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#CubaNow Briefing: The Real Lesson Learned From Carnival’s Cuba Odyssey

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Apr 29, 2016


The lifting of Cuba’s maritime travel ban this past week is the most concrete example we have to date of how normalized relations between the United States and Cuba are doing more to resolve differences between our countries and expand rights for the Cuban people than a half-century old policy of isolation ever achieved.

Despite what some in South Florida might claim, the lifting of the ban—which prohibited Cuban-born travelers from entering or leaving the Island on commercial vessels—was not the direct result of protests and lawsuits. Such actions against corporate interests seeking to do business in Cuba are not new to Miami, and in the past have only succeeded in deterring American companies from entering the Cuban market.

In this instance, public outcry certainly helped create a sense of urgency and its impact should not be understated, though no more than it should be exaggerated. The fact is Miami-based protests and lawsuits have never persuaded the government in Havana to change a single one of its policies to the benefit of the Cuban people. Only one thing got us across that finish line last week, and that was engagement.

What made the real difference was that for the first time we had a mechanism in place to channel our frustration into constructive action; that Carnival’s attorneys and U.S. diplomats could sit down with Cuban officials and reach a resolution in an amicable manner.

It took negotiations, not confrontation, to actually secure the changes. And when you consider how slowly Cuba has moved to implement economic reforms and open up to American businesses, their announcement last Friday that they would lift the ban should be seen as a major advancement. Not because it flung the Island’s doors open—Cuban-born travelers have already been able to take flights to the Island for years—but because it showed how quickly the dynamics of relationship between the U.S. and Cuba are changing with increased personal and commercial ties.

Never mind the theatrics: After two weeks of controversy, a travel ban that had been in place for decades was lifted because both sides acknowledged it no longer served any purpose. Now if only the U.S. Congress would follow suit and end our own anachronistic laws toward Cuba, starting with the one that restricts the right of over 300 million Americans to travel freely to the Island.

On another note, pressure has also grown recently to do away with the Cuban Adjustment Act, including among lawmakers who still insist that we maintain the embargo on Cuba. While we agree that the CAA should be repealed, it must only be done so in tandem with the embargo. As we have previously stated, eliminating one and not the other is arbitrarily punitive to the Cuban people. We can never fully normalize ties if our immigration policy encourages thousands of Cubans to leave a country facing serious demographic challenges. But at the same time, we should not revoke privileges for migrants fleeing Cuba’s moribund economy while upholding blanket sanctions that contribute to the conditions they’re feeling in the first place.

If Congress wants to stem the flow of migration from Cuba, they can start by lifting the travel ban. After all, if the complaint from some Members is that economic opportunity—and not political asylum—is what drives this migration, then it only makes sense to adopt policies that foster growth on the Island itself. And if Congress wants more conducive relations, they should lift the embargo altogether. As we saw with Carnival, deeper economic ties with Cuba are a faster and more effective incentive for change than the embargo has ever been.

Finally, we want to congratulate U.S. Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson on her long overdue confirmation. For far too long, her nomination was held up as petty political payback for serving our country in diplomatic talks with Cuba. She has been an excellent public servant and we wish her the best in her new role.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow

Cuba Eases Ban On Sea Travel For Cuban-Born

New York Times: Cuba’s Easing Of Travel Ban “Marked A Rare Turn Of Events: An American Corporation Persuading The Castro Government To Alter A Policy.” “Cuba risked losing millions of dollars in the next year if the cruise line had been forced to cancel its trips on the Adonia, a 704-passenger luxury ship, according to an analysis by the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The directive, which will take effect on Tuesday, also marked a rare turn of events: an American corporation persuading the Castro government to alter a policy…Mr. Donald said the company’s negotiators underscored to Cuban officials that Cuban passengers have long been permitted to fly in and out of Cuba and that the same policy should apply to sea travel. Cruises are crucial to Cuba’s tourism sector because they allow for more visitors without pressuring the country’s already strained hotel capacity.” [New York Times, “Cuba Eases Decades-long Restriction on Sea Travel,” 4/22/16]

Cuban Government “Hinted” At Possibility Of Allowing Cuban-Born Travelers To Visit The Island Via Recreational Boats. “The Cuban government on Friday also hinted at its next move: the possibility of allowing Cuban-born people to travel to the island aboard recreational boats. That authorization, the government said, would come gradually and when circumstances are right. Cuban-Americans in Miami who support engagement with Cuba have long envisioned the possibility of taking their own boats to the island, which is 90 miles away from Florida, to visit family.” [New York Times, “Cuba Eases Decades-long Restriction on Sea Travel,” 4/22/16]

Pedro Freyre: “What The Cubans Did Today Is Reflect That It’s Good To Be Engaged.” “Pedro A. Freyre, whose law firm, Akerman, represents Carnival, and who was one of several lawyers to advise the company, said Carnival began working on getting the directive changed soon after its cruise was approved by the Cuban government. Mr. Freyre, who is Cuban-born and supports closer ties to the island nation, said even he was surprised by the fervor in Miami over the cruise. ‘I had been around my community long enough to know that emotions are very deep here,’ he said. ‘At the beginning, I said, “What? Why are people so upset — 300,000 travel every year to Cuba.” But this one tugged at the heart strings.’… But Mr. Freyre said the episode also shows that a more measured approach to Cuba works best. ‘What the Cubans did today is reflect that it’s good to be engaged,’ he said. ‘You can talk calmly about things instead of shouting at each other.’” [New York Times, “Cuba Eases Decades-long Restriction on Sea Travel,” 4/22/16]

Business In Cuba Still Slow To Progress

Despite Flurry Of Interest, Business With Cuba Still Proceeding At Slow Pace. “In the 16 months since Cuba and the United States announced they had begun the process of normalizing relations, there’s been a flurry of interest from American companies eager to sample the formerly forbidden fruit of the Cuban market, but as many are finding, navigating Cuban law, policy, priorities and the multiple agencies necessary to win approvals can be tricky. Getting U.S. approval for a project that’s an exception to the embargo or that falls within a series of new rules on trade with Cuba that the Obama administration has been issuing since the rapprochement began is just the beginning of what can be a long, winding road.” [Miami Herald, “U.S. business relations with Cuba seem to have one speed: Slow,” 4/22/16]

Richard Feinberg: Cuban Government Needs To Rethink Its Preference For “Only Wanting To Do Business With Big, Big, Big Groups.” “Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California, San Diego, and a senior Latin American fellow at the Brookings Institution, also sees the Cuban government as a reluctant partner for U.S. companies. ‘In my view, the Cuban government is self-embargoed. The United States cut a significant hole in the embargo [with its new regulations that allow more trade and commerce with Cuba], but the Cubans are largely saying, “No, not until the whole embargo is lifted.” ‘There has been some progress in the business relationship,’ he added, ‘but we’re still in the early innings before there is a fully normal commercial relationship.’ Feinberg said the Cubans also ‘need to rethink their preference for only wanting to do business with big, big, big groups. That is wrong-headed.’” [Miami Herald, “U.S. business relations with Cuba seem to have one speed: Slow,” 4/22/16]

USA Rice Chairman Dow Brantley: More Leadership In Congress Is Needed To Bring U.S. Rice Back To Cuba. “With the prospect of a strong partnership before us, the rice industry, along with many other sectors, deserves to have representatives in Congress who can help us put an end to a policy that no longer works. The Obama administration has made excellent progress on the path to restoring trade with our Cuban neighbors, but we are now at the point where any further progress is dependent on leaders in Congress. We are lucky to have strong representation in Arkansas, from Gov. Asa Hutchinson to Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Rick Crawford, each of whom has come out in support of expanded trade opportunities for businesses and industries like mine. However, we need additional champions in Congress to continue this momentum to normalize trade so that Cuba can once again become a major U.S. trading partner.” [The Hill Op-Ed, “Bringing US rice back to Cuba,” 4/26/16]

Senate Finally Confirms U.S. Ambassador To Mexico

Senate Confirms Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson As U.S. Ambassador To Mexico. “The Senate finally confirmed Roberta Jacobson to be the U.S. ambassador to Mexico on Thursday, ending a months-long delay of her nomination that was ultimately resolved by a complicated deal that drew in two Senate Republicans who had vied for president. Jacobson, a top State Department official, had faced objections from senators related to her work on implementing the Obama administration’s controversial policy normalizing relations with Cuba. In November, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who at the time was deep into his presidential run, put a hold on her nomination while publicly criticizing her work at State.” [Politico, “Roberta Jacobson confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Mexico,” 4/28/16]

Jacobson’s Nomination Had Been Held “Hostage” Over Her Work On Cuba.
 “The moves ended a nearly yearlong saga over Jacobson’s nomination, which had drawn an intraparty rift among Republicans, many of whom supported her despite objections from Cuban-American lawmakers such as Rubio who are vociferously opposed to the administration’s Cuba policy. But other Republicans argued that it was unfair to hold Jacobson, whose nomination passed the Foreign Relations Committee in November, hostage over Cuba politics. ‘On issues ranging from trade to migration to security and the border, the interests of the United States are served and Arizona benefits when our nation is well-represented in Mexico,’ Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, Jacobson’s most vocal Republican supporter, said after she was confirmed. ‘Though long overdue, I’m pleased that the Senate has confirmed an individual as qualified and capable as Roberta Jacobson to serve as U.S. ambassador to Mexico.’” [Politico, “Roberta Jacobson confirmed as U.S. ambassador to Mexico,” 4/28/16]

Cubans Organizing, Speaking Out More Openly

Cuban Dissidents Organizing More Openly In Cuba. “Le llaman ‘el Valle de la Prehistoria’, una extraña exhibición de animales de piedra en el apartado Parque Nacional de Baconao, en las afueras de Santiago de Cuba. Hasta allí llegaron centenares de activistas, sus vecinos y simpatizantes de la Unión Patriótica de Cuba (UNPACU) en una excursión diseñada para los niños pero también para mostrar el creciente apoyo que va ganando la mayor organización opositora en la isla. Un video entregado por la UNPACU a el Nuevo Herald muestra imágenes impensables hace solo unos años en Cuba, donde el gobierno sistemáticamente acusa a los opositores de ser “mercenarios” pagados por Estados Unidos. Aparentemente haciendo caso omiso de la propaganda oficial, centenares de personas se agrupan en el parque para escuchar al líder de la UNPACU, José Daniel Ferrer, quien explica los detalles de la actividad dedicada a los niños.” [El Nuevo Herald, “Los cubanos comienzan a perder el miedo,” 4/28/16]

El Nuevo Herald: Cubans Seem To Be Losing Their Fear On The Island. “Las imágenes del improvisado mitin al arribar al árido parque no muestran a todos los asistentes, explica Ferrer, pues la policía intentó evitar que los camiones viajaran en caravana, de modo que el grupo no pudiera reunirse en su totalidad. Pero sí muestran a un grupo inusualmente numeroso, en el que no todos son opositores. Eso, es quizá, lo más significativo. Los cubanos parecen estar perdiendo el miedo. No ha sido un cambio repentino pero en los últimos meses y gracias a la irrupción de celulares y puntos de conexión wifi en el país, han circulado por las redes sociales varios videos que ilustran cómo los cubanos comienzan a compartir y expresar un sentido de injusticia ante la acción arbitraria de la policía contra disidentes y cuentapropistas.” [El Nuevo Herald, “Los cubanos comienzan a perder el miedo,” 4/28/16]

Ted Henken: Obama’s “Charm Offensive” May Have Contributed To Increased Expectations About Economic And Political Improvement On The Island. “Pero Henken cree que ‘la ofensiva encantadora de Obama, magistralmente empleada durante su visita a la isla’ puede haber tenido algún rol. Junto al cambio de política de Estados Unidos hacia Cuba así como la propia reforma emprendida por Raúl Castro, podría haber contribuido a generar expectativas entre los cubanos acerca de una mejoría económica y política. Apunta, sin embargo, que ‘las reformas internas no han ido a la par del aumento de las expectativas entre las personas, lo que genera más frustración y protestas públicas, una manifestación simultánea de la pérdida del miedo a la represión o al castigo, y del aumento del descontento y la frustración’.” [El Nuevo Herald, “Los cubanos comienzan a perder el miedo,” 4/28/16]

Work Continues On Strengthening U.S.-Cuba Ties

Cuban Americans Launch CubaOne Foundation To Reconnect Younger Generations To The Island. “Fueled by the possibilities of rapprochement with the United States and the emotional distance wrought by time, more Cuban-Americans are traveling across the Florida Straits. And now some young Cuban-Americans think it’s high time their generation get to know the island of their ancestors. To that end, four second-generation Cuban-Americans have just launched the CubaOne Foundation, a nonprofit seeking to bridge their community and the Cuban people. Beginning this summer, the group will offer young Cuban-Americans free trips to Cuba to explore issues of identity and personal heritage, and to build connections with the Cuban people.” [Miami New Times, “New Group Offers Young Cuban-Americans Free Trips to Cuba,” 4/29/16]

Idea For CubaOne Started After Cuban-American Giancarlo Sopo Made His First Trip To The Island Last Year. “The idea for CubaOne was born late last year. In July, 33-year-old Giancarlo Sopo, a Miami­-based publicist, made his first trip to Cuba to visit family. Like many Miami Cubans, Sopo grew up very aware of his family’s history on the island. His grandfather was a poet, psychiatrist and Cuban Navy officer who died in Havana in 1959, perhaps at the hands of Che Guevara. Sopo’s late father was thrown in jail and later traveled to Miami, where he became a member of the Bay of Pigs invasion brigade. He never traveled back to Cuba. His mom came to Miami in the 70s. Despite the family’s history, when Sopo heard Obama’s announcement on December 17, 2014, he immediately wanted to travel to Cuba. From the moment his relatives picked him up from the airport in their '80s Lada, Sopo adored the island. For 10 days, he met as many people as he could. Surprised and inspired by what he experienced, he saw a need for other young Cuban-Americans to visit Cuba and do the same. ‘I saw a place filled with opportunities,’ Sopo says.” [Miami New Times, “New Group Offers Young Cuban-Americans Free Trips to Cuba,” 4/29/16]

Tampa Tribune Editorial Pushes Support For Cuban Consulate In Tampa. “At the same time the trail is being launched, the University of Tampa is being designated a branch of the Center for Jose Marti Studies, a research institute under the Cuban government’s Ministry of Culture. The center has 37 affiliates, but UT is the first in the United States. All these developments underscore Tampa’s strong historic ties with Cuba, something we hope is considered when a decision is made about locating a Cuban Consulate in Florida. Carlson says similar apps could be developed to highlight other local historic events — a smart idea. It would be gratifying if the Marti trail helps Tampa land the consulate, which could promote the kind of cultural, educational and scientific exchanges that would lead to a more freedom in Cuba. Regardless, the Jose Marti Trail tells an important part of our history, one that deserves greater exposure and esteem.” [Tampa Tribune Editorial, “A trail through Tampa-Cuba history,” 4/22/16]

National Endowment for the Arts Announces First USG-Sponsored Artistic Cultural Exchange. “For the first time, the U.S. Government will support artistic cultural exchanges between U.S. and Cuban artists, thanks to a commitment by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) made while in Cuba this week. Following three days of artistic events and meetings in Havana, NEA Chairman Jane Chu announced two artist exchange opportunities totaling $100,000. These are among the first awards made by the U.S. government to support artistic and cultural activities with Cuba and Cuban artists and represent a milestone in the journey towards deeper cooperation between the two countries through the common bonds of arts and culture.” [NEA, “NEA Commits $100,000 for U.S./Cuban Artist Exchange Programs,” 4/21/16]

American Officials, Artists, Lead Cultural Diplomacy Mission To Cuba. “A group of American cultural officials and a dozen entertainers and other artists returned Thursday from a four-day cultural diplomacy mission to Cuba that was sponsored by the U.S. government and billed as the first of its kind since the thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba. The 33-member delegation included representatives from three U.S. government agencies — the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Smithsonian — as well as members of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. The trip was the stuff of hundreds of potential music videos — from Cubans standing on the rooftops and dancing in the street as singer Usher passed sitting on the roof of a van to Dave Matthews singing as Cuban musician Carlos Varela strummed the guitar to a jam session at the rooftop bar of a fashionable Cuban paladar (private restaurant).” [Miami Herald, “Performances and jam sessions break the ice during first U.S. cultural mission to Cuba,” 4/22/16]

More Calls For Obama To End The Cuban Adjustment Act

Lawmakers, Foreign Leaders Call On Obama To End Cuban Adjustment Act. “Almost a year after the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic ties, a growing number of lawmakers from both parties are pushing to gut a Cold-War era law that gives Cuban migrants fast-track permanent residency and welfare benefits. The White House insists it doesn’t plan to touch the 50-year-old Cuban Adjustment Act, even as it encourages Congress to lift the longstanding U.S. embargo on communist-led Cuba. But lawmakers and some foreign leaders say President Barack Obama may be forced to reconsider before his term is up if the number of Cuban migrants coming through the border continues to rise.” [Politico, “Lawmakers push to end political asylum for Cubans,” 4/27/16]

Costa Rican Government Urging Obama To End CAA Due To Spike In Cuban Migrants Trying To Reach The U.S. “Meanwhile, Costa Rica also is urging Obama to change the law amid a spike in the number of Cuban migrants trapped along its borders as they try to reach the U.S. Those Cubans are taxing Central American governments’ resources as they rush to reach the U.S. partly out of fear the law will be repealed before they get their shot at life in America. The Costa Rican government is expected to send a letter to Obama this week urging him to change the law.” [Politico, “Lawmakers push to end political asylum for Cubans,” 4/27/16]

Archbishop of Havana Steps Down

Cardinal Jaime Ortega Steps Down. “Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who oversaw a warming of relations with Cuba’s Communist government and played a role in the secret negotiations that led to U.S.-Cuba detente, has stepped down, the Vatican announced Tuesday. He is being replaced as archbishop of Havana by Juan de la Caridad Garcia Rodriguez, the archbishop of the eastern city of Camaguey. Ortega was named Archbishop of Havana in 1981 and oversaw three papal trips to Communist Cuba. He ferried a letter from the Vatican to President Barack Obama during 18 months of secret negotiations that led to the Dec. 17, 2014 declaration that the U.S. and Cuba were restarting diplomatic relations and moving toward normalization.” [Washington Post, “Archbishop of Havana, key figure in détente, steps down,” 4/26/16]

New York Times: Ortega “Will Leave Behind A Cuban Church Whose Reach Is Greater Than At Any Point Since Fidel Castro Swept To Power In 1959.” “Cardinal Ortega, 79, will leave behind a Cuban church whose reach is greater than at any point since Fidel Castro swept to power in 1959. Far from the days when Catholics were marginalized and the cardinal — as a young priest — spent time in a labor camp, the church is building new places of worship, tending to the poor, offering courses for aspiring entrepreneurs and prodding the government to speed up economic reforms…‘Ortega will go into the Cuban history books as a key player,’ said Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban businessman who grew up in Miami but retains close ties to the Cuban church. ‘He has pushed the boundaries very far.’” [New York Times, “Cardinal and Longtime Catholic Leader in Cuba to Step Down,” 4/26/16]

Drought In Eastern Cuba Affects Nearly One Million Cubans

Severe Drought In Eastern Cuba Leads To Water Rationing. “A severe drought in eastern Cuba has prompted water delivery service for some 70,000 residents in the Santiago de Cuba province, government officials told local media. The potable water shipments are being delivered via tanker trucks to those in need while water service has been reduced or delayed for the rest of the provincial population, officials with the National Water Resources Institute, or INRH, said. The water rationing measures are expected to remain in place though October in response to the intense and persistent drought that has affected almost a million people throughout the island for months. According to INRH, about 260 water supply sources have been fully or partially affected across Cuba, but the hardest hit is Santiago de Cuba.” [InCubaToday, “Severe drought in eastern Cuba leads to water usage restrictions,” 4/25/16]

Cruise Ship Picks Up Cuban Fugitives

Disney Cruise Ship Rescues Capsized Fugitives Fleeing To Cuba. “A Walt Disney Co. cruise ship has rescued three fugitives off the coast of Cuba who were wanted in New Orleans. The Disney Fantasy found the fugitives last Thursday clinging to a capsized boat, U.S. Marshal Amos Rojas Jr. said in a news release. Rojas said all three were wanted for violating their supervised release on federal credit card fraud charges in New Orleans…The fugitives were Cuban nationals who were from the United States. Rojas said authorities believe the three may have been fleeing to Cuba to avoid prosecution.” [AP, “Disney cruise shop rescues fugitives off coast of Cuba,” 4/26/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Fast & Furious 8 Begins Production In Cuba. “Fast & Furious fans, start your engines. Filming for the eighth installment in the franchise is underway in Cuba. The series’ official Twitter account announced the start of production with a video in which director F. Gary Gray is flanked by a group of women, who say in unison, ‘Fast & Furious, welcome to Cuba!’ News of Universal Pictures’ plans to shoot in Cuba came in January, about a year after the country and the U.S. began normalizing diplomatic relations. The production will also film in New York, and the franchise has previously filmed in such exotic locales as Dubai, Tokyo, and Rio de Janeiro.” [Entertainment Weekly, “Fast & Furious 8 filming revs up in Cuba,” 4/27/16]