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!

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »


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!

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

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.


* * *

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!

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

What’s in a Name?

September 29, 2017

We are monitoring the breaking news that the State Department will order the departure of all non-essential personnel from the U.S. Embassy in Havana. We hold as a top priority the well-being of our diplomats, and urge a swift investigation into the mysterious incidents that have inflicted harm upon them. We note Cuba’s efforts to investigate the matter, and Secretary Tillerson’s promise to continue cooperation with Cuba’s government. We are pleased diplomatic channels through which to cooperate on a matter such as this exist, and believe engagement is more important now than ever.

* * *

What’s in a Name?

“The appointment of an ambassador is a common sense step forward toward a more normal and productive relationship between our two countries.”

Those were the words of former President Barack Obama when, one year ago this week, he nominated Jeff DeLaurentis to the position of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba.

Alas, the Senate declined to vote on DeLaurentis’ nomination, leaving him to serve out the remainder of his three-year shift in Havana as the embassy’s chargé d’affaires. (DeLaurentis completed his term in July.)

Now, exactly 12 months later, we’re reminded of the misguided, schismatic criticisms of engagement that denied him a hearing, in the wake of the news that the U.S. will withdraw 60 percent of its staff from the U.S. Embassy in Havana and issue a warning cautioning U.S. travelers against visiting the island.

Let’s be clear: the presence of an embassy has played a key role in the development of productive, bilateral relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Through its diplomatic presence in Havana, the U.S. has held numerous bilateral dialogues and signed agreements with Cuba on issues including cooperation in law enforcement and national security, environmental protection, and public health. These exchanges have had real, tangible effects—massive increases in the seizure of narcotics and the resumption of commercial flights between the two countries, to name a few.

Diplomacy matters, and having an ambassador to direct the U.S.’ diplomatic efforts matters, too.

Last September, Florida Senator Marco Rubio said of DeLaurentis’ nomination, “Rewarding the Castro government with a U.S. ambassador is another last-ditch legacy project for the President that needs to be stopped.”

This line of thinking misses the point. Assigning an ambassador is a not a “reward” to a foreign government, but rather, a key component of promoting U.S. interests abroad. Titles matter, and formally appointing an ambassador expands the diplomatic work that a U.S. mission abroad can accomplish. Leaving an ambassadorial post open is a self-defeating policy that only limits the U.S.’ ability to facilitate dialogue.

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. In his meeting with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson this week, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez emphasized, “It is essential to count on the effective cooperation of the US authorities” in Cuba’s investigation into the events.

Filling official roles, like that of an ambassador, shows foreign nations that the U.S. is serious about diplomacy.

Moreover, in a situation like this one, it is important to keep channels of communication open. In times of uncertainty, our diplomats play a crucial role in ensuring that all parties are working effectively toward a common goal—in this case, ensuring the safety of diplomats in Havana.

As President Obama said last September, “Having an ambassador will make it easier to advocate for our interests, and will deepen our understanding even when we know that we will continue to have differences with the Cuban government … we only hurt ourselves by not being represented by an Ambassador.”

Rubio was right about one thing, though. Placing an ambassador in Havana would certainly create a lasting legacy—one of commitment to diplomacy and bilateral cooperation.

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

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Behind Closed Doors

September 22, 2017

The CDA community answered the call, and we have raised almost $10,000 for Hurricane Irma relief in Cuba! We are incredibly moved by your generosity. CDA’s Irma Relief drive continues through midnight tonight; donate here to provide emergency items such as water, food, shelter, and hygiene kits, as well as longer-term recovery supplies.

* * *

Many of us followed the publicly-traded barbs of this week. President Trump addressed the UN General Assembly Tuesday, stating, “The United States has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba,” and declared, “We will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.”

That same day, Cuba retorted, rejecting “tying any improvement in bilateral relations to the introduction of changes in the Cuban constitutional order,” as well as “the political manipulation of the human rights issue as a pretext to justify US policies.”

However, while public statements paint a picture of discord, in private, our bilateral relationship is starting to resemble something normal.

Behind closed doors

The U.S.-Cuba Law Enforcement Dialogue met last week to discuss, among other things, the mysterious sonic incidents affecting U.S. and Canadian diplomats. The FBI has reportedly traveled to the island three times, invited and welcomed by Cuban authorities, and by all accounts, Cuba has given them an unprecedented level of access.

In fact, the Associated Press reported this week that Raúl Castro personally summoned the top U.S. diplomat to discuss this matter, that he was “baffled” and “concerned,” and that he showed far more desire to cooperate on the issue than expected.

The Law Enforcement Dialogue also discussed important functions such as cooperation on terrorism, cybercrime, and drug trafficking.

On Monday, U.S. and Cuban diplomats met in Washington for the sixth Bilateral Commission, the mechanism designated with the task of advancing normalization. The significance of this meeting at this time cannot be overstated. Despite publicly aired unrest, we continue to work together. We continue to advance cooperation on often understated issues such as environmental protection, public health, and combating trafficking in persons and narcotics.

One last thing—we took note last Friday when five Senators, led by the architect of President Trump’s new Cuba policy, Marco Rubio, penned a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking him to close the U.S. Embassy in Havana and expel all Cuban diplomats in the U.S. Our friend Bill LeoGrande said it best: “Closing the U.S. embassy makes no sense. It would punish Cuba for actions whose perpetrator remains unidentified, and it would seriously damage U.S. interests.”

There’s a lot we do not know about the sonic incidents. But we do know diplomacy matters, and an open dialogue is essential to the U.S.’ ability to safeguard its affairs at home and abroad.

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Special Report: Cuba Recovers After Irma

September 11, 2017

Hurricane Irma slammed into Cuba over the weekend, leaving 10 dead and causing destruction and flooding across the island. Irma, which made landfall in the country’s northeastern provinces as a Category 5 storm, was the strongest storm to hit Cuba in 85 years, according to Reuters.


The hurricane wrought havoc in Cuba’s keys, badly damaging most structures and all but destroying the international Jardines del Rey airport in Cayo Coco. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro released a statement Monday, saying, “Given the immensity of [Irma’s] size, practically no region has escaped its effects.”

Though Havana avoided a direct hit, the capital city saw extensive flooding, with 36-foot waves rising well over the Malecón (seawall) and seawater reaching one-third of a mile inland, according to Reuters and the Associated Press. The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which is located along the Malecón, saw structural damage to its fence and severe flooding inside the building.

According to CubaDebate, 7 of the 10 reported deaths across Cuba occurred in Havana, mostly due to falling structures and live electrical cables lying in the city’s flooded streets. Much of the island remains without power or cell service.

Cuba had evacuated over 1 million people, including over 8,000 tourists, prior to the storm’s arrival.

Economic impacts

Irma has brought consequences for a number of Cuba’s principle economic sectors, including the sugar and tourism industries.

According to Granma, 300,000 hectares of sugarcane crops and 40 percent of sugar refineries in Cuba suffered some degree of damage from the storm. Cuba harvested 436,000 hectares of sugarcane in 2015, the last year for which data was available.

Meanwhile, the extensive damage to the Cuban Keys has left many of the country’s most popular resorts uninhabitable. President Castro stated that damages “will be recovered before the start of the high season” for tourism.


In his statement, President Castro said, “It is not time to mourn, but rather to rebuild what the winds of Hurricane Irma tried to destroy.” Countries including Ecuador, Bolivia, and Russia have stated their intention to deliver aid to the island.

Prior to the storm reaching Cuba, the country sent nearly 800 doctors to affected Caribbean islands, according to Granma.

Donate to relief efforts in Cuba: PBS NewsHour has consolidated a list of charities working on Hurricane Irma relief efforts.

Groups working in Cuba include OXFAM, UNICEF, and Caritas.

Keep up with CDA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram!

Cuba and Our Good Name

September 8, 2017

Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary, is this week’s guest contributor to the Cuba Central News Brief. He served as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff from 2002 to 2005, and as Associate Director of the State Department’s Policy Planning staff from 2001 to 2002, during which time he focused on East Asia and the Pacific, political-military, and legislative affairs. Prior to working in the State Department, Col. Wilkerson served in the U.S. Army for 31 years.

* * *

“Who steals my purse steals trash … But he that filches from me my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor indeed.” – Shakespeare’s Othello

Immediate attention today is turned to whether or not the Government of Cuba caused intentional harm to U.S. and Canadian diplomats through a series of sonic incidents in Havana. Frankly, it looks more like spyware gone bad than an intentional effort to do harm. Damage is done, nonetheless, as the U.S. has reciprocated with the expulsion of two Cuban diplomats from Washington.

Long-term concern, however, relates to President Trump. In short, what exactly is Trump’s Cuba policy today? Are his administration’s incremental reversals of previous U.S.-Cuba policy all we shall see, or will there be more, and more substantial, reversals of what was beginning to look like a warming relationship?

Even the small steps backward—and most certainly more substantial ones—are detrimental to U.S. national security, and while many aspects of that negative impact are readily discernible—from cooperation in managing drug trafficking to the environment—the most dangerous aspect, as with the U.S. practice of torture from 2002–2006, goes largely unreported.

Simply stated, the reputation of America is as powerful a component of its standing in the world—perhaps more so—than its vast array of tanks, warplanes, and warships. For the billion people in the Western Hemisphere, and increasingly for the six billion others in the rest of the world, the U.S.’ Cuba policy is another nail in the coffin of the American empire. Of late, nations around the world have been hammering in such nails with alarming frequency and vehemence.

From the now utterly nonsensical embargo on Cuba—essentially an abuse of the use of sanctions bordering on an act of war—to the unseemly and unconstitutional restrictions on travel to the island by U.S. citizens, U.S.-Cuba policy would be the laughing stock of the world if it were not so indicative of America’s present policies—and thus a serious matter indeed. What a worsening of this policy would do is add immeasurable weight to a now swiftly-coalescing world opinion that America is no longer worthy of global leadership.

A dramatic historical moment in 1956, during the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower, sums up brilliantly what reputational power is all about. The moment is described eloquently by Eisenhower biographer Jean Edward Smith. The occasion was President Eisenhower’s having compelled Great Britain, France and Israel to reverse their combined invasion of Suez:

“Never in the postwar era was American prestige higher than in the aftermath of Suez. Small nations could scarcely believe the United States would support Egypt, a Third World country, in a fight against two of America’s oldest allies, or that it would come to the aid of a Muslim state resisting Israeli aggression. ‘Never has there been such a tremendous acclaim for the President’s policy,’ Henry Cabot Lodge reported from the United Nations. ‘It has been absolutely spectacular.’”

Eisenhower understood what reputational power meant in the world. He knew it outweighed all the panoply of war of which, ironically enough, he was arguably one of the foremost practitioners.

Today, with America’s reputation in tatters all over the globe, in the wake of Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, torture, walls on the Mexican border, and strategic missteps from Berlin to Beijing, the very last thing Washington needs is another policy disaster. To reverse the opening to Cuba would be a serious blow to U.S. security in the Western Hemisphere and add another blow to that security, already in serious jeopardy, elsewhere in the world.

That is the last thing the nation needs; it would make us poor indeed.

* * *

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

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »