I’ve just finished reading a new report by Professor Richard Feinberg, a former Clinton administration official and non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Reaching Out: Cuba’s New Economy and the International Response,” clocked in at a daunting 101 pages but should nonetheless be required reading for anyone following the island nation’s long-awaited economic restructuring.
Cuba’s economic transformation is a hot topic, to be sure; another excellent report, Cuba’s New Resolve: Economic Reform and Its Implications for U.S. Policy, written by Cuba expert Collin Laverty for the Center for Democracy in the Americas, offers a detailed look at Cuba’s economic reforms to date, and in so doing, lays to rest any question of whether these reforms are just a temporary fix or irreversible. If Cuba’s New Resolve argues that Cuba is serious about its economic reforms, Reaching Out offers what the international community should do about it with an 800 pound gorilla - the U.S. embargo - in the room.
I’ll admit that after reading Feinberg’s introduction, I next skipped to the middle for both a history lesson and a pragmatic, creative vision for Raul Castro’s Cuba to reconnect with the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as with regional development banks, in spite of opposition from the United States.
Feinberg unravels the conventional wisdom that says Cuba and the IFIs would make unhappy bedfellows – Cuba withdrew from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund more than 40 years ago – by pointing to successful IFI engagement with nonmembers like Kosovo and South Sudan, and with proud and strong states like Ortega's Nicaragua and Vietnam, with which Cuba shares key similarities. The IFIs are more interested in “the long game,” Feinberg argues, and their willingness to take things step by step would fit nicely with Cuba’s (urgent) need for gradual changes. He talks to both sides and a senior Cuban diplomat tells him that “Cuba has no principled position against” engagement with the IFIs - a statement Feinberg believes signals a real shift in Cuban policy (hopefully a Cuban official will field that question publicly in the not too distant future).
Meanwhile, IFI experts are more than ready to engage Cuba, and Feinberg argues that U.S. opposition to IFI assistance isn’t as insurmountable as it might seem. In particular, IFIs can work through trust funds and other donors can administer programs. Feinberg also sees a role for regional development banks such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the Andean Development Corporation, as the U.S. isn’t a member.
At a time when the United States is noticeable absent and seemingly oblivious to the critical moment at hand in Cuba, Feinberg offers immediate, actionable recommendations for the international development community to engage Cuba now, when it can clearly have a tremendous impact on the breadth, depth and success of the reforms. His recommendations for the IFIs, Cuban policymakers and the United States include:
Wonk-out alert: For those who missed the action on the Senate floor yesterday, The Hill reports that Senator Reid’s “Minibus” appropriations bill nearly crashed over Cuba provisions contained in the bill. Those provisions were 1) a provision passed in FY 09, FY10 and FY11 that defines the term “cash in advance” for the purpose of complying with a 2000 law that authorized cash in advance food exports to the island, and 2) a provision that would have blocked enforcement funds for a prohibition on Cuban buyers routing their payments for U.S. purchases directly, rather than through a third country bank.
The former provision was in the original Financial Services Appropriations bill when it was considered by the full Appropriations Committee in September. The latter provision, championed by Senators Jerry Moran (R-KS) and Ben Nelson (D-NE), was attached to the bill by a vote of 20 to 10 in that committee. The vote was significant – for Cuban watchers, anyway – because the Chairs of the Intelligence and Banking Committees, and the chair of the Financial Services Appropriations Subcommittee, spoke in favor of the amendment, and because 6 Republicans, including the Ranking Member of the full committee, joined 14 Democrats in voting for it.
These provisions aren’t exactly huge chunks of the U.S. embargo. What they would do is inch a bit closer towards reasonable and reliable terms of export (you can’t really call one-way transactions “trade”, can you?), something which the agriculture export community in the U.S. has been pushing for since a 2005 Bush administration rule made cash-in-advance sales impossible to transact. The sales, though they dropped and continue to drop, have continued because the law also allowed for foreign letters of credit in payment, something larger exporters are quite used to and comfortable with. Taken together, the two rules added cost and volatility to the sales. Small bore though they may be, the agriculture export provisions give embargo supporters like Senators Rubio, Menenedez and Nelson (of Florida) heartburn because better export terms means more exports and better ties between Cuba and an influencial sector here in the U.S., which in turn could lead to further dismantling of the embargo.
What I can’t yet explain is why the provisions were vulnerable to the Senate rule against authorizing or legislating policy on a spending bill. The Moran provision that came out of Committee was simply a prohibition on funding, and shouldn’t have fallen upon such a challenge. UPDATE #1:
A self-employed vendor of sunglasses in Havana
“The Cuban government has said that it wants to transition, to loosen up the economy, so that businesses can operate more freely. We have not seen evidence that they have been sufficiently aggressive in changing their policies economically”
President Obama in first meeting with Hispanic journalists, September 12, 2011
"But there is a basic, I think, recognition of people’s human rights that includes their right to work, to change jobs, to get an education, to start a business. So some elements of freedom are included in how an economic system works. And right now, we haven’t seen any of that."
President Obama in second meeting with Hispanic journalists, September 28, 2011
The Obama Administration has minimized the significance of economic reforms underway in Cuba, a part of its rationalization for limiting change in bilateral relations. Leaving aside the counterproductive illogic of that position as policy, it is disturbing to think they really might be so woefully misinformed.
Some of the personnel in the US Interests Section in Havana have a cold war political bias that may affect their reporting, but some don't. It may be that staff in the National Security Council are still giving disproportionate weight to the perspective of the old guard in Miami, but surely others in the White House read the US and international press!
Whatever the reason, ignorance will be less of a defense after publication last week of an excellent comprehensive report by Collin Laverty issued by our colleagues at the Center for Democracy in the Americas. "Cuba’s New Resolve: Economic Reform and its Implications for U.S. Policy" , available on line here.
For the first time in fifty years, Cubans will be able to freely buy and sell their homes. As news of this long-awaited and the biggest yet of Raul Castro’s slow-moving but continuing, irreversible economic reform campaign in Cuba reverberated on and off the island, policymakers in Washington are increasingly – embarrassingly – out of step with what’s actually happening on the island today. It's like the U.S. embargo has become a wax feature at Madame Tussaud's: questionably life-like and stuck forever in one moment in time.
As Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson appeared before a Senate committee this week that could make or break her nomination to become Assistant Secretary, the able career diplomat was forced further and further into the Cuban policy box the Obama administration has needlessly painted itself.
Grilled by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) on the administration’s policies toward the island, Jacobson repeated that the president's new, more open travel and remittance policies for Cuban Americans and other “certain, very clearly defined” travelers is intended to help foster democracy in Cuba. And, as have other administration officials in the two years since the limited U.S. policy reforms began, she failed to forcefully and unapologetically insist that not only is exposure to Americans better for the Cuban people than is isolation, but that it’s good for the American people too.
Jacobson should have been armed with a sure-footed answer like this:
There is much political continuity in Raul Castro’s government, but the recent announcement that Cubans will be able to sell and buy houses and their used cars represents an important change. These are visible economic reforms with direct impacts on Cuban lives. The marketization of these assets unleashes Cuban entrepreneurial spirit and might increase the remittances received from relatives and friends abroad.
For decades, rigid communist regulation of real estate and car sales created major resentment in Cuba, but the government didn’t respond to the public's criticism. After a brief interregnum from 1984 to 1988, when Cubans could sell their houses, Fidel Castro cancelled this right arguing that it was fomenting inequalities, creating a class of intermediaries who were capitalizing on transactions, and rewarding the nouveau riche. His characteristic aversion to market mechanisms also exerted a virtual veto against the sale of automobiles acquired after 1959.
India and Pakistan have fought no fewer than three wars, and have come dangerously close to several more - including potential nuclear war and charges of supporting terrorism against India - costing hundreds of thousands of lives. They are and have been bitter rivals for decades (longer, in fact, that the U.S. and Cuba).
But, despite all that water under the bridge, Pakistan now says it will normalize trade relations with India (India already granted normal trade relations to Pakistan fifteen years ago). Not surprisingly, some more sensitive items will remain controlled or banned for trade, and this certainly doesn’t resolve deep, serious and sensitive security disputes between the two countries. But it makes you wonder, doesn’t it? If they can do it, why can’t we?
Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a talk cohosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the American University School of Public Affairs and the American University Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, given by several visiting Cuban professors specializing in political science and economics. I came away with several clear lessons that the vast majority of Americans (and apparently whomever is giving President Obama advice on Cuba these days) do not yet understand about a radically changing Cuba.
Sometimes, when you read a story like this one, you're reminded why people to people travel to Cuba is so rewarding, important and worth fighting for:
The first time Gary Buxton went to Havana, Cuba, to play softball two years ago, he brought New York Yankees hats.
