economic reform

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.

Latin America: The missing region in the U.S. elections?


It has become commonplace to say that Latin America was absent from the 2012 election campaign in the United States. It is understandable, because the region was mentioned only once in the candidates’ foreign policy debate (by Governor Romney, when he referred to the potential of free trade agreements in the hemisphere), and it got almost no attention in campaign speeches. However, as with much conventional wisdom, the devil is in the definitions. If Latin America’s impact on U.S. politics is viewed in terms of relations between governments, the statement is correct; if, on the other hand, the concept includes the public, then the region was present like never before in the elections.

It is time to think about Latin American policy within a broader framework than old-fashioned nationalism. The political borders of transnational societies in the U.S. and the rest of the hemisphere have little to do with their legal boundaries. Latin America and the United States do not start or end with the Rio Grande or the Caribbean Sea. With their many, non-exclusive identities, Latin American and Caribbean Diasporas are increasingly important in the U.S. and in their home countries. The rigid cultural/linguistic/religious divide between indigenous/Hispanic/Catholic “Latin America” and “Anglo-Saxon/Protestant/white” United States needs to be revised.

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.

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:

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.

Is Cuba Ready to Engage IMF, World Bank?

I’ve just finished reading a new report by Professor Richard Feinberg, a former Clinton administration official and non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution.  “Reaching Out: Cuba’s New Economy and the International Response,” clocked in at a daunting 101 pages but should nonetheless be required reading for anyone following the island nation’s long-awaited economic restructuring. 

Cuba’s economic transformation is a hot topic, to be sure; another excellent report, Cuba’s New Resolve: Economic Reform and Its Implications for U.S. Policy, written by Cuba expert Collin Laverty for the Center for Democracy in the Americas, offers a detailed look at Cuba’s economic reforms to date, and in so doing, lays to rest any question of whether these reforms are just a temporary fix or irreversible.  If Cuba’s New Resolve argues that Cuba is serious about its economic reforms, Reaching Out offers what the international community should do about it with an 800 pound gorilla - the U.S. embargo - in the room.

I’ll admit that after reading Feinberg’s introduction, I next skipped to the middle for both a history lesson and a pragmatic, creative vision for Raul Castro’s Cuba to reconnect with the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as with regional development banks, in spite of opposition from the United States.  

Feinberg unravels the conventional wisdom that says Cuba and the IFIs would make unhappy bedfellows – Cuba withdrew from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund more than 40 years ago – by pointing to successful IFI engagement with nonmembers like Kosovo and South Sudan, and with proud and strong states like Ortega's Nicaragua and Vietnam, with which Cuba shares key similarities.  The IFIs are more interested in “the long game,” Feinberg argues, and their willingness to take things step by step would fit nicely with Cuba’s (urgent) need for gradual changes.  He talks to both sides and a senior Cuban diplomat tells him that “Cuba has no principled position against” engagement with the IFIs  - a statement Feinberg believes signals a real shift in Cuban policy (hopefully a Cuban official will field that question publicly in the not too distant future).  

Meanwhile, IFI experts are more than ready to engage Cuba, and Feinberg argues that U.S. opposition to IFI assistance isn’t as insurmountable as it might seem.  In particular, IFIs can work through trust funds and other donors can administer programs.  Feinberg also sees a role for regional development banks such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the Andean Development Corporation, as the U.S. isn’t a member.

At a time when the United States is noticeable absent and seemingly oblivious to the critical moment at hand in Cuba, Feinberg offers immediate, actionable recommendations for the international development community to engage Cuba now, when it can clearly have a tremendous impact on the breadth, depth and success of the reforms.  His recommendations for the IFIs, Cuban policymakers and the United States include:

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.

Roundup: Cuban Home Sales Soon, Bono on Cuba, and Why Cuba's Not China

There's reasonably good news on the horizon for Cubans hoping to legally buy and sell homes.  In a report on the subject, BBC profiled a divorced couple - we've all heard similar stories - forced to live in the same home together for lack of an alternative.  But Granma reports that regulations should be out by the end of the year that will not only allow Cubans to buy and sell their homes, but that the transfer will be allowed to be recorded by a licensed notary, presumably cutting out the dreaded (and often opportunistic) government bureaucrats.  And that should be music to many Cubans' ears.

Speaking of music, U2's Bono mentioned former Cuban political prisoner Oscar Elias Biscet (he was one of the last prisoners released as part of an agreement with Cuba's Catholic Church) at a recent concert in Miami, following a meeting he had with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart.   Cuban American filmmaker Joe Cardona appreciated the mention and penned an op-ed offering something for everyone to agree and disagree on in The Miami Herald, on Cuban exiles, dissidents and U.S. policy:

"For the better part of my life, Cubans’ struggle against tyranny on and off the island has been unfairly undermined and dismissed by the international community as an appendage of the Cold War battle between Washington and Havana.

Given this association, it has been a struggle to get pop culture icons to back the fight for liberty in Cuba. It was a pleasant surprise, then, to hear that Bono mentioned Cuban opposition leader Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet at the U2 concert recently at Sun Life Stadium."

Whether you agree with Cardona's indictment of the international community or not, he's right on the mark that the U.S.-Cuban standoff often overshadows what's actually happening in Cuba, both the good and the bad.  But I disagree with Cardona that, "Cuban-American legislators are essential liaisons between the Cuban people and the U.S. leadership . . . "  Cuban-American legislators too often do the exact opposite, only amplifying a few Cuban voices which agree with their policy proscriptions.  Of course, both sides of the debate are guilty of this, but it's so much more damaging when Cuban American lawmakers do it because their colleagues assume them to be experts on the broader Cuban experience (despite the fact that they haven't been on the ground in decades, if ever).
And while we're on the subject of debate, I'll leave readers with this comment I published in the International Herald Tribune on Saturday (online here at The New York Times website) in response to an op-ed in the IHT last week which suggested, erroneously I believe, that the U.S. should take policy lessons on Cuba from its experience dealing with China: