Author Archives: Piccone Ted

OBAMA’S WAVE AND TANGO TRUMP TERRORISM

Brookings Institution, March 25, 2016

By: Ted Piccone

Original Article: Obama’s Wave

As President Obama finally buried the last remnants of the Cold War” in Havana, jihadi terrorists were unleashing suicide attacks against innocent civilians in the heart of Europe. What a powerful reminder that the old wars against communism are long behind us, replaced now by a much more insidious and unpredictable form of warfare, one that strikes terror in the hearts and minds of citizens, whether near or far removed from the latest carnage.

This fear of the undetected radical in our midst is easy fodder for the overheated U.S. elections season. Leading candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump fell over themselves to demand Obama’s return to Washington to “keep us safe,” as if our sprawling national security apparatus shuts down when Air Force One is out of town. Fortunately, the White House is long accustomed to walking and chewing gum at the same time.

The real battle here is over symbols—of tough talk and bluster, on the one hand, and resilience and “steady hands” on the other, as candidate Hillary Clinton put it in her speech at Stanford University.

Electoral posturing aside, there is a more serious message that our leaders are trying to convey when they react to another terrorist attack. “It’s very important for us not to respond with fear,” Obama said when asked why he did not abandon his historic trip to Cuba in light of Tuesday’s bombings. In addition to deploying drones, detectives and deadly strikes against these terrorist groups, he remarked, we need to demonstrate determination to maintain “our values of liberty and openness and the respect of all people.

This is precisely the message Obama conveyed during his visit to our former enemy, Cuba, and our intermittent friend, Argentina. His remarkable speech to the Cuban people, visits with human rights defenders and entrepreneurs, and friendly gestures—such as doing the wave at a baseball game in Cuba and dancing the tango in Argentina—were powerful instruments to win over hearts and minds, not only in Cuba but around the world, about American intentions and values.

It is this kind of comprehensive package of economic, political and security measures that can turn the tide against violent extremism.

Latin America should know. Its history is replete with internal conflicts driven by the despair of the deprived against the despotism of dictators and corrupt elites. The overlay of Cold War power struggles between the Soviet Union and the United States further fueled the flames of violence.

Now, after decades of conflict, military rule and abject poverty, Latin America is an emerging region of economic growth and democratic stability. Colombia is close to settling the hemisphere’s longest armed conflict. Even socialist Cuba, which is struggling to enter the 21st century as neither friend nor foe of the United States, understands its future depends on a more open economy and better ties with all of its neighbors. Under the more pragmatic leadership of Raul Castro, it has abandoned the role of renegade in world affairs, renounced any support to international terrorism and pledged cooperation on law enforcement and anti-trafficking. It also has largely succeeded in delivering basic social services to its citizens, including free health care and education, while failing to protect fundamental political rights. In this latter area, it has some catching up to do with its neighbors.

Meanwhile, the radicalization of disaffected youth in the Middle East is occurring in countries long known for their hardline authoritarian rule, suppression of women’s rights, silencing of free media, and coddling of religious fanaticism. The silent majority of Arab citizens, who long for greater freedoms and democracy, are once again marginalized as extremists battle over which armed group will wield the power of the state. Might they have something to learn from the story of democratization in Latin America, where radical terrorism is largely contained and citizens take their complaints peacefully to the voting booths or the streets?

This history explains why so much is at stake in how the United States responds to perceived attacks against its way of life. Do we choose the path of surveilling Muslim communities, as Cruz suggests, or barring Muslims from our borders, as Trump avows? This, some say, is precisely what our enemies want, so they may recruit more disaffected followers to their diabolical cause. Or do we have the confidence in our own values of open competition of ideas, freedom of religion and rule of law to offer the world an alternative model for achieving both peace and security? Much depends on the outcome of our own democratic choices this November.

This piece was originally published by TIME.

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WHAT DOES THE POPE’S VISIT MEAN FOR CUBA?

Ted Piccone, Brookings Institute, | September 18, 2015 12:30pm

The leaders of three odd bedfellows are coming together this week: a 2,000-year old global institution known as a defender of the status quo, a 239-year old revisionist democratic superpower, and a 56-year old Communist revolutionary regime. How will they move the needle toward change? We are about to find out.

Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba this week—followed immediately by a meeting with President Barack Obama on the pontiff’s first-ever trip to the United States and President Raúl Castro’s inaugural appearance at the United Nations General Assembly shortly thereafter—together offer a compelling sequence of events that can move mountains. Or at least a few boulders from the thorny path of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Roll out the tickertape 

Let’s start with the Holy Father’s visit to Cuba, an island he knows remotely through his many years of service as a leading Latin American bishop and his book on Pope John Paul II’s dialogue with Fidel Castro in 1998. The hugely popular pope arrives in Cuba as an agent of change in at least two ways: as a promoter of religious freedom and a more activist church that is already providing critical social services to Cuba’s downtrodden citizens; and as a key facilitator of the breakthrough in U.S.-Cuba relations announced last December.

In the former, Pope Francis builds on the earlier groundwork of Popes John Paul II and Benedict who devoted time and energy to restoring—gradually and incompletely—the place of religious faith in Cuban society. Their man in Havana, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, whose non-confrontational approach has won both critics and fans, has played a critical role in bridging the yawning church-state divide and negotiating the release of over 150 political prisoners.

The Pope’s role as “guarantor” of the normalization process between Cuba and the United States, particularly its human rights elements, helps give the White House some political space to push Congress to lift the embargo even in the face of Cuba’s often violent harassment of opposition figures. The Pope also brings an overwhelmingly positive message of reconciliation among all Cubans on and off the island and a humanistic approach to the excessive depredations of both communism and capitalism. The visit should inject another wave of enthusiasm and hope around the possibilities of gradual but positive change on the island.

The embargo thorn

For the Castro regime, the Pope’s visit is another perceived endorsement of Cuba’s standing as a country that punches well above its weight in international affairs. A longstanding critic of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, the Vatican will help Cuba remind the world that the United States should not only unconditionally end the embargo, but pay up for the all the damages it has caused.

In case the point is missed on anyone, Cuba this week launched its annual campaign for yet another vote at the United Nations this fall condemning the embargo. The vote may not look as lopsided as previous years if other governments choose to endorse the olive branch Obama has extended to Havana. The Pope himself is unlikely to inject himself in the middle of this fight.

 A conversion to more Christian treatment of civil society and free expression looks frustratingly unlikely, despite the Pope’s quiet entreaties.

But his speech to the U.S. Congress on September 24, another first for any pope, offers an irresistible opportunity to call upon legislators to consider, in at least moral terms, the benefits of engagement and reconciliation over isolation and punishment, a point that would fit in nicely with his theme of mercy and forgiveness. The same message, of course, ought to apply to the Cuban government and its heavy-handed treatment of its own citizens. Raúl Castro’s gushing comments of someday returning to the Catholic Church suggests he gets the importance of religiosity in various forms to Cuban society (evangelicalism, Santeria, and Catholicism, among others). But a conversion to more Christian treatment of civil society and free expression looks frustratingly unlikely in the short term, despite the Pope’s quiet entreaties.

In search of positive legacies and soft landings

For President Obama, the big bet to normalize relations with Cuba is shaping up to be a positive legacy the White House will go to some lengths to protect. It is already proving highly popular among Americans of all persuasions and even more popular in Cuba itself. The initial enthusiasm he received—including by other heads of state at the Panama Summit of the Americas last April—has carried the ball forward at a steady clip, as embassies reopened in both capitals this summer and talks proceed to improve bilateral cooperation on several fronts.

With the latest announcement of another round of unilateral measures by Obama to expand travel, remittances, and telecommunications, and trade with Cuba’s emerging private sector, the reality that only Congress can fully lift the embargo is sinking in, and starting to get more attention. As Obama told a business audience on September 16: “my biggest suggestion would be for [the business community] just to start having a conversation on a bipartisan basis about lifting the embargo.” He went on to say, however, that it shouldn’t happen “all in one fell swoop.”

It won’t. With competing bills in Congress for and against weakening or lifting the embargo, and nearly all Republican presidential candidates aligned against such a move, no one should expect any reversion, sudden or otherwise, to a pre-Castro era.

Which is precisely where the three main actors on the stage—the Pope, Raúl Castro, and Barack Obama—want to be: positioned as agents of gradual but positive change. They all hope for a soft landing for a nation transitioning from decades of trauma and triumph to a more stable, open, and—perhaps—more “normal” future.

yFidel and Pope John Paul, 1998

POPE, PRESIDENT CASTRO GESTURE OUTSIDE PALACE OF REVOLUTION IN HAVANARaul and Pope Benedict XVI, 2012

Image: Pope Francis meets Cuban President Raul Castro at the VaticanRaul and Pope Francis, May 2015

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BROOKINGS INSTITUTION, EVENT SUMMARY: TIME TO INVEST IN CUBA?

Anna Newby | June 5, 2015

A video of the event is available here.

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Cuba’s economic future is looking up if Havana undertakes additional reforms. Such was the overall—yet cautious—consensus at this week’s Brookings event titled “Rethinking Cuba: New opportunities for development,” hosted by the Brookings Institution’s Latin America Initiative. The conference brought together a high-level group of experts from Cuba, the United States and other countries to examine the prospects for Cuba’s economy in the context of the historic process of normalization launched on December 17, 2014.

Opening the event, Brookings Senior Fellow Ted Piccone called attention to the gradual but unprecedented progress taking place in Cuba today. Amid “dialogue and confidence-building” between Washington and Havana—including Cuba’s removal from the U.S. State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism, an essential step for the full normalization of diplomatic relations—public- and private-sector actors are entering uncharted waters. As the event’s many panelists went on to discuss, financing Cuba’s growth, fostering foreign investment, and engaging the island’s emerging private sector remain enigmas in many ways.

Offering the Obama administration’s perspective, Under Secretary of Commerce for International Trade Stefan Selig pointed to new commercial openings in Cuba, such as the operation of Airbnb in the country and the increasing availability of commercial flights. There is “no denying the speed of these developments,” Selig said, and there is “no denying the excitement.” But the process of normalizing relations, Selig emphasized, will be “evolutionary and deliberative.”

Juan Triana Cordoví of the University of Havana and Archibald Ritter of Carleton University underscored the cautious excitement about Cuba’s economic outlook. Recognizing that the Castro government is revising its fiscal and economic policies, surveys of foreign business leaders show expectations that the ease of doing business on the island will improve. Policy moves, in combination with big investments in infrastructure development, have prompted “an important transformation in the image of Cuba,” in Cordoví’s words. And as Ritter pointed out, despite Fidel Castro’s famous interest in making Cuba a “giant school for socialism,” it has actually become “a giant school for entrepreneurship,” with deficiencies in access to capital and information spurring remarkable creativity among Cubans.

On the issue of financing, Brookings Nonresident Fellow Richard Feinberg acknowledged that Cuba is still mired in a low investment, low growth trap—a disappointment, as all panelists agreed, given Cuba’s potential for growth. As Yaima Doimeadíos pointed out, the large Cuban diaspora has been and will continue to be an essential financer of new investments—particularly in tourism. But the fact that Cuba remains outside the Bretton Woods international financial institutions is a major obstacle, andHavana must decide when (not if) to join those institutions, according to Feinberg. Regardless, as Germán Ríos of the CAF Development Bank pointed out, it will take a while before normal financing will be available to Cuba, given financial restrictions on the island and shortcomings in the banking sector. In the short term, capacity-building projects, technical assistance, and efficiency gains will be key; in the longer term, public-private partnerships are a central goal. As Yaima Doimeadíos of the University of Havana pointed out, the reduction in the number of small-scale, state-managed enterprises amounts to an acknowledgement by the Cuban government that it is poorly-equipped for such tasks. One of the best ways for the Cuban economy to achieve productivity gains, she added, will be through efficiency gains—these are more likely to be discovered in the private sector.

Turning to the issue of self-employment—a relatively new sector on the island—speakers agreed that self-employed Cubans still face many constraints. The field remains strictly controlled, as Ted Henken of Baruch College noted, and hardly allows for much creativity: “self-employment in Cuba—in the official sense—isn’t really entrepreneurial, [rather] it’s medieval, survivalist.” Ownership of capital is unclear, as Rafael Betancourt of Havánada Consulting added, and the centralized approval process means long waits.

Nevertheless, Henken emphasized, there is an apparent directive from the top to make improvements, with Raúl Castro writing to his colleagues that “we all” need to work to end the stigmatization of private enterprise and self-employment in Cuba. He likely recognizes the major advantages to removing the country’s “auto-bloqueo” (self-imposed blockade, in Henken’s words) preventing the inflow of capital and knowledge, which the Obama administration has offered to help provide to Cuban entrepreneurs. Conveniently, self-employment fits within the socialist narrative of capital ownership by the workers.

Concluding the event, Piccone reiterated that in spite of the positive outlook for Cuba, changes on the island will be slow and incremental. Basic economic incentives still do not fully align with market-oriented structures, and technological hurdles to development—particularly internet access—remain high. Moreover, many of the most promising developments are at the microeconomic level and are not likely to have widespread effects. He added that U.S.-Cuba relations are only part of the story and that developments vis-à-vis China, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and elsewhere could also prove consequential.

One audience member pointed out that the glaring weak link in Cuba’s economic picture is political, not economic, i.e., the government’s political will to modernize and integrate its economy. Cuban law technically prevents nationalization, requires compensation if a foreign asset is expropriated, and guarantees that profits can be repatriated. But foreign investors doubt the Castro government’s seriousness about enforcing those laws, given its history of hostility to foreign business.

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Brookings Institution: CUBA’S ECONOMIC CHANGE IN COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVE

Edited by RICHARD E. FEINBERG AND TED PICCONE

Full Document Here: Brookings, 2014:  Cuba’s Economic Change

                         TABLE OF CONTENTS

 Introduction and Overview    Richard Feinberg

Policies for Economic Growth: Cuba’s New Era,  Juan Triana Cordovi and Ricardo Torres Pérez

Economic Transformations and Institutional Changes in Cuba. Antonio F. Romero Gómez

Institutional Changes of Cuba’s Economic-Social Reforms: State and Market Roles, Progress, Hurdles, Comparisons, Monitoring and Effect. Carmelo Mesa-Lago

Economic Growth and Restructuring through Trade and FDI: Costa Rican Experiences of Interest to Cuba, Alberto Trejos

Monetary Reform in Cuba Leading up to 2016: Between Gradualism and the “Big Bang” Pavel Vidal Alejandro and Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva

Exchange Rate Unification: The Cuban Case. Augusto de la Torre and Alain Ize

New Picture (2)

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REACTIONS TO DECEMBER 2014 US-CUBA STEPS TOWARDS RAPPROCHEMENT: Farber, Feinberg and Piccone

SAMUEL FARBER, “THE ALTERNATIVE IN CUBA

Jacobin, December 22, 2014

 Original Article Here: The resumption of US – Cuban relations is a real victory. But Cuban workers face renewed economic liberalization with little political opening.

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Conclusion

Independently of the considerations that led the governments of Cuba and the United States to reach this agreement, it is a major gain for the Cuban people.

First, because it acknowledges that the imperial power of the US was not able to coerce the imposition of its socio-economic and political system, handing a victory for the principle of national self-determination. It is up to Cubans and Cubans alone to decide the destiny of their country. Second, because in practical terms, it can improve the standard of living of Cubans and help to liberalize, although not necessarily democratize, the conditions of their political oppression and economic exploitation, making it easier to organize and act to defend their interests in an autonomous fashion against both the state and the new capitalists.

This has been the case of China, where thousands of protests occur every year to protect the standard of living and rights of the mass of the population in spite of the persistence of the one-party state.

Contrary to what many liberals thought right after the Cuban Revolution, the issue was never whether the end of the blockade would lead the Castro brothers to become more democratic. That possibility was never and is not in the cards, except for those who believe that the establishment of Cuban Communism was merely a reaction to American imperialism instead of what Che Guevara admitted was half the outcome of imperialist constraint and half the outcome of the Cuban leaders choice.

What is real is the likelihood that the end of the blockade will undermine the support for the Castro government thereby facilitating the resistance and political formulation of alternatives to its rule.

That Cuba will be free from the grasp of US imperialism even if the economic blockade comes to an end is not likely. The more “normal” imperialist power broadly experienced in the Global South will replace the more coercive and criminal one of the blockade era, especially if a successful alliance develops between American capital and the native state capitalists of the emerging Sino-Vietnamese model, as it happened in China and Vietnam. Even at the purely political level, there are many conflicts that are clearly foreseeable, like, for example, one that was left unmentioned in the Obama-Castro agreement involving the return of revolutionary exiles, such as Assata Shakur, to prison in the United States.

With the passing of the historic generation of revolutionary leaders within the next decade, a new political landscape will emerge where left-wing opposition political action may resurface and give strength to the nascent critical left in Cuba. Some may argue that since socialism of a democratic and revolutionary orientation is not likely to be on the immediate agenda, there is no point to put forward such a perspective. But it is this political vision advocating for the democratic self-management of Cuban society that can shape a compelling resistance to the economic liberalization that is likely to come to the island.

By invoking solidarity with the most vulnerable, and calling for class, racial and gender equality, a movement can build unity against both the old and the emerging oppression.

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Richard Feinberg,DIPLOMATIC SHOCK AND AWE: OBAMA ELATES CUBANS,

|Brookings, December 22, 2014 9:00am

Original Here: Diplomatic Shock and Awe: Obama Elates Cubans

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Focusing on Next Steps

The U.S. bureaucracy is now under pressure to transform Obama’s promises into deeds. The upcoming April Summit of the Americas in Panama sets a deadline for issuing the new regulations liberalizing travel and commerce. In a speech before the National Assembly on December 20, Castro announced that he would personally attend the Summit, where he would “express our positions with respect for all of the other heads of state.” So the Panama conclave will bring Obama and Castro face-to-face. They will want to be able to report real progress in warming relations and in improving the economic prospects of ordinary Cubans.

Already there is speculation that the Panama Summit will witness a second round of initiatives, fed by Obama’s pledge to discuss with Congress a formal and full lifting of economic sanctions.

Both governments have raised hopes. But the Cuban government, accustomed to operating in deep secrecy, will have to learn how to manage popular expectations in a more relaxed international environment—where the United States can no longer be blamed for its own economic mistakes. And if promises are kept, Cuba will finally enter a post-Cold War era where informed citizens have ready access to the Internet and a world of information.

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Ted Piccone ON CUBA, OBAMA GOES LONG AND CASTRO HOLDS ON”

Brookings, December 22, 2014 9:51am

Original Article Here: On Cuba, Obama and Castro

Introduction

It’s hard to overstate the sense of relief and joy that was felt in both Washington and Havana as Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously announced a breakthrough in their two countries’ long-running hostilities. There was, of course, much anger and hand-wringing as well and a host of questions about what happens next. But it’s worth taking a moment to understand how both sides got to this point and why it portends a major shift in U.S. foreign policy and potentially, in Cuban society.

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.Conclusion

The head-snapping confluence of events on December 17—the simultaneous presidential announcements and returning flights home of prized Americans and Cubans; the holiday season celebration of loss and redemption and hope in the Jewish, Catholic and Afro-Cuban traditions; and the powerful language employed by President Obama in particular—make this a watershed moment in U.S. foreign policy. It marks the beginning of the end of five decades of hostility between two proud neighbors with distinct systems of governance. It symbolizes the end of the Cold War just as tremors of a new cold war between Washington and Moscow are growing. It signifies a reset in U.S.-Latin American relations on the eve of an unprecedented summit meeting of all the region’s leaders. It recognizes the failure of comprehensive punitive sanctions against a general population in favor of targeted sanctions for specific transgressions, as recently adopted in the case of Venezuela. It underscores that democratic change cannot be imposed by external coercion but only by supporting indigenous citizen movements willing to take the difficult and brave steps to demand it themselves. It declares the end of the strangle-hold of a minority faction of Cuban-American hardliners on an important foreign policy issue that affects all Americans. And most importantly, it restores hope on both sides of the Florida straits that change will continue, as it must, to improve the livelihoods and rights of millions of citizens in both countries. It was the big enchilada.

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Lopez-Levy and Piccone: UNITED STATES, CUBA and EBOLA

Fighting Ebola: A new case for U.S. engagement with Cuba

Original Article: http://tbo.com/list/news-opinion-commentary/fighting-ebola-a-new-case-for-us-engagement-with-cuba-20141028/

BY ARTURO LOPEZ-LEVY
Special To The Tampa Tribune; October 28, 2014

The simple fact that Cuba and the United States are in the same boat fighting the Ebola epidemics in Western Africa demonstrates how the level of conflict between the two countries is irrational. While Havana and Washington have considerable differences — and no parallel efforts against a common enemy as Ebola can bridge them — it is evident that narratives of suspicion and intransigence prevent such joint efforts for the benefit of both countries and the world in general.

But, words matter. The recent statements by John Kerry and Samantha Power praising what Cuba is doing to fight Ebola in Africa on behalf of the U.S. State Department — as well as the declarations by Fidel and Raul Castro that Cuba would welcome collaborative efforts on Ebola with the United States — show that a revision of the bilateral relations is long overdue.

President Obama now needs to apply the dictum of his former chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and not waste the opportunity presented by the Ebola crisis. Cuba and the United States should advance long-term cooperation in international health efforts under the auspices of the WHO.

Political leadership in the White House and the Palace of Revolution would transform a fight against a common threat into joint cooperation for the advancement of human rights (the right to health is a human right) all over the developing world and the national interests of the two neighbors.

Political conditions are ripe for such turn. Americans strongly support aggressive actions against Ebola and would applaud a president who put lives and medical cooperation with Cuba above ideology and resentment.

As more information comes out about Cuba’s international health effort, it is becoming clearer how unreasonable it is to assume that all Cuban presence in the developing world is damaging to U.S. national interests. The more than 40 000 Cuban doctors and health personnel working in 80 countries are playing a key role to improve human development and protect the world from the spread of Ebola and other contagious diseases.

During the Bush administration and even under Obama, the United States spent lavishly to support groups in Miami that focus on undermining Cuba’s international health presence in Africa and Latin America.

The U.S Cuban Medical Professional Parole Immigration Program (CMPP) is reminiscent of the Cold War. The program encourages Cuban doctors to abandon their contracts in third countries and immigrate to the United States.

Washington’s ideology-driven hostility toward Cuba’s international health efforts has further divided the United States from other democratic countries. The trouble for Miami die-hard Cold Warriors is that examples of how Cuba shares the burden and merits of international health efforts with U.S. allies are expanding. Cuba is cooperating with several institutions of the European Union, Brazil, Canada and Norway in projects of medical education on the island, and in Haiti and other countries. The programs might even grow as result of the current negotiation in Brussels between the EU and Cuba for a comprehensive agreement on cooperation and political dialogue.

The good news is that two former U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, have talked positively about Cuba’s health achievements and international programs. President Carter and former first lady Rosalyn even visited Cuba’s Latin American School of Medicine in 2002. In a meeting with then Cuban minister of health Carlos Dotres, Mrs. Carter mentioned that their presidential center’s Global Health program would like to collaborate with Cuba’s international medical educational assistance. There is no moral, political or national security explanation for why such humanitarian endeavors are not happening already.

As a senator and presidential candidate, Obama was one of the loudest critics of looking at Cuba through the glasses of the Cold War. As a president, it isn’t enough for him just to retune the same policy of embargo implemented by his predecessors. He must adjust the official U.S. narrative about post-Fidel Cuba: It is not a threat to the United States but a country in transition to a mixed economy, and a positive force for global health.

Arturo Lopez-Levy is a visiting lecturer at Mills College in California and a PhD candidate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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Ebola Could Bring U.S. and Cuba Together

By: Ted Piccone, Brookings Institution

On October 28, the United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the 23rd year in a row to condemn the United States’ tough embargo on Cuba as a unilateral interference in free trade. Coincidentally, the UN system is tackling the devastating spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa and urging states to contribute medical and financial resources to stem the outbreak.

Ironically, Cuba and the United States have led the world in responding to the call for help, rushing hundreds of medical workers, military personnel, equipment, and other resources to Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea to treat Ebola’s victims and prevent the epidemic from spreading. Could this be the moment for both countries to set aside their differences and join forces for the greater good?

The answer is a qualified yes. The onerous U.S. embargo poses no obstacles to such cooperation, and in any event, bilateral assistance for humanitarian reasons, including food and medicine, is a well-established exception to the rule. So there is no legal reason why U.S. personnel could not work alongside Cuban doctors and nurses in a third country to provide humanitarian aid to the stricken.

Moreover, there are precedents for this kind of cooperation. In 2010, in response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti, American and Cuban personnel worked together to provide emergency care, including the provision of U.S. medical supplies to field hospitals staffed by Cuban doctors.

Cooperation was so positively received that the two sides launched high-level discussions about a joint project to build a new hospital in rural Haiti to be staffed in part by Cuban medical personnel.

Yet, as in so many other instances, cooperation between Havana and Washington broke down. This time, the dispute concerned a Bush-era program allowing Cuban doctors and other health personnel easy immigration into the United States. Cuba insisted that the program be dropped.

Already, nearly 1,600 Cuban health workers have taken advantage of the enticement, which undermines Cuba’s well-regarded health-care system, a pride of the revolution.

Proponents of the expedited visa program, on the other hand, argue that these medical workers are forced to work for Cuba’s public health service under the island’s restrictive labor laws. Given their specialized medical training, they also have a much harder time than other Cubans gaining permission to leave the island, even under the more relaxed travel policies that Cuba adopted in 2012.

U.S. President Barack Obama has a unique opportunity to show the world that the United States can rise above old hostilities for the sake of saving lives. He can immediately use his executive authority to suspend the discretionary parole program for any Cuban medical worker who is deployed to West Africa in response to the Ebola outbreak, and thereby stem Cuba’s professional brain drain.

Cuba has sent more than 50,000 medical personnel to 66 countries (more than those deployed by the G7 combined), and is now the biggest single provider of health-care workers to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. For their part, the Cubans could address concerns about the nature of their highly touted medical missionary work by giving participants in their medical brigades the option of serving abroad as volunteers, not conscripts, at no cost to their careers if they say no, and with higher pay if they say yes.

The timing for such a move is ripe. Since Obama eased the embargo in his first term by allowing more Cuban Americans to visit and send remittances to their relatives, and facilitating other categories of travel to the island, people on both sides of the Florida Straits are reconnecting in myriad ways, slowly rebuilding the bridge that has long divided the two countries.

Both sides have begun cooperating in modest but pragmatic ways, in such areas as counter-narcotics, aviation security, marine environmental affairs, and migration. This would be one additional step on the path toward the reconciliation that a majority of Americans, including Cuban Americans in Florida, want and deserve.

The next steps, however, will be even more important. After the November elections, President Obama should signal his willingness to improve relations with Cuba by ending more travel and remittances restrictions, expanding support to Cuba’s emerging private sector, and engaging in high-level talks to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Action on key cases involving citizens held in prison in both countries should be on the agenda as well, but not as a precondition for talks. And, assuming cooperation in West Africa goes well, President Obama should broaden the scope and timeline of the suspension of the medical parole program.

Now is the time to take these steps, before President Obama travels to the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April. There, he and Cuban President Raúl Castro should finally talk face-to-face, without preconditions, and set a path toward reconciliation through dialogue. It would be a great legacy for both presidents as they depart office in just a few years.

This piece was originally published by The Mark.

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Cuba’s Stroll toward Change: A View from the Streets

By: Ted Piccone; Brookings Institution

Report | October 3, 2013; Series: Foreign Policy Trip Reports|   Number 55 of 55

Ted Piccone is Acting Vice President and Director of Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution.

On September 27, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), the local watchdogs of Cuba’s Communist Party, celebrated their 53rd anniversary with a series of street parties around the country. Neighbors danced around small bonfires and enjoyed potluck dinners into the late hours of the night, leaving Havana’s streets relatively deserted as I strolled downtown the following morning. President Raúl Castro and other party leaders marked the occasion by presiding over the CDR’s 8th Congress, where discussions about various problems, like the proliferation of illegal and “immoral” activities at the local level, were underway.

As I wandered the broken cobble-stoned corridors of Old Havana, I happened upon the Communist Party’s Museum of the CDR, its walls covered with homages to the heroes of the 1959 Revolution, framed greetings from the people of Vietnam and China and various replicas of the Cuban flag and other symbols of nationalist pride. As my guide at the CDR museum completed the tour, she quietly closed the door to the exhibit room, shyly asked for a small tip and then carefully hid the bill in a crumpled piece of paper.

Along the way, I had been approached by other friendly Cubans looking for a favor; one even suggested a trip to the grocery story to buy food for his child. My taxi driver was an aspiring lawyer who drove visitors around in an ailing Soviet-era Lada to earn hard currency on the side. A policeman chatted with fishermen along the famed Malecón as he watched two men in a small boat struggle for the day’s catch in front of a sign that said: no fishing boats allowed.

The problem of illegality in the Cuban economy is alive and well. In this regard, it is not unlike the rest of Latin America, where black markets flourish and up to 47 percent of its non-farm workers are in the informal economy. In Cuba, however, where the state has long prided itself on controlling all aspects of the political economy, the expansion of illegal and informal activities is something new again. Like in the days before the 1959 Revolution when corruption and organized crime flourished amidst high poverty and inequality, or the “special period” when the collapse of the Soviet Union led to a 33 precent contraction of Cuba’s GDP, most Cubans are struggling to survive. This time, they are also taking advantage of the gradual opening of the economy under Raúl Castro.

The “updating” of the socialist model, launched with some fanfare in 2011, is opening new opportunities for Cuban citizens to have some independence from the state. Under new regulations, small business enterprises and cooperatives, already covering nearly 450,000 workers, are set to expand to include such categories as real estate agents, construction workers and repair shops. Newly approved cooperatives in sectors such as construction, industry, transportation and restaurants will be able to use both national and convertible currencies, request bank loans and set prices according to market conditions.

The challenge for the current regime is to stimulate the economy through market-oriented reforms that also generate enough revenue to provide the high levels of health and education services that have distinguished Cuba from the rest of the region. It’s not clear if the changes implemented thus far are working – reliable data about the Cuban economy are notoriously difficult to obtain and often piecemeal. The proliferation of small businesses and family-run inns in Havana, fueled in part by a substantial rise in visitors and remittances from Cubans in the United States, is encouraging. On the other hand, compliance with tax regulations is uneven. According to the newspaper Granma, the Party’s organ, only 57 percent of individuals subject to a new transport tax on vehicle owners have paid it, even after an extension was granted. Even casual observation of the street economy tells us that tax evasion is probably widespread.

One of the core structural problems of the economy is the dual currency system in which most Cubans are paid in local pesos (CUPs) while foreigners and some sectors like tourism deal in convertible pesos (CUCs). The exchange rate of 24 CUPs to one CUC creates serious distortions throughout the economy and society. Professionally trained doctors, teachers and scientists, who must work for the state, earn about 20-30 CUPs a month, while a bartender or hotel maid can make the equivalent in a day. The result is brain drain, both internally as more highly skilled workers move to lower skilled jobs, and externally as people give up and leave the island for good. One public health expert told me that many Cuban health professionals on public duty missions in places like Brazil and Ecuador take up private practice on the side, earning enough to start a small business upon their return to Cuba or buy a house and live comfortable lives in their adopted countries.

One possible solution to the dual currency problem, according to international finance experts, is to unify the currency in one move, coupled with expanded subsidies and tax breaks and a healthy package of international financial assistance to cushion the blow. The 900 percent differential in the currencies’ values means that a “big bang” approach would inevitably generate serious winners (those in the hard currency economy) and losers (the majority of Cuban workers), a prospect any government would want to avoid if possible. A probable spike in inflation is also worrisome. The government appears to be taking a different approach by experimenting with a 10-1 exchange rate for certain state-owned enterprises like sugar, hotels and non-agricultural cooperatives.

We are witnessing today the unfolding of a transitional hybrid economy that has one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake. On one hand, a host of ongoing reforms in the domains of agriculture, tourism, property transfers, travel abroad and even sports are unshackling Cubans from a predominant state. President Obama’s decision in 2009 to relax U.S. travel and remittances rules has also helped give oxygen to the more liberal features of the reforms by providing seed money for new businesses and facilitating the flow of goods and capital from the Cuban diaspora in Florida. On the other hand, implementation of reforms is slow and often limited to pilot projects dispersed throughout the island. Rules for foreign investment are too restrictive and arbitrarily enforced and property rights remain in doubt.

Nonetheless, the package of changes underway in Cuba, under the auspices of Raúl Castro and other heroes of the Revolution, lends a certain political legitimacy to the project that could facilitate a soft landing for such a hard situation. As Richard Feinberg argues in a new Brookings report on the emerging middle classes due out this November, such a soft landing is already underway as small and medium enterprises and cooperatives gain traction. Castro’s announcement last year that his current five-year term will be his last, and the appointment of a much younger vice president to guide the party to the next phase of “prosperous socialism,” give Cubans I spoke to some hope that, in the next five years, Cuba will look even more different than it did five years ago.

 

This shift is already visible. Open debates among Cuban citizens, including one I attended on the national budget process in a well-appointed theater organized by a leading public affairs magazine, are slowly underway. The Catholic Church is also playing an interesting role. The Conference of Catholic Bishops in Cuba recently released its first pastoral letter in 20 years endorsing the government’s economic liberalization and calling for a political opening that respects “the right to diversity with respect to thoughts, to creativity and to the search for truth.” Outspoken activists are touring European, Latin American and North American cities with their critiques of the current system and returning to the island determined to continue their campaign for greater freedoms, despite continued harassment and detentions. Change is in the tropical air.

As Cuba opens its economy to the world, and gradually finds the confidence to let Cubans be more open at home as well, the United States would be smart to move beyond the confines of its Cold War policy and let Americans see what they can do to support the Cuban people. President Obama can start by expanding the steps he took in his first term to facilitate greater trade, travel and communications with the Cuban people and budding small enterprises. He can also credibly remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, which is severely hampering a whole host of basic financial transactions for legitimate American travelers and businesses alike. It is time to exploit the opportunity offered by Cuba’s economic reforms and let reconciliation – both within the island and across the Florida Straits – begin.

 

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Brookings Institution: “Opening to Havana “

By: Ted Piccone

Original Essay Here:

http://www.brookings.edu/research/papers/2013/01/opening-to-havana

President Obama can break free of the embargo against Cuba by asserting executive authority to facilitate trade, travel and communications with the Cuban people. Ted Piccone drafted this memorandum to President Obama as part of   big bets and black swans: a presidential briefing book.

How should the U.S. initiate a dialogue with Cuban officials on trade, travel and communications?

How does Cuba easing its travel restrictions affect U.S. migration policy?

Congress may be hesitant to pursue talks with Cuba. What can Obama do to secure Congressional support?

Your second term presents a rare opportunity to turn the page of history from an outdated Cold War approach to Cuba to a new era of constructive engagement that will encourage a process of reform already underway on the island. Cuba is changing, slowly but surely, as it struggles to adapt its outdated economic model to the 21st century while preserving one-party rule. Reforms that empower Cuban citizens to open their own businesses, buy and sell property, hire employees, own cell phones, and travel off the island offer new opportunities for engagement.

Recommendation:

You can break free of the straitjacket of the embargo by asserting your executive authority to facilitate trade, travel and communications with the Cuban people. This will help establish your legacy of rising above historical grievances, advance U.S. interests in a stable, prosperous and democratic Cuba, and pave the way for greater U.S. leadership in the region.

Background:

Early in your first term, you made an important down payment on fostering change in Cuba by expanding travel and remittances to the island. Since then, hundreds of thousands of the 1.8 million Cuban-Americans in the United States have traveled to Cuba and sent over $2 billion to relatives there, providing important fuel to the burgeoning small business sector and helping individual citizens become less dependent on the state. Your decision to liberalize travel and assistance for the Cuban diaspora proved popular in Florida and helped increase your share of the Cuban-American vote by ten points in Miami-Dade county in the 2012 election.

As a result of your actions and changing demographics, families are more readily reuniting across the Florida straits, opening new channels of commerce and communication that are encouraging reconciliation among Cuban-Americans and a more general reframing of how best to support the Cuban people. Cuba’s recent decision to lift exit controls for most Cubans on the island is likely to accelerate this process of reconciliation within the Cuban diaspora, thereby softening support for counterproductive tactics like the embargo. The new travel rules also require a re-think of the outdated U.S. migration policy in order to manage a potential spike in departures from the island to the United States. For example, the team handling your immigration reform bill should be charged with devising proposals to reduce the special privileges afforded Cubans who make it to U.S. soil.

Under Raul Castro, the Cuban government has continued to undertake a number of important reforms to modernize its economy, lessen its dependence on Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela, and allow citizens to make their own decisions about their economic futures. The process of reform, however, is gradual, highly controlled and short on yielding game-changing results that would ignite the economy. Failure to tap new offshore oil and gas fields and agricultural damage from Hurricane Sandy dealt further setbacks. Independent civil society remains confined, repressed and harassed, and strict media and internet controls severely restrict the flow of information. The Castro generation is slowly handing power over to the next generation of party and military leaders who will determine the pace and scope of the reform process.

These trends suggest that an inflection point is approaching and that now is the time to try a new paradigm for de-icing the frozen conflict. The embargo — the most complex and strictest embargo against any country in the world — has handcuffed the United States and has prevented it from having any positive influence on the island’s developments. It will serve American interests better to learn how to work with the emerging Cuban leaders while simultaneously ramping up direct U.S. outreach to the Cuban people.

I recommend that your administration, led by a special envoy appointed by you and reporting to the secretary of state and the national security advisor, open a discreet dialogue with Havana on a wide range of issues, without preconditions. The aim of the direct bilateral talks would be to resolve outstanding issues around migration, travel, counterterrorism and counternarcotics, the environment, and trade and investment that are important to protecting U.S. national interests. Outcomes of these talks could include provisions that normalize migration flows, strengthen border security, break down the walls of communication that hinder U.S. ability to understand how Cuba is changing, and help U.S. businesses create new jobs.

In the context of such talks your special envoy would be authorized to signal your administration’s willingness to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, pointing to its assistance to the Colombian peace talks as fresh evidence for the decision. This would remove a major irritant in U.S.-Cuba relations, allow a greater share of U.S.-sourced components and services in products that enter Cuban commerce, and free up resources to tackle serious threats to the homeland from other sources like Iran. We should also consider authorizing payments for exports to Cuba through financing issued by U.S. banks and granting a general license to allow vessels that have entered Cuban ports to enter U.S. ports without having to wait six months. You can also facilitate technical assistance on market-oriented reforms from international financial institutions by signaling your intent to drop outright opposition to such moves.

Under this chapeau of direct talks, your administration can seek a negotiated solution to the thorny issue of U.S. and Cuban citizens serving long prison sentences, thereby catalyzing progress toward removing a major obstacle to improving bilateral relations.

You should, in parallel, also take unilateral steps to expand direct contacts with the Cuban people by:

• authorizing financial and technical assistance to the burgeoning class of small businesses and cooperatives and permitting Americans to donate and trade in goods and services with those that are certified as independent entrepreneurs, artists, farmers, professionals and craftspeople;

• adding new categories for general licensed travel to Cuba for Americans engaged in services to the independent economic sector, e.g., law, real estate, insurance, accounting, financial services;

• granting general licenses for other travelers currently authorized only under specific licenses, such as freelance journalists, professional researchers, athletes, and representatives of humanitarian organizations and private foundations;

• increasing or eliminating the cap on cash and gifts that non- Cuban Americans can send to individuals, independent businesses and families in Cuba;

• eliminating the daily expenditure cap for U.S. citizens visiting Cuba and removing the prohibition on the use of U.S. credit and bank cards in Cuba;

• authorizing the reestablishment of ferry services to Cuba;

• expanding the list of exports licensed for sale to Cuba, including items like school and art supplies, athletic equipment, water and food preparation systems, retail business machines, and telecommunications equipment (currently allowed only as donations).

The steps recommended above would give your administration the tools to have a constructive dialogue with the Cuban government based on a set of measures that 1) would engage Cuban leaders in high-level, face-to-face negotiations on matters that directly serve U.S. interests in a secure, stable, prosperous and free Cuba; and 2) allow you to assert executive authority to take unilateral steps that would increase U.S. support to the Cuban people, as mandated by Congress.

To take this step, you will have to contend with negative reactions from a vocal, well-organized minority of members of Congress who increasingly are out of step with their constituents on this issue. Your initiative should be presented as a set of concrete measures to assist the Cuban people, which is well within current congressional mandates, and as a way to break the stalemate in resolving the case of U.S. citizen Alan Gross (his wife is calling for direct negotiations). Those are winnable arguments. But you will need to be prepared for some unhelpful criticism along the way.

Conclusion:

Current U.S. policy long ago outlived its usefulness and is counterproductive to advancing the goal of helping the Cuban people. Instead it gives Cuban officials the ability to demonize the United States in the eyes of Cubans, other Latin Americans and the rest of the world, which annually condemns the embargo at the United Nations. At this rate, given hardening attitudes in the region against U.S. policy, the Cuba problem may even torpedo your next presidential Summit of the Americas in Panama in 2015. It is time for a new approach: an initiative to test the willingness of the Cuban government to engage constructively alongside an effort to empower the Cuban people.

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