U.S. to Cuba: Trial Balloons Successful, but No Commercial Planes Yet

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Six months into the sea change in Washington, a new policy towards Cuba looks promising.  The two estranged neighbors have a lot to talk about and to agree on—from migration to mail service, hurricane preparedness, healthcare, environmental protection, energy, security, scholarships and a whole host of other issues.  All reports from recent diplomatic efforts have been positive.  But the type of shift we need will not likely come straight from the White House, though we would welcome more action from the administration.  That is why the focus is on “Travel for All” and the venue is Congress.  Here’s what’s going on.

President Obama set the tone by stating that the “U.S. seeks a new beginning with Cuba” at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad this past April.  Right we do!  That new approach has begun to emerge, step by step.  Just before the Summit, Obama made good on a campaign promise to end all restrictions on Cuban-American family travel and remittances to the island.  Relatively soon after that, the United States joined the chorus at the Organization of American States in a unanimous vote to reverse a 1962 resolution that barred Cuba from the organization.  The administration has also suggested a loosening of telecommunications restrictions for cell phone roaming deals and fiber-optics and an opening of agricultural business travel.  This is all great!

There’s a lot to be optimistic about, but wait before you jump for joy.  Months later those new regulations have still not officially been released.  Cuba isn’t actually part of the OAS yet–they haven’t even been invited.  There is clearly a new atmosphere, but we’re not even back to pre-Bush policy.  And still, the baby steps just keep coming. 

Talks on migration started back up this month after a six-year break.  In New York City, representatives discussed the shared concern for uncontrolled Cuban migration to the States.  They have more meetings on the calendar for this December, which may include even more issues.  The administration also made public the joint military exercises to prepare for major disasters around the Guantanamo Bay Navy Base.  General Sheehan, in describing the collaboration, called the announcement a “trial balloon” and part of a larger “incremental process” towards a more normal relationship between the United States and Cuba.

And the Cuban Government has made it clear, as Raul Castro said, “We are ready to discuss everything, human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything.”  Still, can we really expect President Obama and Castro to just get together, shake hands and let bygones be bygones?  With the type of work load the new administration has taken on in these first six months, and Raul Castro’s very real economic crisis, it seems unlikely.  So where do we stand?

Between the United States and Cuba, the atmosphere is noticeably different.  The old policy isn’t gone, but the veto threat sure is.  The next BIG step is travel.  Our allies on Capitol Hill say that all the signals from the White House, however muted, are good.  Right now, the “Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act ” (HR 874 in the House and S 428 in the Senate) is on the move.  Members of both parties are co-sponsoring the bill in numbers we’ve never seen before on Cuba legislation.  What the simple one-page bill does, in effect, is prevent the President from barring any American citizen from traveling and spending money in Cuba. 

“Travel for all” has become a rallying cry for groups from all over the country.   It’s not just Orbitz either.  Every major Protestant denomination in the United States plus the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are supportive. Academic organizations are asking what happened to their Cuba study abroad programs, while the Chamber of Commerce and Farm Bureau both see the sense in travel and trade.  Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, two major human rights groups, both believe more engagement rather than isolation will bring positive changes in Cuba.  And Cuban Americans, too, overwhelmingly support travel for ALL Americans (67 percent according to Bendixen & Associates recent poll).  As important as these endorsements are, congressional offices are telling us daily that they need to hear from constituents. That’s YOU!

With this broad grassroots support, we’ve been racking up the co-sponsors and starting to move into the FINAL PUSH this fall.  We’ve launched a NEW MEDIA campaign called “End the Travel Ban on Cuba” with a fresh new Facebook page , which is quickly becoming the focal point for our activist outreach.  And on September 30, 2009, there will be a NATIONAL DAY OF ACTION where targeted delegations will fly to Washington to meet with and educate their representatives, while thousands of constituents from across the country call in to congressional offices and urge their representatives to change course on Cuba.

Take a break, have a party, get active in government and begin advance planning on your next trip to Cuba.  We’re urging people to host call-in lunches, mojito and Cubalibre parties or BYOC “Bring your own cell phone” gatherings.  It’s GO time this fall, and we’ll need your energy to manage this momentum and turn it into VOTES.  Then, later in the fall, there will be a hearing in the House, and we encourage you all to come again and voice your support as this historic legislation makes its way towards President Obama’s desk.

50 years is quite enough.  A new relationship with Cuba and with Latin America is right around the corner.  We can’t miss this extraordinary moment and opportunity; and this CHANGE, the type Barack Obama promised us, won’t happen without engaged citizens that build power and drive it.  Join the Facebook group to keep updated and look out Congress, here we come!