August Vacation and the Freedom to Travel

August 15, 2014

Just so you know, we are clearing out of the office for a week, which means we won’t be sending a fresh edition of the Cuba Central News Blast until August 29th. We’re going on vacation!

Of course, if we were working in Europe we’d have longer leave (and a better Cuba policy).  But, we still consider ourselves lucky, and still count ourselves as baffled that U.S. law frustrates the ability of most Americans to visit Cuba.

These restrictions on what Americans can do are imposed on us by the U.S. government in the name of advancing freedom in Cuba.  Which itself is altogether odd, when you consider that it is more restrictive, more bureaucratic, and more costly for nearly all Americans to receive permission from our government to visit Cuba than it is for Cubans to visit the United States or any other country.

Even worse, some policymakers in Congress would like to increase the restrictions on Americans who want to visit Cuba at a moment when more Cubans are coming to the U.S. and traveling the world than at any time since 1959.

Even worse than that, these same policy makers — the ones who restrict our rights to travel as a method for bringing democracy to Cuba — are also the biggest fans of our totally messed up “regime change” programs run out of USAID.  Read Fulton Armstrong’s recent piece about them here.   They want to shut the front door to Cuba while sending in a cast of amateurs and subversives through the backdoor.  To do what?  To break Cuba’s information blockade?   Isn’t that what travel’s for?

George Orwell could’ve designed the policy.  Some Americans — Cuban Americans, academics, and journalists — are more equal than others.  If you cannot be stuffed into one of these categories, you can journey to the island on a people-to-people program.  But it can be costly and the U.S. stipulates what you can do or can’t do once you arrive.

For most of Cuba’s post-revolutionary history, the government put tight restrictions on the right of their people to travel anywhere. The U.S. State Department is still handing out copies of a speech that President George W. Bush delivered in 2007, in which he said: “In Cuba it is illegal to change jobs, to change houses, to travel abroad…”

But, in January 2013, Cuba eliminated the requirement that its travelers obtain exit visas.  As Human Rights Watch reported this year, “Nearly 183,000 people traveled abroad from January to September 2013, according to the government. These included human rights defenders, journalists, and bloggers who previously had been denied permission to leave the island despite repeated requests, such as blogger Yoani Sanchez.”

The end of travel restrictions has begun a blossoming of economic and social openings for Cubans.  Cuentapropistas (self-employed Cubans, since it is now legal to change jobs) have reaped incredible material and professional gains from being able to purchase much needed inputs — at better prices and higher quality — and to meet their counterparts in the U.S., who share knowledge, experience and insight with them.

Our friend, Niuris Higuera, owner of Atelier Paladar in Havana, said she went home with “her head spinning from all the projects she wanted to develop in Cuba,” based on ideas she picked up in the States.

The experience was even more profound for young participants in a summer exchange program arranged by the Center for Democracy in the Americas and Cuba Educational Travel (CET) to bring four young Cubans to the U.S. to do homestays and internships.

As Collin Laverty of CET wrote us, Yoan Duarte, who graduated from the University of Havana in June and hopes to become a fashion designer, spent the summer in New York City shadowing some of the industry’s best. “The first few weeks I was constantly slapping myself in the face, thinking I was going to wake up in Havana at any moment. Now I’m eager to get back and put to work all the new skills I’ve acquired,” he said recently. Yoan plans to start his own clothing line upon return to Cuba.

Earlier today, the White House posted this paean to the travel industry, praising the growing number of jobs it is creating, the upward spiral of spending on travel and tourism-related goods and services, and how the U.S. hopes to welcome 100 million visitors per year by 2021.

We can only imagine what a stir would be created if Cubans and Americans of non-Cuban descent enjoyed the unrestricted right to exchange ideas and experience without any restrictions.  It would be good. It would be human.  But, today, that is not reality.

But the President can change that.  He has executive authority to broaden revenue-producing, information-exchanging, re-humanizing, and demystifying travel between the island and our country, which has outsized benefits compared to secreting USAID contractors into Cuba masquerading as advocates working on AIDS prevention, when they’re really trying to incite rebellion.

The choice ought to be clear to the President who, after all, got to go on vacation a week before us (which is, like, totally fair, ok?).

Happy vacation.

Read the rest of this entry »


Reality Check

March 1, 2013

The same day that a bipartisan Congressional delegation left Cuba, the Boston Globe triggered a brief and unsatisfactory debate when it reported that “High-level US diplomats have concluded that Cuba should no longer be designated a state sponsor of terrorism.”

That Cuba should be removed from the list has long been the view of authorities from the Council on Foreign Relations to anti-terrorist expert Richard Clarke.  It has been understood for years that the designation was at least out-of-date and a function of domestic politics rather than terrorism policy or reason.  When Cuba was revealed as a broker of the peace process between the government of Colombia and the FARC – after years of being listed as a state sponsor for “supporting” the FARC – it was obvious that the next step was delisting.

This would be in accordance with U.S. law which says, as ABC News pointed out, “in order for any country to be designated as a state sponsor of terrorism, the Secretary of State must determine that the government of that country has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” a finding that our government cannot make regarding Cuba.

But the bodyguard surrounding the status quo moved quickly to discredit the notion that U.S. policy would undergo any change.  Leave it to the State Department to say, “Not so fast.”  In the words of spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, “This Department has no current plans to remove Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list.”

Others went further.  As Professor Greg Weeks posted this week, José Cárdenas, a former senior U.S. official, argued in an op-ed piece, that while Cuba is no longer supporting terrorism, it should remain on the list of state anyway.  Weeks called this “pretty much the definition of moving goal posts.”

This is our great problem.  U.S. policy is based on the premise that Cuba must capitulate unilaterally to our demand that it reshape its political system to our liking, or U.S. sanctions will remain in place.  Consequently, when Havana changes the facts on the ground that fall short of that goal, Washington cannot consider them consequential.

No matter that, as The Economist reported, “Raúl Castro has allowed Cubans to buy cars and homes, to lease farmland and to set up small businesses.” Or, “Last year he scrapped curbs on foreign travel.”

No matter that President Raúl Castro, as we reported two weeks ago, has announced that he will abide by the term limits he put into place, or that a far younger man, Miguel Díaz-Canel, apparently less charismatic and unrelated to the Castro family, is being groomed to succeed him.  A Cuban government no longer run by a member of the family is a key goal of U.S. policy, but this development, too, cannot be acknowledged.

Once Raúl Castro made his announcement, as the Miami Herald reported, the maximalists simply moved the goal posts to other demands.

Forget the Castros, said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the pro-sanctions U.S. Cuba Democracy lobby, “The most important conditions in Helms-Burton are the legalization of opposition parties, independent media, the dismantling of the State Security apparatus and free and fair elections.” Or as Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said, “(T)he real change in Cuba involves much more than the Castro brothers… The whole system crafted by the Castro brothers is corrupt and must be totally replaced.”

Happily, policymakers who actually take the trouble to visit Cuba, and talk to the Cubans, are more grounded in reality.  As Senator Pat Leahy, leader of the delegation which met with President Castro, Alan Gross, and others, said on network television upon his return, “I think the worst thing that can happen is if we stay either in our country or in their country in this 1960s, 1970s Cold War mentality.  We’re a different century now.”

Cuba has made clear over the last, oh five or six decades its system is not up for negotiation. Thus, the administration must decide whether to be with the maximalists, who argue against the evidence that nothing in Cuba has changed, because everything in Cuba hasn’t changed, or switch to a reality-based policy that takes into consideration developments that actually occur, on issues from terrorism to who is being positioned to run the country, and then respond accordingly.

We’d like to think that Rep. Jim McGovern, who joined Leahy in Cuba, was on to something when he told Nick Miroff of the Global Post, “I feel change is in the air.  To me, this is the moment. We have President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry, and my hope is that they will take some risks and end this last relic of the Cold War.”

That would be nice.

Coming Soon: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future”

On March 6th, the Center for Democracy in the Americas will release the results of a two-year study on the status of women and gender equality in Cuba.  This week, we have been posting quotes from women we interviewed, as well as photos and other information, on our Facebook page and on Twitter.  Be sure to follow us on Twitter and like our Facebook page – we’ll continue posting updates leading up the official release!

Read the rest of this entry »


As Donor/Pal Flies “Under the Radar,” Will Senator Menendez Mind His Words Or Eat Them?

February 22, 2013

A curious angle to the story about Senator Bob Menendez and his relationship to Dr. Salomon Melgen, his donor-benefactor-travel pal, has gotten obscured in the larger ethical churn.

Dr. Melgen is the ophthalmologist who donated tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to Senator Menendez, and took Mr. Menendez on his private plane to the Dominican Republic (D.R.) for vacations in 2010 that the Senator did not disclose.

For his part, Menendez lobbied the U.S. government to get its support for a port security contract in the D.R. for the doctor’s company, and intervened on Melgen’s behalf by questioning a government audit that revealed overbilling in the doctor’s practice.

The Senator sent a reimbursement check for $58,500 to Melgen’s company after the unreported flights became public, which relieved Menendez of the responsibility to make a public disclosure about his trips with the eye doctor, and appears to have cost him an ‘arm and a leg’.

Now, Dr. Melgen, as was reported earlier this month, has asked the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to “block his plane’s flight activity from public view in air trafficking systems.”  He seems eager to cover the trail (or the contrail).

Stunningly, the FAA agreed and will allow Dr. Melgen to keep his flight records secret; this applies not only to future flights, but also to on-line access to historical records.

In “Doctor now flying under the radar,” Tracey Eaton, an investigative reporter with whom our organization is working, has posted a detailed piece about Dr. Melgen, the FAA’s powers of disclosure and authority to keep records secret, and why its decision to shield records Melgen’s flights raises issues around accountability and transparency, and possibly the Menendez investigation itself.

As Mr. Eaton writes:

“In January, before the flight activity was blocked, the Associated Press reported that Melgen’s plane had made more than 100 trips to the Dominican Republic and about a dozen flights included brief stopovers in the Washington area.”

Is there anyone in the Congress who might think Melgen’s request was a little fishy?  Or, that the FAA’s decision is antithetical to the idea of good and open government?

How about Senator Bob Menendez, a champion of disclosure?

  • In 2010, he took credit for writing provisions of the Dodd-Frank Act, which toughened regulation after the economic crisis, to increase transparency in the trading of the financial instrument called derivatives.
  • In 2011, he organized a letter cosigned by nine Senate colleagues to the Department of Transportation demanding that airlines disclose their fees.
  • That same year, he sponsored legislation with a section to require disclosure by companies for certain business activities with Iran.
  • In 2012, he sponsored legislation to require corporations to disclose their campaign donations to shareholders, following the Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
  • As a candidate for reelection in 2012, Menendez released five years of his tax returns, as a spokesman explained, in the full spirit of transparency.
  • Only a few weeks ago, when Senator Menendez traveled to Afghanistan, he told President Karzai that the U.S. expects elections in his country next year to be fair, free, and (you guessed it) transparent.

Senator Menendez even told a constituent a few years back that he’d consider supporting legislation to protect coastal New Jersey’s fish population, because he believed in transparency in the management of fisheries.

Isn’t the Senator’s next step, well, transparently obvious?

He could do nothing; eat his words on disclosure and transparency.  Or, he could write the FAA and demand that the shield concealing Dr. Melgen’s flight records be removed.  Nothing could be more consistent with what Senator Menendez has said – and wanted others to do – in the last three years alone.

Besides, what else could he have to hide?

Read the rest of this entry »


Consider this: Castro Government and U.S. Embargo Likely to Outlast Obama Presidency

February 15, 2013

The clock is ticking.  By February 24, as Leonardo Padura observed in a column this week, there will be 1,823 days remaining in Raúl Castro’s tenure as Cuba’s president, thanks to term limits he pushed through at the 2011 communist party conference.

All things being equal, just five years from now, Cuba will be led by someone whose name is neither Raúl nor Fidel Castro for the first time in 59 years.

By then, whoever is elected U.S. president in 2016 could inherit the same ossified and wildly ineffective structure of sanctions passed down – like the Cold War equivalent of a family bible – from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon to Ford to Carter to Reagan to Bush to Clinton to Bush and left on President Obama’s desk when he entered the Oval Office.

Even Senator Ted Cruz, a deeply conservative Cuban-American just elected from Texas, acknowledged in a question submitted for Chuck Hagel’s confirmation, that the existing policy has failed in its goal of dislodging the Castros.

What will Mr. Cruz say in 2018 about the embargo, which was designed to force from power two brothers who will have instead relinquished their posts voluntarily?  Give it more time to work?

President Obama said nothing about Cuba in his State of the Union Address last Tuesday and, as Bloggings by Boz pointed out, he used just seven words, “Ford is bringing jobs back from Mexico,” to refer to just one nation in the Americas, seemingly by accident.

On Cuba, however, the president doesn’t need to say something in order to do something. His administration often excuses its inaction by saying the policy is in the court of Congress, “our hands are tied” by Helms-Burton Act restrictions on normalizing relations with Cuba.

In fact, that’s not really the problem.  Policy makers should never harness the future of any foreign policy – not in Cuba or Venezuela or anyplace else –to the identity or mortality of any particular leader.  That’s called letting the tail wag the dog.

The national interest ought to be our guide.  That’s why Mr. Obama should use his executive authority to start making changes now, so when the presidency changes hands in Washington in 2016 and in Havana in 2018, there’s a plan already being implemented to normalize the relationship.

If he’s uncertain about where to begin, he needn’t look further than our roadmap for engagement with Cuba or to the editorial page of the Boston Globe, which this week offered simple and clear suggestions to “drag US policy into the 21st century” –

  • Remove Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror List
  • Promote cultural exchanges
  • End the Travel Ban so all Americans can visit Cuba
  • Eventually allow trade in oil, gas, and other commodities

The Globe’s editorial ended with the suggestion that President Obama assign his Secretary of State John Kerry to make Cuba the focus of his first few months in office.  That sounds right to us.  After all, the clock is ticking and the president, like his counterpart in Havana, has a limited amount of time in office to get it done.

This week, in Cuba news…

Read the rest of this entry »


Like Wishing Upon a Star: Most Travel Restrictions (On Cubans) Vanish Monday

January 11, 2013

Next week, when Cuba drops travel restrictions on most of its citizens, Ana Liliam Garcia, a 16-year-old, plans on chasing a dream:  “I would like to see Disneyland in the United States,” she told the Associated Press.  “I’ll be able to travel!”

You can argue whether this represents a triumph of American culture. But, these reforms really matter, and they ought to take the discussion about U.S. policy and Cuba to a different level.

Cuba’s government imposed travel restrictions on its citizens in the early 1960s as the country experienced a “brain drain” following the Revolution.  For decades, Cubans detested the limitations symbolized by the tarjeta blanca or white card, the exit permit they had to obtain through a costly and convoluted bureaucratic process.  This restriction on the right of Cubans to leave and return to their country has been a deep source of concern to the global human rights community and a predicate for U.S. criticism of Cuba’s system.

Last fall, President Raúl Castro’s government announced an overhaul of its migration laws which will take effect on Monday.  Beginning January 14th, Cubans will need only a visa and a valid passport to leave their country; the white card will vanish, fees will be reduced, and official permission to come and go will no longer be required for most Cubans.

Some obstacles – for military officers, top scientists, and highly prized athletes – will remain in place.  Dissidents are not likely to be free to come and go.  Of course, Cuba’s decision not to change everything is already an excuse among hardliners in the U.S. for saying that Cuba hasn’t changed anything.

But, as Reuters reports, the verdict among the people whose interests are most directly affected is clearly being rendered.  Hundreds of Cubans are waiting in long lines to apply for passports in advance of the reforms becoming effective. As one Cuban told NPR, “These measures that the government is taking are a good step. Our rights have been oppressed for too long, but Cuba is changing.”

We hope President Obama is paying attention.  He has undertaken incremental but worthwhile reforms in U.S. policy, while simultaneously denying that anything meaningful has been taking place in Cuba during his presidency.  After Cuba released scores of political prisoners following talks with the Catholic Church; after the Castro government implemented the most significant changes in its economic model in six decades; after Colombia turned to Cuba to help it broker peace talks with the FARC, U.S. policy remains in an official state of denial that its goals are being met.

Cuba did not initiate these sweeping travel reforms to elicit a positive reaction from the U.S.  It long ago wearied from the repetitive process of doing things it wanted to do – that the U.S. also wanted done – only to find that U.S. policy had adopted new demands.  It will be hard for them to imagine that this time will be any different.

But, is it really possible that President Obama will feel comfortable ignoring another tangible change in the Cuban reality and insist, as he has said about Cuba so often, “If we see positive movement then we will respond in a positive way.”  Especially now that Cubans will have more freedom to see the world than American citizens have to visit Cuba?

This time, it shouldn’t be that hard.  If Ana Liliam Garcia doesn’t have to wish upon a star to have her chance to see Disneyland, that’s a real change.  It merits a real response.

Read the rest of this entry »


Women at Work in Cuba

December 7, 2012

Hello Friends,

This is Lisa writing from the Cuba Central team. This past week, Sarah Stephens, CDA’s executive director, and I  took a delegation of 22 women on a people-to-people trip to Cuba.  We worked in collaboration with the Women Donors Network, an organization of philanthropists from across the U.S. Our goal was to introduce them to some of our closest friends in Cuba – the people with whom we have been closely engaged on our latest report: “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women in Building Cuba’s Future.”

This publication focuses on Cuban women and the issues of gender equality on the island; the real, measurable progress for women and children in areas like health, education, and legal rights, and the gap that still exists between their aspirations for equality and the reality of their everyday lives.

The book will be published at the beginning of next year (watch this space for news!). On one of our final evenings in Cuba, we held a celebration to mark the completion of the book, which brought together many of the women who have contributed to this project over the past several years. They included:

Antonia Díaz, a professor who leads the CUAM (Catedras Universitarias del Adulto Mayor), a program run through universities, which provides continuing education courses for the elderly. Antonia works to promote healthy, active lifestyles for the elderly, and to increase respect and awareness about “abuelidad,” which I can only translate as “grandparenthood”. Antonia proudly introduces herself as a very happy 91 year old.

Barbara Perez Casanova, a small business owner, or cuentapropista. In October 2010, Barbara, 26, was among the first to apply for a license to work in the private sector after its opening to new categories of business.  She runs a small storefront in a self-employment zone, selling shoes and clothing. Barbara says that cuentapropistas are still facing an uphill battle, as they deal with inspectors, high taxes, and difficulties in acquiring the products to sell. However, she enjoys the independence that comes with running her own business, and has been able to save up some money to invest in fixing up her house.

Magia López, a rapper in the group Duo Obsesíon, and Sandra Álvarez, psychiatrist and specialist in race and gender issues. Magia and Sandra both live in the community of Regla, across the bay from Havana. Regla is a working-class, predominantly Afro-Cuban neighborhood. Magia and Sandra both work to raise awareness of societal problems relating to race and gender – they see their criticisms as essential to improving their country. Sandra maintains a blog, entitled “Negra cubana tenía que ser” (It had to have been a black Cuban woman), where she addresses these issues openly. Magia uses hip hop music as her medium, like in this song, “Los Pelos,” which expresses pride for her natural hair. We also highly recommend this video, a rap song in homage to Cuban mothers, featuring Magia’s mother-in-law.

This trip was a true lesson in the power of human interaction. As trip leaders, Sarah and I were consistently inspired by the interactions we saw taking place before us. They were a reminder of how much these women – from such seemingly different countries and situations – share in common.

What has been so often missing from the debate in our country about Cuba is our shared humanity. It is our hope that policymakers, academics, and advocates in our country are inspired by these women as well.

We arrived back in DC refreshed and eager to continue our work, breaking down the barriers that have been imposed between the people of our two countries. We appreciate your accompaniment and continued support in the work that we do.

Antonia Diaz

Antonia Díaz, speaking at CDA’s book celebration

delegation1

Members of our delegation with new friends in Cienfuegos

delegationregla

Our delegation in Regla with Sandra Álvarez and some of our other hosts

Lisa Ndecky Llanos
Program Manager
Center for Democracy in the Americas

Read the rest of this entry »


On Mother’s Day in Havana and Washington

May 11, 2012

In the U.S., Mother’s Day is a hallmark of our spring calendar, so we wanted to wish a happy holiday to every mother who reads and enjoys the weekly blast.

As you will read below, the organization called Save the Children has released its annual Mothers Index Rating and has once again listed Cuba as the best country in Latin America for mothers.

This will undoubtedly excite an exaggerated reaction from those who can’t stand seeing Cuba presented in a normal or flattering light.

After the New York Times published its piece earlier this month titled “Cuba May Be the Most Feminist Country in Latin America,” the heavy armor was rolled out.  While reasonable men and women of good will disagree about life and living conditions in Cuba, a discussion of the facts simply couldn’t be allowed to stand.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen called women “the biggest victims of the Cuban regime,” the author and others holding this view were labeled as apologists, the perspective called “unspeakable,” the New York Times didn’t just publish the article, it ‘squealed,’ etc.

One can only imagine the hail storm that awaits Save the Children.

But this week the hardliners didn’t own the monopoly on absurdity.   Special credit was earned by the U.S. State Department which publicly rejected an offer by Cuba to negotiate with the United States on a broad range of issues, including the Alan Gross case.

Mr. Gross, imprisoned in Cuba since December 2009, for his work in a USAID-funded regime change program, and sentenced to 15 years in prison, pleaded for a brief release to visit his mother, aged ninety, who is suffering from cancer – a Mother’s Day gift they could both enjoy – and made his case in a telephone interview with CNN.

Reacting to the interview, Josefina Vidal, a top Cuban Foreign Ministry official, said that while Cuba was ready to engage in a dialogue with the U.S. on Mr. Gross’s case, Havana wanted “to sit down at the negotiating table with Washington to discuss all outstanding issues in an effort to establish normal relations,” according to CBS News.

Rather than seizing the initiative, the State Department “reacted sharply,” saying Vidal’s statement confirmed its belief that Mr. Gross is a hostage and there is no justification for his continued imprisonment.

Meanwhile, the New York Times reported that the Obama administration is negotiating with the Taliban on a prisoner exchange that could free an American soldier held hostage in Afghanistan.

Leaving us to wonder what principle is at stake when U.S. decides who to talk to about what.

Our policy of not talking directly to Cuba on subjects core to the national interest, such as protecting our shared environment against an oil spill, or as central to our humanitarian interests as freeing a pawn in our Cold War efforts to topple the Cuban government, both of which we discuss below, might be good politics in some precincts, but it’s a substantial and damaging  failure to communicate.

Our mothers never would approve of that.

Read the rest of this entry »