Need for a Sensible Cuba Policy

How times have changed! There was a time when most of the countries in the Western Hemisphere agreed with Washington’s hostile policy toward Cuba and cooperated with it. Now the U.S. is alone. It is the only country in this hemisphere that does not have normal relations with the island. And in large part that is because Cuba no longer has an unfriendly policy or attitude toward the other countries. On the contrary, it has amicable relations with them. Gone are the days when the other countries saw Cuba as a threat. Nor in fact is Cuba any longer a threat to the U.S. On the contrary, President Raul Castro emphasizes Cuba’s wish for normal relations with the U.S.

And U.S. refusal may now place it in a dicey situation. The Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela has indicated that Cuba will be invited to the next hemispheric summit, to be held this coming April, with invitations going out in November. The U.S. objects to inviting Cuba, saying it isn’t a democracy. In the past, the other countries went along with the U.S. on this– but not this time. Apparently all plan to attend. It would be an embarrassment for the U.S. to be the only absent voice. And even to send the vice president or some lower ranking official in the president’s place would be awkward.

And why place ourselves in such a position? What could possibly be gained? Nothing. The U.S. should attend and agree quickly to do so. And why not? As noted above, times have changed. Cuba is no longer trying to overthrow the other governments. It is no longer a pariah. And what better a way for the U.S. to signal a change of policy. The president should go and make a point of shaking hands with Raul Castro, as he did on December 10, 2013 at the memorial service in South Africa for Nelson Mandela. Obama praised the spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation Mandela exemplified, and then went on to say that “we can choose a world defined not by our differences, but by our common hopes. We can choose a world defined not by conflict, but by peace and justice and opportunity.”

Returning from South Africa, Raul Castro also expressed the hope that Cuba and the United States might “establish civilized relations” and “a respectful dialogue.” And these words are all quoted in an important new book by Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh, Back Channel to Cuba.* The book is receiving enthusiastic acclaim from key figures and institutions in the foreign affairs community and I believe it is likely to play a role in bringing about — at long last — a successful denouement between the two old antagonists.

The title of the book’s last chapter, “Intimate Adversaries, Possible Friends,” sums it up quite well. And as LeoGrande and Kornbluh point out, all through the fifty some-odd years of hostility and conflict between the U.S. and Cuba, there have also been many episodes of constructive contacts and negotiations. These include author and activist John Donovan’s trips to Cuba and negotiations with Castro in 1962 and 1963, which resulted in the release of the 1,113 Bay of Pigs prisoners and thirty-nine other U.S. citizens, among them three CIA agents. And then there was newsman Jean Daniel’s conversations with Castro in 1963, instigated by President Kennedy, who indicated that the trade embargo could be lifted if Castro ended his support for leftist movements in the hemisphere. In Daniel’s estimation, after two of his conversations with Castro, both Kennedy and Castro were ready to make peace. But then came the awful news that Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. As Castro glumly noted to Daniel, “this is the end of your mission of peace.”

And so it was, but that was 51 years ago. And what LeoGrande and Kornbluh are emphasizing is that in today’s atmosphere, the memories of the efforts at rapprochement that almost worked may count for more than the history of antagonism which resulted in nothing good.

*Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana. The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2014.

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Five Days for the Cuban Five

A press conference held at the National Press Club on Thursday, May 30th marked the beginning of five days of action calling for the release of the “Cuban Five” and fundamental changes in U.S.-Cuba policy. The panelists included Wayne S. Smith, Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy and former Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Dolores Huerta, President of the Dolores Huerta foundation and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, Ignacio Ramonet, Spanish writer and former editor in chief of Le Monde Diplomatique, and Rene Gonzalez, the only one of the Five to be released to date. Thursday morning’s press conference was the first time Rene Gonzalez, speaking live from Havana, has addressed the American people about the Five’s imprisonment and the politically-charged trial that preceded it. Rene recently gave up his U.S. citizenship in exchange for permission to stay in Cuba after a two-week authorized visit due to the death of his father. His remarks focused on the lack of awareness amongst the American public regarding the realities of the trial and the severity of the human rights violations that have roots in it.

The panelists discussed the injustices of the trial and the unreasonable sentencing of the Five, who were assigned to the U.S. to obtain information about the terrorist activities of exiles attacking Cuba. The Five were arrested after Cuba had invited FBI representatives to Cuba and presented them with evidence of exile terrorist activities in hopes that the FBI would act against the exile terrorist groups. But rather than acting against the terrorist groups, the FBI arrested the Five for espionage. The lack of evidence for their prosecution on charges of espionage led to their conviction on charges of “conspiracy;” yet the sentences allotted were far longer than those given even to spies from Iraq under Hussein. The panelists emphasized that the trial was carried out in a climate of emotional fervor perpetuated by the media, partly due to its location in Miami where anti-Cuba exiles abound. Additionally, President Obama’s recent statements justifying counterterrorist activities reveal the paradoxical policies in practice in the case of the Cuban Five. While the U.S. supports dubious methods of counterterrorist efforts such as drones, we have imprisoned the Five for their nonviolent counterterrorist actions and denied them even the right to see their families.

Although the plight of the Cuban Five is not new news in itself, the five days of action come at a time when there is new opportunity for changes in the overall U.S. -Cuba policy, following the appointment of John Kerry to Secretary of State and the hints of rapprochement in Obama’s policy changes relaxing travel restrictions to the island. Perhaps the most important question fielded by the panelists was regarding how this campaign to free the Cuban Five will be different from unsuccessful campaigns in the past. All answers emphasized the opportunistic political climate and the need to create a public push to get normalization on the policy agenda while Obama is in his second term. Other issues of discussion during the coming five days will include removing Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, ending the embargo, and closing Guantanamo naval base. While the sentiment among realists about these issues has continually remained that they will be solved in time, the sentiment among the panelists, as expressed by Dolores Huerta, is that the time is now. Ya es la hora.

A calendar of the events planned for the Five Days for the Cuban Five can be found at this link:

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New Rationale for Keeping Cuba on the List?

The U.S. could quickly and painlessly indicate a change in its policy toward Cuba by removing it from the list of “state sponsors of terrorism,” given that there is no valid evidence whatever that Cuba should be on the list.  Rather than that, however, the State Department has suggested a new reason for keeping it there, saying that it continues “to permit fugitives wanted in the U.S. to reside in Cuba.” In other words, to find refuge there. This clearly has reference to Joanne Chesimard (or Assata Shakur), the Black Panther activist convicted in 1973 for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper. She escaped prison in 1979 and has been in Cuba most of the time since. But in his excellent essay presented at the National Press Club on March 7, 2013, on the question of fugitives as an alleged reason for keeping Cuba on the list, Bob Muse takes issue with this as a valid rationale.  In order to comply with Section 6(j) of the 1979 Export Act, which gives the secretary of state the authority to designate a state as a sponsor of terrorism, the fugitives, he points out, must also have committed “terrorist” acts which were “international” in character. Joanne Chesimard’s do not fit that definition – nor, he says, has he found other U.S. fugitives in Cuba with such a charge in their records.

Interestingly, nonetheless, as though to give some credence to the idea that Chesimard’s continued presence in Cuba is reason enough to keep Cuba on the “state sponsors of terrorism” list, the FBI added her to its “Ten Most Wanted List” on May 1st. This isn’t likely to bring about any profound change, but would suggest at the very least that rather than moving toward some slight improvement in relations, the administration is on hold, if not a “dead stop.”

And that would also be suggested by Vice President Biden’s recent statement that while Cuba has made some “small encouraging signs of change,” the administration wants to see “real change.” There is no indication, of course, as to what that “real change” would have to look like.

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The Shame and Harm of Keeping Cuba on the Terrorist List

A State Department spokesman stated on May 1 that Washington has no plans to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Hopefully, wiser heads will prevail and it will soon be removed. As CIP’s reports over the past decade have pointed out, there is not a shred of evidence that Cuba is involved in terrorist activities.

In November 2004 CIP noted that, “the State Department’s reasons for keeping Cuba [on the list] do not withstand the most elementary scrutiny.” That remains the case today, especially given that Cuba is hosting peace talks between Colombian rebels and that country’s government. While there are still some members of the Basque organization (ETA) living in Cuba, none are involved in terrorist activities – indeed, on January 10, 2011 ETA declared a permanent cease-fire.

As for the public renunciation of terrorism, Cuba has done so on a number of occasions, including most recently when it sent condolences both to the American people and the U.S. government over the bombings in Boston. And years ago Cuba signed all UN denunciations of terrorism.

Keeping Cuba on the terrorism list undermines the list’s validity and usefulness. As Juliette Kayyem of the Boston Globe put it on April 29, “to treat a nation as a terrorist threat when it is not, we so dilute the term that it matters little to the countries we hope to isolate.” After waiting many years for an administration to do the right thing, many of us hoped the Obama administration would remove Cuba from the list. We are still hoping.

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Rapprochement With Cuba

The Center for International Policy recently partnered with the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy to host Rapprochement With Cuba: Good for Tampa, Good for Florida, Good for America. Representative Kathy Castor (D-FL) provided the opening remarks at the Friday evening cocktail event in Tampa, FL and welcomed the panelists. The panel included Wayne Smith, Al Fox, Colonel Larry Wilkerson, Counselor Llanio Gonzalez-Perez, Peter Kornbluh, Dan Whittle and Mike Mauricio. The following day, the panelists discussed the Obama Administration’s Cuba policy, the State Department’s list of terrorist states, the Cuban-American vote, the U.S. Congress’s Cuba policy, doing business in Cuba, deep water oil drilling in Cuba’s terrestrial waters  and travel to Cuba at the Historic Cuban Club.

If you were unable to attend the conference, you have the opportunity to catch up on the subjects discussed in Tampa by following this link:


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Is the New Miami Dynamic a Game Changer?

