The Roar of the Lion, and the Sound of a Whisper

September 12, 2014

Dear Friends:

When President Obama described our role in assembling the coalition the United States will lead into war, he called it “America at its best.”

But, when a State Department spokesperson took a question about U.S. cooperation with Cuba on an issue of “security and safety,” she reacted like a character in Harry Potter reluctant to say Voldemort, because “We do not speak his name.”

The backstory, reported below in greater detail, involves a private plane flying from upstate New York to Naples, Florida that lost contact with air traffic controllers. As it headed off its flight plan, two F-15 fighter jets were sent to investigate “an unresponsive aircraft [then] flying over the Atlantic Ocean.” Three persons were unresponsive and presumed dead before the plane crashed into the seas off Jamaica, after flying through Cuba’s airspace.

It should have come as no surprise that U.S. authorities were in contact with their Bahamian and Cuban counterparts. “Obviously,” Marie Harf said at the State Department podium, “this is an issue of security and safety, and so we were in touch as well.”

Nor was it a secret. The FAA had already gone on record with a policy statement, “FAA International Strategies 2010-2014, Western Hemisphere Region,” outlining its objectives relating to Cuba:

  • Work closely with the Department of Transportation (DOT), Department of State (DOS) and other U.S. Government agencies to support the Administration’s Cuba initiatives and policies as well as FAA mission critical operations.
  • Negotiate for the sharing of radar data with key partners adjacent to U.S. delegated airspace: Bahamas, Canada, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Haiti, Mexico, Saint Maarten.
  • Continue to work with the DOS to facilitate safety-critical operational meetings between the FAA and Cuban air traffic officials on a regular basis.

Yet, the terse answers to questions about the plane incident, and if it could be a model for future cooperation, sounded like the State Department was protecting state secrets. Read the full transcript of the briefing here and judge for yourselves.

For example, when Ms. Harf was asked about the flight incident, she offered a sparse 68-word recitation of the facts, before quickly referring reporters to NORAD and the FAA. After saying, “We have been in touch” with Cuba and the Bahamas, she replied, “I don’t have more details on those conversations,” and never mentioned the FAA’s strategy, publicly released in 2010.

As the reporter pressed further on whether the kind of cooperation that took place on the flight could expand to other “issues of national interest, like … security in the region,” she responded with boilerplate about talks on postal service and migration, but concluded, “I don’t have more for you on that issue than that.”

Apparently, there’s a fine line between putting together a Middle East coalition, an occasion to trumpet national pride, and an example of healthy cooperation with Cuba, which got little more than a meek mention at State.

It’s hard not to notice the contrast. CBS News labeled nations in the coalition as “frenemies” of the United States. As the State Department reported this year, citizens living in at least one of those nations, “lack the right and legal means to change their government; [face] pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers.”

While the Administration has engaged with Cuba effectively, on a limited basis and in discrete areas like migration, environment, drug interdiction, and law enforcement, the White House and State Department prefer to keep these activities hidden below-the-radar, as if Parental Discretion was advised in their dealings with the American people.

The U.S. can and should do more. As we said in “9 Ways for US to Talk to Cuba and for Cuba to Talk to US,” it would be in the U.S. national interest to work with Cuba openly and closely on counterterrorism, military affairs, greater exchanges among scientists and artists and the like, while also developing what the countries have lacked for so long: a language for their diplomacy based on engagement instead of preconditions.

Doing this would reflect the values of Cubans and Americans alike. Such public diplomacy would also strengthen those in Cuba who take risks by supporting reform at home and engagement with the U.S. abroad.

Yes, this will be opposed by Members of the U.S. Congress who conflate engagement with appeasement. But, whispering about working with Cuba has never gotten them to stand down, and it never will.

So we say, stop whispering; engage more, unabashedly. If the Administration used its remaining time to make a more forceful commitment to diplomacy with Cuba, that would give all of us something to shout about.

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The Engagement Party

June 20, 2014

These days, the President can’t shake hands with an adversary – much less negotiate freedom for an American prisoner – without being stung by fifties-era fighting words like appeasement.

This week, however, there was more evidence that the President has greater political space to negotiate with Cuba than he might have otherwise thought.

Florida International University, which has tracked opinion in the politically conservative enclave of South Florida since 1991, has just released its 2014 poll testing how Cuban Americans view U.S. policies toward Cuba.

According to FIU’s 2014 surveymajorities of Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargoending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – at the highest levels it has ever recorded.

FIU found support for diplomatic recognition among all respondents at 68%; among younger respondents at 90%; among all registered voters at 55%; and among non-registered voters at 83%.  Since the major thrust of U.S. policy has always been to isolate Cuba and stifle contact between our two governments, finding outsized support levels among Cuban Americans for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is a really big deal.

We believe, and believe strongly, in the U.S. using diplomacy to end our self-imposed isolation and recognize Cuba.  But even short of normalization, we advocate engagement to help us jointly solve the problems we and Cuba have in common.

During most of the 41 trips to Cuba we’ve hosted, Cuban officials, academics, and others have identified issues – such as law enforcement, terrorism, drug trafficking, and much else – where both countries would benefit by increasing or starting bilateral cooperation.

Our 21st Century Cuba publications zero in on subjects – such as protecting Florida from oil spills, and working with Cuban women as they seek greater economic benefits and autonomy in Cuba’s new era of reform – where the U.S. could collaborate, help Cubans and serve our national interest, if only U.S. policy and sanctions didn’t hold us back.

Last night, as we celebrated our 8th anniversary, CDA honored three allies whose work exemplifies engagement: Wynn Segall, the eminent sanctions lawyer, who has secured the research and people-to-people travel licenses that enable us to visit Cuba; Mario Bronfman of the Ford Foundation, who supported our 21st Century Cuba research program; and Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator, who has joined her leadership on climate change to the cause of engagement with Cuba.

Their actions, to dismantle barriers to collaboration and move relations with Cuba in a more positive direction, are the model for making progress on U.S. policy.  With the FIU survey showing clear and increasing support in South Florida for dealing directly with Cuba, there is no political excuse left to hold the Administration back.

However, due to developments in the case of Alan Gross, there is even greater urgency for them to embrace engagement now.  Mr. Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 for regime change activities our government knew to be in violation of Cuban law.  He is in a hospital prison in Havana serving a 15-year sentence.

Since his arrest, our government has primarily called on Cuba to release him unilaterally, and dismissed Cuba’s offers to negotiate a solution that would bring him home.  This strategy has produced nothing.

Dismayed by our government’s disengagement, Alan Gross said in an appeal for help to the White House last fall: “With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government — the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare — has abandoned me.”

Having failed to stir action, Mr. Gross went on a hunger strike in April and later threatened to take his life if he found himself in prison by his next birthday.  On Wednesday, we received word that his mother died from cancer, and learned last night that his brother-in-law also passed away this week.

In a statement issued following Gross’s mother’s death, Cuba reiterated its willingness to negotiate, and clearly linked the humanitarian concerns of Alan’s case to the three members of the Cuban Five still in prison here.

Resolving the Gross case is a prerequisite for moving forward on normalizing relations with Cuba, a virtue by itself.  But, fruitful negotiations with Cuba could also restore faith here in presidential leadership and a core purpose of diplomacy: negotiating with our adversaries to get things done.

Consider the case of Colombia.  This week, Juan Manuel Santos won reelection as Colombia’s president after beating Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a runoff campaign.

Santos put his hold on power at risk and placed his faith in diplomatic negotiations with the FARC to end the civil war that has bloodied his country since 1964. Zuluaga, by contrast, as the Wall Street Journal reports, accused Santos of selling out Colombia at the bargaining table.

Rejecting allegations of appeasement, Santos said, “What is important, as Nelson Mandela said, is what is negotiated at the table.”  Apparently, a majority of Colombians agreed.

What a good reminder to President Obama who, just six months ago, shook hands with Raúl Castro at Mandela’s memorial.

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Gates, Walls and Doors

January 10, 2014

Not long after President Obama returned to The White House from his holiday vacation, he was greeted by headlines in the national press about attacks on his leadership by his former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

In leaks from his forthcoming memoir, “Duty,” Mr. Gates writes of Obama’s skepticism toward his own policy on Afghanistan.  “For him,” he writes, “it’s all about getting out.”

While Bob Woodward, like others in the ranks of Washington pundits, reported this as a “harsh judgment” against the President’s leadership on national security, Ron Fournier, writing in the National Journal, took a more sympathetic view.

Where Gates attacks the President for complaining about a policy he inherited and for doubting his own commanders, Fournier writes:  “We need more of that.”

According to Fournier, the President was reflecting the desires of the public to exit two unpopular wars, and demonstrating the kind of skepticism, curiosity, and reflection that is the president’s job.  In other words, President Obama was leading by following the better angels of his nature to where they might lead him.

Before his election in 2008, President Obama said, “It is time for us to end the embargo against Cuba.”  He justified his position by saying the policy had not helped Cubans enjoy rising living standards; instead, it squeezed innocents and didn’t improve human rights.  “It’s time for us to acknowledge” he said, “that particular policy had failed.”

While then-Senator Obama adhered to the traditional goals of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, he also acknowledged the simple reality that the embargo failed to achieve them.

We don’t expect President Obama to seek repeal of the embargo anytime soon, but we do believe that 2014 could be a year of greater openings toward Cuba, even if it means the President has to be the same kind of leader that made Robert Gates so angry.

After all, he has done it before.  In reopening Cuba to travel by Americans of Cuban descent, restoring categories of people-to-people travel, and negotiating with the Cuban government on issues such as migration and postal service, we saw the President set aside the views of his opponents, and even members of his own party, like Senator Bob Menendez, to put forward important and effective policy reforms that reflect his principles, his pragmatism, and the views of the American public writ large.

Going forward, there is much that President Obama can do using his executive authority.

Like many of our allies, The Center for Democracy in the Americas supports making all forms of people-to-people travel possible using a general license.

We strongly support direct negotiations with Cuba’s government to produce an action plan on the environment –so essential as Cuba looks to resume oil drilling in 2015– and ending the bar on Cuba’s participation in next year’s Summit of the Americas, which would give the United States a greater opening in Latin America more broadly. In addition, our research on gender equality in Cuba has led us to support policies to help Cuban women weather the transition in the island’s economy and provide real support for Cubans who choose to open small businesses.

In his epic song, Muros y Puertas, our friend Carlos Varela writes, “Since the world began, one thing has been certain, some people build walls, while others open doors.”

In 2014, we hope the President’s policy continues to reflect just this spirit of openness.  It is better to open doors  than build walls, or even Gates, for that matter.

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If you shut your eyes tightly, nothing is changing in Cuba or here (so open them).

September 20, 2013

A controlling premise of U.S. policy is that Cuba must change – by which its Cold War-era authors meant giving up every feature of its governing and economic systems – before our country will even contemplate normalizing relations with Cuba.

So far, this approach doesn’t seem to be working.  But, hey, as the current crop of Cold Warriors seem to think: ‘just give it time.  We’ve only been at it for six decades.’

As written, these policies make it extremely difficult for U.S. residents to visit Cuba legally, nearly impossible to engage with Cuba economically, and pose enormous obstacles for our government in dealing with Cuba’s government diplomatically.

Consequently, they have a vested interest in persuading anyone (U.S. policymakers) and everyone (the rest of us) that Cuba is the same country in 2013 as it was more than fifty years ago when sanctions were first slapped on.

But the notion that Cuba hasn’t changed and isn’t changing is the hardliner’s illusion, not ours.  Nearly every day, changes are taking place on the island and even here – in Miami and Washington – where people are seeing this issue differently and behaving differently, too.

Just take a look at what we’re reporting this week:

Cuban Music Icon Rodríguez Challenges State Censorship

HAVANA — The best known musician in Cuba and a staunch supporter of the island’s communist revolution, Silvio Rodríguez, has challenged state censorship by inviting a recently sanctioned colleague to join him at two concerts this weekend on the Caribbean island.

Cuba’s Bishops Call for Political Freedom and New Relations With U.S.

HAVANA –The Roman Catholic Church in Cuba has issued a rare pastoral letter calling for political reform in tandem with social and economic changes already underway. Additionally, the letter praised the recent reforms of President Raúl Castro and called on the U.S. to end decades-old economic embargo on the island.

NPR affiliate apologizes and re-invites Cuba book author

MIAMI — The Miami affiliate of National Public Radio has apologized for canceling an interview with the author of a book that criticizes the Miami trial of five Cuban spies, and has re-invited him to appear on a news show.

U.S. and Cuba talk about resuming direct mail service

HAVANA – The United States and Cuba concluded on Monday their second round of talks aimed at re-establishing direct mail service between the two countries after a 50-year ban, but left for later the most sensitive issue – Cuban planes landing on U.S. soil.

These are just the headlines from this week.  Regular readers will remember what we have reported in the past: when Cuba’s government legalized cell phones, dropped prohibitions on Cubans selling their cars and homes, stopped denying Cubans entry into hotels, opened up jobs for Cubans in the private sector to earn their own living away from the state payroll, legalized travel for so that most Cubans can leave and return to Cuba, sold off some state-owned businesses, freed political prisoners, shuttered the Ministry of Sugar, and opened media channels to complaints by citizens about government inefficiency and corruption in the health sector, and the list goes on.

These are real changes and it’s very hard to connect any of them to trade sanctions, travel restrictions, Radio or TV Martí, or the “democracy promotion” (regime change) programs responsible for the arrest and lengthy prison sentence being served by Alan Gross, as much as the Cold Warriors might try.

This is not to say that everything is perfect, or that Cuba has become the multiparty democracy as specified under The Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 or the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act of 1996.

What it does mean, however, is that when you hear their mantra “nothing has changed,” the Cold Warriors who repeat it are only admitting what the rest of us know – their policy has never worked and that time has passed them by.

Now that you’ve opened your eyes and read the headlines, we invite you to read the news.

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A Summer Reflection on the Right to Travel (in both directions)

August 16, 2013

When you last read the Cuba Central News Blast, our team headed out on vacation even as we awaited word about the intrepid Ben Friberg, trying to become the first paddle boarder to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba’s Port Hemingway to Key West, Florida.

With our vacation behind us, and summer’s end just before us, we were reminded how much we love travel and how the cause of restoring the rights of all Americans to travel freely to Cuba motivated us to create this news summary in the first place.

Ten years ago, travel rights hung in tatters. After President Clinton encouraged family travel, permitted all U.S. residents to send remittances, allowed more direct flights to Cuba, and opened broad categories of people-to-people travel, President George W. Bush totally reversed course.

His administration wanted to design a new, Made in America future for the Cuban people. He ended people-to-people travel.  He tightened limits on family travel and humanitarian assistance by executive action.  He convened a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which wanted to cut off travel in the belief they could bring the Cuban system to its knees by curtailing the flow of most tourist revenue to its government.

The Bush administration’s coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs calculated that travel restrictions cost the Cuban economy $375 million annually, and said in a speech in Miami: “To my way of thinking, these measures are already having their effect, and we are seeing it now in Cuba.  Will it move us toward that which we want, a democratic transition?  We don’t know…”

Well, we know: the policy didn’t produce changes in Cuba, but it kept blinders on the Americans who wanted to visit the island, so they couldn’t compare what U.S. government policy said about Cuba to the Cuban reality itself.  As Aldous Huxley famously said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  U.S. policy allowed for no such discoveries, which is why the pro-sanctions crowd really finds travel restrictions so useful.

But, they never could shut off the tourists from every other nation who could visit Cuba without asking their government’s permission to go.  Any void created by the absence of U.S. visitors continues to be filled by tourists from the region and the rest of the world, more than a million and a half of whom visited Cuba in just the first six months of 2013.

