Like Wishing Upon a Star: Most Travel Restrictions (On Cubans) Vanish Monday

Next week, when Cuba drops travel restrictions on most of its citizens, Ana Liliam Garcia, a 16-year-old, plans on chasing a dream:  “I would like to see Disneyland in the United States,” she told the Associated Press.  “I’ll be able to travel!”

You can argue whether this represents a triumph of American culture. But, these reforms really matter, and they ought to take the discussion about U.S. policy and Cuba to a different level.

Cuba’s government imposed travel restrictions on its citizens in the early 1960s as the country experienced a “brain drain” following the Revolution.  For decades, Cubans detested the limitations symbolized by the tarjeta blanca or white card, the exit permit they had to obtain through a costly and convoluted bureaucratic process.  This restriction on the right of Cubans to leave and return to their country has been a deep source of concern to the global human rights community and a predicate for U.S. criticism of Cuba’s system.

Last fall, President Raúl Castro’s government announced an overhaul of its migration laws which will take effect on Monday.  Beginning January 14th, Cubans will need only a visa and a valid passport to leave their country; the white card will vanish, fees will be reduced, and official permission to come and go will no longer be required for most Cubans.

Some obstacles – for military officers, top scientists, and highly prized athletes – will remain in place.  Dissidents are not likely to be free to come and go.  Of course, Cuba’s decision not to change everything is already an excuse among hardliners in the U.S. for saying that Cuba hasn’t changed anything.

But, as Reuters reports, the verdict among the people whose interests are most directly affected is clearly being rendered.  Hundreds of Cubans are waiting in long lines to apply for passports in advance of the reforms becoming effective. As one Cuban told NPR, “These measures that the government is taking are a good step. Our rights have been oppressed for too long, but Cuba is changing.”

We hope President Obama is paying attention.  He has undertaken incremental but worthwhile reforms in U.S. policy, while simultaneously denying that anything meaningful has been taking place in Cuba during his presidency.  After Cuba released scores of political prisoners following talks with the Catholic Church; after the Castro government implemented the most significant changes in its economic model in six decades; after Colombia turned to Cuba to help it broker peace talks with the FARC, U.S. policy remains in an official state of denial that its goals are being met.

Cuba did not initiate these sweeping travel reforms to elicit a positive reaction from the U.S.  It long ago wearied from the repetitive process of doing things it wanted to do – that the U.S. also wanted done – only to find that U.S. policy had adopted new demands.  It will be hard for them to imagine that this time will be any different.

But, is it really possible that President Obama will feel comfortable ignoring another tangible change in the Cuban reality and insist, as he has said about Cuba so often, “If we see positive movement then we will respond in a positive way.”  Especially now that Cubans will have more freedom to see the world than American citizens have to visit Cuba?

This time, it shouldn’t be that hard.  If Ana Liliam Garcia doesn’t have to wish upon a star to have her chance to see Disneyland, that’s a real change.  It merits a real response.

IN CUBA

Immigration reforms, taking effect on Monday, include Cuban doctors

Cuba’s new travel law, removing the exit visa requirement for most Cubans, goes into effect on January 14th. Cubans have lined up to apply for their passports before the cost doubles to about $100 USD in a few days, Reuters reports.

Last week, a group of hospital directors met with Roberto Morales, Cuba’s health minister, and were told that the government is eliminating restrictions on travel for medical professionals, as reported by the Associated Press.  Previously, medical professionals had to go through a lengthy bureaucratic process to receive permission to leave the island, as part of a larger policy of stopping the most highly educated Cubans from leaving the island.

Lamberto Fraga, Second Director of Migration and Foreigners, noted that “professionals that are vital, technicians, athletes, and party leaders” have been informed that they will still be required to request a permit to leave the island, reports AFP.

Fraga also said that under the new law, which allows Cubans to travel abroad for 24 months without losing residency, Cuban residents could potentially travel to the U.S. and gain residency there through the Cuban Adjustment Act, reports Café Fuerte.

“There could even be cases where people arrive in the U.S. and ask to be taken in under the Cuban Adjustment Act…which requires that they wait one year and one day… in these cases the person could have residency in the country they’re in, or where they ‘are adjusted, in the case of the U.S., and keep residency in Cuba.”

To date, the U.S. has not indicated that it will change the Cuban Adjustment Act – which offers unparalleled incentives for migrants to leave the island and risk travel to the U.S. – in light of Cuba’s travel reforms.

Exhibition on violence against women concludes in Havana

A traveling art exhibition, Calladita no te ves mas bonita (Silent you’re not prettier), recently concluded in Havana, reports Havana Times The events focused on psychological, physical, and economic violence against women in Cuba and how society perpetuates patriarchal structures.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Rep. José Serrano again introduces bill to lift embargo

As he has done at the opening of the last six sessions of Congress, Representative José Serrano (NY-15) introduced a bill on January 4th to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, reports Along the Malecón. He also offered his recurring bill to allow Cuban players to come to the United States and play professional baseball.

Two of five weekly Tampa-Cuba flights to be cut in February

On February 14, XAEL Charters, Inc. will be changing its departure city from Tampa to Fort Lauderdale, reports Tampa Bay Online. ABC Charters, Inc. is also expected to end its Tampa-Holguín flights on February 28th, while continuing Saturday flights between Tampa and Havana. Bill Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours, said that having three travel charter agencies serve the same, small, market created an excess of price-cutting between the companies.  His firm will retain its Wednesday and Sunday flights between Tampa and Havana, as well.

U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention reports on Alan Gross

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention released a report calling for the release of former USAID contractor Alan Gross. Cuba’s foreign ministry published a response to the opinion well before it was made public this week by Alan Gross’ lawyer. The complete Spanish text of the response is available here and the executive summary in English is here. The response maintains that Gross’ detention “has not violated any of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights or the Group of Principles for the Protection of Persons Under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment,” and therefore “in no way qualifies as an arbitrary detention.”

In 2003, the UN Working Group issued an opinion deeming arbitrary the imprisonment of the “Cuban Five,” who are serving extensive sentences in the United States, and called on the U.S. to take steps to bring their case into “conformity with the principles stated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

Anti-embargo past of Hagel, defense secretary nominee

In 1999, when President Clinton liberalized humanitarian aid and travel regulations, former Senator Chuck Hagel, now President Obama’s designee for Defense Secretary, wrote a letter saying that while he supported Mr. Clinton’s actions, more aggressive steps should have been taken to update U.S. policy toward Cuba, reports BuzzFeed.  In a published statement following the decision, Hagel called for a bipartisan commission to review the “outdated and ineffective” U.S. policy toward Cuba, and proposed legislation to allow U.S. companies to export agricultural and medical supplies to Cuba.

“The exports of American food and medicine is not just an economic issue, it is also a humanitarian undertaking. Blocking exports in these commodities harm the health and nutrition of the people of the sanctioned nation. It does nothing to harm governments and the government leaders with which we disagree.”

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Ángel Carromero may get work release in Spain

Ángel Carromero, the Spaniard convicted to seven years in prison for his role in the car crash in Cuba that killed activists Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero, has returned to Spain under an agreement between the two governments. He now may be allowed to serve his sentence under a work release program, reports the Associated Press. Carromero arrived in Spain on December 29th and is currently imprisoned northwest of Madrid.

In an apparent contrast to the case of imprisoned USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross, Carlos Floriano of the Spanish Partido Popular, said the following about Carromero’s repatriation:

“This is a solution that had to be obtained through a diplomatic, not an ideological route. With the ideological route we would have a martyr in a Cuban jail, and with the diplomatic route we have him in Spain.”

Around the Region

Tens of thousands of Venezuelans take oath for Chávez, who remains in Cuba

Inauguration Day in Venezuela has come and gone without President Hugo Chávez, who is still convalescing in Cuba after undergoing a fourth surgery on December 11, 2012 in his battle against cancer. Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled that being sworn in by the National Assembly on January 10th was not the only option for Chávez, reports the Associated Press.  According to its interpretation of the constitution, he can be sworn in at an unspecified date in the future by the Supreme Court. In addition, they found it unnecessary to appoint a medical team to determine if Chávez is temporarily or permanently unable to govern, a measure sought by the opposition.

In a show of support for the president, tens of thousands of Chavistas converged on Caracas Thursday to take the oath in his stead, administered by Vice President Nicolás Maduro (see video here). “I swear with Chávez” and “We are all Chávez” were the slogans of the day. The air force performed fly-bys and uniformed soldiers cheered from platforms flanking the stage to convey the military’s loyalty to the president.

With a mutual display of affection, captured by Noticias 24, Maduro and Diosdado Cabello, the head of the National Assembly countered rumors that they are locked in a power struggle. Presidents and ministers of more than 20 countries were present. Presidents Morales, Mujica, Ortega, Bouterse, and Lamothe, along with ministers from several PetroCaribe and ALBA countries, gave speeches in support of Chávez, reports Prensa Latina.

Today, Vice President Nicolas Maduro flies to Havana, reports Huffington Post, where Argentina’s President Fernández is already visiting President Chávez, according to El Universal.

According to press reports, Henrique Capriles, who ran against Chavez in the October 2012 election, accepted the Supreme Court ruling that allowed President Chavez to postpone his scheduled inauguration.

El Salvador Update: December 2012, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, CDA senior policy analyst on El Salvador, looks back on 2012, giving an overview of key developments in El Salvador throughout the year and giving predictions for 2013.

If you would like to receive the El Salvador Monthly Update via email, please contact: lela@democracyinamericas.org.

Recommended Reading

Poet’s Kinship with the President, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, New York Times

Richard Blanco, a poet and son of Cuban exiles, is scheduled to be the inaugural poet at the Inauguration of President Obama. The New York Times looks at Blanco, exploring his history and relationship to his work. Blanco is drafting three poems, from which the White House will choose one to be presented during the inauguration ceremony on January 21st (he will be sworn in on January 20th).

Is Cuba Taking the Lead on LGBT Equality in Latin America?, David Duran, Huffington Post

Freelance journalist David Duran details the role of Mariela Castro, daughter of Raúl Castro, in improving respect for LGBT rights in Cuba through her work with CENESEX.

A New Era’s Filmmakers Find Their Way in Cuba, Victoria Burnett, The New York Times

“Around the country, Cubans are making features, shorts, documentaries and animated works, often with little more than a couple of friends and some inexpensive equipment — and little input from the state-supported Cuban Institute of Cinematic Art and Industry.”

Stephen Kimber Open Letter to Obama: Alan Gross and the Cuban Five, Stephen Kimber

Canadian journalist Stephen Kimber writes a letter to President Obama criticizing the historically uneven U.S. policy toward Cuba, which includes his analysis of the cases of the Cuban Five and the former USAID contractor Alan Gross.

Recommended Viewing

Famed Castro Photographer Enrique Meneses Dies at 83, Gerry Hadden, PRI’s The World

Enrique Meneses spent more than a half century as photographer and foreign correspondent for European media. However, some of his most famous photos are from his four months in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of Cuba with Fidel Castro and Cuban Rebel Army in 1957 and 1958. He took more than 2000 photos in that period. A sampling can be found here.

End note: No Es El Fin!

Tomorrow, Cuban singer-songwriter Carlos Varela celebrates 30 years of artistic life in a concert with his band and several invited guests, including Jackson Browne, in Havana. Carlos has been a consistent ally and a dear friend to CDA, and is a powerful voice for breaking down the walls between our two countries. We congratulate Carlos on this important anniversary. Here’s to the next 30 years!

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