Cuba, the U.S., and Obama’s State of the Union

When President Obama speaks before a Joint Session of Congress on Tuesday night, his State of the Union Address could be unlike any we have ever heard, should he address U.S.-Cuba relations.

In his 1898 message to Congress, President McKinley justified U.S. intervention in the Spanish-American War as “the interests of humanity [and] the duty to protect the life and property of our citizens in Cuba,” and also referred to the battle in Guantanamo Bay, “where it had been determined to establish a naval station.”

In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt said because “Cuba lies at our doors, and whatever affects her for good or for ill affects us also,” the U.S. government had inserted a provision, the Platt Amendment, into the Cuban Constitution giving us a veto power over Cuban affairs. “We took the ground that Cuba must hereafter have closer political relations with us than with any other power.”

In his 1961 State of the Union Address, President John Kennedy asserted the Cold War right of the United States to prevent “Communist domination in this Hemisphere.”

Two decades later, it was President Reagan, delivering his State of the Union Address, promising “those who would export terrorism and subversion in the Caribbean and elsewhere, especially Cuba and Libya, we will act with firmness.”

But, the ideas embodied in those speeches lost their resonance long ago. Our foreign policy is no longer guided either by Manifest Destiny or the conditions of Cold War. Because he has changed the policy, President Obama can now reframe how his State of the Union speech addresses Cuba, and how his successors do so as well.

This policy is different because it is no longer driven exclusively by ideology – there is a case for calling it conservative – but it is certainly practical, pragmatic, and already more effective.

Because the goal is sending more visitors to the island to exchange ideas with the Cuban people, the Obama policy reduces paperwork barriers to travel, and extracts the bureaucracy from deciding whether U.S. travelers should settle their hotel and bar bills using cash or credit cards.

Because the goal is boosting the access of Cubans to information, the policy says that it is no longer necessary to ask the Federal government for a license so travelers can bring thumb drives, laptops, or cellphones to Cuba as gifts.

When the goal is promoting human rights, the Obama policy reached the common sense conclusion that it was the presence of diplomacy – not its absence – that would help persuade Cuba to release 53 political prisoners from its jails and enable both countries to swap spies, and bring Alan Gross back to his family and his home.

What Obama has done – which his predecessors didn’t and somehow couldn’t – is to open a considerable amount of political space for actors other than government officials and public servants to do the hard but necessary work of bringing Cuba and the United States closer together.

Many Cuban Americans have labored bravely for decades in a hostile environment in which the expression of moderate views was met with disapproval — and in some cases with force — from bullies and extremists. Their hands are now stronger in the effort to change the conversation in their community because they now have the President leading the charge as well as lots and lots of allies.

By changing the policy and setting a new tone tone at the top, the President has encouraged a more diverse, democratic, and decent debate. The government no longer holds an effective monopoly on who can engage with civil society in Cuba. Cuban American families can now be joined by pastors and rabbis, ball players and marine scientists, artists and experts, in conducting the kinds of meaningful exchanges that bring societies together in ways that diplomats (and certainly Beltway Contractors) cannot.

As Fulton Armstrong reminds us, “the ties between the American and Cuban people can be a very powerful engine for truly normal relations.” This is our chance to make those ties even stronger.

As the coalition expands to include the business community, farmers, businesses and individuals with legacy claims for compensation for property that was expropriated, and lots of others with reason to work on behalf of an open policy, the momentum favoring reform will increase substantially.

Diplomacy remains essential – as illustrated by the trip that Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will undertake next week – for the resumption of diplomatic relations, the opening of our two embassies, and the expression of our disagreements on human rights and political issues, and much more.

We hope the President talks about these changes, as he should, but that he also prepares the public and the Congress for the road ahead.

