U.S. and Cuba Hold Unproductive Extension of Second Round of Talks

On March 16, the U.S. and Cuba met in Havana for further discussions, mostly on re-establishing diplomatic relations and re-opening embassies. The focus was to be on so-called “nuts-and-bolts issues of limits on the number of diplomats and their travel in the host country. [1]

Although the U.S. expected the talks might continue for several days, they lasted only one day. The next day (March 17), the Cuban government released a statement: “At the end of the meeting, which took place in a professional climate, the two delegations agreed to maintain communication in the future as part of this process.” The U.S. had a similar statement: “The discussion was positive and constructive and was held in an atmosphere of mutual respect.”

Neither side said whether they had resolved any of the obstacles to reopening embassies.

There was concern before this week’s session that the recent U.S.-Cuba disagreement over U.S. sanctions against certain Venezuelans, as discussed in a prior post, might adversely affect the talks, but there was no overt indication, one way or the other, whether that was a factor in the apparently unproductive one-day session. Julia Sweig, an expert on U.S. relations with Cuba and Venezuela, said there was no sign that the increasingly strained U.S. relationship with Venezuela was affecting the warming of relations with Cuba.

On the other hand, there are other indications that the Venezuela situation may have been at least one of the reasons for the short and apparently unproductive U.S.-Cuba negotiations this week.

Yesterday Cuban President Raúl Castro was in Venezuela for an emergency meeting of the ALBA group that was called to discuss and react to President Obama’s executive order imposing sanctions against seven Venezuelans. In a speech at the meeting, Castro used some his strongest anti-American language in months, thrashing Mr. Obama over the sanctions and any suggestion that détente would lead to political change on the island. For example, Castro said, ““The United States should understand once and for all that it is impossible to seduce or buy Cuba nor intimidate Venezuela. Our unity is indestructible.”

In any event, the Venezuelan campaign against the sanctions threatens to put the damper on a celebration of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement at the Summit of the Americas in Panama on April 10-11.

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[1] The sources for this post are the following: Office of Spokesperson, Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobson Travels to Havana, U.S. Dep’t State (Mar. 13, 2015); Schwartz, Cuba, U.S. to Resume Talks to Restore Diplomatic Ties, W.S.J. (Mar. 13, 2015); DeYoung, U.S., Cuba set for third round of talks aimed at agreement to open embassies, Wash. Post (Mar. 13, 2015); Statement by the Director of Bilateral Issues US Department Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Granma (Mar. 13, 2015); Reuters, Cuba, U.S. Renew Talks on Restoring Diplomatic ties, N.Y. Times (Mar. 16, 2015); Reuters, Latest U.S.-Cuba Talks on Diplomatic Ties Ends After One Day, N.Y. Times (Mar. 17, 2015); Assoc. Press, Cuba, US Say Third Round of Diplomatic Negotiations Ends, N.Y. Times (Mar. 17, 2015); Serra, Meeting between officials of Cuba and the United States, Granma (Mar. 17, 2015); Archibold, U.S.-Cuba Talks on Restoring Diplomatic Ties End Abruptly, N.Y. Times (Mar. 17, 2015).

 

 

 

 

 

U.S. and Cuba Squabble Over U.S. Sanctions Against Certain Venezuelans

The U.S. and Cuba (and indeed most of the rest of Latin America) are in a squabble over recent sanctions imposed against certain Venezuelans by an executive order issued by President Obama. After reviewing immediate events leading up to the imposition of sanctions, this post will discuss the executive order and the reactions thereto from Venezuela, Cuba and the rest of Latin America.

Events Leading Up to the Imposition of Sanctions [1]

In February 2014 there were opposition protests calling for Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s resignation that sparked violence killing 43 people. In February of 2015 protesters and security forces clashed sporadically around that anniversary, while a shrinking economy and chronic product shortages have sent Maduro’s popularity tumbling.

In early February 2015, Antonio Ledezma, who is an opposition leader and the Mayor of Caracas, and two other opposition leaders signed a published open letter to President Maduro calling for a “national agreement for a transition.”

On February 10, the government announced a new three-tier currency scheme that amounted to a de facto devaluation of almost 70 percent, spurring outrage among opposition critics. This was a response to tumbling oil prices that have left the country struggling to meet its budget needs amid bulging foreign debt payments.

On February 19, the Venezuelan government announced that Ledezma had been arrested in order to halt an alleged U.S.-backed coup plot. The next day the government said that Ledezma had been indicted on charges of conspiracy against the Venezuelan government and plotting an American-backed coup. His attorney will be asking a judge to dismiss conspiracy charges against him, calling accusations that he participated in a plot to overthrow Venezuela’s socialist government “totally unfounded.”

Also on the 19th Maduro called for the Venezuelan people to defend national peace and be prepared “to deal with any scenario that may occur in Venezuela as a result of U.S. imperial aggression against our country.” That same day the Venezuelan Supreme Tribunal of Justice issued a statement reminding the U.S. that it had no jurisdiction to apply its laws outside its territory against the sovereignty and institutions of democracy in Venezuela. [2]

On February 20th the White House’s Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, responded to these charges. He said: “The United States is not promoting unrest in Venezuela, nor are we attempting to undermine Venezuela’s economy or its government.  In fact, the United States remains Venezuela’s largest trading partner.  The Venezuelan government should stop trying to distract attention from the country’s economic and political problems, and focus on finding real solutions through democratic dialogue among the people of Venezuela.  The Venezuelan government should respect the human rights of its citizens and stop trying to intimidate its political opponents.”

According to the Press Secretary, the U.S. continues “to call on the Venezuelan government to release political prisoners, including dozens of students; opposition leader; and Mayors Daniel Ceballos and Antonio Ledezma.” The U.S. “Treasury Department and the State Department are obviously closely monitoring this situation and are considering tools that may be available that could better steer the Venezuelan government in the direction that they believe they should be headed.  That obviously means that we’re continuing to engage other countries in the region in talking about operating in coordinated fashion as we deal with the situation there.”

The same day a Department of State spokesperson stated: The Venezuelan accusations “are false and baseless. And our view continues to be that political transitions must be democratic, constitutional, peaceful, and legal. We do not support a political transition in Venezuela by non-constitutional means. We’re not promoting unrest in Venezuela, nor are we attempting to undermine Venezuela’s economy or its government. And this is a continued effort . . . of the Venezuelan Government to try to distract attention from the country’s economic and political problems and focus and try to distract and make these false accusations.”

In addition, the State Department official stated the U.S. had reports that the Venezuelan intelligence service had detained the Caracas metropolitan mayor and searched his office [and] . . . that military intelligence officials plan to move opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez from his prison cell and transfer him to an unknown location. We are deeply concerned by what appears to be the Venezuelan Government’s efforts to escalate intimidation of its political opponents by rounding up these prominent leaders of the opposition. Venezuela’s problems cannot be solved by criminalizing dissent.”

President Obama’s Executive Order [3]

 On March 9th President Obama issued an executive order that blocked any U.S. assets of seven named Venezuelans and others who might be named by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, that barred these individuals from entering the U.S. and that prohibited U.S. persons from doing business with them.

These individuals were determined by the U.S. to be “responsible for the erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence and human rights violations and abuses in response to antigovernment protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of antigovernment protesters, as well as significant corruption.”

The executive order was not directed at the people or economy of Venezuela.

The disputes over this executive order, however, are not over these provisions, but instead to its preamble, which states:

  • [T]he situation in Venezuela, including the Government of Venezuela’s erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence and human rights violations and abuses in response to antigovernment protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of antigovernment protestors, as well as the exacerbating presence of significant public corruption, constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and [the President] hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.” (Emphasis added.)

 Venezuela’s Response to the Executive Order [4]

On March 10 President Maduro requested the Venezuelan legislature to enact an Anti-Imperialist Enabling Law granting him power to enact laws by his decree for the rest of this year in order to “defend the peace, sovereignty and full development of Venezuela in the face of threats from the United States empire.” Maduro said “no one in the world could believe the assertion [that Venezuela posed a national security threat to the U.S.] since the Venezuelan people are known as ‘peaceful, democratic, humanist and have a foreign policy directed toward understanding and peace . . . leaders in the struggle for integration and unity.’”

On March 14, upon Maduro’s order, Venezuela conducted a military exercise to counter an alleged U.S. threat by deploying Venezuelan soldiers and partisans across the country to march, man shoulder-fired missiles and defend an oil refinery from a simulated attack. Venezuela’s navy also performed exercises in the Caribbean Sea.

On Sunday (March 15) Venezuela’s legislature granted the requested presidential decree powers, which Maduro says are necessary to defend the country from the U.S. and which his opponents say are to justify repression and distract Venezuelans from economic problems, including acute shortages. Indeed, the country is suffering the highest inflation in the Americas, long lines for food and medicine, and shortages of many basic products.

President Maduro immediately responded to the legislature’s action. He insisted that Venezuela was ready to talk, “one on one, face to face, with respect, without arrogance or hubris” with the U.S. The first item on the agenda for such a meeting, he said, would be the immediate rescission of President Obama’s executive order.

 Cuba’s Response to the Executive Order [5]

Since Venezuela is a major ally of Cuba and the supplier of oil to Cuba, it is not surprising that the Cuban press recently has been full of Cuba’s support of Venezuela, both before and after the issuance of the executive order. Here are some of those expressions of support:

  • On March 5, Granma, Cuba’s official newspaper, issued a laudatory article about Venezuela’s former President, Hugo Chávez. It said he was “remembered . . . for his charisma, his arousing speech, his sincerity, his constant anguish to deliver for his people. Those who knew him say he often felt as though he were plowing the sea with that desire, so characteristic of him, to remain loyal to the people.” Now, “two years after his departure, . . . Chávez will be awakened together with Bolívar, to continue guiding Venezuela and Latin America.”
  • On March 6, Cuban First Vice President of the Councils of State and Ministers (and the presumptive successor to Raúl Castro as President of Cuba), Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, was in Caracas to participate in the commemoration of the second anniversary of death of Chávez, and Díaz-Canel declared that Cuba always will be a true friend of the Bolivarian Revolution.
  • On March 9, immediately after the issuance of the executive order, the Cuban government reiterated “its unconditional support and that of our people for the Bolivarian Revolution, the legitimate government of President Nicolás Maduro Moros and the heroic sister nation of Venezuela.” The Cuban government stated, “Nobody has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of a sovereign State or to declare it, without grounds, a threat to its national security.” Venezuela does not have the resources or officials to threaten the United States, and the executive order “reaffirms . . . the interventionist nature of U.S. foreign policy.”
  • On March 10, Fidel Castro in a letter to President Maduro said, “I congratulate you on your brilliant and courageous speech against the brutal plans of the U.S. government. Your words go down in history as proof that humanity can and must know the truth.”
  • On March 13 Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla said that any attack on Venezuela was also an attack on Cuba and that the U.S. “has provoked serious damage to the environment in the hemisphere on the eve of the Summit of the Americas.” He added, “I hope that the U.S. government understands that it can’t handle Cuba with a carrot and Venezuela with a garrote.”
  • On March 15 thousands of Cubans attended a concert in support of Venezuela at the University of Havana. One of the Cuban Five and a Hero of the Republic of Cuba, René González, addressed the crowd, saying, “We all had in mind the warning of Che that imperialism cannot be trusted,” and that warning was confirmed by the March 9th executive order.

Other Latin American Countries’ Reactions [6]

On March 14, at Venezuela’s request, the 12-nation Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) reaffirmed “their commitment to the full observance of international law, the Peaceful Settlement of Disputes and the principle of nonintervention” and reiterated their “call for governments to refrain from applying unilateral coercive measures that violate international law.” It, therefore, called on the U.S. “to evaluate and implement alternatives for dialogue with the government of Venezuela, under the principles of respect for sovereignty and self-determination of peoples.’ As a result, it requested “the repeal of that Executive Order.”

On March 17 the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA), at the request of Venezuela, will meet in Caracas to declare solidarity with Venezuela in its disputes with the U.S.

Conclusion

Although I am not a close follower of events in Venezuela, I do know that the recent huge declines in world oil prices have devastated its economy, that it is suffering horrendous inflation forcing it to devalue its currency, that there are shortages of all sorts of consumer products and that its government has imprisoned dissidents, including the Mayor of Caracas.

I also believe that the U.S. government must have had good cause to impose sanctions on the seven individuals named in the executive order.

Therefore, the protests of Venezuela, Cuba and the other Latin American nations, in my opinion, are not justified. The U.S. hopes for a cordial Summit of the Americas next month in Panama to celebrate a U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, however, appear to have been scuttled.

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[1] Pons & Ellsworth, Update 3-Venezuela announces new currency system, large devaluation seen, Bloomberg (Feb. 10, 2015); Reuters, Venezuela Arrests Opposition Mayor Accused of Coup Plot, N.Y. Times (Feb. 19, 2015);  White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary, Josh Earnest, 2/20/15 (Feb. 20, 2015); U.S. Dep’t State, Daily Press Briefing (Feb. 20, 2015); Assoc. Press, Lawyer: Jailed Caracas Mayor to Fight Conspiracy Charges, N. Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2015); Gupta, Venezuela Mayor Is Accused of U.S.-Backed Coup Plot, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2015),

[2] Cuba’s official newspaper, Granma, parrotted the Venezuelan government’s version of events. (E.g.Venezuela faces a stroke of continued fate, Granma (Feb. 20, 2015); Statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Cuba, Granma (Feb. 20, 2015).)

[3] White House, Executive Order—Blocking Property and Suspending Entry of Certain Persons Contributing to the Situation in Venezuela (Mar. 9, 2015); White House, Fact Sheet: Venezuela Executive Order (Mar. 9, 2015); White House, Letter [to Speaker of U.S. House of Representatives]—Declaration of a National Emergency with respect to Venezuela (Mar. 9, 2015); White House, Statement by the Press Secretary on Venezuela (Mar. 9, 2015);DeYoung & Miroff, White House steps up sanctions against Venezuelans, Wash. Post (Mar. 9, 2015). The executive order was issued under (a) the International Emergency Economic Powers Act and (b) the Venezuela Defense of Human Rights and Civil Society Act of 2014. In section 2 of that latter statute, Congress found, among other things, that the Central Bank of Venezuela and the National Statistical Institute of Venezuela had determined that the annual inflation rate in Venezuela in 2013 was 56.30, the highest level of inflation in the Western Hemisphere and the third highest level in the world; that Venezuela’s currency controls have become the most problematic factor for doing business in the country; and that HumanRights Watch has reported the government intimidates,censors and prosecutes its critics.

[4] Editorial, In Venezuela, Punishing Scapegoats, N.Y. Times (Mar. 5, 2015); Toro & Kronicks, Venezuela’s Currency Circus, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 2015); Miroff & DeYoung, New U.S. sanctions lost in Venezuelan translation, Wash. Post (Mar. 11, 2015); Reuters, Mind Your Manners, Venezuela Tells U.S. Official, Jacobson, N.Y. times (Mar. 11, 2015); Neuman, Obama Hands Venezuelan Leader a Cause to Stir Support, N. Y. Times (Mar. 11, 2015); Editorial, A Failing Relationship with Venezuela, N. Y. Times (Mar. 12, 2015); Assoc. Press, Venezuela Conducts Military Exercises, Claims US Threat, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 2015); Reuters, Venezuela Stages Military Exercises to Counter U.S. ‘Threat,’ N.Y. Times (Mar. 15, 2015); Buitrago & Cawthorne, Elected officials grant Venezuela leader broad powers, Wash. Post (Mar. 15, 2015).

[5] Statement from the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Cuba, Granma (Mar. 10, 2015); Letter from Fidel to Maduro, Granma (Mar. 10, 2015); Pasiero, Venezuela is sacred and to be respected, Granma (Mar. 10, 2015); Pasiero, Cuba reiterates its unconditional support of Venezuela, Granma (Mar. 6, 2015); Chávez, forever present, Granma (Mar. 5, 2015); Pasiero, Mature relationships requires respect for the United States, Granma (Mar. 16, 2015); Venezuela Are All, Granma (Mar. 16, 2015); Prada & Rodriguez, Voices for solidarity with Venezuela, Granma (Mar. 16, 2015).

[6] UNASUR, Press Union of South American Nations Executive Decree of The Government of the Unites States of Venezuela (Mar. 14, 2015); Assoc. Press, South American Bloc Demands US Revoke Venezuela Order, N.Y. Times (Mar. 14, 2015). UNASUR members are Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela. ALBA members are Antigua and Barbuda, Bolivia, Cuba, Dominica, Ecuador, Grenada, Nicaragua, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Grenadines and Venezuela.

 

 

International Reaction to U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

The overwhelming international response to the December 17th announcement of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation has been very positive, especially in Latin America. Future posts will examine the responses in Cuba and the U.S.

Latin American Reactions [1]

Virtually all Latin American countries had been increasingly frustrated with the 50 years of estrangement and hostility between the U.S. and Cuba. According to a historian of the region, Enrique Krauze, “Cuba has been the epicenter of anti-Americanism in modern Latin America” and the Cuban Revolution of 1959 “opened a new cycle of anti-Americanism.” 

Now, Krauze continues, the U.S. has renounced its “imperial destiny and recovers much of the moral legitimacy needed to uphold the democratic ideals that led to its foundation (and also of the countries of Latin America).”

The President of Brazil congratulated Raul Castro, Obama and Pope Francis. Similar comments were made by the leaders of Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Nicaragua.

Jose Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, the regional forum where Cuba’s seat has been empty since 1962, said Obama’s decision removed a major irritant in Washington’s relations with Latin America. “This ends the attempt to isolate Cuba for so long. Cuba is undertaking a process of economic reforms that will, I hope, lead to political reforms.”.

These reactions were emphasized by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Roberta Jacobson, who said, ““Our previous Cuba policy was clearly an irritant and a drag on our policy in the region,”  adding that it had caused friction even with countries friendly to Washington. She said that countries “with whom we have significant differences are going to be, let’s say, thrown off their stride by a move like this.”“It removes an excuse for blaming the United States for things,” she added.

The Wall Street Journal reported the day after the announcement of the detente that government officials, diplomats and scholars believe this change has “the potential to redraw political and economic alliances across the hemisphere,” especially with countries like Argentina, Ecuador and others. It will be most difficult for Venezuela, which has held “a long-held animosity toward El Imperio–the empire.”

But the President of Venezuela immediately called the detente a “victory for Fidel and the Cuban people” while also acknowledging President Obama’s “courage” in “perhaps the most important step of his presidency.”

On January 26th the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) [2] applauded the agreement’s making possible Cuba’s attending the Summit of the Americas in Panama this coming April.

European Reactions [3]

On the day after the historic announcement, the European Union released a statement hailing it as a “historic turning point.” It continued, “Today another Wall has started to fall. These moves represent a victory of dialogue over confrontation.”

The leading newspaper of Spain, El Pais, editorialized, “Today, when freedom seems to be calling for an end to the doors of Cuba, Spain must accompany Cubans in their new journey: supporting their political, economic and social modernization, with clarity, consistency and realism; aware of the limits of his diplomatic skills-but place value on the european-dimension and also aware that resetting relations with Cuba, the United States restored its relations with Latin America.”

Positive comments of the change came from leaders of Germany, Italy, France and Spain.

Other International Reactions [4]

Canada, we recall, hosted some of the secret U.S.-Cuba negotiations that resulted in the December 17th announcement of the start of the process of their reconciliation. Afterwards Canada’s Foreign Minister, John Baird, said, “”I agree with this policy. I don’t think previous U.S. policy has been effective. If you flood Cuba with American values, American people, and American investment, it will help transform the country.”

U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said at a press conference on December 17th, “I have been informed in advance by the US Government.  This news is very positive.  I’d like to thank President Barack Obama of the United States and President Raul Castro for taking this very important step towards normalizing relations.  As much of the membership of the United Nations has repeatedly emphasized through General Assembly resolutions during the last many, many years, it is time that Cuba and the United States normalize their bilateral relations.  In that regard, I heartily welcome today’s development.  I sincerely hope these measures, this announcement will help to expand further the exchanges between the two peoples who have been separated quite a long time.  The United Nations stands ready to help both countries to cultivate their good neighbourly relations.”

Conclusion

I would appreciate comments identifying other international reactions.

As was anticipated in the December 17th announcements by presidents Obama and Castro and as we already have seen, the path to lasting reconciliation is not easy for either country. There are many unresolved issues for the two countries over the last 50-plus years.

These words of congratulations from around the world will have to justified by the further negotiations of the two countries. If they fail to resolve these issues, the international reaction will be severe, and if other countries and international organizations believe the U.S. was primarily responsible for such failure, then there could be even worse anti-Americanism unleashed.

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[1] Rebussio, Maduro: It is a victory for Fidel and the Cuban people, El Pais (Dec. 17, 2014); Mezzi, Venezuela is left alone, El Pais (Dec. 17, 2014); Anderson, Mynaya & Vyas, Detente Scrambles Political Calculus in Latin America, W.S.J. (Dec. 18, 2014); Assoc. Press, AP Analysis: U.S. Was at Odds With World Over Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18,2014); Romero & Neuman, Cuba Thaw Lets Rest of Latin America Warm to Washington, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014); Assoc. Press, Latin America Cheers U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18,2014);  Krauze, End of Anti-Americanism?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 7, 2015); ECLAC applauds presence of Cuba in Summit of the Americas, Granma (Jan. 26, 2015)

[2] ECLAC was established by the U.N. in 1948 to contribute to the economic development of the region and to promote its social development. Its 44 members include 11 from Asia (Japan and Republic of Korea), Europe (France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and United Kingdom) and North America (Canada and U.S.) with historical, economic and cultural ties to the region. In addition, 13 non-independent Caribbean territories are associate members. 

[3] Rebussio, Maduro: It is a victory for Fidel and the Cuban people, El Pais (Dec. 17, 2014); Reuters, “Another Wall Falls:’ Europe Hails U.S.-Cuba Breakthrough, N.Y. Times (Dec. 18, 2014); Editorial, With Cuba, El Pais (Dec. 21, 2014).

[4] Goldberg, Canada’s Foreign Minister:U.S. Influence Will Make Cuba Better, Atlantic (Dec. 21, 2014), Reuters, U.N.‘s Ban Hails Obama for ‘Courageous’ Cuba Move, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014); U.N., Press Conference by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at United Nations Headquarters (Dec. 17, 2014).

President Obama’s Strategic Timing of Announcement of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

With God’s leading or nudging the U.S. and Cuba to reconciliation, the timing of the announcement of that historic change on December 17th was due to more prosaic factors from the U.S. perspective.

Pressures for an announcement as soon as possible were several. The health of U.S. citizen, Alan Gross, was reportedly declining in a Cuban prison, and President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry legitimately believed that reconciliation would be destroyed if he died in that prison. As we now know, the U.S. and Cuba had been engaged in secret negotiations for 18 months, and delaying the announcement ran the risk of a leak of the existence of the negotiations that would upset, if not destroy, the reconciliation. Less immediate was the upcoming Summit of the Americas in April 2015 with the U.S. needing to have a position on host country Panama’s invitation to Cuba to attend the Summit.

In addition, U.S. domestic political considerations pointed towards a December announcement before the Republican-controlled 114th Congress opened in early January and as soon as possible (the next day) after the adjournment of the 113th so that there would be no resulting interference with the completion of the many items of unfinished business of the current Congress. December also is the traditional time for exercise of presidential clemency (pardons and commutation of sentences), the latter of which was used for the release of the remaining three of the Cuban Five on December 17th.

All of these considerations suggest why the President on December 16th (the day before the announcement about Cuba) quietly signed the $1.1 trillion appropriation bill even though it contained a repeal of an important provision of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act regulating financial institutions that Senator Elizabeth Warren passionately resisted.  The President did not want a lack of funding to interfere with or torpedo the reconciliation.

Within a week of the announcement we learned that the U.S. GDP for the third quarter had increased 5.0%, the strongest quarterly performance in a decade, and the U.S. stock market reacted with a record close on December 23 with the Dow Jones Industrial Average at 18024.17, registering its 36th record close this year. Unemployment is below 6.0%. The FY 2014 deficit is below its 40-year average. The Affordable Care Act has reduced uninsured Americans by 25%, and overall health-care spending has slowed significantly. The U.S. Dollar is stronger against other world currencies. The federal government’s bailouts of banks and the auto industry that rescued the economy from a total collapse at the start of the Obama presidency were closed out with a net profit to the taxpayers of $15.4 billion. Low world oil prices help the American consumer and weaken regimes hostile to the U.S., especially Russia, Iran and Venezuela. An amazing economic performance! (Packer, A Pretty Good Year for Government, New Yorker (Dec. 23, 2014); Higgins, Oil’s Swift Fall Raises Fortunes of U.S. Abroad, N.Y. Times (Dec. 25, 2014).)

President Obama, using the “fourth quarter” analogy of his favorite sport of basketball, obviously has concluded that he would be engaged in a vigorous “fourth quarter” (the last two years of his eight years in office) to do as much as possible of what he believes to be in the national interest of our country. Indeed, at the first Cabinet meeting after the huge Republican victories in this year’s midterm election, Obama gave every Cabinet member a white card that said, “We are entering the fourth quarter, and really important things happen in the fourth quarter.” Timothy Egan, a New York Times’ columnist, says Obama has “been liberated by defeat” and “in finally learning how to use the tools of his office, Obama unbound is a president primed to make his mark.” He is “marching ahead of politicians fighting yesterday’s wars,” who are forced “to defend old-century policies, and rely on an aging base to do it.” Moreover, Obama now “has Pope Francis as a diplomatic co-conspirator,” leaving Republican opponents of Cuban reconciliation to try to lecture “the most popular man on the planet.”  (Osnos, In the Land of the Possible, New Yorker (Dec. 22 & 29, 2014); Eagan, Obama Unbound, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014).)

Finally the merits of reconciliation and these reflections on the timing of the announcement resurrect my personal support of the President. Given the Administration’s problems with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and other administrative issues, I was beginning to think that Obama’s lack of prior administrative experience was a reason why he would not be the great President I expected him to be. Now, however, his achieving reconciliation with Cuba is a masterful demonstration of his intellectual, administrative and political skills.

Congratulations, Mr. President!

Praise God for Leading U.S. and Cuba to Reconciliation

God acting through people of Christian faith has been leading the U.S. and Cuba to reconciliation and promises to be with the people of both countries as they confront the many issues and challenges in achieving full reconciliation.

Roman Catholic Church

Principal agents for God have been and are the Roman Catholic Church and Pope Francis.The Vatican’s role predated Pope Francis. Two of his predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, visited Cuba in 1998 and 2012 respectively, and the church remains hugely influential among Cubans. The Obama administration first sought to enlist the Vatican’s support when Pope Benedict XVI was in office. It worked even more actively with the Vatican after Pope Francis came to the Vatican in 2013. The pope’s new secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, an Italian, had served as papal nuncio in Venezuela and was well versed in Latin America politics. Mr. Kerry was also in contact with the Cardinal, meeting him at the Vatican in June of this year and again a week ago.

Most significantly, as has been widely reported, Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church acted as a mediator to help the parties.[1]

This was verified in the Vatican’s Secretary of State’s December 17th statement, in which the Pope “wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history.” The statement also provided the following details:

  • “In recent months, Pope Francis wrote letters to the President of the Republic of Cuba, His Excellency Mr Raúl Castro, and the President of the United States, The Honorable Barack H. Obama, and invited them to resolve humanitarian questions of common interest, including the situation of certain prisoners, in order to initiate a new phase in relations between the two Parties.”
  • “The Holy See received Delegations of the two countries in the Vatican last October and provided its good offices to facilitate a constructive dialogue on delicate matters, resulting in solutions acceptable to both Parties.”
  • “The Holy See will continue to assure its support for initiatives which both nations will undertake to strengthen their bilateral relations and promote the wellbeing of their respective citizens.”

President Obama in his December 17th televised speech announcing this important initiative acknowledged that “His Holiness Pope Francis” had supported these measures and thanked the Pope, “whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.” In particular, the President said, “His Holiness Pope Francis issued a personal appeal to me and to Cuban President Raul Castro urging us to resolve Alan [Gross]’s case and to address Cuba’s interest in the release of three Cuban agents who have been jailed in the United States for over 15 years.”

Similarly Cuban President Raúl Castro in his televised remarks to the Cuban people said, “I wish to thank and acknowledge the support of the Vatican, most particularly the support of Pope Francisco, in the efforts for improving relations between Cuba and the United States.”

Subsequent reports and research reveals some of the details of the Pope Francis’ involvement.[2]

Obama & Pope
Obama & Pope

On March 27, 2014, the Vatican reported that President Obama “was received in audience by His Holiness Pope Francis, after which Obama met with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, Secretary for Relations with States. During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.” Presumably this was U.S.-Cuba relations.

Immediately after the Audience, at a joint news conference with Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy, President Obama made comments that in retrospect might have alluded to conversations about Cuba. The President said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.“[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world. . . . [W]e also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others. . . . [T]he theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical.  It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.  It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.  And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.” The President added, “ I was extremely moved by his insights about the importance of us all having a moral perspective on world problems and not simply thinking in terms of our own narrow self-interests.”

More recently a U.S. administration official said that at the Audience, President Obama spoke about Cuba with Pope Francis, who was “aware” that Obama was considering a change in the policy against Cuba and reached out to the President. Indeed, according to this official, Cuba was the at the center of the discussion.

Soon after the March Audience, Pope Francis sent the two presidents letters, appealing to both to keep pushing for an agreement. In June the Pope sent another letter to the two men calling on them to resolve the case of Alan Gross and the cases of the three Cubans who have been imprisoned here in the United States and also encouraging the United States and Cuba to pursue a closer relationship. . . . The letter from Pope Francis “gave us greater impetus and momentum for us to move forward. ” This appeal from the Pope was ‘very rare’ and unprecedented.

The Vatican then hosted the US and Cuban delegations in October when the parties were able to review the commitments that they to make on December 17th.” The Pope, U.S. officials said, acted as a “guarantor” that both sides would live up to the terms of a deal reached in secret.

According to a New York Times articleCardinal Jaime Ortega, the archbishop of Havana, also happened to be in Rome on October 3 and met with Francis, according to Vatican records, raising the possibility that he, too, attended the secret October meeting that is credited with sealing the diplomatic deal.’Ortega has always pushed for a gradual reform of the regime, for opening up, but at the same time he has been a trustworthy partner for the government — and with the full support of John Paul II, Benedict and Francis,’ said Marco Politi, an author and veteran Vatican analyst.”

An article by Juan Arias in El Pais, Spain’s leading newspaper, said Pope Francis “is only and always in favor of dialogue and peace, promote respect for all. Rescue the true dignity of the human being who is the subject of respect, travel partner, defender of life, rather than exploited, a commodity at the mercy of all who pay for it. In the world, managing the common good and the fight against injustice will inevitably present policy questions.” .

In the same vein, a Vatican spokesman said, in a December 18th interview with a Fox News interview, the Vatican has a culture of encounter the says it is better to be talking, rather than not talking, with another individual or country in the Vatican tradition of confidential diplomacy. Such a practice does not solve everything, but it opens up relations.

Another overall evaluation of Pope Francis’s diplomacy from the New York Times starts with his comments on December 18th to a new corps of diplomats to the Vatican, ” The work of an ambassador lies in small steps, small things, but they always end up making peace, bringing closer the hearts of people, sowing brotherhood among people. This is your job, but with little things, tiny things.” On the other hand, Francis has a “vision of diplomatic boldness, a willingness to take risks and insert the Vatican into diplomatic disputes, especially where it can act as an independent broker.”

Francis Campbell, a former British ambassador to the Holy See, adds that Francis had embraced the bully pulpit provided by the papacy. “The papacy is one of the world’s great opinion formers. Whether people agree with it or disagree with it, it has a huge voice.”

Another change under Francis is “appointing diplomats to key posts elsewhere, most notably his second-in-command, Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, an Italian cardinal who has led delicate Vatican negotiations with Vietnam and served as apostolic nuncio, or ambassador, in Venezuela.” Moreover, Francis and Cardinal Parolin are seen as working in tandem — the charismatic pope and the methodical diplomat. . . .  Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper, added that Francis had quickly built a rapport with world leaders. ‘He establishes relationships very easily.”

Additional insight into Pope Francis’ mediation of this situation is prompted by the Associated Press’ rediscovery of his 1998 booklet, “Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro,” written while the Pope was still Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Soon to be named archbishop of Buenos Aires, he attended Pope John Paul II’s visit to Cuba.“In the booklet, Bergoglio harshly criticized socialism — and by extension Castro’s atheist revolution — for denying individuals their ‘transcendent dignity’ and putting them solely at the service of the state. At the same time, he denounced the U.S. embargo and economic isolation of Cuba that impoverished the island. ‘The Cuban people must overcome this isolation’. . . . [T]he first chapter titled ‘The value of dialogue’ . . . [says] that dialogue was the only way to end Cuba’s isolation and its hostility to the Catholic Church while promoting democracy.

This booklet was referenced by Austen Ivereigh in his new biography of Francis “The Great Reformer.” Ivereigh said Bergoglio “demonstrated an ‘incredibly evenhanded’ approach to the Cuban problem while outlining a future for the island that may well be more realistic now that the thaw has begun.” Pope Francis “sees Cuba’s future as being a democratic government rooted in the Christian, humanist values of the Cuban pueblo. It’s a kind of nationalist Catholic understanding of politics, neither left nor right, neither communism nor unadulterated market capitalism.”

Everyone in the world should be grateful that we have Pope Francis as a servant of God.

Presbyterian Church

As a member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church, which has had a partnership with a sister church in Cuba, I join in the declaration by my brothers and sisters of LA IGLESIA PRESBITERIANA-REFORMADA EN CUBA (the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba) regarding the historic launching of this path of reconciliation that was signed by Dr. Reinerio Arce Valentin, the Moderator and my personal friend; Rev. Daniel Izquierdo Hernández, Secretary-General; Rev. Francisco Marrero Gutiérrez, Council President; and Rev. Antonio (Tony) Aja, D. Min. They said:

  • “Today we witnessed the televised speeches by the Presidents of Cuba and the United States in which both rulers recognized the need to put an end to the hostility of more than half a century and to re-establish Diplomatic relations between our two countries, which hopefully will lead to the normalization of relations. It was also gratifying to hear the news of the release of Mr. Alan Gross and others imprisoned in Cuba, as well as the release of the three Cuban prisoners in the U.S. American, which allows family reunification.”
  • Our church “gives thanks to God and celebrates with joy these agreements. For decades we have been encouraged with the exchange of visits between Cuban and American churches. We are in deep gratitude to the evangelical ideal to seek peace and justice, and we raised Our Voice against the severe measures, both economic and commercial, that have been imposed by American policy on our peoples.“
  • “In the same way we have received such support from our sister church, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and from resolutions and talks official with leaders of the U.S. Congress and representatives of the U.S. government.”
  • “We acknowledge the efforts of the Vatican, in the person of Pope Francis, as well as the government of Canada in the achievement of these agreements. We hope that we are closer to an era of peace between our nations, it is precisely on the eve of the celebration of the Christmas which reminds us of the divine purpose of peace and Goodwill in our land.
  • “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.” (Luke 2:14. NRSV).

The Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) [PCUSA], Gradye Parsons, made a similar statement. He said, “we welcome the historic steps taken by President Obama on normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba.” The PCUSA ‘has been working for more than 30 years to help ease the hardships caused by the United States’ economic embargo on Cuba and to end the embargo itself.” We also have “emphasized [with the U.S. government] the humanitarian reasons for the release of Alan Gross and the three Cuban prisoners.” This set of decisions “also takes us closer to a day when our two peoples will have no impediments to full and flourishing relations. We rejoice along with the Cuban Council of Churches and the Presbyterian Church of Cuba for the good news that will further the cause of peace and human rights around the world.”

Another statement was issued by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness. He said, “The release of Alan Gross and the three Cuban prisoners is an example of how nations can find common ground.  When there is a will to live as true neighbors as Jesus Christ has taught us, we find a way towards justice and reconciliation.” The statement also noted that this Office “has organized religious delegations from Cuba, led a coalition of denominations and faith-based organizations calling for a change in policy towards Cuba, and organized meetings with members of congress and the administration urging an opening of relations between the two countries.”

I also believe that Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church has played a small role in these historic decisions. Our connections with Cuba, our members’ visits to the island, our Cuban brothers and sisters visiting us, our prayer partnerships with members of the Matanzas church, our installing four potable water systems in Cuban churches and our learning more about Cuba and its relations with our country have inspired many of us to urge our Government to change its policies toward the island.

Our potable water projects are part of the “Living Waters for the World” ministry of the PCUSA’s Synod of Living Waters for the States of Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. To date they have trained people from churches, primarily Presbyterian, all over the U.S. who have installed over 660 such systems in 25 other countries. Cuba has received 21 of the systems, four by my church.

The importance of such systems for the Cuban people and churches was noticed by a New York Times reporter on a visit to the 137,000-population city of Cardenas on the north coast of the island about 90 miles east of Havana. He says, “Many of the churches in Cardenas have become a moral and economic counterweight [to communism] . . . to help people survive, with food, water, and exercise classes, and by guiding their souls away from a focus on material things.” (Cave, Crucible of Cuban Zeal Redefines Revolutionary, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2014).)

As an example, he cites El Fuerte Presbyterian Church which occupies a “religious campus” that used to house Escuela La Progressiva, a famous pre-revolutionary school. This church has become a “hub of activity for the community largely because of a sophisticated water filtration system carried into Cuba and installed in 2012 by members of St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church in New Orleans.”

Other Religious Organizations

I know that other churches and synagogues in Minnesota and all around the U.S. have connections with Cuba and am confident that they too have had similar transformative experiences with our Cuban brothers and sisters. Others without overt religious motivation also have been God’s agents for these changes; here I think specifically of the support groups for the Cuban Five and for ending the U.S. embargo.

As the Bible says, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” (1 Corinth. 12:4-7)(NRSV)

We lift all of them up in our prayers of gratitude.

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[1] An August 2012 post included my public letter to President Obama suggesting, among other things,“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.”

[2] The President’s Audience and press conference about this and other topics were discussed in a prior post.

New York Times Reiterates Call for Ending U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

On December 15th a New York Times editorial, “Cuba’s Economy at a Crossroads,” called for the U.S. to end its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” This recommendation first was made on October 11th in the Times’ initial editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”

Summary of the Editorial

Now, however, ending the designation is seen as a way the U.S. could assist a struggling Cuban economy. Surprisingly this editorial does not mention ending the U.S. embargo of the island as another, and more important, way the Cuban economy could be aided by the U.S. Instead the Times makes a vague suggestion of the U.S.’ “relaxing sanctions through executive authority and working with the growing number of lawmakers who want to expand business with Cuba.”

Most of the editorial is devoted to discussing the many problems of the Cuban economy.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution’s “[c]ommunism brought an ever more anemic and backward economy, one propped up largely by Moscow. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did Cuba’s economy.” After that collapse, Cuba found Venezuela as a “new benefactor” that provided “heavily subsidized oil” to the island, but now that country’s “worsening economic and political crisis” threatens that subsidy.

Low wages and poor prospects have forced many Cubans to leave the island “in recent years in search of a better life.” This could be accelerated by the elimination of the country’s two-currency system, which the government plans to do.

“The country’s birthrate is declining, while its elderly are living longer.” Couple these facts with the exodus of working-age citizens presents Cuba with an enormous demographic challenge.

“The agricultural sector remains stymied by outdated technology and byzantine policies. A foreign investment law Cuba’s National Assembly approved in March has yet to deliver a single deal.”

Cuba’s leaders have adopted various measures to reform the economy, but the “pace [of economic reform] has been halting, with plenty of backtracking from the government’s old guard.”

Yet these reforms have created a “small but growing entrepreneurial class.” All of them “struggle with the [Cuban] bureaucracy, since they are unable to import legally items as basic as mattresses and pillows. Bringing items from the United States is onerous and complicated by American sanctions.” Changes in U.S. policies could make “it easier for Americans to provide start up-capital for independent small businesses. Doing that would empower Cuban-Americans to play a more robust role in the island’s economic transformation. More significantly, it would gradually erode the Cuban government’s ability to blame Washington for the shortcomings of an economy that is failing its citizens largely as a result of its own policies.”

Continuing U.S. antagonism, on the other hand, “is only helping the old guard.”

Reactions

I concur in the Times’ call for ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” It is an unfounded, stupid, absurd action that is only counter-productive as has been argued in posts in 2010, 2011, 2012 (with supplement), 2013 and 2014.

But I do not see ending this policy as the linchpin for the U.S.’ helping the Cuban economy. Instead it is ending the embargo, which the Times on October 11th recommended, but which is not mentioned in the latest editorial.

Moreover, I think the latest editorial understates the troubled state of the Cuban economy even though a prior post expressed optimism about Cuba’s attracting $8.0 billion of foreign investment for the Mariel port’s industrial park now under construction. Further reflection raises the following points that question that optimism:

  • First, the Cuban economy by itself is obviously unable to afford to purchase the many commodities that presumably will be unloaded from the new super-container ships that will be able to cross the expanded Panama Canal.
  • Second, for the commodities to go elsewhere will require the unloading of the super-container ships at Mariel and then reloading those commodities in smaller container vessels to go to the major countries on the northern and eastern sides of the South American continent: Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. How big are those markets?
  • Third, presumably the major Latin American countries with coasts on the Pacific Ocean like Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile will not be markets for commodities transshipped from Mariel.
  • Fourth, unless there is U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, the largest potential market for such transshipment, the U.S., presumably would not be importing commodities from the Mariel port.

Similar skepticism about Cuba’s ability to attract foreign investment for other reasons have been voiced by foreign investment experts. The Inter-American Dialogue, which is the leading U.S. center for policy analysis, exchange, and communication on Western Hemisphere affairs, has provided the following four such skeptics.

Matthew Aho, consultant in the corporate practice group of Akerman Senterfitt in New York, said, “While the [Cuban] rhetorical message was positive: ‘Cuba is open for business,’ little has changed to improve Cuba’s general investment climate, and foreign companies there report few changes to their dealings with Cuban counterparts. In fact, many businesses say the same bottlenecks, delays and idiosyncrasies that have long frustrated investors have been exacerbated recently by growing wariness among major banks to handle legitimate Cuba-related transactions.” He added, “While Cuba clearly has potential, most mainstream investors will steer clear until the Cubans define clearer rules of the road and improve their track record with new and existing partners.”

According to José R. Cárdenas, director of Visión Américas in Washington, “Eight billion dollars is a wildly exaggerated figure that Cuba has no chance of ever realizing. [Foreign investors] demand such things as transparency, legal guarantees and predictability, which the Cuban government is incapable of providing. Witness the widely publicized ordeals of Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian and Englishman Stephen Purvis, among others, who wound up in incarcerated in Cuba’s Kafkaesque legal system for unclear reasons. There may as well be a ring of flashing red lights surrounding the island warning foreign investors of the exorbitant risks to doing business in Cuba. . . . Any progressing economy needs the freedom to innovate, take risks and guarantee that one will reap the benefits of their efforts. Cuba, like China, cannot ultimately offer such conditions. As long as the primacy of the Communist Party remains the Cuban lodestar, the country will continue to head into an uncertain future.”

Scott J. Morgenstern, associate professor and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh also was skeptical. He said, “Cuba must create new opportunities for private employment. Thus, while the reforms are making some investment possible, investors will not find wide-open markets and streamlined bureaucratic procedures. In many areas, there are severe limits concerning where people can invest and the types of businesses they can open. Currency convertibility will also be a critical issue for any business; currently there are two currencies, only one of which is convertible. Foreigners, formally, are only allowed to use the convertible currency, and the official exchange rates distort the currency values. Reforms are promised, but the uncertainty will likely discourage some investors. One other important concern for investors is the size of the Cuban domestic market. The country is attracting several million tourists per year, and many Cubans do receive financial support from abroad, but purchasing power is still limited.”

Carlos A. Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group and Regis HR Group offered these comments. “Cuba’s economic reforms so far have been too little, too late and too timid to result in significant economic performance . . . . [Cuba’s] continuing economic mismanagement, the numerous distortions in Cuba’s economic and political systems, a stubborn ideology, an obtuse and weighty bureaucracy and the fears of change harbored by Cuba’s leaders all play even more heavily in keeping Cuba’s economy from reaching its full potential. Cuban leaders continue to expect ‘silver bullet solutions’ to their economic woes. The port of Mariel is a perfect example. Pinning hopes of an economic recovery on mega-projects or a few foreign investments take attention away from the core distortions and inefficiencies plaguing the entire domestic economy. Fear of change and ideological rigidity can be clearly seen in Cuba’s eight-month-old foreign investment law. Since the law was passed, Cuban authorities still don’t have any significant major investment projects to report. The foreign investment law was a great missed opportunity to really send a message to the world, and specifically to the United States, that Cuba is ready for business. Such a message would have added great momentum to the anti-embargo movement, which is building momentum in the United States and in Miami. Yet, they chose more of the same, leaving arbitrariness, lack of clarity and burdensome regulations.”

Similar skeptical opinions about the Cuban efforts to develop the Mariel port were expressed by Richard Feinberg, the Brookings Institution’s Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Latin American Initiative. He said, “the industrial sites are not yet fully leveled nor are they hooked up to basic infrastructure! But the problems run much deeper: previous Cuban efforts to launch free trade zones floundered on the requirement of hiring expensive labor through government employment agencies, and the continuing closure of the most logical export market, the nearby [U.S.]. Cuba’s newly revised foreign investment laws appear to allow investors greater flexibility in setting wage scales, but this potentially promising reform, and its impact on labor costs, remains to be fully tested in practice.”

Finally, Miguel Coyula, a retired Cuban government official on a trip to Washington before returning home to the island, stated ““Mariel is the most promoted place in Cuba, with special development zones for investors. But soon it’ll be a year after the opening of Mariel, and there is absolutely nothing. Even the container terminal in Havana was moved to Mariel to give it a sense of activity, but no one will invest there. For one thing, potential foreign investors in Mariel don’t like the fact that they can’t hire employees on their own, but instead must pay a government employment agency in dollars for that labor. The agency, in turn, pays workers in Cuban pesos. That’s because the Castro government wants to avoid creating a class of highly paid Cubans who work for foreign companies, ‘but inequalities are there whether you like it or not.’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New York Times Calls for End of U.S. Program for Special Immigration Relief for Cuban Medical Personnel

On November 17th the New York Times published another editorial in its series urging changes in U.S. policies regarding Cuba.[1] Under the title “A Cuban Brain Drain, Courtesy of the U.S.,” the editorial targets the U.S.’s Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (CMPPP).

In order to understand the editorial, we first must look at the Cuban government’s policy and program of sending Cuban medical personnel to other countries and then at the CMPPP’s response to that Cuban program. Thereafter we will examine the Times’ rationale for its recommendation along with the arguments for the Wall Street Journal’s support of the CMPPP before we voice our conclusions.

 Cuban Policy and Program of Sending Medical Personnel Abroad

According to a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, since 1973 Cuba has been sending medical ‘brigades’ to foreign countries, “helping it to win friends abroad, to back ‘revolutionary’ regimes in places like Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua, and perhaps most importantly, to earn hard currency. [The] Communist Party newspaper Granma reported in June [2010] that Cuba had 37,041 doctors and other health workers in 77 countries. Estimates of what Cuba earns from its medical teams—revenue that Cuba’s central bank counts as ‘exports of services’—vary widely, running to as much as $8 billion a year.”

Again, according to the same Wall Street Journal article, Cuban doctors often desire such overseas assignments because they provide opportunities to earn significantly more money than at home. “When serving overseas, they get their Cuban salaries [of $25 per month], plus a $50-per-month stipend—both paid to their dependents while they’re abroad. . . . In addition, they themselves receive overseas salaries—from $150 to $1,000 a month, depending on the mission.” Many on-the-side also engage in private fee-for-service medical practice, including abortions. As a result, many of the Cubans are able to save substantial portions of their overseas income, which they often use to purchase items they could not have bought in Cuba like television sets and computers. Other desirable purchases are less expensive U.S. products that they can sell at a profit when they return to Cuba.

The Wall Street Journal article adds, “Since Hugo Chávez came to power in Venezuela in 1998, Cuba has been bartering its [medical personnel] . . . for Venezuelan oil. The U.S. Energy Department estimates that in [2010] Venezuela ships Cuba 90,000 barrels of oil a day—worth more than $2 billion a year at [then] current prices. In addition, Venezuela pays Cuba for medical teams sent to countries that Mr. Chávez considered part of Venezuela’s “Bolivarian” sphere: Bolivia, Honduras, Ecuador and Paraguay.”

As a result of this quid pro quo, Cuba has over 10,000 medical personnel serving in Venezuela. According to the Los Angeles Times just this past September, the working conditions in that country for the Cubans are horrible. Many of the clinics lack air-conditioning and functioning essential medical equipment. The Cubans’ workload is often “crushing.” Common crime is rampant, and the Cubans are often caught in the middle of Venezuela’s civil unrest between followers of the late Hugo Chavez who want the Cubans to be there and more conservative forces that oppose the Cuban presence. As a result, as we will see below in the discussion of CMPPP, many Cuban medical personnel serving in Venezuela have chosen to defect to the U.S. under CMPP.

The Times editorial says, “This year, according to the state-run newspaper Granma, the government expects to make $8.2 billion from its medical workers overseas. The vast majority, just under 46,000, are posted in Latin America and the Caribbean. A few thousand are in 32 African countries.”[2]

Facts Regarding CMPPP

A U.S. Department of State website says this program was announced on August 11, 2006, “by the Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with the Department of State, [as a program] that . . . would allow Cuban medical personnel conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Cuban government to enter the United States.”[3]

Under the program “Cuban Medical Professionals” (i.e., health-care providers such as doctors, nurses, paramedics, physical therapists, lab technicians and sports trainers) are eligible if they meet the following criteria: (1) Cuban nationality or citizenship, (2) medical professional currently conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Government of Cuba, and (3) not otherwise ineligible for entry into the U.S. Spouses and/or minor children are also eligible for such parole.

According to the Times’ editorial and the Wall Street Journal, the program “was the brainchild of Cuban-born Emilio González,” a former U.S. Army colonel, the director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008 and a “staunchly anti-Castro exile.” “He has characterized Cuba’s policy of sending doctors and other health workers abroad as ‘state-sponsored human trafficking.’” The Cuban doctors, he says, work directly for health authorities in other countries and have no say in their assignments.

The Times’ editorial includes the following table showing the official numbers of CMPPP visas that have been issued:

Fiscal Year Number
2006      11
2007    781
2008    293
2009    519
2010    548
2011    384
2012    681
2013    995
2014 1,278
TOTAL 5,490

Given the large numbers of Cuban medical personnel that are sent to Venezuela to help pay for Cuba’s importation of Venezuelan oil, it is not surprising that the largest number of defections of Cubans has been from that country. As of the end of FY 2010, according to the previously mentioned Wall Street Journal article, the total defections by country were the following: Venezuela, 824; Colombia, 291; Bolivia, 60; Dominican Republic, 30; Ecuador, 28; Guatemala, 25; Brazil, 21; Namibia, 21; Peru, 19; and Guyana, 14.

Apparently the largest number of defections from Venezuela continues in light of the previously mentioned difficult working conditions. For FY 2011-2014 there were an additional 1,181 Cuban defections from Venezuela to the U.S. under CMPPP for a grand total of 2,005.[4] In addition, many of the Cubans in that country fear being seen going to the U.S. embassy in Caracas and instead fly to neighboring Colombia and apply there for CMPPP.

Another obvious reason for such defections under CMPP is the desire of the Cubans to earn more income in the U.S. I have met a Cuban neurologist whose wife was a skilled nurse, but who worked as a waitress in a nearby resort in order to earn more income and obtain tips in hard currencies. Like almost all Cubans, they did not earn enough to afford to have their own automobile and told me about Cuban television announcements that people who had an automobile or other vehicle had a special obligation to give rides to anyone in a white coat. Later while on a mission in Central America they defected to the U.S. under CMPPP. At least as I heard their story, they were merely looking for a way to improve their lives financially.

The Times’ Reasons for Ending CMPPP

The editorial starts by noting, “Secretary of State John Kerry and the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have praised the work of Cuban doctors dispatched to treat Ebola patients in West Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently sent an official to a regional meeting the Cuban government convened in Havana to coordinate efforts to fight the disease. In Africa, Cuban doctors are working in American-built facilities.The epidemic has had the unexpected effect of injecting common sense into an unnecessarily poisonous relationship.”

Therefore, says the Times, “it is incongruous for the [U.S.] to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake [and the current Ebola crisis in West Africa] while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy [under CMPPP].”

Moreover, says the Times, “Cuba has been using its medical corps as the nation’s main source of revenue and soft power for many years. The country has one of the highest numbers of doctors per capita in the world and offers medical scholarships to hundreds of disadvantaged international students each year, and some have been from the United States. According to Cuban government figures, more than 440,000 of the island’s 11 million citizens are employed in the health sector.”

The creation of CMPP was really motivated by a desire by anti-Castro Americans “to strike at the core of the island’s primary diplomatic tool, while embarrassing the Castro regime.” This is hardly a worthy motivation for the U.S.

For a poor country like Cuba, it makes sense to use one of its few economic strengths to bolster its foreign exchange earnings. Is this not an example of the concept of comparative advantage first formulated by classical economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo? The program also helps Cuba garner good will around the world for helping to improve the health of others. There is no legitimate reason for the U.S. to be opposed to such a program.

Adds the Times editorial, “American immigration policy should give priority to the world’s neediest refugees and persecuted people. It should not be used to exacerbate the brain drain of an adversarial nation at a time when improved relations between the two countries are a worthwhile, realistic goal.”

In 2006 when CMPPP was commenced, Cuban medical personnel could not obtain their government’s permission to leave the island for any reason, and this was asserted as one of the reasons for the U.S.’ creation of CMPPP. Last year, however, the Times says, “the Cuban government liberalized its travel policies, allowing most citizens, including dissidents, to leave the country freely. Doctors, who in the past faced stricter travel restrictions than ordinary Cubans, no longer do.”

Moreover, the Times asserts, “The Cuban government has long regarded the medical defection program as a symbol of American duplicity. It undermines Cuba’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises and does nothing to make the government in Havana more open or democratic. As long as this incoherent policy is in place, establishing a healthier relationship between the two nations will be harder.”

Finally, according to the Times, “Many medical professionals, like a growing number of Cubans, will continue to want to move to the United States in search of new opportunities, and they have every right to do so. But inviting them to defect while on overseas tours is going too far.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Reasons for Supporting CMPPP

The Wall Street Journal’s opinions on this subject are frequently uttered by its columnist on Latin American issues, Mary Anastasia O’Grady. The headline for her November 9, 2014, column makes clear her ultimate conclusion: “Cuba’s Slave Trade in Doctors.” She asserts that Cuba’s policy and practice of sending some of its medical personnel to other countries is an “extensive human-trafficking racket now being run out of Havana.”

Her argument centers on the Cuban government’s being paid for these services by other countries like Venezuela or by international organizations like WHO and the government’s paying its medical personnel only some of the Cuban government’s revenues for their services. But this ignores the fact that any corporation or other business entity that sells services, pays the people who actually provide the service less than what is collected by the corporation because there are other cost factors that have to be covered plus a profit.

While she admits that “Cuban doctors are not forced at gunpoint to become expat slaves,” she argues they “are given offers they cannot refuse.”

Conclusion

When the CMPPP was created in 1966, Cuba’s government prohibited its medical personnel from leaving the island, and one of CMPP’s original rationales was providing a legitimate way to provide them with a way to leave Cuba and go elsewhere. Now, however, the Cuban government permits such citizens to leave. This change, in this blogger’s opinion, eliminates the only arguably legitimate basis for CMPPP.

The allegation by some supporters of CMPP that Cuba’s practice of sending medical teams to other countries is a form of human trafficking is absurd, in this blogger’s opinion. The Cuban government has paid for all of the education of its medical personnel, and sending some of them to serve in foreign countries is a way for them to compensate the state for their free education. This Cuban practice is like the U.S. practice during some wars of having a selective service system and drafting some people to serve in our armed forces. Similarly we in the U.S. from time to time have debated having some kind of required national non-military service program for younger citizens without anyone arguing that it would be illegal human trafficking.

The U.S. State Department issues annual reports on the status of other countries’ human trafficking, which the reports define as “umbrella terms for the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing, or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud, or coercion.” This compelled service requirement uses “a number of different terms, including involuntary servitude, slavery or practices similar to slavery, debt bondage, and forced labor.”

Although the latest U.S. report on this subject unjustly casts Cuba into the report’s Tier 3 status,[5] as argued in a prior post, that report rejects the argument that Cuba is engaged in human trafficking when it sends its medical personnel to other countries. Here is what that report says on this issue:

  • “Some Cubans participating in the work missions have stated that the postings are voluntary, and positions are well paid compared to jobs within Cuba. Others have claimed that Cuban authorities have coerced them, including by withholding their passports and restricting their movement. Some medical professionals participating in the missions have been able to take advantage of U.S. visas or immigration benefits [under the CMPPP], applying for those benefits and arriving in the United States in possession of their passports—an indication that at least some medical professionals retain possession of their passports. Reports of coercion by Cuban authorities in this program do not appear to reflect a uniform government policy of coercion; however, information is lacking.”

This blogger, therefore, supports the Times’ calling for an end to CMPPP.

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[1] Under the overall title of “Cuba: A New Start,” the prior editorials (all of which are simultaneously published in Spanish) have urged overall reconciliation between the two countries, including ending the ending of the U.S. embargo of the island, the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and re-establishing normal diplomatic relations; U.S.-Cuba collaboration in combatting Ebola in West Africa; recognizing changing U.S. public opinion on relations with Cuba; U.S.-Cuba exchange of prisoners; and ending USAID covert programs to promote regime change in Cuba.

[2] Another issue unrelated to CMPPP is whether or not the services provided by the Cuban medical personnel meet the professional standards of the country where they serve. A South American ophthalmologist has told this blogger that she frequently has been called to fix problems created by Cuban doctors on such missions, but this blogger has no information about any comprehensive study of this issue.

[3] The program’s stated statutory authorization is INA section 212(d)(5)(A), 8 U.S.C. 1182(d)(5)(A) (permits parole of an alien into the United States for urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit); 8 CFR 212.5(c) & (d) (discretionary authority for granting parole), whereby the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) may exercise its discretionary parole authority to permit eligible Cuban nationals to come to the United States.

[4] This calculation is based upon a November 9, 2014, article in Venezuela’s El Universal newspaper.

[5] Tier 3 is a U.S.-created category of countries that the U.S. asserts “do not fully comply with [a U.S. statute’s] minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so”.