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.
President Obama’s changes to travel and remittance regulations and flights to Cuba were published today in the Federal Register. According to our early read, the new rules track what was announced two weeks ago.
As expected, the new rules provide a general license to U.S. accredited institutions for travel related to educational activities which qualify for credit toward a degree. Specific licenses are restored for accredited higher education institutions for activities not covered by the general license, including sponsoring academic seminars, conferences, and workshops related to Cuba. Other restrictions on educational travel that previously prevented nearly all American students from studying on the island were also peeled back. A requirement that all programs be at least 10 weeks long was removed, as was a rule that prevented adjunct professors or part-time staff to run U.S. university programs in Cuba. Furthermore, two or more schools can now run joint programs, which will help cut costs and guarantee a steady number of interested students.
A general license is provided for institutions traveling for religious activities. Specific licenses are also restored for people-to-people exchange (educational exchange that does not require involvement of a degree granting institution). Additionally, specific licenses are made available on a case-by-case basis for freelance journalists for projects other than articles, and specific licenses are restored for clinics and workshops – with the requirement that the clinics and workshops must be run by the licensee.
Further, all U.S. citizens are now allowed to send $500 per quarter to Cubans on the island, and any airport with proper international flight facilities can apply to the Customs and Border Patrol to be added to the list of approved airports for flights to and from Cuba.
Three things of note: First, the rules now allow universities and religious organizations to open Cuban bank accounts to help facilitate approved activities. Schools and students were previously forced to carry cash to the island to pay for their expenses – quite a dilemma for organizing institutions.
Second, concerning remittances, the rules stipulate that a person’s remittances “to any one Cuban national do not exceed $500 in any consecutive three-month period.” (emphasis added) What the regulations seem to clarify is that, unlike previously reported, U.S. citizens will be able to send $2,000 a year to as many qualified Cubans as they like rather than only being restricted to a total of $2,000 per year.
And third, the rules allow U.S. citizens to transact with Cuban nationals who are permanent residents in other countries if the Cuban nationals provide sufficient proof of residence. While this appears to have little effect in practice – it probably wouldn’t have been too hard to send money to a Cuban living in Bolivia via Western Union previously – it will ideally take an additional burden off of OFAC to focus on real threats, and not issues related to Cuba. This change was not previously announced.
Finally, many times when the president offers a directive to change the interpretation of regulations, a temporary interpretation is issued and a period for public comment is opened, usually spanning one or two months while the final rules are written. The new regulations were printed as a final rule and are effective immediately. This means that groups and Congressional allies hoping to broaden the interpretation of Obama’s directive were not able to influence the interpretation of the new rules. However, it also means that those who oppose increasing travel and sending remittances to Cuba – especially the anti-Castro Cold Warriors in Congress – were denied the opportunity to bully OFAC and the White House into weakening Obama’s initial intentions to expand contact with the Cuban people.
We will continue to analyze the practical implications of the change in the regulations and hope to provide you with a detailed legal analysis as soon as possible.
The Daily News reports that travel agents in Miami have had an influx of calls from people wishing to travel to Cuba, with one travel agent stating “We even had to create a new voicemail box to handle the calls. This is exciting in a lot of ways.” Likewise, an article from the South Florida Business Journal and blog post from the Tampa Bay Business Journal cite increased interest among businesses in Tampa to join the growing tourist trade to Cuba.
Businesses in Cuba are preparing for more travelers as well. Reuters reports that entrepreneurs in Cienfuegos are taking advantage of economic reforms to increase the number of restaurants and “bed and breakfasts” for tourists.
President Obama’s new regulations permit more U.S. universities to obtain licenses to set up study abroad programs with Cuban institutions. Many universities, such as UCLA and the University of Iowa, have expressed interest in developing study abroad programs in Cuba.
However, Florida universities are barred from expanding study abroad programs to Cuba by state law, reports the St. Petersburg Times. A 2006 state law prohibits public universities from using state money or tapping into their own budgets for travel to countries that the U.S. government has deemed “terror states,” including Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria. Therefore, Florida universities cannot participate in study abroad programs in Cuba, even under the newly-released regulations.
