Hard-liners’ Edifice Complex

May 29, 2015

Last week, we stuck our necks out.

We asked Members of Congress who support the opening with Cuba — and the companies which stand to benefit from it — to make their positions clear about the legislative riders cantering through the Appropriations Committee that seek to shut down new flights and new ferry services to the island.

Whoa Nellie. That seemed to be too much for Capitol Hill Cubans which, after calling us deceptive, dishonest, and alarmist, still agreed with our bottom line that President Obama could head them off at the pass with a wave of his veto pen.

That would suit the 64% of Americans nationally, 56% of Latinos, a majority of Cuban Americans, and 97% of Cubans who agree with us and not them.

These policies are popular. Okay: Sticking our necks out? Not so much.

The next piece of the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba — opening full-flown embassies in Washington and Havana for the first time since 1961 — will fall into place next week.

After that, it will be time for both countries to put ambassadors into those embassies so they can represent their respective national interests accordingly.

Senators are supposed to consider nominations by the President for ambassadorial positions. That comes with the job description (see the Constitution).

If you had heard members of the Foreign Relations Committee last month, when several Senators waxed elegiac about our diplomats and Foreign Service officers who work overseas, you’d think this should not be an issue.

Senator Ben Cardin (MD), the Committee’s senior Democrat, said “American diplomats and development professionals are the best examples of talented people that are on the front line for America.”

Not to be outdone, Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), the Committee’s former senior Democrat added, “I think they are the unsung heroes of national security and national interest promotion for our country, and recognizing them is incredibly important.”

And they are right: supporting our diplomats and their missions overseas is important. Of course, as with the travel riders, there’s a hitch.

Opponents of the President’s new policy have already pledged to block any ambassadorial appointment.

For example, Senator Marco Rubio (FL), a Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said, “I anticipate we’re going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how you’re going to get an ambassador nominated.”

Senator Bob Menendez (who praised the unsung heroes), also says “it would be very difficult to get an ambassador confirmed.”

Even Senator Cardin, on the Foreign Relations Committee and a champion of the President’s policy, says “I don’t think it’s useful to confront a situation that may not have a successful completion.”

That’s apparently Senate lingo for “Mr. President, if you’re thinking about nominating an ambassador to Cuba, don’t waste your time.”

What about Senator Jeff Flake, who has argued, as Politico reports, that “as more Americans travel to Cuba, it is essential that the U.S. have an ambassador there, if only to give added assurances that the rights of U.S. citizens will be fully protected.”

He must think if the President nominated a U.S. ambassador to Cuba, even his opponents would insist that our country be fully represented, right?  He says, “I don’t think they’ll be persuaded,” even though, “we’re better off having an ambassador.”

Unfortunately, the “Advise and Dissent” crowd also wants to starve the new embassy of the funds it needs to make the building fully operational. Senator Lindsey Graham said that soon after the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic breakthrough occurred in December. Senator Rubio holds that position still.

In the short-term, their edifice complex will not stand in the way of progress. Since the State Department is not asking for funds to convert our Interest Section in Havana into an embassy, no budget rider can stop that from taking place.

This is not, however, the end of the story. When the “brand new” U.S. embassy throws open its doors as early as next week, its insides will show its age.  Last year, an Inspector General report found our Interest Section in Havana had offices that lacked equipment and supplies, insufficient resources to repair buildings, and our diplomatic team was short-staffed in the face of a crushing workload (thanks, in part, to Cuba’s decision to remove restrictions on the right of its citizens to travel overseas and return).

It’s a shame that Congress cannot be expected to approve more money to maintain and upgrade our embassy in Havana.  But, that cannot be blamed on hardliner politics alone.

The U.S. Congress has not renewed the State Department’s authorization for thirteen years.  By contrast, as Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH) noted in April, the Congress has enacted new authority for the Defense Department for every one of the last 51 years.

Soon, it will be our diplomats in Havana — not our military — ushering in this new era of U.S.-Cuba relations.  Congress must do its job, so they have the ambassador and fully functional embassy they need to do theirs.

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Veto Redux

May 22, 2015

Step-by-step, legislation is working its way through Congress to curtail much of the progress President Obama is making in U.S.-Cuba relations by cutting the funds needed by federal agencies to implement his new policies.

Today, we ask: Will those who benefit most from the new policies that encourage travel and trade with Cuba do nothing but stand on the sidelines in the expectation that President Obama will veto the bills that reverse them?

In 2011, after President Obama reinstated the rules allowing Cuban Americans to visit their relatives on the island and permitting all Americans to send remittances to Cubans, hardliners used the budget process to prevent the policies from being implemented.

