Open Letter to U.S. Congress About U.S. Freedom To Travel to Cuba

To: Senator Flake: As an U.S. and Minnesota citizen, I thank you for sponsoring legislation to grant U.S. citizens freedom to travel to Cuba (S.127 Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act). I also thank and copy my Minnesota Senators, Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, for joining 52 other senators in co-sponsoring this bill.

To: Representative Mark Sanford: I thank you for sponsoring a similar bill in the House (H.R.351—Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017). I also thank and copy the three Minnesota representatives (Tom Emmer, Erik Paulsen and Rick Nolan) who have joined 21 other representatives in cosponsoring the bill. By copies of this open letter, I urge the other Minnesota representatives (Timothy Walz, Jason Lewis, Betty McCollum, Keith Ellison and Collin Peterson) to join the ranks of cosponsors.

Now is the time to push these bills forward for votes in the two chambers before the Trump Administration comes forward with proposed regulations to implement the President’s intention to eliminate individual person-to-person travel to the island. (A copy of this open letter is also being sent to President Trump.)

In addition to the arguments already advanced for supporting these bills, I submit that the new Trump policy is internally inconsistent for the following reasons:

  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel, by all accounts, will reduce the overall amount of U.S. travel to the island and thereby have substantial negative effects on Cuba’s emerging private sector, which has improved the living standards of many Cubans and is a force for change in Cuba and for friendlier relations with the U.S. Remember that President Trump favors measures to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans.
  • Forcing Americans who want to have a person-to-person experience in Cuba to do so only with established tour groups will mean “large tour groups [that] are too big for smaller bed-and-breakfast rentals, and their [Cuban] government-appointed guides tend to ply the well-trodden routes that bypass the new galleries, restaurants and night spots opened by enterprising Cubans and others.” This is a direct negative effect on Cubans’ standard of living, which President Trump does not want.
  • According to Andrea Gallina, an Italian entrepreneur who last year opened a high-end boutique hotel, Paseo 206, with his Cuban spouse, “If independent American travel is cut off, you won’t only hurt the bed-and-breakfasts. It’s also the construction crews, the private tour guides, the taxi drivers, the restaurants and the artists selling handicrafts.” Again, the Cubans now engaged in these private enterprises will be substantially disadvantaged.
  • The larger groups will by necessity have to stay in hotels, most of which are state-owned, rather than individually owned b&bs, and travel in tour buses (again, state-owned), rather than individually owned taxis. The large-group U.S. visitors also probably will be provided with government-provided guides rather than private guides used by people traveling by themselves or in small groups. All of these consequences are contrary to the President’s intent to stop or limit U.S. persons from doing business with enterprises owned or controlled by the Cuban military or security services.
  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel will increase the cost for Americans’ traveling to the island and thereby reduce the amount of such travel. As a result, the U.S. will lose the impact on Cubans of ordinary Americans, who often are the best ambassadors for the U.S., its government, people and values.

====================================================For more details, see This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017).

This Blogger’s Reactions to President Trump’s Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies                                                                                        

On June 16, as noted in a prior post, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama. Other posts discussed the reactions to this development in the U.S. and Cuba while this post will set forth this blogger’s reactions and recommendations.

Remember that despite all the hostile rhetoric in Trump’s announcement, he made only two changes to be implemented in subsequent regulations: (1) prohibit U.S. business transactions with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or security forces; and (2) prohibit U.S. citizens from engaging in individual person-to-person travel to Cuba.

As a longstanding advocate for U.S.-Cuba normalization and reconciliation, I was dreading the long anticipated announcement of a new Cuba policy direction from the Trump Administration. Thus, I was somewhat relieved that there were only the two previously mentioned specific changes although I was distressed with Trump’s unfortunate resurrection of the rhetoric of the failed U.S. policies from 1959 until the December 17, 2014, announcement of a mutual decision to seek normalization.

Now U.S. citizens who favor normalization and reconciliation need to determine how to go forward. Here are my recommendations for such a strategy.

First, focus on overturning the new ban on individual person-to-person travel. That means supporting S.127– Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act—that is authored by Senator Jeff Flake with 54 cosponsors—and asking the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill as soon as possible. The same should be done for the parallel bill in the House (H.R.351—Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017) authored by Representative Mark Sanford (Rep., S.C.) with 22 cosponsors.

