Will Immigration Blowback Affect the Chances for Cuba Reforms?

We couldn’t watch the President’s immigration reform speech last night without wondering what we could learn from his action – and the overreaction to it. What will happen if Mr. Obama also uses his executive power to make decisive changes in Cuba policy?

Here’s our take.

Get ready for a flood of bogus questions about presidential power. Immigration opponents hit hard at whether President Obama even had the authority to implement the reform program he announced last night. But these arguments were met with slam dunk responses firmly grounded in Supreme Court findings, and the fact that every president since Eisenhower — including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush —  has used his presidential power to defer the deportations of immigrants a total of 39 times in the intervening 60 years.

The President retains broad authority to change policy toward Cuba. The World War I-era Trading with the Enemy Act, the law on which the Cuba embargo is based, is applied by a discretionary act of the President on an annual basis.  While Congress codified elements of our sanctions policy under Helms-Burton, legal analyses by authorities including Bob Muse (writing here in Americas Quarterly), Hogan Lovells, and others make clear the President and his appointees, such as the Treasury Secretary, can make big changes in the policy based on powers they already have.

For example, President George W. Bush exercised that power by curtailing mercilessly travel by Cuban-Americans to visit their families on the island, putting a damper on legal U.S. farm exports to feed the Cuban people, and authorizing the program to lure Cuban doctors from their foreign postings.

President Obama has also taken executive action on Cuba before. In 2009, he restored the right of the diaspora community to travel to Cuba and provide financial support to their families, and in 2011 he reopened people-to-people travel. Presidents do have the power to act.

There will be phony suggestions about upstaging the Congress. After six years of gridlock that blocked legislation on immigration reform, critics blasted the administration for fouling the chances for a bipartisan law to emerge from Congress.  However, as John Cassidy wrote in the New Yorker, the President is being traditional, not radical, in authorizing changes in the enforcement of immigration laws. As Thomas Mann writes for Brookings, “The cost of such unrelenting opposition and gridlock is that policymaking initiative and power inevitably flow elsewhere – to the executive and the courts.”

Time and again, an aggressive faction within Congress has tried repeatedly to repeal, resist, and delay actions taken within the discretion of the President – such as revising the rules for travels and remittances – or by blocking his nominees for Cuba-related and non-Cuba related foreign policy jobs.  Until the overdue debate begins on repealing Helms-Burton, the President knows that any far-sighted action he takes to modernize Cuba policy he will be taking alone.

He knows and we know what he can and should do: expand travel and remittances from the U.S. to Cuba, stop punishing foreign companies for doing legal business with Cuba’s government, remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terror, expand bilateral engagement in areas like the environment, and take the steps required to free Alan Gross.

In his masterful article in Americas Quarterly, “U.S. Presidential Action on Cuba: The New Normalization?,” Robert Muse, a sanctions law specialist, lays out the legal basis for ending most of the counter-productive punishments inflicted on Cuba’s people by our government.  Mr. Obama’s power to act is not in doubt.

Will he do it?  To date the president has made modest but useful changes in the policy. There are ample reasons – substantive and political – for him to do more.  But Cuba has never been a high priority for his administration, and, after the upheavals prompted by the deal that freed Sgt. Bergdahl and his immigration speech, we can imagine that gun-shy White House advisers will counsel Mr. Obama not to do anything big on Cuba now.

Nevertheless, the climate around Cuba reforms has changed for the better this year, and we are also heartened by what Senator Marco Rubio said after his exchange with Tony Blinken at his confirmation hearing: “I am very concerned that President Obama’s nominee to be John Kerry’s deputy at the Department of State passed up several opportunities today to categorically rule out the possibility of unilateral changes to U.S. policy towards Cuba.”

We hope the President goes bold and acts soon.  We don’t expect a nationwide address – or that the networks would cover it if he did (they aired “The Biggest Loser,” “Big Bang Theory,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” and “Bones” instead of his immigration speech).

But bold action by President Obama would enable U.S.-Cuba relations to move forward, he’d get great coverage in the history books, and it’s exactly the right thing for him to do.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

NYT calls for end to U.S. program that drains Cuba of its doctors

In an editorial published this week, the New York Times calls for an end to the Bush-era Cuban Medical Professionals Parole Program, by which over 1,200 Cuban doctors have been lured from their overseas posts this year alone in exchange for U.S. residency.

The Times Editorial Board draws attention to the counterproductive thrust of this policy:

“It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy.”

The program started in 2006, and was conceived by Emilio González, a Cuban American, who served as director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services of the Department of Homeland Security. Since the end of the Bush administration, the number of doctors admitted to the U.S. has risen from just 293 in 2008 to 1,278 in 2014.

Hardline supporters of the embargo have been especially critical of the New York Times since it began publishing the editorials in its “Cuba: A New Start” series. Its latest, “A Cuban Brain Drain, Courtesy of the U.S.,” has been no exception. Some have labeled the Cuban practice of sending doctors abroad to serve underdeveloped communities — for which they are paid and provided with food and housing — as slavery, and others have called the Times’ editorials a lobbying campaign.

Improving Cuba policy not off the table for Obama Administration

In his confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken would not rule out unilateral action on U.S. policy toward Cuba in a Congressional hearing on Wednesday, Yahoo News reports. Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) asked Blinken whether President Obama would consider easing sanctions against the island, and President Obama’s nominee to serve as Deputy Secretary of State deflected the question with the following response:

“The president has views on how to try to move, help move Cuba in a democratic direction, to help support people moving in that direction, and, you know, if he has an opportunity I’m sure that’s something he would want to pursue. But it depends on Cuba and the actions they take.”

Rubio returned to the subject to try to pin down Mr. Blinken on this question, but was unable to do so.

Grandson of Ernest Hemingway calls for environmental cooperation, end to embargo

John Hemingway, the grandson of Nobel Prize winning author Ernest Hemingway, was in Washington this week with the help of the Latin America Working Group (LAWG) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) to urge lawmakers to improve the relationship between Cuba and the U.S. and to allow for greater cooperation between scientists and environmentalists from Cuba and the United States, the AFP reports.

John and his brother Patrick, inspired by their grandfather’s love for fishing captured in his novella, The Old Man and the Sea, traveled to Cuba in September with LAWG to promote marine conservation in the Florida Strait.

“Cuba has been ignored by the U.S., which is amazing, because it is the biggest island in the Caribbean, with 11 million people, and we aren’t doing anything, pretending that it is not there,” Hemingway said on Tuesday.

John Hemingway was interviewed on PRI’s The World. The interview can be heard here.

Dan Whittle, who directs the Environmental Defense Fund’s Cuba program, echoes Hemingway’s call for normalizing relations. “We need to begin to build the bridge, and the time is right.”

Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954, for “his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of modern narration, as most recently evinced in ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’” as the New York Times reported when the honor was announced.

Hemingway was unable to leave Havana to attend the ceremony in Stockholm as he was recovering from injuries he suffered in two plane crashes in the months prior. In this video [start at 7:20], you can see the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden receive the award on Hemingway’s behalf.

Website allows relatives in U.S. to pay for services in Cuba

A new website allows Cubans living abroad to make credit card payments to pay for restaurant tabs and other services their friends and relatives receive on the island, Café Fuerte reports. The website, http://www.bazar-virtual.ca/, allows for payments at 43 restaurants across the island. The initiative will likely add to the over $3 billion the island receives in remittances each year.

One note of caution: We’ve seen no legal analysis from a U.S. authority on the legal basis for allowing the use of credit cards in this instance. As the Americas Society pointed out nearly two years ago,

“While there is a clear regulatory prohibition under 31 C.F.R. § 515.201(a)(3) and 31 C.F.R. § 515.560(e)(1)-(2) concerning transfers of credit and the use of credit and debit cards, there is still no specific prohibition on the President’s authority to modify current regulations to permit the use of credit or debit cards, with the exceptions of agricultural sales and any transaction involving confiscated property by a U.S. national.”

This new service is certainly cool, but we hope it is also legal.

Record number of U.S. visas granted to Cubans this year

Some 36,500 Cubans were granted U.S. visas in the 2014 fiscal year, 4,000 more than were granted last year, Café Fuerte reports. This figure includes visas for family reunification, business, green card lottery winners, and cultural and educational exchange.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuban medical worker contracts Ebola in Sierra Leone

Dr. Felix Baez Sarria, among the team of medical workers sent by Cuba’s government to join Ebola treatment efforts in Sierra Leone, has contracted the disease and will be transferred to a special treatment center in Geneva, the AP reports. Baez’s condition is currently stable, according to Reuters, and a private U.S. airline has been hired to fly the doctor to Switzerland.

Cuba has drawn international praise after sending over 250 medical workers — the largest such contribution of any country so far — to West Africa in response to the World Health Organization’s call for a greater number of health workers. There are currently more than 50,000 Cuban medical workers deployed in over 60 countries across the world, working primarily in medically underserved regions.

“My brother knew the risks of going to Sierra Leone but he stepped up and we respect his decision,” says his brother. Competition for joining the brigade destined for West Africa was high — some 15,000 Cubans volunteered, but only a few hundred have been selected.

FARC-Colombia peace talks in Havana overcome major obstacle

The peace talks that have been underway for over two years in Havana are back on track after the capture of a Colombian Army General Ruben Dario Alzate and other military officials earlier this week by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) threatened to scuttle the negotiations, as Reuters reported.

After the kidnapping, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos suspended the peace talks pending Alzate’s release. The next day, with the help of Cuban and Norwegian guarantors, FARC representatives pledged to free the general in order to preserve the fragile peace process.

The half-century old conflict has claimed the lives of some 20,000 Colombians and has displaced countless others. Negotiators in Havana have managed to make substantial progress, and have reached tentative agreements on three out of five points of their peacemaking agenda.

IN CUBA

Cuba expects over 200 cruise ships this season

Some 200 cruise ships are expected to visit Cuban ports during the winter tourism season, which lasts until April of next year, EFE reports. Cuba’s tourism ministry has undertaken a number of projects to modernize port infrastructure in anticipation of a rise in cruise ship visits in coming years.

In 2006, cruise ships all but stopped coming to the island after Pullmantur, a Spanish cruise company, had to cease tour operations in Cuba after it was purchased by U.S.-based Royal Caribbean cruise, leading to an 89 percent decline in cruise ship visits.

The sector has partially recovered — this week 2,000 passengers are expected in Havana. In addition, as Juventud Rebelde reports, cruise tourism will bring some 600 U.S. students from over 200 different universities to the island as a part of the “Semester at Sea” academic program.

Tobacco use on the rise amid health concerns

Tobacco use in Cuba grew 4.8 percent in 2013, raising the number of cigarettes the average Cuban smokes per day to four, according to Juventud Rebelde. Each year on the island, tobacco consumption accounts for some 13,000 deaths — 36 each day — and a startling 17% of children between the age of 13 and 15 years old are smokers.

“Actions to control tobacco use should be strengthened,” says Elba Vázquez, coordinator of Cuba’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, “for human health and for the economic damage that this practice is causing.”

Recommended Reading

Extolling Moderation in Order to Confront Politics in Cuba, Victoria Burnett, The New York Times

Burnett profiles Roberto Veiga González and Lenier González Mederos, whose project Cuba Posible “will test the government’s threshold for debate as well as Cubans’ appetite for finding a third way.”

How Interested Are Companies in Investing in Cuba?, Matthew Aho, Jose R. Cardenas, Scott J. Morgenstern, and Carlos Saladrigas, Inter-American Dialogue

Cuba hopes to welcome some $8 billion dollars in foreign investment in coming years. Experts on Cuba’s economy weigh in on foreign firms’ willingness to invest in the island.

Cubans finding comfort, nostalgia in Russian products, Nora Gamez-Torres, Miami Herald

The childhood of many Cubans and Cuban-Americans was full of Soviet products, food, and television. The resurgence of these products today is striking up debate about the role of Soviet culture in Cuban identity.

Anniversary recalls Congo rescue by Miami Cubans, Glenn Garvin, Miami Herald

In 1962, a group of Cuban-Americans working for the CIA rescued a group of missionaries that had been taken hostage by a communist guerilla group in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This week, the hostages and their rescuers came together for a reunion that has brought to light a largely unknown episode in the United States’ efforts to contain communism.

Recommended Viewing

Meet the young wrestlers of Cuba, in pictures

Wrestling is a rising sport in Cuba, where a lack of sporting equipment has coaches thinking creatively to train their young athletes.

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