On the freedom to travel

For months, supporters of people-to-people travel to Cuba, renewed by President Obama in 2011, feared the administration was burying the program in paperwork, stalling license renewals, and could even end it, due to unyielding election year pressure by opponents who always have opposed the freedom to travel.

At least for now, these worst fears may not be realized.   As USA Today reports, “the trips appear to be back on track,” and cites the renewal of Insight Cuba’s license which plans to offer more than 100 departures from now through 2013.

When it comes to Cuba policy, nothing seems to be permanent, and this good news is no guarantee against future reversals. Still, it might be a good time to think about how we get from where we were – to where we are now—to where we might be going.

President Obama came to office with a pledge to end punishing Bush-era restrictions on travel.  In 2009, he provided unlimited travel rights to Cuban American family members, and two years later offered broader changes:  opening up people-to-people travel, restoring non-family remittances, and giving more airports in the U.S. the opportunity to serve the Cuban market.

This was not the full freedom to travel to Cuba that most Americans support (in fact, we support the freedom to travel for citizens of both countries), but these changes in U.S. policy were meaningful to a lot of people.

Cuban dissidents embraced the changes.  The Catholic Bishops issued a statement of support as did Human Rights Watch. Educators celebrated the restoration of travel following Bush era restrictions that cut the number of U.S. students studying in Cuba from 2,000 to 60.

Even the head of the Cuban-American National Foundation, once the center of support for the embargo, released a statement endorsing the President’s actions: “It is significant that these measures do not represent a concession to the Castro regime, but rather form part of a continuing series of unilateral measures that the US is taking which demonstrate a concern for the well-being of ordinary folks.”

But the hardliners were buying none of it.  Before the reforms were announced, Senator Marco Rubio said on Spanish language radio that he’d educate his colleagues and rally Congress to block them.  Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz said the new rules “will pump much-needed money into the desperate Cuban economy, boosting the Castro regime.”  Senators Rubio and Menendez prepared an amendment in the U.S. Senate to derail the changes.  Rep. David Rivera authored legislation to repeal travel rights and to stop green card holders from visiting the island.  Exile critics even denounced family members for traveling to Cuba by sponging off their welfare payments.

Their activities culminated in votes by Congress to repeal the family travel and people-to-people rules.   After hardliners threatened to use a 2012 budget bill to cut off travel, President Obama issued a rare statement promising a veto if it reached his desk.

Thwarted in efforts to move legislation, critics directed their fire at the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC).  They accused OFAC of weakening the rules.  They started a Congressional investigation of trips by the Smithsonian Institution.  After some providers of the new services used language in their ads inconsistent with rules against tourism, OFAC issued an advisory to get them to pay attention.

Late in 2011, Senator Rubio in an angry floor speech denounced the trips as “an outrage. They’re grotesque.  And they’re providing hard currency to a regime that oppresses its people, who jails people because they disagree with the government.”  To exert more pressure on travel, he out a temporary hold blocking the nomination of Roberta Jacobson to serve as Obama’s Assistant Secretary for Latin America.  She was confirmed, but then OFAC tightened the rules.

The new restrictions put in place last May required organizers to provide detailed itineraries of every trip and to explain how activities would “enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society, and/or help promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities.”

As license approvals slowed to a crawl, the program looked in real jeopardy, and nothing would change until at least after the election.  So, it is a relief to read now, as the Los Angeles Times reports, “American travel to Cuba…may soon be surging again.”

We’ll know more in about four weeks.  Governor Romney promises to repeal the travel reforms.  His advisors include Ray Walser of the Heritage Foundation, who wrote recently “More liberal guidelines for travel by non–Cuban Americans allows thousands the chance to smoke Cuban cigars, dance a Cuban rumba, visit Old Havana, or indulge in sexual tourism,” Eric Edelman, a former national security aide to Vice President Cheney, and Richard S. Williamson, who organized opposition to Cuba working for the Reagan Administration at the U.N. and who still refers to Russia as “The Soviet Union” twenty years after the end of the Cold War.

Here, in the U.S., the travel saga continues, and it could go either way.


Yoani Sánchez, dissident blogger, reportedly arrested as Payá car crash trial starts

Yoani Sánchez, a prominent dissident blogger, was arrested in Bayamo this morning, according to a report by the BBC. Sánchez traveled to Bayamo from Havana to report on the trial of Ángel Carromero, the Spaniard who drove the car in the crash that killed dissidents Oswaldo Payá and  Harold Cepero. Carromero is being tried for vehicular manslaughter. The trial is set to begin this afternoon in a provincial court of the city of Bayamo.

Earlier this week, Ms. Sánchez filed a complaint with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) against Cuba’s government over its repeated refusal to grant her an exit visa, reports AFP. Since 2007, Sánchez has filed 20 requests to travel outside of Cuba, all of which were “refused de facto.” The Organization of American States, under which the IACHR functions, suspended Cuba in 1962.

Cuba’s Council of Ministers meets; discusses debt, economic reforms

Cuba’s Council of Ministers met in Havana over the weekend, with discussion on the debt of state companies, reports Escambray. Reducing debt has been a key aspect of President Raúl Castro’s reforms, and Cuba’s debt situation has somewhat improved, reports Cuba Standard.

However, invoices worth billions of pesos remain unpaid by state companies and Ernesto Medina Villlaveirán, the President of the Central Bank, stressed there are “numerous” defaults remaining even between entities of the same government ministry. Medina urged state company managers to:

Reconcile debts, document them with letters of credit that correspond to real payment capacity, and achieve that contracts actually direct economic and financial activity. The intent behind documenting and re-negotiating debt should not only be to shrink bad debt, but in addition to objectively identify payment options.

President Raúl Castro told the group that more “rigor and discipline” are needed, adding: “We have to comply with what we have agreed, and respect the law. Otherwise, it will be difficult to advance in the actualization of the economic model.”

Mary Blanca Ortega Barreda, the Domestic Trade Minister, announced that more than 5,500 private businesses are now leasing space from government institutions, reports Cuba Standard. Barbers, watch repair, parking and nail salons are the primary categories of businesses leasing space from the state, an arrangement legalized last year.

Finally, Marino Murillo, the minister in charge of Cuba’s economic reforms, reported the restructuring of the two state companies that oversee the production of leather products and footwear, which he described as “very scattered, with many underutilized or non-producing facilities, a high number of indirect workers, and with equipment that mostly dates back 20 years or more.” He said that studies for the restructuring began in 2010 and the process will “contribute to eliminating structural and employment excesses and propagate a rise in efficiency.”

Education sector hit hard by budget cuts

Data released by Cuba’s National Statistics office indicate that Cuba is cutting back on education spending and encouraging students to choose careers that would fill gaps in its workforce, reports Reuters. Total enrollment decreased 27% from 3 million students in 2008 to 2.2 last year.

University enrollment dropped from 300,000 in 2008 to 156,000 in 2011. There were significant cuts to liberal arts courses and adult education, and admissions standards were raised. In contrast, spaces for students studying skilled trades increased from 26,000 in 2008 to 74,000 in 2011.

Cuba’s free education system has long been lauded by the government as an achievement of its 1959 revolution. However, as available spaces become more competitive, some parents complain that students whose parents can afford tutors are gaining an upper hand, threatening the egalitarian nature of the island’s education system.

Cuba’s Interior Ministry announces increase in drug seizures in first half of 2012

Cuba’s Interior Ministry announced that authorities have seized more than 3,600 pounds of drugs in the first half of 2012 – the highest figure in eight years, reports AFP. The majority of drugs were captured in adjacent waters and coasts. Packets thrown overboard by narco-traffickers alerted to police presence, or tossed from aircraft, often wash up on Cuban coasts and form a significant part of the drugs collected in the past six months. Yoandry González, chief of the Department of Operational Cooperation of the National Revolutionary Police, stated:

In 2011 and the first semester of 2012, an increase was registered of international traffic coming from Jamaica by way of the Bahamas to the United States, the world’s largest drug consumer. Even when [Cuba] is not a stable port for trafficking, narco-traffickers attempt to utilize ships in transit or making stops for the shipment of drugs through our ports, which is a priority for us in addressing this problem.

Last year, in 22 operations at Cuban airports, 27 people were detained and about 50 pounds of cocaine and 18 pounds of marijuana were confiscated. Already this year, 25 attempts of trafficking through airports were stopped and some 57 pounds of drugs have been confiscated.

In a 2009 report on engagement with Cuba, the Center for Democracy in the Americas proposed direct and consistent cooperation between both countries on counter-narcotics as one idea for building a better U.S. relationship with Cuba.

Liborio Noval, famous Cuban photographer, dies at 78

Liborio Noval, one of the Cuban Revolution’s most famous and beloved photographers, died Saturday at the age of 78, reports s CubaDebate. Noval was known internationally for his photos of Fidel Castro at home and on his numerous tours abroad, reports Euro News.  He won more than 300 competitions and three international prizes for his photography during his lifetime, according to Havana Times. Some of his photographs and a short video can be found here.


Piñera extends invitation to Raúl Castro, Chile and Cuba discuss business relations

Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera extended a formal invitation to President Raúl Castro to visit Chile in January of 2013, to coincide with the Second Summit of the Economic Commission for Latin America and  the Caribbean (ECLAC), reports ANSA Latina. During the summit, Chile is expected to hand over its temporary post in the secretariat of the ECLAC to Cuba.

The announcement comes shortly after officials of the two countries met in Havana to discuss implementation of an economic agreement, signed in June, that aims to increase bilateral trade, reports Havana Times. Currently, about a thousand Chilean and Cuban goods benefit from 100% tariff reduction. However, participants in the meeting pointed out that the majority of both countries’ exporters are unaware of the new benefits under the recent trade agreement.


Cuba’s Foreign Minister speaks before U.N.; criticizes U.S. policy  

Speaking before the U.N. General Assembly, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, criticized U.S. policy toward Cuba, focusing on the embargo and the listing of Cuba as a state sponsor of terror, reports the Associated Press. He accused the U.S. of keeping Cuba on the list to justify the 50-year embargo on the island. Rodríguez emphasized that Cuba has expressed its willingness to normalize relations with the U.S. on numerous occasions, stating:

We reiterate to the United States, on the days prior to its elections, our irrevocable vocation for peace and our interest to move on to the normalization of relations through dialogue, on an equal footing and with absolute respect for our independence.

While in New York, the Foreign Minister also met with a group of Cuban-Americans, including college professors, musicians, architects, lawyers, and members of the recently-formed organization Cuban-Americans for Engagement (CAFE). CAFE wrote of the meeting:

In general, it was a positive meeting, in which Chancellor Bruno Rodríguez listened attentively to the ideas expressed by CAFE and other members of the Cuban-American community (…) we have taken another step toward good-faith dialogue among Cuban nationalists of diverse ideologies, but committed to overcoming hate, the remains of Cold War geopolitics, and mistakes made on both sides.

Around the Region

Caracas Connect: Venezuela Elections FAQs, Dr. Dan Hellinger, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Dr. Dan Hellinger answers key questions in the lead-up to the elections in Venezuela. Questions include: What is at stake? Who are the parties supporting? Can we say that regardless of the outcome, the election will be “free and fair”? Is the opposition stifled by government censorship of media? What will Chávez do if re-elected? If he loses, will Chávez accept defeat? Will the opposition accept defeat if Capriles loses? What are the prospects for post-election stability in Venezuela?

If you would like to receive our monthly updates on Venezuela, please contact us at lela@democracyinamericas.org.

El Salvador Monthly Update, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

In this report, Linda Garrett examines recent events and news surrounding the historic gang truce in El Salvador, providing a chronology of important developments. Other highlights from this month’s report include the agreement over the controversial Supreme Court elections and the early start of the 2014 presidential campaigns.

The Spanish version is available here. If you would like to receive our monthly reports on El Salvador via email, please contact us at lela@democracyinamericas.org.

Recommended Reading

Cuban entrepreneurs, by the numbers, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Phil Peters provides a breakdown of statistics relating to Cuba’s growing private sector.

Cuba reforms: Important changes, but pace is slow, Melissa Lockhart Fortner, Christian Science Monitor

“Cuba released many political prisoners and expanded personal economic rights this year. But everything won’t change at once: The socialist country has a bloated state bureaucracy that moves slowly.”

The Americas Blog, The Center for Economic and Policy Research

The Center for Economic and Policy Research launched a new blog, The Americas Blog.  The blog discusses political and economic stories in the Western Hemisphere.  They plan to provide live updates on Venezuela’s presidential elections on Sunday via the website, Twitter and RSS.

The Legion of the Displaced, Daniel Valencia Caravantes, El Faro

“In the suburbs of El Salvador, in neighborhoods stained by Mara Salvatrucha or Barrio 18 graffiti, there are hundreds of abandoned, decaying houses. These houses tell the drama of the families who silently lived through their own history of violence: those displaced by gangs.”

Hispanic voters in Florida strongly prefer Obama to Romney, 61% to 31%,  The Miami Herald

A survey released indicates that President Obama has a strong lead among Latino voters in Florida, reports Miami Herald. The survey, conducted for a group interested in immigration, found that 61% of the 400 registered voters polled favor Obama, with 31% supporting Romney.


It looks as if we may have found the next U.S. ambassador to Cuba in Jesse Ventura. The former governor of Minnesota opened up about his relationship with Fidel Castro and his interest in U.S.-Cuba relations in a recent interview with the Washington Times:

Kelly: In your previous book “Don’t Start the Revolution without Me” you discuss a trip you took to Cuba. Hypothetically, if Obama or Romney wins in 2012, and relations between Cuba and the United States drastically improve, and if the President or Romney asked you, would you consider becoming the American Ambassador to Cuba?

Ventura: Absolutely. I had already volunteered for that. I said that if we change relations with Cuba, I would love to be the Ambassador to Cuba. Love to be it. Not only would it be historical because we haven’t had one in half a century or more. I went there and I was the only elected official who had a one hour meeting with Fidel Castro.

Kelly: What’s he like?

Ventura: I found him very engaging. When I met him, he had the most distinctive handshake and I’ve shook a lot of hands, but I’ll always remember his. He looked me right in the eye, and the first thing he said to was: You’re a man of great courage. I looked at him, and I said: Mr. President, you don’t know me, how can you say that? He said: Because you defied your President to come here. I said: Well, you’ll find I defy almost everything. He started laughing.

When I got out of office, he secretly sent me a message. Castro did. One day my chief of staff came in, and he said: Governor you’ve got to go to the Governor’s residence after work today at 4 o’clock. He said: You’ve got to go there first. He quietly said to me: Cuba. So I went home, and the guy came via the Swiss Embassy because we have no relationship with Cuba. He met with me, and the message he was sending me was when I was getting out of office, here’s what I was told. He said: Governor I’m here to tell you something. I’m here to tell you: A friend of Cuba will always be a friend of Cuba. In other words, they knew I was getting out of office, but it didn’t matter to them. I would still be their friend. A lot of people would call me a traitor for that. Wouldn’t they?

Kelly: No. I think it speaks great volumes that we can see each other across the battle line and we’re able to reconcile our differences with one another.

Ventura: Do you want to know the most disgusting thing I ever saw was? Remember Hurricane Katrina? Fidel Castro offered us 100 doctors to go to New Orleans, and George Bush turned him down flat. Come on. If anybody knows about hurricanes its Fidel. Cuba gets hit all the time. Here he does a gesture where he holds out the fig leaf, and what do we do? We slap it back in his face. One of the first things I’d do if I was President, I would end the embargo immediately, and do you know what else I would do? I would go down visit Fidel, as old as he is, and I would say: Fidel, we will close Gitmo within one year and give it back to the people of Cuba.

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