Senators Menendez and Rubio Call for Restoring U.S. Parole Program for Cuban Doctors

On January 9,  Cuba-American U.S. Senators Bob Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) offered S.Res. 14—Affirming that the Government of Cuba’s foreign medical missions constitute human trafficking.[1]

This proposed resolution, however, is based upon a false premise as will be shown in the final section of this post. First, we will examine this new resolution itself and the two Senators statements in support of the resolution and then the basics of the Cuban medical mission program and the former U.S. immigration parole program for Cuban medical professionals engaged in that program.

The Cuban Medical Mission Program[2]

According to a 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, since Cuba since 1973 has been sending medical ‘brigades’ to foreign countries, “helping it to win friends abroad, to back ‘revolutionary’ regimes in places like Ethiopia, Angola and Nicaragua, and perhaps most importantly, to earn hard currency. [The] Communist Party newspaper Granma reported in June [2010] that Cuba had 37,041 doctors and other health workers in 77 countries. Estimates of what Cuba earns from its medical teams—revenue that Cuba’s central bank counts as ‘exports of services’—vary widely, running to as much as $8 billion a year.”

Again, according to the same Wall Street Journal article, Cuban doctors often desire such overseas assignments because they provide opportunities to earn significantly more money than at home. “When serving overseas, they get their Cuban salaries [of $25 per month], plus a $50-per-month stipend—both paid to their dependents while they’re abroad. . . . In addition, they themselves receive overseas salaries—from $150 to $1,000 a month, depending on the mission.” Many on-the-side also engage in private fee-for-service medical practice, including abortions. As a result, many of the Cubans are able to save substantial portions of their overseas income, which they often use to purchase items they could not have bought in Cuba like television sets and computers. Other desirable purchases are less expensive U.S. products that they can sell at a profit when they return to Cuba.

In more recent years, many of the Cuban medical missionaries have gone to Venezuela and Brazil, the latter of which late last year terminated the program and most of the Cubans returned to the island, while some remained in Brazil.

The U.S. State Department in its annual reports on human trafficking has alleged that Cuba’s use of Cuban medical personnel in its foreign medical mission program constitutes illegal forced labor.[3] This allegation will be rebutted in the last section of this post.

The Former U.S. Immigration Parole Program fo Cuban Medical Professionals[4]

On August 11, 2006, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in conjunction with the Department of State, announced a program] that . . . would allow “Cuban medical personnel conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Cuban government to enter the United States.”

Under the program “Cuban Medical Professionals” (i.e., health-care providers such as doctors, nurses, paramedics, physical therapists, lab technicians and sports trainers) are eligible if they meet the following criteria: (1) Cuban nationality or citizenship, (2) medical professional currently conscripted to study or work in a third country under the direction of the Government of Cuba, and (3) not otherwise ineligible for entry into the U.S. Spouses and/or minor children are also eligible for such parole.

The program “was the brainchild of Cuban-born Emilio González,” a former U.S. Army colonel, the director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services from 2006 to 2008 and a “staunchly anti-Castro exile.” “He has characterized Cuba’s policy of sending doctors and other health workers abroad as ‘state-sponsored human trafficking.’” The Cuban doctors, he says, work directly for health authorities in other countries and have no say in their assignments.

On January 12, 2017, in the final days of his president, President Obama terminated this program. The announcement said that the U.S. “and Cuba are working together to combat diseases that endanger the health and lives of our people. By providing preferential treatment to Cuban medical personnel, the medical parole program contradicts those efforts, and risks harming the Cuban people.  Cuban medical personnel will now be eligible to apply for asylum at U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, consistent with the procedures for all foreign nationals.”

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

The termination of this program was welcomed by Senators Patrick Leahy (Dem., VT) and representative Kathy Castor (Dem., FL), but criticized by Senators Rubio and Menendez with Rubio expressly calling for the then new Trump Administration to restore the program.

The Proposed New Resolution[5]

After multiple Whereas clauses, the proposed Resolution would declare that it is the sense of the Senate that:

  • “The Government of Cuba subjected Cuban  doctors and medical professional participating in the Mais Medicos program to state-sponsored human trafficking;
  • Cuban doctors participating in the MaisMedicos program should have been permitted to work under the same conditions as all other foreign 9 doctors participating in the program;
  • the Government of Cuba should compensate  Cuban doctors that participated in the Mais Medicos programs for the full amount of wages that were garnished by the Government of Cuba;
  • Foreign governments that sign agreements with the Government of Cuba or the for-profit Cuban Medical Services Trading Corporation (CMS) or other companies affiliated with the Government of Cuba to procure the services of Cuban professionals  directly assume risks related to participation in forced labor arrangements;
  • The Pan American Health Organization must immediately provide greater transparency about its participation in the Mais Medicos program and its agreement with the Government of Cuba and the for-profit Cuban Medical Services Trading Corporation (CMS);
  • The United States Department of State must downgrade Cuba to Tier 3 in its annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, given new evidence on Cuba’s foreign medical missions and the Government of Cuba’s longstanding failure to criminalize most forms of forced labor; and
  • the Department of State must re-establish the Cuban Medical Professionals Parole (CMPP) program.”

The Senators’ ‘Press Releases for the New Resolution[6]

The two Senators issued essentially identical press releases. Here is what Senator Menendez’s stated.

Senator Menendez condemned “ the Cuban regime for a program that sends tens of thousands of Cuban medical professionals to foreign countries to work under conditions that qualify as human trafficking.” In addition, he stated.“For 60 years, the Cuban regime has been finding new ways to exploit its people. Recent information from Brazil shows how the Cuban government profits from its state-sponsored foreign medical missions, which they sell as medical diplomacy but look a lot more like indentured servitude. This bipartisan resolution sheds additional light on the Cuban regime’s role in human trafficking, and is another call for greater accountability from Cuban officials, their overseas partners, and the international community.”

The press release also quoted Senator Rubio. ““It is outrageous, though not surprising, that the Cuban dictatorship continues to manipulate and traffic physicians in order to enrich itself. This form of forced labor should not go unnoticed by the international community. We must stand against the regime’s modern-day slavery scheme and support the doctors seeking justice after serving in these so-called international medical missions.”

Finally the press release stated that the “introduction comes after an investigative report by the Diario de Cuba recently revealed the indentured servitude of Cuban medical professionals described in Brazilian diplomatic cables detailing the terms of the Government of Cuba’s medical missions to Brazil. In 2016 alone, it is estimated that the Castro regime earned more than $8,000,000,000 from exporting the services of Cuban professionals, of which foreign medical missions represent the majority of the income.”

Analysis of the Merits of the Resolution[7]

The resolution is without merit and should be rejected. Why? Because the Cuban medical mission program is not illegal forced labor.

The U.S. parole program for Cuban medical personnel was and is also unjustified. Cuban students receive their medical education without any tuition. As a result, it is only reasonable to require such students, after receiving their medical degrees, to “give back” by serving on a Cuban foreign medical mission for which they are paid more than they would have earned in Cuba. Yes, the Cuban government is paid more for their services on such missions by foreign governments than the medical personnel are paid by the Cuban government, but that also is reasonable and appropriate. The contention that such service is illegal forced labor or semi-slavery is absurd.

