Miami’s Democratic Opening

Not long ago – in places like Miami – it was dangerous to express views that deviated from the strict hardline that supported the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Human Rights Watch reported in 1994 that Miami-based participants in “The Nation and Emigration” conference in Havana returned home to find themselves “besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assaults, acts of violence, and economic retaliation.”

This is not ancient history for Vivian Mannerud, owner of a travel agency, who helped 340 people from Miami to attend Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit to Cuba, after which she found her office destroyed by fire. As she said at the time, “It looks like an atomic bomb exploded. It’s pulverized and the furniture is ashes. There’s not even a leg of a desk.”

As we documented in our essay bidding farewell to Francisco Aruca, early efforts in Miami to have a democratic debate on what is the best Cuba policy took nearly a generation to bear fruit. But core values – most importantly, love of family – have gradually resulted in more and more members of the Cuban diaspora finding and raising their voices.

You can hear them, as measured by public opinion surveys conducted this year by the Atlantic Council, the Miami Herald, and by the prestigious Florida International University survey. FIU’s 2014 poll found towering majorities in Miami-Dade’s Cuban American community for lifting all travel restrictions for all Americans who wish to visit Cuba.

In the past, candidates standing for election in Florida, regardless of party or office, simply adopted the hardline position most suitable to meet their political needs.

But now, you can hear diaspora voices echoing in Hillary Clinton’s memoir, published in anticipation of her run for the presidency, in which she revealed her surprising support for lifting the embargo. As NPR said at the time, “There may be no greater sign of the declining power of the Cuba embargo as an issue in U.S. politics than Clinton’s openness about advocating for its end.”

You can also hear them in the decision by Charlie Crist, running for governor this year in Florida, who advocates “taking away” the embargo; and, in the public support offered by Alfonso (Alfy) Fanjul, along with many other foreign policy figures who previously supported sanctions, for increasing travel to Cuba and undertaking other forms of engagement with the island.

Not everyone sees these developments as representing progress (or even reality); remember, for example, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, who called the Atlantic Council’s findings of super-majority support among Miami Cubans for big changes in U.S.-Cuba policy, “an absolute lie.”

But, as our friends at #CubaNow proved this week with their new video, it is possible to have a robust, open, two-sided debate about policies like Cuban American travel to the island, even just one month before the 2014 midterm elections.

Their Spanish-language ad, titled “Protect,” urges registered voters in the Cuban American community to vote their interests by supporting candidates who will protect their rights to travel to the island without limits, rights restored in 2009 by President Obama.

Release of this ad, as we report below, helped lift the issue of family travel into the campaign for Congress in Florida’s 26th district, in which the incumbent Representative Joe Garcia will face Carlos Curbelo in next month’s mid-term elections. In in this race, it’s fair game to raise the question: where do you stand on family travel?

After Ric Herrero, #CubaNow’s executive director, issued a public challenge to Governor Scott and his opponent Charlie Crist “to clarify where they stand on U.S.-Cuba policy,” the candidates have been forced to answer the question – do you support the embargo? – in the Telemundo debate they recorded this morning for broadcast tonight.

According to the Tampa Bay Times’ initial coverage of their face-off, “Crist wants to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Scott says it should continue.”

We’ll find out from the election returns on November 4– in Miami’s 26th Congressional district and across Florida in the governor’s race – how the candidates with these contrasting positions fared. In its survey published in June, the Miami Herald reported that 2/3 of Floridians said that Crist’s position on the embargo would make “no difference” in how they’ll make their choices for governor in November. That could well be true.

However, what we think is worth noting – and celebrating – is this: When public officials in the U.S. work to stop travel to Cuba and oppose engagement with Cuba’s government, they are also trying to silence the growing calls for exchange between the citizens and diplomats of both our countries. Now their obstructionism comes with a price.

By contrast, as the inhibitions against having a real, two-way discussion on U.S.-Cuba policy have given way to a free, respectful debate, the Cuban American community and people across Florida are making an inspiring statement about our values and willingness to stand behind them.


Summit of the Americas: State admits “the Cubans are coming”

Autumn has come to the State Department. Its September fig leaf (“As I understand it, it was an announcement of an intention to invite”), and its October fig leaf (“…here is no acceptance or rejection yet called for or made”) both left to the wind. State has finally acknowledged that the leaves are falling and the Cubans are coming to the 7th Summit of the Americas.

John Feeley, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, has told reporters that the U.S. will welcome Cuba’s participation in the 2015 Summit when it is held in Panama, the AP reports. “It’s not so important the guests at the table but the meal that’s served,” he said.

Feeley’s comments bring the State Department position on Cuba’s inclusion into alignment with the invitation that Panama’s Foreign Minister Isabel de Saint Malo personally extended last month to President Castro.

As we previously reported, the Summit of the Americas has gathered the heads of state of the countries of the Western Hemisphere since 1994, always excluding Cuba. When the most recent Summit took place in Colombia in 2012, it ended without issuing a formal joint declaration, because the U.S. and Canada would not agree to include Cuba in future Summits. Since 2012, many Latin American countries have threatened to boycott the Summit next year in Panama should Cuba be excluded. That problem is apparently resolved.

Feeley’s comments, however, made Senator Marco Rubio a little touchy. Two days later, to Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela, Rubio wrote, “Cuba’s participation in the Summit of the Americas in Panama will undermine its credibility and have grave consequences for the region’s consensus to promote and defend democratic rule.”

While the Florida Senator’s language mirrored the warning issued by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez in his October 1 letter to President Varela – “[Cuba’s invitation] will dramatically weaken the democratic credentials of the premier meeting of heads of state in the hemisphere, and ultimately will undermine the validity of the Summits’ declarations,” Rubio’s language contains a hint of where the debate over Cuba’s inclusion is likely to go next.

“I urge you to avoid this outcome, and instead work with the Cuban people to support their demands for a democratic future for their country.” The phrase “work with the Cuban people” suggests an idea like the one proposed by Andres Oppenheimer last month in his Miami Herald column – having President Obama cede half his speaking time at the Summit to Yoani Sánchez could be one example of the price that pro-sanctions hard-liners plan to exact from the Obama administration for “allowing” Cuba to come to the table.

Family travel to Cuba enters debate in Florida election campaigns

U.S. policy toward Cuba has emerged as an issue in a key Florida Congressional election campaign and in the Sunshine State’s gubernatorial race as well.

After a non-partisan issue advertisement (see it here) with interviews of Cuban American families who support unrestricted family travel to the island was released by #CubaNow, a nonprofit that advocates for practical and effective reforms in U.S. policy toward Cuba, the debate between incumbent Rep. Joe Garcia (FL-26) and his challenger, Carlos Curbelo, changed, as the Miami Herald reports.

Rep. Joe Garcia, running for re-election in Miami, supports widening U.S. travel to Cuba. Responding to claims that visiting Cuba puts money in the hands of a repressive government, Garcia said:

“Part of what we have to realize is that the civil society [in Cuba] is nourished by this…. I think that a free person standing in Cuba — that does more damage than all the noise that one can make here over the course of a year.”

Carlos Curbelo, Garcia’s opponent, is against loosening travel restrictions. He also has called for changes to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), which provides a pathway to U.S. citizenship for Cubans that reach U.S. soil. Curbelo is joined by Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) and Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) in criticizing Cubans who use the CAA to obtain residency and then frequently return to the island.

Travel by U.S. citizens to Cuba has risen ever since President Obama lifted all travel restrictions on Cuban-Americans in 2009. Under former President George W. Bush, restrictions had been harsher, limiting Cuban-Americans to only one visit to an immediate family member in Cuba every three years.

Yesterday, #CubaNow issued a statement by its executive director, Ric Herrero, challenging Florida’s Governor Rick Scott, the incumbent, and Charlie Crist, his opponent, to discuss their stands on family travel and U.S.-Cuba relations more broadly during their first debate of the campaign. Lloyd Dunkleberger wrote on the Herald-Tribune politics site, “While the Telemundo debate may be the least watched of three televised debates…its audience may prove to be the most critical in deciding which candidate wins this year’s election.”

Cuban migration to U.S. shows sharp rise

During the 2014 fiscal year, which ended September 30, close to 25,000 Cubans came to the United States without visas through land and sea routes, according to reports by the New York Times and the AP.

The vast majority of the migrants reached the U.S. by flying or sailing to Central and South America and then traveling by land to the U.S.-Mexico border. Once reaching U.S. soil, a Cuban citizen can gain residence and a path to citizenship by invoking the 1996 Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA).

Of those who invoked the CAA this year, nearly 4,000 arrived by sea. The U.S. Coast Guard has reported an increase in the use of informal, unseaworthy vessels to traverse the Florida Strait. This year, around 87% of the boats intercepted by the Coast Guard were homemade, as opposed to 20% in 2008.

Another Cuba-U.S. migration route is through Spain. Over 100,000 Cubans have obtained Spanish citizenship under a Historical Memory Law passed there in 2007. Spanish citizens do not need a visa to travel to the U.S., and many Cubans who have become Spanish citizens fly to the U.S. with their Spanish passport and then present their Cuban passport to U.S. immigration officials in order to gain residency.

Changes on both sides of the Florida Strait have contributed to the rise. A 2011 reform in Cuba authorizing the purchase and sale of homes and vehicles has allowed some Cubans to gather the necessary funds to make the expensive trip to the United States. Another reform implemented in 2013 allows Cubans to freely leave the country and stay abroad for extended periods of time without losing their Cuban citizenship.

This change, in addition to the added income from selling houses and vehicles, gives some Cubans the opportunity to fly to other Latin American countries and subsequently travel by land to the U.S., where it takes less time to gain residency than it takes to lose Cuban citizenship.

From the U.S. side, once a Cuban becomes a U.S. resident, they can take advantage of a 2009 easing of travel restrictions to return to Cuba, where they retain government benefits and have the ability to invest in Cuba’s burgeoning private sector.

In addition, the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which allows Cuban health workers serving abroad to obtain U.S. residency at any U.S. embassy, has brought Cuban doctors to the U.S. in increasing numbers — from 523 in 2010 to almost 2,000 this fiscal year.

Cuban diplomat abandons post to seek asylum in U.S.

Sonia Franco Cervera, a Cuban diplomat assigned to Cuba’s embassy in Germany, has left her post to seek political asylum in Miami, reports Café Fuerte. She and her son flew from Germany to Mexico, and from there she traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border, where she presented herself to U.S. customs officials and requested asylum under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

She reportedly left after discovering her that husband, Daciel Alfonso, who was also serving in Germany as Deputy Ambassador, was arrested after an unexpected trip to Havana. “Not much is known of what happened,” said a source in Berlin familiar with the case, “but it is confirmed that Daciel was called to a meeting in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Havana and that he suspected something odd was happening.”

BNP Paribas asks other banks for help in clearing energy transactions

BNP Paribas, the French bank that was slapped with a $9 billion fine by the U.S. for violating U.S. sanctions against Cuba, has asked JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citi Bank to help it clear energy transactions in U.S. dollars, Reuters reports. BNP Paribas is the 4th largest bank in the world.

In addition to the $9 billion fine, which is the largest fine ever imposed for violating U.S. sanctions, the bank was banned from processing dollar payments for an entire year. The bank’s call for help comes as fears arise that they could lose their entire energy trade finance division.

Last week, Granma reported that some 27 banks have closed their Cuban accounts in the past year because of the risk of facing fines for violating U.S. sanctions against the island.

Driver in Payá’s death visits Miami

Ángel Carromero, the driver in the car crash that killed Cuban dissidents Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero in 2012, has traveled to Miami to meet with Payá’s family and U.S. lawmakers to promote a book he wrote that recounts his version of the controversial incident, EFE reports.

In his book, Carromero claims that evidence from the scene of the crash had been manipulated by Cuban investigators to eliminate traces of the government vehicle that allegedly ran Carromero’s car off the road and that investigators forced him to falsely confess to causing the accident by driving recklessly.

Carromero, a Spanish citizen, was charged with involuntary manslaughter for the deaths of Payá and Cepero. After he was convicted, he was allowed to serve his four-year sentence in Spain under an existing agreement between the two countries. Along with Payá’s family, Carromero maintains that the car he was driving had been rammed by a car belonging to Cuban government officials who wanted to silence Payá’s anti-Castro activities.


Scientists gather in Cuba for renewable energy workshop

Scientists from over ten countries have gathered in Cuba for a workshop on biomass gasification as a part of a project coordinated by the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, reports teleSUR. Cuban scientists hope to use forest biomass to generate electricity on the Isla de Juventud, an island province separate from mainland Cuba that has struggled to meet its own energy needs.

Cuba has planned for some years to increase its use of renewable resources; a task that is now more urgent after recent efforts by Cuba and its foreign partners to find oil through deepwater exploration came up dry. Alternative energy accounts for some 4.6% of Cuba’s electricity generation, and officials say they plan to increase that figure to 24% by 2030.

Currently, a sugar mill byproduct called bagasse serves as the country’s largest source of renewable electricity. Many sugar mills produce their own electricity using bagasse, and Cuba’s government has worked to increase foreign investment in these mills. Nearly $55 million of investment is expected for a joint project by Cuba’s state-run Biopower and British company Havana Energy Ltd.

Cuba to evaluate performance of non-agricultural cooperatives

Cuba’s government will conduct an audit of non-agricultural cooperatives, AIN reports. The groups under evaluation include recycling and construction companies. Cuba’s Comptroller Gladys Bejerano says she hopes the audit will help the cooperatives detect accounting and legal problems before they take place.

President Raúl Castro created the Office of the Comptroller General in 2009. Ms. Bejerano, who previously led “the now defunct Ministry of Audit and Control,” was appointed to serve as Comptroller General in the same year. In 2013, she was also elected to serve as a vice president of Cuba’s ruling Council of State in 2013.


Colombia says FARC leader has traveled secretly to Havana

Rodrigo Lodono, leader of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), has traveled secretly to Havana on numerous occasions to participate in ongoing peace negotiations with Colombia’s government, Reuters reports. Colombia’s government has said that it would kill or arrest Lodono if he were found, but the new reports suggest that Lodono has been at the forefront of talks in Havana.

Peace negotiations have been taking place in Havana since 2012 and considerable progress has been made on the five-part peace plan that aims to bring an end to the 50 year-old conflict. The sides are currently focusing on establishing terms for reparations for the conflict’s victims.

For up-to-the minute reporting on the peace negotiations, see “Colombia Calls,” published by Virginia Bouvier; for background information and press reports on the talks, see “Adam Isacson’s Latin America Blog.”

Cuba showing unmatched support for Ebola efforts

Cuban health workers are at the forefront of efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic that has left a high death toll in recent months in West Africa, according to reports by the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Over a hundred Cuban health professionals have been deployed to Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, with hundreds more to follow.

Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former President, praised the health workers in an article published in Granma:

“If there was any doubt that the hundreds of thousands of fighters who went to Angola and other African and American countries lent a model to mankind that can never be erased from human history, less would doubt that the heroic actions of the army of white coats occupy the highest place of honor.”

Since Castro’s 1959 revolution, Cuba has played an outsized role in political and military developments in Africa. Nelson Mandela partially credits Cuba’s military aid to Angola in the 1970s and 1980s for the end of Apartheid. As Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande report in their recently-published “Back Channel Diplomacy,” Cuba’s decision to deploy their troops in Africa so enraged then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger that he ordered military planners to prepare scenarios to overthrow Cuba’s government by force.

Canadian CEO jailed in Cuba will appeal case

Cy Tokmakjian, the CEO of the Canadian transportation company Tokmakjian Group, who was arrested in Cuba and sentenced last week to 15 years in prison on bribery, fraud, and tax evasion charges, will appeal what his lawyers call “his wrongful conviction” to Cuba’s Supreme Court, CTV reports.

Tokmakjian was found guilty last week of bribing high-level Cuban officials in exchange for business favors. Two other Tokmakjian executives and fourteen Cubans were also handed prison sentences ranging from 6 to 20 years for charges related to the case.

Tokmakjian has maintained his innocence, and his lawyers have claimed that Cuba’s government moved forward with the charges so that it could justify the seizure of some $100 million in Tokmakjian Group assets. Defense documents made available to Reuters argue that Tokmakjian’s actions did not constitute crimes and that the $91 billion in damages claimed by the Cuban government are baseless.

Recommended Reading

USAID contractor: Duty to intervene in Cuba, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecón

Redacted documents released by USAID to the investigative journalist Tracey Eaton provide a first look at the plan submitted by Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), that ultimately led to the arrest of Alan Gross, its subcontractor, in 2009. DAI said the intervention it proposed in Cuba was necessary because “Reformist actors in Cuba, who we expect to play a leading role in the island’s democratic transition, lack the necessary skills required to proceed in a deliberate and strategic manner”.

The Real Reason It’s Nearly Impossible to End the Cuba Embargo, Peter Kornbluh and William M. LeoGrande, The Atlantic

Authors Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande explain how the Helms-Burton Act acts as an obstacle to comprehensive reforms in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Cricketers fight for foothold in baseball-mad Cuba, Anne-Marie Garcia, The Associated Press

Garcia tells of Cuba’s cricket-playing community and of the complications cricketers face trying to find space to play in a “baseball-mad” country.

Abogado cubano denuncia irregularidades en juicio y fusilamientos del 2003, Nora Gámez Torres, El Nuevo Herald

Jorge R. Bentacourt Ortega, one of the defense attorneys in the 2003 trial of three men who hijacked a ferry in the Havana harbor in an effort to reach the U.S., comments on his reaction to the swift execution of the defendants.

Cuba Mourns Anniversary of Terrorist Bombing of Cubana Flight 455, teleSUR

This week marks the 38th anniversary of the bombing of Cubana Airline Flight 455 on October 6, 1976. The attack, carried out by U.S.-backed Cuban-Americans, killed all 73 passengers.

Inauguration Poet Richard Blanco on the Music of His Miami Childhood, Alex Frank, Vogue

Alex Frank introduces a new book by Cuban American Richard Blanco, who gave the inaugural poem at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration. Blanco tells Vogue about growing up surrounded by music and poetry in Miami.

Recommended Viewing

Cuba’s Ebola Boot Camp, Patrick Oppman, CNN

Oppman reports on the training and preparation of Cuban health workers bound for West Africa.


Farewell to Lela

This week, the release of our most recent issue of the El Salvador Update marked a bittersweet transition for CDA. Lela Singh, who has been the coordinator for editing and releasing the Update each month, is moving on from CDA after working with us for more than two years. We wish her all the best!

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