Category Archives: Cuba

Castro’s legacy? Libertador or monster? Depends on where you sit.

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Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in 1959, when Cubans were briefly united in support behind the young new revolutionaries.

History will remember him in the same breath as Mandela or Gandhi for 1959.cuba

History will remember him in the same breath as all the other 20th century monsters for every year that followed.

That’s the tragedy and the shame of the Castro legacy. Continue reading Castro’s legacy? Libertador or monster? Depends on where you sit.

Beyond Cuba: why Caribbean debt crisis could become American security crisis

Cuban president Raúl Castro met US president Barack Obama Monday morning in Havana. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald)
Cuban president Raúl Castro met US president Barack Obama Monday morning in Havana. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald)

It’s not just voters in Spain, Ireland and Greece who are weary of austerity economics.PRjamaicacubaUSflag

Voters in Jamaica last month narrowly ejected their prime minister, Portia Simpson-Miller, giving opposition leader Andrew Holness and the nominally center-right Jamaica Labour Party a razor-thin 32-31 majority in the House of Representatives. Though Jamaican politics has been famous since the 1970s for its polarization, Holness will govern with the narrowest margin in the House since 1949.

What he does with his mandate could matter not only for Jamaica, but the entire Caribbean.

Simpson-Miller, who took power in 2012 and secured yet another IMF bailout in 2013 for the debt-plagued island, marked some success in bringing the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio down from 140% to around 125%. For now, Holness is working with IMF officials, but he won election after pledging to spend more revenues on health care, education and stimulating the economy, part of a generous and populist 10-point plan that will be difficult for him to enact under current fiscal restraints.

The Caribbean’s self-cannibalizing debt crisis

Holness will find himself in a trap all too common in the 21st century Caribbean, where manufacturing, tourism and, in some cases, modest oil production, have not been sufficient to boost economies and incomes. Without higher GDP growth, Holness will face two difficult options. If his government spends too much, he’ll unwind the careful work of his predecessor and send Jamaican debt levels spiraling upwards again. If Holness spends too little, he will alienate the electorate that gave him a majority and that, like Americans and Europeans, are weary of roller-coaster economic uncertainty and a widening inequality gap.

It’s a story that is increasingly familiar across the region and, today, it’s not just Jamaica that is falling into the debt trap. Barbados and Grenada have both marked 60% increases in their debt/GDP ratios in the last 15 years, and the Bahamas, Bermuda and other countries, not typically associated with imprudence, are also struggling with rising debt. Islands like Martinique and Guadeloupe thrive as fossils of France’s colonial empire, thriving due to hefty subsidies from Paris. Trinidad and Tobago, only recently flush with the promise of offshore oil drilling, has watched its expectations plummet with global oil prices. Puerto Rico, a commonwealth of the United States, endures a grinding debt default amid prolonged economic misery with little hope that legislative action can fix its economy. Despite years of advanced warning, neither Democrats nor Republicans have the inclination or ability to provide relief from Capitol Hill.

Taken together, the spiraling debt and economic stagnation of the Caribbean represents an overlooked security challenge in the years ahead that China, Russia or even the Middle East might exploit.

Cuba, Cuba, Cuba

Jamaica’s election didn’t generate the same excitement in the American media as U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic trip this week to Havana, the first since Calvin Coolidge visited in 1928. But it’s only the third time that Obama himself has traveled to the Caribbean at all – he visited Jamaica in April 2015, and he went to Trinidad and Tobago in 2009, when it hosted the 5th Summit of the Americas. Continue reading Beyond Cuba: why Caribbean debt crisis could become American security crisis

How the BP spill led to today’s Cuban embassy opening

bpdeepwaterPhoto credit to Reuters.

When US secretary of state John Kerry raises the US flag above the American embassy in Havana today, it will be a diplomatic highlight of the final 18 months of the Obama administration.USflagcuba

But its genesis lies partially in an unrelated disaster of the Obama administration’s first 18 months – the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. US officials worried initially that weather patterns would disperse the oil to Cuban waters, exacerbating an already troubled relationship, and it’s a fluke of the oceanographic currents that the oil largely flowed chiefly westward back to the US coastline and not eastward internationally. But they also increasingly worried that growing Cuban designs for its own nascent offshore oil drilling program (in the Caribbean Sea just north of Havana, close to the Florida coast) could cause an even more serious accident that could pollute US waters.

William LeoGrande, a professor at American University and the co-author of a new book on decades of back-channel negotiations between Havana and Washington, argues that informal discussions over environmental hazards and future potential ecological disasters built trust between US officials and Cuban policymakers in a multilateral Caribbean-wide framework, paving the way for bilateral talks on normalization, environmental standards and offshore oil production.

It took the US government a while, however, to warm to the idea. Continue reading How the BP spill led to today’s Cuban embassy opening

Photo of the day (night): Cuba’s embassy in DC

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It’s been over a half-century since the Cuban flag flew proudly over an embassy in Washington, D.C.cubaUSflag

Though the flag had been lowered with twilight, the Cuban embassy is a true embassy, and not just an interests section, for the first time since 1961.

As the clock struck midnight on 16th Street in Washington, hardly a soul passed the embassy, save for myself and an African-American woman who asked if this was the Cuban embassy (and yes, she, too, was disappointed that the flag had been lowered with dusk).

Say what you will about US-Cuban relations, the Castros or US foreign policy, July 20, 2015 was a day to remember.

You can read Suffragio‘s coverage of Cuba (including my own trip to Havana two months ago) here:

Why normalization with Cuba will be harder than advertised

Interview: Talking to Cuban artist Tania Bruguera

Photo essay — Cuba on the cusp… but for what kind of future?

Obama’s move to remove Cuba from terror list was long overdue

Six key questions about the landmark Cuba deal

A public interest theory of the continued US embargo on Cuba

Bruguera heading from Havana to New York?

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Less than two months after I met up with her in Havana, it looks like artist/activist Tania Bruguera is headed to New York:cuba

The City of New York announced Monday that it had chosen Ms. Bruguera, whose work blurs and sometimes obliterates the line between socially conscious performance art and straight-ahead social work, to be the first artist-in-residence for the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, an unusual yearlong appointment in which she will help the agency recruit undocumented immigrants for the city’s highly popular new municipal identification-card program, IDNYC.

The announcement coincides with reports that Bruguera’s passport was returned to her over the weekend (after seven months) — and amid further reports that Bruguera will refuse to leave Cuba without reassurances that the Cuban government will allow her to return unencumbered:  Continue reading Bruguera heading from Havana to New York?

Why ‘normalization’ with Cuba will be harder than advertized

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HAVANA — On December 17, U.S. president Barack Obama announced that his administration would pursue executive policies designed to engage Cuba diplomatically and, potentially, restore relations between the two countries severed in 1960 – one year before Obama was born, as he himself noted in a joint conference with Cuban president Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas, the first time since the summits began in 1994 that a Cuban leader was invited to the affair. USflagcuba

It’s not only the White House that argues the 55-year embargo hasn’t worked – Republicans and Democrats alike, and Cubans, Americans and many others have long held that the embargo’s worst effects have fallen on the Cuban people, even as the policy gave Fidel Castro a convenient foil and excuse for the failures of his own government. No medicine? Blame the embargo, not the Revolution that guarantees universal health care to everyone. No food? Blame the embargo, not the abrupt end of Soviet subsidies, which plunged Cuba into what Castro euphemistically christened the “Special Period in a Time of Peace,” three years of hunger and deprivation where the average caloric intake dropped from around 3,000 calories per day to 1,400, according to some estimates. For all the initial promise of the Revolution, the reality fell far short for many Cubans, most especially for LGBT Cubans shuttled off to labor camps in the early 1970s and Afro-Cubans, who suffer from race-based income inequality decades after the Cuban government’s declaration that the Revolution “ended” racism. Even Fidel Castro admitted as much in a remarkable interview with Jeffrey Goldberg five years ago.

You don’t have to be a Nobel-winning economist, however, to realize that Cuba’s most recent financial benefactor, Venezuela, is going through some tough times. Two years after the death of leftist populist Hugo Chávez, oil prices are down and so is the level of production from PdVSA, the country’s state oil company. The official rate of the Venezuelan bolívar is comically lower than its market value, inflation runs rampant and shortages and rationing of basic foods and household goods is common. These days, everyday chavistas, who still hold faith in the socialist Bolivarian revolution, have taken to lobbing mangoes at Chávez’s successor, Nicolás Maduro, with messages desperately scrawled on them. Those less charitably inclined to Maduro, including opposition leader Leopoldo López and former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, have been imprisoned. It’s dawning on the Castro regime that the days of exchanging Havana-trained doctors, Cuban intelligence agents and revolutionary slogans in exchange for cheap oil and other goodies may be coming to an end.

William LeoGrande, a professor at American University and the author of a new book on decades of back-channel negotiations between Havana and Washington, argues that the current round of negotiations isn’t the first time that U.S. and Cuban officials have sat down for talks, including the possibility of re-establishing diplomatic relations. This time around, the implosion of Venezuela, has refocused Cuban interest in reconciliation with the United States, which could provide Cuba the kind of tourist revenue and foreign development aid it desperately seeks.

“In one sense, Washington wants [normalization] more,” he said. “The United States was facing lots of diplomatic pressure from Latin America to change its policy towards Cuba. Now, the president has won a lot of credit, not just in Latin America, but around the world, for announcing his willingness to change policy. And it’s an important part of his foreign policy legacy, so I think the administration very much wants these negotiations to succeed.”

Privately, State Department officials agree that the Obama administration and the Castro regime are locked in a giant wager by launching a new era last December. The U.S. government is betting that a wave of liberalization and modernity will drag Cuba into the 21st century by empowering U.S. companies to do business directly with Cuban entrepreneurs, a step that will embolden individual freedom. The Cuban government is betting that it can liberalize à la carte by opening its economy, but not its politics, press or Internet, an approach that China and Vietnam have more-or-less successfully pursued.

News coverage since December paints a rosy, possibly naïve, tapestry of a partnership moving steadily forward. First were reports that Netflix would soon come to Cuba, something of a cruel joke for a country where Internet access is heavily restricted and censored, available for up to $10 an hour at designated government-run Internet cafes, universities and top tourist hotels. Then came AirBNB’s foray into Cuba, where homestays in casa particulares are a more popular option than overpriced hotels. JetBlue, earlier this year, announced grandiose plans to launch a commercial nonstop flight from New York to Havana by year’s end, followed this spring by hopes to re-establish a ferry service across the Straits of Florida between Key West and Havana. In March, Conan O’Brien hosted a virtual commercial for the faded glamour of a Caribbean playground filled with 1957 Plymouths, watered-down daiquiris and overpriced nights at the Tropicana. A high-profile delegation led by New York governor Andrew Cuomo and a group of state business leaders dropped in to talk about future opportunities. Havana is keenly anticipating a scheduled visit from Pope Francis in September, and there are promises of a possible stop by U.S. secretary of state John Kerry and even whispers that Obama himself might make a trip. A visit last month from French president Francois Hollande, the first Western European leader to visit the island since 1986, included an hour-long colloquy with Fidel Castro himself, though it also drew a critique from prolific blogger Yoani Sánchez  when Hollande failed to meet any dissidents during his short trip.

