With an estimated 38 million Americans traveling on Memorial Day weekend, 2.6 million of them by air, their attention is focused on how just hard it will be for them to get where they’re going.
We’re not focused on long TSA lines, but on another obstacle that can still trip up travelers – the fact that tourist travel to Cuba is still prohibited under U.S. law – and why repealing this obnoxious restraint on our freedom to travel (as Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Congressman Mark Sanford of South Carolina have proposed) is a big priority that can also move the normalization process along.
During the last seven years travel to Cuba has gotten a lot easier. President Obama took all restraints off Cuban-American family travel in 2009; he restored people-to-people (non-tourist) travel in 2011; and this year, he struck an agreement with Cuba to restore commercial aviation service, and he’s given individuals the right to visit the island without signing up for a group (and a minder) so long as they stick to the people-to-people rules and eschew tourist activities when they go.
With every reform, U.S. travel to Cuba increased steadily. But, following the December 17th, 2014 announcement that our two countries would resume diplomatic relations, visits to Cuba really took off. In 2015, for example, trips by Americans to Cuba jumped 77 percent over 2014, and by 94% in the first quarter of 2016 over the same period last year.
By one metric, Google searches, it’s reasonable to conclude the surge will continue. Last month, iQuanti, a data-driven marketing firm, released a study showing that 7 million searches relating to Cuba travel took place in the U.S. from March 1, 2015 – February 29, 2016. If a fraction of the Googlers move from search to making arranging flights and lodging, the U.S. travel numbers will just keep rising. Why, we even read this week that Nixon’s going to Cuba (Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri. Sorry, we couldn’t resist).
This is all good news for Cubans who are longing to see the benefits of their country’s rapprochement with the United States. With more travel, they will. As Arch Ritter explained on his Cuban Economy blog this spring, travel increases mean more foreign exchange earnings for the country (it’s how Cuba’s government pays for imported food), a construction boom for tourism facilities (more jobs, better wages for more Cubans), and a “major increase in incomes for the growing private sector servicing tourism.”
This trend doubtless contributed to Cuba’s decision this week to legalize small and medium-sized businesses. It ups Cuba’s commitment to self-employed business owners interested in building bigger enterprises and may convey new rights, such as the ability to import wholesale supplies or export products. Simply put, as demand coming from U.S. tourism rises, Cubans have greater opportunities to live independently and earn more take home pay.
The Cuba travel trends are also creating jobs in the U.S. and offering opportunities to U.S. businesses on the island. Think of what well-known U.S. brands can now do: Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile are serving customers roaming around Cuba; Airbnb is booking rooms in bed and breakfasts for U.S. travelers; Marriott and Starwood have been granted permission to manage Cuban hotels.
These developments in turn are creating virtuous circles for our politics and, importantly, for the Flake and Sanford bills mentioned above. In polls testing U.S. public opinion on the question of legalizing travel, support is really high for getting rid of travel restrictions: nationally (82% in the CBS News survey); regionally (58% of voters in Tennessee, Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa in the Atlantic Council survey); and among the Cuban American diaspora (at 3:00 p.m. today, El Nuevo Herald was reporting 56% support for travel!).
Jobs in Cuba and the U.S., coupled with high public support across the country – these are factors that Members of the U.S. Congress can’t ignore. Even opponents of President Obama and supporters of the embargo are finding the political space to move, even if incrementally. Take Members of Congress like Rep. Bill Keating, who signed a letter with his Massachusetts delegation colleagues supporting U.S. approval of JetBlue flights from Boston to Havana.
Others are being bolder. Rep. Mark Sanford’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act now has 126 cosponsors, a high-water mark for his legislation. Senator Flake’s bill to legalize travel is now supported by 51 Members of the U.S. Senate, a majority, as our allies at Engage Cuba announced this week. This happened after Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Steve Daines of Montana climbed aboard, and they represent fairly conservative states. Small wonder our friends at Progreso Weekly believe “Unrestricted Cuba travel getting closer,” but we’re not there yet.
Getting more cosponsors on these bills is an investment in a better Cuba policy that will pay off in two ways. It will prompt Congress to act to repeal the travel ban, whenever it decides to start legislating again, and embolden policymakers to get behind the next obvious step, getting rid of the embargo for good.
This week, in Cuba news…
U.S. mayors visit Cuba in support of new relations (in Spanish), EFE
In partnership with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, leaders from the U.S. Conference of Mayors are in Cuba for the first time since their last official mission in 1978. The mayors are meeting with Cuban officials to discuss education, healthcare, and transportation. Members of the delegation include the Executive Director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Tom Cochran, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett, and New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
According to The Advocate, Mayor Landrieu hopes the expansion of diplomatic relations could provide new trade opportunities for his city, while the Associated Press reports that Louisiana’s legislature has passed a resolution urging the state’s economic development department to “develop and improve” its commercial relations with Cuba.
In a press conference Thursday, Mayor Rawlings-Blake stated, “we are committed 100 percent to building and sustaining relations with our international partners and Cuba is not going to be an exception to that rule.” At its upcoming annual meeting on June 24, the U.S. Conference of Mayors is expected to establish a common position on U.S. relations with Cuba.
Governor Jay Nixon to travel to Cuba, Steve Kraske, The Kansas City Star
Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri will travel to Cuba on a trade mission from May 29 to June 1. Topping the agenda will be efforts to renew the state’s working relationship with Cuba in hopes of increasing rice exports from Missouri to Cuba.
“Cuba represents a market of 11 million consumers that has been largely untouched by U.S. exports for more than 55 years. Missouri is moving forward to take advantage of this opportunity, particularly when it comes to rice, one of the staples of the Cuban diet,” Governor Nixon said.
Governor Nixon and his delegation will visit Cuba’s Mariel port, a deep water port equipped to handle larger container ships that will travel to the region after the Panama Canal expansion is complete. The governor is travelling with a delegation of Missouri business leaders including Gary Wheeler of the Missouri Soybean Association; Silvia Hollis of Mid-Continent Aircraft; Thorstein Holt of Holtec Gas Systems; Brady Moses of SatCommX; Jeffrey Fort, of MOM Brands Sales; several representatives of Missouri-based wholesale and retail rice supplier Martin Rice Company; and Dr. Carlos Vargas, president of Southeast Missouri State University.
Sen. Rubio speaks on proposed changes to Cuba migration policy
This week, in reaction to recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projections, Senator Marco Rubio (FL) spoke on the floor of the Senate in support of his bill, the Cuban Immigrant Work Opportunity Act (S.1441), the Sun Sentinel reports. The CBO projects that the bill could save taxpayers approximately $2.4 billion over the next 10 years, though Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL-26), who introduced a companion bill in the House, notes that these figures are preliminary.
Senator Rubio’s bill would make most Cuban immigrants ineligible for federal refugee benefits unless they can prove political persecution. Rubio attempted to attach language curtailing benefits for Cuban immigrants to the Federal Aviation Administration’s reauthorization bill in April; however, as we reported, that effort failed.
Announcements of this kind have repercussions on the island, fueling fears among Cubans that changes in the preferential policy favoring migrants from Cuba will be stricken from federal law. These fears are driving the upsurge in migration from Cuba to the U.S. reported by the U.S. government.
Executive branch officials have stated repeatedly that the Obama administration has no intention of eliminating the Cuban Adjustment Act or the “wet foot, dry foot” policy providing expedited residency for Cuban immigrants. In addition, Speaker Paul Ryan said last year the Congress would not take up any immigration legislation through the end of 2016.
Underwater paradise in Cuba may provide model of sustainability, Kristin Hettermann, InCuba Today
After traveling to Cuba with experts from the Environmental Defense Fund to study marine and coastal ecosystems, Kristin Hettermann discusses Cuba’s abundant marine life as a sustainable model for other countries. Hettermann credits factors including Cuba’s strict environmental regulations and low population density with the endurance of its undersea wildlife. As Cuba implements economic reforms and expands its tourism industry, as well as its diplomatic and commercial relationship with the U.S., it has the potential to become an exemplary destination for ecotourism, but, as Hettermann notes, a rapid influx of big tourism business, such as cruise ships or large beach resorts, could harm the island’s carefully preserved ecosystems.
Interview with Cristina Escobar, National Public Radio Two-Way Blog
Cuban journalist Cristina Escobar sat down with NPR’s Eyder Peralta to discuss her visit to the U.S. and her views on the ongoing changes in Cuba. Escobar, who works for state media in Cuba, is in the U.S. to speak to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce about U.S.-Cuba relations. She spoke of the many misconceptions people in the U.S. have of Cuba, and, for her part, remarked, “Even though I don’t believe the Cuban model is perfect, I don’t believe that [the U.S. model] is perfect either, so in any case I tried to come here being as objective as I could be.” Escobar also detailed the key changes that Cuba’s recent reforms have brought about thus far, such as expanded Internet access, increasing numbers of private businesses, and migration reform.
