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“Talking Encourages Effective Change”: Obama In Cuba, And The Astounding Legacy Of A Pragmatic President

I’m old. Not as ancient as, say, the dinosaurs, but I’m certainly not young. In fact, I’m only a few years younger than the president, which, while young for the White House, is kind of old in my house.

How old am I? Well, I’ll tell you: I’m old enough to remember when all manner of things now the stuff of daily life were the stuff of Hollywood — the notion of an African-American president, for one.

Or, for instance, relations with Cuba. Are you mad, son? That embargo outlived the Iron Curtain! We will never have anything to do with Cuba (other than smuggled cigars) until the Castros are dead and a unicorn sits on a throne of dollars in the heart of Havana. The sky is blue, the grass is green, and Cuba is natio non grata, forever and ever.

Until this month. Until Sunday. Until, actually, December 2014, when the president announced, “Today, the United States of America is changing its relationship with the people of Cuba” — an announcement which frankly left me gobsmacked and a little pie-eyed. I hadn’t been paying attention, you see, and seemingly out of the blue, this president had done the undoable, as if 50 years of human history could be changed with human hands. Now he’s walking around Havana and meeting with Raul Castro.

Or how about that other impossibility: U.S.-Iranian détente? I actually remember when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was stormed. I’m also old enough to remember George W. Bush’s 2002 Axis of Evil speech, the one that torpedoed active Iranian cooperation with America in post-9/11 Afghanistan. And yet here we are, one president later, in possession of a nuclear deal with one of our most implacable foes, a foe that has in the meantime elected a slate of surprisingly moderate politicians to its parliament, reinforcing Obama’s position that talking encourages change more effectively than ceaseless saber-rattling.

Oh, I’m old enough to remember all kinds of things. I remember when “LGBTQ rights” were called “the homosexual agenda” and orange juice pitch-woman Anita Bryant told America that the gays wanted to hurt your children. I also remember the AIDS crisis, and how many people had to die before anyone in power began to treat them with dignity. I think that as a young woman I literally wouldn’t have been able to imagine a circumstance in which a sitting U.S. president would oversee the establishment of same-sex marriage as a constitutional right. Obama “evolved” on the issue, he told us — bringing America along with him, allowing us to evolve toward that more-perfect union of which our founders spoke.

And don’t think I’ve forgotten health care reform, which has been impossible since Harry Truman. I remember when the current Democratic frontrunner tried her hand at reshaping health care and got so badly burned that she and her then-president husband paid for it for years. Today, on the other hand, millions of Americans for whom basic health care was once as unimaginable as that unicorn in Havana now have insurance, and cannot be denied coverage for pre-existing conditions — such as, for instance, domestic violence or having a cervix. ObamaCare is, in many ways, feminism at its most brass-tacks, and I’m pretty sure Young Me also couldn’t have imagined having a president who is a feminist.

No one accomplishes anything on their own, no matter the office they hold. In the course of seven years, the president has had to learn from, respond to, and work with people ranging from grassroots activists to Pope Francis (while, it should be noted, the opposition party has done all it can to prevent him from accomplishing anything at all). And on many of these matters, Obama has just barely been ahead of the curve. When he announced the change in relations with Cuba, for instance, just less than half of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County supported the embargo anymore — down from 66 percent in 2004 and 56 percent in 2011.

The president has never been a revolutionary; to borrow from Lin-Manuel Miranda, he is and has always been a bold pragmatist — which is, in my book, a compliment.

I don’t want to give the impression that I agree with everything Obama and his administration have presided over. Ask me (or better yet, don’t) about Obama’s record on Israel/Palestine — or maybe talk to the Central Americans deported back to their home countries after fleeing unspeakable violence. To borrow from the internet, your faves are always problematic. My faves are, too.

And yet. There are days on which this old woman looks at her young president’s record, and all but falls out of her chair. The foregoing is but a partial list, missing many things Obama has accomplished or advanced that were, as far as I once knew, impossible or pretty near. The beautiful thing, of course, is that you don’t actually have to be old to see it — you just have to be paying attention.

Thanks, Obama.

 

By: Emily L. Hauser, The Week, March 21, 2016

March 23, 2016 Posted by | Cuba, Diplomacy, President Obama, Raul Castro | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obama’s Visit Will Hasten Freedom In Cuba”: The Culmination Of Common-Sense Revamping Of U.S. Policy Toward Cuba

The historic visit of a sitting U.S. president to Havana — which should have come a half-century sooner — will almost surely hasten the day when Cubans are free from the Castro government’s suffocating repression.

