Posts in Raul Castro

Cuba and the Beyonce Effect


Every once in a while something happens to remind us just how far U.S.-Cuba relations have deviated from what they should be. Last week, superstars Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z strolled through Havana, engulfed in a sea of people. The couple went to Cuba to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary but could not pass through the city unnoticed like they may have wished. They are at the peak of their artistic careers and my adolescent niece Sophia, to whom I have tried to explain the poetry of Bob Dylan, cannot believe that I don't know any Beyonce songs.

Kerry's Cuba Sanity

One would have to go back to John Quincy Adams, who served in the U.S. diplomatic service from the age of 17, to find a predecessor better pedigreed than John Kerry to lead the U.S. State Department. The son of a diplomat, Kerry is a war veteran, senior senator, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Few experiences have had greater influence on Kerry’s foreign policy views than his decades-long relationship with Vietnam, where Kerry served as a swift boat captain during the Vietnam War.

Kerry’s experience in Vietnam, where visceral ideological attitudes prevailed over rational analysis, prompted the future senator to advocate for a more realistic course for U.S. policy. A decorated veteran, John Kerry became a spokesman for veterans against the war. He learned that to promote U.S. values and interests requires awareness of the relative nature of power and the force of nationalism in the post-colonial world.

Lessons of the Cuban Missile Crisis: A Rashomon Exercise


“When I saw the rockets being fired at Mario’s house, I swore to myself that the Americans would pay dearly for what they are doing. When this war is over a much wider and bigger war will begin for me: The war that I am going to wage against them. I know that this is my real destiny.”

Fidel Castro wrote these words in 1958, the decisive year of his guerrilla war against Dictator Fulgencio Batista. Mario was a peasant from Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountain range whose house was bombarded by the regime’s U.S.-equipped air force. Although Fidel Castro had expressed an adolescent admiration for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, by 1958, he was acutely aware that a clash with Washington was probable if not inevitable. In Latin America, Washington’s support for dictators such as Batista was the norm, not the exception. No matter how terrible they were with their people, dictators were considered a safeguard against communist penetration in the hemisphere. Following this logic, not only communism but most types of nationalism were considered anathema to Eisenhower Washington.

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. 

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. 

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.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Gets Real on Cuba

Photo courtest of Flickr/Asterix611's photostream:

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:

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). 

Scholar Advocates for Increased Academic Partnership Between U.S. and Cuba

I would like to share with the readers of the Havana Note this interview with Douglas Fehlen from The direct link to the interview is at the end of the text:  

Scholar Advocates for Increased Academic Partnership Between U.S. and Cuba

Jan 12, 2012

In January, President Obama lifted restrictions on academic travel to Cuba, making it easier for students to partake in educational exchanges with the island country. To get an expert's perspective on that decision, spoke with Arturo López-Levy, Ph.D. candidate and research associate at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies. López-Levy is a passionate advocate for increasing shared educational opportunities between the U.S. and Cuba.

By Douglas Fehlen In a article, you praised President Obama's January decision to ease restrictions on academic travel to Cuba. Why do you support this policy change?For decades, the United States has maintained no formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, enforcing severe travel and trade restrictions against the country all the while. Arturo López-Levy, Ph.D. candidate and research associate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is a longtime critic of American policy toward the Caribbean nation. The University of Denver scholar believes that recent changes in American policy - including relaxed regulations on educational, cultural and religious travel - have the potential to transform the relationship between the two countries.

Houses, Used Cars and Markets: Change Cubans Can Believe In.

There is much political continuity in Raul Castro’s government, but the recent announcement that Cubans will be able to sell and buy houses and their used cars represents an important change. These are visible economic reforms with direct impacts on Cuban lives. The marketization of these assets unleashes Cuban entrepreneurial spirit and might increase the remittances received from relatives and friends abroad.

For decades, rigid communist regulation of real estate and car sales created major resentment in Cuba, but the government didn’t respond to the public's criticism. After a brief interregnum from 1984 to 1988, when Cubans could sell their houses, Fidel Castro cancelled this right arguing that it was fomenting inequalities, creating a class of intermediaries who were capitalizing on transactions, and rewarding the nouveau riche.  His characteristic aversion to market mechanisms also exerted a virtual veto against the sale of automobiles acquired after 1959.

The High Holidays and Alan Gross: Is there a Jewish Road Out?


The High Holidays are the expression of the supreme Jewish belief in reconciliation and every individual’s capacity to recognize his or her mistakes and change for the better. The Cuban government should view Alan Gross’ recent statement as expressing repentance for his unconscious participation in American government sponsored regime change policies that violated Cuban sovereignty. Mr. Gross, an American Jew from Maryland, interested in civil society development was arrested in Dec. 3, 2009 by the Cuban authorities. He had gone to Cuba five times as a subcontractor of Development Alternatives Inc (DAI), a private company serving contracts awarded by the Bush Administration under the Cuba program of USAID.

Cuba’s Armed Forces: On the Threshold of a Generational Change.

Radio Surco, Julio Casas


The death of Cuban Defense Minister Julio Casas should remind President Raúl Castro of two things: 1) that he has limited time to replace the old guard,and 2) age and health should be key factors in the selection of possible successors. With an eye toward the Cuban Communist Party Conference scheduled for January 2012, those messages amount to a call to rejuvenate the Political Bureau (average age: 67.5) by incorporating younger leaders and seriously considering substitutes for the key positions of first and second secretaries of the Communist Party (PCC, in Spanish).

Along with José Ramón Machado Ventura, General Casas was one of the two closest leaders to Raúl Castro. From a family in the town of Bombi in eastern Cuba, Julio Casas and his brother Senén joined the anti-Batista movement before turning 20. Ever since joining the guerrilla war under Raúl Castro’s command at the second eastern front, Casas became known as a thoughtful but unconditional follower of his boss. Casas was also an inseparable part of the military group formed at the Second Front Guerrilla Headquarters in Micara, from which several of most important leaders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces would emerge, including current PCC Second Secretary Machado Ventura and three defense ministers following the triumph of the Revolution—Augusto Martínez Sánchez, Raúl Castro, and Julio Casas himself.

No Man is an Island (Fidel Castro turned 85)

Fidel Castro-No man is an island.

Five years after Fidel Castro’s separation from power, it is essential to examine the role that the former revolutionary leader has played in the current Cuban political system from his convalescence and retirement, and the consequences of this evolution.

The fundamental role of Fidel Castro in the Cuban political system today is two-fold: 1) In terms of government, Fidel Castro is the great counselor, to be consulted on strategic decisions or with respect to the appointment or removal of central leaders, as was the case in the termination of the political careers of his former associates Felipe Perez and Carlos Lage and in the constitution of the new Central Committee at the Sixth Congress, 2) In terms of ideology and international projection, particularly in Latin America, he is a Patriarch of the radical left, advising the new leaders, especially Hugo Chavez, and reflecting on some of the past mistakes made by this political sector (in his Reflections and interviews he has criticized discrimination against homosexuals, hostility toward the market, and Ahmadinejad's anti-Semitism that has been repeated in many of the anti-Israeli condemnations by the radical Latin American left).

Living with Ambiguity

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Lori Greig

There are Cuban individuals both on and off the island who are disgusted by the Castro regime and who do not want to see any reforms in Cuba, but rather hope that the deteriorating situation will galvanize discontent and provoke a rebellion. There are others in Cuba, enjoying the privileges of the Communist system, who do not want any reforms so that they can go on enjoying the status granted them due to family ties, loyalty or simply ideological opportunism. Still, there are many others who would like to see Cuba initiate orderly reforms that gradually lead to a political and economic system consistent with all human rights-- civil and political, economic, cultural and social-- enshrined in the Universal Declaration.

The principal report to the VI Congress of the Communist Party, presented by Raul Castro, points to a Cuba in which none of the three groups may be satisfied. The proposed reform program inserts economic change into single-party political continuity. This formulation implies that it is possible to advance in terms of legitimacy, freedom and welfare in some areas, while in other areas there is no progress, or even reinforcement of authoritarianism. It envisages a Cuba that might combine prosperity and joyful consumption of market-oriented economic growth with the permanence of reprehensible acts of repudiation against political dissidents.

The dilemmas of economic reform

The Central Report to the PCC Congress reflects a set of proposals generally associated with unorthodox propositions by government supporters. Positions in favor of term limits, decentralization, revaluation of the market as a development tool, separation of party and state functions, increasing the representation of women, blacks, mestizos and youth in government leadership and in favor of checks and balances between the branches of government and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) have been present in Cuba's internal debates since the 80's.

In practice, the transition to a mixed economy model with a decentralized state and a major non-state sector, considered in the past as antithetical to the official communist ideology, has already begun. President Raul Castro has taken (some would say stolen) agendas promoted in the past by reformist groups or even opponents and has set out to implement them under the leadership of the PCC. It will be a challenge for a bureaucracy, steeped in hostility toward these very concepts, to do so.

Market oriented reforms and a reduction of the State's distributive role had already been decided. The questions put to the PCC concerned the speed, methods, sequence, scope and progression of the reforms. The report lacks clear answers. It insinuates a gradual approach by ruling out IMF-style shock therapy and sudden removal of the ration card. But there is still no overall vision or alternative economic model put forward and no discussion of the political risks that the PCC will face in implementing changes.

If, as the report states, contracts will be the "regulatory tool of interrelationships between economic actors," the government is way behind on legislation to accommodate this. There are no viable bankruptcy laws, credible legal mechanisms for dispute resolution between creditors and borrowers, or adequate consumer protection or antitrust laws.

Has the PCC adopted an economic model in which State, cooperative or private enterprises can go bust? How will the government respond when a borrower does not repay a loan? What are the rules for restructuring debt in the shortest time possible or accessing seized assets? What assets will be used as collateral when seeking credit?

Halftime at the VI Party Congress

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Globovision;

For VI Congress-watchers, the weekend brought colorful images of Cuban school children cheerfully waving miniature Cuban flags, the appearance of a gleaming Granma, and the fiery sounds of salsa music blaring as Cubans marched toward the Plaza de la Revolución. While Saturday’s parade communicated a cheerful, confident, and orderly Cuba, the reality that prompted the VI Congress is a far different one.

At the core of the Congress is the Lineamientos document, a set of proposed reforms for which the government has been soliciting input since November 2010.  In his two-and-a-half hour address to Congress delegates on Saturday (the text of which can be found here), President Raul Castro made his case for the reforms “in order to secure the continuity and irreversibility of Socialism as well as the economic development of the country and the improvement of the living standard of our people combined with the indispensible formation of ethical and political values.”

In the weekend’s biggest news, Castro effectively proclaimed the end of Cuba’s Castro era when he announced the introduction of term limits for high-ranking party officials.  Two consecutive periods of five years and you’re out. If these new limits are applied retroactively, it could mean that Castro himself would be forced to vacate office as “soon” as 2018, leaving Cuba without a Castro at the helm for the first time in more than 50 years and definitely ushering in a new generation of political leadership in Cuba.  

As soon as Raul Castro took power in 2008, speculation commenced about who would succeed him. With the 2009 ousting of Felipe Perez Roque and Carlos Lage, who, until then, had been considered the most likely candidates, the scratching of heads only become more furious.  While we still lack clear indications about the identity of Castro’s successor, (new economic reform czar Marino Murillo and Secretary of the Communist Party in Santiago de Cuba, Lazaro Exposito have been mentioned as possibilities) we now have a timetable that will force these decisions to be made sooner rather than later.

Some other notable excerpts from Saturday’s speech:

President Carter in Cuba: The Indefatigable Interlocutor We Need

Photo courtesy of Annemarie Poyo/The Carter Center,

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.

Cuba News Roundup: Airports, Party Leadership and Trial 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. 

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Xenimus86's photostreamIn 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.

A Road Map to Solve the Alan Gross Case

Alan Gross

by Lawrence Wilkerson and Arturo Lopez-Levy

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:

Cuba: Time For Reform and Liberalization

Cuba, Egypt

The events in Tahrir Plaza have led some Cuba watchers to wonder if a similar civil society rebellion calling for democracy might erupt against the government of Raul Castro. 

Since democracy has many meanings, it is preferable to speak in terms of human rights, defined as an interdependent and indivisible set of universal legal norms rather than a menu from which to pick and choose. Civil and political rights are as important as economic, social and cultural rights.

Nobody knows whether Egypt will improve its record in this regard. The only thing that has happened so far is a transfer of government from the former dictator to a praetorian guard. Mubarak was the devil we knew, but the main opposition party to his government, the Muslim Brotherhood, is not the benign savior. Its goal of establishing a caliphate would extend oppression against those who profess other religions, non-fundamentalist women, and homosexuals, just to mention three examples. 

