Mr. President, can we have 10 minutes of your time?

April 21, 2017

Engagement, listening, and freely exchanging views can change minds. Just ask President Trump.

When he met last week with President Xi Jinping of China, President Trump said China “could easily take care of the North Korea threat,” the Wall Street Journal reported. “But then Mr. Xi explained the history of China and Korea, Mr. Trump said. ‘After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy.’”

From this remove, we can’t know whether the President has ears to hear the strong arguments for keeping and growing the diplomatic and economic opening he inherited from the Obama administration.

But if he did listen, we think he could see the link between what he promised on the campaign – that he could get a “better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole” – and the existing policy, which is already delivering the goods for the United States and the Cuban people.

So, taking a page from President Xi’s playbook, we’re asking President Trump to take at least 10 minutes to consider the strongest arguments we and other advocates are making for pursuing the policy of engagement with Cuba now.

You can read the letter to the National Security Council sent by the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) about President Trump’s Cuba policy review here.

Governor Phil Bryant of Mississippi had a message for President Trump when he returned from his visit to Cuba this week. He urged him to see past the narrative of Cuba from the 1960s to “get that dialogue going in a very positive manner.”

When Gov. Bryant speaks – a Republican, rated the fifth most conservative governor in the U.S., who stuck by his endorsement of President Trump last fall – it’s reasonable to think he’ll be heard.

This week President Trump also heard from a renowned group of retired U.S. military flag officers. In a letter to the White House, they said, “The continued normalization of relations with Cuba is important to the national security of the United States and to the stability of relationships in the Western Hemisphere.” They also argued that keeping the reforms that allow greater travel and trade, “will empower the Cuban people to better determine their own futures.”

President Trump, who is famously deferential to his military advisers, should carefully consider what these highly decorated military leaders said about how we can best protect U.S. security and realize our humanitarian goals for the Cuban people.

How about negotiating strategy? Professor Bill LeoGrande and Marguerite Rose Jiménez, writing in The American Conservative, offer clear, smart, and honest advice informed by history: “The idea that the best way to support a political opening in Cuba is for the United States to demand human-rights concessions as a condition of engagement is not just a bad negotiating strategy. It also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the United States can most effectively influence Cuba’s political future.”

“Rather than make demands Cuba is sure to reject,” they argue for a policy that “aims to create conditions that provide Cuban leaders with self-interested reasons to allow greater political and economic freedom.” In addition to citing evidence that current policy is realizing important goals – from growing availability of Wi-Fi hotspots to the greater latitude for U.S. diplomats to meet Cubans from across the political spectrum – they echo an argument made by the generals: “Building bilateral economic ties creates the incentive for Cuba to maintain an open flow of people and ideas, and to be more responsive to U.S. concerns on a whole range of issues, including human rights.”

The promise that favorable conditions created by engagement with Cuba could produce better results than the previous policy of estrangement is being fulfilled every day. Our good friends at Cuba Educational Travel released this survey which shows how “U.S. travelers are engaging directly with Cuban citizens, speaking to them about economics, internet, technology and other key issues at a critical moment of transition on the island” thanks to the recent reforms.

It was no accident that Dr. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, UN special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, was able to spend five days in Cuba discussing human rights and human trafficking with Cuba’s government. It was the result of bilateral diplomacy with Cuba, affirmations by the U.S. of respect for Cuba’s sovereignty, and decisions taken by Cuba’s leadership that contributed to the climate that made her trip possible and effective.

In this space we have expressed pessimism about the Trump administration’s Cuba policy review and whether his appointments and previous statements signal a preordained result. At the same time, silence is not a strategy. The most consequential decision that the administration can make to advance U.S.-Cuba relations is to understand that a political and economic transition is underway, and to pursue a policy that will support that progress in the years ahead.

If we had 10 minutes, CDA would tell the President about our trips to Cuba, including the most recent visit with Republican Members of Congress, and the conversations we’ve had with Cubans inside and outside the government. “All of them,” as we said in our letter to the NSC, “expressed their support for a continuation, even an expansion, of U.S. policy so they have the greatest latitude and opportunity to build a future for themselves in Cuba.”