President Obama’s whirlwind trip is the culmination of his common-sense revamping of U.S. policy toward Cuba. One outdated, counterproductive relic of the Cold War remains — the economic embargo forbidding most business ties with the island nation — and the Republican-controlled Congress won’t even consider repealing it. But Obama, using his executive powers, has been able to reestablish full diplomatic relations, practically eliminate travel restrictions and substantially weaken the embargo’s grip.

All of which is long overdue. The United States first began to squeeze the Castro government, with the hope of forcing regime change, in 1960. It should be a rule of thumb that if a policy is an utter failure for more than 50 years, it’s time to try something else.

I say this as someone with no illusions about President Raúl Castro, the spectral but still-powerful Fidel Castro or the authoritarian system they created and wish to perpetuate.

Hours before Obama’s arrival Sunday, police and security agents roughly arrested and hauled away members of the Ladies in White dissident group as they conducted their weekly protest march; this time, U.S. network news crews happened to be on hand to witness the ritualized crackdown.

I wrote a book about Cuba, and each time I went to the island for research I gained more respect and admiration for the Cuban people — and more contempt for the regime that so cynically and capriciously smothers their dreams. Those 10 trips convinced me, however, that the U.S. policy of prohibiting economic and social contact between Americans and Cubans was, to the Castro brothers, the gift that kept on giving.

I saw how the “menace” of an aggressive, threatening neighbor to the north was used as a justification for repression. We’d love to have freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom of assembly, the government would say, but how can we leave our beloved nation so open, and so vulnerable, when the greatest superpower on earth is trying to destroy our heroic revolution?

Most of the Cubans I met were not fooled by such doublespeak. But they did have a nationalistic love for their country, and their nation was, indeed, under economic siege.

There are those who argue that Obama could have won more concessions from the Castro regime in exchange for improved relations. But this view ignores the fact that our posture of unmitigated hostility toward Cuba did more harm to U.S. interests than good. Relaxing travel restrictions for U.S. citizens can only help flood the island with American ideas and values. Permitting such an influx could be the biggest risk the Castro brothers have taken since they led a ragtag band of guerrillas into the Sierra Maestra Mountains to make a revolution.

Why would they now take this gamble? Because they have no choice. The Castro regime survived the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the end of huge annual subsidies from the Eastern Bloc — but the Cuban economy sank into depression. Copious quantities of Venezuelan oil, provided by strongman Hugo Chávez (who was Fidel Castro’s protege), provided a respite. But now Chávez is gone, Venezuela is an economic ruin and Cuba has no choice but to monetize the resource it has in greatest abundance, human capital. From the Castros’ point of view, better relations with the United States must now seem unavoidable.

It is possible that Raúl Castro, who has promised to resign in 2018, will seek to move the country toward the Chinese model: a free-market economic system overseen by an authoritarian one-party government. Would this fully satisfy those who want to see a free Cuba? No. Would it be a tremendous improvement over the poverty and oppression Cubans suffer today? Absolutely.

Fidel Castro will be 90 in August; Raúl is just five years younger. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we will see whether Castroism can survive without a living Castro. Anyone who wants U.S. policymakers to have influence when that question arises should applaud Obama’s initiatives.

And speaking of applause, did you see the rapturous welcome the president and his family received in Havana? Cubans seem to have a much more clear-eyed — and hopeful — view than Obama’s shortsighted critics.

 

By: Eugene Robinson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, March 21, 2016

March 23, 2016 Posted by | Cuba, President Obama, Raul Castro | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Different American President”: Willing To Leave The History In The Past And Actually Try To Get Something Done

As the Obama family continues their historic visit to Cuba, Jeffrey Goldberg relates a story from national security advisor Ben Rhodes that might have provided the moment that made the opening between our two countries possible.

“The president was going to the funeral of Nelson Mandela—his personal hero—and I remember on the plane to South Africa I raised with him—we had a list of the leaders who were going to be up on the dais where he’d be speaking—and one was Raul Castro, and I said, ‘Look, inevitably it is going to come up as to whether or not you shake his hand.’”

