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.
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!
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This week, in Cuba news…
Senators Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Mike Enzi (WY) introduced the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017, a bipartisan bill that would lift the embargo. As of Friday afternoon, the bill has 13 cosponsors. Sen. Klobuchar traveled to Cuba with CDA as part of a Congressional delegation in 2015. Reps. Tom Emmer (MN-6) and Kathy Castor (FL-14), also CDA travel alumnae, reintroduced their bipartisan Cuba Trade Act in the House of Representatives in January; that bill now has 21 cosponsors.
Among the major reductions in foreign aid the Trump administration is proposing for the 2018 fiscal year are cuts in funding for so-called democracy promotion – or “regime change” – programs aimed at Cuba, the Miami Herald reports. The budget for the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which produces Radio and TV Martí, is cut to $23.656 million for FY2018, down from $28.169 million in FY2017. The budget for the Department of State, which administers USAID, contains no funds for activities in Cuba, compared to the $20 million Congress allocated for USAID’s Cuba programming in the FY2017 budget bill passed earlier this month ($5 million more than the Obama administration had requested).
In total, the FY2018 budget released by the White House proposes $28.2 billion in funding for the State Department and international programming, down from $39.7 billion in FY2017, a 29.1 percent reduction.
Cuba watchers are accustomed to scrutinizing these figures. Programming produced by the Martís is costly to U.S. taxpayers, and is jammed by Cuba’s government, reaching a miniscule number of Cubans. Meanwhile, “democracy promotion” monies spent by USAID and the State Department have boomeranged – leading, for example, to the arrest of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross in 2009, and producing humiliating headlines for the U.S. after investigations by the Associated Press and our colleague Tracey Eaton.
“Democracy promotion” funding efforts in Cuba are authorized by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996. Those in the House and Senate who support these programs hold key legislative positions, and the reduced funding levels recommended by the president are likely to be modified by Congress before the budget reaches its final form.
On Friday, we reported on the complicated history of “the day of independence” that followed the U.S. intervention against Spain in 1898. On Saturday, President Trump released a statement commemorating the 115th anniversary of the founding of the Cuban Republic that, in turn, provoked a heated response from Cuba’s government, the kind of exchange that had not taken place since diplomatic relations were restored in 2015.
President Trump released a statement on May 20th saying, “Cruel despotism cannot extinguish the flame of freedom in the hearts of Cubans, and that unjust persecution cannot tamper Cubans’ dreams for their children to live free from oppression. The Cuban people deserve a government that peacefully upholds democratic values, economic liberties, religious freedoms, and human rights.”
Cuba’s government issued a response, broadcast Sunday on state television, calling President Trump’s statement “controversial and ridiculous,” reports the Miami Herald. The government statement also referenced recent controversy surrounding the Trump administration, stating, “Even within the U.S. government there is knowledge of the contradictory and clumsy statements of the millionaire tycoon-turned-president.”
The exchange stood in stark contrast to expressions by high-level Cuban officials including President Raúl Castro, Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez, and Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s top emissary to the U.S., who earlier this year expressed their desire to continue engagement and constructive dialogue with the new U.S. administration, though President Castro did express his concerns about President Trump’s trade and border wall plans in March.
Last week, the Miami Herald reported that the Trump administration originally considered announcing changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba on May 20, but scrapped the idea because the administration had not yet completed its policy review and President Trump would be abroad.
Expedia, Inc., the U.S.-based hotel and travel-booking website, announced this week that users can now make online reservations for hotels and bed-and-breakfasts in Cuba, Reuters reports. The company will offer bookings on the island for U.S. and internationally based users. Expedia joins Airbnb, TripAdvisor, and Booking.com in offering online reservations for U.S. travelers to Cuba. Airbnb has offered rooms in Cuba to U.S. travelers since April 2015, and expanded access to global users in March 2016. Booking.com, a subsidiary of the Priceline Group, signed an agreement in March 2016 to become the first U.S. online travel agency to offer Cuba reservations.
This increase in reservation-making capacity is good news for the burgeoning market of U.S. visitors to Cuba. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba increased from 161,000 to 285,000, and the number of total global visitors to the island rose from 3.5 million to 4 million. A report released earlier this month by the Boston Consulting Group projected that the annual number of U.S. visitors could reach 2 million by 2025, even with current travel restrictions, as Reuters reported.
Separately, USA Today reports that Holland America Line will be offering cruises from Fort Lauderdale to Havana and Cienfuegos between December and April 2018, making it the seventh U.S. cruise line to offer service to the island.
Cuba will open five new “merca hostales,” markets that sell food supplies in convertible pesos to cuentapropistas, or independent entrepreneurs, in the country’s tourism industry, bringing the national total to eight merca hostales, reports CubaDebate. Though the new markets, opening in June and July, will not be wholesale markets, they may help ease the burden on Cuba’s restaurant owners, who often struggle to find ingredients, and on people shopping for families, who often find that restaurant-owners have already cleared many items from the shelves, as described in this New York Times article.
In a statement to the Cuban News Agency, Juan Carlos Rodríguez, head of the National Company of Selected Fruits, announced that markets will open in the provinces of Pinar del Río, Guantánamo, Havana, Granma, and Villa Clara. Three merca hostales currently operate in the provinces of Santiago de Cuba, Villa Clara, and Sancti Spíritus. Licensed private restaurant and housing owners can obtain a special type of ration card, known as a ficha de cliente, to purchase supplies at merca hostales, and appoint two additional individuals to make purchases on the card. Cuba currently has over 21,000 households working in the private lodging and food industries, and according to Engage Cuba, 4,000 paladares, or private restaurants.
The five-star Gran Hotel Manzana, owned by Geneva-based Kempinski Hotels, opened its doors May 22 in Havana, making it the first luxury hotel to operate in the country since 1959, the Agence France-Presse reports. The hotel, which offers rooms at rates between $400 and $2,485 per night, is located above the Manzana de Gómez mall, which reopened earlier this year as Cuba’s first luxury mall, housing L’Occitane, Mont Blanc, and Lacoste stores. Prior to the Cuban Revolution, the mall housed boutiques, theatres, restaurants, a skating rink, and a shooting range.
Connecticut-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, Inc., which opened a Four Points Sheraton in Havana in June 2016, is currently the only U.S. hotel company with a license from the U.S. Treasury Department to operate on the island. Starwood was acquired by Marriott International, Inc. in September 2016.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President, attended the inauguration of Lenín Moreno as President of Ecuador on May 24, reports Granma. Alongside Mr. Díaz-Canel, Ana Teresita González Fraga, Cuba’s Vice Minister of Foreign Relations, and Rafael Dausá Céspedes, Cuba’s ambassador to Ecuador, also attended. Mr. Díaz-Canel continued on to Bolivia for a four-day trip beginning May 25, where he will meet with Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, reports Granma.
The inauguration was attended by a number of heads of state, including the Presidents of Bolivia, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Haiti, reports Ecuador’s El Comercio.
Miguel Díaz-Canel, who became Cuba’s First Vice President in 2013, is first in the line of succession pursuant to Cuba’s constitution; President Raúl Castro is to leave office next February.
Interview: CDA’s new executive director on the future of US-Cuba relations, Nick Swyter, Cuba Trade Magazine
Emily Mendrala, CDA’s new executive director, spoke to Nick Swyter of Cuba Trade Magazine about the importance of continued engagement between the U.S. and Cuba. “Continuing the bilateral engagement between our two governments, continuing to put in the mechanisms of a normal bilateral relationship like law enforcement information sharing, for example, will continue to bring us together. It will continue to promote the recognition that engagement is not only in our best economic interest, but also in our national security interest,” Ms. Mendrala said.
In a letter organized by Cuba Educational Travel, 46 U.S. travel companies urge President Trump not to reverse the previous administration’s reforms loosening restrictions on travel to Cuba, noting that the new policies have helped sparked growth in the U.S. and Cuban economies, and allowed U.S. authorities to devote greater attention to national security threats.
They write, “The increase in American visitors to Cuba has had a significant impact on our businesses by increasing our revenue and allowing us to hire more American employees. Additionally, it has helped the Cuban private sector, and fostered strong relationships between Americans and Cuban religious organizations and humanitarian programs.” The letter with the full list of signatories is available here.
Cubans become the road warriors of D.C. diplomatic corps, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald
With an embassy in Washington, D.C., and restrictions on their travel within the U.S. eased, Cuba’s diplomats in the U.S. have spent the last two years crisscrossing the country advocating for an end to the embargo. The Herald quotes José Ramón Cabañas, Cuba’s Ambassador to the U.S., speaking at a World Affairs Council luncheon at the University of Louisville in May, saying, “We are ready and open to work with the Trump administration, and we believe that we can build a future of cooperation with the United States in many subjects, although we recognize that there are many areas in which we will not agree.”
How Cuba’s growing internet is fueling new businesses, Natalie Sherman, BBC
The BBC’s Natalie Sherman explores the growing presence of private businesses in Cuba, both domestic and foreign-based, as a result of increased internet access. Sherman discusses Kewelta, a group that provides advertising on decentralized networks, Knales, which uses text messages and phone calls to provide news and weather alerts, and a home delivery service in the mold of Amazon – all were developed in Cuba by Cuban software engineers and entrepreneurs. She writes, “Between 2013 and 2015, the share of the Cuban population using the internet jumped from about a quarter to more than 35 percent, according to estimates from the International Telecommunications Union. The growing market has helped draw the attention of internet giants, such as Airbnb, Netflix and Google, which installed servers on the island and started hosting data there last month.”
Editor’s note: CDA is seeking interns for the Fall 2017 semester! Applications are due by July 15. Please visit our website for more information about how to apply.
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