Sunday, June 15, 2014

Who's Jumping the shark on foreign policy in the United States?

“The embargo's not a litmus test. Support human rights in Cuba.” – Christopher Sabatini, over twitter.

Who is jumping the shark?
The embargo is not a litmus test. People of good will have debated the efficacy of economic sanctions in Cuba. However, that said there should be a litmus test which would be respect for human rights and the dignity of persons. This is where, I believe, I share common ground with Mr. Sabatini. Oswaldo Payá who opposed the embargo on Cuba made the implicit case for the above "litmus test" while downplaying the importance of the sanctions debate:
"It is not up to the U.S. to bring about changes in Cuba. Nor is it up to the U.S. businessmen who say that by doing business here they will bring change. Nor is it up to U.S. tourists. And I say this to those who say that U.S. tourists will bring changes to Cuba. The Spaniards and Canadians haven't done so. Moreover, that's an insult to the Cuban people. Changes will not be made by tourists drinking daiquiris and mojitos, strolling through our beaches and staying in hotels that Cubans can't stay in.” 
Nevertheless in reading Chris Sabatini’s June 12, 2014 piece in Foreign Policy and Mauricio Claver-Carone’s response in Capitol Hill Cubans three objections arise to the analysis presented by Sabatini that are not found in Claver-Carone’s response that I’d like to address: 1) That the embargo is not monolithic 2) There are more than two sides to the debate 3) The Letter appealing to openness should have been addressed to Raul Castro not the President of the United States.

Changing sanctions policy in Cuba
The claim that the 52 year old embargo on Cuba is “monolithic” gives an impression that economic sanctions on Cuba have been static and unchanging over that period. American Administrations over the decades have not only “tinkered” with the embargo loosening or tightening it but also made radical changes. First and foremost was that the original objective of the Embargo was not to overthrow the Castro regime but limit its ability to expand into the rest of the hemisphere while forcing the Soviet Union to expend large sums to keep their client regime in Cuba afloat.

The embargo was designed to limit Cuban infiltration into the Western hemisphere and with the exception of Nicaragua under the Sandinista regime it was a success until the rise of Hugo Chavez in 1999. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 there was a public debate over the embargo. The Bush Administration considered loosening or maintaining the Embargo as it was. However, it was an election year and the Cuban Democracy Act otherwise known as the Torricelli Bill sought to change the objectives of the embargo from one of containing the Castro regime to one seeking a nonviolent and democratic transition. Initially it was opposed by the Bush Administration but candidate Bill Clinton backed it, making inroads into the Cuban American vote in South Florida, and President Bush losing votes in Florida flip flopped and signed the Torricelli Bill into law.

Candidate Bill Clinton also engaged in the same practice with regards to U.S. policy in China blasting the Bush Administration’s betrayal of human rights concerns in the events surrounding the June 3-4, 1989 Beijing massacre. In the 1992 campaign Clinton advocated sanctions on China and won a lot of votes in the Chinese American community. Unfortunately, President Clinton completely de-linked human rights and national security considerations from trade with China. During the Clinton Administration there were efforts to normalize relations with the Castro regime through back channel diplomacy and as he did with China, sought to normalize relations while talking about human rights but completely de-linking it from economic considerations.

Following the February 24, 1996 Brothers to the Rescue shoot down which at the time was considered an act of war “the Embargo" was codified into law by the Helms-Burton Bill placing control over sanctions policy in the Congress and out of the Executive the alternative at the time being debated was a military response against the Castro regime. Nevertheless, President Clinton issued waivers on key provision of the new law that have continue to been waived until the present day.

However, once the crisis passed President Bill Clinton opened cash and carry trade with the Castro dictatorship towards the end of his Administration in 2000 and shook hands with Fidel Castro. The anti-sanctions business lobby USA Engage described this shift in policy
In October 2000, President Clinton signed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which allowed sales of U.S. food and medicine to Cuba (and all other sanctioned countries), but required that commodities exported be paid for by cash in advance and financed by third country financial institutions. Exceptions to the travel ban were included for business travelers, subject to OFAC licenses, but not for tourists.
At the time Fidel Castro said "his country would not buy 'even a grain of rice' under the current terms." To call U.S. Embargo policy an “inflexible half-century of failed policy” is at best an unfair characterization.

The Business Lobby and the Cuban Embargo
This leads to a second objection, Sabatini also makes the case in his article that, until now there have only been two factions in the embargo debate: “U.S. organizations more concerned with apologizing for the Cuban Revolution or advocating for the release of five (now three) Cuban spies than advocating for human rights of Cubans trapped inside the Castros' island jail.” He then goes on to argue that those “who've raised questions about the embargo in the past few weeks haven't been coming from that corner.”

However, he fails to mention that since at least 2000 a new constituency (another corner) has emerged in the sanctions debate that also is not particularly interested in the human rights situation in Cuba. Between 2000 and 2013 American companies have sold $4.689 billion dollars in goods to the Castro regime on a cash and carry basis. Despite the 2003 crackdown on dissidents known as the Black Cuban Spring where the Bush Administration tightened sanctions on Cuban Americans being able to travel to Cuba and remittances sent to the island nothing was changed in the cash and carry sales directly to the Castro regime. (Interesting to note that the embargo was not being debated at the time of the worse crackdown seen since the 1960s in Cuba). The Cuban dictatorship's repression owes more to internal dynamics and power considerations rather than the U.S. sanctions debate despite Sabatini's and Hillary Clinton's claims that they are somehow related to the debate on the embargo in the United States. The Castro regime is more concerned with hanging onto power and is interested in economic engagement with the United States only in so far as it advances that agenda.