To his credit, President Obama has taken steps to restore unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, reopen people-to-people travel, allow more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market, and renew opportunities for sending remittances to qualified Cubans for all U.S. residents.

We still haven’t reached the goal – freedom to travel for Americans – and the restrictions on U.S. travelers to Cuba remain tight.  The Associated Press bureau in Havana said it well earlier this summer:

“While millions of tourists visit Cuba each year from Canada, Europe and elsewhere, Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo still outlaws most American travel to the island. However, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are now visiting legally each year on cultural exchange trips. These so-called people-to-people tours are rigidly scheduled to comply with embargo rules...”

That said, when American travelers in increasing numbers can see Cuba’s architecture and cultural origins, reach out to its Jewish and gay communities, and experience its environmental diversity, on trips licensed by the U.S. Treasury; and when U.S. policy goes further, and loosens restrictions on the ability of Cubans to visit our country, thanks to epic staff work at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as reported by Fox News, these are all steps in the right direction.

A year ago, the State Department told Congress that the president’s new travel policies were achieving its goals:  As Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “The administration’s travel, remittance and people-to-people policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information, taking advantage of emerging opportunities for self-employment and private property, and strengthening independent civil society.”

The administration should do more.  Members of Congress are urging President Obama to expand people-to-people travel by making it permissible under a general license, and now is certainly the right time for him to act. The summer travel season may be ending here, but the need to secure two-way travel rights for all Cubans and all U.S. residents goes on.

One other thing:  Ben Friberg will go down in history as the first paddle boarder to cross from Cuba’ to the U.S., Caribbean 360 reports. He made the 28-hour, 111-mile journey: “to promote peace and understanding between Cuba and the US and to promote a healthy lifestyle.”  In doing so, he also became a symbol for the right to travel.

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A Mother’s Day Message for President Obama and Vice President Biden

May 10, 2013

Earlier this week, Vice President Biden said Cuba had made some “small encouraging signs of change,” but that the administration still wants to see “real change.”

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make headlines.  It’s a little sad but it’s not news that their two-year-old message about Cuba, “your change isn’t big enough,” still permeates the administration’s talking points.

They must have decided, if it worked for President Obama in September 2011, “We have not seen evidence they have been sufficiently aggressive in changing their policies economically,” to just keep repeating the message, even if the point they are making really isn’t so.

You might ask, what does any of this have to do with Mother’s Day?  We were just getting around to that.

To its credit, the administration has spent part of the last four years advocating for women to be equal partners in more just, prosperous, and more effectively governed societies.  It was just last week when Treasury Secretary Lew said:  “The facts are clear: empowering women is not only a question of equity, it is simply smart economics.”

The State Department has been all in, too.  They tweet about women.  They herald investment in women-owned enterprises as “one of the best ways to achieve economic, financial, and social impact.”  They have created a partnership program to expand women’s political and economic participation.

But Cuban entrepreneurs or “cuentapropistas” – and especially female small business owners – are rarely offered a seat at any of these tables.  That’s not a big surprise either – if they are not willing to admit that economic reform is happening at scale in Cuba, where the biggest changes in its economic model are taking place since 1959 – it wouldn’t occur to them to reserve a seat for a Cuban.

That’s a shame.  Paradoxically, what is happening in Cuba – with men and women leaving the state payroll for jobs in the non-state sector –happens to be consistent with the oft-stated desire by the U.S. for greater independence of the Cuban people.  It’s easy for us to talk about.  But, they are the ones who are taking great risks, taking on new and unfamiliar responsibilities, and making a leap at a disruptive time in Cuba’s changing economy.

A lot of these businesses fail, as do small businesses here in the U.S.  But, when they succeed, as an entrepreneur named Barbara told us in our report about the future of gender equality in Cuba, Women’s Work, exciting things can happen:

“My life has improved over the last several years with the possibility of working as a cuentapropista….More than anything, the benefit of being a cuentapropista is the ability to manage your own decisions. I can decide how to invest, what hours to work, whether I want to offer specials and other decisions regarding how to manage the business. In other words, I’m my own boss and I suffer the consequences, but also reap the benefits of my decisions. Moreover, economically, there are few, if any, jobs in the state sector that can compare with cuentapropismo when it comes to salaries. I’ve been able to save a little money, invest in fixing up my house, buy my daughter what she needs and put food on the table. In the end, I’m a more independent woman. My husband and I help each other but we both contribute and I don’t have to rely on him.”

It would be nice, but only a start, if the President and Vice President credited Cuba’s government with making the changes it has, and then recognized that women like Barbara actually exist.

But they could go even further.  The administration should end the backlogs and delays that cause many people-to-people groups and research institutions to wait for months to hear back on renewals and new applications, so that more Americans could visit Cuba and utilize the services in the growing private sector, helping to empower individual Cubans, just like their talking points say.  If Miriam Leiva’s White House petition is any test, steps like these would be warmly welcomed in Cuba.

They could also facilitate the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba by allowing imports of products made by Cubans working in small businesses and cooperatives.  They could stop freezing financial institutions with the fear of fines for engaging in legal transactions with individuals and institutions in Cuba.  They could make projects that help women in Cuba eligible for remittances under the president’s 2011 policy.

In fact, there’s a lot of serious progress that could be made if they included Cuba, Cubans, and Cuban women in their vision of a more just world built on gender equality.

It’s a thought for Mother’s Day and we hope they think about it.

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Cuba A-Z (from Aruca to Zoo-bio)

March 15, 2013

The New York Times once described him as “a cheerful, box-shaped man with a face like a friendly bulldog.”  Like a bulldog, Francisco Aruca was resolute and courageous, friendly with strangers and, when provoked, he was a force to be reckoned with.

So, we were stricken when friends like Silvia Wilhelm, Bob Guild and Marazul Charters (which he founded), and the Miami Herald and Progreso Weekly (which he also founded), circulated the sorrowful news that he had died unexpectedly at age 72.

Aruca’s life reflected, La Jornada aptly said, “the fundamental trajectory of recent Cuban history.”  He supported the revolution.  Soon after, as the New York Times reported, “he organized student strikes against the government’s crackdown on free speech and was promptly arrested and sentenced to 30 years in jail.”  But, he wasn’t imprisoned very long.

He liked retelling the story of his escape; how his youthful appearance enabled him to convince his guards that “he was a child visiting family in prison.” He got away and spent more than a year in asylum in the Brazilian embassy, before he came to the U.S.

Studying at Georgetown University, he earned an economics degree, graduating in 1967.  He taught economics, as the Miami Herald reported, in Virginia and Puerto Rico.  Along with other Cuban-Americans in 1974, he founded a magazine, Areíto, from which he put forward the idea that the Diaspora had to talk with the Cuban government, an utterly radical idea at the time.  It was so controversial “among Cuban exiles that bomb threats forced its editors to move from Miami to New York (where it stayed until 1987).”

Aruca was among the pioneers who advocated dialogue leading to the reconciliation of the Cuban family.  He participated in those talks – including foundational ones in 1978, 1994, 1995 – because he wanted to do the hard and necessary work of building trust and clearing the obstacles that had existed since 1959.

He was among the group, later known as the Comité de 75, who negotiated with Fidel Castro for the release of 3,600 Cuban political prisoners in 1978, and also made it possible for exiles to visit Cuba.  The next year, Aruca’s Marazul Charters was founded to provide travel for tens of thousands of Cuban Americans to visit their relatives for the first time since they had left Cuba.

This was (and still is) dangerous business, in Florida and elsewhere. Marazul’s windows were “routinely smashed.”  His offices were firebombed. Carlos Muñiz, an exile and colleague of Aruca living in Puerto Rico who operated a sister travel agency was shot in the head and killed.

In 1994, after Miami residents attended the first meeting between Cuban exiles and the Cuban government in nearly fifteen years, they returned home and were besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assault, acts of violence, and economic retaliation, as Human Rights Watch reported.

Aruca himself received a fax that called him “Communist, vendepatria [homeland-seller]…and traitor,” among other names, and went on to say, “Be very careful, as I think there are many who would like to see you dead.”

Advocating the right to travel or speaking your mind about improving relations with Cuba are  incendiary acts in some Miami precincts.  As WSVN reported:  “3 Miami companies doing business with Cuba were attacked by firebombs,” in 1996, “a string of bomb attacks attributed mostly to anti-Castro radicals haunted the city in the 1970s and 1980s. The violence recently earned Miami a rank among the nation’s top 5 terrorism ‘hot spots’ by researchers studying the last 40 years of attacks on American soil.”

Not one to be intimidated, Aruca was a champion of travel and free speech.  He started a morning program Radio Progreso, which debuted  in 1991, “where he discussed Cuba-related issues from a perspective that had never been heard publicly in Miami.”

As Vivian Mannerud, a fellow agency operator, whose own business was firebombed in Coral Gables last year, remembered, “Those were times when people tuned in to Aruca’s radio programs but kept the volume real low so their neighbors would not know.  It was a difficult time. It’s called democracy.”

For Aruca, it was about democracy, but more fundamentally, about family.  As he told the Hartford Courant in 1999, “We Cubans have a very strong sense of family,” Aruca said. “If there were 300 relatives [seeing off passengers] at the airport today, there are 600 waiting in Havana tonight.”

Aruca lived to see Cuba’s government abolish nearly all travel restrictions on its people, but not long enough to see his adopted country abolish every restriction on the rights of Americans to visit Cuba.

But, according to the most recent estimates, the pioneering work he did enabled as many as 440,000 Cuban-Americans visit their families in Cuba in 2011 alone, a figure that will only grow so long as legislators like Senator Marco Rubio don’t gain enough power to roll back family travel licenses.

Shortly after Aruca’s death became known, Senator Rubio addressed a luncheon fundraiser for the Cuba-Democracy PAC where he made light of people who visit Cuba.  He said:

“These trips that are traveling to Cuba: Look, God bless them, I know they mean well. But I have people come to me all the time and tell me and say, ‘Oh, I went to Cuba. What a beautiful place, I feel so bad for the people.

“Cuba is not a zoo where you pay an admission ticket and you go in and you get to watch people living in cages to see how they are suffering,” said Rubio, adding “Cuba is not a field trip. I don’t take that stuff lightly.”

Rubio’s disdain for travel is not news, but comparing travel to Cuba – a place Rubio has never visited – to visiting a zoo seemed especially odious and over the line, even more than his earlier declarations that travelers visiting Cuba were supporting the activities of a terrorist state.

Our experiences in Cuba are altogether different from Rubio’s fact-free imaginings.  We have been embraced by Cubans of all political persuasions and life circumstances every time we have visited their country and their homes.

To fill in what he does not know about zoos, Senator Rubio could join the Congressional Zoo and Aquarium Caucus, yes it really exists, or simply visit its Facebook page.

To learn something about Cuba and U.S. policy, he could listen to his constituents, for example, the faithful who joined Archbishop Wenski who went to witness the visit of then-Pope Benedict XVI the and 400th anniversary of Cuba’s patron saint –the Virgin of Charity (la Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre) – Cuba’s patron saint.

Or, he could pay attention to Senator Patrick Leahy, who responded to Rubio’s preference for isolating Americans from Cuba by saying:

“It has been obvious to any objective observer for a very long time that isolation has not worked, and it is demeaning for a great and powerful nation like ours, for instance, to forbid U.S. citizens from traveling where they want to travel.  It is in our national interest to take a fresh look at how to effectively address our differences with the Cuban government, such as the imprisonment of Alan Gross and many other matters.”

That is the kind of engagement Francisco Aruca spent the better part of five decades fighting for.  His son, Daniel, emailed Alvaro Fernandez, editor of Progreso Weekly, with a reminder of Aruca’s words that defined his life:  “If I die tomorrow, I know I have lived a very full life and that I lasted much longer than anyone ever expected.”

Aruca, the bulldog we remember and loved, lived a full, big, courageous, and uniquely American life.

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