After so many stops and starts in the ruptured, tortuous U.S.-Cuban relationship, it can be difficult at times to muster any hope for change. And so, even after watching the historic handshake between President Barack Obama and President Raul Castro at the memorial for former President Nelson Mandela today, it would be easy enough to conclude that the handshake was just a handshake.
Maybe it was a momentary stunt by a beleaguered White House eager to shake the media – even for a moment - off of our national conversation about the botched Obamacare rollout. Given this administration’s halting, almost fearful approach to Cuba policy for most of the last five years, it’s hard to imagine that this is the beginning of a real and intentional rapprochement.
But it’s also been a long time coming. President Obama has long believed our policy to be a failure – he said as much during his 2004 run for the Senate. During his first campaign for president he famously expressed (and walked back, somewhat) a willingness to meet with President Raul Castro, and just months into office, Obama called for a "new beginning" with Cuba. Though Obama left most of the policies in place that he inherited, he has notably presided over an historic rebuilding of the Cuban and Cuban American communities' ties - and in the process, winning nearly 50% of Cuban Americans' votes in the 2012 presidential election.
President Castro has similarly expressed a willingness to engage Obama, and specifically, he has suggested he would put "everything" on the table. And in the meantime, Castro has slowly but continuously presided over historic structural changes to the Cuban economy and society - changes he knows are necessary for Cuba, but which also happen to align with any honest assessment of U.S. interests.
Throughout the Obama and Raul Castro administrations, U.S. and Cuban negotiators have made several attempts to return to the table on what appeared to be piecemeal, smaller issues that might have served to build confidence. But each attempt has so far faltered.
Even if this handshake heard round the world was just a stunt, it could give a shot in the arm to the players at the table now. Their presidents took a risk today, and so can they. The media, here at home and abroad, is now primed for a breakout moment. Can they deliver one?
The news that a North Korean freighter allegedly stuffed with “sophisticated missile equipment” has been intercepted crossing the Panama Canal from Cuba must have many people talking, scratching their heads, and perhaps even flashing back to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Is history repeating itself? Or is this just a bizarre (badly-executed?) example of Cuba’s knack for extending the life of hold-overs from a bygone era? Are these the military equivalent of Cuba’s famous maquinas, the mid-century American classic cars seemingly impossibly rumbling through the streets of Cuban cities more than half a century later, not out of novelty but necessity?
Let’s start with the fact that there’s plenty we don’t know yet. The Cuban Foreign Ministry has released a statement admitting to the weaponry on board the vessel, and explained the following:
'[T]he vessel was carrying 240 tonnes of obsolete defensive weapons - two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG 21-Bis fighter planes and 15 MiG engines.
The Cuban statement said they were all made in the mid-20th Century and were to be repaired and returned to Cuba.
"The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty."
The statement also reaffirmed Cuba’s commitment to "peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law".'
Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor on the run who leaked information about top secret surveillance activities at the NSA, didn't board the Aeroflot plane headed for Havana this morning as expected. Snowden, who flew from Hong Kong to Moscow this past weekend, was expected to transit Havana next, en route to either Venezuela or Ecuador (and Ecuador's President Correa is considered likely to accept him - afterall, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after more than a year now). Snowden's transit through Havana seemed obvious to many, given the decades-long tensions with the U.S., which is seeking Snowden's return and has charged him with espionage. And Havana has accepted U.S. fugitives since the 1960's - the most notorious of whom has recently been added to the FBI's most wanted list, Joanne Chesimard, a former Black Panther member who killed a New Jersey State Trooper. Many of these fugitives remain on the island today and their status is expected to be addressed in the course of any normalization of relations. So imagine the world's surprise when Snowden didn't turn up for the Havana-bound flight for which he was reportedly booked.
