Informing, connecting &
inspiring a new conversation

Get Involved

#CubaNow Briefing: Cuba Finally Comes Up In The Presidential Debates

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Mar 11, 2016


At long last, U.S.-Cuba policy got its moment in the Democratic and Republican presidential debates this week in Miami. In the nearly twenty debates that have taken place since last summer, one of the most celebrated changes in American foreign policy had gone largely unaddressed until the circus rode into Florida – reinforcing the view that Cuba remains more of a domestic political concern than a looming national security threat.

Both remaining candidates in the Democratic debate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, openly expressed support for further engagement as a means to promote freedom in Cuba. Moderator Jorge Ramos regrettably missed an opportunity to press the candidates for further details on how their own policies would support the Cuban people, instead asking questions that seemed pulled from the debates of yesteryear. Whether or not Sanders or Clinton would meet with an aging Fidel Castro—a meeting already ruled out for President Obama’s upcoming trip—seemed a far less relevant question than how they would build on what would be two years of normalized relations by the time they entered office.

Sen. Marco Rubio’s vigorous response to Donald Trump’s comments on Cuba policy in Thursday night’s debate was little more than classic hardline posturing: rich in condemnation and bankrupt of new ideas. Only an election cycle or two ago, the senator’s rhetoric may have been indistinguishable from any other politician campaigning in South Florida. But in the post-December 17th era, Rubio’s tough talk just seemed willfully ignorant of the changes on the Island. He claimed that “nothing has changed on human rights,” and that Cuba had not opened at all since restoring relations. He lamented how the U.S. has received nothing in exchange, while the Cuban government received additional income from trade and tourism (all while his own campaign website lays out how “China Presents Challenges And Opportunities”). He laid down conditions for resuming diplomatic ties that included Cuba unilaterally moving to expel Russian and Chinese presences on the Island.

The reality, however, is that the administration’s actions have already led to far greater progress for the Cuban people than Rubio’s cherished embargo policies ever did. If Rubio’s lines sounded familiar on Thursday night, it is because they were the same exact attacks the junior senator learned while interning for Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen two decades ago. His delivery may make for catchy sound bites, but cannot be taken as a serious evaluation of our new policy’s strengths and weaknesses. In the wake of normalization, the U.S. Secretary of State met with Cuban dissidents on Cuban soil. This week, National Security Advisors Susan Rice and Ben Rhodes are meeting with Cuban civil society leaders in Washington DC and Miami. Cuba, one of the least-connected countries in the Western Hemisphere, has introduced dozens of public Wi-Fi hotspots in the past year, and last month announced it would launch a pilot program to bring residential broadband to Havana. Cuban citizens have become increasingly willing to exercise their right to free speech, and dissidents, despite (or because of) spikes in short term detentions, have become more active across the Island. These changes have not come as fast as many would like, nor have they been without setbacks. But one thing Rubio will never be able to point to is how the last five decades of the embargo accomplished any similarly positive changes.

Even if he tried, it is unclear how many are still willing to listen. The Cuban-American community has only further moved towards reconnecting with the Island since the restoration of ties. Prominent Cuban-American exiles like former U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, originally critical of the changes, have made the case for a more active role in Cuba’s future. Polls have shown Cuban-American support continue to grow to the point where a majority now favors ending the embargo. Even Rubio’s own party has left him behind, with Republicans sponsoring legislation to end the embargo and polls showing the senator trailing a candidate openly in favor of normalizing relations.

So who is left? There was Ohio Governor John Kasich, second to only Rubio last night in his hollow criticism of restored relations with Cuba. “Our friends around the world,” he warned, “they say ‘What is America doing?’” Kasich seemed unaware that the United Nations last October voted to condemn the embargo for the 24th year in a row. But if the governor was disconnected from the reality on the ground, at least he had company up on stage…for now. It turns out even in the Florida GOP’s primary race, a pro-engagement candidate is poised to win what hardliners love to call “the only poll that matters.”

