Veto Redux

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?

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Deal eludes U.S., Cuban negotiators in fourth round of high-level talks

U.S. and Cuban diplomats concluded their fourth round of high-level talks held in Washington without reaching agreements on re-opening their nation’s embassies or restoring diplomatic relations. Reuters had reported on Thursday that the two countries were within reach of a deal.

Assistant Secretary Roberta Jacobsen, lead U.S. negotiator, called the talks “highly productive,” and expressed optimism that the remaining issues could soon be wrapped up, without requiring another round of high-level meetings, to reach agreement on re-opening embassies.

“We exchanged views on every aspect related to the functioning of the embassies and the behavior of diplomats,” said Josefina Vidal, Director for North American Affairs for Cuba’s Foreign Ministry. Cuba has long expressed frustration over what it sees as the illegal intervention in the country’s internal affairs by U.S. diplomats. Earlier this month, for example, President Raúl Castro condemned what he called the “illegal training” of and payments to Cuban dissidents.

For their part, U.S. diplomats want to be sure that Cubans can enter the U.S. embassy without harassment — or fear of harassment — by Cuban police who are currently posted outside the U.S. Interests Section in Havana.

While other stumbling blocks have disappeared, with Cuba’s imminent removal from the state sponsors of terror list, and the restoration of commercial banking services for its U.S. consular operations, negotiators on both sides express hope that they are closing in on an agreement to reopen embassies in each country.

Cuba’s removal from the terror list becomes fully effective on May 29th.

Cuba gets a new U.S. bank account

Stonegate Bank of Pompano Beach, Florida announced this week it will provide Cuba’s government with access to a bank account in the United States, removing a significant impediment to the restoration of relations, CNN reports.

Regulatory risks stemming from U.S. sanctions against Cuba caused New York-based M+T to close the bank account used by Cuba for transactions relating to its consular services and other needs. As Reuters reported at the time, this sent “shock waves” throughout the Cuba-U.S. travel industry and threatened to undermine the Obama administration’s people-to-people policies.

For a time, the Cuban Interests Section in Washington had to suspend all its consular services. As a work-around, Cuban diplomats had to use cash to make payments in the U.S. The State Department reportedly asked dozens of banks to fill the void created by M+T, and there were no visible signs of progress on this front until this week.

Stonegate Bank is a relatively small bank based in southwestern Florida with a market value of $300 million. The bank was brought into the mix in March, following a meeting involving “James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a Washington-based group promoting closer economic and cultural ties with Cuba; Ariel Pereda, a Miami businessman who’s the exclusive distributor for a number of U.S. food brands sold in Cuba; and Mark Wells, the head of the State Department’s Cuba desk,” as Bloomberg reported.

“After assessing the risks and finding everything to be legal, [CEO Dave Seleski] and his bank’s board decided there was more to gain than lose and accepted Cuba as a client.”

For Stonegate, a Florida-based bank, to get into this line of business speaks volumes about the change in the political climate.

“This isn’t about being Castro’s banker,” said Pereda, 35, the son of Cuban immigrants who fled Fidel Castro’s regime. “This is about being Cuba’s banker. Cuba is 11 million human beings and their American relatives” who need travel visas and consular services that require a bank, he said.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee debates the President’s Cuba policy

State Department Counselor Tom Shannon and Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson testified Wednesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on U.S.-Cuba policy. The hearing featured sharp, bipartisan, criticisms — and defense — of President Obama’s diplomatic opening with the island.

In his opening comments, Chairman Bob Corker (TN) acknowledged that “The administration’s Cuba policy initiative has been welcomed in Latin America and the Caribbean. But significant differences of opinion exist in the United States over the extent to which this change in policy will advance U.S. interests and improve circumstances for the Cuban people.”

Senator Marco Rubio (FL), a staunch critic of the President’s new policies, attacked the easing of restrictions on travel to the island for putting money in the hands of the Cuban government, and suggested Americans should be required to stay away from government-owned hotels.

In response, Senator Barbara Boxer (CA) shot back, “Are we going to start telling people what hotels to stay in in China? In Russia? In Vietnam?” Boxer said. “We don’t do that. We’re not an authoritarian country.”

Meanwhile, Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) pulled out his iPad and began scrolling through the more than 2,000 private Cuban homestay listings on Airbnb, to demonstrate the impact American travel can have on individual Cubans who rent space to visitors.

Senator Ben Cardin (MD), the ranking Democrat on the Committee, also defended the President’s new approach to Cuba. “Every day our diplomats around the world demonstrate their ability to engage foreign governments and advance U.S. national interests,” he said. “It is not unreasonable to think that we will have a better chance … if we actually engage in direct dialogue with the Cuban government.”

Shannon, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, made the point that progress with Cuba would open up key areas of regional cooperation. “I believe that we are actually going to be able to do more in the area of security. We are going to be able to do more in the area of non-proliferation. We are going to be able to do more in the area of fighting drugs because of this,” said Shannon.

Cuban reporter speaks up at White House press conference

For what is thought to be the first time ever, a Cuban reporter asked the U.S. President’s Press Secretary a question, (or, six). USA Today reports that Cristina Escobar, a reporter covering the United States for Cuba’s national television network, pressed Josh Earnest on a number of issues surrounding the evolving diplomatic relations.

“First, do you think that it’s possible to see the scenario in which we will open embassies in Havana and Washington? And in that future scenario, is the administration committed to be more respectful of the Vienna Convention towards the behavior of the American diplomats in Havana, for example? Do you think the programs for regime change will go on or not? Do you have any remarks on that? And on the other way, do think that President Obama will also continue seeing his exec prerogative to expand the links, the bonds, with Cuba?”

Earnest responded saying the talks would focus on the potential abilities of the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, and emphasized the need for engagement with the island. He added, “there are too many Cuban political activists, Cuban journalists, who see their freedom of speech, their freedom of assembly, their freedom of expression trampled by the Cuban government.”

The exchange ended on a lighter note. Escobar’s final question asked if it would be possible to see Obama in Havana before 2016.

Earnest replied, “I know he would relish the opportunity to visit the island, and Havana in particular.”

Rubio, Vitter introduce bill on Cuban foreign claims settlement

Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and David Vitter (LA) introduced legislation this week to prevent the lifting of travel or trade restrictions against the island until outstanding U.S. claims against Cuba for properties confiscated after 1959 are resolved.

The U.S. Claims Settlement Act declares that the United States “should not pursue efforts to ease restrictions on travel to or trade with Cuba or to otherwise further normalize relations with Cuba” until three conditions are met:

  1. The President submits a plan to Congress on how confiscated property will be addressed;
  2. All property taken by the Cuban government, as defined by the Act, has either been returned to the original owners or compensation is provided to them; and,
  3. The Government of Cuba provides “secure protection” for the internationally recognized rights of the people of Cuba.

The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has certified 5,911 U.S. claims against Cuba totaling $1.8 billion (calculated in current dollars plus accumulated interest at over $7 billion).

While the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has won full compensation for a number of its claims in the past, it is not expected to do so in the case of Cuba. Experts cite Cuba’s lack of hard currency and its own counter-claims of damages to its economy by the U.S. embargo. Dr. Bill LeoGrande wrote of the difficulties in settling this issue in Newsweek earlier this year.

Mauricio Tamargo, a former Foreign Claims Settlement Commission chairman, has suggested levying licensing fees on U.S. companies doing business in Cuba in order to pay claim. Timothy Ashby, a former Commerce Department official in the first Bush Administration, has argued for claimants to opt out of U.S. claims settlement and seek direct negotiations with the Cuban government. Ashby also headed an effort to buy up claims, in hopes of later negotiating with Cuba for the consolidated claims. The Bush Administration put the brakes on that effort back in 2008.

In the days following President Obama’s announced that diplomatic relations would be restored, Marie Harf, a State Department spokeswoman, declined to speculate on what an eventual resolution of the claims might look like. “These things are not going to get resolved before we’ve normalized diplomatic relations,” said Harf. “Obviously, they’ll be part of the conversation.”

After weeks in limbo, U.S.-bound migrants return to Cuba

After spending weeks at sea aboard a U.S. Coast Guard cutter, 38 Cuban migrants have been repatriated to Cuba, the AP reports.  The group departed Cuba for St. Lucia with legal tourist visas, but headed instead toward the United States. Under the U.S. wet-foot dry-foot policy, the Coast Guard normally repatriates Cubans picked up at sea. But, Cuba was initially unwilling to accept the migrants; since the migrants left Cuba legally, Cuban authorities did not consider themselves bound to repatriate the group, as provided by the 1995 migration accord Cuba signed with the United States.

The case highlights a key stumbling block to normal U.S.-Cuban relations. Cuba’s government complains that the preferential treatment of Cuban migrants by the United States “is the principal stimulus to illegal migration from Cuba to the United States and to the irregular entries of Cubans to U.S. territories through third countries, undermining the commitment made by both countries to promote legal, safe and orderly migration.”

Migration to the U.S. by Cubans without legal visas has increased significantly in recent months, as Cubans fear the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations may bring with it an end to a longstanding open door policy for Cubans.

Elian Gonzalez wants to “give his love to the American people”

Elian Gonzalez, the Cuban boy shipwrecked in 1999, who was fished out of the sea and later caught in the middle of a geo-political custody battle that lasted months into 2000, sat down this week for an exclusive interview with ABC News — his first interview with American press.

He tells his story of leaving Cuba with his mother on a small boat, and capsizing in the middle of the ocean. He describes his relationship with the United States, and even mentions he would love to visit the United States.

“To the American people, first I say thank you for the love they give me,” Gonzalez said. “I want the time to give my love to American people.”

At age five, Elian Gonzalez left Cuba on a boat with his mother in 1999, headed for family members living in Miami’s Cuban community. His mother drowned on the trip, and Elian was placed to live with her relatives after his rescue from the sea. A pitched battle was triggered by the family’s unwillingness to allow the boy to be reunited with his father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez. He subsequently came to the United States seeking his return while then-President Fidel Castro made Elian’s case a rallying cry in Cuba.

However, four months into Elian’s stay in the U.S., a federal district court ruled that only Elian’s father, in Cuba, could legally obtain custody of the boy. In 2000, federal agents were forced to seize Elian from the home in Miami where he was held, ultimately enabling his father to bring him back home to Cuba.

In President Raúl Castro’s speech to Cuba’s National Assembly following the diplomatic breakthrough he engineered with the U.S., he recognized Elian and Juan Miguel who were applauded by members of the parliament. Elian, who is now 21 and engaged to be married, is studying to become an electrical engineer.

The Minnesota Orchestra shines in Havana

The Minnesota Orchestra played two historical performances in Havana last weekend, including pieces by Beethoven and other composers it played in Cuba when it last toured the island in 1929 and 1930.

Though not listed on the program, the Orchestra opened the performances by playing the national anthems of Cuba and the United States. The audience members were surprised to hear the two songs played together, and many wept openly.

“Most Cuban people think Americans don’t have an emotional side,” said Ernesto Alejandro Alvarez, in an interview with the Minnesota Star Tribune. “To play the anthem was a great show of respect — symbolic for this visit. It has been a beautiful experience.”

Rocking the Boat: U.S. sailors set sail for Havana

A sailboat race between the United States and Cuba, called the Havana Challenge, took place this week. The race left Key West on Saturday May 16 at sunrise and arrived in Marina Hemingway in the evening. A race along the Malecón, Havana’s eight kilometer waterfront seawall, took place between Cuban and American sail boats as well. A live tracker on the race’s website shows that the U.S. team has arrived safely back in Key West. The event was sponsored by The Key West Community Sailing Center.

The Havana Challenge is one of the first sanctioned U.S.-Cuba sailing races to take place since the embargo.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

FARC suspends ceasefire after attack by Colombia’s army

The Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), a rebel Marxist group that has waged guerrilla war against Colombia’s government for over 50 years, has suspended a six month-old unilateral ceasefire after a government raid killed 26 FARC fighters, the BBC reports.

Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have been underway in Havana since 2012, and Cuba has earned international praise for promoting peace between the government and the rebels. Talks were briefly suspended in April after guerilla fighters killed 11 Colombian soldiers, prompting Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos to announce the resumption of air strikes on FARC outposts.

Fidel Castro meets with President of Serbia

Cuba’s state-run newspaper Granma released rare photographs of a meeting that took place this week between Serbia’s president Tomislav Nikolic and Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro in Castro’s home. Nicolic presented Castro the Medal of the Republic of Serbia for “distinguished merit in the development and strengthening of friendship and cooperation between the Cuban and Serbian Republics.”

Diaz-Canel attends Romero beautification ceremony

Cuba’s first vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel traveled to El Salvador on Friday to attend the beautification ceremony for Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, who was killed in 1980 for speaking out against military abuses, Granma reports.

As Jonathan Watts writes in The Guardian, “Romero was a deeply divisive figure in life, and his beatification — a step towards his becoming El Salvador’s first saint — was long resisted by rightwing clerics and politicians… At his funeral, the army opened fired on the more than 100,000 mourners, killing dozens.

IN CUBA

Cuban opera contrasts Cuba’s utopian dream with dystopian reality

While playing a round of golf in 1961, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara decided to turn a large golf course (a symbol of pre-revolution capitalism and excess) into a sprawling complex of free art schools. Not long after, the Escuelas Nacionales de Artes, once shining architectural achievements and representations of the utopian side of the Cuban revolution fell out of favor and were left unkempt. Recently, the complex has been recognized as a national treasure, but remains in “various stages of abandonment” showing the juxtaposition of utopian idealism and dystopian reality.

This complicated and avant-garde story was turned into a book, Revolution of Forms by John Loomis, and will open as an opera in Havana this month. The upcoming performances represent the strong presence of political commentary in Cuban arts. The producer of the opera, a filmmaker from Berkeley, California, said that he did not have to show the script to Cuban officials before the opera is to be performed. The opera will open during this month’s Biennial.

Havana Biennial brings hundreds of artists from across the world

Over 300 artists and curators from 45 countries are in Havana this weekend for the opening of the 12th Havana Biennial, held every two or three years in Havana, the Nuevo Herald reports. Among the exhibits is a project by the Bronx Museum of the Arts, which will display 100 works by 54 artists focusing on the shared African roots of American and Cuban societies.

Recommended Reading

Exiled “Peter Pans” measure new ties with Cuba against the ties they lost, David Montgomery, Washington Post

Ties remain strong among children who were involved in the 1960-1962 “Operation Pedro Pan.” After the Cuban revolution, over 14,000 Cuban children were sent to the United States by their parents. The operation was initiated by Rev. Bryan Walsh, a Catholic priest in Miami, and was supported by the U.S. government. Now, in 2015, Washington, D.C.-area “Peter Pans” have annual reunions. This year’s meeting, the first held after the December 17th announcement that diplomatic relations would be restored, became a forum for opinions ranging from “I feel betrayed” to “this is the time to really influence the future of the island.”

Benicio del Toro on US-Cuban normalization: ‘Let rip. I think it’s great’, Henry Barnes, The Guardian

Benicio del Toro, the Oscar-winning actor who played Che Guevara in the controversial biopic “Che”, comments on U.S.-Cuban relations. “Let rip. I think it’s great,” he said earlier this week. The actor believes that the changes will take time, but will benefit both countries. The film Che was attacked by political dissidents for glamorizing Che Guevara.

Recommended Viewing

Louisiana Inmates Give Life To Cubans In NeedHeath Allen, WDSU News

Louisiana inmates are involved in a program to repair wheelchairs which are then shipped to Cubans in need. The effort is part of an organization called Joni and Friends Wheels for the World, which has collected 34,000 wheelchairs nationwide. The program works in tandem with the Cuban Association of People With Disabilities.

A View of Cuba From AboveDavid Sim, International Business Times

Lithuanian aerial photographer and publisher Marius Jovaisa just did something no one has ever done before: photograph Cuban landscapes from the air. His project, which turned into the 200-page book Unseen Cuba, took five years to complete. It included a long and complex process of obtaining government permission to fly over and photograph the island, along with the acquisition of a plane and pilot to fly the photographer.

Scenes from USA-Cuba wrestling match in Times SquareUSA Today

The U.S. and Cuban national teams competed in an exhibition wrestling match on Wednesday to benefit the non-profit youth wrestling organization Beat the Streets. The U.S. won 9-4.

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