LASA Edition: The US Needs a Cuba Policy Worthy of Its Ideals

May 23, 2014

Days before we arrived in Chicago for the Congress of the Latin America Studies Association, the New York Times ran an obituary for William Worthy, who died earlier this month at age 92.

Worthy, a path-breaking African-American journalist, interviewed Fidel Castro and filed stories on Cuba’s race relations, traveling to Cuba only with a birth certificate for identification. Upon his return, he was prosecuted for entering the U.S. without a passport, convicted, and sentenced to prison.

He won his appeal, as the Times explained, on the grounds that “the lack of a passport was insufficient ground to bar a citizen from re-entering the country.”

Five decades later, questions around Cuba and the free exchange of ideas continue to force distance between the U.S. government and our country’s ideals.

***

When LASA meets in the United States, it struggles to get visas for all of the Cuban academics invited to attend.

In prior years, under Republican and Democratic administrations, visa denials put a damper on Cuban participation; at times, the politics of exclusion were so extreme, LASA moved the conference elsewhere in the region rather than bring its scholars and intellectual dynamism to our shores.

Although the U.S. deserves credit for granting visas this year to the great number of Cubans who applied, four important intellectuals did not get in.  Their absence affects us directly.  Sitting as we did to hear a panel Thursday morning titled “Talking with Cuba: The Search for U.S.-Cuban Accommodation,” where scholars reviewed the history and the lessons from fifty-plus years of bilateral negotiations, we missed hearing Dr. Soraya Castro’s unique perspective.

Saturday, when our panel discusses economic reform and its impact on women, the audience won’t get to hear from Daybel Pañellas, a psychologist at the University of Havana.  She is helping us assemble an analysis of scholarly literature on reform and women. Also excluded were our friend, Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas, a Cuban social science magazine, and Omar Everleny Pérez, a remarkably candid economist from the University of Havana.

These academics – hardly threats to U.S. national security – could have brought their own intellectual energy and credibility to this year’s Congress; and we will never know why our government chose to make them non-combatants in LASA’s spirited exchange of ideas.

***

To be sure, the tolerance for dissenting views in our country has grown substantially since William Worthy was arrested after returning from Cuba.

This week, for example, an astonishingly diverse roster of former U.S. officials, some who once held pretty strong pro-sanctions views, signed a letter to President Obama offering their support for policies to increase the number of U.S. travelers to Cuba and boost the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba’s private sector.

While we favor more far-reaching reforms, and would’ve written a different letter, it notably attracted John Negroponte, the former Director of National Intelligence; Andres Fanjul, co-owner of sugarcane producer Fanjul Corp.; Michael Parmly and Vicki Huddleston, former heads of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana; former Clinton and Obama Cabinet Secretaries like Bruce Babbitt, Ken Salazar and Hilda Solis; as well as former Rep. Jane Harman, former EPA Director Carol Browner, and others to a clear statement favoring real changes in U.S. policy.

A similar shift can be seen among the Cuban diaspora in the U.S.  Sure, there are holdouts – heard in the shrill denunciations of the letter to the president and the debut of #CubaNow – but a new school of thought has clearly taken root where the old held sway.

As the BBC observed this week, “times are changing in Little Havana.  To be Cuban American in Miami once meant supporting the embargo, almost as an article of identity and faith. That is no longer the case.”  There was a similar finding in a poll this year by the Atlantic Council, which found even higher support for better relations with Cuba in Florida than it found nationally.  This change in sentiment can also be found among the men and women who met in Washington recently who came here in the Pedro Pan airlift decades ago.

At the center of both the Cuban-American community and the foreign policy establishment, we see evidence of how embracing a real debate and new ideas can drive a shift toward reform.

***

In “The Ballad of William Worthy,” the folksinger Phil Ochs captured well the conflict between how the U.S. behaves and the ideas it likes to profess:

William Worthy isn’t worthy to enter our door.
Went down to Cuba, he’s not American anymore.
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say,
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

If the Obama Administration wanted to reconcile its actions with our values, sitting down with Cuba – acknowledging its sovereignty as a prelude to discussing our differences directly – would be a good way to begin.

Anyhow, that’s part of what the scholars on the “Talking with Cuba” panel discussed on Thursday. Too bad everyone wasn’t around to hear them.

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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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