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

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.

This week in Cuba news…


Catholic Church releases detailed report on prisoner release negotiations

Orlando Márquez, spokesman for the Catholic Church in the Archdiocese of Havana, has offered a detailed account of the 2010 negotiations that resulted in the release of political prisoners, reports the Miami Herald.  With this authoritative account, Marquez clarifies the record about the prisoner release following months of criticism by hardliners in the U.S. about the Church’s intervention that produced the massive release of jailed dissidents that began in 2010 and concluded in 2011.

In his statements, Márquez says that the Church never pushed for the exile of dissidents, most of whom were relocated to Spain along with their families. He also insists that prisoners were never told that they would have to agree to exile in order to be released.

According to his account, Cardinal Jaime Ortega began discussions with the Cuban state to stop the harassment of the Ladies in White, a group consisting of wives and female relatives of jailed dissidents who protested their captivity by walking peacefully in the streets of Havana on Sundays after church.

The Church also passed along to Cuba’s government requests by the Ladies in White, to have the dissidents moved to prisons closer to their homes, rapid release of those who were sick, and the option of leaving the country for those who wanted to do so. Of the 127 prisoners released as a result of negotiations, 115 chose to leave the island and twelve remained in Cuba.  Berta Soler, a spokeswoman for the Ladies in White, confirmed the Archdiocese’s account of the events.

Cuban Comptroller General reports increased corruption in Havana, some improvement nationwide

Gladys Bejerano, Cuba’s Comptroller General, reported in the state newspaper Granma this week that levels of corruption in state-run enterprises in the capital of Havana have increased, AFP reports.  In an evaluation of132 public entities audited in Havana, results showed that only 73 received a grade of “acceptable,” representing a decline from previous audits, reports the Miami Herald.

Audits in other Cuban provinces showed some improvement with 63% of evaluated state enterprises receiving an “acceptable” grade.  This figure is an improvement from a 2001 audit of 300 entities that found only 46% of those audited to have efficient management.

These recent results show mixed success for anti-corruption efforts led by President Raúl Castro since officially taking office in 2008. The anti-corruption campaign comes as a part of the economic reform process in an attempt to reduce inefficiencies at state-run entities and increase the size of the private sector.

Cuban entrepreneurs to receive training from the Catholic Church, European micro credit-lending entities testing Cuban waters

As recent economic reforms have enabled more Cubans to open their own businesses, domestic and international actors are developing ways to support these new entrepreneurs. This week, the Archdiocese of Havana announced that the Catholic Church, in collaboration with a private Spanish university, would lead a 9-month course focused on small business administration for 40 selected participants, Cuba Standard reports.

A posting on the website of the church’s publication Espacio Laical states that the course “…has among its objectives to achieve that graduates obtain skills and advanced knowledge about the managing of businesses; with a special focus on small and medium sized businesses, micro-businesses and cooperatives.”

Several European organizations have also taken note of recent openings in Cuba’s economy and are eyeing the potential for the development of micro-lending programs on the island, reports IPS. Though rules have not been released as to how these entities would function on the island, observers speculate that the reform process will open the door for micro-lending, a common practice in developing countries.

A European diplomat, who asked not to be named, stated, “More or less a year and a half ago, you practically could not talk about this subject, but now the situation has changed. Micro-credit went from being something almost sacrilegious to something interesting.” IPS reports that organizations from Italy, Switzerland and Spain have shown interest in future micro-lending projects on the island. A noted challenge to these ventures, however, is the nation’s double currency system, which raises convertibility and purchasing power disparity complications.

As a result of the surge of self-employed workers, many of them opening up small stands to sell food or other miscellaneous items, urban marketplaces common in other Latin American countries but previously non-existent in Cuba have begun to spring up in old buildings and empty lots throughout Havana, AP reports.  According to state newspaper Granma, close to 140 points of sale have been established, housing about 2,600 vendors.

Cuba reports 2010 drop in output and consumption of refined petroleum products

Cuba consumed 7.1 million tons of refined petroleum products in 2010, which is 1.8% lower than consumption in 2009 and 3% lower than 2008 consumption according to a government report. Gasoline production, which had fallen 31.3% in 2009 to 492,000 tons, recovered with a 15.4% increase totaling 568,000 tons. The article says that Cuba’s refining capacity nearly doubled in 2008, the same year Cuba completed the first year of a joint-venture refinery with Venezuela in Cienfuegos.

