This fascinating story from U.S. News and World Report is the first public signal to the government in Havana that Washington is listening to the messages the Cuban government is sending.
It's good timing. The Cuba policy space has been very quiet on official U.S. statements--and actions--since the election. While it is clear that the administration and Congress have a lot of other issues to keep them busy and a keen observer can clearly hear the wheels of change turning, visible movement has simply not yet materialized. That can be misinterpreted.
The speaker, though cloaked in anonymity, made two important points with this short article. First, the official said that the new administration in Washington has heard the various statements in recent weeks from the brothers Castro, saying, "I think the statements are important. They've registered." The translation from the original diplomatic is, "we're serious about diplomatic engagement but we're a bit swamped right now." That is a positive, important assurance to Havana.
But there is a second message embedded in the U.S. News article. Here's how the reporter, Thomas Omestad concluded the article:
The State Department official's comments also offer a sense of how Cuba's modest economic reformsÃ¢â‚¬â€in agriculture and consumer purchasingÃ¢â‚¬â€are being perceived in official Washington. "The steps have been very small. They've been very controlled," said the official. "They're looking for ways to signal they're capable of economic change."
On the internal scene in Cuba, the official spoke of a "significant desire, and even pressure, on them [Cuban officials] for social and economic reform." The official added, "The Cuban government has to respond in some fashion."
What is remarkable about this second quote is that the official never made a segue from economic reform to political reform. That says volumes. Under President Bush, the analysis of the economic reforms would have been to trivialize them and then change the subject to human rights. This speaker did not. Instead, the official said that the Cuban people will be putting pressure on the government to effect social and economic reforms, which tracks much closer to reality than what we've heard out of the White House since....well since the Brothers to the Rescue shootdown sank the Clinton administration efforts at dialogue.
Taken together, it looks to me that we've got an administration that will stick to its word and engage the Cuba issue seriously.
Ah, let the games begin.
The right-wing group, Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy released a poll this afternoon that attempts to whitewash the demographic shift in the Cuban American community that has freed the Obama administration to make Cuba policy on the basis of national interest rather than electoral votes. They say that 69% of Cuban Americans polled in Florida are against lifting sanctions against Cuba.
The poll was conducted by a prominent Republican polling firm that advertises that the Washington Times, the right-wing paper owned by the Reverend Moon, "cites McLaughlin and Associates as one of the best Republican polling firms." With clients such as the scandal-plagued Christian Coalition, the American Conservative Union, and Mario Diaz-Balart, it would be interesting to contemplate what "Republican polling" actually entails.
That's important, because the poll contradicts the recent Florida International University poll that says that 55% of Cuban Americans are in favor of ending the embargo completely.
The reality is, and this may be the motivation for the poll, that President Obama won Florida without the Cuban American vote, while at the same time increasing his percentage over the 2004 general election considerably. That, along with the handsome majority in both the House and the Senate, means President Obama does not have to worry about Cuba policy in Florida. He has to worry about the economy there.
The Obama administration has started an official review of U.S. policy towards Cuba, the Havana Note has learned.
The policy review is being coordinated by the National Security Council, but is being run by Tom Shannon, the Bush administration's Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who has been held over by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
That it is happening is confirmed. What is not confirmed is whether the Obama administration intends to apply its commitment to transparency and participation to the review. That will be critical.
A policy review was promised by both Secretary Clinton and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner in their respective written statements during their confirmation hearings. It is a signal, albeit a vague signal, that change in the policy is desired and that the administration intends to spend some real effort in thinking through its approach.
Traditionally, a policy review allows an administration to start from scratch on a given issue, should it see fit. Most reviews are initiated by a national security principal and begin with some kind of intelligence assessment, but not necessarily a full national intelligence estimate. Given the other challenges facing the National Intelligence Council, this looks unlikely.
While the intelligence assessment is being prepared, the review team will inventory the existing elements of policy, which in the case of Cuba will include both executive aspects and statutory elements, for the lion's share of the policy--the embargo, Helms-Burton, Section 109 (USAID democracy programs) is enshrined in the U.S. Code. With these two pieces in hand, the review team would then canvass the interagency to elicit policy options from the broadest set of U.S. government stakeholders possible.
