New York Times Urges Normalization of U.S.- Cuba Relations

In an October 12th editorial the New York Times says, “For the first time in more than 50 years, shifting politics in the United States and changing policies in Cuba make it politically feasible to re-establish formal diplomatic relations and dismantle the senseless embargo.” Indeed, in the Times’ opinion, these changes in U.S. policy should be accompanied by ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”[1]

 Editorial’s Commentary on Cuba’s Current Conditions

The Times points out that Cuba has “taken significant steps to liberalize and diversify the island’s tightly controlled economy.” This includes “allowing citizens to take private-sector jobs and own property.” encouraging foreign investment, constructing a major deep-sea port in Mariel with Brazilian capital and negotiating a cooperation agreement with the European Union. Although the pace of reform may seem slow and inconsistent, these are significant changes.

On the other hand, the Times asserts that the Cuban “government still harasses and detains dissidents . . . [and has not explained] the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of political activist Oswaldo Payá.” This is outweighed, however, by the Cuban government’s in recent years having “released political prisoners” and showing “slightly more tolerance for criticism of the [government’s leadership” while loosening travel restrictions “enabling prominent dissidents to travel abroad.”[1a]

Editorial’s Recommendations for U.S. Policy

End Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” The Times recommends that the U.S. “should remove Cuba from State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorist organizations . . . .   Cuba was put on the list in 1982 for backing terrorist groups in Latin America, which it no longer does. . . . [and Cuba now] is playing a constructive role in the conflict in Colombia by hosting peace talks between the government and guerrilla leaders.” [2]

End the Embargo. Just 16 days before the U.N. General Assembly is expected again to overwhelmingly approve Cuba’s resolution to condemn the embargo, the Times says the U.S should end its embargo of Cuba as it has become “clear to many American policy makers that the embargo was an utter failure.” In addition, now a slight majority of Cuban-Americans in Florida oppose the embargo.

“Fully ending the embargo will require Congress’s approval,” which may be difficult to obtain in this time of a dysfunctional Congress, but the Administration could “lift caps on remittances, allow Americans to finance private Cuban businesses and expand opportunities for travel to the island.”

Ending the embargo, according to the Times, “could also help American companies that are interested in developing the island’s telecommunications network but remain wary of the legal and political risks. Failing to engage with Cuba now will likely cede this market to competitors. The presidents of China and Russia traveled to Cuba in separate visits in July, and both leaders pledged to expand ties.”

In addition, ending the embargo would eliminate Cuba’s using the embargo as an excuse for the Cuban government’s shortcomings.[3]

Restoration of Diplomatic Relations. Says the Times, “Restoring diplomatic ties, which the White House can do without congressional approval, would allow the United States to expand and deepen cooperation in areas where the two nations already manage to work collaboratively — like managing migration flows, maritime patrolling and oil rig safety.[4] It would better position Washington to press the Cubans on democratic reforms, and could stem a new wave of migration to the United States driven by hopelessness.”

Closer ties could also bring a breakthrough on the case of an American development contractor, Alan Gross, who has been unjustly imprisoned by Cuba for nearly five years.[5] More broadly, it would create opportunities to empower ordinary Cubans, gradually eroding the government’s ability to control their lives.

In the opinion of the Times, Restoring relations would improve U.S. “relationships with governments in Latin America, and resolve an irritant that has stymied initiatives in the hemisphere.” The most current example of that irritant is “Latin American governments . . . [insisting] that Cuba, the Caribbean’s most populous island and one of the most educated societies in the hemisphere, be invited” to next year’s Summit of the Americas in Panama over U.S. opposition.

Moreover, “The [Cuban] government has said it would welcome renewed diplomatic relations with the United States and would not set preconditions” while a significant majority of Cuban-Americans favor restoring diplomatic ties, mirroring the views of other Americans.

Reactions to the Editorial 

I concur in all of the Times’ recommendations, but believe it understates the economic reasons for these changes in U.S. policy. Here is a fuller exposition of those economic reasons.

This month Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the Chief of Mission, Cuban Interests Section, said that the U.S. was running the risk of becoming economically irrelevant to Cuba. Many foreign countries, especially China, and foreign companies are developing good commercial relationships with Cuba and its new private businesses with ordinary commercial terms, unlike the U.S. sales of food and agricultural products under an exemption to the U.S. Helms-Burton Law that requires Cuba to pay in advance and in cash for such products. This U.S. practice is not a good way to encourage future business. Moreover, the new Mariel port and its adjacent business park is attracting interest from companies all over the world, and if all the space in that park is committed to these foreign companies, there will be nothing left for U.S. companies.

