Obama, Cuba and United States

Although most progressives would agree that last Tuesday’s elections did little to resolve the overwhelming list of challenges that faces our nation there is a glimmer of hope that the United States is inevitably moving towards a policy of engagement and normalization with Cuba. Barack Obama and the Democratic party showed that they were able to listen to voices within the Cuban American community crying out for a new stance towards the island of their families and their heritage over the din of the distorted hysteria projected by the historical Cuban exile community of southern Florida. As a result, Obama took a record amount of the Cuban American votes in Miami-Dade County and Democrat Joe Garcia easily beat the hapless Republican incumbent David Rivera for Florida’s 26th congressional district.

These victories for candidates who have demonstrated a clear intention to work towards a more “normal” policy with Cuba reflect the desire for both political parties to acknowledge the raw statistics of public opinion polls in both Florida and across the United States concerning current policy towards Cuba. After decades of voting for Republican politicians who were willing to cozy up to criminals such as Orlando Bosch and Luis Posada Carriles in order to project a hard-line approach the Cuban Americans of Miami are abandoning their blind support for the policy of economic strangulation that is the United States embargo towards Cuba.

Outside of Florida, gains in the senate by Democrats in races that were all but gift-wrapped for the Republicans just three months ago bode well for what will eventually be a long slog through both houses in order to finally dismantle the Helms-Burton Act, the codification of the odious embargo that will be universally denounced in the UN this Tuesday, November 13th.

Obama and his legacy

For the short term, an Obama re-election may be exactly what proponents of engagement with Cuba need. Even though it will take a persistent campaign designed to eventually repeal Helms-Burton there are several things that Obama can do to improve our relations with the island through either executive order or through good old-fashioned diplomacy.

If Obama could have run on his record of pursuing a different policy with Cuba he might have been able to carry even more states in the election. In contrast to the empty promises he gave his supporters concerning tackling global-warming, pursuing peace, and rebuilding America’s manufacturing base with “green” jobs, his success at re-drawing the “line in the sand” between the U.S. and Cuba has been a positive step towards redefining America’s policy towards the communist nation.

Obama’s decision to scrap George W. Bush’s policies of allowing Cuban Americans to travel to the island only once every three years was an easy, yet necessary step. He changed regulations in favor for open travel to the island by Cuban Americans in 2009. Remittances were also allowed to be sent and have helped family members on the island to set up private businesses in Cuba’s nascent mixed economy that has resulted from the economic reforms that the Cuban government has implemented in the past few years. All of these decisions have been applauded throughout the Cuban American community. Unfortunately, Cuban Americans have had to defend these rights, not privileges, because elected politicians from their own community like David Rivera, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Marco Rubio have attacked such simple conveniences as “appeasement”. Their visceral hate for the Castros has been put in front of the rights of their own constituents to be able to reconnect with family members and their own heritage and culture.

Obama not only helped to open travel for Cuban Americans but also re-implemented the “people-to-people” policy in 2011 that allows for special licenses to be granted to any American citizens in order to visit Cuba for academic, cultural, religious, and some commercial endeavors. Such licenses allow for American citizens to see first-hand the realities of Cuba that often don’t mesh with the spurious claims of Marco Rubio and his cohorts.

When the issuance or renewal of said licenses were halted in August there was a warranted amount of skepticism that this program would not be continued until after the election. Surprisingly, the U.S. Treasury Office of Foreign Accounts Control (OFAC) began issuing licenses in October. In previous years such a gesture would be seized upon by the Cuban exile community of Miami and magnified into scandalous proportions. This was not the case and Obama obviously reaped the benefits of not kowtowing to such extremists in this election.

Cynics will point out that Obama has disappointed in almost every way possible and that he is not interested in implementing real change in U.S. foreign policy. As far as Cuba is concerned, he may have no choice. This year’s Summit of the America’s the POTUS found out exactly how frustrated the rest of the hemisphere is with this nation, especially in regards to our refusal to recognize Cuba’s rightful participation in the summit. Several nations have vowed to boycott any further summits until the issue of Cuba is addressed. The rest of Latin America looks upon the U.S. with resentment because of decades of imposed colonial imperialism and our continued hostility towards Cuba is just another reminder to all Latin Americans of our continued arrogance and hubris.

Obama and the American political class need to see the writing on the wall. No positive result can come from continually denying Cuba its proper place at the international table. Engagement with Cuba is simply better business than Uncle Sam’s archaic embargo and Obama is just pragmatic enough to understand this. There are some key issues that need to be addressed and proponents of normalization hope the president acts swiftly.

First, Cuba’s placement on the State Sponsors of Terrorism is unnecessary and Obama could change that. The designation of Cuba as a country with a profile that fits this description was always dubious. Cuba exported revolution not terrorism and it has been almost thirty years since Cuban trained revolutionary forces were inflicting heavy damages on U.S.-backed mercenary forces in Africa, Nicaragua, and other areas of conflict during the Cold War. At no point did these forces use tactics that could be construed as terrorism.

Hardliners point to Cuba’s asylum to members of the FARC and ETA as examples of aiding and abetting terrorists, even though these organizations designation as terrorists obfuscates the truth about either movement. The Basque separatists are actually there at the urging of the Spanish government and the officials of the FARC and Columbian government have agreed to meet for the first formal talks in ten years in La Habana later this week after preliminary talks in Norway in October.

What kind of State Sponsor of Terror country holds peace negotiations?

Cuba’s continued appearance on this list trivializes the very real threats of terrorism that our nation faces and negates the opportunity for the U.S. and Cuba to cooperate on important matters of security that correspond to both nations.

Secondly, Obama could dramatically open up diplomatic ties between the two countries. Two major cases have been obstacles that have stood in the way of progress between the two nations.

One is Alan Gross. The other is the Cuban five.

While there are calls for a direct exchange between the two parties for these prisoners the best course of action would be to solve either case according to its own merits. In both cases an increased amount of diplomacy will be needed and Obama could order a high level official to meet with representatives of the Cuban government in order to facilitate some end to the impasse that these cases have caused. Until now, Senators, congressmen, and civil servants with years of negotiating, like Bill Richardson, have been sent to La Habana. It’s time for the Secretary of State, whomever that may be, to make a historical trip and see if they can earn their paycheck.

This past week it was announced that Obama would be visiting Myanmar. The list of human rights abuses by the leaders of that nation makes Cuba look like Sweden. There is no excuse for not reaching out to a country like Cuba if we are planning on forgiving Myanmar for its sins long enough to visit them.

Thirdly, a broader interpretation of “people-to-people” licenses will be the best way for Americans to see for themselves that we have nothing to fear from the Cubans and everything to gain from a reciprocal relation with the island. The travel ban, or more precisely, the restriction of the fundamental constitutional right of Americans to travel, is something that the president can ease if not completely do away with. Cuba has recently made bold reforms in immigration laws that were designed to avoid “brain drain” during the Cold War. Gone are the requisite for an exit visa and other laws that made leaving Cuba almost impossible. Now, the only restriction for travel is that of the United States towards its citizens.

These steps could help in the battle to eventually bring about real change. The exceedingly low-hanging fruit that Cuba represents would be easy to pick for Obama and would do wonders for a president seeking to try and secure his legacy. Presidential first terms are all about getting re-elected. Second terms are about leaving something behind that people will remember you by.

Miami’s Changing of the Guard

Exit polling in Miami-Dade County illustrates how the tide is turning in Cuban American political affiliation. Obama nearly split the votes with Romney among Cuban Americans across the county by taking between 48% and 53% (depending on which poll you want to believe) of the votes. This is a monumental gain since 2000 when Bush carried over 75% of the Cuban American vote in Miami-Dade.

Joe Garcia’s election speaks volumes as to how the demographics of Cuban Americans are changing. This turning of the tide can be attributed to many factors but, most importantly, it appears as though Cuban Americans who have arrived since the Mariel boatlift are becoming increasingly involved in the political process. While most of the Cubans who arrived shortly after the revolution consider themselves political refugees, the newer generations often had to leave because of economic reasons. These newcomers lived in Cuba during both good times and bad and are unwilling to accept the hardliners positions which are often articulated out of fear, ignorance, and loathing. The recalcitrant old-timers have had years to intimidate anybody who even suggested that Cuba should be spoken about in a respectful, positive manner. Their message is that of hysteria, hatred, and that killing innocents is perfectly acceptable. Hopefully, their time of controlling the narrative has come to an end.

The largest impediment for normalizing relations with Cuba has always been Miami Cubans. It was ludicrous for any presidential to criticize our backward policy towards the island because it was thought that such a mistake would cost him the all important electoral votes of the “swing state” of Florida. If the Cuban American community can prove that it is indeed a diverse group of ideas and opinions and that it does not support the embargo and our retrograde position towards Cuba then politicians will be able to express what they truly feel about such a policy without the fear of a backlash that could sink their campaign.

It should be said that Garcia was president of the Cuban American National Foundation, an organization that has lobbied for the embargo and for strict measures against the Castro government. He is not anti-embargo, per se, but he has taken a positive stance on travel and remittances to the island and has challenged the status quo on what should be an effective manner in bringing about change in Cuba. His maturation on several issues reflects the Cuban American community’s evolving stance on the same issues.

Regardless of his positions on the minute details of our policy with the island his election is part of a monumental sea change that is happening in Miami that is bigger than him or his electoral victory. Hopefully, he will provide a counterbalance to the Cuban American congressional cabal that lost a congressman but gained a senator in Ted Cruz from Texas.

Gaining ground

Last Tuesday’s elections proved to be a massive failure for the Republicans. Mitt Romney may never have had more then a puncher’s chance at gaining the white house but his party seemed poised to take a majority in the Senate. However, the American public decided that candidates who understand rape to be “God’s way” of ensuring that the human race procreate should not be given the task of making important decisions that affect the entire nation. Victories by Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin were unexpected but welcome to those who wish this country to make serious changes towards adopting reasonable policies for working class people. Hopefully, they will have a more intelligent stance on foreign policy as well.

For proponents of engagement with Cuba it is understood that in order to repeal the Helms-Burton Act there will have to be a concerted effort to win votes in the House and prevent a filibuster in the Senate by either Marco Rubio, Bob Menendez, and possibly by newcomer Ted Cruz. The fact that the Democrats gained seats instead of losing their majority is crucial in the long term.

Another gain in the Senate was that of Jeff Flake (R-AZ). Flake has been a vocal opponent of the embargo and has spoken out against our policy from Cuba. In order to repeal the embargo it will be necessary for Republicans to be on board. Flake’s election is a victory for change in U.S.-Cuba policy.

Finally, another event has happened that will be beneficial for those wanting change with Cuba. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the odiosa representative of Florida’s 18th congressional district in Miami, has reached her term limit for serving as the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Congress may not have term limits but at least committee appointments do and her position of chair on that committee always ensured that any discussion about Cuba would be tabled. Ros-Lehtinen has proved to be one of the most reactionary politicians regarding Cuba and her relinquishing of that post may allow for more discussion and dialogue for engagement and normalization.

The whole world is against us………literally.

Yesterday marked the 21st annual vote by the United Nations to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba. What started out as an attempt to rebuke the U.S. for its policy of economic strangulation of the island has turned into an yearly denouncement by the entire planet.

The final vote was an almost universal drubbing of the United States’ embarrassing policy: 188-3 with the Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstaining.

Of course, the U.S. was supported, as always, by Israel. The perennial random Pacific island nation that chose to hitch its wagons to unwavering imperialism this year was Palau. Makes you wonder if the FBI has some emails of Palau’s president.

It is ironic that even though Israel does not denounce the embargo it still allows its citizens to travel to Cuba freely. For a nation so paranoid about terrorism this seems to be a curious stance. Do they know something that Washington doesn’t?

The usual suspects within the supine American and worldwide media morass decide to just go with the AP story. ABC, CBS, FOXNEWS, the CBC, SkyNews and countless other news regurgitation webbies ran the same story which quoted Cuban Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, as saying that the embargo was “inhumane, failed and anachronistic.” He continued by saying that perpetuating the policy was “not in the national interest of the United States. Quite the contrary, it harms the interests of its citizens and companies- especially in times of economic crisis and high unemployment.”

The main reason why so many “news” organizations ran this story was because it had the obligatory quote from a U.S. senior official defending this albatross around the neck of U.S. foreign policy as “one of the tools in our overall efforts to encourage respect for the human rights and basic freedoms to which the United Nations is committed.”

This after that same body unanimously decried the implementation of this “tool”. How can the US remain so tone deaf?

Here is what some of our partners, allies, and adversaries have said about this “tool” in the UN’s official press release of General Assembly 11311:

MOURAD BENMEHIDI (Algeria), speaking on behalf of the Group of 77 developing countries and China, said that the embargo against Cuba contravened the fundamental norms of international law, international humanitarian law, the United Nations Charter and the norms and principles governing peaceful relations among States.  Furthermore, its continued imposition violated the principles of the sovereign equality of States and of non-intervention and non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs.”

Joseph Goddard of Barbados represented the Caribbean community (CARICOM) and stressed Cuba’s camaraderie with member States and articulated the importance of “mutually beneficial programmes of cooperation and trade in several key areas including physical education and sports, accounting, natural sciences, humanities, economy, special education, health and medicine.”

“OCTAVIO ERRÁZURIZ (Chile) said on behalf of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) that the commercial, economic and financial embargo imposed on Cuba was contrary to the letter, spirit, principles and purposes of the United Nations Charter and international law.  The Community was concerned about the extraterritorial effects of the embargo that affected the sovereignty of other States, the legitimate interests of entities or persons under their jurisdiction and the freedom of trade and navigation.”

“MARIA LUIZA RIBEIRO VIOTTI (Brazil), speaking on behalf of Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR), said that the Group had been founded on the principles of interdependence and good neighbourly relations.  Alongside its Latin American neighbours, MERCOSUR showed respect for the sovereignty of States and for international law, and it viewed that the embargo ran contrary to the principles of the Unite Nations Charter and international law.  In particular, she said, it violated the principle of non-interference in the affairs of other States.  The embargo also ran contrary to the principles of justice and human rights, limited and delayed social and economic progress and inhibited the achievement of the Millennium Goals and other development targets.

These were just a few of the statements issued by a number of subgroups within the UN. Once again, the entire world took a moment to make it perfectly clear to the United States that the embargo is completely unfair and deleterious to the Cuban people while becoming more and more counterproductive for U.S. citizens. Obama could do himself and his legacy a favor if he would just stop and listen to what the international community is urging him and the United States to do- abandon the embargo and allow Cuba make its own future without further interference.

Benjamin Willis is a musician living in Queens and is a founding member of CAFE (Cuban Americans for Engagement). You can contact him at benjamin@cafeporcuba.com

Benjamin Willis is an activist living in New York who worked with the Cuban American community in bringing about engagement during the Obama era.