The anti-isolationist, pro-free trade, Cuba embargo supporters

This week, two staunch defenders of the U.S. embargo against Cuba came out against isolationism and in favor of expanding global trade.


Not that he didn’t mean it – although the AP headline, “Sen. Rubio adopts role of foreign policy hawk,” suggests otherwise – Senator Rubio gave a speech and published an op-ed marking clear lines between those he deems “isolationist,” including President Obama, former Secretary Clinton, and Senator Rand Paul, and those who understand the dangers of the world by involving themselves and our country in them.

The speech, as it appeared to the Washington Times, was part of Rubio’s larger political strategy, because he is “considering seeking the 2016 presidential nomination.” That logic we understand. But, it’s hard to reconcile Rubio’s interest in stopping flights to Cuba by American travelers and condemning investment overtures by the U.S. business community, with his principled opposition to isolationism.

Then, his colleague, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, gave flight on Twitter in favor of expanding trade and creating more jobs in South Florida. This made perfect sense, economically and politically. In the metro area where her South Florida district is located, exports in 2013 alone totaled $41 billion and accounted for 67% of Florida’s total merchandise exports, according to figures from the U.S. Commerce Department.

We get it. It’s good to be for jobs. However, it’s hard to reconcile her tweet for trade with her deeply personal criticisms of Floridians who seek to sell agriculture exports to Cuba. She once said of these Florida farmers, “They mask their greed with this veneer of humanitarianism but Mother Teresa they are not.” More recently, she called Alfonso Fanjul, a leader of the exile community, “pathetic” and “shameful,” because he wants to return to Cuba as an investor doing business in the sugar industry.

What she’s done is more than throw shade on her constituents. All of U.S. agriculture is affected by food export restrictions she supports, put into place by President George W. Bush. Corn and soy producers are still working Washington to get these barriers taken down 14 years after food sales to Cuba were legalized.

In their statements, Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen are doing more than grandstanding. We focus on them now – as we did two weeks ago after their staff members visited China on a junket paid for by the Chinese government – because their risible double-standards shouldn’t distract us from the serious human impacts of their policies to isolate Cuba, diplomatically and economically.

They support immigration policies which incentivize Cubans to take to rafts to gain entry into the United States, policies that just contributed to the largest death toll from any migrant boat disaster in more than two decades. Those policies also resulted in a criminal indictment of a Miami businessman who financed the operation that smuggled Yasiel Puig out of Cuba, who was then held captive in Mexico to extort a promise to pay the smugglers 20% of his future earnings.

At a time when Cuba is sending 165 medical professionals to fight the Ebola outbreak in Africa, they also support the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which is still working to accelerate the Cuban brain drain, when the U.S. should be backing every country responding to this humanitarian crisis, including Cuba.

None of this will lift the spirits of Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, who is about to observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for the fifth consecutive year in a Havana prison. He was convicted for activities financed by the Helms-Burton law, whose purpose is to overthrow Cuba’s government, activities that Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen both support.

Mr. Gross, we’re sure, won’t appreciate the irony of Senator Rubio, a declared opponent of diplomacy with Cuba to gain his release, now pledging his allegiance to the cause of anti-isolationism. Or that Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, devoted to trade as she is, is also a proudly committed obstacle to a deal swapping the remainder of the Cuban Five to secure his freedom.

It is diplomacy, not irony, that will lead to his release.


U.S. authorities investigate trafficking rings for Cuban players

Federal authorities are investigating the human trafficking practices that have quietly but increasingly brought talented Cuban baseball players into the U.S., ESPN reports. According to ESPN sources, U.S. federal agents have interviewed Cubans playing in the MLB and have asked them to identify alleged smugglers. Last Friday, Gilberto Suárez, the man charged with smuggling Yasiel Puig into the country, pleaded not guilty in a Miami court to a federal criminal charge of alien smuggling.

Cuba has long sought to crack down on the defection of its top baseball players, who are lured to the U.S. by multimillion dollar contracts and a quick path to residency under the “wet foot, dry foot” provision of the 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act. This stream of players seeking to play in the MLB has contributed, in part, to organized crime groups who are paid to smuggle Cubans — baseball players and ordinary citizens alike — into the United States. Those who smuggle baseball players typically collect a percentage of the player’s contract after the player signs with a team.

Cuban intelligence keeps tabs on star players and encourages them to inform authorities about any contacts or other players thought to be involved in trafficking, or who plan to leave the island. Recently, as Cuba Central reported, a Cuban court sentenced three baseball players to prison for their involvement in a trafficking operation allegedly run by Puig, who secured a $42 million contract after defecting to the U.S in 2012. Further complicating the matter, Puig currently faces a lawsuit in the U.S., filed on behalf of a Cuban citizen who says that Puig falsely accused him of smuggling in order to gain favor with Cuban authorities, allegedly leading to the man’s imprisonment and torture on the island.

Alan Gross case returns to U.S. court

The attorney for Alan Gross will argue before a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that his client has the right to sue the U.S. government for his imprisonment in Cuba, reports the AP. Alan Gross, a former USAID contractor, was detained in Havana in 2009, after bringing highly regulated communications equipment to the island while traveling on a tourist visa. He was subsequently sentenced to 15 years in prison. USAID programs are illegal under Cuban law.

In 2012, Gross sued the U.S. government and his contractor, Development Alternatives Inc. (DAI), for $60 million, alleging that both failed to give him appropriate warnings, and the necessary training, to perform the work he was assigned on the island. In Cuban court, Gross said that he was a “trusting fool” who had been “duped” by his employers. However, documents from Gross’s belongings introduced in court and published by the AP in 2012 indicate that he was aware he was pursuing dangerous work.

In May 2013, Gross’s family came to a settlement with DAI for an undisclosed amount. That month, a U.S. district judge threw out the case against the U.S. government, saying that lawsuits brought against the government for injuries suffered in foreign countries are barred by federal law. This hearing is the result of Gross’s lawyers’ appeal to that decision. The U.S. government and Gross’s lawyer will each have ten minutes to make their case before the panel.

Buena Fe concert in Miami draws protest

A protest was organized in Miami to coincide with this week’s concert by Buena Fe, a Cuban musical duo based on the island, reports the Miami Herald. According to the article, various local Cuban-American groups organized the protest in response to what they view as the duo’s pro-government stance. Buena Fe performed at a birthday celebration organized in honor of former President Fidel Castro earlier this year, and at the funeral for former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. The two also made comments against the opposition group Ladies in White. CBS News reported live from the protest, and showed representatives of exile groups lining the sidewalk outside of the venue.

In response to pressure to cancel the event, Carlos Giménez, the mayor of Miami-Dade, said earlier in the week that the county could not cancel the show due to the existing contract with the event’s organizers, and because of “the tenets of the First Amendment.” He said that “While we may disagree with the content of the speech or expression, allowing it to go forward shows our true character as Americans, and further serves to contrast our freedoms against those of the same regimes who deny these basic liberties to their people.” The mayor encouraged critics not to attend the event, and acknowledged their rights to demonstrate peacefully.

In past years, protests were regularly held in south Florida outside performances of Cuba-based musical acts who did not openly criticize the regime. As travel restrictions in Cuba were eased, visiting acts from the island have become more frequent, and opposition from the local community is now “met with relative silence,” as Fox News Latino reported last year.

U.S. corn and soy producers push for Cuba policy changes

Soybean and corn growers represented by the Illinois Cuba Working Group (ICWG) are asking the Obama Administration and Congress to ease trade restrictions for farmers in the U.S. who export to Cuba, teleSUR reports. The ICWG’s mission statement reads:

“We believe that the improvement of economic trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba is the foundation for future success between the two countries… We strive to turn Cuba from an enemy to an ally within our lifetime by building trade relations that are mutually beneficial and enduring.”

The Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 permits the export of cash-in-advance agricultural goods from the U.S. to Cuba. but exports shrank following a decision by the Bush Administration in 2005 to “clarify the law” which, in turn, led Cuba to look for cheaper trading partners that allowed them to use credit, like China and Brazil. “We have already seen a decline in our market share due to non-competitive U.S. policies,” said Yon Luque, export manager for Koch Foods, which is represented by the ICWG. The U.S. remains Cuba’s largest supplier of soybeans, but most other soy products like meal and oil are now imported from Brazil.


Number of workers employed by cuentapropistas on the rise

The number of Cubans hired in the private sector by individuals operating their own businesses (cuentapropistas) has risen to 99,395, according to data released to Granma by Cuba’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security. Nearly 500,000 Cubans are currently self-employed or hired by the self-employed, primarily in the restaurant sector and in the transportation of people and cargo. According to the article, most workers hired by cuentapropistas also work in these two sectors.

Cuba’s government has taken measures to provide legal protection to those hired in the non-state sector. The new Labor Code, put into effect in June, extends rights granted to state-sector workers to those employed by cuentapropistas, including an 8-hour workday, a 44-hour work week, vacation days, a minimum wage, and security and health assurances.

In 2010, Cuba legalized nearly two hundred categories of self-employed work as a part of the reform process led by President Raúl Castro. Additional categories, including real estate, agricultural wholesale, and telecommunications, were approved in 2013. Cuba’s government seeks to shrink the state payroll by eliminating some state jobs, and hopes that the growing private sector will absorb many of those workers. Esteban Lazo, president of Cuba’s Council of State, has said that the government hopes that in 4-5 years, cuentapropistas and people employed by cuentapropistas would produce 40-45% of the island’s GDP.

Cuban families mourn the loss of migrants who died at sea

Families in towns along Cuba’s southeast coast are mourning the loss of 17 migrants who died in an attempt to reach the U.S. earlier this month, Reuters reports. The rafters, or balseros, were picked up by the Mexican Navy 150 miles off the coast of the Yucatán peninsula. Only 14 survived out of the 31 who attempted the trip, marking the worst Cuban migrant boating disaster in twenty years.

Most point to economic hardship as their primary reason for leaving the island. “Young people today do not think like my generation did,” said the father of one of the balseros who died. “They are looking for something more that they can’t find here.” Another family member adds,

“The kids see people leave Cuba who never even had a bicycle, and then by the time they return within a year their family situation is improved… Look at me. After 43 years of work, I haven’t been able to acquire anything, except sadness.”

Cuban migration to the U.S. has risen in recent years, as Cuba Central has reported, and much of the migration has shifted away from the Florida Strait to the U.S.-Mexico border, where almost 14,000 Cubans have entered the U.S. this fiscal year — the highest number in a decade. Under U.S. law, Cubans who make it to U.S. soil can present themselves to immigration authorities and gain U.S. residency as political refugees. Cuba’s government has argued that the policy endangers Cuban citizens and encourages human trafficking.


Panama invites Raúl Castro to Americas Summit

Isabel de Saint Malo, Panama’s Vice President and Foreign Minister, personally invited President Castro to the 2015 Summit of the Americas that will take place in April, Reuters reports. Earlier this month, de Saint Malo told Secretary of State John Kerry that Panama plans to invite Cuba to the Summit because of overwhelming regional support for Cuba’s inclusion, and last week she told reporters that the U.S. “understands” the plans for Cuba’s participation. Cuba has never attended an Americas Summit, the first of which took place in 1994.

President Obama’s Administration has not directly addressed Cuba’s invitation, but earlier this month State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a briefing that Cuba still needs to meet “basic qualification” in order to attend the Summit.

The Summit of the Americas held in 2012 ended without a final declaration because of disagreement over Cuba’s exclusion. Several Latin American governments subsequently declared that they would boycott the 2015 Summit should Cuba be excluded.

UN Environmental Program visits Cuba

Ibrahim Thiaw, Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), visited Cuba to learn about national efforts to reduce the impact of climate change, combat desertification, and respond to natural disasters, ACN reports. Thiaw visited Cuba’s Environment Agency and Meteorological Institute, where he met with experts on natural disaster tracking and response. “I am very impressed by the way [Cuba] responds to disasters, by how people prepare themselves,” Thiaw told Prensa Latina.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas’ report on Cuba’s plans to drill for oil outlines how current policy prevents the U.S. and Cuba from cooperating on key environmental issues of shared concern.

Malaysian doctors awaiting recognition of Cuban medical degrees

Malaysian students who graduated from the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) have been unable to practice medicine in their home country, The Sun Daily reports. The first group of Malaysians to attend ELAM returned to Malaysia earlier this month, but an application submitted to the Malaysian government in 2007 requesting recognition of Cuban medical degrees has still not been approved.

Yanila Reyes Paret, Charge d’Affaires of the Cuban Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, is hopeful that the degrees will be accepted. “These scholarships for foreign medical students in Cuba are a simple symbol of what we can achieve together and as a contribution of Cuba to the integration of the people,” she said. “We are open to negotiation and are willing to re-apply and explain our medical programme and the scholarship to the Malaysian authority.”

Ex-Cuban official declared political refugee by the UN

The UN has granted refugee status to Ortelio Abrahantes Bacallao, a former high-ranking Cuban official from the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) who left the island earlier this year, reports El Nuevo Herald. Abrahantes was picked up by the U.S. Coast Guard in the Florida Strait and taken to the Bahamas, where he applied for political asylum.

Abrahantes says he held the rank of Major in MININT’s Directorate of Counterintelligence, and he claims to have insider information about the death of dissident Oswaldo Payá, who was killed in a car crash in July 2012. Payá’s family alleges that he was killed by government agents in order to silence his dissident activities. Abrahantes’ case for refugee status rested largely on his claim that deportation to Cuba would result in his execution by Cuba’s government. “I know too much,” he told El Nuevo Herald last month. “They would love to have me in their hands.

Recommended Reading

Get Over It and End Cuban Embargo, Barry Ritholtz, BloombergView

Ritholtz calls for an end to the United States’ “anachronistic and perplexing” policies toward Cuba. “It is hard to imagine that a policy, created in the dark era of nuclear fear, still lives on, mostly on inertia… we should move on from this relic of a bygone era that long ago stopped serving any useful purpose.”

The Cuba Embargo and MLB, Greg Weeks, Two Weeks Notice

Weeks comments on a Dara Lind’s piece in Vox that criticizes the policies of Major League Baseball (MLB) that incentivize human trafficking. “Once an MLB team finally signs [a] player,” Weeks says, “they’re directly or indirectly paying criminals.”

The Tea Party has its own immigration problem: Cuba, Peter Weber, The Week

Though elected officials aligned with the Tea Party have summarily dismissed most solutions to the immigration crisis in the U.S. as “amnesty,” this article points out that legislators like Ted Cruz still support amnesty for Cubans as allowed under current law. Weber writes, “Just remember, when the Tea Party politicians and rank-and-file demand an end to ‘amnesty’ for immigrants, they don’t really oppose amnesty in principle — they just oppose it for certain groups.”

Ebola: To Cuba, a crisis; to U.S., a military campaign, Dave Lindorff, Progreso Weekly

In response to the World Health Organization’s call for medical aid to help address the Ebola crisis in West Africa, Cuba’s government sent 165 health professionals. Meanwhile, the U.S. plans to “establish a military control center.”

Recommended Viewing

The Immobile Cars of Havana, Juan Camilo Cruz, OnCuba

Cubans are known for keeping their mid-century American cars running longer than anyone would have thought possible. When these cars finally came to rest, they became worthy subjects for this photo series.

Exodus from Cuba, Reuters

Reuters compiles photos that tell the story of Cubans who risk their lives to leave the island by sea, often on makeshift boats, in attempts to reach the U.S. or Central America.

Short Film Showcase: Encounter Another Era in Havana’s Vibrant Streets, Rachel Link, National Geographic

Scenes from daily life in Havana are captured in this short film.

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