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.
“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.
Whereas Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba nearly 15 years ago was in itself a historic moment – coming as it did at the end of a dark period for Church-State relations in Cuba – Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the island this week was more about consolidating spaces the Cuban Catholic Church has won in society and about gaining more such space. Those who hoped this Pope’s trip would have profound impact on the broader political and human rights context on the island were surely disappointed by the Pope’s decision not to meet with Cuban dissidents who asked to see him.
To some extent, it’s hard to imagine what prominent figure really could sway Cuba’s leaders off of their course to rebuild the economy and leave the one-party political system in place. Perhaps I’m being naïve, but I tend to think the Cuban people themselves will be the protagonists of that evolution, even if it takes much longer than some, or many, wish.
But given the ground the Cuban Catholic Church lost decades ago, the ground it has recovered in the past decade, and its priorities for the future near and far, creating more space for those goals must have been the driving factors in the pope’s trip. And perhaps that increased space in society - whether it is the Cuba Catholic Church’s publication of unvarnished criticisms of Raul Castro’s halting economic reforms (that are, as Cuban political scientist Rafael Hernandez always points out, themselves signs of political change in Cuba) to the hoped-for reopening of private Catholic schools in Cuba one day, to Pope Benedict’s request to add Good Friday to the Cuban State’s official calendar - perhaps these advances, and reaches, by the Catholic Church and its offices and members in Cuban society at a crucial time of generational change in Cuba, may help usher in other social and political openings on the island.
That is the road the Church has chosen for itself in modern day Cuba. Rather than serve as a force for opposition, it looks for opportunities for constructive engagement with the government in ways that it feels can benefit the Cuban people.
Many observers were aghast when, just before the Pope’s visit, Cuban Catholic Church leaders requested government authorities remove 13 dissidents who had been “occupying” a Havana church for several days.
Meeting dissidents should not be a litmus test for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba (A response to the March 19 Washington Post Editorial).
As the visit of Benedict XVI draws nearer, Cuba's internal opposition is stepping up its activities in an effort to use his presence on the island as a sounding board. The Ladies in White, a group of mothers and wives of dissidents who were given long prison sentences in 2003, have eased up some since all of their relatives were released as a result of mediation by Cardinal Ortega. Now they are asking for a meeting with the Pope. In 2010, the Cardinal also managed to secure eight city blocks for them to hold their Sunday marches after mass at the Santa Rita Church in the Havana neighborhood of Miramar. On Sunday March 18, the group, which has never managed to fill the ceded space, pushed further, and were detained by the government only to be released several hours later.
Don’t get me wrong. In the Cuba I dream of, without an American embargo and with representative democracy, opposition forces would have the right to demonstrate peacefully. But that is not the issue here. The gradual recovery of social spaces has been central to the Catholic Church's strategic adaptation to the post-revolutionary system. Unlike the political opposition calling for the government’s acceptance of a disorganized partisan pluralism that has no relevance on the street, the Church gradually recovers social spaces and then negotiates government recognition. The Cuban Bishops demanded the right to parade the Virgin of Charity through the towns of Cuba after parishes overflowed with worshipers, not before.
One might expect that a terrible coincidence such as an American prisoner in Cuba and a paroled Cuban prisoner in the U.S. each desperately seeking permission to visit beloved relatives dying of cancer in their home countries might finally move both governments to do the right thing and send each man home. But so far, both governments have dug in their heels needlessly regarding the prisoners in their own custody, while at the same time, insisting that clemency should be shown towards their own citizens held in the other country.
So what happens now that a federal judge in Miami has approved Rene Gonzalez’s petition for a two week visit to his brother in Cuba? The judge gave her permission so long as Gonzalez obtains the necessary license from the U.S. government, provides his itinerary, keeps up with his parole officer while in Cuba, and returns when his two weeks are up. Lucky for Gonzalez that Mr. Obama delivered on his campaign promise to Cuban Americans back in 2009: anyone can visit close family in Cuba under ‘general license’ authority, so he doesn’t have to ask for further permission. This is good news for Gonzalez and his brother.
But will it mean good news for Alan Gross, in exchange? Unfortunately, it’s hard to argue this can be an ‘exchange’ of humanitarian gestures by the two governments, since Obama’s Justice Department opposed Gonzalez’s deathbed visit to his brother. These kinds of equities – or inequities – weigh heavily in Havana. When former governor Bill Richardson visited Cuba last August and suggested a swap of Gonzalez for Gross, Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon scoffed at the idea – Gonzalez was finishing his term, having served more than a dozen years in prison, whereas Gross had only just begun his sentence of 15 years. And, from the Cuban government’s perspective, Gonzalez was merely trying to protect Cuba, whereas Gross’s work to establish untraceable Wi-Fi networks on the island was funded under a statute calling for regime change in Cuba. (U.S. officials naturally have a different view: they cite national security concerns about Gonzalez, who was an unregistered agent of the Cuban government in the U.S., and they view Gross’s work as purely humanitarian in nature. )
Another reason why Cuba is less likely to grant Mr. Gross a deathbed visit to his mother is that granting a temporary release to Gross is tantamount to simply commuting his sentence. Why would he return to Cuba once reaching the U.S.? Gonzalez is likely return to the U.S. out of a sense of solidarity with the rest of the Cuban Five; if he fails to meet the conditions set out by the judge that granted his motion in the first place, that could impact decisions made on future motions filed by the rest of them. But Gross has nothing else at stake in Cuba, and if the Cuban government is bent on keeping him as a chip for the right humanitarian bargain to come along (say one that includes more of the Five), then granting his deathbed visit request would take away that imagined leverage.
But it’s a mistake to think that Mr. Gross offers any leverage to Cuba.
I must confess that I didn't envision a neat solution to the Summit of the Americas stand-off, but that is exactly what Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whose country will host the meeting next month in Cartagena, has achieved after a visit to Havana this week. Santos traveled to Havana, where he lamented a lack of consensus among the Summit's participants on including Cuba and promised to raise the issue of Cuba at the meeting. But Cuba's government didn't heap any blame on Colombia - there were no charges that Santos was just doing Washington's dirty work and playing the lapdog to the villanious Uncle Sam. (There was plenty of blame heaped directly on Washington, though.) And, according to Colombia's foreign minister, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez will not only attend the Summit, but would be happy to call Ecuador's President Correa and encourage him to attend, even without Cuba's Castro allowed in.
Santos handled the players expertly, and it paid off for him, both by averting embarassment when he hosts the Summit next month and by demonstrating his ability to be an effective regional negotiator.
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:
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.
With the Cuban Communist Party Conference, the first of its kind, held in order to maintain steady progress on economic reforms laid out by the 6th Party Congress last April, now concluded, and with the Republican primary battle in full promise-the-moon mode this last week, it’s clear that both in Cuba and the United States, some things remain painfully slow to change.
While significant economic reforms have gained momentum on the island for the last year or so, issues we might consider more political – such as migration reform or legalization of multiple political parties – aren’t on the immediate horizon. Raul Castro called for greater accountability in the media and "democracy" in government decision-making. Though Castro himself has pointed to the need for migration reforms, so that Cubans who work abroad aren’t forced to leave the country and their possessions permanently, for instance, he told Parliament in December that he considers it a complicated and delicate issue, one which (shocker alert) is inextricably linked to the longstanding U.S. embargo of Cuba. This weekend he dispelled any notions that Cuba will turn away from a one-party model of government. Why? Because to do so would be “to legalize the party or parties of the [U.S.] empire.” In one respect, of course he’s right – it would be hard to stop Cuban exiles from pouring money into and trying to shape the agendas of newly legalized political parties on the island. But despite the obvious counter-productivity and “meddlesome”-ness of U.S. policy, it cannot always be the reason why Cuba’s leaders refuse to take a given course. Just as the U.S. must not wait for Cuba to adopt policies we think it ought to, Cuba should not wait for the U.S. to suddenly offer a “new beginning” with Cuba.
Of course, that is the change that President Obama promised nearly three years ago – a “new beginning” with Cuba. On the campaign trail, he sniffed at the Bush administration’s tough-talking pandering to the hard line segment of the Cuban American community, which in truth accomplished nothing, neither its swaggering determination to bring about the Castros’ demise, nor any improvement in conditions for Cubans. The Obama administration did make a number of tactical changes to the policy, including expansions of travel for certain sectors, notably for Cuban Americans his campaign surely hoped would return the favor in 2012. But none of these limited changes broke any truly new ground (with the exception of allowing additional airports to serve licensed travelers), and in fact, its refusal to fully reform the controversial USAID or Radio and TV Marti programs it inherited from the Bush administration signaled it wasn’t so comfortable with change after all.
Meanwhile, this week the Republican presidential hopefuls – minus Rep. Ron Paul - pedaled furiously backward into Florida, land of the hard line Cuban exile (and a few other voters).