The Doorbell in the Wall

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….

U.S. Cuba

Atlantic Council Poll: Voters in four ‘Heartland’ states favor Obama policy on Cuba

A survey released this week sponsored by the Atlantic Council shows significant support for diplomatic relations with Cuba among voters in four Midwestern states.

The so-called Heartland poll, which tested opinion among eligible voters in Ohio, Tennessee, Iowa, and Indiana, showed that 68% of respondents support improving diplomatic relations with Cuba while just 26% opposed. The strongest support was among registered among voters in Ohio.  Overall, support for removing restrictions on travel was 67% in favor and 28% opposed. This included majority support among Republican respondents who favor ending travel restrictions by 54%.

The Obama administration’s reforms in U.S. policy toward Cuba – while supported on a bipartisan basis across the United States – have been met with opposition by the leadership of the U.S. Congress. Leading presidential candidates, Senator Marco Rubio (FL), Senator Ted Cruz (TX), and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush have all voiced opposition to the administration’s actions on Cuba, as have Cuban American Members of both parties in the House of Representatives.

Despite the opposition, Peter Schechter, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, highlighted the bipartisan support for normalization in a statement to Reuters, “You would be hard-pressed to find any other Obama administration policy with this much Republican support.”

At a panel discussion hosted by the Atlantic Council, Steven Law, summed up the importance of the poll saying, “The Atlantic Council poll is important because it shows members of Congress that people back in their home districts think that change needs to happen in the US-Cuba relationship.”

The poll is not the first to document public support for diplomatic recognition of Cuba, loosened restrictions on travel, and ending the embargo. For more on public opinion and Cuba, check out last week’s news briefing with analysis of the last eighteen polls in 2015.

US, Cuba to sign first environmental accord since thaw

On Wednesday, the United States and Cuba signed an environmental accord to protect fish and coral reef species in the Florida Strait.

Before the re-establishment of diplomatic ties, wildlife officials in the U.S. and Cuba would have to work separately, informally, or with specific government approvals when addressing environmental issues that affected both countries. Now, government agencies have the ability communicate and craft joint environmental protection efforts. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a statement describing the accord as a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) with the National Parks Service and Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and Environment (CITMA) intended to “facilitate  joint efforts concerning science, stewardship, and management related to Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).”

The plan focuses on collaboration between American scientists at the Florida Keys and the Texas Flower Garden Banks National Sanctuaries and Cuban researchers at Guanahacabibes National Park and the Banco de San Antonio.

Cuba’s unique geographic position, ocean currents, and native wildlife in the area offer a clear opportunity to protect a shared environmental interest. Such a sentiment was echoed by Kathryn Sullivan, Chief of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in statement with Yahoo News, “We recognize we all share the same ocean and face the same challenges of understanding, managing, and conserving critical marine resources for future generations.”

Daniel Whittle, Senior Director for Cuba at the Environmental Defense Fund, applauded the agreement in comments to the Associated Press saying, “This opens the door to collaborating on many, many fronts so the so-called invisible lines of the Gulf (of Mexico) disappear… In my mind, this was long overdue.”

Environmental protection has been a leading area for cooperation as the U.S. and Cuba continue to normalize their relationship. Fernando Mario Gonzalez Bermudez, Cuba’s first vice minister of the CITMA envisions a long term commitment on this issue, he stated “We trust this document marks the start of a sustainable process of exchange that lets us develop scientific investigations and share best practices in management and conservation.”

This week, scientists from around the world will gather in Havana for the 10th Ocean Sciences Conference to discuss action plans on climate change and conservation.

Caribbean-Central American Action’s 39th Annual Conference offers analysis of Cuba’s economic options

At the three-day Caribbean-Central American Action’s 39th Annual Conference, academics, business leaders, and political appointees gathered to discuss “A New Era in Regional Integration,” with a spotlight on Cuba. Prominent Cuban economist Ricardo Torres explained, “Now the country is much better set to deal with economic challenges but there is still much work to be done.”

Challenges include Cuba’s dual currency and aging population which contribute to social problems, says Torres. In April 2016, at its 7th Party Congress, the Communist Party of Cuba will outline further economic strategies for Cuba’s development. The pace of economic change picked up in Cuba after the 2011 Guidelines were approved by the 6th Party Congress. Scholars posit that the next Party Congress could offer further direction. Torres highlights that, “Change is real; now the question is how fast it will happen.”

According to Rubén Ramos Arrieta, the minister counselor at the Cuban Embassy’s Economic and Trade Office in Washington, 65 percent of Cuba’s exports are in the service sector. Torres notes that currently Cuba does 60 percent of its trade within Latin America, with 67 percent of that trade centered between Cuba and Venezuela.

Richard Feinberg, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, describes four options for the Cuban economy. The first is a 1950s model where Cuba would become the principal tourist destination of the Caribbean and an exporter of citrus, and tobacco without prevalent American influence, the second is an “inertia scenario” where Cuba opts to preserve the status quo, the third is an “ugly scenario” in which Cuba suffers social stratification through income inequality and corruption, and the fourth is a “sunny scenario” in which Cuba modifies its hybrid economy to become more market-oriented with high level links to the global economy.

Stonegate Bank facilitates debit card use in Cuba

American travelers can now use a debit MasterCard offered by Stonegate Bank for financial transactions in Cuba, the Miami Herald reports. David Seleski, president and chief executive of Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Bank, said in a statement, “This is the first step in relieving the burden of U.S. travelers carrying cash when traveling to Cuba and another step in normalizing commercial relations between the two countries.” U.S. travelers can use the card at hotels, restaurants, stores, and hopefully ATMs by 2016.

Stonegate Bank made history earlier this year when it signed an agreement with Banco Internacional de Commercio in June. This correspondent banking relationship was the first of its kind; the idea was “cooked up over steak salad, fried chicken and tomato soup,” Bloomberg Business reports. At the time, David Seleski said, “The ability to move money easily between the two countries will only increase trade and benefit American companies wishing to do business in Cuba.”

Millennials eye Cuba for travel

Although Americans cannot legally travel to Cuba as tourists, a new Fox Business poll shows most Millennials have an interest in traveling to Cuba.

Fox Business reports “Millennials represent more than one quarter of the nation’s population, standing at about 83.1 million and exceeding the size of 75.4 million baby boomers.” This generational difference is significant in that they were not alive for most US embargo history and they have very different travel preferences than other generations.

Daniel Farrar, CEO of Switchfly, which sponsored the poll, notes, “These aren’t people that are looking for the traditional resorts, they are looking for travel experiences with a desire to explore.”

Cuba offers a unique opportunity for to explore for millennials in that it’s a market that very few Americans have been able to see.

In Cuba

Unexplained loss of Cuba’s email services

On Wednesday, ETECSA (La Empresa Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A) released a notice that announced that emails ending in @nauta and @enet were suspended, Cubadebate reported in Spanish.Normally Cubans can “send and receive text-based emails on mobile phones using standard cell signal and [these] Nauta accounts,”Motherboard explains.

In the company statement, ETECSA apologized to the users and promised to give more information through mass media and official channels. Last week on November 13, ETECSA announced that the “infrastructure that supports email accounts presented a technical error that affects the sending and receiving of emails,” according to Granma and Motherboard.

Running toward normalization

Last Sunday marked the 29th running of the Marabana International Marathon in Havana.

Athletes from 62 countries, including a record number of participants from the United States, raced through the streets of Havana. The most ambitious sought to complete their 26-mile journey in record time to qualify for the upcoming Olympics in Rio de Janeiro while others completed a modified course.

Terence Gerchberg, a participant from New York explained, “It’s great that we are using sport, ….athleticism and culture to unite us anew.” More than 4,800 runners participated in this year’s marathon which served as a salute to 496th year anniversary of the founding of Havana. With double the number of foreigners participating this year over last, the Marabana International Marathon attracted the third highest number of foreign athletes ever to Cuba after the 1982 Central American and Caribbean Games and 1991 Pan-American Games.


Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuban migration confrontation in Nicaragua

On Sunday, Nicaragua closed its border with Costa Rica to prevent Cuban migrants from passing through Nicaragua on the way to the U.S reports Progreso Semanal. Roughly 1,600 Cubans in route to the U.S. were detained in Nicaragua and returned to Costa Rica.

The Cubans involved in this incident had entered Nicaragua at Penas Blancas without visas. Migrants told media that they had waited hours at the border to receive transit visas, some migrants explained they had been traveling over two months to reach the U.S. After entering Nicaragua, the migrants walked up the Pan-American Highway headed north where they encountered security forces who took them back to Costa Rica.

Nicaragua’s government, an ally of Cuba, accuses Costa Rica of sparking a “humanitarian crisis” by issuing transit visas over the weekend to more than 1,000 Cubans who had been detained at the Costa Rica/ Panama border. Costa Rican officials report that only 50 undocumented Cuban migrants entered Costa Rica in 2011 but in the first nine months of this year the number has increased to 12,000. The dispute, which included the use of tear gas against migrants, according to the Tico Times, has spiked tensions between Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

Many Cubans are making the journey by first flying to Ecuador, a country that does not require visas for Cubans, taking a bus through Colombia and then traveling through Central America and Mexico into the United States. This journey is perilous. Cubans, like other migrants, face human smuggling operations and violence in the countries they pass through. Last week El Nuevo Herald reported the breakup of a human smuggling ring in Costa Rica charging Cubans $400 per individual for passage through Costa Rica.  Smugglers assisting Cubans on their journey to the U.S. can make between $1,700 and $3,400 per individual.

The upsurge in migration has also renewed the debate over U.S. immigration policy toward Cubans. Cuban officials cite the “wet-foot, dry-foot policy,” a provision of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), as a principal contributor to current migratory situation. The CAA fast-tracks Cuban arrivals in the U.S. for a green card by granting them asylum upon arrival and making them eligible for a green card after one year in the country.

Cuban officials note that “these citizens are victims of the politicization of U.S. immigration policy.” In its official statement the Cuban Foreign Ministry went on to say that the policy “stimulates irregular emigration to the US and constitutes a violation of the letter and the spirit of current migration agreements.”

Some U.S. policymakers, like Representative Paul Gosar, (AZ-4) seek to do away with the CAA entirely. Gosar, who introduced legislation in October, H.R. 3818, the Ending Special National Origin-Based Immigration Programs for Cubans Act of 2015 said “Cuban nationals should be treated under the same immigration rules as any other person seeking to immigrate.”

While negotiations continue between the U.S. and Cuban governments on issues ranging from commercial aviation to law enforcement to human rights, the Administration continues to assure Cubans that the existing migration policy will remain in place.


Recommended Reading

From Hershey, PA to Hershey, Cuba, Michael Maisel, Huff Post Business

Michael Maisel calls on legislators to end the embargo after his participation in the Havana International Trade Fair showcasing his Cuban American family business and that of a Cuban entrepreneur. Maisel “hopes that Members of Congress will take action so I can travel freely to Hershey, Cuba where I will witness the packaging of new relations.”

Revolution 2.0: What 40 American Entrepreneurs Learned In Cuba, Loren Feldman, Forbes

Feldman reflects on his experience in Havana and the need to know Cuban culture to do business.

The Internet Has Helped Hipsters in Cuba Discover American Fashion, Natalie O’Neill, Motherboard

Throughout Havana, Natalie O’Neill, spots Cubans sporting, and adapting, American fashion.

AP Conversation: Marco Rubio on his Cuban roots and how he’d deal with the island as president, Julie Pace, Associated Press White House Correspondent

Senator Marco Rubio would downgrade the U.S. Embassy in Havana and return it to its previous status as an “Interest Section,” as part of his plan to “change strategies toward Cuba.”

Recommended Viewing

Scarcity turns into opportunity for creative Cuban toymaker, Local

Cuban entrepreneur rents and restores tricycles to add a little extra to his monthly wages.

Documentary tells the story of the Cuban Revolution’s only ‘Yanqui Comandante.’ Miami Herald.

Award-winning filmmaker Adriana Bosch “follows William Morgan’s life from a Toledo childhood to a Cuban prison execution” in her film ‘Yanqui Comandante.’

Video: U.S. Representative Tom Emmer on the Cuban Embargo, Americas Society/Council of the Americas

Representative Emmer (MB-6) shares his thoughts on Cuba and cites his trip to Cuba as a pivotal moment for his thinking about the island.

Inside Cuba: A Pictorial, Weld for Birmingham, Tom Gordon

Photo gallery of journalist Tom Gordon’s recent trip to Cuba.

On the Cigar Trail in Cuba, Ron Stodghill, New York Times

Ron Stoghill describes his search for cigars on his first trip to Havana. “Cigar enthusiasts are a discriminating bunch, yet most agree that Cuba is blessed with a unique combination of sun, soil and moisture – coupled with a rich history of hand-rolling – that makes for the world’s most flavorful cigars, Mr. Phillips said,” Stoghill writes.



Until next time,

The Cuba Central Team


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