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

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!

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Cuba’s reaction to travel announcement muted; rumors persist on freedom for Alan Gross

For its part, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry called the Obama reforms a “positive step” but “well-below” what should be expected, reports the BBC.  According to Cuba’s Foreign Ministry statement, “If there exists a real interest in widening and facilitating contacts between our peoples, the United States should lift the blockade and eliminate the restrictions that make Cuba the only country in the world to which North Americans cannot travel.”

Adding to the context in which the regulations were announced, Cuba recently allowed a senior U.S. State Department official to meet with Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor who has been in jail in Cuba since December of 2009 under suspicion of illegal activities. The meeting took place following the fourth round of renewed migration talks in Havana last week. U.S. government officials have frequently stated that Gross’s detention is a major obstacle to any change in U.S. policy toward Cuba.  If speculation grew last week that Cuba may soon charge, try, and possibly free Mr. Gross based on time already served, that speculation continued to grow this week following the President’s announcement.

Second week of Posada Carriles trial comes to a close

The Associated Press has a detailed summary of the second week of the trial of anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles.

This week the court continued hearing from the first witnesses among the 18 expected to be called, starting with Gina Garrett-Jackson, the attorney who interviewed Posada in 2005. The perjury charges against Posada relate to the interviews Garret-Jackson conducted upon his arrival in the U.S.

Lawyers for the defense grilled Garrett-Jackson, suggesting she conducted the interviews not for immigration purposes but so that the U.S. government could bring criminal charges against Posada.  The Miami Herald reports on the testimony of Susan Bolaños, an official at the Department of Homeland Security’s Citizen and Immigration Services.  Bolaños stated that Posada’s answers on his citizenship application “raised red flags,” especially when he stated that he had attempted to overthrow a government.

El Nuevo Herald analyses the jury, composed mostly of Latinos with little or no familiarity with U.S.-Cuba relations. An expert on juries quoted in the Herald suggests that the majority Latino makeup, along with the defendant’s old age, may inspire sympathy for Posada.

After defense lawyer Arturo Hernández’s plan to use an in-depth argument against the government of Cuba was denied by Judge Kathleen Cardone, the defense seems to have refocused its argument on attempting to show that Posada did not understand English well and did not knowingly commit perjury, the Associated Press reports. According to the AP, the prosecution has played several recordings of the immigration interviews to the court in order to show that Posada had a strong foundation in English.

The defense is also attempting to prove inconsistencies in the translations used in the interviews.

For more information, Al Jazeera is covering the trial from El Paso as it progresses, as is Jose Pertierra, printed in both Spanish and English.

Controversial policy brings more than 1,500 Cuban doctors to the U.S. in 5 years

There is news this week about the practice of offering asylum to Cuban doctors stationed in any country with a U.S. embassy. The Wall Street Journal details the Cuban Medical Professional Parole program (CMPP), which began in 2006 and allows any Cuban doctor serving in a foreign country to immediately apply for refugee status in the U.S.  According to information provided through the Freedom of Information Act, 1,574 doctors have come to the U.S. through this program from 65 countries, the majority of them from Venezuela.

Fox News reports that U.S. State Department officials deny that the program intends to encourage espionage or disrupt medical missions, adding that Cuban doctors are often denied exit visas to the U.S. when they are invited to come through legal channels in Cuba.

Cuba suddenly cuts off postal service to the U.S.

In a sudden and unexpected move late this week, Cuba completely cut off postal service with the United States, reports El Nuevo Herald.  The unilateral move by Cuba was taken as a protest of new Transportation and Security Administration (TSA) regulations put in place in December.  A State Department spokesperson said “Cuba was one of the few countries that did not accept the security measures established by TSA.”

Direct mail service, which was severed in 1963 (two years after diplomatic ties between the two countries were cut) was restored following negotiations between the two countries in September of 2009.  In November, Cuba’s government announced a temporary suspension (until December 8th) of the shipment to the U.S. of any package weighing more than 16 ounces.

Food sales to Cuba decreased in 2010, but Illinois farmers hope for better

U.S. food exports to Cuba have continued to decline in the past year, Reuters reports. A report from the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council states that “U.S. food exports to Cuba through November were $344.3 million compared with $486.7 million during the same period in 2009,” a 30% decrease.  Due to the embargo and regulations redefined under President Bush, all food purchases must be made in cash and paid in advance.  Due to shortages of foreign exchange, Cuba has looked to countries, including Brazil, Russia, Canada, France, and China, where it can buy food on credit.  The majority of the food consumed by Cubans is imported.

Senator Dick Durbin, when he addressed the Illinois Commodity Conference in Bloomington in November, suggested that travel and trade restrictions were holding Illinois farmers back from trading more with Cuba, the Peoria Journal Star reports.  Senator Durbin encouraged easing such restrictions and increasing Illinois trade with Cuba in order to achieve Obama’s goal of doubling U.S. exports by 2015.

The U.S. Trade Commission has predicted that revenue from increased exports to the island could reach $1 billion. And according to Steven Yoder, of the National Corn Growers Association, “U.S. suppliers can reach Cuba’s three main ports in just one day or less, but current U.S. policy hampers our ability to reach this market. If the United States does not become the supplier of choice, someone else certainly will.”

Doing the math: Cost of sending money to Cuba decreases with elimination of exchange requirement

We reported last month that Western Union had received approval from the U.S. Treasury Department to pay out U.S. dollar wire transfers in local currency (the Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC).  The new regulations, which went into place December 20, 2010, help consumers circumvent the 10% change rate imposed by the Cuban government when converting U.S. dollars to CUC.  According to an editorial piece in the Times Picayune, “The new policy means more of the money Americans are sending to the island will end up in the pockets of the Cuban people and less in the government’s.”

Rather than using Western Union, many people in the U.S. have had friends or family who are traveling to the island take money to friends or relatives on their behalf.  But is that always the most cost-effective method?  We did the fee research and the math to determine best practices. Here is a breakdown of Western Union fees associated with sending U.S. dollars to Cuba:

*Amount sent             Fee
$50-$100                     $10
$100-$150                   $12
$150-$1,000                8%
$1,000-$10,000           7%

*This information was obtained by phone from a representative at Western Union’s Cuba Department. For more information, call (888) 984-2822.

The amount received in Cuba is the amount sent multiplied by .8989 (the U.S. dollar to CUC exchange rate). Given the $10 fee on small ($50-$100) transfers, it is still more cost-effective to send remittances of less than $90 with someone traveling to the island (assuming that person is not charging their own fee). With the fee for large fund transfers ($150-$10,000) set below 10%, if a person sends large sums of money to a person on the island from the U.S. it is better to send via Western Union than to carry it as cash which would have to be converted to CUC and will thus be subject to the 10% exchange fee.

IN CUBA

Cuban government pages on YouTube and Facebook are shut down
Late last week, Cuba’s state-run CubaDebate YouTube and Facebook accounts were shut down, Fox News Latino reports.  The action immediately drew criticism from Cuba’s government which called the move censorship.

Google, the owner of YouTube, stated that the page was closed due to copyright infringement concerns, specifically related to a video regarding the trial of Luis Posada Carriles. The editor of CubaDebate, Rosa Miriam Elizalde, responded by stating: “If CubaDebate is violating copyright then you have to shut down all of YouTube because it is the mecca of Internet piracy. In fact, there are a lot of videos on YouTube that are using stolen images from CubaDebate.” The website’s article in protest of the action can be read in Spanish here.

As a policy, YouTube removes videos if a complaint is received, and closes an entire account when three or more videos are in violation. There has been no statement as to why the decision was made to take down the account completely.

Trial begins for deaths in psychiatric hospital

Cuba’s government opened a trial this week against the authorities at a psychiatric hospital where 26 patients died last year, Reuters reports.

An investigation into the deaths by the Cuban Human Rights Commission, a non-governmental organization, suggested that the hospital lacked adequate blankets, as well as proper door and window insulation to deal with the cold snap last January that saw temperatures as low as 38 degrees.

According to the BBC, the health ministry claims that “natural causes such as old age, respiratory problems and complications from chronic diseases contributed to the deaths.” A BBC Mundo article in Spanish goes into more detail adding that relatives of those who died have been advocating for justice for a year, considered this hearing a step forward. So far, there have been no formal charges against the defendants.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Venezuela-Cuba underwater cable will make Internet more accessible to Cubans

New reports surfaced this week concerning the underwater telecommunications cable that will provide improved Internet access to Cuba.  According to Reuters, the new line will be “operated by technicians from our countries [Venezuela and Cuba] and we are not going to be dependent on any economic or other interest of another state,” according to Wilfredo Morales, president of Telecomunicaciones Gran Caribe, the Venezuelan-Cuban joint venture that owns the line.

Cuba’s first vice-minister of Informatics and Communications, Ramón Linares, has stated that any Cuban with a telephone landline will have the “right” to Internet access from their home, a huge step forward from the current conditions, where only a select group of people have home access, reports Prensa Latina.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas commented on the new Internet connectivity, stating: “The government will have to decide what it will use this greater bandwidth for. My hope is that it will enable more and more Cubans to take advantage of the benefits of this technology, and it should be a helpful addition to the private sector activities that the government is trying to promote.”

The cable will arrive in Cuba next month, but the benefits of the new cable – significantly faster Internet speeds and better connectivity – are not expected until summer given the need to upgrade equipment such as routers, servers and other network gear, reports Reuters.

British group signs renewable energy deal, plans to use sugar cane

The BBC reported this week that Havana Energy Ltd., a subsidiary of the British Esencia Group

which came to Cuba seven years ago to build golf course communities and hotels, has signed a deal with Cuba to pursue energy production from sugar cane. The deal “comes as the country trials ways of working with private firms, after decades of running its economy through the state,” reports BBC.

Currently the island produces seven percent of its energy from renewable sources, and this joint venture is an attempt to increase that percentage.  This is the first energy deal between a British company and state-owned Zerus SA, a company linked to Cuba’s Ministry of Sugar, reports BioMass Magazine.

The project has been valued at $250 million dollars and will use the island’s abundant supply of sugar cane fiber, as well as wild shrubs, to produce renewable energy.

Around the Region:

President Chávez may cut short decree rule, Reuters

Addressing Venezuela’s parliament, President Hugo Chávez complained he was being “demonized” around the world and announced that he would be willing to give up in May the powers of an enabling law originally granted him by the National Assembly for 18 months, reported Reuters. In a day full of symbolic gestures, Chávez shook hands with opposition leaders before reading his annual state-of-the-nation address, according to the Miami Herald.

A statement released this week by the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC said that Chávez also expressed regret over the absence of some foreign ambassadors, including the U.S. diplomatic representative. “We would like to have a U.S. ambassador here, and from all over the world,” he said. He also mentioned that when he met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Brazil earlier this month, she asked, “Would you allow me to directly address the issue of our ambassador?” Chávez said he replied in the affirmative.

Chávez Administration has been widely criticized by sectors of the international community, including the U.S. Department of State and the OAS General Secretariat after the National Assembly granted him special powers to govern by decree until mid 2012.

New survey in Honduras: support for a Constitutional Assembly and moderate approval for President Lobo

In a survey released this week, Hondurans evaluated President Lobo’s government after a year in power with high levels of discontent in areas like security and the economy, and an overall approval of 5.1 points on a scale of 1 to 10. Public opinion is clearly divided, with nearly 50 percent expressing that Lobo’s government has produced positive changes, while, in answer to another question, 45.5% pointed out that the situation is worse than before the current Administration took power. Moreover, 80% of those surveyed do not feel benefited by the government. More than 50% of the respondents now support a new Constitutional Assembly, which was ironically one of the main goals of ousted president Manuel Zelaya. A summary of the survey can be seen here.

The survey has been released the same week that representatives of the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP) denounced the persistence of grave human rights violations in a press conference. According to human rights activists, 1,071 human rights violations were documented in just the first three months of the Lobo administration, and 64 documented cases of political assassinations have taken place so far under this government.

Former U.S. resident and outstanding medical doctor is named new head of Social Services in El Salvador, Diario CoLatino

President Mauricio Funes named Leonel Flores as the new head of the Salvadoran Institute of Social Security (ISSS), a key organization of the national health care system. Flores moved to the U.S. eight years ago to work as a medical researcher. At the time he was appointed, Leonel Flores was holding a position as Health Program Manager/Research Manager at Maryland University.

Recommended Reading:

China, Latin America, and the United States: The New Triangle, Wilson Center

A new report by the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Institute of the Americas of La Jolla, California, and the Institute for Latin American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences of Beijing explores the impact of China’s growth in particular countries and in the region as a whole, the degree of partnership or competition with China, and the benefits as well as disadvantages of greater economic engagement between China and countries of the Western hemisphere.

New Prize in Cold War: Cuban Doctors, Wall Street Journal

“Felix Ramírez slipped into an Internet cafe in the West African nation of The Gambia, scoured the Web for contact information for U.S. diplomats, then phoned the U.S. embassy in Banjul, the capital.  He told the receptionist he was an American tourist who had lost his passport, and asked to speak to the visa section. As he waited to be connected, he practiced his script: ‘I am a Cuban doctor looking to go to America. When can we meet?’”

Cuban Entrepreneurs: From Necessary Evil to Strategic Necessity, “The American” of the American Enterprise Institute

“What a recent visit to Cuba reveals about that country’s past, present, and future.”

Organized Crime in Central America: The Rot Spreads, The Economist

“Battlefields aside, the countries known as ‘the northern triangle’ of the Central American isthmus form what is now the most violent region on earth. El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, along with Jamaica and Venezuela, suffer the world’s highest murder rates. The first two are bloodier now than they were during their civil wars in the 1980s.”

Recommended Listening:

Cuba Issues Thousands Of Self-Employment Licenses, NPR

“Communist authorities in Cuba have issued more than 75,000 new self-employment licenses to help offset the layoffs of half a million government workers in the coming months.  But it’s not clear if they can create jobs fast enough.”

