As reasonable Cuba watchers were tearing our hair out over Bill Richardson's failed mission to Cuba, and growing increasingly despairing over the bitter tit-for-tat that followed, two fugitives from American justice were apprehended in Cuba and turned over to U.S. marshals, who then escorted them back to New Jersey where they appeared in court on murder, kidnapping and arson charges. The two stand accused of killing a 23 year-old man just over one year ago. Senator Bob Menendez's press release thanking Cuban authorities for their cooperation is here (Just kidding). Makes you wonder when Cuba informed U.S. authorities that it had apprehended the two suspects relative to the August release of the 2010 terrorism report (in which the subject of fugitives living in Cuba was not, for the first time in a number of years, included in that report, which I think makes sense - it should be a law enforcement issue).
When Rene Gonzalez, one of five Cuban agents reviled by Miami hardliners and celebrated by the Havana government and its supporters, walks out of a Miami prison Friday after serving 13 years of a 15 year sentence, where will he go and who will be there to greet him? This is a question someone in the Obama administration surely must have considered, because how they answer could cost them – and the Miami Dade Police Department - dearly.
The options seem relatively clear: either he goes home to Cuba and stays there (Gonzalez, who is a dual citizen, could remain in Cuba if he renounces his U.S. citizenship), or he stays in Miami to serve out his probation. A Miami judge denied his request to serve out his parole in Cuba, but I’m not sure that ends the matter. Surely the administration has other means to bypass Miami and give Gonzalez the boot? It’s not hard to imagine the headache those who revile him most will create not just for Gonzalez but for the Miami-Dade police, and even for the administration. And here's a high-ranking member of the U.S. Congress (Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen) who isn't afraid to stir the pot:
“Rene Gonzalez, like the regime he serves, is an enemy of America. He has American blood on his hands and dedicated his life to harming our country on behalf of a regime that is a State Sponsor of Terrorism . . . The Obama administration needs to take every precaution to protect U.S. security and the American people from this enemy of our nation.”
[Incidentally, on this 35th anniversary of the 1976 Cubana airliner bombing, one has to ask whether Ros-Lehtinen has ever used the phrase “blood on his hands” to describe the masterminds of the October 6, 1976 Cubana airliner bombing, Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, both of whom eluded justice and lived out their days as free men in Miami.]
No matter what your opinion of Gonzalez or his crime – and he did commit one by working for his government without registering with ours – it’s hard to see any altercation over his supervised release playing out well for the Obama administration. It would draw attention to the Cuba issue right as the administration would probably prefer it to fade away (re-election, anyone?), and has police vs. community elements face-off/debacle – remember Elian Gonzalez, folks? – written all over it, but instead of centering on a sweet-faced little boy, the crisis would revolve around a foreign government agent walking the streets of Miami. And in that harsh light of sudden media attention, the administration would end up catching flack for not shipping Gonzalez off. After all, the best way to “protect” America from someone is to keep him off U.S. soil.
President Obama said yesterday he's looking for a transformation on the island before "fully engaging" Cuba. His remarks actually complete something of a transformation for Obama, who went from saying this on one campaign trail, to saying this on the next campaign trail, to now saying stuff like this:
"Everywhere else in the world you've been seeing the democratization movement pressing forward . . . The time has come for the same thing to happen in Cuba."
"What we've tried to do is send a signal is that we are open to a new relationship with Cuba if the Cuban government starts taking the proper steps . . . "
"Following through on releasing political prisoners . . . "
Just not the ones released in 2010 and 2011 as a result of talks with the Catholic Church and the Spanish government?
"We're prepared to show flexibility and not be stuck in a Cold War mentality dating back to when I was born . . . " but, " . . . So far we haven't seen the kind of genuine transformation of spirt inside of Cuba that would justify us eliminating the embargo."
These words may sound good to those couple of percentage points of Cuban American swing voters in Florida, but statements like these reveal a White House either oblivious of or uninterested in the actual changes that are taking place in Cuba. These sorts of backhanded offers to talk actually telegraph to the Cubans that we are NOT, in fact, ready to talk at all. (Or, certainly not in public.) These statements were never intended as a message for Havana. They're for Little Havana.
How do you know that an Italian newspaper report that Hezbollah is looking to establish a presence in Cuba is bogus? When Rep. Michelle Bachmann picks up the story and runs away with it.
"There’s reports that have come out that Cuba has been working with another terrorist organization called Hezbollah. And Hezbollah is potentially looking at wanting to be part of missile sites in Iran and, of course, when you’re 90 miles offshore from Florida, you don’t want to entertain the prospect of hosting bases or sites where Hezbollah could have training camps or perhaps have missile sites or weapons sites in Cuba. This would be foolish.”
Actually, there has been just one report, in an Italian newspaper, which then got picked up and spread around by a number of conservative U.S. blogs. I am in no position to evaluate the intelligence collected by that newspaper (and it doesn't offer sources), but, as the Wall Street Journal's blog Washington Wire points out, Cuba's presence on the U.S. terrorism list isn't due to any Hezbollah link - it's largely become a political bargaining chip. And if you doubt that, just ask Bill Richardson.
While Bachmann frets over that one, a group of her colleagues fire off a threatening letter to Spain's Repsol, warning the company to dump its Cuban deep water exploration plans, you know, if you know what's good for you. The signers warn that "grave civil and criminal" penalties come with violations of the "comprehensive" Cuba embargo. But even the embargo isn't so comprehensive as to stop a foreign company from drilling in Cuban waters, so long as there aren't U.S. parts, people or expertise involved. Which, of course, is exactly what scares so many in the industry about the impending exploration in Cuba.
Not this group, though. Nowhere in the letter does the group express any concerns around what impact drilling could have on the environment, particularly in the event of a spill. But it could certainly "harm [Repsol's] commercial interests with the United States," and it might "run afoul of pending legislation." I think that was a mistake. In fact, I'm sure had Ros-Lehtinen and Sires, the leaders of the letter effort, invited her to join them on their letter, Michelle Bachmann could have come up with one heck of a nightmare scenario that would have capped the letter off quite nicely.
Oh, I jest. Serious industry experts warn us to be prepared to prevent or respond to any disaster before drilling begins. According to Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich, the issue has gotten - as it should - attention at "very high levels of the government."
The good news? Cuban energy officials are taking the lessons of the BP oil spill disaster very seriously, according to a group of oil drilling and environmental experts just back from Cuba, including the co-chairman of the Bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (also former EPA administrator), the head of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, a former senior executive for Royal Dutch Shell and longtime Cuba expert with the Environmental Defense Fund.
The bad news? Less than three months before deep water drilling begins in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico, neither Congress nor the Obama administration have taken the necessary steps to help prevent or respond to a similar disaster that could impact even more U.S. coastline. Granted, it seems a bit far-fetched to imagine the present Congress sending any legislation to the president these days, so the burden of preparedness essentially rests with the administration.
That's got CNN's Fareed Zakaria wondering, "What in the World??"
"What happens if there's another oil spill? Will it be easy and quick to clean up? No. You see, the nearest and best experts on safety procedures and dealing with oil spills are all American, but we are forbidden by our laws from being involved in any way with Cuba. Our trade embargo on Cuba not only prevents us from doing business with our neighbor but it also bars us from sending equipment and expertise to help even in a crisis. So, if there is an explosion, we will watch while the waters of the Gulf Coast get polluted."
Just days before the BP disaster struck last year, Jorge Piñón, the foremost expert on oil drilling in Cuba and where U.S. policy intersects it, and I urged the U.S. to talk to Cuba about oil spill prevention and response. At that time, deepwater exploration in Cuban waters was slated for late 2010. Unfortunately, the BP disaster made our call for prevention and planning with Cuba all the more salient.
Now, after several delays, with a Chinese-built Italian oil rig, the Scarabeo 9, on its way to Cuba, drilling of the first of five exploratory wells in Cuban deep water is set to commence this December.
