Our Opinions

November 2015
The Obama administration has repeatedly said that the Cuban Adjustment Act — CAA — is not up for negotiation with the Cuban government, much to the chagrin of their counterparts in Havana.
October 2015
"Necessity is the mother of all invention" goes the old proverb, and few countries in the world have tested its saliency quite like Cuba. A suffocating half-century mix of communist socio-economic policies and blanket U.S. sanctions have forged a people for whom the need to "resolver" - improvising solutions by repurposing the scarce resources around you - has become more than just a way of life. It is arguably the only way most of them are able to create value in their society.
January 2015
On a sunny day this past summer, two entrepreneurs met in South Beach to talk about artisanal soaps. They exchanged stories about how they became interested in the soap-making business and discussed their favorite places to buy supplies and how to develop their favorite scents. What makes this seemingly routine meeting between entrepreneurs different is that Ricardo is a Cuban-American with an established soap-making business in Miami and Sandra is one of Cuba’s half a million nascent entrepreneurs and sells her soap out of a storefront in Old Havana.

Changing From Within

January 12, 2015

On the morning of December 17, I was in my office responding to e-mails when my assistant of almost 25 years sauntered in saying something sotto voce about Alan Gross having been freed. I don't always interrupt what I am doing when she comes in, but this time I mumbled something in acknowledgement.

The End of Policy

January 9, 2015

On December 17, President Obama took bold actions to start unraveling one of the longest foreign-policy morasses in recent history. For nearly 55 years, we have kept in place a failed policy. In the early years of the Cuban revolution, we tried nearly everything to bring down the Cuban regime, including the imposition of sanctions, which over time became the most severe set of sanctions imposed on any foe.
When President Obama announced that he would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba and take steps to increase the free flow of people, resources and information to the island, he delivered an important blow to the myth of resource denial as a viable policy. For more than half a century, defenders of the status quo in U.S. policy toward Cuba have argued that denying the Cuban government hard currency would advance U.S. Interests. After nine U.S. Presidents followed these unilateral sanctions to no avail, President Obama has set us on a new course -- but will Congress follow suit or will it cave to the same old pressures?
Witnessing the historic rapprochement between the United States and Cuba on December 17, 2014 inspired Cuban artist Tania Bruguera to make her own bold statement. Aware that the world's eyes were now focused on the island, she decided that on December 30 she would set up a podium in Havana's Revolution Plaza and invite fellow artists and civil society leaders to each express their ideal visions for Cuba's future in one minute or less. The event was titled #YoTambienExijo (#ITooDemand).
December 2014
The most damaging legacy of the Helms-Burton Act is not that it codified the bulk of U.S. sanctions into law, but that it codified the way we are supposed to think about solving the Cuban puzzle. It zapped our creativity and told us we must consider only one zero-sum, all-or-nothing course of action to foster change in Cuba — a course that never had a serious chance of succeeding.
This week President Obama made history by redefining U.S. relations with Cuba, which have been plagued for over half a century by isolation and confrontation. The announcement revealed that for 18 months the White House was involved in secret negotiations with the Castro government, hosted by Canada and with a prominent role by the Holy See. While no single entity can take credit for making this week’s historic announcement a reality, Cuban Americans in South Florida have played a key role that ought not be overlooked.
April 2014
The U.S. Agency for International Development's 'cockamamie' (to borrow Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy's descriptor) scheme to foment unrest through semi-covert bootleg Twitter site ZunZuneo is only the latest embarrassment stemming from Congress' $15–30 million annual allocation for democracy promotion in Cuba.
November 2013
When Cuban President Raúl Castro first announced in 2008 that his government would begin to "update" the country's economic model, most observers were understandably skeptical of both his intentions and his ability to implement much-needed reforms. Yet, five years later the trend is clear: Cuba is shifting away from a centrally planned command economy toward a 21st century mixed market economic system.
Reconciliation is a word still met with skepticism by Cubans in both the island and diaspora. Our political divisions follow deep grooves long carved into our national narrative, making it difficult for one side to recognize the merits or grievances of the other.
October 2013
2014 could be a real tipping point in U.S.–Cuba relations, but only if both sides seize the moment. That, unfortunately, would be the biggest surprise of all.
July 2013
WASHINGTON, DC – As anyone familiar with Cuba knows, the nation remains an anomaly in the Western Hemisphere. While some Latin American nations have questionable democratic practices, Cuba remains the only country in the region that does not hold elections, a litmus test for democracy.
June 2013
It speaks volumes about the dismal state of U.S.-Cuba relations when, nearly a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, talks on the resumption of postal service is considered 'progress.' Yet the tone of June talks on precisely this issue was described as a 'sea change' by U.S. officials and appears to have laid groundwork for further discussions on more complicated issues.
My goal today is to explain the political context in which Cuba’s continued designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism has taken place: First, political pressure exerted on the Administration by defenders of the status-quo in U.S. policy toward Cuba, secondly, how this designation fits within this Administration’s on-going review of Cuba policy and finally, what implications it has for civil society in Cuba.
April 2013
Yoani Sánchez’ visit to Miami left a dramatic and permanent imprint on our exile community. Notwithstanding her positions on the embargo, travel and reconciliation, she brought us together in ways that no one had been able to do before. Expressions of dissent were almost imperceptible, even in the most hard-core corners of exile radicalism.
Shortly after Cuban blogger and pro-democracy advocate Yoani Sánchez visited the White House last week, she was asked by a TV Martí reporter whether she supported an unconditional lifting of the Cuban embargo.
January 2013
As the Senate prepares to question Hagel on his position on Cuba, it should be aware of an incredible irony: Hagel has been accused of being “soft on Castro” for espousing views that are almost entirely in sync with those of the Island’s leading pro-democracy advocates.
This week marks six months since the death of Cuban pro-democracy leaders Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in Cuba. It also marks the 33rd birthday of Harold.
While John Kerry's views on U.S.–Cuba relations have favored engagement over isolation, ultimate authority rests with a White House that has proceeded cautiously on Cuba during President Obama's first term.
In October 2012, Cuba’s state-run media announced a long-awaited migratory policy that represents the first real political reform implemented by Raul’s government. The announcement follows a steady stream of economic reforms that legalized independent business, the purchase and sale of homes and vehicles, and the lease of idle land for farming, among other things.
December 2012
Earlier this month, USAID subcontractor Alan Grossbegan his fourth year in a Cuban prison. Ever since his incarceration, a debate has raged over whether the United States should halt further efforts to engage with the Cuban people until the Cuban government releases Gross.
April 2012

Cuba and its Diaspora

April 6, 2012

Very rarely do people choose to emigrate for simple personal reasons. Emigration happens when individuals feel that they are no longer able to remain in their country due to a hostile and exclusive political environment, or when living under a non-productive economy that fails to generate necessary job opportunities needed to support their families. With the exception of the poorest countries with a low education level, governments and their policies are the main causes of emigration.
March 2012
Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Cuba at a crucial time in the nation’s history. Pope John Paul II visited in 1998, a time when Communist Europe had crumbled and expectations of change were high; Pope Benedict XVI landed during a time of unprecedented internal change.
October 2011
Few times, if any, in Cuba’s modern history has there been such an opportunity to help fuel the seeds of change on the island. The process of economic reforms put in place by Raul Castro, though limited and often contradictory, provide a window of opportunity help thousands of Cuban entrepreneurs succeed in starting and operating their own, independent businesses.
August 2011
The extensive coverage the media has given to an very small number of vocal Cuban-Americans who opposed the celebration of a concert held in Miami by Cuban artist Pablo Milanés stands in stark contrast to the sentiment of the majority of the exile community, which has gone largely unreported. For years, we have seen how the media has sensationalized protests by these (most likely the same) small number of exiles who, blinded by their hatred for the Cuban regime, have worked tirelessly to maintain the status quo in both Washington and Havana.
June 2011
Guest blogger Tomas Bilbao is Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group with which the Center for Financial Inclusion has collaborated. Bilbao shares his strongly held views on how efforts to reverse positive policy changes announced by the Obama Administration in April of 2009 would hurt the budding entrepreneurial class in Cuba and would represent an obstacle to needed change.
February 2011
In a recent documentary titled “Grandchildren of the Revolution,” which was filmed recently in Cuba, many young Cubans express their lack of faith in a future within the island. Of all the challenges Cuba faces, and there are certainly many of them, the loss of its most valuable resource, its youth, may be the most damaging.

Cuban Cultural Exchange

February 11, 2011

I was delighted to learn about the coming appearances in New York-based venues of many of Cuba’s most accomplished artists. This valuable contact between those in Cuba and Americans can only foster good will between these somewhat strained societies.
News last week that French telecom Alcatel-Lucent SA has begun laying a 1,600-kilometer underwater fiber optic cable between Venezuela and Cuba is the latest evidence of how U.S. sanctions toward Cuba undermine U.S. national interests and push the communist island into the open arms of our adversaries and continue Cuban citizen’s dependence on the regime.
January 2011
Just before the end of last year, AP reported that the Cuban Supreme Court had commuted the death sentence of the last person remaining in Cuba’s death row, a Cuban-American named Humberto Eladio Real. A few weeks before, the Supreme Court also commuted the death sentences of two Salvadorian men who had been convicted in a bombing campaign against Cuba’s tourist sites.

Good for the Cuban people

January 21, 2011

A few days ago, Cuba celebrated the 52nd anniversary of its revolution. For nearly the same amount of time, the United States has applied to Cuba a policy cocktail of sanctions, confrontation and isolation. In fact, sanctions applied to Cuba are more comprehensive than any other U.S. sanctions program in the world, even against America's most virulent enemies.
Speaking to Latin American leaders at an OAS summit in Port of Spain in April of 2009, President Obama declared, “the U.S. seeks a new beginning with Cuba.” "I know there is a longer journey that must be traveled to overcome decades of mistrust, but there are critical steps we can take toward a new day."
October 2010
For about the last three days, Twitter’s social media system could not be accessed from Cuba’s cell phones. Cuba’s surging blogger community was the first to bring this issue to prominence, sparking a quick reaction in just a matter of hours that even elicited a public statement from Cuba’s Vice Minister of Communications. By and large, the initial, though premature, reaction was to place the blame on the Cuban government —the product of raw nerves, past policies and actions, and years of mutual mistrust.
Social media giant Twitter has confirmed that the loss of service experienced by Cuban bloggers posting messages using SMS technology from the island was the result of a technical issue and not the result of censorship by the Cuban government.
Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, who operates under the Twitter account @yoanisanchez, reported from Cuba tonight that Cuban citizens have been unable to publish to the social media site using SMS text messages since last Friday.
The announcement this weekend by dissidents inside the island that the Cuban government may be preparing to release additional political prisoners beyond the initial group of 52 announced a few months ago is encouraging on at least two fronts.
September 2010
On Wednesday, a congressional committee may vote on a bill that would allow all Americans to travel to Cuba. There have been over 35 communist transitions. In every one of them, we engaged and helped bring about the gradual changes that eventually brought the Iron Curtain down. Conversely, a policy of isolation, as we apply to Cuba, has no precedent of success anywhere in bringing about the fall of a totalitarian system.
During a markup hearing in the House Agriculture Committee in June of this year, opponents of a bill that would restore the rights of American citizens to travel to Cuba argued that the move was a “concession to the Cuban regime,” and that the U.S. should not move unilaterally but rather demand positive steps from Cuban leaders first. One Representative opposing the bill argued that Cuba should release political prisoners before the Congress move to lift the travel ban, a demand frequently made by defenders of the status quo until recently...
After 50 years, the all-or-nothing approach of U.S. policy toward Cuba has undoubtedly yielded nothing. Defenders of maintaining this status quo have suggested that any changes in U.S. policy would represent “concessions” to the communist regime. They have argued that the U.S. should continue to demand that Cuba be a modern-day, western-style democracy before the U.S. consider any changes to its own policy. In doing so, defenders of this failed policy have contributed to Cuba’s isolation, helped delay processes of change on the island and effectively placed control of U.S policy toward Cuba in the hands of Cuban leaders.
August 2010
Over the past month, Fidel Castro has made a surprise reemergence in Cuba’s national scene. The now 84-year-old former President has emerged from his convalescence and exchanged his jumpsuits for military garbs and still pictures for public speeches and televised addresses. Fidel appears to be on a mission to protect his legacy and maintain his relevance in Cuba and in the world by replacing four years of images of a frail, defeated old man, with a lucid, worldly leader. If this is indeed his goal, then Fidel is failing miserably.
Defenders of the status quo in U.S. policy toward Cuba charge that advocates for more effective policies are obsessed with “conducting business with the island’s totalitarian, repressive regime.” This is an interesting claim for two fundamental reasons: First, the fact that those who have worked so hard to keep a failed policy in place for over 50 years with the exclusive focus of hurting the Castro brothers would accuse others of being “obsessed.” Secondly, the allegation that those whose opinions are opposed their own are only interested in profiting from a commercial relationship with the regime. Like an unfaithful spouse who accuses his wife of infidelity in order to masquerade his own indiscretions, defenders of the status quo accuse advocates of a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba of being “obsessed” with profiting from a commercial relationship with the regime in order to deflect attention from their own obsession with hurting the Castro brothers This exclusive focus directed a hurting the Castro brothers has come at a great cost for the Cuban people. Not only has this obsession been levied on the shoulders of the Cuban people who have suffered the effects of additional isolation and economic hardship, but it has also delayed the necessary process of change, in effect prolonging the Castro dictatorship and the suffering of the Cuban people. While placing the blame for the suffering of the Cuban people solely on the regime’s failed policies may help defenders of the status quo to clear their conscious, it ignores the fact that, while the regime’s failed policies are mainly to blame for the suffering of the Cuban people, U.S. sanctions and isolation no doubt contribute. Defenders of the status quo are right about one thing though; many of us who advocate for changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba are obsessed with something, we are obsessed with the Cuban people. As difficult as it may be for them to comprehend, our focus is not on the Castro brothers. As Yoani Sanchez points out in an August 5, 2010 editorial in the Washington Post: “Although he is once again in the news, it has been confirmed: Fidel Castro, fortunately, will never return,” a point Ms. Sanchez has made in several past articles: that Fidel is simply a part of Cuba’s past. Rather than obsess with Cuba’s past, some of us choose to concentrate on what we can do today to help the Cuban people. Our focus is not in hurting the Castro brothers, but in helping the Cuban people. We share the belief of a growing majority of Cuban democracy advocates on the island that U.S. policy, far from hastening a transition to democracy on the island, has actually contributed to the isolation of the Cuban people and delayed necessary processes of change. The allegations that the intention of advocates of change in U.S. policy toward Cuba is to benefit economically, is puzzling given how much they have benefited from the millions in U.S. democracy funds they have steered their way over the years. While many of organizations receiving these funds have worked to advance the cause of freedom in Cuba, many have done so while representing the interests of advocates of the status quo, a virtual lobbying arm paid for with taxpayer’s dollars. For almost 20 years, advocates of the status quo have benefited economically from the policies they have promoted. It is no wonder then that they fight so vehemently to maintain the status quo in the U.S. and on the island, as they, just like their counterparts in the Cuban government, risk loosing the most from change. It is time that U.S. policy toward Cuba obsessed, not with hurting the Cuban regime, but with helping the Cuban people. If, in the process of helping the Cuban people our policies hurt the Cuban regime, then all the better, but this should not be the focus of our policy. Likewise, if in the process of hurting the Cuban regime, our policies have a negative collateral effect on the Cuban people, then we should not do so. If the goal of U.S. policy is to empower the Cuban people in order to bring about a peaceful transition to democracy on the island, then our focus of our policy should be on helping the Cuban people, not in hurting the Cuban regime.

What Fidel Didn't Say

August 9, 2010

After four years in the back seat of Cuba’s leadership, Fidel Castro appeared before Cuba’s National Assembly yesterday during an extraordinary session he convened to discuss the “imminent” nuclear war between the U.S. and Iran. Dressed in olive green fatigues, Cuba’s frail former leader delivered a short address from a specially placed podium before sitting next to Cuba’s President of the National Assembly Ricardo Alarcon for an hour of Q&A with members of parliament. This was an opportunity for Fidel to reassure Cubans and the rest of the world that he has recovered from the ailment that led to his handing over power to his brother Raul four years ago. The most telling part of his appearance however, was what the former Cuban leader didn’t say. Just last week, during the opening of the National Assembly’s first session, Raul Castro announced a series of economic reforms that would allow more Cubans to operate their own independent businesses and even hire other Cubans. These small reforms are part of an ongoing effort by the Raul Castro’s government to address the deep economic crisis the country is experiencing and which has plunged average Cubans into the hardest times since the end of Soviet subsidies approximately 20 years ago. While the changes have been slow in coming (Raul first hinted at economic reforms in a July 26, 2007 speech) and modest in scope, they are a clear departure from the stubborn governance of Fidel Castro who rolled back the modest reforms implemented during the Special Period because of fear of losing control. Earlier last month, the Catholic Church in Cuba announced that Raul Castro’s government had agreed to a process for releasing 52 prisoners of conscience who remain in Cuban jails following the mass arrest of peaceful dissidents in the spring of 2003. The move was a clear response to both international pressures from the EU and the Catholic Church, and to domestic pressures from Cuba’s dissident movement. The announcement was viewed as an important step by Raul’s government and as an acknowledgement of the need to carry out reforms. While nobody accuses Raul of being a democrat or even a true reformer, his leadership of Cuba’s armed forces (which manage most of the country’s corporations) and study of western business practices help explain his more results-driven management style versus his brother’s tendency to micromanage and favor rhetoric over results. When Fidel appeared yesterday for his first major speech in four years before Cuba’s National Assembly, his focus was entirely on foreign affairs. The topic of his talk was not the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the flooding in Pakistan and China or the world economic crisis, but a supposed imminent nuclear war launched by the U.S. on Iran. In a series of questions that followed his 15-minute introductory remarks, members of the National Assembly peppered Fidel with a mix of praise and rhetorical questions followed by prolonged applause and only the occasional shot of Raul clapping in support of his ailing brother. At no point during the extraordinary session that gathered almost all of Cuba’s government leaders was there any discussion of domestic issues, the focus of most Cubans’ worries. It is no surprise than that many Cubans chose instead to go about their daily lives, ignoring the speech and pretending that their four-year break free from Fidel’s long, incoherent ramblings continues. However, the most interesting part of Fidel’s speech was not what he said rather what he didn’t say. By focusing entirely on foreign affairs and ignoring domestic issues, Fidel appears to be sending a signal that his brother Raul is in charge of Cuba’s government and calling the shots, while he is content with continuing to comment on “relevant” issues as he has been doing in his “Reflexiones.” Had Fidel wanted to derail Raul’s efforts to implement economic reforms or decrease domestic and international tensions by releasing 52 dissidents, he could have easily done so. Instead, Fidel made no mention of the reforms or of the dissidents, in what could even be interpreted as him having signed off on these decisions. While only time will tell whether Fidel can suppress the urge to micromanage every aspect of Cuba’s government as his did for 47 years, his speech Saturday gives reasons to be cautiously optimistic. An interview he granted four Venezuelan journalists on Sunday also focused on foreign affairs and not domestic issues, another reason to be optimistic. However, as his health improves and Raul Castro’s government undertakes more controversial reforms, the chances that we will see a glimpse of the old Fidel, the micromanager-in-chief, will increase, though we may never nee the old Fidel again. In the meantime, every article he writes or speech he gives in which he doesn’t mention domestic affairs or the day-to-day management of the government will be good news for those of us who would like to faster and more substantive reforms in Cuba.
As a conservative, I have always been puzzled by supporters of the status quo in U.S. policy towards Cuba claiming that those advocating for more effective policies are all “liberals”. It is well documented that ever since the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, when President Kennedy was accused by many of abandoning hundreds of Cuban-Americans who participated in the mission, most exiles have tended to register as Republicans. Over time, they have been a loyal constituency of the party and have enjoyed significant clout in determining U.S. policy toward Cuba. However, this loyalty has come at a cost. The policies advocated by a vocal and politically active minority of Cuban-Americans --the defenders of the status quo-- have run contrary to Republican principles. Furthermore, defenders of the status quo have spent millions lobbying the U.S. government urging it to isolate the Cuban government by restricting the rights of Americans to travel to the island. Not only is this policy misguided in that helps the Cuban government in its efforts to isolate the Cuban people, but it runs contrary to the Republican principles of the protection of individual rights from the federal government. As a conservative, I expect totalitarian regimes to limit personal freedoms, not my own government. In an effort to micromanage Cuba’s transition, defenders of the status quo have also lobbied heavily to create complex government regulations and bureaucratic programs at a cost of hundreds of millions to the U.S. taxpayer. Conservatives would agree that privatizing assistance to Cuba’s civil society would not only be more effective, but also would represent savings of over $20 million a year to taxpayers. In addition, deregulating and privatizing this assistance could help avoid putting government contractors such as Allan Gross at risk of being arrested and charged with espionage. At the time Mr. Gross was arrested, he had received over half a million dollars in government grants to deliver to Cuba equipment that current U.S. sanctions prohibit private citizens from exporting to Cuba. Finally, Conservatives have no business supporting policies that seek to hurt regimes at the expense of the people they victimize. Defenders of the status quo seek to deny resources to Cuba in an effort to force a desperate population to rise up against a well-fed and well-armed military. This policy not only ignores important ethical and moral considerations, but also important historical lessons. After all, it was President Ronald Reagan who, at the height of the Cold War, authorized travel and grain sales to the Soviet Union. He believed that the best way to undermine a communist government was by exposing its citizens to American travelers, products and ideas. This trust in the transformative power of individuals and the American way is what characterizes Conservatives. I realize, however, that defenders of the status quo have been very effective in selling their argument to policymakers by arguing that changes in U.S. policy are tantamount to concessions to the Cuban regime. They argue that breaking Cuba’s isolation by eliminating travel restrictions would reward the regime by putting money in its pockets. They also dismiss efforts to empower the Cuban people by making it easier to place the liberalizing power of technology in their hands or to sell agricultural products to the Cuban government, by suggesting it is just business as usual. Thankfully, 50 years of evidence that the status quo has failed in every respect and an increasingly vocal dissident community calling for fundamental changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba are quickly proving that the real concession to the Cuban regime is to maintain the status quo.
Information has always been a liberating force, and throughout history, authoritarian regimes have always attempted to control it -- Cuba is no exception. Still, Cuba's recent liberalization of communication and technology has had a great impact. In March, the mothers, daughters and wives of Cuban prisoners of conscience -- known as the ``Ladies in White'' -- marched in Havana and were beaten by State Security in broad daylight. Camera phones, illegal up until 2008, captured many of the images that mobilized the outside world in solidarity within a scant matter of minutes. Later, news that Cuban dissident Guillermo Fariñas had agreed to abandon his hunger strike following news that the Cuban government had agreed to release 52 political prisoners was first announced by Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez via Twitter, where she later posted the first photo of ``El Coco'' drinking his first sip of water in 135 days. Traditionally, these regimes have resorted to isolation and the outright banning of information media to achieve their goals. Yet these closed societies have often faced a different kind of dilemma: the positive impact of technology on economic activity versus its liberalizing powers. Attempting to deal with this dilemma, modern dictatorships have opted instead for controlling information media rather than banning it. However, modern information and communications technology has presented two serious and fundamental challenges to dictatorial regimes. • It has democratized information in an unprecedented manner by empowering every citizen to be a producer, rather than a simple consumer, of information. • For those regimes that seek to prioritize economic growth, they are forced to balance the politically liberating forces of technology with the need to be competitive in an increasingly global marketplace. Cuba is not exempt from these challenges; rather, it is attempting to balance these challenges. The Cuban government needs to fundamentally reform the island's economy but deeply fears the political impact of widespread access to communication and technology tools. How it pursues that balance can be greatly facilitated or hindered by U.S. policy toward Cuba. As little as five years ago, there were just a few thousand mobile phones in Cuba, almost all of them in the hands of government officials, foreigners and members of the elite. Since Raúl Castro's announcement lifting the ban on cellphones, the number of cellphones is rapidly approaching one million by the end of 2010. The reason is simple: the economic benefits outweighed political concerns. It is unreasonable to expect the development of other forms of communication tools and technology in Cuba, such as the Internet and social media, without economic models to make them work. Current U.S. regulations restrict the access necessary to make this happen. In fact, the restrictions on Cuba are significantly more onerous and tough than those applied to countries like Iran, North Korea, Syria and Burma. Expanding the opportunities for U.S. telecom companies to provide cellphone and Internet service to the island will help ensure that Cuban citizens possess the tools they need in order to become agents of change. To say this does not deny or minimize the real controls that the Cuban government places on its own citizens' access to the Internet. But expanding citizens' access to even the most rudimentary technology in Cuba would be a giant step forward in empowering a new, independent generation of Cuban citizens. The Cuba Study Group in collaboration with the Brookings Institution and the Americas Society/Council of the Americas recently released a white paper, Empowering the Cuban People Through Technology: Recommendations for Private and Public Sector Leaders, which outlines specific steps the American government and private sector actors can take to facilitate Cuban's access to technology. The report is the result of work of the Group's Cuba IT & Social Media Initiative, which brought together more than 50 IT and telecommunications experts in an effort to identify ways to ensure that Cubans on the island have access to the technology they need to acquire and share information and communicate with each other and the outside world. The report is available at www.CubaITinitiative.org.
July 2010
The announcement this week by the Catholic Church in Cuba that the Cuban government had committed to releasing the remaining 52 political prisoners from the black spring of 2003 has invited a variety of opinions inside and outside the island. While most inside the island and in the exile community have welcomed the announcement as breakthrough, defenders of the status quo in Washington and Miami have preferred to question its significance and criticize the Church in its role as a mediator. Just last week, during a markup of a bill that would restore the rights of Americans to travel to Cuba in the House Agriculture Committee, defenders of the status quo argued against the bill’s approval and called for significant human rights concessions by the Cuban government. Now that the Cuban government has agreed to release 52 political prisoners, these same people dismiss it as a political ploy. In essence, the bar they had set as recently as one week ago, is no longer acceptable to them. Alternatively, many of Cuba’s most prominent dissidents, including former political prisoner Hector Palacios has stated that the move represents: “the most serious step taken by the Cuban government in 50 years.” Meanwhile, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a fellow member of the group of 75 dissidents arrested in the spring of 2003 who was released in 2004 for health reasons, published the following in a June 2, 2001 article: “Articles published abroad suggest that the enemy is inside the Catholic Church, as stated by our compatriot Yoel Prado in a letter published in the New Herald last May 17. These long distance judges, never known to participate in any dissident activity while still in Cuba, forget that for years the Church has been attacked by the totalitarian regime that even banned Christmas celebrations, replacing them with January 1 and July 26 celebrations. They ignore that moderately and patiently in accordance with the conditions in the island, they have tried to work towards progress and harmony in Cuba, as can be read in the book "La Voz de la Iglesia en Cuba" with several dozens of episcopal documents related to the tireless actions directed to finding the road to understanding and peace among Cubans" What defenders of the status quo are ignoring, or perhaps would prefer to ignore, is the fact that developments this week are the clearest evidence thus far of the growing strength of Cuba’s civil society. While there is no doubt that pressure from the European Union and the Catholic Church played a role in Cuba’s decision to release the political prisoners, it is clear that the impetus for the move was internal pressure created by Cuba’s civil society, including Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the Ladies in White, Guillermo Fariñas and the many active democracy advocates and former political prisoners such as Hector Palacios and Oscar Espinosa Chepe. Two of the most important developments related to Cuba of the last 50 years, the announcement of the impending release of 52 political prisoners and the markup of a bill that would restore the rights of Americans to travel to Cuba, owe their success to the growing strength of Cuba’s civil society. For the first time, the Cuban and U.S. governments are reacting to the demands of Cuba’s democracy advocates. A month ago, 74 leading members of Cuba’s civil society including Guillermo Fariñas, Hector Palacios and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, wrote to the U.S. Congress urging them to pass the legislation stating that: “We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government, while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society.” For years now, the Ladies in White have marched peacefully every Sunday demanding the release of their family members. More recently, political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died after fasting for over 80 days demanding better conditions for Cuba’s political prisoners. Just this week, Guillermo Fariñas ended his hunger strike after 135 days demanding the release of Cuba’s most sick political prisoners. Instead of jockeying for influence in Miami and Washington, defenders of the status quo would do well to instead work to augment the growing strength and influence of Cuba’s civil society. Rather than attempting to do so through millions in U.S. taxpayer dollars, they should instead listen to and promote the type of policies that Cuba’s civil society tell us would be most effective in empowering them. Similarly, the international community could recognize the important and courageous work of Cuba’s civil society by supporting the nomination of the Ladies in White for the Nobel Peace Prize. Such recognition would reaffirm and help protect the growing strength of Cuba’s civil society.
June 2010
If change is to come to Cuba, all parties - both on and off the island - must be intellectually honest and stop ignoring opposing views or attempting to quiet dissenting voices ("Sunshine policy' toward Cuba?" Opinion, Tuesday). While attempting to justify maintaining the status quo in U.S. policy toward Cuba, writer Mauricio Claver-Carone conveniently omits the fact that the very pro-democracy leaders he describes in his column have called on the U.S. Congress to lift the ban on travel to the island. Guillermo Farinas, the brave democracy advocate who has been on a hunger strike for three months; Miriam Leiva, a co-founder of the Ladies in White; and Yoani Sanchez, the now-famous Cuban blogger, joined more than 70 other leading civil-society leaders in Cuba in signing a letter last month urging Congress to pass a bill that would lift the ban on travel by all Americans and facilitate agricultural exports to that country. In the letter, these democracy advocates wrote, "We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government." An intellectually honest discussion of U.S. policy toward Cuba cannot ignore the fact that the island's main democracy advocates - the principal victims of the Castro brothers' repressive acts - have urged the U.S. Congress to break the isolation it has helped impose on the Cuban people. At the very least, Mr. Claver-Carone could continue to ignore these facts rather than mislead readers by suggesting that the democracy advocates he mentions in his piece support his strategy of maintaining the status quo. By dismissing the opinions of "a new generation of South Koreans" and Cubans, proponents of the status quo fail to realize that those who are most directly affected by our policies deserve to be heard. After all, who more than those inside the Korean Peninsula and on the island of Cuba know the effects U.S. policy has on their governments and their people? It's time we shed some sunshine on these hard facts.
When US sanctions toward Cuba were first imposed, they were justified as a response to the expropriation of US properties by the communist revolutionary government. That justification changed during the Cold War, when their stated purpose became to isolate the communist nation in order to prevent it from exporting revolution. For the past 20 years, US policymakers have justified sanctions as a means to deny resources to the Cuban regime and support Cuba’s civil society. Promoters of the current policy claim it starves the regime of the resources it needs to oppress its people while empowering Cuba’s civil society so that it may pressure the regime to change. For two decades, defenders of the status quo in both Miami and Washington have gone unchallenged in this view and have positioned themselves as the most legitimate opposition of the Castro regime and the defenders of Cuba’s civil society. With millions of dollars in lobbying money at their disposal and several of their representatives elected to Congress, they have monopolized the debate over US policy toward Cuba while dismissing any diverging views as an effort to support the regime and undermine Cuba’s civil society. This farce, which has kept defenders of the status quo in control of US policy, has finally been undermined. Last week a group of 74 leaders of Cuba’s civil society released a letter calling on the US Congress to lift the ban on travel to Cuba by all US citizens — not just those of Cuban descent — and to facilitate the export of agricultural products to the island. The letter’s signatories are a virtual who’s who of Cuba’s democracy advocates, including: Yoani Sánchez, Cuba’s most famous blogger; Elizardo Sánchez, the leader of Cuba’s most important human rights group; Dagoberto Valdes, the founder of one of Cuba’s most important civil society organizations; Héctor Palacios, a political prisoner under conditional release; Gisela Delgado, the leader of the independent libraries of Cuba; Miriam Leiva, a founding member of the Ladies in White and many other leaders of civil society. In this letter, these civil society leaders undermine the arguments used by defenders of the status quo; mainly that greater openness toward Cuba would merely reward the Cuban regime with an influx of dollars and would shun civil society. “We share the opinion that the isolation of the people of Cuba benefits the most inflexible interests of its government, while any opening serves to inform and empower the Cuban people and helps to further strengthen our civil society.” state the signatories of the letter. Defenders of the status quo in Miami and Washington have responded to this letter with insults and allegations of forgery, ignorance and manipulation, all presumptuous statements by exiles living comfortably in the United States who have not visited Cuba in decades. The authors of the letter however — many of whom have lived their entire lives under the communist system — could teach hardliners a thing or two about democracy and individual rights. In the face of intimidations, insults and even acts of repudiation directed at them by hardliners, the authors of the Letter of 74, as it has become known, have responded with humility and respect. In their letter, they state that: “we believe that defending each and every Human Right for all people must be an absolute priority, ahead of any political or economic consideration, and that no restriction of these rights can be justified on economic, political or social grounds. We believe that rights are protected with rights.” The irony of this letter is that in addition to undermining the traditional arguments used by defenders of the status quo for a policy that contributes to the isolation of the Cuban people, the authors also provide us with a lesson in humility and democracy. The question now is whether policymakers will listen to the people they claim US policy is intended to help and whether defenders of the status quo will learn a lesson in humility and democracy from Cuba’s civil society.
Seventy-four of Cuba's leading dissidents recently released a letter to the U.S. Congress in support of a House bill allowing unrestricted travel to Cuba by all Americans, not just those of Cuban descent. They simply wanted their voices heard on such an important issue. The group included Cuba's most famous blogger, current and former political prisoners, priests and a man who continues a hunger strike that has lasted more than 100 days. Yet, the reaction from the hard-line segments of the exile community did not take long, and it was brutal. They dismissed it as ``manipulative'' and ``divisive,'' questioned the credibility and patriotism of the signers and launched an all-out attack on their integrity. Dissidents hailed as heroes a week earlier, are now vendepatrias (traitors) and are dismissed as stooges of forces of the dark. Sadly, these hard-liners believe that the expression of opinions different from their own is an act of divisiveness. But they have gone much further. Hector Palacio, one of the leading dissidents and former political prisoner, said on a local TV telephonic appearance that everyone of the signers has been called by hard-liners, harassing them with threats and pressuring them to disavow their participation in the letter. Sadly, this is nothing new. There is ample precedent for this despicable behavior. One recent example occurred in 2003 when world-renowned dissident, Oswaldo Paya, released his Varela Project. The same cast of characters viciously attacked Paya and did all they could to discredit him and to keep him away from the powers in Washington. They were relentless in their attacks, and U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart even succeeded in preventing Paya from meeting with President Bush during his visit to Washington. Cuba's state security couldn't have done it better. They found their perfect counterpart in Miami's hard-line. A few months later, 75 dissidents, mostly associated with the Varela Project were rounded up by State Security, summarily tried and sentenced to long prison terms. Many are still languishing in jail. Some signed the letter. The hard-liners practice an antidemocratic double standard. If they do it, and if it they like it, it is good and patriotic. If others do it, it is ``treason'' and ``divisive.'' They behave as if they were the sole voice of the exile and dissident communities. Instead of defending their points of view against dissenters, they resort to insults, slander and lies. They think the exile community is their franchise. The letter caused Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart to become irate and vitriolic. He publicly labeled the members of the Cuba Study Group sly and malicious. It is hard to understand this behavior from someone whose position calls for being loftier and above the fray. Others have insinuated the dissidents were ``manipulated,'' as if the signatories were naive children, uninformed and incapable of deciding for themselves whether or not to sign a letter. I often hear this offensive paternalistic argument used against financial aid for the dissidents because ``it can harm them.'' At the core of this letter is the fact that, for the first time, a large number of notable figures of Cuba's internal opposition have come together to express their personal opinions on an important current debate about U.S. policy toward Cuba. They recognize in their letter that while U.S. policy is not their competence, they are clearly disproportionally affected by it. While the exile community has always played a key role in promoting U.S. policy toward Cuba, the signers are reminding us that there is no parity in the consequences and impact of those policies. They bear the brunt of the impact. The letter is also an important lesson for the future. The Cuban people have endured a dictatorship for more than 51 years. How to bring about change is not an easy task, as evidenced by an equally long record of a failed U.S. policy and exile actions. To the best of my knowledge, there does not exist a book or manual that contains the ``right'' answers about what to do, and thus new ideas and approaches are sorely needed. In the presence of such a massive, collective failure, it never ceases to amaze me how some, from the comfort of American democracy, can tell the signers of the letter that their position on U.S. policy is ``completely mistaken,'' with the arrogance and authority of a divinely inspired possessor of the ``truth.'' Perhaps the anxiety about the letter results from the handwriting on the wall. The hard-liners are losing prominence, and their corner is shrinking. With this letter, the internal opposition has sent a clear message to U.S. policy makers that they matter -- that they are capable of expressing themselves independently of the traditional exile proxies. They refuse to continue to be pushed between the rock of the Cuban regime and the hard place of exile politics. They want to be listened to and respected, and they deserve to be. Perhaps this will become the letter's true legacy.
Last week a blog run inside the island by the independent organization Convivencia Cuba lead by Dagoberto Valdez released a letter authored and signed by 74 members of Cuba’s civil society calling on Congress to approve a bill that would lift the ban on travel by Americans and that would facilitate agricultural exports. The unprecedented letter highlights and important fact that is too frequently ignored about U.S. policy toward Cuba: that while its objective is to help empower Cuba’s civil society, it fundamentally ignores the opinions expressed by it. The importance of this letter cannot be overstated. Its signatories --all in their personal capacity-- include former political prisoners, religious figures, masons, member of the ladies in white, independent journalists and many others, and represent a broad cross-section of Cuba’s pro-democracy movement. In an atmosphere in which the Cuban government has created fear and distrust making cooperation among individuals and organizations so difficult, this letter stands as a shining example of the growing power of Cuba’s civil society and its member’s desire to influence policy that effect their lives. While the outcome of H.R. 4645 if far from certain and special interests advocating for maintaining the status-quo maintain a significant influence in Congress, this letter goes a long way toward increasing the cost to policymakers of ignoring the very people their policies proclaim to help. Policymakers can no longer afford to claim the policies they promote help the Cuban people while systematically ignoring them when they voice their opinions.
May 2010

U.S. can't turn deaf ear anymore

May 20, 2010

Tomas Bilbao, Miami Herald

For too long, the debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba has been dominated by narrow arguments at the two extremes. They either ignore Cubans' demands for desperately needed change in their country's failed system or appeals for necessary changes in U.S. policy. Both sides have been successful in turning a deaf ear to the fact that Cubans on the island are calling for change -- and not only in Cuba. For those who would turn a blind eye on the suffering of the Cuban people, it is easy to overlook the desperate calls of countless Cubans who, through their voices and actions, have made clear the need for fundamental changes in the Cuban system. Meanwhile, defenders of the status quo work hard to ensure that the overwhelming majority of voices from the island calling for change in U.S. policy are never heard, lest they undermine their efforts to ensure nothing ever changes in Washington or in Miami. Fortunately, Cubans are finding new ways to make their messages of change heard through increased contact with Cuban Americans and other travelers, blogs, social media and provocative documentaries such as The Grandchildren of the Cuban Revolution, released this week by filmmaker Carlos Montaner, son of prominent Spain-based columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner. This thought-provoking 60-minute documentary provides a window into the lives of Cuban youth and their desire for change at a time when the island nation faces one of its most difficult periods in half a century. It follows average Cubans as well as well-known activists such as Yoani Sánchez, Claudia Cadelo, Dagoberto Valdés and artists such as Silvito El Libre, Los Aldeanos and Gorki Aguila, providing direct accounts of the deep disconnect between the 51-year-old revolution and Cuban youth today. While most of the film features the attitudes of Cuban youth toward the revolution -- apathy or outright rejection of it -- an important part of it features prominent dissidents calling for fundamental changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba: ``I believe if the United States lifted all the sanctions, financial ones too, the Cuban government is going to be in dire straits. I don't think they'd know what to do about it,' says Cuban author and blogger Claudia Cadelo, a protégé of Yoani Sánchez. Prominent lay Catholic activist Dagoberto Valdés says: ``I believe the U.S. embargo needs to be lifted and allow the free flow of U.S. citizens and Cubans and companies, because I believe that opens the country.' These statements echo those of many other dissidents not in the film, including Miriam Leiva a founding member of the Ladies in White and Oswaldo Payá, the leader of the Varela Project. While these brave dissidents risk their lives calling for changes in U.S. policy as profound as the total lifting of all U.S. sanctions, the U.S. Congress continues to debate whether much more modest steps, such as allowing American citizens to travel to Cuba, would be in the best interest of human rights and democracy on the island. The time for turning a deaf ear on Cuban dissidents is over. The power of the Internet and powerful documentaries, such as The Grandchildren of the Cuban Revolution, are allowing brave Cubans to have their messages of change, in Cuba and in Washington, heard around the world. It's time that everyone started listening to them. If we are serious about bringing about change in Cuba, we can no longer afford to listen to Cubans' calls for change in their government, but turn a deaf ear when they call for changes in U.S. policy. Tomás Bilbao is executive director of the Cuba Study Group in Washington.
April 2010
It’s not the first time actor Andy Garcia asserts the Internet’s role in raising awareness about repression in Cuba. "Between flip cameras, cell phones and bloggers the world is finally finding out what most of us already knew, but most people did not believe,” he said last month, prior to leading a 5,000 person solidarity march in support of dissident group The Ladies in White through Los Angeles’s Echo Park. Garcia refers to the increasing viral exposure of violence imparted on leaders of the Cuban opposition: blogger Yoani Sanchez, the Ladies in White, as well as the hunger strikes of Guillermo Fariñas and deceased Orlando Zapata Tamayo. Their often-overlooked plight has made its way up the Internet’s long tail and to the top of the international mainstream media. But much less attention has been paid to another fact: the Cuban government also has a growing presence online. Websites such as cubadebate.com and blogs such as the Orwellian-named “Cambios en Cuba” publish articles and YouTube videos with a pro-government spin. Raul Castro even has his own Facebook fan page with over 2,000 fans. The democratic nature of the Internet does not take sides. It can benefit the internal opposition by making it more visible, and can also be useful to the regime, allowing for its own blend of “propaganda 3.0” via Facebook and Twitter. Yet, it’s clear by now that the Internet has had a far greater impact in empowering Cuban civil society than in boosting the Communist government that controls its access. The same argument can be made about travel. There is no question that Cuban tourism and travel bring hard currency to the regime. After all, the State owns all hotels, clubs and stores—even the money spent in the black market eventually ends up in the regime’s coffers. But make no mistake, totalitarianism thrives on isolation. The State controls access to currency, information and people, precisely because these provide something dangerous to everyday citizens: agency. Just ask Yoani Sanchez. She argues that access to “resources and money” from Americans, like access to the Internet, would benefit Cuban citizens; “For our part, [we ]would benefit from the injection of money that these tourists from the north would spend in alternative services networks...without a doubt, economic autonomy would result in ideological and political autonomy, in real empowerment.” Miriam Leiva, founding member of the Ladies in White, agrees: “many thousands of Americans visiting Cuba would benefit our society…Firstly, through the free flow of ideas, and further, by pressing the government to open up self-employment to provide goods and services, such as renting rooms, because the capacities in the hotels would be surpassed." In the last year, President Obama’s policy of unlimited family travel has done more to break Cuba’s isolation than TV Marti in its 20 years of existence. Recently, The Miami Herald reported that the rise in Cuban family travel, currently at 25,000 monthly visitors, is boosting the economic wellbeing of thousands of Cuban families with U.S. relatives. Imagine what we could do for the Cuban people if all Americans were allowed to travel. Over 100,000 Cuban Americans marched in support of the Ladies in White in the U.S. last month. Isn’t it time to take it further? To show solidarity by helping to create conditions inside the island that, as Sanchez and Leiva believe, would benefit the Cuban people? Advocates of the status quo will argue that in Cuba it is illegal for Cubans to approach foreigners. However, anyone who’s been to the island can tell you that the law fails to keep average Cubans from interacting with tourists anywhere they go. And think about it: if contact with American tourists wasn’t a threat to the government, then why is it illegal? Internet access and unrestricted travel present both advantages and drawbacks to the Cuban government. However, we cannot continue to deny that increased access to the outside world strongly benefits the Cuban people overall. Andy Garcia was right when he said that the Internet is an invaluable tool to reduce the isolation of the Cuban people. Yet, when only three percent of Cubans have Internet access, the most efficient means to connect with the outside world is still the good-ol’ fashion way: face-to-face. Ricardo Herrero is a Young Professional Board Member of the Cuba Study Group.
Just like the diversity of opinions within Cuba, the exile community is not monolithic and enjoys a great amount of varying point of views. Some favor policies that focus on isolating Cuba and denying it resources, while others favor breaking Cuba’s isolation and focusing instead on helping the Cuban people. This is the beauty of our democratic and pluralistic society. But I realize that not everyone shares my optimism. Some spend more time attacking other’s positions and labeling them on one extreme “dialoguers” and “Castro-lovers,” or whatever slander they feel can discredit their opponents. After all it is easier to attack people than to debate the merit of their ideas or, God forbid, acknowledge they may have a point. But there is a problem, as I see it, with those who try to defend the status quo in U.S. policy toward Cuba: their position lacks popular support inside Cuba. I have noticed that many of those who advocate for maintaining the current U.S. policy have not visited the island in 50 years, or never been to Cuba at all. Aware of this obvious contradiction, they often charge that they don’t need to go to Cuba to understand its reality; after all, they speak to people in the island regularly. I have no doubt that there are those inside Cuba with whom advocates for the status quo speak, who support the current U.S. policy toward Cuba. The problem however is the selective sampling that inevitably happens when you refuse to visit the island and instead only listen to those with whom you agree. If our goal is to help the Cuban people, shouldn’t we care about what the majority of Cubans think? Perhaps the best example of this fact is the current debate over a bill in Congress that would lift the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba. While supporters of the status quo focus on labeling advocates of the bill as “those enamored with the Cuban government,” an overwhelming majority of Cuban dissidents and the Cuban people support the measure. In a letter to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote: ““Cuban citizens, for our part, would benefit from the injection of material resources and money that these tourists from the north would spend in alternative services networks. Without a doubt, economic autonomy would then result in ideological and political autonomy, in real empowerment. These statements can be added to many others by leading opposition figures like Oswald Paya, Hector Palacios, Vladimiro Roca, Miriam Leiva, Dagoberto Valdes, Gisela Palacios, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, and others including Marta Beatriz Roque who stated: ““I think everyone should have the freedom to travel, which is something that the Cuban people lack. So if we’re fighting here for democracy, how can we try to restrict the freedom of the American people?” It seems the problem with trying to advocate for the status quo is that to do so you must mud the waters with personal attacks and extremist labels and hope nobody notices what the Cuban people are asking us to do.” Another example is the current debate over a review of the U.S. government’s Cuba Democracy Programs. Advocates of the status quo charge that a U.S. government review of these programs to eliminate the waste, mismanagement and corruption that has plagued them in the past is tantamount to: “Collusion with Cuba’s laws.” Inconveniently for them however, a March 27, 2010 article by the Miami Herald reported that Laura Pollan, leader of the Ladies in White stated that: “It is true that the opposition needs some help, but I also think that it is very important that [the aid] is reviewed, that there be an audit.” Of course Ms. Pollan’s statement along with other statements by other dissidents have gone ignored by advocates of the status quo. But the fact that they choose to ignore the reality inside the island doesn’t mean that advocates of the status quo don’t care about Cuba or want it to be free in prosperous, it just means that they don’t understand the reality inside the island. Recent charges that President Obama’s “overtures toward the Cuban regime have failed,” suggests that they don’t understand the goal of current U.S. policy toward the island either. At the same time they tout the sharp increase of activity in civil society activity in Cuba, they condemn a policy that has done more to break Cuba’s isolation and to empower civil society in one year with family travel than a policy of confrontation and isolation ever has. In fact, Cuban dissidents argue that allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba would only further empower civil society on the island. Would advocates of the status quo then suggest that Cuba’s dissidents are “dialoguers” and “Castro-lovers” who “collude with Cuban laws”? How about human rights and democracy organization such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops? The good news is that advocates of the status quo in U.S. policy toward Cuba are an ever-shrinking group. Our community understands the need for a new approach, and even if some acknowledge that “many of those who oppose the regime admit, albeit quietly, that the embargo has not worked,” others have been much clearer in the need for change, not just in Havana but in Miami and Washington as well. A recent article submitted to the Miami Herald by prominent Cuban-American business and community leader Sergio Pino put it perfectly: ““It is time to rethink our strategy. With three Cuban-American members of Congress, and one in the Senate, and many well-meaning Cuban-American leaders of hundreds of different political organizations in exile, it is time for one of them to come forward and unite us behind a new and more effective approach that focuses on the Cuban people first.” .
February 2010
The death on Tuesday of the brave Cuban democracy advocate Orlando Zapata Tamayo is a tragedy, and like many tragedies there are things the world can learn from it. First, while there has now been almost worldwide condemnation of his death and a call on the Cuban government to release all political prisoners, there are still those who would turn a blind eye on what can only be described as an act of murder. Even some who have expressed their “regrets” for Zapata Tamayo’s death would do so while embracing his executioners. During his trip to Cuba this week, Brazilian President Lula said he “deeply regretted” the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo prior to a meeting with Raul Castro in the Presidential Palace. While I am not suggesting foreign heads of State should not meet with members of the Cuban government, I do believe that the president of one of the region’s largest democracies and someone who pretends to be a leader in the region would do well to exert some of that leadership on behalf of freedom and human rights and not just to appease leftists within his party and secure his nation’s investments in Cuba. Meanwhile, we have yet to hear the condemnation from the governments of Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. Secondly, there appears to be no limit to the cruelty of the Cuban regime nor to the innocent lives it will spare in the name of “preserving” the revolution. While Raul Castro issued an unprecedented statement “lamenting” Zapata Tamayo’s death, he only did so under the pressure of a visit by a foreign head of state and qualified it by blaming the “United States’ hostility toward the island” for his death. Any hope that may have existed that Raul Castro would allow greater personal freedoms once he assumed power have been squashed by a wave of constant repressive acts on peaceful dissidents since he took over for his older brother. What until now had been brief detentions and beatings has now been raised to a new level. The government headed by Raul Castro is now responsible for consciously and purposely letting an innocent and peaceful man die of starvation because his beliefs in human rights and freedom represented such a threat to its hold on power. Finally, what the world can learn from the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo is that Cuba’s democracy advocates are brave, peaceful men and women who believe deeply in the cause of freedom and human rights and are willing to risk their own lives to stand up for what is right. Even when faced with a regime that would harass and beat the wives of political prisoners for marching peacefully down the street, kidnap and beat a woman for blogging about the hardships of everyday life in Cuba, or even let a man die of starvation because it was so threatened by what he represents. Cuba’s democracy advocates have shown a willingness to sacrifice more on behalf of the Cuban people than any of the privileged class that make up the Cuban government. In the coming days, Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s family and friends will mourn his death, the international community will either issue statements of condemnation or turn a blind eye and the Cuban government will try to manage an increasingly difficult situation that could have been easily avoided by valuing the life of its citizens more than its desire to silence their voices. I suspect however, that the final chapter of Orlando Zapata Tamayo’s legacy has not yet been written.
January 2010
Q: Despite rising hopes for renewed U.S.-Cuban relations after the Obama administration relaxed remittance and family travel restrictions for Cuban-Americans last year, rhetoric between Havana and Washington has intensified in recent weeks after Cuba detained a U.S. contractor and accused him of spying, which the State Department denies, and after the United States classified Cuba as one of 14 countries whose citizens must undergo additional screening in order to fly to the United States. Where are relations headed now? Is Obama's Cuban honeymoon over? A: What we are witnessing is the failure of conditionality as a policy approach toward Cuba. It's ironic that as Raul Castro implements minor reforms at a leisurely pace, he demands expediency when asking the United States to overhaul its policies toward the island, all while his government engages in the sort of vitriolic rhetoric and repressive acts that have frozen bilateral discussions in the past. Given that confrontation with the United States has been the very bedrock of the Cuban Revolution for nearly 50 years, it is not surprising that the Cuban government is once again trying to derail American efforts at rapprochement. That is why conditioning improvements in the effectiveness of U.S. policies toward Cuba essentially puts Raul Castro in control of our foreign policy. The current all-or-nothing approach of U.S. policy toward Cuba has failed to bring any substantive change to the island, has contributed to the isolation of the Cuban people and has provided the regime with a necessary scapegoat for its many failures. The interests of the U.S. would be best served by unilaterally eliminating any policies that contribute to the isolation of the Cuban people. Cuban leaders have thrived on isolation, and thus the free flow of people, resources and information between the United States and the Cuban people represent the biggest challenge to the status quo in Cuba. It is time for the U.S. government to get out of the business of micromanaging Cuba's transition and instead focus on taking steps to eliminate Cuba's isolation regardless of the actions of Cuban leaders.
November 2009
A synod of African bishops was held in Rome a few days ago. The issues addressed were reconciliation, justice and peace. Although the Cuban conflict is different in nature, the three issues made me reflect on their importance for us Cubans. Reconciliation is essential for Cuba, and is the condition for justice and peace. The political schism has deeply divided us. Politics and ideologies have separated fathers from sons; brothers from brothers, and have turned friends into enemies. Those responsible for the cruelty of the regime are not only its leaders. We all carry part of the responsibility for what has happened in Cuba. Cuba desperately needs reconciliation, if we expect a different and promising future. But there cannot be reconciliation without justice. But, what is justice? For many, justice is the equivalent of vengeance and is confused with the right to seek punishment and retribution. Justice in the Cuban conflict demands more than a simple concept of punishment and retribution. Justice seeks peace and rejects violence. Justice consists mostly in a careful balancing of injustices and their consequences. For us justice is seeking the wellbeing of a people, avoiding that the processes of change that we hope for, will not be detrimental to those who have little. It implies to follow the road that most effectively accelerates change processes that Cuba badly needs. Faced with a confusing tangle of possible change scenarios, justice demands to strive not for perfection, because it perfection is impossible, but for the less imperfect, or for what results in the largest common good, or less damage. Consequently, justice and reconciliation go hand in hand. Just as there cannot be reconciliation without justice, there can never be justice without forgiveness and reconciliation. And both will guide us to peace. Peace in turn is the result of reconciliation and justice. It is the absence of fear and the abundance of hope. It is the joy and fraternity in the condition that perfects us as human beings. I was surprised to hear during the polemic Juanes’ concert for peace many people who said that there was no war in Cuba and that peace was not needed, when Cuba has been submerged in a virtual civil war for more than fifty years! Cuba really needs peace and needs it badly. But we will only achieve peace if we learn to reconcile and to seek true justice. As Cuban exiles, who live and enjoy the benefits of freedom, we are responsible in part for seeking reconciliation, justice and peace. There will never be a more critical time for Cuba to need our support and love than the difficult times ahead. Will we be capable to act ethically and with the love that they will need? .
September 2009
After watching the much talked-about Juanes concert on Sunday, I was left with a feeling that something transcendental had taken place. Almost 10 percent of Cuba's population showed up -- about 30 percent of Cuba's youth. Considering the lack of available transportation, it became clear the Cuban people voted with their feet. For a people used to speaking in code, things were said that, except during the Pope's visit, have never been said in Cuba in a public forum. The joy in their faces said it all, in sharp contrast to the taciturn faces normally seen during the interminable political gatherings of the past. Meanwhile in Miami, at the Versailles Restaurant, Miguel Saavedra and his Vigilia Mambisa had a steamroller crush dozens of blank CDs in yet another of their usual, but detestable, demonstrations largely aimed at intimidating dissenters from the hard line of exile politics. Unexpectedly, a spontaneous gathering of young people, fed up with a 50-year-old failed policy, outnumbered them, and gave Saavedra a dose of his own medicine. A recent poll showed that the vast majority of Cuban Americans believe his actions severely damage the hard-earned image of our community. There are many messages in the tea leaves of the concert. For hardliners in the Cuban government, the message is clear. The immense crowd wanted a moment of fun and relaxation, but, in a way, they were also there for a silent protest against a system that has wrought fear, poverty, hatred, bitterness, division and hopelessness. A desire for change was in the air. Interestingly, tensions during the negotiations and words spoken by literally all of the Cuban performers gave us a glimpse of the debates and tensions that exist within the Cuban system. With a sense of déja vu, reminiscent of our own generational divide in Miami, we saw moderate and progressive voices prevail over the forces of inertia. The tea leaves also portend a wake-up call for the Cuban-American community. After all, the hardliners failed to derail this concert. There are still those who will never change, but their numbers are rapidly dwindling. Although we at the Cuba Study Group have for years been saying that Miami is changing, it took Juanes' courageous and bold initiative to let us see it, feel it and to rid ourselves of the fear to say it that has gripped us for so long. The massive attendance highlighted the large and growing disconnect between the exiled hardliners and the Cuban people. More Cuban Americans have come to the realization that we cannot afford to continue with failed policies to meet the challenges of the future. We need to engage. It is not reasonable to expect to partake in a new Cuba if we don't partake in the process that creates it. Juanes showed us the euphoria and effectiveness that comes from tearing down walls. The old policies of hurting the regime with collateral damage to the people need to give way to policies that help the people even when they may provide a collateral benefit to the regime. It needs to be all about the people. During his visit to Cuba, Pope John Paul II asked the world to open up to Cuba, as he asked Cuba to open up to the world. This man knew that it takes openness -- he lived it. With his visit to Poland he nearly single-handedly brought the whole Soviet bloc to transition. Juanes echoed his voice. Totalitarianism requires closeness. Fighting it requires openness. It is time to give openness, reconciliation and dialogue the chance they deserve. Let us all stand up to fear; it's time to change.
August 2009

Juanes and his concert

August 15, 2009

Carlos Saladrigas, El Nuevo Herald

It appears that hardline elements inside the Castro regime notified the international media that the singer and songwriter Juanes was planning a concert in Cuba. Obstinate elements within the regime, as well as those abroad, don’t want this concert to take place. Allowing it challenges the isolation of Cuba, an isolation that many sectors in exile are indirectly contributing to maintain. As happened during the visit of Pope John Paul II, and in other similar occasions, when the oppressed Cuban people are presented with a small window to the outside world, we are quick to judge from the comforts of exile and rapidly close the door to limited opportunities for openness. I experienced this during the visit of the Pope. I was one of the voices that advocated for the cancellation of the cruise ship that was planning to take thousands of church members from Miami to Cuba, and we succeeded. After watching those days of relative openness in Cuba, during the visit by the Pope, I deeply regretted my opposition. We should not make the same mistake again. I am not aware of Juanes’ intentions in planning this concert in Cuba. It is possible that he is only looking for fame and publicity, but he could also have the best of intentions, seeking some openness for Cubans and taking a message of love, reconciliation and solidarity to the Cuban people. We don’t know what he plans to sing, but he has in his repertoire a number of songs that carry a strong message of freedom, solidarity, and hope. From his trajectory we know that he is a defender of peace and that his music is loved and appreciated by youth around the world. It is precisely because he attracts the interest of Cuban youth, which has so few opportunities to experience the outside world, that this concert in Cuba is so important and offers so many possibilities. Instead of slamming the door at his face, we should ask Juanes to send the Cuban people a message of hope from their brothers in exile. We can ask him not to accept any restrictions from the regime about what he will say or sing. We can ask him to send our people a warm embrace from the many Cuban artists in exile, whose return to the island his banned by the government. It is also possible that the Cuban government is waiting for what has always been its safe formula: to let exile organizations do its dirty work. If Juanes were to cancel this concert for fear of the pressure from the exile organizations, the regime would be victorious by characterizing the exiles as intolerant and obstinate, and as a bonus, they would eliminate the risk posed by the concert. In fact, even if exile organizations acted with caution, it may even be possible that the government itself would cancel the concert, with the political price that it would entail. Let’s not forget that almost all European transitions were preceded by numerous cultural and artistic exchanges. Spaces of openness like the one proposed by Juanes contribute to the fracture of totalitarian and repressive structures. The big lesson is that these transitions take place on step at a time. If we learn to take advantage of the spaces that decadent regimes increasingly offer, maybe we could help accelerate the necessary and inevitable transition. Carlos Saladrigas is co-chairman of the Cuba Study Group.
June 2009
The decision by the U.S. Administration to support a compromise resolution at the OAS meeting earlier this month, that in effect lifts Cuba’s suspension while requiring that Cuba conform to OAS principles, helps break with the unilateral approach toward Cuba that has plagued our policy for over four decades. The move in essence did two important things: First, it allowed the U.S. to remove itself as the sole reason for Cuba’s absence in the OAS thus taking away an important talking point from Cuban leaders and second, it set important conditions to Cuba’s membership imposed not by the U.S. alone, but by a multilateral organization. Despite these positive initial steps taken by the U.S. Administration, Cuban leaders will continue to take measures to preserve their grip on power. But as we have learned from transitions from authoritarian rule elsewhere, in every regime there are reformers looking for ways to promote change from within. By taking the steps it has, the Administration has put Cuban leaders on the defensive and their rejection of U.S. and international overtures no doubt fuel this internal dissent. The U.S. should continue to take unilateral steps that are in its national interest, regardless of the overtures made by Cuban leaders. Cuban leaders have repeatedly reacted to U.S. attempts of rapprochement with hostility in order to derail these efforts and recast the U.S. as an aggressor. The U.S. would do well to continue to take steps that multilateralize pressure on Cuban leaders to reform and that encourage internal reformers. As published in the Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor from June 16, 2009.
The Obama Administration’s recent announcement that the U.S. intends to renew migration talks with Cuba deserves praise. The talks, which were suspended under the previous Administration, not only serve the U.S. national interest, but also serve as an important diplomatic tool at a time when both Cuba and U.S. policy toward the island are undergoing important changes. Current U.S. policy toward Cuba undermines important U.S. national interests and nowhere is this more evident than in the US’s unwillingness to hold bilateral talks with Cuba on important issues that are vital to its national security, such as: migration, drug interdiction and environmental issues. A staff report issued by Senator Richard Lugar earlier this year states that: “These talks provide an important venue for discussing the shared problem of illegal immigration.” Critics have charged that the move “represents another unilateral concession to the Castro dictatorship,” in a continued effort to undermine any changes in US policy toward Cuba and maintain the status quo which has failed to produce any of its intended objectives in over four decades. Fortunately, proponents of maintaining the status quo represent a diminishing and increasingly isolated group. Their claim that holding bilateral talks on issues that are vital to US national security represents a “unilateral concession” to the Cuban regime is emblematic of the failed policy that has contributed to Cuba’s isolation and has done little to advance freedom on the island. A migration crisis from Cuba has the potential of having a highly destabilizing effect on the US and especially the Florida peninsula. While economic and political conditions on the island will largely dictate migration patterns, migrations talks between the US and Cuba can help increase cooperation and lessen the threat of a mass migration crisis, curb illegal immigration and provide the US with an important venue to press Cuban authorities to live up to their commitments under the 1994 Migration Accords. For decades the word “dialogue” has carried a negative connotation in the Cuban-American exile community. For many, the idea of talking to representatives of the Cuban regime represented a betrayal of the democratic principles stripped by the revolution and a concession to the regime. But times have changed, and increasingly, members of the exile community understand that dialogue does not represent a concession, but rather on opportunity to press for issues that are in our national interest. A December 2008 Florida International University poll shows that 79% of Cuban-American respondents in South Florida favor direct talks between the US and Cuba on migration and other critical issues (including 72% of registered voters). Increasingly, Cuban-Americans have realized that the interests of the US and civil society in Cuba are best served when both sides engage in direct talks on issues of mutual concern. It is time that our elected officials came to the same realization. In announcing its intention to renew migration talks with Cuba, the US Administration is acting unilaterally to protect US national security interests and in doing so is showing leadership on an issue long-plagued by politics and intransigence.
April 2009

Much more needs to change

April 25, 2009

Carlos Saladrigas, Miami Herald

By lifting all restrictions on family travel and remittances to Cuba, President Obama fulfilled a key campaign promise, did the right thing, but also made a very smart strategic move. These restrictions never made any sense, as the United States should have never been in the business of dividing families. That's the Cuban regime's doing. But there is more to an effective Cuba policy than righting a wrong. The right policy needs to be geared to empowering the Cuban people to be the agents of their own change. To accomplish this, much more needs to change. Momentum is building. The pro-democracy activists in Cuba literally unanimously praised the steps taken by the White House. There has never been a time when the Cuban-American hardliners have been left more isolated and out of step with the people inside Cuba. Increasingly more people and groups within the Cuban-American community are coming to grips with the failure of a 50 year-old policy. I am often amazed at how proponents of the status quo look for every argument to resist change, when they should be looking instead for arguments to defend their lack of results. The Obama administration has indicated that it is undertaking a deep review of Cuba policy. It is very necessary to do so. At the heart of our failed policy lies one element that distinguishes Cuba policy: isolation. However, we have not isolated Cuba from the rest of the world, but we have succeeded in isolating ourselves from the Cuban people. Isolation has never been successful in bringing down totalitarian systems. Conversely, constructive and principled engagement has always worked to facilitate transitions. In Cuba's case, the best periods of growth and development for the country's budding civil society and pro-democracy movement have always coincided with periods of greater relaxation and openness with the United States. The president described Cuban Americans as the 'best ambassadors for change.' He is right, but America's rich and vast civil society is the next best ambassador. America's culture is powerful and corrosive to totalitarian systems, precisely because it is based on personal liberties. Unlike any other culture in the world, America's culture is despised and feared by despots around the world. Why keep these forces at bay? To label American travelers to Cuba as 'useless sun bathers' is to demean every American as a valuable ambassador of American values throughout the world. Americans were never precluded from visiting the so-called Evil Empire and its satellites, and are not prohibited from visiting any other country in the world -- Cuba is the lone exception. Instead of isolation, a strong case can be made for allowing unfettered American travel to Cuba, based on the following considerations: • Extensive foreign travel makes repression more difficult and economically costly to the regime. • The more Cuba depends economically on the United States rather than on our foes, the more influence we can exercise over the eventual transition. • American travelers are unique, because America is the Cuban regime's bogey-man. Therefore, the more the people know us, the better. • Accepting foreign travelers carries a high political cost, and the regime knows it. This is why Fidel Castro has always tried to prevent foreign travelers, even those from the former communist bloc. • Travelers help to atomize aid to pro-democracy activists. They bring openness and information. • Servicing foreign travelers is employment heavy, thus benefiting many more ordinary Cubans. The more Cubans become economically better off, the less they depend on the regime. Supporters of the status quo argue that travelers from other nations have not brought change to Cuba, but we have denied Americans the right to travel to Cuba for almost 50 years without any results, either. The fallacy lies in the underlying premise that there is a silver bullet to cause regime change, when in fact only the Cuban people can do that on their own terms. By opening up to the Cuban people with information, contacts, ideas and resources, we help to empower them to be the protagonists of their own future. It is all about the people, not the regime. Carlos Saladrigas is chairman of the Cuba Study Group.
March 2009
President Lula da Silva met with President Obama last Saturday. Most likely, he advised the President to change his Cuba policy, and to do it soon. His visit capped several recent visits to Cuba by various Latin American presidents. El Salvador and Costa Rica are setting up to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba, leaving the U.S. as the odd man out. Why the rush? Latin American presidents want to send a strong signal to the Obama administration that it is time to change its policy on Cuba. They know that a rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S. will deal a mortal blow to Hugo Chavez and his Bolivarian revolution. Tectonic plates may be shifting inside Cuba. There has long been an internal debate inside the nomenklatura between reformists and defenders of the status quo. This rift is not ideological, but rather pragmatic. Cuban leaders know full well how inefficient the Cuban economy is. They know they need to change, but the debate centers around its political cost. U.S. policy has historically set the cost of change unacceptably high. In essence, it’s always been a zero-sum game, where they have to lose (i.e. give up power) in order for us to engage. The effect of this policy has been to force factions within Cuba to coalesce around the status quo. Even for the most progressive the cost has been unacceptably high--and they have had other options. In fact, the assumption that sooner, rather than later, the Cuban regime would run out of options and collapse, has been for U.S. policy makers the most significant but erroneous policy premise. The regime has not run out of options in 50 years, and it is very unlikely that they will in the foreseeable future. As long as Cuba remains the bastion of anti-Americanism in the hemisphere, its strategic importance to nations like Russia, Iran and Venezuela is big enough to warrant billions in economic support. Yet, the Raul Castro government may be signaling its desire to not become beholden to another Soviet Union. Even after some recent overtures by Russia, little has been agreed. The fact that Raul Castro and the Cuban military brass dislike Hugo Chavez has been long rumored. In fact, a not very far-fetched indication of this might be the recent sacking of Foreign Minister Perez-Roque and of Carlos Lage. Without going as far as the conspiracy suggested by Jorge Castañeda, let us not forget that both of these men had engineered the vast relationship developed between Cuba and Venezuela. It was Lage who not long ago uttered that regretful phrase that Cuba had two presidents, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, a phrase widely believed to have been very poorly received by Raul Castro and by the stubbornly nationalistic Cuban military. Therein lies a major strategic opportunity for U.S. policy. Cuban leaders know they need to change, but they are intent on doing it at their own pace. They may be seeking the elbowroom to engineer a soft landing, which fits perfectly with America’s security interest. A chaotic process of change in Cuba, with a breakdown of law and order, would not only send Cuba in a spiral towards a failed state, but would constitute a security nightmare for the U.S. In the end, we know precious little about what’s really happening in Cuba. Our intelligence capabilities there are rather poor. But the possibility of a strategic opening to distance Cuba from Hugo Chavez, and to gradually increase Cuba’s economic dependence on us, rather than on our adversaries, may give us for the first time an opportunity to have some degree of influence on Cuba’s future, while severely weakening Chavez, his radical allies in the Region, and his grandiose scheme for a Bolivarian revolution. Such an opening will also give the beleaguered Cuban people a respite and a glimmer of hope for a different and better future. If this opportunity indeed exists, it is one we cannot afford to miss. At the very least, we need to try. All truly democratic countries in the Region would stand by our side..

Raul's Window

March 11, 2009

History has a special way of replaying situations that offer the opportunity to generate big unexpected changes. These windows of opportunity are usually brief and when not taken, they disappear. With Barack Obama as President of the United States new windows of opportunity are opening for Cuba and for the United States, but they are narrow and brief. A president who won the elections under the motto of “change” would be obvious and sensible to change a policy that is old and ineffective and that has remained static for 50 years, a true relic left from the Cold War. In addition, President Obama will need to demonstrate to the world that he attempts to conduct his foreign policy in a manner completely different to that of his predecessor, and to show a commitment toward cooperation, dialogue and diplomacy. There are very few US foreign policy issues that are viewed more as residue from the old arrogant attitudes, and as irritant of the relationships with Europe and America than its policy towards Cuba. Its abandonment in favor of a respectful and constructive environment, based on the basic values and principles of the United States would represent for Obama a message with great symbolism, with little consequences for its political assets and would leave for him a legacy of historical proportions. We know that during his electoral campaign Obama chose Miami, the center of the Cuban exile, to present his proposed policy towards Cuba, offering two elements of that policy. First, he would offer Cubans living in the United States the “unrestricted rights to visit family and send remittances to the island”, and second, that he would begin a diplomatic opening in order to establish a constructive dialogue with Cuba. The first one was to be expected. The second was surprisingly daring and without precedent in previous electoral campaigns. Although the Cuban exile community continues its inexorable march towards moderation, it was unexpected that a democrat would win among exiled Cubans. Obama obtained 35% of the vote among Cuban voters (the highest level obtained by a democrat since 1976) and a clear majority of 65% among Cubans under the age of 29. From those who voted for Obama, 70% believed that the Cuban embargo must be eliminated, and 78% supported the elimination of the restrictions on travel to Cuba. In spite of these currents of change in the Cuban exile, it will not be easy to make deep changes in US policy towards Cuba. Even the well known Helms-Burton Law approved in Congress in 1996, following the shooting down of the planes of Hermanos al Rescate, is porous, and the President has the faculty to modify or eliminate by executive order a good portion of the sanctions that are part of the embargo, the issue of Cuba in US policy is contentions, and releases passionate arguments on both sides of the conflict, and in order to definitely normalize the relationships with Cuba the President would require the approval by Congress. That would create political complications, especially taking into account that there are two senators (one of them a democrat) and four congressmen of Cuban origin who support the status quo. In addition, in two years there will be elections and the majority obtained in Congress by the Democratic Party will be at play. In Florida, which remains a key State to win the presidency, the empty seat that shall be left open by Mel Martinez, who will not run for reelection, guarantees a fight that undoubtedly will involve the Cuban issue. It is very possible that president Obama and his closest advisors wish to make big changes with regards to Cuba. It will not be due to lack of will, but to political difficulties if that is not done. Therefore, if Cuba fails to cooperate in the change, it will be less feasible. Such a political scenario, added to the context of the geopolitical priorities faced by the Obama presidency offer a very narrow and short lived window of opportunity to obtain significant changes in relation to Cuba. For Cuban leaders the window opened could be the most important in the 50 years since the Revolution. It is an opportunity to bring stability to a country that has had more than 50 years of instability and indefinite revolution. Cuba requires internal peace, reconciliation, harmony and progress, not more revolution. The Cuban economy lacks the necessary productivity to support its population and after the three hurricanes last year it faces sizable economic problems of a decadent structure due to the lack of investment. The economic dependence of Cuba from Venezuela has to be a concern for Cuban leaders and must remind them of the devastating impact that had the fall of the Soviet Union of the Cuban economy. On the other hand, there are important and growing sectors of the Cuban exile who bet for the reconciliation and dialogue, even if these are worn by the passage of time and with the continuity of the status quo. Regardless of the face that they intend to give to the Cuban economy, its problems require structural changes and it will be difficult for Cuba to reform its economy significantly while it remains alienated from US markets and capitals. For those who hold power there is always a cost to change. For Cuban leaders the question is if change today would be less costly than change tomorrow. Obama offers Cuba a clear affirmative answer that it is better to bet on change today. In this sense, the European Union has the great potential of constructively contributing to these processes. Although it is easy to create hope with the possibilities of this window that is opening, we must moderate optimism. Historically the embargo and the confrontation with the US, although expensive for the Cuban economy, have benefited the Cuban government and has been used as the scapegoat for the failures of the regime that lacks any electoral legitimacy. We must remember that all the attempts by Obama’s predecessors to relax bilateral relationships with Cuba have been personally undermined by Fidel Castro, creating situations of crisis and confrontation with the US. Even though there are reasons to think that it would be different this time, it would be prudent for Obama to proceed with caution. President Barack Obama offers Cuba an elegant opportunity to reconcile and to begin the normalization of relationships between both countries, without ignoring the main issue of human rights. In the end, president Castro has in his hands the capacity to accelerate the processes of change or stop them. With a serious push by Cuba, the processes of change would be unstoppable. It can also be said that US policy towards Cuba is not in the hands of the Cuban exile, but in the hands of Raul Castro. If he does not take advantage of this window, many years could go by before a similar situation could present itself. Of course it will not be easy to fix, in such a short time, a relationship that has been so conflicted and dysfunctional for so many years, but there are initial steps that can be taken. There is a saying in the US that it takes two to tango. Will Raul Castro be willing to dance? .
The report issued this week by Senator Richard Lugar regarding U.S. policy toward Cuba is a thoughtful review of the obvious failures in our policies. Its recommendations for a new, more effective approach toward Cuba are very constructive and deserve careful consideration. The Staff Report to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the United States Senate is the product of a two-week trip to Cuba by senior Congressional staff in January 2009. The timing of their trip and the resulting report could not be more important. Most Cuba experts agree that the change of power in Cuba and the new Administration in the United States have created one of the most important windows of opportunity in 50 years to encourage reforms on the island. In addition, public opinion in the United States and particularly in the Cuban-American exile community in South Florida now overwhelmingly favors a change in current US policy toward Cuba. The report highlights four important weaknesses in current US policy toward Cuba: 1) it continues to undermine US efforts in the region, 2) it hurts broader national security interest by impeding cooperation with Cuba on issue of mutual concern, 3) it has provided the Cuban government with a scapegoat for its failures and 4) it ignores recent developments and impedes the US’s ability to influence the direction of policy in Cuba. The report then proceeds to describe many of the realities of modern day Cuba as observed by trip participants. Finally, the report issues a recommendation to increase the effectiveness of US policy by replacing conditionality with sequential engagement. Opponents of the report have criticized it for being “inconsistent” and for aiming to “unilaterally lift the embargo.” While it is easy to understand how some who prefer to jump to conclusions before reading the report can make such baseless accusations, it is more difficult to understand how purported “Cuba experts” and Members of Congress can be so reckless. As for the suggestion that the report is “inconsistent” because it condemns the ineffectiveness of the embargo while maintaining that the government’s inability to meet many economic needs of the population remains a key weakness, such an argument would suggest that a goal of the embargo is to deny the Cuban population many economic necessities. These same critics however, have argued for almost 50 years that the purpose of the embargo is to “deny the regime the resources to repress the population and export revolution”, not that it is geared toward starving the population to the point that it is willing to risk rebelling against a proven oppressive and well-armed state security apparatus. And as for those who claim that the report advocates for the “unilateral lifting of the embargo,” the answer is very simple: read the report. In fact, the report states very clearly that beyond initial unilateral actions such as: elimination of restrictions on family travel, restrictions on the travel of Cuban diplomats in the US and a review of the effectiveness of several components of U.S. policy, “the timing of policy reforms and elimination of embargo restrictions would depend on the evolution of negotiations.” The report issued by Senator Lugar is the most comprehensive and thoughtful review of U.S. policy toward Cuba to be issued by a Member of Congress in many years. Perhaps it is because proponents of maintaining the status-quo vis-à-vis Cuba are unable to articulate the reasons why they believe current policy has worked and then substantiate those claims. This is not surprising as one can hardly expect someone who has not traveled to the island to produce such a thoughtful and accurate account of the realities on the ground in Cuba today. The report can be found at: www.Lugar.Senate.gov.
January 2009
I met Nick Rey in the winter of 2007 at the suggestion of a mutual friend. Nick had come up with the idea of creating a Cuban Enterprise Fund modeled after the Enterprises Funds created by Congress to assist the development of private enterprise in post-communist Eastern Europe. His time as U.S. Ambassador to Poland during that nation’s transition to democracy and his service as Director of the Polish-American Enterprise Fund had convinced him that empowering the Cuban people to become entrepreneurs would have the same consolidating effect for democracy in Cuba that it had in Eastern Europe. Few people in Washington have had the opportunities that Nick did to live a transition first-hand, to work hand-in-hand with dissidents and to help build a democracy out of a failed authoritarian state. Nick’s belief in the ability of the Cuban Enterprise Fund to improve the quality of life for millions of Cubans, to generate private enterprise on the island and to help consolidate democracy in the hemisphere’s last vestige of Communism deserves careful consideration. Nick had a special place in his heart for Cuba; “after all” he would explain “my wife has Cuban blood in her family.” As a Board Member of the National Democratic Institute, Nick was a steadfast supporter of programs aimed to assist Cuban dissidents. After a long life of public service and after giving back to his native Poland and his adopted country, Nick wanted to take the experiences he had learned in Eastern Europe and use them to help the island he loved so much. When I last met with Nick during the holidays, he believed his health was on the mend and told me he was ready to push the idea of the Cuban Enterprise Fund through the new U.S. Congress, where so many members had been supportive of the idea in Eastern Europe. He said he was grateful for all the opportunities he had had to serve during his life but said he had one last piece of unfinished business, “I want to leave a legacy for Cuba before I leave this earth,” he confessed. I was lucky to have called Nicholas Rey my friend. His selflessness, calm demeanor, wise counsel and unconditional friendship were humbling and inspirational. Like his many friends and beloved family, I will be eternally grateful for his friendship and his guidance. But Nick touched many more souls, people whose lives are better today because of his commitment to service millions of Poles who today live in a thriving democracy, thousands of entrepreneurs in Eastern Europe who built thriving businesses thanks to the support of the Enterprise Funds, dissidents in Cuba who receive support and guidance thanks to Nick’s love for Cuba and countless others whose lives and that of their families are better today than before Nick set his sights on the injustices that held them back. Sadly, Nick’s work was cut short by illness, but his dream of leaving a legacy for Cuba was not. The Cuban Enterprise Fund proposal was unveiled in the summer of 2007 and those of us who he inspired with his passion and whom he entrusted with this important initiative will work tirelessly to see it brought to fruition. After all, no legacy would be more befitting Nick than one that selflessly helps improve the lives of millions of Cubans who only dream of a better life for their families. Ambassador Nicholas Rey passed away at his home in Washington, DC on January 14, 2009. He is survived by his wife Louisa and their children Cecilia, Anthony and Michael.
December 2008

Standing in the way of change in Cuba

December 13, 2008

Tomas Bilbao, Cuba Study Group, Miami Herald

Eroding support for the U.S. embargo of Cuba and calls for a new approach have pushed supporters of our failed and outdated policies to redouble efforts to sell recycled arguments. The argument goes that, because three Cuban-American representatives from South Florida were reelected to Congress, Cuban Americans support their hard-line views despite what polls show. This implies that voters only care about one issue: isolating Cuba. However, voters are more interested in the economy, job creation, healthcare and education. The poll trends are real. They are backed by data with statistically relevant samples over a period of years during which various organizations, academic institutions and polling firms have arrived at the same conclusion: The exile community is changing. It is not surprising that hard-liners refuse to accept this fact. They say the polls' true purpose is to divide the community. These charges also are favorites of hard-liners on the other side of the straits. They are threatened by challenges to their beliefs and launch character attacks against those who contradict them. This is regrettable behavior, and the Cuban regime does not hold a monopoly on it. Hard-liners here demand respect for freedom of expression and democracy in Cuba as a condition for the lifting of U.S. sanctions, while they attack, attempt to intimidate and block government funding and access from those who dare think for themselves. I do not doubt that these exiles want Cuba to be free. Just like those whom they criticize, they want Cubans to live more prosperous and free lives. Unfortunately, their actions and words delay the processes of change in Cuba and set the wrong example for our brothers and sisters on the island. Change is coming to Cuba and to U.S. policy. A window of opportunity has opened on both sides of the straits. While it remains to be seen if Cuba's leaders will take advantage of it, U.S. policymakers have already expressed a willingness to move in a more-constructive direction. It is time for hard-liners in the United States and Cuba to decide whether they want to stand in the way of a better future for all Cubans by holding on to sacred cows and stubborn egos. Otherwise, they will accept what a majority of Cubans in both countries already know: The policies of the past 50 years have not worked, and solutions to big problems require bold steps, constrained egos and creative thinking. After all, Cuba will change only when Cubans on both sides are ready to embrace it. TOMAS BILBAO, executive director, Cuba Study Group, Washington, D.C..
November 2008

Cuba and the Whales

November 28, 2008

Soon will be 50th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban revolution, which is also the anniversary of the failure of the policy destined to defeat it. There is no doubt that someday Cuba will change, and maybe then, those who are still around, shall celebrate victory. But the unavoidable passage of time cannot be considered as the vindication of a static policy that was maintained for almost half a century. The ethical considerations of this lack of action are frightening. For us, on this side of the strait, the wait although difficult, is bearable, since we live in freedom and abundance. For Cubans on the other side, one more year of wait is hard and for the hundreds unfairly imprisoned, the wait is unacceptable. We cannot ignore that part of this lack of action is partly our fault. Changing is not easy and the older we are, the harder it becomes. For some, change is an inconvenience, and this applies here and there. Some naively attempt to control it. Others are afraid of it. There are many here who live for Cuba, and some who live of Cuba. There, as well as here, are many who hold on to this lack of action, because it is their only option to guarantee their survival. I used to be one of the hard-liners. During the visit of the Pope to Cuba I fought for the suspension of the cruise that the Archdioceses wanted to hire to take exiled church members to Cuba. We succeeded, but it was a Pyrrhic victory, that today I regret. In the meantime years go by and we remain isolated from our people. I know that there are some “Illuminati” who strongly believe that they control the truth and that all of us who dare question their beliefs are considered heretic traitors. For me, no strategy is so clear and so certain. I agonize faced with the possibility of being wrong. But my experience as businessman directs me to find results, take risks and try new strategies. Prominent world leaders who are and have been supporters of freedom in Cuba, such as Walesa, Havel, Aznar, Arias, Zedillo, Castañeda and Pope John Paul II, have agreed that isolation and the embargo against Cuba are counterproductive. Even countries that are stronger supporters of our cause vote year after year in the UN against the embargo. Is it possible that we are mistaken, or could it be that we are correct and the rest of the world is wrong? This reminds me of a joke about a man that was constantly snapping his fingers, finally he is taken to see a therapist, who asks him why he did that. The man, very surprised, and maybe even upset about a question that he believed silly, answers: “To scare the whales away”. The therapist, smiling ironically asked again: ”Don’t you know that there are no whales here?” to which the man answers convinced and with certainty: “Thanks to me!” The Cuban regime continues to function thanks to the policy of lack of action. We continue with the same strategy, we pounce our chests and another year goes by. Maybe this helps some people to feel better. There is no doubt that Fidel likes it. A few years ago I had dinner in Madrid with someone who had been sent to Cuba by President Felipe Gonzalez to develop a transition plan to be enabled after the fall of the Soviet Union. He told me that talking to a high Cuban official he asked him if he was aware that the planned reforms could cause the United States to lift the embargo, to which the Cuban official responded: “ If they do that I would be a disaster for us!” For the Cuban regime the confrontation with the United States has been their main source of legitimacy, both internally and externally. It has made a hero out of Fidel Castro and he has been very shrewd by creating crisis when faced with US presidents who have sought a relaxation of relations with Cuba. Without the confrontation and the embargo, how the Cuban regime explains to its people the continuity of a system incapable of producing sufficient food? There is no doubt that Cuban leaders must be very nervous faced with the inability to foresee how President Obama will act and the inconsistency of a U.S. president who is black in light of the old political speeches of the exhausted Revolution. Historic precedents against isolation are numerous. In a study of 28 transitions in communist countries there is not one case where isolations policies such as those against Cuba, were used, and not even one case worldwide (not even South Africa) where policies such as the policy towards Cuba have been successful in obtaining a democratic transition. Wouldn’t it make sense to try what produced results in 28 transitions, or is it better to continue to hold on to a policy that has failed to produce results anywhere else? Isolation is the oxygen of totalitarian regimes. To offer them isolation is to help them to stay in power. In his book the “J Curve”, Ian Bremmer describes how isolation allows totalitarian systems to remain in power. It also demonstrates an inverse correlation between the stability and openness, and which policies of openness towards closed regimes cause instability and force them to change, such as the case of the Soviet Union. In Miami we worry more about the end of the change than about its beginning. We cannot manage the transition from Miami or from Washington. Transitions are micro-processes that start one person at the time, one family at the time. Each individual, inside or outside of Cuba must be an agent of change. For humans, small changes are more easily accepted than big changes. I believe that it would be appropriate to review what has been an inefficient foreign policy. It is time to open to Cuba and allow the winds of change to enter. Such opening will reduce the dependency on the government and will bring contacts, information, resources and hope, elements that individuals need to become the actors of their own future. Should we look for new strategies or should we continue to scare off the whales? .
September 2008

Help for Cuba

September 25, 2008

Washington Times- Tomas Bilbao

For observers of the diplomatic chess match being played between Havana and Washington over humanitarian relief to the victims of hurricanes Gustav and Ike in Cuba, it is easy to overlook the positive steps taken by the U.S. government following its initial timid offer of $100,000 in assistance. Despite at least five rejections by the Cuban government of U.S. offers of assistance, the administration has moved quickly to get assistance to the victims of the hurricane damage in Cuba. These measures include: expediting licenses for nonprofit organizations wishing to send assistance to Cuba, delivering approximately $1.7 million in aid through nongovernmental organizations working in Cuba, and authorizing the sale of $250 million in agricultural goods to Cuba, including lumber. The latest U.S. offer includes $6.3 million worth of construction materials to help Cuba rebuild. Though these offers fall short of the immense estimated need for the Cuban people (projected to be between $4 billion and $5 billion), they represent positive steps that deserve praise. U.S. officials have proved their willingness to work with Cuban officials (even sit down with them) to make the legitimate U.S. offer of assistance more palpable for a regime with an already bruised ego. This tragedy has presented the U.S. government with a unique opportunity to demonstrate the generosity of America. U.S. officials' willingness to take these positive steps is evidence that some in our government understand the importance of this opportunity. Recognizing the Cuban government's stubborn unwillingness to accept U.S. assistance, these officials would do well to press on the administration the value of family-to-family assistance in circumstances such as this and advocate to suspend restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba by Cuban-Americans. The U.S. government's willingness to take these steps stands in contrast to a cruel regime that rejects the assistance its people so desperately need and prefers to play politics rather than ensure the well-being of its citizens. TOMAS BILBAO Executive director Cuba Study Group Washington.

Cuba's Katrina

September 11, 2008

Washington Post- Ignacio Sosa

Hurricane Gustav hit Cuba this month with 140-mph winds, just shy of being a Category 5 storm as Hurricane Katrina was. The most severe hurricane to hit Cuba in 50 years, it has displaced more than 400,000 Cubans and damaged or destroyed more than 130,000 homes. Agriculture in the western province of Pinar del Rio has been virtually wiped out. Fidel Castro himself said that Pinar del Rio resembles Hiroshima after it was bombed. This week, Hurricane Ike barreled down the length of the island, making landfall twice, damaging more than 27,000 homes and killing at least four people. The damage to Cuba's economy from Gustav alone will be much worse proportionately than what the United States suffered after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Yet the United States has pledged only $100,000 in aid to Cuba, enough to rebuild just a handful of homes. Cuba has declined this aid, calling it insufficient. Complicating matters are U.S. laws limiting the ability of Cuban Americans to send direct aid to their families or to visit relatives. What the long-suffering Cuban people need is not U.S. government aid. The Cuban people need both governments to get out of the way and allow Cuban Americans and private American relief organizations to help Cubans get back on their feet. The United States should take the initiative and unilaterally lift, temporarily, all restrictions on remittances and family visits. Any U.S. charity wishing to help should be allowed to do so freely. No one knows how the Cuban government would respond to such a humanitarian gesture. Cuba's leaders know, however, that they will be held accountable by an increasingly restless population if much-needed aid is denied for ideological reasons. The devastation in Cuba also provides an opening for the presidential candidates. Cuban Americans in the decisive electoral state of Florida are restless. Cuban Americans there are historically Republican, but many are bewildered that the party that extols family values prevents them from helping or visiting their families. Barack Obama has recognized this and supports temporarily lifting restrictions on family remittances, travel and private aid to the impoverished island. John McCain should do the same, even if only to ensure he gets the bulk of the Cuban American vote as George W. Bush did in 2004. Ultimately, helping Cubans recover is in the best interest of the United States. A humanitarian catastrophe 90 miles from our shores is also a national security issue. It is impossible to predict the political consequences of temporarily lifting restrictions on Cuba. But those who are suffering care little about politics. They just want roofs over their heads, food to eat and perhaps a visit from relatives in Miami to cheer them up. It's time for the United States to show the world once again that it will not allow politics to get in the way of people helping themselves in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Ignacio Sosa is member of the executive board of the Cuba Study Group..

Aid for Cuba

September 9, 2008

Miami Herald- Enrique Sosa

It is still early to determine the full magnitude of damage Gustav and Ike have caused in Cuba. One thing is certain though -- the storms were catastrophic. The Miami Herald's Sept. 8 article, Rice: Cuba embargo stays, quoted Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice saying that, in spite of what is going on in Cuba, the Bush administration is holding firm in its position on restrictions on travel to Cuba, commerce and aid. What a missed opportunity to not only put the Castro brothers on the defensive, but, more important, to also show the Cuban people how caring a nation we are and how important it is for them to have strong ties with the United States. I also have read that Russian planes filled with aid are landing in Havana. They certainly know better how to fill a political and humanitarian vacuum. It is time for the United States to take the moral high ground and make it possible for unconditional U.S. aid to reach Cubans in desperate need. It is in our national interest..

We are hurting Cubans, not the regime

September 9, 2008

Miami Herald- Carlos Saladrigas

September 10th, 2008 - Given the current debate over how the United States should react to the devastation left by Hurricanes Gustav and Ike in Cuba, it is important to put things in perspective. Hundreds of thousands of people have been seriously affected by the storms, and there will be a profound impact on a nation already on the verge of a food and housing crisis. Ramon Saul Sanchez's Democracy Movement has asked the federal government to temporarily lift restrictions on remittances to allow Cuban Americans to send monetary and physical assistance to family on the island. Several exile organizations, including those that form part of Consenso Cubano, expressed their support for such a move. Almost all the leading Cuban dissidents have, also. To most observers, this is a perfectly logical, ethical, humanitarian and effective thing to do -- but not in the irrational and absurd context of U.S.-Cuba policy. Disappointingly, but swiftly, the administration, in collaboration with Cuban-American legislators from both parties, chose to play politics, issuing a statement challenging the Cuban regime to, among other things, allow the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to directly distribute aid, offering a paltry and offensive $100,000. In a continuing political chess game where the suffering Cuban people are pawns, the United States challenges the regime in ways reminiscent of Fidel Castro's offer to send doctors to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. I wish that our presidential candidates had refrained from intervening on this issue. When candidates take positions, issues become politicized. However, Barack Obama's comments were positive and constructive. While I have not heard John McCain's position on this issue, I cannot believe that he would agree with the administration's position, given his wife's recent trip to Vietnam and her laudable work there helping children with cleft palates. Vietnam holds more political prisoners and has more human-rights violations than Cuba. But the McCains have demonstrated that humanitarian efforts should transcend politics. To propose, as the only option, something that the administration knows the Cuban regime is going to reject is playing politics with Cubans' suffering. If U.S. officials are sincere about helping them, they should act to unilaterally lift, temporarily, all restrictions on remittances and allow U.S. NGOs to send aid to Cuba. Our government cannot control how the Cuban government will react. But its leaders will be held accountable by Cubans and history's harsh judgment. What the Cuban government does, or fails to do, should not dictate our actions. Instead of rushing to help our brethren, some in the Cuban-American community have engaged in the old, tired and increasingly sterile political debate. Can we for once put the Cuban people first? This is the perfect opportunity to inject ethical considerations into a debate from which they have been absent for a long time. Can we continue to allow the end to justify cruel means? Can we expect to justify one wrong because the Cuban government commits another? Where are the voices of religious leaders? It is precisely on issues like these that they need to be heard, clearly and unequivocally. The majority of the Cuban-American community is increasingly fed up with the continuing ineffective and worn out diatribe. We ought to be freed to help our brethren in any way we can, directly and indirectly. In the end, it will be more politically effective to prioritize helping the Cuban people over hurting the regime. It is the only right thing to do..
The Russian newspaper Tass has reported that Russia will be sending to Cuba two large cargo planes filled with tents and other humanitarian supplies for the Cuban victims of hurricanes Ike and Gustav. This presents the United States with an important opportunity to reclaim the moral high ground in our 48 year-old battle with Cuba's communist government. More importantly, the U.S. can save thousands of lives in Cuba without a dime of tax payer money being spent. All this can be done by having the U.S. government temporarily lift restrictions on family remittances and travel to Cuba. Why wait until the media saturates us with pictures of Cuban devastation and the Florida Straits become filled with desperate Cubans fleeing impossible human conditions? The time to act is now. In addition to donating money to the US licensed charities below, every Cuban-American needs to set aside political dogma and write to their representatives in Congress as well as The White House and demand the right to allow families in the United States to aid their relatives on the island for at least the next 90 days. Another Katrina is unfolding 90 miles from our shores. History will judge harshly our failure to help the Cuban victims of hurricanes Ike and Gustav. Friends of Caritas Cubana- 81 Washington Avenue, Cambridge, MA 02140Catholic Relief Services - P.O. Box 17090, Baltimore, MD 21203-7090. Checks should be marked: “For Cuba Hurricane Relief”.JEWISH SOLIDARITY, attention: Maricusa, 100 Beacon Boulevard, Miami, FL 33135. Check should be marked “humanitarian relief”..

Playing Games with Cuba

September 8, 2008

This past Saturday, the United States men’s national soccer team made history by being the first U.S. national soccer team to play in Cuba in over 61 years. The match was one of several qualifying matches the U.S. and Cuba will play to earn a seat in the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa, the world’s most popular sporting event. While few watched the historic match transmitted from Havana’s Pedro Marreno stadium on ESPN Classic and Galavision, the significance of the event should not be overlooked. The positive impact of the contact between Americans and Cubans was reflected in words by American players and commentators and by the images of Cuban and U.S. fans and players exchanging hugs following the 1-0 victory by the U.S. Even the more cynical critics of such events could find positive aspects to the historic event, when in the 86th minute much of the stadium’s lighting went dark, evidence to those watching outside Cuba of the declining infrastructure of a nation mismanaged almost to the point of total collapse. Of particular interest to U.S. viewers and Cuban-Americans specifically was a half-time report by one of the commentators done from the former home of his Cuban father in which the commentator introduced the neighbors who had once help raise his father, a visible sign of the true nature of reconciliation and the value of human contact. Not mentioned during the game was why the U.S. government allowed the men’s national team to travel to Cuba for the match for the first time in so many years. Traditionally Cuba and the U.S. have played their World Cup qualifying matches in neutral territory. This is an especially relevant question given the recent authorization by the U.S. Government of a little league baseball team to travel to Cuba for an exhibition game. It would appear as if the U.S. Government has relaxed its strict control over travel licenses for sporting events (regulated and issued by the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the U.S. Treasury Department) in a concerted effort to increase person-to-person contact between ordinary Americans and their Cuban counterparts. If true, such a measure deserves praise. However positive many of the images seen Saturday night from Pedro Marreno stadium, one was particularly troublesome the image of a handful of American fans sitting in the bleachers sporting sunglasses and bandanas to cover their faces, presumably in order to avoid prosecution by the U.S. government for violating the U.S. travel embargo, a fine which carries a maximum penalty of $250,000 and/or 10 years in prison. These images send the wrong message to the world and to the Cuban fans sitting in the bleachers alongside these American fans about U.S. values and the respect for individual rights in America. The U.S. can and should be the symbol of freedom and democracy for millions of oppressed people throughout the world, especially Cuba. Images such as these do little to portray that symbol and undermine U.S. efforts to bring about meaningful change in Cuba and win the hearts and minds of the Cuban people. Fortunately the true nature of the American spirit was apparent when U.S. players returned to the field following their 1-0 victory to show their appreciation for the Cuban fans in the stands who responded with a standing ovation.
July 2008
A statement made Friday night by the head of the U.S. interest section in Havana, Michael Parmly that: “U.S. technology companies are willing at this time- now!- to connect Cuba to the world wide web and the U.S. government will not oppose it”, deserves praise. Mr. Parmly was referring to an effect of the U.S. embargo that prohibits Cuba from connecting to underwater fiber optic cables which would widen Cuba’s access to broadband Internet. With the recent reforms announced by Raul Castro which allow Cubans to purchase personal computers, and with expectations for change among the population at perhaps the highest they have ever been, statements such as this go a long way toward challenging the Cuban government to institute substantive reforms that would give Cubans freedom of information and the ability to communicate with the rest of the world. It is time for the U.S. government to start eliminating excuses the Cuban regime has used to justify the failed and oppressive policies it has instituted and to begin to challenge the regime to implement reforms through proactive policies such as the one announced by Mr. Parmly last Friday. Link to article: http://www.diariolasamericas.com/news.php?nid=56298.
May 2008
This morning CNN aired a report about a letter sent by the Cuban dissident group Damas de Blanco to Barack Obama, which CNN mischaracterized as an endorsement of the Senator's proposal to lift the travel and remittances restrictions imposed in 2004 and to hold direct talks with Raul Castro in order to secure the release of over 200 political prisoners held in Cuban jails. While the report mischaracterized the letter sent on May 22, 2008 to Senator Obama by the Damas de Blanco (download the letter here), what was most troubling was U.S Congressman Albio Sires' dismissal of the Damas de Blanco as "just one group" in the commentary that followed. In joining the opinions of the Bush Administration and his South Florida colleagues in Congress, Representative Sires defended a policy that, in addition to separating Cuban families, ignores the pleas of not just the Damas de Blanco, but of the overwhelming majority of Cuban dissidents, including: Marta Beatriz Roque, Elizardo Sanchez, Vladimiro Roca, Miriam Leiva, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, Gisela Delgado, Hector Palacios and many others. Are we to believe that Congressman Sires knows better than Cuba's political dissidents who are suffering first-hand under the repressive Castro regime about how to best bring democracy to the island? Instead of dismissing the claims of the Damas de Blanco, Congressman Sires and others should join with them in solidarity and do what is best for the people of Cuba and not for the narrow special interest groups. It is not surprising that Rep. Sires has received at least $20,000 from the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC since 2006, according to reports filed with the Federal Elections Commission. The U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC is a special interest group dedicated to making financial contributions to Members of Congress who oppose any change to current U.S. policies toward Cuba. What is disappointing however, is that a Cuban-American like Rep. Sires would not only support policies that divide Cuban families but that he would dismiss the relevance of such an important group like the Damas de Blanco, a group of incredibly outspoken and courageous women who risk life and limb to highlight the regime's unjust imprisonment of peaceful dissidents and secure their release. It is time that our representatives in Congress and the Administration made good on their commitment to support Cuba's internal dissidents and political prisoners by listening to their pleas and acting without delay to adopt any and all measures they believe will help their internal struggle, even if this means taking unilateral measures to change U.S. policy..