Washington, Cuba, and the Climate for Dysfunction

June 27, 2014

This headline – “Cuba plans to drill near Keys again in 2015” – helped us clarify the news this week about U.S. policy toward Cuba and the dysfunction that surrounds it.

As David Goodhue, reporting for the Florida Keys Keynoter, explained, Cuba will resume exploratory drilling off the Florida Keys next year.  But, the waters and beaches off Florida are still not protected against oil pollution were a spill to happen as a result.

Although Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the United States and Cuba signed The Wider Caribbean Region Multilateral Technical Operating Procedures for Offshore Oil Pollution Response earlier this year (essentially a work plan for cooperation if an oil spill exceeds the boundaries of one nation and puts the territorial waters of others at risk), an effective emergency response is far from assured. The embargo remains a barrier to deploying U.S. technology and expertise as part of a timely effort to protect the oceans, fishing stocks, and tourist resources that contribute to Florida’s economy and well-being.

Floridians should already be worried. Many probably read about the report called “Risky Business” released this week that describes how much the Sunshine State is threatened by global warming and rising oceans.  It said, in part, “There is a 1-in-20 chance that more than $346 billion worth of current Florida property will be underwater by the end of the century.”  We know that Florida is already feeling the effects of rising sea waters and the dangers of an inadequate government response.

What is at stake – with oil spills and global warming – is more than just billions in property damage.  We need to protect the oceans because they are sources of food, employment, tourism, recreation, and more. They absorb carbon, which in turn helps dampen warming, and they foster biodiversity, which means they help sustain life.

This is why Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the “Our Ocean” Conference at the State Department this month, and why it was so sensible that Dr. Fabián Pina Amargós, director of Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research was invited to attend, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), among others, thought he should.  We do, after all, share an ecosystem and an ocean with Cuba.

Kerry’s conference produced an action plan (details here) whose recommendations are aligned with the agenda for bilateral cooperation that EDF and environmental leaders like Senator Whitehouse want the United States to pursue.  They want Cuba and the U.S. to collaborate and stop overfishing in shared waters, strengthen policies that facilitate two-way scientific research, develop a plan for an international network of protected marine areas, and strengthen cooperation on oil spill prevention and response.

Much of this could be accomplished by executive action, which the White House could put in motion, especially if the U.S. Congress didn’t get in the way.  Good luck with that.

While the Congress did legislate on Cuba policy this week, it was hardly a vote of confidence in engagement with Cuba (or good government for that matter).  The State Department budget written by House Appropriations directs the Secretary of State to cut down on issuing visas for Cuban officials.  It also tells the Department to spend more money on the democracy promotion work in Cuba that resulted in the conviction of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

The bill to fund the Treasury Department budget blocks licenses for non-academic educational exchanges and orders Treasury to produce a report in 90 days analyzing trips it has licensed trip to Cuba since 2007 with data specifying the number of travelers, amount of money spent, and more.

The two champions of this bill, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (FL-4) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), were clearly fighting the Cold War, not protecting their Florida constituents or the state’s marine environment and coastline, when they shepherded the legislation to passage.

They are among the shrinking number of Floridians who believe that if you give the embargo enough time to work, someday it will.  We don’t believe that.  Neither do majorities in their state, nor do the majority of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County.

What happens on Cuba defines how the U.S. Capitol is captured by dysfunction.

While Members of Congress prop up the embargo because they want Cuba to fail, Cubans are seizing opportunities created by their country’s economic reforms to try and build more successful lives. While House Members try to stop the State Department from issuing visas, our scientists are trying to increase contacts with their Cuban counterparts to calm and protect the troubled waters between our countries.  While Cuba is poised to drill again in waters close to the Florida Keys, Members of Congress write bills to leave its coast defenseless.

When you think about how useless the embargo has been since it was first imposed by the Kennedy Administration in the 1960s, it was almost funny to read how Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen scolded the Administration for sticking with its “ineffective” Libya policy for three years.

But, for her constituents and their beach front property?  Not so much.

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Obama’s climate change plan and the sound of two, wet hands clapping

June 28, 2013

Goodbye, Miami?

