Cuba and the Inter-American system: A smoldering "fire"

Early in March, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to tell Raul Castro that he could not invite him to the VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias due to a lack of hemispheric consensus. Once back in Bogota, Mr. Santos said that Colombia had "put out a fire" and pledged to discuss Cuba's participation in the inter-American system at the summit in order to prevent this issue from flaring up again before the next presidential conference scheduled for 2015 in Panama.

The Colombian decision triggered reactions from both Cuba and the US. It's hard to say whose discourse was more anachronistic. The statements made by Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez read as an impassioned harangue to the revolutionary Tricontinental of 1966. Hillary Clinton's responses to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen before the House Foreign Affairs Committee appeared to be addressing a rest home for Cuban-Americans who landed in Miami in 1962. Instead of adopting a conflict resolution approach, Cuba and the US traveled back to the Cold War, to a multilateral inter-American system that no longer exists. With one swipe, they erased five decades of changes in the hemispheric balance of power and the adoption of standards such as ideological pluralism, non-intervention and democratic governance.

Guillen, Cespedes and Mixing Baseball and Politics

Earlier this week I made myself a little promise, to discover a love for major league baseball, seeing as our own Washington Nationals are finally enjoying a good deal of buzz.  But before I could even get started learning getting to know our own team, the newly renamed Miami Marlins demanded my attention. 

The Marlins’ manager, Ozzie Guillen, made a pretty startlingly dumb comment in his recent interview with Time Magazine.  “I respect Fidel Castro.  You know why?  Many people have tried to kill Fidel Castro in the last 60 years, yet that [guy] is still there."  It was sure to offend some folks, probably lots, in Miami.

Guillen apologized for the remark, saying he was misinterpreted and, a native Spanish speaker, struggled to get what he really meant across in English, but it wasn’t enough.   He’s now been suspended for 5 games, and there are still calls for him to be sacked.  

John Friedman lays out the complexities of the story, and thus, of the decisions made and perhaps yet to be made by the Marlins ownership:

"Politics: You don’t have to be an expert in the history of Cuban politics or Castro’s legacy or Miami’s demographics to understand the explosive nature of this story.

Economics: By potentially damaging its relations with Cuban-Americans, how much money does the Marlins franchise risk losing?

Management: Can Guillen, who led the Chicago White Sox to a World Series victory in 2006, somehow continue to be an effective on-the-field manager, given all of the commotion he has stirred up?

Otto Reich on Terrorism, Carlos Saladrigas in Cuba, and Tracey Eaton's USAID FOIA Mission

If a US government program funds democracy-building work in Cuba, but no one is allowed to learn the details, did the work actually happen?  Tracey Eaton, a Florida-based journalist investigating U.S. government democracy-building programs in Cuba to see who receives the money and what U.S. taxpayers get for it, has shared USAID’s response to one of his many FOIA requests, this one on 11 years worth of USAID work in Cuba carried out by its grantee, Freedom House.   You might ask, why does a journalist need to submit FOIA request when USAID’s Mark Lopes recently insisted that, "Nothing about USAID's Cuba programs is covert or classified in any way.”   The heavily, er, almost totally, redacted FOIA response you see above (which Eaton scanned and posted on his blog, Along the Malecon) presents the real conundrum – what’s a reporter to do when even a Freedom of Information Act request fulfilled yields no actual information? 

Just in time for the Summit of the Americas, which Ecuador’s Rafael Correa is boycotting due to the exclusion of Cuba, Otto Reich, with Ezequiel Vazquez Ger, has penned an op-ed for Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government, “How Ecuador’s immigration policy helps Al Qaeda.”  Reich and his coauthor argue that Ecuador’s relatively open immigration policy makes it too easy for terrorists to get into the country.  I’m not familiar with Ecuador’s visa policies so I won’t debate the merits of his case.  What I find so interesting about this piece – aside from the over-the-top headline – is that the same could be argued of a similarly open immigration policy, that of the U.S. towards Cubans, but I’ve never heard Reich, a staunchly anti-Castro Cuban American who was a top advisor to President George W. Bush for Latin American affairs, complain about that policy.  That policy, which presumes all Cubans are political refugees, goes something like this: if you arrive in the United States by illegal means – without a legal visa – congratulations!  You can stay.  (And in 366 days, you can apply for a green card.)   Now, if you actually believed that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism – for a recent examination of the U.S. case against Cuba, see this article by General John Adams (Ret.) and David Jones – wouldn’t  such a lax U.S. immigration policy towards Cubans who arrive illegally to the United States give you, me and especially Otto Reich, pause? 

