Cuba Travel Advisories – Memorial Day Edition

May 27, 2016

With an estimated 38 million Americans traveling on Memorial Day weekend, 2.6 million of them by air, their attention is focused on how just hard it will be for them to get where they’re going.

We’re not focused on long TSA lines, but on another obstacle that can still trip up travelers – the fact that tourist travel to Cuba is still prohibited under U.S. law – and why repealing this obnoxious restraint on our freedom to travel (as Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina have proposed) is a big priority that can also move the normalization process along.

During the last seven years travel to Cuba has gotten a lot easier. President Obama took all restraints off Cuban-American family travel in 2009; he restored people-to-people (non-tourist) travel in 2011; and this year, he struck an agreement with Cuba to restore commercial aviation service, and he’s given individuals the right to visit the island without signing up for a group (and a minder) so long as they stick to the people-to-people rules and eschew tourist activities when they go.

With every reform, U.S. travel to Cuba increased steadily. But, following the December 17th, 2014 announcement that our two countries would resume diplomatic relations, visits to Cuba really took off. In 2015, for example, trips by Americans to Cuba jumped 77 percent over 2014, and by 94% in the first quarter of 2016 over the same period last year.

By one metric, Google searches, it’s reasonable to conclude the surge will continue. Last month, iQuanti, a data-driven marketing firm, released a study showing that 7 million searches relating to Cuba travel took place in the U.S. from March 1, 2015 – February 29, 2016. If a fraction of the Googlers move from search to making arranging flights and lodging, the U.S. travel numbers will just keep rising. Why, we even read this week that Nixon’s going to Cuba (Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri. Sorry, we couldn’t resist).

This is all good news for Cubans who are longing to see the benefits of their country’s rapprochement with the United States. With more travel, they will. As Arch Ritter explained on his Cuban Economy blog this spring, travel increases mean more foreign exchange earnings for the country (it’s how Cuba’s government pays for imported food), a construction boom for tourism facilities (more jobs, better wages for more Cubans), and a “major increase in incomes for the growing private sector servicing tourism.”

This trend doubtless contributed to Cuba’s decision this week to legalize small and medium-sized businesses. It ups Cuba’s commitment to self-employed business owners interested in building bigger enterprises and may convey new rights, such as the ability to import wholesale supplies or export products. Simply put, as demand coming from U.S. tourism rises, Cubans have greater opportunities to live independently and earn more take home pay.

The Cuba travel trends are also creating jobs in the U.S. and offering opportunities to U.S. businesses on the island. Think of what well-known U.S. brands can now do: Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile are serving customers roaming around Cuba; Airbnb is booking rooms in bed and breakfasts for U.S. travelers; Marriott and Starwood have been granted permission to manage Cuban hotels.

These developments in turn are creating virtuous circles for our politics and, importantly, for the Flake and Sanford bills mentioned above. In polls testing U.S. public opinion on the question of legalizing travel, support is really high for getting rid of travel restrictions: nationally (82% in the CBS News survey); regionally (58% of voters in Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa in the Atlantic Council survey); and among the Cuban American diaspora (at 3:00 p.m. today, El Nuevo Herald was reporting 56% support for travel!).

Jobs in Cuba and the U.S., coupled with high public support across the country – these are factors that Members of the U.S. Congress can’t ignore. Even opponents of President Obama and supporters of the embargo are finding the political space to move, even if incrementally. Take Members of Congress like Rep. Bill Keating, who signed a letter with his Massachusetts delegation colleagues supporting U.S. approval of JetBlue flights from Boston to Havana.

Others are being bolder. Rep. Mark Sanford’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act now has 126 cosponsors, a high-water mark for his legislation. Senator Flake’s bill to legalize travel is now supported by 51 Members of the U.S. Senate, a majority, as our allies at Engage Cuba announced this week. This happened after Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Steve Daines of Montana climbed aboard, and they represent fairly conservative states. Small wonder our friends at Progreso Weekly believe “Unrestricted Cuba travel getting closer,” but we’re not there yet.

