While Miami burns... Obama and Cuban-American politics


In this year's election, half of Cuban-Americans who are eligible to vote either came from Cuba after 1994 or grew up in the United States. Unfortunately, the White House is passing up the opportunity to hold a rational discussion of Washington’s policy towards Cuba.  

A Cuban-American anti-embargo activist. Flickr/futureatlas.com. Some rights reserved.A Cuban-American anti-embargo activist. Flickr/futureatlas.com. Some rights reserved.

US policy towards Latin America has paid a substantial price for President Obama’s kowtowing to the Miami hard-right wing. For example, Venezuela withdrew from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of the Americas (OAS), and there is a chance that no Summit of the Americas will happen in 2015 unless the United States changes its position on Cuba’s participation. Several countries in the Americas, from Nicaragua to Ecuador, spent years without a US ambassador due to Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) obstructionist caprice.

U.S.-Cuba Conflict: The Minefields in Our Imagination


As stunned Americans struggle to fathom the violence unleashed against the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya two nights ago – which, like anti-American protests in Egypt and Yemen, was sparked by an anti-Muslim movie trailer posted on You Tube – and which ended in the tragic deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other consulate staff, it boggles the mind that U.S. relations with our neighbor, Cuba, where the only violent extremists who threaten America are to be found at the U.S. prison facility at Guantanamo Bay, can really be such a minefield afterall.

And yet they are. How else to explain the apparent backtracking of the Obama administration on a policy it, yes, this and not some other administration, rolled out more than a year and a half ago, to authorize people-to-people educational travel to the island.  If the speculation is true that the administration bowed to pressures from pro-embargo lawmakers, specifically Senator Marco Rubio, who was holding up the nomination of our top Western Hemisphere diplomat at the time, one would have thought that the beefed up guidance on the policy offered this spring by the Treasury Department – including that travelers justify how any meetings with Cuban government representatives furthers the democratic cause in Cuba – should have been sufficient. But now it seems that scores of organizations are in the lurch, waiting for license renewals that don’t come, and forced to take a loss on their ventures.

An American no one believed would be in jail in Cuba this long remains there more than 2.5 years later – whether his employers complacently assured themselves the Cubans wouldn’t bother with his breaking the law or whether we analysts presumed the Cubans merely intended to make a point about their sovereignty and the U.S. government would admit its mistake (if only to itself) and get our man out. Because Alan Gross, whom his wife now fears won’t live to complete his 15 year sentence in Cuban prison, was our man, sending reports back on his USAID subcontract about the “very risky business” he was undertaking and the "catastrophic" results of discovery by the Cuban government. (Gross traveled to Cuba on a tourist visa five times in 2009 to set up several wi-fi networks that could go undetected by the Cuban government.) And we appear to have no plan yet – or if we do, it surely won’t appear until after the November elections – to secure his release other than to make demands that we know are backed up with zero leverage. There are those who imagine we have such leverage and insist the administration is too weak-kneed to wield it. It’s a convenient hypothesis that decades of unresolved strife with Havana ought to have dispelled by now.

Meanwhile, the semiannual migration talks, cancelled in a huff by the Bush administration – whose Cuba policy candidate Obama criticized – in early 2004 and restarted by the Obama administration in 2009, have again stalled for over a year now. Apparently stemming the tide of illegal Cuban migration, or even maintaining across-the-table talks for the sake of remembering how to do it, even if we vehemently disagree, is just not that high a priority anymore. It’s the sort of diplomacy that only hurts our interests.

After Tampa: US Hispanics and the GOP.



Governor Mitt Romney's decision to choose Congressman Paul Ryan as his running mate has two implications for the Republican Party's image among Latino voters: 1) After a Republican primary in which the candidates did everything imaginable to burn bridges with the Latino electorate, Romney, who even said the solution for more than twelve million undocumented immigrants is that they "deport themselves", decided not to repair relationships by choosing a Latino candidate for vice president. 2) Congressman Paul Ryan is one of the most consistent Republican legislators voting against the US embargo on Cuba since he arrived in the House of Representatives.