Back then, the White House issued a policy statement promising to veto the legislation unless the budget riders on Cuba were removed. The President’s supporters, who comprised the majority in the Senate, kept the provisions out of the big budget bills that finally emerged from paralysis and delays on Capitol Hill. Legislation reversing the modest but hopeful travel and remittance reforms never reached the President’s desk.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of journeys between the United States and Cuba have taken place every year reuniting families, while increasing numbers of Cubans receiving the economic support they needed to run their own businesses and lead more independent lives.

This is a different time. On December 17th, the President changed the whole intent of U.S. policy and the architecture of U.S.-Cuba relations.

For the first time in six decades, the U.S. government is encouraging citizen diplomacy, greater travel and trade, the telecommunications, travel, and other industries, to build relationships and stronger ties with Cuban counterparts — putting our country on the side of Cubans succeeding, rather than rooting for the Cuban government and system to fail.

That is why Jet Blue and other airlines are expanding charter services and planning commercial routes, why ferry companies are planning to set sail for Havana, why Airbnb and Netflix are hoping to build real businesses in the Cuban market, why Governors like Andrew Cuomo are trying to position companies in their states to succeed.

It is why Americans across the country, and Cuban Americans in the communities where they live, are so deeply committed to a policy that puts the Cold War behind us and puts our country on the right side of history.

Unless the Congress pulls the plug with the budget riders they’ve put into play.

The House Appropriations Committee has already voted to ground new commercial or charter flights that come into being after March 15, 2015 in the transportation department budget bill.

Jet Blue and Tampa International Airport — that means you.

A similar set of restrictions in the same measure would stop the new ferries from ever leaving port, despite one estimate that says every ship put into service would provide as much as $340 million back into Florida’s economy.

Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Miami? Don’t spend it yet.

Then, there’s the Commerce Department bill shutting down U.S. exports to Cuba. Telecommunications firms? Others? Better dial 9-11.

Even worse, as USA Today reports, there are budget restrictions yet to be voted on: restoring the limits on travel and restricting the use of American dollars on the island — take that MasterCard and American Express.

Where are the adults?

Not in the House. Speaker John Boehner, as the Washington Post reported this morning is giving the greenlight to hardliners who are “interested in stopping this progression toward normal relations with Cuba.”

Certainly not in the Senate, where hardliners won’t allow an Ambassador to be confirmed to represent our country and its interests in the new embassy in Havana, should they allow it the funds to open at all.

Here’s the bottom line. Whether Congress follows the regular order and starts enacting bills to finance Cabinet departments separately — or it wraps them all together in one giant package — sooner or later all these restrictions are going to land with a thump and a thud on President Obama’s Oval Office desk.

Congress may even force him to choose between closing down his Cuba policy and shutting down the federal government.

We think the President will warm up his veto pen and choose to save a policy that is good for our country, good for Cubans, and a cornerstone of his foreign policy legacy.

And so we ask again, as we did at the outset: will those who stand to benefit most from his decisions make him face that choice alone?

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Escape Velocity? The Accelerating Pace of Change in U.S.-Cuba Relations

May 15, 2015

The Media General National Desk must like using edgy headlines for click bait. How else can they explain “Possible lung cancer vaccine another perk stemming from new U.S.-Cuba relations”?

A “perk”?

If a tumor-starving therapy that holds promise to greatly improve the lives of cancer patients can now be called a “perk,” that’s a telling sign of how quickly relations between Cuba and the United States are moving, just five months after the breakthrough diplomatic agreement reached by Presidents Obama and Castro.

That accelerating pace of change is happening on so many levels.

It’s evident in the travel space, where Airbnb is reporting that after just one month of operating in Cuba the island has become the fastest-growing market the on-line reservations site has ever served.

Those rooms in casas particulares, where American travelers can engage closely with their Cuban hosts, cannot come on line fast enough – as flights expand from Tampa, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere, and once ferries begin heading for Havana from ports along Florida’s coast.

The pick-up in the pace of change is evident in the cultural arena, as the Minnesota Orchestra hits the stage at the Teatro Nacional for a Beethoven-centered concert that will be broadcast on consecutive nights throughout Cuba starting this very evening.

It’s also evident on the diplomatic front. Just last night, the U.S. State Department announced that U.S. and Cuban negotiators will convene in Washington on May 21 – a little more than a week before Cuba comes off the terror list – setting aside one more obstacle to our two countries opening embassies and exchanging ambassadors.

You can even feel it in the Congress, where thirty-seven members of the United States Senate have cosponsored Senator Jeff Flake’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba legislation repealing the ban on legal travel so all Americans can visit  the island.

To say that this is a big change would be a gross understatement. You can’t even count the number of Senate cosponsors on travel legislation in the last Congress, because there weren’t any. Although a travel bill was dropped – and buried – in the U.S. House, nobody sponsored Freedom to Travel legislation during the 113th Session of the Senate; a sure sign that even the symbolism of supporting it wasn’t compelling for Senators who didn’t think a bill would go anywhere.

Now that there’s a herd – or heard – effect at work, it’s easy to imagine 37 cosponsors as a floor and not a ceiling for the Senate travel bill.

Ending the travel ban is not wishful thinking in the 114th Congress.

When you have 56% of Cuban Americans telling pollsters and 59% of respondents in a recent national survey (with many more showing the same result), supporting the unrestricted freedom to travel…

When you see the interests growing – as state governors, large businesses and trade associations, marine scientists and musicians, cancer researchers and cancer patients, and many others – for realizing the benefits of a new, more open relationship with Cuba…

When Senators who may have previously sat on the sidelines, or deferred to opponents with stronger opinions, increasingly hear the voices of all of these people demanding change, you know that more of them are going to move to the winning side.

As the late Lee Atwater used to say, “I am going to be for what’s going to happen anyway.” That’s Washington’s definition of pure momentum.

This doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect, that disagreements won’t arise in bilateral negotiations, or that unrepentant hardliners like Senator Rubio won’t reimpose sanctions on Cuba if elected President, as he pledged again to do this week.

Yes, we’re moving with increasing speed away from the Cold War into mutually respectful policies of the digital age, but we haven’t quite hit escape velocity yet.

Just watch our headlines. If you start seeing click-bait – Pet Food lawsuit attracts hundreds of calls, emails to the case! – you’ll know we’ve made it to the other side.

In the meantime, please enjoy the weekend with our Cuba Central News Blast, and take another listen to Jackson Browne’s Going Down to Cuba.  We expect to see you there soon. Read the rest of this entry »


A Hat Tip to the Patron Saint and the Ferry Godfather of Normalization

May 8, 2015

The Vatican has offered little explanation for this Sunday’s meeting between President Raul Castro and Pope Francis, apart from Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi‘s comment that it was “strictly private,” and not an official state visit.

Indeed, the first reports were about its timing — four months before the Pontiff is to visit Cuba — not the context.

Yet, comments by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, reported by Vatican Insider last month made clear that when Pope Francis touches down in Havana ahead of his September visit to the United States, his guiding purpose would be as much political as pastoral, to advance the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.

“Clearly this process is only in the early stages, and remains fragile since after so many years of uncommunicativeness and incomprehension it is not easy to walk into a climate of trust and mutual understanding, which is the very foundation for diplomatic progress,” Parolin said. “The Pope’s visit is with the intention of encouraging this process, and to urge them not to be afraid of what it could involve.”

As the Wall Street Journal reported last December, “papal diplomacy was a key to the Obama administration’s push over the past 18 months to overturn half a century of U.S. policies built around shunning Cuba.”

The Pope had stellar qualifications to serve in this role.

As a Cardinal, Pope Francis accompanied Pope John Paul II on his historic visit to Cuba in 1998. He wrote following that trip, “The motives which led the United States to impose the embargo have been entirely superseded in the present time.”

Tim Padgett, in an analysis published earlier this year, ascribed interests to Pope Francis, an Argentine, that “stem from both his papacy’s emphasis on aiding the poor and his portfolio as the first Latin American pontiff.”

Cubans appear to sense and support the Pope for his investment in the process. As the Washington Post reported, eighty percent of 1,200 Cubans surveyed by Univision Noticias and Fusion Networks gave Francis a positive rating, an impressive result in a state with meager weekly church attendance.

The White House took to Twitter to signal President Obama’s support for the Papal visit. “President Obama is pleased that His Holiness Pope Francis will visit Cuba on his way to the US later this year,” tweeted Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

The visit by President Castro to the Vatican, along with Cuba’s decision to welcome the Pope for his visit in September, signal ongoing support for what he has done and continues to do to support the normalization process.

This would be a very good time for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve a resolution introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (IL), cosponsored by Ranking Minority Member Ben Cardin (MD), which commends Pope Francis for his leadership in securing the release of Alan Gross and for working with Cuba and the United States to achieve a more positive relationship. It has awaited action by the Committee since January.

If Pope Francis is the patron saint of normalization, than certainly President Obama is its “ferry Godfather.”

This week, the administration offered regulatory approval for American operators seeking to reinstate ferry service to and from Cuba for the first time since such travel was barred by the U.S. embargo.

In the intervening decades, air charters have been the only means of conveyance for Cuban Americans and others to visit Cuba on trips licensed by the federal government. As we’re reminded in this poignant story, refugees leaving the island braved the seas by themselves. While charters play an essential role, reinstating ferry service has profound economic implications.

As John Hay lucidly explains:

“Existing charter flights run at least $400 per round trip, and baggage overages for those bringing goods back to Cuba bump up the price substantially. The ferries promise to reduce those costs, increase transit regularity and scale, and build a 200-plus-pound-per-person cargo capacity into ticket prices. This could make the ferry lines functionally the largest everyday development in normalization to date.”

Bruce Nierenberg, president of United Caribbean Lines, sees an even broader impact. As he explained to Newsweek, “We are approaching the project not just as a ferry operation but as a new, important economic driver for both countries, and development of a ferry system for the Caribbean.”

Despite the President and the Pope’s divine intervention, two policymakers in the U.S. Congress remain unpersuaded. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, as we reported last week, has written restrictions into a Department of Transportation budget bill to stop the ferry service from ever leaving port.

And, if there’s a Spanish equivalent for the word “Chutzpah,” that would be an apt characterization of Senator Bob Menendez’s remarks, in which he told his erstwhile nemesis, The Daily Caller, “It’s hard to believe that ferry service which is more of a commute is going to actually promote purposeful travel which is still the law of the land versus tourism.”

He’s a U.S. Senator, after all, so he must know the law.

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Progress vs Congress, Lead Them Not Into Temptation

May 1, 2015

There’s a lot to like about what has happened since Presidents Obama and Castro declared their intentions to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

Forget that stuff the hardliners say that President Obama is the worst negotiator since Neville Chamberlain, and start by remembering what Cuba’s government agreed to do and has already done.

As a result of the December 17th agreement, the Cuban government freed 53 political prisoners. They released a spy who worked for the CIA who they’d held for nearly two decades. They agreed to joint talks on human rights and have already met with U.S. diplomats to develop a framework for those negotiations.

They’re acting on a pledge to increase Internet access and cut costs while opening hundreds of new cyber cafés that will be available to public. Direct phone service between our countries is being restored. Alan Gross is home and, as Southwest Airlines might say, he’s free to roam around our country.

And there’s more progress in the offing as diplomats on both sides work on opening embassies, exchanging ambassadors, and forging potential agreements on matters from civil aviation and telecommunications to extraditing fugitives from justice in both countries.

The Cuban people like what has happened so far. Changes in U.S. policy are already responsible for an uptick in travel by Americans to the island, generating more business for the private entrepreneurs who run the growing number of restaurants, beds-and-breakfasts, and tourism-related services, like the taxi and chauffeur company operated by our friends at Nostalgicar. An economic forecast published by Translating Cuba estimates that this new activity will produce an additional increase in Cuba’s GDP by a half-percent.

Small wonder that a Fusion/Univision poll conducted in Cuba last month found that “A near-unanimous majority — 97 percent — say that better relationship with the U.S. would benefit Cuba.”

Xinhua, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China, thinks so too. In a news analysis it published this week, Xinhua said, “As Havana aims to normalize relations with Washington, it is inevitable for the island state to carry out political and economic reforms.”

The enthusiasm for closer relations among Cubans is matched by measurably growing interest among Americans to visit the island.  Sojern, a marketing firm in San Francisco, found a 360% increase in on-line searches for Cuba travel the day after the December 17th announcement. The survey also found that online searches for travel to Cuba from the United States “shot up 184% in the first three months of this year,” compared with the same period in 2014.

Sojern’s findings are consistent with another poll released this week by YouGov and financed by Airbnb, which began offering rentals in Cuba in March. The survey, conducted April 23-24, found that thirty percent of Americans are planning or would consider a holiday to Cuba within the next two years. Among Latino Americans, the number reaches 40%.

With Airbnb open for business in Cuba, and with robust demand for existing charter services kindling a growing desire among U.S. airlines for regularly scheduled commercial routes, contact between the people of the United States and Cuba is likely to blossom.

That is precisely what U.S. religious leaders are praying for.  The promise of closer relations is already being fulfilled by pastors from places like Utah, who are seeing the beginnings of a religious renaissance on the island.

The visual evidence of their pastoral work is compelling. Is it possible, however, that off-camera the Episcopal Diocese of Utah’s Bishop and ten other Episcopal Bishops also made time for “snorkeling, cigar factory tours, salsa dancing lessons, and other obvious tourist activities”?

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25) seems to think so. Diaz-Balart, who serves as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee which funds the U.S. Transportation Department, won approval this week for provisions blocking the new flights and ferry cruises to Cuba made possible by President Obama’s reforms. We don’t expect the bill to pass both Houses of Congress, and it would likely face a presidential veto if it did.

Nonetheless, Diaz-Balart called President Obama’s lifting of restrictions on people-to-people travel “an obvious attempt to circumvent the tourism ban.” He went on to say, “allowing cruises to dock in Cuba would violate both the spirit and the letter of U.S. law.”

“Under these circumstances,” he declared, “Congress cannot remain idle.”

Yep. With so many things moving in the right direction, and with U.S. companies now eying Cuba as an export market for fertilizers, now would be just the time for Congress to shake off its lethargy and act.

God help us.

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