In a commentary featured on CNN.com's Opinion and Analysis page today, fellow THN contributor Arturo Lopez Levy and I teamed up to ask the question, if Cuba is beginning to pursue what looks a lot like a Vietnam-style economic restructuring over the coming months, why not pursue a Vietnam-style policy toward the island nation?
"As Havana prepares for its first Communist Party Congress in 14 years in April, the United States should seize the opportunity to positively influence the economic blueprint the party is expected to approve.
The Party Congress, usually held every five years, is the ultimate conclave when Cuba's Communist leaders set the direction of the country for the next five years. A document released ahead of the congress shows that the Cuban leadership is considering ideas without precedent in the Cuban revolution's political debate. It essentially proposes moving away from Cuba's command economy and adopting an economic system closer to the ones in Vietnam and China."
CNN's publishing rules only allow me to excerpt that short introduction to the commentary, so I hope you'll visit the website to read the entire piece.
The piece reflects not only on the changes going on in Cuba and their similarity to steps taken in Vietnam, but also looks back at the U.S. approach to a country in which the American people lost significant blood and treasure, and yet our government has, with marked success, been willing to engage constructively. We're certainly not the first analysts to point to examples of American constructive engagement with countries with which we have profound differences.
But it bears repeating that, given the depth and breadth of discussions ongoing in Cuba right now, the United States has an absurdly excellent opportunity right now to exercise its influence - whether by helping the government directly pursue its reforms, or whether through more indirect means, such as working to reduce the extent to which a hostile U.S. policy remains a dominant domestic political factor in Cuba. The question on so many people's minds now is, "Where is the Obama Administration?"
Taking a page, literally, from the Cuban Triangle, it's worth beginning this post with this comment from Secretary Clinton:
“There have been examples in history in which official conduct has been made public in the name of exposing wrongdoings or misdeeds. This is not one of those cases.”
Maybe no one needs to know that our diplomats think Angela Merkel lacks creativity. But, for those of us who have repeatedly sought information about just what kind of threat the country of Cuba, one of four countries remaining on the State Department's state sponsors of terrorism list, actually poses, we finally have a much sought-after, on-the-record answer: "Very little."
In cabled response to a spring 2009 questionnaire assessing the security environment in Cuba, the U.S. Interests Section assessment on Cuba's terrorist threat includes the following:
5. (U) ANTI-AMERICAN TERRORIST GROUPS
6. (U) OTHER INDIGENOUS TERRORIST GROUPS
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.
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 HMS Manchester, the first Royal Navy warship to stop in Cuba has arrived in Havana this week. As part of its efforts throughout the Caribbean to combat illegal drug trade, the Navy expects this visit to help "strengthen collaboration on counter-narcotics and disaster relief." The BBC reports:
"Cuba lies in a strategic position spanning the main sea routes between South America and the United States.
The communist-run island has long cracked down on both drug use and smuggling.
There is some co-operation with the US but Washington has yet to respond to offers from the Cuban government to formalise and expand these arrangements.
Naturally, the British Royal Navy visit serves as a painful reminder that our closest ally works to enhance anti-narcotics cooperation in the Caribbean (and what many Americans view as our backyard), the U.S. continues to insist - who knows why - on limiting our cooperation to a case-by-case basis.
Though it seems paralyzed to advance concrete security interests such as this, the Obama administration seems to have at least opened up space for artists and musicians to travel to and from the island. For more than a year now, a steady stream of American and Cuban artists have been performing in eachother's countries. Just recently, the America Ballet Theatre Company made its first trip to the island in over fifty years, and Wynton Marsalis and members of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra gave concerts in Cuba too. And, in an interesting bit of timing, the day after the calamitous (for the Democrats) mid-term elections, the New York Philharmonic finally received permission to perform in Havana and bring funder/docents along with them. Global Post's Nick Miroff writes about the disconnect between this gusher of cultural diplomacy and the lack of political movement on anything more than that:
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.
The unfortunate decision by Rep. Howard Berman to postpone the mark-up of the Cuba travel bill, led to diverse interpretations.
There was poorly reasoned speculation about the postponement in The Hill which was then cited in other publications, including Laura Rozen's Politico blog.
Lacking the votes necessary for passage, a House panel has postponed action on a bill that would lift travel restrictions to Cuba....
Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) has been trying to secure 24 votes on the 47-member panel to approve the bill, but an analysis by The Hill shows only 16 members have publicly committed to it.
Nothing in the Hill article sustained the reporters' opinion that travel reform proponents faced defeat.
Members of the Committee who had not cosponsored travel legislation were prepared to support it in mark-up, among them Gary Ackerman of New York (as reported in the New York Daily News).
"Berman told me he would not bring the measure up to lose," said Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-Queens, L.I.), "but that with my vote, the measure would pass."
Ackerman, who always voted against easing travel restrictions, said this time is different.
"After giving it a lot of thought, I have changed my position," he said. " I plan to vote in favor."
After nearly 50 years of failure, Ackerman said, it was time to move in another direction.
Recalling a night-long meeting with then-President Fidel Castro in 1994, Ackerman said that he "made a case with him" for human rights.
"It didn't happen then," Ackerman said. "But Cuba is addressing many of those issues now. Besides, if there is no travel ban on Iran, why do we have one on Cuba?"
Yesterday afternoon, the House Foreign Affairs Committee postponed a much-anticipated vote on legislation that would end the Cuba travel ban and ease restrictions on food exports to the island. In a statement Committee Chairman Howard Berman said:
“The Committee had been scheduled to consider this legislation tomorrow, but it now appears that Wednesday will be the last day that Congress is in session before an extended district work period. That makes it increasingly likely that our discussion of the bill will be disrupted or cut short by votes or other activity on the House floor. Accordingly, I am postponing consideration of H.R. 4645 until a time when the Committee will be able to hold the robust and uninterrupted debate this important issue deserves. I firmly believe that when we debate and vote on the merits of this legislation, and I intend for it to be soon, the right to travel will be restored to all Americans.”
Unfortunately, Berman simply ran out of time. Which is all the more disappointing when you take into account the leviathon coalition put together by the bill's main sponsor, Collin Peterson, and then expanded by Berman in the months following Peterson's June markup of the bill. In the 48 hours before the expected vote alone, supporters were everywhere at once. Tuesday, a group of retired high-ranking military officials sent a letter to the Committee urging it to repeal the travel ban, the National Farmers Union reminded the Committee of its support for the bill, and human rights watchdogs Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch - whom you might expect to take the opposing view - sent appeals to the Committee in favor of the bill. Yesterday, General Paul Eaton (ret.), a senior advisor to the National Security Network, penned a pro-travel rights commentary for The Hill, and Cuba Study Group Chairman Carlos Saladrigas of Miami authored a stirring opinion in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel (the paper read by new Rep. Ted Deutsch and his constituents). And General John Adams (ret.) penned a persuasive column in today's Rockford Register Star (the hometown paper of one of the committee's members). And those are just the endorsements that I came across.
So where does all that momentum go from here? Two thoughts.
We are at a time of testing. Are the institutions of government in the US finally able to overcome well funded special interest exile politics to chart a rational course with Cuba?
The White House dismally failed the first round. It generated excitement that it would use executive authority before Congress returned from the August recess to reverse Bush era restrictions on non-tourist travel. News stories suggested the breadth and administrative implementation of the new policy would go beyond the Clinton era, just as Obama did for Cuban American travel.
Predictable hostility came from the Cuban American quintet in Congress, supported by their indefatigable ally Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the same people who oppose even unrestricted family travel. Just as in April 2009, the White House buckled under largely one-sided pressure, this time reportedly after new regulations had actually been approved by the President and the Secretary of State.
The President’s political advisers decided that opening up dialogue between the people of the US and Cuba would have to wait once again, this time until after the mid-term election on November 2d. Another opportunity for Presidential leadership was squandered, contributing to further disillusionment in the Democratic base and among independents who had voted for change.
Congress looked to be doing no better. House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Howard Berman declined to use his authority to cede jurisdiction which would have allowed the travel and ag sales bill to go to a floor vote in July after approval by the Agriculture Committee. Some feared he would lack the votes and determination to carry the travel section of the bill through his committee.
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.