Friends Don’t Let Congress Drive Cuba Policy

August 1, 2014

Congress spent a month spinning itself into a frenzy over the crisis at the southern border of the U.S.

But, after weeks of photo ops, accusations that the Obama Administration created the crisis and failed to stop it, and shameful efforts to marginalize the children who fled poverty and violence in order to get here, nothing happened.

The least productive Congress in modern history has spun itself into a ditch.  It has made the migration crisis so dire and so toxic that even punitive legislation to fix it became too hot to handle.  Backed up against their own deadline for the August recess, neither the House nor the Senate could find enough votes to pass even band aid-sized fixes to a greater than tourniquet-sized problem.

As of this publication, the House leadership is considering how to press forward – making the legislation meaner to migrants, which dooms the bill to failure – or by taking the moral highroad and driving off on vacation.  In the meanwhile, both House Appropriations Chairman Harold Rogers (KY-5) and Speaker John Boehner issued statements telling the President to sweep up the mess by taking executive action (ironic, given the recent House decision to sue him for using his authority to implement health care reform).

There are media reports, such as here by the Wall Street Journal, saying the President will take broad action by September to address the crisis without waiting any longer for Congress to act.

While some in Congress hope the President will take executive action to fix the border, we and others have been urging the President to use his authority to make further reforms to U.S.-Cuba policy.

But, as the 44 signers of the letter supporting executive action on travel, negotiating with Cuba, and other issues, reminded President Obama in May, “Timing matters and this window of opportunity may not remain open indefinitely.”

What could close the window?  U.S. politics, as bad as it is, is likely to get worse.  There are just ninety-five days until the midterm elections take place; 156 days until the new Congress is seated.

What happens if today’s gridlocked Congress gives way to a 114th Session of Congress dominated by one party, as even non-partisan pundits predict today, and it takes on President Obama aggressively as he ends his term and the parties nominate candidates to replace him?  Does the window close and, if so, what happens to the hope for executive action then?

What happens if Charlie Crist, candidate for Governor in Florida, who has come out as anti-embargo and considered traveling to Cuba, is defeated in November by incumbent Governor Rick Scott in what is then interpreted as a referendum on Cuba policy reform?  What happens then?

What happens as policy changes that take long lead times – for example, solving the problem of a hemispheric boycott of the Summit of the Americas by inviting Cuba to participate – are eclipsed due to the passage of time?  What happens then?

What happens if Alan Gross’s physical health and mental state are as precarious as his legal team indicates?  If his condition deteriorates further, what happens then?

What happens if there is an abrupt change in the political structure in Cuba given the advanced ages of its senior leadership?  How could the window stay open then?

The President’s authority to take significant actions that reform Cuba policy, that free Alan Gross, whose imprisonment remains the chief obstacle to warming relations, and that speed the U.S. toward normalization, is greater than most people realize.  Once the Supreme Court acts, perhaps later this year, on a case with implications for the foreign policy powers of the presidency, the extent of his authority to make really big changes in U.S. – Cuba relations could grow larger still.

However, it is not the President’s power but his willingness to use it, given the political space he has and the time constraints that face him, which is pivotal now.  What also matters deeply – and we’re told, may matter more than many of us know – is whether the government in Havana understands just how close we are to the window of opportunity slamming shut.

President Obama’s actions in his first term to expand travel for Cuban families and people-to-people exchanges – described as modest here and disregarded as domestic politics by some in Cuba – continue to provide big benefits.  But, he can and should do a lot more.

To get there, it is President Obama and not Congress who must drive policy.  But, he should start revving the engine now before it is too late.

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Opening the Flawed Gates

October 19, 2012

In the U.S. and overseas, Cuba’s government has been criticized for limiting the travel rights of its own citizens.  Those restrictions are often cited as an obstacle to the improvement of bi-lateral relations.  But now, change has come.

Today, we explain this new Cuban government policy that offers its citizens a path for both exit and return, and talk about what it means.  Finally, we ask whether Washington will simply ignore what has occurred, or react in a meaningful way.

This is news.  Effective January 14, 2013, the Cuban government will abolish the widely resented and costly exit visa and the accompanying invitation letter that Cubans have been required to obtain in order to travel abroad.  The reforms to the 1976 Migratory Law and 1978 Migratory Law Regulations, published in the Official Gazette, herald an enormous change.

As explained in Granma, the new migratory regulations were adopted as a “sovereign decision by the Cuban state [and] do not constitute an isolated act, but are rather an important component of the irreversible process underway to normalize relations with the country’s émigré community.”

Cuban Americans For Engagement (CAFÉ), whose members have been holding talks with representatives of Cuba’s government about eliminating barriers to reconciliation between Cubans on the island and in the diaspora, see this reform as evidence that engagement is the key to bringing about change.

Enthusiasm over this development has future travelers forming long lines at immigration offices to take advantage of the current passport fee, which will nearly double to $100 in mid-January. This price hike has prompted Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to dismiss the move as merely cosmetic and transferring the costs associated with the exit visa to the process of passport issuance. But the Senator is misinformed. In fact, the new law cuts costs by a third.

As we understand, the current fees for travel documents are roughly: passport, $55; exit visa, $150; and invitation letter, $100 and up. Under the new law, the passport will be the only necessary document. Those already holding a passport in January (including those standing in line today) will be able to get a free stamp to upgrade it to the new system.

Moreover, the permitted length of stay abroad has been expanded from 11 months to 24 months. This leads to major potential savings because Cubans are, and will continue to be, charged a monthly fee for extensions. The amount of this fee will remain unchanged. On the other hand, the law stipulates terms for pensioners to continue receiving their income while abroad or to designate a substitute recipient.

Although the reforms clearly delineate who will be considered eligible for a passport and travel and who will not, the wording in some instances is vague enough as to be open to interpretation. For example, one category of ineligible individuals includes those whose absence would hinder the preservation of a qualified workforce. But it should hardly come as a surprise the Cuba’s government would try to “attenuate the effects” of brain-drain, as Jesús Arboleya Cervera explains in Progreso Weekly, which “limits the development of Third-World countries.”

Less noticed, the reforms are not a one way street. For example, of special interest to Cubans who have absconded over the years while on authorized travel, starting next year, émigrés will be able to apply to recoup their residency directly at any of Cuba’s embassies or consulates.

There is fine print and more to learn, but on the whole, this is very good news.  Cuba moves closer to the travel freedoms for its citizens as urged by the human rights community.  Most Cuban citizens, come January, will be able to think, practically, about exit and return to the island, about employment elsewhere and sending money home to relatives.  This strikes a blow for the autonomy of everyday Cubans and the vitality of the Cuban economy.

To date, our State Department hasn’t offered much reaction.  When asked at her press briefing whether the U.S. would react positively to the reforms, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said:

MS. NULAND: Well, as you know, we’ve been very outspoken. We are not shy in all of our public and private comments on Cuba that we want to see the human rights of the Cuban people respected. This is certainly a step, but I would advise that even with regard to this step, we await further information, because as I said, it’s not being implemented until January 14th.

If the Eeyores at the State Department need inspiration for how to react, they could turn to CAFÉ, which implores the U.S. to reciprocate by eliminating the Cuba travel ban, thereby bringing U.S. “policy in line with international models.” Or to Rep. James McGovern (MA-3), whose recent essay in Politico calls upon next president to move beyond the Cold War and normalize relations with Cuba.

Now is the time for a creative and affirmative U.S. policy response.  But, we’re not holding our breath.  And we suspect the Cubans aren’t either.  That said, this is real change and it really ought to be acknowledged.

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