Friday, June 29, 2007

Bush drops the swagger

A few comments about President Bush’s discussion of Cuba yesterday.

The President’s invocation of “freedom before stability” is new in the Cuban context, but it is a concept he has used to discuss the Middle East, especially since he read Natan Sharansky’s book. Some, like Havel, use that phrase to stress the importance of not negotiating with a communist regime, not implying that it is legitimate, and pressing for a change to a democratic system. Others use that phrase to counter calls for peaceful change in Cuba, arguing that if instability brings change, it’s an acceptable price to pay.

In the Middle East, “freedom before stability” is part of an Administration concept of promoting democracy that has produced everything from war in Iraq to lip service in Egypt. In Cuba, I don’t believe the President is signaling a more aggressive posture. If anything, the thoughts expressed yesterday move toward passivity.

It used to be that the Administration claimed that its policy would change Cuba. The Administration’s Cuba commission was given the task of bringing about “a peaceful, near-term end to the dictatorship.” In 2004, the State Department said flatly that “there will not be a succession” from one socialist government to another. In 2005, Secretary Rice said the commission’s purpose was to “accelerate the demise of Castro's tyranny.” The President himself said in May 2005, “We are not waiting for the day of Cuban freedom, we are working for the day of Cuban freedom.”

Now the swagger is gone. The President focuses on the moment when “the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away,” and then the United States will “call the world together to promote democracy as the alternative to the form of government they [the Cuban people] have been living with.”

That is not very intimidating, but it may be more realistic.

The Administration no longer claims that its policy will bring change to Cuba. It seems to be accepting that a socialist succession, which was not supposed to take place, has now been accomplished. It points to the day when Fidel Castro finally leaves office as the opportunity to press for change. And while unwavering in its support for Cuba’s dissidents, the Administration puts them in a narrower political perspective; they are a “very nascent and fragile democratic opposition that is beginning to arise,” Secretary Rice says. The Administration has even changed the way it uses the word “transition.”

One wonders how the Administration will deliver its message once Fidel Castro does leave office, if indeed Castro leaves office before Bush. Presumably, it would do more than issue statements from afar. Will someone of rank attend a funeral or inauguration or travel to Cuba at a later date to talk with Castro’s successors?

Odds and ends

  • In my post about the CIA “family jewels” disclosure, I asked why there would be indignation about the mention of the late Tony Varona in connection with the failed Castro assassination operation. Here’s an answer; from Diario las Americas, a heartfelt defense of Tony Varona from one who knew him.

Cementerio Colon

Thursday, June 28, 2007

“Freedom before stability”

President Bush spoke extemporaneously about Cuba today at the Naval War College. His Cuba remarks were part of a long answer to a question about Latin America:

“There’s only one non-democracy in our neighborhood: that’s Cuba. And I strongly believe the people of Cuba ought to live in a free society. It’s in our interests that Cuba become free and it’s in the interests of the Cuban people that they don’t have to live under an antiquated form of government -- that has just been repressive.

“So we’ll continue to press for freedom on the island of Cuba. One day, the good Lord will take Fidel Castro away (laughter) -- no, no, no -- then, the question is, what will be the approach of the U.S. government? My attitude is, is that we need to use the opportunity to call the world together to promote democracy as the alternative to the form of government they have been living with.

“You’ll see an interesting debate. Some will say, all that matters is stability, which in my judgment would just simply reinforce the followers of the current regime. I think we ought to be pressing hard for democracy.

“I went overseas to the Czech Republic and gave a speech on democracy. I saw Vaclav Havel. You might remember him, he was the leader of the Velvet Revolution that helped lead Eastern Europe to a new form of government -- new forms of government. And he’s very much interested in the United States’ attitude toward Cuba, because he believes we need to be promoting freedom before stability.

“It’s going to be an interesting challenge for our country. We’re working, by the way -- back to your question, can we do more than one thing at one time – we’re working very closely with the Navy and Coast Guard to make sure that there is not any issues when it comes between the United States and Cuba, should there be a -- when there is a transition.”

Sen. Thompson on Cuban migrants (updated)

Pre-candidate for President and former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson appeared in South Carolina yesterday. (Rui has the YouTube at Herejias y Caipirinhas, and the AP story is here.) In his speech, he discussed the immigration bill that seems to have died in the Senate (he opposed it) and about security on our southern border. Many who cross the southern border come from terrorist states, he said, including more than 1,000 Cubans in 2005. Then he said this:

“I don't imagine they're coming here to bring greetings from Castro. We're living in the era of the suitcase bomb.”

Ninoska, call your office.

Thompson is putting his finger on something interesting here.

The Administration calls Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism.

Washington also maintains a policy of allowing Cubans who are illegal immigrants – those who arrive in U.S. territory, by boat or across the Mexican border, with no visa and no basis for an asylum claim – to come right in. (The Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 has nothing to do with this practice, and it certainly does not require it. The Act does give Cubans who are here for one year an opportunity to acquire legal status, and they overwhelmingly avail themselves of that opportunity.)

You may agree or disagree with either policy, but it is hard to argue that the two are compatible. If Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism, the open-door policy toward Cuban migrants represents a huge danger to U.S. national security. It is an open invitation to Cuba to send operatives into the United States in the guise of normal migrants.

The treatment of Cubans is a glaring exception to border security policies that have been adopted in this Era of Homeland Security. My view is that it’s an exception that is made for humanitarian reasons, for political reasons, and because of inertia. I also believe that on the day that the U.S. government believes Cuba to be a real threat to our national security, through terrorism or otherwise, that exception will end.

In other words, the contradiction is tolerated because those who are concerned about U.S. national security know that the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism is meaningless.

Senator Thompson, previously of Montecristo fame, is clearly no fan of Fidel Castro. The fact that he frames a discussion of U.S. policy toward Cuban migrants in terms of migration policy and homeland security considerations, rather than Miami-Dade vote-seeking, is a very interesting sign.

[Update: Sen. Thompson issued a statement to clarify, offering reassurances but not really addressing what he said in South Carolina. Marc Masferrer comments on the issue and the clarification, sensing "something resembling pandering and rhetoric." At Babalu, they love the Senator, ignored his original statement, and ran his clarification verbatim.]

House vote on agricultural sales

This morning the House of Representatives approved an amendment to an appropriations bill regarding U.S. sales of agricultural products to Cuba.

The amendment, offered by Representative Moran of Kansas, passed by voice vote. It prohibits the use of funds to enforce regulations that the Administration created in 2005 to tighten payment requirements for Cuba’s purchases of American products. The effect of the amendment, if it is signed into law, would be to suspend enforcement for one year but not to repeal the regulations themselves.

The result is symbolic, a clear expression of the House’s opposition to the tighter regulations. It could assist efforts to pass other legislation that would change the regulations themselves, defining “payment in advance” requirements and allowing Cuba to make its payments through direct wire transfers to U.S. vendors’ banks, rather than through third countries and through the use of non-dollar currencies.

Havana Bay

Waiting for more tourists

Reuters’ Marc Frank in Havana takes note of state media reports on tourism minister Manuel Marrero’s presentation to Cuba’s legislature. Marrero reiterated earlier announcements of new investments to improve and diversify Cuba’s tourism product. Reuters adds interesting context: new measures to prevent theft from luggage, an industry source saying that the Dominican Republic beats Cuba’s hotel and package prices by 20 percent and Mexico’s service is superior, and another noting Cuba’s under-investment in the sector. And this:

“The number of tourists dropped 7 percent in January and 13 percent in February compared with the same period in 2006, the Tourism Ministry reported, before ending publication of monthly figures for the first time in years.”

Cuba’s currency revaluation effectively acts as a tax on remittances, and presumably has increased government revenues. But it also seems to have had an ongoing impact on tourism, which is sensitive to price.

Photo: a peacock in the Hotel Nacional courtyard.

Odds and ends

  • Carlos Alberto Montaner accuses Spain of forming its policy toward Cuba based on electoral considerations. Imagine that.

Our Tony? Never.

The CIA’s disclosure of its own failed mission to eliminate Fidel Castro in 1960 using poison pills and the Mafia adds only a small amount of new detail to an already ample public record of the CIA’s activities during the Kennedy Administration.

But it has been welcome in Havana, and therefore it causes consternation in Miami.

The CIA’s naming of the late Tony Varona as a participant in the last stages of this abortive operation has drawn sharp reaction here and elsewhere (including, I’m told, at great length on Miami radio) in defense of a man who cannot defend himself. But the reason for the indignation is not clear to me. Because it allows Castro to score points? Because assassination is an unjust method of war? Because Varona had more courage than to join a poison-pill caper?

A commentator in El Nuevo Herald, Vicente Echerri, leaves nothing to doubt, however. Castro’s assassination “would have been not only an act of political wisdom, but also a preventive measure internationally in benefit of western civilization and the human race.”

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Odds and ends

  • From Cubanet, a report of a death of an opposition member while in detention in Aguada de Pasajeros.

  • According to a participant in last week’s meeting between President Bush and Caribbean leaders at the State Department, the President criticized his guests for their relations with Cuba and Venezuela. The President is “morally outraged by their systems of government,” according to the foreign minister of St. Kitts and Nevis. Two days after the meeting with Caribbean leaders, President Bush received the President of Vietnam in the White House.

El Morro, Havana

Exodus? (Updated)

According to a “model” developed at the University of Miami, “the clock has already started ticking for Raul,” and if he fails to improve Cuba’s economy within six months to a year, a half million Cubans may try to leave Cuba.

Half a million? That would be more than ten times the number that was intercepted at sea in 1994, when the Cuban economy was in far worse condition than today.

Models are built on assumptions, and one has to wonder what kind of assumptions this model contains about Cuba’s economy and Cubans’ individual behavior.

[Update: See this comment from La Contra Revolucion.]

[News agency photo]

Stranger than fiction: a CIA plot on Castro

The CIA released a collection of documents describing its “family jewels,” operations that, in the opinion of the official who assembled them, “conflict with the provisions of the National Security Act of 1947.”

The operations span the period between March 1959 and May 1973. In most cases the revelations are of purely historical interest but in the case of Cuba, the object of the operation in question is still alive and in power.

Pages 12-19 of this 151-page pdf document describe a “sensitive mission requiring gangster-type action” in 1960. “The mission target was Fidel Castro.”

You can read it yourself, but I’ll summarize the memo for the record.

Robert Maheu of the CIA was assigned to seek “entrée into the gangster elements” in Las Vegas, and settled on the “high-ranking” Johnny Roselli, who “controlled all the ice-making machines on the Strip.”

The idea was to approach Roselli under false pretenses, with a story that some businesses that were losing money in Cuba wanted to pay $150,000 for “Castro’s removal.” This led to meetings at Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel and elsewhere with two men, “Sam” and “Joe,” who happened to be on the FBI’s most wanted list. These men thought the best man for the job was Juan Orta, a disaffected Cuban official who used to receive “kick-back payments from gambling interests.” Poison pills were to be used in the operation. But it was not accomplished and eventually, Orta got “cold feet.” A second operative then tried and failed. Then there was an abortive attempt to have the late Tony Verona carry out the operation. The entire project was canceled after the failed Bay of Pigs operation.

“Sam” then came to Maheu with a personal request. “Sam’s” girlfriend, Phyllis McGuire, was “getting much attention from Dan Rowan while both were booked at a Las Vegas night club.” He wanted Rowan’s hotel room bugged to “determine the extent of his intimacy with Miss McGuire.” Maheu obliged, the technician planting the bug was discovered and arrested, and prosecution was only averted when the CIA interceded with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Whew.

Roselli was subsequently convicted of immigration and gambling violations. His lawyer wanted the CIA’s assistance and threatened to spill the beans about Roselli’s activities with the CIA. The CIA declined. Two Jack Anderson columns about CIA attempts to kill Castro subsequently appeared in 1971; both are in the pdf document.

“The last known residence of Roselli was the Federal Penitentiary in Seattle, Washington,” the memo concludes.

Lessons, apart from the obvious one that truth is stranger than fiction:

The CIA is not omnipotent. Far from it.

The CIA and Justice Department worked at cross purposes.

When Fidel Castro complains about American plots to kill him, he may be out of date, but he is not wrong.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Churros, anyone?

Ciego de Avila, 2005

More on del Pino and negotiations

General del Pino’s ideas about negotiations with Cuba provoked some discussion at Penultimos Dias.

One comment goes to the effect that for a negotiation to work, two parties have to be interested in making it work. True. But even though del Pino writes about negotiation, in a way he’s not really proposing a standard negotiation.

He is saying that some authorities in Cuba are interested in liberalizing some economic policies, and it would be constructive for the United States to make it known that if Cuba takes certain steps, the United States will respond in specific ways.

He outlines his first step in such a way that would not require face-to-face talks.

This is the approach taken in the Cuba Democracy Act of 1992, the famous Ley Torricelli that was worked out with and endorsed by the late Jorge Mas Canosa. The only difference is that del Pino is specific, and that 1992 law was general. It said that if Cuba liberalizes its economy or politics – without specifying how – Washington would respond in carefully calibrated ways.

Of course, Helms-Burton came along four years later, wiping out these provisions and replacing them with a checklist of all-or-nothing requirements that surely delighted the Castros, and that makes the American President a spectator in the event that Cuba starts to change.

I think General del Pino’s ideas – and other similar ideas, such as those proposed by the Cuba Study Group – are constructive, even though it’s hard for me to imagine a political scenario where a negotiation on Cuban domestic policies would take place. My view is that Cuba will change when its government is good and ready, and it will do so for internal reasons. Outside actors may have less influence than we imagine. And as we have seen, outsiders have as many chances to exercise negative influence as positive.

Odds and ends

  • From a friend in Havana, the Coppelia menu from 1966. Funny how they used (and still use) the word “ensalada” for a five-scoop dish. At some point, the variety on this menu fell by the wayside but Coppelia is still quite an oasis.

You're outta here!

In my note on Man of Two Havanas, I took issue with the way the film assigns blame to the U.S. government alone for the separation of Cuban families, making no mention of Cuban policies such as the unique concept of salida definitiva for emigrants.

A reader asked for a precise definition of salida definitiva, so here goes.

I consulted a number of sources and while one can find lots of references to it, I found no official Cuban definition of salida definitiva in Cuban immigration law or regulations.

But Cubans seem to have no doubt as to what it means. Barring unusual circumstances (such as marriage to a foreign national), a Cuban who seeks to leave Cuba to live abroad has to apply for the salida definitiva.

The salida definitiva implies that a person who departs lose rights under Cuban law – most importantly, the right to own or inherit property, and the right to return to one’s own country at will. One may return with the Cuban government’s permission, for up to 21 days. If one transfers property just before being approved for the salida definitiva, those property transfers are nullified. When a person is approved for salida definitiva, the government inventories his property and takes possession of it upon departure. Critics call it a form of exile.

To be sure, the Cuban government has shown an attitude in recent years of being more interested in having Cubans abroad come back for visits. (And in economic and political terms, those visits are profitable.) The pasaporte habilitado is a recent example; when granted, it allows Cubans living abroad to return to Cuba for visits without applying for permission to enter each time.

But as a legal matter, the salida definitiva is like losing one’s citizenship. It adds to the Cuban people’s separation.

I’m happy to post readers’ amplifications or corrections.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Negotiate with Cuba?

Brigadier General Rafael del Pino, Cuba’s highest-ranking military defector who flew a Cessna to the United States with this wife, son, and daughter in 1987, issues an interesting call for U.S.-Cuba negotiations in today’s El Nuevo Herald.

The general, who has appeared regularly on Radio Marti, writes with military pragmatism. He notes that in spite of military conflicts with Vietnam, China (in Korea), and Iraq’s Sunni insurgents that have killed American soldiers, the United States negotiates with all three. He thus dismisses the idea advanced by the Administration and many in the Cuban opposition – in Cuba and in Miami – that the Cuban government should negotiate with its domestic opponents, and Washington has nothing to negotiate with Havana.

Standing up for Cuban sovereignty, del Pino argues that Cuba’s democratization is a matter for Cubans to resolve among themselves, without the involvement of Americans or anyone else.

He points out that the conditions advanced by the Reagan Administration for a normalization of relations – repatriation of “Mariel excludables,” withdrawal of Cuban troops from Angola, an end to support for FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador, and an end to Cuban-Soviet ties – have been met.

Del Pino argues that for a long time, a faction in Cuba, “made up mainly of military officers involved in the economy and business, has proposed liberalizing the retail and service sectors.” He then proposes that if such a liberalization were to take place, the United States could allow Cuban Americans to do business in that sector. A change in Cuba’s investment law could allow the United States to permit investment by Americans in general, and release of all Cuban prisoners of conscience would allow Washington to drop travel restrictions on all Americans.

These initiatives would put the “ball in Cuba’s court,” the general argues, they would encourage wealth-generating activities in Cuba, they would give Cubans reason to stay in Cuba, and they would cause Cubans to stop paying $10,000 per person to alien smugglers to bring relatives to America.

“One has to start somewhere,” de Pino says. “Those over there don’t want to die in misery and those over here don’t want to end up with their names on a stone in Woodlawn Park.”

More on General del Pino: a 1997 article on his political activity, and a 2004 interview that proposes similar ideas on negotiations with Cuba.

[News agency photo]

Old Havana, near la Punta

Odds and ends

Our Vietnamese communist "friends"

At a Cuba discussion I attended last week, someone noted that the United States reconciles with countries with which we have been at war, but we have never been at war with Cuba so the standoff continues. Later, I thought of that remark when I read about President Bush receiving Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet in the White House last week.

President Bush’s tone was friendly but not effusive, as you might expect considering that the State Department reports the following about Vietnam’s human rights practices:

“…political opposition movements were officially prohibited and some activists arrested, although several nascent opposition organizations were not completely suppressed. The government sought to reinforce its controls over the press and the Internet. In a few instances, police abused suspects during arrest, detention, and interrogation. Prison conditions were often severe but generally did not threaten the lives of prisoners. Security forces generally operated with impunity, and there was one credible report of an extrajudicial killing by security forces.”

The Vietmamese authorities are our “friends” nonetheless, the President said, nudging gently:

PRESIDENT BUSH: Mr. President, thank you for coming. Laura and I remember very fondly our trip to your beautiful country. And I remember so very well the warm reception that we received from your government and the people of Vietnam.

I explained to the President we want to have good relations with Vietnam. And we've got good economic relations. We signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement. And I was impressed by the growing Vietnamese economy.

I also made it very clear that in order for relations to grow deeper that it's important for our friends to have a strong commitment to human rights and freedom and democracy. I explained my strong belief that societies are enriched when people are allowed to express themselves freely or worship freely.

Friday, June 22, 2007

"We have all the time in the world"

For some, an invitation to Brussels is less exciting than for others.

Cuba didn’t exactly refuse the EU’s offer of dialogue, but it didn’t accept it either, and its cheeky message to Brussels is that the EU needs to work to get its act together and drop the diplomatic sanctions that have been suspended since 2005. A foreign ministry statement says the EU has “no moral authority to judge or to give advice to Cuba,” and criticized the EU’s “persistent and humiliating subordination” to the United States. Calling on the EU to continue changing its course, the statement says there is “no hurry; we have all the time in the world.”

