Week In Review: Obama in Cuba in America’s season of cynicism

A year before his historic election, then-Senator Barack Obama told a crowd in Miami’s Little Havana, “We’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years. And we need to change it.”

Senator Obama, as Bill LeoGrande recounts, joined this new vision of Cuba policy with substantive proposals to restore Cuban-American family travel, remittances, and people-to-people contacts, and to resume engagement with Cuba’s government on issues that affected our common interests.

As a political candidate, Mr. Obama’s positions were a bet against the conventional wisdom that no one could be elected president without offering full-throated support for the embargo; as a leader for the nation’s foreign policy, he would stage a sharp departure from fifty years of foreign policy orthodoxy.

Converting these risky bets into round trip tickets to Cuba on Air Force One took courage and remarkable insight into what made this time the right time for a policy change of this magnitude.

So, how did the President pull this off?

First, he changed U.S. sanctions; not all at once, but by taking manageable bites, acting without much fanfare, taking mostly safe steps first. In 2009, he began by removing the Bush-era limits on the right of Cuban Americans to visit Cuba and provide financial support for their families.

In the beginning, it seemed counterintuitive to make the community most responsible for keeping the failed Cuba policy in place the most immediate beneficiaries of that policy’s liberalization. But, as visits by Cuban Americans to the island increased 8-fold under the new policy, giving the diaspora “skin in the game” also gave the President political license for more encompassing reforms. Two years later, he reopened non-tourist travel for all Americans, visits which have also grown exponentially, further increasing political support for additional reforms.

Second, he has managed Congress brilliantly. After repeatedly using his executive authority to create legal exceptions to the embargo – allowing increases in travel, trade, and commercial contacts with Cuba in 2009, 2011, 2015, and 2016 – not a single reform has been reversed, defunded, or delayed by legislative actions, or by court decisions, as in the case of immigration.

Third, he never caved under controversy. During the slow, steady seven years of President Obama’s purposeful evolution of U.S. policy, there have been troubling and unwelcomed developments – the long prison term of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross prominent among them – of the kind that caused earlier presidents to drop Cuba from their reform agendas. Hardline Members of the U.S. Congress – Republicans and Democrats – even told the administration not to negotiate for Alan Gross’s release, because doing so would require the U.S. to make concessions.

Today, Alan Gross walks free because the President ignored their advice and protected his policy goals while finding a formula that got Mr. Gross, an imprisoned CIA agent, dozens of Cuban political prisoners, and the remaining members of the Cuban Five, back to their homes. Settling their cases was only part of the negotiation that led to the announcement on December 17, 2014 that diplomatic relations would be restored.

Fourth, while the president kept his eyes on the big picture, he also kept learning. In his first term, we were often assured by a member of his National Security Council staff that Cuba was not such a big deal to the other nations of Latin America.

In 2012, our strongest allies in the region, including from conservative governments like Colombia, told the President they would boycott the next Summit of the Americas unless Cuba could attend. In 2015, just four months after Presidents Obama and Castro spoke to their publics about the coming rapprochement, they could meet in person at the Summit in Panama to discuss how the new relationship was going after the U.S. dropped its objections and Cuba got its seat at the table. By the time he delivered his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama was challenging Congress to lift the embargo “if you want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere.”

Fifth, by tackling this problem as he did, the President created a virtuous cycle in public opinion as measured nationally and in the Cuban American community.

According to the Gallup poll, when he took office in 2009, Cuba was viewed unfavorably by 60% of Americans against just 29% who held favorable views. After seven years of reforms, increased travel, diplomacy, and visible presidential leadership, Cuba is now viewed favorably by 54% of Americans, with unfavorable views falling from 60% down to 40%.

Of perhaps greater significance, support within the diaspora for normalization, according to recent research published by Bendixen & Amandi, leapt from 44% in December 2014 to 56% in just one year. Last year’s Sunshine State Survey found that Floridians of all stripes support diplomatic relations with Cuba at exactly the same levels.

By spreading out the reforms over 7 years, while handling Congress and controversy so steadily, learning and making adjustments along the way, the President won public consent for Cuba policy reforms and a trip to Havana that few of us could have expected.

“Many Americans,” the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote in 2012, “would be skeptical of the idea that elected officials, presidents included, try to keep the promises they made on the campaign trail.” In this season of cynicism, that skepticism is off the charts.

Perhaps this is what is most remarkable about the trip that President Obama is about to begin: In 2007, he made bold promises to reform Cuba policy as a candidate for our nation’s highest office, and then did the unexpected. He kept his word.

Anyone watching him step off of Air Force One on Sunday should remember that.

Our Recommendations


U.S. – Cuba Relations
On Tuesday, the Obama administration announced a number of significant regulatory changes related to Cuba. The new rules will make it significantly easier and more affordable for individual U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba, increase Cuba’s access to international markets, permit Cuban entities to carry out transactions in dollars, and allow Cuban citizens to earn salaries in the United States. This latter change will clear the way for Cuban baseball players to become Major Leaguers in the U.S. without having to give up their Cuban citizenship.

In a separate action, the U.S. government also removed Cuba from its list of countries deemed to have insufficient port security, a change that will clear the way for U.S. cruise ships and cargo vessels to travel back and forth, the Associated Press reported.

