Freedom to Travel: a Dream Come True

This week, we are featuring a blog post from CDA’s Stephen M. Rivers Intern, Jaime Hamre. We hope you enjoy it. Jaime’s blog about her internship at CDA is available here. For more information on Stephen Rivers and the internship program we created in his name, click here.

I met Anabel while studying in Havana for two semesters in 2012. Her shaved head immediately set her apart from all of the other Cubans I had come across. As I got to know her, I found that not only is she the only Cuban vegetarian I met, she is also part of Cuba’s small community of self-proclaiming Afro-Cuban lesbians.

jaime anabel

Anabel and I in Havana

I was able to catch up with Anabel through Skype this week. It was the first time I’d seen her face in a year and a half. A couple of weeks ago, I got a message from her announcing that she was traveling to Mexico. “I’m so happy,” she wrote. “I didn’t have to marry anyone [to get a visa] and I’m going by my own means, my own work. And it’s a lesbian festival. Can you believe it???”

Making friends in Cuba was bittersweet for me. I was grateful to be welcomed into the homes and lives of so many, but I regularly felt a pang of sadness when I considered that it wasn’t likely I’d be able to return the hospitality and share my culture with my Cuban friends any time in the near future. I knew enough about the situation in Cuba — and the U.S. — to understand the political and economic barriers that a young, Afro-Cuban lesbian would face trying to travel abroad.

This changed in the middle of my second semester on the island. I remember the 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 freedom presented. Starting that January, Cubans would no longer be required to ask their government’s permission for an exit visa, to leave Cuba and return. I left the island wondering what this reform would mean for my Cuban friends and their families.

Today thousands of Cubans are traveling abroad every month, many leaving the island for the first time. Anabel now finds herself on a two-week trip to Mexico City. She is staying at a friend’s house with women from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Germany, and Mexico. “It’s like a crew of lesbian feminists. It’s amazing. I’m so happy. It’s like a dream come true,” she told me between bites.

“What are you eating?” I asked.

“Capitalist things!” she laughed, joyously. “I’m trying so many new fruits that I’ve never seen in my life. And there are markets here — kilometers full of people selling stuff — muy fuerte mimi.”

Anabel’s opportunity to travel to Mexico arose after her longtime friends, the members of the Cuban feminist rap group Las Krudas (who relocated to Austin, Texas) put her in touch with two Mexican friends who went to Cuba to do research on the LGBT scene. Anabel stayed in touch with them, which eventually led to a formal invitation to attend an art festival organized by Producciones y Milagros Feminist Association. Anabel got her passport, paid 25 Cuban pesos for her visa, and was on her way. She was incredulous at how easy the process was:

“For me, leaving the country was something to which very few people had access. It’s like saying you want to be the next President of the United States. It was an impossible dream, but I always wanted to, because one wants to travel, explore, and improve one’s quality of life. But it was something very, very difficult….  Before, this dream of leaving was my main objective in life, but also my main frustration.”

Before Cuba’s immigration reform, Anabel assumed that if she was able to find a way to leave the island, she would likely not return. “I’m the first person in my family to leave the country for work, and the first person to leave and come back, too,” she told me. Her aunt left to live in the U.S. in 2006. She ended up in Las Vegas, and “is having a really hard time,” Anabel told me. “No medical insurance and four kids, it’s very complicated.”

“When did you decide that if you traveled, you were going to go back?” I asked.

“It was with this trip,” she responded:

“What I was thinking before was that the first chance I had to leave the country, I was going to stay. But honestly, right now I’m not that interested in that. I don’t think that for me, staying illegally in another country is a good option. I’m a professor [in Cuba]. I have my Master’s. Now I also know that I can leave the country in a better way. I don’t want to start from zero. So that was why when I came [to Mexico], I decided I wasn’t going to stay. I want to get a PhD… and keep studying and improving my life.”

“What are you going to do when you go back to Cuba?” I asked.

“Cry!” she responded immediately. I laughed in surprise and asked why.

“Because it’s awesome here!” she exclaimed, clearly still blown away by what she’d seen so far in Mexico. “But yes, when I go back to Cuba, I have a lot of plans,” she continued. She told me about a documentary on transgender individuals that she and two LGBT activist friends from Los Angeles are going to screen in Havana in June. She is also helping to organize a queer conference during Cuba’s annual festivities surrounding the International Day Against Homophobia.

Having longed to travel for most of her life, Anabel has spent a lot of time weighing the two worlds that are Cuba and abroad. Now that she is in Mexico, she remains convinced that Cuban society has many limits, especially in terms of its LGBT movement. But she is also adverse to characteristics she has seen in Mexico and associates with the greater capitalist system: “One of the things I love most about Cuba is that the people are very extroverted and happy, and in solidarity with each other… and human. Here the people walk right by you if you’re dying in the street. Complicado.”  Now she is hopeful that she can have the best of both worlds:

“Now that I’ve left Cuba, what I’m going to do when I get back is put my energy toward traveling again. If I’m able to come and go, I think I would like it more than living completely abroad. It makes me really sad to think about having to abandon my homeland, the air, my friendships, my family. I hadn’t thought about it before. I was in Cuba, but now I’m abroad. … And things are going well for me in Havana, too. Before, it was a lot of work, but now, we are seeing more spaces for queer people and Afro-Cubans. We are creating a new discourse. I like what I’m doing. You have to leave one reality to start another. The world is really big, and I’d like to see it.”

Anabel has that opportunity now. So for us, the next big mystery is: in which country will we be seeing each other next?

 

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

To sign CDA’s petition calling on the Obama Administration to end USAID’s dangerous, wasteful and counterproductive regime change program in Cuba, click here.

A Note on Alan Gross

Today is Alan Gross’s birthday.

When CDA first met with Alan Gross in prison in 2011, we never imagined we’d still be awaiting his release three years later.

Nor did we imagine that Members of Congress would be thwarting his release by disparaging any actions that could be interpreted as negotiations.  Or that the Obama Administration, after all this time, would still be pressing for his “unconditional” release, long after this approach had proved unavailing.

Last November, Yochi Dreazen wrote about how legislators impeded efforts by the White House to negotiate a solution to ensure Mr. Gross’s release, which would have promised Cuba a decrease in funding to USAID regime change programs on the island.

With that sad history, with recent weeks’ revelations on how USAID continued to implement dangerous, abrasive and ineffective programs on the island after Alan Gross’s incarceration, and now with this week’s disappointing but expected release of the State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list and the insistence to continue including Cuba —  it’s a small wonder Mr. Gross now feels it’s necessary to take matters into his own hands.

Mr. Gross has vowed to leave Cuba, dead or alive, before his next birthday. His lawyer, Scott Gilbert, said that “After visiting Alan last week, it has become clear that we’ve reached a critical point with regard to his health and emotional well-being. It is time for the President and his Administration to demonstrate some leadership and engage with the Cuban government to secure Alan’s release and safe return to his family.” (our emphasis.)

As Mr. Gross marks another birthday in prison, it is incumbent on the President to use the full range of his powers — as we argued last week  — to address the core problems that contribute to his captivity.

The existing approach is nothing to celebrate.

Cuba remains on the State Dept. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism

This week, the U.S. Department of State released its 2013 Country Reports on Terrorism. Cuba remains on the list for the 32nd consecutive year, along with Iran, Sudan, and Syria. The report states that Cuba “harbored fugitives wanted in the United States” and provided housing and medical care for such individuals. The report also says “there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups” and adds that Cuba’s ties with U.S.-designated terrorist groups have become more distant. The report comments that Cuba has been successful in supporting and hosting peace negotiations between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and Colombia’s government.

At the briefing announcing the release of the report, a reporter said that “if [Cuba is] not supporting terrorist groups with weapons or training, and they’re retained because of the haven that they reportedly give to ETA and FARC, it doesn’t really make much sense they’re still on the list,” and asked how long the State Department planned to keep Cuba on the list. Deputy State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf stated in response that there is not a routine process for reevaluating the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, and that the Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the list.  When asked whether she believes that keeping Cuba on the list for political reasons negatively impacts negotiations on U.S. imprisoned contractor Alan Gross and bilateral ties, Harf said that “the conversations we have with Cuba, whether they’re on migration or postal service or Alan Gross or anything, is just separate from this designation.”

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a statement in response to what it called the “absurd accusation” of Cuba as a designated State Sponsor of Terrorism:

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly rejects the use of such sensitive issue as international terrorism for political purposes, and it demands an end to this shameful designation, which is offensive to the Cuban people, has as sole aim trying to justify by any means the anachronistic and cruel blockade against Cuba, and which discredits the very U.S. government.”

Earlier this year, CDA director Sarah Stephens published an op-ed arguing that recent legislation by Cuba to freeze funds from foreign banks linked to terror groups compels a U.S. response. She wrote:

“It is unfortunate that the U.S.-Cuba relationship is frozen by our reliance on “tit-for-tat” diplomacy… It’s even worse, however, when Cuba, in pursuit of its own interests, satisfies a condition of U.S. policy, but gets no acknowledgement from the U.S. government in response. President Obama has executive authority to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror and he should use it.”

#CubaNow urges President Obama to ease Cuba restrictions

A new group, #CubaNow, has called upon President Obama to expand travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens and facilitate increased financial support for civil society on the island, reports USA Today. The group states on its web page that “we believe that the all-or-nothing approach of current US-Cuba policy is not only counterproductive, but has failed to advance its own stated goals.” The campaign is posting advertisements throughout the Metro subway system in Washington, D.C. to target President Obama and his Administration. Executive Director Ricardo Herrero remarked:

“There’s a lot that the President can do to help facilitate greater travel to the island by Americans, to help increase the support for civil society … and increase the flow of assets to the island…The President has already taken a few steps earlier in his administration to help foster greater engagement between Americans and the Cuban people. After five years, we’ve seen that these changes have had a positive and palpable impact in Cuba. It’s time for us to really build on that foundation.”

The USA Today article notes that the staff of #CubaNow is primarily comprised of young Cuban-Americans and former Obama Administration officials.  Earlier this year, the Atlantic Council released the results of a nationwide poll which found that Americans, especially the Latino community and voting-age residents of Florida, favor new relations with Cuba. Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 campaign manager and a former political adviser, stated “This reflects a shift we’ve seen at the polls and in polling that’s taken place in the Cuban-American community over the last decade, and it has potentially significant political consequences.”

You can read more about #CubaNow on their website or by following them on Facebook and Twitter.

USAID contractors profiled “Cuban Twitter” users;Cuba denounces ZunZuneo and other subversive programs at the UN;CELAC condemns ZunZuneo program

A new article by theAssociated Press reports that Paula Cambronero, a former employee of the USAID contractor that operated the ZunZuneo program out of Costa Rica, gathered data about “Cuban Twitter” users and built a database with their information, including age, gender, political tendencies and receptiveness. Cambronero sampled more than 700 responses to political messages crafted by Cuban satirist Alen Lauzan Falcón and analyzed them according to two variables measuring level of interest and the political nature of the response.  After more than 200 responses from those who signed up to receive the messages criticized the sender’s anonymity, Cambronero later recommended that humorous messages “should not contain a strong political tendency, so as not to create animosity in the recipients.” Of a sample of 59 responses, only 10 had a political character and only two were “counter-revolutionary.” Those respondents were identified by name, cell phone number and location.  Julia Sweig, Director of Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, called the profiling of “Cuban Twitter” users “highly inappropriate,” stating:

“Imagine for a moment how the American people would feel if the shoe was on the other foot and a foreign government was gathering data on them surreptitiously through a social network it had set up.”

Cuba denounced the ZunZuneo program and other U.S. radio and television programs that it deems subversive at the 36th Session of the United Nations Committee on Information this week, reports Granma. Rodolfo Reyes, Cuba’s ambassador to the UN, stated that the ZunZuneo program and others violate a series of laws including the U.S. CAN-SPAM Act, which prohibits the sending of messages without the recipient’s express consent, as well as the constitution of the UN’s International Telecommunication Union which prohibits the use of technology, especially social networks, for purposes other than promoting peaceful relations and international cooperation.

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) also expressed its opposition to the illicit use of new Information and Communications Technology (ICT) by the U.S. against its member states, reports Juventud Rebelde.  According to the CELAC statement, the illicit use of ICT has “a negative impact for countries and its citizens.” The statement cites the ZunZuneo program, and adds:

“[It is necessary to guarantee] that the use of said technologies be thoroughly compatible with the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, international law, particularly sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs, and the rules of coexistence between internationally recognized states.”  

Last week, we reported that the current CELAC President, Costa Rica, demanded an explanation  from the U.S. on the ZunZuneo program illegally operating within its country for over a year.

To sign CDA’s petition calling on the Obama Administration to end USAID’s dangerous, wasteful and counterproductive regime change program in Cuba, click here.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba and EU officially begin talks

Cuba and the European Union (EU) held the first round of official talks this week to work toward normalized relations and reach an “Agreement on Political Dialogue and Cooperation,” reports the Associated Press. According to Granma, officials developed a plan to alternate meetings between Havana and Brussels. The EU was represented by Christian Leffler, the EU top EU diplomat for the Americas, and Abelardo Moreno, Vice-Minister of Exterior Relations, represented Cuba. A note on the website of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry called the exchange “constructive and positive.”

Cuba is the only country in Latin America without a cooperation agreement with the EU; relations are instead governed by the EU’s Common Position toward Cuba, established in 1996. The Common Position states that “the objective of the European Union in its relations with Cuba is to encourage a process of transition to a pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people.”

Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel has stated that Cuba is open to respectful dialogue with the European community.  The EU’s Ambassador to Cuba, Hernan Portocarrero, remarked:

“The Common Position that still exists is a document that is already 18 years old. And what we want to do now is find a convergence between the Common Position, which contains very important political principles, and the majority of member states that have a constructive bilateral relationship [with Cuba].”

This week, Cuba and Portugal signed a Memorandum of Understanding during a two-day visit to Cuba by Portugal’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Luis Campos Ferreira, reports Cuba Standard.  Ferreira stated that Portugal seeks to “create space for a deepening of economic relations.”

Cuba changes passport requirements policy, halts travelers

Last Thursday, Havanatur, a Cuban state-run travel agency, announced that it would no longer accept Cuban travelers from abroad whose passports lack the required two-year validation, report the Miami Herald and Café Fuerte. As a result, dozens of travelers were either stopped from boarding planes to Cuba, or were not allowed to leave the airport upon arrival in Havana.

The issue arose when the Cuban Interests Section was forced to suspend consular activities in March upon losing banking services. Cuban passports are valid for six years, but require a validation every two years. Travelers from the U.S. could previously get that validation at the consulate, but have been unable to access the service since the office’s closure. Cuba had been allowing people to travel and obtain the proper validation upon arrival in Havana, but abruptly changed the policy this week. According to a Miami travel agency, Havanatur threatened to fine any agencies that allowed travelers to board flights to Cuba without proper documentation.

Though officials from the Cuban Interests Section and the U.S. State Department continue to seek a bank to handle Cuba’s financial transactions, there has been no sign of a resolution to the problem.

Russian Foreign Minister visits Cuba

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro received Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Havana this week, reports EFE. In meetings with Cuban dignitaries, Lavrov reviewed bilateral cooperation in areas such as energy, transportation, pharmacy and infrastructure.  Lavrov also met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez.  Lavrov will visit Nicaragua, Peru and Chile on the rest of his tour of Latin America.

IN CUBA

Government grants greater independence to state enterprises

Cuba’s government loosened regulations on some of its largest state-run companies, reports Reuters. The more than 2,800 state-owned businesses account for 80% of Cuba’s economic activity. These businesses include oil company Cubapetroleo, nickel producer Cubaniquel, and other businesses in sectors such as tourism, mining and telecommunications. Companies will now be able to sell excess products on the open market after meeting quotas. They will also be permitted to set higher salaries, and keep 50% of profits after taxes. The new regulations were previously tested as pilot projects, but have now been expanded to over 5,000 state companies. Phil Peters of the Cuba Research Center remarked:

“These are rational economic measures — separating businesses from the ministries, giving managers more autonomy, institutionalizing incentive pay and profit sharing for workers. The hard part will be allowing managers to lay off excess workers and living up to the commitment to close state enterprises that can’t survive without subsidies.”

We recently reported on Cuba’s ongoing economic reforms to attract foreign investment.  Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment reports that it has already received proposals from new potential investors since the approval of the new foreign investment law.

Cuba in the process of returning religious property;approves the island’s first mosque

Cuba’s government is in the process of returning religious property confiscated after the 1959 Revolution, reports Progreso Weekly.  Although the process has not been made official by a legal reversal of the 1961 law of nationalization, chapels and temples have been returned in cities such as Santiago de Cuba, Havana, Cienfuegos, Camagüey and Bayamo.  Property has been returned to the Catholic Church, as well as other religious institutions which owned property during the Revolution.  The article also notes that there is an open channel of communication with Cuba’s government to obtain land grants for religious institutions, in situations where the nationalized properties are still in use by the government, for example as public schools.

ABNA reports that Cuba’s Department of Religious Affairs has approved the construction of Cuba’s first mosque in Havana by Turkey’s Religious Affairs Foundation (TDV).  The mosque will be complete within a year and modeled after the famous Ortakoy mosque in Istanbul.  Havana has a Muslim community of around 3,500.

Los Van Van founder Juan Formell passes away

Juan Formell, the founder and leader of legendary Cuban dance band Los Van Van passed away this Thursday at the age of 71, reports AFP. The cause of his death has not been reported, according to the Associated Press. Formell was a bassist, arranger, composer, singer, and record producer. In 1999 Formell won a Grammy for best salsa album, and one more in 2013 for his overall achievements during his career. According to La Jornada, he brought together Los Van Van in 1969 and in 1970 Formell invented the musical genre of “songo” and also “el buey cansao.” Granma writes that Formell was “one of the most important figures in Cuban musical culture in the 20th and 21st centuries.”

State telecommunications company looks for solution to overloaded servers

The Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) is looking to counter the oversaturation of its base stations due to a mistake it made in calculating demand for email service on mobile phones, reports Havana Times. According to ETECSA, the service, made available on March 3rd, reached high levels of demand in a short period of time, causing delays in receiving emails and SMS on mobile phones. ETECSA is now attempting to strengthen platforms and manage traffic on the mobile network. The firm plans to launch a new mobile center with 80 base stations and says it remains committed to offering customers Internet access and other additions later this year.

Cuba hosts national parade commemorating International Workers’ Day

Thousands of Cubans marched in the streets for parades to celebrate International Workers’ Day in Cuba, Havana Times reports.  Photos of the marches are available from CubaDebate. President Raúl Castro presided over the celebration in Havana, where approximately 600,000 representatives from fields such as health, education, construction, sports, defense and public administration, carried banners and posters in support of the government’s “calls for greater economic efficiency.” CBS News’ Portia Siegelbaum reported on the festivities from Havana.

Recommended Reading

This US Contractor Has Spent Almost Five Years in a Cuban Jail. Why Won’t the White House Act?, Peter Kornbluh, The Nation

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archives makes the case that President Obama is facing the last opportunity to secure the release of Alan Gross and “finally fulfill his own campaign pledge to ‘turn the page and begin to write a new chapter in US-Cuba policy.’”

Washington’s Secret ‘Cuba Twitter’ Program Is the Same Old Policy of Regime Change, Dr. William M. LeoGrande, The Nation

Dr. LeoGrande argues that USAID’s “Cuban Twitter” program is a continuation of the United States’ legacy of covert regime change operations in Latin America. “Covert operations designed to bring about regime change in Cuba are the direct descendants of the CIA’s political operations of yesteryear. They are not sanitized by running them through USAID, calling them “discreet” and wrapping them in the rhetoric of democracy,” he writes.

Smart diplomacy vs. dumb diplomacy, Lionel Beehner, USA Today

Lionel Beehner asks about USAID’s ZunZuneo program: “Why are we dumping millions of taxpayer dollars on such dumb programs in the first place?”

How to Support Cuba’s New Entrepreneurs, Susan Segal, US News

Susan Segal, the president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, profiles Cuba’s growing independent small business sector and lays out specific steps that President Obama can take to help foster these developments on the island.

As Cubans move on, face of Little Havana changes, Katherine Lepri, South Florida News Service

Katherine Lepri chronicles the evolution of Little Havana and the ways in which the influx of Central Americans to the neighborhood has changed the community.

Recommended Viewing

The US and Cuba: Obsession, Empire, Al Jazeera

Empire examines changes in Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations in the first televised debate organized by foreign media within Cuba. The show travels to Washington DC, Miami and Havana to “unravel the mysteries of Cuban-U.S. relations.”

The Rum Diaries (in pictures): Bacardi posters from 1920s to 1999 tell 150-year-old story of the man behind the rum, Paul Donnelley, Mail Online

Bacardi has released a television advertisement and a series of postcards celebrating its more than 150 years of existence.

Cuba expands medical industry despite US sanction, Press TV

Press TV presents a brief overview of Cuba’s medical industry — on the island and around the world — and highlights challenges and successes.

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