Any questions?

Looking toward O'Reilly

"La Patria Es de Todos" at ten

Cuban dissidents criticized the UN human rights council for discontinuing its special rapporteur on Cuba, and reaffirmed views they expressed ten years ago in their “La Patria Es de Todos” statement. The statement’s authors, Vladimiro Roca, Felix Bonne, Martha Beatriz Roque, and Rene Gomez Manzano, spoke at a press conference at the home of the top U.S. diplomat in Havana. Roque thanked U.S. diplomats for organizing the event and said it “would be impossible” to hold it in another place because the Cuban government would not permit it.

Campaigning in Miami-Dade

Senator McCain was in Miami the other day, gave a speech on Latin America, and devoted two paragraphs to Cuba, declaring that he “will not passively await the long-overdue demise of the Castro dictatorship.” His measures are a continuation of President Bush’s policies, with an added commitment to “prosecute Cuban officials implicated in the murder of Americans, drug trafficking and other crimes.”

Mayor Giuliani was in Hialeah yesterday. According to the St. Petersburg Times, he loves Cuban food, hates Castro, and chides Hollywood types who glamorize Castro even though he “was horrible to gays and lesbians.”

Oh boy.

Aside from Mitt Romney’s cribbing of Venceremos Brigade rhetoric, this may be an election in which the candidates have nothing new to add to the Cuba playbook. Which means, we can guess, that we’re in for a competition of symbolism and rhetoric to show whose love and commitment is most genuine.

Giuliani also mentioned that his wife is learning Spanish, by the way.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Max of two Havanas

I had a chance to see The Man of Two Havanas last night (trailer here) in Washington. The politics of this movie are not going to be to everyone’s liking, and its subject, Max Lesnik, may not be your cup of tea or santo de tu devocion. But it’s an interesting movie with strong documentary value even if you find its politics wrong and its style of argument tendentious.

At its core this film is a love letter from a daughter to her Dad. Filmmaker Vivien Lesnik grew up wondering what drove her father – a 26 of July Movement veteran who left Cuba early in the revolution, started a magazine in Miami, and had his office bombed 11 times in the 1970’s violence in that city – to remain so passionate about Cuba. She tells his story, and tells of her own rediscovery of her Cuban roots.

The film is full of archival footage of the anti-Batista revolution, the early years of Castro, the violence in Miami, the 1970’s dialogue, and more. It includes news footage of Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles that I had never seen, and concentrates on the 1976 bombing in Barbados of the Cubana airliner.

Cubans’ separation, according to this film, is all the fault of the United States. It’s fair enough to criticize U.S. travel restrictions, and I do so all the time. But other things bear mentioning too: human rights and economic problems in Cuba, and Cuba’s unique concept of salida definitiva for emigrants, for starters. And when the film blames the United States exclusively for the state of bilateral relations, it ignores the Ford Administration’s quiet and very serious attempt to normalize relations, a huge opportunity that the Cuban side allowed to pass.

Interesting film, very interesting family/historical angle, but you may need a grain of salt, maybe a very big one.

[News agency photo]

A win for Lincoln

The House of Representatives just approved an amendment by Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart to provide the Administration’s full request – $45.7 million – for Cuba democracy programs in 2008, instead of the $9 million that the Appropriations Committee recommended. The vote was 254-170, with 66 Democrats voting in the majority.

Ernesto begs to differ

At Penultimos Dias they took issue with my discussion of the dissidents and the USAID program. Ernesto's complaint and my reply, and then some, are here.

An earlier post that led to some of the consternation is here.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Dissidents: End travel ban

The House of Representatives may debate the funding for Cuba democracy programs today.

When the GAO report on these programs was issued, four prominent dissidents – Martha Beatriz Roque, Gidela Delgado, Elizardo Sanchez, and Vladimiro Roca – issued a statement. (English here, original here.)

They thought that some parts of the GAO report were taken out of context, and they expressed support for U.S. government grantees that have provided aid.

They expressed hope that “a greater amount of aid may reach the pro-democracy activists to advance with greater speed in pursuit of the economic, political, and social liberty of our country.”

And while they support the U.S. government aid program, they also called for “elimination of a series of existing restrictions on the sending of aid and travel to Cuba, which don’t at all help the pro-democracy struggle that we are carrying out inside our country.”

The statement did not go over well in Miami. Roque later clarified, saying that her position is not in favor of eliminating the travel ban altogether, but only to allow unrestricted travel for those carrying aid to dissidents.

Not that it’s my business, but that seems an unusual political position to project in Cuba: It’s OK for people to bring things to me and like-minded politicians, but not to the average Cuban. In Miami, or in parts of Miami, it works just fine.

Government report praises Radio/TV Marti

It’s hard to tell from the Miami Herald’s report what to make of a leaked State Department report on Radio and TV Marti. And until someone puts the report itself on the Internet – come on, it’s unclassified, after all – no one should leap to conclusions.

But based on the newspaper report, and in the spirit of skepticism about government information, let’s say a few things.

First, I wonder if this report – the product of months of research by Franklin Huddle, recently U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan – fulfills the mandate of the Administration’s Cuba commission, which in July 2006 said that “within 90 days” there would be "a comprehensive and independent review on ways to improve Cuba broadcasts."

The report says there is “anecdotal evidence” that listenership is up and there are reports that TV Marti is being seen in Cuba. But the report provides no data, and one doubts that the government-commissioned survey of Cuban émigrés in Miami will be released.

I’m glad someone is making money interviewing people in Florida, but the audience is in Cuba. The U.S. government used to commission surveys in Cuba – has this been discontinued? Why, in a $35 million-per-year operation that broadcasts to an island of 11 million people, do we have anecdotes and surveys taken in another country? And what are we to make of the government spokesman’s claim that listeners are calling Radio Marti from Cuba, where a brief call to the United States – which just might be monitored – consumes an average worker’s monthly pay?

The report says Radio/TV Marti director Pedro Roig is “assertive, inspiring.” Maybe so. But to call him the “most effective in recent history” is not saying much.

The Herald says this: “The report says information obtained from dissidents or independent journalists in Cuba, while important, is a ‘threat’ to Radio and TV Martí’s credibility because some dissidents may ‘seek to further their own causes’ while others may be Cuban government agents posing as dissidents.” That’s interesting; I have heard Cubans say the extensive coverage of dissidents is boring, but this passage seems to point to problems with reliability of information. All the more reason to release the report.

The report questions whether it makes sense for the U.S. government to continue paying to broadcast the Marti signals on Miami’s Radio Mambi and TV Azteca. Is this based on some evidence? Again, another reason to release the report itself.

Plaza San Francisco

The Sierra Maestra cruise ship terminal

Odds and ends

  • A Cubanet report says Martha Beatriz Roque led a peaceful march of 70 dissidents in support of a wife’s effort to have her husband released from prison. The report was filed from Havana and says the march took place in Camaguey “this weekend.” It praises Roque’s prominence and says the march is “without precedents in Cuba.” Actually, a march of that type takes place in Havana every Sunday around noon in Miramar on Fifth Avenue near 26th led by the Damas de Blanco.

  • An editorial in Spain’s El Pais (h/t Cuba por Dentro) contains this passage: “Cuba is a communist dictatorship, one of the last. But probably its evolution and eventual transition will not be the same as in Czechoslovakia, Poland, or Romania, because much of the opposition has abandoned the island, and for the existence a few kilometers away of a power like the United States.” Ouch.

  • Mexico’s President Calderon, who has already talked about his desire to improve relations with Cuba, sent a warm message of condolence to Raul Castro following the death of his wife Vilma Espin. He praised Espin’s place in Cuba’s social history and expressed “the solidarity of the Mexican people with the Cuban people in the face of this irreparable loss.”

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

USAID funding confirmed

The House Appropriations Committee has published the bill and accompanying report (pdf) for State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development funding for the fiscal year that begins October 1. The report confirms what I reported before: $9 million is provided in this bill for “democracy assistance programs in Cuba,” for which the Administration had requested $45.7 million.

The Committee requires that the Administration provide “a spending plan and strategy for how these funds will be utilized” before the funds are used. Its report takes note of the 2006 GAO report on the U.S. Agency for International Development program, particularly its findings about insufficient “internal controls” over the funding, the way grants are awarded and monitored, and communication between the State Department and USAID that it describes as “ineffective and lacking with regard to grantees’ in-country activities.”

This amount and these conditions could change as the House and Senate work on this bill. But even if the Committee’s action remains unchanged, this is hardly an emergency for the program, or for Cuba’s dissidents.

If aid to dissidents is the priority, $9 million is plenty of money, and submission of a spending plan is not an onerous condition.

What is new is that Congress is paying closer attention to the program and beginning to exercise routine oversight.

Fidel and economics

I thought I was done commenting on Fidel Castro’s newspaper commentaries, but I guess not. A few things struck me in yesterday’s commentary (English here).

First, Castro began the revolution declaring that he was defending Cuba’s sovereignty, finishing finally the work the Mambises set out to do. Lest anyone had any doubt, he will remain in that role, as President Clinton used to say, “until the last dog dies.”

Second, he discloses that in recent months he “hovered between life and death.”

Third, he reaffirms his views on economics in some brief statements that are peripheral to his main argument, but telling nonetheless.

“The access to convertible currency,” he writes, “greatly harmed our social consciousness, to a greater or a lesser degree, due to the inequalities and ideological weaknesses it created.”

The solution, he goes on, is to raise the standard of living by improving “knowledge, self-esteem and the dignity of people. It will be enough to reduce wastage [despilfarro] and the economy will grow. In spite of everything, we will keep on growing as necessary and as possible.”

Again, these are asides in an essay focused mainly on politics and security. But it’s a narrow and minimal economic vision, a far cry from generating broad-based growth that lifts incomes, enables Cuba to return to a single currency, and eliminates the income gaps that drive Cubans to engage in black market activity to make ends meet.

Cementerio Colon, 2001

EU resolution approved

The EU foreign ministers reviewed their Cuba policy and made their decision. EU diplomatic sanctions remain suspended, and there is a new action: an invitation to Cuban government officials to come to Brussels for talks.

Both sides are claiming victory; Spain because of the offer of a new dialogue, the Czechs because the sanctions were suspended, not terminated.

The Bush Administration seems to have used more than the usual diplomatic tools in this debate. In addition to the Secretary of State’s visit to Madrid, there were conferences, activities by European organizations, and campaigning by Cuban exile organizations. While USAID’s Kremlin-like impermeability makes it impossible to find which of these were funded by Washington, these activities call to mind the recommendations in the Administration’s 2004 Cuba commission report, which call for $5 million to be spent on “small grants and other assistance to local national groups interested in promoting greater information about U.S. policies toward Cuba and greater national involvement in support of democracy and the development of civil society in Cuba,” and to “fund and promote international or third-country national conferences to disseminate information abroad about U.S. policies on transition planning efforts related to Cuba.”

At any rate, the foreign ministers’ resolution:

  • noted that Cuba is in a “new situation” due to Fidel Castro’s delegation of executive powers last July;

  • called on the Cuban government “to undertake the political and economic reforms necessary to improve the lives of the Cuban people;”

  • “deplores” that the human rights situation “has not changed fundamentally, in spite of a reduction in the number of political prisoners and acts of harassment”

  • expressed “solidarity and constant support for all who work in a peaceful manner for freedom, democracy, and respect for universal human rights;”

  • said the EU will continue dialogue with Cuban civil society and “offer all sectors of society concrete support in favor of a peaceful change in Cuba;”

  • announced that “a Cuban delegation will be invited to Brussels” to discuss potential economic, scientific, and cultural cooperation and the EU’s “point of view about democracy,” all on a “reciprocal and nondiscriminatory basis.”

OK, now let’s fight about something else.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Vilma Espin, 1930-2007

Vilma Espin, “heroine of the underground and distinguished combatant in the rebel army,” died this afternoon, Prensa Latina reports. The official communiqué details her activities in the 26th of July Movement, as a member of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party and as head of the Federation of Cuban Women, a communist mass organization.

The communiqué does not mention that she was Raul Castro’s wife of 48 years. R.I.P.

[Cuban news agency photo]

Tu casa es mi casa!

Is it ridiculous to talk about Cubans’ fear that they could one day be evicted from their homes by exiles returning to claim their former properties? (See, for example, “Where in the World is Matt Lauer's Integrity?” – scroll down here.) Does such talk simply amplify Cuban government propaganda over what is really a non-issue?

At one level, the answer is clearly “yes.” Spend a little time among Cuban Americans, and you find that there are very few who think of returning to Cuba to repossess their former homes and evict their inhabitants. I’ll bet that a poll would show that a large majority would like to visit and see what their parents built and left behind – but no more.

And recall that the late Jorge Mas Canosa, who was virtually a spokesman for the community, recognized the fear of people on the island; he advocated compensation for lost homes and opposed any claims settlement scheme that would dislodge people from their homes. Clearly, he realized, as do nearly all Cuban Americans today, that Cubans are not interested in any change at all if it begins with them losing their homes.

But the fear, even if based on a small and shrinking segment of Miami opinion, is real. A reader commented here that after talking to ordinary Cubans for a day, it is clear to him that they are “ten times more scared of Miami Cubans than the beard.”

And that fear is not necessarily irrational. Last month I linked to a story about a Florida International University website called, that is sort of like Google Earth. It is billed as a “public service of Florida International University sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NASA, the United States Geological Survey, and IBM.” It is worth checking out. (See NPR news story here.)

The site’s Havana page features aerial views plus ground-level photos of houses and buildings taken by volunteers. If you scroll down, there’s a link that allows you to file a property claim and supporting documentation with FIU’s “NASA Regional Applications Center,” which is not a judicial body. The claims will apparently be saved and sent to the “U.S. Department of State, potential land developers, US non-profit organizations, and to the Government of Cuba if and when such Government is democratically elected.”

Now, if you were Cuban and you saw a foreigner taking pictures of your house, how would you feel about this “public service?” And what would you do?

At least the FIU site doesn’t talk about evictions – that task fell to the U.S. government.

When the Bush Administration’s Cuba commission issued its monumental election-year report in 2004 (general discussion here), it covered the issue of residential property. You can read it yourself here. The residential property section includes the “if requested by a transition Cuban government” disclaimers. But it sums up as follows:

  • While Cubans may think they have title to their property, those titles are in doubt and need to be certified by a commission that the U.S. government will help Cuba to establish.

  • The commission may determine that current occupants of homes – now called “tenants” – might have to pay “rent” until they are evicted: “If the [commission] finds that the property is occupied as a home, then the claimant should be unable to evict the tenants and take possession of the property for a specified period of time.”

Can anyone imagine a single step that the U.S. government could take that would be more of an impediment to change in Cuba?

This blunder was not lost on the Administration’s current Latin America team. All recent statements on Cuba policy – including spots on Radio Marti featuring the Secretary of Commerce – are saturated with assurances that the United States offers advice, not dictates, to the Cuban people. The July 2007 “Compact with the People of Cuba” explicitly says that the United States respects “the right of the Cuban people to be secure in their homes.”

My hunch is that these assurances are reinforcing fears rather than dispelling them. It would be far better if the Administration would flatly disavow its 2004 commission report, in whole or in part. But governments rarely do that, and in this case maybe we are seeing an excess of deference to the commission’s chairs, Secretary of State Powell and Senator Mel Martinez.

There are a few lessons here.

Cubans are not dumb.

You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.

And when it comes to Cuba policy, the so-called hard-liners can be Fidel’s best friends.

Odds and ends

Friday, June 15, 2007

Park, Habana Vieja

More on USAID democracy programs

I’m trying to get a precise reading on the action by the House Appropriations Committee regarding Cuba democracy programs. I reported on Tuesday that the figure was $5 million, then corrected that figure to $9 million. El Nuevo Herald then reported that only $5 million was provided and that the Committee is directing the Administration to present its strategy and spending plan before the funds are disbursed.

This initial committee action has provoked discussion in Miami, and I hope it provokes a lot more.

On last night’s Polos Opuestos on Miami’s MegaTV, Maria Elvira Salazar hosted three U.S. government grantees and an official of the Cuban American National Foundation, which sends private support to Cuba.

Salazar seemed to assume that the programs are intended only to help the dissidents. In fact, their purpose is broader. She asked what would happen if Congress approved a reduced budget for these programs, and the answer is simple: the Administration would have to choose. Should the funds go to humanitarian aid for families of political prisoners? To material aid to dissidents? To finance conferences and organizations in Europe? To build solidarity networks in Latin America? To information and research programs?

Salazar’s persistent questioning exposed some of the oddities of the program.

One grantee said, unapologetically, that among his many purchases he bought one box of Godiva chocolates and a few cans of crabmeat and sent them to Cuba, and that Cubans, as much as anyone else, have the right to eat those things. Great – and if he were talking about his own money, that would be the end of the story. But U.S. taxpayers might ask why they are asked to pay so people abroad can exercise the right to eat crab, and how in this case it contributes to democracy in Cuba.

The same grantee bought a mountain bike and sent it to Cuba. How, Salazar asked? Via diplomatic pouch, was the answer. So this is how the program works, for mountain bikes, books, and lots of other goods: The U.S. government decides it wants to aid Cubans. It sends money to organizations in Miami, who go shopping. They buy goods and send them back to the government, which sends them to the U.S. Interests Section, through the unclassified diplomatic pouch, and the U.S. diplomats take it from there. That is, after Cuban employees of the Interests Section handle the cargo and get everything organized.

Is that clever, or what?

Salazar asked why U.S. grantees are allowed to send only goods, no cash, to recipients in Cuba. She was referring to a decision made by the Clinton Administration and left untouched by the Bush Administration. That’s a good question, considering that the government grantees ship goods to Cuba that are available in Cuba, and they pay up to $20 per pound to ship them.

Another question is whether a government program of this type would be necessary at all if there were no U.S. restrictions on travel, remittances, and gift parcels to Cuba.

“A growing threat from Latin American totalitarianism”

Soon-to-be presidential candidate Fred Thompson makes a big nod to Cuban-American voters in a radio commentary: when it comes to the national security threat from Cuba, “we should have been listening to our Cuban-Americans friends” for a long time.

He outlines his views about the “Venezuelan and Cuban axis of influence” in our hemisphere, and says “Chavez would love to get his hands on nuclear weapons.”

He implies that if the Cuban economy were to collapse, Cuba’s political system would change: “One of the main factors preventing Cuba's transition towards democracy is Venezuelan oil wealth.”

After declaring that “America is facing a growing threat from Latin American totalitarianism,” Thompson’s response is that we need to “free Radio and TV Marti and let them fight for freedom in the realm of ideas.”

Free Radio and TV Marti?

I think what he means, as you see in this earlier commentary, is that he’s a fan of U.S. international broadcasting, and wants to see it directed toward Venezuela, and wants to see the battle of ideas take advantage of new media.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Odds and ends

  • The EU will not change its policy toward Cuba, EFE reports from Brussels. The result is that the 2003 diplomatic sanctions will remain on the books, but will remain suspended as they have been since 2005. Foreign ministers will meet Monday to make the final decision.