In Cuba, all independent and nonpartisan civil society organizations, such as the Catholic Church and other religious communities have emphatically declared their preference for gradual and peaceful changes. In addition, most of the political opposition, both on the island and in exile, has been explicit in its principled opposition to any violent path.

Appease Cuba? What Would Winston Churchill Say?

Churchill, Cuba

Several former Castro’s government officials such as Cuba’s former Ambassador to the United Nations, Alcibiades Hidalgo and ex diplomat Juan Antonio Blanco, who worked in the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party, have explained how Cuban leaders need enmity with the United States to derive their internal legitimacy and protect their authoritarian privileges. According to these former officials, every time there was a chance of lifting the embargo, Fidel Castro did something to keep it: Angola (1975), Ethiopia (1977), and the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996. 

Those views are an exaggeration of Cuba’s policy towards the United States but I don’t dismiss their evidences. For some in the Cuban leadership, “anti-imperialism”, manifested at its worst as “anti-Americanism”, is central to their identity. Cuban nationalists have a long list of historic complaints and grievances against U.S. interventionism, from the exclusion of the Paris Treaty in 1898 and the Platt Amendment in 1902 to the Helms-Burton Act in 1996.

It is Time to Make Your Move on Cuba, Mr. Obama

Obama, Cuba, travel measures

It would be hard to imagine a better opportunity to improve the people-to-people contacts between Cuba and the United States than the last two years.  Barack Obama won the presidency with a foreign policy platform emphasizing soft power and dialogue with friends and foes alike over hostility and unilateralism. The Democratic Party enjoyed a significant majority in Congress, with real chances of passing legislation allowing more travel and relaxing the conditions for the sale of foods and medicines to the island. Washington aside, on February 24, 2008, Fidel Castro stepped down from his government responsibilities and new winds of economic reforms and social liberalization began to blow in Havana.

Yet by the end of 2010, as the House of Representatives is changing hands, Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy has not offered up an alternative agenda, based on engagement and U.S. national interests, forcing the promoters of the status quo, in Havana, Washington and Miami to defend their intransigence. The changes in U.S-Cuba relations have been minimal and essentially driven by Obama’s gestures toward the politics of Cuban American community not by a new policy towards Havana.

Washington Post Distractions are not a Substitute for Mature Diplomacy towards Cuba.

Tatiana Santos-Mendez

From its title “Cuba’s Jewish hostage”, the Washington Post editorial of last Tuesday, December 7, about the situation of Alan Gross is an unfortunate distraction. It is more of the same politics without policy that kept Gross in prison for the last year while good opportunities of improving the bilateral relations between Cuba and the United States only deteriorated.

The editorial begins by attacking the attendance of Cuban president Raul Castro at the celebration of Hanukah with the Cuban Jewish Community as a mere charade to hide the injustice of Alan Gross’ detention without charge. It barely mentions Gross’ connection with the State Department USAID, without a single reference to the regime change declared goal of the program under which he was sent to Cuba. It finishes eulogizing the Obama’s administration decision to put further improvement of relations with Cuba on hold while pressing for Gross’ release.

Washington Post Editorial on Cuba Plays the Jewish Card

I wish I could commend the Washington Post Editorial Board for shining a light on the plight of Bethesda-based Alan Gross, who has spent a year in a Cuban jail cell without charges.  Truly, I do.  Because on this I am sure most everyone can easily agree: it is long past time for Cuban authorities to give Mr. Gross his day in court or else set him free. 

But Monday's editorial, "Cuba's Jewish Hostage," crossed a line when when it irresponsibly led readers to believe that Gross is in prison in Cuba because he's Jewish, and because he was working with the Jewish community.

"Raul Castro's attempt to win foreign favor and investment for Cuba's moribund economy took a particularly cynical turn on Sunday, when the dictator celebrated Hanukkah with Havana's tiny Jewish community. Broadcast on state television, the event was designed to prove that the regime doesn't share the anti-Semitism of allies such as Iran and Venezuela. There was just one problem: No mention was made of Alan P. Gross, an American from Potomac who passed the holiday in a Cuban military facility, where he has been imprisoned for a year without trial because he tried to help Cuba's Jews."

If we've explained it once here at THN, we've explained it a thousand times (as have countless other Cuba analysts): Alan Gross most likely ran afoul of Cuban authorities by traveling to Cuba on a tourist visa (when he was not a tourist) to complete a mission directed and funded by the United States Government.  Whether we find its implementation draconion or not, Cuba has a law against that kind of thing (so do we, by the way, it's called the Foreign Agent Registration Act), and the words "Jews of Cuba" don't appear anywhere in it.

An unflinching look at what happened here should lead The Washington Post and other interested media to question whether the State Department bears some responsibility for sending private Americans like Alan Gross into a country to break its laws. 

It's also worth asking whether the U.S. government committed a huge blunder by expanding USAID's Cuban democracy program efforts previously focused on declared political dissidents to nonpolitical groups like Cuba's Jews, and thus forcing them into a political battle for which they never asked.

Maybe the next Washington Post editorial will start raising some of these tough questions.

Will Raul Castro's New Cuban Economy Embrace Sustainable Growth?

If you’ve walked, bussed or driven around Washington, DC much over the last two months you have surely noticed the sudden appearance of bike share stations, seemingly around every corner.  These stations can be quickly assembled and dropped in place, or even moved to another location in the city, depending on the seasonal traffic. This is part of a DC and Arlington County initiative - the largest of its kind in the nation - that has so far put 1,100 shiny new red bicycles on the streets in our region.  This is the sort of initiative that’s really taken off in some of the world’s most interesting urban oases, like Paris and Montreal, where it’s become trendy to leave the car at home.  Given the serious infrastructure limitations Cuba’s capital faces, particularly when U.S. travelers finally reach the island, why not Havana?

That subject came up this week when I got the chance to have a quick visit with Miguel Coyula, an architect and planner who dedicates his efforts to building sustainable communities, who was in town this week for meetings with the Center for Democracy in the Americas.  Miguel is constantly thinking about things like how much energy Havana’s outdated leaky water system wastes, how to invest locals in the health of their buildings (when they only own the apartments inside), blocks and transportation, and how to bring more American specialists in green technology and design to share their knowledge and experiences with Cuban architects (and perhaps avoid the building of more beautiful glass buildings in Havana that end up being better green houses than office buildings).

The VI Cuban Communist Party Congress: The Time to Engage is Now.

Barack Obama-Raul Castro

Giving Hugo Chavez the second copy of the proposal of a new economic model for Cuba (The first was given to Fidel Castro); President Raul Castro announced two important events that will make history in Cuba during 2011. First, Raul called the VI Congress of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) in April 2011 to discuss a new economic and social model; second, he announced the plan to have a National Conference of the PCC by the end of the next year to discuss internal party issues and the renewal of its leadership.

These two events would most likely conclude the long succession from Fidel Castro to his brother that began in 2006 after the older Castro got sick. The call of the two meetings as parallel tracks makes sense from the view of the Cuban Communist leaders. In the first case, there is a consensus on the need to introduce major economic reforms in Cuba. The PCC is facing the challenge of the end of Fidel Castro’s charisma as one of the pillars of its rule. As result, it is trying to build up its legitimacy through economic liberalization, increased openness and growth.

Raul Castro defined the Congress as “of all the members and all the people which will participate in the main decisions of the revolution”. But this debate is about “one unique issue”: the “updating” of the Cuban socialist model, the solution of the economic problems, “the economic battle” from which the “revolution’s preservation depends”. All these code words confirm one thing, the population would have the chance to participate actively and change the margins and shape of the economic and social model.

Obama Fumbles on Cuba

Like many Cuba policy watchers, I've been deeply disappointed by the Obama administration's total lack of awareness of what's going on in Cuba in recent months, along with its apparent total lack of memory of the very conditions it set forth - repeatedly - for further engagement with the island.  In a commentary I wrote for Foreign Policy Magazine, I recalled the message the President himself sent via the Spanish government to Raul Castro last year.  It went something like this:

It was nearly one year ago that President Barack Obama delivered a message to President Raúl Castro via Spain's prime minister, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero: "We understand that change can't happen overnight, but down the road, when we look back at this time, it should be clear that now is when those changes began," Obama said. "We're taking steps, but if they don't take steps too, it's going to be very hard for us to continue." If Cuba proved willing to improve relations with the United States, Obama seemed willing to reciprocate.

