Thursday, October 30, 2008

LA Times: Obama better on Cuba,0,719882.story
From the Los Angeles Times


The useless Cuba embargo

America's economic sanctions on Cuba, now 50 years old, are a failure.

October 29, 2008

Among New York's rites of autumn -- the marathon, the rainbow of leaves in Central Park, the sudden profusion of wool overcoats -- a new one has emerged at the United Nations. In each of the last 16 years, the General Assembly has voted to condemn the United States for its embargo of Cuba. This year's ceremonial vote takes place today, and if it's anything like last year’s, it will be overwhelming. Only Israel, the Marshall Islands and Palau stood with the U.S. in the 184-4 tally last October.

Washington doesn't and shouldn't design its laws around U.N. opinion, but it's instructive to learn what even this country's closest allies think of the Cuban embargo. Colombia, one of only a handful of Latin American countries whose government remains firmly pro-U.S., stated in a U.N. report on the issue that it "thinks this kind of action should stop and that member states should move ahead with building relations of friendship." In the same report, the European Union said that it and its member nations "have been clearly expressing their opposition to the extraterritorial extension of the United States embargo."

More astonishing than our willingness to raise the ire of nearly the entire world with our embargo is that it has survived this long in the face of overwhelming evidence of its failure. For 50 years, this country has been trying to produce regime change on the island by strangling it economically. Last we checked, a Castro was still in power, and even the economic devastation wrought by the two worst hurricanes in Cuba's history weren't spurring mass popular uprisings. U.S. sanctions worsen poverty and its attendant ills but only strengthen the Castro regime, which can blame all of the country's problems on Washington rather than addressing their true cause -- Havana's misguided economic policies.

The presidential election offers a rare opportunity for change. John McCain favors business as usual with Cuba, but Barack Obama believes that Cuban Americans should have unrestricted rights to travel to the island and send remittances. It is absurdly contradictory to allow Americans to travel freely to Iran and Venezuela, which are genuine security and economic threats, but not to Cuba, which poses no threat at all. U.S. ideals would be more influential if Cubans were more frequently exposed to them by American visitors; our interference with remittances, meanwhile, hurts only the poor.

Cuba is an anti-democratic country with little respect for human rights, and its leaders must be held to account. But targeted sanctions that punish the regime without punishing the people would be far more effective than the blunt instrument of an embargo. Obama's proposals don't go far enough, but they're a good start.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A More Skeptical View from Havana

Cuba not hopeful Obama, McCain will lift embargo

HAVANA (AP) — Washington's trade embargo costs Cuba an estimated US$232 million per year in lost foreign investment, and Havana is not hopeful that the nearly half-century-old sanctions will be lifted regardless of who becomes the next U.S. president, a top official said Friday.

Racial Proenza, U.S. and North America director for Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Investment, said authorities studied U.S. investment in other Latin American countries in recent years to come up with the figure.

"It's true we don't have real statistics with the United States, but we have estimates and can see that we would have achieved an average of US$232 million if the embargo didn't exist," Proenza said at a news conference. Total foreign investment would top US$300 million a year without the sanctions, he said.

From 1999 through 2007, more than 3,500 American business representatives traveled to Cuba without U.S. permission to investigate investing on the island if U.S. policy changes, Proenza said. Last year, however, only nine visited.

He blamed the decline on the Bush administration, which has tightened trade and travel restrictions since 2004.

Proenza also said Havana does not expect either Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama or Republican John McCain to lift the sanctions once in the White House.

"We don't think that either one who wins will break the embargo," he said. "This fight will continue."

Obama has said he would be willing to meet with President Raul Castro without preconditions. He also would ease restrictions on family-related travel and on money Cuban-Americans want to send to their families on the island.

McCain has called the offer to meet "the wrong signal," but also has said he favors easing restrictions if Cuba moves toward democracy.

Proenza's comments are part of a publicity campaign the government mounts every year in the days before Cuba asks the U.N. General Assembly to condemn the U.S. embargo. For the past 16 years, the assembly has approved Cuba's resolution calling for it to be lifted. The next vote is Oct. 29.

The full embargo took effect in 1962 and has been tightened since, although a U.S. law passed in 2000 allows American farm producers to sell directly to Cuba for cash.

Cuba blames the sanctions for more than US$93 billion in total economic damage over the decades.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Cuban Perspective on Obama's Impact


New Cuba Policy in Sight?

Patricia Grogg

HAVANA, Oct 20 (IPS) - If elected, Democratic candidate Barack Obama could become the first United States president to engage in talks with Cuba after almost five decades of severed relations, but it will all depend on his refraining from trying to "control" a process that involves two sides, say academics from this Caribbean island nation.

Even before his official nomination, the U.S. presidential hopeful had talked of the possibility of pursuing "direct diplomacy" with Havana "without preconditions," and had promised to put an end to the restrictions imposed by Washington in 2004 on the freedom of Cuban-American families to travel and send remittances to their relatives in Cuba.

"Obama was very clever in setting out his alternative policy, as he brought up two issues that are key to the Cuban-American community (economic and travel sanctions) and declared his willingness to sit down and talk with officials in Havana," Esteban Morales, a Cuban academic and researcher, said in an interview with IPS.

In Morales’s opinion, the proposal marks a step forward, as it "takes the situation to a fresh starting point by eliminating unpopular restrictions set by the George W. Bush administration and raising the possibility of opening official talks, something which until now was unheard of." However, on this last point, Obama has made a mistake that "puts Cuba on its guard," according to Morales.

Speaking in Miami, Florida before the Cuban-American National Foundation (CANF) -- traditionally the most hard-line and influential anti-Castro group --, Obama said during the primary campaign in May that "there will be careful preparation" for such negotiations, and that these would be based on "a clear agenda."

"As president, I would be willing to lead that diplomacy at a time and place of my choosing, but only when we have an opportunity to advance the interests of the United States, and to advance the cause of freedom for the Cuban people," he added.

Morales finds this approach "rather arrogant." "He went as far as to say that the groups that represent Cuban emigrés should be included in these talks, and the way he expressed himself was as if he should be the one to determine when the talks would take place, what issues would be on the agenda and who would participate," he said.

Morales, a researcher at the University of Havana’s Centre for the Study of the Hemisphere and the United States (CEHSEU), went on to say that Obama is wrong in wanting to steer the process down the path of U.S.-controlled talks. "This is an issue that must be decided by mutual agreement, and must be negotiated with Cuba," he said.

He pointed out that Cuban President Raúl Castro has said on more than one occasion that Cuba is willing to negotiate to find a solution to the long-standing bilateral conflict, provided that its "independence" is respected and that discussions be "guided by the principles of equality, reciprocity, non-interference and mutual respect."

With regard to defining a possible agenda for such talks, Morales said that "the key factor is that the parties cannot come to the negotiating table with preconditions." "If that is achieved, the rest is just drawing up a smart list of issues mutually agreed on, ranging from the most simple matters to the most complex," he said.

In Morales’s view, the embargo imposed in the early 1960s, which Obama says he will not lift, is a "political problem" that could be left out of the debate if both countries decide not to discuss it.

In that case, the two nations could begin to regularise economic relations on the basis of the already existing trade flow, which is limited to food imports by Cuba paid up front in cash.

The talks, he says, could then address ways to expand current trade to include other products, the possibility of exporting Cuban goods to the U.S., the negotiation of new terms of trade, and the question of credit, with the aim of facilitating transactions.

In spite of the restrictions in place, since 2001 the U.S. has become a major supplier of foodstuffs to Cuba, which now purchases 35 percent of its food imports from that country.

Morales believes Obama has a firm chance of prevailing over his opponent, Republican Party candidate John McCain, in the Nov. 4 elections. "I’d like to see him win. I think that with Obama in office, the possibilities for change would be richer," the analyst told IPS.

However, he says it would be "easier" for a Republican to dismantle the current U.S. Cuba policy than for a Democrat.

"Republicans are very pragmatic, more consistent from an ideological point of view. Such decisions would be questioned far less if they came from someone in their ranks than from a Democrat," he said.

Morales views the nomination of an Afro-American as presidential candidate as an unprecedented decision. "I believe that racism and intolerance have declined in the last 30 or 40 years, but not to the point of disappearing entirely. We still have to see if people in the U.S. are truly prepared to accept a black president. We won’t know until the elections," he said.

Click here for full article

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Miami Herald Endorses Obama

Miami Herald endorses Obama-Biden, cites difference in Cuba Policy with McCain

Closer to home, Sen. McCain strongly supports Bush administration policies on Cuba. Sen. Obama also supports the embargo, but would be more likely to dissolve recently imposed restraints on travel and remittances to Cuba.

Comment: But they also backed anti-travel Mario Diaz-Balart against his pro-family travel challenger Joe Garcia! Go figure

Thursday, October 16, 2008

McCain vs. Obama on Cuba in Miami, Menendez

John McCain vs. Barach Obama, with a comment from Bob Menendez

excerpt from Miami Herald, 10/16/08 (full text here)

[Senator Robert] Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, campaigned at Florida International University and the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center a week ago on Obama's behalf. He has made the same trek south during the past three presidential elections.


''This was one of the best receptions I got,'' Menendez said in a telephone interview from Washington. ``The economic message that Obama is delivering is falling on receptive ears among those who in the past were driven more by ideological issues, like Cuba.''

Obama has said he would be willing to meet with the communist regime to talk about democratic reforms, a position that amounts to heresy among some Cuban exiles. He also wants to allow Cuban Americans to travel and send money freely to the island.

McCain has ridiculed Obama for being willing to sit down with the Castro government and says the United States needs to hold firm on the restrictions President Bush placed on travel and remittances.

Comment: a good summary of where the candidates stand, with an intriguing comment from Menendez. If Cuba is now an ideological issue, is he supporting Obama now on family travel? Will he go further or try to stop Obama from going further?

Martinez and Diaz-Balart debate Cuba

Raul Martinez and Lincoln Diaz-Balart debate Cuba policy

excerpt from the Miami Herald, 10/15/08 (full text)


The pair also diverged on U.S.-Cuba policy, with Diaz-Balart cautioning against loosening any restrictions ``until there is the liberation of all political prisoners and scheduling of free elections.

''And by the way, that's the position I supported with regard to Iran, and the position that I supported with regard to South Africa,'' Diaz-Balart said. ``I'm consistent and I think we have to fight for human rights not only in Cuba, but around the world.''

But Martinez said he hears complaints about Cuba travel restrictions from folks in factories and beauty parlors who want to visit family but are barred from going more than once every three years because of U.Spolicy.

''That's not what America is all about, and I'm saying lift those restrictions,'' Martinez said. ``Allow family-to-family travel. Allow the families to connect to each other and then we can work on all the other issues.''

Garcia and Diaz-Balart debate Cuba

Excerpt from Miami Herald report on a debate between Joe Garcia and Mario Diaz-Balart (full story here) 10/16/08


Regarding restricting travel to Cuba, Diaz-Balart reiterated his support of the current once-every-three-years limit on exile travel to the island. Diaz-Balart noted that Cubans, once in the United States, are given a quicker path to citizenship than other immigrants.

''With every privilege comes responsibility,'' Diaz-Balart said. ``If you're a Colombian and you receive political asylum here, you can't go back and just travel at will back to Colombia.''

Garcia, however, called the travel rules ''an absurdity'' and ''un-American.'' He told the story of one exile who had to choose between visiting a dying mother or being able to return for the funeral after she passed.

''It's not right, and we shouldn't do that,'' he said.

On other foreign policy matters, Garcia distanced himself from Obama's willingness to hold presidential-level meetings with foreign leaders such as Raúl Castro.

''What I think he said, and I think he's pretty clear, is that if it promotes democracy and change in those countries, then he's willing to do it, and those are very important steps,'' Garcia said, adding: ``My policy has always been that we shouldn't meet with those dictatorships.''

Diaz-Balart also said he frowned on such meetings, describing Castro and Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez as ``terrorist thugs.''

Comment: Joe goes halfway with Obama and not nearly far enough on travel, but is still preferable to Lincoln.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The View from Cuba

From Havana

Obama in Havana

By Manuel Alberto Ramy

No, Barack Obama has not traveled to Havana. But his campaign has. I learned this when I saw a T-shirt with a slogan in his favor, hanging from a clothesline in the El Cerro neighborhood, which, according to the old song, "has the key."

"It was brought to me by my son, who is an Obama fan," said the owner, a lady who asked that her name not be published because her son "lives in Miami and, as you know, things over there are not easy."

To many Cubans (not only to the Cuban government), Obama and McCain are the same when it comes to their general attitude toward the island. "A little tougher or a little kinder, but they want to mess with what we have achieved," says Rigoberto, who identifies himself as a transport retiree. "I am not an apapipio," an unconditional supporter of the government, he hastens to say, but "we have good things to retain, other things to change, like letting people make a better living because things are tough," he says, raising his arms and eyes toward the crumbling walls of his house.

The old house must have been built in the 1920s or '30s. It's easy to see that it has been poorly -- or not at all -- maintained in the past 40 years.

When it comes to Obama, Rigoberto agrees with his nephew, "whom I could see this year, thanks to my sister, who is his mother, whom he can visit. He couldn't visit me, though. We uncles were removed from the family," he says, smiling ironically.

In 2004, President George W. Bush imposed rules that limit the relationship of Cuban families on both sides of the Straits of Florida. One of them was a redefinition of the concept of family, from which Bush excluded uncles, cousins and nephews. He also reduced the number of visits to one every three years, as well as the remittances of money for family assistance, to $300 every quarter. All that as part of the chain that links the Cuban-American ultraright with the island rightwingers.

It's worthwhile to see how people's appraisal of the candidates changes when legitimate individual interests come into play, both in Cuba and in Florida, where the topic of family is weakening the control of the ultraconservative, aggressive "historic exiles."

"Obama was in Miami and said that, if he were elected, he would lift those regulations. How could we -- my son, his uncle and myself -- not agree with him?" She tells me her son "is already an American citizen."

From the presidential campaign, our chat drifted to the races for three Congressional seats that are setting Florida on fire.

"My son told me that those two -- what's their names?" she asks her brother, who answers: "The Diaz-Balarts." "Well, them, they are against the trips. Imagine. You can tell they have no relatives here."

The brothers Lincoln and Mario Díaz-Balart, along with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, three Republican members of Congress, recently wrote a letter to the governor of Florida asking him to sign a law that enables the state to paralyze flights to the island and end family visits -- all in the name of consumer protection. The governor signed the law, which has been challenged by travel operators and is under judicial review.

Somewhat sadly, the woman says she doesn't want to be identified because she can travel to Miami ("I'm hoping to go soon," she says) and fears that any publicity "might harm me when I go ask for a visa."

She describes her son as a hard-working man who has never been involved in politics "neither here nor there. He went [to the States] to improve his life," she says, but in the Congressional elections "he will vote for someone who supports the trips. I don't remember his name, but it's a candidate in his district."

Clearly, his son was part of the migratory waves that, since the 1990s, have gradually changed Miami's social composition, a fact recorded by several polls done in the past 20 years. Different motivations and interests seek channels that suit them.

I look at the T-shirt with the pro-Obama slogan. If it's on the clothesline it's because it was washed. And if it was washed, who wore it?

"My grandson," Rigoberto answers. "He is 19 and wears it to every party he attends. You know why? 'Cause he wants to rile 'em up, as kids say nowadays."

Lucky for me, the young man who wears the T-shirt "to rile 'em up" arrives in the house and parks his old Chinese bicycle (Forever brand) in the alley next to the old house.

"Yes, I wear it and I've had no problems," he says, airily. "Why wouldn't I wear it, when people around here wear T-shirts with the American flag?"

"Look," he adds, "I have a Chinese bike, an Obama T-shirt and bought a Vietnamese computer. I am globalized and want peace and normal relations and the ability to travel."

To motivate him, I mention that popular singer Silvio Rodríguez recently spoke in favor of eliminating exit permits.

"Silvio is not the government, and the government has said nothing" about exit permits, he comments. "Besides, I prefer Ray Fernández."

Ray is a singer who's singing his own compositions outside the radio and TV circuit. He has attracted a sizeable audience that follows him wherever he goes.

"Once the Americans change their policy, [the leaders] here will change theirs, too," he opines. And he adds, as a final message: "I told my uncle when he came to visit that he had to fight for his yucca up there."

"Fight for your yucca" is a refrain from one of Ray Fernández's popular songs, the young man explains, as he hangs a baseball cap with the word "Industriales" (his favorite team) from the bicycle handlebar.

Does the young man study? The grandfather hesitates. Does he work? The question is like a fly ball that drops between two players, because neither reaches for it. Finally, the young man answers. "I'm into it."

I thank the three and leave. With this report, I, too have "fought for my yucca."

Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief for Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.