  • First, the State Department reports admit that there is conflicting information and allegations on the foreign medical mission work. Coercion is alleged by “some participants” and unnamed “other sources.” On the other hand, the reports admit that the Cuban government denies these allegations, and instead the Government and “some participants” assert the postings are “voluntary and well paid compared to jobs within Cuba.” The reports also concede there is conflicting information on whether other means, including withholding Cuban passports, are used to coerce or force participants to remain in the program.
  • Second, there apparently has not been any fair adjudicative process to determine which of these conflicting sets of information is valid.
  • Third, the accusation of forced labor for such participants has been rejected in a study by Indiana State University’s Emeritus Professor of International Politics and Latin America, Dr. H. Michael Erisman. He says, although there may be “some cases where . . . [Cuban medical professionals] are pressured into accepting overseas assignments, . . . most evidence indicates that the overwhelming majority are motivated by philosophical and/or pragmatic considerations. In the first instance, one needs to understand that the Cuban medical profession . . . is permeated by norms which stress self-sacrifice and service to the community, both at home and abroad. At the core of this ethos is the principle, which is firmly entrenched in the curriculum of the island’s medical schools and reinforced throughout one’s career, that health care should not be seen as a business driven by a profit motive, but rather as a human right that medical personnel have an unconditional duty to protect. Such convictions often underlie participation in the medical aid brigades. There are, however, also some pragmatic factors that can come into play. Overseas service could . . . help to further one’s professional aspirations and for some assignments the total remuneration involved is more generous than what is available back in Cuba. . . . [T]hese are the considerations which apply to the vast majority of people” in such programs, not involuntary servitude.
  • Fourth, According to Granma, Cuba’s Communist Party’s newspaper, “Internationalist medical aid has been a longstanding part of the Cuban people’s tradition of solidarity, since the beginning of the Revolution. As early as 1960 a brigade was sent to Chile following an earthquake there, and to Algeria in 1963, to support the new country recently liberated from colonialism.” The Granma article included the reflection of four Cuban doctors who have participated in such missions and who treasure the positive impact of those experiences on their professional and personal lives.
  • Fifth, this reports do not cite to the relevant legal definition of “forced labor” to assess this claim. Most pertinent is Article 2(2) of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, which states, in part, ”the term forced or compulsory labour shall not include . . .  any work or service which forms part of the normal civic obligations of the citizens of a fully self-governing country.” (Emphasis added.)

Moreover, as a previous post noted, a respected international journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto, recently reported that Cuban medical doctors serving on the island now earn $67 per month, but $500 per month when serving on a foreign medical mission.

The $67 monthly salary for Cuban physicians in Cuba compared with the $24 or $27 monthly income of other Cubans is a result of Cuba’s adoption of a “pyramid” compensation system whereby highly trained workers like physicians earn more than lower-skilled workers like busboys. This system, however, is being undermined by lower-skilled workers like gas-station attendants and waiters earning additional income from stealing and illegally selling gasoline and from earning tips in hard currency at restaurants and hotels serving foreign tourists. Indeed, Raúl Castro in his speech at the April 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba called this the “inverted pyramid” problem that had to be solved.

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[1] Resolution by Bob Menéndez and Marco Rubio asks to restore the US refugee program for Cuban doctors, DiariodeCuba Cuba (Jan. 10, 2019); Menéndez: the Cuban regime and its foreign partners ‘must be held accountable’ for the exploitation of doctors, DiariodeCuba (Jan. 10, 2019). 

[2]  See New York Times Calls for End of Special Immigration Relief for Cuban Medical Personnel, dwkcommentaries.com (Nov. 22, 2014). 

[3] See these posts to dwkcommentaries: U.S. Upgrades Cuba in State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug. 7, 2015); U.S. Reasserts Upgrade of Cuba in Annual Report on Human Trafficking (July 2, 2016); Cuba’s Unchanged Status in U.S. State Department’s Annual Report on Human Trafficking (Aug. 15, 2017).

[4] Ibid;  U.S. Ends Special Immigration Benefits for Cubans, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 13, 2017). 

[5] S. Res. 14- a resolution  affirming that the Government of Cuba’s foreign medical missions constitute human trafficking. (Jan. 9, 2019); Sen. Menendez, Press Release: Senators Menendez, Rubio Introduce Senate Resolution Condemning Castro Regime’s Forced Labor of Cuban Doctors (Jan. 10, 2019);CubanSen. Rubio, Press Release: Rubio, Menendez Introduces [sic] Resolution Condemning Castro Regime’s forced Labor of Cuban Doctors (Jan. 10, 2019).

[6] Ibid.

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

President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies

On June 16 in the Little Havana district of Miami, Florida, President Donald Trump announced a reversal of some aspects of the Cuba normalization policies that had been instituted by his predecessor, President Barack Obama. With a flourish at the end of his speech, Trump signed the National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba to document the new policy. Back in Washington, D.C. the White House issued a Fact Sheet and a Background Briefing and the U.S. Department of the Treasury issued Frequently Asked Questions and Answers About the New Policy.

An examination of these documents, however, reveals that there is more smoke than fire to the changes. Most of the preexisting normalization policies and actions are not affected, and the changes that were made by executive action can be overturned by federal legislation.

Subsequent posts will review U.S. and Cuban reactions to these changes before providing this blogger’s reactions and recommendations.

National Security Presidential Memorandum[1]

The Memorandum’s purpose in grandiose language is “to promote a stable, prosperous, and free country for the Cuban people. . . . [to] channel funds toward the Cuban people and away from a regime that has failed to meet the most basic requirements of a free and just society [and to condemn abuses by the Cuban regime]. . . . [The] Administration will continue to evaluate its policies so as to improve human rights, encourage the rule of law, foster free markets and free enterprise, and promote democracy in Cuba.” (Section 1)

The Memorandum in section 2 then states the Administration’s policy shall be to:

  • “(a) End economic practices that disproportionately benefit the Cuban government or its military, intelligence, or security agencies or personnel at the expense of the Cuban people.
  • (b) Ensure adherence to the statutory ban on tourism to Cuba.
  • (c) Support the economic embargo of Cuba described in [federal statutes] . . . (d) Amplify efforts to support the Cuban people through the expansion of internet services, free press, free enterprise, free association, and lawful travel.
  • (e) Not reinstate the ‘Wet Foot, Dry Foot’ policy, which encouraged untold thousands of Cuban nationals to risk their lives to travel unlawfully to the [U.S.].
  • (f) Ensure that engagement between the [U.S.] and Cuba advances the interests of the [U.S.] and the Cuban people. . . . [including] advancing Cuban human rights; encouraging the growth of a Cuban private sector independent of government control; enforcing final orders of removal against Cuban         nationals in the [U.S.]; protecting the national security and public health and safety of the [U.S.], including through proper engagement on criminal cases and working to ensure the return of fugitives from American justice living in Cuba     or being harbored by the Cuban government; supporting [U.S.] agriculture and protecting plant and animal health; advancing the understanding of the [U.S.] regarding scientific and environmental challenges; and facilitating safe civil  aviation.”

The Memorandum in section 3 concludes with detailed directions for implementation.

