New Year’s News Blast Special Edition: Cuba in 2012 by Philip Brenner

December 30, 2011

What a year it has been.

2011 started with a decisive change in Cuba policy by the Obama administration that opened the door to travel for more Americans, opened the travel market to more U.S. airports, and opened new sources of financial support for everyday Cubans as their nation updates its economic model and they anticipate significant changes in their lives.

We at Cuba Central tracked these and other developments throughout the year, and we reported them – weekly and comprehensively -directly to you.

Even though it’s a holiday, we thought that some of our readers might be asking, “what about 2012?”

Good question. And we have an answer!

For this week’s special edition, we asked one of the best and most respected experts on U.S.-Cuba relations, Dr. Philip Brenner, to write about what may happen on the island in 2012 and the likely direction of U.S. policy.

Phil Brenner, professor of international relations at American University, has spent his academic career visiting and writing about Cuba, about Latin America more broadly, and about U.S. policy toward the region.   He is co-editor of A Contemporary Cuba Reader (Rowman and Littlefield), and co-author of Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba’s Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis (Rowman and Littlefield). He is on the Advisory Board of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

If you read one thing about Cuba during this holiday weekend, we recommend this:

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The Freedom to Travel: Where are you going for the holidays?

December 23, 2011

The Associated Press reported this morning that Miami International Airport is jammed with Cuban Americans traveling to the island to celebrate the holidays with their families.

After the threat that Christmas in Cuba would be cancelled by the U.S. Congress, this is a joyous moment.

These family reunifications have been taking place in increasing numbers since President Obama totally eliminated restrictions on family travel (and financial support) in 2009.  It is our hope that the momentum behind this decent, humane policy will protect it against the inevitable political attacks we anticipate seeing in 2012 and beyond.

“Stopping it?” Professor Andy Garcia said to the AP.  “Impossible. It is the people-to-people contact we want and need, and it is already happening.”  This is wonderful for people in the U.S. with family in Cuba.

Unfortunately, there are two sets of bystanders waiting for these liberties to be commonly shared.

For most U.S. citizens, travel to Cuba remains forbidden fruit, despite the loosening of the rules by President Obama early in 2011 which restored categories of non-tourist travel that were abolished by President Bush.

The restrictions that still exist for the overwhelming majorities of Americans make no sense.

A goal of U.S. policy – bringing more information to the Cuban people – remains unfulfilled by Cold War era impediments to travel that block contact, exchange, and engagement by Americans with everyday Cubans unless they can fit into a category crafted by Congress and approved by the executive branch.

To say the least, it is an affront to our constitutional rights and awkward for a country that so often lectures others about liberty.

By the same token, the Cuban government continues to impede the right of its citizens to travel.  The difficulty Cubans encounter should they want to leave the island and return is, as Reuters reports, “one of the biggest gripes about life under the government in power since Cuba’s 1959 revolution.”

As a 60-year old woman told Freedom House earlier this year, “I wish we had more freedoms to travel, I wish people could go out of Cuba for vacations.”

In the hours before we went to press, Cuba’s National Assembly was meeting to hear from President Raúl Castro about the status of the Cuban economy.  There had been speculation, as the Associated Press reported, that the parliament might ease the “travel restrictions that keep most Cubans from ever leaving the island.”  Whether or not this happens today, it is inevitable.

Our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, has received a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to organize legal trips to Cuba, which we have done for better part of a decade for delegations that regularly include U.S. policy makers.

We have spent wondrous days and evenings in the company of everyday Cubans – artists, academics, and others – with rare opportunities to talk, listen, and understand each other better.

We always leave such encounters hoping that meetings like these will, someday, no longer be rare but commonplace; sparked by people who got together because they could and not because they belonged to the right family or asked their government’s permission to travel so they could enjoy a freedom that should belong to everyone.

Wherever you – our readers – are going for the holidays, we wish you safe travels.

In the meanwhile, this week in Cuba news….

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Victory on Preserving Cuban American Family Travel

December 16, 2011

We believe victory is at hand.

As we prepared to publish this week’s news summary, we awaited final word that the House and Senate have, in fact, sent end-o- the-year budget legislation to the White House after removing restrictions on family travel.

Pushing up against a Friday deadline and a possible government shutdown, Congress is apparently ready to send the White House legislation to fund the federal government for 2012 without the proposal by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart that restored punishing Bush-era travel restrictions on Cuban Americans.

How did it happen that cruel limits on family travel, adopted without a dissenting vote last June in the House Appropriations Committee, got dropped at the 11th hour from this $1 trillion bill?

Here’s what we have learned from news accounts and Congressional sources so far.

The White House stood firm.  President Obama repealed travel restrictions on Cuban Americans in 2009, and he never abandoned the policy.  After the Díaz-Balart amendment was adopted, the White House issued a veto threat, followed up with another statement this week, defended its foreign policy prerogatives and, according to the New York Times, “declined to allow Democrats to sign off on the bill until restrictions on travel to Cuba were removed.”

Pro-embargo legislators rose to the occasion.  Resisting pressure from hardline colleagues, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid opposed the restrictions calling them “too important” to foreign policy to be shoved through Congress in this fashion.  Rep. Harold Rogers, House Appropriations Chair, agreed to rewrite the bill and drop the Cuba language to shape a compromise and deter a government shutdown.

Congressional champions did their part.  Rep. José Serrano fought privately and publicly against the Díaz-Balart provision.  Rep. Jo Ann Emerson and Senator Jerry Moran, who wanted to use the budget bill to end obstacles against food sales to Cuba, lost their provisions as part of the compromise.  Senators Kerry, Conrad, and others were activated against the provision.  Breaking ranks with the hardliners, Rep. Kathy Castor of Tampa, Florida penned a letter to the House conference committee members, writing:

We must not go back to the days when sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and grandsons and granddaughters were unable to visit sick or dying relatives in Cuba.

Editorial pages kicked in.  In its editorial, the New York Times scorned legislators for acting to limit family visits just in time for the Christmas holidays.  The Tampa Bay Times called the Díaz-Balart rider “a shameful tactic,” saying “(he) has no business, anyway, telling American citizens where they can and cannot travel.”

The people were heard.  On a national level, grassroots organizations like the Latin America Working Group alerted their constituents as we and others notified our readers and sounded the alarm.

Perhaps most important, Floridians and Cuban Americans raised their voices. The Miami Herald reported that the majority of Cuban American callers to talk shows on Miami’s Spanish-language radio stations were “overwhelmingly and strongly in favor of unlimited travel, with many arguing that Washington has no right to limit their visits with relatives in Cuba.”  A digital poll showed 60% of respondents opposed to the Diaz-Balart language.  And considerable attention was paid to Yoani Sánchez when she tweeted from the island:

Mucha preocupacion en las calles habaneras ante posible restriccion de viajes y remesas a #Cuba Seria un terrible paso atras!

A lot of concern on the streets of Havana about the possible restriction of travel and remittances to #Cuba It would be a terrible step backwards!

All of this mattered a great deal.  But again, why did this story – at this moment – end so happily?

First, cutting off travel is wrong, and so is dividing families.  This principle – so blindingly obvious, so enshrined in our values and in global definitions of human rights – was protected this time by the Congress.  While it is entirely possible that advocates for cutting family travel will be heard from again, the Congress is acting to honor these ideas and do the right thing.

Second, travel to Cuba is deeply meaningful to growing numbers in the diaspora.  Statistics tell part of the story:  Family visits declined by 80%, according to some estimates, following the Bush cutbacks.  After the Obama reforms, the 2010 numbers exceeded 350,000 visits and the 2011 figures are likely to top those. In public opinion surveys, support for travel among Cuban Americans exceeds 60%.

But it’s about more than travel numbers; it’s about the heart and putting family above politics.  As one veteran community leader said: “These are people just trying to have a rational relationship with family in Cuba.  They’re not going to make themselves or their families martyrs for the point of view of someone else.”  The desire among these families to provide emotional and financial support now, as their relatives experience enormous changes in Cuba as the government updates its economic model, is only growing.

Third, the political landscape is changing.  Yes, as they often argue, the advocates for travel restrictions were elected by their constituents.  But the change in local sentiment is palpable.  The Obama travel reforms – in 2009 for Cuban Americans and the broader liberalization in 2011 – are investing increasing numbers of people in Miami, Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere in reaching beyond the Cold War habits of restricting liberties in the U.S. in the name of advancing democracy in Cuba.  They like the new policy and they want to keep it.

When Senator Rubio stands on the Senate floor, as he did last night, and stretches the truth about the travel cutbacks, trying to assure his colleagues that the travel limits really aren’t that bad (what…he’s just for dividing families a little?), we take it as a sign that he and others know they are overreaching.

Suffice it to say that –and it’s important that my colleagues know that – what we’re asking for, what’s being asked for in the omnibus, and what will be coming over here if its kept in, won’t prohibit families from traveling to Cuba; it will just limit the amount that they can, and that’s a wise policy, one that I support, because it limits access to hard currency to a really tyrannical regime.”  Senator Marco Rubio, U.S. Senate floor, December 15, 2011.

It’s premature to say the old order which has kept Cuba policy frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness is being overturned, but the politics around this issue have clearly been transformed and we acknowledge and welcome this change.

So, 2011 which began with President Obama opening the door to Cuba for people-to-people travel ends, we hope, with Congress doing the right thing and leaving the door open for Cuban families to continue being reunited.  Just in time for the holidays.

This week in Cuba news…

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Seriously? Breakthrough in the Bahamas; Engagement with the Cubans on oil

December 9, 2011

Earlier this week, when a government press release announced that State Department and other U.S. governmental officials would participate in a preparedness and response seminar in the Bahamas to discuss offshore drilling safety in the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean, we looked in vain for evidence that Cuba was participating.  See the press release here for yourself, the word “Cuba” never appears.  “Seriously?” we thought to ourselves.

It turns out that Cuba is at the table, after all, and that’s an important breakthrough for U.S. policy.  Rather than pretending Cuba isn’t drilling for oil in the Gulf (they are), or engaging in the illusion that the U.S. Congress can pass legislation to prevent the Cubans from exploring  in their own territorial waters (it can’t), it appears the U.S. government found a multilateral forum – the International Maritime Organization –under whose auspices a conversation with Cuba could actually take place.

That’s good for the Gulf and good for the U.S.-Cuba relationship.  And, we’d like to see more dialogue, especially direct dialogue, taking place.  As the Orlando Sentinel editorialized this morning:

At least they’re talking to each other. But it makes no sense to engage Cuban officials on international platforms and not in direct talks, too. We hope more engagement is taking place through back channels.

Washington has conducted direct negotiations with Havana on other issues, such as immigration and military matters. Surely drilling in waters close to Florida’s environmentally sensitive and economically vital coasts rises to the same priority level.

The Sentinel is right.  This should not be an isolated event.  And we see this spirit of engagement in other news we’re covering this week:

  • In the trip of Pope Benedict XVI to Cuba, now confirmed for 2012, so that he can honor Cuba’s patron Saint, deal directly with Cuba’s government, and affirm the increasingly important role of the Cuban church in areas from economic reform to the release of political prisoners.
  • In the recently-concluded National Council of Churches visit to the island which ended with a call for normal relations.
  • In the work of U.S. atmospheric scientist Richard Anthes, who engaged directly with his Cuban counterparts in the last few days on U.S.-Cuban cooperation on weather.
  • In the words of Peter Kornbluh and Bill LeoGrande and their column which advocates talking directly to the Cubans about how to obtain the release of Alan Gross.

This is the lesson; if you’re serious and you want to get something done, engagement matters.

This lesson often seems lost on those who speak loudest on issues of political freedom in Cuba, who nonetheless oppose engagement with the Cuban government on anything.

As the Sentinel reminds us – on this eve of International Human Rights Day –talking to Cuba can have and will have a political dimension on which these energy discussions can build.  It says:

We have long advocated democratic and free market reforms in Cuba. No amount of oil-drilling revenue will boost the island’s fortunes without fundamental reforms.

We just don’t believe shunning direct talks on drilling will boost that transition.

***

Before proceeding to the news, we want to thank the generous subscribers to the News Blast who sent us donations in the last ten days after our Cyber Wednesday and Saturday appeals.   Everyone can give something – and the news summary represents a major resource investment for us – so we hope that learning about these donations will inspire more readers to support the work we do to produce this unique source of information about Cuba and U.S. policy every week.

This week, we also want to congratulate Lisa Llanos of our staff (she manages the production of the news summary) for reaching a major milestone birthday.  We celebrate the service of Russell Riechers, who today concludes months of magnificent service as a researcher-writer on the blast.

And, we conclude with A Final Word commemorating the sudden and sorrowful loss of Dr. Héctor Silva, one of the most respected political figures in El Salvador.

This week in Cuba news…

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Terror List Examined in Washington as Alan Gross Begins 3rd year in Cuban prison

December 2, 2011

As Alan Gross begins his third year in prison, Cuba’s terrorist list designation was examined in Washington.  These are not separate problems.

This week, the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) and the Center for International Policy (CIP) convened an important conference on Cuba’s presence on the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.

The conference was a reminder that Cuba’s listing is a sham and that hardliners in the Congress use its designation as an obstacle to any progress on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Professor Wayne Smith, co-host of the conference and director of CIP’s Cuba project, who served as chief of mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, has been a critic of Cuba’s listing for decades, arguing that it undermines U.S. credibility on the world stage.  He said at the conference, “It is quite clear that Cuba should not be on the list.  There is no evidence to place it there, which anyone can see even in the State Department’s own report on the subject.”

As Mavis Anderson, Senior Associate of the LAWG said, “It is a misuse of this list as a foreign policy tool and places obstacles in the way of the development of a sane and post-Cold War policy toward Cuba.”

In fact, Cuba’s designation is a perfect predicate for the hardliners in Congress to block otherwise rational policy changes or initiatives – because, after all, U.S. law says we’d be helping a state sponsor of terror.  Here are three examples.

Congressman David Rivera uses the terror list to justify trying to stop Repsol and Cuba from drilling together for oil.  He said his legislation to block drilling was necessary to “ensure that Florida taxpayers are not made to pay for an environmental disaster caused by a terrorist regime.”

When Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio sought to stop President Obama from increasing the number of airports allowed to serve the Cuban market, their proposal sought to prevent the expansion of direct flights to state sponsors of terrorism.

Finally, there is the case of Alan Gross. When Ileana Ros-Lehtinen questioned Secretary Clinton recently at a hearing, the Congresswoman stated that “the United States should not be negotiating with a state sponsor of terrorism.”

In essence, the Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee suggested that Mr. Gross remain in a Cuban prison rather than allowing the U.S. government to discuss with Cuba how he could be released.

Alan Gross was put in harm’s way by a USAID regime change program that is a sad legacy of the Cold War.   He should not be abandoned, left sitting in a prison cell because of cynicism and Cold War politics, and the U.S. government needs to refocus its efforts to get him out for humanitarian reasons.

Direct discussions and engagement have produced progress in other, much harder cases.  If the U.S. can get hikers out of prison in Iran, if the U.S. can get a contractor who killed civilians out of a prison in Pakistan, and if we can swap spies arrested in the U.S. for others jailed in Russia, the U.S. ought to be able to figure out a formula for getting Alan Gross back home.

Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors list should not be an obstacle to getting that done.

This week in Cuba news…

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