign Agent Registration Act), and the words "Jews of Cuba" don't appear anywhere in it.
An unflinching look at what happened here should lead The Washington Post and other interested media to question whether the State Department bears some responsibility for sending private Americans like Alan Gross into a country to break its laws.
It's also worth asking whether the U.S. government committed a huge blunder by expanding USAID's Cuban democracy program efforts previously focused on declared political dissidents to nonpolitical groups like Cuba's Jews, and thus forcing them into a political battle for which they never asked.
Maybe the next Washington Post editorial will start raising some of these tough questions.
"We have made it very clear to the Cuban Government that the continued detention of Alan Gross is a major impediment to advancing the dialogue between our two countries."
P. J. Crowley, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs December 3, 2010
The detention of Alan Gross shows no public sign of resolution.
During his daily briefing the day before Assistant Secretary. Crowley offered the same old disingenuous spin characterizing Alan as:
a committed international development worker who was arrested by Cuban authorities for his activities, dedicated to helping the Jewish community in Havana connect with other Jewish communities throughout the world....
MR. CROWLEY: He is a contractor and he was trying to help connect communities in Havana to the rest of the world. And obviously, we think that is important for the development of civil society in Cuba.
QUESTION: P.J., what --
QUESTION: So the communications devices that have been mentioned --
MR. CROWLEY: Connecting to the internet.
QUESTION: The internet?
MR. CROWLEY: These are not revolutionary kinds of technology.
QUESTION: When the Secretary hosted Jewish groups several months ago and talked about this, she asked them to make appeals to the Cubans. Are you aware if any of them have?
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I think we – that’s correct. And I think there have been some contacts. I mean, it’s a broad-based community. I know there have been some suggestions publicly that, well, some groups know about him; some groups don’t know about him. That really is beside the point.
Presumably what Crowley was trying to minimize as "beside the point" is an AP story in which the leaders of the principal Jewish organizations in Cuba contradict his version:
Today marks one year since a USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross of Bethesda, MD, allegedly helping the Cuban Jewish community connect via internet to the Jewish community outside of Cuba, was taken into Cuban custody at the conclusion of his fifth such trip to the island. Cuban authorities maintain that he broke Cuban laws, and have even suggested in a couple of instances that he was a spy. U.S. authorities, meanwhile, insist that Gross did nothing wrong, broke no laws, and that Gross's work would not have been a problem in other countries around the world. Alan Gross's wife considers her husband a political pawn, and believes both the U.S. and Cuba could take steps to improve relations and in the process, bring her husband home.
I'm with Judy Gross on this. If Alan Gross violated Cuban laws, he should know and face the charges against him in a fair and open trial.
Unfortunately, Cuba's failure to move the case along has merely enabled Washington's own immobility. Simply demanding his release, as the State Department again did once again yesterday, clearly isn't getting anywhere. It would be a lot easier to sit back and fold our arms ("We don't negotiate with hostage takers!") if our own government hadn't played a starring role in Gross's predicament in the first place. Beyond the intrepid oversight efforts of Senator John Kerry and Congressman Howard Berman (whose committees have jurisdiction over the program) there's been zero effort - beyond a cursory "at your own risk" warning to future USAID Cuba program contractors - from the U.S. side to take responsibility for what happened here. And in that vacuum, Tracey Eaton reports, people like former Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, continue to offer platitudes like this one:
In a commentary featured on CNN.com's Opinion and Analysis page today, fellow THN contributor Arturo Lopez Levy and I teamed up to ask the question, if Cuba is beginning to pursue what looks a lot like a Vietnam-style economic restructuring over the coming months, why not pursue a Vietnam-style policy toward the island nation?
"As Havana prepares for its first Communist Party Congress in 14 years in April, the United States should seize the opportunity to positively influence the economic blueprint the party is expected to approve.
The Party Congress, usually held every five years, is the ultimate conclave when Cuba's Communist leaders set the direction of the country for the next five years. A document released ahead of the congress shows that the Cuban leadership is considering ideas without precedent in the Cuban revolution's political debate. It essentially proposes moving away from Cuba's command economy and adopting an economic system closer to the ones in Vietnam and China."
CNN's publishing rules only allow me to excerpt that short introduction to the commentary, so I hope you'll visit the website to read the entire piece.
The piece reflects not only on the changes going on in Cuba and their similarity to steps taken in Vietnam, but also looks back at the U.S. approach to a country in which the American people lost significant blood and treasure, and yet our government has, with marked success, been willing to engage constructively. We're certainly not the first analysts to point to examples of American constructive engagement with countries with which we have profound differences.
But it bears repeating that, given the depth and breadth of discussions ongoing in Cuba right now, the United States has an absurdly excellent opportunity right now to exercise its influence - whether by helping the government directly pursue its reforms, or whether through more indirect means, such as working to reduce the extent to which a hostile U.S. policy remains a dominant domestic political factor in Cuba. The question on so many people's minds now is, "Where is the Obama Administration?"
Taking a page, literally, from the Cuban Triangle, it's worth beginning this post with this comment from Secretary Clinton:
“There have been examples in history in which official conduct has been made public in the name of exposing wrongdoings or misdeeds. This is not one of those cases.”
Maybe no one needs to know that our diplomats think Angela Merkel lacks creativity. But, for those of us who have repeatedly sought information about just what kind of threat the country of Cuba, one of four countries remaining on the State Department's state sponsors of terrorism list, actually poses, we finally have a much sought-after, on-the-record answer: "Very little."
In cabled response to a spring 2009 questionnaire assessing the security environment in Cuba, the U.S. Interests Section assessment on Cuba's terrorist threat includes the following:
5. (U) ANTI-AMERICAN TERRORIST GROUPS
6. (U) OTHER INDIGENOUS TERRORIST GROUPS