With Obama’s Wet-foot/Dry-foot Mic Drop, Trump-era Cuba Policy Set to Begin

President Obama made his first Cuba policy move – giving Cuban Americans the unlimited right to visit Cuba and to provide unrestricted remittances to their families – on the 83rd day of his first term.

He made his final move (we think) last night – ending an unfair immigration policy that gave Cubans who landed on U.S. soil a virtually unrestricted right to become legal residents – with just eight days left in his final term.

In 2009, he vindicated the rights of Cuba families through the exercise of his executive power. In doing so, he gave the community previously known as the greatest obstacle to Cuba policy reform skin in the game, and a reason to get on the right side of history.

The bilateral agreement he announced last night, which ends the U.S. “wet-foot/dry-foot” migration policy and includes actions by Cuba to reform its immigration laws, gives lie to the myth that Cuba has given us nothing and that all concessions have come from us.

There is an elegant symmetry to his opening and closing acts on Cuba, but there is more to the journey he traveled from the early days to late night of his presidency than symmetry alone.

Following five decades of policies based on hostility and isolation, which his predecessors either entered or exited office accepting and passing along as received wisdom, President Obama struck off in a very different direction.

We complained from time to time about how long it took the President to articulate and activate each step in his reform agenda, but we cannot quarrel with the results.

He left a mark not only with his travel and trade reforms – which freed American visitors and U.S. companies to explore Cuba in unprecedented numbers – but also on the half-million Cuban entrepreneurs running businesses buoyed by the relaxation of restrictions, and the vast increase in internet connectivity on the island boosted by the relaxation of tensions.

His accomplishments are many, as we describe here, and as Engage Cuba documents there. And if you don’t believe us, the President wasn’t shy about mentioning them in his Farewell Address, nor was Secretary Kerry in his exit memo from State Department.

After you get through the regulatory reforms and the results they produced, the Obama policy at its core was about treating the Cuban people with respect, and accepting the Cuban government as sovereign – after dispensing with the notion that Washington could squeeze, starve and isolate the country to force the surrender of its system.

For reversing course on a failed policy, and basing his new Cuba policy on these powerful insights, President Obama leaves office next week having made astonishing progress toward normalizing relations with Cuba, and with sky-high U.S. public approval – and historic levels of support among Cuban Americans.

Last night, his White House staff revealed the new immigration policy without much fanfare. We heard our briefing in a conference call with less than a dozen of us listening, amazed at this last bold act at this late hour to deepen the process of reform he began in 2009. Cuba policy got its mic drop on a Thursday night, with eight days to go in his presidency.

Two hours after we hung up our phones, Burgess Everett, a correspondent with Politico, tweeted this: “Rubio talked to Pence tonight, is happy to have a ‘new administration committed to discarding the failed Cuba policy of the last 2 years.’”

As it ends, and so it begins.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S. repeals ‘wet foot, dry foot,’ medical professional parole program

On January 12th, the White House and the Department of Homeland Security announced two big changes in U.S. policy, effective immediately: the end of the “wet foot, dry foot” migration policy, which provided to Cuban migrants who arrived on dry land in U.S. territory a fast-track to a visa, and termination of the George W. Bush-era Cuban Medical Professional Parole program, which allowed Cuban doctors working abroad in a third country to apply for U.S. visas.

President Obama explained in a statement that by ending “wet foot, dry foot,” the U.S. is now “treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries.” According to a fact sheet released by the Department of Homeland Security, Cuban migrants arriving at ports of entry or the U.S. border may now be subject to “expedited removal proceedings,” while “the existing Cuban Family Reunification Parole Program is not affected by this announcement and remains in effect.” The U.S. will also continue to accept at least 20,000 Cuban immigrants annually.

On Thursday, diplomats representing the U.S. and Cuba signed a joint statement pledging to continue the process of normalizing migration between the two countries. Under the agreement quietly negotiated for months, U.S. immigration authorities will now remove Cuban citizens who seek to migrate to the U.S. without proper documentation and who do not qualify for humanitarian relief; while Cuba, agreeing to a change in its policy, will accept all Cuban citizens turned away who will be transported back to the island, provided that less than four years have elapsed between when a Cuban citizen left Cuba and when their deportation proceedings in the U.S. began. Cuba will also repatriate 2,746 of the people who left Cuba during the Mariel Boatlift in 1980, with the possibility of taking in others “on a case-by-case basis,” as the New York Times notes.

Calling the regulatory changes “important steps forward to normalize relations with Cuba and to bring greater consistency to our immigration policy,” President Obama noted that “with this change we will continue to welcome Cubans as we welcome immigrants from other nations, consistent with our laws.”

Since the Johnson Administration, the United States has operated a special immigration policy for Cubans leaving the island based on the Cuban Adjustment Act, which became law in 1966 and remains in effect. Initially, Cuban migrants interdicted at sea were paroled and given U.S. residency a year and a day after reaching the U.S. “Wet foot, dry foot,” put into place in May 1995, replaced that policy. However, as the New York Times points out, “the change in policy essentially guts the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which assumed that Cubans were political refugees who needed protection and allowed those who remained in the United States for more than a year to become legal residents.”

The Cuban Adjustment Act, like the embargo, can only be repealed by Congress. According to Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting, until Congress repeals the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cuba’s government will not eliminate a law prohibiting migrants who have been gone four years or more from returning to the island.

The Medical Professional Parole Program, adopted in August 2006, permitted Cuban medical personnel who are stationed overseas to provide health care in underserved areas to apply for parole to gain U.S. residency along with their immediate families. This program was designed to encourage a “brain drain” of skilled medical personnel away from Cuba, and to undermine Cuba’s medical diplomacy program, which recently won global acclaim fighting Ebola in West Africa. In his statement, President Obama highlights U.S.-Cuba medical collaboration, saying that “by providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program contradicts those efforts, and risks harming the Cuban people.” Mr. Rhodes told Reuters last January that the medical parole program was under review, calling it “an unusual policy.”

Cuba’s government issued a statement Thursday welcoming the policy changes and calling on Congress to “repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, the only one of its kind in the world which does not reflect the current bilateral context,” and stating that Cuba “will continue to guarantee the right of Cuban citizens to travel and emigrate, in accordance with migratory law. It will, at the same time, gradually adopt other measures to update current migratory policy.”

According to the Department of Homeland Security, over 54,000 persons of Cuban origin obtained lawful permanent resident status in the U.S. during FY2015; for comparison, in 2014, a total of nearly 47,000 Cubans became permanent U.S. residents, up from about 32,000 in 2013.

According to the Associated Press, more than 48,000 Cubans arrived at the border and ports of entry to the U.S. between October 2015 and November 2016, many undertaking an arduous overland route from South America up through Central America and Mexico. Those who have arrived at U.S. borders or U.S. shores since Thursday afternoon are being turned away, apart from those claiming political asylum.

On Thursday evening, reporters with McClatchy spoke with Cubans on the Mexico side of the U.S. border at Laredo who were told they could not cross; the BBC spoke with several Cuban migrants who had reached a shelter in Southeastern Mexico en route to the U.S. when they heard the news of the policy change. McClatchy also spoke with the last Cubans to cross the border under “wet foot, dry foot.” Álvaro Moreno, who made it to the U.S. just hours before the policy changed, said, “I was welcomed into the United States, and now to learn that this immigration law, this preference that Cubans have, is ending, has impacted and hurt me. I have friends who are still on their way.”

Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), whose Tampa district is home to a substantial population of Cuban Americans, stated, “The end of the ‘wet foot/dry foot’ policy should be followed by congressional action to lift the outdated economic embargo and improve economic conditions for everyday Cubans.”

Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey issued a statement saying, “today’s announcement will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people.”

Both the end of “wet foot, dry foot” and the Medical Professional Parole Program occurred by executive order and are being implemented with regulatory changes through the Department of Homeland Security. Accordingly, President-elect Trump may reverse both changes when he takes office. As of publication, the transition team has not commented.

U.S., Cuba sign oil spill agreement

The U.S. and Cuba signed an agreement on January 8th pledging cooperation to prevent and clean up oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, along with “other toxic spills,” reports Reuters. Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Chargé d’Affaires for the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and Eduardo Rodríguez Dávila, Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Transportation, signed the accord in a ceremony held in Havana. Dan Whittle, Senior Director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Cuba Program, said “This agreement is especially important for people living in coastal communities along the northern coast of Cuba and southern Florida because it provides a strong measure of protection against future disasters.”

U.S., Cuba hold talks on property claims, preventing human trafficking

During the penultimate week of the Obama administration, representatives from the U.S. and Cuba held dialogues on outstanding claims and cooperation in preventing human trafficking.

In a January 12th meeting in Havana, Brian Egan, Legal Adviser for the U.S. State Department, headed up the U.S. delegation in the third technical exchange on outstanding certified claims, focusing on property claims of U.S. nationals and the U.S. government, as well as legal judgments of U.S. courts against Cuba, according to the U.S. Department of State. After the second dialogue on claims, held last July, a Senior State Department Official said in a briefing that U.S. claims up for discussion total $1.9 billion, while Cuba’s claims include $2.2 billion in “judgments outstanding against Cuba,” at least $181 in human damages, and at least $121 billion in economic damages.

On January 12th and 13th, the fourth U.S.-Cuba technical exchange on cooperation to combat and prosecute human trafficking and to protect victims of trafficking took place in Washington, according to a State Department media note. Susan Copperidge, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, and John Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, led the U.S. delegation, which was also composed of representatives from the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Yuri Ariel Gala López, Director of Bilateral Issues for the U.S. division of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led Cuba’s delegation.

Cuba Trade Act reintroduced for 115th Congress

Reps. Tom Emmer (MN-6) and Kathy Castor (FL-14) reintroduced the Cuba Trade Act in the House of Representatives. If passed into law, the Act would lift the embargo, permitting businesses to trade with Cuba. According to a statement released by Rep. Emmer, the bipartisan bill does not allow “taxpayer funds to be used on promotion or development of this new market.”

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said in a statement: “Restoring normal trade with Cuba, as provided by The Cuba Trade Act, will allow both countries to intensify commercial relations, create more jobs, and reap benefits for businesses on both sides of the Florida Strait. A majority of Americans, and Cuban Americans, want the embargo to end, and the time has long since come for Congress to act.”

The Emmer-Castor legislation has so far been cosponsored by Reps. Rick Crawford (AR-01), Mark Sanford (SC-01), Don Beyer (VA-08), James McGovern (MA-02), Barbara Lee (CA-13), Ted Poe (R-02), Mark Pocan (WI-02), Justin Amash (MI-03), and James Comer (KY-1).

Trump pick for Secretary of State supports review of Cuba normalization policies

Rex Tillerson, former CEO and Chairman of Exxon Mobil, President-elect Trump’s nominee to serve as Secretary of State, said during his confirmation hearing he will support a review of all changes in Cuba policy made by President Obama, and that he would advise the President to veto bills lifting the embargo and the travel ban pending the end of the review.

Tillerson said in his opening remarks, “Our recent engagement with the government of Cuba was not accompanied by any significant concessions on human rights. …Their leaders received much, while their people received little. That serves neither the interest of Cubans or Americans.” During questioning by Senator Marco Rubio (FL), Mr. Tillerson also told Sen. Rubio that President-elect Trump plans to “ask all agencies, essentially on day one, to do a complete review of recent executive orders and the change of the status of travel to Cuba as well as business activities in Cuba.”

Mr. Tillerson also said that if confirmed he would “examine carefully the criteria” by which the State Department had removed Cuba from its list of State Sponsors of Terror in 2015 before deciding “whether or not that de-listing was appropriate, and whether or not the circumstances which led to that de-listing still exist.” Mr. Tillerson stated in response to questions from Sen. Bob Menendez (NJ) that he considered extradition of U.S. fugitives of justice a prerequisite for relations with Cuba.

In Cuba

After death of Interior Minister, former head of counterintelligence named as replacement

Carlos Fernández Godín, who served as Cuba’s Minister of the Interior starting from 2015 until his death on January 6th at age 78, is to be replaced by Vice Admiral Julio César Gandarilla, reports Reuters. Mr. Gandarilla, who is also a member of the Communist Party Central Committee and the National Assembly, was appointed First Deputy Interior Minister in 2015, after 16 years as head of the department of counterintelligence. The late Mr. Godín was a founding member of the Communist Party of Cuba and a legislator in Cuba’s National Assembly, Prensa Latina reports. He also fought in the Revolution, as well as in Angola.

Recommended Reading

Cuba’s Budding Private Sector Looks Nervously to Future, Juan Forero, Wall Street Journal

As the inauguration of President-elect Trump approaches, Cuban entrepreneurs on the island are concerned that he will make good on his campaign promises to reverse U.S. regulations facilitating travel and trade that also benefited Cuba’s nascent private sector. Enrique Núñez del Valle, who runs the famed private Havana restaurant La Guarida, told the Wall Street Journal, “if there’s a limit to the financial flow [from the U.S.], it’s the people who’ll be hurt.”

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