Cuba travel

Mandela, Miami and Cuba: The Real Story.

Ethics has never been a forte of the pro-embargo Cuban-American lobby. But the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC has reached a new low. Capitalizing on South African president Nelson Mandela's health problems, embargo supporters have constructed a false parallel between the multilateral sanctions against South Africa's apartheid regime and the illegal, immoral, and counterproductive embargo against Cuba.

But Mandela's own relationship with Cuba tells a different story--one with important lessons for current foreign policy.

Kerry's Cuba Sanity

One would have to go back to John Quincy Adams, who served in the U.S. diplomatic service from the age of 17, to find a predecessor better pedigreed than John Kerry to lead the U.S. State Department. The son of a diplomat, Kerry is a war veteran, senior senator, and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Few experiences have had greater influence on Kerry’s foreign policy views than his decades-long relationship with Vietnam, where Kerry served as a swift boat captain during the Vietnam War.

Kerry’s experience in Vietnam, where visceral ideological attitudes prevailed over rational analysis, prompted the future senator to advocate for a more realistic course for U.S. policy. A decorated veteran, John Kerry became a spokesman for veterans against the war. He learned that to promote U.S. values and interests requires awareness of the relative nature of power and the force of nationalism in the post-colonial world.

Respect for democracy begins at home

Article 1 of the United States Constitution recognizes Congress as the first branch of US democracy, with the executive and judiciary following behind. Bicameralism was a central concept of the 1787 constitutional pact. It was seen as a republican “remedy” against potential abuses of legislative despotism. If the House was conceived to express the direct mood of the people, James Madison envisioned the Senate as a high chamber of “enlightened individuals” that would operate with “more coolness, with more system and with more wisdom, than the popular branch”.

But a conspicuous gap has emerged between the founders’ design and the reality of some of today’s Senators. Poll after poll shows that the public holds Congress in low esteem. In the view of many Americans, some Senators not only reflect a polarized public but also contribute to making the system dysfunctional by abusing procedures, such as the unanimous consent rule, in pursuit of personal or parochial gains or to settle personal vendettas, rather than to defend national interests.

The Cuban community's representation in US politics has been remarkable over the last decade. No place is this more evident than in the Senate. Although the 1.8 million Cubans living in the US only represent 4 % of the Hispanics and less than 0.6 % of the US general population, they have managed to elect three Senators since 2004. The first was Mel Martinez, a moderate republican from Tampa who served as HUD secretary during the first term of George W. Bush. Second was Robert Menendez, a congressman from New Jersey who was appointed by the state governor and successfully ran for reelection in 2006. After Martinez’s retirement in 2010, Florida elected Marco Rubio, a former speaker of the state House.

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.

Cuban Softball Team Wants to Fly Old Glory

Photo by Gary Buxton available at:

Sometimes, when you read a story like this one, you're reminded why people to people travel to Cuba is so rewarding, important and worth fighting for:

The first time Gary Buxton went to Havana, Cuba, to play softball two years ago, he brought New York Yankees hats.

This time, he's bringing Old Glory.

Buxton, 60, of Holliston is returning to Cuba next month for the eighth time to play softball, traveling with two teams from the Eastern Massachusetts Senior Softball association and a third from Tampa.

The group first traveled to Cuba in 2009 on a well-publicized trip that marked the first time an amateur American sports team entered the communist country. Buxton has returned several times since to play for and against Cuban softball teams.

"We were told to bring an American flag, so it's a good bet probably that not only will they be playing the American anthem but they'll be flying the American flag, and that's never really been done," Buxton said. "Nobody does anything in Cuba without the government saying it's OK."

It's the sign of a changing climate in Cuba, Buxton said. When the Cubans he meets find out he's an American softball player, he is greeted warmly, often with hugs and kisses. His presence in the country, which has been closed for decades, represents something special to the Cubans.

They use Reagan’s words, but his policies?

Reagan and the current U.S embargo


What would Ronald Reagan’s policy towards Cuba be today?  Nobody can say for sure. It is certain that he would oppose and denounce communism, but would he support the travel ban and oppose educational, cultural and academic exchanges with Havana as Marco Rubio, Mario Diaz-Balart, David Rivera and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen do? In today’s post-Cold War environment, it is worthwhile to note that several members of Reagan’s team and many of the intellectuals who inspired his government such as Milton Friedman, Dick Cheney, and former Secretary of State George Schultz have supported a change in Washington’s policy. 

Twenty eight years ago, in March of 1983, President Reagan gave a historic speech to the National Association of Evangelicals in Orlando and called the Soviet Union, the "evil empire". Reagan’s words about communism did not allow for nuances. It was “us against them”.  Reagan’s clarity sent a meaningful message to average citizens of the democratic world and the many oppressed behind the iron curtain.

