Friday, February 03, 2017

Miguel Fraga, First Secretary at the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba in the U.S. Speaks at Penn State on "Cuba-US Relations: Current State of Affairs"

Miguel Fraga, First Secretary at the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba in Washington, D.C. since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations on July 2015, visited Penn State University Park campus to give a talk entitled “Cuba-US Relations: Current State of Affairs.”  The talk was co-sponsored by Global Penn State, the School of International Affairs and The Center for Global Studies and is free and open to the public. (See, e.g., here).

Mr. Fraga was appointed First Secretary in June 2015 to the then Cuban Interests Section. Since 2006 he has worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in both the North American and U.S. divisions and the Office of the Minister. From 2008 to 2011 he served at the Cuban Embassy in Canada. Prior to that, from 2003 to 2008, Mr. Fraga was a member of the People's Power Provincial Assembly of the City of Havana which is the provincial parliament in Havana. He graduated from the University of Havana Faculty of Law, following in 2005 with a Master of Science in Foreign Relations from the Higher Institute of Foreign Relations “Raúl Roa García.”

The address by the First Secretary provides an important and lucid exposition of the Cuban perspective on our bilateral relations and their focus going forward. This post includes links to the recording of the talk as well as my summary observation of his excellent remarks. Stories about the event here, and here.  The Centre County Report news video on Mr. Fraga’s visit may be accessed here.

First Secretary Fraga  provided a glimpse at the skill of Cuban diplomats in the service of their country and its interests.  Presentation sought to frame the best case presentation of Cuba’s perspectives and goals in the context of both globalization and of Cuba’s place in the world. To the understanding of Cuban thinking along those lines the presentation was worth attending.

First Secretary Frega He started with the general question of the sense of Cuba in the US  and the issue of the possibility of normal relations between the US and Cuba. He sought to frame the issue around a set of questions: Why is it not possible? Because of communism? Authoritarianism? Human rights? The US has not seen these as obstacles in its other relations but Cuba is special.  Even more special because travel to Cuba by US citizens is still restricted.

He then asked: Why the 1959 Revolution? A great anti-colonialist eruption, especially one against the neo colonialism of the United States during the Batista regime.  He showed a quote to that effect and noted that it came from President Kennedy in 1963. He adroitly used Hollywood imagery to capture in a rich way the Cuban narrative of life on the Island before 1959.  Cuba before 1959 was Godfather Part II, and it was that corruption and dependence that, for the Cuban state, continues to serve as the master narrative of revolutionary justification.   

Interestingly, First Secretary Fraga sought to spin the failed Bay of Pigs intervention in a positive way.  Rather than focus, as had been customary on the Bay of Pigs as the archetypical example of interventionism that marked U.S. Cuba relations before the purification of the 1959 Revolution, First Secretary Fraga framed its place in the global narrative as a key event that served the global powers to avoid nuclear war.  There was a suggestion of the caprice of timing—that President Kennedy might have been seeking normalization immediately before his assassination. But that wisp of possibility, so lightly suggested came and went quickly, though perhaps effectively so.

Having situated Cuba in its history, First Secretary Fraga sought to situate Cuba in the world. “What is Cuba?”, he asked?  He answered first with a set of statistics and then with an analysis woven around those statistics.  First, Cuba is its 11 million people, a population smaller than Pennsylvania.  He passed over the demographic profile of the Republic, now closer to that of Japan than to that of neighboring states, a subject of some interest. Second, he suggested the productivity of this 11 million people.  Interestingly, and in an unstated nod to generations of skepticism about the robustness of Cuban supplied data, long a sore point within and outside Cuba he drew on international sources, especially to the extent they enhanced the narrative he was building. Cuba, he suggested Cuban GDP at $77 billion (2014). He noted that the private sector was growing; now 10% of labor force in the private sector. But he avoided discussion of Cuban Marxist Leninist principles that frame that growth, from the strict cabining of occupations open for private sector work (all licensed) through the forms of enterprise through which such activities might be undertaken (labor cooperatives yes, corporate capital aggregating enterprises officially no). Nor was there much discussion about the relationship of labor to either labor pricing or private enterprises and markets.  It would have been helpful, for example for a mention of the Cuban rejection of markets and a robust discussion of the reasons for this fundamental difference between Chinese andCuban Marxism.  But of course that was not the point of the statistical evidence.  Rather, and quite effectively, its object was to normalize Cuba as something other than a grim reminder of the colorless marginal realities of Eastern European socialism before 1989, an image that First Secretary Fraga might correctly have assumed was not very far from the minds of outsiders when thinking about Cuba.

There was another objective as well—the Cuban state is relentlessly combatting the alternative narrative of life within Cuba that is spun by those beyond the control of the Cuban state apparatus.  And it is to this countering of the counter narrative that some of the statistic proved most useful. For example, per capita income of $6,789.80 (2013) was effectively used to counter the perception that Cubans do not earn enough to support themselves except in a state of abject poverty—and more subtly to counter the idea, widely circulating abroad, that the Cuban economy and its people is supported only through the effective organization of corruption both in the sense of personal corruption and in the sense of systemic corruption (that is of a system that must look the other way to ensure the survival of its citizens). Those narrative ghosts were apparent in the pains that First Secretary Fraga took to note the importance of context in comparisons between rich and poor states.  The perspective that was underlined was one that noted that as compared to the richest hegemons Cuban living standards might be modest, but in comparison with its own equivalent states the Cuban people were living well enough. The emphasis was on the difference between poverty, modest lives and deprivation of basic necessities.  To that extent First Secretary Fraga’s point was well taken, though Cubans are poor they are not deprived.  That, certainly has been at the heart of Cuban social planning, and it underlies much of the anti consumer culture principles that were  hallmark of Fidel Castro’s thinking for the last 30 or so years. Indeed, that anti-consumerism proved an important element in both the choice of statistics and in the assessment of Cuban achievement with First Secretary Fraga’s emphasis that poverty is relative and the standard of living is distinct form the level of living measured by consumption.

In this context First Secretary Fraga provided a look at Cuba at a glance: life expectancy, live births, immunization, physicians per 1000, literacy, improved water sources, improved sanitation. 12.8% of GDP spent on education, 8% on health, 51% of budget go to health and education; military gets 3.5% of GDP. Cuba, of course, devotes tremendous resources on sport.  77 Gold medals, 60 silver and 74 bronze, of which they are proud.  Baseball remains important, something he is very proud of.  199 players born in Cuba have played baseball in the U.S. But to play baseball, Cubans must defect—an odd state of affairs emphasized by First Secretary Fraga. HR 573 now proposes to waive prohibitions of Cuban nationals seeking to play organized professional baseball. 1980s Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez first Afro Cuban in space. Eliminated severe child malnutrition, and fist state to receive WHO validation for eliminating mother to child transmission of HUV and syphilis.

Internet access and communications were the subject of consideration as well.  Andhere First Secretary Fraga used the opportunity to turn the discussion from the usual Western focus on the use of technology as a principal method for the maintenance of a free and robust autonomous civil society and civil discourse within a polity, to the discussion that is at the heart of the Cuban approach—the availability of modern technology to activate the productive capacities of individuals, as workers and bearers of culture—in the service of society. First Secretary Fraga noted the extent to which these goals of technology in the service of society and the state as a work in progress.  Internet access is growing but not free. He noted 1,006 internet public access points available and 200 WIFI zones, and that 250,000 people use internet daily.  From a relative perspective, more internet access than in many developing states. But what of control?  There was little mention of state supervision of internet activity, though that appeared to be understood.  There was, though, an interesting twist to the narrative of the internet—from its failures because of the policies of the Cuban state, to its impediments as a result of the draconian consequences of the American Embargo. That was the essence of the Cuban narrative with respect to internet usage—which was the focus of the discussion, that Cubans blame the Embargo, and not the Cuban state for limitations of access to sites.

First Secretary Fraga then sought to better position Cuba in the world.  It is not uncommon to think about Cuba as isolated—a necessary but not inevitable consequence of the rhetoric of Embargo.  Cuba is caught between playing up the isolating aspects of the Embargo while simultaneously also noting its intense connection with the world especially with respect to economic activity.  That at its limits sets up a contradiction that was avoided in the presentation.  Here First Secretary Fraga focused on the extensive though narrow network of Cuban trading partners.  Among the principal trading partners, unsurprisingly, are Venezuela and China.  But there are others, Canada and Mexico included.  Curiously there was no mention of trade between the U.S. and Cuba even despite the Embargo.  The difficulty here, of course, is one of narrative focus.  On the one hand it is necessary to suggest the extent to which the Embargo cuts Cuba off from the United States.  And it does, certainly.  But the full effect of this rhetorical trope also masks the reality that even under recent Republican Presidents, the flow of trade to Cuba has been large—especially from agricultural states.  And more importantly, First Secretary Fraga omitted the extent to which the Cuban economy—like those of other Caribbean states—are heavily dependent on remittances from their respective diasporas.  

The same theme of American isolation through the Embargo but surmounted by Cuban ingenuity and the strength of its national character was brought to bear in discussions about the extent to which Cuba is embedded in Cubal politics.  And certainly it is without any question that Cuba has consistently been far more influential on the world stage than its size and economic capacity would otherwise suggest.  Cuban international politics is a remarkable success story against  great dds and First Secretary Fraga was right to be proud. But it also does undermine the argument about the extent of the damage caused Cuba by the Embargo.  A resolution of this contradiction awaits. Cuba is not isolated politically and has 114 foreign diplomatic missions in Cuba and 122 Cuban embassies and missions abroad—though some of them are bare bones. Speak to the service provided by Cuban doctors abroad. And indeed, even the Israeli’s have sought ot study the success of this medical diplomacy as a model.  First Secretary Fraga did note the controversy over some aspects of this medical diplomacy—the charges made that such doctors do not really volunteer for service abroad and that in any case the Cuban state pockets much of the money it makes from the provision of medical assistance, paying doctors a small fraction of the fees the Cuban state charges. First Secretary Fraga rejected the argument that doctors are merely sources of revenue—noting missions of doctors to Africa and Afghanistan. He emphasized the positive aspects of medical engagement,and its successes instead. He noted proudly the extent of  Cuban aid to Africa to combat Ebola as well as the “quick reaction medical corps” First Secretary Fraga nicely noted the irony of the rejection by the United States of offer of doctors to New Orleans after Katrina in 2005. He also pointed to the projects: “Si se puede” that  has targeted illiteracy as well as ELAM training doctors.

And thus on to normalization after Dec. 17, 2015.  First Secretary Fraga started with a slight poke at American press coverage of the state visit of the 44th President to Cuba.  He marveled at the irony that the Cubans published Pres Obama’s speech in Spanish but Raul Castro’s speech was not published in English by US press.  He cold offer no reason.  He noted the basis for further normalization in American public opinion—a point he stressed more than once. He pointed to polls that suggests a national willingness to push normalization forward. In a nod to the political power and influence of the Cuban-American community in South Florida, he noted a Florida International University poll that suggested that majority of Cuban Americans want better relations.  It is on that basis, First Secretary Fraga suggested, that negotiations have been carried out. In that respect he noted the extensive number of meetings held between both sides prior to the November 2016 elections. The combination of polling data and confidence building meetings proves to First Secretary Fraga that, indeed, it will be possible to build better relations despite the long rupture. Among the hopeful signs—Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism rescinded May 29, 2015.The legitimacy of this decision was emphasized.  This is an especially sensitive subject for Cuba that has taken the position that politics rather than facts drive the designation and using as proof the fact that while Cuba was designated a state sponsor, Chile (which had ordered the assassination of  one of its former officials in Washington DC) was not.  He very carefully noted  that Cubans also suffered from terrorism in the US Sept. 11, 1980 when a Cuban diplomat was assassinated in Cuba, he also referenced the Oct 6, 1076  bombing of Cuban airlines flight 455. He avoided intimations of US government involvement—a change of discourse that itself speaks to the possibilities of improvement in dialogue. Very proud of sending troops to aid South African rebels and support Latin American leftist causes. Thus he underlined his point—that the problem is not on the Cuban side; instead at its root is the double standard when it comes to Cuba in the United States. For all that, Cuba believes that change is possible.  First Secretary Fraga proudly recalled submitting his credentials and those of the ambassador to the 44th President. He noted that Cuba still occupies the same embassy building where Cuba established itself in 1916.

This possibility is already showing signs of actualization.  First Secretary Fraga pointed to polling data from the United States (Atlantic Council) suggesting that a majority of U.S. residents think Cuban policy is on the right track (68%) (Nov. 2015). US nationals now view Cuba more favorably than in many decades before.  Many American officials have been visiting—governors, US officials and the like.  Lots of American officials are eager to stake out territory in Cuba.  For First Secretary Fraga, this served not merely as evidence of change but also of the Cuban position that the demand for change is strong on the American side judging by its polling and the actions of its political and business sectors. All he suggested came back noting the need to lift the Embargo. As to property claims he suggested that the only way forward is through state to state bilateral agreements that settle all claims globally at least with respect to the property lost by foreign nationals after 1959.Indeed, he offered examples of such global resolution in state to state arrangements between Cuba and other states whose nationals lost property in the wake of the 1959 Revolution. That, it appeared to be suggested, might serve as the template.  Indeed, the United States has engaged in that sort of global resolution before.  Most notably its resolution of both claims against Iran, and two generations earlier against the Soviet Union stand as models approved by the U.S. courts.  On the other hand, the federal judiciary is much changed since the 1980s and its taste for these sorts of arrangements has yet to be re-tested.

First Secretary Fraga then asked, about the nature and direction of the way forward in the style of Lenin’s “What is to be Done? He pointed first to the practical: Mail, environment, law enforcement, claims, human rights, global health, travel, commerce, etc. And he noted their form, stressing the importance of bilateral arrangements of the sort that the 45th President appears to prefer--22 bilateral agreements signed already.  But the core objective of these means must, from the Cuban perspective, be driven by a common ends—the dismantling of the U.S. Embargo. He First Secretary Fraga underlined the Cuban position, that the Embargo has illegitimate form its inception and that—at last form the perspective of the 21st century, suggests bad motive, or motives tinged with potential human rights implications.   To that end he pointed to a 1960 memo within state department that suggested the recognition of the effort to undermine the regime by causing harm to the Cuban population. Of course, one memo does not a policy make.  And it is not clear that the President shared those views.  But as a narrative enhancing device it well served its purpose.

But for First Secretary Fraga, and the Cuban state, the Embargo also represents a multilateral matter.  The Cubans put special store by the constant stream of General Assembly resolutions decrying the U.S. Embargo and seeking its dismantling.  Yet the General Assembly has decried many events, some of which it might later have come to regret.  And in any case, it is difficult to base a legal argument on moral or political claims. That applies as well to the arguments respecting the return of the Guantanamo naval base.  Another issue is Guantanamo and its return.  He provided the Cuban perspective. US controls the base and the bay.  Based on 1903 Platt Amendment and signed under conditions of occupation (but of course the amendment was the price of lifting the occupation). Supplemented by 1934 Treaty. He argues that the base is not strategic and it is not about money—they want their territory back. There the law is not on the Cuban side—even the international law that Cuba deploys when it is in its interests.  In the absence of law, then, there are calls to justice, and both the Embargo claims and those for the return of Guantanamo must, out of necessity rely on justice claims because the law (from the American perspective) is not on the Cuban side.

First Secretary Fraga also argues money. First, hinting at either reparations or at deductions from claims to be made against the state for its appropriation of property without compensation early in the Revolutionary period, First Secretary Fraga has amped up the size and scope of the “costs” of the Embargo to Cuba, He estimated that the Embargo has costs $4.6 billion a year. But the United States also wounds itselfin its efforts ot enforce the Embargo against its unwilling nationals. He hinted at the the same sort of difficulty that the United States faced in enforcing Prohibition (an analogy not directly drawn but implied) First Secretary Fraga noted that the US continues to fine for violation of Embargo regulations—fining 7 Americans and 4 foreigners  $2.863 million.  He also noted President Obama’s discussion of Cuba in his last state of the union speech and his suggestion that the Embargo be dismantled.  So why, he asked, is the Embargo still in place? That, of course, is now a question better asked the 45th President and the current Congress both of whom will likely apply their own narratives to the resolution of that issue—and perhaps less to the liking of the Cuban state.

That counter narrative by the current President and Congress also may enhance rather than diminish the set of annoyances that trouble U.S, Cuban relations.  Among these, Cuba is annoyed about what they see as the continuing U.S. project of political subversion and destabilization through their pro democracy efforts funded by US agencies. Radio and TV Martí were offered as among the most glaring examples.  Yet both have proven ineffective—and likely pose no threat to anything but national pride. From 1996 through 2014 “264 million  earmarked for democracy efforts.  These efforst are, of course, disrespectful of the Cuban system, but then normalization will not bring Cubans to a greater respect for the markets based republican system of the United States, nor convince the U.S. that Cuban syle Marxist Leninist political organization is legitimate. More potentially troubling is the continued control by the United States of the travel of its own nationals into Cuba. First Secretary Fraga noted ongoing efforts were in full steam through the end of the last Congressional session including S 299 and S 491 freedom to travel to Cuba and freedom to export to Cuba.  Also noted  HR 351 freedom to travel. But it is not clear what the fate of these efforts will be under the 45th Presidency.

For all that First Secretary Fraga, and the Cuban state, believes there is opportunity on each side.  Cuba is a net food importer.  Now breaking barriers: cruise ships, flights, 3 hotels run by US companies (in partnership with Cuban military SOEs), agreements with telecommunications, with google, and Alabama and California passed resolution in favor of better relations, and Pittsburgh “boxing on the bridge” with rematch in Pinar del Rio. Over 280,000 US visitors and 329,000 Cubans visiting Island.

First Secretary Fraga noted other opportunities for health cooperation—especially pointing to diabetes drug reducing need for amputation (on that has been tested through Spanish partner in EU).   Also pointed to the restrictions on  no medical tourism to Cuba for US nationals.  On the plus side the U.S. has opened itself to cooperation in medical research; Roswell Park now has license for trials to test anti cancer vaccine produced in Cuba. 3 Cuban doctors travelled to U. Illinois to visit low income neighborhoods for community based care advances. Spoke wistfully about Pres Obama’s commitment to Embargo dismantling. First Secretary Fraga referenced at several points Presidential quotes hopeful of deepening relations and noting his executive orders. But there was no mention of the 45th President.  That omission was noticeable and suggests both the state of uncertainty and the potential worry that this change might bring to the trajectory of normalization.

Thus First Secretary Fraga ended his talk on a positive note—even the Cuban American community in Miami, what had once been the driver of and center of antagonism to the current political regime on the Island, even the Cuban American community First Secretary Fraga asserted are now majority in support of lifting the Embargo. If they have no objection what is left? Of course, that statement of support from the Cuban American community is substantially more complicated than a simple yes go forward conclusion.  The opposition remains strong in larger quarters than might be suggested by the polls.  But what is remarkable is the willingness of a majority of Cuban Americans to be pragmatic in their approach to relations with Cuba.  That might be a function of time and of the passing of that generation that felt the effects of the revolution on a much more personal level. Yet that pragmatic turn may be all that is necessary to move forward

That shape of the movement he noted in one of his last Powerpoint slides that now follows: 

The hopefulness was al well expressed in the message sent to the 45th President by the First Secretary of the Cuban Communist Party at the CELAC Summit 1-25-2017.


The First Secretary then ended with an invitation in the form of questions:
What do you know about Cuba
Would you like to visit
Do you think better relations possible
Have you been to Cuba
Has Cuba received fair treatment

He ended with a suggestion from Pope Francis

No comments: