Freedom to Travel: a Dream Come True

May 2, 2014

This week, we are featuring a blog post from CDA’s Stephen M. Rivers Intern, Jaime Hamre. We hope you enjoy it. Jaime’s blog about her internship at CDA is available here. For more information on Stephen Rivers and the internship program we created in his name, click here.

I met Anabel while studying in Havana for two semesters in 2012. Her shaved head immediately set her apart from all of the other Cubans I had come across. As I got to know her, I found that not only is she the only Cuban vegetarian I met, she is also part of Cuba’s small community of self-proclaiming Afro-Cuban lesbians.

jaime anabel

Anabel and I in Havana

I was able to catch up with Anabel through Skype this week. It was the first time I’d seen her face in a year and a half. A couple of weeks ago, I got a message from her announcing that she was traveling to Mexico. “I’m so happy,” she wrote. “I didn’t have to marry anyone [to get a visa] and I’m going by my own means, my own work. And it’s a lesbian festival. Can you believe it???”

Making friends in Cuba was bittersweet for me. I was grateful to be welcomed into the homes and lives of so many, but I regularly felt a pang of sadness when I considered that it wasn’t likely I’d be able to return the hospitality and share my culture with my Cuban friends any time in the near future. I knew enough about the situation in Cuba — and the U.S. — to understand the political and economic barriers that a young, Afro-Cuban lesbian would face trying to travel abroad.

This changed in the middle of my second semester on the island. I remember the morning, in October 2012, when I sat down to breakfast and read the headline in Granma announcing immigration reforms. My friends, fellow students, and people on the street were abuzz with the opportunities this new freedom presented. Starting that January, Cubans would no longer be required to ask their government’s permission for an exit visa, to leave Cuba and return. I left the island wondering what this reform would mean for my Cuban friends and their families.

Today thousands of Cubans are traveling abroad every month, many leaving the island for the first time. Anabel now finds herself on a two-week trip to Mexico City. She is staying at a friend’s house with women from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Germany, and Mexico. “It’s like a crew of lesbian feminists. It’s amazing. I’m so happy. It’s like a dream come true,” she told me between bites.

“What are you eating?” I asked.

“Capitalist things!” she laughed, joyously. “I’m trying so many new fruits that I’ve never seen in my life. And there are markets here — kilometers full of people selling stuff — muy fuerte mimi.”

Anabel’s opportunity to travel to Mexico arose after her longtime friends, the members of the Cuban feminist rap group Las Krudas (who relocated to Austin, Texas) put her in touch with two Mexican friends who went to Cuba to do research on the LGBT scene. Anabel stayed in touch with them, which eventually led to a formal invitation to attend an art festival organized by Producciones y Milagros Feminist Association. Anabel got her passport, paid 25 Cuban pesos for her visa, and was on her way. She was incredulous at how easy the process was:

“For me, leaving the country was something to which very few people had access. It’s like saying you want to be the next President of the United States. It was an impossible dream, but I always wanted to, because one wants to travel, explore, and improve one’s quality of life. But it was something very, very difficult….  Before, this dream of leaving was my main objective in life, but also my main frustration.”

Before Cuba’s immigration reform, Anabel assumed that if she was able to find a way to leave the island, she would likely not return. “I’m the first person in my family to leave the country for work, and the first person to leave and come back, too,” she told me. Her aunt left to live in the U.S. in 2006. She ended up in Las Vegas, and “is having a really hard time,” Anabel told me. “No medical insurance and four kids, it’s very complicated.”

“When did you decide that if you traveled, you were going to go back?” I asked.

“It was with this trip,” she responded:

“What I was thinking before was that the first chance I had to leave the country, I was going to stay. But honestly, right now I’m not that interested in that. I don’t think that for me, staying illegally in another country is a good option. I’m a professor [in Cuba]. I have my Master’s. Now I also know that I can leave the country in a better way. I don’t want to start from zero. So that was why when I came [to Mexico], I decided I wasn’t going to stay. I want to get a PhD… and keep studying and improving my life.”

“What are you going to do when you go back to Cuba?” I asked.

“Cry!” she responded immediately. I laughed in surprise and asked why.

“Because it’s awesome here!” she exclaimed, clearly still blown away by what she’d seen so far in Mexico. “But yes, when I go back to Cuba, I have a lot of plans,” she continued. She told me about a documentary on transgender individuals that she and two LGBT activist friends from Los Angeles are going to screen in Havana in June. She is also helping to organize a queer conference during Cuba’s annual festivities surrounding the International Day Against Homophobia.

Having longed to travel for most of her life, Anabel has spent a lot of time weighing the two worlds that are Cuba and abroad. Now that she is in Mexico, she remains convinced that Cuban society has many limits, especially in terms of its LGBT movement. But she is also adverse to characteristics she has seen in Mexico and associates with the greater capitalist system: “One of the things I love most about Cuba is that the people are very extroverted and happy, and in solidarity with each other… and human. Here the people walk right by you if you’re dying in the street. Complicado.”  Now she is hopeful that she can have the best of both worlds:

“Now that I’ve left Cuba, what I’m going to do when I get back is put my energy toward traveling again. If I’m able to come and go, I think I would like it more than living completely abroad. It makes me really sad to think about having to abandon my homeland, the air, my friendships, my family. I hadn’t thought about it before. I was in Cuba, but now I’m abroad. … And things are going well for me in Havana, too. Before, it was a lot of work, but now, we are seeing more spaces for queer people and Afro-Cubans. We are creating a new discourse. I like what I’m doing. You have to leave one reality to start another. The world is really big, and I’d like to see it.”

Anabel has that opportunity now. So for us, the next big mystery is: in which country will we be seeing each other next?

 

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Wise Use of Executive Authority Could Navigate Obama off the 404 page

April 25, 2014

Thanks to ZunZuneo, President Obama has tweeted his Cuba policy into an Error 404 page.

Just this week, ZunZuneo rattled Roots of Hope, a non-profit that professed distance from government-funded “democracy promotion” programs, when the Associated Press exposed the role played by some of its leaders in the Cuban Twitter project.

It rankled Costa Rica after the AP reported that a USAID manager stationed in San Jose played a role in supervising the project, dragging a staunch U.S. ally which respects Cuba’s sovereignty into the regime change row.

And it continued to roil press relations with the State Department, where Jen Psaki, the spokesperson, was still telling reporters that USAID had not yet finished reviewing the tweets ZunZuneo sent to Cubans to determine their political content three weeks after the scandal broke.

The 2012 election should have freed the president’s hand.  But, after the President vanquished former Gov. Romney – who famously said in Florida, “If I’m fortunate enough to become the next president, it is my expectation that Fidel Castro will finally be taken off this planet” – his Cuba policy is staggering under the weight of a really dumb program that he inherited from his predecessor.

How can the president navigate back?  He should use his authority to revive his Cuba policy in ways that demonstrate his leadership and understanding of the post-Cold War world.

Take Cuba off the State Sponsors of Terror List.  President Reagan listed Cuba for political reasons, and politics is the only justification for why it remains falsely accused and heavily penalized.

Even though the Department explains the list by saying, “the Secretary of State must determine that the government of such country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” the report it issued last year read like a concise statement for Cuba’s exoneration.

It said, Cuba distanced itself from Basque terrorists.  It changed from offering safe haven to some members of the FARC to hosting peace talks between it and Colombia’s government.  The report even said, “There was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”  The sole criticism it contained — that Cuba harbors fugitives wanted in the United States — is not a condition for including any country on the terror list.

Above politics, there are a number of compelling reasons – all in the U.S. national interest – for the President to remove Cuba from the terror list, and some urgency for him to take this step now.

Reconsider the sentences of the remaining members of the Cuban Five. This week, the New York Times endorsed a decision by the U.S. Department of Justice to reinvigorate the clemency power of the executive branch with this reminder:

“Throughout American history, presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Harry Truman to Gerald Ford have used the power of executive clemency to help bring an end to war, or to promote national healing in its aftermath.”

This brings us – and ought to bring the President – to the case of the Cuban Five, “now in their fifteenth year in prison for conducting espionage operations, mostly against exile groups with violent pasts,” as Peter Kornbluh explained in the Nation last year.

Although its negotiating position has shifted over the years, it has long been clear that the Cuban government will negotiate for the release of imprisoned U.S. contractor Alan Gross so long as its “humanitarian concerns” for these prisoners are also met.

Since his arrest in 2009, the U.S. government has fecklessly called for Mr. Gross’s unconditional release, despite his conviction in a Cuban court for activities our government knew were illegal before he was sent to Cuba under a USAID regime change program.

As recently as this month, Secretary of State John Kerry, in testimony before Congress, rejected a prisoner swap because it implies Cuba’s spies and Mr. Gross were engaged in equivalent activities (a debatable notion in itself).

Worse, it is the position of hardline Members of Congress that the U.S. should not negotiate with Cuba to obtain his release because Cuba is listed as a state-sponsor of terror (see above).

While his government offers pat explanations for what it won’t do to affect his release, Mr. Gross was plain-spoken in telling his attorney darkly, “His 65th birthday, which occurs on May 2, will be the last birthday that he celebrates in Havana.”

Deputy Attorney General James Cole, explaining the administration’s commutation policy, wrote, “It is important to remember that commutations are not pardons. They are not exonerations. They are not an expression of forgiveness.” He could have been writing the script for a Presidential determination to free the Cuban spies in exchange for Alan Gross.

The President will be hard to move on this exercise of his executive authority.  But, make no mistake; an action by the President to approve commutations for the remaining Cuban Five prisoners would not just enable Mr. Gross to celebrate his 66th birthday at home, but free his administration to pursue more effectively all of his Cuba policy goals.

The big enchilada is Helms-Burton. Our final point, though it might be hard to imagine, is that the President should be honing the argument for reclaiming the authority of his office to recognize Cuba, an authority that was seemingly taken away by passage of the Helms-Burton law.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it will consider a case that bears directly on this point. It concerns a law enacted by Congress that requires the State Department to treat Jerusalem as the capital of Israel for the purposes of issuing passports.  At stake is the larger constitutional principle of whether the President has the exclusive right to recognize the sovereignty of another country.

The U.S. Court of Appeals sides with presidential power and against the Congress in a decision it issued last year.   Its decision can be read in its entirety here.  But, the conclusion by the Court is unmistakable:

“Having reviewed the Constitution’s text and structure, Supreme Court precedent and longstanding post-ratification history, we conclude that the President exclusively holds the power to determine whether to recognize a foreign sovereign.”

Should the Supreme Court affirm the appellate court ruling, its decision will loosen the grip of Congress on the core issue of Cuba policy – whether the U.S. will shift its focus from overthrowing the Castro government to letting Cubans decide their own future by themselves.

Letting the Cubans lead, rather than forcing them to tweet, would be a proud moment for the President, unless he prefers hearing the tweet of the hummingbird that brought him to 404.

Interested in traveling to Cuba? Travel with CDA!

Since 2001, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) has been organizing delegations of travelers to visit Cuba to experience the island first-hand.

These trips, which we primarily offer to Members of Congress and various groups of policy experts, provide a truly unique experience, introducing travelers to our diverse range of contacts and friends, including artists, academics, entrepreneurs, musicians, journalists, and Cubans from all walks of life.

Right now, CDA is organizing a people-to-people delegation which will travel from June 1st to the 6th.  There are just a few spaces left, and we are hoping that readers of our news blast would like to fill them! If you are interested in seeing Cuba first-hand, please email Vivian Ramos at vivian@democracyinamericas.org ASAP.

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¡Azúcar!

February 7, 2014

A few years back, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen invited a Congressional reporter to observe her daily ritual of making Cuban coffee.  She percolated a pot of Café Bustelo, placed “a healthy amount of sugar,” in a separate cup, and then added “a few drops of coffee into the sugar.”

She stirred aggressively, “that’s what makes the ‘espuma’ or the foam” she explained. “Thicker foam makes for better coffee.  That’s the mystique.  Well, that and the sugar.”

As she tells her staff: “You can’t have too much sugar.”

Now, thanks to Alfy Fanjul, whose recent interview in the Washington Post triggered a reaction among embargo supporters akin to an immense sugar rush, she’s probably cutting back.

If tobacco bound the agonized history of the American South to the broader national experience, sugar is the commodity that has tied the United States, Cuba, and Florida – our people, our economies, our politics – together for three centuries.

Louis Pérez, in his landmark work, On Becoming Cuban, chronicles the pervasive influence of U.S. corporations on the island felt most powerfully at the sugar mill.  Sugar was the feedstock for the wealth and power amassed by Cuba’s most influential families for generations before the revolution; among them, the Fanjul family, which started its sugar operations in the 1850s.  Fidel Castro’s father, Ángel Castro raised sugar cane; and his son experienced the allure but also the exclusion of foreign corporate sugar interests which, according to one history, “enraged” him.

The United States was Cuba’s largest market for sugar exports.  The industry’s mills were among the first U.S. assets nationalized by the revolution.  President Eisenhower in December 1960 retaliated by prohibiting the imports of sugar in the U.S.; the following year, sugar plantations were targeted for bombings and shipments of Cuban sugar were targets for contamination.

The Fanjul family fled the island for Florida, which soon replaced Cuba as this country’s sugar bowl.  They reestablished their business, and began selling sugar under brand names like Domino and Jack Frost. According to one report, their holdings include more than 400,000 acres of land, with holdings that comprise as much as 12% of Palm Beach County, operations in 20 U.S. states, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico.

With politics as their industry’s protection, the Depression-era farm program that props up domestic sugar growers has been immune to the cuts that have hit nearly all other federally-supported commodities. This has enriched the Fanjuls, some estimates say, by as much as $60 million annually, while raising food prices, as Progreso Weekly reports, for us all.

Naturally, a fraction of this money is recycled into the system through campaign contributions to friends in Congress who vote with Big Sugar, philanthropy to public causes, and support to the institutions painstakingly built in Florida and Washington to keep the embargo in place, while the most hardened enemies of the Cuban government cling to the embargo and wait for the Castro brothers to die.

This notion of a “biological solution” fixing Cuba, so alive in the minds of some exiles, has never succumbed to realities such as the long life spans of Fidel and Raúl Castro or the implausibility of their successors giving up what they spent their lives creating.  Paradoxically, there is a counterpart notion in the minds of Cuba policy reformers; namely, that this stupid embargo policy will never die until patriarchs like Alfy Fanjul “age out” of the South Florida political demographic as well.

In his interview with the Washington Post, Mr. Fanjul told reporters about his travels to Cuba, his meetings with the foreign minister, and his willingness to make investments in Cuba.

Significantly, Mr. Fanjul would invest without waiting for Cuba to satisfy the preconditions written into the Helms-Burton law by public officials, many of whom his family has supported financially, which otherwise require the embargo to remain in place.

As Phil Peters wrote this week, “Short of Jorge Mas Canosa arising from the dead and saying, ‘Never mind,’ it’s hard to think of a bigger shift in the Miami political landscape than the news that the Fanjul brothers have traveled to Cuba and would like to invest there.”

To put it mildly, these statements from someone the Post called “one of the principal funders of the U.S. anti-Castro movement,” enraged leading supporters of U.S. sanctions on Cuba.  Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who last year published an op-ed denouncing Cuba’s government for “enforcing political conformity” using “public acts of repudiation,” repudiated Mr. Fanjul for deviating from the hardliner’s hardline.

Rep. Diaz-Balart said, “Some might be blind to the Castro regime’s brutality and ruthless oppression, but Alfonso Fanjul’s betrayal is compounded because he knows better. In her statement, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, “it’s pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress.”

One critic predicted Fanjul would soon be hiring Cuban slaves to produce sugar.  Another demanded a Congressional inquiry into his travel and concluded his post: Mr. Fanjul, “your travel papers please.”  The former staff director of the House Foreign Relations Committee proposed a policy change to deny any recipient of farm subsidies the right to travel to Cuba.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Fanjul interview sparked such a vitriolic family feud.  Change is unsettling, but never more so when the prospect of change occupies such a distant horizon, as it has in Cuba and the U.S. for so many decades.  Located there, change can be foreboding, not hopeful.

We’ve been tantalized and disappointed by the auguries of change before.  And yet, what is happening now makes so much sense: movement toward normalization before the revolutionary generation in Cuba “ages out,” sped forward by a 76-year-old exile living in South Florida who says he just wants to do business back home and reunite the family.

Most of us believe this is where history was taking us anyhow.  If this leaves a bitter aftertaste with the remaining supporters of the embargo; well, isn’t that what sugar is for?

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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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