A Good Time for a Bold Move


The landing of hurricanes Ike and Gustav on Cuban shores -- already reaping damage Fidel Castro has compared to that brought upon Hiroshima -- may bring the issue of the Cuban embargo back into electoral politics. Or it might simply glance off.

These disasters provide an incredible opportunity for both candidates to send a signal to a hemisphere that’s been largely neglected in years past. Feelings of abandonment are sure to heighten as nations attempt to rebuild, especially without so much as a mention on the presidential trail.

Barack Obama offered...
a written statement, joining “with leaders in the Cuban American community in calling on President Bush to immediately suspend restrictions on family remittances, visits and humanitarian care packages from Cuban Americans for a minimum of 90 days,â€Â but has failed to actually speak about the tragedy in Haiti, Cuba or elsewhere in the region.

McCain has previously held that restrictions should not be lifted until the U.S. can be “confident that the transition to a free and open democracy is being made,â€Â and doesn’t appear to have taken a position since Gutav and Ike’s Caribbean devastation.

The Cuban government declined $100,000 the U.S. had offered to deliver through existing charities’ channels, stating “Cuba affirms that in reality the only correct, ethical (action) ... would be the total and definitive elimination of the harsh and cruel economic, commercial and financial blockade applied over nearly a half century against our nation.â€Â

Condoleezza Rice, in turn, stated: “I don't think in the context that we see now that the lifting of the embargo would be wise,â€Â referencing the transfer of power from Fidel to Raul.

Nonetheless, past hurricanes have brought about change in Cuba policy. In 2002, after Hurricane Michelle swept the Island, Cuba reached out to American grain suppliers after having “turned up its noseâ€Â when such trade was initially legalized in 2000. In years since, the two have built a quiet and cumbersome relationship, the U.S. now standing a the island's primary food supplier, commerce in 2007 topping $437 million despite steep the steep obstacles of the embargo.

This is a potentially powerful time for engagement, and the power to demand that engagement resides squarely two men. Representative Howard Berman of California, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has also asked that Bush suspend restrictions on gifts, remittances, and travel to Cuba for ninety days.

The View of a Hurricane From Your Window (or Boat)

Ike in Baracoa.jpg

This is what Hurricane Ike looks like in Baracoa, Eastern Cuba. This pic was sent in by my friend and Havana Note co-editor Gail Reed, who is Director of MEDICC.

For those interested in helping out victims in need in Cuba -- who took a direct hit from Hurricane Gustav a few days before Ike hit -- check out this informative letter from Sarah Stephens at the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

In her informative, compelling letter, Stephens points to seven places that can help get aid to Cubans in need:

Center for Democracy in the Americas

Global Links

Operation U.S.A.


Catholic Relief Services

Jewish Solidarity

Daughters of Charity

Natural disasters and humanitarian relief are always good opportunities to change the game on political situations that make no sense -- like the embargo or even the Cuban resistance to the terms of offered American government aid.

But even this disaster is a missed opportunity for the governments involved which makes it even more important for others who care to help.

-- Steve Clemons

Joe Garcia "Steals the Show" In Denver, and Debbie Hearts Joe


At the "Big Tent" in Denver, candidate Joe Garcia "stole the show" according to one blogger. Florida Democrat and House Cardinal Debbie Wasserman Shultz had nothing but love for Garcia. Still no love for Annette Taddeo though.

New Group Attacks South Florida Reps’ “Confused Priorities”


Tony Jimenez, a former Bush administration official, launched a new 527 media group this week, attacking two South Florida Republicans for “confused prioritiesâ€Â that focus on Castro’s Cuba rather than on jobs, wages, pain at the pump, the housing crisis and energy independence.

The newly-launched organization, One South Florida, focuses its message mainly on these misplaced priorities, which has been a theme of the campaigns of Democratic candidates Joe Garcia (See "One Trick Pony") and Raul Martinez, and asserts (correctly) that efforts to tighten restrictions on Cuba haven’t achieved anything:

While our cost of living soared and wages for the poor plunged, our representatives in Washington expired all of their political capital supporting Bush's counter-productive Cuba sanctions. Instead of bringing badly needed funding and economic development programs to our region, they obsess on restricting the right of Cuban-Americans to visit and send money to their relatives on the island. What's worse: their efforts have failed to have any impact on human rights violations in Cuba.

