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bill as a vehicle to roll US policy on Cuban-American family visits to Cuba back to the Bush era, forced it to be withdrawn.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by Cuban American hard liners to drastically reduce family travel and remittances to Cuba to punitive Bush levels was withdrawn from the omnibus spending bill.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."

Statement by President Obama on Laura Pollan, Family Travel Rights

Below are excerpts of a statement by President Obama today in honor of Laura Pollan, a founder of Cuba's Ladies in White who passed away earlier this year, and in defense of Cuban family travel rights:

"Today, as the National Endowment for Democracy awards the Democracy Service Medal posthumously to Laura Pollán, the founder of Las Damas de Blanco, we honor and celebrate her life by recognizing her significant contributions to the struggle to defend human rights in Cuba. . . 

"Though Laura is not with us today, her bravery in the face of repression and her selfless commitment to democracy and human rights in Cuba, offer a living legacy that inspires us to keep moving forward.  To Las Damas de Blanco who will  watch or listen to today’s ceremony, you have our utmost respect for your efforts to stand up for the rights of the Cuban people even in the face of this weekend’s crackdown directed at you and we honor each of you as well . 

The United States is steadfast in supporting the simple desire of the Cuban people to freely determine their future and to enjoy the rights and freedoms that define the Americas, and that should be universal to all human beings.  I remain committed to supporting civil society in Cuba, including by protecting the ability of Cuban Americans to support their families in Cuba through unrestricted family visits and remittances." (emphasis added)

In Time for Christmas: Will Congress Roll Back Obama's Cuban Family Travel Rules?

If Republican leaders in the House get their way in omnibus spending bill negotiations this week, hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans now accustomed to a freedom few other Americans enjoy – the right to travel to Cuba without U.S. government intervention – could lose it.  A provision House leaders are pushing in final round negotiations this week would subject hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans to a Bush administration rule allowing them just one visit home every three years, no exceptions.  The measure, championed by a Cuban American, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, is one of just a few controversial riders still to be worked out in order to advance legislation this week to fund numerous government agencies. 

President Obama confidently campaigned on lifting family travel restrictions for Cuban Americans back in 2008.  He delivered on that promise, and judging by the numbers of travelers, it was a politically popular move.  So when House appropriators originally adopted Diaz-Balart’s provision last summer, White House advisors threatened, in a formal Statement of Administration Policy, to recommend a veto if the final bill contained changes to the president’s Cuba policy. 

An Unlikely Phone Call to Free Alan Gross?

White House photo: http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/photogallery/septe

As the second anniversary of USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross’s arrest in Cuba approaches, his family and representatives in Congress are stepping up efforts to win his release from prison.  But which, if any, of their efforts will make the difference? 

Maryland representative Chris Van Hollen says the door is “closed” to improved relations with Cuba so long as Gross remains in jail.  It's a line to which Cuban officials are well accustomed over the last half a century of U.S.-Cuban relations.  And a Republican contender for Senator Ben Cardin’s seat (D-MD), Richard Douglas, has a laundry list of punitive measures the Obama administration and a more “resolute” senator should initiate to win Gross’s freedom.  Douglas thinks all flights and financial transactions between the U.S. and Cuba should be halted, all Cuban visas should be revoked, even for U.N. diplomats (I’m not sure we can prevent Cuban diplomats from staffing their U.N. mission though), and the list goes on.  Hit ‘em where it hurts, he reasons. 

We’ve been hitting the Cubans where it hurts for so many years it just doesn’t hurt them anymore.  True, family remittances to the island are a tremendous boost not only to Cubans who receive them but to the broader Cuban economy and thus the Cuban government.  But Mr. Douglas is misled if he thinks hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans will suddenly stop returning to the island and sending money to relatives just because the U.S. government makes it more difficult.

More to the point: I can’t think of one instance where the Castro government (either Fidel or Raul) has actually capitulated to U.S. pressure or punishment.  I think that history shows quite plainly that not only does U.S. punishment fail to get the results we want, but it often causes an even more hardline response from Havana.  In 2004, as the Bush administration tightened nearly every screw at its disposal – limiting travel, remittances, and gift parcels to the island, and going after foreign banks willing to accept U.S. dollar deposits from Cuba – the Cuban government responded by eliminating U.S. dollars as legal tender on the island and slapping a 10% surcharge on dollar exchanges to Cuban convertible pesos.

If pounding our fists on the table doesn’t work, public shaming – as employed by former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on his last trip to Cuba – doesn’t work any better.  But so far, informed, diplomatic requests haven’t done the trick either, though that approach has enabled several American delegations to visit Mr. Gross personally in prison.

Time to Apply Burma Sanctions Model to Cuba?

As a Cuba policy analyst, I’ve given a surprising amount of thought to our policy toward the politically isolated, resource-rich nation of Burma (Myanmar) half a world away.  

That’s because I used to work for Senator Max Baucus, who in 2003, working with Senators Mitch McConnell, Dianne Feinstein and Chuck Grassley, helped pass smart sanctions against the Burmese Regime.  At the time, Congressional supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to punish the regime for its crackdown on Suu Kyi and her supporters, but Baucus and Grassley made sure that the sanctions would not be open-ended.  With this new sanctions model, Congress would continue to exercise real oversight over the impact of the sanctions and of the Executive’s efforts to bring other nations on board.  (Here's what Baucus had to say when the sanctions were renewed in 2007.)

With the news that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be making an historic trip to Burma, now might be an interesting time for Burma experts to debate whether it was U.S. sanctions, or Chinese influence (too much of it), or any other combination of factors that have led to Burma’s leaders to take steps that have registered as "flickers of progress" with President Obama of late.  But more importantly, over at The Atlantic, Joshua Kurlantzick has offered up “5 Ways to Tell if Burma's Reforms Are Really Working,” which could be helpful to the Obama administration in determining how far to engage the Burmese government.  After all, if the reforms continue and the administration wants to support them –and the leaders behind them – the President may wish to urge Congress to let the sanctions expire when they come up for renewal next summer.  And if not, he can urge their renewal.

Unlike the maze of Congressionally-mandated sanctions against Cuba enacted over the last several decades, the Burma sanctions were designed to expire unless proponents make a compelling case to renew them.  The sanctions only last a year, unless Congress passes a joint resolution to renew them another year.  Imminent expiration of the sanctions means that Congress actually monitors and evaluates the effectiveness of its policy toward Burma every year, instead of leaving the sanctions in place indefinitely at the whim of the single most interested member or members of Congress, as in the case of the Cuba embargo.  With U.S. sanctions always just a vote away from expiration, the Burmese government has a clear picture of the levers at work in the U.S. government and a real incentive to take steps that would encourage U.S. policymakers to scrap them.

But because the Cuba sanctions are open-ended and lack meaningful oversight, Cuban officials insist they can have little confidence that the U.S. will actually take significant steps to improve the relationship even if Cuba does.  

A case in point: two years ago, President Obama sent a message to Cuba’s leaders via our Spanish allies: