Gov. Richardson and Catholic Bishops Urge Obama to Move Further, Faster on Cuba Policy Reforms

August 28, 2009

President Obama, having made important but incremental changes in Cuba policy, picked up two crucial allies this week, if he were to move more forcefully in the direction of reform.

Governor Bill Richardson, the former U.S. representative to the United Nations, and a veteran diplomatic trouble-shooter, interrupted a trade trip to the island and called for repealing the travel ban to free all Americans to visit Cuba.

Reaffirming previous commitments, a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, visiting Cuba to monitor how hurricane assistance provided by the church had been distributed on the island, called on President Obama to end the embargo and speed the pace of reform.

We hope the White House heard these passionate and principled calls for change.

Substantively, the case for President Obama moving further and faster on Cuba policy reforms has been made by experts and advocates from across the political spectrum.

You know the arguments well.

Ending the travel ban would restore to Americans their full constitutional rights to travel.  It would increase interaction between Cubans and Americans.  It would put money in the pockets of average Cubans.  It would create jobs here in the U.S.  It would improve our standing in Latin America.  It would make our policy consistent with our allies in Europe and the region.  And it would create political space and incentives for the Cuban government to move more quickly on its own program of reform.

These ideas and others like them have been expressed and endorsed before – by leaders like Senator Richard Lugar, respected institutions such as the Council on Foreign Relations and Brookings, groups in civil society such as The Cuba Study Group, Freedom House, and Human Rights Watch, and a growing coalition of economic interests from agriculture to travel and beyond.

Now, the President can take even greater comfort from the blanket of political cover that dropped from the sky this week to strengthen and surround him.

When a respected former Member of Congress, a veteran diplomat, and renowned Hispanic leader like Bill Richardson urges action on the travel ban, and is joined by the principled voices of the U.S. Catholic Conference calling for much more vigorous changes in policy, one might be tempted to ask: What greater encouragement does the President need in order to move decisively to change the policy?

In the coming weeks, Congress will reconvene and we will be able to report additional support among Members of the House and Senate for ending the travel ban.  We look forward to September 30, when delegations from across our country will descend on Washington armed with a simple and clear message – travel for all Americans – that they plan to bring to legislators from key states and districts.

The indispensable element for all of this is Presidential leadership.  The substantive case, the popular support, and the political cover are all in place.  It is our hope that the President’s voice will soon be heard.

Now, this week in Cuba news…

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Support Juanes’s Peace Concert in Cuba!

August 18, 2009

Colombian singer-songwriter, Juanes, is spearheading an international Paz Sin Fronteras (Peace Without Borders) concert in Cuba, the second in a series of concerts in the Western Hemisphere where people, not politicians, might be open to a message of change.

It is no surprise that he is under fire from some in Miami and elsewhere who don’t want him or anyone else to promote understanding between Cuba and the United States, who fear that a peaceful cultural event in Havana will undermine their narrative about what they call the “tropical gulag” in Cuba.

Please join The Center for Democracy in the Americas in signing a petition so that you too can stand with Juanes and support the message of hope, peace and unity that he plans to send with his concert in Havana!

You can access the petition here.

Here is the letter we will send to Juanes:

Dear Juanes,

We support the message of hope, peace and unity that you plan to send with your upcoming Paz sin Fronteras concert in Havana.

Last year’s concert, on the Peace Bridge crossing the Colombia-Venezuela border, showed your ability to speak to Latin American youth, to open their minds to peace, conflict resolution, and ending violence.

Using art and music, you and your colleagues are speaking directly to young people and encouraging them to think in fresh ways, to break down barriers, and asking everyone to come together, not to push one another apart.

Now you plan to bring this vision and this breath of hope to Cuba.

Some have mischaracterized this Peace without Borders concert as a political or ideological event, but they are the ones “politicizing” and “polarizing,” not you! Through their opposition, they have shown the world that we have much farther to go to find the peace, love and understanding, and that is why the Paz sin Fronteras concert in Havana must go forward as planned.

We salute you and your desire to connect the hearts and minds of this hemisphere’s youth in an effort to create a better world.

Juanes, we stand in support as you push forward for peace!

Sour Notes from Miami as Juanes Seeks to Sing for Peace in Cuba

August 17, 2009

It’s time to stand up for Juanes.

The hardliners in Miami, who turned the other cheek when President Obama took off restrictions and enabled Cuban-Americans to travel freely to Cuba, are tied up in knots because Juanes is planning a peace concert in Havana.

Juanes, the Colombian-born rock star with 17 Latin Grammy awards to his credit, lives with his wife Karen Martinez and daughters Paloma and Luna part-time in Miami, Florida.  An activist, Juanes has been honored all over the world for his work against landmines, helping people with disabilities, and promoting the Spanish language.

A year ago, he organized a peace concert on the Colombia-Venezuela border just weeks after the Andean countries were consumed by tensions and the threat of military actions following a cross-border incursion by Colombia into Ecuador’s territory to pursue members of the FARC.

None of this activism seemed to bother the hardliners in South Florida, until Juanes began planning a “Peace without Borders” concert scheduled to take place September 20 in Havana.

Then they awakened (cue the incendiary invective).  Now, they’re calling Juanes immoral, an accomplice to the Cuba government, and they threatened him with boycotts against future performances in Miami. They’ve even promised to “destroy his music” by crushing his CDs on the streets of the city, and have slashed posters bearing his image.

Juanes could not have asked for a better demonstration of why a peace concert is needed, now more than ever.

Of course, it’s no surprise that he is under fire from some in Miami who don’t want him or anyone else to promote understanding between Cuba and the United States, who fear that a peaceful cultural event in Havana belies their narrative about the “tropical gulag” that is Cuba.

Their attitude appears to be: it’s fine for the Cuban-American community to visit Cuba without restrictions.  But they feel obligated to stop others from traveling to Cuba, or from seeing how the Cuban reality contrasts with their carefully constructed definition of “other.”  They just don’t want the rest of us to see how much we and the Cuban people have in common.

That’s why we need unrestricted travel to Cuba for all Americans, and why we need to support Juanes and projects like his peace concert.

It isn’t easy to stand up to this kind of pressure. The best thing we can do is to stand with Juanes and the other artists who will perform with him.  Please sign the petition supporting Juanes and the “Peace without Borders” concert here.  This is your chance to be heard.


Everyone needs a summer break, and next week, we’ll be taking ours.

But, before we go, here’s your blast of Cuba news…

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Travel for All, Talks About Everything, Surprise Senate Resignation

August 10, 2009

Dear Friends:

Remember that service called “Clear Pass,” that opened a hassle-free route through security in the airport?  It went bankrupt and disappeared.  Not a bad metaphor for our Cuba policy.

But there is still one hassle-free lane at airports in Miami and Los Angeles.  It’s the lane that gets you on an airplane to Cuba, but it’s open almost exclusively to Cuban-Americans, and that needs to change.

Four months ago, President Obama announced an end to ALL restrictions on Cuban Americans travel and family support.  Under the president’s policy, Cuban-Americans can travel to Cuba and provide funds to their families on an unlimited basis – a good and humane thing.

Four months later, the Treasury Department has still not published the rules removing these restrictions on family travel and remittances for good.

According to Newsweek, the delay may be due to Cuban-American Members of Congress, such as Senator Bob Menendez and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, trying to influence how Treasury interprets the order and crafts the new guidelines.  The delay could also be the result of bureaucratic challenges for an administration with a full agenda.

An anonymous State Department official suggested the delay may be the result of the recent dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba on migration, talks that could lead to an “even wider opening to Cuba, including a lifting of restrictions on diplomatic movements,” Newsweek reported.

“There are discussions going on, and some new things have been put on the table,” the State Department official told Newsweek.

Aside from language on travel and remittances, the executive order authorized U.S. telecommunication companies to service the island in various capacities.  Some experts believe that legal issues regarding Treasury’s interpretation of that part of the order could also be a cause of the hold up.

In theory, without the new regulations, it should only be legal for Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba once per year thanks to provisions in a recent Treasury Department spending bill.  But, from our observations at the airports in Miami and Havana, Cuban-American travel is looking rather robust, even without the final rules.

Obviously, the administration should stand by its decision, wave off the Congress Members who want to rewrite a decision already made, and issue the regulations it intended to publish when it made the announcement last April.

But the larger point is this:  putting any restrictions on travel by any Americans to Cuba is as bankrupt as the Clear pass service itself.

Americans simply shouldn’t have to ask our government’s permission to travel to Cuba – not for academics, not for religious believers, not for artists, not for tourists, not anyone.

President Obama has the power to lift additional restrictions on travel, but the existing policy, travel for some, just doesn’t cut it.

Only Congress has the authority to lift the travel ban on everyone, to make this bankrupt policy disappear, so we can have travel for all to Cuba.  It is our hope that when Members of Congress return from their holidays in September, they will turn seriously to the question of reforming Cuba policy and repealing the travel ban.   That clear lane to Cuba ought to be open for us all.

This week in Cuba news…

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Obama’s Latin America Policy: Your turn to rate how he’s doing

August 4, 2009

Dear Friends:

When President Obama ran for office and discussed Latin America, he promised “a new Partnership for the Americas.” Although he has been in office just over six months, his administration has started to do things that may indicate what type of policy he wants to have for the region.

His first meeting with a foreign leader was with President Calderon of Mexico. He participated directly, as Presidents Clinton and Bush had, in April’s Summit of the Americas.  His administration was represented at the inauguration of El Salvador’s new President, Mauricio Funes. He has also condemned the coup in Honduras and called for the restoration of Manuel “Mel” Zelaya as president.

Further, the Obama administration has taken steps to change U.S. policy toward Cuba.  He repealed restrictions on the rights of Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba and send remittances to their families.  The U.S. agreed to an OAS resolution to end Cuba’s suspension from the organization and has restarted direct talks with Cuba on migration and other matters.

Against this backdrop, we’re interested in learning your opinions about the Obama administration and the progress they’ve made in forming a new policy toward the region, especially toward Cuba.  Your identity will be kept anonymous but we would like to use your answers to issue a report on public opinion of the administration’s policy toward the Western Hemisphere.

Thank you in advance for taking a few minutes to participate in our survey. Answers need to be submitted before 5 pm on August 12th to be included in the report. We value your feedback.

– The Cuba Central Team

Cuba Trip Photos, July 2009

August 4, 2009

CDA took a delegation of 7 Senate Chiefs of Staff to Cuba for 4 days.  Here are a few select photos from our trip.

Straight Talk from Cuba; Clear thinking on diplomacy and economics from the U.S.; a readers’ survey from us

August 3, 2009
Dear Friends:
This week, we got a blast of straight talk from Cuba on issues ranging from the embargo to corruption to Cuba’s economy to life itself:

  • In his July 26th speech, President Castro exhorted Cubans to focus on improving agriculture and not to blame the U.S. blockade for all of Cuba’s problems.
  • Cuba’s National Assembly will create an office charged with rooting out government corruption.
  • A leading economic commentator called for greater economic reforms, more government decentralization, and a reconsideration of how Cuba defines private property in order to make the island’s economy more productive.
  • In a surprise announcement delaying Cuba’s first communist party Congress in twelve years, President Raul Castro is quoted saying “Because of the laws of life,” this will be the last Congress led by the historic leadership of the revolution — a comment you might not ordinarily hear from the government.

Not to be outdone, we on the U.S. side made news over and over again on diplomacy and commercial relations with Cuba:

  • The U.S. “news ticker,” an irritating artifact from the Bush era, was shut off by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana after a three-year run.
  • Legislation was introduced in the U.S. Senate to open a loophole in the embargo so U.S. firms could drill for oil.
  • State delegations from Arkansas and Colorado set off to build better commercial relations between their agriculture sectors and Cuba.
  • Airports in Key West, Houston, and Tampa signaled their interests to receive U.S. government permission to serve as departure points for travel to Cuba.
  • The Denver Post newspaper editorialized on behalf of Cuba trade, rejecting arguments from the anti-Castro lobby that selling food to Cuba hurts the Cuban people.
  • The Florida Sun-Sentinel urged the Cuban and the U.S. governments to push beyond symbolic diplomacy and make progress on the larger, political issues that have divided the two countries for half a century.

We sure hope that policy makers – in the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress – are tracking all of this really positive movement.

It just seems to us, after a week when the President and his cabinet met with the senior leadership of China, after the administration eased trade sanctions against Syria, after the U.S. special envoy for Sudan called for the unwinding of sanctions against Khartoum, there is every justification for moving forward with greater speed and openness when it comes to U.S. diplomacy toward Cuba.

Let’s not allow all of this straight talk and progress go to waste.

We cover all of this important news from Cuba, and also seek to bring you up to date on the Honduras crisis.  You’ll see some updates, some reading, and some new videos – please read and screen them all.

Finally, keep your eye on your mailboxes for our first readers’ survey that will focus on U.S. policy toward the Western Hemisphere.  We’ll send it out early next week – and we want to hear from you!

But first, this week in Cuba news…

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