September 2012

Paul Ryan's Visit to Versailles and the Future of Cuban American Hardliners' Clout

Can hardline Cuban American voters, particularly those for whom supporting the U.S. embargo of Cuba is the granddaddy of all litmus tests, really trust in Paul Ryan’s change of heart on Cuba, as reinforced by his visit this weekend to Versailles restaurant in Miami, the soul of the hardline Cuban American community? Probably not. But they don’t have to trust his change of heart; they merely need to be reassured by the display of it. It’s no small thing to have a record as long and clearly in favor of engaging Cuba and ending the embargo as the one Paul Ryan is doing his best to bury, and then to come out publicly as the Republicans’ candidate for vice president and insist you now understand thanks to the guiding light of your Cuban American friends in Congress. This is not to say that Ryan (or any politician in his position) can’t take back his flip flop, but it would certainly be very awkward. And that’s going to have to be enough for embargo supporters in Miami.

Paul Ryan was obviously chosen for the ticket for reasons other than his stance on Cuba policy and that means that the hardliners in Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the brothers Diaz-Balart (one of whom has retired to pave the way for a political career in the Cuba he envisions one day), who all wisely backed Romney early on, did what they do best. They made lemonade with the lemon Romney gave them. In exchange for their impassioned endorsements, he said everything they wanted him to say...."clamp down on the Castro regime," "[Obama's] policy of appeasement," and "we will be tough on this brutal dictator."

In the end, the few Cuban Americans for whom Cuba is the issue on which they cast their vote are unlikely to stay home because they believe Paul Ryan still opposes the embargo. They’ve seen what President Obama has done in office up to now – which, though by embargo opponents’ standards is woefully little, still looks to them as too much – and they will vote against Obama’s policy, rather than for a Romney-Ryan policy. (Don’t forget that Obama has his own history of opposing the embargo, but his backpedals have been much more nuanced.)

However little they may understand the on the ground dynamics at play on the island today, these Cuba embargo voters are not stupid. They know well that politicians say one thing when they’re free to, and they often say quite another if the right mix of pressures forces them to do so. That mix is a combination of political leaders who stop at nothing in defense of their embargo, and a steady flow of political donations to help lubricate the twisting of arms. A 2009 report by non-profit watchdog Public Campaign tracked the mid-2000's uptick in political donations by pro-embargo groups and the Cuba policy voting records of members of Congress before and after the donations and – shockingly – found money made a difference.

Judy Gross’ Message “from Washington al Mundo”

Mauricio Claver-Carone hosts a satellite radio program by the name “From Washington al Mundo” covering international affairs. But don’t expect any diplomacy there. The program is merely his platform from which to insult the American foreign policy establishment. For example, in his August 6 show, Claver targeted Vali Nasr, the Dean of the School of Advanced Studies of Johns Hopkins University and a leading expert on the Middle East, calling him “a useful idiot” or an agent of Teheran for not advocating a regime change policy and promoting negotiations with Iran. Mr. Claver and his guest Shahriar Etminani agreed that the nuclear issue is mere “noise”.

In another episode, Claver denounced Washington’s engagement with Beijing. On April 17, Claver hosted Thadeus McCotter or “the smartest member of Congress” by Claver's reckoning. The host and the guest shared their belief that as long as the Communist Party is in power, China remains the same. The United States should apply a Cold War policy to China because the war has never ended. According to Claver’s logic, the 40- year Nixon-Kissinger model of “unconditional” and “nonchalant” engagement with China is a case of “myopia”. It should be replaced by a “confrontational” approach. After Tiananmen Square, the United States should have applied to China a policy similar to our fifty year failure against Cuba: the embargo.

While Miami burns... Obama and Cuban-American politics


In this year's election, half of Cuban-Americans who are eligible to vote either came from Cuba after 1994 or grew up in the United States. Unfortunately, the White House is passing up the opportunity to hold a rational discussion of Washington’s policy towards Cuba.  

A Cuban-American anti-embargo activist. Flickr/ Some rights reserved.A Cuban-American anti-embargo activist. Flickr/ Some rights reserved.

US policy towards Latin America has paid a substantial price for President Obama’s kowtowing to the Miami hard-right wing. For example, Venezuela withdrew from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of the Americas (OAS), and there is a chance that no Summit of the Americas will happen in 2015 unless the United States changes its position on Cuba’s participation. Several countries in the Americas, from Nicaragua to Ecuador, spent years without a US ambassador due to Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) obstructionist caprice.

U.S.-Cuba Conflict: The Minefields in Our Imagination

As stunned Americans struggle to fathom the violence unleashed against the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya two nights ago – which, like anti-American protests in Egypt and Yemen, was sparked by an anti-Muslim movie trailer posted on You Tube – and which ended in the tragic deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other consulate staff, it boggles the mind that U.S. relations with our neighbor, Cuba, where the only violent extremists who threaten America are to be found at the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, can really be such a minefield afterall.

And yet they are. How else to explain the apparent backtracking of the Obama administration on a policy it, yes, this and not some other administration, rolled out more than a year and a half ago, to authorize people-to-people educational travel to the island.  If the speculation is true that the administration bowed to pressures from pro-embargo lawmakers, specifically Senator Marco Rubio, who was holding up the nomination of our top Western Hemisphere diplomat at the time, one would have thought that the beefed up guidance on the policy offered this spring by the Treasury Department – including that travelers justify how any meetings with Cuban government representatives furthers the democratic cause in Cuba – should have been sufficient. But now it seems that scores of organizations are in the lurch, waiting for license renewals that don’t come, and forced to take a loss on their ventures.

An American no one believed would be in jail in Cuba this long remains there more than 2.5 years later – whether his employers complacently assured themselves the Cubans wouldn’t bother with his breaking the law or whether we analysts presumed the Cubans merely intended to make a point about their sovereignty and the U.S. government would admit its mistake (if only to itself) and get our man out. Because Alan Gross, whom his wife now fears won’t live to complete his 15 year sentence in Cuban prison, was our man, sending reports back on his USAID subcontract about the “very risky business” he was undertaking and the "catastrophic" results of discovery by the Cuban government. (Gross traveled to Cuba on a tourist visa five times in 2009 to set up several wi-fi networks that could go undetected by the Cuban government.) And we appear to have no plan yet – or if we do, it surely won’t appear until after the November elections – to secure his release other than to make demands that we know are backed up with zero leverage. There are those who imagine we have such leverage and insist the administration is too weak-kneed to wield it. It’s a convenient hypothesis that decades of unresolved strife with Havana ought to have dispelled by now.

Meanwhile, the semiannual migration talks, cancelled in a huff by the Bush administration – whose Cuba policy candidate Obama criticized – in early 2004 and restarted by the Obama administration in 2009, have again stalled for over a year now. Apparently stemming the tide of illegal Cuban migration, or even maintaining across-the-table talks for the sake of remembering how to do it, even if we vehemently disagree, is just not that high a priority anymore. It’s the sort of diplomacy that only hurts our interests.

After Tampa: US Hispanics and the GOP.


Governor Mitt Romney's decision to choose Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate has two implications for the Republican Party's image among Latino voters: 1) After a Republican primary in which the candidates did everything imaginable to burn bridges with the Latino electorate, Romney, who even said the solution for more than twelve million undocumented immigrants is that they "deport themselves", decided not to repair relationships by choosing a Latino candidate for vice president. 2) Congressman Paul Ryan is one of the most consistent Republican legislators voting against the US embargo on Cuba since he arrived in the House of Representatives.

It is not that Romney did not want a Latino on his ticket; it is rather that his options were risky. The Latino electorate is sophisticated enough to not be led into the Republican camp only by a surname. Neither Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who never honored his pledge to present a bill that would provide a path to legalization for undocumented children, nor the governor of New Mexico Susana Martinez, a model of a successful conservative Latina with a more flexible approach to immigration, were tested candidates. Martinez is in her first term in New Mexico. Rubio is good at smiling but has several burning credit cards scandals and a family narrative that changes at every minute.