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).

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).

U.S. and Cuba’s Efforts To Continue Normalization

With the impending arrival of the Trump Administration and twitterings that it might derail efforts at normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations, the Obama Administration, its U.S. allies and Cuba are continuing their efforts at that normalization. Let us examine these efforts by the latest U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission meeting, U.S. Senators and Representatives, Cuban entrepreneurs and a U.S. business coalition (Engage Cuba).

Latest Bilateral Commission Meeting[1]

On December 7 in Havana the U.S. and Cuba held another Bilateral Commission meeting to review the achievements of the Bilateral Commission since diplomatic relations were re-established in July 2015. It has prioritized and sequenced a number of bilateral initiatives. The U.S. and Cuba have established dialogues on law enforcement, claims, human rights, and economic and regulatory issues, and have continued biannual Migration Talks. The Bilateral Commission has provided a framework to address trafficking in persons and the return of fugitives, as well as to schedule technical exchanges on law enforcement and environmental issues.

In the last 18 months, the U.S. and Cuba have concluded 11 non-binding agreements, including Memoranda of Understanding on health, cancer research, agriculture, environmental cooperation, hydrography, marine protected areas, counter-narcotics, federal air marshals, civil aviation, and direct transportation of mail. In the coming weeks, the U.S. and Cuba expect to sign additional agreements formalizing cooperation on law enforcement, conservation, seismology, meteorology, search and rescue, and oil-spill response protocols.

The U.S. and Cuba have coordinated a number of high-level visits, including that of President Obama in March 2016, seven cabinet-level officials, and Dr. Jill Biden. U.S. governors from New York, Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Virginia, Missouri, and West Virginia have led trade delegations to Cuba since April 2015. More than 80 Members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, have visited Cuba in the last two years, many for the first time.

Purposeful travel by Americans to Cuba increased by approximately 75 percent from 2014 to 2015. Ten U.S. airlines now provide scheduled service between U.S. and Cuban cities, and Carnival cruises are docking in several Cuban cities, further connecting the U.S. and Cuban people.

Under the Bilateral Commission, the United States and Cuba expanded educational and cultural exchanges. The number of Cubans studying in the United States increased 63 percent in academic year 2015-16. More than 2,000 U.S. students visited Cuba as part of their academic program in academic year 2014-15. The U.S. welcomed the first Cuban Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow to the U.S.

Four U.S. cellular providers offer roaming service in Cuba, further connecting Cuba and the U.S.

The delegations agreed the Bilateral Commission has provided a framework for discussion of a wide range of issues. Where U.S. and Cuban interests align, including on counter-narcotics, health, and environmental issues, the U.S. and Cuba have made important strides for the benefit of both peoples. Where the two countries have disagreements, including on human rights, the U.S. and Cuba have articulated those differences in a clear, productive, and respectful manner. The dialogues and working groups that fall under the Bilateral Commission framework have allowed the U.S. and Cuba to establish working relationships with counterparts, which are essential to continued bilateral cooperation, advancement of U.S. interests, and progress toward normalization.

The Cuban delegation insisted that the U.S. blockade (embargo) has prevented significant results in economic and trade relations and that this measure must be ended before the two countries could have normal relations. Other conditions for normalization for Cuba are the U.S. returning to Cuba the territory allegedly illegally occupied by the U.S. Naval Base in Guantanamo and the U.S. elimination of other political interventions harmful to Cuban sovereignty.

The U.S. looks forward to hosting the next Bilateral Commission Meeting in Washington, DC at the earliest opportunity.

Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Mari Carmen Aponte led the U.S. delegation. Other members were U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, and Deputy Assistant Secretary John Creamer. Josefina Vidal, the Foreign Ministry’s Director General for U.S. Affairs, led the Cuban delegation.

At a subsequent press conference Josefina Vidal said Cuba hopes “the new U.S. government takes into account the results we have achieved… that are backed by the majority of the Cuban population (and) U.S. citizens.”

U.S. Senators and Representatives[2]

On December 7 Minnesota’s U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem.) and Representative Tom Emmer (Rep.) and four Cuban women entrepreneurs held a press conference on Capitol Hill to urge President-elect Donald Trump to keep Obama administration initiatives relaxing trade and travel restrictions for Americans wanting to travel to and work with Cuba and to end the U.S. embargo of the island.

Klobuchar said, “For far too long, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined by the conflicts of the past instead of the realities of today and the possibilities for the future. I’ve spoken with business owners in Cuba and in Minnesota who look forward to the new economic opportunities that would come with lifting the embargo. We need to turn the page on the failed policy of isolation and build on the progress we have made to open up engagement with Cuba by ending the embargo once and for all.”

Emmer added, “Over the past two years there have been important changes on the island just 90 miles off our coast. The private-sector economy in Cuba continues to grow and today, we heard from four incredible young women who have excelled as entrepreneurs and are eager for the ability to grow, expand and continue their success. I look forward to working with President-elect Trump and the 115th Congress to make their success a reality and provide new opportunities for both Cubans and Americans alike.”

One of the Cuban women, Marla Recio Carbajal, founder and president of Havana Reverie, an upscale event and wedding planning company that caters primarily to U.S. travelers and companies, said Havana businesses are bustling, thanks in part to the relaxation on restrictions and that her business was doing well because of American interest in the country.

Separately Emmer as the Chair of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Cuba Working Group [3] and 16 Republican and Democratic members of that Group recently sent a letter to President-elect Trump urging the new administration’s support for the restoration of U.S. engagement with Cuba.  The letter stated the following:

  • “Americans support the easing of commercial restrictions in Cuba because it will result in increased jobs, economic growth and productivity gains for the United States economy.  In fact, the U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) released a report earlier this year that found if U.S. restrictions on Cuba were lifted, U.S. exports of selected agricultural and manufactured goods could increase to a total of roughly $2.2 billion, up from a mere $180 million in 2015.  Policies that improve commercial relations could potentially create thousands of jobs here in the United States and open valuable new markets for our exports. The restrictions the U.S. government imposes on American business activity in Cuba have not only stymied America’s economic potential, they have provided the repressive Cuban regime with an excuse on which to place blame for their own economic woes.  Additionally, there is little credible evidence that sanctions have improved the human rights situation in Cuba, a top priority of the CWG.”
  • “The recent death of Fidel Castro represents a dawn of a new era in Cuban leadership and America must use this opportunity to help chart a new course for Cuba’s future.  We believe America’s greatest ambassadors – the American people and the U.S. private sector – will always be the most effective conduit for the spread of American influence. Continued engagement by our citizens and businesses will help to empower the Cuban people, facilitate economic reforms, and promote the expansion of civil and religious liberties.”
  • “{I]mproving our relationship with Cuba would also align the U.S. government with the will of the American people and improve our standing with our regional allies.  Recent polling from the Pew Research Center show that 73 percent of voters supported renewed diplomatic relations and 72 percent support ending the embargo. In addition, a recent poll out of Florida International University showed that 63 percent of Cuban-Americans in Miami want to see the embargo lifted.  Global support for the normalization of our relations also remains overwhelming, particularly among some of our most important economic and security partners in Latin America.”

As mentioned in other posts, Klobuchar and Emmer are the authors of bills in the current session of Congress to end the embargo. Klobuchar’s is the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act, which currently has 25 Senate cosponsors. Emmer’s is the Cuba Trade Act.[4]

Cuban Entrepreneurs and Engage Cuba[5]

On December 7 Engage Cuba, a national advocacy organization dedicated to dismantling the U.S. embargo on Cuba, released a letter to President-elect Trump from 83 Cuban entrepreneurs that said they “have experienced a great deal of change over the last several years. Changes by our government allow for increased private sector activity and we’ve seen significant growth in small businesses in our country. Over a half of million people now work in the private sector, earning considerably more money than state jobs and offering more autonomy in business decisions. We’re hopeful that our government will make additional changes to the legal framework and market conditions in the future.”

Moreover, the Cuban entrepreneurs said U.S. government reforms “to allow for increased travel, telecom services and banking have helped substantially as we attempt to grow our businesses. . . . Increased interaction and business dealings with U.S. travelers and U.S. companies [have] had important economic benefits, the exchanges of ideas and knowledge, and offered much hope for the future. . . . Additional measures to increase travel, trade and investment, including working with the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo, will benefit our companies, the Cuban people and U.S. national interests. We look forward to taking advantage of any openings that your administration makes to the Cuban private sector and the Cuban economy as a whole.”

That same day, the President of Engage Cuba, James Williams, said he remains hopeful that Trump, a businessman, will not reverse the work already done. “There is no business in the world that would continue a strategy that has failed for 55 years. We see no reason why he would do the same with the U.S. government,” he said. “We’re hopeful that he will continue to build on the progress of the last two years that has helped U.S. businesses and created positive changes for the Cuban people.”

Conclusion

Thanks to Senator Klobuchar, Representative Emmer, the House of Representatives Cuba Working Group, Cuban entrepreneurs and Engage Cuba for continuing their efforts at U.S.-Cuba normalization and urging the future Trump Administration to do the same.

All U.S. citizens who believe that this normalization should continue should thank the above people for their efforts and urge other elected officials to join the fight.

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 [1] State Dept, Daily Press Briefing (Dec. 6, 2016); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and the United States will hold the fifth Bilateral Commission Meeting (Dec. 6, 2016); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Press Release of the Cuban Delegation to the Fifth Meeting of the Cuba-U.S. Bilateral Commission. Havana, December 7, 2016; Peraza, Cuba reaffirms willingness to continue working to improve relations with the United States, Granma (Dec. 7, 2016); State Dep’t, Press Release: United States and Cuba Hold Fifth Bilateral Commission Meeting in Havana, Cuba (Dec. 7, 2016); Reuters, Cuba Wants to Sign Accords With US Before Obama Exit: Officials (Dec. 8, 2016).

[2] Sherry, Klobuchar, Emmer urge Trump to keep Obama’s Cuba policies, StarTribune (Dec. 8, 2016); Emmer, Klobuchar, Emmer and Bipartisan Congressional Coalition Highlight the Need for Congress to Lift the Trade Embargo with Cuba (Dec. 7, 2016); Emmer, Bipartisan Cuba Working Group Encourages President-elect Trump to Continue U.S. Engagement Efforts with Cuba (Dec. 8, 2016).

[3] The U.S. House of Representatives’ Cuba Working Group was established to promote increased trade, travel and investment in Cuba, open new markets, create jobs in both countries, promote human rights and improve the security posture of the United States. Two other Minnesota members of the Group signed the above letter: Representatives Betty McCollum and Rick Nolan.

[4] Klobuchar and Emmer’s bills were discussed in earlier posts.

[5] Engage Cuba, Cuban Entrepreneurs Announce Letter to President-elect Donald Trump (Dec. 7, 2016).

