Christmas Twist: Cuba’s On Obama’s Fourth Quarter “Bucket List”

December 24, 2015

Last Spring, when President Obama addressed the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, he said to the reporters on hand at the annual ‘Washington Celebrates Itself’ Gala, “Welcome to the fourth quarter of my presidency.”

“I am determined to make the most of every moment I have left.” He said, “After the mid-term elections, my advisors asked me, ‘Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?’…Well, I have something that rhymes with bucket list.”

In a series of punchlines that the White House transcript dutifully reports as eliciting laughter and applause, the president mentioned taking executive action on immigration, climate change, and Cuba policy.

Funny thing was, he meant it. Roll the tape forward to this month – roll past diplomatic relations, Cuba getting off the terror list, new embassies, new travel and trade rules, State, Commerce, Agriculture Secretary visits and other changes – and the President is now telling the Wall Street Journal that he is prepared to do more.

Before considering what specific items that might add to the President’s “bucket list,” let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.

Last year, when President Obama announced he was determined to normalize relations with Cuba, he stood up against the policy he’d inherited from his predecessors, saying it “does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

The old policy – immiserating Cubans to force their government to succumb to our demands – was both cruel and futile. No American president had ever conceded that truth.

Secretary of State John Kerry was captured by the same thought on a walk he took following the flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. “Walking the streets of Old Havana, and seeing the faces of young Cubans, I felt the futility of trying to make them fit their dreams into a Cold War straight-jacket.

“They deserve more than that,” Kerry wrote, and “through our diplomacy we hope to help them achieve more than that.”

Yes, in 2016, we can expect to see intensified diplomacy between Cuba and the U.S. on a host of issues – law enforcement, property claims, human trafficking and human rights – that our two countries never discussed when the thrust of U.S. policy was trying to make Cuba’s system fail.

But, the president apparently will use what remains of his fourth quarter to do more than that.

“On Cuba,” the Journal says, “that means taking additional executive actions so Americans become accustomed to traveling to the island-nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida and U.S. businesses are deeply invested there.”

Reforms already implemented by the President this year have boosted travel by Americans to Cuba by over 70 percent over travel in 2014, as the Nation reported last week.  The surge in travelers will help fill the seats of planes poised to take advantage of the new agreement between Cuba and the U.S. to resume regularly scheduled commercial service.

But short of repealing the ban on tourist travel, which requires an Act of Congress, the President can substantially increase those visits by applying to individuals the same rules that currently apply to trips by groups under the people-to-people. He has the authority to do that today.

As Senators Flake and Leahy said in their letter to the President last week, he has the authority to increase substantially the flow of commerce between our countries. They advocate changes in regulations to increase access for Cubans to U.S. tools, equipment, and consumer products, and expanding the ability of Cubans in private enterprise to benefit from U.S. services in the areas of finance and planning.

Despite helpful and well-meaning policy changes the President already ordered to lighten the regulatory burden on companies who want to do business in Cuba, Bill LeoGrande makes a strong case – as others have – that U.S. firms are still “terrified” of running afoul of sanctions and incurring ruinous financial penalties.

To alleviate regulatory risks, LeoGrande says:

“Obama could license U.S. businesses to provide credit to Cuban customers to stimulate nonagricultural trade (agricultural credits are prohibited by law). He could authorize Cuban banks to establish correspondence accounts with U.S. banks to facilitate payments to Cuban customers. Finally, he could issue a general license to U.S. banks to process dollar-denominated transactions conducted by foreign banks (so-called “U-turn” transactions) that must be processed through a U.S. financial institution.”

Let’s be clear. Cuba has a lot of work that it can do to increase economic activity, as the government has already pledged to do, so it can address the island’s economic crisis and create a future for the Cuban people that is more compelling than migrating to the United States.
Cubans want this relationship to work for a host of reasons, not the least of which is to increase prosperity by increasing trade and travel income from the United States. Not all Cubans, as Tracey Eaton documents here, are sharing in the increased prosperity driven in part by President Obama’s reforms. Our friend Portia Siegelbaum tweeted a forlorn picture of dimmer Christmas lights in Havana than she saw, as we did, one year ago.