Last week, Rolling Stone published a stunning report about the bleak future facing Miami because of climate change:

“[T]he unavoidable truth is that… rising waters will destroy Miami slowly, by seeping into wiring, roads, building foundations and drinking-water supplies – and quickly, by increasing the destructive power of hurricanes. ‘Miami, as we know it today, is doomed,’ says Harold Wanless, the chairman of the department of geological sciences at the University of Miami. ‘It’s not a question of if. It’s a question of when.’”

This dire warning wasn’t news to the scientists, federal agencies, local governments and academic institutions in South Florida, which have been alert to this crisis for some time.

Earlier this year, U.S. government scientists singled out Florida, Louisiana, and North Carolina, each with at least a thousand square kilometers of dry land less than 1 meter above high tide, as uniquely vulnerable to rising seas. In Dade County, land valued at $70 billion is at risk due to accelerated sea-level rise.  The Everglades and Florida Keys, top tourist attractions, are threatened, and one study projects that Florida will lose $9 billion in tourism revenue by 2025 and $40 billion by 2050.

While the Miami Herald reported last year that “South Florida took the threat seriously before most everybody else,” the magnitudes of the climate threat and the costs associated with mitigation, adaptation, and resiliency make the risks “seem only bigger, scarier and no longer quite so far down the road.”

Not so far away across the Florida Straits, Cubans are subject to the same weather and similar anxieties.  According to the Associated Press, Cuban scientists are now projecting that 122 Cuban towns could be seriously damaged or ‘wiped off the map’ by rising tides which, in turn, would taint supplies of fresh water, brutalize croplands, drive families from their homes, and endanger “a $2.5 billion-a-year tourism industry that is its No. 1 source of foreign income.”

The U.S. and Cuba live in the same neighborhood and share the same climate and ecosystems.  However distant Havana and Miami are politically, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why it is in both our nations’ interests to increase cooperation on scientific activities and take steps to ultimately solve the problem of climate change.

Here, there are reasons for hope.

First, Cuba can be a real partner. As scholars from UC Berkeley and the University of Matanzas reported last year, while “Cuba represents 2 percent of the Latin American population…it has 11 percent of the scientists in the region.”  Compared to many developed and developing nations, Cuba has robust resources for research, and a real track record of focusing on core dimensions of the climate change problem.

Second, while Cuba’s environmental record  is hardly spotless, it has long taken decisions to protect its natural resources, to save food and water supplies or revenue from tourism.  Scientific American offers this summary of Cuba’s work to create a sustainable shark fishery.  Here, the Environmental Defense Fund discusses a joint project with Cuba’s government that led to the creation of the largest marine reserve in the Caribbean.

Third, the U.S. government has acted quietly but affirmatively to encourage scientific and environmental exchanges with Cuba for a number of years.  In one example, the U.S., Cuba, Mexico, and the Bahamas held talks in March on oil spill prevention and response and have all but finalized a “protocol” for cooperation.

Fourth, in the climate change action plan he unveiled this week, President Obama signaled a commitment to working with willing global partners in a way that bypasses Congress:

“I’m directing my administration to launch negotiations toward global free trade in environmental goods and services, including clean energy technology, to help more countries skip past the dirty phase of development and join a global low-carbon economy.”

This declaration could form the basis for executive actions to remove barriers and resource constraints that stop scientists on both sides of the Florida Straits from doing more.

As Melissa Gaskill writing in Scientific American explains:

University of Havana researchers can’t just hop over to Cabañas whenever they need to—few have cars and fuel can be hard to come by. Also, scientists in the U.S. and Cuba find it challenging to communicate, as e-mail can be slow and sporadic. An American scientist may suggest a Web site resource to a colleague in Cuba only to discover Cubans can’t access it. Travel restrictions imposed by both governments create delays, a forced flexibility familiar to Cubans. The U.S. government restricts U.S. scientists from training their Cuban counterparts but allows mutually beneficial exchanges of information, turning the normal process of collaboration into something more complex.

Experts like Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund know how problems like this are solved. “Environmental protection doesn’t happen by accident. It requires good science, careful planning, and strong political will. In the case the U.S. and Cuba, it starts with exchange, dialogue, and cooperation.”

Earlier this year, a dozen environmental, scientific, and research organizations called on President Obama to ease restrictions on licenses required for travel to Cuba for environmental purposes, licenses for research equipment, and licenses that would enable donors to fund environmental projects and programs in Cuba that would otherwise limp along or not get done.

Having spoken so forcefully on climate change, the president can answer their call for action, and the people of Miami will applaud him for doing so.

After all, he’d just be carrying their water.

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Feliz Día del Padre

June 14, 2013

As we begin Father’s Day weekend, it seemed right to open with a brief note about family, connection, and inclusion.

During the presidency of George W. Bush, the financial and emotional support provided by members of the Cuban diaspora to their families on the island got caught in the twist of the tourniquet of U.S. sanctions.

Family visits to the island were limited to one trip every three years under a specific license, as the Congressional Research Service explained, to visit only immediate family members.   The ability to send remittances – transfers of money to kin in Cuba – was severely restricted, as was the amount of cash (from $3,000 to $300) that the limited numbers of authorized travelers could bring.  Ironically, these policy changes were driven, in part, by hardliners in the diaspora, but the sting could be felt in homes on both sides of the straits.

During the first year of his presidency, Barack Obama used his executive authority to permit unlimited family travel and remittances.  This action not only alleviated the suffering imposed on families divided by the Bush-era travel policy, but it also coincided with the process led in Cuba by President Raúl Castro to liberalize economic and social restrictions on the Cuban people.

According to a new report, Remittances Drive the Cuban Economy, issued by the Havana Consulting Group, cash remittances, from the U.S. and other nations, estimated at $2.6 billion in 2012, now compromise Cuba’s largest individual source of hard currency.  They exceed revenues derived from tourism and exports of nickel, pharmaceuticals, and sugar.

Beyond the simple and important role of helping families make ends meet, this report is not alone (see here and here) in finding that cash to Cuba from the diaspora is helping to drive the creation and expansion of entrepreneurial activity in Cuba that is enabling Cuban citizens to leave state jobs and seek their futures in Cuba’s changing economy.

For critics who carp that nothing changes in Cuba – their odd defense for keeping U.S. sanctions in place exactly as they have been for fifty plus years – the remittance report is a reminder that President Castro has engineered significant changes, that Cubans are responding, and families in the U.S. are contributing importantly to a transition that is making their family members and other Cubans more independent and ideally more prosperous.

While we believe strongly that President Obama should move further and faster on loosening the U.S. embargo of Cuba, his policy decisions in 2009 to provide unlimited family travel and remittances and create larger openings for travel and remittances in 2011 have become important drivers of economic reform and individual empowerment in Cuba, and capitalized on the family and financial strengths of the community of Cuban descent that resides in Florida and across the United States.

One last thing:  the Cuban American community, for political reasons, of course, has historically faced a different and less restrictive set of immigration rules than migrants seeking to come to the U.S. of any other nationality.

The Miami Herald noted this week that Miami-Dade county is, in their words, “a Spanish-speaking bastion where many immigrants legal and illegal can get by for years without having to speak English.”

In that bastion, they treasure family – not more and certainly not less – just like every other community that has come here from overseas.  Many of them are watching with concern as the debate on immigration takes place in Washington especially now as a new proposal is offered in the U.S. Senate to “require that undocumented immigrants be able to read, write and speak English before earning a green card.”  This amendment, paradoxically, is being written by their Senator, Marco Rubio.

We’re not experts in the field of immigration.  But, the fear being expressed by reform advocates is that adoption of this provision could scuttle chances for passing a bill or make the policy much less welcoming and generous than the authors of reform wanted and intended.

We can only hope that the wisdom behind the travel and remittance policies grounded in the values of family, connection and inclusion is brought to bear on the larger, historic immigration debate as well.

To the families reading the Cuba Central News Blast this holiday weekend, we close by saying Feliz Día del Padre, or Happy Father’s Day.

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Demonizing Travel: the Beyoncé and Jay-Z Anniversary Edition

April 12, 2013

The reaction, more precisely, the overreaction was brutal.

Just for visiting Cuba, Beyoncé and Jay-Z were serially accused of violating the law, taking a vacation, enriching a dictatorship, even ignoring or subsidizing racism.

Vicious words, and a familiar tactic.  Slagging celebrities has long been part of the larger effort to demonize virtually anyone for visiting Cuba; because, as opponents of better relations with Cuba understand better than most, there is no greater threat to the U.S. policy of isolating Cuba than giving more Americans the undisturbed right to see the island and its people for themselves.

We have seen dramas like this before. The NY Times examined the Beyoncé and Jay-Z controversy and called it “predictable.”  But, as we watched this story, we think it concluded with a happy ending.

Yes, in the future, less celebrated visitors to Cuba are still likely to be vilified; but, this tactic of demonizing travelers to stop Americans from going to Cuba may have finally run its course.

Here’s what happened.

Scene 1:  Express outrage and call for an investigation

As soon as the news broke, travel opponents found the chance to express indignation ahead of the facts too rich to pass up.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz said, “I’m absolutely uncomfortable with the way, and concerned about, not just Jay-Z and Beyoncé but some of the travel, the ‘people to people’ travel, that has been occurring in Cuba.”

Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Díaz-Balart quickly sent a letter to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the Treasury Department agency that regulates travel to Cuba, in which they concluded the trip was illegal tourism but called on the government to investigate nonetheless.

Critics probably should have kept their powder dry, as Professor Ted Henken had the good sense to suggest, “J+Z’s” harshest critics ought to check out what they did in “#Cuba b4 sounding off.”

Scene 2:  Uh oh, the trip was legal.

Treasury complied with the request, and the investigation commenced.  But, it quickly became apparent, as Talking Points Memo and others reported the outrage was at odds with the facts.

Just days after receiving their letter, U.S. Treasury’s Assistant Secretary of Legislative Affairs Alastair M. Fitzpayne, wrote Reps. Díaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen, and said:

“It is our understanding that the travelers in question traveled to Cuba pursuant to an educational exchange trip organized by a group authorized by OFAC to sponsor and organize programs to promote people-to-people contact in Cuba.”

Scene 3: Blame the investigators

Even before the entertainers were “absolved by Treasury,” Senator Marco Rubio worried that if the couple hadn’t violated the rules, then the rules were being misunderstood or mal-administered.

“If,” he said, the trip was fully licensed, “the Obama Administration should explain exactly how trips like these comply with U.S. law and regulations governing travel to Cuba and it should disclose how many more of these trips they have licensed.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen agreed:  If the tourist activities undertaken by Beyoncé and Jay-Z in Cuba are classified as an educational exchange trip, then it is clear that the Obama administration is not serious about denying the Castro regime an economic lifeline that US tourism will extend to it.”

Scene 4: Just Keep Throwing Punches

Why didn’t the Treasury letter put this issue to rest?  Why are reporters and commentators still talking about it?  Celebrities + Attacks = News.

If you say Jay-Z and Beyoncé just went to Cuba for a good time; if you liken travel to Cuba to visiting a zoo, or taking a tropical vacation, or if you call Senators “snowbirds” seeking warmer climes, even when they’re in Cuba trying to free Alan Gross, you’re going to make news.

Further, if you make the baseless charge that Rep. Kathy Castor, who supports removing the embargo, is acting like a foreign agent for the Castro brothers rather than pursuing the U.S. national interest, that’s fair game.

If you start listing places that Beyoncé and Jay-Z should have visited, like Senator Rubio did, it’s unlikely that anyone will remind him that he’s never been there himself.

Denigrating travelers makes good copy; demonizing travel costs the critics nothing.

The Surprise Ending:  An Old Tactic May Be Running Its Course

This is changing.  We may have reached the day our friend Stephen Rivers dreamed of – when cultural figures who visit Cuba open political space in our country to reexamine its policy of punishing the Castros by denying Americans their constitutional rights to visit the island.

The scholar, Arturo López-Levy calls it the ‘Beyoncé Effect,’ the chance to “take a fresh look at the U.S. policy toward Cuba with the candidness of an adolescent. It is difficult to defend a policy that stomps on the same rights it preaches.”

Senator Jeff Flake agreed, commenting on Twitter:  “So, @Beyoncé and Jay-Z @S_C_ are in Cuba? Fine by me. Every American should have the right to travel there.”

Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, is feeling it.  He told the Atlantic, “The awareness level has been raised [and] the future for people-to-people travel has never been brighter.”

By triggering the debate, their trip performed a real service.  We were reminded that what Beyoncé and Jay-Z did is legal; that celebrated leaders of Cuba’s civil society and many others want U.S. restrictions on travel to end; and that engaging with Cuba and focusing on problems that matter – like the threat of a scary hurricane season – is more important than slagging celebrities.

This tactic truly is storm and fury signifying nothing.

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