If the President would listen, this is what we’d say. It may not work. We’re not naïve. But if it worked for President Xi, why not us?

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The Bay of Pigs, Presidential Promises, and the Cuba Policy Review

April 14, 2017

One thing that makes Americans cynical about politics is that sources of mainstream opinion get euphoric when political leaders break their promises.

“Scarcely 12 weeks into his presidency,” the Los Angeles Times observes, “(President) Trump has backed off or reversed many of his most provocative campaign promises on foreign policy.”

Simply hearing President Trump say NATO is not obsolete, China is not a currency manipulator, and the Export-Import Bank is a good thing made their knees buckle. A few more weeks like this, as one Washington narrative suggests, and President Trump will have navigated all the way to the center.

We’ll see. As Brian Goldsmith wrote for The Atlantic last year, “Once in office, presidents almost always try to carry out their pre-election agendas. When they’re unable to keep those promises, it’s usually because of congressional opposition [think health care] – not because they’ve discarded campaign rhetoric to pursue other goals.” Scholars have examined the record – from Roosevelt to Reagan – and found “two-thirds of the winning candidate’s policy pledges were at least partially fulfilled after four years.”

That’s what the research says, and that is what President Trump’s chief strategist intends for him to do. As Steve Bannon told the Washington Times, “He’s laid out an agenda with those speeches, with the promises he made, and our job every day is just to execute on that … And he’s maniacally focused on that.”

Where does that leave Cuba? This question seems especially apt as we approach April 17th, the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

It was on April 17th, 1961, that “the Cuban-exile invasion force, known as Brigade 2506, landed at beaches along the Bay of Pigs and immediately came under heavy fire,” the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library explains. “Cuban planes strafed the invaders, sank two escort ships, and destroyed half of the exiles’ air support.”

From there, the plan fell apart. Over 100 of the attackers were killed, and almost 1,200 members of Brigade 2506 were captured. It took 20 months of direct diplomacy between the U.S. and Cuba’s government for the brigade prisoners to be released from captivity. Then, according to the Kennedy Library’s account, “surviving brigade members gathered for a ceremony in Miami’s Orange Bowl, where the brigade’s flag was handed over to President Kennedy. ‘I can assure you,’ the president promised, ‘that this flag will be returned to this brigade in a free Havana.’”

More than a half-century later, the Brigade 2506 Veterans Association formally endorsed Donald Trump for president, the first endorsement for president ever made by the Brigade. The Brigade veterans were embraced by the campaign and by some hardliners in the Cuban American community; they were vilified by others. But they did so out of the conviction that if Mr. Trump were to be elected president, he would honor his pledge to undo the Obama opening unless the government of Cuba agrees to his demands, as he tweeted it should. History, of course, teaches us the Cubans are not going to obey.

President Kennedy, as we noted previously, did not understand the consequences of going forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion. President Trump’s National Security Advisor, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, wrote a book, “Dereliction of Duty,” about how defense and foreign policy decisions went off the rails; it was thanks, in part, to “President Kennedy’s informal style and structure of decision making (which) did not allow for a systematic review of the planned invasion of Cuba.”

Monday is both the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs and the 88th day of President Trump’s administration. Much of Washington is eyeing the calendar and the clock as we move closer to Day 100 and, perhaps like Steve Bannon, we’re maniacally focused on whether the Cuba campaign promise to Brigade 2506 and others will be honored or become another part of the supposed move to the center.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas has submitted a defense of the existing Cuba policy to the National Security Council staff at the White House, which is coordinating President Trump’s review of Cuba policy. We plan to release what we submitted early next week. It would be a testament to Lt. General McMaster’s belief in good process for the NSC in 2017 to do better by President Trump than President Kennedy did by the process in 1961. So we hope that our views – and those expressed by others – will help to persuade the administration to stay the course.

At some point, either we or the Bay of Pigs brigade will be disappointed. Whatever happens, it will be a reminder – to paraphrase George Orwell – that some campaign promises are more equal than others. That’s especially true when it comes to President Trump and Cuba; after all, he’s made so many.

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Food as a weapon

April 7, 2017

For a century, the United States has provided food to nations out of the belief that hunger and famine undermine stability and threaten our values and our security. After attempts by Presidents Ford and Carter to embargo grain shipments to the Soviet Union backfired, it has been an article of faith that the U.S. would forswear the use of food as a political weapon. Recent efforts to attack a Cabinet nomination in the Senate and, separately, to derail legislation to promote food exports in the House, remind us how this principle is honored in the breach by policymakers who like to stick it to Cuba.

Sales of food to Cuba face fewer restrictions under the U.S. embargo than other products or services, but they are constrained by one significant limitation. In contrast to how we conduct sales of U.S. agricultural products to any other nation, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA) prohibits any U.S. credit or guarantees for food exports to Cuba. Instead, Cuba must pay on a cash-in-advance basis.

No other country imposes this limitation on its farmers, and TSRA exacts a price. While Cuba has purchased more than $5.3 billion worth of agricultural commodities and food products over the last 15-plus years, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, our farmers could have sold far more. As Kansas Senator Jerry Moran told the U.S. Senate last month, “It costs about $6 to $7 a ton to ship grain from the United States to Cuba. It costs about $20 to $25 to ship that same grain from the European Union.”

U.S.-grown food should be attractive to Cuba, which depends on imports for 60-80 percent of its food requirements, given our advantages of quality, proximity, and price. But Cuba prefers to meet the majority of its food requirements by dealing with suppliers from other countries that can offer Cuba credit financing. As a result, it has cut back on food purchases from the U.S., which reached a high of $710 million in 2008 but fell to $232 million last year.

With this unilateral sanction, we raise the costs of putting food on kitchen tables for Cubans across the island, while giving away market share to our competitors. As Senator Moran said in a recent floor speech, “Keep in mind that when we don’t sell agricultural commodities to Cuba, somebody else does. … When we can’t sell wheat that comes from a Kansas wheat field to Cuba, they’re purchasing that wheat from France, from Canada, from other European countries.”

For years, agriculture-state legislators like Senator Moran and Congressman Rick Crawford of Arkansas have pressed Congress to enact legislation that would allow U.S. farmers to sell into the Cuban market with credit financing. But they have been thwarted time and again by pro-embargo hardliners who castigate those who propose extending credit as offering concessions to “the Castro regime.”

Here are two cases in point.

President Trump nominated former Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. Every other Cabinet secretary nomination has been approved by the U.S. Senate, except Sonny Perdue’s, whose vote has been delayed over food sales to Cuba.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Agriculture Committee, Perdue told the panel, “We would love to have Cuba as a customer,” but that Congress has to pass legislation to fix the financing issues that depress U.S. sales to the island.

“I think if we can get the private financing done there – and there’s some proposals already to do that – I think American agriculture both in the Upper Plains and in the Gulf Coast and the East Coast have a wonderful opportunity,” Perdue said in response to a question from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN). “That’s a country that’s hungry. I led a delegation there in 2010 in Georgia and they wanted our product. They could just not afford it and pay for it there based on the financial crisis that they were in. So, hopefully we can mitigate that.”

Following committee approval of his nomination, however, his path to a vote on the Senate floor was blocked by Senator Robert Menéndez of New Jersey, with the support of Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, because of the statements Perdue made on financing for U.S. exports to Cuba.

It wasn’t until both Senators had private conversations with Perdue, the contents of which have not been disclosed, that they signaled their willingness for his nomination to be voted by the Senate. We’re left to imagine what he promised them; as a reporter for the High Plains/Midwest Ag Journal put it, “whether Perdue has since changed that stance hasn’t been made clear.”

Then there’s the case of Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-1), champion of the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, the House bill to fix the agriculture finance problem. Nearly a year ago, pressure from the House Republican Leadership stopped Rep. Crawford from getting a vote on the House floor on his proposal, at a time when it was likely to pass. After receiving a promised hearing on the legislation last fall, he was told that pro-embargo South Florida legislators would work with him to move a version forward they could live with. Despite a well-organized effort to gather greater levels of support and co-sponsorship of the legislation, the effort seems sidetracked not just by the anti-Castro ideologues but by the Congress in a stand-still and dwindling days left before the summer recess for an agreement to be brought to the floor.

Consider where all of this leaves us. We have legislation to help Cuba feed its people with food grown in the U.S. lost in negotiation; an Agriculture Secretary nominee whose professed “love” for selling food to Cuba had to be smothered to get a vote on his confirmation; a Secretary of State who pledged that no bill to “weaken” the embargo would get President Trump’s signature until his policy review was done; and Senator Rubio assuring us the President plans to treat Cuba “like the dictatorship it is.”

Together, it’s a recipe for making food more costly and less available for Cubans and blunting the moral dimensions of U.S. foreign policy and leadership.

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Waiting for Godon’t

March 31, 2017

This is Day 71 of the Trump presidency.

During the presidential campaign last year, Mr. Trump promised to reverse President Obama’s new policy toward Cuba “until freedoms are restored.” Later in the campaign, as Breitbart.com reported, Governor Mike Pence assured Miami-Dade County Republicans, “When Donald Trump and I take to the White House, we will reverse Barack Obama’s executive order on Cuba,” giving that promise more of Day One feel. But when Rex Tillerson was asked, during his confirmation hearing to serve as Secretary of State, if he stood by Mr. Trump’s commitment, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Yes,” but he went on to add, “There will be a comprehensive review of current policies and executive orders regarding Cuba to determine how best to pressure Cuba to respect human rights and promote democratic changes.”

It isn’t Day One anymore. So it’s fair to wonder what’s happening with the policy review, why the apparent delay, and what the substance of a future action would be. Since we don’t have an independent line into the West Wing of the White House, we’ll tell you what we think we know (without getting too far ahead of the facts).

Note: As we prepared for publication this afternoon, a new report by Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald quoted Florida Senator Marco Rubio saying “I think without a doubt there will be changes in U.S.-Cuba policy,” which he expects President Trump to undertake “strategically.” (More about that below.)

On timing. We heard at a meeting of allies this week that the administration could take action on Cuba as early as the middle of next month, curiously close to the 56th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion. This would be desperately odd timing for President Trump to announce a reversal of the Obama policy and keep his promise to Brigade 2506, veterans of the failed invasion.

The review and the delay. With so many policy hardliners among the Trump transition and landing team staffs, we were skeptical that the policy review would amount to more than window dressing before the campaign promise on Cuba was kept. But the pervasive absence of political appointees across the government – coupled with the firing of Craig Deare, who served so briefly as the National Security Council’s Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere – means there hasn’t been a central White House figure managing the process. The foundational work quite properly was done by career staff at agencies like State and Treasury. These are foreign policy officers and civil servants with the experience to analyze the policy (they have also witnessed the positive results of the last two-plus years), but they lack the decision-making authority that would normally be exercised by appointees at the desks which now have empty chairs. Without them, it is unimaginable for the process to reach a conclusion.

It’s not just Cuba. Reuters reported today that preparations for the next G7 major powers meeting are being delayed by vacancies in both the deputy secretary of state positions and all six regional bureaus, with one European diplomat saying, “We no longer know who to talk to. It is slowing everything down.”

Under normal circumstances – even understaffed as it is, laboring under no deadline, statutory or political – it would cost the Trump administration nothing to slow down so that it could complete the Cuba policy review in an orderly and thoughtful way.

But these are extraordinary times. With the administration’s defeat on health care one week ago, along with chaos in the Capitol over Russian hacking of our election, The Economist is predicting – and we tend to agree – the President will forcefully and, as they say, “theatrically,” move into the “full-throated use of executive orders” to put some points on the board, especially by aligning them with his instincts about exercising power and keeping his campaign promises.

What’s next? President Trump’s approach to Cuba, which is bad for both countries, dispenses with diplomacy and tries to steamroll Cuba’s sovereignty.

Just as the President tried coercion over consensus-building in the House of Representatives, as the New York Times observes, in an unsuccessful effort to enact health care reform, we think he’ll use the same of approach of “threatening sticks and promising carrots” to Cuba, as he promised last fall.

Which was, by the way, exactly what Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart suggested he should do, as we reported last week, when he asked the administration to implement his plan – which gave Cuba’s government 90 days to meet our demands or face the re-imposition of sanctions – in exchange for winning his vote on health care.

That brings us back to what Sen. Rubio talked about with Mega TV host Oscar Haza earlier this week. When he said he expects the White House to address U.S.-Cuba policy “strategically,” was he referring to the President’s threat to restore every restriction President Obama eased unless Havana capitulates to his demands? Yeah, we think so.

Believe us. Obviously, we’d like to see a more favorable outcome. We’d prefer the Obama opening not just remain in place but be expanded to further serve the national interests of the United States and the Cuban people.

As the Cuba review continues, we feel like we’re waiting for Godot, and we’re reminded that April so often is the cruelest month.

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Horse-Trading on Health Care Put Cuba Opening at Risk

March 24, 2017

Earlier today, leaders from Congress and the White House tried to find a majority to pass a major overhaul of the U.S. health care system.

On a close and controversial issue like this, just one vote can make a difference. That’s how a proposal to end President Obama’s opening to Cuba got kicked into play this week, and how the debate over legislation to end Obamacare put the aspirations of Cuba’s people at risk.

On Wednesday, the Miami Herald reported that Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25), who said then he was “leaning no” on the health care bill, had written a memo titled “A Good Deal that Upholds the Law and Protects National Security,” that was being passed around the White House.

The memo, available here at the Latin America Goes Global website, outlined an ultimatum to the government of President Raúl Castro. Unless Cuba met demands contained in the Helms-Burton law within 90 days, the Trump administration would take back every measure that increased opportunities for travel and trade with Cuba that were put into place after diplomatic relations were restored in 2015.

Keep in mind the Helms-Burton Act has been on the books for 21 years – the embargo has been in place for more than 50 – and at no time has Cuba ever been willing to alter its political system to meet demands imposed by Washington.

Did Rep. Díaz-Balart and the White House, as the Miami Herald put it, explore “a little old-fashioned horse trading — a ‘Yes’ vote on healthcare for swift action on Cuba?” The Congressman conceded as much when he told a reporter, “I wish that they would’ve given me a commitment on something, but that is just made up.”

According to Fabiola Santiago, a columnist for the paper, the Congressman’s district has the fourth-largest number of health care market enrollees in the United States.

“If it’s true that U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart tried to trade his vote for ‘Trumpcare’ for a commitment from the administration to take a tough stance on Cuba, then the obsession of Cuban-Americans in Congress with U.S.-Cuba policy has hit a new low,” she wrote. “Voting for the American Health Care Act is going against the interests of all who need affordable health insurance in South Florida.”

In offering to swap his vote on health care to cut off travel and trade, the Congressman was also working at cross-purposes with the expressed interests of Cubans on the island.

Their interests come through clearly in a survey released this week by NORC at the University of Chicago, a highly respected non-partisan research organization. The survey was conducted in Cuba and consisted of in-person interviews with 840 Cuban adults, from October 3 to November 26 last year.

The survey was not filled with happy-talk results. When asked about their country’s biggest problems a majority of the respondents labeled crime “an extremely or very serious problem.” Another 4 in 10 identified poverty, and 38 percent said corruption.

But when asked about what they wanted from their government in the future, Cubans said they “would like to see the government focus on economic growth and maintaining stability over the next 10 years.”

They were pretty clear-eyed and nearly unanimous about how economic growth would be achieved. Eighty-four percent said Cuba should encourage more tourism. Eight in 10 said tourism to Cuba should be expanded. Most believe expanded tourism will improve the country’s economy and create more jobs.

And given that a rising number of visitors arriving on Cuban shores are coming from the United States, it is no surprise that a majority of Cubans believe the normalization of relations with our country is good for Cuba. Or that 70 percent of respondents age 18 to 29 – those who have the greatest stake in their country’s future – support normalization for that reason.

Their vision of a more prosperous and stable future for Cuba is, in turn, deeply dependent on whether the U.S. policy of normalization continues moving forward or is dragged off course.

Since we started collecting these thoughts earlier this afternoon, we’ve seen two striking developments. Rep. Díaz-Balart told reporters he changed his mind and planned to vote yes on the bill to repeal Obamacare, and President Trump told the Washington Post he’s pulled the bill to repeal the health care law because there aren’t enough votes to pass it through the House.

By a simple twist of fate, the people of Cuba – who have no representation in the U.S. Congress yet are profoundly affected by policy choices made in their name but without their consent – get to dream another day. For now, this leaves their aspirations intact.

Where this leaves Rep. Díaz-Balart and his constituents (or his “deal” with President Trump’s White House) is not ours to guess.

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A few words about markets, U.S. airlines, and that other travel ban (Cuba)

March 17, 2017

Today’s message, quite simply, is this: Recent headlines that read The Cuba travel bubble is popping and Now That Cuba Is Open, Americans Aren’t Going  got it wrong. So, we’ve written this essay to try and set the facts straight.

Travel from the U.S. to Cuba is going up, and it could be doing even better if policy makers would just legalize all forms of it, the way a majority of Americans want them to.

This is worth digging into. First, let’s start at a comfortable cruising altitude of 30,000 feet before diving into the weeds.

As Cuba Journal reminded us recently, “Cuba is the only country in the world where Americans face travel restrictions.” You can even visit North Korea as a tourist without asking permission from President Trump or Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, although it’s a risky place for U.S. travelers. Meanwhile, travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by U.S. law.

President Obama took significant steps to reduce U.S. restrictions on non-tourist travel to Cuba – ending limits on travel by Cuban Americans with family on the island, restoring people-to-people visits and, critically, using diplomacy with Cuba’s government to restart regularly scheduled commercial flights to the island by U.S. carriers in the middle of 2016.

As Brookings reported late last year, the relative trickle of 91,000 visitors to Cuba in 2014 rose to 161,000 visits in 2015, and to a veritable flood of over 280,000 visits in 2016, according to this recent estimate.

Before the recent changes, charter carriers remained stalwart for decades serving the Cuban market under onerous travel rules that restricted flights and kept prices high. When restrictions were loosened, traditional economic forces went to work. “As generations of U.S.- or U.K.-trained economists would predict,” a U.S.-trained economist told us, “prices fell and the total number of seats sold went up.”

Bloomberg, normally fact-based, got it wrong when it reported in February, “still, there are few Yankees heading to Havana.” On the contrary, U.S. demand is both strong and rising rapidly now, and the trend points the same way. As Travel Pulse reports, travel agents are seeing “an explosion of Cuba bookings” going forward. They say, “Nearly 22 percent of its leisure-focused travel agents have already booked clients for Cuba travel in 2017 while more than 59 percent said clients are interested in going this year.”

In fact, many of the carriers awarded routes to Cuba are doing well – this comes not from promotional materials but filings by American Airlines, Southwest, and Delta with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Southwest, for example, lists its 44th consecutive year of profitability and its decision to launch “service to Cuba with daily flights to Varadero, followed by service to Havana, our 100th city served, and Santa Clara” in its 2016 list of a dozen notable accomplishments.

By the same token, some U.S. airlines are dropping flights, as NBC News reported in its refreshingly informed piece. Silver Airways is dropping out the market entirely on April 22, explaining that “other airlines continue to serve this market with too many flights and oversized aircraft.” Frontier Airlines is terminating its Miami-Havana flight on June 4, saying “costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions.”

While claiming the mantle of “Economics 101,” Fabiola Sanchez, in her Miami Herald column, was actually practicing Cold War Ideology 1.0. “Blame over the lack of greater demand sits squarely with the paranoid and repressive Cuban state,” she writes, “which fails to modernize politically and economically, no matter how much this country and the rest of the world opens up to them.”

What is so important about travel to Cuba is that it allows Americans to visit the island, speak directly to Cubans, and learn from them how they view their lives, their opportunities and, yes, their government.  The portrait they paint can be both inspiring and worrisome in the same conversation. What is consistent is that Cubans don’t tell visitors from the States to go home, but to come back.

The adjustment taking place in the Cuban market is not about politics, but economics and regulation. One of the things that Bloomberg got right is that our airlines, “with no idea about demand, were overly ambitious when they jousted for the limited routes allowed by U.S. regulators. With a mandate for only 110 daily U.S. flights – 20 into Havana, the most popular destination – the carriers tumbled over each other last year to get a piece of the pie, leaving the island oversubscribed.”

It isn’t a surprise that Silver and Frontier are folding their tents, or that carriers like JetBlue have cut back. In a globalized economy, and with a new, emerging market, this happens all the time. Our friend the economist observes: “Airlines spend millions on programs to strategically and tactically game prices and routes, and flights to Cuba are now part of that game. Entrants will come and go, seasonal variations may increase, demand will be sensitive to US economic trends. All of this is normal. Year over year, the market continues to grow. That is the fundamental fact to date.”

The market is going to continue to adjust, and Cuba’s government and its tourism industry will have to be part of that adjustment if it wants first-time travelers to return, rather than losing them to equally warm and less expensive destinations in the Caribbean.

But, the airlines need to step up as well. They’re running this advertisement in Washington, appealing to President Trump to protect American jobs and to enforce the so-called “Open Skies” Agreement which, they say, benefits U.S. airlines, workers, and passengers.

If they want to continue doing business in Cuba, their voices need to be heard – loudly, urgently, presently – to stop the administration or Congress from rolling back our hard won rights to visit Cuba now, and urge the end of the unconstitutional ban on tourist travel as soon as possible.

Cuba isn’t North Korea, and America needs to act like America and demonstrate it knows the difference.

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Engagement versus Estrangement

March 10, 2017

Congressman James Comer, a first-term Republican from the 1st District of Kentucky, just returned from a five-day trip to Cuba on a fact-finding delegation led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

On Wednesday, his office released a statement about the trip, which read, in part: “Congressman Comer strongly supports lifting the current trade embargo on Cuba, and will be a leader in Congress in passing legislation to reopen trade with this key neighbor of the U.S.”

“The first district is a strong agriculture area,” Congressman Comer said, “and opening trade barriers for agriculture products would be a major benefit for the district and all of Kentucky.”

Congressman Comer’s story – his experience of going to Cuba, talking directly to Cubans about their lives, and deciding, unbound by party or dogma, that engagement is better than sanctions for advancing his constituents’ interests – is important.

Even more, it places him in the vital center of practical and principled thought on the conduct of U.S.-Cuba relations – which is all about exploring and securing the benefits of engagement.

Engagement has paid off diplomatically. Engagement with Cuba restored relations, reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana, and secured bilateral agreements on combatting diseases from cancer to Zika, fighting drugs and human trafficking, responding to oil spills and the other pollution threats in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida, and providing united support for the final end to Colombia’s long, bloody civil war.

Engagement is creating and supporting more, better paying jobs in the U.S. telecommunications, hospitality and travel industries, and among the Cuban-owned private-sector businesses that are providing food and lodging to travelers coming from the U.S. and elsewhere.

The benefits of engagement were expanded by U.S. policy decisions that boosted the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba to historic levels, and increased the flows of remittances to Cuban family members on the island to as much as $3 billion annually. At the same time, Cuba opened up legal work in the private sector for 25 percent of the island’s workforce, and significantly increased Wi-Fi connections, at reduced costs, for Cuba’s people.

Politically, engagement is at the center of where public opinion is among the 75 percent of the U.S. public which wants to lift the embargo, 63 percent of Cuban-Americans who oppose the embargo, and 97 percent of Cubans on the island who think normal relations with the U.S. is good for Cuba.

With the mutually reinforcing benefits of diplomacy and economic change strengthening public support for engagement, this has opened even greater space for elected officials like Congressman Comer to build coalitions for changes in the laws governing U.S.-Cuba relations.

These coalitions have gathered in support of legislation to increase agriculture trade to Cuba, to end legal barriers to tourist travel, and to lift the embargo entirely. Passing these bills is in the U.S. national interest.

Fifty years of futility passed our eyes when we read the remarks of White House spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré in an interview Wednesday with the Spanish news agency EFE. “With all the things [Cuba] has been given,” she said, the government has not made any “concessions” within the process of normalization of bilateral relations. Before assuming office, President Trump said he would reverse the reforms and restore estrangement as the basis of U.S. policy, unless the Cubans make concessions.

This position of no negotiations until the Cubans compromise was the policy of every president since Eisenhower, except one, and all but one were disappointed.

The Trump administration is reviewing the policy. We’d like to see President Trump find a way forward that doesn’t let Congressman Comer or his constituents down.

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