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.
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.
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:
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.
After two years, the Ft. Lauderdale-based company Havana Ferry Partners got its answer, though not the one for which it was hoping. The company had hoped to established a 500-600 passenger ferry service to Cuba which it says would have offered travelers a cheaper alternative to currently available flights to the island. But Treasury ( which sat on the ferry license application so long you wonder why it bothered responding now) says the service would be "beyond the scope of current policy."
But of course, that can't be the real reason. The current policy is to allow, if not encourage, travel to Cuba by, among others, licensable Cuban Americans, academics, and religious and cultural groups. The policy even expanded the number of airports allowed to offer charter flights to the island. So it's hard to imagine allowing ferry service really goes against current policy.
But re-establishing ferry service for the first time in more than fifty years does offer two challenges that the administration presumably doesn't want to bother with in an election year. Naturally, opponents would claim it's another concession to Cuba - the headlines alone, which would use words like "re-establish" and "in more than fifty years" would (mistakenly) offer the impression of detente between the U.S. and Cuban governments.
What’s the best way to gauge if anyone in Washington understands what’s going on in Havana? Try to grill Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
More than once, I’ve complained about the Obama administration’s tone-deafness on the shifting political, social and economic climate in Cuba. We (and by we, I mean they) were slow-to-absent in acknowledging and encouraging the 2010-2011 political prisoner releases brokered between Raul Castro, Cuba’s Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega and the previous (Zapatero) government in Spain, and President Obama himself has highlighted the ongoing economic changes in Cuba only to call them insufficient.
So it was fascinating to watch this exchange at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing this week in which Cuban-American Congressman David Rivera pressed Secretary Clinton for any “tangible” progress towards democracy in Cuba thanks to the Obama administration’s policy toward the island:
Cuba and the Inter-American System: From the San Pedro Sula Resolution to the VI Summit of the Americas.
In 2009, in San Pedro Sula, the OAS General Assembly demonstrated a shift in the balance of power among the countries of the hemisphere in regards to Cuba by repealing the sixth resolution of 1962 meeting in Punta del Este. The OAS recognized that it was anachronistic to exclude Cuba from the OAS for being "Marxist" or for its relations with an alleged "Sino-Soviet axis" when the Soviet Union does not exist and the People’s Republic of China is an associate member of the Inter-American Development Bank. The resolution was in consonance with the expressed unanimous rejection by the American countries of the US embargo against Cuba, which was declared only six days after the Punta del Este resolution.
By linking the end of Cuba's exclusion to the OAS democratic requirement of membership in the same resolution, the 2009 compromise separated the repeal of the 1962 resolution from the process of Cuba's reinstatement to the inter-American system, which now depends on a dialogue between the OAS and Cuba, at the request of the latter. However, the inertia of the status quo in Havana and Washington has halted any progress and has placed a time bomb at the door of the VI Summit of the Americas to be held in Cartagena de Indias.
It’s never easy to sit at the same table as someone with whom you have deep disagreements, especially when you believe that someone shouldn’t even be at the table. President Obama could find himself in that position at the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia this April. President Obama and thirty-three other heads of state from around the region, all members of the Organization of American States (OAS), are expected to attend the summit. But several countries have threatened to boycott the summit if Cuba is not invited. The showdown over the possible attendance of Cuba’s Raul Castro – or the possible boycott by Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and several Caribbean nations if he is not invited – will be a test of America’s ability to lead and build consensus within the region. But it doesn't have to be a crisis of conscience.
Three years ago, the Obama administration faced a similar situation at an OAS meeting in Honduras. The hemisphere stood united (minus the United States) to revoke Cuba’s 1962 suspension from the OAS, ready to dispatch with bygone, Cold War era divisions. But while the United States chose not oppose revocation of Cuba’s suspension, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton successfully argued that Cuba must not be automatically readmitted with full rights of participation and voting:
"The member nations of the OAS showed flexibility and openness today, and as a result we reached a consensus that focuses on the future instead of the past: Cuba can come back into the OAS in the future if the OAS decides that its participation meets the purposes and principles of the organization, including democracy and human rights."
The administration’s willingness to compromise on Cuba may have hurt it among staunch anti-Castroites at home. But it mended fences with a skeptical and polarized region that wanted unity more than anything else. Three years later, the region remains divided. Rather than refocus countries on hemisphere-wide concerns, the Summit itself is now in jeopardy over what to do with Cuba. The U.S. must now choose: either insist that Cuba not attend (and cause half a dozen other member states to boycott), boycott the meeting itself, or suffer Cuba’s inclusion as an observer to the summit.
Readers of The Havana Note have surely had their fill – and more – of the case of Alan P. Gross, the USAID subcontractor arrested in Cuba in December 2009, and now serving a 15 year sentence for crimes against the Cuban state. So I hesitate to write even one more word on a subject so thoroughly discussed, at least on these pages. But an investigative report by the Associated Press’s Desmond Butler brings key, new details to light that beg a second look if for no other reason than because they change the light in which the U.S. has portrayed the case that has managed to bring U.S.-Cuban relations to their lowest point since the George W. Bush administration.
In the more than two years since Gross’s arrest, Cuban authorities have shared little information publicly on the case (though they have insinuated more than once that he was a spy), while the U.S. government has insistently cast Gross as an American humanitarian aid worker wrongly incarcerated for activities that would be legal anywhere else in the world. (Actually, they wouldn't be legal anywhere else in the world, and certainly not in the United States, where we don't take kindly to unregistered foreign agents roaming around our country.)
Those of us who follow U.S.-Cuban affairs closely shook our heads and wondered why the Cubans hadn’t picked up an American contractor for USAID before. That's because the USAID Cuba program is authorized under a 1996 U.S. law seeking regime change in Cuba, and in 1998 Cuba responded by criminalizing cooperation with that law (by disseminating or accepting funds or materials, for instance by the U.S. government).
History has a lot to do with it. The United States has been trying to either destabilize Cuba, assassinate its leaders, starve its people into rebellion or similarly isolate and punish the island nation for more than fifty years. Both sides have broken faith on previous attempts at rapprochement. And so working in Cuba, even in the most transparent of cases, is not a simple assignment.
Judy Gross, Alan Gross's wife, suggested last year that Gross’s employers at Development Alternatives Inc. underplayed the threat to Gross if he were caught by Cuban authorities, implying that Gross wasn’t totally unaware of the potential consequences of his actions. But Gross’s own trip reports make clear he understood the risks he was taking. “This is very risky business in no uncertain terms,” he wrote in one of his trip reports.