CAFE goes to Washington

May 28, 2013

By Benjamin Willis

This past 25th through the 27th of February 2013, CAFE, Cuban Americans for Engagement, held a trip to Washington D.C. to meet with different officials and legislators of the U.S. Federal government. Three groups of CAFE members realized congressional office visits to both veteran and freshman Senate and House members. Among them, our groups were received by three members of Congress, Sam Farr (D-CA), Joe Garcia (D-FL), and by Jim McGovern (D-MA).  In the executive branch we were received by the U.S. State Department. Apart from these visits we met with two prominent analysts of U.S.-Cuba relations. Peter Kornbluh, a principal analyst at the National Security Archives at George Washington University, and Wane Smith, the first head of the U.S. Interest Section in La Habana for 1977-82, provided an analysis of current policy and engendered a productive discussion. We also visited the Cuban Interest Section and met with Ambassador Jose Ramon Cabañas and other members of the Cuban office in Washington.

Along with CAFE, members of other organizations including the Foundation for the Normalization of US-Cuba Relations (FORNORM), and the Cuban-American Alliance participated. Accompanying us was Rev. Ortega Dopico, President of the Cuban Council of Churches as well as being a Presbyterian pastor at the Presbyterian Church in Varadero, Cuba. LAWG (Latin American Working Group) and WOLA (Washington Office on Latin America) hosted organizational meetings and arranged our appointment schedules. We also had strategic input from the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA).

During our congressional visits we reiterated the message that the Cuban American electorate in the United States is integrated with a polyphony of voices and that no elected official in either chamber has the right to speak on behalf of the community as a whole. On the topic of past prohibitions for traveling to Cuba we shared the repeated polling results that confirm strong opposition to a policy of restricting travel of Cuban Americans to the island and stressed the demographic trend that suggests that this majority will only grow.

A constant point brought up by our visits by U.S. officials was that the case of Alan Gross was an impediment to advancing relations between both nations.  We challenged the politicians to think both creatively and contextually en possible solutions to this dilemma.  In all cases, we tried to convey the message that the problem between the United States and Cuba goes much further than the Gross case and merits a closer inspection that takes into account the history of conflicts and design errors that Bush-era USAID programs have.  At the State Department we stated that we coincided with Senator Patrick Leahy central proposition that there should be negotiations between both nations in a manner that would allow Mr. Gross' liberation to create a space whereby a bilateral relation could be reached.

Apart from those points, we emphasized that the recent elections have corroborated that the Cuban-American demographic en South Florida, where 59% of the Cuban-American population within the U.S. is concentrated, has changed considerably.  President Obama was re-elected after having made positive steps towards reestablishing family travel for Cuban-Americans while allowing for travel by American citizens through the "people-to-people" licenses.

At the State Department we engaged in a dialogue with the Director of the Office of Cuban Affairs, Raymond McGrath, about some aspects of Cuban political culture such as the concept of sovereignty and nationalism present within the collective Cuban imaginary.  From that perspective, we repeated that the embargo is reviled by a grand majority of Cubans, regardless of their ideology. The Helms-Burton Act is a bad foundation for any policy towards the island. Currently, it is especially negative because its provoking and interventionist focus neither give incentive nor accompany the changes taking place in both Cuba and the Cuban-American community. On the contrary, it serves as an obstacle.

Our main message to the State Department was the necessity to reevaluate the unwarranted inclusion of Cuba on the State Sponsors of Terrorism List. We consider that said list is a proper tool to alert other nations and protect the U.S. against very real terrorist threats, but is discredited when utilized in order to pursue other agendas. We implored the State Department to apply the appropriate criteria to the topic and take Cuba off the list because of the fact that for the past three decades there has been no substantial evidence that would justify it's designation.

Another message of great importance was to ask for consolidation of the "people-to-people" licenses. We explained that the transformation of these licenses from many different types to one general license would allow for more American citizens to travel to the island. This would foster better understanding between the people of both nations.

In the Cuban Interests Section in Washington we were received by Jose Ramon Cabañas, the new ambassador, and Juan Lamiguero, First Secretary of this office. We reiterated the four points that we had proposed during our last visit in April of 2012:

1) Opening to Cuban-American investors in small businesses; 2) elimination of restrictions that impede the return of specific groups of Cubans such as balseros, sports players, and doctors who had abandoned their mission without the proper permission; 3) ask that the prohibitive price of issuing passports to Cuban citizens residing off the island be lowered to international standards; 4) elimination of barriers and prejudices against those Cuban-Americans who desire to participate constructively in cultural and academic exchanges with their homologues on the island.

CAFE recognizes the advances on the part of the Cuban government that has taken in 2012 in many areas, above all concerning immigration. The elimination of the exit visa and the possibility to return to the island for certain groups such as doctors, athletes, and balseros are a testament to the reforms taking place. By recognizing such advances we are not prevented from reiterating that we still consider the costs of a passport as excessive, particularly for Cubans residing in the United States. With respect to the first point (Cuban-American investments in small businesses) we were told that the laws for foreign investment permitted such actions. Ambassador Cabañas explained that an increase in investments by Cubans residing outside of Cuba has taken place and that a trend towards these and other initiatives that allow for the participation of emigrants in the reform process are underway.

We also mentioned the concerns of many of our members, as well as others, that better Internet connectivity in Cuba would make communication more fluid between those on the island and their family throughout the diaspora. Cabañas remarked that the changes taking place are gradual and about the difficulty in connecting with the U.S. and obtaining adequate equipment in order to boost connectivity. He continued by saying that the priorities of attaining such connectivity are not based on what the market dictates but what are in the best strategic national interests of Cuba. Nevertheless, there are various efforts to update the role of telecommunications on the island.

Other topics discussed during our visit included the details of repatriation and how emigrants could open businesses or ventures while still living in a foreign country and the possibility of more academic collaboration and chances to study abroad. Ambassador Cabañas also repeated the importance that the Cuban Five mean for the Cuban diplomatic corps and how this has affected the family members of those imprisoned in the U.S and the chances to negotiate other issues.

At both the State Department and the Cuban Interests Section we expressed our hope that the United States and Cuba could take advantage of the remaining years of the Obama administration by progressing on issues of mutual interest for the people of both nations. At the State Department it was encouraging to hear that the U.S. has proposed a joint effort in rescue operations and natural disaster relief and we reiterated that to Ambassador Cabañas. Cabañas also noted that Cuba has proposed over three hundred topics in areas such as environmental protection and counternarcotics where progress is possible.

The CAFE delegation held a cordial meeting with Wayne Smith, the ex-chief of the U.S. Interests Section in La Habana and the political analyst, Peter Kornbluh, about the manner in which our organization can more effectively accomplish our goals of achieving a change in policy that would favor more engagement with Cuba. We thanked Wayne Smith for his diplomatic work through the years and his dedication to bringing about better relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

CAFE wants to express our gratitude again to all the Congressional offices that we visited. We thank both the U.S. State Department and the Cuban Interests Section in Washington for engaging with our members in a dialogue that was both profound and respectful. We are not in complete agreement on many issues but that did not stop us from trying to discuss our differences in a civil and productive manner. CAFE once again wants to express our commitment to dialogue and diplomacy in order to bring about a favorable relationship between both nations that would eventually lead to normalization.