Happy Thanksgiving from the Cuba Central Team

November 30, 2009

Dear Friends:

As many of us prepare to celebrate Thanksgiving, we’re writing to ask you to hold in your hearts the people of El Salvador and to remember them as they recover from devastating floods that hit their country just a couple of weeks ago.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas and your friends at Cuba Central feel a close connection to El Salvador.

For many of us, the battle against U.S. involvement in the civil war in El Salvador during the 1980s was a key moment that drew us to Latin America, the causes of peace and social justice, and repairing the fabric of U.S. relations with the hemisphere.

The people of El Salvador have endured terrible hardships, but their faith in and commitment to their country has been rewarded over the years – first, with a peace agreement, and recently with democratic elections that resulted in a hard fought victory by the FMLN and the inauguration of Mauricio Funes as president.  His first act?  Recognizing Cuba.

Now, with so many other challenges before them, El Salvador is struggling against the aftermath of horrible storms and flooding, and coping with death and the destruction of innumerable villages and homes.

If you have resources to make a contribution to emergency relief for those in El Salvador still without homes, running water, mattresses or bedding — we encourage you to visit the Catholic Relief Services El Salvador webpage and make a Thanksgiving contribution today.

As you do, please also visit our website to view photos and videos we posted after visiting El Salvador this month, when we joined President Mauricio Funes, Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA) and thousands of others in commemorating the deaths of the Jesuits in 1989, and saw first-hand the lashing that nature delivered to El Salvador with these storms.

Please help us provide help to the victims.

Happy Thanksgiving.

The Cuba Central Team

Momentum! Congressional hearing on Travel to Cuba

November 13, 2009

Next Thursday, a gavel will bang in the House Foreign Affairs Committee and signal a new and hopeful stage in the effort to legalize travel to Cuba.

The Committee will be called to order by Chairman Howard Berman, an important and influential voice in U.S. foreign policy, and it will hear witnesses for and against the idea that Americans should have the freedom to visit the island, and that Cubans and Americans would both be better off if we did.

This hearing did not have to take place.  Sitting alongside Mr. Berman will be Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the senior Republican on the Committee, an implacable foe of free travel to Cuba, who cannot be happy about sitting through a rational discussion of U.S. travel policy toward Cuba.   But beyond simple comity – the Congressional excuse for inaction wrapped in the sentiment “can’t we all just get along?” – is the matter of priorities.  Cuba, indeed Latin America, often takes second-place or third in the priorities of Congress.  Mr. Berman didn’t have to call this hearing.  But he did.

For more than a generation, Mr. Berman has been a champion in the cause of opening up channels of communication and information between Cuba and the United States.  In 1988, he punched a hole in the Cuba embargo to allow the free trade of ideas, information, and cultural content, in both directions, between our two countries.  Unlike those who posture about the power of American freedoms and ideas, Mr. Berman has had the courage to put them to work.

Often Congressional hearings are “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”  We believe this hearing can be different and will accomplish more.  The Cuba travel ban simply cannot withstand scrutiny.  It costs us freedom.  It costs us face in the region.  It costs us Americans jobs.  And what it accomplishes beyond our own isolation has been demonstrated over the decades: it accomplishes nothing.

Our opponents take the position that we must continue to punish Cuba by separating us from them.  Every incident and every problem – like the troubling attack on Cuban bloggers this week -becomes a self-justifying excuse for carrying on this failed policy even longer.  As Lou Perez has written, if sanctions like the travel ban have not yet accomplished what they set out to do, in exquisite Kafkaesque reasoning, this simply means that more time is required.

Cubans in America and on the island in growing numbers are arguing for a different course, travel for all.  “Even by a simple conversation, sharing every day experiences, Americans would demonstrate how your society is capable of constantly deepening and improving democracy, and could help our own efforts for democracy.”  Miriam Leiva and Oscar Chepe Espinosa, Cuban dissidents, said that.

Travel is communication and more.  So, what Congressman Berman says about ending the travel ban during this hearing will be immensely important.  Were he to signal that enacting the Freedom to Travel to Act would be a legislative priority for his Committee that would be a tremendously encouraging sign to the 179 sponsors of the legislation, and an important message for the White House and the United States Senate that this train is starting to move and it’s time to climb aboard.

This week in Cuba news.

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Can Valenzuela fill the void? Cuba’s economy declines; Cuban-American support rises for ending the travel ban.

November 6, 2009

Dear Friends:

Valenzuela, falling into the void or filling it?

Arturo Valenzuela, not Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina, was nominated by President Obama to run Latin America policy for his administration.  DeMint apparently thought otherwise and blocked Valenzuela’s appointment for months, because the Obama administration had its own ideas (he thought, as did we) for addressing problems like the coup in Honduras and reforming our painfully outdated and self-defeating Cuba policy.

Valenzuela was one of several highly qualified candidates to serve as President Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.  He was nominated on May 12th, but his nomination was blocked (with his predecessor Thomas Shannon) when President Mel Zelaya was driven from office by a coup in Honduras and coup supporters like Senator DeMint strode aggressively into the debate.

While U.S. diplomacy, at the outset, was aligned with regional allies and the Organization of American States, insisting on the return of President Zelaya and opposing the denial of democratic and political rights of Hondurans, DeMint and other allies became cheerleaders for the coup and aggressive opponents of the administration’s position.

Here things festered.  The state of crisis in Honduras dragged on for four months; the state of suspended animation in which Valenzuela found himself lasted five.

Finally, we were heartened when Secretary Shannon and other administration officials went to Honduras late last month and appeared to negotiate an agreement that would see an end to the political crisis in Honduras, restore democratic order, reinstitute President Zelaya, and provide a path to political legitimacy for the Honduran government before the presidential elections set for November 29th.

But as we said at that time:  “We urge the administration to be equally vigilant and tough minded as the world monitors the implementation of this accord.”  It now turns out, what was portrayed as an exercise in diplomacy may have been nothing more than an exit strategy.

Days later, the accord is falling apart, actors in Honduras seem ready to block President Zelaya’s return, and the new position of our State Department seems to be ‘we’ll just let Honduras take it from here.’

And just as the State Department relinquished its position on returning President Zelaya to office, Senator DeMint released his hold on Arturo Valenzuela’s nomination.  He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate on Thursday night.

DeMint is as content as a clam, and sounded like the winner:  “I am happy to report the Obama administration has finally reversed its misguided Honduran policy and will fully recognize the Nov. 29 elections.”

If that is an accurate representation of U.S. policy, we have flip-flopped in a very damaging way.

Think of where this leaves Honduras, and where it leaves the U.S.

Honduras remains mired in a crisis of political legitimacy.  The U.S. appears to have blundered and blunted its role as a force for democracy.   And allies in the region – many with fresh memories of coups in their own national histories – are left to question our intentions.  This crisis of confidence blankets not just Honduras but our intentions about the region more broadly.

To say the least, Mr. Valenzuela steps onto the stage at an incredibly awkward moment.  He must take decisive steps to demonstrate – and not just symbolically – that he, and not Senator DeMint, speaks for the U.S. when it comes to foreign policy toward the region.  But even more important, what Valenzuela says when he speaks is of greatest concern.

Whether it’s democracy in Honduras, progress in El Salvador, making sense of our policy toward Cuba, or aligning our nation with the aspirations of people in the region who are simply seeking a better life – these are the places where the Obama administration should be taking us in a new direction.  It is where Valenzuela’s voice must be heard; where he can insure that his confirmation fills the void that ideology and politics created to the great detriment of the United States in Latin America.  We hope that he is heard from very, very soon.

Let us now turn to Cuba’s economy, the new polling on Cuban-American travel (hint: they’re for it, and in a big way), and other news of the week.

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