The Day The Cuban People Won (thanks to the President)

Cuba's former Capitol bldg



Freedom of travel for Cuban Americans, and their right to financially help family members, won a big victory on Friday.

Because of the determination of President Obama, language drafted by Cuban American hard liners to drastically reduce family travel and remittances to Cuba to punitive Bush levels was withdrawn from the omnibus spending bill.

In addition to the palpable human benefit in Cuba and the US, this could be a watershed of the Administration directly and successfully confronting the extremist position that has for too long dominated US policy on Cuba.

The lesson a Cuban observer took in a personal message:

“The Cuban-American lobby is powerful as long as they have no opposition, it is the US executive branch decision to stop them or not.  Once again it is proved that the ultimate driving force behind US Cuban policy is not Miami, but Washington. They are powerful when a national interest or an executive policy is not involved.  When it is, they are left aside.  However, both in Washington and in the Cuban TV Mesa Redonda (weird coincidence) people keep saying the opposite.”

This was not a slam dunk as reported in The Hill

A senior Democratic appropriator, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), pointed to a dispute over travel restrictions to Cuba as the last sticking point, voicing amazement that the communist island still divided Congress. “Technically we’ve got one issue holding up the package, and it’s Cuba again, 52 years later,” Serrano told reporters.

He said House and Senate negotiators had agreed to eliminate a provision reinstating a longstanding travel ban loosened by President Obama, but that Boehner’s office intervened. “The Speaker has made it a priority,” Serrano said.

and in the Boston Globe

The White House declined to allow Democrats to sign off on the bill until restrictions on travel to Cuba were removed

The Obama Administration is often attacked by its progressive base for compromising too easily with Republican conservatives, so why did it choose to take a strong and highly visible stand on Cuba?

1)  Credibility  The White House lay down a marker on July 13th with a Statement of Administration Policy

If the President is presented with a bill that …reverses current policies on Cuba, his senior advisors would recommend a veto. …

Cuban Family Travel and Remittances. The Administration opposes section 901 of the bill, which would reverse the President's policy on family travel and remittances to Cuba. This section would undo the President's efforts to increase contact between divided Cuban families, undermine the enhancement of the Cuban people's economic independence and support for private sector activity in Cuba that come from increased remittances from family members, and therefore isolate the Cuban people and make them more dependent on Cuban authorities.

2)  Constituency  A last minute campaign spearheaded by the Latin America Working Group mobilized support among pro travel activists for the White House to hang tough.  President Obama’s most visible ally in the Miami old guard, the Cuban American National Foundation, took a similar position.  The pro-engagement faction of dissidents and bloggers also weighed in as Juan Tamayo reported in the Miami Herald

3)  Politics  Cuban American travel and remittances are a decisive wedge issue in the hotly contested Florida Presidential vote. (see below)

4)  Strategy  Whether the Administration is trying to use Cuban American family ties and dollars as a new vehicle for regime change (as its rhetoric suggests), or as a means of opening the door for bilateral reconciliation (as extremist exiles fear), this opening is a game changer that it could not afford to lose.

Heightening Contradictions Among Cuban Americans

More than 20% of the Cuban American community will visit Cuba this year.  According to the September FIU poll, 61% of Cuban Americans oppose the effort to roll back travel and remittances.  The majority drops to 54% among those registered to vote but both figures significantly exceed the 35% support Barack Obama received from Cuban Americans in 2008.  The threat to legal and convenient travel and quasi-investment remittances can move voters into the Democratic column and prompt more recent arrivals to become citizens and register.  Opposition to a roll back among those who arrived after 1994 rises to a landslide 76%.   However, 59% are non-citizens and an additional 6% who are citizens have not registered to vote.  (No doubt the voter registration project initiated by leading pro normalization attorney Tony Zamora has taken note.)

The hard right among Cuban Americans is so desperate to stop travel and remittances (estimated to be as much as $2 billion this year), that it was prepared to alienate a significant majority of its community and risk motivating  more recent underrepresented immigrants. 

The game is not over but, by their actions, the hard right has become more isolated.

Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen told The Hill that the battle would have to be fought another day.

“We feel optimistic that if we don’t burn our bridges, which is important to do, there will always be another battle,” she said.

Calling the omnibus “Cuba neutral,” she explained that a provision was removed that would have made it more simple for U.S. farmers to sell their agricultural goods to Cuba.

Beyond the policy implications, the decision not to include the travel restrictions has political ramifications, Ros-Lehtinen explained, noting that she let Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) know of the Cuban-American community’s “grave disappointment” that the provision was removed.

“Cuban Americans are the most loyal Republican voters and we could easily be said to be the only solid, dependable bloc of voters for the GOP, so to get shafted by the GOP is not a good feeling and it makes it difficult for us to go back home and justify what has happened up here,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

The softer right with ties to the White House won this round, as reported by the New York Times

House Republicans, including Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, sought the tougher restrictions, saying that tourist travel and remittances yielded a windfall to the Cuban government.

But in Miami, many Cuban-Americans rejected that argument, saying that in fact, the restrictions would have dampened a budding opposition movement on the island. Cubans, particularly the young, have been emboldened by the visits and the shipment of goods, including laptops, cellphones, computer memory devices and other items that allow Cubans to run small private businesses. These businesses are now permitted by the Cuban government.

“It would be a tremendous, tremendous setback,” said Pepe Hernandez, the president of the Cuban American National Foundation, which provides support to the anti-Castro movement in Cuba.

The provisions to facilitate agricultural sales can all be achieved by the executive acting alone, an electoral benefit with American farmers, and no harm among Cuban Americans, 65% of whom strongly or mostly favor them.

If the President took a stronger stance on travel, it also would not hurt him among Cuban Americans:  57% favor unrestricted travel by all Americans, although it is a statistical tie among those registered to vote.  Being bolder could help him among the two-thirds of Americans who want to end all travel restrictions and the even higher percentage among his supporters.  At the very least it is a symbol to his base and to independents that the Barack Obama who captured their enthusiasm in 2008 has not been completely worn down by conventional wisdom and special interests in Washington.

In the short term, it is important, as LAWG urges, that the White House receive messages of appreciation.

It is an ideal time to also urge further steps upon the President along these lines:

Your well deserved victory should encourage you to extend a general license to all Americans for non-tourist people to people self-directed travel and a general license to all IRS recognized not for profit organizations for group travel, just as you gave to Cuban Americans, colleges and religious groups.

It would be wonderful (and astounding) if the Presidents of the US and Cuba took advantage of our family focused holidays to act compassionately for the six prisoners entombed by cold war legacies as I argued in my last Havana Note post. President Obama could courageously dislodge an inhumane stalemate by simply allowing Rene Gonzalez to serve his three year probation at home with his family.  Who will object beyond the diminishing group of grinches the President overcame last week?

Regardless, I wish you and your family the best of Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, New Years or whatever version of this very special time that fits your heritage and disposition.

John McAuliff

Fund for Reconciliation and Development


Links and Resources


Three good articles on Alan Gross

Phil Peters  in thecubantriangle (read also the comments by Cantaclaro)  

Arturo Lopez Levy in the Jewish Forward                                                                      

William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh in the LA Times                            ,0,6922773.story?track=rss


FRD’s December newsletter

correction of Alan Gross links  


Regularly updated reports on OFAC authorized travel