(Pondering a post-Castro Cuba)
I’ve just spent one day in Mexico City, my first time. Mostly, I was with a group of academics and public intellectuals mostly from ITAM in Mexico City, the University of Texas in Austin, and the University of Havana in Cuba. There was a Canadian from the University of Ottawa and a couple of us from Washington.
The topic of the day was whether or not there are opportunities for e-engagement given the significant constraints that exist not only in the legal and political dimensions of US-Cuban relations but also financial and logistical.
It was interesting and useful to meet Cuban academics to get a sense of what they think is happening inside Cuba and what a post-Castro world might look like.
But I found it remarkable that even in this rather small conference, most of the Cuban academics needed to go through a pro forma articulation of their objections to an imperial America, and on several occasions, Guantanamo surfaced. Though I have my own problems with the detention of enemy combatants by the US at Guantanamo, that subject has little to do with thinking through new contours of policy interaction through the web without violating American or Cuban laws.
It’s interesting to note that a meeting of Americans, Mexicans, and Cubans that took place at the Sheraton Hotel in Mexico City in February 2006 — just down the street from where we were — was wrecked by American Treasury Department officials who told the Sheraton to expel Cubans who were staying there. The Sheraton did this and threw the Cubans out on to the street because the US-based hotel chain didn’t want to be punished for violating laws forbidding commercial exchange with the Cuban government.
There may be details of the case of which I am not aware, but hosting traveling Cubans in a third country is not engaging in financial transactions with the Cuban government. This was a bizarre case of serious American imperial over-extension into Mexico. So, when the Cubans got my dander up by accusing Americans of hyper-imperialism while not balancing with a critique of their own thuggish leader, I bit my tongue and tried to make the case that none of this mattered when it came to thinking whether there were e-engagement possibilities that we had flown to Mexico to consider.
But I have to admit that I was ticked off that the US pushed this extra-territorial sanction on an American hotel in Mexico — thus convincing Cubans that their critique of America was valid from their view — and also creating a crisis in Mexico. ITAM in Mexico seemed to always use the Sheraton Hotel for other international meetings and has now decided that it will never do so again. There was a huge debate inside Mexico — and in Mexican courts — as to whether the Hotel had violated Mexican law by discriminating against the Cuban visitors and expelling them after their reservations had been accepted. The end result is that in the end the Mexican government did not require that the Hotel be shut down permanently Ã¢â‚¬â€œ but it was costly for the Sheraton and costly for the American image in Mexico.
And keep in mind that the US government has said scarce little about the turnover to the Chinese government of electronic data that Yahoo and Google have accumulated which the Chinese government has then used to jail those who think, even in “draft form“, about democracy.
American government inconsistency is staggering.
There was an imposition of “off the record” rules on the morning of the meeting I attended, which irritated me — as reporting some of the comments made by the parties at this session would have been useful in making this eclectic gathering matter beyond the sleepy conference room in which we met.
One of the key constraints on virtual communications between Cubans and Americans is not money or availability of web portals — though those are factors — but also internal political controls and harassment. These academics can’t fix that problem on their own, but to not acknowledge that free exchange is not only not encouraged in Cuba but also sometimes punished makes any discussion of the political dimensions of this problem surreal.
Likewise, I find it reprehensible that the US Department of the Treasury has included “co-authorship” of academic papers as an actionable offense under the OFAC laws (Office of Foreign Assets Control). Scientists, historians, literature and culture experts, political scientists, and the like are not permitted to co-author papers together, even when there are no remittances involved. America does grant licenses for some American universities to host and even provide limited forms of compensation to visiting Cuban academics, and journalists and others within certain classifications in the cultural, academic, and official government realms can get licenses to legally travel to Cuba from the US.
What various administrations that have been tangling with Fidel Castro for a couple of generations have tried to do is to strangle off his access to hard currency. Despite the fact that Castro has survived the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, G.H.W. Bush, Clinton, and at least the first term and a half of the G.W. Bush administration, America hasn’t revised much its tactics toward Cuba.
I think engagement is what helps the forces of liberalization, but I’m not interested today in a more cosmic comment about the idiocy of maintaining failed decades-long isolation and humiliation strategies that have bolstered Castro more than eroded his support and ability to control his nation.
I am interested that this administration — or any other Republican or Democratic administration — isn’t promoting robust intellectual exchange, co-authorship of papers, and attempting to inculcate Cuba’s academics and universities with the importance of empirical research and the benefits that come from a more empowered civil society — that must have successful academic institutions as one of the key pillars.
Some who read this post will accuse me of being naive about Cuba in arguing that getting the pipelines for exchange right is very important, particularly in considering post-Castro possibilities.
George Bush will — any day now — be issuing a second report from the Cuba Transition Commission, which issued its first report in 2001.
If Bush has a problem with travel and financial remittances, fine. But if Bush wants to lay the groundwork in part for other possibilities, then drop this ridiculous restriction about co-authorship of academic papers. And add a provision that encourages e-exchange, chat room development, and blogger networking and communication. Establish “free spaces” that permit robust debate about the current state of domestic Cuban affairs, US-Cuba relations, and the domestic state of American affairs. After all, America did expel Cubans from a hotel in Mexico and also collects information on nearly every domestic phone call in the United States.
Cubans might have a few things to say about that, and their revulsion (like my own) to unchecked executive power might help empower them to be more critical of their own government.
As one of the commentators in the conference I attended yesterday said — and I will violate rules to report this — “America, Cuba, and Mexico, all have dirty laundry, but we must deal with the fact that many of our fellow citizens in Cuba and many in Mexico want to get into America despite its many problems and inconsistencies. We must be honest about this reality.”
Well, America needs to use that soft leverage of exchange, which can be handled through bits on the net to begin with, in positive ways that promote big thinking about a post-Castro Cuba.
— Steve Clemons