This jives with polling data released by the Foundation for Normalization of U.S.-Cuba Relations in June. Approximately three-quarters of respondents (77 and 74 percent respectively in FL-21 and FL-25) indicated that they would support a candidate whose top priority will be improving health care, lowering housing costs, and improving our schools. Less than 20 percent of respondents would support a candidate whose top priority will be changing the political system of Cuba or who makes that a co-equal priority alongside domestic issues.

Are high gas prices and falling home values more important than sticking it to Castro’s Cuba? These guys think so.

Bring Back the Sandwich Shack, Raul


Much has been made of Raul Castro’s interpretation of socialism. Earlier this summer before the national assembly, Castro stated: “Socialism means social justice and equality; but equality of rights, of opportunities -- not of income.â€Â The steps that the “practical Castro,â€Â as he’s been called, has taken alongside these statements, while symbolic, have yet to move the nation in any tangible way. And they’re unlikely to. Nimble openings of the past may not draw the same headlines, but they may offer a better avenue forward….
Cuba has made much more serious openings in the past, specifically in the post- Soviet period when the island’s economy nearly ground to a stand still. In 2005, though, Fidel -- bolsterered by support from Venezuela and China -- recanted on liberalizations. He shut down a broad swath of small, private enterprise that had developed, eliminating 2,000 of the “shackâ€Â operations that had sprung up selling pizzas, sodas, sandwiches, milkshakes, and other sweets.

That was just the tip of the iceberg. The Economist reported that 240,000 licensed entrepreneurs and small business owners were whittled down to below 140,000. Along with the opening in the early nineties came legality of possession and use of U.S. currency -- a practice that fueled the flow of remittances from expatriate Cubans, but, along with other openings, was brought to a halt in the early years of the new millennium.

But the reforms that have garnered the boldest headlines since the transition, those allowing the ownership personal computers and cell phones, are symbolic -- Cubans live on an average salary of $17 per month can hardly afford a cell phone, let alone the $700 necessary to buy a computer.

It’s likely that the most meaningful of Raul’s are not about consumer goods but about property and small business. His willingness to increase limits on land that private farms can own by 200% (99 acres up from 33), might help to offset an estimated $1 billion increase in imported food costs the nation will face this year alone. The legalization of private taxis is another good move.

Allowing other existing private enterprise, in the form of hair salons, cafes, and restaurants, to move out of people’s homes and into other locations -- even if property remains owned state, rather than privately owned -- could allow for modest, controlled expansion for already permitted industry.

Ultimately, Cubans are responsible for their own country. Since support for the ideals of the Revolution runs deep, a revolution that has delivered results in terms of universal, quality health care and literacy and that ended the corrupt rule of Battista and his friends in the American mafia, mining, and sugar worlds, the way forward must also be in line with those ideals.

That may mean a nation of small, modern, efficient farms, mom-and-pop shopkeepers, of 99-year leases (like in London) on property and a measured relationship with Chinese, American, and other sources of foreign direct investment. Clearly, however, something has to change.

Democratic Platform on Latin America

I finally got a moment to look at the Democrats' platform on Latin America. In general it's pretty sparse, and on Cuba it only echoes the main bullet points of Obama's speech before the Cuban American National Foundation:

Recommit to an Alliance of the Americas
We recognize that the security and prosperity of the United States is fundamentally tied to the future of the Americas. We believe that in the 21st century, the U.S. must treat Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean as full partners, just as our neighbors to the south should reject the bombast of authoritarian bullies. An alliance of the Americas will only succeed if it is founded on the bedrock of mutual respect and works to advance democracy, opportunity and security from the bottom-up. We must turn the page on the arrogance in Washington and the anti-Americanism across the region that stands in the way of progress. We must work with close partners like Mexico, Brazil and Colombia on issues like ending the drug trade, fighting poverty and inequality, and immigration. And we must build ties to the people of Cuba and help advance their liberty by allowing unlimited family visits and remittances to the island, while presenting the Cuban regime with a clear choice: if it takes significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the unconditional release of all political prisoners, we will be prepared to take steps to begin normalizing relations.

My thoughts on a regional strategy are here. My colleague Steve Clemons has more general foreign policy analysis of the platform here.

More later.

Olympics Highlight Cuba's Conundrum


Cuba, despite the U.S. embargo, has proven a formidable summer Olympic contender. The nation placed eleventh in the medal count at the 2004 Olympics, an impressive showing for a nation of roughly 11 million -- below 70th in the world in terms of population. In 2000, Cuba was eighth in medals earned, in 1996, ninth.

Since the end of the Cold War America has lost touch with the political competitiveness of the games. With the United States' global power unchallenged, we find ourselves often dwelling on the “good willâ€Â of the games, or on individual athletes whose stories have inspired us. We’ve lost touch with the national pride that a victory can inspire. For many nations, a single medal can be as powerful as the 1980 "miracle on ice," or Mary Lou Retton’s 1984 all around title.

For Havana, the summer games are seen as a time to demonstrate the success of the revolution. They’re an equalizer of sorts -- an opportunity to earn global respect on a level playing field.
But the lead up to the games has had the opposite effect. Multiple defections have underscored one of the many disadvantages of maintaining an authoritarian state with an impoverished economy. Talented people, given the option, will often choose to leave.

And they certainly are. The defection of four major boxers and the sidelining of a fifth who tried to flee but failed, have left the team with inexperienced fighters. This is not isolated. The disappearance of three members of Cuba’s AAA Junior baseball team in Edmonton this week, has set a decisive tone for Havana’s participants in Beijing.

This is a change from just a few years ago. A recent Miami Herald article recalls Felix Savon, who won three gold medals before retiring after the 2000 games, telling Don King -- who had offered Savon a multi-million dollar contract to defect and box professional in the states: “Why would I box for a million dollars when I can fight for 10 million Cuban people?''

Revolutionary fervor, it seems, must be earned. The poor economic performance of the past decade, combined with Raul's lowering of expectations in his July 26, 2008 speech at Moncada Barracks, is not enough to secure even the loyalty of Cubans who have received the best the government can offer.

Maslow's hierarchy of basic needs predicts this problem: people need security, identity, community, and self-actualization, in that order. If they do not get it they either seek it out --in this case, by defecting -- or they become fertile ground for the next generation of revolutionaries...or counter-revolutionaries.

Appeals to nationalism, and, in Cuba's case, a common enemy, have succeeded for decades in keeping Cubans loyal to the revolution. When Cuba felt the sting of real isolation, this worked. But now Cuba is, in effect, fully integrated with the global economy, with the United States being Cuba's fifth largest trading partner despite the embargo. "El bloqueo", far from hastening a change in the Cuban system, is sustaining it by providing a constant sense of threat.

Nationalism and fear are alive and well in Cuba this summer. Look at the Olympic send-offs from the two Castro brothers. Fidel's comments -- “To the glorious Cuban athletes on their way to the Olympic Games: Go forward, and traveling with you is the love of our people to our native land,â€Â -- rang with the mystique of a fabled revolution, while Raul’s farewell -- “You all know what the Cuban people expect from you," sounded far more like the charge of a dictator on uncertain ground.

Cuba stands at a crossroads. U.S. policy has provided a crutch to the Havana regime, a fail-safe scapegoat for any and all of the island's woes. We can continue to prolong a cruel level of economic underperformance, or we can help Cuba face the need to embrace a new path. The choice is ours.

(Patrick Doherty contributed to this post.)

Spring Break, the Fall of the Castros?

Photo Credit: Bit Boyo

The IMF’s new working paper reminded my editor here at the 'Note -- Patrick Doherty -- of a quote Massachusetts Congressman Jim McGovern offered at the Council on Foreign Relations last year:

“I think there are some Cuban officials -- some in the government, some of the hard-liners who, quite frankly, I think deep down are a little reluctant for change, because it's something they won't be able to control. I mean, I think the two words in the English language that the hard-liners in Cuba fear the most are "spring break." I don't think they would know what to do.â€Â

The laugh line carries considerable weight, though...
As it becomes more and more likely that the embargo will be lifted, it is important to understand how sizable a steamroller U.S. youth culture can be. College undergrads with too much booze, loose inhibitions, and deep pockets might literally grind the nation to a halt if they descended upon Cuban resorts in full force. Too few rooms; too few cabs; too few drunk tanks. Scantily clad, and the very picture of Capitalist materialism, the vanguard of American pop culture would lay havoc to Havana streets.

It is a real possibility. February’s Economist laid out two potential paths for an embargo-liberated Cuba: first, the spring break vision -- with a rapid vacuum pulling the Castro’s and communism from power -- and second, a model where power structures remain intact as capitalism takes hold, as seen in China, Vietnam, and Mexico.

The reality is that any opening to U.S. travel will be done with caution by Havana. The government has some obvious tools at his disposal -- flight and visa limitations being the most blunt. But internal pressure will grow as the Cuban people see the depth of U.S. demand for Cuban exploration, beaches and culture.

A gradual pace might actually be the best path for both Cuba and Washington. To survive rapid change, as Thomas Carothers points out, effective development of political parties, media, civic education, and civil society at large is reqiure. But the infrastructure of Cuban socialism is not well suited to rapid adaptation. Iraq, of course, has taught foreign policy analysts to not to assume anything when it comes to the pace of political development in post-socialist states.

State failure brought on by rapid economic changes may be more of a threat to U.S. interests than regime survival, as a rapid collapse of the Revolution might just as easily set Cuba on Haiti's trajectory. In such a scenario, the waves of immigrants to South Florida would be overwhelming.

But there is also the question of how much demand there is for political change. Without reliable polling, it’s difficult to get an accurate sense of how deep the Cuban commitment is to the spirit of the revolution -- particularly among the young, the fault line for nearly all political shifts. The Christian Science Monitor’s recent series on Cuba -- which is worth taking time to read -- suggests that Cuba’s generation Y is restless, but not overtly political. Economic issues are much more pressing.

Regardless of the path ahead, spring break will eventually come to Cuba. The questions will be: how soon, and with what force. One thing is certain: as Senator Feingold has put it when talking about Cuba -- “democracy travels best in person.â€Â

Cuba and Latin America: A New Strategy

The Havana Note talks a lot about the need for a new policy towards Cuba. Fifty years of failure is a shameful, bi-partisan indictment of how policy is made in Washington. Luckily, as we have been and will continue to show, more people recognize that change is on the way. But change for change's sake is foolish, and could easily backfire on the United States.

Fortunately, the emerging consensus on changing Cuba policy happens to coincide with another consensus, here in Washington, that America needs a major overhaul of all our relations with Latin America -- and with the rising influence of Hispanic voters.

But both movements lack strategic coherence.

Today I want to propose some ideas on tying these two efforts together in light of the great strategic challenges facing the United States over the next 30-40 years.

Unlike the Cold War or World War II, when ideological foes bent on global aggression defined the central strategic challenges to the United States -- and when a policy of isolation against Cuba made sense -- I argue that the central challenge facing the United States today and for decades to come is the need to create the economic space for the entrance of up to 4.5 billion people into the formal sector of the global economy.

This challenge is presented in stark relief by China. By 2030, 700 million Chinese will leave the countryside and move into the cities, entering the formal sector of the global economy. This alone is the largest rural-urban migration the planet has ever encountered and in the short term it will put incredible global stress on energy, resources, and transportation while requiring new approaches to land use that we have never encountered.

But that same narrative is happening all over the developing world. Rural-urban migration is the dominant migratory pattern. And that migration is the driver bringing people into the formal sector of the global economy. It only follows that the challenge of economic inclusion in the 21st Century is the challenge of sustainability, for, limiting our options in a massive way are the twin constraints of climate change and ecosystem depletion.

Stewarding global patterns of energy and resource consumption, transportation and land use are are the key elements of any new American grand strategy. To the extent that the United States takes the lead in creating the technologies, the metropoli, the products, and the lifestyles of sustainability, strategic pre-eminence will flow once again to our shores.

Our national security strategy flows from this. Abroad America's purpose will be to create the infrastructure of sustainable global growth and in so doing, create the infrastructure of inclusion, prosperity, stability, and ultimately, political liberalism. As we do so, the great strategic liability of the United States in the current global order, our dependence on oil as a transportation fuel, will be mitigated. Our current account will have the best chance at balancing, and economic emigration will be minimized.

As we engage the world, however, we will need to approach the world as a collection of regional economies. Europe, China, India, Japan and the United States are all de jure or de facto regional economies. But the Middle East, the ASEAN bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Russia/Central Asia must all focus on building regional economic engines generating domestic growth instead of exports of raw materials or manufactures.

This also goes for Latin America. As I have written earlier, Europe is pioneering a new kind of sustainability-driven relationship with its southern neighbors that I think should be a model for our own strategy. Integrating the Western Hemisphere's energy grid to support a broad portfolio of renewable sources, including wind, solar, hydro, geothermal, tidal, etc. would be the backbone. With reliable, clean energy, the United States must support the development of sustainable urban cities, based on the example of Curitiba, Brazil, not Rio and its crime-dominated favela slums. Sometimes this will mean supporting urban infrastructure, in some cases, bringing the informal, black market into the light.

Such a vision is closely resonant with where Latin America wants to go. The topic of the 5th OAS Summit Summit of the Americas -- scheduled for April 17-19, 2009 -- is “Securing Our Citizens’ Future by Promoting Human Prosperity, Energy Security and Environmental Sustainability." The recently concluded 2008 EU-Latin America Summit in Lima, Peru had the same primary theme: Sustainability and Inclusion.

The United States can pick this up and run with it. And we must. Until we demonstrate to the nations of Latin America that the United States has opened a new chapter, created a new regional doctrine that looks at the Western Hemisphere as part of a global strategy to steer the global economy between the scylla of economic inclusion and charybdis of ecological collapse, the United States is irrelevant to the long-term needs of the region.

Our relations with Cuba preclude any of this. Cuba policy represents the worst of American foreign policy: it is driven by single interest groups, uninformed by our short, medium, or long-term interests, and animated by an irrational sense of threat and a misguided approach to human security. Changing Cuba policy signals to our Latin American neighbors that we have changed. It must also signal that we recognize that top-down, neo-liberalism has failed, that, as the Nobel Laureate economist Amartya Sen wrote, development is freedom but that development in the 21st century must be sustainable and inclusive.

Ending the embargo and encouraging further Cuban economic reforms so that the Cuban people become role models in this new era, is of the highest priority. While Raul Castro's reforms are encouraging, the larger economic pattern speaks to Cuba becoming a strategic rentier economy, like Yugoslavia in the Cold War. Cuba is playing Lula off Chavez, Beijing off Moscow, all while the U.S. is still its fifth largest trade partner. That is a recipe for economic neglect and an end result more like Haiti than Chile. We cannot afford a failed state of 11 million people 90 miles off our coast.

Such outcomes are unnecessary. We know the road to human security and well-being in Latin America. It is fundamentally an economic pathway steered by a robust, populist, social democracy. The United States needs to embrace this and lead it.

The scale of the economic challenge ahead of us is greater than anything the planet has faced in the past. The struggle between business as usual and sustainability will be fought by the concentrated power of sovereign wealth on one side and the more diffuse but more pervasive price signals from market economies on the other. Cuba's full integration into a regional economy shifting rapidly toward sustainability is essential.

The best opportunity to move the ball forward is for the next president to address the Summit of the Americas in 2009, announce that he will end the embargo against Cuba and decisively support the region towards a sustainable and inclusive future.

Opening Cuba to U.S. Tourism -- Good for the Entire Caribbean?

Photo Credit: Savvas Garovis

A New International Monetary Fund paper suggests it just might be.

The working paper, titled “Vacation Over: Implications for the Caribbean of Opening U.S.-Cuba tourism,â€Â is authored by Rafael Romeu. It can be found here.

Romeu projects that normalizing tourism relations between the U.S. and Cuba would lead to a 10% increase in overall travel to the Caribbean at large. The report states that the opening would lead to “seismic shiftâ€Â in tourism, with U.S. travel quickly out-pacing the Cuban tourism infrastructure, leading to a spill over of travel for other islands. Cuba currently receives 1.38 million tourists per year. The study estimates between 3 and 3.5 million U.S. tourists would travel to Cuba if restrictions were opened.
Small islands with strong European ties are most likely to gain, picking up European tourists that seek new destinations: Martinique, Montserrat, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados are all projected to receive bumps.

But the study also has some clear losers.

The project’s third scenario -- which is based on a model where 2/3 of travelers select Cuba over a different location in the region and where 1/3 are deemed “new “ travelers -- projects a 23% decline in the number of travelers for the U.S. Virgin Islands, a 10-15% decline for Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cancun, Bermuda, and a 17-20% decline for Anguilla, Aruaba, and the Bahamas.

Regional governments are already concerned, reflecting the growing understanding that U.S. Cuba policy is about to shift seismically. An interesting op-ed, by Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer, suggests that negative repercussions of possible travel opening may be the driving force behind Mexican efforts to cozy up with the Havana regime.