Obama’s New Cuba Travel Rules: This One’s Not Just for Miami

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Cuba bridge.jpgThis is a guest post by Anya Landau French, who directs the New America Foundation/U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative. This post originally appeared at The Havana Note.
Just how significant are the new rules announced by the Obama administration to expand purposeful travel and economic assistance to Cuba? Do they signal a renewed “thaw” in bilateral relations, coming as they did just after diplomatic reports that an American USAID subcontractor detained in Cuba more than a year ago may soon get to go home? Are they a “response” from the Obama administration to the Raul Castro government’s recent economic reforms and release of dozens of political prisoners? Are they a far and weakened cry from what should have been a full and confident overhaul of the poster child for dumb U.S. policies that cost us far more in treasure and credibility than they’ve ever achieved? Or are they this administration’s return to its pledge early on to move Cuba policy out of the past and into the future? The correct answer may be in the eye of the beholder.
In comparison with the Clinton administration’s initiatives of more than a decade ago, these new rules don’t break a lot of new ground. But they do break some, in giving general licenses to religious and credit-earning academic travel, and in authorizing other U.S. airports to host licensed flights to Cuba. What’s so frustrating is this administration could have come in and swept away much of the deadwood Cuba policy it inherited – and earned valuable points abroad – but instead it dragged its feet and allowed itself to be bullied for two years.
By the same token, no matter how little risk Cuba policy reforms posed juxtaposed by economic and foreign policy benefits for the U.S., the White House has been engulfed in one crisis or political battle of far greater proportions after another, including inheriting the worst financial crisis the nation has faced in decades, fighting a surprisingly protracted battle over its signature goal, healthcare reform, getting in deeper in Afghanistan, fighting Congress over stimulus spending and tax policy and suffering a crushing defeat at the polls in November. And that’s just the really big stuff. So in that context, bold and sensible policy reforms in a non-crisis policy arena like Cuba understandably got sidelined, or worse (and not so understandably), subjected to questionable political litmus tests.
When reports first surfaced last summer that new rules were in the offing, Hard-line darlings Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Albio Sires (both Democrats, and dedicated fundraisers for their party) reported their advice to the White House – Cuba policy reforms would hurt the Democrats’ chances in the November election. When the rules didn’t come, many assumed the White House had bought that argument, even though several Florida Democrats who towed a hard line on Cuba still fell to the Republican/anti-incumbent tide that swept the rest of the political map.
Luckily, policy finally beat politics in this case, if not by much. (The White House announcement reiterated that the embargo would stay in place, after all.) So what comes next? Hopefully the administration will use the momentum of this announcement to re-establish credible mutual expectations of constructive engagement with the Cuban government, and to begin to reap real results through official talks and regular Interests Section contacts.
It would be unwise to say to the Cubans, essentially, ‘It’s your turn now,’ especially when the rules still represent modest change in the big picture relationship. (And indeed, the Cuban Foreign Ministry offered halting praise for what it called “positive but limited” measures). Obama’s approach may lack the boldness that could really move relations forward, but issuing these rules does demonstrate a will to move forward, not backward. Hopefully that is the message Cubans will take away from this announcement, even if the government has so far offered tepid interest.
With these new rules, Obama has finally dispelled the notion that he would only act on Cuba for political gain in Florida – which is smart, given that Cuban Americans are no longer single issue voters anymore (and those that are would never consider voting for Mr. Obama anyway). Many influential Miami moderates supported and even pressed for broader people-to-people engagement with Cuba, but a far larger constituency of interests across the country, including travel and agriculture sector businesses, human rights and religious organizations, academic institutions and foreign policy and national security advocates, dogged Congress and the administration for progress on Cuba. As long as this isn’t the end of the road but a new beginning – as President Obama promised in April 2009 – these new travel rules offer hope for that elusive progress in U.S.-Cuban relations.
— Anya Landau French

Comments

8 comments on “Obama’s New Cuba Travel Rules: This One’s Not Just for Miami

  1. WigWag says:

    I enjoy your posts very much Ms Landau-French but your last comment strains credulity. You say,
    “I disagree with the notion that the midterm elections proved that the “hard line” is the majority in Florida – candidates whom I refer to as hardliners, not to be disparaging but for the sake of expedient description of their Cuba politics both won and lost their elections.”
    You didn’t just call Congresswoman Wasserman-Schultz a hardliner, you referred to her as a “hard-line darling.” It seems to me that the characterization is not only disparaging, it’s also arguably sexist. Almost the entire Florida Congressional delegation agrees with the positions on Cuba advocated by Wasserman-Schultz. It’s true of both Democrats and Republicans and it’s true of both liberals (like Alcee Hastings) and conservatives (like Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.) It’s also true of white Congressmen like Ted Deutch; it’s true of African American Congressmen like Alan West and Kendrick Meek and it’s true of Cuban-American Congressmen like David Rivera and Mario Diaz-Balart.
    Virtually the entire Florida congressional delegation representing every political party, every political philosophy and every cultural background adopts a similar position to Wasserman-Schultz. Are they all hard-line darlings?
    If the idea of relaxing relations with Cuba was increasingly popular amongst the Cuban-American community, which is such an important voting constituency in South Florida, wouldn’t even one of these Florida Congressmen/Congresswomen break ranks?
    And I’m not sure why you think the fact that tens of thousands of Cuban Americans visited Cuba last year means that they support normalizing relations with Cuba. Visiting relatives whom you haven’t seen in years or decades can be a pretty powerful motivator. For a young person, so can the idea of visiting your ancestral homeland that you’ve never visited or hardly remember.
    We do disagree about a number of items but we agree on perhaps the most important; relations between the United States and Cuba should be normalized.
    Disagreements are, after all, the spice of life, they are also what makes reading and commenting on a blog fun.
    Thank you again for your entertaining and educational posts.

    Reply

  2. Anya Landau French says:

    WigWag – I appreciate you reading my post with such close attention. I happen to disagree with a number of your characterizations of my work and my thinking – ie, that I “smeared” Wasserman Schultz, that I have “denigrated” our democratic process – but I agree, we’re lucky we can each post our opinions as freely as we like.
    I disagree with the notion that the midterm elections proved that the “hard line” is the majority in Florida – candidates whom I refer to as hardliners, not to be disparaging but for the sake of expedient description of their Cuba politics, both won AND lost their elections. The ones who won? Overwhelmingly, the Republicans, just like what happened in the rest of the country. The elections weren’t a referendum on Cuba policy in Florida; they were about much, much bigger issues like the economy.
    If you want proof that Cuban Americans, young and old, are ready to open more to Cuba and isolate Cuba less, look no further than how many of them are voting with their feet – as many as 400,000 of them traveled to Cuba in 2010, and we’ll see even more make the trip home in 2011.
    Thanks for reading,
    Anya

    Reply

  3. WigWag says:

    I suspect that if Ms Landau-French opens the file cabinet in her cubicle at the New America Foundation or if she turns on her computer and does a Google search, she can find polls that suggest that Cuban Americans have a more nuanced view of how the United States should interact with Cuba than they once did. Perhaps some of these polls even indicate that Cuban Americans are willing to see the United States relax the trade embargo with Cuba and reduce the travel restrictions that are now in place.
    We now have evidence that it

    Reply

  4. David says:

    Thanks for the info ! I enjoyed your post !

    Reply

  5. WigWag says:

    “Our Cuban policy is a joke. We have an embargo against Cuba, but not against Egypt, or China, or Vietnam???? A rational foreign policy is one that communicates our way of being, but doesn’t interfere with their way of being…” (Warren Metzler)
    We have an embargo against Cuba and not Egypt or China because Americans, in free and fair elections keep voting for Congressmen, Senators and Presidents who think normalizing relations with Cuba is a bad idea. If the idea of establishing normal relations with Cuba resonated with the American public then Americans would vote for candidates who supported this position and U.S. policy would change.
    This is precisely what happened with the debate about whether gay Americans could serve openly in the military without fear of reprisal. Twenty years ago, Americans opposed the idea of gay people openly serving and they supported the policy adopted by Congress and the President known as “Don’t ask don’t tell.” In the intervening years gay Americans worked hard to convince the American public that this was a bad and discriminatory policy and ultimately enough politicians were elected who wanted to allow gay Americans to serve. When that happened the policy changed.
    I support full and normal relations with Cuba even now; but I understand that the people who agree with my position have, so far, failed to make a convincing case. Instead, supporters of an opening with Cuba frequently do what Ms Landau-French did in this post; she snidely insulted the democratic process (that protects her and everyone else in this country) by denigrating democracy as little more than (to use her words) a “political litmus test.” To make matters worse, Landau-French then went on to smear a legislator who disagrees with her (and is far more keyed in to the wishes of the Cuban community in South Florida than she is), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz as a “hard line darling.” The great irony is that Landau-French is far harder on a congresswoman elected in a free and fair election than she is on the tyrants who rule the country she wants to develop warmer relations with. Unbiased Americans who witness Landau-French’s approach can see it for exactly what it is. It won’t convince anyone.
    Instead of working to change hearts and minds, Landau-French engaged in behavior that is ubiquitous on the left, she decided to hurl stink bombs and call her opponents names. Yet she still wonders why she has been unable to persuade Americans to adopt her point of view.
    Landau-French’s behavior is highly reminscent of the behavior of those who supported the construction of the Mosque/Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero. Instead of focusing on convincing people why the construction of the Mosque/Community Center should be encouraged, they decided to focus on slamming those who disagreed with them as bigots and know-nothings. The net result of course is that they convinced hardly anyone and opposition to the project, even in New York now exceeds 60 percent of those polled.
    Those who believe that American Cuban policy is misguided need more effective advocates. The strategy that Landau-French adopts in this post won’t convince anyone except perhaps the people who already agree with her.

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  6. Warren Metzler says:

    Our Cuban policy is a joke. We have an embargo against Cuba, but not against Egypt, or China, or Vietnam???? A rational foreign policy is one that communicates our way of being, but doesn’t interfere with their way of being.
    We would have far greater impact if we allowed everyone who wanted to to import whatever they wanted, and to visit as often as they wanted. This policy has nothing to do with promoting democracy, but solely and only to do with revenge for a country that hasn’t kowtowed to our insane wishes. Revenge by all the Castro hating members of government and in the citizenry.

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  7. Jay Banks says:

    I believe these measures will help a lot as far as the increase in communication and person-to-person contact between the two countries is concerned. All of us want to see some change in Cuba as well as the people of Cuba want to change the oppressive regime under which they have lived for such a long time.

    Reply

  8. WigWag says:

    It’s hard to understand how someone who must be as intelligent and well-informed as Ms Landau-French surely is, could author a post this naive.
    She says,
    “What’s so frustrating is this administration could have come in and swept away much of the deadwood Cuba policy it inherited – and earned valuable points abroad – but instead it dragged its feet and allowed itself to be bullied for two years.”
    By changing American policy towards Cuba, the United States could have earned valuable points abroad-what a joke. Whom exactly does Ms Landau-French think the United States could have earned points with and what exactly would the United States have gotten in return from those nations with the so-called points it would have earned?
    She goes on to say,
    “So in that context, bold and sensible policy reforms in a non-crisis policy arena like Cuba understandably got sidelined or worse (and not so understandably), subjected to questionable political litmus tests…”
    What Ms Landau-French cavalierly dismisses as a political “litmus test” is more appropriately referred to by a much nobler name-democracy. Presumably Landau-French is well acquainted with democracy; its gives her license to write whatever she wants to on the pages of the Washington Note without fear of governmental reprisal. It’s also what they don’t have in Cuba. Could her snarky reference to the democratic principles that have made enacting a change of Cuba policy very difficult, be an indication that she doesn’t view the democratization of Cuba as very important? Could that be why she favors political normalization with Cuba?
    Landau-French dismisses Congresswoman Wasserman-Schultz as a “hardliner,” but she obviously doesn’t know a “hardliner” when she sees one. It’s the Castro Brothers and their Cuban cronies who are the real “hardliners” Ms Landau-French; the Congresswoman from South Florida is merely doing what legislators are supposed to do in a representative democracy-she’s representing the views of people in her district.
    This post reaches the height of absurdity when Landau-French claims that
    “Cuban Americans are no longer single issue voters anymore (and those that are would never consider voting for Mr. Obama anyway). Many influential Miami moderates supported and even pressed for broader people-to-people engagement with Cuba…”
    Whom should we trust when it comes to what Cuban Americans believe or don’t believe-Ms Landau-French who never had to win an actual vote or Congresswoman Wasserman Schultz whose entire career depends on winning the votes of Cuban constituents in her South Florida district?
    Anyone who lives in South Florida knows that Landau-French is surely incorrect when she asserts that a majority of Cuban Americans support more flexible American relations with Cuba. Younger people do; older people don’t. Cuban Americans are like all other Americans; older people turn out to vote in significantly greater numbers than younger people. Even if she’s right, it is perfectly obvious that there at least some Cuban Americans who might consider voting for Obama who won’t if he loosens restrictions on Cuba.
    Relaxing Cuba policy won’t win Obama or Wasserman-Schultz any additional votes in Florida but it might cost them votes. Even if the number of votes it cost them is tiny, by how many votes did Al Gore lose Florida to George W. Bush?
    If Obama doesn’t win Florida, his path to reelection becomes far more difficult; if Wasserman-Schultz antagonizes even a small number of her vocal Cuban supporters, her reelection also becomes far harder.
    I know Ms. Landau-French doesn’t like this reality, but it’s called “democracy.” Again Ms Landau-French, it’s the thing they don’t have in Cuba.
    What’s so hard to figure out about that?

    Reply

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