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.
 
     --THE EDITORIAL BOARD OF THE NEW YORK TIMES
 
 
(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?

Could Alan Gross be Home for the Holidays?

Pres Obama Secretary Kerry

 

The pieces are in place.

Will the US and Cuba play them?

The fourth anniversary of the imprisonment of Alan Gross marked a fundamental shift in discourse which provides President Obama with the moral and political space to negotiate with Cuba for his release.

Stephen B. Kaplitt, a special assistant to the general counsel of USAID from 2004-2007, and a senior adviser in the State Department from 2007-2009 has written in Politico

Alan Gross is an untrained civilian who was put in harm’s way by his own government. His case presents a simple question that has nothing to do with the wisdom of U.S. policy toward Cuba: Will the U.S. government shoulder its responsibility for sending Gross to Cuba and do whatever is necessary to bring him home?

For the first time, Judy Gross directed a demonstration at the  place  a decision must be made that will free her husband, the White House.

The day before she wrote in USA Today:

As we approach the four-year anniversary of Alan's arrest, imprisonment, and nightmare, I hope that the United States and Cuban governments will hear my plea. I ask my country – Alan's country – the country he was serving – and my president: please do what it takes to bring my husband home.

Alan went to Cuba on behalf of our government, and it is up to our government to secure his safe return to his family.

At the demonstration she read a letter from Alan to the President that appeared on the Washington Post web site.
 
With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government – the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare – has abandoned me. Officials in your administration have expressed sympathy and called for my unconditional release, and I very much appreciate that. But it has not brought me home.
 
It is clear to me, Mr. President, that only with your personal involvement can my release be secured. I know that your administration and prior administrations have taken extraordinary steps to obtain the release of other U.S. citizens imprisoned abroad – even citizens who were not arrested for their work on behalf of their country. I ask that you also take action to secure my release, 
Judy and Alan gave the moral justification, even obligation, for the President to act.  
 
On the same day a letter signed by two-thirds of the Senate was released that gave the President political room to negotiate with Cuba:
 
We are united in our belief that Mr. Gross' freedom is a humanitarian priority. We urge you to act expeditiously to take whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain his release, and we stand ready to support your Administration in pursuit of this worthy goal.

Travel Endangered by US Financial Sanctions

Just as the travel season ramps up for the holidays, Cuba has announced that it must cease issuing passports and visas because it can't find a new bank to handle financial transactions (Reuters story here and AP here.)  

The State Department is trying to solve the immediate problem by helping the Cuban Interests Section find a new bank.   However, the crisis may demand more.  It offers a logical opportunity for the Obama administration to sustain its committment to purposeful travel. The White House should roll back OFAC's domestic and international assault  on dollar transactions with and by Cuba that began in the Bush era but escalated under Obama..  

That would not only solve the immediate problem of how to continue family, academic, religious and people to people travel, but also end widely despised extraterritorial economic warfare--and encourage the Cubans to end the 10 % surcharge on dollar exchanges, benefiting both remittances and licensed travelers.    

Progresso Weekly on the left reported

José Pertierra, a Washington-based attorney of Cuban origin, said that “due to the blockade and the fact that Cuba is incredibly on the list of countries that support terrorism, the banking rules facing any bank that dares to accept the Interests Section as a client are so, so cumbersome that it becomes more expensive for the bank to have Cuba as a client than to refuse to provide banking services to it.”

“The problem is not the banks, it’s the government. In this country, banks are a business. The fines imposed on banks that allegedly break the blockade are astronomical and the laws are extraterritorial.”

A further step

A path is emerging toward US policy change with Cuba.

There have been several versions of President Obama's comments in Miami.  Perhaps the most significant because of its semi official character was broadcast by the Voice of American:

Obama Calls for Updated US Policy on Cuba

VOA News     November 08, 2013

 
U.S. President Barack Obama says it is time for the United States to revise its policies regarding Cuba.
 
Speaking in Miami Friday, Obama said it doesn't make sense that policies put in place more than 50 years ago would still be effective in the Internet age.
 
The president pointed out that Cuban leader Fidel Castro came into power in 1961, the same year Obama was born. The United States cut off diplomatic relations with Cuba that same year and imposed an economic embargo a year later.
 
The U.S. embargo against Cuba is controversial internationally. In October, the United Nations voted to condemn it for the 22nd time.
 
The Obama administration has engaged in recent discussions with the Cubans on migration and mail, and has relaxed travel and remittance rules for Cuban Americans.
 
http://www.voanews.com/content/obama-us-needs-to-update-policy-on-cuba/1786893.html
For the first time, VOA published my comment:
 
It would not be a surprise if President Obama laid groundwork for a significant improvement in US policy toward Cuba in Miami and with prominent dissidents in the room. 
 
Will he approve an exchange of prisoners, take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and grant a general license for all non-tourist purposeful travel, no bureaucratic applications required?
 
Visiting Vietnam drives home our so far wasted opportunity with Cuba and the benefits both countries will receive from normalization of relations.
 
John McAuliff
Fund for Reconciliation and Development

Another straw in the wind?

President Obama is in Miami and said nice things about dissidents (filtered through Juan Tamayo's usually hostile to Havana interpretation in the Miami Herald), but also suggested more is coming on US policy change:

Obama told two of Cuba’s leading dissidents in South Florida that he admires their sacrifices, a rare White House recognition of the peaceful opposition on the communist-ruled island.
 
“The most important thing here was the recognition by the president of the United States, the most powerful democracy in the world,” dissident Guillermo Farinas said minutes after the meeting.
 
Obama also referred to his administration’s decision to relax travel restrictions on Cuba and said, "we’ve started to see changes on the island," adding the U.S. needs to be "creative and thoughtful" and continue to update out Cuba policies.
 
 

If memory serves, Farinas sits on the pro-travel restrictions pro-embargo side of the dissident community although he has obviously profited from both countries' liberalization.  

The President's comment on his travel initiative could be read as a refutation to Farinas and explain Farinas language about "the most important thing here", which implies Obama said things he was not so happy about.

John McAuliff

Fund for Reconciliation and Development

 

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