My ears perked up last week upon hearing that after six months of being detained in North Korea, American citizen Eddie Jun was freed last week on humanitarian grounds. Jun, a Los Angeles business man, was detained by North Korean authorities last November for alleged proselytizing while in North Korea on a business visa. As with Cuba, U.S-North Korea relations are colored by years of distrust and miscommunication. But unlike Cuba, North Korea is a nuclear power. That means that in world of finite U.S. diplomatic resources, North Korea demands our attention in a way Cuba never will. So despite, in indeed perhaps because of, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's proclivity for belligerent and provocative acts, the U.S. continues to rely on a mix of both sanctions and engagement in its dealing with Pyongyang.
Amid reports that flooding and an outbreak of disease have contributed to one of the worst food shortages in years, North Korea recently took the unusual step of asking for help from some of its most long-standing foes, including the United States. Against this backdrop, the detention (and subsequent release) of American Eddie Jun was seen as part of the North’s strategy of re-engaging the U.S. in a conversation about providing food assistance to North Korea. (U.S. assistance stopped in 2008 after North Korea expelled food aid monitors there to verify that aid was going to the neediest North Koreans, not being siphoned off for use by government officials.)
The debate about food aid to North Korea is a heated one, and has been since the international community’s first major humanitarian response to widespread famine in North Korea in the early 1990s that killed nearly one million people. The two sides of the debate go something like this- proponents argue the assistance is humanitarian, and to withhold it is a human rights violation, while those who oppose aid argue that reinstating it would amount to rewarding Pyongyang’s bad behavior, and would only serve to strengthen the North Korean regime. Sound vaguely familiar Cuba-philes?
At roughly this time last year the headline of a Reuters article proclaimed, “U.S-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point.” The article chronicled a number of prickly moments between Washington and Havana, but largely attributed the backslide to the arrest of U.S. contractor Alan Gross in late 2009 and the unfortunate death of Cuban prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo which occurred just a few months later.
Given President Obama’s remarks about Cuba to Univision last week, one might conclude U.S.-Cuba relations have reached a sort of second nadir. In response to a question about the reforms currently underway in Cuba, the president said,
“For us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we've got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet.”
While senior Obama Administration officials have been following those same talking points for months, (see Cuba Central’s helpful chronology here), to hear them again, precisely as Cuba begins to implement some of the wide-ranging policy reforms recently endorsed by its political leadership, is a troubling signal of where this Administration is on Cuba policy. Despite the past year being one in which Cuba began an historic process of reform and agreed to a major prisoner release brokered by the Cuban Catholic Church, Obama’s comments have the ring of an all-too-familiar refrain that is increasingly incompatible with the facts on the ground in Cuba.
U.S.-Cuba policy is important to Senator Kerry and he wants us to get it right. That was the message he sent last Friday when he announced he is freezing funding for the U.S. Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Cuba democracy promotion programs until a complete review of the programs is completed
Kerry’s announcement came after USAID provided a spending plan (h/t Cuban Triangle) for the $20 million it recieved for Cuba democracy promotion programs in the FY2010 federal budget. For those readers who are not avid followers of the federal budget process, the U.S. Congress is currently wrangling over the FY2011 budget, in which, yes, the Administration requested another $20 million for USAID’s Cuba democracy promotion programs.
If it sounds like Kerry is singing a familiar tune, it’s because this isn’t the first time he’s tried to call attention to this deeply flawed program that has cost U.S. taxpayers more than $150 million. Four months after American USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for his work on a USAID sub-contract, Kerry placed a hold on the dispersal of USAID Cuba democracy promotion funds to allow the State Department to conduct a review of the program.
As Kerry’s spokesman, Fred Jones said at the time, “We all want democratic change in Cuba,” Jones continued. “The question is whether American taxpayers are getting progress towards that goal.”
Unfortunately, it seems the most that came of that review was a modest attempt to broaden and de-politicize the program’s roster of recipients to include “marginalized communities” such as those living in rural areas, ethnic and religious minorities, as well as to promote grass-roots economic development. Expanding the program to encompass more traditional USAID priorities such as economic development was a good move, but it didn’t address the more fundamental concerns with the program- that it operates without the consent of the host government and under Cuban law, put Americans and Cubans involved with the program at risk.
In reviewing the transcript of former President Carter’s press conference in Havana on Wednesday, he says many things we’ve all heard before: End the embargo. Remove Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism List. Restore basic freedoms in Cuba. What's refreshing though is that these comments emanate from one individual, who, as a former U.S President and recipient of the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize, knows more than a bit about the intersection of foreign policy making and human rights.
Consistency is something often lacking in discussions about U.S.-Cuba policy, such that Carter's two-pronged message, calling on both the U.S. and Cuba to take affirmative steps to improve relations, carried with it the exotic flavor of equity. In calling for the repeal of the U.S. embargo and the end of restrictions on travel between the U.S. and Cuba for Americans and Cubans, Carter pointed out the hypocrisy of a U.S. policy that curtails the rights of its own citizens under the guise of punishing a rights-abusing regime.
“I believe we should immediately eliminate the trade embargo that the United States has imposed on the people of Cuba and also allow travel without any kind of restriction from the U.S. to Cuba and vice-versa…”
One does not have to agree with everything the former President said to appreciate the significance of a distinguished American statesman publicly calling for an end to the U.S. embargo and decrying Cuba’s lack of freedoms in a single breath.
Photo: Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter shakes the hands of eager schoolchildren during his historic trip to Cuba. (May 2002).
When former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, 86, touches down in Havana today he will confront a situation not totally unlike his last international diplomatic outing. Replace nuclear weapons with decades of distrust, add in a failing state–run economy and an American in a communist prison, and you have the backdrop against which the thirty-ninth President of the United States enters Cuba for a brief, but potentially powerful three-day visit.
Nine years ago when Carter first visited Cuba, it marked the first time an American president had set foot on the island since Fidel Castro took power. The visit was marked by a public address, broadcast over Cuban radio (and delivered in Spanish), in which President Carter called for the end of the U.S. embargo and lauded the Cuban pro-democracy initiative, the Varela Project.
Since then, and as most Cuba watchers know, significant changes have come to Cuba with many more still on the horizon. Under President Raul Castro’s watch, Cuba has essentially sworn off the state-led economy as it has precariously existed in Cuba since Fidel Castro took power. The government has pledged to lay off approximately 500,000 state workers, and has granted 171,000 private employment licenses. Next month’s Communist Party Congress, the first to be convened in 14 years, will focus on “the fundamental decisions on updating the Cuban economic model,” and will shed light on how the government plans to reconcile market-oriented reforms with political and social norms of Cuba's communist system.
An American contractor could spend 15 years in a Cuban prison because of work he undertook at the behest of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). If this tragic episode does not fundamentally transform the nature of U.S. “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba, I shudder to think what it may take.
The saga that Alan Gross and his family have been living for the past 15 months was an incredibly unfortunate accident waiting to happen. USAID knows its back door tactics place American and Cuban participants in direct violation of Cuban law. In dealing with Cuba, a country that views these programs as part of a larger strategy of regime change (with good reason), and operates one of the most formidable intelligence services in the world, it is no wonder, however regrettable, that Havana decided to make an example out of Alan Gross.
It figures that just as I get ready to take an extended leave for the next two months (during which I'll be unable to blog here as much as I'd like), U.S.-Cuban affairs would get to their most interesting - and critical - point in some time.
In recent days we've learned that April's Communist Party Congress in Cuba may not just clarify and embrace the ongoing economic overhaul, but now it will include election of new leadership - which offers the prospect that Fidel Castro will step down as party head, Raul Castro will presumably take his place, and someone else will step into the number 2 spot. Any readers want to take a gander at that one in the comments section?
And then there's what fate awaits Alan Gross, the American contractor the Wall Street Journal editorial board today suggests went on trial in Cuba for "bringing computer equipment to the island to help Cuban Jews communicate with the disapora"? It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is, even, and especially perhaps, for the media to ignore the parts of reality it cares to. Gross was allegedly delivering highly advanced and unregulated satellite communications equipment (added emphasis is mine) on behalf of a foreign, and let's face it, hostile, power. That's a big difference, particularly when we know that droves of American Jews visit the island every year to connect and make generous donations, resulting in community amenities like a computer lab.
The WSJ may in fact be absolutely right that the Cuban government is "terrified of the internet," but questioning the motives behind the application of a law in another country doesn't give you the right to expect that law to be disregarded because you believe your motives to be on a higher order.
The trial in Cuba against USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, which will begin on March 4, presents an opportunity for the Cuban government to both demonstrate the legitimate basis for nationalist defense against U.S. interventionist policy and its good will towards the millions of potential American travelers to Cuba.
By the end of the trial, it should be clear that U.S. travelers to Cuba have nothing to fear if they keep a healthy distance from regime change programs and that Washington and Havana would both gain from dismantling hostile attitudes.
The trial serves three Cuban government purposes:
Alan Gross, a Maryland-based USAID subcontractor detained in Cuba in December 2009, is finally about to get his day - or days - in court on March 4th. His family, and U.S. consular officials will be allowed to attend the trial.
As CBS Havana Bureau Chief Portia Siegelbaum reports, there may be a surprise witness in the room too. Finally, a member of the Jewish community has stepped forward to say he did encounter Alan Gross, several times. But William Miller, former Vice President of the the Templo Beth Shalom in Vedado, says Gross's activities "had absolutely nothing to do with the Jewish community," as State Department officials have repeatedly insisted. Though Miller wouldn't elaborate on exactly what role he'll play in Gross's trial, he revealed he'll be "a part of it." And, then he added this, clear as mud:
"The solution to the problem is coming . . . better for the government to explain everything."
It's hard to imagine Miller would utter one word the government didn't want revealed in such a sensitive case. For those of us who saw this whole saga as an unfortunate dragging of one man and his family into a tortured diplomatic relationship, Miller's comments about a "solution" offer hope that Gross could soon return to his family.
The Cuban government has announced a new phase of the Alan Gross saga. According to the official note in Cuban newspaper Granma, prosecutors will seek a 20 year sentence against Gross under the Cuban sovereignty defense law. This law was passed by the Cuban National Assembly in 1999 as a nationalist antidote against the American interventionist regime change programs promoted under the 1996 Helms-Burton Act.
The fact that Mr. Gross will finally have his day in Court is positive. It brings his situation closer to international standards regarding the human right to legal counsel and a fair and impartial trial. The Cuban government will have the chance to present Gross’ alleged violations of Cuban laws and expose the ways in which the USAID Cuba program differs from the legal and good practices of international development assistance. These factors might create conditions for a political solution of his case negotiated by Havana and Washington.
A USAID sub-contractor, an American interested in social development, Alan Gross spent more than a year behind bars in Havana without formal charges. His family has paid a major emotional and financial toll for his absence. His daughter, Shira, has been diagnosed with breast cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy without having her father by her side. His wife Judith, his family, and his congregation all bemoan his absence.
Gross’s imprisonment is the direct result of the design flaws in USAID’s Cuba programs that the Obama Administration inherited from its predecessor. The agency is conducting programs on the island that place Cubans at risk of severe prison sentences without informing them of the risk they take.