The President has the capacity – and now we’re told the willingness – to drive this new policy much farther in the time remaining in the fourth quarter of his presidency. He can act knowing that his new policy has put him on the right side of history, and that taking additional steps will improve the lives of those his policy is designed to benefit – the Cuban people.
Sure, there will be dissent among the dwindling numbers of naysayers who want America to go back to the Cold War ways of doing things. To them, he can just say, “Bucket. Let’s make these changes irreversible,” and plough forward with more ambitious reforms.
It is, after all, the fourth quarter. Who could possibly argue with that?

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Strait Talk: What Does D-17 Mean to You?

December 18, 2015

According to a survey released this week, there has been a striking increase in support among Cubans and Cuban Americans living in the United States for President Obama’s policies of engagement and reconciliation toward Cuba since he began making epic changes in the policy on December 17th, 2014.

Compared to the results Bendixen & Amandi reported a year ago, support among Cubans and Cuban Americans in the U.S. for President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba has risen from 44% to 56%.  Support for ending the embargo has spiked to 53% – a jump of nine points from a year ago.

When opinion shifts so significantly in a community that is the epicenter of pro-embargo sentiment – a community that is hardwired politically to Washington, and hardwired emotionally to family members in Cuba – we have to consider what the consequences and causes of that shift could be.

As Congress is leaving town, it is also leaving President Obama’s Cuba policy intact.  How unexpected is that?

The biggest threat to the President’s reforms resided in the ability of his opponents to use the Congressional power of the purse to reverse every one of the key actions the President took to expand travel, trade, and diplomacy itself.

After the Cold Warrior embargo supporters larded up the appropriations for four Cabinet agencies with legislation to reverse the new policies implemented by the President, the new budget agreement adopted by Congress to fund the government through September 30, 2016 dropped every provision.

As support among Cuban Americans for the president’s policy has gone up, the fear factor – by which we mean the old style, scorching hot opinion emanating from Miami and New Jersey which exerted relentless pressure on policymakers to keep the old policies in place – has subsided substantially.

No other community in the United States spends as much time in Cuba as do those with families living on the island.  What they hear – what they feel – when they visit is reflected in the polling and what we heard when we asked some friends in Cuba this week what December 17th meant to them.

Emilia Fernandez, a specialist in health and IT, and a state employee, sent us her thoughts with one precondition – that we published her name because, she said, “I’m not the kind who [likes] to hide its identity.”

What has the December 17th meant to her? “Nobody can deny the direct relationship between December 17th and the visit of famous artists to our country.  I can clearly see the joy of the people now that they [have] had the opportunity to see and enjoy their work live.  I’m very happy for that.

“But, I am very upset with the offensive behavior of some U.S. tourists, who are not showing respect for us, trying to demonstrate they are better than us, because of the money they spend loving our culture.”

Marta Núñez-Sarmiento, a sociologist at the University of Havana, took a similar tack to Emilia, but focused her reservations on the U.S. government.  She wrote, in part:

“December 17, 2014 became the first moment in our common history when the United States and Cuba decided to established diplomatic relations based on equal and mutually respectful terms. This is the opportunity for both countries to acquire new perspectives by learning from both nations, and to practice restraint from imposing preconceived judgments and values on the other…It is not a ‘quid pro quo’ discussion but one in which the U.S. must acknowledge that it has to lift more restrictions than on the Cuba side. Let us not fail in this course of action for we have much to win.”

Yamina Vicente, an economist who left academia to open up a decorations and party hosting business at an early moment in Cuba’s economic transformation, spoke with the greatest optimism about D-17:

“The resumption of relations between our countries awakens many dreams in Cuba. Within our sector, the ‘cuentapropistas’…receive benefits [from the diplomatic opening in] a direct form. Those companies that have foreign tourists as clients have doubled their sales…The imagination, the creativity has surfaced. Although, these have been short-term effects, the new relations also awaken long-term projects; business that could expand to both lands; imports, exports, and collaboration with others. It’s one word: HOPE.”

Not everyone shares her hopeful view.  When a reporter for IPS asked a middle-aged man shopping at a farmer’s market about D-17, he said, “You shouldn’t ask me, because in my view, nothing has changed.”

Maybe.  But, we close thinking about a man named Augusto Maxwell who was recently visiting Havana, according to CNN, when his daughter reached him on his cellphone.

“For most people, it would be an ordinary call — she was just checking in on him. But Maxwell’s daughter was in Miami and he was in Cuba — an island with no access to U.S. cell service just a year ago. Maxwell realized right away the call epitomized how much Cuba has changed in just a year. Then he cried.”

Tears of joy celebrating December 17th.

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Hey, D-17. I’ve Got Mail!

December 11, 2015


Fifty-two years ago, as our country recovered from its near death experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. government cut off direct mail service to the island.  Although letters could still pass from Miami to Havana, so long as they flowed through third countries, the ban on direct postal service was just a small part of the hefty regime of sanctions that became only more harsh and severe over time.

Next week in Washington – and we imagine other places as well – there will be a nice party to celebrate the diplomatic breakthrough we call D-17, and the year in which the governments of Cuba and the United States acted like adults and talked to each other respectfully.

Yes, this was long overdue and yes, civil behavior was about the least that a citizen of either country could have asked of his government.  But, when you think about what came before December 17, 2014, and what happened after, this year stands out like a Chanukah candle, a shining beacon of light.

For five decades, everything about our policy toward Cuba was about getting the Castro family to cry uncle. We tried to kill them and, when that failed, we sought to incite an insurrection among Cubans who we tried to make hungry and more desperate hurting them with our sanctions.

We didn’t just cut off their mail.  We cut off direct phone service.  We divided Cuban families by imposing stringent travel sanctions; just a decade ago, bereaved families couldn’t even make the trip to say goodbye to a lost loved one.

No petty slights were held back.  We denied visas to Ibrahim Ferrer of the Buena Vista Social Club, guitarist Manuel Galvan and other musicians to keep them from coming to our country to pick up their Grammy Awards, calling them “detrimental to the interests of the United States.”

We heaped disdain on the Cuban doctors who the Castros offered us to treat the ill and injured after Hurricane Katrina.  Such disdain, our old policy never considered the notion that Cubans might want to be left alone to write a new future for themselves.

We did all of this and more, year after year, and the system we wanted to replace so badly never budged.

Now, we have a new policy.  It isn’t perfect.  It’s pentimento – most of the new paint boldly covers over what we used to do though, from time to time, we can still see trace evidence of the old policy (#Radio/TVMartí, #CMPP, etc.).  This new policy is a lot better than what it was, and certainly doesn’t come with the sense of shame we feel about a political discourse that even considers putting the religious backgrounds on the visa papers of desperate migrants.

This policy is about opening real communication – not just direct mail service, but also direct calls, cellphone roaming in Cuba, more trade and travel and more access to the Internet for Cubans because our agreement with President Castro included support for Wi-Fi hotspots.

It’s also about open embassies, and real diplomacy. This week, U.S. and Cuban negotiators started addressing the billions of outstanding compensation claims for expropriated property and damage from the embargo.

One expert told the Washington Post, “it was a positive sign that the sides were even talking about the issue. It’s the first time the two countries are going back to look at this history and try to sort out a system for fixing it.’ ‘You don’t have this conversation if you haven’t built some mutual trust and respect,’ he said.”

We’re told there are more agreements on the way on bigger ticket items, like the restoration of normal airline service between our countries, and more talks to take place on law enforcement, fugitives from justice in both countries, and human rights.

It’s also about sticking to our beliefs. To their credit, our diplomats never let their knees buckle when pro-sanctions hardliners in Miami manufactured the lie that Cuban troops were driving Russian tanks in Syria, and they certainly haven’t called to close the border despite the upsurge in Cuban migration through Central America.  To its credit, our State Department stood up straight on International Human Rights Day to highlight our disagreements with Cuba on free expression and to criticize the arrests of Cubans who sought to express themselves on that day.

Can anyone think of an alternative?  Not even the geniuses at the Washington Post, who stubbornly insist that President Obama is being played by Raúl Castro, have offered one suggestion that could have brought us this far.   All of this can be taken away, of course, by next year’s election.  That’s a risk that should focus both governments on obtaining more results. There’s a lot more work, hard work, left to do.

It’s a stretch to think the U.S. and Cuba will emerge from this normalization process as allies.  We were adversaries and now, after a year of living under a policy of engagement, the U.S. and Cuba have built enough respect and trust to become governments the other can work with.  What a great change and sign of hope for the future.

The last year has been better, magically better than the previous, and quite painful, 55.  That alone is something worth celebrating.   So, on Thursday night, raise a glass, have a mojito, hug a friend.

Oh, and when that letter from Havana gets delivered, don’t forget to thank December 17.

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Cuba News – Like Drinking Water from a Fire Hose

December 4, 2015

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cuba reinstates travel restrictions on medical professionals

Cuba’s government has reinstated limitations on travel for medical specialists, reports Reuters. Cuba says it has been “seriously affected” by the flight of medical specialists particularly in the fields of anesthesiology, neurosurgery, obstetrics/gynecology and neonatal care. Cuba’s government blames U.S. policy, specifically the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, for draining medical specialists from the island.

Approximately 500,000 of Cuba’s 5 million labor force are health professionals, and Cuba receives significant export earnings from sending doctors abroad on medical missions.

Under the new policy it announced on Tuesday, Cuban medical personnel will have to apply for a travel permit before leaving Cuba. This is a step back  from reforms implemented in 2013, which allowed Cubans seeking to leave the country, including medical specialists, to do so without first obtaining a travel permit and a letter of invitation from the traveler’s destination.

The new policy affects one-tenth of the country’s workforce and angers many. The AP reports that “By midday, many Cuban doctors were trying to figure out whether quitting their jobs would free them of the travel limit.” Dr. Eduardo Herrera, a surgeon in Havana, contended that, “Instead of resolving the real problems of Cuban doctors, which is that salaries are low and we are working with limited resources, this measure shows that there’s no respect for the rights of citizens in Cuba.” While Cuba has raised salaries for health professionals in recent years, few doctors make more than $80 per month.

Cuba’s policy announcement followed meetings on Monday between the U.S. and Cuba over record high Cuban migration this year. The purpose of the talks was to discuss proposals on how the U.S. and Cuba could contribute to fighting smuggling organizations that take advantage of Cuban migrants, noted a State Department spokesperson, according to Voice of America News. Cuba also demanded the elimination of the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program during the talks.

Once in the U.S., Cubans receive preferential treatment under the so-called “wet foot, dry foot policy.” This policy is a provision of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA), which fast-tracks Cuban arrivals in the U.S. for a green card by granting them asylum upon arrival, making them eligible for a green card after one year in the country. Although bi-lateral negotiations are ongoing, the administration has stressed it has no intention of ending the wet foot, dry foot policy, a move Cuba’s government rejects claiming it incentivizes dangerous migration to the U.S.

An estimated 45,000 Cubans are expected to arrive at the U.S. border this year over land, air, and sea. For more on the migration surge check out our previous reporting here.

Governor Greg Abbott leads Texas trade delegation to Cuba

Gov. Greg Abbott arrived in Cuba on Monday for a trade mission with a delegation of 26 Texans. On Tuesday, Abbott’s delegation visited Cuba’s Mariel Special Development Zone, met with representatives from the Cuban Export-Import Corporation (CIMEX), and the ministry of tourism, The Dallas Morning News reports.

“We wanted to open the door to establishing relationships at the highest levels in the state of Texas that will build a foundation,” said Gov. Abbott. He’s not the only Governor looking to establish relationships at the highest levels in his state. Gov. Asa Hutchison of Arkansas and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York both visited the island earlier this year.

Gov. Abbott said, “One of my goals was to work with Cuban leaders and Cuban businesses and Cuban business owners to find ways that Texas can capitalize on the growing economic opportunity.” AP reported that Gov. Abbott made little progress on Cuba business trip and the visit was not without its critics. Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University critiqued the visit saying that that increased business ties between the two countries will serve only the regime and strengthen it, reports Fox News Latino.

While Governor Abbott  saw “opportunity in abundance here in Cuba,” the governor did not call for the lifting of the trade embargo. Gov. Abbott left the island Wednesday evening.

