The new, more balanced debate on U.S. policy

Five years ago, after President Obama restored people-to-people travel and made regulatory changes to permit virtually any airport in the U.S. to serve the Cuban market, Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and Bob Menéndez (NJ) decided to pounce.

They wrote an amendment to ground the new flights which they planned to attach to a funding bill for the Federal Aviation Administration. Had it become law, delegations filled with legally qualified educational, religious, cultural, and humanitarian delegations would have had no way to fly to the island.

Rather than having the Senators ground the flights, the Senate grounded the Senators’ amendment. It never came up for a vote. This was a surprising, seemingly solitary defeat, for the two politically powerful Cuban American legislators.

Fast-forward five years to this very week, to the United States Senate, to Senator Rubio and, yes, to the Federal Aviation Administration’s reauthorization bill. On Wednesday, he took to the Senate floor to speak on behalf of another amendment that he planned to tack on to the FAA bill to stop Cuban refugees from gaining eligibility for welfare benefits the moment they set foot on U.S. soil.

This amendment didn’t fly either. On Thursday, as the Miami Herald reported, the Republican-controlled Senate refused even to hold a vote on the Rubio proposal. Exasperated but without an apparent trace of irony, Rubio responded by saying, “This is why people are so sick of politics.”

Far from being politics as usual, Rubio’s defeat at the hands of a Senate disinterested in voting on his amendment is emblematic of a sea-change as the country reassesses our policy toward Cuba.

For decades, Cold War warriors and the Cuban-American community possessed outsized power to determine the direction of U.S.-Cuba relations. That is why, long after its strategic sell-by date, the U.S. embargo continues to impose significant restrictions on the right of Americans to visit Cuba and the ability of U.S. corporations to do business in Cuba.

The perception of the Cuban-American lock on Florida’s electoral votes outlived the reality of it, as President Obama’s victories in the 2008 and 2012 general elections demonstrated. Slowly – like during the Senate’s 2011 debate on the FAA bill – and then suddenly, since President Obama’s decisive changes in U.S. policy were announced in December 2014, perception and reality have started to merge.

It’s a different time when Cuban American legislators in both houses of the U.S. Congress, from both political parties, admit to feeling left out of the conversation on Cuba: see, for example, “Once mighty, Miami’s political guard left out of conversation on Cuba,” Miami Herald, April 8th, 2016.

Meanwhile, Cuban American moderates who were subjected to violence, marginalization, intimidation, even loss of employment opportunities by hardliners, but not silenced by them, can’t help but celebrate the agency and voice they enjoy in this more balanced time.

“I’m happy,” one such moderate, Max Castro, wrote this week, “Happy because they can no longer veto change. Happy because they can no longer dictate a policy based on allowing the Cuban people to go blind in order to poke out the eye of Fidel or Raúl.”

The big changes in Miami are not taking place in isolation. The Des Moines Register editorialized this week in favor of lifting the embargo. It cited a news report that with so many U.S. tourists visiting the island, Cuba risked running out of beer. It went on to say, “Cuba seems forever changed, despite Congressional resistance in lifting the 55-year-old trade embargo. Our representatives should remove the barriers, because the benefits would change Iowa, too.”

It’s a different time when a big newspaper concedes that Cuba not only has cigars (and beer, if it doesn’t run out), but also medical breakthroughs like the treatment Cuba developed to cut down on the incidence of amputations resulting from diabetic foot ulcers.

It’s a different time when a cross-section of Americans voters – Democrats, Independents, and Republicans – support diplomatic relations and ending the trade embargo, as the CBS-New York Times poll reported last month.

It’s a different time when the President’s Committee for the Arts and Humanities – including cultural figures like Usher, Joshua Bell, Alfre Woodard, Dave Matthews, and Smokey Robinson, as well as the leadership of the Smithsonian, the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities – can announce a cultural mission to Cuba (with an itinerary planned with the help of CDA), to advance the normalization process, without worrying that a chorus of boo-birds and fanatics will shower them with press releases or threats of Congressional hearings.

It’s a different time when it’s okay for the administration to criticize Cuba vigorously for a policy that allows Cuban Americans to visit the island by air, but not by sea, and to call out the Carnival Cruise lines for not selling them tickets – while also containing the controversy to keep diplomacy on track.

The point here is that times have changed. What we celebrate is a new normal where everyone gets his or her say, no one is dispossessed, and values core to U.S. foreign policy like human rights are still represented – without all of us being trapped in Cold War time warp or a rigged debate over U.S.-Cuba relations in which only the minority wins.

Acknowledging this change in the distribution of political power is essential as we reinvigorate the debate on ending the embargo. Here, the majority finally rules.

Our Recommendations

U.S. / Cuba Relations

Carnival sued over ban on Cuban nationals sailing to islandAssociated Press

Carnival Corporation, set to begin taking U.S. travelers to Cuba on cruise ships next month, is now the subject of a potential class-action suit filed in federal court in Miami Tuesday. The suit was filed by two Cuban-born U.S. citizens who were not able to purchase tickets for Carnival’s May cruise due to Cuba’s migration policies, which prohibit Cuban-born people residing outside the country from entering by seaport. Although Cuban nationals may return to the island by aircraft, and Cuba’s government has relaxed its travel and migration regulations in recent years, the law restricting sea travel to and from the island remains in place.

Following protests outside its headquarters in Miami early this week, Carnival issued a statement announcing that the corporation is “requesting that the policy in Cuba be changed to allow transport by ships. There has been a policy change with air travel to Cuba, so we are hopeful that a similar change can also happen with travel by sea.” Sen. Bob Menéndez (NJ) criticized Carnival’s plans to set sail, stating, “I never could have fathomed an American company could be so blinded by the prospect of profit in Cuba that it would enter into a business deal with the Castros that tramples on the civil rights of our own American citizens. Make no mistake-by discriminating against Cuban-Americans, Carnival is allowing the Castro regime to extend its oppressive reach to our shores. It must not stand.”

Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in on Thursday in an interview with CNN en Español and the Miami Herald urging Cuba to lift its entry-by-sea restriction: “The United States government will never support, never condone discrimination, and the Cuban government should not have the right to enforce on us a policy of discrimination against people who have a right to travel. … If [Cuba wants] a full relationship and a normal relationship they have to live by international law.” Though he did not advise Carnival to cancel or delay its inaugural cruise, he stated, “Carnival needs to not discriminate.”

Álvaro Fernández, writing in Progreso Weekly, points out the complexities of the Cuba’s migration policy and the U.S.’ travel restrictions on its own citizens, and the contradictions in how the Miami Herald has covered the situation.

On Cuba Magazine offers an overview of the legal and political considerations at hand, and notes that journalist Fernando Ravsberg found in 2013 that Cuba’s legislation on the matter, though frequently cited, is not as specific or clearly worded as one might expect.

Second cruise line approved for Cuba, Chabeli Herrera, The Miami Herald

Joining Carnival Cruise Line, the French luxury cruise company Ponant has received approval from Cuba’s government to take U.S.-based travelers to the island starting in 2017. Passengers will fly to Havana before boarding the ship for a cruise around Cuba.

Ferry Operators Discuss Connecting Cuba with Florida PortsChannel 6 South Florida

Florida-based ferry operators have begun talks with Cuba’s government to seek approval to begin passenger ferry and cargo service between Florida ports and Cuba. Although select cruise lines have been approved to take U.S. travelers to Cuba, no U.S.-based ferry lines are approved to make the trip. Representatives from ferry companies based in and serving Miami, Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale, Key West, and other ports hope to bring people and goods to Havana and Santiago starting as early as June, and are hopeful that cruise lines’ recent progress on this front will pave the way for ferry companies. As we reported last year, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control began issuing licenses last May for the operation of passenger ferry service from Florida to Cuba, but none of the U.S.-licensed companies has received the necessary corresponding Cuba-issued license to begin service.

U.S. airlines battling to fly to Cuba, Ana Radelat, The Hill

As increasing numbers of U.S.-based travelers visit Cuba, major U.S. airline companies continue to contend for the 20 daily round-trip flights to Havana and 10 to other destinations on the island. This summer, the U.S. Department of Transportation will determine which airlines will operate routes to Cuba. Selected carriers hope to begin making flights by the end of 2016.

State Department releases 2015 human rights report, cites Cuba for human rights abuses

The State Department’s annual report on human rights, as in years past, criticizes Cuba’s human rights record. The report cites as continuing areas of primary concern the arbitrary detention and abuse of dissidents, freedom of assembly and the press, and Internet access.

While stating that Cuba’s government freed 53 political prisoners in January 2015, the report notes that six of those prisoners were rearrested later in the year and imprisoned with longer sentences. The report also notes that in September 2015, shortly before Pope Francis’ visit to the island, Cuba’s government “unconditionally released 3,522 prisoners …although none were reported to be political prisoners.”

In his remarks on the release of the report, Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted Cuba as one of the countries “where our backing for human rights and democratic principles is a focus of our diplomacy,” as President Obama also affirmed last month during his historic visit to the island. Kerry continued, “President Obama and I urged the authorities to allow more political openness and online access. There is no question in my mind that most Cubans are far more interested in plugging into the world economy than in recycling arguments left over from the Cold War. The only question is how long it will take for the officials in Havana to catch up with the population.”

‘Hire some new redactors’: How US hinders records requests, Jack Gillum, Associated Press

Jack Gillum reports on how bureaucratic delays slowed responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests following the AP’s 2014 “Cuban Twitter” story on the much-criticized USAID regime change program. Gillum writes, “In USAID’s case, emails released last week to the AP come two years after the news cooperative asked for them following its 2014 report of a secret Twitter-like program in Cuba. ZunZuneo, as it was called, was among several Cuban civil-society programs designed to bring about democratic change.” One document released last week, an email with the sender and recipient redacted, reads, “AP didn’t get this through FOIA, did they? If so, maybe it’s time to hire some new redactors. They got a bit too much of an inside view.”

In Cuba

Cuba loosens Communist control of some restaurant cooperatives, Marc Frank, Reuters

Just days before the Seventh Party Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba convenes, officials announced that Cuba will open its state-controlled wholesale market to a limited number of cooperatives and private-business owners, providing a cheaper alternative to purchases made on the retail market.

Cuba’s Domestic Trade Ministry made the announcement via Radio Reloj, noting that the measure does not extend to privately owned restaurants (paladares), but applies to non-agricultural cooperatives and non-state employees who rent out homes. The new wholesale markets will open in Havana, Placetas, and Trinidad, and will cap prices on certain goods, explains ACN. The Domestic Trade Ministry has not yet stated when the markets will begin operating, though the measure is effective May 2.

As we reported earlier this month, the party congress is expected to consider six documents, addressing Cuba’s economy and the implementation of economic reforms since the previous meeting of the congress.

Taking stock of Cuba’s economic changes and how they have been implemented since 2011, Reuters‘ Marc Frank comments on the challenges Cuban farmers continue to face, through droughts, scarcity, and volatile food prices.

Marc Frank and John Paul Rathbone, reporting for the Financial Times, note that some Cubans are pessimistic about the efficacy of future reforms. Omar Esteban, a taxi driver in Havana, explained, “There’s scarcity and it’s getting worse, in the entire economy, in everything you need. I doubt the congress will do anything to improve our situation.” Since 2011, Cuba has experienced three percent economic growth, in contrast to the hoped-for five percent growth. Some, though, see the party congress as an opportunity for the government to “begin to hand over the baton of power to younger” members of the party.

Interview: Party Time in Cuba – With Marx, Not Mojitos. Here’s What The Congress May Do, Tim Padgett, WLRN

Journalist Pascal Fletcher, former Havana bureau chief for Reuters, offers a forecast for Cuba’s upcoming seventh party congress, as well as his take on the effects of Obama’s visit to the island. Asked about what political and economic reforms may emerge from the party congress, Fletcher speculates that potential results may include increasing Cubans’ involvement in the country’s political process, further moves to broaden Internet access, and a new “legal framework for the creation of small- and medium-sized businesses run by private people.”

Blame it on the Yanquis? Cuba runs low on beer in tourism boom, Jack Frank Daniels, Reuters

Facing an influx of visitors, Cuba is experiencing a shortage of Cristal and Bucanero, its two most popular brands of beer. A sales executive for Bucanero, the joint venture with Anheuser Busch InBev that brews both Cristal and Bucanero, stated that the company will need to build another plant to satisfy increasing demand.

La culpa, mi amor, es de ETECSA (The fault, my love, is in ETECSA), Eileen Sosin Martínez, Progreso Semanal

Eileen Sosin Martínez examines the everyday effects of the often fickle service of ETECSA, Cuba’s government-run telecom company, which operates as a monopoly. “ETECSA is a difficult lover. You hate it, you curse it, betray it, too; but you can’t leave it,” Sosin Martínez writes. “The problem is intrinsically sentimental. It is difficult to love ETECSA, and even if you’re able, it wouldn’t be reciprocated.”

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Havana will host Caribbean SummitCAN

Cuba will host the Seventh Summit of the Association of Caribbean States on June 4. Cuba became the ACS president pro-tempore in January of this year, and will hold that post until 2017. Composed of 25 member states and seven associated countries, the ACS was founded in 1994. The previous summit took place in Mexico City in 2014.

Recommended Viewing

Video: 150 years of US-Cuba history, told in 6 minutes, Johnny Harris and Max Fisher, Vox

Vox has produced a brief but powerful video telling of the long and often rocky history of relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Photo series: Practicing Islam in Catholic Cuba, Benazir Wehelle, CNN

With his photo series “Cuban Muslims,” Spanish photographer Joan Alvado seeks to shed light on the experiences of Cubans who have converted to Islam. “I felt that they are wanting their story to be told, and it didn’t happen before,” said Alvado.

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