Thank you for your support,
David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow

U.S.-Cuba Policy Finally Takes The Stage

Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton: Increased Diplomacy With Cuba Will Move Them Toward Greater Freedom And Respect For Human Rights. CLINTON: Well, first of all, I supported the president's moves. I helped to implement some of them leading up to the announcements when I was secretary of state, expanding travel opportunities, remittances. And I certainly told the president toward the end of my time that I hoped he would be able to move toward diplomatic relations and to make more of an impact by building up the relationship. And there are no better ambassadors for freedom, democracy and economic opportunity than Cuban Americans. So the more that we can have that kind of movement back and forth, the more likely we are to be able to move Cuba toward greater freedom, greater respect for rights. [Post-Univision Democratic Debate In Miami, 3/9/16]

Democratic Presidential Candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders: Full Normalized Relations With Cuba Will Move The Country In A More Democratic Direction. SANDERS: I believe that we should move towards full and normalized political relations with Cuba. I think at the end of the day, it will be a good thing for the Cuban people. It will enable them, I think when they see people coming into their country from the United States, move in a more democratic direction, which is what I want to see. [Post-Univision Democratic Debate In Miami, 3/9/16]

In The Wake Of Normalization, More Cubans Speaking Out

New York Times’ Ernesto Londoño: Cubans “Increasingly Pushing The Boundaries Of Free Speech.”
 “In the past, when a Cuban athlete vanished during a sporting event abroad, news about the defection would spread by word of mouth back home. There would be no official acknowledgment or mention in the state-run press. Not so with the recent defection of star baseball players and brothers Yulieski Gourriel and Lourdes Gourriel Jr. — an episode that illustrates how citizens in the most repressive country in the hemisphere are increasingly pushing the boundaries of free speech.” [New York Times, “Pushing the Boundaries of Free Speech in Cuba,” 3/7/16]

Since Normalization, “Cubans Have Begun To Debate Once-Taboo Subjects And Criticize Their Government More Boldly.”
 “The Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, published a brief article on Feb. 8 criticizing the brothers for ‘surrendering to the mercenaries’ of for-profit professional baseball. Then, something remarkable happened. Regional newspapers, which are also state-run, published pieces that provided a detailed account of the escape and dared to lament the dismal state of the country’s revered baseball league. ‘Cuban baseball has reached a point where the only things that create a stir are defections, brawls and abrupt resignations,’ a writer charged in an opinion article published late last month in the newspaper Vanguardia. It was not an isolated case. Since the United States started normalizing relations with Havana in late 2014, Cubans have begun to debate once-taboo subjects and criticize their government more boldly.” [New York Times, “Pushing the Boundaries of Free Speech in Cuba,” 3/7/16]

“The New Relationship Has Done Much To Diminish The Culture Of Fear And Obedience The State Has Long Used To Control Its Citizens.”
 “American critics of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba have called the shift in policy a failure by focusing on how rigid the socialist government has remained. They’re missing something important: The new relationship has done much to diminish the culture of fear and obedience the state has long used to control its citizens. For years, those who criticized the government paid a high price and were branded as traitors, but today Cubans from a broader cross-section of society are speaking out with less fear.” [New York Times, “Pushing the Boundaries of Free Speech in Cuba,” 3/7/16]

More Changes To Cuba Policy Ahead Of President Obama’s Trip

New York Times: High Stakes On Both Sides In Obama’s Trip To Cuba. “Both sides have a lot at stake. A successful trip could vindicate the decision by Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba to pursue an official thaw, broadcasting to both of their publics the possibilities of a new relationship and building political support in the United States for ending a decades-old trade embargo. But a misstep or public dispute has the potential to set back that goal by highlighting the deep differences that remain between the United States and Cuba. There is also the risk of dissonance in trying to open a new chapter in relations when so many of the old plotlines, including differences over human rights violations by Mr. Castro’s government, are still playing out.” [New York Times, “White House and Cuba Maneuver Over Obama’s Visit,” 3/6/16]

“There Is No Modern Template For A Sitting American President To Visit Cuba.” “Adding to the complexity and urgency of the task, there is no modern template for a sitting American president to visit Cuba, because it was nearly 90 years ago — when Calvin Coolidge arrived on a battleship — that the last one did. ‘This is new for everybody,’ said Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser, who has lured at least one former lieutenant temporarily back to the National Security Council to help. ‘There may be irritants, there may be potholes, but people in both countries want this to happen.’” [New York Times, “White House and Cuba Maneuver Over Obama’s Visit,” 3/6/16]

Obama Administration Will Announce Further Measures To Ease Trade And Travel Restrictions On March 17th. “President Barack Obama's administration will announce further measures to ease travel and trade restrictions on Cuba on March 17, ahead of his historic visit to the Communist-ruled island this month, U.S. congressional sources said on Tuesday. The new rules will mark the latest effort by Obama to use his executive powers to sidestep the U.S. Congress and chip away at the more than half-century-old U.S. economic embargo against Cuba.” [Reuters, “U.S. to announce further easing of Cuba restrictions on March 17 – sources,” 3/8/16]

New Measures Are Expected To Make Individual Travel Easier, As Well As Change Trade And Banking Rules. “The measures are expected to include changes to make it easier for individual Americans to visit Cuba if they qualify under 12 authorized categories of travel such as educational or cultural visits, as well as further loosening of trade and banking rules, said the sources, who were briefed on the matter by administration officials. Though details were still being finalized, the package could also include revised regulations on how the U.S. dollar can be used in trade with Cuba, a person familiar with the discussions said. U.S. regulations restrict or prohibit the Cuban government from using the dollar for international transactions.” [Reuters, “U.S. to announce further easing of Cuba restrictions on March 17 – sources,” 3/8/16]

Cuban Government Publishes Editorial Welcoming Obama While Insisting “We Will Not Allow Ourselves To Be Pressured On Our Internal Affairs.” “Two weeks ahead of President Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, Havana has a message for him: We’ll treat you well while you’re here, but don’t push it. ‘The president will be welcomed by the Government of Cuba and its people with the hospitality that distinguishes them and will be treated with all consideration and respect, as head of state,’ said the editorial in the Communist Party’s official newspaper Granma. But the nearly 3,000 word editorial also cautioned that, ‘No one can harbor the slightest doubt about Cuba’s unconditional adherence to its revolutionary and anti-imperialist ideals,’ and included a quote from Cuban President Raul Castro making a similar point. ‘We will not allow ourselves to be pressured on our internal affairs. We have won this sovereign right with great sacrifices,’ he said.” [Wall Street Journal, “”Cuba to Obama: Enjoy Your Visit This Month, But Mind Your Business,” 3/9/16]

White House Responds: Deeper Engagement With Cubans From All Sectors Can More Effectively Advance Interests Of The Cuban People. “The White House on Wednesday played down the talk from the Cubans ahead of the visit, which officials said would allow the U.S. to use its influence to advocate for more freedoms for the Cuban people. Mr. Obama is scheduled to visit March 20-22. ‘I’m not particularly concerned about it,’ Mr. Earnest said. ‘Our priority here, is that by more deeply engaging the Cuban government, the Cuban economy and the Cuban people, we can more effectively advance the interests of the Cuban people.’” [Wall Street Journal, “”Cuba to Obama: Enjoy Your Visit This Month, But Mind Your Business,” 3/9/16]

National Security Advisor Susan Rice Met With Cuban Civil Society Leaders To Discuss Human Rights Ahead Of President Obama’s Trip. “National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice met today with civil society leaders to discuss a wide range of human rights issues in advance of the President's trip to Cuba. Ambassador Rice took the opportunity to deepen the important dialogue on President Obama's efforts to normalize relations with Cuba and reiterated that while in Havana, President Obama will meet with Cuban independent civil society chosen by the White House. Ambassador Rice heard from each leader and emphasized that a critical focus of charting a new course with Cuba includes our continued strong support for universal values and human rights -- including respect for the right to speak freely, peacefully assembly, and associate. She emphasized that the United States would continue to highlight our support for these universal rights, in Cuba as everywhere.” [White House, “Statement by National Security Council Spokesperson Ned Price on National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice’s Meeting with Civil Society Leaders in Advance of the President’s Trip to Cuba,” 3/9/16]

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes To Meet With Young Cuban Americans To Discuss The Future Of U.S.-Cuba Relations. “Miami Dade College (MDC) and Roots of Hope will host Ben Rhodes, Assistant to President Barack Obama and Deputy National Security Advisor, for an important town meeting with young Cuban Americans regarding the future of U.S. – Cuba relations on Friday, March 11, at 10 a.m., at MDC’s Wolfson Campus in downtown Miami.” [Miami Dade College, “MDC and Roots of Hope to Host Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor, for a Town Meeting with Young Cuban Americans March 11, on the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations,” 3/9/16]

“Baseball Diplomacy” Seeking Safer Path For Cuban Players To Enter The U.S.

U.S. And Cuban Government In Talks With The MLB To Find A Way To Bring Cuban Players To The U.S. Legally. “Cuba’s communist government is trying an unusual diplomatic tool to crack the economic trade barrier with the United States: baseball. The Castro regime, the Obama administration and Major League Baseball have been privately talking for months to figure out how to allow Cuban players to come to the United States legally to play in the big leagues. It’s a move that all sides believe could bind the two countries together over their shared love of the game and be a step in normalizing relations, which President Obama has said he wants to make ‘irreversible’ before leaving office.” [Washington Post, “With Obama visit, Cubans hope for home run in baseball diplomacy,” 3/6/16]

Cuban Players Currently Have To Defect, Establish Residence, And Sign Affidavits Saying They Don’t Intend To Return To Cuba. “Currently, Cuban players have to defect, establish residency in another country and, once in the United States, sign affidavits that they are no longer welcome or that they do not plan to return to the communist island before they can join an American roster. Often, athletes flee with the help of smugglers or steal away when the team is playing in international tournaments. That’s how most of 20 Cuban athletes playing for U.S. teams found themselves guaranteed more than $130 million in salaries this year, including Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, New York Mets outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and teenage Boston Red Sox shortstop Yoan Moncada, who received a $31.5 million signing bonus.” [Washington Post, “With Obama visit, Cubans hope for home run in baseball diplomacy,” 3/6/16]

Congress Increasingly On Board With Ending The Embargo

Bipartisan Group Of At Least 20 Lawmakers Will Travel To Cuba With President Obama. “It wasn’t so long ago that a small congressional delegation’s trip to Cuba was a less-than-popular outing. But at least 20 lawmakers will accompany President Obama on his trip to Cuba this month, and many more asked for a seat aboard Air Force One. The group is bipartisan, demonstrating that some Republicans are coming around to the idea of ending a decades-old trade embargo, a policy Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba have pursued. ‘We’re getting there,’ said Senator Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who has been an early and strong ally of Mr. Obama on the issue and is a sponsor of legislation that would end prohibitions on travel to Cuba. ‘If we put that bill on the floor tomorrow,’ he said, ‘we’d have north of 60 votes.’ Mr. Flake will travel with the White House contingent, as will Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont.” [New York Times, “Despite Initial Congressional Objections, Obama’s Trip to Cuba Will Feature Full Flight,” 3/9/16]

Sen. Amy Klobuchar Calls For Lifting Restrictions So US Hotels Can Operate In Cuba. “A U.S. senator is urging the Obama administration to ease restrictions on investment in Cuba so American hotels can operate in the island nation. Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, says that as diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba improve, business opportunities will grow. In a letter sent Tuesday to the secretaries of Treasury and Commerce, Klobuchar says regulatory barriers must be removed to ensure the U.S. hospitality industry has a fair shot at competing in this emerging market. Klobuchar, who chairs the Senate Travel and Tourism Caucus, says hotel operators from Spain and the United Kingdom are already negotiating deals to build hotels in Cuba.” [AP, “Senator Urges Rule Changes So US Hotels Can Operate in Cuba,” 3/8/16]

Rep. Barbara Lee: Building Bridges With Cuba Could Help Bring Medical Advancements To Americans. “Building bridges between the two countries is something Rep. Barbara Lee has been advocating for since the late 1970s. In addition to proposing laws repealing the decades-old trade embargo and others opening up travel routes, Lee has investigated how medical technology developed by Cuban doctors could benefit Americans dealing with metabolic disorders. ‘The most uplifting part of my trips to Cuba has been meeting the Cuban people and witnessing the opportunities to bring Cuba’s many medical advances to the U.S., advances that will help Americans living with terrible diseases like diabetes and diabetic foot ulcers,’ Lee said.” [Roll Call, “Lawmakers Split Regarding Obama’s Upcoming Trip to Cuba,” 3/5/08]

Sen. Patrick Leahy Will Join President Obama On His Trip To Cuba. “Aides to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy told Roll Call the Vermont Democrat is confirmed to join Obama later this month; it will be the seventh time Leahy has traveled to Cuba throughout his career, trips that have included meetings with revolutionary leader Fidel Castro and current Cuban President Raúl Castro. The most historic voyage to date has to be flying to Havana in December 2014 with Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., to bring home Alan Gross, an American who spent five years in Cuban prisons for purportedly undermining the government. Leahy twice met with the jailed Gross and asked Pope Francis to intercede on the political prisoner’s behalf. (The pontiff did.)” [Roll Call, “Lawmakers Split Regarding Obama’s Upcoming Trip to Cuba,” 3/5/08]

Sen. Bob Corker, Chair Of The Senate Foreign Relations Committee: Embargo Could End As Early As 2017. “Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, last month said he could see the Cuban sanctions ending as early as 2017, when a new president moves into the Oval Office. ‘If Cuba were to evolve its behavior and people were able to see results from what’s happening with the executive order changes that are occurring, then I think it’s possible,’ Corker said.” [The Hill, “Business believes US embargo on Cuba to crumble,” 3/10/16]

Major Lazer And Diplo Play Major Show In Cuba

Major Lazer And Diplo Play To 450,000 Cubans In Havana. “‘I know you’ve been waiting a long time for a party like this,’ the D.J. and producer Diplo called out to a sea of pulsating young Cubans here on Sunday evening, during a free concert by his Caribbean-influenced electronic group, Major Lazer. The spectacle at a waterfront plaza known as the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform, in front of the newly established United States Embassy, was remarkable: a seemingly endless crowd of an estimated 450,000 to a half-million stylish locals, largely teenagers, bouncing, dancing and roaring to amped-up electronic dance music, or E.D.M.” [New York Times, “Diplo and Major Lazer Bring Their Brand of Music to Cuba,” 3/7/16]

Concert Was Promoted Through “El Paquete.”
 “Major Lazer’s management team and Mr. Pisani worked to stir up interest with young people in Cuba by placing Major Lazer’s work on what is known as el paquete semanal, or the weekly package, a hand-to-hand digital distribution service that spreads bootlegs of songs, YouTube videos, news, movies and TV shows around the country via hard drives and USB devices. “I paid them to put the music there with a vision for creating an audience for this concert,” Mr. Pisani said.” [New York Times, “Diplo and Major Lazer Bring Their Brand of Music to Cuba,” 3/7/16]

Cuban Government Still Barred Show From Bringing Unapproved Musicians Onstage. “Yet the show brushed up against state control for a moment as Major Lazer was barred from welcoming unapproved Cuban musicians — including the rapper Yotuel Romero of the influential Latin rap group Orishas — onstage as surprise guests. Using additional acts ‘wasn’t part of the contract,’ Mr. Pisani said. Mr. Pisani noted after the concert that Cuban officials ‘were watching us — it’s about building trust.’ ‘They are careful, because when you give the mike to a guy in front of 400,000 people … ‘ Mr. Pisani, 44, went on before trailing off. ‘They are maybe anxious, but they understand it’s important. As public servants, they have a mission to provide entertainment to that generation — to those kids who have a different expectation of life than my generation or themselves.’” [New York Times, “Diplo and Major Lazer Bring Their Brand of Music to Cuba,” 3/7/16]

¡No Me Digas!

U.S. Publishers Call On Washington To Lift Embargo On Books And Educational Materials To Cuba. “In February 2016, a delegation of approximately 40 American publishing industry representatives met with their publishing counterparts in Havana, Cuba. The two days of meetings, held with the support of the Cuban government, represented a historic milestone. Their purpose was to build bridges of understanding and explore opportunities for greater cultural and economic collaboration...The undersigned companies and individuals—drawn from the American delegation as well as other leading U.S. publishing industry participants—hereby call upon the U.S. Congress and President Obama to lift the economic embargo against Cuba as it pertains to books and educational materials. This call is consistent with the will of the American people, who, according to 2015 Gallup and Pew polls, overwhelmingly support the elimination of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba.” [Publishers Weekly, “End the Book Embargo Against Cuba,” 3/10/16]