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

 

Links and resources

If Rep. Ros-Lehtinen is worried, should we be hopeful?

Is something about to break on US Cuba relations?  The statement below by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen just showed up on the ultra hard line Babalu Blog;  Reading between the lines, she seems worried that an Alan Gross deal is in the works and is trying to derail it.  

If this were just a routine arrest anniversary blast against Havana, why do it a month in advance?  If  a prisoner swap is not a credible option, why even mention it?    Is linking a specific up until now conventional demand to an unattainable rhetorical goal an indicator that the game is up?  

Wouldn't It Be Nice to Surprise the World in a Good Way

samantha power from State Department web page

Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations



It is an anomaly or worse that the most international of US Presidents finds himself so isolated in the face of world opinion on the issues of drone use and NSA surveillance. 

But these are difficult problems in which serious US security interests are at stake and the weight of domestic politics, conventional wisdom and powerful government agencies resist dramatic change.  Nevertheless, one senses a serious effort by the White House to address both problems.

The US will be even more embarrassingly isolated at the United Nations on October 29th when once again our embargo of Cuba is condemned by virtually the entire world.  Only a supremely hypocritical Israel will stand by our side, as its own people freely vacation, invest and work on the island.

Yet in this instance there is no significant US interest at stake, no government agency is invested (except possibly OFAC), and there is little public support beyond a shrinking special interest group.  

Our nation would be far better served by the improvement of US standing in Latin America, most significantly with Brazil, and in Europe; and by the opportunity to cooperate directly with Cuba on control of regional drug and people trafficking, etc.

It is late in the day, but let me suggest an action by Ambassador Samantha Power that would surprise and please the world and two-thirds of Americans:  Abstain!
 
(Fast footed diplomacy might even lead some of our allies already lined up against us to join the abstention column, a small tactical victory.)
 

Those Who Profit from Cuba Travel Must Act to Save It

 
 
Our friend and colleague Tony Martinez has written compellingly in the invaluable Progresso Weekly blog of the danger to travel to Cuba emerging from the House Appropriations Committee.  (Text of legislation here.)
 

The U.S. Congress is presently in its annual August recess.  Before it recessed, the House Appropriations Committee passed an amendment that would dramatically curtail legal U.S. Cuba travel basically eliminating the People to People category of travel.  The effort is led by pro embargo hardliner Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fl). Much to the chagrin of the pro travel side of the U.S. Cuba policy debate, the current political calculus actually favors that this restrictive bill will pass the Congress and head for another showdown with the White House in the fall.

The GOP led House will likely pass the measure and send it to the U.S. Senate. In a bipartisan fashion, Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fl) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ), the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, will ensure its passage there.

 
The folks who have the potential to act are the People to People licensees, Travel Service Providers and charter airlines  They have a real stake in defeating this legislation, and financial resources accumulated from business with Cuba. 
 
Most importantly that have e-mail lists of hundreds of thousands of Americans who have traveled with them to Cuba, the one constituency that is guaranteed to really care about this issue.
 
What are Marazul, Cuba Travel Services, XAEL, Wilson, Gulfstream, Island Travel and Tours, Insight Cuba, etc. doing to mobilize opinion?
 
Why is Rep. Joe Garcia who received substantial contributions and campaign support from pro-travel people not raising a ruckus?  CAFE has pointed out how family travel will also be crippled by this legislation.
 

Mandela, Miami and Cuba: The Real Story.

http://fpif.org/mandela-in-miami/

Ethics has never been a forte of the pro-embargo Cuban-American lobby. But the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC has reached a new low. Capitalizing on South African president Nelson Mandela's health problems, embargo supporters have constructed a false parallel between the multilateral sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime and the illegal, immoral, and counterproductive embargo against Cuba.

But Mandela's own relationship with Cuba tells a different story--one with important lessons for current foreign policy.

North Korean Freighter Seized With Cuban Weapon Systems on Board

The news that a North Korean freighter allegedly stuffed with “sophisticated missile equipment” has been intercepted crossing the Panama Canal from Cuba must have many people talking, scratching their heads, and perhaps even flashing back to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. Is history repeating itself?  Or is this just a bizarre (badly-executed?) example of Cuba’s knack for extending the life of hold-overs from a bygone era? Are these the military equivalent of Cuba’s famous maquinas, the mid-century American classic cars seemingly impossibly rumbling through the streets of Cuban cities more than half a century later, not out of novelty but necessity?

Let’s start with the fact that there’s plenty we don’t know yet. The Cuban Foreign Ministry has released a statement admitting to the weaponry on board the vessel, and explained the following:

'[T]he vessel was carrying 240 tonnes of obsolete defensive weapons - two anti-aircraft missile complexes, nine missiles in parts and spares, two MiG 21-Bis fighter planes and 15 MiG engines.

The Cuban statement said they were all made in the mid-20th Century and were to be repaired and returned to Cuba.

"The agreements subscribed by Cuba in this field are supported by the need to maintain our defensive capacity in order to preserve national sovereignty."

The statement also reaffirmed Cuba’s commitment to "peace, disarmament, including nuclear disarmament, and respect for international law".'