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The US and Cuba: What Really Happened, What Will Change?

A few days after Thanksgiving I was at a social gathering and a member of the Cuban mission to the UN asked me why I hadn’t written anything about Cuba lately and if I thought there was any significant changes on the horizon. I told him exactly what I thought.

I was of the opinion that, if anything, the midterm elections had given Obama a “green light” to do everything he could regarding improving and, ultimately, normalizing relations with Cuba.

First, the exit polls in the Florida gubernatorial election showed the continuing trend of Cuban Americans voting for candidates who endorsed engagement with Cuba. Obama won Florida twice, in 2008 and 2012, without bending to the pro-embargo minority. The fact that Charlie Crist, although having lost the election, had won the Cuban-American vote in southern Florida with an emphatic campaign stance that the embargo needed to end. This is only part of the mounting evidence that Miami’s Cuban demographic has experienced a sea change in the past two decades. Obama didn’t have to worry about losing Florida “forever” for the Democrats with this move.

Second, Obama doesn’t owe anybody anything.

He could go and do what he wants as far as using executive authority on a number of issues that Congress has proven incapable of tackling. The man, despite his many faults, has had absolutely no cooperation from congressional Republicans and very little support and acknowledgement by members of his own party. Cuba would be an interesting opportunity for Obama to use his executive authority to show those who would mock him who really has the power to get things done.

Thirdly, because of the Republican overtake of the upper chamber Bob Menendez lost his seat as the chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. This is a victory for proponents of engagement with Cuba because it stripped the recalcitrant Menendez of his power that he would always wield by tabling any overtures towards the island. Obama didn’t have to worry about any fallout from members of his own party, especially senior members like Menendez who have entirely too much say in issues regarding Cuba, because they had been effectively stripped of their power. Barring a complete meltdown by Republicans in the next two years it is unlikely that Menendez obtain that position again. Good riddance!

Finally, time was counting down to the 2015 Summit of the Americas and the US was facing a near unanimous consensus within Latin America countries of boycotting the event if Cuba and the United States wouldn’t be able to sit at the same table as part of the community of nations of the Western hemisphere. A breakdown in the Summit would have been a major setback for Obama and a blow to US foreign policy in a region where America’s influence has been waning for two decades.

 

I was just getting around to writing about this and other observations about US-Cuba relations when I was blindsided by the announcements of the monumental steps taken by Obama and Raul Castro and their respective governments.

 

For proponents of engagement between the United States and Cuba, December 17th, 2014 will be remembered as the single most historically significant date in the past sixty years, and maybe even longer. The veteran observer would have thought the prisoner exchanges and the measures outlined by Obama on this day would have transpired gradually. A rough timeline would have consisted of Alan Gross being let go one day, maybe one of the Cuban 5 a month later, a rumor that the president was asking the State Department to “reassess” Cuba’s spurious designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism before April’s summit, and so on. That’s what makes this day so memorable. Many bold steps were taken at once and this quantum leap signifies a point of no return.

It isn’t full normalization. It isn’t completely free travel to Cuba that is promised to all US citizens by our constitution. It isn’t the lifting of a policy of economic strangulation decried universally every year at the UN. It doesn’t allow unlimited investment in Cuba’s nascent private sector or completely remove limits on remittances sent to family and loved ones on the island. At least, not yet.

Nonetheless, it is the first necessary step of a long journey towards establishing and maintaining a mutually beneficial relationship based on respect and transparency.

So what actually happened and what will change?

The release of Alan Gross and another American spy in exchange for the remaining three Cuban members of the infamous Cuban 5 is instrumental in bringing about these historic changes. . As an active member of a community organization that meets with policy makers in the executive branch and with congressional offices in Washington DC the Alan Gross “saga” has always been the excuse to not talk seriously about US-Cuba issues. Now these people will actually have to do some homework and come up with an excuse for not engaging with the island. Regardless of what anybody thinks about the particularities of the different cases of; Alan Gross, the Cuban 5, the unknown yet supposedly tremendously important CIA asset and American spy, and the fifty-three political prisoners released in Cuba, the truth is that they are all pawns in a macabre scene between two former Cold War adversaries who have hard-headedly stuck to the script for over half a century. The resolution of this problem was imperative to any moves towards normalizing relations.

The reestablishing of diplomatic ties for the first time since 1959 is nothing short of a miracle. Meetings between high-level officials from both governments are going to be indispensable in order to forge a new chapter of cooperation. An American embassy in Havana will be a welcome fixture and meetings on many issues such as counterterrorism, maritime operations, immigration, narco-trafficking, and natural disaster relief will allow both nations to better understand each other.

The designation of Cuba on the list of State Sponsor of Terrorism is an insult to the international community’s collective intelligence. Originally placed on the list in 1982 as a “bone” for the Cuban American Republican political class for “helping out” with the Reagan’s administration’s dealings with those pesky Central Americans, Cuba has been compared to Syria, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea by this undeserved designation. As terrorism has become a very real threat to national security, Cuba’s placement on this list is evidence to some that the United States can’t be taken seriously when assessing threats. Obama has called for a review of such placement in “a report to the President within six months regarding Cuba’s support for international terrorism.” Every year the State Department has had to come up with one lame accusation after the next in order to justify their continued designation. There is no evidence of Cuba supporting terrorism and the State Department knows as much. Many much needed medicines, medical supplies, and other technologies used for peaceful means have been denied to Cuba because of this. This has also been one of the main causes for the crisis that Cubans living in America have gone through for the past year because the Cuban Interests Section in Washington has not been able to process payments for passports and other necessary permits and visas. This all because no bank in the US wants to deal with all the regulations and stipulations and constant harassing by the Treasury Department that go with trying to have a State Sponsor of Terrorism as a client.

Also, many of the political class in Washington DC would also bring up that Cuba are “terrorists” when pressed as to why they weren’t willing to talk about engaging with Cuba. Hopefully, within six months they’ll have to find another excuse.

For those Americans thinking they are going to be able to hop on a direct flight to Havana tomorrow, the truth is that this is something they’ll still have to wait for. However, the numerous license categories for “purposeful” people-to-people travel to Cuba will be streamlined into one general license. This is not what a proponent of normalization wants. Such an advocate wants the liberty to travel anywhere in the world without restrictions, as delineated in the US constitution. Although this is the ultimate goal one shouldn’t “look a gift horse in the mouth”. More Americans going to Cuba is the best weapon for those who want to bring an end to the embargo. Hopefully, the general license will make the onerous process of dealing with OFAC less of a hassle and will encourage more non-Cuban US citizens to visit the island and learn about its people and culture. One would also hope that it would make the “Travel Service Providers” a little more honest and obligate them to lower their exorbitant fees for dealing with the “red tape” in securing licenses. This is still an issue that needs to be fixed but, for now, this small step will allow more Americans to visit the island.

For Cuban Americans and Cubans living in third countries there are also improvements. Since 2009, when Obama lifted travel restrictions for Cuban American households this community has enjoyed the liberty of traveling to Cuba to reunite with family and have provided most of the economic capital for a nascent private sector in Cuba through remittances and investments in family businesses and other entrepeneurs. Quarterly remittances have been raised from $500 to $2000. Remittances will also no longer require a license. “US-owned or US-controlled entities in third countries will be generally licensed to provide services to, and engage in financial transactions with, Cuban individuals in third countries.” according to the White House’s official statement.

Also, US citizens, Cuban or not, can soon use credit and debit cards on the island without repercussions to them or their financial institution. Not only that! They can bring back up to $400 worth of Cuban goods, including $100 in tobacco or alcohol. If I had a nickel for every story I’ve heard of people getting taken off the line after arriving in Miami and being led into the detention room because of a bottle of Havana Club found in a suitcase or a couple of robustos smuggled in a pair of shoes I’d be a rich man!

Another huge advance will be the redefining of the term “cash in advance”. This practice has stymied the only trade permissible between Cuba and the United States. Agricultural exports have gone down since their introduction in 2000 because of this and many other obstacles. The official statement is that the “statutory term “cash in advance” will be revised to specify that it means “cash before the title”. This will allow for more efficient trading and will cut down on demurrage fees incurred by waiting for payments to go through. This is a small, unheralded part of the measures but it is a necessary part of breaking down the trade barriers and could become more important as the US searches for other commodities to sell to the island.

This is a summary of the measures announced by Obama. There are other details and several issues to work out but it is a monumental package of necessary changes that need to happen. Cancel Christmas and get it done!!!

