After UN vote (it was a drubbing) Cuba still says “let’s talk” plus news about I/M, Price Controls, Honduras, and more

October 30, 2009

Dear Friends:

Psychologists call it “projection,” a defense mechanism that we humans use to deny our personal faults by assigning them to others.

How else to account for Ambassador Susan Rice, our representative at the United Nations, who accused Cuba’s foreign minister of engaging in Cold War rhetoric as she defended the U.S. embargo of Cuba, that old piece of furniture that President Obama inherited from….well, the Cold War.

You could almost hear the shrinks working their pipes on that one!

No need to over-analyze it.  The U.S. defense of the embargo got slaughtered, again, for the 18th consecutive year, with the resolution condemning our policy against Cuba passing 187-3.  Even Iraq voted against us!  It was a drubbing.

Gracefully, we thought, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, offered immediately after to open negotiations with the U.S. government at any level to broaden and deepen the diplomatic contacts President Obama authorized earlier this year.  A graceful U.S. response would be to accept.

We lead the news summary with a recap of the U.N. vote and promptly move forward to other news from the week that was nicely filled with Cuba items large and small.

We report on Amnesty’s call on the President to lift the embargo, the U.S. Treasury letter signaling a relaxation toward Instant Messaging for Cuba and other sanctioned countries, a decision to impose price controls at Cuban Farmers Markets and the reaction of Cubans to the news, another Florida City asks permission to launch direct flight service to Cuba, and there’s a deal, finally, that would allow President Mel Zelaya to finish out his coup-shortened term.

That, and more, this week in the news summary.

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UN vote to condemn (Obama’s?) embargo

October 23, 2009

Next week, the United Nations General Assembly is expected to vote on a resolution condemning the United States embargo against Cuba.

If past is prologue, it will pass resoundingly.  The General Assembly has adopted similar measures in each of the last seventeen years; in 2008, by a margin of 185-3.   But that was a condemnation of an embargo enforced, energetically and unapologetically, by the administration of George W. Bush.  The vote this year takes place for the first time on President Obama’s watch, and so has special significance.

The Secretary-General has prepared a public report that catalogues what UN members and UN organizations say about the embargo.  That report can be downloaded here.

This document is a powerful reminder that the U.S. embargo is viewed internationally with great seriousness and in ways that are deeply damaging to U.S. interests and our image overseas.

Lest anyone think this policy is only provocative to nations in the non-aligned world, its opponents include Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Egypt, the European Union, India, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Russia.

They are plain-spoken in their opposition.  Australia reminds us it votes “consistently” against the embargo.   Brazil says it is the “Cuban people who suffer the most from the blockade.”  China says the embargo “serves no purpose other than to keep tensions high between two neighboring countries and inflict tremendous hardship and suffering on the people of Cuba, especially women and children.”  Egypt and India condemn the extra-territorial reach of our sanctions, which Japan says run “counter to the provisions of international law.”  Mexico calls these measures coercive.  Russia “rejects” the embargo.  Nations across the planet have enacted laws making it illegal for their companies to comply.

Our policy is especially controversial in our own hemisphere, where the U.S. alone is without diplomatic relations with Cuba, and where forum after forum – including the Rio Group, the Ibero-American Summit, the Heads of State of Latin America and the Caribbean, and CARICOM –has rejected the embargo and called for its repeal.

Beyond our diplomatic interests, the report forces us to move beyond the stale, political debate in which the embargo is most often framed (where every problem on the island is blamed on either Cuba’s system or U.S. policy) and to confront the significant injuries this policy inflicts on ordinary Cubans.

It reminds us:

  • The embargo stops Cuba from obtaining diagnostic equipment or replacement parts for equipment used in the detection of breast, colon, and prostate cancer.
  • The embargo stops Cuba from obtaining patented materials that are needed for pediatric cardiac surgery and the diagnosis of pediatric illnesses.
  • The embargo prevents Cuba from purchasing antiretroviral drugs for the treatment of HIV-AIDS from U.S. sources of the medication.
  • The embargo stops Cuba from obtaining needed supplies for the diagnosis of Downs’ Syndrome.
  • Under the embargo, Cuba cannot buy construction materials from the nearby U.S. market to assist in its hurricane recovery.
  • While food sales are legal, regulatory impediments drive up the costs of commodities that Cuba wants to buy from U.S. suppliers, and forces them in many cases to turn to other more expensive and distant sources of nutrition for their people.
  • Because our market is closed to their goods, Cuba cannot sell products like coffee, honey, tobacco, live lobsters and other items that would provide jobs and opportunities for average Cubans.

This list, abbreviated for space, is actually much longer, more vivid and troubling, as the report documents case after case of how our embargo affects daily life in Cuba.  And for what reason?  Because it will someday force the Cuban government to dismantle its system?  As a bargaining chip?  These arguments have proven false and futile over the decades and what the UN has been trying to tell us since 1992 is that they should be abandoned along with a policy that has so outlived its usefulness.

And yet, it is now the Obama administration supporting and enforcing the embargo – still following Bush-era rules that thwart U.S. agriculture sales; still levying stiff penalties for violations of the regulations; still stopping prominent Cubans from visiting the United States; still refusing to use its executive authority to allow American artists, the faith community, academics, and other proponents of engagement and exchange to visit Cuba as representatives of our country and its ideals.

To his credit, President Obama has taken some useful steps to change U.S. policy toward Cuba.  He repealed the cruel Bush administration rules on family travel that divided Cuban families.  He joined efforts by the OAS to lift Cuba’s suspension from that organization.  He has opened a direct channel of negotiations with Cuba’s government on matters that include migration, resuming direct mail service, and relaxing the restrictions that Cuban and U.S. diplomats face in doing their jobs in each of our nation’s capitals.

This is a start, but more – much more – needs to be done.  Not because the UN says so, but because our country needs to embrace the world not as we found it in 1959 – or in 2008 – but as it exists today.  President Obama can do this.  Our times demand that he do so.

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The Miami Herald Said What? Movement on Travel, Momentum on Prisoners

October 16, 2009

Dear Friends:

Some people oppose engagement with Cuba over principle.  Some people oppose engagement with Cuba over politics.   But the Miami Herald set aside those considerations in an editorial this week to talk about what is really at stake:  vacant hotel rooms in Las Vegas.

We kid you not.

In its editorial, “Is now the right time to open up travel to Cuba?” the Herald to its credit does support lifting travel restrictions for all Americans “to stimulate more people-to-people contacts that bypass the Cuban government’s chokehold on information.”

This approach seems entirely sensible.  We could never understand why the pro-embargo crowd wanted to stop Americans from traveling to the island if they were concerned about improving the access of average Cubans to information.  So, when the Herald says, “yes, more travel to the island makes sense,” we are right there with them.

But then the editorial sends the logic train hurtling off the rails into utterly uncharted territory.

“The question members of Congress should ask now is whether this is the right time to be opening all travel to Cuba – in the midst of a recession where tourist meccas from Miami to Las Vegas are hurting with empty hotel rooms.”

Really?  Now is not a good time to open up Cuba to travel because there are penthouse vacancies at the Bellagio?  Because bookings at the MGM Grand aren’t so….grand?

In fact, if the Miami Herald really thinks we should make this decision on the basis of what’s happening to tourism in America, they could ask the National Tour Association (NTA) what it thinks about travel to Cuba.  Because the NTA believes that Americans should have the opportunity to explore the world unfettered by travel and currency restrictions and be able to experience the rich diversity of Cuban culture and heritage.

Or, they could ask the American Tourism Society, Expedia, the Interactive Travel Services Association, the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, Orbitz, Sustainable Travel International, the United Motorcoach Association, and the United States Tour Operator Association, who along with NTA, signed a statement recently that said unrestricted travel to Cuba will be a boon for the United States travel economy while increasing the free exchange of information for Cubans and increasing their exposure to Americans and our values.

What these tourism professionals are saying is that the Miami Herald is offering a false choice – we don’t have to choose between our principles and our travel industry profits when it comes to the question of whether we should have the freedom to travel to Cuba.  Allowing all Americans to travel to Cuba is both good for the industry and good for what our country believes in.

We do encourage Members of Congress to listen to travel industry professionals when considering the Freedom to Travel to Cuba legislation.  We also encourage them to listen to farmers.  We encourage them to listen to Cuban-Americans.  And we especially encourage them to listen to their own constituents.  The most recent polling says that 67% of Cuban-Americans – in fact, 67% of all Americans – support ending the ban on legal travel to Cuba.

That’s where we hope the Miami Herald also ends up.  Without reservations.

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President Obama: This year in Oslo and next year in Havana

October 9, 2009

Dear Friend:

By now almost everyone knows the startling and stirring news that started cascading around the world shortly after 5am; namely, that U.S. President Barack Obama will receive The Nobel Peace Prize for 2009.

Just as quickly this announcement was met with reactions that ranged from surprise to cynicism.  But it was hard for us to feel anything but pride especially after we took the opportunity to read the text explaining the award that was issued this morning by The Norwegian Nobel Committee.

They said they were giving Obama the Peace Prize for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”  They said he has created a “new climate in international politics” in which “dialogue and negotiation are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts,” where “diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.”

Finally, and importantly, for those who are asking “why Obama?  Why now?” Even “what’s he done to deserve this prize?”  The committee answers by saying “For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman.”

This award is recognition that President Obama has changed the tone and approach of U.S. diplomacy and an encouragement to him and other leaders to continue pursuing this course.

The United States is facing a variety of foreign policy challenges where these principles will be tested, but it is our hope that the President will continue expressing them as guiding lights for his diplomacy toward Cuba.

This is certainly the direction he has taken so far – loosening unjust restrictions on Cuban-American travel, joining regional allies in lifting Cuba’s suspension from the OAS, and restarting direct U.S.-Cuba diplomacy on matters like migration and resuming postal service.

Now, with this dramatic endorsement by the Nobel Committee of President Obama’s diplomacy, his preference for dialogue and negotiation, and his desire to situate America’s leadership in the context of values shared by the world, he has the opportunity to move further and faster on normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba.

The agenda for doing so is straightforward and clear.

The President should build on the negotiations already underway with Cuba with engagement and cooperation on security issues, civil defense, health research, energy development, and academic exchange as we proposed here.

He should signal to Congress that his initiative to restore the travel rights of Cuban Americans should be joined by the passage of legislation restoring the constitutional rights of travel to Cuba for all Americans.

He should also use the powers of his office to reverse restrictions imposed by President Bush on everything from the sale of U.S. agriculture products to visas for Cuban officials, and he should stop denying licenses to institutions like the New York Philharmonic who are trying to advance our diplomatic objectives through cultural exchange.

Most of all, he should use precisely the tools that won him the Nobel Prize for Peace to reassure the people of Cuba and their government that the days of denying Cuba’s sovereignty and independence are over and that a process leading toward normalization has begun.

This will not be easy or without complications.  But it is the right thing for the President to do, and it would vindicate completely the trust placed in him by the Nobel Committee today.

Before getting to the news, we would like to thank our generous friends who made donations last week! Your contributions are invaluable to us. And if you haven’t done so yet, don’t worry; it’s not too late to make a donation.

Now, this week in Cuba news….

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More than words – talking to Cuba and Congress – about diplomacy and travel

October 6, 2009

We begin with the telling reminders that Cuba has normal relations with most countries across the globe except us.

In just the last week, the Presidents of Vietnam, Algeria, Cyprus, Mali, and Zambia, the Prime Minister of Lesotho, and the President of the Palestinian Authority all made official visits to Cuba to sign cooperation agreements and to behave, well, diplomatically.

Small wonder that it was big news when it was learned that our acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, when she visited Cuba in September for direct talks on mail, spent a total of six days on the island, and met with Cuban government officials, political dissidents, and others.

It seemed for a brief shining moment that engagement may be working its way back into the diplomatic playbook of the United States of America.  Finally…and not a moment too soon.  For this week, also, Cuba framed the debate that the U.N. General Assembly will soon have on the embargo by inviting the U.S. to end its policy of isolation and talk to Cuba about a host of bilateral priorities.   This was another powerful reminder that it truly is time for the United States to talk to Cuba.

We were also reminded this week that ordinary people have the power to do extraordinary things.

Thanks to the leadership of our allied organizations – including the Latin America Working Group and the Washington Office on Latin America – an amazing group of academics and advocates, church leaders and local officials, Cuban-Americans and concerned Americans of all kinds converged on the U.S. Capitol to talk with their elected representatives about the importance of travel to Cuba.

Sponsors of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, Representatives Bill Delahunt and Jeff Flake, told the assembled group that our numbers of committed cosponsors for the legislation climbed to 180, with additional layers of support from legislators who have promised to vote for the bill when it is presented on the House floor.

Only 218 votes are need to pass the legislation, so it is nothing short of inspirational that 180 Members of Congress are already so committed to the bill that they have formally cosponsored the measure.

This progress has occurred in no small part because citizens across the country, many of whom read this NewsBlast weekly, have raised their voices on behalf of changing U.S.-Cuba policy, starting with repealing the ban on travel.

As the Obama administration does its part – having face to face negotiations with Cuba, just like the visiting leaders from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East did this week – we can also do ours.  That means, urging Congress to make it possible for all Americans to travel to Cuba, so that the work of bringing these two countries together can be shared by us all.

And now – on to the news.

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