Friday, July 17, 2015

Activist: U.S. trying to "buy" democracy in Cuba

Jorge de Armas
Jorge de Armas, director of Cuban Americans for Engagement, and Benjamin Willis, a founding member of the group, will be guests on La Tarde Se Mueve with Edmundo Garcia at 5 p.m. today.

Below is a short Q&A with Willis:

Question: How important are the democracy programs that the U.S. continues to operate in Cuba?

As far as promoting democracy, I believe that they are useless. These programs are not the problem, they are merely a symptom of a much bigger problem- the embargo codified by Helms-Burton Act. They are important in that their continued existence demonstrate that the U.S. still has a long way to go until it reaches full normalization with Cuba.

How do you explain to outsiders how the U.S. has this seemingly contradictory policy - reaching out to establish ties with Cuba while running programs that the Cuban government sees as illegal?

Benjamin Willis
Generally speaking, most normal people view the U.S. Cuba policy as an anomaly without knowing a thing about these specific programs. This is another example of the typical American tendency of "throwing money at a problem " hoping that grassroots democracy will somehow spring up just because they paid for it. I understand the need for independent journalism on the island and internet connectivity is an issue but there are plenty of legal ways to accomplish that without violating Cuban and international law.

Is it a done deal that the U.S. will spend $30 million on these programs in fiscal 2016?

Yet again, one has to ask why the president doesn't have a line item veto. Between the increase in the budget for said programs and the prohibitions written by MDB the Appropriations bill this budget could be a setback for Obama's Cuba policy. Will the Senate pass it? If it gets to his desk will he "stick to his guns" and veto it? It's not a done deal but it could undo a lot.
This also brings up another point in Cuba policy. Until the embargo (Helms-Burton, Toricelli, Cuban Adjustment etc.) is repealed then any and all progress made with Cuba can be erased faster than you can say "Asere! Que bola?". Cuba policy is a line drawn in the sand that could easily be redrawn by a president who wanted to reverse Obama's gains. However, if the embargo is repealed then I doubt it will ever come back.
Proponents of normalization need to understand that this is a "winner take all" scenario and nothing has been won so far. Just because more people are traveling and you can bring back cigars and rum doesn't mean that it couldn't all go south really quickly if the wrong people were to be put in charge.

Question: It doesn't seem that many people criticize these programs. What motivates you?

Most people don't criticize these programs because they are fed the same line that these programs help " the poor oppressed Cubans." Alan Gross' saga is a great example of this. The original AP story, which is increasingly hard to find, delineated the illegal nature of Gross activities and was pretty objective. Then there were five years worth of reports about how bad Gross had it. How he was arbitrarily thrown in jail when all he wanted to do was bring better internet service to his fellow Jews on the island. It's no wonder people think that these programs are "God's work" when they are so misinformed.

What motivates me is that I actually want the U.S. And Cuba to have a normal relationship. My wife is Cuban. My son is Cuban American (no hyphen). I play Cuban music for a living and my main employer is now passing most of his time in Cuba. Why can't we have the same aspirations as my Colombian, Mexican, Pakistani, Chinese, Peruvian neighbors here in Queens? They have established lives here but they can invest in their homelands, travel back without paying a kings ransom, sell their home and retire back where they want to. They can invite their family to visit and can communicate with them on a regular basis. That's my motivation- to be able to have a more normal perspective regarding the future. I know the "Johnny come latelys" want to only focus on travel and trade but neither of those issues will ever truly be reconciled if the embargo isn't lifted.

One final thought - What does democracy really cost anyway? If we're really talking about a democratic Cuba (whatever that means), with an independent press, with an infrastructure that will enable Cubans to access and divulge information, with maybe another political party (say Socialist-Democratic), then we're not talking millions- we're talking about billions. Why not make a real investment in Cuba and let the Cuban people decide what they want instead of throwing money down a hole to keep Radio and TV Marti on the air? Why do they even exist anymore? If I were Obama I would have announced either December 17th or the 1st of July with the embassy that these boondoggles will hereby cease to exist.

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