Travel for All, Talks About Everything, Surprise Senate Resignation

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…


Raúl Castro reiterates offer to talk with U.S.

President Raúl Castro, speaking before Cuba’s National Assembly, once again declared that he is ready to talk to the U.S. about “anything and everything,” but not at the expense of Cuba’s political system.  In a speech indicating the government would cut spending on health and education and announcing the postponement of the Communist Party Congress, Castro reiterated that Cuba is willing to enter into a dialogue with the United States without preconditions. From Castro’s speech:

  • I am using this opportunity to reiterate Cuba’s disposition to hold a respectful dialogue with the United States, between equals, without any shadow over our independence, sovereignty or self-determination. We are ready to talk about everything, I repeat, everything, but about here, about Cuba, and about there, about the United States, not to negotiate our political and social system. We are not asking the United States to do so. We must mutually respect our differences.
  • There has been torture there [in Guantanamo Bay], and that is part of Cuba’s territory, although we did not engage in it. That is why we say, with all due respect, to Mrs. Hillary Clinton, secretary of state of that country, that if there is a desire to talk about everything, let’s talk about everything, about here, but about there, too.

Castro concluded his remarks about the U.S. by saying: “I was elected to defend, maintain and continue perfecting socialism, not destroy it.” You can read the full speech here.

Castro announces more belt-tightening

Castro announced in the same speech that the government will reduce spending in the health and education sectors in an attempt to balance budgets as the country faces a dire economic situation. Current spending levels are “simply unsustainable,” said Castro, noting that the government will reorganize programs where students are sent to the country side and look for ways to reduce health-care costs.

Castro also offered more details on the postponement of the Communist Party Congress, which was set to take place later this year.  According to Castro, the Congress has the task of determining the “socialist society to which we aspire and the economic model” of the country, and they are simply not prepared yet.

He said that studies of great magnitude are underway to address, among other matters, eliminating the dual currency system, eliminating social benefits not guaranteed by the Cuban Constitution, reducing unjustified subsidies, and reforming the salary system.

“A formal congress that does not discuss in depth these strategic issues and dictate guidelines for the future would have no sense or content. In other words, compañeros, it is a Herculean task, identifying the principal problems as such, and this will necessarily take us awhile longer,” he said.

Castro also announced that many Central Committee members are “not carrying out the responsibilities they held when they were elected 12 years ago,” and the Party will soon convene a National Conference to elect new representatives to the Central Committee, the Political Bureau, and the Secretariat.

Commemoration of ’94 protests, Maleconazo

Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper Granma published a front-page story to mark the 15th anniversary of street protests that Fidel Castro himself had to quell.  Protests that day are remembered as the maleconazo.  The article is an unusual public reference to one of the few serious internal threats the Castro government has had, the Associated Press reported.

In the summer of 1994, as food and fuel shortages plagued the island, street protests erupted in Old Havana along the seaside Malecón after police blocked the hijacking of a ferry the culprits intended to take to the United States.  Hundreds of Cubans, mostly young men, threw rocks and debris at police and storefronts while chanting “freedom.”

According to witnesses, police arrested many of the protestors and Fidel Castro eventually arrived in an army jeep to quiet the disturbance; his appearance prompted some demonstrators to drop their stones and applaud.

Granma reported the event goes down in “Cuban history as the day of another great battle won by Fidel and his people, without shots fired or deaths, in response to individuals, encouraged by the United States, who violently disturbed the public order along a section of Havana’s Malecón and its surroundings.”

“That was another great victory and a warning to those attempting to attack the Revolution,” said the article.

Dissidents detained in protests to commemorate Maleconazo

On Wednesday Cuban police detained some twenty protestors taking part in a commemoration of the 1994 riots (maleconazo), El País reported.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN), an independent human rights group tolerated by the government, told El País that the detentions were part of stepped up vigilance by state security in anticipation to the date.

Various dissident organizations on the island organized vigils and private activities to record the date.


Martinez pulls a Palin?

Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL), who had already planned to retire next year at the end of his term, will instead resign from the Senate by the end of August, as first reported by Politico.

Martinez, a Cuban-American, served as Secretary of Housing in the Bush administration.  He also served as chairman of the so-called “transition project” that recommended stopping Cuban-Americans from visiting their families on the island, a policy that President Bush imposed before the elections in 2004.

Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican, will have to appoint a replacement for Martinez, whose seat Crist is already campaigning to fill.

From Alaska to Florida, the unexpected departure from elective office before the end of one’s term seems to be in vogue for political figures this year.

TV, Radio Martí to cut positions

The Office of Cuban Broadcasting (OCB), which runs Radio and TV Martí, announced that it will eliminate 35 staff positions in anticipation of budget cuts, the Miami Herald reported. Twenty-two employees will be laid off, and the rest of the positions involve vacancies and employees who have volunteered for buyout packages — mainly television anchors and technicians, news editors and radio anchors.

The staff cuts take place as the stations prepare for a September retooling of their program format, which has been heavily criticized for its biased reporting and scant reception in Cuba. The OCB expects its budget to be cut by $4.2 million in the coming fiscal year.

The staff cuts “reflect the proposal to change the news format of TV Martí, replacing two evening news programs with news updates every half-hour and giving Radio Martí an all-news format,” OCB director Pedro Roig wrote in a memo to the staff Tuesday.

Cuban doctors come to train, work in the U.S.

The New York Times wrote an article this week discussing the wave of Cuban doctors who have fled to the U.S. in recent years.  An estimated 6,000 medical professionals have left Cuba in the past six years.

Medical exchange has been a hallmark of Cuban diplomacy, as the country has sent more than 185,000 health professionals on medical missions throughout the world since the Revolution.  Yet in 2006, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security initiated a program that permitted Cuban medical personnel stationed in a third country to receive expedited visas to come to the United States.

Once here, though, the Cuban doctors have had to contend with difficulties in obtaining licenses and jobs.  Cuban medical students encounter new books and new technology, as the texts and equipment in Cuba are remarkably outdated, meaning that they need additional training.

Ana Carbonell, chief of staff for Representative Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), a proponent of the program, told the Times more than 2,000 Cubans have already settled in the United States under the parole program.

“It brings to our community highly qualified professionals at a time of great need,” Ms. Carbonell said.

During the Summit of the Americas in April, President Obama noted that Cuban doctors yield influence and goodwill throughout the region.  He did not mention the program to try to get them to defect to the United States.

On a recent Center for Democracy in America’s delegation trip to Cuba, seven Congressional staff heard a Canadian military expert call this program a public relations disaster for the United States in Cuba.

Travelers challenging Cuba ban return to U.S.

Activists who traveled to Cuba despite the U.S. ban on travel to the island returned to the U.S. this week.  The Associated Press reported that 140 members of the Venceremos Brigade walked over the Canadian border into the United States in Buffalo wearing orange T-shirts and chanting for an end to U.S. sanctions.  Members of this organization have been traveling to Cuba since 1969 but in the last few years have been more vocal about their trips in order to galvanize public opinion against the U.S. travel ban.

About 130 members of the “U.S./Cuba Friendshipment Caravan,” organized by Pastors for Peace, also re-entered the United States through a checkpoint on the Mexican border with Texas.  None of the travelers were detained, according to customs officials.

One traveler with the Venceremos Brigade explained to The Los Angeles Times that “I have a duty, a responsibility, to disobey unjust laws.” She said that she would “welcome a fine” as it would invite a lawsuit to challenge the U.S. travel ban.

The Treasury Department monitored third country airports and sought passenger lists for Cuba-bound flights during the Bush administration.  According to Tony West, assistant attorney general for civil affairs, the Obama administration is focusing its attention on more important security issues.

“As a general matter, should laws be obeyed? Yes. Should laws be enforced? Yes. But we’re a government of limited resources and we have to make priorities,” West said.

Members of the Venceremos Brigade said that progress toward Obama’s promise of “a new beginning with Cuba” is coming too slow and see travel to the island as the first step to improving strained relations.


Juanes to hold peace concert in Havana

Colombian rock star Juanes will hold his second “Peace without Borders” concert in Havana next month, the Associated Press reported.  The concert will be held on September 20, coinciding with U.N. International Peace Day. According to news reports, Juanes would like the concert to take place in Revolution Plaza but is awaiting approval from the Cuban government.

Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez and Spanish singer Miguel Bosé will also participate, and Juanes has apparently invited up to twelve other artists from around the Western Hemisphere, including U.S. musicians.   It is unclear if the American artists will receive permission to attend, but Reuters reported Juanes met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and officials from the Treasury Department in June to request permission.

