We are not here to lecture

May 26, 2017

This week, as Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona got ready to reintroduce his legislation to legalize travel to Cuba for all Americans, the bill had 54 cosponsors. He then got the word that Senator Dean Heller of Nevada had just agreed to formalize his support, growing the list of cosponsors from 54 to 55.

It’s a beautiful thing; you can see here how Sen. Heller’s name was handwritten onto the front of Sen. Flake’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba legislation just before it became officially known as S. 1287.

One additional cosponsor? What does it really mean? It means the bipartisan Freedom to Travel legislation written by Sen. Flake (R-AZ) and principal cosponsor Patrick Leahy (D-VT) needs only five more votes to make the bill unstoppable in the U.S. Senate. It means the momentum behind normalizing relations has grown substantially. Most of all, Senator Heller’s decision to sign up as an original cosponsor is a reminder that it’s never too late to stand up for what’s right.

Now is the time.

As President Trump wraps up his trip to the Middle East and Europe, we’re told he will focus next on the results of his administration’s long-anticipated review of Cuba policy, making this an especially important moment to take a strong stand for normalization before he makes up his mind.

The President, it must be said, constructed the ideal framework for U.S.-Cuba relations during his speech at the Arab Islamic American Summit in Saudi Arabia, although he almost certainly did not have Cuba at the front of his mind.

“America,” he said, “is a sovereign nation and our first priority is always the safety and security of our citizens. We are not here to lecture – we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”

Since the President started with security, it is right to remind him that reforming the rules on travel to Cuba will advance our national security. Laws enacted in 1996 and 2000, as Senator Flake said this week, which impose “restrictions that do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world,” require layers of security, policing, and threats of prosecution that are serious and costly distractions from the real threats the U.S. faces.

As 46 prominent Cuba travel providers wrote the President this week, actions taken by the Obama administration for family and people-to-people travel “has allowed U.S. officials to spend more time focusing on real national security threats, such as organized crime and terrorism, and not waste resources on investigating Americans who simply wish to exercise their right to visit our island neighbor.”

If the President meant it in Saudi Arabia when he said, “We are not here to lecture,” that is a principle that certainly should apply to the U.S. government’s relationship to its own people. That is why the White House needs to hear Senator Leahy’s statement about the 55 cosponsors of the travel bill: “A bipartisan majority of the Senate agrees that the federal government should not be telling Americans where they can or cannot travel, especially to a tiny country just 90 miles from Florida.”

Since the President tied the pursuit of shared interests to values, it is right to remind him, as Senator Flake says, that “Recognizing the inherent right of Americans to travel to Cuba isn’t a concession to dictators, it is an expression of freedom. It is Americans who are penalized by our travel ban, not the Cuban government.”

Travel is a perfect expression of President Trump’s idea of “partnership – based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”

After President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and began systematically lifting travel restrictions applied by the U.S. government on American travelers, visits to Cuba “exploded,” as Market Watch put it Friday.

Last year alone, as Reuters reported Thursday, “the number of U.S. visitors rose 74 percent…boosting business for Cuban hotels, BnBs, restaurants and taxis but also U.S. cruise operators and airlines that entered the market over the past year.”

This burst of business strengthened the fortunes of the U.S. travel and tourism industry, making their businesses more profitable and better able to generate more jobs. Travel reforms have also strengthened the bonds of families on the island with their kin in the United States. Increased travel from our country has put more money into the pockets of Cuba’s growing small-business sector and its tourist-facing businesses. It has also put U.S. visitors in greater contact with the Cubans whose diverse organizations and associations across their country are adding to Cuba’s growing pluralism.

Because American tourism is still prohibited by law, many of these benefits have been accrued by American visits within narrow categories of permissible travel, and made possible by warmer, respectful relations with Cuba’s government.

This is the choice framed by the administration’s policy review, and it is the message we want the President to hear. His administration can revert to the policies that poisoned our relations with Cuba, lecturing the Cuban people on how to live, what to do, and who to be. Or we can offer Cuba’s government a real partnership, as the President said at the Summit, “based on shared interests and values – to pursue a better future for us all.”

If the President can be encouraged to channel the man who spoke in Saudi Arabia as he makes the decision on Cuba in Washington, we’ve got a deal.

Has your senator signed on to the Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act? Make your voice heard!

Click here to support CDA’s work bringing you the Cuba Central News Brief each week and promoting a U.S. policy toward Cuba based on engagement and recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty.

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You Can Never Go Back: Update on the Cuba Policy Review

May 19, 2017

It is altogether fitting that Little Havana, the community in Miami which has long been a stronghold of support for the embargo against Cuba, is getting its own museum.

The community has no doubt catalogued, and oftentimes shaped, U.S. policy toward Cuba in all its complexities. Perhaps the museum’s first exhibit will be designed in the months to come as President Trump announces the results of the ongoing Cuba policy review.

What we’re reading

As we mark time waiting for the administration’s Cuba policy review to end, this is what we learned this week.

As USA Today and the Miami Herald both reported, the administration had planned to announce changes on May 20, the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Cuban Republic, but the policy review wasn’t finished and, besides, the President would be overseas.

We are now hearing that day will come and go without a word from the White House on Cuba policy.

What we’re remembering

Although the May 20 event has been set aside, it’s worth reflecting on that for a moment. Proponents of harsh sanctions on Cuba have long observed May 20th for its symbolism as a “day of independence” for the Cuban Republic that preceded the Castro revolution. But history is more complicated than that.

In 1898, the U.S. intervened on Cuba’s side in its war for independence from Spain. Upon the defeat of Spain, the U.S. claimed Cuba as a conquered territory, thus preventing “the transfer of Cuba to Cubans,” as historian Louis A. Pérez puts it. Spain’s loss represented a half-step toward sovereignty for Cuba.

The U.S. intervention also represented a setback for race relations on both sides of the Florida Strait. For 30 years, according to a Newsweek history of the period, a “truly integrated” Cuban army with black and white officers leading its ranks had fought the war against Spain on the island’s soil.

U.S. forces fighting in Cuba were integrated as well, but our black fighters hardly received the recognition or credit they deserved. In one battle, according to the account in Race and Empire, “If it had not been for the Negro Cavalry the Rough Riders [with whom Teddy Roosevelt rode] would have been exterminated.” For too many years, their gallantry could have been a state secret.

Once the war ended, U.S. occupying forces, under the command of Major General Leonard Wood, made certain to purge black officers and leaders from Cuba’s army, whom they called “uneducated and uncultured” and worse.

As Cuba moved toward its new status as a Republic, the United States imposed the Platt Amendment on the Cuban Constitution, granting “the U.S. the right to intervene in the island whenever they pleased, to control all Cuban international treaties, and to possess naval stations on Cuban territory,” as one Cuban intellectual told us.

Thus, after May 20th, 1902, and the start of the Cuban Republic, the country was still subject to the neocolonial authority of the U.S., and the U.S. intervention may have resulted in a step-back for racial equality in Cuba as well. Why anyone would want to choose this date to announce Cuba policy reforms deserves further reflection.

What we’re hearing

The specifics of what President Trump will announce are still subject to conjecture. But the consequences of rolling the policy back to its pre-December 17th state are pretty clear.

Repealing President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive would take back the recognition of Cuba’s sovereignty as the fundamental basis of U.S.-Cuba policy. It would also discard key U.S. commitments to prosperity for the Cuban people and the expansion of U.S. commerce with the island, and would threaten to end law enforcement information sharing, which senior retired military leaders agree protects U.S. security against terrorism.

A rollback of U.S. engagement with Cuba would create a void into which nations like Russia – which is now selling Cuba subsidized oil, building infrastructure projects on the island, working to modernize the Cuban military, and even restoring the Cuban Capitol’s dome – will surely fill.

Ending post-December 17th reforms could cut the legs out from U.S. airlines, hoteliers, cruise ships, telecom firms, and other industry sectors that have made financial commitments to doing business in Cuba that would not have been possible in the prior half-century.

While some people-to-people travel categories may ultimately remain in place, taking back any of the people-to-people travel reforms would cut deeply into Americans’ travel rights and the profits enjoyed by the new private-sector Cuban businesses – the restaurants, the beds-and-breakfasts, the tour guides, and other small firms – businesses that create jobs and put money into the pockets of Cubans willing to work for an employer other than the state.

And, any diminution of economic activity in Cuba caused by cutbacks in U.S. travel and trade policies could adversely affect Afro-Cubans, who have the least access to remittances from family members living abroad, and whose living circumstances are often the most fragile.

Even more sadly, the administration and policy hardliners are likely to cast any reversal of current policy as being in the service of human rights. “The president has committed to addressing U.S. policy towards Cuba in a way that supports our national security, democracy and human rights,” as Senator Rubio was quoted by USA Today. Yet it was only as a result of the December 17th diplomatic breakthrough that diplomats from Cuba and the U.S. have been able to embark on a process for addressing our differences on this and many other important issues. Going backward gets us nothing.

What we believe

The existing policy of engagement is good for the U.S. national interest, good for the interests of the Cuban people, and a solid foundation for respectful and cooperative relations between the U.S. and Cuban governments. The new policy has done everything from slowing illegal seaborne migration down to near zero to reconnecting Cuban families by phone, email and snail mail, to providing all Cubans the relief that could only come from reduced tensions with their government’s nearest adversary. We think this policy should be expanded, not diminished, and we believe any cutbacks will represent, at best, a missed opportunity for continuing the normalization process; at worst, the needless rehashing of a historical wrong.

The pity of it is grounded in politics. As USA Today writes, “Cuba experts don’t expect Trump to make the kind of wholesale changes to Cuba policy that he hinted at during his presidential campaign.” The paper quotes Frank Mora, director of the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami, who “said Trump has never been adamant about shutting down Obama’s Cuba opening, but feels he must do something to satisfy Cuban-American voters, and members of Congress, who supported him in Florida.”

Going further, it cites Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, who “opposed Obama’s decision to open up relations with the island.”

But even he “doesn’t expect — or want — Trump to change some of the core aspects of the opening.” Why? Because, Calzon said, “You can never go back.”

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Perhaps a Patient and a Pope Will Persuade the President

May 12, 2017

We will forever remember “D-17” as a day of magic.

D-17 is code for December 17th, 2014. On that day, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro made choreographed statements to their astonished publics who had no idea they’d been negotiating with each other. An American, Alan Gross; Cuba’s “Three Heroes”; a long-imprisoned U.S. intelligence agent; and scores of Cuban political prisoners all walked free. Cubans and Americans stood in awe and cheered both presidents’ commitment to diplomatic recognition and mutual respect.

On December 17th, 2014, the first day of Hanukkah, the Feast of Saint Lazarus, the Afro-Cuban celebration of San Lázaro, and the birthday of Pope Francis converged mystically.

That spirit is still animating millions on both sides of the Florida Strait who are working in so many ways to make this rekindled relationship work. There is much more to do – because there are old grievances and unbridged differences in both countries – but now there is a channel, a means, for resolving these differences, and, most important, a level of mutual respect and confidence that never existed under the old policy.

Today, devoted public servants from all the key U.S. agencies are doing their jobs, despite the unusual public distractions, to finalize the Trump administration’s Cuba policy review.

They are involved in a discussion over whether U.S. interests and the interests of the Cuban people are best realized by a policy of engagement or estrangement.

We believe that engagement has won on the merits. The challenge is how to reconcile a policy that is working with a broad campaign promise and highly focused political pressure to roll it all back.

For starters, our champions in Congress, from both political parties, can tell the story of engagement to the administration because they have seen it with their own eyes while visiting Cuba.

Since December 17th, 2014, engagement has vastly increased contacts, information, and economic activity for growing numbers of Cubans, while freeing U.S. travelers and businesses to explore relationships and commercial opportunities on the island, as never before possible under Cold War-era sanctions and isolation.

Second, we can tell the stories of Americans for whom having a strong relationship with Cuba is literally a matter of life and death. Watch this video about a lung cancer patient named Mick Phillips. This 69-year-old Trump supporter, who owns an industrial pump factory near Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a stage 4 lung cancer patient who has been cancer-free for six years because he’s had access to a lung cancer treatment developed in Cuba, CimaVax, “that’s kept him alive longer than any doctor predicted.”

Mr. Phillips told PBS in a story broadcast this week, if Mr. Trump follows through on his promise to roll back reforms in U.S.-Cuba relations, “I am concerned that access to this medication will go away for many, many people.” Lung-cancer patients like Mr. Phillips (as well as Americans with severe symptoms of diabetes) need to have their stories shared and heard within the halls of power on the Potomac as the future of engagement is decided by the White House in the days and weeks to come.

Now, policymakers like Senator Marco Rubio don’t want these stories to be heard. This week, he told senior leaders from the U.S. intelligence community: “I continue to be concerned about the potential, and what I believe is the reality, of a concerted effort on the part of the Cuban government to recruit and unwittingly enlist Americans — business executives and others, even local and state political leaders (in) an effort to have them influence of U.S. policy making on Cuba. And particularly the lifting of the embargo.”

In other words, Americans who visit Cuba and return home wanting to intensify the process of normalizing relations should be discounted as dupes. As we report below, more than 285,000 U.S. travelers visited Cuba in 2016. That is a lot of dupes!

If we cannot rely on the free expression of Americans who can provide first-hand experience of what open relations means to them to sway the decision-making process, Professor William LeoGrande says we could find hope through Pope Francis I.

It has been well-documented just how meaningful it was that the Vatican supported, and pushed along at critical moments, the diplomacy that made D-17 possible.

As LeoGrande writes: “For Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, the Vatican’s instrumental role in brokering the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations was a diplomatic milestone and a vindication of his commitment to a ‘culture of encounter.’”

President Trump is going to the Vatican on May 24th. We know that differences over “the wall” have kept the Pontiff and the President from seeing eye-to-eye. But, “the belief that adversaries can resolve their differences through dialogue and mutual understanding,” LeoGrande says, “has been the cornerstone of the Vatican’s foreign policy under Francis.”

If Mick Phillips’ story doesn’t reach the President, perhaps he’ll succumb to the influence of a higher authority.

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On Russia and a Retirement

May 5, 2017

In this space last week, we paid special attention to the letter written to the White House by 16 retired and highly respected U.S. military officers. If the new administration fails to uphold our existing policy of engaging politically and economically with Cuba, they wrote, “it is certain that China, Russia, and other entities whose interests are contrary to the United States’ will rush into the vacuum.”

We also detected a note of frustration in the voice of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) about the yet-unrevealed conclusion of the administration’s Cuba policy review. “If President Trump goes back on his word and doesn’t roll back on these concessions,” she said, referring to President Obama’s reforms, “I think a lot of our folks in our community will be quite displeased.”

On Sunday, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen made public her decision to retire from Congress rather than run for another term in office. On Wednesday, we learned that Russia had sent a shipment of 249,000 barrels of refined oil products to energy-short Cuba and had signed a long-term supply agreement with Cuba’s government.

These are not unrelated events. The convergence of Russia’s oil shipment and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s announcement is simply the latest, vivid reminder that the old, beaten path of trying to isolate and sanction Cuba into submission is exhausted and long past its retirement age.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States kept an unyielding grip on a policy that reliably undermines U.S. interests. After the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba, and Mikhail Gorbachev pulled down the banner of the U.S.S.R., nearly a quarter-century elapsed before the U.S. Secretary of State and Cuba’s Foreign Minister could stand side by side and watch their nations’ flags whip in the wind together.

While the U.S. and Cuba have real differences, what prevented us from restoring diplomatic relations before, and hampers our ability to build confidence and enjoy the fruits of a more normal relationship now, is our domestic politics. As Vox wrote in 2014, “those domestic politics are driven by the extremely strong preferences of a politically active Cuban-American exile community concentrated in the electorally crucial swing state of Florida.”

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen is an authentic and durable figure, and not just derivative of her South Florida political milieu. As Marc Caputo wrote in Politico, she was “the first Hispanic woman and first Cuban American ever elected to Congress and, before that, the Florida state legislature.” Political opponents called her a “role model for millions of Latinos looking to break barriers in electoral politics.”

Although her conservative foreign policy views, as U.S. News and World Report observed, also encompassed support for programs like PEPFAR, which effectively fights HIV/AIDS in Africa, her commitment to the ossified policy of trying to overthrow the Cuban regime, seemingly by any means necessary, was unwavering (she opposed U.S. negotiations to gain the release of Alan Gross, for example).

As with her like-minded allies, who tirelessly advocate for tougher sanctions on Cuba and oppose travel to Cuba by others but have never visited the island to see it for themselves, she used her politically secure seat to gain and accrue greater power to keep a failed policy in place. Despite its immense costs, Cuba policy hardliners succeeded in doing this until President Obama made the decisive change in U.S. policy on December 17, 2014.

So Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s decision to leave Congress – and separately, the threat of legal jeopardy menacing Senator Robert Menéndez of New Jersey – is significant because of the intersection between politics and policy.

From 1980 to 2000, Republican candidates for president won, on average, 78.67 percent of the Hispanic vote in her Miami-Dade County. As the Miami Herald recently reported, in Miami-Dade County, where one out of three residents is Cuban-American, Secretary Clinton ran ahead of then-candidate Trump by 30 points, 64 percent to 34 percent.

In the House, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen represents one of only two majority Cuban-American congressional districts in the nation. But the demographics of her district have changed. The earliest arrivals from Cuba are aging out. Party registration has shifted. Members of the community have moved, inter-married, visited relations in Cuba, and have horizons – and demands for jobs, education, health care, and more – that extend beyond Cuba as a policy issue.

While these trends are actively reshaping the 10-16 metropolitan areas in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. that have measurable Cuban-American populations, even the New York-New Jersey region is dwarfed in size by the adjoining districts represented by Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart. While Rep. Ros-Lehtinen may be ending her four-decade career in politics for utterly human and apolitical reasons, her decision to give up a Congressional seat in Miami-Dade County matters: The changes in her district are broadly indicative of a power shift that will mute the ability of pro-sanctions Cuban Americans to block engagement with Cuba over the long term.

This shift has already given greater voice to the “large pro-engagement coalition that includes lawmakers from both parties, businesses and young Cuban-Americans, (which) is calling on the White House to build on the foundation of engagement it inherited,” as the New York Times said in its powerful editorial this week.

We still don’t know what President Trump has in mind for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations as his review of the policy winds down. We already know, as the retired flag officers wrote prophetically last month, that his policy choices will determine whether we create or fill the void that exists between our two countries. If he doesn’t believe the officers, he can always ask Russia.

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