The Twilight Zone(s)

June 30, 2017

 

Daniel Whittle, Senior Attorney and Senior Director of the Cuba Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, is this week’s guest contributor to the Cuba Central News Brief. He directs EDF’s work to advance conservation of marine and coastal ecosystems in Cuba. He works with Cuban scientists, lawyers, and resource managers to identify and implement collaborative strategies for fisheries management, coral reef conservation, and sustainable coastal development in Cuba and the region.

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Twilight zone: “a situation or an idea that is unclear or confusing,” “a place that is mysterious, or a situation that cannot easily be explained.”

In the ’60s, we entered into this altered world through television. On June 16, after President Trump’s Cuba policy speech in Miami, it is fair to say that many of us felt that we had crossed over into a particularly unclear and confusing real-world twilight zone.

While promising to cancel President Obama’s “completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” and peppering his speech with threats and ultimatums, the actual text of President Trump’s National Security Presidential memorandum suggests that most of Obama’s Cuba policy remains intact. As Jorge Domínguez wrote in the New York Times, “the Trump administration has ratified bipartisan policies of engagement with Cuba.”

The scope of President Trump’s proposed regulatory changes on individual, self-directed travel and on transactions with the Cuban military is unclear and confusing to most Americans, as well as to those most likely to be adversely impacted by them—the Cuban people. It is, by all accounts, a situation that cannot easily be explained.

Just days before the President’s speech in Miami, a team of Cuban and American marine scientists completed a month-long trip to a mysterious place, and a different kind of twilight zone: “the lowest level of the ocean to which light can penetrate.”

Onboard the University of Miami’s R/V Walton Smith, and with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Mohawk remotely operated vehicle, Cuba’s Twilight Zone Reefs Expedition circumnavigated the island, exploring Cuba’s diverse deepwater mesophotic coral reefs from 30 to 150 meters below the surface. The expedition was conceived of and made possible by the so-called “Sister Sanctuaries Memorandum of Understanding,” the first agreement of any kind signed by the U.S. and Cuban governments following the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in 2015 and left undisturbed by President Trump’s new policy.

Organized by scientists from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University and several research centers in Havana, the team of experts explored underwater ecosystems that had never been studied before, discovering new species of marine life and collecting loads of data and images. Read the mission logs here—and don’t miss the one about the sponge party.

Thanks to Cubans and Americans working together, this twilight zone has just become a little less mysterious.

The final mission log for the expedition reads, “We came not knowing what we would find at most of the sites we explored. We now believe that we have seen what may be the most extensive, healthiest mesophotic reef habitat in the Caribbean, surrounding the entire island of Cuba … Carlos Diaz (Director of the National Center of Protected Areas) perhaps put our expedition in context the best, when he said that it was the most important scientific expedition in Cuban waters since 1970.”

Expedition scientists will get back together next week to recount their thrilling discoveries at Cubambiente, a major international environmental convention in Havana. These adventures will also be captured in a video directed by Jean Michel Cousteau.

Scientific exchange and environmental cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba have a rich history, which predates President Obama’s opening with Cuba in 2014, but which his administration significantly strengthened and expanded through governmental agreements and regulatory changes.

Thankfully, President Trump’s new directive on Cuba indicates that both will remain a priority.

Our hope is that, as exchanges and cooperation such as these continue, the president will come to learn the value of engagement with Cuba and the benefits accrued to the U.S., Cuba, and – in the case of our recent Twilight Zone Reefs expedition – the scientific community writ large.

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Notes from Havana: One Step Forward, Then 20 Back

June 23, 2017

Within 12 hours of President Trump’s announcement that he plans to limit travel to and trade with Cuba, Julio Álvarez and Nidialys Acosta had received three cancellations from groups of American visitors.

Julio and Nidialys founded Nostalgicar, a private taxi and classic car repair shop in Havana, in 2012, and now employ 10 drivers and 14 mechanics. In the last couple years, business – particularly from American travelers – has been very good.

When we visited the Nostalgicar repair shop last Saturday, they were worried.

The day before, President Trump had declared in Miami, “The previous administration’s easing of restrictions on travel and trade does not help the Cuban people,” announcing that he would roll back significant pieces of the policy. In his National Security Presidential Memorandum on Cuba, the President directed federal agencies to begin drafting new regulations curtailing travel and commerce, prohibiting individual people-to-people travel and placing limits on U.S. visitors’ financial transactions. According to a fact sheet released by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, regulatory changes will be issued “in the coming months.”

Since President Obama allowed Americans to write their own itineraries and travel to the island on their own, and restored regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba several months later, U.S. travel to the island has skyrocketed. Between 2015 and 2016, the number of U.S. visitors increased by 74 percent, and in the first five months of 2017, Cuba saw as many U.S. visitors as it did in all of 2016.

As we’ve joined many others in pointing out, President Trump’s claim that his impending policy changes will “support the Cuban people” just doesn’t match up with the reality we know in Cuba.

“It has already affected my business,” Julio told us Saturday. “I don’t see how it can be positive for the Cuban people … We’ll have to see what happens, but in the meantime, I am already losing money.”

Nidialys added: “President Trump says he wants to support the Cuban people. Tell me how.”

Just hours after President Trump’s speech, we visited Niuris Higueras. Niuris founded the popular private restaurant Atelier, and has been in Cuba’s restaurant business since the 1990s. “Eighty-five percent of my clients are now Americans. For businesses like mine, it will be really hard – we will have to find other clients,” she said.

Visitors from the U.S. spending dollars in Cuba have helped breathe life into the country’s nascent private sector. Twenty-five percent of Cuba’s working population is now employed in the private sector, up from just 12 percent in 2010. Since 2011, the Cuban government has approved 201 forms of self-employment, ranging from owning and working in restaurants to being a cobbler, from taxi services to accounting services, from party planning to being a barber. This has been life-changing for many Cubans who have been able to start their own businesses.

The Washington Post’s Nick Miroff reported on Twitter this week that in March 2016, when President Obama authorized individual people-to-people travel, there were about 4,000 Airbnb listings in Cuba. As of Monday of this week, there are 22,000 listings. “They’re related,” wrote Miroff. Indeed, as Airbnb announced earlier this month, “in 2016, over 12 percent of all U.S. travelers to Cuba … stayed in an Airbnb.” Since the company entered the Cuban market in April 2015, hosts on the island have brought in a collective $40 million, with the average annual payout for hosts at $2,700 each.

One Airbnb host we spoke with said, “It’s like we take one step forward, then 20 back.” That one step forward, particularly for Cubans renting out their homes to visitors using Airbnb, has been a big one.

Yamina Vicente, a former professor of economics at the University of Havana, owns a party decorations business called Decorazón. “This is not only a halt to improved relations, it is a step backwards,” she said of President Trump’s planned rollback of engagement. “This is not good news for anybody. Not only tourism-related businesses will be affected, but all the other businesses that depend on the overall health of the economy.”

Yamina was one of over a hundred Cuban entrepreneurs who wrote to President Trump soon after the election to encourage him to continue engagement, particularly travel, saying, “U.S. policy towards Cuba greatly affects our day-to-day reality … An influx of American and Cuban American visitors stimulates growth for our businesses, directly and indirectly.” They continued, “Small businesses in Cuba have the potential to be drivers of economic growth in Cuba and important partners of the U.S. business community.”

“Apparently President Trump did not listen to our letter,” Yamina told us. “This is so unfortunate – we had advanced so much.”

At the end of the day Saturday, we met up with Magia López and Alexey Rodríguez of the hip-hop duo Obsesión. “Today, we’re a little angry,” Magia said.

They had listened to President Trump’s speech, as he told the crowd in Miami’s Artime Theater that he and the U.S. “will stand with the Cuban people.”

“President Trump says he stands with the Cuban people, but with which Cuban people?” Alexey asked. “It’s an empty statement.”

“It wasn’t surprising,” Alexey said, to hear the President of the United States speak that way. “President Trump’s actions will hurt people in Cuba and, as always, those most affected are at the bottom.” If President Trump’s planned restrictions on travel and trade go through, “a lot of families will be affected” – not just small business owners.

Cubans are accustomed to enduring the ebbs and flows of U.S. policy toward the island, each tide with direct impact on their lives – this is a part of the Cuban reality. And they don’t like it.

Julio left us with a message to take back to Washington: “I hope you return to the U.S. with the will to help the Cuban people.”

These are the messages Cubans want to get to the White House. They know the people of the U.S. and Cuba stand to gain even more than they already have from continuing engagement, and they are eager to help President Trump to understand.

