On Cuba – Business, Think Tanks, Editorial Pages, and polls agree – Obama Should Think Big

Dear Friend:

Our public servants rarely “under-promise and over-deliver,” and all too often, the reverse is true, when the poetry of campaigning is replaced by the prose of governing.

But president-elect Barack Obama has a rare opportunity to exceed what he offered as a candidate when it comes to reforming Cuba policy and he should grab it.

To his credit, Obama won Florida and the White House without capitulating to the demands of the hard-line exile community on Cuba policy.  In fact, the platform of his campaign offered the first rollback of the embargo – ending restrictions on the rights of Cuban Americans to visit and support their families and offering the prospect of negotiations with Cuba’s government (although on terms that Cuba has never accepted) – ever offered by a winning candidate.

Under normal circumstances, Mr. Obama might be expected to rest on his laurels and do just what he promised – or worse, he might even do less as lesser figures have done in the past.

But these are not normal times, and the president-elect has already demonstrated himself to be a different kind of leader.

As you will read in this week’s news summary, the center of gravity in this political debate is changing and has moved considerably since the election occurred just one month ago.

The business community, never a first mover in the Cuba debate, sent a strongly worded letter to Mr. Obama calling on him to end all restrictions on travel and trade.  The Brookings Institution in a new report on rethinking U.S. policy on Latin America called for big changes in Cuba policy, such as removing Cuba’s government from the list of state sponsors of terror and allowing Cuba to join organizations like the OAS.   The Council on Foreign Relations, earlier this year, also urged substantial changes in Cuba policy.  It is a new and important development to have foreign policy elites publicly calling for these reforms.

As before, strong and important editorial voices – The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and the Palm Beach Post -added to the chorus calling for change.

Finally, a new poll of public opinion in South Florida showed strong majorities in the Cuban-American community for taking the policy in an entirely new direction.

All of this gives Mr. Obama the latitude to do more than what he promised on Cuba, and that returns us to the times in which we live and the kind of leader he intends to be.

In one bold step, Obama has the chance to end a failed and futile policy, write the last chapter of the Cold War, enter a new and close relationship with the Cuban people, and send a long-overdue signal to the rest of Latin America and the world that U.S. foreign policy is leaving a self-defeating period of isolation and entering a new era of engagement.

Why would he settle for anything less, and why should we?

This week, in Cuba news:

More Calls for President-elect Obama to Change Cuba Policy

Business Community Calls for New Cuba Policy

Twelve leading trade associations have sent a letter to President-elect Barack Obama urging the incoming administration to reexamine U.S.-Cuba policy and consider new approaches that would benefit U.S. national security and economic interests and the Cuban people.

The associations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Business Roundtable, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce, applauded President-elect Obama’s support for removing restrictions on family remittances, visits, and humanitarian care packages from Cuban Americans, and noted that while “these are excellent first steps…we urge you to also commit to a more comprehensive examination of U.S. policy.”

“Your administration has a unique opportunity to take steps to end nearly 50 years of isolation from Cuba and the Cuban people.  We support the complete removal of all trade and travel restrictions on Cuba.  We recognize that change may not come all at once, but it must start somewhere, and it must begin soon,” they wrote.

You can read the full letter here.

Brookings Institution: Change Cuba Policy

The Brookings Institution released a report last week saying that the election of Barack Obama has offered the U.S. a fresh chance to reinvigorate its relations with Latin America and create a new “partnership with the Americas,” the New York Times reported.

The report, compiled by prominent former policy-makers from the United States and Latin America, listed recommendations on everything from the taxation of ethanol products to immigration, and called for a complete reversal of the Bush policy on Cuba.

The report advocates lifting all restrictions on travel by Americans, promoting more contacts with Cuban diplomats, taking Cuba off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, and welcoming Cuba into regional and global economic and political organizations, such as the Organization of American States.

“This may make the over-40 generation of Cuban-Americans in Miami jump-up-and-down mad, but there is a whole generation of Cuban-Americans who want to change this relationship,” said Thomas R. Pickering, a longtime diplomat and former Under Secretary of State.

You can read the full Brookings Institution report here.

L.A. Times: Cuba policy hinders U.S. effectiveness in region

In an editorial titled “A Latin America Blueprint,” the Los Angeles Times urged President-elect Barack Obama to utilize the Brookings Institution’s report urging the overhaul of U.S. relations with Latin America and the Caribbean.

The editorial says that the Brookings recommendations are “in line with changes Obama has signaled he’s willing to make, such as repealing the travel ban and reviving diplomacy,” and outlines the effect a change in policy would have on the image of the United States in the region.

“The United States’ anachronistic relationship with Cuba and its insistence that its hostility be supported by other nations contort its effectiveness throughout Latin America. It’s time for the U.S. to become an integral member of the hemisphere and not just its puppeteer.”

You can read the full editorial here.

New York Times: Lift the Embargo

In an editorial titled “About Latin America,” the New York Times said that although “Barack Obama might be tempted to put off dealing with the nation’s extremely sour relations with Latin America,” he has a “unique opportunity to improve ties with a region that shares key interests and values with the United States.”

The paper suggested that one of the first steps should be removing the economic embargo on Cuba.

“With Fidel Castro nearly gone, Washington should be testing the intentions of the new Cuban leadership. We believe lifting the economic embargo is the best way to do that.”

The editorial encouraged him to fulfill his campaign promises about Cuba and go further.

“During the campaign, Mr. Obama unfortunately agreed with the incorrect (but politically convenient) proposition that the embargo gives the United States leverage. Fortunately, he also said he would start the process of re-engaging Havana – and opening Cuba to the winds of change – by lifting restrictions on travel and remittances to the island. He should do so quickly.”

You can read the full editorial here.

Palm Beach Post Editorial: Chance to change Cuba

The Palm Beach Post also called on Barack Obama to deliver a “big change” on Cuba policy and “display to the world a more humane and practical foreign policy and shift the pressure from Washington to Havana.”

The paper argued that tight 2004 restrictions on family travel and remittances were a gift to Cuban-American hardliners and “Mr. Bush got his reelection, and the United States got four more years of a failed policy.”

It goes on to say that “Mr. Obama owes nothing to those voters (…) and even if he did, few U.S. policies are more in need of change than this one.” It argues that “Americans should be free to travel wherever they want” and that “Mr. Obama owes Americans a break from the past.”

You can read the full editorial here.

CONTACT CONGRESS — TELL THEM TO ACT

If you agree that change is needed on Cuba policy, and we bet you do, you can call your district Representative and Senator to urge them to push for legalizing all travel to Cuba in 2009.

You can call the Capitol Switchboard at 202-224-3121 (this is the most effective way to be heard by your members of Congress) or find your District Rep’s contact info here and your Senator’s contact info here.

Raul Castro: I’m willing to meet Obama

Cuba’s President Raul Castro has told Sean Penn in an interview that he would like to meet President-elect Barack Obama on “neutral ground,” suggesting the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay as a suitable place.

“Perhaps we could meet at Guantánamo. We must meet and begin to solve our problems, and at the end of the meeting, we could give the president a gift…we could send him home with the American flag that waves over Guantánamo Bay.”

Castro also said that if a meeting were to take place the first priority would be to “normalize trade.”

President Castro made the statement in an interview with the actor for an upcoming edition of the Nation magazine.

You can read the full Nation article about Sean Penn’s interview with Raul Castro here.

Fidel Castro: “With Obama, talks could happen anywhere he wants.

Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro wrote yesterday his country could talk to U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, in Havana’s latest offer to try diplomacy to improve relations with the incoming Democratic administration in Washington, the Reuters news agency reported.

“With Obama, talks could happen anywhere he wants,” Fidel Castro wrote his latest “reflection” published in state-run media Thursday.

“He should remember the carrot-and-stick approach will not work with our country,” Castro wrote of Obama. “The sovereign rights of the Cuban people are not negotiable.”

You can read the Reuters article here.

You can read Fidel Castro’s column here (in Spanish).

Cuban-Americans: Majorities in Miami want an end to the embargo

A new survey of Cuban Americans in South Florida shows that a majority oppose the current policy towards Cuba and favor a lifting of the trade embargo, the Miami Herald reported.

The number of Cuban Americans opposed to U.S. policy has steadily grown over the last decade and now more than 50 percent of Miami-Dade Cuban Americans think the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba should end.

The new poll, conducted by Florida International University’s Institute for Public Opinion Research, found that 55 percent of those interviewed favor ending the trade embargo and 65 percent favor reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

Similarly, 66 percent favor ending current restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba for Cuban Americans and 67 percent favor ending travel restriction on travel to Cuba for all Americans.

The study took into account the age of those interviewed and for émigrés, the year in which they arrived in the United States.

”The poll has an extraordinary historical importance,” said Guarione Díaz, president of the Cuban American National Council, a nonpartisan advocacy group in Miami. The results reflect ”the fact that the Cuban Americans who were born in the United States or left after 1980 do not have the same vision as those who came in the 60s,” Díaz said.

The conservative Cuban Liberty Council, which has been credited with driving President Bush’s policy on Cuba, quickly tried to discredit the results.

”I am tired of these polls that mean nothing,” Director Ninoska Pérez told the Miami Herald. “The point is that three Congress members who support the embargo were elected by an overwhelming majority of the people. The reelection of these Congress members tells me that this sample is not a majority. I don’t believe this poll.”

You can read the Miami Herald article here.

DIPLOMACY

Cuba will host Caribbean summit on financial crisis

Although Cuba is not a member of CARICOM, the Caribbean Community regional trade bloc, and does not have plans to join, it will host its leaders at a summit next week in Santiago, Cuba, the Associated Press reported.

Leaders from all 15 of the group’s member states will attend the summit aimed at combating high food and energy costs, the global financial crisis and global warming.

Cuba maintains strong relations with members of CARICOM despite efforts by the United States to pressure member nations to isolate Havana, Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Alejandro Gonzalez said this week.

“The relationship between Cuba and the Caribbean goes beyond matters of ideology,” he said.

According to the Associated Press, good relations between CARICOM and Cuba stem in part from its small members’ support for Cuba’s defiance of the U.S., and from gratitude for medical and education aid that Cuba has given despite its own financial struggles.

Cuban doctors have performed more than 17 million checkups and 289,000 surgeries in CARICOM member countries, Gonzalez said

Norman Girvan, ex-Secretary General of the Association of Caribbean States, suggested that “the desire to maintain strong relations with Cuba has not weakened,” and that he wouldn’t be surprised to see CARICOM establish a common position in favor of Cuba being welcomed back in the Organization of American States (OAS), Agence France-Presse reported.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

You can read the Agence France-Presse article here (in Spanish).

Morales will lead international campaign in favor of Cuba’s return to the OAS

The President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, announced last week that he will lead an international campaign in favor of Cuba’s return to the Organization of American States (OAS), the Agence France-Presse reported.

“I still haven’t talked to commander Chávez, but we are going to start a national and international campaign,” Morales told a crowd of Quechan farmers.

Morales outlined the solidarity that Cuba has shown for Bolivia, sending over 1,000 doctors to attend to poor Bolivians, sending educators to lead a vast education campaign and even after Cuba suffered from a severe hurricane season, maintains free scholarships for over 5,000 Bolivians studying on the island.

Cuba has been suspended from the OAS since 1962.

“There can’t be an OAS without Cuba, there can’t be an OAS with the absence of some countries (…) and if Cuba doesn’t return, my proposal is that we have to make another OAS without the United States,” Morales added.

You can read the AFP article here (in Spanish).

Mexico sends Cubans home under new accord

Mexico is sending illegal Cuban migrants home for the first time under a new accord aimed at cutting off an increasingly violent human-trafficking route to the United States, an official told the Associated Press.

Before the agreement between the two governments was signed in October, migrants from Cuba were rarely sent back from Mexico.

Luis Alberto Molina, an immigration official in Quintana Roo state, said a group of migrants were being sent back without providing further details. An Associated Press photographer in Cancun saw about 60 immigrants being loaded on two buses early Thursday.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said 11,126 Cuban migrants used the Mexico route last year. According to the Associated Press, approximately 2,000 Cubans are currently being held in Mexican immigration detention centers.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

IN CUBA

Relations continue to improve between Cuba’s government and the Catholic Church

When President Castro attended a special mass to beatify a 19th century Cuban friar known as the “father of the poor,” it was another significant step toward improving relations with the Catholic Church, NBC News reported.

Leading up to the ceremonies, the Cuban press published numerous stories about the beatification of Friar Jose Olallo Valdes, and the event was broadcast on Cuban state television and radio.

President Castro sat in the front row during the three-hour mass and greeted the Vatican emissary along with the Papal Nuncio Luigi Bonazzi, Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega and some two dozen other Cuban and foreign clergy.

According to Cardinal Ortega, relations between the Church and the government have continued improving since the visit of Pope John Paul II to the island in 1998.

Cardinal Bertone, the Secretary of State of the Vatican, was the first foreign dignitary that Raúl Castro met with after officially becoming Cuba’s President in February.

After Cuba was hit by three hurricanes this season, the church and the government began working together to distribute food, medicines and roofing material to the half a million people left homeless. This cooperation is seen as another step forward in the improvement of church-state relations.

You can read the NBC News article here.

Raúl Castro’s salary reform at risk of being delayed again

The labor reform proposed by Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro, in which workers will receive salaries in accordance with the efficiency and quality of their work, continues to be delayed and could be postponed again, EFE reported based on local press reports.

The Cuban newspaper Trabajadores emphasized this week the “urgent need” of not leaving to “spontaneity” the tasks of enterprise reconstruction and adaptation to the new model that requires a system of “payment by results.

“Otherwise, when it is analyzed in February it’s possible that the date of application will be postponed again (…) or a generalized failure to comply will be determined,” the newspaper indicated.

The salary reform has been one of the defining elements of Castro’s economic policy since taking over as president, aimed at changing the conception of “egalitarianism” in pay and other economic policies.

Granma published a note at the end of October announcing the extension until December 15th, giving companies more time to adapt to the new pay system, nearly five months after the initial August 1st deadline.

Trabajadores, citing sources from the Ministry of Work and Social Security, outlined the “principle problem” delaying the new pay system as the lack of studies dealing with the organization of workplaces that would serve as the basis for how salaries based on results would be determined.

Furthermore, it says that “few directors and bosses of the companies and institutes that will participate, have been involved and contributed to the process from its conception” and that a “sufficient number of union leaders have not been included in the process either.”

A national inspection to assure that companies are complying will take place in February.

You can read the EFE article here (in Spanish).

Cuba continues to crack down on hurricane-related crimes

Tribuna, a government run newspaper, revealed that officials have prosecuted over 1,200 cases of hurricane-related crimes in the Havana area in the first half of November, news agencies reported.

Products stolen from the state in the aftermath of the hurricane included everything from gasoline and cement to rice, powdered milk and toothpaste, the Associated Press reported.

Thirty-four percent of those convicted for fraud, theft of government property and other crimes following the hurricanes were given jail sentences. Arrests were primarily for possessing large stolen stocks of goods the government had reserved for hurricane relief projects or for heavily subsidized state rations.

The Tribuna said of those arrested, about 8 percent were sentenced to work programs, 16 percent were given fines, 4 percent received probation and the rest were absolved, or their cases filed away.

More than 100 illegal factories, 60 clandestine workshops, and 200 houses used as black market stores were discovered and dismantled in a raid that took place over the last month, the EFE reported.

“In the city of Havana, we are in combat,” the Tribuna article declared, saying the police actions were “in defense of the interests of the majority of the people.”

It also warned that the black market “can put the very existence of the Revolution in danger.”

You can read the Associated Press article here.

You can read the EFE article here (in Spanish).

Recommended Reading:

The Case for a New Cuba Policy: Why diplomatic and humanitarian engagement would be good politics and great foreign policy, Jake Colvin

“The Case for a New Cuba Policy,” written by Jake Colvin, Vice President of Global Affairs for the National Foreign Trade Council and a Fellow with the New Ideas Fund, “provides a roadmap for the Obama Administration to fundamentally reform the United States’ failed policy of isolating Cuba,” said Cal Dooley, a former Member of Congress from California.

AP Analysis: Obama free to change US-Cuba policy

Associated Press writer Anita Snow writes that “Barack Obama will be the first American president in nearly 50 years to have a relatively free hand in deciding whether to ease punitive Cold War-era policies toward communist Cuba, and the foreign policy team he announced this week seems predisposed to make it happen.”

Around the Region:

Human rights issues remain high on Jim McGovern’s agenda, Worcester Telegram & Gazette

Chavez launches new bid for reelection, the Reuters new agency

Ecuador President Heads for First-Ever Official Visit to Iran, AFP

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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