According to the New York Times
, the announcement involved “the most significant shift in United States policy toward Cuba in decades, and it is a reversal of the hard line taken by President George W. Bush.” The shift also represented a long overdue recognition by the United States government that for fifty years its regime change policy had failed to dislodge Cuba’s government.
The decisions taken by the President – announced at the White House by presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs and Dan Restrepo, a National Security Council staff member -included:
- Lifting all restrictions on transactions related to the travel of family members to Cuba.
- Removing restrictions on remittances to family members in Cuba.
- Authorizing U.S. telecommunications network providers to enter into agreements to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite telecommunications facilities linking the United States and Cuba.
- Licensing U.S. telecommunications service providers to enter into roaming service agreements with Cuba’s telecommunications service providers.
- Licensing U.S. satellite radio and satellite television service providers to engage in transactions necessary to provide services to customers in Cuba.
- Licensing persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to activate and pay U.S. and third-country service providers for telecommunications, satellite radio and satellite television services provided to individuals in Cuba.
- Authorizing the donation of certain consumer telecommunication devices without a license.
- Adding certain humanitarian items to the list of items eligible for export through licensing exceptions.
Travel restrictions on Americans of non-Cuban descent remained in place as did the embargo and changes imposed by the Bush administration that have thwarted academic, cultural, and other forms of people-to-people contact.
According Robert Gibbs, “President Obama has directed that a series of steps be taken to reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic human rights and to freely determine their country’s future.”
The announcement came just days before the opening of the Fifth Summit of the Americas, taking place in Trinidad and Tobago.
Prior to the Summit, Obama was advised by several leading Cuba policy experts to take broader steps “to extricate Cuba policy from the tangle of domestic politics, enable our nation to engage Cuba on serious neighborhood problems and build a sense of mutual confidence between our governments so that we can discuss our political differences.” You can read a press report citing their letter here
On the day that the White House announced the changes in travel rules for Cuban-Americans, a dozen retired high-ranking military officers made a strong case for eliminating travel restrictions on all Americans. In a letter to the president, they urged his support for the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba” bills introduced in the House and Senate.
These senior officers told the president that the policy of isolating Cuba had failed, that Cuba had ceased to be a military threat, that the embargo props up the Cuban government, and that it drives away natural allies from the United States. They said that lifting the travel ban for all Americans, combined with engagement with Cuba’s government on security issues like drug trafficking, immigration, and Caribbean security would put the U.S. “on a path to rid ourselves of the dysfunctional policy your administration inherited.”
In the end, the administration made only the changes in travel policy and family support for Cuban-Americans and the shift on telecommunications. However, the State Department is still conducting a broad review of Cuba policy and, as the New York Times reported, Mr. Restrepo said the policy was “not frozen in time today.”
En route to the Summit of the Americas, President Obama told reporters that it was up to Cuba to take the next step. Cuba’s President Raul Castro replied
that Cuba is “willing to discuss everything-human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything.”
And in this late breaking development: Secretary Clinton on Friday said
, “We have seen Raul Castro’s comments and we welcome his overtures…We are taking a very serious look at it and we will consider how we intend to respond.”
This issue is changing and moving fast.
A transcript and webcast of the White House press conference can be obtained here
The White House fact sheet explaining the policy can be read here
The President’s directive to the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Commerce to implement the policy can be read here
Major news organizations covered the announcement. Reuters
and the New York Times
said the changes represented opening the door “a crack.” Inter Press Services
offered a lengthy story with pictures that can be read here. The UK Independent
did a fact-filled Q+A about the policy and its potential implications here.
The new rules have positive business implications for Western Union as explained here
Articles detailing the new policies on telecommunications can be read here
. This article
suggests that U.S. telecommunications firms will have a tough time competing against already entrenched competitors.
Will the new rules on telecommunications lead to larger changes in the embargo? The energy industry could be next as reported here
The former military officers’ letter, released by the New America Foundation, can be read here
Former President Fidel Castro wrote a reflection praising the officers’ letter and “giving thanks” to the authors. It can be read here
While applauding the humanitarian gesture of restoring Cuban-American travel, political leaders and policy experts focused on Obama’s failure to move toward a single policy that opened up Cuba for travel to all Americans.
“It’s hypocritical to have a policy that allows travel to Vietnam and North Korea and Iran and China, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and yet when it comes to Cuba, not respect the fundamental right of an American to exercise his or her freedom to travel,” said William Delahunt, a Democratic congressman and the author of the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, reported Reuters
Stephen Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program of the New American Foundation, called Obama’s move “cynical and insufficient.”
“That our first African-American president would issue an executive order that created openings for a specific class of ethnic Americans – in this case, Cuban Americans – and not for all is not what this democracy is about,” he said
. “This is not how we approached Vietnam; we didn’t tell Vietnamese Americans to lead the way.”
Wayne Smith, a former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and now a critic of U.S.-Cuba policy, said
the president simply didn’t go far enough. “A lot of people, myself included, who had some hope that Obama would move in a more constructive way, are now beginning to place our hopes in the Congress.”
The Associated Press reported
that American supporters of easing U.S. sanctions, who criticized the Obama administration for not going further, did say the move should greatly help Cuban families. Phil Peters, a Cuba specialist, wrote in his blog that Obama’s travel policy could “bring an injection of purchasing power that will raise the incomes of Cubans who rent rooms in their homes or drive private taxis.”
But he and other Americans wondered when they too will be able to travel freely to Cuba. Peters said the policy continues to treat Cuban-Americans as “a separate class.” “The rest of Americans aren’t chopped liver,” he said.
Why didn’t Obama go further?
According to the Associated Press, Julia Sweig, director of Latin studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, described Obama’s changes as “teensy, weensy” and said they appear to be driven more by domestic political calculations than by foreign policy considerations.
“This is a cautious first step by a president whose political advisers are looking at the Florida electoral vote,” she said in a telephone interview, “and who are not looking at this as a matter of foreign policy. That’s the big problem with Cuba policy. We have a policy toward Miami and not Havana.”
“These are welcome steps, but the right course is to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba, to open up commerce, and to directly engage the Cuban government in diplomacy and solving problems in both countries’ interests,” said
Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA)
Perhaps more policy measure will follow. “The president has a historic opportunity, not to be the last president of the Cold War, but the first president to turn the page in U.S.-Cuba relations. I think he will do more, and that this will be the first of many steps toward better relations with Cuba,” she added.
For additional reactions to the President’s announcement, we recommend this series of essays that appeared in the Washington Post
, this column
by IPS’ Jim Lobe, and these “reflections”
written by Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News and World Report. Michael Kinsley’s op-ed in the Washington Post can be read here
. We particularly liked Philip Stephens’ piece [After Guantanamo: Time to cut the wire around Cuba] published here
in The Financial Times. Blogger Markos Moulitsas weighed in here
For polling on American attitudes on Cuba policy, check here
Florida Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart issued a joint statement
that deplored Obama’s decision. “President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship.”
Florida Senator Mel Martinez, who wrote the recommendations which first put into place the limits on family travel and financial support, applauded President Obama for easing the travel restrictions that he now blames on the Cuban government. In a statement
released by his office Senator Martinez said,
“The announcement today is good news for Cuban families separated by the lack of freedom in Cuba. Likewise the change in remittances should provide help to families in need.”
Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who have gave a blistering 14-page floor speech early this year in an attempt to block Congress from enacting a modest loosening of restrictions on Cuban-American travel and farm sales declined at first to comment to the New York Daily News
in response to the Obama policy.
However, according to the Miami Herald
, Menendez finally said that while he agrees with more family travel, he “would have challenged the regime to allow Cuban Americans to send money to their families without the state taking 30 percent.”
Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a staunch opponent of Cuba’s government, said
“It’s a missed opportunity to not have first demanded from the Castro regime a drastic reduction in the outrageously high fees that families have to pay to the regime and its agents for both travel and remittances.”
Reversal of the Bush-era restrictions, which contained no humanitarian exemptions, cheered many in the Cuban-American community. Lourdes Castro told USA Today
that she has a brother, sister and plenty of cousins back in her home city of Havana. She visited them last July and wouldn’t have been eligible to see them again until 2011 under restrictions enacted under the Bush administration. Now, Castro is already planning her return. “I’m going to go as often as I can,” said Castro, 52, who is not related to Cuban President Raúl Castro, or his brother, Fidel. “I’m so happy.”
Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, told one news organization
, “Right now, I have a customer outside that just found out her mother had breast cancer, so she was just going for her first [trip to Cuba] of the year….When I told her, ‘Now you can go again’ she was, like, ecstatic, because she can go visit her mum that’s going to be starting chemotherapy.”
Miami-based Gulfstream International Airlines, which operates Beech 1900Ds daily to Havana, is anticipating a potential ramp-up in service. President Tom Cooper told The Miami Herald
that rule changes made by the US last year allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba once annually instead of once every three years resulted in a 20% traffic increase.
Reporting from Havana, the Associated Press
spoke to Cubans with American relatives who were hoping the new rules would mean more visits from loved ones, and the possibility of more cash to buy things they cannot afford on government salaries averaging less than $20 a month.
“Man, this is something they should have done a long time ago,” said engineer Simon Rodriguez, 37. “To have bilateral relations between the two countries is good for the Cubans and for the Americans.”
The AP said that for many, the moves are only a beginning. Alberto Sal, a 68-year-old retiree, said he had high hopes when Obama was elected but is still waiting for significant action. For instance, the president said nothing Monday about bipartisan measures in both houses of Congress that would effectively allow all Americans to travel to Cuba. “He should do more and lift travel restrictions for all Americans,” Sal said. “Until he does that, I don’t think he’s doing much.”
Cuban dissident Vladimiro Roca predicts the reaction will be huge. The former economist, who has been jailed for his opposition to the Castro regime, told USA Today
“We will continue suffering, but the suffering will be less. The people are going to appreciate this,” Roca said by phone from his Havana home.
Impact on the Summit of the Americas
The new Cuba policy was announced against the backdrop of the Summit of the Americas meeting – President Obama’s first multilateral encounter with heads of state from the Western Hemisphere. In the maneuvering that took place before the Summit, Obama’s representatives sought to keep the subject of Cuba off the agenda. But Cuba will be discussed, as will many other regional concerns.
First, there is the question of the United States reengaging with a region that it essentially ignored for eight years, beyond the Bush administration’s polarizing rhetoric about the war on terror and its opposition to governments in Havana and Caracas.
As the Los Angeles Times
said, “stepping back onto the world stage, President Obama this week will meet Western Hemisphere leaders at a summit where he hopes to salvage alliances strained by grievances that the U.S. under former President Bush ignored Latin America because of Washington’s focus on Iraq and terrorism.
“The new president is going to be the focus,” said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. “Even for someone like Hugo Chavez, who at the last summit made himself the focus, it will be virtually impossible to upstage Barack Obama. This is his coming out party, his cotillion in the Americas, and there’s an excitement just to meet the guy, see him up close and get a feel for him.”
Second, the New York Times
reported that Latin American leaders are seeking more than re-engagement with the United States. They are looking to redefine the relationship.
“I’m going to ask the United States to take a different view of Latin America,” Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, said last month before meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington. “We’re a democratic, peaceful continent, and the United States has to look at the region in a productive, developmental way, and not just think about drug trafficking or organized crime.”
There are important issues – including but also beyond Cuba – that concern regional leaders. These include the global economic crisis, which many governments and publics see as “made in America,” greater recognition of the special problems facing the Caribbean, and enduring concerns about income inequality and public security that are often knocked out of the public debate in the U.S. by heated discussions of immigration and trade.
Third, as the nations in the region diversify their diplomatic and economic relationships, and choose an independent course from the United States, there is often a political division between powers like Mexico and Brazil on one hand and Venezuela, whose rhetoric has a sharper edge toward the U.S., on the other.
reported this week that “Brazil and even Cuba – Venezuela’s closest regional ally – have sent messages to Caracas that Mr. Chavez should avoid the sort of disruptive behaviour shown at previous international gatherings.”