Cuba has great expectations for offshore exploration projects, with drilling expected to start in the third quarter of 2011 with the Spanish oil company Repsol.  The Cienfuegos refinery is expected to expand its oil producing capacities from 65,000 barrels per day to 150,000 barrels per day with the help of Chinese companies.  Several other refineries are being upgraded and a new refinery is being planned in the province of Matanzas.


Venezuela’s Comptroller General dies in Cuba while undergoing medical procedure

Clodosbaldo Russian, Venezuela’s Comptroller General and top anti-corruption official, passed away while under medical treatment in Cuba, reports the Associated Press.  Russian was in Cuba for surgery after suffering a stroke in April. El Universal reports that he died in surgery after suffering from acute kidney failure. Russian, a close ally of  President Hugo Chávez, was highly criticized by the Venezuelan opposition, who accused him of singling out government opponents and unfairly banning candidates from participating in elections.


More Americans visiting Cuba despite bureaucratic delays for travel

According to Cuba’s National Statistics Office, the number of  American visitors to Cuba rose to 63,000 in 2010 from 52,500 in 2009, Reuters reports.  This statistic does not include the 350,000 Cuban Americans who are estimated to have visited the island in 2010 alone.

John McAuliff, in a post on The Havana Note, calls for a greater loosening of restrictions, particularly in the process of licensing people-to-people travel, a category that was taken away under the Bush administration and re-opened by the White House in January.

Key West International Airport also ran into bureaucratic hurdles when requesting permission to host direct flights to Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. Under January’s loosened restrictions, any airport with appropriate security and customs facilities can apply for approval to offer such flights. However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection denied the request of the Key West airport, stating that it lacked proper inspection facilities and adequate federal staff. An airport representative stated that the airport is in the process of making necessary upgrades to meet these requirements.

USAID Cuba program:  Funding stays in limbo, State Department requests proposals

With fiscal year 2010 funding for USAID’s Cuba program blocked since April due to concerns over transparency and a request for detailed information from Senator John Kerry, the State Department has posted a request for proposals to use $4.1 million of the $20 million in funds. According to the State Department, funding could be for projects relating to: people with disabilities; the LGBT community; professional journalists, artists, writers, poets and bloggers; social inclusion and improvement of living standards; conflict resolution and promoting peace in civil society; legal associations; and human rights documentation.

As the debate over funding continues, Robert Pastor, professor at American University and former member of the U.S. National Security Council, penned an opinion piece published in Progreso Weekly supporting Senator Kerry’s position on the USAID programs.  Pastor writes:

My impression from meetings with both government officials and dissidents in Cuba in March is that [the USAID program in Cuba] is counterproductive to our interests – that it reduces, rather than improves, democracy’s chances. A smart policy on democracy abroad is to recognize that each country is different, and the strategy needs to be adapted to those differences. If USAID thinks that it should apply the same policy everywhere, then it is wasting Americans’ tax money. Thanks to the Senator, the GAO is studying this program, and we ought to wait for its report before spending any more money.

Cubans who can’t be deported could end up detained indefinitely in the U.S.

A bill recently introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Lamar Smith (TX-21) would make it legal to detain indefinitely Cubans who under current U.S. law cannot be deported to Cuba, reports the Miami Herald.

Rep. Smith states that his bill –aimed more broadly at giving immigration authorities the right to detain immigrants with criminal records until they can be deported – is meant as a safeguard to allow the detention of immigrants who have committed serious crimes. Cubans, one of the largest immigrant groups that cannot be deported to their home country, fear indefinite detention for petty crimes, or crimes committed far in the past. Susana Barciela, policy director for the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, stated, “This bill is so sweeping that it would result in thousands of harmless immigrants being jailed for years – among them, asylum seekers and torture survivors.” In 2001 and 2005 the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional to detain foreign nationals who cannot be deported for longer than six months.

WikiLeaks: few Cubans can name leaders in national opposition movement

A 2008 cable from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana details an informal survey that found few average Cubans were familiar with the names of seven leading Cuban dissidents, reports the Miami Herald.  The information was collected in a survey of Cuban adults who visited the U.S. Interests Section to apply for refugee status. Nearly half of the 236 people surveyed couldn’t identify any of the dissidents listed.  On average, those surveyed were only able to identify less than one in four of the dissidents. The cable presents the results of the admittedly unscientific poll as proof of the state-controlled nature of the national media.

At 43%, the dissident receiving the greatest name recognition was Martha Beatriz Roque, a long-time member of the opposition. Yoani Sánchez, who had been writing her blog Generation Y for about a year at the time of the survey, received only 2% recognition.

Around the Region:

House Committee on Foreign Relations holds hearing about Venezuela ties to Iran, Chávez still recovering from surgery in Havana despite speculation and criticism

This morning, Rep. Connie Mack (FL-14) led a joint hearing including the Western Hemisphere and Middle East and South Asia Subcommittees of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the National Security, Homeland Defense and Foreign Operations Subcommittee of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to discuss whether Venezuela should be subject to additional U.S. sanctions. Currently, Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA is under sanctions from the U.S. State Department for exporting approximately $50 million of fuel additives to Iran in violation of sanctions currently in place against that nation.

According to C-SPAN, some Members were interested in knowing whether Venezuela or its state entities may be involved in activities in violation of U.S. or international rules such as drug trafficking, supporting terrorist groups, or allowing Iran to use Venezuelan banks to circumvent current sanctions. Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Connie Mack advocated for sanctions, stating: “The U.S. needs to move quickly to cut off Chávez’s source of revenue, and bring an end to both his influence in Latin America and his dangerous relationship with the terrorist-supporting Iranian regime before it’s too late.”

President Chávez’s government has previously rejected State Department sanctions, calling them a “unilateral and hostile action” that “violates the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”  Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro suggested that regular oil shipments to the U.S. could be affected, stating: “There are several proposals that are being evaluated by President Chávez to respond to the United States’ imperialist pretensions,” the Miami Herald reported.

President Chávez is currently in Cuba, where he underwent a procedure to remove a pelvic abscess on June 10. He was last heard on Venezuelan state television on June 12, when he phoned in to say he was quickly recovering from the surgery, AFP reports. On June 17, photos were released of a meeting between Chávez and Fidel and President Raúl Castro. Mounting questions have arisen regarding his prolonged absence, including speculation that Chávez is suffering from more serious health conditions. Others have criticized him for governing remotely as pressing national issues come forward, such as prison riots that have resulted in the death of at least 16 inmates. There has been no announcement as to when Chávez plans to return to Venezuela.

Recommended Reading:

The Sixth Party Congress and “Lineamientos”: A Turning Point for Cuba?, Archibald Ritter, Espacio Laical (Publication of Cuba’s Catholic Church)

“The economic future for Cuba clearly lies in a newly-rebalanced albeit vaguely-envisaged mixed market economy that will be the outcome of the various reforms that are slated to be implemented.  This is a surprising reversal of fortunes. It also constitutes a vindication of some of the views of the critics of past economic policies.”

Timeline of the 2009 Honduran Coup, Just the Facts

Nearly two years after Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was forcibly removed from the country in the middle of the night, Zelaya has returned from exile and the Organization of American States has reinstated Honduras into that international body.  Just the Facts provides a helpful timeline of major events following President Manuel Zelaya’s removal on June 28, 2009.

Will New GOP Isolationism Leave New GOP Star Marco Rubio Isolated?, Tim Padgett, Global Spin

An analysis of the political direction of Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida’s junior Senator.

Recommended Viewing:

Photos: CDA’s 5th Anniversary Celebration

On June 20th, the Center for Democracy in the Americas – which publishes this weekly news summary– held its 5th Anniversary Celebration in Washington, DC.  CDA honored Governor Bill Richardson, Secretary John Block, and the late Smith Bagley for their contributions to the reform of Cuba policy, and entertainment was provided by Carlos Varela, the renowned Cuban singer-songwriter, as presented by Jackson Browne.  These photos capture some of the excitement of the event.

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