U.S. Reactions to the Death of Fidel Castro

The November 25th death of Fidel Castro has prompted comments from President-Elect Donald Trump and his aides, the Obama Administration, U.S. Senators and Representatives, U.S. editorial boards and columnists and U.S. business interests and others. All of this has fueled speculation about the future Trump Administration’s policies regarding Cuba. These topics will be explored in this post along with this blogger’s observations.

President-Elect Trump and His Aides[1]

On Saturday morning after Castro’s death the previous night, Donald Trump tweeted, “Fidel Castro is dead!” Later that same day he issued this statement:”Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty. While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.”

Vice President-Elect Mike Pence on Saturday voiced a similar reaction in a tweet: “The tyrant Castro is dead. New hope dawns. We will stand with the oppressed Cuban people for a free and democratic Cuba. Viva Cuba Libre!”

On November 28, Trump issued another tweet on the subject. He said, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”

These comments were corroborated by Trump’s top aides.

On Sunday, November 27, two of the aides said that Trump would demand the release of political prisoners held in Cuba and push the government to allow more religious and economic freedoms. Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, said the president-elect “absolutely” would reverse Mr. Obama’s policies if he didn’t get what he wanted from Cuba. “We’re not going to have a unilateral deal coming from Cuba back to the [U.S.] without some changes in their government. Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners—these things need to change in order to have open and free relationships, and that’s what president-elect Trump believes, and that’s where he’s going to head.” Similar comments were made the same day by Trump’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway.

On Monday, November 28, Trump spokesman Jason Miller gave this more nuanced statement to reporters: “Clearly, Cuba is a very complex topic, and the president-elect is aware of the nuances and complexities regarding the challenges that the island and the Cuban people face. This has been an important issue, and it will continue to be one. Our priorities are the release of political prisoners, return of fugitives from American law, and also political and religious freedoms for all Cubans living in oppression.”

The Obama Administration[2]

President Barack Obama’s statement extended the U.S. “hand of friendship to the Cuban people” and stated that “history will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.” According to the President, Cubans “will recall the past and also look to the future. As they do, the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner” in America.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a similar positive statement. He extended “our condolences to the Cuban people today as they mourn the passing of Fidel Castro. Over more than half a century, he played an outsized role in their lives, and he influenced the direction of regional, even global affairs. As our two countries continue to move forward on the process of normalization — restoring the economic, diplomatic and cultural ties severed by a troubled past — we do so in a spirit of friendship and with an earnest desire not to ignore history but to write a new and better future for our two peoples.”

On November 28 White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to several questions about Cuba and Castro’s death. Here are a few of those responses:

  • For the U.S., “I wouldn’t expect any impact [of Castro’s death] on the kind of progress that we’re committed to making on our end to begin to normalize relations with Cuba.”
  • “[W]e have seen . . . greater freedom for American citizens to visit Cuba, to send money to family members in Cuba, to engage in business and seek business opportunities in Cuba.  It also enhanced the ability of the [U.S.] government to maintain an embassy in Cuba where U.S. officials can more effectively not just engage with government officials in Cuba but also those activists in civil society that are fighting for greater freedoms. . . . They also facilitate the kind of people-to-people ties that we believe will be more effective in bringing freedom and opportunity to the Cuban people, something that they have long sought and been denied by the Cuban government.  And after five decades of not seeing any results, the President believed it was time to see something different. . . . [We] clearly haven’t seen all the results that we would like to see, but we’re pleased with the progress.”
  • Castro “obviously is a towering figure who had a profound impact on the history of not just his country but the Western Hemisphere.  There certainly is no whitewashing the kinds of activities that he ordered and that his government presided over that go against the very values that . . . our country has long defended.”
  • “[T]here is no doubt that we would like to see the Cuban government do more [on human rights], but this policy has not even been in place for two years.  But we certainly have enjoyed more benefits than was enjoyed under the previous policy that was in place for more than 50 years and didn’t bring about the kinds of benefits or the kinds of progress that we would like to see.”
  • “[T]hose Cuban citizens that do work in industries, like cab drivers or working in restaurants, even Airbnb owners, are benefitting from the enhanced economic activity between Cuban citizens and American citizens who are visiting Cuba.  They are paid at a higher rate, and they’re enjoying more economic activity than they otherwise would because of this policy to normalize relations with Cuba. . . . [T]here is a growing entrepreneurial sector inside of Cuba that is benefitting from greater engagement with the United States.  That’s a good thing, and that is a benefit that is enjoyed by the Cuban people directly.”
  • “[T]here certainly is no denying the kind of violence that occurred in Cuba under the watch of the Castro regime.  There has been no effort to whitewash the history, either the history between the United States and Cuba or the history of what transpired in Cuba while Mr. Castro was leading the country.”
  • “That’s why upwards of 90 percent of the Cuban people actually support this policy and they welcome the greater engagement with the United States.  They welcome the increased remittances that are provided Cuban-Americans to family members in Cuba.  They welcome the increase in travel by American citizens to Cuba.  There’s a lot to offer.  And the Cuban people certainly benefit from that kind of greater engagement.  And that’s why the President has pursued this policy.”
  • The U.S. “relationship with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Latin America, is as strong as it’s been in generations. And all of that would be undone by the reinstitution of a policy that has failed after having been in place for more than five decades.”

The next day, November 28, Press Secretary Ernest announced that the U.S. will not send a formal delegation to Cuba to attend the Castro funeral but instead will dispatch a top White House aide and a principal Cuba-normalization negotiator, Benjamin J. Rhodes, to be joined by , the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba.

U.S. Senators and Representatives[3]

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated, Under Fidel Castro’s brutal and oppressive dictatorship, the Cuban people have suffered politically and economically for decades, and it is my hope that his passing might turn the page toward a better way of life for the many who have dreamed of a better future for their country. Subsequently after meeting with Mr. Trump about a possible appointment as Secretary of State, Corker said Mr. Trump’s “instincts on foreign policy are obviously very, very good.”

The Ranking Member of that committee, Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), said, “The news of Fidel Castro’s death brings with it an opportunity to close the deep divisions that have been suffered by Cuban society and by Cuban Americans in the U.S.  For Castro’s purported goals of social and economic development to be attained, it is now time for a half-century of authoritarian rule to give way to the restoration of democracy and the reform of a system the has denied Cuba’s citizens their basic human rights and individuals freedoms. As the United States awaits a new Administration, we must continue our partnership with the Cuban people as they seek to build a more hopeful future for their country.”

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American and Republican presidential candidate this year, said in a statement: “Sadly, Fidel Castro’s death does not mean freedom for the Cuban people or justice for the democratic activists, religious leaders, and political opponents he and his brother have jailed and persecuted. The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not…The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights.” Senator Bob Menendez (Dem., N.J.), a Cuban-American who has opposed Mr. Obama’s policy, issued a similar statement.

Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), who has supported normalization and is the lead author of a Senate bill to end the embargo, merely said, “Fidel Castro’s death follows more than a half century of brutal repression and misery. The Cuban people deserve better in the years ahead.”

Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem.), the author of a Senate bill to end the U.S. embargo of the island, said the following: “Passing my bill with Republican Senator Jeff Flake to lift the trade embargo with Cuba would create jobs and increase exports for American farmers and businesses, and it could create unprecedented opportunity for the Cuban people. For far too long, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined by the conflicts of the past instead of the realities of today and the possibilities for the future. The Cuban and American people are ahead of their governments in terms of wanting to see change. We need to seize this opportunity and lift the trade embargo.”

Minnesota’s other Senator, Al Franken (Dem.) said that, in the wake of Castro’s death, he hopes the Obama administration’s work to repair relations with the island nation is upheld by a new administration. “Over the past few years, we’ve made important strides to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba, and now I urge the country’s leadership to put a strong focus on improving human rights and democracy.”

On the House side, one of Minnesota’s Republican representative and an author of a bill to end the embargo, Tom Emmer, said that Congress should seize the opportunity to “assist in the transition to a democracy and market economy” in Cuba and denounced “isolation and exclusion.” He added, “The passing of Fidel Castro is yet another reminder that a new day is dawning in Cuba. As the remaining vestiges of the Cold War continue to fade, the United States has a chance to help usher in a new Cuba; a Cuba where every citizen has the rights, freedom and opportunity they deserve.”

The statement from the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (Rep., WI), stated, “Now that Fidel Castro is dead, the cruelty and oppression of his regime should die with him. Sadly, much work remains to secure the freedom of the Cuban people, and the United States must be fully committed to that work. Today let us reflect on the memory and sacrifices of all those who have suffered under the Castros.”

U.S. Editorial Boards and Columnists[4]

The New York Times’ editorial opposed any retreat from normalization. It said such a move would be “extremely shortsighted.” The new process of normalization, it says, “has helped establish conditions for ordinary Cubans to have greater autonomy in a society long run as a police state. It has also enabled Cuban-Americans to play a larger role in shaping the nation’s future, primarily by providing capital for the island’s nascent private sector. While the Cuban government and the Obama White House continue to have profound disagreements on issues such as human rights, the two governments have established a robust bilateral agenda that includes cooperation on environmental policy, maritime issues, migration, organized crime and responses to pandemics. These hard-won diplomatic achievements have benefited both sides.”

 If, on the other hand, said the Times, the normalization process is abandoned, U.S.-Cuba “cooperation is likely to wane. That would only embolden hard-liners in the Cuban regime who are leery of mending ties with the United States and are committed to maintaining Cuba as a repressive socialist bulwark. In Mr. Trump, they may find the ideal foil to stoke nationalism among Cubans who are fiercely protective of their nation’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.”

The editorial from the Washington Post, while criticizing some aspects of President Obama’s opening to Cuba, stated U.S. policy should “align itself with the hopes of ordinary Cubans and the legitimate demands of the island’s pro-democracy movements. That does not necessarily mean reversing the renewal of diplomatic relations and relaxed restrictions on the movement of people and goods; most Cubans still want that. But it should mean that official exchanges with the regime, and any concessions that benefit it, should be tied to tangible reforms that benefit the public: greater Internet access, expansion of space for private business and tolerance of critical speech and assembly by such groups as the Ladies in White.”

Conservative columnists and commentators welcomed Fidel’s death. George Will hoped, if not reasonably expected, “to have seen the last of charismatic totalitarians worshiped by political pilgrims from open societies. Experience suggests there will always be tyranny tourists in flight from what they consider the boring banality of bourgeois society and eager for the excitement of sojourns in ‘progressive’ despotisms that they are free to admire and then leave. Carlos Eire, a Cuban exile, author and the T.L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, suggested a 13-point negative epitaph for Fidel’s tomb. The first point was: ”He turned Cuba into a colony of the Soviet Union and nearly caused a nuclear holocaust.” The last point was this: “He never apologized for any of his crimes and never stood trial for them.”

