U.S. Ends Special Immigration Benefits for Cubans

On January 12, the U.S. announced that it is ending, effectively immediately, the “dry foot” immigration policy for Cubans and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Policy. Below we will examine these cancelled policies, the U.S. announcement of the policy changes, Cuba’s announcement of the U.S. policy changes and reactions to the changes.

The Cancelled U.S. Policies[1]

The “dry feet” policy has allowed any Cuban who arrived on land (with “dry feet”) at a U.S. point of entry to come into the U.S. and, absent negative factors, qualify for U.S. permanent residency status after one year. This policy originated soon after the early years of the Cuban Revolution before the U.S. in 1967 had ratified the international treaty on refugees and before it had adopted in 1980 a statute implementing that treaty (the Refugee Act of 1980) and when the U.S. assumed that all Cubans arriving in the U.S. were fleeing persecution.

This policy originally included Cubans who were intercepted on the water by the U.S. Coast Guard. However, in response to the Cuban Government’s legitimate concerns about the personal safety of Cubans attempting to reach the U.S. on unsafe boats, the U.S. (Bill Clinton Administration) and Cuba on September 9, 1994, reached an agreement whereby the U.S. would return to Cuba its nationals who were intercepted at sea, i.e., who had “wet feet.”

The U.S. Cuban Medical Professional Parole Policy, which was adopted on August 11, 2006, allowed “Cuban medical personnel conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Cuban government to enter the U.S.” It was available to “health-care providers who are sent by the [Cuban government] to work or study in third countries and who . . . are often denied exit permission by the Cuban Government to come to the [U.S.] when they qualify under other established legal channels to migrate from Cuba. Doctors, nurses, paramedics, physical therapists, lab technicians and sports trainers are examples of groups that may qualify for the . . . program.”

U.S. Announcement of the Change[2]

 On January 12 President Obama announced that the U.S. “is ending the so-called “wet-foot/dry foot” policy, which was put in place more than twenty years ago and was designed for a different era.  Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the [U.S.] illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities.  By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries. The Cuban government has agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed, just as it has been accepting the return of migrants interdicted at sea.”

The President also said the U.S. is “ending the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program. The [U.S.] and Cuba are working together to combat diseases that endanger the health and lives of our people. By providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program contradicts those efforts, and risks harming the Cuban people.  Cuban medical personnel will now be eligible to apply for asylum at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, consistent with the procedures for all foreign nationals.”[3]

This termination follows months of negotiations with the Cuban government over the latter’s agreeing to accept returning Cubans.

Nearly simultaneously with the President, Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which includes the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), issued a statement: “To the extent permitted by the current laws of our two countries, the [U.S.] will now treat Cuban migrants in a manner consistent with how it treats others; unauthorized migrants can expect to be removed unless they qualify for humanitarian relief under our laws.”  The Department also released a Fact Sheet and the Joint Statement of the two governments about the change. Johnson pointed out that Cuba will take back citizens as long as less than four years have passed between the time the migrant left Cuba and the start of the U.S. deportation proceedings.

These changes do not affect U.S. law regarding “refugees” fleeing persecution in their home countries. Thus, if a Cuban fears “persecution” upon returning to the island, then the individual may apply for asylum in the U.S. as a “refugee” under international and U.S. law if the individual can establish that he or she has a “well-founded fear” of “persecution” in Cuba “due to” his or her “political opinion, race, religion, nationality or membership in a particular social group.” (Statutory words are in quotes.) They may do so in the U.S. or at an U.S. embassy or consulate in another country.[4]

Cuban Announcement of the Change[5]

Welcoming this change, the Cuban Government stated, “After nearly a year of negotiation and encouraged by the restoration of diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015, based on mutual respect and political will to strengthen these links and establish new understandings on various issues of common interest, [the two] governments were able to concretize this commitment that should contribute to the normalization of migration relations. . . .”

The U.S. “wet foot-dry foot” policy gave Cubans “preferential and unique treatment not received by citizens of other countries, so it was also an incitement to illegal departures. Its implementation and that of other policies led to migratory crises, kidnapping of ships and aircraft and the commission of crimes, such as trafficking in migrants, trafficking in persons, immigration fraud and the use of violence with a destabilizing extraterritorial impact on other countries of the region [that were] used [for] transit to arrive at American territory.”

This change will meant that the U.S., “consistent with its laws and international norms, shall return to the Republic of Cuba, and the Republic of Cuba, consistent with its Laws and international norms, will receive all Cuban citizens, who . . . are detected by the competent authorities of the [U.S.] when they tried to enter or stay irregularly in that country, violating its laws.”

The U.S. “Parole Program for Cuban Medical Professionals, which was part of the arsenal to deprive the country of doctors, nurses and other professionals of the sector, . . . and an attack against Cuba’s humanitarian and solidarity medical missions in Third World countries that need it so much. This policy prompted Cuban health personnel working in third countries to abandon their missions and emigrate to the [U.S.], becoming a reprehensible practice that damaged Cuba’s international medical cooperation programs.”

It “will also be necessary for the U.S. Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.”

Unaffected are prior agreements “to prevent illegal departures by sea and to return to Cuba all persons who are intercepted in those acts or who enter the Guantánamo Naval Base. The Government of the United States will continue to guarantee regular migration from Cuba with a minimum of 20,000 people per year.”

“Both governments agreed to apply their migration laws in a non-selective manner and in accordance with their international obligations. They also undertook to prevent risky exits that endanger human life, to prevent irregular migration and to combat violence associated with such manifestations, such as trafficking and trafficking in persons.” In addition, “the parties will promote effective bilateral cooperation to prevent and prosecute those involved in trafficking in persons, as well as crimes associated with migratory movements, which endanger their national security, including the hijacking of aircraft and vessels.”

“In keeping with its international obligations and its legislation, the Government of the Republic of Cuba ratifies its commitment to guarantee regular, safe and orderly migration, as well as to fully comply with this new agreement for which the corresponding measures have been taken internally. It will continue to guarantee the right to travel and emigrate to Cuban citizens and to return to the country, in accordance with the requirements of immigration law.”

The Cuban Government also published the Joint Statement of the two governments as had DHS in the U.S.

At a press conference on January 12 Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official responsible for relations with the U.S., said that the joint “agreement recognizes the need to facilitate regular migration for the benefit of both countries, to prevent irregular migration and to prevent risky exits that endanger human life and to combat violence associated with this phenomenon and related offenses, such as trafficking in persons and trafficking in persons.”

Vidal was joined by Gustavo Machin, the Deputy Director of the United States Department of the Cuban Foreign Ministry, who summarized the joint agreement. He added that “Cuba will accept that persons who were included in the list of 2,746 Cuban citizens who migrated by the port of Mariel in 1980 [“the Mariel boat lift”] and were considered ineligible to remain in the [U.S.], . . and [those] who cannot now be returned will be replaced by other persons and returned to Cuba. Cuba will also consider receiving other Cuban citizens who are currently in the [U.S.], who violated [U.S.] laws and whom U.S. authorities have determined cannot remain in its territory.”

 Reactions to the Change[6] 

As to be expected, U.S. congressional response was mixed.

Senator Patrick Leahy (Dem, VT) said, “This is a welcome step in reforming an illogical and discriminatory policy that contrasted starkly with the treatment of deserving refugees from other countries.” Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) stated that eliminating the policy “is in our national interest. It is a win for taxpayers, border security, and our allies in the Western Hemisphere. It’s a move that brings our Cuba policy into the modern era while allowing the United States to continue its generous approach to those individuals and refugees with a legitimate claim for asylum.”

Representative Kathy Castor (Dem., FL) and co-author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.-442), https://dwkcommentaries.com/2017/01/12/representatives-emmer-and-castor-introduce-bill-to-end-embargo-of-cuba/ said, ““The end of the “wet foot/dry foot” policy should be followed by congressional action to lift the outdated economic embargo and improve economic conditions for everyday Cubans. . . . I have witnessed how the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy created an uneven playing field for immigrants from other Caribbean nations who are also seeking the opportunity to pursue the American dream.    I have also seen Cubans who try to come here for short term visits to see family members negatively affected by ‘wet foot/dry foot.’  The change in policy today will help ensure that we can have safer and more orderly migration with all of our Caribbean neighbors.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) said that the incoming Trump administration should reverse the part of the executive order ending the medical parole system and that there should be assurances that Cubans “who arrive here to escape political persecution are not summarily returned to the regime [but] . . . are given a fair opportunity to apply for and receive political asylum.”

Representative Illeana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican who emigrated from Cuba as a child, decried the elimination of the medical parole programs, calling it a “foolhardy concession to a regime that sends its doctors to foreign nations in a modern-day indentured servitude.”

According the Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), “Today’s announcement will only serve to tighten the noose the Castro regime continues to have around the neck of its own people.” He added, “The Obama administration seeks to pursue engagement with the Castro regime at the cost of ignoring the present state of torture and oppression, and its systematic curtailment of freedom.”

A positive view of the change was taken by Peter Kornbluh, a co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba,” which recounts the secret negotiations between the United States and Cuban governments that forged the policy of engagement. He said, “The exceptionalism of the ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy toward Cuba is a relic of the Cold War, and this decision by the administration is really its final effort to normalize an area of interaction between Cuba and the United States, migration, that is clearly in need of normalization.”

James Williams, the President of Engage Cuba, the leading coalition of private companies and organizations working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba, said these changes are “a logical, responsible, and important step towards further normalizing relations with Cuba. The ‘wet foot, dry foot’ policy has been an enduring problem that decades of hostility and isolation failed to solve. This change, which has long had strong bipartisan support, would not have been possible without the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.”

Phil Peters, president of the Cuba Research Center, said that the number of Cubans entering the United States is actually much higher because tens of thousands more overstay their visitor visas and still others migrate legally. “This is a favor to Trump because it’s a tough measure to take, but it’s the right measure to take,” Mr. Peters said. “These are economic migrants coming here that, unlike any other nationality, get a big package of government benefits without any justification.”

Kevin Appleby of the Center for Migration Studies of New York praised the specific change, while questioning the broader rules covering asylum. “The good news is that it ensures equal treatment between Cubans and asylum-seekers from other nations,” he said. “The bad news is that our asylum system is broken and does not afford adequate due process and protection to those who need it.”

Support for this change of policy also was voiced by Pedro Freyre, the chair of the international practice group of the Washington, D.C. office of law firm Akerman LLP. He observed, “This partially closes Cuba’s escape valve and will put pressure on Cubans to move forward more rapidly with reforms.” For years, he said, the last resort for Cubans frustrated with the lack of opportunity on the island has been to hire a “lanchero,” or people smuggler and attempt to reach the U.S. “Now they will have to look inward to see what they can do to fix Cuba.” The same opinion was offered by Jorge Mas, president of the Cuban American National Foundation, who welcomed the change and said it would pressure the Cuban government to improve conditions on the island.

Average Cubans and opponents of the island’s communist leaders said they expected pressure for reform to increase with the elimination of a mechanism that siphoned off the island’s most dissatisfied citizens and turned them into sources of remittances supporting relatives who remained on the island. This point was emphasized by Benjamin Rhodes, White House Deputy National Security Advisor and a principal negotiator of the rapprochement, saying, “It’s important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population that are clearly serving as agents of change.”

Last year thousands of Cubans who were seeking to reach the U.S. border with Mexico and to come into the U.S. with “dry feet” created major logistical and financial problems for Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama and to a lesser extent Colombia and Ecuador. This naturally upset the governments of those countries, especially when their citizens were not eligible for these U.S. immigration policies.

Therefore, these governments welcome the U.S. terminating the policies. El Salvador’s foreign ministry said, “There cannot be migrants of different categories.” Honduras said it would wait to see if the flow of Cubans actually declined.

Cubans who had left their homeland and were now trying to reach U.S. soil when the decision was announced lamented the policy change. “It has fallen on us like a bucket of water because were never thought that at this point and with so little time before Obama leaves office that his government would make this horrible decision,” said Eugenia Diaz Hernandez, a 55-year-old Cuban in Panama whose voyage with her daughter and granddaughter had taken her through Guyana, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. “We are adrift.” Another Cuban, Jose Enrique Manreza, who ran a soda warehouse in Havana, is now stranded in Mexico, after selling his house and belongings in Cuba to raise $10,000 for his journey to reach the U.S. “Imagine how I feel, after I spent six days and six nights running through rivers and jungles in the humidity.”

Conclusion

This policy change, in my opinion, was long overdue. I pray and hope that the incoming Trump Administration will not reverse this change.

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[1] U.S. Dep’t of State, Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (Jan. 26, 2009)  See generally posts listed in the “Cuba Migration to U.S.” and “Cuban Medical Personnel & U.S.” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: Cuba.

[2] White House, Statement by the President on Cuba Policy Changes (Jan. 12, 2017); Dep’t Homeland Security, Statement by Secretary Johnson on the Continued Normalization of Our Migration Relationship with Cuba (Jan. 12, 2017); Dep’t Homeland Security, Fact Sheet: Changes to Parole and Expedited Removal Policies Affecting Cuban Nationals (Jan. 12, 2017); Dep’t Homeland Security, Joint Statement [of U.S. and Cuba regarding changes in U.S. immigration policies] (Jan. 12, 2017); Reuters, Obama Administration Ends Special Immigration Policy for Cubans, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, Obama Ends Visa-Free Path for Cubans Who Make It to U.S. Soil, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017); Caldwell & Pace (AP), Obama making change to Cuban immigration policy, Wash. Post (Jan. 12, 2017); DeYoung, Obama ending ‘wet-foot, dry foot’ policy allowing Cubans reaching U.S. soil to stay and receive residency, Wash. Post (Jan. 12, 2017); Davis & Robles, Obama Ends Exemption for Cubans Who Arrive Without Visas, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017); Lee, Schwartz & Córdoba, U.S. Ends ‘No-Visa’ Era for Cuban Emigrés, W.S. J. (Jan. 12, 2017).

[3] See posts listed in the “Cuban Medical Personnel & U.S.” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries.com—Topical: CUBA.

[4] Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Art. I (A); 8 U.S.C. §1101(a)(42)See generally the following dwkcommentaries.com blog posts: Refugee and Asylum Law: Modern Era (July 9, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (July 10, 2011); Becoming a Pro Bono Asylum Lawyer (May 24, 2011);Teaching the International Human Rights Course (July 1, 2011).

[5] Cuba Foreign Ministry, Declaration of Revolutionary Government (Jan. 12, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Joint Declaration Cuba-United States (Jan. 12, 2017); Cuba ratifies its commitment to regular, safe and orderly migration, Granma (Jan. 12, 2017); Assoc. Press, Havana Hails End to Special US Immigration Policy for Cubans, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017).

[6] Flake Statement on Elimination of Wet Foot, Dry Foot Policy (Jan. 12, 2017); Menendez Statement on Latest Cuba Policy Changes (Jan. 12, 2017); Rubio Comments on Obama Administration Changes to Cuba Policy (Jan. 12, 2017);Castor, Statement on Ending “Wet Foot/DryFoot” (Jan. 12, 2017); Engage Cuba Statement on Administration ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ Policy Announcement (Jan. 12, 2017);Ben Rhodes: ‘There is bipartisan support’ for Congress to repeal the Adjustment Act, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 13, 2017); Wheaton, Obama’s shift on Cuban immigrants could put Trump in a bind, Politico (Jan. 12, 2017); Reuters, Cubans on Road to U.S. Distraught About Newly Closed Border, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017).

 

 

 

Barack Obama’s Comments About Cuba During His Campaign for the Democratic Party’s Presidential Nomination, 2007-2008

In light of President Barack Obama’s historic December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement with Cuba, it is interesting to examine Obama’s earlier statements about Cuba.[1] This post will examine his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007-2008.[2] Future posts will look at his 2008 presidential campaign; his first presidential term (including his 2012 presidential election campaign), 2009-2013; and his second presidential term (up to the December 17, 2014, announcement), 2013-2014.

Barack Obama's Announcement Speech April 2007
Barack Obama’s Announcement Speech February 2007

On February 10, 2007, at theI llinois State Capitol in Springfield Barack Obama announced his candidacy for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Almost all of his speech was about domestic issues with the exception of his pledge to end the war in Iraq and “bring our combat troops home by March of 2008.” There was no mention of Cuba.

Later that month (February 2007) the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof asked Obama,   “Is the [Cuba] embargo a failure?” Obama responded, “I think we’ve got a potential opportunity with Castro’s health waning to reopen the debate. We probably shouldn’t be overly optimistic that it’s going to change overnight. And I think it’s important that the United States isn’t too heavy-handed post-Castro in swooping [in] and suggesting that somehow Cuba’s going to change immediately. I do think that it opens up the conversation among not just the United States but among Cubans both in the U.S. and in Cuba about breaking down some of the restrictions on travel and commerce….I don’t think we automatically ease those restrictions simply because Castro has died. What I think is that with Castro’s death there are going to be a new set of players, I think it’s going to be important for us to do an entire reevaluation of our strategy towards Cuba. And I think the aim should be to create a more open relationship….But that is still going to be contingent on having some desire on the part of the Cuban government to initiate that process as well.”

In the CNN/YouTube debate with Hillary Clinton in July 2007, Obama was asked, “’Would you be willing to meet, separately, without preconditions, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea, in order to bridge the gap that divides our countries?” Obama replied, ‘I would,’ and added that it was a “disgrace that the Bush administration had refused on principle to do so.”

The Obama campaign team anticipated that the Clinton campaign would seize on Obama’s willingness to meet, without preconditions, with leaders of so-called rouge regimes. Obama, however, welcomed this attack and told his aides “we will not back down on this one bit.” This position was supported by polling in Iowa, the early caucus state, and showed that Obama represented change and Hillary did not.

Indeed, as anticipated, immediately after the debate, Hillary Clinton charged that Obama was too soft on talking with such countries. The Obama campaign responded that Mr. Obama would pursue “tough diplomacy,” but also use carrots like leader-to-leader talks.”

On August 21, 2007, Obama wrote an op-ed article in the Miami Herald “calling for ‘unrestricted rights’ for Cuban Americans to visit and send money to family in Cuba.” The following Saturday he campaigned in Miami’s Little Havana and told the crowd at a rally, “We’ve been engaged in a failed policy with Cuba for the last 50 years, and we need to change it.” He went on to promise to end restrictions on remittances and family travel for Cuban-Americans, to revive “people-to-people” educational and cultural exchanges and to engage Cuba on issues of mutual interest. Such engagement, he said, offered the best hope for promoting “a democratic opening in Cuba,” which is the “foremost objective of [U.S.] policy.”

At a December 1, 2007, televised Iowa debate among the Democratic candidates for their presidential nomination, Obama agreed with Mrs. Clinton, John Edwards and Joe Biden that the U.S. should not normalize relations with Cuba while Fidel Castro was still in power. Only Christopher Dodd and Dennis Kucinich were in favor of working for change with Fidel.

On February 19, 2008, the outside world provided a new circumstance for the candidates to react to. Fidel Castro resigned as President of Cuba due to poor health, and his brother, Raúl Castro,  became Acting President and five days later (February 24, 2008) the President upon election by Cuba’s National Assembly.

In the meantime in a February 21, 2008 debate with Hillary Clinton in Austin, Texas, Obama made extensive comments about the U.S. and Cuba. He said, “The starting point for our policy in Cuba should be the liberty of the Cuban people. And I think we recognize that that liberty has not existed throughout the Castro regime. And we now have an opportunity to potentially change the relationship between the United States and Cuba, after over half a century. I would meet without preconditions, although Senator Clinton is right that there has to be preparation. It is very important for us to make sure that there was an agenda and . . . that [the] agenda [included] human rights, releasing of political prisoners, opening up the press. And that preparation might take some time.” His other points about Cuba were the following:

  • More generally “it is important for the United States not just to talk to its friends but also to talk to its enemies. In fact, that’s where diplomacy makes the biggest difference.”
  • “One other thing that I’ve said as a show of good faith, that we’re interested in pursuing potentially a new relationship, what I’ve called for is a loosening of the restrictions on remittances from family members to the people of Cuba as well as travel restrictions for family members who want to visit their family members in Cuba. And I think that initiating that change in policy as a start and then suggesting that an agenda get set up is something that could be useful, but I would not normalize relations until we started seeing some of the progress that Senator Clinton talked about.”
  • When challenged that he had had a different position on Cuba in 2003, Obama responded, “I support the eventual normalization [with Cuba], and it’s absolutely true that I think our [Cuba] policy has been a failure. . . . [D]uring my entire lifetime . . . you essentially have seen a Cuba that has been isolated but has not made progress when it comes to the issues of political rights and personal freedoms that are so important to the people of Cuba. So I think that we have to shift policy. I think our goal has to be ultimately normalization, but that’s going to happen in steps.”
  • “[T]he first step . . . is changing our rules with respect to remittances and with respect to travel. And then I think it is important for us to have the direct contact not just in Cuba, but I think this principle applies generally. [As] John F. Kennedy once said, . . . we should never negotiate out of fear, but we should never fear to negotiate. And this moment, this opportunity when Fidel Castro has finally stepped down, . . . is one that we should try to take advantage of.”

Immediately after this Democratic candidates debate, Senator John McCain, then a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, jumped in with his criticism of Obama. McCain said, “Not so long go Senator Obama favored complete normalization of relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Last night, he said that as president he’d meet with the imprisoned island’s new leader ‘without preconditions.’ So Raul Castro gets an audience with an American president, and all the prestige such a meeting confers, without having to release political prisoners, allow free media, political parties, and labor unions, or schedule internationally monitored free elections. Instead, Senator Obama says he would meet Cuba’s dictator without any such steps in the hope that talk will make things better for Cuba’s oppressed people. Meet, talk, and hope may be a sound approach in a state legislature, but it is dangerously naive in international diplomacy where the oppressed look to America for hope and adversaries wish us ill.”

Obama’s campaign promptly retorted, ““John McCain would give us four more years of the same Bush-McCain policies that have failed U.S. interests and the Cuban people for the last fifty years. My policy will be based on the principle of liberty for the Cuban people, and I will seek that goal through strong and direct presidential diplomacy, and an immediate change in policy to allow for unlimited family visitation and remittances to the island. In November, the American people will have a clear choice: a new direction versus more war in Iraq, more not talking to leaders we don’t like, and more of a Cuba policy that has failed to achieve freedom for the Cuban people. I am confident that the American people will choose the promise of the future over the failed policies and predictable political attacks of the past.”

President George W. Bush echoed some of McCain’s criticisms of Obama at a February 28, 2008 press conference. Bush called Cuba’s new President, Rául Castro, a “tyrant,” who was “nothing more than an extension of what his brother [Fidel] did, which was to ruin an island, and imprison people because of their beliefs.” Bush also rejected Obama’s willingness to meet with the new Cuban leader because it would “send the wrong message. It’ll send a discouraging message to those who wonder if America will continue to work for the freedom of prisoners, it’ll give great status to those who have suppressed human rights and human dignity.”

John McCain continued his criticism of Obama’s stance on Cuba on March 6, 2008. According to McCain, he would meet with Cuban leaders “as soon as the political prisoners are free … and free elections have been held. Then I would sit down with any freely elected president or leader of Cuba. But until that day came I would not in any way, as Senator Obama wants to do, legitimize an individual who has been responsible for education, repression, political prisons and a gulag. I don’t think that it would be appropriate to legitimize someone like Raul Castro by quote, sitting down with him. And under no circumstance would I do it.’’

On May 20, 2008, this line of criticism was reiterated by McCain. At a rally in Miami, he said, “Now Senator Obama has shifted positions and says he only favors easing the embargo, not lifting [it]. He also wants to sit down unconditionally for a presidential meeting with Raul Castro. These steps would send the worst possible signal to Cuba’s dictators — there is no need to undertake fundamental reforms, they can simply wait for a unilateral change in U.S. policy.”

Responding from a campaign stop in Oregon the next day (May 21, 2008), Obama said, “with Fidel Castro stepping down from the presidency” and his brother Raul now in that post, “I think it’s a good time for us to reassess our Cuba policy. Cuba is a dictatorship that does not respect human rights or the free exercise of religion.” On the other hand, Obama argued, “our Cuba policy was shaped when I was born and basically hasn’t changed for 46 years.” Since that policy of political and economic isolation “hasn’t worked,” he added, it is now time to “try different things.” Mr. Obama spoke of the possibility of normalizing relations with Cuba if diplomatic contacts prove fruitful. But he also argued that “it is important to send some signals right now,” recognizing that “our relationship may be at a moment of transition right now.” In particular, Mr. Obama indicated that he favors lifting restrictions both on visits by Cuban-Americans to their families on the island and on the money they send back to those relatives.

Two days later (May 23, 2008) Obama appeared in Miami before the Cuban American National Foundation, the most prominent of the anti-Castro Cuban exile groups. Obama said he would meet with the Cuban leader, Rául Castro, “at a time and place of my choosing.” After eight years of the disastrous policies of George Bush, “it is time to pursue direct diplomacy, with friend and foe alike, without preconditions.” Obama also said that if elected president he would immediately lift the bans on family travel to Cuba and the limits on how much money people can send to their relatives in the communist nation. But he “will maintain the embargo. It provides us with the leverage to present the regime with a clear choice: If you take significant steps toward democracy, beginning with the freeing of all political prisoners, we will take steps to begin normalizing relations.”

Three months later, August 25 to 28, the Democratic Party held its National Convention in Denver, Colorado, where it adopted its national platform and officially nominated its candidates for President and Vice President. Obama was nominated on August 27, when his former opponent, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, interrupted the official roll call to move that Obama be selected by acclamation. U.S. Senator Joe Biden also was nominated for Vice President that same night, following which he accepted the nomination.

Barack Obama @ Democratic Party's National Convnetion 2008
Barack Obama @ Democratic Party’s National Convention 2008
Barack Obama @ Democratic Party's National Convention 2008
Barack Obama @ Democratic Party’s National Convention 2008

 

On August 28 Obama accepted his nomination in a speech at INVESCO Field before a record-setting crowd of 84,000 people in attendance plus additional millions on national and international television. The speech concentrated on his visions for the future of the U.S. economy and better lives. He did not mention Cuba or any other foreign policy issue other than his promise to end the war in Iraq.

Conclusion

Obama in his campaign for the nomination consistently asserted that he favored discussions or negotiations with Cuba and other rogue states “without preconditions.” That, in fact, is what he did in the 2013-2014 secret negotiations with Cuba that led to the December 17, 2014, announcement of rapprochement with Cuba.

This campaign position was based upon the assumption that the nearly 50-years of U.S. policy regarding Cuba was a failure and needed to be changed. This, in fact, is what he said in the December 17th announcement and the July 1st announcement of re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba.

In this campaign Obama advocated liberalizing U.S. restrictions on travel to Cuba and U.S. citizens’ remittances to Cubans. This, in fact, is what he did in early 2009 and in 2014.

Obama in this campaign also talked about the importance of the U.S. pressing Cuba on human rights, releasing of political prisoners and opening up the Cuban press. This, in fact, since December 17 these subjects are being discussed with Cuba.

There, however, was one discordant note in this campaign. On May 23, 2008, Obama said he would maintain the embargo whereas in the December 17, 2014, announcement he called for Congress to end the embargo.

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[1] This post and the subsequent posts about Obama’s prior statements about Cuba are not based upon comprehensive research. The primary research tool was online searching of the New York Times for articles mentioning “Obama and Cuba” for the relevant time period. Therefore, this blogger especially welcomes comments with corrections and additions.

[2] This post is based on the following: David Plouffe, The Audacity to Win (Viking; New York; 2009); Assoc. Press, Ill. Sen. Barack Obama’s Announcement Speech, Wash. Post (Feb, 10, 2007); Kristof, Obama on the Issues (and his Grandfather’s Wives), N.Y. Times (Mar. 5, 2007); Seelye, Clinton-Obama Commander Duel, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2007); Falcone, 2008: Obama Speaks, N.Y. Times (Aug. 21, 2007); Traub, Is (His) Biography (Our) Destiny?, N.Y. Times (Nov. 4, 2007); Healy, Though Caucuses Loom, Democrats Tone It Down, N.Y. Times (Dec. 1, 2007); McKinley, Fidel Castro Resigns as Cuba’s President, N.Y. Times (Feb. 19, 2008); Transcript: Democratic Debate in Austin, Texas, N.Y. Times (Feb. 21, 2008); Phillips, McCain Hits Obama on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2008); McKinley, Raúl Castro Named Cuba’s New President, N.Y. Times (Feb. 24, 2008); Stout & Knowlton, Bush Calls Surveillance Bill an ‘Urgent Priority,’ N.Y. Times (Feb. 28, 2008); Stolberg, Bush Criticizes Democrats Running for President on Trade, Iraq and Cuba, but Not by Name, N.Y. Times (Feb. 29, 2008); Cooper, Vice Presidential Tea Leaves and a Dig at Obama, N.Y. Times (Mar. 6, 2008); Luo, McCain Now Hammers Obama on Cuba, N. Y. Times (May 20, 2008); Rohter, Obama to Address Cuban Group, Marking Shift from GOP Alliances, N.Y. Times (May 22, 2008); Zeleny, Obama Discusses Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (May 23, 2008); Zeleny, Obama, in Miami, Calls for Engaging with Cuba, N.Y. Times (May 24, 2008); Wikipedia, 2008 Democratic National ConventionTranscript: Barack Obama’s Acceptance Speech, N.Y. Times (Aug. 28, 2008).