This day, the 17th of December, is always significant in Cuba because it is a day that celebrates the dichotomy of the catholic myth of San Lazaro and the veneration for the Orisha Babalú Ayé and the healing power of both figures. This transculturation that has occurred on the island through centuries of African interpretations of European impositions is a unique part of Cuban culture. The healing that must now take place between the two countries appears to have begun and the role played by the Vatican in this endeavor is not insignificant. It is not a coincidence that this day was chosen for such announcements.

Whether or not catholic mythology or African traditions had anything to do with choosing this day to begin a new dawn the future is now as bright as it ever was for proponents of engagement. Emboldened, I would like to make a few suggestions as to what needs to happen next.

US State Department- If you do not have the report stating that Cuba does not have any dealings with terrorists or any machinations to aid and abet terrorism on the president’s desk within two weeks there ought to be an investigation. After all, you have been investigating this for years and every year your allegations are more suspect. This needs to happen immediately.

Now comes a battle in Congress to actually take steps to repeal the Helms-Burton Act. This needs to be the focus. Many congress members have been waiting on the sidelines waiting to see if Miami burns if such announcements were made. On the contrary, many in Miami welcome this change and the pathetic turnout in front of such places as Cafe Versailles in Little Havana demonstrate the complete lack of teeth in the pro-embargo movement. Cubans in Miami and abroad have long tired of the demonstrations in front of concerts, the same three seventy-year-old patriarchs in their two-toned shoes with their signs shouting absurdities. These people are not taken seriously anymore and the Cuban American congressional members who have been propped up by the “exilio historico” need to be challenged in their own districts and in their own congressional offices in Washington.

Many media outlets run with the same non-thinking philosophy that with a Republican Congress it will be a tough slog to repeal Helms-Burton. The truth is, most Republicans, and their constituents, would benefit from improved relations with Cuba -especially the constituents of Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Marco Rubio.

Rubio look tired and meek in his press conference. He says he’s prepared to fight tooth and nail against any moves proposed my Obama. If Rubio fights and draws this out he’s just going to end up looking even more clueless than he already does. Rubio is a loser and today it’s official. Ted Cruz will no doubt also provide some laughs in the next few weeks with errant comments and senseless posts on his Twitter account. If Rubio has any sense he will let Cruz take the lead on this and give the junior Senator from Texas just enough rope to hang himself.

Jeb Bush, the newcomer, has also decided to challenge this. His time spent as governor of Florida has given him the misconception that people want things to stay the way they were when he was in charge of the Sunshine state. He’s in for a rude awakening if he tries to use Cuba as a campaign issue.

Not all Republicans are losers with these moves. Jeff Flake, (R-AZ) is the most vocal opponent in Congress and was a member of the delegation that flew to Havana to retrieve Alan Gross. His leadership, on this issue at least, has been strengthened and he will no doubt challenge the Cuban American cabal and other Senators in his party and on the other side of the aisle.

Another winner in this is Rand Paul. He seriously differs from Rubio on this and if either Rubio or Cruz want to make a “show” of this then Rand Paul will end up looking that much better as a viable candidate for the GOP in 2016.

Another big winner is Hillary Clinton. Now, she doesn’t have to deal with this issue as a decision that she would have to make and, if elected, can reap all the benefits from a more beneficial relationship with the island. She has come out and defended Obama and has given support to these historic changes. It will be interesting to see if Democrats rally around their president or abandon him like they did in the midterms. Obama just may have delivered Florida’s electoral votes to the Democrats for the foreseeable future. It is now up to the DNC to not fritter it away.

As for the rest of us, there is still much to do in order to bring about normalization of relations between the two estranged nations but all proponents of engagement must continue their work towards constructing a better future. Cuban Americans need to keep going to Cuba, keep sending remittances and finding new ways to help our families on the island. Keep vigilant of the members of the community who supposedly represent us and then do everything to thwart our desires and intentions. Americans of all stripes need to contact their representatives and tell them they agree with Obama’s moves and would like to see more done. For those who haven’t gone to Cuba the time is now!

Benjamin Willis is a musician in Queens. He is a founding member and active in CAFE (Cuban Americans for Engagement). He can be reached at concafeporcuba@gmail.com

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Benjamin Willis is an activist living in New York who has worked with the Cuban American community in bringing about engagement during the Obama era. His book reviews are available in the International Journal of Cuban Studies. He is Co-Director of the United States Cuba NOW PAC.

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