Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dear Mr. Obama - We've Seen This Movie Before...

In late February, 1996, as President Bill Clinton entered the last laps of a tough, though ultimately successful re-election campaign, he was confronted with a Cuban monkey wrench dropped directly into U.S. presidential politics.

Up to that point the Clinton administration had indicated its steadfast opposition to the Helms-Burton Act, which aimed at tightening the U.S. Embargo by adding third-country sanctions, strengthening the claims of Cuban-Americans for expropriated property, and transforming what had always been a presidential prerogative into a policy imbued with the force of law. In fact, the bill had been tabled a year earlier in 1995 when Helms faced an intractable Democratic filibuster.

All that changed on the morning of February 24 when Cuban fighter jets shot down two private planes operated by the Miami-based exile group Brothers to the Rescue. While his administration had initially - and correctly - opposed the bill on principle, Clinton quickly reversed course and signed the bill with great fanfare, unwilling to risk losing any Cuban-American votes in the exile-rich swing states of Florida and New Jersey. (See criticism of the Act from Global Exchange and the American Enterprise Institute - a rare case when these two ideological enemies were in strong agreement!)

Question: Was the shoot-down of the planes the Cuban government's way of scuttling any possible warming of relations between the two governments, and of insuring that its "old faithful" enemy across the waters would remain just that - an enemy? Some contend that the shoot-down was, in fact, provoked by exile hardliners themselves hoping to cause an incident that would force Clinton's hand into a reluctant endorsement of Helms-Burton and away from any rapprochement that they saw as anathema.

Seven years later, in the Spring of 2003, just as the U.S. began dropping bombs on Baghdad, Castro made the call to quickly round up 75 dissidents and independent journalists and summarily condemn them to long prison terms. Was it another coincidence that this crack-down took place just as steam was building in the U.S. Congress for a repeal of the travel ban?

Recent events in Havana where bloggers, including Yoani Sanchez, were violently rounded up by plain-clothes agents while en route to a peace march, may be the first frames in a replay of this old, familiar film. First, the government repeatedly denied Sanchez permission to travel abroad, most recently in October to receive a journalism prize from Columbia University. Now, Sanchez and two of her increasingly bold fellow "internauts" have been clearly singled out for violent repression.

Both events have been widely covered in the international press, the second one even drawing a loud rebuke from the U.S. State Department. Some, like Tracey Eaton in his blog "Along The Malecon," have wondered if the Cuban government has been clumsily shooting itself in the proverbial foot with these actions, unnecessarily drawing attention to its repressive tactics and the lack of freedom of speech on the island.

However, it is just as likely that these widely condemned acts are evidence not of frustration and overreaching on the part of Havana but of a clear plan to use a new crack-down on Cuba's latest and most globally prominent dissidents to make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible for the Obama administration to deepen its engagement and dialogue with the Cuban government. This is especially likely since the new Democratically-controlled Congress is now entertaining a bill to end the travel ban, with the House Foreign Affairs Committee holding a November 18 hearing on the question: "Is it Time to Lift the Ban on Travel to Cuba?"

Whatever else the Cuban government may be, no son bobos. History tells us that Fidel, if he is still calling the shots, is a master tactician who makes no move without thinking of its future implications in this long war of chess between Havana and Washington. Remember, the bloggers' reports from the scene of their abduction were clear that their assailants stopped and called in to headquarters before receiving direct permission to ratchet up their violence against them.

So, what's the lesson here for the Obama administration? These cases teach us that Obama should move forward on further engagement and dialogue based not on the good or bad behavior of Havana, but on the interests of the United States and the well being of the Cuban people. Conditioning future steps toward a better relationship on actions in Havana only puts the Cuban government, not the U.S. government or the Cuban people in the driver's seat. The Obama administration should reject a policy of "conditionality" for one of principled realism in the interests of the United States.

Obama should also listen to Sanchez herself. When I interviewed her in Havana in July, 2008, she referred to a provocatively titled article she had written the previous month, entitled, "Will Obama fit into the role of the enemy?", hoping the U.S. under Obama would not to continue fall into the trap of playing the Big-Bad-Wolf to Havana's Little-Red-Riding-Hood.

Here is a video of her explanation of the article with a translation below.

The pull quote: "In Cuba the political discourse is sustained by the supposed existence of a 'wolf,' that wolf with sharpened teeth who will come eat us all one day. And if one fine day, the wolf is no longer so aggressive and no longer plays the role of the enemy, I think that Little-Red-Riding-Hood won’t be so convincing."

In my particular case, I believe that this conflict between the governments of Cuba and the United States... (I mean between governments, because there is no conflict between the U.S. and Cuba as nations. The peoples of Cuba and the U.S. have much mutual sympathy, many points of contact, and I believe our supposed anti-imperialism is more a political facade than a reality). So, this conflict between our two governments seems stuck on automatic pilot. The situation no longer evolves. No one wants to sit down and dialogue. That leaves us trapped in the middle, the Cubans on one side and the North Americans on the other.

Also, the Cuban-Americans have had their right to travel to Cuba severely limited. It seems that no one wants to hear what the Cuban people really think about the need to put an end to this almost century-long standoff. Personally, I have a lot of hope that the North American political discourse can change, thereby causing the Cuban discourse to change also.

The U.S. election this November has generated more expectation in Cuba than our own elections did last February. From a generational perspective, I am happy to share with Obama the word “change.” That is our discourse also and to hear it coming out of the mouth of a man who could be the next North American president, well, it pleases me. That is to say, "Great! Incredible! We want the same thing!" Also, the fact that he is someone who is only 40-something years old is a signal for Cuban youth. That is to say, “Look, in the United States it is possible that a man from your generation could come to power, something that could never happen in Cuba under the current government.”

And all these things give me the hope of what could happen with Obama. I think he is a man who enjoys a lot of sympathy in Cuba among intellectuals, the Afro-Cuban community, with the youth. And what I was trying to say in my
article is that he breaks with the traditional image of the “enemy.”

That is important because in Cuba the political discourse is sustained by the supposed existence of a “wolf,” that wolf with sharpened teeth who will come eat us all one day. And if one fine day, the wolf is no longer so aggressive and no longer plays the role of the enemy, I think that Little Red Riding Hood won’t be so convincing. You understand? So, inspired a bit by this possible rupture of the traditional role or image, I believe that Obama can have a lot of influence on changes in Cuba.

The thing is that no one is going to have as much influence on the changes in Cuba as we Cubans ourselves. What happens in the United States could help us or hurt us, but we Cubans are the ones who must decide for how much longer are we going to accept our current situation allowing a group of people to govern us who don’t represent us.


  1. Sorry to say so bluntly, but this theory is nonsense. Getting rid of the embargo is the #1 foreign policy priority of Cuba - stated as such over and over again. They lose almost $2 Billion dollars a year from the embargo. In Cuba that is real money.

    Everyone knows the Brothers 2 the Rescue (B2R) incident could have been avoided if the US authorities would have heeded the warnings given by the Cuban authorities - warnings the US authorities agreed with - but they never got around to shutting down the operation. B2R feared not and took the risk. They are responsible, even if they were just outside of Cuban airspace at the time of the shoot-down.

    And in 2003, anyone with half a brain knew that there was no way the travel ban would be lifted, even with the usual Congressional interest (and votes). Bush promised a veto from the beginning. So there is simply no evidence that the arrests were meant to do anything but stop a few dozen people from making a fine living telling people in Miami and Washington what they want to hear. If you think the US would tolerate a bunch of anti-US activists working closely with the Cuban Embassy or Iranian state radio you'd have to think again.

    Now, Sanchez and two of her increasingly bold fellow "internauts" have been clearly singled out for violent repression.

    How do you figure out that Yoani and her friends were "singled out for violent represstion." There is no evidence any of the force that was used was pre-meditated. There was no force used until Yoani resisted - and went on the offensive. To pretend like this was a pre-planned beating is highly disingenous. Even Yoani likely would not make such an assertion. It is simply not the way Cubans do things and in this case, Yoani is the one who prompted the physicality.

  2. My dear leftside,

    I can see why you call yourself that name. Of course, as I always say, it is very easy to be a "leftiside" from the democratic side of the world. You defend something that you don't have to suffer under. I wonder if you like Cuba so much why don't you go to live there with the ration card, the blackouts, and of course without being able to write your opinions in this blog.

    I agree with your argument about the brothers to the rescue. They disobeyed the warnings, and the have to be punished. I think the U.S. would have done the same, but then the Cuban goverment used that as an argument to close the negotiations. In the end, there's always a reason for not talking.

    Yoani has been very brave and she just wants to exercise what you got as a birthright. To be a citizen with civic rights.

  3. Mr. Henken: I couldn't pass up the chance to tell you how incisive your Nov. 10th observation is. Yes, each time the U.S. makes a move towards raproachment, Cuba does something to thwart it. I can't understand why so many in the U.S. fail to see the strategic logic of his actions.

    No one recognizes better than the Castro's just how corrosive and contagious freedom can be. Just look at the peripheral forces that "snowballed" into the eventual collapse of the Berlin wall and East Germany twenty years ago. Well, the U.S. embargo has served just such a function for Castro's regime, providing isolation and insulation at the expense of the people. The passage of Helms-Burton, in fact, metaphorically added brick, mortar and height to Castro's nurturing wall.

    However, Castro has had help. He has a vital interest group in America. A wealthy and politically astute lobbying arm, almost as effective as the AARP, the NRA or The AMA. This is a clique with a vested interest in insuring that Cuba does not undergo any sort of peaceful transition. While the ranks of this conclave are dwindling, due to inevitable mortality, many still remain. This wealthy, exile elite has intentionally played to Castro's tune, pushing for further isolation and mobilizing Miami exile opinion in tune with Castro's game of reverse psychology.

    Why do they do this? They still hope for an authoritarian "right-wing" regime, after Castro has left the scene. However, the chance of a return to a Batista, a Machado, a new Mas-Canosa, hinge on anarchy and violent change, something that appears increasingly unlikely. There are new, rational groups emerging in Miami, such as the Cuba Study Group led by Carlos Saladrigas, but they are still few and far between. Your suggestion of having the Obama administration stay the course and set aside "conditionality" is absolutely correct. Such a posture undermines Castro's scripted crises. The ultimate question: whether the Obama administration has the will to move towards the longterm goal of opening Cuba, without allowing conjured skirmishes from Havana and/or Miami to derail the effort.

    Great article....regards,

    Tony G.