Thursday, November 13, 2008

Sun Sentinel Op Ed

U.S.-Cuba policy: Time for reform, easing restrictions

By John McAuliff

Sun Sentinel, November 9, 2008

In his victory speech in Chicago's Grant Park, President-elect Barack Obama recognized that there are "alliances to repair." The Democratic Party platform plank on Latin America pledged "We must turn the page on the arrogance in Washington."

United States policy toward Cuba is the easiest place to demonstrate that these words are more than rhetoric.

Five days before Obama spoke, national leaders at the Ibero-American Summit in El Salvador urged the United States to repeal its 47-year-old unilateral embargo against Cuba, saying it "is unacceptable and harms the Cuban people."

The week before, the UN General Assembly for the 17th time insisted with a virtually unanimous voice of 185-3 that the United States should end the embargo.

All our friends and allies in the Caribbean, the Western Hemisphere, Europe and Asia opposed us. Israel is our only significant supporter but actually follows a contrary policy as its citizens manage Cuba's largest citrus groves and are major investors in property development.

It is not enough for the president-elect to take the humanitarian step of unrestricted visits and remittances by Cuban Americans.

If he wants to restore U.S. regional and international credibility, he must quickly initiate a more significant policy change.

Obama cannot end the embargo without Congress. But he can unlock the logjam in both countries by using his legal authority to restore in a non-discriminatory fashion the constitutional right to travel to every American who wants to make "non-tourist" visits.

By regulatory fiat, the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the Treasury Department can restore and expand by general license the kind of journeys that took place before 2004 by world affairs councils, museums, Elderhostel, Semester at Sea, religious and humanitarian groups, sports teams, musicians, artists, professional and business associations, students, alumni, people-to-people exchanges and serious individuals.

Most such trips were blocked by the Bush administration, ostensibly because they provided funds to Cuba's government, but the peak number of 84,500 opinion leaders and curious Americans hardly counted among two million European, Canadian and Latin American tourists.

The cost of U.S. self-isolation was confirmed when Washington's role model for responsible hemispheric leadership, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, announced in Havana last week that Raúl Castro will travel to Brazil in December "to participate in the first meeting of Latin American and Caribbean nations, without interference from any other power."

John McAuliff is executive director, Fund for Reconciliation and Development,,0,2832224.story

Why Obama Should Open Travel

Reasons for initially focusing on the power of the Executive to revitalize travel

1) President Obama has to deliver quickly on family travel given his many statements, the Party Platform and the pent up pressure for visits, some urgent due to hurricane damage and illness.

2) The 84% of his supporters that want more are not likely to be happy if he stops their travel. Cuba offers an easier accommodation to the base than Iraq, Afghanistan or the economy.

3) It is anomalous for a post racial administration to accept a right to travel based on ethnicity or national origin.

4) Brazilian President Lula and virtually the whole membership of the UN are making it clear that the end of US hostility to Cuba is an important factor in improving our reputation.

5) The reelection to Congress of the three Cuban American Republican hardliners may hamper us on the House floor, but not with the Obama loyalists they fought so bitterly.

6) Growing numbers of Americans, largely Obama voters, will ignore restrictions and just go, perhaps as soon as the 50th anniversary observances at the end of 2008. If Bush's OFAC had no moral authority or legal ability to enforce travel restrictions , Obama's will be even less able to.

The primary focus is to enable the wide range of non-tourist travel that could begin this winter with Cuba by directing the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to issue general licenses for twelve categories of "non-tourist" travel that were codified by Congress in 2000.

Publicly the Obama campaign addressed only the question of Cuban American travel, but nothing was said that precluded non-discriminatory support for visits by other Americans.

President Obama has a lot of room to go further. A Zogby poll commissioned by the Miami Herald released October 16th confirmed results of earlier Gallup and AP/Ipsos surveys, that 68% of Americans favor allowing all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. An awesome 84% of "Obama supporters favor revising US policies toward Cuba".

An immediate move by the new President to allow travel to the maximum extent permitted by law will forestall a long diversionary battle with the US-Cuba Democracy PAC and their beneficiaries, both Democrats and Republicans, who decisively defeated Representative Rangel's pro-travel amendment to the Agriculture bill last Spring.

