Andrea Holbrook discusses student travel to Cuba at the NAFSA conference in Vancouver at the end of May. The Cuba/US People to People Partnership booth was cosponsored by C & T Charters, Cuba Education Tours, Fund for Reconciliation and Development, Global Exchange, Holbrook Travel and Sol Melia Cuba.
HAVANA, June 22 (Reuters) - The number of Americans visiting Cuba is steadily increasing under the Obama administration, according to a rare report posted this week on the National Statistics Office Web Page. Some 63,000 U.S. citizens of non-Cuban origin visited Cuba in 2010, compared with 52,500 the previous year and 41,900 in 2008, according to the report (http://www.one.cu/aec2010/datos/15.3.xls).
An average 30,000 Americans visited Cuba during the last term of George W. Bush, and peaked at 70,000 during the Clinton administration. The Obama administration recently loosened further restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba for professional, religious and humanitarian reasons, among other measures, with tour operators between 100,000 and 200,000 will arrive on the forbidden island this year...
Maybe, maybe not.
It is time to ask how serious the Obama Administration was about purposeful travel when it announced a new policy on January 14th.
For political reasons it had already delayed the announcement for six months. The new regulations were published only two weeks later, suggesting they had indeed been sitting on the shelf.
However it took three months for the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to issue guidelines on April 19th about requirements for specific licenses.
Two more months have been lost and OFAC has granted only a handful of people-to- people licenses despite receiving at least 3400 applications by the end of May. None of the major organizations that coordinated trips before 2004 is among the recipients.
State Department staff say it is a problem of too many applications being handled by too few OFAC staff. They insist that licenses are not being held up for political reasons, e.g. the release of Alan Gross or opposition from Cuban American hard liners.
Some travel organizers believe that the problem is simply bureaucratic. They speculate that OFAC is holding back until it can issue all licenses at the same time, either because they don’t want to give unfair competitive advantage, or because they want all applications to have the same problematic one year renewal date.
Regardless of the reason, the unconscionable delay has itself become an issue of policy.
Dawn at the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana
During my visit to Cuba at the beginning of May, I was reminded of the mis-comprehension and suspicion that dominate both Havana and Washington.
Cubans were of mixed minds about the just completed VI Congress of the Communist Party. The published record had not yet been released, so my varied interlocutors were free to read as much or as little into press accounts of the results as fit their predispositions.
Regardless of whether positive or negative about what was accomplished in this round, everyone agreed Cuba is engaged in a substantial and irreversible evolution of its social and economic order.
Continuity of leadership was regarded as a holding pattern, symbolically disappointing but expected. Raul Castro solidified a reform minded administration but did not take any risk of unleashing internal rivalries by choosing as Second Secretary a prospective successor from a younger generation. The more revealing stage is next January's Party conference which will focus on political and personnel issues.
Cuba's revolutionaries know their domestic legacy is at risk. Failure to successfully renovate the socialist experiment opens Cuba not so much to a takeover by Miami counterrevolutionaries or Washington hegemonists as it does to a Russian style domestic oligarchy taking personal profit from five decades of collaborative struggle and sacrifice.
Havana's Artistica Gallega Pipe Band, "Banda de Eduardo Lorenzo" was part of CeltFest 2011, but Irish American musicians were denied a license by OFAC to join the craic this year.
Finally on April 19th the Office of Foreign Assets Controls released 51 pages of guidelines implementing President Obama’s new regulations on purposeful travel announced three months earlier. (Link to full text here and analysis here.)
Theguidelines are a semi-breakthrough, welcome for what they do, infuriating for what they don’t, and frustrating because big questions still remain on what they actually mean in practice.
In theory, most Americans should now have an option for legal, albeit encumbered, travel to Cuba.
The guidelines confirm the Obama Administration’s significant step forward of granting general licenses for higher education students and all religious organizations—with which 84% of Americans are affiliated. These provisions offer two broad opportunities to initiate serious engagement between the two countries without obstacles from Washington.
The language for specific licenses raises all the predicted problems of cumbersome bureaucracy wasting time on fine tuning the rights of Americans for political purposes and diverting resources from more necessary tasks.
Most attention has focused on what will flow from the comprehensive but undefined people-to-people umbrella:
"OFAC may issue a specific license to an organization that sponsors and organizes programs to promote people-to-people contact authorizing the organization and individuals traveling under its auspices to engage in educational exchanges not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program. In general, licenses issued pursuant to this policy will be valid for one year and will contain no limitation on the number of trips that can be taken." (p 22)
Will we soon see the return of a wide range of informational programs allowed before President Bush’s crackdown of 2004?
third party student exchanges, high schools, educators of the retired, college alumni, world affairs councils, museums, chambers of commerce, Rotary Clubs, farm organizations, sports teams, community groups, professional associations, foundations, NGOs, doctors, environmentalists, artists, architects, etc.
