U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversals of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies                                                                   

On June 16, as noted in a prior post, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Now we look at U.S. reactions to this change of policy. Subsequent posts will examine Cuban reactions and conclude with this blogger’s opinions on the subject.

 Overall Assessment of Changes[1]

As many sources have pointed out, the announced changes do not affect most of the important elements of Obama’s normalization policies. The U.S. will continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and operate the U.S. Embassy in Havana (while Cuba continues to operate its Embassy in Washington). U.S. airlines and cruise ships will continue service to the island. Cuban-Americans can still send money (remittances) to relatives and travel to the island without restriction. U.S. farmers can continue selling their crops to the Cuban government (with restrictions against credit for sales). There was no change to next year’s budget for the State Department that eliminated the undercover or covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. will continue to reject the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once let most Cuban migrants stay if they made it to U.S. soil “with dry feet,” but was terminated late last year by President Obama; Trump’s speech endorsed this termination as designed to protect Cubans who were exposed to dangerous journeys by land to the U.S. Various bilateral arrangements facilitating cooperation on multiple issues were not mentioned and, therefore, are not directly affected by this announcement. Nor did the announcement say that the U.S. would reinstate its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

The prohibition of U.S. businesses having interactions with Cuban businesses owned or controlled by the Cuban government or military presents more of a problem because such entities are involved in all sectors of the economy. According to Cuban economists, the government conglomerate (GAESA) boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings.

U.S. Businesses Reactions[2]

Many U.S. businesses opposed the changes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, typically supportive of GOP presidents, predicted the changes would limit prospects for “positive change on the island.” Others with similar views include ENGAGECuba, the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, National Farmers Union and the National Foreign Trade Council.

These business opponents were supported by non-business groups, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Latin America Working Group, the Washington Office of Latin America, Church World Service and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The changes will have negative impacts on U.S. jobs and income. The increase in U.S. trips to Cuba has helped the U.S. hospitality industry with Delta Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and others flying to at least six Cuban cities daily and Carnival cruise lines taking American citizens to port in Havana. All told, the group Engage Cuba estimates that restricting the rights of United States citizens to travel and invest in Cuba would cost the American economy $6.6 billion and affect 12,295 American jobs.

U.S. hotel businesses also expressed concern about the potential impact of the change on the island’s hotels.  The Gran Hotel Manzana, for example is managed by a Swiss company (Kempinski Hotels) but owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military-run company. An U.S. company, Marriott International, through its subsidiary Starwood runs the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Would they be off-limits for American travelers or would they fall under a vaguely promised grandfather clause for existing deals? Or would the change force American travelers to Cuban hotels run by civilian tour organizations, including Gran Caribe and Cubanacan? There is even speculation that the change economically benefited Mr. Trump by neutralizing rival hotel companies’ ability to gain an early advantage over the Trump hotels, which previously had expressed interest in developing hotels on the island.

Congressional Reactions[3]

Many members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, have expressed opposition to the changes.

Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), who’s been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers on Capitol Hill while also being the author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.442—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said Trump’s new Cuba policy “will hurt the United States economically, making it harder for our nation’s farmers to access new markets and cutting the knees out from under our travel and manufacturing industries.” Emmer also said the new policy will not keep the American homeland safe and could threaten new bilateral agreements with Havana to combat human trafficking, illicit drugs and cyber crimes.

Representative Rick Crawford, (Rep., AR), the author of a bill to promote U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba (H.R.525—Cuba Agricultural Exports Act), said Trump’s shift is more than just a missed opportunity for rural America, which would benefit from greater access to Cuba’s agricultural import market. He said Trump’s policy may put U.S. national security at risk as strategic competitors move to fill the vacuum the uncoupling could create. “Further U.S. disengagement opens up opportunities for countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea and China to gain influence on an island 90 miles off our coast,” Crawford said.

Senator Jeff Flake, (Rep., AZ), a frequent critic of Trump and the author with 54 cosponsors of a bill to facilitate Americans travel to Cuba (S.127 Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act), stated that any policy change “that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people.” Therefore, Flake called for the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill. Flake also warned that returning to a “get tough” policy hurts everyday Cubans whose livelihoods are increasingly rooted in travel and tourism.

Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.472—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said that “putting America first means exporting what we produce to countries across the globe.” He said he remains focused on finding ways to “increase trade with Cuba rather than cut off relationships that have the potential to create new jobs, bring in revenue and boost our national economy.”

Senator John Boozman (Rep., AR) said Trump’s policy moves the U.S. backward.” It would be more effective to continue an open line of communication and working relationship with a government in need of democratic assistance, instead of shutting them out,” Boozman said under the latter approach, “we not only trade goods, but ideas.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.1286– Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017), said the new policy was “a setback in U.S. – Cuba relations at a time when 73 percent of Americans want more engagement with Cuba, not less. These changes will disadvantage our businesses and undermine American tourism, which will also hurt the Cuban people. Earlier today I joined Minnesota officials and business leaders who are traveling to Cuba next week to send the message that America wants to continue doing business in Cuba. We need to build on the bipartisan momentum we have created by restoring relations with Cuba, not make it harder for Americans to travel and do business there.”

The five-day Minnesota trip referenced by Senator Klobuchar is being led by its Lieutenant Governor, Tina Smith, accompanied by various state government officials and leaders of agricultural groups. Their objectives are to build relationships with Cuba and promote Minnesota agricultural exports to the island.

In Cuba Lt. Gov. Smith said, “There is no denying the actions Trump took . . . [on June 16] are a real setback. But the important thing to me is that there is bipartisan support at the federal level for normalizing and modernizing our relationship.” In the meantime, she said she was glad to carry the message that there was still plenty of support for continuing to normalize relations. Minnesota’s government and businesses will continue to engage with Cuba in the areas they can, like agricultural trade. Cuba invited the Minnesota delegation to a trade show later in the year while Minnesota invited Cuban officials to visit.

Other Americans’ Reactions[4]

Many other Americans have expressed their opposition to the changes.

One is Rena Kraut, a substitute member of the Minnesota Orchestra, which visited Cuba in 2015.[5] She talked about the importance of encouraging Americans to visit Cuba and the “ability [of artists] to move the conversation to places corporations and politicians cannot or will not go, and to smooth the way for political change years before the document signings and handshakes.” Inspired by the Orchestra’s trip, she has founded Cayo, a non-profit that is organizing a youth orchestra for American and Cuban young people “to broaden horizons, provide youth with the highest level of artistic training, and shed light on that which can bring our neighboring countries together.”

Published letters to the Editor of the New York Times were generally critical of the change. Luis Suarez-Villa, professor emeritus at the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, said, “American policy toward Cuba has been hijacked by a clique of Cuban-American politicians who have sold their support in Congress to President Trump.” Suarez-Villa also berated the “punishing, 55-year-old embargo perpetrated by the world’s most powerful nation — accompanied by innumerable acts of economic sabotage, espionage, attempted assassination and military aggression.” Stephen Gillespie of San Francisco, California wrote, “Mr. Trump seems to hate oppressive regimes that convert private property into public goods for the benefit of the people, but he loves oppressive regimes that convert public goods into private property for the benefit of a few rich friends.”

Miriam Pensack, an editorial assistant at The Intercept and a former researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society, wrote, “Carried out under the unlikely banner, for Trump, of human rights and democracy, the shift is instead more likely to re-impose hardships on ordinary Cubans — the very same people Trump, Rubio, and Diaz-Balart claim to champion.”

William LeoGrande, who teaches government at American University and co-authored the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, observed, “When Americans go down there, a lot of them stay in private homes, they eat in private restaurants, they take private taxis, and they pay private tour guides that guide them around the city. That’s money directly into the hands of ordinary Cubans.” He added, ““It’s hard to believe that human rights are really anything more than just an excuse. This is really more a matter of political horse trading than it is a matter of foreign policy.”

A contrary view in the New York Times’ collection of letters came from Medford, New York’s Eugene Dunn, who stated, “Kudos to President Trump for demanding that Cuba finally turn over a parade of criminals who have sought sanctuary on the Communist island for decades. Finally we have a titanium-spined president who isn’t afraid to use America’s military and economic might as leverage over these tin-pot dictators who under previous administrations made us the laughingstock of the world.”

The Cuban-Americans at the president’s event in Little Havana are enthusiastic supporters of the new policy as are many other Republican voters in the U.S.

Editorialists’ Reactions[6]

 The New York Times’ editorial condemned the Trump Administration’s approach. The Times said it was “the latest chapter in a spiteful political crusade to overturn crucial elements of his predecessor’s legacy” and was likely to cause “Cuban-American relations . . . to revert to a more adversarial Cold War footing, undermining Washington’s standing in Latin America.” Moreover, Trump’s stated concern for Cuban human rights was especially galling from a “president [who] has been so disdainful of these rights . . . [and who has] embraced so lovingly authoritarians who abuse their people, like Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Saudi royal family.”

The editorial from the Los Angeles Times was similar. It stated that the new policy was “based on a disingenuous argument. The putative reason for the change is that Cuba still violates the human rights of its own people, including jailing dissidents and independent journalists. But hasn’t the Trump administration been moving the U.S. away from its focus on human rights around the world?” Instead, said the Los Angeles newspaper, “What’s really happening is that Trump has let the anti-Castro sect in Congress take the wheel on this issue, no doubt for cynical political reasons. Remember that Trump broke with his Republican rivals during the campaign and supported Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. Then he flipped and disparaged the policy as a bad deal, and pledged to undo it unless Cuba met fresh demands on human rights, including the ‘freeing of political prisoners.’”

An editorial from the Washington Post, however, gave the change a weak endorsement. It said, it was “little more than a policy tweak” and “a little more impatience about democracy [in Cuba with the Trump policy] isn’t such a bad thing.”

Although the Wall Street Journal has not offered an editorial on this change, its columnist on Latin American issues and a critic of normalization, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, welcomed Trump’s changes to U.S. policy regarding Cuba even though it was only “an important symbolic change . . . [whose] effects are likely to be minimal.” Instead she argues that Cuba needs a “high-profile truth project” to take “ an honest look at the historical record that acknowledges the regime’s many crimes against humanity.” She refers to the Cuba Archive Truth and Memory Project that has documented 934 executions mostly in the Escambray” Mountains, circa 1959-1964, in addition to 607 executions of political prisoners, most of whom are believed to have been captured in the Escambray. This Project is the work of the Free Society Project, Inc., a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization with a board of Cuban-Americans.

Minnesota’s leading newspaper, the StarTribune, opined that Trump was “unraveling years of work to build ties with a strategically placed neighbor. Instead, he’s choosing a misguided return to strict embargos on travel and trade that failed to achieve U.S. aims for more than half a century.” The editorial endorsed the efforts to promote Cuba normalization by Minnesota’s U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar (Dem.) and Representative Tom Emmer (Rep.) while commenting that Cuba “holds a strategic allure” for other nations “that could threaten American security.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, AP FACT CHECK: Not Much New in Trump’s Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Trump Rolls Back Some, Not All, Changes in US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017).

[2] Burnett, Travel Industry Scrambles After New Cuba Restrictions, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Reuters, Cuban Military’s Tentacles Reach Deep Into Economy, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017); Harwell & O’Connell, With shift on Cuba, Trump could undercut his company’s hotel-industry rivals, Wash. Post (June 15, 2017); Sabatini, Trump’s Imminent Cuba Problem, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017).

 

[3] Assoc. Press, Republicans Divided as Trump Reverses Some Obama Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Press Release: Emmer: President’s Misguided Cuba Directive Undercuts Human Rights & Threatens National Security (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Crawford Opposes Cuba Policy Shift (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Flake Statement on Renewed Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Sen. Moran Statement on Administration’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Boozman, Statement on President Trump’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Klobuchar Statement on Changes to Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Golden, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to lead Minnesota trade trip to Cuba, StarTribune (June 16, 2017); Assoc. Press, Minnesota lieutenant governor visits Cuba, StarTribune (June 20, 2017); Reuters, Minnesota Will Still Engage With Cuba Despite Trump Setback, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017)

[4] Kraut, Trump Is Wrong to Pull Back from Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Letters to Editor, Trump’s reversal of U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2017); Pensack, Trump To Reverse Obama Openings to Cuba Under the False Flag of Human Rights, The Intercept (June 16, 2017).

[5] Previous posts about the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba are listed in the “Cuba & Minnesota” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[6] Editorial, A Cynical Reversal on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Trump just reopened the Cold War with Cuba. His excuse is disingenuous, L.A. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s Cuba shift, It’s just a policy tweak, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Editorial, Trump’s Cuba retreat hurts U.S. and Minnesota, StarTribune (June 19, 2017); O’Grady, Cubans Need a Truth Commission, W.S.J. (June 18, 2017).

Rejection of Criticism of Cuba’s Cancellation of Open-Microphone Event in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and Arrests of Its Organizers

Tania Bruguera
  Tania Bruguera

On December 30th Cuban authorities cancelled an open-microphone event at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución and detained or arrested its organizers. The principal detainee was Tania Bruguera, a Cuban citizen who lives on the island and in Miami, Florida and who is a performance artist. She intended to provide an open-microphone for any attendee to give a one-minute statement on his or her opinions and recommendations for Cuba’s future.

This cancellation and related arrests have provoked strong condemnation from the U.S. Department of State and major U.S. newspapers. Initially I was persuaded by such condemnations and worried that they would foster U.S. political resistance to recent U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. After further investigation, however, I have come to reject such harsh condemnations. In order to understand this conclusion, this post will examine what happened in Havana, the reactions from the State Department and western newspapers and then the reasons why I reject such condemnations.

Cuban Events Relating to the Open-Mike Performance[1]

Plaza_de_la_Revolution

Plaza3

On December 30th Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera was planning to stage an open-microphone event, “Yo tambien exijo,” [I also demand],” in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, the huge public square usually reserved for large government-sponsored events.[2] (The photo on the top shows an empty Plaza while the other one has a large crowd in attendance.) She planned to give any attendee a one-minute platform to discuss his or her opinions about, and recommendations for, Cuba’s future. She told the U.S. National Public Radio that she wanted “people in the street [to] come and share . . . [their] doubts, [their] happiness – whatever [they] think right now about what is happening in Cuba, and what is the idea of Cuba that [they] want?”

Bruguera was proceeding with these plans even though her application for a permit had been denied and even though the Government’s National Fine Arts Council had told her that it would not be providing her with institutional support for the event as proposed because it “would negatively impact public opinion, in a key time of negotiation between the Cuban government and the government of the United States.”

On December 30th the Council issued a public statement documenting its decision not to support the event. It said, “Under current circumstances, it is unacceptable performing this purported performance in the symbolic space of the Plaza of the Revolution, especially considering the extensive media coverage and manipulation that has been in the media broadcasters counterrevolution.”

The Council, however, also stated that Bruguera had rejected its suggestions on conducting the event subject to the following conditions: (a) move the event to the National Museum of Fine Arts, a prestigious cultural institution in the field of visual arts; (b) the Museum would be freely open to diverse people of dissimilar social sectors; (c) the government would “reserve the right” to bar people whose “sole interest is to be provocative;” and (d) the performance would be limited to 90 minutes.

Just hours before the planned event, Cuban police detained, on public disorder charges, Bruguerea and at least three leading dissidents: Antonio Rodiles, the head of Citizens Demand for Another Cuba; Eliezer Avila, the leader of the opposition group Somos Mas; and Reinaldo Escobar, a senior editor of a dissident website 14medio.com. Escobar’s spouse, Blogger Yoani Sanchez, was also detained at her home by police. There were reports that up to 50 members of the political opposition were detained.

Ms. Bruguera was released the next afternoon along with most of the political dissidents. She then announced she would hold a news conference and public gathering on the Malecón, Havana’s coastal highway, at the memorial to the Maine, the American battleship that sank in Havana Harbor in 1898. Cuban agents, however, stopped her en route to the gathering and took her away for interrogation. She was told she could not leave Cuba “for two or three months” while the case was being processed. Again she was released.

However, on January 1, 2015, she was arrested again along with several dissidents when they went to a jail to demand the release of 15 additional dissidents who had been arrested on the day of the planned event. The next day (January 2) she was released.

Reactions to the Cancelation and Arrests

On December 30th, the U.S. Department of State issued a Press Statement saying the U.S. was “deeply concerned about the latest reports of detentions and arrests by Cuban authorities of peaceful civil society members and activists . . . [and] strongly condemn[ed] the Cuban government’s continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly and freedom expression, and intimidate citizens.”

The Statement added, “Freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly are internationally recognized human rights, and the Cuban government’s lack of respect for these rights, as demonstrated by today’s detentions, is inconsistent with Hemispheric norms and commitments. We urge the Government of Cuba to end its practice of repressing these and other internationally protected freedoms and to respect the universal human rights of Cuban citizens.”

The Statement concluded that the U.S. has “always said we would continue to speak out about human rights, and as part of the process of normalization of diplomatic relations, the United States will continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express their ideas and opinions, just like their fellow members of civil society throughout the Americas are allowed to do.”

Also on December 30th Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson tweeted “Freedom of expression remains core of US policy on #Cuba; we support activists exercising those rights and condemn today’s detentions.”

These views were shared by the New York Times’ December 30th editorial, “Cuba Turns Off Critics’ Open Mike.” It said, “By stifling critical voices, the Cuban government is showing its unwillingness to tolerate basic freedoms most citizens in the hemisphere enjoy.”

The Times’ editorial continued, “This move, unfortunately, will amplify the criticisms of those who opposed Mr. Obama’s historic shift on Cuba policy. Heavy-handed tactics by the Castro government will give them ammunition next year, when Republicans will control both chambers of Congress, to stymie the Obama administration’s steps to ease the embargo through executive authority and dim the prospects of legislative change to pare back the web of sanctions Washington imposes on Cuba. That result would be a shame and, in the long run, self-defeating for Havana.”

The editorial on the same subject by the Washington Post, which earlier opposed the December 17th reconciliation, was in the same vein. It stated, “[T]he Castro regime has been left free to continue stifling dissent, while reaping the economic and political benefits of Mr. Obama’s ‘engagement.’ Raúl Castro declared in a speech shortly after the agreement was announced that the Communist political system would remain unchanged. Two weeks later, not one of the 53 political prisoners the White House said would be freed — about half of the total identified by human rights activists — has been reported released.”

The Washington Post editorial concluded, “Cubans who seek basic freedoms continue to be arrested, harassed and silenced, while the regime celebrates what it portrays as ‘victory’ over the United States. If support for the Cuban people and American values is supposed to be the point of this process, then it is off to a very poor start.”

People opposed to the resumption of relations with Cuba were quick to hold up the arrests as a sign that the Castro government had no intention of pursuing political change and would reap only economic benefits from Mr. Obama’s moves. For example, Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and a Cuban-American, tweeted, “Castro govt. arrests of activists in #Havana exposes the folly of new Obama #CubaPolicy.”

Rejection of the Condemnation

As a long-time member of the American Civil Liberties Union and as a pro bono attorney in one of its important free speech cases, I am a strong believer in the importance of free speech. Therefore, I initially concurred in the State Department and New York Times’ condemnation of Cuba’s cancellation of this event and related arrests, and I worried that this controversy might cause the U.S. to abandon the recently announced U.S.-Cuba reconciliation.

On the other hand, I was and continue to be troubled by the State Department and most of the articles about this event not mentioning the Cuban Fine Arts Council’s willingness to support the event in another location and with certain limits. This action by the Arts Council suggests at a minimum that the State Department and western media are over-reacting to these events and unfairly rushing to judgment.

These U.S. critics also forget that governmental authorities in the U.S. sometimes determine that it is not appropriate to stage a protest at a particular time and place. It just happened in my home state of Minnesota at the Mall of America (MOA) on a big shopping day (December 20th). Although MOA officials had told the organizers that it was against its policies for them to hold a “Black Lives Matter” protest at the Mall on that day,[3] they did so anyway as this video shows. After 2,000 to 3,000 protesters flooded a Mall rotunda and held “die-ins” in front of several nearby businesses, riot-gear-clad police officers arrested 25 for trespass, peacefully dispersed the crowd and tried to block people from re-entering the rotunda. Afterwards the local city attorney announced plans “to file additional charges against ‘ringleaders’ of the protest and to seek restitution for the costs of 250 police at the event and lost sales during the two to three hours when more than 75 stores in the mall were closed.” On January 5th some of the protesters spoke against such prosecution at a city council meeting. This story obviously is not yet over.

In addition, there is a report that raises the much more serious question of whether the event was an idea of Cubans acting by themselves. According to the Wall Street Journal, an opponent of reconciliation with Cuba, at the scheduled time for the event, “Cuban cellphones received mysterious messages from a Florida area code offering cheap beer to all those gathering on the plaza.” This was confirmed in an interview by U.S. National Public Radio with Marc Frank, a U.S. journalist who was one of about a dozen people at the Plaza at the time of the planned event. He said, “text messages were sent from somewhere in Miami to a lot of cell phones here, including mine, basically saying that there’s going to be an event at the Plaza de la Revolución, and there’d be free beer.” Frank added that “Tania is an artist, lives some in Cuba and mainly in Miami, . . . [but] she’s not really well-known in Cuba at all.”[4]

These messages about free beer in the Plaza from a Miami telephone number raise the question of whether the event was actually being planned by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or another U.S. government agency or by Cuban-Americans opposed to the reconciliation of the two countries.

As discussed in prior posts, USAID (U.S. Agency for International Development) had funded via a private contractor at least three covert (or as the agency prefers to say “discreet”) programs in Cuba to promote civil society and dissent or regime change, all without the prior knowledge or consent of the Cuban government. One was for U.S. citizen Alan Gross to take communications equipment to Cuba, for which he was arrested, convicted and imprisoned in Cuba for violating its laws.[5] Another such USAID program via a private contractor unsuccessfully tried to create a Cuban social media program Yet another used Central Americans to promote purported HIV informational efforts on the island. The final one that has been discovered so far by journalists again via a private contractor attempted to infiltrate the Cuban rap-artist community.

These USAID programs were sharply criticized in a November New York Times editorial, as discussed in an earlier post. The editorial said, ““Far from accomplishing . . . the goal [of instigating democratic reforms on the island], the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.”

Instead, the Times’ November editorial argued, “The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most repressive governments in the world. Instead of stealth efforts to overthrow the government, American policy makers should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. They should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.” Moreover, “Washington should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”

Perhaps the Times forgot this editorial when it more recently lambasted the Cuban actions over the “open-microphone” event.

In any event, the U.S. government apparently has not learned the lesson outlined by the Times in October because the USAID website, which says it was last updated on December 16 (the day before the announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation), still contains general information about its Cuba programs to “[p]romote human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

In addition, on December 22, 2014 (five days after that announcement), the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor issued a Public Notice of its “Request for Statements of Interest: Program Fostering Civil, Political and Labor Rights in Cuba.” The Bureau’s prospective funding of $11 million would be used for typically funded proposals, the Bureau said, like “[o]rganizational assistance to Cuban civil society to improve management, strategic planning, sustainability, and collaboration of local civil society groups; [o]ff-island trainings, short-term fellowships, or engagement; [d]istribution of software that would be easily accessible in an open society; . . . [and] ]a]ssistance mechanisms designed to provide independent Cuban civil society with tools, opportunities, and trainings that civil society counterparts in open societies can access.”

Both the USAID and State Department statements read as if they are promoting programs in Cuba without the knowledge, cooperation or agreement of the Cuban government. This is contrary to President Obama’s statement in his nationally televised speech on December 17th, in which he said the U.S. would “raise those differences [with the Cuban government] directly . . .[such as] democracy and human rights in Cuba. But I believe we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement [with the Cuban government].” He added, “no Cubans should face harassment or arrest or beatings simply because they’re exercising a universal right to have their voices heard, and we will continue to support civil society there.”

Similar thoughts were expressed the same day in the White House’s FACT SHEET: Charting a New Course on Cuba.” It said, “We know from hard-learned experience that it is better to encourage and support reform than to impose policies that will render a country a failed state.” It also stated, “The Administration will continue to implement U.S. programs aimed at promoting positive change in Cuba, and we will encourage reforms in our high level engagement with Cuban officials.”

Although President Obama apparently was talking about encouraging the Cuban government to expand the Cuban people’s rights to express different opinions on what their government should do, a prior post shows some ambiguity in these statements that could allow the continuation of the USAID and State Department’s covert or “discreet” efforts to promote regime change.

If the open-microphone event, in fact, was orchestrated by USAID or some other U.S. government agency, it is Orwellian. Such programs purport to promote democracy and human rights with undemocratic and non-human rights means. Such programs are publicly mentioned—in very general terms—on U.S. government websites yet are conducted covertly or “discreetly” on the island. Such programs are hostile to a country with which the U.S. purportedly is attempting to build a normal and respectful diplomatic relationship. These programs also logically motivate Cuban authorities to be vigilant in reacting to events like the “open-microphone” one.

In other words it is horribly stupid and unwise to have such behind-the-back programs when the two countries are embarking on a long and complicated path for full reconciliation. As the New York Times said in November, the U.S. “should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.”

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[1] This account of the planned event and the arrests by the Cuban government is based on articles in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street JournalGuardian, Los Angeles Times,  National Public Radio, the Cuban Fine Arts Council and again the New York Times.

[2] The Plaza is the 31st largest public square in the world; it measures 72,000 square meters (774,936 square feet) and has been the site for crowds of 1 million for major speeches by Fidel Castro and for a mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II. The idea that the open-microphone event might create such a large crowd should have been seen as ridiculous by everyone, including the Cuban authorities, and a small gathering like the 12 or so that showed up on the 30th would have demonstrated the over-reaction of the those authorities in shutting it down and the State Department and western media in attacking the shut-down.

[3] Before the protest the local city (Bloomington) sent a letter to the protest organizers warning that the city would enforce the mall’s private-property rights under the authority of a Minnesota Supreme Court decision that held the MOA was a private entity with the right to exclude demonstrators.

[4] The Director of Security Operations at Telecommunications Company of Cuba reported that since December 21st Cuba had been receiving electronic messages calling for participation in an event with Tania Bruguera. These messages came from a platform “Wake Cuba,and these messages were similar to previous ones paid for by USAID.  Another Cuban source states that some Cuban email addresses were hacked and used to send emails to Cubans about this event.

[5] Gross on December 17th was released from Cuban prison and returned to the U.S.