The Doorbell in the Wall

November 20, 2015
The military has an expression, SNAFU, which stands for “situation normal all fouled up,” except soldiers use a synonym for “fouled up.”

Without making light of what is surely a humanitarian crisis, the surge of migration from Cuba has become more urgent and visible in the last days and weeks.  This is a grave situation for the migrants on its own terms.

But, their very human plight – and their vulnerability to the exploitation of human traffickers – is made even harder and more complicated by circumstances outside their control. Their departures from home and transit north takes place amidst the Syrian refugee crisis, the shock over terrorism in Paris, the increasing polarization in the United States over immigration in this election cycle, and the desperate search for political advantage by the opponents of normalized relations between the United States and Cuba.

It is not easy to figure just how to untangle this SNAFU.  The problem is multi-dimensional and the idea of resolving it rationally seems remote to say the least.  But, it is here and right before us.

Over the weekend, Nicaragua shut down its border with Costa Rica and thus stranded more than a 1,000 Cubans seeking passage through the country.  This incident brought renewed attention to the fact that migration from Cuba is rising and diversifying in its form.

What was once a Cold War-era story about rafters crossing the rough seas in search of a better life in Miami has merged with the Central American migration narrative, the issues around our border with Mexico, and shined a light on the peculiarly preferential treatment that Cuban nationals receive in contrast with migrants from any other country – in the region and the world.

That the numbers are up is beyond dispute; this isn’t simply a political problem, it is a reality problem.  In the first nine months of 2015, Al Jazeera reported, “Mexico processed a record 6,447 Cubans en route to the U.S….more than five times as many as in 2014.”  The Wall Street Journal reported this week that 28,000 Cuban migrants arrived in southern Texas over this period, an 80% increase over the previous year.

The growth in migration from Cuba has been developing over a period of years. As the Americas Society/Council of the Americas points out in this helpful brief, “the wave of Cuban arrivals has been on a steady uphill climb since 2011.”  Explanations for the upsurge include: a desire among new migrants to reach the U.S. to add to the remittances other family members have been sending home amidst the slow recovery from the U.S. recession and the faltering pace of Cuba’s economic reforms.  More recently, however, people are blaming signals that the preferential status accorded to Cuban migrants since the Cold War was about to be eliminated.

The Cuban Adjustment Act (or CAA) was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1966 to grant legal protections to political refugees arriving from Cuba.  Cubans who reach the U.S border are given automatic entry, a status no other refugee enjoys, and then qualify for benefits, integration into U.S. society, and eligibility for citizenship.

Once settled here, tens of thousands of Cubans – not the political refugees from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but the “recently arrived” – take advantage of President Obama’s travel reforms so that they can pass back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba.

The Cuban Adjustment Act might as well be called the law of unintended consequences.  It encourages illegal immigration into the U.S. from Cuba.  It creates the anachronistic impression that every Cuban migrant is escaping political persecution at home. Because it allows Cubans to stay in the U.S. once they reach our country, it subjects Cubans who apply for visas to visit the U.S. temporarily to the suspicion they will simply stay – which, in turn discourages U.S. officials from giving them the visas they need to come here to visit family, when they have every intention of returning home.

The Obama administration has been unequivocal in its statements that the CAA is not up for revision. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Lee told AS/COA Online via email. “The U.S. has no plans to change its immigration policies with regard to Cuba.”

The Cuban government, by contrast, would like to see the law repealed.  As Nick Miroff wrote in the Washington Post nearly a year ago, “Havana blames [the] policy for encouraging risky illegal migration and fueling a brain drain of the country’s professionals, who are enticed to take their training and talent to the United States after receiving a free education through the island’s socialist system.”

In response to the disruption at the Costa Rican-Nicaragua border, Cuba’s Foreign Relations Ministry issued a statement over the weekend which contained themes both familiar and new.  It called the Cubans trapped on the border “victims of the politicization of the immigration issue by the Government of the United States, the Cuban Adjustment Act,” and the differential treatment Cubans receive compared to migrants who come to the U.S. from anywhere else in the world.