Juanes is already taking heat for his plan from hard-line Cuban Americans in the Miami, where protesters said they would boycott his albums and concerts. The Spanish news agency EFE writes that various anti-Castro groups are calling his proposed concert “immoral,” and say they will protest when he visits Miami.

12 Cuban actors in Alabama to perform Shakespeare

The Associated Press reported that the Obama administration’s granted permission for 12 Cuban actors to travel to the U.S. to take part in a performance of Shakespeare.  According to the Associated Press, the visit is a “milestone” for US-Cuba relations. Cuban artists and musicians have been unable to receive visas to the U.S. since 2003.

The actors will perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” this weekend, along with University of Alabama theater students. They have been rehearsing for nearly three weeks, although the Cuban actors have minimal English and the Alabama students know little Spanish.

The play comes after events last week when American film actors Bill Murray and James Caan visited Cuba and the US government granted visas for the New York Philharmonic to perform in Havana later this year. While there have not yet been official changes to policies on US-Cuba cultural exchanges under Obama, State Department spokesman Andy Laine said that the government “continues to review our policy with Cuba.”

Recommended Advocacy:

The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act is gaining support in the House and the Senate, and the momentum on its behalf has now extended to Facebook.  Friends on Facebook should check out the brand new End the Travel Ban Facebook page. Join, suggest the page to ALL your friends, and check back for updates on how YOU can TAKE ACTION to allow “Travel for All” to Cuba.

Also, mark your calendars for National Action Day! The end is in sight, but we need another BIG PUSH to get Congress behind the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act in the House and Senate. September 30th will be marked by constituent outreach, including delegation visits and phone calls to key Members. We need your help to make this a success, so please mark September 30th in your calendar and we will send more details soon.

Recommended Reading:

Is Trade with Cuba a Reality? World Trade 100

Jack Maybank, Jr., the president and CEO of shipping firm Maybank Industries, acknowledges at a conference that the Obama administration’s early attempts to thaw relations with Cuba may indeed have been the first step in a long journey toward normalization-with all the implications of commercial exchange that those relations imply-but he notes that scores of U.S. companies have been doing business with Cuba for years. With the appropriate product, the opportunities are now, he explains.

U.S. and Cuba keep their distance, Stephen Wilkinson in The Guardian

Rapprochement remains a distant prospect – Hillary Clinton is unwise to dismiss Raúl Castro’s regime as a lame duck

“Troubled Cuba Mulls ‘A Different Kind’ of Socialism,” NPR

Raul Castro, who officially took over as president from his ailing brother, Fidel, last year, launched his own quiet revolution on the island. He is attempting to streamline, decentralize and revive the economy.

Time is right for Arkansas governor’s outreach, The Associated Press

Hoping to take advantage of signs of an easing relationship between the United States and Cuba, Arkansas’ governor Mike Beebe traveled to the island nation last week to try and promote the state’s agricultural products. Arkansas has exported products to the country on a limited basis, despite a 47-year-old embargo, but Beebe says there are opportunities for even more in the future.

Around the Region:

Salvadoran environmental activist mysteriously killed

The body of Gustavo Marcelo Rivera, an environmentalist and anti-mining activist, was found in bottom of a well in Las Cabañas, El Salvador after he had disappeared two weeks before.  Autopsy reports show that he was beaten and strangled.  Rivera was actively protesting a controversial mining proposal by a Canadian firm before his death.  More than 100 international organizations have called on the Salvadoran Attorney General to investigate the murder, which at first the government explained as the result of a bar fight.

“We will not be brought to our knees,” Interview with Mel Zelaya, Der Spiegel

Zelaya is quite candid in his comments, saying unequivocally that he accepts the Arias mediation plan including limitations on his power as president if reinstated.  He also rejects the notions that the Obama Administration was behind the coup or that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez exerted influence on his regime.

“Chavez’s Man in Washington,” The Washington Diplomat

In a recent interview, Ambassador Alvarez explained that during the seven months that he was expelled from the U.S., he served as the president of the Bank of ALBA.  Alvarez is glad to return to the U.S., and he expressed some hope for calming the hostilities between the U.S. and Venezuela – “This [return] tells you that when there’s political will to move on, everything is possible.”

Until next week,

The Cuba Central Team

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