Assuring That a Cigar is Only a Cigar

No one ends up where they expected to be. Graduate school was Pope and Swift and ivy-covered walls. Teaching was that Dead Poet’s Society thing at a prep school in upstate New York, but that was maddening – each year the kids all left to go lead lives in the real world, for better or worse. The teacher stays, and prepares for the next wave, kids who will head out into the big wide world the next June, while the teacher stays, again. There may be something noble in that, but there’s certainly something deadly, and dead, in that too. It was time to head out too, to Southern California. Why not? And why not something other than teaching – something like doing?

No one ends up where they expected to be, but almost twenty-years later, the title of Senior Systems Manager sounded pretty nifty, even if there was always that worry about being discovered to be an imposter, who shouldn’t be there at all – someone whose heart really wasn’t in it and kept daydreaming about places far away and long ago. That day eventually came – and it was a bit of a relief to shrug and walk away from the woes of the management of large-scale systems, which really was a dull business – but before it came there were those years as a corporate warrior. The job was to fly off to odd places and meet with everyone there, who had screwed everything up, and figure out a way to unscrew things, by getting everyone to rethink the problem at hand. It wasn’t all that different than teaching, actually – but you had to talk about getting some legacy system, running COBOL or something, to talk to the new thin-client cloud-based new stuff, not about Hamlet or Homer or Dickens. It was unpleasant.

The only good thing about that was the long flights, six or seven miles up, each weekend or so, from one coast to the other – there’s peace to be found up there – and, for two years, chatting with the guys at customs. That was the gig in London, Ontario, and flying home to Los Angeles each weekend meant going through customs at Pittsburgh International, with the switch from the little plane across the lake to the big plane across the continent. Show the passport, chat a bit about the Steelers or Pirates or Penguins – it was always the same customs agent, an old fellow who loved his hometown teams – and declare that there was nothing to declare. But we were both in on the joke. It was the late nineties, the United States had had a trade embargo with Cuba in place since 1961, and Canada and everyone else in the world didn’t, so there were always Cuban cigars in the suitcase for the nephews. The custom agent knew it. We both knew it. There was just no point in hassling anyone about cigars. Who cares?

The cigars really weren’t that good anyway. They weren’t all that different from other high-end cigars rolled in Miami, not Havana. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar – but they were Cubans, the real thing, so the nephews were impressed. And no one took the embargo seriously, even if our government had been very serious:

It began on 19 October 1960 (almost two years after the Batista regime was deposed by the Cuban Revolution) when the US placed an embargo on exports to Cuba (except for food and medicine). On 7 February 1962 this was extended to include almost all imports. Currently, the Cuban embargo is enforced mainly with six statutes: the Trading with the Enemy Act of 1917, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the Cuba Assets Control Regulations of 1963, the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, the Helms–Burton Act of 1996, and the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

The Cuban Democracy Act was signed into law in 1992 with the stated purpose of maintaining sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward “democratization and greater respect for human rights”. In 1996, Congress passed the Helms–Burton Act, which further restricted United States citizens from doing business in or with Cuba, and mandated restrictions on giving public or private assistance to any successor government in Havana unless and until certain claims against the Cuban government are met. In 1999, U.S. President Bill Clinton expanded the trade embargo even further by also disallowing foreign subsidiaries of U.S. companies to trade with Cuba.

Why? Fidel Castro’s 26th of July Movement against the government of Fulgencio Batista had started July 1953 and finally ousted that Batista guy on January 1, 1959 – which we thought was a fine thing. Batista was a jerk, a corrupt and sleazy dictator, and Castro had done what we had done in 1776 – so all was fine, until Castro gave his big speech at the UN and announced Cuba would now be a communist nation. No one saw that coming, and even if this was more about economic and social equality, enforced by the state, and not that much about a geopolitical alignment with the Soviet Union, this was a threat. We had a communist nation ninety miles south of Key West. We had to do something.

In April 1961 it was that Bay of Pigs invasion – a CIA operation to land a small group of Cuban exiles there, to establish a beachhead and move out, inspiring all Cubans to rise up and take back Cuba from Castro. This has been planned by the Eisenhower administration and when Kennedy was told about it, he said fine – go ahead – and he was soon sorry for that. That was a disaster. Launched from Guatemala, our Cuban guys were defeated within three days, by the Cuban armed forces under the direct command of Fidel Castro, no less. Castro was the hero of his nation, looking heroic, just like a leader should. President Kennedy said oops. The next year it was the Cuban Missile Crisis – the Soviets put nuclear missiles in Cuba, aimed at us. Kennedy did better this time – he forced the Soviets to back down and remove the missiles, and agreed we’d remove our nuclear missiles in Turkey, aimed at the Soviets. No one wanted global thermonuclear war. The CIA would stick to plots to kill Castro in sneaky ways – poison cigars and such – but that never did work.

The odd thing is that those were the last two major events. Cuba did turn out to be a nasty place – economic and social equality, enforced by the state, was enforced brutally. There would be no real elections, the state could take what it wanted from anyone, and there would be no free press and no dissent. Many went to jail, and many died there, and many more hopped onto anything that would float and headed in the general direction of Key West. Those who made it got special treatment – lots of aid to get them on their feet and a quick and easy path to citizenship. Cuban-Americans represent maybe three percent of all the Hispanics in America, and they’re the chosen ones. The other ninety-seven percent of Hispanics here in America rather loathe them. They certainly resent them, and that’s a matter we gringos should remember. All conservative Hispanic Republican conservatives, like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, are Cuban-Americans. Such representatives are representative.

As for Cuba geopolitically, Cuba only mattered in the early sixties. The Soviets took their missiles and left and never thought much of Cuba again. Cuba had been useful once, but that was a long time ago, and these days everyone else, except for the aging Cuban exiles in Miami, has forgotten Cuba too. The place is quiet. They don’t harbor al-Qaeda or ISIS or the Taliban. Those guys don’t think of them and the Cubans don’t seem to care one way or the other about the war on terror. They have no position on Israel and the Palestinians, or on who owns Ukraine. They have no position on much of anything, even if we still designate them a State Sponsor of Terrorism. No one is sure why, now. We just do. No one ends up where you expect them to be.

But we won’t deal with them, damn it. No trade, no diplomatic relations, until they change their ways – and that will make them think twice!

After fifty-three years they haven’t thought twice. Maybe we should. That’s what President Obama decided we should do:

President Obama on Wednesday ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century as he vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and sweep aside one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.

The surprise announcement came at the end of 18 months of secret talks that produced a prisoner swap negotiated with the help of Pope Francis and concluded by a telephone call between Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro. The historic deal broke an enduring stalemate between two countries divided by just 90 miles of water but oceans of mistrust and hostility dating from the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill and the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal, he added, will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Those of us who were twelve when Castro swept to power resent that, but he has a point, and he has the Pope on his side, although Republicans do hate this new Pope, and they hate this change:

Republicans, along with a senior Democrat [the Cuban-American Senator Robert Menendez of course] quickly characterized the rapprochement with the Castro family as appeasement of the hemisphere’s leading dictatorship. Republican lawmakers who will take control of the Senate as well as the House next month made clear they would resist lifting the 54-year-old trade embargo.

“This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and son of Cuban immigrants. “All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power.”

There’s something odd about saying that – we talk to China and Vietnam after all, and the Saudis are pretty nasty to their own people, particularly women, but of course the Saudis have oil. China has the biggest potential customer base in the world. Vietnam is a useful thorn in the side of the Chinese, if the Chinese get too uppity. We talk to them all, and trade with them all. Why is Cuba any different? Obama swapped a few prisoners with Raúl, to get things moving. Israel does that sort of thing all the time. And things did move:

Mr. Castro spoke simultaneously on Cuban television, taking to the airwaves with no introduction and announcing that he had spoken by telephone with Mr. Obama on Tuesday.

“We have been able to make headway in the solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations,” he declared, emphasizing the release of the three Cubans. “President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.”

Only afterward did Mr. Castro mention the reopening of diplomatic relations. “This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been resolved,” he said. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease.” But, he added, “The progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.”

It’s a start, after fifty-three years, and this was the start:

While the United States has no embassy in Havana, there is a bare-bones facility called an interests section that can be upgraded, currently led by a diplomat, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who will become the chargé d’affaires pending the nomination and confirmation of an ambassador.

Mr. Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism, and the president announced that he would attend a regional Summit of the Americas next spring that Mr. Castro is also to attend. Mr. Obama will send an assistant secretary of state to Havana next month to talk about migration, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker may lead a commercial mission.

Mr. Obama’s decision will ease travel restrictions for family visits, public performances, and professional, educational and religious activities, among other things, but ordinary tourism will still be banned under the law. Mr. Obama will also allow greater banking ties, making it possible to use credit and debit cards in Cuba, and American travelers will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

He added that he shared the commitment to freedom for Cuba. “The question is how we uphold that commitment,” he said. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”

Yes, doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result is the classic definition of insanity, and yes, you can bring back cigars now, but Alex Massie also sees this:

This is not – repeat not – going soft on Cuba. It’s getting tough with Cuba.

The old approach has had half a century to work and yet, golly, the Castro’s are still there, still running their sunshine-soaked island gulag. By any reasonable measure the old approach has failed. Every sensible person knows this. Every reasonable person knows just about any alternative policy could hardly do worse. So why not try something different? If the embargo was going to topple the Castros’ nasty little regime it would have done so by now. Perhaps capitalism should be given a chance instead.

There are other benefits to this startling eruption of sanity. American relations with the rest of Latin America have long been complicated by the stupidity of its Cuban policy. A reset here allows – in theory at least – an improvement in this area too. It is hard to see how this opening can hurt the United States anywhere in the western hemisphere.

Marco Rubio doesn’t see it that way:

“The President’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable,” said Rubio in a statement. “Cuba, like Syria, Iran, and Sudan, remains a state sponsor of terrorism… Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office. As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the President’s change in policy.”

Jeffery Goldberg counters with this:

Critics of Obama’s Cuba initiative have a point: There is no way to guarantee the success, in human-rights terms, of this dramatic new opening. But time has discredited the alternative vision. The seemingly never-ending embargo did nothing to bring about the conclusion of the seemingly never-ending rule of the Castro brothers. After 50 years of trying one thing and seeing that thing fail, and fail again, it was about time that the United States tries something else.

Matthew Yglesias thinks they both miss the point:

While the Cuban government has a genuinely awful human rights record, it’s hard to argue that that explains US policy towards Cuba. While Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere rated “not free” by Freedom House, it’s hardly the only such country in the world. The United States conducts normal diplomatic relations with China and Vietnam, who run similarly repressive regimes. And the United States considers not-free states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Jordan to be close allies worthy not only of normal diplomatic relations but deep military and security assistance.

Cuba policy, in other words, has been driven by Cold War strategy and domestic politics much more than by human rights. That’s why with the Cold War issues now obsolete and the domestic politics changing, US policy is set to change too – even without significant change in Cuba’s human rights situation.

There no downside here and Daniel Larison adds this:

The administration deserves credit for trying to make such a significant change to Cuba policy. When relations are restored with Havana, it will be a genuinely praiseworthy achievement of Obama’s second term. Normalization with Cuba is broadly popular in the U.S. and has been becoming more so over the years, but there is a dedicated core of supporters of the status quo that will presumably put up strong resistance to these changes. Let’s hope that they’re unsuccessful in any attempt to delay or derail this rapprochement.

There is that Cuba Lobby, as they call it, but Noah Feldman thinks that can be managed:

The risk that Obama carries in taking on a concentrated lobby isn’t totally unfamiliar to him. After all, he tried to take on the NRA by pushing gun control after the Newtown shootings. When he lost, the political cost to him was much less than the cost of doing nothing. With regard to Israel, Obama has tread much more carefully, limiting himself to the unmistakable message that he thinks West Bank settlements are an obstacle to peace and that Benjamin Netanyahu is, too. Many pro-Israel lobbying groups detest him for it, but they haven’t yet had the occasion to go to war against him.

With the end of his presidency in view, Obama has to take risks if he wants to score some legacy points. His gamble on Cuba may not be fully realized. But the results will have implications for the structure of American interest group politics more broadly.

Yes, the structure of American interest group politics will have to move beyond the first three years of the sixties, and Phillip Peters says that time has come:

As recently as 2000, Cuban Americans broke three-to-one for Republicans in Presidential elections, but no more. In 2012, exit polls showed them splitting 50-50 between President Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney. Considering that the president had mildly liberalized Cuba policies in his first term and Governor Romney was calling for a return to President Bush’s hardline policies, this was a shocking result.

But it was not a fluke: it reflects changing policy preferences in a Cuban-American community increasingly populated by younger generations and more recent immigrants. A 2014 Florida International University (FIU) poll showed that for the first time since its surveys began in 1991, a majority of Cuban Americans, 52 percent, wants to end the embargo. (During the 1990s, five FIU polls showed average 85 percent support for the embargo.) Among those under age 30, 62 percent want to end the embargo and 88 percent want to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Havana.

Daniel Larison adds this:

Normalizing relations with Cuba shouldn’t be seen as a “reward” for the regime. It is the removal of a barrier that has been senselessly maintained for more than five decades. If anyone is being punished by the embargo, it is the people in America and Cuba that would otherwise have productive commercial and cultural exchanges. The U.S. gains nothing by persisting in the embargo. On the contrary, it needlessly alienates Latin American governments and puts the U.S. in the absurd position of defending a Cold War relic. Normalization is twenty years overdue, and nothing will be gained by delaying it any longer.

This had to happen. Why not now, and Kevin Drum notes that Obama is on quite a roll:

November 10: Surprised everyone by announcing his support for strong net neutrality.

November 11: Concluded a climate deal with China that was not only important in its own right, but has since been widely credited with jumpstarting progress at the Lima talks last week.

November 20: Issued an executive order protecting millions of undocumented workers from the threat of deportation.

November 26: Signed off on an important new EPA rule significantly limiting ozone emissions.

December 15: Took a quiet victory lap as Western financial sanctions considerably sharpened the pain of Vladimir Putin’s imploding economy.

December 16: Got nearly everything he wanted during the lame duck congressional session, and more. Democrats confirmed all important pending nominees, and then got Republican consent to several dozen lesser ones as well.

December 17: Announced a historic renormalization of relations with Cuba.

I guess you can add to that a non-event: In its second year, Obamacare signups are going smoothly and ahead of target.

Think about that:

It’s been quite the whirlwind month for our bored, exhausted, disengaged president, hasn’t it?

All of these things are worthwhile in their own right, of course, but there’s a political angle to all of them as well: they seriously mess with Republican heads. GOP leaders had plans for January, but now they may or may not be able to do much about them. Instead, they’re going to have to deal with enraged tea partiers insisting that they spend time trying to repeal Obama’s actions. They can’t, of course, but they have to show that they’re trying. So there’s a good chance that they’ll spend their first few months in semi-chaos, responding to Obama’s provocations instead of working on their own agenda.

Was that part of the plan? Beats me – but it seems to be working pretty well so far.

No one ends up where they expected to be. Cool.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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One Response to Assuring That a Cigar is Only a Cigar

  1. Rick says:

    One odd little thing we in the public rarely consider as being a major foreign policy goal is stability, but in the long term, it probably turns out to be more important than anything else, even more than the promotion of our way of life. What stability brings is no surprises and no wars, which are good things — but essentially, no changes, which some folks don’t like so much.

    And “stable” is pretty much how you can describe U.S.-Cuban relations for most of the last fifty years. Maybe the embargo had something to do with that, and this should give pause to those, like Marco Rubio, who don’t like what’s happening now. Oddly, a vote for keeping the embargo going is a vote of confidence for the Cuban status quo.

    But think about this: Cuba is a failed state that, for much of its existence under the Castros, was propped up with aid from the Soviet Union. But that went away when the Soviet Union did and was replaced with money from oil-rich Venezuela. But now, with Saudi Arabia’s market position threatened in recent years by so many other competitors — including Russia, us, and Venezuela — the Saudis are increasing production, driving down prices, thus weakening its competitors, including Venezuela, which now has an economy that can barely provide for its own people, and certainly can no longer afford to carry Cuba.

    So after all those years of Fidel rejecting back-channel feelers from the United States to talk (some say because he liked the idea of having us as a well-defined enemy, to keep the spirit of the revolution alive), his brother, facing reality, decides it might be time to loosen things up.

    So what will happen now, with the Cuban economy in the toilet? One thing could be even more repression, and maybe a coup attempt or two, and maybe a successful one. Sounds good? Not to me. There will be instability, and maybe the kind that only starts with street celebrations but ends up looking a lot like Iraq or Egypt.

    At least if we end the embargo, with our two country’s economies reintegrating, we’d have a chance of influencing the direction the inevitable instability heads. Maybe this can be done peacefully.

    But I must admit, I’ve never been happy with Cubans in exile having so much say in determining our policy toward Cuba, especially when it so often seems not to take into account the best interests of our own country. If these people want Cuba to change its political system, maybe they should move back there to work for change from within, in whatever form that takes.

    But at the same time, I’m encouraged to see that at least younger Cuban-Americans apparently favor Obama’s new, more peaceful approach, a new reality that Republicans will have to face when they take over Congress in January. To once again paraphrase that old Beatles song, things may be getting better all the time.

    Rick

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