Informing, connecting &
inspiring a new conversation

Get Involved

#CubaNow Briefing: The Gears Begin To Move Ahead Of Obama’s Trip To Cuba

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Feb 26, 2016


President Obama’s announcement last week that he would travel to Cuba has sparked some interesting developments in just a few days. We said last week that we would hold the president to his promise to speak on human rights, and that appears to be a major item on his agenda in the weeks leading up to his visit. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to travel to Cuba for a human rights dialogue ahead of the visit, and the president himself spoke in Saturday’s weekly address about what he plans to say about our countries’ shared values. And on the Island itself, the Cuban government has given paroled political prisoners a “temporary authorization” to travel abroad. The response from dissidents has been reasonably skeptical, given the timing and the very nature of the idea.

And in Washington, the response to the President’s trip has failed to fall into line with the media’s expectations. Remember last week’s headline that Obama’s visit would “rile” the GOP? They were so riled that Republican Sen. Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, calmly floated the idea this week of an end to the embargo by the time the next administration comes around. It was such a partisan and divisive issue that Republican Congressman Tom Emmer traveled to Miami to press for his legislation ending the embargo. And for the 10th GOP presidential debate in a row, the issue of normalization of US-Cuba ties has failed to come up as a topic of discussion. If this is riled, we would love to see outraged.

Many of us will be looking forward to President Obama’s historic trip to Cuba, but what is even more promising is the growing support from Americans across the political spectrum to do more. We have reached the point where the president is traveling to Cuba, Republicans are traveling to Miami to build support for ending the embargo, and anti-engagement political candidates are threatening to undermine their own campaigns by doubling down on failed policies. That is a remarkably different shift from just a few years ago, and one that should give the Cuban people hope for the future.

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

Gears Moving Ahead Of President Obama’s Trip To Cuba

President Obama Gives Weekly Address On His Trip To Cuba: “I’ll Speak Directly To The Cuban People About The Values We Share And How I Believe We Can Be Partners As They Work For The Future They Want.” “My visit will be an opportunity to keep moving forward. I’ll meet with President Castro to discuss how we can continue normalizing relations, including making it easier to trade and easier for Cubans to access the Internet and start their own businesses. As I did when I met President Castro last year, I’ll speak candidly about our serious differences with the Cuban government, including on democracy and human rights. I’ll reaffirm that the United States will continue to stand up for universal values like freedom of speech and assembly and religion. I’ll meet with members of Cuba’s civil society—courageous men and women who give voice to the aspirations of the Cuban people. I’ll meet with Cuban entrepreneurs to learn how we can help them start new ventures. And I’ll speak directly to the Cuban people about the values we share and how I believe we can be partners as they work for the future they want.” [The White House, Weekly Address, 2/20/16]

Secretary of State John Kerry To Visit Cuba For Human Rights Dialogue. “U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday he plans to travel to Cuba ‘in the next week or two’ for talks on human rights. Kerry made the statement before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. ‘I may be down there in the next week or two to have a human rights dialogue, specifically,’ he said. Kerry, who went to Cuba last August to raise the U.S. flag over the American Embassy in Havana, told the committee that concerns about the human rights situation in the communist-ruled island still remain. The secretary's trip comes ahead of President Barack Obama's visit to the nation next month, when he will become the first sitting U.S. leader to visit Cuba in nearly 90 years. ‘The president hopes to press forward on the agenda of speaking to the people of Cuba about the future and obviously he is anxious to press on the rights of people to be able to demonstrate, to have democracy, to be free, to be able to speak and hang a sign in their window without being put in jail for several years,’ Kerry said.” [Voice of America, “Kerry to Visit Cuba for Human Rights Dialogue,” 2/23/16]

