Legislation to End Cuba Travel Ban Set for Committee Vote

September 24, 2010

Earlier this week, Congressman Howard Berman said, “I am totally committed to getting rid of the travel ban” that stops Americans from freely visiting Cuba.

Late Wednesday evening, Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made good on that commitment and scheduled a legislative mark-up of the legislation, H.R. 4645, that would enable all Americans to visit the island.

Berman has been trying since 1986 to get rid of the travel ban.  It’s easy to argue that it’s never a bad time to end a bad policy.  But just days before the Congressional recess, and weeks before 2010 Congressional elections, Berman has chosen a very difficult moment to challenge the stranglehold that embargo supporters have held on progress and to force committee consideration of this measure.  Yet, circumstances in Cuba and here in the U.S. have compelled him to try.

For its part, Cuba is taking strong and difficult measures to address its economic conditions.  As one analyst said, when the state announced layoffs of 500,000 workers from its payrolls, it was multiplying its official rate of unemployment six-fold, without assurances that the modest reforms it announced would enable Cuba’s nascent private sector to absorb the unemployed.

This is larger than an economic decision; it is a sharp departure from a social contract that has existed in Cuba since the Revolution.  We said this last week and it bears repeating – even in a one-party state, this is a tough decision to take politically, and it is happening at the same time as Cuba is making good on its promise to release dozens of political prisoners.

Cuba’s government is taking these steps to revitalize its society, not to salve relations with the United States, but these are measures we’ve been asking them to take for decades as the price for changing U.S. policy.

Berman is not standing alone in recognizing that this is the right time to act.  In the last week, there has been a remarkable chorus of editorial opinion in U.S. newspapers – starting with calls to change U.S. policy and an endorsement of the travel legislation, but culminating in calls for an end to the embargo itself.

In Loveland, Colorado, the Reporter Herald said:

The U.S. can either continue to shun Cuba and punish Fidel Castro for the actions of a previous generation, possibly leading to a new wave of immigrants washing ashore in Florida, or we can reach out and try to help both of our nations recover from this recession.

The Providence Journal said:

Cuba has been bankrupt for 20 years, since the Soviet Union, which used to buy its sugar crop at inflated prices, went south, but this is the country’s first real step away from a planned economy. As such, it comes very late — the process will have many more steps and take a long time. In any event, the U.S. should end its trade embargo and travel restrictions regarding Cuba.

The Journal Star of Peoria wrote:

For too long the Cuban government has used the U.S. embargo as an excuse for the ongoing deprivation its citizens endure.   Not only did this provide their autocratic government with a convenient whipping boy – don’t blame us, blame the Americans! – it also permitted their leaders to retain a stranglehold over the island by overseeing state-run industries in nearly every economic sector and being the only source most Cubans could turn to for food, clothing and shelter.  In any case, nearly 50 years of trade restrictions haven’t achieved the desired result….

The Chattanooga Times Free Press said:

The long-standing embargo that restricts trade between the United States and Cuba remains in place. The ban has never been effective. Its main accomplishment is negative rather than positive. It keeps U.S. firms out of the Cuban marketplace as others, particularly from Europe and other hemispheric nations, rush in to take advantage of the looser regulations now governing trade and commerce in Cuba.   Congress should end the trade embargo.

The Boston Herald Editorial Board, in an editorial called “Hit Reset on Cuba,” said this about U.S. policy toward Cuba:

With Cuba giving up communism, the United States should give up its trade embargo against the island. There is no point in beating this proverbial dead horse.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch endorsed the legislation before Berman’s Committee saying:

The hardest of Cuba’s hardliners are softening their rigid doctrine. The U.S. government should remain skeptical to ensure that any changes are real and fundamental. Yet the anti-Castro hardliners in Miami and a vocal minority in Congress no longer should reflexively block U.S. policy changes that would further open Cuba.

Berman told Reuters, “I’m not going to bring it up to lose.”  He should not have to try.  Along with editorial expressions of support for changing U.S. policy, the voices of reasonable men and women of good will should also be heard.  There are many ways to express your opinion about why the travel ban should be lifted, but there isn’t much time left to do so.  The Latin America Working Group offers a convenient way to tell policy makers to do the right thing in Berman’s Committee next week.

The easy way out is for Congress to say it’s a bad time politically, but that’s not leadership and it’s not the right way to act at this critical time.  As former Senator Gary Hart liked to say, “The easy path is the beaten path, but the beaten path seldom leads to the future.”

The mark-up will be available for viewing via webcast on the committee website.  You’ll be able to see for yourself which path the committee has chosen. Read the rest of this entry »

As Cuban Layoffs Are Announced, and More Prisoners Released, Where’s Obama?

September 17, 2010

We return this week to a theme that has preoccupied us for months – why, in the face of really big changes taking place in Cuba, is the President so utterly failing to capitalize on these developments, even to help realize the goals of his own policy?

For some U.S. political figures in both parties, there is nothing that Cuba could do – short of dissolving its government and economic system unilaterally to curry favor with the United States – that would satisfy their definitions of progress.  But President Barack Obama was not supposed to be from that school of thought – not because we imagined him or wanted him to be different, but because he declared himself to be.

Let us not forget in the 2008 presidential campaign that he expressed his willingness to meet with President Raúl Castro, with an agenda and with pre-planning, if there were something real to discuss.   He said on one occasion “I would never, ever, rule out a course of action that could advance the cause of liberty.”  He promised not to substitute posturing for serious policy – “we have seen too much of that in other areas over the past six years.

He said before the Cuban American National Foundation and in an early op-ed column in the Miami Herald that political prisoners in Cuba required justice, that a goal of U.S. policy was to make Cuban families less dependent on the Castro regime, and that efforts by Cuba’s government to liberalize its system would be met by steps to help solidify openings into lasting change.

As we published this news summary, Cuba’s Catholic Church revealed the names of four more political prisoners to be released, under the agreement it made with the government this spring, which will bring to 36 the number of dissidents freed.  The agreement calls for all 52 of the remaining prisoners from the 2003 round up to be let go.  As we previously reported, this agreement is not uncontroversial among hardliners in the government or the Cuban communist party, but it is being honored nonetheless.

This week, Cuba’s government also announced that it would layoff 500,000 Cuban citizens on state payrolls and take steps to help the private sector economy absorb them, which sounds an awful lot to us like they will be less dependent on the government.

These changes, along with others already made, are redefining, as many analysts have written, Cuba’s social contract with its own people, and represent extraordinarily difficult decisions taken even in the context of a one-party state.

In other words, the conditions that President Obama articulated as core to his policy toward Cuba are beginning to be realized.   While Cuba rejects the notion that actions it takes can or should be linked to gestures that liberalize U.S. policy – that is Obama’s policy.  Which is why, we have argued, week after week, that the President is undermining the credibility of his Cuba program by failing to act in response to what Cuba is doing.

We were heartened earlier this summer by repeated declarations by Administration officials – admittedly under the cover journalists call “background” – who promised action.  Obama would use his executive authority to ease limits on travel short of tourism (academic, religious, cultural, sports, and the like) not expressly to reward the prisoner release, but doing exactly that in practice.

But as summer rapidly turns to fall, the prospects for positive action are appearing to dim.

Given a chance to reflect on reforms in Cuba resulting in layoffs for ten percent of the nation’s workforce, P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman said, “I mean, we’re looking for action by Cuba, but I don’t have a particular comment on what they’ve announced.”

Democratic leaders are being advised that action on travel – by the White House or Congress – would be politically inconvenient before November.  According to Congressional Quarterly, Rep. Albio Sires said “this is not something you want to do now,” but changing Cuba policy is something he opposes all the time.

Others – like Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela – blame Cuba for continuing to detain Alan Gross, saying action on liberalizing policy is not possible while he remains in prison.  Well, we have called repeatedly on Cuba to release Mr. Gross, but making progress on ideas like the freedom to travel hostage to a resolution of his case is not going to spring Mr. Gross any time soon.

Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Jewish Cuban-American, recently reminded us that Alan Gross is a prisoner because he was perceived by the Cuban government as “a promoter of regime change caught in enemy territory,” and that ending the travel ban would honor his purpose in traveling to Cuba, by bringing information and contacts to the Cuban people by the thousands through the front door, rather than by one-by-one efforts funded through regime change programs entered through a dangerous back door.

Blaming Gross, blaming politics, and blaming Fidel Castro are excuses for inaction, posturing instead of policy making, and precisely what, as a candidate, the president promised we would not get from him.

Failing to act has real consequences.  It says to the Cubans that Obama, despite his words to the contrary and some very positive but small steps, is not the sharp departure from the past that he said he would be.  Inaction sends a message to Cuban hardliners that the U.S. is simply unreachable and unreasonable no matter how many reforms the government undertakes.    Inaction will also send them a message about the reforms that Obama is undertaking of the now discredited and dangerous USAID program that landed Mr. Gross in prison in the first place.

The National Security Program of the Third Way recently argued that refusing to engage Cuba or to help the reforms move forward puts the U.S. in weak position to criticize the Cuban government.  By opting for silence over action we ignore the history of transitions, as Tomas Bilbao wrote recently, which teaches us to encourage even incremental steps when they happen.

What we’re asking Obama and the Congress to do isn’t politically difficult.  After all, we are asking them to restore the constitutional rights of Americans to travel, to create jobs and profits here in America by opening up the Cuban market to travel and trade, to put money in the pockets of Cuban families by creating more tourism jobs on the island when their economy needs more private sector activity, and to honor the pleas of the Cuban people that we end the ban on travel as a sign of solidarity to Cuba’s civil society.

It’s all easy in comparison to what Cubans are experiencing.  We should be on their side and acting – strongly and promptly – as the President led us to believe he would do. Read the rest of this entry »

Berman Determined, Castro Candid, and the Loss of Lucius

September 10, 2010

These items caught our eyes as we scanned and gathered the headlines for this week’s news summary.

Racing against the deadline of the Congressional recess and elections looming in November, Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed his determination to find the votes he needs to pass legislation – this year – to end the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.

Berman, a Member of Congress since 1983, has made better relations with Cuba a cornerstone of his career’s work.  Action on the travel legislation in his committee will advance prospects for travel reforms by the administration and in the Congress.

In a series of candid comments, Cuba’s former president, Fidel Castro, took issue with anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial in Iran, and later told Jeffrey Goldberg of Atlantic magazine, “The Cuban (economic) model doesn’t even work for us anymore,” when he was asked if it was something still worth exporting.

Since his recent return to prominence in Cuba’s media, the elder Castro appears to be clearing political space for his brother, President Raúl Castro, to mend the Cuban economy and address Cuba’s standing globally, while also tending to his own legacy.

Finally, we pay our respects – and he earned them – to Reverend Lucius Walker, age 80, who passed away his week, after leading 21 annual caravans to Cuba, providing supplies and support for the Cuban people, in defiance of the U.S. embargo.  His work was guided by the notion that the arc of history bends toward justice, and his open, honest activism for better relations between Cuba and the United States will be missed.

These developments and more are covered this week in Cuba news…

Read the rest of this entry »

Happy Labor Day edition of Cuba Central’s News Blast

September 3, 2010

This is the beginning of the Labor Day weekend in the U.S.  We begin by wishing our U.S. readers a happy holiday.

A day celebrating the rights and lives of American workers was made a national holiday by an Act of the U.S. Congress in the 1890s, in the midst of horrible and violent strife in the U.S., when workers were asserting their rights and the government and big corporations acted in concert against them.

Although the movement for creation of a day to honor workers had been growing for some time, protests against the harsh methods used to put down strikes crystalized the political forces in the U.S., and legislation was adopted unanimously by both Houses of the Congress to create Labor Day just ahead of the 1894 elections.  This story was well told by PBS here.

The law was offered as an act of reconciliation.  Although the intervening years for working Americans have not always been easy, the symbolism of devoting at least one day to peace (and yes, backyards, baseball, and barbeques) remained quite strong.

As we enter the Labor Day weekend, readers in the U.S. saw unemployment climb a notch to 9.6% and, with that, increased rumblings among politicians about various ideas to jumpstart the economy.  One proposal, awaiting action by the House Foreign Relations Committee, is the Travel Restriction Reform and Export Enhancement Act, H.R. 4645, the Peterson-Moran bill.

This legislation would lift the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans, and remove key impediments to agriculture sales by U.S. farmers and ranchers to the island, creating thousands of jobs in agriculture, travel and tourism, retail and financial services.  One estimate sees $365 million in new export earnings and $1.1 billion in additional business activity.  Adoption of this legislation would be good for U.S. workers and their families, and would cost taxpayers nothing.

Talk about reconciliation.  Champions of the freedom to travel to Cuba and enhanced agriculture sales include groups who often occupy opposite sides of the political divide:  the AFL-CIO, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch.

What brings them together is an understanding that what has divided the United States and Cuba in the past can better be addressed by bringing both countries closer together.  Our economies would be stronger, and the prospects that average Americans and Cubans could live more prosperous and independent lives would improve if we dismantled the sanctions and suspicions that have characterized our relations for more than fifty years.

Just think about how reconciliation could change what we report each week by reading the news below.  No more declarations putting commerce with Cuba under the Trading With the Enemy Act.  No more barriers to U.S. businesses discussing piracy in the Cuban market.  No more incentives in U.S. law for illegal migration from the island.  An end, finally, to the U.S. sitting on the sidelines while Spain and Cuba’s Catholic Church engage in respectful but productive discussions that produce positive political changes.

Let’s hope President Obama and the Members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee think creatively after the holiday weekend about creating jobs and a pathway for reconciliation with Cuba.  The President should open up Cuba for all categories of previously authorized purposeful travel, and then tell Congress to lift the travel ban for all Americans.  Achieving the goal of reconciliation is a job for us all.

Read the rest of this entry »