Tag Archives: Travel

Another GOP Attempt to Abort U.S.-Cuban Reengagement 

Less than a week after removing Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s infamous list of state sponsors of terror, President Obama is now facing a legislative attack on his Cuban reengagement effort from the Republican-dominated House of Representatives. A new House appropriations bill, unveiled on Tuesday, prohibits federal spending on a potential U.S. embassy in Cuba and freezes funding for U.S.-Cuban diplomatic initiatives at pre-December 2014 levels -where they stood prior to the start of the president’s normalization campaign. If passed, the legislation would also restrict the ability of the Cuban government to acquire American financing for its own eventual embassy in the U.S.

“I think we have been very clear with our challenges with what’s gone on in Cuba, from human rights, from what’s happened there, and we have a difference of opinion with the administration and we have a right to express it,” Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House Majority Leader and a supporter of Tuesday’s legislation, told reporters.

The largely GOP-backed appropriations bill increases federal spending on U.S.-backed democratization initiatives in Cuba, including efforts to expand media access and reform elections on the island; it also directs the State Department to deny visas to Cuban government officials and members of the Cuban Communist Party. Proponents of the restrictive legislation argue that substantive political reform on the island should precede further diplomatic negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba. Furthermore, they’ve repeatedly threatened to block any and all efforts by the White House or the State Department to improve relations with Cuba until the long-ruling authoritarian Castro regime is removed from power. Tuesday’s House appropriations bill appears to finally back up these threats.

Congressional opposition to President Obama’s Cuba policy is led primarily by Florida-based Cuban American legislators like Representative Mario Diaz-Balart and presidential-hopeful Marco Rubio in the Senate. Most of these politicians are electorally dependent on strongly anti-Castro Cuban American voters in Miami and other Cuban immigrant enclaves in the sunshine state.

An official statement from the White House in reaction to another recent piece of legislation, this one a House transportation bill, designed to undermine the president’s Cuba policy was unequivocal: “His [Obama’s] senior advisors would recommend that he veto the bill.” The administration went on to warn that the bill in question “place[s] unnecessary restrictions on options for educational, religious, or other permitted travel” to the Caribbean island by prohibiting federal funding to commercial vessels and airplanes traveling between the U.S. and Cuba. That aspect of the legislation would effectively nullify the popular regulatory changes to U.S.-Cuba travel and trade restrictions that the administration has made in recent months. 

President Obama’s Cuban pivot has been largely well received by the public; American travel to the island nation has ballooned since the administration first announced the policy change last December. With U.S.-Cuban reengagement and diplomatic normalization now being viewed by many as a cornerstone of the president’s foreign policy legacy, it is highly unlikely that the administration will take the House’s most recent challenge sitting down. The White House’s veto threats should thus be taken seriously. 

          

Puerto Rico: Crisis Point

In a bid to sure up their island’s dire fiscal situation and address its $72 billion in outstanding public debt, Puerto Rican lawmakers narrowly passed a bill on Tuesday to significantly raise taxes on the territory’s inhabitants. The controversial legislation specifically increases Puerto Rico’s sales tax from 7 to 11.5 percent, the highest in the United States, and introduces a new 4 percent tax on professional services. If the bill is ultimately signed by Puerto Rico’s governor Alejandro Garcia Padilla, which seems likely given his avowed pro-austerity views, then the tax hikes will be implemented within the year.

Tuesday’s news comes after an announcement from San Juan that the government will be closing nearly 100 schools and 20 public agencies in the near future in order to save money.

Puerto Rico is in the midst of a crippling 8 year recession, characterized by devastating unemployment and poverty levels and unprecedented population flight. Critics of Tuesday’s bill decried the fact that the burden of the San Juan’s latest austerity scheme falls squarely on Puerto Rican consumers; they argue that the new taxes will seriously undermine already lagging economic demand on the island and ultimately deepen and prolong Puerto Rico’s longstanding recession, making it impossible for the territory to get out from under its smothering debt in the longterm.

Proponents of the legislation, on the other hand, say that such tax increases are desperately needed in order to stave off a government shutdown in the short-term. Foreign creditors, whose ongoing financing of the island’s government has become indispensable, with vested interests in Puerto Rico’s future solvency have long threatened to pull out of the U.S. territory in the absence of substantive austerity measures there. Policy makers in San Juan are hoping that the $1.2 billion in revenue that the new taxation is expected to yield will calm creditors abroad and attract new investors on the international bond market.

While credit rating agencies’ repeated downgrades of Puerto Rican treasury bonds have led many to reconsider their fledgling investments in the territory, one institution is actually seemingly eager to go all in on the struggling island.

You might be wondering who in their right mind could possibly want to purchase chunks of Puerto Rico’s behemoth and seemingly insurmountable debt. Why it’s our old friends over at Goldman Sachs; you know, the infamously predatory Wall Street banking conglomerate, and Federal Reserve junkie, that Matt Taibbi once hilariously, and poignantly, dubbed “a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.” Well, according to recent article from Bloomberg Business, Goldman is currently gobbling up Puerto Rican bonds at breakneck speed, even as other investors flee for the hills. That a firm as historically and continually immoral and incompetent as Goldman Sachs is tripping over itself to buy up junkish Puerto Rican bonds should unnerve everyone. There’s a scam afoot here ladies and gentlemen, and you and I are the marks… again.

We’ve seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. If past is pretext, and -considering the U.S. government’s failure to break up Wall Street’s seemingly omnipotent “Too Big To Fail” banking cartels and fundamentally reform how it regulates and subsidizes such firms in the wake of the 2008 crash- it almost certainly is, then American taxpayers will get stuck bailing out Puerto Rico’s bondholders if and when the island eventually goes belly up fiscally. But by that point, the sharks at Goldman will have presumably already swam off into the Caribbean sunset, having sold off most of their toxic Puerto Rican assets to unwitting investors and simultaneously made lucratively risky and cynical bets against those same sales long before the island’s financial collapse. Wall Street will have transformed another crisis into a golden opportunity for itself, and the dismantling of Puerto Rican society will continue apace.

  

U.S.-Cuba: Where Things Stand

U.S.-Cuban negotiations aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations between the two formerly hostile countries have seemingly stalled once again. The latest round of high-level talks, held at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. over the course of several days last week, reportedly failed to produce significant progress, and formal mutual embassies in the American and Cuban capitals remain unopened.

Thanks to several recent breakthroughs in the diplomatic normalization process, including President Barack Obama’s decision last month to remove Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s infamous list of state sponsors of terrorism and the Cuban government’s resulting acquisition of much-needed banking services for its U.S. diplomatic mission with the Florida-based Stonegate Bank, the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana in the very near future seemed like a viable possibility ahead of last week’s talks. That said, American and Cuban negotiators in D.C. were unable to overcome critical disagreements over the degree of freedom that U.S. diplomats operating in Cuba should be afforded.

The Cuban government argues that the journalism training courses and information technology that American personnel at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana regularly provide to Cuban dissidents is illegal, specifically violating a Vienna Conventions ban on diplomats meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. They demand an immediate end to the practice and also want to maintain existing restrictions on Cuban-based U.S. diplomats’ freedom to travel outside of Havana. Persistent discord between American and Cuban negotiators over these contentious issues effectively neutralized last week’s talks in Washington.

Speaking to the press in the wake of the most recent negotiations, Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. State Department’s top official for Latin America, stressed the need for Cuba to conform to her country’s standards of diplomatic procedure: “There are a range of ways in which our embassies operate around the world in different countries…We expect that in Cuba, our embassy will operate within that range. It won’t be unique. It won’t be anything that that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world.”

The authoritarian Castro regime, which strictly prohibits most types of subversive media in Cuba, is justifiably fearful that certain American diplomatic, aid and intelligence staff operating in Cuba are bent on fomenting anti-government sentiment among the population of the Caribbean island. The U.S. has a well-documented history of relentlessly attempting to oust the Castro government since it took power in 1959, and provoking a regime change or, at the very least, reform in Havana remains an avowed central goal of White House’s current diplomatic normalization and democratization efforts in Cuba.