Even in a best-case scenario, the Obama administration’s move could go awry simply because of the political gravity of presidential term limits. None of the nearly two dozen 2016 Republican presidential candidates, excepting Kentucky’s libertarian senator Rand Paul, supports the opening to Cuba. Two candidates, Senator Marco Rubio, himself the son of Cuban immigrants, and former governor Jeb Bush, come from Florida and swear fealty to the fiercely anti-Castro Cuban community in Miami. It’s true that, given the widespread cultural and economic interest among Americans in Cuba’s future, no Republican may be able to undo Obama’s work by the time January 2017 rolls around. In the fight to lift the embargo, the momentum is on Obama’s side, and many business interests, including the American farm lobby, are enthusiastic about accessing Cuban markets. But if the U.S. interests section in Havana is converted into a full embassy, a hawkish Republican in the Oval Office will have vastly greater leverage to undermine the Cuban regime in far more serious ways than broadcasting churlish messages from an electronic ticker or funding outlandish USAID programs to design fake Twitter programs like “ZunZuneo” (the latter ultimately backfired when its popularity crested, filling the coffers of the state-run mobile phone company).

Cuba, too, is set for its own political transition in 2018, when Raúl Castro has pledged to step down as president. For now, his likely successor is 54-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel, appointed as first vice president in 2013. Alternate reports describe Díaz-Canel as either a hard-liner or a reformer, with varying strengths of ties to the Cuban military (though Díaz-Canel isn’t himself a military figure).

In short, few have credible insight into what Díaz-Canel truly believes, whether he’ll even make it to 2018 as the heir apparent and, if so, whether he’ll just be the civilian puppet that perpetuates the rule of the Cuban military. In the meanwhile, Raúl Castro has groomed his son, 49-year-old Alejandro, a rising figure within Cuba’s all-important MININT. Alejandro traveled with Raúl to the Summit of the Americas, lingering in the background in the photos where Raúl  shook hands with Obama. Some Cubans believe that he will eventually emerge as the next Castro to rule the island. No one knows for sure, however, what the retirement of the elderly Castro brothers will mean for Cuba.

In the meanwhile, young Cubans are waiting for neither the Obama administration nor the Castro regime to deliver change to them. They’re getting on with making lives for themselves in a Cuba that, though still hampered by a heavy-handed state sector, provides more opportunities for them in decades. An informal poll of young Cubans on one weekend night in late May on the Malecón, the long walkway that rings the edge of Havana’s sea walls and where Cubans of every age and background flock on weekend nights, indicated that while Cuba’s youths are generally excited about closer ties with Americans, they don’t necessarily believe it will translate into better futures personally.

For those who believe that reform will not come soon enough, the United States continues to beckon. In the wake of Obama’s December announcement, the U.S. Coast Guard announced that a sharp uptick of Cubans took to boats in hopes of emigrating to the United States, fearing that reconciliation would mean the end of the favorable U.S. immigration policy towards Cubans. Under the current iteration of the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act, the “wet foot, dry foot” policy extends a path to residency for any Cuban who makes it to American shores (though not to any Cubans caught by the Coast Guard en route to Florida).

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In the 2012 film Una noche, a highlight of Cuban cinema in the past decade, NYU-trained Lucy Mulloy directed the neorealistic tale of three young Cubans who ultimately attempt to leave the country on a makeshift raft. Life imitated art when, a year later, two of the three co-stars, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre and  Javier Núñez Florián (pictured above), decided to stay in Miami en route to a film festival in New York. Though they play brother and sister in the film, they fell in love during filming and now live in Las Vegas with their young son.

Unlike the previous generations of Cuban emigrants to the United States, Núñez Florián wasn’t overly concerned about politics when I spoke to him last week. He said that he had always hoped to one day live in the United States and that his decision was about building a better future for himself and his family. He added that it’s not difficult to balance his life between the two worlds, that half his friends are still in Cuba, and that it’s easy for him to visit Cuba. Though he initially demurred when I asked him about the dynamics of US-Cuban relations, he agreed that he sees it in a positive light.

“Yes it’s good,” he said. “The U.S. is meeting in the middle, little by little getting closer to Cuba, and Cuba the same. Little by little everything is changing for the better.”

“Little by little,” though, is the key phrase. It’s easy to forget that, amid the excitement over Cuba’s opening, the Revolution took place only six years after the final armistice that divided North Korea and South Korea. Americans who believe that Cuba will suddenly be transformed, as if overnight, will be sorely disabused. Cuba’s modernization will be a difficult process that moves in zigs and zags.

Former Bush-era commerce secretary Carlos Gutierrez, himself a Cuban-American, believes that Cuba can be a veritable Caribbean Singapore, but that’s hard to believe after a few days on the ground in Havana. The “romance” of 1950s jalopies subsides after a couple of taxi rides in an overcrowded Soviet-era Lada from the 1970s, and Havana suffers from all the other shocks of decades of economic mismanagement, exacerbated by U.S. stubbornness. On my first Friday night in Havana, I stopped at a bar for a little refreshment but by 10 p.m., it was out of shrimp, it was out of tostones (which I’d thought were ubiquitous throughout the region) and, the greatest sin of all, my waiter informed me that mojitos were no longer available. This wasn’t a flashy hotel or a secluded resort in the foreigners-only enclave of Varadero, but it was still a Chilean-themed bar directly across from the Malecón. From transportation to distribution networks, Cuba is woefully unprepared for a deluge of American tourists who won’t take kindly to surly rooms with Soviet air conditioners and bars that run out of mojitos.

Cubans may also find that competing for U.S. customers will be equally difficult. For years, cigar experts have warned that the Cuban tobacco-growing industry suffers from inconsistent quality control. The Havana Club brand, if it ever makes it into the American market given the copyright tangles with Bacardi, will face stiff competition from much smoother aged rums. After the post-taboo novelty of Cuban cigars and rum wear off, Millennial cognoscenti may find they prefer to sip on Guatemalan rum and smoke Nicaraguan cigars.

Meanwhile, Cuba’s infrastructure is broken. The Cold War never turned hot in Havana, but it did singe Nicaragua, Grenada and Panama City, where U.S. forces bombed the city’s charming Casco Viejo district in its ultimately successful 1989 push to arrest the drug-fueled strongman Manuel Noriega. Remarkably, large swaths of central Havana resemble Casco Viejo as it existed ten years ago, when it was still a bombed-out shell. Today, shopping boutiques and gelato shops adorn the Panamanian neighborhood, but central Havana continues to crumble. Buildings routinely fall to the ground in disrepair and floods in early May resulted in the deaths of at least three residents. Cuba’s currency system is also a mess, with the moneda nacional for Cubans and a fixed-rate convertible peso for tourists that’s created a two-tiered economy of have-nots and have-even-less. Neither currency is worth much internationally, and the Cuban government benefits from the privilege of collecting the hard currency of euros and dollars when tourists arrive to the island. Plans to merge the two currencies worry middle-class Cubans, chiefly in the tourism and hospitality industries, who fear that a botched attempt could wipe out the real gains of the past two decades.

It’s not an exaggeration to argue that the 1959 revolution both won Cuba its independence and conclusively ended the Monroe Doctrine, not only for Cuba but for all of Latin America. The relationship between the United States and Cuba has been troubled since the beginning. In 1854, U.S. president Franklin Pierce came close to annexing the island through the Ostend Manifesto proclaimed by Southern Democrats anxious to expand the geography of American slavery. Many Cubans believe the United States, by entering the Spanish-American War in 1898, stepped into a fight against a colonial Spanish force already chiefly defeated by Cuba patriots. For the next sixty years, under the Platt Amendment and a series of other measures designed to maximize American influence on the island, Cuba became a satellite of the U.S. government, with barely more de facto independence than Guam or Puerto Rico. If Cuba seems to have more in common with post-colonial African countries that won sovereignty in the late 1950s and 1960s, that’s because it suffered the same kind of post-independence growing pains under the penumbra of the Cold War.

“The U.S. has a history of meddling in Cuban affairs well before 1959,” said Arturo López-Levy, a Cuban-born scholar and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. “In fact, this is in part what led to the Revolution. Cubans haven’t forgotten that. A normalization of relations doesn’t erase this history, and Cubans are weary of the United States opening an embassy and using it as a base to influence opposition groups.”

That, in part, explains why Americans don’t always understand that Che Guevara is such a hero to Latin America and the rest of the world, no matter how brutal his guerrilla techniques, and that when Fidel Castro dies, his name will be uttered in the same breath as the likes of Nelson Mandela. “Normalization” of U.S.-Cuban relations, as sought by the Obama administration, is really the promise that, for the first time, the United States will treat Cuba as a sovereign equal.

 

Interview: Talking to Cuban artist Tania Bruguera

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HAVANA — On the first weekend of the Havana Biennial, artist Tania Bruguera was detained after organizing a 100-hour reading of Hannah Arendt’s writings on totalitarianism in her modest home in Havana Vieja.cuba

I write more about that in The Washington Post today:

When I visited Bruguera for the first time, on the final day of the reading, plainclothes policemen from MININT, Cuba’s feared interior ministry, swarmed just outside the doorway, and state workers were jackhammering away, digging forlorn trenches into the dusty road. Bruguera, who once taught art at the University of Chicago, where she also knocked on doors for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, has been under a kind of “city arrest” since late December, her passport confiscated and every step under state surveillance, following another public demonstration. We made plans to meet, perhaps later that day. Instead, MININT officials detained and questioned her.

I finally met up with Bruguera on the Tuesday morning after her detention (sadly, she was detained more recently earlier this month), and she spoke to me about several topics.

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RELATED: Photo essay — Cuba on the cusp, but for what kind of future?

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Bruguera, an artist and a daughter of the Cuban revolution, who styles herself at once a revolutionary, a socialist, an anti-capitalist and a “pain in the ass” for the current Cuban government, argues that the Biennial and its much-feted stars are part of a cynical cultural policy that co-opts Cuban artists as little more than pawns of the regime.

The full transcript of the conversation follows.

KL: First off, tell me what’s happened over the past 36 hours. The authorities did not care very much for your reading.

TB: No they didn’t.  

KL: Why did they wait until after you’d finished to detain you? Continue reading Interview: Talking to Cuban artist Tania Bruguera

Photo essay: Cuba on the cusp… but for what kind of future?

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HAVANA — On my first evening in Cuba , my bar ran out of mojitos, as fitting metaphor as any for nearly a week in the Cuban capital.cuba

Sure, it wasn’t the bar at Havana’s Hotel Nacional, but it was still a reasonably tourist-oriented cantina with a Chilean theme hugging the Malecón, the popular avenue that runs along the sea. For the record, the restaurant also ran out of shrimp and tostones (the fried plantain chips I’ve always thought taste like fried discs of baking powder with a hint of banana).

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I’ve been to poorer countries, but it’s hard to think of a place that’s more broken. The keys, the doors, the cars, the buildings, the stores, the distribution channels and yes, even the much-vaunted health care system. The idea that the United States and its legions of consumers and tourists will transform the country virtually overnight is incredibly fanciful.

For many Americans, there’s an element of romance to seeing old cars from the 1950s and the faded mojitos-and-daiquiris glamour of what was once a Caribbean playground. There’s also an electricity that comes from a place that’s so close geographically but so distant ideologically, politically, economically and culturally. One comparison that springs to mind is the 12-mile distance between Jerusalem and Ramallah.

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Another comparison is Korea — for all the easy talk about reconciliation between the United States and Cuba, the distances between the two countries are nearly as stark as those today between North Korea and South Korea. That isn’t quite so surprising because Fidel Castro came to power only six years after the 1953 armistice than ended the Korean War in quasi-permanent stalemate. Today, there is a Cuban-American culture that is as distinct from Cuban culture as Sicilian-American culture is from life in modern Palermo. Celia Cruz and Cafe Versailles belong to the former, Osmani García and the inventive home-grown paladar restaurants belong to the latter. Continue reading Photo essay: Cuba on the cusp… but for what kind of future?

Photo of the day: Hollande meets the Castros

hollande-castroPhoto credit to Alex Castro / AFP.

Since US president Barack Obama announced on December 17 of last year that the United States will seek to normalize relations with Cuba (for the first time since 1961), there’s hardly been a day without some little nugget of news about the world opening a little more to Havana.cuba

In some cases, it’s been US-based companies, from Netflix to iTunes to AirBNB, announcing that they will take steps to do business in Cuba.

In other cases, it’s news that airlines will establish new routes between American cities and Havana — or, potentially, a ferry from south Florida.

But there’s also been a steady stream of world leaders making the trip to Cuba — the European Union’s high representative for foreign policy, Federica Mogherini, visited Havana in March, New York state governor Andrew Cuomo led a delegation in April. Pope Francis, who facilitated normalization talks between the United States and Cuba, is set to pay the island a visit in September, and US secretary of state John Kerry is tentatively planning a trip as well.

Today, however, on the same day that Cuban diplomats said that the country would exchange ambassadors with the United States by the end of the month, it was French president François Hollande’s turn. Hollande met with both president Raúl Castro and his brother, former president Fidel Castro. In remarks at the University of Havana, Hollande called on the United States to end its decades-long embargo of the island country, adding that the embargo has slowed the pace of Cuban development.

Despite the recent increase in official visits from international figures, Hollande is the first French president in more than a century to visit Cuba, and he’s the first Western leader to visit the Castro-led regime in Cuba since former Spanish prime minister Felipe González in 1986.

Hollande’s visit — and the endearing tone with which he embraced the Castro brothers — wasn’t universally popular with everyone.

Prominent writer Yoani Sánchez gently chided Hollande in a post at her Generation Y website (via the English version) for failing to meet with any dissidents or activists during his visit:

On this visit we needed reaffirmation that the France of the Rights of Man still believes in the unshakeable values that recognize the rights of individuals to disagree, to express their differences without fear and to organize around them. We demanded some words of support, words that would confirm for us that the government of the European country is willing to support, in Cuba, the desires for freedom that have so marked and modeled its own national history.

A man who has declared that French and Cubans have “shared the same movement of ideas, the same aspirations, the same philosophical inspiration, cannot believe that he has visited a country where citizens have chosen by their own free will to subordinate themselves to a totalitarian power. Does Hollande think that we have tacitly chosen the cage? Does he suppose, perhaps, that we are comfortable in our chains?

Obama’s move to remove Cuba from terror list was long overdue

obamaraulPhoto credit to Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty.

Fully 15 out of 19 hijackers in the September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington were Saudi nationals, products of a country governed by a royal family in a centuries-long symbiotic relationship with fundamentalist Wahhabism. When US special forces finally found and killed Osama bin Laden (also a Saudi national) in 2011, he was being protected by Pakistani forces, with plenty of sympathizers within Pakistan’s  military and intelligence community.USflagcuba

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Pakistan, however, have ever been designated by the US State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list, which has always had more to do with the geopolitics of American foreign policy than with reality.

So on the heels of US president Barack Obama’s meeting with Cuban president Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas last weekend (pictured above), the Obama administration announced on Tuesday that it would recommend removing Cuba from the ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list. The recommendation will take effect in 45 days, following the Obama administration’s notification to the US Congress. Though Congressional action is unlikely to halt Obama’s decision, Obama will need the Republican-controlled Congress to approve any measure to lift the embargo initially imposed on Cuba in 1960 by the United States. Former president George W. Bush took a similar decision with respect to North Korea in June 2008 in consideration for the reclusive country’s decision to allow greater inspection of its nuclear sites.

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RELATED: Six key questions about the landmark Cuba deal

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Republican president Ronald Reagan initially added Cuba to the list in 1982, when it became clear that its leader Fidel Castro was supporting leftist guerrilla movements across Latin America that the Reagan administration believed imperative to stop. Nevertheless, Sandinista-controlled Nicaragua in the 1980s and Hugo Chavez’s firmly anti-American government in Venezuela in the 2000s never landed on the list. The most recent 2013 State Department review that justified Cuba’s continued ‘terror sponsor’ status reads like satire, noting that the Cuban government is harboring fugitives from the US justice system, Basque nationalists and Colombian rebels. Never mind the Spanish government concluded a ceasefire with the Basque guerrilla ETA in 2011 and even though Havana was by 2012 hosting talking between the Colombian government and the left-wing FARC.

Though a few dozen US nationals are currently in Cuba evading American law, Cuba is hardly the only country guilty of this. Edward Snowden has been in Russia nearly two years. Yemen, Somalia and dozens of other countries are likely harboring individuals who pose much greater threats to US national interests than Cuba these days. The decision leaves just Syria, Sudan and Iran on the list, all of which have ties to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah or the Palestinian group Hamas.

Cuba participated in the pan-American summit last week in Panama City only for the first time since 1994 when the first summit was held, and though Obama and Castro outlined their countries’ respective differences at length, Obama argued that the longstanding enmity between the two countries originated in another time:

“The United States will not be imprisoned by the past — we’re looking to the future,” Mr. Obama, 53, said of his approach to Cuba at the summit meeting’s first plenary session on Saturday. “I’m not interested in having battles that frankly started before I was born.”

“The Cold War,” he added, “has been over for a long time.”

Critics, from hawkish Republicans to Democrats like former Senate foreign relations committee chair Robert Menendez condemned Obama’s decision, and it’s not clear that Obama will succeed in his quest to lift the embargo in the remainder of his administration. Obama’s critics also include the Miami-born Marco Rubio, a Republican senator from Florida and the son of Cuban immigrants. Rubio, who became the third major Republican to announce a presidential campaign on Monday, sharply denounced the Obama administration’s overtures to Cuba, putting him out of step with many American voters, including increasingly younger Cuban Americans.

Though the decision to remove Cuba is mostly symbolic, it will open Cuba to the global payments system because international banks with links to the United States have largely avoided handling Cuban funds, out of fear of repercussions from the US department of justice. That, in turn, will facilitate the formal re-opening of embassies in both Havana and Washington. Lifting the designation also means that the US government may now provide greater economic assistance.

Domestic policy considerations have long delayed the thawing of US-Cuba relations, but Cuba hasn’t been sponsor of terrorism in decades, and there’s no evidence that Cuba ever supported any kind of terrorism that truly threatened US national interests. Even in the absence of the parallel US opening to Cuba, the Obama administration’s decision to remove Cuba from the list of terrorism sponsors was long overdue.

Six key questions about the landmark Cuba deal

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In one of the most significant foreign policy steps of his administration, US president Barack Obama announced widespread changes in the US-Cuba relationship on Wednesday, including the reestablishment of the first US embassy in Cuba in over a half-century and relaxed rules for US commerce, travel and engagement with the island nation of 11.25 million.cubaUSflag

It’s a historic play, and it yanks one of the biggest straw-men arguments out from under Cuba’s aging Castro regime. But the announcement brings with it more questions than answers for both the United States and Cuba, as the two countries begin negotiating a new chapter in a troubled relationship, even long before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs / Playa Girón invasion and the 1962 missile crisis. Cuban disenchantment with the United States stretches back to at least the 1903 Platt Amendment that established unequal relations through much of the first half of the 20th century, culminating in the brutal regime of US ally Fulgencio Batista, overthrown in Castro’s 1959 revolution. Obama shrewedly signalled in his statement Wednesday that he understands the broader arc of Cuban-American relations by quoting José Martí, a founding father of Cuban independence who was killed in 1895 by Spanish forces.

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RELATED: Did Hillary Clinton just lose Florida
in the November 2016 presidential election?

RELATED: A public interest theory of the
continued US embargo on Cuba

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As the two countries, which represent two very different brands of political thought within the Western hemisphere, begin to set aside their differences, here are six questions that are as unclear today as they were last week. Continue reading Six key questions about the landmark Cuba deal

Did Hillary Clinton just lose Florida in the November 2016 election?

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The big headline today is that former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s upcoming memoirs, which will be released June 10, will state unequivocally that she believes she was ‘wrong’ about her vote authorizing force in Iraq in 2003.USflagcuba

But the potentially bigger news is that Clinton’s memoirs also state that she unequivocally opposes the US embargo on Cuba — a position that few politicians in the past half-century have dared, lest they draw the wrath of anti-Castro voters in south Florida, a key constituency in a state with 29 electoral votes, more than one-tenth of the electoral votes that Clinton would need to become the 45th president of the United States.

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RELATED: A public interest theory of the continued
US embargo on Cuba

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Here’s what The Associated Press reports:

In excerpts of the book “Hard Choices” obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its release next week, Clinton writes that the embargo has given communist leaders Fidel and Raul Castro an excuse not to enact democratic reforms. And she says opposition from some in Congress to normalizing relations — “to keep Cuba in a deep freeze” — has hurt both the United States and the Cuban people. She says the 2009 arrest by Cuba of USAID contractor Alan Gross and Havana’s refusal to release him on humanitarian grounds is a “tragedy” for improving ties.

“Since 1960, the United States had maintained an embargo against the island in hopes of squeezing Castro from power, but it only succeeded in giving him a foil to blame for Cuba’s economic woes,” she writes. She says her husband, former President Bill Clinton, tried to improve relations with Cuba in the 1990s, but the Castro government did not respond to the easing in some sanctions. Nonetheless, Obama was determined to continue the effort, she writes. She says that late in her term in office she urged Obama to reconsider the U.S. embargo. “It wasn’t achieving its goals,” she writes, “and it was holding back our broader agenda across Latin America. … I thought we should shift the onus onto the Castros to explain why they remained undemocratic and abusive.”

What Clinton writes is an understatement — regardless of your view on the Castros, it’s impossible to deny that the US embargo has given the Castros the kind of anti-imperial patina that have transformed them from run-of-the-mill socialist authoritarians into champions of Latin American sovereignty.

For the record, I have argued there’s room both to praise the Castros for their role leading the 1961 Cuban revolution and to denounce them for an ensuing half-century of economic negligence and political repression. It’s also understandable why, for two or three generations of Latin Americans who have felt the economic or military sting of US intervention, dating back to the 19th century, the Castros have achieved such an iconic status for their willingness to stand up to the United States.  Continue reading Did Hillary Clinton just lose Florida in the November 2016 election?

ESSAY: How Gabriel García Márquez introduced me to Latin America

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Whenever I go to México City, I marvel at the way its indigenous history integrates into the fabric of the city. Nahuatl words, like ‘Chapultepec,’ meaning grasshopper, and ‘Xochimilco,’ a neighborhood featuring a series of Aztec-created canals, pepper the geography of the city. Those are just two of hundreds of daily reminders rooting Latin America’s largest modern megapolis of 8.9 million in the language and traditions of its pre-Columbian past. It’s where the Virgin of Guadalupe, a young Nahuatl-speaking girl, apparently revealed herself to Juan Diego in 1531 as the Virgin Mary, instructing him to build a church, launching one of the most compelling hybrid religious followings in the New World. Even the inhabitants of the notorious Tepito barrio worship Santa Muerte on the first of November with bright flowers, cacophanous marimba and not a small amount of marijuana, in celebration of the magical chasm between what is, for many Tepito residents, a gritty life and an often grittier death.

It’s the way that México City blends the mysterious and the mundane, matches the sacred with the profane and so blends the line between the indigenous and conquistador that it’s hard to know who conquered what. For all of those reasons, I often think of it as the unofficial capital of realismo magico.

So it’s natural to me that the literary master of magical realism, Gabriel García Márquez, made his home in México City for much of the last six decades of his life. It’s also where García Márquez died on April 17 at age 87.

It was his uncanny ability to blend the realistic with the magical that largely won him such adoration worldwide. But what makes the writing of García Márquez and the other authors of the 1960s Latin American Boom so electrifying to me is the way that it blended the literary with the political. Certainly, García Márquez’s writing was about family, about love, about solitude, about power, about loss, about fragility, about all of these universal themes. But his writing also explicated many of the themes that we today associate with Latin America’s culture, identity, history and politics.

His death wasn’t entirely unexpected. García Márquez was diagnosed with lymphatic cancer all the way back in 1999 and by the beginning of the 2010s, he rarely made public appearances anymore due to the grim advance of Alzheimer’s disease. By the time I made it to Latin America for the first time, he was already approaching 80, and I knew I’d have little chance of meeting him.

That’s fine by me, because I always considered him, through his work, my own personal ambassador to Latin America. Over the course of several treks through Latin America, Gabo still accompanied me through his writing — and along the way, he shaped my own framework for how I think about Latin American life.

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(8) Going up the Argentine Andes 2

When I was planning my first trip to Latin America, I brought with me a copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude. I saved the novel for this very occasion, a trek from Buenos Aires to Mendoza and then by bus over the Andes to Santiago. Technically speaking, I was on the wrong end of the continent for García Márquez. I packed some Neruda, some Allende and some Borges — and some Cortázar, too (mea culpa, I still haven’t clawed enough time to read Hopscotch).

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Nevertheless, García Márquez’s words transcended the setting of his native Colombia. Hundred Years, published in 1967, just six years after the Cuban revolution that undeniably marked a turning point in its relationship with the behemoth world power to the north, it came at a time when Latin American identity seemed limitless, and García Márquez mined a new consciousness that wasn’t necessarily Colombian or even South American. So much of the story of Colombia’s development from the colonial era through the present day is also cognizably Bolivian, Chilean, Mexican or Argentinian. After all, García Márquez, already a well-known figure, went on a writing strike when Augusto Pinochet took power in Chile in 1973, ousting the democratically elected Socialist president Salvador Allende, who either committed suicide or was shot on September 11, the day of the coup.

It was an intoxicating read. The sleek brown corduroy blazer I picked up in Buenos Aires with the affected hint of epaulets on the shoulders soon became what I called my ‘Colonel Aureliano’ jacket. Besides, where better to buy a Spanish language copy of his work than El Ateneo, perhaps the most amazing bookstore in the world?

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Hundred Years, of course, came highly recommended from the world that had discovered García Márquez decades before I was even born. It became an instant hit upon publication, catapulting García Márquez’s popularity beyond his more established peers, including México’s Carlos Fuentes and Perú’s Mario Vargas Llosa.

Bill Clinton, in his autobiography My Life, confesses to zoning out of class one day in law school to finish it:  Continue reading ESSAY: How Gabriel García Márquez introduced me to Latin America

Photo of the day: The Obama-Castro handshake

The Official Memorial Service For Nelson Mandela Is Held In Johannesburg

It’s just the time of year for Cold War legacies — east-west tension in Ukraine, French intervention in Central Africa and now a reminder of the frigid half-century of US-Cuban relations.USflagcuba

The photo of US president Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban president Raúl Castro may come to be the defining image from Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa earlier today.  It’s fitting that Mandela, even in death, can bring together the leaders of two countries that have had such a tortured bilateral relationship.  If Mandela and the ruling apartheid regime of the 1980s could set aside differences to forge a new South Africa, Obama and Castro can share a moment of basic human civility.

Perhaps more instructive are the words of Obama’s speech at the Mandela funeral, which might apply just as well to the US-Cuban relationship:

It took a man like Madiba to free not just the prisoner, but the jailer as well, to show that you must trust others so that they may trust you; to teach that reconciliation is not a matter of ignoring a cruel past, but a means of confronting it with inclusion and generosity and truth. He changed laws, but he also changed hearts.

It’s not unprecedented — though we don’t have a photo, former US president Bill Clinton shared a handshake with former Cuban leader Fidel Castro in 2000.

While it’s encouraging to see some minor thaw in the US-Cuban rupture, it’s unlikely to herald any truly rapprochement in a world where Florida still has 29 electoral votes and the truly awful Bob Menendez, the US senator from New Jersey, continues to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  Menendez, a Cuban-American, is among the most anti-Castro members of the US Senate, so don’t expect any broad-based effort to lift the half-century embargo against Cuba — US citizens are generally prohibited from traveling to the Caribbean island of 11 million people, where Raúl’s brother Fidel took power in a popular revolution in 1959.  I’ll leave aside in this post the valid points of both the anti-embargo position and the anti-Castro position — though Castro replaced in Fulgencio Batista a corrupt and bloody strongman, the Castro record on human rights, democratic participation and economic freedom isn’t incredibly strong.

Americans who believe that Cuban policy remains about 30 years behind the times will be mildly heartened by the handshake, and the truly nutty will attack Obama for ‘comforting America’s enemies’ or some other outrageous criticism.

But sometimes a handshake is just a handshake.

Photo credit to Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images.

A public interest theory of the continued U.S. embargo on Cuba

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The New York Times recently examined the U.S. embargo on Cuba, noting that the opening of the Cuban private market, through Cuban president Raúl Castro’s push for privatization of parts of the state-run economy and other reforms, is giving a new rationale to lifting the embargo:USflagcuba

With Cuba cautiously introducing free-market changes that have legalized hundreds of thousands of small private businesses over the past two years, new economic bonds between Cuba and the United States have formed, creating new challenges, new possibilities — and a more complicated debate over the embargo.

The longstanding logic has been that broad sanctions are necessary to suffocate the totalitarian government of Fidel and Raúl Castro. Now, especially for many Cubans who had previously stayed on the sidelines in the battle over Cuba policy, a new argument against the embargo is gaining currency — that the tentative move toward capitalism by the Cuban government could be sped up with more assistance from Americans.

Which begs the question, a day after Cuba’s own sham parliamentary elections: why is the embargo still in place, 51 years after the Cuban missile crisis?

The easiest and obvious explanation is a public choice theory — Cuban Americans, especially those in Florida, remain adamant against lifting the embargo, and any politician’s move to open trade or travel restrictions on Cuba would risk the wrath of a key electoral bloc in not only a large U.S. state, but one with 29 electoral votes (i.e., more than 10% of the votes a presidential candidate needs to win an election).

Given the prominence of many Cuban-American representatives in Congress, including the likely new chairman of the U.S. Senate committee on foreign relations, U.S. senator Robert Menendez from New Jersey (if he can survive allegations of improper donations and dilly-dallying with underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic), it’s easy enough to see how a small group of politicians and an active group of voters can block any change on the issue.

I find that a very compelling explanation for why the embargo remains in place, but is there a compelling public interest explanation for continuing the embargo?

Economic sanctions rarely ‘work,’ unless virtually the entire world participates — note how the French, the Russians and the Chinese and other interests undermined sanctions on Iraq throughout much of the 1990s.  Likewise, despite a severe hangover from the end of the Cold War in the 1990s due to the abrupt termination of Soviet subsidies, Cuba has seen an increasing flow of Chinese investment over the past decade, not to mention a steady stream of European and Canadian tourists, delighted to find a haven from American tourists, who of course, aren’t legally able to visit Cuba.

The Cuban-American community often argues that the embargo is necessary to continue to punish and isolate the Castro regime, but the United States has no problem doing business with regimes that continue to feature authoritarian political control, including Vietnam and the People’s Republic of China.

But other than the Cuban-American lobby, I hear far fewer people trying to make the case for a public interest argument for retaining the embargo.  While I’m not necessarily advocating it (and I don’t want to list the many reasons, political, economic, humanitarian and otherwise, in favor of lifting the 51-year embargo), the case must go something like this:

If you are close in proximity to the United States (90 miles off those shore of Florida, no less!), and you collude with the chief geopolitical enemy of the United States to aim nuclear missiles at the United States, the U.S. government will not only punish you, but it will punish you for so long after the incident, holding the grudge for such a long time and beyond all expectations, that no one in Latin America will do anything to endanger U.S. national security to the same degree without thinking long and hard about the isolating aspects of the U.S. response.

On this theory, the embargo is less important for U.S.-Cuban relations and more important as a deterrent to, say, Venezuela or Nicaragua or whichever Latin American regimes in and around the Caribbean that happen to feature a relatively anti-American government.

I find this persuasive, in particular, given that the relative distance of the United States from Europe and Asia has been one of its key strategic strengths, especially in geopolitical affairs over the past century and a half — note that the trauma involved with both the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington in 2001 resulted in part from the relative scarcity of foreign attacks on the U.S. mainland.

Any other rationales?

Photo credit to Andrew Moore — Habana Vieja, on Calle Bayona, 1998.  Check out his latest book of photos from Cuba here.