Rubio may have Tupac on his iPod, but Chairman Crenshaw has Jay-Z on his mind

Florida Senator Marco Rubio may have Tupac on his iPod, but Florida Congressman Ander Crenshaw appears to have Jay-Z and Beyoncé on his mind.

Crenshaw chairs a House Appropriations Subcommittee with authority over the U.S. Treasury Department budget, which includes spending to enforce U.S. sanctions against Cuba.  This week, his panel approved a $17 billion budget bill that funds the department, but also proposes rewriting the rules for people-to-people travel to Cuba.

To prevent a Jay-Z/Beyoncé trip to Cuba from happening again someday, Crenshaw marshaled majority support in his subcommittee to prohibit legal travel to Cuba“for educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program.”  In other words, U.S. travelers would have to be enrolled in a degree program for their trip to be approved.

Of course, it is unlikely that Jay-Z and Beyoncé are going to return to the island anytime soon, so the legislation is not aimed at them, but against millions of other U.S. travelers who would like to take advantage of what is already a tightly regulated program to visit Cuba.  The Crenshaw bill would end, for all practical purposes, people-to-people travel.

On January 14, 2011, President Obama reopened categories of travel to Cuba to increase people-to-people contacts.  The president both restored rights for scholars and students to travel to the island for coursework that offered academic credit, and provided “specific licensing of educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program under the auspices of an organization that sponsors and organizes people-to-people programs.”

These are not tourist programs masquerading as academic study.  The Treasury Department made clear that “a requirement for licenses issued” under the program “is that each traveler must have a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that will result in meaningful interaction between the travelers and individuals in Cuba.”

As Treasury reported in April, this is how Jay-Z and Beyoncé went legally to Cuba; but, more important, it is how many U.S. travelers who are not Cuban American can visit the island at all.

In 2009, President Obama also reopened family travel to Cuba which, according to estimates by The Havana Consulting Group, enabled upwards of 475,936 visits by Cuban Americans in 2012 alone.

This means that roughly 5,000 of Rep. Crenshaw’s constituents, and upwards of 260,000 of Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart’s constituents (he serves on the Crenshaw committee, too), already get a free pass to travel to Cuba on an unlimited basis and their freedom to travel will be undisturbed if this legislation becomes law.  It’s the rest of us who would lose the chance to visit the island if this provision is enacted.

Understandably, the subcommittee action prompted Rep. José Serrano, the ranking Minority Member of the subcommittee, to say, “This is the Jay-Z, Beyoncé Bill.  “Absolutely [it’s a response to the trip], and it’s playing to the audience in Miami.”

Mr. Serrano is a heroically consistent supporter of the freedom to travel to Cuba.  But, we say with respect, he is conceding too much.  We know from polling data gathered in 2011, gathered by the Cuba Research Institute at Florida International University that the audience in Miami isn’t so enamored by this policy either.

When 648 randomly selected Cuban-American respondents polled in Miami-Dade County were asked, “Should unrestricted travel by all Americans to Cuba be allowed or not?,” 57% said yes and 43% said no.  But, support levels among respondents of Cuban descent who arrived in the U.S. after 1994 topped 75%.  It’s a fact that Americans broadly support ending the travel ban, and it’s a myth that there’s a big audience in South Florida for keeping this failed policy on the books.

So what happens to the Crenshaw bill now?

Congress is bad at enacting budget bills on time, if ever.  But, if this one gets close to enactment, the administration should issue a veto threat against it, just like it did the last time Congress threatened to mess with the president’s travel reforms.  More to the point, the administration should be looking for ways to create a general license for all travel to Cuba, so the U.S. government could save money by foregoing the enforcement of sanctions that restrict our liberties and injure U.S. interests.

Earlier this year, published a reminder that 10 different federal agencies have enforcement roles in the embargo, hundreds of millions of dollars are spent enforcing Cuba sanctions annually, and that “70 percent of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control inspections each year are centered on rooting out smuggled Cuban goods even though the agency administers more than 20 other trade bans.

Rep. Crenshaw is a sworn enemy of waste.  Just ask him:  “I’m happy to stand on the side of the American taxpayer and their strong desire to cut wasteful spending.”

He can save the taxpayer a lot of money and free his mind to think about problems larger than Beyoncé and Jay-Z by using his post to expand rather than restrict travel.  This is a message he should hear from Florida and across the country, as our colleagues at the Latin America Working Group advocate here.  His proposal should not become law.


Cuba to embark on deregulation of state companies

Marino Murillo, Vice President of Council of Ministers and State, has outlined Cuba’s plan to deregulate a portion of state-owned companies starting in 2014, reports Reuters.  The companies most affected will be Cubaniquel and Cubapetroleo, Cuba’s state-run nickel and oil companies . Under the new strategy, managers will be empowered to retain half of the company’s profits to be used for investments and wage increases. In response to the announcement, Richard Feinberg of the Brookings Institution stated, “Murillo’s empowerment of state-run companies is a milestone on the road toward a new Cuban model of state capitalism, where senior managers of government-owned firms become market-driven entrepreneurs.”

Monday’s release follows the recent significant increase in non-agricultural co-operatives.

President Castro speaks out against “social indiscipline” and corruption

President Raúl Castro delivered a speech before Cuba’s National Assembly on Sunday, reports the Associated Press. Although Castro began his speech addressing proposed economic reforms, he steered toward criticizing “social indiscipline” in Cuba. After quoting former President Fidel Castro as saying, “The great battle to be imposed is the need for an energetic struggle without respite against the bad habits and errors being committed daily by many citizens, including Party members, in the most diverse spheres,” President Castro gave examples of such transgressions.

As the AP reported:

Castro aired a laundry list of complaints about illegal activities that he said do the country harm: unauthorised home construction, illicit logging and slaughter of livestock and the acceptance of bribes, to name a few.

He also fulminated against baser examples of “social indiscipline”: shouting and swearing in the streets, public drinking and drunk driving, dumping trash on the roadside and even people who relieve themselves in parks.

Castro subsequently called on Cuba’s other leaders  to take responsibility, declaring, “the common denominator of all this phenomenon has been and is a lack of rigor on the part of those responsible for ensuring compliance with what is established; the absence of systematic work at the various levels of leadership; and disrespect, in the first place, on the part of existing state entities for institutionality.”

Fernando Ravsberg, a BBC correspondent in Cuba, gives an analysis of the speech here, concluding: “speaking about the crisis faced by society in a straightforward manner will help Cubans identify with their government’s political discourse, particularly if it begins to address their everyday life and the problems they face.”

“Libreta” ration books turn fifty on their way to being phased out

Cuba’s food rationing booklets, known as “Libretas de Abastecimiento,” or simply “libretas,” turn 50 years this month, reports Euronews. The 50th anniversary of the libreta makes it the world’s longest continual food provision system of this type.

President Raúl Castro has proposed ending the libreta system and replacing it with a more targeted welfare system to ensure that the poorest Cubans are assisted. The proposal has caused a great deal of public concern among Cubans, reports Reuters, and after outcry against the program’s removal, Cuba’s government has chosen to reduce gradually the food items offered on the libreta.

In 2011, President Castro stated in a speech that rationing began “with an egalitarian intent in a time of shortages,” and later became “an unbearable burden for the economy and a disincentive to work,” reports the Miami Herald. Meanwhile, the libreta food rationing system costs Cuba’s government approximately $1 billion annually, the Miami Herald reports. BBC Mundo has a photo gallery of Cuba’s libretas here.

Cuba releases data on housing situation

Cuba’s National Housing Institute (INV) has presented to parliament data on the status of housing on the island, reports Havana Times. According to the report, 39% of houses in Cuba are in “poor” or “adequate” conditions, and officials plan to focus housing development efforts at municipal levels and in rural and mountainous zones. Other measures taken to improve housing conditions have included the authorization of home sales, as well as credits and subsidies aimed at individual home improvement efforts.

2012 saw the construction of 32,103 new housing units, a significant drop from a peak in 2006, when 111,273 units were built. Cuba’s housing situation faces several challenges, including a high demand for construction materials and continual damage by storms.


Cuba cooperating to help Jamaica build solar panel factory

Cuba will work with Jamaica to electrify the 4% of rural homes that currently don’t have electricity, reports Clean Technica. Drawing on their expertise and experience from running their own solar panel factory, Cuba will advise Jamaica on the technology and resources needed to manufacture and install solar energy in rural areas. Jamaica is looking. Using solar energy is expected to be more cost-effective than extending the grid to remote areas.

President Raúl Castro meets with director of PAHO

Friday, President Castro met with Clarissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), reports Prensa Latina. Etienne praised Cuba’s health care efforts, specifically complementing the fact that all citizens receive free primary, secondary, and tertiary care. She went on to commend Cuba’s international health programs. While in Cuba, Etienne visited several health and science centers, spending time with officials from the various locations.


Cuban diplomats meet with émigrés in Miami, discuss investment in Cuba

Llanio González and Armando Bencomo, Consul General and Deputy Consul, respectively, at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, DC, traveled to Miami this week, meeting with entrepreneurs and diaspora organizations to discuss émigrés’ place in Cuba’s economic reforms, reports El País. Speaking to the anti-embargo group Alianza Martiana, González said, “Our country is in a process of huge change, not only economic but also political. And in the new foreign investment law, all Cubans are of course included.” A video of the meeting was posted by MartíNoticias.

González encouraged Cuban émigrés in South Florida to continue taking advantage of policy changes in both countries. He stated, “Right now, many people live in both places at the same time, they come and go, come and go. We want more expats to join the trend,” reports the International Business Times. Emphasizing family reunification as a priority for Cuba, González urged émigrés to invest in businesses and property on the island.

Because the U.S. and Cuba each restrict the other country’s diplomats  to within a 25-mile radius of their capital cities, the U.S. State Department had to grant the officials special permission to travel to Miami. This marks González’s second trip to South Florida in 2013. In March, he along with other Cuban Interests Section officials, attended a conference in Tampa called “Rapprochement with Cuba: Good for Tampa, Good for Florida, Good for America,” which hosted panelists including Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) and Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Gallery owner seeks Cuba-Key West art swap

Nance Frank, an art gallery owner in Key West, has initiated a crowdsourcing campaign to finance an art exchange with Cuba, to culminate in an exhibition called “One Race, Cuba and Key West,” reports the Miami Herald. Frank said the project will include a series of artistic residencies in Key West by Cuban artists and added, “The Cubans that came to Key West were essentially utopians and they strongly believed in gender, racial and religious equality. I’ve wanted to do this show for decades.”

On a related note, Yagruma, a Cuba-based crowdsourcing project to support independent artistic endeavors in Cuba, had its PayPal account closed down in August of 2012. Since February of 2013, Yagruma has been forced to suspend operations as the project awaits OFAC approval.

Around the Region

Mercosur to condemn U.S. spying and reject U.S. pressure against asylum

Mercosur leaders met Friday in Montevideo, Uruguay to discuss reactions to NSA spying programs throughout the region, reports Reuters. The meeting comes in response to information leaked by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden that exposed NSA programs around Latin America. The leaked information points to NSA programs in the Mercosur member nations of Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay, as well as many other Latin American nations, including close U.S. allies such as Colombia, reports Reuters. In one reaction, Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff stated, “Any act of espionage that violates human rights, above all the basic right to privacy, and undermines the sovereignty of nations, deserves to be condemned by any country that calls itself democratic.”

Recommended Reading

Tampa and Miami in Cold War Over Cuban Trade, Eric Barton, Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Barton dives into the hot (or cold) issue of U.S.-Cuba relations from the perspective of two different Florida cities.  Although these are generalizations, Barton cites historical background, reasons for migration, and economic prospects, for why Tampa is pushing to normalize relations between the countries while Miami continues to reject any engagement, sans regime change. Meanwhile, John Burr at the Jacksonville Business Journal questions why the city of Jacksonville has not competed with Tampa for business connections with Cuba.

Cuba (New Mexico) Applies to USAID, Nelson P. Valdes, Counterpunch

Nelson Valdes writes a parody on USAID democracy promotion funding in Cuba, suggesting that there are better ways to spend the money within U.S. borders, such as in a community like Cuba, New Mexico.

Wholesale markets supporting private agriculture, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Phil Peters examines the important role that Cuba’s wholesale agricultural markets have taken on in recent years, and writes that the markets “[represent] the slow but steady change in Cuba’s farm sector. Under new policies, the government is reducing micro-management of farmers and buying less from them, downsizing its own distribution network, and trusting the market eventually to assume the predominant role in pricing and distributing the island’s food supply.”

The Communal State: Communal Councils, Communes, and Workplace Democracy, Dario Azzellini, NACLA

Azzellini examines the intricacies of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution and Chavismo. Outlining the fine line between constituent participation and government support, he illustrates the difficulties involved in a “peoples’” revolution.

5 Differences Between El Salvador, Honduras Gang Truces, Steven Dudley, InSight Crime

InSight Crime’s Steven Dudley offers a comparison between the ongoing gang truce in El Salvador, and the nascent gang truce in Honduras. He emphasizes the regional and historic importance of these truces, which, he writes, have “had the greatest single impact on violence in the region since the end of the civil wars in Central America and the negotiated settlement with paramilitaries in Colombia.”

ACTION: Defend Travel Today: Don’t Let Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s Trip to Cuba Be the Last!

The Latin America Working Group (LAWG) asks supporters to take action in response to legislation that could end most people to people travel. They provide a list of members on the full committee and ask constituents to call their Representatives to express disapproval with the current bill. LAWG also urges constituents to contact Senators on the Senate Appropriations committee to prevent similar language from being added to their version of the bill. For those with neither a Representative nor a Senator on these committees, LAWG asks everyone to call the White House at 202.456.1111 to voice support for President Obama’s policy to ease travel restrictions and encourage him to move further toward restoring U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel to Cuba.

Recommended Viewing

Carlos Varela: “El Amor de mi Vida es Cuba”, BBC Mundo (In Spanish)

Singer Carlos Varela discusses the nueva trova movement and what the movement means in Cuba, in addition to his current feelings toward the island and the Cuban émigré community in Miami.

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