La política no cabe en la azucarera

July 19, 2013

Last week, when we wrote about new legislation in the U.S. House of Representatives to extinguish people-to-people travel to Cuba, we knew it was bad.

We write today with a greater urgency.  A deeper analysis of the proposal by Dawn Gable, CDA’s assistant director, demonstrates how far-reaching an effort to gut travel this amendment represents.  Moreover, the political climate has become more uncertain after the seizure of Cuban cargo hidden beneath brown sugar that may violate the UN arms embargo against North Korea.

First principles first:  We believe in engagement.  We believe that Cuba and the United States are trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of animosity and distrust because the two governments rarely talk and because both publics have historically been walled off from normal contact.  In the last five decades, both governments have circled each other suspiciously and bad conditions have often been made worse because of the absence of normal dialogue.

That is why we believe so strongly in the value of travel and engagement, because they bring people together, and why we are alarmed by efforts in the Congress to shut down people-to-people travel, stunt Cuban American family travel, and bury an already burdened government office under a mountain of paperwork which will hurt every day Cubans.

Dawn’s analysis highlights the trouble spots.  One provision of the Treasury Department budget bill ends people-to-people travel by defunding its licensing process.  The people-to-people program isn’t perfect and it only reaches a fraction of the U.S. citizens who are interested in visiting Cuba.  But, according to one estimate, more than 103,000 non-Cuban American visitors came to Cuba in 2012, and people-to-people travel made the overwhelming number of them possible.

Groups that sponsor travel including – colleges, museums, environmental groups, groups that do economic research and urban development groups, groups that support medical and other forms of cooperation, peace groups, and foreign policy groups – these and many others – would no longer have licenses to sponsor travel to Cuba.  The legislation would airmail us back to the travel ban days of President George W. Bush.

Wait, as the saying goes, it gets worse.  Today, Cuban American families can visit their relatives in Cuba as often as they wish and provide them unlimited financial support, also called “remittances.”  Family remittances help relatives make ends meet for the tight household budgets of Cuban families, and are increasingly feeding the growth of private sector businesses opened by every day Cubans under President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.  The visits and the support do not require licenses or paperwork of any kind.

That would end.  If this bill became law, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) the agency inside Treasury charged with implementing U.S. trade sanctions would be required to report to Congress on “all family travel” as well as all travel involving the legal carrying of remittances to Cuba, including by family of USINT employees. The report would include: number of travelers; average duration of stay for each trip; average amount of U.S. dollars spent per traveler; number of return trips per year; and total sum of U.S. dollars spent collectively in each fiscal year.

OFAC could not compile the report without imposing new requirements on remittances provided by families and on remittances by Americans of all backgrounds to support new businesses or religious organizations or U.S. students studying legally in Cuba.  The only remittances that would not have to be reported would be those paid to Cuba’s political opposition.

To be clear, if you believe that Cuban Americans and all Americans should enjoy the right to travel to Cuba and support everyday Cubans financially, we ask that you heed calls for action by the Latin America Working Group (here) and the Fund for Reconciliation and Development (here) and urge Congress to oppose this bill and President Obama to promise he will veto it.

“A larger, slow-moving thaw,” as the Associated Press reported, had recently seemed to return to bilateral relations in recent weeks.  A member of the Cuban Five returned to the island for good.  Diplomats from both countries, as we report below, had easier times traveling.  Mail service talks took place last month; migrations talks took place this week.

After the North Korean vessel was seized in Panama this week, however, with 220,000 sacks of Cuban brown sugar piled atop a cache of weapons from Cuba, this pattern of progress is now at risk.  We report on this incident in detail later in the blast.

Unsurprisingly, supporters of sanctions on Cuba, its placement on the terror list, and ongoing efforts to overthrow the Cuban government reacted before the facts were in.  In her statement, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “I call on the Department of State to immediately cease its migration talks this week with the Cuban regime until it provides clear and coherent answers regarding this incident.”  She also joined several colleagues who wrote Secretary Kerry urging him to pour more sanctions on any country found to be violating the UN embargo.

Rather than gagging diplomacy, this seemed an appropriate time for the two countries to talk, and her demand was ignored by the Obama administration.   More to the point, the State Department refused to get ahead of the facts or to point fingers at Cuba, with Marie Harf, departmental spokeswoman saying, “I would underscore that the issue of the ship isn’t a U.S.-Cuba issue.”  As AFP reported, the UN took the same tack, stating “The Secretary-General awaits the outcome of the investigation into the matter in question and is sure the 1718 Security Council Sanctions Committee will promptly address it.”

Here, we end where we began.  We are heartened that the State Department called people-to-people travel in the national security interest of the U.S. just this afternoon.  Because, none of this will go any easier if this incident becomes a predicate for stopping Cuban Americans from visiting or supporting their families on the island, or cutting off educational travel; nor will we get to the bottom of it faster by cutting off diplomacy between the United States and Cuba.

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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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Castor’s Got Courage, But Has Kerry Got Game?

April 26, 2013

Kathy Castor, Tampa’s representative in Congress, has got courage.  Of the twenty-seven members of Florida’s delegation, only five have more Cuban Americans in their districts than she has living in hers.  None but Castor has made the effort, as she did a few weeks ago, to visit Cuba.

When Ms. Castor returned home, she wrote President Obama and urged him to modernize Cuba policy.  She asked the president to support Cuba’s economic reforms, end the travel ban, lift trade restrictions, engage Cuba in a dialogue on human rights, and, critically, to remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List.

Such clear, forward thinking was too much for Ralph Fernandez, a Tampa attorney, who “pinned the label ‘terrorist’ on Castor,” as the Tampa Bay Business Journal reported, and said “she joins all terrorists of the western hemisphere in solidarity with the (Castro) regime and tyranny that has brought pain and agony to my people.”

Such rhetoric was sad, but not surprising, and the tactic was all too familiar.  The noisiest critics of the system in Cuba like to stanch free debate in America to stop courage like Castor’s from becoming contagious.

In this case, the name-calling backfired, and emboldened constituents rose to her defense.  Patrick Manteiga, publisher of Tampa’s La Gaceta newspaper, donated space for a full-page ad in last week’s issue that saluted Castor “on her historic trip to Cuba” and he got more than 300 area residents to sign on…in Florida.

This is further proof that the politics around Cuba issues is changing, that the Cuba Lobby, which has petrified politicians and paralyzed policy for decades, can be challenged not just by rare instances of courage but by compelling examples of common sense.

It may take time for this truth to move from Tampa Bay to the halls of Congress, but we hope it’s heard in Foggy Bottom and that the U.S. State Department gets the message fast.

By April 30th, Secretary of State John Kerry must decide whether Cuba should be removed from the list of countries designated as State Sponsors of Terror.

Kerry has previously spoken sensibly on terrorism.  Presiding over the confirmation of Hillary Rodham Clinton to serve as Secretary of State, John Kerry, then-chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said:

In the last seven years, we have spent the treasure of this nation – young American soldiers, first and foremost, and billions of dollars – to fight terrorism, and yet grave questions remain as to whether or not we have chosen our battles correctly, pursued the right strategy, defined the right goals.

Now that Kerry is running State, it’s time for him to pursue the right strategy and act decisively by removing Cuba from the terror list.  The merits are clear.

“None of the reasons that landed Cuba on the list in 1982 still exist,” as the Los Angeles Times explained recently. “A 2012 report by the State Department found that Havana no longer provides weapons or paramilitary training to Marxist rebels in Latin America or Africa. In fact, Cuba is currently hosting peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and President Juan Manuel Santos’ government.”

This is just the point Rep. Castor made to President Obama.  “One of the reasons used to justify Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors of Terror List was its support of the FARC.  This rationale is no longer valid, and it provides our nation with an opportunity to remove Cuba from the list and focus on global actors who need our attention.”

After returning from Cuba, on a trip led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Rep. Castor never stopped working.  She used contacts she made at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to connect grandparents in her district to Cuban and U.S. officials, trying to facilitate the return of Chase and Cole Hakken, children abducted by their parents in Tampa and taken by boat to Cuba.

The same Tampa attorney who called out Castor assured local media that the parents, who were fugitives in Cuba, were safe, “there’s no extradition…There’s nothing that can be done.”

Soon after, the Cubans arrested the parents and returned them to Florida where they face a variety of serious charges, and the boys, ages 4 and 2, were reunited with their grandparents proving, as Rep. Castor said, “the value of engagement” and the importance of reforming the policy.

Whether it takes common sense or courage, something can always be done.  Kathy Castor proved it, and so can John Kerry, if he’s got game.
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Reality Check

March 1, 2013

The same day that a bipartisan Congressional delegation left Cuba, the Boston Globe triggered a brief and unsatisfactory debate when it reported that “High-level US diplomats have concluded that Cuba should no longer be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.”

That Cuba should be removed from the list has long been the view of authorities from the Council on Foreign Relations to anti-terrorist expert Richard Clarke.  It has been understood for years that the designation was at least out-of-date and a function of domestic politics rather than terrorism policy or reason.  When Cuba was revealed as a broker of the peace process between the government of Colombia and the FARC – after years of being listed as a state sponsor for “supporting” the FARC – it was obvious that the next step was delisting.

This would be in accordance with U.S. law which says, as ABC News pointed out, “in order for any country to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” a finding that our government cannot make regarding Cuba.

But the bodyguard surrounding the status quo moved quickly to discredit the notion that U.S. policy would undergo any change.  Leave it to the State Department to say, “Not so fast.”  In the words of spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “This Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

Others went further.  As Professor Greg Weeks posted this week, José Cárdenas, a former senior U.S. official, argued in an op-ed piece, that while Cuba is no longer supporting terrorism, it should remain on the list of state anyway.  Weeks called this “pretty much the definition of moving goal posts.”

This is our great problem.  U.S. policy is based on the premise that Cuba must capitulate unilaterally to our demand that it reshape its political system to our liking, or U.S. sanctions will remain in place.  Consequently, when Havana changes the facts on the ground that fall short of that goal, Washington cannot consider them consequential.

No matter that, as The Economist reported, “Raúl Castro has allowed Cubans to buy cars and homes, to lease farmland and to set up small businesses.” Or, “Last year he scrapped curbs on foreign travel.”

No matter that President Raúl Castro, as we reported two weeks ago, has announced that he will abide by the term limits he put into place, or that a far younger man, Miguel Díaz-Canel, apparently less charismatic and unrelated to the Castro family, is being groomed to succeed him.  A Cuban government no longer run by a member of the family is a key goal of U.S. policy, but this development, too, cannot be acknowledged.

Once Raúl Castro made his announcement, as the Miami Herald reported, the maximalists simply moved the goal posts to other demands.

Forget the Castros, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-sanctions U.S. Cuba Democracy lobby, “The most important conditions in Helms-Burton are the legalization of opposition parties, independent media, the dismantling of the State Security apparatus and free and fair elections.” Or as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “(T)he real change in Cuba involves much more than the Castro brothers… The whole system crafted by the Castro brothers is corrupt and must be totally replaced.”

Happily, policymakers who actually take the trouble to visit Cuba, and talk to the Cubans, are more grounded in reality.  As Senator Pat Leahy, leader of the delegation which met with President Castro, Alan Gross, and others, said on network television upon his return, “I think the worst thing that can happen is if we stay either in our country or in their country in this 1960s, 1970s Cold War mentality.  We’re a different century now.”

Cuba has made clear over the last, oh five or six decades its system is not up for negotiation. Thus, the administration must decide whether to be with the maximalists, who argue against the evidence that nothing in Cuba has changed, because everything in Cuba hasn’t changed, or switch to a reality-based policy that takes into consideration developments that actually occur, on issues from terrorism to who is being positioned to run the country, and then respond accordingly.

We’d like to think that Rep. Jim McGovern, who joined Leahy in Cuba, was on to something when he told Nick Miroff of the Global Post, “I feel change is in the air.  To me, this is the moment. We have President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and my hope is that they will take some risks and end this last relic of the Cold War.”

That would be nice.

Coming Soon: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future”

On March 6th, the Center for Democracy in the Americas will release the results of a two-year study on the status of women and gender equality in Cuba.  This week, we have been posting quotes from women we interviewed, as well as photos and other information, on our Facebook page and on Twitter.  Be sure to follow us on Twitter and like our Facebook page – we’ll continue posting updates leading up the official release!

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