A rare conference of supporters of normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations heard calls Saturday for the Obama administration to allow more travel to the island and remove it from a list of supporters of terrorism.
“This is historic” because of the participation by speakers from Cuba as well as U.S. activists against Washington sanctions, said Hugo Cancio, a veteran promoter of Cuban music in Miami and one of the conference organizers.
More than 100 people attended the gathering at Miami’s Sofitel Hotel, including Cuban Americans known for their support for improving U.S. relations with the island, other Latin Americans and some Anglo Americans.
The one-day Miami conference came as opponents of U.S. sanctions on Cuba have been increasingly pushing the Obama Administration to improve bilateral relations in its last three years in power.
Among the panelists were Arturo Lopez-Levy, a Cuban foreign policy expert at the University of Denver, and Antonio Zamora, a Miami lawyer and member of the Brigade 2506 that invaded Cuba in 1961. He now favors normalizing bilateral relations.
Cancio said the State Department denied a visa to one invited panelist, retired Havana diplomat Jesus Arboleya, and denied permission to attend the conference to two Cuban diplomats in Washington - First Secretary Juan Lamigueiro and General Counsel Llanio Gonzalez.
Cuba residents at the conference included Roberto Veiga, editor of the Catholic magazine Espacio Laical; gay and Afro-Cuban rights activist Yasmin Portales Machado; and Collin Laverty, a U.S. citizen who works with U.S. visitors to the island.
Veiga said the economic and migration reforms adopted by ruler Raúl Castro are positive, yet moving “not slowly, but not fast enough to satisfy the needs of the vast majority” of Cuba’s 11 million people.
Some of the needed changes clearly would be risky for the government, he added.
The issue of reforming Cuba’s one-party system remains “difficult,” and there has not been enough discussion of changes needed in the island’s judicial system.
Most Cubans favor “peaceful and profound” changes, Veiga added, as well as the removal of foreign pressures, such as the European Union’s linkage of relations to human rights and the U.S. “blockade” – Havana’s word for the trade embargo.
Portales said the Cuban government may have had a legitimate reason to adopt tough measures and controls during its sharpest confrontations with the United States. But now Cubans and their country have lost some of their “romanticism,” she added.
Crime has been increasing because of the growing inequalities in Cuba society, Portales added – between those who have benefitted from Castro’s economic reforms and those who have not, for example.
The “people to people” trips to Cuba – which allowed 100,000 U.S. residents not of Cuban descent to visit the island last year for what were supposed to be “substantial interactions” — have not worked out as planned, Laverty said.
Obtaining U.S. government licenses for the group tours can be so expensive and politically risky that companies charge high fees -- $3,000 and more for a week’s visit – that tend to limit the visitors to white, wealthy and older Americans, he said.
About 90 percent of the people-to-people tours went through the Cuban government’s Havanatour agency because the U.S. companies involved have little experience in Cuba travel and must rely on others for their arrangements, Laverty added.
Cuban agencies also charge the U.S. travelers far more than they charge Canadians or Europeans for similar arrangements, he added.
His own application for a renewal of his license to handle the people-to-people trips, issued by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces U.S. economic sanctions on foreign countries, ran to 274 pages.
Cancio, who has staged several controversial concerts in Miami with Cuban musicians, said he favors allowing Cuban American musicians like Gloria Stefan and Willie Chirino, long banned from the island’s radio waves, to perform in Cuba.
Some of the Miami musicians in fact have been invited to perform in Cuba but have declined or put unacceptable conditions on their agreement, Cancio added, apparently fearing a backlash from their Miami fans.
The conference was sponsored by four groups favoring improving U.S.-Cuba relations: Cuban Americans for Engagement, the Foundation for the Normalization of U.S./Cuban Relations, Generación Cambio Cubano and Cuba Educational Travel