Maggie Alarcón

Posts Tagged ‘Jay-Z’

Breaking down Barriers

In Arts, Blockade, Cuban 5, Cuban Embargo, Politics on April 12, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Margarita Alarcón Perea

I truly love New York. I was there when the City was christened with the term “The Big Apple” and way before the t-shirt and mug craze of the heart everywhere.

The thing is though, that my love for the City stems from its pulse. It´s magical and I don’t mean the hustle and bustle of endless lines of bright yellows and the tallest MTA buses ever known to mankind. In my case it’s the people. New York City has a magic that comes from the people that inhabit the City. They are, well, just different. Ruder and cruder than those from the Midwest, faster and blunter than the South, more fashion obsessed and obsessive than the West Coast; they are difficult and easy in the same proportion depending on your perspective. Putting it simply, a New Yorker wants it when they want it because they want it.

I guess it is precisely because of this that it had to take a native from Brooklyn  to start a commotion that has blown away all other news on Cuba this past week. When Beyoncé and her husband Jay Z came down to Cuba to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary it took little time for people on the island to find out, in spite of the fact that not a single Cuban news outlet gave word of the event till it was just unstoppable.

It wasn’t a tough guess that the Cuban American congressional lobby was going to lash out at this with all its might. And it did. Representatives Mario Diaz Balart and Ileana Ross Lehtinen both voiced concerned over the trip and began demanding that the Treasury Department inform if the couple had travelled legally (under an issued licence) or not. Normally what would have happened, as it has in the past, would have been a statement by the couples press rep in a public press conference or directly to both members of Congress and that would have been that.

Not this time.

For years I have been personally waiting for someone, anyone, of a certain social public clout to come down to Cuba, have a good time, and then go back to the US and make a shtick about it.

Well,  Jay Z did it. He not only came down with Beyoncé on a valid OFAC licence but he went all out and responded to anyone interested by writing a rap on the whole issue.

It took a New Yorker,  a hip hop artist in the true sense of being a New Yorker, to start the ball rolling and get everyone involved.

In the words of Cheryl Contee published today in The Guardian “Jay-Z’s rap struck a chord because America is ready to drop the Cuba embargo. Let’s hope President Obama is listening.”

The Cuba Lobby

In Politics, US on April 12, 2013 at 10:53 am

 

The most powerful lobby in Washington isn’t the NRA. It’s the Castro-hating right wing that has Obama’s bureaucrats terrified and inert.

BY WILLIAM M. LEOGRANDE | 

http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2013/04/11/the_cuba_lobby_jay_z?print=yes&hidecomments=yes&page=full

 Jay-Z and Beyoncé are discovering that fame provides no immunity from the Cuba Lobby’s animus for anyone who has the audacity to act as if Cuba is a normal country rather than the heart of darkness. After the pop icons’ recent trip to the island to celebrate their wedding anniversary, the Cuba Lobby’s congressional contingent — Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart — castigated the couple, demanding that they be investigated for violating the half-century-old U.S. embargo. (As it turned out, the trip had been authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department as a cultural exchange.) Still, celebrity trips to Cuba make headlines, and condemnation by the Cuba Lobby is always quick to follow. But what seems like a Hollywood sideshow is actually symptomatic of a much deeper and more dangerous problem — a problem very much like the one that afflicted U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s. Then, as now, an aggressive foreign-policy lobby was able to prevent rational debate about an anachronistic policy by intimidating anyone who dared challenge it.

 “A wasteland.” That’s how W. Averell Harriman described the State Department’s Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs when he took it over for President John F. Kennedy in 1961. “It’s a disaster area filled with human wreckage.… Some of them are so beaten down they can’t be saved. Some of those you would want to save are just finished. They try and write a report and nothing comes out. It’s a terrible thing.” As David Halberstam recounts in The Best and the Brightest, the destruction of the State Department’s expertise on Asia was the result of the China Lobby’s decade-long assault on everyone, from professors to Foreign Service officers, who disputed the charge that communist sympathizers in the United States had “lost China.” The China Lobby and its allies in Congress forced President Harry Truman and President Dwight Eisenhower to purge the State Department of its most senior and knowledgeable “China hands,” while continuing to perpetuate the fiction that the Nationalist government in Taiwan was the “real” China, rather than the communist government on the mainland — a policy stance that persisted long after the rest of the world had come to terms with Mao Zedong’s victory. The result was a department that had little real knowledge about Asia and was terrified of straying from far-right orthodoxy. This state of affairs contributed directly to the debacle of Vietnam.

Today, U.S. relations with Latin America are suffering from an equally irrational policy toward Cuba — a policy designed in the 1960s to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government and which, more than 50 years later, is no closer to success. Like U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s, policy toward Cuba is frozen in place by a domestic political lobby, this one with roots in the electorally pivotal state of Florida. The Cuba Lobby combines the carrot of political money with the stick of political denunciation to keep wavering Congress members, government bureaucrats, and even presidents in line behind a policy that, as President Barack Obama himself admits, has failed for half a century and is supported by virtually no other countries. (The last time it came to a vote in the U.N. General Assembly, only Israel and the Pacific island of Palau sided with the United States.) Of course, the news at this point is not that a Cuba Lobby exists, but that it astonishingly lives on — even during the presidency of Obama, who publicly vowed to pursue a new approach to Cuba, but whose policy has been stymied thus far.

Like the China Lobby, the Cuba Lobby isn’t one organization but a loose-knit conglomerate of exiles, sympathetic members of Congress, and nongovernmental organizations, some of which comprise a self-interested industry nourished by the flow of “democracy promotion” money from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). And like its Sino-obsessed predecessor, the Cuba Lobby was launched at the instigation of conservative Republicans in government who needed outside backers to advance their partisan policy aims. In the 1950s, they were Republican members of Congress battling New Dealers in the Truman administration over Asia policy. In the 1980s, they were officials in Ronald Reagan’s administration battling congressional Democrats over Central America policy.

At the Cuba Lobby’s request, Reagan created Radio Martí, modeled on Radio Free Europe, to broadcast propaganda to Cuba. He named Jorge Mas Canosa, founder of the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), to chair the radio’s oversight board. President George H.W. Bush followed with TV Martí. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) and Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) authored the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act, writing the economic embargo into law so no president could change it without congressional approval.

Founded at the suggestion of Richard V. Allen, Reagan’s first national security advisor, CANF became one of the most powerful ethnic foreign-policy organizations in the United States and was the linchpin of the Cuba Lobby until Mas Canosa’s death in 1997. “No individual had more influence over United States policies toward Cuba over the past two decades than Jorge Mas Canosa,” the New York Times editorialized. In Washington, CANF built its reputation by spreading campaign contributions to bolster friends and punish enemies. In 1988, CANF money helped Joe Lieberman defeat incumbent Sen. Lowell Weicker, whom Lieberman accused of being soft on Castro because he visited Cuba and advocated better relations. Weicker’s defeat sent a chilling message to other members of Congress: challenge the Cuba Lobby at your peril. In 1992, according to Peter Stone’s reporting in National Journal, New Jersey Democrat Sen. Robert Torricelli, seduced by the Cuba Lobby’s political money, reversed his position on Havana and wrote the Cuban Democracy Act, tightening the embargo. Today, the political action arm of the Cuba Lobby is the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, which hands out more campaign dollars than CANF’s political action arm did even at its height — more than $3 million in the last five national elections.

In Miami, conservative Cuban-Americans have long presumed to be the sole authentic voice of the community, silencing dissent by threats and, occasionally, violence. In the 1970s, anti-Castro terrorist groups like Omega 7 and Alpha 66 set off dozens of bombs in Miami and assassinated two Cuban-Americans who advocated dialogue with Castro. Reports by Human Rights Watch in the 1990s documented the climate of fear in Miami and the role that elements of the Cuba Lobby, including CANF, played in creating it.

Today, moderate Cuban-Americans have managed to carve out greater space for political debate about U.S. relations with Cuba as attitudes in the community have changed — a result of both the passing of the old exile generation of the 1960s and the arrival of new immigrants who want to maintain ties with family they left behind. But a network of right-wing radio stations and right-wing bloggers still routinely vilifies moderates by name, branding anyone who favors dialogue as a spy for Castro. The modus operandi is the same as the China Lobby’s in the 1950s: One anti-Castro crusader makes dubious accusations of espionage, often based on guilt by association, which the others then repeat ad nauseam, citing one other as proof.

Like the China Lobby before it, the Cuba Lobby has also struck fear into the heart of the foreign-policy bureaucracy. The congressional wing of the Cuba Lobby, in concert with its friends in the executive branch, routinely punishes career civil servants who don’t toe the line. One of the Cuba Lobby’s early targets was John J. “Jay” Taylor, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, who was given an unsatisfactory annual evaluation report in 1988 by Republican stalwart Elliott Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, because Taylor reported from Havana that the Cubans were serious about wanting to negotiate peace in southern Africa and Central America. “CANF had close contact with the Cuban desk, which soon turned notably unfriendly toward my reporting from post and it seemed toward me personally,” Taylor recalled in an oral history interview. “Mas and the foundation soon assumed that I was too soft on Castro.”

The risks of crossing the Cuba Lobby were not lost on other foreign-policy professionals. In 1990, Taylor was in Washington to consult about the newly launched TV Martí, which the Cuban government was jamming so completely that Cubans on the island dubbed it, “la TV que no se ve” (“No-see TV”). But TV Martí’s patrons in Washington blindly insisted that the vast majority of the Cuban population was watching the broadcasts. Taylor invited the U.S. Information Agency officials responsible for TV Martí to come to Cuba to see for themselves. “Silence prevailed around the table,” he recalled. “I don’t think anyone there really believed TV Martí signals were being received in Cuba. It was a Kafkaesque moment, a true Orwellian experience, to see a room full of grown, educated men and women so afraid for their jobs or their political positions that they could take part in such a charade.”

In 1993, the Cuba Lobby opposed the appointment of President Bill Clinton’s first choice to be assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, Mario Baeza, because he had once visited Cuba. According to Stone, fearful of the Cuba Lobby’s political clout, Clinton dumped Baeza. Two years later, Clinton caved in to the Cuba Lobby’s demand that he fire National Security Council official Morton Halperin, who was the architect of the successful 1995 migration accord with Cuba that created a safe, legal route for Cubans to emigrate to the United States. One chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba told me he stopped sending sensitive cables to the State Department altogether because they so often leaked to Cuba Lobby supporters in Congress. Instead, the diplomat flew to Miami so he could report to the department by telephone.

During George W. Bush’s administration, the Cuba Lobby completely captured the State Department’s Latin America bureau (renamed the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs). Bush’s first assistant secretary was Otto Reich, a Cuban-American veteran of the Reagan administration and favorite of Miami hard-liners. Reich had run Reagan’s “public diplomacy” operation demonizing opponents of the president’s Central America policy as communist sympathizers. Reich hired as his deputy Dan Fisk, former staff assistant to Senator Helms and author of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act. Reich was followed by Roger Noriega, another former Helms staffer, who explained that Bush’s policy was aimed at destabilizing the Cuban regime: “We opted for change even if it meant chaos. The Cubans had had too much stability over decades.… Chaos was necessary in order to change reality.”

In 2002, Bush’s undersecretary for arms control and international security, John Bolton, made the dubious charge that Cuba was developing biological weapons. When the national intelligence officer for Latin America, Fulton Armstrong, (along with other intelligence community analysts) objected to this mischaracterization of the community’s assessment, Bolton and Reich tried repeatedly to have him fired. The Cuba Lobby began a steady drumbeat of charges that Armstrong was a Cuban agent because his and the community’s analysis disputed the Bush team’s insistence that the Castro regime was fragile and wouldn’t survive the passing of its founder. The 2001 arrest for espionage of the Defense Intelligence Agency’s top Cuba analyst, Ana Montes, heightened the Cuba Lobby’s hysteria over traitors in government in the same way that the spy cases of the 1950s — Alger Hiss and the Amerasia magazine affair — gave the China Lobby ammunition. Armstrong was subjected to repeated and intrusive security investigations, all of which cleared him of wrongdoing. (He completed a four-year term as national intelligence officer and received a prestigious CIA medal recognizing his service when he left the agency in 2008.)

When Obama was elected president, promising a “new beginning” in relations with Havana, the Cuba Lobby relied on its congressional wing to stop him. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the senior Cuban-American Democrat in Congress and now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, vehemently opposes any opening to Cuba. In March 2009, he signaled his willingness to defy both his president and his party to get his way. Menendez voted with Republicans to block passage of a $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill (needed to keep the government running) because it relaxed the requirement that Cuba pay in advance for food purchases from U.S. suppliers and eased restrictions on travel to the island. To get Menendez to relent, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner had to promise in writing that the administration would consult Menendez on any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Senate Republicans also blocked confirmation of Arturo Valenzuela as Obama’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs until November 2009. With the bureau managed in the interim by Bush holdovers, no one was pushing from below to carry out Obama’s new Cuba policy. After Valenzuela stepped down in 2012, Senator Rubio (R-Fla.), whose father left Cuba in the 1950s, held up confirmation of Valenzuela’s replacement, Roberta Jacobson, until the administration agreed to tighten restrictions on educational travel to Cuba, undercutting Obama’s stated policy of increasing people-to-people engagement.

When Obama nominated career Foreign Service officer Jonathan Farrar to be ambassador to Nicaragua, the Cuba Lobby denounced him as soft on communism. During his previous posting as chief of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, Farrar had reported to Washington that Cuba’s traditional dissident movement had very little appeal to ordinary Cubans. Menendez and Rubio teamed up to give Farrar a verbal beating during his confirmation hearing for carrying out Obama’s policy of engaging the Cuban government rather than simply antagonizing it. When they blocked Farrar’s confirmation, Obama withdrew the nomination, sending Farrar as ambassador to Panama instead. Their point made, Menendez and Rubio did not object.

The Cuba Lobby’s power to derail diplomatic careers is common knowledge among foreign-policy professionals. Throughout Obama’s first term, midlevel State Department officials cooperated more closely and deferred more slavishly to congressional opponents of Obama’s Cuba policy than to supporters like John Kerry, the new secretary of state who served at the time as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. When Senator Kerry tried to get the State Department and USAID to reform the Bush administration’s democracy-promotion programs in 2010, he ran into more opposition from the bureaucracy than from Republicans. If Obama intends to finally keep the 2008 campaign promise to take a new direction in relations with Cuba, the job can’t be left to foreign-policy bureaucrats, who are so terrified of the Cuba Lobby that they continue to believe, or pretend to believe, absurdities — that Cubans are watching TV Martí, for instance, or that Cuba is a state sponsor of terrorism. Only a determined president and a tough secretary of state can drive a new policy through a bureaucratic wasteland so paralyzed by fear and inertia.

The irrationality of U.S. policy does not stem just from concerns about electoral politics in Florida. The Cuban-American community has evolved to the point that a majority now favors engagement with Cuba, as both opinion polls and Obama’s electoral success in 2008 and 2012 demonstrate. Today, the larger problem is the climate of fear in the government bureaucracy, where even honest reporting about Cuba — let alone advocating a more sensible policy — can endanger one’s career. Democratic presidents, who ought to know better, have tolerated this distortion of the policy process and at times have reinforced it by allowing the Cuba lobby to extort concessions from them. But the cost is high — the gradual and insidious erosion of the government’s ability to make sound policy based on fact rather than fantasy.

Through bullying and character assassination, the China Lobby blocked a sensible U.S. policy toward Beijing for a quarter-century, with tragic results. When Richard Nixon finally defied the China Lobby by going to Beijing in 1972, the earth did not tremble, civilization did not collapse, and U.S. security did not suffer. If anything, U.S. allies around the world applauded the adoption — finally — of a rational policy. At home, the punditocracy was surprised to discover that Nixon’s bold stroke was politically popular. The China Lobby proved to be a paper tiger; the Red Scare fever of the 1950s had subsided, robbing the movement of its political base.

Likewise, the Cuba Lobby has blocked a sensible policy toward Cuba for half a century, with growing damage to U.S. relations with Latin America. When a courageous U.S. president finally decides to defy the Cuba Lobby with a stroke as bold as Nixon’s trip to China, she or he will discover that so to the Cuba Lobby no longer has the political clout it once had. The strategic importance of repairing the United States’ frayed relations with Latin America has come to outweigh the political risk of reconciliation with Havana. Nixon went to China, and history records it as the highlight of his checkered legacy. Will Barack Obama have the courage to go to Havana?

 

 

Cuba and the Beyonce Effect

In Blockade, Politics on April 9, 2013 at 10:10 am

By Arturo López-Levy

Published originally in the  Huffington Post 

Every once in a while something happens to remind us just how far U.S.-Cuba relations have deviated from what they should be. Last week, superstars Beyonce Knowles-Carter and Jay-Z strolled through Havana, engulfed in a sea of people. The couple went to Cuba to celebrate their fifth wedding anniversary but could not pass through the city unnoticed like they may have wished. They are at the peak of their artistic careers and my adolescent niece Sophia, to whom I have tried to explain the poetry of Bob Dylan, cannot believe that I don’t know any Beyonce songs.

The fact is that for some reason, probably associated with the cultural and people-to-people exchanges, promoted by the Obama administration, Beyonce and Jay Z went to Habana Vieja, a World Heritage site, and visited with young Cubans at schools of art and dance. The couple dined in a privately-owned restaurant “La Guarida,” where the famous 1990s movie Strawberry and Chocolate, with a clear anti-homophobic message, was filmed. The privately-owned restaurant represents a new era in Cuba, with a growing non-state economic sector and an environment much more tolerant of social and religious diversity, still under a single party system.

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View from balcony at La Guarida crowds gather in anticipation of a glimpse of the couple.

Reactions in the U.S. were immediate. What should merely be a trip abroad, a right protected by the U.S. constitution, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, has become a political kerfuffle. Mauricio Claver-Carone, the chief pro-embargo lobbyist in Washington, lashed out against the trip accusing Beyonce of being a tool of “Castro propaganda,” because her trip to Cuba this week “stole” the spot light from opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez, on tour in the United States. As he commonly does, speaking about a Cuba he had never visited, Claver-Carone wrongly declared that the restaurants in which the couple ate were all owned by Cuban government officials. Can he tell us which particular high government position Enrique, the owner of “La Guarida” for the last fifteen years, holds?

Miami Herald columnist Myriam Marquez, who hosted Yoani Sanchez’s visit to the Freedom Tower, denounced the Cuban government for “the calibrated juxtaposition of BeJay’s arrival in La Habana late last week with Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez’s departure from Little Havana.” As Cuban-American blogger Alejandro Barreras satirically writes:

“So the Cuban regime, in all their devilish cunning, planned five years ago for Beyonce and Jay Z to marry on a certain date, so that their fifth anniversary would coincide with a visit to the United States of an opposition blogger who was just starting to obtain international acclaim, thanks to travel reforms that nobody back then could have seen coming. (Don’t laugh, it is called quinquennial planning).”

Not to be left out, Cuban-American U.S. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart requested information about the trip from the Treasury Department, suggesting a possible violation of the U.S. policy to isolate Cuba. How has the policies of a great democratic power like the U.S. fallen into the hands of such a paranoid and intolerant bunch?

Meanwhile adolescents ask their parents where Cuba is and why can’t they go to this country with such good music and beautiful people and beaches if it’s only 90 miles away. If the U.S. is not a communist country, why does it restrict the rights of its citizens to travel? Most people in the U.S. would be shocked by the irrationality of U.S. policy toward Cuba, anchored in the cold war.

The Beyonce effect is a call to take a fresh look at the U.S. policy toward Cuba with the candidness of an adolescent. It is difficult to defend a policy that stomps on the same rights it preaches. Since the migratory reforms made by Cuba in January, that eliminated most of the restrictions on travel from the totalitarian period, Cubans, under a communist regime have fewer legal impediments to visiting the U.S. than U.S. citizens have to visiting Cuba.

It is time to align our policies with our principles. As President Kennedy said before the Brandenburg Gate at the climax of the Cold War, “Freedom has many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep our people in, to prevent them from leaving us” and as his brother Bobby wrote in a memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk on December 12, 1963, urging an end to the travel ban, the freedom to travel “is more consistent with our views as a free society and would contrast with such things as the Berlin Wall and communist controls on such travel.”

If Beyonce and Jay-Z visit President Obama in the future, they should remind him that he himself called the embargo an irrational policy that “only hurts the innocent people of Cuba.” At the very least, Obama should listen to a growing group of U.S. Congress members, lead by Representative Sam Farr (D-Calif.), who are again asking him to allow all categories of non-tourist travel to be carried out under a general license. This would remove bureaucratic obstacles that currently prevent many Americans, who are interested in people-to-people engagement, from visiting the island. Interacting with Cuba should not be a privilege exclusive to celebrities.

Thank you Beyonce and Jay-Z. Welcome to the club of those anathematized and cursed by the McCarthyism of the embargo supporters. The travel ban is against the interests of the U.S. and is an affront to its democratic values. Thank you for your unintended clarion call to the conscience of your fellow citizens about a policy that is irrational, and anti-American.