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.

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.

All Roads Lead to Rome, Not Miami

Secretaries of State John Kerry and Archbishop Pietro Parolin (State Department photo)


Will Pope Francis help President Obama do what he wants to do with Cuba?

Secretary of State Kerry visited the Vatican on January 14th to meet with his counterpart.  As reported in the Israeli paper Haaretz, he said:

"We talked also about Cuba and the need for respect for freedom of religion and freedom of, and respect for, human rights," Kerry told reporters after the meeting.
 "I raised the issue of Alan Gross and his captivity, and we hope very much that there might be able to be assistance with respect to that issue," he said.
Apparently it did not occur to reporters to ask how Secretary of State Archbishop Pietro Parolin replied.  However, Kerry knows that the business of diplomacy is to find mutual benefit and the Vatican could be expected to raise its interest in change of US policy toward Cuba.
The ultras among Cuban Americans panicked, typified by this post on the Babalu Blog by Carlos Eire, author and Professor of History & Religious Studies at Yale University:
How's this for a scenario?:  Pope Francis gets Alan Gross freed in exchange for the four Castro spies, and, on top of that, orchestrates the restoration of US/Castro diplomatic ties, along with the lifting of the embargo.  And it will all make Obama look so righteous and compassionate rather than weak, all because of the glow lent to the whole deal by Pope Francis's halo.
Such speculation is not far-fetched.  Keep in mind that all of these items are linked together, since Gross is often cited by the Obama administration as the greatest obstacle to "reconciliation."
... And don't forget the the Vatican has easy access to Raul through the reprehensible boot-licking Cardinal Ortega, who has already proven his mettle as a deal-maker who will screw the Cuban people and --at the same time -- make all the screwing look like a holy work of mercy.
Leaving aside Eire's extremist view about Cardinal Ortega, could he be right about how things might move?   Does the President need a Papal request on top of direct appeals by Alan and Judy Gross and a letter from two thirds of the Senate (see previous post here) to overcome the intense hostility of the anti-Cuba lobby?  It has just been announced that the President and Pope will meet in the Vatican on March 27th so we probably have to wait two months to see.   

Moving in the Right Direction

Early indicators from last week's migration talks in Havana suggest that the groundwork is being laid for resolution of significant bilateral problems.  In addition to the mutually positive tone, the more objective discussion of the cases of Alan Gross and the four Cuban prisoners suggests the possibility of behind the scenes negotiations to find a humanitarian solution for foot soldier victims of an anachronistic conflict.  
I have not seen a Cuban reaction to the meeting by the head of the US delegation with dissidents, unlike on previous occasions when such extra-curricular encounters prompted strong denunciation.  Deputy Assistant Secretary Lee's formulation of US aspirations as the ability of Cubans to petition grievances without arrest is also very toned down rhetoric on regime change.  (Such an opening might even be realistic if linked to the end of US interference within Cuba.)
The positive but cautious official press releases from Cuba and the US can be seen here and here.   Pasted below are excerpts from more revealing Reuters and Associated Press accounts of the post talks press conference by Lee in Havana.
Silence so far from the the Cuban American caucus in Congress and their lobbyist/PAC donor/blogger at Capitol Hill Cubans (who is in a dither about former Senator Graham's current visit to Havana with Julia Sweig).   
On the pro-engagement side, Progresso Weekly published a slightly skeptical post which is oddly critical of the status of US representation and Lee's biography although Deputy Assistant Secretary is the level of past delegation leaders.
In a little reported statement before the talks, Judy Gross criticized both the State Department and for the first time the position of hard liners in Congress
"I do know that there are those in Congress with hatred so strong toward Cuba that they are willing to let Alan rot in prison. This way of thinking has failed to bring Alan home for four years and is a death sentence for Alan. … I urge all South Florida residents to send messages and meet with Senator Mark Rubio, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Congresswoman Ilena Ros-Lethinen and Congressman Mario Dias-Balart. … We need to try something different or Alan will die in prison."
The next couple of weeks could be interesting as the White House sorts through the politics of whatever may have taken place in Havana.
In any case, some reason to hope for a really Happy New Year in US-Cuba relations.  
John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

Maximizing the Potential of Travel

President Obama has opened the door part way for travel to Cuba.  
His remarks in Miami in November suggest the White House is preparing to take the next step:  
“we have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies” 
Ten days later Secretary of State Kerry, in his speech to the Interamerican Dialog program at the hall of the Organization of American States, added this specificity
“We are committed to this human interchange, and in the United States we believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors. They are ambassadors of our ideals, of our values, of our beliefs.” 
Last January Cuba gave greater freedom to travel to it citizens than Americans possess when it abolished rules requiring government authorization (white cards).  
Will the President respond and open the door further for us in the New Year?
It is estimated that 350,000 Cuban Americans returned to their homeland under a general license in 2012 which does not require application to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  It is assumed that most of the 98,000 other Americans who traveled used the people to people specific license obtained from OFAC although some were covered by a general license for universities and religious organizations.  (OFAC does not release figures on the number of specific licenses issued, nor the names of the recipients, and has no data on the use of general licenses.)  
The authorization and renewal process for a specific license is unpredictable, unconsionably slow and expensive in terms of staff time and/or for lawyers.  OFAC staff are required to evaluate the motivation of trip promoters and the likely experience of Americans in a country about which they have limited often prejudicial knowledge and no direct experience.  
Each decision on a specific license is subject to scrutiny by members of the House and Senate who oppose all travel.  They suffered a melt-down when Beyonce and Jay-Z were seen in Havana, just as they erupted when Presidents Obama and Castro politely shook hands at a high level people to people occasion, the memorial for Nelson Mandela.

Do it, Mr. President, do it!

Castro and Obama
                                                                                          photo by AP
(The Ambassador Challenges Her Former Boss)
How then can we expect to be the prime mover in the complex affairs of the world, if we lack the courage here at home to redefine U.S.-Cuban relations?
Change is in the hands of the president — and Cuban Americans. In his eulogy Obama said, “Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.”
   --Vicki Huddleston, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (1999-2002), former deputy assistant secretary for Africa at State and at Defense, Miami Herald Op Ed
Lift the Cuban Embargo
Some Republicans and Cuban-American lawmakers are criticizing President Obama for shaking President Raúl Castro’s hand at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Their reaction to a gesture of common courtesy should come as no surprise given Washington’s senseless commitment to a failed 50-year policy toward Cuba.
(Obama's Goal?)
The handshake between President Obama and Raul Castro at Nelson Mandela's memorial service would have made the South African leader smile. It was the latest sign of a gradual thawing in relations between Washington and Havana after a frozen half-century.
It hasn't been easy. Obama favored diplomatic recognition and lifting the embargo as far back as when he was a state legislator in Illinois, and he has steadily eased restrictions on travel since taking office.
But many on the American right, especially octogenarian Cuban immigrants from the Bay of Pigs generation, have stubbornly resisted normalizing relations with Cuba. Now, though, it seems as if the process is developing a momentum of its own.
     --Tom Hayden, a founder of the new left and former member of the California State Senate, Los Angeles Times OpEd
Judy Gross to Obama: Castro handshake was fine, now help free my husband
The wife of a Jewish American contractor jailed in Cuba since 2009 said Thursday that she had no problem with US president Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban leader Raul Castro in South Africa Tuesday….
Gross was called to the State Department on Monday for a periodic update and was again assured of the government’s efforts in freeing Alan.
“I got what I call ‘empty rhetoric,’” she said.
“We’re asking for the US government to sit down and have negotiations. The most important message is that President Obama needs to get personally involved in the situation. He’s the one person who can get Alan out.”
She added that she often thinks about the thousands of Palestinian prisoners released in the Gilad Shalit deal in 2011….
 “I think of [Shalit] all the time, I wish my government would have that much interest in Alan to get him out.”
   --Amanda Borschel-Dan, Jewish World Editor, The Times of Israel

In the Spirit of Mandela

Mandela offers an insurmountable example to Latin America and the Caribbean, which are currently moving towards unity and integration for the benefit of their peoples, on the basis of respect for diversity, and convinced that it is through dialogue and cooperation that discrepancies can be resolved and a civilized relationship established between those who think differently....
I remember his bond of affection with Fidel Castro, a symbol of the fraternal relations between Africans and Cubans. Fidel has said: “Nelson Mandela will not go down in history for the 27 consecutive years he spent incarcerated without ever renouncing his ideas. He will go down in history because he was capable of cleaning-up his soul from the poison that such an unfair punishment could have planted there; and for his generosity and wisdom, which at the moment of victory allowed him to lead with great talent his selfless and heroic people, knowing that the new South Africa could not be built on hatred and vengeance.”
   -- President Raul Castro's speech in Johannesburg
The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality or universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important.  For around the world today, we still see children suffering from hunger and disease.  We still see run-down schools. We still see young people without prospects for the future.  Around the world today, men and women are still imprisoned for their political beliefs, and are still persecuted for what they look like, and how they worship, and who they love.  That is happening today.  
And so we, too, must act on behalf of justice.  We, too, must act on behalf of peace.  There are too many people who happily embrace Madiba’s legacy of racial reconciliation, but passionately resist even modest reforms that would challenge chronic poverty and growing inequality.  There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people.    And there are too many of us on the sidelines, comfortable in complacency or cynicism when our voices must be heard.
The questions we face today -- how to promote equality and justice; how to uphold freedom and human rights; how to end conflict and sectarian war -- these things do not have easy answers.  But there were no easy answers in front of that child born in World War I.  Nelson Mandela reminds us that it always seems impossible until it is done.  South Africa shows that is true.  South Africa shows we can change, that we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes.  We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.
    -- President Barack Obama's speech in Johannesburg
It is fitting to his role in reconciliation that Nelson Mandela's memorial should provide an occasion for Presidents Barrack Obama and Raul Castro to finally meet and shake hands.  Mandela related to the aspirations and the imperfect practices of both countries, and personally to their leaders.

Obama Meets Castro: The Handshake Heard Round the World

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?