Ferry to Cuba a Bridge too Far?

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.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Gets Real on Cuba

Photo courtest of Flickr/Asterix611's photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/

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.

U.S. Can End Summit of the Americas Stand-off Over Cuba

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.

AP Report: Alan Gross Knew the Risks in Cuba

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. 

Cuba Embargo Hits 50: Twisting the Half-a-Century Away

The U.S. embargo turned 50 years old this week.  It probably won't surprise most folks to learn that the night before President John F. Kennedy signed a total U.S. embargo of Cuba into force, he asked an aide to buy 1,000 Cuban cigars (just to be safe, the aide got 1,200).  Surely Kennedy would have been shocked to learn that his massive stockpile would run out long before his embargo would; just days before his assassination, Kennedy had approved a secret meeting to take place in Havana between a senior U.S. diplomat and Castro.  But the meeting never took place, and Kennedy's embargo has remained a fixture now for half a century.  Over at the Daily Mail, Lee Moran offers perspective on this week's milestone:

"When the embargo began, American teenagers were doing The Twist, the U.S. had yet to put a man into orbit around the Earth and a first-class U.S. postage stamp cost just 4 cents."

A Clash of Generations: U.S. 50 Year Old Embargo Meets Scarabeo 9


By Arturo Lopez-Levy and Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado

Scarabeo 9, the semi-submersible oil rig contracted by the Spanish company Repsol completed its journey from Singapore to Cuba. Repsol’s rig will explore Cuba’s exclusive economic zone, an area in the Gulf of Mexico of about 112000 square kilometers. Oil exploration in the zone is being contracted to several foreign companies such as Venezuela’s PDVSA, Malaysia’s Petronas, and Vietnamese PetroVietnam.  Cuba’s Ministry of Basic Industry estimates the oil reserves in the zone are between 5 billion to 9 billion barrels of oil. CNN GPS host Fareed Zakaria referred to Cuba’s total oil potential as between 5 billion and 20 billion barrels of oil. 

The start of the oil exploration will not derail Raul Castro’s reform program. At a minimum, oil will not come from the offshore wells soon enough, while the reforms are needed immediately. The Cuban government needs to create jobs for the million and half workers that are supposed to leave the government sector in the next two years as part of the reforms program proclaimed last April by the Cuban Communist Party in its VI Congress. It must also alleviate critical situations of poverty in the five most eastern provinces, where unrest has been rising. With or without oil, the Cuban economy sorely needs to develop an environment in which businesses and individuals feel confident to invest.

President Rousseff goes to Cuba: Towards a more effective Brazilian policy.


Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff's visit to Cuba has generated considerable debate. Some question the appropriateness of the presidential visit after the death of Wilmar Villar while others go further by criticizing what they identify as appeasement and under emphasis of human rights in Brasilia's relationship with Havana. It is obvious that Brazil's policy is not as effective as could be and that new initiatives could increase Brazil’s impact on Cuba's reform process. That said, it is important to recognize the merits of the policy designed by the Itamaraty in light of Cuba's political liberalization, rather than democratization, and the inherent synergy between a transition to a mixed economy and the expansion of rights and freedoms.

Brazilian policy toward Cuba is not one-dimensional. It implies a convergence of economic interests and strategic regional leadership with values ​​from a Brazilian left committed to democratic governance. The Brazilian Foreign Ministry also employs a combination of principles of international law. As emphasized by then-President Cardoso during the democratic crisis in Peru 2000 and Venezuela in April 2002, state sovereignty is not a shield to violate human rights but as a principle should be respected. That position is reflected in the critical distance that Brazil, since its own transition to democracy, has taken toward the U.S. policy of confrontation aimed at forcing a regime change in Cuba.

In Cuba, U.S., Party Politics Are Slow to Change

Photo courtesy of Flickr/WBUR's photostream

With the Cuban Communist Party Conference, the first of its kind, held in order to maintain steady progress on economic reforms laid out by the 6th  Party Congress last April, now concluded, and with the Republican primary battle in full promise-the-moon mode this last week, it’s clear that both in Cuba and the United States, some things remain painfully slow to change.

While significant economic reforms have gained momentum on the island for the last year or so, issues we might consider more political – such as migration reform or legalization of multiple political parties – aren’t on the immediate horizon.  Raul Castro called for greater accountability in the media and "democracy" in government decision-making.  Though Castro himself has pointed to the need for migration reforms, so that Cubans who work abroad aren’t forced to leave the country and their possessions permanently, for instance, he told Parliament in December that he considers it a complicated and delicate issue, one which (shocker alert) is inextricably linked to the longstanding U.S. embargo of Cuba.  This weekend he dispelled any notions that Cuba will turn away from a one-party model of government.  Why?  Because to do so would be “to legalize the party or parties of the [U.S.] empire.”  In one respect, of course he’s right – it would be hard to stop Cuban exiles from pouring money into and trying to shape the agendas of newly legalized political parties on the island.  But despite the obvious counter-productivity and “meddlesome”-ness of U.S. policy, it cannot always be the reason why Cuba’s leaders refuse to take a given course.  Just as the U.S. must not wait for Cuba to adopt policies we think it ought to, Cuba should not wait for the U.S. to suddenly offer a “new beginning” with Cuba.

Of course, that is the change that President Obama promised nearly three years ago – a “new beginning” with Cuba.  On the campaign trail, he sniffed at the Bush administration’s tough-talking pandering to the hard line segment of the Cuban American community, which in truth accomplished nothing, neither its swaggering determination to bring about the Castros’ demise, nor any improvement in conditions for Cubans.  The Obama administration did make a number of tactical changes to the policy, including expansions of travel for certain sectors, notably for Cuban Americans his campaign surely hoped would return the favor in 2012.  But none of these limited changes broke any truly new ground (with the exception of allowing additional airports to serve licensed travelers), and in fact, its refusal to fully reform the controversial USAID or Radio and TV Marti programs it inherited from the Bush administration signaled it wasn’t so comfortable with change after all.

Meanwhile, this week the Republican presidential hopefuls – minus Rep. Ron Paul - pedaled furiously backward into Florida, land of the hard line Cuban exile (and a few other voters). 

In the Weeds in Miami, Unpublished Letters

poster at Casas de Las Americas, Havana

Poster from exhibit at Casa de las Americas, Havana



An analysis of Cuban American opinion and voting behavior has been released which seems generally consistent with the  annual poll by Florida International University.  However. “The Political Incorporation of Cuban Americans: Why Won’t Little Havana Turn Blue?”  may underestimate the transitional moment.

The study was published by Benjamin G. Bishin, associate professor of political science at UC Riverside, and Casey A. Klofstad, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami.  They observed 

Post-Mariel immigrants, who are more progressive on U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba than those who fled immediately following Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, accounted for slightly more than half of foreign-born Cubans in South Florida in the 2008 election; however, 78.6 percent of the Cuban American electorate consisted of pre-Mariel immigrants. About 90 percent of those who immigrated before Mariel are eligible to vote; less than 46 percent of those who immigrated after 1980 are similarly eligible.

Their data precedes President Obama's policy of unrestricted travel and remittances and the failed legislative push-back by the Cuban American caucus to restore the discredited Bush policy.