As importantly, new or return visits to Cuba in 2009 by tens of thousands of people with a serious purpose will engage and energize an important non-Cuban American constituency of opinion leaders. The Obama Administration will need them to successfully overcome the more contentious problems associated with direct negotiations and the embargo.

While I sympathize with the humanitarian and political reasons the campaign stressed the value of Cuban American travel and remittances, I believe there will be a significantly greater impact on economic and political evolution within Cuba (and the US) from mainsteam non-tourist visits.

There also may be no easier way for President Obama to quickly signal to his supporters, the general public, the Western Hemisphere and allies and adversaries internationally that a new era is really upon us than by decisively moving beyond the hoary anachronism of US policy on Cuba.

As with Vietnam and China, obstacles to normalization appear overwhelming only until it is done. Expansive travel properly authorized by the President is the essential first step so Congress can finish the job.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Published letter and NY Times editorial

February 24, 2008
An Approach to Cuba

To the Editor:

Re “And a Chance for Cuba — and the U.S.” (editorial, Feb. 20):

You are correct. The best immediate way to support reform in Cuba is for the president to “loosen restrictions on cultural and academic exchanges and open the way for serious diplomatic contacts with Mr. Castro’s successors.”

The initial response of the leading presidential candidates to Fidel Castro’s retirement was not very different from that of President Bush. None have called for returning to nontourist people-to-people initiatives as flourished before 2004, not to mention restoring to all Americans our constitutional and human right of freedom to travel.

In a campaign focusing on change and rebuilding United States leadership in the world, there should be more attention to an anachronistic policy that is far simpler to fix than Iraq — with as great a benefit to our international reputation.

To his credit, Barack Obama has expressed readiness for unconditional negotiations with Raúl Castro. Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain insist on the failed formula of making laudable American goals of human rights and democracy a precondition.

Two-thirds of Americans want to end travel restrictions and normalize relations. According to a recent G.A.O. report, 120,000 a year are voting with their feet and going to Cuba through third countries.

John McAuliff
Executive Director, Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., Feb. 20, 2008

New York Times
February 20, 2008
Twilight of the Dictators: And a Chance for Cuba — and the U.S.

It was age and illness, not the free voice of the Cuban people, that finally led Fidel Castro to announce Tuesday that he is stepping down as Cuba’s president — after a mere 49 years of absolute power. Mr. Castro’s immediate successor is likely to be his 76-year-old younger brother Raúl. Still, the post-Fidel era is clearly at hand, and the Bush administration has done almost nothing to prepare for it.

Cuba is a closed, repressive society. But the administration has gone out of its way to ensure that it has no chance of influencing events there. In the name of tightening the failed embargo, it has made it much harder for academics, artists and religious people to travel to Cuba and spread the good word about democracy, and much harder for Cubans to visit here. Rather than probing the ongoing political transition, the White House has dismissed it in advance as insignificant.

A policy that made little sense in the cold war makes still less in today’s age of globalization — when America does not hesitate to trade with and invest in other repressive countries (China, for example), recognizing that commerce is more likely than isolation to nurture positive political change.

The embargo provided Mr. Castro with a built-in excuse for his own failed economic policies and ruthless political repression. It made it easier for him to wall ordinary Cubans off from American friendships, political ideas and affluent lifestyles. It handed him a propaganda tool to discredit courageous Cubans who openly campaigned for greater democracy. Continuing this policy of isolation will only make it easier for whoever succeeds Mr. Castro to continue the same repressive policies.

If President Bush wants to get the message of democracy across, he should loosen restrictions on cultural and academic exchanges and open the way for serious diplomatic contacts with Mr. Castro’s successors. Bucking Miami’s politically powerful anti-Castro community won’t be easy — especially in an election year. If Mr. Bush cannot summon up such courage, we hope that the candidates vying to succeed him will make clear that they would change policy as soon as they reached the White House. Tuesday’s first round of statements showed little creativity or courage.

For millions of Cubans, the wait for Mr. Castro to go has been almost interminable. Now that he is finally stepping down, Washington needs to do all it can to help encourage a peaceful transition to democracy. It needs to shake off its own ghosts and start talking directly with Cuban politicians and the Cuban people.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

'Dialog" about travel

CUNY Students' Trip to Cuba 'Propaganda'
Special to the Sun
March 4, 2008

A planned trip to Cuba by a group of CUNY graduate students is drawing criticism from politicians and one of the school's board members. The nine students, who are enrolled in the Brooklyn College Graduate Center for Worker Education, left yesterday with City Council Member Charles Barron and the director of the center, Joseph Wilson, to study the communist nation's health care and education systems.

"This is going to be used as a propaganda tool for Fidel Castro," Rep. Vito Fossella said yesterday in an interview. "If anything is going to be accomplished of significance, the visitors should ask Fidel Castro when he is going to liberalize the economy, release political prisoners and dissidents, and hold fair elections."

A CUNY trustee, Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, said he was concerned about the students' visit.

"I don't have a blanket objection to travel to Cuba, and certainly people who want to go there to expand or advocate for the rights of the prison population that I consider the Cuban population to be, or for religious freedom, or who have made Jewish or Christian missions there, I don't oppose," Mr. Wiesenfeld said. "But this particular mission, which seems to be a celebration of Fidel Castro ­ let's say I'm nonplussed."

A spokesman for CUNY, Ernesto Mora, defended the trip.

"Many groups have visited Cuba in recent years as scholars and students of history and political affairs seek an understanding of the country's past and current affairs and a perspective on future possibilities," he said in a statement. "Graduate Students enrolled in the Center for Worker Education are making this trip as part of their course of studies. It is an academic, not a political, event ­ part of an academic exchange fully in keeping with the university's educational mission."

The spokesman could not immediately determine whether taxpayer funds are being used to sponsor the Cuba trip. Americans are prohibited from traveling to Cuba, and student trips have brought legal scrutiny in the past. The government is currently investigating a community group that helped organize visits to Cuba by students from the Beacon School in Manhattan.


My comment on line:

Why are they afraid of travel to Cuba?
Reader comment on: CUNY Students' Trip to Cuba 'Propaganda'
Submitted by John McAuliff, Mar 4, 2008 09:50

People who oppose travel to Cuba either have no confidence in American values and independent mindedness or want to prevent Americans from seeing a far more complex reality than their political views acknowledge.

Doesn't it bother Rep. Fossella and Mr. Wiesenfeld that part of the unpopularity of the US in our hemisphers is that we look and behave like an old fashioned colonialist bully toward Cuba? Our unilateral embargo has been condemned by the UN for the past 16 years, most recently by 184 to 4.

Israel is our only significant ally on this issue and they make no effort to bar their own people from going to and investing in Cuba.

Cuba is the only country in the world we are not allowed to travel to by our government. Does it make sense to deny Americans a fundamental Constitutional freedom, ostensibly in the name of supporting the freedom of Cubans?

John McAuliff

Fund for Reconciliation and Development, 145 Palisade Street, Suite 401, Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522


Cubans Fundamental Freedom

Reader comment on: CUNY Students' Trip to Cuba 'Propaganda'
in response to reader comment: Why are they afraid of travel to Cuba?
Submitted by Rogelio Perez Leiva, Mar 4, 2008 13:44

The fundamental American freedom that Mr. McAuliff refers is the same freedom that the Cuban people have been denied for the past fifty-year. Obviously, he is not concerned that when he support the traveling of Americans to Cuba he is supporting a system that denies that freedom to Cubans. It is because American independent mindedness and values that American should be appalled about the situation in Cuba and refuse to participate in such a macabre charade. Traveling to that enslaved nation, is given money and support to the group of people oppressing its own nation. In Cuba the tourist industry is control by the Military . Futher more, Cubans are denied entrance to the hotels an beaches that are reserved for tourists only. The people that will be in direct contact with those students visiting Cuba are selected individuals, very well trained in the business of selling to foreigners the "achievements of the Revolution". In other words,what they are going to see is what the Castro brothers want them to see. Rogelio Perez Leiva.


Freedom is freedom's best weapon

Reader comment on: CUNY Students' Trip to Cuba 'Propaganda'in response to reader comment: Cubans Fundamental Freedom

Even if I thought this comment was an accurate description of Cuba today, it is non-responsive.
The freedom of Americans to travel should not be conditioned on whether a very small but powerful group of embittered exiles (a minority even in their own community) give permission.

