Cuba After Fidel; Trump After Fidel

December 2, 2016

Before you read further, take a look at this luminous photograph of Cubans massed together in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

The picture was taken Tuesday evening, when senior members of Cuba’s government were joined by foreign leaders to pay posthumous tribute to Fidel Castro, following his death last Friday night. The Cuban and foreign officials, seated in places of honor at the José Martí Memorial, are indistinguishable in this shot.

Commanding our attention instead are thousands of Cubans crowded into an image that is at once familiar but also different. The picture is a celebration by citizens who’ve come to their national square of their own accord. The Cubans who came alone or with friends, the families who assembled with their children, stayed long into the night as part of the first mobilization of the post-Fidel Castro era, as if inhabiting this very public space for the first time.


Poor Justin Trudeau. Canada’s Prime Minister, by issuing a statement expressing sorrow at former President Castro’s death, stepped way out of line. He was promptly denounced by, which, enjoying its new role as an informal extension of U.S. state media, called him a “pretty little liar.” The Washington Post deployed its fact-checkers to challenge the Prime Minister’s tributes to Cuba’s systems of education and health. Others joined them, decrying Trudeau’s failure to toe the party’s line.

If Canada’s Prime Minister failed to read the memo on how to memorialize Fidel Castro’s passing, so did China’s President Xi Jinping. He visited Cuba’s embassy in Beijing on Thursday, and said in a statement that Castro was a “great friend of the Chinese people.” Pope Francis wrote President Raúl Castro and said “I express my sentiments of sorrow to Your Excellency and other family members of the deceased dignitary, as well as to the people of this beloved nation.” In Russia, more than 50,000 tweets were recorded on the subject of Fidel Castro’s death.

Many U.S. policymakers live in a black-and-white world, seeing Fidel Castro’s place in Cuba’s history, as President-elect Trump described it, as “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” But that is ironic, to say the least.

At the end of a campaign marked by so many people saying to themselves that they didn’t see Donald Trump coming, it might do him and all of us good to step beyond our carefully curated bubbles and spend a moment listening to what a broader audience of interested parties – especially Cubans on the island and in the diaspora – is saying about the late president of Cuba and Cuba’s future.

Yes, it’s true, as the Miami Herald reported, that news of Fidel Castro’s demise caused thousands of Cuban Americans to dance, sing, and honk their car horns to celebrate his death. It’s true, as the Associated Press wrote, that “as Cuba silently bid farewell to Castro’s ashes Wednesday, an ice cream shop in Miami’s Little Havana district was selling ‘go to Hell Fidel,’ a mix of chocolate with red peppers.”

But there were also shades of grey.

As Michelle González Maldonado, a scholar of religion at the University of Miami, wrote, “when I heard the news of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death, I did not feel any sense of sadness, relief or joy. Instead, as a daughter of Cuban exiles, I experienced a mix of all those emotions.”

Achy Obejas, the celebrated Cuban writer who lives in the U.S., wrote in the New York Times about her cousins in Miami heading to the streets to chant for a free Cuba; about an ex-girlfriend who grew up in Cuba and who stated “I feel nothing.” And about her father, who loathed Fidel Castro but identified with him because of how “Fidel had outsmarted so many American presidents, and how Fidel had cunningly dodged all those assassination attempts.”

In Cuba, the mourning for Castro, the New York Times reported, “reached near-religious peaks of public adulation.” Some of the mourners, holding his picture, flowers, and the Cuban flag, were part of the older generation that is the backbone of support for the revolution. But Tim Padgett interviewed a young woman who didn’t quite fit that mold.

Marianela Pérez, he wrote, “is an independent Cuban entrepreneur who owns Pizzanella, a popular paladar, or private restaurant, in Havana’s Playa district. So why would a model capitalist like her mourn the passing of Fidel Castro, whose dictatorial communist rule railed against free enterprise?” “I’m one of many people who thank the Cuban Revolution for the education and other benefits that prepared me to run a business,” Pérez told Padgett. “I don’t consider that a contradiction.”

Reuters tells the story of Roberto, a 29-year-old engineer who earns $25 a month and only gets by on his state salary by doing odd jobs. “We´d like to have more freedoms, to be able to surf the internet, to have better wages. But there are values stemming from the revolution that no-one wants to lose, like free health and education.”

