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A Changing Cuba at the Cleveland Council on World Affairs

We had a special treat Tuesday night when we attended a program put on by the Cleveland Council on World Affairs titled "A Changing Cuba and Its Implications for the United States" presented by Mr. Ted Piccone, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Former Ohio State Senator Patrick Sweeney was also there and he said that one obtained information from this one program that it would take two college courses to obtain. Senator Sweeney smiled and went on to say that he was glad that no finals were involved though. Mr. Piccone talked about the changes that have been taking place in Cuba on all levels since the President Obama's December 17th announcement of changes in our policy towards Cuba. He said that the President laid the groundwork for these changes back in 2009, when he first took office, when he restored the Clinton-era measures that made it easier for Cuban Americans to visit their families in Cuba and to send money there. These actions enabled $6 million to be sent to Cuba which made life easier for a lot of people and enabled Cubans to start small businesses which now employ 500,000 people. President Raul Castro has also initiated economic reforms and now it is possible Cubans to own their own homes, have cell phones and visit the United States.

Mr. Piccone said that what President Obama has done, in effect, has to end the Cold War with Cuba. The embargo was not making life any easier for the Cuban people so hopefully improved relations will. President Obama cannot officially end the embargo without the consent of Congress but Mr. Piccone said that he can "punch holes" in it and make it ineffective. Of course the key to progress is to empower the Cuban people to change their own government. Along these lines, Mr. Piccone stressed that reform is very slow but more criticism of the Cuban government by its people is now permitted and the society has welcomed more diversity in terms of race and the LGBT lifestyle.

We asked Mr. Piccone about immigration issues pertaining to Cuba and he told us that things were "very tricky" in this area. He quickly reviewed the Cuban Adjustment Act which now grants asylum to any Cuban who can make it to U.S. soil either by water or through Mexico. He told us that the time that it takes for a Cuban refugee to obtain a green card is a lot faster than for people who immigrate here from other countries. What is particularly controversial is that all a Cuban health care worker has to do is to enter a U.S. Embassy in any part of the world and he/she will be given assistance. Mr. Piccone told us that these policies are creating a "brain drain" in Cuba because they give Cubans an incentive to try to leave and, as we know, the journey is often perilous. He believes that at least the part of our immigration policy pertaining to health care workers needs to altered because the Cuban Medical Workers are sent to other countries to help fight diseases like Ebola and are highly regarded throughout a good portion of the world and are a source of pride for Cuba. Ultimately, if Cuba is going to reform itself, all of its talent will be needed.

Mr. Piccone spent a few minutes discussing travel issues and we learned that it is easier for Americans to travel there than what it used to be because, even though most people have to go as part of a group (religious, educational, journalistic), at least the number of groups they are allowed to go with has risen to twelve. We talked to Ms. Maureen Huefner who is going to go to Cuba as part of a journalistic group in a couple of weeks. Her group will get to tour educational facilities, a health care facility and a nursing home. No one will be allowed to go off on their own but must stay with the group. All group members will be required to keep a journal of all of their activities to establish that they are journalists. But Ms. Huefner is excited about going because her son-in-law's parents immigrated here from Cuba and both of her grandsons are half Cuban. She noted that she will not be able to use her mastercard while she is there because the new rules that will allow credit card use will not go into effect until March 1st and she will be back in the United States by then.

We talked to several people including Mr. Kevin Spence who is working on his Ph.D. at Kent State. Mr. Spence has been studying Cuba for a long time and is anxious to see how the new U.S./Cuba relationship develops. He was seconded by Mr. Richard Wanerman, a student of International Law at CWRU. Mr. Wanerman told us that he believes that "it is always a positive sign that the United States can re-evaluate its position and move forward with an eye towards better bilateral and regional relations" and believes that our policy changes will also lead to better relations with Latin America as a whole.

Mr. Birkett Gibson, who traveled to Turkey last summer with Ms. Margaret W. Wong, said that he used to work in the auto industry and is a real car buff so he would like to visit Cuba to see how they have preserved their old cars. To be sure, he has seen a lot of photos of the cars in Cuba and is fascinated by the stories about how people in Cuba, due to the embargo, have been forced to successfully accomplish things like building a carburetor in their backyard from scratch.

The interest of Ms. Marnie Sweet, of the Inner Mongolia Society, in Cuba is more poignant. President Jimmy Carter made it easier for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba in the late 1970's so she went there as part of a tour. While she was staying at a hotel she made friends with a Cuban clerk who invited Ms. Sweet to stay at her home and they became friends but it has been very hard for Ms. Sweet to stay in contact with her over the years due to our varying policies towards Cuba. Recently, she found out that her friend was ill and is in need of medical supplies. We advised her to contact her congressperson and see what the procedure actually is about sending money or medical aid to Cuba. Ms. Sweet appreciated our suggestions.

We left the program feeling somewhat optimistic that the recent policy changes will lead genuine reform in Cuba and a better relationship between the United States and Cuba. Mr. Piccone expressed concern regarding the very slow-moving bureaucracy of the Cuban government and the resistance of many sectors of the Cuban society as well as some in the United States towards change. Nevertheless, we liked it when he said that a younger generation more amenable to change is being groomed for Cuban leadership and that he believes that the United States must become more engaged and reach out to these new leaders because, from what we have seen and heard, they are indeed a powerful factor in our quest for long lasting reform. .

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