June 2011

Will Cuban Americans Bring Down the Embargo?

Photo by Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,859

Efforts to roll back the Obama administration's rules to ease travel to Cuba for Cuban Americans with family on the island is exposing an ever-widening rift between Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans.  It's a rift that Mario Diaz-Balart hoped to forcibly close with his amendment last week, but in all likelihood (as I noted last week) only made it deeper. 

Many Cuban exiles who fled Cuba decades ago couldn't or wouldn't go back home.  But Cuban Americans who arrived in the last twenty years or so are largely economic migrants - their primary goal in immigrating was to provide for their family, as they couldn't by make ends meet by staying in Cuba, especially after the collapse of Cuba's most important trading partner and benefactor, the Soviet Union.  This second group, which continues to flow unabated into the United States due to a favorable immigration policy put in place decades ago, maintains more connections on the island. These later generation Cuban Americans are prone to travel to Cuba as frequently as their budget will allow, to visit and to bring money and gifts to family still on the island.  

Many of the first exiles became American citizens, thanks to the Cuban Adjustment Act, which put them, and those who would follow them, on a fast track to permanent residency in the U.S., so my use of the terms "Cuban exiles" and "Cuban Americans" is simply to make a rhetorical distinction between the two groups.  

When President Obama decided to ease travel and remittance restrictions on Cuban Americans, I imagine he was courting the younger cohort, whether he judged he couldn't win the older generation anyway, or that he could better maximize and draw out the younger voters. But congressmembers like Diaz-Balart, and now-Senator Marco Rubio (who championed stricter travel rules for Cuban Americans back in 2004 precisely because he worried they would expose that most Cuban arrivals are no longer "refugees" in need of the special immigration status they've enjoyed for more than four decades) have committed to champion the older generation, those stalwart voters and campaign contributors whose commitment to the embargo hardens the smaller their bloc gets. 

Diaz-Balart Moves to Roll Back Family Travel

Rep Wasserman-Schultz, Mario Diaz-Balarr, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen


Anti-Cuba travel Representatives Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen


At the end of last week Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Fidel Castro’s wayward nephew, may have inadvertently improved President Obama’s prospects in Florida for the next election.

Whether inspired by ideology or fear, the Representative successfully amended an appropriations bill in committee to return Cuban American travel to the very harsh policies of the Bush Administration.  While the amendment is unlikely to get through the Senate      counterpart, the threat it poses will have a jolting impact among those most directly affected.

Under Bush Cuban Americans could visit an unfeelingly narrow definition of family members only once every three years and send no more than $1200 annually in remittances.  Obama took a larger than normal share of the Cuban American vote by promising during campaign appearances to allow unlimited travel and remittances.  He followed through within three months of taking office.

It is estimated that 400,000 Cuban Americans will travel back this year, more than 20% of the immigrant population.  Thousands more will simply send money. 

Diaz-Balart justified his move as denying revenue to his enemies in Havana.  However, most Cuban Americans stay with family members or friends or in private homes, not in state hotels like Cuba’s other two million visitors.  They also patronize government owned restaurants less frequently. 

Why would Diaz-Balart and the Republican Party risk making so many enemies, and losing support in a normally reliable bloc? 

In part because they know that vote is already eroding and they need to stop the hemorrhage. 

They use Reagan’s words, but his policies?

Reagan and the current U.S embargo


What would Ronald Reagan’s policy towards Cuba be today?  Nobody can say for sure. It is certain that he would oppose and denounce communism, but would he support the travel ban and oppose educational, cultural and academic exchanges with Havana as Marco Rubio, Mario Diaz-Balart, David Rivera and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen do? In today’s post-Cold War environment, it is worthwhile to note that several members of Reagan’s team and many of the intellectuals who inspired his government such as Milton Friedman, Dick Cheney, and former Secretary of State George Schultz have supported a change in Washington’s policy. 

Twenty eight years ago, in March of 1983, President Reagan gave a historic speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando and called the Soviet Union, the "evil empire". Reagan’s words about communism did not allow for nuances. It was “us against them”.  Reagan’s clarity sent a meaningful message to average citizens of the democratic world and the many oppressed behind the iron curtain.

But Reagan’s speech to the Evangelicals in Florida should not be selectively cut from the whole of his general foreign policy approach to communism. Unfortunately, in the issue of foreign policy towards Cuba, supporters of the embargo use Reagan’s phrases to promote a “magical realism” version of what a moral policy towards communism should be. 

House Vote to Overturn Cuba Travel Rules Will Help Obama's Re-elect

Today the House Appropriations Committee approved an amendment that could come back to haunt its backers, and actually boost President Obama's re-elect bid among South Florida Cuban Americans next year.  

The provision in question would turn back Cuba travel regulations authorized by the Obama administration to encourage people to people exchanges and lift restrictions on family visits to the island.  The amendment was offered by Mario Diaz-Balart (no surprise there).  What was surprising was how the amendment passed - by voice vote.  That means no roll was called and no one had to take responsibility for their individual vote.  

I don't know House rules well enough to say whether the amendment's opponents could have asked for one.  But why wouldn't the victors want their votes recorded?  Because their votes could come back to haunt them, especially among Cuban Americans, who, under President Obama's rules, get to visit their families in Cuba whenever they please.  

I highly doubt that the provision would survive a House-Senate conference of the final appropriations bill - if one ever gets to the President - but word will travel quickly in Cuban American circles that their family travel rights could be in jeopardy.  And that is likely to have the same impact that President Bush's 2004 curbs on family travel did in the first place - more Cuban Americans abandoned Bush, and the backlash convinced candidate Obama to campaign on overturning them.  Thanks to Mario Diaz-Balart and the colleagues he convinced to anonymously side with him on today's vote, hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who might have forgotten what Obama did for them back in 2009 will remember it well in 2012.

CORRECTION: This post erroneously described the Diaz-Balart amendment as turning back people to people travel regulations recently issued by the Obama administration.  The amendment (which is here, along with summary materials circulated by Diaz-Balart) dealt only with Cuban American family travel and remittances rules eased by the Administration.  

How Long Must We Wait?

Andrea Holbrook at NAFSA

Andrea Holbrook discusses student travel to Cuba at the NAFSA conference in Vancouver at the end of May.  The Cuba/US People to People Partnership booth was cosponsored by C & T Charters, Cuba Education Tours, Fund for Reconciliation and Development, Global Exchange, Holbrook Travel and Sol Melia Cuba.


HAVANA, June 22 (Reuters) - The number of Americans visiting Cuba is steadily increasing under the Obama administration, according to a rare report posted this week on the National Statistics Office Web Page.  Some 63,000 U.S. citizens of non-Cuban origin visited Cuba in 2010, compared with 52,500 the previous year and 41,900 in 2008, according to the report (http://www.one.cu/aec2010/datos/15.3.xls).

An average 30,000 Americans visited Cuba during the last term of George W. Bush, and peaked at 70,000 during the Clinton administration.  The Obama administration recently loosened further restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba for professional, religious and humanitarian reasons, among other measures, with tour operators between 100,000 and 200,000 will arrive on the forbidden island this year...

Maybe, maybe not.

It is time to ask how serious the Obama Administration was about purposeful travel when it announced a new policy on January 14th

For political reasons it had already delayed the announcement for six months.  The new regulations were published only two weeks later, suggesting they had indeed been sitting on the shelf.

However it took three months for the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to issue guidelines on April 19th about requirements for specific licenses.

Two more months have been lost and OFAC has granted only a handful of people-to- people licenses despite receiving at least 3400 applications by the end of May.  None of the major organizations that coordinated trips before 2004 is among the recipients.

State Department staff say it is a problem of too many applications being handled by too few OFAC staff.  They insist that licenses are not being held up for political reasons, e.g. the release of Alan Gross or opposition from Cuban American hard liners.

Some travel organizers believe that the problem is simply bureaucratic.  They speculate that OFAC is holding back until it can issue all licenses at the same time, either because they don’t want to give unfair competitive advantage, or because they want all applications to have the same problematic one year renewal date.  

Regardless of the reason, the unconscionable delay has itself become an issue of policy.

Will Rubio's Cuba Grievances Keep Farrar out of Managua?

With a thirty year career in the Foreign Service, including having served as the Acting Assistant Photo courtesy of: http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/biog/108143.htmSecretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and having just completed a 'hardship' post as Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (which doesn't carry the title of Ambassador), Jonathan Farrar might reasonably have expected to now take an ambassador posting, even if the one he got was to another politically-charged post, in Managua,Nicargua. 

Unfortunately for Farrar, Newly-minted Cuban American Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Western Hemisphere Subcommittee seems pretty likely to hold up his nomination, despite having never met with Farrar to discuss his grievances before last week's nomination hearing. (You can view Rubio's criticism of Farrar and Farrar's response here.)

USAID Cuba Program Fight Heats Up

Photo courtesy of Flickr/US Army Africa's photostream

It's not often you see public infighting between an administration and a Senate chairman of the same party. But last week, an impasse over USAID's Cuba program between USAID and Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry heated up on the pages of The Miami Herald.  According to the Herald, somebody called somebody a "Communist dupe" and the word "backstabbing" was thrown around. 

What's the ruckus about?  Last spring, the Democratic chairmen of the House and Senate Committees charged with foreign affairs put holds on FY09 USAID funds for its Cuba program.  The two chairmen questioned the efficacy of a program which (do we have to remind anyone at this point?) has had its fair share of problems.  After successive investigations uncovered embarassing misuse of funds, fraud and embezzlement, and a lack of demonstrable or significant results, the arrest of an American USAID subcontractor in Cuba forced Congress to finally examine how practicable USAID's democracy mission in Cuba really is.  

The Chairmen seemed to come to an understanding with USAID after numerous consultations together last spring, and released their holds.  The result was a $5 million cut to the program and a shift in the program's strategy and implementation.  This spring, when USAID gave notice to Congress that it was ready to spend FY2010 funds, Kerry again held the funds (which were back to $20 million), and submitted more than a dozen detailed questions to USAID.  (The notification is here.  The questions and answers are here.)

It's pretty in-the-weeds stuff, but the upshot I get from reading it is that team Kerry thinks that USAID hasn't lived up to whatever deals were agreed to last spring.  But team USAID thinks not only has it done enough, but that it can "take" Kerry in this rematch.  How else to explain administration officials leaking an email from a Democratic chairman's office to the media?

U.S.-Cuba Policy Needs a Soccer Lesson

As soccer enthusiasts know, the Copa de Oro, or Gold Cup, is currently underway in stadiums across the United States, providing desperate fans with a much-needed fix of consequential, nationalism-laced games to hold them over between World Cups. Held every two years, the tournament comprises teams representing North America, Central America and the Caribbean.  Without the participation of South American heavyweights such as Brazil and Argentina, the tournament provides a chance for the hemisphere’s weaker teams to show the world what they’ve got and face off against traditional powerhouses like Mexico and the United States. Unfortunately, Cuba didn’t have much to “show” last night against Mexico, losing 5-0.

http://www.thehavananote.com/sites/thehavananote.newamerica.net/files/cubaus2008_0.jpg But that wasn’t a colossal shock. As we all know, in Cuba, it’s baseball that reigns supreme. Soccer never swept the island nation that way it did most of Latin America.  The government of Fidel Castro declined to endorse the sport in a meaningful way, instead dedicating precious government resources to sports in which Cuba already had the beginnings of a strong international reputation such as baseball and boxing. While Cuba did send a team to the third-ever World Cup in 1938 and has continued to make a respectable showings at the Gold Cup in recent years, soccer has remained on the sidelines of Cuban culture.  Not even Argentine soccer deity Diego Maradona’s extended stay in Cuba for drug-rehab in the early 2000's was able to spark much excitement for the sport.  

In contrast, soccer in the U.S. has enjoyed a surge of popularity over the last 20-25 years. The 1994 FIFA World Cup, hosted by the U.S., reignited American interest in soccer, and led to the subsequent launch of Major League Soccer (MLS).  According to The Nielson Company, an estimated 111.6 million U.S. viewers watched the 2010 World Cup, a 22% increase in viewers from 2006 World Cup viewership. From the 2002 to 2006 World Cup, viewership increased an astounding 90%. As MLS Commissioner Don Garber said, "It's not the NFL, but we're 10 years old, (and football has been played here for) over 100 years."  

Obama's Univision Interview: Who Said 'Normal' Was on the Table?

Photo courtesy of the White House's photostream: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wh

After a nearly three month-long leave, I've got lots of Cuba news catching up to do.  Much has happened.  And much has stayed the same.

In Cuba, following the Sixth Party Congress in April, we're beginning to see some changes, rolled out one-by-one, with little fanfare (as Phil Peters pointed out was how countless needed reforms would come about).  For instance, the government is offering private entrepreneurs several tax breaks designed to help spur their growth - offering a payroll tax holiday for 2011 for businesses with fewer than five employees, and finally allowing private restaurants (known as paladars) to serve up to fifty customers at a time - up from 20, which was up from 12.  It's easy to see these and other recent reforms as overdue, and as playing too much at the margins. 

But, however slowly it moves ahead, this is a government that has committed itself to a long range reform process.  It's all here - in the very public, fully discussed and debated, 313 lineamentos or guidelines for reforms.  Oh, and let's not forget Raul Castro's embrace of term limits, which, if he honors it, will have tremendous implications for Cuban political leadership and reform in the next several years.

But it's this distinction, between the journey and the end, that President Obama failed to acknowledge in his recent interview with Univision's Jose Diaz-Balart (yes, brother to Lincoln and Mario, and nephew of Fidel Castro's first wife, Mirta).

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Photo courtesy of Flickr/seb chan

Late last week Guillermo Farinas began another hunger strike, apparently his 24th in 15 years, to demand that the Cuban government prosecute those involved in the beating of dissident, Juan Wilfredo Soto and his subsequent death. (Reports differ as to what extent the alleged beating by police officers brought about Soto’s death, but Farinas and others insist it did. In contrast, Sotos’ doctor and sister told Cuban media that his death was unrelated). Farinas’ announcement came on the heels of news that four individuals accused of distributing anti-government pamphlets in Havana were sentenced to 3-5 years in prison for acts of “defiance” and “public disorder.”  The four men were apparently detained in January or throwing pamphlets in the air with the slogans including, “The Castros are assassins” and ” Down with the Castros.”

For those of us outside Cuba, it is often difficult to independently verify details of events on the island. This is particularly problematic when it comes to clashes between the government and anti-government activists. Indeed, after Soto’s death, prominent international human rights organizations including Amnesty International called on the Cuban government to conduct a thorough investigation saying, “There are too many unanswered questions.” Fortunately, in regards to last week’s case, Human Rights Watch was able to obtain a copy of a document sent from the state prosecutor to the Havana Criminal Court which indeed corroborates that the four men were detained for the offense as it has been reported.

If so, and the incident was a classic exercise in the repression of dissent, it seems Havana is of late, of two minds about how it wants to deal with such acts, incidents that seem to be on the rise. In recent months, the Cuban government tended to rely on a policy of “catch and release” in responding to dissident agitation, detaining individuals and imprisoning them for short periods of time.  In contrast, the 3-5 year sentences handed down last week signified a notable shift. On this issue, Elizardo Sánchez of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights told El Nuevo Herald,

All Detained Americans Are Not the Same

Photo courtesy of Flickr/gin_e

My ears perked up last week upon hearing that after six months of being detained in North Korea, American citizen Eddie Jun was freed last week on humanitarian grounds. Jun, a Los Angeles business man, was detained by North Korean authorities last November for alleged proselytizing while in North Korea on a business visa. As with Cuba, U.S-North Korea relations are colored by years of distrust and miscommunication. But unlike Cuba, North Korea is a nuclear power. That means that in world of finite U.S. diplomatic resources, North Korea demands our attention in a way Cuba  never will. So despite, in indeed perhaps because of, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's proclivity for belligerent and provocative acts,  the U.S. continues to rely on a mix of both sanctions and engagement in its dealing with Pyongyang. 

Amid reports that flooding and an outbreak of disease have contributed to one of the worst food shortages in years, North Korea recently took the unusual step of asking for help from some of its most long-standing foes, including the United States. Against this backdrop, the detention (and subsequent release) of American Eddie Jun was seen as part of the North’s strategy of re-engaging the U.S. in a conversation about providing food assistance to North Korea. (U.S. assistance stopped in 2008 after North Korea expelled food aid monitors there to verify that aid was going to the neediest North Koreans, not being siphoned off for use by government officials.) 

The debate about food aid to North Korea is a heated one, and has been since the international community’s first major humanitarian response to widespread famine in North Korea in the early 1990s that killed nearly one million people. The two sides of the debate go something like this- proponents argue the assistance is humanitarian, and to withhold it is a human rights violation, while those who oppose aid argue that reinstating it would amount to rewarding Pyongyang’s bad behavior, and would only serve to strengthen the North Korean regime.  Sound vaguely familiar Cuba-philes?