But President Hugo Chavez said Thursday that Venezuela will vote against the declaration of the Summit of the Americas in a gesture of protest against the United States. Chavez said
“the summit in Trinidad smells like Monroe: America for the Americans” – a reference to the Monroe Doctrine, a tenet of U.S. policy initially declared in the 19th century to demand an end to European intervention in the Western hemisphere.
Finally, as the Miami Herald
observed “The lone country in the hemisphere that’s not a member of the Organization of American States — Cuba — promises to take center stage here, as more and more Latin American nations insist that the days of the communist country’s isolation should be numbered.”
President Obama got his first public exposure
to the division of the region from the U.S. on the issue of Cuba policy when the subject arose during his press conference with Mexico’s President Calderon.
“The question that has to be posed rather is whether the U.S. embargo on Cuba has worked. The reality is that the embargo has been there long before we were even born, and yet things have not changed all that much in Cuba. I think we would have to ask ourselves whether that isn’t enough time to realize that it has been a strategy that has not been very useful to achieve change in Cuba. I do think — I share fully the idea we do not believe that the embargo or the isolation of Cuba is a good measure for things to change in Cuba,” Mexico’s president said.
Mexico’s reaction is no surprise. As William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Government at American University predicted in remarks reported by IPS
before President Obama left town:
“I don’t think most Latin American heads of state are going to be too impressed by this,” LeoGrande said in reference to the new Cuba policies. “They’ve asked for a new departure by the U.S. toward Cuba, and this is really not a new departure.”
Major American newspapers praised the Obama decision to lift some restrictions, although some suggested that the president go further.
In an age when the United States enjoys robust commerce with China, Syria and Iran, among others, the Cuban trade embargo is a glaring anachronism. So is the travel ban that forbids Americans not born in Cuba from traveling to the island. The House and Senate are considering legislation that would end travel restrictions for all U.S. citizens, a welcome sign that Congress, too, is warming to a more grown-up strategy of engagement.
Calling the president’s decision the start of a long process, the Philadelphia Inquirer
talked of changing course:
U.S. policy toward Cuba is a Cold War relic that doesn’t come close to achieving its purpose. Castro, now 82, was the longest-serving ruler in the Western Hemisphere until he ceded power last year to his brother, Raul. After 47 years of failure, it’s time to start engaging with Cuba. Allowing Cubans to buy our goods and engage in other commerce with the United States is the most effective way to encourage democratic reforms on the island. Obama has not talked of lifting the trade embargo, but it is hoped that his initial steps will lead to that result.
referred to the letter sent to Obama by retired senior military brass that made the case for additional changes in the policy, saying:
A group of 12 former senior military officers have sent a letter to President Obama urging him to support and sign pending legislation that would repeal the travel ban for all Americans who wish to visit Cuba. Currently only journalists and families of Cubans can legally visit from here. The retired soldiers argue that based on national security grounds, lifting the ban would allow us to send our best ambassadors — ordinary Americans — to engage our Cuban neighbors. It’s a good idea.
On travel, he was too timid. He’ll allow Cuban-Americans to travel home freely – a godsend to divided families – but he should lift travel restrictions on everyone. More contact with the Cuban people can only help them and us.
Anything Obama can get out of the Cuban government would be something. But before his term is up, the failed trade embargo also should be lifted.
These welcome humanitarian developments should mark the beginning of a new approach to relations between the two countries. But there are further steps to be taken to strengthen those ties. The White House said there are “no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans.” What about other Americans who would like to travel to Cuba, although they don’t have family there? The ban on travel to the island should be lifted altogether. And more important, what about the trade embargo? Nothing speaks for our way of life better than our way of life; the embargo merely denies Cubans the opportunity to appreciate this country in all its diversity and ingenuity.
The Wall Street Journal
, an avowed opponent of the Cuba embargo, published this editorial on what the Western Hemisphere must do:
The embargo has not worked to free Cuba, but a hemisphere united against the Castro tyranny has never been tried.