January 2012

In Cuba, U.S., Party Politics Are Slow to Change

Photo courtesy of Flickr/WBUR's photostream

With the Cuban Communist Party Conference, the first of its kind, held in order to maintain steady progress on economic reforms laid out by the 6th  Party Congress last April, now concluded, and with the Republican primary battle in full promise-the-moon mode this last week, it’s clear that both in Cuba and the United States, some things remain painfully slow to change.

While significant economic reforms have gained momentum on the island for the last year or so, issues we might consider more political – such as migration reform or legalization of multiple political parties – aren’t on the immediate horizon.  Raul Castro called for greater accountability in the media and "democracy" in government decision-making.  Though Castro himself has pointed to the need for migration reforms, so that Cubans who work abroad aren’t forced to leave the country and their possessions permanently, for instance, he told Parliament in December that he considers it a complicated and delicate issue, one which (shocker alert) is inextricably linked to the longstanding U.S. embargo of Cuba.  This weekend he dispelled any notions that Cuba will turn away from a one-party model of government.  Why?  Because to do so would be “to legalize the party or parties of the [U.S.] empire.”  In one respect, of course he’s right – it would be hard to stop Cuban exiles from pouring money into and trying to shape the agendas of newly legalized political parties on the island.  But despite the obvious counter-productivity and “meddlesome”-ness of U.S. policy, it cannot always be the reason why Cuba’s leaders refuse to take a given course.  Just as the U.S. must not wait for Cuba to adopt policies we think it ought to, Cuba should not wait for the U.S. to suddenly offer a “new beginning” with Cuba.

Of course, that is the change that President Obama promised nearly three years ago – a “new beginning” with Cuba.  On the campaign trail, he sniffed at the Bush administration’s tough-talking pandering to the hard line segment of the Cuban American community, which in truth accomplished nothing, neither its swaggering determination to bring about the Castros’ demise, nor any improvement in conditions for Cubans.  The Obama administration did make a number of tactical changes to the policy, including expansions of travel for certain sectors, notably for Cuban Americans his campaign surely hoped would return the favor in 2012.  But none of these limited changes broke any truly new ground (with the exception of allowing additional airports to serve licensed travelers), and in fact, its refusal to fully reform the controversial USAID or Radio and TV Marti programs it inherited from the Bush administration signaled it wasn’t so comfortable with change after all.

Meanwhile, this week the Republican presidential hopefuls – minus Rep. Ron Paul - pedaled furiously backward into Florida, land of the hard line Cuban exile (and a few other voters). 

In the Weeds in Miami, Unpublished Letters

poster at Casas de Las Americas, Havana

Poster from exhibit at Casa de las Americas, Havana



An analysis of Cuban American opinion and voting behavior has been released which seems generally consistent with the  annual poll by Florida International University.  However. “The Political Incorporation of Cuban Americans: Why Won’t Little Havana Turn Blue?”  may underestimate the transitional moment.

The study was published by Benjamin G. Bishin, associate professor of political science at UC Riverside, and Casey A. Klofstad, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami.  They observed 

Post-Mariel immigrants, who are more progressive on U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba than those who fled immediately following Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959, accounted for slightly more than half of foreign-born Cubans in South Florida in the 2008 election; however, 78.6 percent of the Cuban American electorate consisted of pre-Mariel immigrants. About 90 percent of those who immigrated before Mariel are eligible to vote; less than 46 percent of those who immigrated after 1980 are similarly eligible.

Their data precedes President Obama's policy of unrestricted travel and remittances and the failed legislative push-back by the Cuban American caucus to restore the discredited Bush policy.

Republican Presidential Candidates Talk Cuba at Tampa Debate


I missed the umpteenth Republican presidential primary debate in Tampa tonight, which is a shame because all four of the remaining candidates addressed the subject of Cuba, specifically, how would they respond to the (hypothetical) news of Fidel Castro’s death. 

Well, I didn’t miss much, with Gingrich, Santorum and Romney all singing on the same broken record.  Lacking any substantive answers at all, Gingrich and Santorum calculated you can’t go wrong with a hard right turn, with the Castros' deaths being lynchpin to any change in the U.S. or Cuba.  Santorum picked up on reports (unsubstantiated) of jihadists in Cuba's close ally, Venezuela, and Gingrich talked about covert ops to take down the Cuban government should Fidel Castro pass away.  Romney offered up this vacuous comment:

"You work very aggressively with new leadership and try to move them forward to a more open degree."

