Momentum: Senate/House Plan “Travel for All” press events in Washington; Justice Department fights anti-travel law in Florida

March 27, 2009

Dear Friend:

Watch this space.
Next week, legislators in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives will formally unveil legislation to repeal restrictions on the right of all Americans to travel to Cuba and announce long and growing lists of cosponsors for the measures in both Chambers.
These important displays of momentum – coming just before President Obama travels to a meeting of Latin American and Caribbean leaders, the Summit of the America – demonstrate that removing travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans, as important and just as that is, is only the beginning, and restoring the constitutional rights of all Americans to travel freely and without restrictions to Cuba is the goal that Congress must pursue.
The Senate legislation, S, 428, the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, will be discussed in a press conference on Tuesday by U.S. Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Michael Enzi (R-WY) and representatives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and Human Rights Watch.   A separate House event will also take place later in the week.
We’ll be posting statements and news about both bills as developments warrant.
Meanwhile, Cuba took a new and important step to reform its economy by loosening restrictions on expenditures by state companies.  Fidel Castro attacked foreign news agencies in his latest reflection for misreporting the retirement of two historical figures from Raúl Castro’s government.  Dissidents also made news this week, for a hunger strike outside of Havana and a rift splitting members of the independent library movement.
In the U.S., the Department of Justice sided with travel service providers in Florida against a state law designed to stop them from trying to sell legal travel services to Cuba.  And agriculture sales made news too – with new legislation introduced in the House to ease sales, exports from Texas rising, and hopes for additional purchases of rice by Cuba rising as well.
This week in Cuba news…

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Cuba-Central America relations thaw, Summit Speculation heats up, Black Spring remembered

March 20, 2009
Dear Friend:

This week, we journeyed to El Salvador and watched a remarkably peaceful election take place.  Just seventeen years after their peace accords signaled an end to a bloody and brutal civil war, supporters of the incumbent ARENA party and its rival, the FMLN, voted together and accepted the results of an historic presidential election together.  Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the FMLN, will be sworn in as El Salvador’s president on June 1.  Funes ran as the candidate of (safe) change and consciously modeled his campaign after Barack Obama’s.

The people of El Salvador deserve great credit for rejecting political violence and for voting their hopes rather than fears for the future.

In his first foreign policy pledge as president-elect, Mr. Funes promised that El Salvador would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1959.  Costa Rica, which suspended its relations with Cuba in the 1960s, promised to do the same.   These developments, joined by the actions of Brazil’s president Lula, and other leading actors in Latin America and the Caribbean portend an important challenge to US diplomacy in the coming weeks.

Regional unity with Cuba – and a regional commitment to urge the United States to break its embargo against the island – is a theme that will greet Vice President Biden when he meets with Central American countries at the end of March, and face President Obama when he attends the Summit of the Americas beginning April 17.

As President Obama prepares to meet heads of State from the region for the first time, the issue of U.S. policy toward Cuba will be before him and he will have to address the outlier status of our foreign policy, our isolation, compared with the policies of engagement now unanimously adopted by the nations of the region.  He is confronting a point of challenge, but also a moment of great opportunity.

President Obama is highly regarded in the region as a figure who can transform the image of the United States and engage with the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean from a position of mutual respect, a sharp departure from the diplomacy of our recent past.   He can pursue the values of his presidency, and earn the U.S. a new hearing in the region, by modernizing the approach of U.S. foreign policy – his foreign policy – toward the people of Cuba.   Like Mauricio Funes, he can borrow a page from his own campaign.

Follow our news summary to the very end, and we will link you to powerful expressions of hope from the people of El Salvador who talked to our camera on the day of their historic presidential election.  In today’s summary, you will encounter the other stories that made Cuba news this week – the developments in the region, the preparations for the Summit, the commemoration of Black Spring, and EU cooperation with Cuba on human rights.  These stories…and more.

