Opening the Flawed Gates

In the U.S. and overseas, Cuba’s government has been criticized for limiting the travel rights of its own citizens.  Those restrictions are often cited as an obstacle to the improvement of bi-lateral relations.  But now, change has come.

Today, we explain this new Cuban government policy that offers its citizens a path for both exit and return, and talk about what it means.  Finally, we ask whether Washington will simply ignore what has occurred, or react in a meaningful way.

This is news.  Effective January 14, 2013, the Cuban government will abolish the widely resented and costly exit visa and the accompanying invitation letter that Cubans have been required to obtain in order to travel abroad.  The reforms to the 1976 Migratory Law and 1978 Migratory Law Regulations, published in the Official Gazette, herald an enormous change.

As explained in Granma, the new migratory regulations were adopted as a “sovereign decision by the Cuban state [and] do not constitute an isolated act, but are rather an important component of the irreversible process underway to normalize relations with the country’s émigré community.”

Cuban Americans For Engagement (CAFÉ), whose members have been holding talks with representatives of Cuba’s government about eliminating barriers to reconciliation between Cubans on the island and in the diaspora, see this reform as evidence that engagement is the key to bringing about change.

Enthusiasm over this development has future travelers forming long lines at immigration offices to take advantage of the current passport fee, which will nearly double to $100 in mid-January. This price hike has prompted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to dismiss the move as merely cosmetic and transferring the costs associated with the exit visa to the process of passport issuance. But the Senator is misinformed. In fact, the new law cuts costs by a third.

As we understand, the current fees for travel documents are roughly: passport, $55; exit visa, $150; and invitation letter, $100 and up. Under the new law, the passport will be the only necessary document. Those already holding a passport in January (including those standing in line today) will be able to get a free stamp to upgrade it to the new system.

Moreover, the permitted length of stay abroad has been expanded from 11 months to 24 months. This leads to major potential savings because Cubans are, and will continue to be, charged a monthly fee for extensions. The amount of this fee will remain unchanged. On the other hand, the law stipulates terms for pensioners to continue receiving their income while abroad or to designate a substitute recipient.

Although the reforms clearly delineate who will be considered eligible for a passport and travel and who will not, the wording in some instances is vague enough as to be open to interpretation. For example, one category of ineligible individuals includes those whose absence would hinder the preservation of a qualified workforce. But it should hardly come as a surprise the Cuba’s government would try to “attenuate the effects” of brain-drain, as Jesús Arboleya Cervera explains in Progreso Weekly, which “limits the development of Third-World countries.”

Less noticed, the reforms are not a one way street. For example, of special interest to Cubans who have absconded over the years while on authorized travel, starting next year, émigrés will be able to apply to recoup their residency directly at any of Cuba’s embassies or consulates.

There is fine print and more to learn, but on the whole, this is very good news.  Cuba moves closer to the travel freedoms for its citizens as urged by the human rights community.  Most Cuban citizens, come January, will be able to think, practically, about exit and return to the island, about employment elsewhere and sending money home to relatives.  This strikes a blow for the autonomy of everyday Cubans and the vitality of the Cuban economy.

To date, our State Department hasn’t offered much reaction.  When asked at her press briefing whether the U.S. would react positively to the reforms, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said:

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we’ve been very outspoken. We are not shy in all of our public and private comments on Cuba that we want to see the human rights of the Cuban people respected. This is certainly a step, but I would advise that even with regard to this step, we await further information, because as I said, it’s not being implemented until January 14th.

If the Eeyores at the State Department need inspiration for how to react, they could turn to CAFÉ, which implores the U.S. to reciprocate by eliminating the Cuba travel ban, thereby bringing U.S. “policy in line with international models.” Or to Rep. James McGovern (MA-3), whose recent essay in Politico calls upon next president to move beyond the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba.

Now is the time for a creative and affirmative U.S. policy response.  But, we’re not holding our breath.  And we suspect the Cubans aren’t either.  That said, this is real change and it really ought to be acknowledged.

IN CUBA

Cuba announces reforms to travel restrictions

Cuba’s government announced the elimination of the exit visa requirement to leave the island, beginning on January 14, 2013, reports Reuters. According to the official post in Granma, under the new reforms, Cubans will need only a valid passport and, if required, a visa from their destination country to travel. Furthermore, this new law will increase the amount of time that Cubans can spend abroad without losing their residency rights from 11 months to 24 months (there has always been the opportunity for an extension, with an additional monthly fee).

In response to the announcement, CDA director Sarah Stephens stated:

This reform responds to the Cuban population’s highest priority wish to be able to leave and return to the island freely. It not only gives Cubans greater autonomy but it also offers the promise of a more vibrant economy, with more remittances sent from abroad, and more Cubans engaged in both exit and return. Like earlier decisions legalizing the personal sales of homes and cars, this is another step in the direction of loosening restrictions and opening up Cuban society.

The decision has already been lauded by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights  reports EFE, the British Foreign Ministry, according to AFP and the European Union reports EuroPress.

Cuba will maintain several restrictions that could potentially limit several categories of people from exiting the country, depending on how they are interpreted once the new law is implemented. The Granma notice states that “Measures to preserve the human capital created by the Revolution will be maintained,” an indicator that the government intends to protect itself from a potential brain-drain.

It remains to be seen how or if the U.S. will respond regarding its immigration policies for Cubans. Currently, under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil can automatically begin the process to become lawful permanent residents. At a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said that they are analyzing “all of the details and any implications it may have for our processing, et cetera.”

David Adams for Reuters analyzes the ways in which the law could “result in a rethinking of preferential treatment Cuban migrants have long received in the United States.”

Ángel Carromero, charged in the death of Oswaldo Paya, sentenced to 4 years

Ángel Carromero was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter in the car crash that killed dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero, the Associated Press reported on Monday. The court sentenced Carromero to four years in prison, three years less than the seven-year sentence sought by prosecutors.

Following the trial, Tomás Rodríguez Pantoja, Spain’s Consul General in Cuba, stated:

The trial has been procedurally correct…From Spain’s point of view, at least, there are reasons to be optimistic. I am practically certain that there will be a reduction in the sentence that, I believe, will be considerable, in view of what has been discussed.

Before the trial, the Foreign Ministers of Cuba and Spain spoke about the case in New York at the UN Summit.

Alberto Ramy for Progreso Weekly analyzes the ways in which Carromero could return to Spain, or his sentence could be reduced. A 1998 treaty signed by Spain and Cuba allows prisoners to serve their sentences in their home countries. Carromero could also return to his home country if the Council of Ministers were to expel him from Cuba. Ramy states:

In my opinion, and without slighting the judicial process, the political aspect has been a determining factor in this case: it lowered the public level of the issue, reduced the judicial process to a traffic accident, and will possibly define Carromero’s transfer to Spain, within the legal standards, after a prudent wait.

Fidel Castro’s health again the subject of debate

The status of former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s health is again the topic of debate.   On Thursday, Dr. José Marquiana, claiming to have first-hand information on the former leader’s health, told the Miami Herald that Castro “suffered an embolic stroke and recognizes absolutely no one.” Marquiana, a Venezuelan doctor, has previously made claims about the health of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. He runs a practice in southeast Florida specializing in sleep disorders. “But,” a Miami Herald article notes, “in Latin American media circles, Marquina plays the role of de-facto doctor to Hugo Chávez.” Despite playing Chávez’s doctor on TV, his claims about Chávez and Castro’s health have not been substantiated.

Fidel Castro was last seen in March by the broader public in photographs taken during the visit of Pope Benedict XVI, and the most recent of his “Reflections” was published in July. Following initial speculation, Fidel Castro’s son Alex made a public statement last week saying that his father is in good health: “The Comandante is well, going about his daily life, reading, doing his exercises,” the AP reports.

As rumors continued, state newspaper Granma published a letter from Fidel Castro dated Wednesday, congratulating graduates of the technical school “Victoria de Girón,” and marking the school’s 50th anniversary.

More speculation abounds. Blogger Orlando Luis Pardo, in an interview with Boston radio station WBEZ claimed that in the last week, there has been intense work at the cemetery in Santiago de Cuba, on a building what workers say is a monument to martyrs of the revolution.

There has been no confirmed evidence to-date, besides his absence from the public eye, that confirms any speculations that Castro’s health has deteriorated.

Education sector in Cuba troubled by low enrollment in teacher courses

Cuba’s officials have released data indicating under-enrollment by students in teaching majors at the nation’s universities, reports EFE. The report indicates that, of the 31,000 available slots for education majors this semester, only 19.7% have been filled.

Current demand for teachers is now being met at 93.2%, which represents an improvement over previous years, but under-enrollment in education courses has caused concern and a deficit of 6.8% in classroom teachers remains. “Only with a change of thinking towards the teaching profession, induced by families and society in general, will we be able to overcome the teacher shortage facing the country today,” an article in state paper Juventud Rebelde declares.

The Ministry of Education also reported that nearly 300 teachers have left Cuba in the past year, reports EFE. The ministry said that the loss of teachers has cost Cuba around 11 million dollars, a figure which takes all of the fees and cost involved in their education into account.

Cuba’s government creates Ministry of Industries

After eliminating the Ministries of Light and Steelwork, Cuba created the Ministry of Industries in a continuing process of government restructuring, reports Reuters. Once approved by the Ministry of Planning, the new Ministry of Industries would be in charge of leading the country’s industrial development. The funds and resources from the previous ministries will be absorbed into the newly-created Ministry of Industries.

Cuban solenodon, a “living fossil,” re-discovered in Cuba after being listed extinct

The Cuban solenodon, a primitive, venomous, shrew-like mammal thought to be extinct since the 1970s, was rediscovered in Cuba after a ten-year search,reports Scientific American. In addition to the seven healthy animals captured briefly for observation this year, researchers found excrement, feeding holes, and tracks, all evidence that the species may be making a comeback. The animals, known by locals as almiquí, are nocturnal and catch prey with venomous saliva injected by their teeth, but move slowly and lack the ability to defend themselves from predators like cats and dogs. Their population was mostly wiped out in the 19th century by deforestation and predation by introduced species.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

FARC-Colombia peace talks begin in Oslo

Peace talks to end the decades old civil war between Colombia’s government and the FARC, began in Oslo on Wednesday amid a “climate of secrecy,” reports the BBC. Both delegations arrived in Norway ahead of their scheduled meeting to discuss technical details. They also held a press conference to officially launch the negotiations.

Chief government negotiator Humberto de la Calle expressed cautious optimism, saying he believes “there are structural elements that allow us to hope that we will bring back good news for Colombia.” According to the most recent timetable, which has been pushed back due to poor weather in Colombia among other things, the talks are expected to take place in Oslo and Havana over the course of several months. This was the first time the two sides had met to negotiate directly in 10 years.

According to The Guardian Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez played a significant role in the organization of the peace talks, long before the negotiators arrived in Oslo. The article states that a four-year period of back-channel contact culminated earlier this year, when Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos sat down with Castro and Chávez in Cuba to plan an agenda for the first round of talks. Since then, representatives from both sides, along with Norwegian and other diplomats, have held numerous meetings in Havana to prepare for the negotiations, facilitated by Cuba and supported by Venezuela.

Around the Region

U.S. Treasury Department Designation Surprises Salvadorans, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

“On October 11th, the U.S. Treasury Department announced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) street gang had been added to its list of dangerous transnational criminal organizations. The decision surprised Salvadoran officials, who have witnessed an extraordinary reduction in homicides as the result of a cease-fire agreement between MS and the country’s other major gang, Barrio 18.”

Guest post: beneath Chávez’s victory, Jennifer McCoy, Financial Times

“Most English-language commentary has attributed Hugo Chávez’s surprising 11-point victory in Venezuela’s presidential election on October 7 to oil-fueled public spending and ventajismo, with some voters induced by fear of losing promised benefits to vote for the president. While all these factors contributed to the outcome, the analyses miss one additional factor explaining Chávez’ political longevity.

That factor is the intangible element of those voters who identify with a leader they feel for the first time has given them voice and dignity, emboldened them with his powerful message of inclusion and identity, and inspired hope and faith in his promises not only to make their lives better but to make them leaders in the world. These supporters fear being erased, becoming invisible, should their leader and movement lose power. In political science terms: in addition to a utilitarian vote, there is an affective vote.”

Recommended Reading

Migration Reform, Collin Laverty

In a blog post for the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Collin Laverty notes the enthusiasm of Cubans after hearing the much-awaited announcement, adding that immigration offices are packed with Cubans hoping to obtain or renew a passport before the price goes up in January.

He notes:  Time will tell exactly how the changes play out – how many Cubans are actually able to travel abroad, and how many come back. However, it represents a major step forward in the civil liberties and human rights of Cubans and a reminder of the magnitude of change occurring in Cuba.
Time for a new approach on Cuba, Rep. Jim McGovern, POLITICO

“The next president — and I hope it’s Barack Obama — should at long last move beyond the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba. This means using his authority to lift financial and travel restrictions that make it so difficult for Americans to travel there; working with Congress to end economic sanctions imposed by the legislature; and removing Cuba from the so-called terrorist list on which it clearly doesn’t belong.

I don’t pretend this will be easy, but in small ways and large, it’s time to move into the 21st century with Cuba. The U.S. and Cuba both need to abandon the exhausted rhetoric — of the anti-Castro old guard here and the anti-American old guard in Havana. Both need to create the conditions for a relationship more fitting to the times. We need to put people ahead of politics, abolish the barriers between our nations and let Americans and Cubans make up their own minds about each other.”

The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50: America and Cuba Still Frozen in 1962, Tim Padgett, TIME

“It’s hard to attribute anything but coincidence to the fact that Cuban President Raúl Castro issued a major immigration reform on Tuesday, Oct. 16, which was the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cold War’s most harrowing moment, the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the two things are nonetheless related. Castro’s reform—eliminating the onerous exit visa requirement for Cubans who want to travel outside the communist island—is a reminder of how the missile crisis prompted both Washington and Havana to shut down movement into and out of Cuba for the past half century. And it’s one more sign among many that each side needs to put that cold-war past behind it.”

3 reasons Obama is leading among Latinos in Florida, Leslie Berestein Rojas, Southern California Public Radio

“Since last week, different poll results from different sources have indicated that: a) President Obama leads Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney by a wide margin (61-31) among Latinos in Florida; b) President Obama leads the Republican presidential nominee by a narrower margin (51-44) in Florida.

But the fact that Obama is leading among Latinos there at all still prompts a few surprised reactions. For example, the reaction from one of my editors the other day after he read about the 61-31 results in a poll conducted by Latino Decisions for America’s Voice, a national immigrant rights organization: ‘That was surprising,’ he remarked, ‘since Cubans are so overwhelmingly GOP.'”

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2 Responses to Opening the Flawed Gates

  1. […] morning, in October 2012, when I sat down to breakfast and read the headline in Granma announcing immigration reforms. My friends, fellow students, and people on the street were abuzz with the opportunities this new […]

  2. […] morning, in October 2012, when I sat down to breakfast and read the headline in Granma announcing immigration reforms. My friends, fellow students, and people on the street were abuzz with the opportunities this new […]

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