President Obama's new Cuba policy: What we heard, and what we didn't

President Obama’s press conference on Cuba today was rooted in the facts (our policy hasn’t worked), grounded by moral imperative (we shouldn’t try to push the Cuban people toward their own economic collapse) and guided by pragmatism (greater openness is good for both our peoples).

Today, the president announced that that the U.S. will take steps to re-establish diplomatic relations. He plans to reopen a U.S. Embassy in Havana, and to send high level officials to the island, both of which will go a long way to addressing U.S. interests more directly and urgently than we’ve been able to do in more than 50 years. (The Canadian government hosted talks between the U.S. and Cuba and even Pope Francis played an instrumental role in brokering the deal.) And, the president announced that he will direct Secretary of State John Kerry to examine Cuba’s presence on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Here President Obama emphasized he should be guided by “the facts and the law,” both of which plainly point to Cuba being removed from the terrorism list this spring. (There is an abundance of information on this point, but one quick starting point would be the terrorism section of this report I authored in 2009.)

Can he really do that? Obama's new Cuba policy

I know what you're wondering: how can President Obama have announced such a dramatic new policy toward Cuba today when there is a sweeping embargo on the island that was actually codified into law by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act? Very simple: because Helms-Burton codified a collection of regulations on commerce with Cuba (which included expenses incident to travel) that had been put in place by President Kennedy, and modified over time by later presidents. It codified the regulation of commerce, but it left intact each president's authority to tighten or loosen those regulations.

President George W. Bush used his presidential authority to tighten, and even to loosen, various regulations, including those dealing with travel, remittances and technology transfer (cell phones). President Obama used that same authority to loosen regulations on Cuban Americans' travel to the island 5 years ago. No one questioned his authority to do this; rather, a discussion ensued over whether the Cuban American community would punish him for the move. In fact, the community responded with unprecedented support; voting both with their feet, traveling to the island, and in the voting booth, where a record number - half - of Cuban Americans voted for a Democrat for president in 2012.

President Obama Can Help Crist Win Florida

Democratic candidate Charlie Crist

 

Progresso Weekly has published an optimistic assessment of how Charlie Crist can regain the governorship of Florida as a Democrat, an important contest for Americans who want more rational relations with Cuba.

It is worth considering whether a breakthrough by President Obama with Havana could help by demonstrating that Crist's call for a new approach to Cuba was realistic and relevant. Obvious White House options are opening travel with a general license for all purposeful travelers, not just Cuban Americans; movement toward normal relations; and suspending anti-private enterprise aspects of the embargo. 

If Alan Gross dies in Cuba...who is responsible?

 

Raul Castro, Barack Obama, Bob Menendez, Marco Rubio,  Ileana Ros-Lehtinenm,  Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Mario Diaz-Balart or Joe Garcia?

All of the above!!!!   But especially the last six.

The government of the United States and the government of Cuba should feel deeply ashamed by their inability to find a way for Alan Gross to visit with his mother before her death or to attend her funeral.
 
Either side could have broken the impasse.
 
It doesn't matter which was most at fault. Both lost the opportunity to show they put human compassion first. 
 
The question now is how they address his declining psychological and physical condition, as reported in the Baltimore Sun:
 
"I've never seen Alan in such bad shape during all the years that the Cuban government has kept him," [Judy Gross] said in a statement. "Our daughter, Nina, was unprepared to see how gaunt and physically frail her father has become. And his decision to say goodbye to us was wrenching."...
 
...attorney Scott Gilbert said. "He's lost most of the vision in his right eye. His hips are failing and he can barely walk. He has stopped all attempts to exercise. Alan's emotional deterioration has been severe, and his mother's lingering and painful death has only accelerated this."
This is not the first time Alan's wife and lawyer have dramatically sounded the alarm about his health.  The Cubans correctly point out that the conditions of their three still imprisoned operatives are worse. Nevertheless, there is a sense that time is running out and the consequences could be dire.
 
Ideally the much desired and much rumored negotiated deal can be quickly consummated that allows each country to gain what is most important while maintaining its pride.
 
Under the law when and where they were arrested Alan and the Cuban Five were guilty. The fairness of both trials left much to be desired and the sentences were excessive. The bottom line is that all were witting and willing instruments of anachronistic policies but they have paid an undeserved price because of their governments inflexibility and self-righteousness.
 
The only people who will benefit from Alan's death in prison are the hard liners in Florida and New Jersey who seem to have immobilized the President.  
 
Three hundred rabbis have written to President Obama, enabling/pressuring him to take the necessary steps to achieve Alan's negotiated freedom:
 
Alan went to Cuba on behalf of our government. His immediate release from prison in Cuba and return to the U.S. must be a priority for our nation. Indeed, we believe this is a moral imperative. Our communities are gravely concerned that Alan continues to languish in a Cuban prison nearly five years after his arrest.
 
We ask, with all respect, that you take whatever steps are necessary to ensure a prompt end to Alan’s, and his family’s, continuing nightmare.
This implicit call for negotiations is very similar to a letter sent to the President last December by two-thirds of the Senate, authored by Senator Leahy and including Ted Cruz.
 
The question is whether the inability of the White House to respond is based on ignorance, ideology or political fear.
 

A Grand Bargain

The Presidents of Russia, India, Brazil, China and South Africa

at the BRICS meeting in Brazil

 

The visits of the leaders of Russia and China to Cuba prompted  a fair amount of media attention.  One long time analyst asked me whether such outside support would make it less likely Cuba could reach an understanding with the US.

I consulted with knowledgeable friends in Havana who shared my view that this would not be a factor.

Cuba's reasons for seeking mutually respectful, i.e. non-interventionist, relations remain the same.  Russian and Chinese trade and assistance will help growth, but they cannot overcome US damage to Cuba's economy from the embargo and interference with European banks.  Russia and China also cannot remove the stultifying impact on domestic politics of constant meddling and regime change pressures by the omnipresent neighbor.   They have worth as diplomatic tokens in bilateral negotiations but probably are not as important as the pressure on Washington from countries in the Hemisphere in the run-up to the Summit of the Americas, as reported by Xinhua, but ignored in the US media.

The majority of country delegations attending the 44th general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) [in Montevideo] agreed Thursday [June 5] that Cuba should take part in the regional bloc's next summit to be held in Panama next year...

At a meeting of the bloc's Summit Implementation Review Group ( GRIC), Panamanian* Foreign Affairs Minister Francisco Alvarez De Soto proposed Cuba be invited to attend the summit.
Cuban American ultra hard liners tried to flog the Russian card, nourished by irresponsible reporting in the Miami Herald.  Juan Tamayo wrote that Cuba had agreed to the return of a Russian intelligence base, citing the "respected Kommersant newspaper", apparently not aware of, or finding significant, its liberal opposition nature and possible anti-Putin motives for circulating the story.**  
 
 
A report that Russia will reopen a Havana base that eavesdropped on U.S. communications from Key West to Washington has triggered fresh warnings of Moscow’s expansionism and predictions of a continued freeze in U.S.-Cuba relations.
Deep within the story, and overshadowed by hard line fulminations, Tamayo noted indirectly that both Cuba and Russia denied the story and the State Department did not dispute them.
 
State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki declined comment Wednesday on the Kommersant report, saying that neither Moscow nor Cuba had confirmed it. “I would … naturally have nothing to add on alleged Russian intelligence facilities,” she said.
The false allegation lived on in a question by a CNN intern of Fareed Zakaria during an insightful interview with Jorge Dominguez of Harvard.
 
The presence in Havana of President Putin and President Xi could as least serve as a reminder to the White House that Cuba continues to bat above its level and that there is a cost to inertia.
 
         

A Meditation on the Larger Problem of US Intervention

The Foreign Policy blog ran a provocative essay on July 1st by Dr. Stephen Walt, Professor of International Relations at Harvard University, "Democracy, Freedam and Apple Pie Aren't a Foreign Policy" which can be read here.  It has provoked a number of thoughtful as well as knee jerk comments.   My own follows, hopefully the former:

 

The article is a breath of fresh air and the comments are a fascinating array.  
 
A core problem with US democracy promotion as foreign policy is that it is the secular modern version of the white man's burden civilizing obligation used to justify colonialism.
 
It is also ahistorical about ourselves.  Fifty years ago I was in Mississippi working to end racial discrimination and vote denial.  Thanks to the current Supreme Court new ways are being found to restrict the vote and private and corporate money is disabling democratic control of our own government.  Civil liberties have been shredded by post-9/11 laws and regulations, c.f. NSA, Guantanamo. 
 
We have dramatically improved the rights and liberties of gays, lesbians and transsexuals in the last decade, but condemn Russia for not being where we have barely arrived, not to mention that large sectors of US opinion are not yet  on board the new enlightenment.  
 
We have the largest proportional prison population in the world, racially reflecting economic inequity, and disenfranchise its victims.  The best national health system we can come up with wastes billions on the self-serving insurance industry, to the cost of patients and practitioners.  Our comparative international standing in education, health and quality of life is declining in order to sustain a dramatically larger military budget than the whole world combined. 
 
