Thanksgiving Special: Taking Stock of an Extraordinary Year in U.S.-Cuba Relations

November 23, 2016

In the United States, we’re on the eve of our Thanksgiving holiday.

Tomorrow morning, millions of children will be huddled around television sets watching massive helium-filled balloons – featuring Trolls, Red Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Ronald McDonald, and Red Angry Birds – fly high as they lead the parade down the Avenue of the Americas in New York.

In the afternoon and evening, football fans will change the channel to watch (we’re not kidding) the Redskins versus the Cowboys, and the Steelers play the Colts.

By game time, all of us will know which of the turkeys named “Tater” and “Tot” received one of the last Presidential pardons of the Obama administration.

Many of us, before gathering with family or friends, will spend at least a part of Thanksgiving Day taking stock of what makes us feel grateful and happy. As you make your list, we’d like to share ours with you.

Since last Thanksgiving, there have been a succession of changes in U.S.-Cuba relations that made us hopeful and extraordinarily happy. In 2016 alone:

  • President Obama visited Cuba, making him the first sitting U.S. president to do so in 88 years;
  • A bilateral agreement produced the resumption of direct transportation of mail between the U.S. and Cuba for the first time in 43 years;
  • The U.S. and Cuba signed memoranda of understanding on agriculture, health, cancer research, environmental cooperation, commercial air travel, maritime navigation, and more;
  • U.S and Cuban diplomats had face-to-face discussions on law enforcement, security, counter-narcotics, property claims, human rights, public health, the environment, trade and investment, banking, agriculture, telecommunications, and intellectual property;
  • The administration issued rules giving U.S. travelers the right to visit Cuba under individual people-to-people licenses, the ability to choose among more affordable, regularly scheduled commercial flights to the island, to book passage on a Carnival cruise ship, and reserve a room at an Airbnb rental or a Sheraton-managed hotel;
  • Cuba and major cellphone carriers including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile reached agreements allowing their customers to talk, text, and roam in Cuba, and travelers may now use MasterCard credit cards from two U.S. banks to complete transactions and withdraw money on the island;
  • Patients in the U.S. suffering from lung cancer got good news when New York’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute received both FDA approval to conduct the first U.S. clinical trial of Cuba’s life-saving lung cancer vaccine and Treasury Department approval to form a joint business venture with the Cuban research institute that developed the vaccine;
  • Last month, President Obama issued a Presidential Policy Directive on Cuba policy, charting a course for the full normalization of relations, as National Security Advisor Susan Rice called on Congress to lift the embargo, and stated that engaging with Cuba is “manifestly in our interest”;
  • The U.S. FINALLY! abstained from voting on the UN resolution condemning the embargo against Cuba, as UN Ambassador Samantha Power affirmed that the U.S. has “chosen to take the path of engagement.”

These great advances in 2016 – drawn from a far larger list – demonstrate how much progress our two countries make when we talk to each other (a principle Congress should remember as the nomination of Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis to serve as the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in over five decades languishes without a confirmation hearing).

As we wait for the next administration to clarify its intentions for Cuba policy going forward, we are deeply grateful for the changes we’ve seen, participated in, and documented for you over the course of this extraordinary year.

We’ve enjoyed reporting on each of these developments over the last year – so we would be remiss if we did not thank our loyal Cuba Central readers.

In closing, we don’t want to ruffle your feathers. Instead, perhaps, we’ll dwell on eagles not turkeys, and hope for statesmen to keep normalization on course, rather than red-colored, gas-filled balloons leading the policy backward in time to a colder, angrier age.

You’ll hear from us next week with a full rundown of the news. To tide you over for the holiday weekend, we offer our take on the week so far in Cuba news, plus a piece of recommended reading.

If you’d like to support our work bringing you the news, week in and week out, please consider making a donation to CDA. We’ll be so grateful for your contribution.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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Knowns and Unknowns: U.S.-Cuba Relations Under President Trump

November 18, 2016

No one knows to a provable certainty what President-elect Trump plans to do about U.S.-Cuba relations. We are neither wild-eyed optimists, believing that he will take relations in the same direction as President Obama, nor are we ready to concede “game over,” despite considerable evidence that the winds of diplomacy based on engagement may soon shift.

In The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine wrote of “deducing or proving a truth that would be otherwise unknown, from truths already known.” In these times, following the facts could make that reasoning dubious, but using evidence to answer the question, “What happens next?” is the only reasonable thing to do.

It may be cold comfort, but those of us who support engagement with Cuba are not the only ones with doubts about the new president’s intentions. Consider the Japanese: after a long campaign in which candidate Trump promised to scuttle the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, accused our European and Asian allies for not paying enough for their defenses, and suggested Japan and South Korea get nuclear weapons to defend themselves, Japanese Prime Minister Abe flew 6,700 miles from Tokyo to New York to meet with the president-elect himself. Why? Because, as a respected analyst told the New York Times, “the question the Japanese side still cannot understand is what a Trump administration will actually do on Asia.”

In other words, they know what he said, they just didn’t know if he meant it. Is there also room for doubt about Trump’s “real” position on Cuba?

As we and others have reported, Mr. Trump was against the embargo twice (in 1996 and 2015-2016) before he was for it – twice (in 1999 and 2016). While that history is important, let’s focus on how he closed his campaign.

“We will cancel Obama’s one-sided Cuban deal, made by executive order,” he said in Miami, days before the election, unless Cuba’s government capitulates to demands that it change its system. His Vice Presidential nominee, Governor Mike Pence, went even further, saying, “When Donald Trump and I take to the White House, we will reverse Barack Obama’s executive orders on Cuba,” Politico reported. This reversal would apparently be undertaken unconditionally.

Personnel is policy, the saying goes, and today the names of Mr. Trump’s national security advisor and his nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency were released. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, who will lead the White House National Security Council, has called Cuba an ally of Radical Islamists that shares their hatred of the West. If confirmed, Congressman Mike Pompeo of Kansas, will serve as CIA Director. He condemned President Obama’s opening to Cuba on the day it was announced as appeasement of one of America’s enemies. Even if these two men didn’t advise Trump the candidate to reverse his position on Cuba, they will likely be advising him to adhere to his campaign promises as president.

Running the legislative machinery in Congress, Senate Majority Leader McConnell and Speaker Paul Ryan are both foes of engagement with Cuba (although Ryan hasn’t always been that way). In March, McConnell denounced President Obama’s visit to Cuba as “embarrassing,” after the President used his appearance on live Cuban television to address themes like human rights and respect for the island’s Afro-Cuban population. Last month, Speaker Ryan released a statement which said, “I fully intend to maintain our embargo on Cuba.”

It is not a stretch to expect that the Republican leadership in Congress will be standing by to ensure the President keeps his campaign promise; as it has been for years, support for the embargo and regime change in Cuba was written into their party’s 2016 platform. Looking over the leadership’s shoulders, the hard edge of the diaspora’s embargo supporters – from Senator Rubio to “Pepe” Hernandez, a founder of the Cuban American National Foundation, to Brigade 2506 – will be standing right behind them to ensure that they work on President Trump so he keeps candidate Trump’s word.

Together, they are taking aim at President Obama’s Cuba policy executive orders on which the regulatory openings of travel and trade rest. What Obama wrought by the stroke his pen, Trump can strike with his. As Politico observed, his legislative priorities – the tax package, infrastructure development, repeal of Obamacare, etc. – will take time. So will the confirmation of his Cabinet. Why wouldn’t the president want to establish momentum by issuing a raft of executive orders reversing as much of President Obama’s domestic and foreign policy legacy on day one? This he apparently plans to do, but will his barrage also be aimed at Barack’s Cuba policy?

Lists of likely targets have been printed by the New York Times and The Miami Herald, and proposed by Capitol Hill Cubans. President Trump could close or downgrade the U.S. embassy; eliminate people-to-people to travel; end the regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba; change the rules that allow Airbnb and Marriott to operate in Cuba; scrap the new policy allowing imports of rum and cigars, and more. Anything he leaves out, Congress can put on his desk once it actually starts legislating. With the White House and Congress under common party control, we don’t see any vetoes looming on the horizon. Arguably, nothing is safe from the chopping block.

But we can’t and won’t stop or shrink from the challenge of building on the progress that has been made between the U.S. and Cuba. There are powerful facts on our side, too.

Although the embargo and travel bans remain in place by statute, President Obama’s opening to Cuba is very good policy. For the first time since the Cuban Revolution, an American president stated publicly that a prosperous and stable Cuba was in our country’s national interest, and that the policy of starving Cuba’s economy and people to foment popular resistance and regime change would finally be ended.

In addition to restoring diplomatic relations, the administration signed a dozen bilateral agreements in areas where the U.S. and Cuban national interests converged, like environmental protection and counter-narcotics cooperation. These agreements demonstrated, in deeds and words, that our government respected the sovereignty of the Cuban government.

By easing restrictions on travel and trade, normalization accrued benefits to big business in the U.S. – starting with travel, tourism, and telecommunications – which now has vested interests in keeping the door to Cuba open. With a cruise line sailing into Cuban ports, roaming agreements that enable U.S. travelers to use their cell phones on the island, the commercial airline agreement that is boosting tourism with dozens of flights into Cuba every day, the joint venture agreement bringing Marriott into the Cuban market, and more – all of this ties Cuba and the U.S. closer together in a mutually beneficial relationship that provides profits and jobs to companies and workers on both sides of the Florida Strait.

The reforms were designed, as Reuters wrote it, to make it “difficult, if not impossible for any Republican president to reverse the opening to Cuba.” Public opinion polls – among Cuban Americans and the U.S. public at large – tell us the reforms have strong, deep, and bipartisan support. If his plan is to pull them down, this decision could be costly. Bob Muse, a lawyer who specializes in U.S.-Cuba trade law, told the New York Times that if Trump were to cancel these agreements, the U.S. government could be financially liable for pulling the rug out from companies who relied on the new rules to do deals.

The critics like to say that the new policy isn’t working, but the facts suggest otherwise. It is working for hundreds of thousands of Americans who have reclaimed most – but not all – of our rights to travel to Cuba. As Americans travel to Cuba, we are building bridges that policy reversals will be hard-pressed to take down, and money spent as travelers lands in the pockets of Cubans engaged in private enterprise.

From the moment President Obama reinstated travel for Cuban American families, he was giving entrepreneurial Cubans fuel to fire their enthusiasm for working in Cuba’s private economy, and a reason to remain on the island and build Cuba’s future.

It is working for Americans once doomed by lung cancer, as we report below, who are now getting access to life-extending vaccines created by Cuba’s biotechnology and pharma companies.

It is even working in Miami, in the precincts and places most associated with anti-Castro resistance, among exiles who now believe that “one of President Obama’s best decisions,” was changing U.S. policy toward Cuba.

In a letter he sent to President-elect Trump, Adolfo Garcia, who voted for the New York businessman-turned-politician, invoked his past in an appeal not to upend the policy:

“No matter how horrible the Castro Regime was to my parents and many others, including me, this is late 2016 and life must go on,” Garcia wrote. “It is time from the US side to open fully with Cuba and change US law and end the Embargo.”

These are powerful words. But will they be heard in Trump Tower?

Charles Lane, in a Washington Post opinion column, advises us to take Trump seriously and literally. Trump, he says, has core beliefs, citing his opposition to global trade and his support for law and order. We should take him at his word. Question is: which one?

What embargo supporters want most is to beef up the embargo to dry up revenues to the Cuban state. That’s a tall order – telling JetBlue and American Airlines and other carriers who have restored commercial service to ground their planes, and telling Marriott to come home and let the Cuban hotels they are managing mind themselves.

Will he? Maybe. But as Bob Muse says, “Rescinding enhanced travel that Obama has introduced would be the most tragic thing Trump might do, but I don’t think he will. He has invested a lifetime in travel, resorts and hotel accommodations, and it’s a global enterprise. It seems counterintuitive.”

Trump, after all, has been focused on Cuba for twenty years. In 1998, as Newsweek reported, his company spent $68,000, probably in violation of the mbargo, looking at potential investments in Cuba. The opening to Cuba is probably pretty close to his core beliefs. It is – and will remain – central to ours.

At the end of the day, like you, like the Japanese Prime Minister, we can’t be sure what the president-elect will do; although, after the election, the uphill climb toward normalization did get steeper.

