As I mentioned in my last Cuba Travel Newsletter edition, the Cuban Embargo is not going to end soon. By law, it must be killed by Congress. Fortunately, it is full of exceptions that have allowed American companies to ship products to Cuba, and have allowed Americans to travel legally to Cuba without permission of the U.S. Government. It’s not going to be officially rescinded for many years, and it will eventually become completely irrelevant. Yet we continue to see articles and news reports by media professionals describing the “upcoming battle to end the Embargo.” I assume that President Obama’s team working on the issue understands this. It seems that it would be a complete waste of time and political capital to try to force a vote by a congressional committee. I don’t think the president or his staff should even bring it up. He should just let it die a natural death by not funding enforcement and allowing more exceptions until there is nothing left of it.
There are also current reports about future plans to establish an American Embassy in Havana and a Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C. News reports indicate that this is going to happen fairly soon. Unfortunately, Cuban-American congressmen have stated that embassies will NOT be established, and they have the means to block funding for them.
In my opinion, this is another area that should not be tackled now. Embassies already exist in both Havana and Washington D.C. They are called “Interests Sections,” (technically a part of the Swiss Embassies in both cities), but they function as embassies in most ways. Last year, one of my travelers misplaced her passport while we were in Havana. We went to the embassy (pardon me–I mean “Interests Section) and she had a new passport in less than 24 hours.
Here are my conclusions: First—if you are in Cuba and need embassy services, they are available. Second—the issue of re-establishing a real embassy probably isn’t worth President Obama getting in yet another fight with Congress. It looks like he will be involved in several other concurrent battles in the near future. I hope he continues with the normalization process and doesn’t waste time and energy when he really doesn’t need to. Third—this situation is an excellent example of behavior you would expect from 7-year-olds–a silly name game. A rose by any other name is still a rose, even if you want to call it an “interests section.” I expect we’ll see more silly behavior and comments as high-level diplomats begin talks this week in Havana. Expect to see a lot of irrelevant distractions on the news. I’ll bet there will be a lot going on under the radar—things we won’t find out about for many years.
During President Obama’s “State of the Union” address last night, the largest and most enthusiastic bi-partisan applause he received was when he mentioned his normalization efforts with Cuba. It looked to me like most members of his audience gave him a standing ovation. This may be the only issue where many conservative Republicans agree with him.
It’s been a month since President Obama made his announcement beginning the process of Normalization of Relations with Cuba. The timing of the announcement was perfect, and predictable. For President Obama, it was right after the November elections. For president Raul Castro, it had been critical to find a more reliable source of hard currency. The early negotiations between Cuba and the U.S. began about 18 months earlier, just after Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez died. It became apparent to Castro that there would be decreasing amounts of Venezuelan oil being sent to Cuba.
It is now likely that economic aid from Venezuela may soon stop altogether. This is why the fanatic Cuban-Americans such as Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz flipped-out after Obama’s announcement. (Neither has ever been to Cuba, but for some unexplained reason, they have been granted “expert” status by the media.) They seem to be hoping for an economic collapse in Cuba, leading to serious de-stabilization. They believe they could finally visit their homeland after it has been devastated economically and be hailed as conquering heroes. Leaders of virtually every other country in the world would prefer a stable Cuba that rapidly evolves with a modernized economy. This outcome apparently is also the preference of most Congressional Democrats and a significant number of Republicans—those who are actually familiar with the current situation in Cuba.
As I’ve mentioned previously, the Embargo will probably continue for many years, because it can only be changed by Congress. Normalization is a different process where each side can make small concessions that may gradually bring both countries closer, even while agreeing to disagree on certain issues.
Some examples of these small changes are downright humorous. For example, the Department of the Treasury will now “allow” each American traveler to bring back $100 worth of Cuban cigars and rum. Officially, this is a small step forward. Practically, it really doesn’t matter, because American travelers have commonly brought back rum and cigars for many years. In Miami, Cuban-Americans returning from their homeland have routinely brought back hundreds of dollars worth of these products on every flight. Often they were greeted by a Cuban-American customs agent who knew exactly what was going on and let them through. Some laws and regulations deserve to be ignored, and these certainly were.
I always mentioned to my groups that none of my previous returning fellow travelers ever had a bag opened in customs in Miami, so many (if not most) brought back “contraband.” In an era of terrorism and bomb threats, it always seemed silly and wasteful for customs and security professionals to be spending any time on such matters. This is probably why they usually didn’t. But I think it’s okay if U.S. Government representatives now feel empowered to “allow” such activity, if that makes them feel more in control.
In a similar way, the Treasury Department claims it will now be “a little easier” for Americans to visit Cuba on “purposeful travel, but not as tourists.” In reality, American tourists could always travel to Cuba as long as they claimed they had a purpose (and implied that they were NOT tourists). Once again, if our government wants to believe or pretend that this is a significant change, why not?
In my opinion, this “go-slow” approach is already irrelevant. The genie is out of the bottle, and can’t be put back in. American travel companies are being inundated with inquiries about travel to Cuba. Many tours are filling up, in spite of some outrageous prices.
This situation is exactly what many of us Cuba-watchers have hoped for. I believe the people of Cuba and the United States will resolve this matter on their own. Decisions made by their governments will be far less relevant in the near future. Because of a large increase in the demand for Cuba travel, prices are rapidly going up. This will result in more money from American visitors circulating in the Cuban economy. The Cuban government will have more resources to improve infrastructure. This will also help mitigate the urgent situation of declining petroleum products that have been flowing from Venezuela.
In addition, more Americans will be transferring money directly to individual Cubans. They will do this through tips in the tourism sector, and through direct payment for goods and services. In the last two years, the Cuban government has encouraged individual Cubans and families to start their own businesses. Of course the expectation was that more money would be collected through taxation. But, as in the U.S., a lot of small business income will continue to go untaxed, and the overall amount will increase. This allows the proprietors to reinvest it in their businesses rather than wasting so much of it funding a bloated bureaucracy. (Does this sound familiar, my fellow Americans?)
This new flow of cash will be in addition to the billions of dollars Cuban-Americans have annually been sending to, and taking to their relatives back in Cuba. The American government has been graciously “allowing” increased limits on these remittances over the past few years. In reality, Cuban-Americans have been ignoring these limits and other similar regulations for decades. One estimate for cash remittances sent to Cuba from family members in the U.S. in 2014was around $3 billion, and increasing. After the path to normalization has become more clear, that amount is likely to double or triple.
In the near future, more Americans visiting Cuba will mean new friendships and partnerships. There will be more opportunities for Americans to help through micro-investments. The people of Cuba and the U.S. can accelerate the improvement of life for Cubans. This won’t be done with the help of both governments, but in spite of both governments. If they will just get out of the way and minimize interference, Cuba just might have a bright future.
You will continue to hear Cuban-American extremists trying to explain why normalization should not happen. In reality, all the explanations I’ve heard from the Marco Rubios of the world actually provide good reasons why normalization should progress as quickly as possible.
In my last article I predicted that (1) Fidel Castro will not survive through the end of the year, due to his age and medical/surgical conditions. Also, (2) The Embargo will continue in place, while the Normalization process will move forward. More predictions: (3) The U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo will begin the process of closing this year. When the media speak about “closing the base,” they are almost always referring to only closing the prisons holding the Islamic P.O.W.’s from the wars (Crusades?) in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. President Obama made this promise to close the prisons while campaigning for President in 2008. After the prisoner issue is resolved, I predict he will transfer control of the naval station back to the government of Cuba before he steps down, in a similar way that President Carter transferred control of the Panama Canal back to the government of Panama
Before some of you get too agitated, consider that the base at Guantanamo has outlived its usefulness. Historically it was considered necessary for the navy to remain there, primarily because of its strategic position close to the Panama Canal. It was also considered critical to maintain control over Cuba just in case the Cubans decided to manifest their national dream of becoming an independent country. During World War II, it was an unheralded but strategic naval base where American ships were repaired, refitted, and resupplied. They were then sent to the North Atlantic to help defend the British and fight the Germans. My navy friends tell me that in today’s world, it is no longer strategic for many reasons. It is very costly for American taxpayers to maintain in an era of tight budgets. Today, its only apparent uses are to house the Islamic prisoners and to continue irritating the Castros.
(4) The number of Americans visiting Cuba this year will skyrocket, and so will the prices, due to supply and demand. Prices for existing tours have already increased significantly. President Obama’s announcement back on December 17th has resulted in many news stories (some of which are actually accurate). Americans are finally learning that they always could travel to Cuba legally, but many are shocked at the tour prices. There are several large tour companies that specialize in tours which are authorized by Specific Licenses. (These tours are expensive partly because the companies have to obtain and maintain these licenses, and keep informed about hundreds of pages of ever-changing travel regulations.)
(5) Even more Americans will travel to Cuba, because they will discover that they can (and always could) travel much more economically on their own and in smaller groups on General Licenses. GENERAL LICENSES ARE SELF-GENERATED, AND PERMISSION OF THE U.S. GOVERNMENT IS NOT REQUIRED! THIS IS THE LAW! Individuals and groups can duplicate the itinerary of the larger tour companies, and travel for about half the price. They can stay at the same hotels, travel in the same modern air-conditioned buses, and have the came Cuban guides. Budget travelers can stay in casas particulares–bed-and-breakfast inns. The only significant requirement is that they not go as tourists. But they can go as researchers and research tourism, or any other topic. (One definition of “research” is to go somewhere, look at things, and talk to people.) The travelers in my groups research the Cuban health care system. I have also determined that it is impossible to understand the health care system without learning about other inter-related topics such as Cuba’s history, geography, economy, culture, music, tourism, the architecture, the mountains, the beaches, and anything else that is deemed relevant. In addition, my tours offer more authentic people-to-people contact, compared to tours by larger companies where the “people-to-people” Cubans have usually been pre-approved by the Cuban government. Once again, Go Figure! Don’t expect anything involving Cuba Travel and U.S.-Cuba relations to make any sense. If you are the type who insists that everything in life should be rational and logical, you will GO CRAZY!
HAPPY NEW YEAR, Everybody! I hope you all had fabulous Christmas and Holiday Seasons—even those of you who seriously believe that the best thing for the people of Cuba is to continue supporting the Embargo.
Things have calmed down a bit in the world of news about Cuba, but there will be a lot more stuff happening from now on, just under the radar. In past years, you had to make a serious effort to follow what was going on there. It was difficult to separate reality from BS. As I mentioned earlier, President Obama’s first steps towards Normalization should not have come as a surprise to those who who have been paying attention.
One of the most interesting things about Cuba is that there continues to be a wide range of predictions from Cuba experts about what lies ahead. There is no consensus. I hesitate to put myself in the “expert” category, but I try to read the opinions of a variety of experts. I’ve been to Cuba twice in the past two months. I receive email from friends there on a regular basis. So having said that, I am going to offer my 2015 predictions about our nearby neighbor.
1–Fidel Castro will pass on. He has surprised just about everybody by surviving this long. He had a series of abdominal surgeries in the last decade, and every time he appears in public or on the front page of Cuban newspapers, he seems to look closer to the end.
After he dies, there will be celebrations in Miami, but many times smaller than if he died a decade ago. In Cuba, there will be large memorials celebrating his life. Although many Cubans eventually came to despise his authoritarian rule and heavy-handedness, they also believed that if he had not been so ruthless, Cuba today would probably still be controlled by the United States. Cuban Nationalism (i.e., love of their country and its independence) has always been even more important to most Cubans than their political system.
2.–The Embargo will continue in place, while the Normalization process will move forward. The Embargo is not the same as Normalization of Relations. The Embargo could have been easily ended through Executive Order by any American President up through Bill Clinton. In a gutless, purely political move, Clinton transferred the power to end the Embargo to Congress. A very small, disproportionate number of Cuban-American Senators and Representatives have managed to trade favors to move into powerful positions, where they continue to manipulate America’s foreign policy (much to the embarrassment of those who understand this phenomenon).
The good news is that the Embargo will become increasingly less relevant. It has complicated travel and trade between our countries in the past decades, but there have always been ways to get around it. For example, in spite of condemning other countries who trade with Cuba, the U.S. currently is #4 on the list of countries that export to Cuba (mostly food).
Another example is the so-called “Travel Ban.” There have always been ways for Americans to legally travel to Cuba. There are many travel companies who have taken groups there, and will take even more this year. These companies travel on Specific Licenses, which involve 50-page applications and thousands of dollars in fees. The main problem is that tour prices have been very expensive, and they will soon cost even more because of current increased interest and demand. The U.S. government suggests Americans travel on “People-to-People” programs, which usually are highly structured and provide little free time. Ironically, almost all contact in these programs is with Cubans who have been approved by the Cuban government. Go figure!
Individuals and small groups have always been able to travel legally on General Licenses. These are self-generated by individual travelers and small-group leaders. There is no requirement to obtain permission from the U.S. Government. The guidelines are vague and contradicting. Apparently the most important part of these various guidelines is that you not travel to Cuba as a tourist. SO DON’T GO AS A TOURIST! You can go and research tourism, but for God’s sake–don’t go as a tourist! (Most tourists don’t like to be called “tourists” anyway, so this isn’t a problem.) For several reasons, it is easier to travel on a General License through Mexico or Canada. However, six of my eight expeditions have flown from Miami.
Another option (which has never made any sense to me) is to visit Cuba “illegally” by traveling through Mexico, Canada, or another third country. I have talked with people who have paid for airline tickets using money orders (harder to trace), asked Cuban and Mexican customs agents to not stamp their passports, downloaded photos of Cuba into a easily-hidden flash drive or camera card, and lied to customs agents about countries they visited when they arrived back in the United States. DON’T DO THIS—not because it is dangerous or because you could be fined or imprisoned. Don’t do it because it is a hassle, and completely unnecessary.
I’m not getting very far with my list, so I’ll continue it with future posts.