Cuba to legalize small and medium-sized private businesses, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press
This week, Cuba’s government announced it will allow new opportunities for small and medium-sized independent business in Cuba. The proposed change was disclosed Tuesday, part of a 32-page document titled “Conceptualization of the Cuban Economic and Social Model of Socialist Development,” reporting decisions made by the Cuban Communist Party when it met in April. However, it will take months before the National Assembly fully considers the document and enacts its findings into law.
Although self-employment has been legal in Cuba since 2010, and de-facto small businesses are becoming more common, the new regulations will formalize this process and allow private businesses to open bank accounts and to buy from wholesale markets, giving private business owners access to cheaper goods. As El País reports, prior to this change existing small businesses in Cuba had not been “legally recognized as businesses,” which has made expansion and development cumbersome for independent entrepreneurs. The Associated Press also reported that the new regulations will allow private businesses to export products to other countries.
Also included in the “Conceptualization of the Cuban Economic and Social Model of Socialist Development” is the statement that “Private property in certain means of production contributes to employment, economic efficiency and well-being, in a context in which socialist property relationships predominate.”
On Thursday, Cuban officials added an additional case of Zika virus to its records, bringing up the total number of confirmed cases to 13. Of those infected, only one appears to have acquired the virus while in Cuba, the rest contracted Zika abroad. The newest case is a 41-year-old Cuban citizen who returned home after a trip to Guyana. Cuba’s Public Health Ministry began tests after the patient began showing symptoms including a rash and muscular pain with no fever. Authorities add that she “is in good general condition, [with a] favorable prognosis and remains admitted.” Since February, Cuba has increased its preventative efforts against Zika, including additional fumigation.
Afro-Cuban Activists Fight Racism Between Two Fires, Sujatha Fernandes, The Nation
Sujatha Fernandes reports on race relations in Cuba, exploring new iterations of the racial divide in Cuban society. Earlier this month, anti-racism activists in Havana presented a document to the Jurists’ Union Center in Havana calling on Cuba’s government to address an uptick in racist incidents following President Obama’s visit to Cuba. Fernandes argues that “Cuba today finds itself at a crossroads, with the specter of economic openings bringing the prospect of greater social inequalities, especially racial inequality.” By highlighting the work of Roberto Zurbano, Norma Guillard, and Deyni Terri Abreu, among others, Fernandes gives voice to ongoing discussions of race and equality in Cuba.
New Archbishop of Havana assumes his post, Karina Marrón González, Granma
On Sunday, May 22, Juan de la Caridad García Rodríguez was sworn in as Cuba’s new Archbishop of the Archdiocese of San Cristóbal de la Habana. The new Archbishop was born in Camagüey and first ordained as a priest in 1972. Many notable Cuban officials were in attendance, including Salvador Valdés Mesa, a vice president of the Council of State, and Caridad Diego, head of the Party Central Committee Office of Religious Affairs. Archbishop Garcia replaces Cardinal Jaime Ortega, who was instrumental in the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba and a vital voice in strengthening the role of the Catholic Church in Cuba.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
During a two day visit to Cuba, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales met with Cuba’s former President Fidel Castro to discuss “imperialist efforts” to curtail the Latin American left. Speaking about recent events in Latin America, such as Brazil’s president Dilma Rousseff’s suspension and Argentina’s changing politics, the two leaders discussed “the imperialist efforts to revert the political and social movement in our region,” as Cuban state television reported Saturday. Mr. Morales also met with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro during his visit, in which both countries signed bilateral agreements on health, education, culture, and the economy.
Thaw in US relations won’t harm Cuba’s South Africa ties, Peter Fabricus, IOL
In a visit to South Africa to celebrate 20 years of bilateral relations, Cuba’s First Deputy Foreign Minister Marcelino Medina González assured South Africa’s government that Cuba intends to maintain its close ties with the country. Mr. Medina González stressed that Cuba, as it updates its economy and renews relations with the U.S., “intends to diversify relations with the entire world.” Luwellyn Landers, South Africa’s First Deputy Foreign Minister, highlighted that Cuba has had an “immeasurable” impact on South Africa’s development.
Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the President of Spain’s Galicia region, traveled to Cuba this week to express his interest in participating in Cuba’s ongoing economic expansion. He is conducting meetings with officials from Cuba’s Council of Ministers and from the ministries of foreign trade and foreign affairs, and is participating in the Cuba-Galicia Economic Forum. Mr. Feijóo will also celebrate the 11th plenary meeting of the Council of Galician Communities, which takes place this weekend in Cuba.