Margaret Miller, director of the University of South Florida Institute for Research in Art, calls the 2006 law “an embarrassment,” reports the Miami Herald. “Florida academics or state employees, with the current restrictions, you can’t use money coming from the state or money you have raised privately or use your university time to travel to Cuba,” Miller said. “What Obama was hoping is that there would be academic exchange, but we’re prohibited from doing that. This puts Florida in a really compromised position relative to the rest of the country.”
Trinidad Jimenez, Spain’s Foreign Minister, met this week with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Washington, reports EFE. Clinton praised Spain’s government for its international work in human rights and humanitarian aid.
In her remarks after the meeting, Clinton stated, “I expressed our thanks for [Spain’s] work with the Catholic Church to secure the release of political prisoners and for Spain’s ongoing efforts to encourage Cuba to release Alan Gross, who has been harshly and unfairly jailed for too long.” Video and text of the post-meeting press conference can be accessed here.
According to Europa Press, Jimenez commented that the resolution of the Alan Gross case would be critical in establishing dialogue between Washington and Havana. She also applauded Obama’s recent relaxation of travel and remittance restrictions, adding that “small gestures would help both countries to reestablish their relations.”
In a related article, El Pais reports that Spain will be receiving several Cuban prisoners within the next few weeks. These prisoners do not belong to the original group of 52 dissidents whose release was negotiated between Cuba, Spain and the Catholic Church last year, of which 41 have already arrived in Spain.
The Luis Posada Carriles trial has completed its third week. Posada is charged with lying about his involvement in Havana hotel bombings and how he entered the United States.
This week, the court heard testimony from Gilberto Abascal. Abascal is the only witness to place Posada on Santrina, a converted shrimp boat owned by Cuban exiles in Florida that allegedly transported Posada from Mexico’s Isla Mujeres to Florida in 2005.
Abascal’s testimony is available in detail in a post by José Pertierra, an attorney in the U.S. who has been reporting on the trial. Posada has denied that he arrived in the U.S. by sea, saying instead that he entered crossing the Mexican border on land.
Posada’s defense has focused on discrediting Abascal, citing tax evasion and fraud, and his contact with a high level Cuban official. They also questioned his mental state, according to AP, introducing a psychiatric evaluation stating that Abascal suffered from “severe schizophrenic symptoms” from 2002 to August 2004, following a construction accident in 2000. Abascal responded that he was not a schizophrenic, but sometimes suffered from insomnia and depression, and accused defense attorney Arturo Hernandez of keeping him under surveillance for the past six years in order to collect information that could be used against him during the trial against Posada.
Mr. Hernández unsuccessfully requested a mistrial for a third time.
EFE additionally reported that the judge in Posada’s trial has forbidden discussion of an assassination attempt on Fidel Castro. The prosecution has decried this ruling, stating that “it seems that the balance has been tipped in favor of the defendant.”
Congressman Vern Buchanan (FL-13) has introduced legislation to prevent companies that do business with Cuba from exploring for oil in U.S. waters. The intent of the bill is to stop the Spanish oil company Repsol from going forward with its plan to drill for oil with Cuba off the island nation’s coast.
A statement on Buchanan’s website alleges that “Cuba’s plan to drill for oil in its sovereign waters off the Florida Keys poses a serious threat to our tourism industry and our environment.” Reuters reports that Buchanan believes Cuba is not prepared to deal with an oil spill. According to The Wall Street Journal, Repsol did not comment on Buchanan’s legislation.
Bloomberg reports that, William Reilly, co-chairman of the National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, is advocating for a Cuba-U.S. drilling pact. According to the Miami Herald, Reilly believes that open dialogue between the U.S. and Mexico on energy and environmental concerns can draw Cuba into the discussion.
Florida’s freshman Senator Marco Rubio has been assigned to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as well as panels dealing with Intelligence, Commerce, Small Business, Science and Transportation. With Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen having been selected to be Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, this gives Florida’s Cuban Americans in Congress an especially potent voice in foreign policy.
According to the Sun Sentinel, “Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio will have influence on Cuba policy at a time when many in Congress hope to ease the embargo policy and allow American tourists to travel to the island. The Floridians will be in a strong position to block such initiatives.”
This week in Cuba WikiLeaks
Cables released this week by WikiLeaks, and published in El Universal, reveal that the United States believed in 2008 that the Cuban Catholic Church had “given up” opposition against Cuba’s government and thought it would be difficult to measure the efficiency of the Church’s intervention to release political prisoners. Memos reveal that staff of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana met with Cardinal Jaime Ortega and other Church leaders after a visit by Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone and were left with the impression that the Church would not do anything to challenge Cuba’s government.
The U.S. Interests Section-issued cable states that, “From Cardinal Ortega to nuns in the provinces, the Church avoids confrontation with the Cuban government. The fear of angering the government leads the Church to undertake limited work, such as caring for people with mental disabilities.” However, Cardinal Ortega did bring up the Church’s role in what one cable labeled the “quiet diplomacy” of interceding behind the scenes on the issue of political prisoners.
These conclusions were overtaken by events in 2010 after the prominent role played by the Church in the agreement reached with Cuba’s government for the release of 52 political prisoners arrested in 2003, 41 of which have been successfully released thus far.
Several cables released by WikiLeaks detail what U.S. officials describe as rampant corruption on the island, along with government attempts to reign in corrupt officials and employees. A cable dating back to 2006 listed corrupt practices as including “bribery, misuse of state resources and accounting shenanigans.”
Another cable relates President Raúl Castro’s vocal dismay, publicized in a video, at finding 2,000 tons of missing food product from a wholesale food operation.
CNN México reports that Raúl Castro will not drop exit visa requirements due to fear of a mass exodus to Mexico, according to a Wikileaks cable. This information was communicated to Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim on his March 2008 trip to the island. Castro reportedly stated that such an exodus would be damaging to relations between Cuba and Mexico. Information about the meeting was related to then-Chief of U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Michael Parmly, but came through second- and third-hand sources.
All currently-released WikiLeaks from the Cuban Interests Section in Havana can be found here.
In its annual report on the status of human rights in countries around the world, Human Rights Watch reports that Cuba is unique among Latin American countries in that it represses “virtually all forms of political dissent.” The report asserted that Raúl Castro has continued to enforce political conformity, and that any person who criticizes the government is subject to criminal and “pre-criminal” charges and “is exempt from due process guarantees, such as the right to a defense, and denied meaningful judicial protection.”
Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch, advocates against coercive measures such as the U.S. embargo, which he says “has proven to be very counterproductive.” Roth praised Obama’s recent announcement to loosen travel and remittance restrictions. He also praised Spain’s work in securing the release of Cuban political prisoners. Roth concluded that instead of “resolutions and policy statements,” the European Union and other powers like the U.S. should launch a broad multilateral pressure, a strategy for change, reports EFE.
In an interview with BBC Mundo, José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director at Human Rights Watch, suggested that the discussion of human rights should be ongoing and should cover more than the usual suspects: Cuba and Venezuela. He indicated that diplomatic leaders for the U.S. and countries around the world, “instead of automatically choosing the easy way out,” should assess violations of human rights and bring them to light publicly, prompting “public condemnation, public scrutiny, to find ways to bond with those states but subjecting their diplomatic and political relations to concrete human rights improvements.”
Human Rights Watch’s report on Cuba is available here.
IPS News this week covered a recently released report from the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN). The report documents 105 people currently imprisoned on the island for political reasons. This represents a significant decrease from the 201 prisoners reported in January of last year. Since then, dozens of prisoners have been released after negotiations between Cuba’s government, the Catholic Church and the government of Spain. According to EFE, the report maintains that the situation of human rights in Cuba remains negative, and that there has been a significant increase in “low intensity” politically motivated detentions.
Guillermo Fariñas, who underwent a 134-day hunger strike last year, was detained for several hours Wednesday, AP reports. Fariñas was detained with more than 20 others in the city of Santa Clara as they attempted to block the eviction of a pregnant woman from the home where she was staying, apparently without proper authorization. Fariñas was released with no charges but with “strong warnings.” According to EFE, Farinas said that hundreds of people joined the protest, and that at one point he climbed onto a Cuban public health official’s vehicle in protest. BBC News reports that the demonstrators were accused of having caused a “public disturbance.” There were reports that he was detained again later on Thursday evening.
The greater Havana area is suffering its worst shortage in drinking water in fifty years due to deteriorating infrastructure and a drought that has lasted two years, reports the Havana Journal. Granma has called for urgent conservation measures to prevent water loss; currently 70% of the water is lost on its way from source to consumer. The current situation could lead to more rationing and perhaps even to shutoffs of water. About 110,000 residents in the greater Havana area currently receive their water from tanker trucks.
Cuba is seeking long prison terms of up to fourteen years for administrators and staff of the mental health hospital in which twenty-six mental health patients died during a cold spell on the island, reports Reuters. During a trial last week, prosecutors alleged that the Havana Psychiatric Hospital failed to provide warm clothes, close windows, and staff wards when the temperature dropped to 38 degrees Fahrenheit.
Cuba’s Attorney General has sought prison terms of up to fourteen years to punish those involved in what is viewed as a “crude example of corruption,” according to AFP.
In an unprecedented decision, the Supreme Court has decided to hear a case against Minister of Justice María Esther Reus, reports La Jornada. The case has been brought forward by lawyer Wilfredo Vallín, who became frustrated because he was unable to complete one of the first steps in registering his business: confirming that there did not already exist a company under the same name doing similar work. The case demands that the Minister of Justice provide this information so that Vallín can continue the registration process for his business, which provides legal advice to Cubans about the rights guaranteed to them as citizens.
Vallín states that many people begin the registration process but soon give up, because “they see the silence as a negative response. Our case is different because we are familiar with the law.”
Reports from Cuba this week indicate that of the 1.8 million hectares of land redistributed beginning in 2008, 70% has been put to use, but 40% of Cuba’s total arable land remains idle, according to the Cuba Standard. 1.1 million hectares are now in use or in preparation to be used, according to government reports cited by CubaDebate. Since the land redistribution began, 15% of petitions for land have come from farmers looking to increase their operations rather than those starting a farming enterprise for the first time, reports the Associated Press. Most of the land is being used for cattle, followed by crops like sugar, coffee, rice and tobacco.
Cuba’s government announced figures for oil output in 2010, reporting numbers similar to 2009, according to Reuters. Crude oil output was about three million tons, and gas output about one million cubic meters. Cuba’s energy output covers about 50% of national consumption. Output has been stagnant from several years as older wells stop producing and new wells “pick up the slack.” According to Notimex, Cuba’s government is planning to drill 20 new wells in the area between Havana and Varadero beach, along with plans for drilling off the island’s northern shore in the Gulf of Mexico.
In a related story, EFE reports that this year, domestic energy consumption surpassed state consumption for the first time. Specialists have credited higher domestic consumption with an increase in the use of home appliances. The number is expected to increase further in 2011 due to the economic reforms to increase the private sector.
Cuba is developing a video game for children to illustrate the importance of paying taxes, reports Reuters. Cubans are unaccustomed to paying taxes ever since Fidel Castro nationalized the country’s economy in the 1960s, but economic reforms mean that Cubans working in the private sector will have to pay between 25 and 50 percent in taxes.
The Superior Pedagogic Institute of Holguín has developed a game called “Tributín” (“Little Tax”) as a fun way for children to “learn about fiscal policy, because they were born in a socialist society with some gratuities, they don’t have all the elements needed to understand taxes.” The game will show children how the money they spend when they buy candy helps their community in the form of school improvements.
“We are trying to generate a fiscal culture. If we manage to get the kids involved, they could transmit it to their parents,” stated project director Dagoberto Marino.
CUBA’S FOREIGN POLICY
Last week we reported on the underwater cable, more than three years in the making, currently being installed between Venezuela and Cuba. The cable will increase Cuba’s connection speeds and access to the Internet.
This has occurred without participation by U.S. firms even after President Obama authorized such activity in 2009. According to a report by Bloomberg, a pricing dispute between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Cuba “may have cost American companies including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. a foothold” in Cuba’s recently-opened telecommunications market.
Miami-based TeleCuba Communications was granted a license from the U.S. Treasury to build a 110-mile cable from Key West to Havana. But a pricing dispute has stalled the installation of the TeleCuba cable. The Miami Herald reports that “The FCC does not permit U.S. providers to pay Cuba more than 60 cents per minute for connecting calls, but the Cuban government wants to see that rate increase. TeleCuba has asked the FCC to raise the rate to 84 cents per minute.”
Meanwhile, the cable being laid to connect Cuba and Venezuela will provide Cubans with faster, better Internet connections as early as this summer.
A delegation of leaders from El Salvador’s FMLN party met with Cuban Vice-President Esteban Lazo this week, Cuba News Agency reports. Leading the Salvadoran delegation was Medardo Gonzalez, General Secretary of the FMLN, the country’s ruling party. The meeting included discussion of Cuba’s internal politics, specifically the upcoming party Congress, ongoing economic reforms, and efforts to free five Cuban nationals currently imprisoned in the U.S. The group also discussed bilateral relations and challenges facing both countries, reports EFE.
Radio Cadena Agramonte has reported that UNESCO Special Envoy to Haiti, Michaëlle Jean, emphasized Cuban aid to Haiti. Jean stated that “whenever we speak of health, we cannot forget to mention the support of this country [Cuba],” and added that it was important that Cuba and Haiti maintain strong links.
Meanwhile, UNESCO General Director Irina Bokova said that humanitarian operations in Haiti, which lacks oil or a geostrategic position, will be a test of the international community’s humanism.
Around the Region:
President Barack Obama took a moment during his State of the Union address this week to announce a tour of Latin American nations, EFE reports. “This March, I will travel to Brazil, Chile, and El Salvador to forge new alliances across the Americas,” he said. It will be his first visit to South America since becoming president. Obama has previously visited Mexico and participated in the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
The “Venezuelan government’s domination” of the judiciary and its “weakening of democratic checks and balances” have contributed to a “precarious human rights situation” in Venezuela, said HRW in its annual report released this week. The pro-government legislator Jesús Faría responded to the document describing it as an “ideological tool of the opposition” and that HRW is trying to “build a case” to state that Venezuela is “a rogue state” and present a negative image of the country abroad. The Washington Office on Latin America also released a statement criticizing the political situation in Venezuela.
A dark corner of Camelot, The Boston Globe
In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s inauguration, there has been increased attention surrounding 54 crates of Robert F. Kennedy’s files from his time as Attorney General that have been sealed from the public. Congressman John Tierney (MA) wrote an op-ed published this week in The Atlantic criticizing the Kennedy family for not releasing these documents, which he says would be of great interest to historians, politicians, and the general public. According to Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive, “The RFK papers are among the most valuable, untapped archival resources of foreign policy and domestic history left to be excavated.’’
Cuba in transition, John Cherian for Frontline
“Professor Carlos Alzugaray Treto, who is one of Cuba’s leading foreign affairs experts, was in India in early January. He has held important diplomatic assignments and is currently Professor at the Centre for Hemispheric and United States Studies (CEHSEU) at the University of Havana. In this interaction with Frontline he emphasized that Cuba, far from being isolated, now has more friends and allies in the region and the world.”
Take a deeper look into the economic reforms and how Cubans are reorganizing their roles in the new economic structure.
The Honduran Congress’s decision last week to allow popular referendums to amend the Constitution is nothing short of momentous given the country’s tumultuous historical span of the last two years. The new measures need to be approved a second time when Congress begins a new session on Tuesday. The significance, if not the irony, lies in the fact that many of these representatives who support these constitutional reforms opposed them when they were put forward by former President Manuel Zelaya.