It is not that Romney did not want a Latino on his ticket; it is rather that his options were risky. The Latino electorate is sophisticated enough to not be led into the Republican camp only by a surname. Neither Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who never honored his pledge to present a bill that would provide a path to legalization for undocumented children, nor the governor of New Mexico Susana Martinez, a model of a successful conservative Latina with a more flexible approach to immigration, were tested candidates. Martinez is in her first term in New Mexico. Rubio is good at smiling but has several burning credit cards scandals and a family narrative that changes at every minute.

Will OFAC Pull the Plug on People to People Travel to Cuba?

In January 2011, The Obama administration finally rolled out long-awaiting regulations to re-open 'people to people' travel to Cuba. Such people to people engagement with the island had been pursued by the Clinton administration, only to be squeezed and finally prohibited altogether by the Bush administration in 2003. Countless relationships built across the Florida Straits withered, or rather, wintered, until 8 years later, President Obama's changes allowed them to connect anew. In less than a year and a half, the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, which administers Cuba sanctions, granted 140 licenses for such trips, and Americans are dizzingly eager to travel. But now it seems that few if any of those licenses are getting renewed. Ellen Creager writes:

Paul Ryan's Cuba Crossover and What It Means in a Romney Administration

Does anyone truly believe that Rep. Paul Ryan (now the Republicans' candidate for Vice President), a dyed-in-the-wool free trader who repeatedly voted to oppose the U.S. embargo of Cuba, switched his position after he "spent time learning the true nature of the Castro regime" as Romney-Ryan campaign surrogate and Cuban American Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen put it. Really? The guy who told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in 2002 that he believed Castro uses U.S. policy to "repress his people," didn't understand the repressive nature of the regime? In his own words:

"If we think engagement works well with China, well, it ought to work well with Cuba . . . The embargo doesn't work. It is a failed policy. It was probably justified when the Soviet Union existed and posed a threat through Cuba. I think it's become more of a crutch for Castro to use to repress his people. All the problems he has, he blames the American embargo."

Ryan said at that time that the "more we have a free exchange of people and ideas and customs, the more the people of Cuba will be exposed to the values of freedom and liberty."

Ryan acknowledged in the 2002 interview that Cuban-Americans "have their reasons" for supporting the embargo "and they're very passionate about their reasons, I just don't agree with them and never have."

The media may not be interested in pursuing the matter further, but Cuba watchers on both sides of the spectrum understand perfectly well what happened. Paul Ryan did not come to Jesus. He reluctantly fell in line with leadership in the House on this one - at least when it came to votes beginning in 2007 - because it wasn't worth the fight. And House leadership fell in line with Ileana and Lincoln because they are as loyal and fierce as legislators come, but understand this: one thing matters to them above all else - Cuba sanctions. It's plain Ryan doesn't actually believe the policy works, as he couldn't even be bothered to offer new talking points to the same paper in 2008 - after he had the come-to-Jesus moment with his Cuban American colleagues.  It's also plain that Cuban American lawmakers don't believe Ryan's change of heart either, and even complained off the record to the Miami Herald that Cuban American voters won't appreciate Marco Rubio's being passed over for a guy with Ryan's spotty record on Cuba.

Does all of this mean Paul Ryan secretly intends to lobby from inside a Romney administration to lift the Cuba embargo? Hardly. No more, in fact, than did Barack Obama, who offered this unequivocal rejection of the embargo he now owns and even reauthorizes every September. Because, whereas as legislators like Ros-Lehtinen and the Diaz-Balarts care about nothing so much as they care about Cuba, the Ryans and Obamas care about everything (bigger) else.

So what does having an outed anti-embargo-logue in a Romney White House mean for the policy? Normally I'd say not much, other than that Ryan will be the one to head off any truly crazy notions emanating from Rep. Ros-Lehtinen's Foreign Affairs Committee, especially ones that infringe on Americans' already tightly-constrained rights to trade and interact with the Cuban people.

But then again, Ryan's going to care about a lot more than Cuba, and he and Romney will need to barter for all the votes they can muster in what promises to be a divided Republican caucus next Congress. If anything, it simply means, if they win the White House, Paul Ryan's in for a lot of frustration.

Cuba and Fidel Castro: Beyond his 86th Birthday.



Regardless of how long he lives, Fidel Castro has an influential role in shaping the political discourse in Cuba. Fidel skillfully mixed Marxism and nationalism and made a revolution that changed the history not only of Cuba but also of the whole Western hemisphere. He was the most popular leader in a generation of Cubans, a political giant who reached world dimensions during the Cold War. As professor Jorge Dominguez from Harvard University said, If there have been competitive elections in the early 1960’s, Castro could have won them all. He didn't have the chance. In the most difficult moments of the Cold War, the United States, as the hegemonic power in the Americas, didn't have tolerance for a nationalist leader who aspired to an independent neutralist course not to mention a socialist one, no matter how popular Castro was among his people.

Paya's Death in Cuba Raises Questions, And Everyone's Got Answers

More than a week after a traffic accident in which Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Paya and fellow Cuban dissident Harold Cepero lost their lives, there’s controversy about what exactly caused the accident. Despite Cuban government reports, and now publicly available comments from the two survivors of the crash that it was nothing more than an accident, Paya’s family believes someone ran the car off the road. The family has reported that contacts abroad told them that the two Europeans in the car that day, Aron Modig of Sweden and Angel Carromero of Spain, sent text messages indicating they believed they were being followed (and even that one or both texted that a car had run them off the road).

I wouldn’t be surprised if they were trailed. Modig and Carromero had entered Cuba on tourist visas and then hooked up with one of the best known dissidents on the island. But was Paya a large enough threat that the Cuban government wanted to kill him?

RIP Oswaldo Payá

It’s hard to say what the future might have held for Oswaldo Payá, a prominent Cuban dissident who headed the Christian Liberation Movement on the island, had he not perished in a car accident yesterday.

But what he left behind is no small thing: he managed to organize fellow Cubans, who organized more fellow Cubans and together they collected nearly 25,000 signatures seeking democratic reforms to the Cuban constitution. And while some criticized him for his Varela Project (so named for a famous Cuban priest and independence hero), which proposed changes to a constitution that critics refuse to legitimize, the movement he led is the only reformist one that I’m aware of to spread across the island and reach thousands of Cubans. Payá, who shunned U.S. aid insisted that Cuba’s transition would be undertaken by Cubans, not foreign governments. It was Paya’s Varela Project that reached the ears of an entire nation, thanks to President Carter’s nationally live-televised 2002 speech – in Spanish, no less – at the University of Havana.

Oswaldo Payá was a man dedicated to his faith and to his hopes for a more just and democratic society. Simply put, he made an impact in a way few other Cuban dissident activists have, and his passing leaves a void that won't be easily filled.

OFAC Cuba Enforcement Strikes Again - And This Time, It Would have Been Legal?

Another day, another big-ticket Cuba embargo enforcement notice from OFAC, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. Or so it seems these days more than ever.

Several years ago, just how much time and money OFAC was spending on Cuba embargo enforcement, especially in comparison with its other responsibilities, caused quite a stir.  Back in 2004, Senate Finance Committee investigators (I was one of them) discovered that OFAC, an office of roughly 100 investigative personnel charged with sanctions programs enforcement and tracking terrorist funding networks, had dedicated 21 of those personnel or FTEs (fulltime equivalents) to Cuba sanctions, which all too often amounted to tracking down cigar aficionados buying Cuban cigars on the internet or fining the 74-year-old grandmother who went on a bike tour that she thought was legit but wasn’t. 

The numbers were shocking because that same office dedicated only two FTEs to tracking the funding networks of Osama bin Laden.  Numerous members of Congress on both sides of the aisle were outraged by what they saw as a gross misallocation of precious and mission critical resources.  The Committee continued asking questions, until finally OFAC just refused to tell.  Its staff, we were told, are all cross-trained and shifted so much that it was impossible to report and quantify what percent of resources were dedicated to various missions. 

In today’s fiscal climate then, perhaps it’s wise that OFAC seems to make every effort to catch the big fish too.  Those multi-million dollar fines and not so much taxpayer dollars, it could be argued, help pay for all the personnel enforcing the Cuba embargo.

The latest OFAC catch is the Vancouver, Washington malt company Great Western.  According to OFAC, Great Western made the mistake of “perform[ing] various back-office functions for the sales by a foreign affiliate of non-U.S. origin barley malt to Cuba.”  Though OFAC originally anticipated a nearly $6 million fine, the company ended up settling its case and paying just $1.3 million. Why?  It seems OFAC considered a number of mitigating factors in the case, including the fact that, “if the subject goods had been shipped from the United States, they would have been eligible for an OFAC license.”

Yes, apparently it’s possible to violate the embargo, even in relation to one of the very few exemptions to the embargo.

Who Would Be Better for Cuba: Romney or Obama?

Few nations feel the fallout of a U.S election more than the island of Cuba, just ninety miles away, where millions have never known life without a U.S. bloqueo hanging over their heads. 

During the height of the Cold War, bringing down the Castro government, which was closely allied to the Soviet Bloc, was a matter of national security. But after the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba no longer mattered.  As long as Cuba wasn’t exporting revolution, serving as a hub for narco-traffickers, or gushing U.S.-bound rafter refugees, it no longer mattered whether U.S. policy objectives and tactics were realistic, effective or even in the national interest. 

From President Reagan to President Obama and the various Republican contenders who sought to replace him (including presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney),  Cuba is a pit stop on the Florida campaign trail, and little else.  How else to explain Mitt Romney’s unfortunate “Patria o muerte, venceremos!” gaffe before a disgusted crowd of Cuban Americans during a 2007 campaign stop, when some careless campaign staffer must have thought it’d be great to throw in a  beloved Cuban expression to win fans in electoral-vote rich South Florida, but instead just fanned the flames of insult to injury by arming Romney with that famous Fidel Castro sign-off.  And of course, in the crucial election years of 2004 and 2006, President George W. Bush empaneled lofty commissions to plan every last detail of a Cuban transition to market democracy, and then update the plan, none of which has come to pass.  And though President Obama promised a “new beginning” with Cuba early in his presidency, it’s amounted to not too much more than a new beginning with potential swing Cuban American voters keen on visiting their families in Cuba whenever they like.   It was Barack Obama in 2004, by the way, who said in no uncertain terms that it was time for the U.S. to lift its embargo of Cuba.

(On the flopped ‘new beginning’ some will point to Cuba’s imprisonment of an American USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, for more than two years as the end of the new beginning. And while I think the Cuban government could and should show clemency toward Gross - and now a critic on the other side will say the U.S. could and should show clemency toward the Cuban Five - one cannot ignore the reality that the Obama administration’s continuation and stubborn defense of USAID democracy programs beefed up under the Bush administration that snuck Americans onto the island without host country consent to break that country’s laws, whatever we might think of them, might have played a role, a big one, in all of this.)

Obama’s approach, precisely because it seeks to cater to a more moderate segment of Florida’s electoral pool, is less strident and more reasonable than that of his predecessor, who was instead maximizing the hard-line faithful.  And yet, more reasonable doesn’t necessarily mean Cuba matters more to the current occupant of the White House any more than it did to the last.  President Bush was willing to separate families, while President Obama seems oblivious to the historic changes in Cuba underway today, both because real events and impacts on the island aren’t the point.  Domestic political advantage is. 

Perhaps that is why this pointed commentary from the internationally acclaimed Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, reflecting on Obama’s pragmatism and reminding us that while Cuba may not matter to the U.S., U.S. elections always matter in Cuba, may not cause a much-needed course correction in a Romney or Obama White House come 2013.