Obama’s response was not necessarily the response of a typical American president. According to Rhodes, Obama said, “‘Look, the Cubans, given their history with Mandela, with the ANC, they have a place at this event, and I’m not going to, essentially, cause an uncomfortable situation for the Mandela family, for the South African people, by snubbing the president of Cuba who has a right to be on that dais.’” The Cubans were early and ardent supporters of Mandela’s African National Congress party, and were also deeply engaged militarily across southern Africa…

Castro, Rhodes said, was a bit surprised, and perhaps somewhat moved. “What was interesting was, in our subsequent meetings with the Cubans, the atmosphere changed a bit, and the first thing they said to me in the next meeting was how much President Castro appreciated that President Obama had done that, and it kind of established a tone where they understood they were dealing with a different American president—one who is willing to leave the history in the past and actually try to get something done.”

This points to a moment when Cuba was actually on the right side of history while the United States – under President Reagan – was on the wrong side.

Reagan … embraced the South African Apartheid regime. He instituted a policy euphemized as “constructive engagement.” Reagan said that the United States lacked the power to change the internal workings of the Afrikaner government. Not only was the claim false, it contradicted his position on the far more powerful Soviet Union, which was designed precisely to change the evil empire’s internal behavior. Reagan put Mandela on the U.S. terrorist list, a placement that wasn’t removed until 2008, incredibly. This was at a time when the South African civil war was at its peak of violence, with the conflict becoming a global cause.

A young student attending Occidental College at the time was very aware of these events.

The young black university student who walked up to the microphone at an anti-apartheid rally in 1980 was, by his own admission, cynical about the virtues of political activism.

Barack Obama had spent his early years of college submerged in books by African American writers by the likes of James Baldwin, W E B Du Bois and Malcolm X, wrestling with his own mixed racial identity.

But it was the campaign for equality thousands of miles away in South Africa that first spurred Obama, then aged 19, into action: taking part in a divestment rally in his sophomore year at Occidental College in Los Angeles, one of hundreds of similar campaigns sweeping campuses across America.

And so it was thirty years later, on that day in December 2013, that these two leaders – who had very little in common other than their admiration for Nelson Mandela – shook hands and changed the trajectory of the relationship between our two countries. I suspect that Madiba would approve.

 

By: Nancy LeTourneau, Political Animal Blog, The Washington Monthly, March 21, 2016

March 22, 2016 Posted by | Cuba, Nelson Mandela, President Obama, Raul Castro | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Best To Take It Nice And Slow”: Cuba Should Beware Of Westerners Bearing Gifts

The normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, announced Wednesday by President Obama, is a highly welcome step. Our hostile posture against Cuba stopped making sense in 1989, if not before then, and it’s long since time we allowed the country back into the full community of nations. If the U.S. can get along with China and Vietnam, there’s no reason it can’t do the same with Cuba.

The president can’t lift the embargo against Cuba, since that was imposed by Congress. Though dead-end reactionaries like Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham will likely fight for the embargo tooth and nail, within a few years it will be gone as well. In addition to the fact that the policy has failed for more than 50 years, popular opinion — and most crucially, the opinion of Cuban-Americans — is changing.

But while economic liberalization presents Cuba with opportunities, it comes attached with huge potential pitfalls. To be blunt, Cuba in all likelihood faces a bleak future. The track record of post-Communist nations is not good. Indeed, the upside of the embargo remaining in place for a few years is that it will give Cuba time to prepare. Here are a few things both Cuba and America might keep in mind.

First, don’t try to do everything all at once. Abolishing wage and price controls, privatizing state industries, and liberalizing trade may be good ideas. But it’s unquestionable that doing them all very fast is bad. Jeff Sachs tried that in Russia with his signature “Big Push,” and it was a world-historical disaster. Russian GDP fell 62 percent, and didn’t bottom out until the year 2000. Life expectancy fell by five full years. And a handful of well-placed oligarchs absconded with most of the state’s assets.

A market economy that works well for most people (think Sweden and Norway) requires some deep-rooted social structures — structures that are seriously eroded by long periods of totalitarian dictatorship. Simply quaffing laissez-faire policy in one gulp will lead almost certainly to plutocracy.

Above all, Cuba should prioritize maintaining its fairly high-quality health-care system. A slower, more measured transition would make that easier.

Communist insiders ought to be careful themselves. They might be able to make out like bandits in a post-Communist resource grab, but they also might be overthrown, exiled, or killed. For 50 years, the Cuban regime has been able to blame its atrocious economic performance on the American embargo. Without that excuse, the government will likely be faced with rising demands for better performance.

Vietnam and China show it’s possible to thread this needle, but it’s definitely not a given. We can only hope that President Raúl Castro and others in the Cuban regime will recognize that the onset of democracy is probably inevitable, and ease that transition rather than clamping down and risking civil war.

America, for its part, should consider not using its stupendous advantage in military and economic strength to stuff neoliberal policy down Cuba’s throat the second its markets open. I frankly doubt we can manage this. Congress has rarely been quite so overtly owned by the rich, who are undoubtedly slavering over a fresh nation to plunder.

So yes, amid the excitement, there’s no denying the situation is grim. It’s not likely that either a rattletrap Congress or the brutally repressive Cuban government will be able to manage decent, wise policy. But now that we’re here, it’s worth thinking about how both countries can manage as best as possible.

 

By: Ryan Cooper, National Correspondent, The Week, December 19, 2014

December 22, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Cuba, Raul Castro | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Sanity Initiative”: Obama Realizes What 10 Presidents Didn’t; Isolating Cuba Doesn’t Work

President Barack Obama made the dramatic announcement Wednesday that his administration is ending efforts to isolate Cuba that go back more than 50 years. While Congress will have to decide whether to end a formal economic embargo and a ban on casual tourism, senior administration officials said in a White House conference call that they would do everything within their power to end what Obama called a “failed policy.”

“Isolation has not worked,” said Obama from the White House.

Isolation has not helped to promote human rights in Cuba, it has not led to the downfall of the Castro government, and it is a policy carried out by the United States alone in the world. “I do not believe we can continue doing the same thing for five decades and expect a different result,” said Obama in a none too subtle allusion to a popular definition of insanity.

The initiative comes after 18 months of secret talks, with a major impetus provided by Pope Francis, who hosted the final discussions between Cuban and U.S. officials at the Vatican in the fall. (We should have known something was up when Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro shook hands at Nelson Mandela’s funeral a year ago.)

On Tuesday, Obama and Raul Castro spoke on the telephone for the better part of an hour, going down the checklist of measures that had been agreed upon in the negotiations.

These included a swap of three Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States for the last 15 years in exchange for an unnamed “U.S. intelligence asset” who has spent the last two decades in Cuba’s prisons. The asset was said to have provided the vital information that led to the shutting down of three different Cuban spy operations in the United States, including one in the Defense Intelligence Agency.

The release of American contractor Alan Gross, imprisoned for the last five years, was presented by the administration as a humanitarian decision by Havana since he was not an intelligence agent—despite Cuban claims—and thus the U.S. government would not trade spies to gain his release. Clearly the liberation of Gross took place in the context of what might be called a “grand bargain.”

Other measures include the decision to reopen embassies, closed since 1961, and steps to remove Cuba from the State Department list of countries that support terrorism.

There will be a dramatic expansion of the kinds of licenses that will allow Americans to travel legally to Cuba, covering everything from journalism to humanitarian work and help to the private sector on the island. Even if “tourism” is still barred by law, it is difficult to imagine that anyone wanting to visit the island will not be able to find some category that allows that to happen. And visitors can bring up to $100 worth of Cuban cigars back to the U.S. with them.

To help with those purchases, U.S. financial institutions will be able to operate to some extent in Cuba, and, perhaps most importantly, U.S. credit cards and debit cards will start to function.

Obama is arguing that engagement is more likely to bring about change in Cuba than isolation ever did, and his new policy will try to target areas where change is needed and can be made, particularly with regard to human rights, private enterprise, and access to information. (In what may be a significant gesture, Cuba released 53 prisoners on a list provided by the Obama administration although, of course, this was presented as a sovereign decision by Havana.)

The Treasury and Commerce departments also intend to clear the way for the U.S. export to Cuba of goods that will help small private construction firms, entrepreneurs and small farmers. Telecommunications workers and investors clearly will find it easy to travel to Cuba, at least from the American side. A major part of the Obama initiative aims to get more and better Internet access for the Cuban people.

Not the least of the Obama administration’s motives is the sense that the American policy of isolating Cuba has, instead, isolated the United States. Not a single country in the world supported it, including and especially the other countries of the Americas, north and south.

Even in the darkest days of right-wing dictatorships in South America in the 1980s, even they thought it wiser to engage the Castro regime than to attack it so relentlessly and gratuitously that it had an excuse for all its own failings. More than 30 years ago, the Argentine ambassador to Havana, who served the generals in Buenos Aires, would tell visiting reporters, “the best way to make war on Castro is with peace.”

Obama couldn’t say that on Wednesday, of course.

 

By: Christopher Dickey, The Daily Beast, December 17, 2014

December 18, 2014 Posted by | Cuba, Foreign Policy, Raul Castro | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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