Is The Supreme Court Passport Decision A Threat to Helms-Burton? We think so.

The Supreme Court’s decision this week in what is called the Jerusalem Passport Case poses a clear danger to the Helms-Burton law, and it will help to accelerate the unraveling of what has held together our nation’s counterproductive policies against Cuba.

The hardliners feared and predicted exactly this fallout from a decision by the Supreme Court that was adverse to their interests.

First, let’s start with a brief description of the case.

Although Israel considers Jerusalem to be its capital, Presidents of both parties since Harry Truman have maintained a neutral position on Jerusalem’s status pending a peace settlement. In 2002, Congress, as the Washington Post explained, “passed a law that, among other things, allows Jerusalem-born applicants for U.S. passports to record their place of birth as ‘Israel’ if they so request.” The intent was to nudge U.S. policy in the direction of Israel’s position on Jerusalem. President Bush, who signed the provision as part of a larger appropriation measure, nonetheless issued a public statement opposing it because it “impermissibly interferes with the President’s authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs.”

SCOTUS Blog takes up the story here: “Shortly after his birth in Jerusalem in 2002, Menachem Zivotofsky’s parents applied for a U.S. passport for their infant son,” exercising their right under the Congressional passport provision “to ask the State Department to designate ‘Israel’ as Menachem’s place of birth.”

The State Department turned them down, citing the U.S. policy since 1948 “of not recognizing any country as having sovereignty over the holy city of Jerusalem. The Zivotofskys went to court to challenge that decision.”

For nearly 13 years, the case went up and down the judicial and appellate food chain. But the closer it got to the Supreme Court, the more anxious the cross-cutting coalition of pro-Israel and anti-Castro Members of Congress became.

What Senate and House supporters of the passport feared most was the possibility that the President could be given what their amicus brief called “carte blanche to treat as unconstitutional—and to refuse to comply with—any Act of Congress that it determines touches on recognition policy.”

In its 6-3 decision, however, the Supreme Court held the President has exclusive power to grant formal recognition to a foreign sovereign. Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said “The formal act of recognition is an executive power that Congress may not qualify.” In what could almost be construed as a reference to the Cuba negotiations, the Court writes, “The President is capable, in ways Congress is not, of engaging in the delicate and often secret diplomatic contacts that may lead to a decision on recognition.”

At the same time, the Supreme Court left in place all the powers the Congress shares with the President on foreign policy – to declare war, regulate foreign commerce, fund the armed forces, the right to vote down ambassadors, the power to provide no funds for an embassy –the tools that the hardliners are using in the appropriations process right now to try and turn back the Cuba policy reforms ordered by President Obama after he announced our diplomatic breakthrough with President Castro.

But, time and again, the Court makes clear that “Recognition is a ‘formal acknowledgement’ that a particular entity possess the qualifications for statement’ or ‘that a particular regime is the effective government of a state’,” and that those powers belong to the President of the United States alone.

Now, go read Helms-Burton, the law signed by President Bill Clinton, which arrogates to the Congress a lot of authority for determining when – and under what circumstances – the United States can resume normal relations.

The law says the president cannot color outside the Congressional drawn lines. Only when the government in Cuba fits the definition of a government in transition or a democratically-elected government can the President recognize Cuba, trade with Cuba, negotiate with Cuba over Guantanamo, allow Cuba to enter the World Bank or other financial institutions, etc.

This is what Helms-Burton was also all about; placing conditions on the independent authority of the President and preventing him or her from engaging in diplomacy or normalizing relations with Cuba, until Cuba fit the definition that Congress wrote into the law. It was seizing for itself the recognition authority that the Supreme Court ruled this week is assigned to the President alone.

The whole architecture of the Cold War Cuba policy is coming apart. It has no public support to speak of. President Obama has used his executive power to liberalize travel and trade. Engagement is as popular in Florida as it is anywhere in the United States, and it is even more popular in Cuba. U.S. travel to the island is surging; businesses are chomping at the bit to make contacts and sign contracts. Members of Congress who marched in lock-stop with the hardliners are changing their minds. And now the law which was the backstop for all of this – and for all the people who said, the power lies with Congress and Congress ain’t budging – the passport case proved to be the sum of all their fears.

In fact, the President gets to decide which governments we recognize; a principle, the court tells us, dating back to the first presidential administration. “The debate,” the court writes, arose in 1793 after France had been torn by revolution. Once the Revolutionary Government was established, Secretary of State Jefferson and President Washington, without consulting Congress, authorized the American Ambassador to resume relations with the new regime.” When Citizen Genet was welcomed in Washington, France was recognized.

Yes the Senate through its confirmation power can stop the President from having a U.S. Ambassador in Cuba, but it cannot stop the Cuban Ambassador from being welcomed by the President.

If it worked for George Washington and Citizen Genet, it will work for Barack Obama and Jose Cabañas.


EU – CELAC Summit leaders call for an “early end” to the U.S. Cuba embargo

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports that leaders at the Summit of the European Union and Community of Latin America and Caribbean States in Brussels this week issued a statement calling for the end of the U.S. embargo against Cuba. The joint statement noted that the embargo has caused “undue humanitarian consequences” for the Cuban people and is “damaging to the legitimate development of economic ties between Cuba, the European Union and other countries.”

In light of changes to U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations, the EU and Latin American nations “expect all necessary steps to be taken towards an early end to the embargo.”

Cuba and the EU are involved in bilateral negotiations, similar to the U.S.-Cuba talks, whose goal is to replace the EU’s Common Position toward Cuba with normalized relations.

European Council president Donald Tusk confirmed on Wednesday that the European Union (EU) is “determined to finish negotiating its first bilateral agreement with Cuba, equally hoping for the normalization of relations between Havana and Washington to end the US embargo against the Caribbean island.”

The talks between the EU and Cuba, now in their fourth round, will resume in Brussels on June 15 and June 16.

Numerous European foreign ministers and Heads of State have visited the island since last December’s diplomatic thaw with the U.S., many to protect their favorable trade relations with Cuba while the U.S. embargo remains in place.

Remittances help accelerate economic change in Cuba

Though the embargo still prohibits direct investment from the U.S. in Cuba, U.S. remittances to the island are legal, and they are changing Cuba’s economy, the Miami Herald reports.

In other countries, remittances would be used primarily to help cover household needs. But, in Cuba, “Someone receiving a remittance of $5,000, for example, from the United States can go and start a business or buy a small apartment,” points out Odilon Almeida, president of the Americas and European Union for Western Union. “I think remittances are changing Cuba faster than is perceived today.”

Over the last several years, the Cuban government has legalized 201 forms of self-employment. Currently, around 500,000 entrepreneurs function in Cuba’s economy as cuentapropistas, or small private business owners

The president of The Havana Consulting Group, Emilio Morales, predicts an 8.6% rise in yearly remittances from the United States to Cuba, increasing the amount to nearly $4 billion in 2015.

In December 2014, President Obama loosened limits on remittances by any American from $500 to $2,000 quarterly. Remittances from family members have no limit.

Though money from Florida constitutes the vast majority of remittances to Cuba, remittances are now sent from all fifty states to one of Cuba’s 420 Western Union offices.

Almeida firmly believes that “remittances can accelerate tremendously the pace of change in Cuba and we could accelerate that much more if we could make transfers not only from the United States but also from the diaspora in other countries.”

Currently, U.S. remittances reach 62% of Cuban households; although, it must be noted, such payments are understood to be exacerbating inequality on the island, since only about 5% of recipients are Afro-Cuban.

Orlando-Havana flights take off

After a more than two-hour weather delay, the first charter flight to Havana departed Orlando Thursday. The nonstop flight scheduled by Gulfstream Air Charters, which already offers service from Miami to Havana, is the first of three scheduled for this month. In April., Island Travel and Tours announced it would begin twice weekly service in July.

If the U.S. Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Departments budget bill (“THUD”) authored by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25) were to become law, the service would be shut-down. The bill contains prohibitions on new ferry services and on flights that come into service after March 31, 2015. The White House, however, has indicated that the measure would be vetoed should it land on the President’s desk.

Majority of Floridians favor engagement with Cuba

In a poll of Floridians fielded at the end of May, 63 percent of respondents said they favor the opening of trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and 58% support the operation of ferry service between the island and Florida, the Tampa Tribune reports. In addition, an overwhelming majority support Pope Francis’ involvement in the restoration of relations between the two countries.

The 2015 poll was conducted by St. Leo University’s Polling Institute, and it comes on the heels of multiple polls conducted on U.S. attitudes about our foreign policy toward Cuba that showed substantial majorities for diplomatic relations, the freedom to travel, and lifting the embargo.

Louisiana rice farmers push to end the trade embargo

Rice farmers in Louisiana foresee benefits of increasing trade with Cuba, and are pushing Congress to end the trade ban with the island. Currently, Cuba now spends approximately $300 million on rice imports annually; but, the U.S. has been locked out of the market for nearly a decade.

Although sales of rice – indeed all agricultural goods – have been legal under U.S. law since 2000, suppliers as far from Cuba as Vietnam have asserted dominance over the market because they allow Cuba to use credit to purchase goods.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp (ND), who introduced a bill this year to make it easier to export to Cuba, noted, “The biggest obstacle in that effort involves private companies and banks not being able to provide credit to export agricultural commodities to Cuba, where these crops are in high demand.”

“The reason for the most loss in our market share there was our inability to extend credit, as our competitors, the EU and Brazil and others are doing,” said Michael T. Scuse, undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, at a Senate hearing this year. “So the playing field right now is not level.”

Military journalists from Illinois National Guard headed to Cuba

Twenty members of the public affairs unit of the Illinois National Guard will be deployed to Guantanamo Bay this week. According to the State Journal Register, the team of military journalists will support media organizations reporting on operations at Guantanamo, publish a weekly magazine, and contribute video and radio products to the Armed Forces Network.

The Mobile Public Affairs Detachment will add support to the new diplomatic efforts between the United States and Cuba during their nine month stint in Guantanamo. The Governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, made a speech at the deployment ceremony. “This deployment is critically important for facilitating communications with Cuba.”

Capt. Dustin Cammack of Chicago, commander of the division stressed the significance of his unit’s mission. “The level of media scrutiny we will be under is extremely high,” said Cammack. “Our goal is to provide maximum disclosure with minimum delay.”

President Obama has continually called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison, located on the Southeastern end of Cuba. The base was established in 1898 when the United States took control of Cuba from Spain, and Cuba’s government has never recognized the land as United States property.

However, the State Department has made clear that the closure of the American base at Guantanamo Bay is not on the table in the effort to normalize diplomatic relations.

Renowned Cuban-American poets launch writing project on normalization

Cuban-American poets Richard Blanco and Ruth Behar have launched a writing project with the hopes of sharing the nuances and textures of the changing U.S.-Cuban relations, incorporating voices that are often lost in the media’s representation of events.

The project, Bridges to Cuba, is in blog form, and will share the stories and feelings of Cubans, Cuban-Americans, and exiled Cubans living abroad.

Richard Blanco, the nation’s fifth poet laureate and first Latino to read a poem at a presidential inauguration, and partner Ruth Behar describe the need to talk about the part of normalizing relations that no one with a public voice is talking about.

“For it is not simply a political and economic embargo that needs to be lifted,” the authors wrote on the website, “but also the weight of an emotional embargo that has kept Cubans collectively holding their breath for over 50 years.”

Bridges to Cuba will feature stories, poems, photo essays and other writings from poets, scholars, celebrities and others spanning across generations, races and geography.


Cuba, Paris Club members agree on Cuba’s debt

Cuba and Members of the Paris Club, an informal group of twenty creditor governments, agreed on $15 billion as the official figure for the island nation’s outstanding debt. The number includes principal, service charges, interest and penalties that accrued from 1986, when Cuba defaulted on its debt.

Cuba’s decision to agree on a number shows the country’s willingness to reintegrate into the global economy, and to adhere to international financial rules.

In addition, Paris Club creditors “are willing to show flexibility with Cuba due to their increased interest in doing business here following the Caribbean island’s detente with the United States,” the diplomats said.

Spain’s Economic Minister to visit Cuba

Spain’s Economy Minister Luis de Guindos will visit Cuba in the coming months to attend an economics conference there and meet with Cuban officials. De Guindos noted that many Spanish companies were interested in investing in the island.

Spain has historically served a bridge between Cuba and the rest of Europe. However, under Spain’s current center-right ruling party, relations have not been as close. The visit by Spain’s Economic Minister shows renewed interest in bilateral relations.


The position of Cuban women today: not clear cut

This topic of women’s empowerment in Cuba is a complicated issue, as reported by the New York Times this week.

In many categories, Cuba is recognized as a leader on gender rights, relative not only to its Latin America neighbors on issues like property rights and reproductive health, but globally on measures such as the percentage of women in its National Assembly, and the number of mayors and provincial governors. However, in a nation with a macho culture and a legislature with limited authority, women’s influence on legislation is not as easily measured.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, makes this point. “Women within the system point out the gaps between promises and practice. They call it a ‘gender paradox,’ a society legally bound to equality but harnessed to the traditional system of patriarchy,” Stephens says.

Patriarchy is still incredibly present in Cuban society, as patriarchal “attitudes and traditions are threaded deep into Latin American culture and society.”

Participation by Cuban women in the workforce, relatively low by regional standards, continues to rise, however. Not to mention, “it hasn’t gone unnoticed that Havana and Washington chose women (Josefina Vidal and Roberta Jacobson) to lead the most crucial and public negotiations in more than 50 years between the two countries.”

Recommended Reading

Former Senate Leader Frist: U.S. can learn from Cuba Bill Frist, Forbes

Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is speaking out on Cuba, once again. In a column published in the online edition of Forbes, the business magazine, Frist reflects on two trips to the island. He says he believes the U.S. could learn from Cuba’s prioritization of the preventative primary care focus of the Cuban healthcare system, and that the U.S. could benefit from biomedical research exchanges with the island.

“On two health-oriented trips to Cuba in the past year, what struck me was a systematically planned and organized primary care delivery system that captured the doctor-patient relationships of my father’s era of medical practice. Cuba treats healthcare as a human right, specifically stipulated in its constitution. Cuban nationals receive care for free, and have a neighborhood primary care physician who often knows them by name and sees them regularly.”

Does Cuba hold the answer to America’s doctor shortage? Mark Hay, Good Magazine

With improved U.S.-Cuban relations already leading to one major development in the medical sphere, hopes are high for another: Cuban doctors ameliorating the extreme doctor shortage in the United States. Good Magazine reports that in ten years, America’s doctor shortage could reach 90,000.

Cuba’s revolutionary government put an enormous emphasis on its health care system, and the country is now home to tens of thousands of trained doctors, many of whom practice abroad.

Cuba received global recognition during the Ebola crisis by leading with its response to fight the disease. Cuban doctors are trained comprehensively in preventive and primary care, and taught to work with limited resources

In 2005, Cuba offered over one thousand doctors to aid Hurricane Katrina relief. 1,600 Cuban doctors were on stand-by at the time, brushing up on English skills, the medical problems common to natural disasters, and the local history of Louisiana and Mississippi. Despite the crushing needs at the time, the White House said no to Cuba’s offer. “When it comes to Cuba,” said Press Secretary Scott McClellan, “we have one message for Fidel Castro: He needs to offer the people of Cuba their freedom.”

However, with warming relations, many are hopeful about putting the past behind us. Professor Peter A. Muennig of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health put it simply by pointing out: “There is a surplus of medical personnel in Cuba and a shortage in the US. This will therefore be hugely beneficial to both countries.”

The Americans studying medicine in Cuba, Sam Laird, Mashable

American Lillian Burnett studies medicine at the University of Havana’s school of medicine, Escuela Latinoamericana de Medicina (ELAM). Students from over 120 countries study at ELAM’s six year program. Burnett describes her experience and decision to pursue medicine in Cuba. The Cuban medical system focuses on small clinics, personal relationships, preventive care, and community building. When doctors graduate ELAM, they are expected to return home to work in underserved areas. “I saw that and was like, ‘Yup, that’s what I want to do,'” Burnett says. “‘That’s the kind of doctor I want to be.”

Why Baseball Is Losing Its Grip on Cuba, Brian Costa, The Wall Street Journal

On an island where baseball has been deeply ingrained into the culture since the 1900s, soccer is taking root in the new generation. Baseball has long been a defining characteristic of Cuba, another symbol of Cuba’s distinct, unique, and untouched way of life for the past few decades. The new popularity of soccer, a more global sport, shows Cuba’s opening in sports terms. “Cuban people are, by default, baseball fans,” said Joel Chacon, a 38-year-old sommelier at a cigar shop in Old Havana. “But there is a generation under 30 that doesn’t care about baseball.”

Where Does Cuban Economy Go From Here?, Mario Vizcaino Serat, OnCuba Magazine

Cuban economist Juan Triana Cordivi talks about the future of the Cuban economy, specifically, investment and employment. He reports changes in the economy; “Today, companies have a bit more freedom when it comes to what they pay their employees and we are seeing large differences from one sector to the other.” He is also keen to point out the obstacles in Cuba’s economy — for example, employment agencies which place Cuba at a disadvantage with respect to other investment laws in countries in the region.” He notes that if nothing else, the change in relations between the United States and Cuba has changed Cuba’s image.

At the Havana Biennial, the Art Is Politics … and Vice Versa, Joseph Akel, Vanity Fair

Vanity Fair shares another angle of the Havana Biennial — its place in politics and diplomacy. “The Cuban revolutionary government,” American-born Cuban artist Coco Fusco points out, “has always used culture for diplomacy.” To that end, she notes, “the biennial is still the main venue for making the Cuban ideological project visible to the world.” The article features a photo of a reception at the residence of the American Chief of Mission in Havana, celebrating the opening of the Biennial.

Cuba’s Web Entrepreneurs Search for U.S. Client,and Reliable Wifi, Victoria Burnett, The New York Times

The New York Times documents the work of a website and app builder in Cuba, and tells a story of Cuban-style creativity and outsourcing.

Ever since the United States State Department authorized Americans to import goods and services from Cuban entrepreneurs, the work of Yondainer Gutierrez has changed completely. “This opens up the world,” he says. There is now a huge demand for Cuba’s computer programming sector — and with new rules, Americans may be able to access it. However, future exchanges between Cuba and the United States will have to rely heavily of Cuba’s spotty telecommunications sector.

Recommended Viewing

Riding Cuba’s railroad, one of the oldest in the world Adam Glanzman, Mashable

Photographer Adam Glanzman takes a trip on “the slowest, cheapest, and least reliable way” to cross Cuba, or, the Cuban railroad. He photographs his twenty hour journey, detailing the sights he saw and people he met. It’s worth a look.

Seeing the art and culture of the Havana Biennial Sonia Narang, PRI

Sonia Narang documents Havana’s annual Biennial with a handful of descriptive and colorful photos that capture the energy of the art festival. Artists from Morocco to New York City were in town to showcase their work, making for a global and connected experience.

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