Presidents Obama and Calderon
Are we there yet, as our kids (at an earlier age) might ask?
Let's just say that Barack Obama and Raul Castro are laying the groundwork for something positive to happen, perhaps as early as the Summit session tomorrow.
An AP story reported major progress (as a later story, excerpted below the fold, dramatically updated)
MEXICO CITY Ã‚Â The new presidents of the United States and Cuba, in a surprisingly direct exchange, appeared to open the door Thursday for negotiations toward a new relationship between the two countries divided by 90 miles of water and 50 years of cold war.
After removing some of the restrictions that lock Americans and their money out of Cuba in what he called a show of good faith, Barack Obama said Thursday that it was up to Havana to take the next step.
Within hours, Raul Castro replied from a summit in Venezuela: "We have sent word to the U.S. government in private and in public that we are willing to discuss everything Ã‚Â human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything."
That was the boldest and most conciliatory language Castro or his brother Fidel Ã‚Â who handed him the presidency a year ago after falling ill Ã‚Â have used with any U.S. administration since that of Dwight D. Eisenhower in early 1961, when the nations broke off relations. It appeared to be a transcendent development, the best opportunity for talks in a half-century....
"We're willing to sit down to talk as it should be done, whenever," he said, while also condemning decades of efforts by Washington to undermine the Cuban government. "What's going on is that now ... whoever says anything, they immediately start (talking about) democracy, freedom, prisoners."
...Raul Castro said his only conditions for talks now are that Washington treat them as a conversation between equals and respect "the Cuban people's right to self-determination."
The AP story includes a reference to Castro's offer of mutual gestures for the release of prisoners. It's not a direct quote, but perhaps the topic was mentioned on background.
The full story is here.
As interesting is the full text of press conference answers about Cuba by Presidents Obama and Calderon here.
Notable is that President Obama did not repeat the Bush-light democracy lecture that dominated the Gibbs/Restrepo press briefing. Rather he simply said the new policy was a "a good-faith effort, a show of good faith on the part of the United States that we want to recast our relationship" and focused on the benefit to Cuban Americans and their family members.
But we do expect that Cuba will send signals that they're interested in liberalizing in such a way that not only do U.S.-Cuban relations improve, but so that the energy and creativity and initiative of the Cuban people can potentially be released.
We talk about the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba, but there's not much discussion of the ban on Cuban people traveling elsewhere and the severe restrictions that they're under. I make that point only to suggest that there are a range of steps that could be taken on the part of the Cuban government that would start to show that they want to move beyond the patterns of the last 50 years.
Interestingly, the only concrete illustration Obama gave is exactly the reform Cubans themselves have openly debated and the government has been rumored to be on the verge of making.
I'm optimistic that progress can be made if there is a spirit that is looking forward rather than backward....What I do insist on is that U.S.-Cuban relationships are grounded with a respect not only for the traditions of each country but also respect for human rights and the people's -- the needs of the people of Cuba. And so I hope that the signal I've sent here is, is that we are not trying to be heavy-handed. We want to be open to engagement. But we're going to do so in a systematic way that keeps focus on the hardships and struggles that many Cubans are still going through.
"Hardships", dare we hope like those produced by three hurricanes?
President Calderon's response may also be read as scene setting for the Summit:
The question that has to be posed rather is whether the U.S. embargo on Cuba has worked. The reality is that the embargo has been there long before we were even born, and yet things have not changed all that much in Cuba. I think we would have to ask ourselves whether that isn't enough time to realize that it has been a strategy that has not been very useful to achieve change in Cuba....
I welcome the measures that President Obama has taken in order to change this attitude, and to try to attempt -- and the attempt must be appreciated -- to change the policy towards Cuba little by little. But what is clear to me is that we both share the same ideals. I think we would both like to see the world living at some point under a full democracy, a world with full respect for human rights, with no exceptions whatsoever. We would like to see a world working with people being able to take care of their families, to live in peace, and those principles that must protect humanity. That we do share.
We also share the idea that each nation must be respected in its own decisions. It's like we were saying a moment ago when we were talking about the prohibition of assault weapons. Of course, we do not want those weapons to be out in the streets, but at the same time we want those decisions to come from the people themselves and to be self-determinant. And it's the same for Cuba. But I believe that the steps President Obama has taken are very positive....
What are the principles we believe in? Democracy, human rights, but also liberty, property, trade, free trade, free economy. And I think as long as those principles can function and bring benefits to the Cuban economy, then things can begin to change. We cannot change anything that has already taken place in the past, but I am certain that as heads of state, we can do a lot to try to make a different future, both for the world, both for our countries, and also in relation to Cuba.
I told President Obama that the best of luck in this panorama that is now so totally different from what U.S. policy has been in the past. I hope for the best, and I hope that more expeditious steps could be taken so that we can move forward in this regard, and that everything will be done with good understanding.
A just posted AP story from the site of the Summit provides more reason to hope
The head of the Organization of American States said Friday that he will ask its members to readmit Cuba 47 years after they ousted the communist nation. And in another step toward improving relations, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called Cuban President Raul Castro's latest comments a "very welcome gesture."
After a series of overtures by U.S. President Barack Obama, Castro said Thursday that he is ready to talk with the U.S. and put "everything" on the table, even questions of human rights and political prisoners.
That prompted a warm response from Clinton: "We welcome his comments, the overture they represent and we are taking a very serious look at how we intend to respond...."
Things seemed to be moving quickly. Obama and Clinton had earlier said that Havana needs to reciprocate after Obama's "good faith" gesture of removing restrictions on some American money and travel to Cuba. But Raul Castro's conciliatory response seemed to be enough to move things forward even without a more concrete move on U.S. sticking points....
Jamaica's prime minister, Bruce Golding...told The Associated Press that Caricom leaders also agreed to not push Obama too hard on the issue during the summit.
"I'm hoping that nothing is done that will make the process more difficult and that we seek to encourage further progress rather than cause the situation once again to become polarized and intractable," he said....
Raul Castro has previously said he would be willing to discuss all issues with Obama. But Cuban officials have historically bristled at including human rights or political prisoners in the talks, saying such matters are none of the Yankees' business.
Now, he even suggested that "many other things" could be up for discussion. "We could be wrong, we admit it. We're human beings," Castro said. "We're willing to sit down to talk as it should be done, whenever."
Castro said his only conditions are that Washington treat his government as an equal, and respect "the Cuban people's right to self-determination."
I suppose one could see all of this as smoke and mirrors, intended to save Obama from being publicly isolated at the Summit from a united Hemisphere that insists on US reconciliation with Cuba. I am more optimistic, but we will know very soon.
The Summit web site is here They will stream the opening session tonight, and so presumably the speeches tomorrow. Obama's will certainly be on C-Span.
Detroit Free Press editorial available here "White House sets more mature policy on Cuba"
NAFSA statement on including educational travel
US Conference of Catholic Bishops letter to the President
Cheapflights.com letter to the President about baseball and leisure travel
President Obama gave an interview to CNN en EspaÃƒÂ±ol last night which offers food for thought and hope:
Obama is to travel later in the week to the summit in Trinidad and Tobago for meetings with Latin American leaders.
He refused to criticize the leaders of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela, who have taken measures to change their constitutions to extend their holds on power.
"I think it's important for the United States not to tell other countries how to structure their democratic practices and what should be contained in their constitutions," he said. "It's up to the people of those countries to make a decision about how they want to structure their affairs."
Obama offered no criticism when asked how he plans to interact with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a fierce U.S. critic who once described President Bush as the "devil." "Look, he's the leader of his country, and he'll be one of many people that I will have an opportunity to meet," Obama said.
He said he believes the United States has a leadership role to play in the region, but he qualified that role this way: "We also recognize that other countries have important contributions and insights."
He added, "We want to listen and learn as well as talk, and that approach, I think, of mutual respect and finding common interests, is one that ultimately will serve everybody."
On Cuba, Obama -- who this week eased restrictions on travel and sending money to the island -- offered a prod and a carrot to Havana.
"What we're looking for is some signal that there are going to be changes in how Cuba operates that assures that political prisoners are released, that people can speak their minds freely, that they can travel, that they can write and attend church and do the things that people throughout the hemisphere can do and take for granted," he said.
"And if there is some sense of movement on those fronts in Cuba, then I think we can see a further thawing of relations and further changes."
I have bolded some words that might be productively applied to US attitudes about Cuba. Regarding President Obama's specific expectations of Havana, signals already abound:
1) According to human rights groups, political prisoners have been released steadily since Raul Castro became President, albeit not enough of them. The problem could be solved tomorrow if the US accepts Castro's suggestion of mutual gestures to release prisoners each country considers political (Cuban 5, Black Spring 54 and earlier victims), a precedent set by President Carter.
2) Cubans don't hesitate to speak their minds freely among colleagues, friends and family and with foreigners they trust. In the Raul era that has extended to more public forums, both official and unofficial. A prominent example is the speech by Eusebio Leal, Historian of the City of Havana, at the congress of the writers and artists union, UNEAC. (And remember the video of students vigorously questioning National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon.) As a prominent Cuban intellectual, Rafael Hernandez, told Progresso Weekly
Any relaxation of the relations between Cuba and the United States, any measure that tends to reduce or dismantle the external mechanisms of coercion favors policies that are more realistic, more convenient, more directed at benefiting the Cubans who live in Cuba and the ones who live outside Cuba. It seems to me unthinkable that, if a relaxation of the antagonism between Cuba and the U.S. occurs, it will not have an effect, because it creates a climate that is more favorable for all kinds of new policies.
3) One of the changes Cubans have called for publicly, from neighborhood meetings to national conferences, is their own freedom of travel, the end of exit visas, the so called white card. Action by Cuba's government on travel restrictions of all its citizens is the most direct and appropriate response to US changes in travel restrictions of all our citizens. (Vietnam did not abolish exit visas until after normalization with the US.)
4) I am not sure what kind of writing the President refers to, but attending church is a long established normal activity in Cuba. Holding a religious faith hasn't been an obstacle to Communist Party membership for years. (Cuba was ahead of Vietnam on that front.)
