July 2012

RIP Oswaldo Payá

It’s hard to say what the future might have held for Oswaldo Payá, a prominent Cuban dissident who headed the Christian Liberation Movement on the island, had he not perished in a car accident yesterday.

But what he left behind is no small thing: he managed to organize fellow Cubans, who organized more fellow Cubans and together they collected nearly 25,000 signatures seeking democratic reforms to the Cuban constitution. And while some criticized him for his Varela Project (so named for a famous Cuban priest and independence hero), which proposed changes to a constitution that critics refuse to legitimize, the movement he led is the only reformist one that I’m aware of to spread across the island and reach thousands of Cubans. Payá, who shunned U.S. aid insisted that Cuba’s transition would be undertaken by Cubans, not foreign governments. It was Paya’s Varela Project that reached the ears of an entire nation, thanks to President Carter’s nationally live-televised 2002 speech – in Spanish, no less – at the University of Havana.

Oswaldo Payá was a man dedicated to his faith and to his hopes for a more just and democratic society. Simply put, he made an impact in a way few other Cuban dissident activists have, and his passing leaves a void that won't be easily filled.

OFAC Cuba Enforcement Strikes Again - And This Time, It Would have Been Legal?

Another day, another big-ticket Cuba embargo enforcement notice from OFAC, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Or so it seems these days more than ever.

Several years ago, just how much time and money OFAC was spending on Cuba embargo enforcement, especially in comparison with its other responsibilities, caused quite a stir.  Back in 2004, Senate Finance Committee investigators (I was one of them) discovered that OFAC, an office of roughly 100 investigative personnel charged with sanctions programs enforcement and tracking terrorist funding networks, had dedicated 21 of those personnel or FTEs (fulltime equivalents) to Cuba sanctions, which all too often amounted to tracking down cigar aficionados buying Cuban cigars on the internet or fining the 74-year-old grandmother who went on a bike tour that she thought was legit but wasn’t. 

The numbers were shocking because that same office dedicated only two FTEs to tracking the funding networks of Osama bin Laden.  Numerous members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were outraged by what they saw as a gross misallocation of precious and mission critical resources.  The Committee continued asking questions, until finally OFAC just refused to tell.  Its staff, we were told, are all cross-trained and shifted so much that it was impossible to report and quantify what percent of resources were dedicated to various missions. 

In today’s fiscal climate then, perhaps it’s wise that OFAC seems to make every effort to catch the big fish too.  Those multi-million dollar fines and not so much taxpayer dollars, it could be argued, help pay for all the personnel enforcing the Cuba embargo.

The latest OFAC catch is the Vancouver, Washington malt company Great Western.  According to OFAC, Great Western made the mistake of “perform[ing] various back-office functions for the sales by a foreign affiliate of non-U.S. origin barley malt to Cuba.”  Though OFAC originally anticipated a nearly $6 million fine, the company ended up settling its case and paying just $1.3 million. Why?  It seems OFAC considered a number of mitigating factors in the case, including the fact that, “if the subject goods had been shipped from the United States, they would have been eligible for an OFAC license.”

Yes, apparently it’s possible to violate the embargo, even in relation to one of the very few exemptions to the embargo.

Who Would Be Better for Cuba: Romney or Obama?

Few nations feel the fallout of a U.S election more than the island of Cuba, just ninety miles away, where millions have never known life without a U.S. bloqueo hanging over their heads. 

During the height of the Cold War, bringing down the Castro government, which was closely allied to the Soviet Bloc, was a matter of national security. But after the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba no longer mattered.  As long as Cuba wasn’t exporting revolution, serving as a hub for narco-traffickers, or gushing U.S.-bound rafter refugees, it no longer mattered whether U.S. policy objectives and tactics were realistic, effective or even in the national interest. 

From President Reagan to President Obama and the various Republican contenders who sought to replace him (including presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney),  Cuba is a pit stop on the Florida campaign trail, and little else.  How else to explain Mitt Romney’s unfortunate “Patria o muerte, venceremos!” gaffe before a disgusted crowd of Cuban Americans during a 2007 campaign stop, when some careless campaign staffer must have thought it’d be great to throw in a  beloved Cuban expression to win fans in electoral-vote rich South Florida, but instead just fanned the flames of insult to injury by arming Romney with that famous Fidel Castro sign-off.  And of course, in the crucial election years of 2004 and 2006, President George W. Bush empaneled lofty commissions to plan every last detail of a Cuban transition to market democracy, and then update the plan, none of which has come to pass.  And though President Obama promised a “new beginning” with Cuba early in his presidency, it’s amounted to not too much more than a new beginning with potential swing Cuban American voters keen on visiting their families in Cuba whenever they like.   It was Barack Obama in 2004, by the way, who said in no uncertain terms that it was time for the U.S. to lift its embargo of Cuba.

(On the flopped ‘new beginning’ some will point to Cuba’s imprisonment of an American USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, for more than two years as the end of the new beginning. And while I think the Cuban government could and should show clemency toward Gross - and now a critic on the other side will say the U.S. could and should show clemency toward the Cuban Five - one cannot ignore the reality that the Obama administration’s continuation and stubborn defense of USAID democracy programs beefed up under the Bush administration that snuck Americans onto the island without host country consent to break that country’s laws, whatever we might think of them, might have played a role, a big one, in all of this.)

Obama’s approach, precisely because it seeks to cater to a more moderate segment of Florida’s electoral pool, is less strident and more reasonable than that of his predecessor, who was instead maximizing the hard-line faithful.  And yet, more reasonable doesn’t necessarily mean Cuba matters more to the current occupant of the White House any more than it did to the last.  President Bush was willing to separate families, while President Obama seems oblivious to the historic changes in Cuba underway today, both because real events and impacts on the island aren’t the point.  Domestic political advantage is. 

Perhaps that is why this pointed commentary from the internationally acclaimed Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, reflecting on Obama’s pragmatism and reminding us that while Cuba may not matter to the U.S., U.S. elections always matter in Cuba, may not cause a much-needed course correction in a Romney or Obama White House come 2013.

Roundup: Raul Castro in China, Food Duty Returns, and Cuban BIS Bank Deposits Plummet

Raul Castro, who rarely travels abroad, is in China and Vietnam this week. In China, he's been welcomed by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. He'll also be meeting with the vice-president and vice-premier, next in line for the top Chinese posts, signalling that this is a long-haul relationship. 

This is Castro’s first visit to China since becoming president. One Chinese scholar predicted that the leaders would sign agreements that will help speed up Cuban economic reforms: "Reforms need investment. Since Cuba faces difficulty in drawing investment from the West, closer China-Cuba economic ties constitute strong support for its reforms and development," he said. The two countries have signed 8 accords, including no-interest loan funds from China to Cuba. 

While the visit has so far clearly been a friendly one, it’s not clear there’s a whole lot more in the way of Chinese investment.  Perhaps more important is the opportunity for Raul Castro to observe the development there (compared with his two other visits over the last twenty years, before he became president of Cuba) and consider how and which similar policies to adapt in Cuba. Omar Everleny of the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban economy encourages taking a look at and lessons from the significant investments undertaken by Hong Kong Chinese in mainland China, as Cuba has a large diaspora that is more and more willing – and welcome – to come home.