News about a Florida Poll, and reflections on travel and trade

By a greater than two-to-one margin, Floridians favor opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to the Sunshine State Survey released this week. 

When asked, “Do you favor freeing up diplomatic relations with Cuba?,” 56% of Floridians indicated support and only 26% opposed the idea. 

While the fact that diplomacy with Cuba enjoys majority support in Florida is important by itself, and has been reported in surveys before, what is most interesting about this poll is who is expressing that support most:  respondents who live in Miami and Palm Beach.

The survey, conducted jointly by University of South Florida School of Public Affairs with Nielsen, shows the highest support for diplomatic relations in the counties with the highest representation of Cuban Americans in the United States. 

Interestingly, Sunshine State Survey, in the field from July 30-August 16th, primarily had questions about the biggest threats to Florida’s economy.  In reporting the results, the University of South Florida factsheet said:

“There is strong support for economic development efforts aimed at keeping and expanding businesses and opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba.[our emphasis]”

By folding together the themes of economic growth and diplomacy with Cuba, the results reveal that all Floridians, but especially those in Miami and Palm Beach, are expressing views all but identical to the majority of Americans in the other 49 states who have understood and experienced Cuba from a greater distance, geographically, intellectually, and emotionally.

More and more, as these distinct perspectives merge, with the important policy actions taken by President Obama to remove restrictions on travel and trade through executive action, there is a lot more momentum behind those who want to think and act anew about Cuba policy, pulling away from the Florida–centric, sanctions–centric debate that prevailed for so long.

A note to readers

This week, the staff of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, publisher of your Cuba Central News Blast, is largely located in Cuba, handling back-to-back-to-back delegations that included Members of Congress and Congressional staff.  So, if we seem a little heavy on words and analysis and light on news summaries today, we hope what we have to say in this edition will still be of interest to readers.  We’ll be back to normal next week (we hope!)

 

The Economic Genius of Expanding Travel to Cuba

We were in Havana on December 14th when Presidents Castro and Obama gave nationwide speeches – both were broadcast in Cuba – announcing their decision to resume diplomatic relations.

One element of the new policy that made us stand was the profound shift it represented; namely, moving U.S. policy from its position of trying to cause Cuba’s economy and system to fail, to one of trying to make the lives of Cubans more prosperous. 

Since we are quite shy from getting the U.S. Congress to repeal the embargo, and the statutory ban on tourist travel, President Obama did the next best thing to advance this new policy perspective.  He used his authority to encourage more travel by Americans to Cuba – in people-to-people delegations and by businesses – to stimulate greater economic activity on the island. 

Not long after the policy was rolled out, Emily Morris, writing for American University, suggested that “a plausible estimate of these changes on Cuban national income in the short-term would be a boost of around one percentage point of GDP.”   Another analyst said, “the main effect of all of this (travel reforms) will be more visitors putting more dollars into parts of the Cuban economy that are already changing,” referring to Cuba’s nascent sector of privately owned businesses. 

The Wharton Business School, as part of its series on Cuba, quoted a Miami-based entrepreneur saying,  “Tourism is a great way to get dollars into the Cuban economy.”

By eliminating limits on remittances to Cuba, as he did, and by removing most remaining restrictions on non-tourist travel to the island, the President enabled a sharp rise in U.S. travel to Cuba.  By September 2nd, according to figures released last month, visits to Cuba by non-Cuban Americans exceeded 100,000 — as many as had traveled to Cuba during all of 2014.

The policy is putting more money into the pockets of Cuban entrepreneurs (flowing from them to family members, employees and others), and offers them greater hope for the future. 

That’s what Cubans tell us during visits like the ones we’re enjoying now, and their attitudes are confirmed by the data reported earlier this year by Univision Noticias and Fusion showing 97% support for policy among Cubans surveyed on the island.  Cubans are invested in the success of engagement, and the policy is influencing U.S. political and public sentiment (as the Sunshine State Survey revealed) in a similar way.

U.S. Governors Press Congress for New Travel and Trade Policies

Travel is an important source of foreign exchange that enables the Cuban government to pay for the imports it needs to feed its people. Political leaders in the U.S. are taking note of that, supporting policies to increase both travel and trade.

For example, nine U.S. Governors — two Republicans and seven Democrats, from states as populous as California, as sparsely populated as Idaho, as liberal as Vermont, as conservative as Alabama – appealed to the House and Senate leadership  to “end current trade sanctions against Cuba.”

Their October 9th letter, released this week, highlighted the importance of Cuba as market for U.S. agriculture, but added “a sustainable trade relationship cannot be limited to one sector or involve only one-way transactions.” And so they called on the Congress “to take action and remove the financial, travel, and other restrictions that impede normal commerce and trade between our nation and Cuba.”

There are a lot of reasons to take this letter seriously. The Montgomery Advertiser, for example, published an editorial yesterday afternoon, supporting the Governor’s call for ending the embargo, and citing the appeal that Cuba has as an export market for Alabama.  But, it went on to say, “for those more interested in politics than trade or jobs, ending the embargo surely holds far better prospects for bringing democracy to Cuba than maintaining it.”

To ensure their governor got their point, the editorial board concluded with a call to action:  “We urge Bentley to go beyond simply signing the letter and to begin seriously advocating for ending the embargo, starting with Alabama’s congressional delegation.”

This is happening nationwide. The ideal of Cuba as an agriculture market brought Members of Congress Cheri Bustos (Il-17)and Rodney Davis (Il-13) and the Illinois Cuba Working Group to the island “to talk trade and opportunity,” as the American Agriculturist wrote it.

It was the prospect of doing business with Cuba in a post-embargo world that brought U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan and Northeast Ohio business officials for talks to open up “a potential new trade market with the Communist country,” as a local newspaper put it. 

In September, as we previously noted, Arkansas’s governor, Asa Hutchinson, led a trade mission to Cuba.   What we didn’t know then, but has been reported since, is that his trip was paid for by the Arkansas Republican Party, as The Pew Charitable Trusts and a local Arkansas outlet, the Hot Springs Daily, reported. Apparently, it was easier for him to justify using party money rather than taxpayer money for the trip, a political statement itself.

Congress is still an obstacle

Despite the promising poll numbers out of Florida — and the convergence of Florida and national opinion — Cuba reform is a party that Congress still does not wish to attend. 

The majority party in Congress is opposed to President Obama’s reform path on Cuba. The Senate has fielded two Cuban American presidential candidates who are hardened supporters of U.S. sanctions. The House, unable to elect a new presiding officer, is producing little in the way of meaningful legislation.

But, Members of the House and Senate are wisely moving to increase support for legislation to repeal the ban on travel (and the embargo itself) nonetheless. 

U.S. Representative Mark Sanford, who introduced the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,” bipartisan legislation to repeal the travel ban,  has attracted bipartisan support from 43 Members of the House.

Senator Jeff Flake is the author of the companion measure in the Senate. His “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act” has 45 cosponsors, 9 of whom are Republican.

What will help these leaders build up their support even further?

For starters, the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic agreement has awakened the non-farm sectors of the business community from their torpor, and that is likely to increase pressure on the Congress to act. 

One example is represented by Arne Sorenson, the CEO of Marriott, who wrote in July about the competitive pressures his company faces: 

 

“Hotel companies from Latin America and Europe have been doing business in Cuba for decades. With travel to Cuba now surging, existing Cuban hotels are full and hotel companies from other countries are racing to tie up as many of the new hotels as they can before the likes of Marriott and our U.S. competitors show up.

“Shouldn’t U.S. companies be permitted to at least compete for all this new travel business in Cuba? While undeniably biased, I think the answer to this question must be ‘yes’.”

This competitive argument aligns with a compassionate argument that reasonable men and women of good will have been making for some time.

People of faith are out organizing support for travel and trade legislation; as is visible thisappeal from the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America, urging not only passage of the travel bill but the Emmer-Castor legislation to end the embargo. 

There are televised ads like “Guess What?,” produced by Engage Cuba, highlighting the right of Americans to visit North Korea while our government bars us from visiting Cuba as tourists. Organizations like Latin America Working Group and many more are doing important work connecting constituencies to Congress so that the demand for reform is heard.

We see gradual progress going forward

Today, there is a consensus – among public officials and the general public – joining people of faith and faithful capitalists –  for building on what President Obama did in 2014 by making lasting statutory changes that end the travel ban and lift the embargo once and for all. 

Until Congress acts, there will be obstacles along the way. 

Obstacles exist in Cuba.  Questions about human rights and even Cuba’s intentions with regard to buying U.S. food could hold things up. The limits to Internet access, the country’s physical infrastructure, its supply of hotel rooms, its ability or desire to process U.S. credit card transactions, existing Cuban controls on foreign investment, and the country’s gradualist approach (its desire for control along with a general philosophical debate over how much and how fast their economic model should change) are slowing things down. 

“It’s not easy to do business in a country that is in transition,” as Hugo Cancio told Whartonearlier this year. “It will take time for Cuba to be fully ready to take advantage of these conditions.  But, they are working on it…There will be gradual change.  When the embargo is officially lifted, the Cubans will be ready.”

There are legal issues as well.  In the area of commercial air service, for example, there are real concerns about property claims frustrating the ability of Cuba to gain reciprocal access to the U.S. market.  Until this problem is solved, the goal of meaningful two-way travel will be out of reach. All of this said, the climate around travel to Cuba – the atmosphere surrounding the U.S.-Cuba relationship and its future – has really changed for the better.

For most Americans, the idea of traveling to Cuba has enduring appeal.  As Brendan Sainsbury writes in The Lonely Planet, “If Cuba were a book, it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses; layered, hard to grasp, serially misunderstood, but – above all – a classic.” 

Hardliners don’t want Americans to travel to Cuba at all, until Cuba changes it system; their polar opposites are the ones beating down the doors now, intent on visiting Cuba “before it changes.”  Patrick Symmes, a writer for  Outside on Line, summarized their position this way:  “We want to see the island before we ourselves get there to ruin it.”

Not everyone wants to visit Cuba, but the debate is now decidedly more civil.  In an article about an upcoming LGBT visit to the island, one Florida leader told Edge Media, “It’s not appropriate to casually go on vacation there.” But, unlike the old days, the differences of opinion, more often than not, are civilly expressed.

Some Cubans we talk to are surprisingly candid in saying, “We’re not ready,” for an even greater influx of travelers when they come, as we will. Others express a deeper concern that we Americans won’t respect what Cubans have to offer us when we arrive. 

These are high-quality problems in comparison to the bitter debates about travel that the hardliners used to dominate not that long ago.

Now, we have a healthier, freer, more open discussion with our eyes on the clock and the calendar. 

With just over a year left in President Obama’s term, an opponent of the opening could be elected president and take office in 2017.  So there is urgency to getting as much resolved as is possible by then, so it’s harder, much harder to roll back.

 

Until next time,
The Cuba Central Team
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