That was fast! New Travel Rules Released, New Directions in Cuba and the U.S.

January 28, 2011

It took just two weeks for the Obama administration to publish the final rules that provide the regulatory framework for expanded travel rights to Cuba along with new opportunities for all Americans to send remittances to the Cuban people.

Although the policy change had been anticipated since August, once the decision was announced the Obama administration demonstrated no uncertainty in getting the new regulations out and increasing opportunities for travel to Cuba.

After freeing Cuban Americans to visit the island and provide financial support for their Cuban families on an unlimited basis, the number of Americans visiting Cuba tripled to at least 300,000.  Experts believe that the new rules will have a similar impact.

Last week, we cited statements of support from dissidents in Cuba, the Cuba Study Group, CANF, the Archbishop of Miami, Human Rights Watch, the National Council of Churches, farm and travel organizations, NGOs that advocate for travel rights, and Members of Congress like Senator John Kerry and Rep. Jeff Flake.

This week, the administration continued to receive applause from diverse sources eager to take advantage of the reforms.

The Alliance of Baptists – whose churches have partnerships with sister congregations in Cuba – embraced the changes and said “we anticipate the day when Congress removes all travel restrictions and opens travel to Cuba for all U.S. citizens.”

The editorial board of the Oklahoma Daily said the move “has great potential to improve relations between the U.S. and the small communist island.”

Travel operators in Florida and elsewhere reported a surge of interest among Americans wanting to travel to Cuba.  “The announcement has generated great interest in going,” said Mayra Alonso speaking for Marazul.  “It’s been crazy,” said Leonardo Echevarria of legalcubatravel.com.  Insight Cuba, which calls itself the leading provider of legal people-to-people educational travel, announced it would apply to renew its license.

A little poll by the Jersey Journal came forward with a small sample but a big result:  87% support for the new travel and remittance regulations (news bulletin for Senator Menendez?).

The new travel activity generated by the president’s announcement comes at an important time in Cuban life, where economic reforms are allowing average Cubans to open businesses and create a living for themselves.  As the Associated Press reported this week, Julio Cesar Hidalgo is preparing to open a “stand-up pizza joint.”

Hidalgo told reporters: “It’s not going to make me rich, but I will be working in my own home and I’ll be my own boss.”

Not everyone will benefit from the reforms.   For example, while colleges and universities in forty-nine U.S. states could expand their study abroad programs to include Cuba, a 2006 state law prohibits institutions in Florida from using state funds or tapping into their own budgets for travel to “terror states” including Cuba.

Think about this.  The changes offered by the President are a departure from the past.  Before, the most committed supporters of the embargo imposed their views about who should travel to Cuba on everyone.  Virtually no one could make the trip.  When President Obama opened up Cuban American travel, it opened the door for families to travel to Cuba, and no one exercised a veto.  Now, because of Obama’s bold action, there will be an upsurge in non-tourist travel by thousands of Americans from across our country.

The American people will benefit from this opportunity and so will citizens and entrepreneurs across Cuba.   Someday this freedom to travel will belong to everyone – including students in Florida and the Cuban people.  In the meanwhile, we commend the Administration for continuing to move forward to modernize U.S. policy. Read the rest of this entry »


Obama’s directive expanding non-tourist travel wins broad-based support

January 21, 2011

Late last week, when President Obama announced the broadest opening for travel by Americans to Cuba in more than a decade, we offered as much information as possible about this breaking and important news.

This week, the scope of the directive and the building support it is receiving have come more fully into view.

The White House directive expands “purposeful travel” for academic, religious and cultural groups; allows all Americans to send funds to non-family members on the island, excluding “senior Cuban government officials or senior members of the Cuban Communist Party;” and relaxes guidelines so more U.S. airports can offer flights to the island.

The White House said these steps are intended to “increase people-to-people contact; support civil society in Cuba; enhance the free flow of information to, from, and among the Cuban people; and help promote their independence from Cuban authorities.” The changes described in interim regulations will be formally released in about two weeks.

This package of reforms builds on steps taken by President Obama in 2009 to remove all travel restrictions on Cuban Americans and all limits on the financial support they can provide to family members on the island.  According to the New York Times, the long-expected change expands upon “people-to-people” provisions first established under President Clinton.

Under the new regulations, any American can send remittances to non-family members in Cuba with a $2,000 per year limit.  Restrictions on flights are also significantly loosened. Currently only Miami, New York and Los Angeles are licensed to serve as U.S. ports to Cuba. Under the new regulations, any U.S. international airport with appropriate facilities, customs and security can be a gateway city for charter flights if a charter company flying from that airport applies for a license.

From Cuba to the United States, from academics to activists, from church leaders to political leaders, the new rules received nearly universal acclaim.

Renowned dissidents Oscar Espinosa Chepe and Miriam Leiva, Laura Pollan of the Damas de Blanco, and Elizardo Sanchez of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission all made public statements in support of the new regulations.

Ordinary Cubans support them as well.  As the Global Post reported, “Cubans starting micro-businesses and going to work for themselves as a result of Raúl Castro’s recent economic reforms might be among the biggest beneficiaries, especially those who rent rooms to tourists and operate small restaurants in their homes.”

Many of the greatest advocates for human rights in the U.S. – including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Church World Services, the National Council of Churches, and Human Rights Watch – endorsed the reforms.

Educational institutions expressed their eagerness to increase the number of programs and students studying in Cuba.  Trade associations for agriculture and the tourism industry were also quick to praise the President’s move, though they had hoped for an expansion of travel rights and agricultural trade under legislation which the 111th Congress failed to pass last year.

Another supporter of engagement, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Senator John Kerry, praised the announcement, saying it will “open the way for the good will of citizens of both countries to forge deeper ties that are in our national interest today and in the future.”

One remarkable dimension of the announcement was the split that opened in Florida and the broader Cuban American community between those who have made a transition and can now see past the existing system of sanctions to a new U.S.-Cuba relationship and those who remain invested in the status quo.

The Cuba Study Group and the Cuban American National Foundation, both based in Florida, announced their support for Obama’s changes.  The Archbishop of Miami, Thomas Wenski, offered his approval and noted the Obama announcement came on the same day as the Vatican’s beatification of Pope John Paul II, who famously called in 1998 for Cuba to open up the world, and opening up the world to Cuba.

The St. Petersburg Times and the Palm Beach Post editorialized in favor of the changes. The possibility of opening a flight to Cuba from Tampa International also has people in the community excited and making plans. The plan pleased U.S. Representative Kathy Castor, an advocate for Tampa International Airport servicing flights to Cuba, according to Tampa Bay Online.

These reactions mirrored the results of years of survey research which time and again finds majorities of Cuban Americans supporting unrestricted travel to Cuba for all Americans.

Isolated in their opposition, however, were hard-line legislators from Florida and New Jersey, from both political parties, who are themselves the architects or allies of policies to isolate the Cuban people that are now being dismantled by President Obama.

Senator Bob Menendez, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, called Obama’s decision “an economic lifeline to the Castro regime,” one that will “enhance the political and economic impoverishment of the Cuban people.”

Newly-appointed chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, rejected the administration’s directive, saying: “Loosening these regulations will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba.”

In 2010, 400,000 Americans traveled to Cuba.  Cuban officials have told U.S. Members of Congress they expect to see 500,000 Americans visiting Cuba in 2011.  U.S. visitors now trail only Canadian citizens in arrivals to Cuba.

The lion’s share of these numbers represent Cuban-American travel, legalized by President Obama and enjoyed by the constituents of these Florida and New Jersey legislators who don’t want any of us to see Cuba for what it is, how it is changing, or the manifest failures of U.S. policy which are plainly evident to anyone who goes there.

To see our comprehensive compilation of reactions to the Obama travel directive, visit our website here or examine the Extended Recommended Reading selection below.

To learn about the rest of the week’s news, read on! Read the rest of this entry »


BREAKING NEWS: PRESIDENT OBAMA EXPANDS TRAVEL TO CUBA; MOVEMENT REPORTED IN THE CASE OF ALAN GROSS

January 14, 2011

BREAKING NEWS

The White House announced today a long-awaited decision by President Obama to expand travel to Cuba – and increase support for the Cuban people – in fundamental and important ways.

  • The President expands travel opportunities for academic research, educational travel, cultural travel, and religious travel;
  • Return of people-to-people programs to essentially where the rules were at the end of the Clinton administration;
  • The President allows all Americans to send financial support to the Cuban people, which will allow them to expand private sector activity at a time of restructuring in the Cuban economy and the Cuban system;
  • The President expands the number of airports that can serve the Cuban market;
  • The rules explaining each of these changes will be issued in a matter of weeks.

STATEMENT FROM THE CENTER FOR DEMOCRACY IN THE AMERICAS

Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas released the following statement in support of President Obama’s Executive Order expanding travel to Cuba:

“This is an important step forward for our Cuba policy.

“At a time when Cubans are changing their system in fundamental ways, it is a good idea to have greater engagement, more Americans traveling to Cuba, and more opportunities to learn from each other as everyday Cubans reshape their lives and their country.

“It is my hope that Members of Congress who represent Cuban Americans – a community that can travel to Cuba without any limits at all – will not make efforts to thwart what the president has done.  This step authorizing non-tourist travel is a basic and positive step to take at this time.

“The president is to be commended for taking this step to improve our policy and, ideally, to move forward on reforming U.S.-Cuba relations.

“We will continue to press for the freedom to travel to Cuba for all Americans.”

In today’s news summary

Alan Gross: This is another important story we are following.  There are welcomed signs emanating from Havana that there is finally movement in the case of Alan Gross.  Following the fourth round of renewed migration talks, Cuba allowed a senior State Department official to meet with the captive American, and the AP reported that Cuba may now charge, try, and possibly free Mr. Gross based on time already served.

If this actually occurs, it would provide long-sought relief for Mr. Gross and his family, who have been separated for thirteen months.  It would also demonstrate the importance of face-to-face negotiations – the migration talks were suspended in 2003 by President Bush and reopened by President Obama.  Finally, it would be a reminder to U.S. policy makers that the program and funding which led to Mr. Gross’s imprisonment in December 2009 – activities designed under Helms-Burton to lead to the overthrow of Cuba’s government – should be ended once and for all.

Posada Carriles: The trial of Luis Posada Carriles opened in El Paso, Texas this week with testimony from a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official about the immigration fraud and charges and the allegations of perjury that link the former CIA asset for the first time to terrorism committed against Cuba.  According to the official, Posada confessed to an FBI agent in 2000 his involvement in the effort to assassinate Fidel Castro in Panama.

Rubio’s Rhetoric: Even before today’s announcement, Senator Marco Rubio planned to pierce what he called a “trial balloon” floated by the Obama administration on a further opening of travel and trade with Cuba.  In a Spanish-language radio interview, Rubio said that he’d help educate lawmakers about why loosening restrictions against Cuba was ill-advised given the human rights realities on the island.

In a curious shot against his new colleagues, Rubio said they weren’t aware of these realities, “not because they’re communists,” but because many are from farm states and want to sell agriculture products to the island.  He went on to insist that U.S. policy toward Cuba should be tougher.

As President Obama has clearly recognized, this is not the time to double-down on a failed policy.  The U.S. needs to get out of the business of trying to overthrow or undermine Cuba’s government and to normalize the relationship through direct engagement.  Cuba is undergoing significant changes in its own right.  So should we.

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


2011 and new beginnings: The Posada Carriles Trial in Texas; Cuba’s year of uncertainty; Obama’s Cuba policy

January 7, 2011

From time to time, we have criticized the Obama administration for its lackluster performance on Cuba policy and its reluctance to more fully engage Cuba’s people and its government to move past the policy he inherited from President Bush.

But something truly historic is about to take place in a court room in El Paso, Texas, for which the administration deserves credit.

Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA asset, is going on trial in El Paso starting January 10th on charges of immigration fraud, in connection with his illegal entry into the United States in 2005.  But this is no mere immigration case.  Because of additional perjury charges brought by the Justice Department, it marks the first time the U.S. government will present formal evidence of Posada’s involvement in terrorism directed at Cuban targets.

After a relationship with the U.S. government that started in the 1960s, Posada was murderous in his opposition to Cuba’s government.  He was the alleged mastermind of the 1976 midair bombing and destruction of a Cuban airliner – on which all seventy-three passengers and crew were killed.

According to his own confession during a New York Times interview, Posada was behind the hotel bombings in the 1990s that killed Fabio Di Celmo, an Italian businessman, and injured eleven others.  He was arrested in Panama in 2000 for attempting to blow up an auditorium where Fidel Castro was set to speak.  After he illegally entered the United States in 2005, he roamed among his followers and admirers in some quarters of Miami with apparent impunity.

The Bush administration mounted a desultory and unsuccessful effort to charge Posada in connection with his illegal entry into the United States.  But because of actions initiated by the Obama administration to include perjury charges linked to his false statements about involvement with terrorism against Cuban targets, the trial in El Paso takes on added significance.

“To some,” as Sarah Stephens said at a recent press briefing on the trial, “charging Posada – a resolute and unrepentant advocate of terror – with immigration fraud and perjury is like charging Al Capone with tax evasion.”

But the trial can become a turning point in the history of U.S.-Cuba relations – an accountability moment, after decades of violence directed at Cuba sponsored or tolerated by the United States, as well as a redemptive moment for the families of the victims of his terrorism.

As Peter Kornbluh said, “It is truly poetic justice that the same government that in the early 1960s fostered, trained, created the ‘Frankenstein’ that we now know as Luis Posada Carriles is all these years later now prosecuting him for lying about the terrorist crimes he committed.  It is an opportunity because it is the first time that the U.S. government is going to present formally the evidence of what he did in the hotel bombing cases at least in Cuba, and that hopefully will have an impact not only on U.S.-Cuban relations, but also (be) a general repudiation of this violent past that the U.S. sponsored in the 1960s and 70s against Cuba.”

Dr. Julia Sweig, who has previously criticized Obama’s Cuba policy, praises the administration for taking these steps against Posada, for their larger foreign policy significance:

“It is a case in which we see the Obama administration becoming conscious of the damage that  something like the Posada case does to the American standing and image globally and within Latin America, and the need of this particular administration, which came into office talking about having a healthy respect for the views of others, to do what it could to reduce hypocrisy with respect to counter-terrorism; counter-terrorism is an essential aspect of American foreign policy, and will remain so…. (T)he fact that it is taking this step albeit on immigration charges is enormously significant and it should be commended for doing so.”

As Livio Di Celmo, Fabio’s brother, reminded journalists at the briefing, Posada has substantial support in Miami and among Florida’s representatives in Congress.  He has been welcomed as a hero in Miami, and there are always the historic rationalizations about Florida politics that have hamstrung U.S. policy toward Cuba in the past.

In this instance, however, the Obama administration has set aside domestic considerations and put the national security and core values first.  This decision is to be commended, and should be the hallmark of U.S. policy toward Cuba going forward.   That would truly be a new beginning to celebrate as 2011 unfolds.

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