Cuba policy is not the issue to rely too heavily on the interagency process. The reasons are numerous. First, the interagency is still very conditioned to reflect the policy bias it perceives to be held by the President. In his campaign promises, President Obama talked about change but was very cautious in his language, given the then-unknown
Word on the street is that today is the day to watch Capitol Hill for movement on Cuba policy. I can't get into details, but I can smell the change a comin'.
I can mention two Cuba-related goings on up in the legislative branch. First is a hearing on U.S.-Latin America policy, held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. Here is the link to the program. Will be watching C-Span for this one.
The other is a delegation of religious leaders are making the rounds, a rare combination of Church World Service and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They have joined forces in support of ending the travel ban on all Americans to Cuba and are letting their elected representatives know.
Here's a snip from the Church World Service letter to President Obama:
We are convinced that it is time to change the ineffective and counter-productive U.S. policy toward Cuba and urge your Administration to take the following actions:
1. Freely allow religious travel to Cuba,
2. Liberally grant visas for U.S. travel to Cuban pastors and other religious leaders,
and no longer bar officials of the Cuban Council of Churches.
3. Lift the travel ban for all Americans.
Beyond these immediate steps, we urge you to move to end the embargo on Cuba. We believe that the time has arrived to restore normal diplomatic relations with Cuba and to allow full engagement between the people of the United States and the people of Cuba.
A small farm in Cuba, by Veebl
When you think of the transition glide path away from Cold War-era communism, the first period of reform is always economic. In Poland, it was the labor unions, in Russia it was the mass privatizations, in Yugoslavia it was the uncontrolled proliferation of privatniks and in China, private ventures are now half of the entire economy. Vietnam, too, has introduced small and medium sized capitalism.
So this report by Marc Frank of Reuters is a useful data point to confirm Cuba's glide path towards economic reform. Mr. Frank reports that 45,500 new leases of farmland have occurred over the last year or so, evidence that Cuba is turning to the private sector to handle one of its greatest challenges: feeding the Cuban people. That's the largest land distribution in Cuba since the start of the Castro government.
Of course, Cuba has a long way to go. Food is still scarce on the island after last year's hurricanes devastated one third of the productive cropland, and I am certain this program was accelerated out of the need to get more short-cycle crops in the ground to cover the storm-related shortfall. If Havana can cover its food needs, though, the next challenge will be finding the building materials still necessary to rebuild. Recent reports suggest 600,000 homes are still damaged or destroyed, which is just under a third of all houses. At this rate, Cuba will not have recovered from 2008 when the 2009 storms start to bear down in August.
Cuba is adapting to meet some serious challenges. In the midst of such change, the United States has a new opportunity to influence reforms in a positive way. The question now is whether Washington can wrap its mind around the strategic context and the economic context, integrate them and tap the opportunity.
It's no state secret that the Obama administration has yet to announce its team for Latin America. The top positions at the Department of State, Department of Defense, and the NSC have yet to be filled. From where I sit and piece together the little third and fourth hand tidbits of information that cross my transom, it looks like the hang up is Cuba policy.
First of all, this alone is a strong message. If the defining issue determining the pace of appointments happens to be the same issue that regional heads of state are focused on -- U.S. policy towards Cuba --this is progress. In Secretary Clinton's confirmation hearings, her keystone issue for the region was energy, both fossil and renewable. If the crux issue really is Cuba, then down the road, regional talks on energy will be much easier and more productive if the United States can come to the table without this mid 20th-Century albatross of a policy.
The ball to watch seems to be the policy review. The Secretaries of State and Treasury both promised a review of Cuba policy in their confirmation processes. When will that policy review take place? Before the team is announced? After?
That seems an odd question for the Obama administration. The transition team's mantra was people first, then policy. Get your A-team on board and give them the reins. Mitchell, Holbrooke, Daschle, Holdren, Chu, all these incredible talents would hardly have accepted the job if it was structured the way President Bush structured John Snow's job when he was Secretary of Treasury: policy predetermined and held on a short leash.
Thinking about it, what it may reflect is the lack of presidential attention. In each of the cases above, President Obama has personally anointed his envoy, secretary or expert. On Cuba, Obama has been relatively silent since the election. That is certainly understandable, since this economic crisis would make any president want to keep all foreign policy issues off the front burner for as long as possible, Cuba even more so. In the absence of Presidential attention, the bureaucracies will eventually take over.
That would be a strategic mistake. Getting Latin America working in a real partnership with the United States is essential to a lasting economic recovery. The new locus of global economic growth will be sustainable urbanization, what Americans call "smart growth"--redesigning the transport, energy, communication, and housing patterns of our settled geography. Every major world region will, eventually, have to create a trading bloc, like the EU, to manage this new market expansion. When it does, Latin America is going to be an essential market for American products, services, and technologies. But today, the region is being cornered by China, Russia, and the EU. And the key to unlocking the door for a new Hemispheric relationship with the United States is Cuba.
Cuba does not need much attention, but it does need some. In fact, President Obama need only give the following instructions to a trusted envoy and his administration would reap global and regional praise while minimizing downside in Florida: "Find me some options on how to end the embargo and increase the pace of reforms in Cuba."
Initiating a policy review on Cuba without the right regional strategic concept is a recipe for incremental and bi-lateral thinking. It is also a waste of precious time. Let's hope this is not the message that the Administration is trying to promote.
Two Cuba-related issues popped up this week that have been framed in some very narrow thinking about the nature of U.S. policy change towards Cuba.
The first is the appeal of the case of the Cuban Five to the Supreme Court. As many will know, five Cuban agents were arrested in South Florida as they were monitoring the activities of far right wing militant Cuban-American organizations, descendants of the bomb-throwing Omega-7 group who live for the opportunity to do the Bay of Pigs the right way. The five were arrested and convicted of espionage charges, which was itself a legal stretch, but when their request for a change of venue from Miami was denied, their case really hit legal la-la-land. Nevertheless, the five remain in Federal penitentiaries. The Supreme Court now has a chance to decide whether the case against the Five is constitutional.
The second issue is whether or not the United States should give the Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay back to the Cuban Government. Separate from the question of the detainee facility, Camp X-Ray, getting the naval base back is a long-standing dream of the Castro government as much as the camp is a symbol of the old way of conducting U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere. El Jefe himself just talked up the issue in a short dispatch in Granma.
The case of the Cuban Five often comes up in the context of a trade of prisoners: our five Cuban agents for the almost sixty remaining political prisoners in Cuban jails charged with working for the United States against the Revolution. Similarly, Guantanamo Bay comes up in the context of diplomatic quids and quos. The questions are always when in the negotiation would this issue or that issue become the right one to make the trade on.
That's a great conversation to have if you want a long career negotiating with the Cuban (or American) government. But it is the wrong way to satisfy U.S. hemispheric interests. All these bi-lateral issues with an impoverished nation of 11 million people are besides the point. Cuba is important to the United States not because it is a threat, but because our own failed policy towards the island keeps us from engaging our neighbors in Latin America the way we need to in the midst of the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression.
And we cannot do that until we end the embargo. The Obama administration should not underestimate the power of the embargo as a symbol of all the wrong-headed approaches to Latin America we have tried over the last two hundred years. Last December, the collected heads of state from the region affirmed essentially the same thing. Beyond that, ending the embargo sets up a level of trust with our regional neighbors that cannot be replicated with any other move.
Sure, this economic crisis is big enough that some countries will work with us to some extent. But the U.S. cannot afford incrementalism in global economic policy either. It is time to clear the decks and re-engage Latin America in a sustainable, inclusive new regional strategy.
Save the second-tier diplomatic trade-offs with Havana for later.
Actor Cleavon Little Holds Himself Hostage in "Blazing Saddles"
There is this great scene at the end of Blazing Saddles in which Cleavon Little, playing Bart, is surrounded by a posse of white cowboys and, putting his six-shooter to his own head, says something to the effect of, "stop or the black man gets it."
That is what the U.S. has been doing with our Cuba policy since at least the end of the Cold War. By maintaining the embargo, the travel restrictions and the extraterritorial provisions of the Helms Burton legislation--all as statutory policy--the U.S. has said that we would rather damage our relations with all the other nations of the Hemisphere than allow a non-threatening, highly educated, doctor-exporting nation of 11 million people 90 miles to our south--to determine its own fate.
