LASA Edition: The US Needs a Cuba Policy Worthy of Its Ideals

Days before we arrived in Chicago for the Congress of the Latin America Studies Association, the New York Times ran an obituary for William Worthy, who died earlier this month at age 92.

Worthy, a path-breaking African-American journalist, interviewed Fidel Castro and filed stories on Cuba’s race relations, traveling to Cuba only with a birth certificate for identification. Upon his return, he was prosecuted for entering the U.S. without a passport, convicted, and sentenced to prison.

He won his appeal, as the Times explained, on the grounds that “the lack of a passport was insufficient ground to bar a citizen from re-entering the country.”

Five decades later, questions around Cuba and the free exchange of ideas continue to force distance between the U.S. government and our country’s ideals.


When LASA meets in the United States, it struggles to get visas for all of the Cuban academics invited to attend.

In prior years, under Republican and Democratic administrations, visa denials put a damper on Cuban participation; at times, the politics of exclusion were so extreme, LASA moved the conference elsewhere in the region rather than bring its scholars and intellectual dynamism to our shores.

Although the U.S. deserves credit for granting visas this year to the great number of Cubans who applied, four important intellectuals did not get in.  Their absence affects us directly.  Sitting as we did to hear a panel Thursday morning titled “Talking with Cuba: The Search for U.S.-Cuban Accommodation,” where scholars reviewed the history and the lessons from fifty-plus years of bilateral negotiations, we missed hearing Dr. Soraya Castro’s unique perspective.

Saturday, when our panel discusses economic reform and its impact on women, the audience won’t get to hear from Daybel Pañellas, a psychologist at the University of Havana.  She is helping us assemble an analysis of scholarly literature on reform and women. Also excluded were our friend, Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas, a Cuban social science magazine, and Omar Everleny Pérez, a remarkably candid economist from the University of Havana.

These academics – hardly threats to U.S. national security – could have brought their own intellectual energy and credibility to this year’s Congress; and we will never know why our government chose to make them non-combatants in LASA’s spirited exchange of ideas.


To be sure, the tolerance for dissenting views in our country has grown substantially since William Worthy was arrested after returning from Cuba.

This week, for example, an astonishingly diverse roster of former U.S. officials, some who once held pretty strong pro-sanctions views, signed a letter to President Obama offering their support for policies to increase the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba and boost the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba’s private sector.

While we favor more far-reaching reforms, and would’ve written a different letter, it notably attracted John Negroponte, the former Director of National Intelligence; Andres Fanjul, co-owner of sugarcane producer Fanjul Corp.; Michael Parmly and Vicki Huddleston, former heads of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana; former Clinton and Obama Cabinet Secretaries like Bruce Babbitt, Ken Salazar and Hilda Solis; as well as former Rep. Jane Harman, former EPA Director Carol Browner, and others to a clear statement favoring real changes in U.S. policy.

A similar shift can be seen among the Cuban diaspora in the U.S.  Sure, there are holdouts – heard in the shrill denunciations of the letter to the president and the debut of #CubaNow – but a new school of thought has clearly taken root where the old held sway.

As the BBC observed this week, “times are changing in Little Havana.  To be Cuban American in Miami once meant supporting the embargo, almost as an article of identity and faith. That is no longer the case.”  There was a similar finding in a poll this year by the Atlantic Council, which found even higher support for better relations with Cuba in Florida than it found nationally.  This change in sentiment can also be found among the men and women who met in Washington recently who came here in the Pedro Pan airlift decades ago.

At the center of both the Cuban-American community and the foreign policy establishment, we see evidence of how embracing a real debate and new ideas can drive a shift toward reform.


In “The Ballad of William Worthy,” the folksinger Phil Ochs captured well the conflict between how the U.S. behaves and the ideas it likes to profess:

William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door.
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore.
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say,
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

If the Obama Administration wanted to reconcile its actions with our values, sitting down with Cuba – acknowledging its sovereignty as a prelude to discussing our differences directly – would be a good way to begin.

Anyhow, that’s part of what the scholars on the “Talking with Cuba” panel discussed on Thursday. Too bad everyone wasn’t around to hear them.


44 former U.S. gov’t officials and private sector leaders urge Obama to engage with Cuba

Forty-four former top government officials, private sector executives, and key leaders in Washington, D.C. have sent a letter to President Barack Obama calling for increased engagement with Cuba. The letter gives four specific policy recommendations: (1) “Expand and safeguard travel to Cuba for all Americans,” an expansion on Obama’s 2011 changes to travel policy; (2) “Increase support for Cuban civil society,” including allowing unlimited remittances to support private business on the island, giving exceptional Cuban students scholarships to U.S. institutions, and allowing the sale of telecommunications devices on the island; (3) “Prioritize principled engagement in areas of mutual interest,” such as security and humanitarian issues; and (4) “Take steps to assure financial institutions that they are authorized to process all financial transactions necessary and incident to all licensed activities.”

As Reuters noted, the changes advocated in the letter can all be executed through Obama’s executive authority. They urge President Obama not to miss his “window of opportunity,” arguing:

“In the current political climate little can be done legislatively, but the Obama Administration has an unprecedented opportunity to usher in significant progress using its executive authority at a time when public opinion on Cuba policy has shifted toward greater engagement with the Cuban people while continuing to pressure the Cuban government on human rights.”

In addition to the signatories mentioned above, John Adams, retired Brigadier General and Chief of Staff for Intelligence for the U.S. Army and former Deputy U.S. Military Representative to NATO; Jeffrey Davidow, former Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence for the U.S. Army and former Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere; Strobe Talbott, former Deputy Secretary of State; Arturo Valenzuela, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Professor of Government and International Affairs at Georgetown University; and Alexander Watson, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs joined the call for reform.

#CubaNow, a new group primarily comprised of young Cuban-Americans and former Obama Administration officials, used an advertisement in Politico to publicize the letter and posted an online petition inviting the public to sign on.

Cuban and U.S. policy makers discuss Alan Gross

When we reported last week that Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, met with Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director of U.S. Affairs in Washington, D.C., details of the meeting had not been released. This week, the Jewish Daily reports that Jacobson discussed the case of imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross with her Cuban counterpart, Ms. Vidal.

A State Department official told the Jewish Daily:

“Among other issues, the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross was discussed during the meeting. …We reiterated again how important it is to the United States that Alan be able to return home and be reunited with his family.”

The meeting between Jacobson and Vidal followed an announcement by Cuba’s government that it had detained four Miami residents for allegedly plotting a terrorist attack on the island.

Record number of Cuban academics (minus four) attend LASA conference

One hundred and twenty-five Cuban professors, researchers, and intellectuals were issued visas to attend the annual congress of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) this year, reports Café Fuerte. This sets the record for the number of Cubans in attendance at the conference in the entire history of the congress, according to the report.

A State Department spokesperson told Café Fuerte that the U.S. government supports Cuban involvement in LASA as a way to increase the free flow of ideas among Cubans and between the U.S. and Cuba.

Several Cuban attendees and activist groups are organizing a “night of solidarity with the Five” to take place on Saturday, May 24. Miguel Barnet, president of the Cuban National Union of Writers and Artists, and poet Nancy Morejón will be among the speakers at the event.

Court of Appeals rules CIA does not have to release Bay of Pigs documents

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled 2-1 that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) does not have to release its draft history of the agency’s participation in the Bay of Pigs invasion, reports Politico. The National Security Archive had submitted a request for “Volume V” of the history under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 2005. The court ruled that the CIA could withhold the document under a FOIA exemption that protects agencies’ right to receive candid advice; this exemption applies because the history is technically a draft and thus “predecisional and deliberative.”

Writing for the divided Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh said in the decision:  “The writer needs to know at the time of writing that the privilege will apply and that the draft will remain confidential, in order for the writer to feel free to provide candid analysis.”

The dissenting judge, Judith Rogers, argued that the document’s status as a draft is irrelevant: if released, it would be impossible to identify editorial judgments because no final version exists as a point of comparison, and thus the exemption should not apply. She also argued that keeping the entire volume secret contradicts the spirit of the FOIA.

Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive stated that the decision “throws a burqa over the bureaucracy,” adding:

“Presidents only get 12 years after they leave office to withhold their deliberations, and the Federal Reserve Board releases its verbatim transcripts after five years. But here the D.C. Circuit has given the CIA’s historical office immortality for its drafts, because, as the CIA argues, those drafts might ‘confuse the public’…Applied to the contents of the National Archives of the United States, this decision would withdraw from the shelves more than half of what’s there.”

“Pedro Pans” organize reunion in Washington

A group of “Pedro Pans,” Cubans who were sent to the U.S. as children unaccompanied by their parents between 1960 and 1962, came together at Lauriol Plaza restaurant in Washington, D.C. on Sunday, May 18, reports the Washington Post.

Susana Gomez, a Pedro Pan, organized the reunion after reading the Post story about National Geographic Society Geographer Juan José Valdés who recently returned to Havana for the first time since his childhood. About 40 Pedro Pans from across the U.S. attended the reunion on Sunday. Attitudes toward Cuba today vary among the group: while some refuse to return to Cuba under the current government, others feel the pull of emotional ties to the country in which they were born.

After arriving in the U.S. as children, “Pedro Pans” wound up in group homes, foster homes, or with extended family. As part of a project by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History on immigration, attendees were invited to record stories or loan objects, photos, and letters for an exhibit scheduled tentatively for 2016.


Cuba’s government authorizes new category of visa for foreigners

Cuba’s government established a new category of temporary residence visa on Tuesday for foreigners who buy or rent real estate on the island, reported Progreso Weekly. These visas will be valid for a year and renewable for one-year periods according to the text of the law in the Gaceta Oficial; however, they will cease to be valid if the foreigner leaves Cuba for over a year or violates Cuba’s laws or Constitution. This most recent action is part of Cuba’s larger effort to encourage foreign investment.

Cuba’s new foreign investment law will make it possible for foreign investors to buy or rent real estate and will reduce taxes for foreign investors when it goes into effect in June.

UN Sanctions Committee meets on Chong Chon Gang case

According to What’s in Blue, a publication which follows the work done by the UN Security Council, the UN Sanctions Committee has held meetings recently regarding the case of the Chong Chon Gang, a North Korean ship which was detained by Panamanian officials in July 2013 after leaving Cuba with military equipment hidden below a large sugar shipment. Past coverage by CDA can be found here.

The Panel of Experts appointed by the UN Security Council to investigate the case presented its findings in December 2013 and in February of this year, concluding that sanctions against North Korea had been violated.

In their report, the Panel of Experts recommended that member states and the shipping industry be alerted to the techniques used to conceal the weapons in this case, and that member states review any cooperation agreements with the government of North Korea to ensure consistency with UN regulations. It is not clear what follow-up action will result from these meetings.

According to the Miami Herald, the UN panel that enforces sanctions on North Korea, officially named the “1718 Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) Sanctions Committee,” keeps a list of individuals and enterprises that have violated UN sanctions on North Korea, and currently no Cuban names or entities are on the list.


Yoani Sánchez launches digital newspaper; 14ymedio is promptly hacked by pro-government Cubans

The online newspaper, 14ymedio, founded by Cuban activist blogger Yoani Sánchez went live on Wednesday, reports the Associated Press. As she described the project on her blog, Generación Y, 14ymedio is “a space dedicated to narrating a reality where there are people like my [dissident] friend, but also other people who applaud the current system, out of conviction, opportunism, or fear.”

According to the report, Sánchez’s husband, Reinaldo Escobar, will be editor-in-chief, and they have been working with a staff of nine and contributors around the island to launch the site. “We want to produce a newspaper that doesn’t aim to be anti-Castro, a newspaper that’s committed to the truth, to Cubans’ everyday reality,” Escobar stated.

Escobar has said the project is receiving funding from independent investors both from within Cuba and foreigners, however has declined to reveal the donors’ identities. The project received $150,000 in initial anonymous donations, Reuters reports.

The AP reported that an hour after the website went live, it was hacked and redirected viewers to a website criticizing Sánchez; Sánchez subsequently alleged on Twitter that Cuba’s government had hacked her website to prevent Cubans’ access to it. The majority of Cubans cannot access the publication, as only a small portion of the population has Internet access, but 14ymedio tweeted that they would make a weekly PDF version of the publication available for those on the island who cannot access the publication online.

Cuban union official says workers know pay increases will depend on productivity

Union official Milagros Pérez Caballero said that pay increases for Cuban workers are impossible at the moment and that any change in the standard of living for Cubans will come only if productivity increases first, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Pérez Caballero, who is in Spain to discuss labor changes in Cuba, said that workers were told that several factors would contribute to a salary increase: “an ‘opening up’ of non-state labor, the suppression of ‘unnecessary subsidies,’ the elimination of payrolls that do not conform to companies’ labor expectations, and an increase in productivity.” The average monthly salary for state employees in Cuba is currently 510 pesos, which is about $20.

Recommended Reading

Radio and TV Martí: Jammed in Cuba, Slammed by the U.S. Court of Appeals, Sarah Stephens, Huffington Post

Sarah Stephens, executive director of CDA, uses last week’s Appeals Court decision in a labor dispute against the Broadcasting Board of Governors to examine the U.S. government’s continued wasteful spending on Radio and TV Martí.

Charlie Crist’s Cuba Gambit, Chris Sabatini, Politico

Sabatini examines the reasons why Florida Gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist’s possible trip to Cuba would no longer be considered “political suicide,” pointing to demographic and political changes in Florida.

New voices challenge Cuban-American support for embargo, Nick Bryant, BBC News

Bryant explores the changing dynamics among Cuban-Americans in Miami, the hub of Cuban-American activity in the U.S. He talks with Jorge Pérez, the Cuban-American billionaire and developer, and Carlos Saladrigas, Chairman of the Cuba Study Group, who both advocate for lifting the embargo.

Cuba hardliners suppress free exchange of ideas, Ricardo Herrero, Miami Herald

Ricardo Herrero, the Executive Director of #CubaNow, writes about Cuba hardliners’ tactics of intimidation and the purpose of #CubaNow: to spark debate and illuminate the realities of today in both Cuba and the U.S.

Chuck Williams: Baseball’s a hit in Cuba, Chuck Williams, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

Reporter Chuck Williams writes about his experience on a people-to-people trip to Havana. He writes about the universal human connection he found there through playing and watching baseball — “a game that transcends culture and political differences” — with Cubans.

Recommended Viewing:

The View from Cuba: Photo Updates, Erika Bergman, National Geographic Young Explorers blog

Bergman shares images from her experiences leading people-to-people trips to Cuba in order to educate both Cubans and Americans about ocean life.

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