But Reagan’s speech to the Evangelicals in Florida should not be selectively cut from the whole of his general foreign policy approach to communism. Unfortunately, in the issue of foreign policy towards Cuba, supporters of the embargo use Reagan’s phrases to promote a “magical realism” version of what a moral policy towards communism should be. 

You Put Your Right Foot In...

Photo courtesy of Flickr/PodKnox

“YES YOU CAN” encourages the website of a travel provider specializing in tours of Cuba. Itineraries are listed for nearly every remaining week of 2011 and most of 2012. “The floodgates have opened,” it proclaims, offering visitors endless itineraries for educational and cultural tours. According to the Cuba's National Office of Statistics, the island has already received more than a million visitors this year, an increase of 11.9% over the same period in 2010. While the origin of Cuba’s visitors in 2011 mirror patterns of previous years, the majority arriving from Canada, Russia, Argentina, the UK, Chile and France, it seems Americans may very soon be walking Cuban streets in the greatest numbers seen in more than a decade.

U.S.-based Cuba travel service providers are ramping up operations in the hopes that large numbers of Americans will take advantage of the Obama Administration’s changes to regulations governing people-to people travel to Cuba, announced in January of this year.  The changes greatly expand opportunities for educational and religious travel via general license, (the general license does not require the traveler to be pre-authorized for travel) as well as more limited opportunities for travel under the more cumbersome and restrictive, specific license which continues to govern travel for cultural and humanitarian purposes. (For a more detailed explanation about the regulations, see this excellent analysis by the Latin America Working Group)

Last week, I offered a rather bleak but honest assessment of the Obama administration’s track-record on Cuba policy thus far. As it happened, just a day or two later the Associated Press published an article about the potential up-tick in American visitors to the island in 2011 that may result from the the new travel policy. “The forbidden fruit of American travel to Cuba is once again in reach,” reads the opening sentence.

I couldn’t help but dwell on the absurdity illustrated by the juxtaposition of these two realities. On the one hand, we have an Administration that makes what is essentially its first major endorsement of a policy of greater exchange between Cubans and Americans late on a Friday afternoon, as if it were the ugly step child of its Latin America agenda, yet there are potentially tens of thousands of Americans eager to travel to Cuba, and their right to do so just happens to be supported by Americans and Cuban voices that span the political and ideological spectrum.

Locked-in to Mutual Distrust

Dawn at the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana

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.

The Other Travel Ban

Photo courtesy of Flickr/mberasategi

Oh, the glories of being a tourist. The long plane rides spent squished in a middle seat; the demeaning airport security checks, the exorbitant baggage fees and bad food. But then there is, of course, the redemption that comes with being reunited with friends and family living abroad, or simply becoming acquainted with new places and sights that provide us with that injection of wonder we seek from time to time to rejuvenate the soul.

Yet for the vast majority of Cubans, leaving their country at all is virtually impossible. Under current regulations, Cubans must obtain a “tarjeta blanca” or exit visa, in order to leave. To get it, applicants must jump though a number of bureaucratic hoops and pay exorbitant fees: a de facto travel ban. Along with preventing ordinary Cubans from simply visiting family in the U.S. or elsewhere, the ban has been used as a political tool to prohibit opposition figures such as Yoani Sanchez or Dr. Oscar Biscet from traveling abroad to accept awards or other honors that confer international recognition and legitimacy on their anti-government positions.

So it is encouraging that the final version of the Lineamientos,  Cuba's set of policy reform guidelines, mentions the possibility that Cubans may one day be permitted to travel abroad as tourists. The actual language reads, “Study a policy that facilitates Cubans living in the country to travel abroad as tourists,” (Num. 265). But given the enormity of the injustice that is the de facto ban, this vague statement of intent is hardly satiating to advocates of greater freedom and human rights. 

While the Cuban government has for several years hinted it was entertaining such a policy change, ( President Raul Castro said as much back in 2008 shortly after his first formal inaugural address as president), it appears the idea hasn’t progressed much beyond that. Cuba’s incipient reform process has instead been defined by policy changes with comparatively lower political cost/higher economic returns. And if you are calling the shots in Cuba at this critical moment, it’s rather obvious why.

A Road Map to Solve the Alan Gross Case

Alan Gross

by Lawrence Wilkerson and Arturo Lopez-Levy

The trial in Cuba against USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, which will begin on March 4, presents an opportunity for the Cuban government to both demonstrate the legitimate basis for nationalist defense against U.S. interventionist policy and its good will towards the millions of potential American travelers to Cuba.

By the end of the trial, it should be clear that U.S. travelers to Cuba have nothing to fear if they keep a healthy distance from regime change programs and that Washington and Havana would both gain from dismantling hostile attitudes.

The trial serves three Cuban government purposes: