On a busy Thursday that included meeting with Cuban-American leaders and encouraging Miami Dade College students to embrace diversity, Secretary of State John Kerry waded into the Carnival Corp. controversy, criticizing enforcement of a Cuban decree that prevents those born on the island from traveling to and from Cuba by sea.
“The United States government will never support, never condone discrimination. And the Cuban government should not have the right to enforce on us a policy of discrimination against people who have the right to travel,” Kerry said during an interview with the Miami Herald and CNN en Español in Miami.
“American citizens, Cuban-Americans, have a right to travel, and we should not be in a situation where the Cuban government is forcing its discrimination policy on us,” Kerry said. “So we call on the government of Cuba to change that policy and to recognize that if they want full relations and normal relationship with the United States, they have to live by international laws, not exclusively by Cuban laws.”
The theme of inclusion was also one that Kerry emphasized during remarks to students of Miami Dade Honors College, an academically rigorous program at Miami Dade College that emphasizes a global perspective.
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Asked whether Carnival should postpone its plans to start cruises May 1 aboard its Fathom line until Cuban-born Americans are allowed to travel to the island by ship, Kerry told the Miami Herald, “Carnival needs to not discriminate.”
A State Department spokesman later clarified that “Secretary Kerry in no way meant to convey that Carnival is supporting policies that are discriminating against Cuban-American travelers.”
Carnival has said it has been in touch with Cuban authorities about reconsideration of the Cuban policy, which does not allow those born on the island to leave or arrive in Cuba via a vessel.
“We travel to over 100 countries and feel everyone should have equal access to vacation with us, and we are requesting that the policy in Cuba be changed to allow transport by ships,” Carnival said in a statement. “There has been a policy change with air travel to Cuba, so we are hopeful that a similar change can also happen with travel by sea.”
Carnival was the first U.S. cruise company to gain approval from the Cuban government to start regular trips from the United States to Cuba and it is planning week-long trips with stops in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba.
However, Cuban-Americans born on the island who tried to buy tickets to visit Cuba on the cruise ship say they were informed by the company that they could not make the trip.
On Wednesday, attorneys filed a class-action lawsuit in Miami against Carnival Corp. and Fathom on behalf of a Cuban-American couple denied tickets for the cruise. The lawsuit says the company is violating federal law banning discrimination based on national origin. Fathom says in its website that it is “Carnival's policy to obey the regulations and laws of the countries we sail to around the world.”
Later Thursday during a speech at the Freedom Tower, which Kerry called the “Ellis Island of the South,” he exhorted Miami Dade Honors College students to pursue an inclusive American dream that also includes “what our country stands for internationally.”
To encourage freedom, he said, the United States wants to help “the Cuban people to begin a new chapter in their history.” He acknowledged that there are critics who believe Cuba has done nothing to deserve a new relationship with the United States, but said the policy of engagement and resumption of diplomatic ties with Cuba is the correct one.
“It’s hard to think of a weaker diplomatic tool than a closed embassy,” he said. Kerry said President Barack Obama’s recent trip to Cuba, where he stood side by side with Cuban leader Raúl Castro and answered tough questions about human rights, political prisoners and what freedom means was of great value.
The crowd of 750 people, which included 244 freshmen and 187 second-year students, gave Kerry a standing ovation as he made his way to the stage. Many held their cellphones up snapping photos and recording most of his half-hour speech.
“I may agree or not agree with everything he said but I admire that he is willing to talk about tough stuff with the students,” said Maydee Martínez, 20, a political science major whose parents are Cuban.
Martínez, who hopes to one day work for government, called Kerry’s speech “inspiring.”
Kerry said he had one request of the students: “Don’t let anyone undermine your faith in the American dream.”
And he added that the dream begins with diversity. The secretary of state said Miami Dade College, with students from 199 countries who speak 88 languages, is emblematic of that diversity.
“The real American dream is about a lot more than money and jobs. It’s also about our responsibility to one another,” Kerry said. “Everyone needs to be considered a shareholder in the American dream.”
“It was a very powerful speech and very positive,” said Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padrón.
He said he didn’t find Kerry’s speech political. But playing to a Miami audience, the secretary couldn’t help but touch on Cuba and the politics of exclusion being espoused by some Republican presidential hopefuls.
“It’s almost impossible to be angry when focusing on helping someone else,” said Kerry, who encouraged students to consider careers in public service and at the State Department. “Your country really does need you,” he said.
Parent Jose Ramon, whose daughter Melissa is graduating this spring, said Kerry sent the message that parents are trying to impart to their kids: Don't complain about something unless you're willing to make a change.
Earlier in the day, Kerry stopped by the U.S. Passport Office in Miami for a meeting with local U.S. State Department personnel. He then met with Cuban-American leaders, including healthcare executive Mike Fernandez, Padrón, developer Jorge Pérez and Felice Gorordo, co-founder of Roots of Hope, among others. He wanted to hear their recommendations and concerns about the new Cuba policy.
“He also recognized that despite progress for many Cubans, change would not happen overnight and that significant challenges — especially regarding human rights — remain,” said Mike Toner, a State Department spokesman.
Miami Herald reporters Carli Teproff and Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report.
Attendess at Cuban-American/State Department meeting
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson
Senior Advisor Ambassador David Thorne
Director General Arnold Chacon
Deputy Chief of Staff Jennifer Stout
Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner
Senior Advisor Marie Harf
Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Karen Richardson
Mike Fernandez, MBF Healthcare
Andres Albuquerque, Afro Cuban Forum
Lilliam Lopez, South Florida Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
Eduardo Padron, Miami Dade College
Roberto Martinez, Colson, Hicks, and Eidson
Maria Elena Prio, Esq.
Andres Fanjul, Florida Crystals Corporation
Felice Gorodo, Clear Path Immigration
Alfie Mesa, Marlins Foundation
Ariel Pereda, Pereda and Association Corp.
Ralph Patino, Patino and Associates
Jorge Perez, The Related Group
Olga Ramudo, Express Travel
Raul Moas, Roots of Hope
Mario Cartaya, Cartaya and Association Architects