The geographical setting of the new Mariel port is strategic in terms of trade, industry and services in Latin America and the Caribbean. On the northern cost of Cuba only 45 km west of Havana, it is located along the route of the main maritime transport flows in the western hemisphere. As the largest industrial port in the Caribbean, it will be equipped with state-of-the-art technology to handle cargo from the larger container ships that will begin to arrive when the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in December 2015. Those larger ships can carry up to 12,500 containers, triple the capacity of the current ships, and the port’s warehouse capacity is 822,000 containers. Here are some photos of the development of this port.

Mariel PortMariel3

The Mariel project includes highways connecting the port with the rest of the country, a railway network, and communication infrastructure. In the adjacent special zone, currently under construction, there will be productive, trade, agricultural, port, logistical, training, recreational, tourist, real estate, and technological development and innovation activities in installations that include merchandise distribution centers and industrial parks.

The special zone is divided into eight sectors, to be developed in stages. The first involves telecommunications and a modern technology park where pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms will operate. Other sectors include renewable energies, agriculture and food, chemical, construction materials, logistics and rental equipment. For the last four sectors Cuba is currently studying the approval of 23 projects from Europe, Asia and the Americas.

The May 2014 visit to Cuba by a delegation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce evidences U.S. businesses’ cognizance of these economic and commercial realities. The delegation’s head and the Chamber’s president, Thomas Donohue,  said in a speech in Havana, “For years, the US Chamber of Commerce has demanded that our government eliminate the commercial embargo on Cuba. It’s time for a new approach.” At the conclusion of the trip he said the delegation and Cuban officials had “talked about steps forward that might be taken by both countries” to improve U.S.-‪Cuba relations and that their meetings with President Raul Castro had been “positive.” In addition, the Chamber in congressional testimony has called for an end to the embargo and has supported proposed legislation to end the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to the island and easing restrictions on U.S. exports of farm and medical products.

Another sign of U.S. companies’ interest in Cuba is the visit to the island this past June by Google executives. They said they discussed increasing Cubans access to the Internet and Cuba’s need for improving its Internet technology.

These U.S. economic concerns were highlighted in February 2014 by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who earlier had led a visit with four other Senators to Cuba. Leahy said, “Trade with Latin America is the fastest growing part of our international commerce.  Rather than isolate Cuba with outdated policies, we have isolated ourselves.  Our Latin, European and Canadian friends engage with Cuba all that time.  Meanwhile, U.S. companies are prohibited from any economic activity on the island.” Therefore, the Senator said, “It is time – past time – to modernize our policies and the frozen-in-time embargo on Americans’ travel and trade with Cuba that have accomplished nothing but to give the Cuban regime a scapegoat for the failures of the Cuban economy.  Change will come to Cuba, but our policies have delayed and impeded change.  It is time to elevate the voice of a crucial stakeholder:  the American people. Thanks to this [recent public opinion] poll, they are silent no longer. It is time to recognize that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been unsuccessful in achieving any of its objectives.”

Given the limited space for an individual editorial, the New York Times editorial does not discuss any of the other many issues that need to be addressed by the two countries in order to establish truly normal relations. Nor does it discuss how this normalization process can happen or be facilitated.

In contrast, this blog repeatedly has suggested both counties need a neutral third-party with the resources and commitment to act as mediator and has called for such a third-party to step forward to offer such services, rather than waiting for the U.S. or Cuba to make such a proposal unilaterally or for the two countries to agree to such a mediation. [6]

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[1] Interestingly the online version of the editorial is titled “End the U.S. Embargo on Cuba” with a linked Spanish translation while the print version is titled “The Moment to Restore Ties to Cuba.”

[1a] This month Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the Chief of Mission, Cuban Interests Section, emphasized that Cuba now has term limits on every governmental office, including president: two terms of five years each for a total limit of 10 years, and Raul Castro has announced that this applies to him and thus ends his term as president in 2018. Dr. Cabañas also emphasized that many younger people are taking over many governmental positions and that there has been a decentralization of power to municipalities.

[2] This blog has provided detailed criticism of the ridiculous, absurd, stupid and cowardly rationales provided by the U.S. for such designations in 2010, 2011, 2012 (with supplement), 2013 and 2014.

[3] This blog has provided criticisms of the embargo.

[4] This month Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez also said that the U.S. and Cuba in recent years have had bilateral discussions regarding migration, drug trafficking, search and rescue in the Florida straits, stopping oil spills in the Caribbean, airline security measures, scientific exchanges and restoration of direct telephone and mail services. In addition, the U.S. has invited or permitted an invitation to Cuba to attend a Clean Oil Conference in San Antonio, Texas in December 2014.

[5] Although it certainly is debatable whether Mr. Gross was unjustly convicted in Cuban courts for violating Cuban law, I agree that it is in the U.S. national interest to have him released and returned to the U.S. Cuba, however, has argued that the three of the “Cuban Five” still in U.S. prisons should also be released and allowed to return to their homes. At a minimum, I believe that negotiations between the two countries could and should lead to at least a one-for-one exchange with the U.S. President commuting the sentence of one of the three Cubans to time served.

[6] This blog has called for normalization of Cuba-U.S. relations and has criticized the U.S. for insisting on preconditions for holding any talks with Cuba to improve relations. Another blog post was a public letter to President Obama recommending reconciliation with Cuba. In addition, this year a group of 50 prominent Americans issued a public letter to the President urging him to take executive action to expand U.S. involvement with Cuba. Another blog post criticized recent opposition to pursuing such reconciliation.

Tom Hayden: Will U.S.-Cuba Normalization Fail Again?

[This is a re-posting of an August 15, 2014, article in The Democracy Journal by Tom Hayden, political activist for social justice, author and Director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center. Article licensing information appears on tomhayden.com (http://tomhayden.com/), which granted permission for this re-posting. Many similar posts have been published on https://dwkcommentaries.com/tag/cuba/.%5D

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On May 12, President Obama held a confidential conversation in the White House with Uruguay’s president, Jose Mujica, the former Tupamaro guerrilla leader. The meeting was a fateful one. Did they discuss Uruguay’s becoming the first Marijuana Republic? Perhaps. Did they discuss the US-Cuba diplomatic impasse of 55 years? Most certainly, because three weeks later at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Uruguay the delegates reaffirmed a decision to officially invite Cuba to a summit in Panama next May.

The Obama administration will have to accept Cuba’s recognition by the OAS this spring or sit sheepishly in isolation. Fifty years ago, the OAS voted 15-4 to terminate all diplomatic relations and trade with revolutionary Cuba. Uruguay was one of the four dissenters in those days, when the revolutionary Mujica was underground, and has not changed its position over time. One doesn’t need gray hairs to observe that the US policy towards Cuba is obsolete and counter-productive. Ten years ago, then state Senator Barack Obama called for diplomatic recognition. Hillary Clinton recently revealed her support for recognizing Cuba as secretary of state. Recent polls, even in Florida, show majorities in favor of normalization. Inner circles in both countries are trying to explore a rapprochement, wary of pitfalls and domestic critics.

The most important recent change in US policy is the lifting of the travel ban on Cuban-Americans visiting the island. As many as 500,000 travel back and forth every year, visiting family, sharing dialogue, spending millions in remittances. On the Cuba side, all agree that Raul Castro has opened significant space for private investment and entrepreneurs once condemned as counter-revolutionary. Businesslike bilateral talks are underway about issues of mutual interest, from currency exchanges to potential oil spills.

The biggest obstacle, from the Cuban view, is a persistent US program of covert “democracy promotion” – or, regime change – aimed at subverting the Cuban government by funding dissident networks in Cuba. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”, is how US Sen. Patrick Leahy recently described the leaked revelations about a secret social media “Cuban twitter” program called ZunZuneo, after a Cuban hummingbird. One among fifty years of subversion projects, ZunZuneo was launched in 2009 after Obama spoke of building a new relationship. Its sponsor was the US Agency for International Development [AID], even after an AID contractor, Alan Gross, was arrested in Cuba for distributing communications equipment in violation of Cuban law.

Gross, now serving a 15 year sentence, is at the center of the heightened tensions now threatening normalization. Gross, 65, is widely reportedly in poor health and threatening to take his own life if he’s not released by next year. Should that occur, according to one top US official, it would end any hope of Cuba winning the return of one of its agents, Gerardo Hernandez, one of the Cuban Five who were captured in DATE while surveilling anti-Castro Cubans flying into Cuban airspace to drop propaganda materials. When two exile pilots were shot down by the Cubans after warnings conveyed directly to the US government, the Five were imprisoned on conspiracy and espionage charges. Two have served their time in federal prisons and returned to Cuba. Two others will finish their terms shortly, leaving Gerardo Hernandez facing a double life sentence.

Prisoner swaps have occurred before, for example in 1978-79 when President Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro orchestrated the release of Puerto Rican nationalists who were imprisoned for shooting up the US House of Representatives in 1954. Although the releases were described as unrelated, the Puerto Ricans were pardoned and returned to their island while separately the US received a group of its agents held in Cuban prisons.

It would be logical therefore to swap Gross for Gerardo Hernandez, even if arranged separately, but nothing seems logical about the US-Cuban deadlock. According to interviews with participants, such a staged swap finally was being considered a few weeks ago – until the fiasco of the Obama administration’s trade of five Taliban officials for the return of the American POW, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl. Republicans, some Democrats and the mainstream media complained that the five-for-one deal favored the Taliban, and then the issue became inflamed by hazy reports that Bergdahl had abandoned his Afghan base and was perhaps “anti-war.”

The Obama team was flat-footed in their response, failing to notify even their top Congressional allies. That  failure violated a legal requirement that Congress be informed thirty days before any such deal, an obstacle that most likely would have killed the swap. But Democratic leaders were furious at not even being informed of the move.

That’s why Alan Gross remains behind bars in Cuba with no deal for his release remotely possible. With the Gross matter unresolved, the entire process of normalization could go off track.

Many in Washington view the Cubans as too stubborn in the Gross case. But the Cubans have been burned by unfulfilled promises and miscommunications many times over the decades, and leaving Gerardo Hernandez behind is unacceptable to them – just as Obama argued that leaving Pfc. Bergdahl behind was out of the question.

The Cuban dilemma is that if anything should happen to Gross they will never see Gerardo back and a rapprochement could slip away. It may sound shocking to many Americans, but the death of Alan Gross in a Cuban prison would serve the interests of some in the anti-Castro Cuban lobby that is deeply threatened by the prospects of normalization. The death of Gross would serve the narrative that Castro’s Cuba operates a heartless gulag, ignoring the many proven examples of Cuban exile terrorism directed from Miami against Cuban civilians, like the 73 Cubans killed in an airline bombing in 1976. Cuban exiles have been a perfect examples of the “cancer on the presidency”, the metaphor once used by Nixon aide John Dean. They were the lead conspirators in the 1972 Watergate break-in, and the 1976 assassinations of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronnie Moffett, on embassy row in Washington DC. Their violent attacks on Cuba from a Miami enclave are too numerous to document.

Cuba will make its own decision for its own reasons in the Gross case, and may have to make it soon. Since the Obama administration fears any appearance of a quid pro quo in the wake of the Bergdahl fiasco, should Cuba expect nothing in exchange for the release of Gross as a humanitarian gesture? That might depend on the initiative of the many in the US Congress who recognize that it’s long past time for a better relationship with Cuba. They could, for example, communicate private guarantees of White House action. They could try deleting the $20 million in federal funds for “democracy programs” in the wake of the ZunZuneo scandal. They could send a letter to Obama requesting Cuba’s removal from the list of four countries designated as “terrorist” states, which hampers Cuba’s access to financial capital. They could urge the president to lift the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba or spending US dollars there, thus undermining the current embargo. If they can’t do anything in response to a release of Gross, they could watch the prospect of normalization drift away.

Another recent crisis may shadow the US-Cuban process, revealing the complications of the impasse.. A long-planned improvement of relations between Russia, Cuba and Latin America is underway just at the moment when clouds of the Cold War are darkening the horizon over the Ukraine. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has just forgiven ninety percent of Cuba’s $30 billion debt owed to Russia for three decades, fueling the anti-communist suspicions of the Cuban Right. The arrangement is helpful to Cuba’s economy, long embargoed by the US, and adds a new counterweight against the US pressures on Cuba. If initial reports that Russia re-establishing a spy base on the island, that might chill the relationship further. Cuba, of course, has a sovereign right to accept a Russian base, especially as US regime change programs continue.

Whatever the spillover from the Bergdahl affair and the growing Russian-American conflict, however, nothing can stop the clock ticking towards 2015 when Obama has to decide whether to join the Organization of American States in restoring Cuba to equal membership. If that’s what the president’s confidential White House meeting with Uruguay’s Mujica in May was all about, the process of normalization may yet survive the remaining obstacles to resolution after five long decades.

U.S. Policy Implications of State Department’s Report on Cuban Human Rights

A prior post reviewed the U.S. State Department’s just-released 2013 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices while another post discussed its chapter on Cuba. Now we look at the implications of that report for U.S. policies regarding Cuba.

Some people assert that the negative aspects of Cuban human rights justify continuing U.S. hostility toward the island. They see the Cuban glass of human rights at least half empty. Notable among them is U.S. Representative Mario Díaz-Balart, a Cuban-American and a Republican Congressman from Miami, who remains a stalwart powerful defender of the embargo and other anti-Cuba policies of the U.S.

Others, including this blogger, reach the opposite conclusion based, in part, on the belief that the Cuban glass of human rights is half full.

Rev. Raul Suarez
Rev. Raul Suarez

As Rev. Raúl Suárez put it at the February 27th briefing for the U.S. Congress, “Cuba has many problems but Cuba isn’t hell . . . . We have many good things that have been achieved [but] . . . Cuba is not the Kingdom of God.” Suárez added, “God . . . wants us [Cubans and Americans] to live like brothers and sisters.”[1]

Indeed, the humility expressed by Rev. Suárez should lead the U.S. to the same conclusion. As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said last month on release of the Human Rights Reports, “from our own nation’s journey, we know that [human rights] is a work in progress. Slavery was written into our Constitution before it was written out. And we know that the struggle for equal rights, for women, for others – for LGBT community and others – is an ongoing struggle.” Secretary Kerry admitted that we  “know that we’re not perfect. We don’t speak with any arrogance whatsoever, but with a concern for the human condition.”

In evaluating Cuba’s mixed human rights record and deciding on U.S. policies regarding that country, that same humility should cause we in the U.S. to remember the U.S. immense superiority in economies and military might and the long-standing U.S. actions of hostility towards Cuba, including the following:

  • the U.S. usurpation of Cuba’s war for independence from Spain in the late 19th Century (what we in the U.S. call the “Spanish-American War“);
  • the U.S.’ making Cuba a de facto U.S. protectorate in the early 20th Century;
  • the U.S. support for the invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961;
  • the U.S. threats of military action against Cuba during the pressured Cuban missile crisis of 1962;
  • the CIA’s hatching several plots to assassinate Fidel Castro when he was Cuba’s President;
  • the U.S. conduct of an embargo of Cuba over the last 50-plus years; and
  •  the U.S. Government’s Commission on Assistance for a Free Cuba setting forth what amounted to a U.S. blueprint for taking over Cuba.

This history provides Cuba with many legitimate reasons to be afraid of the U.S. It, therefore, is understandable why Cuba has harshly treated what we call “dissidents” and what Cuba fears are or could be supporters of a U.S. takeover.

And we in the U.S. should know from our own history since 9/11 that societies and governments tend to clamp down on civil liberties when they fear outside interference or attacks.

Cuba’s regrettable lapses on human rights, though perhaps understandable in context, should not be a reason for continued U.S. hostility toward the island.

Therefore, as a prior post argued, improving Cuban human rights should be one of many items on an agenda for a comprehensive, mutually respectful negotiation between the two countries. The objectives of such a negotiation, in my opinion, should be restoration of full diplomatic relations; ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba;[2] terminating the unjustified U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism;” [3] terminating the one-sided U.S. lease of Guantanamo Bay; and compensating owners for expropriation of property on the island as part of the Cuban Revolution.[4]

Such a negotiation, in my opinion, is in the interest of the U.S. Cuba poses no threat to the U.S. Our businesses and farmers would benefit economically from open relations with Cuba. Normalizing our relations with the island would be seen by most people in the world, especially Latin America, as a sign that the U.S. is a mature, rational country.

These thoughts were echoed by the Cuban religious leaders who held a U.S. congressional briefing on February 27th. Joined by the President and CEO of Church World Service, [5] they reaffirmed their long-held opposition to the U.S. embargo of Cuba.

They also called “for the U.S. government to end the ban that prevents U.S. citizens from visiting Cuba and seeing the island for themselves; to take Cuba off the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism . . . ; and for the American government to open up trade and commerce in ways that support the small enterprises, cooperatives, and non-profits that are emerging on the island. Finally, the U.S. and Cuban governments ought to open a high level dialogue between our countries to normalize relations and discuss differences in ways that honor and respect the dignity of both nations.”

Before the commencement of such complicated negotiations, the U.S. President should commute the sentences of three of the Cuban Five to the 15-plus years they already have spent in U.S. jails and prisons and let them return to their home country. Similarly Cuba should commute the sentence of U.S. citizen Alan Gross to the time he already has spent in Cuban prison and allow him to return to the U.S.

Given the long period of hostility between the two countries and the apparent lack of movement toward negotiations, I believe that the assistance of a neutral third-party mediator would be helpful to both countries. Such a mediator, in my opinion, should be someone who is bilingual in English and Spanish with experience as an international mediator, who is in fact and perceived to be neutral and who has the time (and staff?) to make a major commitment to this process.

Such a mediator indeed could and should step forward and invite representatives of both countries to participate in mediated negotiations, rather than wait on them to agree on such a process.

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[1] Suárez is a Baptist pastor and the founder and director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Havana. When I visited the Center in 2007, Rev. Suárez told our group that he had founded the Center because he thought King’s philosophy of non-violence and social justice was relevant to Cuba, especially to Afro-Cubans. He also said that in 1984 he and other religious leaders met with then President Fidel Castro to protest the government’s endorsement of atheism (or scientific materialism) as limiting the space for churches, and after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba abandoned that endorsement and provided more space for churches to participate in issues facing the island.

[2] Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also call for ending the U.S. embargo. So too does world opinion as evidenced by the U.N. General Assembly’s passing resolutions condemning the embargo for the last 22 years. The last such resolution in October 2013 was passed 188 to 2 with only the U.S. and Israel voting against it.  A prior post to this blog also has argued for ending the embargo and summarized the 2011 General Assembly resolution against the embargo.

[3] This blog has reviewed the State Department’s asserted rationale for the “State Sponsor of Terrorism” designation and called it ridiculous for 2010, 2011 and 2012 and absurd for 2013. This blog also noted Cuba’s adoption of legislation against money laundering and terrorism financing and thereby negating one of the purported reasons for the designation.

[4] In a letter to President Obama that was reproduced in this blog, I called for the U.S. to terminate the Guantanamo Bay lease and for Cuba to compensate property owners for expropriating their property. A comprehensive review of this lease is found in Michael J. Strauss’ The Leasing of Guantanamo Bay.

[5] Church World Service was founded in 1946 with this mission: “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, comfort the aged, shelter the homeless.” It now has 37 Protestant member communions all over the world.

Letter to President Obama Regarding Cuba

On August 13, 2012, I sent the following letter regarding Cuba to U.S. President Barack Obama.[1]

Many of the United States’ policies regarding Cuba are not in our national interest and should be changed. I write specifically about (1) the U.S. embargo of Cuba, (2) the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” (3) the U.S. denigration of religious freedom on the island and (4) our refusal to enter into negotiations with Cuba on the broad range of issues that have accumulated since the Cuban Revolution of 1959 without Cuba’s satisfying various U.S. preconditions.

1. U.S. Embargo of Cuba

The U.S. embargo of Cuba, in my opinion, is an out-of-date relic of the days of U.S. hostility toward, and fear of, the Cuban Revolution. Today Cuba poses no serious threat to the U.S. Cuba’s regrettable human rights violations are understandable and could be more successfully addressed in bilateral negotiations. Normalizing relations, including rescinding the embargo, would be in the economic interest of the U.S. by creating export and investment opportunities for U.S. businesses. Moreover, ending the embargo would be in the overall interests of the U.S., especially with respect to our relations with other countries in the Western Hemisphere. This is examined more fully in my blog posts: “The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba,” (May 21, 2001); and “U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns  U.S. Embargo of Cuba,” (Oct. 25, 2011),

The U.S. should end its embargo of Cuba.

2. U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

The U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2011 (July 31, 2012), assert two grounds for designating Cuba as a “State Sponsor:” (a) its being an alleged safe haven for certain ETA and FARC terrorists and U.S. fugitives; and (b) its alleged financial system deficiencies relating to money laundering and financing of terrorism.

Neither ground withstands serious analysis as shown by my blog posts: “Yet Another Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” (Aug. 7, 2012) and “Additional Thoughts on the Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism,” (Aug. 9, 2012).

The U.S. should rescind this designation.

3. U.S. Denigration of Cuban Religious Freedom

The U.S. State Department’s 2011 Report on International Religious Freedom (July 30, 2012), had many positive things to say about the status of this important freedom in Cuba in 2011 that is confirmed by my personal experience with the subject. The report also has certain negative comments on the subject with which I do not disagree.

The resulting question, I believe, is “Is the glass half empty or half full?” I believe it is more than half full of this important freedom. The U.S. needs to remember that Cuban society and history is very different from the U.S. and humbly recognize that those differences do not mean that its religious freedom is fundamentally flawed.

My real complaint here is with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s unrealistic overstatement of the negative aspects of Cuban religious freedom and its continued placement of Cuba on its Watch List.

My views on this subject are fully explained in my blog posts, “Cuban Religious Freedom According to the Latest U.S. Report on International Religious Freedom,” (Aug. 3, 2012) and “The Cuban Revolution and Religion,” (Dec. 30, 2011).

The U.S. should cease denigrating Cuban religious freedom and instead explore through respectful bilateral negotiations whether there are ways for the U.S. to assist Cuba in further expansion of such freedom on the island.

4.  U.S. Negotiations with Cuba

In addition to the issues discussed in this letter, there are many others that need discussion, negotiation and resolution. They include Cuban compensation for expropriated property in the Cuban Revolution, enhancement of human rights on the island, emigration and immigration between the two countries, the status of Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S., the continued U.S. imprisonment of four of the so called “Cuban Five,” Cuba’s continued imprisonment of Alan Gross, the status of U.S. fugitives in Cuba, exploration and drilling for oil in the Caribbean Sea between the two counties, Cuba’s re-entry into the Organization of American States and re-establishment of full diplomatic relations.

Perhaps such negotiations would be assisted by having the two countries agree to the appointment of a respected international mediator/conciliator to supervise the negotiations.

Cuba repeatedly has said that it is willing to engage in respectful negotiations with the U.S. on all issues. Most recently on July 26th (Revolution Day marking the 59th anniversary of the Cuban uprising against former President Batista), Cuban President Raul Castro in a public speech reiterated his country’s willingness to engage in negotiations with the U.S. as equals. He said no topic was off limits, including U.S. concerns about democracy, freedom of the press and human rights in Cuba so as long as the U.S. was prepared to hear Cuba’s own complaints. (Assoc. Press, Cuban president Raúl Castro willing to hold no-limits talks with America, Guardian (July 26, 2012); Assoc. Press, Cuba–An Impromptu Invitation, N.Y. Times (July 27, 2012).)

The U.S. should accept Cuba’s offer to engage in broad-scale negotiations over all issues between the two countries.


[1] Copies of the letter were sent to Hillary Rodham Clinton, United States Secretary of State; David Benjamin, United States Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism; Suzan Johnson Cook, United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom; Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, Chair, United States Commission on International Religious Freedom; John F. Kerry, United States Senator and Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Amy Klobuchar, United States Senator from Minnesota; Al Franken United States Senator from Minnesota; and Keith Ellison, United States Representative from Minneapolis, Minnesota.

U.S. and Cuba Discuss Exchange of Prisoners

One of the so-called Cuban Five recently completed his sentence in U.S. prison and is now on probation in the U.S. and not permitted by the court to return to Cuba.[1]

We now learn that the U.S. offered to allow this individual with dual U.S.-Cuban citizenship to return to Cuba in exchange for his renouncing his U.S. citizenship and Cuba’s release of imprisoned U.S. citizen, Alan Gross. Another part of the offer was U.S. stated willingness after the exchange of these two individuals  to discuss certain other issues between the two countries, including removal of Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism;[2] reducing spending on Cuban democracy promotion programs like the one that led to the U.S.’ hiring of Gross; authorizing U.S. companies to help Cuba clean up oil spills from Cuba’s planned offshore drilling; improving postal exchanges; ending a program that makes it easier for Cuban medical personnel to move to the U.S.; and licensing the French company Pernod Ricard to sell Havana Club rum in the United States.[3]

This is a positive development.[4]

Cuba, however, rejected this offer on the ground that the Cuban now on probation had already served his prison sentence. Instead Cuba is reported to have counter-offered to release Gross in exchange for the U.S. pardoning some or all of the Cuban Five.[5]

This too is a positive development in keeping open the possibility of further negotiations between the two countries on the many accumulated issues burdening their relationship.

However, if the reports are correct that Cuba was seeking “pardons,” then it was asking for something that is not legally or politically possible. Federal pardons are theoretically available only to federal felons who have completed their sentences and are rarely granted as they involve collateral benefits under U.S. law. As the other four Cubans have not completed their sentences, they are not eligible for pardons. A commutation of sentence, on the other hand, reduces the period of incarceration; it does not imply forgiveness of the underlying offense, but simply remits a portion of the punishment. It has no effect upon the underlying conviction and does not necessarily reflect upon the fairness of the sentence originally imposed.The other four Cubans are eligible for clemency or commutations. [6]

I hope the U.S. and Cuba continue these preliminary discussions and reach an agreement on commuting the sentences of the Cuban Five and Alan Gross and allowing all of them to return to their home countries.


[1] See Post: Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies” (Sept. 24, 2011); Post: Roots of Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations (Sept. 27, 2011); Comment: Cuban Foreign Minister Attacks U.S. Policies (Sept. 28, 2011)(Comment to prior Post); Post: President Obama Is Wrong on Cuba (Sept. 29, 2011).

[2]  See Post: The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”  (May 20, 2011); Post: U.S. Repeats Its Ridiculous Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”  (Aug. 21, 2011).

[3] Assoc. Press, AP Sources–US Offered Cuba Swap for American, N.Y. Times (Oct. 14, 2011).

[4] See Post: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011).

[5]  See n.3.

[6]  U.S. Dep’t of Justice, Office of the Pardon Attorney, http://www.justice.gov/pardon/index.html.

Roots of Hope for U.S.-Cuba Relations

Desires for normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba often seem hopeless.[1]

Today’s news offers two new reasons for hope for such a day.

Roots of Hope or Raices de Esperanza is a Miami-based non-profit network of more than 3,000 students and young professionals across the U.S. and abroad focused on empowering Cuban youth. They seek to inspire young people to care about Cuba, think outside the box and proactively support our young counterparts on the island through innovative means. They hope to make a positive impact on Cuba through academic and cultural initiatives guided by three basic principles: amor, amistad y esperanza (love, friendship and hope).[2]

The group’s current projects are (a) to provide young people in Cuba with refurbished cellular phones; (b) to publish the Ex(CHANGE) Guide that outlines different ways young people outside of Cuba can connect with young people on the island; and (c) to host an annual national youth leadership conference of diverse Cuban, Cuban-American and Cuba-loving young leaders.[3]

The other news providing hope were remarks yesterday in New York City by Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, to the U.N. General Assembly and to the editors and reporters of the New York Times.[4]

Rodriguez reiterated his government’s willingness and interest in moving towards normalization of relations with the U.S. One way to make progress on this overall goal was to focus on problems where, he thought, both countries had an interest in negotiating cooperation agreements. These included drug-trafficking, terrorism, human smuggling, preventing and responding to natural disasters and protecting the environment.[5]

The Foreign Minister said the U.S.’ continued imprisonment of five Cubans (known as “The Cuban Five” in the U.S. and “The Miami Five” in Cuba) was “inhumane” and called for the U.S. to release them and allow them to return to Cuba.[6]

Cuba’s imprisonment of U.S. citizen Alan Gross, the Foreign Minister said, was not linked to The Cuban Five, but he hinted otherwise. He said, “I do not see any way in which we can move on towards a solution of the Mr. Gross case but from a humanitarian point of view and on the basis of reciprocity.”[7]

The time is ripe, President Obama. Commute the sentences of the Cuban Five and allow them to return to their homes on the island. Cuba has virtually committed to respond with its release of Alan Gross.


[1] See Post: The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (May 20, 2011); Post: U.S. Repeats Its Ridiculous Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (Aug. 21, 2011); Post: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011); Post: Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies”

(Sept, 24, 2011).

[2] Associated Press, Nonprofit Plants Seed for Future US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2011); Roots of Hope/Raices de Esperanza, http://www.raicesdeesperanza.org.

[3] Id.

[4]  Associated Press, Cuba Seeks Normalization With US, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2011); Archibold, Cuban Minister Leaves a Door Open to American’s Release, N.Y. Times (Sept. 26, 2011).

[5] Id.

[6] Id.; Post: Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies” (Sept, 24, 2011).

[7] See n.4.

Commutation and Release of Convicted “Spies”

The U.S. has been involved in three disputes over individuals convicted and imprisoned for alleged spying.

Shane Bauer & Joshua Fattal
Alan Gross

One dispute has been with Iran over its conviction and imprisonment of two American hikers (Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal) for alleged spying. This week Iran unilaterally released the two men, a decision prompted, in part, by its desire to improve its international image at the start of the U.N. General Assembly meeting.[1]

The second dispute is with Cuba over its conviction and imprisonment of an American, Alan Gross, who apparently brought some electronic equipment to Cuba for Jewish people on the island. Former Governor Bill Richardson recently was unsuccessful in his trip to Cuba to gain Gross’ release. Late this week, however, there were hints that Cuba might release him for humanitarian reasons. Cuba should follow the lead of Iran and commute the sentence to time served and release him to return to his family in the U.S.[2]

The last dispute is also with Cuba over the U.S. conviction and imprisonment of five Cubans for their efforts to gain information in the U.S. over Cuban exile groups’ flights to and over Cuba. The so called “Cuban Five” were arrested in September 1998 and subsequently convicted of various crimes. They have been in U.S. jails and prisons for the last 13 years. Yet during this long period the U.S. cruelly has granted very few visas to the Cuban spouses of four of them to visit them in U.S. prisons. One of the “Cuban Five” will complete his sentence this October, and the trial judge recently imposed three years of supervised release in the U.S. only, thereby rejecting his plea to be able to return to his family in Cuba. The U.S. should act in a humanitarian manner and commute the sentences of all five to time served and allow them to return to their families in Cuba.[3]

 

In Cuba the five are known as the “Miami Five” and are regarded as Cuban heroes for helping to protect Cuba from terroristic attacks by Cuban exile groups in the U.S. You see posters with their photographs or portraits all over the island. Cuba has mounted an international “Free the Cuban Five” campaign.

 

The time is way past due for the U.S. to have normal diplomatic and economic relations with Cuba.[4]


[1] E.g., Goodman & Cowell, American Hikers Leave Iran After Prison Release, N.Y. Times (Sept. 21, 2011).

[2] E.g., Archibold, Cuban Minister Leaves a Door Open to American’s Release, N.Y. Times (Sept. 23, 2011).

[3]  E.g., Assoc. Press, Spy Wants Return to Cuba After Prison, U.S. Objects, N.Y. Times (Sept. 12, 2011); Cave, Americans and Cubans Still Mired in Distrust, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2011); Cuban Embassy in Netherlands, Denied by Judge Lenard, Rene’s motion on his return to Cuba (Sept. 16, 2011), http://www.cubadiplomatica.cu/EN.

[4] See Post: The Ridiculous U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (May 20, 2011); Post: U.S. Repeats Its Ridiculous Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor” of Terrorism” (Aug. 21, 2011); Post: The U.S. Should Pursue Reconciliation with Cuba (May 21, 2011).