But, the statement also said “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reaffirms the commitment of the government of Cuba with (a system of) legal, safe, and orderly migration,” restated the right of Cuban citizens who leave the country legally to return to Cuba, and said Cuban authorities were working with governments in the region to address the problem.

This served as a reminder that Cuba substantially liberalized its laws in 2013, allowing its citizens the right to travel and return, and that it was standing behind that policy, because it helps the country’s economy, and promotes the idea that Cubans need not choose between living in the world and staying at home, even as more decide to leave.

Despite a liberalized policy at home, and U.S. denials that the CAA would be repealed, many Cubans have decided not to take the risk that the status quo will remain in place.  As one Cuban state employee told Al Jazeera, “Cubans are afraid that [the U.S.] will change the law, so many think they are running out of time.”

Since the diplomatic breakthrough announced by Presidents Obama and Castro last December 17th, both supporters and opponents of the new policy have made public statements suggesting the CAA was not long for this world.

In January of this year, local legislators in Miami-Dade County called for revisions in the Cuban Adjustment Act.   Senator Marco Rubio has publicly stated his objections to Cuban migrants making trips back and forth to the island, whether to see family or take advantage of Cuban health care.

In a recent statement to the Associated Press, Rubio’s enthusiasm seemed to get the better of him, when he said, “When you have people who are coming and a year and a day later are traveling back to Cuba 15 times a year, 12 times, 10 times, eight times, that doesn’t look like someone who is fleeing oppression.” That kind of undermines his support for keeping the pressure on Cuba to overthrow its system, doesn’t it?

The politics around this issue, however, is going to be increasingly poisonous, which speaks poorly for the chances of a rational solution.  There are lobbyists who say the CAA has nothing to do with the surge of migrants and blame “it on a desire of the Cuban people to flee the Castro dictatorship and a desire by the Castro dictatorship to relieve itself of disaffected Cubans.”  Some want a big wall to stop immigrants from Central America, but a doorbell for Cuban exiles to get in under CAA.

There are Floridians  who support keeping the Cuban Adjustment Act on the books – either un-amended or with some preference for “exiles” over recent arrivals – but also want U.S. borders closed to all Syrian refugees (like Governor Rick Scott).  There are Members of Congress like Carlos Curbelo who blame President Obama for the surge in Cuban migration, demand a plan from him to stop it, but curiously offer no solution of their own.

But, there are solutions.  Ric Herrero of Engage Cuba suggests that Congress deal with Cuban migration at the same time it ends the embargo.  Jose Pertierra reminds us that the President has executive authority to cut back substantially on the offering of residency to Cuban migrants.  Congressman Paul Gosar (AZ-04) has written legislation to repeal the preferential treatment of Cuban migrants entirely.

What’s most likely, unfortunately, is inaction – which is unfair to Cubans and the migrants coming here from the rest of the world.  This issue is not going away.  Situation normal….

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Is the New Cuba Policy Popular with U.S. Voters? ¡Sin Duda!

November 13, 2015
Next week, our friends at the Atlantic Council and Engage Cuba will release their “America’s Heartland Survey” of voter opinion in Iowa, Ohio, Tennessee, and Indiana about U.S. policy toward Cuba.

While the hard numbers won’t be out until Tuesday, we do know that the poll shows significant support for engagement in these otherwise highly conservative Middle American states.

During the last year, we’ve seen and studied eighteen surveys measuring public support for President Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba.

With four days until the Heartland survey data is made public on November 17th, we wanted to remind you that the policies announced by the President last December 17th have real support, and predict the reactions we’re likely to hear from the hardliners who see the numbers continue to run against them.


“We’ve found that the more information people learn about what happens in Cuba, the more [likely] they are to support U.S. policy,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.

While we disagree with Mr. Claver-Carone, a lobbyist for pro-embargo interests, on virtually everything, it turns out his position on public opinion was exactly right!

In 2015, seventeen out of eighteen surveys of U.S. opinion have shown consistent, broad-based, even deepening support for restoring diplomatic relations and lifting the bans on trade and travel.

Starting in January, polls by Pew, the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, Gallup, the Associated PressTelemundo/Marist/MSNBC, another by APCBS News, the Sunshine State Survey, and a second Telemundo/Marist/MSNBC survey found that Americans, American Latinos, and Floridians supported restoring diplomatic relations by majorities of 59% all the way to 67% in a poll taken in September.

The Pew, Florida Atlantic University, AP, Gallup, Beyond the BeltwayBendixen-Amandi (Cuban American poll), St. Leo University (Florida), Chicago Council on Public Affairs, and Telemundo/Marist/MSNBC surveys found majorities for ending the embargo in the 60 percent range and rising.  For example, the Pew poll in January tracked support for ending the embargo at 66%, but that figure grew to 72% by July.

Polls also had support for ending the travel ban as low as 56% (Bendixen-Amandi) and 59% (Gallup) but as high as 81% (CBS News).


In the January survey by Pew, 63% of respondents supported diplomatic relations, and 66% supported ending the embargo, without believing that these policy changes would make Cuba more democratic.  They had no unrealistic expectations that these reforms would change Cuba, but supported them nonetheless.  That’s an American interests-based rationale.

Among the 2,034 respondents to the national survey by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, respondents did not believe that changes in U.S.-Cuba relations would weaken Cuba’s government or improve political conditions on the island.  But, once again, huge majorities supported the changes in U.S. policy under way.

As the Council says in its report:

The issue of normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba seems to be more of a problem for a handful of politicians and vocal minority of the public than it is for the American public at large.  In Chicago Council Surveys from 2008-2014, two-third of Americans have consistently said that U.S. leaders should be ready to meet and talk with leaders from Cuba.


Despite the big numbers nationally, in Florida, among Latinos and especially among Cuban Americans, partisan divides exist on Cuba just as they do on domestic and foreign policy issues generally.  In January, for example, when the Pew poll found 66% support nationally for ending the trade embargo, Republican respondents were split 47%-47% on maintaining it versus ending it.

We know from our own experience that fair-minded opponents of the President are reluctant to support policies of his – even ones  they like – to avoid giving him a “foreign policy victory.”

The Chicago Council reminds us that Democrats and Republicans disagree on how the U.S. should lead and engage most effectively.  However, the Beyond the Beltway and other polls that find big majorities for the policy reforms, also show majority Republican support for these changes, albeit with somewhat smaller margins.


As the evidence piles up that Americans really do approve of this new direction in U.S.-Cuba policy, we’ve become familiar with the protests by hardliners who seek to discredit what the surveys report.

In 2014, when the New York Times told Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart that Cuban Americans and a majority of the American public supports a change in policy, he simply responded: “That is an absolute lie.”  That’s one tactic.

Another tactic is for the pro-embargo side to say that because Cuban-Americans who support the embargo are always elected and reelected from their seats in Florida, the polls must be wrong.  Mr. Clavor-Carone said it here, and a columnist who went after Ernesto Londoño and the New York Times said it here.  The only observation we’d make about this apparent non sequitur is that the Florida Supreme Court recently found those congressional districts to be in violation of the state constitution because they were drawn for partisan reasons.

When the Atlantic Council released its last Cuba survey in February 2014, the results were slimed by Elliott Abrams, a casualty of the Iran-Contra Affair, who called the survey a “push poll.”  For the uninitiated, push polls are designed with skewed questions in order to reach a pre-ordained result.

If you’d like to see what a push poll actually looks like, you can read the Cuba Issues National Survey produced last March by a research firm now affiliated with the Presidential campaign of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. It reported a bare majority of support, 51% for President Obama’s new policies, until respondents were read a list of charges against the Cuban government which, predictably, caused support to erode.

All the major associations for survey research denounce push polling, states have made them illegal, and neither the organizations responsible for the Atlantic Council’s research nor the institutions like AP and Pew quoted here, would ever engage in them.  There’s no conspiracy among all these organizations to twist the numbers.  They are real.

So, if, anyone calls The Heartland Survey a “push poll” next week, you can call that an absolute lie.

In the last year, the slow but historic normalization process has proceeded rather well.  Diplomacy is working. As we report below, U.S. and Cuban diplomats met in Washington on Monday to discuss issues involving fugitives and law enforcement.