Or should Chinese, Vietnamese, Russians, North Koreans, Burmese, Saudi Arabians, etc. now living in the US be able to stop us from traveling to their homelands? Does Rogelio Perez Leiva think Americans should also be barred from traveling to those countries which do not have legal or political systems like our own or does he agree with the Bush Administration that such a proscription should apply only to Cuba?

What does he think about Cuban Americans? Should they be limited to visiting a narrow definition of family members once every three years as favored by George Bush and Hillary Clinton?

Or does he agree with Barack Obama that there should be no restrictions on their travel and remittances? They are certainly not seeing people the regime wishes and virtually all the money they bring into the country goes to their families.

In fact other Americans are not limited to contacts with officials. Anyone who visits who does not choose to stay at an isolated resort can tell you Cubans are frank in their criticisms of the regime--and of the embargo and of hostile Cuban Americans who sustain it.

What does he think about Cubans speaking out against the restrictions on staying in resort areas, including in the student challenge to Ricardo Alarcon which can be seen in full on a Cuban web site? Doesn't that suggest Cubans are less repressed than he believes?

This foreigner only policy in resorts is wrong, but in practice it is not very different than the economic discrimination practiced at private resorts elsewhere in the Caribbean. It also does not apply, incidentally, to public beaches near Havana and elsewhere in Cuba where foreigners and Cubans mingle freely.

However this is a situation in which all I can say is ignore what people say, myself included, and go. See for yourself, make up your own mind, and wonder what the real motivation is of those who seek to prevent you from doing so.

The strength of our system is in its openness. Unfortunately those who have been acculturated in a closed system, be it Batista's or Castro's. mistake control for strength.

John McAuliff

Monday, February 25, 2008

Dialog with the left about supporting reform in Cuba

My letter to the New York Times has discomforted some on the left who are uncomfortable with the concept that US policy should be shaped to support reform. Following is my response.

Fundamentally the need for Cuba and other similar nations is to get big countries to respect the sovereignty and right to be different of smaller neighbors. While that feels like an issue of imperialism from the inside of the imperium, communist Vietnam has the same problem with communist China.

The reality is that smaller neighbors will always be influenced and shaped by bigger neighbors, for better or for worse, especially when size, wealth and power are so unequal. They need to find ways to protect their independence and identity within that reality.

Vietnam has done it by being strong, building up countervailing regional and international relationships but also by flattering China's assumption of its natural preeminence. Cuba has used the first and second means to deal with the US, but has not been very good at the last.

It is not surprising that aware people in the big bullying country sometimes overcompensate and uncritically identify with the perspective of the smaller country. Some folks go to Cuba and see nothing but problems, or overstate them. Others go and see courage and righteousness. Any problems are blamed on the US.

I have noted that official Cuban interlocutors have increasingly adopted the stance that Cuba is neither heaven nor hell. They convey both approach and avoidance to the older pattern of un-(or barely) critical solidarity.

I don't see any downside to acknowledging that there are serious problems within Cuba and not all of them can be blamed on the US--just as Raul Castro does; and that there is a serious effort underway to frankly describe and solve these problems, a.k.a. reform.

The more a country is under threat and feels vulnerable, the less likely it is to take risks which are seen as exposing itself to outside interference and to acknowledge its vulnerability. For example one reason that has been advanced by Cubans who oppose more entrepreneurial activity has been that success promotes self rather than collective interest, leads to internal differences and undermines the presumed bulwark of solidarity.

From my experience in Vietnam, I think the solidarity of impoverishment is not nearly as motivational as a sense of opportunity to succeed personally and as a family, and to escape the bureaucracy that is intrinsically intrusive when a government tries to assure equity.

Those who have power in any system always have the best of reasons to make their lives more comfortable than the average and become resented by those who do not have such power, even if the system also gives them unparalleled social benefits. This is true in Cuba today and moral lectures or policing are unlikely to reverse it.

One way to balance official/party privilege is to open ways for people to improve their lot through alternative means of private endeavors. Obviously that can get out of control too, creating its own set of conflicts as private wealth and comparative poverty accelerates. That process is well advanced in China and Vietnam faces some of the same risks.

Never-the-less, I know no Vietnamese who wants to go back to the past even though appalled by aspects of the present.

I think the extraordinary accomplishments of Cuba's revolution are more at risk if they are not able to achieve significant reform so I think it is actually an act of friendship and not of intervention to say explicitly that a different US policy will help reforms to happen.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Cuba has accomplished great things but at great cost.

In response to "Fidel: father of modern Cuba" by Saul Landau

Fidel is neither savior nor devil, but an important historical figure who, like any human being, makes mistakes.

He seems to me primarily a moralist, shaped as much by his Jesuit education as by Marxism-Leninism (which itself has aspects of a Christian heresy).

From my own perspective, the combination of his idealism and personal dominance of Cuban politics for such a long period frustrated creativity and reform, in particular the adoption of market mechanisms at the grass roots that I have seen to be of tremendous benefit to peoples' well-being and hope in Vietnam.

This was not entirely his choice. The seldom swerving hostility by a superpower neighbor with two centuries of ambition to dominate Cuba's politics and economy put a premium on discipline and solidarity, which there, as in the US and other countries, too easily becomes repression of opponents.

However, from an outsider's viewpoint, regular change in leadership in any political system is vital for its health. New leaders bring new relationships, new networks of advisors, and new approaches to old problems.

Cubans, both in the country and émigrés, should and will find a balance in their judgment of the role of Fidel, and no doubt that will change over time.

Having met him only once, in December 1971, I can add little personal insight. I do recall that he and I may have been the only persons in Havana expressing positive feelings about George McGovern in the run-up to the 1972 election. Certainly the other Americans with whom I was traveling did not share our enthusiasm.

In any case, it is not the role of Americans, friends or foes, to tell Cuba how it should organize its society politically or economically. There's too much history of Americans (and Brits and French and Russians and Chinese) presuming to know what is good for other smaller nations, and of consciously or obliviously putting their own political, economic and philosophic interests first.

The best we can do is to be true to our own values, i.e. freedom of expression and travel, and remove the obstacles that distort Cuban choices, i.e. regime change subsidies and the embargo.

Freed from external threat and sanction, I don't doubt that Cubans will find their own path internally as well as reconciliation with their divided families and culture. 2/21/08

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Castro’s Retirement Offers Opportunity for Change -- in US Policy

Blinded by ideology and hobbled by Miami’s special interest politics and donations, the Bush Administration will remain irrelevant to the transition in Cuba dramatized by Fidel Castro’s retirement. It will also miss an opportunity to begin to rebuild America’s reputation in the world.

The real question is whether the Democratic Congress or candidates for President can do any better.

Serious change is underway in Cuba. International journalists have reported a country frankly examining its economic and social problems. The voices of Cubans themselves have been heard in meetings around the country, and in articles and interviews published on the internet. We received an unmediated view of the process from Cuba’s unprecedented release on-line of a two hour meeting where university students challenged Ricardo Alarcon, head of the National Assembly.

President Bush’s advocacy of regime change, instability and disloyalty by the Cuban military and police last October was either one more instance of pandering to the dreams of exiles in Miami or intended to undermine the process of internal reform by heightening Cuban anxieties about US intentions.

Since taking control of Congress, Democratic leaders have offered no challenge to the Administration, despite previous support for ending travel restrictions.

Of the leading Presidential candidates, McCain and Huckabee strive to sound harder line than Bush. Clinton only differs with him on the question of emergency visits by Cuban Americans. Obama offers the beginning of change, supporting unrestricted Cuban American family travel and remittances. Unlike the others, he is prepared to negotiate with Raul Castro without preconditions.

A minimal US response to Fidel Castro’s retirement is reinstatement of the pre 2004 travel regulations of Bill Clinton and George Bush which permitted annual and emergency visits by Cuban Americans. More importantly, it allowed non-tourist purposeful travel by world affairs councils, professional organizations, museums, religious and humanitarian groups, short term study programs, etc.

A more serious step would be to end all travel restrictions so any American could personally evaluate and interact with the transition taking place in Cuba. Only by honoring our own values of freedom, can we actually know what is taking place and provide a supportive atmosphere for Cuban reformers.

An additional benefit will be to our international reputation. Traditional allies in this hemisphere and western Europe see US policy toward Cuba as counterproductive if not obsessed and anachronistic. World opinion was signaled for the sixteenth year when the UN General Assembly condemned our unilateral embargo of Cuba by 184 to 4.

The American people know what needs to happen. Polls show that two-thirds want an end to travel restrictions and normalization of relations. It’s time for our leaders to catch up.

[The author traveled to Cuba in 1971 and annually during the past decade. He founded and heads the Fund for Reconciliation and Development which was actively involved in the normalization of US relations with Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.]

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Cuban Student Questions Provoke Diverse Reactions

Following are links to two sections of a video of an internet interview with students who had questioned Ricardo Alarcon.

While it is hard to draw conclusions based on the BBC's five minute excerpt of the original meeting, it is not difficult from personal experience to credit the authenticity of both encounters. There was obviously a need for Cuba to exercise damage control because of the way the meeting was being interpreted in the world press but the students' comments do not seem forced.

The sequence illustrates the complexity of having frank and open debate in a society which is under unceasing external attack. The defensive tendency in the past was for Cuba to show a face of unanimity and solidarity to the outside world, but the concluding quote from Juventud Rebelde in the IPS article indicates that internal reform has greater priority than fear of foreign enemies.

Without going into details about the UCI students’ meeting with Alarcón,
anarticle in the Juventud Rebelde newspaper said the announced reforms of
theCuban system, considered "a revolution within the revolution," would not
behindered, and that the recent media frenzy would not fuel internal"reactions"
aimed at blocking the reforms.
One can only speculate on the role of the very articulate son of Carlos Lage, head of the Federation of Cuban Students, and on the impact of Alarcon's responses for his prospects in the leadership change that may be announced on February 24th.

Of equal interest to what took place in Cuba is what took place in el exilio in south Florida. The Sun Sentinel ran an editorial suggesting the students' questions showed it was time for the US to reciprocate.,0,2986418.story

But if Cubans are willing to speak now, risk potential reprisal later, then the
global community needs to take note and act accordingly. Especially the
United States, which has sat on its hands for way too long. Washington can
do its part by, first, acknowledging publicly that the process germinating
in Cuba is important and desired. Then it can signal its intention to review
its own hard line diplomatic stance if the era of openness in Cuba
Others saw the event as proof the end of the regime was approaching and could only understand what took place by leaping to the conclusion that the students had been repressed because of their questions.Most intriguing was Miami Herald columnist Ana Menendez who used the incident predictably to beat up on Havana, but then turned to reflecting on changes needed in her own Miami community.

That the young are boldly confronting the old guard in Cuba, where there is
so much more to risk, should humble us in Miami.

The best way we can support them is to continue to question our own
homegrown orthodoxies -- those tired narratives of bitterness and hatred
that keep us from engaging. And believing.

Interview with the students

the original BBC broadcast segment

video of the complete meeting

Monday, January 21, 2008

Letter published in Sun Sentinel re Democratic candidates

Summary of Democratic candidates' stands on Cuba misses the main point of conflict
January 18, 2008,0,3444871.story

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel's summary of Democratic candidates' positions on Cuba is inaccurate and misses the main point of conflict between them.

Barack Obama has called for unrestricted travel and remittances by Cuban-Americans.

John Edwards has agreed with unrestricted travel.

Hillary Clinton supports the harsh once-every-three-years restrictions on family travel imposed by President Bush rather than the annual plus emergency travel permitted by her husband.

None of them has spoken about the non-tourist purposeful travel authorized by President Bill Clinton but largely eliminated in 2004.

When economic and social reforms are being discussed in Cuba, it is a grave error that the United States has eliminated or drastically reduced people-to-people exchanges by world affairs councils, students, professionals, alumni, museums, religious and humanitarian groups, sports teams, etc.

Such visits do not bring the economic benefit to Cuba of large scale tourism but do help diverse American opinion leaders understand better what is really taking place. They also create a more positive atmosphere between our countries, which encourages the process of reform.

John McAuliff

Executive Director, Fund for Reconciliation and Development Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.