Victory on Preserving Cuban American Family Travel

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  President Obama repealed travel restrictions on Cuban Americans in 2009, and he never abandoned the policy.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…


More details on U.S. plans to inspect oil drilling rig en route to Cuba

The U.S. is sending four inspectors to Trinidad and Tobago next month to examine Scarabeo 9, the oil rig en route to Cuba to commence offshore drilling, Bloomberg reports. Inspectors from the U.S. Coast Guard and Department of the Interior will check the generators, positioning system, and firefighting equipment while the rig is docked in Port-of-Spain. They will be able to discuss their findings with Repsol, Cuba’s partner,  but the inspectors have no enforcement power, and will not be able to look at the blowout preventer, a device that failed to stop the massive BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or the well casing and drill fluid that will be used on site.

Though less than 10% of Scarabeo 9’s components are U.S.-made, the rig’s blowout preventer is a product of Houston-based National Oilwell Varco Inc. However, as the company does not have a license to do business with Cuba, this means the drill operators must seek training and spare parts from companies in Europe or Asia. In one interview, Lee Hunt, president of the Houston-based International Association of Drilling Contractors (IADC), compared the situation to “buying a Mercedes and being told you have to go to a Ford dealer for parts.”

Hunt argued more broadly that U.S. sanctions unnecessarily limit Cuba’s access to services and technology for spill prevention and clean-up that U.S. companies have developed since the BP spill. An opinion piece from Forbes declares that the embargo’s limitations represent “a dangerous threat to the environment and a huge missed opportunity to the U.S. oil industry.”

There has been some interaction between the U.S., Cuba, and Caribbean countries, as we reported last week. The Miami Herald this week has more on the regional talks, adding that the U.S. has participated in a mock response drill with Repsol in Trinidad.

To read CDA’s report on oil drilling, Cuba and U.S. policy, click here.

Cuba is a focus of Human Rights Week activities by State Department and Amnesty International

The U.S. Department of State released a statement calling on Cuba’s government to respect activities surrounding Human Rights Week, AFP reports. The statement said that “We are deeply troubled by reports of increased repression by the Government of Cuba against Cuban citizens peacefully expressing themselves,” citing reports that activists, journalists and others were detained leading up to Human Rights Day on December 10th. President Obama declared Human Rights Week from December 10th-17th.

Amnesty International has called for urgent action in the case of activists Ivonne Malleza Galano and her husband Ignacio Martínez Montejo, who have reportedly been held without charge since their arrest in Havana on November 30th for staging a peaceful demonstration. According to Amnesty International, Malleza Galano was held incommunicado for ten days before being allowed a phone call to inform family and friends of her whereabouts. Relatives visiting on the 12th “were told by staff… that Ivonne Malleza Galana and Ignacio Martínez Montejo are being accused of public disorder and could be investigated for up to 60 days. The report concludes:

If, as it seems, Ivonne Malleza Galano and Ignacio Martínez Montejo have been detained solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly, they are prisoners of conscience and should be released immediately and unconditionally.

Treasury Department seeks to close loopholes in “State Sponsors of Terrorism” sanctions

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has asked at least a dozen U.S.-listed companies to disclose their business activities with countries on the State Department’s list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list, including Cuba, the Financial Times reports. SEC’s financial division sent inquiries to companies including Sony, Caterpillar, American Express, Aecom Technology, Iridex, and Veolia Entertainment as part of a review of companies’ investment risks to the holders of their securities.  A loophole, which is currently being examined by Congress, allows some U.S. subsidiaries to continue business in sanctioned countries, as long as they run separately from their parent company and don’t employ U.S. citizens.

Cuba has remained on the “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list since 1982 joined only by Iran, Syria, and Sudan (other countries such as North Korea have been removed from the list). For an opinion piece by CDA Executive Director Sarah Stephens on why Cuba should be removed from the list, click here.

U.S. and Cuban scientists meet in Havana to discuss cooperation in environmental and biological science

U.S. and Cuban scientists began a 5-day meeting in Havana on Monday to discuss increased cooperation in future projects, EFE reports.  17 Americans and 23 Cubans are attending the event, which was co-organized by the Cuban Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences (AAAS). Former AAAS president Peter Agre, a 2003 Nobel Laureate in chemistry and a member of the U.S. delegation, stated “I think both sides can benefit from collaboration and that this is the best way to develop future projects,” adding that “This country has much to teach in solving persistent problems in other areas of the planet,” AIN reports.

The Cuban group is led by CAS president Ismael Clark and Fidel Castro Díaz-Balart, scientific advisor of the State Council and son of the former president. According to the CAS, the meeting aims to create “a scientific sustainable cooperation between two countries without formal relations since 1961,” Xinhua reports. Organizers said that the meeting would be divided into specialized sessions to explore specific collaborative possibilities between the two scientific communities.

Havana Jazz Festival opens; American musicians and travelers able to attend

The Havana Jazz Festival opened this Thursday and thanks to a people-to-people license, for the first time, U.S. citizens are able to attend the event, EFE reports. The license was obtained by the magazine Jazz Times in conjunction with licensed travel organizer Insight Cuba. According to the official state promoter Paradiso, some 300 foreigners will be attending the festival, many of them from Canada and the U.S.

Participating as performers are several U.S. musicians, pianist Arturo O’Farrill, guitarist Kash Killion, and saxophonist Neil Leonard, who is accompanied by musicians from the Berklee College of Music, where he is a professor. The festival’s official sponsor is the Grammy-winning Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés, who has visited the U.S. several times in recent years. The event will last until Sunday.


Military firm next target in Cuba’s corruption crackdown

Cuban authorities arrested top executives of the military-run trading company Tecnotex as part of the government’s wide-ranging crackdown on corruption, Reuters reports. Among those reportedly arrested was Fernando Noy, Tecnotex’s director, and a well-known military officer in Cuba’s business world who, according to sources, was escorted from the company’s office in handcuffs. Tecnotex is one of Cuba’s most prominent state-run companies, purchasing technology, equipment, and materials for numerous military-owned firms in the Cuban economy’s civilian sector.

The government recently shuttered and arrested top executives at one British and two Canadian companies, all three of which had dealings with Tecnotex. The exact allegations against Noy and the other CEOs are still unknown, and none of the arrests have been reported in the island’s state-run media. Noy’s arrest could not be confirmed with Cuban authorities.

Cuba reaches a new record with 2.5 million tourists in 2011

Official sources report a record 2.5 million tourists have visited Cuba in 2011, according to a DPA story. While Canada remains the main source of visitors, there has been a “significant increase” in tourism from Argentina and Russia. The primary European source of tourists is the U.K. Tourism is a principal source of income for the Cuban economy. The Ministry of Tourism lauded the increase in visitors as a reflection of the good positioning of Cuba despite a “complex international situation.”


France-Cuba trade set to raise more than 66% in 2012

Trade Minister Pierre Lellouche made a two-day visit to Havana, marking the first time in nine years that a French ministerial-level official has visited the island, Reuters reports.

After a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodríguez and other Cuban officials, Lellouche stated that he would like to see French investments on the island return to what they were a decade ago, when they made up 10% of Cuba’s direct foreign investment, Cuba Standard reports.

AFP reports that several French business delegations are planning to visit the island, following Lellouche’s talks with Cuban officials, including a delegation from MEDEF, France’s largest employers union. A Cuban delegation will visit France in January to discuss Cuba’s debt and its failure to meet its debt payment obligations to the French government agency Coface. Cuba has seen a gradual rapprochement from European countries after freeing the last of 75 political prisoners held since 2003 earlier this year.

Cuba invites Japanese companies to invest in oil

Cuba’s ambassador in Tokyo, José Fernández de Cossío, is inviting Japanese companies to participate in oil exploration in Cuba, AFP reports. According to a release from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry:

The ambassador [in Tokyo]… related Cuba’s interest that Japanese companies participate as partners in the different aspects of the prioritized oil industry in the country.

The Ministry says the ambassador detailed the “real potential” of the Cuban oil industry as well as “the legal framework through which Japanese companies can find business opportunities.

Around the Region

Senate rejects Mari Carmen Aponte nomination for El Salvador ambassador

The appointment of Mari Carmen Aponte as Ambassador to El Salvador was voted down by the Senate on a vote of 49-37, the AP reports.  Following a recess appointment, Aponte has served as ambassador since September 2010 and her tenure will expire at the end of this year.

Opposition principally focused on unfounded rumors that a former boyfriend was a Cuban spy, and anger over an op-ed Aponte penned in the Salvadoran press in support of LGBT rights in the country. Rep. Jim DeMint (SC) accused Aponte of “promoting a homosexual lifestyle” and “imposing a pro-gay agenda”.  Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid came to Aponte’s defense, stating:

In the 15 months Mari Carmen Aponte has served as our ambassador to El Salvador, she finalized an important international, anti-crime agreement and forged a strong partnership between our nations. The Puerto Rican community and all Americans are right to be proud of Ms. Aponte’s accomplishments as a diplomat representing our nation, as I am.

Sen. Bob Menendez wrote a piece in support of Aponte in the Miami Herald, which said in part:

I urge my colleagues to support Ambassador Aponte’s nomination, put partisan politics aside, recognize the benefits to America’s security and foreign policy interests that her tenure has delivered, and allow her to continue serving our nation.

Sen. Reid left open the possibility of trying to vote again on Aponte’s appointment at a later date.

House bill threatens sanctions against OAS over Nicaragua

The House’s Western Hemisphere Subcommittee voted Thursday by a vote of 6 to1 to approve a bill that would withhold 20% of U.S. funding to the Organization of American States (OAS) for every permanent council meeting where the organization did not invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter against Nicaragua and Venezuela, Nicaragua Dispatch reports. The bill, spearheaded by Subcommittee Chairman Connie Mack (FL-14), originally only mentioned Venezuela. Rep. David Rivera (FL-25), who represents a large constituency of Nicaraguan-Americans, introduced an amendment including Nicaragua that also passed.

The bill is expected to be approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Chaired by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-18).

Venezuela extradites drug trafficker to U.S.

Venezuela extradited one of Latin America’s most-wanted drug traffickers to the U.S. on Thursday, the AP reports.

Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, better known by his alias, Valenciano, controlled one of the region’s most powerful drug trafficking networks and is accused of shipping tons of cocaine to the U.S. with the help of the Zetas cartel in Mexico. He was captured by Venezuelan authorities last month, with help from Colombian intelligence, in the Venezuelan city of Valencia. The U.S. had offered a $5 million reward for information leading to Bonilla’s capture, a payment that the Venezuelan government previously said it would not accept.

Recommended Viewing

Natalie explores, the new post-Fidel Cuba, The Today Show, NBC

The Today Show’s Natalie Morales reports on changes taking place in Cuba, including visits and support from family in the U.S., new opportunities for the self-employed, the ability to buy and sell property and increased freedom of religion.

Recommended Reading

Time for a Compassionate Holiday Release of Six Prisoners, John McAuliff, The Havana Note

Alan Gross has been in prison for two years.  His case, like that of the Cuban Five, should be resolved compassionately during the coming Christmas / Chanukah / New Year holiday.

In Cuba, Dial-Up Internet is a Luxury, Nick Miroff, NPR

“Cuba is one of the least-connected countries in the world, a time-warped place where millions of young people have never been online and a dial-up Internet account is the stuff of dreams. An undersea fiber-optic cable linking the island to Venezuela was supposed to change that this year. But six months after its completion, frustrated Cubans are still starved for Web access.”

Old Havana Declines to Die, Michael Vakitiokis, The New York Times

“Wandering into a small park shaded by fruit trees in Old Havana, I was surprised to come across a bronze bust of Hans Christian Andersen. Havana is a city of surprises, the biggest of which is the miracle of its preservation. It’s not just that half a century of socialist revolution has kept modernization at bay; it’s just as much about the Cuban people’s abiding sense of history and deep cultural pride.”

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