Finally, it’s heartening to see that while some few in Miami and Havana still fight reconciliation, many others are simply moving forward and achieving incremental and real progress.  A Miami businessman and former ‘hardliner’, Carlos Saladrigas, who opposed Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba and regretted it, not only went to see Pope Benedict XVI in Cuba, but stayed behind to give a talk (it's a must-read; full text is here) at a public forum in Havana:  

“This was an event of tremendous importance, the first time that a prominent Cuban from [abroad] could express these thoughts in a large forum,” said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an independent Cuban economist who attended the meeting. He remarked that Saladrigas and the dozen people who stood at the microphone criticized both the Cuban and U.S. governments — and even offered a few solutions — in voices respectful and calm. 


Judging Cuba's Cardinal Ortega and Pope Benedict's Visit

Whereas Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba nearly 15 years ago was in itself a historic moment – coming as it did at the end of a dark period for Church-State relations in Cuba – Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island this week was more about consolidating spaces the Cuban Catholic Church has won in society and about gaining more such space.  Those who hoped this Pope’s trip would have profound impact on the broader political and human rights context on the island were surely disappointed by the Pope’s decision not to meet with Cuban dissidents who asked to see him. 

To some extent, it’s hard to imagine what prominent figure really could sway Cuba’s leaders off of their course to rebuild the economy and leave the one-party political system in place.   Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I tend to think the Cuban people themselves will be the protagonists of that evolution, even if it takes much longer than some, or many, wish.

But given the ground the Cuban Catholic Church lost decades ago, the ground it has recovered in the past decade, and its priorities for the future near and far, creating more space for those goals must have been the driving factors in the pope’s trip.  And perhaps that increased space in society - whether it is the Cuba Catholic Church’s publication of unvarnished criticisms of Raul Castro’s halting economic reforms (that are, as Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernandez always points out, themselves signs of political change in Cuba) to the hoped-for reopening of private Catholic schools in Cuba one day, to Pope Benedict’s request to add Good Friday to the Cuban State’s official calendar - perhaps these advances, and reaches, by the Catholic Church and its offices and members in Cuban society at a crucial time of generational change in Cuba, may help usher in other social and political openings on the island.

That is the road the Church has chosen for itself in modern day Cuba.  Rather than serve as a force for opposition, it looks for opportunities for constructive engagement with the government in ways that it feels can benefit the Cuban people. 

Many observers were aghast when, just before the Pope’s visit, Cuban Catholic Church leaders requested government authorities remove 13 dissidents who had been “occupying” a Havana church for several days. 

Washington Post Continues to Obfuscate the Alan Gross Case

Celtic Festival in Cuba

CeltFest Cuba (see link at end)


The Washington Post has played a shameful role in the Alan Gross affair, providing only incomplete coverage of what he was doing and why and publishing editorials that were defense briefs at best.  By amplifying the official US line it constrains the State Department's ability to find a reasonable diplomatic solution.

Its latest effort was a long story yesterday in the Lifestyle section that was appropriately sympathetic to the hardship of Judy Gross. 

Readers who want to know more than the Post spin about the case should look at the Associated Press story based on Alan's own leaked reports. Perhaps most damning is that on his final trip he was carrying SIM cards that are normally available only for military and intelligence purposes to hide the location of the BGAN transmitters that the Post only half acknowledges he was distributing. 

Alan's case has never been helped by denial of the serious illegality of his actions under Cuban law, or for that matter under US law had he been an unregistered agent of a hostile foreign power operating covertly here.  

The bottom line is that sectors of the US government believe we have the right to intervene in Cuba and other countries if we disagree with their political systems, in this case to create an independent satellite linked encryptable internet node that was accessible to anyone in the vicinity, not just the announced recipients in the Jewish community.  

In the case of Cuba the presumption of a right to intervene is a problem that has plagued our relationship for more than a century and is exacerbated by the agenda of the diminishing minority of vengeful exiles who exploit the power of the state for their self interest. 

Weekend Reading: Terrorism, Papal Visit and The Economist's Special Report on Cuba

Looking back on the past year in which change has finally and visibly come to the island of Cuba, and on the cusp of Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Cuba, the second papal visit to the island in 15 years, it seems fitting to highlight for readers a few items that offer crucial, and even detailed perspective on where Cuba has been, is going, and how the United States continues to fumble as if blindfolded on Cuba.  This week's issue of The Economist includes a special 10-page report (online here) that charts how change finally, if haltingly, came to Cuba this year, where it falls short and why, and what Cuba could look like in 2015.  The best thing about this special report is that a Cuba neophyte can pick up this issue and having read the complete article, actually come out reasonably informed about Cuba, its leaders, its people's daily struggles, the political heft and the changing course of Cuban exiles and emigrants in America, and what to make of an embargo that few Americans understand is still firmly in place after fifty years - let alone why.

For a taste of the "Wait, what?" moment that comes with the realization that the Cold War didn't actually end between the United States and Cuba when it ended everywhere else, Brigadier General John Adams (Ret.) and David Jones, writing in The Hill this week, urge the State Department to "get real" on keeping Cuba on its state sponsors of terrorism list. 

"Today, four countries are on the list: Iran, Syria, Sudan and … Cuba. Seriously, Cuba?  Countries not on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list include: Yemen, Lebanon, Pakistan, North Korea (the Department of State removed North Korea from the list in 2008) and Libya (removed from the list in 2006). . . "

Point by point, Adams and Jones poke huge holes in the State Department's case for keeping Cuba on the list , though, they hardly need to make their case when this is what the State Department's evidence looks like:

The 2008 U.S. State Country Report on Terrorism stated that Cuba “no longer actively supports armed struggles in Latin America and other parts of the world.” The same report further states, “The United States has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba.”

The 2009 report stated: “There was no evidence of direct financial support for terrorist organizations by Cuba in 2009.” The 2010 State Department report stated: “The Cuban government and official media publicly condemned acts of terrorism by al-Qa’ida and affiliates.”

So, if Cuba doesn't appear to finance, plot or even support terrorism, surely there is some reason why they're on the list?

Meeting dissidents should not be a litmus test for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba (A response to the March 19 Washington Post Editorial).

As the visit of Benedict XVI draws nearer, Cuba's internal opposition is stepping up its activities in an effort to use his presence on the island as a sounding board. The Ladies in White, a group of mothers and wives of dissidents who were given long prison sentences in 2003, have eased up some since all of their relatives were released as a result of mediation by Cardinal Ortega. Now they are asking for a meeting with the Pope. In 2010, the Cardinal also managed to secure eight city blocks for them to hold their Sunday marches after mass at the Santa Rita Church in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. On Sunday March 18, the group, which has never managed to fill the ceded space, pushed further, and were detained by the government only to be released several hours later.

Don’t get me wrong. In the Cuba I dream of, without an American embargo and with representative democracy, opposition forces would have the right to demonstrate peacefully. But that is not the issue here. The gradual recovery of social spaces has been central to the Catholic Church's strategic adaptation to the post-revolutionary system. Unlike the political opposition calling for the government’s acceptance of a disorganized partisan pluralism that has no relevance on the street, the Church gradually recovers social spaces and then negotiates government recognition. The Cuban Bishops demanded the right to parade the Virgin of Charity through the towns of Cuba after parishes overflowed with worshipers, not before.

Rene Gonzalez Gets a Yes While Alan Gross Waits - Can Pope Benedict Help?

One might expect that a terrible coincidence such as an American prisoner in Cuba and a paroled Cuban prisoner in the U.S. each desperately seeking permission to visit beloved relatives dying of cancer in their home countries might finally move both governments to do the right thing and send each man home.  But so far, both governments have dug in their heels needlessly regarding the prisoners in their own custody, while at the same time, insisting that clemency should be shown towards their own citizens held in the other country. 

So what happens now that a federal judge in Miami has approved Rene Gonzalez’s petition for a two week visit to his brother in Cuba?  The judge gave her permission so long as Gonzalez obtains the necessary license from the U.S. government, provides his itinerary, keeps up with his parole officer while in Cuba, and returns when his two weeks are up.  Lucky for Gonzalez that Mr. Obama delivered on his campaign promise to Cuban Americans back in 2009: anyone can visit close family in Cuba under ‘general license’ authority, so he doesn’t have to ask for further permission.  This is good news for Gonzalez and his brother.

But will it mean good news for Alan Gross, in exchange?   Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue this can be an ‘exchange’ of humanitarian gestures by the two governments, since Obama’s Justice Department opposed Gonzalez’s deathbed visit to his brother.   These kinds of equities – or inequities – weigh heavily in Havana.  When former governor Bill Richardson visited Cuba last August and suggested a swap of Gonzalez for Gross, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon scoffed at the idea – Gonzalez was finishing his term, having served more than a dozen years in prison, whereas Gross had only just begun his sentence of 15 years.   And, from the Cuban government’s perspective, Gonzalez was merely trying to protect Cuba, whereas Gross’s work to establish untraceable Wi-Fi networks on the island was funded under a statute calling for regime change in Cuba.  (U.S. officials naturally have a different view: they cite national security concerns about Gonzalez, who was an unregistered agent of the Cuban government in the U.S., and they view Gross’s work as purely humanitarian in nature. ) 

Another reason why Cuba is less likely to grant Mr. Gross a deathbed visit to his mother is that granting  a temporary release to Gross is tantamount to simply commuting his sentence.  Why would he return to Cuba once reaching the U.S.?   Gonzalez is likely return to the U.S. out of a sense of solidarity with the rest of the Cuban Five; if he fails to meet the conditions set out by the judge that granted his motion in the first place, that could impact decisions made on future motions filed by the rest of them.  But Gross has nothing else at stake in Cuba, and if the Cuban government is bent on keeping him as a chip for the right humanitarian bargain to come along (say one that includes more of the Five), then granting his deathbed visit request would take away that imagined leverage.

But it’s a mistake to think that Mr. Gross offers any leverage to Cuba. 

Groundhog Day in Florida: Bill Targets Firms Doing Business with Cuba

Only in Florida can you have legislators so obsessed with another country that they routinely pass laws designed to punish said country even (and sometimes especially) when they harm that state's own interests.

On Friday, the Florida legislature passed a law that would ban any of the state's public contracts to be awarded to companies that also do business with Cuba.  The obvious target of the bill is Brazil's Odebrecht, which has done quite well in Miami over the past couple of decades, and which is also behind the transformation of Cuba's port at Mariel into a major caribbean shipping hub (no doubt in preparation for the day when U.S. rules preventing U.S.-bound liners are again allowed to freely stop in Cuba).  I'm not in a position to wade into whether Odebrecht should or shouldn't win public contracts, except to say it seems to me they should win or lose on the merits, not the politics. 

The National Foreign Trade Council's Dan O'Flaherty says the just-passed Florida law is unconstitutional - the constitution prohibits states legislating foreign policy matters in conflict with federal laws.  O'Flaherty cites a Massacusetts law that would have enforced a similar restriction on companies dealing with Burma.  That law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000. 

Perhaps the Florida legislature might be forgiven for its short memory on the subject.  Except that not quite three years ago, a 2008 law it passed to force U.S. charter companies to pay exceedingly high bonds to operate their flights to Cuba (which, had it taken effect, would have likely forced them out of business altogether) was struck down by a Federal District Judge in Miami.  That judge wrote:

Colombia's Santos Averts Summit Crisis on Cuba, and Everybody Wins

I must confess that I didn't envision a neat solution to the Summit of the Americas stand-off, but that is exactly what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose country will host the meeting next month in Cartagena, has achieved after a visit to Havana this week.  Santos traveled to Havana, where he lamented a lack of consensus among the Summit's participants on including Cuba and promised to raise the issue of Cuba at the meeting.  But Cuba's government didn't heap any blame on Colombia - there were no charges that Santos was just doing Washington's dirty work and playing the lapdog to the villanious Uncle Sam.  (There was plenty of blame heaped directly on Washington, though.)  And, according to Colombia's foreign minister, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez will not only attend the Summit, but would be happy to call Ecuador's President Correa and encourage him to attend, even without Cuba's Castro allowed in.

Santos handled the players expertly, and it paid off for him, both by averting embarassment when he hosts the Summit next month and by demonstrating his ability to be an effective regional negotiator.