April 2012

"Una Noche" Actors Go Missing: Why Do Cubans Defect?

Two Cuban actors making their way to the Tribeca Film Festival opening of “Una Noche” last week have disappeared – and presumably defected – after arriving in Miami.  Apparently, just like the characters they play in the film, they’ve chosen to leave the island for a better life in the United States.  The third actor, who did not defect, said, "I have my family there, my friends, my girlfriend," he said. "Here, I don't know anyone."  On the other hand, what foreign actor (especially one im Cuba) wouldn't want the chance to "make it" in the United States?

I’ve not had a chance to see the film, and as such I can only draw educated guesses about the way in which it treats the characters’ decisions to emigrate.  But I’m going to guess that, taken together, the film and its actors’ real life developments illustrate the complex and toughest realities of living in Cuba – and that includes having the same loves and dreams as anywhere else (and far fewer opportunities to pursue them than one would have in the U.S. for instance), and an inordinate amount of getting creative and hurrying up and waiting, and yes, for some and for all, fear and limits. 

It can be a particularly depressing reality for twenty-somethings in a country is proud of its broad-based educational achievement but offers the vast majority of Cubans little to do with that education.  And though Cuba is undergoing significant economic changes that will surely change the course of Cuba’s future, it will take time for the benefits to be felt broadly and deeply enough to convince so many disaffected youth that there is a reason to stay.  So, whether you’re ‘fleeing’ a prison guard, or whether you’re ‘fleeing’ a place that feels like a dead-end, it’s not hard to imagine the impulse young Cubans have to leave their country. 

But, it’s also not unreasonable to ask a few rhetorical questions, like, aren’t there millions of people the world over who also have good reasons – perhaps even better ones – to flee their country for ours?  Are Cubans the most miserable people on the planet, or is there added – and significant – reason that contributes to so many making the decision to defect (or emigrate)?   Cuba policy wonks know the answer to this question, and it causes us to gnash our teeth and pound the table for emphasis – to make sure the listener is actually listening:

Thanks to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and the 'wet-foot, dry-foot' policy in place since the mid-1990's, Cubans may arrive in the United States by any means (yes, including illegally), and not only walk free in our country, but they will receive government adjustment assistance (intended for refugees, though they don’t have to actually prove they are refugees), be eligible to work, and have the right to a green card after just one year.  What other illegal immigrant group gets this sort of treatment in the United States of America?  Certainly not Haitians or Afghans.  Not Iranians, North Koreans nor any other group that could make a case for it.  The policy is an anomoly of the 1960's; it was never intended to leave the door open for fifty more years.  But it has, and no president has been tough enough to close it.

Cuba is undoubtedly as hard a place to live as it is beautiful.  The much-publicized defections to the U.S. by Cuban actors and athletes – and the thousands of more anonymous rafters and go-fast boat riders who arrive from the island – surely capture our imaginations.  But it is not only the island that drives them here.  The United States beckons too, with its well-dressed Miami relatives disembarking their planes laden with gifts, with its promise of opportunities across this great country, as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and, most crucially, with an unparalleled, favorable immigration policy crafted especially for Cubans.

What lies across the Water- Why History, International Law and American Values matter in the case of the Cuban five


The following text is my presentation at the panel organized by Wayne Smith about the book "What lies across the Water", at the Center for International Policy, April 18, Washington DC.

I want to thank Dr. Wayne Smith and the Center for International Policy (CIP) for the invitation to discuss the book “What lies across the Water”. As a Cuban-American who thinks constantly about the difficult relations between Cuba and the United States, it is an honor to be part of the effort of the CIP to improve the knowledge about the complex history of these links and the need to approach them with creativity and goodwill.

Whatever you might think about the Cuban Five, if you want to know how their case fits into the history of relations between Cuba and the United States, you must read this book. The author Stephen Kimber presents a well written short narrative about how the Cuban five ended up in US prisons. The book reads more as reportage for the general public than as an academic report.  The author has studied the long history of conflict between Cuba and the United States and the use of terror as a political weapon by Cuban right wing groups in Florida.

