For the past two days, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has met with a range of government officials and religious leaders in Havana. This morning, he spoke with a group Cuban human rights and pro-democracy activists including bloggers Yoani Sánchez and Claudia Cadelo, Elizardo Sánchez of the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, Oswaldo Payá co-founder of the Varela Project, members of the Damas de Blanco, and 12 “Black Spring” prisoners who, upon their recent release from prison, have remained in Cuba.
Of particular interest to many is his meeting this morning with members of the dissident community, something that puts him in sharp contrast with other high-level officials who visit Cuba and do not publicly meet or otherwise acknowledge Cuba's human rights and pro-democracy activists.
In spite of Carter's well-balanced agenda, critics are of course arguing that his visit brings legitimacy to the Cuban government. Yes, after more than fifty years of relatively stable communist rule in Cuba, some are still pulling their hair out over questions of legitimacy. However one defines legitimate, the Cuban government is a functioning actor in the international community whether you agree with their ideology or not. And beyond questions of legitimacy, to think that engagement equals endorsement is to reduce U.S. foreign policy to the simplicity of pre-school politics. “I don’t like you, so I’m not going to talk to you”. Our foreign policy making tool box is too well stocked to circumscribe our powers within such an immature and simplistic doctrine.
It is true that U.S. support, or the withholding thereof, can be decisive at moments of political upheaval abroad, such as during electoral disputes or times of open revolution, but Cuba is not experiencing such instability. While we may be outraged by the lack of basic freedoms in Cuba, refusing to engage with Havana on this and other issues will only provide fodder for Cuban propaganda that paints the U.S. as behemoth of the North. It's already been observed that Cuba's state-run media is reporting on Carter's trip in much more neutral language than is normally used in relation to the United States.
I won't rehash here all the reasons we should be engaging with Cuba, but in so far as we are interested in advancing the freedom of both the Cuban and American people, our dismal track record should be evidence enough that the status quo isn't working.
Photo: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter shakes the hands of eager schoolchildren during his historic trip to Cuba. (May 2002).
When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, 86, touches down in Havana today he will confront a situation not totally unlike his last international diplomatic outing. Replace nuclear weapons with decades of distrust, add in a failing state–run economy and an American in a communist prison, and you have the backdrop against which the thirty-ninth President of the United States enters Cuba for a brief, but potentially powerful three-day visit.
Nine years ago when Carter first visited Cuba, it marked the first time an American president had set foot on the island since Fidel Castro took power. The visit was marked by a public address, broadcast over Cuban radio (and delivered in Spanish), in which President Carter called for the end of the U.S. embargo and lauded the Cuban pro-democracy initiative, the Varela Project.
Since then, and as most Cuba watchers know, significant changes have come to Cuba with many more still on the horizon. Under President Raul Castro’s watch, Cuba has essentially sworn off the state-led economy as it has precariously existed in Cuba since Fidel Castro took power. The government has pledged to lay off approximately 500,000 state workers, and has granted 171,000 private employment licenses. Next month’s Communist Party Congress, the first to be convened in 14 years, will focus on “the fundamental decisions on updating the Cuban economic model,” and will shed light on how the government plans to reconcile market-oriented reforms with political and social norms of Cuba's communist system.
Over 2000 people visited the Cuba booth at the New York Times Travel Show, February 25-27
In an interview with Telemundo, reported by the Cuban Colada blog in the Miami Herald, Secretary of State Clinton sounded a cautiously optimistic note about the fate of imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross:
he should be released, and at the very least, on humanitarian terms. He should be sent home to his family, and I'm hoping that the Cuban Government will do that...We don't want to take any actions or say anything that will undermine the chances for this man to come home to his family.
Yet in that same interview, she made assertions that could force the Cubans to be tough in their handling of Mr. Gross in order to defend the legitimacy of their own laws:
Alan Gross was in Cuba to help people literally connect with the rest of the world, and as we're seeing around the world, that's a tide that is coming. You're not going to be able to push it back out to sea, even in Cuba. He has served a very long time for doing what was not in any way criminal, in our view.
And similarly with Univision
He should not have been brought before a court and charged with crimes that he did not commit.
I completely agree with her conclusion:
We believe he should be released and returned to his family on humanitarian grounds as soon as possible.
But I am astounded by her efforts to still argue for Alan's innocence.
Jorge Piñón, whose business experience spans time with Royal Dutch Shell, Amoco, British Petroleum and other oil giants, recently wrote: “The Deepwater Horizon incident experience taught the United States very important hands-on lessons on how to manage such a catastrophe, lessons which would benefit us in the future by sharing them with neighbors.”
One of those neighbors to whom Mr. Piñón refers is Cuba. He writes: “Obviously, the establishment of working relations between the U.S., Cuba, and The Bahamas in marine environmental protection would assist enormously in the contingency planning and cooperation necessary to an early and truly effective response to an oil spill.”
Of course, the creation of such working relations between Washington and Havana is not so obvious to all of Washington’s decision-makers, particularly that tiny group of hardcore Cuban-Americans in Dade County, Florida and elsewhere. But as Cuba prepares to drill in an offshore area proximate to Florida—and to do so at depths exceeding the depth of the Deepwater Horizon well—it should be.
Recent earthquakes in Haiti and Japan not only highlight the unprecedented nature of such natural events as the world’s population heads for 7 billion and is increasingly concentrated near the oceans, such events also underscore dramatically the need for international cooperation in responding to their aftermath. Yet the U.S. insists on dealing with Cuba as it has for the past fifty-plus years of failure: embargo, embargo, embargo. It is as if the ghost of Jesse Helms, never a man whose photo was on the piano of any reasonable person, still gripped Washington in its incomprehensible vise.
(President Obama visiting the Ciudad de Deus (City of God) favela, on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Sunday, March 20, 2011. Photo courtesy of the White House)
In an interview yesterday with Spanish-language television station Telemundo, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said this about the situation of Alan Gross, the American contractor recently sentenced to 15 years in jail by the Cuban authorities for his work with USAID’s democracy assistance program in Cuba,
"We are working closely with Alan Gross's attorneys... We don't want to take any actions or say anything that will undermine the chances for this man to come home to his family," Clinton said.
Clinton also insisted that in the State Department’s view, Gross was not committing unlawful acts. Unfortunately, whether the U.S. State Department agrees with another nation’s laws or not, Americans are subject to them, a truth whose brutality often strikes the most innocent of victims.
What is in many ways a groundbreaking trial involving former CIA asset, Luis Posada Carriles continues today in El Paso. Texas. Carriles, an infamous anti-Castro militant, is being tried on 11 counts of violating U.S. law. While most of the charges pertain to his illegal entry in to the United States in 2005, several are related to his alleged involvement in a series of bombings carried out in Cuba in 1997 in which an Italian citizen was killed.
Journalist Anne Louise Bardach has been forced to testify at the proceedings due to interviews she conducted with Posada for a 1998 New York Times series about exile militants she co-wrote. She will be cross-examined today.
More on this later in the week.
President Obama departs today for a five-day visit to Latin America, a trip the White House insists is "about the U.S. recovery, U.S. exports, and the critical relationship that Latin America plays in our economic future and jobs here in the United States."
Earlier in the week an Administration official characterized the trip rather differently, saying the visit is designed to underscore, "the restoration of American influence and appeal in the Americas, and the effect that that has had in diminishing the space for those who try to make a living politically on an anti-American sentiment."
That statement doesn’t seem to be getting much traction, perhaps because it sounds a bit out of step with the reality of the U.S. in Latin America today.
An American contractor could spend 15 years in a Cuban prison because of work he undertook at the behest of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). If this tragic episode does not fundamentally transform the nature of U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba, I shudder to think what it may take.
The saga that Alan Gross and his family have been living for the past 15 months was an incredibly unfortunate accident waiting to happen. USAID knows its back door tactics place American and Cuban participants in direct violation of Cuban law. In dealing with Cuba, a country that views these programs as part of a larger strategy of regime change (with good reason), and operates one of the most formidable intelligence services in the world, it is no wonder, however regrettable, that Havana decided to make an example out of Alan Gross.
Alan Gross has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the Cuban state.”
In a statement from the Cuban News Agency, the prosecution is said to have established sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Gross “directly participated in a subversive project of the United States Government to destroy the Revolution through the use of information systems outside the authorities control to advance destabilization plans against various social sectors.” (my translation)
The U.S. State Department deplored the ruling and called on the Cuban Government to immediately and unconditionally release Gross, the same request it has been making since Gross was arrested while trying to leave Havana in December 2009.
It figures that just as I get ready to take an extended leave for the next two months (during which I'll be unable to blog here as much as I'd like), U.S.-Cuban affairs would get to their most interesting - and critical - point in some time.
In recent days we've learned that April's Communist Party Congress in Cuba may not just clarify and embrace the ongoing economic overhaul, but now it will include election of new leadership - which offers the prospect that Fidel Castro will step down as party head, Raul Castro will presumably take his place, and someone else will step into the number 2 spot. Any readers want to take a gander at that one in the comments section?
And then there's what fate awaits Alan Gross, the American contractor the Wall Street Journal editorial board today suggests went on trial in Cuba for "bringing computer equipment to the island to help Cuban Jews communicate with the disapora"? It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is, even, and especially perhaps, for the media to ignore the parts of reality it cares to. Gross was allegedly delivering highly advanced and unregulated satellite communications equipment (added emphasis is mine) on behalf of a foreign, and let's face it, hostile, power. That's a big difference, particularly when we know that droves of American Jews visit the island every year to connect and make generous donations, resulting in community amenities like a computer lab.
The WSJ may in fact be absolutely right that the Cuban government is "terrified of the internet," but questioning the motives behind the application of a law in another country doesn't give you the right to expect that law to be disregarded because you believe your motives to be on a higher order.
While we are anxiously awaiting news about the verdict in the trial of Alan Gross, the jump in global oil prices last week got us thinking as well...
Cubans are feeling the aftershocks of turmoil in the Middle East and North Africa; not in the form of demands for greater democratization, perhaps, but at the pump, in the form of higher gas prices, as the price of a barrel of oil soars past the $100 market on global markets.
As reported by the Nuevo Herald, the Cuban government raised the price of regular gasoline from 1.15 ($1.06) to 1.20 CUC, ($1.11) last week, the second such hike in less than a year. The majority of Cubans don’t own cars, because they are both astronomically expensive – the average Cuban makes about $20/month – and their purchase is tightly controlled by the government. But the price increase isn’t just about those who pay to pump. Those cinco centavos will trickle down, placing added strain on already taut Cuban incomes in another sign of what’s to come as President Raul Castro moves to decrease the state’s control over the island’s decimated economy.
The trial in Cuba against USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, which will begin on March 4, presents an opportunity for the Cuban government to both demonstrate the legitimate basis for nationalist defense against U.S. interventionist policy and its good will towards the millions of potential American travelers to Cuba.
By the end of the trial, it should be clear that U.S. travelers to Cuba have nothing to fear if they keep a healthy distance from regime change programs and that Washington and Havana would both gain from dismantling hostile attitudes.
The trial serves three Cuban government purposes:
Sometimes it's enough to simply ask the question, isn't it?
Just when you think U.S.-Cuban relations couldn't get more surreal (take a look at these two videos - h/t to the Cuban Triangle - chronicling two Cuban state security agents' revelations from their collective 40 years inside the Cuban dissident community), it turns out they absolutely can, and they will. Here's a clip from The Hill's report from a Senate hearing earlier today:
"Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) grilled federal officials Wednesday about the Cuban government's possible ties to rampant Medicare fraud in south Florida.
"During the hearing, Grassley referenced a report from the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami raising questions about the involvement of Fidel Castro's regime.
The report paraphrases a "high-level former intelligence official with the Cuban Government" as saying that there are "strong indications that the Cuban Government is directing some of these Medicare frauds as part of a desperate attempt to obtain hard currency."
I worked for the Senate Finance Committee when Senator Grassley was chairman of that committee (which oversees Medicare). He took his investigative responsibilites quite seriously. So I'm a little flabbergasted to see him go out on a limb over what seems to me such slim pickins, as we say in the South. (Though, to be fair, 7 of the 10 top Medicare fraud perpetrators are Cuban American, so I can understand why he'd want to explore the subject further.)
The short document prepared by the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies (ICCAS) and referenced today by Senator Grassley can be found, and quickly read, here. Here's a sample of the ironclad, single (unnamed) source research conducted by ICCAS on the subject, based on an interview with a former Ministry of the Interior official from Cuba: