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#CubaNow Briefing: President Obama Announces Historic Trip To Cuba

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Feb 19, 2016


This week was already shaping up to be a momentous one for U.S.-Cuba relations, with the restoration of commercial flights and renewed talks on strengthening economic ties. But even those developments were dwarfed by President Obama officially announcement yesterday that he would be traveling to Cuba next month. His visit will mark the first time in nearly 90 years that a sitting American president visits the Island, and it is a trip with a potential to leave a lasting impression on the Cuban people.

Much will be written about what this trip means for President Obama’s legacy or the impact it will have on the 2016 campaigns, but far more important is what this means for the 11 million Cubans living on the Island. There are understandably mixed feelings about a presidential trip, with a poll released last December showed the Cuban-American community is still divided on the idea. Many see it as a sort of reward for the Castro government or an endorsement of their human rights record. But as #CubaNow’s Ric Herrero pointed out last month, there could not be a better time for the Cuban people to receive an American president. With the number of changes and challenges Cuba faces in the years ahead—including President Raúl Castro retiring in 2018, the end of the dual currency system, and a continuing migrant crisis—a tangible display of solidarity with our neighbors could send a powerful signal to generations of Cubans. And given that the president enjoys popularity ratings in Cuba higher than either of the Castros, the odds are strongly likely it will.

Naturally, the hardline members of Congress are already criticizing the trip before it has even happened, with Sen. Ted Cruz even claiming Obama will go and “essentially act as an apologist.” We might not expect much depth on diplomacy from someone reportedly unable to maintain working relations with his own Senate colleagues. But more than anything, the protests of a presidential trip are a strange reaction from legislators who have long defended “democracy programs” that ostensibly sought to promote American values inside Cuba. These are the same politicians who have argued that a plane broadcasting a jammed radio signal towards the Island was “effective” and that the failed “Cuban Twitter” was a worthwhile effort that would somehow improve Cubans’ lives. So how do they then turn around and argue the opposite when it comes to a visit from the President of the United States, the most powerful symbol of American values we have?

The truth is they can’t, and so opponents of normalization like Sen. Marco Rubio inhabit a different reality, where “the United States possessed significant economic and diplomatic leverage over the Castro regime” before President Obama squandered it all, as the senator claimed in a letter yesterday. But we know different. We know that if your policy accomplishes approximately zero goals over five decades, you never had “economic and diplomatic leverage.” We know that presidential trips are not reserved solely for America’s closest allies, but for when bold steps need to be taken with less friendly nations. Because unlike the world Congressional hardliners live in, diplomacy does not consist of grandstanding and refusing to act until a country accommodates itself to your demands. It is the hard work of hammering out differences and finding areas of mutual interest—something the American people have already figured out. President Obama has already promised to address human rights issues when he visits the Island, and it is a promise we’ll hold him to. But as his visit to Myanmar showed, it is a promise with precedent. And unlike many of the failed programs embargo supporters have launched over the years—including those under the Obama administration—the president’s message is bound to reach millions of Cubans.

Finally, while you may hear lots of talk about how Obama’s trip “riles” Republicans, it is worth remembering the efforts in Congress to expand trade and travel for all Americans would not be where it is without the leadership and support of Republican members like Sen. Jeff Flake and Rep. Tom Emmer. Outside of Washington, Republican governors like Arkansas’ Asa Hutchinson and Texas’ Greg Abbott have extensively sought to strengthen their states’ economic ties to the Island. The horse race nature of political coverage may seek to frame it otherwise, but Cuba is one of the last truly bipartisan areas of agreement today.

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

President Obama Will Head To Cuba

President Obama Announces He Will Go To Cuba In March. “President Obama said Thursday he would travel to Cuba next month ‘to advance our progress and efforts that can improve the lives of the Cuban people.’ Obama made the trip official in a series of tweets Thursday morning, touting ‘significant progress’ in resuming diplomatic relations with the communist nation in the 14 months since he announced the breakthrough with Cuban President Raul Castro. ‘We still have differences with the Cuban government that I will raise directly. America will always stand for human rights around the world,’ Obama said on Twitter.” [USA Today, “Obama says his Cuba visit will help improve lives of Cuban people,” 2/18/16]

Obama Adviser: President Believes Going To Cuba Can Give Cuban People More Space, Boost Ties With The U.S. “Obama has said he wanted to see progress in Cuba’s human rights record, access to more information on the Internet for Cubans, and a bigger role for private business. That progress has been mixed with human rights the most divisive issue, but the president decided he should go sooner rather than later, Rhodes said. ‘The president’s judgment was that, number one, going to Cuba was an important step forward in signaling this new beginning between our two countries and peoples; and also importantly that going to Cuba could help enlarge this space that benefits the Cuban people and increases ties between our countries,’ said Rhodes.” [Miami Herald, “Despite differences with Cuba, Obama says now is the time to visit the island,” 2/18/16]

New York Times Editorial: President Obama Has A Chance To Deliver A Political Message That “Stands To Resonate Powerfully” In Cuba. “President Obama spoke passionately last year about the importance of term limits during a visit to Africa, where he argued that ‘nobody should be president for life.’ His administration has been more muted on this issue in Latin America, where a handful of leaders have become strongmen disinclined to share or relinquish power. Next month, when he becomes the first American president to visit Cuba in 88 years, Mr. Obama will have an opportunity to make that point closer to home. As an American president who is wildly popular in Cuba, his message about democratic traditions, leadership and power stands to resonate powerfully.” [New York Times Editorial, “An American President in Cuba,” 2/18/16]

Obama’s Trip “Has The Potential To Do More To Plant The Seeds For Transformational Change Than Any Of His Predecessors Ever Achieved.” “The United States has sought for decades to bring about regime change in Cuba through a series of failed strategies that included the use of force and subterfuge. Those policies failed and gave Cuban leaders a pretext to run the country like a police state. Mr. Obama and a growing number of American politicians have come to recognize that the United States is ill equipped to dictate how leaders of sovereign nations should govern, and is more effective when it leads by example and champions those who fight peacefully for dignity and self-determination. Mr. Obama’s short trip is unlikely to spark overnight reforms in Cuba. But it has the potential to do more to plant the seeds for transformational change than any of his predecessors ever achieved.” [New York Times Editorial, “An American President in Cuba,” 2/18/16]

Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes: Increased Engagement Has Already Led To Progress For The Cuban People. “We’ve already seen indications of how increased engagement can improve the lives of the Cuban people. Cuba’s nascent private sector — from restaurant owners to shopkeepers — has benefited from increased travel from the American people. Increased remittances to Cuba from the United States has helped Cuban families. Openings for American companies also hold the potential of improving the lives of ordinary Cubans — for instance, American companies will be enabling travelers to stay in Cuban homes and setting up a factory that will provide equipment for farmers. The Cuban government has taken some steps to fulfill its commitment to expand access to the Internet, expanding wireless hotspots and announcing an initial broadband connection. These are steps that should be built upon to increase connectivity to the wider world and access to information for the Cuban people.” [Medium, “President Obama is going to Cuba. Here’s why:,” 2/18/16]

Rhodes: President Obama Going To Cuba To Open Up Opportunities For Both Cubans And Americans. “Still, this progress is insufficient. There is much more that can be done — by the United States, and by the Cuban government — to advance this opening in ways that will be good for Cubans, and good for the United States. That is why President Obama is traveling to Cuba. We want to open up more opportunities for U.S. businesses and travelers to engage with Cuba, and we want the Cuban government to open up more opportunities for its people to benefit from that engagement. Ultimately, we believe that Congress should lift an embargo that is not to advancing the Cuban people’s individual well-being and human rights, and remove onerous restrictions that aim to dictate to Americans where they can and cannot travel.” [Medium, “President Obama is going to Cuba. Here’s why:,” 2/18/16]

Rhodes: “While We Do Not Seek To Impose Change On Cuba, We Strongly Believe That Cuba Will Benefit When The Cuban People Can Exercise Their Universal Rights.” “Even as we pursue normalization, we’ve made clear that we will continue to have serious differences with the Cuban government — particularly on human rights. While Cuba released Alan Gross, a number of political prisoners and recently hosted the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, we continue to oppose and speak out against restrictions on rights like freedom of speech and assembly — and space for independent civil society — that the United States supports around the world. While we do not seek to impose change on Cuba, we strongly believe that Cuba will benefit when the Cuban people can exercise their universal rights. President Obama has raised these issues in his discussions with President Castro, and will continue to do so.” [Medium, “President Obama is going to Cuba. Here’s why:,” 2/18/16]

Foreign Relations Committee’s Sen. Tom Udall: President Obama’s Trip Marks A “Sea Change” In U.S.-Cuba Relationship, But Congress Must Press Further To Reestablish Relations. "President Obama's decision to visit Cuba will be remembered in history as an emphatic move to end the outdated Cold War policies of the last century. It marks a sea change in our decades-long relationship with one of our closest neighbors and is something that I have worked for many years to see happen. However, while the president's decision to visit is symbolically and historically important, it doesn't do the work that Congress must do to modernize our relationship with Cuba. I will continue to work on the Foreign Relations Committee to push Congress to repeal the outdated laws that prevent businesses from expanding and hinder Americans' ability to travel freely to Cuba. The best diplomats of American values are Americans themselves, and by re-establishing relations with Cuba and opening it to American tourism, trade and commerce, we can truly bring freedom and openness to Cuba." [Sen. Tom Udall, “Statement on President Obama’s Upcoming Trip to Cuba,” 2/18/16]

Americans Siding With Engagement In Two New Polls

Gallup Reports Majority Of Americans Now See Cuba Favorably. “Reflecting a move of 33 percentage points in the past 10 years, a majority of Americans — 54 percent — currently see Cuba in a favorable light, according to Gallup. The nation's favorability rating went up across the U.S. political spectrum, but by far the biggest gain was among Democrats. A ‘strong majority’ of Republicans still view Cuba unfavorably, Gallup says, with only 34 percent seeing Cuba favorably compared to 73 percent of Democrats and 53 percent of independents. ‘During the past few years, Americans' opinions about Cuba have become sharply polarized by political party,’ Gallup's Jim Norman writes, ‘with the Democrat-Republican gap in favorability more than doubling in the last two years — from 17 points in 2014 to 39 points today.’ But because of the gains, Gallup says that for the first time since it started asking Americans about Cuba back in 1996, a majority now see the country in a favorable light.” [NPR, “For The First Time, Majority Of Americans See Cuba Favorably In Poll,” 2/16/16]

Poll Of Hardliner Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen’s Congressional District Finds A Slim Majority Of Support For A Hypothetical Candidate Favoring Normalized Relations. “In December, on the one-year anniversary of President Barack Obama's diplomatic opening toward Cuba, a Miami Democratic consultant commissioned a local poll to, among other things, gauge the policy's popularity. The survey, of a newly redrawn Miami congressional district represented by Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, showed narrow support -- 47-43 percent -- for a hypothetical congressional candidate who favored normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations and lifting the trade embargo, according to results shared with the Miami Herald by consultant Christian Ulvert. Democrats were far more likely to back the policy change (68 percent) than Republicans (30 percent) and voters without party affiliation (44 percent). That nearly a third of Republicans would be OK with ending the embargo is particularly noteworthy in South Florida, the heart of the hard-line Cuban exile community, where reactions were divided Thursday to the White House's announcement that Obama plans to travel to the island next month.” [Miami Herald, “Poll of Miami congressional district shows narrow support for President Obama’s Cuba policy,” 2/18/16]

The U.S. And Cuba Agree To Restore Commercial Flights

U.S. And Cuba Sign Aviation Pact Restoring Commercial Flights. “U.S. officials signed an aviation pact in Cuba on Tuesday, restoring scheduled airline flights between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years. According to a statement by the U.S. Transportation Department, the move, which brought into effect an arrangement the Cold War foes agreed to in December, was attended by the top officials from both countries. ‘We are excited to announce the availability of new scheduled air service opportunities to Cuba for U.S. carriers, shippers, and the traveling public, and we will conduct this proceeding in a manner designed to maximize public benefits,’ said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx in the statement. U.S. airlines will have up till March 2 to submit their route applications to the U.S. Transportation Department. The department will make their decision on which airlines can fly from which cities to Cuba around the middle of March.” [Time, “U.S. and Cuba Sign Deal Restoring Commercial Flights,” 2/16/16]

Americans Will Be Able To Purchase Tickets To Cuba From Commercial Airlines Instead Of Being Restricted To Charter Flights. “For the first time in nearly 50 years, Americans will be able to simply purchase a ticket to Cuba from an ordinary airline. On Tuesday, US and Cuban officials met in Havana to do away with long-standing barriers that banned regular US commercial carriers from operating on the island.  US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who traveled to Havana to ink the deal, said it marked ‘a historical day in the relationship between Cuba and the US.’ Cuban Transportation Minister Yzquierdo Rodriguez said Tuesday's deal was a key step to ‘the establishment of regular flights between the United States and Cuba." Though it is now technically possible to travel to Cuba from the US, the routes are restricted to charter flights. Flights operated by commercial air carriers could begin operating as early as next fall. US airlines will be given a 15-day window to bid on many as 110 daily flights between the US and Cuba. [Vice, “US and Cuba Strike Historic Deal To Allow Regular Commercial Flights,” 2/16/16]

USA Today: “Nearly Every Big U.S. Airline” Applying For Cuba Flights. “Still, even as restrictions to Cuba are eased, conditions remain. U.S. travelers must still certify theirs trip are for one of 12 purposes. Tourism itself is not permitted. But the only existing flights to Cuba are sold by charter outfits. Regularly scheduled passenger flights that are sold and marketed by the big U.S. carriers are sure to ease trip planning. And, against that backdrop, nearly every big U.S. airline said it would apply for at least some Cuba routes.” [USA Today, “Nearly every big U.S. airline plans to apply for Cuba flights,” 2/16/16]

Cuban Airlines Aren’t Likely To Fly To The U.S. Given Possibility Their Assets Would Be Seized By Those With Legal Judgments Against The Cuban Government. “The United States Department of Transportation said the administration could not stop people with legal judgments against the Cuban government from going to court to seize Cuban assets. But Mr. López does not have a judgment against the Cuban government or Cubana de Aviación, the national airline his father owned. Even if he did, because of the many judgments by American courts against the Cuban government, Cubana de Aviación’s planes are not expected to start flying to the United States. ‘We do not anticipate Cuban-owned aircraft serving the United States in the near future,’ Thomas S. Engle, deputy assistant secretary for transportation affairs at the State Department, told reporters on a conference call last week. He said negotiators were clear with Havana that the Obama administration would not be able to stop their planes from being seized by people who have successfully sued the Cuban government in American courts.” [New York Times, “Pact on U.S.-Cuba Flights Reopens Battle for Seized Property,” 2/16/16]

Cuban-American Legal Expert Pedro Freyre: Full Enforcement Of Helms-Burton By A President “Would Be A Slug Fest” And Detrimental To Foreign Relations. “The Helms-Burton Act, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996, says that anyone who profits from properties that were confiscated from American citizens is liable for damages, even if the owner was not an American citizen at the time. Yet the law has provisos that allow the president to decide whether, for the sake of American interests, the law should be enforced. It has pretty much never been enforced. ‘It would be a slug fest,’ said Pedro A. Freyre, a Miami lawyer who specializes in Cuban business deals. ‘It would be a brawl, a free-for-all, everyone suing every Canadian company, airline, hotel, you name it — and it would be detrimental to U.S. foreign relations.’” [New York Times, “Pact on U.S.-Cuba Flights Reopens Battle for Seized Property,” 2/16/16]-

U.S.-Cuba Business Talks Open Up In Washington

U.S. And Cuban Officials Meet To Discuss Expanding Business Ties. “Top Obama administration officials will open a round of talks on Wednesday in Washington aimed at expanding business ties between the United States and Cuba, pushing forward on President Obama’s directive to seek normalized relations, even while the American embargo continues to bar most trade and commerce between the two nations. The regulatory discussions, to be hosted by Penny Pritzker, the commerce secretary, and attended by Cuban officials and their counterparts from the departments of Commerce, State and Treasury, come after the signing in Havana on Tuesday of an arrangement allowing scheduled direct flights between the United States and Cuba for the first time in decades.” [New York Times, “New Talks Begin With Cuba on Expanding Business Ties, 2/17/16]

Sidetracked U.S. Missile Makes Its Way Home From Cuba

Cuban Government Returns Hellfire Missile Inadvertently Shipped To Havana. “The Cuban government has returned a missing U.S. missile sent to Europe for training but inadvertently shipped to Cuba, a State Department official said. ‘We can say, without speaking to specifics, that the inert training missile has been returned with the cooperation of the Cuban government,’ Mark Toner, the State Department's deputy spokesperson, told CNN on Saturday. ‘The department is restricted under federal law and regulations from commenting on specific defense trade licensing cases and compliance matters, so we cannot provide further details.’ ‘The reestablishment of diplomatic relations and the re-opening of our embassy in Havana allow us to engage with the Cuban government on issues of mutual interest,’ he added.” [CNN, “U.S. missile inadvertently shipped to Cuba has been returned,” 2/13/16]

U.S. Approves First American Factory In Cuba

U.S. Government Approves First American Factory In Cuba To Assemble Tractors. “The Obama administration approved the first U.S. factory to be built and operated in Cuba in more than 50 years, in the latest sign of the rapidly changing relationship between the United States and the communist nation. Cleber LLC, an Alabama-based company that builds tractors for small farms, was notified by the Treasury Department that it could open a facility in Cuba. Co-founder Saul Berenthal said the company's attorney was in Havana on Monday to start the lengthy process of finalizing the agreement with the Cuban government and hopes to start production by early 2017. Berenthal said he was proud to get the approval, but it means even more for the future relationship between the Cold War foes. ‘Being first is great,’ he said. ‘But for certain, we should not be the only ones. We're hoping and expecting many more will follow.’” [USA Today, “Feds approve first U.S. factory in Cuba,” 2/15/16]