That said, we will leave you with this:

Trump’s “extraordinary mixture of braggadocio and brash populism,” Will Grant of the BBC wrote this week, has led some in the region to compare him to the late Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez. Isn’t that ironic? The Obama opening being saved by Trump’s greatest core beliefs – his belief in himself and his abiding faith that he can always get a better deal.

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Thinking about “Walls and Doors,” on the eve of CDA’s 10th anniversary celebration

November 4, 2016

For more than a year, we’ve been forced to think about the work we and others do – making President Obama’s opening to Cuba permanent and irreversible – in the context of the larger dialogue taking place in our country and around the world.

“Ever since the world’s existed

There’s one thing that is certain

There are those who build walls

And those who open doors”

“Muros Y Puertas,” music and lyrics by Carlos Varela

In many ways, the last three decades were about doors being opened and walls, in places like Berlin and elsewhere, coming down. The rise of technology and trade, the more rapid exchange of ideas and culture have made the world more open and better connected.

Viewed in the arc of recent history, President Obama’s opening to Cuba – politically risky and hard-fought as it was to achieve – was a late arrival at a party that had raged for some time. Not just late, but counterproductive. As the President said at the UN this month, a nation ringed by walls only imprisons itself.

“Ah but this my love I’m thinking you already knew.”

After December 17, 2014, the astonishing moment when Presidents Obama and Castro disclosed that the broken connections of our nations’ diplomacy and commerce would be restored, we could see how restoring postal service and direct-dial calls, the growing harvest of newly opened hotspots in Havana, U.S. cellphone customers roaming – literally and figuratively – in Cuba all fit into a greater world of lowered barriers. Cuba policy, no longer out of step, fit into that world well.

“At some point on the horizon

Sky can be confused with earth

Some people dream of God

While others dream of wealth”

Now, President Obama’s 2014 opening – irreversible as we believe it to be – is situated in a different context. In 2015, as the Washington Post reported earlier this month, “work started on more new barriers around the world than at any other point in modern history. There are now 63 borders where walls or fences separate neighboring countries.”

The fortifications weren’t summoned from the ground on their own. “Even as globalization was working its magic on trade, mobility and investment,” the Post writes, “a seditious resentment was brewing among those left behind,” an audience for nationalists and populists speaking to their fears, in continental Europe earlier this year; audibly and worryingly here; whose fears, in fairness, need to be addressed.

We met Carlos Varela, the remarkable singer-songwriter, fifteen years ago during our second visit to Cuba. Carlos is revered for capturing in his songs what his generation of Cubans thinks and feels about their lives. And when they hear him singing these things out loud – so candidly and so beautifully – he fills them with hope.

Since 2001, Carlos has met with dozens of delegations led by our organization, the Center for Democracy in the America (CDA), and inspired dozens of Congress members to do the right thing to change our policy toward Cuba. During the days when our governments were determined not to speak to each other, Carlos expressed an abiding faith that our isolation would end. “Music,” he said once, will not bring a quick end to 50 years of political conflict. Music does not move governments, but it can move people. And people can move governments.”

This spring, Jackson Browne brought an audience to its feet when he sang Carlos’s song, “Muros Y Puertas,” before a packed concert in Virginia. At a time when the chants of “build the wall” dominated our public discourse, hearing “Walls and Doors,” and its optimistic appeal to freedom and openness filled us with hope, too.

It’s how it’s always been

And I know you know it

There can be freedom only when nobody owns it

Let me say that again

Because I know that we both know it

There can be freedom only when nobody owns it.”

Earlier this year, during the visit of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, we introduced Carlos to Dave Matthews, the Grammy-winning musician who was part of the distinguished delegation. They played “Muros Y Puertas” in Havana, as you can see and hear to stunning effect.

In honor of our organization’s 10th anniversary, Carlos and Dave are playing together again, this time in Washington. Their musical collaboration symbolizes our belief that bringing people together to talk, engage, and heal is indispensable for reconciling Cuba and America and closing the breach between Cubans and Americans. We need that same process to unfold in the days and weeks to come to heal our country, too.

We’re hoping that these great artists and generous supporters of our work will sing “Walls and Doors” together again. Maybe you’d like to hear them sing it for yourself. A limited number of tickets for their performance, on sale to benefit CDA, are available by contacting us at 202-234-5506 or

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