Aching News: House Panel Votes to Stop Cuban Americans from Visiting Their Families

June 24, 2011

Aching and breaking news.

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee voted to sharply limit the rights of Cuban Americans to visit their families on the island and provide them financial support.  In approving an amendment offered by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, the panel also revoked a new right granted to all Americans to provide financial support for Cubans who are permitted under U.S. law to receive what are called “remittances.”

To become law, the proposal, added to the 2012 Treasury Department budget, must clear the House and Senate in identical forms, and be signed by President Obama, who made family travel and financial support for Cubans a key part of his foreign policy toward the island.

That could happen, unless reasonable men and women of good will stand on principle and fight for what is at stake.

The Bush administration put onerous restrictions on the rights of Cuban Americans to visit and support their families.  Travel was limited to once every three years and could last only 14 days.  Cuban Americans were permitted to send just $300 per quarter to family members.  The intent was to deny revenue to Cuba’s government.

The hardship this exacted on families was intolerable.  The rules contained no humanitarian exemptions.  Cuban Americans could not visit family members who took ill, could not attend the funerals of relatives who died.  Families who depended on financial support from their kin in the U.S. had trouble making ends meet (as many still do).

To his credit, candidate Obama promised to end the restrictions were he elected president.  He made good on this commitment in April 2009, and went further by allowing unlimited visits and eliminating restrictions on remittances.  In January 2011, he opened an additional avenue of support by allowing all Americans to provide remittances to any qualified Cuban.

Estimates vary, but remittances now provide between $1-2 billion in additional income for Cubans.  This support allows families to make ends meet and, during this era of economic reform, is empowering a new class of Cuban entrepreneurs to open small businesses, allowing them to make their own decisions about hiring, and giving them greater control over their own lives.  These opportunities are critical as the Cuban state plans to remove 500,000 to over one million workers from the state’s payroll and cut back on social benefits making it harder for Cubans to meet their household budgets.

Rep. Diaz-Balart – in his desire to crush Cuba by strangling its economy – now puts all of this progress at risk.  He would once again divide Cuban families, extinguish much of their outside financial support, deny entrepreneurs the seed capital they need to start independent businesses, and prevent Americans no matter their heritage from helping Cubans succeed in a tough economy.

It is an inhumane policy.

News of the amendment sparked responses from several organizations that advocate for the opening of travel and trade to Cuba. The Latin America Working Group and Washington Office on Latin America released a joint statement calling the amendment “vindictive” and “anti-family.” The Cuba Study Group also released a statement, declaring:

It is unfortunate that Representative Mario Diaz-Balart continues to use the suffering of Cuban families as a weapon in furthering a failed policy aimed at the Cuban regime. At a time when the Cuban government has found it necessary to implement reforms, and Cubans are increasingly becoming independent of the state, Representative Diaz-Balart’s efforts only add to the isolation and suffering of the Cuban people and make a democratic transition on the island less likely.

A press release from the Center for Democracy in the Americas quotes Executive Director Sarah Stephens saying:

This cruel amendment will divide Cuban families, prevent sons and daughters from gathering for funerals or family health crises on the island, and strip away financial support at the precise moment when economic reforms on Cuba make it possible for Cubans to live more independent lives by forming businesses.   The bizarre message of this amendment – ‘Mr. President, rebuild those walls’ – stands Ronald Reagan on his head, and makes the hatred by some in Congress of the Cuban government more important than family values.  It should not become law.

It shouldn’t become law.  But who will stand in its way?

Will Cuban Americans – in places like South Florida and New Jersey – repudiate this amendment and act to preserve their travel and family rights?

Will the U.S. firms who profit from travel to Cuba seek to defend their businesses, profits, and jobs?

Will the airports in Miami – and soon, in Tampa – speak up on behalf of serving the Cuban market?

Will Members of Congress ask the tough questions about this proposal, which makes permanent changes in Treasury’s authority and reduces tax revenues at a time of crushing deficits?

Will farmers who like to sell goods into the Cuban market speak up for travel, which provides Cuba the revenues it needs to buy American commodities?

Will the Obama administration fight for this just and effective example of good Cuba policy?

Finally, will those who worry about Alan Gross – and his separation from his family –improbably use his captivity to justify separating tens of thousands of Cuban Americans from their families or will they fight to keep families together?

We are standing up, and alerting our allies to the dangers and cruelty of this policy.  We urge all of them and you to stand up against this amendment as well.

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We’re back from Cuba bringing you two weeks of news

June 17, 2011

Last week, as a delegation from the Center for Democracy in the Americas visited Cuba, we quickly noticed that we were not alone.

The Vice President of China had filled the Hotel Nacional in Havana with an enormous delegation visiting the island for talks with Cuba’s leadership.  His visit was a powerful reminder that China’s footprint and influence in Latin America is growing, and that the long-running Chinese-Cuban relationship powerfully combines political and economic interests that will only grow over time.

President Hugo Chávez was also in Cuba at the same time.  He and his delegation inked agreements for 116 joint projects with Cuba before he was felled by an illness requiring surgery.

These two unconnected visits prompted a member of our delegation to quip, “Everyone’s here except the U.S.”

Although hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans exercise their legal rights to visit families in Cuba, and tens of thousands more are empowered to do so by President Obama’s new travel rules, our country which resides closest to Cuba’s borders maintains an uncomfortable distance from the island as our allies and our competitors charge in.

Rather than engaging with Cuba now – constructively and directly – as virtually every country on the planet does, U.S. policy leaves us isolated from Cuba’s people and traps U.S. policy makers in a stale debate that never seems to end.

Our news summary contains abundant examples of how much heat and how little light that debate offers.  We focus on the USAID program, over-the-top attacks against the nomination of U.S. Interests Section Chief, Jonathan Farrar, and the continued captivity of Alan Gross.

We think these stories make a point about the policy:  the people of the United States – and the people of Cuba – deserve better.  We believe a new policy that emphasizes engagement, and respects Cuba’s sovereignty, would have a lasting and beneficial impact on both U.S. and Cuban society, and serve our nation’s larger interests in Cuba and across Latin America.

Next week, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which so proudly publishes this weekly news blast, celebrates its fifth anniversary.

As an organization we’ve devoted much of our work to visiting Cuba, doing research on the impact and implications of U.S. policy, and distributing information so that this stale debate can be changed by new ideas and perspectives.

Thank you for reading the News Blast and supporting our work.

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A Message About Walls and Doors from your Friends at Cuba Central

June 3, 2011

Some build walls, and others open doors.

We participated at a conference this week, convened by the Center for International Policy, where speakers from Cuba and the United States explored racism and racial identity in Cuba.  These are tough and tricky subjects in both countries, with their respective legacies of racism, but the discussion was open and honest and free of political posturing and agendas.

Cubans and Americans – led by Wayne Smith and James Early on the U.S. side, by Esteban Morales and Heriberto Feraudy on the Cuban side –demonstrated what door builders know.  Even hard subjects can be discussed when people address each other with respect.  Respect opens doors.

We report this week on promising examples of cultural exchange.  A student orchestra composed of musicians from Harvard and Radcliffe played this week in Cuba.  A Florida orchestra this fall will become the first professional orchestra since 1999 to play in Cuba under an agreement it has made.  Our good friend Jackson Browne is welcoming the composer of Muros Y Puertas, Carlos Varela, for his tour later this month in the United States.  Music opens doors.

The conference on race and the musical tours were all made possible, in part, by decisions that the United States government made to allow these extremely healthy exchanges to take place.  That is to their credit.

But the fact is they could do a lot more.  We have repeatedly discussed the fact that with Cuba soon to drill in the Gulf of Mexico the U.S. has no effective plan in place to deal with a potential oil spill.  We reported recently the former EPA Administrator Bill Reilly, who led the BP Spill Commission, has been told to ‘pipe down’ his advocacy for talks among the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba to protect the Gulf.

This week we’re reporting that the Interior Secretary, Ken Salazar, went to Spain to talk to the oil company Repsol, Cuba’s partner that will kick-off the drilling later this year, about safety.  But we’re still not talking directly to Cuba about it!  It’s time to open that door.

We also report this week on a significant human rights issue, the sentencing of four Cubans to sentences of up to five years, for scattering pamphlets critical of the government.

Our decision to isolate Cuba diplomatically, which effectively builds a wall around us, makes it impossible for officials of the U.S. government to sit down constructively with their Cuban counterparts to ask why these Cuban citizens were treated so harshly.

After more than 50 years, it’s time to tear down the wall, and open the door.

Please enjoy the news summary this week and mark your calendars.  On Friday June 10th, we’ll be returning from a research trip to the island and we’ll not be sending you the news.   We bet you miss us already.

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