Reflecting on Carlos Gutierrez’s Cuba Conversion and Why He Was Rebuked

June 26, 2015

As U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the administration of President George W. Bush, Carlos Gutierrez supported policies to overthrow Cuba’s government and replace its political and economic systems with a framework forged in Washington.

A day after the speeches by President Obama and Castro on their decision to restore bilateral relations, Gutierrez told Time Magazine that the agreement was “lopsided,” and he warned the U.S. business community, “This could backfire in a really big way.”

After some hints and feints earlier this year, Gutierrez has fully and publicly made the transition from anti-Castro caterpillar to pro-engagement butterfly, in what the Miami New Times is calling “a startling turnaround for a Cuban American,” but which others describe as a betrayal.

Mr. Gutierrez published an essay in the New York Times this week, “A Republican Case for Obama’s Cuba Policy,” which follows the arc of his life from 1960 when his family left Cuba and with it all their possessions, to this moment when he can look back after having “achieved personal and professional success beyond anything I could have imagined.”

In December 2014, he found himself, as a Republican and Cuban American, thinking Obama was out-negotiated by a Cuban government determined to extend the revolution. Now, Secretary Gutierrez sees genuine progress in the plans to open new embassies and the bilateral talks on a host of issues, including the status of U.S. fugitives in Cuba.

He writes, “I never expected negotiations to get this far.”

Secretary Gutierrez now believes it is in the best interests of the Cuban people for President Obama’s new policies to succeed. In his op-ed, he urges support for the reforms that seek to help Cuba’s growing class of small-business owners and employees “obtain the tools, supplies, building materials and training in accounting, logistics and other areas” that they need “to chart their own course in life.”

Then, significantly, he turns to his “fellow Cuban-Americans [who] insist that continuing to squeeze Cuba economically will help the Cuban people because it will lead to democracy,” and asks “if the Cubans who have to stand in line for the most basic necessities for hours in the hot Havana sun feel that this approach is helpful to them.”

We think the Secretary’s turnabout and his direct challenge to the hardliners is a pretty big deal. His critics seem to think so, too.

Guillermo I. Martinez claimed the Secretary’s column “makes no sense,” and expressed his feelings of betrayal in writing, “I cannot imagine him saying that when he was working for a Republican president or when he was working for an American company.”

Taking the theme of defection to the next level, Capitol Hill Cubans published this piece saying that “The Obama Administration (and Castro’s D.C. lobbyists) weren’t the only ones thrilled by former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez’s endorsement of the Obama Administration’s (give-everything-for-nothing) Cuba policy,” alleging that the piece had run in Granma, the state newspaper, because “Castro’s censors clearly found nothing objectionable in Gutierrez’s editorial.”

If this language of reproach is familiar, you might be thinking of the reaction to Alfonso Fanjul, the Cuban American sugar magnate, when he told the Washington Post he was open to investing in Cuba. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen responded by saying “it’s pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress.”

Or you might be reminded of Senator Marco Rubio’s refrain of betrayal after the White House commended Pope Francis for his instrumental role in the U.S.-Cuba negotiations. Rubio told a packed press conference he’d take it upon himself to “ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy” in Cuba, adding, “the people of Cuba deserve to have the same chances at Democracy as the people of Argentina have had, where he’s from.”

It was only a few days back, when Engage Cuba celebrated its broad coalition – studded with distinguished foreign policy experts, industry leaders, and Cuban American moderates – favoring repeal of the embargo and normalized relations, that Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, the Cuban dissident and adjunct professor at Brown University, declared war. Literally:

“For pro-democracy activists both on and off the island, the war is no longer against the dynastic and despotic regime of Revolution Plaza, but against the indifferent and indecent establishment of the White House and State Department.”

What makes the brash become so rash when leaders have a change of heart? Social science tells us they are trying to discourage other leaders from changing their minds to stop members of their community from following suit.

Cass Sunstein, a constitutional scholar and public intellectual, has described how the information silos many of us live in make us resistant to changing our minds. He labels as the “the echo chamber effect,” the influence that MSNBC wields on the left and that Fox News exerts on the right. In those communities, groups tend reach the same judgments based on the same arguments, while a desire to get along with the larger group suppresses individuals who might otherwise think differently.

