Bill Richardson at Havana press conference (Photo by Enrique de la Osa, Reuters)
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, and the Reuters coverage of him in Havana, are to be commended for providing the more accurate context necessary for resolving the Alan Gross problem. Instead of a frustration, his case can become a facilitation of progress in bilateral relations:
The arrest of Gross in December had soured and slowed apparent rapprochement moves by Obama toward Castro's government, seeking to defuse a half century of hostility.
Gross, who was in Havana on an assignment contracted by the U.S. Agency for International Development, has not been formally charged but Cuban officials said he was suspected of spying and subversion. They said he had been illegally distributing satellite communications equipment.
The Obama administration said he was not spying but was trying to help the Cuban Jewish community hook up to the Internet.
Cuba has long accused the United States, which maintains a 48-year-old trade embargo against the Caribbean island, of actively backing internal dissidents and Cuban exiles in efforts to undermine and destabilize its socialist system.
"I believe Alan Gross is a good man who may have made some mistakes. I think he is innocent," Richardson said.
He said he hoped the case would be resolved soon, but added, "I don't want to get into what soon is."
Despite the Gross case, Richardson said the atmosphere between the United States and Cuba was "the best I've seen in years" and that both governments deserved credit for taking positive steps.
He cited Cuba's recent decision to release 52 of its estimated 150 political prisoners and Obama's expansion of travel opportunities for U.S. citizens.
A couple of days earlier, Richardson told Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC
I hope the administration does move ahead with those easing of the travel restrictions, possibly others. I think that makes a lot of sense. It's good for the United States.
We need to get involved here. There's enormous potential for investment, but easing the travel ban is a way that Americans of all stripes, of all types can -- can visit the island. President Clinton did that. It moved in a good way the relationship. And hopefully, this will happen soon by the Obama administration. But like you, I've just seen these press reports, and again my hope is that they happen soon...
Representative Meek and President Obama
Below are annotated highlights from a very important story about Presidential action on people-to-people travel in today's New York Times by Ginger Thompson.
It makes clear why anyone who wants to improve US relations with Cuba should be engaging with and supporting the White House.
The President will be in Miami tomorrow. Will he announce the new policy there? How would that play for Congressman Kendrick Meek, the Diaz-Balart clone whose campaign for the Senate Obama is ostensibly supporting, although the Democrats may actually prefer Charlie Crist?
1) Timing and content are still being debated in terms of political impact
Congressional aides cautioned that some administration officials still saw the proposals as too politically volatile to announce until after the coming midterm elections, and they said revisions could still be made.
But others said the policy, which does not need legislative approval, would be announced before Congress returned from its break in mid-September,
2) The minimalist specific license bureaucratic formula is being floated
academic institutions, including research and advocacy groups and museums, would be able to seek licenses for as long as two years.
Just as it did for Cuban Americans, the White House ought to authorize general licenses for the full range of non-tourist travel. It should not expand the subjective bureaucratic process of application for a specific license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). Processing licenses needlessly diverts OFAC from its primary national security purpose and is intimidating, time consuming and costly for applicants.
Eligibility should be determined by the declared purpose of the trip and the identity of the organizer. An objective mechanism is to permit all IRS recognized not-for-profits to sponsor trips to Cuba, simply requiring pre and post trip notification, as is already the practice for sellers of agricultural products.
Bill Richardson endorsing Barack Obama for President
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson contributed to the reported consideration by the Obama Administration of opening people-to-people travel to Cuba with an eloquent Washington Post Op Ed on Saturday:
As a first step to changing our policy toward Cuba, the president should issue an executive order to lift as much of the travel ban as possible. The travel ban penalizes U.S. businesses, lowers our credibility in Latin America and fuels anti-U.S. propaganda. Lifting the ban would also be a reciprocal gesture for Cuba's recent agreement, negotiated among the Catholic Church, the Spanish government and President Raul Castro, to release political dissidents. Obama has taken significant steps to loosen restrictions on family travel, remove limits for remittance and expand cooperation in other areas such as expanding the export of humanitarian goods from the United States into Cuba. Loosening travel restrictions is in U.S. interests and would be a bold move toward normalization of relations with Cuba.
Richardson's essay offers real leadership, citing Cuba as second among five initiatives to reshape US relations with the Western Hemisphere, including a comprehensive immigration law, a new Alliance for Progress with emphasis on renewable energy, trade agreements, and an accord on crime and violence.
