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#CubaNow Briefing: Call On The House To Pass Common Sense Cuba Policy

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Jul 1, 2016


A year ago today, President Obama announced that the United States and Cuba had agreed to formally re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen their respective embassies. As the president explained in his remarks, the move wouldn’t just open up diplomatic channels, it would also allow U.S. to better engage more fully with Cubans across the Island—a change that found broad bipartisan support across the country.

Despite this, Congressional supporters of the embargo—including a number of presidential candidates—were quick to criticize the move, vowing to block any ambassador and attempting to cut off any funding for an embassy already stretched beyond capacity. The New York Times predicted that normalization was “likely to become a flash point in the 2016 presidential campaign.”

That flash point, of course, was more of a flash in the pan. In the year since the embassies announcement, support for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba has continued to grow, while the number of pro-embargo presidential candidates has shrunk…to zero. And when Congress returns from this Fourth of July weekend, the House is expected to take up votes on a financial services bill with Cuba amendments that could include repealing the travel ban and an expansion of agricultural exports.

The wrangling over the bill means its final version and what amendments get voted on is still up in the air. But there is a chance that we could see the House pass real Cuba policy reform far earlier than many may have expected. This means that supporters of the embargo have been furiously whipping up opposition with the intent of ignoring the will of both Democrats and Republicans and keeping these failed policies in place for another year. But Americans have made it clear where they stand on closer U.S.-Cuba relations and it’s time for our elected representatives to catch up. Contact your Congressperson and ask them to stand on the side of a common sense Cuba policy.

Have a safe and Happy Fourth of July, and as always, thank you for your support.

David Gomez

Political Director, #CubaNow

Green Light For Credit Cards In Cuba

Despite Criticism From Pro-Embargo Lobby, Americans Clear To Use Credit Cards In Cuba. “U.S. residents who travel to Cuba will be able to use a MasterCard issued by Florida-based Stonegate, the bank announced this month. But what happens if they use the card in a hotel owned by the Cuban military or a property seized by the Cuban government from U.S. owners in the 1960s? For now, nothing. Since January 2015, the Obama administration has allowed U.S. visitors to use credit and debit cards in Cuba. One day before President Barack Obama arrived in Havana March 20, the administration also licensed Starwood hotels to administer two Cuban hotels and spend money remodeling them.” [Miami Herald, “U.S. policy for credit cards in Cuba too lenient, critics say,” 6/27/16]

Treasury Department: Use Of Credit Cards By Authorized Travelers In Cuba Not Subject To Section 103 Prohibitions. “A Treasury statement sent to el Nuevo Herald said its Office of Foreign Assets Control ‘does not consider the use of credit cards by authorized travelers in Cuba to be transactions subject to the prohibition in Section 103.’ Pedro Freyre, a lawyer at Miami-based Ackerman Senterfitt who advises companies interested in doing business in Cuba, said the administration's interpretation of Section 103 ‘is the correct one.’ ‘I believe that Congress did not intend to limit credit card transactions to authorized travel,’ he said. ‘If you go to the law itself, in the definition of trafficking [with confiscated properties] there is a specific exemption for travel-related transactions. That indicates the intent of Congress when it approved the law.’” [Miami Herald, “U.S. policy for credit cards in Cuba too lenient, critics say,” 6/27/16]

Cuba OKs MasterCard At Havana ATMs. “Starting this week, Havana ATMs are accepting MasterCard cash advances, including those from Stonegate Bank, the first U.S. bank authorized to provide this service on the communist island, and the Banco Popular de Puerto Rico. The Cuban Central Bank's vice president Irma Margarita Martinez confirmed Monday that MasterCard is already being accepted at Cuban sales points along with Visa cards, which have been authorized on the island for some time. ‘That possibility is starting now that the pending financial and legal issues have been resolved and thanks to the efforts of the Cuban entities tasked with processing MasterCard and the foreign provider who is facilitating the handling of its operations for us,’ she said in a BCC communique made available to the press.” [Fox News Latino, “Cuba gives green light to MasterCard at Havana ATMs,” 6/28/16]

Happening On The Island

Sheraton Becomes First U.S. Hotel To Operate In Cuba Since The Revolution. “A large ‘Four Points by Sheraton’ sign has gone up outside the Havana hotel that this week becomes the first in Cuba to operate under a U.S. brand since the 1959 revolution. The military-owned Gaviota 5th Avenue Hotel, close to the Caribbean seafront, is one of two hotels that Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide agreed to manage in a multimillion-dollar deal with Cuba in March. For decades, such arrangements have been prohibited under the U.S. economic embargo of the Communist-ruled island. But while the embargo remains in place, the Obama administration has loosened restrictions on trade and investment since it announced a detente with Cuba in December 2014. ‘This is a historic moment,’ said Nancy Sarabia, public relations manager for the hotel, adding that the official inauguration would take place on Tuesday. She called the hotel ‘a symbol of brotherhood and collaboration.’” [Reuters, “Cuban hotel becomes first to operate under U.S. brand,” 6/28/16]

Cuban Government Reports Zika And Dengue Successfully Held Off On The Island.
 “Cuba has successfully held off the Zika epidemic and in the process all but eliminated Dengue fever and other mosquito-carried illnesses, state-run media reported on Tuesday. Public Health Minister Roberto Morales Ojeda told a Council of Ministers meeting that a series of measures taken this year to eliminate the Aedes strain of mosquito that carries Zika and other viruses had drastically reduced infestations. There had been no infections, he said, since one locally transmitted case, the country's 14th, was reported on March 15. Cuba has called out the military to help fumigate, activated neighborhood watch groups to check there is no standing water, where the insects breed, instituted health checks at airports and other entry points to the Caribbean island, among other measures.” [Reuters, “Cuba reports no Zika transmission since March; Dengue all but eliminated,” 6/28/16]

Cuba’s New Archbishop Described As “Inexhaustible Worker.” “At the height of Cuba's anti-religious sentiment, the man known as Father Juanito was tolerated thanks to his soft-spoken manner and unbending will, say those who followed his rise. His admirers say that personality served him well when he became bishop of the eastern city of Camaguey and launched an intensive outreach to the poor, arranging aid for needy pregnant women and diverting religious processions off main streets into the humblest neighborhoods. ‘He's an inexhaustible worker, and not in comfortable locations, but in difficult and tricky ones," said Maribel Moreno, secretary and archivist for Camaguey's archdiocese for two decades.’” [AP, “New archbishop may transform Cuban church with modest style,” 6/27/16]

Juan de la Caridad Garcia “Focused On Rebuilding The Church’s Relationship With Ordinary Cubans.” “In more than a dozen interviews, those who know Juan de la Caridad Garcia said they expect him to transform the Cuban Catholic Church in his new post as archbishop of Havana, which he assumed late last month. After three decades under Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a skilled diplomat comfortable in the halls of power, Cuba's most important non-governmental institution is being led by a man focused on rebuilding the church's relationship with ordinary Cubans…Garcia said he shares the government's stated vision of gradual reform in Cuba, which is slowly opening its economy to private enterprise and granting Cubans a limited number of new personal freedoms within a single-party system criticized as the last undemocratic government in Latin America. The church doesn't want ‘capitalism or anything of the sort, rather that socialism progresses in a just, equal and brotherly society,’ the new archbishop said.” [AP, “New archbishop may transform Cuban church with modest style,” 6/27/16]

VICE Photographs The Sport Of Pigeon Racing In Cuba. “Pigeon racing is a very popular sport in Cuba, and every neighborhood of every city has its own notorious racers and breeders. I spent a lot of time on Erislandy's rooftop with him and his cousin Yohany, who also races pigeons, and listened to them talk. In the sport, tournaments are divided according to different criteria, such as pigeon breed. Messengers take the birds by crate to a starting point, at least 100 kilometers from the dovecote. At the dovecote, a judge has a stopwatch and measures the arrival times for the fastest three pigeons. Racers like Erislandy work to breed the best pigeons, taking genes from different communities and spending months to select suitors for their female birds.” [Vice, “The Beauty of Cuban Pigeon Racing,” 6/28/16]

Grand Circle Adds Cruise Line To Cuba. “Add Grand Circle to the list of cruise lines touting voyages from the USA to Cuba. The small-ship cruise operator on Tuesday announced plans for 11-night trips to the island nation out of Miami starting in January 2017. The sailings will take place on Grand Circle's 89-passenger Clio and feature stops in such small Cuban towns as Matanzas, Caibarien and Remedios as well as the larger cities Santiago de Cuba, Trinidad and Cienfuegos. After seven nights aboard Clio, passengers will disembark the vessel in Cienfuegos and drive overland to Havana, Cuba's capital, where they will spend three nights before departing for home by air.” [USA Today, “Another cruise line announces plans for Cuba voyages,” 6/28/16]

More Calls To Lift The Embargo

Alabama Officials Call On U.S. To Lift Embargo On Cuba. “A group of state and local leaders are pushing Congress to lift the travel and trade embargo on Cuba. They are joining a non-profit group and launched 'Engage Cuba Alabama State Council'. Officials said Alabama, especially the Port City, could bring in millions of dollars through trade with Cuba. ‘We need to expand our global market place,’ said Senator Vivian Figures. State lawmakers passed a resolution calling on Congress to lift the travel and trade embargo along with other trade barriers. ‘They need our products,’ said Senator J.T. Waggoner. ‘We have the ability to send them our products.’” [WPMI, “Alabama officials: Lift trade embargo on Cuba,” 6/28/16]

Independent Institute’s Benjamin Powell: Ending The Embargo Can Help Spur Reform From Within Cuba. “The United States cannot impose reforms from afar. Reform has to originate in Cuba. But ending the embargo could help spur the process. Economists have long appreciated that international trade, in addition to its economic benefits, promotes peace and cultural understanding, and helps undermine prejudices. Increased commerce between the United States and Cuba would help more Cubans learn how a market economy's ‘rules of the game’ create opportunity and promote prosperity; this would create a demand for more of the same at home.” [Sun Sentinel Op-Ed, “Ending Cuban embargo could spur ‘contagious capitalism,’” 6/28/16]

USDA Preparing For Congress To Restart Agricultural Trade With Cuba. “Anticipating action in Congress to restart agricultural trade with Cuba after a long hiatus, USDA is working to put the pieces in place that will lead to greater opportunity for U.S. farmers. The island nation of 11 million people imported almost $2 billion in agricultural goods in 2014, including $300 million from the U.S. But those numbers were down in 2015, dropping 48 percent to $148.8 million, and a steep decline from the more than $600 million in 2008, USDA Acting Deputy Under Secretary Michael Scuse said in conference call with the press on Tuesday. ‘We’ve seen a tremendous drop in trade,’ he said.” [Capital Press, “USDA continues to prime trade with Cuba,” 6/27/16]

USDA Acting Deputy Under Secretary Michael Scuse: Current Restrictions With Cuba Are “Tremendous Barriers” To Trade That Only Congress Can Lift. “Agriculture has been limited by cash-only trade, unable to use the trade promotion and credit assistance programs that are ‘hugely successful’ in trade with other countries, he said. ‘Those are tremendous barriers. If we can eliminate those barriers, I think we’ll see a tremendous increase in our exports to Cuba,’ he said. Agriculture is going to be key in trade between the nations, but Congress has to make legislative changes to allow things to move forward, he said. The Senate Appropriations Committee took major steps in that direction last week, including voting to lift the bans on export financing and travel to Cuba, Scuse said. ‘We’re hopeful the House will agree to the measures put forth in the Senate,’ he said, adding that he thinks more members of Congress are seeing the need.” [Capital Press, “USDA continues to prime trade with Cuba,” 6/27/16]

U.S.-Cuba Diplomacy

Florida Aquarium Participating In Bilateral Environmental Talks Between The U.S. And Cuba. “The Florida Aquarium made history in August when it partnered with the National Aquarium in Havana on coral reef research — the first-ever collaboration between marine centers from two countries that had quarreled for five decades. This new relationship has helped land the aquarium a seat at the table in Havana this week as government leaders from the United States and Cuba hammer out how they will cooperate on environmental protection. The talks arise from a new era of normalization between the nations and center on their shared interests, including the health of the Gulf of Mexico. ‘The Florida Aquarium is excited to participate in this groundbreaking binational marine conservation initiative,’ said Margo McKnight, vice president of biological operations, who will attend the Havana meetings.” [Tampa Bay Times, “Florida Aquarium plays role in historic Cuba talks this week,” 6/27/16]

New York City And Havana To Host Cultural Exchanges. “New York City and Cuba's capital city are embarking on a cultural exchange of music and visual and performing arts. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel announced the creation of the Harlem/Havana Music & Cultural Festival on Friday. The Democratic lawmakers say the first-ever cultural exchange between the two cities will also include food, education and fashion. The festival kicks off in New York. Cuban artists, chefs, dancers and others will participate in curated events on Aug. 15-21 as part of Harlem Week activities. An American cultural delegation will travel to Havana in February.” [AP, “Cuba and New York City to embark on a cultural exchange of art and music,” 6/25/16]

Legal Battle Over Cuban Migrants Who Reached Lighthouse Continues

Judge Rules “Lighthouse” Migrants Did Not Reach U.S. Soil, Must Return To Cuba. “A group of 21 Cuban migrants who reached a lighthouse off the Florida Keys last month should be returned to the island nation because the structure does not count as U.S. soil, a Miami federal judge ruled Tuesday. Judge Darrin Gayles’ ruling said the 136-year-old American Shoal lighthouse does not count as dry land under the U.S.’s ‘wet-foot, dry-foot’ policy. Lawyers for the migrants had argued the lighthouse is U.S. territory, and their clients should get to stay. They had previously asked for an injunction to keep the U.S. Coast Guard from repatriating the migrants, but Tuesday’s order denied that request.” [AP, “Judge: Lighthouse migrants must return to Cuba,” 6/28/16]

Migrants To Appeal Decision. “The group of Cuban migrants found on a lighthouse near Sugarloaf Key plan to appeal a federal judge’s decision to send them back to Cuba. The group of 24, dubbed the ‘Lighthouse Cubans,’ were hoping to stay in Miami based on the “wet foot, dry foot” policy after they made a swim to the American Shoal Lighthouse when they came in contact with the U.S. Coast Guard. Twenty-one of the migrants made it to the lighthouse, just seven miles off Sugarloaf Key. On Tuesday, the judge ruled the that the lighthouse did not constitute as U.S. land. Therefore, they must return to Cuba.” [WSVN, “‘Lighthouse Cubans’ appeal decision to be sent back to Cuba,’” 6/29/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Basketball Legend Shaquille O’Neal Visits Cuba In Diplomatic Tour. “The Shaq show came to Havana on Sunday as NBA great Shaquille O'Neal put on a basketball clinic for local youngsters, becoming the latest emissary for American outreach to the people of Cuba. The 2016 Hall of Fame inductee and four-time NBA champion led star-struck kids in layup drills and coached scrimmages while onlookers cheered from the sidelines, part of a U.S. State Department-sponsored visit to foster people-to-people exchanges with Cuban citizens…’Baseball, soccer, basketball — it's about sports, you know,’ O'Neal said. ‘We share a lot of things in common. We just want to come over here and extend our friendly hand and just start smoothing things out.’ It was great for (Obama) to reopen the door, regain a better relationship with this beautiful island,’ he added.” [AP, “Shaq Brings US Basketball Diplomacy to Cuban Capital,” 6/26/16]