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.
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.
Freedom of travel for Cuban Americans, and their right to financially help family members, won a big victory on Friday.
Because of the determination of President Obama, language drafted by Cuban American hard liners to drastically reduce family travel and remittances to Cuba to punitive Bush levels was withdrawn from the omnibus spending bill.
In addition to the palpable human benefit in Cuba and the US, this could be a watershed of the Administration directly and successfully confronting the extremist position that has for too long dominated US policy on Cuba.
The lesson a Cuban observer took in a personal message:
“The Cuban-American lobby is powerful as long as they have no opposition, it is the US executive branch decision to stop them or not. Once again it is proved that the ultimate driving force behind US Cuban policy is not Miami, but Washington. They are powerful when a national interest or an executive policy is not involved. When it is, they are left aside. However, both in Washington and in the Cuban TV Mesa Redonda (weird coincidence) people keep saying the opposite.”
This was not a slam dunk as reported in The Hill
A senior Democratic appropriator, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-N.Y.), pointed to a dispute over travel restrictions to Cuba as the last sticking point, voicing amazement that the communist island still divided Congress. “Technically we’ve got one issue holding up the package, and it’s Cuba again, 52 years later,” Serrano told reporters.
He said House and Senate negotiators had agreed to eliminate a provision reinstating a longstanding travel ban loosened by President Obama, but that Boehner’s office intervened. “The Speaker has made it a priority,” Serrano said.
and in the Boston Globe
The White House declined to allow Democrats to sign off on the bill until restrictions on travel to Cuba were removed
The Obama Administration is often attacked by its progressive base for compromising too easily with Republican conservatives, so why did it choose to take a strong and highly visible stand on Cuba?
1) Credibility The White House lay down a marker on July 13th with a Statement of Administration Policy
If the President is presented with a bill that …reverses current policies on Cuba, his senior advisors would recommend a veto. …
Cuban Family Travel and Remittances. The Administration opposes section 901 of the bill, which would reverse the President's policy on family travel and remittances to Cuba. This section would undo the President's efforts to increase contact between divided Cuban families, undermine the enhancement of the Cuban people's economic independence and support for private sector activity in Cuba that come from increased remittances from family members, and therefore isolate the Cuban people and make them more dependent on Cuban authorities.
2) Constituency A last minute campaign spearheaded by the Latin America Working Group mobilized support among pro travel activists for the White House to hang tough. President Obama’s most visible ally in the Miami old guard, the Cuban American National Foundation, took a similar position. The pro-engagement faction of dissidents and bloggers also weighed in as Juan Tamayo reported in the Miami Herald
3) Politics Cuban American travel and remittances are a decisive wedge issue in the hotly contested Florida Presidential vote. (see below)
4) Strategy Whether the Administration is trying to use Cuban American family ties and dollars as a new vehicle for regime change (as its rhetoric suggests), or as a means of opening the door for bilateral reconciliation (as extremist exiles fear), this opening is a game changer that it could not afford to lose.
Alan Gross has been in prison for two years. His case, like that of the Cuban Five, should be resolved compassionately during the coming Christmas / Chanukah / New Year holiday.
Phil Peters, a former Foreign Service officer has written in an excellent Cuban Triangle blog post
"In effect, the U.S. message is that its agents are free to operate at will on Cuban territory and Cuban authorities have no right to intervene.
Call that what you will, but it is the direct opposite of an effort to free Alan Gross."
Alan's wife has identified the only path to freeing her husband:
Judy Gross also is raising the volume on her criticism of the Obama administration and the apparent unwillingness of anyone on either side of the Florida Straits to sit down and have constructive discussions that would secure her husband's release.
"The State Department has put in a great deal of hours on the case, I'll say that," she said, but she added that the Obama administration "has kept their hands off of it."
"At least publicly," she said. "I've not heard from them once." …
The Cubans need a graceful way to let her husband go, Judy Gross said, and the politics of U.S.-Cuba relations haven't made that easy.
"There's some very powerful vocal people in the Congress who are not favorable to sitting down and negotiating anything with the Cubans," she said. "If you don't negotiate, you don't get anything."
A self-employed vendor of sunglasses in Havana
“The Cuban government has said that it wants to transition, to loosen up the economy, so that businesses can operate more freely. We have not seen evidence that they have been sufficiently aggressive in changing their policies economically”
President Obama in first meeting with Hispanic journalists, September 12, 2011
"But there is a basic, I think, recognition of people’s human rights that includes their right to work, to change jobs, to get an education, to start a business. So some elements of freedom are included in how an economic system works. And right now, we haven’t seen any of that."
President Obama in second meeting with Hispanic journalists, September 28, 2011
The Obama Administration has minimized the significance of economic reforms underway in Cuba, a part of its rationalization for limiting change in bilateral relations. Leaving aside the counterproductive illogic of that position as policy, it is disturbing to think they really might be so woefully misinformed.
Some of the personnel in the US Interests Section in Havana have a cold war political bias that may affect their reporting, but some don't. It may be that staff in the National Security Council are still giving disproportionate weight to the perspective of the old guard in Miami, but surely others in the White House read the US and international press!
Whatever the reason, ignorance will be less of a defense after publication last week of an excellent comprehensive report by Collin Laverty issued by our colleagues at the Center for Democracy in the Americas. "Cuba’s New Resolve: Economic Reform and its Implications for U.S. Policy" , available on line here.
May Day parade poster for the Cuban 5, Havana 2011
In a meeting with Hispanic journalists on September 12th, President Obama, referring to Bill Richardson’s trip to Cuba, said:
"Anything to get Mr. Gross free we will support".
Israel has shown the US how to do it.
If it can exchange Staff Sgt. Gilad Shalit for 1,027 Palestinians, including 315 serving life sentences, why is it so hard for the Obama Administration to release five Cuban intelligence operatives, one imprisoned for life, in return for USAID subcontracted operative Alan Gross?
President Obama can make the first humanitarian gesture by letting Cuban operative Rene Gonzales serve his probation in Cuba, under the supervision of the US Interests Section--if that is required. President Castro can respond with a humanitarian gesture of giving probation to USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, under the supervision of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Part of a bilateral negotiated arrangement should be the release of the remaining four imprisoned Cuban intelligence agents.
Cuba can respond in like manner, sending four prisoners to the US. If there were any still held as prisoners of conscience, they deserve priority. Otherwise the four can be persons convicted for politically motivated acts of violence, the new cause of the Ladies in White. It is not too big a stretch as Cuba generally regards all anti-regime actions as being motivated if not funded by the US.
Cardinal Ortega could be asked to serve as the intermediary to assure both sides act in good faith.
Each country regards those imprisoned by the other as heroes and exponents of unimpeachable values. Similarly each country believes those it holds have been legitimately convicted and sentenced under its laws in the defense of national security and sovereignty.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has provided an example of what it means to be serious rather than rhetorical.
Should Obama be equally courageous, he can expect blatant hypocrisy in response.
Ambassador Susan Rice
Today for the twentieth time the US will embarrass itself in the court of international public opinion when the General Assembly votes on our Cuba embargo..
I feel for Susan Rice, our extraordinary Permanent Representative to the United Nations, or the functionary who will carry her water, as they defend the indefensible, fifty years of unilateral and internationally condemned economic warfare against a neighbor for daring to be different.
Presumably we will again have only Israel by our side, its ears burning from hypocrisy. Israel's citizens freely vacation, work and invest in Cuba, unlike the Americans whose lonely hand they hold. The former head of the Mosad intelligence agency for years managed Cuba's largest citrus plantation.
The world does not know whether to laugh at us for our absurdity, despise us for our bullying or pity us because a tiny minority of embittered exiles so easily dominate our foreign policy.
The President can hardly join the near unanimous opposition to US policy, but he could show the decency to abstain.
Mark Lopes, Sen. Menendez ally at USAID
While we wait for President Raul Castro to set an example by releasing Alan Gross for humanitarian reasons, it is worth considering whether President Obama is still capable of the reset of US-Cuba relations that was put on hold while Gross was imprisoned.
Review the Wikileaks publication of a diplomatic cable from Havana to recall the optimistic atmosphere that prevailed on both sides during Bisa Williams’ visit prior to Alan’s arrest.
Can that atmosphere be restored when the bureaucracy of USAID, backed by closely linked Cuban American hard liners in Congress, seems determined to create further provocation, leading to additional arrests and prosecutions? Under pressure, Senators Kerry and Leahy lifted their hold on $21,000,000 for “democracy” funding, sending good money after bad despite the ostensible preoccupation in Washington to end wasteful government expenditures..
USAID’s planned programs almost sound innocent, except that they are designed to carry out the regime change agenda of the Helms Burton law and are part and parcel of fifty years of unremitting economic warfare, as reported by Tracey Eaton in his invaluable Cuba Money Project blog
- $6 million for programs aimed at increasing free expression among youth ages 12 to 24.
- $6 million to expand Internet use and increase access to information.
- $9 million to support neighborhood groups, cooperatives, sports clubs, church groups and other civil society organizations.
Imagine how Americans would feel if an overtly hostile country undertook similar unauthorized projects in our country despite explicit US laws to the contrary. Wouldn't we be morally outraged at targeting children as young as 12?
Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is seeking to use a politically biased evaluation system of sex-trafficking to pressure the Administration to retreat from its important, albeit bureaucratically constipated, opening of purposeful travel.
Ros-Lehtinen wrote Secretary of State Clinton, no doubt seeking to appeal to her well known concern for a pervasive international problem:
I would urge the administration, within all applicable rules and guidelines, to reverse its current policy and suspend all educational and cultural exchanges with the Cuban regime pursuant to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.
According to U.S. law, “countries on Tier 3 may not receive funding for government employees’ participation in educational and cultural exchange programs.”
The substance of Cuba’s ranking in the trafficking score card is about as real, and is as politically motivated, as the justification for keeping Cuba on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. From the State Department report:
Cuba is a source country for adults and some children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking. Some Cuban medical professionals assigned to work abroad have claimed that their passports were retained as a means of keeping them in a state of exploitation, thus preventing them from traveling freely.* … The scope of trafficking within Cuba is particularly difficult to gauge due to the closed nature of the government and sparse non-governmental or independent reporting…..
Cuba appears to prohibit most forms of trafficking activity through various provisions of its penal code; however, the use of these provisions could not be verified, and prostitution of children over the age of 16 is legal, leaving children over 16 particularly vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation. The government did not share official data relating to Cuban investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of trafficking offenders, including any officials complicit in human trafficking, in 2010 or any other year. The government did not report any anti-trafficking training provided to officials.
The government did not publicize official data on protection of trafficking victims during the reporting period. The government did not report any procedures in place to guide officials in proactively identifying trafficking victims in vulnerable groups (such as people in prostitution) and referring them to available services. The government operates at least two well-regarded facilities for the treatment of children who have been sexually and physically abused. In addition, the government operates a nationwide network of shelters for victims of domestic violence or child abuse, but the government did not verify if trafficking victims received treatment in these centers.
Cuba’s main problem seems to be that it does not check off the right bureaucratic boxes, probably because as noted in the report, "Cuba is not a party to the 2000 UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol."
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.