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:
Readers may recall that last week, after Raul Castro offered Cubans hope of reforms to the island's overly restrictive emigration policy, I predicted that sanctions proponents would soon realize that the overly generous Cuban Adjustment Act no longer serves their political interests (Actually, it's the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act, but the 'refugee' part often gets left out). I had no idea how close to the mark I already was. Early this month, Congressman David Rivera introduced legislation, H.R.2771 that would make Cubans wait five years to get their permanent residency under that Act, thus keeping them from traveling to Cuba in the meantime. In June, he introduced a similar bill, H.R.1644, which would withhold government benefits to refugees who visit countries on the terrorism list (can anyone name any country on that list that anyone would willingly return to other than Cuba??). In office for 8 months and these bills targeting Cuban Americans traveling to Cuba represent 50% of legislation Rivera has authored.
[A bit of quick background: the Cuban Adjustment Act gives the U.S. attorney general the authority to adjust the status of Cubans who arrive in the United States, legally or illegally, to permanent residency after spending one year in the United States. The act was originally passed in 1966 to resolve the immigration limbo of the first wave of Cubans who fled just after Fidel Castro took power. At the time, it was the United States policy to parole in all of those Cubans on a temporary basis until they could return home. But, at odds with Fidel Castro's Revolution, which endured against expectations, those Cubans became exiles, unable or unwilling to return home, and it was for them that the Act was passed.]
The Miami Herald reports that Rivera plans to reintroduce that bill when Congress returns because, rather than withhold the refugee benefits on the front end, he instead intends to propose that the U.S. government revoke the CAA benefits of any Cuban emigre in the United States who returns to the island before five years have passed. In other words, Rivera wants to keep the welcome mat out to Cubans on the basis that they are essentially refugees fleeing a dictatorship, but then slam the door shut if they deign to return to the island.
Not surprisingly, Rivera's idea is controversial, even in the most anti-Castro circles.
As Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper headed to Brazil, Colombia, Honduras and Costa Rica this week in part of what he hopes will be a revitalization of Canada's engagement in the hemisphere, today's Ottawa Citizen offers this critique by a professor of political studies at University of Prince Edward Island:
"Put simply, official Canadian policy toward Cuba is now curiously mimicking the failed U.S. approach of the former George W. Bush presidency - precisely when the Barack Obama administration is initiating a more moderate and more practical Cuba policy . . ."
". . . [T]he key to Canada actually opening the door to the wider hemisphere is clearly not through Costa Rica, but by fostering closer relations with Havana. But if we fail to cultivate closer ties with the Cubans, our vaunted "Americas Strategy" is necessarily doomed to failure."
Citing Cuba's standing at the UN (last October's vote on the U.S. embargo was 187-2), its 30,000 doctors throughout the hemisphere,its inclusion in the Rio Group (which excludes the United States and Canada), and its leadership of the non-aligned movement, the author, Peter McKenna, makes a strong case for why Canada's 'Americas Strategy" fails to factor in a key country which, "punches far above its international weight class." McKenna warns:
"If the Harper government does not revitalize our engagement policy with the Cubans, Canada faces the very real prospect of jeopardizing its long-standing bilateral advantages and ceding those to the United States and others (including the Chinese)."
How should the U.S. government go about securing the release of Alan Gross, a Jewish American development contractor convicted in Cuba of illegally distributing sophisticated telecommunications equipment to the Cuban Jewish community as part of USAID's democracy building program? Having exhausted all his legal options - Cuba's Supreme Court declined on Friday to overturn his 15 year sentence - Mr. Gross will be stuck in Cuba unless and until Raul Castro decides to give him a humanitarian release.
Should the U.S. heed the advice of the Miami Herald and Jerusalem Post editorial boards, and reverse recently loosened travel restrictions, until Havana releases Gross? Or should it instead make an overture - a serious, legitimately courageous one - as Tim Padgett suggests in a Time magazine blog post, and finally remove Cuba from the State Department's terrorism list, for which there has long been scant evidence?
'We need to clean our heads of all sorts of stupidity. Let's not forget, the first decade of the 21st Century has already passed. It's time." (my translation)
I never thought I'd describe myself as "excited" by a speech made by Raul Castro. Some would say Fidel could hold an audience captive (of course, he often did so simply by holding forth on topic after topic after topic), but Raul isn't exactly known as the gifted, charismatic orator. Yet, with his latest speech to the Cuban National Assembly this week, he's beginning to prove that his leadership style, too, can inspire confidence by speaking plainly and conveying conviction, compassion, and determination.
Before anyone accuses me of being too easy to please - and it's the Cuban people he has to please - let's remember that Cubans desperately need leaders who will cut the ideological crap and really tackle the truly pressing economic troubles they now face. (Sound familiar to anyone here in Washington?) I'd argue that that is exactly what Raul Castro appears to be doing.
"More than once I've said that our worst enemy is not imperialism, and least of all its paid agents here on native soil, but our own errors, which, if analyzed deeply and honestly, will become lessons to avoid repeating them." (my translation)
In the speech, Raul reflects on economic changes that have been made and those that are still ahead. And for those who have been exasperated at the slow pace of change over the last several years, or, for those who have been dragging their feet because the status quo benefits or comforts them, he offers both an explanation and a warning:
While Washington has so far spent the better part of 2011 wrangling over how to contain a soaring deficit and set the federal budget on a more sustainable path, Cuban policymakers have continued their quest to reorganize the Cuban economy before government costs and citizens' unmet needs finally break a system long recognized as unsustainable.
"Updating" Cuba's economy ("reform" is a word more often employed by outside observers to understand what's at work in Cuba right now) has required harnessing productive energies of a newly emerging private sector to deliver goods and services best provided by it, so that the state can focus what resources it has on essential sectors such as education and healthcare. This has entailed encouraging small private entrepreneurs - cuentapropistas - many of them in the service sector, to work in nearly 200 trades, and, it's long been expected, turning over the retail sector to the private sector in the form of cooperatives. Much updating remains to be done to make these changes really work and work well - such as providing access to credits, creating wholesale markets for the new businesses, building a tax code to regulate the new businesses without stifling them, and, most elusive of all, creating conditions under which Cuban customers will have the purchasing power to help establish these businesses.
But we haven't seen much change in terms of retail sector cooperatives since the state first began experimenting two years ago with authorizing barbershop and salon employees to rent their spaces, buy their own materials, pay taxes and charge whatever the market will bear. Come October, Cuba's government daily, Granma, reports more businesses, such as locksmiths, cafeterias and coffeeshops, will join the experiment, and begin leasing underutilized streetside shop space currently occupied by the state. Hopefully the list of newly cooperatized businesses will be substantial. And, hopefully, the salon experiment has taught government regulators what worked well and what didn't.
Much remains to be done in Cuba's economic restructuring process, and not surprisingly, Cubans grumble both at the slow pace of change and the pain of essential changes that hurt in the short run. Yet, considering the starting point (with the state running even the tiniest bodega), that the process continues is very encouraging. This week, Cuba's parliament is expected to pass legislation to adopt many of the economic changes that have been under consideration for months.
[This is an slightly updated version of a post from last Friday, when for some reason, many of our subscribers didn't get the feed. Let's hope that's resolved now.]
In The Miami Herald this week:
"Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart's efforts to tighten travel to Cuba stand a good chance despite a presidential veto threat."
That subhead sure sounds exciting, but I just don't buy it. On what basis does The Herald reach this conclusion? On the push-messaging of a pro-restrictions lobbyist, an unidentified Democratic Hill staffer, and Joe Garcia, a former Congressional candidate in South Florida who, I would guess, wants to make sure that Miami Cubans who want their travel rights protected don't sleep through this defining moment.
Last week's full page ad taken out in El Nuevo Herald by the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights warning that families are "in danger of losing their rights" suggests pro-travel Cuban Americans aren't taking any chances. Now, with the all-out assault on the Obama administration's Cuba travel reforms over the last two years included in the House Foreign Affairs Committee Foreign Authorization markup this week, how bad is it for Cuba policy reformers, really?