            CIP and the Latin America Working Group hosted five Cuban Americans on Capitol Hill—four of them Miamians—in two days of visits and a briefing that highlighted the changing political face of Miami.  The message they unequivocally delivered was that a sizable majority (60%) of Cuban Americans in south Florida now favors engagement with Cuba, and that the area’s hardline congressional representatives do not reflect the views of most of their constituents on the issue. The group also pointed out that Cuba itself is restructuring and evolving, and it would be to the advantage of the United States to have a voice in the process.  In meetings with more than a dozen new members or their staffs from Midwestern farm states and Florida, responses were encouraging. Both Republicans and Democrats expressed frustration with the status quo and openness to change.

            Cuban Americans under 40 are driving the change in outlook, but many older Miami Cubans agree it’s time for a new policy.  The Cuban American Washington visitors were born in Cuba and (with one exception) left in the 1960s and 1970s, and last week they came to make the case to Congress. Legislation to lift the embargo is highly unlikely in this Congress, but the Obama Administration can significantly alter policy through administrative action—and start discussions with the Cuban government.  Our group urged legislators to give the President the political space to do so, and to let him know he has it.

            Actions that the President can take that would improve relations with Cuba include removing Cuba from the state sponsors’ of terrorism list, easing travel to the island by permitting all “purposeful” travel with a general, rather than specific, license, and loosening financial requirements for agricultural sales.  Myriad other bilateral issues, including the incarceration of USAID contractor Alan Gross, could likely be negotiated as a package if the White House would only sit down and talk.

            Coincidentally, the Cuban-American visit overlapped with that of well-known Cuban dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, who spoke on Capitol Hill and at several other Washington venues.  Though under no illusion that the blogosphere will bring democracy to Cuba, she said it’s helping to open “cracks in the wall of censorship.” She advocated lifting the U.S. embargo, in part to remove the “first and foremost excuse for everything.”  “I doubt the government could continue to function without it,” she said.


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An Isolated and Outdated U.S. Cuba Policy

In what can only be seen as an important victory for Cuba and a rebuff to U.S. policy toward the island nation, on the last weekend in January the Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (CELAC), meeting in Santiago de Chile, elected Cuba to the presidency of the organization and handed the chairman’s baton to Raul Castro, who was present at the meeting. Further, a large delegation of European leaders, led by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was also present, giving Cuba’s presidency move added momentum and relevance. All this points up again the need for the U.S. to change its isolated and outdated policy toward Cuba.

But until now, the U.S. has taken the position that it will take no step to improve relations with Cuba until Alan Gross, the USAID contractor  imprisoned for “actions against the Cuban state, ” is released.  The Cubans needless to say would expect some quid pro quo and hint that the U.S. should in return release the Cuban Five. The release of all five is unlikely, however, especially as one, Gerardo Hernandez,  however unfairly,  is in for life for “murder,” accused of having been involved in the shoot down of the Brothers to the Rescue planes in 1996 (though there is not a shred of evidence against him).

Some U.S. officials have given the impression that the Cuban position is set in stone, that the U.S. must release all five or there is no deal. A Johns Hopkins delegation in Cuba recently, however, found this not necessarily to be the case. Cuban officials with whom we spoke indicated that even the question of an exchange for Gross is certainly open to negotiation.

And what of Alan Gross himself? He is certainly not innocent of any wrongdoing, as the U.S. maintains. He was distributing sophisticated communications equipment in clear violation of Cuban law and memos that have surfaced make it clear that he was working (however unsuccessfully) to undermine the Cuban government.  But there is no blood on his hands and he is guilty on no heinous crime.

There is no reason, in short, that imaginative diplomacy and negotiations could not lead to the release of Alan Gross and open the road to improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba. And certainly this is in the interest of the U.S., given that its present Cuban policy is rejected by the rest of the world and leads nowhere.  Every year when the vote on the U.S. embargo comes up in the UN General Assembly, the vote is overwhelming. One or two tiny island nations in the Pacific may vote with us, and always Israel. But however it votes, Israel is one of Cuba’s most active trading partners. It votes with us but it too rejects our policy. We are alone.

None of this is reflected in President Obama’s statement of January 30 suggesting that Cuba is living in the past and should change. But in fact it is changing. Some 52 years have passed since we broke relations with Cuba. It is no longer the ally of the Soviet Union. It is no longer trying to overthrow other governments in the hemisphere and thus now has diplomatic relations with all of them. And it is moving toward a more open economic system. The world has changed, as has Cuba. Only our policy remains frozen in time. It is long since time to change it. And we could certainly do more to encourage Cuba in the right direction through engagement rather than continued efforts at isolation.

And perhaps there is hope. In his January 30 statement, President Obama said that he could foresee improved relations during his second term if Cuba meets him half way.

And Josefina Vidal, a senior Cuban Foreign Ministry official, replied that the U.S. could “count on the willingness of the people and government of Cuba to work to advance bilateral relations.”

Let us hope they both mean what they say.

Wayne S. Smith was the Chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (1979-82) and is now an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University and a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Policy in Washington, D.C.

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