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#CubaNow Briefing: When Will South Florida’s Representatives Step Up And Lead?

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Apr 8, 2016


The last few weeks have been a watershed moment for U.S.-Cuba relations. Cubans and Cuban-Americans have increasingly sought to reconnect and reconcile since normalization, and never has that movement been more publicly on display than during and after President Obama’s recent trip to the Island. Across the country, Americans are clamoring to get to Cuba while airlines fight over rights to routes, and the world saw the warmth and optimism of a Cuban people unquestionably in support of normalization. Even the only other remaining pro-embargo vote we have in the United Nations is looking to restore ties.

There is no question at this point that the renewal of U.S.-Cuba ties has already led to more progress than anything the embargo ever accomplished. Cuban-American and Republican businessman Mike Fernandez made that case this week in a stirring op-ed to the Cuban-American community.

“The Cuban leadership will have to adjust to the reality that we are not the “scum” the once called us. We, too, will have to adjust. Our South Florida elected officials need to be reminded that the President did more good and more healing in fewer than 60 minutes than our home team has done in almost 60 years.

“Anger will not heal. Hate will not build. It's past time for those who get elected by reminding our parents and us of the saddest days of our lives. Sowing sadness and anger is not leadership. Those we elect to serve us need to lead our community by offering a vision where all Cubans begin a process of reconciliation. We are, and need to be, one family, one people.”

Fernandez’s column speaks to the ever-increasing gulf between politicians in South Florida and their constituents on the matter of Cuba. For all of the grace and goodwill shown by Cuban-Americans in what has been an emotional and difficult process, these elected “leaders” have continued to shamelessly exploit the issue for petty political gain. Rather than offer a vision for the future, they have sought to keep our two peoples apart by playing to anger and divisiveness. Rather than showing a sliver of the leadership already displayed by Fernandez and countless other Cuban-Americans like former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, they have doubled down on a moribund embargo policy that has no purpose outside of serving as a soapbox for the politicians that built a career on it.

And for what? Normalization has led to an increase in private sector activity, fostered a rise in Cubans exercising their right to free speech, and boosted the odds for reform within the Cuban government. These are positive results that every member of Congress should be able to get behind, but sadly some still refuse to pursue anything other than a self-serving policy of isolation.

As has become increasingly clear, the hardline wing of Congress is rushing headlong into political irrelevance. The claim that normalization only empowers the Cuban government does not cut it anymore. The claim that a return to a full-fledged embargo could do any better after over five decades of failing to deliver at all is even more preposterous. The days following Obama’s speech in Havana showed how quickly we can help foster public and internal debate in Cuba when we make clear that the Island’s future is in the hands of the Cuban people—not in the hands of embargo laws written two decades ago, or members of Congress rattling off equally old talking points.

That reality is one that politicians in South Florida will have to acknowledge in the immediate future. It may be easy now to sit back and criticize the setbacks that will come amid the progress made—after all, the embargo lasted this long without ever having to account for its failures. But with ties between Cubans and Americans growing by the day, the insistence on reverting back to a failed policy will be increasingly hard to maintain. So will the seats of these elected officials as the rift between them and the people they represent continues to deepen.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow

Cuban-American and Republican Businessman Mike Fernandez: Time To Leave The Embargo Behind And Focus On Helping The Cuban People

Mike Fernandez: Cuban-American Community Should Focus On Prioritizing For “Our Cuban Brothers And Sisters.” “President Obama conducted a masterful conversation in diplomacy and in the spirit of a good neighbor. We need to do the same. What are our choices? Do we keep the old wounds from healing? Do we keep an embargo serving as the excuse for everything that’s wrong in Cuba? Has the embargo removed the leadership in Cuba? Has the embargo returned democracy to Cuba? Has the embargo allowed a free press to flourish? Has the embargo stopped a 3-year-old child from crying because there is no powdered milk to drink? Has the embargo prevented the poor souls who perished at sea from leaving the shores? We have to change and perhaps we should begin by trying to place ourselves in the shoes of those we left behind. That means getting our priorities right and, as President Obama said, not ‘imposing’ solutions on our Cuban brother and sisters. We all want them to have the same democratic rights that we enjoy here, but we also have to recognize that we are witnessing a historic process of gradual change, and there is no instant gratification.” [Univision Op-Ed, “Human Rights in Cuba: Choosing our priorities,” 4/5/16]

Fernandez: Focus On What The Cuban People Want Instead Of Making U.S.-Cuba Relations A Zero-Sum-Game. “Sure, let’s call the Cuban government out on human rights abuses, but let’s not make it a zero-sum-game. Instead, let’s do all we can at our end to fuel the process of change, accelerate it. We need to start by demanding that our Congress lift the embargo against Cuba. Critics will say that economic opening to China and Vietnam has not brought the individual freedoms and democracy we desire there. At the same time, we have to recognize the progress in those countries. Has anyone asked, as I have, Cubans at street corners in Havana to choose what they thought was best for them?” [Univision Op-Ed, “Human Rights in Cuba: Choosing our priorities,” 4/5/16]

The Effects Of Normalization In Cuba

More Public Dissent In Cuba As A Result Of Cubans Who See An Opening For Change With Normalization. “Nieto is part of what Cuban opposition leaders say is a growing activist network that’s sprung up since President Barack Obama began warmer relations with the communist nation 15 months ago. They say people are more willing to speak out about their frustrations as they see an opening for change in new relations with the United States. That growth is in part the reason for the step-up in the government’s crackdown on dissent that was evident during President Barack Obama’s 48 hours on the island. Dozens of activists were arrested before Obama’s arrival.” [McClatchy, “One reason for more Cuban arrests: more dissidents since U.S. opening,” 4/1/16]

Convivencia’s Dagoberto Valdés Hernández: Increase In Arrests Reflects That There Are More People Speaking Out. “Dagoberto Valdés Hernández, who runs the Catholic magazine Convivencia, said the increase in arrests reflects not only the government’s growing nervousness, but the fact there are more people to arrest. ‘In the beginning, it was just a handful of people. Now, it’s thousands,’ Valdés said. ‘So the repression has had to increase.’ Arrests for political disobedience now top a thousand a month. Sanchez’s human rights commission reported more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions in 2015 – a 315 percent increase from five year ago. In just the first two months of this year, there have already been more than 2,500 arrests.” [McClatchy, “One reason for more Cuban arrests: more dissidents since U.S. opening,” 4/1/16]

Obama’s Speech Imploring Youth To Look To The Future “Was Not Lost On Cubans.” “White House officials have said that before Obama’s trip to Cuba, they received several recommendations that he specifically offer hope to young Cubans during the visit. That’s what Obama did during his speech from the Gran Teatro, when he asked ‘young people … to look to the future with hope’ because ‘the youth of Cuba … will rise and build something new. The future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people.’ The message was not lost on Cubans. ‘Obama is a ray of hope, to keep advancing and moving forward,’ said Rolando Valdés Suárez, one of the young waiters who served Obama and his family at the paladar San Cristóbal on the first day of the their visit.” [InCubaToday, “Cuba is changing, more for some than others,” 4/3/16]

Young Cubans Expect More From Normalization Than “Mere Words.” “But other youths said they want more than rhetoric. While waiting outside the U.S. embassy in Havana, hoping to get a photo of Obama on her cellphone, Cuban state television producer Adonais Fontes Suárez, 37, said Cuban youths ‘expect to see results from the conversations’ between the two countries. Although ‘political changes take time,’ she said, Cuban youths want to make sure that ‘the concrete result’ of the negotiations ‘will not be mere words.’” [InCubaToday, “Cuba is changing, more for some than others,” 4/3/16]

Peter Kornbluh: “Cuba’s Transformation Is Clearly Irreversible.” “With the Obama era coming to an end, Cubans (along with the rest of us) are naturally concerned about what will follow. A huge transition is also approaching in Cuba: Raúl Castro has said that he will step aside in 2018. It remains to be seen if Fidel’s negativity about Obama’s trip—and, by extension, normalization with the United States—will have an impact on the Communist Party Congress this April, which will set new priorities for the country’s economic modernization and future leadership. But Cuba’s transformation is clearly irreversible. The free concert by the Rolling Stones just three days after Obama left was yet another example of Cuba’s complete integration into the global cultural economy. As Mick Jagger told a rollicking audience of more than 500,000 Cubans when the Stones rocked Havana on March 25, “I think the times are changing!” [The Nation, “Is Normalization With Cuba Irreversible?” 4/6/16]

Kornbluh: Momentum Is Building In D.C. To Consolidate Economic And Cultural Bridges. “In Washington, advocates of normalization are now building on the momentum of Obama’s trip to consolidate economic and cultural bridges. The president’s recent decision to ease restrictions on travel to Cuba will surely bring about a vast increase in US visitors—each one of them a potential lobbyist for passing the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, which would lift all restrictions on American travelers, whether for “educational” tourism, as regulations now require, or as simple vacationers. Moreover, with US companies like Google, Starwood Hotels and Resorts, and Airbnb establishing a corporate foothold in Cuba, there will be escalating pressure on Republican leaders to allow a vote to end, once and for all, the trade embargo. Even Alan Gross, who spent five years in a Cuban prison for his work on the US government’s quasi-covert, Bush-era ‘democracy promotion’ programs, has called on Congress to ‘grow a pair’ and ‘get over the failure of the embargo by lifting it.’” [The Nation, “Is Normalization With Cuba Irreversible?” 4/6/16]

Cubans Respond To President Obama’s Visit To Cuba. “U.S. President Barack Obama's historic March visit to Cuba has not fixed all of the thorny issues between the two countries, but it did spark hope among Havana residents that closer ties with the United States will improve their lives. ‘It's good for the Cubans that he came and reestablished relationships between the two countries,’ said 55-year-old Zamora, who is self-employed. ‘I hope everything gets better and that there will be better work and development for our children. Long live Obama,’ said bricklayer Yoendry Gainsa, 35, holding his daughter while posing in front of the Stars and Stripes and the Cuban flag. Laboring under a half century-old U.S. trade embargo and cautiously emerging from a Soviet-style command economy that prohibited almost all private enterprise, many Cubans find it hard to make ends meet.” [Reuters, “U.S.-Cuba thaw: voices from the street,” 4/6/16]

Travel Boom In Cuba Leading To Increased Demand At Restaurants In A Country Where Staples Are Limited. “Then there’s the constant struggle of running a food business in a country that lacks capitalist institutions as basic as a wholesale market, and where staples are often in short supply. ‘If I want to buy a kilo of coffee, I need to go to two, three, six stores all around Cuba sometimes,’ said Renan Cesar Alvarez, 74, an owner of La Cocina de Esteban, a brightly lit restaurant serving Italian, Spanish and Cuban cuisine a few blocks from the University of Havana. ‘It’s the same with sugar, rice, the drinks, everything.’ But demand is also growing exponentially, thanks to a flood of international tourists — 3.52 million in 2015, among them 161,000 from the United States, or nearly double the number of Americans in 2014, according to Reuters. And though restaurateurs have freer rein than at any time since the 1950s, they still have to grapple with the byzantine, sometimes nonsensical rules that come with owning a private enterprise in a communist country. By law, for example, restaurants are limited to 50 seats or fewer.” [New York Times, “What, Reserve a Table? Cubans Confront a New Dining Culture,” 4/4/16]

Israeli Official Says His Country Seeks To Restore Ties With Cuba. “A top Israeli official said Tuesday that the restoration of relations between the U.S. and Cuba could pave the way for Israel to rekindle ties with the island nation as well. The Middle Eastern nation has not had diplomatic relations with Cuba since former leader Fidel Castro broke them in 1973. Since then, Cuban government officials typically have criticized Israel, backing the Palestinian independence movement. But Modi Ephraim, who heads the Latin American and Caribbean division of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said that his country hopes to restore ties with Cuba ‘when it is possible,’ according to the Jerusalem Post.” [Fox News Latino, “U.S.-Cuba thaw inspiring Israel to restore ties with Communist nation, official says,” 4/7/16]-

Cuban Government Criticized For Discriminatory Travel Policy Against Cuban-Americans

Fabiola Santiago: Cuban Government Barring Cuban-Americans From Cruises. “Imagine a cruise line that won’t take African Americans on sailings to Africa. Or won’t take bookings from American Jews to Israel. One class of U.S. citizen banned while others get access. No company in contemporary America would ever survive such blunt discriminatory business practices. But that’s exactly what Carnival Corporation is doing in cahoots with the Cuban government and with the endorsement of the U.S. Treasury — banning Cuban Americans from its upcoming cruises to the island starting May 1. ‘They’re imposing repressive Cuban laws on American citizens,’ says Maria de los Angeles Torres, a respected expert on Cuba and a longtime pro-engagement and anti-embargo academic who directs Latin American and Latino studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago. ‘It’s like they’re bringing Cuban law here.’” [Miami Herald Op-Ed, “Carnival cruise to Cuba discriminates against a class of Americans,” 4/7/16]

Cuba Combats Illegal Fishing

Cuba Joins International Anti-Illegal Fishing Treaty. “The Caribbean island nation of Cuba has joined 23 other governments, including the European Union, in becoming an official party to the Port State Measures Agreement (PSMA)—an international treaty designed to stop illegally caught fish from entering the global seafood market. In ratifying the agreement, Cuba helps advance the global effort to end illegal fishing. Adopted by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2009, the PSMA is a critical tool in that fight. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing is estimated to account for up to $23.5 billion worth of seafood each year. That translates into 1 in every 5 wild-caught marine fish. IUU fishing threatens fish populations, jeopardizes marine ecosystems, and destabilizes the environmental, social, and economic security of coastal communities whose economies rely heavily on seafood.” [The Pew Charitable Trusts, “Cuba Joins Key Treaty to Fight Illegal Fishing,” 3/29/16]

Human Rights Activists Gather To Discuss Cuba

Amnesty International Holds A Panel On Human Rights Issues In Miami. “With a new U.S.-Cuba relationship opening up the possibility of change, lawyer Laritza Diversent Cambara believes it’s an advantageous time for civil society groups like hers to press for legal recognition and more space. Not only does Diversent — director of Cubalex, a Havana-based organization that gives legal and human rights advice — want the group to be legally recognized but she also believes it should participate in the political process in Cuba. Diversent took part in a panel on freedom of expression, dissent and the Internet in Cuba during the opening day of Amnesty International USA’s annual meeting in Miami. The meeting, which is being held at the Doubletree Miami Airport & Convention Center, has brought together more than 1,000 human rights activists to discuss everything from protecting Central American migrants and Cuban dissidents to gun violence in the Americas and women’s rights.” [Miami Herald, “Amnesty International takes on human rights issues from migrant crisis to Cuban dissidents during Miami meeting,” 4/1/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Former “Car Talk” Host Ray Magliozzi Visits Cuba. “My other favorite thing was the warmth of the people we met and their ingenuity. Their resilience was revealed in the cars. They just wanted to drive. They could have given up the cars and relied on buses and walking, and there are motor scooters, but somehow the cars are a link to the past when America was their friend. I think it’s a longing for the days when they would freely travel to the U.S. And lots of people were happy to see us when we told them we were from the U.S.A. I’ve been to plenty of those old car parades, and you see enthusiasts there, but those are different folks. I don’t know what made the average Cuban who restores old cars get into it, but they are cut from different cloths from what you see in this country.” [New York Times, “Ray Magliozzi of ‘Car Talk’ Takes to the Road in Cuba,” 4/1/16]