Also weighing in with the Administration last week in support of educational travel were fourteen national organizations, including five prominent academic groups: American Association of State Colleges and Universities, American Institute For Foreign Study, CIEE -- Council on International Educational Exchange, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the Social Science Research Council
Their letter to the President concluded
You have indicated that further steps would be possible in response to positive actions by Cuba, specifically including the release of political prisoners. Now that such action is being taken, it is essential that you respond, at a minimum, by removing the remaining restrictions that were imposed by President Bush. Failure to do so would not only continue to deny American citizens the ability to engage with Cuba in ways that were permissible before 2003, but would also, we fear, jeopardize the momentum toward the eventual objective that you and we share of normalizing relations with the island.
We also encourage you to consider further actions, beyond those specified above, to facilitate travel to Cuba—specifically, to permit travel by eligible persons via general license. This will greatly ease eligible travel and will permit enforcement efforts to be focused where they are needed rather than on the administration of routine licenses.
Cuba's and Brazil's Foreign Ministers, Bruno Rodriguez and Celso Amorim
Reports are mounting that the Obama Administration is finally moving on people-to-people travel.
Al Kamen in his Washington Post Column on Friday said we should
look for Obama administration action, after Congress leaves town, to loosen travel restrictions.
Bloomberg News Service reported
President Barack Obama may ease travel restrictions on Cuba, allowing more Americans to visit the island on educational and cultural trips, said a U.S. official who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak on the subject.
The Miami Herald version is
Two people told El Nuevo Herald on Friday the decision has been made and will be announced in the next two weeks. Another said he has heard the reports but cautioned they could be "trial balloons."
Perhaps as a political balance, or symptomatic of conflict or incoherence, the State Department just released its annual list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
Although the language is squishy, Cuba is still included. North Korea is not, despite US accusations of blowing up a South Korean warship.
Economic Minister Marino Murillo
Dare we hope?
In addition to reports of pending White House reform of people to people travel, rumors are swirling of game-changing events on the horizon.
Andy Gomez who has sometimes seemed to be one of the more reasonable members of Miami's old guard academics (happily no longer USAID funded) is quoted in the Miami New Times predicting that Secretary of State Clinton may be visiting Havana soon.
"If the White House approves it, a top-level State Department official could soon be headed to Cuba to deal with the Alan Gross situation," says Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami.
"You know this person. You've heard of this person. If they get approval, they will be in Havana in the next few weeks," says Gomez, who would not divulge the official's name because the trip has not been finalized.
[UPDATE: Dr. Gomez has sent thehavananote a correction. His actual prediction is not quite as groundbreaking, but does suggest a serious step will be taken to solve what should be the last obstacle to improvement in bilateral relations.
Nelson Ching/Bloomberg News
Secretary of State Clinton during a news conference in Hanoi with Pham Gia Khiem, Vietnam's Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.
The balanced remarks of Secretary of State Clinton in Vietnam last week, provoke wonderment that the same wisdom cannot be applied to Cuba.
Thirty-five years ago we ended a war that inflicted terrible suffering on both our nations, and still remains a living memory for many of our people. Despite that pain, we dedicated ourselves to the hard work of building peace. We have consistently moved in the direction of engagement and cooperation. Even on those issues where we disagree, we still reach for dialogue.
This has not been easy, but it has been worth every bit of effort, that so many people in both countries have decided to invest in it. That is evident in the partnerships formed between our businesses, the thousands of students who are participating in educational exchanges, the hundreds of thousands of our citizens who cross the ocean each year to explore the other's country and culture. These ties enrich us, and are proof of a peace that exists not only on paper, but is rooted in the minds and hearts of the American and Vietnamese people. And it is a credit to both our nations that this progress has been possible.
Yet our work continues. And we are prepared to take the U.S.-Vietnam relationship to the next level of engagement, cooperation, friendship, and partnership. It is true that profound differences exist, particularly over the question of political freedoms. And the United States will continue to urge Vietnam to strengthen its commitment to human rights, and give its people even greater say over the direction of their own lives. But this is not a relationship that is fixed upon our differences. We have learned to see each other, not as former enemies, but as actual and potential partners, colleagues, and friends. This tradition of cooperation is bringing great benefits to us both.
A formal meeting between the foreign ministers of Spain and the US
Once burned, twice shy.
So I hesitate to be too hopeful.
Nevertheless, two important stories suggest a path is opening.
AP just reported this from Spain's Minister of Foreign Affairs
Miguel Angel Moratinos told Parliament on Wednesday the release of prisoners would lead to an improvement in EU policy toward Cuba "and it will have political consequences in U.S. relations with Cuba, (such as) the lifting of the embargo."
Hopefully this is based on the private conversation he had with Secretary of State Clinton and not on belief that reason (and US national interest) must naturally prevail over entrenched power and ideology.
Yesterday Ricardo Alarcon, the President of Cuba's National Assembly who has special responsibility for US issues, was quoted by AFP from Geneva:
"It was very clear from the discussions that the government's wish is to free all the people" on condition they had not been accused of murder, he said on the sidelines of a conference in Geneva.
Eleven freed prisoners have already emigrated to Spain with their families and another nine were expected to arrive in Madrid this week as part of Cuba's biggest release of political prisoners in over a decade.
Those who had agreed to go into exile in Spain were the first to be freed.
Countries and groups with a long history of conflict have dramatically different narratives about their shared history.
Each has a sense of aggrievement, of a history of facing unprovoked aggression by the other, of betrayal, and of rejection of its own good faith efforts to improve the relationship.
Think Israelis and Palestinians for seemingly irresolvable obstacles; think Northern Ireland for overcoming the burdens of the past; think Washington and Havana for self-righteously talking past each other.
I am just home from Cuba where I found in conversations with officials, personal friends, diplomats and long-time foreign observers a mix of optimism and skepticism about whether we are finally at a transformative moment or face one more disappointment.
The dramatic evolution of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the government is universally welcomed. Their mutual respect and recognition of each others legitimacy in the national polity carries risks for both, but creates essential space for resolving critical social and economic problems.
A journalist believes that a domestic not international agenda is driving the process. Clearing the table of the distraction of controversial secondary issues is the primary goal.
(For Raul Castro, the Church and the widespread frustration with daily life that it authentically channels, may also be a useful lever to overcome resistance to necessary changes from the more conservative sector of the Communist Party.)
Another source thinks a central purpose is restoring Cuba's relationship with the European Union in order to regain access to investment and development assistance.
July is shaping up to be the time of decision for US policy makers.
The full House could debate the trade and travel bill this month without further committee action.
(Both the New York Times and Washington Post are misreporting that it first must go to the Foreign Affairs and Financial Services Committees. Not true. Under House rules their pro travel chairs, Howard Berman and Barney Frank, have the power to waive jurisdiction, as the opposition anxiously noted during the Ag Committee mark-up. Question is who is putting out the story. The other side that wants to fait acompli it into a Foreign Affairs committee meat grinder, or our side wanting to surprise the opposition?)
The votes appear to be in the Senate to resist another melt down by Senator Menendez.
Thanks to the Catholic church and Cuba's government, with the assistance of the Foreign Minister of Spain, an unusually favorable atmosphere has been created.
And finally the Obama Administration is edging toward leadership.
As reported by Reuters:
"We were encouraged by the apparent agreement between the Roman Catholic Church and the authorities in Cuba for the release of 52 political prisoners," Ms Clinton told reporters.
"We think that's a positive sign. It's something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome."
Dagoberto Rodriguez, Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs,
former head of the Cuban Interests Section
Washington (CNN) -- The United States and Cuba wrapped up a third round of migration talks Friday, though the two nations apparently didn't reach a resolution over an American contractor in Cuban custody.
"Engaging in these talks underscores our interest in pursuing constructive discussions with the government of Cuba to advance U.S. interests," Crowley said.
Friday's agenda for the talks "reflected longstanding U.S. priorities on Cuba migration issues," including, ensuring that the U.S. Interests Section is able to operate effectively and able to monitor the welfare of repatriated migrants; and gaining Havana's acceptance for the repatriation of Cuban nationals who arrived in the United States illegally.
"During this round, progress was made in the identification of aspects that will allow us to enhance the fight against alien smuggling, which validates the usefulness of these meetings," said Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez in a statement.
The meeting took place in "an atmosphere of respect," according to the Cuban government.
However, Rodriguez said that the progress of the talks is hindered by the presence of the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, which allows Cubans to migrate to the United States through several channels and offers a preference system for those qualifying for a limited number of family or employment-based visas.