All the Cuba news right now seems to be on the 'communication' front. This month's announcement from the Obama administration that it plans to encourage "people to people" contacts with and travel to Cuba came just before Cuban authorities announced suspension of mail service to the United States. Ironic timing, but the two issues aren't otherwise connected. Though no one knows for sure, it would seem that the mail bomb packages from Yemen led to new restrictions and uncertainties- and heaps of mail returned to Cuba's postal authorities - got to be a financial burden. It's not clear why the third party shippers would return Cuban-origin mail, but the U.S. says it has not restricted Cuban-origin mail specifically. It's ironic, since the US and Cuba restarted mail talks nearly a year and a half ago, in hopes of restarting direct mail service between the two countries. This problem might not have cropped up had they been able to come to agreement. Now they can't even make indirect mail service work. Is it too much to hope that this suspension gives U.S. and Cuban authorities something to work toward for this summer's migration talks (since there's been no visible progress on that front)?
Meanwhile, an underwater broadband cable is making its way from Venezuela, though it's unclear at this point just how it may or may not change Cubans' digital lives. The Guardian reports that the priority will be to improve the incredibly slow satellite connection shared by government officials, academics, researchers, certain businesses and foreign hotels and other companies. Improving the efficiency of all of these priority sectors will be important to the success of the current economic restructuring underway on the island. But of course, questions are bound to be asked about how to increase access to the internet for the broader population. Rome wasn't built - or wired - in a day, but critics will nonetheless accuse the government of blocking average citizens' access. It would be nice to see internet cafes and public access points pop up and address the pent up demand. And frankly, many private businesses the government hopes can fill the income and employment gap it no longer wants to fill could benefit from use of the internet - particularly those that will prosper if they can better advertise to foreign clientele, like casa particulares and paladars.
And at a conference organized by the Center for International Policy today, Professor Phil Brenner, one of several panelists speaking about the Obama administration announcement on travel and on other issues ripe for progress on the Cuba policy front, made an interesting point about the small Cuban businesses and the Obama administration policy. Now that university students will no longer be practically incapable of studying in Cuba (Brenner says about 300 American students studied in Cuba last year, as opposed to some 10,000 six years ago before government regulations snuffed out most of the exchanges), they will be among the most likely Americans to frequent - and thus bolster - Cuban businesses like casas particulares and paladar restaurants. It's not as big an impact as, say, hundreds of thousands of Americans would have on these fledging businesses, but it's yet another reason why increasing academic exchanges is just plain good policy. I hope that's not what Senator Bob Menendez meant when he said he hoped to "limit the impact" of the administration's new policy.
Now this is what "Reaching out to the Cuban people" really means.
While we don't have the fine print (regulations) in hand for another couple weeks, today the Obama administration announced it will issue new regulations to expand licensable travel to Cuba. People to people educational and cultural licenses, established under President Clinton and eliminated by President Bush, will be restored, and credit-earning academic and religious travelers, now subject to pre-trip application and approval processes, will be able to travel on general licenses, as do Cuban American travelers today. The regulations will also allow any international U.S. airport with the necessary facilities to host licensed charter services to and from Cuba, and authorize any American to send remittances for humanitarian and economic projects to non-family Cubans (except for high level Cuban government and Communist Party officials, as is the case for currently allowable family remittances).
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Kerry offered high praise, which he said would "open the way for the good will of citizens of both countries to forge deeper ties that are in our national interest today and in the future." He went on to say he will continue to push for a full repeal of all travel restrictions for all Americans. (Kerry's statement, which I received in an email, will be available here shortly)
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.
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.
For those who missed it, 60 Minutes aired a segment on last October's visit to Havana by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra earlier this week. It’s a must-watch for jazz, Marsalis, Cuba and New Orleans enthusiasts alike. (View the entire 13-minute segment here) I hope someone in the White House caught this segment because it’s a deeply moving reminder of why promoting broad people-to-people contacts between the U.S. and Cuba is the right, sane and humane policy.
Picture this: Wynton Marsalis and members of the Orchestra leading a New Orleans style street parade with Cuban music students and passersby joining in. Or the joyful grin on one Cuban man, who, with their baby in tow, accompanied his wife – and her horn - to the band’s hotel in hopes of getting a pointer or two from saxophonist Ted Nash (she did, and they jammed together). And, of course, there’s a magic in seeing Cuban piano legend Chucho Valdes make some music with Marsalis at the home of U.S. Interests Section Chief Jonathan Farrar, which 60 Minutes’ Morley Safer notes was home to the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba – 50 years ago when we still had one.
“Cuba, that’s like your cousins,” New Orleans native Marsalis says. And you can hear that closeness he’s talking about as he and a colleague mark the distinctive and incredibly similar New Orleans and Cuban clave beats.
When asked, Marsalis declined to offer his opinion on the troubled US-Cuba political relationship. He figures that’s not what he’s there to do. Instead, he traveled to Cuba to “bring people together.”
You can’t blame him for not wanting to enter the hornets’ nest on that one, but maybe he wasn’t evading at all.
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.
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.
"It's been said that when elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.
No case illustrates this suffering more than that of Alan Gross, a Maryland resident and USAID subcontractor who was working to connect the Cuban Jewish community to the Internet and was detained by Cuban authorities one year ago. Campaigning for his release these many months, his wife, Judy Gross, fears that her husband has become a "pawn" in the half-century Cold War between the United States and Cuba."
That's an excerpt from a commentary that fellow THN contributor Arturo Lopez-Levy and I published in today's The Baltimore Sun. The piece examines not just Alan Gross's case, but the history of the controversial USAID program for which he was working, and other major flaws in the program that impact not just US contractors but the Cuban "beneficiaries" too. Arturo, who has deep roots Cuba's Jewish community, is deeply frustrated over what he sees as the US government's failure to obtain the informed consent of Cubans on the ground. To read the whole piece, click here.
We're pleased that The Baltimore Sun wanted to dig a little deeper into complex and sensitive issues such as this one, which, in its myopic editorial of December 7, The Washington Post utterly failed to do. While we agree with the Post that it is long past time for the Cuban government to give Gross a fair hearing or let him return home to his family, this tragedy didn't transpire in a vacuum. U.S. policy and the Obama administration itself, which never conducted the policy review Secretary Clinton promised Senator Richard Lugar nearly two years ago at her confirmation, bears crucial responsibility too for landing Mr. Gross in his current predicament.
Judy Gross, who in a letter to The Miami Herald called on Presidents Obama and Castro to improve the tortured relationship of which she considers her husband a victim, also talked to The Forward recently. Here's a snippet from the Jewish Daily Forward website:
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.
Today marks one year since a USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross of Bethesda, MD, allegedly helping the Cuban Jewish community connect via internet to the Jewish community outside of Cuba, was taken into Cuban custody at the conclusion of his fifth such trip to the island. Cuban authorities maintain that he broke Cuban laws, and have even suggested in a couple of instances that he was a spy. U.S. authorities, meanwhile, insist that Gross did nothing wrong, broke no laws, and that Gross's work would not have been a problem in other countries around the world. Alan Gross's wife considers her husband a political pawn, and believes both the U.S. and Cuba could take steps to improve relations and in the process, bring her husband home.
I'm with Judy Gross on this. If Alan Gross violated Cuban laws, he should know and face the charges against him in a fair and open trial.
Unfortunately, Cuba's failure to move the case along has merely enabled Washington's own immobility. Simply demanding his release, as the State Department again did once again yesterday, clearly isn't getting anywhere. It would be a lot easier to sit back and fold our arms ("We don't negotiate with hostage takers!") if our own government hadn't played a starring role in Gross's predicament in the first place. Beyond the intrepid oversight efforts of Senator John Kerry and Congressman Howard Berman (whose committees have jurisdiction over the program) there's been zero effort - beyond a cursory "at your own risk" warning to future USAID Cuba program contractors - from the U.S. side to take responsibility for what happened here. And in that vacuum, Tracey Eaton reports, people like former Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, continue to offer platitudes like this one: