Talk about travel, Progress on prisoner releases, Rumors of reforms

August 27, 2010

There is a cacophony of opinion being expressed on travel these days.   As we wait for the President and Congress to act, now is the time to raise our voices so that the pro-travel position is heard – and heeded – in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

Why is this moment so important?  President Obama has pegged future progress on reforming Cuba policy to actions by the Cuban government on issues such as releasing political prisoners.  While Cuba rejects this linkage, the government has worked with Spain and Cuba’s Catholic Church on an agreement that provides for the release of all 52 prisoners rounded up in March 2003, a significant breakthrough.  The credibility of the president’s policy now depends on the U.S. responding in an affirmative way.  Congress is also watching the president carefully, with legislation to end the travel ban pending in the House.

Silence on our side would be a huge mistake.  The powerfully influential pro-embargo lobby has already pressed its case.  Last week, five Cuban American Members of Congress challenged the legal basis of expanding categories of travel in a letter to President Obama.

In it, they warn the President against using his authority to expand travel to the island – whether it’s adding new airports to accommodate more departures or providing general licenses for cultural and academic exchange, even religious travel – labeling such changes as tourism and violations of Helms-Burton.   The full text of the letter can be found here.

Left unsaid, however, is this inconvenient truth.  The president’s decision to remove restrictions on what is called ‘family travel,’ motivated by his well-founded desire to reunite divided families, has also led to a double-digit jump in tourism by Cuban Americans to Cuba, according to statistics provided to us by a foreign investor in Cuba’s hotels, including visits to beachfront hotels.

But you don’t hear the opponents of travel by other Americans demanding the rollback of travel by Cuban Americans, even though ‘travel supports the regime,’ as they like to say, and you never will.

We have no beef against family travel, just the opposite.  The Cuban family has suffered decades of separation – made worse by Bush-era rules that tried to eliminate even Cuban American visits to the island – and the Obama administration was right to restore them without limits as it did last year.  We are thankful that many Cuban families in this country have the resources to take their kin on the island for vacations they could not afford on their own.

But nothing as fundamental as the right to travel should be diluted or degraded by a form of second-class citizenship.  That right belongs to us all – no matter our heritage – and that is why this moment in the debate is so important and commands our attention and active involvement.

First, as we have said for several weeks, now is the time for President Obama to use the fullest extent of his authority to restore all of the categories of travel that opened during the Clinton administration but were banished by Bush.  Three of our Congressional champions – Reps. Jim McGovern, Jo Ann Emerson, and Rosa DeLauro – make this case, sharply and clearly, in this well-argued letter to the President.  They speak for scores of their colleagues in Congress and for all of us.

Second, once Obama acts, this will be a profoundly important signal to Congress to finish the job and to open all forms of travel to Cuba for all Americans.  That is where our activism is especially needed now.

The Latin American Working Group (LAWG) has posted this petition on Change.org that asks the Congress to end the travel ban for all Americans.   Signing this petition will result in an email being sent to your Representative in Congress signaling your support for H.R. 4645, the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act – the bill to open travel for all of us, and to increase the sales of food to help average Cubans on the island.

We want President Obama to act and hope he does so soon.  But remember – only Congress has the authority to open up travel to Cuba fully, and they need to hear from us to ensure that we capitalize on this moment to move Cuba policy in the right direction.

Now is the time for us all to be heard. Read the rest of this entry »

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Waiting in Washington, Drilling in the Gulf, Appointing (Maria del Carmen) Aponte

August 20, 2010

Every drum roll ought to end in a cymbal crash, every lightning strike ends with thunder, and after one of the longer roll-outs (or worst kept secrets) in the annals of U.S. policy making, someday, perhaps even today, the Obama administration will use its executive authority to drop most regulatory restrictions on the right of Americans to travel to Cuba.

If the enthusiasm of the audience waiting for this change has dissipated somewhat – as anticipation gave way to curiosity and then impatience – the importance of what we expect to happen should not be overlooked.