Even though people will dismiss accurate information because it would falsify their convictions (think climate change is real or the embargo hasn’t worked), Sunstein argues that “they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss.”

That’s why the President and the Pope loom so large. It is also why, when a sugar baron or a former Commerce Secretary changes his mind, the hardliners act as if they are losing theirs. Read the rest of this entry »


The Cuban Military Not So Transparent Act

June 19, 2015

Legislation introduced earlier this month by Senator Marco Rubio (FL) – the Cuban Military Transparency Act – isn’t transparent at all.

Rather than revealing something about Cuba’s military, the legislation conceals the intent of its authors; namely, to shame, harass, and try to stop every American from visiting Cuba or seeking to do business in Cuba, and to return U.S. policy to its pre-December 17, 2014 goal of starving the Cuban economy and the Cuban people along with it.

Why are the seven Senate sponsors relying now on such desperate measures? A few numbers – 43, 36, and 620,000 – tell the story.

  • We can now count forty-three Republican and Democratic Senators who’ve stepped forward to sponsor The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, legislation to make it legal for all Americans to travel to Cuba. We congratulate Senators Barbara Mikulski (MD), Patty Murray (WA), and Pat Roberts (KS), the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, for being the most recent among them.
  • President Obama’s decision to streamline regulations on purposeful travel to Cuba has galvanized interest across the United States in visiting Cuba. From January 1 to May 9th in 2015, there has been a 36% increase by Americans to the island over the same period last year.
  • For Cuban Americans who can visit Cuba on an unlimited basis, thanks to regulatory changes by President Obama, travel to the island is rising substantially. According to the Havana Consulting Group, family travel visits could 620,000 in 2015, a record.

This surge in visitors makes a huge difference for Cubans employed in transportation, lodging, restaurants, the owners of restaurants and beds and breakfasts, and the artisans and translators who get payments in hard currency or work in the “tip economy.”

According to 14ymedio, the number of self-employed persons in Cuba exceeded 500,000 for the first time at the end of May 2015, with young people and women benefitting enormously.  Studies show that travel and tourism are big drivers of employment and economic growth. As state-owned enterprises like hotels struggle to accommodate increases in tourism, the private sector will, as one analyst reported, fill capacity gaps, especially in the areas of lodging and restaurants, accelerating change in the structure of Cuba’s economy.

The economic reforms under President Raúl Castro enable Cubans to work for businesses that profit from the increase in travel taking place under President Obama’s policy reforms. Many Cubans are earning more money, and interacting and exchanging more with U.S. travelers. This is a virtuous circle producing better lives for Cubans in ways that simply couldn’t happen under 50 years of isolation and sanctions.

Most of us look at this emerging picture and think, “what’s not to like?” In contrast, the Senate sponsors of the Cuban Military Transparency Act see the fifty years of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions they’ve supported coming to an end. That is why they are acting so desperately.

So, what does their legislation really attempt to do? If enacted into law, it would prohibit a U.S. person from engaging in any financial transactions with Cuba’s Ministry of Defense and Interior Ministry, senior officials employed by them, or entities they own or control.

It’s not a secret that in Cuba, a socialist state with a largely state-owned economy, the military is invested in state-owned businesses, and several of those – as the Senate bill says – are dominant players in Cuba’s tourist industry.

Given the military’s broad role in Cuba’s economy, any expenditure by U.S. travelers and businesses – including the cost of hotel rooms, telephone calls, airport taxes, the hotel occupancy tax, sales taxes on tourist purchases, resort fees – could be prohibited presumptively unless the traveler or company could persuade OFAC they spent their money in Cuba some other way.

How could they prove the negative? Who in Cuba will hand out the forms that say “that hotel room” or “that painting” or “that serving of ropa vieja” didn’t come from an enterprise owned or controlled by Cuba’s military? Of course, the sponsors aren’t interested in compliance with their bill – they simply want to fill Americans with fear so that they don’t pack their bags and go, doing incalculable damage on Cuban families and their prospects for the future.

