Tag 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

Why Marco Rubio is such a strong candidate for the Republican nomination

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…in 15 tweets.USflag

Step back from the horse race, step back from the scorecards of last night’s debate, step back from the peculiarities of Iowa and New Hampshire. Envision what the Republican general election campaign in November 2016 will have to offer to an electorate where young voters, women (possibly in historical numbers) and racial and ethnic minorities will still favor the Democratic ticket, barring a catastrophic turn in voting patterns or economic conditions.

Who, given the current 15-candidate field, will Republicans want running that campaign?

Why you shouldn’t take Bush/Rubio foreign policy speeches seriously

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Last week, two of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination delivered Major and Very Serious Foreign Policy Addresses designed to establish their credibility on international affairs. USflag

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who delivered an address last Tuesday at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California, and Florida senator Marco Rubio delivered an address to the Foreign Policy Initiative in New York. Bush and Rubio alike delivered plenty of bromides about projecting U.S. strength and toughness against the enemies of the United States, with plenty of withering attacks on the foreign policy of the Obama administration, including the likely Democratic presidential nominee, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. But critics on both the right and the left panned the speeches as the same old neoconservative sauce poured back into a barely disguised new bottle.

From Slate‘s Fred Kaplan on the Bush speech:

His 40-minute speech, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, was a hodgepodge of revisionist history, shallow analysis, and vague prescriptions.

From The American Conservative‘s Daniel Larison on Rubio:

Once again, Rubio fails to understand the limits of applying pressure to another state…. Rubio boasts about wanting to usher in a “new American century,” and these are the bankrupt, discredited policies he wants to use create it.

From Vox‘s Zack Beauchamp:

Jeb Bush didn’t mention his brother, George W. Bush, Tuesday night in his foreign policy speech. But he might as well have…. Jeb’s speech is a reboot of his brother’s neoconservative view of the world, albeit in a somewhat stripped-down form. He thinks American military power “won” the war in Iraq. The lesson we should learn, Bush suggests, is that a bigger US military commitment to the Middle East is the best way to solve its biggest problems.

Ultimately, these haughty foreign policy speeches have little to do with establishing a foreign policy vision. They’ve become part of the traditional bunting of a modern presidential campaign — like flag pins and campaign rallies and the increasingly customary mid-summer overseas trip in general election years (à la Barack Obama in 2008 or Mitt Romney in 2012) that, at best, amounts to a weeklong photo-op and pedantically positive news coverage. In a primary election, grand foreign policy addresses are one part presidential playacting and one part rallying the base.

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RELATED: What would Jeb Bush’s foreign policy look like?

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For all the posturing, these speeches will all be long outdated by the time either Bush or Rubio hopes to take office in January 2017. Despite bluster on Cuba and Iran, it will be nearly impossible for any presidential administration, Democratic or Republican, to roll back US-Cuban normalization or to shred an international agreement on Iran’s nuclear energy program agreed among European, Chinese and Russian leaders, notwithstanding Rubio’s promise last week to do precisely that.

That’s assuming Cuba and Iran will even be foreign policy priorities in a year and a half.

Continue reading Why you shouldn’t take Bush/Rubio foreign policy speeches seriously

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

As ‘Hillary’ and ‘Jeb’ announce, the 2016 buzz is all about Rubio

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In the space of 48 hours, two political scions will announce their candidacy for president of the United States.USflag

Hillary Clinton, the wife of former president Bill Clinton, and a New York senator and U.S. secretary of state in her own right, formally launched her presidential campaign in a picture-perfect event on Roosevelt Island in New York City on Saturday.

Jeb Bush, the son of former president George H.W. Bush and the brother of former president George W. Bush, announced that he is formally a candidate for president in Miami later today.

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RELATED: What Republicans could learn from Cameron’s Conservatives

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But the real momentum is with neither Clinton nor Bush. It’s with Bush’s one-time protégé, Florida senator Marco Rubio. At 44, he’s around two decades younger than either Bush (62) or Clinton (67), and it’s an advantage he is using to full effect. Continue reading As ‘Hillary’ and ‘Jeb’ announce, the 2016 buzz is all about Rubio

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.

Expect Paul campaign to launch genuine US foreign policy debate

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With the dream of uniting an unlikely coalition of socially liberal Millennials, fiscally conservative ‘tea party’ supporters and a swatch of economic liberals in both parties, US senator Rand Paul of Kentucky became the second major US figure to launch a 2016 presidential bid today.USflag

His chances of winning the White House aren’t, frankly, great. But they’re not non-existent, and if he wins the Republican nomination, he could potentially convince a much wider electorate to support him over the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former US secretary of state. If he fails, he’ll still have burnished his profile as a thoughtful foreign policy counterweight within the Republican Party — sort of a conservative version of the former Democratic senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold. More importantly, he will drive a necessary debate on controversial aspects of US foreign policy that are increasingly taken for granted.

As a deeply libertarian voice in the US Senate and an avowed non-interventionist when it comes to the Middle East, Paul will present the strongest challenge to mainstream US foreign policy that, despite recently squabbles over Iran, Israel and Russia, remains chiefly bipartisan in nature. He will make the case for a truly alternative US policy worldview that questions everything from a 14-year global approach to terrorism, Internet surveillance and civil liberties, the proliferation of unmanned ‘drone’ aircraft in the US effort to stop radical Islamism, the use of drones to target US nationals abroad, ongoing US military action in Afghanistan and escalating action in Syria and Iraq, and the Obama administration’s ongoing diplomatic initiatives with Cuba and Iran. He is also likely to question the US Congress’s decades-long supine position on foreign policy.

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RELATED: Six important points from Clinton’s foreign policy interview [August 2014]

RELATED: What would Jeb Bush’s foreign policy look like?
[December 2014]

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Paul will find many traditional allies on the right, who believe that the United States is at its best when its military adventurism is kept to a minimum, and he will find many traditional allies on the left, where even Obama supporters have grumbled for years that his administration features more continuity than rupture with many aspects of the foreign policy developed by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Initially, Paul will benefit from supporters who backed his father, Ron Paul, the US congressman from Texas, in his 2008 and 2012 presidential contests. Though Paul (the father) served as something like the crazy/wise uncle of the Republican contests in 2008 and 2012, there’s a sense that his son is both more polished and more pragmatic.

Paul will also benefit from the quiet support of Mitch McConnell, Paul’s Kentucky colleague in the Senate. Paul’s support crucially boosted McConnell, now the Senate majority leader, to primary and general election victories in the 2014 midterm elections. McConnell’s support and his access to national donors should give Paul the kind of ‘insider-outsider’ credentials to make him a serious threat for the nomination. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that Paul has reached out to the 2012 nominee, former governor Mitt Romney, with whom Paul’s father developed a close relationship in the 2012 contest. Other young, libertarian-minded Republican officials might also support Paul.

Paul’s campaign means that the Republican nomination contest will feature the most robust debate since perhaps the 2008 nomination contest between Obama and Clinton on the role of the United States in the world. Already, Paul has demonstrated his willingness to break with Republican orthodoxy by cautiously welcoming the Obama administration’s relaxation of ties with Cuba. His reticence to engage US troops abroad will also bring him into conflict with much more hawkish Republican voices so long as Iran, Yemen and the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL) top the list of US foreign policy headaches as the 2016 campaign season unfolds.

But Paul’s presence in the 2016 contest will most importantly highlight that there’s just not that much difference between Clinton, on the one hand, and the Republican foreign policy establishment that would likely take power if Republican frontrunners like former Florida governor Jeb Bush or Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.

Continue reading Expect Paul campaign to launch genuine US foreign policy debate

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