Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Marc Frank's revelation

I’m glad to call him my friend.  But most people know Marc Frank, the best economics reporter in Cuba, as a Reuters guy who writes in his trade’s short, clipped style. 

The first thing he reveals in his new book, Cuba Revelations, is that he has another style at his disposal.  The book is beautifully written – with wire-service economy, abundant and interesting detail, affection for Cuba and its people, and the benefit of observations that stretch back 20 years and, frequently, to places as far away as Guantanamo, 600 miles from his Havana home. 

If the topics in this blog are remotely interesting to you, you should buy this book. 

Its central story has to do with the economic changes being wrought by the Raul Castro government, their impact on the society, their successes and failures, and the resistance they face from ideologues and the bureaucracy.  He writes about official documents and data that make their way to him – for example, outlining the 2008 balance of payments crunch that followed three hurricanes in that year of global financial crisis.  But it’s not a data-heavy economics book.  It’s more about the changes in society and the politics of the revolution that stem from a program that is remaking the economy, rewriting the social contract, and changing most everyone’s way of doing business.  Throughout, it benefits from quips, reflections, and anecdotes that come from provincial farm contacts that he developed as a commodity reporter 20 years ago, all the way to his daughter’s high school friends who crashed in his house. 

It’s a political leadership story that covers the Fidel-to-Raul succession.  It gives a cold-eyed assessment of the dissidents and U.S. policy under Presidents Bush and Obama.  It notes the importance of the Catholic church.  It explains what’s right and what’s lacking in Cuban health care and education.  It presents his explanation of why the Arab Spring is not coming to Cuba.  And lots more.

Marc returns time and again to the boat that the United States has missed, and often studiously avoided: the vast number of Cubans, many in positions of responsibility, that want change but don’t want regime change, that want their government fixed but not torn down and rebuilt, least of all by outsiders.  He calls this sector the “gray zone.”

He has insight into the Cuban character, but he also has the humility to stick with the century-old assessment of a writer whom he cites, which is that when it comes to figuring Cubans out, we often can’t even come close. 

A great read, available here on Amazon.

Friday, December 13, 2013

“Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler”

Once again, that is what Senator McCain said after the six-second encounter between the President of the United States and the President of Cuba.  Also this: “Why should you shake hands with somebody who’s keeping Americans in prison?  I mean, what’s the point?”

What indeed is the point, when you could travel to such a person’s country (photo above) to talk with him directly, speak gently and diplomatically afterward, oppose cutting more than $1 billion in annual military aid to the government holding 16 Americans while only considering cutting it in the future, and then ultimately acquiesce in sending an additional $5 million in taxpayer money to that government to get the Americans out?

That’s what Senator McCain did after 16 Americans working for government-sponsored institutes (including one he chairs, the International Republican Institute) and other organizations were arrested by the Egyptian government in 2011 when it got fed up with their political work there.

And he complains about a handshake!

I don’t want to dwell on the handshake episode and I certainly don’t want to pick on a leader of my beloved Republican party, although if you go straight to Munich in 1938 to find an analogy for a six-second greeting at a funeral, it’s not a good sign.

Senator McCain has given us a fine example of the nonsense purveyed for so long by both Democrats and Republicans when it comes to policy toward Cuba.  The practices and principles that apply everywhere else are thrown out the window, and we use others that have got us nowhere for 50 years.  But who’s counting?

In the case discussed above, the Egyptian government arrested personnel from organizations that operated openly in Egypt, trying to help democratic development.  McCain’s organization, the International Republican Institute, had submitted registration papers to the Cairo government five years earlier.

Far from punishing Egypt or touching the military aid money, Senator McCain flew to Cairo to engage in direct dialogue with Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Muslim Brotherhood leaders (whom he praised for their “constructive role”), and others.  He left the diplomatic bargaining to the executive branch.  Eventually, the U.S. government paid about $5 million for the Americans’ release.

There are many differences between the Americans arrested in Egypt (one the son of then-transportation secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican) and Alan Gross, the USAID contractor now serving the fifth year of a 15-year sentence in Cuba.  But what matters is what they have in common: they are Americans who faced the prospect of rotting in a foreign jail after getting in trouble carrying out U.S. government programs.

We paid money to get those Americans out of Egypt.  No one liked the payment, but I don’t recall any criticism of it.  It served a greater good.

When it comes to Alan Gross, Senator McCain drags out hoary 1938 analogies, acts as if our manhood is at stake if we negotiate, and urges the President merely to demand Gross’ unconditional release. 

Such an approach would have kept McCain’s people in jail in Cairo, and it is keeping Alan Gross in Havana today.

God help Mr. Gross and his family if President Obama continues to be swayed by such arguments.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A quick handshake (Updated)

Six foreign leaders spoke at Nelson Mandela’s funeral today: President Obama, President Raul Castro, and the leaders of Brazil, China, India, and Namibia.  President Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand as he greeted the other speakers and other guests.  It’s hard to read much into this, in fact it would have been awkward to avoid the brief greeting.  If it marks the beginning of a change in the relationship, so much the better, but that would take a decision on President Obama’s part, not a handshake.

Raul Castro was introduced as a representative of a people that fought for South Africa’s liberation by fighting in Angola against rebels backed by the apartheid government.  He praised Mandela for ending the apartheid system, for serving as an example to Latin America and the Caribbean, and for standing up for the “conviction that dialogue and cooperation are the path to the solution of differences and to civilized coexistence between those who think differently.”  For his part, President Obama took a shot at leaders who express solidarity with Mandela but “do not tolerate dissent from their own people.”

Granma has the transcript of Raul Castro’s remarks and an article on President Obama’s remarks.

Rosa Maria Paya, the daughter of the late Oswaldo Paya, says that President Obama’s handshake shows disrespect for the Cuban people.


The handshake was broadcast on Cuban television, Yoani Sanchez says.

When you go to a funeral, do you use it as an opportunity to settle scores with everyone there?  That’s what two U.S. Senators think President Obama should have done at today’s state funeral in Johannesburg.  Senator McCain: “Why should you shake hands with somebody who's keeping Americans in prison?”  Then, “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.”  Senator Rubio: “If he was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba.”


“Your suggestions are a clear death sentence for my husband, Alan.  He will not return home alive.  Imagine if this was one of your loved ones.  Would you still be professing the same thing?”

– Judy Gross, wife of jailed USAID contractor Alan Gross, in a comment posted below this Miami Herald editorial

Friday, December 6, 2013

Nobody's man in Havana

USAID contractor Alan Gross, 64, has been captive in Cuba for four years and is wondering if anyone cares about getting him out before he serves the remaining 11 years of his jail sentence.

Those who most support the program that sent him to Cuba and who defend his activities there – the Obama Administration, Senator Menendez and allies in Congress – seem to have the least to offer when it comes to bringing him home.

Their solution is clear and simple: demand his unilateral and unconditional release.  (See this letter from Senator Menendez and this State Department statement.)

It’s all well and good to have a democracy development program that expands Internet access around the world.  And it sounds good to carry out that program wherever we like as if the concept of national sovereignty is quaint and irrelevant because, as Secretary Clinton used to argue, access to information is a universal right. 

All that idealism makes for good political speeches and strong-sounding letters to the President, it keeps the program going in Congress, and it provides the money that got Alan Gross the businessman interested in becoming a USAID operative in Cuba.

But the idealism was of no help to Alan Gross the operative because the program ignored – as did Mr. Gross – some basic operational realities.  Such as: The Cuban government cares about its own sovereignty especially vis-à-vis the United States.  The Cuban intelligence service is not a casual, 9-to-5 operation.  It is foolish to send anyone, much less an untrained USAID contractor, to operate on that service’s home turf.  And the placement of satellite Internet units with Wi-Fi hotspots would probably appear to the Cuban government to be a lot more than assistance to the Jewish community, especially because the operation was funded by a U.S. law (Helms-Burton) that seeks to overturn the political order in Cuba.

It has been four years and the demands for Mr. Gross’ unconditional release have not worked.  Is anyone responsible now for finding an approach that does work?

The Bush Administration designed the satellite Internet program and issued the contract that sent Mr. Gross to Cuba, but the Bush Administration is out of office.

USAID, to be fair, has long included warnings in its documents about its Cuba program that the program is illegal in Cuba and its operatives are at risk there.  USAID bristles at the idea that Mr. Gross would be traded for someone else, because that is how we get spies released, and Mr. Gross was not a spy.  The implication seems to be that USAID’s work is on a higher moral plane than that of intelligence agencies.  The time to think of such niceties, I would say, was before the agency decided to send contractors to attempt to operate covertly, or “discreetly” as USAID prefers to say, in another country.

The Obama Administration didn’t make the decision to send Mr. Gross to Cuba, but he went on the Administration’s watch, albeit in its first year when its personnel were still being placed in their jobs and those who were in place were not monitoring the missions of U.S. contractors to Cuba. 

Supporters of the USAID Cuba programs blame the Cuban government for, of course, arresting and sentencing Mr. Gross, and never seem troubled by the program’s naive operational design which led to the loss of one man’s freedom, the total waste of taxpayer dollars, and the gift of satellite equipment to the Cuban government. 

This letter from Senator Leahy and 65 other Senators seems to tell President Obama that it is his responsibility to act by taking “whatever steps are in the national interest to obtain his release.”  Taken together with Senator Menendez’ letter urging the President to stick with the demands of the past four years, signed by only 14 Senators, this is a clear message to the President that his approach serves neither Mr. Gross nor the national interest, and should change.

The hangup for many is that the United States might give something to Cuba in return for Mr. Gross’ release.  That’s understandable, but it’s not an objection that comes up in other cases where we bargain for the release of our people. 

No one objected when the United States paid Egypt – a government that gets more than $1 billion in U.S. aid each year – $330,000 per head for the release of staffers for the International Republican Institute and the International Democratic Institute last year.  (They operated openly, but were arrested because the Egyptian government disliked their activities.)  Two of those who signed Senator Menendez’ letter, Senators McCain and Kirk, are directors of the International Republican Institute.

No one objected in 2010 when we obtained the release of four Russians who had apparently been working for us by sending 10 freshly arrested Russian agents home.  The whole thing took 11 days, from the arrest of the Russians to their flight home.

No one objected in 2011 when the United States worked out an arrangement in which $1.5 million was paid to Iran for the release of three hapless American hikers who apparently crossed into Iranian territory.

So what can President Obama do? 

He can get involved as he has in the case of Robert Levinson, an American held in Iran since 2007.  Mr. Levinson is described as a retired FBI agent who went to Iran on a tobacco company’s behalf to investigate cigarette smuggling.  President Obama has spoken on the phone to the President of Iran about the case.  In the photo above, he is shown meeting with Mr. Levinson’s wife.  Update: Levinson is a retired FBI agent and then some, AP reports.

On a strategic level, he can try to do with Cuba what he is attempting to do with Iran, where he is trying to solve both the immediate concern (nuclear development) and to find a way to put relations with that country on a better plane, for our benefit and that of the region.  A tall order, but a wise use of American leadership that does not put military action front and center.

In Cuba’s case the immediate issue of Mr. Gross is far simpler and there is no issue that threatens U.S. or regional security.  If President Obama starts serious discussions with Cuba, the end-game might not involve direct bargaining for Mr. Gross, but rather a series of measures to improve U.S.-Cuba relations where his release is one of many results.  If U.S. policy changes in the bargain, so much the better.  Since so much of our policy toward Cuba is contrary to our own interests, we could come out ahead, far more than the President imagines.

Well worth reading: Alan Gross’ letter to President Obama, the Washington Post’s story on it, Cuba’s reiteration this week that it is willing to negotiate, Julia Sweig’s argument that the Obama Administration should seize a diplomatic opportunity with Cuba, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus’ assessment that the Alan Gross case is a low priority for the Obama Administration, and this article by former USAID lawyer Stephen Kaplitt, who now represents Mr. Gross.