Paroled Cuban Dissidents Given Permission To Travel Abroad. “Several Cuban former political prisoners who were released from prison on parole several years ago on Tuesday received notice from the island’s authorities that they have been given permission to travel abroad. Felix Navarro, Hector Maseda and Marta Beatriz Roque told EFE that they are among the eight dissidents who on Monday were called to the Interior Ministry, where they were informed of the temporary authorization to travel outside of Cuba. Also receiving the permission were Oscar Elias Biscet, Arnaldo Ramos, Librado Linares, Eduardo Diaz and Jorge Olivera, who – like their other colleagues – were released under a special ruling nullifying the sentences handed down during the repressive ‘Black Spring’ crackdown in 2003 when 75 dissidents were jailed.” [Latin American Herald Tribune, “Paroled Cuban Dissidents Get Special to Travel,” 2/25/16]

Dissidents Skeptical Of Cuban Government’s Gesture Ahead Of President Obama’s Visit. “Navarro told EFE that in his case authorities told him that because of his ‘good behavior’ since he left prison in 2011, they had granted him permission for a ‘one-time’ trip abroad. The former prisoner said that he will refuse the Cuban government’s gesture and attributes it to ‘a strategy’ linked to U.S. President Barack Obama’s March 21-22 visit to the communist island. ‘I will always continue to live in Cuba,’ said Navarro.Roque also said that she was informed of the ‘exceptional’ authorization and her interpretation of the situation is that it is ‘a gift from Obama.’ ‘My perception is that they want us to stay (outside of Cuba) but I’ve been going along like this for 25 years and I’m not going to throw in the towel for a trip,’ said Roque, the only woman in the Group of 75, who was released from prison in 2004 for health reasons.” [Latin American Herald Tribune, “Paroled Cuban Dissidents Get Special to Travel,” 2/25/16]

New York Times Highlight The Last U.S. President To Visit Cuba—In 1928. “Long before President Obama had the idea, Calvin Coolidge made the journey to Cuba in 1928 — his only foreign trip as president — to address a conference of Western Hemisphere nations and declare ‘progress’ and good will toward Cuba after a long period of strain. No sitting United States president has returned since. Mr. Obama announced last week that he would end that streak with a visit next month, aiming to build momentum toward normalizing relations with Havana before he leaves the White House. Along the way, he hopes to cement his legacy as the leader who broke with more than a half-century of rancor and estrangement and tried a new path of engagement with Cuba. Mr. Obama’s planned trip bears faint echoes of Coolidge’s visit 88 years ago, with its message of change and a new chapter. In the intervening decades, the relationship between the United States and Cuba has grown only more complex and fraught with grievances, leaving Mr. Obama with a landscape that bears little resemblance to the one that greeted his predecessor in 1928.” [New York Times, “Like the Last President to Visit Cuba, Obama Seeks a Change,” 2/21/16]

Bloomberg Editorial: President Obama’s Trip Is An Opportunity To Acknowledge The Successes And Limits Of His Shift In Cuba Policy. “President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba on March 21 is not, as its critics contend, a vote of confidence in President Raul Castro's government. It is simply an opportunity for Obama to acknowledge both the successes of his policy and its limits. More than a year after the normalization of ties began between the U.S. and Cuba, there are tangible signs of progress. Commercial flights and ferry service from the U.S. will soon resume, bringing even more American travelers to Cuba. U.S. cellular companies now provide service on the island, and Internet access has improved. The first U.S. factory on Cuban soil in more than half a century will soon open. And serious talks have begun on issues such as investor protections, telecom regulations and environmental protection. Like the hundreds of millions more dollars in U.S. remittances now lifting the fortunes of ordinary Cubans and fueling small businesses, these developments can have a powerful cumulative effect.” [Bloomberg View, “Obama’s Cuba trip shows policy’s successes and limits,” 2/23/16]

Obama’s Rhetoric Needs To Express Support For Those Who Criticize The Cuban Government.
 “Moreover, even with the embargo intact, a visit from a hugely popular American president may help to convince the Cuban people that the U.S. is no enemy. So you can expect an eloquent speech or two. But soaring rhetoric about free expression is meaningless without support for those who depend on it to criticize the Castro regime, which has increased its persecution of them. Obama can also help his credibility by recognizing that, for most Cubans, daily life is much as it was.” [Bloomberg View, “Obama’s Cuba trip shows policy’s successes and limits,” 2/23/16]

Truman National Security Fellow Amanda Mattingly: Obama’s Policy Is Meant To Give The Cuban People The Ability To Seek Their Own Change. “President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations, to include Cuba in the Summit of the Americas, to negotiate the re-opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana and the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC, and most recently, to negotiate a commercial airline travel deal between the two countries are all significant steps in a powerful new approach to Cuba. Despite what critics say, these steps are designed to help the Cuban people, bringing them back into the fold so that we can start talking about human rights, political opening and democracy, civil society, economic policy, trade, and security. Ultimately and over time, American change in policy and the eventual lifting of the U.S. embargo by Congress will help the Cuban people. Cuba ceased to be a national security threat years ago. Therefore, the objective should be to help the Cuban people and to empower them to seek political and economic change on the island for themselves.” [National Memo, “Obama, Our Man in Havana,” 2/19/16]

Progress On Travel To Cuba

Cuban Tourism Boom Expected To Cool Off In 2016. “Cuba's tourism boom continues at a record pace but is expected to cool off during 2016 with the government forecasting nearly 6 percent growth this year after a 17 percent increase in 2015. Amid the international buzz surrounding the country's detente with the United States, Cuba received a record 3.5 million visitors in 2015, then set another record for any single month in January 2016, officials said. The influx has pushed capacity to the limit and forced many tourists to scramble for hotel rooms, raising questions about how Cuba will absorb additional visitors when scheduled U.S. commercial airline service starts this year.” [Reuters, “Cuban tourism boom seen slowing, but finding a room still hard,” 2/23/16]

Existing Travel Restrictions Make Finding A Place To Stay In Cuba More Difficult For Americans. “Because Americans are still banned from tourism under the U.S. trade embargo and only allowed on officially sanctioned visits, Americans concentrate in the capital rather than at forbidden beach resorts. That makes finding a hotel in Havana during the high season a challenge. American visits last year rose 77 percent to 161,000, not counting hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans, and Gonzalez said a similar percentage increase was possible in 2016.” [Reuters, “Cuban tourism boom seen slowing, but finding a room still hard,” 2/23/16]

Federal Government Will Authorize U.S-Cuba Airline Routes Based On Maximizing “Public Benefits.” “This process of gaining authority to fly from the U.S. to the 10 international airports in Cuba will culminate when federal officials dole out access based on an effort to ‘maximize public benefits,’ the Department of Transportation said in its announcement this month. The return of commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba, which could occur as soon as this summer, will remain restricted to one of 12 permitted activities—and tourism is not among them. To win a route, in other words, the carriers can’t press the public interest in Cuban beach vacations. The U.S. allows travel to Cuba (PDF) for such things as professional meetings, athletic competitions, religious activities, and humanitarian projects.” [Bloomberg, “Which Airlines Get Into Havana? The Feds Will Decide,” 2/24/16]

Engage Cuba’s James Williams: Airlines Must Choose Routes That Are Commercially Viable.
 “After airlines submit their proposals, businesses and other parties will comment. One that will be active is Engage Cuba, a nonprofit group that lobbies to end the U.S. trade embargo and travel restrictions to Cuba. The group, which includes 30 companies and trade associations such as Choice Hotels International Inc., Comcast Corp., Delta, and Honeywell International Inc., wants airlines to choose routes that are commercially viable, said James Williams, Engage Cuba's president. ‘We don’t want them to be opening up an airline route and then shutting it down two months later,’ he said. ‘We’re going to trust the airlines on that.’” [Bloomberg, “Which Airlines Get Into Havana? The Feds Will Decide,” 2/24/16]

