Not long ago I participated in the 50th anniversary conference at Shaw University of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and had the honor to meet Taylor Branch, Pulitzer prize winning author of three seminal volumes on the civil rights movement. Our conversation led me to his more recent book, “The Clinton Tapes, Wrestling History with the President”.
Cuba comes up several times. Following are two excerpts worth careful consideration by the President and Secretary of State:
At the beginning of this week President Obama is focused on one of the most serious and difficult to solve problems confronting any administration, the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Later in the week he will be in Miami and face one of the most enduring yet solvable of administration foreign policy problems, Cuba.
This could be the most appropriate place and best chance he has to reset US relations with Havana, and thus with the western Hemisphere.
As I wrote here last week, both countries appear to be retreating to well-worn and counterproductive positions.
Secretary of State Clinton replied to a question at the University of Louisville:
Rev. Raimundo Garcia and his daughter Rita with XO computers donated by FRD to establish a One Laptop Per Child pilot project at the Christian Center for Reflection and Dialogue in Cardenas.
“the president seems more convinced than ever that we must place strict preconditions on any changes in U.S. policy”
Wishful thinking (hopefully) by Roger Noriega, former staff of Sen. Jesse Helms and President Bush’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, commenting in Forbes Magazine on President Obama
As I return from my twelfth or thirteenth visit to Cuba in as many years, it is hard not to feel frustrated that both countries are retreating to the tired and self-righteous rhetoric and practices of past decades.
One of the strengths of thehavananote is that it has multiple voices. Not everyone thinks or writes the same way about the path to a more normal and rational relationship with Cuba. We each bring our own histories to the debate. I will explore mine below the break.
Anya Landau French and I don't really disagree, but there are two points in her post that merit clarification.
The first version of the Cuban prisoner proposal was communicated privately during the Bush administration through European diplomats, including the visiting papal Secretary of State. It was, as Anya writes, limited to mutual gestures regarding only the still incarcerated victims of the "Black Spring" of 2003 and the Cuban five. When President Raul Castro spoke publicly about the matter in Brazil at the beginning of the Obama administration he offered to release all prisoners the US considers political in exchange for the "five heroes". The same sentiment has been repeated by him and by National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon.
Raul Castro did speak of the prisoners and their families leaving the country. As far as I know he has not been asked whether that is an expectation or a condition. Past Cuban practices, and my discussions with Cuban diplomats, suggest exile is not a required part of the package. Most of the prisoners may well prefer to leave and they should be given that option. My guess is that Cuba at the end of the day will not insist on exile if the US Interests Section in Havana limits its relationship to them to normal diplomacy rather than the virtual sponsorship of the Bush era. Clarifying that question is an agenda item for serious negotiations.
Cubans have recognized in the past that not all dissidents are mercenaries, i.e. motivated largely by financial and other support received from a hostile US government and Interests Section. Under stress Cuba's defensive mode is to fall back on the rhetorical equation that organized opposition equals foreign-linked disloyalty, not unlike the situation in the US during the red scares of the McCarthy era. From that mind set, exile is assumed to be the preference of the prisoners and reinforces the stereotype of who they are. (This is not unlike the teapartiers or their predecessors telling leftists, or even the supporters of health care reform, to "go home to Russia".)
My attitude about the inconsistent moral posturing of the US about human rights is informed by the fact that my first political experience was with the civil rights movement. Like lots of others in the 60s generation, I was angered most by the decades long readiness of the rest of the country to accept, albeit with verbal disapproval, overt segregation, racial discrimination and suffrage denial in southern states.
The Soviet Union and its allies constantly berated us about our hypocrisy and anti-democratic behavior, needless to say while overlooking their own. Our democratic friends in western Europe were protective, telling their people the flawed US was their only defense against far worse. Neither adversaries nor friends intervened in the US in the way Americans of many political persuasions seem to think is our natural right to do in Cuba, even more than is the norm for other countries whose political systems we don't like.
Readers might wonder with my history why I am not in the forefront of complaints about Cuban violations of human rights. The primary reason is that I think each country has to solve the problem of freedom vs security and stability in its own way. The US has a recurrent history of repression when it feels threatened. What else should we expect from Cuba given its objectively far greater vulnerability and history of US intervention and domination?
The more we insist that our values and our system of government must be accepted, the more we corrupt internal debates by injecting the issue that informed our revolution but seems to have been long forgotten, the right of all nations to independence and self-determination.
Do I believe Cuba, Vietnam, China, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, etc. would benefit from multi-party systems and competitive elections? Sure. Do I believe that US democracy is compromised by the powerful role of private and corporate money and because our representatives spend far too much time chasing after donations? Equally as sure.
Although the richest and most powerful nation of the world, we are hypersensitive to any foreign intervention in our domestic politics. Every time I make a political donation, the form contains this language:
I confirm that the following statements are true and accurate.
1. I am a United States citizen or a permanent resident alien.
2. This contribution is made from my own funds, and funds are not being provided to me by another person or entity for the purpose of making this contribution.
As I have written before, if we had made the demands of China and Vietnam for internal political change that we make routinely of Cuba, we would not today have flourishing economic and diplomatic relations and a process within both countries of natural evolution toward greater openness.
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
President ObamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s criticism of Cuba on human rights (see statement below) is not surprising, and may give him space to act more positively, but raises three problems of consistency:
1) The human rights of Americans are grossly restricted by our own government as long as we are forbidden to freely travel to Cuba.
The President does not have the power to end all travel restrictions. However, he can urge Congress to pass legislation to restore a fundamental and traditional liberty.
Most importantly and urgently, by executive order Obama can undo harsh politically motivated Bush obstacles to travel for educational, cultural, humanitarian, sports and other non-tourist purposes. April, the one year anniversary of the announcement of unlimited Cuban American travel, is a fitting moment to provide equal rights to the rest of us.
2) The Obama administration holds the keys to open cell doors in Cuba.
All prisoners described as political in both countries will be free as soon as the US takes seriously CubaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s offer of full reciprocity. More than two hundred victims of the pointless conflict between our countries can be immediately released from Cuban jails and five from American jails.
Both countries can continue to self-righteously insist that the cases are not equivalent morally or legally, but they should no longer delay a mutually respectful humanitarian solution for political reasons.
3) Human rights are violated on Cuban territory by the United States.
Prisoners have been detained at the Guantanamo base for years without trial. Five have died. More suicides from hunger strikes have only been prevented by aggressive force feeding.
We understand the domestic pressures that lead President Obama to retreat from his goal of closing Guantanamo and civilian trials. Can we also understand the domestic pressures on Cuban leaders to protect their right to national self-determination?
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Links and resources
Paul Hare, former British ambassador to Cuba, has published a thoughtful paper for the Brookings Institution U.S. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Public Diplomacy for Cuba: Why ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Needed and How to Do ItÃ¢â‚¬Â
Read it here
President Obama's statement on Cuban human rights
Recent events in Cuba, including the tragic death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the repression visited upon Las Damas de Blanco, and the intensified harassment of those who dare to give voice to the desires of their fellow Cubans, are deeply disturbing.
These events underscore that instead of embracing an opportunity to enter a new era, Cuban authorities continue to respond to the aspirations of the Cuban people with a clenched fist.
Today, I join my voice with brave individuals across Cuba and a growing chorus around the world in calling for an end to the repression, for the immediate, unconditional release of all political prisoners in Cuba and for respect for the basic rights of the Cuban people.
During the course of the past year, I have taken steps to reach out to the Cuban people and to signal my desire to seek a new era in relations between the governments of the United States and Cuba. I remain committed to supporting the simple desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their future and to enjoy the rights and freedoms that define the Americas, and that should be universal to all human beings.
Bobby Sands, the first of ten hunger strikers who died in Northern Ireland
AP reports that Orlando Zapata Tamayo has died as the result of a hunger strike in Cuba. He was designated by Amnesty International as a Prisoner of Conscience after his arrest in 2003.
Hunger strikes deliberately pose a no-win dilemma to all systems of incarceration. In Belfast, ten people regarded as heroes by Irish nationalists and many Irish Americans died resisting their self-described political imprisonment.
The US deals with the same problem at Guantanamo Bay by forcing a tube down the throat of prisoners on hunger strike, an action which has been condemned by human rights advocates.
Last June Mohammad Ahmed Abdullah Saleh al Hanashi committed suicide at the east end of Cuba. As reported by the New York Times
Ã¢â‚¬Å“he had been force-fed in a restraint chairÃ¢â‚¬Â¦GuantÃƒÂ¡namo records show that Mr. HanashiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s weight at one point fell to 87 pounds. Although the death is the first in the Obama administration, there have been five prior deaths at the camp, including four suicides.Ã¢â‚¬Â
When three prisoners died in 2006 the prison commander Rear Admiral Harry Harris stated: "This was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetric warfare committed against us."
Given his deteriorating health, the Cubans should have released Tamayo as they have quietly done in previous situations of gravely deteriorating health, even if, from the same security/control perspective as guided the British, that sets a bad precedent.
Die hard opponents of reform in US relations cite his death as one more example of the Cuban governmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s evil. Florida Representatives Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Kendrick Meek and Senator Bill Nelson were the first to speak out.
Political opponents like Tamayo should not still be in jail but the blame is not solely CubaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s. His imprisonment was part of the Ã¢â‚¬Å“black springÃ¢â‚¬Â of 2003, precipitated if not deliberately provoked under the regime change agenda of then head of the US Interests Section James Cason.
Tamayo and other victims of CubaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s crackdown could have been freed more than two years ago if the US responded to signals sent privately to the Bush Administration through European diplomats including the Papal Secretary of State.
The same proposal of mutual gestures was later made publicly by Assembly Speaker Ricardo Alarcon and President Raul Castro. If the US releases the five Ã¢â‚¬Å“heroesÃ¢â‚¬Â Cuba considers to be political prisoners, Cuba will release the 50 still imprisoned from 2003 as well as all others the US views as political prisoners.
Cuba needs to clarify whether those released will have the option of remaining in the country as well as to emigrate, but that should not be impossible if the US pledges to relate to them in a normal diplomatic fashion.
In the meantime, heartfelt condolences are to be expressed to the family of Mr. Tamayo and numerous other casualties of the pointless hostility and travel and trade embargo afflicting both nations, not least the deaths perpetrated by the still unpunished Luis Posada Carriles.
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
AP reports: "Cuban President Raul Castro issued an unprecedented statement of regret on Wednesday over the death of a jailed dissident after a lengthy hunger strike that has sparked condemnation in Washington and in European capitals."
Craig Kelly, Principle Deputy Assistant Secretary
of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, led US
negotiators in Cuba at migration talks
As described by Anya Landau French in the previous blog, Friday's bilateral negotiations on migration proceeded reasonably. No announced breakthroughs and irrelevant hits to the bleachers on both sides (Alan Gross, Cuban 5), but the overall tone appeared positive, another small but significant step forward.
The next day we were reminded of the intractable problem that frustrates any serious advance in US-Cuba relations, America's attitude that it is has the right to intervene in a sovereign neighboring country on behalf of its view of democracy.
Despite contrary advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the US delegation met at the official residence with prominent dissidents.
As reported by AP
In a statement published in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, the Foreign Ministry said U.S. leaders' meeting with dissidents, was ''contrary to the spirit of cooperation and understanding showed on Cuba's part'' during the immigration talks and ''demonstrated anew that (U.S.) priorities are more related to supporting the counterrevolution and the promotion of subversion to destabilize the Cuban revolution than with the creation of a climate conducive to real solutions to bilateral problems.''
When Bisa Williams traveled to Cuba for meetings on postal issues, she had lunch with dissidents without provoking the same ire from the government. Was that because she was a lower level diplomat? Or that the lunch took place in the context of a five day visit which included observation of hurricane damage and a farm, additional meetings with the government, and going to the Juanes concert? Or have the Cubans lost faith in Washington's intentions?
A senior State Department official confirmed that the meeting took place on Friday, but defended it as part of U.S. policy to promote human rights globally, not just in Cuba.
"President (Barack) Obama and Secretary (of State Hillary) Clinton have made clear that our diplomacy not only in this region, but around the world is not only about connecting governments, but about connecting societies," the official told reporters. "So as part of our normal work we try to meet with various sectors of society."
How can a senior US official be so a-historical and tone-deaf? US relations with dissidents in Cuba are a fundamental bilateral issue, and from that country's perspective the latest manifestation of a century of interference in its domestic political affairs. The issue is not only the US magnifying the importance and saying nice things about marginal political opponents of a government everyone else in the world but we recognize, but also that it subsidizes them while maintaining a harsh embargo on travel and trade.
"Connecting societies" is a bit hypocritical from an administration that refuses to allow unrestricted travel for educational, cultural, religious and humanitarian purposes. Meeting with "various sectors of society" is part of the work of an embassy when countries have normal diplomatic relations. However a visiting high level delegation getting together with opponents whom it knows are characterized as "mercenaries" in the midst of sensitive negotiations that have the ostensible goal of moving beyond a hostile past will be seen around the world as not serious.
A high ranking Vietnamese diplomat tells me that meetings between US embassy personnel and Vietnamese "dissidents" are rare, working level and negotiated beforehand. The precondition is that they be low profile, not discussed in the press and exclude Vietnamese government and party affairs. He was unaware of any instance in which an important visiting US delegation met with people who are comparable to Cuban dissidents.
Obviously that approach has not spared overt political opponents in Vietnam from sharing the unpleasant lot of their Cuban counterparts, including imprisonment, but it does allow other aspects of our bilateral relationship to progress, and, in my view, realistically engages Vietnam over time in a more democratic process.
Symbolism and self-righteousness too often replace substance in difficult international relationships but declining to act in this way subjects an administration to charges of abandoning principle--regardless of the counterproductive effect on achieving its goal.
Hopefully having satisfied anti-reform camps in their respective polities, the two governments can now move ahead in real terms. The Cubans offered some hopeful words:
"The Ministry of Foreign Relations reiterates the disposition already expressed by the Cuban government to maintain a respectful dialogue about any topic with the government of the United States, as long as it be held between equals, without detriment to independence, sovereignty and self-determination."
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
A prestigious public relations firm sent out a press packet on Thursday about Alan Gross, a USAID funded detainee in Cuba, including a video appeal from his wife Judy and background materials.
It was timed to have an impact on the bilateral talks on migration taking place in Havana today.
The public relations campaign came after a letter was sent by eight pro-embargo members of the House who demanded the Obama Administration "suspend all talks" with Cuba until Mr. Gross is released.
The press packet includes a letter to the Secretary of State from Maryland Senators Mikulski and Cardin and Representative Van Hollen arguing more reasonably that the negotiations, "create an ideal opportunity to make clear that Mr. Gross' release is a most important priority in our nation's relationship with Cuba."
The public relations firm, Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter & Associates (CLS), lists many governments and political candidates among its clients, along with prominent universities and the American Red Cross. The release does not say who paid for its work on behalf of the Grosses.
A central point in the background material is:
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Alan was helping CubaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s tiny Jewish community set up an Intranet so that they could communicate amongst themselves and with other Jewish communities abroad, and providing them the ability to access the Internet.
The Jewish community in Cuba with whom Alan was working with is quite small (the islands Jewish population is estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500 of a population of 11.4 million people).Ã¢â‚¬Â
ORT, a prominent international non-governmental organization, has a substantial computer program with the small Jewish community in Cuba which already provides those services. Was Mr. Gross duplicating its efforts or working with ORT?
I find no reference to him in ORT's postings about its work in Cuba.
My request to CLS for clarification has not been answered.
While I believe that Mr. Gross should be released, it is likely that he will be succeeded by other detainees unless USAID follows normal diplomatic protocol and obtains authorization from the receiving country before funding programs within it.
Both the US and Cuba consider it a criminal offense to work in their territory as an unregistered agent of a foreign power.
Ideally both governments will take this opportunity to set a new course of mutual respect in their relations. This should result in the release of Mr. Gross, the proper operation of USAID funded programs in Cuba, and the end of executive imposed restrictions in Washington and Havana on educational and cultural exchange.
Unpublished letter to the New York Times:
To the Editor;
By turning away from real engagement with US adversaries ("News Analysis" by Helene Cooper, 2/15/10), the Obama Administration risks replicating the error of its predecessors.
Better packaging of inside-the-beltway conventional wisdom about the world has only passing value on an international stage which we can no longer dominate.
No doubt, "administration officials hope they will benefit from a global perception that Mr. Obama has reached out to North Korea, Cuba and even Syria."
However, in the case I am most familiar with, Cuba, most international observers see the US as still bound by domestic interest groups into unilateralism built on fiction (Havana as a state sponsor of terrorism) and fear (denial of Americans' right to travel).
They wonder what happened to the Barack Obama who told Cuban Americans in Miami on May 24,2008, "it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.Ã¢â‚¬Â
(The author is founder and executive director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development in Dobbs Ferry, New York.)
Pro and anti-reform sentiments surfaced last week.
Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs (pictured above), was quoted in Spain:
When asked about the direction U.S. policy would take toward Cuba this year, Valenzuela said that Washington will seek Ã¢â‚¬Å“to resume some of the conversationsÃ¢â‚¬Â held with Havana Ã¢â‚¬Å“on matters of common interest.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Ã¢â‚¬Å“And in that sense, we have set conversations on immigration issues, postal issues ...Ã¢â‚¬Â he said, emphasizing the Ã¢â‚¬Å“effortsÃ¢â‚¬Â of the U.S. administration to Ã¢â‚¬Å“have a direct dialogue with the Cuban government.Ã¢â‚¬Â
As an example of that dialogue, the official cited the earthquake in Haiti, where the United States has maintained Ã¢â‚¬Å“a conversation directly with the Cubans ... (about) the possibility of directly supporting Cuban doctors working in Haiti.Ã¢â‚¬Â
Barack ObamaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s administration in 2010 also wants Ã¢â‚¬Å“to reverse some of the measures taken by the previous U.S. government not to permit more fluid connections between U.S. citizens and their counterparts in Cuba,Ã¢â‚¬Â Valenzuela added.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“WeÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re opening up those measures to have much more communication from one society to the other society,Ã¢â‚¬Â he said.
If the Administration is finally serious about using its authority to open up non-tourist travel, it needs to move quickly so universities, World Affairs Councils, museums, elder hostel and others can incorporate Cuba into budgets and program plans for the 2010-2011 academic year. The devil will be in the details. Granting general rather than specific licenses to IRS recognized not-for-profits and eliminating the Travel Service Provider monopoly will avoid bureaucratic bottlenecks. Moreover, such a common sense initiative can inspire Congress to finish the job by enacting complete freedom to travel.
Coincidentally (?), a weak showing of the anti-reform bloc in the House fired a warning shot at the Administration in a letter to the Secretary of State from Lincoln Diaz-Balart (FL), Mike Pence (IN), Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL), Dan Burton (IN), Connie Mack (FL), Thaddeus McCotter (MI), Todd Tiahrt (KS) and Mario Diaz-Balart (FL).
We urge you to suspend all talks with the Cuban dictatorship until Mr. Gross is freed, and that you demand that he be immediately released. We also respectfully request that you call on USAID to proceed swiftly with the solicitation process, as called for by U.S. law, so that all interested non-governmental organizations may submit grant requests to provide needed assistance to CubaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s pro-democracy movement.
They were trying to derail bilateral migration talks, but primarily concerned with protecting the flow of pork for intervention, as well as for pro-embargo advocacy from the Cuba Transition Project at the University of Miami. Ironically, were they taken seriously, when USAID subcontractor Alan Gross is released by Cuba the desired funds can provide a steady stream of replacement detainees.
(My own view as written in an earlier post is that Gross should be released and USAID should spend no more money in Cuba that does not follow normal diplomatic protocol of approval by the host country.)
When Mauricio Claver-Carone published the letter on his Capitol Hill Cubans blog, he didn't bother to point out that six of the eight signers were beneficiaries of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC which he directs. So far in the 2008 and 2010 election cycles they received a total of $30,500.
And we wonder why the Bush Administration got it so wrong...
Condoleezza Rice speaking in Sarasota, FL
Rice predicted an "explosion" in Cuba after Fidel Castro dies. She said Cubans will not accept his brother Raul Castro as the dictator because he created so many enemies because he was the "enforcer" of the revolution. Instead, Cubans will demand a more democratic or liberal government.
Links and resources
"End of the Rogue" The world that created 'rogue states' is gone, and the sooner Washington recognizes it, the better, the international context for US policy on Cuba. By Nader Mousavizadeh | NEWSWEEK
"From Hanoi to Havana: The Rocky Road to Reconciliation", public radio broadcast of my talk at the World Affairs Council of Anchorage
Revealing Reuters articles by Marc Frank on the uneven pace of economic reform in Cuba.
Americans Learning from Cuba's Medical System, a report showing why educational exchange is a two way street.
Cuba has announced that the delayed meeting with the US on immigration issues will take place in Havana next month. The discredited Cuban Adjustment Act is on the table.
Bruno Rodriguez said negotiators will meet Feb. 19 in Havana and Cuba wants Washington's help in combating people smuggling, often carried out by gangs with souped-up speed boats that ferry Cubans out of the country. While some head for Florida, most arrive on the Caribbean coast of Mexico or Central America and make their way north to the U.S., where they usually are allowed to stayÃ¢â‚¬Â¦.
Under U.S. law, Cubans captured at sea are usually deported while those who reach American soil can apply for residency Ã¢â‚¬â€ making Mexico an attractive route. Cuba has long denounced Washington's so-called "wet-foot, dry-foot" policy as encouraging illegal immigration.
This should be a no-brainer as both pro and anti-reform groups in the US want to end a policy which elevates Cubans above illegal immigrants from Haiti, Central America and China.
Reformers see the current policy as providing economic motivation for dangerous trips and extortionate payments to traffickers.
Anti-reformers see their political base in Miami diluted by thousands who come to the US without obsessive hostility to their homeland and quickly want to send back remittances and make family reunion visits.
The ludicrousness of the situation is illustrated by aspiring migrants in Mexico learning Cuban accents and family histories to sustain forged documents in order to present themselves as qualified for admission at the US border.
Having settled that, how about the negotiators laying the groundwork for mutual gestures to address related problems?
1) Allowing Cuban and the US students to freely undertake educational exchanges,
2) Doing away with all US and Cuban restrictions on travel, a.k.a. licenses and exit permits.
Links and resources:
"Cuban Migration to South Florida: Impact and Implications", a paper on the political cost of too easy entry published by the anti-reform Cuba Transition Project, Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami (Issue 114; October 9, 2009)
"CubaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ãƒâ€°migrÃƒÂ©s: The Absent Voice" posted on The Havana Times
Tom Richmond blogs about a cultural exchange trip by cartoonists to Cuba