Seems no one told Romney, or the other candidates, that Fidel Castro isn’t in charge in Cuba anymore and that the new leadership – or what passes for it - is already comfortably established in Havana.  The major psychologicial shift got under way when Fidel fell ill in the summer of 2006 and handed power temporarily to his brother and Defense Minister, Raul Castro.  Once Raul Castro officially became president in 2008, and Fidel chose not to interfere (at least publicly) in his brother’s handling of domestic affairs, the shift was complete.

Just one candidate, Rep. Ron Paul, said not what he thinks people want to hear but what he thinks they need to hear - his honest opinion:

"We're living in the dark ages when we can't even talk to the Cuban people.”

One Year On: The Semi-opening of Cuba Travel


                                                                                     Photo by David Garten


On the first anniversary of President Obama's announcement of new provisions for purposeful travel (1/17/11), the picture is hopeful but murky. The Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) led by Adam Szubin, a career civil servant appointed during the Bush Administration, does not publish a monthly updated list of licensees on its web site as it does of Travel Service Providers, nor does it even furnish periodic statistical data.

Based on a data base provided by OFAC to blogger Tracey Eaton under the Freedom of Information Act, it appears that in 2011 OFAC approved 440 applications from 289 organizations, about 1/3 of the total submitted or resubmitted. Good governance or an overly restrictive mind-set? (The data base is here and a list of licensed organizations here. )

Some are not for profits with decades of involvement like the Center for Cuban Studies. Others, like National Geographic, are broad based tour operators reincorporating Cuba in their portfolio. A few offer frequent open enrollment trips, most notably Insight Cuba. More take only their own members like university alumni associations and chambers of commerce. Not even OFAC knows how many universities and religious organizations have taken advantage of the general license as these groups have no obligation to request its approval or report their trips.  The result is that every American can, with diligence, find a legal albeit costly way for purposeful travel to Cuba.

The President’s announcement permitted any US airport that handles international flights to serve as a gateway to Cuba for charter flights. About a dozen have been approved by US and Cuban authorities. Tampa has proven most successful and its officials are proactive, in contrast to Miami which grudgingly profits from its primacy. However, charter flights from Atlanta, Chicago and a second one from JFK have been suspended and those from other cities without a large Cuban American population have never begun. The weekly Baltimore-Havana flight that starts March 21 will find it challenging to sustain itself unless the White House further liberalizes travel for the rest of us. (Full schedule of flights prepared by Marazul here.)

A major error by the White House was to leave too much discretion in the hands of OFAC, the understaffed inherently distrustful embargo enforcement arm of the Treasury Department. OFAC is proving to be a choke point rather than a facilitator, perhaps made ever more cautious by rising complaints from hard line opponents of travel in Congress.

Respect for democracy begins at home


Article 1 of the United States Constitution recognizes Congress as the first branch of US democracy, with the executive and judiciary following behind. Bicameralism was a central concept of the 1787 constitutional pact. It was seen as a republican “remedy” against potential abuses of legislative despotism. If the House was conceived to express the direct mood of the people, James Madison envisioned the Senate as a high chamber of “enlightened individuals” that would operate with “more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch”.

But a conspicuous gap has emerged between the founders’ design and the reality of some of today’s Senators. Poll after poll shows that the public holds Congress in low esteem. In the view of many Americans, some Senators not only reflect a polarized public but also contribute to making the system dysfunctional by abusing procedures, such as the unanimous consent rule, in pursuit of personal or parochial gains or to settle personal vendettas, rather than to defend national interests.

The Cuban community's representation in US politics has been remarkable over the last decade. No place is this more evident than in the Senate. Although the 1.8 million Cubans living in the US only represent 4 % of the Hispanics and less than 0.6 % of the US general population, they have managed to elect three Senators since 2004. The first was Mel Martinez, a moderate republican from Tampa who served as HUD secretary during the first term of George W. Bush. Second was Robert Menendez, a congressman from New Jersey who was appointed by the state governor and successfully ran for reelection in 2006. After Martinez’s retirement in 2010, Florida elected Marco Rubio, a former speaker of the state House.

Eyes Wide Shut, USAID, State Double Down on Cuba Programs


The phrase “exercise in futility” can easily be applied to to the United States' half-century old embargo of Cuba.  But lately there is an even more disconcerting trend among U.S. policymakers, which can best be described as conducting our fruitless policy toward Cuba with “eyes wide shut.”


How else to describe the recent comments from senior USAID and State Department officials in response to a blistering - and vital - critique of U.S. taxpayer-funded democracy programming in Cuba, which was published in The Miami Herald by Fulton Armstrong, a former senior staff member to Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry?  USAID's Mark Feierstein and State's Michael Posner responded to the criticism, which they have the right and responsibility to do, but their response is another disappointing indication that this administration remains inexplicably committed to a policy of willful ignorance when it comes to Cuba.  (The president himself has made comments in the past year - decrying Cuba's lack of movement on political prisoners and on the economy -  which made him sound as if he hasn't been briefed on the subject since taking office.)


In their letter to The Miami Herald, Feierstein and Posner argue that USAID's Cuba program is "comparable" to other democracy programs in the world. They neglect to mention that, unlike other USAID programs, the Cuba program is authorized under what amounts to a regime change mandate (see the Helms-Burton Act, sections 205 and 109), which is likely why, unlike in other less-than-chummy host countries that seem to tolerate U.S. democracy programming, USAID has no office on the ground and no cooperation agreement with the host government.


Feierstein and Posner also neglect to mention that it was this very regime change mandate - which underpins USAID's Cuba program and under which Alan Gross traveled at least 5 times to Cuba - that helped land the Maryland subcontractor in a Cuban jail cell more than two years ago, and not, as they argue, because he was “helping Cubans access the Internet.” It may be true that the Cuban government wants to limit most or certain Cubans' access to the internet, and it may even be true that this was the real reason why Mr. Gross was arrested. But denouncing Cuba's motivations doesn't help free Mr. Gross.


Helping Alan Gross to understand Cuban law before he traveled to the island would have better served him. Instead, Feierstein and Posner disingenuously suggest that we can choose not to accept Cuban law. In what other foreign country may a private American citizen flout local national security laws and expect to go free because the United States government thinks it's an unfair law? Surely Feierstein and Posner can't be unaware of this advise offered to any traveler on the State Department website: “While in a foreign country, you are subject to its laws.” Or, of the warning USAID gave to grant applicants in 2008 that Cuba might harshly sanction Cubans or foreigners carrying out activities under Section 109 of the Helms-Burton Act.

Cuban Taxi Drivers Says the Darndest Things

Photo: A. Landau French

Ten years ago, family-run paladar restaurants, were the (shrinking) bastion of cuentapropismo in Cuba, tiny, over-regulated oases of creativity and the-customer-knows-best level service. More than one government official, Havanatur van or state-owned taxi in those days discouraged patronage and a few even declined to take me and groups with which I traveled to paladars. (Though, certainly, many others obliged us without a second thought.) Those days are clearly gone – and good riddance.


On my way to one paladar last week, our taxi driver fielded a few questions about the changing Cuban economy and his role in it. He pays 31 CUC a day to rent his taxi from the state, and after paying for gas and maintenance, he still clears about 15-20 CUC a day. That means he makes in one day what the average Cuban without access to hard currency (or to CUCs) makes in a whole month. We asked what he thinks about the changes afoot in Cuba, and whether he feels hopeful, or perhaps that change has come too little, too late to the island. He expressed optimism, offering this candid response: “Yo creo en Raul. Nunca creia en Fidel.” (I believe in Raul.  I never believed in Fidel.)

That comment was followed by one even more ubiquitous; everwhere you go, more Cubans are saying things like, “If I work hard, I'll make more money.”

Scholar Advocates for Increased Academic Partnership Between U.S. and Cuba


I would like to share with the readers of the Havana Note this interview with Douglas Fehlen from Education-Portal.com. The direct link to the interview is at the end of the text:  

Scholar Advocates for Increased Academic Partnership Between U.S. and Cuba

Jan 12, 2012

In January, President Obama lifted restrictions on academic travel to Cuba, making it easier for students to partake in educational exchanges with the island country. To get an expert's perspective on that decision, Education-Portal.com spoke with Arturo López-Levy, Ph.D. candidate and research associate at the University of Denver's Josef Korbel School of International Studies. López-Levy is a passionate advocate for increasing shared educational opportunities between the U.S. and Cuba.

By Douglas Fehlen

Education-Portal.com: In a ForeignPolicy.com article, you praised President Obama's January decision to ease restrictions on academic travel to Cuba. Why do you support this policy change?For decades, the United States has maintained no formal diplomatic relations with Cuba, enforcing severe travel and trade restrictions against the country all the while. Arturo López-Levy, Ph.D. candidate and research associate at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is a longtime critic of American policy toward the Caribbean nation. The University of Denver scholar believes that recent changes in American policy - including relaxed regulations on educational, cultural and religious travel - have the potential to transform the relationship between the two countries.

Havana and Washington in the New Year

New Year symbol



I was in Cuba three times in 2011 and have visited at least annually for the past 15 years.  From numerous private conversations with old friends and random encounters I received an impression of growing optimism that real changes were finally underway.  There is also a discernible growth of small scale entrepreneurial activity. 

Two lengthy year end reviews of economic change in Cuba in the Miami Herald convey a similar perspective. 

*  by Paul Havens head of the Associated Press bureau in Havana here

*  by the Herald's own Mimi Whitfield here

Based on extended personal observation in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the years of their economic transformation, I see a similar process beginning in Cuba that gathers momentum from its success and learns from its mistakes.  Everything will be justified as being done to strengthen socialism, just as the Vietnamese and Chinese still do, but as the process continues socialism takes on new forms and functions and society becomes more open.

It took the US eight years to recognize the significance of Vietnam's policy of doi moi (renovation) and lift our unilateral embargo.  I hope we are not equally obtuse with Cuba.  So far the signs are not encouraging.

President Obama could today easily use his power to really open travel for average Americans, end OFAC restrictions on Cuba's international use of the dollar (allowing $ CUC parity) and other extraterritorial annoyance measures, and make an exemption to the embargo for sales to and purchases from the emerging private sector. 

Cuba News in the New Year

Aside from the Pope's announced visit to Cuba, and some bits of news on the economic front -  like need-based aid for Cuban home renovations - there isn't much in the way of news you can use out of Cuba.  For instance, Fidel Castro didn't die, despite the trending on Twitter earlier this week.  But, if you're nonetheless curious for something to read on the world's most inaccurately foretold death, Fernando Ravsberg obliges over at The Havana Times, reminding us just how often Fidel Castro has (er, has not actually) died in the media., and analyzing how a journalist knows what and when to report, and in the process, explaining the many paradoxes of Cuba.

Back to news you can't use, we return to the U.S. Congress.  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is not happy with the Smithsonian Institution, which is hosting several learning tours to Cuba this year.  With travelers paying $5,400 each to join the trips, I think Ros-Lehtinen can rest assured that no taxpayer funds were used to arrange these trips - surely that's enough dough to cover the staff time!  I kid, but I can't think of why else this latest huff by a Cuban American member of Congress made both The Hill and the The Washington Post blogs, other than for the possibility of a congressional hold on funds for a beloved, venerable U.S. institution.  (The Washington City Paper also picked it up, but noted that the Smithsonian's travel division isn't federally funded.  Oops.)

Speaking of travel, Pope Benedict XVI has finalized his agenda for his upcoming visit to Cuba later this spring.  His trip coincides with the 400th anniversary of the discovery by Cuban fishermen of the image of La Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre (so dubbed for the copper mining town in which the shrine now housing La Virgin can be found).  As such, El Cobre will be his first stop in Cuba, upon his arrival to Santiago de Cuba, on the east side of the island.  I've been to El Cobre - it's an amazing place (and I'm not even Catholic).  Imagining everything that goes with a Papal visit anywhere, but especially to a site like this in the Cuban countryside, I'm incredibly excited for the people of El Cobre, of Santiago de Cuba, and from all over the island who will likely travel to see the Pope make this important pilgrimage.  

Finally, writing in the Huffington Post, Yoani Sanchez offers up the year past in review.  It's not a pretty picture, not only for the increasing harassment and detentions of Cuban dissidents - and of course, the sudden passing of Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan - but also because Sanchez gauges little hope from Raul Castro's economic reforms (or, "updates", as I've previously noted the government calls the ongoing process) among Cubans in the street.  (The latest just announced reforms include opening more professions up to self-employment on January 1, and the establishment of a government fund for need-based home construction/renovation aid.)  It's a pessimistic view, and not hard to imagine given how long the Cuban people have been waiting for an economic system that works for them.  So, I'm looking forward to being in Havana next week and gauging the changes - and how people have greeted them - for myself.  While I may be too busy to blog it while I'm there, I hope to come back with lots to write about.