Obama Makes First Move in Long Dance Ahead on US-Cuba Policy

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Big announcement made today via White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs and National Security Council Latin America Director Dan Restrepo on the new parameters of America’s “Cuba Policy.”
So. . .let’s get the easy part of this comment out of the way.
Applause, applause, applause. . .for a decent set of humanitarian gestures in the US-Cuba relationship that don’t actually make things worse. Obama and his team have moved us in the right direction — and moving in the right direction on Cuba is something that rarely happens when Presidents and their advisers look at electoral maps and get nervous about South Florida. So, bravo for a bit of good news.
The Obama administration today lifted restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans and eased restrictions on US telecommunications firms entering into network agreements with Cuban telecom firms in a broad range of communications services as well as easing restrictions on humanitarian donations to Cubans.
Only problem with today’s announcement — beyond the very friendly nudge about Dan Restrepo’s impressive Castilian accent that may not play too well to many in the Cuban-American community — is that it is not “a lot of good news.”
I have always disliked over-tilting to any class of “other nationality-Americans” when it came to dealing with political and economic policies dealing with their home, or preceding, countries of origin. Ethnic politics are a reality in this country — but all people in this nation regardless of origin have as much right to argue about the terms of US foreign policy writ large. And I feel that no voices should be privileged over others.
Our President and our Congress should be crafting foreign policies with other sovereign states that fit the preferences and interests of most Americans, not a sub-class of them.
But today, remarkably, our nation’s first African-American President has just issued executive orders that create preferences and opportunities for a specific class of ethnic Americans. Even if a good step on one level, at a macro level, this sort of cynical gaming of domestic politics at the expense of broader national interests is fundamentally wrong.
President Obama inherited the perverse economic and political realities created by fifty years of a dysfunctional US-Cuba relationship and failed embargo and has to deal within the confines of the Helms-Burton Act and other legislation that is not his fault.
But what was interesting in today’s announcement was the fact that his envoys for making today’s announcement — Gibbs and Dan Restrepo — gave no indication that the President felt uneasy issuing executive orders removing all restrictions for Cuban-Americans but not addressing the travel rights of all other classes of American citizens.
I want to give credit to Dan Restrepo saying that today’s policy was a starting point — before Gibbs cut him off.
So, applause for the Cuban-American oriented efforts. Better than nothing — but not nearly enough. And the precedent is worrisome and disconcerting.
We did not open up relations with Vietnam by restricting travel to Vietnamese-Americans. We really should not be doing this with Cuba either.
What is happening is that Barack Obama has started the ball moving forward — and is opening up something he knows many will find completely unacceptable and discriminatory.
Separate is not equal — and that is what Barack Obama’s team has just moved forward.
On the much more positive side, President Obama is easing restrictions on telecommunications providers to allow roaming service agreements for cell phone calls and other transmissions. This matches some of the liberalization on cell phone and other video and dvd equipment liberalization that Raul Castro has already enacted.
Obama has also eased up restrictions on humanitarian gifts and packages to Cuba — which was really needed after the recent devastating hurricanes this past year. Humanitarian relief has been something we should have eased long ago — and this was a good step.
Now, my hunch is that Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod see that they have “done enough” to check off the boxes for what they have promised the right wing, moderates, and even left wing of the Cuban-American community that felt collectively strangled by the tightness of the Bush administration restrictions.
What Obama foreign policy strategists Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert are probably thinking — and I have reason to suspect that McDonough in particular has had leverage and significant involvement in the just released policy — is that they have now started something that Congress and others are going to have to vigorously fight to move forward.
The Obama administration never intended to carry all of the water on completely changing the US-Cuba relationship into something that makes 21st century sense — but they are telegraphing — or Denis McDonough is in my view — that the White House is perhaps willing to work with Congress to move this into territory that Obama has not yet committed to and did not express support for during the campaign.
McDonough, if I am reading this correctly, is smart in unveiling America’s Cuba strategy this way. He has probably given his assent to Rahm Emanuel’s south Florida pandering as a first step in a broader struggle — and hopefully a somewhat slippery slide — into a more rational national security position with Latin America.
Obama has made his “first move” in what is essentially a negotiation with both Congress and the Cuban government and Latin American region.
No political players offer everything they have in their first move, but for a start, what we heard today is really not all that bad.
But as Restrepo tried to intimate in today’s press conference, it is probably a mistake to think that this policy is now fixed in concrete and is our new permanent status quo.
For those interested in reactions at a conference we are organizing tomorrow titled “Is It Time to End the Cold War In Latin America?“, join former State Department Chief of Staff Lawrence Wilkerson, Council on Foreign Relations Latin America diva Julia Sweig, New America Foundation president and New Yorker staff writer Steve Coll, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senior Latin America Advisor to Senator Lugar Carl Meacham, New America Foundation Whitehouse Senior Fellow Michael Lind, Foreign Policy magazine blogger and Garten Rothkof CEO David Rothkopf, US News & World Report Diplomatic Correspondent Tom Omestad, and National Foreign Trade Council President William Reinsch.
The conference will STREAM LIVE here at The Washington Note.
And we have a major announcement on a letter that has gone to Barack Obama from a whole bunch of military brass on US-Cuba relations. More on that tomorrow.
– Steve Clemons

Comments

27 comments on “Obama Makes First Move in Long Dance Ahead on US-Cuba Policy

  1. win real money says:

    Obama has also eased up restrictions on humanitarian gifts and packages to Cuba

    Reply

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  4. Robert L says:

    Is this blog to be simply about “preaching to (and within) the
    choir?” Rather than initially addressing many of the previous
    entries, please allow me to introduce a few differing points of
    view first. I respectfully hope to broaden this present discourse.
    Please see two entries in the “Huffington Post” by Yoani Sanch:
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yoani-sanchez/as-a-
    punishment-for-my-bl_b_183106.html
    &
    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/yoani-sanchez/obama-threw-
    the-ball-now_b_186934.html
    Also, please see her “Generation Y”: “desde Cuba”/“from [inside]
    Cuba” blog: http://desdecuba.com/generationy/
    To Dan’s: “But I DO approve of the efforts of the Cuban people
    to build an egalitarian society” and “Perhaps some would like to
    restore Cuba as the feudal paradise of retro 50′s kitsch, filled
    with gangsters, casinos and whorehouses, aristocratic barons
    and foreign landlords. Not me.” Are we to naïvely believe that
    your “50’s kitch” has been replaced by anything that resembles
    an “egalitarian society?” Aristocratic government barons and
    gangsters, along with a state-condoned world-famous
    prostitution have remained rampant in Cuba, post-1959 and
    that is even more so in today’s Cuba.
    To jonst: Here are some Webster Online definitions:
    “diplomacy”: #1: the art and practice of conducting negotiations
    between nations.
    “negotiation”: #1: a: to deal with (some matter or affair that
    requires ability for its successful handling) : “manage” b: to
    arrange for or bring about through conference, discussion, and
    compromise
    “compromise”: 1 a: settlement of differences by arbitration or by
    consent reached by mutual concessions
    The key word jonst, is “mutual” (as in not “unilateral”.)

    Reply

  5. Dan Kervick says:

    If you point is, that the conditions you describe, or are concerned about, would be illegal under US law, whether they occurred sending money to Cuba, or Upper Volta, then fine, prevent it. And it is our business to do so. But if the action/s you are concerned about are ONLY illegal because of the destination of the money….I say that is wrong, arbitrary, and one more example of a Cold War mentality.
    I’m not sure what you are saying jonst. You think that the US shouldn’t have any laws about sending money abroad that are dependent on who the recipient of the money is?

    Reply

  6. jonst says:

    Dan,
    First and foremost I don’t want, nor do I think, it is our government’s business, to decide who can legally send their money to people, or entities, outside the US.
    If you point is, that the conditions you describe, or are concerned about, would be illegal under US law, whether they occurred sending money to Cuba, or Upper Volta, then fine, prevent it. And it is our business to do so. But if the action/s you are concerned about are ONLY illegal because of the destination of the money….I say that is wrong, arbitrary, and one more example of a Cold War mentality.
    And this position of mine Dan, does not mean I endorse, or would like to, “….like to restore Cuba as the feudal paradise of retro 50′s kitsch, filled with gangsters, casinos and whorehouses, aristocratic barons and foreign landlords.”.
    And to the limited extent you are suggesting that….you are being, in my book, overly didactic.
    As for you being a “social democrat”….perhaps. I take you at your word. Me? I am for closing down the Empire. And going back to the Republic. And Empires proffer good and bad (and horrific)excuses to ‘intervene’ in other nations. Often with the most noble sounding excuses, delivered, with a tear in the eye, a lump in the throat, and just the right amount of moral indignation, about helping the nation, about to be object of the Empire’s attention, to “build an egalitarian society”. And 99% of the time it is bullshit. Although, at times, well meaning bullshit.

    Reply

  7. arthurdecco says:

    “But I DO approve of the efforts of the Cuban people to build an egalitarian society, and their efforts to buck the dominant US hemispheric model of predatory, oligopolistic capitalism. I know that for some Americans, is assumed to be part of the natural and divinely appointed order of things that there should be some people who have millions of dollars, and others who sleep on the streets or sell drive-by handjobs for drugs. I know some people would like to turn Cuba back into such a society. Not me.” Dan Kervick
    Not me either, Dan.

    Reply

  8. Dan Kervick says:

    Ok, jonst, I wanted to be discreet about what I was suggesting, but let me be more blunt for your sake.
    Yes, it is MY business and YOUR business if OUR government is tacitly assisting radical right-wing Cuban-Americans in projects to fund insurrectionists or promote civil war on an island 90 miles from our shore.
    Some Cuban-American groups, and the far right networks that support them, have been deeply involved in some of the nastiest, filthiest, most violent shit that the US government has done in this world, throughout Latin America, going back to the Kennedy administration.
    If some Cuban immigrant owns a successful business in the US, and wants to send a few bucks back to abuelo and abuela on the island, then fine. But if some radical Cuban winger wants to send a $1,000,000 “remittance” to his cousin the gun-runner or the CIA operative, then I want to know about it. This bullshit definitely IS my business, as a US citizen.
    I am not a socialist or a communist. But I am a social democrat. I don’t approve of the numerous human rights violations of the Cuban government over the years, many of which have been well documented by groups like Amnesty international.
    But I DO approve of the efforts of the Cuban people to build an egalitarian society, and their efforts to buck the dominant US hemispheric model of predatory, oligopolistic capitalism. I know that for some Americans, is assumed to be part of the natural and divinely appointed order of things that there should be some people who have millions of dollars, and others who sleep on the streets or sell drive-by handjobs for drugs. I know some people would like to turn Cuba back into such a society. Not me.
    Perhaps some would like to restore Cuba as the feudal paradise of retro 50′s kitsch, filled with gangsters, casinos and whorehouses, aristocratic barons and foreign landlords. Not me.
    Maybe I’m overly paranoid. But I have this sneaking suspicion that many will seek to exploit this new opening in ways designed to provoke social envy and discord in Cuba, foment underground gangsterism, funnel funds to terrorists and rebels, and prove to Cubans that equality is unsustainable so they might as well give up. So I want some god damned transparency about what is going on.

    Reply

  9. jonst says:

    Ok, Dan, let me get this straight. You wrote:”What are these “remittances” going to be funding?”
    I repeat my first question: Is this any of our business? You obviously think it is. I don’t.

    Reply

  10. silver slipper says:

    Okay, I understand what you’re saying now. You’re taking a different angle at explaining why one group of people shouldn’t be separated for the ability to travel to Cuba. Sorry I misunderstood you.
    I really don’t think Cuban-Americans would be that interested in visiting Cuba – except maybe to give financial help to their families. If everyone was allowed to visit, I guess that might actually give those Cuban-Americans some level of protection. I’m thinking the more witness available to observe the Cuban government’s treatment of its visiting citizens, the better.
    If it happened that all travel/business restrictions were lifted, I bet that Raul and Castro will have a good tax plan ready to confiscate any new profits that might would come from American visitors. So in the end, I still don’t envision an improved life for Cubans.

    Reply

  11. Dan Kervick says:

    silver slipper, I’m not talking about sending taxpayer revenue to Cuba. I’m talking about letting all Americans who want to buy stuff from Cubans buy stuff from Cubans; and I’m talking about letting all Americans who want to sell stuff to Cubans sell stuff to Cubans. That’s the kind of leverage I mean.
    Playing favorites with families of Cuban-Americans seems to me a potential recipe for more right-wing mischief in Cuba, something of which we have had more than enough over the past few decades. This favoritism is something that could be used to promote conflict rather than prove a step in the direction of lessening tension and restoring good relations.

    Reply

  12. silver slipper says:

    Wow! ….. Now the US not only has to work hard to “spread the wealth” here in our country, but we have to make sure that the “rich” Cuban-Americans spread their wealth evenly when they visit Cuba! I find it amazing the the statement says. “if we are not leveraging US economic power to help deliver potential economic benefits to all Cubans”! Um…. I think the a Cuban American who has worked hard in this country for his/her “riches”, then it is HIS/HER money… Not the US ECONOMIC POWER ! And we all know don’t we, that if the US government started sending tax payer revenue to assist Cuba economically, then the Cuban government would use it for it’s priority, not to give to the poor in Cuba. Don’t you see Castro and his brother living well while the Cuban people can barely get toilet paper?

    Reply

  13. Dan Kervick says:

    jonst,
    I think it is America’s business if we are not leveraging US economic power to help deliver potential economic benefits to all Cubans, and to move gradually toward better relations, but are instead sowing social discord on the island by privileging some Cubans over others.
    What are these “remittances” going to be funding?

    Reply

  14. silver slipper says:

    Do Cuban Americans even want to visit Cuba? If I were them, I would be afraid of imprisonment/prosecution by the Cuban government. Isn’t that why they get immediate amnesty when they arrive on our shores – because of their oppressive government?
    I don’t know – just a thought. Maybe President Obama wants just Cuban-Americans to go because maybe he thinks they will be so angered by the condition of their “priviliged families”, that they will help start a revolution.
    Which brings the next question. Does the Cuban government want Cuban Americans to return?

    Reply

  15. raulitocastroruzenplumas says:

    the redistributive class is up and going in america today.
    karl marx would be proud of you amerikans.
    marxista leninista amerikanos.

    Reply

  16. jonst says:

    “I am concerned about the idea that a certain privileged class of Cubans will now come into a lot of money: those that happen to have very rich American relatives”
    Is that America’s business Dan?

    Reply

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    Reply

  18. temoc94 says:

    A few notes on the constitutional law aspects of
    this new policy.
    First, there is a very real question as to the
    constitutionality of a government policy that
    privileges Cuban-Americans over non-Cuban
    Americans.
    Steve notes that “our nation’s first African-
    American President has just issued executive
    orders that create preferences and opportunities
    for a specific class of ethnic Americans.”
    IIRC, these sorts of classifications trigger
    strict scrutiny by the courts. Time was this was
    synonymous with “unconstitutional.” Although the
    affirmative action cases (Bakke et al.) softened
    this conclusion, it’s still a very strong hurdle
    to clear.
    Contra this reasoning is the strong line of cases
    saying that the presidency has plenary or near-
    plenary power in foreign policy.
    It is interesting to speculate which line wins out
    here; my own interpretation would be that the
    strict scrutiny line ought to prevail. Limiting
    travel to Cuban-Americans is a way to buy their
    political support more than a foreign policy
    tactic. OTOH, Korematsu has never been overruled,
    and that is perhaps the main precedent in which
    ethnic classifications clash with national
    security concerns. This might just make an
    interesting test case as to whether Korematsu is
    still the law of the land.
    On another note, Charlie wrote: “First, the basic
    tenets of our Cuba policy are unconstitutional.
    The US government doesn’t have the right to limit
    my travel or how I spend non-US sourced income”
    This is clearly incorrect. The courts have
    repeatedly held that there is no right to
    international travel under the U.S. constitution.
    (There is, by contrast, a right to domestic
    travel.)

    Reply

  19. ... says:

    politicians like obama looking after rich people…. who whudda thunk????????? very generous of him…

    Reply

  20. Liz says:

    Rich American relatives ? That would be just about any Cuban who jumped off a raft onto a Florida beach more than six months ago, at least in comparison to the average citizen in Cuba.
    I am personally looking forward to a time when the Diaz-Balart brothers and their ilk have been marginalized in Florida and national politics. I have had enough of the dueling Castro and exile propaganda over 30 years.

    Reply

  21. arthurdecco says:

    Dan Kervick, You hit the nail on the head.

    Reply

  22. charlie says:

    First, the basic tenets of our Cuba policy are unconstitutional. The
    US government doesn’t have the right to limit my travel or how I
    spend non-US sourced income. If they want to prosecute me for
    being a traitor by visiting Cuba, then let them.
    Second, moving along this path does make a very dicey equal
    protection argument. I can see the need for a rational basis test,
    although separating americans based on ethnicity is much more of
    a strict scrutiny type of issue.
    Third, what is really needed from the castro-lovers here (and I am
    no fan) is not words but litigation.

    Reply

  23. Dan Kervick says:

    What was the Cuban government’s response to these changes? I am concerned about the idea that a certain privileged class of Cubans will now come into a lot of money: those that happen to have very rich American relatives. There seems like a lot of potential for mischief here.

    Reply

  24. jon says:

    I agree with your analysis, Steve. Perhaps Obama will be content to
    wait for the courts to force him to behave with equality under the
    law.
    Obama clearly sees a series of protracted negotiations with Cuba in
    exchange for opening the US up to Cuba, and possibly to provide
    some benefits to the Cuban government by shielding them from
    some aspects of American culture and commerce. He seems quite
    able to deploy sticks as well as carrots in pursuit of this objectives.

    Reply

  25. Spunkmeyer says:

    Bah! Should read: “Perhaps it’s now Cuba’s turn to take a baby
    step of its own…” (I hate when other people do that, and even
    more so when I do it.)

    Reply

  26. fidelcastroruz says:

    felicidades esteban…
    now on to the bigger fish on americas plate.
    http://www.philipweiss.org/.a/6a00d8341cc8ad53ef011570185d77970b-pi

    Reply

  27. Spunkmeyer says:

    My guess is that complete normalization of relations will occur in
    some distinct phases as the Administration will need to show that
    somehow the world did not end when they took this baby step.
    Perhaps it’s now Cuba’s turn to take a baby step of it’s own with
    regards to the travel of its own citizens… just a thought.

    Reply

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