Lift embargo – but liberate Cuba first?

Cuban democrats and rights activists are criticizing a report on National Public Radio, in which interviewer Steve Inskeep allows senior foreign ministry official Josefina Vidal to assert that democracy assistance to the island’s  beleaguered dissidents amounts to external regime change and that the regime’s curbs on the internet and freedom of expression are due to the US trade embargo.

NPR failed to note or to realize, notes one observer, that Vidal is a career spy with the Cuban Directorate of Intelligence who was expelled from the US in 2003 mass expulsion of over a dozen spies masquerading as diplomats.

Unilaterally repealing the embargo would not weaken that tyranny by flooding the island with American tourists, consumer goods, and democratic notions, as sanctions opponents romantically imagine,” notes the Boston Globe’s Jeff Jacoby:

3 million tourists already visit Cuba annually, hundreds of thousands of Americans among them. In recent years, more tourists have traveled to Cuba from the United States than from any other country except Canada.

The trade embargo is far from hermetic. Since 2000, US exporters have sold close to $5 billion in food, agricultural, and medical goods to Cuba — for several years, in fact, the United States was Cuba’s fifth-largest trade partner. Meanwhile, Cuba has had the rest of the world to do business with, unfettered by embargoes or Florida politics.

“If tourism and trade were going to undermine Cuba’s communist regime, it would surely have toppled long ago. But engagement with totalitarians doesn’t turn them into free and democratic neighbors,” he notes. “Rather, it empowers them to crack down on their subjects with even greater impunity.”


As extremists surge, future of political Islam tenuous?

The Islamist politicians who swept elections in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, undermining the militant thesis that violence offered the only hope for change, are now in frantic retreat, David D. Kirkpatrick reports for The New York Times:

Instead, it is the jihadists who are on the march, roving unchecked across broad sections of North Africa and the Middle East. Now they have seized control of territory straddling the borders of Iraq and Syria where they hope to establish an Islamic caliphate.

And they are reveling in their vindication.

“Rights cannot be restored except by force,” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the surging Qaeda breakaway group, declared last year after the Egyptian military removed President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood from office. Islamists must choose “the ammunition boxes over the ballot boxes” and negotiate “in the trenches rather than in hotels,” the group proclaimed, calling the more election-minded Muslim Brotherhood “a secular party in Islamic clothes” and “more evil and cunning than the secularists.”



“But others, led by the moderate Islamists here in Tunisia, argue that …if moderates hope to counter the jihadists and build democracies, their parties must be much more inclusive and conciliatory toward non-Islamist rivals and even those who participated in the old authoritarian governments,” Kirkpatrick continues:

The extremists always warned the moderates not to trust the military, said Rachid al-Ghannouchi, founder and chairman of Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda.

“Unfortunately,” he said, “their predictions were true.” But Mr. Ghannouchi said the solution for the Islamist movement was not to fight back with weapons, but to further embrace pluralism, tolerance and compromise. “The cure for a failed democracy is more democracy,” he said, because “dictatorship disguised in religion is the worst kind of dictatorship.”….

Mohammed Sawan, leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya, echoed the Tunisians, arguing that his faction needed to do a better job cooperating with liberals. “The battle in the Arab region isn’t about Islam or identity at all,” he said. “It’s about the fundamental values of democracy, freedom and rights. It has nothing to do with Islamists versus non-Islamists.”

With the downfall of Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the militant approach of Islamists in Iraq, Syria, Libya, analysts say the future of political Islam in the Arab world is tenuous, VOA’s Mohamed Elshinnawi reports:

Tarek Abdel Hamid, a former member of a militant Islamist group in Egypt, now a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy, said Islamists need to moderate their ideology and define a political model.

“In the past the military regimes in Egypt, Syria and Iraq used security measures to repress Islamists, but now because of their ideological defeat, the population turned against them, so they will have a very negative future.” he said.

“They are not fit to rule because they are still motivated by ideology not focusing on pragmatic solutions for citizens’ demands whether the economy, social justice, gender equality or freedom of religion,” he said.

But Shadi Hamid (above), an analyst at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, said while the Muslim Brotherhood failed to govern in Egypt, he is convinced that political Islam will have a future.

“There is a widespread support in the deeply conservative societies in the region for Islamists’ objective of more mix of religion and politics, so if there is a popular demand for this, someone has to supply it,” he said.

When Islamists from around the region gathered last fall at the Middle East Studies Center in Amman, Jordan, to assess lessons learned, the NYT’s Kirkpatrick reports, the main conclusion was that “Islamists must now develop an idea of national partnership with the other forces,” Jawad el-Hamad, the center’s director, said in an interview.

But while what has happened in Egypt will not easily replicate itself in the region, Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University, said that it has already affected thinking throughout Islamist circles everywhere.

“It has inspired some governments to move against Islamists and has made some Islamists reevaluate their surroundings,” he said. “Political Islam is hardly dead, but the movements that lead Islamism into the formal political process are likely to be just a little bit more leery of that path almost everywhere—and perhaps totally shut out of it in Egypt.”

Hamid said obituaries of political Islam are premature. 

“You can kill an organization but killing an idea is much more difficult. Even if we saw Islamists at an existential threat, their vision for the society is deeply entrenched in the region,” he said. “In spite of repression of Nasser in Egypt, Hafez Al Assad in Syria and Ben Ali in Tunisia we saw the Muslim Brothers in Egypt and Syria, and [the] Ennahda movement in Tunisia recovered and reemerged once there was a political opening.” he said. 

“The struggle for and within political Islam is important for what it can tell us about how beliefs and ideology are mediated and altered by the political process,” he said.


‘Syriaq’? Sea change in the desert

laith kubbaThe National Endowment for Democracy’s Laith Kubba (left) discusses the insurgency of Islamic militants in Iraq, and the response from the United States on this BBC podcast (scroll down).

The extremist group ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is not acting alone in Iraq but is part of a de facto alliance of other disaffected Sunni opposition groups, including former Baathist army officers and civilians, writes Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research at The Middle East Institute. And that is what makes the changes to the political map more lasting. The fortunes of ISIS might rise or fall, but the Sunni population of Iraq, like much of the Sunni population of Syria, has made a decisive break with the Shiite- (or in the case of Syria, Alawite) dominated central government.

Sunni opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, with backing from regional players, have been battling to topple the regime in Damascus, and to topple Maliki or at least regain a meaningful share of power in Baghdad. Having failed in both goals, ISIS has effectively shown another way forward: to forget about Damascus and Baghdad for now, forget about the Sykes-Picot borders and create a new political space out of the parts of Syria and Iraq that their capitals do not control–a large and viable political territory with major historic cities, trade routes, oil resources and borders potentially abutting Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. For now, let’s call it Syriaq. In this, they might be emulating the Kurds, who long ago decided to concentrate on controlling their own areas rather than relying on politics in the capital.

Whether controlled fully by ISIS or eventually by a coalition of Sunni groups, this new political space is likely to be part of the Middle East map for the foreseeable future. It might harden into a robust proto-state as has happened in the case of Iraqi Kurdistan, or might be a transitory political reality that is effective as a bargaining rod and melts away again if new and meaningful political deals are struck in Baghdad and Syria.

There is no doubt that most Iraqis and Syrians–Sunnis included, of course–want to be part of the national political institutions of Iraq and Syria, respectively. Assad in Syria has made it quite clear that government is his and certainly not for sharing. And although most Sunnis were part of the political process when the Americans left in 2011, Maliki has systematically excluded them (and Iraqi Kurds) since then and pushed them to more desperate options.

Theoretically, there might be a way to roll this back in Iraq through the formation of a broad national unity government with strong Sunni and Kurdish representation. However, the response from the Maliki government and its supporters has been basically the opposite. Maliki has doubled down on his consistent sectarian rhetoric, Iran has responded by sending military reinforcements, and even Grand Ayatollah Sistani, who has been a beacon for maintaining national unity, called for Shiite conscription rather than national reconciliation. One has to conclude, that for the immediate future at least, Iraq has ceased to exist as a political reality. 


Eurasia’s rupture with democracy

eurasia ruptureRussia is playing a pivotal role in accelerating the decade-long decline in democracy among the states of the post-Soviet sphere, according to the latest Nations in Transit report from Freedom House.

Russia serves as the model and inspiration for policies leading to a retreat from democratic institutions throughout Eurasia and bringing the region to a new, alarming level of repression during the past year, the survey states.

“The events of 2013 show that the regime in Russia as a role model for other authoritarian leaders, even in states where the authorities already surpass their Russian counterparts in institutionalized brutality and intolerance,” said Sylvana Habdank-Kołaczkowska, the report’s project director. “Ten years ago, one in five people in Eurasia lived under Consolidated Authoritarian rule, as defined in the report. Today, it’s nearly four in five, and the trend is accelerating.”

Nations in Transit 2014 finds that regression from democratic governance is the dominant trend across Eurasia and the Balkans, as well as in post communist Central Europe, where the persistence of clientelism and corruption further undermined democratic standards.

But the year brought some positive developments in Kosovo, Albania, and Georgia, which scored improved ratings due to better elections and peaceful transfers of power.  “The most encouraging trend of 2013 was the vocal civil society response to repressive or inadequate governance,” said Habdank-Kołaczkowska. “Civil society spoke up not only in Ukraine but also in Central Europe, Kyrgyzstan, and, to a lesser degree, the Balkans.”

Key findings: 

•    Of the 29 countries assessed in 2013, 13 were rated as democracies, 6 as transitional regimes, and 10 as authoritarian regimes.

•    As in every year for the past 10 years, the average democracy score declined in 2013, with 16 countries suffering downgrades, 5 improving, and 8 not registering any score change.

•    Russia’s negative influence on the governance practices of its neighbors became more pronounced in 2013, as replicas of Russian laws restricting “homosexual propaganda” and foreign funding of NGOs appeared in several Eurasian countries.

•    Corruption increased in Central and Eastern Europe in 2013, with half of the 10 assessed European Union (EU) member states receiving downgrades.

•    The Balkans registered some positive developments during the year, including Croatia’s EU accession and a historic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia, but dysfunctional governments continued to drive down democracy scores in the region overall.

Regional findings:


•    The environment for civil society became more hostile in Russia, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan.

•    Civil society proved resilient in Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan, both of which registered ratings improvements in that category.

•    Kyrgyzstan and Georgia are the only Eurasian countries where ratings have consistently improved in the last five years.

•    Conditions remained dire in Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—the report’s worst performers.

EU Member States

•    Hungary’s ratings declined for the sixth year in a row, and the country came close to falling out of the category of Consolidated Democracies.

•    Corruption worsened across the region, with Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovenia registering downgrades.

•    Economic and political pressures resulted in ratings declines in the Independent Media category in Latvia, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic.

•    The only EU country to register an overall score improvement was Romania, where conditions calmed after a presidential impeachment attempt and related political turmoil in 2012.

The Balkans

•    Productive negotiations over ethnic Serb areas of Kosovo and an orderly transfer of power following elections in Albania contributed to significant score improvements in the two countries.

•    The outlook is less positive for Macedonia, which fell back into the category of Transitional Regimes—after graduating from the group 10 years ago—due to a deteriorating environment for independent media.

•    A long-running political stalemate continued to paralyze the central government in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

•    Despite improvements in civil society in the last 10 years, minority rights—and especially the rights of LGBT people—continue to be challenged in several countries.

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Authoritarians adopt ‘democracy containment doctrine’

CHRIS WALJERAuthoritarian states are exporting the policies they employ against media and civil society at home in an effort to keep democracy at bay, and it’s time to take notice. That’s the view of Christopher Walker (right), executive director of the International Forum for Democratic Studies at the National Endowment for Democracy, who spoke to RFE/RL’s Golnaz Esfandiari about the “Democracy Containment Doctrine.”

RFE/RL: You argued in an opinion piece in the “The Washington Post” that several authoritarian countries are using their foreign policies to contain young democracies or countries with democratic ambitions. As an example of what you call the “democracy containment doctrine,” you cited the annexation of Crimea by Russia, which you see as an effort to prevent Ukrainians from achieving an accountable government that could threaten Russia’s authoritarian system. Could you elaborate?

Christopher Walker: I think one of the features of the authoritarians’ approach, including Russia, has been to take the standards they apply domestically and to seek to apply them beyond their borders. So these are all countries that have very limited space for civil society and independent media and political opposition, and this seems to be guiding increasingly the way they approach their foreign policy. In Russia’s case we can see the annexation of Crimea in the sense that the Crimean media landscape right now, just to use this example, has been brought to Russian standards. So in essence the Russian repressive standard has now been applied to Crimea’s media, its politics, its civil society. And what’s happening in eastern Ukraine at the moment, largely through the provocations of Russia, is destabilizing profoundly the country, and in this respect, to the extent that many Ukrainians have expressed their interest for a less corrupt and more accountable form of government, very difficult to achieve that when there is an ongoing crisis being provoked in a very significant part of the country by Russia.