White House Fact Sheet[2]

The White House Fact Sheet on this policy change stated the following as its objectives: (1) “Enhance compliance with United States law—in particular the provisions that govern the embargo of Cuba and the ban on tourism; (2) Hold the Cuban regime accountable for oppression and human rights abuses ignored under the Obama policy; (3) Further the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States and those of the Cuban people; and (4) Lay the groundwork for empowering the Cuban people to develop greater economic and political liberty.”

The Fact Sheet then stated the following “Summary of Key Policy Changes:”

  • “The new policy channels economic activities away from the Cuban military monopoly, Grupo de Administración Empresarial (GAESA), including most travel-related transactions, while allowing American individuals and entities to develop economic ties to the private, small business sector in Cuba. The new policy makes clear that the primary obstacle to the Cuban people’s prosperity and economic freedom is the Cuban military’s practice of controlling virtually every profitable sector of the economy. President Trump’s policy changes will encourage American commerce with free Cuban businesses and pressure the Cuban government to allow the Cuban people to expand the private sector.”
  • “The policy enhances travel restrictions to better enforce the statutory ban on United States tourism to Cuba.  Among other changes, travel for non-academic educational purposes will be limited to group travel.  The self-directed, individual travel permitted by the Obama administration will be prohibited.  Cuban-Americans will be able to continue to visit their family in Cuba and send them remittances.”
  • “The policy reaffirms the United States statutory embargo of Cuba and opposes calls in the United Nations and other international forums for its termination. The policy also mandates regular reporting on Cuba’s progress—if any—toward greater political and economic freedom.”
  • “The policy clarifies that any further improvements in the United States-Cuba relationship will depend entirely on the Cuban government’s willingness to improve the lives of the Cuban people, including through promoting the rule of law, respecting human rights, and taking concrete steps to foster political and economic freedoms.”

Significantly this Fact Sheet did not contain actual new regulations to implement the policy changes. Instead, “the Treasury and Commerce Departments [were directed] to begin the process of issuing new regulations within 30 days.  The policy changes will not take effect until those Departments have finalized their new regulations, a process that may take several months.  The Treasury Department has issued Q&As that provide additional detail on the impact of the policy changes on American travelers and businesses.”

White House Background Briefing[3]

The prior day the White House conducted a background briefing on this policy change for journalists.

In addition to presaging the chances noted above, it stated that the new policy was the result of “a full review of U.S. policy toward Cuba [led by the] National Security Council . . . [under the leadership of] General McMaster, [that] engaged in a thorough interagency review process, including more than a dozen working-level meetings, multiple deputies meetings, and principal meetings.  This interagency process included . . . the Treasury Department, the State Department, Commerce Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Transportation. . . .”

“Additionally, during this process, the President met with members of Congress who are experts on Cuba policy and have been leaders in formulating Cuba policy, from a legislative perspective, for years.  These members also worked with us hand-in-glove in providing technical guidance and policy suggestions as we continued to formulate the policy and went through multiple drafts.”

“The President and other principals also met with members on both sides of the aisle in this process, and even, additionally, were sharing thoughts with those who have, I think, been advocates — in particular, agricultural trade with Cuba.”

U.S. Treasury Department FAQs[4]

The June 16th FAQs emphasize that the Department’s changes will become effective only upon its issuance of amendments to its Cuban Assets Control Regulation, which are expected in a couple of months.

The upcoming amendments will end individual people-to-people travel. But still permissible will be group people to-people travel: “educational travel not involving academic study pursuant to a degree program that takes place under the auspices of an organization that is subject to U.S. jurisdiction that sponsors such exchanges to promote people-to-people contact. Travelers utilizing this travel authorization must maintain a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that are intended to enhance contact with the Cuban people, support civil society in Cuba, or promote the Cuban people’s independence from Cuban authorities, and that will result in meaningful interaction between the traveler and individuals in Cuba. An employee, consultant, or agent of the group must accompany each group to ensure that each traveler maintains a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities.”

“The announced policy changes will not change the authorizations for sending remittances to Cuba.”

Vice President Pence and President Trump’s Speeches Announcing the Change[5]

Trump’s speech was a full-blown condemnation of many Cuban policies and practices and U.S. past and current efforts to change those policies and practices that went far beyond the limited changes previously mentioned. He was introduced by Vice President Pence, who reiterated some of the same rhetorical devices regarding Cuba.

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[1] White House, National Security Presidential Memorandum on Strengthening the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba (June 16, 2017).

[2] White House, Fact Sheet on Cuba Policy (June 16, 2017).

[3] White House, Background Briefing on the President’s Cuba Policy (June 15, 2017).

[4] U.S. Treasury Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions on President Trump’s Cuba Announcement (June 16m 2017); U.S. Treasury Dep’t, Frequently Asked Questions Related to Cuba (Jan. 6, 2017).

[5] White House, Remarks by the Vice President on the Policy of the United States Toward Cuba (June 16, 2017); White House, Remarks by President Trump on the Policy of the United States Towards Cuba (June 16, 2017); DeYoung & Wagner, Trump announces revisions to parts of Obama’s Cuba policy, Wash. Post (June 16, 2017); Davis, Trump Reverses Pieces of Obama-Era Engagement with Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2017); Schwartz, Trump Announces Rollback of Obama’s Cuba Policy, W.S.J. (June 16, 2017).

 

 

Additional Reactions to End of U.S. Immigration Benefits for Cubans

There have been extensive White House comments as well as others’ reactions to the January 12 end of special U.S. immigration benefits for Cubans–“dry foot/wet foot” and the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program—that was discussed in a prior post. Now we look at additional White House comments and the extensive reactions—positive and negative—regarding this change.

White House Comments[1]

There were two additional sets of White House comments about the change. On the early evening of January 12 and hours after the announcement of the change, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Jeh Johnson, an unidentified senior DHS official and Benjamin Rhodes, Deputy National Security Advisor, conducted a lengthy conference call with the press on the subject. At the next day’s press briefing White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made comments on the subject. Here is a summary of new points that were made at these events.

Press Conference Call

Johnson: “Going forward, if a Cuban migrants arrives here illegally, the Cuban government has agreed to accept that person back . . . if . . . the time [between] a Cuban migrant leaves Cuba . . . and the time that we commence a deportation proceeding against the individual is less than four years.”

The “reason for the four-year period is . . . a law in Cuba (enacted in response to the [U.S.] Cuban Adjustment Act) that essentially says that if a person has left Cuba, after two years they are considered to have effectively migrated from Cuba.  In the course of our negotiations, the Cuban government agreed [to change that period from two to four years].” In addition, Cuba has agreed to accept other Cubans “on a case-by-case basis.”

“Ultimately, we seek to get to a place fully consistent with the international law under which the Cubans will agree to accept everyone back who is ordered deported by our country.”

“This is the ending of a policy that was put in place 20 years ago.  This is not the enactment of a policy that can be repealed by a subsequent administration. So I wouldn’t characterize it as creating a policy that could be repealed [by the Trump administration].”