Second, advance the following new argument for such bills. The new Trump policy is internally inconsistent for the following reasons:[1]

  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel, by all accounts, will reduce the overall amount of U.S. travel to the island and thereby have substantial negative effects on Cuba’s emerging private sector, which has improved the living standards of many Cubans and is a force for change in Cuba and for friendlier relations with the U.S. Remember that President Trump and his supporters purportedly favor measures to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans.
  • Forcing Americans who want to have a person-to-person experience in Cuba to do so only with established tour groups will mean “large tour groups [that] are too big for smaller bed-and-breakfast rentals, and their [Cuban] government-appointed guides tend to ply the well-trodden routes that bypass the new galleries, restaurants and night spots opened by enterprising Cubans and others.” This is a direct negative effect on Cubans’ standard of living, which Trump and his supporters do not want.
  • According to Andrea Gallina, an Italian entrepreneur who last year opened a high-end boutique hotel, Paseo 206, with his Cuban spouse, “If independent American travel is cut off, you won’t only hurt the bed-and-breakfasts. It’s also the construction crews, the private tour guides, the taxi drivers, the restaurants and the artists selling handicrafts.” Again, the Cubans now engaged in these private enterprises will be substantially disadvantaged.
  • The larger groups of American visitors will by necessity have to stay in hotels, most of which are state-owned, and travel in tour buses (again, state-owned), contrary to the other policy change announced by Trump.
  • The ban on individual person-to-person travel will increase the cost for Americans’ traveling to the island and thereby reduce the amount of such travel. As a result, the U.S. will lose the impact on Cubans of ordinary Americans, who often are the best ambassadors for the U.S., its government, people and values.

Third, continue to advocate for implementation of other normalization measures—adherence to the many agreements reached between the Obama Administration and Cuba; continued negotiation of the many unresolved issues that have accumulated over the last half century; commencement of international arbitrations over issues the parties cannot resolve by themselves; appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba; and ceasing the inflammatory rhetoric of both sides.

To date, there is a mixed record of the Trump Administration on two of these measures. The head of Cuba’s National Commission on Drugs states that the two countries are still cooperating to intercept drug smugglers while U.S. officials say “day-to-day cooperation on halting U.S.-bound human trafficking and narcotics has improved significantly since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in 2015, with the two nations’ coast guards talking directly to each other and cooperating in real time on a regular basis.” On the other hand, the U.S. has halted high-level meetings on stopping the flow of narcotics through the Caribbean and general law-enforcement cooperation.[2]

Fourth, avoid entering into a debate about the recent rhetoric of President Trump or the Cuban Government and its Foreign Minister. At the same time, Trump’s rhetoric suggests the possibility of additional reversals of President Obama’s efforts to improve relations with Cuba, and thus we “normalizers” must be ready to combat any such additional reversals.

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[1] Miroff, Trump’s Cuba policy tries to redefine ‘good’ U.S. tourism. That includes putting visitors back on tour buses, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Kunović, Five things you need to know about Trump’s Cuba policy—and who it will hurt, Wash. Post (June 22, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, U.S., Cuba Still Cooperating on Stopping Drug Smugglers, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Says Regional Marijuana Liberalization Is Fueling Trafficking, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017).

U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversals of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies                                                                   

On June 16, as noted in a prior post, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama.

Now we look at U.S. reactions to this change of policy. Subsequent posts will examine Cuban reactions and conclude with this blogger’s opinions on the subject.

 Overall Assessment of Changes[1]

As many sources have pointed out, the announced changes do not affect most of the important elements of Obama’s normalization policies. The U.S. will continue to maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba and operate the U.S. Embassy in Havana (while Cuba continues to operate its Embassy in Washington). U.S. airlines and cruise ships will continue service to the island. Cuban-Americans can still send money (remittances) to relatives and travel to the island without restriction. U.S. farmers can continue selling their crops to the Cuban government (with restrictions against credit for sales). There was no change to next year’s budget for the State Department that eliminated the undercover or covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The U.S. will continue to reject the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which once let most Cuban migrants stay if they made it to U.S. soil “with dry feet,” but was terminated late last year by President Obama; Trump’s speech endorsed this termination as designed to protect Cubans who were exposed to dangerous journeys by land to the U.S. Various bilateral arrangements facilitating cooperation on multiple issues were not mentioned and, therefore, are not directly affected by this announcement. Nor did the announcement say that the U.S. would reinstate its designation of Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism.”

