Thursday, April 30, 2009

U.S. still says Cuba is a sponsor of terrorism

Havana street protest, 2003

State Department officials today said they still consider Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, but their assessment isn't as harsh now as it was during the Bush administration.

From the State Department's Country Reports on Terrorism for 2008:
Although Cuba no longer actively supports armed struggle in Latin America and other parts of the world, the Cuban government continued to provide safe haven to several terrorists.
Members of ETA, the FARC, and the ELN remained in Cuba during 2008, some having arrived in Cuba in connection with peace negotiations with the governments of Spain and Colombia. Cuban authorities continued to publicly defend the FARC. However, on July 6, 2008, former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the FARC to release the hostages they were holding without preconditions. He has also condemned the FARC's mistreatment of captives and of their abduction of civilian politicians who had no role in the armed conflict.

The United States has no evidence of terrorist-related money laundering or terrorist financing activities in Cuba, although Cuba has one of the world’s most secretive and non-transparent national banking systems. Cuba has no financial intelligence unit. Cuba’s Law 93 Against Acts of Terrorism provides the government authority to track, block, or seize terrorist assets.

The Cuban government continued to permit some U.S. fugitives—including members of U.S. militant groups such as the Boricua Popular, or Macheteros, and the Black Liberation Army to live legally in Cuba. In keeping with its public declaration, the government has not provided safe haven to any new U.S. fugitives wanted for terrorism since 2006.
Havana, 2003

Acting Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ronald Schlicher gave additional details during a Q&A with reporters. From the transcript:
QUESTION: -- the language on Cuba in the section on state sponsors of terrorism, it’s quite a lot less harsh than last year. And I’m wondering if this is sort of laying the groundwork for taking Cuba off the list of state sponsored terrorists.
MR. SCHLICHER: Actually, I don’t think this report is laying the groundwork for anything, because this report is intended as, in a very real sense, a snapshot of the terrorism-related activities for each country for the year 2008. So the narrative as you see it, in fact, represents that snapshot.

QUESTION: Sir, you’re saying that there are some neighbors of Colombia that provide a space to the FARC, to the members of the FARC to move. Which countries are you talking about specifically? And is there any confirmed link between the Venezuelan Government and the FARC or support?
MR. SCHLICHER: Well, Cuba, of course, remains on the state sponsors list. And Cuba does tolerate the presence of members of terrorist groups, including the FARC, including the Colombia National Liberation Army, and, in fact, ETA. We also note that the Venezuelan leader has praised the FARC on many occasions as well. We think that’s extremely problematic. You don’t go around praising a foreign terrorist organization.
I take these reports seriously. I am sometimes sarcastic or flip when writing about U.S. officials. To be fair, there are many intelligent, talented and hard-working people in our government. And I have great respect for many of the U.S. officials I've interviewed over the years.
Marchers dance. Havana, 2003

That said, I am naturally wary of reports coming from the U.S. government, just as I'm suspicious of statements from the Cuban government. Politics can influence threat assessments. Consider, for instance, the non-profit Center for Public Integrity's Iraq War Card, which says:
President George W. Bush and seven of his administration's top officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, made at least 935 false statements in the two years following September 11, 2001, about the national security threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq.
Marching along the Malecon. Havana, 2003
The state sponsor designation isn't just another pile of paper. It can have real consequences. By law, U.S. authorities can impose an array of restrictions on the so-called terrorist nations. According to the State Department, these restrictions include:

1. A ban on arms-related exports and sales.

2. Controls over exports of dual-use items, requiring 30-day Congressional notification for
goods or services that could significantly enhance the terrorist-list country's military
capability or ability to support terrorism.

3. Prohibitions on economic assistance.


4. Imposition of miscellaneous financial and other restrictions, including:

* Requiring the United States to oppose loans by the World Bank and other international financial institutions
* Exception from the jurisdictional immunity in U.S. courts of state sponsor countries, and all former state sponsor countries, with the exception of Iraq, with respect to claims for money damages for personal injury or death caused by certain acts of terrorism, torture, or extrajudicial killing, or the provision of material support or resources for such acts
* Denying companies and individuals tax credits for income earned in terrorist-list countries
* Denial of duty-free treatment of goods exported to the United States
* Authority to prohibit any U.S. citizen from engaging in a financial transaction with a terrorist-list government without a Treasury Department license
* Prohibition of Defense Department contracts above $100,000 with companies in which a state sponsor government owns or controls a significant interest.

Mariela Castro: Obama's presidency marks "a whole new era"

Daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro appears on Russia Today, an all-English news channel

Mariela Castro, director of Cuba's National Center for Sex Education in Cuba, told a Russian news channel she'd like to see the United States lift economic sanctions. She calls her uncle Fidel Castro "a wise old man," but also said she'd like to see the Cuban government find ways to allow for greater citizen participation.

Castro told Anastasia Haydulinam of Russia Today that the Cuban governemnt "lacks maturity. That's why we need to cultivate the mechanisms for people's participation. It's one of the things that preoccupy me most and that will bring about a whole range of other changes."

Castro also she expects great things from the Obama administration. Here's an excerpt from the interview, taken from the Havana Note blog:
Anastasia Haydulina: What do you expect from the new President of the United States?

Mariela Castro: I expect wonderful changes for the world and for the people of the United States. The people of the United States deserve a President like Obama and a first lady like his spouse. They and all of us need civilization and not barbarity. We need intelligent and honest world leaders. I think with Obama's presidency, a whole new era will begin. It will be a totally different story in the U.S. and all over the world.
Perhaps Mariela Castro could invite Michelle Obama to Cuba. Who knows where that would lead?

Links:

YouTube link to 11-minute, 25-second Russia Today interview

Note: A bizarre moment in the clip comes when Mariela is talking about same-sex unions and the Damas de Blanco are shown marching in front of the Capitolio. The Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White, are the relatives of Cuban prisoners and have nothing to do with same-sex marriages.

Send the First Lady to Cuba blog

White House petition on sending Michelle Obama to Havana 

Heart on the sleeve and a Bush on your face

Caricatures are a natural part of politics and you can often find them at mass rallies in Cuba. The character, above left, is John Bolton, a conservative Bush administration ally who caused a stir in 2001 when he said Cuba was capable of producing biological weapons.
That looks like a George Bush caricature, above right.
John Bolton: Wearing your heart on your sleeve and a Bush - I mean, a mustache - on your face
I shot the top picture at a huge May Day rally in Havana in 2001. Eight years later, Barack Obama has signaled that he'll take a different approach toward Cuba. Perhaps Cuba ought to stow some of the anti-American costumes and paraphernalia - at least until seeing if the two countries are going to move any closer toward reconciliation.
I know civility is not in fashion these days, especially when it comes to U.S.-Cuba relations. But a little less country-bashing would be refreshing.

The pink undie request line is now open

Orlando Luis Pardo. Source of photo: Boring Home Utopics

If you are hankering for a picture of some long lost building, street corner or person, then Orlando Luis Pardo is your man. He writes:
You are invited to personalize my utopictures. Just @sk me which slice of Habana you want me to shoot. Then give me time to breathe and break my own boring burdens. At the end most of your wishes will be published back in this collective bluff. We’ll be living like in a fairy web. Funny jpg tales from our paradise lost and fond (if not found). Let me know what you miss most, including Habana people, and in revenge I will cut this city in pieces of pics for you.
The photo request line is now open

Source of photo: Boring Home Utopics.

Orlando's Web site is called Boring Home Utopics. He says he also offers high-resolution photos suitable for printing. He says it's a "money-free transaction." He'll send you the photo if you send him a magazine, newspaper or book.

Orlando describes himself as a "wrong writer and postographer" living and resisting in "Habanaught, Cuba."

According to his Web site, he edits an e-zine called The Revolution Evening Post, and has published several books: Collage Karaoke (Letras Cubanas, 2001), Empezar de Cero (Extramuros, 2001), Ipatrías (Unicornio, 2005), Mi nombre es William Saroyan (Abril, 2006) and Boring Home (digitally domestic, 2009).

There are plenty of photos on Orlando's site. Describing the two photos below, he writes something about "kinky pinks and protruding gargoyles." He has an eye for detail, it seems.


Boxers and ballerinas

More scenes from May Day, 2001
These are young Cuban dance students
Ballerinas singing the Cuba's national anthem
Boxers
Links:

Boxers and Ballerinas, a 2004 documentary that is worth seeing. According to the Internet Movie Database:
Shot in three countries over a two year period, Boxers and Ballerinas explores the US-Cuba conflict thru the eyes of four youths--a boxer and a ballerina in Havana and Santiago de Cuba and a boxer and a ballerina exiled in Miami.

Rebel tourism

Scenes from May Day or International Workers' Day
Havana, 2001


Nearly 2,000 members of labor, solidarity and activist groups from 80 countries plan to attend the May Day festivities on Friday in Cuba.
Cuba Education Tours and other companies organize trips for foreigners who want to see the mass rallies. An eight-day, seven-night program can easily cost nearly $2,000, including lodging and some meals, but not airfare to and from the island.

These rallies are a spectacle. Organizers try to showcase what they see as some of the fruits of the revolution - athletes, musicians, social workers, doctors and students.

I don't have a breakdown the groups expected this year, but the Cuban press has given a few clues, saying those attending will include:

* 40,000 members of the Young Communists Union
* 10,000 students of the University of Information Sciences
* 6,000 members of the Federation of University Students
* 3,000 pioneers
* 2,000 scouts
* 2,000 social workers
* 1,000 members of the Youth Technical Brigade

Massive May Day rallies planned despite the flu

May Day, Havana, 2001

Randy Alonso, moderator of the Round Table program, asked Wednesday night whether Cuban authorities should go ahead with the massive rallies planned for May Day.

Dr. Luis Estruch said the government does not need to cancel its May Day plans because not a single case of swine flu has been reported in Cuba.

Estruch is vice minister of Hygiene, Epidemiology and Microbiology at the Ministry of Health. Cuba's Granma newspaper paraphrased him:
Not a single case of the disease has been detected at this time, and so, as a health professional, I would say that we can all march on the 1st of May, because, fortunately, we have a peaceful, stable country, and there is nothing to prevent Cubans from having events marking this great celebration of workers...
Talk about a decision you had better not get wrong. Making a mistake here isn't just a career ender. Getting this wrong could get people killed.

May Day, Havana, 2001

Granma says "millions" of people throughout the country will go to rallies on May Day, also known as International Workers' Day. It's an especially big deal in Cuba this year because it's the 70th anniversary of the founding of Cuba's Union of Workers.

Yoani Sanchez of the Generacion Y thinks the government should postpone or cancel the May Day rallies.
I don’t want to create unnecessary alarm. I don’t know anyone who is infected and an official statement has been released saying that there are no recorded cases of this disease, but remember they told us the same thing for a long time about AIDS, before finally confessing that it had entered Cuba, not to mention keeping secret the number of dengue fever cases each year.
With all humility, I ask the Cuban government to re-think the idea of bringing together thousands of people at this time. Please, show less concern about the spectacle and more protection for the citizenry.
I can't see Cuban authorities canceling unless swine flu cases are detected and it's made public today.

May Day, 2001

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Canine CDR

Checking out the barrio

Raul Castro: The ball's in America's court, not ours

Ah, c'mon. Let's just go have a few drinks

I'm not a communist, socialist or even a Democrat, but I agree with Cuban officials on this point: The onus isn't on Cuba to make the next move. The Associated Press reported today:
President Raul Castro on Wednesday said his country does not need to make any "gestures" toward the United States, and demanded an end to the U.S. economic embargo on communist Cuba.
AFP quoted Raul Castro as saying:
"Cuba has not imposed any sanction on the United States or its citizens. Cuba is not the one that needs to make gestures."
I agree. Cuba doesn't need to make the first move.

Cuba may decide to make the first move as part of a broader strategy. I've suggested that Cuba release 40 or 50 dissidents and pro-democracy activists as a kind of trial balloon - not a concession to the U.S., but a way to see if Barack Obama is serious about taking a new approach to Cuba. I still think that's a good idea.

For the record, I don't think any of the dissidents or journalists or pro-democracy activists should be in jail. But I don't think it's realistic to think that Cuban authorities are going to release them en masse right now because the prisoners can be used as leverage.

Now, if we assume Cuba is not going to make the first move, then the deadlock will continue unless the United States takes action. The U.S. should take the initiative. The U.S. government has tried to strangle Cuba economically for nearly a half century. The U.S. trade embargo represents the toughest, longest-lasting economic sanctions ever imposed on any country. Bush administration regulations allowed Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island only once every three years. That was cruel and inhumane. Barack Obama lifted those rules, but the trade embargo remains.

U.S. politicians and lawmakers have been the aggressors for decades. They should be the ones making gestures, not Cuba.

Loosening the trade embargo would give Cuba an opportunity to claim a victory and save face. U.S. officials want to score points, too. Cuba should look for ways to help make that happen.

Each side has to give a little or this thing's going to stall.

Also today, the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing on the national security implications of U.S. policy toward Cuba. Phil Peters told the committee: 
I believe that a shift toward a policy of engagement with Cuba would serve U.S. interests at a time when our influence in Cuba is low and Cuba is at a turning point in its history. If the Administration and Congress were to ease or end travel restrictions, greater contact on the part of American citizens and American civil society would increase American influence in Cuba.
Links:

Phil's 10-page statement
From the Havana Note, Gen. Barry McCaffrey calls for end to trade embargo
Havana Journal timeline of U.S. trade embargo
An essay on face saving
Examples of face saving

It's such a non-secret that we can't tell you

Excuse me while I go out for a smoke

Robert Wood, the State Department press spokesman, wouldn't say much Tuesday about the meeting between Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon and Jorge Bolaños, the chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.

From a transcript of Wood's meeting with reporters:
MR. WOOD: ...I don’t want to get into the details of what was discussed.
QUESTION: Just out of curiosity, what was the mutually convenient location that you guys came up with?
MR. WOOD: Well, look, the important thing is they met. I mean, it wasn’t like having a meeting at some secret location.
QUESTION: Did they go for lunch or something? Did they go for a drink? Did they meet in an office? Did they meet in a hotel? Did they meet under a tree?
MR. WOOD: They met. They met.
QUESTION: The Rosslyn parking garage? (Laughter.)
MR. WOOD: I don’t think it was the Rosslyn parking garage, but --
That's great. They met. They met. They talked about something. We don't know what. We don't know why. We don't know where.
"It wasn't like having a meeting at some secret location," Wood said.

But I can't tell you. It's secret.

Ah, yes. We're making progress. But I can't talk about it.

Looking for those familiar green fatigues

OK, here comes Fidel. Get ready. Don't screw it up. Make sure to use the right lens - and the right camera...
Oh, no! Wrong lens! Wrong camera? Hurry, hurry, hurry...
Whew! Got it.

But I could fill an entire blog with photos I've screwed up. Somewhere in my photo archives I have an even better picture of Fidel Castro's fatigues. The photo is so sharp you can see the stitching in the green fabric. Unfortunately, I cut off the Cuban president's head.
When I'm out in the field, I'm usually out there to get the words. I'm there to interview people and write a story.
But I'm passionate about photography, so I almost always try to get pictures, too.
I know many photojournalists who shoot far better pictures than I do. And I'm sure they have fewer messed-up shots. But I'm usually out there with a camera anyway, trying to put on the right lens or see if I can just get the darned picture in focus.

These guys in the helicopter had a much better vantage point. If you click on the picture, you can see them recording the scene.
The event was a huge march demanding the return of Elian Gonzalez, the boat wreck victim who was caught in an international custody battle from November 1999 to June 2000. Those were the days when Fidel Castro himself put on his jogging shoes and led the protests.

Link:
Elian Gonzalez timeline

Eyes off the road

Gotta get that picture

Trying not to wreck the motorcycle along a rural road in western Cuba, not far from Viñales.
But at least my photo op didn't cost $338,838.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A cold calculation leads a new blog

Send the First Lady to Cuba blog is here

I should be outside working in the yard. Instead I set up a separate blog on the White House petition to send Michelle Obama to Cuba.
As usual, unflinching logic guided my rationale:
Outside - hot sun, humidity, actual physical labor.
Inside - air conditioner, cold beverages, comfortable chair.

Turn the First Lady loose

Photoshop: The only way Michelle Obama can tour Havana

I've been rethinking the April 26 New York Times story that said, "The Obama administration is quietly pushing forward with efforts to reopen channels of communication with Cuba."
The April 26 story makes it sound dramatic, but I'm not convinced anything new or different is going on.
The Associated Press says informal U.S.-Cuba meetings are fairly routine. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas A. Shannon Jr. met on April 13 and on April 27 with Jorge Bolaños, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, the AP's April 27 story said.
Before the April 27 meeting, State Department Spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters that U.S. officials "have concerns about Cuban policies" and "we'll be raising them."
U.S. concerns rightly include the jailing of dissidents, journalists and pro-democracy activists in Cuba.
Wood said U.S. and Cuban officials would also talk about Barack Obama's recent steps to make it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba.
"...Beyond that," Wood said, "I don't have much of an agenda."
Translation: We're meeting with the Cubans because there's public pressure to do so. But we're not planning to do squat.
No change, no action, no fresh initiatives. It's too much of a political can of worms, so let's move on.
So what's next? I have no idea. But a few things wouldn't surprised me:
* The routine U.S.-Cuba meetings will go on.
* All the buzz over Cuba will die down.
* U.S. policy will remain the same, for now.
I suggested a few days ago sending Michelle Obama to Cuba. I still think it's a good idea. Let her see Cuba for herself. Let her meet the Cuban people. If she decides it's not worth pursuing diplomatic relations with Cuba, so be it. Let her take back that message to her hubby Barack.
But I'm convinced she would come to another conclusion.
Personal contact is the key.
A visit to Cuba would give Michelle Obama a taste of the real Cuba, the good and the bad, something she'll never be able to experience by reading a book or a briefing paper.
A visit to Cuba would give the First Lady the courage and the confidence to break off from the pack, speak her mind and set a new course.
So turn her loose.
Let her go.
Let's her do what's right.
And if you like how that sounds, please consider signing the White House petition - Send the First Lady to Cuba.

A tattooed gringo shares his Cuban flag

An American visitor to Cuba, left, lent his Cuban flag to another tourist in Havana on Jan. 1, 2009 - the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.
Here's the photo op along Paseo del Prado in Havana
And here's a Cuban woman who just wanted to dance.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Oink, oink

Ready for roasting

Cuban ports and airports are stepping up measures to prevent swine flu. Authorities "are ready to take any measures necessary," said a statement in today's Granma.
The flu has killed at least 80 people in Mexico.
"...flights to and from Mexico are being limited as far as possible," the statement said.
Cuban authorities urged people to cover their mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing, wash their hands frequently, and stay clean at home and at work.
The Cuban government's ability to organize the masses and oblige people to comply comes in handy when trying to prevent an outbreak of disease. Authorities have proven that in their campaign against dengue fever, for instance.
The Cubans' organizational skill also comes through whenever authorities need to prepare for a hurricane, stage a mass rally or bring out people to vote (Option A: Fidel. Option B: Fidel. Option C: Fidel).
I know, I know...Cubans have their own style of democracy.

Links:
Reuters story on swine flu measures
Post on dengue fever in Cuba

Informal U.S.-Cuba talks planned

Give the man a hand

Obama administration officials plan to meet informally with Cuban officials, The New York Times reports here.
Seizing the momentum from recent meetings with Latin American leaders, the Obama administration is quietly pushing forward with efforts to reopen channels of communication with Cuba, according to White House and State Department officials.
The officials said informal meetings were being planned between the State Department and Cuban diplomats in the United States to determine whether the two governments could open formal talks on a variety of issues, including migration, drug trafficking and other regional security matters.
The paper says the Obama administration is also "looking for ways to open channels for more cultural and academic exchanges between Cuba and the United States."
The eventual goal, a senior administration official told the New York Times, is to see if the two countries could develop a "serious, civil, open relationship."
The Times quoted a State Department official as saying that pressure for a new policy toward Cuba was like a "steamroller."
The official said the Obama administration is "trying to drive it, rather than get run over by it."
Well, if they're so worried about that steamroller, why not do more? Why the baby steps?

Michelle Obama's VIP list

Get on your dancing shoes, Michelle. You've got competition.
So if Michelle Obama goes to Cuba, who should she meet? I threw out a few quick suggestions in a post yesterday.

Today a Cuban friend in Havana sent me her suggestions. Here they are:

* Marilyn Bobes. Poet, journalist and novelist. Named after Marilyn Monroe. Has won many awards. Member of the editorial council of Cuba's Union of Writers.

* Ana Lidia Vega Serova. Writer and novelist. Has a Russian mother and Cuban father. Her father studied in Moscow, where he met her mother. Writes in both Spanish and Russian. Has traveled throughout Europe. Lives in Cuba.

* Zoila Lapique. Music expert who knows all about art. Has written important books about art. Has written and edited projects with the late daughter of Julio Lobo, the sugar baron.

* Alicia Alonso. The famous Cuban dancer known around the world. Speaks English - so she wouldn't need a translator when talking to Michelle Obama :)

Alicia Alonso, 1958. Link to photo

* Nancy Morejon. Award-winning Afro-Cuban poet. Speaks Spanish, English and French.

* Rebeca Chavez. Documentary filmmaker and wife of Senel Paz, who wrote the story for the award-winning 1994 movie, Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate).

* Flora Fong. Famous Cuban painter. Her parents are Chinese. She was born in Camaguey and has two children, both painters.

Art by Flora Fong. Link to photo

* Concepción Campa Huergo, president of the Vaccine Institute “Carlos J. Finlay” in Havana. Led team of researchers that created the Meningococcal B vaccine in Cuba.
* Mariela Castro. Director of Cuba's National Center for Sex Education. Also the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro.

Other ideas for the VIP list? Send 'em in and I'll post them.

Spreading the word about Michelle Obama's trip to Cuba


I'm not really into Facebook or Twitter, but I realize these things have some power to reach people. So last night I went on Twitter to spread the word about the White House petition asking if Americans want the First Lady to go to Cuba.
I woke this morning to hundreds of messages on my cell phone.
Holy crap!
I hope I don't get a huge bill, like Alberto, the guy who downloaded a movie for his nephew and got slapped with a $62,000 charge.
Anyway, I got a kick out of some of people who sent me Tweets. Snippets from their profiles:
* Professional day dreamer
* Gay peace activist
* Repairing and testing microwave ovens
* Cubicle dweller
* Happily married to the Internet since 1994
* Life facilitator
* World's worst gambler
* A one-man National Geographic
* I dig dudes. I'm not really into the gay scene too much. I'm friendly
* Mobilizing the world to kick cancer's butt
And, my favorite,
* Melting faces using modern guitar riffs
Yep, it's great to be part of the human race.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Send the First Lady to Cuba

Get your bags packed, Michelle

An idea occurred to me while I was mowing the lawn: Why not send Michelle Obama to Cuba?
The U.S. and Cuba have been at odds for a half century. Bold steps are needed if the two countries are going to have better relations. Personal contact is needed. Changing a few regulations isn't enough. Reading a stack of briefing papers isn't enough. Someone from the White House needs to go to Cuba. Barack Obama should go, eventually. But his plate is full.

The First Lady isn't just sitting around, of course. But if Michelle Obama is going to be remembered for more than her fashion trends, she has got to do something spectacular. And a visit to Cuba would be spectacular.
A Michelle Obama trip to Cuba would recall Jacqueline Kennedy's famous 1961 meeting with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna. It would capture the world's attention. It would further help restore respect for America abroad. It would show that the U.S. government is about tolerance and cultural sensitivity, not arrogance and intimidation. (If you agree but don't want to read to the end of this post, click here to go straight to a White House petition to send the First Lady to Cuba).
I'd be shocked if Barack and Michelle Obama had no interest in traveling to Cuba. Most of the Americans I talk to are at least curious about the island. 

Cubans are among the friendliest people in the world

I lived in Cuba from 2000 to early 2005, when the Dallas Morning News closed the bureau I ran. Since 1994, I've traveled to Cuba at least 55 or 60 times - I haven't really kept track. And people who know I go there often ask me what it's like. They've heard stories about Cuba, but have never traveled there. They're curious.
And why not?

Cuba is not some garden-variety Caribbean island. It has a certain mystique. It has a rich history and heritage. It's been at or near the center of pivotal events in American history for more than 100 years.

Havana's Hotel Nacional

Cuba is a fascinating social and political experiment that's been off limits to most Americans since 1959. You don't have to agree with Cuba's political system to travel there. But it may open up your eyes and give you a new perspective on your own country.
Michelle Obama would be an ideal emissary to Cuba. She's bright, articulate and sensitive.
And if she does go, she ought to meet with a variety of people. The Cuban government shouldn't set her entire agenda and neither should the State Department or the anti-Castro forces in South Florida.
If she goes, she should get more than a dog-and-pony show highlighting everything that the Cuban government would like her to see.
She should meet with members of Cuba's political opposition, ranging the Laura Pollan, the head of Ladies in White, to dissident leader Martha Beatriz Roque and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a former economic advisor to Fidel Castro who has served jail time for activities.

Laura Pollan

Martha Beatriz Roque
Oscar Espinosa Chepe

Michelle should also meet Yoani Sanchez, whose the Generación Y blog has brought her international acclaim.

Yoani Sanchez

But the First Lady should also seek out other points of view, meeting, for instance, with relatives of Cubans killed in terrorist attacks, former Cuban fighters who defending the country during the Bay of Pigs invasion, and perhaps ex-rebels who took part in the attacks on the Moncada barracks in 1953.

I imagine that Fidel Castro would go out of his way to see Michelle Obama if she were on the island. And the First Lady should see him. Such a meeting would break new ground.

Fidel Castro

Michelle Obama should also try to meet Cubans who aren't mixed up in controversy or politics. These people range from Olympic athletes and legendary musicians to filmmakers, artists, poets, dancers, teachers, historians and others.
Don't worry, Michelle, If you need help with your agenda, I'll help out. I've already started compiling a list of people for you to meet. :)

I'm sure Jorge Fis, Cuba's former national judo champion, would enjoy meeting the First Lady
Michelle Obama could also sit down with Cuban author Marta Rojas, who has been writing about Cuba for more than 50 years.
Michelle could take in a fashion show, tour the National Museum of Fine Arts, ride along the Malecon in a Coco-Taxi, climb to the top of the lighthouse at El Morro, visit the old Hemingway estate, tour a maternity ward in Old Havana. The possibilities are endless.
Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter traveled to the island in 2002

I was in Cuba when former First Lady Rosalynn Carter visited the island in April 2002. Photos are here and here.
First Ladies don't seem to get to Cuba all that often.
Edith Carow Roosevelt went to Cuba with her sister Emily in March 1900 before her husband Theodore became president, according to American First Ladies. Theodore Roosevelt had recently been elected governor of New York. His wife and her sister went to Cuba as guests of Leonard Wood, military governor of Cuba from 1899 to 1902.
As First Lady, Edith Roosevelt went to Panama in 1907. According to the National First Ladies' Library, she was the first incumbent First Lady to venture outside United States.
Edith Bolling Galt Wilson had a higher profile, going with Woodrow Wilson to the Paris peace conference in 1918, the library said.
Helen Taft had a strong Cuba connection, but I don't know if she ever went there. She married William Howard Taft in 1886. He became war secretary and was provisional governor of Cuba from Sept. 29, 1906, to Oct. 13, 1906. He was elected president in 1909.
Grace Coolidge went with her husband, Calvin Coolidge, to Havana in January 1928. She "enjoyed the trip with her usual gusto, but after their return, she became so ill that her husband was afraid she might die," according to the book, American First Ladies. (Don't worry, Michelle. Grace Collidge could not handle her mojitos, but I have faith in you).
Calvin Collidge had a better experience. In the opening address of the Pan-American Conference, he spoke of "the heritage of the people of Bolivar and of Washington" and urged:
We must lay our voyage of exploration toward complete understanding and friendship. Having taken that course, we must not be turned aside by the fears of the timid, the counsels of the ignorant, or the designs of the malevolent.
Despite such words, many Americans have been wary of Cuba.

I don't know of any current or former First Ladies, other than Rosalynn Carter, who have been to the island since 1928. But I did only a cursory Google search. There may have been others. If anyone has any additional details, let me know and I'll post the information.

Meantime, try to imagine Michelle Obama as an emissary to Cuba. And if you would like to send the First Lady to Cuba, please sign this petition, which is addressed to the White House.

Now I've got to go back outside and finish mowing the lawn.