Obama’s Historic Opportunity

Dear Friend:

President-elect Barack Obama will enter the White House on January 20, 2009 with a historic opportunity to do something that no president has been able to do in nearly fifty years.

He can govern and make policy toward Cuba and Latin America owing no debt of political obligation to the hard-liners in the Cuban-American exile community.

His victory demolished the self-justifying political logic that a candidate could not win Florida or the White House without signing up for the harshest possible policy against Cuba. In fact, he did exactly that.

Freed from this onerous political burden, he can rethink the failed and futile premise of this policy – regime change – and offer a new approach that advances the interests of the United States and the people of Cuba.

During the campaign, Mr. Obama promised to roll back restrictions imposed by President Bush that severely limited the ability of Cuban-American families to visit their relatives on Cuba and provide them financial support.

These rules were put into place to satisfy the hardest edge of the Cuban-American community five months before the 2004 election; those who continued to believe that economic sanctions would finally squeeze the Cuban people so badly, that they would rise up and challenge their government.

Just as Hurricane Katrina laid bare the ineffectiveness of the Bush domestic policy, Hurricanes Gustav and Ike revealed the cruelty and futility of the increasingly tightened sanctions policy.

After these storms walloped the island and devastated Cuban homes and food supplies, Cuban-Americans could do little to help their families. The U.S. embargo prevented the government of Cuba from buying needed supplies to reconstruct housing. And the very leaders who were supposed to be driven from office by our sanctions demonstrated before the storms the effectiveness of their civil defense strategy and then led the Cuban population’s efforts at recovery and relief.

Obviously, these rules are inhumane and unjust and should be repealed at once. But the historic dimensions of the Obama victory should empower him to do more.

He should restore the constitutional right to travel so that every American can enjoy the right that Americans of Cuban descent have to visit Cuba.

He should get the Treasury Department out of the travel business, so that the faith community, the business community, artists and academics, cultural leaders and, yes, tourists, no longer have to apply to a government bureaucracy in the United States of America for permission to travel to Cuba – permission that is routinely denied.

He should remove restrictions on trade so that the American economy and the Cuban economy can enjoy the benefits that freer commerce can bestow – an increase in jobs and living standards, and the opportunity to learn and share ideas about innovation, management, environmental standards, working conditions, and the like.

Most of all, he should engage the government of Cuba in a manner that respects its sovereignty, just as our allies across the world do every day, especially if he believes – as he stressed in the campaign – in the kind of diplomacy that emphasizes negotiation as the means for settling disputes and differences. It is time to talk – without preconditions.

Were he to take these steps, he would lift an emotional burden from the Cuban-American community and give long-needed support to the moderates who have worked so hard and in difficult circumstances to reconcile Cuban families on both sides of the Florida Straits.

Were he to take these decisions, the impact on Cuba would be extraordinary, and he would give all Latin Americans, the leaders and the people, a new reason to engage with the United States.

The benefits of a broader agenda, and a sharp departure from the past, would be significant. However, this is a very ambitious agenda at a difficult time in our national life.

The new president has a financial crisis, two wars, and a great deal more on his plate. A fundamental change in Cuba policy will be hard to accomplish with so many other issues commanding his attention. But this is where the path should lead him after the courage Barack Obama exhibited this year in Miami and after the American people rewarded him so well for the history-making campaign that he ran.

Many of these issues and ideas are encompassed in the news summary that follows.

We cover the election results in Florida; the hopeful and optimistic reactions of the Cuban people; the statements of Latin American leaders urging a change in our policy; the threat of more hurricane damage to the island; the opportunity for increased trade, and more.

After an incredible election, this week in Cuba news:

The election of Obama opens door for changes in Cuba policy

Barack Obama’s election as president opens the door for the U.S. to relax sanctions against Cuba for the first time in more than a decade, the Wall Street Journal reported.

In May, Mr. Obama went where presidential candidates have long feared to go by giving a campaign speech in Miami in which he vowed to ease some restrictions on Cuba. He promised to lift restrictions on family visits and remittances by Cuban-Americans seeking to help family on the island.

The Cuban-American community in Florida has voted staunchly Republican over the last 40 years and has strongly opposed any easing of sanctions on Cuba. Although three Cuban- American Republican members of Congress were re-elected on Tuesday, the margin of victory ebbed, and younger voters favored Obama.

Gisela Ortega, a registered Republican who is Cuban-American, explained to the Wall Street Journal why she crossed party lines and voted for Obama. “If people want to go to Cuba to visit family or send money for their relatives, why should we stop them?” the 55-year-old auditor said. “We’ve had the embargo for 50 years and it hasn’t done anything to get rid of the Castros. Maybe it’s time for a change.”

Polls show that Obama did not receive the majority of Cuban-American votes, but was able to win Florida without the majority and he picked up essential votes of younger Cuban-Americans.

According to a Bendixen & Associates exit poll conducted in Miami-Dade County, Mr. Obama won 35% of the Cuban-American vote in Florida, surpassing the previous high-water mark for Democratic candidates of 30% set by Bill Clinton in 1992. Among voters age 18 to 29 years old, he won 55%, while Sen. John McCain carried 75% of those 60 and older.

Florida International University exit polls found that Cuban-Americans younger than 44 supported Mr. Obama by 49% to 46%. That figure “is the first sign of a shift in the Cuban-American electorate that I’ve seen,” said Dario Moreno, a political-science professor at Florida International University.

The Florida results have enormous political and policy significance. As Sarah Stephens wrote in the Huffington Post the day after the election, “This disposes of the argument, once and for all, that a presidential candidate couldn’t carry Florida or win the White House unless he bowed to the hard-liners and supported the harshest possible approach to U.S.-Cuba relations.”

While President-elect Obama is likely to roll back the restrictions on family travel and sending remittances to the island, as he promised during the campaign, it remains to be seen whether he will go further.

“We’ll have to see some signals from the Cubans,” said a person who has advised Mr. Obama. “It takes two to tango. Mainly a good first signal is freeing political prisoners. It took us 50 years to go where we are with Cuba policy. We can’t change that in five days.”

Now that Obama has proven that it is possible to win Florida without courting the hard-line exile vote, analysts say he can win points in the region and the world by making significant changes to the U.S. policy towards Cuba.

“Changing Cuba policy is a high-symbolic-value, low-political-cost way to show that [Mr. Obama] plans to conduct business differently in the world,” said Carlos Saladrigas, co-chairman of a group that advocates rethinking the embargo.

The United Nations voted last week against the embargo 185-3 and several world leaders have already called on Obama to end the Cuba sanctions.

You can read the Wall Street Journal article here.

You can read Sarah Stephens’ article, “History on Cuba – Hidden in Plain View – In Florida’s Election Returns,” here.

The Cuban people are hopeful about an Obama presidency

It didn’t take long for Cubans to hear about Barack Obama’s election victory. They quickly began to talk about the possibility of improving relations with the United States, NBC News reported.

Some Cubans heard the news on radio and television, while others received phone calls and text messages from friends and relatives in the United States.

Car mechanic Boris Ruiz working the night shift immediately called his wife after he heard the news on Cuban TV. “I woke her up but I needed to tell someone the good news,” Ruiz said.

For the first time in his life, Ruiz feels like there’s “a chance to normalize relations with the United States and that will make my life better.”

Housewife Rosa Llanos heard the news on short wave radio and thought about her daughter and grandchild living in South Florida. She hopes that Obama will stick to his promise to lift current U.S. restrictions that limit family visits to once every three years.

Ana Teresa Martinez, a child psychiatrist, echoed the same hope explaining that she often treats young patients suffering from “the trauma of families divided by the Straits of Florida.”

Havana based-news agencies repeatedly reported that an overwhelmingly majority of Cubans favored Obama from the start of the U.S. presidential campaign. That support magnified when he vowed to ease restrictions on family travel to Cuba and the amount of money Cuban-Americans can send home.

Many Cubans hope that Obama will go further then lifting restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban Americans and write a new chapter in US-Cuba relations

“Obama has the youth to look beyond 50 years of failed policy,” said retired economist Ileana Yarza. “He will come to realize that trade and tourism is good for both our countries.”

Rev. Juan Ramon de la Paz, who has kept a close eye on the U.S. election, believes that Obama will improve relations with Cuba and all of Latin America because Obama “believes in dialogue and diplomacy.”

Although most Cubans relished in joy and the possibility of improved relations some remained skeptical.

“It’s one thing to make promises during an election. It’s another thing to make them come true,” a group of teenagers told NBC. “We’ll just have to wait and see what he does.”

“We are always ready to have normal relations with the United States and our leader has expressed this many times,” Jesus Perez Calderone, a U.S. specialist in the Cuban Ministry of External Relations, told The Hill newspaper.

“But the ball is in your court,” he added. “We’ve had 50 years of the same hostility by the U.S. towards Cuba and the only thing we are waiting for is the reaction on your part.”

You can read the NBC article here.

You can read the Hill article here.

Latin America Leaders Congratulate Obama and ask him to end embargo

Latin American leaders congratulated President-elect Barack Obama this week and issued statements advocating for the start of better relations between the U.S. and the region. Many leaders called for Obama to change the U.S. policy towards Cuba to signal a new era.

Calls to normalize relations with Cuba after an almost five-decade estrangement came from Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, one of the region’s closest U.S. allies, and Bolivian President Evo Morales, Bloomberg News reported.

“I hope the blockade of Cuba ends, because it no longer has any justification in the history of humanity,” Lula said Tuesday in Brazil. His comments were echoed just hours later in La Paz, Bolivia: “My great desire is that Mr. Obama lifts the economic embargo on Cuba,” Morales said.

Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says that Cuba is the “most symbolically important issue” for Latin America. He argues that “even a statement like he’s going to review the Cuba policy would itself be a step forward.” Such a gesture would “appeal to the region without much economic or political cost,” Shifter added.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez called on Obama to end the Cuban trade embargo on November 2nd. The Venezuela Ministry of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement urging a new day in relations with the U.S.

“The hour has arrived to establish new relations among our countries and with our region,” said the congratulatory statement. “The historic election of an Afro-descendant to the head of the most powerful country in the world is a sign that the change that’s been carried out in South America may be reaching the doorstep of the U.S.”

Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda and President, Baldwin Spencer, who is the current head of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), also urged Obama to change U.S. policy towards Cuba, Prensa Latina reported.

“In my recent speech at the UN General Assembly, I asked the next president of the United States, whoever he may be, to change its policy toward Cuba and I hope Obama makes this true,” said Spencer.

“We would all feel satisfied if President Obama begins to commit in a quick and reasonable way with mechanisms intended to improve relations with Cuba and certainly with all the western hemisphere,” he added.

Many analysts say that the U.S. faces an uphill battle to improve its image in the region. Bush’s approval rating in the region sank during his two terms, with Argentina giving him a low of 6 percent in 2006. With two wars in the Middle East and a looming economic crisis, Cuba could be a starting point.

You can read the Bloomberg article here.

You can read the Prensa Latina article here.

Tropical Storm Paloma headed towards Cuba

Weather forecasters say that Hurricane Paloma is becoming stronger as it heads north, threatening to hit Cuba over the weekend, the Associated Press reported.

Hurricane watches have been issued for the provinces of Sancti Spiritus, Ciego de Avila, Camaguey, Las Tunas and Granma.

According to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, the storm may make landfall over Cuba on Sunday afternoon.

The storm is moving northwest on a path set for central Cuba at around 13 kilometers (eight miles) per hour. It represents a “potential high risk” for the western part of the island on Sunday or the early hours of Monday morning, said the head of the Cuban Meteorological Institute (INSMET) Jose Rubiera.

The storm is expected to keep gaining momentum as it moves across the Caribbean. It may become a Category 2 hurricane later Friday and could reach Category 3 intensity by Saturday. The storm’s winds are currently reaching 80 mph.

You can read
the AP article here.

450 companies from 56 countries at the Cuba’s International Trade Fair

Cuba opened its annual Havana Trade Fair on Monday with business leaders from 450 companies from 56 different countries, the Canadian Press reported. According to Granma, the first Havana Trade Fair held in 1983 was attended by only 60 companies from 3 countries: Spain, Panama and Cuba. The fair will conclude Saturday afternoon.

Cuba currently has trade relations with more than 3,000 companies in 176 countries, Granma reported.

Foreign Trade Minister Raul de la Nuez told business leaders during the fair’s opening ceremonies that “through September, the country had seen a 39 per cent increase in foreign trade as compared to the first nine months of 2007.”

He said that Cuba’s top trading partners are Venezuela, China, Canada, Spain, Brazil and Vietnam.

De la Nuez did not specify why foreign trade was up, but the head of Cuba’s food import company Alimport, Pedro Alvarez, said the government increased purchases of agricultural goods from abroad after hurricanes Gustav and Ike devastated the island in August and September, crippling food production and wiping out food reserves.

“Agriculture was totally destroyed,” he said.

More than 200 U.S. agricultural companies and state delegations were attending the trade fair in hopes of signing new trade deals. The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, allows American food and farm products to be sold directly to Cuba on a cash-only basis, and the United States has been this country’s top food source since 2003.

Attempting to sign a deal to sell apples from his state, Charles Green, of Virginia’s Department of Agriculture, said “Cuba has been a good and growing international market for our agricultural products. We expect it to stay that way.”

Also attending the fair are governmental delegations from 14 countries, led by ministers and high-ranking officials, including Miguel Jorge, Brazilian minister of trade and industry, and Severo de Souza, deputy minister of trade in Panama.

You can read the Canadian Press article here.

You can read the Granma article here.

Priceline.com Inc. fined for violating the Cuban embargo

Priceline.com Inc. has agreed to pay a fine of $12,250 after it was discovered that one of its foreign subsidiaries helped arrange “limited travel services to Cuban nationals,” reported Business Week magazine. The fine was announced by company spokesman Brian Ek on Tuesday, although he did not give specifics on whom the Cubans were or where they were traveling to or from.

Priceline is at least the second online travel company to pay a fine to the federal government for violating U.S. sanctions on Cuba. Ek said that the violation was reported voluntarily.

The Treasury Department released a statement saying that a Priceline subsidiary “provided travel-related services in which Cuba or Cuban nationals had an interest.” Treasury Department spokesman Andrew DeSouza did not explain why Priceline’s settlement was so much less than the $182,750 paid by Travelocity.com LP in a similar case last year.

However, in that case the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control said Travelocity violated the embargo on Cuba nearly 1,500 times between January 1998 and April 2004, a first for an online travel agency. The statement said that Priceline violated sanctions between September 2004 and November 2007 but did not specify how many times.

You can read the Business Week article here.

Recommended Reading:

Latin America sees Obama bridging ideological divide, Reuters

Obama’s Latin American Challenge, AFP

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team


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