DSCN1464

Cuba travel — no more People-to-People educational exchange license needed

It is a brand new era for American travel to Cuba. Here are some of the details, from today’s New York Times. (I’ve added the boldface.)

Starting Friday, U.S. Will Ease Restrictions on Travel to Cuba
By PETER BAKERJAN. 15, 2015

WASHINGTON — The United States government on Friday will begin making it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba than it has been for more than half a century, opening the door to a new era of contact between neighbors that have been estranged longer than most of their citizens have been alive.

The Obama administration announced on Thursday a set of new regulations to take effect on Friday easing decades-old restrictions on travel, business and remittances, putting into reality some of the changes promised by President Obama last month when he announced plans to resume normal diplomatic relations with Havana.

Under the new regulations, Americans will now be allowed to travel to Cuba for any of a dozen specific reasons without first obtaining a special license from the government. Airlines and travel agents will be allowed to provide service to Cuba without a specific license. And travelers will be permitted to use credit cards and spend money while in the country and bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including up to $100 in alcohol or tobacco.

The new regulations will also make it easier for American telecommunications providers and financial institutions to do business with Cuba. Americans will be allowed to send more money to Cubans, up to $2,000 every three months instead of the $500 currently permitted.

While formally the new rules do not allow basic tourism, they are written in such a way that experts said they may have that effect. “This is basically the end of the travel ban once they work out the kinks,” said Julia E. Sweig, a longtime scholar and author on Cuba.

“At first glance the new regulations look to allow most Americans to travel to Cuba without having to ask for permission in advance and by booking air travel directly rather than through authorized groups and agencies,” she said. “Next move will have to be a civil aviation agreement to allow commercial, not just charter, air travel.”

cuba document - Version 2

Changes for American travelers to Cuba

In measures to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama has eased some travel requirements.

According to the Huffington Post: “Obama directed the Treasury Department to expand the categories of travelers who can go to Cuba without requesting a license from the department first. Soon to be covered by a standing, blanket travel permit are participants in educational activities, the category that covers most people-to-people travel. Experts said that eliminating the licensing requirement could greatly reduce the costs of organized tours by cutting paperwork.”

More specific information will be forthcoming in a few weeks from the Treasury Department, which issues the licenses for travel agencies offering people-to-people cultural exchange tours — currently the only legal option for Americans without Cuban heritage to travel to that country.

Up until now, to obtain these licenses travel organizations have beeb required to fill out lengthy documents. Then their employees have had to keep rigorous daily records documenting how the American travelers spend their time in cultural and educational pursuits. Translation: no lounging on the beach or salsa dancing. This time-consuming, mind-boggling amount of paperwork is one reason that these all-inclusive tours have cost roughly $5,000-$6,000 for a week in Cuba. These travel companies also must do business with state-run travel companies, which meant the agendas have been set by the Cuban government.

Other easing of restrictions will allow American tourists to bring back $400 worth of Cuban goods, including up to $100 of tobacco and alcohol combined. Previously, U.S. tourists could bring back only “educational materials.” Cuban cigars, rum and coffee were prohibited imports.

DSCN0647

Obama announces restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba

A prisoner exchange, plus Alan Gross is freed, and a new era begins between America and Cuba. But ordinary travel by American tourists to Cuba will still be banned.

Here’s the story by Peter Baker in The New York Times:

WASHINGTON — President Obama on Wednesday ordered the restoration of full diplomatic relations with Cuba and the opening of an embassy in Havana for the first time in more than a half-century as he vowed to “cut loose the shackles of the past” and sweep aside one of the last vestiges of the Cold War.

The surprise announcement came at the end of 18 months of secret negotiations that produced a prisoner swap brokered with the help of Pope Francis and concluded by a telephone call between Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro. The historic deal broke an enduring stalemate between two countries divided by just 90 miles of water but oceans of mistrust and hostility dating from the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill and the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cuban missile crisis.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries,” Mr. Obama said in a nationally televised statement from the White House. The deal will “begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas” and move beyond a “rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

In doing so, Mr. Obama ventured into diplomatic territory where the last 10 presidents refused to go, and Republicans along with a senior Democrat quickly characterized the rapprochement with the Castro family as appeasement of the hemisphere’s leading dictatorship. Republican lawmakers who will take control of the Senate as well as the House next month made clear they would resist lifting the 54-year-old trade embargo.

“This entire policy shift announced today is based on an illusion, on a lie, the lie and the illusion that more commerce and access to money and goods will translate to political freedom for the Cuban people,” said Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida and son of Cuban immigrants. “All this is going to do is give the Castro regime, which controls every aspect of Cuban life, the opportunity to manipulate these changes to perpetuate itself in power.”

For good or ill, the move represented a dramatic turning point in relations with an island that for generations has captivated and vexed its giant northern neighbor. From the days of 18th century presidents coveting it, Cuba loomed large in the American imagination long before Fidel Castro stormed from the mountains and seized power in 1959.

Mr. Castro’s alliance with the Soviet Union made Cuba a geopolitical flash point in a global struggle of ideology and power. President Dwight D. Eisenhower imposed the first trade embargo in 1960 and broke off diplomatic relations in January 1961, just weeks before leaving office and seven months before Mr. Obama was born. Under President John F. Kennedy, the failed Bay of Pigs operation aimed at toppling Mr. Castro in April 1961 and the 13-day showdown over Soviet missiles installed in Cuba the following year cemented its status as a ground zero in the Cold War.

But the relationship remained frozen in time long after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a thorn in the side of multiple presidents who waited for Mr. Castro’s demise and experienced false hope when he passed power to his brother, Raúl. Even as the United States built relations with Communist nations like China and Vietnam, Cuba remained one of just a few nations, along with Iran and North Korea, that had no diplomatic relations with Washington.

Mr. Obama has long expressed hope of transforming relations with Cuba and relaxed some travel restrictions in 2011. But further moves remained untenable as long as Cuba held Alan P. Gross, an American government contractor arrested in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison for trying to deliver satellite telephone equipment capable of cloaking connections to the Internet.

After winning re-election, Mr. Obama resolved to make Cuba a priority for his second term and authorized secret negotiations led by two aides, Benjamin J. Rhodes and Ricardo Zúñiga, who conducted nine meetings with Cuban counterparts starting in June 2013, most of them in Canada, which has ties with Havana.

Pope Francis encouraged the talks with letters to Mr. Obama and Mr. Castro and had the Vatican host a meeting in October to finalize the deal. Mr. Obama spoke with Mr. Castro by telephone on Tuesday to finalize the agreement in a call that lasted more than 45 minutes, the first direct substantive contact between the leaders of the two countries in more than 50 years.

On Wednesday morning, Mr. Gross walked out of a Cuban prison and boarded an American military plane that flew him to Washington, accompanied by his wife, Judy. While eating a corned beef sandwich on rye bread with mustard during the flight, Mr. Gross received a call from Mr. Obama. “He’s back where he belongs, in America with his family, home for Hanukkah,” Mr. Obama said later.

For its part, the United States sent back three imprisoned Cuban spies who were caught in 1998 and have become a cause célèbre for the Havana government. They were swapped for Rolando Sarras Trujillo, a Cuban who had worked as an agent for American intelligence and had been in a Cuban prison for nearly 20 years, according to a senior American official. Mr. Gross was not technically part of the swap, officials said, but was released separately on “humanitarian grounds,” a distinction critics found unpersuasive.

The United States will ease restrictions on remittances, travel and banking, while Cuba will allow more Internet access and release 53 Cuban prisoners identified as political prisoners by the United States. Although the embargo will remain in place, the president called for an “honest and serious debate about lifting” it, which would require an act of Congress.

Mr. Castro spoke simultaneously on Cuban television, taking to the airwaves with no introduction and announcing that he had spoken by telephone with Mr. Obama on Tuesday.

“We have been able to make headway in the solution of some topics of mutual interest for both nations,” he announced, emphasizing the release of the three Cubans. “President Obama’s decision deserves the respect and acknowledgment of our people.”

Only afterward did Mr. Castro mention the reopening of diplomatic relations. “This in no way means that the heart of the matter has been resolved,” he said. “The economic, commercial and financial blockade, which causes enormous human and economic damages to our country, must cease.” But, he added, “the progress made in our exchanges proves that it is possible to find solutions to many problems.”

Mr. Obama is gambling that restoring ties with Cuba may no longer be politically unthinkable with the generational shift among Cuban-Americans, where many younger children of exiles are open to change. Nearly six in 10 Americans support re-establishing relations with Cuba, according to a New York Times poll conducted in October. Mr. Obama’s move had the support of the Catholic Church, the American Chamber of Commerce, Human Rights Watch and major agricultural interests.

President Obama discussed the release of the contractor, Alan P. Gross, who had been held in Cuba for five years, as well as the release of an intelligence agent held for nearly 20 years. Video by AP on Publish Date December 17, 2014. Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times.

“Five and a half decades of history show us that such belligerence inhibits better judgment,” Mr. Gross said. “Two wrongs never make a right. This is a game-changer, which I fully support.”

But leading Republicans, including Speaker John A. Boehner and the incoming Senate majority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, did not. In addition to Mr. Rubio, two other Republican potential candidates for president joined in the criticism. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas called it a “very, very bad deal,” while former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said it “undermines the quest for a free and democratic Cuba.”

A leading Democrat agreed. “It is a fallacy that Cuba will reform just because the American president believes that if he extends his hand in peace that the Castro brothers suddenly will unclench their fists,” said Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey, the outgoing chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a Cuban-American.

While the United States has no embassy in Havana, there is a lower-grade facility called an interests section that can be upgraded, currently led by a diplomat, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who will become the chargé d’affaires pending the nomination and confirmation of an ambassador.

Mr. Obama has instructed Secretary of State John Kerry to begin the process of removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism and announced that he would attend a regional Summit of the Americas next spring that Mr. Castro is also to attend. Mr. Obama will send an assistant secretary of state to Havana next month to talk about migration, and Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker may lead a commercial mission.

Mr. Obama’s decision will ease travel restrictions for family visits, public performances, and professional, educational and religious activities, but ordinary tourism will still be banned under the law. Mr. Obama will also allow greater banking ties, making it possible to use credit and debit cards in Cuba, and American travelers will be allowed to import up to $400 worth of goods from Cuba, including up to $100 in tobacco and alcohol products.

“These 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked,” Mr. Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

He added that he shared the commitment to freedom for Cuba. “The question is how we uphold that commitment,” he said. “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.”

DSCN0839 - Version 2

Cuba in the news: the N.Y. Times on U.S. incentives for Cuban doctors to defect

(Pictured above, Dr. Rodobaldo Pedrosio Iglesias at the medical clinic in Las Terrazas, Cuba, October 2013.)

Cuba has pledged more medical professionals to fight Ebola in Africa than any other country. According to The Guardian “Cuba has already deployed 165 medical workers to Sierra Leone, bringing its total presence in the three countries to 256.” These ejército de batas blancas (army of white coats) are part of Cuba’s long-standing tradition of sending doctors and other health workers to work in underserved areas or in response to medical emergencies. According to the Cuban health ministry, the country has 50,000 doctors and nurses working in 66 countries across Latin America, Africa and Asia.

A Cuban doctor, Leonardo Fernández, boarding a flight to Liberia told a Reuter’s reporter that the volunteers feel compelled to help. “We know that we are fighting against something that we don’t totally understand. We know what can happen. We know we’re going to a hostile environment,” he said. “But it is our duty. That’s how we’ve been educated.”

It’s another opportunity to observe the absurdist dance of US/Cuban relations.

A Cuban Brain Drain, Courtesy of the U.S.

By the New York Times Editorial Board NOV. 16, 2014

Secretary of State John Kerry and the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have praised the work of Cuban doctors dispatched to treat Ebola patients in West Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently sent an official to a regional meeting the Cuban government convened in Havana to coordinate efforts to fight the disease. In Africa, Cuban doctors are working in American-built facilities. The epidemic has had the unexpected effect of injecting common sense into an unnecessarily poisonous relationship.

And yet, Cuban doctors serving in West Africa today could easily abandon their posts, take a taxi to the nearest American Embassy and apply for a little-known immigration program that has allowed thousands of them to defect. Those who are accepted can be on American soil within weeks, on track to becoming United States citizens.

There is much to criticize about Washington’s failed policies toward Cuba and the embargo it has imposed on the island for decades. But the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which in the last fiscal year enabled 1,278 Cubans to defect while on overseas assignments, a record number, is particularly hard to justify.

It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy.

American immigration policy should give priority to the world’s neediest refugees and persecuted people. It should not be used to exacerbate the brain drain of an adversarial nation at a time when improved relations between the two countries are a worthwhile, realistic goal.

The program was introduced through executive authority in August 2006, when Emilio González, a hard-line Cuban exile, was at the helm of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Mr. González described the labor of Cuban doctors abroad as “state-sponsored human trafficking.” At the time, the Bush administration was trying to cripple the Cuban government. Easily enabling medical personnel posted abroad to defect represented an opportunity to strike at the core of the island’s primary diplomatic tool, while embarrassing the Castro regime.

Cuba has been using its medical corps as the nation’s main source of revenue and soft power for many years. The country has one of the highest numbers of doctors per capita in the world and offers medical scholarships to hundreds of disadvantaged international students each year, and some have been from the United States. According to Cuban government figures, more than 440,000 of the island’s 11 million citizens are employed in the health sector.

Havana gets subsidized oil from Venezuela and money from several other countries in exchange for medical services. This year, according to the state-run newspaper Granma, the government expects to make $8.2 billion from its medical workers overseas. The vast majority, just under 46,000, are posted in Latin America and the Caribbean. A few thousand are in 32 African countries.

Medical professionals, like most Cubans, earn meager wages. Earlier this year, the government raised the salaries of medical workers. Doctors now earn about $60 per month, while nurses make nearly $40. Overseas postings allow these health care workers to earn significantly more. Doctors in Brazil, for example, are making about $1,200 per month.

The 256 Cuban medical professionals treating Ebola patients in West Africa are getting daily stipends of roughly $240 from the World Health Organization. José Luis Di Fabio, the head of the W.H.O. in Havana, said he was confident the doctors and nurses dispatched to Africa have gone on their own volition. “It was voluntary,” Mr. Di Fabio, an Uruguayan whose organization has overseen their deployment, said in an interview. “Some backtracked at the last minute and there was no problem.”

Some doctors who have defected say they felt the overseas tours had an implicit element of coercion and have complained that the government pockets the bulk of the money it gets for their services. But the State Department says in its latest report on human trafficking that reported coercion of Cuban medical personnel does “not appear to reflect a uniform government policy.” Even so, the Cuban government would be wise to compensate medical personnel more generously if their work overseas is to remain the island’s economic bedrock.

Last year, the Cuban government liberalized its travel policies, allowing most citizens, including dissidents, to leave the country freely. Doctors, who in the past faced stricter travel restrictions than ordinary Cubans, no longer do. Some 20,000 Cubans are allowed to immigrate to the United States yearly. In addition, those who manage to arrive here in rafts or through border crossing points are automatically authorized to stay.

The Cuban government has long regarded the medical defection program as a symbol of American duplicity. It undermines Cuba’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises and does nothing to make the government in Havana more open or democratic. As long as this incoherent policy is in place, establishing a healthier relationship between the two nations will be harder.

Many medical professionals, like a growing number of Cubans, will continue to want to move to the United States in search of new opportunities, and they have every right to do so. But inviting them to defect while on overseas tours is going too far.

DSCN0995

Cuba in the news: How was $264 million spent by US to encourage democracy?

According to this editorial in today’s New York Times, expensive efforts to bring democratic reforms to Cuba has been mostly counterproductive. The editorial spells out how some of the money was spent — very interesting.

In Cuba, Misadventures in Regime Change
By THE EDITORIAL BOARD NOV. 9, 2014

In 1996, spurred by an appetite for revenge, American lawmakers passed a bill spelling out a strategy to overthrow the government in Havana and “assist the Cuban people in regaining their freedom.” The Helms-Burton Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton shortly after Cuba shot down two small civilian American planes, has served as the foundation for the $264 million the United States has spent in the last 18 years trying to instigate democratic reforms on the island.

Far from accomplishing that goal, the initiatives have been largely counterproductive. The funds have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry. The stealthy programs have increased hostility between the two nations, provided Cuba with a trove of propaganda fodder and stymied opportunities to cooperate in areas of mutual interest.

The United States should strive to promote greater freedoms on the island of 11 million people and loosen the grip of one of the most repressive governments in the world. But it must chart a new approach informed by the lessons of nearly two decades of failed efforts to destabilize the Castro regime.

During the final years of the Clinton administration, the United States spent relatively little on programs in Cuba under Helms-Burton. That changed when George W. Bush came to power in 2001 with an ambitious aim to bring freedom to oppressed people around the world. The United States Agency for International Development, better known for its humanitarian work than cloak-and-dagger missions, became the primary vehicle for pro-democracy work in Cuba, where it is illegal.

In the early years of the Bush administration, spending on initiatives to oust the government surged from a few million a year to more than $20 million in 2004. Most contracts were awarded, without much oversight, to newly formed Cuban-American groups. One used funds on a legally questionable global lobbying effort to persuade foreign governments to support America’s unpopular embargo. Other grantees sent loads of comic books to the American diplomatic mission in Havana, bewildering officials there. The money was also used to buy food and clothes, but there was no way to track how much reached relatives of political prisoners, the intended recipients.

According to a November 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office, one contractor used the pro-democracy money to buy “a gas chain saw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Game Boys and Sony PlayStations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat and Godiva chocolates,” purchases he was unable to justify to auditors.

Adolfo Franco, then head of the aid agency’s Latin America office, defended the programs in a speech in April 2007 at the University of Miami, claiming they were contributing to the steady growth of Cuba’s political opposition. He argued that the agency needed to keep taking “calculated risks,” even though many in Congress were skeptical that the efforts were fruitful. “Ending this regime is a solemn duty,” said Mr. Franco, a Cuban-American.

The G.A.O. probe led the aid agency to start awarding more funds to established development organizations, including some that pitched bold initiatives. In 2008, Congress appropriated $45 million for the programs, a record amount. One major undertaking that started during the Bush years to expand Internet access in Cuba had disastrous repercussions for the Obama administration.

In September 2009, the State Department sent a relatively senior official to Havana in an attempt to restore mail service and to cooperate on migration policy, marking the highest level contact in years. That December, Cuban authorities arrested an American subcontractor who traveled to the island five times on U.S.A.I.D. business, posing as a tourist to smuggle communication equipment.

At the time, many senior State Department officials were not fully aware of the scope and nature of the covert programs, but the Cubans, incensed at what they saw as a disingenuous two-track policy, took a hard line with the American prisoner, Alan Gross, sentencing him to 15 years in prison. Senior officials at U.S.A.I.D. and the State Department were startled by the risks being taken, and some argued that the covert programs were counterproductive and should be stopped. But Cuban-American lawmakers fought vigorously to keep them alive.

After Mr. Gross’s arrest, the aid agency stopped sending American contractors into Cuba, but it allowed its contractors to recruit Latin Americans for secret missions that were sometimes detected by the Cuban intelligence services. An investigation by The Associated Press published in April revealed a controversial program carried out during the Obama administration. Between 2009 and 2012, Creative Associates International, a Washington firm, built a rudimentary text messaging system similar to Twitter, known as ZunZuneo, Cuban slang for a hummingbird’s tweet. It was supposed to provide Cubans with a platform to share messages with a mass audience, and ultimately be used to assemble “smart mobs.”

The American money has provided food and comfort to some relatives of political prisoners, and been used to build limited access to satellite-based Internet connections. But it has done more to stigmatize than to help dissidents. Instead of stealth efforts to overthrow the government, American policy makers should find ways to empower ordinary Cubans by expanding study-abroad programs, professional exchanges and investment in the new small businesses cropping up around the island. They should continue to promote Internet connectivity, but realize that accomplishing that goal on a large scale will require coordination with the Cuban government.

Perhaps most important, Washington should recognize that the most it can hope to accomplish is to positively influence Cuba’s evolution toward a more open society. That is more likely to come about through stronger diplomatic relations than subterfuge.

from "Santiago de Cuba" by Lorne Resnick

Cuba fine art photography book — a beautiful Kickstarter project

“A unique fine art photography book, music compilation+film that captures the passion, love, joy, desire, grace and beauty that is Cuba.”

That is the description for a “staff pick” Kickstarter project, offered by Los Angeles based photographer Lorne Resnick. The cropped photo above is taken from his “Santiago de Cuba” print. Also included in the book project will be stories by two-time Pulitzer Prize nominated author Brian Andreas and essays by National Geographic writer Christopher P. Baker and acclaimed travel writer Pico Iyer.

A love of Cuba and its people inspires Lorne’s work: “On any one of my over 50 trips to the island over the last 18 years, when I was at the airport waiting to go home, I always felt tired and ready to leave – ten minutes in the air and I was ready to go back. Cuba is quick to get its hooks into you. And then it never lets go. Never.”

I’m very glad a friend sent me a link to this website about Lorne’s photography and his plans for the book and music compilation. Take a look. And maybe think about backing his project–even just $1. I’ve already made a pledge and, if his project is fully funded, I’ll be receiving the red linen edition.

photo (21)

“This book is not meant to be an accurate journalist record of Cuba – I am not a journalist. I look at this work more as a visual poem. So, this is my love poem to Cuba. This is only a slice of Cuba. My slice. Shot through my eyes and heart.” Lorne Resnick

DSCN0995

Cuba in the news: another editorial from the New York Times

The Shifting Politics of Cuba Policy

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD OCT. 25, 2014

There was a time, not too long ago, when any mainstream politician running for statewide or national office in Florida had to rattle off fiery rhetoric against the Cuban government and declare unquestioning faith that the embargo on the island would one day force the Castros from power.

For generations, among Cuban-Americans, once a largely monolithic voting bloc, the embargo was a symbol of defiance in exile — more gospel than policy.

That has changed dramatically in recent years as younger members of the diaspora have staked out views that are increasingly in favor of deepening engagement with the island. Cuba still looms large in Florida politics, and to an extent nationally. But it is far from the clear-cut issue it once was.

That evolution has allowed a growing number of seasoned politicians to call the embargo a failure and argue that ending America’s enmity with Cuba represents the best chance of encouraging positive change on the island. Several prominent Cuban-American businessmen who were once strong supporters of the embargo have changed their stance and become proponents of engagement. The pro-embargo lobby raises a fraction of the money it once did. President Obama now receives more correspondence from lawmakers who favor expanded ties than from those who want to keep robust sanctions.

The shift has not been lost on the White House, where officials are deliberating over how much progress they might be able to make on President Obama’s longstanding interest in expanding ties with Cuba. Mr. Obama supported repealing the embargo when he was running for the United States Senate in 2004 but backtracked as a presidential candidate, saying in 2008 that the embargo gave Washington leverage over the Cuban government.

No bold move on Cuba policy would be risk-free. But the political backlash Mr. Obama would face by taking steps to normalize relations is likely to be manageable, even in the Cuban-American community, and well worth the opportunities there would be for expansion in trade, communications and relationships between Americans and ordinary Cubans.

Charlie Crist, the former governor of Florida who is in a tight race for his old job, recently said he was interested in traveling to Cuba, an idea he later scrapped, blaming a busy schedule. Mr. Crist, however, has emphatically said he has come to see the embargo as a relic that must be shelved. Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in her memoirs, and repeated in a recent interview, that she now favors repealing the embargo, which she called a failure, because it has “propped up the Castros.”

In Florida, members of Congress have staked out positions on Cuba that once would have been considered political suicide. Representative Kathy Castor, a Democrat from Tampa, traveled to the island last year and made a strong appeal for an end to the sanctions, saying the United States was failing to capitalize on economic reforms underway on the island. She feels that far from hurting her politically, the stance has made her more popular among constituents, including Cuban-Americans, who want to play a role in the island’s future.

Even in Miami, where old-guard positions remain popular among older exiles, who are largely Republicans, there have been notable changes. In 2012, Joe Garcia became the first Cuban-American Democrat from Miami to be elected to the House. While he publicly supports the embargo, Mr. Garcia holds views significantly different from other South Florida members of Congress. For instance, he has called for clinical trials in the United States of a Cuban diabetes treatment that has shown great promise. He also favors easing travel restrictions to the island.

Still, ending the embargo, which requires congressional action, remains challenging because a small but passionate group of Cuban-American lawmakers is adamant about maintaining the status quo. The most vocal defenders of the embargo are Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey; Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida; and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, both Miami Republicans.

In April, during the height of the crisis set off by Russia’s invasion of Crimea, Mr. Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants who moved to the United States in 1953, delivered a long, impassioned speech on the Senate floor, arguing that despite the myriad foreign policy crises in the world, Washington needed to focus on the abuses of “a Stalinist police state” 90 miles away. He displayed photos of dissidents and warned that expanded travel by Americans to Cuba was enabling a despotic state. White House officials fear that Mr. Menendez, as the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, could hold up confirmation of federal nominees in retaliation for further moves to ease the embargo.

Mr. Menendez’s loathing of the Cuban government has only increased because he believes the island’s intelligence service sought to destroy his career by planting a fabricated story in the media suggesting that he had patronized underage prostitutes in the Dominican Republic.

White House officials are less concerned about pushback from Republicans, who are reflexive about criticizing the president on foreign policy. While a growing number of her congressional colleagues have traveled to Cuba, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, who is among the most ardent supporters of the embargo, seems to be strikingly out of touch with what is happening on the island.

In a recent interview deploring a visit to Havana by Beyoncé and Jay-Z, Ms. Ros-Lehtinen expressed outrage that the celebrities had stayed in hotels where Cubans aren’t allowed to stay, even if they could afford it. As it happens, the Cuban government lifted that ban in 2008.

As the electorate has shifted on Cuba, some Cuban-American politicians have begun to call for a review of the policy that puts newly arrived Cubans on a fast track to citizenship, probably because new immigrants support closer ties with the island and grew up despising the embargo.

Politics aside, the issue remains deeply personal for the holdouts, Cuban-Americans of that generation say, because it continues to evoke raw feelings about ancestry, homeland and loss. Those sentiments, which have lasted for more than 50 years, cannot be ignored. But they should not continue to anchor American policy on a failed course that has strained Washington’s relationship with allies in the hemisphere, prevented robust trade with the island and offered the Cuban government a justification for its failures.

DSCN0995

Cuba in the news: US will coordinate with Cuban medics treating Ebola patients

The U.S. Will Collaborate With Cuba … on Ebola
By ERNESTO LONDOÑO OCTOBER 22, 2014

After wrestling for days with the diplomatically awkward reality that Cuba could turn out to be America’s best ally on the effort to stem the Ebola epidemic, the Obama Administration has belatedly come around to a sensible conclusion: It’s willing to coordinate with the Cuban medics dispatched to treat patients in West Africa.

In a remarkably conciliatory statement, the State Department said on Tuesday night that it “welcomed the opportunity to collaborate with Cuba,” which has pledged to send hundreds of doctors and nurses to treat patients in the three countries where the virus is spreading fastest.
“Cuba is making significant contributions by sending hundreds of health workers to Africa,” the State Department said.

The Ebola outbreak has presented the two nations with a rare opportunity to work collaboratively on a high profile global issue at a time when there is growing interest on the part of both governments for a rapprochement.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro called on the United States this weekend to set aside its long term differences with Havana in order to make headway on the fight against Ebola. Cuba recently dispatched 165 doctors and nurses to Sierra Leone and a new group of 91 was set to travel to the region on Tuesday. The government has trained more than 400 health care workers on the precautions that must be taken to treat patients with Ebola.

The United States and the European Union have pledged to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build up the beleaguered health care infrastructure of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. But the international community has struggled to put together a medical corps willing to treat patients with the highly contagious virus.

The Times editorial board on Monday called on the United States to coordinate with Cuban medics and to offer them assistance in the event any contract the virus. The State Department statement did not address whether American personnel would be willing to treat or evacuate Cuban health workers. American officials say they are still sorting out the broader issue of how medical evacuations of all foreign health care workers will be handled.

DSCN0995

Cuba in the news: doctors to fight the Ebola pandemic

An editorial in today’s The New York Times. Against the background of human rights abuses in Cuba, I’m not sure I could enuncite the words that Fidel Castro is “absolutely right” about anything. However, Cuban medical professionals are definitely taking a courageous, hands-on role in the fight to control Ebola.

By THE EDITORIAL BOARD OCT. 19, 2014

Cuba is an impoverished island that remains largely cut off from the world and lies about 4,500 miles from the West African nations where Ebola is spreading at an alarming rate. Yet, having pledged to deploy hundreds of medical professionals to the front lines of the pandemic, Cuba stands to play the most robust role among the nations seeking to contain the virus.

Cuba’s contribution is doubtlessly meant at least in part to bolster its beleaguered international standing. Nonetheless, it should be lauded and emulated.

The global panic over Ebola has not brought forth an adequate response from the nations with the most to offer. While the United States and several other wealthy countries have been happy to pledge funds, only Cuba and a few nongovernmental organizations are offering what is most needed: medical professionals in the field.

Doctors in West Africa desperately need support to establish isolation facilities and mechanisms to detect cases early. More than 400 medical personnel have been infected and about 4,500 patients have died. The virus has shown up in the United States and Europe, raising fears that the epidemic could soon become a global menace.

It is a shame that Washington, the chief donor in the fight against Ebola, is diplomatically estranged from Havana, the boldest contributor. In this case the schism has life-or-death consequences, because American and Cuban officials are not equipped to coordinate global efforts at a high level. This should serve as an urgent reminder to the Obama administration that the benefits of moving swiftly to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba far outweigh the drawbacks.

The Cuban health care workers will be among the most exposed foreigners, and some could very well contract the virus. The World Health Organization is directing the team of Cuban doctors, but it remains unclear how it would treat and evacuate Cubans who become sick. Transporting quarantined patients requires sophisticated teams and specially configured aircraft. Most insurance companies that provide medical evacuation services have said they will not be flying Ebola patients.

Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday praised “the courage of any health care worker who is undertaking this challenge,” and made a brief acknowledgment of Cuba’s response. As a matter of good sense and compassion, the American military, which now has about 550 troops in West Africa, should commit to giving any sick Cuban access to the treatment center the Pentagon built in Monrovia and to assisting with evacuation.

The Cuban health sector is aware of the risks of taking on dangerous missions. Cuban doctors assumed the lead role in treating cholera patients in the aftermath of Haiti’s earthquake in 2010. Some returned home sick, and then the island had its first outbreak of cholera in a century. An outbreak of Ebola on the island could pose a far more dangerous risk and increase the odds of a rapid spread in the Western Hemisphere.

Cuba has a long tradition of dispatching doctors and nurses to disaster areas abroad. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Cuban government created a quick-reaction medical corps and offered to send doctors to New Orleans. The United States, unsurprisingly, didn’t take Havana up on that offer. Yet officials in Washington seemed thrilled to learn in recent weeks that Cuba had activated the medical teams for missions in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

With technical support from the World Health Organization, the Cuban government trained 460 doctors and nurses on the stringent precautions that must be taken to treat people with the highly contagious virus. The first group of 165 professionals arrived in Sierra Leone in recent days. José Luis Di Fabio, the World Health Organization’s representative in Havana, said Cuban medics were uniquely suited for the mission because many had already worked in Africa. “Cuba has very competent medical professionals,” said Mr. Di Fabio, who is Uruguayan. Mr. Di Fabio said Cuba’s efforts to aid in health emergencies abroad are stymied by the embargo the United States imposes on the island, which struggles to acquire modern equipment and keep medical shelves adequately stocked.

In a column published over the weekend in Cuba’s state-run newspaper, Granma, Fidel Castro argued that the United States and Cuba must put aside their differences, if only temporarily, to combat a deadly scourge. He’s absolutely right.

DSCN0995

Cuba in the news: End the embargo

Today’s New York Times editorial calls for an end to the US embargo:

Scanning a map of the world must give President Obama a sinking feeling as he contemplates the dismal state of troubled bilateral relationships his administration has sought to turn around. He would be smart to take a hard look at Cuba, where a major policy shift could yield a significant foreign policy success.

For the first time in more than 50 years, shifting politics in the United States and changing policies in Cuba make it politically feasible to re-establish formal diplomatic relations and dismantle the senseless embargo. The Castro regime has long blamed the embargo for its shortcomings, and has kept ordinary Cubans largely cut off from the world. Mr. Obama should seize this opportunity to end a long era of enmity and help a population that has suffered enormously since Washington ended diplomatic relations in 1961, two years after Fidel Castro assumed power.

In recent years, a devastated economy has forced Cuba to make reforms — a process that has gained urgency with the economic crisis in Venezuela, which gives Cuba heavily subsidized oil. Officials in Havana, fearing that Venezuela could cut its aid, have taken significant steps to liberalize and diversify the island’s tightly controlled economy.

They have begun allowing citizens to take private-sector jobs and own property. This spring, Cuba’s National Assembly passed a law to encourage foreign investment in the country. With Brazilian capital, Cuba is building a seaport, a major project that will be economically viable only if American sanctions are lifted. And in April, Cuban diplomats began negotiating a cooperation agreement with the European Union. They have shown up at the initial meetings prepared, eager and mindful that the Europeans will insist on greater reforms and freedoms.

The authoritarian government still harasses and detains dissidents. It has yet to explain the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of the political activist Oswaldo Payá. But in recent years officials have released political prisoners who had been held for years. Travel restrictions were relaxed last year, enabling prominent dissidents to travel abroad. There is slightly more tolerance for criticism of the leadership, though many fear speaking openly and demanding greater rights.

The pace of reforms has been slow and there has been backsliding. Still, these changes show Cuba is positioning itself for a post-embargo era. The government has said it would welcome renewed diplomatic relations with the United States and would not set preconditions.

As a first step, the Obama administration should remove Cuba from the State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorist organizations, which includes Iran, Sudan and Syria. Cuba was put on the list in 1982 for backing terrorist groups in Latin America, which it no longer does. American officials recognize that Havana is playing a constructive role in the conflict in Colombia by hosting peace talks between the government and guerrilla leaders.

Starting in 1961, Washington has imposed sanctions in an effort to oust the Castro regime. Over the decades, it became clear to many American policy makers that the embargo was an utter failure. But any proposal to end the embargo angered Cuban-American voters, a constituency that has had an outsize role in national elections.

The generation that adamantly supports the embargo is dying off. Younger Cuban-Americans hold starkly different views, having come to see the sanctions as more damaging than helpful. A recent poll found that a slight majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami now oppose the embargo. A significant majority of them favor restoring diplomatic ties, mirroring the views of other Americans.

The Obama administration in 2009 took important steps to ease the embargo, a patchwork of laws and policies, making it easier for Cubans in the United States to send remittances to relatives in Cuba and authorizing more Cuban-Americans to travel there. And it has paved the way for initiatives to expand Internet access and cellphone coverage on the island.

Fully ending the embargo will require Congress’s approval. But there is much more the White House could do on its own. For instance, it could lift caps on remittances, allow Americans to finance private Cuban businesses and expand opportunities for travel to the island.

It could also help American companies that are interested in developing the island’s telecommunications network but remain wary of the legal and political risks. Failing to engage with Cuba now will likely cede this market to competitors. The presidents of China and Russia traveled to Cuba in separate visits in July, and both leaders pledged to expand ties.

Cuba and the United States already have diplomatic missions, called interests sections, that operate much like embassies. However, under the current arrangement, American diplomats have few opportunities to travel outside the capital to engage with ordinary Cubans, and their access to the Cuban government is very limited.

Restoring diplomatic ties, which the White House can do without congressional approval, would allow the United States to expand and deepen cooperation in areas where the two nations already manage to work collaboratively — like managing migration flows, maritime patrolling and oil rig safety. It would better position Washington to press the Cubans on democratic reforms, and could stem a new wave of migration to the United States driven by hopelessness.

Closer ties could also bring a breakthrough on the case of an American development contractor, Alan Gross, who has been unjustly imprisoned by Cuba for nearly five years. More broadly, it would create opportunities to empower ordinary Cubans, gradually eroding the government’s ability to control their lives.

In April, Western Hemisphere heads of state will meet in Panama City for the seventh Summit of the Americas. Latin American governments insisted that Cuba, the Caribbean’s most populous island and one of the most educated societies in the hemisphere, be invited, breaking with its traditional exclusion at the insistence of Washington.

Given the many crises around the world, the White House may want to avoid a major shift in Cuba policy. Yet engaging with Cuba and starting to unlock the potential of its citizens could end up being among the administration’s most consequential foreign-policy legacies.

Normalizing relations with Havana would improve Washington’s relationships with governments in Latin America, and resolve an irritant that has stymied initiatives in the hemisphere. The Obama administration is leery of Cuba’s presence at the meeting and Mr. Obama has not committed to attending. He must — and he should see it as an opportunity to make history.