Note From the Pro-Cuba, Anti-Castro Lobby

Thursday, June 12, 2014
In Foreign Policy, the Council of the America's Chris Sabatini has written a defense of his organization's letter ("the letter") lobbying the Obama Administration to bypass Congress and ease sanctions towards the Castro regime.

Perhaps this is due to the overwhelming response against the letter by Cuban dissidents on the island, and by Cuban-American thought-leaders and organizations in exile.

He argues for a civilized debate on U.S. policy toward Cuba, but contradicts himself from the outset.

The title is: "The Anti-Cuba Lobby Has Jumped the Shark"

The byline reads: "By trading in denunciations, lies, and distortions -- instead of a reasonable discussion about how to open Cuba -- the rabid embargo lobby is starting to sound a lot like Castro himself."

As Chris surely knows, "the anti-Cuba lobby" is the term used by the Castros to refer to their opponents in the United States.

Arguing that others sound like the Castros by literally sounding like the Castros is not very persuasive.

Moreover, calling embargo supporters "rabid" is not a "reasonable" approach either.

Thus, at least practice what you preach.

It's funny for no one receives more insults and smears than those of us who support U.S. policy towards Cuba. But we have thick-skin.

On to the merits.

Sabatini contends that critics of the letter simply don't understand that it doesn't seek to lift the embargo -- just for a "careful tinkering" of the embargo.

Actually, we understand the letter quite well.

We understand that only Congress can lift the embargo -- and that there's strong bipartisan support for the embargo in Congress -- so this is just a back-handed strategy to lobby President Obama to bypass Congress and ease some sanctions.

We understand that -- with few exceptions -- the signatories of the letter have long-supported lifting the embargo -- not just "carefully tinkering" with it.

We understand that -- with even fewer exceptions -- the Cuban-American businessmen who signed the letter have rarely raised their voices for Cuba's courageous democracy activists, and during their trips to the island have preferred to huddle with the oppressors.

We understand that the letter calls for discussions with the Castro regime on a host of issues, but specifically eludes human rights, democracy and the recognition of independent civil society groups.

As various Cuban democracy leaders, intellectuals and regular Cubans on the street have noted, we also understand that the letter is unfamiliar with (at best) or deceptive about (at worst) how the "self-employed" sector actually works.

Here's how Sabatini explains it:

"[Raul Castro's] timid reforms have given birth to an incipient and insecure entrepreneurial class which, according to studies by the Brookings Institution, includes over 450,000 private business owners -- many of them supported only through the local informal economy and remittances from relatives in the United States."

First, Fidel Castro was forced to create "self-employment" licenses in the 1990s, pursuant to the collapse of his Soviet benefactors -- not as a result of Raul's "reforms." His goal was to control, institutionalize and profit from the thriving black-market.

Moreover, as soon as Venezuela began its billionaire subsides to Castro, he shut them down without any recourse. These licensees did not own anything, nor did they have any real or intellectual property rights.

Today, these "self-employed" licensees (far from "private business owners") are no different than they were in the 1990s. They have no rights, no legal entity, nor own any property.

And thus, the thrust of the debate (theory vs. practice):

In theory, the Council of the Americas claims it seeks to provide private support for "independent entrepreneurs."

But who are the "independent entrepreneurs" they are talking about? What qualifies as an "independent entrepreneur"? Is it someone with a "self-employment" license? Who would the financial transactions be with? What financial vehicle would they use?

In practice, the Council of the Americas seeks to throw money at the problem through the Castro regime's institutions and murky legal framework. This would only allow for even greater control, institutionalization and profit by the authorities.

These licensees would be able to thrive if they simply had the freedom and rights to function as normal "private business owners" anywhere else in the world.

Unfortunately, the only licensees allowed to thrive are the ones given the nod by the Castro regime, either because of their connections, obedience or both.  Ironically, they are also the ones with the less connections abroad.

Meanwhile, those licensees who work off the black-market or remittances from abroad are the ones who face the most impediments (and usually end up back in the black-market). So why are they able to succeed more in the black-market than as "self-employed" licensees? Not because they have more resources, but because they are less controlled.

Throughout its history, the Castro regime has only made changes when it was compelled to, particularly during times of crisis (as it currently faces). The more money is thrown at the Castro regime, the more controlling (and repressive) it is.

As Cuban blogger Miriam Celaya, who has supported lifting sanctions in the past, recently wrote about the letter:

"[The embargo's] unilateral and unconditional relaxation could be more harmful than beneficial at this juncture, given the regime’s ability to maneuver advantageously in critical situations."

They understand this very well.

Finally, Sabatini argues that the letter also seeks to provide Cubans with more connectivity.  After all, "who's against a free Internet," he asks.

No one. That's why U.S. sanctions have specific exemptions to help provide the Cuban people with telecom services.

Moreover, that's why U.S. democracy programs help civil society with circumvention tools and technology, so they can access the "free Internet." Castro's American hostage, Alan Gross, is a testament to this.

However, handing the Castro regime a modern infrastructure and technology to further monitor, track-down, censor and repress its citizens -- in the hopes of a slight "Internet trickle-down effect" -- is obviously counter-productive.

Thus, there's a fine-line.

Not long ago, Sabatini labeled Venezuela's creation of a fiber optic network with the Castro regime as a "huge missed opportunity [for U.S. companies]."

He was wrong -- unless, of course, he meant a "missed opportunity" to further enrich the Castro regime and hand it greater control mechanisms over the Cuban people.

Cable or no cable, Castro's totalitarian dictatorship remains fully in control of the Internet -- and any improvements in connectivity are now solely for the regime's benefit.

As young, exiled democracy activist Karel Becerra, who studied computer science in Cuba, recently wrote in his criticism of the letter:

"Dictatorships aren't afraid of technology, per se. They are afraid of technology in the hands of civil society. This should be the focus of any proposal: free technology that can be put directly into the hands of the people. It should stem from the fundamental premise: technology for the end-consumers. This includes satellite phones, wireless devises, signal multipliers, satellite receptors, and devises to encrypt and transport data."

They understand this very well also.