While general licenses avoid the contradiction between trust building exchanges and system change politics, specific licenses could by granted based on which goal is foremost. The core problem is illustrated by this revealing paragraph:
"Meeting all of the relevant specific licensing criteria in a given section does not guarantee that a specific license will be issued, as foreign policy considerations and additional factors may be considered by OFAC in making its licensing determinations....specific licenses are not granted as a matter of right." (p 4)
Celtic music and dance echo through Habana Vieja this week
without Irish American musicians (photo Irish Times)
“They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity!”
This snarky characterization used to be directed at the Cubans by American critics. Looks like the Obama Administration wants to take on that dubious honor for itself.
It has been more than three months since the President announced new regulations on purposeful travel to Cuba. He moved to restore, and in important ways to improve upon, the policies of the Clinton Administration that had been gutted in the Bush era.
For students and religious organizations, the path is now clear. They have general licenses which require no application or report to the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the Treasury Department. All that is required is authorization within the institution. Two schools have already announced end of semester trips, Dominican University and Appalachian State University.
However, the broader opening of people-to-people travel faces a predicted bottleneck. OFAC has yet to issue new guidelines and has not acted on numerous applications from groups (including ours) which organized legal trips prior to 2004.
Paradoxically it has used the infamous 2004 Bush guidelines to deny an application within the performance category included in the new regulations.
Over 2000 people visited the Cuba booth at the New York Times Travel Show, February 25-27
In an interview with Telemundo, reported by the Cuban Colada blog in the Miami Herald, Secretary of State Clinton sounded a cautiously optimistic note about the fate of imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross:
he should be released, and at the very least, on humanitarian terms. He should be sent home to his family, and I'm hoping that the Cuban Government will do that...We don't want to take any actions or say anything that will undermine the chances for this man to come home to his family.
Yet in that same interview, she made assertions that could force the Cubans to be tough in their handling of Mr. Gross in order to defend the legitimacy of their own laws:
Alan Gross was in Cuba to help people literally connect with the rest of the world, and as we're seeing around the world, that's a tide that is coming. You're not going to be able to push it back out to sea, even in Cuba. He has served a very long time for doing what was not in any way criminal, in our view.
And similarly with Univision
He should not have been brought before a court and charged with crimes that he did not commit.
I completely agree with her conclusion:
We believe he should be released and returned to his family on humanitarian grounds as soon as possible.
But I am astounded by her efforts to still argue for Alan's innocence.
A private handicrafts market on the Malecon near the Melia Cohiba Hotel. One stand sells in moneda nacional, Cuban pesos.
Enabling Purposeful Travel
I am back from a week in Cuba that focused on how to strengthen implementation on their side of the improvement in travel regulations announced by President Obama. My focus was on practical implications, in particular the opportunity provided by the advance beyond the Clinton Administration of general licenses for academic and religious purposes.
The Cubans with whom I met reacted quite favorably to the new policy and are preparing to receive a new wave of purposeful visitors. The University of Havana reportedly has already received inquiries from several hundred US universities wishing to collaborate. The challenge will be how to maintain its primary role, educating Cubans, as well as how to overcome the skepticism of some colleagues.
There was disappointment that the only US rationale given for the new regulations was system change in Cuba. Moreover my interlocutors noted the absence of any recognition that people-to-people travel inherently seeks to learn from and about the country visited and to create mutual understanding and trust. They recognize but regret US domestic political reasons for the one-dimensional justification.
Unfortunately such language provides ammunition for those in Cuba who resist change as strongly as the extremist minority in the Cuban American community who criticized the President's action. In Cuba the debate is ongoing about how much the Obama Administration represents a real departure or only a tactical adjustment. If they are moving along a socio-economic path resembling Vietnam's adoption of doi moi (“renovation”), are we prepared to treat them with the respect that we give to Vietnam, i.e. critical friendship rather than hostile intervention?
Cuban doubts can be seen in the ambivalent speech of the Minister of Higher Education on January 27th. He warned (text in Spanish) of two-faced US intentions to foster a brain drain yet expressed frustration about the embargo denying normal access for Cubans to our knowledge and research.
Adam Szubin, Director of OFAC
Unquestionably, the White House announcement on January 14 of reforms in policy affecting purposeful travel to Cuba is an important step forward.
The Obama Administration overcame resistance from a powerful minority of hard line Cuban Americans and their Congressional allies in Florida and New Jersey who oppose even the general license for family travel authorized in 2009 and will object to every opening, no matter how timid or bold.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Tea Party linked freshman from Florida, revealed his extremism:
"I strongly oppose any new changes that weaken U.S. policy towards Cuba. I was opposed to the changes that have already been made by this administration and I oppose these new changes."
He was effectively offset by Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee
“I warmly applaud the President’s decision to allow more Americans to travel to Cuba. These measures, expanding people-to-people relations between the United States and Cuba and allowing Americans to send funds to Cubans for private economic activity, open the way for the good will of citizens of both countries to forge deeper ties that are in our national interest today and in the future. This is an important step. If governments cannot solve the problems between them, at least they should get out of the way and let citizens work toward finding solutions.
“Cuba remains, regrettably, the only country in the world that the United States government does not allow its citizens to travel to freely. I intend to continue pushing legislation, such as I sponsored in the last Congress, that will allow free travel to Cuba. After 50 years of embargo against Cuba and government prohibitions on contact, it’s time to try something different.”
The challenge facing the Obama Administration is to insure that its goals for “religious, cultural and educational travel” are faithfully implemented by the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in the Treasury Department.
“Reaching out to the Cuban people” and fostering “people to people contact” require fully enabling the energy and spirit of the American people without bureaucratic obstacles in either country.
The devil, as always, is in the details. (See analysis of executive order here.)
The White House has begun to respond to substantial social and economic changes underway in Cuba. However for domestic political purposes it unnecessarily linked liberalized travel to maintaining the internationally despised trade embargo. Moreover the statement justified reform in terms of promoting “independence from Cuban authorities”, an objective that would create suspicion in any host government.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson led the US delegation to Havana
A Reuters' story from Havana suggests a solution is in sight for the Alan Gross case.
The senior State Department official, who asked not to be identified, said the Cuban government now expected Gross to be charged and tried. The official, who spoke following migration talks on Wednesday in Havana between U.S. and Cuban delegations, did not give a time frame.
"I am cautiously optimistic because of things we hear that that would be the case," the official said when asked if Gross would be released and sent home after being tried, adding that Cuban officials had made "encouraging noises." ....
A Western diplomat in Havana said on Thursday Gross would likely plead guilty at a trial in the next few weeks and then be sent back to the United States....
Roberta Jacobson, the second most senior U.S. diplomat for Latin America, visited Gross in jail on Thursday during her trip to Cuba for the migration talks.
Unfortunately the US delegation insisted on mixing the sweet apples of bilateral negotiation with the bitter lemons of interference in domestic politics.
But Cuba called Jacobson's meeting with opposition leaders an "open provocation" and evidence Washington still aimed to subvert the revolutionary government that took power in 1959.
"Before the migration talks, the Foreign Ministry made clear to the U.S. officials its rejection of any attempt to use the official visit to Cuba to carry out disrespectful or offensive activities against our country," the ministry said in a statement.
Hopefully, but another shadow play with each side reassuring its hard liners that it has not been seduced by the temptation of normal discourse.
Relations between the United States and Latin America have not changed in any meaningful way under President Barack Obama, Brazilian head of state Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said here Monday.
"The truth is that nothing has changed and I view that with sadness," the departing chief executive said during a breakfast with journalists at the presidential palace in Brasilia.
The rumor is circulating that the Administration will finally make an announcement on Tuesday about academic and religious travel and airports from which charter flights can originate. Tony Martinez has published the story on his blog
If he is correct, it is far less than had been reported in August:
P. J. Crowley is not a professional diplomat.
The principle spokesperson for the State Department, the Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Public Affairs, is a political appointee who served in the Air Force for 26 years, retiring as a Colonel in 1999.
According to his official biography, Mr. Crowley’s professional expertise is national security. His previous position was as Director of Homeland Security at the Center for National Progress, a think tank that housed many Obama Administration appointees. During his tenure there he served with Dan Restrepo, now Director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, whose public statements on Cuba appear made for, if not in, Miami.
I have taken issue with Mr. Crowley before on his discussion of the Alan Gross case. He apparently does not have much depth on Cuba and when challenged at State Department press briefings falls back on language that sounds more like Bush than Obama.
Last Thursday he set an impossibly high bar to bilateral progress in responding to a question based on a wikileaks cable which says that President Raul Castro suggested through Spanish diplomats opening a direct channel to the White House.
According to Mr. Crowley,
We have made clear to Cuba that, first and foremost, before we would envision any fundamental change in our relationship, it is Cuba that has to fundamentally change, and that we would respond accordingly to any actions that Cuba undertook to release political prisoners, to fundamentally change its political system.