A Photo of a Family

November 17, 2017

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“Behind all of the distance

Behind the separation

Behind all of the governments

All of the borders and religion

There is a photo of a family”

~Carlos Varela, “Family Photo”

This time last year, we gathered at the Hamilton as Dave Matthews and Carlos Varela, “the poet of Havana,” shared a stage to recount stories of togetherness and exchange across geographic and linguistic boundaries.

The occasion, CDA’s 10th anniversary celebration, served to capture the spirit of collaboration that engagement represents. As CDA Founder Sarah Stephens said at the time, “So much can be gained, so much can be learned when you bring people together and truly listen to what’s being said.”

In the face of what seems like a difficult time for our two peoples, in the light of new regulations and the administration’s decision last month to restrict visa services at both countries’ embassies, those words ring truer than ever. As she went on to say, “There will be, sometimes, overwhelming obstacles, detours … but we can get through it together.”

And indeed, the policy changes are obstacles, especially for the people and families divided across the Florida Straits. The stories, as shared this week by Congresswoman Kathy Castor, are heartbreaking: A son in Cuba who cannot secure a visa to see his mother, who is undergoing chemotherapy in the U.S. A father in the U.S. whose wife and young daughter had visa interviews scheduled for late October at the U.S. Embassy in Havana – interviews which the embassy has since cancelled. And, stories of disappointment: a Cuban skateboard team who had planned to participate in a Tampa competition last weekend. They were slated to be Cuba’s first skate team to compete in the U.S. – until their visa applications and appointments were cancelled without a refund.

As the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board wrote this week, “The embassy pullout reflects this administration’s inclination to disengage.” And yet, the U.S. and Cuban people have shown time and time again that they yearn for closer ties, and the present is no exception. In recent days, we’ve seen a number of promising signs that the human side of our relationship is as strong as ever.

Take Cuban clothing design shop Clandestina, profiled last week in Vogue Magazine. Clandestina have found their designs, slick reproductions of Cuban culture and lifestyle, to be in high demand among U.S. visitors, and have recently began selling products in the U.S. – one of the only Cuban companies to do so.

Airbnb recently agreed to partner with Cuban taxi company and vintage car repair shop NostalgiCar for one of its Cuba “experiences.” In July, NostalgiCar co-owner Julio Álvarez told DC policymakers, “It means a lot to us to be able to help keep the doors open between the U.S. and Cuba, to be able to help our businesses as well as our communities.” Airbnb, meanwhile, spoke out last week about engagement with Cuba, telling The Hill, “Travel helps to break down barriers between people and countries and contributes to a greater understanding of the world.”

As we noted in our “Cuba Travel 101” fact sheet published this week, there are still plenty of ways to visit Cuba and continue engaging. We encourage you to do so.

Because, as Dave Matthews reminded us last November, “There’s no reason on earth we shouldn’t find as many reasons as possible to embrace each other.”

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Let’s Make a “Better Deal”

November 10, 2017

In June, President Trump announced plans to bring about a “better deal” by “canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” ordering relevant agencies to promulgate new regulations based on a National Security Presidential Memorandum published by the White House.

This week, the Treasury and Commerce Departments published new Cuba regulations (described below), and the State Department formulated a list of entities with ties to Cuba’s military and other select government departments, with which transactions are now prohibited.

While the new regulations, which restrict U.S. travel to Cuba and regulate how Americans can spend money on the island, do not go so far as to “cancel” the rapprochement started in December 2014, they certainly cannot be considered a “better deal,” either. The rules restrict the rights of U.S. citizens to travel freely, effectively limiting how much money will be spent at paladares and casas particulares, and are a blow to regional and global perceptions of the U.S. as a partner.

As we saw at the United Nations last week, virtually the entire world adamantly opposes the U.S. embargo. This isn’t a case of the U.S. having wisdom or a moral compass the rest of the world is missing. It is symbolic of a tendency to ignore the mistakes and failures of the past, and to pursue interventionist politics without an eye for their consequences. Meanwhile, doubling down on this failed policy will only continue to hurt U.S. credibility and perception abroad, two things already in sharp decline.

On Wednesday, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin released a statement saying that the new regulations would “encourage the [Cuban] government to move toward greater political and economic freedom for the Cuban people.” Not only does this ignore the reality that attempts to strong-arm Cuba’s government into reforms have failed for over 50 years, it makes a flawed judgement that limiting the ability of Americans to visit Cuba will somehow yield economic prosperity for people on the island.

Even a cursory look at the explosion of U.S. travel to Cuba clearly shows how it benefits people in both countries. But you needn’t take our word for it – read the words of the Cuban people who we spoke with in the aftermath of President Trump’s announcement last June. The bottom line is, the administration’s new policy will most hurt the people it supposedly aims to support.

Despite the setback, we would be remiss to analyze this policy without noting a few positive (or perhaps more aptly, not-so-negative) takeaways. The new regulations allow for continued diplomatic relations, bilateral agreements and commercial contracts remain in effect, and ongoing negotiations on issues such as property claims are expected to continue. All this at a time when there is momentum in Congress to add bipartisan cosponsors to bills to ease travel and trade restrictions.

In addition to these agreements, the manner in which the writing of the new policy unfolded shows that many of the gains from engagement are already entrenched.

Recall the reports from the early months of the Trump administration that in discussions about altering U.S. policy toward Cuba, “Most of the agencies favored maintaining Obama’s more open policy.”

This week, Senator Marco Rubio, purportedly the architect behind President Trump’s memorandum, lamented that his intentions were not perfectly reflected in the regulatory iteration. Said Rubio, “Bureaucrats in the State Department who oppose the President’s Cuba policy refused to fully implement it.”

We think that one factor behind the softening was that departments, unlike the White House, heard some of the right voices. In July, CDA helped sponsor a group of Cuban entrepreneurs to travel to Washington to deliver policy recommendations to the Departments of State, Commerce, and the Treasury. Among their recommendations, the entrepreneurs wrote, “The Department of Commerce should adopt a favorable disposition to approving those exports to Cuba likely to benefit Cuban private sector individuals and/or companies.” That is precisely what Commerce did, a rare bright spot in this week’s regulatory changes.

This influence is made all the more noteworthy by the Miami Herald’s reporting this week that politicians like Senator Rubio and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart were kept “in the dark” on the policy process, learning about the new rules well after news reporters.

Undoubtedly, the regulations published this week are a setback for U.S.-Cuba relations, and ultimately reflect the decision of a president with misguided intentions. But our two countries have weathered far graver moments in the past, and we are confident that we can brave the current storm to continue on the path toward normalization.

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

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Cuba Central News Brief 11/3/2017

November 3, 2017

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

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S. opposes UN call to end embargo; Cuba’s Foreign Minister speaks out on alleged attacks

The UN passed a resolution Wednesday condemning the U.S. embargo on Cuba by a vote of 191-2, with the U.S. and Israel each opposing the measure. Each year between 1992 and 2015, the U.S. voted against the resolution; then-Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power abstained from the vote in 2016. President Trump’s June Memorandum on Cuba policy states that the U.S. will oppose international measures calling for the embargo’s end.

Speaking before the UN General Assembly this week, Ambassador Nikki Haley called the vote “political theater” and said, “Today, the crime is the Cuban government’s continued repression of its people.” In his own speech to the assembly, Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s foreign minister, called Ambassador Haley’s comments “disrespectful, offensive and interventionist,” and stated the Cuba “will never accept conditions or impositions.” Mr. Rodríguez also criticized the perceived politicization of alleged attacks on diplomats in Havana, but reiterated Cuba’s desire to “continue respectful dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest with the U.S. government.”

Separately, speaking at a press conference in Washington Thursday, Mr. Rodríguez called on U.S. officials to “tell the truth or otherwise present evidence” regarding the alleged attacks, the Washington Post reports. Mr. Rodríguez acknowledged diplomats’ health symptoms, but stated their cause cannot be determined, and that the Trump administration has used the incidents “as a political pretext for damaging bilateral relations and eliminating the progress made,” according to the Associated Press.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations July 16. You can find the Cuba Central Team’s comprehensive overview of what we do and don’t know about the President’s Cuba policy at this link. Read the rest of this entry »