We barely acknowledge the reality that the comfortable society we live in was built not only on freedom, creativity, economic productivity and open immigration, but also on slavery, ethnic cleansing (the Indian wars) and military conquest of a neighbor (Mexico).  This should not immobilize us but should lead to some humility in lecturing others.
 
Basing foreign policy on democratic moralism would be more credible if it were consistent.  Other comments have noted our tendency to overthrow democratic governments if their policies displease us.  We bemoan the chaos in Libya without acknowledging that we brought it about.  NPR just ran a story about why so many children and youth are fleeing Honduras without mentioning the coup that we at best acquiesced in against a progressive government.
 
We return to our embrace of Egyptian authoritarian rule and continue to ignore the repressive character of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.  
 
We use international institutions when they serve our purpose but ignore them when they don't.  We defy virtually unanimous international and regional condemnation of our embargo on Cuba, but aggressively punish foreign banks that do normal business with it, despite strong public support in the US for a more rational policy of engagement.

Current Debate on line: The Letter to the President, the Chamber of Commerce and Yoani Sanchez

DOnahue, Castro
 
On the Prestigious Call for President Obama to Support Civil Society in Cuba
 
Reflection on my last post, leads me to add two further comments about the ground changing open letter to the President in addition to my personal frustration about its insufficient position on travel:
 
1)  The assembled signers are truly a cross section of the political mainstream, not least among them former top military (General John Adams, Admiral James Stavridis), Governor Bruce Babbitt,  Assistant, Deputy and Under Secretaries of State and Department heads (Jeffrey Davidow, Arturo Valenzuela, Alexander Watson, Strobe Talbot, Thomas Pickering, Anne-Marie Slaughter), Cabinet Secretaries and White House officials (Carol Browner, Dan Glickman, Ken Salazar, Hilda Solis), Senators and Representatives (Byron Dorgan, Lee Hamilton, Jane Harmon), Heads of the US Interests Section (Vicki Huddleston, Michael Parmley) and perhaps most surprisingly, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte.
 
2)  Organizers of the letter observe that signers would not have agreed to inclusion had they believed Cuba deserves to be listed as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.  However that salient issue is not directly addressed, although it affects the final point urging authorization of financial transactions.

Policy Heavyweights Push / Enable the President to Move on Cuba

Presidents of Uruguay and US meet at White House

President Jose Mujica of Uruguay Meets with President Obama at the White House

 

A just issued letter to President Obama does not go as far as it might, but because of the VIP character of the signers it is a significant step in the process of inducing the White House to finally move forward.  http://www.supportcubancivilsociety.org/

Its policy recommendations, with those I find especially interesting underlined:

Expand and safeguard travel to Cuba for all Americans

Pope + President (- Ukraine) = Hope for Cuba ?

Pope Francis, photo from The Guardian
 
President Obama and Pope Francis will meet on Thursday.  The Washington Post includes the embargo as a possible topic of conversation. 
 
Advisers to the White House on faith-based issues, including ones involving the Catholic Church, said the two may discuss topics such as the U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and the pope’s May visit to the Holy Land, the U.S. embargo of Cuba, Syria and the plight of religious minorities around the world.
 
Certainly the Vatican is aligned with the rest of the world in calling for its end.  Not surprisingly, both of the previous pontiffs reiterated that position during visits to Cuba.
 
However, Secretary of State Kerry lay the groundwork for a more direct consequence of the meeting when he requested the Pope’s assistance to achieve the humanitarian release of Alan Gross, a contracted US government agent. As I argued in an earlier post (here), and as hard liners fear, a logical response is for the Pope to request the humanitarian treatment and release of three Cuban agents imprisoned by the US.
 
How do we imagine Senators Menendez and Rubio responding to such a direct appeal from the Pope?  Will they dare use the same scurrilous language against the Holy Father as hard liners employ against Cardinal Ortega?

Miami Dade's False Step for Educational Exchange

 
 
A Cuban American initiative has muddied the waters of educational exchange with the US in the run-up to an important international conference in Cuba February 10 - 14, Universidad 2014.
 
Under new Cuban regulations, young people can come here to study with more freedom than our government allows to American students (who can only go to Cuba if sponsored by their school--see previous post).  
 
Cubans could be funded by relatives or apply for scholarships and graduate fellowships.  
 
Graduate and professional students make more sense because the national education system does not currently allow absence for a semester or year abroad.  Conceivably the venerable Fulbright program could even precede normalization as it did in Vietnam.  
 
Sectors of the Cuban government have charged for years that sponsoring students is one more way for the US to intervene and promote opposition.  While foreign student programs everywhere in the world, including in Cuba, are motivated by a desire to create goodwill and long term friendships, it is unfortunate that the first program to bring a group of Cubans to the US has more explicit political goals.