 

 

 

U.S. Radio and Television Broadcasts to Cuba at Crossroads

In 1983 the Cuban American National Foundation, a once-monolithic lobbying group of Cuban exiles, helped persuade the Reagan administration to establish Radio Martí, which started broadcasting from Miami to Cuba in 1985, and TV Martí began in 1990. [1]

For most of its 30 years, the Martí services have been known for their anti-Castro, one- dimensional slant and advocacy. As a result, the Cuban regime has been very hostile to these services. It has made them illegal and often blocks their reception on the island.

The Martís, with a budget of $27 million, also have U.S. critics, including former American diplomats in Cuba. These critics “have considered them taxpayer-funded relics controlled by Cuban exiles that too often slide into propaganda, which has damaged their credibility.” In addition, “reports by congressional staff members and federal agencies, like the Inspector General for the State Department, have delivered stinging assessments” of Martí; the most recent such report came last summer accusing the Martís of ‘a lack of balance, fairness and objectivity,’ of cronyism, malfeasance and, most recently, low employee morale.”

More recently Martí has “focused on diversifying coverage of Cuba and ramping up a Martí website. [This includes] bringing more Cubans into the conversation through video, articles, texts, blogs and social media. “ This includes an expansion of a “cadre of journalists in Cuba who file videos and articles, with their names made public at great risk. Some of those interviewed by the reporters are also identified, a sign of diminishing fear.” In addition, Cubans now “can post their own blogs and news items through features like “Reporta Cuba,” which often spreads news of detentions.” “And a separate social network created by the Martís, Piramideo, allows Cubans to use cellphones or email accounts to gain access to a site that circumvents government restrictions. From there, they can send messages to hundreds of Cubans in Cuba about nearly anything.”

Another goal at Martí “was to lift journalistic standards, [especially attempting] to offer more diverse views of Cuban life and [U.S.] foreign policy. Reporters now call the Cuban government to get its response for certain stories.”

Now Martí presents “snippets of life on the island, like examples of the recently unleashed zeal for private enterprise. So one of the hosts, as part of an effort to bolster Cuba’s fledgling independent businesses, recently promoted “Hilda in Havana,” who is offering desserts and decorations for events and restaurants. Next up was a listing from a Havana man peddling his churro cart.” Other topics are housing problems in Cuba, the latest small-business ventures (public bathrooms in private homes, 25 cents for a quick stop, 50 cents for longer visits), dissident detentions, how to find the rare Wi-Fi hot spots.”

In addition to their live broadcasts, every month, Martí distributes nearly 15,000 DVDs of its programming in Cuba and circulated through flash drives. The goal of all of these efforts is to provide news and information about Cuba to Cubans without Cuban censorship.

In the last few years, Martí has been challenged by increased competition. “Cubans now use flash drives that are loaded with television shows and movies from satellite dishes and sold on the black market.”

With the December 17, 2014, announcement of the U.S. and Cuba intent to pursue normal diplomatic relations, the future of the Martí ventures is under re-examination.

“While Obama administration officials support the Martís, they are eager to cut the Office of Cuba Broadcasting loose from the federal mantle. In its budget for next year, the administration proposed consolidating the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and Voice of America’s Spanish-language programs, turning them into a nonprofit. The organization would be funded by federal grants, with federal oversight, but would not be part of the government. [This is the way that] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which gained prominence during the Soviet era and served as the model for the Martís, has long operated this way.”

In January, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro called for an end to the Martís as a condition for normalizing relations with the United States, but this proposal has not been mentioned in the limited publicly available information about the negotiations between the two countries.

There is a bill in Congress to terminate the two broadcasting services: H.R.570, Stop Wasting Money on Cuba Broadcasting Act. It was offered by Minnesota’s Democratic Representative, Betty McCollum. As of March 25, there had been no action on the bill in the House of Representatives although it has gained four Democratic cosponsors—Barbara Lee (CA), Raul Grijalva (AZ), Richard Nolan (MN) and Jose Serrano (NY).

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[1] This post is based upon Alvarez, Radio and TV Martí, U.S. Broadcasters for Cuba, Face New Obstacles, N.Y. Times (Mar. 24, 2015),