Alabama-based Cleber LLC Will Assemble Tractors In Cuba’s Mariel Port. “Many American companies have been interested in selling agricultural equipment to Cuba, including Caterpillar, which recently announced that it reached a deal to sell earth-moving equipment to the island through a Puerto Rican distributor. What set Cleber's proposal apart, however, was its plan to build in Cuba and employ Cuban workers. The company will make a small, red tractor it calls the ‘Oggún’ in homage to the Afro-Cuban Santeria spirit of metal work. American workers initially will build the pieces in Paint Rock, Ala., and assemble them in a facility at the port of Mariel, a special economic zone about 30 miles west of Havana. Berenthal said the goal is to have American workers train Cubans to do the work and manage the operation in Cuba.” [USA Today, “Feds approve first U.S. factory in Cuba,” 2/15/16]

Cubans’ “DIY Attitude” Comes To Miami’s Maker Faire 

Cuban Entrepreneurs Bring Resourcefulness To Miami Maker Faire. “Cubans’ ability to adapt to perennial scarcity, perhaps most iconically illustrated with the ‘Frankenstein’ cars that make loops around Havana as shared taxis, has become a defining characteristic of the national character — the resolver mindset. So when the Miami Mini Maker Faire team began organizing year’s event, happening this weekend, it seemed the perfect time to invite some Cuban colleagues adept at making a lot with very little. ‘I saw a clear parallel between the sort of ingenuity that Cuban entrepreneurs display in a lot of the work they do on the island … and the values the Maker Faire promotes,’ said Ric Herrero, the lead producer of Miami Maker Faire.” [The New Tropic, “Bringing the original ‘makers’ from Cuba to Miami,” 2/16/16] 

Ric Herrero: Americans Can Learn From Cubans’ Ability To Do More With Less. “With South Florida right at the top of the Kauffman Index’s list of places with the most startup activity, the DIY attitude is strong here. Few countries encapsulate that better than Cuba, where the US trade embargo has made scarcity a constant facet of life there. ‘You basically have a grassroots, needs-based maker movement. A lot of the activity you see in the larger maker movement has been happening in Cuba for a long time,’ Herrero said, himself a Cuban-American whose work promotes stronger US engagement with Cuba. ‘One of the things folks here can learn from Cubans is having the mindset and resourcefulness to create social and economic value using less resources — doing more with less, essentially.’” [The New Tropic, “Bringing the original ‘makers’ from Cuba to Miami,” 2/16/16]

¡No Me Digas!

GOP Presidential Candidates Already Blasting Obama’s Trip Before It Happens. “Rubio wasted no time in criticizing the reported plans for the trip. Asked at a CNN town hall event in South Carolina whether he would visit Cuba, Rubio replied: ‘Not if it's not a free Cuba.’ At the same event, Cruz also criticized Obama's move, saying he would not go to Cuba ‘as long as the Castros are in power.’ ‘What Obama has shown to our enemies is weakness and appeasement,’ Cruz said, lumping together Obama's steps toward improving U.S. relations with Cuba and Iran. ‘I think it's a real mistake. I think the president instead ought to be pushing for a free Cuba,’ he said. Instead, he will go and ‘essentially act as an apologist.’” [Reuters, “Obama to make historic trip to Cuba in coming weeks, official says,” 2/17/06]

Sen. Marco Rubio Pleads With Obama Not To Visit Cuba, Claiming The U.S. “Possessed Significant Economic And Diplomatic Leverage Over The Castro Regime” Before D-17. “I urge you to reconsider visiting Cuba and instead insist that the Castro regime finally make some serious concessions that have so far not been prioritized in negotiations. Before you announced your new Cuba policy on December 17, 2014, the United States possessed significant economic and diplomatic leverage over the Castro regime. Rather than achieving several long-standing U.S. goals and national security interests, you have methodically squandered this opportunity, legitimizing the Castro regime and enriching it in the process. A presidential visit to Cuba absent of any concessions from its government is a dangerous idea, and I urge you to reconsider.” [Miami Herald, “Marco Rubio wants President Obama to ‘reconsider’ Cuba trip,” 2/18/16]