Behind Closed Doors

September 22, 2017

The CDA community answered the call, and we have raised almost $10,000 for Hurricane Irma relief in Cuba! We are incredibly moved by your generosity. CDA’s Irma Relief drive continues through midnight tonight; donate here to provide emergency items such as water, food, shelter, and hygiene kits, as well as longer-term recovery supplies.

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Many of us followed the publicly-traded barbs of this week. President Trump addressed the UN General Assembly Tuesday, stating, “The United States has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba,” and declared, “We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.”

That same day, Cuba retorted, rejecting “tying any improvement in bilateral relations to the introduction of changes in the Cuban constitutional order,” as well as “the political manipulation of the human rights issue as a pretext to justify US policies.”

However, while public statements paint a picture of discord, in private, our bilateral relationship is starting to resemble something normal.

Behind closed doors

The U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Dialogue met last week to discuss, among other things, the mysterious sonic incidents affecting U.S. and Canadian diplomats. The FBI has reportedly traveled to the island three times, invited and welcomed by Cuban authorities, and by all accounts, Cuba has given them an unprecedented level of access.

In fact, the Associated Press reported this week that Raúl Castro personally summoned the top U.S. diplomat to discuss this matter, that he was “baffled” and “concerned,” and that he showed far more desire to cooperate on the issue than expected.

The Law Enforcement Dialogue also discussed important functions such as cooperation on terrorism, cybercrime, and drug trafficking.

On Monday, U.S. and Cuban diplomats met in Washington for the sixth Bilateral Commission, the mechanism designated with the task of advancing normalization. The significance of this meeting at this time cannot be overstated. Despite publicly aired unrest, we continue to work together. We continue to advance cooperation on often understated issues such as environmental protection, public health, and combating trafficking in persons and narcotics.

One last thing—we took note last Friday when five Senators, led by the architect of President Trump’s new Cuba policy, Marco Rubio, penned a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking him to close the U.S. Embassy in Havana and expel all Cuban diplomats in the U.S. Our friend Bill LeoGrande said it best: “Closing the U.S. embassy makes no sense. It would punish Cuba for actions whose perpetrator remains unidentified, and it would seriously damage U.S. interests.”

There’s a lot we do not know about the sonic incidents. But we do know diplomacy matters, and an open dialogue is essential to the U.S.’ ability to safeguard its affairs at home and abroad.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S., Cuba hold Bilateral Commission talks

Representatives from the U.S. and Cuban governments met in Washington this week for the sixth Bilateral Commission meeting, the first such meeting since President Donald Trump took office, the Miami Herald reports. The Commission, which was formed to advance normalization after the U.S. and Cuba formally reinstated relations in 2015, last met in December in Havana.

According to a State Department press release, the Commission discussed “the incidents affecting diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana … human rights, [and] implementation of the Migration Accords.” A statement from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) said the Cuban delegation addressed President Trump’s “confrontational rhetoric and the political manipulation of the human rights issue as a pretext to justify US policies,” as well as his comments at the United Nations General Assembly that the U.S. “will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.”

MINREX also reiterated Havana’s “will to maintain a respectful dialogue with its US counterpart” and continue cooperation on existing bilateral agreements in areas including law enforcement, environmental protection, and health.

John Creamer, the U.S. State Department’s deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Josefina Vidal, director general for U.S. affairs at MINREX, led their respective countries’ delegations.

Cuba reiterates concern over sonic incidents; Secretary Tillerson hints at embassy closure

In its statement this week on the sixth U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) reiterated its position that the country’s government had no involvement in the perplexing sonic incidents that have affected diplomats in Havana, writing, “Cuba strictly observes its obligations to protect foreign diplomats in its soil.” MINREX also reiterated its desire to cooperate with U.S. authorities to resolve the issue.

Last week, the Associated Press reported that Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, after being informed about the incidents, summoned then-U.S. chargé d’affaires Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis to insist that Cuba had no involvement and offer for the FBI to investigate the incidents—an unprecedented level of openness to U.S. intelligence. Last Tuesday, CBS News reported that the number of U.S. diplomats and family members affected has risen to 21. CNN has reported that the incidents affected five Canadian diplomats, and according to the AP, France “has tested embassy staff for potential sonic-induced injuries.”

Separately, on Sunday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told CBS that closing the U.S. Embassy in Havana is “under review,” two days after five Republican Senators wrote to Mr. Tillerson urging him to close the facility and declare all accredited Cuban diplomats in the U.S. persona non grata, as Reuters reported at the time. Mr. Tillerson did not clarify the timeline for such a decision.

U.S., Cuba hold third Law Enforcement Dialogue

U.S. and Cuban representatives met in Washington last Friday for their third Law Enforcement Dialogue, the first such meeting under the Trump administration. The Dialogue, which was first held in November 2015 to promote cooperation on issues including counternarcotics, human smuggling, and counterterrorism, had last occurred in May 2016 in Havana.

According to a State Department press release, the delegation discussed the incidents affecting diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, as well as the return of fugitives from justice. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX) reported the meeting also addressed issues including terrorism, cybercrime, and the illicit trafficking of drugs and people.

In January, the U.S. and Cuba signed a Memorandum of Understanding on cooperation in law enforcement. In June, officials from Cuba’s Interior Ministry told CNN and Reuters that the cessation of high-level talks on law enforcement could lead to increases in narcotics and human trafficking.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations July 16. You can find the Cuba Central Team’s comprehensive overview of what we do and don’t know about the President’s Cuba policy at this link.

In Cuba

Cuba continues Irma recovery

Relief efforts are underway in Cuba to address the devastation left behind by Hurricane Irma, which made landfall earlier this month as the strongest storm to hit Cuba in over 85 years, leaving 10 dead. On Sunday, Cuba’s government announced that it would subsidize construction materials for Irma-related housing repairs, as the Miami Herald reports.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy, which suffered severe flood damage, will limit consular services, including suspending nonemergency services for U.S. citizens and delaying visa-related appointments. The State Department released an updated travel warning this week advising U.S. citizens to “carefully consider the risks of travel to Cuba while Hurricane Irma recovery efforts are underway,” and to avoid north-central Cuba altogether.

Nonetheless, the country is on the road to recovery. Havana’s José Martí International Airport reopened last week, and power and water services have been mostly restored across the country. On Wednesday, Sherritt International stated it had resumed nickel mining and oil drilling operations, after halting both to repair “minimal damage” to facilities, and that it did not expect any impact to material production for the year. Meanwhile, according to Cuba’s National Institute for Hydraulic Resources, the rainfall from Irma raised water levels in Cuba’s drought-stricken reservoirs from 40 to 64 percent full nationwide, CubaDebate reports.

Aid efforts on the island continue. Earlier this week, Reuters reported that the UN World Food Programme would provide $5.7 million in food aid to over 700,000 Cubans in areas most affected by the storm.

On Tuesday, Cuba’s Civil Defense Staff issued an “early alert” for the eastern provinces of Guantánamo and Holguín regarding Hurricane Maria. While Maria is not expected to make landfall in Cuba, the alert warns of likely high winds and flooding stemming from contact with the storm’s outer edges.

Cuba postpones municipal elections after Irma

Cuba’s Council of State announced this week that elections to select municipal assembly delegates, originally slated for October 22, will be delayed until November 26, Reuters reports.

According to Granma, the change will be effected so Cubans can “concentrate their efforts on recovering damages” from Hurricane Irma. A second round of voting, originally scheduled for October 29, will be held December 3 as necessary.

President Castro has stated that he will step down at the culmination of the current election cycle, scheduled for February 2018. A description of Cuba’s electoral process can be found here.

What We’re Reading

Expanding agricultural trade between the US and Cuba would benefit both countries, Rick Crawford, The Hill

Representative Rick Crawford (AR-1) advocates for increased agricultural trade as a way to promote Cuba’s private business class and create jobs in rural America.

Our Men And Women In Havana, William LeoGrande, Huffington Post

William LeoGrande, Professor of Government at American University, explains why “closing the U.S. embassy in Havana would be a self-inflicted wound.”

After Irma, Cubans Are Ready to Get Back to Business, Collin Laverty, Americas Quarterly

Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, encourages U.S. travelers to head to Cuba, writing, “Visiting with your hearts, minds and wallets is what helps cities rebuild and aids the local economy.”

Support CDA: Click here to support CDA’s work bringing you the Cuba Central News Brief each week and promoting a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty.

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Special Report: Cuba Recovers After Irma

September 11, 2017

Hurricane Irma slammed into Cuba over the weekend, leaving 10 dead and causing destruction and flooding across the island. Irma, which made landfall in the country’s northeastern provinces as a Category 5 storm, was the strongest storm to hit Cuba in 85 years, according to Reuters.

Damages

The hurricane wrought havoc in Cuba’s keys, badly damaging most structures and all but destroying the international Jardines del Rey airport in Cayo Coco. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro released a statement Monday, saying, “Given the immensity of [Irma’s] size, practically no region has escaped its effects.”

Though Havana avoided a direct hit, the capital city saw extensive flooding, with 36-foot waves rising well over the Malecón (seawall) and seawater reaching one-third of a mile inland, according to Reuters and the Associated Press. The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which is located along the Malecón, saw structural damage to its fence and severe flooding inside the building.

According to CubaDebate, 7 of the 10 reported deaths across Cuba occurred in Havana, mostly due to falling structures and live electrical cables lying in the city’s flooded streets. Much of the island remains without power or cell service.

Cuba had evacuated over 1 million people, including over 8,000 tourists, prior to the storm’s arrival.

Economic impacts

Irma has brought consequences for a number of Cuba’s principle economic sectors, including the sugar and tourism industries.

According to Granma, 300,000 hectares of sugarcane crops and 40 percent of sugar refineries in Cuba suffered some degree of damage from the storm. Cuba harvested 436,000 hectares of sugarcane in 2015, the last year for which data was available.

Meanwhile, the extensive damage to the Cuban Keys has left many of the country’s most popular resorts uninhabitable. President Castro stated that damages “will be recovered before the start of the high season” for tourism.

Response

In his statement, President Castro said, “It is not time to mourn, but rather to rebuild what the winds of Hurricane Irma tried to destroy.” Countries including Ecuador, Bolivia, and Russia have stated their intention to deliver aid to the island.

Prior to the storm reaching Cuba, the country sent nearly 800 doctors to affected Caribbean islands, according to Granma.

Donate to relief efforts in Cuba: PBS NewsHour has consolidated a list of charities working on Hurricane Irma relief efforts.

Groups working in Cuba include OXFAM, UNICEF, and Caritas.

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Cuba and Our Good Name

September 8, 2017

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary, is this week’s guest contributor to the Cuba Central News Brief. He served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2005, and as Associate Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff from 2001 to 2002, during which time he focused on East Asia and the Pacific, political-military, and legislative affairs. Prior to working in the State Department, Col. Wilkerson served in the U.S. Army for 31 years.

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“Who steals my purse steals trash … But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” – Shakespeare’s Othello

Immediate attention today is turned to whether or not the Government of Cuba caused intentional harm to U.S. and Canadian diplomats through a series of sonic incidents in Havana. Frankly, it looks more like spyware gone bad than an intentional effort to do harm. Damage is done, nonetheless, as the U.S. has reciprocated with the expulsion of two Cuban diplomats from Washington.

Long-term concern, however, relates to President Trump. In short, what exactly is Trump’s Cuba policy today? Are his administration’s incremental reversals of previous U.S.-Cuba policy all we shall see, or will there be more, and more substantial, reversals of what was beginning to look like a warming relationship?

Even the small steps backward—and most certainly more substantial ones—are detrimental to U.S. national security, and while many aspects of that negative impact are readily discernible—from cooperation in managing drug trafficking to the environment—the most dangerous aspect, as with the U.S. practice of torture from 2002–2006, goes largely unreported.

Simply stated, the reputation of America is as powerful a component of its standing in the world—perhaps more so—than its vast array of tanks, warplanes, and warships. For the billion people in the Western Hemisphere, and increasingly for the six billion others in the rest of the world, the U.S.’ Cuba policy is another nail in the coffin of the American empire. Of late, nations around the world have been hammering in such nails with alarming frequency and vehemence.

From the now utterly nonsensical embargo on Cuba—essentially an abuse of the use of sanctions bordering on an act of war—to the unseemly and unconstitutional restrictions on travel to the island by U.S. citizens, U.S.-Cuba policy would be the laughing stock of the world if it were not so indicative of America’s present policies—and thus a serious matter indeed. What a worsening of this policy would do is add immeasurable weight to a now swiftly-coalescing world opinion that America is no longer worthy of global leadership.

A dramatic historical moment in 1956, during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, sums up brilliantly what reputational power is all about. The moment is described eloquently by Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith. The occasion was President Eisenhower’s having compelled Great Britain, France and Israel to reverse their combined invasion of Suez:

“Never in the postwar era was American prestige higher than in the aftermath of Suez. Small nations could scarcely believe the United States would support Egypt, a Third World country, in a fight against two of America’s oldest allies, or that it would come to the aid of a Muslim state resisting Israeli aggression. ‘Never has there been such a tremendous acclaim for the President’s policy,’ Henry Cabot Lodge reported from the United Nations. ‘It has been absolutely spectacular.’”

Eisenhower understood what reputational power meant in the world. He knew it outweighed all the panoply of war of which, ironically enough, he was arguably one of the foremost practitioners.

Today, with America’s reputation in tatters all over the globe, in the wake of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, torture, walls on the Mexican border, and strategic missteps from Berlin to Beijing, the very last thing Washington needs is another policy disaster. To reverse the opening to Cuba would be a serious blow to U.S. security in the Western Hemisphere and add another blow to that security, already in serious jeopardy, elsewhere in the world.

That is the last thing the nation needs; it would make us poor indeed.

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Cuba Central News Brief 8/25/2017

August 25, 2017

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

More individuals affected by sonic “incidents” than previously thought

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday at least 16 U.S. diplomats and family members have suffered from a series of mysterious sonic “incidents” in Havana, and CNN reports that 5 Canadian diplomats and family members have been affected, both more than had previously been reported. Meanwhile, CBS News reports U.S. and Canadian diplomats were treated by doctors at the University of Miami for a range of conditions beyond hearing loss, including, in some cases, “mild traumatic brain injury, and … likely damage to the central nervous system.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Nauert told reporters that the incidents began in December 2016, and on Thursday added, “The incidents are no longer occurring.” (CNN reports that incidents “stopped this spring.”)

The source of these incidents has stymied U.S., Canadian, and Cuban officials, who are collaborating on an ongoing investigation. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that he holds Cuba responsible for determining the cause of the events and for ensuring the “safety and security” of U.S. diplomats; earlier this month, Ms. Nauert questioned Cuba’s compliance with international standards for protecting diplomats as outlined by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Cuba’s government has released a statement expressing its determination to resolve the situation and reiterating its commitment to the 1961 convention.

Marriott eyes future expansion in Cuba

Marriott International, Inc. is looking to expand its operations in Cuba, according to Tim Sheldon, the hotel chain’s president for the Caribbean & Latin America, the Miami Herald reports.

According to Sheldon, Marriott is hoping to move forward with plans to renovate and manage the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, and is “waiting for clarity from the current administration” on its ability to pursue other unspecified projects on the island.

Marriott currently manages the Cuban government-owned Four Points Sheraton hotel in Havana. Though President Trump’s Cuba policy memorandum bans transactions with entities related to Cuba’s military, according to the Treasury Department, operations that “were in place prior to the issuance of the forthcoming regulations” (like Marriott’s current activities) will be permitted. On June 15, the day before President Trump’s Cuba announcement, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson released a statement saying, “It would be exceedingly disappointing to see the progress that has been made in the last two years halted and reversed,” as Reuters reported at the time.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations July 16. You can find the Cuba Central Team’s comprehensive overview of what we do and don’t know about the President’s Cuba policy at this link.

In Cuba

Number of air passengers to Cuba surpasses 2016 total

A record four million passengers flew into Havana´s Jose Marti International Airport in the first 8 months of 2017, surpassing the total number of visitors to Cuba by plane in 2016, the Cuban News Agency (ACN) reports.

Though data on the number of visitors by sea this year is not yet available, the ACN report likely means that the total number of travelers to the island this year has surpassed the 2016 total, as virtually all visitors to Cuba travel by air (over 99 percent in 2016, according to data from Cuba’s National Office of Statistics).

In June, Cuba announced that it had already received more U.S. visitors in 2017 than in all of 2016, as EFE reported; that same month, José Alonso, business director of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, stated that Cuba is on track to reach its goal of 4.2 million visitors in 2017, even with increased U.S. travel restrictions. There are currently six U.S. airlines operating flights to Cuba.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Mexico’s foreign minister visits Cuba for talks on Venezuela, bilateral ties

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray traveled to Cuba on Saturday for a two-day working visit to ask for Cuba’s assistance resolving the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, and to discuss bilateral ties and offer the country an expanded credit line with Mexico’s national bank, Reuters reports.

According to Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Videgaray met with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, to discuss progress in trade and technical exchanges between the two countries, note that Mexico will eliminate visa requirements for Cuban officials in order “to facilitate exchanges and joint bilateral initiatives,” and announce a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the countries’ respective national banks to extend Cuba’s line of credit for imports from Mexico. A statement from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the ministers also discussed “issues on the international agenda.”

A separate Reuters report this week suggested that Mexico is exploring providing oil to Caribbean countries should Venezuela’s oil industry find itself unable to meet its export agreements. Last month, Reuters reported that Cuba, which depends heavily on subsidized oil imports from Venezuela, imported just 72,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Caracas in the first half of 2017, compared with 83,000 barrels per day in the first half of 2016 and over 100,000 barrels per day in the first half of 2015.

Last month, José Ramón Machado Ventura, the second secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, stated, “It is up to the Bolivarian people and government, alone, to overcome their difficulties.”

What We’re Reading

Interview: Vicki Huddleston, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba Trade Magazine

Vicki Huddleston, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, tells Cuba Trade Magazine that U.S. policy toward Cuba must allow for “communication, transportation, the ability to talk to the country’s leaders, and to work together on issues of mutual interest.”

Cuba: How politics has become a hurdle for its researchers, Bryn Nelson, Science News

Bryn Nelson discusses in Science News how the U.S. embargo prevents Cuban scientists from obtaining important research equipment and publishing in U.S. journals, limiting our ability to understand our shared ecosystem.

Truck Manufacturers Keep Eyes on Cuban Market, Craig Guillot, Trucks.com

Car manufacturers are hoping to drive up interest in legal exports to Cuba, which once served as a top market for the U.S. auto industry.

What We’re Listening To

Cuba and the USA: healing the emotional embargo, BBC World Service

Ruth Behar, co-creator of the Bridges to/from Cuba blog, discusses the “emotional embargo” against Cuba: “the sense that Cubans have had for nearly 60 years of holding our breath and not knowing what is going to happen next.”

Support CDA: Click here to support CDA’s work bringing you the Cuba Central News Brief each week and promoting a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty.

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Wave the Flag

August 18, 2017

This week marked the two-year anniversary of the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, the ceremonial event to mark the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

August 14, 2015 was a hot day in Havana. Pristine classic cars were parked behind the speakers’ podium, just in front of the Malecón, providing a scenic backdrop for a historic event.

Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, severed in 1961, had been restored weeks earlier, and the Cuban flag was already flying above its newly-reinstated embassy in Washington, DC.

Secretary Kerry, who presided over the ceremony, was the first Secretary of State to travel to Cuba in 70 years. His message was simple: the ceremony was to be “truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities.”

In the weeks and months that followed, both the U.S. and Cuban governments moved quickly to put in place the building blocks of normal diplomatic relations. They established mechanisms for cooperation on issues such as law enforcement and health, signing 22 bilateral agreements between November 2015 and January 2017.

Two years after the flag was raised at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the merits of bilateral cooperation are self-evident. Civil aviation experts are discussing ways to enhance security at our airports, and law enforcement officials are collaborating on criminal investigations. To reverse course would have obvious negative consequences.

President Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum, made public in mid-June, directs departments and agencies to “ensure that engagement between the United States and Cuba advances the interests of the United States and the Cuban people.” Most importantly, this memorandum directs continued engagement. The embassies will not be closed, and collaboration on important issues will advance.

It is especially important to have channels of dialogue on areas of disagreement or when things go awry. In the wake of accounts of a sonic incident affecting U.S. diplomats in Havana, both the U.S. and Cuban governments have stated their commitment to cooperate in an investigation.

At the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy two years ago, high-level U.S. and Cuban government officials came to participate in the making of history. But the true guests of honor were three marines who lowered the U.S. flag in 1961 and returned to Havana to see it raised again over fifty years later. Their presence served as a reminder of the long-term resilience of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, able to weather the most uncertain of times, and ultimately overcome obstacles for the benefit of our citizens.

In the words of one of the marines, Corporal Francis “Mike” East, to see the U.S. embassy building without its flag felt “like something was wrong, something was missing.” As we reflect on the important gains from engagement achieved in the last two-and-a-half years, we are hopeful that our governments will continue to reaffirm that the U.S. and Cuba are made stronger by cooperation, and that we cannot afford to let that spirit go missing again.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

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This week, in Cuba news…

August 11, 2017

We’ll be back with a full-service Brief next week.

In the meantime, this week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »


Dysfunction and Evolution

August 4, 2017

This week, senators prepare to depart Washington for the annual August recess, already delayed by the dramatic failure of proposed healthcare legislation in the Senate. Gridlock leaves little to show for the 2017 work session to date, and deadlines on the debt ceiling and government funding are looming upon the members’ return.

Considering the hyper-partisanship that has characterized Congress of late, it would be surprising to find bipartisan cooperation anywhere on Capitol Hill. Yet, there is—in the most unlikely of places.

In just two years since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in July 2015, we have seen a remarkable evolution in what had been for decades a seemingly immovable political “third rail.”

In January 2015, Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ) introduced, with eight bipartisan cosponsors, a bill to restore the right of Americans to travel to Cuba freely. By the end of 2016, it had garnered 54 total signatories. Flake reintroduced the same bill in May 2017 with 55 total original cosponsors, and he is confident that the bill would garner close to 70 votes in the Senate, closely reflecting overwhelming public support in the U.S. for engagement with Cuba. (73% of Americans support ending the embargo entirely.)

In the House, support for bills that would help the U.S. engage with Cuba continues to grow apace. In October 2015, Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-01) introduced the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act with two of his Republican colleagues, and by the end of 2016 Crawford had secured 49 total cosponsors. Crawford reintroduced his bill in January 2017 with 26 original bipartisan cosponsors, and now counts 56 total signatories covering the entire political and geographical spectrum. Among them is Rep. James Comer (KY-01), who traveled to Cuba with CDA in March 2017 and returned with a strengthened resolve to end the embargo. This week, with Rep. Comer’s leadership, Kentucky became the 17th state to inaugurate an Engage Cuba State Council, bringing together leaders in business, agriculture, and government to advocate for ending the embargo on Cuba. According to Rep. Comer, if a bill to end the embargo received a vote, “it would get about 75 percent of the votes in Congress. It would be a veto-proof majority.”

Just weeks after Sen. Flake reintroduced his bill, President Trump made a Cuba policy speech in Miami, asserting that he would make good on campaign promises to reverse the previous administration’s Cuba initiatives. However, the policy document unveiled at the speech accepts many aspects of recent advances in engagement; it embraces diplomatic relations with Cuba, continues bilateral dialogue on issues of mutual concern, and states the intent of U.S. policy to support Cuban entrepreneurs.

The primary architect of the new policy direction was Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), who has long been against the U.S. opening any kind of relationship with Cuba until all the conditions of the embargo laws are met. The substance of the new policy, and Sen. Rubio’s involvement, demonstrate that such hardline positions are things of the past.

Despite President Trump’s rhetorical support, Cuban entrepreneurs are concerned about the potential impacts of the announced policy. They expressed their apprehensions and brought policy recommendations to Congress and the administration during a trip to Washington earlier this month organized by CDA, Engage Cuba, and Cuba Educational Travel. We take it as a sign of the times that the group received a warm reception in Congress from Republicans and Democrats alike, notably including at a press conference with Sens. Patrick Leahy (VT), Amy Klobuchar (MN), and Flake.

While Congress is steadily catching up with the U.S. public on Cuba policy, the administration’s new Cuba policy likely represents a step backward, as it is ostensibly intended to restrict individual travel to Cuba and to make it more difficult to do business with entities that have even peripheral ties to the Cuban military. Like our Cuban entrepreneur friends, we hope that the final rules, currently being drafted at the U.S. departments and agencies, don’t set back the constructive evolution in U.S.-Cuba relations that we have seen over the past two years. Even Congress could agree on that.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

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