Heaping Helpings of Cuba News and Gratitude

November 25, 2015

U.S. Cuba Relations

Views of GOP Pollster and Senator Rubio Diverge on U.S.-Cuba Relations

Continuing a debate he started last week with the release of the Atlantic Council Heartland survey, Glen Bolger, one of the Republican Party’s leading political strategists, is telling his party’s presidential candidates in a Miami Herald op-ed that they’ve missed an important foreign policy trend; “voters’ support,” he writes, “for the administration’s Cuba policy crosses the political spectrum.”

Bolger, a partner in Public Opinion Strategies, who did the polling for the successful Senate campaigns of Thom Tillis in North Carolina and Mike Rounds in South Dakota, conducted the Atlantic Council survey of voters’ opinion in Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, and Tennessee.  The results showed big majorities in these four Midwestern states in support of reestablishing diplomatic relations, ending the ban on legal travel, and lifting the trade embargo.

In addition to encouraging his party’s candidates to pay heed to these opinions, Bolger singled out “a small group of elected officials who have made a career advocating for this [Cold War] policy.  This dogmatic approach,” he says, “is no longer reflective of the American voter, even among Cuban Americans.”

With the exceptions of Donald Trump and U.S. Senator Rand Paul (KY), Republican candidates for the presidency have strongly criticized President Obama’s decision to restore relations with Cuba.  Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, for example, called the new policy a “foreign policy misstep by this President,” and “an ill-advised move” whose only beneficiaries are “The Castro Brothers.”  Texas Senator Ted Cruz described the policy as being “unconditional surrender” to Cuba.

But, as the presidential race has developed, few candidates have spoken more on Cuba than Republican Senator Marco Rubio. The Presidential hopeful has Cuban roots and has made a long career of working with Cuban-American constituents as Speaker of the Florida House of Representatives and as Senator. In an interview with The Associated Press, Rubio discussed his position on Cuba leading with the promise to downgrade the status of the U.S. Embassy in Havana to an Interest Section on Day One of his Presidency.

Bolger believes the stances taken by candidates who support the embargo represent bad politics for his political party.  Rubio, however, disagrees.  In his words, “People think it’s because we’re being stubborn or holding on to old policies. I’m prepared to change strategies toward Cuba, but it has to be one that yields results.”

In Cuba

Cuba’s Septeto Santiaguero Wins Latin Grammy Award

Cuba’s own Septeto Santiaguero, together with his Dominican collaborator, José Alberto “El Canario” won the Latin Grammy last Thursday for Best Traditional Tropical Album. Their album, “Tributo a Los Compadres. No quiero llanto,” is a tribute to the much-acclaimed Cuban duet Los Compadres.  The band dedicated their victory to the 500th anniversary of Santiago de Cuba. Fernando Dewar, director of the Santiaguero Septet noted, “Cuban traditional music has won, and now that the Buena Vista Social Club is no longer in the international arena, replacement is guaranteed.”

Cuba’s Foreign Relations


Update: Cuban migration strains regional relations, migrants guided by smart phones

Last Thursday, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodrí­guez Parrilla visited both Ecuador and Nicaragua to discuss pressing migration concerns. Ecuador has become the most popular point of departure for Cubans hoping to migrate to the U.S. An estimated 45,000 Cubans are expected to migrate through South and Central American counties to Texan and Californian borders this year.

The route Cubans travel has become more organized, dictated by information from previous travelers over social media through smartphones, reports the Associated Press . “Those who’ve arrived have gotten in touch with their acquaintances, their friends, and tell them how the route is. That means that no one needs a coyote,” said Lideisy Hernandez, a 32-year-old psychologist. “You go making friends along the way. I myself have 70, 80-something friends on Facebook who’ve already gotten to the United States.” Cubans use a widely connected group of family and friends to make their journey to the United States relatively safe, avoiding many of the perils faced by other northward moving migrants.

Cuba’s government does not respond to 90 percent of inquiries regarding people with Cuban passports but no visas, meaning many countries along the route to the U.S. allow Cubans free passage. When Cubans reach the U.S. border they can approach an established point of entry, declare their nationality, and qualify for permanent residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act.

As we reported last week, Nicaragua’s border closure with Costa Rica to prevent Cuban migrants from passing through Nicaragua on the way to the U.S triggered international responses to the urgent and visible rise in Cuban migration to the United States.

The Cuban Adjustment Act (or CAA) is an oft-cited impetus for Cuban migration, with many Cubans fearing that normalization will also mean the end of their special immigration status. The CAA was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1966 to grant legal protections to political refugees arriving from Cuba.  Cubans who reach the U.S border are given automatic entry, a status no other refugee enjoys, and then qualify for benefits, integration into U.S. society, and eligibility for citizenship.

Cuba becomes 173rd state to submit UN climate plan for COP21

Cuba has recently become the 173rd state to submit a national climate plan to the United Nations.

The plan is part of an international effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and thus decrease the effects of global warming.

Member states have been submitting plans in the build up to the UN Climate Change Conference being held in Paris from November 30 to December 11.

The overall Paris plan will take effect in 2020 and would allow states to take action on climate change and take advantage of a “low carbon” economy.

Recommended Reading:

Cuba Policy: Time to Double Down!, Richard E. Feinberg, Latin America Goes Global

Professor Richard E. Feinberg encourages the Obama Administration to take more steps toward greater American investment in Cuba through executive action.

M.L.B. Picks Tampa Bay Rays to Play Possible Exhibition in Cuba, Michael S. Schmidt, The New York Times

Update on previous story regarding MLB interest in holding exhibition games in Cuba. The MLB has chosen the Tampa Bay Rays to play against the Cuban National Team, pending government approval.


The Doorbell in the Wall

November 20, 2015
The military has an expression, SNAFU, which stands for “situation normal all fouled up,” except soldiers use a synonym for “fouled up.”

Without making light of what is surely a humanitarian crisis, the surge of migration from Cuba has become more urgent and visible in the last days and weeks.  This is a grave situation for the migrants on its own terms.

But, their very human plight – and their vulnerability to the exploitation of human traffickers – is made even harder and more complicated by circumstances outside their control. Their departures from home and transit north takes place amidst the Syrian refugee crisis, the shock over terrorism in Paris, the increasing polarization in the United States over immigration in this election cycle, and the desperate search for political advantage by the opponents of normalized relations between the United States and Cuba.

It is not easy to figure just how to untangle this SNAFU.  The problem is multi-dimensional and the idea of resolving it rationally seems remote to say the least.  But, it is here and right before us.

Over the weekend, Nicaragua shut down its border with Costa Rica and thus stranded more than a 1,000 Cubans seeking passage through the country.  This incident brought renewed attention to the fact that migration from Cuba is rising and diversifying in its form.

What was once a Cold War-era story about rafters crossing the rough seas in search of a better life in Miami has merged with the Central American migration narrative, the issues around our border with Mexico, and shined a light on the peculiarly preferential treatment that Cuban nationals receive in contrast with migrants from any other country – in the region and the world.

That the numbers are up is beyond dispute; this isn’t simply a political problem, it is a reality problem.  In the first nine months of 2015, Al Jazeera reported, “Mexico processed a record 6,447 Cubans en route to the U.S….more than five times as many as in 2014.”  The Wall Street Journal reported this week that 28,000 Cuban migrants arrived in southern Texas over this period, an 80% increase over the previous year.

The growth in migration from Cuba has been developing over a period of years. As the Americas Society/Council of the Americas points out in this helpful brief, “the wave of Cuban arrivals has been on a steady uphill climb since 2011.”  Explanations for the upsurge include: a desire among new migrants to reach the U.S. to add to the remittances other family members have been sending home amidst the slow recovery from the U.S. recession and the faltering pace of Cuba’s economic reforms.  More recently, however, people are blaming signals that the preferential status accorded to Cuban migrants since the Cold War was about to be eliminated.

The Cuban Adjustment Act (or CAA) was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1966 to grant legal protections to political refugees arriving from Cuba.  Cubans who reach the U.S border are given automatic entry, a status no other refugee enjoys, and then qualify for benefits, integration into U.S. society, and eligibility for citizenship.

Once settled here, tens of thousands of Cubans – not the political refugees from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, but the “recently arrived” – take advantage of President Obama’s travel reforms so that they can pass back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba.

The Cuban Adjustment Act might as well be called the law of unintended consequences.  It encourages illegal immigration into the U.S. from Cuba.  It creates the anachronistic impression that every Cuban migrant is escaping political persecution at home. Because it allows Cubans to stay in the U.S. once they reach our country, it subjects Cubans who apply for visas to visit the U.S. temporarily to the suspicion they will simply stay – which, in turn discourages U.S. officials from giving them the visas they need to come here to visit family, when they have every intention of returning home.

The Obama administration has been unequivocal in its statements that the CAA is not up for revision. U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Lee told AS/COA Online via email. “The U.S. has no plans to change its immigration policies with regard to Cuba.”

The Cuban government, by contrast, would like to see the law repealed.  As Nick Miroff wrote in the Washington Post nearly a year ago, “Havana blames [the] policy for encouraging risky illegal migration and fueling a brain drain of the country’s professionals, who are enticed to take their training and talent to the United States after receiving a free education through the island’s socialist system.”

In response to the disruption at the Costa Rican-Nicaragua border, Cuba’s Foreign Relations Ministry issued a statement over the weekend which contained themes both familiar and new.  It called the Cubans trapped on the border “victims of the politicization of the immigration issue by the Government of the United States, the Cuban Adjustment Act,” and the differential treatment Cubans receive compared to migrants who come to the U.S. from anywhere else in the world.

But, the statement also said “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs reaffirms the commitment of the government of Cuba with (a system of) legal, safe, and orderly migration,” restated the right of Cuban citizens who leave the country legally to return to Cuba, and said Cuban authorities were working with governments in the region to address the problem.

This served as a reminder that Cuba substantially liberalized its laws in 2013, allowing its citizens the right to travel and return, and that it was standing behind that policy, because it helps the country’s economy, and promotes the idea that Cubans need not choose between living in the world and staying at home, even as more decide to leave.

Despite a liberalized policy at home, and U.S. denials that the CAA would be repealed, many Cubans have decided not to take the risk that the status quo will remain in place.  As one Cuban state employee told Al Jazeera, “Cubans are afraid that [the U.S.] will change the law, so many think they are running out of time.”

Since the diplomatic breakthrough announced by Presidents Obama and Castro last December 17th, both supporters and opponents of the new policy have made public statements suggesting the CAA was not long for this world.

In January of this year, local legislators in Miami-Dade County called for revisions in the Cuban Adjustment Act.   Senator Marco Rubio has publicly stated his objections to Cuban migrants making trips back and forth to the island, whether to see family or take advantage of Cuban health care.

In a recent statement to the Associated Press, Rubio’s enthusiasm seemed to get the better of him, when he said, “When you have people who are coming and a year and a day later are traveling back to Cuba 15 times a year, 12 times, 10 times, eight times, that doesn’t look like someone who is fleeing oppression.” That kind of undermines his support for keeping the pressure on Cuba to overthrow its system, doesn’t it?

The politics around this issue, however, is going to be increasingly poisonous, which speaks poorly for the chances of a rational solution.  There are lobbyists who say the CAA has nothing to do with the surge of migrants and blame “it on a desire of the Cuban people to flee the Castro dictatorship and a desire by the Castro dictatorship to relieve itself of disaffected Cubans.”  Some want a big wall to stop immigrants from Central America, but a doorbell for Cuban exiles to get in under CAA.

There are Floridians  who support keeping the Cuban Adjustment Act on the books – either un-amended or with some preference for “exiles” over recent arrivals – but also want U.S. borders closed to all Syrian refugees (like Governor Rick Scott).  There are Members of Congress like Carlos Curbelo who blame President Obama for the surge in Cuban migration, demand a plan from him to stop it, but curiously offer no solution of their own.

But, there are solutions.  Ric Herrero of Engage Cuba suggests that Congress deal with Cuban migration at the same time it ends the embargo.  Jose Pertierra reminds us that the President has executive authority to cut back substantially on the offering of residency to Cuban migrants.  Congressman Paul Gosar (AZ-04) has written legislation to repeal the preferential treatment of Cuban migrants entirely.

What’s most likely, unfortunately, is inaction – which is unfair to Cubans and the migrants coming here from the rest of the world.  This issue is not going away.  Situation normal….

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Is the New Cuba Policy Popular with U.S. Voters? ¡Sin Duda!

November 13, 2015
Next week, our friends at the Atlantic Council and Engage Cuba will release their “America’s Heartland Survey” of voter opinion in Iowa, Ohio, Tennessee, and Indiana about U.S. policy toward Cuba.

While the hard numbers won’t be out until Tuesday, we do know that the poll shows significant support for engagement in these otherwise highly conservative Middle American states.

During the last year, we’ve seen and studied eighteen surveys measuring public support for President Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba.

With four days until the Heartland survey data is made public on November 17th, we wanted to remind you that the policies announced by the President last December 17th have real support, and predict the reactions we’re likely to hear from the hardliners who see the numbers continue to run against them.

THESE POLICIES ARE REALLY POPULAR

“We’ve found that the more information people learn about what happens in Cuba, the more [likely] they are to support U.S. policy,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, executive director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.

While we disagree with Mr. Claver-Carone, a lobbyist for pro-embargo interests, on virtually everything, it turns out his position on public opinion was exactly right!

In 2015, seventeen out of eighteen surveys of U.S. opinion have shown consistent, broad-based, even deepening support for restoring diplomatic relations and lifting the bans on trade and travel.

Starting in January, polls by Pew, the Wall Street Journal and NBC News, Gallup, the Associated PressTelemundo/Marist/MSNBC, another by APCBS News, the Sunshine State Survey, and a second Telemundo/Marist/MSNBC survey found that Americans, American Latinos, and Floridians supported restoring diplomatic relations by majorities of 59% all the way to 67% in a poll taken in September.

The Pew, Florida Atlantic University, AP, Gallup, Beyond the BeltwayBendixen-Amandi (Cuban American poll), St. Leo University (Florida), Chicago Council on Public Affairs, and Telemundo/Marist/MSNBC surveys found majorities for ending the embargo in the 60 percent range and rising.  For example, the Pew poll in January tracked support for ending the embargo at 66%, but that figure grew to 72% by July.

Polls also had support for ending the travel ban as low as 56% (Bendixen-Amandi) and 59% (Gallup) but as high as 81% (CBS News).

SUPPORTERS ARE CLEAR-EYED ABOUT CUBA

In the January survey by Pew, 63% of respondents supported diplomatic relations, and 66% supported ending the embargo, without believing that these policy changes would make Cuba more democratic.  They had no unrealistic expectations that these reforms would change Cuba, but supported them nonetheless.  That’s an American interests-based rationale.

Among the 2,034 respondents to the national survey by The Chicago Council on Global Affairs, respondents did not believe that changes in U.S.-Cuba relations would weaken Cuba’s government or improve political conditions on the island.  But, once again, huge majorities supported the changes in U.S. policy under way.

As the Council says in its report:

The issue of normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba seems to be more of a problem for a handful of politicians and vocal minority of the public than it is for the American public at large.  In Chicago Council Surveys from 2008-2014, two-third of Americans have consistently said that U.S. leaders should be ready to meet and talk with leaders from Cuba.

SOME PARTISAN DIFFERENCES BENEATH THE BIG NUMBERS

Despite the big numbers nationally, in Florida, among Latinos and especially among Cuban Americans, partisan divides exist on Cuba just as they do on domestic and foreign policy issues generally.  In January, for example, when the Pew poll found 66% support nationally for ending the trade embargo, Republican respondents were split 47%-47% on maintaining it versus ending it.

We know from our own experience that fair-minded opponents of the President are reluctant to support policies of his – even ones  they like – to avoid giving him a “foreign policy victory.”

The Chicago Council reminds us that Democrats and Republicans disagree on how the U.S. should lead and engage most effectively.  However, the Beyond the Beltway and other polls that find big majorities for the policy reforms, also show majority Republican support for these changes, albeit with somewhat smaller margins.

THE NUMBERS DON’T LIE AND NEITHER DO THIS MANY POLLSTERS

As the evidence piles up that Americans really do approve of this new direction in U.S.-Cuba policy, we’ve become familiar with the protests by hardliners who seek to discredit what the surveys report.

In 2014, when the New York Times told Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart that Cuban Americans and a majority of the American public supports a change in policy, he simply responded: “That is an absolute lie.”  That’s one tactic.

Another tactic is for the pro-embargo side to say that because Cuban-Americans who support the embargo are always elected and reelected from their seats in Florida, the polls must be wrong.  Mr. Clavor-Carone said it here, and a columnist who went after Ernesto Londoño and the New York Times said it here.  The only observation we’d make about this apparent non sequitur is that the Florida Supreme Court recently found those congressional districts to be in violation of the state constitution because they were drawn for partisan reasons.

When the Atlantic Council released its last Cuba survey in February 2014, the results were slimed by Elliott Abrams, a casualty of the Iran-Contra Affair, who called the survey a “push poll.”  For the uninitiated, push polls are designed with skewed questions in order to reach a pre-ordained result.

If you’d like to see what a push poll actually looks like, you can read the Cuba Issues National Survey produced last March by a research firm now affiliated with the Presidential campaign of Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal. It reported a bare majority of support, 51% for President Obama’s new policies, until respondents were read a list of charges against the Cuban government which, predictably, caused support to erode.

All the major associations for survey research denounce push polling, states have made them illegal, and neither the organizations responsible for the Atlantic Council’s research nor the institutions like AP and Pew quoted here, would ever engage in them.  There’s no conspiracy among all these organizations to twist the numbers.  They are real.

So, if, anyone calls The Heartland Survey a “push poll” next week, you can call that an absolute lie.

In the last year, the slow but historic normalization process has proceeded rather well.  Diplomacy is working. As we report below, U.S. and Cuban diplomats met in Washington on Monday to discuss issues involving fugitives and law enforcement.

Cuba is opening more and improved Internet hot spots, as President Obama indicated they would pursuant to last year’s agreement.

Non-tourist travel is up, such as one trip that caught our eye this week, the Pink to Pink tour that linked U.S. and Cuban breast cancer survivors, physicians, and well-wishing comrades.

Remember there is massive public support for the new policy.  We feel some sense of urgency in saying that again as we close.  There are just 435 days until a new U.S. president is sworn into office.

Today in Florida, at the s0-called “Sunshine Summit,” one candidate for the presidency, Senator Marco Rubio was asked if he’d cancel diplomatic relations with Cuba if he were elected.  “Sin duda,” he said, without a doubt.  He is not alone.

Let’s not forget, the majority of the American people want the opening with Cuba to continue and the Heartland Survey, scheduled for release on Tuesday, apparently affirms exactly that.

This week in Cuba news…

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Free Roberta!

November 6, 2015
The new play about Donald Trump, “Los Hijos de Trump,” or “Sons of Trump,” a comedy, is supposedly a big hit in Mexico City.
 
Putting Trump aside, however, U.S.-Mexico relations are no laughing matter. There is the crisis of Mexico’s drug cartels, problems facing the rule of law, the impact of Mexico’seconomic slowdown on the 80 million people in the U.S. and Mexico on our common border, and the reality – politicized or not – of migration and what to do about it.
 
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, U.S.-Mexico relations would have to be considered near the top of our country’s foreign policy and national security priorities.
 
Moreover, having our country represented by a career career diplomat with the best credentials and tightest connections for the job should be, for lack of a better phrase, a “no-brainer.”
 
On Tuesday, we’ll have greater clarity on just how mindless opposition to the President’s policy on Cuba – yes, on Cuba – has become, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committeevotes on the nomination of Roberta Jacobson to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.
 
Ms. Jacobson serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.   She is a career Civil Service officer who began working at the State Department on South America during the Reagan Administration.   From 2003-2010, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, she worked directly on U.S.-Mexico relations, from diplomacy to trade.
 
But, for the last five years, she has worked tirelessly at the frontlines of President Obama’s transformation of U.S. policy toward Cuba; first, as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere, when basic reforms such as the expansion of people-to-people travel took place, and then as Assistant Secretary. In this latter role, she has served with distinction in the bilateral normalization talks with Cuba; historic talks which have led to the reopening of embassies and the first bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba onhuman rights.
 
Ms. Jacobson was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico on June 1. Although she is highly qualified for the post, and was endorsed by Senator Ben Cardin, the senior Democratic Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, two Senate obstacles arose at once.
 
As Politico colorfully put it, “Sources said Rubio, a Florida senator considered a top-tier 2016 candidate, and Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who is facing federal corruption charges, are Jacobson’s primary opponents.”
 
Menendez promised Politico that Cuba had nothing to do with his decision to roadblock Roberta. “But,” Politico reported, “he wouldn’t say what his objections are or whether he will vote against her in committee or slow her nomination on the Senate floor.”
 
Then came the senior diplomat’s confirmation hearing, and the New York Times, in its outstanding editorial, “Confirm an Ambassador to Mexico,” takes up the story from there.
 
“During a July 15 hearing, Mr. Menendez questioned her trustworthiness without offering any convincing evidence. Mr. Rubio later submitted dozens of written questions to the State Department as a delaying tactic. On Oct. 8, Mr. Rubio placed a temporary hold on her nomination, without explaining why.”
 
For his part, Menendez seems transparently mendacious in his assertion that Cuba is playing no part in his opposition to Jacobson serving in Mexico. He opposed the nomination of Carlos Pascual to be Ambassador to Mexico back in 2009, because Pascual had helped write a pro-normalization Cuba policy paper, though Pascual ultimately was confirmed and served.
 
Rubio previously blocked blocked Jacobson in 2012, stalling a vote on her nomination to be Assistant Secretary of State to score points against President Obama’s people-to-people travel policy. He is also famously on record daring the administration to nominate a candidate for the now vacant position of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, as we have written before.
 
By the same token, Rubio played a major role in opposing an Obama campaign donor whom the President had nominated to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Argentina on the more solid ground that the candidate had never set foot in the country. At the time, Rubio toldUSA Today, “Not every country can you send a political appointee to, and Argentina is one of those countries.”
 
You’d think he’d want a Civil Service officer with the experience of Roberta Jacobson to serve in Mexico given conditions in that country. But, Rubio’s resistance is clearly rooted in his rejection of Obama’s Cuba policy reforms and Secretary Jacobson’s diligence in implementing her boss’s policy.
 
Before President Obama took the decisive step of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, Senator Menendez spoke out on the Senate floor against opponents to the confirmation of qualified diplomats who the President sought to dispatch to points of foreign policy challenge around the world.
 
“The Senate standoff,” he said, “that has left so many career foreign service nominees in political and personal limbo is damaging our credibility, undermining our national security, and it must end now.”
 
Menendez has also spoken out strongly about the dimensions of the crisis in Mexico. He can prove his credibility on Tuesday by telling his Foreign Relations Committee colleagues that his opposition to the President’s Cuba policy will not stop him from taking a stand in favor of U.S.-Mexico relations and against divisive standoffs on diplomatic nominations by supporting Secretary Jacobson’s nomination in Committee and on the Senate Floor.
 
He’d do well to advise Senator Rubio to do the same. That might not be such a heavy lift after all. Word is that Rubio likes to skip his votes.

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