While the Cuban government rejects linkage, President Obama has repeatedly tied further progress on loosening sanctions to actions such as the release of political prisoners on the island.  In a sense, the President imposed conditions on himself; once Cuba reached a separate agreement with Cuba’s Catholic Church and Spain to free the remaining 52 prisoners who had been captive since the March 2003 round-up, an action by the U.S. in response to the release has seemed inevitable.  Otherwise, the credibility of the president’s policy would be shredded.

Spain and the Church won this agreement because they did something that our government won’t – they sat down with Cuba’s leadership, negotiated, and got it done.  That was in May.  Expectation has built since then for a U.S. response.  Sources chattering to the media in recent days have raised expectations further that an action relating to the freedom to travel, and related matters, is in the offing.

With the Congressional recess in process, a presidential fundraising trip to Florida behind them, the press crescendo is building.  In a twist on the phrase “no good deed goes unpunished,” the administration is already being criticized for changes, not yet unveiled, because they don’t go far enough!

As the Boston Globe editorialized, “America’s embargo of Cuba has taken on the mindless rigidity of a tribal vendetta that continues to be pursued no matter how stultifying it may be to new generations. So reports that the Obama administration is preparing to loosen some restrictions on travel to Cuba for academic, cultural, and religious groups merit only tepid applause.”

Like the Globe, we think all travel restrictions and the embargo itself should be removed unilaterally.  We also live in the real world and know that isn’t going to happen, even though it should.  What we’re hoping for is this:  a robust, not tepid, change in travel rules that takes us beyond where things stood under President Clinton, with restrictions on all visits to the island short of tourism dropped in an exercise of the president’s authority.

Mr. Obama should use the impending changes in travel rules to signal Congress that the old policy of restricting our travel rights needs to be dumped and that a new era of engagement ought to begin now.

Then, we’d like to see Congress use its authority to open up travel for everyone, all Americans, including tourists – not as a gesture for Cuba’s prisoner release, but as an acknowledgment that punishing Cuba with sanctions that hurt Americans is self-defeating and an embarrassment to a nation that views itself as a champion of democratic rights and values.

The White House needs to start the ball rolling.  So, forgive the illusion to Nike, but Mr. President, just do it.

After talking about travel, we discuss news about drilling for oil off Cuba’s North Coast, more prisoner releases and more questions about human rights, and another exercise of presidential authority to fill the long vacant embassy in El Salvador.

This week in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »


News about Travel, TWEA, Testing the Embargo, and a shark cage!

August 13, 2010

Dear Reader:

This has to be a metaphor for something.

Diana Nyad, a former world-record holding American swimmer, who is renowned for long distance aquatic feats such as circling Manhattan Island in just seven hours, has set her sights once again on swimming from Cuba to the United States, a distance of approximately 103 miles.

Nyad last tried to cross the Florida Straits in her bathing suit in 1978, but was pulled from the water, as Florida Today describes it, after more than 41 hours of swimming had taken her horribly off course in a raging sea.  Now, at the doorstep of her 61st birthday, she is planning to repeat and finish the swim she started thirty-two years ago – without a shark cage! – so long as she gets approval from both governments for her to do so.

We hope she gets permission.  But we’d like to point out that most Americans are barred by U.S. law – not by Cuba’s government, but by our government – to make this journey through more conventional means for any purpose – be it tourism, evangelism, or the pursuit of art or culture.

Thankfully, the Obama administration acted a year ago, ending a cruel and politically-driven barrier erected by the Bush administration, to restore the rights of Americans of Cuban descent to visit their families on the island.  They are doing so in massive numbers, providing support – emotional and financial – to their Cuban kin, even taking them on vacations to Cuba’s resorts.

This right to travel, however, is and ought to be the birthright of every American, regardless of his heritage or heroic athletic endowments.  A bill to end the travel ban is currently before the Congress.  The effort to pass the Peterson-Moran bill, H.R. 4645, before the legislative session ends, would become much easier if the Obama administration were to make its support for broader travel opportunities to Cuba better known.

It may be poised to do so.  Press reports – explored in detail below – strongly suggest that the Obama administration will loosen regulatory restrictions on so-called “purposeful travel” as early as this month.  We do not know how extensive these changes might be.

But if the President were to open broadly categories of travel to Cuba that existed during the Clinton Administration, that would be a clear signal that the President wants to change policy, and an invitation to the Congress to complete what the President has started.   Only Congress has the authority to repeal all limits on travel against the right of Americans to visit the island, and it should do so this year.

And if the Congress is politically fearful to take this step, we know where they can find a shark cage to protect them.

This week in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »


Raúl’s Reform Report and Retort, a Cardinal in Washington, and Soldier of Fortune Blasts the Embargo!

August 6, 2010

In this week’s edition of the news blast, we provide detailed coverage of President Raúl Castro’s address before Cuba’s National Assembly.

In short, it was a reform report and retort – meaning, Cuba will shrink its public payroll and loosen the strings on businesses and self-employment, but do all this and more under a socialist rubric. The remarks of Cuba’s president included a rebuke of “self-titled” Cuba analysts who are predicting the demise of Cuba’s system as a means of restoring Cuba’s economy.

In this week’s edition of “Brother, where are thou?” we report on former President Fidel Castro’s plan to address Cuba’s National Assembly about the prospects for nuclear war and global conflict.

In our continuing reports on Cuba’s prisoner release and its potential impact on U.S. policy, read about Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s second visit to Washington, DC this summer, his official audience with National Security Advisor James Jones, and his media comments stating that all prisoners will be released “soon.”

Given our perpetual fascination with just how out of step U.S. policy toward Cuba continues to be, we could hardly resist the news that the embargo will be blasted in October’s issue of Soldier of Fortune magazine in an article co-written by the former news director of Radio Martí and the former Latin America editor of the Miami Herald.

Who’s left supporting the embargo besides the Cold Warriors who have lost track of time, the hardest of the hardliners in the exile community, and, gulp, President Obama?

To be fair, the President has inched U.S. policy in the right direction – restoring family travel to Cuba, opening direct talks with Cuba’s government on migration and mail, offering a significant rise in non-immigrant visas, and encouraging limited increases in cultural exchange.  It’s all good.

But it’s not enough.

We’re troubled by news this week that President Obama has once again (falsely) identified Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, something that U.S. national security professionals regard as a political prevarication and an argument for Raúl Castro’s comment about the U.S. – nothing has changed.

We’re puzzled by the administration’s meager response to Cuba’s agreement to release 52 political prisoners, since the President made significant changes in U.S. policy conditional on exactly such actions by Cuba.

We’re mystified that while Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor, continues his confinement in a Cuban prison, the administration is offering more funding for subcontractors to distribute funds  to Cuban citizens, in an effort to stimulate Cuba’s private sector, that remain illegal for them to accept.

We would like to believe that Mr. Gross – who presumably violated Cuban law by entering the country on a tourist visa to distribute communications equipment, without registering as an agent of the U.S. government – could be freed from custody on humanitarian grounds, especially after an eight-month detention in which he has not yet even been charged.  We would like to see him reunited with his wife, his family, and his congregation.

But we are astonished that as the U.S. government demands his release, it is simultaneously creating new opportunities for more arrests and detentions by individuals receiving USAID funds who would carry out this new private sector program without a host country agreement with Cuba.

Instead, as the Miami Herald reports, letters from USAID to contractors include the warning: “Given the nature of the Cuban regime and the political sensitivity of the USAID program, USAID cannot be held responsible for any injury or inconvenience suffered by individuals traveling to the island under USAID grant funding.”

It reminds us of the famous disclaimer on Mission Impossible– “The Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions.”  It isn’t funny; it’s irresponsible.

It’s also frustrating.  We continue to believe the President knows better.  We strongly believe that the correct course is more travel, more trade, and more engagement.  That’s a simple statement that applies to U.S. policy toward virtually every country in the world.  It ought to apply to Cuba.  Even Soldier of Fortune knows that.

This week in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »