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.

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.

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.

Where do we go from here?

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?"

Unavoidable Choices

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.

The Lack of Memory of Cuban-American Congress Members

If the laws governing travel to the island can not be changed, how is it that they were amended in June 2004?

by Carlos Lazo

Several years ago I posted an on-line petition calling for freedom to travel to Cuba. One signer, Carlos Lazo, wrote me that he was a Cuban living now in the US and frustrated by the difficulty of returning to see his teenage sons. Ironically, he was a member of the National Guard due to serve in Iraq. Under restrictions introduced by the Bush Administration in 2004, Carlos was blocked at the last minute from visiting the boys during leave from the combat zone. His case dramatized for the media the inhumanity of a policy that limited family reunions to once every three years and was taken up by Senator Byron Dorgan and other members of Congress. Carlos just sent me this take on the debate over the prospective relaxation of travel restrictions by President Obama.

In recent days,four Cuban-American Representatives and one Senator wrote a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him not to change U.S. policies toward Cuba. According to the odd logic put forward by these people, laws regarding the island are and were created already by the U.S. Congress. Therefore, any change in this regard would undermine "significantly the foreign policy objectives and security of America." In the epistle, the legislators added that the Helms-Burton Act codified the embargo on Cuba and it cannot be modified by the President. According to the letter, irremovable are also "all restrictions on travel" to the island.

Hope Springs Eternal in US-Cuban Relations

Photo credit: Darkwind

They say timing is everything. But in U.S.-Cuban relations, timing is often nothing more than a missed opportunity. Everyone has their own theory about these things. Back in 1996, analysts thought it was a most opportune moment for improved relations. The Helms-Burton Act was stalled and President Clinton appeared to have no intention of signing it. And then Cuban migs shot down two civilian aircraft that Cuba claimed had violated its airspace. (The group that sent the planes on their mission that day, Brothers to the Rescue, claim they did not violate Cuban airspace that day -- though indeed they had previously, even overflying and leafletting Havana.) It might have been an opportune moment, but it turned out not to be.

And then there were the early 2000's, when a Republican-controlled Congress repeatedly bucked its President, voting to end enforcement of the decades old travel ban on Cuba. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee even voted out a bill to lift the ban outright. U.S.-Cuban agriculture ties were at their tightest, and U.S. Cuba food export fever was at its highest. But President Bush had committed to embargo supporters, and his veto threats ensured that House and Senate leaders yanked Cuba reforms out of every bill they rode along. And then in 2003, with Congress leading the charge for U.S. policy reform, Cuban authorities rounded up 75 dissident activists and sending them to jail for collaborating with the U.S. enemy. It could have been a transformational moment, but it turned out not to be.

And then of course, in 2006 and 2008, Democrats swept through Congress, and won the presidency. The new president was even on record as opposed to the U.S. embargo of Cuba, and campaigned on a foreign policy that would win back the respect of the world. Though Cuba policy seemed such obvious low-hanging fruit, the new administration and Congress failed to grasp the opportunity, particularly in the midst of crushing domestic and international crises and larger priorities like healthcare legislation. Meanwhile, Fidel Castro fell gravely ill in 2006, retired from sight and from the presidency in Cuba, and his more pragmatic brother officially took the reins in 2008, broaching topics and raising criticisms of the Cuban system never discussed under the elder Castro's watch. It should have been the long awaited breakthrough moment, but it turned out not to be.

And here we are in 2010.

Cuba Travel on the Horizon?

Rumors that the Obama Administration is preparing to announce measures that will ease travel restrictions to Cuba have been circulating for several weeks, but the news now seems to be official with multiple knowledgeable sources indicating that the announcement will come within the next week or two.

The scope of the changes is still unknown and could range from a limited loosening of restrictions on specific licenses back to where it was during the Clinton years to permitting general licenses in all twelve categories of travel, which would facilitate the greatest amount of non-tourist visits to Cuba. The changes will certainly be the biggest development in U.S. policy towards Cuba since President Obama announced the easing of restrictions on Cuban American travel and remittances to the island in April 2009 and will send a long overdue signal that the Obama Administration takes Cuba policy seriously.

In the context of U.S.-Cuban relations more broadly, some analysts have been framing this development in the context of a tit-for-tat diplomatic maneuvering with the Cuban government. Earlier this summer after negotiations with the Catholic Church in Cuba, Raul Castro announced that 52 political prisoners would be released (26 of which have been freed and sent to Spain thus far). The easing of travel restrictions, they say, is Washington's response to the release of the political prisoners.

Newsweek Magazine, Texas Farmers are both 'Havana Dreaming'


The latest issue of Newsweek chronicles growing momentum in and around Congress this summer for lifting the US travel ban:

"Nobody would accuse Guillermo Fariñas of being soft on the Cuban government. . . During his most recent hunger strike—begun in February to press for the release of 25 ailing political prisoners—he nearly died when a blood clot formed in his jugular vein. He resumed eating only after President Raúl Castro announced in early July that he was freeing 52 dissidents, including the 25 sick ones. And yet, in a recent interview with Spain’s El País, Fariñas called for something considered heresy in some anti-Castro circles: lifting the U.S. travel ban on the island. “The visits of millions of U.S. citizens would without doubt change this country,” he said.

The anti-Castro lobby remains strong in the United States, and wants to keep Cuba isolated. Until now, it’s been able to defeat virtually every effort to open the island to American tourists. But Fariñas is one of a growing number of influential Cubans and Americans who see the 50-year policy to completely isolate Cuba as a failure. Now interest groups of all sorts—big business, farmers, human-rights advocates, religious organizations, even many Cuban-Americans—have united to back a new congressional bill that would lift the travel ban and further loosen restrictions on U.S. agricultural sales to the island. “There is significant momentum building,” says Carlos Saladrigas, co-chair of the Cuba Study Group, which supports the measure. . .

Allowing American tourists to travel to Cuba would also be good for U.S. business, increasing demand for American products while providing Cuba the hard currency to buy them. According to a March study by researchers at Texas A&M University, lifting travel and financial restrictions could increase exports by up to $365 million per year and add 6,000 new American jobs. A 2002 analysis by the Brattle Group, a consulting firm, found that the increase in tourism—including more air and cruise travel—could bolster the U.S. gross domestic product by up to $1.6 billion and create as many as 23,000 jobs. “Here’s a shovel-ready project to put Americans back to work,” says Lisa Simon, president of the National Tour Association."

American Farm Bureau Federation President, Bob Stallman, a Texas rice farmer, agrees in an op-ed, "For Sake of Farmers, Lift Cuba Ban," in the Houston Chronicle today.

"This scene remains a hopeful vision for America's farmers and ranchers: American tourists strolling down the paving-stone streets, browsing the colorful shops and enjoying the rustic cantinas of Old Havana. Why, you may ask, would a Texas rice and beef producer care? The answer can be summed up in three words — enhanced agricultural trade.."

What's particularly interesting about this op-ed is that Stallman cues farm state legislators not to let their frustration over three FTA agreements they want passed - which was aired during last month's Agriculture Committee 25-20 vote on Cuba - actually stand in the way of moving the Cuba bill.

"Our farmers and ranchers are not just focused on Cuba. Increasing foreign trade remains a key to the success of American agriculture. We are also pushing free-trade agreements for Korea, Panama and Colombia. While each trade bill is important, the key distinction is that the Cuba bill is alive and kicking in Congress this summer."

Dorgan v. Menendez: Cuba Travel Ban Debate Heats Up in the Senate

Photo credit: Jeff Hutchens/Getty Images

With all the commotion on Cuba in the U.S. House of Representatives in recent weeks, you might have missed the action in the U.S. Senate last week. As he so often has done before, Senator Bob Menendez took to the floor last Thursday to insist that his Senate colleagues not follow the example in the House Agriculture Committee, which approved legislation to lift the travel ban and boost agricultural sales to Cuba two weeks ago.

"The fact is, the big corporate interests behind this misguided attempt to weaken the travel ban could not care less whether the Cuban people are free. They care only about opening a new market and increasing their bottom line. This is about the color of money, not the desire for freedom."

This line of offense -- vilifying anyone who disagrees with him on U.S. Cuba sanctions policy -- is nothing new for Senator Menendez. But what was different about this time is that his rant did not go unanswered.

North Dakota's Senator Byron Dorgan, a Democrat retiring at the end of this Congress, has long fought to lift the last travel ban (to Cuba), and has begun to ramp up his effort in concert with House allies' efforts this summer. Dorgan's took to the floor right after Menendez. The speech wasn't one of those given in passing, it was lengthy, thoughtful, detailed and comprehensive -- planned. The poster-wielding North Dakotan usually rails mainly on the absurdity of travel controls that a) haven't worked and b) we don't have against any other country. But this speech zeroed in on at least two more points (economic gains for U.S. food exporters was largely in the background) I expect we'll hear from him more often: support for his bill within Cuba's internal opposition, and the fact that "we have punished the American citizens because we are upset with somebody else."

Multiple times, Dorgan seemed to have ready answers to Menendez, particularly on human rights. Remarkably, the two senators invoked the same dissident activist, Guillermo Farinas -- who went on hunger strike for 135 days this year, seeking the release of 26 Cuban political prisoners believed to be in poor health -- as well as the Ladies in White, in their opposing speeches. Menendez argued that lifting the travel ban would not end any suffering in Cuba and would only enrich the regime, while Dorgan counted Farinas, blogging sensation Yoani Sanchez, and others among the dissidents and political prisoners who disagree with Menendez on that very point:

"One of my colleagues recently had a poster I saw about the Ladies in White. The founder of the Ladies in White supports lifting this travel ban . . . The sacrifices of those whom I have shown here in photographs, the sacrifices they have made in Cuba--sitting in dark prison cells, hunger strikes, and more--I think give them great credibility when they speak out on what is the best way to promote democracy in Cuba."