Rhodes: “What we’ve seen in recent years is a continued uptick in Cuban migrants coming to the [U.S.].  We attribute that to a variety of factors — one, that Cuba has liberalized its own exit policies with respect to Cubans leaving the country; two, the change in our policy — the normalization of relations that began on December 17, 2014 — I think created an expectation in Cuba that this change might take place and therefore people were motivated to migrate.  Also, though, the increase in resources available to the Cuban people, particularly through our remittance policies, also made it more possible for Cubans to travel.”

“There has been a steady increase to some 40,000 Cubans granted parole in fiscal year 2015; 54,000 roughly in fiscal year 2016.  And what we had also seen is a growing number of Cubans who had begun a journey to try to reach the United States who were in a variety of Central American countries . . . creating both humanitarian challenges and strains within those countries as large numbers of Cubans were essentially stuck there and then facing a very difficult and dangerous — journey to our southern border in some cases.”

“Ultimately . . . we’d like to see people be able to increase their economic prospects within Cuba.  That is why we have taken steps to open up a greater commercial and people-to-people relationship, and have encouraged the Cuban government to pursue economic reforms.  That, ultimately, is the best way to ensure opportunity for the Cuban people going forward.”

“The Cuban Adjustment Act is the legislative architecture around these policies.  That provides preferences including adjusted status, green card status, and certain benefits to Cubans who are paroled into the country. . . . We do believe it would be the appropriate step for Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act.”

“We did not want to speculate publicly about the likelihood of this change for fear of inviting even greater migration flows.”

“On the congressional point, while we did not have regular updates on what were very sensitive negotiations, we have over the course of the last year or so, frankly, heard from members of Congress, from both parties, who were expressing increasing concern about the migration flows.  In fact, in some cases, we were being urged to do something about it.  And we’ve also heard increasing interest and even pieces of legislation being introduced that seek to amend or repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act, whether it’s the benefits provided under the Cuban Adjustment Act or the act itself.  So this is an issue that we’ve discussed with members of Congress from both parties, and around this announcement of course we’re doing many notifications to those interested members. . . . It was clear to us that Congress was taking a greater interest in this issue, given the uptick in migration flows and the strain that was placing on certain communities.”

“[E]arly in the post-revolution history, it was very clear that the overwhelming number of Cubans who came to the [U.S.] and ended up doing incredible things here in the [U.S.] absolutely had to leave for political purposes, or very much were leaving for political purposes.  I think increasingly over time, the balance has tilted towards people leaving for more traditional reasons in terms of seeking economic opportunity and, frankly, having not just the benefits of “wet foot, dry foot” and the adjusted status, but also literal benefits under the Cuban Adjustment Act.  That’s not to say that they’re not still people who have political cause to leave Cuba.  And as we do with any other country, political asylum continues to be an option for those individuals.  But we have seen the balance shift to more similar reasons in terms of people pursuing economic opportunity.”

“[U]ltimately the best future for Cuba is one that is determined by the Cuban people, both in terms of their economic livelihoods and in terms of their political future. . . . [It is] important that Cuba continue to have a young, dynamic population that are clearly serving as agents of change and becoming entrepreneurs, and being more connected to the rest of the world. . . . [We] believe that this change is in service of creating more incentive for there to be the economic reforms that need to be pursued on the island in terms of opening up more space for the private sector, allowing foreign firms to hire Cubans, so that they can be responsive to the economic aspirations of their people. So in the long run, the best way for Cubans to have this opportunity is for them to be able to pursue it at home through an economy that has continued to pursue market-based reforms.”

We “believe very strongly, in this administration, of course, that our Cuba opening is the best way to incentivize that economic reform; that as more Americans travel, as more Americans do business, as there are greater commercial ties, that ultimately is going to create more opportunity for people in Cuba, as well as creating opportunities for Americans.  And so that’s very much the approach we’d like to see continued going forward, and ultimately the one that has the best opportunity to deliver results to the Cuban people.”

The “Cubans will be treated like everybody else.  People from anywhere can issue a claim of asylum; that does happen frequently. There’s not going to be a separate queue for Cubans.  So just like any other migrant who reaches our border, they have certain claims that they can pursue, but they’ll be treated as other individuals from other countries are.”

Press Briefing

At the January 13 press briefing, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made the following extensive comments about the change:

“This policy change was codified in an executive agreement between the U.S. government and the government in Cuba.  As even some of the incoming administration’s nominees have noted, there’s a tradition of subsequent Presidents observing and adhering to the executive agreements that were put in place by the previous President unless, of course, a specific decision is made to change the policy.”

“President-elect Trump . . . on January 20th . . . [will] be able to exercise all of the executive authority that are invested in the presidency at his discretion.  We believe that there is a strong case to be made about normalizing relations between our two countries, and this is just the latest step in that process to ensure that we are treating Cuban migrants the same way that we treat migrants from other countries.”

The “response to this announcement . . . is indicative of how public opinion is changing on these issues, including in the Cuban-American community.” There is “a growing majority of Americans who agree about the direction that the President [Obaama] has moved the relationship between the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

“[T]he migrants from Cuba will be treated in the same way that migrants from other countries are, which is to say legitimate claims for refugee status or for asylum will be subject to due process, which means that their claims will be evaluated.  And if they have legitimate claims for asylum, then that will be granted. But that will be adjudicated through the regular process . . . that migrants from other countries go through as well.”

“There was . . . a successful effort to brief the incoming administration shortly before this policy change was made public.”

It “takes time to negotiate these kinds of executive agreements, particularly with a country like Cuba that does not have a long history of negotiating these kinds of agreements with the United States.  For more than 50 years, the United States pursued a policy of diplomatic isolation with Cuba.  And so it’s only over the course of the last year or so that we’ve had the kind of diplomatic opening that will allow us to have these kinds of conversations.  So, negotiating these kinds of executive agreements takes time, but as soon as this agreement was completed, we announced it right away.”

Mr. Trump “certainly seems to be motivated by financial interests in some pretty important ways; he has over his professional career.  So I think he’ll find . . . [the economic argument for normalization] persuasive, particularly when you consider that there were reports that his company was negotiating with Cuba for exactly those kinds of agreements.  So he obviously recognizes the economic opportunity that’s there.  There’s more than a hundred flights every day between the [U.S.] and Cuba.  That’s cancelling a lot of flights if he wants to roll back this policy.  And I can’t imagine that the U.S. airline industry is going to be particularly pleased by that kind of development.”

“There are thousands of Americans that have an opportunity to travel to Cuba, and they’ve had an opportunity to enjoy their time there, learn a little bit more about the country, enhance ties between our two countries, and they’ve been able to return to the United States with all of the cigars and rum that they could pack into their suitcase if they choose to.  I don’t think those Americans are going to be particularly pleased to see that policy rolled back.”

For “more than 50 years, there was a policy of diplomatic isolation in place that had no material impact in improving the human rights situation in Cuba.  If anything, it got worse.  This policy has been in place for about a year.  And is there more that we would like to see the Cuban government do with regard to protecting human rights?  We absolutely would.  But our view is that the ability of the United States to advocate for those kinds of improvements is enhanced when we deepen the ties between our two countries.  When there are more Americans that are traveling to Cuba, when there is more communication going back and forth between Cuba and the United States, when there are more Cuban Americans that have an opportunity to visit family and send money to family in Cuba, all that is going to promote freedom.  That’s going to promote our values.”

“There has not been nearly as much an improvement in human rights in Cuba as we would like to see.  But the [normalization] policy has been in place for a little over [two years].”

We also have removed “an impediment to our relationship with countries throughout Latin America that have important relationships with Cuba.  For most of the last 50 years, those countries in Latin America didn’t apply that much pressure to Cuba about their human rights situation, and [instead] were focused on the [U.S.] and our failed policy of trying to isolate them.  Now that that impediment has been removed, it’s not just the [U.S.] that’s encouraging the Cuban government to improve their human rights situation, but you’ve got countries throughout the Western Hemisphere that are making the same argument.  So all we have done is to increase pressure on the Cuban government to improve the human rights situation there, and, at the same time, the American people have enjoyed a number of material benefits, including monetary benefits, that I do think will be persuasive to the incoming President as he determines what policy he believes is best with regard to the [U.S.] and Cuba.”

Positive Reactions[2]

 A New York Times editorial applauded the ending of this policy, which was “misguided for several reasons. It encouraged Cubans to embark on perilous, and often deadly, journeys on rafts across the Florida straits and across borders in South and Central America. It exacerbated Cuba’s brain drain, particularly after 2006 when Washington created a pathway for medical professionals abroad to defect by applying for visas at American embassies. And it unjustifiably gave Cubans preferential treatment while Haitians and Central Americans who were fleeing far more desperate circumstances were deported.”

This policy, says the Times, “has served as an escape valve, giving a way out to tens of thousands of Cubans who were frustrated by the island’s authoritarian government. Young Cubans have grown up regarding immigration to the [U.S.] as an option that has become a core part of the Cuban psyche.”

Now, the Times continues, there probably will be “pent-up dissatisfaction [that may] embolden more Cubans to press for economic changes and political freedoms as the era of rule by Raúl Castro draws to an end [in early 2018]. This would be hard and risky in a police state that stifles dissent by rewarding loyalists, punishing critics and sowing division among groups agitating for change. Eliécer Ávila, a prominent opposition leader, said, ““In the long run, I feel this will be beneficial by putting pressure on us to take responsibility for our homeland. The fundamental problem here is not the laws of other countries but the reality we live with.”

The Times concluded,  “should be clear to . . . [President-elect Trump’s] team that rolling back the recent progress would be foolish.”

A Washington Post editorial reached the same conclusion as the Times while emphasizing that the “dry foot/wet foot” policy “not only induced discontented Cubans to make a dangerous journey, but also relieved pressure on the regime to meet their legitimate demands at home. In recent years, the policy has also led to various scams, such as Medicare fraud perpetrated by Cubans who quickly settled in South Florida and then returned to the island with ill-gotten money.”

The incoming Trump administration was urged by the Washington Post “to treat [Cuban asylum] claims with the generosity they deserve while noting that the U.S. continuing “to set aside 20,000 immigrant visas per year to Cubans [was] an unusually high number properly reflective of Cuba’s unusually repressive system.”

Jon Anderson in the New Yorker points out that the change “should also help curtail a gruesome people-trafficking network that, over the past two years, has bled tens of thousands of Cubans of what little money they have in order to make it to the United States. Many of the migrants have sold their homes to obtain the cash to pay the traffickers who smuggle them through different countries before they reach the United States. One of the networks funnels people through a Mafia-controlled section of Colombia on an arduous and dangerous trek, sometimes lasting as much as three weeks, through the Darién jungle into Panama. Numerous Cubans, as well as other nationalities, have been robbed, raped, and killed along the way. In Mexico, an unavoidable part of any overland journey to the U.S. border from the south, Cubans fall prey to traffickers linked to the violent drug gangs there, at times with corrupt police involvement.”

Representative Albio Sires (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American, said that “in recent years [some Cubans] used [the dry foot/wet foot policy] to reap economic rewards by sending money back to the island or even going back themselves to visit. While I am sympathetic to the plight of all the Cuban people, this program was designed for those asylees and refugees that were forced to flee. Money sent back to the island has no choice but to pass through the hands of the regime that for years has been using this program to fill their coffers.” He, however, questioned the timing of this change with an incoming president who has made many “hateful and disparaging remarks about refugees, minorities and immigrants.”

Negative Reactions[3]

Cuban-American representatives in Congress registered their typical negative reactions to U.S. normalization with Cuba: Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL); Carlos Curbello (Rep., FL); and Mario Diaz-Balart. Representative Curbello, however, admitted that the old wet-foot/dry-foot policy had been “grossly abused and exploited by many Cuban nationals, while also inadvertently bolstering the Cuban regime. A change to this policy was inevitable. I remain firmly committed to supporting the victims of persecution in Cuba while ending all abuses of America’s generosity.”

 A negative opinion also was registered by Carlos Eire, a Cuban-American who arrived in the early 1960’s as a “Peter Pan” kid and who now is an author and the T.L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.He argues that many Cubans saw the December 17, 2014 announcement of rapprochement . . . [as] new support from the [U.S. that] could prolong the life of the Castro regime indefinitely and allow it to rule despotically; and . . . [as a sign] how Cubans would no longer continue to be viewed by the [U.S.] as an oppressed people.” The January 12 termination of ‘dry foot/wet foot’ “has completed . . . [Obama’s] utter betrayal of the Cuban people — a legacy move set in motion two years ago [and] has burdened Trump with a no-win situation with the potential to seriously tarnish or weaken his presidency right from the start.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on January 12 released a statement from the Chair of its Migration Committee, Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, Texas. Expressing disappointment over the “sudden policy change,” he said, “While we have welcomed normalizing relations with Cuba, the violation of basic human rights remains a reality for some Cubans and the Wet Foot/Dry Foot policy helped to afford them a way to seek refuge in the United States.”

The Bishop added, “Cuban Americans have been one of the most successful immigrant groups in U.S. history. The protections afforded them were a model of humane treatment.” This change “will make it more difficult for vulnerable populations in Cuba, such as asylum seekers, children, and trafficking victims, to seek protection. . . . My brother Bishops and I pledge to work with the outgoing and incoming administrations to ensure humane treatment for vulnerable populations, from Cuba and elsewhere, seeking refuge in the United States.”

The Cuban Observatory on Human Rights (OCDH), criticizing the change, said thatmany Cubans do not want or can not live in their own country” and that Cuba has not guaranteed “there will be no reprimand or violations of the human rights of” the Cubans the U.S. returns to the island.

Ramón Saúl Sánchez, leader of the Miami-based Democracy Movement, believes the change “will not stop the Cubans leaving the island, because in Cuba ‘there is a tyranny’ that will create more deaths (of rafters) in the Florida Straits.”

Jose Basulto, founder of Brothers to the Rescue: “Freedom is going to have to be sought now inside Cuba.” It is “sad” that Cubans have always bet on escaping from Cuba rather than fighting for freedom within their country.

Conclusion

This blogger remains persuaded that the “dry foot/wet foot policy is not justified, at least in recent years. Now many, if not most, Cubans wanting to come to the U.S. are motivated by an entirely understandable desire to improve their financial circumstances. That same desire exists in many people from many countries throughout the world. There is no special reason why Cubans should be preferred over all these other people.

As Secretary Johnson, Deputy National Security Advisor Rhodes and Press Secretary Earnest emphasized, if the Cubans are fleeing Cuban persecution for their political opinions, then they may and should submit an application, under U.S. and international law, for political asylum.

The U.S. parole program for Cuban medical personnel is also unjustified. Cuban students receive their medical education without any tuition. As a result, it is only reasonable to require such students, after receiving their medical degrees, to “give back” by serving on a Cuban foreign medical mission for which they are paid more than they would have earned in Cuba. Yes, the Cuban government is paid more for their services on such missions by foreign governments than the medical personnel are paid by the Cuban government, but that also is reasonable and appropriate. The contention that such service is illegal forced labor or semi-slavery is absurd.[4]

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[1] White House, On-the-Record Press Call [by Jeh Johnson and Benjamin Rhodes] on Cuba Policy Announcement (Jan. 12, 2017); White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 1/13/17.

[2] Editorial, Ending a Misguided Cuban Migration Policy, N.Y. Times (Jan. 13, 2017); Editorial, Obama’s latest step on Cuba actually seems necessary and proper, Wash. Post (Jan. 13, 2017); Anderson, Obama’s Last Big Cuba Move, New Yorker (Jan. 13, 2017); Congressman Sires Statement on the Administration’s Decision to End “Wet Foot, Dry Foot” (Jan. 12, 2017).

[3] Ros-Lehtinen Statement on Latest Obama Concession to Castro Regime: Elimination of Wet Foot/Dry Foot and Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program (Jan. 12, 2017); Diaz-Balart, Have You No Shame, President Obama? (Jan. 12, 2017); Curbelo Comments on DHS Announcement Regarding End of Wet-Foot Dry-Foot Policy (Jan. 12, 2917); Eire, Wet foot, dry foot, wrong foot, Wash. Post (Jan. 13, 2017); USCCB Migration Chairman Expresses Disappointment over Abrupt End of “Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy—Policy Has Long Benefited Cuban Migrants and Refugees (Jan. 12, 2017); OCDH Position on the Elimination of the Policy of “Dry Feet/Wet Feet (Jan. 13, 2017);Reactions: Obama’s policies have been ‘a betrayal of Cubans,’ says Mario Díaz-Balart, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 13, 2017).

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

The Future of U.S.-Cuba Normalization Under The Trump Administration

Many U.S. citizens who welcomed the last two years of U.S.-Cuba normalization are worried about whether that policy will be continued by the future Trump Administration. Therefore, examination of past comments about Cuba by prospective members of that future administration is appropriate. Here is such an examination.

A prior post recounted the responses to the death of Fidel Castro from President-elect Donald Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, prospective White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump aides Kellyanne Conway and Jason Miller. The basic conclusion of their remarks was that Mr. Trump would be seeking a better deal with Cuba than the Obama Administration had negotiated.

More recently, at a December 16 “thank You” rally in Orlando, Florida, Trump told the crowd, “America will also stand with the Cuban people in their long struggle for freedom. Their support has been unbelievable. The Cuban people. We know what we have to do, and we’ll do it. Don’t worry about it.”[1]

Additional negative views about U.S.-Cuba rapprochement are found in comments by others in the prospective Trump Administration.

The most negative words came from Cuban-American Mauricio Claver-Carone, transition team member for the Department of the Treasury. After the election in an op-ed article in the Miami-Herald he argued,“Obama’s new course for Cuba has made a bad situation worse.” It concluded with this statement: “There’s no longer any rational strategy behind President Obama’s ‘Cuba policy.’ It has gone from what it initially portrayed as a noble purpose to pure sycophancy in pursuit of ‘historic firsts. Unfortunately, those Cuban dissidents who recognized Obama’s intent from the beginning and labeled it ‘a betrayal’ of their fight for freedom have now been proven correct. Their foresight has come at a terrible cost.”[2]

A similar hostile analysis of rapprochement come from Mike Pompeo, a Congressman from Kansas and the nominee for Director of the CIA.[3] Here are two examples. Immediately after the December 17, 2014, news of the release of Alan Gross from Cuban prison, Pompeo said, “Unfortunately, the Obama Administration has once again taken the opportunity to appease America’s enemies by releasing convicted spies, reviewing Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terror, and attempting to re-establish diplomatic relations with the Castro regime. In March 2016 Pompeo said, Obama’s trip to Cuba was “misguided for the flawed Cuba policy it represents,” including the dropping “ Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, . . . [loosening] sanctions, and . . . [opening] a U.S. Embassy in Havana while there has been zero needed political reform, no increase in freedom, and inadequate loosening of Castro’s grip on power.”

General Michael Flynn, the proposed White House National Security Advisor, sees Cuba as an enemy. Promoting a book he co-authored (The Field of Fight), Flynn stated his belief that the U.S. is in “a global war, facing an enemy alliance that runs from Pyongyang, North Korea, to Havana, Cuba, and Caracas, Venezuela. Along the way, the alliance picks up radical Muslim countries and organizations such as Iran, al Qaeda, the Taliban and Islamic State.” (Emphasis added.) Another Kelly article says the world is divided into two sets of enemies. First, there are the radical Islamists, whom he sees as America’s principal foes. Then there is a constellation of hostile anti-democratic regimes that he calls “the alliance” that includes both Islamists and non-Islamists that collaborate against the West because we’re their common enemy. The alliance includes Russia, Syria, North Korea, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua.” (Emphasis added.) [4]

Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, however, has not expressed an opinion on U.S.-Cuba relations. Only tangential clues turn up. [5] For example, Tillerson has negotiated multi-billion dollar deals with Putin and Kremlin-confidant Igor Sechin, the head of a Russian state-owned oil company who has negotiated oil deals with Cuba. But at ExxonMobil’s May 2014 annual stockholders’ meeting, Tillerson said the company had no plans to participate in Cuban deposits development by Russian oil major Rosneft because of U.S. sanctions against Cuba.

Guardedly positive comments about Cuba have been made by General John Kelly, the nominee for Secretary of Homeland Security, who recently served as the U.S. military’s Commander of the Southern Command with responsibility for the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. Last January Cuba was a first-time participant in the Caribbean Nations Security Conference, when Kelly said, “We’ve normalized now and, regardless of how we think of each other in terms of politics, we have very, very common challenges.” Kelly also said that the Naval station at Guantanamo Bay is “strategically valuable” and should remain open after the detention facility is closed and possibly jointly operated with Cuba employing Cubans. At an earlier Pentagon briefing he said, “the Guantanamo Naval Base is a hugely useful facility to the United States.”

In an October 2015 interview, Kelly said that the U.S. “Coast Guard has worked with the Cubans over the years, but mostly in terms of rescue-at-sea and humanitarian activities. But the other four services – Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines – have had zero relationships with the Cubans. There is a meeting called the “fence-line meeting” at Guantánamo where the Base Commander, a U.S. Navy Captain, meets about weekly with a counterpart on the other side. They talk and chat a little bit, but it’s not much of a relationship.’ In addition, “There are no drugs in Cuba.” [6]

As Kelly neared retirement as Commander of the Southern Command in January 2016, he said, “What tends to bother [terrorist groups and rights activists] . . . is the fact that we’re holding them [at Gitmo] indefinitely without trial … it’s not the point that it’s Gitmo. If we send them, say, to a facility in the U.S., we’re still holding them without trial.” If “ it were agreed Guantanamo should be closed, logistically it wouldn’t be hard, and remaining detainees could be held in the U.S.— “They’re not going to escape, for sure.”

One advocate for rapprochement in the Trump team is (or has been?) Kathleen (K.T.) McFarland, named as Deputy National Security Advisor. She has publicly backed open relations with Cuba. In 2014, she wrote “We must take steps now to ensure that Cuba doesn’t become a Russian or Chinese pawn, and thus serve as a launch pad to threaten America’s security were they to establish a military presence.” [7]

Basic Internet searches about the following members of Trump’s team failed to find any comments about Cuba: General James Mathis (Secretary of Defense), Vincent Viola (Secretary of the Army), Steven Mnuchin (Secretary of the Treasury), Wilbur Ross (Secretary of Commerce), Todd Ricketts (Deputy Secretary of Commerce), Nikki Haley (U.N. Ambassador) and Jeff Sessions (Attorney General).[8]

Conclusion

The above analysis of commentaries by members of the Trump team regrettably suggests a dim future for continuation of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. Those of us in the U.S. who believe that this is an erroneous move need to continue to advocate for normalization and to share that opinion with our Senators and Representatives, the Trump Administration and our fellow U.S. citizens.

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[1] Lemmongello, Trump thanks Florida at Orlando rally, Orlando Sentinel (Dec. 116, 2016).

[2] Claver-Carone, Obama’s Cuba policy makes bad situation worse, Miami Herald (Nov. 16, 2016).

[3] Pompeo, Rep. Pompeo Responds to Shift in Policy with Cuba (Dec. 17, 2014); Pompeo, Independent Journal Review: Mr. President, There Is A Reason No U.S. President Has Visited Cuba for 88 Years (Mar. 21, 2016).

[4] Carden, The Real Reason to Worry About Gen. Michael Flynn, Nation ( Nov. 18, 2016); Totten, How Trump’s General Mike Flynn Sees the World, World Affairs (Nov. 30, 2016).

[5] Schoen & Smith, Why Rex Tillerson would be a disaster as Secretary of State, FoxNews (Dec. 13, 2016); ExxonMobil says not to cooperate with Russia’s Rosneft in Cuba, Prime Bus. Net (May 29, 2014). Tillerson’s close relationship with Sechin is covered in MacFarquhaar & Kramer, How Rex Tillerson Changed His Tune on Russia and Came to Court Its Rulers, N.Y. Times (Dec. 20, 2016) and Kashin, Rex Tillerson’s Special Friend in the Kremlin, N.Y. Times (Dec. 22, 2016).

[6] Assoc. Press, Cuba to attend security conference with US for first time (Jan. 12, 2016); U.S. Dept Defense, Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Kelly (Mar. 12, 2015); Lockhart, A Conversation with General John F. Kelly, SOUTHCOM Commander (Oct. 15, 2015); O’Toole, Here’s What America’s Longest-Serving General Most Fears, Defense One (Jan. 11, 2016).

[7] Ordońez, Trump’s been inconsistent on Cuba. Will Castro’s death make a difference? McClatchy DC (Nov. 26, 2016).

[8] As always I invite comments pointing out errors of commission or omission. No similar searches were done for Ryan Zinke (Secretary of Interior), Rick Perry (Secretary of Energy), Andrew Puzder (Secretary of Labor), Ben Carson (Secretary of Housing and Urban Development), Tom Price (Secretary of Health and Human Services), Betsy DeVos (Secretary of Education), Scott Pruitt (Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency), Linda McMahon (Administrator of Small Business Administration), Seema Verma (Administrator of Center for Medicare and Medicaid), Stephen Miller (Senior Advisor to President for Policy), Gary Cohn (Director of National Economic Council), Mick Mulvaney ( Director of Office of Management and Budget) and Don McGahn (White House Counsel).

United States and Cuba Hold Second Law Enforcement Dialogue   

On May 17, in Havana U.S. and Cuba representatives held their Second Law Enforcement Dialogue. The U.S. delegation was led by John S. Creamer, Department of State, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs; Bruce Schwartz, Department of Justice, Deputy Assistant Attorney General; and Alan Bersin, Department of Homeland Security, Assistant Secretary for International Affairs and Chief Diplomatic Officer. Cuba’s delegation, by its Ministers of Interior, Justice and Foreign Affairs as well as its Attorney General and Customs General.[1]

The Department of State said that “law enforcement is an area of mutual interest to both the U.S. and Cuba as we advance toward normalized relations. We anticipate that the dialogue will be productive, and an additional opportunity to reinforce the benefits of law enforcement cooperation. During the dialogue, the United States and Cuba will continue to discuss a wide range of areas of cooperation, including counterterrorism, counternarcotics, transnational crime, cybercrime, secure travel and trade, and fugitives.”

The framework for the dialogue was the Memorandum of Understanding between Homeland Security and the Ministry of Interior of Cuba, signed in May 2016. This MOU sets the basis of cooperation in exchanging risk information for travelers, cargo or conveyances in international transit; the continuation of periodic, mutual, and reciprocal assessments regarding air, sea, and port security; and the coordination of transportation security, screening of cargo, travelers and baggage, and the design of secure, efficient inspection facilities at ports and airports, among other things.[2]

The day before the Dialogue (May 16), the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas met with the U.S. and Cuban delegations in advance of the dialogue and to conduct bilateral meetings with his counterparts.

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[1] Mayorkas returns to Cuba to activate dialog implementation of the Law, Marti (May 17, 2016); Department of Homeland Security, Statement by Press Secretary Marsha Catron on Deputy Secretary Mayorkas’ Upcoming Trip To Cuba (May 13, 2016).

[2] Written testimony of PLCY Assistant Secretary for Border, Immigration, and Trade Policy Seth Stodder, et al., for a House Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Transportation Security hearing titled “Flying Blind: What are the security risks of resuming U.S. Commercial Air Service to Cuba? (May 17, 2016).  I have not yet been able to find a copy of the actual MOU.

 

U.S. Process for Screening Refugees

The U.S. process for screening refugees only commences after representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees screens and determines that an individual meets the international standard for refugees: an individual who has a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” [1]

Once an individual is determined to be a “refugee” by that U.N. agency and is designated for resettlement in the U.S., the U.S. commences its process for screening such an individual before he or she is permitted to come to the U.S. On November 19, 2015, Mr. Simon Henshaw, the U.S. Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration, gave a special briefing on that U.S. process. [2] Here is what he had to say.

The U.S. “remains deeply committed to safeguarding the American people from terrorists, just as we are committed to providing refuge to the world’s most vulnerable people. We do not believe these goals are mutually exclusive or that either has to be pursued at the expense of the other.”

“All refugees go through the most intensive security screening of any travelers to the [U.S.]. It includes multiple federal intelligence, security, and law enforcement agencies, including the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI Terrorist Screening Center, and the Departments of Homeland Security, State, and Defense. A refugee applicant cannot be approved for travel until all required security checks have been completed and cleared.”

“Syrian refugees go through yet additional forms of security screening. . . . We prioritize admitting the most vulnerable Syrians, including female-headed households, children, survivors of torture, and individuals with severe medical conditions. We have, for years, safely admitted refugees from all over the world, including Syrian refugees, and we have a great deal of experience screening and admitting large numbers of refugees from chaotic environments, including where intelligence holdings are limited.” In addition, the Government continues “to examine options for further enhancements for screening Syrian refugees, the details of which are classified.”

The “Department of Homeland Security has full discretion to deny admission before a refugee comes to the U.S. When in doubt, DHS denies applications on national security grounds and the individual never travels to the [U.S.]. Their decisions are guided by the key principle directed by the President and affirmed throughout the U.S. Government that the safety and security of the American people must come first. The U.S. Government has the sole authority to screen and decide which refugees are admitted to the [U.S.]. Security checks are a shared responsibility between the State Department and DHS.”

“All available biographical and biometric information is vetted against a broad array of law enforcement, intelligence community, and other relevant databases to help confirm a refugee’s identity, check for any criminal or other derogatory information, and identify information that could inform lines of questioning during the interview. DHS conducts extensive in-person interviews of all refugee applicants. Biographic checks against the State Department’s Consular Lookout and Support System, known as CLASS, which includes watch list information, are initiated at the time of a prescreening carried out by State Department contractors.”

“In addition, the State Department requests security advisory opinions from the law enforcement and intelligence communities for those cases meeting certain criteria. Biometric checks are coordinated by USCIS [U.S. Customs and Immigration Service] using mobile fingerprint equipment and photographs at the time of the interview.[3] These fingerprints are screened against the vast biometric holdings of the FBI, the integrated automated fingerprint identification system, and screened and enrolled in DHS’s Automated Biometric Identification System, which is known as IDENT.”

“Through IDENT, applicant fingerprints are screened not only against watch list information, but also for previous immigration encounters in the [U.S.] and overseas, including cases in which the applicant previously applied for a visa at a U.S. embassy. The classified details of the refugee . . . security screen process are regularly shared with relevant congressional committees.”

“The U.S. welcomed 1,682 vulnerable Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2015, and the President has directed his team to make preparations to admit at least 10,000 Syrian refugees in Fiscal Year 2016. Measured against more than four million Syrian refugees currently hosted in the Middle East, this is a modest but an important contribution to the global effort to address the Syrian refugee crisis.”

In addition, it has been widely reported that the U.S. screening of an individual Syrian refugee typically takes at least two years.

Conclusion

This account of the screening process should provide assurances to the American public that no additional procedures are necessary and that the recent bill to do that as passed by the House of Representatives is unnecessary.

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[1] Refugee and Asylum Law: Modern Era (July 9, 2011); Refugee and Asylum Law: Office of U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (July 10, 2011).

[2] State Dep’t, Special Briefing: Refugee Screening Process (Nov. 19, 2015).

[3] The mobile units for screening Syrian refugees currently are located in Turkey and Jordan with another unit planned for Lebanon.

Developments in U.S.-Cuba Normalization

As noted in a prior post, on September 12, 2015, the U.S. and Cuba established an agenda for their bilateral commission to address various issues relating to normalization of relations. Since then there has been limited progress on that agenda.

On September 18, the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce issued new regulations to ease sanctions related to travel, telecommunications and internet-based services, business operations in Cuba, and remittances. The new rules will allow U.S. companies to establish offices and subsidiaries in Cuba, permit joint ventures between U.S. and Cuban firms and make it easier for airlines and cruise ships to import parts and technology to Cuba to improve the safety of their operations.[1]

Secretary Penny Pritzker in Cuba
Secretary Penny Pritzker in Cuba

Secretary Pritzker with Cuban children
Secretary Pritzker with Cuban children

 

 

 

 

 

On October 6 and 7, U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker was in Cuba to launch a new Regulatory Dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba focused on the impact of new U.S. regulations by her Department and by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC). The Dialogue also gave Secretary Pritzker and additional U.S. officials from the Departments of Commerce, State, and Treasury the opportunity to hear from their Cuban counterparts on the structure and status of the Cuban economy. Secretary Pritzker also visited the Mariel Special Development Zone with U.S. charge d’affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis.[2]

On October 27-30, high-ranking officials of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security visited Cuba to meet with leaders in the Cuban Ministries of Interior, Transportation and Foreign Relations. Issues discussed included aviation security, combating drug trafficking, cybersecurity and resumption of passenger ferry services between Havana and Florida.[3]

Secretary Mayorkas in Havana
Secretary Mayorkas in Havana

The DHS delegation was led by the Department’s Deputy Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, who as an infant left Cuba with his family in 1960. On the last afternoon of his DHS trip, he visited a family cemetery, where his grandmother, great aunt and great uncle are buried as well as his father’s elementary school and steel-wool factory. His Cuban hosts, Mayorkas said, were aware of his personal history and “could not have been more gracious and kind” in presenting him with a gift: his family’s original Cuban government immigration file.[4]

The last week of October also was the occasion for the annual Havana International Fair. Attending was an U.S. Chamber of Commerce delegation of 40 U.S. companies including Caterpillar, Amway, Sprint and Cargill for meetings with Cuban officials and the first board meeting of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, a group dedicated to trade between the two countries. Jodi Bond, the Chamber’s vice president of the Americas, said the council was optimistic that trade will begin to flow between the U.S. and Cuba as each country figures out how to harmonize clashing sets of byzantine regulations. “We want to see U.S. products as part of that beautiful build-out of Cuba,” Bond said. “We’ve done this in so many markets around the world we know that it just takes time.” One of the U.S. companies in the delegation, Sprint, signed an agreement with Cuba to broaden its service to the island[5]

The U.S. and Cuba also are discussing cooperation on baseball, including making it easier for Cuban players to join U.S. professional baseball organizations and for U.S. major league teams to play spring games in Cuba.[6]

Despite these developments, there are voices of disappointment that the process of normalization is not leading to more business transactions. Another post will explore possible reasons for the slow pace of such transactions.

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[1] U.S. Announces Concrete Improvements in Relations with Cuba (Sept. 18, 2015).

[2] Dep’t of Commerce, Secretary Penny Pritzker’s Trip to Cuba (Oct. 15, 2015)  Davis, U.S. Commerce Chief Makes a Pitch in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 6, 2015).

[3] Dep’t of Homeland Security, Readout of Deputy Secretary Mayorkas’ Trip to Cuba (Oct. 30, 2015).

[4] Markon, ‘I went with a nervous heart’: Top Cuban American DHS official makes emotional return to Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 4, 2015).

[5] Assoc. Press, US Companies in Cuba for Week-Long Celebration of Commerce, N.Y. Times (Nov. 3, 2015); Reuters, Cuba Signs Deal with Sprint, Says It Is Open for More Business, N.Y. Times (Nov. 2, 2015).

[6] Schmidt & Davis, U.S. and Cuba in Trade Talks, for Ballplayers to Be Named Later, N.Y. Times (Oct. 31, 2015).