Another Washington Post columnist, Kathleen Parker, agreed that Fidel was a terrible dictator, but argued that Mr. Trump “should understand that Fidel Castro loved the embargo more than anyone because, as ever, he could blame the [U.S.] for his failures. For Trump to fall into this same trap [by keeping the embargo] would be a postmortem gift to Castro and breathe new life into a cruel legacy — the dictator’s final triumph over the [U.S.] and the several American presidents who could never quite bury him.”

U.S. Business Interests and Others[5]

Important interests that typically are regarded as important by Republicans are arguing against any retreats from the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalization of Cuba relations

First, many U.S. companies are now deeply invested in Cuba under the current administration’s policy. These companies include major airlines, hotel operators and technology providers, while big U.S. phone carriers have signed roaming agreements on the island. “I think the American business community would be strongly opposed to rolling back President Obama’s changes, and strongly in favor of continuing the path toward normalization of economic and diplomatic relations,” said Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

Second, the U.S. farming industry is strongly supportive of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. For example, Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, does not want the next administration to take any steps that would put U.S. farmers at a further disadvantage in the Cuban market. “Every other country in the world has diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, and what we don’t want to do is lose that market share to the European Union, Brazil, Argentina.” Mr. Paap added that U.S. market share in Cuba has decreased in recent years as other countries are able to provide better financing.

But agricultural producers across the country, from rice producers in Louisiana to Northwest apple farmers to Kansas wheat growers have pushed for more, including lifting a ban prohibiting Cuba from buying American agricultural goods with U.S. credit.

Cuba’s wheat consumption is about 50 million barrels a year, said Daniel Heady, director of governmental affairs at the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. Although not a huge market, “it’s right off the coast and it would be extremely easy for us to deliver our product.” “It is something that Kansas farmers are extremely interested in,” Heady said. “In a world of extremely depressed commodity prices, especially wheat, 50 million bushels looks extremely good right now.”

Republican governors from Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere have led trade delegations to Cuba, along with their state farm bureaus and chambers of commerce.

A U.S. journalist with extensive experience with Cuba, Nick Miroff, echoed these thoughts. He said, “A return to more hostile [U.S.-Cuba] relations . . . could also bring a new crackdown in Cuba and further slow the pace of Raúl Castro’s modest liberalization  measures at a time of stalling economic growth. Hard-liners in Cuba’s Communist Party would gladly take the country back to a simpler time, when the antagonism of the United States — not the failure of government policies — was to blame for the island’s problems, and the threat of attack, real or imagined, was used to justify authoritarian political control.’

Moreover, according to a Wall Street Journal report, any U.S. abandonment of normalization with Cuba “could drive a new wedge between Washington and Latin America . . . not only by leftist allies of Cuba like Venezuela and Bolivia but also by conservative governments in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Colombia. It would also likely complicate regional cooperation on a range of issues, from immigration to security and anti-drug efforts.”

In Miami, many of the island’s exiles and their children and grandchildren took to the streets, banging pots and pans, waving American and Cuban flags, and celebrating in Spanish: “He’s dead! He’s dead!”

Meanwhile in faraway Minnesota, even though it has relatively few Cuban exiles, celebrated its Cuban connections. They range from festivals and restaurants in the Twin Cities that preserve and highlight Cuban culture. Its politicians in Washington, D.C. have been leaders in efforts to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, citing the potential for economic and political advancements and job growth. Christian communities in Minnesota also value their religious and moral obligations to Cubans. Cuba’s expanded Mariel Port could carry Minnesota-made goods. Other Minnesota-based companies, including Sun Country Airlines, Radisson Hotels and Cargill, could benefit from lifting the embargo.

Last year the Minnesota Orchestra took a historic trip to Cuba as the first U.S. orchestra to perform there since Obama began negotiations in 2014. Next June, some Orchestra members will perform in Cuba again along with Minnesota Youth Symphonies. They also will be joined by Cuban-American jazz musician, Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, and his wife, who works as an attorney. Herrera grew up during the Cuban Revolution and credits Castro’s leadership for the career opportunities he and his wife have achieved. Indeed, Herrera met Castro in the 1980s while being recognized in a Classic World Piano competition. Castro was humble, Herrera said, and deeply curious about his accomplishments.

Concluding Observations

This blog consistently has applauded the U.S. pursuing normalization with Cuba. The death of Fidel Castro does not change that opinion and advocacy. Fundamentally I agree with President Obama that the 50-plus years of U.S. hostility towards Cuba has not worked—it has not persuaded or forced Cuba to change its ways and it has interfered with our having friendly relations with countries throughout the world, especially in Latin America.[6]

Indeed, the countries of the Western Hemisphere in their Summits of the Americas have made it clear to fellow member the U.S. that they would no longer reluctantly acquiesce in the U.S. desire to exclude Cuba from such Summits, and at the last such gathering in 2015, after the announcement of U.S.-Cuba normalization they praised both countries for this move.[7]

The broader world disapproval of the U.S. hostility towards Cuba is shown by the annual overwhelming approvals of resolutions condemning the U.S. embargo of the island by the U.N. General Assembly. Nor should the U.S. continue to ignore its very large contingent liability to Cuba for its alleged damages from the embargo. (The U.S., of course, disputes this contingent liability, but prudence for any nation or entity facing such a large contingent liability dictates cutting off that risk by stopping the behavior that allegedly triggers the risk.)[8]

Opponents of normalization usually point to Cuban deficiencies on human rights and democracy. But such opposition fails to recognize or admit that the U.S. does not have a perfect record on these issues, including this year’s U.S. election and efforts at voter suppression and the U.S. indirect election of the president and vice president via the Electoral College. Moreover, such opponents also fail to recognize or admit that at least some Cuban limits on dissent and demonstrations undoubtedly are triggered by their fear or suspicion that the U.S. via its so-called covert or undercover “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba is financing or otherwise supporting these efforts at regime change on the island. Finally as part of the efforts at normalization the U.S. and Cuba have been having respectful dialogues about human rights issues.[9]

Another issue sometimes raised by opponents of normalization is Cuba’s failure to provide financial compensation to U.S. persons for Cuba’s expropriation of their property in the early years of the Revolution. But such criticism fails to recognize that Cuba has paid compensation to persons from other countries for such expropriation, that it is in Cuba’s interest to do the same for U.S. persons, that the two countries have been respectfully discussing this issue as well, and there is no reason to expect that this issue cannot be resolved peacefully.[10]

Opponents of normalization also seem to believe or assume that only the U.S. and Cuba are involved in these issues. That, however, is not true. Perhaps precipitated by the December 2014 announcement that Cuba and the U.S. had agreed to seek normalization and reconciliation, other countries, especially the members of the European Union, have been accelerating their efforts to resolve differences with Cuba so that the U.S. will not beat them to gain competitive advantages with the island. China also is another competitor.[11]

Finally Cuba’s current major ally, Venezuela, obviously is near collapse and being forced to reduce its support of Cuba, thereby threatening Cuba’s stability and viability. The U.S. does not want to see Cuba become a failed state 90 miles away from the U.S. Such a situation is even more dire today according to Tom Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. He asserts at page 270 that it “may even be more difficult [for inhabitants of a failed state to reconstitute itself] in the age of accelerations. The lifelong learning opportunities you need to provide to your population, the infrastructure you need to take advantage of the global flows [of information], and the pace of innovation you need to maintain a growing economy have all become harder to achieve. . . . Catching up is going to be very, very difficult.”

For the U.S., once again, to act like an arrogant bully towards Cuba will not achieve any good result. All U.S. citizens interested in Cuba’s welfare and having good relations with the U.S. need to resist any efforts by the new Administration to undo the progress of the last two years.

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[1] Assoc. Press, Trump Slams Recount Push as ‘a Scam,’ Says Election Is Over, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Reuters, Trump Says He Will do All He Can to Help Cuban People, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Assoc. Press, Vice-President-Elect Pence Says ‘New Hope Dawns’ for Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Assoc. Press, Trump Aides Say Cuban Government Will Have to Change, N.Y. Times (Nov. 27, 2016); Flaherty, Trump aides say Cuban government will have to change, StarTrib. (Nov. 27, 2016); Schwartz & Lee, Death of Fidel Castro May Pressure Donald Trump on Cuba Promises, W.S.J. (Nov. 27, 2016); Mazzei, Trump pledges to ‘terminate’ opening to Cuba absent ‘better deal,’ Miami Herald (Nov. 28, 2016); Cave, Ahmed & Davis, Donald Trump’s Threat to Close Door Reopens Old Wounds in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2016).

[2]   White House, Statement by the President on the Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Kerry: The Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/28/16; White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/29/16; Harris, Obama to Send Aide to Fidel Castro’s Funeral, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016).

[3] Sen. For. Rel. Comm., Corker Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Griffiths, Corker praises Trump as State Department speculation continues, Politico (Nov. 29, 2016; Sen. For. Rel. Comm, Cardin Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Rubio, Rubio: History Will Remember Fidel Castro as an Evil, Murderous Dictator (Nov. 26, 2016); Menendez, Senator Menendez on Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Flake, Flake Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Ryan, Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016);The latest: US House Leader Urges Remembering Castro Cruelty, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Klobuchar, Klobuchar Statement on Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Emmer, Emmer Statement on Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016).

[4] Editorial, Threatening Cuba Will Backfire, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016); Editorial,Editorial, Fidel Castro’s terrible legacy, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Fidel Castro’s demise can’t guarantee freedom for the people of Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016); Will, Fidel Castro and dead utopianism, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Eire, Farewell to Cuba’s brutal Big Brother, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Parker, Don’t give Fidel Castro the last laugh, Wash. Post (Nov. 29, 2016). Eire is the author of Learning To Die in Miami: Confessions of A Refugee Boy (2010) and Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003).

[5] DeYoung, Trump’s threat to terminate opening to Cuba may draw opposition from business, Republican states, Wash. Post (Nov. 29, 2016); Miroff, Cuba faces renewed tensions with U.S., but without Fidel Castro, its field marshal, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016); Dube & Johnson, Donald Trump’s Line on Cuba Unsettles Latin America, W.S.J. (Nov. 28, 2016); Klobuchar, Minnesota Artists, Leaders Reflect on Castro’s Legacy (Nov. 26, 2016);  Miroff & Booth, In wake of Castro’s death, his legacy is debated, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016).

[6] See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[7] Previous posts have discussed the Seventh Summit of the Americas in April 2015. https://dwkcommentaries.com/?s=Summit+of+the+Americas.

[8] Previous posts have discussed the U.N. General Assembly resolutions on the embargo in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016 and the suggested international arbitration to resolve the disputes about Cuba’s damage claims resulting from the embargo. (See posts listed in “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[9] See posts listed in “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba,” “U.S. & Cuba Normalization, 2014-2015” and “U.S. & Cuba Normalization, 2015-2016” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[10] See posts listed in “U.S. & Cuba Damage Claims” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[11] See list of posts in “Cuba & Other Countries” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

Another U.S. Event Promoting U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation

On February 10, 2016, another U.S. event was held to promote U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. This one at Washington, D.C.’s National Press Club was hosted by the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, whose launch a year ago was covered in a previous post. [1]

Now we look at an overview of its recent Annual Celebration Event followed by a re-posting of “Bipartisan Support for Ending the Embargo at a USACC Event” (Mar. 1, 2016) by Kaly Moot of the Latin American Working Group (LAWG), which reported on the event. 

Overview of the Event

The Coalition’s past and upcoming years were reviewed by its Chair, Devry Boughner Vorwerk, from member Cargill Incorporated of Minnesota, and its Vice Chair, Paul Johnson. Other members added comments in a discussion moderated by Anne Murray of Cargill; they were Kurt Shultz (U.S. Grains Council), Shawna Morris (National Milk Producers Federation), Chris Rosander (Sun-maid) and Ben Noble (USA Rice).

The Keynote  Address was provided by Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Members of Congress also made comments; they were U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (Dem.,MN) and Heidi Heitkamp (Dem., ND) and U.S. Representatives Cal Emmer, (Rep., MN.), Rick Crawford (Rep., AK), Ted Poe (Rep., TX), Rodney Davis (Rep., IL), Cheri Bustos (Dem., IL) and Jim McGovern (Dem., MA). [2]

State perspectives were provided by Todd Haymore (Virginia Secretary of Agriculture), Richard Fordyce (Missouri Commissioner of Agriculture) and Sid Miller (Texas Agriculture Commissioner). This discussion was moderated by Mark Albertson of member Illinois Soybean Association.

The Cuban Ambassador to the U.S., Josê Ramón Cabańas, offered the views of his government in a discussion that was moderated by Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute.

LAWG’s Coverage of the Event

In a time when bipartisanship in Washington seems harder and harder to come by, it might seem surprising to hear that Democrats from Massachusetts, Minnesota and North Dakota shared not only a stage but also a message with Republicans from Texas and Arkansas.

But that is exactly what happened at an Annual Celebration Event hosted by the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC), a coalition of U.S.-based agricultural organizations and companies committed to normalizing trade relations between the United States and Cuba. The wide range of speakers at their one-year anniversary event included industry experts, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, the Cuban Ambassador to the United States, and both Democratic and Republican members of the House and Senate.

Although the speakers represented very diverse perspectives, each one managed to agree on one key point: that the United States’ embargo on Cuba –which represents more than five decades of failed policy–must be lifted. Cuba’s ambassador to the United States, José Ramón Cabañas, stressed the fact that Cuba cannot consider completely normalizing relations with the United States while the “bloqueo,” or economic sanctions, remain in place.

Cabañas called trade the “flesh and blood” of a normal relationship between countries and pointed out the fact that only one U.S. bank is authorized to do business with Cuba. However, Cabañas did praise the progress that has been made in the last year, especially with regard to what he called the most important accomplishment: the establishment of respectful dialogue between the U.S. and Cuban governments.

Other speakers offered a variety of reasons why the United States would benefit from full relations with Cuba and an end to the embargo, including increased agricultural trade, possibilities for free trade, advancement of national security interests, and the promotion of human rights.  

Representative Jim McGovern (D-MA) pointed out the rarity and power of the bipartisan effort, joking that it’s not often that he and Republican colleagues agree so closely on an issue. McGovern argued that a majority of American citizens and members of Congress, including Republicans, would like to see the end of the embargo. However, according to McGovern, efforts have been halted by a small but vocal minority of hard liners who promote the continuation of Cold War policies.

Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), a self-proclaimed incrementalist, called for doing what is immediately possible in this political environment, such as a bill that would permit private banks or individuals to use their own money to invest in trade with Cuba.

Many argued that the embargo had failed at removing Cuban leaders Fidel and Raúl Castro from power, and had instead impeded the United States from promoting human rights on the island through the tools of trade, engagement, and economic development.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, highlighted the wide variety of opportunities for trade and the mutual benefits for both countries, arguing that the embargo is unnecessary in this day and age, when normal trade relations could help improve diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.

U.S. industry experts, particularly those in the U.S. agriculture sector, similarly argued that the restrictions imposed by the embargo currently prevent them from competing in the Cuban market where they say their businesses have many natural advantages, including proximity to the island and quality of goods. According to industry representatives, opening trade between the United States and Cuba could lead to mutual benefits for U.S. companies and the Cuban people, as well as the potential to share information and learn from Cuba research.

In order to advance trade between the United States and Cuba, Representative Rick Crawford (R-AR) promoted the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (HR 3687), a bipartisan bill he introduced in the House to repeal restrictions on export financing and give producers access to Department of Agriculture marketing programs that help the United States compete in foreign markets. Congressman Crawford argued that the embargo has outlived its usefulness, punishing not the Cuban government but rather America’s agricultural producers (and other manufacturers) and the Cuban citizens.

While the speakers each presented different rationales for removing the embargo, as well as different strategies for doing so, all agreed that the embargo ought to be lifted.

Conclusion

I applaud the Coalition for its bipartisan, continuous efforts to seek an end to the U.S. embargo of Cuba and a fuller reconciliation of the two countries.

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[1] Other posts discussed the March 2015 visit to Cuba by a Coalition delegation and its June 2015 letter to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee reiterating the group’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.”

[2] Previous posts discussed bills to end the embargo that have been authored by Senator Klobuchar and Representative Emmer. A more recent post reviewed the current status of these and other bills to end the embargo.

Current Status of Efforts To End U.S. Embargo of Cuba

Many prior posts have discussed this blogger’s support for ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Unfortunately it looks increasingly unlikely that will happen in the last year of President Obama’s term in office.

U.S. Congressional Efforts

A 2/26/16 search of the U.S. Library of Congress THOMAS website regarding legislation in Congress reveals that no action whatsoever has been taken in this Session of Congress on two Senate bills to end the embargo (S.491 by Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN) and S.1543 by Senator Jerry Moran (Rep., KS)) and on four similar bills in the House (H.R.274 by Rep. Bobby Rush (Dem., IL), H.R.403 by Rep. Charles Rangel (Dem., NY), H.R.735 by Rep. Jose Serano (Dem., NY) and H.R.3238 by Rep. Cal Emmer (Rep., MN)).

Most significantly Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said on February 24, 2016, that ending the embargo was “not going to happen this year but I think it’s something that could happen as we move into a new president(‘s administration).” [1]

Corker added, “If Cuba were to evolve its behavior and people were able to see results from what’s happening with the executive order changes that are occurring, then I think it’s possible. To me it appears that things are gradually moving along. We have air flights that are now going in, and it seems to me that this is going to be a year where those things take hold.” However, he said, “Obviously there’s still tremendous human rights abuses that are taking place in Cuba.”

In the meantime, Minnesota Representative Tom Emmer is continuing his efforts to garner public support for ending the embargo and hopes this year for a vote on such a bill, presumably the one he has authored. He promotes this effort to Midwestern farmers at agricultural conferences and dispatching his senior staffers to speak at D.C. forums in favor of the bill.[2] 

After his second trip to Cuba earlier this month, Emmer went to Miami, Florida and reported that Cuban-Americans in Miami were not unanimously supporting the embargo. “Business owners down here recognize it’s a matter of when and not if [the embargo will end].”

An ally for Emmer’s effort is Mike Fernandez, a Cuban-American, Floridian and Republican health care executive who is disappointed in many Republican politicians who continue to hold out against lifting the embargo. After a 2000 trip to Cuba, Fernandez changed his opinion on the embargo. He came to realize “that the greatest ally that the Cuban government had was the embargo because it was a way of explaining to the people why nothing worked in Cuba. . . . It became a great cover of the great inefficiencies of that government.” As a result, after his trip, Fernandez helped launch a number of small-business incubators in Cuba, cooperating with the Catholic Church and some universities, to train people to start small businesses.

Emmer’s fellow Minnesotan in the Senate, Amy Klobuchar, has authored a bill in that Chamber to end the embargo and continues to press for its adoption. Immediately after President Obama’s State of the Union Address on January 12, 2016, she said in a press release, “Passing my bipartisan bill to lift the embargo would benefit the people of both our countries by boosting U.S. exports and allowing Cubans greater access to American goods. I hope Congress heeds President Obama’s call and moves my critical legislation forward so that we can strengthen our U.S. economy and bring our relationship with Cuba into the 21st century.” [3]

Last month she also told an agricultural periodical that “there’s a lot of momentum [for ending the embargo].  If it happens at the end of this year or next year…my prediction is within the next two years we will lift that trade embargo.” Key for her is the benefits for  agriculture  from further normalized trade with Cuba. [4]

Obama Administration’s Efforts

Previous posts have discussed the efforts of the Administration to encourage Congress to pass legislation to end the embargo and its executive orders to loosen some aspects of the embargo that it asserts are permissible under existing legislation. Now we wait to see whether there will be additional executive orders to adopt further loosening the embargo, especially before the President goes to Cuba on March 21-22.

An additional objection to the embargo being pressed by Cuba is U.S. enforcement of the embargo by imposing fines for violations of the laws underlying that embargo. The Miami Herald reports that as of February 24, 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department had  initiated eight enforcement actions involving Cuba since the date of the announcement of rapprochement (December 17, 2014) with fines totaling $5,278,901, all involving  transactions predating that announcement. [5]

The Miami Herald also noted that on February 23, the Cuban government, before the eighth case was announced, said the fines totaled $2.84 billion. The huge difference in the two totals has not been explained.

Conclusion

All U.S. citizens who support the ending of the embargo need to keep pressing their U.S. Senators and Representatives to adopt one of the bills now before the two chambers to do just that.

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[1] Reuters, Senator Corker: Congress Won’t End Cuba Embargo under Obama, N.Y. Times (Feb. 24, 2016); Hattem, Senate chairman: End of Cuba embargo ‘Possible,’ The HIll (Feb. 24, 2016).

[2] Sherry, Emmer lobbies U.S. Cuban community in effort to end embargo, StarTribune (Feb. 21, 2016). 

[3] Klobuchar Press Release: Following President Obama’s State of the Union Address, Klobuchar Calls on Congress To Pass Her Bipartisan Bill To Life Cuba Trade Embargo (Jan. 13, 2016) 

[4] Dorenkamp, Klobuchar leads bill to lift Cuban trade embargo, Brownfield Ag News for business (Jan. 22, 2016). 

[5] Whitefield, Despite new Cuba relationship, fines persist against firms accused of violating embargo, Miami Herald (Feb. 24, 2016). 

Kerry’s Meeting with Cuban Dissidents Gets Rave Reviews

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.[1]

YoaniSanchez

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.

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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.

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[1] Londoño, Cuban Dissidents Buoyed in a New Era, N.Y. Times (Aug, 24, 2015), ; Email, Engage Cuba to supporters, Living History: Cubans And Americans Embark On A Better Future (Aug. 24, 2015).