President Barack Obama
made history this week by freeing Cuban-Americans from restrictions on
their rights to visit their families on Cuba and to provide them with
financial support. In doing so, he set into motion forces that we
believe will hasten the end of all travel and trade restrictions.
We offer this week a
comprehensive report on what the President did, how people reacted, and
the impact it will have on the domestic debate over Cuba policy and the
regional debate on how our country relates to the rest of this
But first, these things
need to be said.
President Obama acted
courageously during his campaign when he offered to loosen the embargo,
not tighten it like so many other candidates had done, and his wisdom
in taking this step was rewarded by voters in Florida and across our
The actions announced by
the White House -primarily, eliminating travel and financial
restrictions on Cuban-Americans - are deeply humanitarian acts to
reunite and help Cuban families who were divided by George Bush and his
insensate political tactics in the 2004 campaign. Obama's
decision to repeal these restrictions was received in Miami and Havana
with great joy, a joy we share.
As a measure of how
quickly the political climate is changing, the reaction by
Cuban-American Members of Congress, once a proudly solid block, showed
divisions, cracks, and uncertainty. They are reading the
handwriting on the wall about where the policy is headed and it showed
in their comments and in what they didn't say as well.
While the President made
further progress on Cuba conditional on actions in response by Cuba's
government, his decisions were seen, domestically and internationally,
as an overdue concession that the policy of regime change is over, that
the embargo hasn't worked and will never work, and must be taken down.
Even if he were to try
and control them, Obama has clearly unleashed forces - fifty years of
pent-up demand for change - that will take on momentum of their
own. While patience and a step-by-step approach are needed,
while hiccups and hesitation, missteps even provocations must be
anticipated, this much seems clear to us: we are closer to a
decisive change in policy than ever.
The fact is: the
president cannot stop here. A policy that consists only of
Cuban-American travel isn't a Cuba policy and it's not sustainable
substantively or politically.
Travel just for
Cuban-Americans, travel for some and not for all, doesn't help any
other U.S. citizens, black, white, yellow, brown or red, whose constitutional
claim to their travel rights are every bit as legitimate as those of
the Cuban-American community. It doesn't help virtually any
Afro-Cubans because only a tiny fraction of Cuban-Americans who could
provide financial support to their relatives on Cuba are
black. It tells Americans of all backgrounds, businessmen
and workers, cultural figures and students, religious groups or
tourists of any kind, that they cannot contribute to openness in Cuba
or promote American values there.
It keeps in place a
policy whereby Americans can travel to Iran or North Korea but cannot
get to Cuba without a license. It does nothing to please our
allies in the region, or to address their concerns about the U.S.
trying to deny Cuba's place in the Hemisphere, nor does it speak to the
anger of those who admire Cuba's independence and sovereignty and
despise the actions we take to diminish those facts.
No president since
Lyndon Johnson has spoken with greater clarity and understanding about
race in America than Barack Obama. The Senate candidate who
told his party's convention "there's not a black America and white
America and Latino America and Asian America; there's the United States
of America," the Presidential candidate who said, "I believe
deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve
them together," who said that it was seared in his "genetic
makeup the idea that this nation is more than the sum of its parts -
that out of many we are truly one," will not, and cannot, rest
with a policy that distributes travel rights based on the ethnic
make-up of the traveler.
For these reasons and
more, we are compelled to believe that more changes will come.
That Americans of all backgrounds will be pressed into service as
ambassadors of good will by the President. That he will see the
value of engaging more and more of us in a two-way conversation
with the Cuban people that reflects the reality that we have as much to
learn from them as they have to learn from us. That he will see
the responses that have already come from Cuba as an inducement to do
more. That he will learn from his colleagues at the Summit of the
Americas that they want this to be a beginning and not an ending.
That he will do more because doing more is so obviously in America's
President Obama doesn't
know everything. He doesn't know, for example, that Cubans can
now worship freely in their churches. But there is one
unmistakable truth about President Barack Obama - he can hear and
respond to the most distant calls of history that are otherwise muted
to those without his gifts of leadership.
That is why we're
convinced that this is just the beginning.
to the New York Times, the
announcement involved "the most significant shift in United States
policy toward Cuba in decades, and it is a reversal of the hard line
taken by President George W. Bush." The shift also
represented a long overdue recognition by the United States government
that for fifty years its regime change policy had failed to dislodge
decisions taken by the President - announced at the White House by
presidential spokesman Robert Gibbs and Dan Restrepo, a National
Security Council staff member -included:
all restrictions on transactions related to the travel of family
members to Cuba.
restrictions on remittances to family members in Cuba.
U.S. telecommunications network providers to enter into agreements
to establish fiber-optic cable and satellite telecommunications
facilities linking the United States and Cuba.
U.S. telecommunications service providers to enter into roaming
service agreements with Cuba's telecommunications service
U.S. satellite radio and satellite television service providers to
engage in transactions necessary to provide services to customers
persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction to activate and pay U.S. and
third-country service providers for telecommunications, satellite
radio and satellite television services provided to individuals in
the donation of certain consumer telecommunication devices without
certain humanitarian items to the list of items eligible for
export through licensing exceptions.
Travel restrictions on
Americans of non-Cuban descent remained in place as did the embargo and
changes imposed by the Bush administration that have thwarted academic,
cultural, and other forms of people-to-people contact.
According Robert Gibbs,
"President Obama has directed that a series of steps be taken to
reach out to the Cuban people to support their desire to enjoy basic
human rights and to freely determine their country's future."
The announcement came
just days before the opening of the Fifth Summit of the Americas,
taking place in Trinidad and Tobago.
Prior to the Summit,
Obama was advised by several leading Cuba policy experts to take
broader steps "to extricate Cuba policy from the tangle of
domestic politics, enable our nation to engage Cuba on serious
neighborhood problems and build a sense of mutual confidence between
our governments so that we can discuss our political differences."
You can read a press report citing their letter here.
On the day that the
White House announced the changes in travel rules for Cuban-Americans,
a dozen retired high-ranking military officers made a strong case for
eliminating travel restrictions on all Americans. In a letter to
the president, they urged his support for the "Freedom to Travel
to Cuba" bills introduced in the House and Senate.
These senior officers
told the president that the policy of isolating Cuba had failed, that
Cuba had ceased to be a military threat, that the embargo props up the
Cuban government, and that it drives away natural allies from the
United States. They said that lifting the travel ban for
all Americans, combined with engagement with Cuba's government on
security issues like drug trafficking, immigration, and Caribbean
security would put the U.S. "on a path to rid ourselves of the
dysfunctional policy your administration inherited."
In the end, the
administration made only the changes in travel policy and family
support for Cuban-Americans and the shift on telecommunications.
However, the State Department is still conducting a broad review of
Cuba policy and, as the New York Times reported, Mr. Restrepo said the
policy was "not frozen in time today."
En route to the Summit
of the Americas, President Obama told reporters that it was up to Cuba
to take the next step. Cuba's President Raul Castro replied that Cuba is
"willing to discuss everything-human rights, freedom of the press,
political prisoners, everything."
And in this late
breaking development: Secretary Clinton on Friday said, "We have seen
Raul Castro's comments and we welcome his overtures...We are taking a
very serious look at it and we will consider how we intend to
This issue is changing
and moving fast.
A transcript and webcast
of the White House press conference can be obtained here.
The White House fact
sheet explaining the policy can be read here.
directive to the Secretaries of State, Treasury, and Commerce to
implement the policy can be read here.
Major news organizations
covered the announcement. Reuters and the New York Times said the
changes represented opening the door "a crack." Inter Press Services offered
a lengthy story with pictures that can be read here. The UK Independent did a
fact-filled Q+A about the policy and its potential implications here.
The new rules have
positive business implications for Western Union as explained here.
Articles detailing the
new policies on telecommunications can be read here and here. This article suggests that
U.S. telecommunications firms will have a tough time competing against
already entrenched competitors.
Will the new rules on
telecommunications lead to larger changes in the embargo? The
energy industry could be next as reported here.
The former military
officers' letter, released by the New America Foundation, can be read here.
Former President Fidel
Castro wrote a reflection praising the officers' letter and
"giving thanks" to the authors. It can be read here.
While applauding the
humanitarian gesture of restoring Cuban-American travel, political
leaders and policy experts focused on Obama's failure to move toward a
single policy that opened up Cuba for travel to all Americans.
to have a policy that allows travel to Vietnam and North Korea and Iran
and China, Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, and yet when it comes to
Cuba, not respect the fundamental right of an American to exercise his
or her freedom to travel," said William Delahunt, a Democratic
congressman and the author of the "Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act,
director of the American Strategy Program of the New American
Foundation, called Obama's move "cynical and insufficient."
"That our first
African-American president would issue an executive order that created
openings for a specific class of ethnic Americans - in this case, Cuban
Americans - and not for all is not what this democracy is about," he said. "This is not
how we approached Vietnam; we didn't tell Vietnamese Americans to lead
Wayne Smith, a former
head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and now a critic of
U.S.-Cuba policy, said the president simply
didn't go far enough. "A lot of people, myself
included, who had some hope that Obama would move in a more
constructive way, are now beginning to place our hopes in the
The Associated Press reported that American
supporters of easing U.S. sanctions, who criticized the Obama
administration for not going further, did say the move should greatly
help Cuban families. Phil Peters, a Cuba specialist, wrote in his
blog that Obama's travel policy could "bring an injection of
purchasing power that will raise the incomes of Cubans who rent rooms
in their homes or drive private taxis."
But he and other
Americans wondered when they too will be able to travel freely to
Cuba. Peters said the policy continues to treat Cuban-Americans
as "a separate class." "The rest of Americans
aren't chopped liver," he said.
Why didn't Obama go further?
According to the Associated Press, Julia
Sweig, director of Latin studies at the Council on Foreign Relations,
described Obama's changes as "teensy, weensy" and said they
appear to be driven more by domestic political calculations than by
foreign policy considerations.
"This is a cautious
first step by a president whose political advisers are looking at the
Florida electoral vote," she said in a telephone interview,
"and who are not looking at this as a matter of foreign policy.
That's the big problem with Cuba policy. We have a policy toward Miami
and not Havana."
"These are welcome
steps, but the right course is to allow all Americans to travel to
Cuba, to open up commerce, and to directly engage the Cuban government
in diplomacy and solving problems in both countries' interests," said Sarah Stephens,
director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA)
Perhaps more policy
measure will follow. "The president has a historic opportunity,
not to be the last president of the Cold War, but the first president
to turn the page in U.S.-Cuba relations. I think he will do more, and
that this will be the first of many steps toward better relations with
Cuba," she added.
For additional reactions
to the President's announcement, we recommend this series of essays
that appeared in the Washington Post, this column by IPS' Jim Lobe, and
written by Robert Schlesinger of U.S. News and World Report.
Michael Kinsley's op-ed in the Washington Post can be read here. We particularly
liked Philip Stephens' piece [After Guantanamo: Time to cut the wire
around Cuba] published here in The Financial
Times. Blogger Markos Moulitsas weighed in here.
For polling on American
attitudes on Cuba policy, check here.
Florida Reps. Lincoln
Diaz-Balart and Mario Diaz-Balart issued a joint statement that
deplored Obama's decision. "President Obama has committed a
serious mistake by unilaterally increasing Cuban-American travel and
remittance dollars for the Cuban dictatorship."
Florida Senator Mel
Martinez, who wrote the recommendations which first put into place the
limits on family travel and financial support, applauded President
Obama for easing the travel restrictions that he now blames on the
Cuban government. In a statement released by his
office Senator Martinez said,
today is good news for Cuban families separated by the lack of freedom
in Cuba. Likewise the change in remittances should provide help to
families in need."
Senator Robert Menendez
of New Jersey, who have gave a blistering 14-page floor speech early
this year in an attempt to block Congress from enacting a modest
loosening of restrictions on Cuban-American travel and farm sales
declined at first to comment to the New York Daily News in
response to the Obama policy.
However, according to
the Miami Herald, Menendez
finally said that while he agrees with more family travel, he ``would
have challenged the regime to allow Cuban Americans to send money to
their families without the state taking 30 percent."
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican Member of the House Foreign
Affairs Committee and a staunch opponent of Cuba's government, said "It's a missed
opportunity to not have first demanded from the Castro regime a drastic
reduction in the outrageously high fees that families have to pay to
the regime and its agents for both travel and remittances."
Reversal of the Bush-era
restrictions, which contained no humanitarian exemptions, cheered many
in the Cuban-American community. Lourdes Castro told USA Today that she has a
brother, sister and plenty of cousins back in her home city of Havana.
She visited them last July and wouldn't have been eligible to see them
again until 2011 under restrictions enacted under the Bush
administration. Now, Castro is already planning her return.
"I'm going to go as often as I can," said Castro, 52, who is
not related to Cuban President Raúl Castro, or his brother, Fidel.
"I'm so happy."
Tessie Aral, president
of ABC Charters, told one news organization,
"Right now, I have a customer outside that just found out her
mother had breast cancer, so she was just going for her first [trip to
Cuba] of the year....When I told her, 'Now you can go again' she was,
like, ecstatic, because she can go visit her mum that's going to be
International Airlines, which operates Beech 1900Ds daily to Havana, is
anticipating a potential ramp-up in service. President Tom Cooper told
The Miami Herald that rule
changes made by the US last year allowing Cuban-Americans to travel to
Cuba once annually instead of once every three years resulted in a 20%
Reporting from Havana, the Associated Press spoke to
Cubans with American relatives who were hoping the new rules would mean
more visits from loved ones, and the possibility of more cash to buy things
they cannot afford on government salaries averaging less than $20 a
"Man, this is something they should have done a long time
ago," said engineer Simon Rodriguez, 37. "To have bilateral
relations between the two countries is good for the Cubans and for the
The AP said that for many, the moves are only a beginning. Alberto Sal,
a 68-year-old retiree, said he had high hopes when Obama was elected
but is still waiting for significant action. For instance, the
president said nothing Monday about bipartisan measures in both houses
of Congress that would effectively allow all Americans to travel to
Cuba. "He should do more and lift travel restrictions for
all Americans," Sal said. "Until he does that, I don't think
he's doing much."
Cuban dissident Vladimiro Roca predicts the reaction will be huge. The
former economist, who has been jailed for his opposition to the Castro
regime, told USA Today "We will
continue suffering, but the suffering will be less. The people are
going to appreciate this," Roca said by phone from his Havana
Impact on the Summit of the
The new Cuba policy was
announced against the backdrop of the Summit of the Americas meeting -
President Obama's first multilateral encounter with heads of state from
the Western Hemisphere. In the maneuvering that took place before
the Summit, Obama's representatives sought to keep the subject of Cuba
off the agenda. But Cuba will be discussed, as will
many other regional concerns.
First, there is the
question of the United States reengaging with a region that it
essentially ignored for eight years, beyond the Bush administration's
polarizing rhetoric about the war on terror and its opposition to
governments in Havana and Caracas.
As the Los Angeles Times said,
"stepping back onto the world stage, President Obama this week
will meet Western Hemisphere leaders at a summit where he hopes to
salvage alliances strained by grievances that the U.S. under former
President Bush ignored Latin America because of Washington's focus on
Iraq and terrorism.
"The new president
is going to be the focus," said Julia Sweig, director of the Latin
America program at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.
"Even for someone like Hugo Chavez, who at the last summit made
himself the focus, it will be virtually impossible to upstage Barack
Obama. This is his coming out party, his cotillion in the Americas, and
there's an excitement just to meet the guy, see him up close and get a
feel for him."
Second, the New York Times reported that
Latin American leaders are seeking more than re-engagement with the
United States. They are looking to redefine the relationship.
"I'm going to ask
the United States to take a different view of Latin America," Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil's president, said last month before
meeting with Mr. Obama in Washington. "We're a democratic,
peaceful continent, and the United States has to look at the region in
a productive, developmental way, and not just think about drug
trafficking or organized crime."
There are important
issues - including but also beyond Cuba - that concern regional
leaders. These include the global economic crisis, which
many governments and publics see as "made in America,"
greater recognition of the special problems facing the Caribbean, and
enduring concerns about income inequality and public security that are
often knocked out of the public debate in the U.S. by heated
discussions of immigration and trade.
Third, as the nations in
the region diversify their diplomatic and economic relationships, and
choose an independent course from the United States, there is often a
political division between powers like Mexico and Brazil on one hand
and Venezuela, whose rhetoric has a sharper edge toward the U.S., on
The Telegraph reported this
week that "Brazil and even Cuba - Venezuela's closest regional
ally - have sent messages to Caracas that Mr. Chavez should avoid the
sort of disruptive behaviour shown at previous international gatherings."
But President Hugo
Chavez said Thursday that Venezuela will vote against the declaration
of the Summit of the Americas in a gesture of protest against the
United States. Chavez said "the summit in
Trinidad smells like Monroe: America for the Americans" - a
reference to the Monroe Doctrine, a tenet of U.S. policy initially
declared in the 19th century to demand an end to European intervention
in the Western hemisphere.
Finally, as the Miami Herald observed
"The lone country in the hemisphere that's not a member of the
Organization of American States -- Cuba -- promises to take center
stage here, as more and more Latin American nations insist that the
days of the communist country's isolation should be numbered."
President Obama got his first public exposure to the
division of the region from the U.S. on the issue of Cuba policy when
the subject arose during his press conference with Mexico's President
"The question that
has to be posed rather is whether the U.S. embargo on Cuba has worked.
The reality is that the embargo has been there long before we were even
born, and yet things have not changed all that much in Cuba. I think we
would have to ask ourselves whether that isn't enough time to realize
that it has been a strategy that has not been very useful to achieve
change in Cuba. I do think -- I share fully the idea we do not
believe that the embargo or the isolation of Cuba is a good measure for
things to change in Cuba," Mexico's president said.
Mexico's reaction is no
surprise. As William LeoGrande, dean of the School of Government
at American University predicted in remarks reported by IPS before President Obama
"I don't think most
Latin American heads of state are going to be too impressed by
this," LeoGrande said in reference to the new Cuba policies.
"They've asked for a new departure by the U.S. toward Cuba, and
this is really not a new departure."
Major American newspapers praised the Obama decision to lift some
restrictions, although some suggested that the president go further.
In an age when the
United States enjoys robust commerce with China, Syria and Iran, among
others, the Cuban trade embargo is a glaring anachronism. So is the
travel ban that forbids Americans not born in Cuba from traveling to
the island. The House and Senate are considering legislation that would
end travel restrictions for all U.S. citizens, a welcome sign that
Congress, too, is warming to a more grown-up strategy of engagement.
Calling the president's
decision the start of a long process, the Philadelphia Inquirer talked
of changing course:
U.S. policy toward Cuba
is a Cold War relic that doesn't come close to achieving its purpose.
Castro, now 82, was the longest-serving ruler in the Western Hemisphere
until he ceded power last year to his brother, Raul. After 47 years of
failure, it's time to start engaging with Cuba. Allowing Cubans to buy
our goods and engage in other commerce with the United States is the
most effective way to encourage democratic reforms on the island. Obama
has not talked of lifting the trade embargo, but it is hoped that his
initial steps will lead to that result.
referred to the letter sent to Obama by retired senior military brass
that made the case for additional changes in the policy, saying:
A group of 12 former
senior military officers have sent a letter to President Obama urging
him to support and sign pending legislation that would repeal the
travel ban for all Americans who wish to visit Cuba. Currently only
journalists and families of Cubans can legally visit from here.
The retired soldiers argue that based on national security grounds,
lifting the ban would allow us to send our best ambassadors -- ordinary
Americans -- to engage our Cuban neighbors. It's a good idea.
On travel, he was too
timid. He'll allow Cuban-Americans to travel home freely - a godsend to
divided families - but he should lift travel restrictions on everyone.
More contact with the Cuban people can only help them and us.
Anything Obama can get
out of the Cuban government would be something. But before his term is
up, the failed trade embargo also should be lifted.
humanitarian developments should mark the beginning of a new approach
to relations between the two countries. But there are further steps to
be taken to strengthen those ties. The White House said there are
"no better ambassadors for freedom than Cuban Americans."
What about other Americans who would like to travel to Cuba, although
they don't have family there? The ban on travel to the island should be
lifted altogether. And more important, what about the trade embargo?
Nothing speaks for our way of life better than our way of life; the
embargo merely denies Cubans the opportunity to appreciate this country
in all its diversity and ingenuity.
The Wall Street Journal, an
avowed opponent of the Cuba embargo, published this editorial on what
the Western Hemisphere must do:
The embargo has not
worked to free Cuba, but a hemisphere united against the Castro tyranny
has never been tried.
News of Note
According to news reports, Luis Posada
Carriles, age 81, a former CIA operative and international fugitive
wanted on terrorism crimes, pled not guilty to the 11 charges for which
he will be tried in El Paso, Texas in August 2009. He is charged
with lying to authorities concerning his role and knowledge of the
hotel bombings during a naturalization hearing in 2005 when he denied
"soliciting other individuals to carry out bombings in Cuba."
The indictment also charged him with impeding a U.S. investigation into
terrorist acts. The Associated Press reported
that Venezuela's government will reactivate its demand for the U.S. to
extradite Posada Carriles, according to attorney Jose Pertierra.
Florida travel agents
won their case against a state law that required them to post a bond of
$250,000 each in order to gain state approval for booking travel to
Cuba. The judge, the New York Times reported,
said the law was in direct conflict with the federal government's
authority to set foreign policy. The decision was covered by progresoblog.com here and by
Variety reported that donors
to the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee are upset by the activities
of Senator Robert Menendez to block changes in U.S. Cuba policy.
Andy Spahn, whose clients include industry figures such as Steven
Spielberg and Jeffrey Katzenberg, has traveled to Cuba numerous times
as part of special delegations and is urging support for a lifting of
the travel ban.
In the article, Spahn
says, "Senator Menendez, as part of the Senate leadership, had no
business holding the president's omnibus spending bill hostage for four
days over some minor policy tweaks, regarding U.S. Cuba relations. His
extreme right wing views on these issues are out of step with his
colleagues in the Senate, the administration and the nation."
"His actions will
definitely hurt his fund-raising efforts as chair of the Democratic
Senatorial Campaign Committee," Spahn went on to add.
The White House has named Francisco
"Frank" J. Sánchez as its nominee for Under Secretary for
International Trade, Department of Commerce, and a policy position
relating to trade with Cuba. Sánchez is an advocate for moving
slowly on Cuba policy and making U.S. moves contingent on actions by
He told the Miami Herald
last year: ''Just like Barack has said, it took us 50 years to get
where we are, we're not going to undo that in five days.''
"We want to see
some concrete steps from the Cuban government. If we saw all the
political prisoners freed, if we saw something like that, a strong
sign, we could begin considering other things," Sánchez added.
[November 5, 2008]
The New York Times published an
important story on China's growing role in the Western Hemisphere.
Adam Isacson and Abigail
Poe of the Center for International Policy published this authoritative report on
Ecuador's humanitarian emergency, the spillover of Colombia's
conflict. Adam's blog, Plan Colombia and Beyond, is
required reading to keep up on Colombia.
The New America
Foundation hosted a truly remarkable and timely forum on Cuba policy
the morning after Obama's announcement, "Is it time to end the
Cold War in Latin America?" It can be viewed here.
You can make a tax-deductible donation to the Center for Democracy in
the Americas by clicking on the tab below.