Monday, October 26, 2009

Cuba Central on the Embargo Vote

[On October 28th], the United Nations General Assembly is expected to vote on a resolution condemning the United States embargo against Cuba.

If past is prologue, it will pass resoundingly. The General Assembly has adopted similar measures in each of the last seventeen years; in 2008, by a margin of 185-3. But that was a condemnation of an embargo enforced, energetically and unapologetically, by the administration of George W. Bush. The vote this year takes place for the first time on President Obama's watch, and so has special significance.

The Secretary-General has prepared a public report that catalogues what UN members and UN organizations say about the embargo. That report can be downloaded here.

This document is a powerful reminder that the U.S. embargo is viewed internationally with great seriousness and in ways that are deeply damaging to U.S. interests and our image overseas.

Lest anyone think this policy is only provocative to nations in the non-aligned world, its opponents include Australia, Brazil, China, Colombia, Egypt, the European Union, India, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Russia.

They are plain-spoken in their opposition. Australia reminds us it votes "consistently" against the embargo. Brazil says it is the "Cuban people who suffer the most from the blockade." China says the embargo "serves no purpose other than to keep tensions high between two neighboring countries and inflict tremendous hardship and suffering on the people of Cuba, especially women and children." Egypt and India condemn the extra-territorial reach of our sanctions, which Japan says run "counter to the provisions of international law." Mexico calls these measures coercive. Russia "rejects" the embargo. Nations across the planet have enacted laws making it illegal for their companies to comply.

Our policy is especially controversial in our own hemisphere, where the U.S. alone is without diplomatic relations with Cuba, and where forum after forum - including the Rio Group, the Ibero-American Summit, the Heads of State of Latin America and the Caribbean, and CARICOM -has rejected the embargo and called for its repeal.

Beyond our diplomatic interests, the report forces us to move beyond the stale, political debate in which the embargo is most often framed (where every problem on the island is blamed on either Cuba's system or U.S. policy) and to confront the significant injuries this policy inflicts on ordinary Cubans.

It reminds us:

The embargo stops Cuba from obtaining diagnostic equipment or replacement parts for equipment used in the detection of breast, colon, and prostate cancer.
The embargo stops Cuba from obtaining patented materials that are needed for pediatric cardiac surgery and the diagnosis of pediatric illnesses.

The embargo prevents Cuba from purchasing antiretroviral drugs for the treatment of HIV-AIDS from U.S. sources of the medication.

The embargo stops Cuba from obtaining needed supplies for the diagnosis of Downs' Syndrome.

Under the embargo, Cuba cannot buy construction materials from the nearby U.S. market to assist in its hurricane recovery.

While food sales are legal, regulatory impediments drive up the costs of commodities that Cuba wants to buy from U.S. suppliers, and forces them in many cases to turn to other more expensive and distant sources of nutrition for their people.

Because our market is closed to their goods, Cuba cannot sell products like coffee, honey, tobacco, live lobsters and other items that would provide jobs and opportunities for average Cubans.

This list, abbreviated for space, is actually much longer, more vivid and troubling, as the report documents case after case of how our embargo affects daily life in Cuba. And for what reason? Because it will someday force the Cuban government to dismantle its system? As a bargaining chip? These arguments have proven false and futile over the decades and what the UN has been trying to tell us since 1992 is that they should be abandoned along with a policy that has so outlived its usefulness.

And yet, it is now the Obama administration supporting and enforcing the embargo - still following Bush-era rules that thwart U.S. agriculture sales; still levying stiff penalties for violations of the regulations; still stopping prominent Cubans from visiting the United States; still refusing to use its executive authority to allow American artists, the faith community, academics, and other proponents of engagement and exchange to visit Cuba as representatives of our country and its ideals.

To his credit, President Obama has taken some useful steps to change U.S. policy toward Cuba. He repealed the cruel Bush administration rules on family travel that divided Cuban families. He joined efforts by the OAS to lift Cuba's suspension from that organization. He has opened a direct channel of negotiations with Cuba's government on matters that include migration, resuming direct mail service, and relaxing the restrictions that Cuban and U.S. diplomats face in doing their jobs in each of our nation's capitals.

This is a start, but more - much more - needs to be done. Not because the UN says so, but because our country needs to embrace the world not as we found it in 1959 - or in 2008 - but as it exists today. President Obama can do this. Our times demand that he do so.

From the Cuba Central Newsblast of October 23, 2009
Center for Democracy in the Americas

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Obstacles to Normalizing Telecommunications

Cuba: No deal with US telecoms

Cuba rebuffs key Obama initiative that would have opened the island to better cell phone and internet service.

By Nick Miroff

Published: October 18, 2009 17:11 ET
Updated: October 19, 2009 09:01 ET

HAVANA, Cuba — For years, U.S. mobile phone companies and internet providers have been banned from doing business with Cuba, further isolating one of the least-connected countries in the hemisphere.

So when the Obama administration loosened those restrictions earlier this year, it looked like a tech surge was in store for the communist-ruled island. But after months of silence, Cuba seems to be saying no thanks.

Other outstanding trade and legal grievances need to be resolved before American telecommunications companies are granted access, a Cuban telecom official said Saturday, in a statement that appeared to rebuff one of the Obama administration’s key Cuba policy initiatives.

The White House announced in April that it would provide exemptions from long-standing U.S. sanctions against Cuba’s communist government, so that companies like Verizon, Sprint and AT&T could bring better phone and internet service to the island to “promote the freer flow of information.”

But the Castro government exerts strict control over the island’s communication networks, and American companies would have to reach a deal with the government’s telecom monopoly, ETECSA.

Months passed without a response to Obama’s proposal. But during an official government newscast Saturday, ETECSA international operations director Vivian Iglesias said there were two major obstacles to such a partnership: some $160 million in frozen funds that the U.S. government seized from ETECSA in 2000, and trade restrictions imposed by the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, which forces Cuba to pay U.S. companies through third countries, incurring additional transaction fees.

“It may seem like the Obama administration has expanded communication possibilities,” said Iglesias. “But we know that unless restrictions like the (Cuban Democracy Act) and others that have been tightened since 1992 don’t change, there can’t be any normal communication.”

Iglesias’ statements were a reminder that a firewall of mistrust remains between two countries split by 50 years of hostile relations and emotional politics.

Previous agreements between U.S. telecom companies and ETECSA went sour in the late 1990s, when U.S. legislators ordered ETECSA’s funds seized as payment to Cuban American families who won a wrongful death judgment against the Castro government after four pilots from a Cuban exile group were shot down in a 1996 dispute.

Iglesias said that money was “stolen” from ETECSA, and hasn’t been paid back.

“The causes that led to the theft of our funds are still in place,” she said. “If those restrictions don’t change, that prevents direct communication between the United States and Cuba.”

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Prospects for Travel Legislation (Miami Herald spin)

U.S.-Cuba travel picking up steam

Miami Herald Posted on Mon, Oct. 12, 2009

El Nuevo Herald
A powerful campaign to allow all Americans to travel to Cuba is rumbling through Congress, with both backers and opponents predicting eventual victory and a Cuban-American senator promising a key vote against the effort.

Approval of the measures would have a profound impact on U.S.-Cuba relations, unleashing an estimated one million American tourists to visit the island and undermining White House control of policy toward Havana.

``There would be an explosion of contacts between Americans and Cubans . . . that would almost overshadow what the two governments are doing,'' said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute think tank in suburban Washington.

Cuban officials have told recent U.S. visitors that while President Barack Obama's policy changes so far have been too timid to require a Havana reply, ending the U.S. travel ban would be significant enough to require some sort of Havana concession.

Many Cuba-watchers on Capitol Hill say the effort is likely to fail. But even opponents of the free-travel bills in the House and Senate admit the campaign for approval is powerful. ``I have never seen a stronger effort,'' said Mauricio Claver-Carone of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy political action committee.

Backing the change has been the U.S. travel industry -- Orbitz says it has 100,000 signatures on a petition -- and dozens of newspaper editorials, large agricultural companies, former Secretary of State George Shultz, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and groups that traditionally oppose U.S. sanctions on the island.

``Our goals should be to get rid of the travel ban in the next six months,'' Richardson said Friday during a speech to the National Democratic Network in Washington. ``This is a step in the right direction,'' Shultz declared last month.

Polls show 60-70 percent of all Americans favor lifting the travel restrictions, and one House bill championed by Massachusetts Democrat Bill Delahunt has gathered 180 sponsors -- 38 short of the 218 votes required for passage.

Obama ended all restrictions on Cuban-Americans' travel to the island on Sept. 3. But other U.S. citizens and residents can travel only under special permits for groups such as churches, academics and business -- not for tourism. That was allowed, however, from 1977 to 1982 under former President Jimmy Carter's efforts to normalize relations with Cuba.

Most of the public attention has been focused on the House bill backed by Delahunt and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif. Farr, noting that U.S agricultural sales to Cuba are allowed but not tourism, has repeated several variations of the line that ``We can send American potatoes to Cuba, but not American people.''

But a lesser-known version has a better chance of passing because it also eases restrictions on U.S. agricultural and medical sales to Cuba, in hopes of gathering support from those lobbies, said a Senate Republican staffer monitoring the progress of the travel bills.

The main Senate version of the measure -- with 25 co-sponsors from both parties at last count -- is being championed by Sens. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., Michael Enzi, R-Wyo. and Richard Lugar, R-Ind.

But backers of the changes say the bills have not moved forward through the congressional maze so far because of the lack of active support from the Obama administration and the Democratic leadership in both chambers.

``The Obama people are showing timidity. They are sitting on their hands,'' said a Senate aide whose Democratic boss favors lifting all travel restrictions. He asked for anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the issue.

Administration officials say lifting all travel restrictions would be too drastic and perhaps chaotic, and the the president prefers a more measured warming of relations. They stop short of saying whether Obama would sign or veto the bill if passed by Congress.*

``At the end of the day this is a leadership issue,'' said the Senate Republican aide, who also asked for anonymity. ``Do the Democrats have the will to bring this up [for a vote] with all the other issues -- healthcare, Afghanistan, etc.''

Most of Washington's Cuba watchers agree the full Congress is probably going to pass some bills easing Cuba sanctions, most likely one re-defining the requirement that Havana pay ``cash in advance'' for U.S. food purchases. The change would allow Cuba to pay when the shipments reach Havana, not before they leave U.S. ports as now required.

But the future of the ``Free Travel to Cuba'' initiatives is far more uncertain, with most of those monitoring the struggle saying that some version will likely pass the House, but all will almost certainly die in the Senate.

Delahunt ``has a pretty impressive list of sponsors. That bill looks good in the House,'' said a former Bush administration Cuba expert. ``Delahunt will pass the House,'' added an Obama administration official. Both asked for anonymity so they could speak frankly about the topic.

But most supporters as well as opponents say the travel measures are unlikely to pass the Senate, where the Democrats have a smaller majority and the bills face stiff opposition from Bob Menendez, a powerful Cuban American Democrat from New Jersey and Florida's Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and George LeMieux, a Republican.

Menendez and Nelson have strongly opposed easing the ban on U.S. tourism. LeMieux, who replaced Sen. Mel Martinez, is expected to also oppose easing the travel restrictions.

``This is a battle of perceptions. The pro-travel groups are claiming they will win, in the hope of creating the sense of movement and victory,'' said Claver-Carone. ``But in the end, the Senate will be tough, if not impossible.''

