Whereas Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba nearly 15 years ago was in itself a historic moment – coming as it did at the end of a dark period for Church-State relations in Cuba – Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island this week was more about consolidating spaces the Cuban Catholic Church has won in society and about gaining more such space. Those who hoped this Pope’s trip would have profound impact on the broader political and human rights context on the island were surely disappointed by the Pope’s decision not to meet with Cuban dissidents who asked to see him.
To some extent, it’s hard to imagine what prominent figure really could sway Cuba’s leaders off of their course to rebuild the economy and leave the one-party political system in place. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I tend to think the Cuban people themselves will be the protagonists of that evolution, even if it takes much longer than some, or many, wish.
But given the ground the Cuban Catholic Church lost decades ago, the ground it has recovered in the past decade, and its priorities for the future near and far, creating more space for those goals must have been the driving factors in the pope’s trip. And perhaps that increased space in society - whether it is the Cuba Catholic Church’s publication of unvarnished criticisms of Raul Castro’s halting economic reforms (that are, as Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernandez always points out, themselves signs of political change in Cuba) to the hoped-for reopening of private Catholic schools in Cuba one day, to Pope Benedict’s request to add Good Friday to the Cuban State’s official calendar - perhaps these advances, and reaches, by the Catholic Church and its offices and members in Cuban society at a crucial time of generational change in Cuba, may help usher in other social and political openings on the island.
That is the road the Church has chosen for itself in modern day Cuba. Rather than serve as a force for opposition, it looks for opportunities for constructive engagement with the government in ways that it feels can benefit the Cuban people.
Many observers were aghast when, just before the Pope’s visit, Cuban Catholic Church leaders requested government authorities remove 13 dissidents who had been “occupying” a Havana church for several days.
CeltFest Cuba (see link at end)
The Washington Post has played a shameful role in the Alan Gross affair, providing only incomplete coverage of what he was doing and why and publishing editorials that were defense briefs at best. By amplifying the official US line it constrains the State Department's ability to find a reasonable diplomatic solution.
Its latest effort was a long story yesterday in the Lifestyle section that was appropriately sympathetic to the hardship of Judy Gross.
Readers who want to know more than the Post spin about the case should look at the Associated Press story based on Alan's own leaked reports. Perhaps most damning is that on his final trip he was carrying SIM cards that are normally available only for military and intelligence purposes to hide the location of the BGAN transmitters that the Post only half acknowledges he was distributing.
Alan's case has never been helped by denial of the serious illegality of his actions under Cuban law, or for that matter under US law had he been an unregistered agent of a hostile foreign power operating covertly here.
The bottom line is that sectors of the US government believe we have the right to intervene in Cuba and other countries if we disagree with their political systems, in this case to create an independent satellite linked encryptable internet node that was accessible to anyone in the vicinity, not just the announced recipients in the Jewish community.
In the case of Cuba the presumption of a right to intervene is a problem that has plagued our relationship for more than a century and is exacerbated by the agenda of the diminishing minority of vengeful exiles who exploit the power of the state for their self interest.
Looking back on the past year in which change has finally and visibly come to the island of Cuba, and on the cusp of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba, the second papal visit to the island in 15 years, it seems fitting to highlight for readers a few items that offer crucial, and even detailed perspective on where Cuba has been, is going, and how the United States continues to fumble as if blindfolded on Cuba. This week's issue of The Economist includes a special 10-page report (online here) that charts how change finally, if haltingly, came to Cuba this year, where it falls short and why, and what Cuba could look like in 2015. The best thing about this special report is that a Cuba neophyte can pick up this issue and having read the complete article, actually come out reasonably informed about Cuba, its leaders, its people's daily struggles, the political heft and the changing course of Cuban exiles and emigrants in America, and what to make of an embargo that few Americans understand is still firmly in place after fifty years - let alone why.
For a taste of the "Wait, what?" moment that comes with the realization that the Cold War didn't actually end between the United States and Cuba when it ended everywhere else, Brigadier General John Adams (Ret.) and David Jones, writing in The Hill this week, urge the State Department to "get real" on keeping Cuba on its state sponsors of terrorism list.
"Today, four countries are on the list: Iran, Syria, Sudan and … Cuba. Seriously, Cuba? Countries not on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list include: Yemen, Lebanon, Pakistan, North Korea (the Department of State removed North Korea from the list in 2008) and Libya (removed from the list in 2006). . . "
Point by point, Adams and Jones poke huge holes in the State Department's case for keeping Cuba on the list , though, they hardly need to make their case when this is what the State Department's evidence looks like:
The 2008 U.S. State Country Report on Terrorism stated that Cuba “no longer actively supports armed struggles in Latin America and other parts of the world.” The same report further states, “The United States has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba.”
The 2009 report stated: “There was no evidence of direct financial support for terrorist organizations by Cuba in 2009.” The 2010 State Department report stated: “The Cuban government and official media publicly condemned acts of terrorism by al-Qa’ida and affiliates.”
So, if Cuba doesn't appear to finance, plot or even support terrorism, surely there is some reason why they're on the list?
Meeting dissidents should not be a litmus test for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba (A response to the March 19 Washington Post Editorial).
As the visit of Benedict XVI draws nearer, Cuba's internal opposition is stepping up its activities in an effort to use his presence on the island as a sounding board. The Ladies in White, a group of mothers and wives of dissidents who were given long prison sentences in 2003, have eased up some since all of their relatives were released as a result of mediation by Cardinal Ortega. Now they are asking for a meeting with the Pope. In 2010, the Cardinal also managed to secure eight city blocks for them to hold their Sunday marches after mass at the Santa Rita Church in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. On Sunday March 18, the group, which has never managed to fill the ceded space, pushed further, and were detained by the government only to be released several hours later.
Don’t get me wrong. In the Cuba I dream of, without an American embargo and with representative democracy, opposition forces would have the right to demonstrate peacefully. But that is not the issue here. The gradual recovery of social spaces has been central to the Catholic Church's strategic adaptation to the post-revolutionary system. Unlike the political opposition calling for the government’s acceptance of a disorganized partisan pluralism that has no relevance on the street, the Church gradually recovers social spaces and then negotiates government recognition. The Cuban Bishops demanded the right to parade the Virgin of Charity through the towns of Cuba after parishes overflowed with worshipers, not before.
One might expect that a terrible coincidence such as an American prisoner in Cuba and a paroled Cuban prisoner in the U.S. each desperately seeking permission to visit beloved relatives dying of cancer in their home countries might finally move both governments to do the right thing and send each man home. But so far, both governments have dug in their heels needlessly regarding the prisoners in their own custody, while at the same time, insisting that clemency should be shown towards their own citizens held in the other country.
So what happens now that a federal judge in Miami has approved Rene Gonzalez’s petition for a two week visit to his brother in Cuba? The judge gave her permission so long as Gonzalez obtains the necessary license from the U.S. government, provides his itinerary, keeps up with his parole officer while in Cuba, and returns when his two weeks are up. Lucky for Gonzalez that Mr. Obama delivered on his campaign promise to Cuban Americans back in 2009: anyone can visit close family in Cuba under ‘general license’ authority, so he doesn’t have to ask for further permission. This is good news for Gonzalez and his brother.
But will it mean good news for Alan Gross, in exchange? Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue this can be an ‘exchange’ of humanitarian gestures by the two governments, since Obama’s Justice Department opposed Gonzalez’s deathbed visit to his brother. These kinds of equities – or inequities – weigh heavily in Havana. When former governor Bill Richardson visited Cuba last August and suggested a swap of Gonzalez for Gross, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon scoffed at the idea – Gonzalez was finishing his term, having served more than a dozen years in prison, whereas Gross had only just begun his sentence of 15 years. And, from the Cuban government’s perspective, Gonzalez was merely trying to protect Cuba, whereas Gross’s work to establish untraceable Wi-Fi networks on the island was funded under a statute calling for regime change in Cuba. (U.S. officials naturally have a different view: they cite national security concerns about Gonzalez, who was an unregistered agent of the Cuban government in the U.S., and they view Gross’s work as purely humanitarian in nature. )
Another reason why Cuba is less likely to grant Mr. Gross a deathbed visit to his mother is that granting a temporary release to Gross is tantamount to simply commuting his sentence. Why would he return to Cuba once reaching the U.S.? Gonzalez is likely return to the U.S. out of a sense of solidarity with the rest of the Cuban Five; if he fails to meet the conditions set out by the judge that granted his motion in the first place, that could impact decisions made on future motions filed by the rest of them. But Gross has nothing else at stake in Cuba, and if the Cuban government is bent on keeping him as a chip for the right humanitarian bargain to come along (say one that includes more of the Five), then granting his deathbed visit request would take away that imagined leverage.