For more details on the new regulations, be sure to read the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s (OFAC) full announcement and its list of frequently asked questions about Cuba.

Cuba Eliminates Tax on U.S. Dollar, Havana Times

Cuba responded to the new rules permitting the use of dollars by cancelling the ten percent tax that it applies on U.S. dollars entering the country, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said.

Changes in Cuba

A broad coalition, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas (publisher of this weekly news briefing) is working for changes in U.S.-Cuba policy. Eight members of our coalition helped produce this factsheet that focuses on changes taking place in Cuba, authorized by the government and propelled by the Cuban people.

Obama letter among first direct mail to Cuba in more than 50 years, Doug Stanglin,USA Today

This week marked the first time in more than fifty years that U.S. mail could be sent directly to Cuba. The U.S. Postal Service announced on Thursday that it now provides a full range of mail service to Cuba, including first-class letters, packages, and Priority Mail International. To mark the occasion, President Barack Obama sent a letter to a seventy-six year old Cuban pen-pal in the first batch of direct mail to Cuba in more than 50 years.

Culture Gap Impedes U.S. Business Efforts for Trade With Cuba, Victoria Burnett,New York Times

Fifteen months after the Obama administration announced the normalization of relations with Cuba, and American business leaders started flocking to the island, relatively few business deals have been signed. Beyond tourism, the U.S. and Cuba continue to have largely different economic visions for the future. Philip Peters, a partner at D17 Strategies, a consultancy in Washington, said that Cuba is “not going to rewrite the rule book [for American entrepreneurs].” Still, some American businesses have prospered: Airbnb began operating in Cuba in April; Sprint now has a roaming agreement with the Cuban state telecommunications company, ETECSA; and Cleber, the Alabama tractor company that plans to build a factory in the Mariel Special Development Zone, received a license last month.

Cuba changing, but only slowly, since Obama’s policy shift, Daniel Trotta, Reuters

In the past fifteen months, the Obama administration’s effort to normalize U.S. relations with Cuba has resulted in a 77% increase in U.S. travel to the island, numerous new regulations, and the first visit of a U.S. president to Cuba in almost ninety years. Despite this, some say that Cuba’s government has not fully reciprocated. “What is perceived on the outside as slow progress is really the way of Cubans assuring themselves of the trust that is necessary to be built,” says U.S. businessman Saul Berenthal of the Cleber tractor company. Market-style reforms on the island have had limited implementation, trade imports and exports remain tightly controlled, and communications and expression remain constrained. While Cuba’s businesses have benefitted from a 50% growth rate in the past year, business leaders in Cuba, such as restaurant owner Niuris Higueras are calling for greater access to U.S. goods and markets. “Cuba has already changed, but needs more… We need to link up with the U.S. market,” Higueras said.

AT&T, Starwood, Marriott Work on Cuba Deals Ahead of Obama Trip, NBC News

At least three major U.S. companies – AT&T, Starwood, and Marriott – are seeking to make major deals with Cuba as President Barack Obama prepares to visit Havana. AT&T is negotiating a mobile communications agreement with Cuba’s state telecoms monopoly ETECSA. Earlier this week, Verizon signed a similar agreement. Meanwhile, hotel and resort chains Starwood and Marriott are confident that they can soon announce plans to develop hotels in Cuba under their respective names, according to a source who was briefed by administration and company officials.

Klobuchar, Emmer to join Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, Allison Sherry, Star Tribune

Republican Rep. Tom Emmer (MN-6) and Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN) will join President Obama on his historic trip to Cuba this weekend.. Both Emmer and Klobuchar are strong advocates of ending the trade embargo. Last year, Emmer introduced the anti-embargo Cuba Trade Act of 2015 in the House, while Klobuchar has led a bipartisan effort to introduce similar legislation in the Senate.  Senator Klobuchar and Rep. Emmer made their first trips to Cuba on delegations led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas in 2015. They will be part of a large group of lawmakers visiting Cuba, including House Democrats and Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona.

How to Go to Cuba Right Now, Victoria Burnett, New York Times

The new U.S. government regulations announced on Tuesday have made it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba on “people-to-people” trips. For the first time, U.S. citizens will no longer have to book travel to Cuba as part of a group.  Although these non-tourist individual travelers will still need to use a charter airline service at the present time, they will be able to book seats on carriers operating regularly-scheduled flights between Cuba and the United States when commercial service begins later this year.

In Cuba

On Major Lazer In Havana, Isabel C. Albee, Huffington Post

Isabel Albee, formerly an intern at the Center for Democracy in the Americas, describes her experience attending last week’s Diplo and Major Lazer concert in Havana. The event was the first major open-air concert in Cuba featuring U.S.-based artists since Cuba and the U.S. announced they would normalize relations in December 2014, and attracted a crowd of over 400,000 people. “The concert didn’t change Cuba, nor was it a sign of a changing Cuba,” writes Albee. “It was a sign of life in Havana, and it made young Cubans feel like they were part of the rest of the world.”

Diagnostican primer caso de transmisión autócton del virus del Zika (First Indigenous Case of Zika Diagnosed in Cuba), Granma

Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health has confirmed the first indigenous case of Zika virus on the island. The patient, a twenty-one year old woman in Central Havana, has been hospitalized at Freyre Andrade Hospital. This case comes weeks after a Venezuelan medical student in Cuba displayed symptoms of the Zika virus.

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