Cuba and True Patriotism: The Debate on Meeting and Feeding Cubans

“The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming, ‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”  Senator Carl Schurz, remarks in the U.S. Senate, February 29, 1872.

Legislation was introduced this week in the U.S. Senate to cut off the regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba recently resumed by the Obama administration.

If the bill passes, it would give JetBlue and other commercial carriers a case of the blues. It would also impose a real hardship on Cubans on both sides of the Florida Strait, by making their family reunions much more costly to arrange. Moreover, passage of a law blocking these flights would re-impose limits on our constitutional right to travel, and prevent more Americans from meeting Cubans and learning from them, for reasons justified only by the sponsors’ hatred of Cuba’s government.

The two Senators committed to stopping the flights – Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey – wrap themselves in the false flag of patriotism. They’ve called passage of their legislation essential to avoid “leaving key aspects of our airport security in the hands of the anti-American, repressive regime in Cuba.”

Next week, the House Committee on Agriculture will hold a hearing on trade with Cuba, with special attention to legal and regulatory restrictions that make it harder for farmers in the U.S. to sell nutritious, high-quality food for consumption by the Cuban people at a lower cost.

For nearly forty years, policymakers in the U.S. Congress from both political parties have stood against the use of food as a weapon of national security. Methods like trade embargos and other measures designed to restrict access to food, especially for poor and developing nations, are correctly recognized as instruments of cruelty and potential sources of instability.

Yet the embargo lobby defends restrictions on U.S. farm sales to the island as a check on Cuba’s military and government, and consistent with the national security interests of the United States.

It’s startling to think we have been having this debate over the course of three centuries.

Senator Carl Schurz was an aggressive opponent of what he called American Imperialism. In 1899, he spoke out against plans by the U.S. government to dominate Cuba and the Philippines after our country intervened in what we call the Spanish-American War.

He had no particular love for the people of either country. His concern instead was for the character of the United States. At an address in Chicago, he said, “If we [adopt a colonial system], we shall transform the government of the people, for the people, and by the people, for which Abraham Lincoln lived, into a government of one part of the people, the strong, over another part, the weak.”

So when you hear the opponents of flights to Cuba – and advocates for keeping restrictions on food sales – defend their positions on specious grounds of national security, as if meeting and feeding Cubans posed a distinctive threat to our way of life, remember the words of Carl Schurz.

“I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

American Airlines begins direct commercial flights to Cuba; United announces Newark-to-Cuba routes

American Airlines began flying to Cuba Wednesday, joining JetBlue and Silver Airways, which operated their first flights to the island on August 31 and September 1, respectively. United Airlines will begin flying from Newark to Cuba on November 29.

As we reported last week, the Department of Transportation finalized the list of eight carriers approved for service to Havana, which will begin flying late this year.

Meanwhile, Members of Congress who oppose expanded travel have introduced bills, first in the House and now in the Senate, that, if passed, would halt commercial air travel to Cuba, justified, they say, by concerns about terrorism and inadequate security measures to safeguard the flights. The Department of Homeland Security and Cuba’s aviation authority have stated repeatedly that all appropriate measures have been taken to ensure that Cuba’s international airports adhere to international aviation security standards.

U.S., Cuba Hold Human Smuggling and Migratory Fraud Prevention Technical Exchange, U.S. Department of State

Diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba conducted their second technical meeting on preventing human smuggling and migratory fraud on Wednesday in Havana, the latest in a series of law-enforcement dialogues. The U.S. delegation included representatives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Customs and Border Protection, the Coast Guard, Citizenship and Immigration Services, and the State Department. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations said in a statement that the meeting was “respectful and professional,” and that both parties agreed to continue discussion; the Ministry also noted that Cuba’s delegation had raised the issues of the U.S.’s “wet foot, dry foot” migration policy for Cubans and the Medical Professionals Parole Program as areas of concern.

U.S., Cuba negotiating historic oil-spill treaty, Breanna Molloy, KATC

As Cuba and the United States continue direct talks on a treaty for dealing with oil spills that could occur in the Gulf of Mexico, one Louisiana-based broadcast station examined the risks existing today.  KATC-TV interviewed Lee Hunt, a Houston-based oil expert who’s been a leader in advocating for bilateral cooperation on oil spill prevention and cleanup. Hunt told KATC, “Cuba’s capability of protecting their own coastline is inhibited by their inability to access U.S. supplies,” and as a result, “Cuba is able to drill within 50-60 miles off the Florida coast using second-tier, less-than-high-quality equipment.” As the Tampa Bay Times noted last month, the U.S. and Cuba would share the environmental consequences of a spill in the Gulf.

It is Hunt’s view, shared by leaders like Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund and others, that changes in U.S. policy are essential to protect the ecosystem between Cuba and the U.S. in the event of spill as Cuba’s exploration for oil proceeds.

Louisiana State Senator Sharon Hewitt, who recently traveled to Cuba, noted that oil cooperation with Cuba could also bring jobs to Louisiana. Mr. Hunt and Mr. Whittle were both interviewed for a report by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, “As Cuba plans to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. policy poses needless risks to our national interest,” published in 2011.

Cuban churches denounce U.S. probe of humanitarian aid project, Nelson Acosta, Reuters

Pastors for Peace, the interfaith group that has been bringing humanitarian aid to Cuba from the U.S. aboard its Friendship Caravans since 1992, has been notified by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service that it may lose its tax-exempt status because it never requested or received Treasury approval for its shipments to Cuba. The Cuban Council of Churches expressed its support for Pastors for Peace and criticized the U.S. government’s treatment of the organization as discordant with the recent progress in U.S.-Cuba relations. Joel Ortega Dopico, President of the Cuban Council of Churches, said, “I do not understand how, at this moment, when the Obama Administration’s policy is to seek understanding, that on the other hand they are taking these types of measures against institutions that have created an understanding between our peoples.”

Cuba’s Classic Car Détente, Peter Kornbluh, Cigar Aficionado

Peter Kornbluh of the National Security Archive visited Cuba with Ray Magliozzi, the retired cohost of the National Public Radio show “Car Talk.” They spoke with Cuban mechanics about restoring antique cars and how these cars are playing a role in Cuba’s developing private sector, through taxi services in the tourism industry. “Indeed, each car, and each driver, has a special story relating to Cuba’s complicated history and its current socioeconomic transformation—stories that are often shared with passengers,” Kornbluh writes. “Beyond offering transportation opportunities, both the cars and the drivers have become essential cultural ambassadors as they provide a positive point of contact—and common ground—between foreigners and Cubans.”

In Cuba

Cuba triples number of Wi-Fi zones (in Spanish), AFP

Cuba has tripled the number of Wi-Fi zones on the island, from 65 at the end of last year, to more than 200 at the beginning of this month. ETECSA, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company, had planned to add 80 hotspots this year, but has already exceeded its stated goal. According to Cuba’s government, 348 out of every 1,000 people in Cuba had internet access as of last year.

Separately, Reuters reports on Cuban dissidents’ findings – as reported in the blog 14ymedio – that ETECSA has been filtering and preventing delivery of text messages containing certain words and phrases including “democracy” and “human rights.”

A Bold Attempt to Redefine ‘Dissidence’ in Cuba, Ernesto Londoño, New York Times

Ernesto Londoño of the New York Times spoke to the creators of an online Museum of Dissidence in Cuba, which, as he puts it, “chronicles the long line of people who have stood in opposition to the government throughout history,” including today’s dissident leaders and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and former president Fidel Castro. The website, created in April, “was designed to be a space to generate dialogue,” said Yalenis Nuñez Leyva, one of the founders. As a result of her involvement in the site, Ms. Nuñez has been dismissed from her position at the Ministry of Culture’s magazine Revolución y Cultura.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Algeria to send oil to Cuba to offset falling Venezuelan supplies, Reuters

According to sources “with direct knowledge,” Sonatrach, Algeria’s state oil company, will ship about 515,000 barrels of crude oil to Cuba next month in a sale mediated by PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, Reuters reports. In the first half of 2016, crude oil shipments from Venezuela to Cuba, tallied in barrels per day, dropped by 40 percent. The October crude oil shipment will be Algeria’s first to Cuba, while an additional delivery may be planned for November or December, one of the sources said. In recent years, PDVSA has arranged similar third-country shipments to Cuba, including crude oil from Angola and Russia.

FARC and Colombia establish commission in Cuba to monitor peace accord progress (in Spanish), Associated Press

Colombia’s government and the FARC, who last month concluded an historic peace accord, announced Tuesday the creation of a Commission for the Implementation, Monitoring, Verification of the Final Peace Accord and Resolution of Differences, to be based in Cuba. The commission will be much smaller than the delegations that negotiated the accord in nearly four years of peace talks, and is to facilitate “resolution of the problems that may arise during the transition to a definitive peace,” according to the Associated Press.

After a signing ceremony for the peace accord takes place in Cartagena on September 26, Colombians will vote “yes” or “no” in a plebiscite on October 2 to determine whether to implement the accord and peace process.

Qatar National Bank to open Cuba office in expansion drive, Reuters

Qatar National Bank will open an office in Cuba, the first by a Persian Gulf country on the island. Currently only ten foreign banks have representative offices in Cuba, due in large part to U.S. economic sanctions on countries doing business with both the U.S. and Cuba; the Obama Administration loosened those sanctions in March with a regulatory change allowing U.S. banks to participate in “U-turn transactions” with Cuba in dollars as the middle point in a three-party transaction with two non-U.S. banks.

Michel Temer, Brazil’s new president, retains Cuban doctors, other initiatives to help the poor, Benjamin Parkin, Wall Street Journal

The administration of Michel Temer, the new President of Brazil, extended the country’s Mais Medicos (More Doctors) program, which places doctors in rural and poor communities in Brazil, and is in the process of extending the contracts of many of the Cuban doctors it employs. Over 60 percent of Mais Medicos’ doctors are from Cuba. However, administration officials have stated that an eventual reconfiguration of the program is likely, with the aim of employing more Brazilian doctors and fewer foreign doctors. Started in 2013 under former President Dilma Rousseff, Mais Medicos has brought 16,000 doctors to underserved populations in Brazil.

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