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#CubaNow Briefing: U.S. Senate Makes Major Strides Toward Engagement Policy

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Jun 17, 2016


In historic votes on Capitol Hill yesterday, the Senate Appropriations Committee moved forward with the approval of four pro-trade and travel Cuba amendments as part of the FY 2017 Financial Services and General Government spending bill. These amendments included lifting the travel ban, extending credit for agricultural exports, repealing restrictions on telecom exports, and a repeal of regulations requiring ships to obtain a license to use U.S. ports after having previously shipped to Cuba.

This is the biggest policy development since President Obama’s trip to the Island earlier this year. In fact, it has been more than 15 years since a chamber of the U.S. Congress voted by such significant margins to eliminate counterproductive sanctions toward Cuba. And it comes on the heels of an already busy past few days in the world of U.S.-Cuba relations. The Department of Transportation announced last Friday that six U.S. airlines had been approved to begin commercial flights to Cuba later this year. And on Monday, the U.S. and Cuba signed an accord to cooperate on public health, an important measure that will help both countries combat threats like Zika.

The Senate should pass all of these provisions, which present an opportunity to restore the right of all Americans to freely travel, boost U.S. exports to the Island, and open up access to telecommunications equipment to a Cuban people demanding better connectivity on the Island. And for those who would vote against or block the measures, it is an opportunity to explain to why they believe the status quo is working out so well.

Even in the middle of an election season, these are hardly controversial votes. They’re measures backed by an overwhelming majority of the American people, which is why the support for reforming U.S.-Cuba policy has progressed further in a GOP-controlled Senate than it did under the Democratic supermajority earlier in President Obama’s term. Three of these amendments—including the travel ban—passed by voice votes, generally taken for noncontroversial or unanimous measures. The amendment to expand agricultural exports passed 22-8, with eight Republicans and 14 Democrats voting in favor. Momentum to fix the flawed and outdated policies of the embargo has transcended traditional partisan lines in the Senate. The coming days will tell whether the House can similarly exercise the leadership called for by this moment, or remain hamstrung by the politics of the past.

On a final note, we want to extend our most heartfelt sympathies and condolences to the victims of this weekend’s horrific shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. There are no words to adequately describe a tragedy that left 49 innocent people dead, including two Cuban nationals. We hope you can take the time this week to read about those whose lives were unjustifiably cut short.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez

Political Director, #CubaNow

Senate Panel Approves Four Separate Cuba Amendments, Including Repeal Of The Travel Ban

Senate Appropriations Committee Adopts Four Cuba Amendments, Including Repeal Of The Travel Ban. “A Senate panel easily approved a spending bill amendment on Thursday that would lift a travel ban preventing American tourists from flying to Cuba. Prior to advancing a fiscal year 2017 Financial Services and General Government spending bill, the Senate Appropriations Committee adopted four separate amendments related to travel and trade with Cuba. One amendment approved by voice vote would prohibit federal funds from being used to restrict air travel to Cuba. The language is backed by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Jerry Moran (R-Kan.). Another amendment, also endorsed by voice vote, would allow international flights traveling to or from Cuba to refuel at Bangor Airport in Maine. Flights currently have to refuel in Canada instead of the U.S. because of restrictions mandated by the embargo on Cuba. ‘Reopening travel relations with Cuba is about more than just restoring the freedom to travel there for all Americans—it’s about opening Cuba to new ideas, new values, and improved human rights that our 50 year old policy of isolation could not achieve,’ Durbin said in a statement. ‘While we have to be realistic about the prospects of this Congress fully lifting the embargo on Cuba, today’s committee votes were solid steps in the right direction.’” [The Hill, “Senate panel approves lifting Cuba travel ban,” 5/16/16]

Additional Adopted Provisions Repeal Restrictions On Agricultural Exports, Ports, And The DATA Act. “Senators adopted, 22-8, a provision that would repeal a requirement that a U.S. vessel entering a port in Cuba must obtain a license to load or unload freight in the U.S. within 180 days. It would also allow American farmers to extend private financing for exporting agricultural commodities to Cuba. The panel also approved an amendment by voice vote that would permit consumer communication devices or telecommunications services to be exported to Cuba.” [The Hill, “Senate panel approves lifting Cuba travel ban,” 5/16/16]

Sen. Pat Leahy: Not Allowing Americans To Freely Travel To Cuba Prevents The Free Flow Of Ideas And Democratic Values. “An amendment by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) to remove restrictions still hanging over U.S. travel to the island and tourism was approved in a voice vote. ‘Today, Americans can travel to any country in the world ... except one that is 90 miles away: Cuba,’ Leahy said in presenting his proposal. The senator argued that the current policy of sanctions ‘ended up harming the Cuban people’ and not allowing Americans to freely travel to that country prevents the free flow of ideas and democratic values.” [InCubaToday, “Provisions to lift Cuba travel and business restrictions inch forward,” 6/16/16]

Transportation Department Announces Scheduled Flights To Cuba

U.S. Airlines Win Permission To Resume Commercial Travel To Cuba, With Up To 155 Flights A Week To Nine Different Cuban Cities. “Six airlines won permission Friday to resume scheduled commercial air service from the U.S. to Cuba for the first time in more than five decades, another milestone in President Barack Obama’s campaign to normalize relations between Cold War foes. The airlines — American, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver Airways, Southwest and Sun Country — were approved by the Department of Transportation for a total of 155 roundtrip flights per week. They’ll fly from five U.S. cities to nine cities in Cuba other than Havana. U.S. law still prohibits tourist travel to Cuba, but a dozen other categories of travel are permitted, including family visits, official business, journalist visits, professional meetings and educational and religious activities. The Obama administration has eased rules to the point where travelers are now free to design their own ‘people-to-people’ cultural exchanges with little oversight.” [AP, “U.S. airlines to start scheduled flights to Cuba,” 6/12/16]

Airlines Rushing To Set Up Commercial Service To Cuba. “Airlines are racing to figure out how to offer the same streamlined service that is provided out of the U.S. Cuba's airports lack self-serve check-in kiosks. The terminal currently used by U.S.-bound charter flights has a tiny departure lobby and overflowing baggage belts. And all the workers are government employees, leading airlines to question if they will have a dedicated staff who can be trained in their policies and computer programs. Andrew Watterson, senior vice president of network and revenue at Southwest Airlines, notes that the unique challenges of U.S. and Cuban regulations, along with the 90-day window to start operations, ‘leads to a high-pressure situation.’” [WRAL, “Airlines race to Cuba, overcoming major hurdles,” 6/13/16]

Tragedy In Orlando

Cuban National Alejandro Barrios Martínez One Of Two Slain In Orlando Shooting. “The cousin of one of the Cuban victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre told the Washington Blade on Wednesday that his relative was ‘fun’ and ‘happy.’ ‘Alejandro since childhood was a very restless and cheerful boy,’ Álvaro Álvarez told the Washington Blade from the Chilean capital of Santiago where he is a journalist. His cousin, Alejandro Barrios Martínez, was among the 49 people who were killed on Sunday when a gunman opened fire inside Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. Martínez, 21, grew up west of Havana in the province of Pinar del Río. Álvarez told the Blade that Martínez lived with his father and paternal grandmother in Cuba who ‘adored him.’ Martínez’s father left the Communist island and resettled in Orlando. Álvarez told the Blade that his cousin moved to the U.S. in 2014 in order to live with him.” [Washington Blade, “Cuban victim of Orlando nightclub massacre was ‘happy,’” 6/15/16]

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen Asks U.S. Embassy In Havana To Expedite Visa For Martínez’s Mother. “Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) on Tuesday said in a letter to U.S. Chief of Mission to Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis that Orquidea Martínez’s cousin contacted her office and requested help in securing a visa for her to travel to Orlando. A spokesperson for the Cuban-born Republican’s office confirmed to the Blade on Wednesday that Orquidea Martínez has received a visa. ‘I’m proud to have helped Orquidea Martinez, the mother of Orlando shooting victim Alejandro Barrios Martinez, whose visa was approved,’ Ros-Lehtinen told the Blade in a statement. ‘Now, Ms. Martinez will be coming to the United States to pay her final respects to her son. Under these tragic circumstances, I sent a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Havana asking for expedited consideration of Ms. Martinez’s case and I am pleased that this heartbroken mother will be able to make the final arrangements to bring her family comfort.’” [Washington Blade, “Cuban victim of Orlando nightclub massacre was ‘happy,’” 6/15/16]

Cuban President Raul Castro Sends Condolences Over Orlando Attack. “Cuba's President Raul Castro has sent his condolences to the U.S. in the wake of the deadliest mass shooting in the country's recent history. The statement was read out on state TV. ‘I bring the most heartfelt condolences from the Cuban people and government, to the government and people of the United States,’ the news presenter reads. Forty-nine people were killed at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday by a man armed with an assault rifle. Castro's statement also condemned the attack. The U.S. and Cuba are currently working towards building warmer relations. President Barack Obama visited the communist country in March, opening a new chapter after decades of hostility.” [Reuters, “Cuba’s president sends condolences to U.S. after shooting,” 6/13/16]

U.S. And Cuba Sign Public Health Accord

U.S. And Cuba Sign Accord On Public Health, Promise To Work Against Zika And Cancer. “Cuba and the United States signed a public health agreement Monday promising to work together in the fight against Zika and cancer. Cuban Health Minister Roberto Tomas Morales Ojeda signed the agreement at the start of a three-day visit to the United States. Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said the memorandum of understanding allows the United States to tap into Cuba’s critical expertise combating tropical viruses spread by the aedes aegypti mosquito. ‘There is an epidemiological value in communicating with Cuba,’ Kolker said. ‘Zika has focused people’s minds on the close relationship we have because of geographic proximity and the possible impact of climate change in which some diseases that were just known in tropical areas are spreading to the continental United States.’” [McClatchy, “Zika, cancer focus of new U.S., Cuba accord on public health,” 6/13/16]

HHS Official: Accord Will Allow U.S. And Cuba To Do “Much More” In Cooperating On Public Health Issues. “Health officials in the two countries have talked in the past, when necessary, before the Obama administration started to normalize relations, Jimmy Kolker, who leads the HHS global affairs office, told STAT. The new agreement, he said, ‘will allow [us] to build on that platform, but to do much more.’ More detailed discussions have already been held about allowing scientists to stay abroad for a longer period than previously possible. For example, the National Institutes of Health or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could have Cuban researchers in residence, Kolker said. Cuba has also expressed an interest in having American scientists come to the island for medium-term projects. Kolker singled out Zika as another area for cooperation. Cuba is the home of one of the World Health Organization’s collaborating centers on dengue fever, a close relative of the Zika virus that has sparked global fears this year. The island nation has seen comparatively few indigenous Zika cases, which they credit to their mosquito-control programs aided by that dengue work. US officials could study Cuba’s mosquito programs and dengue research as summer arrives and concerns over Zika escalate, Kolker said. ‘That’s of immediate relevance to us,’ he said, ‘and we think sharing information between countries will be mutually beneficial.’” [STAT, “Obama administration signs historic health agreement with Cuba,” 6/13/16]

Happening In Cuba

Cuba Makes Its First Purchase Of U.S. Soyoil In Years. “Cuba made its first U.S. soyoil purchase in more than five years this month, the latest sign that drought and heavy rains in South America have tightened supplies and disrupted longstanding trade patterns. Buyers of soybeans and soy products have increasingly turned to the United States after rains reduced Argentina soy crop quality and stocks ran low in Brazil. Brazil is the top soybean exporter while Argentina ships the most soyoil and soymeal. In an unusual move, the United States sold 7,600 tonnes of soyoil to the Caribbean island in the first week of June, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data on Friday. While the shipment comprised a small portion of U.S. exports, it was the biggest to Cuba since 2010 and the first since 2011.” [Reuters, “In rare move, Cuba buys U.S. soyoil as South American supplies tighten,” 6/13/16]

Stonegate Bank Issues First U.S. Credit Card For U.S. In Cuba. “A small Florida bank will issue the first U.S. credit card intended for use in Cuba and make it easier for Americans to travel and work on an island largely cut off from the U.S. financial system, the bank announced Tuesday. Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Bank said its Mastercard, available Wednesday, will let U.S. travelers charge purchases at state-run businesses and a handful of private ones, mostly high-end private restaurants equipped with point-of-sale devices. Until now, Americans have generally had to bring cash to Cuba and change it either at state institutions that impose a 10 percent penalty on the dollar or in informal exchanges with locals. ‘This is going to be huge for American companies trying to do business down here,’ Stonegate president David Seleski said.” [AP, “Florida bank issues first U.S. credit card for use in Cuba,” 6/14/16]

NPR Profiles “The Cuban Julia Child,” Nitza Villapol. “You may not have heard of Nitza Villapol, but for millions of Cubans both on the island and abroad, her recipes offer an abiding taste of home. In many Cuban-American homes, dog-eared, decades-old copies of her cookbooks are considered family treasures. Villapol rose to prominence as a national cooking authority in the summer of 1948 (though some sources put it at 1951), when she began hosting one of the first cooking shows of the modern television era, Cocina al Minuto, teaching viewers how to cook mostly classic Cuban recipes — like picadillo, vaca frita and arroz con pollo. Even after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959, Villapol remained on air. She would continue to be a steadfast TV presence into the 1990s — her recipes and cookbooks changing to reflect the realities, and scarcities, of life under the revolution.” [NPR, “Nitza Villapol: The Woman Who Taught Cubans To Cook With Just About Anything,” 6/16/16]

Finca Vigia Foundation Sends Equipment To Cuba To Preserve Hemingway Artifacts. “On an island where finding a handful of screws can be a days-long odyssey, the new era of U.S.-Cuban normalization has brought hundreds of thousands of dollars of supplies to build a simple but up-to-date conservation facility for Hemingway artifacts ranging from books and letters to fishing rods and African animal heads. The opening of two containers on Wednesday was far from the most momentous event in the year and a half since Presidents Barack Obama and Raul Castro declared detente. But there was a symbolic charge to the unpacking of American goods that will be used to preserve the memories of a man who's become an icon of friendly U.S.-Cuban relations. Hemingway lived at the airy home known as the Finca Vigia in the 1940s and '50s, and places where the Nobel literature laureate worked, fished and drank have become important Cuban cultural sites and draws for tourists from around the world.” [AP, “US hardware arrives in Cuba to protect Hemingway possessions, 6/16/16]

Cuba Hoping Normalization Will Lead To Increased Investment. “As Cuba fever seizes investors, communist functionaries and global corporations are hoping to change the island's reputation as a place where investment projects go to die. A year and a half into normalization with the U.S., Cuba faces either an exciting new era of foreign investment or another in a string of false starts. After he seized control of Cuba in 1959 and nationalized the U.S. companies that owned much of the island, Fidel Castro built a centrally planned socialist economy dependent on billions in annual subsidies from the Soviet Union. After the Soviet collapse, Cuba replaced those billions with highly subsidized Venezuelan oil from socialist ally Hugo Chavez. The sinking of the Venezuelan economy has left Cuba looking to fill its budget gap with post-Obama tourism and investment from the profit-driven world of international capitalism. But things are moving slowly.” [AP, “Cuba hopes détente will finally break curse on investment,” 6/15/16]

Richard Feinberg: U.S. Trade Embargo And Cuban Bureaucracy Are Obstacles To Finalizing Deals. “Despite the Dec. 2014 declaration of detente, the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba prevents most investment from the U.S. and makes it difficult for other countries. Add to that a bureaucracy that can take months to move a single document from one ministry to another, and it's no wonder that projects linger for years, even decades, without much progress. ‘They hear about the U.S. normalization and they get a sense of, 'Wow, maybe Cuba really is now opening up,”’ said Richard Feinberg, author of the new book ‘Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy.’ 'Then they visit and they find that many of the same obstacles to actually finalizing deals remain in place.’” [AP, “Cuba hopes détente will finally break curse on investment,” 6/15/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Cuban Television Programming To Be Available On U.S. Airwaves. “La revolución will be televised. Cuban programming is coming to U.S. airwaves thanks to DISH, the Colorado-based provider with 13.9 million TV subscribers. The company announced the launch of a new channel Thursday called CUBAMAX TV, which will carry entertainment programming created in Cuba featuring some of the island's most famous celebrities. The channel will not feature any political or news programming, but instead will focus on comedies, children's programming, music videos and telenovelas. The channel's operations will be in Miami, where producers will package shows from Cuba and distribute them to subscribers of DishLATINO. ‘Connecting viewers with their heritage and culture is at the heart of the DishLATINO brand promise, and today marks an important milestone as we deliver movies and TV shows from Cuba that were previously unavailable,’ Alfredo Rodriguez, vice president of DishLATINO, said in a statement. ‘With an estimated two million Cubans living in the U.S. and many others eager to learn about the island's rich culture, we're excited to provide a window into the arts and entertainment world of Cuba.’” [USA Today, “Cuban TV programming to be broadcast in U.S.,” 6/16/16]