Who can explain what is happening in Washington? Esteban Colbert?

July 29, 2011

Just before our colleague got on a plane from Mexico City heading back to Washington, she wrote to ask what had happened in Washington since she left.

When we said, the government was about to default on its debt and that political chaos was reigning in the Congress, we considered the irony; in the 1980s, that is what travelers said was going on in Latin America after they came back.  Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and it pinches.

Yes, there is a stormy and dispiriting debate taking place in the U.S. over the size of the state, the role of the government, and the nation’s finances. And yes, at the end of the debate, we expect that the U.S. government will be forced to cut back its spending and its programs and be less present (or intrusive, depending on your perspective) in our citizens’ lives.

Except, worryingly, in these related areas.

First, if majorities on the House Appropriations and Foreign Affairs Committees get their way, the Federal government will actually increase its meddling in the choices U.S. citizens get to make in where they choose to travel.  As we previously reported, these panels want to sharply cut back on the rights of Cuban Americans to visit their families in Cuba and some legislators want to go further and take away recently granted rights for other Americans to visit the island under non-tourist, people-to-people programs as well.

These proposals not only intrude on U.S. citizens’ travel rights, but they will also cost the U.S. Treasury millions of dollars if they become law, because they will also diminish federal revenues based on the taxes collected on airline tickets.

The Associated Press is reporting that the threat of renewed restrictions on travel has some in the Cuban American community fearful.  “Of course the (Cuban) government gets some of our money, but what are we going to do? Should our families starve?,” asks Sonia Rodriguez.

To be clear, a majority of Americans – and strong majorities of Cuban Americans – support increased travel to Cuba, not less.  Cutting travel also imposes humanitarian barriers on the ability of families to unite and provide support, and travel restrictions cut U.S. government revenues.  In other words, at a time when Washington is debating on how to cut spending and curb the role of government, restrictions on travel to Cuba achieve the opposite results.

If this is confusing to us, we can only imagine how confusing it is to our readers living elsewhere in the region.

Which brings us to the second development: democracy promotion.

There is still funding in the State Department Budget for the USAID “democracy promotion programs”.  Perhaps they could use some of this money to hire consultants who can explain why stopping Americans from traveling to Cuba will someday inspire Cuba to end restrictions on the rights of Cubans to travel to travel here.

We’re kidding, of course.  We think the U.S. would set a much better example if it ended the debate, paid its bills, honored the travel rights of the American people, and saved the money it would otherwise spend on democracy promotion by doing the right thing here at home.

This week in Cuba news…

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Cold Warrior Counterattack against Travel to Cuba Grows into Combat with Entire Hemisphere!

July 22, 2011

Let us begin with an apology for our “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” headline.

Sadly, there’s more than a grain of truth to it.

A month ago, the House Appropriations Committee voted dramatic cut backs in travel by Cuban Americans to the island and in the financial support they provide to their families.  It also repealed new rules by President Obama that allow all Americans to send remittances to Cubans.

This vote provoked an outcry – led by dissidents in Cuba and Cuban American leaders in this country – and earned a rare veto threat by the Obama administration.

This week, however, things got considerably uglier in the House Foreign Affairs Committee during its mark-up of the State Department Authorization bill. Among the actions taken by the Committee:

  • It also voted to cut back Cuban American travel to highly restrictive Bush era-levels.
  • It voted to repeal President Obama’s travel reforms that enable increased people-to-people travel to Cuba.
  • It voted to cut off all U.S. aid to Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.
  • It cut off USAID funding to countries that do not vote with the United States in the UN more than 50% of the time (hurting the poorest of the poor).
  • n  It cut all aid to countries that are below the median of the MCC’s corruption indicators—which is more than 50 countries, including Haiti and Mexico.  They generously provided a Presidential waiver, so that Obama can take the heat for funding “corrupt” countries.
  • It voted to end all U.S. funding to the Organization of American States (OAS).

Rep. Gary Ackerman called the OAS funding cut off tantamount to turning our back on our own hemisphere.  “This is more than folly,” he said, “It’s dangerous.  We are on the precipice of leaving this planet.”   Republican lawmakers tell the World Where to Go, one headline said.

How did we get here?

There is a systematic effort in the U.S. Congress by hardline legislators to redraw U.S. relations with Latin America along Cold War lines, a campaign that starts but clearly does not end with Cuba; one that is accompanied by a world view that is ossified, ideological, and not always connected with reality.

From the very beginning, these hardliners of both parties opposed President Obama’s policies to gradually increase U.S. engagement with Cuba. Modest decisions liberalizing travel and remittance rules were met, at first, with simply extreme rhetoric.

But their angry words – rewarding the terrorist Castro dictatorship with unilateral concessions, comparing some Cuban Americans who visit family on the island to welfare cheats –are now accompanied by some rather significant threats to those policies and other developments in Cuba.

They’re for cutting off family travel and remittances. Blocking U.S. airports from serving the Cuban market.  Browbeating civil servants to stop the Treasury Department from issuing travel licenses that are totally permissible under the law. Threatening oil companies who help the Cubans drill with economic sanctions and withdrawing their rights to drill in U.S. waters because “We cannot allow the Castro regime to become the oil tycoons of the Caribbean.”

The Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee has even taken to bullying Foreign Service officers at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana because they held a photo contest for Cubans who might like their pictures posted on the Interest Sections’ Facebook page.

And on and on. Venezuela?  Impose sanctions and list them as a State Sponsor of Terrorism.  Honduras?  Anyone who calls the military ouster of President Zelaya a “coup” is guilty of “the big lie.”  The OAS?  “Let’s not continue to fund an organization that’s bent on destroying democracy in Latin America,” says Rep. Connie Mack.   This, he says, at a moment when Latin America has never been more democratic (or more independent, which we suspect is Mr. Mack’s problem).

This might be funny if these guys didn’t have real power.

The Miami Herald had it right this week:  “Diaz-Balart move to tighten Cuba travel could pass in Congress.”  It could.

We hope this threat against family travel alarms the travel agencies and the people-to-people programs which are busy announcing new opportunities for non-tourists to visit Cuba.  We hope it alarms Cuban Americans who plan to visit their relatives on the island in record numbers this year, and who have enjoyed travel privileges denied to other Americans whose families reside elsewhere.  More than alarm them, we hope it spurs them to greater action.

These champions of the Cold Warrior counterattack against Cuba, engagement, and the hemisphere are wrong, to be sure, and they may be standing against the tides of history, but right now they are winning on Cuba and much else.  Even armed with the truth, we need to do a better job standing up against them.

This week in Cuba news.

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White House: Diaz-Balart language is ‘veto bait’

July 15, 2011

As harsh and partisan as Washington is, here’s an interesting fact about President Obama.  Since becoming president in 2009, he has vetoed just two bills presented to him by Congress.

In fact, he hasn’t vetoed a single bill passed by the current Congress even after the majority in the House passed from the Democrats to the Republicans.

That’s why this statement issued by his Office of Management and Budget on July 13th seemed so clear and strong:  “If the President is presented with a bill that…reverses current policies on Cuba, his senior advisors would recommend a veto.”

The bill in question is the 2012 Treasury Department budget bill.  As we have reported, it contains the amendment by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart to restore horribly restrictive limits on travel to Cuba by Cuban Americans and on the financial support – called remittances – that Cuban Americans and now other Americans can provide to the Cuban people.

Tight limits on visits and remittances were imposed by President Bush in hopes of bankrupting the Cuban government.  As with most other sanctions imposed by Washington for the last five decades, these restrictions didn’t exactly cause Cuba’s government to cry “Uncle.” Instead, they cruelly divided families and caused cash-short Cubans to suffer even more.

Mr. Obama redeemed a campaign promise in 2009 by providing unlimited travel and remittance rights to Cuban Americans.  This year, he moved further to grant all Americans the right to provide remittances to qualified Cubans and offered a special dispensation for remittances relating to religious work.  These are the policies which Rep. Diaz-Balart seeks to roll back, and now the President has stood up to defend them.

He is not doing so alone.

This week, Yoani Sanchez, the celebrated Cuban blogger, posted a piece in opposition to the amendment, remembering what financial support from abroad meant to her:  “Without that help, once sent to me from Florida, my life would have been totally different.  I would not have finished high school, probably I would have sailed – on a wooden door –during the rafter crisis, or I would have sunk into conformity with no horizons.”  And she said cutting off remittances now would interrupt the ability of thousands of Cubans to “rest in the arms of solidarity extended from outside.”

The Cuban American Commission for Family Rights, a non-profit organization comprising a broad coalition of Cuban Americans from Florida, took out a full page ad in the Miami Herald, condemning the amendment and calling it “cruel and discriminatory.”

Their voices are teamed with the president, with other Cuban dissidents, with Members of Congress from both parties, with those fighting for jobs and the ability of Americans to travel where they please as a matter of right.

We don’t expect Mr. Diaz-Balart or his allies in the House to be influenced by Cubans on the island or the majorities that exist in their own precincts who want travel rights not only for Cuban Americans but for all Americans.  They’ve long proven numb to reason and are hopelessly hooked on their Havana-bashing habits.

But we do take solace from the comments of Patrick Griffin, President Clinton’s Legislative Affairs Director, who told Cuba Central today, “In the current political environment, an OMB recommendation to veto a proposed piece of legislation is a virtual nail in the coffin of that legislation unless the objectionable policies within it are removed.”

In other words, in the Senate or later in the legislative process, reason will prevail.

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Cutting Cuban American Travel: A “pay phone policy” in a cell phone age

July 8, 2011

According to Cuba’s National Statistics Office, Cubans owned one million cellphones at the end of 2010, up by more than 800,000 since the end of 2007.

Small wonder U.S.-Cuba relations continue to be on-hold with a U.S. foreign policy invented during the heyday of the pay phone.

While changes take place in Cuba – as economic reforms proceed, as foreign actors like Singapore take the lead managing a vast expansion of Cuba’s port and container capacity at Mariel, as the U.K. signs a new accord with Cuba to boost tourism – U.S. policy makers remain rooted in the past and addicted to their old “regime change ways.”

We have written before about the amendment offered by Rep. Mario Diaz Balart, which may be considered in the U.S. House next week.  It cuts back drastically on the right of Cuban Americans to visit and provide financial support to their families and wipes out new channels opened by President Obama for all Americans to provide remittances to qualified Cubans.

With no humanitarian exemptions, the Diaz-Balart amendment, by wiping out most family travel and ratcheting down on remittances, seeks to starve Cuba’s government and economy of cash and accepts as collateral damage the pain inflicted on the Cuban families it would divide and punish on both sides of the Straits.

Family travel and remittances provide information and contact for Cubans, and the extra money has, in part, fueled the expansion of cell phones which is just one lasting benefit of this valuable form of engagement.

For just these reasons, the amendment has been denounced by Cubans on the island and here in the U.S., and rightly so.  Leading Cuban dissidents, Miriam Leiva and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, in separate essays, condemn its goal of denying average Cubans financial support and cutting off their access to information and hope from the U.S.  They say it poses economic risks that could tip deprivation into instability with tragic consequences for Cuba and the United States.  They call it an effort to collaborate with Cuban oppression.  But their voices alone cannot stop it; that job falls to Congress and the Executive Branch, if they pay attention and have the spine to act.

That shouldn’t take much courage.  One side tries to elevate the acts of dividing and impoverishing families into a matter of principle, after fifty years of using the same tactics to upend Cuba without any success.  The other side need only speak about reuniting families, expanding economic opportunity, acting in accord with our allies, and advancing our interests and our values.  They could practically phone it in.  But against a determined, if backward, opposition, they’re going to have to do much better than that.

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Celebrate July 4th with a blast of Cuba News!

July 1, 2011

We’re delivering our summary of news about Cuba and U.S. policy just in time for our readers in the U.S. to enjoy this update before they start the three-day, Independence Day holiday weekend.

There are a lot of important and interesting things to report.

People to People travel:  One result of the Obama travel reforms is that licenses are becoming available for people-to-people travel.  This will result in a far broader set of opportunities for Americans to visit Cuba than have existed for more than a decade.

See the item below on people-to-people travel and remember – as we remind ourselves – that while the President could and should be doing more to end U.S. restrictions relating to Cuba, what some have derided as “small victories” are really amounting to much more.

Homes and Cars:  Cuba, albeit slowly, is making good on its commitment to economic reform.  See the item below on new legislation that will finally permit Cubans to more freely purchase and sell their homes and automobiles.  Opening markets for the sale of these assets will help Cubans accrue capital and live more independent lives.

Human Trafficking:  The U.S. State Department this week issued a rebuke to Cuba in its annual report on human trafficking.  We cover their report and the retort offered by Josefina Vidal of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.

Cutting off Cuban-American Travel:  As we reported last week, the House Appropriations Committee voted to cut off most travel by Cuban Americans to the island.  Their amendment returns the policy to the days of President George W. Bush, when family members from the U.S. were prevented from attending weddings and funerals, or helping sick relatives under rules with no humanitarian exceptions.

This week, we carry comments and recommended readings from Tomás Bilbao, Miriam Leiva, and Oscar Espinosa Chepe who protest the proposal to cut off family travel.  They remind us that in this period of Cuban economic reform, more visits by average Americans to the island are not only good for us but they’re also good for everyday Cubans.

You’ve heard or read the sad justification for the inhumane policy of dividing families; namely, that travel to Cuba provides revenues to the Castro government.  But this week, as Tracey Eaton reported in Along the Malecón, a new argument – eye-popping to us – is being offered in defense of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s proposal to stop family travel.  It dismisses some of the travelers … as welfare recipients!

Mr. Eaton interviewed one advocate of the cutback who said this:

Obama’s “biggest mistake” was allowing Cuban-Americans to visit the island as often as they want. Some of the travelers have only been in the United States for a year. They emigrate to the U.S. and start collecting government welfare checks. They stay for a year, then begin traveling back to Cuba, where they spend much of their time – and their money.

It’s hard to know where to begin.  But as the Washington Post asked this morning, “Who knew Florida’s welfare payments were so generous? The Miami-Havana round trip costs about $450.”

There should be no restrictions on families or on any other American who wants to visit the island.  But as we have this debate, let’s not denigrate the people who visit Cuba to support and keep up with their families.

The House may consider the legislation cutting off travel the week of July 11.

Finally, for the last two years, the readers of this publication have benefited from the hidden hand of Kendra Seymour, assistant director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and a contributing writer, editor, and distributor of the Cuba Central Weekly New Blast.  Kendra, a crack photographer, is leaving to explore worlds beyond our own.  We know our readers will miss her, because she helped craft this product every week.  We’ll miss her because she did much of the heavy lifting.  Her leadership role will be filled by our colleague Lisa Llanos.

Please join us in saying, “Thanks, Kendra, we’ll miss you.  It’s been a blast!”

Happy July 4th weekend to you all.

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