New Year’s Eve Edition: U.S. calls flights to Cuba “vital part” of foreign policy; reforms and a revocation top the news.

December 30, 2010

This is our final news blast for 2010.

While the year is coming to an end, the news never stops.

Over the holiday weekend, we hope the following catches your attention as it caught ours:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice has called charter flights to Cuba from the U.S. a “vital part” of U.S. foreign policy in a filing in a lawsuit seeking $27 million from the operators of flights from the U.S. to Havana.
  • Cubans have seen a surge in remittances following the approval of new rules that allow Western Union to pay cash transfers sent from the U.S. in Cuba’s currency. The Obama rule overturns a Bush-era barrier to the sending of funds.
  • Soap and toothpaste are out as free items provided Cuban citizens on the ration card, but job applications for private sector employment and businesses are going up.  More evidence of the sweeping and serious nature of Cuba’s reforms.
  • A skilled and savvy diplomat, Bernardo Alvarez, Venezuela’s ambassador to the U.S., will return home for the second time, as relations between the U.S. and Venezuela continue to curdle.  Bernardo has one of the toughest diplomatic assignments in Washington, and he has dealt with these fluctuations with optimism and good humor. The Obama administration revoked his visa to retaliate against Venezuela’s refusal to admit our Ambassador-designate, Larry Palmer.

What we need and want in the New Year is a forward-looking foreign policy toward Latin America and the world (starting, Mr. President, with an Executive Order opening up Cuba to additional forms of travel!).

Until then, we wish you a próspero Año Nuevo.

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“Un-confuse the policy!” Plus a Happy PAC, a Mack Attack, and Pres. Castro’s reform promise for 2011 and beyond: ‘There’s No Going Back.’

December 23, 2010

This exchange, which took place at the U.S. State Department, caught our eye this week.

A correspondent submitted this question:

Does the United States put any restrictions on U.S. citizens traveling to North Korea?

And the State Department’s press office answered:

(T)he United States government does not restrict travel to North Korea.

Unlike North Korea, Cuba poses no military threat to the United States, it isn’t shelling its neighbors, it doesn’t have nuclear weapons, and it seeks a peaceful, respectful, and engaged relationship with the U.S.  Yet, it’s harder for almost all U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba than it is to go to North Korea.  Confusing, right?

But wait, there’s more.

Read this week’s news summary.  Wikileaks quotes the Cuban blogger, Yoani Sánchez, telling a State Department official that political change on the island depends on better relations with the United States.  President Raúl Castro, who asked for a direct channel to the White House (where better communications could lead to better relations), was apparently told to talk to our Interests Section in Havana if he had something to say.

When a reporter asked why we wouldn’t want direct contacts, the State Department said that would be contingent upon fundamental change in Cuba.  But, the reporter said, “I thought this Administration and this President campaigned on engagement with one’s enemies in order to change the behavior.” (So did we!)

Then P.J. Crowley, the State Department spokesman replied: “There’s no cookie-cutter approach to this. Our approach to Cuba doesn’t necessarily have to mirror our approach to Iran, which doesn’t necessarily have to mirror our approach to North Korea.” [emphasis added]

We remember Ralph Waldo Emerson’s line about how “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” but our policy toward Cuba is both inconsistent and foolish.

The pathway to the future of better relations is clear in the minds of most Americans, most Cuban Americans, our allies and adversaries around the world, and often, but not always, present in the expressions of President Obama himself.

That pathway to progress is engagement, and not continuously imposing new conditions that prevent communications and better relations between Cuba and the U.S. to move forward.

Addressing the National Assembly this week, President Castro said the economic reforms taking place in Cuba today are irreversible. At precisely this moment, when the system is being changed in fundamental ways, we think it is a good idea to send more delegations of Americans to engage with everyday Cubans, and learn how they are reshaping their lives in view of the reforms.

As we have reported since August, an executive order to legalize more travel by Americans to Cuba is ready for the President’s approval.  He should be dismantling these restrictions, straightening out the differences between Cuba and say, North Korea, and bringing the conduct of our policy toward the Cuban people more in line with our hopes for the season and the interests of our country.

It’s long past time to un-confuse the policy.

With that, we wish you Happy Holidays, and offer you a week’s worth of Cuba news. Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Wishes for Opening Travel to Cuba; New reports on the trials of Alan Gross, the trial of Posada Carriles, and the trove of WikiLeaked Cuba docs

December 17, 2010

With the holiday season before us, and a hugely consequential year of Cuba news nearly behind us, there is one report we’re still eager to file that hasn’t made news quite yet.

There’s still time this year for the President to issue an executive order that will open Cuba to non-tourist travel.   We’ll gladly blast the headlines over the holidays if he decides to take this step.  We hope he does.

During the campaign, the President promised to move our country past the stale debates of the 1960s, and pledged to end the practice of political figures talking tough in Miami and doing nothing in Washington to change Cuba policy.  Broadening opportunities for travel would help push the Cold War a little further into America’s past, and put engagement and progress on the issues that both Cuba and the U.S. care about more prominently on the front burner.

President Obama has repeatedly said he would tie loosening of U.S. sanctions to progress in Cuba on political prisoners and economic reform, and that progress is being made.  We have reported for months on prisoner releases and Cuba’s plan to reform its economy, starting with the layoffs of 500,000 state workers and reforms that they hope will enable the private sector to absorb them.   In light of these steps, the consistency and credibility of the Obama policy depends on moves like opening up non-tourist travel.

This action is not only right, but it would also be popular.  There is broad support throughout the United States and among a majority of Cuban Americans in Florida for changes in the rules on travel.  The polling shows this as does the support that has come from the religious and human rights communities, business and labor, farmers and the supporters of trade from both political parties.

The president has the authority under law, and he should use it.   He can expect some backlash, but we strongly suspect it will be overwhelmed by the applause he will receive for fulfilling his commitment, breaking from the past, and doing something that will put our nation on the right side of history.

Sure, he’ll take some flack from Cuban American political figures who represent precincts in Florida and New Jersey, but consider this:  their constituents already have the unlimited right to travel to Cuba and provide financial support to their families on the island, thanks to President Obama.  Not one of these elected officials proposes taking this right from them.   Nor should they try and thwart the ability of other Americans to visit Cuba as their constituents can and do.

Instead, President Obama should empower another group of ambassadors from our country -delegations of religious travelers, academics and cultural figures, athletes and others – people who can share their ideas with Cubans during this moment of uncertainty on the island, and listen and learn from the Cuban people at the very same time.

While we support travel for all Americans, an Executive Order broadening travel to Cuba is an action that President Obama can take now, one that will serve the U.S. national interest and convey real benefits to the people of Cuba as they find their place and build a new future on a new paradigm for their country.

It’s the right thing for the President to do, and were he to act this month, it would be a great holiday gift for us all.

This week in the news blast, we provide updates on the case of Alan Gross, the trial of Luis Posada Carriles, detailed information about the reform debate on Cuba, and a summary of the real news that continues to pour forth from WikiLeaks.  Enjoy!

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

Hardball with Ileana; A trial date for Posada Carriles; Hanukkah candles in Havana and Cigars in Chicago – Holy Smokes!

December 10, 2010

On this International Human Rights Day, here’s what’s leading the news this week.

Elections have consequences.

The incoming House Majority voted to hand the gavel to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who will chair the Foreign Affairs Committee, and pledged to play hardball and isolate our adversaries.  At least one diplomat in the region took notice (check out his essay in our section, Recommended Reading) and outlined the risks that are now being posed to U.S. foreign policy by the resurgent Cold Warrior mentality in Congress.

The end of ‘justice delayed’?

We’re one month away from the opening of the long-delayed trial in El Paso, Texas, which will determine the status of Luis Posada Carriles, the mastermind behind the bombing of Cubana Airlines Flight 455, who entered the U.S. illegally five years ago and is charged with perjury and naturalization fraud.  This week, the Miami Herald foreshadowed the trial which is set to begin on January 11th and the unique development of an American prosecution offering evidence jointly collected by Cuban and U.S. investigators.  While some liken this immigration case to charging Al Capone with tax evasion, we may be seeing justice after decades and decades of delay in dealing with this hardened terrorist.

A happy Hanukkah for some, but not for all.

President Raúl Castro lit a menorah with the Jewish community in Havana, and while he didn’t mention jailed contractor Alan Gross, he did urge Cubans to debate the economic reforms that will fundamentally shift the paradigm in Cuba and alter relations between the state and its citizens, their benefits, and livelihoods.  We cover both the President’s comments and, separately, the continuing controversy in the U.S. and Cuba over the USAID regime-change program that landed Mr. Gross in prison more than one year ago.

Close, but no cigars.

Somebody tried to smuggle at least 30,000 Cuban cigars into the United States through Customs at O’Hare International Airport.  But you can’t fool the crafty agents standing guard in Chicago, where they normally confiscate between 10-12 cigars each week.  70,000 more stogies are under inspection.  That embargo – what a pain in the ash!

