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LAWG's Mavis Anderson fights embargo on Capitol Hill
CubaNews / June 2008

By Larry Luxner

From a modest little row house on Capitol Hill, four blocks east of Washington’s Union Station. Mavis Anderson battles to change U.S. policy on Cuba. Anderson is one of five full-time staffers at the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), a nonprofit coalition that’s been in existence in one form or another since 1983.

“We grew out of the Central American wars and were initially called the Central America Working Group, but 11 or 12 years ago we changed to LAWG and expanded our mandate to work beyond Central America,” she told CubaNews last month.

LAWG, which has Section 501(c)(4) status, maintains a separate Section 501(c)(3) entity known as the LAWG Education Fund. The NGO — which focuses on Colombia, Cuba, Central America, Mexico and Bolivia — consists of 60-odd national associations, grassroots organizations and religious groups.

These includes all the mainline Protestant churches, as well as a Jewish action center and some Catholic orders.

“We work within our own coalition, but we’re also part of a looser coalition of organizations in D.C., and we work with offices on the Hill, on both sides of the aisle. This loose coalition is very broad and it includes farm bureaus and chambers of commerce, as well as organizations that support civil disobedience,” she explained.

“Among all the organizations that are part of our coalition, there’s a total consensus that the embargo should end — not just the travel ban, not just family travel, not just opening up food and medicine sales, but the whole em-bargo. It is inhumane, immoral and wrong.”

Decorating the conference room where CubaNews interviewed Anderson last month are several Cuba travel posters as well as a framed black-and-white photograph of Manolo Costela, an 82-year-old retired Miami handyman who was among 22 Cuban exiles showcased in the 2007 book “Love, Loss and Longing: The Impact of U.S. Travel Policy on Cuban-American Families.”

Some 3,500 copies of the book were printed by the LAWG Education Fund and the Wash-ington Office on Latin America (WOLA). The 48-page document attempts to show how families have been split apart and individuals’ lives thrown into chaos as a result of the new U.S. travel restrictions (see box, page 9).

“Every member of Congress got a copy,” said Anderson, noting sadly that Manolo — who was suffering from cancer and an inoperable aortic aneurism at the time of publication — has since passed away. His wish was to be buried on the island of his birth.

“I saw him in the hospital,” she said. “He died without returning to Cuba, but his ashes were carried back to Cuba illegally.”

LAWG receives about $1 million in funding annually, roughly 80% of which comes from foundations and the remaining 20% from private donors. Of that total, only $130,000 goes specifically for LAWG’s Cuba programs, which are supervised by Anderson and funded largely by two donors: the Christopher Reynolds Foundation and the Arca Foundation.

Despite the money, Anderson admits she’s frustrated with how little her group has been able to accomplish.

“The last eight years under the Bush administration have been very difficult. It’s hard to know how to work in a way that’ll make a difference,” she told CubaNews, adding that things were hard even before the Bush years. “Our Cuba policy has been bipartisan. Even under Clinton it wasn’t a picnic. The only administration that ever made any positive moves towards Cuba was that of Jimmy Carter, who ended the travel ban.”

Anderson said there was hope that under Clinton, things would be different, but the embargo continued, and in fact was codified into law in 1996 as the Helms-Burton Act following Cuba’s intentional shootdown of four Brothers to the Rescue planes.

“In 2000, TSRA [Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act] passed, which allowed for agricultural sales to Cuba. Unfortunately, behind closed doors the Republican leadership forced the bill’s sponsors to agree to a codification of travel categories, which was a downside to TSRA,” she said.

“We regularly passed travel amendments in the House and Senate. Our options were limited, so it had to be funding restrictions on appropriations bills, but it was a strong indication of the will of Congress, and we won bipartisan votes. But nothing ever got to the president’s desk because we had an intransigent administration. Frankly, were people to vote in a dark room, these bills would pass overwhelmingly.”

Not everybody on Capitol Hill is enamored of LAWG — and some of its fiercest critics come from those who sympathize with its stated objective of ending the embargo.

“They’re useless,” said one Washington analyst who follows foreign trade issues. “No offense, but they’re just cheerleaders for the anti-embargo people. I never found them to be on the cutting edge of anything.”

Another Cuba expert told CubaNews he’d like to say something nice about LAWG, but it’s hard because the group lacks credibility.

“They haven’t accomplished anything in all these years,” said the expert, who asked not to be named. “If you consider where the embargo is today, we’re in arguably worse shape than before. And the embargo is more bipartisan than it’s ever been.”

The same source told us that LAWG regularly “cranks up its grassroots network” and urges supporters to lobby congressional offi-ces, but that it displays a total lack of understanding of the embargo’s structural aspects. “Usually, when you’re lobbying, you ask for support for something you believe has a real chance of success. The more you ask for support without success, the more resistant both staffers and members of Congress will become to future requests for support.”

He added: “It’s going to be very difficult in the absence of any organized PAC to promote real embargo reform in Washington. What influence does a grassroots organization really have in a foreign policy issue of this type?

“Historically, foreign trade policy is a factor of corporate America and its representative institutions,” he said. “They’re the ones who determine the outcomes in trade agreements, not grassroots groups like LAWG.”

Anderson grew up in the southwestern Minnesota town of Butterfield and graduated from St. Olaf College, a Lutheran school in Northfield, Minn. Before joining LAWG, she spent 20 years at Augsburg College, where she was program director for the school’s international travel seminars.

“We took citizens around the world, including a lot of Latin American countries, southern Africa and the Caribbean. We also took delegations to southeast Asia,” she said. “The college’s Center for Global Education is fabulous. Their focus is education, and they clearly present all sides of the issue.”

Anderson has traveled to Cuba 12 times, usually staying at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Center, which is affiliated with a Baptist church in Havana’s Marianao district. During her visits, Anderson has spoken with all kinds of Cubans, including dissidents.

“The ones I met are good people who also have good aspirations for their country,” said Anderson. But she insists that U.S. taxpayers shouldn’t be asked to bankroll their anti-Castro activities.

“Were we to turn the tables and look at a group of people in this country who were bent on overthrowing the government and were allegedly being funded by outside sources, we’d have real trouble with that,” she said. “And frankly, right now the dissidents aren’t very much of a force in Cuba.”

Anderson hasn’t been back to the island for over three years, mainly because tougher laws imposed by the Bush administration in 2004 prevent her from going down there with educational and church groups.

Of course, that could change if Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) is elected president in November. The Democratic nominee has vowed to overturn those aspects of the embargo most hated by Cuban-Americans, namely, restrictions on family travel and remittances. Whether the “people-to-people” exchanges allowed under the Clinton administration would be reinstated remains to be seen.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican nominee, has made no secret of his distaste for the Castro regime, insisting he won’t talk to any government official in Havana as long as either Fidel or Raúl remain in power.

“People who supposedly know McCain say he’d be harsher on Cuba than Bush has been. He could close the interests section. He could break off relations,” Anderson warned.

“If McCain were rational, he would make moves to negotiate with and normalize relations with Cuba,” she added. “He was a POW and was tortured by the Vietnamese, and yet he favored opening up diplomatic relations with Vietnam.”

Even so, Anderson is “very disappointed” with Obama’s May 20 speech to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami.

“He said he’d maintain the embargo, and I don’t think he needed to say that,” she lamented. “That smacks of Bush rhetoric.”

Anderson also doesn’t think much of the White House’s announcement the same day that it would let exiles send mobile phones to their families in Cuba.

“If President Bush wants to facilitate communications regarding Cuba, then he ought to communicate with them himself,” she said. “Right now, our government is irrelevant. Cuban-Americans are already sending cellphones to Cuba, so now he says you can do it legally. Big deal.”

On the positive side, she said, “Obama has outlined a definite change, in that he would immediately end restrictions on family travel and remittances, and he would explore diplomacy with Cuba’s leaders.”

But Anderson clarified that it’s not LAWG’s goal to change Cuba.

“It’s to focus on U.S. policy which we feel is wrong-headed, destructive and inhumane,” she said. “We want the policy to end. We are nonpartisan. If there’s a Republican who would end it, then I would favor that Republican. It appears that Obama is the one who would make a difference.”

The presidential election isn’t the only race LAWG is keeping its eyes on. In South Florida, the staunchly Republican Díaz-Balart brothers — Lincoln and Mario — are being challenged for their congressional seats by Democrats Raúl Martínez and Joe García. A third GOP incumbent and Cuban-American exile, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, faces opposition from challenger Annette Taddeo.

“We think it’s interesting that there’s a new climate in South Florida that allows candidates such as Martínez and García, who publicly say they support family travel to Cuba,” noted Anderson.

“They say that because the climate has changed. The Cuban-American exile community is not a monolith, but has many different views. A lot of the early exiles have changed their opinions about what’s best for Cuba,” she continued. “This confluence of change in the exile community, and of leadership here and in Havana, leads us to believe there may be an opportunity to inject some rationality into our Cuba policy.”

To that end, LAWG on Apr. 23 held its Cuba Consultation 2008 — an annual event that for the last 10 years has drawn about 80 participants. This year, however, 155 people showed up, said Anderson — “our usual Cuba activists, business executives, church and human-rights people and academics. We were very pleasantly surprised at the response.”

The all-day seminar, held at Washington’s Lutheran Church of the Reformation, featured Anderson and 20 other speakers including Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute; Patrick Doherty of the New America Foundation; Geoff Thale of WOLA; Christopher Baker, author of Moon Handbooks Cuba; Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas; Bob Guild of Marazul Charters and Ellen Bernstein of IFCO/Pastors for Peace.

Speakers repeatedly stressed the need to significantly boost levels of travel to Cuba wherever possible. Said a conference flyer: “Putting pressure on OFAC by increasing license applications, optimizing use of existing licenses and general licenses and generating broad interest in travel will help us communicate just how much U.S. citizens want to engage with Cuba.”

The event concluded with a concert by Cuban jazz pianist Chuchito Valdes and lively reception at the Cuban Interests Section (see CubaNews, May 2008, page 6).

Even so, Anderson insists that LAWG has no formal relationship at all with Cuba’s Washington mission or any of its officials.

“They come to some of our meetings, but they have no input whatsoever in our work, strategies or plans. They have no knowledge of our work either,” she said. “We’re independent of them, and they are independent of us.”

Anderson has met several times with Vicki Huddleston, chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana during the Clinton and early part of the Bush administration, and once with Huddleston’s replacement, James Cason.

She also has a close working relationship with Wayne Smith, a frequent and vocal critic of American policy in Cuba who was appointed in 1976 by Jimmy Carter to head the U.S. mission in Havana, but quit in protest shortly after Ronald Reagan took office. Smith is now a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, a Washington think tank.

Anderson said USINT-Havana would be far more effective if its staffers were more engaged with ordinary Cubans.

“I think they’re isolated, and that they learn about Cuba from other diplomatic missions,” said the veteran activist. “Here I really do agree with Obama, in that talking with nations with whom we have problems can only be helpful. So let’s talk to the Cubans. We might find we have more in common with them than we think.”

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