Cuban Taxi Drivers Says the Darndest Things

Photo: A. Landau French

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


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

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

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

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

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

Jan 12, 2012

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

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

Havana and Washington in the New Year

New Year symbol



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

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

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

*  by the Herald's own Mimi Whitfield here

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

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

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

Cuba News in the New Year

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

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

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

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

A Travel Crisis that Shouldn't Go to Waste

Last week thousands of Cuban-Americans, along with a coalition of US groups that advocate a more responsible policy of engagement and dialogue with Cuba, successfully mobilized and dealt the pro-embargo faction a defeat that may be historical. The White House's resistance to Mario Diaz-Balart's amendment, which sought to use the 2012 spending bill as a vehicle to roll US policy on Cuban-American family visits to Cuba back to the Bush era, forced it to be withdrawn.

During the Bush days, thousands of honest Cuban-American citizens and US residents, who pay their taxes and love their adopted country, were forced to violate the law. Cuban-Americans had to go through a third country and lie to the authorities of the democracy in which they live in order to  attend a birthday, a bar-mitzhvah, a christening, a wedding, a funeral or just visit their loved ones. Cuban-American legislators want to send the Cuban-American community, which they supposedly represent, back to that shameful time of constant attacks on American values and frequent violations of Article 13 of the UN Declaration on Human Rights and Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Day The Cuban People Won (thanks to the President)

Cuba's former Capitol bldg



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.

Christmas In Havana Back On: President Prevails on Cuban Family Travel Rules

Whenever someone asks me why we have the same anachronistic policy toward an island nation 90 ninety from our shores that we have had for half a century, I generally tell them that Cuba simply "doesn't matter."  In a big-picture sense, our policy hasn't changed (or has only gotten hotter) since the Cold War ended and left two combatants behind on the field.

But this week, Cuba finally mattered, and it tested the resolve of a U.S. president.  After nearly a week of brinksmanship over bigger, far more sensitive issues played out, there were a slew of bills ready to be packaged and voted on by a weary, anxious-to-get-out-of-here Congress, but for a provision that would have ruined the Christmas and New Year holidays for thousands of Cuban Americans and their families in Cuba.  But after House Republicans filed a bill yesterday morning offering Democrats a take-it-or-leave it choice on their Consolidated Appropriations Bill for FY 2012, a White House seeking to protect a campaign promise fulfilled - unrestricted family travel to Cuba - prevailed, and the House leadership agreed to remove the offending provision if Senate Democrats would then move the agreed upon bill.  The bill to be voted on is here, and the Cuba provision that had been in Division C (Section 634) is gone.

Count me among those who doubted the president and the congress.  Not at first, of course.  For months I thought the president's advisors' veto threat was enough to settle the Cuba question early.  But for the Cuba provision to stay in the bill nearly to the very end tells us that the House Republican leadership -presumably urged on by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart - believed the president and the Senate Democrats would cave.  It also reminds us how very much Cuba matters to a certain few.  It was a sobering reminder to all the Cuban Americans these few claim to represent how very far these representatives would go to pursue their personal ideology on Cuba - regardless of whom in their districts it might harm.   

The White House stood firm and stood up for those Cuban Americans, and Senate Majority Leader Reid stood by the president (he's not exactly a Cuba sanctions reformer).  But there were casualties, to the lobby no one expected to lose.

BREAKING NEWS: Deal on Cuba Travel Could End Omnibus Stand-off

"House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers, R-Ky., has agreed to reopen the pending nine-bill spending package and rewrite language that sought to reinstate the Bush-era travel ban to Cuba, a move designed to address White House concerns and win the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, according to senior Republican and Democratic staffers.

Republicans said Rogers was reluctant to make the move and is doing so with the understanding from Reid that if the Cuba travel and gift language is dropped and Obama’s existing travel policy is protected, Reid will release the conference report for full House and Senate consideration. Rogers worked with Reid’s staff late into Wednesday night and continued talks on Thursday morning. A deal announcing this arrangement is anticipated in the coming hours."

Read the whole story here.  I think I'll withhold comment til the deal is actually sealed.

Claver-Carone's "Cuba Omnibus Clarification" Could Use a Fact Check

Yesterday the Miami Herald picked up a claim made by Mauricio Claver-Carone on his blog Capitol Hill Cubans that the family travel restrictions proposed by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (and now included in the omnibus spending bill filed by House Republicans early this morning) wouldn't be so bad as the "hyperbolic" media insists on reporting:

The media seems unable to escape hyperbole regarding the Cuba provision being discussed in the Omnibus Appropriations bill. So without speculating on the end-result, here are some important facts:


. . . Legally, the provision would restore the Bush Administration's limit of one-trip every three years. However, since the Omnibus is a spending bill with a one-year duration, the practical effect of the provision would be to limit Cuban-American travel to only one-trip in 2012 -- both reasonable and humanitarian (and akin to the Clinton Administration's prior limits). 

This would be an significant clarification to make if it were in fact true (though, significant to a point: I know I like to see my family more than once year and so I imagine it shouldn't change any minds truly committed to family rights).  But anyone who follows Congress as closely as does Mr. Claver-Carone ought to know that non-time limited policy riders often get attached to one-year spending bills, much to the chagrin of the appropriators and to opponents of such riders. These policy riders only expire when they look like this:


"Sec. 632. During fiscal year 2012, for purposes of section 908(b)(1) of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (22 U.S.C. 7207(b)(1)), the term "payment of cash in advance" shall be interpreted as payment before the transfer of title to, and control of, the exported items to the Cuban purchaser." [Emphasis added]


The provision above was first included in a spending bill in FY 2009.  It continues to be included each subsequent year because of the clause "During fiscal year."  Nowhere in the Diaz-Balart amendment does it say the provison expires with the end of the fiscal year.  But please, don't take my word for it: Read it for yourself here (page 358, section 634).



Time for a Compassionate Holiday Release of Six Prisoners

a poster symbolizing Cuba US relations



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."