Juan Tamayo can be reached at


* The Secretary of State said in Congressional testimony that the President will not veto legislation to end the embargo. It does not make sense that the President will veto the partial lifting represented by ending travel limits. Tamayo may also be grasping for straws in whom he chooses to quote about prospects for passage by the Senate. J McA

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Sen. Dorgan on NY Philharmonic

Tuesday, October 6, 2009


FREEDOM TO TRAVEL TO CUBA-- (Senate - October 05, 2009)

Mr. DORGAN . Mr. President, last Friday the New York Times had an article which caught my eye, and the headline was the following: ``October New York Philharmonic Trip to Cuba is Off.'' I want to talk for a moment about this. I was extraordinarily disappointed to read this because this is an issue of the freedom to travel by the American people, specifically, the freedom to travel to Cuba.
This country has had an embargo against the country of Cuba for a long while. Cuba is a Communist country. Fidel Castro has poked his finger in the eye of America for a long time, so we have had an embargo for a long time. Part of the way to injure the Castro regime, presumably, as a part of this embargo is to prevent the American people from traveling to Cuba. The American people can travel to Communist China, to Communist Vietnam, to North Korea, but the American people are considered taking a criminal act if they travel to Cuba. There are some exceptions; the U.S. Treasury Department gives licenses to travel for certain kinds of educational and cultural things, and for trade.

So the New York Philharmonic orchestra was going to Cuba, but had to cancel the trip. Daniel Wakin wrote about it in the New York Times last Friday October 1, 2009. The reason I wanted to mention this is because it is almost unbelievable what we are still doing with respect to our travel policy with Cuba.

Senator Enzi and I have a piece of legislation that removes all travel restrictions with respect to travel to Cuba. We have over 30 Senators who are cosponsors of that legislation, but while we are waiting to pass our legislation, we are going through this nonsense of having the Federal Government and the Treasury Department tell us who can and who cannot travel, restricting the liberty and the freedom of the American people. It is outrageous, in my judgment.
Trips like the one the New York Philharmonic planned to Havana are not unusual. These kinds of trips happen all of the time. In 1959, at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the New York Philharmonic played in Moscow. It is a reasonably good thing, in my judgment, to be able to extend our culture and the hand of friendship through music.

One of the reasons I was especially interested in this is that the New York Philharmonic visited North Korea last year, and I asked conductor Loren Maazel and Zarin Mehta, President of the Philharmonic's board, to come and speak to our caucus. They described to us their performances in North Korea. They said the applause went on and on, even after they left the stage. What a great way to exchange with another country, to extend cultural enlightenment and to share with other countries. Again, the New York Philharmonic orchestra played in North Korea last year, but cannot play in Cuba without a special license.

The New York Philharmonic is going to Communist Vietnam this month.
Yes, it is a Communist country. So, too, is North Korea, as is China, as is Russia. But the New York Philharmonic orchestra has no difficulty being able to play music in those countries because there are no travel restrictions with respect to those countries.

Let me describe, if I might, the absurdity of all of this. The Office of Foreign Assets Control is a little agency in the Treasury Department that is in charge of granting licenses that, under certain conditions, will allow you to travel to Cuba. The license they decided to allow the New York Philharmonic to go to Cuba and play their music did not include allowing the benefactors of the Philharmonic to travel with them and the Philharmonic decided that was unacceptable. Frankly, I understand why it is unacceptable for them. That doesn't make any sense to me.

The OFAC regulations says
Unless otherwise authorized, any person subject to U.S. jurisdiction who engages in any travel-related transaction in Cuba violates the regulations.

That is unbelievable to me. That has been around, I think, for 40 years, 50 years.
Let me give examples of some people who have traveled to Cuba who our Federal Government has chased and harassed. By the way, this little agency called OFAC, somewhere in the bowels of the U.S. Treasury Department, the Office of Foreign Assets Control, is supposed to be tracking terrorist money, protecting us from terrorists. Instead they have been busy chasing people who go to Cuba. In the previous administration, up to a quarter of their time was spent trying to track Americans who were under suspicion of taking a vacation in Cuba. It is pretty absurd, it seems to me.