We can be optimistic that Obama has not just listened to, but also heard, what Lula and everyone else has told him in the run-up to Trinidad and Tobago, as Phil Peter's listed here, and as reported from Brazil by Bloomberg.com
While Latin American leaders split on many issues, they agree that Obama should lift the 47-year-old U.S. trade embargo on Cuba. From Venezuelan socialist Hugo Chavez to Mexico's pro-business Felipe Calderon, leaders view a change in policy toward Cuba as a starting point for reviving U.S. relations with the region, which are at their lowest point in two decades.
The transformative leader we saw in Europe and Turkey can use the Summit podium to announce the end of all restrictions on non-tourist people to people travel and other practical initiatives toward Cuba that more than two thirds of Americans want (see new poll data here). Just as a key element in FDR's highly regarded "Good Neighbor Policy" was abolishing everything but the Guantanamo base provision of the despised Platt Amendment, Obama's path south lies through reconciliation with Havana.
Secretary of State Clinton suggested more is on the horizon, as reported in the Miami Herald:
Asked specifically whether it was not preferential treatment to permit only Cuban-American exiles to travel to Cuba, she replied:
``That's part of our policy review. Our first goal was to reverse the Draconian rules imposed by the Bush administration, which took away privileges that had been available for a long time."
My further thoughts about what the moment offers can be found in an earlier blog and here.
Some additional related links
Prof. Stanley Katz expresses frustration in the Chronicle of Higher Education that "the total revocation of OFAC regulations limiting travel to Cuba" was not included in the White House announcement. He is Director, Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University; former President of the American Council of Learned Societies; and chairs the Cuba Working Group of the Social Science Research Council.
Time Magazine's Tim Padgett makes the case for Obama backing travel legislation here.
A creative way of being present at the Summit can be found here.
With all that is at stake today, we cannot afford to talk past one another. We canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t afford to allow old differences to prevent us from making progress in areas of common concern. We canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t afford to let walls of mistrust stand. Instead, we have to find Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and build on Ã¢â‚¬â€œ our mutual interests. For it is only when people come together, and seek common ground, that some of that mistrust can begin to fade. And that is where progress begins.
--President Barack Obama, Weekly Address, Saturday, April 11, 2009
No question that President Obama is summoning our nation and the world to a higher standard. Can he now apply it close to home and reject advisers that for domestic political reasons put him in conflict with a powerful consensus among our neighbors about Cuba?
There is no real reason why President Obama cannot demonstrate that he is hearing US and Western Hemisphere opinion by walking the walk at the Summit of the Americas in these ways:
1) Use his authority to immediately grant general licenses for unlimited use by all 12 codified categories of non-tourist travel, including not only family but also for educational, religious, humanitarian, cultural and sports purposes
2) Indicate that he welcomes and will sign legislation from Congress to restore the right to travel of all Americans, while hoping that Cuba will do the same for its own people.
3) Announce that the US will dismantle the electronic billboard at the US Interests Section and support a reciprocal agreement for the Interest Sections in both countries to function in a more normal diplomatic fashion, including travel within the country and engaging in dialogue with a full range of official and unofficial persons while avoiding partisan intrusion in domestic affairs
4) Instruct the State Department to issue visas for Cubans wishing to visit the US for academic, cultural, professional and people to people dialogue purposes
5) Announce the appointment of a credible special representative such as Gov. Bill Richardson to begin high level discussions of available channels of practical cooperation and the resolution of all bilateral issues, including compensation for nationalized US property and the unilateral embargo
If the President wants to be truly bold he can:
1) Say the US has no objection to Cuba's participation in the Summit in whatever status is appropriate to its current non-membership in the OAS, a situation the US hopes will be soon addressed so the organization incorporates all countries in the Hemisphere on an equal basis.
2) Use his legal authority to partially lift the embargo for humanitarian reasons, allowing Cuba to purchase construction and agricultural supplies and equipment needed because of hurricane damage, and authorizing a general license for American organizations and individuals who wish to donate such supplies
3) Respond favorably to Raul Castro's suggestion of mutual gestures to resolve the problem of people imprisoned in each country which the other considers political (Cuban 5, Black Spring 54) [See Progresso Weekly article on the precedent for such gestures.]
4) Indicate that a review is taking place to remove Cuba from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism
5) State that the return of the territory of Guantanamo Bay to Cuba is a legitimate topic for bilateral discussion
The discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations which can be heard here went beyond the revealing section Steve Clemons cited in a preceding blog, confirming the US is the "odd man out" in the Hemisphere, not Cuba.
George Dalley, Chief of Staff, Representative Charles Rangel
(to Davidow) Whether the credibility of really being a change agent might be at stake here because the great doubt is does the President have the ability to change policies that have this tremendous domestic overhangÃ¢â‚¬Â¦
(to Marina) What is your assessment of the disagreement that much of the hemisphere has with the United States with regards to excluding Cuba...what are hemispheric attitudes and what would the impact be of a change in terms of relationships between the US and the region, attitudes towards the credibility of the US being a different partner than in the past?
Luis Alberto Moreno, President, Inter-American Development Bank
there is no question that to move into Latin America Ã¢â‚¬â€œ US 21st century relations clearly Cuba has to be a part of thatÃ¢â‚¬Â¦at the end of the day it is about how to reestablish (US-Cuba) relations and you cannot just put democracy in front without being able to put all the nuances thereÃ¢â‚¬Â¦it would have a profound effect not only in the hemisphere but throughout the world if the US unlocks this problem and shows a different kind of leadership
* Convey your advice about the Summit directly to the White House Office of Public Liaison web page, click here
* Fax a copy of your comment to Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, at 202-647-7095
OTTAWA Ã¢â‚¬â€ One of Fidel Castro's nicknames is "el caballo", the horse, but the tough, Cuban statesman will be the "elefante" in the room at the Summit of the America's next week.
Cuba's continuing exclusion from Organization of American States (OAS) and its triennial summits is threatening to hog the spotlight at this year's meeting in Trinidad and Tobago.
Even the summit host, Prime Minister Patrick Manning, has said that Cuba's membership needs to be discussed, despite pressing regional issues such as debilitating drug crime and the financial crisis.
Canada finds itself floating somewhere in the middle - between a U.S. administration determined to keep Cuba excluded and Latin American and Caribbean leaders who are clamouring for change. (full story here)
Amb. Jeff Davidow provided greater but not yet definitive clarity about how the US is preparing its position on Cuba. Presumably the final word awaits the return of President Obama from his successful international debut in Europe and Turkey.
What kind of press does the Obama Administration want from the Summit of the Americas? Another Europe-like triumph of moving beyond ritualistic antagonism and the Bush legacy of arrogance, or a reminder that we still don't get it in our own backyard?
More leaks confused further what the US game plan is for the Summit of the Americas (see my prior post here). While the Wall Street Journal on Friday only reported that unlimited travel and remittances for Cuban Americans was in prospect, AP on Saturday said
"The intent is to try to test the waters and see if we can get Cuba to move in another direction," one official said. "One way of getting the regime to open up may be to let people travel, increase exchanges and get money flowing to the island."
The logic of this would extend to enabling the other eleven categories of non-tourist travel with which the President can undo the damage of George Bush and achieve a bigger impact in both countries.
What is clear is that the US will not be able to avoid addressing the topic of Cuba. That is made abudently clear by the latest Reflection from Comrade Fidel (excerpted below the break) and the response from Hugo Chavez
"We cannot accept that the United States continues harassing Cuba. This is still a question of honor," Chavez told state television.
"We should ask ourselves: If we are all friends of Cuba, why does this country not exist? But we are not going to keep our mouths closed, even the rocks will be speaking in Trinidad and Tobago."
Which Fidel do we prefer?
Reflections by Comrade Fidel
April 4, 2009
WHY IS CUBA BEING EXCLUDED?
During my meeting with Daniel, he gave me a large number of paragraphs that are being debated about the final declaration of the upcoming Port of Spain Summit....
Surely there are a great number of inadmissible concepts. It will be a litmus test for the peoples of the Caribbean and Latin America. Could it be a step backwards? Blockade and also exclusion after 50 years of resistance?
Who will assume those responsibilities? Who now demands our extinction? Could it be that they do not understand that the days of treaties excluding our people are a thing of the past?
There will be important reservations in that declaration signed by heads of state so that it can be understood that in spite of the changes attained through tough talks, there are ideas which are unacceptable to them.
Cuba has always shown its willingness, in new circumstances, to provide maximum cooperation with the diplomatic activities of the countries of the Caribbean and Latin America. Those who ought to, know this well but we cannot be asked to keep silent in the face of unnecessary and inadmissible concessions.
Even stones shall speak!
full text here
April 5, 2009
Walking on Solid Ground
If President Barack Obama travels the world asserting, as he did in his very own country, that it is necessary to invest the sums needed to pull out of the financial crisis, to guarantee the homes where countless families live, to guarantee jobs for the American workers who are becoming unemployed by the millions, to install health services and quality education for all citizens, how can he reconcile that with blockade measures to impose his will over a country like Cuba?...
The Cuban Revolution, which has not been destroyed either by the blockade or the dirty war, is based on ethical and political principles; that is the reason why it has been able to resist....
Those who are capable of serenely analyzing the events, as is the case of the senator from Indiana [Richard Lugar], use an irrefutable argument: the United StatesÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ measures against Cuba, over almost half a century, are a total failure.
There is no need to emphasize what Cuba has always said: we do not fear dialogue with the United States. Nor do we need the confrontation to exist as some foolish people think: we exist precisely because we believe in our ideas and we have never feared dialogue with the adversary. It is the only way to secure friendship and peace among peoples.
full text here
A disturbing article from the Trinidad Express (available here) about the US take on Cuba's relationship to the Summit of the Americas was posted on Friday on the Miami Herald web site.
I am hoping that former ambassador to Venezuela Jeff Davidow who is coordinating our government's preparations was misquoted or misconstrued, and that this Administration is not still living in a state of denial:
"We do not believe that Cuba is a topic of discussion at this summit,..The policy of the United States on Cuba is that we hope that the Cuban people will someday be able to share the same kind of democracy that the people of Trinidad have,..Obviously, Trinidad is free to work on its own relationship with Cuba as all countries are. However, I think it would be very unfortunate if the topic of Cuba were to become the principal issue at this summit and detract attention from the other important things you and I have been talking about -energy, poverty, crime...We do not believe that Cuba should be at the summit because the summit is for the community of democratically elected heads of state. I don't think anybody in Trinidad would argue that Raul Castro was democratically elected."
Leaving aside the reality that Cuba has something important to contribute to the three topics Davidow cites, Vice President Biden claimed in Chile that, "the time of the United States dictating unilaterally, the time where we only talk and don't listen is over". How then can we peremptorily rule off the agenda a problem that everyone else in the Hemisphere believes is the principle obstacle to the US regaining a positive role?
The Obama Administration's commitment to listening is hollow and risks becoming a new form of Bush style patronizing if we are tone deaf to what everyone is saying and continue to be self-righteous and insular about the superiority of our political ideology.
Press reports on Friday are to be warmly welcomed that President Obama will fulfill his campaign commitment to unlimited Cuban American travel and remittances, but that is not sufficient for the Summit. As Brazil's Foreign Minister told the Washington Post in preparation for the meeting between Presidents Lula and Obama:
"I think we would certainly encourage dialogue, encourage the end of isolation," Amorim said, adding that ending restrictions on travel and sending money back to Cuba would not be enough. "I think something bigger has to be done," he said.
Lula is far from alone, as documented in an invaluable summary by Phil Peters here and in fact will be the more tempered critic of the US in Trinidad. A bold but unlikely step by the Administration is to say now that for the sake of universality it welcomes Cuba's participation in the Summit. This would take the wind out of the sails of harsher opponents and free the US from the defensive tone of Davidow and Biden.
As I wrote here earlier in the week, should the President open non-tourist travel to Cuba, as predicted in the Washington Post on Monday, that would help create a positive atmosphere for the Summit, as well as be an essential step toward Congress restoring a fundamental human right at home.
A more direct way for the President to address the strong demand that we end our embargo is to also announce a hurricane relief related six month humanitarian suspension of the embargo to enable sale and donation of construction and agricultural supplies and equipment.
The exclusion of Cuba from the Fifth Summit of the Americas is not helpful in achieving
improved respect for human rights in Cuba.... The absence of Cuba, the only country to be excluded, will diminish attempts to find regional solutions to regional problems. --Amnesty International (full statement here)
Two compelling essays raise harder questions that need to find their place on the Obama agenda:
Attorney JosÃƒÂ© Pertierra cites a 1979 precedent of mutual gestures leading to the release of prisoners held by the US and Cuba that offers a model to bring humanitarian relief to the Cuban 5 and the Black Spring 54. His article appears in the current issue of Progresso Weekly, which is also a good source of insight into Cuba's discussion of reform.
A new book from the very mainstream Brookings Foundation, The Obama Administration and the Americas, features a chapter on historical, legal and political reasons for return of the Guantanamo Bay territory to Cuban sovereignty. It can be ordered here.
It does not gainsay the importance of today's and Thursday's press conferences on the Senate and House bills to end all travel restrictions to note the more immediate consequence of this paragraph in yesterday's Washington Post story:
"Although the decision is not yet final, Obama is expected to further loosen remaining travel restrictions for all Americans by the time he goes to the April 17-19 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, senior administration officials said. Such restrictions were first imposed in 1961 and have been progressively tightened since then*. Removing all sanctions requires congressional action, but one senior official said that Treasury has wide leeway to ease the licensing requirements that limit travel."
If this is a trial balloon, no doubt the Cuban American rejectionists and allies in the House and Senate are doing their best to shoot it down. Folks in Congress and among Obama's supporters who want the Administration to use its authority to open the door as wide as possible to people-to-people exchange should find a way to assure the "final decision" is favorable.
The simplest is by sending a message to Valerie Jarrett, Assistant to the President for Public Liaison, via her web page here. Personalize and expand this text:
As a first step to improve relations between the US and Cuba, the President should use his existing authority to provide general licenses for unlimited travel by Cuban Americans (as promised during the campaign) and for non-tourist people to people exchanges, including for educational, religious, humanitarian, cultural, and sports purposes.
Send a copy to Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Department of State, 2201 C Street NW, Washington, DC 20520, or by fax to 202-647-7095
If the Administration follows through, diverse non-tourist visits will take place in late spring and summer, contributing to mutual understanding and confidence building essential to successful bilateral negotiations, and energizing knowledgeable grass roots support for Congress to end all travel restrictions.
For a fuller account, read the just published newsletter of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development here.
* In fact, President Carter ended all travel restrictions and President Clinton liberalized those reimposed by President Reagan.
Florida Senators Martinez and Nelson
Everyone who seeks normal relations between the US and Cuba is justifiably celebrating the one-two punch of the Cuba language in the Omnibus Appropriations bill and the OFAC regulations to implement it as the first step toward restoring freedom of travel to everyone. While Cuban Americans have not yet achieved the unlimited travel and remittances promised by candidate Obama, they have regained the ground stolen by President Bush in 2004.
The Treasury DepartmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s fast action through OFAC is a more significant indicator of where the Administration is heading than the fig leaf that Secretary Tim Geithner provided the two rejectionist Democrats, Senators Menendez and Nelson, so they could vote for cloture.
It is worth reading his letters carefully as they affirm that a larger change is coming.
We are, however, currently reviewing United States policy toward Cuba to determine the best way to foster democratic change in Cuba and improve the lives of the Cuban people. Your views and the views of others on Capitol Hill will be important to that review, and the President remains committed to consulting with you as we consider changes to Cuba policy. (Texts here posted by Jake Colvin.)
Of course Senators Menendez, Martinez and Nelson will be consulted, but not more than other Senators like Kerry, Lugar and Dodd. A further encouraging note was in a Miami Herald story:
''The guidance issued yesterday by the Treasury Department was issued pursuant to a law passed by Congress,'' White House spokeswoman Gannet Tseggai said Thursday.
''The president was not involved in the drafting of that provision, and it does not take the place of his own review of family visits and family cash remittances,'' she added.
Americans who care need to add their weight to the Administration's discussion so the President does not stop at family travel. A Citizens' Appeal for engagement with President Obama on Cuba can be seen here in the just posted newsletter of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development.
The extent to which the other side is in a state of aggressive denial can be seen in a leaked internal memo from the US-Cuba Democracy PAC
the mobilization of Democratic Members of Congress, and their aggressive outreach to the White House and Leadership on this issue has made it clear to the Obama Administration that there is a very vocal majority, bipartisan coalition in Congress that opposes even the slightest changes to current policy
Also possible is that the White House concludes that there are a few unreconcilables so married to narrow sectarian interests that they are ready to expose their Party and President to a week of diversionary and politically costly debate about embarrassing Congressional earmarks and ballooning deficits.
While some advisers may counsel accommodating them to avoid future problems, others will note that once the President changes travel policy to the maximum non-tourist level, that issue is over as a direct White House concern. The bitter end opponents can't do much beyond grumbling to their donors and their shrinking piece of the Florida and New Jersey community,
The tactic of putting the Cuba language in the Omnibus Appropriations bill foreclosed amendments in the House, but gave disproportionate power to two Democrats in the Senate whose votes prevented cloture. The reverse will apply to the stand alone full travel bill. There should not be a major problem in obtaining subcommittee and committee approval and assembling sixty Senate votes to end travel restrictions, but the House will afford more difficult terrain at all stages.
I am of mixed feelings about how Secretary Geithner addressed the precedent setting creation of a new general license category for the marketing or agricultural and medical products. OFAC has not yet published regulations in this area but his intent is clear and reasonable:
"regulations promulgated pursuant to that provision will seek to ensure that only travel for credible sales of food and medical products is authorized."
The problem lies in implementation.
"Any business using the general license will be required to provide both advance written notice outlining the purpose and scope of the planned travel and, upon return, a report outlining the activities conducted, including the persons with whom they met, the expenses incurred, and business conducted in Cuba."
Pre and post trip notification requirements are an annoyance and are hard to independently verify, except in cases of egregious public violation. A more relevant control is inherent in the nature of a general license, i.e. it applies to a category of people based on who they are and the reasonableness that travel is consistent with their professional or avocational identity.
OFAC may be tempted to apply a similar formula to grant general licenses for other forms of non-tourist travel like educational, religious and humanitarian. This requirement would be petty and unnecessary but is preferable to a time consuming and politicized vetting process of applications for specific licenses. (More on general vs. specific licenses here )
Senator Dodd pushed back arguing this novel restrictiveness of the meaning of a general license violated the intent of the new law in a letter posted by Phil Peters.
Obama's campaign statements on unlimited and unrestricted travel vs. how Sen. Nelson mischaracterized them during the Omnibus debate can be seen here
Yesterday in the Senate debate on the Omnibus Appropriations bill Bob Menendez (D, NJ) delivered a long and impassioned speech against Cuba. Any policy change we can imagine had a condition attached which would make it a non-starter in Havana. In the case of even family travel he took a position reflective of his long links to hard liners in Miami.
In exchange for more frequent visits from Cuban-American families who bring money and resources to the island, let us insist that the Cuban regime permit those who want to travel to Cuba and visit human rights activists, democracy activists, independent journalists, and other civil society advocates, be given visas as well.
He threatened that the Cuba language, "put the Omnibus bill in jeopardy".
After he spoke, Senator Reid took the floor, expressing warmly his long association with Menendez:
As the distinguished Senator from New Jersey knows, I have locked arms with Congressman and now Senator from New Jersey for many years. In fact, my votes in years past have not always been in the majority, but they have always been something I felt comfortable doing and still feel comfortable doing.
I appreciate the statement made by my friend from New Jersey. I am committed to work with him to see what we can do to resolve the injustice that is taking place 90 miles off the shore of America and, once and for all, give those people who live in Las Vegas--people do not realize the largest number of Cuban Americans live in Florida, next is New Jersey, and, surprisingly, next is Nevada.
I worked with my friends there, Tony Alamo and many others, over the years to try to bring justice to an unjust system. I appreciate very much the statement made by my friend from New Jersey. I look forward to working with him on all other issues.
Reid did not say he would support Menendez' goal of stripping the Cuba language from the bill. A news story says Bill Nelson, Florida's Democratic Senator, favors inclusion of the Cuba language
Amendments will be accepted for debate, but the Democrats may try to vote down all of them in order to get the bill adopted by Friday and avoid its return to the House.
However, if Menendez and Martinez succeed in blocking the Cuba language with Reid's help, this bodes ill for a stand alone Cuba travel bill. It also could have a negative effect on the Administration's interagency policy review.
[Look here for the Cuba language. See below for my previous posts on the Omnibus bill.]
Ã¢â‚¬Å“I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t come here to do the same thing we have been doing or to take small steps forward. I came to provide the sweeping change that this country demanded when it went to the polls in November.Ã¢â‚¬Â
--President Barack Obama, radio/internet address 2/28/09
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Obama's leadership is needed to change the dynamic between the United States and Cuba. The status quo is no longer an option. Not only has it failed to achieve its goals; it has tarnished our image in the hemisphere and throughout the world. Waiting for Congress to act will only further delay change. Fortunately, even in the case of Cuba, Congress has not materially impaired this country's venerable constitutional arrangement under which the president has the ultimate authority to conduct our foreign affairs.
Again and again we hear that the embargo can't be changed because the Helms-Burton law codified it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you agree or disagree with the current commercial embargo, the president can effectively dismantle it by using his executive authority.Ã¢â‚¬Â
--Carlos Pascual and Vicki Huddleston, Miami Herald Op Ed
If President Obama brings the same boldness to international problems as he shows domestically (above quote), and if intellectual and policy expertise matters, his AdministrationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s interagency review of US relations with Cuba will be a breakthrough--and receive a warm welcome. (A compilation of studies and statements released in the past year can be found here.)
Last week began with a compelling letter from Senator Richard Lugar and far reaching recommendations from senior Foreign Relations Committee staff member Carl Meacham. (pdf here) It concluded with an eminently practical road map to normalization drawn up by a diverse group under the sponsorship of the Brookings Institution.
The project directors were Carlos Pascual, Vice-President and Director of Foreign Policy Studies at Brookings (a rumored prospect for an important State Department post), and Vicki Huddleston, Visiting Fellow and former head of the US Interests Section in Havana (a member of the State Department transition team). Membership ranged from pro-engagement professors, a scholar at a prominent conservative think tank, and former European ambassadors--to a Cuban American denounced by Havana as a terrorist.
From the preface, which suggests how large a departure this is from the hostile rhetoric and policy of the previous Administration and much of the past five decades:
It should be understood that a policy of critical and constructive engagement -- while having as a goal evolution to a peaceful and democratic Cuba -- does not promise an overnight metamorphosis. It is a process, a pathway with various detours and obstacles that over time arrives at its destination. It will take Cuban cooperation to achieve a real improvement in relations, but we should not publicly link the initiatives to specific actions of the Cuban government.
The road map was divided into short, medium and long-term initiatives. Go on line here to review the whole list because their achievement step by step constitute a practical road map to full normal relations. Following are selected points which I found particularly positive:
Ã¯ÂÂ® Remove all restrictions on family and humanitarian travel to Cuba.
Ã¯ÂÂ® Permit and expand specific licenses for people-to-people travel for educational, cultural and humanitarian purposes -- all travel permitted under law.
Ã¯ÂÂ® Allow all Cubans who meet requirements of U.S. immigration law to travel to the United States.
Ã¯ÂÂ® Provide licensing for providers of U.S. government and private assistance in order to advance the goals of U.S. policy identified in this report.
Ã¯ÂÂ® License Cuban state and non-state entities to access satellite and broadband communications networks.
Ã¯ÂÂ® Review the evidence to determine if Cuba should continue to be listed as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Ã¯ÂÂ® Conduct a review of the purpose, content and implementation capacity of the new contracts awarded to private companies and non-governmental organizations during the last months of the Bush Administration
Ã¯ÂÂ® Encourage and fund a wide variety of educational exchanges and scholarships that promote understanding and provide training in diverse fields such as arts, economics, and journalism.
Ã¯ÂÂ® Allow licenses for U.S. companies to participate in the development of Cuban offshore oil, gas and renewable energy resources.
Ã¯ÂÂ® Work with Congress to restore Executive Branch authority over travel to Cuba.
Ã¯ÂÂ® Reach mutually acceptable solution for restoring Cuban sovereignty over the territory of Guantanamo Bay.
Huddleston told the Miami Herald that the position on travel restrictions reflected differences within the group. Returning travel authority to the executive is a step back from most similar policy documents and pending legislation to end all obstacles to American visits although it could amount to the same thing. Internal differences may also be the reason for the counterproductive stipulation of specific rather than general licenses for people to people travel which requires OFAC bureaucratic vetting and forces trips within groups. There is no direct reference to ending the embargo, but nor is there endorsement of making that step conditional on actions by Cuba. Lifting the embargo could be implied by the final recommendation:
Ã¯ÂÂ® Achieve full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.
The road map contains a welcome dramatic departure from similar reports by calling for the return of the territory of Guantanamo Bay. This might reflect that all Cubans, whether leaders in Havana or alienated exiles, share a view that US control of the base compromises their countryÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s sovereignty, was forced on them as a classic unequal treaty, and is the sole surviving provision of the shameful Platt Amendment.
I don't agree with every recommendation, or with the premise that any country should have a "goal" for another, but the Obama Administration could do far worse than adopt this road map as its own.
The House voted 245-178 on February 25th to pass the Omnibus Appropriations bill.
As summarized by Lesley Clark and Frances Robles in the Miami Herald, it will
* Prevent the U.S. government from spending any of its budget enforcing 2004 rules that keep Cuban-Americans from visiting their homeland more than once every three years.
* Create a general travel license for Americans who sell food and medical supplies to Cuba.
* Let Cuba pay for the American products it buys in cash when they arrive in Havana. Current law forces Cuba to pay upfront before products leave U.S. ports.
* Require the U.S. Treasury Department to issue a report showing how much of its staff and funding is spent on enforcing the ban on travel to Cuba.
Robles today diminished its significance by leading with a more cynical but possibly accurate view that the bill
tweaked U.S.-Cuba policy,making it easier for Cuban Americans to get away with illegally traveling to the communist country
The only Cuba related intervention during the debate came from Miami hard liner Lincoln Diaz-Ballart. However instead of denouncing the travel and agricultural provisions, he just wanted to be sure that $20 million of Cuba "democracy" funding that largely benefits his supporters in Miami was still in the bill. Rep. Nita Lowey, the manager of that part of the legislation, reassured him that his pork was safe.
His Democratic soul mate, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (photo above), also spoke but her comments were entirely in favor of the bill, skewering its Republican opponents. Not a word did she utter about the dastardly Cuba language .
The bill was debated under a no amendments rule so there was not much they could really do to challenge its content.
The test comes very soon in the Senate where Majority Leader Reid said he wants to complete work on the legislation by the end of next week when stopgap funding runs out. Senators have privileges that could allow travel opponents Martinez and Menendez to hold the bill hostage if the Cuba language stays in.
As reported by Bill Gibson in his Sun-Sentinel weblog
Florida Senator Mel Martinez this afternoon threatened to block a big spending bill that would ease restrictions on Cuban-American travel to visit relatives in Cuba....
Martinez, a Republican, said he would object to consideration of the bill. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a procedural move that would force the billÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s supporters to round up 60 votes to overcome delays that would kill it, a modern form of filibuster.
The bill returns travel for Cuban Americans only to the less restrictive formula of the Clinton Administration, annual visits to a normal definition of family that includes cousins, nieces, nephews, aunts, and uncles. However it does so by blocking enforcement of existing law and regulations rather than by changing them.
An Associated Press story suggests that the travel may need to go through third countries:
Tessie Aral, owner of ABC Charters in Miami, said that because of the way the measure is written, she worries individuals won't be prosecuted for traveling to Cuba, but companies arranging the trips may be targeted.
"This is not what President Obama promised," Aral said. "If it only stops enforcement, I still can't sell you a ticket knowing I'm going to break a law."
The leading voice for the campaign on behalf of family travel in Miami went further in an editorial in Progresso Weekly pressing President Obama to keep the promise of his campaign and the Democratic Party platform for unlimited Cuban American travel and remittances:
in our opinion, the Cuba travel piece should be removed completely from the Omnibus Bill making the rounds in Washington, DC.
Finally, what we would like to stress to the president is that every time a family member dies in Cuba, alone; a son, daughter or nephew sits in the hospital with little hope of seeing a loved one who lives in the U.S.; every minute that passes while family members are kept apart for political reasons, is yet another black mark on one of the most un-American and cruel pieces of legislation passed in this country over the last 20 years.
Methods of agricultural sales also are normalized by dint of preventing expenditure of funds for enforcement of politically motivated obstructions created by the Bush Administration. On the other hand, travel for the purpose of sales of agricultural and medical products received a general license, i.e. no application necessary.
Reuters saw the economic implications this way
The legislation approved by the House does not lift the overall embargo. But it would prohibit the Treasury Department from enforcing Bush administration rules requiring payment of cash in advance for agricultural sales to Cuba.
Analysts believe that U.S. rice sales to Cuba will soar if the provision becomes law. Rice sales declined every year after the cash-in-advance rules were imposed in 2005, because Cuba could turn to Vietnam -- a country with which it has close ties -- for rice on easier terms.
Lawyers will sort out the exact implications. The crucial element is that implementation will be by officials in the Treasury and Commerce Department answering to a different more pro-engagement political drum. Before they expire on September 30th, all provisions will probably be supplanted by more fundamental change available through executive orders and notices in the Federal Register or by new legislation.
The BBC went to the core of the issue:
The measures announced in the US bill represent a first move in broader efforts to ease the US trade embargo and end travel restrictions for all Americans.
However the path is not certain report Clark and Robles:
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, who backs the current restrictions, said she believes the travel measure wouldn't pass on its own, because most Republicans and about 80 Democrats are opposed.
Winning the battle begins in the Obama Administration whose allies and supporters must insist to the White House and to Tom Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, that vision and boldness be the product of the interagency review, including general licenses for all non-tourist people to people travel.
The question is still in play, as the Miami Herald also reported today
Cuba watchers say it's unclear whether he will lift restrictions not just for Cuban Americans, but for American academics, church groups and others as well. Key administration posts in charge of such decisions have yet to be filled.
The link changed for Sen. Lugar's excellent letter calling for a new policy and Carl Meacham's far reaching report after the final text was issued, although the PDF appears to be the same version as the draft.