Progress! Obama takes first step by reuniting Cuban families

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president who saw this sadistic policy for what it was, restrictions against Cuban-American travel are beginning to be repealed.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.

Omnibus passes, Cuba sanctions loosened

The U.S. Senate passed, and President Obama signed into law, a $410 billion spending bill which included provisions to loosen restrictions on the right of Cuban Americans to travel to Cuba and to make it easier for U.S. producers to sell agricultural goods to Cuba.

Several important things occurred during the Senate debate and after the President enacted the legislation which command our attention – because of what they might mean for the process of making permanent and positive changes in the policy to come.

What was the legislation? Congress failed to pass budgets for every federal agency to fund their activities in 2009 including for the Treasury Department.  This spending bill that Congress debated was written last year and was needed to keep the operations of government going this year.

As written, it contained a prohibition on Treasury from using funds to “administer, implement or enforce the family travel-related prohibitions that President Bush signed into law in 2004” or to “administer, implement or enforce” a new interpretation of “cash in advance” payments for agricultural goods that was introduced in 2005.  The bill also included a provision requiring the Treasury Department to authorize, by general license, travel to Cuba for the marketing and sale of agricultural and medical goods.

What happened before the Senate acted? Three historic supporters of the Cuba embargo – Senators Mel Martinez and Bill Nelson from Florida and Senator Bob Menendez from New Jersey -threatened to stop this budget bill dead in its tracks because it included these modest revisions to loosen the Cuba policy.  Without the votes of Nelson and Menendez, it is likely that the bill would not have passed.  After a blistering series of Senate speeches and press statements, Tim Geithner, the Treasury Secretary, sent letters to the Senators explaining how he viewed the agriculture language in the legislation, and Nelson and Menendez dropped their objections to the bill.

Geithner wrote in the letters that the Treasury Department would require an affidavit before travel, stating the purpose of the visit, documentation regarding meetings held in Cuba, as well as money spent.

At first, the Treasury letters left it unclear how the Obama administration would interpret the bill.  Several news organizations reported that the Senators were swayed by assurances contained in the Treasury letters that the government would interpret the new law so strictly that it would be ineffective.

However, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Cuba trade experts say these assurances are themselves not meaningful – because U.S. officials almost never check documentation on Cuba and have no way to check on its accuracy. Also, American companies with legitimate business in Cuba have never had much trouble obtaining the special licenses to travel there.

“I haven’t seen one turned down,” said Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Associates, a Washington company that handles travel licenses.

Members of Congress who supported the agriculture provisions reacted sharply to the Treasury letters.  Senator Dodd chastised Treasury for its actions and Congressman Delahunt has asked to meet with Secretary Geithner personally about the handling of the legislation and the interpretation of what Congress wrote in the bill.

What about the provisions on Cuban-American travel? This is where the really big news happened.  Just hours after President Obama signed the legislation into law, the Treasury Department issued a new set of regulations on the rights of Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba that actually went beyond the narrow language contained in the appropriations bill.

In its March 11 guidance, Treasury announced that it was implementing the family travel provision of the Act by issuing a general license to authorize U.S. citizens and residents to travel to Cuba to visit an expanded category of “close relatives” who are nationals of Cuba, including “any individual related to the traveler by blood, marriage, or adoption who is no more than three generations removed from the traveler or from a common ancestor with the traveler.
In effect, Cuban Americans will no longer have to obtain Treasury authorization to travel to the island to visit their families, and their annual visits will not be subject to limitations in duration.  These changes effectively restore the authorization for family travel to Cuba that existed prior to the June 16, 2004 amendments by the Bush administration.

While advocates for travel to Cuba welcomed the news, they cautioned that it is short of what President Barack Obama promised during his campaign:  no restrictions on travel or family remittances whatsoever.

”This is a step in the right direction…but this is not a presidential executive order removing all restrictions,” Silvia Wilhelm, executive director of the Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, told the Miami Herald.

”This is positive news, but it falls short of what we wanted,” said Carlos Lazo, a Cuban veteran of the Iraq War and recipient of the Bronze Star who made headlines after being denied the right to visit his children in Cuba upon returning from fighting in the war.

”I hope this is just the first and smallest of the many steps to be taken in correcting an erred policy that’s gone awry for 50 years,” he told the Miami Herald on Thursday. “As for me, I will visit my family as soon as possible.”

Fears that the administration would not follow through on President Obama’s campaign promise were quelled on Thursday when a White House spokeswoman hinted more changes would come.

”The guidance issued yesterday by the Treasury Department was issued pursuant to a law passed by Congress,” White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai said Thursday, the Miami Herald reported.

”The president was not involved in the drafting of that provision, and it does not take the place of his own review of family visits and family cash remittances,” she added.

“I think it’s another indication of the Obama administration’s seriousness about reforming this policy toward Cuba,” said Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas. “I don’t think this is the last you are going to hear from the administration.”

Is there more to the story on agriculture sales? We believe that Treasury will act, as it did with the family travel rules, to clarify how it will handle the new Congressional directives on agriculture sales, no matter what the Senators initially said about their letters and the assurances they received.

According to Jake Colvin, Vice President of Global Trade Issues at the National Foreign Trade Council, Secretary Geithner’s letters do not indicate that the Obama administration intends to water down the Cuba provisions in the omnibus.

We expect to hear more from Treasury in the coming weeks about agriculture and more from President Obama about fulfilling his campaign promises for Cuban-American travel.

For relatives, travel to Cuba just got easier, Miami Herald

US-CUBA: NGOs Hail Congressional Moves to Ease Embargo, IPS

Cuba travel moves fall short of Obama pledge: group, Reuters

Washington eases travel restrictions to Cuba, Miami Herald

Cracks open in U.S. embargo of Cuba, St. Petersburg Times

Here you can read an analysis of the provisions and the process by Jake Colvin

Statement by Congressman José E. Serrano on the easing the regulations

New regulations posted on the Treasury Department website

Letter from Treasury Secretary Geithner to Senator Bill Nelson about the provisions

Letter from Treasury Secretary Geithner to Senator Robert Menendez about the provisions

Letter from Senator Dodd expressing his concern that Treasury would limit the Cuba-related provisions in the bill

Human Rights Watch on Cuba travel restrictions

Human Rights Watch in a news release Wednesday said Congress took a positive step toward dismantling travel restrictions that forced separation of Cuban families.

“Cutting off funding for these cruel restrictions is a step in the right direction,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, the Americas director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

However, Vivanco added that President Obama should follow up by issuing an executive order to eliminate all restrictions on travel and remittances for Cuban-Americans.

“The limits on travel to Cuba have failed completely to bring change to Cuba,” Vivanco said.

In a new video interview with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Vivanco said that Human Rights Watch fully supports the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.

You can see the interview with Jose Miguel Vivanco here.

You can read the Human Rights Watch press release here.

Cuba reiterates that preconditions are a non-starter

Thomas Omestad of U.S. News and World Report recently interviewed Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, director of the North America division of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, who said that Cuba’s government wants dialogue with the U.S. and is waiting to see what the Obama administration’s policy will be, but that Cuba will not accept any preconditions.

Vidal ruled out Cuba undertaking political changes in exchange for improved ties with the U.S., calling such a proposition “a nonstarter.”

During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama said he favored “direct” diplomacy with Cuban officials, but also vowed to keep the embargo as “leverage” to encourage Cuba to take steps toward democracy.

Vidal said Cuban officials are still unsure of what kind of policy the Obama administration will have, but “so far, nothing has changed.” She said that “Cuba is ready” for a dialogue in the manner that Cuban President Raúl Castro has outlined: “gesture for gesture,” but that Cuba needs “to be treated as an equal, to be treated as a sovereign, independent country.”

“Cuba is waiting for the United States to rectify its policy toward Cuba. . . . Cuba is serious and could be a very serious partner of the United States,” said Vidal.

She added that Cuba would like to see an end  to the U.S. government-funded TV and Radio Martí, which attempt to send hostile news to the island, which Cuba “has been very successful in blocking.”

You can read the U.S. News and World Report article here.


Lula to push Obama on Cuba

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is set to discuss U.S. policy towards Cuba, Venezuela and other countries in Latin America when he meets with U.S. President Barack Obama on Saturday, the Reuters news agency reported.

Aides for Lula have said that he will urge Obama to open talks with leftist governments in Cuba and Venezuela, and end the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba. Lula has consistently criticized the embargo, which according to him “no longer makes sense – neither economically nor politically. In fact, there is no reason for it.”

“It’s impossible not to talk about the Cuban embargo. It’s indicative of U.S. policy toward the region,” Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim said on Wednesday.

The U.S. image in Latin America deteriorated under President Bush as the result of the Iraq War, the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and other unpopular policies.

“What I want is for the United States to look at Latin America and South America with a friendly eye,” Lula said last week. “We are a democratic and peaceful continent and the United States should look at production and development, not only drug-trafficking and organized crime.”

You can read the Reuters article here.

South American Defense ministers ask Obama to end embargo

South American defense ministers urged the U.S. to end the travel and trade embargo against Cuba this week at a meeting in Santiago, Chile, the Associated Press reported.

The issue was not on the agenda for the South American Defense Council’s inaugural meeting, but Brazilian Defense Minister Neslo Jobim raised it for discussion.

“A key element for the United States to have a better relationship with South America is a change in its policy toward Cuba,” said Jobim, and according to the Associated Press, several of his colleagues quickly agreed.

Despite cold war history, Cuba “now poses no risk whatsoever” to the United States, said Uruguay Defense Minister Jose Bayardi.

Argentine Defense Minister Nilda Garre said that the Obama administration offers the best opportunity for Cuba to be readmitted to the Organization of American States.

“Today, we see favorable conditions with the new president in the United States to put an end to this discriminatory and unjust situation,” she said. “This is a pending issue in our region.”

You can read the Associated Press article here.

Over 1,000 Economists and Academics ask Obama to lift embargo

More than 1,500 academics and economists from over 50 countries signed a petition to President Barack Obama, asking him to lift the economic embargo on Cuba and to free five Cuban agents imprisoned in the United States on accusations of spying, El Financiero reported.

The signees were all participants of the 11th International Gathering of Economists on Globalization and Development Problems in Havana last week, which included 10 Nobel prize winners, the President of East Timor, José Ramos Horta, members of the Mexican and Panamanian legislatures and the ex-President of Ireland, Mary Robinson.

The petition, which was read by the Vice-President of the Mexican Senate, Yeidckol Polevnsky, during the final session, called on Obama to listen to “the outcry of all humanity asking him to end the absurd embargo” against Cuba.

You can read the Financiero article here.

Insulza speaks out again about Cuba’s return to the OAS

José Miguel Insulza, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), said again this week that Cuba’s return to that body should be discussed, EFE reported.

Referring to the 1962 resolution that suspended Cuba from the OAS, Insulza told reporters last Friday that “it’s an obstacle that would be good to remove in order to initiate a dialogue with Cuba within a multilateral framework.”

According to Insulza, if Cuba is welcomed back into the OAS and decides that it would like to return, it would have to be the result of “a discussion and a conversation, it wouldn’t be an immediate thing after 50 years of absence.”

Speaking about relations with Cuba in the region, Insulza once again stressed the need for various policies and a dialogue.

“I have spoken about it in every country and in general there is a certain idea that it’s necessary to vary policies in respect to Cuba (…) the United States has a lot to say, nobody has the intention of forcing things or pressuring anyone, but we need to maintain a dialogue,” he said.