One year later, a lot has happened - most of it in the last several months, as crickets chirped in Washington.  More than forty political prisoners are out of their cells and headed to the United States thanks to the efforts of the Cuban Catholic Church and the Spanish government, and big, truly big changes in the economy are finally underway.  How does our president respond?

Rather than greet the changes, Obama has replied with mild skepticism. "I think that any release of political prisoners, any economic liberalization that takes place in Cuba is positive, positive for Cuban people, but we've not yet seen the full results of these promises," Obama told Hispanic media at the White House Tuesday.

It's hard to imagine a more clumsy response coming at a more critical moment than this one.  

U.S. Should Take Steps to Encourage Reforms in Cuba

During a markup hearing in the House Agriculture Committee in June of this year, opponents of a bill that would restore the rights of American citizens to travel to Cuba argued that the move was a “concession to the Cuban regime,” and that the U.S. should not move unilaterally but rather demand positive steps from Cuban leaders first. One Representative opposing the bill argued that Cuba should release political prisoners before the Congress move to lift the travel ban, a demand frequently made by defenders of the status quo until recently. But then the Catholic Church in Cuba announced in July that Cuban leaders had agreed to free the remaining 52 political prisoners from the “Black Spring” of 2003 and just a quickly as word of the announcement spread through the world media, the very people who had been demanding their release as a condition to the lifting of the travel ban quickly dismissed the significance of the move. This has been the attitude that has characterized defenders of the status quo as long as Raul Castro has presided over the greatest number and scope of reforms in Cuba’s 50-year revolution. 

Fidel Castro Adds 2+2 and Gets 5

Can someone out there in cyberspace please explain to me (as if I were a little child) the logic behind Fidel’s most recent statement last Friday?  According to him, although he did in fact say, “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore,” when the Atlantic’s intrepid journalist Jeffrey Goldberg asked if the “Cuban model” should still be exported abroad, what he REALLY meant was that the capitalist model doesn’t work.

I've heard a few theories that attempt to explain his first statement - some quite plausible, others more humorous.  Was it an illumination provoked by the dolphins of the Aquarium, involuntary cynicism, a miracle of the Virgin of Charity, a new political transition strategy that makes space for reforms, or a burst of sincerity.  You can go here to vote for your favorite theory or add your own.  But no one has yet explained to my satisfaction how saying that Cuban socialism doesn’t work was meant to convey that capitalism is bankrupt.

In other words, how does 2 + 2 = 5?

Goldberg offers his own succinct explanation here, which ends with the words: “I’m not sure how this statement –accurately quoted, according to Fidel– could mean anything other than what it means.”  To this, I say – Amen, brotha!  You can rule a country, even invent your own rules of economix, but not invent your system of logic.

Debate in the Washington Post: What Constitutes "Engagement"?

Photo Credit: AP

Cardinal Jaime Ortega has been busy in both Havana and Washington as of late, negotiating the promised release of 52 political prisoners with Raul Castro and meeting with key U.S. policy makers, including President Obama’s National Security Advisor, James Jones. While we do not yet know the details of the Cardinal’s conversations with General Jones and several other U.S. officials, we did get some insight into the Cardinal’s general outlook on U.S.-Cuban relations from a surprising source, Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post. Diehl writes:

“Ortega has nevertheless come away convinced that "this is something new," as he put it to me in an interview. Castro's prisoner releases, he contends, "open possibilities." …

He suggests that a big part of Raúl Castro's agenda is improving relations with the United States so that Cuba's economy can be revived by U.S. trade and investment. "He has a desire for an opening with the U.S. government," Ortega said. "He repeated to me on several occasions that he is ready to talk to the United States government directly, about every issue." …

"Everything should be step by step," Ortega said. "It's not realistic to begin at the end. This is a process. The most important thing is to take steps in the process."”

These are some truly remarkable statements coming from the Cardinal that embody the shift in Cuba’s leadership as of late. It is certainly hard to imagine Fidel Castro expressing his desire for U.S. investment in Cuba, as Fidel’s political power was strengthened by his unwavering opposition to and confrontation with the “empire”. Raul appears to be operating with a different calculus in mind. His end goal is the revitalization of the Cuban economy, and he is willing to engage with the United States as the means to this end. The fact that the Cuban Cardinal could travel between Havana and Washington, speaking with Gen. Jones privately and Diehl openly on the subject - sharing the thoughts of the current Cuban President with the American President's chief advisor on national security - is further proof that the times are changing.