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    Obama’s Cuba Opportunity

    Obama’s Cuba Opportunity
    After 50 years of perfect policy failure, the U.S. has a political
    opening to help a reforming Cuba prosper.
    By PHILIP PETERS • December 16, 2014

    George Washington’s farewell address did more than warn against
    permanent alliances that could “entangle” our young Republic in the
    “ambition” and “rivalship” of others in ways that do not serve our
    national interest.

    He warned equally against America making enemies. “Observe good faith
    and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all,”
    was his first principle. To engage in “permanent, inveterate antipathy”
    toward other powers would make us “subservient to projects of hostility
    instigated by pride, ambition, and other sinister and pernicious motives.”

    If ever there was a case of “permanent, inveterate antipathy” in U.S.
    foreign policy, it is found in American policy toward Cuba. During the
    Cold War it was justified by a circumstance well beyond the first
    president’s 18th-century imagination: a close neighbor allied with a
    nuclear-armed Moscow dedicated to our demise.

    But the policy lives on two decades after the Soviet Union’s own demise,
    serving no constructive purpose toward Cuba and harming U.S. relations
    in the hemisphere. With two years left to serve, President Obama has an
    opportunity to score a victory for his legacy and the national interest
    by putting U.S.-Cuba relations on a new course, beginning with an
    overhaul of the U.S. embargo.

    For six years President Obama has shown little interest in Cuba, but at
    a fundraiser one year ago in Miami, he seemed to be searching for new

    “We’ve started to see changes on the island,” the President said, and
    “we have to continue to update our policies” with a “creative” and
    “thoughtful” approach. “Keep in mind,” he added, “that when Castro came
    to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we
    put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are
    today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t
    make sense.”

    Indeed. Nor does it make sense to imagine that U.S. sanctions exert
    meaningful political pressure on the government comfortably in power in
    Havana for 55 years—or that those sanctions don’t in some measure hurt
    the Cuban people who cannot be held responsible for a revolution that
    rocked the Eisenhower Administration.

    Barack Obama is the 11th U.S. president to face socialist Cuba. But he
    is the first who can see the next generation of Cuban leadership on the
    horizon, with Raul Castro committed to end his presidency in 2018. And
    he is the first to see a Cuba embarked on a wrenching process of
    internal change that is opening the economy, expanding personal
    autonomy, and even increasing some civil and economic liberties. Obama
    has a strategic opportunity afforded to none of his predecessors: to
    change U.S. policy in ways that complement positive changes in Cuba,
    enhancing the impact of Cuba’s reforms and encouraging further change ahead.

    Ten years ago, Cuban citizens could not travel abroad without a
    government exit permit. Cell phones were available to officials, foreign
    businessmen, and tourists, but not average Cubans. Hotels and resorts
    were reserved for foreigners only. Computers were not for sale, only
    components. Cubans could only sell cars of 1959 or earlier vintage. Home
    sales were illegal even though 85 percent of Cuban families hold title
    to their homes. And an unannounced policy capped the number of licenses
    to engage in private business at about 150,000.

    All those prohibitions are gone today.

    Cubans are traveling wherever they can get a visa, and the United States
    granted 19,500 visitor visas in the first half of this year. Cuban
    dissidents now visit Washington, Miami, and European capitals
    regularly—then they return home and travel again. Private brokers and
    online listing services are sorting out supply and demand in a new
    residential real estate market. Internet connectivity remains limited
    and expensive, but it is improving and 1.9 million Cubans—more than
    one-fifth of the adult population—now have cell phones, some now with
    access to e-mail.

    New economic policies have led to an explosion of small enterprise,
    where nearly half a million Cubans—triple the number of four years
    ago—are working in service businesses of all kinds. Larger private
    businesses, legally organized as cooperatives, are emerging; some of the
    600 in operation are state enterprises that have been turned over to
    their workers, while others are start-ups that began with citizen
    applications. Market-based agriculture has expanded with land grants to
    170,000 private farmers and cooperatives, and the agriculture
    bureaucracy is being pared back gradually. The government has trimmed
    its payroll by 650,000 workers, and ultimately expects 45 percent of the
    workforce to be occupied in the private sector. A new foreign investment
    law was approved last March, and the courtship of potential investors is
    under way.

    All this is due to reforms led by Raul Castro, who took office after 47
    years of his brother’s governance, declaring that he is “tired of
    excuses” and that if the economy is not fixed, “we will go under.” If
    the reform program, now at its mid-point, does not succeed and deeper
    actions are needed, this 83-year-old leader will have made the job
    easier for the next generation by making it the official position of the
    Communist Party that the economy is not “sustainable,” the state is too
    big, the private sector needs to grow, and the party must drop the
    “stigmas and prejudices” that it has held toward private entrepreneurs.
    Among Cubans, it does not go unnoticed that he has upended three Fidel
    Castro decisions that mark the socialist state’s economic history: the
    stigmatization of foreign investment in the early 1960s, the
    “revolutionary offensive” that wiped out remaining small businesses in
    1968, and a 1986 “rectification” campaign that ended an experiment in
    free-market sales of farm produce.

    In contrast to the clear new direction in economic policy, there is no
    reform of Cuba’s political system. But there is ferment. There is more
    open debate about economic policy, including criticism of the government
    from left and right. Stodgy state media, under fire even from top
    officials, are improving glacially in response to the access to
    information provided by the Internet and other sources. Catholic
    journals push for deeper and faster reform, including in the political
    sphere. Long-term political prisoners were released in 2010, as were
    thousands of common criminals. The government still disrupts dissident
    activities—but it now uses short-term detention rather than the old
    practice of 20-year prison terms, so that last May, a U.S. official
    counted “six or seven” political prisoners in Cuban jails. Alongside a
    dissident movement that, even with longstanding U.S. support, has not
    ventured into retail politics, blogger Yoani Sanchez stands out for her
    recent innovation: she started a lively online newspaper whose site was
    blocked during its first days of publication, but is now available to
    Cubans on the Internet and on memory sticks passed from hand to hand.

    The Cuba that President Obama faces, then, is far from fully
    transformed—but it is changing in positive ways. While the one-party
    state persists, the newfound abilities of Cubans to travel, communicate,
    transact property, and start businesses count objectively as human
    rights improvements. The security threats that once emanated from
    Havana—support for revolutionary movements, Soviet ties—are no more.

    If any country but Cuba were at issue, we would jettison a policy of
    non-recognition, limited official contacts, and economic punishment that
    has yielded nothing. We would stick to our guns regarding human rights
    and political differences, but would express those differences in a
    context of mutually beneficial diplomatic and trade relations.

    But in that Cuba is involved, electoral politics creates paralysis in
    Congress, and hesitation in the executive branch. But the political
    equation surrounding Cuba has changed dramatically, and no one knows
    that better than Obama himself.

    As recently as 2000, Cuban Americans broke three-to-one for Republicans
    in Presidential elections, but no more. In 2012, exit polls showed them
    splitting 50-50 between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney.
    Considering that the president had mildly liberalized Cuba policies in
    his first term and Governor Romney was calling for a return to President
    Bush’s hardline policies, this was a shocking result.

    But it was not a fluke: it reflects changing policy preferences in a
    Cuban-American community increasingly populated by younger generations
    and more recent immigrants. A 2014 Florida International University
    (FIU) poll showed that for the first time since its surveys began in
    1991, a majority of Cuban Americans, 52 percent, wants to end the
    embargo. (During the 1990s, five FIU polls showed average 85
    percent support for the embargo.) Among those under age 30, 62 percent
    want to end the embargo and 88 percent want to re-establish full
    diplomatic relations with Havana.

    Elites are changing too. Last February, sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul, a
    long-time supporter of Cuba sanctions, told the Washington Post about
    his visits to Cuba, and expressed a desire to invest there. Facundo
    Bacardi, scion of another family that lost a fortune in Cuba and has
    been instrumental in key sanctions legislation, told Cigar
    Aficionado that his family is now divided on the embargo question. The
    Cuba Study Group, led by businessman Carlos Saladrigas, has become a
    forum where many long-time hardliners search for new approaches. Many of
    its members have visited Cuba and support entrepreneurial education
    programs offered by the Archdiocese of Havana.

    It is no wonder that politicians—so far, only Democrats—see that the
    pro-embargo voting bloc has been neutralized. Charlie Crist, the first
    major Florida gubernatorial candidate to call for ending the embargo,
    lost the November 4 election by one point. Hillary Clinton has called
    for normalized relations and an end to sanctions, and is poised to be
    the first major presidential candidate to hold that view. A nationwide
    poll released last February by pollsters Glen Bolger and Paul Maslin
    showed 56 percent support for normalization of relations with Cuba; the
    same poll included a Florida sample that showed 63 percent support for

    In response to change in Cuba and in the U.S. electorate, Cuban-American
    hardliners have adopted the simple tactic of denial.

    Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart calls the Bolger-Maslin survey a “push poll” and
    Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen says the FIU poll is “misguided.” They, Sen.
    Marco Rubio, and many others describe the changes in Cuba with the same
    word: “cosmetic.” This puts them at odds with reality in Cuba and with
    the views of many of their own constituents as revealed by their behavior.

    During his first term, President Obama allowed Cuban Americans to travel
    to Cuba and send money to their relatives without restriction. Given
    that freedom, Cuban Americans have become champions of engagement:
    300,000 traveled to Cuba last year and estimates of their current annual
    remittances range as high as $3.5 billion. Many are investing in family
    businesses and in real estate purchased in the name of their relatives
    on the island. To them, the changes in Cuba are hardly “cosmetic.” In
    his interview, Facundo Bacardi surely spoke for many of these Cuban
    Americans in assessing Cuba’s changes: “The society is slowly opening up
    a bit, and there are reforms. So long as the reforms continue, the
    people who benefit the most are the Cuban people … they’re implementing
    these changes in piecemeal fashion over a period of time. The question
    is, will Raul [Castro] go all the way, or will he not?”

    Another question is how far President Obama will go.

    If, as he suggested in his Miami remarks, he takes a long look back to
    1961, he will discern a paradox in U.S. policy toward Cuba, one hard for
    a superpower to admit—that the harder we have tried to bring down the
    socialist government, the grander our failures have been.

    The embargo was originally conceived in a 1960 State Department
    memorandum as a way to deny “money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease
    monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and
    overthrow of government.” It failed. So did an amphibious invasion by
    exiles in 1961 at the Bay of Pigs; President Kennedy’s Operation
    Mongoose, a campaign of propaganda and sabotage; and the CIA’s attempts
    to assassinate Fidel Castro.

    With Cuba in economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union, we
    tightened the embargo in 1992 and 1996 in the hope that new, targeted
    pressures would push Havana over the brink. A decade later, based on the
    same hope, President George W. Bush tried more systematically than any
    President to stem flows of hard currency to Cuba, even strictly limiting
    family visits and remittances. He named a “Cuba Transition Coordinator”
    in the State Department for a transition that his policies failed to
    produce, and the post has since been abolished.

    President Obama has continued most of the Bush policies, including
    amateur-hour covert operations run by the U.S. Agency for International
    Development (USAID). One resulted in the 2009 jailing of U.S. contractor
    Alan Gross as he set up satellite Internet systems with WiFi hotspots in
    Havana and beyond. Another established a short-lived Twitter-like
    service for Cuban cell phone users, using polls to collect data on their
    political views for later use in political mobilization.

    In this perfect record of failure, U.S. tactics have changed but the
    supposition is the same: we envision Cuba to be one spark short of a
    political uprising, and we seek to provide that spark. Time and again,
    the U.S. government miscalculates politics inside Cuba and blithely
    assumes that its operatives will outwit Cuban intelligence services on
    their own turf.

    Taking a fresh look, President Obama could expand his first-term
    policies with new travel measures, but the opportunity seems greater
    than that, and this moment calls for more.

    If he is really examining fundamentals, he will ask: If the embargo
    didn’t exist, would we invent it in 2014?

    Probably not. Most likely, the President views Cuba as Senator Rubio
    views communist China. “I’ve never accepted the idea that we wanted to
    contain China,” he told CNN during an Asia tour last January. “We
    welcome a China that’s richer and more prosperous, because that’s a
    potential trading partner, customers for our products and services.” The
    rest of Rubio’s approach is to be vigilant on human rights and to ensure
    that China doesn’t interfere with its neighbors.

    That’s not a bad approach to apply to the communist country in our own
    neighborhood. And it would begin by declaring, as Rubio does regarding
    China, that the U.S. national interest is served not by weakening the
    Cuban economy, but by helping Cubans to prosper.

    Using his executive authority, President Obama could permit Americans to
    build economic relationships with Cuba’s expanding private sector. He
    could open up two-way trade in goods and services, excepting only those
    with security or military application.

    Instead of wasting more money on blundering USAID projects, he could
    permit U.S. communications and technology companies to do business in
    Cuba. Indeed, he should turn U.S. policies in communications, health
    care, and many other sectors upside down, replacing the embargo’s
    restrictions with the presumption that links in these areas will serve
    both nations’ interests.

    President Obama should stop designating Cuba as a “state sponsor of
    terrorism”—a label that his own annual reports no longer even attempt to
    justify, that devalues America’s word on international terrorism issues,
    and that triggers special Treasury Department sanctions against Cuba’s
    international financial transactions.

    A broad liberalization of trade and travel would, for the first time in
    50 years, remove the clunky U.S. bureaucracy from center stage and
    replace it with the free exercise of citizen contacts. A wave of visits,
    information, ideas, citizen projects, and commerce would result.

    The two governments should use stronger diplomacy to address law
    enforcement, migration, health, environmental, and security issues that
    affect us as neighbors. In that diplomacy, there should be discussions
    of releasing prisoners and rendering fugitives, and President Obama
    should live up to his responsibility to negotiate for the release of
    Alan Gross, who was sent to Cuba on his watch.

    President Obama could even take a page from President Reagan’s policy
    toward the Soviet Union by promoting exchanges between students,
    scientists, artists, and local officials.

    This new policy, neither liberal nor conservative, would be in the
    mainstream of American foreign policy. Nearly all Democrats, many
    Republicans, the U.S. business community, American farmers, half the
    Cuban American community, and all of Latin America and the Caribbean
    would applaud. In short order, the policy would be as unremarkable as
    our full diplomatic and trading relationships with communist China and

    Our nation would gain a stronger, more productive relationship with an
    estranged neighbor that is setting a new course for itself. And we might
    end the biggest embargo of all—our self-imposed embargo on American
    influence in Cuba.

    Philip Peters is President of the Cuba Research Center in Alexandria,

    Source: Obama’s Cuba Opportunity | The American Conservative –