Laura Pollan, a founding member and leader of the Ladies in White, passed away in Havana after a brief illness this week. While many Cubans may not know who she was, those who marched with her these last 9 years are missing her and vowing to keep the group she led moving forward. The women’s group started as a silent protest after Mass each Sunday, after their loved ones were arrested and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in the spring of 2003 for what the Cuban government said was collaboration with a hostile foreign power (the U.S. of course). For many years, the Ladies made a statement by saying nothing, just walking on 5th Avenue, dressed all in white and carrying gladiolas in their hands. In the last couple of years, the group was becoming more visible and political, and perhaps it was for that that pro-government crowds began harassing and intimidating the Ladies in Havana and Santiago on a number of occasions. Whatever one might think of another’s politics – their means, their bedfellows, their objectives – those who would intimidate only denigrate themselves when resorting to such tactics. Remembering Pollan, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez wonders what those who pushed and yelled at Pollan might feel now.
Speaking of pushing and yelling, House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is at it again, so to speak. This time her target was a Cuban children’s theater group, the famous La Colmenita (the Little Beehive). The group of performers, ages 6 -15, came to Washington, DC this week and “brought down the house” at the Duke Ellington Theater Wednesday night. Ros-Lehtinen sent an indignant complaint to the State Department this week. Her beef is with one of the acts the children perform, “inspired by the story of the Cuban Five who are hailed as national heroes in Cuba for their efforts to prevent militant Cuban exile groups from harming Cuban citizens.” Ros-Lehtinen characterizes the Five quite differently – they were sent to the U.S. to “carry out illicit operations against our homeland,” and convicted of “espionage activities.” The Five’s work was indeed illicit – agents of foreign governments must register when they are working in our country, and they did not. But they weren't targeting the American homeland, they were in Miami keeping tabs on groups that were targeting their own homeland. La Colmenita's director, whose father perished on Cubana flight 455 (downed by terrorists in 1976), shot back:
“She is treating us as if we were terrorists when the facts are quite the opposite. It is a small segment of the Cuban exile community who has used threats and violence to keep Americans and Cubans apart. We are simply Cuban artists who are coming to the U.S. with a message of social justice, peace and understanding. All we want to do is to share our stories with those Americans who want to know more about the things that are important to the Cuban people...”
It always comes down to the fact that one person’s bad guy is another person’s good guy. (Ros-Lehtinen should know this as well as anyone, since she campaigned for a pardon for Orlando Bosch, whom the FBI implicated in the Cubana attack, among others.) Ros-Lehtinen suggests in her letter that the State Department is misusing taxpayer funds by allowing exchanges such as this one to take place, though it's unclear why, since the group's visit was funded by a private entity, The Brownstone Foundation. With the number of snowflakes the Chairwoman sends over to State on Cuba policy these days, it’s a wonder she gets anything else accomplished with her taxpayer-funds.
Finally, I was going to just leave news of the Israeli-Palestinian thousand-for-one swap alone – I’m no expert on the Middle East – but this post by Elliott Abrams on the Council on Foreign Relations' blog just begged a response:
Florida International University has just released the results of a poll on Cuban American attitudes on Cuba and U.S. policies (this is their tenth poll over the last twenty years). This latest FIU poll raises a lot of the big questions on the table right now and gets some contradictory answers.
Overall, a majority of respondents say they support maintaining the embargo (56%), and only 39% are ready to expand trade and investment in Cuba beyond current levels. At the same time, a majority (57%) favors lifting all restrictions on travel, 60% oppose restrictions on family travel and 57% even support re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. Oh, and a whopping 80% of respondents believe that the embargo has “not worked very well” or “not worked at all”. Yes, you read that right.
What a mixed picture, right?
But it’s not so mixed if you start to look at specific categories, like the responses of 18-44 year-olds or of after-94’ers (those who arrived to the U.S. after 1994). Those categories lead the pack on supporting engagement via diplomacy (70+% support), travel (75+% support) , food and medicine sales (75+%), private investment, you name it. But what’s more important is where they fall behind – in citizenship and voter registration. Two-thirds of the after-1994 group are either non-citizens or non-registered citizens.
So, while 76% of the after-1994 group opposes a law that would limit family travel to the island to once every three years (a return to the Bush administration regulations, as proposed by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart this summer) – the lawmaker who proposed these restrictions only has to worry about the 54% of the registered voters who say they oppose the changes. Across the board, the decided engagement tilt of the younger and more recent cohorts of Cuban Americans is tempered by slightly conservative tilt among registered citizen Cuban Americans.
Some folks argue that money talks and U.S. policy is shaped to a large degree by political campaign donations.
Does including Cuba on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsoring nations serve the United States' national interest?
Lawrence B. Wilkerson and Arturo Lopez-Levy
According to a New York Times story , in his recent visit to Havana, former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson told Bruno Rodriguez, Cuban Minister of Foreign Relations, that by releasing Alan Gross, Cuba could begin a process of being removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list. Since both Richardson and the State Department have repeatedly declared that they have been working together on this issue, this is practically a confession that Cuba’s inclusion on the state sponsors of terrorism list is a sham.
The list of terrorist sponsoring nations should be a bargaining tool for dealing with, well, countries that engage in or sponsor terrorism. The misuse of an otherwise effective foreign policy tool must give pause to responsible members of Congress and the Washington intelligence community. First, it focuses efforts and resources in the wrong direction, taking eyes and dollars from where the real threats are. Second, it sends the wrong message to other countries, diminishing the impact of a warning to countries such as Iran and Syria and the groups they sponsor such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Third, it weakens the capacity of US allies like Israel , who are real targets of terrorist threats, to make a case for the isolation or monitoring of countries such as Iran whose presence on the list is justified.
As reasonable Cuba watchers were tearing our hair out over Bill Richardson's failed mission to Cuba, and growing increasingly despairing over the bitter tit-for-tat that followed, two fugitives from American justice were apprehended in Cuba and turned over to U.S. marshals, who then escorted them back to New Jersey where they appeared in court on murder, kidnapping and arson charges. The two stand accused of killing a 23 year-old man just over one year ago. Senator Bob Menendez's press release thanking Cuban authorities for their cooperation is here (Just kidding). Makes you wonder when Cuba informed U.S. authorities that it had apprehended the two suspects relative to the August release of the 2010 terrorism report (in which the subject of fugitives living in Cuba was not, for the first time in a number of years, included in that report, which I think makes sense - it should be a law enforcement issue).
When Rene Gonzalez, one of five Cuban agents reviled by Miami hardliners and celebrated by the Havana government and its supporters, walks out of a Miami prison Friday after serving 13 years of a 15 year sentence, where will he go and who will be there to greet him? This is a question someone in the Obama administration surely must have considered, because how they answer could cost them – and the Miami Dade Police Department - dearly.
The options seem relatively clear: either he goes home to Cuba and stays there (Gonzalez, who is a dual citizen, could remain in Cuba if he renounces his U.S. citizenship), or he stays in Miami to serve out his probation. A Miami judge denied his request to serve out his parole in Cuba, but I’m not sure that ends the matter. Surely the administration has other means to bypass Miami and give Gonzalez the boot? It’s not hard to imagine the headache those who revile him most will create not just for Gonzalez but for the Miami-Dade police, and even for the administration. And here's a high-ranking member of the U.S. Congress (Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen) who isn't afraid to stir the pot:
“Rene Gonzalez, like the regime he serves, is an enemy of America. He has American blood on his hands and dedicated his life to harming our country on behalf of a regime that is a State Sponsor of Terrorism . . . The Obama administration needs to take every precaution to protect U.S. security and the American people from this enemy of our nation.”
[Incidentally, on this 35th anniversary of the 1976 Cubana airliner bombing, one has to ask whether Ros-Lehtinen has ever used the phrase “blood on his hands” to describe the masterminds of the October 6, 1976 Cubana airliner bombing, Luis Posada Carriles and Orlando Bosch, both of whom eluded justice and lived out their days as free men in Miami.]
No matter what your opinion of Gonzalez or his crime – and he did commit one by working for his government without registering with ours – it’s hard to see any altercation over his supervised release playing out well for the Obama administration. It would draw attention to the Cuba issue right as the administration would probably prefer it to fade away (re-election, anyone?), and has police vs. community elements face-off/debacle – remember Elian Gonzalez, folks? – written all over it, but instead of centering on a sweet-faced little boy, the crisis would revolve around a foreign government agent walking the streets of Miami. And in that harsh light of sudden media attention, the administration would end up catching flack for not shipping Gonzalez off. After all, the best way to “protect” America from someone is to keep him off U.S. soil.
Despite the tensions associated with the upcoming 2012 election campaign in the US, a dialogue between Washington and Havana, as proposed by the Cuban Foreign Relations Minister Bruno Rodriguez, is also in the interest of the Obama Administration, which has nothing to gain from more conflicts in its relationship with Cuba. President Barack Obama's positions favoring dialogue without preconditions, increasing people to people contacts, and reaching mutually beneficial agreements on bilateral issues were never predicated on sympathy for Fidel or Raul Castro, but rather on the conviction that diplomacy and contacts between societies are the best ways to promote US national interests.
By that standard, the balance of the first three years of the Obama administration's relationship with Cuba is positive. The increase in cultural, family, humanitarian and religious travel to Cuba accelerates current reforms in Cuba, improves the image of the US in the hemisphere, and strengthens domestic political trends favoring an engagement policy that is less dependent on the Miami right and more consistent with democratic values and US strategic and economic interests.
President Obama said yesterday he's looking for a transformation on the island before "fully engaging" Cuba. His remarks actually complete something of a transformation for Obama, who went from saying this on one campaign trail, to saying this on the next campaign trail, to now saying stuff like this:
"Everywhere else in the world you've been seeing the democratization movement pressing forward . . . The time has come for the same thing to happen in Cuba."
"What we've tried to do is send a signal is that we are open to a new relationship with Cuba if the Cuban government starts taking the proper steps . . . "
"Following through on releasing political prisoners . . . "
Just not the ones released in 2010 and 2011 as a result of talks with the Catholic Church and the Spanish government?
"We're prepared to show flexibility and not be stuck in a Cold War mentality dating back to when I was born . . . " but, " . . . So far we haven't seen the kind of genuine transformation of spirt inside of Cuba that would justify us eliminating the embargo."
These words may sound good to those couple of percentage points of Cuban American swing voters in Florida, but statements like these reveal a White House either oblivious of or uninterested in the actual changes that are taking place in Cuba. These sorts of backhanded offers to talk actually telegraph to the Cubans that we are NOT, in fact, ready to talk at all. (Or, certainly not in public.) These statements were never intended as a message for Havana. They're for Little Havana.
How do you know that an Italian newspaper report that Hezbollah is looking to establish a presence in Cuba is bogus? When Rep. Michelle Bachmann picks up the story and runs away with it.
"There’s reports that have come out that Cuba has been working with another terrorist organization called Hezbollah. And Hezbollah is potentially looking at wanting to be part of missile sites in Iran and, of course, when you’re 90 miles offshore from Florida, you don’t want to entertain the prospect of hosting bases or sites where Hezbollah could have training camps or perhaps have missile sites or weapons sites in Cuba. This would be foolish.”
Actually, there has been just one report, in an Italian newspaper, which then got picked up and spread around by a number of conservative U.S. blogs. I am in no position to evaluate the intelligence collected by that newspaper (and it doesn't offer sources), but, as the Wall Street Journal's blog Washington Wire points out, Cuba's presence on the U.S. terrorism list isn't due to any Hezbollah link - it's largely become a political bargaining chip. And if you doubt that, just ask Bill Richardson.
While Bachmann frets over that one, a group of her colleagues fire off a threatening letter to Spain's Repsol, warning the company to dump its Cuban deep water exploration plans, you know, if you know what's good for you. The signers warn that "grave civil and criminal" penalties come with violations of the "comprehensive" Cuba embargo. But even the embargo isn't so comprehensive as to stop a foreign company from drilling in Cuban waters, so long as there aren't U.S. parts, people or expertise involved. Which, of course, is exactly what scares so many in the industry about the impending exploration in Cuba.
Not this group, though. Nowhere in the letter does the group express any concerns around what impact drilling could have on the environment, particularly in the event of a spill. But it could certainly "harm [Repsol's] commercial interests with the United States," and it might "run afoul of pending legislation." I think that was a mistake. In fact, I'm sure had Ros-Lehtinen and Sires, the leaders of the letter effort, invited her to join them on their letter, Michelle Bachmann could have come up with one heck of a nightmare scenario that would have capped the letter off quite nicely.
Oh, I jest. Serious industry experts warn us to be prepared to prevent or respond to any disaster before drilling begins. According to Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement Director Michael Bromwich, the issue has gotten - as it should - attention at "very high levels of the government."
The good news? Cuban energy officials are taking the lessons of the BP oil spill disaster very seriously, according to a group of oil drilling and environmental experts just back from Cuba, including the co-chairman of the Bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling (also former EPA administrator), the head of the International Association of Drilling Contractors, a former senior executive for Royal Dutch Shell and longtime Cuba expert with the Environmental Defense Fund.
The bad news? Less than three months before deep water drilling begins in Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico, neither Congress nor the Obama administration have taken the necessary steps to help prevent or respond to a similar disaster that could impact even more U.S. coastline. Granted, it seems a bit far-fetched to imagine the present Congress sending any legislation to the president these days, so the burden of preparedness essentially rests with the administration.
That's got CNN's Fareed Zakaria wondering, "What in the World??"
"What happens if there's another oil spill? Will it be easy and quick to clean up? No. You see, the nearest and best experts on safety procedures and dealing with oil spills are all American, but we are forbidden by our laws from being involved in any way with Cuba. Our trade embargo on Cuba not only prevents us from doing business with our neighbor but it also bars us from sending equipment and expertise to help even in a crisis. So, if there is an explosion, we will watch while the waters of the Gulf Coast get polluted."
Just days before the BP disaster struck last year, Jorge Piñón, the foremost expert on oil drilling in Cuba and where U.S. policy intersects it, and I urged the U.S. to talk to Cuba about oil spill prevention and response. At that time, deepwater exploration in Cuban waters was slated for late 2010. Unfortunately, the BP disaster made our call for prevention and planning with Cuba all the more salient.
Now, after several delays, with a Chinese-built Italian oil rig, the Scarabeo 9, on its way to Cuba, drilling of the first of five exploratory wells in Cuban deep water is set to commence this December.
A spill from this first, easternmost exploratory well to be drilled by the Repsol consortium could be particularly damaging due to its location where the Gulf Stream exits the Gulf of Mexico for the Atlantic. Whereas the BP disaster was somewhat "contained" in the northern Gulf, Piñón tells me to "imagine a fan-shaped spill with the well as the axis." If something were to go wrong on Scarabeo 9, we could see and feel the effects of a major oil spill in Cuban deep water not just in Florida, but far up the Atlantic coast.
If ever there were a moment to put aside political posturing about Cuba, this would be the moment. Will the Obama administration rise to the challenge? Despite a near-total, half century-old trade embargo against Cuba, the president has broad authority to issue regulations that would mandate U.S. preparedness and cooperation with Cuba - and other countries, like Mexico and the Bahamas - to prevent and respond to an oil spill. Given that drilling is set for less than 90 days from now, there's no time to lose.
Here's what Jorge Piñón tells me he'd recommend, all of which can be done within existing executive branch authority:
The High Holidays are the expression of the supreme Jewish belief in reconciliation and every individual’s capacity to recognize his or her mistakes and change for the better. The Cuban government should view Alan Gross’ recent statement as expressing repentance for his unconscious participation in American government sponsored regime change policies that violated Cuban sovereignty. Mr. Gross, an American Jew from Maryland, interested in civil society development was arrested in Dec. 3, 2009 by the Cuban authorities. He had gone to Cuba five times as a subcontractor of Development Alternatives Inc (DAI), a private company serving contracts awarded by the Bush Administration under the Cuba program of USAID.