Cuba Policy Update: The Ground is Shifting Beneath our Feet

April 24, 2009
Dear Friend:

The debate on reforming U.S. Cuba policy continued to gain momentum this week.

The Summit of the Americas concluded with strong statements by leaders in the region that days of Cuba’s exclusion must come to an end.  President Obama, while reaffirming his vision of political reform and human rights, conceded that the embargo had failed.  Secretary of State Clinton in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee said if the Congress were to pass legislation ending the embargo “the administration will abide by that.”  As Dr. Julia Sweig said this week, the ground of this debate is shifting beneath our feet.

In fact, the policy process is lagging behind public opinion.  As surveys showed this week, President Barack Obama is attracting robust levels of support from the Cuban-American community – not only for his actions repealing limits on Cuban-American travel but also for his job approval ratings.  Another survey of Americans showed huge amounts of support for restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba and for repealing travel restrictions on everyone.

Great additions to the debate were made this week on the op-ed page of the Washington Post and by an intrepid policy activist who made important recommendations for U.S.-Cuba engagement.  When we call Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s piece on Robert Kennedy’s stand for full travel, and Anya Landau’s Lexington Institute Report on Options for Engagement “recommended reading,” we mean it.

This week in Cuba news…

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Obama shifts policy, Cuba reacts, Clinton welcomes Cuba’s overtures: change is coming

April 17, 2009

Dear Friend:

President Barack Obama made history this week by freeing Cuban-Americans from restrictions on their rights to visit their families on Cuba and to provide them with financial support.  In doing so, he set into motion forces that we believe will hasten the end of all travel and trade restrictions.
We offer this week a comprehensive report on what the President did, how people reacted, and the impact it will have on the domestic debate over Cuba policy and the regional debate on how our country relates to the rest of this hemisphere.
But first, these things need to be said.
President Obama acted courageously during his campaign when he offered to loosen the embargo, not tighten it like so many other candidates had done, and his wisdom in taking this step was rewarded by voters in Florida and across our country.
The actions announced by the White House -primarily, eliminating travel and financial restrictions on Cuban-Americans – are deeply humanitarian acts to reunite and help Cuban families who were divided by George Bush and his insensate political tactics in the 2004 campaign.  Obama’s decision to repeal these restrictions was received in Miami and Havana with great joy, a joy we share.
As a measure of how quickly the political climate is changing, the reaction by Cuban-American Members of Congress, once a proudly solid block, showed divisions, cracks, and uncertainty.  They are reading the handwriting on the wall about where the policy is headed and it showed in their comments and in what they didn’t say as well.
While the President made further progress on Cuba conditional on actions in response by Cuba’s government, his decisions were seen, domestically and internationally, as an overdue concession that the policy of regime change is over, that the embargo hasn’t worked and will never work, and must be taken down.
Even if he were to try and control them, Obama has clearly unleashed forces – fifty years of pent-up demand for change – that will take on momentum of their own.   While patience and a step-by-step approach are needed, while hiccups and hesitation, missteps even provocations must be anticipated, this much seems clear to us:  we are closer to a decisive change in policy than ever.
The fact is:  the president cannot stop here.  A policy that consists only of Cuban-American travel isn’t a Cuba policy and it’s not sustainable substantively or politically.
Travel just for Cuban-Americans, travel for some and not for all, doesn’t help any other U.S. citizens, black, white, yellow, brown or red, whose constitutional claim to their travel rights are every bit as legitimate as those of the Cuban-American community.  It doesn’t help virtually any Afro-Cubans because only a tiny fraction of Cuban-Americans who could provide financial support to their relatives on Cuba are black.   It tells Americans of all backgrounds, businessmen and workers, cultural figures and students, religious groups or tourists of any kind, that they cannot contribute to openness in Cuba or promote American values there.
It keeps in place a policy whereby Americans can travel to Iran or North Korea but cannot get to Cuba without a license.  It does nothing to please our allies in the region, or to address their concerns about the U.S. trying to deny Cuba’s place in the Hemisphere, nor does it speak to the anger of those who admire Cuba’s independence and sovereignty and despise the actions we take to diminish those facts.
No president since Lyndon Johnson has spoken with greater clarity and understanding about race in America than Barack Obama.   The Senate candidate who told his party’s convention “there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” the Presidential candidate who said, “I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together,” who said that it was seared in his “genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts – that out of many we are truly one,” will not, and cannot, rest with a policy that distributes travel rights based on the ethnic make-up of the traveler.
For these reasons and more, we are compelled to believe that more changes will come.  That Americans of all backgrounds will be pressed into service as ambassadors of good will by the President.  That he will see the value of engaging more and more of  us in a two-way conversation with the Cuban people that reflects the reality that we have as much to learn from them as they have to learn from us.  That he will see the responses that have already come from Cuba as an inducement to do more.  That he will learn from his colleagues at the Summit of the Americas that they want this to be a beginning and not an ending.  That he will do more because doing more is so obviously in America’s interests.
President Obama doesn’t know everything.  He doesn’t know, for example, that Cubans can now worship freely in their churches.  But there is one unmistakable truth about President Barack Obama – he can hear and respond to the most distant calls of history that are otherwise muted to those without his gifts of leadership.
That is why we’re convinced that this is just the beginning.

Cuba debate crescendo, Drum Roll to the Summit, and 70% of Americans want a Different tune

April 10, 2009

Dear Friend:

Happy holidays to all.
The debate over changing Cuba policy reached a new crescendo this week thanks to critical developments.
The Congressional Black Caucus just completed a historic trip to Cuba, during which their delegation was the first U.S. group to meet with Raúl Castro since he became president and see Fidel Castro since he took sick and left his post.  We cover the CBC’s reactions to the visit and the harsh criticism they received from opponents of changing U.S. Cuba policy.
From crescendos to drum rolls – the roll-up to the Summit of the Americas intensified as did the debate over Cuba’s omission from the formal agenda and it’s near certain dominance over the news coverage about the Summit.  We report on the administration’s desire to change the subject, the region’s insistence on talking about Cuba, and provide access to some of the most important thinking about the Summit in our report.
It’s official, kind of… Administration spokesmen and news agency reporting continued to confirm that President Obama will announce a change in Cuba policy before departing for the Summit next week.  We don’t know when, and we don’t know what he’s going to say, but he will at least (we’re told) make good on his campaign pledge to eliminate restrictions on Cuban-American travel and family support.  Is there more?  More is certainly needed.  Stay tuned.
These developments – a fantastic, new CNN poll, a new indictment against Luis Posada Carriles, a bunch of economic news out of Cuba, our shout out to the Council on Foreign Relations, and an immigration report that will make Lou Dobbs see red – are all here!
This week in Cuba news.

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April 3, 2009

April 3, 2009


Momentum in Washington for eliminating travel ban to Cuba

According to the Washington Post, “there is new momentum in Washington for eliminating the ban on most U.S. travel to the island nation and for reexamining the severe limitations on U.S.-Cuban economic exchanges.”

When asked about the prospect of Americans to travel to Cuba before the end of the year, Sarah Stephens, said: “It is within the realms of possibility.” (The Guardian)

In a Senate news conference on Tuesday and a House news conference on Thursday, a bi-partisan group of lawmakers introduced The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act; a bill that would extend the right to travel to Cuba to all Americans.  Proponents of the bill claim that the proposal will not only grant American citizens their right to travel and boost American commerce in the region, but that it will also weaken the Castro regime and make a difference for democracy in Cuba, Fox News reported.

The bill has 121 sponsors in the House and 20 in the Senate, including Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. The list of sponsors also include eight Democratic committee chairmen) House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., supports it, her office said, and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said Tuesday he believes the Senate has enough votes to pass it.

“I think we have finally reached a new (level) on this issue,” Dorgan said.

At both news conferences, Cuban-Americans and Congressmen issued strong arguments for the passage of the bill to rooms packed with journalists.

Bill Delahunt, a Massachusetts Democratic congressman, said the bill was “critical to the freedom of both Americans and Cubans”. (Telegraph)

The legislators were joined by both the United States Chamber of Commerce and the American Farm Bureau Federation in their support for lifting travel restrictions to the small island nation.

“The US embargo on Cuba is a 50-year failure, and lifting the ban on travel is a good first step toward a more rational policy,” said Chamber of Commerce officer Myron Brilliant in a press release issued this week.

Human rights groups have also joined their voices in support of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act.  Jose Miguel Vivanco, the executive director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, expressed his support for the bill in a statement that argued the current policy “has neither weakened the Cuban government” nor improved conditions for Cuba’s political prisoners, reported the Miami Herald.

U.S. Members of Congress to visit Cuba this weekend

A delegation of U.S. representatives will arrive in Cuba this afternoon, MSNBC News reported.

The trip is being led by Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) and Carolyn Kilpatrick (MI), who will be joined by Maxine Waters (CA), Mell Watt (NC), Bobby Rush (IL), Emanuel Cleaver (MO), Shelia Jackson Lee (TX), Mike Honda (CA), Marcia Fudge (OH), Nydia Velazquez (NY), Laura Richardson (CA), Diane Watson (CA), and Andre Carson (IN).

“The election of President Barack Obama presents a great new opportunity to rethink U.S. foreign policy in many regions of the world,” Lee said in a statement yesterday. “America’s harsh approach toward our nearest Caribbean neighbor divides families, closes an important market to struggling U.S. farmers, harasses our allies and is based on antiquated Cold War-era thinking.”

The members are expected to be in Cuba for at least four days and will deliver a report to the White House with their findings.

You can read the MSNBC News article here.

VP Biden: “transition” in Cuba policy needed, no plans to lift embargo

During a visit last weekend to Chile, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden was asked if the United States is planning to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, the Associated Press reported.

Biden said the U.S. is not planning to scrap the embargo, but that a “transition” is needed in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

The “Cuban people should determine their own fate and they should be able to live in freedom,” Biden said, adding that he was in Chile “to talk about the economy, not Cuba.”

Two days later in Costa Rica, Biden said “Washington expects a ‘firm commitment’ that Cuba is moving towards democracy and respect for human rights before lifting the US embargo on the island, the Agence France-Presse reported.

“Over in the next decade and sooner there is likely to be — and needs to be — changes in the relationship between Cuba and the Unites States, and the United States and Cuba, as well as with the hemisphere,” Biden said at a press conference on Monday.

“President Obama and I campaigned on a platform that said we are willing to reach out,” Biden said, “and I think you will see us reach out.”

You can read the Associated Press article here.

You can read the Agence France-Presse article here.

Fidel Castro reacts to Biden’s comments

Fidel Castro quickly reacted to Biden’s comments, publishing a “reflection” in which he wrote Biden’s “professional lamentations make one feel sorry for him, especially when there isn’t one Latin American or Caribbean government that doesn’t perceive [the embargo] a burden of the past.”

“Anyone reading the statements of the devout Catholic Joe Biden in Viña del Mar, discounting any lifting of the economic blockade of Cuba, and yearning for an internal transition that, in our country, would be frankly counterrevolutionary, is in for a shock,” Castro wrote.

“What are the underlying ethics in the policy of the United States? How much Christian content is left in the political thinking of Vice President Joe Biden?” Castro questioned.

You can read Fidel Castro’s reflection here.

Judge dismisses Cuban lawsuit on Havana Club trademark

A Cuban lawsuit over the termination of U.S. trademark rights for its Havana Club rum was dismissed on Monday by a federal judge, the Associated Press reported.

Although Cuba’s Havana Club can not be sold in the U.S. due to the embargo, the company received a trademark for the name in 1976, anticipating opportunities to sell the rum in the U.S. after the lifting of the embargo. However, three years ago the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control refused to allow renewal of the trademark, causing Cubaexport, Cuba’s state-owned export enterprise, to file a lawsuit.

The ruling is a victory for Bacardi, which has attempted to take over the brand name as its own in the United States and feared that Cuba’s Havana Club could become a threat to their rum sales in the United States after the lifting of the embargo. Bacardi lobbied hard to get Congress to pass a law in 1998 that prevents the registration or renewal of trademarks connected with companies nationalized by the Cuban government. That law was cited in Monday’s ruling.

You can read the Associated Press article here.

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More Calls for “Travel for All”

April 3, 2009

Dear Friend:

According to late-breaking news bulletins, President Barack Obama will fulfill his campaign promise and remove all restrictions on the rights of Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and to visit and support their families.

This is an enormously important act of healing because it will end the delays, the bureaucratic hurdles, and the pointless limitations on the ability of families to visit and support each other.  It is our hope that this is a day of profound joy in Miami and elsewhere across our country where families here with families in Cuba can celebrate and look forward to closer ties very soon.

While these travel restrictions are properly viewed in the Western Hemisphere as features of our domestic politics, the fact that President Obama took this unilateral decision just days before the Summit of the Americas meeting in Trinidad and Tobago is good for U.S. relations with the region.

There is more to be done.  Under our laws, the president does not have the authority to repeal the restrictions on all Americans; that authority rests with the Congress, and is time for Congress to act now that the President has done his part.  Neither President Obama nor the legislative branch should be satisfied with a two-tiered system of constitutional rights for travel to Cuba, under which Americans of Cuban descent can travel to the island, but the rest of us remain sidelined.
What we need is not travel for some, but travel for all.

This was the message that echoed from one end of the Capitol to the other this week as Members of the House and Senate spoke on behalf of the Freedom to Travel legislation introduced in both chambers with a strong and growing list of supporters in both bodies.

It will take a great deal of work for us to secure these travel rights, but we should savor the step that our country has taken, thanks to a president who had promises to keep…and kept them.

There is a lot of Cuba news to report this week, but the great shot of momentum that our campaign for full travel rights got leads the news.

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