And let’s be clear: this legislation covers ETESCA, Cuba’s telecommunications company. Should it become law, it would prohibit Google and Facebook from doing business in Cuba. Millions of Cubans waiting for better connections to the Internet could thank the 7 Senate “transparency act” sponsors for that result as well.

If there were a truth-in-naming rule in the U.S. Congress, they could have given this enormously damaging legislation a much more fitting title:

  • The No-Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act;
  • The Stop Cuban Americans From Visiting their Families in Cuba Act;
  • The Smother Free Enterprise in Cuba Act; or even
  • The Keep Google and Facebook from Connecting Cubans to the Internet Act

But no such rule in Congress exists, as is transparently the case.

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Is The Supreme Court Passport Decision A Threat to Helms-Burton? We think so.

June 12, 2015

The Supreme Court’s decision this week in what is called the Jerusalem Passport Case poses a clear danger to the Helms-Burton law, and it will help to accelerate the unraveling of what has held together our nation’s counterproductive policies against Cuba.

The hardliners feared and predicted exactly this fallout from a decision by the Supreme Court that was adverse to their interests.

First, let’s start with a brief description of the case.

Although Israel considers Jerusalem to be its capital, Presidents of both parties since Harry Truman have maintained a neutral position on Jerusalem’s status pending a peace settlement. In 2002, Congress, as the Washington Post explained, “passed a law that, among other things, allows Jerusalem-born applicants for U.S. passports to record their place of birth as ‘Israel’ if they so request.” The intent was to nudge U.S. policy in the direction of Israel’s position on Jerusalem. President Bush, who signed the provision as part of a larger appropriation measure, nonetheless issued a public statement opposing it because it “impermissibly interferes with the President’s authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs.”

SCOTUS Blog takes up the story here: “Shortly after his birth in Jerusalem in 2002, Menachem Zivotofsky’s parents applied for a U.S. passport for their infant son,” exercising their right under the Congressional passport provision “to ask the State Department to designate ‘Israel’ as Menachem’s place of birth.”

The State Department turned them down, citing the U.S. policy since 1948 “of not recognizing any country as having sovereignty over the holy city of Jerusalem. The Zivotofskys went to court to challenge that decision.”

For nearly 13 years, the case went up and down the judicial and appellate food chain. But the closer it got to the Supreme Court, the more anxious the cross-cutting coalition of pro-Israel and anti-Castro Members of Congress became.

What Senate and House supporters of the passport feared most was the possibility that the President could be given what their amicus brief called “carte blanche to treat as unconstitutional—and to refuse to comply with—any Act of Congress that it determines touches on recognition policy.”

In its 6-3 decision, however, the Supreme Court held the President has exclusive power to grant formal recognition to a foreign sovereign. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said “The formal act of recognition is an executive power that Congress may not qualify.” In what could almost be construed as a reference to the Cuba negotiations, the Court writes, “The President is capable, in ways Congress is not, of engaging in the delicate and often secret diplomatic contacts that may lead to a decision on recognition.”

At the same time, the Supreme Court left in place all the powers the Congress shares with the President on foreign policy – to declare war, regulate foreign commerce, fund the armed forces, the right to vote down ambassadors, the power to provide no funds for an embassy –the tools that the hardliners are using in the appropriations process right now to try and turn back the Cuba policy reforms ordered by President Obama after he announced our diplomatic breakthrough with President Castro.

But, time and again, the Court makes clear that “Recognition is a ‘formal acknowledgement’ that a particular entity possess the qualifications for statement’ or ‘that a particular regime is the effective government of a state’,” and that those powers belong to the President of the United States alone.

Now, go read Helms-Burton, the law signed by President Bill Clinton, which arrogates to the Congress a lot of authority for determining when – and under what circumstances – the United States can resume normal relations.

The law says the president cannot color outside the Congressional drawn lines. Only when the government in Cuba fits the definition of a government in transition or a democratically-elected government can the President recognize Cuba, trade with Cuba, negotiate with Cuba over Guantanamo, allow Cuba to enter the World Bank or other financial institutions, etc.

This is what Helms-Burton was also all about; placing conditions on the independent authority of the President and preventing him or her from engaging in diplomacy or normalizing relations with Cuba, until Cuba fit the definition that Congress wrote into the law. It was seizing for itself the recognition authority that the Supreme Court ruled this week is assigned to the President alone.

The whole architecture of the Cold War Cuba policy is coming apart. It has no public support to speak of. President Obama has used his executive power to liberalize travel and trade. Engagement is as popular in Florida as it is anywhere in the United States, and it is even more popular in Cuba. U.S. travel to the island is surging; businesses are chomping at the bit to make contacts and sign contracts. Members of Congress who marched in lock-stop with the hardliners are changing their minds. And now the law which was the backstop for all of this – and for all the people who said, the power lies with Congress and Congress ain’t budging – the passport case proved to be the sum of all their fears.

In fact, the President gets to decide which governments we recognize; a principle, the court tells us, dating back to the first presidential administration. “The debate,” the court writes, arose in 1793 after France had been torn by revolution. Once the Revolutionary Government was established, Secretary of State Jefferson and President Washington, without consulting Congress, authorized the American Ambassador to resume relations with the new regime.” When Citizen Genet was welcomed in Washington, France was recognized.

Yes the Senate through its confirmation power can stop the President from having a U.S. Ambassador in Cuba, but it cannot stop the Cuban Ambassador from being welcomed by the President.

If it worked for George Washington and Citizen Genet, it will work for Barack Obama and Jose Cabañas.

Read the rest of this entry »


On respect, readiness, and what keeps you up at night

June 5, 2015

“Yes, but what keeps you up at night?”

The question, at first, seemed to startle our friend Emilia, standing with us last Friday night in Havana.

We began our conversation talking about why warmer relations with the United States meant so much to her. She is a state employee who stands to benefit little, if at all, from the surging number of visitors from the U.S.

To her, the opening created by Presidents Obama and Castro is relieving the crushing burden of separation that has weighed on Cubans like Emilia since our paths divided in 1959.

Her eyes, which had flashed with excitement discussing Cuba’s removal from the terror list, quieted and became serious.

“What keeps me up at night? Two things do,” She said. “First, when the increase in travelers comes from the United States, we will not be ready, and you may ask ‘why did we come?’”

And then, more serious still, “The second thing I worry about is that you will not think we have something to offer; that you will not respect us in return.”

If the hardliners in Congress get their way, Cubans will have unlimited time to get ready for more visits from the United States. As we reported last week, they are using the budget bills moving through the House to shut down President Obama’s travel reforms and other features of our historic diplomatic opening with Cuba.

New flights and ferry services would be cut off under provisions of the THUD (Transportation, Housing and Urban Development) appropriations bill. The President’s new approach on sending exports to Cuba – a shot in the arm for the nascent small business sector– are also undermined by spending limits in the Commerce Department funding bill.

These measures, if signed into law by the president, would last for just the forthcoming fiscal year, however legislation introduced this week by Senator Marco Rubio would more permanently stop the flow of money to Cuban businesses associated in any way with Cuba’s military and any entities it controls. As the Latin Post reported yesterday, passage of this legislation would even subject U.S. citizens wishing to travel to Cuba to potential penalties.

Of course, U.S. firms can easily do business with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China – among many other countries – and U.S. travelers freely visit those places (as Senator Rubio’s Deputy of Chief of Staff did last year on an all-expenses paid trip to Beijing).

It seems like the guiding principle in efforts like Senator Rubio’s is not human rights, but hatred of the Castro government and adherence to the Cold War era strategies of trying to starve the island and its people in order to bring that government down.

Emilia wouldn’t see the respect she is hoping for in recent columns by Andres Oppenheimer and Jose Cardenas. These commentators aren’t at all concerned by U.S. businesses doing deals in Cuba; both are convinced there’s nothing there. Cardenas calling “Cuba” bankrupt, saying it’s like “an overripe mango waiting to be plucked by American business,” and Oppenheimer calling Cuba “one of the most backward countries in Latin America.”

Perhaps they could try seeing Cuba through the same set of open eyes Congressman Bradley Byrne from Alabama brought to the island last week.

Byrne, who visited Cuba with the Center for Democracy in the Americas (we publish the Cuba Central News Blast) with four of his House colleagues, came to Cuba having opposed the President’s decision to remove Cuba from the terror list.

On his return, however, he told WKRG, a local Mobile television station, “Cuba is not involved with the terrorists we see today which is mainly among Islamic groups in the Middle East. So, I think the President made the right decision to remove them from the terrorist list.”

President Obama has promised to veto the budget measures and protect the opening he created with President Castro last year. Week by week more members, like Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, are joining legislative efforts in the House and Senate to lift the ban on travel to Cuba in its entirety.

By many different metrics, Cuba is not ready for a huge influx of tourists from the United States. It suffers from a shortage of hotel rooms as well as infrastructure problems that concern Cuban economists and others we talked with in Havana last week.

But as one of them said, “That’s our problem,” and she urged Rep. Byrne and the other policymakers not to patronize Cuba by withholding U.S. policy changes that ought to be undertaken because they are right things to do.

Prepared or not for an influx of tourists, Cubans are waiting for the respect that all countries deserve from the United States. If we can alleviate that worry of Emilia’s, perhaps we’ll all sleep a bit better.

Read the rest of this entry »


Hard-liners’ Edifice Complex

May 29, 2015

Last week, we stuck our necks out.

We asked Members of Congress who support the opening with Cuba — and the companies which stand to benefit from it — to make their positions clear about the legislative riders cantering through the Appropriations Committee that seek to shut down new flights and new ferry services to the island.

Whoa Nellie. That seemed to be too much for Capitol Hill Cubans which, after calling us deceptive, dishonest, and alarmist, still agreed with our bottom line that President Obama could head them off at the pass with a wave of his veto pen.

That would suit the 64% of Americans nationally, 56% of Latinos, a majority of Cuban Americans, and 97% of Cubans who agree with us and not them.

These policies are popular. Okay: Sticking our necks out? Not so much.

The next piece of the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba — opening full-flown embassies in Washington and Havana for the first time since 1961 — will fall into place next week.

After that, it will be time for both countries to put ambassadors into those embassies so they can represent their respective national interests accordingly.

Senators are supposed to consider nominations by the President for ambassadorial positions. That comes with the job description (see the Constitution).

If you had heard members of the Foreign Relations Committee last month, when several Senators waxed elegiac about our diplomats and Foreign Service officers who work overseas, you’d think this should not be an issue.

Senator Ben Cardin (MD), the Committee’s senior Democrat, said “American diplomats and development professionals are the best examples of talented people that are on the front line for America.”

Not to be outdone, Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), the Committee’s former senior Democrat added, “I think they are the unsung heroes of national security and national interest promotion for our country, and recognizing them is incredibly important.”

And they are right: supporting our diplomats and their missions overseas is important. Of course, as with the travel riders, there’s a hitch.

Opponents of the President’s new policy have already pledged to block any ambassadorial appointment.

For example, Senator Marco Rubio (FL), a Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said, “I anticipate we’re going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how you’re going to get an ambassador nominated.”

Senator Bob Menendez (who praised the unsung heroes), also says “it would be very difficult to get an ambassador confirmed.”

Even Senator Cardin, on the Foreign Relations Committee and a champion of the President’s policy, says “I don’t think it’s useful to confront a situation that may not have a successful completion.”

That’s apparently Senate lingo for “Mr. President, if you’re thinking about nominating an ambassador to Cuba, don’t waste your time.”

What about Senator Jeff Flake, who has argued, as Politico reports, that “as more Americans travel to Cuba, it is essential that the U.S. have an ambassador there, if only to give added assurances that the rights of U.S. citizens will be fully protected.”

He must think if the President nominated a U.S. ambassador to Cuba, even his opponents would insist that our country be fully represented, right?  He says, “I don’t think they’ll be persuaded,” even though, “we’re better off having an ambassador.”

Unfortunately, the “Advise and Dissent” crowd also wants to starve the new embassy of the funds it needs to make the building fully operational. Senator Lindsey Graham said that soon after the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic breakthrough occurred in December. Senator Rubio holds that position still.

In the short-term, their edifice complex will not stand in the way of progress. Since the State Department is not asking for funds to convert our Interest Section in Havana into an embassy, no budget rider can stop that from taking place.

This is not, however, the end of the story. When the “brand new” U.S. embassy throws open its doors as early as next week, its insides will show its age.  Last year, an Inspector General report found our Interest Section in Havana had offices that lacked equipment and supplies, insufficient resources to repair buildings, and our diplomatic team was short-staffed in the face of a crushing workload (thanks, in part, to Cuba’s decision to remove restrictions on the right of its citizens to travel overseas and return).

It’s a shame that Congress cannot be expected to approve more money to maintain and upgrade our embassy in Havana.  But, that cannot be blamed on hardliner politics alone.

The U.S. Congress has not renewed the State Department’s authorization for thirteen years.  By contrast, as Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH) noted in April, the Congress has enacted new authority for the Defense Department for every one of the last 51 years.

Soon, it will be our diplomats in Havana — not our military — ushering in this new era of U.S.-Cuba relations.  Congress must do its job, so they have the ambassador and fully functional embassy they need to do theirs.

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Veto Redux

May 22, 2015

Step-by-step, legislation is working its way through Congress to curtail much of the progress President Obama is making in U.S.-Cuba relations by cutting the funds needed by federal agencies to implement his new policies.

Today, we ask: Will those who benefit most from the new policies that encourage travel and trade with Cuba do nothing but stand on the sidelines in the expectation that President Obama will veto the bills that reverse them?

In 2011, after President Obama reinstated the rules allowing Cuban Americans to visit their relatives on the island and permitting all Americans to send remittances to Cubans, hardliners used the budget process to prevent the policies from being implemented.

Back then, the White House issued a policy statement promising to veto the legislation unless the budget riders on Cuba were removed. The President’s supporters, who comprised the majority in the Senate, kept the provisions out of the big budget bills that finally emerged from paralysis and delays on Capitol Hill. Legislation reversing the modest but hopeful travel and remittance reforms never reached the President’s desk.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of journeys between the United States and Cuba have taken place every year reuniting families, while increasing numbers of Cubans receiving the economic support they needed to run their own businesses and lead more independent lives.

This is a different time. On December 17th, the President changed the whole intent of U.S. policy and the architecture of U.S.-Cuba relations.

For the first time in six decades, the U.S. government is encouraging citizen diplomacy, greater travel and trade, the telecommunications, travel, and other industries, to build relationships and stronger ties with Cuban counterparts — putting our country on the side of Cubans succeeding, rather than rooting for the Cuban government and system to fail.

That is why Jet Blue and other airlines are expanding charter services and planning commercial routes, why ferry companies are planning to set sail for Havana, why Airbnb and Netflix are hoping to build real businesses in the Cuban market, why Governors like Andrew Cuomo are trying to position companies in their states to succeed.

It is why Americans across the country, and Cuban Americans in the communities where they live, are so deeply committed to a policy that puts the Cold War behind us and puts our country on the right side of history.

Unless the Congress pulls the plug with the budget riders they’ve put into play.

The House Appropriations Committee has already voted to ground new commercial or charter flights that come into being after March 15, 2015 in the transportation department budget bill.

Jet Blue and Tampa International Airport — that means you.

A similar set of restrictions in the same measure would stop the new ferries from ever leaving port, despite one estimate that says every ship put into service would provide as much as $340 million back into Florida’s economy.

Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Miami? Don’t spend it yet.

Then, there’s the Commerce Department bill shutting down U.S. exports to Cuba. Telecommunications firms? Others? Better dial 9-11.

Even worse, as USA Today reports, there are budget restrictions yet to be voted on: restoring the limits on travel and restricting the use of American dollars on the island — take that MasterCard and American Express.

Where are the adults?

Not in the House. Speaker John Boehner, as the Washington Post reported this morning is giving the greenlight to hardliners who are “interested in stopping this progression toward normal relations with Cuba.”

Certainly not in the Senate, where hardliners won’t allow an Ambassador to be confirmed to represent our country and its interests in the new embassy in Havana, should they allow it the funds to open at all.

Here’s the bottom line. Whether Congress follows the regular order and starts enacting bills to finance Cabinet departments separately — or it wraps them all together in one giant package — sooner or later all these restrictions are going to land with a thump and a thud on President Obama’s Oval Office desk.

Congress may even force him to choose between closing down his Cuba policy and shutting down the federal government.

We think the President will warm up his veto pen and choose to save a policy that is good for our country, good for Cubans, and a cornerstone of his foreign policy legacy.

And so we ask again, as we did at the outset: will those who stand to benefit most from his decisions make him face that choice alone?

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Escape Velocity? The Accelerating Pace of Change in U.S.-Cuba Relations

May 15, 2015

The Media General National Desk must like using edgy headlines for click bait. How else can they explain “Possible lung cancer vaccine another perk stemming from new U.S.-Cuba relations”?

A “perk”?

If a tumor-starving therapy that holds promise to greatly improve the lives of cancer patients can now be called a “perk,” that’s a telling sign of how quickly relations between Cuba and the United States are moving, just five months after the breakthrough diplomatic agreement reached by Presidents Obama and Castro.

That accelerating pace of change is happening on so many levels.

It’s evident in the travel space, where Airbnb is reporting that after just one month of operating in Cuba the island has become the fastest-growing market the on-line reservations site has ever served.

Those rooms in casas particulares, where American travelers can engage closely with their Cuban hosts, cannot come on line fast enough – as flights expand from Tampa, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere, and once ferries begin heading for Havana from ports along Florida’s coast.

The pick-up in the pace of change is evident in the cultural arena, as the Minnesota Orchestra hits the stage at the Teatro Nacional for a Beethoven-centered concert that will be broadcast on consecutive nights throughout Cuba starting this very evening.

It’s also evident on the diplomatic front. Just last night, the U.S. State Department announced that U.S. and Cuban negotiators will convene in Washington on May 21 – a little more than a week before Cuba comes off the terror list – setting aside one more obstacle to our two countries opening embassies and exchanging ambassadors.

You can even feel it in the Congress, where thirty-seven members of the United States Senate have cosponsored Senator Jeff Flake’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba legislation repealing the ban on legal travel so all Americans can visit  the island.

To say that this is a big change would be a gross understatement. You can’t even count the number of Senate cosponsors on travel legislation in the last Congress, because there weren’t any. Although a travel bill was dropped – and buried – in the U.S. House, nobody sponsored Freedom to Travel legislation during the 113th Session of the Senate; a sure sign that even the symbolism of supporting it wasn’t compelling for Senators who didn’t think a bill would go anywhere.

Now that there’s a herd – or heard – effect at work, it’s easy to imagine 37 cosponsors as a floor and not a ceiling for the Senate travel bill.

Ending the travel ban is not wishful thinking in the 114th Congress.

When you have 56% of Cuban Americans telling pollsters and 59% of respondents in a recent national survey (with many more showing the same result), supporting the unrestricted freedom to travel…

When you see the interests growing – as state governors, large businesses and trade associations, marine scientists and musicians, cancer researchers and cancer patients, and many others – for realizing the benefits of a new, more open relationship with Cuba…

When Senators who may have previously sat on the sidelines, or deferred to opponents with stronger opinions, increasingly hear the voices of all of these people demanding change, you know that more of them are going to move to the winning side.

As the late Lee Atwater used to say, “I am going to be for what’s going to happen anyway.” That’s Washington’s definition of pure momentum.

This doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect, that disagreements won’t arise in bilateral negotiations, or that unrepentant hardliners like Senator Rubio won’t reimpose sanctions on Cuba if elected President, as he pledged again to do this week.

Yes, we’re moving with increasing speed away from the Cold War into mutually respectful policies of the digital age, but we haven’t quite hit escape velocity yet.

Just watch our headlines. If you start seeing click-bait – Pet Food lawsuit attracts hundreds of calls, emails to the case! – you’ll know we’ve made it to the other side.

In the meantime, please enjoy the weekend with our Cuba Central News Blast, and take another listen to Jackson Browne’s Going Down to Cuba.  We expect to see you there soon. Read the rest of this entry »


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