Republicans Stand Out In Bipartisan Push To End The Embargo

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Corker: End Of The Cuban Embargo “Possible” In The Near Future. “Despite staunch opposition from some lawmakers, Congress could soon change course and end America's 56-year embargo on Cuba, the Republican head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee predicted on Wednesday. ‘Obviously it’s not going to happen this year. But I think it’s something that could happen as we move into a new president,’ Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said at a breakfast briefing sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. ‘A lot of it has to do with how Cuba behaves,’ he added. If the Communist island nation begins to address allegations of human rights abuses and seizes the new opening following President Obama’s historic outreach, ‘I think it's possible,’ the Senate chairman said.” [The Hill, “Senate Chairman: End of Cuban embargo ‘possible’,” 2/24/16]

Republican Congressman Tom Emmer Heads To Miami To Push For End To Embargo. “Following his second trip to Cuba in a year, GOP U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer took his effort to lift the Cuban embargo to south Florida, the nation's epicenter of opposition to the idea. The freshman Republican from Minnesota's Sixth Congressional District was in Havana in mid-February, leading House Republicans and Democrats. They met with foreign ministers and trade officials before returning to Miami to privately sway Fortune 500 companies — including Medtronic, with strong Minnesota ties — to help push the effort on Capitol Hill. Emmer, who last went to Havana in 2015, says he sees hope for a vote this year.” [Star-Tribune, “Emmer lobbies U.S. Cuban community in effort to end embargo,” 2/21/16]

Emmer: “We’re Not Asking People To Forget The Past, But We’re Looking At What Is The Future Of Cuba And Its Relationship To The United States.” “The Republican-controlled House wants to see more democratic and economic reforms in Cuba before lifting the embargo. But Emmer, a Republican, thinks enough momentum is building outside Washington, especially among agricultural interests in states like his, to give his bill a chance of passing even during this election year. ‘We’re not asking people to forget the past, but we’re looking at what is the future of Cuba and its relationship to the United States,’ says Emmer. ‘As long as that message is getting to our Republican colleagues and they’re open-minded and willing to look at it, there is a chance – albeit slim – that in 2016 we could have an opportunity to lift the embargo.’” [WLRN, “Sponsors Of Bill To Lift Cuba Embargo Say It Could See A Vote This Year,” 2/18/16]

Cuban-American And Republican Businessman Mike Fernandez: The Embargo “Became A Great Cover Of The Great Inefficiencies Of That Government.” “Mike Fernandez is a Cuban-American Florida health care executive who has given tens of millions of dollars to Republicans. He says he's disappointed in many Republican politicians who continue to hold out against lifting the embargo — including Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a presidential hopeful, and former Gov. Jeb Bush. Fernandez was born and raised in Cuba and left at age 12 with his parents after facing persecution. For decades, he said, he was among the Cuban-American hard-liners supportive of the trade embargo, but a visit in 2000 to see his dying grandfather changed his mind. ‘I realized that the greatest ally that the Cuban government had was the embargo because it was a way of explaining to the people why nothing worked in Cuba,’ he said. ‘There are no nails to hammer a board, and that's a result of the embargo, or this month we don't have any chicken, and that's a result of the embargo. It became a great cover of the great inefficiencies of that government." [Star-Tribune, “Emmer lobbies U.S. Cuban community in effort to end embargo,” 2/21/16]

Cuba’s Lung Cancer Vaccine Will Come To The U.S. For Testing

Promising Cuban Lung Cancer Vaccine Headed To The U.S. For Clinical Trials. “But one of the most exciting things about the thawing of relations between Cuba and the U.S. is happening stateside right now: the possibility of clinical trials on a drug to prevent lung cancer, and possibly other cancers, too. CimaVax, which is both a treatment and vaccine for lung cancer, has been researched in Cuba for 25 years and free to the Cuban public since 2011. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s trade mission to Cuba in April 2015 resulted in a signed agreement to bring CimaVax to the U.S., but as with all international drugs and treatments, U.S. researchers need to conduct clinical trials and replicate international scientists’ results before it becomes available to the American public. ‘We’re still at the very early stages of assessing the promise of this vaccine, but the evidence so far from clinical trials in Cuba and Europe has been striking,’ said Dr. Kelvin Lee, Jacobs Family Chair in Immunology and co-leader of the Tumor Immunology and Immunotherapy Program at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York, the research center that is evaluating CimaVax for U.S. use.” [Huffington Post, “Cuba’s Had A Lung Cancer Vaccine For Years, And Now It’s Coming To The U.S.,” 5/14/15]

“CimaVax” Vaccine Proved Effective In Previous Trials, Cost Only $1. “Cuba has long been known for its high-quality cigars, and lung cancer is a major public health problem and the fourth-leading cause of death in the country. A 2007 study of patients with stages IIIB and IV lung cancer, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, confirmed the safety of the CimaVax and showed an increase in tumor-reducing antibody production in more than half of cases. It proved particularly effective for increased survival if the study participant was younger than 60. So far, 5,000 patients worldwide have been treated with CimaVax, including 1,000 patients in Cuba. Lee said the latest Cuban study of 405 patients, which has not yet been published, confirms earlier findings about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine. What's more, the shot is cheap -- each costs the Cuban government just $1, Wired reported.” [Huffington Post, “Cuba’s Had A Lung Cancer Vaccine For Years, And Now It’s Coming To The U.S.,” 5/14/15]

Entrepreneur Magazine Highlights Some Of The World’s Top Entrepreneurs

BRIC Language Systems CEO Ryan McMunn: Culture Of Cuban Entrepreneurs Could Give Businesses A Competitive Advantage. “The private sector of the Cuban workforce now comprises about one third of the entire Cuban workforce, and it will continue to grow over time. -- especially as ventures such as Oggun start to pop up in Cuba. Cuba’s private sector is an enticing opportunity for businesses and, despite the growing pains, it is worth it to make the move now before the market becomes saturated. The Cuban culture is filled with entrepreneurs and forward-thinkers, and if your business can tap into that workforce and partner with these Cuentapropistas (private entrepreneurs), the options for future growth on the island are endless. Cuban citizens pride themselves on creativity, and while that spirit may have been oppressed in the past, it’s changing -- slowly, but still changing. The people of Cuba may be your business’ next competitive advantage.” [Entrepreneur, “Why Entrepreneurs Should Consider Cuba,” 2/24/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Tampa Bay Tribune Columnist Joe Henderson: Rubio’s Plan To Reverse Cuba Changes Would Only Backfire On Him And The Cuban People. “As for his bravado about rolling back Obama’s moves toward normalization, he must know it’s not that simple. A few days ago, it was announced that airlines can bid on 110 open commercial routes for U.S.-Cuba flights. Would President Rubio take executive action to stop those flights? Would he close newly formed embassies? Would he put Cuba back on a terrorist watch list? If he did, who would be hurt by those moves? The Cuban people, that’s who.” [Tampa Bay Tribune Op-Ed, “Rubio’s anti-normalization plan with Cuba could backfire,” 2/20/16]

Rubio’s Support For Reversing Cuba Policy Could Cost Him In Florida Primary. “Cuba obviously is a bigger issue in Florida than most states. And although feelings are particularly hardened in some pockets of Miami against Obama’s moves, the rest of the state and nation appears to be moving in the president’s corner. If Rubio’s position costs him support in Florida’s primary, how will it look when the fresh new face of Republican national politics can’t carry his own state? Donald Trump has a solid lead in Florida polls already. Questions about Cuba are sure to come up when Rubio begins to campaign here more seriously. He will have to double-down on his anti-normalization posture.” [Tampa Bay Tribune Op-Ed, “Rubio’s anti-normalization plan with Cuba could backfire,” 2/20/16]