An editorial in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel this morning seems to get it, even if some of the details of its argument are dated. The title of the piece is 'U.S. Policy Towards Cuba Isolates Itself."
Some of the mistakes are simple inertia. The Sun-Sentinel's editorial team transfers past assumptions that U.S. policy would not change until Fidel Castro passes from this earth, my sense is that the folks looking at Cuba policy at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue today are not so hung up on el Jefe. Also, the Sun-Sentinel also does not go far enough with their analysis of how the U.S. policy backfires. Here's how the Sun Sentinel put it:
It's all guesswork because the policy of isolating Cuba has also isolated U.S. leaders and U.S. policy. What's been most embargoed is U.S. influence in Cuba.
From my perspective, the greatest opportunity cost of maintaining the embargo is that we cannot remake our dysfunctional relationship with the rest of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton noted in her confirmation hearings that she wants to show up in Trinidad for the Summit of the Americas and talk about energy partnerships.
Well, the price of doing business freely down there will be moving towards ending the embargo. We don't have to normalize relations, but the embargo is a festering sore that the LAC heads of state are keeping front and center. For President Obama and Secretary Clinton, they need to make a choice. In my book, our influence over Cuba is decidedly secondary to our relations with our entire neighborhood. That's the reason we need to move on from this counter-productive policy and quickly.
Tim Geithner, President Barack Obama's nominee to be secretary of the Treasury, was quite consistent with Secretary of State Clinton's committment to perform a full policy review regarding Cuba. Here's his oft-repeated refrain from the Questions for the Record:
If confirmed, I pledge to work closely with the Under Secretary for International Affairs at the Treasury Department and my National Security Council and State Department counterparts to examine our policy toward Cuba.
A policy review is a really big deal. Everything will be on the table--it has to be. They will start from scratch with a new national intelligence estimate, examine all aspects of U.S. policy and start from a zero baseline.
With Geithner on board, here's what I think would be a great way forward. Congress continues to work on passing a full repeal of all travel restrictions to Cuba (which will help to make our policy more Constitutional--but not fully) and the Obama administration, in the meantime, identifies a Presidential Envoy for Cuba along the Mitchell/Holbrooke model, who then honchos the policy review. Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue then work to make a mid-April deadline and President Obama and Secretary Clinton arrive as heroes for the April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad.
Just a thought...
Ok, so that headline was to get your attention. Here's a link to the current issue of Cigar Afficionado, which this month made a call for the Obama administration to end the embargo against Cuba. One article tells the President what to do while the other one tells him what his predecessors did.
Here's a snip from the editors:
We believe it is time to end the trade embargo and open the doors of Cuba to Americans. We don't gloss over the widespread and justified condemnation of some of Cuba's domestic policies that have limited political freedoms and human rights. But after 50 years of isolating Cuba to try to achieve change there, we think it's time to try something else, and we believe that opening up the island to American visitors, and thus our influence, will help produce the kind of changes we want much quicker than any other policy.
My colleagues Julia Sweig, Peter Kornbluh and Bill Leogrande make the case for changing this antiquated policy quite eloquently, but unfortunately, Cigar Aficionado has yet to make the links available. Here's a the opening lines from Julia Sweig's piece, though:
In the first six months of your presidency, you should launch an initiative to put to rest the half century of mutual enmity between the United States and Cuba. Doing so represents an opportunity of both major foreign policy reward and low domestic political risk. Mr. President, a bold initiative with Cuba, early in your presidency, will restore AmericaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s credibility and demonstrate your political courage with the Cuban people, in the hemisphere and across the globe.
For some additional background on the Kornbluh/Leogrande article, "Talking to Fidel," click here. These two historians were able to get some incredible documents detailing how Kennedy, Kissinger, Carter, and Clinton all created back channel negotiations with the Castro regime.
Kissinger gets the money quote, however:
"If there is a benefit to us in an end to the state of 'perpetual antagonism,'" the report to Kissinger noted, "it lies in getting Cuba off the domestic and inter-American agendasÃ¢â‚¬â€in extracting the symbolism from an intrinsically trivial issue."