Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Now where are those Cohibas?

Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba's National Assembly

California lawmaker Barbara Lee invited Ricardo Alarcon to Washington for an event that begins Thursday, but the State Department denied him a visa.
My guess is that Alarcon didn't expect a visa and didn't even pack for the trip. He was expecting a rejection all along. This kind of thing is routine.
Whatever the case, Capitol Hill Cubans applauded the Sept. 21 visa denial.
"Kudos to the State Department," the blog said today. "...U.S. diplomats in Havana are not allowed to lobby or even engage with Members of Castro's National Assembly."
But Cuban diplomats in Washington are free to lobby members of Congress, the blog said. "Cuban 'diplomats' are even permitted to leave gifts of value in Member's offices."
So it wouldn't be fair, the reasoning goes, to let Alarcon travel to Washington.
All that makes sense if you agree we ought to continue playing this tit-for-tat diplomatic game. I'd prefer a different approach, one involving stepped-up diplomatic contact and more people-to-people exchanges.
That issue aside, after reading the Capitol Hill Cubans' post, I am left wondering about one point: the foreign gifts.
How often do Cuban diplomats give U.S. lawmakers gifts? Is it common? And what are Cubans giving to Americans?
I was curious about that, so I checked and saw that not a single U.S. lawmaker had reported a gift from Cuba.
There were gifts from such countries as China, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Pakistan, Russia and Yemen, but nothing from Cuba. No boxes of Cohibas, no seven-year-old Havana Club.
And I'm not terribly surprised. I've known a lot of Cuban diplomats over the past 15 years and I've never seen them passing out armloads of gifts. A book or video, maybe, but nothing fancy or expensive.
It's not that ordinary Cubans aren't generous. They are. But when it comes to diplomacy, I think the scarcity of foreign gifts has to do with both protocol and money.
Cuban diplomats don't make a lot of money. They don't have a ton of cash for gifts. And neither does the socialist government.
So even if Alarcon had gotten his visa, he probably wouldn't have arrived with a suitcase full of vintage rum. Instead, he'd probably have a few changes of clothes and some DVDs about the Cuban Five.
Lee had invited Alarcon to attend the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 39th Annual Legislative Conference at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. According to the PR Newswire, more than 15,000 people are expected to attend the four-day conference. It will feature:
...dozens of policy forums, general sessions, exhibits, a job fair, book signings and networking opportunities. It ends with a star-studded awards dinner. Registrants include elected officials, business and industry leaders, celebrities, media, emerging leaders and everyday Americans.


Elpidio Valdez said...

Any problem for any US Congress member getting visa to visit Cuba? So, this don't makes any sense.Does the US Government really wants to change the policy toward Cuba? It doesn't looks like that.Right?

Tracey Eaton said...

I don't believe that members of Congress have trouble getting permission to visit Cuba. But these visits can be controversial and some lawmakers don't go because of the political trouble they'll face when they return home.