The business lobby USA Engage on the other hand seeks economic opportunities and does not want human rights considerations to prevent countries being welcomed into "the global trade community." As was the case in China the business lobby has pushed for lifting sanctions and de-linking trade from human rights considerations in Cuba. A main objective is that the Castro regime be able to trade with U.S. companies using credits. What would this mean to U.S. taxpayers? While American companies have been paid in hard currency other countries that do not have sanctions on Cuba in place, which includes restrictions on granting credits, such as Russia, Venezuela, China, Japan, Spain, Argentina, France, Romania, Brazil, Italy, and Mexico are owed billions of dollars. Russia is forgiving $29 billion dollars of debt that the Castro regime owed it and Mexico is waiving 487 million dollars of debt  owed by the regime in Havana.

However, since credits are backed by government guarantees in those countries (as well as in the United States) the companies do not suffer losses because they are passed on to taxpayers. Bottom line if sanctions are completely lifted and trade with credits takes place the Castro regime wins, American corporations win and U.S. taxpayers are left holding the bag. In the meantime this change in embargo policy has created a lobby not interested in human rights in Cuba but in business with the Castro dictatorship, and unlike a scattering of ideological fellow travelers, they have deep pockets, access to corporate media and the ear of the White House and Congress. The shameful and failed policy in China is the future the business lobby has in mind for Cuba.

A letter should have first been written to Raul Castro
Until now in my response I have not addressed the letter of the Council of the Americas focusing on the overall sanctions debate. Mauricio Claver-Carone in his response mentions how the Obama Administration loosened restrictions on the sale of telecommunications equipment to Cuba in April of 2009 but it is also important to mention that President George W. Bush also loosened sanctions that encouraged accessibility to cell phones for Cubans on the island. Over the past half century various Administrations have tinkered with and changed policies with regards to Cuba. The current Administration, despite provocations by the dictatorship, has further loosened sanctions and despite the murder of high ranking Cuban dissidents, such as Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero and an American held hostage since December 2009 in Cuba the president of the United States shook hands with Raul Castro in South Africa during the funeral of Nelson Mandela on December 10, 2013 in the midst of a human rights crackdown on the island. That this has produced a backlash is no surprise.  Rosa Maria Payá Acevedo, whose father is quoted at the top of this essay responded to the handshake asking: “Why did Barack Obama shake the hand of my father's killer, Raul Castro?” Death threats have forced the family to become political refugees.

Chris Sabatini cites Yoani Sanchez as someone who wants to liberalize the embargo, who is an independent journalist but many others within Cuba such as Jorge Luis Garcia Perez Antúnez support maintaining economic sanctions. However, one of the more interesting responses to the letter comes from Cuesta Morua, a social democrat and left wing critic of the Castro regime, who has long opposed the embargo on Cuba, who has written a long piece in reaction to the letter sent by the Council of the Americas that while praising the noble intentions of the letter went on to provide a critique:
"But I perceive an error in who it is addressed to. The first receiver of a letter of this nature should have been the designated president Raúl Castro, not the elected president Barack Obama. And for a reason that emerges in the letter: the government of the United States has already taken steps in the direction called for and desired by broad sectors. The durations of these changes (six years), its magnitude ( a broad range of resources, sectors, and segments) and its profoundness ( a spectrum of persons that exceed the traditional family ties) would have been more than sufficient for civil society to have emerged from the economic zone in which assistance of the United States is referred to that would have taken off where flight gains force and stability. If civil society, in what touches on the economy – in a typically Hegelian concept that can also be civil society – does not count on a more or less solid web, it is due to the restrictive idea the Cuban government has of a civilian economy. The precariousness of this economy is not explained by the insufficiency of resources provided by diverse sources in the exterior but by the deliberate construction of a model of development of civil society in which the middle class, entrepreneurs and investment do not have spaces. One cannot think that the incipient independent economic sectors in Cuba are weak of due to the lack of resources. They are weak because of the conceptual limitation of the reforms. Which means that what is necessary in Cuba is for the government to do a profound reform of what is prohibited for there to be light in the economy."

Jumping the Shark
Let me conclude with some observations that  do not pertain to Chris Sabitini or the Council but looking at things in a broader perspective. It is a frustrating reality for many in Washington D.C. that the path to change in places like Cuba, China and North Korea does not run through the policy decisions of the United States but in the desire of the peoples of these countries to be free. However, at the very least policy makers could avoid going into business with the oppressors or legitimizing their rule and when the people in those countries rise up to be free not side with their oppressors. Sadly in the case of China in 1989 and Cuba in 1994 the United States shored up dictatorships in the name of stability.  

On August 5, 1994 there was a social explosion in Cuba called the Maleconazo that threatened the dictatorship, but the opposition both inside and outside of the island was not ready to seize the moment. Instead the Cuban dictatorship cracked down internally and opened the ports turning a political crisis for the dictatorship into an immigration problem for the United States that led to a negotiated immigration agreement and a new lease on life for the dictatorship. Yoani Sanchez compared this uprising with the events in Beijing in June of 1989:
"Apart from the distances: in China they tried to erase what happened in Tiananmen Square and in Cuba the Maleconazo."
In both cases the government of the United States backed up the regimes in power at the expense of the people in the streets. Unfortunately, other parts of the world are also following this regrettable path and turning their backs on the example set by a previous generation of leaders who brought their country out of totalitarian darkness into the community of free nations. The end result, in my opinion, explains the steady decline in human rights around the world over the past eight years. Unfortunately, it seems that it has been overall U.S. foreign policy since June of 1989 that has "jumped the shark" with China policy leading the way

Thankfully, Vaclav Havel and his ideas on the power of the powerless and living in truth still give me some hope for the future even if they are falling out of fashion in the Czech Foreign Ministry today.

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