Senator Marco Rubio is on to something. He’s already put together a smart replacement for his ineffective Cuba policy. He just doesn’t know it yet. It’s his China policy.
Late last week, we circulated the stunning news unearthed by the Tampa Bay Times captured by this appropriately stunning headline: “Chinese government pays for trip by aides to Rubio, Ros-Lehtinen”.
This was a story with a “why don’t I rub my eyes, am I dreaming?” quality to it. Yet, the Florida legislators, two fierce opponents of travel by Americans to Cuba, confirmed it was true. Sally Canfield, Deputy Chief of Staff to Rubio, and Arthur Estopinan, Chief of Staff to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), had both accepted free travel junkets to China with costs picked up by the Communist Chinese state.
But, they reacted to the story very differently.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen pled ignorance of what she called “China’s involvement” in paying the costs for Mr. Estopinan’s trip, estimated at $10,000; this to a country she has accused of abusing human rights by harvesting human organs from prisoners.
Known for straightforward, even strident language, she issued a classic non-denial-denial: “As my legislative record shows, I disagree with the decision by my Chief of Staff to visit China and will take internal steps to ensure no trips like this happen again.”
Are we clear?
Rubio’s tack was entirely different.
In written comments, a spokesman for the statesman made a logical, three-point case for engaging with China, saying, in essence, ‘They’re bad, they’re big, so we have to talk.’
Point 1: “Senator Rubio has consistently condemned the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government, its record of systematic human rights violations and its illegitimate territorial claims.”
Point 2: “While he abhors many of the Chinese government’s actions, as a member of the Senate’s foreign relations and intelligence committees, he cannot ignore their growing geopolitical importance.”
Point 3: So, he “recognizes that staff travel approved by the U.S. government and Senate ethics is sometimes necessary in helping advance our advocacy on a host of foreign policy issues.”
This took guts. Yes, it was hypocritical for someone who had said that Americans who visit Cuba behaved as if they were visiting a zoo, getting “to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering.”
Yes, the timing was awkward. As the trip scandal made news, China was embroiled in controversies over rigging an election framework in Hong Kong, interfering with a U.K. inquiry into its relations with Hong Kong, ending a newspaper column by a Chinese hedge fund manager in the Hong Kong Economic Journal, and using its anti-trust laws to curtail competition posed by U.S. businesses.
But, Rubio was being consistent. In the heat of the 2012 election, he broke with Mitt Romney, saying Romney’s plan to label China a currency manipulator was the equivalent of opening a trade war. In his recent comments about his staffer’s trip, he matches a plainspoken critique of China’s human rights practices and security threats with his practical and pragmatic support for dealing with China’s government.
Even after writing that in China, “Political persecution, including detention without trial and violations of fundamental human rights, are the norm,” Senator Rubio called upon “President Obama to speak frankly with President Xi about the areas where Washington and Beijing disagree.”
In other words, Senator Rubio does have a plan for dealing with China. It rejects sanctions, but supports travel, bilateral engagement, diplomacy, and straightforward talk.
Rubio’s approach on China would be an ideal replacement for his Cuba policy, if he had the guts to make the switch.
There is a lesson here for President Obama. On September 2nd, Jen Psaki, spokesperson for the U.S. Department of State, took a question at her news briefing about Panama’s intention to invite Cuba to next year’s meeting of the Summit of the Americas, a forum from which the U.S. has worked to exclude Cuba since it began meeting in 1994.
Rather than supporting an opportunity for engagement with Cuba focusing on areas, as Rubio might say, where Washington and Havana disagree, Psaki declared that Cuba’s presence at the forum would “undermine commitments previously made” including “strict respect for the democratic system.”
Two days later, her colleague, Marie Harf, called the building in which the State Department’s new “Diplomacy Center” will be housed, “a very cool thing indeed.”
Amidst peals of laughter among the assembled journalists, she explained, “Cool. It’s a technical term.”
Fact is that President Obama has a workable alternative to his Cuba policy. It’s called engagement. Engagement’s cool, too. But, using it, well, that would take guts.
Late Friday, the White House released a statement saying that President Obama was extending application of the Trading with the Enemy Act to Cuba for another year.
The Trading with the Enemy Act (or “TWEA”), enacted in 1917 as the U.S. prepared to enter World War I, gives the President authority to prohibit, limit or regulate trade with hostile countries in times of war. It is a statutory foundation on which the entire range of U.S. sanctions toward Cuba rests.
Commenting on the White House’s action, Ric Herrero, executive director of #CubaNow, said, “While the President’s directive today is largely an administrative step, it is a reminder that too little attention is being paid to issues in our own hemisphere, including how to move forward on the Cuba issue.”
Top staffers for Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) visited China in August on an all-expenses paid trip funded by the Chinese government, reports the Tampa Bay Times.
Sally Canfield, Deputy Chief of Staff to Rubio, and Arthur Estopinan, Chief of Staff to Ros-Lehtinen, traveled to China on a congressional staff trip run by the U.S.-Asia Institute, with expenses shouldered by the Chinese government.
CDA Director Sarah Stephens responded to the news with a statement that read, in part:
“It is stunning that Senator Rubio and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, who fiercely criticize travelers to Cuba because it puts money into the pockets of what they call ‘the Castro regime,’ allowed their staffs to accept travel junkets to China paid out of the pockets of China’s government.…Why specifically do they think travel to Cuba is different from travel to China?”
Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen are known for their harsh criticism of Americans who visit Cuba legally. Participation by their staffers has drawn criticisms of hypocrisy by those who advocate normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations. Chris Sabatini, senior policy director of the Americas society, said the trip “represents a real double standard… At the same time they are denying citizens’ rights to travel to Cuba they feel staff can travel to another country that has the same pattern of human rights abuses.”
Fernando González, one of five Cuban intelligence agents (known as the Cuban Five) arrested in Miami in 1998 on espionage charges, told the AP on Thursday that he is optimistic about the possibility of a deal to release the three agents who remain behind bars. He points to Hillary Clinton’s claim that she pushed President Obama to end the embargo as evidence of warming attitudes, and says he is “cautiously optimistic” about the fates of his still-imprisoned comrades. González was released in February after spending over 15 years in a U.S. prison.
Cuba has repeatedly called for the agents’ release, saying they were investigating anti-Cuba militants who had carried out terror attacks inside Cuba and outside, such as the 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger jet. The U.S. government has rejected the possibility of swapping the three remaining Cuban agents for Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor who has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009, saying the cases are “not comparable.” González, however, is keeping his hopes up:
“There is growing interest [in the U.S.] in changing U.S. policy toward Cuba… I would like to think that before finishing his term, President Obama would decide to improve relations with Latin America. That would involve a change with Cuba and that would necessarily take place through a solution to the case of my three colleagues.”
In June, González called on the U.S. government to consider exchanging Gross for his imprisoned colleagues. He pointed to the handing over of five Taliban leaders for the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl of the U.S. army as an example of how such a trade could take place. González says he feels sympathy for Gross, who has told his lawyer that his life in a Cuban prison “is not worth living.” “From a human point of view I don’t wish prison on anybody,” González said. “But I also understand that responsibility for Mr. Gross falls 100 percent on the government of the U.S.”
The number of Cubans intercepted off the coast of Florida has risen gradually since 2012, according to figures released by the U.S. Coast Guard Newsroom. The Coast Guard estimates that by the end of this year 3,326 Cubans will attempt to enter the U.S. by sea. Last month, Café Fuerte reported on U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics showing that 1,561 Cubans had been intercepted by July 1 of this year; 204 more cases than in all of 2013.
In addition to those who trying to reach Florida by sea, other Cubans, especially those from the southern and western parts of the island, take an alternate route, hoping to reach Mexico or Central America, and then travel north to the U.S. border by land.
According to the “wet foot, dry foot” provision of the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans detained at sea are sent back to Cuba, while those who make it to U.S. soil can present their Cuban identification papers and begin the process of obtaining residency in the U.S.
The number of visas granted to Cubans wishing to visit the United States has increased by 25% in the past ten months according to figures provided by the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to Café Fuerte. By the end of the fiscal year, it is expected that the number of visas granted in 2014 will exceed all previous years.
Recent changes in Cuba’s immigration policy allow travelers to leave Cuba for a maximum of twenty-four months without losing their Cuban citizenship. From October 2013 – June 2014, the U.S. Interests Section granted 29,700 temporary visas for family visits and business, cultural, and professional trips, on pace to exceed the 32,254 such visas granted in the entire previous fiscal year. The Interests Section also reported that it has processed more than 17,000 immigrant visas for Cuban citizens during this fiscal year.
At a briefing, State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki was asked about recent statements by Isabel Saint Malo, Panama’s Vice President and Foreign Minister, that Panama planned to invite Cuba to attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas.
Responding to the question, she said:
“…[O]ur view is that at the 2001 Summit of the Americas, all participating governments agreed to consensus that ‘The maintenance and strengthening of the rule of law and strict respect for the democratic system are at the same time a goal and a shared commitment and are an essential condition of our presence at this and future summits.’ So we should not undermine commitments previously made, but should instead encourage – and this is certainly our effort – the democratic changes necessary for Cuba to meet the basic qualifications. But of course, we look forward to the day when all 35 countries in the region can participate in the summit process.”
The Summit of the Americas is a meeting of 35 countries in the Hemisphere, which has taken place since 1994. Following Cuba’s exclusion at the last Summit, held in Colombia in 2012, many Latin American countries, including Argentina and Bolivia, have threatened to boycott the 2015 Summit if Cuba is not invited. The 2012 Summit was the first to end without a formal joint declaration, because continued U.S. and Canadian opposition to Cuba’s future participation prevented a consensus from forming behind the concluding statement.
Coursera, a popular online educational service, stated in a blog post on Wednesday that its classes are now available in Cuba. Coursera offers Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, to students worldwide since 2012; but, in the beginning of 2014, access to the courses was revoked for students with IP addresses based in Cuba, Iran, Sudan, and Syria in order to comply with U.S. sanctions. In a January blog post, Coursera stated that “certain United States export control regulations prohibit U.S. businesses, such as MOOC providers like Coursera, from offering services to users in sanctioned countries, including Cuba.”
This week, the company announced that it had received the necessary license from OFAC allowing it to re-open courses in Cuba and Sudan. According to the blog post, U.S. sanctions still prohibit some STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) classes in Cuba, Iran, and Sudan according to U.S. sanctions policy.
John Hemingway, grandson of Ernest Hemingway, will visit Cuba for the first time next week in the hopes of promoting marine conservation in the Florida Strait, reports La Prensa. Ernest Hemingway spent nearly twenty years in Cuba, where he found inspiration for many of his novels, including The Old Man and the Sea, for which he received a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954.
A nature enthusiast, Hemingway spent much of his time in Cuba fishing off of the coast of Havana. “The sea and fish were an enormous source of inspiration for him,” John Hemingway says. “The idea of this trip is to bring together marine biologists from the U.S. and Cuba to look for ways to better the conservation of the fish the Florida Strait.” He hopes that the collaboration of scientists will also benefit the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Diana Nyad, the first person to swim from Havana to Key West without a shark cage, received the Order of Sporting Merit from Cuba’s First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel on Sunday, one year after completing the swim, Fox News Latino reports.
After the award ceremony, Díaz-Canel praised Nyad’s accomplishment as “a symbol of friendship between our peoples,” and Nyad expressed her desire to bring together Cubans and Americans in a long-distance walk from one end of Cuba to the other “as good neighbors and friends.”
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Lead FARC negotiator Ivan Márquez told reporters Monday that a peace agreement by the end of 2014 “may not be realistic,” reports AFP.
Last week, President Juan Manuel Santos said that he would place Colombia’s highest-ranking General, Javier Florez, in charge of a military demobilization campaign, and sent General Florez to attend the peace talks in Havana.
Santos’s optimism, caricatured in an El Tiempo cartoon showing Colombia’s President riding a bicycle powered by turtles and saying “Hang on! I’m going to speed up,” is met by the FARC negotiator saying “there is a long way to go” (hat tip to Adam Isacson).
Márquez criticized the Colombian government’s attitude. “We are not in the final straight. High officials of the government are creating a sensation that through the visit of the first group of victims and presence of General Javier Florez, as well as a group of colonels in Havana, what follows is the handing in of arms and demobilization of the guerrillas,” Márquez said. “The FARC will in no way accept a military hierarchy to resolve issues that are political by definition.”
Cuba’s government has introduced new restrictions limiting the amount of goods that can be brought into the country in airline luggage or shipped by boat from overseas, the AP reports. The government says the measures, which went into effect on Monday, are intended to crack down on “mules” who illegally import items for sale on the black market.
Deputy Chief of Cuban Customs Idalmis Rosales told Granma that the new regulations are in place “to keep certain people from using current rules on non-commercial imports to bring high volumes of goods into the country that are destined for commercial sale and profit.”
The new rules stipulate that the total value of items brought in by a passenger cannot be greater than $1,000. Other restrictions were placed on the number of specific items that individuals can bring into the country. For example, the permissible amount of laundry detergent was cut in half, as were the allowed number of bras and hand tools. Reuters reports that in addition to the restrictions on air luggage, heavy duties have been placed on items sent in the mail — up to $500 on certain television models.
Last year, travelers brought nearly $1.9 billion worth of goods into Cuba, and the average passenger carried $3,551 worth of luggage. Following implementation of the new restrictions, passengers at the airport told the AP that they had brought in far fewer items.
There is no wholesale market in Cuba, and the new rules are likely to hurt small business owners and cuentapropistas who rely on imported items as an alternative to state retail stores, where the minimum sales tax rate is 240%. For more information, watch the AP’s video.
Cuba and the Summits of the Americas, Richard Feinberg, Americas Quarterly
Before long, President Obama and his foreign policy team have to decide what to do about U.S. participation in the upcoming Summit of the Americas scheduled to take place in Panama next year. While the last summit in Cartagena, Colombia is perhaps best remembered for the scandal involving U.S. Secret Service agents hiring prostitutes, the Panama Summit could be notorious for something closer to gathering’s original purpose.
As Feinberg writes, “the periodic inter-American summits have become more important than ever for U.S. regional diplomacy, but our Latin American neighbors have said—firmly and unanimously—that unless Cuba is invited, their chairs will be empty.”
Reuters reports on the effects that President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms have had on Afro-Cubans. The article says that Afro-Cubans are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing capital necessary to open a private business, since most Cubans obtain funds through remittances of relatives living abroad, and remittances are sent by Cubans living abroad, the majority of whom are white. The article also discusses discriminatory hiring practices among private sector employers.
Letter from Cuba: fight club, Simon Bohrsmann, The Guardian
This piece profiles an “old-school” boxing gym in Havana where Olympic gold medalist and former boxing world champion Héctor Vincent Charón trains young boxers.
Crisis on the Mexican Border; or, Raise Your Hand If You Can Play Baseball, Mark Axelrod, Huffington Post
The U.S. has welcomed 73 Cuban baseball players like Yasiel Puig under its “wet foot, dry foot” policy, while many lawmakers push for the mass deportation of undocumented Central American children who have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in recent months. Axelrod states: “I don’t discount the narrative about Puig’s journey to the United States. However, I don’t believe it was any more harrowing an experience for him than it must be for an 8-year old traveling alone from Honduras to the Mexican border aboard the ‘Death Train.’”
Cuban Rafters Still Attempt Difficult Journey to the U.S., Tim Padgett, NPR
This August marked the 20th anniversary of 1994’s mass exodus in which some 35,000 Cubans crossed the Florida Strait into the U.S. aboard makeshift rafts. In light of this anniversary, Tim Padgett conducts interviews with a Cuban balsero, a Captain in the U.S. Coast Guard, and an immigration advocate.