Cuba is opening more and improved Internet hot spots, as President Obama indicated they would pursuant to last year’s agreement.

Non-tourist travel is up, such as one trip that caught our eye this week, the Pink to Pink tour that linked U.S. and Cuban breast cancer survivors, physicians, and well-wishing comrades.

Remember there is massive public support for the new policy.  We feel some sense of urgency in saying that again as we close.  There are just 435 days until a new U.S. president is sworn into office.

Today in Florida, at the s0-called “Sunshine Summit,” one candidate for the presidency, Senator Marco Rubio was asked if he’d cancel diplomatic relations with Cuba if he were elected.  “Sin duda,” he said, without a doubt.  He is not alone.

Let’s not forget, the majority of the American people want the opening with Cuba to continue and the Heartland Survey, scheduled for release on Tuesday, apparently affirms exactly that.

This week in Cuba news…

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Free Roberta!

November 6, 2015
The new play about Donald Trump, “Los Hijos de Trump,” or “Sons of Trump,” a comedy, is supposedly a big hit in Mexico City.
Putting Trump aside, however, U.S.-Mexico relations are no laughing matter. There is the crisis of Mexico’s drug cartels, problems facing the rule of law, the impact of Mexico’seconomic slowdown on the 80 million people in the U.S. and Mexico on our common border, and the reality – politicized or not – of migration and what to do about it.
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, U.S.-Mexico relations would have to be considered near the top of our country’s foreign policy and national security priorities.
Moreover, having our country represented by a career career diplomat with the best credentials and tightest connections for the job should be, for lack of a better phrase, a “no-brainer.”
On Tuesday, we’ll have greater clarity on just how mindless opposition to the President’s policy on Cuba – yes, on Cuba – has become, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committeevotes on the nomination of Roberta Jacobson to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.
Ms. Jacobson serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.   She is a career Civil Service officer who began working at the State Department on South America during the Reagan Administration.   From 2003-2010, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, she worked directly on U.S.-Mexico relations, from diplomacy to trade.
But, for the last five years, she has worked tirelessly at the frontlines of President Obama’s transformation of U.S. policy toward Cuba; first, as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere, when basic reforms such as the expansion of people-to-people travel took place, and then as Assistant Secretary. In this latter role, she has served with distinction in the bilateral normalization talks with Cuba; historic talks which have led to the reopening of embassies and the first bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba onhuman rights.
Ms. Jacobson was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico on June 1. Although she is highly qualified for the post, and was endorsed by Senator Ben Cardin, the senior Democratic Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, two Senate obstacles arose at once.
As Politico colorfully put it, “Sources said Rubio, a Florida senator considered a top-tier 2016 candidate, and Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who is facing federal corruption charges, are Jacobson’s primary opponents.”
Menendez promised Politico that Cuba had nothing to do with his decision to roadblock Roberta. “But,” Politico reported, “he wouldn’t say what his objections are or whether he will vote against her in committee or slow her nomination on the Senate floor.”
Then came the senior diplomat’s confirmation hearing, and the New York Times, in its outstanding editorial, “Confirm an Ambassador to Mexico,” takes up the story from there.
“During a July 15 hearing, Mr. Menendez questioned her trustworthiness without offering any convincing evidence. Mr. Rubio later submitted dozens of written questions to the State Department as a delaying tactic. On Oct. 8, Mr. Rubio placed a temporary hold on her nomination, without explaining why.”
For his part, Menendez seems transparently mendacious in his assertion that Cuba is playing no part in his opposition to Jacobson serving in Mexico. He opposed the nomination of Carlos Pascual to be Ambassador to Mexico back in 2009, because Pascual had helped write a pro-normalization Cuba policy paper, though Pascual ultimately was confirmed and served.
Rubio previously blocked blocked Jacobson in 2012, stalling a vote on her nomination to be Assistant Secretary of State to score points against President Obama’s people-to-people travel policy. He is also famously on record daring the administration to nominate a candidate for the now vacant position of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, as we have written before.
By the same token, Rubio played a major role in opposing an Obama campaign donor whom the President had nominated to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Argentina on the more solid ground that the candidate had never set foot in the country. At the time, Rubio toldUSA Today, “Not every country can you send a political appointee to, and Argentina is one of those countries.”
You’d think he’d want a Civil Service officer with the experience of Roberta Jacobson to serve in Mexico given conditions in that country. But, Rubio’s resistance is clearly rooted in his rejection of Obama’s Cuba policy reforms and Secretary Jacobson’s diligence in implementing her boss’s policy.
Before President Obama took the decisive step of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, Senator Menendez spoke out on the Senate floor against opponents to the confirmation of qualified diplomats who the President sought to dispatch to points of foreign policy challenge around the world.
“The Senate standoff,” he said, “that has left so many career foreign service nominees in political and personal limbo is damaging our credibility, undermining our national security, and it must end now.”
Menendez has also spoken out strongly about the dimensions of the crisis in Mexico. He can prove his credibility on Tuesday by telling his Foreign Relations Committee colleagues that his opposition to the President’s Cuba policy will not stop him from taking a stand in favor of U.S.-Mexico relations and against divisive standoffs on diplomatic nominations by supporting Secretary Jacobson’s nomination in Committee and on the Senate Floor.
He’d do well to advise Senator Rubio to do the same. That might not be such a heavy lift after all. Word is that Rubio likes to skip his votes.

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Now that’s normalization: Pentagon removes Cuba from State Sponsors of Terror List

October 30, 2015
Without Tim Devaney, a reporter for The Hill who is either eagle–eyed or really well–connected, we might have missed this jewel of an item.  
“Friday’s edition of the Federal Register,” he wrote, “contains new rules for defense acquisitions from Cuba. Following President Obama’s call to repair relations with Cuba and in the footsteps of other federal agencies, the Defense Department’s Defense Acquisition Regulations System is removing restrictions it had placed on purchasing military equipment from Cuba.”
It turns out, that Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors of Terror List affected its status under Pentagon procurement rules in two ways:  It prohibited DOD from purchasing “Commercial Satellite Service Services” from Cuba, and it prohibited the Pentagon from awarding a contract to a firm owned or controlled by Cuba.
The new rule posted today (you can read it here) removes those two provisions.  This action “only” took five months.
As a reminder, on December 17th, when President Obama announced his decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, he instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terror.
Following a thorough review, Secretary Kerry recommended dropping Cuba from the list, and on April 14th, The White House submitted the report to Congress indicating the Administration’s intention to remove Cuba from the state sponsor’s list.
This produced one of the odder episodes in the Cuba policy drama.  The Miami Heraldreported that after signing up 35 cosponsors on draft legislation to reverse the President’s decision, Rep. Ileana Ros–Lehtinen (FL–27) decided against introducing the bill using the novel claim [cue: Sad Trombone] that Congress lacked the authority to prevent the decision from becoming effective.
In other words, she lacked the votes.
Forty–five days later, during which that legislation was actually in order, the Congressional review period came to an end, and the State Department made it official; effective May 29th, Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terror was rescinded.
Just as Cuba’s false designation had permeated its way through a variety of government policies, producing a ton of real world problems, eliminating those policies once Cuba was removed from the State Sponsor’s list required attention by several U.S. government agencies.
DOD finished the legal work dropping Cuba from its procurement regulations in June.  Whether the rule fell into a regulatory maze, or got lost in the White House clearance process, we don’t know.
Somehow, it took until today, October 30, a Friday (five months to the day Cuba came off the list on May 29th, which was also a Friday) for this rule to be issued.
In its own way, this is something worth celebrating.
First, this is a sign that the bureaucracy is still doing the hard but necessary work behind the scenes to implement President Obama’s policies, thoroughly and correctly.
Second, while Cuba may not currently be positioned to sell “Commercial Satellite Services” to the Defense Department, this does mean that, for example, the command at the Guantanamo Naval Station could begin buying goods and services from the Cuban government– rum, cigars, other supplies, you name it — starting today.
Third, beyond Tim Devaney and The Hill, this announcement — involving the national security of the United States and Cuba, after all — has not attracted, as of this writing, any attention; certainly not at the level of outrage caused by Beyonce’s visit to Cuba or the recent UN vote.
If quiet is the new normal when it comes to Cuba, give us more.

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Navin R. Johnson’s UN Vote Preview

October 23, 2015

Spoiler alert: On Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly will consider Cuba’s resolution on the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America on Cuba.” The vote is not in doubt; a similar resolution condemning the U.S. embargo was adopted by a 188-2 margin last year. We freely admit that virtually no one takes this process as seriously as we do; news organizations tend to yawn, since the General Assembly has adopted these measures for 23 consecutive years, and are likely to yawn harder this year, now that the State Department has denied the rumor the U.S. would abstain rather than vote against the resolution, taking away any remaining mystery about next week’s vote.

What’s the big deal? If the press doesn’t care, why should you? After all, we know how the vote will go down and, at this new, more hopeful stage in U.S.-Cuba relations, isn’t the resolution, the vote, and the analysis just a set piece from another day? That’s apparently what U.S. officials believe, who say they tried to get the Cubans to water down the resolution and take greater note of what diplomacy has produced so far, but felt rebuffed. In their telling, that ended the chance for a U.S. abstention. So, is there anything here that should concern any one of us?

Nerd Alert: We think so. Typically, the embargo resolutions request the UN Secretary-General to compile a summary of how UN agencies and each member nation of the General Assembly are affected by the global reach of U.S. economic sanctions. Every year, that report is “embargoed” by the UN until the eve of the vote. When we get our copy, as we did this week, the effect it has on one member of our team would remind Steve Martin fans of Navin R. Johnson’s reaction when he discovers his name in the phone book for the first time.

Getting serious for just a moment, we suggest you either read the report yourself here, or take a look at the analysis that follows. In fact, what came back in the Secretary-General’s report is pretty interesting, and here are some of the big themes that captured our attention.

The diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba bought the U.S. a lot of good will. Comments filed by Member states – allies and adversaries alike – recognize the Obama administration for talking to Cuba and making an effort to have a respectful policy. While President Obama had in previous years made reforms on travel and remittances, and no country took notice, several nations and UN agencies mentioned the opening of embassies, ending Cuba’s listing as a state sponsor of terror,reforms that allow greater travel, the export of building materials to repair homes, and the like as welcomed steps forward. The report has never praised the U.S. before.

But that goodwill stretches only so far. Japan, for example, expressed support for the new,positive direction of the U.S.-Cuba relationship, but will support the resolution condemning the embargo because it imposes hardships on Cubans and because the extraterritorial reach of sanctions violates international law. Similarly, the European Union – allies whose policy toward Cuba is most like ours and welcomed the bilateral breakthrough – also believes “the United States measures are increasingly outdated and should be ended.”

Then, there are the comments by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights which says that coercive economic sanctions justified on human rights grounds more often than not fail to improve those conditions, and punish the poorest people, the intended beneficiaries,at the cost of increased unemployment and poverty and risks to their health. It stings to read the example it offers that there is increased risk of mortality in Cuba because our sanctions restrict its access to chemicals that would otherwise protect Cuba’s drinking water.

From Stinging to Strange to Stupid. Those who are cynical about the UN, those who are bored writing or reading the annual stories on General Assembly vote, might spend time reading the impact the embargo continues to have on vulnerable Cubans.

In the report, you can read about sanctions blocking Cuban access to diagnostic equipment for monitoring the treatment of leukemia patients; how sanctions prevent the sale to Cuban hospitals of devices critical for pediatric heart surgery patients; how sanctions hinder efforts by the UN Development Program getting medicine and support into Cuba for its 18,257 patients, people of all ages, living with HIV/AIDS. You can read about the month-long cutoff of funds that Cuba’s government needed to pay for the housing and food costs for the Cuban doctors who were deployed in West Africa to fight Ebola.

On a lighter note, Cuba wants you to know that while it could be buying baseballs from the Wilson Sporting Goods Co., headquartered in Chicago, Illinois at $5.80 apiece, the embargo forces it to turn to a Japanese baseball manufacturer and spend $9.50 so that each ball can make its way to Cuba.For some reason, Cuba would also like you to know that because of the U.S. embargo, it has to spend over $35,000 more buying saxophones for 334 student musicians than it would if only it could purchase instruments made by Selmer in Elkhart, Indiana. Cuba: Point taken!

The report lays bare the economic contradictions of our policy. The great change in direction offered by President Obama’s new policy is that we’re supposed to stop strangling Cuba economically and instead give support to what can help make Cubans prosperous.

With the embargo, however, our new policy still has the old effects. For example, the Secretary-General’s report is a reminder that we close off to Cuba its natural, most proximate export market.

The embargo stops Cuba from selling its biotechnology and medical services, its nickel,rum, cigars, coffee, lobsters, and honey to the eager consumers it would find in the U.S.A.The embargo stops Cuba from getting credit, it subjects Cuba to exchange rate risk, it places Cuban bank accounts and its funds in jeopardy of being seized, and it bans Cuba from using the U.S. dollar in international transactions. On top of the well-known problems that are due to Cuba’s own economic policies, our embargo is a brake on Cuban economic growth and increases the struggles of the Cuban people.

Next Steps? After a really exciting year for U.S.-Cuba diplomacy, and strong leadership in the President Obama on behalf of engagement, the Secretary-General’s report reminds us that the embargo is still in place and it cuts pretty sharp.

For its part, Cuba’s resolution and its lengthy section in the UN Report is focused on nudging President Obama to try harder, to use his executive authority again and again, because Congress doesn’t have the votes to lift the embargo.

Cuba wants President Obama to help Cuba secure credit, use the dollar, open the banking system to Cuban entities and financial transactions, allow it to use the International Financial Institutions, and permit U.S. investment. He can do those things, and he should, but a year from now, are we going to be having the same debate, over the same resolution, covered or ignored by the same cynical press corps? Or, are there things that both governments are prepared to do in order to move the process along, further and faster?

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News about a Florida Poll, and reflections on travel and trade

October 16, 2015
By a greater than two-to-one margin, Floridians favor opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to the Sunshine State Survey released this week. 

When asked, “Do you favor freeing up diplomatic relations with Cuba?,” 56% of Floridians indicated support and only 26% opposed the idea. 

While the fact that diplomacy with Cuba enjoys majority support in Florida is important by itself, and has been reported in surveys before, what is most interesting about this poll is who is expressing that support most:  respondents who live in Miami and Palm Beach.

The survey, conducted jointly by University of South Florida School of Public Affairs with Nielsen, shows the highest support for diplomatic relations in the counties with the highest representation of Cuban Americans in the United States. 

Interestingly, Sunshine State Survey, in the field from July 30-August 16th, primarily had questions about the biggest threats to Florida’s economy.  In reporting the results, the University of South Florida factsheet said:

“There is strong support for economic development efforts aimed at keeping and expanding businesses and opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba.[our emphasis]”

By folding together the themes of economic growth and diplomacy with Cuba, the results reveal that all Floridians, but especially those in Miami and Palm Beach, are expressing views all but identical to the majority of Americans in the other 49 states who have understood and experienced Cuba from a greater distance, geographically, intellectually, and emotionally.

More and more, as these distinct perspectives merge, with the important policy actions taken by President Obama to remove restrictions on travel and trade through executive action, there is a lot more momentum behind those who want to think and act anew about Cuba policy, pulling away from the Florida–centric, sanctions–centric debate that prevailed for so long.

A note to readers

This week, the staff of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, publisher of your Cuba Central News Blast, is largely located in Cuba, handling back-to-back-to-back delegations that included Members of Congress and Congressional staff.  So, if we seem a little heavy on words and analysis and light on news summaries today, we hope what we have to say in this edition will still be of interest to readers.  We’ll be back to normal next week (we hope!)


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You didn’t hear him knocking (Obama’s Cuba policy)

October 9, 2015

From today to the inauguration of the next U.S. president, two themes will likely shape our analysis of U.S.-Cuba relations over the next 67 weeks. 

The first is what we call the “Power Shift,” the ongoing transformation in “who calls the shots” in the Cuba policy debate; the second is the growing, and increasingly broad-based interest in creating “facts on the ground” that will make the Obama reforms that started on December 17, 2014 irreversible. 

Together, these themes explain why there’s more political space to think differently about Cuba and the conversation around the policy. 

Think back to last summer.  The Treasury Department made news when it released a nine-page report by its Office of Inspector General (OIG) which concluded that Jay-Z and Beyoncé had traveled to Cuba legally, had not violated U.S. sanctions, and that OFAC’s decision not to start a formal investigation of their visit, as demanded by Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart in 2013, “was reasonable.” 

Sure, it was fun to read a U.S. government report that began with the words “This memorandum represents the results of our review of a trip to Cuba by the couple Shawn Carter (whose stage name is Jay-Z) and Knowles-Carter (Beyoncé) to determine whether the trip violated U.S. sanctions.” 

But, the facts that this ginned-up controversy lasted over a year, wasted taxpayer money, and trivialized a big issue (Cuba as the one destination for U.S. travelers where it is a crime to be a tourist) were vivid examples of where hardliner dominance over Cuba policy had taken us. 

Developments just this week illustrate how much the entire conversation has changed. 

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported, in its “Power Moves” column, that former Senator Olympia Snowe (ME) and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano joined The Cuba Consortium, a bipartisan group formed to advise businesses and others about the normalization process. 

Good story placed in an important, pro-embargo paper, and no backlash. 

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson returned from his trip to Cuba saying “he looks forward to the possibilities of trading with Cuba,” according to KARK-TV news.

 Former Bush Administration Homeland Security official, who took special pride in making Cuba sanctions bite harder, pirouettes on the policy, no suffers no pushback. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Rick Crawford, who represents the First Congressional District of Arkansas, introduced legislation cosponsored by the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Michael Conaway, and Rep. Ted Poe, both Texas Republicans, to remove restrictions in U.S. law that impede the sale of agriculture products to Cuba. 

The Miami Herald, which editorialized again this week against lifting the embargo, also covered a big new positive development in the Cuban reality; namely, progress in getting more Cubans access to the Internet in this excellent article “Cuba: A nation gets connected.” 

Perhaps, most remarkable of all, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker visits Cuba, delivers a message to Cuban officials “to make sure that you understand how our regulations work, because I think there’s business opportunity in that,” and adds “What we’re trying to do is be as open as we can until the blockade is lifted.” 

Blockade? As the New York Times helpfully explained, blockade is the word that Cubans use to refer to the U.S. embargo. 

In covering the trip, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post quoted any blowback from the entrenched sources of pro-embargo political support. None. 

They could have quoted – or called – Senator Bob Menendez (NJ) who delivered a stinging indictment of President Obama’s Cuba policy in a floor speech on Wednesday. 

Although it might seem a little snarky, another sign of the Power Shift can be found in the meager coverage Menendez’s speech attracted.  He could barely be heard. 

On Google this morning, we found 234 articles on Secretary Pritzker’s trip. A similar search found the Senator’s speech was covered by El Nuevo Herald, the Voice of AmericaTexas TribunePJ Media, and three news distribution services (including “noodls,” the self-described “killer app” for the media relations industry). 

This is not to say the battle’s won; the Obama policy rules!  No.  There is still much work to be done. 

As Nick Miroff wrote in the Washington Post after Pritzker’s trip, there are economic impediments on the Cuban side — along with serious human rights issues and related concerns on both sides — that are slowing the creation of “facts on the ground.”  These delays mean fewer incentives for U.S. corporations and political figures in the U.S. Congress to speed the ultimate removal of the embargo. 

Of course, given the inability of the House to elect a presiding officer, it’s easy to understand why repealing the embargo will take more time. 

But, our point is this.  At last, we’re talking about big things rather than small ball; we’re directly engaging with Cuba’s government on matters ranging from trade to human rights, and not debasing ourselves with debates over Rihanna showing her backside in Vanity Fair or whether the Rolling Stones should ask Cubans when they tour next March, “Can’t you hear me knocking?”

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