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#CubaNow Holiday Briefing: Changes Big And Small, One Year After “D17”

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Dec 22, 2015


One year ago Thursday, news channels and the Internet lit up with the news that jailed USAID subcontractor Alan Gross was coming home and that the United States and Cuba would start restoring full relations. Noting that the embargo had failed to produce results for either the Cuban or American people after more than five decades, President Obama put it bluntly: “It’s time for a new approach.”

In the year since, we’ve seen both the successes and difficulties that come with restoring ties several generations after they were severed between our two countries.

For Cuban-Americans, majority support for policy change has steadily increased along with the growing acknowledgement that the embargo policy has failed. 2015 saw many exiles returning to the Island for the first time in decades. A new survey by Bendixen & Amandi offered further proof that a growing majority of Cuban-Americans support both normalization and ending the embargo. And this weekend, a group of prominent Cuban-Americans returning from a trip to the Island published a full-page ad in the Miami Herald calling on the community to support the changes as the best move forward for “nuestra gente.”

In Cuba itself, normalization has brought progress in some areas, while accentuating the need for reform in others. For the first time, the Cuban government has installed dozens of WiFi hotspots for a population overwhelmingly eager to get online. Cultural exchanges between U.S. and Cuban entrepreneurs have become the new normal, while a 50% jump in the number of Americans flying to Cuba has unsurprisingly coincided with a spike in Cuban hotel, restaurant and manufacturing cooperatives.

At the same time, Cuba has made increasing use of arbitrary detentions and short-term arrests in response to growing demand for more changes from its government, which also reinstated a deeply unpopular permit requirement for health workers traveling abroad. It may not be a surprise that normalization provoked a regressive response from Cuba’s own hardliners—in fact, some dissidents have taken it as a sign their grip is slipping—but this time the U.S. has made a much less convincing scapegoat.

And in maybe the fastest turnaround in U.S.-Cuba relations, the past year saw Washington drop the embargo as a third-rail issue. Congressional hardliners have hardly been at rest: Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart has tried repeatedly to roll back Americans’ right to travel to Cuba by inserting policy riders into must-pass appropriations bills; Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio have carried out petty political retribution against administration officials who were involved in the diplomatic negotiations; Congressman Carlos Curbelo has attempted to blame normalization for the migration crisis, ignoring that his own colleagues are responsible for fanning speculation that the Adjustment Act will soon end. But far from a rallying cry against President Obama, Cuba has proven to be the one area of foreign policy that both Democrats and Republicans can openly agree on, with conservatives in Congress throwing more support towards engagement than ever before. Not many would have predicted a year ago that the Republican-held Congress would be this welcome to revising policy, but it’s an encouraging sign for the year to come.

We knew when we started down this path that the differences between the U.S. and Cuba would not be hammered out in the course of twelve months, and that the push for greater freedoms in Cuba would at times be painful as the government wrestled with opening up to not just millions of Americans but increased international scrutiny. But what we also know is that the past year saw more engagement than ever between Cubans and Americans, and that the benefits for both countries when choosing the hard work of diplomacy are substantial. A year from now, we’ll have a new president-elect waiting to take office. And for the first time ever, the possibility that they do so without a U.S. embargo in place is real.

Thanks again for your support over these past two years. We wish you and yours a Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and many blessings for 2016!

David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow

President Obama On U.S.-Cuba Relations, One Year Later

President Obama: Cuba Policy Is About Increasing Exposure To The U.S. To Lay The Foundations For Further Change Down The Road. “Obama, who has always said that political change would not come ‘overnight’ to Cuba, predicted that Havana would be ‘cautious’ about opening up but that political reform would likely follow economic exchange as well as increased exposure to American culture and Western technology. ‘Our original theory on this was not that we were going to see immediate changes or loosening of the control of the Castro regime, but rather that over time you’d lay the predicates for substantial transformation,’ he said. ‘The more that they see the benefits of U.S. investment, the more that U.S. tourist dollars become woven into their economy, the more that telecommunications is opened up so that Cubans are getting information, unfettered by censorship, the more you’re laying the foundation for the bigger changes that are going to be coming over time,’ he added.” [Yahoo! News, “Obama wants to meet with dissidents in Cuba,” 12/14/15]

Obama: U.S. Would Continue To Push Cuba On Democratic Reform And Human Rights, As Well As Allowing The Direct Hiring Of Cubans By Foreign Investors. “Obama said the United States would ‘keep on pushing and prodding’ Cuba on democratic reform and human rights, and he pressed Castro to let more foreign investors hire Cubans directly, rather than going through the government. Experts say that the government uses outside investments – like luxury resorts – as a de facto patronage system, giving eagerly sought jobs to loyalists. ‘A real game changer would be a situation in which you have a direct employer-employee relationship. Because then the higher standards of a U.S. company or a foreign company would make a big difference,’ he said. ‘If they want the full benefits of rejoining the world economy, then they’re going to have to accelerate reforms that are needed,’ Obama said.” [Yahoo! News, “Obama wants to meet with dissidents in Cuba,” 12/14/15]

Obama: “The United States Is In A Stronger Position To Engage The People And Governments Of Our Hemisphere.” “One year ago, I announced that after more than 50 years, America would change its relationship with Cuba and put the interests of the people of both countries before the outdated ways of the past. Since then, we have taken important steps forward to normalize relations between our countries—re-establishing diplomatic relations and opening embassies; facilitating greater travel and commerce; connecting more Americans and Cubans; and promoting the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba. We are advancing our shared interests and working together on complex issues that for too long defined—and divided—us. Meanwhile, the United States is in a stronger position to engage the people and governments of our hemisphere. Congress can support a better life for the Cuban people by lifting an embargo that is a legacy of a failed policy.” [The White House, “Statement By The President on the Anniversary of Cuba Policy Changes,” 12/17/15]-

Normalization’s Slow But Steady Progress…

USA Today’s Alan Gomez: Every Day That Passes Gives Americans And Cubans Something New To Hold On To. “Yet as we mark the anniversary of that historic announcement, it's become clear that there is no turning back from this new relationship. I say that not to declare Obama's gamble an unquestionable success. The Castros are still firmly in place, communists still run Cuba's government and Cubans continue being arrested daily for voicing opposition to the regime. But every day that passes also gives somebody — either a U.S. or Cuban citizen — a new privilege, a new business contract, a new right that they will hold onto as hard as they can. And that means that the U.S. and Cuban governments risk enraging a growing portion of their populations if they try to take any of those benefits away.” [USA Today, “One year later, U.S.-Cuba bonds deepen,” 12/15/15]

Cuban-American Attorney Pedro Freyre: “Things That Have Been A Certain Way For 55 Years Cannot Suddenly Change In 12 Months.” “That date, Dec. 17, has now become etched into the minds of Cubans as a turning point in their history. Much has changed in the past year. Americans can get to the island easier, and they're taking advantage of it by flooding Havana in record numbers. More Cubans are also traveling to the U.S. to attend conferences and meet with potential business partners. Communications on the island are better, and there are signs that business is on the verge of exploding. ‘We're breathing a different air in Cuba,’ said Hiram Centelles, a Cuban technology entrepreneur who in 2007 created Revolico, a Craigslist-style classifieds website that has flourished despite the government's tight controls over the Internet and the Cuban economy. But much has also remained the same in Cuba, a country still controlled by the Castro family and its Communist government. As Pedro Freyre, an attorney at the Miami-based Akerman law firm put it: ‘Things that have been a certain way for 55 years cannot suddenly change in 12 months.’” [USA Today, “One year later: What's changed -- and what hasn't -- in U.S.-Cuba relations,” 12/15/15]

Cuba Expert William LeoGrande: “For The First Time In 50 Years, There Is Hope” That Claims Will Be Settled. “For the U.S., clearing up the claims issue means scabbing over a wound that's never been allowed to heal. And, for the Cubans, resolving the claims issue is arguably even more important, because, most experts say, it's a prerequisite for Congress to lift the embargo. ‘I think it would be tough to get Congress to lift the embargo if you hadn't had some movement on the issue of claims,’ LeoGrande says. ‘The embargo can't be lifted without those claims being settled,’ Kelly agrees. But, for the first time in 50 years, there is hope—on both sides of the Florida straits.” [Newsweek, “As U.S. and Cuba Dispute Compensation for Seized Property, Those Who Lost Look To Future,” 12/13/15]

Alan Gross Calls For Warmer Ties With Cuba One Year After His Release. “Alan Gross, who was imprisoned for five years in Cuba for his work connecting its Jewish community to the Internet, marked the one-year anniversary of his release pledging to advance warmer U.S.-Cuba ties. In a statement issued Wednesday, Gross thanked those who supported him while in prison and announced he will soon be a grandfather for the first time. ‘I am also gratified to witness a newfound diplomatic relationship between Cuba and the United States,’ said Gross, 66, who was a subcontractor for the U.S. government when he was arrested in 2009 and later sentenced to 15 years for crimes against the state. ‘I hope this new – and historic – relationship continues to evolve in a positive way. While I served as an involuntary catalyst for this change, I hope now to help foster continued good relations between our countries and our citizens.’” [JTA, “One 1st anniversary of his release, Alan Gross calls for warmer ties with Cuba,” 12/9/15]

Cuban Journalist Rafael Hernández: U.S.-Cuba Relations Have Traded A Boxing Ring For A Chessboard. “Cuban officials this year have tried to push back at public perceptions that Obama is a friend and that the United States is no longer a threat or a foe. Relations will not be truly normal, they insist, until Washington lifts its trade embargo, closes the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay and makes reparations for a ­half-century of economic sanctions and other grievances. Yet the rivalry has morphed from hostile confrontation into something more sportsmanlike: a low-intensity contest to set the pace of change, with Washington trying to move faster and Cuba preferring slow, cautious steps. As Rafael Hernández, editor of the Cuban journal Temas, put it: ‘We’ve traded a boxing ring for a chessboard.’” [Washington Post, “Cuba is and isn’t changing a year after the thaw with the United States,” 12/15/15]

Bipartisan Cuba Working Group Forms In Congress To Promote More Engagement.
 “On the one-year anniversary of the U.S. taking a big step toward normalizing relations with Cuba, a dozen lawmakers are creating a new coalition dedicated to furthering the relationship that was frozen for more than 50 years. ‘Increasingly, the American people are indicating their desire for a new, more pragmatic approach to Cuba,’ the 12-member steering committee wrote to Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., in a letter dated Wednesday. ‘More people are traveling from the U.S. to Cuba, more businesses are looking for opportunity on the island, and more sectors are eager for trade. The bipartisan Cuba Working Group will promote a U.S.-Cuba policy that reflects the interests of the American people in engagement with Cuba.’” [Washington Examiner, “New Cuba caucus aims for ‘more pragmatic approach,’” 12/16/15]

Cuban Diplomat Josefina Vidal: Even With Differences Between The U.S. And Cuba, Closer Ties Will Benefit Both Countries. “Vidal concluyó que ‘aún con las diferencias que existen entre nuestros países, unos mejores vínculos solo reportarán beneficios para ambas naciones y para sus pueblos. Pensamos realmente que un modelo de coexistencia civilizada será la mejor contribución que nosotros po­dremos dejar a las presentes y futuras generaciones de Cuba y EE.UU. y a toda la región’.” [Granma, “Cuba y EE.UU. han obtenido avances, asegura Josefina Vidal,” 12/17/15]

One Year After Normalization, Tampa Well Into Making The Most Of Relations Between The U.S. And Cuba. “If there were any doubts Tampa was eager to make the most of better relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the year since it happened puts them to rest. Civic and elected officials have advocated for a Cuban consulate here, started cultural exchange programs, forged an environmental research partnership and welcomed Cuban dignitaries to both sides of the bay. Pundits call it D-17, a year ago Thursday, Dec. 17, 2014, when President Barack Obama announced the two countries had agreed to work toward normalizing relations after five decades of isolation from one another. ‘This has been the most remarkable year of progress in normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba,’ said U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, citing the opening of embassies in both countries in 2015 as the peak. ‘Tampa played a critical role in making that happen by building continued support for normalization that Washington could not ignore. I believe the entire Tampa area will continue to do so.’” [TBO, “Tampa makes Cuba inroads in first year of normalization,” 12/15/15]

…And The Work That Remains

Miami Herald: American Regulations Have Expanded Opportunities In Cuba, “But It Takes Two To Tango,” And Cuba Still Hasn’t Green-lit Many Of Them. “It was apparent after the first round of normalization talks in Havana in January that rapprochement would be a slow process, he said. Some Americans imagined that U.S. companies with all their technical know-how would rapidly expand Internet access on the island or that Americans would be able to pick up a charger for their cellphone at a U.S. mobile storefront in Havana, soon be visiting Cuba via a ferry from Miami, and pulling out credit cards issued by U.S. banks to pay for their hotel stays and to withdraw cash from ATM machines in Cuba. All are theoretically possible under new U.S. rules, but it takes two to tango, and Cuba is yet to green-light any of those opportunities. Even though U.S. companies are free to form partnerships with Cuban government entities to improve the island’s Internet and telecom infrastructure, the only deals announced so far have been a few roaming and direct-connect arrangements. This summer, Cuba began rolling out new public Wi-Fi hotspots that now number 50, but most Cubans don’t have regular access to the Internet and desire for connectivity is huge.” [Miami Herald, “Cuba relations: A year of change,” 12/16/15]

While Number Of Political Prisoners In Cuba Have Fallen Sharply, Political Arrests Are “Way Up.” “Human rights is among the more contentious issues between the two countries. While the United States has criticized the jailing of dissidents and insisted on the importance of respecting basic civil rights, such as freedom of speech, press and assembly, Cuba views human rights through a somewhat different prism of social well-being, emphasizing its free healthcare as an example of respect for human rights. Although the number of political prisoners has fallen sharply in the past year, the number of political arrests is way up. Through November, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation has documented 7,686 political arrests, most resulting in short-term detentions of a few hours or days. [Miami Herald, “Cuba relations: A year of change,” 12/16/15]

Top UN Human Rights Official Calls On Cuba To End Harassment And Respect Human Rights. “The top United Nations human rights official expressed concern today over the extremely high number of arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions of individuals, including human rights defenders and dissidents, in Cuba in recent weeks. There have been many hundreds of arbitrary arrests and short-term detentions – which in my view amount to harassment – in the past six weeks alone, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said today. These often take place without a warrant and ahead of specific meetings or demonstrations, and seem to be aimed at preventing people from exercising their right to freedom of expression and to peaceful assembly, he continued.” [UN News Centre, “UN rights chief urges Cuba to halt harassment of activists and respect human rights,” 12/15/15]

Cuba Reaches Agreement With Paris Club To Pay Billions In Debt.
 “Cuba has reached a deal with its creditors where the county will pay $2.6 billion in arrears over an 18-year period while $4 billion of its debt will be forgiven. The deal comes after months of negotiations between the Communist nation and the Paris Club, an informal group of developed creditor nations. The talks stem from Cuba’s lingering $16 billion debt which it defaulted in 1986. The French Treasury, which heads the group, said in a statement the Paris Club ‘welcomed progress made by the Republic of Cuba towards the normalization of its relations with creditors and the international financial community.’” [Wall Street Journal, “Cuba Reaches Deal to Pay $2.6 Billion in Arrears to Paris Club,” 12/12/15]

Bloomberg: U.S. And Cuba Should Aim For A “Grand Bargain” On Claims That Would Reach A Modest Financial Agreement While Investing In Cuba’s Future. “The U.S. figures rely heavily on guesswork, Cuba's on magical thinking. There's ample room to negotiate. Ten companies account for half the value of the U.S. claims, and some might happily accept stakes in new investments on the island in exchange; Cuba could easily afford the $229 million cost of the 5,014 claims made by individual U.S. citizens. Rather than going over each claim with a green eyeshade, the parties should aim for a "grand bargain" like the one suggested by a recent Brookings Institution report. This would fold a realistically modest financial settlement into a larger bundle of agreements to lift sanctions, promote trade and investment, offer development assistance, and bind Cuba to undertake faster and deeper economic reforms.” [Bloomberg View, “Investing in Cuba’s Future,” 12/14/15]

Senators Press Obama To Take Further Actions On Cuba Policy. “A bipartisan pair of senators is pressing the Obama administration to take more executive actions in 2016 to increase the chances that Congress will act to lift the Cuba embargo. Sens. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), two of Congress’s strongest supporters of President Barack Obama‘s Cuba policy, said in a letter to Mr. Obama Wednesday that he should further loosen travel, export and financial regulations and tap a senior official to coordinate the administration’s Cuba regulation reform…’The coming year represents a critical opportunity for meaningful advancement of these objectives,’ they said in the letter. ‘Within the finite time remaining, continued progress in the regulatory arena represents the best strategy for resilient changes in the U.S. and Cuba as well as increasing the prospects that Congress will act.’” [Wall Street Journal, “Senators Urge Obama Administration to Further Loosen Cuba Rules,” 12/16/15]

The Economist: Excitement Over New Cuba Policy Has Been Tempered By Realism, But Few Expect The Next President To Roll It Back. “A year on, the excitement is tempered by realism. On the diplomatic front, progress has been significant. After the reopening of embassies, talks have begun on substantive issues, ranging from law-enforcement co-operation to human rights, organised under the aegis of a new Cuba-United States steering committee…Making the most of the diplomatic opening will take political will on both sides. Nobody expects the United States to lift the embargo before its election in 2016. But few expect a Republican president to roll back the new policy. Polls show bipartisan support for it; many Cuban-Americans approve. However, lifting the embargo will require lobbying by business—and encouragement from Havana. ‘Facts on the ground in Cuba will do more to change [American] policy than anything else,’ says Jeff Flake, a Republican senator who favours lifting it.” [The Economist, “Lots of diplomacy, not many dollars,” 12/12/15]

The Economist: Cuba’s “Brain Drain” And Possible Weakening Of Support From Venezuela Could Push More Reform In Cuba. “Several things are conspiring for change on the island. One is the weakening grip on power of Venezuela’s hard-left government: the withdrawal of its subsidised oil could cut 8% from Cuba’s GDP over four years, reckons Pavel Vidal, an economist. Then there is Cuba’s continued brain drain. Fears that the United States will abolish a provision that allows legal entry to any Cuban who reaches its soil has prompted a mini-stampede. In the year to September almost 45,000 Cubans arrived, nearly double the previous year’s figure. Several thousand have been stuck on Costa Rica’s border with Nicaragua for weeks, in a faint echo of Europe’s migrant crisis. Last month scores staged a rare public demonstration in Havana against the decision by Ecuador—the favoured transit point—to require a visa.” [The Economist, “Lots of diplomacy, not many dollars,” 12/12/15]

Likely Castro Successor Miguel Diaz-Canel Will Face Pressure To Accelerate Pace Of Economic Reform. “In 2018 Raúl Castro plans to step down. His likely successor, Miguel Díaz-Canel, lacking the revolutionary aura of the Castros, will face pressure to improve living standards. The obvious way of doing that is by accelerating the pace of economic reform. The diplomatic thaw is almost certainly a prologue to bigger changes.” [The Economist, “Lots of diplomacy, not many dollars,” 12/12/15]

New Poll: Cuban-American Support For Normalization Only Continues To Grow

New Poll Shows “Striking Shift” Towards Cuban-American Support For Normalization With Cuba.
 “Cuban Americans around the United States, at first wary of President Barack Obama’s recognition of the Castro government, now strongly support it. And for the first time, an absolute majority support lifting the U.S. embargo against the island, according to a new opinion poll released Thursday…A Bendixen & Armandi poll taken just after Obama’s announcement last year showed that 48 percent of Cuban Americans opposed diplomatic recognition of the Castro government, and only 44 percent supported it, with the rest undecided… But in Wednesday’s poll, support had risen to 56 percent, while opposition shrank to 36 percent. Perceptions of the president’s overall Cuban policy have undergone a similar dramatic shift. Last year, 60 percent of Cuban Americans held a negative opinion and only 33 percent a positive opinion. In the new poll, Cuban Americans support Obama’s policy by 46 percent to 44 — a slim margin, to be sure, and within the survey’s margin of error, but a striking shift nonetheless.” [Miami Herald, “Poll: Cuban-Americans warming to Obama’s policies toward the island,” 12/17/15]

#CubaNow: Survey Not Only Shows Most Cuban-Americans Believe The Embargo Should End, But That Cuban-American Republican Support For The Embargo Doesn’t Even Break 50%. “The survey also showed 53% of Cuban-Americans believed the embargo should end, up from 47% this April. More strikingly, support for the embargo among Cuban-American Republicans failed to even break a majority: only 46% support its continuation while 42% believe it should end. And for those who believe support for ending the embargo comes just from those who want to go on vacation or invest in the Island, the majority of those surveyed also answered that they had not traveled to Cuba and had no plans to make a trip anytime in the near future. It’s not difficult to surmise that the increasing Cuban-American support for ending the embargo comes from a growing acknowledgment that the policy has failed.” [#CubaNow, “New Poll Shows Majority Cuban-American Support For Normalization,” 12/17/15]

Prominent Cuban-American Business Leaders Publish Full-Page Advertisement In Support Of Engagement

Cuban-American Business Leaders Publish “An Open Letter To Our Fellow Cuban-Americans.” “Earlier this month, nearly a year to the day President Barack Obama shocked Cuban Americans with the news that the U.S. would reestablish relations with the Castro regime, a group of Cuban-American business people, almost all from Miami, quietly traveled to the island to see for themselves what, if anything, had changed. Most of the 10 men — even a couple of otherwise staunch conservatives — returned convinced that stronger ties to the U.S. would help Cubans. They published a full-page advertisement in Sunday’s Miami Herald urging others to join their cause. Its title: ‘An Open Letter to Our Fellow Cuban-Americans.’ [Miami Herald, “Business leaders pen ‘open letter’ urging fellow Cuban Americans to embrace U.S. policy changes,” 12/20/15]

Republican Support For Engagement On The Rise

Politico: Republican Opposition To The Embargo Quickly Fading. “As President Barack Obama plots a path to Cuba, the big question isn’t whether he’ll visit the island during his final year in office. It's how many Republicans will beat him there. A year after the U.S. and Cuba announced they would restore diplomatic ties, Republican resistance to the idea has faded to the point that some insiders predict the next Congress will lift the U.S. embargo on the communist-led island. A GOP-led Senate panel has already voted to lift an oft-circumvented ban on travel to Cuba. A Republican is spearheading a House bill to end the U.S. embargo. And Republican lawmakers and governors are hopping on planes to check out the scene in Havana. Just days ago, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who revels in suing the Obama administration, became the second GOP governor to visit Cuba since diplomatic ties were restored, and he spoke glowingly of the potential for economic cooperation.” [Politico, “GOP falling for Cuba’s allure,” 12/17/15]

GOP Shift Comes As Polls Show Republican Voters Favor Increased Engagement With Cuba. “The GOP shift comes as polls show that a majority of Americans, including Republican voters, favor increased engagement with Cuba. U.S. firms are scouring the island for business opportunities, and pressure is growing on Congress to rescind Cold War-era restrictions including the embargo and travel ban imposed after diplomatic relations were severed in 1961. Both require congressional action to lift. On Wednesday, a bipartisan group of House members announced it would launch a ‘Cuba Working Group’ that ‘will seek to draw attention to how reforms in the U.S. and Cuba are opening new opportunities for commercial, diplomatic and people-to-people relationships.’” [Politico, “GOP falling for Cuba’s allure,” 12/17/15]

Engage Cuba’s James Williams On GOP Support For The Embargo: “If This Had Any Vote Traction Whatsoever, Somebody Would Be Talking About It.” “When asked about whether they'd support lifting the embargo or similar legislation, ‘most Republican lawmakers that we deal with are in the camp of “I don’t care. I don’t want Mario and Ileana to yell at me, but I’d vote for it if it came up,”’ said James Williams, president of the Engage Cuba coalition…For many insiders, however, what's been most intriguing is that Cuba barely gets a mention on the campaign trail, suggesting Republicans don't think it's a winning issue to push. ‘Nobody brings it up. It doesn’t come up at one debate from a moderator,’ Williams said. "If this had any vote traction whatsoever, somebody would be talking about it.” [Politico, “GOP falling for Cuba’s allure,” 12/17/15]

Former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez: “I Think You’ll See A Lot More Republicans Shifting Their Position.” “Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban American and former Commerce secretary in the Bush administration, said business executives who travel to Cuba increasingly find that the U.S. embargo stands in the way of deals despite the steps Mr. Obama took. Pressure on that front could move the needle in Congress, which alone has the authority to dissolve the embargo. ‘There are a lot of businesses that would like to see Cuba open up. Those businesses in some cases have done a good job explaining to their representatives why opening up Cuba would be good,’ said Mr. Gutierrez, who reversed his long-standing support of the embargo this year. ‘I think you’ll see a lot more Republicans shifting their position.’” [Wall Street Journal, “A Year After U.S.-Cuba Relations Shift, Slow Progress Toward Normalization,” 12/17/15]

Republican Congressman Tom Emmer “Optimistic” About Lifting The Embargo. “Rep. Tom Emmer (R., Minn.), who introduced a bill this summer in the House to lift the embargo and launched a bipartisan Cuba policy group in the House this week, said he has been meeting with Republicans to try to rally them around lifting the embargo. Even those who are staunch critics of doing so have told him they see it as inevitable, he said in an interview. ‘I’m optimistic for next year,’ he said. ‘The issue really is nobody has sat down and had this discussion out of respect for just a small group within the conference. And we’re going to force the conversation. It’s time.” [Wall Street Journal, “A Year After U.S.-Cuba Relations Shift, Slow Progress Toward Normalization,” 12/17/15]

U.S. And Cuba Reach Agreement On Direct Commercial Flights

U.S. And Cuba Reach Agreement To Allow Direct Commercial Flights To The Island. Cuba and the United States reached an agreement Wednesday night that will allow U.S. commercial airlines to begin operating flights to the island for the first time in decades, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the discussion. The understanding comes on the eve of the first anniversary of the announcement that the two countries would restore diplomatic ties and turn the page on a half-century of animosity. The agreement — which will allow carriers such as United Airlines, American Airlines and JetBlue to fly to Cuba — is a significant breakthrough that should greatly simplify travel between the countries. [Washington Post, “Cuba, U.S. reach agreement to resume direct passenger flights,” 12/16/15]

Experts Predict Three To Six Months Before U.S. Carriers Can Sell Tickets To Cuba. “The deal does not mean that Americans will be able to begin booking travel to Cuba immediately. But it would set in motion the safety inspections and other procedures required by the Federal Aviation Administration when such an agreement is reached. Experts say it will probably be three to six months before U.S. carriers can begin selling tickets to Cuba.” [Washington Post, “Cuba, U.S. reach agreement to resume direct passenger flights,” 12/16/15]-

Cuba’s Migration Crisis Continues Unabated

Costa Rican President: Costa Rica Can’t Continue To Support Cuban Migrants Indefinitely. “Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis will tell Cuban President Raul Castro his Central American country is unable to continue caring for thousands of Cuban migrants indefinitely, seeking to force a resolution to the month-long crisis. Solis arrived in Cuba on Sunday for the first official visit by a Costa Rican president in 72 years with nearly 5,000 Cuban migrants stranded on his country's northern border with Nicaragua as they seek to reach the United States…’We cannot maintain this task indefinitely,’ Solis said of the effort by national and local officials, churches and private companies to support the Cubans, most of them living in shelters. ‘With all brotherly frankness, I will pose this in meetings to be held with the presidents of the SICA (Central American Integration System) and in Havana with President Raul Castro,’ Solis said in an address broadcast in Costa Rica.” [Reuters, “Costa Rica to tell Cuba it cannot keep aiding stalled migrants,” 12/13/15]

Miami Congressman Carlos Curbelo Files Legislation To End Aid To Some Cuban Refugees. “A Miami Republican lawmaker is proposing some legislation that would dramatically change policies the United States has had with Cuba for decades. Rep. Carlos Curbelo is filing legislation that would end aid to some Cuban refugees. Curbelo stresses this will not amend the Cuban Adjustment Act. He said he simply wants to stop the abuse by some Cubans who take advantage of the benefits they receive, and limit the help to those who flee solely because they are politically persecuted. ‘I wanted to tell you about an important bill that I've introduced. The Cuban Immigrant Work Opportunity Act.’ In a video, Rep. Curbelo explained why he believes only certain Cuban immigrants should be eligible to receive refugee assistance…’Unfortunately, today there are some Cubans who are blatantly abusing our country's generosity,’ Curbelo said. He said he does not want to cut access to refugee aid for all Cubans. He thinks it should be preserved for people who can prove they are politically persecuted, ‘It would be exactly the same as anyone who comes to us with an asylum claim.’” [NBC6, “Lawmaker Proposes Legislation to Change US Policies With Cuba,” 12/15/15]

Democracy Movement’s Ramon Raul Sanchez: Curbelo’s Bill Could Send The Wrong Signal To People In Cuba And Have A Negative Impact On Migration Crisis. “Although Curbelo's bill does not modify the Cuban Adjustment Act, others believe the lawmaker's proposal can have a negative impact on the migration crisis at the Costa Rica Border with Nicaragua. ‘I think the abuses can be dealt with through regulations. I think it's a very critical moment in which it could be an irresponsible attitude to bring this issue up at this point because of the signals it could send to the people in Cuba,’ said Ramon Saul Sanchez, Democracy Movement. NBC 6 also asked Curbelo whether he believes his announcement will prompt another mass exodus. He said what prompted a mass exodus in the first place is President Obama's policy toward Cuba.” [NBC6, “Lawmaker Proposes Legislation to Change US Policies With Cuba,” 12/15/15]

Curbelo Blamed Normalization For Migrant Crisis. “Curbelo disagrees with President Barack Obama’s renewed diplomatic relations with Cuba, saying the move pushed thousands of Cubans to leave the island in the past year, many of them getting stuck in Central America as they tried to trek to the U.S.-Mexico border. ‘Our Cuba immigration policy is flawed, and the Administration has made matters worse by recognizing the Cuban dictatorship as a legitimate government,’ he said in a statement.” [Miami Herald, “Miami Republican files legislation in Congress to end automatic benefits for Cuban immigrants,” 12/15/15]

Major League Baseball Visits Cuba

Cuban MLB Players Make “Triumphant Return” To The Island. “A lineup of Cuban-born baseball stars made a triumphant return to the island as part of the first Major League Baseball trip in years. Once officially bad-mouthed in Cuba for leaving the country illegally, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Brayan Pena of the St. Louis Cardinals and José Abreu of the Chicago White Sox were swarmed by fans and members of the state media Tuesday at the start of a three-day mission to warm relations between Major League Baseball (MLB) and Cuba. The major leagues and Cuban baseball have been moving to rebuild ties since Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro declared a year ago that they would reestablish relations between the two governments.” [AP, “Cuba welcomes baseball players who left the country illegally,” 12/16/15]

MLB Officials “Cautiously Optimistic” About Late-Spring Exhibition Game In Cuba. “A top Major League Baseball executive said Tuesday officials are ‘cautiously optimistic’ governmental approvals and details will be worked out for the Rays to play two late-spring exhibition games in Cuba. Chief Legal Officer Dan Halem told USA Today MLB officials hope to begin talks with Cuban officials about logistics during this week's goodwill visit to Havana. Approval from both governments are necessary. ‘We're cautiously optimistic we'll be able to play here next March, though nothing has been decided,’ Halem said in Havana.” [Tampa Bay Times, “MLB ‘cautiously optimistic’ Rays’ trip to Cuba gets approved,” 12/15/15]

CBS Sports’ David Brown: MLB Players’ Trip To Cuba “Afforded Them A Chance To See Family And Friends Who, At One Time, Seemed Cut Off Forever.” “In the wake of restored and thawing relations between the governments of Cuba and the United States, ambassadors from Major League Baseball have gone to Havana to promote and celebrate the game. The bilateral benefits of growing a relationship between MLB and Cuba are obvious, even if it's to be seen how quickly and extensively they will bear fruit. But one big positive already has come of it. Many of the visiting major leaguers are Cuban-born -- players such as Jose Abreu of the White Sox, and Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers -- and the trip has afforded them a chance to see family and friends who, at one time, seemed cut off forever.” [CBS Sports, “MLB players visit Cuba officially for first time since 1999,” 12/15/15]

“Hopefully Their Presence In Cuba Eventually [Will] Lead To Better Lives For The People Who Live There.” “What matters more than the occasional exhibition game, or making Cuba into a place for MLB to re-plant minor-league baseball teams, or even regulating the flow of Cuban talent into the majors, is the effect that normalizing relations with the United States will have on families. These ballplayers are lucky to be among the first to have an opportunity to reunite with their loved ones, but hopefully their presence in Cuba eventually lead to better lives for the people who live there. It's still a long way away -- but perhaps we'll look on this pilgrimage as a beginning to something truly transformative. We know baseball can have that kind of power.” [CBS Sports, “MLB players visit Cuba officially for first time since 1999,” 12/15/15]