Getting more cosponsors on these bills is an investment in a better Cuba policy that will pay off in two ways. It will prompt Congress to act to repeal the travel ban, whenever it decides to start legislating again, and embolden policymakers to get behind the next obvious step, getting rid of the embargo for good.

So, while you’re waiting to get seated on that flight, check your phone to see if your House Member or Senator could use a holiday nudge to get in line behind your right to travel to Cuba.

Happy Holiday!

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Restoring Relations and the Rashomon Effect

May 20, 2016
Earlier this week, the McClatchy News Service published an article which reported “the Castro government has carried out a campaign to diminish the importance of the historic visit.”
Of course, that piece came out just two days after the Associated Press reported “President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba advanced the normalization of relations between the Cold War foes and created momentum for more cooperation on agriculture, medicine, and law enforcement, Cuba’s top diplomat, Josefina Vidal, on U.S. affairs said Monday.”
Today, AFP’s Havana bureau filed a story that the movie “Transformers 5” will begin filming tomorrow in Cuba’s Capital, just weeks after “Fast & Furious 8” brought its fast cars and a “pumped up Vin Diesel” to Havana and became the first American film since 1961 to shoot scenes in Cuba.
Of course, that piece came out just hours before the Associated Press reported that, “Artists, writers and intellectuals who believe deeply in Cuba’s opening to the world are questioning their government’s management of an onslaught of big-money pop culture.”
While Cubans are, as AP said, “Avid consumers of U.S. culture in pirated TV and films,” and many “love that the world is looking at us,” as Alberto O’Reilly told bureau chief Michael Weissenstein, many Cubans are not feeling the economic benefits of their country’s economic reforms or the diplomatic opening with the U.S.  And others simply don’t want to bring back the days when Americans viewed Cuba as their playground.
Earlier this year, when President Obama visited the island and spoke in national television, he told the Cuban people he wanted to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”
Of course, three days later, the U.S. State Department unveiled a program to train Cuban youth to build organizations that will actively support democratic principles in Cuba; a program modeled after Cold War era schemes to topple the island’s communist system, a rather hasty exhumation of the remnant buried by the president 72 hours earlier.
Yes, Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama have gambled their respective leadership legacies on restoring diplomatic relations.  Yes, we, and others, celebrate the power of cultural cooperation to bring artists and audiences together across national and ideological boundaries.  And yes, Cubans long for more prosperous lives and deeper connections with people and ideas from across the Florida Strait.
But, these truths coexist with expressions of dread driven by the experience that our diplomacy is just a soft power expression of our resolve to change the regime in Cuba; that our thirst for contracts and consumers will trample the beauty of Cuba and the individuality of Cubans; or that Cuba’s government won’t shake its bureaucratic lethargy or its doubts about U.S. intentions and goals to make use of the Obama opening while it still exists.
In this way, the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement contains its own Rashomon effect: where people in both countries – even ones who share the same values – are driven to contradictory interpretations of the same set of events. These contradictions, by the way, have real world consequences.
They slow down diplomacy in both countries.  They mute the effectiveness of reforms in the U.S. and Cuba which would otherwise provide more commercial opportunities for U.S. businesses on the island, more jobs and higher wages for Cubans and real benefits for U.S. tourists and consumers.  They occasionally stick both governments in the “glue” of past history and angry rhetoric.
Although the author would probably not describe his own writing this way, Fulton Armstrong, Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, captures the Rashomon-like appearance of the normalization process in his recent piece titled “U.S.-Cuba Normalization: Entering a New, Challenging Phase.
While quite critical of the U.S. tendency to stick with initiatives that undermine Cuba’s confidence that Washington is serious, he points to several well-reasoned grounds for optimism starting with Cuba, where:
  • A robust debate and dialogue “within the revolution” is already taking place
  • More information is circulating among Cuban citizens, such as TV and other programming reproduced on thumb drives across the island, without the government shutting it down
  • More space exists for Cuban citizens to meet their economic needs including through employment and business creation in the private sector which, party leaders now say, contributes to the economy
  • Political change in Cuba, led by President Raúl Castro’s retirement, will likely produce greater dialogue among the country’s new leaders, and a larger role for Cuba’s parliament.

But Mr. Armstrong also expresses confidence in a constructive role that U.S. commerce, the Cuban American community, and U.S. NGO’s can play in keeping the process on track. The antidote, in essence, to relations bogged down by the Rashomon effect, is the virtuous circle created by the successes already delivered by the policy.

“Successes in people-to-people relations, business dealings, and other interactions appear the most likely path to building trust, maximizing mutual benefit, driving regulatory and legislative change, and propelling the relationship into the future.”

In the end, he says, “The people of both countries are ready for more normal relations.”

An indefensible amendment

May 13, 2016

Three years ago, Rep. Kathy Castor helped solve a missing children’s case.

Following her first visit to Cuba, Cole and Chase Hakken, two boys in her Tampa District, ages 4 and 2, were kidnapped and taken by boat to the island.But, Rep. Castor used contacts she made on her trip to link the Hillsborough County Sherriff’s Department, Cuban officials, and U.S. diplomats. Their ability to talk and work together meant the boys could be speedily returned to their grandparents entrusted with their care. In the end, the right of Elián González’s father to bring his son home to Cuba was vindicated in much the same way, although it took considerably longer.

A family crisis, a migration crisis, a missile crisis – crises that have roiled the waters between Florida and Cuba; none could have been resolved had the U.S., Cuba, and the former Soviet Union not been willing or able to engage.

In fact, the installation of a hotline between Washington and Moscow on August 30, 1963, less than a year after a crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, was a signal achievement of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. The following year, a national election in the U.S. buried beneath a pile of hand-picked daisy petals any notion that we’d disconnect that hotline.

But, just as our risk to crisis never wanes, the self-defeating devotion to disconnection never dies.

Despite the presence of ongoing risks – posed by narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean, a surge in illegal migration from Cuba that continues without abate, the prospect for more off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and more – legislation is now pending in Congress to sever  “any bilateral military-to-military” contacts between the U.S. and Cuba.

See for yourself here: The language crafted by Rep. Ron DeSantis (FL-6) as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act contains no exceptions. One safety valve – just one – is provided by the amendment. No matter the gravity of a potential crisis, contacts can only resume if the government of Cuba were to meet every condition imposed on it by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.

Can you imagine? If the amendment were to pass, and a blowout oil spill the size of the Deepwater Horizon were to take place, the amendment says that no U.S. military commander, no Pentagon official, could pick up a phone and contact a Cuban counterpart to ask, “what’s going on?” Or “how can we help?” They could only place a call to see if Cuba had become a fully functioning democracy – something U.S. sanctions have never produced after a half-century of exertion – and most unlikely to occur in the middle of a crisis.

It’s actually even worse than that. As many of our allies have said in the days since the amendment became public, this amendment would reverse or halt cooperation that is already taking place – or is soon yet to be.

A few examples:

  • For years, the U.S. forces at Guantánamo and their Cuban counterparts have held monthly, face-to-face, across the fence discussions, ensuring clear communication and avoiding the risk of a misunderstanding spinning out of control. We talked about this in our “9 Ways” report in 2009.
  • Last week, we discussed the visit in South Florida that brought together the U.S. military and a Cuban team on the topic of drug interdiction.
  • Below, we report on a pact to provide for a joint U.S.-Cuba response to a massive oil spill.

None of this could take place if the Congress were to yield to the temptation of disconnection.

The amendment, quite frankly, is a danger unto itself. But it also connects to a larger purpose, to themes dating back to a prior time – to “ideas” of Cuba as a security risk, to Cubans as “the other,” and of the U.S. as the arbiter of Cuba’s future – along with the misbegotten notion that you don’t talk to your adversaries, no matter what.

These are the foundational elements of the Helms-Burton law. Twenty years ago, it codified the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Cuba, penalties that were never meant to come off, until Cuba cried uncle.

By preventing U.S.-Cuba military-to-military collaboration, even during moments that threaten U.S. national security, the wording of the amendment calls our attention to Helms-Burton, and how it harms our national interest, in ways the author probably did not intend.

The House of Representatives considers the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 – and the DeSantis amendment – next week. Read the rest of this entry »

Trump, the Diaspora, and the Embargo

May 6, 2016

Barring a late entry by a third-party candidate-dissenter, voters in the U.S. presidential election this fall will choose between Republican and Democratic Party nominees who agree on at least one issue: Both will favor ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba unconditionally.

As the Voice of America reported (along with several other news agencies), Mr. Donald J. Trump is now running unopposed as the presumptive Republican Party nominee for president. If you visit the Council on Foreign Relations’ Campaign 2016 website, you will see that he endorsed President Obama’s opening to Cuba last September, adding (of course), “we should have made a better deal.”

Both Democrats running for president, Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders, also support repeal of the embargo. Whatever else the two major party candidates bicker about this fall, they won’t be arguing over Cuba.

We’ve not had a presidential election like this since the Cuban revolution. But, this development is not just historic; it augurs well for the ability of the next president to untie the knots that have bound the embargo to U.S. foreign policy far too long.

The most recent polling data out of Florida – conducted in April by Dario Moreno, associate professor at the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University – offers powerful evidence of how much public opinion in South Florida’s Cuban American community has shifted.

It may also explain why Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the most senior representative in Florida’s Congressional delegation, and a leading hardline supporter of tough sanctions on Cuba, announced today that she won’t be voting for either party’s nominee.

Here’s a summary of what Dr. Moreno found:

  • Cuban Americans are in the process of a secular realignment, moving away from the GOP and towards the Democrats.
  • This realignment will likely be accelerated by the nomination of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate for president.
    • Among the Cuban American base, Trump has only 37%, and “this is the lowest in history that any potential Republican candidate has polled in this traditionally loyal demographic.”
    • By comparison, Hillary Clinton is within striking range at 31%
  • Support for the hardline policy toward Cuba no longer unifies the community as it did for a generation (1980-2008), and adds “The hardline Cuban consensus is beginning to break down.”

Obviously, this is a sharp and significant departure from what came before. The hardliners in the South Florida electorate exerted a grip on the policymaking process that derived from their influence first on presidential elections – and the Electoral College significance of Florida – which they then leveraged over Members of Congress in the 49 other states.

Dr. Moreno’s data – very much in line with what we have read and reported on previously – shows fundamentally they have lost control over the voting preferences of “Young Cubans and those who arrived in the United States recently (after 1992),” who are likely to abandon the GOP in even greater numbers with the nomination of Mr. Trump.

We report on this disorder not for partisan reasons, but because of what it means for the prospects of legislation to end the embargo completely when the new Congress convenes in 2017.

It must have been a stunning week for Rep. Ros-Lehtinen. She tweeted all week about the Kardashians’ visit to Cuba (to be honest, we were sympathetic to her comment, “haven’t the #Cuban ppl suffered enough?”) but went radio silent when several news agencies reported that a four-member security delegation from Cuba’s government had been led on a “familiarization tour” of Joint Interagency Task Force South, a facility playing a key role against narco-trafficking. Not a tweet or a peep about the visitors posing a security risk.

There is, in fact, very little she can say, when 94,000 Americans, as well as 115,000 Cuban Americans, broke records by visiting Cuba in the first quarter of 2016 at the highest levels ever recorded, so much so that Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal tweeted about it. Or when the Chief Economist of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, “no fan of Cuban human rights violations, limited freedoms and other flaws,” publishes an op-ed in the Deseret News, Utah’s major daily newspaper, saying that the future of U.S. Cuba relations “will spring from engagement, not separation.”

The country has changed, just like South Florida has changed, and these shifts can only reinforce each other going forward.

With Rep. Ros-Lehtinen neutral in the November election, it becomes pretty difficult for her and other supporters of the embargo in both political parties to make an effective stand against lifting it, especially if that’s what the next president makes a priority of his or her administration.

Let other Members of Congress take note. No excuses. Read the rest of this entry »