Nick Miroff of The Washington Post wandered El Romerillo after Fidel Castro’s death, and reported on the Cubans who lived in what he called “the socialist slums of Fidel Castro’s Cuba,” where there are no gangs or guns, and virtually no drugs. “Cubans have a special term for this sort of cradled existence,” he wrote: ‘tranquilidad social,’ which means something like ‘social peace’ but also law and order, a rare thing in a region with some of the highest crime rates in the world.”

When President-elect Trump tweeted this week, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate (the) deal,” these were the voices we heard, and wondered – who is he actually speaking for?

Not Deymar Rodríguez, a 24-year-old schoolteacher, who told the Wall Street Journal, “If Obama’s promises are stopped, it would hurt us a lot. They gave us hope that we could travel, have jobs that pay decent wages and lead a better life.”

Not Elaine Díaz, who wrote in The Guardian this week of the two points that get general agreement among the vast majority of Cubans: “the U.S. should return Guantánamo to Cuba and the embargo must be lifted.”

Not the great many Cubans, as Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker, “Who are not communists but who are proud nationalists, and who, whatever their feelings about Fidel or his brother, will take umbrage at Trump’s casual antagonisms.”


We write these things because they need to be recorded and remembered. Admittedly, they are subtleties, and perhaps they have no place in the 140-character world we all seem to be about to enter.

In the days before his inauguration, we hope the new president – before acting to implement his Cuba policy – will look at that picture of Revolutionary Square. He as much as anyone should be able to appreciate the possibilities that reside in people occupying public spaces as if for the first time, as the Cuban people, in all their complexity, gather and ponder their future.

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Thanksgiving Special: Taking Stock of an Extraordinary Year in U.S.-Cuba Relations

November 23, 2016

In the United States, we’re on the eve of our Thanksgiving holiday.

Tomorrow morning, millions of children will be huddled around television sets watching massive helium-filled balloons – featuring Trolls, Red Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Ronald McDonald, and Red Angry Birds – fly high as they lead the parade down the Avenue of the Americas in New York.

In the afternoon and evening, football fans will change the channel to watch (we’re not kidding) the Redskins versus the Cowboys, and the Steelers play the Colts.

By game time, all of us will know which of the turkeys named “Tater” and “Tot” received one of the last Presidential pardons of the Obama administration.

Many of us, before gathering with family or friends, will spend at least a part of Thanksgiving Day taking stock of what makes us feel grateful and happy. As you make your list, we’d like to share ours with you.

Since last Thanksgiving, there have been a succession of changes in U.S.-Cuba relations that made us hopeful and extraordinarily happy. In 2016 alone:

  • President Obama visited Cuba, making him the first sitting U.S. president to do so in 88 years;
  • A bilateral agreement produced the resumption of direct transportation of mail between the U.S. and Cuba for the first time in 43 years;
  • The U.S. and Cuba signed memoranda of understanding on agriculture, health, cancer research, environmental cooperation, commercial air travel, maritime navigation, and more;
  • U.S and Cuban diplomats had face-to-face discussions on law enforcement, security, counter-narcotics, property claims, human rights, public health, the environment, trade and investment, banking, agriculture, telecommunications, and intellectual property;
  • The administration issued rules giving U.S. travelers the right to visit Cuba under individual people-to-people licenses, the ability to choose among more affordable, regularly scheduled commercial flights to the island, to book passage on a Carnival cruise ship, and reserve a room at an Airbnb rental or a Sheraton-managed hotel;
  • Cuba and major cellphone carriers including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile reached agreements allowing their customers to talk, text, and roam in Cuba, and travelers may now use MasterCard credit cards from two U.S. banks to complete transactions and withdraw money on the island;
  • Patients in the U.S. suffering from lung cancer got good news when New York’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute received both FDA approval to conduct the first U.S. clinical trial of Cuba’s life-saving lung cancer vaccine and Treasury Department approval to form a joint business venture with the Cuban research institute that developed the vaccine;
  • Last month, President Obama issued a Presidential Policy Directive on Cuba policy, charting a course for the full normalization of relations, as National Security Advisor Susan Rice called on Congress to lift the embargo, and stated that engaging with Cuba is “manifestly in our interest”;
  • The U.S. FINALLY! abstained from voting on the UN resolution condemning the embargo against Cuba, as UN Ambassador Samantha Power affirmed that the U.S. has “chosen to take the path of engagement.”

These great advances in 2016 – drawn from a far larger list – demonstrate how much progress our two countries make when we talk to each other (a principle Congress should remember as the nomination of Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis to serve as the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in over five decades languishes without a confirmation hearing).

As we wait for the next administration to clarify its intentions for Cuba policy going forward, we are deeply grateful for the changes we’ve seen, participated in, and documented for you over the course of this extraordinary year.

We’ve enjoyed reporting on each of these developments over the last year – so we would be remiss if we did not thank our loyal Cuba Central readers.

In closing, we don’t want to ruffle your feathers. Instead, perhaps, we’ll dwell on eagles not turkeys, and hope for statesmen to keep normalization on course, rather than red-colored, gas-filled balloons leading the policy backward in time to a colder, angrier age.

You’ll hear from us next week with a full rundown of the news. To tide you over for the holiday weekend, we offer our take on the week so far in Cuba news, plus a piece of recommended reading.

If you’d like to support our work bringing you the news, week in and week out, please consider making a donation to CDA. We’ll be so grateful for your contribution.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Knowns and Unknowns: U.S.-Cuba Relations Under President Trump

November 18, 2016

No one knows to a provable certainty what President-elect Trump plans to do about U.S.-Cuba relations. We are neither wild-eyed optimists, believing that he will take relations in the same direction as President Obama, nor are we ready to concede “game over,” despite considerable evidence that the winds of diplomacy based on engagement may soon shift.

In The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine wrote of “deducing or proving a truth that would be otherwise unknown, from truths already known.” In these times, following the facts could make that reasoning dubious, but using evidence to answer the question, “What happens next?” is the only reasonable thing to do.

It may be cold comfort, but those of us who support engagement with Cuba are not the only ones with doubts about the new president’s intentions. Consider the Japanese: after a long campaign in which candidate Trump promised to scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, accused our European and Asian allies for not paying enough for their defenses, and suggested Japan and South Korea get nuclear weapons to defend themselves, Japanese Prime Minister Abe flew 6,700 miles from Tokyo to New York to meet with the president-elect himself. Why? Because, as a respected analyst told the New York Times, “the question the Japanese side still cannot understand is what a Trump administration will actually do on Asia.”

In other words, they know what he said, they just didn’t know if he meant it. Is there also room for doubt about Trump’s “real” position on Cuba?

As we and others have reported, Mr. Trump was against the embargo twice (in 1996 and 2015-2016) before he was for it – twice (in 1999 and 2016). While that history is important, let’s focus on how he closed his campaign.

“We will cancel Obama’s one-sided Cuban deal, made by executive order,” he said in Miami, days before the election, unless Cuba’s government capitulates to demands that it change its system. His Vice Presidential nominee, Governor Mike Pence, went even further, saying, “When Donald Trump and I take to the White House, we will reverse Barack Obama’s executive orders on Cuba,” Politico reported. This reversal would apparently be undertaken unconditionally.

Personnel is policy, the saying goes, and today the names of Mr. Trump’s national security advisor and his nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency were released. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who will lead the White House National Security Council, has called Cuba an ally of Radical Islamists that shares their hatred of the West. If confirmed, Congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas, will serve as CIA Director. He condemned President Obama’s opening to Cuba on the day it was announced as appeasement of one of America’s enemies. Even if these two men didn’t advise Trump the candidate to reverse his position on Cuba, they will likely be advising him to adhere to his campaign promises as president.

Running the legislative machinery in Congress, Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan are both foes of engagement with Cuba (although Ryan hasn’t always been that way). In March, McConnell denounced President Obama’s visit to Cuba as “embarrassing,” after the President used his appearance on live Cuban television to address themes like human rights and respect for the island’s Afro-Cuban population. Last month, Speaker Ryan released a statement which said, “I fully intend to maintain our embargo on Cuba.”

It is not a stretch to expect that the Republican leadership in Congress will be standing by to ensure the President keeps his campaign promise; as it has been for years, support for the embargo and regime change in Cuba was written into their party’s 2016 platform. Looking over the leadership’s shoulders, the hard edge of the diaspora’s embargo supporters – from Senator Rubio to “Pepe” Hernandez, a founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, to Brigade 2506 – will be standing right behind them to ensure that they work on President Trump so he keeps candidate Trump’s word.

Together, they are taking aim at President Obama’s Cuba policy executive orders on which the regulatory openings of travel and trade rest. What Obama wrought by the stroke his pen, Trump can strike with his. As Politico observed, his legislative priorities – the tax package, infrastructure development, repeal of Obamacare, etc. – will take time. So will the confirmation of his Cabinet. Why wouldn’t the president want to establish momentum by issuing a raft of executive orders reversing as much of President Obama’s domestic and foreign policy legacy on day one? This he apparently plans to do, but will his barrage also be aimed at Barack’s Cuba policy?

Lists of likely targets have been printed by the New York Times and The Miami Herald, and proposed by Capitol Hill Cubans. President Trump could close or downgrade the U.S. embassy; eliminate people-to-people to travel; end the regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba; change the rules that allow Airbnb and Marriott to operate in Cuba; scrap the new policy allowing imports of rum and cigars, and more. Anything he leaves out, Congress can put on his desk once it actually starts legislating. With the White House and Congress under common party control, we don’t see any vetoes looming on the horizon. Arguably, nothing is safe from the chopping block.

But we can’t and won’t stop or shrink from the challenge of building on the progress that has been made between the U.S. and Cuba. There are powerful facts on our side, too.

Although the embargo and travel bans remain in place by statute, President Obama’s opening to Cuba is very good policy. For the first time since the Cuban Revolution, an American president stated publicly that a prosperous and stable Cuba was in our country’s national interest, and that the policy of starving Cuba’s economy and people to foment popular resistance and regime change would finally be ended.

In addition to restoring diplomatic relations, the administration signed a dozen bilateral agreements in areas where the U.S. and Cuban national interests converged, like environmental protection and counter-narcotics cooperation. These agreements demonstrated, in deeds and words, that our government respected the sovereignty of the Cuban government.

By easing restrictions on travel and trade, normalization accrued benefits to big business in the U.S. – starting with travel, tourism, and telecommunications – which now has vested interests in keeping the door to Cuba open. With a cruise line sailing into Cuban ports, roaming agreements that enable U.S. travelers to use their cell phones on the island, the commercial airline agreement that is boosting tourism with dozens of flights into Cuba every day, the joint venture agreement bringing Marriott into the Cuban market, and more – all of this ties Cuba and the U.S. closer together in a mutually beneficial relationship that provides profits and jobs to companies and workers on both sides of the Florida Strait.

The reforms were designed, as Reuters wrote it, to make it “difficult, if not impossible for any Republican president to reverse the opening to Cuba.” Public opinion polls – among Cuban Americans and the U.S. public at large – tell us the reforms have strong, deep, and bipartisan support. If his plan is to pull them down, this decision could be costly. Bob Muse, a lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba trade law, told the New York Times that if Trump were to cancel these agreements, the U.S. government could be financially liable for pulling the rug out from companies who relied on the new rules to do deals.

The critics like to say that the new policy isn’t working, but the facts suggest otherwise. It is working for hundreds of thousands of Americans who have reclaimed most – but not all – of our rights to travel to Cuba. As Americans travel to Cuba, we are building bridges that policy reversals will be hard-pressed to take down, and money spent as travelers lands in the pockets of Cubans engaged in private enterprise.

From the moment President Obama reinstated travel for Cuban American families, he was giving entrepreneurial Cubans fuel to fire their enthusiasm for working in Cuba’s private economy, and a reason to remain on the island and build Cuba’s future.

It is working for Americans once doomed by lung cancer, as we report below, who are now getting access to life-extending vaccines created by Cuba’s biotechnology and pharma companies.

It is even working in Miami, in the precincts and places most associated with anti-Castro resistance, among exiles who now believe that “one of President Obama’s best decisions,” was changing U.S. policy toward Cuba.

In a letter he sent to President-elect Trump, Adolfo Garcia, who voted for the New York businessman-turned-politician, invoked his past in an appeal not to upend the policy:

“No matter how horrible the Castro Regime was to my parents and many others, including me, this is late 2016 and life must go on,” Garcia wrote. “It is time from the US side to open fully with Cuba and change US law and end the Embargo.”

These are powerful words. But will they be heard in Trump Tower?

Charles Lane, in a Washington Post opinion column, advises us to take Trump seriously and literally. Trump, he says, has core beliefs, citing his opposition to global trade and his support for law and order. We should take him at his word. Question is: which one?

What embargo supporters want most is to beef up the embargo to dry up revenues to the Cuban state. That’s a tall order – telling JetBlue and American Airlines and other carriers who have restored commercial service to ground their planes, and telling Marriott to come home and let the Cuban hotels they are managing mind themselves.

Will he? Maybe. But as Bob Muse says, “Rescinding enhanced travel that Obama has introduced would be the most tragic thing Trump might do, but I don’t think he will. He has invested a lifetime in travel, resorts and hotel accommodations, and it’s a global enterprise. It seems counterintuitive.”

Trump, after all, has been focused on Cuba for twenty years. In 1998, as Newsweek reported, his company spent $68,000, probably in violation of the mbargo, looking at potential investments in Cuba. The opening to Cuba is probably pretty close to his core beliefs. It is – and will remain – central to ours.

At the end of the day, like you, like the Japanese Prime Minister, we can’t be sure what the president-elect will do; although, after the election, the uphill climb toward normalization did get steeper.

That said, we will leave you with this:

Trump’s “extraordinary mixture of braggadocio and brash populism,” Will Grant of the BBC wrote this week, has led some in the region to compare him to the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Isn’t that ironic? The Obama opening being saved by Trump’s greatest core beliefs – his belief in himself and his abiding faith that he can always get a better deal.

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Thinking about “Walls and Doors,” on the eve of CDA’s 10th anniversary celebration

November 4, 2016

For more than a year, we’ve been forced to think about the work we and others do – making President Obama’s opening to Cuba permanent and irreversible – in the context of the larger dialogue taking place in our country and around the world.

“Ever since the world’s existed

There’s one thing that is certain

There are those who build walls

And those who open doors”

“Muros Y Puertas,” music and lyrics by Carlos Varela

In many ways, the last three decades were about doors being opened and walls, in places like Berlin and elsewhere, coming down. The rise of technology and trade, the more rapid exchange of ideas and culture have made the world more open and better connected.

Viewed in the arc of recent history, President Obama’s opening to Cuba – politically risky and hard-fought as it was to achieve – was a late arrival at a party that had raged for some time. Not just late, but counterproductive. As the President said at the UN this month, a nation ringed by walls only imprisons itself.

“Ah but this my love I’m thinking you already knew.”

After December 17, 2014, the astonishing moment when Presidents Obama and Castro disclosed that the broken connections of our nations’ diplomacy and commerce would be restored, we could see how restoring postal service and direct-dial calls, the growing harvest of newly opened hotspots in Havana, U.S. cellphone customers roaming – literally and figuratively – in Cuba all fit into a greater world of lowered barriers. Cuba policy, no longer out of step, fit into that world well.

“At some point on the horizon

Sky can be confused with earth

Some people dream of God

While others dream of wealth”

Now, President Obama’s 2014 opening – irreversible as we believe it to be – is situated in a different context. In 2015, as the Washington Post reported earlier this month, “work started on more new barriers around the world than at any other point in modern history. There are now 63 borders where walls or fences separate neighboring countries.”

The fortifications weren’t summoned from the ground on their own. “Even as globalization was working its magic on trade, mobility and investment,” the Post writes, “a seditious resentment was brewing among those left behind,” an audience for nationalists and populists speaking to their fears, in continental Europe earlier this year; audibly and worryingly here; whose fears, in fairness, need to be addressed.

We met Carlos Varela, the remarkable singer-songwriter, fifteen years ago during our second visit to Cuba. Carlos is revered for capturing in his songs what his generation of Cubans thinks and feels about their lives. And when they hear him singing these things out loud – so candidly and so beautifully – he fills them with hope.

Since 2001, Carlos has met with dozens of delegations led by our organization, the Center for Democracy in the America (CDA), and inspired dozens of Congress members to do the right thing to change our policy toward Cuba. During the days when our governments were determined not to speak to each other, Carlos expressed an abiding faith that our isolation would end. “Music,” he said once, will not bring a quick end to 50 years of political conflict. Music does not move governments, but it can move people. And people can move governments.”

This spring, Jackson Browne brought an audience to its feet when he sang Carlos’s song, “Muros Y Puertas,” before a packed concert in Virginia. At a time when the chants of “build the wall” dominated our public discourse, hearing “Walls and Doors,” and its optimistic appeal to freedom and openness filled us with hope, too.

It’s how it’s always been

And I know you know it

There can be freedom only when nobody owns it

Let me say that again

Because I know that we both know it

There can be freedom only when nobody owns it.”

Earlier this year, during the visit of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, we introduced Carlos to Dave Matthews, the Grammy-winning musician who was part of the distinguished delegation. They played “Muros Y Puertas” in Havana, as you can see and hear to stunning effect.

In honor of our organization’s 10th anniversary, Carlos and Dave are playing together again, this time in Washington. Their musical collaboration symbolizes our belief that bringing people together to talk, engage, and heal is indispensable for reconciling Cuba and America and closing the breach between Cubans and Americans. We need that same process to unfold in the days and weeks to come to heal our country, too.

We’re hoping that these great artists and generous supporters of our work will sing “Walls and Doors” together again. Maybe you’d like to hear them sing it for yourself. A limited number of tickets for their performance, on sale to benefit CDA, are available by contacting us at 202-234-5506 or

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By Abstaining at UN, U.S. Speaks Truth Through Power

October 28, 2016

A rarity occurred at the United Nations on Wednesday.

Thirty-two seconds into her speech to the General Assembly, U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power was interrupted by applause. You can watch the video here, courtesy of Progreso Weekly, and time it for yourself.

Her first paragraph read:

For more than 50 years, the United States had a policy aimed at isolating the government of Cuba. For roughly half of those years, UN Member States have voted overwhelmingly for a General Assembly resolution that condemns the U.S. embargo and calls for it to be ended. The United States has always voted against this resolution. Today the United States will abstain.

The roots of “abstain” are in 14th-century French. It means “to withhold oneself,” or to “restrain oneself from doing or enjoying something.” Normally, abstention is associated with virtue which, the Stoics taught us, is its own reward.

Yet, upon her mention of the word “abstain,” the General Assembly nearly explodes with applause and, seconds later, Ambassador Power grins (perhaps thinking to herself, “best day ever!”).

For 24 consecutive years, the United States made defending the embargo its losing, lonely cause, joined only by Israel, which stood with us during the last roll call in 2015, when Cuba’s resolution against the U.S. embargo carried the General Assembly by a vote of 191-2.

After speaking its truth through Power, the administration changed the tally on the resolution, which passed the General Assembly 191 to zero. Perhaps more important, its expression of virtue through abstention exposed the vice implicit in support for the embargo itself.

“Blessed is the man,” George Eliot said, “who having nothing to say, abstains from giving wordy evidence of the fact.” By contrast, the hardliners who demanded the easy, deceptive clarity of a “no” vote on the resolution, gave wordy evidence to their injury.

By voting to abstain, “The administration turned its back on U.S. law and the suffering Cuban people,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce said. Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart called the abstention “another shameless concession to the Castro regime.” Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, called it “perhaps the most egregious breach” of President Barack Obama’s constitutional responsibilities and oath of office. Senator Bob Menéndez called it “shameful.”

At long last, the Obama administration, which voted “no” year after year, as the most devout critics of its engagement policy wanted, no longer had the stomach for it. As Ben Rhodes, President Obama’s Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications, and a principal architect of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, explained in his tweet on Wednesday, there is “no reason to vote to defend a failed policy we oppose.”

Ambassador Power argued that abstaining on the vote, like lifting the embargo itself, is a statement of our values, not an abandonment of them. “While our governments continue to disagree on fundamental questions of human rights,” she said, “we have found a way to discuss these issues in a respectful and reciprocal manner.”

She called the simple, but profoundly expressive act of abstaining “a small step.” And then concluded, “May there be many, many more – including, we hope, finally ending the U.S. embargo once and for all.”


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Beyond irreversible: An embargo-free Cuba policy seems more and more possible

October 21, 2016

The embargo is a little like the 2016 election. Everybody wants to know, when will it be over?

Short answer is: Not yet, but the end is coming into view. Here’s one reason why.

For decades, the debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba stalled because the beneficiaries of ending the embargo were largely invisible, while its greatest defenders were visible, powerful, and determined not to lose. This imbalance made the prospects for change seem eternally grim.

As if led by the hidden hand of a community organizer, the beneficiaries of a more open, reciprocal relationship with Cuba have emerged these last eight years; starting with Cuban Americans who used their travel and remittance rights, expanded in 2009, to visit the island in droves, support their families, and seed the new businesses they started and help them grow.

Cuban Americans have since been joined by other beneficiaries of open travel and trade policies – the airlines, ferries, hotel managers, finance, and telecom firms, for example – with a deep stake in protecting the new policies and making them irreversible.

Since the White House issued its Presidential Policy Directive and additional regulatory changes a week ago, the list of increasingly visible, vested interests is growing in profoundly important and practical ways.

If you have cancer or diabetes, or know someone who does, your future health and well-being are affected by new Treasury rules that allow U.S. scientists “to freely collaborate with Cuban counterparts on everything from cancer therapies to combatting the Zika virus,” as Science Magazine reported.

An impressive list of Cuban medical breakthroughs – many undergoing trials or available for use outside of the U.S. for the treatment of lung and gastric cancers, diabetic foot ulcers, and other serious conditions – could soon be within reach for American doctors and their patients.

Access to these treatments is likely to lower drug prices, as Modern Healthcare reports. The new policy, which gives pharmaceuticals developed in Cuba a clearer regulatory path to being imported and sold, “could bring [Cuba’s] cheaper, reputable medicines to the U.S. if they’re approved by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Beyond health care, the new policies will create opportunities for U.S. businesses in Cuba that will yield profits and jobs here at home. As trade analysts have observed:

  • The new rules allow U.S. construction companies and contractors to build and repair infrastructure systems in Cuba including public transportation, water and waste management, electricity generation and distribution, hospitals, as well as public housing and schools.
  • They authorize the export of consumer goods including goods sold online, which will boost the development and growth of e-commerce in Cuba, allow U.S. companies in e-commerce to expand their consumer base, and further drive accessibility of the internet in Cuba.
  • They also empower “U.S. companies to develop, negotiate, and finalize business opportunities in Cuba for goods, services, or a combination of both,” and sign contracts contingent on getting regulatory approval. Prior to last week, companies had to seek regulatory approval first, which often scotched their chances to do any business in Cuba at all.

As the trade experts commented, “This is a big deal.”

Crowding the stage further with Cuba policy reform beneficiaries, we could mention passengers seeking seats with the airlines who are now selling one-way flights to Cuba for as little as $54, or the writers at Travel Weekly, who worried about protecting their sector’s gains under the banner headline “Trump’s Cuba policy could prove a setback for travel industry.”

Finally, there are pro-policy reform candidates running for office in Florida whose campaigns are now buoyed by thousands of Cuban Americans from both political parties who want the trade and travel bans to end. This week, for example, the Miami Herald endorsed Rep. Patrick Murphy (FL-18) in his run against the incumbent Senator Marco Rubio in part because “He supports the diplomatic opening to Cuba.” In addition, “(t)he Latin Builders Association, a prominent Miami industry group founded by Cuban exiles, recently endorsed Mrs. Clinton, the first time in its 45-year history it has supported a Democratic presidential nominee,” as the Wall Street Journal reported. This is in Florida, the ground zero of strident anti-embargo activity.

Peter Kornbluh, writing for The Nation, posed the question begged by the Obama diplomatic breakthrough of 2014 this way: “Could political, commercial, and cultural bridges between the United States and Cuba be constructed—and firmly reinforced—so that the process of normalization could withstand current and future enemies of reconciliation?”

The answer is yes, as the President’s reforms – surely irreversible – have shifted power from the embargo’s most strident supporters to the emerging beneficiaries of openness with Cuba.

No, the embargo isn’t over. But the process for ending it is firmly underway – thanks, in large part, to President Obama’s organizing vision that changed the political economy around this issue, which had stalled progress far too long.