Quandary Over Cuba: Will There Be a 7th Summit of the Americas?

With the inconclusive 6th Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia wrapping up this weekend, will there be any way to bridge the gaps – most visibly over Cuba’s exclusion and between the United States and many of its most crucial partners in the region – and keep these presidential level summits between the countries of North and South America going in the future?

First we have to ask whether the region’s leaders want these Summits badly enough?  Many of the countries the U.S. has the strongest differences with might well prefer to let the Summit of the Americas die and to promote instead CELAC, a new 33-member regional organization which includes all countries in the Western Hemisphere (including Cuba) except for the United States and Canada.  As for those countries not at ideological odds with the United States, such as Brazil and Colombia, don’t they project the greatest possible strength as regional leaders when holding their own in forums that include, rather than exclude, the United States?  And certainly the United States would rather be inside the tent than outside of it, for that is the best way to exercise broad influence in the region.

Though there are other significant policy debates between the United States and others in the hemisphere, the Cuba issue has become a major and potentially irreconcilable obstacle to moving forward.  When the 34 leaders in attendance in 1994 agreed to uphold and defend the principles of representative democracy and universal human rights, Cuba was not invited to participate (and, at the time, Cuba’s suspension from the Organization of American States, from which these summits grew, was still in place).   But today, nearly all of the region’s  players  - Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, to name the most outspoken - are calling for there to be no more Summits of the Americas without Cuban representation. 

Does this reflect a lesser, or relative, commitment to democracy and human rights by these countries?

Missing An Opportunity at the Summit of the Americas


“For the most part, the tension over Cuba seems mostly to be behind Mr. Obama — a not insignificant consideration in a presidential election year in which Florida, the bastion of anti-Castro sentiment, could be a critical swing state.”         --New York Times, 4/13/12

The White House projected a lot of self-satisfaction on the eve of the summit of the Americas. 

It is hard to tell whether that is just the normal spin (accentuated by the pre-election dynamic), based on diplomatic assurances from the major players, or just the normal disregard about how we are seen by our neighbors.

Bottom line, the Administration could have used the Summit to increase US stature by showing we have finally moved beyond the Cold War, neoconservative agendas and the Monroe Doctrine.  Instead we are at best going to stay even. 

To preclude a photo opportunity of Barack Obama shaking Raul Castro's hand, the US has assured the Summit will be shaped by the absence of Cuba and debate over how to address the problem.

Instead of throwing its weight around and using consensus as a veto mechanism, Washington should have adopted the Quaker practice of "standing aside".  We could have maintained our opposition, whether due to principle or electoral calculation, but not blocked the overwhelming sentiment of other participants--among whom there was certainly no consensus to exclude Cuba.

In addition to upping Cuba's sympathetic profile, we have strengthened the case for CELAC, a regional organization designed to separate the hemisphere from the asymetric power and wealth of the US, similar to how the Association of South East Asian Nations functions in relation to China, India and Japan. 

Cuba and the Inter-American system: A smoldering "fire"


Early in March, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to tell Raul Castro that he could not invite him to the VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias due to a lack of hemispheric consensus. Once back in Bogota, Mr. Santos said that Colombia had "put out a fire" and pledged to discuss Cuba's participation in the inter-American system at the summit in order to prevent this issue from flaring up again before the next presidential conference scheduled for 2015 in Panama.

The Colombian decision triggered reactions from both Cuba and the US. It's hard to say whose discourse was more anachronistic. The statements made by Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez read as an impassioned harangue to the revolutionary Tricontinental of 1966. Hillary Clinton's responses to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen before the House Foreign Affairs Committee appeared to be addressing a rest home for Cuban-Americans who landed in Miami in 1962. Instead of adopting a conflict resolution approach, Cuba and the US traveled back to the Cold War, to a multilateral inter-American system that no longer exists. With one swipe, they erased five decades of changes in the hemispheric balance of power and the adoption of standards such as ideological pluralism, non-intervention and democratic governance.

Guillen, Cespedes and Mixing Baseball and Politics

Earlier this week I made myself a little promise, to discover a love for major league baseball, seeing as our own Washington Nationals are finally enjoying a good deal of buzz.  But before I could even get started learning getting to know our own team, the newly renamed Miami Marlins demanded my attention. 

The Marlins’ manager, Ozzie Guillen, made a pretty startlingly dumb comment in his recent interview with Time Magazine.  “I respect Fidel Castro.  You know why?  Many people have tried to kill Fidel Castro in the last 60 years, yet that [guy] is still there."  It was sure to offend some folks, probably lots, in Miami.

Guillen apologized for the remark, saying he was misinterpreted and, a native Spanish speaker, struggled to get what he really meant across in English, but it wasn’t enough.   He’s now been suspended for 5 games, and there are still calls for him to be sacked.  

John Friedman lays out the complexities of the story, and thus, of the decisions made and perhaps yet to be made by the Marlins ownership:

"Politics: You don’t have to be an expert in the history of Cuban politics or Castro’s legacy or Miami’s demographics to understand the explosive nature of this story.

Economics: By potentially damaging its relations with Cuban-Americans, how much money does the Marlins franchise risk losing?

Management: Can Guillen, who led the Chicago White Sox to a World Series victory in 2006, somehow continue to be an effective on-the-field manager, given all of the commotion he has stirred up?

Otto Reich on Terrorism, Carlos Saladrigas in Cuba, and Tracey Eaton's USAID FOIA Mission

If a US government program funds democracy-building work in Cuba, but no one is allowed to learn the details, did the work actually happen?  Tracey Eaton, a Florida-based journalist investigating U.S. government democracy-building programs in Cuba to see who receives the money and what U.S. taxpayers get for it, has shared USAID’s response to one of his many FOIA requests, this one on 11 years worth of USAID work in Cuba carried out by its grantee, Freedom House.   You might ask, why does a journalist need to submit FOIA request when USAID’s Mark Lopes recently insisted that, "Nothing about USAID's Cuba programs is covert or classified in any way.”   The heavily, er, almost totally, redacted FOIA response you see above (which Eaton scanned and posted on his blog, Along the Malecon) presents the real conundrum – what’s a reporter to do when even a Freedom of Information Act request fulfilled yields no actual information? 

Just in time for the Summit of the Americas, which Ecuador’s Rafael Correa is boycotting due to the exclusion of Cuba, Otto Reich, with Ezequiel Vazquez Ger, has penned an op-ed for Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government, “How Ecuador’s immigration policy helps Al Qaeda.”  Reich and his coauthor argue that Ecuador’s relatively open immigration policy makes it too easy for terrorists to get into the country.  I’m not familiar with Ecuador’s visa policies so I won’t debate the merits of his case.  What I find so interesting about this piece – aside from the over-the-top headline – is that the same could be argued of a similarly open immigration policy, that of the U.S. towards Cubans, but I’ve never heard Reich, a staunchly anti-Castro Cuban American who was a top advisor to President George W. Bush for Latin American affairs, complain about that policy.  That policy, which presumes all Cubans are political refugees, goes something like this: if you arrive in the United States by illegal means – without a legal visa – congratulations!  You can stay.  (And in 366 days, you can apply for a green card.)   Now, if you actually believed that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism – for a recent examination of the U.S. case against Cuba, see this article by General John Adams (Ret.) and David Jones – wouldn’t  such a lax U.S. immigration policy towards Cubans who arrive illegally to the United States give you, me and especially Otto Reich, pause? 

Finally, it’s heartening to see that while some few in Miami and Havana still fight reconciliation, many others are simply moving forward and achieving incremental and real progress.  A Miami businessman and former ‘hardliner’, Carlos Saladrigas, who opposed Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba and regretted it, not only went to see Pope Benedict XVI in Cuba, but stayed behind to give a talk (it's a must-read; full text is here) at a public forum in Havana:  

“This was an event of tremendous importance, the first time that a prominent Cuban from [abroad] could express these thoughts in a large forum,” said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an independent Cuban economist who attended the meeting. He remarked that Saladrigas and the dozen people who stood at the microphone criticized both the Cuban and U.S. governments — and even offered a few solutions — in voices respectful and calm.