If Eight Polls Run Against You, You Run Against Conan

Since December 17, 2014, eight public opinion polls have been released that all show strong public support for President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and his call to end the embargo.

That’s got to bother the hardliners who have devoted their careers to punishing Cuba with U.S. sanctions.

A year ago, when The Atlantic Council survey showed 56% of all Americans, and 63% of Floridians, in support of normalizing relations, it clearly got under the skin of Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25).

When Rep. Diaz-Balart interpreted the results for the New York Times, he called them “an absolute lie.”

In fact, the Atlantic Council’s findings that there is widespread support for a modern Cuba policy — across the country and in Rep. Diaz-Balart’s backyard — were beyond dispute.

Today, we’re sharing the results of the surveys released in the last ten weeks that all show huge national support for the President’s reforms.

In its December 17-21, 2014 survey, the Washington Post found 64% support and just 31% opposition for establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.

CBS News reported 54% support, 28% disapproval, and 18% “don’t know” for reestablishing relations in its poll on December 22, 2014.

Pew Research found 63% support and 28% disapproval of reestablishing relations on January 11, 2015.

The Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll reported 60% approving and 30% disapproving restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba on January 17, 2015.

Florida Atlantic University in its January 2015 survey of Hispanic Attitudes found 73% of its respondents favoring and just 12% opposing diplomatic ties with Cuba.

The Associated Press found 45% approval, 15% disapproval, with 37% having no opinion, of the U.S. government restoring diplomatic ties in its survey conducted January 29-February 2, 2015.

The Gallup Poll reported that 59% favored and 30% opposed reestablishing relations in its survey conducted February 14-15, 2015.

This is to say nothing of the bipartisan majority, found in the Beyond the Beltway survey released this week, which sees diplomatic relations as a key part of advancing human rights. That poll reported that 64% of voters — including 51% of Republicans — favor ditching the embargo against thirty-six percent who favor keeping it in place.

Wow, eight polls in ten weeks — that’s not just a trend, it’s a tidal wave. So, where does that leave the hardliners now?

Frustrated, we’d guess. Rather than attacking public opinion, they’ve pointed the muzzles of their guns at a most unlikely target, Conan O’Brien.

After the broadcast of “Conan In Cuba” last week, which captured the late-night comedian’s drunken visit to the rum museum, dance lessons, his effort to learn the Clave, and his short-of-heroic attempt to master Spanish, a few critics went nutty.

One critic called the show an “80-minute infomercial for the Western hemisphere’s longest running and bloodiest dictatorship” and dismissed Conan as a “propagandist.” Another likened him to the “useful idiots,” a term used by the Soviets (hello, they went out of business in 1991) for those “who unwittingly promoted their greatness and turned a blind eye to their flaws.”

Of course, Orlando Luis Pardo (infamous for his “Let him Rot” comment about Alan Gross) suggested that Conan “Get a Castro’s rationing card and apply for Cuban citizenship, where you could never broadcast one of your shows!”

Given this unmoored response, you’d think Conan had hand-wrapped Top Secret information at the cigar factory and passed it to the enemy in a humidor.

On the other hand, what alternative do the hardliners have when the tide of public opinion is running so decidedly against them? They run against Conan. Good luck with that.

It seems fitting to close with a dog story, since Conan barked a lot when he was in Cuba.

During World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt brought his Scottish terrier, Fala, to meetings with Winston Churchill, and even let the dog tour defense plants on his own, a cheerful sight for a war-weary America.

During his 1944 reelection campaign, following a rumor he’d left the dog behind in the Aleutian Islands, FDR was attacked for allegedly spending $20 million to rescue Fala.

Now, that was an absolute lie.

Roosevelt defended Fala in a speech. “He half-jokingly declared,” says one account, “that his critics sullied the reputation of a defenseless dog just to distract Americans from more pressing issues facing the country. Addressing the attacks, FDR said, “of course, I don’t resent attacks, and my family doesn’t resent attacks, but Fala does resent them.”

Weighed against the massive public support for getting rid of our country’s failed Cuba policy, these red-baiting attacks on a red-haired comedian by members of the Cold War Commentariat really don’t amount to much.

So, we don’t resent them, and we hope Conan doesn’t either, although we’re not all that worried about him. As this footage shows, Conan is pretty good at defending himself.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Third round of normalization talks will take place Sunday

Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere, will return to Havana when  the third round of talks to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba convenes on Sunday, AFP reports.

“The parties have been in communication since last meeting in February in Washington,” said the State Department statement. “It is in the interest of both countries to re-establish diplomatic relations and re-open embassies”

The second round of talks, which took place in Washington in late February, concluded on a positive note. Although the two sides did not reach a final agreement on diplomatic relations, a series of talks were planned to discuss human trafficking, civil aviation, Internet access in Cuba, changes in U.S. trade and travel regulations, and human rights.

After the second round concluded, Secretary Jacobson told reporters she was optimistic about the diplomatic process. “I do think we can get this done in time for the Summit of the Americas,” she said. The 2015 Summit of the Americas will take place in April in Panama, and Presidents Raúl Castro and Barrack Obama are both expected to attend.

The upcoming Summit will be the first to include Cuba, barred from attending at the behest of the United States since the first meeting took place in 1994. In 2012, when the last Summit meeting took place in Colombia, the leaders departed without issue a final statement, due to disagreements between the U.S. and the region over Cuba’s exclusion.

In an interview with Reuters last week, President Obama said he hopes to see the U.S. and Cuba re-establish embassies before the Summit.

Cuban officials have said their country’s removal from the U.S. State Department’s State Sponsors of Terrorism list is a “priority,” but not a necessarily a pre-condition to reestablishing relations. U.S. officials have repeatedly asserted that they are working to complete the review as quickly as possible.

Cuba was first placed on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1982 during the Reagan administration for reasons that have been increasingly difficult for the U.S. to justify. The State Department’s most recent report said “there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

Direct calls between U.S. and Cuba resume

For the first time in 16 years, long-distance phone calls between the U.S. and Cuba can be made without having to transfer the call through a third country, AFP reports. In February, IDT, a firm based in New Jersey, reached an agreement with Etecsa, Cuba’s state telecommunications company, to reestablish a direct telephone link between the two countries.

“The re-establishment of direct communications between the United States and Cuba contributes to providing better infrastructure and better communications quality between the people and our two countries,” Etecsa said in a statement.

Ties were last cut in 1999 after Cuba’s government cut off direct service with U.S. phone companies, which were withholding payments to Etecsa pending a federal court case that dealt with the 1996 shooting down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes just outside Cuban airspace.

According to the Miami Herald, IDT had been in negotiations with Etecsa for a number of years leading up to last year’s diplomatic breakthrough.

In December 2014, President Obama announced that the U.S. would be significantly easing restrictions on telecommunications companies that wish to do business in Cuba.

Sports diplomacy: MLB sets sights on Cuba, NY soccer team will play match in Havana

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred says the MLB is in talks with the U.S. government to begin staging exhibition games in Cuba, the AP reports.

“I can envision a situation, assuming that it is consistent with the government’s policy on Cuba, where we could have ongoing exhibition game activity in Cuba,” Manfred said. “[Cuba] is obviously a great talent market… It’s a country where baseball is embedded in the culture.”

Last year, 25 Cubans played on major league teams. Many, like Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu, secured multi-million dollar contracts after slipping away from their home country in the hands of smugglers.

The last time a major league team played in Cuba was 1999, when the Baltimore Orioles played Cuba’s national team in Havana.

Before Cuba’s 1959 revolution, major league teams regularly held exhibition games on the island. As the Sun-Sentinel reports, “Major League Baseball has a long-standing history with Cuba, with teams regularly training and playing exhibitions in Cuba in the 1940s and ’50s. The Cincinnati Reds used to have a Triple-A team based in Havana, the Sugar Kings.”

U.S. policymakers, such as Rep. Steve Cohen (TN-9), who grew up admiring Cuban ballplayers like Minnie Minoso, would surely support a restoration of the binational baseball rivalry.

The New York Cosmos, which competes in the North American Soccer League, will play Cuba’s national soccer team on June 2, the AP reports. A U.S. club soccer team hasn’t visited Cuba since 1978, but the U.S. national team played a qualifying match in 2008 for the 2010 World Cup.

Virginia governor to visit Cuba on trade mission

The Governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, announced this week he will lead an official delegation to Cuba to explore trade opportunities with the island, the Washington Post reports. Virginia is one of Cuba’s largest trading partners in the United States.

McAuliffe traveled to Cuba in 2010 in the lead-up to his 2013 gubernatorial bid. Virginia trade delegations have visited Cuba on an annual basis since 2003, when then-governor Mark Warner sent his trade secretary to the island to sell apples and soybeans.

Warner, who is now a Senator from Virginia, visited Cuba in February with the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Since the 1959 revolution, only two sitting U.S. governors have visited the country — George Ryan of Illinois in 1999 and Jesse Ventura of Minnesota in 2002.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in February that he would be leading a New York trade delegation to the island in April.

New poll shows majority of Republicans support lifting embargo

A national poll released by Beyond the Beltway shows that 51% of Republicans, 64% of Independents, and 74% of Democrats support ending the 55-year old embargo against Cuba.

In response to a question about human rights on the island, 59% of Republicans replied that expanding travel and trade with the island and having direct diplomacy with Cuba is more likely to improve human rights than maintaining the U.S. embargo and severing diplomatic relations.

Do not count Texas Governor Rick Perry among them. Perry, like many of his presidential candidate counterparts, opposes the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba. He told an audience at the Iowa Agriculture Summit in Des Moines last week, “We got the way short end of that deal.”

New York-Havana flights to begin March 17

Weekly flights operated by Cuba Travel Services (CTS) from New York City to Havana, Cuba will begin March 17th at a price of $849 per round-trip ticket, Bloomberg reports. The three-and-a-half hour flight will leave the John F. Kennedy International Airport for Havana every Tuesday at 3pm. New York has the fourth largest population of Cuban-Americans, behind Florida, California, and New Jersey.

Last December, President Obama announced a significant easing of restrictions on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba. Travelers still must fall within one of 12 categories of approved travel, but they no longer need to apply for specific licenses from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The CTS flight is the first of its kind from New York since President Obama’s announcement. Several commercial airlines have expressed interest in opening flights to the island, including United, JetBlue, American, and Southwest. Before that happens, however, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration must reach a civil aviation agreement with Cuba, a process that could take up to a year.

IN CUBA

Cuba opens free public Wi-Fi access in Havana cultural center

A cultural center in Havana began offering Cubans free wireless access to the Internet this week, the AP reports. State telecommunications company Etecsa allowed Cuban artist Kcho to extend his personal Internet connection, which is authorized by the Ministry of Culture, to the general public. Allowing free public access to the web is an unprecedented for the government of Cuba, where Internet penetration is under 25%.

“This is an unusual thing, and it’s only possible through the will to do it and absorb the costs,” Kcho told The Associated Press. “It is expensive, but the benefit is tremendous. … I have something that is great and powerful. I can share it, and I am doing so.”

Kcho has a close relationship with Cuba’s Communist party. Fidel Castro’s last public appearance was made at the opening of Kcho’s arts center in January 2014.

As keeping with its agreement with the U.S., Cuba has recently signaled willingness to expand Internet access on the island. In February, Etecsa announced that the number of state-run cyber cafés would nearly double — from 155 to 300 — by the end of 2015.

Ladies in White leader wins referendum vote

Berta Soler, leader of Cuba’s Ladies in White dissident group, which protests political arrests in weekly marches, has won a referendum vote on her leadership this week, Reuters reports.

In February, 16 Miami-based Ladies in White signed a letter calling for Soler’s resignation after a video appeared on YouTube that shows some members of the group shouting down Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva, a founding member, for having called Soler’s position as the organization’s leader into question.

Last week, 100 members of the Ladies in White signed a letter calling for leadership elections and a reevaluation of what some call the group’s unwelcoming approach to activism.

Soler told the New York Times that she won 180 of just over 200 votes cast. The votes, however, were a simple “yes” or “no” on Soler’s leadership rather than a competitive race between multiple candidates.

Soler’s group has been praised by lawmakers in the U.S., but is mostly unknown on the island and has minimal support from Cuban citizens. As Reuters reports, “The group survives largely on donations money from anti-Castro exiles in the United States, and each of the Ladies receives $30 for participating in the Sunday marches, Soler said, an amount greater than the typical monthly salary in Cuba.”

In a sign of potential change in Cuba’s electoral system, a web forum held last week on the Cuban website Juventud Rebelde announced a new “General Election Law” and asked readers to weigh in on the country’s electoral process. Many responses called for direct elections of top leadership positions in the country. President Raúl Castro, who will step down in 2018, has previously proposed term limits for Cuba’s future leaders.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba voices support for Venezuela

Cuba’s government has expressed support for Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro after the U.S. authorized new sanctions against top officials in the Maduro Administration, AFP reports.

President Maduro denounced the sanctions as a “rude outburst” during a speech Monday night in which he also requested emergency powers “to preserve the nation’s peace, integrity, and sovereignty.”

Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro wrote an open letter to Maduro this week voicing his solidarity. “I congratulate you for your brilliant and valiant speech ahead of the U.S. government’s brutal plans. Your words will go into history as proof that humanity can and should know the truth.”

For more on Venezuela, see our most recent edition of Caracas Connect

Japan donates equipment to Cuba

Japan has donated four infra-red temperature scanners for use in Havana’s international airport to strengthen the country’s efforts to screen travelers for Ebola before entering the country, EFE reports.

Cuba has been at the forefront of the international effort to combat the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which the World Health Organization reported this week has killed more than 10,000 people. A brigade of over 250 Cuban medical professionals were deployed in October and November of last year in response to the WHO’s call for greater international support.

Brazilian firm to take on Havana airport expansion project

Cuba announced Monday that Brazilian construction company Odebrecht was awarded a contract to carry out a $207 million expansion of the José Martí International Airport in Havana, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports.

Obrecht is the company behind the $957 million construction of the Mariel port that began in 2014 and which was partially financed by Brazil’s National Development Bank.

Recommended Reading

Lessons from Eastern Europe for Cuba hardliners in Congress, Georgeta Dragoiu, The Hill

Those who oppose full normalization of diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba should take a lesson from the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, Dragoiu argues. Opening up to Cuba will, over time, foster greater democracy on the island. “Only in neo-con fantasies do regimes fall at night and morph into democracies by morning,” she wrote.

Cuba’s Bay of Fat Cats, Abigail Jones, Newsweek

In this cover-page story for Newsweek, Jones explores the changing socioeconomic landscape in a once-isolated country that is now experimenting with capitalism. Cuba’s economic reforms impacts Cuban citizens in varied ways.

Obama corrects a Historic Mistake on Cuba, Arturo Lopez-Levy, Foreign Policy in Focus

Lopez-Levy writes: “Supporters of normalizing relations with Cuba have lost many battles in Washington, but this is a clear victory. Will Congress have the courage to follow suit and end the embargo for good? To paraphrase Winston Churchill, ‘this is not the end; nor is it the beginning of the end. It is perhaps the end of the beginning.'”

Cuba Is The New Rock N’ Roll Frontier, Ruth Blatt, Forbes

Ruth Blatt interviewed members of the Dead Daisies, a rock band consisting of former members of Guns N’ Roses, the Rolling Stones, and other famous groups, after their return from a performance in Havana.

Half-pipe diplomacy, Lisette Poole, Mashable

A group of skaters in the U.S. are helping the nascent skate community in Cuba build new parks and acquire new gear.

ANNOUNCEMENTS

Anya Landau French is CDA’s new Senior Fellow

Anya Landau French, who joins the Center for Democracy in the Americas in the newly-created position of Senior Fellow, has focused on U.S.-Cuba relations for fifteen years. She has made more than two dozen research trips to the island since 2000, and published her views on Cuba policy in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, TheAtlantic.com, The Baltimore Sun, CNN.com, the Christian Science Monitor’s Latin America Monitor, the Huffington Post, The New York TimesThe Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post. In 2009, she published Options for Engagement: A Resource Guide for Reforming U.S. Policy toward Cuba.

Anya served as an International Trade Advisor to then-Chairman Max Baucus of the Senate Finance Committee. In that capacity she focused on trade and worker adjustment policy, U.S.-Cuba relations, and helped draft and pass the 2006 SAFE Port Act. During her time in the Senate, she worked extensively on issues dealing with U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba, Treasury Department sanctions enforcement and the U.S. ban on travel to Cuba.

Travel to Cuba with CDA and LAWG!

Just as the Center for Democracy in the Americas and the Latin America Working Group worked in tandem for a decisive change in Cuba policy – and are working now to protect President Obama’s historic reforms – LAWG and CDA are joining forces, again.

We’re teaming up to provide a special opportunity for our supporters to visit Cuba with us.

We’ll use the fruits of this historic policy victory for a trip to explore Cuba’s future with the Cubans who are already hard at work building it. We will meet with young entrepreneurs, students, and artists about their plans and aspirations for Cuba now that the Presidents of both countries are committed to reducing tensions and allowing greater exchange and dialogue between both countries.

We expect the trip to take place from June 17-22. We will confirm those dates as we get closer to departure.

Space is limited, so please contact us as soon as possible if you are interested in joining us or if you would like more information.

You — our supporters — played a key role that produced this long-sought diplomatic opening. We sincerely hope you take this opportunity to celebrate the results of work and enjoy our expanded ability to travel to Cuba.

Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Fellowship

CDA is offering a paid, full-time, year-long fellowship for talented, hardworking, bilingual individual who wants to work with our team in Washington, D.C. on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Named for an activist who inspires our work, the Rivers Fellow will work side-by-side with CDA staff on projects that advance our goal of forging a new policy toward Cuba and the region. The fellow will be paid a monthly stipend.

We’re seeking a uniquely qualified undergraduate, a recent graduate, or a Master’s student with a special interest in Cuba, a thirst for activism, and an interest in pursuing a professional career in the foreign policy NGO community. Please see this posting for more information.

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