This time, he's bringing Old Glory.
Buxton, 60, of Holliston is returning to Cuba next month for the eighth time to play softball, traveling with two teams from the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball association and a third from Tampa.
The group first traveled to Cuba in 2009 on a well-publicized trip that marked the first time an amateur American sports team entered the communist country. Buxton has returned several times since to play for and against Cuban softball teams.
"We were told to bring an American flag, so it's a good bet probably that not only will they be playing the American anthem but they'll be flying the American flag, and that's never really been done," Buxton said. "Nobody does anything in Cuba without the government saying it's OK."
It's the sign of a changing climate in Cuba, Buxton said. When the Cubans he meets find out he's an American softball player, he is greeted warmly, often with hugs and kisses. His presence in the country, which has been closed for decades, represents something special to the Cubans.
Writing in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Steven Kurlander comes to Senator Marco Rubio’s defense, accusing The Washington Post of publishing a hatchet piece against the senator who has merely confused the “circumstances and timing of his parent's flight from communist Cuba.”
“No one really cares how or when his parents got here,” Kurlander writes. Only, that just isn’t so, and Kurlander proves it by making his case with this opener:
“I am the child of a refugee, a Holocaust survivor's son.”
And then with this:
“Maybe because I am the son of a Holocaust survivor, I understand the confusion Sen. Rubio may have surrounding his parent's story . . . it may be just that his parents did not really talk much about their flight to Florida at all.
Rubio is instead the latest victim of a debilitating ethos of character assassination rampant in our press and blogosphere that wrongfully dissects a politician's rendition of his personal history, taking facts out of context to destroy his or her credibility. From a child of the Holocaust's perspective, this assault on Rubio's story was totally unfair.”
Kurlander returns to this, his own personal narrative, throughout the op-ed, because apparently it gives him authority on the matter. No, really, it does. Our personal narratives help each of us relate to those around us and in turn for others to relate to us. And these narratives especially help us relate to public figures whom we haven’t even met but who ask us for our trust. The more we identify ourselves within the framework of our chosen narrative, the more we need to preserve it. These narratives are frameworks we construct based on our experiences (real or perceived), what we want to be, and to what we think others will relate. Kurlander surely knows that his “son of a Holocaust survivor” narrative will encourage people to listen to him, at least on the subject of suffering. And, speaking as someone of Jewish heritage (you know I had to do that), it most certainly does get my attention.
Why are revelations about one of the Republican Party’s brightest rising stars necessarily a character assassination? If memory serves, this is a basic lesson in college level journalism class: public figures put themselves out there- and Rubio has repeatedly put his family's Cuba story out in front (though not always the same version of it), like in his Senate campaign ads, for instance. Marco Rubio has benefited from repeating this narrative that his parents fled Castro's Cuba. It’s his badge of honor. Why else would he utter a statement like this: “Nothing against immigrants, but my parents are exiles.”
May Day parade poster for the Cuban 5, Havana 2011
In a meeting with Hispanic journalists on September 12th, President Obama, referring to Bill Richardson’s trip to Cuba, said:
"Anything to get Mr. Gross free we will support".
Israel has shown the US how to do it.
If it can exchange Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinians, including 315 serving life sentences, why is it so hard for the Obama Administration to release five Cuban intelligence operatives, one imprisoned for life, in return for USAID subcontracted operative Alan Gross?
President Obama can make the first humanitarian gesture by letting Cuban operative Rene Gonzales serve his probation in Cuba, under the supervision of the US Interests Section--if that is required. President Castro can respond with a humanitarian gesture of giving probation to USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, under the supervision of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Part of a bilateral negotiated arrangement should be the release of the remaining four imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents.
Cuba can respond in like manner, sending four prisoners to the US. If there were any still held as prisoners of conscience, they deserve priority. Otherwise the four can be persons convicted for politically motivated acts of violence, the new cause of the Ladies in White. It is not too big a stretch as Cuba generally regards all anti-regime actions as being motivated if not funded by the US.
Cardinal Ortega could be asked to serve as the intermediary to assure both sides act in good faith.
Each country regards those imprisoned by the other as heroes and exponents of unimpeachable values. Similarly each country believes those it holds have been legitimately convicted and sentenced under its laws in the defense of national security and sovereignty.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has provided an example of what it means to be serious rather than rhetorical.
Should Obama be equally courageous, he can expect blatant hypocrisy in response.