The two countries and the two publics cannot mend this historically broken relationship overnight. As our friend Rafael Hernandez has written, “the main weakness Cuba needs to overcome is not its lesser physical power, but its siege mentality. The United States, on the other hand, needs to overcome its sense of super power arrogance vis-à-vis a small neighbor. Most counterproductive policies on both sides, from the Bay of Pigs fiasco to Cuba’s Internet restrictions, have been the consequence of these weaknesses.”

Even on our best days, this will take time. The instinct to provoke – by hardliners on both sides of the Florida Strait – will remain and even grow more desperate, as the provocateurs increasingly find themselves living in a bygone age. Tuesday night offers the President a unique platform for giving power and voice to the new ways in which Cuba and the United States can engage with and relate to each other respectfully.

No other president in our history has given a State of the Union Address like that.


Treasury and Commerce Departments ease sanctions regulations

Regulatory changes written by the Administration that significantly ease trade, travel, and financial sanctions against Cuba became effective today. These reflect many of the reforms contained in President Obama’s December 17th announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic relations.

The Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) made several amendments to its Cuba Assets Control Regulations that will expand the ability of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba and support Cuban individuals, private businesses, and civil society groups.

Restrictions on legal travel to Cuba are loosened considerably. Tourist travel remains illegal. But, under the regulations, U.S. citizens no longer need to apply for an OFAC license to travel to Cuba, as long as their travel plans fall into any of the twelve existing categories of approved or “purposeful” travel put in place by President Obama in 2011, which include educational, cultural, journalistic, religious, and people-to-people trips, among others.

Travelers can now comply with the law and visit Cuba using what is called a “general license.” This means, as the Washington Post reports, “that individuals who meet the conditions laid out in the regulations will not need to apply for a license to travel to Cuba.”

Where the rules previously required legal travelers to Cuba from the U.S. to pay for expenses from hotels to food using only cash, travel will now be easier because the use of credit and debit cards will be permitted, and the $180 per day spending limit is removed. Travelers can also bring $400 worth of goods purchased in Cuba back to the U.S. for personal use, so long as no more than $100 worth of those goods consists of alcohol and tobacco products.

Cuban Americans with family members living in Cuba have been able to travel to Cuba on a general license since 2009, when President Obama lifted all restrictions on family travel and remittances.

U.S. airlines will be able to commence regular commercial flights to Cuba as soon as the two countries reach an aviation agreement. United Airlines has already announced that it plans to start flying to Havana from Houston and Newark as soon as possible.

The new regulations allow U.S. citizens to send $2,000 in remittances every three months to Cuban individuals. The limit was previously set at $500. Anyone from the U.S. traveling to Cuba is permitted to bring $10,000 in remittances. There is no limit for remittances to humanitarian projects, civil society groups, or privately owned Cuban businesses. A general license is now granted to U.S. banking institutions to process these remittances.

U.S. banks can now open accounts with Cuban financial institutions, and Cuban nationals residing outside of Cuba will no longer be blocked from opening accounts with U.S. banks, and banks will be allowed to process transactions that involve Cuban diplomats. Certain micro-finance projects for Cuban private businesses will be authorized.

The Department of Commerce also announced a new “Support for the Cuban People” (SCP) license exception that will allow U.S. companies greater freedom to export certain agriculture, telecommunications, and construction goods for use by Cuban citizens and privately owned Cuban enterprises and farms.

Under the SCP exception, U.S. companies can export and sell telecommunications goods, building materials, agricultural products, and other items to privately owned businesses, private farms, individual residences, news media personnel, and organizations and individuals working to “strengthen civil society.” The export of donated items for use in educational, scientific, cultural, or sporting activities is also allowed.

A document answering frequently asked questions about the new regulations has been made available by the Treasury Department on their website.

The changes earned bipartisan praise in Congress. Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), a leader in the U.S. House for better relations with Cuba, praised the changes after a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson. Castor, who represents Tampa, said “Removing unnecessary barriers to travel will allow more people to travel through our airport and create more opportunities for Americans to engage directly with the Cuban people.”

Senator Jerry Moran (KS) said he is “pleased to learn the Treasury Department is following through on the decision to roll back antiquated policies related to U.S.-Cuba relations. Amending these regulations is not just about increasing commercial ties for agriculture producers in Kansas and across the country – I believe closer ties could help change the nature of the relationship between the Cuban people and their repressive government.”

Cuba completes release of 53 political prisoners

The process announced by Cuba’s President Raúl Castro to release 53 political prisoners as part of a larger agreement with the U.S. to re-establish diplomatic relations was completed this week, and the list of the prisoners’ names was made public, the New York Times reports.

The list of prisoners to be released was agreed upon last summer, and a small number of prisoners were released prior to President Obama’s announcement of the agreement on December 17th.

Until Monday, the State Department repeatedly declined to make public the list of names or provide details about the number of prisoners that still were awaiting release, prompting pro-embargo elements of the media and of the U.S. Congress to accuse the administration of lack of transparency.

Earlier this month, Senator Marco Rubio wrote President Obama asking him to cancel next week’s meetings between Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson and her Cuban counterparts until more information was made available about the prisoners it was supposed to release. The State Department responded by reiterating that the release of the prisoners is only a part of a larger policy of engagement with Cuba. “I would de-emphasize the link between” the releases and the migration talks, spokesperson Jen Psaki said last week. “There’s a number of ways that we work to make progress on human rights issues. One of them is direct dialogue.”

The completion of the releases underscores President Obama’s assertion that engaging with Cuba diplomatically is a more effective method for strengthening civil society on the island. Several democracy activists in Cuba have spoken out in favor of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement.

“Eight of 10 freed dissidents interviewed by The Associated Press since their release expressed confidence the decrease in tensions with the U.S. will improve life in Cuba and make their activism easier. Only one had a negative view of the deal,” the Associated Press reports.

U.S. ‘intelligence asset’ freed in prisoner swap contacts family from the U.S.

Rolando Sarraff, the Cuban citizen and U.S. intelligence asset released in a prisoner swap last month, contacted his sister this week to report that he is safely on U.S. soil, the AP reports. This is the first time news of Sarraff’s whereabouts has been made known since he was released from Cuba.

In the early 1990s, Sarraff played a central role in uncovering a network of Cuban spies that were investigating exile groups in Florida engaged in terrorist activities against the island. Sarraff’s work led to the arrest and conviction of a group of intelligence agents known as the Cuban Five, but his role was soon uncovered by Cuban state security, and he was arrested in 1995.

Last December, the U.S. traded the three remaining members of the Cuban Five (two had returned to Cuba after serving out their sentences) for the release of Sarraff. That prisoner swap took place at the same time as Cuba’s humanitarian release of Alan Gross, the U.S. Agency for International Development subcontractor arrested in 2009 for bringing illegal communications equipment into the country.


Higher denomination CUP bills to enter circulation

Cuba’s central bank has announced that Cuban national peso (CUP) bills of 200, 500, and 1,000 peso denominations will enter circulation in February, the AP reports. The government announced last year that the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), introduced in 1994 by then-President Fidel Castro to attract hard currency in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, would gradually be eliminated from circulation, leaving the Cuban national peso (CUP) as Cuba’s sole currency. Since then, little visible progress has been made, and specific details about the process, such as a timeline for unification or information about future exchange rates, remain secret.

Cuba to open limited Wi-Fi access in Santiago de Cuba

Cuba’s state telecommunications company ETECSA will begin offering wireless access to the island’s Intranet in a park in Santiago de Cuba for a charge of 4.50 CUC per hour, the AP reports. For most in Cuba, where the average monthly income is approximately $20, Internet access is prohibitively expensive. The new U.S. approach to its relationship with Cuba has made increasing Cubans’ access to the Internet a priority, and the new regulations announced this week will allow U.S. companies to export telecommunications goods to help build Cuba’s Internet infrastructure.

Malecón under construction in Santiago de Cuba

The first phases of construction for a seafront drive, or malecón, in Santiago de Cuba is currently underway, OnCuba reports. Investors and architects working on the project envision the area as a gathering place for Santiago’s citizens, similar to the city’s original malecón, which dates back to 1840. The initial phase of construction is expected to be completed by July 25, 2015, just in time for the city’s 500th anniversary.

Fidel Castro’s letter to friend dispels death rumors

After months passed with no public comments or appearances, and as rumors of his death made rounds on social media, Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro sent a letter to Argentinian soccer player Diego Maradona to let his friend know he is still alive, the LA Times reports. We wrote about the rumors, and the morbid fascination in the U.S. with Castro’s condition, in the blast last week.


Cuba-EU talks set to resume in March

In March, Cuba and the European Union will sit down for a third round of negotiations leading to diplomatic normalization between Cuba and the European Union, the AFP reports. Talks were initially planned for December but were unexpectedly called off after a dispute over a photography exhibit that featured aerial photographs of Cuba.

Since December 1996, the EU’s relations with Cuba have been governed by the Common Position, which, like the U.S. Helms-Burton Act of the same year, suspended economic and diplomatic cooperation with Cuba pending “improvements in human rights and political freedom” and an “irreversible opening of the Cuban economy.” At the same time, EU member states have discretion to engage with Cuba diplomatically as they see fit. To replace the policy affecting the EU institutionally, all 28 EU member states must reach a unanimous agreement to do so.

Negotiations began in April of last year, and teams from both parties made substantial progress toward reaching a bilateral accord during the second round of negotiations in August. The third round will focus largely on the EU’s human rights concerns in Cuba. “The EU condition is that Cuba does not ask for restrictions on the subjects discussed, particularly on human rights issues and the role of civil society,” said one EU diplomat.

Brazil to expand Más Médicos program

Brazil will extend its Más Médicos program, which sends thousands of doctors, most of them Cuban, to provide medical care in underserved rural areas, to an additional 424 municipalities, the AP reports. Some 11,000 Cuban doctors are working in Brazil, and more than 50,000 are deployed in 66 countries around the world, including in Ebola-effected West Africa.

Más Médicos has drawn criticism in Brazil and elsewhere because the doctors are not directly paid by Brazil’s government. Instead, Brazil’s government compensates Cuba’s government through the World Health Organization. About a fourth of that payment is converted into salaries for the doctors.

Cuban doctor returns to Sierra Leone after recovering from Ebola

Dr. Felix Baez, a Cuban doctor who made a full recovery after contracting Ebola last November while working on a Cuban medical mission in West Africa, returned to Sierra Leone on Tuesday to continue treating Ebola patients, teleSUR reports.

Cuba was the first country to send medical personnel to join Ebola containment and treatment efforts in West Africa. There are currently 256 Cuban doctors, nurses, and medical technicians working in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea – the largest such contribution of any country so far.

China to finance construction of pier in Santiago de Cuba port

China will extend a $120 million line of credit to Cuba for the construction of a new pier in the port of Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second most important commercial port, EFE reports. The project is being financed by China as part of an agreement made in July of last year during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Cuba.

The pier will be able to receive ships that weigh up to 40,000 tons and will house three cranes. An investigative team arrived in Santiago from China this week.

Recommended Reading

9 Key Questions about New Cuba Regulations, Ana Sorrentino, Washington Office on Latin America

Sorrentino answers important questions about the Department of Treasury and Department of Commerce regulation changes — what does it mean to grant a “general license”? Can individual travelers go to Cuba by themselves now?

Political science news you can use about Cuba, Daniel Drezner, The Washington Post

New political science research shows that increased remittances to countries with autocratic governments can increase the chances of a transition to democracy. “If nothing else, this paper suggests that remittances do not sustain authoritarian regimes like Cuba in the same way as other capital flows, such as foreign aid or raw materials exports. So the weak Rubio/Menendez argument now seems even weaker.”

A new day for U.S.-Cuba relations, The Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board

There is much to gain for Tampa Bay, Florida in the new U.S.-Cuba relationship. Flights from Tampa International Airport have increased by a factor of eight since 2011, and trips from Tampa to Havana are expected to grow even more dramatically now that new regulations grant general licenses for travel to Cuba.

U.S.-Cuba Accord Should Be a Boon for Science, Rebecca Trager, Scientific American

Dr. Mark Rasenick, a physiology and biophysics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, says “researchers will benefit from collaboration with Cuban counterparts in areas like brain mapping, cancer vaccines, interferon treatments, which were abandoned in the US but have been used to treat hepatitis C and multiple sclerosis in Cuba, as well as epidermal growth factor therapy, used in Cuba to treat recurrent and chronic wounds of the sort suffered by diabetics, the paralysed and the elderly.”

Recommended Viewing

Photo gallery: The 53 political prisoners released by Cuba, The Miami Herald

The U.S. announced this week that Cuba completed the release of 53 political prisoners agreed to last year. The Miami Herald has compiled pictures of most of these men and women.

Recommended Listening

Why It’s Time For A Reality Check On Normalizing Relations With Cuba, Tim Padgett, WLRN

“Both camps have been guilty of facile hyperbole about Obama’s announcement. Normalization is neither a treacherous capitulation to the Castros nor the overnight catalyst for a Cuban Spring. It’s more about effectively positioning the U.S. … to influence change in Cuba over the long haul.”


Bob White, who died this week, is best known as the Foreign Service Officer who was fired for being a profile in courage. In 1981, while serving as the ambassador to El Salvador, he refused a demand by then-Secretary of State Alexander Haig to cover-up the Salvadoran military’s instrumental role in the murders of four Maryknoll nuns. So, he was sacked and driven out of the Foreign Service.

Serving as Ambassador during El Salvador’s civil war was nothing short of a “suicide mission,” as Joan Didion reported in “‘Something Horrible’ in El Salvador,” published by the New York Review of Books. “What made the San Salvador embassy a suicide mission was, of course, the certain knowledge that the facts of the situation would be less than welcome at the other end of the cable traffic.”

Although he lost his job in San Salvador for telling the truth, the truth was still the truth. The killing of the nuns was not the first atrocity committed by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran regime, nor was it the last. But, the facts on the ground did not comport with the theory conjured in Washington that a Cold War confrontation was playing out in Latin America and that U.S. security depended on our backing authoritarian regimes, no matter the brutalities they visited on the people our policy was allegedly trying to save. Although the theory was at odds with the facts on the ground, it was so much the worse for the facts and for Bob White’s diplomatic career.

Bob committed himself to public service at an earlier, and very different, time. He started as a Foreign Service officer in the 1950s, but was very much a Kennedy man. He chose to serve in Latin America in the 1960s because, as he wrote in the New York Times in 2013, “I was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s creative response to the revolutionary fervor then sweeping Latin America. The 1959 Cuban revolution, led by the charismatic Fidel Castro, had inspired revolts against the cruel dictatorships and corrupt pseudo-democracies that had dominated the region since the end of Spanish and Portuguese rule in the 19th century.”

Like many Americans in that time, he reacted to Kennedy’s charisma and vision in creating the Alliance for Progress, which Bob said “rekindled the promise of the Good Neighbor Policy of Franklin D. Roosevelt and transformed the whole concept of inter-American relations.”

Stirred by Kennedy, and motivated by the carnage in Central America, Ambassador White never stopped trying to set right the mistaken notion driving policy in Washington that communism drove events in the region.

Writing for the New York Times in 1982, he said, “It is not Russia, Cuba or Nicaragua that make the revolutions of Central America—it is injustice, brutality and hunger.” He wanted Americans to understand “the history, culture and motivations of those who fight and die in this neglected center of the hemisphere.”

You can see that core insight written into the words of our organization’s mission statement. It is for this reason, among many others, that we note his passing this week and celebrate his life today.

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