A spill from this first, easternmost exploratory well to be drilled by the Repsol consortium could be particularly damaging due to its location where the Gulf Stream exits the Gulf of Mexico for the Atlantic. Whereas the BP disaster was somewhat "contained" in the northern Gulf, Piñón tells me to "imagine a fan-shaped spill with the well as the axis." If something were to go wrong on Scarabeo 9, we could see and feel the effects of a major oil spill in Cuban deep water not just in Florida, but far up the Atlantic coast.
If ever there were a moment to put aside political posturing about Cuba, this would be the moment. Will the Obama administration rise to the challenge? Despite a near-total, half century-old trade embargo against Cuba, the president has broad authority to issue regulations that would mandate U.S. preparedness and cooperation with Cuba - and other countries, like Mexico and the Bahamas - to prevent and respond to an oil spill. Given that drilling is set for less than 90 days from now, there's no time to lose.
Here's what Jorge Piñón tells me he'd recommend, all of which can be done within existing executive branch authority:
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted yesterday by a margin of 20 to 10 (14 Democrats joined 6 Republicans) to ease restrictions on U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. Specifically, the amendment offered by Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, prohibits any funds in the bill to be used to enforce rules prohibiting direct wire transfers from Cuban to U.S. banks in payment for authorized U.S. food and medicine exports. The agriculture export community has complained that the prohibition on direct payments makes U.S. goods less competitive because of the additional banking fees and because of the potential for tens of thousands of dollars in demurrage charges when the transaction holds up an entire vessel.
The U.S. International Trade Commission studied agricultural trade with Cuba in 2007 and again in 2009, and determined that U.S. exports could nearly double if restrictions dampening the trade were removed. As it has in previous fiscal years, the bill contains a provision that would clarify the definition of “cash in advance” (one of the two methods of payment authorized in the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act) as cash received prior to the transfer of title and control of the goods (as it was interpreted prior to a 2005 Treasury rule that restricted the definition so much that cash sales came to a halt). None of these details are up on the Appropriations website yet (I listened to the audiocast).
There weren't the usual fireworks - though surely there would have been if Senators Menendez or Rubio had been there. Senator Kirk (R-IL) expressed concerns over opening the U.S. banking system up to Cuba. I’m not clear what the danger is, and Kirk didn’t explain it. I’m also a bit perplexed by how the U.S. seller is put at risk of not being paid when the seller only releases the goods to the buyer upon confirmation of payment? Kirk also spoke passionately about Cuba’s human rights record, and reminded the committee – as did Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland – that Alan Gross remains in prison in Cuba for his involvement in a USAID program. But Senator Moran countered that his amendment wasn’t intended to be a referendum on Cuba but to help U.S. exporters sell products to a nation that will go elsewhere if not to us. Senators Feinstein (Chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee), Johnson (Chairman of the Banking Committee) and Durbin (Chairman of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee) also spoke in favor of the amendment.
It was a refreshing, if small, step forward amidst the he-said-she-said, two-steps-back-and-no-forth by Governor Richardson and his staff and the Cuban Foreign Ministry over who invited whom to talk about what in Havana last week.
When I read last week that former Governor Bill Richardson, also a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was back in Havana at the invitation of the Cuban government in order to negotiate the release of Alan Gross, I found the invitation to negotiate a bit odd, but I nonetheless figured Gross would be on his way home by now. If they had invited the former diplomat to Havana to talk about Alan Gross then it seemed he needed to do little more than say the right things. I tried imagining what Richardson might "offer," such as mentioning his intention to personally brief President Obama on his trip and lessons learned in U.S. Cuba policy.
But Richardson's mission has faltered, if not yet failed irretrievably.
DeWayne Wickham, columnist for USA Today, thinks he knows how to get Alan Gross out of jail in Cuba. Gross has been in jail for more than a year and a half, and was convicted in the spring of violating Cuba's sovereignity by distributing sophisticated telecommunications equipment (B-GANs), which are illegal without a permit in Cuba, and especially illegal if bought and paid for under a U.S. law specifically targeting the Cuban government.
In this week's column for USA Today, Wickham suggests trading the Cuban Five, five Cuban agents who infiltrated Cuban exile organizations working to destabilize the island nation in the 1990s. All of the Five received long sentences, and one was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and received a life sentence (two, actually), for what the prosecution alleged was his role in the shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996. The defense argued he had no role in the shootdown. (The shootdown came after Brothers to the Rescue repeatedly flew into Cuban airspace, overflying the island, including its capital, Havana, several times, dropping leaflets in the months leading up to the shootdown, though the U.S. maintains that the planes did not enter Cuban airspace on that day.)
Whatever you think of the crimes committed by the Five or by Alan Gross - and many will think they are not comparable - our government has a moral obligation to do everything it can to get Americans out of jail in foreign countries, especially if they were essentially working for the U.S. government.
Wickham reminds us that just last year the Obama administration wasted no time in getting 4 Russians who worked for the U.S. and Britain released from prison in exchange for 10 Russian spies rounded up in the U.S.:
Last month I had the opportunity to hear an incredibly informative and expansive presentation on the updating of the Cuban economy, by Dr. Omar Everleny Perez, director of the University of Havana's Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy. I found it so interesting that I wanted to share it with colleagues interested in Cuba's ongoing economic transformation, and with colleagues who aren't yet and should be. But the presentation was in Spanish and if you've ever seen my efforts at translation on this blog, you'll know that I have no business translating a large presentation like this! Which is why I am so thrilled to see that the Cuba Study Group has acquired a translated version of Everleny's lecture (minus the graphs), and posted it here on their website.
At least two things make the report a must-read. First, it offers a comprehensive, yet still totally digestible-in-just-8-pages overview of where Cuba's economy was going over the past couple decades and where it must now go. And secondly, it offers constructive, honest criticism of Cuban economic planning where it is due while providing vision for a more sustainable future where it is needed - and does both in as non-political or ideological terms as possible. A few highlights:
Last week, the State Department released its annual report on state sponsored terrorism, and wouldn't you know it, Cuba made the list once again. For nearly thirty years, the United States has named Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism. It originally made the list due to its support for armed rebel groups in Central America. But for nearly twenty years, the evidence offered for its continuing designation has become so scant it would be funny if it weren't so serious. Aside from a half a dozen (hard-line) Cuban American lawmakers, who in Washington really believes Cuba belongs on this list? And yet, it never actually comes off the list.
It reminds me of my credit card statement, which now dutifully informs me that I can pay my bill off quickly, but if I choose to only pay the minimum balance each month, it's going to take me 17 years to pay off a $3,000 balance. If I just pay the minimum balance, then last few years, I'll end up paying a few pennies at a time. It's a lot like the State Department's diminishing case for keeping Cuba on the terrorism list. It gets smaller and smaller but never seems to finally go away.
This year, the case really just amounts to this:
"Designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism in 1982, the Government of Cuba maintained a public stance against terrorism and terrorist financing in 2010, but there was no evidence that it had severed ties with elements from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and recent media reports indicate some current and former members of the Basque Fatherland and Liberty (ETA) continue to reside in Cuba. Available information suggested that the Cuban government maintained limited contact with FARC members, but there was no evidence of direct financial or ongoing material support. In March, the Cuban government allowed Spanish Police to travel to Cuba to confirm the presence of suspected ETA members."
Aren't we reaching just a little bit, though, when we're relying on "media reports" to collect our intelligence and make our case? Of course, there's no sign that State read any other potentially informative media reports, such as the one from earlier this year about Spain and Colombia being unconcerned about the presence in Cuba of individuals who belonged to FARC, ELN and ETA. Many of the ETA members in Cuba came as part of an agreement with the Spanish government in 1984, and, according to El Pais, some of those who came on their own aren't feeling so welcome in Cuba (two ETA members wrote to a Basque newspaper to complain that the Havana government refuses to let them leave the country). And there have been plenty of reports about how both the Pastrana and the Uribe administrations in Colombia appreciated Cuba's efforts to mediate in the civil conflict there. And, several years ago, Fidel Castro criticized the "cruel" practice of hostage taking and called on the FARC to release all of its hostages unconditionally. All of that is readily available intelligence from media sources. And then, of course, if the State Department failed to read its own cables coming out of Havana, Wikileaks was more than happy to leak them to the media. And here's what one of those cables had to say: