Friends Don’t Let Congress Drive Cuba Policy

Congress spent a month spinning itself into a frenzy over the crisis at the southern border of the U.S.

But, after weeks of photo ops, accusations that the Obama Administration created the crisis and failed to stop it, and shameful efforts to marginalize the children who fled poverty and violence in order to get here, nothing happened.

The least productive Congress in modern history has spun itself into a ditch.  It has made the migration crisis so dire and so toxic that even punitive legislation to fix it became too hot to handle.  Backed up against their own deadline for the August recess, neither the House nor the Senate could find enough votes to pass even band aid-sized fixes to a greater than tourniquet-sized problem.

As of this publication, the House leadership is considering how to press forward – making the legislation meaner to migrants, which dooms the bill to failure – or by taking the moral highroad and driving off on vacation.  In the meanwhile, both House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (KY-5) and Speaker John Boehner issued statements telling the President to sweep up the mess by taking executive action (ironic, given the recent House decision to sue him for using his authority to implement health care reform).

There are media reports, such as here by the Wall Street Journal, saying the President will take broad action by September to address the crisis without waiting any longer for Congress to act.

While some in Congress hope the President will take executive action to fix the border, we and others have been urging the President to use his authority to make further reforms to U.S.-Cuba policy.

But, as the 44 signers of the letter supporting executive action on travel, negotiating with Cuba, and other issues, reminded President Obama in May, “Timing matters and this window of opportunity may not remain open indefinitely.”

What could close the window?  U.S. politics, as bad as it is, is likely to get worse.  There are just ninety-five days until the midterm elections take place; 156 days until the new Congress is seated.

What happens if today’s gridlocked Congress gives way to a 114th Session of Congress dominated by one party, as even non-partisan pundits predict today, and it takes on President Obama aggressively as he ends his term and the parties nominate candidates to replace him?  Does the window close and, if so, what happens to the hope for executive action then?

What happens if Charlie Crist, candidate for Governor in Florida, who has come out as anti-embargo and considered traveling to Cuba, is defeated in November by incumbent Governor Rick Scott in what is then interpreted as a referendum on Cuba policy reform?  What happens then?

What happens as policy changes that take long lead times – for example, solving the problem of a hemispheric boycott of the Summit of the Americas by inviting Cuba to participate – are eclipsed due to the passage of time?  What happens then?

What happens if Alan Gross’s physical health and mental state are as precarious as his legal team indicates?  If his condition deteriorates further, what happens then?

What happens if there is an abrupt change in the political structure in Cuba given the advanced ages of its senior leadership?  How could the window stay open then?

The President’s authority to take significant actions that reform Cuba policy, that free Alan Gross, whose imprisonment remains the chief obstacle to warming relations, and that speed the U.S. toward normalization, is greater than most people realize.  Once the Supreme Court acts, perhaps later this year, on a case with implications for the foreign policy powers of the presidency, the extent of his authority to make really big changes in U.S. – Cuba relations could grow larger still.

However, it is not the President’s power but his willingness to use it, given the political space he has and the time constraints that face him, which is pivotal now.  What also matters deeply – and we’re told, may matter more than many of us know – is whether the government in Havana understands just how close we are to the window of opportunity slamming shut.

President Obama’s actions in his first term to expand travel for Cuban families and people-to-people exchanges – described as modest here and disregarded as domestic politics by some in Cuba – continue to provide big benefits.  But, he can and should do a lot more.

To get there, it is President Obama and not Congress who must drive policy.  But, he should start revving the engine now before it is too late.

A note: CDA will be taking a summer recess on the week of August 18. There will be no Cuba Central Newsblast on Friday, August 22.

Also, CDA Summer Intern Eliana Kanefield will leave our fold today and return to Columbia University this fall. We want to thank her for all her hard work — she will be missed!


Hillary Clinton tells Jorge Ramos she wants to normalize U.S.-Cuba relations

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated her position that the U.S. should lift the embargo on Cuba in an interview with Jorge Ramos for Fusion TV. In response to the question of whether she thought the U.S. should end the embargo, she said:

“Yes, I would like to see that. I advocate that in my book, because I think it’s been a failure, and I think it has propped up the Castros, because they can blame everything on the embargo. You don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of expression, you know, you’re still having political prisoners; everything is blamed on the embargo. I would like to see us move toward normalizing relations eventually. And therefore more Americans [going] back and forth. That’s something President Obama did and I supported. … We do have our own political prisoner in Cuba, Alan Gross, a man who has been thrown into prison and not being given a chance to come home to his family. So I would like to see that resolved, and I would like to see us move toward ending the embargo and trying to, by our example, by commerce, by all kinds of visits, you know, help the Cuban people have a different future.”

When asked if she was interested in a “Nixon moment” going to Cuba, she said, “You know, someday I’d like to go to Cuba. I would, someday. Yes.”

In June, when Clinton released her book, Hard Choices, she revealed that she had advocated for President Obama to work to lift the embargo. The complete video of Clinton’s interview with Ramos is available here (her comments on Cuba start at the 6:00 mark). A transcript of her comments regarding Cuba is available from the Tampa Bay Times.

United Nations and U.S. Treasury Department sanction North Korean companies

On Monday, the UN Security Council (UNSC) blacklisted Ocean Maritime Management, the operator of the Chong Chon Gang ship, imposing a travel ban and a freeze on its assets, reports Reuters. According to the UNSC committee that made this decision, “Ocean Maritime Management Company, Ltd (OMM), played a key role in arranging the shipment of the concealed cargo of arms and related material.” The UNSC, however, did not move to sanction Cuban officials involved in the case, in which weapons and military equipment were hidden under a shipment of sugar from Cuba to North Korea.

Eight Members of Congress sent a letter to Samantha Power, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, asking that Power’s office push for the Cuban officials who were involved in the Chong Chon Gang case to be named as sanctions violators, reports El Nuevo Herald. Representatives Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) and Díaz-Balart (FL-25) wrote the letter, which was also signed by Representatives Sires (NJ-8), Salmon (AZ-5), Duncan (SC-3), Smith (NJ-4), DeSantis (FL-6), and Duffy (WI-7). According to the Miami Herald, Russia’s veto power at the UNSC may have spared Cuba from facing sanctions.

On Wednesday, the U.S. Treasury Department also placed sanctions on two North Korean companies and 18 cargo ships for violation of the UN arms embargo. The sanctions similarly excluded Cuba, and according to a Washington official interviewed by the Miami Herald, such measures were likely viewed as unnecessary given the U.S. embargo against Cuba already in place.

Alan Gross now refusing visitors

Scott Gilbert, the lawyer for jailed USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, says that Gross’s physical condition is deteriorating and that he is now refusing visitors due to his depression, reports Café Fuerte. According to Gilbert, Gross has lost the use of his right eye and has not been able to exercise for the past two months because his hips are in such bad shape.

Since he was arrested and imprisoned, Gross has suffered from health problems, including chronic pain and degenerative arthritis in his leg, the Gross family reports on their website, Bring Alan Home.

In June, Gross’s mother passed away. His wife, Judy Gross, and Gilbert visited him a week later, and subsequently reported that he was deeply depressed.

State Dept. gives mixed review of religious freedom in Cuba

The U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor released its International Religious Freedom Report for 2013. The report’s section on Cuba was largely critical, but also acknowledged improvements in religious freedom on the island, the Miami Herald reports. The report said that Cuba’s Office of Religious Affairs continues to regulate all forms of religious activity, and that religious groups must apply to the Ministry of Justice for authorization. The report also mentioned the repeated detentions of members of the dissident group Ladies in White while they march to and from Mass on Sundays.

The report also noted that:

“Most established religious groups, however, reported an increased ability of their members to meet, worship, travel abroad, recruit new members, and conduct charitable, educational and community service projects. They also reported fewer restrictions on religious expression and the importation of religious materials.”

Spain arrests 14 in migration scheme giving Cubans fake documents for entry to U.S.

Spanish police arrested fourteen people — eleven Cubans and three Spaniards — who were operating an illegal network that provided false identification documents for Cubans to migrate to the U.S., reports AFP. The network was based on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where the Associated Press reports it was able to take advantage of the sizable local Cuban community.

The migrants would first receive false Spanish residence permits that would allow them to enter Mexico without a visa. Spanish citizens, along with citizens of all other European Union countries, are not required to have a visa to travel to Mexico, whereas Cubans need a visa to enter the country. Once in Mexico, the Cubans could cross the border into the U.S., where they qualify for residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act. The network’s services cost between $1,350 and $2,000 per person.

This week, Reuters reported on the different experiences of migrants coming to the U.S. from Cuba as opposed to many Central American migrants; while Cubans are allowed to stay in the U.S. under the Cuban Adjustment Act, migrants from other countries face the threat of deportation after making their own harrowing journey.

Yris Pérez Aguilera, Cuban dissident, meets with members of Congress

Yris Pérez Aguilera, a Cuban dissident, visited the U.S. Congress this week and met with Cuban-American Members from South Florida, reports the Associated Press. She met with Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), and Rep. Joe García (FL-26). Pérez Aguilera is married to fellow dissident Jorge Luis García Pérez (“Antunez”), who was imprisoned from 1990 to 2007 for working against the government, reports Terra.

U.S., Cuban baseball teams face off in Cuba

Cuba’s baseball team swept the U.S. Collegiate National Baseball Team in a five-game series, reports the Associated Press. The annual series resumed in 2012 after having been shut down in 1996. The AP reports that last year, when the series was played in the United States, the U.S. team swept the series. The host country switches every year, reports the Havana Times.

BNP Paribas reports its 2nd quarterly loss in bank history after paying U.S. fine

French bank BNP Paribas is reporting a $5.8 billion second quarter loss after the U.S. fined the bank $8.9 billion in June for violating U.S. sanctions against Cuba, Iran, and Sudan, reports the Financial Times. This is only the second quarter in which the bank has experienced a loss since its establishment in 2000. In response to the fine, the bank will form a supervisory committee and “a conduct committee in charge of monitoring and possibly redrafting the group’s policies in certain ‘sensitive’ business sectors or countries.”


1.4% decrease in June tourist arrivals

This week, the National Statistics Office in Havana released a report that revealed a 1.4% decrease in tourists arriving in June 2014 as compared with the same month last year, reports Bloomberg. Prior to June, Reuters reports that Cuba had been experiencing a 3.9% increase in tourist visits for the 2014 year. When comparing total tourist arrivals in 2014 with those in 2013 to date, the arrivals have increased by 3.9%, with 1,660,055 tourists traveling to the island since January 2014 as opposed to the 1,587,000 tourists who came in 2013 up until June 2013.

The decrease in visits by tourists over the last year has been largely in travelers coming from Argentina (-34.4%) and the United Kingdom (-27.1%). It should be noted that the estimated 350,000-400,000 Cuban-Americans who visit Cuba each year are excluded from the data used to calculate these statistics, as they are not counted as tourists by Cuba.

ALBA and Mercosur to create joint special economic zone

Presidents of the Mercosur member states signed an agreement with the presidents of countries in the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our America (ALBA) establishing a special economic zone among those countries, as well as the member countries of Petrocaribe and Caricom, reports Telesur. The agreement “aims to facilitate trade and industrialization among member countries.”

Cuba is a member of both ALBA and Petrocaribe, which is an oil alliance between Venezuela and seventeen other Caribbean nations. The agreement was signed at the Mercosur Summit, which took place this week in Caracas, Venezuela.


Cuba celebrates anniversary of beginning of the Revolution

Cuba celebrated the July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks that marked the beginning of the Cuban Revolution last Saturday, reports the Associated Press.  This year the ceremony took place in Artemisa, Cuba, roughly an hour’s drive west of Havana.

Ramiro Valdés, one of Cuba’s Vice Presidents and a commander during the Revolution, gave the principal speech. In it, he emphasized Cuba’s accomplishments since the Revolution and the need for Cuban unity. He also praised the results of the economic reforms taking place in Cuba, such as the commercialization of the market for agricultural goods and the development of Mariel Port.

Recommended Reading

Will warming Cuba-EU ties open up U.S.-Cuba relations?, Americas Quarterly

In the just-released summer edition of Americas Quarterly, Sarah Stephens, CDA’s Executive Director, argues that the EU’s engagement with Cuba should serve as a model for the U.S., while Joel Brito argues that doing so will not lead to any human rights improvements.

The other current, Rachel D. Rojas, Progreso Weekly

Progreso Weekly reports on a new energy production cooperative formed in Cuba to use renewable energy sources, and the importance of local initiatives to promote green energy use.

Museum honors Cuba’s revolutionaries, Tracey Eaton, Al Jazeera

“Only 14 are left.”  Tracy Eaton describes the goal and vision of the new museum, constructed by former rebel Alejandro Ferras, to honor Cubans who fought against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. For photos of the museum, see Al Jazeera’s display, In Pictures: Cuba’s revolutionary museum.

China issues some details of loan for new Santiago port, Progreso Weekly

Progreso Weekly gives an update on the agreements that China and Cuba signed during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Cuba last week. It reports that the port at Santiago de Cuba, in which China is investing, will become — after Mariel — Cuba’s second deep-water port.

How to view a changing Cuba, Kevin O’Donnell, CNN

CNN’s Kevin O’Donnell interviews Harvard professor Jorge Dominguez on recent and prospective cultural, political, and economic changes with respect to Cuba and its foreign relations.

Cuba’s hardcore skateboarders get some lift, Mary Murray, NBC

Mary Murray delves into the “23 y G” skateboarding community in Havana and the work of Cuba Skate, an organization dedicated to providing resources to Cuban skateboarders so they can skate in a “safe vibrant place.”

Las visitas de los presidentes de China y Rusia a Cuba: geopolítica y actualización (in Spanish), Carlos Alzugaray Treto, OnCuba Magazine

Former Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray analyzes the recent visits of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping to Cuba. He describes both countries as important allies for Cuba, saying that the country’s alliance with China is crucial for Cuba’s economy, and its alliance with Russia is crucial in the geopolitical and military sphere.

Recommended Viewing

Digitization of endangered African diaspora collections at the major archives of the province of Matanzas, Cuba, The British Library

This collection of documentation on slavery in the sugar-producing region of Matanzas has recently been digitized. Many of the documents, which contain “demographic statistics, information on ethnicity, resistance, occupations, property, economy of free and enslaved Africans,” were considered endangered, as they had not previously been protected from Cuba’s humid climate. Through this digitization project, local staff learned different components of the archival process. This page contains 400 pictures of different documents.

Beautiful Sepia Portraits of Cuba’s Ballet Prodigies, Maia Booker, The New Republic

Booker presents a series of 2012 photographs of dancers at Cuba’s prestigious National Ballet School taken by photographer Rebekah Bowman.

Recommended Listening

5 nuevos ritmos musicales que han surgido en Cuba en los últimos años (in Spanish), The Wow

“The Cubans have been changing, evolving, reviving to become who they are.” Explore this evolution through the music of five Cuban artists of 21st century Cuba.

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