In Cuba

Just dance: Cuban salsa dancers try for world record

Last Wednesday, while we in the U.S. were preparing for turkey, Cubans were preparing to enter the record books. Approximately 980 couples gathered on the Malecón in Havana to break the Guinness world record for salsa dancing in a circle. Dancers sashayed to four Cuban songs for a total of 14 minutes and 58 seconds according to the Latin American Herald Tribune. Organizers estimate that 400 foreigners from 17 different countries joined Cuban dancers. The event marked the tenth anniversary of Baila en Cuba, an annual world congress for salsa dancers held in Havana. The congress took place from November 22-27 and featured 22 different salsa workshops, five open-air concerts and over 700 salsa dancers.


Rare sight in Cuba, protests at the Ecuadorian Embassy

Last Friday, Cuban protesters headed to the Ecuadorian embassy and airline offices in Havana to express their displeasure over quickly shifting visa requirements for Cuban travelers. The day before, the Ecuadorean government ended its visa-free program for Cubans, and now requires visas for Cubans traveling to Ecuador. In response, Cubans, many of whom had already purchased airline tickets, sought refunds, visas, and a quick exit from Cuba.

Protesters returned on Monday to continue to voice their demands, primarily “Give us our money back!” For many Cubans, a flight to Ecuador is tantamount to putting their lifesavings on the line. On Monday, the Ecuadorian embassy relented saying it would allow Cubans who had already purchased their plane tickets to get visas and depart Cuba. Cuban state media, which can be read here, hosted two online forums for readers to discuss recent regulatory changes.

Government security officials, both in uniform and in plainclothes, quickly contained the protests outside the embassy by cordoning off protests from the public and not allowing protesters to return once they had left. The Washington Post reported a “heavy deployment of plainclothes Cuban police and uniformed officers kept the crowds behind yellow tape, blocking access to the building.”

Prior to the policy change, the most popular route for Cubans starting their journey to the U.S. began in Ecuador before covering 4,400 miles as well as eight illegal border crossings before they could reach the U.S. Increased migration presents particular problems for Nicaragua and Costa Rica, two nations where Cubans have been detained in recent weeks waiting for passage to continue their journey northward. We reported on this situation here.

An estimated 45,000 Cubans are expected to arrive at the U.S. border this year over land, air, and sea. For more on the migration surge check out our previous reporting here.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

SICA meetings does not produce agreement on migration
Last week, members of the Central American Integration System (Sistema de Integración Centroamericana or SICA) meet in El Salvador at an emergency summit to discuss Cuban migration through Central America. SICA leaders did not come to an agreement reports The Washington Post.

The summit sought to address the 3,000 migrants that remain in limbo on the Nicaragua/ Costa Rica border. In Panama, 1,200 migrants remain waiting for a decision from Central American governments. During the meeting, Nicaragua defended its decision to close its border with Costa Rica, citing its right to national sovereignty and threats to national security. Costa Rica favors creating a humanitarian corridor and allowing Cuban migrants to continue their journey. This proposal was rejected by Nicaragua.

Nicaragua closed its border with Costa Rica on November 15 after Costa Rica issued large numbers of exit visas to Cubans in their territory. In the weeks prior to this decision, Nicaragua had issued 3,853 temporary travel visas to Cubans seeking to cross its territory.

Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama are all member states of SICA. Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, and Mexico are observer states. On November 30, Cuba’s government, in its statement limiting the travel of medical professionals, highlighted SICA’s recent disapproval of the United States “manipulation” of immigration policy.

Recommended Reading

U.S.-Cuba Normalization Allows Mexico and Cuba to Repair Old Ties

Professor William LeoGrande offers context about the reinvigorated Cuba/ Mexico relationship, explaining the fluctuations in policy under the PRI and PAN.

Water Shortages Have a Heavy Impact on Women in Cuba, Patricia Grogg, Inter Press Service

Intense drought combined with aging infrastructure causes Cuba to lack water. The people picking up the slack are by in large female, a factor explored by Patricia Grogg’s analysis of Cuba’s gendered water crisis.

Cows, Capitalism, and the Future of Cuba, Taylor Wofford, Newsweek

Wofford’s story describes an odd coupling, American bulls (specifically one) and the Cuban cattle industry.

Recommended Viewing

Latitudes: Our Favorite Global Music Right Now, Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR Music

Tsioulcas explores Cuban music from the Havana Contemporary Music Festival and beyond.