The Anti-Cuba Lobby Has Jumped the Shark

By trading in denunciations, lies, and distortions -- instead of a reasonable discussion about how to open Cuba -- the rabid embargo lobby is starting to sound a lot like Castro himself.

In the past month, former diplomats and administration officials, business leaders, public intellectuals, and even former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have raised questions about the effectiveness of the United States's half-century-old embargo on Cuba. They've dared to propose different ways to promote human rights and change in the totalitarian state. They've called for carefully tinkering with -- but not eliminating -- the U.S. embargo on Cuba to provide more direct, private support for independent civil society, a growing non-state sector, and more connectivity.

From the response, you would have thought that they had called for Fidel Castro to be a judge on next season's The Voice.   

Unfortunately, but not unpredictably, these reasonable calls for a public debate on Cuba policy have been met with distortions and personal attacks, as if even daring to raise the question of the efficacy of the monolithic 52-year-old embargo -- the likes of which Washington has never applied on any other country -- is akin to treason. Embargo questioners are denounced as apostates or crony capitalists who must have some other agenda than concern for the future of Cuba and the plight of its long-suffering citizens. Cuban-American signatories, in particular, are singled out for unique opprobrium. 

The reaction is in part an understandable but knee-jerk response, grown out of the decades in which the only groups calling for the normalization of relations with Cuba came from U.S. organizations more concerned with apologizing for the Cuban Revolution or advocating for the release of five (now three) Cuban spies than advocating for human rights of Cubans trapped inside the Castros' island jail. (In an event that was both astoundingly misguided and dippy, one of those organizations, the Latin America Working Group, recently hosted an event to sell watercolors painted by the spies in prison to raise money for their release.) But those who've raised questions about the embargo in the past few weeks haven't been coming from that corner. Instead they reflect the growing recognition of real, but modest and insecure change that is currently taking place in Cuba and that a new generation that has grown tired of waiting. This new push is coming from former government officials -- Republican and Democrat -- former military officers, Cuban-American business and community leaders, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Op-eds, such as the one that recently ran in the Washington Post or in the Financial Times have raised the issue of whether it's time to reconsider elements of the embargo. An open letter to President Barack Obama (to which, in full disclosure, I was a signatory -- though the least important of the more than 40 of us) urged similar measures. At the same time, polls are showing growing popular frustration with the embargo, including among Cuban Americans.

In Cuba, the failures and shortages created by 55 years under a socialist command economy has forced the government, now run by Fidel Castro's younger 83-year-old brother Raul, to take steps to inject minor market incentives into the economy, such as allowing individuals to form small businesses in over 300 government-determined categories and permitting farmers to pool their holdings or till unused state land to produce for and sell on private markets. These timid reforms have given birth to an incipient and insecure entrepreneurial class which, according to studies by the Brookings Institution, includes over 450,000 private business owners -- many of them supported only through the local informal economy and remittances from relatives in the United States.

For this reason, a broad segment of former Democratic and Republican administration officials and business leaders have called on President Barack Obama to loosen restrictions for contact and trade with independent entrepreneurs and greater telecommunications connections with the island. The last week of May, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue, also traveled to the forbidden island and met with entrepreneurs and called for greater economic reform in Cuba.

Supporting these people should be as American as apple pie, right? Who's against entrepreneurs and a free Internet?

But rather than discuss or engage on the merits of support for independent economic activity and connectivity, a small group of traditional embargo supporters -- the usual suspects -- has misrepresented the arguments in the open letter and Donohue's statements on the island, claiming that they call for trade with the regime and an all-out assault on the holy embargo. They've resorted to name-calling, denouncing the signatories of the members of the Chamber delegation as craven profiteers, lobbyists, or consultants seeking to open up Cuba in order to make a buck.

And in some cases, they've opted for wild hyperbole: One editorial in the Miami Herald, by Carlos Alberto Montaner, a well-known commentator and author -- and a man I know and respect -- claimed that making any changes to the embargo amounted to concessions to a government that had once "made a pact with the Soviet Union and even asked for a preventive nuclear attack during the missile crisis" and asks whether the U.S. really wants to take a benevolent attitude toward a government that is in "cahoots with Iran, North Korea, Russia and the countries of so-called 21st Century Socialism."

Never mind that the Soviet-Havana pact was over 53 years ago, and that two of the letter's signatories -- former Foreign Policy editor Moises Naim and businessman Gustavo Cisneros -- are staunch members of the anti-Chavismo opposition in Venezuela, one of those very bastions of 21st-century socialism. Nor did those so quick to cry "human rights" and to mobilize Cuban dissidents to back up their case bother to check in with members of the dissident community -- prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez is just one example -- who support liberalizing the embargo either.

It's worth looking at what the open letter actually says: For one, nowhere does it call for trade with the Cuban regime. Quite the opposite. The letter specifically states that the aspiring small-scale Cuban capitalists struggling under a smothering socialist system deserve access to finance and wholesale inputs denied them by the systematically un-capitalist regime. Along those lines, it calls for a targeted loosening of the embargo in order to allow private organizations and individuals to support independent economic activity on the island. It urges the United States to allow for measures such as microcredit, commerce with non-state economic actors, and internships for aspiring business owners. It asks that private business organizations in the United States of all stripes -- everyone from restaurant associations to computer repair workers -- be able to travel to Cuba and meet and work with their capitalist counterparts on the island. All of these are intended to bypass the Cuban state and strengthen individual, independent capacity.

The letter also called for greater opportunities for telecommunications connections with the famously isolated island. Two congressionally approved laws, the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act (the un-ironically named Libertad Act) have placed severe constraints on the ability of U.S. telecoms companies to connect Cuban citizens through the United States -- despite the fact that over 1 million Cubans already have cell phones. Oddly, in comparison to the far more threatening North Korean and Iranian regimes, there are greater controls on U.S. telecommunications investment and contact with Cuba. This is odder still given the importance of social media and the Internet in the Arab Spring, which brought about the downfall of so many despotic regimes.

Today, given the advanced age of the Castros (Fidel 87, Raul 83) and the Cuban Politburo, and the emerging non-state sector, isn't it time to try to build links between organizations and individuals on either side of the Florida Straits? 

More than a half-century of experience with one policy has failed to produce change. Those who hoped that the original embargo legislation would weaken the regime and eventually lead to popular disgust that could fuel wider protests have been proven wrong. There is no sign yet that Cuban democratic activists, for all their courage, can or are on the brink of rising up. In the meantime, the U.S. government and Cuba's long-suffering entrepreneurs are told to wait -- just a little longer -- while average citizens continue to suffer under the Castros' miserable failure of an economic and political project. And attempts that might create the conditions for an organic process of change on the island -- a strong private sector, a burgeoning civil society -- are stifled by a special interest that shouts down its opposition, rather than engaging with it to come up with policies that bring us closer to a brighter Cuban future.

A fundamental element of a democracy is a culture of reasoned political discussion. Sadly, that has not been the case in the debate over the efficacy of an inflexible half-century of failed policy. 

In the end, maybe we will all decide that providing limited, targeted openings to support independent civil society and economic activity -- as the United States has done in other countries -- is a bad idea for Cuba. Fair enough. 

But in the meantime, everyone should recognize that, given the failure of current efforts, groups and individuals who raise serious questions about our policies may not actually have ulterior motives. They might not be crony capitalists, tycoons, or lobbyists. Maybe, just maybe, they want democracy in Cuba too -- and after 52 years, they believe that it's worth exploring another way to get there. 

It's a discussion that we desperately need to have -- and that Cuba desperately needs us to have. Because ultimately, this is a debate that our counterparts, under the repressive, totalitarian Castro regime cannot participate in. There, questioning government policies and their effectiveness brings denunciations, lies, and distortions.

Wait -- that sounds a little too familiar. 

Sven CREUTZMANN/AFP/Getty Images


The Battle for Iraq Is a Saudi War on Iran

Why the ISIS invasion of Iraq is really a war between Shiites and Sunnis for control of the Middle East.

"Be careful what you wish for" could have been, and perhaps should have been, Washington's advice to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states that have been supporting Sunni jihadists against Bashar al-Assad's regime in Damascus. The warning is even more appropriate today as the bloodthirsty fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) sweep through northwest Iraq, prompting hundreds of thousands of their Sunni coreligionists to flee and creating panic in Iraq's Shiite heartland around Baghdad, whose population senses, correctly, that it will be shown no mercy if the ISIS motorcades are not stopped.

Such a setback for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been the dream of Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah for years. He has regarded Maliki as little more than an Iranian stooge, refusing to send an ambassador to Baghdad and instead encouraging his fellow rulers of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) -- Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman -- to take a similar standoff-ish approach. Although vulnerable to al Qaeda-types at home, these countries (particularly Kuwait and Qatar) have often turned a blind eye to their citizens funding radical groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, one of the most active Islamist groups opposed to Assad in Syria. 

Currently on vacation in Morocco, King Abdullah has so far been silent on these developments. At 90-plus years old, he has shown no wish to join the Twitter generation, but the developments on the ground could well prompt him to cut short his stay and return home. He has no doubt realized that -- with his policy of delivering a strategic setback to Iran by orchestrating the overthrow of Assad in Damascus showing little sign of any imminent success -- events in Iraq offer a new opportunity.

This perspective may well confuse many observers. In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of reports of an emerging -- albeit reluctant -- diplomatic rapprochement between the Saudi-led GCC and Iran, bolstered by the apparently drunken visit to Tehran by the emir of Kuwait, and visits by trade delegations and commerce ministers in one direction or the other. This is despite evidence supporting the contrary view, including Saudi Arabia's first public display of Chinese missiles capable of hitting Tehran and the UAE's announcement of the introduction of military conscription for the country's youth.

The merit, if such a word can be used, of the carnage in Iraq is that at least it offers clarity. There are tribal overlays and rival national identities at play, but the dominant tension is the religious difference between majority Sunni and minority Shiite Islam. This region-wide phenomenon is taken to extremes by the likes of ISIS, which also likely sees its action in Iraq as countering Maliki's support for Assad. ISIS is a ruthless killing machine, taking Sunni contempt for Shiites to its logical, and bloody, extreme. The Saudi monarch may be more careful to avoid direct religious insults than many other of his brethren, but contempt for Shiites no doubt underpinned his WikilLeaked comment about "cutting off the head of the snake," meaning the clerical regime in Tehran. (Prejudice is an equal-opportunity avocation in the Middle East: Iraqi government officials have been known to ask Iraqis whether they are Sunni or Shiite before deciding how to treat them.)

Despite the attempts of many, especially in Washington, to write him off, King Abdullah remains feisty, though helped occasionally by gasps of oxygen -- as when President Barack Obama met him in March and photos emerged of breathing tubes inserted in his nostrils. When Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi -- and, after his elder brother's recent stroke, the effective ruler of the UAE -- visited King Abdullah on June 4, the Saudi monarch was shown gesticulating with both hands. The subject under discussion was not revealed, but since Zayed was on his way to Cairo it was probably the election success of Egypt's new president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, considered a stabilizing force by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. Of course, Sisi gets extra points for being anti-Muslim Brotherhood, a group whose Islamist credentials are at odds with the inherited privileges of Arab monarchies. For the moment, Abdullah, Zayed, and Sisi are the three main leaders of the Arab world. Indeed, the future path of the Arab countries could well depend on these men (and whomever succeeds King Abdullah).

For those confused by the divisions in the Arab world and who find the metric of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" to be of limited utility, it is important to note that the Sunni/Shiite divide coincides, at least approximately, with the division between the Arab and Persian worlds. In geopolitical terms, Iraq is at the nexus of these worlds -- majority Shiite but ethnically Arab. There is an additional and often confusing dimension, although one that's historically central to Saudi policy: A willingness to support radical Sunnis abroad while containing their activities at home. Hence Riyadh's arms-length support for Osama bin Laden when he was leading jihadists in Soviet-controlled Afghanistan, and tolerance for jihadists in Chechnya, Bosnia, and Syria.

When the revolt against Assad grew in 2011 -- and Riyadh's concern at Iran's nuclear program mounted -- Saudi intelligence reopened its playbook and started supporting the Sunni opposition, particularly its more radical elements, a strategy guided by its intelligence chief, former ambassador to Washington, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. The operation's leadership changed in April, when Bandar resigned in apparent frustration over dealing with the cautious approach of the Obama administration, but Saudi support for jihadi fighters appears to be continuing. (The ISIS operation in Iraq almost seems the sort of tactical surprise that Bandar could have dreamt up, but there is no actual evidence.)

In the fast-moving battle that is now consuming northern Iraq, there are many variables. For Washington, the option of inaction has to be balanced by the fate of the estimated 20,000 American civilians still left in the country (even though the U.S. military is long-departed). Qatar, the region's opportunist, is likely balancing its options of irritating its regional rival, Saudi Arabia, while trying not to poke the Iranian bear. There are no overt Qatari fingerprints yet visible and Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, just celebrating his first full year in power after his father's abdication in 2013, may be chastened by the public scolding he received from the rest of the GCC after he was accused of interference in the domestic affairs of his brother rulers. Additionally, Doha may be cautious in risking Iran's ire by an adventure in Iraq. Having just given five Taliban leaders refuge as part of the Bowe Bergdahl swap, Qatar has effectively clearly stated where it lies in the Sunni-Shiite divide.

There is a potentially important historical precedent to Saudi Arabia's current dilemma of rooting for ISIS but not wanting its advances to threaten the kingdom. In the 1920s, the religious fanatic Ikhwan fighters who were helping Ibn Saud to conquer Arabia were also threatening the British protectorates of Iraq and Transjordan. Ibn Saud, the father of the current Saudi king, gave carte blanche to the British to massacre the Ikhwan with machine-gun equipped biplanes, personally leading his own forces to finish the job, when the Ikhwan threatened him at the battle of Sabilla in 1929.

It's hard to imagine such a neat ending to the chaos evolving in the Euphrates river valley. At this stage, a direct confrontation between Saudi and Iranian forces seems very unlikely, even though, as in Syria, the direct involvement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps cannot be ruled out. What is clear that the Syrian civil war looks like it will be joined by an Iraqi civil war. ISIS already has a name for the territory, the al-Sham caliphate. Washington may need to find its own name for the new area, as well as a policy.