Thanksgiving Edition: Shout-outs and holiday helpings of news

November 26, 2014

As we prepare for the holiday and gird for stormy weather in the U.S., we offer you light reading and simple gratitude in today’s Thanksgiving Edition.

In the final days of 2014, we have reached a moment to savor: the table has been set for President Obama to make decisive changes in U.S.-Cuba relations.

A remarkable group of women and men – here and in Cuba – began the good fight long before we hit send on the first edition of the Cuba Central News Blast.

This year, truly exceptional table setters drove progress in ways that built on their decades-long efforts. In the spirit of this holiday, we remember events and the people who took actions that made us thankful in 2014:

  • Big shifts in support for normalizing relations – nationally, and especially in Florida and its Cuban American precincts – documented precisely and honestly in surveys by Florida International University, the Atlantic Council, and the Miami Herald.
  • Bold leaders – retired U.S. officials, regional experts, and historic opponents of Cuba’s government – whose letter to President Obama demonstrates that real reforms are a mainstream expression of U.S. foreign policy interests.
  • Comics and pundits who made us laugh and think as they talked about ending the embargo.
  • Families who allowed reconciliation to replace revenge in their hearts; a once lonely process is now engaging thousands of families today.
  • Investigative journalists, whistleblowers, and others who did the bold and persistent work to bring the scandalous activities of USAID’s Cuba program to light.
  • The men and women who are working quietly and diligently so Gerardo Hernández,Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, and Alan Gross can return home.
  • The New York Times Editorial Board for making the case, again and again, to the public and our national leadership that ending the embargo is in the national interests of the U.S.
  • Scholars and historians whose new books built a stronger foundation for change.
  • Smart, courageous allies who make the reform case in really creative ways.
  • Readers that support the Blast whose donations let us share what we learn and think with all of you.

In the days and months to come, we will keep working and continue urging President Obama to transform U.S.-Cuba relations. The times demand it and he has the power to do it.

We know you believe this, just as we do. We invite you to join us by raising your voices and supporting our work.

You won’t hear from us until the first Friday in December.  Between now and then, Alan Gross will mark the fifth anniversary of his arrest.  There are empty seats at his family’s Thanksgiving table and in the homes of the Cuban Three who have been locked away in the United States considerably longer.  A real reform must encompass a solution for them all.

The table is set and it’s time for the President to act.

Happy holidays!

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Colonel Campbell, Guantánamo, and righting wrongs

March 21, 2014

When Army Col. Larry Campbell approached the podium on February 22nd to deliver his remarks to The Black Heritage Organization to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, he did nothing wrong.

To the contrary, he spoke truths that deserved the attention of a wider audience.

In his address, Col. Campbell was plainspoken about our nation’s history of racism and resentment; about the generations who came and went without enjoying full and equal dimensions of their citizenship; and the walls of resistance that the Civil Rights Movement had to scale in the – still incomplete – fight for equality.

He said with pride that “military formations are fully integrated,” without pausing over the remarkable fact that the armed services were the first major American institution to integrate or the hard truth that it took five years for Harry Truman’s executive order to be implemented for 95% of African American soldiers to serve in integrated units.

Col. Campbell used the occasion to express his abiding faith in the democratic process and in his country’s capacity for self-correction.  Yet, neither we nor you would have heard about his speech had the news about the event not been subject to such ridicule.

Why? Because the Black Heritage Organization, which held its annual Black History Month banquet, and invited Col. Campbell to speak, happens to be located at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Yes, Guantánamo; where books like “The Gulag Archipelago” and “The African American Slave” cannot be read by the prisoners who are detained there; where the prisoner detentions compromise the position of the United States on human and civil rights.

So, when an article was published with the headline, GTMO celebrates 50 years of civil rights in America, well-meaning bloggers just couldn’t help themselves.  What followed was snark like this, “I can’t say much for the event, but that headline…,” and snark like this, “It’s a holiday in Guantánamo!”  It was all about the jokes, without making much time for understanding what was really going on.

That’s a shame.  Neither Col. Campbell nor the Black Heritage Organization are responsible for what is taking place on Guantánamo now, nor are they accountable for the larger historical error represented by the U.S. hanging onto Cuban land, or U.S.-Cuba policy writ large.

We need to be clear about Guantánamo.

We talked about it in our book about promoting U.S.-Cuba engagement, in the chapter contributed by Gen. James T. Hill, who wrote about the cooperation that takes place over the fence posts between Cuba’s armed forces (FAR) and our own military, and the work they could do together to enhance both country’s security.

Like many of our readers, we would like to see the prison at Guantánamo closed for good.  We supported the patriotic efforts of former White House counsel Greg Craig to achieve this objective. While gestures like the one offered by Uruguay’s President José Mujica, who expressed his willingness to accept Guantánamo detainees into his country, alleviate some of the suffering, we hope that Clifford Sloan is able to complete the job Greg Craig started, and soon.

Plans exist — like the detailed proposal crafted by Michael Parmly, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana — for addressing the issue of the detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo, and returning rightful ownership to Cuba of land that’s been wrongfully under U.S. control for over a century. The European Union is hard at work changing its foreign policy toward Cuba.

In other words, the problems of U.S.-Cuban relations and Guantánamo do not require new proposals or special thinking to get solved; they require leadership and the determination to make decisions and see them through to the end, the same ingredients that made the integration of the U.S. military and the passage of the Civil Rights Act possible.

Those of us who advocate for Cuba policy reform, but are discouraged by the pace of change in Washington, might take hope from the message that Col. Campbell delivered at Guantánamo’s Civil Rights Act celebration: “History has always afforded this Nation the ability to right a wrong and press forward by not repeating the same mistakes of the past.”

We couldn’t agree more.  That’s why we wanted to bring the Colonel’s speech to our readers’ attention.

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INTERNUTS – U.S. Sanctions Block Cuban Students from On-Line Courses

January 31, 2014

According to the Associated Press, technology experts are gathering in Miami today to “brainstorm ways to improve access to the Internet and information” for the people of Cuba.

Unless their solutions include ending the U.S. embargo, their brainstorms will amount to little more than a light drizzle.

Their meeting occurs at the same moment students in Cuba (as well as Iran, Sudan, and Syria) have lost access to on-line classes offered by Coursera, a social entrepreneurship company which, as Al-Jazeera notes, offers MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, to millions of students in over 180 countries.

When they try to go to class, students get this message instead:

“Our system indicates that you are attempting to access the Coursera site from an IP address associated with a country currently subject to U.S. economic and trade sanctions.  In order for Coursera to comply with U.S. export controls, we cannot allow you access to the site.”

This cut-off is, of course, big news and, as one Internet expert suggested, very hard to explain:  “My first reaction was anger that the Cuban government would block educational material — maybe they were trying to censor something from a Latin American history class?”

To be sure, Cuba is uncomfortable with the Internet and access to the web is meager compared to its neighbors in the region.  But Cuba is not the cause of this problem.

Cuban students got shut out of their classes because, as the company wrote on its blog, “Under [U.S.] law, certain aspects of Coursera’s course offerings are considered services and are therefore subject to restrictions in sanctioned countries.”

We have often used this page to illustrate the costs and futility of our Cuba policy: the Cuban-American war hero barred from visiting his sons on the island, American diabetics unable to obtain a medication that could save them from amputations, the global condemnation of the U.S. embargo delivered annually by the UN.

But, after our country staked so much of our foreign policy on the Internet as an instrument of free expression, this story takes the cake.

Back in 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made our position clear: “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” With this declaration as its guiding light, the State Department forged ahead.

The State Department built partnerships between the U.S. government and Internet companies to engage students globally through education. When the Department joined forces with (believe it or not) Coursera, this is what Meghann Curtis, deputy assistant secretary for academic programs said:

“The State Department and USAID promote a more peaceful, prosperous world, and we all know one of the best ways to get there is to ensure that all people have access to high-quality education.”

 How do we “ensure” such a thing?  We get tough.  In November 2012, the United States imposed sanctions on several people in Iran for Internet censorship.  Explaining the action, then-State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said that Washington was determined to stop the “Iranian government from creating an ‘electronic curtain’ to cut Iranian citizens off from the rest of the world.”

Or, we get crafty.  In Cuba, our government engages in risky schemes using taxpayers’ money to “boost Internet activism,” as the State Department advertised last year:

“Digital Tools for Safe and Effective Civil Society Initiatives (subject to the availability of funding, approximately $850,000):  The project should provide Cuban activists with ongoing capacity building and assistance to increase their level of technological proficiency and their ability to utilize new and existing technologies in a secure manner.”

This last clause is a reminder to applicants that the Helms-Burton program that funds these initiatives is illegal under Cuban law; just ask Alan Gross.

In other words, U.S. policy has made an implicit choice:  While our sanctions broadly restrict access by Cuban students to educational content on the Internet, the government funds covert activities to give that access selectively to Cubans reached by our regime change programs.

As CDA’s Lisa Ndecky Llanos told Inter Press Service:

 “The stated U.S. policy is that they want to enable Cubans to access information and be a part of a global community, but in this instance the policy is doing the exact opposite of that.”

When Meghann Curtis was interviewed about State’s partnership with Coursera, she told Fast Company magazine: “One of the classes is American foreign policy. I think that will make an extremely rich forum to debate the issues.”

Rich indeed!  One class that Cuban students can’t access is called “21st Century American Foreign Policy,” taught by Professor Bruce Jentleson, whose course description reads:  “What is American foreign policy? Who makes it? Why is it the way it is?”

Why is Cuba policy the way it is?  It tries to fix a Cold War problem with sanctions that do not apply to the Internet Century.  While Coursera meets with well-intentioned Treasury and State Department officials to make the service it offers “not a service,” we think the root of this problem is more akin to a “Flashing 12.”

Know the expression?  That’s when you walk into someone’s house and their VCR is stuck “Flashing 12:00,” because they cannot figure out how to program it.  You just can’t reprogram the embargo to make it work, you have to end it.

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Handwringing over a handshake

December 13, 2013

At the exact time President Obama shook hands with President Raúl Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, we were in Cuba – where word of the handshake circulated fast, and the reaction among Cubans was electric, even ecstatic.

The President’s domestic political opposition felt quite differently.

The six seconds Barack Obama spent grasping Raúl Castro’s hand infuriated them in sadly familiar ways.

The Washington Post called the handshake “an awkward footnote to his tribute in Soweto.” Capitol Hill Cubans sniffed, “We believe this encounter was unfortunate and untimely – albeit inconsequential.” Rep. Matt Salmon (AZ-5)said it was “an insult to the people of Cuba who are denied liberty and oppressed daily by the Cuban dictator.”  Not to be outdone, it reminded Senator John McCain that “Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), who found the Obama-Castro handshake “nauseating,” begged Secretary Kerry at a Congressional hearing, “Could you please tell the Cuban people living under that repressive regime that, a handshake notwithstanding, the US policy toward the cruel and sadistic Cuban dictatorship has not weakened.”

The rank opportunism of its fiercest critics seemed to knock the White House back on its heels.  An Administration official said “this wasn’t a pre-planned encounter.” An earnest White House spokesman downplayed its significance explaining “they didn’t have a robust, substantive conversation about policies, but rather exchanged some pleasantries as the President was making his way to the podium.” Secretary Kerry said Obama “didn’t choose who’s” at the Mandela ceremony.

Some reports spun the speech harder. The AFP said the speech contained a “clear swipe at states like Cuba.” Several pundits pointed to this sentence – “There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with Madiba’s struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own people” – saying those twenty-two words in Obama’s nineteen-hundred word address had been aimed squarely at Cuba’s government.

But, when Ben Rhodes, the president’s Deputy National Security Advisor, addressed the traveling White House press corps, he said “I don’t think his intent was to single out specific countries.”

There’s no reason to be defensive.  The White House should be beaming with pride.

As countless commentators have written, what passed between the two Presidents could have been modeled on Mandela himself.  Nelson Mandela didn’t wring his hands over shaking hands with F.W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last apartheid president.  He considered it essential to his goal of reconciliation for all of South Africa.  He was photographed doing so time and again.

Against the backdrop of history, the Obama-Castro handshake evoked a welcoming editorial reaction.

It caused the Kansas City Star to ask, “What if this greeting signaled another apparent micro-thaw in the half-century cold war with our island neighbor? Frankly, that would be good news. Small gestures add up. As time goes by, many Americans – and many everyday Cubans – are ready to get on with the future.” It led the New York Times to repeat its call to “Lift the Cuban Embargo.”

Most of all, the White House should be heartened by the reactions of the Cuban people.

Cubans who have lived their entire lives with the United States thumbing its nose at their country could not get over this small gesture of respect paid to their national leader by our national leader.

What made our visit to Cuba possible – President Obama’s people-to-people travel reforms – had been rolled-out by the White House two years earlier with a press release titled, “Reaching Out to the Cuban People.

This figure of political speech was vindicated by what we saw in Havana.

It was as if the president had reached past Raúl Castro and personally shaken the hands of each one of the Cuban citizens we talked to.  They were thrilled and empowered by what had transpired eight thousand miles away in South Africa.

Mandela’s life work continues, just like President Obama said:

“Mandela taught us the power of action, but he also taught us the power of ideas; the importance of reason and arguments; the need to study not only those who you agree with, but also those who you don’t agree with.

“And finally, Mandela understood the ties that bind the human spirit. There is a word in South Africa – Ubuntu – a word that captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

“After this great liberator is laid to rest, and when we have returned to our cities and villages and rejoined our daily routines, let us search for his strength. Let us search for his largeness of spirit somewhere inside of ourselves.”

So large, they felt his spirit in Havana.

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Nelson Mandela, Cuba, and the Terror List

December 6, 2013

In a statement at the White House, President Obama paid tribute to Nelson Mandela who died Thursday at age 95:

“Today, he has gone home. And we have lost one of the most influential, courageous, and profoundly good human beings that any of us will share time with on this Earth. He no longer belongs to us — he belongs to the ages.

“For now, let us pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived — a man who took history in his hands, and bent the arc of the moral universe toward justice.”

Nelson Mandela earned these beautiful words and even greater accolades long before President Obama was elected. But, the President’s comments were noteworthy because they were a sharp departure from how Mandela and the anti-apartheid movement he represented had been regarded by U.S. foreign policy.

“Until five years ago,” as AFP reported this morning, “(Mr.) Mandela and other members of the ANC remained on the U.S. terror watch list because of their armed struggle against the apartheid regime.”

In what it considered to be Cold War battlefields, in places like South Africa and Angola, where the battles were actually being fought over colonization and racism, Washington drew a tough line. South Africa and its ally Cuba fell onto the other side. For decades, Mandela and his African National Congress were considered terrorists by the United States. This also worked to the convenience of the hardline anti-communist opponents of the Cuban government.

Beginning in the early 1980s, Cuba was put on the State Sponsors of Terror List; punished, in part, for its intervention in southern Africa. This has done enduring damage to Cuba’s economy, with the sting of sanctions still being felt every day by Cubans and by international businesses engaged in commercial transactions with their government.

At times, Washington’s Cold War preoccupation with Cuban troops in Angola led it in odd directions. One of President Reagan’s National Security Decision Directives, dated May 7, 1987, contemplated using U.S. information efforts “to undermine Cuba’s ability to deploy troops in Angola through specially focused radio programming broadcast to Cuba by Radio Martí,” which suggests that the National Security Council had no idea the signals were jammed and that no Cuban could be affected by propaganda they couldn’t hear.

Cuba’s alliances in southern Africa meant something entirely different to people like Nelson Mandela. He called Cuba’s decisive role in Angola “a victory for all of Africa.” In a speech Mandela delivered in Cuba not long after he emerged from his 27-year imprisonment, he said:

“We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.”

In the same speech he also said:

“We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious, imperialist-orchestrated campaign. We too want to control our own destiny.”

[You can see the gratitude he felt toward Cuba in this historical video when he implores Fidel Castro to visit South Africa.]

The same trip that brought Mandela to Cuba in 1991 also saw him come to the United States and brought him into contact with Americans who weren’t ready to canonize him.

An article published earlier this year, “When America Met Mandela,” relates a pointed exchange with Nightline Host Ted Koppel who challenged his right to meet with leaders of “rogue states” like Fidel Castro, Yasser Arafat, and Col. Gadhafi. “They support our struggle to the hilt,” Mandela told Koppel and proceeded to lecture him on gratitude and self-determination. “Any man who changes his principles according to whom he is dealing,” he told Koppel to applause from the audience, “that is not a man who can lead a nation.”

Those comments, according to the Miami Herald, “caused an official welcome planned for him to be rescinded,” and led five Cuban- American mayors to cancel their meeting with Mr. Mandela, sending a letter instead calling his comments “beyond reasonable comprehension.”

As he edged closer to the end of his life, cooler heads at least in Washington prevailed. In 2008, Congress passed, and President George W. Bush signed, legislation removing the African National Congress from the terrorist watch list.

You can see the bill here. Its evidence of how the United States finally came to view Mandela not as a terrorist but as a global leader of unparalleled moral standing.

Cuba was listed as a state sponsor of terror for reasons that included actions that Nelson Mandela believed led to his own freedom and the end of apartheid. The president could hardly offer a more fitting tribute than by removing Cuba from the terror list in Mandela’s memory and name.

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If you’re banking on a holiday visit to Cuba, you’d better read this

November 27, 2013

In 2006, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana lost its electricity for days on end, interfering with its basic operations.  The U.S. government accused Cuba of bullying and subjecting U.S. diplomats to “the same type of harassment that the Cuban people have had to live with on a daily basis.”

Whether it was retaliation by Cuba for a news ticker the U.S. Interests Section installed – later disconnected by the Obama administration – or caused by the island’s notoriously unruly power grid, the denial of electricity mattered.  A principle was at stake.  Governments don’t mess with other governments’ embassies.  That’s a violation of international law.

Fast forward to 2013 and to Washington, D.C., where the Cuban Interests Section is located.  It’s suffering from a power shortage of a different sort, but the effect is equally pernicious.

Due to the weight of U.S. sanctions and fines against financial institutions here and abroad, no commercial bank is presently willing to provide financial services to the mission, so that the Cuban diplomats can process the visas and travel documents that are required for travel.

This means, as the Miami Herald is reporting, that “Cuban-Americans and Cuban residents of the United States will no longer be able to obtain Cuban passports and U.S. travelers authorized to fly to the island will not be able to obtain visas.”

The Cuban Interests Section said in a statement that it “particularly regrets the effects this may have on Cuban and U.S. citizens (…) with the negative impact on family visits, academic, cultural, educational, scientific, sports and other kind of exchange between Cuba and the United States.”

The cut-off of banking services to the Cuban Interests Section has been brewing for a long time.  M&T Bank informed the Cubans in July of this year that it would no longer provide banking services to foreign missions.

According to the Associated Press, the U.S. State Department said the bank “severed the relationship due to a ‘business decision,’ and that the government does not have the power to interfere or order any bank to handle a foreign mission’s account.”

But it is, kindly put, an illusion to ascribe this simply to a business decision, as if the bank said it would no longer hand out decorative plates to customers who opened a passbook account.

José Pertierra, a Washington-based attorney, agrees.  He told Progreso Weekly, “The problem is not the banks, it’s the government. In this country, banks are a business. The fines imposed on banks that allegedly break the blockade are astronomical and the laws are extra-territorial.”

Since 2009, as Café Fuerte reports, more than $2 billion in fines have been imposed by the Obama administration for violations of the embargo in relation with financial transactions linked to Cuba, double the amount imposed under the Bush administration. No wonder banks are leery of dealing with Cuba’s diplomats.

As enforcement actions have risen, another goal of the administration has been to increase travel by Cuban Americans and other U.S. residents, consistent with its “Reaching out to the Cuban People” strategy.

According to the Miami Herald, its reforms enabled more than half-a-million visitors in 2012: “about 476,000 were Cuban Americans and Cuban residents of the United States” and another “98,000 (who) were registered as members of people-to-people programs” to visit Cuba.

Secretary Kerry said to the OAS in a speech recently, “We are committed to this human interchange, and in the United States we believe that our people are actually our best ambassadors.”

But, the administration must be confused; it cannot be the sheriff on one hand, making it so risky for commercial banks to engage in legal transactions with Cuba that its missions must shut down the issuance of visas and documents required for travel, while trying to prop open the door with its other hand so more family members and other U.S. travelers can visit the island.  It has to choose.

Perhaps the administration is seeing the light.  The Associated Press is now reporting that the State Department “has been actively working with the Interests Section in Washington to identify a new bank to provide services to the Cuban missions…while ensuring the ongoing security of the U.S. financial system through adequate regulatory supervision. We’d like to see the Cuban missions return to their full operating capacity.”

Armand García, president of Marazul Charters, says of Cuban-born travelers and U.S.-born travelers, “all of them need consular processing provided by the Consulate directly or through authorized travel agencies.”  The government needs to get moving, or it could get ugly just in time for the travel rush for the upcoming holidays.

Ten years ago, when President Bush imposed severe restrictions on family travel rights, we ran an advertisement in the El Nuevo Herald under the headline: “One man cancelled Christmas in Cuba, and it wasn’t Fidel Castro….”

The administration had better fix this problem or President Obama, who recently promised to be “creative,” and said “we have to continue to update our policies,” could be that man in 2013.

He needs to encourage State to get the job done and fast.  Honor the treaties.  Find a bank.  Ensure that the financial juice gets turned back on at the Cuban Interests Section as soon as possible.  History need not repeat itself.  And, of course, have a happy Thanksgiving!

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This week, 5 Cubans changed the conversation in Washington

November 15, 2013

This week, five small business owners visiting Washington changed the conversation about Cuba to something deeper and far more interesting than what normally takes place when policymakers debate the future of Cuba and U.S. policy by themselves.

Take, for example, Yamina Vicente, who taught economics to college students in Havana and left her post to open Decorazón, a business that provides decorations and hosts parties for Cuban families. Her clients spend as little as $20 and as much as $500 for birthdays, baby showers, weddings, and even the celebration of Halloween.

When she was asked, “What does the ability to run a small business mean to you?”, her answer might have sounded familiar to anyone who has attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting in the United States.

“There are five advantages,” she said.

The first is increased income and financial opportunity.  Her personal situation “has improved a great deal” since she opened Decorazón.  The second is the ability to provide employment to others.  Third, she is able to offer services never before seen in Cuba.  Fourth, she said, “there is no longer a ceiling on what you can achieve.  Your efforts can take you anywhere now.”  Fifth, finally, she said she had regained lost hope, because running a business “combines my passions with what is objectively needed to survive.”

Yamina was joined by Nidialys Acosta and Julio Álvarez, whose fleet of rental cars allow tourists to see Cuba from seats inside restored Chevrolets from the 1950s; Niuris Higueras Martínez, owner of the fashionable Atelier paladar; and by Emilia Fernández, a human resources specialist in the state-run health system.

Julio and Nidialys are earning more running their business than they did as employees of the state.  They are learning more, as well, from foreign tourists who have advised them on everything from the amenities consumers expect (they now supply water and moist towelettes) to the design of their logo and website.  Their business is taking off; with more reservations than they could handle, they expanded payroll and hired more staff, and they are now formalizing a contract approved by Cuba’s Tourism Ministry to provide their rental cars for use by foreign tourists in packages run by Cubanacan, a state enterprise.

To Julio, who once stood outside the Hotel Nacional with his one taxi asking foreign tourists, “Do you need a taxi? Need a taxi? Taxi? Taxi?”, this is welcomed relief.

Emilia Fernandez, whose hospital provides surgery for patients with retinitis pigmentosa and other eye diseases, sees opportunity with the reforms.  Her institution can now access faster, more efficient maintenance and repair of its physical plant and stock its food service with fresher commodities because the state allows it to contract out to businesses run by self-employed workers.  Moreover, she plans to research the health effects of the entrepreneurial economy – for example, stress – and to offer advice to the self-employed on how to maintain their health as they build their businesses.

None of the Cubans declared their country’s private sector reforms had converted Cuba into an “entrepreneur’s paradise.”  As in the U.S., the majority of small businesses in Cuba fail.  They struggle due to lack of consumer demand, an inefficient system of allocating and obtaining credit, limits on their ability to buy wholesale goods, and limits on access to the Internet. These are problems native to Cuba’s system and cannot be fixed from the outside.

By the same token, the changes they are reporting, such as their growth in personal satisfaction, are also rippling through the society at-large in ways with implications for U.S. policy.

Earlier this year, Senator Marco Rubio ripped into visitors to Cuba, reminding them that the country (he has never visited) is not a zoo.  Our Cuban visitors, however, said that tourism was driving the expansion of their businesses and was the source of innovation.  They said Cubans are not only getting better pay, more jobs, and diverse services, but the private sector reforms are forcing the state enterprises to be more efficient and competitive.

After listening to the cuentapropistas tell their stories, Carlos Saladrigas of The Cuba Study Group called the U.S. embargo, put into effect to change Cuba, an obstacle to the changes happening in Cuba.  Lifting restrictions – encouraging more travel, opening the U.S. as an export market for goods created by the new Cuban businesses, allowing more support to flow from the U.S. into Cuba – is the right way to go if we want to support the transformation taking place.

Niuris came to Washington with a promotional video for Atelier. Its theme – antes y después, before and after – records the reconstruction of her restaurant, but it could also be a metaphor for what is happening in Cuba, and a guide for where U.S. policy should go – from the embargo to something different and better for both countries.

As President Obama said in Miami late last week, “Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

After more than a half-century of trying to get Cuba to fail, we should try listening to Cubans who want a chance for themselves and their country to succeed.

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