End It! What the NY Times and UN say about the US Embargo

October 17, 2014

In its lead editorial on Sunday, “Obama Should End the Embargo on Cuba,” the New York Times reignited the debate on Cuba by calling for the U.S. embargo to be lifted to serve the national interest and provide President Obama with a foreign policy legacy worthy of the name.

In the News Blast below, we report on what the editorial said and what happened after the editorial board said it.

But here, we discuss the October 28th vote in the UN General Assembly on condemning U.S. sanctions against Cuba, and how the embargo complicates our relations with Cuba, our region, and the broader world. We do so having just obtained the Secretary General’s report on the impact of the U.S. embargo on UN member states and institutions that was compiled this summer.

To paraphrase Lincoln, when the General Assembly takes up the Cuba resolution for the 23rd consecutive year, we know “the world will little note, nor long remember” what the UN does. This resolution has been approved every year since 1991. The outcome is hardly in doubt.

In 2013, the resolution carried in the General Assembly by a margin of 188 to 2 with three abstentions. This year, the sole suspense remaining is whether there is any country left – among the ranks of U.S. supporters (Israel) or our agnostics from the Pacific (the Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau) – who will defect from our side.

This drama offers little suspense for the UN press corps (see their forthcoming articles with the “yawn” emoticon). Yet, it leaves open questions about President Obama’s foreign policy and, as the Times argued, his legacy, that only he can answer.

In September, as President Obama challenged the world community in his General Assembly Address to confront Russia over Ukraine’s sovereignty, confront Ebola to stop the spread of the disease, and confront terrorism without inciting a clash of civilizations, what did he see?

However much he heard their applause –there was applause aplenty – the President was staring at heads of government and state utterly opposed to his policy toward Cuba.

In fact, this coalition of the unwilling extends from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe; from the Pope to Putin; from China to India, the world’s most populous countries to its most prosperous economies in the EU, Japan and South Korea; and all the way to our regional allies Brazil, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, and Mexico.

Yes, at least 188 UN members oppose us; but, more than the numbers, it is the words that our allies and adversaries use about us that illustrate how much the embargo turns the world against us.

Listen to just some of the language submitted by member states to the Secretary General’s report on why they oppose the embargo; it tracks what President Obama said to the General Assembly last month to rally the world to his side so closely that it’s eerie.

In defending Ukraine against Russia, the President said: “We believe that right makes might –that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones, and that people should be able to choose their own future.”

In the UN report, El Salvador criticized our Cuba policy saying, “Respect for a people’s freedom to determine its own history can never be disputed.”

While the President said, “Too often, we have failed to enforce international norms when it’s inconvenient to do so,” Egypt said the embargo is “morally unjustifiable and legally indefensible, and runs counter to the norms of international law.”

Where Obama said, “on issue after issue, we cannot rely on a rule book written for a different century,” Russia wrote, “the embargo imposed by the United States against Cuba is counterproductive and a remnant of the cold war.”

If he picked up a copy of the UN report, the President could read how the embargo impairs Cuba’s ability to treat children with heart disease and leukemia, stops Cuba from purchasing vaccines from the U.S. that protect its livestock against viruses and its people against food insecurity, and disrupts legal, two-way trade, even in the middle of financial transactions, as passwords disappear from back office banking operations and Cuba’s letters of credit are rejected by institutions which honor them from everyone else.

If he read the Secretary General’s report, the President would see Vietnam, which ended its state of war with America through dialogue and negotiation, calling on the U.S. and Cuba to settle our differences “through dialogue and negotiation,” with mutual respect “for each other’s independence and sovereignty.”

Then, he could sit in the Oval Office and think about whether he wants to leave the White House in 2017 with the embargo he inherited from John F. Kennedy virtually intact; having failed in its purpose to overthrow Cuba’s government, but having damaged everyday Cubans and isolated the U.S. from the island and the region.

He might also think about how his next challenge to the world will be received, after the world’s challenges to the Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations to drop the embargo have been disregarded over the course of 23 years.

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Miami’s Democratic Opening

October 10, 2014

Not long ago – in places like Miami – it was dangerous to express views that deviated from the strict hardline that supported the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Human Rights Watch reported in 1994 that Miami-based participants in “The Nation and Emigration” conference in Havana returned home to find themselves “besieged by death threats, bomb threats, verbal assaults, acts of violence, and economic retaliation.”

This is not ancient history for Vivian Mannerud, owner of a travel agency, who helped 340 people from Miami to attend Pope Benedict’s 2012 visit to Cuba, after which she found her office destroyed by fire. As she said at the time, “It looks like an atomic bomb exploded. It’s pulverized and the furniture is ashes. There’s not even a leg of a desk.”

As we documented in our essay bidding farewell to Francisco Aruca, early efforts in Miami to have a democratic debate on what is the best Cuba policy took nearly a generation to bear fruit. But core values – most importantly, love of family – have gradually resulted in more and more members of the Cuban diaspora finding and raising their voices.

You can hear them, as measured by public opinion surveys conducted this year by the Atlantic Council, the Miami Herald, and by the prestigious Florida International University survey. FIU’s 2014 poll found towering majorities in Miami-Dade’s Cuban American community for lifting all travel restrictions for all Americans who wish to visit Cuba.

In the past, candidates standing for election in Florida, regardless of party or office, simply adopted the hardline position most suitable to meet their political needs.

But now, you can hear diaspora voices echoing in Hillary Clinton’s memoir, published in anticipation of her run for the presidency, in which she revealed her surprising support for lifting the embargo. As NPR said at the time, “There may be no greater sign of the declining power of the Cuba embargo as an issue in U.S. politics than Clinton’s openness about advocating for its end.”

You can also hear them in the decision by Charlie Crist, running for governor this year in Florida, who advocates “taking away” the embargo; and, in the public support offered by Alfonso (Alfy) Fanjul, along with many other foreign policy figures who previously supported sanctions, for increasing travel to Cuba and undertaking other forms of engagement with the island.

Not everyone sees these developments as representing progress (or even reality); remember, for example, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, who called the Atlantic Council’s findings of super-majority support among Miami Cubans for big changes in U.S.-Cuba policy, “an absolute lie.”

But, as our friends at #CubaNow proved this week with their new video, it is possible to have a robust, open, two-sided debate about policies like Cuban American travel to the island, even just one month before the 2014 midterm elections.

Their Spanish-language ad, titled “Protect,” urges registered voters in the Cuban American community to vote their interests by supporting candidates who will protect their rights to travel to the island without limits, rights restored in 2009 by President Obama.

Release of this ad, as we report below, helped lift the issue of family travel into the campaign for Congress in Florida’s 26th district, in which the incumbent Representative Joe Garcia will face Carlos Curbelo in next month’s mid-term elections. In in this race, it’s fair game to raise the question: where do you stand on family travel?

After Ric Herrero, #CubaNow’s executive director, issued a public challenge to Governor Scott and his opponent Charlie Crist “to clarify where they stand on U.S.-Cuba policy,” the candidates have been forced to answer the question – do you support the embargo? – in the Telemundo debate they recorded this morning for broadcast tonight.

According to the Tampa Bay Times’ initial coverage of their face-off, “Crist wants to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba. Scott says it should continue.”

We’ll find out from the election returns on November 4– in Miami’s 26th Congressional district and across Florida in the governor’s race – how the candidates with these contrasting positions fared. In its survey published in June, the Miami Herald reported that 2/3 of Floridians said that Crist’s position on the embargo would make “no difference” in how they’ll make their choices for governor in November. That could well be true.

However, what we think is worth noting – and celebrating – is this: When public officials in the U.S. work to stop travel to Cuba and oppose engagement with Cuba’s government, they are also trying to silence the growing calls for exchange between the citizens and diplomats of both our countries. Now their obstructionism comes with a price.

By contrast, as the inhibitions against having a real, two-way discussion on U.S.-Cuba policy have given way to a free, respectful debate, the Cuban American community and people across Florida are making an inspiring statement about our values and willingness to stand behind them.

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Rubio Discovers Void, Proposes More of What Created It

July 25, 2014

In 1992, Brigadier General Simon P. Worden, then serving at the Department of Defense, coined the phrase “self-licking ice cream cones” to describe a curiosity of Washington bureaucratic life.  This is defined as a process that offers few benefits and exists primarily to justify its own existence.

The U.S. embargo against Cuba is a classic example of the self-licking ice cream cone at work.  When champions of the hardline policy identify problems created by the embargo, they argue for increasing the sanctions that triggered the problems in the first place.

Consider Senator Marco Rubio’s essay, “Marco Rubio on the Russian Threat to the Western Hemisphere,” published last week in Power Line.  Russia, like other nations, Rubio explains, has leapt into a “leadership void” in Latin America –

The Obama Administration’s failure to pursue a consistent, meaningful and proactive strategy in Latin America has left a leadership void that not only Russia but also China, Iran, North Korea and others have been able to exploit. In recent years, we’ve seen each of these nations move aggressively to enhance their alliances in the region, and expand their defense and intelligence relationships.

Rubio seems to be living in a world in which the U.S. can control events in our hemisphere, or at least act as gatekeeper, determining which nations can enter Latin America and for what purpose; the kind of Monroe Doctrine world that has been declared deadover and over again.

As we report below, the President of China, Xi Jinping, wrapped up his tour of Latin America this week with three days of activities in Cuba, culminating with his visit to the Moncada Barracks where the Cuban Revolution dates its start, 61 years ago tomorrow.   But Xi, as AFP reports, also “made a point during his tour of reaching out to countries often shunned by US and European investors, including Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela.”

President Xi came to the region with other leaders of the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) for a summit, during which they announced the creation of a $50 billion bank for infrastructure projects and a $100 billion crisis reserve fund described as a “mini-IMF.”

German media described the purpose of creating banks to fund public works and credit in the region as offsetting “the clout of western financial institutions” as well as bolstering investment in infrastructure.

This is especially meaningful to Cuba.  The Helms-Burton law, enacted in 1996, requires the United States government to oppose Cuba’s admission to the International Monetary Fund and every other relevant international financial institution – such as the International Development Association and the Inter-American Development Bank – until the Cuban government is replaced.

In the meanwhile, the Obama Administration is aggressively enforcing sanctions on a global basis against financial institutions that do business with Cuba.  Small wonder, then, that “Cuban official media are closely following the creation of a new $100 billion development bank that may offer lower-cost lending alternatives outside the realm of Washington and Wall Street,” as reported by CubaStandard.com this week.

Helms-Burton also requires the U.S. to oppose and vote against Cuba’s entry into the Organization of American States.  Barring Cuba from the OAS also results in Cuba’s exclusion from meetings of the Summit of the Americas.  This, in turn, has led both to threats by nations in the Hemisphere to boycott the next summit scheduled to take place in Panama in 2015 and to the strengthening of Latin American institutions and initiatives that exclude the U.S. and Canada.  The self-licking ice cream cone licks on.

Paradoxically, the BRICS bank breakthrough led former President Fidel Castro to write about the summit’s concluding statement, the Fortaleza Declaration, in a reflection which praised the leaders because they recognized “the important role which state enterprises play in the economy, as well as small and medium sized companies, as creators of employment and wealth.”

While Fidel Castro was praising the private sector, Rubio was turning red at Russia’s reemergence as a player in Cuba, as we discussed recently here and here.  Rather than conceding the role that U.S. sanctions played in creating the void that the BRICS were filling this month, the Senator from Florida suggested that we double-down instead.  To punish Cuba for welcoming Putin back, Rubio writes:

“[The] U.S. must continue denying the Castro regime access to money it uses to oppress the Cuban people and invest in foreign policy initiatives that actively challenge and undermine U.S. interests. The Obama Administration should roll back the economic benefits it has extended to the Cuban regime, in the form of expanded U.S. travel and remittances…”

By this logic, if hardline policies haven’t freed Alan Gross, haven’t stopped oil development in the Gulf of Mexico, haven’t blocked Cuba from hosting peace talks between Colombia and the FARC, haven’t brought the Cuban economy to its knees, and haven’t rallied Latin American nations to our side, sanctions supporters have just one answer: tighten them more.

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Tilting at Windmills

May 16, 2014

At a time when Russia is strengthening its security alliance with Cuba and the European Union is moving to replace its Common Position of isolation with intensified diplomatic engagement, why is the United States still tilting at the windmills of the Cold War?

***

When our Cuba program began visiting the island over a decade ago, it was hard to find a Cuban who had a kind word to say about Russia. They felt betrayed.  Once the Soviet Union fell, and its subsidies were withdrawn, the Cuban economy and living standards collapsed.  “We lost our sense of the future,” a professor memorably told us.

Of course, during the Cold War, most Americans hated the Soviets (and Cuba) too.  As Dr. Lou Pérez reminds us in “Cuba as an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,” Cuba’s alliance with the U.S.S.R., and especially the Missiles of October in 1962, focused U.S. policy on “arresting and reversing” Soviet encroachment in the hemisphere and on “punishing Cuba for aiding and abetting Soviet expansion.”

For decades, we acted out this U.S. obsession, leaving deep scars across the hemisphere and punishing Cuba with sanctions that remain in place so long after the Cold War ended.

This history came to mind when Russia’s Security Council and Cuba’s Commission for National Security and Defense met in Moscow to sign a cooperation deal on security; a development that attracted virtually no press coverage; except, poetically, by the Voice of America. Cuba, for its part, is pursuing its self-interest and looking forward.

Europe has also put the Cold War in its rear-view mirror.  For years, former Eastern bloc nations kept the European Union from changing its policy of diplomatic isolation toward Cuba, what it called the “Common Position,” adopted the same year as the Helms-Burton law, though crafted with a lighter touch.

This year, however, the EU decided to replace isolation with engagement.  Its diplomats are directly talking to Cuban counterparts about trade and investment, development cooperation, governance and human rights.  A joint meeting concluded in Havana two weeks ago with a roadmap for moving forward, formal negotiations planned every two months, and an agreement to have “informal contacts,” as the Latin Post reported, in between.

It’s not possible from this vantage point to see where the EU-Cuba negotiations will lead.  But, they represent an important transformation by both sides; Cuba, as Carlos Alzugaray observed, entered the talks without preconditions.  He quotes Vice President Díaz Canel as saying the government would favor anything that can be constructed on the basis of respect.

What this means, ironically, is that Cuba and the EU have taken John Kerry’s advice, offered in his remarks before the OAS, when the Secretary of State envisioned Latin America as a region with  “Countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues, and adhering not to doctrine, but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.”

This is what the United States ought to be doing, too.  To his credit, President Obama restarted talks on migration and restoring mail service; he is also allowing scientists and environmentalists, even some with U.S. government jobs, to collaborate on the environment.

But, he has gone this far and not further.  Just this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roberta Jacobson, said publicly that Cuba must meet political preconditions before the U.S. will consider advancing the relationship.

Meanwhile, U.S. citizens are paying for costly schemes – like a self-help video with its “incredible disappearing $450,000 contract” discovered by Tracey Eaton, and ZunZuneo, USAID’s Twitter Trojan Horse, uncovered by the AP – that reflect the Cold War mentality of sneaking into Cuba through the backdoor, when our government ought to be engaging with Cuba openly and respectfully and with the region on the interests we share.

That means working with Panama to avert a region-wide boycott at next year’s Summit of the Americas by ensuring that Cuba, as Francisco Álvarez de Soto, Panama’s Foreign Minister, said, is “brought into the OAS and all their forums.” It means directly engaging with Cuba, as U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee and her delegation advocated, without preconditions, so we can finally obtain the release of Alan Gross.

***

People who seek a new relationship with Cuba are at worst called “appeasers.” At best, they are considered naïve.  That’s what his opponent called then-Senator Obama, when he talked about negotiating with Cuba in 2008.  We liked his position then, when he responded: “There’s nothing more naïve than continuing a policy that has failed for decades.”

But five years later, when Secretary Kerry told the OAS, “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is dead,” he couldn’t get many in the audience to applaud.  Perhaps they found him naïve.

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Adventures in Exceptionalism

October 25, 2013

We offer these thoughts a few days before the UN General Assembly votes on a resolution condemning the United States for the embargo against Cuba.

“For decades,” journalist Marc Frank reminds us in Cuban Revelations, “Cubans who left the island – especially for the United States – were considered traitors who were joining a foreign power’s attempts to overthrow the nation.”

In Cuba, this was the government’s rationale for restricting the liberties of all Cubans to leave and return to their country as they pleased.  But, a little more than two years ago, President Raúl Castro issued a strong signal that the weather was going to change.

Speaking before Cuba’s National Assembly, Castro said: “Today, the overwhelming number of Cubans are émigrés for economic reasons…What is a fact is that almost all of them maintain their love for the family and the homeland of their birth and, in different ways, demonstrate solidarity toward their compatriots.”

In January of this year, nearly all travel restrictions on Cubans were dismantled. Now, as we have noted previously, Cubans who want to travel to the U.S. face fewer restrictions than nearly all U.S. residents who want to travel to Cuba.  President Obama acted wisely to repeal the harsh restrictions his predecessor imposed on family travel in 2004. Now, the right of Cuban Americans to visit their families on the island is unlimited.  Upwards of 350,000 exercised that right just last year.

The president also reopened channels for people-to-people travel and, as we reported last week, non-Cuban American travel to Cuba has hit peak levels.  But, if you look at the numbers for 2012, you will see that the more than one million Canadians, more than 150,000 travelers from the U.K., and over one-hundred thousand tourists from Germany, Italy, and France exceeded the Americans (98,050) who got to visit Cuba, and none of them had to apply to their governments for a “license” in order to go.  We were the exception.

***

It is not new that the United States is criticized by friend and foe alike.  In October, however, the U.S. image has taken a pounding overseas; and, to be clear, this not a public relations problem.  The drumbeat got louder and more insistent over much larger issues.

Criticism of the U.S. spiked when the U.S. government was shut down, the nation’s credit rating was at risk, and Congress frightened bondholders and contractors with the threat that we would not pay our bills. China called for a “de-Americanized world.” A columnist in The Guardian wrote: “The rottenness of modern Washington makes outsiders gasp.”

Strong stuff, but nothing in comparison to the uproar caused by revelations that the growing global scandal over surveillance by the National Security Agency now encompassed the private communications of 35 world leaders.  This will multiply the backlash the U.S. already felt when Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff cancelled a state visit over reports of U.S. snooping in her country and her private office.

Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is especially incensed.  As USA Today reports, she told President Obama that “spying among friends cannot be,” there needs to be trust among allies and partners, and that “such trust now has to be built anew.”

Foreign Policy is reporting that Germany and Brazil are joining forces “to press for the adoption of a U.N. General Resolution that promotes the right of privacy on the Internet,” that would extend the coverage of Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to the online world.

This Article states “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to unlawful attacks on his honor and reputation,” and that “everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.”

If the amendment happens what difference will make it?  The U.S. Senate waited sixteen years to adopt the covenant and, when it did so, it added fourteen reservations, understandings, and declarations that so denuded its force that scholars said the U.S. had perpetrated a fraud on the global community.

Two weeks ago, the United States was among 15 member nations scheduled to have their human rights records reviewed by a UN committee in Geneva, and NSA spying was already “slated for discussion.”  But, the U.N. Human Rights Committee cancelled the U.S. review and rescheduled it for March 2014.

“The USA highlights its regret at having to make such a request, which is due to the ongoing government shutdown,” the committee said.  Fourteen other countries were reviewed.  For the U.S., they had to make an exception.

***

On October 29th, when the General Assembly votes on its 22nd resolution to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, the U.S. will again stand virtually alone in asserting the rightness of our views.  In President Obama’s first term, Ambassador Ronald Godard argued that the U.N. had no business even debating the question, because the U.S. had a “sovereign right” to punish Cuba for its political system as part of its bilateral policies.  “Butt out;” he seemed to say, “this is America’s right to do as it pleases.”

This idea, grounded in the notion of American exceptionalism, so pervasive in U.S. foreign policy, combines our faith in the “rightness of our cause” with our overwhelming power.

Recent events demonstrate just how damaging this attitude can be.  It leads this country to impose its will in ways that hurt our interests internationally, harms the alleged beneficiaries locally, and causes them to turn against us politically.

The embargo may seem a small thing to many in the U.S.  It is, in fact, a much larger and more powerful symbol than many understand.  Reversing it will not only help Cubans lead better lives, it could be a small step in a bigger effort to change how the U.S. is perceived and received in the world.  Someday, we hope that President Obama acts to dismantle the embargo, remove all travel restrictions, and put us on course for a normal relationship with Cuba.

It won’t solve all of our problems.  But it would make him truly exceptional.

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From Guantánamo to Key West: Fresh thinking on Cuba

September 6, 2013

If you are looking for news accounts of Diana Nyad’s swim across the straits, or the still-grounded airplane that can’t fly or broadcast news to Cuba, but can still waste taxpayers’ money, scroll down.

But, if you’re ready for some fresh thinking about U.S. policy toward Cuba, look here.

In a soon-to-be published report, Michael Parmly, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba, offers a detailed plan for addressing the problem of detainees imprisoned at Guantánamo. It deals with migration and refugee resettlement issues, and maintains the Navy’s presence in the Caribbean, while returning to Cuba rightful ownership of territory that’s been under U.S. control for over a century.

Parmly, a veteran U.S. diplomat, served in Cuba during a tumultuous period, when President Bush tried to terminate travel to the island by Cuban Americans, and ramped up regime-change efforts on the island.

The crucial theme sounded in the report centers on the sovereign rights of the Cuban people. Saying that the issue of Guantánamo “goes far beyond the question of the detainees,” Parmly writes: “If we want to be truly democratic about the question, the owners are the Cuban people. Yet they have never been asked their opinion.”

After he establishes the historic foundation for Cuba’s right to the territory, Parmly offers a thoughtful solution for adjudicating the cases of the detainees in ways that protect U.S. security and that, in his view, live up to U.S. obligations on human rights and international law.

Getting there requires diplomacy. Here, Parmly relies on his experience working on the negotiation of the Panama Canal Treaties and his insight into Cuba’s current leadership. He believes that President Raúl Castro would negotiate an agreement in Cuba’s interests that achieves these results.

The case he presents – founded on U.S. economic, foreign policy, and national security interests – complicates the lives of hardline exiles, who argue that Guantánamo should remain a U.S. possession until Cuba’s government is replaced. It will also be controversial for those who have long objected to U.S. conduct of what the previous administration called the global war on terror.

In other words, he suggests infusing fresh, creative thinking into a policy that has been frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness two decades after almost everyone celebrated the end of the Cold War.

Mr. Parmly’s paper, published by the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, will be available online later this month in a special edition of Fletcher Forum, marking the school’s 80th anniversary.

In 2009, CDA interviewed Dr. Peter G. Bourne, the Special Assistant on Health Issues during the Carter Administration, about the status of Guantánamo, and former president Fidel Castro’s vision for turning the naval base into an international medical center. The interview is available here.

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A Summer Reflection on the Right to Travel (in both directions)

August 16, 2013

When you last read the Cuba Central News Blast, our team headed out on vacation even as we awaited word about the intrepid Ben Friberg, trying to become the first paddle boarder to cross the Florida Strait from Cuba’s Port Hemingway to Key West, Florida.

With our vacation behind us, and summer’s end just before us, we were reminded how much we love travel and how the cause of restoring the rights of all Americans to travel freely to Cuba motivated us to create this news summary in the first place.

Ten years ago, travel rights hung in tatters. After President Clinton encouraged family travel, permitted all U.S. residents to send remittances, allowed more direct flights to Cuba, and opened broad categories of people-to-people travel, President George W. Bush totally reversed course.

His administration wanted to design a new, Made in America future for the Cuban people. He ended people-to-people travel.  He tightened limits on family travel and humanitarian assistance by executive action.  He convened a Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, which wanted to cut off travel in the belief they could bring the Cuban system to its knees by curtailing the flow of most tourist revenue to its government.

The Bush administration’s coordinator of the Office of Cuban Affairs calculated that travel restrictions cost the Cuban economy $375 million annually, and said in a speech in Miami: “To my way of thinking, these measures are already having their effect, and we are seeing it now in Cuba.  Will it move us toward that which we want, a democratic transition?  We don’t know…”

Well, we know: the policy didn’t produce changes in Cuba, but it kept blinders on the Americans who wanted to visit the island, so they couldn’t compare what U.S. government policy said about Cuba to the Cuban reality itself.  As Aldous Huxley famously said, “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.”  U.S. policy allowed for no such discoveries, which is why the pro-sanctions crowd really finds travel restrictions so useful.

But, they never could shut off the tourists from every other nation who could visit Cuba without asking their government’s permission to go.  Any void created by the absence of U.S. visitors continues to be filled by tourists from the region and the rest of the world, more than a million and a half of whom visited Cuba in just the first six months of 2013.

To his credit, President Obama has taken steps to restore unlimited family travel for Cuban Americans, reopen people-to-people travel, allow more U.S. airports to serve the Cuban market, and renew opportunities for sending remittances to qualified Cubans for all U.S. residents.

We still haven’t reached the goal – freedom to travel for Americans – and the restrictions on U.S. travelers to Cuba remain tight.  The Associated Press bureau in Havana said it well earlier this summer:

“While millions of tourists visit Cuba each year from Canada, Europe and elsewhere, Washington’s 51-year-old economic embargo still outlaws most American travel to the island. However, tens of thousands of U.S. citizens are now visiting legally each year on cultural exchange trips. These so-called people-to-people tours are rigidly scheduled to comply with embargo rules...”

That said, when American travelers in increasing numbers can see Cuba’s architecture and cultural origins, reach out to its Jewish and gay communities, and experience its environmental diversity, on trips licensed by the U.S. Treasury; and when U.S. policy goes further, and loosens restrictions on the ability of Cubans to visit our country, thanks to epic staff work at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, as reported by Fox News, these are all steps in the right direction.

A year ago, the State Department told Congress that the president’s new travel policies were achieving its goals:  As Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said, “The administration’s travel, remittance and people-to-people policies are helping Cubans by providing alternative sources of information, taking advantage of emerging opportunities for self-employment and private property, and strengthening independent civil society.”

The administration should do more.  Members of Congress are urging President Obama to expand people-to-people travel by making it permissible under a general license, and now is certainly the right time for him to act. The summer travel season may be ending here, but the need to secure two-way travel rights for all Cubans and all U.S. residents goes on.

One other thing:  Ben Friberg will go down in history as the first paddle boarder to cross from Cuba’ to the U.S., Caribbean 360 reports. He made the 28-hour, 111-mile journey: “to promote peace and understanding between Cuba and the US and to promote a healthy lifestyle.”  In doing so, he also became a symbol for the right to travel.

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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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With Boston in our thoughts

April 19, 2013

This was a violent, disheartening week in the United States.  A town called West, Texas was knocked down by an explosion at a fertilizer plant that claimed at least a dozen lives and injured hundreds of others.  Survivors of the Sandy Hook Elementary School and other massacres watched with broken hearts as the U.S. Senate voted to do nothing about gun safety.

But these events were surpassed by the suffering inflicted on Boston and its marathon.  It began with terrorism at the finish line, where bystanders were killed and grievously wounded, as were runners trying to complete the race.  As we went to press, there was more: a campus police officer murdered at MIT, gun battles, a metropolitan-wide lockdown, and rampant fear.

This incident stung us for obvious reasons, but also because, as Governor Deval Patrick reminded us, “Massachusetts invented America.”  Even at a time when the United States is so disunited, Massachusetts with its special place in America’s history and civic ideals was also able to connect us and bring us closer together.

Starting when we learned something was horribly wrong on Boylston Street, there were stories of women and men rising to their better selves; Samaritans coming to the aid of strangers; Cuba and other nations expressing their condolences; reporters and others insisting that lies be brought to heel with the truth, because facts, like the size of the casualty count, matter, and because no victim (and no nation) should be wrongfully accused of committing or supporting terrorism.

In his eternal inaugural address, President John Kennedy, a son of Massachusetts, brought the Cold War to the center of his foreign policy, when he said “Let all our neighbors know that we shall join with them to oppose aggression or subversion anywhere in the Americas.”  But, he also said, just a few sentences later, “let us begin anew – remembering on both sides that civility is not a sign of weakness, and sincerity is always subject to proof.  Let us never negotiate out of fear.  But let us never fear to negotiate.”

Fifty years ago, as Peter Kornbluh explains (behind the pay wall in The Nation), the Kennedy administration made a diplomatic approach to Cuba’s government that resulted in Cubans imprisoned in the U.S. and Americans, including CIA agents, behind bars in Cuba returning to their homes.  He offers this example of James Donovan’s ‘metadiplomacy’ to show how normal relations between the U.S. and Cuba are possible, when we do not fear to negotiate.

Civility is not weakness.  There are prisoners still left to be freed, a terrorism policy that must be applied based not on politics but the facts, lessons to be learned from the displays this week of humility and humanity, public officials who must rise to their better selves.  Boston reminds us: this work can truly be our own.

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Happy International Women’s Day…for all

March 8, 2013

March 8th is International Women’s Day.

It started more than a century ago to call attention to the struggles of women who worked as garment workers.

Now, it’s a global celebration; it still shines a spotlight on the harsh conditions that women confront, but also reminds us that making progress on women’s rights as human rights, equal access to economic opportunity and political power, will bring us closer to a more just world.

To join the celebration, our organization, the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), released this report, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

It examines progress made by Cuban women toward gender equality since the 1950s and discusses how that progress can be sustained in the future.

We published the report after two years of fact-finding, collaboration with Cuban and U.S. scholars, and four research trips to the island, during which we interviewed dozens of Cuban women who spoke candidly to us about their lives, their gripes, and their aspirations.

In it, you will hear the voice of Emilia, an auditor who speaks three languages. She says, “I was born in the Revolution.  It has given me opportunities.” Mimi, an academic, who was told by a manager not to get married or have kids, discusses sexism in the workplace.  Barbara, a small business woman, who tells us about the decision making, the ability to save money, and the feelings of independence that come from being her own boss.

The story in Cuba is really interesting and really complex.  In the mid-1950s, the Cuban revolution made gender equality an important part of its political project.  After coming to power, Cuba’s government acted on its commitments and began addressing widespread attitudes that held women and a lot of other Cubans back.

If you just look at the numbers, the progress is extraordinary.  According to Save the Children, Cuba scores first among developing countries in maternal mortality, live births attended by health care personnel, female life expectancy at birth, and other factors.  It has tripled the number of Cuban women who work.  It has fulfilled the Millennium Development Goals for primary education, gender equality and reducing infant mortality.

These accomplishments are met with skepticism, even disbelief, by some in the U.S.; because Cuba has a tiny economy, it is not capitalist or rich and, by U.S. standards, it is not free.

But, it is also the case that these numbers don’t tell the full story.

Measured against key objectives of gender equality – do women have access to higher-paying jobs; can they achieve a fair division of labor at work and home; are they acceding to positions of real power in the communist party or government– Cuban women told us their country has a long way to go.

What about the future?  To address its economic problems, Cuba is taking steps to update its economic model – for example, cutting state jobs, and reallocating spending on health and education programs – that propelled women forward.  As Cuban scholars tell us, these actions could have real repercussions for women and gender equality.

So, the report concludes with recommendations about the role Cuban women can play in building their country’s future.

Because we believe that having a stable and prosperous Cuba ninety miles from our shores is in the national interest of the United States, our recommendations include steps the U.S. can take to signal its support for women and Cuba’s economic reforms writ large.

We are not alone in holding this view.  As Jane Harman, who served in the U.S. House and who is director, president and chief executive of the Woodrow Wilson Center, told the New York Times:  “Whether or not one favors major change in U.S. policy toward Cuba (which I personally do), shining light on the need to make Cuban women full partners in Cuba’s future is in everyone’s interest.”

You’d think the administration would agree.  After all, President Obama released a statement for International Women’s Day saying “Empowering women isn’t just the right thing to do – it’s the smart thing to do.”

But smart wouldn’t describe U.S. policy toward Cuba.  As Dr. Cynthia McClintock at George Washington University says, “It’s a contradiction. Here’s a country which has been doing well at this (gender equality) but we don’t want to deal with it.”

After failing for so long, it’s time for the U.S. to engage with Cuba differently.  If policymakers accepted Cubans’ humanity and ran U.S. foreign policy accordingly, we could support women, start repairing our relations with Cuba, and remove an irritant that has long divided us from the region.   That is why we hope Congress and the Executive Branch really pay attention to what we report and recommend.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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