Author Archives: New York Times

The US Tourism Tsunami to Cuba Begins! U.S. WILL EASE RESTRICTIONS ON TRAVEL TO CUBA

New York Times, JAN. 15, 2015 Original here: TOURISM TSUNAMI By PETER BAKER

New Picture (3).bmpAAA Arriving at Jose Marti International Airport,  June 1966, Photo by Arch Ritter

hav-terminal-3-arrivals-1_26835.jpgaaa Arrivals, José Martí International Airport, 2013

W ASHINGTON — The United States government on Friday will begin making it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba than it has been for more than half a century, opening the door to a new era of contact between neighbors that have been estranged longer than most of their citizens have been alive.

The Obama administration announced on Thursday a set of new regulations to take effect on Friday easing decades-old restrictions on travel, business and remittances, putting into reality some of the changes promised by President Obama last month when he announced plans to resume normal diplomatic relations with Havana.

Under the new regulations, Americans will now be allowed to travel to Cuba for any of a dozen specific reasons without first obtaining a special license from the government. Airlines and travel agents will be allowed to provide service to Cuba without a specific license. And travelers will be permitted to use credit cards and spend money while in the country and bring back up to $400 in souvenirs, including up to $100 in alcohol or tobacco.

The new regulations will also make it easier for American telecommunications providers and financial institutions to do business with Cuba. Americans will be allowed to send more money to Cubans, up to $2,000 every three months instead of the $500 currently permitted.

“These changes will have a direct impact in further engaging and empowering the Cuban people, promoting positive change for Cuba’s citizens,” Treasury Secretary Jacob J. Lew, whose department oversees sanctions policy, said in a statement. “Cuba has real potential for economic growth,” he added, “and by increasing travel, commerce, communications, and private business development between the United States and Cuba, the United States can help the Cuban people determine their own future.”

The administration moved to ease the restrictions after obtaining confirmation that 53 incarcerated people it deemed political prisoners had been released in accordance with the agreement Mr. Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba struck last month. Cuba has also released an American held prisoner for years, Alan P. Gross, and a Cuban who had worked as a spy for the United States. Mr. Obama released three Cuban spies who had been held for years and were considered folk heroes in Havana.

The broader trade embargo first imposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower after the Cuban revolution that brought Mr. Castro’s brother Fidel to power will remain in place unless Congress decides to lift it, as Mr. Obama has urged it to do. But the moves announced on Thursday go further than any president has gone in 50 years to facilitate travel and trade with Cuba.

Critics, led by Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican from Florida, have argued that Mr. Obama is playing into the hands of the Castro brothers by relaxing sanctions without obtaining any meaningful commitment to change on their part. Cuba remains one of the most repressive countries in the world, according to human rights groups and the State Department, which have catalogued the many ways freedom is restricted on the island nation.

Mr. Obama argued that the approach of the last 50 years had not worked and that it was time to try something new. The president is sending an assistant secretary of state, Roberta S. Jacobson, to Havana next week to discuss migration and other issues in the relationship as he moves toward re-establishing a full-fledged embassy with an ambassador.

Americans for years have found ways to circumvent travel restrictions to Cuba. Many simply fly to another country like Mexico first and then head to Cuba from there. According to the Cuban government, 98,000 American citizens visited Cuba in 2012, a year after Mr. Obama previously loosened the restrictions, twice as many as traveled there five years earlier. That does not include perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cuban-Americans who travel there each year but are not counted by the Havana government because they are still considered Cubans.

Under previous rules, Americans wanting to travel legally to Cuba had to justify their trips under 12 categories and then obtain a specific license from the Treasury Department to do so. Among those categories are family visits; journalistic, religious, educational, professional and humanitarian activities; artistic or sports performances; and “support for the Cuban people.” Private firms arranged “people to people” programs to allow Americans to travel under those categories.

Under the new regulations, Americans will not need licenses to certify that they fit those categories. As a practical matter, experts say that will make it possible for many more Americans to travel without having to use such firms or satisfy government agents about the specific purpose of their visits.

Moreover, travelers will be allowed to spend money in Cuba, which was previously restricted.

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 Departures, José Martí International Airport, 2013

Jose marti, Airport, 1966 001

José Martí International Airport, 1966

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A CUBAN BRAIN DRAIN, COURTESY OF THE U.S.

New York Times, THE EDITORIAL BOARD; NOV. 16, 2014

Leer en español (Read in Spanish) »

Secretary of State John Kerry and the American ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, have praised the work of Cuban doctors dispatched to treat Ebola patients in West Africa. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently sent an official to a regional meeting the Cuban government convened in Havana to coordinate efforts to fight the disease. In Africa, Cuban doctors are working in American-built facilities. The epidemic has had the unexpected effect of injecting common sense into an unnecessarily poisonous relationship.

