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.
Ambassador Susan Rice
Today for the twentieth time the US will embarrass itself in the court of international public opinion when the General Assembly votes on our Cuba embargo..
I feel for Susan Rice, our extraordinary Permanent Representative to the United Nations, or the functionary who will carry her water, as they defend the indefensible, fifty years of unilateral and internationally condemned economic warfare against a neighbor for daring to be different.
Presumably we will again have only Israel by our side, its ears burning from hypocrisy. Israel's citizens freely vacation, work and invest in Cuba, unlike the Americans whose lonely hand they hold. The former head of the Mosad intelligence agency for years managed Cuba's largest citrus plantation.
The world does not know whether to laugh at us for our absurdity, despise us for our bullying or pity us because a tiny minority of embittered exiles so easily dominate our foreign policy.
The President can hardly join the near unanimous opposition to US policy, but he could show the decency to abstain.
Late Friday afternoon, Senator Marco Rubio revised the biography that appears on his office website. He had no choice. Throughout his political career, he has deceived Floridians, adoring Republican audiences and donors, journalists, fellow officeholders and others by claiming that his parents fled the Cuba of Fidel Castro. This is a lie exposed by hard journalism in the Washington Post.
Every Cuban American knows the precise time and purpose of his family’s departure from Cuba. The idea that Rubio never knew the facts until this moment – and that no family member ever bothered to correct the error before now –is absurd. While Rubio’s parents, Mario and Oriales, did adopt the anti-Castro position of many exiles who are opposed to the communist course taken by the Cuban revolution, the date of their emigration was not 1959 and the cause of their departure was not the current Cuban government. They left Cuba in 1956 as exiles from a tyrannical regime; that of Fulgencio Batista Zaldivar, the right-wing dictatorship that Fidel Castro overthrew.
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: