Inauguration Week: An emerging vision of a “new normal”

From Havana to Washington, there was a sustained glimpse of what a “new normal” could look like in the U.S.-Cuba relationship.

President Obama’s inauguration was broadcast live in Cuba, on Educational Channel 2, Progreso Semanal reports, which carries the Telesur  network live.

This is pretty remarkable stuff.  The U.S. didn’t need to send a subcontractor with a flash drive to enter Cuba on a tourist visa to distribute “democracy unfiltered,” hand to hand, for secret viewing in the homes and offices of Cubans fortunate enough to have access to a computer.

Instead, Cubans could watch television and see Senator Lamar Alexander quote Alex Haley, “Find the good and praise it,” and herald election practices in the U.S., “There is no mob, no coup, no insurrection.”

Or see Richard Blanco, “A child of Cuban exiles raised in Miami,” as the Miami Herald reported, read his Inaugural poem and make history, as the first Latino, Cuban-American, and openly-gay man to serve in this capacity in U.S. history.

Or listen to Rev. Luis Leon, an Operation Pedro Pan veteran, a Cuban-born American, invoke Martin Luther King (on the U.S. national holiday that honors his memory), asking blessings for the citizens “of a beloved community, loving you and our neighbors as ourselves.”

And, of course, see the President of the United States remind all within earshot:

“That all men are created equal.  That they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Today we continue a never ending journey to bridge the meaning of those words with the realities of our time. For history tells us that while these truths may be self-evident, they’ve never been self-executing. That while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by his people here on earth.”

Later, perhaps more prosaically but no less importantly, Cubans saw José Contreras, the powerful right-hander who pitched for the Vegueros of his native Pinar del Río, and defected to the U.S. to play baseball in the major leagues a decade ago, return to Cuba and visit his sick mother, thanks to their nation’s new, more permissive immigration law.

What a welcome respite.  These developments took place without attracting much attention in Washington – no derisive tweets from hardliners in Congress about Cubans “defecting” to the Obama administration, no “wait and see” platitudes from the State Department podium.  Perhaps, the city was so preoccupied with itself, and the ceremonial transition, that no one was in the mood to taunt “our neighbors.” But, it also could be indicative of progress toward a new normal, here and in Cuba.

Even in Senator John Kerry’s hearing to be Secretary of State – when confirmations so often are cauldrons of controversy where Senators press nominees to take positions in line with their interests against those of the president who selected them – Cuba at first wasn’t even on the table.

No mention of Cuba by Senator Marco Rubio, who proposed grounding all flights to Cuba in 2011, but “focused his questioning of Kerry on North Korea, Syria, the Middle East and China”; no efforts to get Mr. Kerry to renounce negotiations for the release of Alan Gross; only a generic mention of “democracy promotion” programs by acting Chairman Robert Menendez.

But briefly, a reminder of the old ways surfaced later in the Kerry hearing.

Jeff Flake, recently elected to the Senate, after service in the U.S. House as a champion of the freedom to travel to Cuba, angered Senator Menendez by affirming his faith in the constitutional right of Americans to travel to Cuba, joking that he’d force “the Castro brothers” to deal with spring break, and urging Mr. Kerry as Secretary of State to continue liberalizing U.S. travel policies and finding innovative approaches to deal with changes in Cuba; a policy that honors the pursuit of happiness and freedom, as written in the Declaration of 1776 and given voice in the Inauguration of 2013.

That, finally, was too much for the hardliners.  And so a beat-down of Senator Flake commenced with Senator Menendez and the usual suspects.  But, Senator Flake has told that joke before, heard the howling before, and emerged undaunted before.

This is the new normal – with Senator Flake serving as a burr under Bob Menendez’s saddle as they debate Cuba together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; with Richard Blanco, Luis Leon, José Contreras, John Kerry, and President Obama representing the future – as a new approach for engaging with Cuba and Cubans is busy being born.

IN CUBA

Cuba performing quality tests of high speed fiber-optic cable

Cuba’s state telecommunications firm ETECSA has confirmed that the fiber-optic cable connecting Cuba to Venezuela is currently undergoing quality testing for its Internet-trafficking capabilities. An official statement said that the cable has been in use primarily for international phone calls since August 2012, and that the current Internet tests began on January 10.

Completed in February 2011, ALBA-1 reportedly possesses the capability to increase Internet speeds on the island by up to 3,000, but reports of mismanagement involving the project apparently halted progress. The official statement says that “When the testing process ends, the activation of the cable will not mean that access possibilities will automatically multiply.” The government has indicated that initially, the cable will be used to improve current connections, rather than to increase points of access to the Internet. Previously, Cuba’s Internet services functioned solely through satellite links.

Authorities confirm reappearance of cholera in Bayamo, hospitals to shorten visiting hours

Health authorities confirmed on Thursday that cholera has reappeared in the eastern city of Bayamo, reports Café Fuerte. Doctor Ana María Batista González of the Center for Hygiene and Epidemiology said that there have been four confirmed and 44 suspected cases at a local hospital.

At least 51 cases of cholera were confirmed in Havana earlier this month, though a January 15 official statement said that the outbreak was in the eradication phase. In light of recent cholera and dengue outbreaks, the Ministry of Public Health has announced that hospitals will have limited visitation hours beginning January 30th, reports Havana Times.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Ecuador implements new travel law, 26 Cubans repatriated

Ecuadorian officials repatriated 26 Cubans who arrived at the International Airport in Quito without a letter of invitation on Monday, according to Café Fuerte and Havana Times. CDA reported last week that the government of Ecuador was implementing a new law on January 21 requiring Cuban citizens entering Ecuador to hold a letter of invitation notarized by the Ecuadorian Consulate. The 26 Cubans argued that they boarded their flight before the new law took effect that same day. They returned to Cuba 12 hours after they arrived in Ecuador. Before the reversal in policy, Ecuador was one of the few countries in the region that allowed Cubans to visit without a visa after dropping the visa requirement in 2008.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Senator Kerry faces no Cuba questions; Senator Flake emerges as strong voice on free travel

Senator John Kerry (MA) faced no direct questions regarding Cuba in his confirmation hearing for Secretary of State on Thursday, despite the presence of Committee members Senator Menendez (NJ), the acting chairman, and Senator Rubio (FL), both hardliners on the issue.  Newly-elected Senator Jeff Flake (AZ), who had a strong anti-embargo record as a U.S. Representative, made his first statement on Cuba as a Senator, encouraging Kerry to use his presumptive position as Secretary of State to work with President Obama to continue to loosen travel restrictions and allow further engagement between the Cubans and Americans.

Sen. Flake stated, “With regard to Cuba…the best way to foster change and progress toward democracy is to allow travel, free travel of Americans, to let them go as they wish. I don’t think that that’s a weakness or any capitulation at all.” Sen. Flake ruffled the feathers of some of his Cold Warrior colleagues when he went on to joke, “I’ve often felt that if we want a real get-tough policy with the Castro brothers, we should force them to deal with spring break once or twice.”

Senator Marco Rubio, surprisingly, stayed silent on Cuba, and only brought up Latin America to challenge the validity of recent elections in Nicaragua and question whether a coup really took place in Honduras in 2009.  Cuba received no further mention until Senator Robert Menendez, acting as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, made his closing remarks lecturing Senator Flake, leaving no room for response.

In response to a question from Sen. Menendez about prospects for cooperation with Latin America during President Obama’s second term, Sen. Kerry noted that although continued cooperation is likely with Brazil and Colombia, little cooperation has occurred with Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Sen. Kerry remarked that “depending on what happens in Venezuela, there could be an opportunity for a transition there.” Elias Jaua, Venezuela’s Foreign Minister, stated in response that Venezuela’s government regrets Kerry’s comment, and that Venezuela hopes to engage in relations of “mutual respect” with the U.S.

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State meets with new Chief of the Cuban Interests Section

Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs met Wednesday with José Cabañas, the new Chief of the Cuban Interests Section, at the Department of State, reports Café Fuerte. The meeting represented Washington’s first diplomatic gesture towards Cuba in Obama’s second term. No comments were made about the contents of their meeting.

Cuban pitcher José Contreras becomes first athlete to return to Cuba under new immigration law

Major League Baseball pitcher José Ariel Contreras Camejo became the first Cuban athlete to return to Cuba under the new immigration law on Wednesday, report NBC News and Café Fuerte. The new law, adopted on January 14th, allows Cubans who emigrated without authorization to make temporary visits to the island if they have spent 8 years outside of the country. Contreras defected through Mexico in 2002 and returned this week in order to visit his family. Contreras stated that he did not have problems entering the country.

Around the Region

U.S. Once Again Gives Cold Shoulder to Salvadoran Gang Truce, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

CDA El Salvador Analyst Linda Garrett responds to the U.S. State Department’s recent travel warning on El Salvador: “The timing of the January 23rd travel warning is curious. No such warnings were issued during the height of the violence in 2010 and 2011. The past year, 2012 was the least violent since 2003. The ‘Security Message for U.S. Citizens’ acknowledges that the truce ‘contributed to a decline in the homicide rate’ but questions its sustainability and says it has had ‘little impact’ on other crimes.”

If you would like to receive CDA’s Monthly El Salvador Updates, contact: ElSalvadorUpdate@democracyinamericas.org

Recommended Reading

Seven Actions Obama Should Take on Cuba Now, Peter Kornbluh, The Nation

Peter Kornbluh makes the case for seven policies that the second Obama Administration can implement to leave a legacy of sensible policy toward Cuba: remove Cuba from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list; end the economic and commercial sanctions that accompany the terror list designation; order the arrest of Luis Posada Carriles; expand general licensing for Cuba travel; change the “Cuban Democracy and Contingency Planning” section of the Helms-Burton Act; engage in bilateral dialogue in areas of mutual interest; and commute the sentences of the “Cuban Five.”

Memo to President Obama: Cuba has extended the olive branch, shouldn’t the U.S.?, Albor Ruiz, New York Daily News

Albor Ruiz addresses the lack of response from the Obama administration to the recent easing of travel restrictions for Cuba’s citizens. The piece quotes CDA Executive Director Sarah Stephens, who says: “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.”

Alan Gross and his descent into hell, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecon

Tracey Eaton continues his coverage of U.S. funding for “democracy promotion” programs and the Alan Gross case, further detailing the circumstances around Gross’ arrest and the nature of his work in Cuba.  We reported on the first installment last week.

Is the Cuban Adjustment Act in play?, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Phil Peters asks if the Cuban Adjustment Act will, in fact, be open for discussion during the upcoming U.S. debate on comprehensive immigration reform.  But, Peters questions statements made by Senator Marco Rubio and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen that ground their arguments for a change in the Cuban Adjustment Act in the idea that all Cubans who arrive in the United States claim persecution and therefore should not be returning to Cuba to visit their families. Peters points out that most Cubans who remain in the U.S. under the Cuban Adjustment Act do not state a claim to persecution, as refugees or asylees must do.

Is Obama Acting Pragmatically in the Alan Gross Case?, Arturo López-Levy, Foreign Policy in Focus

Arturo López-Levy analyzes how the Obama administration has handled the case of former USAID contractor Alan Gross: “Obama’s legacy in the hemisphere will suffer if he wastes his second term flexibility to improve U.S.-Cuba relations because of unrealistic expectations. Incidentally, the probability of Gross’ release will improve as general relations do.”

Talking to Cuba, Julia E. Sweig interviewed by Robert McMahon, Council on Foreign Relations

Robert McMahon interviews Julia E. Sweig, Director for Latin American Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations. Sweig by answering a series of questions analyzes Cuba’s recent reforms especially the new travel laws. She argues that the United States should initiate a new dialogue with Cuba and work on solving the many issues that prevent normalization of relations between the two countries.

The Rivers Internship Blog, Emma Stodder, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Emma Stodder, CDA’s first Stephen M. Rivers Intern, will be keeping a blog on her experiences working at the Center, and posting her reflections on issues concerning U.S.-Latin America relations.

Stephen Rivers, who had a storied career as an advisor to César Chávez and the United Farm Workers Union, a political advisor to the Kennedy family, and a publicist for celebrities including Jane Fonda and Kevin Costner, devoted much of the last decade of his professional life to working for closer U.S.-Cuba relations by building bridges between the two countries’ cultural communities.

The internship was created by CDA in Rivers’ honor as a part of the organization’s 2012 annual event; contributions for the stipend were received from his long-time friends and colleagues including Maria Shriver, Norman Lear, Ricki Seidman, Greg Craig and Paul and Diane Begala. Emma will serve at CDA’s offices in Washington from January to July, 2013. Follow Emma here!

Recommended Viewing

Close Up: Cuba’s new love for the Union flag, Sarah Rainsford, BBC

Sarah Rainsford reports on the popularity of the U.K. flag in Cuba, and asks Cubans on the streets about their impressions of the trend.

Cuba: The Accidental Eden, Nature, PBS

PBS’ Nature showcases Cuba’s well-preserved biodiversity and how Cuba can act as a future model for ecotourism.

One Response to Inauguration Week: An emerging vision of a “new normal”

  1. luisa rimblas says:

    thanks for all the inf, as always interesting, but it will be possible to know if we still need visa to enter cuba to see the family?or can you direct me to an appropiate dept please.
    thanks in advance, luisa

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