But it’s a mistake to think that Mr. Gross offers any leverage to Cuba.
Only in Florida can you have legislators so obsessed with another country that they routinely pass laws designed to punish said country even (and sometimes especially) when they harm that state's own interests.
On Friday, the Florida legislature passed a law that would ban any of the state's public contracts to be awarded to companies that also do business with Cuba. The obvious target of the bill is Brazil's Odebrecht, which has done quite well in Miami over the past couple of decades, and which is also behind the transformation of Cuba's port at Mariel into a major caribbean shipping hub (no doubt in preparation for the day when U.S. rules preventing U.S.-bound liners are again allowed to freely stop in Cuba). I'm not in a position to wade into whether Odebrecht should or shouldn't win public contracts, except to say it seems to me they should win or lose on the merits, not the politics.
The National Foreign Trade Council's Dan O'Flaherty says the just-passed Florida law is unconstitutional - the constitution prohibits states legislating foreign policy matters in conflict with federal laws. O'Flaherty cites a Massacusetts law that would have enforced a similar restriction on companies dealing with Burma. That law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.
Perhaps the Florida legislature might be forgiven for its short memory on the subject. Except that not quite three years ago, a 2008 law it passed to force U.S. charter companies to pay exceedingly high bonds to operate their flights to Cuba (which, had it taken effect, would have likely forced them out of business altogether) was struck down by a Federal District Judge in Miami. That judge wrote:
I must confess that I didn't envision a neat solution to the Summit of the Americas stand-off, but that is exactly what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose country will host the meeting next month in Cartagena, has achieved after a visit to Havana this week. Santos traveled to Havana, where he lamented a lack of consensus among the Summit's participants on including Cuba and promised to raise the issue of Cuba at the meeting. But Cuba's government didn't heap any blame on Colombia - there were no charges that Santos was just doing Washington's dirty work and playing the lapdog to the villanious Uncle Sam. (There was plenty of blame heaped directly on Washington, though.) And, according to Colombia's foreign minister, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez will not only attend the Summit, but would be happy to call Ecuador's President Correa and encourage him to attend, even without Cuba's Castro allowed in.
Santos handled the players expertly, and it paid off for him, both by averting embarassment when he hosts the Summit next month and by demonstrating his ability to be an effective regional negotiator.
After two years, the Ft. Lauderdale-based company Havana Ferry Partners got its answer, though not the one for which it was hoping. The company had hoped to established a 500-600 passenger ferry service to Cuba which it says would have offered travelers a cheaper alternative to currently available flights to the island. But Treasury ( which sat on the ferry license application so long you wonder why it bothered responding now) says the service would be "beyond the scope of current policy."
But of course, that can't be the real reason. The current policy is to allow, if not encourage, travel to Cuba by, among others, licensable Cuban Americans, academics, and religious and cultural groups. The policy even expanded the number of airports allowed to offer charter flights to the island. So it's hard to imagine allowing ferry service really goes against current policy.
But re-establishing ferry service for the first time in more than fifty years does offer two challenges that the administration presumably doesn't want to bother with in an election year. Naturally, opponents would claim it's another concession to Cuba - the headlines alone, which would use words like "re-establish" and "in more than fifty years" would (mistakenly) offer the impression of detente between the U.S. and Cuban governments.
What’s the best way to gauge if anyone in Washington understands what’s going on in Havana? Try to grill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
More than once, I’ve complained about the Obama administration’s tone-deafness on the shifting political, social and economic climate in Cuba. We (and by we, I mean they) were slow-to-absent in acknowledging and encouraging the 2010-2011 political prisoner releases brokered between Raul Castro, Cuba’s Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the previous (Zapatero) government in Spain, and President Obama himself has highlighted the ongoing economic changes in Cuba only to call them insufficient.
So it was fascinating to watch this exchange at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing this week in which Cuban-American Congressman David Rivera pressed Secretary Clinton for any “tangible” progress towards democracy in Cuba thanks to the Obama administration’s policy toward the island: