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#CubaNow Briefing: Once Again, Ryan Sacrifices “Bedrock Principles” For Outdated Politics

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Jun 10, 2016


How strong is the momentum to lift the embargo? Strong enough that even in the middle of a heated election season, the number of cosponsors on legislation to lift the embargo continues to grow on all fronts. This week, more Republican members of Congress signed on to not only travel ban repeals in the House and Senate, but additional legislation to expand agricultural exports and to repeal the embargo altogether. In a political climate where just keeping the government running can be a challenge, that’s serious and steady progress. And it’s time for GOP leadership to get on board.

The leading candidates to be the next President of the United States have already stated their support for engagement. And with Sen. Jeff Flake's travel ban repeal co-sponsored by a growing majority of his colleagues in the Senate (now at 51 and counting), it seems less a matter of if than when the embargo will see one of its major pillars fall. But that will still require leaders on the Hill to get serious about Cuba as a matter of foreign policy rather than an election year wedge issue.

Nowhere else is that more obvious than in the House. Leadership was in short supply at Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s office this week, as he published a party platform calling for a blanket measure against Cuba that would effectively freeze American travel to the Island, including family travel. Ludicrously claiming that the plan would "restore U.S. leverage" with Cuba--as if the utter failure of the embargo has faded from anyone's memory--Ryan's plan is little more than red meat for those in South Florida who refuse to acknowledge that U.S.-Cuba relations are here to stay.

What is even more disappointing is the half-hearted hardline position adopted by the Speaker. You may remember that the previous Speaker of the House, John Boehner, was a critic of normalization despite his previous claims it was morally indefensible to block trade with the Island. As #CubaNow’s Ric Herrero pointed out this week in the Huffington Post, Paul Ryan also used to sing a different tune—this time on travel to Cuba. Behold the young congressman on the floor of Congress in 2002:

“Mr. Chairman, it has been the American policy from Republican presidents and Democrat presidents that we engage; it has been in the American policy that we engage the Soviet Union, that we engage China, that we, just a few minutes ago, voted to engage Vietnam.

“We should do the same with Cuba. The simple reason is that it has been a bedrock principle of American policy that travel is a device that opens closed societies. American travelers are our best ambassadors. They carry the idea of freedom to people from communist countries. There is no reason to make this exception for Cuba.”

“Travel is a device that opens closed societies.” We could not have said it better ourselves. What changed for Speaker Ryan? To put it simply, he was picked as the vice presidential candidate in 2012 by a pro-embargo candidate and “needed to be educated,” according to one pro-embargo lobbyist. That education appeared to have backfired, as exit polls showed President Obama winning a record number of Cuban American votes that year.

This year, the pro-embargo candidates couldn't even win the Republican primaries in Florida, to say nothing of the rest of the nation.

Speaker Ryan can surely see the writing on the wall. The number of Americans traveling to the Island is booming, airlines are competing for over 100 daily flights to Cuba, and states like Louisiana and Missouri are eager to open up trade. Meanwhile, the political gain from blocking normalization will fade, if not become an outright liability for Members outside of South Florida’s political arena. It’s time leaders in Congress followed through on supporting this “bedrock principle of American policy.”

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez

Political Director, #CubaNow

Why The Travel Ban Needs To Go

#CubaNow’s Ric Herrero: Facts Strongly Support That Travel To Cuba Is Boosting Autonomy On The Island. “It is still difficult to draw a direct casual relation between President Obama’s travel policy and the Cuban reforms that have coincided with his administration. Short-term political detentions may have increased, but so have street protests. What is clear, though, is that a surge in American visitors over the same period has not lead to lesser freedoms and opportunities for Cubans than those they had a decade ago. If anything, the facts strongly suggest that expanded American travel has contributed to the growing autonomy of the Cuban people.” [Huffington Post Op-Ed, “You Can’t Promote Freedom In Cuba By Denying It To Americans,” 6/6/16]

Herrero: Time For Congress To Finish The Job On Ending A Useless Travel Ban. “Restrictions on ‘tourist activities’ under TSRA continue to limit the right of U.S. citizens to freely visit Cuba and expose the Cuban people to the alternative that we represent as a nation. As Speaker of the House Paul Ryan recognized in 2002, ‘it has been a bedrock principle of American policy that travel is a device that opens closed societies.’ These words are no less true today. It is time for Congress to finish the job that the President started, and bring an end to this failed policy.” [Huffington Post Op-Ed, “You Can’t Promote Freedom In Cuba By Denying It To Americans,” 6/6/16]

The World Isn’t Waiting On The U.S. To Engage With Cuba

South Korea And Cuba Hold First Foreign Ministerial Talks In Havana. “South Korea and Cuba held their first foreign ministerial talks in Havana Sunday, breaking a decades-long absence of formal diplomatic exchanges between the two sides. South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se arrived in the Cuban capital a day earlier to attend a summit of the Association of Caribbean States. But the focus of his two-day stay was widely expected to be on relations between South Korea and Cuba, which have yet to establish formal diplomatic ties. Yun is the first South Korean foreign minister to visit Cuba. At the Palacio de Convenciones, the South Korean minister met with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, behind closed doors for what was scheduled to be a 30-minute meeting. The talks lasted an hour and 15 minutes.” [The Korea Times, “S. Korea, Cuba hold first foreign ministerial talks,” 6/6/16]

Japan Positioning Itself To Do Business With Cuba Before U.S. Sanctions Can Lift. “Japan’s largest trading houses are positioning themselves in Cuba before any easing of U.S. sanctions, seeking opportunities in infrastructure, resources and automobiles as the Caribbean nation emerges from near-isolation. Mitsubishi Corp., the nation’s largest trader, opened an office this month in Havana and is currently researching potential business deals, according to a spokesman. Mitsui & Co. will open an office as soon as September and is considering exporting Cuban nickel, according to a spokesman. Marubeni Corp. expects the removal of sanctions to unleash pent-up demand for cars and industrial machines, and the company also plans to open an office, it said earlier this year.” [Bloomberg, “Japan Trading Houses Knocking on Cuba’s Door Amid U.S. Opening,” 6/6/16]

Rich Countries Attempting To Use Debt To Win Investment Opportunities In Cuba. “Cuba's long-term trading partners are using debt forgiveness, swaps and new financing to try to win investment opportunities on the island before U.S. companies turn up following its detente with Washington. France, Italy, Japan, Spain and Russia are among the countries seeking to convince Cuba to sign contracts with their companies for projects to update the Communist-led nation's creaking infrastructure, in return for writing off debt. In December, Cuba struck a general accord with the Paris Club of wealthy nations to forgive $8.5 billion of $11.1 billion in defaulted debt and it has since reached follow-up bilateral deals with most members. Spain and France have pledged more than $700 million in outstanding Cuban debt for development projects on the island and Italy and Japan are expected to follow suit this month, their companies in line for any new business.” [Reuters, “Rich nations use Cuba debt in hopes of prying open opportunities,” 6/6/16]

Possible Prisoner Exchange Rumored

U.S. And Cuba Discussing Possible Exchange Of Prisoners. “Cuba and the United States are discussing possible exchanges of prisoners, including the release of a woman considered one of the most damaging spies in recent history, U.S. officials told NBC News. The discussions, said to be in their early stages, are part of efforts by the two countries toward normalization of diplomatic relations. Among the names floated by Cuban leaders, officials say, is Ana Montes, convicted in 2002 of spying for the Cuban government for nearly two decades while working for the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency…Among those U.S. officials would like back is Joanne Chesimard, who escaped from a New Jersey prison in 1979 where she was serving a life sentence for killing a state trooper by shooting him with his own gun at a traffic stop.” [NBC News, “Cuba Wants Convicted Spy Released In U.S. Prisoner Swap,” 6/3/16]

On The Ground In Cuba

Raul Castro Says Cuba Will Not Rejoin OAS In “Solidarity” With Venezuela. “Cuban President Raul Castro says the country will not return to the Organization of American States (OAS) in a show of solidarity with Venezuela. OAS Secretary General Luis Almargo has called for sanctions against Venezuela. At a summit of Caribbean countries in Havana, Mr Castro called the OAS ‘an instrument of imperialist domination’…Cuba was expelled from the OAS in 1962 but following a recent thaw in relations with the US it was suggested that the island might return. But Mr Castro appeared to rule out the possibility, offering ‘our most firm solidarity to our brothers the Venezuelan people, to the legitimate government of President Nicolas Maduro’.” [BBC, “Cuba will never rejoin OAS over Venezuela row, says Castro,” 6/5/16]

First American-Owned Manufacturer In Cuba Hopes To Break $100M In Sales Within A Decade. “Oggún 1.0 is expected to retail for $10,000, which is low for a tractor of this horsepower. The parts would initially be manufactured in the U.S., sent to Cuba, and assembled by Cuban workers at a planned 66,000-sq.-ft. facility in Mariel, a burgeoning port and special development zone west of Havana along Cuba’s northern coast. As the business expands, Berenthal explains, the company plans to eventually manufacture parts on-site and hire more employees. The Cuban government would take care of human resources, using criteria submitted by Cleber to find employees and negotiate salaries. The company could break $100 million in sales within 10 years if all goes well, Berenthal says. By the second year, the two hope the Mariel-based facility will be exporting tractors to other countries in Latin America.” [Bloomberg Businessweek, “Cuba’s First American-Owned Manufacturer Will Make Tractors,” 6/9/16]

Puerto Rico Planning Commercial Trade Office In Cuba. “Puerto Rico has taken the first steps toward opening a commercial office in Cuba, Governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla said on Saturday, on the sidelines of a Caribbean summit in Havana. Garcia Padilla is the first sitting Puerto Rican governor in history to visit Cuba, a ‘privilege’ he said, telling journalist that local officials and the public had treated him warmly. Garcia Padilla arrived in Havana on Thursday to attend as an observer Saturday’s summit of the Association of Caribbean States, which includes as members and associate members virtually all Caribbean Basin nations, as well as a number of islands that are not independent.” [Reuters, “Puerto Rico plans commercial office in Cuba to promote trade,” 6/4/16]

Cuban Migrants Arrive In Florida After Dangerous Journey

Cuban Migrants Arrive In Florida Aboard Boat Named The Barack Obama.” “For nine days at sea, the four men and two women in the rickety sailboat they named the Barack Obama helped one another keep hope alive. ‘Some days the seas were calm and it was easy,’ said Raymir Ricardo Badia, 26, one of the Cubans who landed on the beach in Lauderdale-by-the Sea on Monday evening. ‘But at times the weather was terrible and that's when we had to remember why we were doing this.’ The latest group of Cuban balseros to flee the island and make it to Florida said Tuesday they made the dangerous journey from their coastal hometown of Nuevitas, in Camaguey province, for the same reason given by most recent arrivals: economic opportunity.” [Sun-Sentinel, “Short on food, Cubans were buoyed in perilous voyage to Florida,” 6/7/16]

Embargo Policy Gets Called Out

White House Issues Veto Threat Over Defense Bill That Includes Ban On U.S.-Cuban Military-To-Military Contact. “The Administration strongly objects to the additional restrictions that would be placed on U.S.-Cuban military-to-military interactions. The proposed restriction would hamper pragmatic, expert-level coordination between the United States and Cuba on issues that benefit the United States. For example, the Commanding Officer of U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay and his Cuban counterpart meet monthly to share information about activities on both sides of the fence to reduce the risk of accidental escalation. While section 1204 carves out an exception for exercises and operations related to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, it does not provide an exception or waiver for counter-narcotics. In addition, section 1204 limits the ability of the Secretary of Defense to invite, assist, or assure the participation of the Government of Cuba in security conferences, where much of the multilateral preparatory work on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and counter-narcotics takes place. It is in the U.S. national security interest to maintain flexibility in U.S. military-to-military engagement with Cuba due to Cuba's proximity and the many shared challenges faced by the United States and Cuba.” [OMB, “Statement Of Administration Policy,” 6/7/16]

Houston Chronicle Editorial: U.S. And Cuba Need To Both Move Past Old Failed Policies. “Obama has repeatedly proposed getting rid of the embargo and concentrating instead on engaging with Cuba, which has fallen on deaf ears in a Republican-led Congress that apparently can't ask itself the obvious question: We do business with Vietnam and China, both run by heavy-handed Communist governments, why not do the same with Cuba? But Cuba needs to change, too. At the Communist convention, Raul Castro insisted once again that communism and one-party rule, stalwarts of the Cold War like our embargo, are the keys to maintaining sovereignty in the shadow of the United States. Our question is why? The U.S. is a powerful presence, but it is surrounded by countries that have multi-party political systems, market economies and, yes, sovereignty. The world has changed much since 1959, as Obama's visit showed, and it is time - actually well past time - for Cuba and the U.S. to move on from positions that no longer make sense and only threaten to impede progress.” [Houston Chronicle Editorial, “Cuba-U.S. relations,” 6/8/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Cubans Combating Invasive Lionfish By Putting Them On The Menu. “The problem has gotten so bad that combating the lionfish is the top item on the agenda at a summit of the Association of Caribbean States on Saturday in Havana. But Cuba isn’t waiting for regional governments to come up with a plan. It is catching lionfish and putting them on the menu. ‘We know it’s a poisonous species that has its risks… but it’s also delicious,’ said Cabrera. Lionfish has been eaten in Japan for years. And, like Cuba, a number of countries on the other side of the world are starting to experiment with it in the kitchen, including Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico and the southern United States.” [AFP, “To fight lionfish invasion, Cuba learns to cook them,” 6/4/16]