Weekly Newsblast

April 17, 2009

Dear Friend:

President Barack Obama made history this week by freeing Cuban-Americans from restrictions on their rights to visit their families on Cuba and to provide them with financial support.  In doing so, he set into motion forces that we believe will hasten the end of all travel and trade restrictions.


We offer this week a comprehensive report on what the President did, how people reacted, and the impact it will have on the domestic debate over Cuba policy and the regional debate on how our country relates to the rest of this hemisphere.


But first, these things need to be said.


President Obama acted courageously during his campaign when he offered to loosen the embargo, not tighten it like so many other candidates had done, and his wisdom in taking this step was rewarded by voters in Florida and across our country.


The actions announced by the White House -primarily, eliminating travel and financial restrictions on Cuban-Americans - are deeply humanitarian acts to reunite and help Cuban families who were divided by George Bush and his insensate political tactics in the 2004 campaign.  Obama's decision to repeal these restrictions was received in Miami and Havana with great joy, a joy we share.


As a measure of how quickly the political climate is changing, the reaction by Cuban-American Members of Congress, once a proudly solid block, showed divisions, cracks, and uncertainty.  They are reading the handwriting on the wall about where the policy is headed and it showed in their comments and in what they didn't say as well.


While the President made further progress on Cuba conditional on actions in response by Cuba's government, his decisions were seen, domestically and internationally, as an overdue concession that the policy of regime change is over, that the embargo hasn't worked and will never work, and must be taken down.


Even if he were to try and control them, Obama has clearly unleashed forces - fifty years of pent-up demand for change - that will take on momentum of their own.   While patience and a step-by-step approach are needed, while hiccups and hesitation, missteps even provocations must be anticipated, this much seems clear to us:  we are closer to a decisive change in policy than ever.


The fact is:  the president cannot stop here.  A policy that consists only of Cuban-American travel isn't a Cuba policy and it's not sustainable substantively or politically.


Travel just for Cuban-Americans, travel for some and not for all, doesn't help any other U.S. citizens, black, white, yellow, brown or red, whose constitutional claim to their travel rights are every bit as legitimate as those of the Cuban-American community.  It doesn't help virtually any Afro-Cubans because only a tiny fraction of Cuban-Americans who could provide financial support to their relatives on Cuba are black.   It tells Americans of all backgrounds, businessmen and workers, cultural figures and students, religious groups or tourists of any kind, that they cannot contribute to openness in Cuba or promote American values there. 


It keeps in place a policy whereby Americans can travel to Iran or North Korea but cannot get to Cuba without a license.  It does nothing to please our allies in the region, or to address their concerns about the U.S. trying to deny Cuba's place in the Hemisphere, nor does it speak to the anger of those who admire Cuba's independence and sovereignty and despise the actions we take to diminish those facts. 


No president since Lyndon Johnson has spoken with greater clarity and understanding about race in America than Barack Obama.   The Senate candidate who told his party's convention "there's not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States of America," the Presidential candidate who said, "I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together," who said that it was seared in his "genetic makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts - that out of many we are truly one," will not, and cannot, rest with a policy that distributes travel rights based on the ethnic make-up of the traveler.


For these reasons and more, we are compelled to believe that more changes will come.  That Americans of all backgrounds will be pressed into service as ambassadors of good will by the President.  That he will see the value of engaging more and more of  us in a two-way conversation with the Cuban people that reflects the reality that we have as much to learn from them as they have to learn from us.  That he will see the responses that have already come from Cuba as an inducement to do more.  That he will learn from his colleagues at the Summit of the Americas that they want this to be a beginning and not an ending.  That he will do more because doing more is so obviously in America's interests.


President Obama doesn't know everything.  He doesn't know, for example, that Cubans can now worship freely in their churches.  But there is one unmistakable truth about President Barack Obama - he can hear and respond to the most distant calls of history that are otherwise muted to those without his gifts of leadership. 