And yet, Cuban doctors serving in West Africa today could easily abandon their posts, take a taxi to the nearest American Embassy and apply for a little-known immigration program that has allowed thousands of them to defect. Those who are accepted can be on American soil within weeks, on track to becoming United States citizens.

There is much to criticize about Washington’s failed policies toward Cuba and the embargo it has imposed on the island for decades. But the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, which in the last fiscal year enabled 1,278 Cubans to defect while on overseas assignments, a record number, is particularly hard to justify.

It is incongruous for the United States to value the contributions of Cuban doctors who are sent by their government to assist in international crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake while working to subvert that government by making defection so easy.

American immigration policy should give priority to the world’s neediest refugees and persecuted people. It should not be used to exacerbate the brain drain of an adversarial nation at a time when improved relations between the two countries are a worthwhile, realistic goal.

The program was introduced through executive authority in August 2006, when Emilio González, a hard-line Cuban exile, was at the helm of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Mr. González described the labor of Cuban doctors abroad as “state-sponsored human trafficking.” At the time, the Bush administration was trying to cripple the Cuban government. Easily enabling medical personnel posted abroad to defect represented an opportunity to strike at the core of the island’s primary diplomatic tool, while embarrassing the Castro regime.

Cuba has been using its medical corps as the nation’s main source of revenue and soft power for many years. The country has one of the highest numbers of doctors per capita in the world and offers medical scholarships to hundreds of disadvantaged international students each year, and some have been from the United States. According to Cuban government figures, more than 440,000 of the island’s 11 million citizens are employed in the health sector.

Havana gets subsidized oil from Venezuela and money from several other countries in exchange for medical services. This year, according to the state-run newspaper Granma, the government expects to make $8.2 billion from its medical workers overseas. The vast majority, just under 46,000, are posted in Latin America and the Caribbean. A few thousand are in 32 African countries.

Medical professionals, like most Cubans, earn meager wages. Earlier this year, the government raised the salaries of medical workers. Doctors now earn about $60 per month, while nurses make nearly $40. Overseas postings allow these health care workers to earn significantly more. Doctors in Brazil, for example, are making about $1,200 per month.

The 256 Cuban medical professionals treating Ebola patients in West Africa are getting daily stipends of roughly $240 from the World Health Organization. José Luis Di Fabio, the head of the W.H.O. in Havana, said he was confident the doctors and nurses dispatched to Africa have gone on their own volition. “It was voluntary,” Mr. Di Fabio, an Uruguayan whose organization has overseen their deployment, said in an interview. “Some backtracked at the last minute and there was no problem.”

10-03-2014cuban_ebolaCuban Doctors Arriving in Sierra Leone

Some doctors who have defected say they felt the overseas tours had an implicit element of coercion and have complained that the government pockets the bulk of the money it gets for their services. But the State Department says in its latest report on human trafficking that reported coercion of Cuban medical personnel does “not appear to reflect a uniform government policy.” Even so, the Cuban government would be wise to compensate medical personnel more generously if their work overseas is to remain the island’s economic bedrock.

Last year, the Cuban government liberalized its travel policies, allowing most citizens, including dissidents, to leave the country freely. Doctors, who in the past faced stricter travel restrictions than ordinary Cubans, no longer do. Some 20,000 Cubans are allowed to immigrate to the United States yearly. In addition, those who manage to arrive here in rafts or through border crossing points are automatically authorized to stay.

The Cuban government has long regarded the medical defection program as a symbol of American duplicity. It undermines Cuba’s ability to respond to humanitarian crises and does nothing to make the government in Havana more open or democratic. As long as this incoherent policy is in place, establishing a healthier relationship between the two nations will be harder.

Many medical professionals, like a growing number of Cubans, will continue to want to move to the United States in search of new opportunities, and they have every right to do so. But inviting them to defect while on overseas tours is going too far.

New Picture

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Cuban Blogger, ​Elaine Díaz, Reveres Fidel but Pushes for Reform

The New York Times By NATALIE KITROEFF June 11, 2013, 2:42 pm

Elaine Díaz

Elaine Díaz may be the most important Cuban dissident you’ve never heard of. But that is perhaps because she doesn’t even call herself a dissident.

 

Ms. Díaz is a leader of a group of Cubans who are opening a new avenue for criticism in a country that, for the last 50 years, has offered its citizens only two options: with us or against us. Ms. Díaz insists that there is a third way. “Cuba has a lot to change,” Ms. Díaz said during a visit to New York last week, “but I don’t think you need to destroy the system to create something new.”

 

That’s a convenient view, because that system is paying her salary.

 

A professor of journalism at the University of Havana, a public institution, Ms. Díaz is an employee of the state. That has not stopped her from writing publicly and with disarming directness about the challenges of daily life in Cuba on her blog, La Polémica Digital, for the last five years. She is young, progressive and fiercely loyal to the Cuban government. But she says she is also determined to reform a socialist system that no longer works as well as it used to for the common man.

 

The delicacy of that relationship is not lost on Ms. Díaz. “I’ve been scared that maybe I’d write something that would be interpreted the wrong way,” she said, “and that I would be punished, or lose my job.”

 

She has managed to set herself apart in an increasingly cluttered Cuban blogosphere, earning respect for her thorough reporting and simple, moving prose. Last year she traveled abroad for a meeting of global bloggers in Nairobi, and last month she arrived in the United States for the annual Latin American Studies Association conference in Washington.

 

So far, Ms. Díaz said, she hasn’t heard a peep from the authorities about her writing. Indeed, the government has been surprisingly tolerant of Ms. Díaz and her colleagues – loosely affiliated under the moniker Bloggers Cuba – a fact that some experts attribute to the group’s willingness to self-censor.

 

Ted Henken, an expert on social media in Cuba, called these younger bloggers “silent dissidents,” adding, “Their big problem is that they’re constantly biting their tongue.”

 

Cuba’s more famous and far more radical critic, Yoani Sánchez, shares that view. When Ms. Díaz abruptly took a leave from her blog last August, Ms. Sánchez speculated that she had been forced off the keyboard by a government that had lost patience with her.

 

Ms. Sánchez, taking a jab at Ms. Díaz’s ties to the government, called her the “official Cuban blogger” and wrote that “Elaine Díaz has transgressed the limits of criticism permissible” for an employee of the state. Ms. Díaz insists that she stopped writing only to focus more intently on her teaching, and she has since resumed the blog.

 

But Ms. Díaz does acknowledge that there are taboo subjects, like the state of education or health care, that she is hesitant to discuss casually. “If I go to a dirty hospital, I’m not going to write about it,” she said, “because I have a commitment to the system.” Universal health care and free education are seen as the revolution’s most significant success stories, which makes it imperative to keep them intact, even as they quickly become well-worn myths.

 

In fact, for government loyalists like Ms. Díaz, it seems that, as you get closer to the core of the communist narrative holding Cuba together, the space for genuine debate shrinks. Rattling off a series of topics that she would be careful about touching, Ms. Díaz paused before the kicker: “Fidel Castro, for example, is sacred to us,” she said in an almost reverent tone. “At least in the world that I move around in, there’s a respect and historical gratitude” toward him.

 

“He’s a figure that, when you launch into criticism, it’s very difficult,” she added.

 

That approach may be more cautious than the tack taken by Ms. Sánchez and more extreme elements of the opposition, but that doesn’t mean it should be discounted. “It’s as important or more important when people who consider themselves believers express criticism because they can’t be as easily disqualified as people on the out and out, in the opposition,” said Mr. Henken, the expert on Cuba’s Internet. “Yoani is the acerbic agnostic, whereas Elaine is the critical believer,” he added.

 

Even the United States government is taking notice. Last month, Conrad Tribble, the deputy chief of the United States Interests Section in Havana, Washington’s diplomatic outpost in Cuba, made an unannounced visit to a public meeting of what The Associated Press called “Cuba’s pro-government Twitteratti.”

 

A brief video clip of the encounter posted on Crónicas de Cuba, the journalist Jorge Legañoa Alonso’s blog, showed Mr. Tribble, sporting a fuchsia Hawaiian shirt, saying he had come to talk with the group about things that the United States and Cuba share — “baseball, music, et cetera” — and on issues in dispute.

 

Video of an American diplomat interacting with Cuba’s “Twitteratti” in Havana last month, posted on YouTube by Jorge Legañoa Alonso, a journalist and blogger.

 

His presence was an olive branch in a diplomatic relationship where engagement on both sides has consisted mainly of covert operations and official bluster. It was also a sign of the growing influence of this corps of young bloggers, whom the State Department wants to cultivate a relationship with, despite their pro-Castro bent.

 

Ms. Díaz, who could not make the meeting but has interacted with Mr. Tribble on Twitter this year, said she appreciated the gesture.

 

@conradtribble Espero tengan la oportunidad de rectificar estos casos que limitan la libertad de intercambio académico entre ambas naciones

 

— Elaine Díaz (@elainediaz2003) 8 Apr 13

 

“He didn’t go there to make a speech or convince anyone, or try to impose anything,” she said. “He’s welcome. Any steps toward a closer engagement between the United States and Cuba, even if they’re small, are good.”

 

Ms. Díaz would know. In the two weeks she has spent in the United States, she said, “there have been moments that have changed my life, and have nearly made me cry.”

 

She recalled arriving at the Miami airport and being handed a cellphone by a stranger who saw that she was lost. Or a man in New York City who walked her to her host’s house when she was lost in a sea of apartment buildings in Washington Heights.

 

“I had the impression that in the United States, no one cares what you have to say, no one will talk to you, everyone is absorbed in their own world,” she said, adding that the image of “a very individualistic culture, it’s not what I’ve found.”

When she returns to Cuba in a week, Ms. Díaz said she would write about the experience on her blog. For now, she’s enjoying her stay in enemy territory.

 

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