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Obama’s Imprint on Cuba Policy: Historic. More than Rum & Cigars. More Left to Do.

October 14, 2016

Today, “Click Bait” and U.S.-Cuba relations met at the intersection of Rum and Cigars.

Chances are, if you read even one story about President Obama’s latest – and some say his last – Cuba policy announcement, the headline referred to “Cigars” or “Cigars and Rum.”

Even the august New York Times was unable to resist: “Obama, Cementing New Ties With Cuba, Lifts Limits on Cigars and Rum.”

Fair enough. But, let the word go forth – to paraphrase President Kennedy – that the torch being passed in this new generation of Cuba policy is about more than lighting that box of Montecristo cigars you want that BFF of yours to bring home from Havana.

The White House today issued something called a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-43) devoted to “United States-Cuba Normalization.”

At its core, the directive breaks, clearly and comprehensively, from the Cold War mold of U.S. policy toward Cuba, by setting forth, as the New York Times described it, “a new United States policy to lift the Cold War trade embargo and end a half-century of clandestine plotting against Cuba’s government.”

Going forward, it envisions other changes in U.S. policy – from ending the embargo to integrating Cuba completely in U.S. and global commerce. In doing so, it affirms the idea that both economies and both societies will benefit from normalized relations with one another.

Since President Obama revealed his diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba on December 17, 2014, we have written here about working to make his policy reforms irreversible. The directive he issued today is a historic step in that direction.

Across a dozen pages, it lays out the U.S. vision for normalization and how it fits with U.S. security interests, the goals for the new policy, and the actions required to implement the reforms the president has made. It spells out the roles and responsibilities for 16 federal departments and offices to achieve his goals. The directive offers a sharp reminder that until the embargo is lifted by Congress, normalization will not be complete.

In the context of U.S. politics, the directive sends a message to supporters and opponents of the Cuba opening – don’t reverse it, don’t stop it, do more. In this sense, it fixes our eyes – and the president’s successors – on the future.

Paradoxically, we cannot estimate the directive’s full value going forward, or evaluate its greatest vulnerability, without considering past presidential directives still hold a grip on U.S. policy.

Between 1982 and 1988, President Reagan issued more than a half-dozen National Security Decision Directives with policies as comprehensive as those articulated in President Obama’s directive issued today. Each of them – published publicly, but many with secret annexes – reflected his view of Cuba as a security threat to the U.S. that could only be combatted by measures aimed at overthrowing Cuba’s government.

Reagan’s directives ordered the departments of State and Defense, the CIA and the National Security Council to take actions that included speeding measures to tighten economic sanctions on Cuba; implementing plans to “raise the sense of threat to Cuba,” blacklisting ships calling at Cuban ports, curtailing tourism, and other efforts to “improve” the effectiveness and enforcement of the embargo; designing war plans for use against Cuba including an air/sea blockade; limiting family travel by Cuban Americans and imposing limits on financial support to their families, curbing scientific travel; cracking down on Cuba’s so-called abuse of humanitarian exceptions to the embargo; and providing support to Radio/TV Martí.

Within his executive authority, President Obama has tried to change everything that is wrong with imposing sanctions, dividing families, spreading fear, driving Cubans into poverty, and undermining Cuba by subversion, with what is right about diplomacy, empathy, exchange, respect, and a commitment to a common purpose.

In this respect, the directive sends a message to Cubans that U.S. policy will now support, not seek to undermine, their role in designing their own future.

It also offers reassurance to Cuban skeptics of U.S. intentions, at the highest levels, who devoted their lives to stopping what earlier directives had in mind for their government.

“As if to underscore a stark shift from decades of United States policy toward Cuba, which were marked by spying and suspicion,” the New York Times reported, “the document specifically requires that American-led “democracy programs” — which the Castro government has denounced as secret efforts to destabilize the country — be “transparent.”

In the words of Susan Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, “The United States used to have secret plans for Cuba. Now our policy is out in the open – and online – for everyone to read. What you see is what you get.”

This alone merits a call to break out the cigars and rum.

But, the unfinished work of the Obama administration – ending an embargo with its crushing weight on Cuba’s economy, removing restrictions on U.S. travel to the island, even silencing the propaganda still broadcast by Radio/TV Martí – must be completed before the promise of normalization is fully redeemed.

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