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


Raúl Castro says lack of women in high-level politics in Cuba is a “disgrace”

President Raúl Castro said on Sunday that it’s a “disgrace” that participation by women in Cuba’s political life at the “decision-making” level is not as high as it should be, state media reported.

“It is a disgrace after 50 years of the Revolution, with all that we have advanced in some areas, that there are only a few women leaders in different areas,” said Castro, who’s wife, Vilma Espin, ran the Federation of Cuban Women until she died in 2007.

His remarks were made at a Convention of the Federation of Cuban Women, which took place on International Women’s Day.

Castro also said that he had instructed Vice President Jose Ramon Machado and the Communist Party to look for ways for women to occupy “their rightful decision-making places in all of the country’s political, economic and social life.”

You can read the Agence France-Presse article here.

Spanish Solidarity organization says three Ladies in White arrested

A Spanish Solidarity organization said Monday that three members of the Ladies in White, a group comprised of relatives of Cuban political prisoners, were arrested in Havana during an event to mark International Women’s Day, EFE reported.

The Spanish NGO was demanding the release of Maritza Castro, Neris Castillo and Ivon Malleza, but it was unclear whether they had already been released.

“The relatives of the prisoners of conscience were newly repressed by State Security agents who tried to impede the participation of several of them in an event held March 8 in commemoration of International Women’s Day,” the NGO said in a statement sent to EFE.

According to the statement, the Ladies in White are organizing activities for March 17-22 within “the framework of the sixth anniversary of the repressive wave known as Black Spring … to demand the release of the prisoners of conscience in Cuba.”

You can read the EFE article here.

Operation Miracle has helped 1.5 million people

Over 1.5 million people from 35 different countries have benefitted from free eye surgery offered by Cuba and Venezuela under the Operation Miracle program since it was launched in 2004, Cuban state media reported.

More than 1.33 million of the people treated were foreign patients, 266,743 of whom had their eye surgery performed in centers in Cuba. The other operations were performed in one of the 60 ophthalmologic centers Cuba has set up in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, Mali, Angola and other countries.

According to the World Health Organization, the fact that there are over 37 million people in the world that are blind as the result of preventable eye diseases, over 1.5 million of which are children under the age of 16, sparked Cuban President Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to develop the program.

Cuba has over 72,000 doctors working in over 100 countries, according to the Reuters news agency.

You can read a Prensa Latina article here.

You can read a Reuters article here (in Spanish).

Recommended Reading:

Forget about Fidel, Newsweek

For relatives, travel to Cuba just got easier, Miami Herald

That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution
By Lars Schoultz

We would like to recommend Lars Schoultz’s new comprehensive chronicle of U.S. policy toward the Cuban Revolution.

Schoultz argues that despite the overwhelming advantage in size and power that the United States enjoys over its neighbor, the Cubans’ historical insistence on their right to self-determination has inevitably irritated American administrations, influenced both U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy, and led to a freeze in diplomatic relations of unprecedented longevity. Schoultz’s analysis illuminates what has been a highly unproductive foreign policy and points to fresh prospects as a new century of U.S.-Cuban relations begins.

The book is available through the University of North Carolina press and can be previewed and purchased here.

Recommended Viewing:

In a new video interview with the CDA, Jose Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, says that his organization fully supports the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.

Around the Region:

El Salvador will have a presidential election on Sunday, and after 20 years in power, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, faces the first real challenge to its hold on the government from Mauricio Funes, a former television talk show host who is the candidate for the left-wing F.M.L.N.

El Salvador is Poised to Break with the Past; Is the U.S. Ready to Change its Policy Toward Latin America? Mark Engler, Foreign Policy in Focus

Elections in El Salvador Invoke Rivalries of Civil War Years, NY Times

A win for El Salvador leftist appears less certain, LA Times

Until next week,
The Cuba Central Team

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