This is Joan Slote. She was a senior citizen and bicyclist who was fined $7,630. Do you know why? Because she joined a Canadian bicycling group that took a bicycle tour of Cuba and, as a result of that, her government--under the previous administration--tracked her down, threatened to attach her Social Security checks, and fined her $7,630 for riding a bicycle in Cuba.

Here is a picture of a woman I have met named Joni Scott. Joni Scott's transgression? She is a very religious woman, a devout Christian. She went to Cuba to hand out free Bibles on the streets of Cuba and her government tried to track her down and fine her $10,000 for handing out free Bibles on the streets of Cuba because she violated the travel ban. The travel ban, that means restricting the liberty of the American people. We do not ban travel to other countries. We do not do it for communist China, for communist Russia, communist Vietnam--just for Cuba.

This is SGT Carlos Lazo. A number of years ago, Carlos Lazo went and fought in the country of Iraq, wearing America's uniform. He is a Cuban-American. He was in Iraq as a fighting soldier for this country. He won the Bronze Star for gallantry. He had two children in Cuba, one of whom was sick, and his government that he fought for and won the Bronze Star for, told him he was not able to travel to Cuba to see his own sick child. Hat shows how unbelievably wrong this policy is.

Let me describe what the policy is about traveling to other countries. The rules say:
All transactions ordinarily incident to travel to or from Iran ..... are permitted.

If you want to go to Iran, no problem; that is not an issue. You are welcome to go to Iran.

If you want to see Kim Jong-il in North Korea, it is not a problem. The rules say:
U.S. passports are valid for travel in North Korea and individuals do not need U.S. Government permission to travel there.

Here are the 10 Presidents we have had since we decided to punish the American people with a travel ban to Cuba--10 Presidents. You talk about failure--it is one thing just to fail; it is another thing to insist that failure is a good thing for 50 years. This Government of Cuba has lasted through 10 Presidents. What we have decided to do is, over all these years, to ban travel to Cuba by the American people.

You can go to Cuba in certain capacities. You can go in certain educational capacities, or cultural capacities, provided you get a license. I have been to Cuba. I have been to Havana. I have visited with government officials, I visited with all the dissidents in Cuba. Many of my colleagues here in Congress have undoubtedly traveled to Cuba. But we have a licensing requirement with respect to travel to Cuba.

We also had this trade embargo for all of these years. I was one who, some years ago, lifted that embargo slightly to be able to sell food and medicine into Cuba. I think it is fundamentally immoral to use food as a weapon. We had an embargo against selling food to Cuba. The Europeans were selling into Cuba, the Canadians were selling into Cuba; the American farmers were told you can't sell food into Cuba. As a result of my amendment, the amendment I offered with then Senator Ashcroft, that amendment opened just a bit the sale of food into Cuba and allowed medicine to go into Cuba as well, but that is the only thing that has happened in all of these years.

Senator Enzi and I have offered a bipartisan piece of legislation that would allow travel, allow the American people the freedom to travel in Cuba.
My colleagues in this Chamber talk a lot about freedom. What about the freedom of the American people to travel? Why is it we have decided to punish the Cuban regime by restricting Americans' freedoms?

I come back to the basic proposition. That is, one of the great music groups in the world, the New York Philharmonic, which has played in North Korea, in Russia, and is about to play in Vietnam, is told: Here are the circumstances and conditions in which you can play in Cuba. By the way, they are onerous. The New York Philharmonic found those circumstances and conditions unacceptable and I understand why.

I am writing to the Office of Assets Control to see if we could not get them to think straight a bit. It makes no sense at all to decide that this kind of exchange is unworthy. Does anybody really think that having the New York Philharmonic play beautiful music in the city of Havana, in the country of Cuba, is in any way going to threaten anybody? Wouldn't it perhaps do at least what it did for those who were able to experience that wonderful music in North Korea? I saw the photographs, I saw the video. I believe ``60 Minutes'' did a piece on it, that showed how unbelievably they were responded to by the North Korean people who heard them, who listened to the New York Philharmonic. Wouldn't that be the same with respect to Cuba?

Why on Earth should our government be interpreting this travel restriction in the way that is designed to try to restrict rather than expand these opportunities? I have seen how OFAC, over these years, tries to find ways to tighten, find ways to create opportunity to restrict travel. That makes no sense to me at all.
When I read this, this weekend, I thought what on Earth could they be thinking of? Where is the deep reservoir of common sense that you should expect from people who are confronted with this issue? When confronted with the issue of granting a license to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra to represent our country in doing concerts in Havana, why should OFAC be trying to find ways to make that too restrictive for the Philharmonic and its benefactors to travel to Cuba and do what they had intended to do?

This kind of opportunity to connect with other countries has a long history. I showed a picture of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Leonard Bernstein, performing in the Great Hall in the Moscow Conservatory. Let me show that again. It raises the question about common sense. If we are able, in 1959, with all of the tensions with Moscow and the Soviet Union at that point, and we sent our New York Philharmonic Orchestra in an exchange and Leonard Bernstein conducted, and they, too, were greeted with long, sustained applause because people were so appreciative of them being in Moscow; if that has been the case--and it has been in every circumstance and last year especially it was with respect to the appearance in North Korea--if that is the case, why on Earth would our Government do anything other than encourage the New York Philharmonic to do the concert in Havana, instead of discourage it, instead of finding ways to tighten this down so the New York Philharmonic and their benefactors had decided they simply couldn't go under those conditions?

Common sense ought to apply on this issue of the liberty and the freedom of the American people to travel. There ought not be travel restrictions to Cuba at all. They ought to be gone and we ought to pass the Dorgan -Enzi bill that strikes the travel restrictions with respect to Cuba. We have not yet found a way to get it to the floor. When we do, I guarantee we will have sufficient votes on the floor of the Senate to offer the American people the freedom they should have had in the last 50 or 60 years, and that is freedom to travel. In this case that freedom has been taken from them and it is outrageous.

I mentioned Joan Slote. When I became involved in this issue of what this embargo costs our country, I was furious to find an elderly woman riding a bicycle in Cuba and then fined $7,300 by her government.

By the way, when she came back, her son had brain cancer so she wasn't home, she was attending to her son who had brain cancer down in California, and she didn't get the mailing to her house and then they threatened to take her Social Security away. Why? Because she was suspected of vacationing in Cuba, riding a bicycle with a Canadian bicycle group.

All of this I think is nuts and I hope at some point the New York Philharmonic will be given the license, with their benefactors, to go down and do the concert in Havana, Cuba; do the concert there. In the meantime, I hope the Office of Foreign Asset Control will take a look at this and make a new decision. They have the right to make a better decision. In my judgment they didn't make the right decision here. I hope they overturn that decision. I have written them a letter today asking them to do that. Let's use a little common sense here.

Following that, I hope Senator Enzi and I will get our legislation on the floor of the Senate and remove the travel restrictions that now impede the freedom of the American people to travel to Cuba.

The country of Cuba has been a thorn in our side for a long time; I understand that. But attempting to punish the leaders of Cuba by punishing the American people makes no sense at all. That is exactly what has happened since the early 1960s. My hope is that some day, despite the news last Friday that the New York Philharmonic has canceled this trip--my hope is some day very soon we will have a policy that doesn't have anybody canceling trips because they didn't get their license to travel. My hope is anybody can travel anywhere, representing the best of this country.

The New York Philharmonic is a wonderful cultural ambassador--to the Soviet Union, and North Korea, and Vietnam, all communist countries--and it can also be with Cuba. I hope that will happen soon.