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.
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.


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".'

Are We Verging on the Verge? Will Snowden Undo It?

Seniors from the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY, meet students from the club at the Lenin School in Havana that is responsible for the science museum


My initial enthusiasm for candidate Barack Obama was based on his biography, and what he wrote about it.  With a father from Kenya and a mother who had lived and worked in Indonesia, including with the internationalist Ford Foundation, he seemed unusually qualified to move beyond the democracy evangelism  and national chauvinism of George Bush.  Growing up black in but-recently-desegregated-America also seemed to provide built in skepticism about US triumphalism.

I particularly welcomed his proclaimed readiness to negotiate with long time adversaries, his use in speeches of the term mutual respect, and his wry approach to the question of US exceptionalism:  

 "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."

Perhaps in a state of denial, I am still inclined to believe Obama is uniquely qualified to change history with Cuba.

Why Edward Snowden Didn't Go To Havana, Cuba

Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor on the run who leaked information about top secret surveillance activities at the NSA, didn't board the Aeroflot plane headed for Havana this morning as expected. Snowden, who flew from Hong Kong to Moscow this past weekend, was expected to transit Havana next, en route to either Venezuela or Ecuador (and Ecuador's President Correa is considered likely to accept him - afterall, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange remains holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London after more than a year now). Snowden's transit through Havana seemed obvious to many, given the decades-long tensions with the U.S., which is seeking Snowden's return and has charged him with espionage. And Havana has accepted U.S. fugitives since the 1960's - the most notorious of whom has recently been added to the FBI's most wanted list, Joanne Chesimard, a former Black Panther member who killed a New Jersey State Trooper. Many of these fugitives remain on the island today and their status is expected to be addressed in the course of any normalization of relations. So imagine the world's surprise when Snowden didn't turn up for the Havana-bound flight for which he was reportedly booked.

But perhaps not everyone was surprised that Snowden didn't board that flight. In the State Department's 2006 report detailing why it would continue to list Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, it noted that Cuban authorities had given assurances they would no longer accept "new" U.S. fugitives (whether their crimes were considered political or not). Allowing Snowden to transit Cuba would be a break of faith from that assurance given. Allowing a fugitive to transit your territory is tantamount to giving refuge, as the fugitive wouldn't be able to reach their ultimate destination without the transit stop. My guess is that the message somehow got to Snowden that if he traveled through Cuba he would be detained and possibly even returned to the United States (I suppose an immediate return wouldn't be certain; he would be the highest value fugitive to pass through in quite some time, for sure, and I imagine the Cubans might be tempted to consider whether they could trade him for one or all of their remaining Cuban Five. But such a strategy might backfire, of course).

Perhaps I'll be proven wrong in the days ahead, but I doubt we'll see Edward Snowden turn up in Havana any time soon.

U.S. Restarts Migration, Mail Talks with Cuba

Shortly after the birth of my daughter earlier this spring, a dear friend came from far away to visit.  Naturally, she wanted to know, how are things with Cuba? Surely Obama is changing things, right, she wondered? Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation talking, but I was feeling cranky and pessimistic, and I said, “This issue never moves!” To which she replied – to my horror – “I guess we’ll have to wait for (Fidel) Castro to die.”

It’s not that I harbor any great love for Fidel Castro. It's not about Castro at all, and that's the point. It can be mighty frustrating to have to explain over and over again that waiting isn't a policy, and even if it were, the conflict simply isn't about Fidel Castro anymore. As Republican Senator Mike Enzi likes to say about U.S. Cuba policy, if you keep doing what you've always done, you'll keep getting what you've already got. And yet, waiting is the predominant American viewpoint when it comes to Cuba; nothing can or should change until Fidel goes. But the reality is that the so-called biological solution is no solution at all.

Fidel Castro has been out of power (if not influence) for 7 years now. In order to try to right his sinking ship, Raul Castro has steadily been dismantling many of the economic – and even some political – policies that his older brother either endorsed or neglected.  Does anyone truly believe that anything will change either in Cuba or in the bilateral relationship as a result of his exit from the scene? Surely not; whatever change his exit might have ushered in, that moment came and went in 2006 when he gave up the reins of power for the first time since gaining them a half a century ago.  

Both the U.S. and Cuban governments have botched this thing over and over, and, arguably, haven’t always wanted reconciliation or normalization or any other nuanced form of moving on. Over the last several years, the Obama administration’s policy toward Cuba has been something of a work in progress. Openings to travel and exchange have been slow, at times arbitrarily approved, but in the end, have proliferated. The president’s call for a new beginning in the relationship was followed largely by more of the same when it came to USAID programming, which is not your usual development programming in partnership with the host country. And when the U.S. had the opportunity to send a message, a gesture, by sending one of the Cuban Five who was released on parole back to Cuba instead, we didn’t. (Did we really want him on U.S. soil, anyway?)

Plenty has gone awry on the Cuban side too, starting and ending with the vague and changing approach taken concerning an American USAID sub-contractor who has served more than 3 years in Cuban prison now. He’s become essentially a bargaining chip, like it or not, intended or not, in a negotiation that never took place. And for all the constructive proposals Cuban diplomats insisted they were putting on the table, everyone on both sides knew the U.S. was unwilling to budge without Alan Gross back home.

Both sides seemed to be waiting for something that just wasn’t happening.

But something is happening now. It appears that Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t want to wait anymore. Where his predecessor allowed talks on several fronts to stall – insisting no further progress could be made without movement on the Gross case – Kerry has chosen to move ahead with them again. Who can say whether restarting talks on migration and direct mail this summer was intended to convince the Cubans to release Alan Gross (I doubt it’s enough, if he must be traded), or whether they went back to the table because that’s what diplomats do. Either way, it’s a small but welcome step forward.

One more thing: As I prepared to post this piece, I remembered that the U.S. has just let Rene Gonzalez, the first of five Cuban intelligence agents to be released on parole from U.S. prison, go to (and stay in) Cuba, about a year before his parole was to have ended. Whereas the Justice Department opposed letting Gonzalez remain in Cuba when he was first released, it has reversed itself and now saying it better serves U.S. national security for him to be outside of the United States.

I expect Cuban government officials were quick to make clear that this in no way is equal to sending Alan Gross home (he has served perhaps 20% of his total sentence so far, and this issue of parity is something Cuban officials have raised in public and private). But coming as it does at the beginning of a new Secretary's tenure, one who has historically been in favor of a fresh approach to the U.S.-Cuba conflict, I expect they may still have taken the development as a gesture of good faith from Kerry (surely he weighed in with the Justice Department on the potential foreign policy implications of opposing or supporting Gonzalez's request).  It's now up to both sides to keep the ball rolling.