A prior post discussed preliminary information about U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s August 14 meeting with Cuban dissidents and others at the official Havana residence of the U.S. charge d’affaires. The other attendees included representatives of the Engage Cuba coalition for normalization; its members (the Center for Democracy in the Americas, #CubaNow, Procter & Gamble, the American Society of Travel Agents, Cuba Study Group, and the Washington Office on Latin America); notable members of Congress, including Senators Klobuchar, Flake, and Leahy; leaders of the American business community; and Cuban independent entrepreneurs.
Further information about that meeting has been added by Ernesto Londoño, the member of the New York Times Editorial Board who was the main force behind last year’s series of editorials urging normalization of U.S. ties with Cuba, and by Engage Cuba.
Londoño reports that Cuban dissidents are very pleased with such normalization and with the August 14 ceremonial opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana. He referred first to the article in The Atlantic by Yoani Sanchez that was mentioned in the prior post.
This was confirmed in an email to him from Sanchez. With respect to the meeting with Kerry, she said “People hugged and greeted each other like they were at the baptism of a creature that had a rough, problematic gestation, and has finally come to life. It’s been many years since I’ve witnessed a moment like that, surrounded by so many happy people.” Moreover, Kerry ”left a “profound impression” on them, with his listening carefully to their concerns and brainstorming about ways to expand Internet access on the island.
Another dissident at the meeting was José Daniel Ferrer, a former political prisoner who is head of the Patriotic Union for Cuba, the largest and most active opposition group on the island. He said he was heartened by the meeting with Mr. Kerry, whom he described as realistic and supportive. “His speech [at the meeting] was good and clear. Many of us are grateful for his remarks, including that the situation in Cuba would improve if we had a genuine democracy.”
In recent months, Cuban authorities have continued to harass, temporarily detain, and slander dissident leaders, Mr. Ferrer said. “Repression has increased, but not because the new policy is weak and paves the way for that, no,” he said. “Repression has increased because every day there’s more activism and courage and the regime fears it will lose control.”
Ferrer’s group has put videos on You Tube showing its leaders delivering aid packages to destitute Cubans and holding meetings. Others in the group are helping Cubans getting online at new Wi-Fi hot spots. Ferrer said, “There are many people who want to connect but have no idea how. We suggest sites based on their interests and we tell them about the unlimited possibilities the Internet brings.”
Engage Cuba said that they met Cuban entrepreneurs engaged in event planning, supplying promotional packaging, designing fashions and creating mobile apps. These interactions reinforced Engage Cuba’s efforts to identify opportunities to support these entrepreneurs by connecting them with counterparts in the U.S. and the coalition’s commitment to help unleash the potential of the Cuban economy by working with Congress to end the travel ban and lift the trade embargo. While we continue to work with Congress.
This month two major U.S. groups have reiterated pleas to Congress to promote U.S. trade and travel with Cuba. They are the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba and Engage Cuba. Here is a report on those efforts.
U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba
On June 8, 2015, the Agricultural Coalition, an association of more than 90 U.S. agricultural companies and state and national organizations committed to normalizing exports of food and agricultural products to Cuba, sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations.
The letter reiterated the Coalition’s opposition “to any effort to restrict trade and travel with the nation of Cuba—including possible amendments to appropriations bills or the State Department reauthorization bill.” Any such restriction “would be detrimental to the U.S. agricultural industry and the future of U.S.-Cuba relations.”
Indeed, the letter continued, Coalition members “share a commitment to liberalizing trade between the United States and Cuba. We support Congressional action to expand opportunities for U.S. agriculture by normalizing commercial relations with Cuba and, ultimately, ending the Cuban embargo.”
Because of existing restrictions in U.S. law about trade with Cuba, the letter further stated, the U.S. agriculture “industry is losing out on valuable opportunities to market U.S. food and agriculture products in Cuba. U.S. farmers, ranchers, and food businesses should not be losing out to other countries like Brazil, Canada, Argentina, Vietnam, and countries in the European Union. Cuba is a logical export market for the U.S. industry.”
On June 16, 2105, Engage Cuba formally commenced its operations in Washington, D.C. as a coalition of major corporations, business associations and non-profit groups. Its members include the National Foreign Trade Council, the National Association of Manufacturers, the Consumer Electronics Association, the Council of the Americas, the American Society of Travel Agents, Third Way, #CubaNow, the Cuba Study Group and the Center for Democracy in the Americas. It also works directly with many leading businesses, including Procter & Gamble, Cargill, Caterpillar, Choice Hotels and The Havana Group,
This coalition on June 16 started an ad campaign called “Guess What?” that is being broadcast on Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC. It calls for ending travel and trade bans on Cuba.
The Engage Cuba press releases stated the various provisions that seek to halt reconciliation with Cuba that House Republicans had inserted into pending appropriations bills. He said they were “like the last gasps of a defeated army that’s in retreat. They are just trying to delay the inevitable. The Senate will not support those versions of the bill[s] and the White House already has said they would [veto them]. So they [have a] zero chance of becoming law.”
This theme about pending legislation was expanded in a June 16 article by Williams and two other Engage Cuba leaders (Steven Law and Luke Albee). They said, “While there are plenty of big fights still to be had, bipartisan progress is clearly emerging on an unlikely issue: Cuba policy.” As “examples of seeking compromise and working across party lines,” they cited the bill to end the ban on U.S. travel (S.299) offered by Republican Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) and Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) and the recent bill to end the embargo (S.1543) offered by Republican Senator Jerry Moran (KS) and Independent Senator Angus King (ME).
Engage Cuba, they said, “reflects that same bipartisan spirit. The founder of the group (James Williams) is a public policy adviser to philanthropists with strong ties to the Obama Administration. Its top two advisers come from opposite sides of the political barricades: Steven Law runs American Crossroads and Luke Albee is a well-known Democrat who served more than two decades in Congress as Chief of Staff to Sens. Leahy and Warner (Dem.,VA).”
This article concluded with an urgent call for that bipartisan spirit and effort to combat “provisions . . . [to House of Representatives’] funding bills to try to roll Cuba policy back to a Cold War posture, even as embassies are in the process of being announced. The bills immediately drew veto threats, and it’s clear they have little chance of getting through the Senate with those measures. However, progress isn’t going to be made by fighting rear-guard actions; we need to move our policy toward Cuba in a new, positive direction.”
On January 15, Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) hosted a party at a Washington, D.C. bar to celebrate the launching of Engage Cuba. People from that coalition were joined by other senators; Roberta S. Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and the U.S.’ chief negotiator in the Cuba talks; and José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, Cuba’s ambassador-in-waiting as chief of mission at the Cuban Interests Section in Washington.
Senator Flake had just returned from another trip to Cuba, this time with Senators Susan Collins (Rep., ME) and Pat Roberts (Rep., KS). Here is a photo ot the three of them with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. Afterwards, on June 15 Flake said, “To see where we are today is really heartening. The feeling I had the last couple of visits to Cuba is that the reforms . . . that have been made are irreversible. It’s full steam ahead.”
All supporters of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation should thank both of these organizations for their efforts to do the same while also urging their Senators and Representatives to oppose the House Republican rear-guard efforts.
 Pending policy bills against reconciliation and the anti-reconciliation inserts in appropriations bills have been discussed in posts on May 26 and 28 and June 2, 10, 12 and 16.
 Torres, Major U.S. companies support new group that will lobby to lift sanctions against Cuba, Miami Herald (June 16, 2015). A prior post discussed the organization of Engage Cuba. Engage Cuba already helped helping negotiate an agreement between the Florida-based Stonegate Bank and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington to resume bank transactions for the Cuban diplomatic mission, an essential requirement for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the conversion of the Section to the Cuban Embassy. The group’s website has a useful page of Facts about public opinion on reconciliation in the U.S. and in Cuba, the potential Cuban market for U.S. products and services, statements of prominent individuals supporting reconciliation and lists of reconciliation-supportive businesses, agricultural organizations, faith-based and religious organizations, human rights, development and policy organizations, and labor, environmental and travel organizations. Another useful feature of the website is a form for individuals to send an email to their members of Congress.