Thursday, August 27, 2015

Who I Am

A detractor of one of my recent blog posts insinuated that I was an elitist "Republican" country clubber. This person has never met me, but inferred things about me that are flat-out untrue. It gave me a laugh. There are popular stereotypes of diplomats as being born with silver spoons in their mouths, Ivy league elitists who sashay in their dinner jackets and cocktail gowns, idling their time at polo matches and fancy soirees. Modern U.S. diplomats come from a wide variety of backgrounds and the Department of State strives to make the Foreign Service more diverse, reflecting the changes in American society. By nature a highly private individual, I herewith reveal a little about my family background. (Note in the old photos none of my grandparents are in tails or gowns.)
 
My grandparents on both sides were farmers. My parents grew up working on their family farms. My grandmother went into labor while plowing in the field, delivering my father shortly afterward. She was totally illiterate and never learned English. The country doctor who subsequently arrived to check up on them was drunk and failed to record the birth date. To his dying day, my father was unsure of the exact date of his birth. To make matters worse, all county records perished when the county court house burned down some time in the '30s. The county seat has never exceeded 500 in population. When America entered WWII, the draft board overlooked my father simply because there was no official record of his existence. He eventually filled out paperwork to rectify that problem. My father wasn't able to complete high school.

My mother was born in the dead of winter. Her family doctor misspelled her name on her birth certificate. Hence, she was stuck her entire life with the name "Caterine." Both of my parents had to walk  several miles each day to and from school. In winter, they sometimes managed to hitch a ride on a horse-drawn sleigh. They told us how some of their teachers used rubber hoses or batons to beat misbehaving pupils. My mother told stories about goofing off with her pals while hauling milk cans to the dairy. My father bore a scar on his forehead from a cow who'd kicked him in the head when he tried to milk her, his hands apparently too cold. My parents told of the discomfort of having to defecate in drafty outhouses in winter, using only corn cobs and, if lucky, torn-up newspapers in lieu of toilet paper. They did their homework by kerosene lamps. Sometimes, food was short and they had to nourish themselves with bread and wild grapes. It was the depression. Times indeed were tough.

My mother worked for the Navy Department in D.C. during WWII. When she returned home, she and my father dated. The rest is history. They left their farms. Along came three kids. On summer Sundays they would often pack us kids into the car to return to the fields to inspect the crops, offering detailed insights on which families were doing okay and which were struggling based on the height and appearance of the corn, onions, celery, peas and so forth.

My father and his brother (who married my mother's sister) bought a drab old lodge called "The Georgetown Inn" in a hamlet numbering around 900 souls. On weekends, farmers and trappers congregated there for beers and square dancing. In order to get them to drink more, my wily uncle jacked up the heat and closed the windows and had my mother and aunt dance with the male clientele. Perspiration flowed; deodorant wasn't widely used in those days. Moreover, many of the customers, still clad in their work gear, reeked of manure on their boots. As the night wore on, the atmosphere at the Georgetown Inn became toxic. But the guys indeed drank more, upping profits.

My father and uncle subsequently developed other businesses. In contrast to their upbringing, we kids enjoyed a comfortable middle class life, replete with electricity and indoor plumbing. But we all did farmwork at various times, including baling hay, picking corn and onions. Our elementary school had five classrooms. The teachers sometimes paddled us boys. The principal at my middle school beat my left palm with a flattened club until it was numb. Infraction: throwing snowballs in the school yard. Learning was largely by rote. School, for me, was a mind-numbing experience -- except when I dated the county dairy princess.

Throughout my teens and college years, I worked on construction. I also laid track on the county rails, using the same tools and technology that Abe Lincoln did. I recall a particularly arduous half-year building a sewage system for a shopping center. We worked right into January (during my winter break) in sub-zero temperatures. I dug trenches, operated heavy equipment and handled and cut asbestos drainage pipes. The best workers were Mohawk Indians. I was in awe of those guys. They hardly ever took breaks. This is what I did during my college vacations while the other kids bummed around Europe or took up unpaid internships. I read Foreign Affairs Magazine in a dump truck during my lunch hour.

I managed to get into good universities and ultimately realized my dream of becoming a U.S. Foreign Service officer. I got to visit many countries, learn about other cultures, and, yes, attend glittery social events, occasionally in a tux! I dined at the White House and got to meet heads of state, prominent politicians as well as artists and scholars. Most importantly, I had to exercise my brain to its fullest in a highly demanding career. It sure beat baling hay.

But my family members and I remain true to our roots. My wife, of Dutch farmer stock and formerly a World Bank official, and I eschew tux and gown and belong to no country club. Our oldest daughter works in a pumpkin patch and on horse farms. Her sister sells baked goods in a local farmers market. My illiterate grandmother had no concept of what I did for a living, but I am grateful for what she, my other grandparents and my parents endured to make my dream possible.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

More on Censorship: "They Pull Me Back In!"


Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in! ~ Michael Corleone, The Godfather III

I love The Godfather series. I live my life based on all the rich aphorisms in those three movies. For example, "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer" served me well during my quarter century in the service of Zio Salvatore. But the aged Don Michael Corleone's lament about "they pull me back in" has hit home again. You see, working national security for Uncle Sam is a lot like being a made man in the mafia -- you can never actually "quit."

The Department of State just released new regulations governing first amendment restrictions on its employees and former employees. Titled, 3 FAM 4170 REVIEW OF PUBLIC SPEAKING, TEACHING, WRITING, AND MEDIA ENGAGEMENT, the nineteen pages of revised regs lay out what the tenienti and ex-tenienti of Godfather State can write, teach and speak in public, including on social media. You see, the Department got major agita after FSO Peter Van Buren published a book on his posting in Baghdad without obtaining clearance from his employer a few years ago. After receiving the proverbial mafia death kiss on the cheek from Don State, Van Buren eventually was allowed to retire early with full benefits. No cement boots for that renegade diplomat. But this episode turned the Department's capos all stonato and made them hit the mattresses. Their consiglieri then set themselves on a quest to zip things up further to prevent future Van Buren's.

The regs state, "A principal goal of the review process for personal capacity public communications is to ensure that no classified or other protected information will be disclosed without authorization." They require employees and ex-employees to submit for review all "speaking, teaching, writing, and press/media engagement, including that prepared for electronic dissemination in an employee’s official capacity, or in an employee’s personal capacity if on a topic 'of Departmental concern.'" This includes all social media as well as all writings, media appearances and interviews -- "of Departmental concern." In other words, you don't need to submit for review your Facebook postings on Fido and the kids. But you'd sure as hell better send them your New York Times editorial on U.S. policy toward Sicily lest some Willy Cicci from Diplomatic Security come after you with a subpoena. In other words, with these new regs, Don State just made us an offer we can't refuse.

Now, I've been dealing with State's censors for many years, both when on active duty and as an ex-employee. I've blogged about this previously -- 

Why I'm Censored
Censorship: The Travails of a Top Secret Public Servant
More on Censorship: Don't Mess With "The Man" - Two Case Studies 

I'll say this: they've always been straight shooters (not in the mafia sense) with me, working with me to ensure I didn't spill any national security beans. While I haven't always agreed with their redactions or changes, I've found them to be collegial and easy to work with. They're just doing their job. It's not personal, but strictly business. The office I deal with even asked me for autographed copies of my books, which I was glad to oblige. I do nothing to piss them off. After all, I spent my whole life trying not to be careless. Women and children can be careless. But not men.

My main gripe is that it's hard to meet publishing deadlines in such circumstances. While my novels haven't been terribly affected by the delays, my articles for POLITICO have been. Two of them missed repeated deadlines as the Department dithered and dallied in their review and clearance process, apparently because of my controversial examination of sensitive U.S. foreign policy issues. Fortunately, my editors were understanding and flexible. But I'm now viewed as a capable writer who nonetheless can't deliver on time because of my Faustian relationship with my ex-employer. The news cycle moves at lightning speed these days and journalists such as myself need to ride that bolt of lightning or risk losing work.

The new regs now spell out turnaround times for Departmental review, ranging from two days for social media postings to thirty days for books. The one that particularly bothers me is five days for "informal blog postings." What the latter does is to prevent folks like me from commenting on issues in a timely fashion. Hence, if I want to do an instant commentary on a fast-moving event, I won't be able to do so. That truly sucks.

So, am I now driven to close Diplo Denizen and confine myself to blogging about my favorite pasta, home-made sausage and cannoli recipes? Diplo Chef? Nope. I'll abide by the rules, but probably will write more on things not "of Departmental concern" and less time-sensitive feature stories.

As Hyman Roth said, "This is the business we have chosen."


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Tattoo Nation

The subject of this essay deviates from my usual commentary on foreign affairs, writing and (very
occasionally) murder. It concerns a disturbing popular fad that makes one wonder whether this nation has fallen so deeply into mindless narcissism that we indeed are a declining superpower.

The subject is tattoos. I stopped by Walmart this afternoon to pick up a few things. Now, let's be frank. One does not go to Walmart expecting to see edgy Brangelina scrutinizing the red velvet cakes in the discount cart, nor Beyonce or Scarlett J. pawing through the frozen pizza freezer. Walmart denizens generally are hard-working blue collar folks and plain vanilla bourgeoisie out for the best deals at greatest convenience. You don't find these people browsing tofu and arugula at Whole Foods. Ken & Barbie they are not. Nor are they ardent fashionistas out to strut their bella figura. But let's face another fact: the highest concentration of proactive American ugliness - apart from your local county fair - can usually be seen at Walmart.

So, my very unscientific visual survey of summer-clad Walmart shoppers (and staff for that matter) revealed that I was in a distinct minority: the tattooless one. I saw all manner of "body art" on display on jiggly cellulite, sunken hairy chests, stout calves, flabby upper arms and sagging breastlines. One must try to discern the manner of ink art furtively lest one be taken for a sex offender in the making. But my visual snapshots revealed proclamations of love to Mom, paramours and Harleys; clown faces, political and religious statements, as well as cryptic messages comprehensible only to those fluent in Mandarin. (A comedian once quipped: "I wonder if Chinese sport tattoos spelling out in English: "Water" or "Peace.") Some of the tattoos were elaborate multicolored graphics. Others were small and fairly simple, usually arrayed in a constellation of other small and simple tattoos splashed across a neckline or down a back or midriff. I stopped and pondered: will my health insurance premiums skyrocket ten and more years from now as skin cancer rates soar? Thanks Obamacare!

There's a social truism: when edgy gets adopted by the hoi-polloi masses the edge is gone. I'm old enough to remember long male hair, facial hirsuteness, raggedy dress and open promiscuity passing on from The Stones, The Grateful Dead and Janis Joplin down to college students, thence to Billy Bob and Mary Sue stacking shelves at Montgomery Ward and Agway. The cool was gone. And the unwashed masses in tie-dye and sideburns, psychedelic sunglasses and sans bra were merely pathetic copycats, legions of the unoriginal grasping at superficial artifice to show, yes, they too, were cool and cutting edge just like John & Yoko. They, too, were "original," their lives, too, held special meaning. Trouble was, their aping that era's glitterati was nothing of the sort. They were just ordinary folks facilely, or desperately, seeking to express uniqueness through vacuous identity theft. Copycatting devolving into mere japing until the cool wore off and onto the next fad. So it is today. People are sheep. Most follow the herd.

But tattoos are forever. Yes, there is a painful and costly medical procedure to remove ink embedded in human skin, but I expect very few of today's tattoo zombies to be able to even afford the procedure after the fad fades and they're paying mortgages, or collecting social security and possibly facing the necessity of appearing semi-respectable in the employment market. They'll be there at Walmart, their once avant garde dermis art now an unrecognizable red, white and blue blotch on sagging, wrinkled skin. That fetching 19-year old female cashier with "Jezebel Loves Jazz" emblazoned across her alabaster upper chest in bold blue Harlow font will one day be a plump Janie Paycheck balancing two little snot spewers on each hip while trying to organize dentist appointments in her iPhone and standing in line to pay for Great Value frozen dinners and Faded Glory school clothes. Will she look at herself in the mirror when home and think, "Was I out of my mind?"


I've traveled all over the world and I can say, hands down, esthetically speaking, Americans are the ugliest people on the planet (followed at some distance by the Russians). Their in-your-face-obesity, ubiquitous baseball caps, tank tops, ghetto shorts and gum chewing make them stand out like sore thumbs in foreign populations. Now add tattoos. Passengers disembarking a U.S. 747 at a foreign city resemble nothing less than Blackbeard's crew debarking the Queen Anne's Revenge. Call it assertive ugliness. The eleventh in the Bill of Rights.

When will the American tattoo mania fade? God only knows. In this observer's opinion, not soon enough.







Thursday, May 14, 2015

Embassy Oslo: Sold to the Man With a Million Bucks!

Word is that President Obama is ready to announce his next nominee to become U.S. ambassador to Norway. Readers will recall the fiasco surrounding his last nominee, George Tsunis, a Long Island hotel magnate and major campaign bundler whose abject ignorance of Norway was exceeded only by his complete lack of qualifications. His embarrassing performance at his Senate confirmation hearing combined with a vigorous opposition effort by the Norwegian-American community to ultimately scuttle Tsunis, who bowed out graciously.

BUT -- the ambassadorial auction block remains as solid as ever as the president has picked yet another campaign cash bundler to represent the U.S. of A. in Oslo. The lucky winner is Minneapolis attorney Sam Heins. Mr. Heins and his wife raised $1,042,157 for the president. Congrats Sam! You just won the Cash-for-Embassy Lottery!! But the White House reached w-a-y down into the money barrel this time: The Heinses rank only #47 on the donor/bundler list.

For the record: the last time Washington sent a career diplomat as top envoy to Norway was in 1964.

In contrast to Tsunis, however, the wizards of the White House made a smart selection this time. They're achieving several goals: a) they're rewarding another campaign donor (check that box!); b) Heins actually possesses some relevant experience as a human rights activist; c) by choosing a Minnesota native, the White House is placating that state's senators (who opposed Tsunis) -- and let's not forget Minnesota has the highest concentration of Norwegian-Americans. I could list as a fourth achievement the actual filling of the ambassador position, but I honestly believe diplomacy is the last thing on the minds of this administration's political operators. Finally, wonky wise-arses like myself will find it difficult to throw cream pies at a serious-minded lawyer with a track record in human rights involvement. Though, I cannot recall the last time we had run-ins with the Norwegians over how they treat their people.

So, to the White House and Mr. & Mrs. Heins, I raise a glass of ice-cold Aquavit to your success. At the very least, please try not to embarrass yourselves or our fair Republic while in the land of Edvard Grieg and Trygve Lie!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ethan Jones - Thriller Writer

My friend and fellow thriller writer, Ethan Jones, is offering a special promotion for his highly popular book, Fog of War.
 
Fog of War (Justin Hall # 3)Fog of War is the third book in the best selling Justin Hall spy thriller series, hitting the Amazon's Top 10 Best Sellers lists.

"When an Iranian nuclear scientist wants to defect, Canadian Intelligence Service sends in its best agent, Justin Hall. After his mission is compromised and Justin barely escapes northern Iran with his life, he sets out to discover who has put him and the Service in grave danger.

CIA information about a traitor in the Service sends Justin into violence-soaked Somalia, where he quickly becomes ensnared in a web of lies and deceit. He's left with no choice but to go rogue and form an alliance with Romanov, a sinister Russian oil baron.

Cut off from the Service, Justin is forced to navigate through ever-shifting alliances and survive deep inside a Yemeni terrorist stronghold. All the while, he's being hunted by a traitor." 
 
For a limited time, you can get Fog of War for a rock bottom 99 cents at BookBub.

Oh. Did I mention that Ethan, whose cover is that of a mild-mannered Calgary attorney, is actually an international assassin with the Canadian Intelligence Service? He'll deny it even under torture. But you can take my word for it...

Fog of War (as well as Ethan's other thrillers) are available at major book retailers:
 

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Broken Washington Foreign Policy Machine

U.S. diplomats abroad receive instructions directly from the White House via text messages. The State Department has become so larded with useless political appointees as to become utterly dysfunctional and irrelevant. A record number of ambassadorships (overwhelmingly in key NATO and EU countries) are auctioned off to moneybag twits. In Orwellian language, politically appointed managers at the State Department seek to make the country's highly capable diplomatic vanguard, the Foreign Service, disappear. A bloated NSC staff of largely political operatives, headed by an abrasive Advisor with ecumenical gifts for offensiveness, makes policy in a strategic and bureaucratic vacuum. Embarrassing flip-flops are made on Syria and Ukraine policies -- often blindsiding State and the Pentagon. Saudis, Egyptians, Gulfies AND Israelis are all pissed at us. What gives? Our foreign policy machinery is broken. And the consequent risks for serious missteps endangering our national security are commensurately heightened.

Following up my reporting on some of this in POLITICO, the editors of the flagship journal of the Council on Foreign Relations, Foreign Affairs Magazine, have invited me to submit an article addressing this whole mess. I feel honored, and eager to roll my sleaves up and get to it. In the meantime, readers would do well to carefully read an important report recently released by the American Academy of Diplomacy. American Diplomacy at Risk is a must-read for anyone with an interest in how this country currently (mis)manages its foreign policy, focusing on the Department of State. If, after reading it, you aren't madly typing emails to your congressional members, it'll be because you're madly pulling your hair out.

Hardly a band of bomb-throwing nihilists, the Academy lays out in dry, though readable, language a picture of overpoliticization of America's foreign policy apparatus and degradation of professionalism in the State Department. The nonpartisan AAD avoids linking structural weaknesses with specific foreign policy failures, instead pointing out "how well we manage our diplomacy in the broadest sense is the foundation of every other element of national influence and will determine the future of American security and the fate of American ideals and structures."

Following are highlights:

  • "There is an increasingly politicized appointment and policy process in the State Department, resulting in a steady decrease in the use of diplomacy professionals with current field experience and long-term perspective in making and implementing policy. This is reversing a century-long effort to create a merit-based system that valued high professionalism."
  • "The role of money in politics has made more egregious the practice of appointing political ambassadors who lack the appropriate experience or credentials for that role... The practice of calling on private citizens, however, does not justify sending overseas ambassadors so deficient in evident qualifications as to make them laughing stocks at home and abroad. The sale of office is contrary to law. That it appears to be happening, only slightly indirectly through campaign contributions, does not justify the practice and adds nothing to either the quality or prestige of American diplomacy."
  • "A recent study notes that non-career political appointments have increased to 4,000 in the Federal government."
  • "from 1975 to 2013, the proportion of FSOs in senior positions...has declined from over 60 percent to between 25-30 percent."
  • "The dominance of political appointees in the upper ranks of the State Department (eight out of 10 in 2014) is a major reason for the significant decline of the career Foreign Service’s professional input into the policy process. A related factor is the recent explosion of ambassadors-at-large, special representatives and coordinators operating separate offices."
  • "there is a real and significant effort underway to nullify de facto the (Foreign Service) Act and to homogenize the Foreign and Civil Services in a manner that is fundamentally detrimental to the existence of a unique professional Foreign Service and to the Department’s strength as an institution... a bizarre effort that appears to attempt to expunge the words and phrases 'Foreign Service,' 'Foreign Service Officer,' and 'FSO' from the vocabulary of the State Department."
The report provides a range of solid recommendations for fixing America's broken foreign policy machine, including limiting the number of politically appointed ambassadors to no more than 10 percent, returning professionalism to the Foreign Service and maintaining a clear separation of functions between the Foreign and Civil Services.

One key risk of maintaining a dysfunctional, overpoliticized foreign policy apparatus is how it disadvantages us vis-a-vis our adversaries. I analyzed this in my 2014 POLITICO article, "Russian Diplomats Are Eating America's Lunch" --

"All but two of Moscow’s ambassadors to NATO capitals are career diplomats. And the two Russian equivalents of political appointees (in Latvia and Slovakia) have 6 and 17 years of diplomatic experience respectively. The total number of years of diplomatic experience of Russia’s 28 ambassadors to NATO nations is 960 years, averaging 34 years per incumbent. The cumulative years of relevant experience of America’s ambassadors are 331, averaging 12 years per individual. Russia has 26 NATO ambassadors with 20-plus years of diplomatic service; the United States has 10. Furthermore, 16 American envoys have five years, or fewer, of diplomatic service. The figure for Russia: zero. Five U.S. NATO posts currently have no ambassador. None of Russia’s is vacant."

The conduct of our foreign policy, needless to say, is central to the security of this country as well as that of our allies. But a competent foreign policy cannot be carried out by a Rube Goldberg machine driven by political hacks, neophytes and short-sighted noncareer functionaries with a grudge against an "elite" Foreign Service. It is my hope that AAD, the American Foreign Service Association and other concerned groups will elevate this issue for public discourse in the upcoming presidential election.

Note: read "American Diplomacy at Risk" in tandem with David Rothkopf's National Insecurity: American Leadership in an Age of Fear, and Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power; Laurence Pope's The Demilitarization of American Diplomacy: Two Cheers for Striped Pants; and Dennis Jett's American Ambassadors: The Past, Present, and Future of America's Diplomats.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Buena Suerte En Revertir Las Políticas de Obama Para Cuba - Los Grandes Negocios No lo Permitrán

El siguiente artículo apareció en POLITICO Magazine el 15 de april de 2015. Traducción gracias a Gualdo Hidalgo, director ejecutivo de Latin News Agency.


Este martes, la Casa Blanca anunció su intención de retirar a Cuba de la lista del gobierno de Estados Unidos que identifica a naciones que patrocinan el terrorismo. Esta noticia está en consonancia con la normalización que la administración Obama busca en las relaciones con Cuba, un esfuerzo con fuerte apoyo de la comunidad empresarial estadounidense y de un número creciente de cubanoamericanos, pero vigorosamente rechazada por los republicanos en la campaña electoral.

Por primera vez, quizás en 50 años, Cuba -después de Irán- augura ser un asunto de política exterior dominante y polémico en la campaña presidencial del 2016. Pero, a diferencia de la década de 1960, dos políticos republicanos de ascendencia cubana tienen un lugar central en la carrera por la Casa Blanca. El senador de Texas, Ted Cruz, es el hijo de un exiliado cubano. El senador de la Florida, Marco Rubio, quien lanzó su sombrero al ruedo a principios de esta semana, tiene padres cubanos que se establecieron en Estados Unidos antes de que Fidel Castro tomara el poder. Ambos candidatos se oponen rotundamente a la normalización en los términos de Obama.

Rubio ha condenado la iniciativa para Cuba del presidente Obama como una “concesión a una tiranía”. Al adoptar una postura de línea dura, Rubio, de 43 años, está fuera de sincronía con su generación de cubanoamericanos. Una encuesta realizada a los cubanoamericanos por la Universidad Internacional de la Florida en el 2014 mostró que el 78 por ciento de los jóvenes de 33 a 44 años favorecen la restauración de las relaciones diplomáticas entre los dos países, y el 45 por ciento respalda el levantamiento del embargo. En respuesta a tales números, Rubio comentó: “No me importa si las encuestas dicen que el 99 por ciento de la gente cree que deberíamos normalizar las relaciones en Cuba… Esta es mi posición, y lo creo fervientemente”.

Ted Cruz se hizo eco de la denuncia de Rubio sobre los pasos de Obama, diciendo: “Estados Unidos está, en efecto, emitiendo el cheque que le permitirá seguir  el libreto de la represión de Vladimir Putin a Castro”.

Rubio ha dicho que tratará de bloquear el nombramiento de un embajador de Estados Unidos y la financiación de una nueva embajada en Cuba. Más allá de eso, ni él ni Cruz han presentado un plan de acción para hacer frente al acercamiento de la Casa Blanca con La Habana.

Imaginando por un momento a un Presidente Cruz o a un Presidente Rubio en la Oficina Oval, ¿qué podrían hacer, de manera realista, una vez que el genio haya salido de la botella, suponiendo que Obama tenga éxito en la restauración de relaciones plenas, la abolición de las restricciones de viaje y el fin del embargo? Una vez que las relaciones se hayan normalizado, la comunidad empresarial, deseosa de entrar en un mercado emergente muy cerca de sus costas, algo que se le negó por largo tiempo, peleará por impedir el retorno del antiguo status quo. Las grandes empresas estan movilizando mucho dinero en un esfuerzo concertado para cambiar la mentalidad de los congresistas respecto a la política hacia Cuba. Y los giros políticos en el Congreso se traducirán en la eliminación de las viejas barreras.

La decisión del senador Robert Menéndez de dimitir como miembro de mayor rango en el Comité de Relaciones Exteriores del Senado en medio de acusaciones de corrupción, despeja un gran obstáculo para avanzar en la normalización. El político cubanoamericano de 61 años, demócrata por Nueva Jersey, se opone firmemente a otorgar concesiones al régimen de Castro a cambio de relaciones diplomáticas y comerciales plenas. Su reemplazo como miembro de mayor rango es el senador por Maryland, Ben Cardin, un centrista moderado. Su portavoz me dijo: “El senador Cardin cree que debemos seguir presionando a Cuba en su historial de derechos humanos, pero los recientes cambios diplomáticos son positivos”.

Cardin ha firmado como copatrocinador de la propuesta legislativa del senador Jeff Flake (R-Arizona) sobre los viajes a Cuba, la cual pondría fin a todas las restricciones  para los estadounidenses que deseen visitar Cuba. El presidente del Comité de Relaciones Exteriores, el republicano Bob Corker, de Tennessee, ha prometido celebrar “audiencias robustas” sobre la iniciativa de Cuba del presidente, pero también ha dejado constancia declarando que considera ineficaz el embargo.

Fuera del ámbito político, los actores clave de la comunidad empresarial de Estados Unidos con interés en Cuba están comenzando a alinearse hacia la normalización. El 1ro de abril, la Cumbre de Oportunidadades en Cuba vendió sus espacios en tiempo récord, con 100 candidatos en lista de espera, en clara indicación de entusiasmo empresarial. En el evento, cerca de 250 ejecutivos y otros líderes empresariales se reunieron en la sede de NASDAQ en Times Square con el propósito de “formular un plan estratégico para la entrada en el mercado [de Cuba]“, de acuerdo con el patrocinador de la conferencia, la Universidad de Pennsylvania. El directivo cubanoamericano de Norwegian Cruise Lines, Frank del Río, dijo a CNBC: “Tenemos que superar esta acritud sobre Cuba. Es hora de seguir adelante”. Agregó que es necesario un proceso de curación para “llevar nuevamente las relaciones entre nuestros dos países adonde deben estar”. Una cumbre de negocios de seguimiento se realizará en La Habana a finales de este año.

El gran obstáculo para establecer relaciones económicas normales es el embargo de Estados Unidos, en vigor desde los días de la administración Eisenhower. Levantarlo requiere la legislación del Congreso, donde los republicanos, que actualmente controlan ambas cámaras, se oponen a ello. Pero hay un movimiento interno en los círculos empresariales para cambiar ese comportamiento. Un organizador de la Cumbre de Oportunidades en Cuba me dijo que “muchas de esas discusiones -por vía de cabildeo en el  Congreso- están ocurriendo. Ellos [los CEOs] están discutiendo estrategias”.

La agroindustria estadounidense ya está presionando por un mayor acceso a los mercados cubanos. En enero de este año, más de 30 empresas y asociaciones comerciales agrícolas, que van desde el conglomerado multinacional Cargill a los Dairy Farmers of America, formaron la Coalición Agrícola EEUU-Cuba, dedicada a gestionar el cese inmediato del embargo comercial. Cuba, que importa el 80 por ciento de sus alimentos, es un mercado de $1.7 billones de dólares para los productos agrícolas. Las exportaciones agrícolas de Estados Unidos a Cuba en el 2014 ascendieron a más de $290 millones, sin ningún tipo de crédito, bajo reglas comerciales estricta que solo admiten pagos en efectivo, según la ley estadounidense. El gobernador de Missouri, Jay Nixon, llamó a la apertura de Cuba “una gran oportunidad para fortalecer nuestras granjas y nuestra economía”. Puede esperarse que otros políticos republicanos se hagan eco de esta convocatoria en tanto los poderosos intereses agrícolas presionen en su caso.

La oposición a la normalización, sin embargo, sigue siendo fuerte entre muchos cubanoamericanos. Los tres senadores cubanoamericanos y cuatro miembros cubanoamericanos de la Cámara de Representantes tienen un abultado expediente de oposición a las iniciativas de normalización del presidente Obama. Esta oposición llega a las filas de los cubanomericanos que ocupan cargos electivos a nivel estatal. Las legislaturas de los estados de Nueva Jersey y Florida aprobaron recientemente resoluciones simbólicas contra la normalización. Mauricio Claver-Carone, un activista cubanoamericano de 39 años que trabaja como consejero del Cuba Democracy PAC, que pretende ser el mayor comité de acción política entre los hispanos, me aseguró que “no hay brechas entre los políticos cubanoamericanos a cualquier nivel de gobierno” con respecto a la política de Estados Unidos hacia Cuba, con independencia de su filiación política. Criticó a los intereses empresariales que presionan por la apertura con La Habana como fuerzas impulsadas por la máxima de “el dinero primero, la democracia después”.

Claver-Carone citó una encuesta realizada por una entidad de filiación republicana en marzo, la que mostró que el 54 por ciento de los cubanoamericanos se opone a la normalización, frente a un 41 por ciento que la apoya; además, un 71 por ciento está en desacuerdo con el levantamiento de sanciones, en contraste con el 20 por ciento que lo favorece. Sin embargo, dos estudios recientes llevados a cabo por la encuestadora independiente Bendixen & Amandi International dibujó un cuadro diferente. Esas encuestas encontraron apoyo cubanoamericano para la normalización, incrementado del 44 por ciento el pasado diciembre a un 51 por ciento este marzo. Además, según Bendixen & Amandi, los cubanoamericanos interesados en mantener el embargo comercial de Estados Unidos se redujeron de un 40 por ciento al 36 por ciento, y el apoyo para aliviar las restricciones de viaje aumentó del 47 por ciento al 56 por ciento.

La Fundación Nacional Cubano Americana (FNCA) fue una fuerza poderosa en la política hacia Cuba en los últimos años, ejerciendo una notable influencia en el Capitolio, así como con los presidentes principalmente republicanos. Su fundador, el fallecido Jorge Mas Canosa, era considerado el principal arquitecto detrás de la política de Estados Unidos de apretar los tornillos a Fidel Castro.  Esta política culminó con la aprobación de la Ley Helms-Burton, en 1996, lo que amplió el alcance del embargo, incluyendo sanciones a empresas de propiedad extranjera que comerciaban con Cuba. Pero la posición de línea dura de la Fundación se ha suavizado. Su actual presidente, el veterano y prisionero de guerra en Bahía de Cochinos, Francisco José Hernández, me dijo: “Damos la bienvenida a la apertura de negociaciones con el gobierno cubano”. Los 600 mil cubanos que han llegado a Estados Unidos desde 1995, dijo, “quieren construir puentes”. Citó un cambio generacional subyacente al giro hacia la normalización. La FNCA, no obstante, apoya el levantamiento del embargo solo después de que La Habana realice concesiones firmes en el ámbito de los derechos humanos.

Si la administración Obama es capaz de terminar con el embargo a Cuba, los republicanos como Cruz y Rubio, indudablemente, lo denunciarían. Pero podrían no ser capaces de hacer mucho al respecto. ¿Podría un presidente republicano cerrar nuestra nueva embajada en La Habana y la de Cuba en Washington? ¿Volverían a imponerse limitaciones de viaje y el embargo comercial? Este escenario es muy poco realista. Estados Unidos no ha dado marcha atrás en ninguna política similar en el pasado. Agreguemos las opiniones cambiantes entre la comunidad cubanoamericana, así como entre otros estadounidenses, y la imagen que está emergiendo es una de inevitabilidad.