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Sally Cowal: From ambassador to anti-embargo activist
CubaNews / September 2002

By Larry Luxner

Sally Grooms Cowal spent nearly 30 years with the U.S. Foreign Service, working in such diverse places as India, Colombia, Mexico and Israel before winding up her diplomatic career as U.S. ambassador to Trinidad.

But it was her friendship with 6-year-old Elián González that piqued Cowal’s interest in Cuba and changed the direction of her professional life.

“I got to know Elián and his father while they were staying with us at Youth for Understanding, a foundation I was then running,” she told CubaNews in a recent interview. “We hosted them for six weeks on our campus in northwest Washington. And through that experience, I saw that the American public no longer had a hardline sentiment toward Cuba, and that it might be time to push for a change.”

Cowal began raising money for an exchange program between Cuban and American high-school students, and in the process “ran into a lot of people in the foundation world” who urged her to start her own organization to push for an end to the embargo.

Today, the 57-year-old widow is president of the Cuba Policy Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded in March 2001. Because the Washington-based CPF is a Section 501(c)(3) tax-exempt entity, Cowles is careful to classify her organization’s main activity as education rather than lobbying.

“Our objective is to educate the American people about the cost of our failed policy [regarding Cuba],” she explained.

According to the CPF’s mission statement, “the embargo against Cuba has not only failed to achieve its objective for 40 years, but is also hurting America’s own national and economic interests. In some regions of the U.S., the em-bargo is hurting the local economy sharply.”

Cowal says she’s very much encouraged by the Jul. 23 passage in the U.S. House of Representatives of three amendments aimed at easing specific aspects of the trade embargo.

“The votes are historic. They send the clearest signal ever that it is time to move beyond the embargo,” she said in a prepared statement. “The American people support a change in our Cuba policy, and it is obvious that Congress shares this sentiment.”

Cowal, who’s been to Cuba just once but hopes to return soon, speaks fluent Spanish and Hebrew — the latter a result of her five years as cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. Besides her postings abroad, she’s also served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Latin American affairs under first President Bush, and more recently was based in Geneva, where she was deputy director of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS.

Cowal describes the CPF as “a non-partisan, decidedly centrist organization led by senior diplomats in Republican administrations.”

The chairman of the CPF’s board of directors is William D. Rogers, who was assistant secretary of state for Latin America under President Ford.

Cowal says the CPF operates on a budget of $600,000 a year. Funding comes from the General Service Foundation, the Christopher Rey-nolds Foundation and the Arca Foundation, along with limited funding from the Ford Foundation for specific projects. Money also comes from well-heeled corporate donors with business interests in Cuba, such as Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill and Toronto-based Sherritt International.

Those funds allow the CPF to commission studies attempting to prove how the embargo is hurting the U.S. economy. So far, its reports have concluded that:

* 52% of Americans nationwide want to scrap the embargo, and that 67% of Americans want to lift the ban on travel to Cuba immediately.

* ending the embargo could result in up to $3 billion worth of new opportunities in oil and gas exploration for the U.S. energy sector.

* the U.S. economy is losing as much as $1.24 billion a year in agricultural exports due to the embargo, and up to $3.6 billion more a year in associated economic output, with Arkansas alone suffering half a billion dollars in lost business annually.

* within five years of eliminating the embargo, 12,000 jobs would be created in the U.S. tourism sector, with revenue to U.S. airlines, cruise-ship companies and tour operators reaching $1.97 billion.

According to Cowal, “90% of our money is going into conducting these studies and publicizing them. If people want to reach their own conclusions from these studies that we need some legislative change in order to reap the benefits, then that’s fine.”

Another CPF-commissioned study, to be released later this month, focuses on “the changing demographics of Florida politics.” Cowal said the report is based on 1,200 interviews with Cuban-Americans in South Florida, but beyond that she wouldn’t discuss the report or its conclusions.

She did, however, point to a recent study by Florida International University showing that 84% of Cuban-Americans living in Miami-Dade County believe the embargo has failed, and that 52% think U.S. firms should be allowed to conduct at least some business with Cuba.

Those numbers convince Cowal that the “myth perpetuated by pro-embargo lobbyists” is no longer valid.

“The first time I went to Miami [as president of CPF], it was suggested to me that I needed some bodyguards, and I actually had one,” she recalled. “But those days are over. There’s still always some talk on right-wing Miami radio stations that refer to us as communists or sellouts to Fidel, but I think the tenor of that debate has changed.”

Cowal says she has cultivated cordial relations with people on all sides of the issue, ranging from Dagoberto Rodríguez, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, to Dennis Hays, executive vice-president of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Despite its tiny, three-person staff, the CPF is surprisingly media-savvy. It seems to issue more Cuba-related press releases than anyone else in Washington, with the releases always quoting Cowal, of course.

Likewise, the slick media kit it hands out to journalists is crammed with studies, charts and fact sheets — and even includes an audio CD of a lively debate between Cowal and CANF Executive Director Joe García that aired recently on National Public Radio.

“They’ve been hard-hitting, but they’ve been respectful,” she says of the CANF — noting that until the NPR debate, the Miami-based exile group steadfastly refused to debate any organization that favored lifting the embargo.

Cowal’s PR blitz seems to be paying off. The CPF brags on its website that over 240 stories featuring the organization have appeared in print, radio and TV worldwide in the year and a half since its founding.

“I think we’ve had excellent feedback,” she said. “Our agriculture study has been quoted absolutely everywhere. I don’t think there’s a state farm bureau that isn’t waving it around and using it to get their constitutent base more interested in Cuba.”

She says her long years of experience in Latin America and the Caribbean have shown her that the United States can play an important role with regard to its neighbor 90 miles south of Florida — but not if it refuses to do business with the current government.

“I think I’m very well aware of how positive change has come about in the region, thanks to American encouragement,” she said. “In every case, economic tools such as the Caribbean Basin Initiative and NAFTA have also led to political reform. When we deny ourselves those tools with regard to Cuba, we’re doing ourselves a disservice.”

Cowal says it’s always been the “liberal left” that fought to end the embargo, but insists that “in order to move the issue, we need to get mainstream Republicans and Democrats on board” the anti-embargo bandwagon.

“We hope that out of our efforts comes a realization that the costs are too high, and that voters will give their elected representatives the power to change this policy,” she said. “Be-cause of Helms-Burton, our policy is largely codified. But the administration doesn’t hold the keys to policy anymore. The hardliners in Congress wanted to make sure nobody in the White House could change this.”

Even so, says Cowal, the Bush administration is “not as hardline as a lot of people think” when it comes to Cuba.

“My assessment is that it’s holding the line for the moment, but at the same time, it’s throwing out some new challenges to the Cuban government, promising that if they meet them, there might be some possibility of the U.S. changing its policy,” she said.

“Helms-Burton says we can’t initiate a dialogue with the Cuban government until eight conditions are met, one of which is free and fair elections that result in a government which does not include Fidel or Raúl Castro. In contrast, the May 20 speech demands that the National Assembly hold free and fair elections in 2003. The National Assembly has nothing to do with Fidel Castro.”

She adds that “this fixation on Castro misses the bigger point. It’ll take a long time until he passes from the scene for real change to take place, but change will come inevitably. There’s a biological fact out there, which is that he’s not gonna be around forever.”

In the meantime, she says, “my focus is the United States, not humanitarian aid to Cuba. In the long run, what would best help the Cuban people would be a political change in Cuba, and a change in Cuba’s relationship with the United States.”

Asked if Washington should unilaterally end the embargo — without consulting first with Castro — Cowal responds without hesitation: “Yes, absolutely. That’s what will cause the fastest change in Cuba. We ought to simply bring it to an end.”

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