More Congressional Delegations Visit Cuba

Two more congressional delegations visited Cuba this week.[1]

Senator Tom Udall’s Delegation

Senator Mark Udall
Senator Mark Udall

On May 25th U.S. Senator Tom Udall (Dem., NM), the author of a bill to expand U.S. telecommunications trade with Cuba (S.1389),[2] led a delegation of fellow Democrats on a visit to Cuba: Senator Al Franken (MN)[3] and Congressmen Raul Grijalva (AZ)[4] and John Larson (CT),[5] all of whom support ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Their visit included a meeting with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, as well as meetings with Cuba’s Ministries of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment and Agriculture as well as self-employed members of small cooperatives and investors from foreign countries.

At a May 27th press conference in Havana at the end of their trip, Senator Udall noted that the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” would end in two days (May 29th) and asserted his belief that “it will be a matter of weeks when we have restored diplomatic relations.”

Senator Udall said that there is growing bipartisan support for separate pieces of legislation that would permanently end a ban on travel, allow trade in agricultural goods and enable U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies to provide services and devices in Cuba.”Today in the Foreign Relations Committee of the Senate, the majority of both Democrats and Republicans are in favor of the travel ban being lifted.” Although he was optimistic about bills eliminating the U.S. embargo/blockade, he added, “I do not think “it will happen tomorrow.”

In response to a question, Udall defended most of U.S. initiatives to “spread democracy,” but criticized such projects when they seek to “undermine governments.”

Senator Franken observed that the majority of the American people support eliminating the embargo, as shown in recent surveys. Even in Florida, most of the public agrees with a change in this policy towards Cuba. Yet a “very small minority” in Congress still backs continuing the embargo, said Franken, and “there is work to be done” to overcome their objections.

Franken also stressed the need to obtain compensation for Cuba’s expropriation of property owned by U.S. interests at the beginning of the Revolution. In response to a question about the issue of returning Guantanamo to Cuba, he said it was not “a salient issue at this time” and that he did not have a “strong opinion” on the naval base, though he supports closing its detention center for terrorism suspects.

Congressman Grijalva said the cultural, artistic and scientific exchanges are vital for normalization, but those that tend towards subversion must be analyzed and set aside. He stressed the statement of President Barack Obama that the U.S. was “not in the business of regime change” in Cuba.

 Representative Mark Sanford’s Delegation

Rep. Mark Sanford
Rep. Mark Sanford

Three days later, May 28, the Foreign Minister met with another delegation led by Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., SC), the author of a bill to expand U.S. travel to Cuba (H.R.664), with Bradley Byrne (Rep., AL), Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), Earl Carter (Rep., GA) and Don Beyer (Dem., VA).

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Assoc. Press, US Senator in Cuba Says Normal Relations ‘Weeks Away,’ N.Y. Times (May 27, 2015); Fox, US Senator in Cuba says normal relations ‘weeks away,’ Wash. Post (May 27, 2015); Gomez, US lawmakers in Havana must lift the blockade, Granma (May 27, 2015); Cuban Foreign Minister receives US Congressmen, Cubadebate (May 28,2015).

[2] A prior post about pending bills supporting U.S.-Cuba reconciliation identified Senator Jeff Flake as the author of the bill. Now the THOMAS website identifies Flake as a cosponsor and Senator Udall as the author, and the latter issued a press release to that effect, calling the bill The Cuba Digital and Telecommunications Advancement Act — or Cuba DATA Act.

[3] Franken’s press release before the trip stressed the trip was “to explore ways the U.S. and Cuba can expand trade opportunities . . .[and] ways the [U.S.] can further open relations with Cuba through trade and tourism.” Franken said, “Expanding trade opportunities with Cuba could be of enormous benefit to many Minnesota industries, including our medical technology industry, agricultural producers and our energy sector.”

[4] Grijalva’s press release before the trip emphasized that it would focus on “ways the [U.S.] can further open relations with Cuba through trade and tourism and by expanding opportunities for cultural exchange.” Another purpose was exploring “opportunities for U.S. companies to participate in the expansion of telecommunications infrastructure; expanding ecotourism; and marine conservation efforts.”

[5] Larson’s pre-trip press release was virtually the same as Grijalva’s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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),