Posts in Cuba policy

Mandela, Miami and Cuba: The Real Story.

Ethics has never been a forte of the pro-embargo Cuban-American lobby. But the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC has reached a new low. Capitalizing on South African president Nelson Mandela's health problems, embargo supporters have constructed a false parallel between the multilateral sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime and the illegal, immoral, and counterproductive embargo against Cuba.

But Mandela's own relationship with Cuba tells a different story--one with important lessons for current foreign policy.

Women’s Work: Why Gender Equality in Cuba Matters to US

image: Emilia Fernández

As we travel back and forth to Cuba, often with delegations of U.S. policymakers, we focus our research and reporting on issues that the broader American public can relate to, that can help us strip away mysteries surrounding Cuba, and press our case for changing Cuba policy and normalizing relations.

That’s the goal behind our report, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future,” that we release this week in time for International Women’s Day.

Rather than making the false choice common to narratives about Cuba –everything is either paradise or lying in ruins – our report depicts just how complicated this problem is, by being honest about the successes and failures of Cuba’s revolutionary commitment to equality for women. 

It begins with the findings of global organizations, from Save the Children to the World Economic Forum, which give Cuba high marks for making all its citizens healthier and more literate, bringing girls out of their homes and into the classroom, tripling the number of women at work, and providing the strongest protections of reproductive rights and producing the lowest incidence of HIV/AIDS in all of Latin America.

But these numbers don’t tell the whole story.  There are key objectives of equality– equality at work, equal sharing of burdens at home, and equal access to positions in which women can exercise real power –where Cuba falls short.

Is Obama Acting Pragmatically in the Alan Gross Case?

The worst managed issue between Cuba and the United States during Obama and Raul Castro’s first terms has been the detention of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who has been imprisoned in a Cuban military hospital since December 3, 2009. Shirking the first requirement of pragmatism, namely “facing the facts,” the Obama Administration has created its own fictional narrative that contradict even its own documents now available to the public.

Gross is an American international development expert who entered Cuba as a non registered foreign agent. As a USAID subcontractor, his mission was to create a wireless Internet satellite network based on Jewish community centers that would circumvent Cuban government detection. The USAID program was approved under section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act, a law committed to regime change in Cuba.

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.

Judy Gross’ Message “from Washington al Mundo”

Mauricio Claver-Carone hosts a satellite radio program by the name “From Washington al Mundo” covering international affairs. But don’t expect any diplomacy there. The program is merely his platform from which to insult the American foreign policy establishment. For example, in his August 6 show, Claver targeted Vali Nasr, the Dean of the School of Advanced Studies of Johns Hopkins University and a leading expert on the Middle East, calling him “a useful idiot” or an agent of Teheran for not advocating a regime change policy and promoting negotiations with Iran. Mr. Claver and his guest Shahriar Etminani agreed that the nuclear issue is mere “noise”.

In another episode, Claver denounced Washington’s engagement with Beijing. On April 17, Claver hosted Thadeus McCotter or “the smartest member of Congress” by Claver's reckoning. The host and the guest shared their belief that as long as the Communist Party is in power, China remains the same. The United States should apply a Cold War policy to China because the war has never ended. According to Claver’s logic, the 40- year Nixon-Kissinger model of “unconditional” and “nonchalant” engagement with China is a case of “myopia”. It should be replaced by a “confrontational” approach. After Tiananmen Square, the United States should have applied to China a policy similar to our fifty year failure against Cuba: the embargo.

While Miami burns... Obama and Cuban-American politics


In this year's election, half of Cuban-Americans who are eligible to vote either came from Cuba after 1994 or grew up in the United States. Unfortunately, the White House is passing up the opportunity to hold a rational discussion of Washington’s policy towards Cuba.  

A Cuban-American anti-embargo activist. Flickr/ Some rights reserved.A Cuban-American anti-embargo activist. Flickr/ Some rights reserved.

US policy towards Latin America has paid a substantial price for President Obama’s kowtowing to the Miami hard-right wing. For example, Venezuela withdrew from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of the Americas (OAS), and there is a chance that no Summit of the Americas will happen in 2015 unless the United States changes its position on Cuba’s participation. Several countries in the Americas, from Nicaragua to Ecuador, spent years without a US ambassador due to Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) obstructionist caprice.

What lies across the Water- Why History, International Law and American Values matter in the case of the Cuban five


The following text is my presentation at the panel organized by Wayne Smith about the book "What lies across the Water", at the Center for International Policy, April 18, Washington DC.

I want to thank Dr. Wayne Smith and the Center for International Policy (CIP) for the invitation to discuss the book “What lies across the Water”. As a Cuban-American who thinks constantly about the difficult relations between Cuba and the United States, it is an honor to be part of the effort of the CIP to improve the knowledge about the complex history of these links and the need to approach them with creativity and goodwill.

Whatever you might think about the Cuban Five, if you want to know how their case fits into the history of relations between Cuba and the United States, you must read this book. The author Stephen Kimber presents a well written short narrative about how the Cuban five ended up in US prisons. The book reads more as reportage for the general public than as an academic report.  The author has studied the long history of conflict between Cuba and the United States and the use of terror as a political weapon by Cuban right wing groups in Florida.

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.

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.

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.

Respect for democracy begins at home

Article 1 of the United States Constitution recognizes Congress as the first branch of US democracy, with the executive and judiciary following behind. Bicameralism was a central concept of the 1787 constitutional pact. It was seen as a republican “remedy” against potential abuses of legislative despotism. If the House was conceived to express the direct mood of the people, James Madison envisioned the Senate as a high chamber of “enlightened individuals” that would operate with “more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch”.

But a conspicuous gap has emerged between the founders’ design and the reality of some of today’s Senators. Poll after poll shows that the public holds Congress in low esteem. In the view of many Americans, some Senators not only reflect a polarized public but also contribute to making the system dysfunctional by abusing procedures, such as the unanimous consent rule, in pursuit of personal or parochial gains or to settle personal vendettas, rather than to defend national interests.

The Cuban community's representation in US politics has been remarkable over the last decade. No place is this more evident than in the Senate. Although the 1.8 million Cubans living in the US only represent 4 % of the Hispanics and less than 0.6 % of the US general population, they have managed to elect three Senators since 2004. The first was Mel Martinez, a moderate republican from Tampa who served as HUD secretary during the first term of George W. Bush. Second was Robert Menendez, a congressman from New Jersey who was appointed by the state governor and successfully ran for reelection in 2006. After Martinez’s retirement in 2010, Florida elected Marco Rubio, a former speaker of the state House.

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.

Does including Cuba on the State Department's list of terrorism sponsoring nations serve the United States' national interest?

Lawrence B. Wilkerson and Arturo Lopez-Levy

According to a New York Times story , in his recent visit to Havana, former Governor of New Mexico Bill Richardson told Bruno Rodriguez, Cuban Minister of Foreign Relations, that by releasing Alan Gross, Cuba could begin a process of being removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list. Since both Richardson and the State Department have repeatedly declared that they have been working together on this issue, this is practically a confession that Cuba’s inclusion on the state sponsors of terrorism list is a sham.

The list of terrorist sponsoring nations should be a bargaining tool for dealing with, well, countries that engage in or sponsor terrorism. The misuse of an otherwise effective foreign policy tool must give pause to responsible members of Congress and the Washington intelligence community.  First, it focuses efforts and resources in the wrong direction, taking eyes and dollars from where the real threats are. Second, it sends the wrong message to other countries, diminishing the impact of a warning to countries such as Iran and Syria and the groups they sponsor such as Hezbollah and Hamas.  Third, it weakens the capacity of US allies like Israel , who are real targets of terrorist threats, to make a case for the isolation or monitoring of countries such as Iran whose presence on the list is justified.

Before You Stop Diplomacy...


