Cuba's welcome announcement of the end of the exit visa travel restriction poses two challenges to the Obama Administration:
Cuba is giving its citizens more freedom to travel to the US than the US gives its citizens to travel to Cuba. The White House should respond by using its power to allow all non tourist travel to Cuba without applying for a license, our equivalent of the White Card. It must also press Congress to abolish all travel restrictions.
The Cuban Adjustment Act and wet foot dry foot policy must be suspended and repealed. With Cubans free to travel to Mexico and Canada, 'step across the border' economic migration will become a bigger problem.
I wonder whether this increases the likelihood of Cuba coming up during next Monday's Presidential debate in Florida on foreign policy .
A general question will produce similar anti-regime boilerplate from both candidates. The glaring contrast is on travel .
“For the most part, the tension over Cuba seems mostly to be behind Mr. Obama — a not insignificant consideration in a presidential election year in which Florida, the bastion of anti-Castro sentiment, could be a critical swing state.” --New York Times, 4/13/12
The White House projected a lot of self-satisfaction on the eve of the summit of the Americas.
It is hard to tell whether that is just the normal spin (accentuated by the pre-election dynamic), based on diplomatic assurances from the major players, or just the normal disregard about how we are seen by our neighbors.
Bottom line, the Administration could have used the Summit to increase US stature by showing we have finally moved beyond the Cold War, neoconservative agendas and the Monroe Doctrine. Instead we are at best going to stay even.
To preclude a photo opportunity of Barack Obama shaking Raul Castro's hand, the US has assured the Summit will be shaped by the absence of Cuba and debate over how to address the problem.
Instead of throwing its weight around and using consensus as a veto mechanism, Washington should have adopted the Quaker practice of "standing aside". We could have maintained our opposition, whether due to principle or electoral calculation, but not blocked the overwhelming sentiment of other participants--among whom there was certainly no consensus to exclude Cuba.
In addition to upping Cuba's sympathetic profile, we have strengthened the case for CELAC, a regional organization designed to separate the hemisphere from the asymetric power and wealth of the US, similar to how the Association of South East Asian Nations functions in relation to China, India and Japan.
CeltFest Cuba (see link at end)
The Washington Post has played a shameful role in the Alan Gross affair, providing only incomplete coverage of what he was doing and why and publishing editorials that were defense briefs at best. By amplifying the official US line it constrains the State Department's ability to find a reasonable diplomatic solution.
Its latest effort was a long story yesterday in the Lifestyle section that was appropriately sympathetic to the hardship of Judy Gross.
Readers who want to know more than the Post spin about the case should look at the Associated Press story based on Alan's own leaked reports. Perhaps most damning is that on his final trip he was carrying SIM cards that are normally available only for military and intelligence purposes to hide the location of the BGAN transmitters that the Post only half acknowledges he was distributing.
Alan's case has never been helped by denial of the serious illegality of his actions under Cuban law, or for that matter under US law had he been an unregistered agent of a hostile foreign power operating covertly here.
The bottom line is that sectors of the US government believe we have the right to intervene in Cuba and other countries if we disagree with their political systems, in this case to create an independent satellite linked encryptable internet node that was accessible to anyone in the vicinity, not just the announced recipients in the Jewish community.
In the case of Cuba the presumption of a right to intervene is a problem that has plagued our relationship for more than a century and is exacerbated by the agenda of the diminishing minority of vengeful exiles who exploit the power of the state for their self interest.
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.
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.