The anti-isolationist, pro-free trade, Cuba embargo supporters

September 19, 2014

This week, two staunch defenders of the U.S. embargo against Cuba came out against isolationism and in favor of expanding global trade.

Huh?

Not that he didn’t mean it – although the AP headline, “Sen. Rubio adopts role of foreign policy hawk,” suggests otherwise – Senator Rubio gave a speech and published an op-ed marking clear lines between those he deems “isolationist,” including President Obama, former Secretary Clinton, and Senator Rand Paul, and those who understand the dangers of the world by involving themselves and our country in them.

The speech, as it appeared to the Washington Times, was part of Rubio’s larger political strategy, because he is “considering seeking the 2016 presidential nomination.” That logic we understand. But, it’s hard to reconcile Rubio’s interest in stopping flights to Cuba by American travelers and condemning investment overtures by the U.S. business community, with his principled opposition to isolationism.

Then, his colleague, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, gave flight on Twitter in favor of expanding trade and creating more jobs in South Florida. This made perfect sense, economically and politically. In the metro area where her South Florida district is located, exports in 2013 alone totaled $41 billion and accounted for 67% of Florida’s total merchandise exports, according to figures from the U.S. Commerce Department.

We get it. It’s good to be for jobs. However, it’s hard to reconcile her tweet for trade with her deeply personal criticisms of Floridians who seek to sell agriculture exports to Cuba. She once said of these Florida farmers, “They mask their greed with this veneer of humanitarianism but Mother Teresa they are not.” More recently, she called Alfonso Fanjul, a leader of the exile community, “pathetic” and “shameful,” because he wants to return to Cuba as an investor doing business in the sugar industry.

What she’s done is more than throw shade on her constituents. All of U.S. agriculture is affected by food export restrictions she supports, put into place by President George W. Bush. Corn and soy producers are still working Washington to get these barriers taken down 14 years after food sales to Cuba were legalized.

In their statements, Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen are doing more than grandstanding. We focus on them now – as we did two weeks ago after their staff members visited China on a junket paid for by the Chinese government – because their risible double-standards shouldn’t distract us from the serious human impacts of their policies to isolate Cuba, diplomatically and economically.

They support immigration policies which incentivize Cubans to take to rafts to gain entry into the United States, policies that just contributed to the largest death toll from any migrant boat disaster in more than two decades. Those policies also resulted in a criminal indictment of a Miami businessman who financed the operation that smuggled Yasiel Puig out of Cuba, who was then held captive in Mexico to extort a promise to pay the smugglers 20% of his future earnings.

At a time when Cuba is sending 165 medical professionals to fight the Ebola outbreak in Africa, they also support the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which is still working to accelerate the Cuban brain drain, when the U.S. should be backing every country responding to this humanitarian crisis, including Cuba.

None of this will lift the spirits of Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, who is about to observe Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, for the fifth consecutive year in a Havana prison. He was convicted for activities financed by the Helms-Burton law, whose purpose is to overthrow Cuba’s government, activities that Rubio and Ros-Lehtinen both support.

Mr. Gross, we’re sure, won’t appreciate the irony of Senator Rubio, a declared opponent of diplomacy with Cuba to gain his release, now pledging his allegiance to the cause of anti-isolationism. Or that Rep. Ros-Lehtinen, devoted to trade as she is, is also a proudly committed obstacle to a deal swapping the remainder of the Cuban Five to secure his freedom.

It is diplomacy, not irony, that will lead to his release.

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Labor Day Weekend “No Apologies” Edition

August 29, 2014

Dear Friends:

Thank you for welcoming us back.

While we were on holiday last week, the Associated Press reported, “The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general has determined Jay-Z and Beyonce’s fifth-anniversary trip to Cuba last year was legal under rules allowing educational travel to the island.”

Did the AP get this story wrong? After all, Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart reached his own conclusion more than one year ago without going through the “formality” of an investigation: “It has become obvious that, in this case, the line into tourism was crossed. The Beyoncé and Jay-Z trip is a high profile example of why the ‘people-to-people’ category of travel should be eliminated. It amounts to tourism.”

Yet, after the Inspector General issued a report saying,we believe OFAC’s determination that there was no apparent violation of U.S. sanctions with respect to Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s trip to Cuba was reasonable (emphasis added),” we visited the Congressman’s Media Center and found no evidence that he’d retracted his statement.

As Stephen Colbert is fond of saying, we accept your apology.

Time and again, we’ve seen this “never explain, never apologize, never retract” strategy used by hardline defenders of U.S. sanctions over the years.

Remember when Cuba’s government scrapped the exit visa requirement established five decades ago that made it impossible for nearly all of Cuba’s citizens to travel abroad? At that time, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen dismissed the reform as propaganda. She said, “These so-called reforms are nothing more than Raúl Castro’s desperate attempts to fool the world into thinking that Cuba is changing, but anyone who knows anything about the communist 53-year old Castro dictatorship knows that Cuba will only be free when the Castro family and its lackeys are no longer on the scene.”

On behalf of the 185,000 plus Cubans who traveled abroad last year, including 66,000 to the U.S., and on behalf of Cuban dissidents –Guillermo Fariñas who received his Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought after he traveled to Europe last year, and Yoani Sánchez, welcomed from Miami to the White House – we accept her apology, too.

Remember when it seemed like every poll conducted in Florida and nationally supported rolling back the embargo and normalizing relations with Cuba? When Florida International University’s 2014 survey showed that Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargo, ending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – by the widest majority the survey has ever recorded?

Mauricio Claver-Carone, who supports increasing sanctions on Cuba, told readers of his blog to dismiss the findings of this highly regarded poll, saying “FIU has gone from having its polls sponsored by ideological non-profit organizations to ideological, for-profit lobbyists.” As a lobbyist himself immersed in partisan and ideological causes, this was hardly a strong argument against FIU’s data, confirmed by so many others.

Not to be outdone, when a reporter with the New York Times said to Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, “Regardless of just the Cuban-American community, the American public, clearly a majority supports a change in policy in Cuba,” he responded, “That is an absolute lie.”

Gentlemen, you may start your apologies.

We could talk about the deceptive defenses of USAID’s Cuba programs, when Rep. Albio Sires, Democrat from New Jersey, was fast to his fax machine to issue his statement,“There is nothing new here.” We could also talk about their attacks on Cuba’s economic reforms, which have already enabled about 500,000 Cubans to find meaningful work, better pay, and greater autonomy in the private sector, and much more.

But, we don’t expect to hear apologies or anybody saying “I am sorry,” during this Labor Day weekend. We expect, instead, they’re out traveling like everyone else.

But, after Senator Marco Rubio compared coming to Cuba to visiting a zoo; after he scolded Tom Donohue of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for going to Cuba, because “the U.S. should not make it easier for the Castro regime to enrich itself and fund its repression with American dollars”; after Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen cited the Smithsonian for engaging in legal travel to the island, saying “It is deeply disappointing that the Smithsonian [Institution], primarily funded by American taxpayers, is facilitating access to U.S. dollars, which enables the Castro regime to make a hefty profit,” it would be nice if they were called to account for what they have said about travel, and spent at least one weekend feasting on their own words and at their own expense.

Then, perhaps Jay-Z and Beyonce could tell them, “apology accepted.”

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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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