Extended Recommended Reading:

White House statement:
Changes for America & Cuba

Select Coverage:
Castor: Tampa airport will be eligible for direct flights to Cuba, Tampa Bay Online
Cuba calls relaxed rules blow to U.S. conservatives, Reuters
Cuba says travel changes not enough, Associated Press
Cuba: US easing of travel rules ‘positive but limited’, BBC
Disidencia cubana aplaude medidas de Obama, El Universal
Easing of Cuba travel restrictions opens door to more U.S. visits, USA Today
Exiles tense over lighter US stance on Cuba, Financial Times
Gross’ release imminent? Speculation grows in wake of Obama decision, Washington Jewish Week
Locals favor better ties with Cubans, but are still suspicious of island’s government, TC Palm
New travel rules lead to Tampa-Cuba baseball reunion, Tampa Bay Online
Obama to ease travel restrictions to Cuba, allow more U.S. cash to island, The Miami Herald
Obama Administration Eases Restrictions on Academic Travel to Cuba, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Obama administration lifts some Cuba travel, money-sending restrictions, The Washington Post
Obama Eases Cuba Rules, Inside Higher Ed
Obama loosens Cuba travel policy, drawing mixed reactions, The Hill
Obama, Ros really in sync, official says; they share the same vision for Cuba, Cuban Colada
Obama Will Ease Cuba Travel Restrictions, NPR
Restrictions on Travel to Cuba Are Eased, New York Times
Snap analysis: Small thaw as U.S. relaxes some Cuba restrictions, Reuters
U.S. Colleges Look Toward Cuba, Capitol News Connection
US eases travel restrictions to Cuba, The Global Post
U.S. further relaxes travel restrictions to Cuba, Reuters
Washington to relax restrictions on remittances, travel to Cuba, CNN

Editorial/Opinion Pieces
Abel Prieto: Los viajes académicos EE UU-Cuba permitirán romper ‘estereotipos’, Diario de Cuba
Breaking down barriers to Cuba, St. Petersburg Times
Bringing the U.S. closer to Cuba, The San Francisco Chronicle
Cambios hacia Cuba, La Opinion
Changes in U.S. Cuba Policy Good First Step – But It’s Time To Normalize Relations, Bob Creamer on the Huffington Post
Dodging the Cuba Embargo, The New York Sun
Easing travel restrictions to Cuba must continue, The Oracle (The University of South Florida)
Good for the Cuban people, Carlos Saladrigas for The Miami Herald
Not Enough on Cuba Embargo, Robert Dreyfuss for The Nation
Obama’s changes in US policy toward Cuba make sense, The Examiner
Obama’s quiet move to relax travel rules to Cuba makes sense, Palm Beach Post
Obama shows courage by easing Cuba travel ban, DeWayne Wickham for USA Today
O’Neill: Eased travel restrictions has implications, South Shore News
Puente boricua hacia Cuba, Jose Delgado for El Nuevo Dia
What the Obama Administration’s Newly-Announced Exemptions to the Cuba Travel Embargo Will Mean for U.S. Travelers, Frommer’s

Statements in Favor of Changes:
Center for Democracy in the Americas
Church World Service
Cuba Education Tours
Cuba Study Group
Senator John Kerry
Cuba Travel Services
Cuban American National Foundation
Cuban Dissidents
Cuba’s Foreign Ministry
Rep. Jeff Flake
Human Rights Watch
Libertarian chair
Latin America Working Group
MEDICC
Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski
Miriam Leiva and Oscar Espinosa Chepe (Cuban Dissidents)
NAFSA: Association of International Educators
National Council of Churches
National Farmers Union
New America Foundation (Anya Landau French)
NTA
The Inter-American Dialogue (Michael Shifter)
The Lexington Institute and The Cuba Triangle Blog (Phil Peters)
Religious Leaders Praise New Obama Policy On Cuba
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)
U.S. Rice Producers
Washington Office on Latin America

New Blog:
U.S.-Cuba People to People Partnership

Negative Statements:
Rep. David Rivera’s statement
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s statement
Senator Menendez’s statement
Senator Rubio’s statement
U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC statement

Negative Editorial/Opinion Pieces:

Easing Cuban Travel Restrictions, Team Obama Slaps Cuba’s Political Prisoners In the Face, Fox News
Easing sanctions on totalitarian Cuba (from Right Turn by Jennifer Rubin), The Washington Post
Guillermo Martinez: U.S. wrong to try to please Cuba with policy changes, The Sun Sentinel
Obama’s Ill-Timed, Confusing Concessions Leave Cuba Unimpressed, The Foundry (The Heritage Foundation)
Obama’s Latest Gift To Castro, Investors Business Daily

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