Though the most recent round of negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba appear to have been decidedly unimpactful, representatives of both governments were optimistic about the overall progress of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic normalization in their statements to the press following the meeting. Furthermore, they refused to write off the talks as a failure. Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s director of North American affairs, called the negotiations “respectful and professional,” while Jacobson described them as “highly productive.” Neither party was willing to go into detail about substance of the negotiations.

  

                             

        

New Cuban Travel Opportunities on the Horizon 

In the latest development in the long process of diplomatic and commercial normalization between the United States and Cuba, the Obama administration is lifting a five decade ban on ferry services from Florida to Havana. By fall of this year, American tourists should be able to shuttle across the 225-mile shipping route separating southern Florida from the Cuban capital with any of four U.S. Treasury Department-approved commercial ferry services -including Havana Ferry Partners in Fort Lauderdale, Baja Ferries in Miami, United Caribbean Lines Florida in Greater Orlando and Airline Brokers Co. in Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

Robert Muse, a lawyer for Baja Ferries, told the Associated Press that the White House’s move, which was made public on Tuesday, was “a further indication of the seriousness of the Obama administration in normalizing relations with Cuba, we’re now going from the theoretical to the very specific.” Muse said that the new ferry services will provide American vacationers to Cuba with an affordable alternative to air travel.

Obama’s decision to reauthorize commercial ferry services to Cuba comes less than a month after the U.S. State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Many in the U.S. and Cuba are hopeful that Tuesday’s news will portend the full legalization of American tourism to Cuba, which -despite some recent and significant regulatory changes- remains at least formally prohibited.

“We are approaching the project not just as a ferry operation but as a new, important economic driver for both countries, and development of a ferry system for the Caribbean,” Bruce Nierenberg, president of United Caribbean Lines, explained to Newsweek. Nierenberg was optimistic that, with the U.S. government’s blessing, his company would soon be operating ferry services to Cuba out of Miami, Tampa, Port Everglades and Key West.

Also this week, JetBlue announced that it would soon begin offering weekly round-trip flights to Cuba out of the John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Outside of Florida, the New York metropolitan area maintains the highest concentration of Cuban Americans in the U.S.; JetBlue’s upcoming service was likely developed with this population in mind. The new nonstop flights, which will commence on July 3, should last about three and a half hours.

The company’s announcement capped off a recent two-day trip to Cuba by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo designed to promote closer trade and travel ties between his state and the Caribbean island. “By leading one of the first state trade missions to Cuba as the United States reestablishes diplomatic relations, we placed New York State businesses at the front of the line for new prospects in Cuba, that will in turn support jobs and economic activity here at home,” the governor told the press on Tuesday.

JetBlue is the first commercial airline to seize on the opportunity presented by President Obama’s initial easing of Cuban travel restrictions earlier this year. Currently, about 600,000 Americans make their way to Cuba every year -often chartering private flights to do so. Some fly to Cuba through third-party countries like Canada. New direct and over-the-table flight’s, of the type JetBlue is planning to offer, promise to normalize and grow this irregular market, encouraging greater U.S.-Cuban tourism in the process.

  

House GOP Attempts to Abort U.S.-Cuba Normalization 

Congressional opponents of President Obama’s new Cuba policy have finally initiated a legislative effort to counteract the recent thaw in relations between America and Cuba. On Tuesday, a contingent of Republican hardliners in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a provision into an upcoming House Department of Transportation appropriations bill that prohibits government spending on the promotion of travel from the U.S. to Cuba.

The measure specifically bars the American government from using public funds to facilitate any air transportation from the U.S. to Cuba that would land on or pass through property confiscated by the Cuban government. In addition, the provision restricts the ability of the U.S. government to issue operating certificates and licenses to any maritime vessels that have recently docked within seven miles of property appropriated by the Castro regime. If ultimately enacted, these limitations would severely limit any regular travel and trade between the U.S. and Cuba.

“U.S. law prohibits tourism in Cuba, and U.S. law also allows for those whose properties were confiscated by the Castro regime to sue those who use, or benefit from using, those confiscated properties,” Florida congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a vocal critic of President Obama’s efforts to normalize U.S.-Cuban relations, explained in an attempt to justify the new regulations that he personally introduced into the transportation bill. “Despite these clear provisions in U.S. law, the Obama administration has expanded travel to Cuba and turned a blind eye to the property claims of Americans.”

Prior to the 1959 Cuban revolution that toppled the government of the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, 85 percent of Cuba’s arable land was owned by American multinationals and investors -holdings that would be worth $2.8 billion today. After seizing power, Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government unveiled a land reform program that would’ve redistributed that land among Cuba’s landless peasants. The plan promised to monetarily compensate the American parties involved for their losses. When the Eisenhower administration balked at this initiative, severing the U.S.’s commercial ties with Cuba and launching a long-term covert campaign to overthrow the new Cuban government in the months after the revolution, Castro abandoned the reform plan and simply confiscated and nationalized the properties in question. The Castro regime also seized the private businesses of countless native Cubans in the wake of the revolution.

The poison pill that Republican lawmakers attached to the House transportation bill on Tuesday is expected to face stiff opposition from congressional supporters of President Obama’s new policy of Cuban détente. If the bill is passed as is however, the president may be compelled to step in and utilize his veto power to block the legislation. This would be controversial as the the larger transportation bill in question is considered urgent must-pass legislation by many. Still, it’s unlikely that the president will sit back silently while a clique of hardliners in the House attempt to effectively nullify several of the changes his administration has made to U.S.-Cuba travel and trade regulations since December. Certainly any future efforts at normalization would be sabotaged if the new restrictive measures were allowed to be implemented.                

                            

Tourism Boom in Cuba

According to pronouncements by the Cuban Tourism Ministry on Saturday, a record breaking one million foreign vacationers have already traveled to Cuba this year. The figure represents a 14-point spike in visitor rates for the first quarter of the year, easily overcoming similar tourism assessments by the Cuban government from March of 2014. An estimated three million foreign visitors reportedly vacationed in Cuba over the course of last year, and 2015’s early tourism surge promises to continue the boom.   

The $2.6 billion Cuban tourism sector accounts for a considerable, and growing, portion of the island nation’s overall economic activity. Employment in fields associated with the tourism, like the hotel and restaurant industries, generally offer relatively strong wages and are thus highly sought after by Cuban workers. 

The expansion of Cuba’s lucrative tourism industry has been a top priority of the government in Havana since current president Raúl Castro assumed office in 2008. In partnership with a Brazilian conglomerate, the Cuban government recently spent $207 million upgrading the country’s international airport. Significantly, tens of thousands visit Cuba annually through state-sanctioned, and often state-sponsored, cultural and educational exchange programs.

While European countries like Germany, France, the U.K. and Italy are reportedly major sources of foreign travel to Cuba, vacationers from the U.S. are increasingly getting in on the action. Cuban authorities approximated around 600,000 American visits to Cuba last year, though it’s difficult to establish a wholly accurate number considering the fact that so many American tourists travel to Cuba through third party countries like Canada in an attempt to circumvent longstanding travel restrictions between the U.S. and the island destination. 

If the U.S.’s ban on travel to Cuba were fully lifted, a likely outcome if diplomatic normalization efforts initiated by the U.S. and Cuban governments last December prove enduring, Cuban officials contend that annual American trips to Cuba would jump to 1.5 million, yielding an additional $2 billion in tourism profits.

Still, not everyone is thrilled by the news that more Americans could be visiting the caribbean nation in the near future. Some predict that Cuba’s already scare accommodations would be unable to keep pace with the influx of tourists from the U.S.

“[T]here won’t be enough hotels. There won’t be enough restaurants. There won’t be enough services to accommodate the Americans who will come like rats on a ship.” Canadian Rogelio Guavin complained to the Associated Press while on a trip to Cuba. 

Still others worry that Cuba’s traditional character and values could be undermined by American materialist influences.  

“Cuba has a very authentic atmosphere which you see nowhere else in the world,” tourist Gay Ben Aharon of Israel explained to the AP in Havana. “I wanted to see it before the American world … but also the modern Western world comes here.”

Cubans themselves, in most cases, appear much more optimistic.

“We’re very excited,” Yadiel Carmenate, a 26 year-old Cuban college student and part-time tour guide told reporters. “I think it’s going to be really hard for you to find a McDonald’s or a Starbucks right around the corner.”