Despite the tensions associated with the upcoming 2012 election campaign in the US, a dialogue between Washington and Havana, as proposed by the Cuban Foreign Relations Minister Bruno Rodriguez, is also in the interest of the Obama Administration, which has nothing to gain from more conflicts in its relationship with Cuba. President Barack Obama's positions favoring dialogue without preconditions, increasing people to people contacts, and reaching mutually beneficial agreements on bilateral issues were never predicated on sympathy for Fidel or Raul Castro, but rather on the conviction that diplomacy and contacts between societies are the best ways to promote US national interests.

By that standard, the balance of the first three years of the Obama administration's relationship with Cuba is positive. The increase in cultural, family, humanitarian and religious travel to Cuba accelerates current reforms in Cuba, improves the image of the US in the hemisphere, and strengthens domestic political trends favoring an engagement policy that is less dependent on the Miami right and more consistent with democratic values and US strategic and economic interests.

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).

We Now Know: The Real Enemies of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act.

Marco Rubio, David Rivera


In 2009, in an interview with a TV station in Naples, Florida, Mario Diaz-Balart compared Cuban Americans traveling to see their relatives in Cuba with unscrupulous businessmen in deals with the Nazis. Mr. Diaz-Balart's unfortunate historical analogy began a constant three-year barrage against the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act by Cuban American legislators who claim it is misused by a significant segment of the Cuban American Community, the same constituents they are supposed to represent.  

The Cuban government has denounced the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act for decades as a “murderous” policy and has unilaterally blamed it for the migration of thousands of Cubans to Florida, ignoring the push factors that prompt them to leave their country.  But this rhetoric has never had any effect on American policymakers.  Since 1966, no bill has ever come close to passing in congress that would end the Cuban Adjustment Act. The law gives the benefit of legal residence to most Cubans who came to the United States in search of the economic and political rights they didn’t have in their country. The statute has benefited the United States with an influx of mostly educated Cuban immigrants, who have relatives in the United States helping them to have a smooth landing in their newly adopted country.

Obama owes Jonathan Farrar a defense.

Jonathan Farrar with the Ladies in White


Edited by Dawn Gable. 

The political battle over the designation of Jonathan Farrar as US ambassador to Nicaragua is a test of whether the Obama Administration lacks any genuine conviction about its foreign policy. Farrar is a professional diplomat with an impeccable thirty years diplomatic career who served a recent term as the Chief of the US Interest Section in Cuba. As a result he became the perfect target of Cuban American hardliners for one, and only one, reason: he implemented Obama’s policy in Havana. Unfortunately for Farrar, the president’s policy is anathema to two Cuban-American Senators: Robert Menendez and Marco Rubio.

The Interests Sections in Havana and Washington are not formal embassies or consulates. Diplomats' movements are restricted and their access to government officials and citizens in both countries is limited. When these entities were created in 1977, under the Carter and Fidel Castro Administrations (Yes, there is a new administration in Havana), they were part of a process of détente and their final purpose was to facilitate negotiations between the two governments and pave the way to a better understanding between the people of Cuba and the United States. This is the source of their legitimacy. They exist with the consent of both governments.

They use Reagan’s words, but his policies?

Reagan and the current U.S embargo


What would Ronald Reagan’s policy towards Cuba be today?  Nobody can say for sure. It is certain that he would oppose and denounce communism, but would he support the travel ban and oppose educational, cultural and academic exchanges with Havana as Marco Rubio, Mario Diaz-Balart, David Rivera and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen do? In today’s post-Cold War environment, it is worthwhile to note that several members of Reagan’s team and many of the intellectuals who inspired his government such as Milton Friedman, Dick Cheney, and former Secretary of State George Schultz have supported a change in Washington’s policy. 

Twenty eight years ago, in March of 1983, President Reagan gave a historic speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando and called the Soviet Union, the "evil empire". Reagan’s words about communism did not allow for nuances. It was “us against them”.  Reagan’s clarity sent a meaningful message to average citizens of the democratic world and the many oppressed behind the iron curtain.

But Reagan’s speech to the Evangelicals in Florida should not be selectively cut from the whole of his general foreign policy approach to communism. Unfortunately, in the issue of foreign policy towards Cuba, supporters of the embargo use Reagan’s phrases to promote a “magical realism” version of what a moral policy towards communism should be. 

U.S.-Cuba Policy Needs a Soccer Lesson

As soccer enthusiasts know, the Copa de Oro, or Gold Cup, is currently underway in stadiums across the United States, providing desperate fans with a much-needed fix of consequential, nationalism-laced games to hold them over between World Cups. Held every two years, the tournament comprises teams representing North America, Central America and the Caribbean.  Without the participation of South American heavyweights such as Brazil and Argentina, the tournament provides a chance for the hemisphere’s weaker teams to show the world what they’ve got and face off against traditional powerhouses like Mexico and the United States. Unfortunately, Cuba didn’t have much to “show” last night against Mexico, losing 5-0. But that wasn’t a colossal shock. As we all know, in Cuba, it’s baseball that reigns supreme. Soccer never swept the island nation that way it did most of Latin America.  The government of Fidel Castro declined to endorse the sport in a meaningful way, instead dedicating precious government resources to sports in which Cuba already had the beginnings of a strong international reputation such as baseball and boxing. While Cuba did send a team to the third-ever World Cup in 1938 and has continued to make a respectable showings at the Gold Cup in recent years, soccer has remained on the sidelines of Cuban culture.  Not even Argentine soccer deity Diego Maradona’s extended stay in Cuba for drug-rehab in the early 2000's was able to spark much excitement for the sport.  

In contrast, soccer in the U.S. has enjoyed a surge of popularity over the last 20-25 years. The 1994 FIFA World Cup, hosted by the U.S., reignited American interest in soccer, and led to the subsequent launch of Major League Soccer (MLS).  According to The Nielson Company, an estimated 111.6 million U.S. viewers watched the 2010 World Cup, a 22% increase in viewers from 2006 World Cup viewership. From the 2002 to 2006 World Cup, viewership increased an astounding 90%. As MLS Commissioner Don Garber said, "It's not the NFL, but we're 10 years old, (and football has been played here for) over 100 years."  

All Detained Americans Are Not the Same

Photo courtesy of Flickr/gin_e

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?

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.

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:

Solving a USAID Tragedy.

Alan Gross

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.

Time For Strait Talk

"When U.S. President Barack Obama announced his decision this month to ease restrictions on Americans traveling and sending money to Cuba, he did it late on a Friday afternoon before a long holiday weekend -- a old trick from the White House playbook, used by presidents hoping to make controversial policy changes with as little uproar as possible from the U.S. Congress and the media. But Obama shouldn't have been so quiet about the move -- it is the best Cuba policy decision the United States has made in years."

That is an excerpt from my article “Strait Talk” published by Foreign Policy about President Obama’s recent decision to ease restrictions on Americans traveling and sending money to Cuba. The article examines the White House decision, and its positive consequences for American relations with Cuban civil society.  To read the whole piece, click here.

The new policy has significant limitations. It doesn’t end the counterproductive fifty years embargo and continues some of the process of licensing for religious leaders, scholars, cultural personalities and professors. Why not simply allow every American educator, college student, scholar, artist, and religious leader to travel to Cuba in the same way most Cuban Americans go?

U.S. Policy Pushes Cuba into the Arms of our Adversaries,8599,1882557,00.html


This article first appeared in the Sarasota Herald Tribune on February 1, 2011

News last week that French telecom Alcatel-Lucent SA has begun laying a 1,600-kilometer underwater fiber optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba is the latest evidence of how U.S. sanctions toward Cuba undermine U.S. national interests and push the communist island into the open arms of our adversaries and continue Cuban citizen’s dependence on the regime. By focusing solely on isolating the Cuban government and denying it resources, the U.S. has, ironically, only isolated itself from the realities at play inside Cuba and alienated its allies. Unfortunately, legislation proposed last week by Florida Congressman Vern Buchanan only continues this counterproductive pattern and, in this case, puts Florida’s industry and environment at greater risk.

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.

A New Beginning with Cuba or a Missed Opportunity?


Speaking to Latin American leaders at an OAS summit in Port of Spain in April of 2009, President Obama declared, “the U.S. seeks a new beginning with Cuba.” "I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day." His comments followed a White House announcement that the U.S. would lift restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba, fulfilling a campaign promise that Mr. Obama made in an April 2007 op-ed in the Miami Herald. In that article, then-candidate Obama stated that: “the primary means we have of encouraging positive change in Cuba today is to help the Cuban people become less dependent on the Castro regime in fundamental ways.” Critics cautioned that Obama would upset Miami Cubans costing him important votes in a crucial electoral State. “Why, in a Tuesday op-ed piece in the Miami Herald, would he challenge the Cuban-American elders and call for dismantling President Bush's hefty restrictions on Cuban-Americans making visits and sending money to relatives in Cuba?” asked Time magazine. In the end, Barack Obama won over 35% of the Cuban-American vote, more than any other Democratic presidential candidate in modern history.

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.

This Time is Different for Cuba’s Economic Reform

A question many Cuba observers ask is whether the current wave of economic reform is a mere repetition of a cycle in which the Castro government shows signs of openness for a while but it is ready to close them as soon as it finds a way to survive without them. This skepticism is legitimate because several times in the post 1959 history of Cuba, Fidel Castro’s government opened spaces to market practices in the middle of a crisis, only to close them as soon as the situation improved.  In the 1990’s, this was the case when originally many Cubans attempted to create a vibrant private sector but their hopes were crushed by asphyxiating taxes, regulations and a hostile attitude toward the market.

For decades, any political debate about economic reforms in Cuba was biased in favor of the communist experiments. If someone advocated anti-market policies, but which would lead to economic disaster, he or she might be reprimanded for lack of realism but the leaders would look with benevolence to his mistakes since they were the result of some revolutionary fervor. On the contrary, if one advocated pro-market reforms, he could have been denounced as a follower of a capitalist deviation (I personally know the experience) and therefore in need of ideological re-education.

In Cuba, Fidel Castro is never a force to underestimate. The historic leader of the revolution is stubborn and there are things he will only accept with bitterness and pain. Nobody can guarantee that he cannot protest or lash out against some of the current changes.

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.

Cuban Americans Vote With Their Feet Against The Travel Prohibition.

The flights from Miami to Cuba go full of Cuban Americans.


On Friday, November 5, Foreign Policy published my article “Not Your Father’s Cuba”. In it, I argued that the election of Cuban American Senator Marco Rubio and the rise of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to lead the Committee of Foreign Relations of the House of Representatives did not mean that the Cuban American community, much less the American people, were giving Congress a mandate to implement their ideas about U.S. policy towards Cuba.

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.

What Do the Mid-terms Election Results Mean for U.S. Cuba Policy?

Let’s start with the obvious.  With the Republican takeover of Congress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen becomes the new Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the authorizing committee with jurisdiction over most of Cuba-related legislation.  This means not only that no engagement-oriented Cuba bills will move through that committee, and that very possibly, Ros-Lehtinen might well choose to move legislation through her committee that would tighten the embargo.

This doesn’t mean Cuba reforms can’t move in the House.  Let’s remember that Arizona Republican Congressman Jeff Flake was able to move various incremental reforms on appropriation bills under a Republican-controlled Congress, over the objections of the late Henry Hyde, a staunch embargo supporter who was Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the early 2000’s.  He prevailed several times in earlier Congresses, but President Bush’s repeated veto threats ensured the provisions disappeared in conference negotiations.  Flake noted earlier this fall that he thinks many of the freshman conservatives who won their seats on a pro-freedom, anti-government platform will be hard pressed to vote against a measure that a) restores a basic freedom (travel) to Americans, and b) eliminates needless government spending.