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Progress! Obama takes first step by reuniting Cuban families

March 13, 2009

Dear Friend:

Nearly five years ago, in the heat of a presidential campaign, President Bush put into place one of the nastiest and inhumane elements of our policy toward Cuba – restrictions on the ability of Cuban-Americans to visit and support their families on the island.  Nothing more than vote-scrounging and domestic politics was at play.  This action had no affect on Cuba’s government; it simply devastated the families who were divided, one from the other.  We had previously placed no such restrictions on families during the Cold War or later against those here with relations in the so-called Axis of Evil countries.  This was truly the triumph of politics over everything else – our history, our values, our common sense.

Thanks to five years of steady work by the real advocates of human rights in Congress, and thanks to the election of a new president who saw this sadistic policy for what it was, restrictions against Cuban-American travel are beginning to be repealed.  Many Members of Congress deserve recognition here, but we want to mention Representative Jose Serrano, who had the foresight to write this language into the Treasury budget and stuck with it.

To be sure these steps are modest – new rules put into place by the Obama administration will return to Cuban-Americans their right to visit their families once a year as they could before President Bush’s reelection campaign.  But the significance of what happened this week should not be overlooked.

First and foremost, these changes are meaningful to Cuban families, on both sides of the Florida Straits, bearing the wounds of our ruptured relations all these decades, who suffered additional indignities of separation since 2004 who will now have new opportunities to visit with each other again.  This is certainly worthy of celebration, although we must also remember the vast number of Cubans on the island who are not affected by these changes and who have no external sources of emotional or financial support.

Second, we must note the political progress being made.  For the first time in nearly a decade, Congress passed a law, signed by the President, to loosen the embargo, and the traditional obstacles to progress – the supporters of the most stringent Cuba policy possible – couldn’t stop this good legislation from passing.  Even better, after the dust from the debate in Congress settled, the White House issued a statement saying that there is more to come.  There should be, because there is much more that needs to be done.

President Obama promised in his campaign to remove all restrictions against Cuban-Americans to visit and support their families.  We expect him to make good on that promise and to keep his mind and his options open to do more.  He also should encourage the Congress to adopt legislation making it legal for all Americans to travel to Cuba.  He should engage with the Cubans to solve problems that matter to both countries – migration, drug trafficking, energy development, and the like.  He should take up Cuba’s government on its many offers for negotiations and diplomacy.  These steps would be good for the Cuban people, good for America’s relationships in the region, and serve our country’s national interest.

It would be smart for him to make these moves soon – immediately, as he promised in the campaign – but certainly before he meets the leaders of the region at the Summit of the Americas in April.

It is on the heels of all of this progress, that we summarize the week’s news about Cuba and U.S. policy.  And what a week it was.

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Shake up in Cuba, Slow down in Congress, show of support at Trinity College

March 6, 2009

Dear Friend:

It was a week for shake-ups in Cuba, a slow-down in Congress, and a big show of support for a new U.S. policy at Cuba Consultation Day.

After a year in office as Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro made a major shake-up in his cabinet that cost three of Cuba’s best known leaders their jobs in government while also starting the process of streamlining the nation’s government by consolidating ministries. Several officials with prior experience in the military rose to new positions as a consequence of these changes.  As usual, comments by outside analysts in several media reports focused on what these changes could mean for the United States, but the larger issue is what do they mean for Cuba?

Last week, we wrote about the continuing appropriations bill containing language meant to ease restrictions on Cuban-Americans and U.S. agriculture and threats against the measure by Senator Bob Menendez.  This week, that bill bogged down in Congressional bickering over “earmarks,” but the Cuba language remained intact.  While the language is largely symbolic, enactment of the language would give our work to remove travel restrictions additional momentum.

Scores of grassroots activists gathered at the Cuba Consultation this week, to organize their message and then to descend on Capitol Hill to urge their home state lawmakers to support legislation to provide travel for all Americans.  The turn-out was impressive and their energy was palpable.   It was a great gathering to advance our cause.

In these reports and others – following developments in energy, advocacy, diplomacy, and security – you can catch up with our summary of a really consequential week for Cuba and U.S. policy toward the island.

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