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

A painful anniversary and a hopeful call for action

December 3, 2010

Dear Friends:

One year ago, Alan Gross, a subcontractor to USAID, was detained by Cuba’s government, where he remains in custody and without charges.

The U.S. and Cuba offer conflicting explanations of the activities that led to his arrest, though even the most benign description of them (including his entry into Cuba on several occasions using a tourist visa, and the disputed suggestion he was helping Cuba’s Jewish community connect to the Internet) on their face portray violations of a more than decade-old Cuban law.

Also in dispute is whether Mr. Gross knew the risks associated with his trips to Cuba.  His family maintains that he did not, which implicates both his employer and the U.S. government in rather insensate acts of cruelty and risk-taking.  But even if he did know, Mr. Gross (like so many others on both sides of the Florida Straits) is another victim of a policy designed during the Cold War to upend Cuba’s government that is both ineffective and horribly flawed.

Whatever Mr. Gross’s state of knowledge at the time of his arrest, this much is clear: he and his family are suffering immensely.  He is in captivity with no knowledge, now, of his fate.  He and his family are separated.  His daughter is ill with breast cancer, and her father is unable to comfort her.  His congregation and his friends miss him dearly.  His wife faces all of this largely alone.  We wish they would be reunited right away.

Judy Gross has soldiered on bravely for a year since her husband’s arrest.  Her perspective on his case was summarized eloquently several weeks ago in the Miami Herald.  She wants him to come home, and her pleas for a humanitarian release to Cuba’s government have, to date, gone unheeded.

The State Department and hardened opponents of Cuba policy reform invoke Alan Gross’s case as a rationale for delaying or blocking meaningful reform of U.S. policy toward the island.  Judy Gross apparently feels quite differently.  As she wrote in the Herald:

This is my plea to Presidents Obama and Castro: Be different from your predecessors, change the tide of bilateral relations. I call on President Obama, in whom my husband believes so much, to not forget his pledge of a “new beginning” in relations with Cuba. And I call on President Castro to continue working on improving Cuba’s human rights record. To both, I beg: Do not make Alan’s case an excuse to fall further apart, but rather an example of a new era in U.S.-Cuba relations (emphasis added).

Judy Gross is right.

U.S. policy at its core contains the source of its greatest failure.  By definition, whether we tighten or loosen the policy depends on what Cuba says or does. We dance on the end of a string held in Havana.

Rather than sticking with a failed policy guaranteed to fail further, there are better ways to serve the interests of U.S. foreign policy:  it begins with engagement and a greater focus on U.S. interests and ideals.

We believe that citizens of both countries should be able to visit Cuba and the U.S. without needless government interference.  The U.S. should take the first step and set an example by repealing the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.  Congress failed this year to enact legislation to achieve this objective, despite significant support in the House and Senate among both political parties.  With the upcoming change in the House of Representatives taking place in January, that goal appears even further out of reach for the foreseeable future.

President Obama, as we have reported since August, has been contemplating an Executive Order that would use his administrative authority to open travel to Cuba – not to tourism, as we would support – but for delegations serving cultural, sports, and research objectives as well as more expansive academic purposes.

These so-called People to People exchanges are precisely in line with larger U.S. policy objectives.  They foster dialogue and produce new sources of information for Cuba’s people.  They would expand the benefits already being produced by Obama’s decision last year to free Cuban Americans of the Bush-era restrictions against travel to the island to visit or support their families.

They will help create additional political space for an increasing pattern of engagement in both nations.  Acting now would be consistent with the President’s off-statement commitment to loosen restrictions on U.S. policy in response to measures taken by Cuba’s government to release political prisoners and to make economic reforms that would make Cubans less dependent on their government.

Supporters of the status quo always have a reason for keeping this policy, unchanged or worse, no matter what is happening in Cuba.  They operate in a fact-free zone that long ago pulled its roots from reality or objective analysis.  That may be the right place for them, but it is no place for President Obama or for reasonable men and women of good will who want to see progress.

We’re honored and thankful that Mrs. Gross, especially in view of her hardship, supports this new direction.  It is time for the President to join her – and us – in charting a new, more hopeful course.

Please join us in expressing these views in support of travel to Cuba to the President.  The Latin America Working Group has posted this petition which we hope you will sign.

This week is The Cuba Central Team reports in depth – on economic reforms in Cuba, the latest news about prisoner releases, and revelations about U.S. foreign policy, concerning Cuba and Latin America, laid bare by the WikiLeaks disclosures.

And now, this week in Cuba news…

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