But perhaps not everyone was surprised that Snowden didn't board that flight. In the State Department's 2006 report detailing why it would continue to list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, it noted that Cuban authorities had given assurances they would no longer accept "new" U.S. fugitives (whether their crimes were considered political or not). Allowing Snowden to transit Cuba would be a break of faith from that assurance given. Allowing a fugitive to transit your territory is tantamount to giving refuge, as the fugitive wouldn't be able to reach their ultimate destination without the transit stop. My guess is that the message somehow got to Snowden that if he traveled through Cuba he would be detained and possibly even returned to the United States (I suppose an immediate return wouldn't be certain; he would be the highest value fugitive to pass through in quite some time, for sure, and I imagine the Cubans might be tempted to consider whether they could trade him for one or all of their remaining Cuban Five. But such a strategy might backfire, of course).
Perhaps I'll be proven wrong in the days ahead, but I doubt we'll see Edward Snowden turn up in Havana any time soon.
Shortly after the birth of my daughter earlier this spring, a dear friend came from far away to visit. Naturally, she wanted to know, how are things with Cuba? Surely Obama is changing things, right, she wondered? Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation talking, but I was feeling cranky and pessimistic, and I said, “This issue never moves!” To which she replied – to my horror – “I guess we’ll have to wait for (Fidel) Castro to die.”
It’s not that I harbor any great love for Fidel Castro. It's not about Castro at all, and that's the point. It can be mighty frustrating to have to explain over and over again that waiting isn't a policy, and even if it were, the conflict simply isn't about Fidel Castro anymore. As Republican Senator Mike Enzi likes to say about U.S. Cuba policy, if you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've already got. And yet, waiting is the predominant American viewpoint when it comes to Cuba; nothing can or should change until Fidel goes. But the reality is that the so-called biological solution is no solution at all.
Fidel Castro has been out of power (if not influence) for 7 years now. In order to try to right his sinking ship, Raul Castro has steadily been dismantling many of the economic – and even some political – policies that his older brother either endorsed or neglected. Does anyone truly believe that anything will change either in Cuba or in the bilateral relationship as a result of his exit from the scene? Surely not; whatever change his exit might have ushered in, that moment came and went in 2006 when he gave up the reins of power for the first time since gaining them a half a century ago.
Both the U.S. and Cuban governments have botched this thing over and over, and, arguably, haven’t always wanted reconciliation or normalization or any other nuanced form of moving on. Over the last several years, the Obama administration’s policy toward Cuba has been something of a work in progress. Openings to travel and exchange have been slow, at times arbitrarily approved, but in the end, have proliferated. The president’s call for a new beginning in the relationship was followed largely by more of the same when it came to USAID programming, which is not your usual development programming in partnership with the host country. And when the U.S. had the opportunity to send a message, a gesture, by sending one of the Cuban Five who was released on parole back to Cuba instead, we didn’t. (Did we really want him on U.S. soil, anyway?)
Plenty has gone awry on the Cuban side too, starting and ending with the vague and changing approach taken concerning an American USAID sub-contractor who has served more than 3 years in Cuban prison now. He’s become essentially a bargaining chip, like it or not, intended or not, in a negotiation that never took place. And for all the constructive proposals Cuban diplomats insisted they were putting on the table, everyone on both sides knew the U.S. was unwilling to budge without Alan Gross back home.
Both sides seemed to be waiting for something that just wasn’t happening.
But something is happening now. It appears that Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t want to wait anymore. Where his predecessor allowed talks on several fronts to stall – insisting no further progress could be made without movement on the Gross case – Kerry has chosen to move ahead with them again. Who can say whether restarting talks on migration and direct mail this summer was intended to convince the Cubans to release Alan Gross (I doubt it’s enough, if he must be traded), or whether they went back to the table because that’s what diplomats do. Either way, it’s a small but welcome step forward.
One more thing: As I prepared to post this piece, I remembered that the U.S. has just let Rene Gonzalez, the first of five Cuban intelligence agents to be released on parole from U.S. prison, go to (and stay in) Cuba, about a year before his parole was to have ended. Whereas the Justice Department opposed letting Gonzalez remain in Cuba when he was first released, it has reversed itself and now saying it better serves U.S. national security for him to be outside of the United States.
I expect Cuban government officials were quick to make clear that this in no way is equal to sending Alan Gross home (he has served perhaps 20% of his total sentence so far, and this issue of parity is something Cuban officials have raised in public and private). But coming as it does at the beginning of a new Secretary's tenure, one who has historically been in favor of a fresh approach to the U.S.-Cuba conflict, I expect they may still have taken the development as a gesture of good faith from Kerry (surely he weighed in with the Justice Department on the potential foreign policy implications of opposing or supporting Gonzalez's request). It's now up to both sides to keep the ball rolling.
Two news stories have dominated the U.S.-Cuba policy debate in the last couple of weeks, the whirlwind U.S. tour of Cuban critic and blogging sensation Yoani Sanchez, and the surprise trip to the island nation by celebrity musicians Beyonce Knowles and Jay-Z Carter, while one story illustrative of the true potential of U.S.-Cuban relations is likely to go largely unnoticed.
Yoani’s appearances in New York, Washington and Miami, served as a valuable – and perhaps unprecedented – bridge between among politicians, analysts and Cuban Americans. Yoani Sanchez has no doubt had a groundbreaking impact on independent bloggers in Cuba, and has surely influenced the perspectives of those both critical and supportive of the Cuban government. But at the same time, it can be a little too easy to equate Yoani’s incisive perspective as “the” perspective of all Cubans, and in particular, of Cubans who disagree with their government’s policies.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Yoani’s visit to the U.S. was the fact that all of the most hard-line politicians felt the need to be seen with her, in spite of her oft-repeated opposition to the U.S. embargo, which she believes just offers her government a handy excuse for its failings. Surely I am not the only one to notice that Cuban dissidents who support the U.S. embargo have long been the only kind to be featured at Congressional events headed by hardliners such as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen or Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. I well remember the visit several years ago of Hector Palacios, a former politicial prisoner who often criticized U.S. policy and who was denied meetings on Capitol Hill and at the White House. And the late Oswaldo Paya, architect of the Varela Project, received his fair share of disapproval in Miami, for his petition drive was seen as legitimizing the Cuban government, by using its constitution to demand reforms. Overall, Yoani’s visit to the U.S. helped bring Americans divided over Cuba just a little closer, if only for this photo op.
But it was the furor over Beyonce and Jay-Z’s trip to Cuba that so handily illustrates the way in which the U.S.-Cuba relationship truly gets overdramatized. In the days following the much-publicized trip, everal very prominent (Cuban American) politicians, including Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen are up in arms over the trip, demanding answers about who authorized the trip and why. These Members of Congress seem to miss the irony in their engaging in the very sort of Big Brother-type bullying that they insist the Cuban government they so abhor does.
The story that is most likely to go largely unnoticed, however, is the case of the Hakken family, which has been located in Cuba and will be returned to the U.S. thanks to the immediate cooperation of the Cuban government. Apparently, Joshua and Sharyn Hakken, who had previously lost custody of their two children (who were living with their grandparents), kidnapped the two boys and sailed off for Cuba, where presumably they imagined they’d be free from U.S. law enforcement. But the Cuban Foreign Ministry has already confirmed that the family has been located in Cuba and will be returned to the U.S.
Without harboring illusions about the level of cooperation that exists between U.S. and Cuban law enforcement agencies today (very little, mostly on a case-by-case basis between the U.S. and Cuban Coast Guards), it’s quite clear there is more we could be doing on a bilateral basis. Though it is often reported that there is no extradition treaty with Cuba, there in fact is one, and it has never been abrogated, it is just essentially non-operative.
Could someone please explain to me why multiple outlets (The Hill, The Washington Times, Politico) consider criticism from Cuban American Senator Marco Rubio - at a recent pro-embargo fundraiser, no less - of Senate colleagues and other Americans who travel to Cuba to be actual news on which they need to report?
(Not) Surprisingly, Rubio offered the following:
“Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering,” Rubio added. “Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly. You just went to Cuba and to fulfill your curiosity — which I could’ve told you about if you’d come seen me for five minutes — you’ve left thousands of dollars in the hands of a government that uses that money to control these people that you feel sorry for.”
It's not news that Rubio strongly supports continuing U.S. sanctions on and isolation of Cuba. Neither is it news that he doesn't want Americans - nor even Cuban Americans - visiting the island, because he believes those visits help the Cuban government.
I suppose it might actually be news to some readers out there that while Rubio's parents came from Cuba, Rubio himself has never set foot on the streets of any Cuban city or town to more fully inform his opinions. Rubio is of course entitled to his opinions. But his complete lack of experience - his utter lack of curiosity - might explain why Rubio so blithely dismisses all of the good that can come of economic activity spurred by these very same visits, aiding families and budding entrepreneurs on the island that previously had to depend on the Cuban government for everything.
If there was any news associated with the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC's latest fundraiser, might I suggest a quick look at the numbers over at OpenSecrets.org for a clue? Because while Rubio's fervent support for the U.S. embargo of Cuba is common knowledge in Washington, it is less known that the US-Cuba Democracy PAC juggernaut that has won the hearts if not the minds of countless members of Congress since 2004 has been steadily raising less and less cash from its donor community. In the 2007-2008 the PAC raised over $800,000. In the 2009-2010 cycle, it raised just $636,000. And, by 2011-2012, that number was down to just over $500,000. Given the unprecedented split in the Cuban American vote in last November's election, which was indeed news, this downward trend in pro-embargo donations to the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC might have been worth a mention when covering Rubio's speech to the PAC luncheon - especially when Rubio himself opened the door to the question of whether Cuban American community has shifted. (He's not so sure it has.)
Senator Rubio is of course entitled to his opinions, no matter how degrading to Cubans or his fellow Americans they are, and no matter how well-informed they may or may not be. But the American people should also be entitled to their opinions, even if they don't make headlines. After more than 50 years of isolating the Cuban people, and after spending millions of of our hard-earned dollars in service of a policy that has made zero progress, the American people are surely also entitled to their curiosity. Most of all, I imagine they might be curious about why our government has maintained this policy and what impacts we may or may not have on the Cuban people in more than fifty years of pursuing it. The only way to find answers is to visit the island and talk to the people living there.
As Venezuelans and foreign observers examine the legacy – both the accomplishments and failures – of the charismatic and bombastic Hugo Chavez, discussion inevitably turns to the implications for allies on which he lavished generous aid and trade benefits. Perhaps none is quite so vulnerable in the wake of Chavez’s death as Cuba, an island nation of some 12 million people whose Socialist Revolution, with Chavez’s mentor Fidel Castro at the helm for more than 45 years, managed to hang on and hang on in spite of U.S. disapproval and interference. Indeed, Socialist Cuba hung on in spite of itself, achieving inspirational heights in public health and education, and enjoying international influence far beyond its means, but never achieving the most crucial change of all: economic sustainability. In the past twenty years, Cuba has experienced one crisis after another.
After one such crisis is where Hugo Chavez came in, following the worst, broadest felt economic crisis Cubans have known, when Cuba’s ally and patron, the Soviet Union, collapsed, and the island’s economy shrank by more than one-third, and imports dropped by 85%. In those dark years, the Cuban people suffered crippling food shortages (and many were malnourished), extended blackouts and all the other indignities that come from a sudden withdrawal of creature comforts and basic necessities they’d become so accustomed to. Reluctantly, Fidel Castro adopted a few limited measures – most importantly, embracing tourism – to stop the free fall, but it was his mentee, Hugo Chavez, whose increasingly generous trade and aid, who helped re-stabilize the Cuban economy at the turn of the 21st century. Cubans were no longer starving, but the vast majority would never recover the living standards they’d enjoyed before. As the cracks in the Cuban economy widened (and the gains of the Cuban Revolution slowly degenerated) Hugo Chavez filled them in with cut rate Venezuelan oil.
At the same time, it became clear to any honest observer inside or outside Cuba that the nation was headed for serious trouble; relying so singularly on the largesse of Hugo Chavez could have perilous consequences. When Raul Castro took the reins from his ailing older brother provisionally in 2006 and then formally in 2008, he focused, for the first time publicly, on the need for deep changes. The economic downturn of 2008, coming as it did with soaring world food prices and a punishing hurricane season (in which Cuba was walloped by four major storms that wipes out food stores and hundreds of thousands of homes), brought the reality starkly home.
The younger Castro’s rhetoric has been consistent and tough on economic mismanagement and corruption, but his apparent desire for consensus building (and avoiding destabilizing shocks that could jeopardize power) coupled with his inability to rein in a reluctant bureaucracy meant that Cuba’s economic restructuring has been slow and largely ineffectual – so far. Key reforms in real estate and migration, which offer many Cubans unprecedented potential economic empowerment and mobility, and also leverage an increasingly reconnected diaspora, offer hope of more and deeper reform, but other reforms, such as in expanding the non-state sector and reforming the tax code, have been too piecemeal or conservative so far.
Not unsurprisingly, many in and out of Cuba now wonder if the loss of Chavez is the death knell of the Castros’ Revolution, or, perhaps could it inject urgent momentum into Raul Castro’s reform agenda, just in the nick of time? In some ways, the loss of Hugo Chavez, on its face so devastating for Cuba, might actually be a good thing for the island.
Raul Castro to Retire (soon), Who's Talking about Terrorism, and Why Leahy' Delegation to Cuba Mattered
This past week was uncommonly full of Cuba news.
At the top of the list has to be this weekend's selection of a new First Vice President in Cuba, Manuel Diaz Canel, age 52, the first person to occupy that post that did not fight in the Revolution. The outgoing First Vice President apparently stepped aside to make room for the next generation of Cuban leaders. Diaz Canel is presumed to be Raul Castro’s successor, a prospect made all the more clear by Raul Castro’s reiteration that this will indeed be his final term in office, as he promised in 2008 when he began his first full term as president. Castro also endorsed term (and age!) limits for top government officials, and insisted that he will press ahead with his reform agenda. Two of the country’s five vice presidents are now women, and just one leader of the Revolution, Ramiro Valdes, remains.
Interestingly, Fidel Castro, who made a rare appearance at the National Assembly session today and gave a wide-ranging interview to Cuba's Communist Party daily Granma earlier this month, does not exactly seem bowled over by his brother’s big change agenda, referring to the Revolution as the “change” that matters most. While the elder Castro assures this is all just a bit of fine –tuning, the consistent message to the Cuban people from the younger Castro now in charge is clear: Cuba is changing, it is (slowly) modernizing, and perhaps most important of all, that Raul Castro himself can be trusted to follow through – however slowly at times – with the reformist policies he endorses. While there will no doubt be ingrained skepticism among many Cubans - and Raul Castro himself makes sure not to take it too far, promising no return to capitalism in Cuba, for example - many Cubans will see the leadership changes that took place this week as a sign that more changes still are on the way.
It’s thus jarring to see how disconnected U.S. policy is from the changes afoot in Cuba today. As one of the Cuban government’s most vocal critics, blogging sensation Yoani Sanchez (who is now traveling in Brazil, thanks to Raul Castro’s migration reforms), put it: “[The U.S. embargo of Cuba is “a fossil of the Cold War that does not have any sense in the modern world in which we live.
Talking about terrorism
This week in Washington, sparks flew around one of those fossilized elements of U.S. Cuba policy, designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba has been on the list since 1982, originally for its support of armed leftist groups in the Americas. But since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than 20 years ago, whose patronage made such Cuban adventures abroad possible, the State Department has repeatedly admitted that Cuba was no longer providing such support. While many analysts have repeatedly called for its removal, no administration has dared take that step. And then there was this story out last week, which suggested the Obama administration might actually be preparing to take that step soon:
“There is a pretty clear case . . . that they don’t really meet the standard anymore,” said a senior administration official with direct knowledge regarding US-Cuba policy who was not authorized to speak publicly. “They have neither the wherewithal nor are they doing much.”
The Boston Globe, which cited “top U.S. diplomats” in breaking the story, emphasized that no formal decision had been taken, and noted that Kerry was reviewing U.S. policy toward Cuba.
For the first time in over half a century, an American president may well have two cabinet secretaries who have been publicly and repeatedly critical of our stubbornly isolationist (and anachronistic) policy toward the island of Cuba. Though he got a bit of cold feet during his own run for president in 2004, President Obama’s new Secretary of State, former senator John Kerry has long criticized U.S. Cuba policy. His nominee for Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, has never minced words when it came to our “outdated” approach to Cuba. Both men walk in (or hope to walk in) to their new jobs with long and clear records opposing U.S. sanctions on Cuba.
So should embargo opponents be getting their hopes up? Perhaps yes, perhaps no.
If Chuck Hagel is confirmed, he obviously has very, very big and pressing matters to deal with, not least being how to respond to looming existential budget pressures. But it’s not such a stretch to envision this SecDef increasing military to military cooperation with Cuba where it makes sense and increases U.S. security. Security cooperation is a key area in the bilateral relationship that we can and should be increasing in our own interest, and it need not be tied to diplomatic breakthroughs. In fact, it is paramount that security cooperation that serves our interest not be bogged down by diplomatic considerations. De-linking our vital interests from diplomacy is something Chuck Hagel undoubtedly sees.
It is Kerry who has more of a minefield to navigate, if he chooses to navigate it at all, amidst all the other far more pressing concerns now on his plate.
On the one hand, he’s been a vocal critic not only of our general approach on Cuba but he’s identified specific programs that he considers non- or even counterproductive, including U.S. taxpayer-backed Radio and TV Marti broadcasting and USAID’s democracy promotion programs, which Kerry has suggested “provoked” the Cuban government to jail a U.S. government subcontractor, Alan Gross. There’s no telling how deep the new secretary plans to dig on the next budget, but it would be odd for these programs to continue business-as-usual under Kerry. Unless, that is, the White House intervenes. Given the outcome of the 2012 elections, which finally dispelled the myth that no president – especially a Democrat – could ease sanctions on Cuba and be re-elected to tell about it, it’s hard to imagine the White House doing so.
On the other hand, what does Kerry get for his trouble if he does drill deep enough into the Cuba programs under his purview?
Beginning today, the Cuban policy of requiring citizens to obtain an invitation to visit abroad and permission from domestic authorities to exit the country, is no more. This is a profoundly significant change. Given that Cubans will still need to procure visitor or immigrant visas to most other countries and most without family abroad will have a hard time coming up with the money for the trip, it won’t likely cause a rush for the exits. But the new rules pave the way for a new relationship between country and citizen, and between those who stay and those who have left. The door will now remain open between each, both emotionally and financially.
Though millions of Cubans can now, in principal if not in practical terms, leave the island as they sit fit, there are exceptions for national security and other reasons, and it remains to be seen how Cuban authorities intend to apply them. Last week we learned that Cuban doctors – in whom the Cuban government invests much and expects to return the investment either at home or abroad (on behalf of the Cuban government which contracts them out) – will in fact be free to travel under the new rules. But will critics of the government be free to come and go? The more broadly these new rules extend to Cubans, the more pressure it could put on the United States to change its migration policies toward the island.
If optics matter, we may soon see the administration use its executive authority to further loosen its own restrictions on Americans’ travel to Cuba (to the extent it can). Yes, you might have heard, Americans must seek permission from the U.S. Department of Treasury in order to be allowed to use our passports to travel to Cuba. The irony of the U.S. “[welcoming] any reforms that allow Cubans to depart from and return to their country freely,’’ as a State Department spokesman put it last week, without doing the same for our own population, will now be painfully obvious.
But it’s not just about optics. It’s about opportunity and the political space to seize it. These Cuban travel reforms provide the Obama administration with an historic opportunity to end our open-door migration policy for Cubans that with every passing year becomes more untenable – especially in a political cycle likely to see action on immigration reform. No other nationality on Earth enjoys the benefits Cubans do, including the right to step foot on U.S. soil illegally and qualify for a green card one year after doing so, and collecting generous adjustment benefits at taxpayer expense to boot.