The prohibition of U.S. businesses having interactions with Cuban businesses owned or controlled by the Cuban government or military presents more of a problem because such entities are involved in all sectors of the economy. According to Cuban economists, the government conglomerate (GAESA) boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings.

U.S. Businesses Reactions[2]

Many U.S. businesses opposed the changes. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers, typically supportive of GOP presidents, predicted the changes would limit prospects for “positive change on the island.” Others with similar views include ENGAGECuba, the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, National Farmers Union and the National Foreign Trade Council.

These business opponents were supported by non-business groups, including the Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Latin America Working Group, the Washington Office of Latin America, Church World Service and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

The changes will have negative impacts on U.S. jobs and income. The increase in U.S. trips to Cuba has helped the U.S. hospitality industry with Delta Airlines, American Airlines, JetBlue and others flying to at least six Cuban cities daily and Carnival cruise lines taking American citizens to port in Havana. All told, the group Engage Cuba estimates that restricting the rights of United States citizens to travel and invest in Cuba would cost the American economy $6.6 billion and affect 12,295 American jobs.

U.S. hotel businesses also expressed concern about the potential impact of the change on the island’s hotels.  The Gran Hotel Manzana, for example is managed by a Swiss company (Kempinski Hotels) but owned by Gaviota, a Cuban military-run company. An U.S. company, Marriott International, through its subsidiary Starwood runs the Four Points by Sheraton hotel in the Havana suburb of Miramar. Would they be off-limits for American travelers or would they fall under a vaguely promised grandfather clause for existing deals? Or would the change force American travelers to Cuban hotels run by civilian tour organizations, including Gran Caribe and Cubanacan? There is even speculation that the change economically benefited Mr. Trump by neutralizing rival hotel companies’ ability to gain an early advantage over the Trump hotels, which previously had expressed interest in developing hotels on the island.

Congressional Reactions[3]

Many members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, have expressed opposition to the changes.

Representative Tom Emmer (Rep., MN), who’s been one of Trump’s most enthusiastic backers on Capitol Hill while also being the author of a bill to end the embargo (H.R.442—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said Trump’s new Cuba policy “will hurt the United States economically, making it harder for our nation’s farmers to access new markets and cutting the knees out from under our travel and manufacturing industries.” Emmer also said the new policy will not keep the American homeland safe and could threaten new bilateral agreements with Havana to combat human trafficking, illicit drugs and cyber crimes.

Representative Rick Crawford, (Rep., AR), the author of a bill to promote U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba (H.R.525—Cuba Agricultural Exports Act), said Trump’s shift is more than just a missed opportunity for rural America, which would benefit from greater access to Cuba’s agricultural import market. He said Trump’s policy may put U.S. national security at risk as strategic competitors move to fill the vacuum the uncoupling could create. “Further U.S. disengagement opens up opportunities for countries like Iran, Russia, North Korea and China to gain influence on an island 90 miles off our coast,” Crawford said.

Senator Jeff Flake, (Rep., AZ), a frequent critic of Trump and the author with 54 cosponsors of a bill to facilitate Americans travel to Cuba (S.127 Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act), stated that any policy change “that diminishes the ability of Americans to travel freely to Cuba is not in the best interests of the United States or the Cuban people.” Therefore, Flake called for the Senate’s GOP leadership to allow a vote on this bill. Flake also warned that returning to a “get tough” policy hurts everyday Cubans whose livelihoods are increasingly rooted in travel and tourism.

Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.472—Cuba Trade Act of 2017), said that “putting America first means exporting what we produce to countries across the globe.” He said he remains focused on finding ways to “increase trade with Cuba rather than cut off relationships that have the potential to create new jobs, bring in revenue and boost our national economy.”

Senator John Boozman (Rep., AR) said Trump’s policy moves the U.S. backward.” It would be more effective to continue an open line of communication and working relationship with a government in need of democratic assistance, instead of shutting them out,” Boozman said under the latter approach, “we not only trade goods, but ideas.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), the author of a bill to end the embargo (S.1286– Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017), said the new policy was “a setback in U.S. – Cuba relations at a time when 73 percent of Americans want more engagement with Cuba, not less. These changes will disadvantage our businesses and undermine American tourism, which will also hurt the Cuban people. Earlier today I joined Minnesota officials and business leaders who are traveling to Cuba next week to send the message that America wants to continue doing business in Cuba. We need to build on the bipartisan momentum we have created by restoring relations with Cuba, not make it harder for Americans to travel and do business there.”

The five-day Minnesota trip referenced by Senator Klobuchar is being led by its Lieutenant Governor, Tina Smith, accompanied by various state government officials and leaders of agricultural groups. Their objectives are to build relationships with Cuba and promote Minnesota agricultural exports to the island.

In Cuba Lt. Gov. Smith said, “There is no denying the actions Trump took . . . [on June 16] are a real setback. But the important thing to me is that there is bipartisan support at the federal level for normalizing and modernizing our relationship.” In the meantime, she said she was glad to carry the message that there was still plenty of support for continuing to normalize relations. Minnesota’s government and businesses will continue to engage with Cuba in the areas they can, like agricultural trade. Cuba invited the Minnesota delegation to a trade show later in the year while Minnesota invited Cuban officials to visit.

Other Americans’ Reactions[4]

Many other Americans have expressed their opposition to the changes.

One is Rena Kraut, a substitute member of the Minnesota Orchestra, which visited Cuba in 2015.[5] She talked about the importance of encouraging Americans to visit Cuba and the “ability [of artists] to move the conversation to places corporations and politicians cannot or will not go, and to smooth the way for political change years before the document signings and handshakes.” Inspired by the Orchestra’s trip, she has founded Cayo, a non-profit that is organizing a youth orchestra for American and Cuban young people “to broaden horizons, provide youth with the highest level of artistic training, and shed light on that which can bring our neighboring countries together.”

Published letters to the Editor of the New York Times were generally critical of the change. Luis Suarez-Villa, professor emeritus at the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine, said, “American policy toward Cuba has been hijacked by a clique of Cuban-American politicians who have sold their support in Congress to President Trump.” Suarez-Villa also berated the “punishing, 55-year-old embargo perpetrated by the world’s most powerful nation — accompanied by innumerable acts of economic sabotage, espionage, attempted assassination and military aggression.” Stephen Gillespie of San Francisco, California wrote, “Mr. Trump seems to hate oppressive regimes that convert private property into public goods for the benefit of the people, but he loves oppressive regimes that convert public goods into private property for the benefit of a few rich friends.”

Miriam Pensack, an editorial assistant at The Intercept and a former researcher at Columbia University’s Center for Science and Society, wrote, “Carried out under the unlikely banner, for Trump, of human rights and democracy, the shift is instead more likely to re-impose hardships on ordinary Cubans — the very same people Trump, Rubio, and Diaz-Balart claim to champion.”

William LeoGrande, who teaches government at American University and co-authored the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, observed, “When Americans go down there, a lot of them stay in private homes, they eat in private restaurants, they take private taxis, and they pay private tour guides that guide them around the city. That’s money directly into the hands of ordinary Cubans.” He added, ““It’s hard to believe that human rights are really anything more than just an excuse. This is really more a matter of political horse trading than it is a matter of foreign policy.”

A contrary view in the New York Times’ collection of letters came from Medford, New York’s Eugene Dunn, who stated, “Kudos to President Trump for demanding that Cuba finally turn over a parade of criminals who have sought sanctuary on the Communist island for decades. Finally we have a titanium-spined president who isn’t afraid to use America’s military and economic might as leverage over these tin-pot dictators who under previous administrations made us the laughingstock of the world.”

The Cuban-Americans at the president’s event in Little Havana are enthusiastic supporters of the new policy as are many other Republican voters in the U.S.

Editorialists’ Reactions[6]

 The New York Times’ editorial condemned the Trump Administration’s approach. The Times said it was “the latest chapter in a spiteful political crusade to overturn crucial elements of his predecessor’s legacy” and was likely to cause “Cuban-American relations . . . to revert to a more adversarial Cold War footing, undermining Washington’s standing in Latin America.” Moreover, Trump’s stated concern for Cuban human rights was especially galling from a “president [who] has been so disdainful of these rights . . . [and who has] embraced so lovingly authoritarians who abuse their people, like Vladimir Putin of Russia and the Saudi royal family.”

The editorial from the Los Angeles Times was similar. It stated that the new policy was “based on a disingenuous argument. The putative reason for the change is that Cuba still violates the human rights of its own people, including jailing dissidents and independent journalists. But hasn’t the Trump administration been moving the U.S. away from its focus on human rights around the world?” Instead, said the Los Angeles newspaper, “What’s really happening is that Trump has let the anti-Castro sect in Congress take the wheel on this issue, no doubt for cynical political reasons. Remember that Trump broke with his Republican rivals during the campaign and supported Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. Then he flipped and disparaged the policy as a bad deal, and pledged to undo it unless Cuba met fresh demands on human rights, including the ‘freeing of political prisoners.’”

An editorial from the Washington Post, however, gave the change a weak endorsement. It said, it was “little more than a policy tweak” and “a little more impatience about democracy [in Cuba with the Trump policy] isn’t such a bad thing.”

Although the Wall Street Journal has not offered an editorial on this change, its columnist on Latin American issues and a critic of normalization, Mary Anastasia O’Grady, welcomed Trump’s changes to U.S. policy regarding Cuba even though it was only “an important symbolic change . . . [whose] effects are likely to be minimal.” Instead she argues that Cuba needs a “high-profile truth project” to take “ an honest look at the historical record that acknowledges the regime’s many crimes against humanity.” She refers to the Cuba Archive Truth and Memory Project that has documented 934 executions mostly in the Escambray” Mountains, circa 1959-1964, in addition to 607 executions of political prisoners, most of whom are believed to have been captured in the Escambray. This Project is the work of the Free Society Project, Inc., a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization with a board of Cuban-Americans.

Minnesota’s leading newspaper, the StarTribune, opined that Trump was “unraveling years of work to build ties with a strategically placed neighbor. Instead, he’s choosing a misguided return to strict embargos on travel and trade that failed to achieve U.S. aims for more than half a century.” The editorial endorsed the efforts to promote Cuba normalization by Minnesota’s U.S. Senator, Amy Klobuchar (Dem.) and Representative Tom Emmer (Rep.) while commenting that Cuba “holds a strategic allure” for other nations “that could threaten American security.”

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[1] Assoc. Press, AP FACT CHECK: Not Much New in Trump’s Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Trump Rolls Back Some, Not All, Changes in US-Cuba Relations, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017).

[2] Burnett, Travel Industry Scrambles After New Cuba Restrictions, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Reuters, Cuban Military’s Tentacles Reach Deep Into Economy, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017); Harwell & O’Connell, With shift on Cuba, Trump could undercut his company’s hotel-industry rivals, Wash. Post (June 15, 2017); Sabatini, Trump’s Imminent Cuba Problem, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2017).

 

[3] Assoc. Press, Republicans Divided as Trump Reverses Some Obama Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (June 17, 2017); Press Release: Emmer: President’s Misguided Cuba Directive Undercuts Human Rights & Threatens National Security (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Crawford Opposes Cuba Policy Shift (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Flake Statement on Renewed Restrictions on U.S. Travel to Cuba (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Sen. Moran Statement on Administration’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Boozman, Statement on President Trump’s Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Press Release: Klobuchar Statement on Changes to Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017); Golden, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to lead Minnesota trade trip to Cuba, StarTribune (June 16, 2017); Assoc. Press, Minnesota lieutenant governor visits Cuba, StarTribune (June 20, 2017); Reuters, Minnesota Will Still Engage With Cuba Despite Trump Setback, N.Y. Times (June 22, 2017)

[4] Kraut, Trump Is Wrong to Pull Back from Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Letters to Editor, Trump’s reversal of U.S. Policy on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 19, 2017); Pensack, Trump To Reverse Obama Openings to Cuba Under the False Flag of Human Rights, The Intercept (June 16, 2017).

[5] Previous posts about the Minnesota Orchestra’s trip to Cuba are listed in the “Cuba & Minnesota” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[6] Editorial, A Cynical Reversal on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Trump just reopened the Cold War with Cuba. His excuse is disingenuous, L.A. Times (June 16, 2017); Editorial, Don’t get too worked up over Trump’s Cuba shift, It’s just a policy tweak, Wash. Post (June 17, 2017); Editorial, Trump’s Cuba retreat hurts U.S. and Minnesota, StarTribune (June 19, 2017); O’Grady, Cubans Need a Truth Commission, W.S.J. (June 18, 2017).