6th Anniversary edition: Arson, Oil, Economic Reform, and Supporting the Cardinal

June 8, 2012

This week, when you read the news summary—and our analysis of the news about oil drilling in Cuba, economic reform, attacks on travel in Congress, and attacks on Cardinal Ortega on Radio Marti – don’t forget how it all came together.

The Cuba Central News Team travels to Cuba, takes Members of Congress to the island, does the research and the translation, gets the access and asks the right questions, in order to get the reporting  right….on Cuba and developments in U.S. policy in Washington.

We deliver this package week after week, every Friday, before we close up and head home for the weekend.  We deliver the news and we don’t pull punches when talking about the need to reform Cuba policy and normalize relations.

Cuba Central is a project of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA) – a non-profit, non-governmental organization based here in DC.  We take no government money, of course, but instead depend on the generosity of people like you, who appreciate what we do and share our love for the power of the written word and even more powerful ideas.

In a little over a week our organization is celebrating its sixth anniversary.  In the spirit of that milestone, we are asking you to join with us, even if you can’t be here in person to raise a glass, by supporting our work.

If you like the work we do – and you want us to continue delivering the news to you each week in the way that only we can do it – please consider making a donation to CDA today.

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Deportations for Visiting Cuba?

June 1, 2012

It must be “Kick the Weak Week” in the U.S. Congress.

How else could one explain why Representative David Rivera’s bill, to rescind the residency status of Cubans living in the U.S. if they visit the island, could receive the dignity of a hearing in the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Enforcement Policy?

This is a uniquely bad piece of legislation.

Under the Cuban Adjustment Act, Cubans who arrive in the U.S. are allowed to remain in the country and can request residency a year after their arrival.  Following this period, they qualify for the liberty –denied almost all U.S. citizens— to visit Cuba freely under the rights restored by President Obama for unlimited family travel.

Rivera – like other hardliners – opposes all travel by anyone to Cuba and has tried various tactics in recent years to stop Cuban Americans from visiting the island.  Last August, he introduced legislation to revoke the residency status of any Cuban who returns to Cuba after receiving political asylum and residency in the United States.

As Rivera unapologetically describes it, “My legislation simply says that any Cuban national who receives political asylum and residency under the Cuban Adjustment Act, and travels to Cuba while still a resident, will have their residency status revoked.”

This sets up a horrible choice for these Cubans living in the U.S.  As Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group explained to the Subcommittee, it would “force all Cuban immigrants who want to maintain stable legal status in the United States to give up visiting family in Cuba.”

The group Rivera is targeting is significant.   About 400,000 family visits take place each year.  As Alvaro Fernandez reported in Progreso Weekly, “I asked one of the executives who charters flights to Cuba what percentage of persons would be affected by H.R. 2831. His answer was a startling almost 50% of persons who travel to Cuba are not yet U.S. citizens.”

What is the justification for a law that would stop hundreds of thousands of Cubans from physically being in contact with members of their family in Cuba?

Rivera and his allies make a series of claims that the Cuban Adjustment Act is being abused and they are trying to save it by stopping Cubans living in the U.S. from visiting Cuba.

In his testimony, Rivera said “Increasingly, Cuban-Americans are citing family reunification to justify travel that in reality more closely resembles common tourism and other unauthorized travel involving everything from plastic surgery to fifteens parties and weddings, to even sexual tourism.”

He went on to claim “In many cases, those Cubans traveling are also recipients of U.S. taxpayer-funded welfare programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, Food Stamps, public housing and cash assistance.  In these cases, U.S. taxpayers are actually subsidizing travel to a country that has been designated a sponsor of terrorism by our government.”

Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC advised the Subcommittee in his testimony that some of these individuals were committing immigration fraud saying that Cubans who returned to the island to visit their families could not have come to the U.S. as legitimate refugees from oppression.

This is not about protecting the Cuban Adjustment Act.  It’s not in any danger of repeal.  Nor is this about subsidizing travel to Cuba with Social Security funds; of course, naturalized Cuban-Americans can use their benefits to pay for Cuba travel anytime.  It will come as no surprise that Congressman Rivera himself on his webpage offers to help any senior citizen in his district to determine their Medicare eligibility, and never once refers to this program as “welfare.”

No.  This is a travel ban.  It is simply another backdoor attempt to stop people, any people, from traveling to Cuba.  The targets in this round are entirely vulnerable:  migrants seeking refuge in the U.S.  By definition, they’re not registered voters and they’re mostly powerless, so it’s pretty easy to kick the weak, call them welfare recipients and fraudsters, and threaten them with deportation for the simple and decent act of trying to visit their families.

It’s a travel ban using a pretty heavy stick.  As Rep. Lofgren said, it “turns the act of travel to Cuba into a deportable offense.” She added:

No matter what the reason for stepping foot in Cuba, you lose your status. If you go to visit family members you haven’t seen in years, you lose your status. If you go to attend a funeral or donate a kidney to a dying relative, you lose your status. If you go to meet with Cuban dissidents with the aim of transitioning Cuba to a democracy, you lose your status.

Fortunately, Rep. Lofgren was not alone in her opposition to the bill.  Tomas Bilbao, executive director of the Cuba Study Group, expressed particularly powerful views in his testimony before the panel.   Working the case from the outside were members of CAFÉ, the newly formed Cuban American organization, which wrote the Subcommittee and urged them to defeat the bill.  Progreso Weekly has issued an action alert urging opponents to make their views known to policy makers as well.  Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas protested the bill in an interview with EFE.  Anya Landau French editorialized against it in the Havana Note.

Ideally, these efforts and others like them will prevent the bill from being enacted.  The legislation is unjust, its aim is to divide families, it is using strong-armed tactics against a weak population that is unrepresented in the U.S. Congress, and it won’t realize its goal – to stop travel and thereby undermine the Cuban system.   But that won’t stop the hardliners from trying.

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A visa “compromise” detrimental to the interests of the United States

May 18, 2012

You know how Washington works (when it works).  Opposing factions come together and “give something to get something.”  At a time when the machinery of government is so obviously broken, some would argue that more compromise is needed.

For a variety of reasons, a compromise that the Obama administration seems to have brokered – with whom we do not know – has badly backfired and compromised some pretty important principles.  It comes as no surprise that this story is about an egregious misstep on Cuba.

By way of background, the Latin America Studies Association (or “LASA”) will meet next week in San Francisco.   LASA, the most important organization of scholars who study the region, stopped coming to the U.S. for its meetings because the U.S. would not grant visas to Cubans who wanted to participate and it decided not to return to the U.S. until the problem was fixed.

Or so it thought. For next week’s conference, approximately 80 Cubans were invited and applied for visas so they could enter the United States to do so. According to this afternoon’s State Department Daily Press Briefing, of 77 received applications, 60 have been approved, 11 were denied and 6 are pending – for a conference that begins just five days from today.

Who got selected and who got rejected?  Mariela Castro Espin, the renowned champion of gay rights who heads the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, who previously visited the United States under a visa granted by the administration of George W. Bush, was among those Cubans allowed entry to attend LASA next week.

But Soraya Castro Marino, who came to the U.S. in 2010 as a visiting scholar at Harvard was, according to The Washington Post, “found ineligible this time because her presence would ‘detrimental to the interests of the United States’.”  Rafael Hernandez, a scholar who also taught at Harvard and the University of Texas, Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban Ambassador to the European Union, Oscar Zanetti, the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and a scholar at American University, and several others who had previously received visas from the administration over the last several year were denied visas now –  because their presence would be detrimental to the U.S.

The Obama administration is enforcing no consistent principle for determining who should enter and attend LASA.  If decision makers thought welcoming some and turning away others would win them plaudits they were sadly mistaken.

Phil Brenner, a professor and Cuba scholar at American University, called the decisions “arbitrary, shameful, and cowardly.”  He observed that many of the scholars denied visas “have a history of advocating for improved relations with the United States.”  Ted Piccone, an official at the Brookings Institution who was expecting Carlos Alzugaray at an upcoming event, called it “baffling.  I wish I knew what their thinking was.”

If the administration’s strategy was to buy cheap grace with the hardliners who oppose any dialogue or engagement with Cuba by denying visas to some of Cuba’s most open and incisive intellectuals, this was a total failure.

As the Miami Herald reported, the decision to issue a visa to Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, drew “irate criticism” from Cuban Americans in Congress.

Senator Bob Menendez said the U.S. government and LASA should not be “in the business of providing a totalitarian regime, like the one in Cuba, with a platform for which to espouse its twisted rhetoric.”  Senator Marco Rubio called the decision an “outrageous and enormous mistake.”  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called the decision “beyond comprehension.”

The administration was wrong to compromise not just because it satisfied no one or because no one “gave something to get something.”  It was wrong because the compromise was truly detrimental to the interests of the United States.

The U.S. has a policy of punishing Cuba because we object to features of the Cuban system that limit the rights of travel and expression.  The policy has accomplished none of its stated objectives for half a century.   Our government undermines whatever moral credibility the policy has left by stopping intellectuals from Cuba – who think freely and speak openly about repairing the U.S.-Cuban relationship – from traveling to our country so they could participate in an academic conference…for goodness sakes.

Is it possible that one Cuban invited to attend LASA could utter what Senator Menendez calls “twisted rhetoric” if given the chance?  Perhaps.  But we think our country is strong enough to withstand the shock.  And even if what the Cubans have to say isn’t controversial, we should be committed to their right to come and speak.  That is, what might call, the American way.

Obama should reverse the denials and welcome them in.

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