The Cuba Central Newsblast and a note to our readers

August 30, 2013

As ever, we are sending along a blast that is chock-a-block with news about Cuba, including a hint that more bilateral negotiations could be in store on the long-unresolved issue of restarting direct mail service in both directions.

It is good that both governments maintain their interest in talking especially now as clouds of war appear to be gathering half a world away.  War has oft been characterized as a failure of diplomacy or imagination.  The cold state of war between the U.S. and Cuba has always struck us as a combination of both.

We remember the anxiety and apprehension a decade ago as we visited Cuba on the eve of the war against Iraq.  We suspect those feelings are shared globally today as well.

For those readers who have the bandwidth to think about Cuba today, we are pleased to deliver the blast.  For those whose attention is turned elsewhere, we will surely understand.

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Vigil in Madrid: Some thoughts about Oscar and Miriam

August 23, 2013

“I expect the end to come soon.”

Miriam Leiva wrote these words about her husband, Oscar Espinoza Chepe, whose long struggle against liver disease seems near its end in Hospital Fuenfría near Madrid in Spain.  As we read her message, we were reminded why we respect this couple so much.

They just like to tell the truth as they see it.

Their candor made some people in Havana and Miami very uncomfortable.  Three years ago, Oscar referred to hardliners in both cities as “The Taliban.”  This may explain why Oscar and Miriam are rarely mentioned by the embargo’s biggest supporters in Washington, because their views never fit so neatly into the hardliner’s black-and-white definition of what constitutes “dissent.”

Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist and independent journalist, fell from grace in Cuba more than once. In the 1960s, after serving as an economist for Fidel Castro, he was sent to work in the fields after he expressed negative views about the economic situation in his country.

In the 1980s, Oscar, back in favor and working as an economic counselor, served for three years in Eastern Europe with Miriam, then a member of Cuba’s foreign service, just as perestroika was beginning to take hold.  But, upon their return to Cuba for a vacation, they were told they could not go back to Europe.  Instead, Oscar was assigned to work at the National Central Bank of Cuba.

In 1992, they were called to a meeting where Oscar was called out as “counter-revolutionary.” For the next twenty years, he and Miriam were devoted activists, though, as Oscar said, “We expressed our views in a pacific way.”

Oscar was arrested with 74 others in Cuba’s March 2003 crackdown.  Sentenced to twenty years, Oscar left prison after twenty months, released on a temporary medical parole; at any time, authorities could have ruled he was no longer sick and returned him to custody.

Nevertheless, upon leaving custody, Oscar resumed speaking his mind.  While he praised President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms as sensible and rational if incomplete, he was sharply critical of officials inside the system who were obstacles to change, and criticized those who saw private property as incompatible with social justice.

He chastised the government for failing to reciprocate President Obama’s “gestures,” the reforms on family and people-to-people travel.  He expressed his bewilderment at the imprisonment at Alan Gross and thought he should be set free.

This record of speaking out could have endeared Oscar to sanctions supporters in Miami except for his unshirted contempt for those he called “Hardliners for Castro.” He believed their support of sanctions kept Cubans hostage to their dreams of returning to power in a Cuba that last existed during Batista’s reign in the 1950s.  He resented their attacks on Cuba’s Catholic Church, which was instrumental in freeing the remaining prisoners arrested in 2003, along with many others.

In his statement opposing travel restrictions offered by Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, Oscar said: “If the policies proposed for Cuba by the hardliners had been maintained for Eastern Europe and China, we would possibly still have a Berlin Wall and the heirs of the Gang of Four would still govern China.”

Oscar and Miriam, in their work together, were motivated by a spirit of reconciliation that included everyone; even those who took no personal risks, but sat in air conditioned offices far from Cuba and questioned their credibility as political activists.  Instead, they chose to believe that all Cubans could work together, that families could reunite, and that “all animosity prevailing in our country since March 10, 1952 can be overcome.”

Earlier this year, a medical crisis led them to depart Cuba for Spain, so Oscar could receive what Miriam then called “urgent” medical attention for his chronic liver failure.

Another truth Oscar never left unspoken was his love for Miriam, especially when he recalled the vigils she organized with other spouses and family members of the 75 detainees.  He once said of her: “She is modest. She is brave, especially as demonstrated by her actions while I was in prison.”  Whether he was in Guantanamo or Santiago de Cuba, “she was there.”

Now, on another vigil, Miriam is there for Oscar again.  By posting updates on Facebook and a blog, Reconciliación Cubana, she has made it possible for us to accompany her on this sad, respectful, journey that she hopes will end soon.

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A Summer Reflection on the Right to Travel (in both directions)

August 16, 2013

When you last read the Cuba Central News Blast, our team headed out on vacation even as we awaited word about the intrepid Ben Friberg, trying to become the first paddle boarder to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba’s Port Hemingway to Key West, Florida.

With our vacation behind us, and summer’s end just before us, we were reminded how much we love travel and how the cause of restoring the rights of all Americans to travel freely to Cuba motivated us to create this news summary in the first place.

Ten years ago, travel rights hung in tatters. After President Clinton encouraged family travel, permitted all U.S. residents to send remittances, allowed more direct flights to Cuba, and opened broad categories of people-to-people travel, President George W. Bush totally reversed course.

His administration wanted to design a new, Made in America future for the Cuban people. He ended people-to-people travel.  He tightened limits on family travel and humanitarian assistance by executive action.  He convened a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which wanted to cut off travel in the belief they could bring the Cuban system to its knees by curtailing the flow of most tourist revenue to its government.

The Bush administration’s coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs calculated that travel restrictions cost the Cuban economy $375 million annually, and said in a speech in Miami: “To my way of thinking, these measures are already having their effect, and we are seeing it now in Cuba.  Will it move us toward that which we want, a democratic transition?  We don’t know…”

Well, we know: the policy didn’t produce changes in Cuba, but it kept blinders on the Americans who wanted to visit the island, so they couldn’t compare what U.S. government policy said about Cuba to the Cuban reality itself.  As Aldous Huxley famously said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  U.S. policy allowed for no such discoveries, which is why the pro-sanctions crowd really finds travel restrictions so useful.

But, they never could shut off the tourists from every other nation who could visit Cuba without asking their government’s permission to go.  Any void created by the absence of U.S. visitors continues to be filled by tourists from the region and the rest of the world, more than a million and a half of whom visited Cuba in just the first six months of 2013.

To his credit, President Obama has taken steps to restore unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, reopen people-to-people travel, allow more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market, and renew opportunities for sending remittances to qualified Cubans for all U.S. residents.

We still haven’t reached the goal – freedom to travel for Americans – and the restrictions on U.S. travelers to Cuba remain tight.  The Associated Press bureau in Havana said it well earlier this summer:

“While millions of tourists visit Cuba each year from Canada, Europe and elsewhere, Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo still outlaws most American travel to the island. However, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are now visiting legally each year on cultural exchange trips. These so-called people-to-people tours are rigidly scheduled to comply with embargo rules...”

That said, when American travelers in increasing numbers can see Cuba’s architecture and cultural origins, reach out to its Jewish and gay communities, and experience its environmental diversity, on trips licensed by the U.S. Treasury; and when U.S. policy goes further, and loosens restrictions on the ability of Cubans to visit our country, thanks to epic staff work at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as reported by Fox News, these are all steps in the right direction.

A year ago, the State Department told Congress that the president’s new travel policies were achieving its goals:  As Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “The administration’s travel, remittance and people-to-people policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information, taking advantage of emerging opportunities for self-employment and private property, and strengthening independent civil society.”

The administration should do more.  Members of Congress are urging President Obama to expand people-to-people travel by making it permissible under a general license, and now is certainly the right time for him to act. The summer travel season may be ending here, but the need to secure two-way travel rights for all Cubans and all U.S. residents goes on.

One other thing:  Ben Friberg will go down in history as the first paddle boarder to cross from Cuba’ to the U.S., Caribbean 360 reports. He made the 28-hour, 111-mile journey: “to promote peace and understanding between Cuba and the US and to promote a healthy lifestyle.”  In doing so, he also became a symbol for the right to travel.

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Is it a Plane? Is it a Paddleboard? Or is it Grounded?

August 2, 2013

Today, we consider Cuba policy from the sky, sea, dry land, and through the eyes of a friend.

In the sky:  Congress fled Washington this week without getting much done on the federal budget.  So, this was a well-timed moment for John Hudson, national security correspondent for The Cable, to start his essay “Anti-Cuba effort deserves to die,” with the following:

“It’s difficult to find a more wasteful government program. For the last six years, the U.S. government has spent more than $24 million to fly a plane around Cuba and beam American-sponsored TV programming to the island’s inhabitants. But every day the plane flies, the government in Havana jams its broadcast signal. Few, if any, Cubans can see what it broadcasts.”

Hudson notes that U.S. taxpayers have shelled out over a half-billion dollars to fund programming by Radio and TV Martí since 1985. The Martís were launched as part of the U.S. government’s on-going efforts to overthrow the Cuban government or, as the State Department’s Inspector-General wrote in 2007, to “Undermine the regime’s ‘succession strategy’.”

Unsurprisingly, the Cuban government jammed the signal from the get-go.  But, this didn’t daunt our policymakers.  After failing to overcome Cuba’s disruption of the signal by floating a blimp over the island, they moved to transmitting signals from airborne platforms flying under the banner of AeroMartí.  Since 2006, the government has owned up to spending at least $5.9 million annually to get the Martí’s broadcast content, still jammed by Cuba, to its intended audience.  So far, no such luck.

Ironically, Aero Martí is stuck at its base in Georgia due to the budget cuts – known in Washington speak as “sequestration” – which the gridlocked Congress couldn’t undo before it left on vacation.  You can see a picture of the plane here.  As we report in the blast below, even the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the Martís overseers, want to kill the program.  But, Hudson says Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, (FL-27) are forcing the boondoggle to continue.

Before leaving town, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen issued a statement announcing her support for unrelated legislation, The Taxpayer Bill of Rights, but said nothing about taxpayers’ rights or saving money by grounding permanently AeroMartí.

On the sea: By the time you read this, we’ll know the fate of Benjamin Schiller Friberg.  Thursday evening, the thirty-five year-old surfer jumped into the water in the Martína Hemingway with a paddleboard aiming to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba to Key West.

Before departing Cuba, he explained why he was taking his risky voyage, “this trip is to promote peace, love and friendship between the peoples of Cuba and of United States, as well as a healthy lifestyle.”

We can only imagine how disdainful the embargo supporters must be – the ones who hold AeroMartí aloft –of a surfer seeking peace and love by traveling across the same waters that Cuban rafters have navigated seeking new lives in the United States.

We hope he reaches his goal safely. Even more, we hope people hear the message he’s sending.  Every day, we read stories (like this one by Jeff Franks of Reuters) about how people-to-people travelers jump through hoops, and carefully observe excessive government regulations, just to visit Cuba. They must do so because our government’s policy is based on the misguided premise of objecting to restrictions placed on Cubans by limiting the freedom of our fellow citizens to visit them.

Every surfboard, every trip like the one taken by Beyonce and Jay-Z, every effort by U.S. scientists to overcome obstacles to work with Cuban counterparts on projects that reflect U.S. interests – these are all reminders that there is much to be gained by promoting cooperation between like-minded Cubans and U.S. visitors, and our government shouldn’t be standing in the way of engagement between them.

On land: At least, President Obama has both feet on the ground when it comes to encouraging contact. Yes, he enforces the embargo with astonishing zeal, and keeps signing budgets that fund the Cold War-style regime change programs.  But, he also clearly gets how good policy can help every day Cubans by promoting two-way travel.

After acting in 2009 to allow unlimited family travel by Cuban Americans, and in 2011 to restore people-to-people contacts, this week his administration expanded opportunities for Cubans to visit our country.  As the Miami Herald explained, the president used his executive authority to “make non-immigrant visas valid for five years instead of the current six months, and good for multiple entries.

“Now, eligible Cubans will be able to visit South Florida — or anywhere in the United States — for the holidays, return for a family wedding or come to tend to a sick relative without applying in person for a new visa each time.”

As the State Department explained it, “this is part of our broader policy to increase people-to-people ties between Americans and Cubans, to increase communications with the Cuban people, to promote openness.”

This approach is far better than the loopy policy of transmitting signals from planes flying figure eights over the island, and offers a more permanent solution than piloting a surfboard across the Florida Strait, so we hope the president keeps at it.

Our Friend: We’re unabashed admirers of Saul Landau.  He’s been in the thick of the reporting and analysis on Cuba and Latin America, often exposing the tragic realities of U.S. policy toward the region, for decades.  In the course of a passionate and productive life, his candid explorations of our nation’s history have educated generations and earned him the respect of journalists and the human rights community.  He’s not feeling so well these days, and we hope today’s blast – like the others before it – gave him as much joy as his work has made us think.  And we’re thinking of him, right now.

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