These are the voices of people most affected by his decisions on Cuba policy. He should hear them.

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“It hurts to be going backwards”

June 16, 2017

Today, President Trump – surrounded by the architects of his new policy – told the world what he thinks is a “better deal” on Cuba.

We’ll get straight to the point. President Trump’s partial rollback of engagement, to adopt the President’s parlance, is a bad deal.

In a National Security Presidential Memorandum signed Friday in Miami, President Trump laid out his policy: Effective in the coming months, Americans may still travel to Cuba, but only in groups with travel providers; the administration will also seek to limit U.S. transactions with entities controlled by Cuba’s military, a category encompassing most of the tourism industry, which would not only place limits on companies seeking to do business on the island but would restrict where U.S. visitors can stay and eat. Prohibiting individual people-to-people travel, as the New York Times put it today, “is expected to increase the costs of traveling to Cuba and significantly reduce the number of American visitors.”

Embassies and diplomatic channels for cooperation on a range of key issues are to remain open, though President Trump’s harsh rhetoric today could change the tone of the relationship. According to the Memorandum, regulations allowing unlimited remittances to Cuba will remain in place, and the President will not impose any limits on Cuban Americans’ travel to visit family on the island. Based on the reports we’ve read so far, U.S. businesses with existing operations in Cuba – like commercial airlines, cruise lines, cell phone companies, Google, and Marriott’s Starwood Hotels Inc., which manages a Four Points Sheraton in Havana – may still operate on the island.

But within just a few months, there may be a lot of empty seats on those commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba. Hosts of private accommodations like Airbnb could find themselves short of bookings for U.S. travelers, who in the last two years have become a key source of income.

And, as Marla Recio, who founded an event-planning business in Havana to help U.S. visitors plan celebrations on the island, told the New York Times, “It’s not just the people who have rental homes or who have a private business specifically targeted at an American audience like myself. … There are also the people who have simple cafeterias or beauty salons whose audience is mainly Cuban, and those people are also stimulated by the flow of people who bring money to the island.”

Last week, we pondered President Trump’s strategic vision for any rollback of engagement, and came up empty. Now that he’s made his announcement, proclaiming “I am cancelling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” we’re still not seeing much strategy or vision. And, in the course of the last week, a bigger, louder, and more varied chorus of voices – from both sides of the Florida Straits, from both sides of the aisle in Washington – spoke out to tell President Trump that engagement with Cuba has not been one-sided, but rather has been and will continue to be mutually beneficial for the U.S. and Cuba, and that it would be a mistake to roll back any of the policies of engagement.

Sure, he and Senator Marco Rubio (FL), who’s had the President’s ear on Cuba since before the inauguration, are now touting Cuban entrepreneurs as those intended to be the beneficiaries of the new travel and trade regulations. But listen to some of Cuba’s entrepreneurs:

Marta Deus founded an accounting firm and courier service in Havana and works primarily with other private entrepreneurs. “It hurts to be going backwards. To roll back the engagement will only manage to isolate us from the world,” she told Reuters. “We need clients, business, we need the economy to move and by isolating Cuba, they will only manage to hurt many Cuban families and force companies to close.”

Enrique Montoto rents out rooms in his home using Airbnb. “It’s going to really hurt me because the majority of my clients are from the United States,” he said. “With things going to pot, I’ll have to tighten my belt.”

Perhaps you, like us, watched President Trump’s Friday afternoon speech and read the tick-tock accounts in the Miami Herald and Politico of how the new policy came to be, shaped by a small cohort of advisors and Florida politicians. All of this gave us a pretty clear idea of who the President has listened to on Cuba policy – and it’s not the people who will be most affected by it. Or, it seems, anyone who has been to Cuba in recent memory.

Speaking in Miami’s Artime Theater, a venue named for one of the leaders of the Bay of Pigs invasion’s Cuban-exile Brigade 2506 – whose veterans endorsed then-candidate Trump last October – President Trump was joined by several cabinet officials and a host of Florida politicians who favor the embargo.

Watching the President’s speech, it was clear to us that he did not listen to the Cuban entrepreneurs who wrote him soon after he was elected to urge him to continue engagement with Cuba, or to the group of Cuban women entrepreneurs who wrote First Daughter and Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump asking her to weigh in with the President on their behalf.

Nor does he appear to have heeded the calls of young Cuban-Americans who favor engagement, U.S. businesses that have made major investments in Cuba, or leading human-rights advocacy organizations that stated publicly that any rollback of engagement with Cuba would not advance human rights. He did not even listen to a majority of his own party, which according to a recent poll, stands at 60 percent in favor of engagement with Cuba. He did not listen to agencies in his own administration, whose policy review, it’s been widely reported, found that engagement with Cuba is the best policy for the U.S. and the Cuban people.

A few members of the Cuba Central Team are in Havana today, recording reactions among Cuban entrepreneurs to President Trump’s policy announcement in real-time. Next week, we’ll report on what they heard in Havana, with a full analysis of what’s new and what’s staying the same in President Trump’s Cuba policy.

For now, we’ll leave you with a brief overview of the week in Cuba news – including a roundup of just some of the voices we heard this week urging President Trump to continue advancing engagement with Cuba.

This afternoon, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which produces the Cuba Central News Brief, released a statement: “Now, as ever, CDA will continue to bring people together, and we will redouble our work building relationships and fostering cooperation and dialogue on both sides of the aisle here in Washington, and on both sides of the Florida Straits. Talking to each other, sharing views and experiences, recognizing and overcoming differences—this is the way forward in U.S.-Cuba relations.” The full statement is available on CDA’s website, at this link.

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Demand to know: What’s the case for reversing the Cuba policy reforms?

June 9, 2017

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Just before publication time, we learned that President Trump is set to visit Miami a week from today to reveal his administration’s new policy toward Cuba.

If the President reverses the last 30 months’ worth of progress produced by engagement with Cuba, the people of the United States and Cuba will deserve an explanation.

What’s the strategic vision for a policy that steps backward? If the administration shifts course, it must explain the drivers behind the decision, and how it promotes U.S. interests. In sum, it must explain the rationale for reversal.

We deserve to know.

President Obama’s policy of engagement certainly had its detractors – some felt it went too far, others not far enough. But President Obama had a theory of the case, a strategic vision, for why restoring diplomatic relations, easing restrictions on trade and travel, and promoting personal contact between citizens of both countries were all in the U.S. national interest – and, critically, more likely to create conditions to the ability of Cubans to determine their own future than the tired, failed policies of isolating and imposing sanctions on Cuba.

The policy, as the saying goes, “played in Peoria.” In fact, just this week, in an editorial titled “Cuba Craziness,” the Peoria Illinois Journal Star urged the President to keep, rather than scuttle, the policy he inherited from his predecessor because of its underlying logic:

First, far better to have a non-enemy 90 miles off America’s coast than the alternative, with Cuba more likely to fall into hostile arms if this goes through. Second, this would hurt U.S. business interests, with rural areas dependent on agriculture and manufacturing – as in central Illinois – likely taking the brunt of it. Third, arguably this would only punish the long-suffering Cuban people. Fourth, suppose you must know some history in the first place to learn anything from it, but we’d remind the White House that more than a half century of a big-stick approach to the Castros failed to bring them to their knees.”

If the administration is conducting its review of Cuba policy with a seriousness of purpose, these are legitimately high bars for a new policy to clear.

Let’s start with security. The idea that engagement with Cuba is good security policy is not new.

Eight years ago, when the previous administration was thinking through its Cuba policy, 12 former senior military officials wrote the White House: “The current policy of isolating Cuba has failed, patently, to achieve our ends. Cuba ceased to be a military threat decades ago. At the same time, Cuba has intensified its global diplomatic and economic relations with nations as diverse as China, Russia, Venezuela, Brazil, and members of the European Union. It is hard to characterize such global engagement as isolation.”

Indeed, based on reporting by Quartz, what may have prolonged the current administration’s internal debate on Cuba is that senior officials from the departments of government most responsible for implementing the policy “favored maintaining Obama’s more open policy.”

On this point, Professor Bill LeoGrande published an article this week in which he argued engagement gives “Havana less incentive to expand its economic relationships with Russia and China into politico-military ones.”

That is what concerns the seven Republican Members of Congress who wrote President Trump today and said, “Reversing course would incentivize Cuba to once again become dependent on countries like Russia and China. Allowing this to happen could have disastrous results for the security of the United States.”

Cubans are already reengaging with Russia. Incidentally, this is about more than Russia’s reemergence as a critical source of energy for the Cuban economy. As the Wall Street Journal reported this week, increasing numbers of Cuban shoppers with means are hopping aboard one of the daily 13-hour flights from Havana to Moscow to visit markets that cater to their needs. Wooed by shouts of “hola, amigo,” Cuban customers are bringing back “bags of jeans, haberdashery, and car parts to a Communist island starved of consumer goods.” Moscow is shrewdly winning back hearts and minds with an open trade and travel policy – more open, even, than the one the administration is threatening to close.

The question of how best to realize U.S. economic interests has also extended the internal debate. As Fabiola Santiago, a columnist for the Miami Herald, wrote on Thursday, “Although [President Trump] made a campaign pledge to Bay of Pigs veterans in Miami that he would restore a hard-line approach to dealing with its government, his administration includes executives who eagerly embraced engagement and traveled to Cuba to explore business ventures.”

The decision to intensify trade and travel relations was about dollars and cents as well as a common-sense attitude about how engagement serves our diplomatic goals.

A decision to cut back travel and trade with Cuba would be consequential for U.S. economic interests. As Engage Cuba, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and other allies reported on June 1, a reversal of the current engagement policies would cost our economy as much as $6.6 billion and put more than 12,000 U.S. jobs at risk.

Reuters reported that ending critical policies like people-to-people travel “would make moot millions of recent investments” by the airlines, and, as the Director General of the International Air Transport Association said, more broadly, “Restricting the network of aviation and access to Cuba would be bad news for aviation.”

It would also be bad news for Cubans working in their nation’s private economy. Consider the case of Airbnb, which now has 22,000 listings in 70 different Cuban cities and towns. The company’s relationships with Cubans across the island, enabled by the regulatory changes that took place due to engagement, mean that “Cubans have netted $40 million the past two years by using the online service to rent their homes and rooms to short-term visitors,” as Tim Padgett reported this week.

That’s a practical consequence of allowing upwards of 70,000 guests per month to check into Cuban homes.

We can’t have such good economic outcomes without diplomatic support. As Rex Tillerson’s State Department rhapsodized this week, “Our work directly supports the global travel and tourism industry by creating more opportunities for growth, travel, and trade.”

That is exactly what is happening as a result of two-way travel policies with Cuba.

Undoubtedly, the window dressing the administration will use for cutting engagement back will be “human rights for the Cuban people.”

It just isn’t true. As the paper in Peoria put it, this is instead a rationale for “punishing the long-suffering Cuban people.”

Serious advocates for human rights almost always conclude that sanctions on Cuba injures their interests. As the Quartz article we reference above says, “human-rights activists who work with Cubans believe that while closer relations with the US may have benefited Cuba’s regime, they have also begun to make life better for its citizens, and that reversing course would not help.”

Isolating and sanctioning Cuba violates international law and norms, and violates Cuba’s sovereignty.

It is fair to ask, as Robert Coon did in Talk Business & Politics Arkansas, “why would we want to take a step backward and start down the failed path of isolation once again?”

Or as our friends at the Peoria Illinois Journal Star put it, “This opening of relations/easing of tensions deserves a chance to succeed. There’s no rhyme or reason to undoing it.”

While the President’s Cabinet has argued in support of maintaining the opening to Cuba, Quartz reports, “The only objecting voices were from inside the White House, particularly the legislative affairs office. That’s because, these sources say, the White House needs the support of two key Florida Republicans: Representative Mario Díaz-Balart and Senator Marco Rubio, Cuban-Americans who oppose normalized relations with Havana’s politically repressive government.”

Is this really where we are? Just like in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, and the first dozen years of the new century, is the dog (us) still being wagged by the tail (politicians in Florida)?

This makes no sense. As the Houston Chronicle said in an editorial this week, “We understand that Trump has political debts to the hard-core anti-Castro Cuban-Americans, but his notion of getting a ‘better deal’ from Cuba envisions Havana committing to such things as democracy, free speech and a free press, which is the kind of pipe dream Miami has perpetuated for almost 60 years while supporting a policy that guaranteed it wouldn’t happen.”

So we’re asking the administration: Why undo it? What’s the expected value of a policy change?

This week, Reuters interviewed a woman named Meleny, a Cuban state employee, who works as a tour guide. She told the news agency that she worries about President Trump every night.

“We will see what he does,” she said, “but it would be a shame if he drops a bomb on all this. This job isn’t great, but the Americans are good tippers and that is how I feed my kids and buy them shoes.”

“Where there is no vision,” as it says in Proverbs, “the people perish.”

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White House Decision-Making: Policy and Politics

June 2, 2017

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Policy debates should be decided on the merits.

But U.S. policy toward Cuba has long been held hostage by politics. We may soon see that grasp loosen. In the critical weeks before the administration’s new Cuba policy is finalized, we are seeing the political winds in favor of normalization picking up as the White House’s policy review has reached a stalemate.

Engagement Matters

During the early stages of the White House Cuba policy review, federal agencies assessed that policies of engagement have been positive for the U.S. Over the past two years, U.S.-Cuba cooperation on issues of mutual concern, including counter-narcotics, scientific and medical research, and combatting human trafficking have been, without question, win-win.

Take this as an example: The State Department reports the U.S. Coast Guard and Cuban authorities “share tactical information related to vessels… suspected of trafficking and coordinate responses…” Though it seems unremarkable for maritime neighbors to coordinate in these ways, it is only via policies of engagement that we are able to do so.

American farmers, security experts, and a growing number of advocates for engagement in Congress are making their voices heard, as Peter Kornbluh wrote this week in The Nation. A report released this week by Engage Cuba, and co-signed by CDA, shows that reversing course on Cuba policy could have serious economic consequences for the U.S., putting more than 12,000 jobs at risk and costing the U.S. economy $6.6 billion over 4 years.

The damage of rolling back Cuba policy reforms would also extend across the Florida Straits, including to the 500,000 Cuban entrepreneurs whose businesses have flourished because of increased contacts with the U.S. As 50 Cuban entrepreneurs wrote in a letter to then-President-elect Trump last December:

“Reforms made by the U.S. government to allow for increased travel, telecom services and banking have helped substantially as we attempt to grow our businesses. An influx of American and Cuban American visitors stimulates growth for our businesses, directly and indirectly… Increased interaction and business dealings with U.S. travelers and U.S. companies has had important economic benefits, the exchanges of ideas and knowledge, and offered much hope for the future.”

It would be truly unfortunate if politics drove the White House to a policy decision that would have deleterious effects on people in the U.S. and in Cuba. What of the Cuban-developed lung cancer vaccine that holds promise for U.S. patients, currently undergoing clinical trials in the U.S.? What of the marine scientific cooperation that helps protect U.S. Gulf Coast fisheries and shores? Clearly, there are plenty of reasons to continue normalizing relations with Cuba.

Politicking

Enter politics to muddy the waters: At least one Florida politician is reported to have been back-room dealing to trade support for the president’s domestic policy agenda in exchange for imposing a host of restrictions on travel and commerce intended to strangle U.S.-Cuba ties.

But the politicking has not been decisive. The White House is undecided about Cuba policy, reports the New York Times, with many senior officials privately agreeing that the current policy of engagement has been positive. The announcement of the administration’s new policy was originally slated for May, but has now been pushed back to mid-June at earliest and may be punted further, as Reuters reports.

Congressional Momentum

The political clout of Florida lawmakers who oppose engagement may yet be considerable, but by the numbers it is diminishing. Members of Congress are increasingly aligned with the views of their constituents, farmers, and businesses. Last week, Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) reintroduced legislation to lift ban on travel to Cuba with a total of 55 bipartisan senators as original cosponsors. Bipartisan bills to lift the embargo entirely are pending before both chambers.

There are even budding signs of a sea change from South Florida lawmakers, a group that has historically been unwilling to entertain any type of compromise on Cuba policy. This week Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL-26) expressed support for a compromise on Rep. Crawford’s (AR-01) bill, which would allow private financing of U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba while levying a fee on such transactions to pay certified claims against Cuba’s government for the confiscation of properties following the Revolution.

Creative compromises like this may not satisfy everyone, but this type of dialogue brings stakeholders to the table and advances discussion about a path forward.

Policy will never be devoid of politics, but the administration’s current impasse and the growing bipartisan chorus of pro-engagement voices in Congress give us hope that the merits of normalizing relations with Cuba will be considered seriously by this White House and policy makers in years to come.

Where do your representatives in Congress stand on Cuba policy? Make your voice heard!  CDA’s advocacy work continues – Click HERE to support our work!

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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!

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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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