We’ll Miss Having You in Congress, Senator Flake

October 27, 2017

These are strange times in Washington. Though this town is accustomed to politicking, today’s climate seems exceedingly fractured. Indeed, as the Pew Research Center noted this week, partisanship among the U.S. public and in Congress is “now wider than at any point in the past two decades.”

On Tuesday, however, we were delivered a sharp rebuke of the current state of affairs, when Arizona Senator Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor to deliver a speech excoriating his congressional colleagues for purportedly putting politics over the country’s best interests. Sen. Flake also used his speech to announce that he will not seek re-election at the end of his term in 2018, because, as he told the Arizona Republic, “there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.”

His retirement is undoubtedly a loss for congressional bipartisanship, and those pushing for positive legislative changes to Cuba policy will miss having Sen. Flake at their side. In his 17 years in Congress, Sen. Flake has fought vigorously to build a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress who support engagement with Cuba. Nowhere are the fruits of his labor more evident than in his own Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act, a bill to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba which, as the senator has repeatedly noted, “do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world.”

Sen. Flake originally introduced the bill in January 2015 with eight cosponsors. Gradually, he built support for the common-sense legislation, and in May 2017, reintroduced the same bill with 55 bipartisan cosponsors. In June, he stated of the bill, “I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes.”

The growth represents the widespread support for engagement across the U.S. public. Over 70 percent of Americans, including 62 percent of Republicans, support ending the trade embargo against Cuba.  Meanwhile, this week also saw a bipartisan pair of House Representatives, Democrat John Conyers (MI-13) and Republican Jodey Arrington (TX-19), sign on to Rep. Rick Crawford’s Cuba Agricultural Exports Act to allow for the use of credit in agricultural sales. The bill now has 62 cosponsors, 43 of whom are Republican.

Indeed, support for engagement with Cuba is now a mainstream opinion among the public and in Congress. And yet, somehow, a minority group of lawmakers continues to stymie engagement. As Sen. Amy Klobuchar, herself the sponsor of the bipartisan Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017, said this week, “We cannot completely derail the relations that we’re building with Cuba, because we know that over 50 years of a failed policy isn’t good for either of our countries.”

For the Executive and congressional leadership to continue to ignore the desires of a majority of the U.S. Senate and the American public is, to borrow a line from one administration official, a dereliction of duty. As Sen. Flake told the Senate Tuesday, “When we remain silent and fail to act … we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.”

While Sen. Flake’s contributions to the Senate will be missed, we remain hopeful that the spirit of bipartisanship and levelheaded decision-making he championed will remain, or rather, soon return, in Washington.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

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A Congressman and City Councils—Cooler Heads in Cuba

October 20, 2017

The last two weeks have seen a number of setbacks in the fight for engagement. This week, things took a turn for the better.

On October 14, Representative Mark Takano (CA-41) became the first U.S. Member of Congress to visit Cuba in the aftermath of the State Department’s announcement that it would shrink its diplomatic mission in Havana and reciprocally expel Cuban diplomats from the U.S. He is also the first Member of Congress to directly engage with Cuban officials in Havana since President Trump’s June announcement that he would instruct his administration to increase restrictions on trade with and travel to Cuba. Rep. Takano traveled on a delegation organized by CDA to advance dialogue and mutual exchange between U.S. and Cuban LGBTQ communities.

At the same time, a delegation of City Council members from the Florida cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg were in Havana, the first such official trips by a council in either city. That members from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, which is home to the third largest Cuban American population in the U.S. behind Miami and New York City, were willing to vote in favor of a trip to strengthen U.S.-Cuba ties shows how far support for engagement has come.

Following their trips, Rep. Takano and the chairs of both the Tampa and St. Petersburg City Councils all expressed dismay at recent cutbacks to diplomatic missions, and voiced their support for closer U.S.-Cuba ties moving forward.

The visits are a marker of how officials from our government should interact—with a focus on mutual respect and collaboration.

They also came on a noteworthy date, as this week marks the 55th anniversary of U.S. spy planes photographing missile launch sites under construction in Cuba, thus sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rising above the hysteria around him, President John F. Kennedy opened channels of communication with the Soviet Union, and ultimately the threat of war receded. Despite the fear it provoked, the Crisis is remembered as a time where an escalation of threats was ultimately solved by diplomacy and steady leadership. In other words, cooler heads prevailed.

On Monday, we were shown what impulsivity from the Executive Branch looks like, when President Trump stated, “I do believe Cuba is responsible” for mysterious symptoms suffered by U.S. diplomats, despite the fact that the U.S. has yet to conclude its investigation into what happened. The words reportedly sparked the State Department to send a cable to all overseas posts saying that it has “not assigned blame to the Government of Cuba.” The President’s comment was as unproductive as it was rash.

At this crucial moment, it is pivotal that our leaders be able to step back and see the bigger picture. As Rep. Takano said Wednesday, “By … accusing the Cuban government of harming American visitors without providing any evidence to that effect, the President is hurting entrepreneurs in Cuba’s growing private sector, as well as Americans with Cuban relatives, and American businesses with investments on the island.” Like the Representative from California, we believe that “direct engagement remains the most effective tool” for solving differences between our two countries.

The visits to Havana by Takano and the Tampa and St. Petersburg City Councils are a tangible reminder of how engagement brings our people closer together, and show us that the spirit of engagement wears on.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

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It Was Only a Year Ago…

October 13, 2017

It was only a year ago, on October 14, 2016, that U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice announced at the Woodrow Wilson Center a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) on U.S.-Cuba normalization, directing agencies to “expand and promote authorized engagements with Cuba to advance cooperation on areas of mutual interest.” The PPD acknowledged areas of difference between the U.S. and Cuba, but stated an intent to “address such differences through engagement and dialogue, and by encouraging increased understanding between our governments and our peoples.” In one of his first acts on Cuba, President Trump repealed the PPD.

Coinciding with Rice’s announcement of the PPD, the Treasury Department released a series of regulatory reforms to allow for increased health, humanitarian, travel, and commercial transactions that would benefit the people of both the U.S. and Cuba.

Fast forward to October 2017. The next round of regulations related to Cuba, which will likely roll back some of last October’s reforms, will limit travel to and trade with the country, although the extent of the coming restrictions remains unknown. Meanwhile, the State Department’s latest actions to curb both countries’ diplomatic presence in each other’s capitals has thrown ice on joint discussions, including recent meetings of the U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Dialogue and Bilateral Commission in Washington. Both dialogues were due to meet next in Havana, but as the State Department has suspended all official delegations to Cuba, their status remains uncertain.

The Hill calls the combination of the State Department’s recent actions and the forthcoming regulations “a one-two punch” on Cuba’s economy, one that will primarily serve to hurt the Cuban people. The impacts are already beginning to show – bed and breakfast owner Julia de la Rosa told the Hill she has received 29 cancellations from U.S. travelers in the last month. (Julia was among a delegation of eight Cuban entrepreneurs who visited Washington in July, on a trip partly organized by CDA, to urge policymakers against increasing restrictions on ties with Cuba.)

As President Obama’s PPD stated, “Normalization necessarily extends beyond government-to-government rapprochement – it includes rebuilding bridges between individuals and families.” Even the staunchest detractors of engagement could not deny that increased connections between people in our two countries is a net positive – perhaps that’s why Marco Rubio has expressed support for a policy allowing travel by U.S. citizens to continue.

Meanwhile, in his latest statements addressing the mysterious health incidents involving our embassy community, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has reemphasized that the U.S. maintains diplomatic relations with Cuba, and said that the U.S. will continue to cooperate with Cuba on outstanding issues. That he made these declarations shows that individuals at the highest level of the U.S. government understand that engagement with Cuba has important implications.

The latest twists in the ever-mercurial U.S.-Cuba relationship are undoubtedly a step backward, and one that will surely hurt people on both sides of the Florida Straits. But they do not spell doom and gloom – we continue to believe that the positive results from engagement will inevitably win out over ideas that are entrenched in the failed policies of administrations past.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

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All They Could Ask for and More

October 6, 2017

You gave big for Irma relief; please do so now for engagement. Donate now to support our advocacy efforts at this incredibly important moment for U.S.-Cuba policy.


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Last week, we wrote in this space, “In the wake of the mystifying ‘sonic incidents’ in Havana, it is more important than ever that the U.S. demonstrate its commitment to engagement.”

Clearly, the U.S. State Department had other designs.

On Tuesday, the department declared that it was expelling 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington, following up on last Friday’s announcement that it would order non-emergency personnel to leave the U.S. Embassy in Havana, stop issuing visas in Cuba, and issue a Travel Warning cautioning U.S. travelers against visiting the island. (Per the department’s Foreign Affairs Manual, issuing an ordered departure requires an accompanying Travel Warning.)

This feels too familiar. Recall 2009, when proponents of engagement had great optimism that a newly-elected President Obama would take steps toward normalization, only to have hopes dashed when USAID contractor Alan Gross was arrested in Cuba for his work funded by a U.S. government “democracy promotion” program. Or 1996, when two Brothers to the Rescue planes were shot down by the Cuban Air Force after repeated flights over the island, creating the political environment in Washington to allow for the passage of the Helms-Burton Act.

The sonic attacks are shrouded in mystery, and the harm experienced by our diplomats is very alarming. However, the decision to draw down the U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba, and demand the Cubans do the same in D.C., in the midst of an ongoing investigation no less, is the wrong one.

Look at motive, for starters. Whoever is doing this seems to want to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Cuba. The U.S. government’s actions in the last several days have given them all they could ask for and more.

Another thing. The diplomatic drawdowns were carried out with seemingly no regard for how they will divide Cuban families. As much was confirmed during a background briefing on the expulsion by an unnamed department official. When asked about how restricting the Cuban Embassy’s consular services and freezing the issuing of visas in Havana will affect families divided between the U.S. and Cuba, the official posited, “I think we are evaluating the impact our reduction of staff will have on those issues.”

Had the department evaluated the impact prior to its decision, it would have seen how many families will be indefinitely separated by this move. It would have heard stories like that of Tomas Luis Balseiro, who told the AP this week that the status of his visa application to see his gravely ill mother in Florida has been thrown into uncertainty. Now, he says, “It would be a victory just to see her alive.”

Balseiro’s story is not a unique one. According to the AP, on Monday morning, 300 people gathered in the so-called “park of laments” outside of the embassy, the area where Cubans wait for information on visa appointments. By now, they will have heard that the U.S. has decided to cancel all previously scheduled visa appointments, and will not refund the $160 application fees. Their mood was captured by Jessica Aguila, who told Reuters she had hoped to visit her family in the U.S. for Christmas. As Jessica wisely notes, “Politics always ends up affecting the poorest, the people, and not the government.”

Indeed, while the ordered departure may have stemmed from legitimate health concerns, politics, we suspect, are at play in the rollout of the expulsion. Earlier this week, the AP reported that the State Department gave Cuba’s U.S. Ambassador a list of 15 specific names of Cuban diplomats who were to leave the country. During a press conference this week, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez told reporters that the list left Cuba’s Embassy with just one consular officer to process visas, and Reuters reported Friday that the State Department expelled all Cuban diplomats working on business ties.

In the words of Cuban student Laura Hernandez, whose father lives in the U.S., “This is unnecessary and inhuman.” The decision to slash consular and commercial staff in both embassies serves little purpose other than to further divide the U.S. and Cuba.

Last week, the bipartisan House Cuba Working Group wrote, “Situations like these require responsible diplomacy,” and the State Department itself has repeatedly expressed its desire to cooperate with Cuba to resolve the issue.

Expelling diplomats is the antithesis of these ideals.

In the words of Rep. Tom Emmer, the expulsion “do[es] not seem to advance our efforts of identifying a cause or culprit behind these ‘sonic attacks,’” and as Rep. Barbara Lee stated, “Isolationism and disengagement has failed time and time again.”

This sentiment is shared by those at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy. Last week, Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said of a reduction of the Havana Embassy staff, “American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game.” She followed up on those statements to the Atlantic, saying, “We have a mission to do and we really think being present matters.”

Her words ring as true for the importance of having Cuban diplomats in Washington as they do for that of having U.S. diplomats in Havana. The actions taken over the last two weeks have hurt the U.S.’ diplomatic presence and posture, weakened the overall status of bilateral relations with our neighbor, and served to divide families unnecessarily.

What’s more, the actions have given the aggressor all they could ask for and more.

Irma Relief Update

Your support is already making a difference. CDA is pleased to have donated a portion of the Irma Relief Fund to Friends of Cáritas Cubana – earmarked specifically for Irma relief – in honor of the CDA community. Cáritas Cubana is internationally esteemed and excels in the provision of relief in the aftermath of natural disasters. Our collaboration with Cáritas will allow for immediate relief, and we will be traveling to Cuba in November to partner with an organization engaging in longer-term rebuilding efforts.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

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