That is why we're convinced that this is just the beginning.


Travel for Some: Obama Frees Cuban-Americans from Restrictions on Travel and Family Support

President Obama took steps to implement the changes in Cuba policy that he promised in his campaign - directing the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Commerce to implement changes that would permit unlimited travel by Cuban-Americans to Cuba and enable them to send unrestricted financial support to their families.  


According to the New York Times, the announcement involved "the most significant shift in United States policy toward Cuba in decades, and it is a reversal of the hard line taken by President George W. Bush."  The shift also represented a long overdue recognition by the United States government that for fifty years its regime change policy had failed to dislodge Cuba's government.


The decisions taken by the President - announced at the White House by presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs and Dan Restrepo, a National Security Council staff member -included:

  • Lifting all restrictions on transactions related to the travel of family members to Cuba.
  • Removing restrictions on remittances to family members in Cuba.
  • Authorizing U.S. telecommunications network providers to enter into agreements to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite telecommunications facilities linking the United States and Cuba.
  • Licensing U.S. telecommunications service providers to enter into roaming service agreements with Cuba's telecommunications service providers.
  • Licensing U.S. satellite radio and satellite television service providers to engage in transactions necessary to provide services to customers in Cuba.
  • Licensing persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to activate and pay U.S. and third-country service providers for telecommunications, satellite radio and satellite television services provided to individuals in Cuba.
  • Authorizing the donation of certain consumer telecommunication devices without a license.
  • Adding certain humanitarian items to the list of items eligible for export through licensing exceptions.

Travel restrictions on Americans of non-Cuban descent remained in place as did the embargo and changes imposed by the Bush administration that have thwarted academic, cultural, and other forms of people-to-people contact.


According Robert Gibbs, "President Obama has directed that a series of steps be taken to reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic human rights and to freely determine their country's future."


The announcement came just days before the opening of the Fifth Summit of the Americas, taking place in Trinidad and Tobago.


Prior to the Summit, Obama was advised by several leading Cuba policy experts to take broader steps "to extricate Cuba policy from the tangle of domestic politics, enable our nation to engage Cuba on serious neighborhood problems and build a sense of mutual confidence between our governments so that we can discuss our political differences." You can read a press report citing their letter here.


On the day that the White House announced the changes in travel rules for Cuban-Americans, a dozen retired high-ranking military officers made a strong case for eliminating travel restrictions on all Americans.  In a letter to the president, they urged his support for the "Freedom to Travel to Cuba" bills introduced in the House and Senate.


These senior officers told the president that the policy of isolating Cuba had failed, that Cuba had ceased to be a military threat, that the embargo props up the Cuban government, and that it drives away natural allies from the United States.   They said that lifting the travel ban for all Americans, combined with engagement with Cuba's government on security issues like drug trafficking, immigration, and Caribbean security would put the U.S. "on a path to rid ourselves of the dysfunctional policy your administration inherited."


In the end, the administration made only the changes in travel policy and family support for Cuban-Americans and the shift on telecommunications.  However, the State Department is still conducting a broad review of Cuba policy and, as the New York Times reported, Mr. Restrepo said the policy was "not frozen in time today."


En route to the Summit of the Americas, President Obama told reporters that it was up to Cuba to take the next step.  Cuba's President Raul Castro replied that Cuba is "willing to discuss everything-human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything."


And in this late breaking development:  Secretary Clinton on Friday said, "We have seen Raul Castro's comments and we welcome his overtures...We are taking a very serious look at it and we will consider how we intend to respond."


This issue is changing and moving fast.


A transcript and webcast of the White House press conference can be obtained here.


The White House fact sheet explaining the policy can be read here.


The President's directive to the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Commerce to implement the policy can be read here


Major news organizations covered the announcement.  Reuters and the New York Times said the changes represented opening the door "a crack."  Inter Press Services offered a lengthy story with pictures that can be read here.  The UK Independent did a fact-filled Q+A about the policy and its potential implications here.


The new rules have positive business implications for Western Union as explained here.


Articles detailing the new policies on telecommunications can be read here and hereThis article suggests that U.S. telecommunications firms will have a tough time competing against already entrenched competitors.


Will the new rules on telecommunications lead to larger changes in the embargo?  The energy industry could be next as reported here


The former military officers' letter, released by the New America Foundation, can be read here.


Former President Fidel Castro wrote a reflection praising the officers' letter and "giving thanks" to the authors.  It can be read here.



While applauding the humanitarian gesture of restoring Cuban-American travel, political leaders and policy experts focused on Obama's failure to move toward a single policy that opened up Cuba for travel to all Americans.


"It's hypocritical to have a policy that allows travel to Vietnam and North Korea and Iran and China, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and yet when it comes to Cuba, not respect the fundamental right of an American to exercise his or her freedom to travel," said William Delahunt, a Democratic congressman and the author of the "Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, reported Reuters.


Stephen Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program of the New American Foundation, called Obama's move "cynical and insufficient."


"That our first African-American president would issue an executive order that created openings for a specific class of ethnic Americans - in this case, Cuban Americans - and not for all is not what this democracy is about," he said. "This is not how we approached Vietnam; we didn't tell Vietnamese Americans to lead the way."


Wayne Smith, a former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and now a critic of U.S.-Cuba policy, said the president simply didn't go far enough.   "A lot of people, myself included, who had some hope that Obama would move in a more constructive way, are now beginning to place our hopes in the Congress."


The Associated Press reported that American supporters of easing U.S. sanctions, who criticized the Obama administration for not going further, did say the move should greatly help Cuban families.  Phil Peters, a Cuba specialist, wrote in his blog that Obama's travel policy could "bring an injection of purchasing power that will raise the incomes of Cubans who rent rooms in their homes or drive private taxis."


But he and other Americans wondered when they too will be able to travel freely to Cuba.  Peters said the policy continues to treat Cuban-Americans as "a separate class."  "The rest of Americans aren't chopped liver," he said.


Why didn't Obama go further? 

According to the Associated Press, Julia Sweig, director of Latin studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, described Obama's changes as "teensy, weensy" and said they appear to be driven more by domestic political calculations than by foreign policy considerations.


"This is a cautious first step by a president whose political advisers are looking at the Florida electoral vote," she said in a telephone interview, "and who are not looking at this as a matter of foreign policy. That's the big problem with Cuba policy. We have a policy toward Miami and not Havana."


"These are welcome steps, but the right course is to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba, to open up commerce, and to directly engage the Cuban government in diplomacy and solving problems in both countries' interests," said Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA)


Perhaps more policy measure will follow. "The president has a historic opportunity, not to be the last president of the Cold War, but the first president to turn the page in U.S.-Cuba relations. I think he will do more, and that this will be the first of many steps toward better relations with Cuba," she added.


For additional reactions to the President's announcement, we recommend this series of essays that appeared in the Washington Post, this column by IPS' Jim Lobe, and these "reflections" written by Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News and World Report.  Michael Kinsley's op-ed in the Washington Post can be read here.  We particularly liked Philip Stephens' piece [After Guantanamo: Time to cut the wire around Cuba] published here in The Financial Times.  Blogger Markos Moulitsas weighed in here.


For polling on American attitudes on Cuba policy, check here.


Florida Reps. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart issued a joint statement that deplored Obama's decision. "President Obama has committed a serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship."


Florida Senator Mel Martinez, who wrote the recommendations which first put into place the limits on family travel and financial support, applauded President Obama for easing the travel restrictions that he now blames on the Cuban government.  In a statement released by his office Senator Martinez said,


"The announcement today is good news for Cuban families separated by the lack of freedom in Cuba. Likewise the change in remittances should provide help to families in need."


Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, who have gave a blistering 14-page floor speech early this year in an attempt to block Congress from enacting a modest loosening of restrictions on Cuban-American travel and farm sales declined at first to comment to the New York Daily News in response to the Obama policy.


However, according to the Miami Herald, Menendez finally said that while he agrees with more family travel, he ``would have challenged the regime to allow Cuban Americans to send money to their families without the state taking 30 percent."


Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a staunch opponent of Cuba's government, said "It's a missed opportunity to not have first demanded from the Castro regime a drastic reduction in the outrageously high fees that families have to pay to the regime and its agents for both travel and remittances."



Reversal of the Bush-era restrictions, which contained no humanitarian exemptions, cheered many in the Cuban-American community.  Lourdes Castro told USA Today that she has a brother, sister and plenty of cousins back in her home city of Havana. She visited them last July and wouldn't have been eligible to see them again until 2011 under restrictions enacted under the Bush administration. Now, Castro is already planning her return.  "I'm going to go as often as I can," said Castro, 52, who is not related to Cuban President Raúl Castro, or his brother, Fidel. "I'm so happy."


Tessie Aral, president of ABC Charters, told one news organization, "Right now, I have a customer outside that just found out her mother had breast cancer, so she was just going for her first [trip to Cuba] of the year....When I told her, 'Now you can go again' she was, like, ecstatic, because she can go visit her mum that's going to be starting chemotherapy."


Miami-based Gulfstream International Airlines, which operates Beech 1900Ds daily to Havana, is anticipating a potential ramp-up in service. President Tom Cooper told The Miami Herald that rule changes made by the US last year allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba once annually instead of once every three years resulted in a 20% traffic increase.


Reporting from Havana, the Associated Press spoke to Cubans with American relatives who were hoping the new rules would mean more visits from loved ones, and the possibility of more cash to buy things they cannot afford on government salaries averaging less than $20 a month.

"Man, this is something they should have done a long time ago," said engineer Simon Rodriguez, 37. "To have bilateral relations between the two countries is good for the Cubans and for the Americans."

The AP said that for many, the moves are only a beginning. Alberto Sal, a 68-year-old retiree, said he had high hopes when Obama was elected but is still waiting for significant action.  For instance, the president said nothing Monday about bipartisan measures in both houses of Congress that would effectively allow all Americans to travel to Cuba.  "He should do more and lift travel restrictions for all Americans," Sal said. "Until he does that, I don't think he's doing much." 

Cuban dissident Vladimiro Roca predicts the reaction will be huge. The former economist, who has been jailed for his opposition to the Castro regime, told USA Today "We will continue suffering, but the suffering will be less. The people are going to appreciate this," Roca said by phone from his Havana home.

Impact on the Summit of the Americas

The new Cuba policy was announced against the backdrop of the Summit of the Americas meeting - President Obama's first multilateral encounter with heads of state from the Western Hemisphere.  In the maneuvering that took place before the Summit, Obama's representatives sought to keep the subject of Cuba off the agenda.    But Cuba will be discussed, as will many other regional concerns. 


First, there is the question of the United States reengaging with a region that it essentially ignored for eight years, beyond the Bush administration's polarizing rhetoric about the war on terror and its opposition to governments in Havana and Caracas.


As the Los Angeles Times said, "stepping back onto the world stage, President Obama this week will meet Western Hemisphere leaders at a summit where he hopes to salvage alliances strained by grievances that the U.S. under former President Bush ignored Latin America because of Washington's focus on Iraq and terrorism.


"The new president is going to be the focus," said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin America program at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank. "Even for someone like Hugo Chavez, who at the last summit made himself the focus, it will be virtually impossible to upstage Barack Obama. This is his coming out party, his cotillion in the Americas, and there's an excitement just to meet the guy, see him up close and get a feel for him."


Second, the New York Times reported that Latin American leaders are seeking more than re-engagement with the United States. They are looking to redefine the relationship.


"I'm going to ask the United States to take a different view of Latin America," Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's president, said last month before meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington. "We're a democratic, peaceful continent, and the United States has to look at the region in a productive, developmental way, and not just think about drug trafficking or organized crime."


There are important issues - including but also beyond Cuba - that concern regional leaders.   These include the global economic crisis, which many governments and publics see as "made in America," greater recognition of the special problems facing the Caribbean, and enduring concerns about income inequality and public security that are often knocked out of the public debate in the U.S. by heated discussions of immigration and trade.


Third, as the nations in the region diversify their diplomatic and economic relationships, and choose an independent course from the United States, there is often a political division between powers like Mexico and Brazil on one hand and Venezuela, whose rhetoric has a sharper edge toward the U.S., on the other.


The Telegraph reported this week that "Brazil and even Cuba - Venezuela's closest regional ally - have sent messages to Caracas that Mr. Chavez should avoid the sort of disruptive behaviour shown at previous international gatherings."


But President Hugo Chavez said Thursday that Venezuela will vote against the declaration of the Summit of the Americas in a gesture of protest against the United States. Chavez said "the summit in Trinidad smells like Monroe: America for the Americans" - a reference to the Monroe Doctrine, a tenet of U.S. policy initially declared in the 19th century to demand an end to European intervention in the Western hemisphere.


Finally, as the Miami Herald observed "The lone country in the hemisphere that's not a member of the Organization of American States -- Cuba -- promises to take center stage here, as more and more Latin American nations insist that the days of the communist country's isolation should be numbered."


President Obama got his first public exposure to the division of the region from the U.S. on the issue of Cuba policy when the subject arose during his press conference with Mexico's President Calderon.


"The question that has to be posed rather is whether the U.S. embargo on Cuba has worked. The reality is that the embargo has been there long before we were even born, and yet things have not changed all that much in Cuba. I think we would have to ask ourselves whether that isn't enough time to realize that it has been a strategy that has not been very useful to achieve change in Cuba.  I do think -- I share fully the idea we do not believe that the embargo or the isolation of Cuba is a good measure for things to change in Cuba," Mexico's president said.


Mexico's reaction is no surprise.  As William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Government at American University predicted in remarks reported by IPS before President Obama left town:


"I don't think most Latin American heads of state are going to be too impressed by this," LeoGrande said in reference to the new Cuba policies.  "They've asked for a new departure by the U.S. toward Cuba, and this is really not a new departure."


Editorial Roundup

Major American newspapers praised the Obama decision to lift some restrictions, although some suggested that the president go further.


The Detroit Free Press said:


In an age when the United States enjoys robust commerce with China, Syria and Iran, among others, the Cuban trade embargo is a glaring anachronism. So is the travel ban that forbids Americans not born in Cuba from traveling to the island. The House and Senate are considering legislation that would end travel restrictions for all U.S. citizens, a welcome sign that Congress, too, is warming to a more grown-up strategy of engagement.

Calling the president's decision the start of a long process, the Philadelphia Inquirer talked of changing course:


U.S. policy toward Cuba is a Cold War relic that doesn't come close to achieving its purpose. Castro, now 82, was the longest-serving ruler in the Western Hemisphere until he ceded power last year to his brother, Raul. After 47 years of failure, it's time to start engaging with Cuba. Allowing Cubans to buy our goods and engage in other commerce with the United States is the most effective way to encourage democratic reforms on the island. Obama has not talked of lifting the trade embargo, but it is hoped that his initial steps will lead to that result.

Delaware's News-Journal referred to the letter sent to Obama by retired senior military brass that made the case for additional changes in the policy, saying:


A group of 12 former senior military officers have sent a letter to President Obama urging him to support and sign pending legislation that would repeal the travel ban for all Americans who wish to visit Cuba. Currently only journalists and families of Cubans can legally visit from here.  The retired soldiers argue that based on national security grounds, lifting the ban would allow us to send our best ambassadors -- ordinary Americans -- to engage our Cuban neighbors. It's a good idea.

The San Jose Mercury News argued for full travel, saying of the president:


On travel, he was too timid. He'll allow Cuban-Americans to travel home freely - a godsend to divided families - but he should lift travel restrictions on everyone. More contact with the Cuban people can only help them and us.

On the subject of lifting the embargo, the Hutchison Kansas News was plain-spoken:


Anything Obama can get out of the Cuban government would be something. But before his term is up, the failed trade embargo also should be lifted.

The Los Angeles Times called for full travel and the end of the embargo:


These welcome humanitarian developments should mark the beginning of a new approach to relations between the two countries. But there are further steps to be taken to strengthen those ties. The White House said there are "no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans." What about other Americans who would like to travel to Cuba, although they don't have family there? The ban on travel to the island should be lifted altogether. And more important, what about the trade embargo? Nothing speaks for our way of life better than our way of life; the embargo merely denies Cubans the opportunity to appreciate this country in all its diversity and ingenuity.

The Wall Street Journal, an avowed opponent of the Cuba embargo, published this editorial on what the Western Hemisphere must do:


The embargo has not worked to free Cuba, but a hemisphere united against the Castro tyranny has never been tried.

News of Note

According to news reports, Luis Posada Carriles, age 81, a former CIA operative and international fugitive wanted on terrorism crimes, pled not guilty to the 11 charges for which he will be tried in El Paso, Texas in August 2009.  He is charged with lying to authorities concerning his role and knowledge of the hotel bombings during a naturalization hearing in 2005 when he denied "soliciting other individuals to carry out bombings in Cuba." The indictment also charged him with impeding a U.S. investigation into terrorist acts.  The Associated Press reported that Venezuela's government will reactivate its demand for the U.S. to extradite Posada Carriles, according to attorney Jose Pertierra.


Florida travel agents won their case against a state law that required them to post a bond of $250,000 each in order to gain state approval for booking travel to Cuba.  The judge, the New York Times reported, said the law was in direct conflict with the federal government's authority to set foreign policy.  The decision was covered by progresoblog.com here and by UPI here.


Variety reported that donors to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee are upset by the activities of Senator Robert Menendez to block changes in U.S. Cuba policy. 


Political consultant Andy Spahn, whose clients include industry figures such as Steven Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, has traveled to Cuba numerous times as part of special delegations and is urging support for a lifting of the travel ban.


In the article, Spahn says, "Senator Menendez, as part of the Senate leadership, had no business holding the president's omnibus spending bill hostage for four days over some minor policy tweaks, regarding U.S. Cuba relations. His extreme right wing views on these issues are out of step with his colleagues in the Senate, the administration and the nation."


"His actions will definitely hurt his fund-raising efforts as chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee," Spahn went on to add.


Personnel Matters

The White House has named Francisco "Frank" J. Sánchez as its nominee for Under Secretary for International Trade, Department of Commerce, and a policy position relating to trade with Cuba.  Sánchez is an advocate for moving slowly on Cuba policy and making U.S. moves contingent on actions by Cuba's government. 


He told the Miami Herald last year: ''Just like Barack has said, it took us 50 years to get where we are, we're not going to undo that in five days.''


"We want to see some concrete steps from the Cuban government. If we saw all the political prisoners freed, if we saw something like that, a strong sign, we could begin considering other things," Sánchez added. [November 5, 2008]


Recommended Reading

The New York Times published an important story on China's growing role in the Western Hemisphere.


Adam Isacson and Abigail Poe of the Center for International Policy published this authoritative report on Ecuador's humanitarian emergency, the spillover of Colombia's conflict.   Adam's blog, Plan Colombia and Beyond, is required reading to keep up on Colombia.


Recommended Viewing


The New America Foundation hosted a truly remarkable and timely forum on Cuba policy the morning after Obama's announcement, "Is it time to end the Cold War in Latin America?"  It can be viewed here.





Until next week,



The Cuba Central Team


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