Reason: Whiplash and Backlash in the Republic of Cuba


My trip to Cuba was part of an educational junket organized by Engage Cuba, a coalition that pushes for normalizing trade and travel between the two countries. Since an advocacy group arranged for me to meet with many of the individuals quoted in this story, it’s natural to wonder how representative they are of the larger population. In the end, my experience was designed to reinforce a belief that the Cuban people crave more open relations with the United States.

On Cuba Magazine: Senators from the United States for more trade with Cuba

On Cuba Magazine

The organization Engage Cuba, which seeks to promote relations between Cuba and the United States, applauded the introduction in the Senate of the bill to normalize trade with the island. The president of the organization, James Williams, thanked Senator Wyden for “leading the effort aimed at ending 55 years of failed policy.”

NPR-WKMS: State Leaders Hopeful for Trade Launch Engage Cuba Kentucky State Council


A new, bipartisan Kentucky council aiming to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Cuba has high hopes for trade.

State Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles and Blue Equity CEO Jonathan Blue launched the Engage Cuba Kentucky State Council Tuesday. Republican Congressman James Comer and Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth serve as honorary co-chairs.

One aim of the council is to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba to grow Kentucky exports. Comer said lifting the embargo will allow the Caribbean nation to import major Kentucky crops like soybeans and poultry - and provide better access to Cuban products like coffee. He has called lifting the embargo a “win-win for American farmers and consumers.”

President Donald Trump announced in June new restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba. The Kentucky council represents the 17th state to join the Engage Cuba coalition.

NBC-WAVE: Kentucky leaders launch Engage Cuba Kentucky State Council

Wave 3 News

On Tuesday, the Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture and the CEO of Blue Equity led a bipartisan group of Kentucky leaders to launch the Engage Cuba Kentucky State Council, an effort to promote stronger U.S.-Cuba ties.

The purpose of the Engage Cuba Kentucky State Council is to advance pro-Cuba engagement policies that support Kentucky jobs and empower the Cuban people.

Members of the council, including prominent Kentucky government, agriculture, education, and business leaders, believe the U.S. embargo on Cuba is hurting Kentucky farmers, Kentucky businesses and the Cuban people. For that reason, the group seeks to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba in order to boost Kentucky's exports in major job-creating industries, including agriculture and manufacturing. 

“I strongly support lifting the Cuban Trade embargo," said U.S. Congressman James Comer, an honorary co-chair of the council. "This measure is one that would be good for the agriculture community and the first district of Kentucky. The crops Cuba needs to import like soybeans and poultry are all major crops in Kentucky. As a result, our country could have better access to products like coffee and tropical fruits coming from Cuba. Lifting the Cuban trade embargo is a win-win for American farmers and consumers."

“Kentucky's manufacturing and agriculture industries are economic drivers and job creators in the Commonwealth," said James Williams, President of Engage Cuba. "Opening up trade with Cuba would provide significant opportunities for Kentucky businesses and farmers across the state. However, Kentuckians are stuck on the sidelines as our foreign competitors continue to take advantage of Cuba’s growing markets. We are very pleased to have a diverse list of dynamic and engaged Kentuckians willing to step up and call on Congress to lift the embargo that is costing Kentucky jobs and preventing economic development for the Cuban people. It’s time to end fifty years of failed isolationist policy towards Cuba.”

Expanding trade with Cuba would support Kentucky agriculture, the press release states, which has generated over 280,000 jobs in the Commonwealth. Cuba imports nearly 80% of its food, amounting to about $2 billion a year and Kentucky’s leading agricultural commodities including, poultry, soybeans, wheat and grain, are all top imports in Cuba.  


  • James Comer, U.S. Congressman (Honorary chair)
  • Jon Yarmuth, U.S. Congressman (Honorary chair) 
  • Ryan Quarles, Commissioner of Agriculture, State of Kentucky (Co-chair)
  • Jonathan Blue, Chairman & Managing Director, Blue Equity (Co-chair) 
  • Robert Brown, Chairman, District Export Council of Kentucky (Vice Chair) 
  • Richard Grana, Owner, Impex (Vice Chair) 
  • Nathan Cryder, Director, Edelen Strategic Ventures (Vice Chair) 

Council members:

  • Steven Beam, President, Limestone Branch Distillery
  • Barbara Boyd, Chair, Kentucky Alliance Against Racism and Political Repression
  • Keith Bundy, President, Silent Brigade Distillery
  • Lisa Crutcher, CEO, Catholic Charities of Louisville
  • Adam Edelen, CEO, Edelen Strategic Ventures
  • Dr. Robert Farley, Professor, University of Kentucky Patterson School of Diplomacy
  • Jim Gray, Mayor, City of Lexington
  • Craig Greenberg, President, 21C Hotel and Museum
  • Alison Lundergan Grimes, Secretary of State, State of Kentucky
  • Mark Haney, President, Kentucky Farm Bureau
  • Phil Holoubek, CEO, Lexington Real Estate Company
  • Interfaiths Path to Peace
  • Archbishop Joseph Edward Kurtz, Archdiocese of Louisville
  • Bill Miller, Executive Director, Paducah-McCracken County Riverport Authority
  • Sam Rock, Cofounder, Bluegrass Distilling
  • Sister Cities of Louisville
  • Jonathan Steiner, CEO, Kentucky League of Cities
  • Griffin Van Meter, Founder, Kentucky for Kentucky
  • Bryan Warren, Director of Globalization, Louisville International Organization Network
  • J. Edwin Webb, President & CEO, World Trade Center of Kentucky
  • Xiao Yin Zhou, Director, Kentucky World Affairs Council
  • Kaveh Zamanian, President, Rabbit Hole Distillery

WFPL: Kentucky State Leaders Launch Bipartisan Effort To Lift Cuba Restrictions


Some government and business leaders in Kentucky want the U.S. to lift its oldest economic sanctions against Cuba.

Tuesday marked the launch of the bipartisan Engage Cuba Kentucky State Council, which aims to promote relations between the two countries and lift the nearly 60-year embargo. Some believe the move would benefit both the Commonwealth and Cuba.

In June, President Trump announced that he would reinstate restrictions on Americans traveling to Cuba along with other commercial prohibitions. In 2014, then-President Obama restored diplomatic ties with the country.

Some believe Trump’s announcement was a step in the wrong direction. Democratic Congressman John Yarmuth of Louisville is one of them.

“Well, I would defy President Trump to give one logical reason for that policy,” Yarmuth said.

Yarmuth believes the U.S. is losing out by not having an economic relationship with Cuba.

“The rest of the world is already doing business with Cuba,” he said. “The French are there, the Israelis are there, the Russians are there, the Chinese are there, the Canadians are there. There’s no reason for us not to be.”

According the Pew Research Center, 73 percent of Americans support ending the United States’ trade embargo on Cuba.The poll was taken in December 2016, shortly after the death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.  

Proponents say easing relations between the U.S. and Cuba could boost the Commonwealth’s agricultural exports, such as soybeans and poultry. It could also help the state’s automobile industry.

Others are a bit more cautious.

Louisville writer and film producer Mark Rabinowitz attended Tuesday’s event and believes the U.S. should become an economic partner with Cuba, but do it prudently.  

“What we don’t want is fruit companies or sugar companies or large businesses just en masse economically invading a country,” he said.

Rabinowitz said because of the unique relationship between the two countries, as well as the United States’ history in other Latin American countries, he wants to see a more gradual opening up of Cuba to the U.S.

“The development of the United States’ presence in Cuba needs to be fettered in some way, it needs to be slowly and reasonably,” he said.

Other Kentucky politicians who have supported lifting restrictions on Cuba include Republican Congressmen James Comer and Thomas Massie, and Republican U.S. Senator Rand Paul.

Insider Louisville: Kentucky leaders form state council to lift Cuba embargo, boost local exports

Insider Louisville

A new Kentucky chapter of an organization working to lift the United States embargo on Cuba will be unveiled Tuesday, featuring prominent state leaders and seeking to boost the export of Kentucky products like poultry, soybeans and bourbon into the country that has slowly opened to the American market over the past three years.

Engage Cuba is holding a press conference Tuesday announcing the creation of its Kentucky State Council, the 17th state to open up its own local chapter of the group. Engage Cuba president James Williams will attend, along with Congressman John Yarmuth, former Democratic state auditor and CEO of Edelen Strategic Ventures Adam Edelen and the local council’s co-chair, Jonathan Blue, the chairman of Blue Equity and longtime advocate of opening up the Cuban market. The other co-chair of the local chapter is the Republican Kentucky Commissioner of Agriculture Ryan Quarles, and former commissioner and current Congressman James Comer from the state’s First District is also a supporter.

Williams of Engage Cuba told IL in a phone interview Monday that Kentucky farmers and producers are missing out on potentially millions of dollars’ worth of exports to Cuba each year due to the continued presence of the nearly six-decade American embargo on Cuba, despite efforts initiated by former President Barack Obama in December of 2014 to roll back such sanctions.

While Obama was able to restart diplomatic relations with Cuba, loosen travel restrictions for Americans, approve commercial airline travel and allow limited commercial engagement, Williams says that most of the economic sanctions within the embargo remained intact, as they were codified by Congress.

Though President Donald Trump originally campaigned on further opening up Cuba relations, he adopted a tougher stance near the end of the general elections, and in June took an executive action to roll back certain Obama reforms and make travel to Cuba more difficult.

“Obama took a big step forward, Trump took a modest step backward, and we’re still probably at sizable gains from where we were two years ago,” says Williams. “But now the landscape has shifted where Congress is going to have to take the next steps on this. The timetable for that, we’ll see. That’s part of why we’re in Kentucky, to show how much local support there is from the business, ag, civic and religious community.”

Williams noted that there are currently three bills in Congress rolling back all or part of the Cuban embargo, which have a large amount of bipartisan support should they be called for a vote. One bill fully lifts the travel ban, a second lifts the entire embargo, while another aims to open up the Cuban market for more agricultural products exported from the United States by allowing trade to happen by via credit instead of cash only.

According to Williams, American agricultural products currently make up less than 10 percent of such imports into Cuba, which is buying about $2 billion worth of agricultural products each year, mostly from countries like China and Canada, or even small countries as far away as Vietnam. This percentage of American foodstuffs imported is much lower than the typical 60-80 percent in other Caribbean countries, with Williams expecting that once the playing field is leveled and trade can happen through credit, “it will be virtually impossible for the rest of the world to compete with us in the Cuban market.”

“Right now, they have to sell everything in cash to Cuba and they’re not allowed to spend any sort of private credit,” says Williams. “And one, that’s not how trade works anymore, and two, Cuba is a cash poor country. So they’re buying some stuff from the United States… but basically we’re seeing upwards of a billion dollars off the table as a result of this policy.”

As for potential Kentucky agricultural exports, Williams says that poultry, wheat and soybeans are the products that Cubans consume significant amounts of and Kentucky farmers would have great potential to find a receptive market for such goods there. He adds that Kentucky farmers are “already exporting all over the world, so there are hundreds of millions of dollars on the table for them if we got this simple tweak.”

Williams notes that a study from the Peterson Institute found that an additional $5.9 billion of U.S. products would be exported into Cuba if the embargo was fully lifted, adding that Louisville would have a “unique opportunity” to take advantage of opportunities in services within this market, as the city has a very large population of Cuban immigrants. He says this opportunity would also extend to Kentucky bourbon. Even though Cuba does not have any direct relationship with Kentucky producers, bourbon has trickled in through third-party countries and become popular and a sort of status symbol in the country.

“I’m in Cuba about once a month, and I can tell you that whiskey drinking is the new rage in Cuba,” says Williams. “What you’re seeing now is what you’ve seen in Asia, where whiskey is a drink of the aspiring class in some ways … You’re seeing this whole new private sector in Cuba and the enhanced tourism sector in Cuba, and when you go to these new private restaurants, you see Kentucky bourbon on the shelves and people are ordering it. And it’s almost like a status symbol in some ways, to be drinking whiskey instead of rum.”

Despite remnants of the Cold War mindset and influential Cuban-American members of Congress like Sen. Marco Rubio in Florida who remain in favor of the embargo until Cuba enacts more democratic reforms, Williams notes that Americans broadly support lifting sanctions on Cuba. While some view the end of this embargo as inevitable, he adds that the more time that goes by without Congress taking action to end it, the more economic benefits to America are lost and the more other countries step in to influence the country’s future.

“We’re losing billions of dollars of economic opportunity,” says Williams. “We’re also losing the opportunity to be shaping the history of what the next 50 years of Cuba look like. This false argument of ‘Do we engage or not engage Cuba’ should really be: ‘Does the United States engage, or are we ceding this to China and Russia.’ Somebody is engaging, but will it be our influence or our adversaries? … Our hope here is that people will take into consideration not Cuba of 50 years ago, but U.S.-Cuba relations for the next 50 years and act now.”

Congressman Comer disappointed in Trump order, calls lifting embargo a ‘no-brainer’ decision

Echoing many of Williams’ points, Rep. Comer tells IL that he is strongly in favor of lifting the embargo, a position that was only strengthened after his visit to Cuba this year.

“I’ve always felt that it was a no brainer for the United States to trade with Cuba,” says Comer. “If they’re buying most of their food from China and Canada, and the United States is only 90 miles from Cuba, it makes no sense whatsoever.”

Congressman James Comer

Comer says the two main Kentucky commodities that would sell in Cuba would be poultry and soybeans, “and it would be large quantities… I don’t mean a little bit here or there. Cuba could be a major, major trading partner for Kentucky.”

However, Comer — a Republican from a rural western Kentucky district that went heavily for Trump in 2016 — says he is “disappointed that the president didn’t lift the embargo outright and disappointed that he’s made it even harder to trade with Cuba with his recent executive order.”

Comer adds that he was surprised by Trump’s move, as “there was a small working group with four members of Congress that I was a part of that were meeting with White House to discuss the benefits of lifting the embargo.” However, he notes that Trump was also meeting at the same time with the Cuban-American delegation in Congress from south Florida that included Rubio, saying that group’s opinion eventually won out.

“If you take away the Cuban-American delegation, then there’s overwhelming support for lifting the entire embargo outright,” says Comer. “So, it’s unfortunate that the Cuban-American delegation in Congress is so adamantly opposed to lifting the embargo, but that’s the strong voice in the president’s ear with respect to Cuba right now.”

If Congress doesn’t act, Comer says the body will be “on the wrong side of history on this issue,” but says that if a bill ending the embargo was voted on, “it would get about 75 percent of the votes in Congress. It would be a veto-proof majority. And there would be more Republicans voting against it than Democrats.”

Comer says that he doesn’t know where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell stands on the Cuban embargo, as he’s “never talked to him about this issue,” but notes that Rubio in his Senate GOP caucus is adamantly against it and that Florida is an important state in presidential elections.

WebWire: Altamar: New Podcast Navigates the High Seas of Global Politics


In an increasingly turbulent moment of uncertainty and unpredictability in global politics, there is something missing from the public policy debate: sanity.
“We live in a world that is being tossed and turned. The only thing that seems certain is uncertainty,” says Altamar co-host Peter Schechter. “This podcast is all about navigating the rough seas of today’s global politics and finding our way back to shore – rejecting the partisan polarization, getting past the populism, and debating pragmatic solutions.”
Altamar, a Spanish term for “high seas,” is a half-hour podcast show that will regularly feature special guests across a range of foreign policy topics and regions, from Latin America to Africa, Asia, Europe and beyond.
Schechter co-hosts Altamar with Muni Jensen, a former Colombian diplomat, television political analyst, and a highly regarded international columnist.
“At Altamar, we’re responding to the fatigue we’re all feeling over fake news and fake political correctness, intolerance; the source of so much confusion over crucial events,” says Jensen. “It’s time for frank discussion on these issues, challenges and dissent are welcome on this podcast, here we figure out why the news matters to you, no matter where it takes place.”
The Altamar podcast is launching its first two episodes, featuring James Williams of Engage Cuba on Trump’s reversal of the opening with Havana, and John Avlon of The Daily Beast and French historian Jean Garrigues discussing the viability of Emmanuel Macron’s challenge to populism. Future episodes will feature expert guests exploring whether Russia is winning, how to find an off-ramp in the Qatar crisis, and South Africa’s collapsing soft power, among other issues.

Miami Herald: U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties: What a difference two years and a new president makes

Miami Herald

As the clock ticked past midnight two years ago, the United States and Cuba officially reestablished diplomatic relations and later in the day that July 20, diplomatic missions in Washington and Havana once again became embassies.

During a flag-raising event at the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C., Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez hailed the rapprochement, saying: “Today marks an opportunity to begin working to establish new bilateral relations unlike anything that has existed in the past.”

Three weeks later, the United States held its formal flag-raising event in Havana and the Stars and Stripes flew over the U.S. Embassy. Former Secretary of State John Kerry — the first secretary of state to set foot in Cuba since 1945 — hailed the event as a time to “unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”

But what a difference two years and a new president makes.

During a speech in Miami when President Donald Trump announced his new policy on Cuba, he said: “Now that I am your president, America will expose the crimes of the Castro regime and stand with the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom.”

He called the rapprochement that former President Barack Obama began with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014 — after 18 months of secret negotiations — a “terrible and misguided deal.” His intent, Trump said, was to keep cash from U.S. travel and trade out of the hands of the Cuban regime by eliminating individual people-to-people travel to the island and drafting regulations that would bar U.S. business dealings with companies owned or controlled by the Cuban military or intelligence services, which includes a broad swath of Cuba’s better hotels and travel services.

At the same time, Trump said he wanted to support Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs. U.S. travelers also are expected to be under more scrutiny to make sure they are traveling to Cuba legally and not making tourism trips to the island.

For some in Miami, it was a much needed reset of Cuba policy.

“I’m glad Trump came along and said this has to change,” said radio commentator Ninoska Pérez. “I think he knows as a businessman that there is no point in investing in Cuba under current conditions. What is the point in promoting travel to a military dictatorship if you know the money is going to end up in the hands of the dictatorship?”

Essentially, she said, U.S.-Cuba policy stands where it was before the rapprochement began with the Cuban regime is still abusing human rights: “In the end, nothing was gained during the Obama era and a lot was lost.”

Cuban exiles Alexis Herrera and Magaly Mendoza expressed their disagreement in Miami with the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba. They took part in a protest called by several Cuban exiles organizations at Versailles restaurant on Friday, August 14, 2015, the day of the formal flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

But Carlos Saladrigas, a South Florida business executive and chairman of the Cuba Study Group, said Trump’s stance harkens back to an era of confrontation between the two countries and “gives enormous impetus to hardliners on the island who are fighting reforms in Cuba. If he ends up hurting the progressives in Cuba and encouraging the hardliners, what is the point of all this?

“I don’t see this as a climate where Cuba will think it can loosen up,” Saladrigas added. “I think the economy will get worse and repression will increase.”

Helms-Burton Act

While Obama tried to chip away at the embargo by issuing a series of executive orders and regulatory changes that made it easier for Americans to travel to the island and to engage in business and trade, the Trump administration has made it clear that it wants to hew closely to U.S. law on Cuba.

That would be the Helms-Burton Act, passed in 1996 in the heat of Cuba’s shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes, resulting in the deaths of four South Florida pilots. Lifting the embargo used to be a presidential decision, but Helms-Burton sets a series of conditions before it can be lifted such as release of all political prisoners, legalization of all political activity and a public commitment in Cuba to organize free and fair elections for a new government that would be held within 18 months.

During testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June after Trump’s announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized that Cuba policy needed to be brought into alignment with “statutory obligations.”

While developing business ties with Cuba is “the sunny side of the relationship,” Tillerson said Cuba “continues to be a very oppressive regime” and there are concerns that as new business relationships are being developed, “are we inadvertently or directly providing financial support to the regime?

“We are supportive of continued economic development as long as it is done in full compliance with our existing statutes to not provide financial support to the regime,” he added. “We think it is important that we take steps to restore the intent of the Helms-Burton legislation, which was to put pressure on the regime to change.”

In Miami, Trump made his bottom line clear: Cuba needs to meet the conditions set forth in the Helms-Burton Act as well as return fugitives from American justice such as Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther who fled to Cuba after escaping a new Jersey prison where she was serving a life sentence for the murder of a state trooper.

Further negotiations with Havana, Trump said, will depend on “real” progress toward these and other goals. “When Cuba is ready to take concrete steps to these ends, we will be ready, willing, and able to come to the table to negotiate that much better deal for Cubans, for Americans,” he said.

President Donald Trump signs a memorandum on strengthening Cuba surrounded by Cuban Americans and Vice President Mike Pence at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana.

Cuban leader Raúl Castro, meanwhile, has said repeatedly that Cuba wants to continue negotiating with the U.S. on areas of common interest as long as such meetings are carried out with mutual respect and equality.

While denouncing efforts to strengthen “the blockade,” the Cuban term for the embargo, and to manipulate the human rights issue against Cuba, Castro nevertheless said: “Cuba and the United States can cooperate and coexist, respecting differences and promoting everything that benefits both countries and peoples, but it shouldn’t be expected ... that Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence … or negotiate its principles or accept conditions of any type.”

Saladrigas said making demands isn’t the way to bring Cuba to the negotiating table. “We keep forgetting that just like the Cubans here, the Cubans on the island are proud people. We don’t negotiate under pressure. It’s never happened.”

During the Obama era, Cuba released dozens of political prisoners as a gesture of goodwill, not because the United States demanded it.

During the Obama administration, Cuban and American delegations traveled back and forth between the two capitals negotiating agreements and signing memorandums of understanding on everything from cancer research and migration matters to environmental and counter-narcotics cooperation. The first regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba from the United States in more than half a century resumed, as did direct mail service. U.S.-based cruise ships once again are visiting Cuban ports.

Since Trump took office, there haven’t been any bilateral talks between Washington and Havana, although the areas of cooperation hammered out between Cuba and the United States remain in effect. Educational, sports and cultural exchanges that have brought Major League Baseball players and iconic ballerina Misty Copeland to Cuba continue to flourish.

Dozens of U.S. trade and political delegations have visited Cuba since the opening, although Cuba has been slow on the uptake in approving business deals with U.S. companies that were allowed under the Obama rapprochement.

As one of his final actions on Cuba, Obama rescinded the controversial “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans who reached U.S. territory, even if brought by people smugglers, to stay and generally sent back Cubans interdicted at sea. Trump doesn’t plan to reinstate it. Trump also hasn’t mentioned restoring Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Although individual people-to-people travel will be eliminated, other categories of permissible travel for Americans will remain the same, and Trump hasn’t touched Obama’s more liberal remittance policy.

“Despite the red meat in Trump’s Miami speech, there is a lot more continuity [with Obama policy] than change,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego and a senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs in the White House under President Bill Clinton.

“During the last two years, the U.S. and Cuban governments succeeded in building solid constituencies for normalization in both countries — among governments, businesses and public opinions — such that the Trump administration felt compelled to abandon any plans for across-the-board rollbacks, deciding ultimately to maintain most of the engagement measures,” Feinberg said.

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, said the rapprochement with Havana has largely been a one-way street: “The normalization of relations and making concessions to Havana wouldn’t have been a mistake if something had been obtained in return.”

Calzon said he welcomed Trump’s statements in Miami and the memorandum he signed to strengthen U.S. Cuba policy, but hopes that many key positions on Latin America and human rights issues that are still vacant will be filled soon by the Trump administration so that his policies can be implemented. “I’ve learned that personnel is policy,” he said.

While Saladrigas agrees that on the face of it, the Trump changes might appear minor, “the implications of what he has done could have quite far-reaching and dangerous results.” He’s especially worried how the changes will impact Cuba’s budding self-employed sector, which now numbers more than 500,000 workers.

“When the regulations do come down and tighten up American travel to Cuba, I expect there will be dire consequences for the entrepreneurial class,” Saladrigas said, adding that some businesses, dependent on serving American travelers to the island, will fold.

The new regulations could be written rather benignly or broadly so that they could stifle big chunks of trade and travel to the island.

“We’ll have to wait and see how the regulations are actually written, but the confusion already surrounding the recently announced directive could have far-reaching negative consequences,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a public policy group that supports normalization. “Cuba’s private sector has already been hit with a wave of cancellations from American visitors who are confused about whether they can even legally travel to Cuba.”

While he was pleased that Trump had said he wants to help the island’s private sector, Williams said he hoped that the administration would engage more with Cuba’s entrepreneurial class and “get their insight when writing these regulations so that they do not cause greater harm to this important change in Cuba.”

A group of Cuban entrepreneurs who were in Washington this week sent a letter to the Departments of State, Treasury and Commerce in which they said they were encouraged by Trump’s declaration of support for the private sector. But they recommended keeping individual people-to-people travel, allowing Cuban entrepreneurs more access to U.S. exports and making it easier for Cubans to open U.S. bank accounts.

Travel Pulse: Cuban Businesses Urge Trump to Allow Individual Travel

Travel Pulse

A handful of Cuban entrepreneurs penned a letter to the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury and Commerce, outlining several policy recommendations for President Donald Trump's administration.

Trump revealed his National Security Presidential Memorandum on Cuba policy last month, partially rolling back some Obama-era policies that eased restrictions on American travel to the island nation in an effort to aid the country's emerging private sector.

While Americans can still travel to Cuba under certain licenses, getting there is expected to be more challenging under Trump's policy

"First, we recommend policymakers allow U.S. travelers to continue to travel as individuals to Cuba. U.S. travel to Cuba directly benefits private entrepreneurs and their families," the business leaders wrote. "The vast majority of U.S. individual travelers (vs. groups) frequent private lodging, restaurants and transportation services."

"Fewer travelers will have a direct negative impact on businesses in the hospitality sector as well an indirect negative impact on connected enterprises."

The entrepreneurs urged the administration to restore the ability for U.S. travelers to participate in self-directed people-to-people educational travel and to clarify that individuals who support the Cuban private sector by using private goods and services are eligible to visit.

They also want the U.S. government to clearly define new regulations so potential travelers aren't discouraged from visiting Cuba.

According to a recent study, three-quarters of U.S. travelers stayed in private B&Bs in Cuba. What's more, 99 percent say they ate at a privately-owned restaurant.

"If President Trump is serious about helping Cuba's private sector, he will listen to Cuban entrepreneurs. Today, they are telling him that additional regulations on Americans who wish to travel to Cuba will harm their businesses and harm Cuba's private sector," said Engage Cuba President James Williams in a statement.

"Americans are staying in private B&Bs, eating at private restaurants and taking private taxi cabs. Following President Trump's Cuba directive, Cubans across the island are concerned that a rollback of engagement will hurt the Cuban people." 

"President Trump’s new policy has created confusion and fear among U.S. travelers and Cuban entrepreneurs,” said Collin Laverty, President of Cuba Educational Travel, in a statement. "We should be promoting the flow of people, ideas, goods and services, not pumping the brakes.”

In addition to freeing up U.S. travel to Cuba, the business leaders encouraged the Trump administration to make it easier for Cubans to open U.S. bank accounts, ease access to U.S. exports and continue a bilateral dialogue. 

Miami Herald: As Trump writes new Cuba rules, anti-embargo politicians present a compromise

Miami Herald

Jeff Flake sees an opening in Cuba.

The Republican senator from Arizona, a longtime critic of U.S. trade and travel restrictions on the island, is hopeful that the Trump administration is willing to compromise when it comes to writing out the rules that will comprise Trump’s Cuba policy directive announced in Miami last month.

“This is an area where Marco Rubio and I agree on,” Flake said. “We’ve had broad disagreements with policy on Cuba, but we want to make sure that American travel serves a purpose and that it empowers entrepreneurs. I think what we’ve all recognized no matter where we are on the policy is that over the past couple of years a lot more Cubans have enjoyed a lot more freedom because of American travel.”

Flake was on hand for an announcement on Tuesday by Engage Cuba and the Center of Democracy in the Americas outlining a number of policy recommendations as the White House figures out the nuts and bolts of the Cuba policy announced in June.

Their recommendations include allowing individual people-to-people travel, lifting restrictions on remittances and lifting limitations on bank transactions for Cubans who open U.S. bank accounts.

“Ever since the speech by President Trump we’ve seen a lot of cancellations in our reservations by American travelers. The Americans are scared to come to Cuba,” said Julio Alvarez, co-founder of a restoration garage for classic American automobiles in Havana. “It’s affecting my ability to come to the U.S. to get parts for my cars. I’m not allowed to have a bank account here. This affects my business greatly.”

The entrepreneurs also sent a letter to the departments of State, Treasury and Commerce outlining their recommendations.

“The vast majority of U.S. individual travelers frequent private lodging, restaurants and transportation services,” the letter said. “Fewer travelers will have a direct negative impact on businesses in the hospitality sector as well as an indirect negative impact on connected enterprises.”

Flake was joined by Democratic Sens. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, two longtime proponents of ending the Cuban embargo.

“Our government now criticizes that new opening,” Leahy said, after he warmly embraced some of the entrepreneurs on hand and showed them pictures of the view from his home in Vermont. “They say the only Cubans who benefited were Raúl Castro and the Cuban ministry. Well, the Cuban government has benefited, that’s unavoidable in any country where there’s state-owned enterprises. There’s a whole lot of countries like that; China Pakistan, Egypt, Indonesia, we have no restrictions on travel there.”

James Williams, head of Engage Cuba, said the recommendations announced Tuesday should appeal to politicians like Rubio who have made it clear their intention is to hurt the sprawling Cuban military apparatus and help private citizens engage in free enterprise.

“Senator Rubio since the announcement has been very active in publicly pushing... that this is not against the private sector,” Williams said. “He’s going out of his way to say how much he’s supporting it so we would hope that there should be common agreement.”

Williams added that their recommendations represent the best chance of a compromise between Cuba hardliners and anti-embargo politicians, as they do not address ending the embargo or allowing tourism on the island.

“If we can’t find agreement on this, I don’t think we can find an agreement on anything,” Williams said. “I’m sort of less optimistic about Congressman [Mario] Diaz-Balart than I am about Senator Rubio.”

Diaz-Balart and Rubio worked closely with the Trump administration to draft the new policy directive that rolled back portions of Barack Obama’s policies in Cuba. The Republican pair argued that additional restrictions on business and tourism will stymie cash flow to the Cuban government and pressure communist leaders to let the private sector grow.

“It is my hope that in five to 10 years — or less — Cuba will look very different, and people will point to this as the moment that kind of triggered those changes,” Rubio said in June after the policy directive was released.

Flake said that he and Rubio met with Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the Office of Foreign Assets Control and the State Department since the policy directive was announced and that the conversations between the two senators with different philosophies toward the island has been productive.

“We have a policy directive, but it has to be written into regs,” Flake said. “That takes time and that’s extremely important.”

Flake also introduced legislation earlier this year that would eliminate travel restrictions to Cuba for American citizens, and he garnered 54 other co-sponsors, including Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, for his bill. Flake said Tuesday that a bill lifting the embargo would get close to 70 votes in the Senate, but that Republican leadership likely won’t put the measure up for a floor vote.

“We’re going to be looking for vehicles,” Flake said, adding that anti-embargo senators could add the provision into government funding bills in the coming months. “It’s going to be difficult to motivate them to put it on the floor but to the extent it could be attached to anything, even if it’s a vote that won’t move the policy, it will show people where the Senate is.”

Flake said 70 votes on any piece of legislation related to Cuba, even if symbolic, would send a strong message to Trump.

Williams said the only reason Republican leaders in Congress haven’t moved forward on the issue is because a small minority of members are very vocal in rolling back some of Obama’s policies.

“The policy should reflect the will of Congress and the American people,” Williams said, adding that 75 percent of the American people want to end the embargo. “We can get 70 votes in the Senate and yet we can’t get a vote. That’s crazy to people.”

My Champlain Valley: Sen. Leahy Meets With Cuban Entrepreneurs

My Champlain Valley

Trying to promote business between the two nations Senator Patrick Leahy met with Cuban entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C.
President Trump's administration is working to issue new restrictions on trade and travel with Cuba.

Representatives from the island nation are in the nation's capitol trying to spot that.

Some business owners say they've already felt the impact of the Trump administration's plans.
Celia Mendoza, a Cuban business owner says "we've had around nine cancelations of groups that were coming to Cuba that had schedules accommodations, itineraries, restaurant reservations and they decided to cancel their trips last moment."
The Engage Cuba coalition tweeted pictures Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy meeting with people from the island nation.

NBC News: Cuban Jewish Leaders Pen Open Letter In Support of U.S.-Cuba Relations

NBC News

Leaders of the Jewish community in Cuba have sent an open letter today to their “brothers and sisters” in the U.S. expressing concern that reversing policy towards the island could have an impact on religious institutions, which have benefited from increased ties between the countries.

“The Jewish Community of Cuba, since its founding, has maintained ties of friendship and brotherhood and sisterhood with the Jewish people of the United States, even in moments when diplomatic relations between both countries did not exist,” states the letter. It is signed by 7 Jewish leaders, including Adela Dworkin, President of the Jewish Community of Cuba, as well as its Vice President, David Prinstein, leaders of Havana's Sephardic center and Jewish community coordinators in different parts of the country.

"North Americans played a substantial role in the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States, and some of them have even visited our synagogues in Havana," states the letter. "There is a permanent desire to promote the continual development of this relationship and to strengthen the benefits that are starting to take shape, mainly for our people."

The pro-engagement lobbying group Engage Cuba are helping the Jewish leaders disseminate the letter in the U.S.

“Through an organic conversation they decided they wanted to write a letter to their counterparts here in the U.S. voicing their concern and explaining how increased travel has helped religious institutions in the Jewish community in Cuba," said Michael Maisel, Direcor of External Affairs for Engage Cuba.

The group worked with the Jewish leaders on translating the letter to make sure they were comfortable with it.

Maisel said they decided to spread the word and release the letter now because the U.S. government is currently in the phase of the regulatory writing; it's important to see how the Departments of State, Commerce, and Treasury write the regulations around travel and trade.

Since diplomatic relations were reestablished between the U.S. and Cuba in 2015, the amount of Americans traveling to the island has soared with renewed commercial air service.

Last month, President Donald Trump reversed some Obama-era executive orders by tightening restrictions on trade and travel with the communist island. The administration banned U.S. trade with Cuban entities linked to the military. Trump’s changes also eliminated the individual “people-to-people” category under which Americans could go to Cuba without booking a trip with a travel group. Details of the new policy are currently being written.

The Jewish community in Cuba is small and numbers around 1,000. The island was once a popular destination for Jews that fled after the break up of the Ottoman Empire, and later Europe and Russia after World War II. In the 1950s there were around 15,000 Jews living in Cuba, mostly in Havana. But after the 1959 Cuban revolution, the majority fled the nation. There are still three active synagogues in Havana.

Marcos Kerbel is the past president of the Cuban Hebrew Congregation of Miami. He says Jewish people from around the world have traveled to Cuba throughout the years including Americans.

He told NBC News that strictly from a humanitarian, religious, and educational point of view, “it’s important in order for the community to continue its existence that they continue to have people visit, and that they receive individual help from tourists traveling to the island and from global Jewish institutions."

Kerbel said this is important in order for the community to continue their mission.

For example, he said, there is a pharmacy that not only helps Jewish members of the community, but also aids the larger non-Jewish community.

The letter states that “in the case of the Jewish communities, it would be excellent to continue deepening the relations, exchanges, and collaboration that have been offered to support the progress and development of the Jewish Community of Cuba. The programs and projects that are carried out in our synagogues also benefit the people in need in our community.”

Jewish Telegraphic Agency: Cuban Jewish leaders call on US Jewish community to strengthen ties

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

Leaders of Cuba’s Jewish community sent an open letter to the U.S. Jewish community calling for a strengthening of ties and expressing concern over a reversal of policy by the United States toward the island nation.

“The Jewish Community of Cuba, since its founding, has maintained ties of friendship and brotherhood and sisterhood with the Jewish people of the United States, even in moments when diplomatic relations between both countries did not exist,” said the letter issued Wednesday.

“North Americans played a substantial role in the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States, and some of them have even visited our synagogues in Havana. There is a permanent desire to promote the continual development of this relationship and to strengthen the benefits that are starting to take shape, mainly for our people,” the letter continued.

“Knowing that the Jewish communities and institutions of the United States have an interest in the relations with the Jewish people of the world, and especially towards Latin America, we request that we work together so that our countries do not go backwards in what has been accomplished and assure that the Cuban and American people enjoy a peaceful and prosperous future.”

Seven major Jewish leaders in Cuba signed the letter, including Adela Dworkin, the community’s president; David Prinstein, its vice president; leaders of the Sephardic center in Havana, and the country’s Jewish community coordinators.

Last month, President Donald Trump signed a presidential directive on Cuba limiting business and educational travel to Cuba and restricting commerce. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, had lifted travel and commercial restrictions with Havana.

Havana has three operating synagogues, including one Orthodox. The government has been supportive of the community in recent years, with President Raul Castro attending Hanukkah ceremonies at Beth Shalom Synagogue, according to the Engage Cuba coalition, a nonprofit group working to end the trade and travel embargo of Cuba that is helping the Jewish community distribute its letter in the United States and get the word out.

 The Jewish community of Cuba numbers about 1,000.

KDLG: Can Cuban Charcoal Turn Up The Heat On U.S.-Cuba Relations?



To Cuba now, where a weed runs rampant across the country, spoiling millions of acres of what could be productive agricultural land. Some people, though, have found a way to turn the weed into wealth. And those people include an American lawyer, who thinks the invasive plant can sprout some goodwill in Cuba-U.S. relations. NPR's Carrie Kahn brings us the story from Cuba.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The weed is called marabou and grows as tall as a tree, with trunks as thick and heavy as the hardest of woods.

ALEXI RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Alexi Ramirez harvests the marabou trunks behind his one-room house next to the railroad tracks outside the city of San Antonio de los Banos, about an hour south of Havana. He says it's one tough plant to cut down.

RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "I use gloves and a machete and a big axe," says Ramirez as he shows me several scars on his legs from too many missed whacks. After chopping it down, Ramirez says he burns the marabou slowly for days in this big pit he shuffles through, now cool and filled with ash. The charred wood is cut into chunks, bagged and ready for sale. Ramirez and other small farmers have found a use for this weed that's been a scourge on Cuba for decades.

MARIO DORTA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "You can't get rid of it," says Mario Dorta, the commercial director at the joint U.K.-Cuban company Havana Energy. He says machines can plow it under, but it grows back unless a crop is put in its place. In the 1990s, during Cuba's so-called special period when it lost its subsidies after the fall of the Soviet Union, much of the island's agricultural land went foul. Marabou took off. It's estimated as much as 5 million acres of Cuba's arable land is now covered in a thick, thorny weed.

DORTA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Dorta says it was Cuba's small farmers who figured out the hard marabou trunks burn strong and long. He says it's great for everything from backyard barbecuing - he just roasted a whole pig on the slow-burning charcoal - to energy production. Havana Energy is building a new plant on the island to generate electricity from burning marabou.

But just as Cuban entrepreneurs found value in the noxious weed, so did an American lawyer, not just economically but politically too. His name is Scott Gilbert. He's the same attorney who represented Alan Gross, a former USAID contractor who spent five years in a Cuban jail on espionage charges. After Gross's release in 2014, just as President Obama made his historic opening with the Castro regime, Gilbert began working his new high-level Cuban contacts.

JAMES WILLIAMS: He was able to put the pieces together.

KAHN: James Williams heads Engage Cuba, a group that advocates to end the U.S. embargo. Under U.S. law, the only product that could be exported to the U.S. had to be sold by private businesses, not the state. Williams says marabou charcoal not manufactured on a large scale, only by small farmers and private co-ops, fit the bill.

WILLIAMS: This just happened to be one of those sweet spots where it's an interesting product. There's a demand for it in the United States. You know, it's actually something to keep looking to get rid of. And so it really created sort of a, you know, a natural connection on both sides.

KAHN: Gilbert declined NPR's request for an interview. The commercial environment between the U.S. and Cuba is in flux now, at least for the next few months after President Trump's recent reversal of some of Obama's trade and tourism exemptions. Details of the new regulations are being drafted now, but observers believe marabou charcoal exports will probably remain intact. The first shipment made it to Florida in January. Cuban charcoal is now being sold in the U.S. online. The price - 42.95 for a 33-pound bag. And so far, the reviews are pretty good.