Monday, April 25, 2016

UPDATE: POSTPONED - Internet and Economy: Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba Today and Tomorrow (May 25-26, 2016) Hilton Midtown Hotel – New York City

Regretfully, we have decided to postpone for a future date our previously announced symposium "Internet and Economy: Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba Today and Tomorrow," originally scheduled to take place on May 25-26, 2016 in New York City just prior to the LASA conference.

The logistical and financial challenges of organizing such an ambitious event with so little time have proven impossible to overcome for the time being. We regret this change of plans but do hope to hold this event in the near future. 


Ted, Taylor, and Norges
Click here for preliminary program
Want to meet some of the creative Cubans behind the tech start-ups that President Barack Obama will be learning about during his historic trip to Havana this week? 

Join us in NYC on May 25-26 for the following event!

* * *

Internet and Economy:
Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba Today and Tomorrow

May 25-26, 2016
Hilton Midtown Hotel – New York City

With the support of Baruch College, CUNY, the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy (ASCE), and the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), we are pleased to announce: “Internet and Economy: Perspectives and Opportunities for Cuba Today and Tomorrow,” a two-day seminar that will take place on May 25-26, 2016 at the Hilton Midtown Hotel in New York City.

Building on the success of the previous event, “Internet y Economía: Perspectivas y Oportunidades para el futuro de Cuba,” that took place at Havana’s Royal Norwegian Embassy on October 1-2, 2015, the New York event aims to take advantage of the synergies generated by the attendance of leading academics, policy makers, and practitioners in the world of Cuban Information and Communication Technologies (ITC) at the annual Latin American Studies Association International Congress (LASA) on May 27-30, 2016.

The main objective of the seminar is to bring before a broader industry, policymaking, and academic audience the current state of and debate over ICT in Cuba, focusing on public access, competing models and uses of the Internet, and the development of a digital economy on the island in order to promote greater connectivity and prosperity for the Cuban people.

Seminar speakers will include Cubans who have developed some of the island’s most popular mobile apps, Cuban and American academics, Cuban journalists, leading independent media organizations, representatives of international NGOs, and U.S. government officials. Invited guests also include representatives from leading U.S. tech companies, tech journalists, and representatives from Cuba’s permanent mission to the United Nations.

Seminar topics will include:
• Digital economy and tech startups
• Public policies for ICT development
• News media and digital technology
• U.S. engagement with Cuban ICT

Preliminary Program

The development of ICT has transformed societies in recent decades. The falling cost of technological equipment and increasing levels of broadband access have facilitated this development. So great has been this transformation that we commonly refer to it as the “Digital Revolution,” one that will rival the industrial revolution in its impact on society. This revolution cuts across all sectors of society, transforming economies, politics, international relations, and the media.

However, due to Cuba’s low rate of Internet access and weak telecommunications infrastructure, it has not been able to fully benefit from the dynamic effect ICTs are having on the global economy. Still, Cuba remains a leader in the skill and competence of the population in ICT use, a fact especially noteworthy among Cuba’s many often underemployed computer science graduates.

Some Cubans have creatively overcome the barriers imposed by low connectivity by developing offline mobile apps and coming up with ingenious ways to use flash drives to distribute digital data across the island without the Internet. Others have used alternative modes of data transmission to build an independent media-sphere that successfully competes with the state media monopoly. All this has generated new social dynamics and significant commercial activity that, paradoxically, remain beyond the reach of the country’s antiquated legal framework.

Thus, Cuba faces a scenario where access to digital technology will be crucial for economic development both in the short and long term. Despite this, there is no clearly defined public policy toward ICT. Recently, the Cuban government announced its intention of achieving “massive” public access to the Internet so that by 2020, 50% of households would enjoy broadband connectivity. In fact, during 2016 Cuba will roll out its first-ever pilot program for household Internet access.

The recent rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuban governments provides an important opportunity for the development of Cuban ICT given that the twin issues of Internet access and entrepreneurial expansion are among the top issues in bilateral negotiations. This situation is especially important given that one of the reasons for Cuba’s low connectivity has been the lack of access to modern technology and telecom services provided by U.S. companies.

Nevertheless, this situation has changed in recent months given the Obama administration’s relaxation of previous restrictions on telecom companies doing business in Cuba and the roll out on the island of Cuba’s first-ever Wi-Fi hotspots.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Cuba-U.S. Entrepreneurial Forum with @POTUS in #Havana - March 21, 2016 [Video]

Below is the full video feed from MinRex (Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Relations) of the Cuba-U.S. Entrepreneurial Forum that I was honored to attend at the invitation of the White House last month in Habana Vieja.

If your time is limited, I suggest you skip to 32:20 when Obama took the stage.


His most interesting initial comments came between 34:30-35:30, when he referred to the past exploitation of Cuban labor (before the revolution) and the fact that for the last 50 years it's been virtually impossible for Cubans to operate their own business on the island (because of the revolution). But that, "in recent years, that's begun to change..."


Google's Brett Perlmutter, Cuba Emprende's
Jorge Mandilego, and the Cuba Emprende
Foundation's John McIntire.
Then between 36:04-37:00, Obama gave a shout out the the good work done my my friends at Cuba Emprende training thousands of Cuban entrepreneurs over the past three years. He also mentioned the fact that there are now half-a-million licensed self-employed who - together with the other parts of the non-state sector - now make up one-third of the Cuban workforce.

One of Obama's best lines came here when he struggled through Spanish words like "cuentapropistas," "casas particulares," and "paladares," finishing up with the self-deprecating line:
"My family and I ate in one [paladar] last night, and the food is really good even if my Spanish is not that great!" 

A third notable moment came (at 39:14-40:03) when he indirectly noted the obstacles that continue to hobble the expansion of Cuban entrepreneurship, saying "We also know that entrepreneurship flourishes when the environment encourages success." He then ticked off a laundry list of the key internal obstacles in this area including:

  • a ban on most private professions
  • little access to small business loans or wholesale sources of inputs
  • the inability of the private sector to import supplies
  • a dual currency
  • infrastructural bottlenecks, and 
  • the need to include women and Afro-Cubans.

With deft diplomacy and an offer of an olive branch, he shifted from these critical comments to a hopeful note saying, "All are areas where the United States hopes to be a partner as Cuba moves forward."


The next section between 46:20-1:25:30 is a fascinating back and forth between Obama and a series of (mostly) young Cuban entrepreneurs moderated by Afro-Cuban-Irish-American (!) Soledad O'Brien.


The final - and in my mind most important - part of the event came at 1:28:03 when, after advising Cuba to "steal ideas from where ever they see them working," Obama added the rejoinder:
"Don't steal ideas from places where it's not working, and there's some economic models that just don't work. That's not an ideological opinion, but just an objective reality."
Perhaps to soften this blow, he quickly added that these changes will be internal to Cuba, "that's not gonna be determined by the United States, that's gonna be determined by the government and people of Cuba." He also reassured his mostly Cuban audience that the U.S. is not interested in Cuba failing (which is arguably the basis of the embargo) but instead, "we're interested in Cuba succeeding."

However, of the entire interaction my favorite quote came as Obama signed off (1:30:09) and drew a telling (and somewhat humorous) parallel between the necessary changes still needed in U.S. policy toward Cuba (Congress ending the embargo) and the necessary changes still sorely needed in Cuba itself.
"When I initiated the change in policy, one of my arguments was that if something is not working for 50 years you should stop doing it and try something new, and... [big applause] that applies to what the United States is doing, that also applies to what Cuba is doing."

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

A note from Barack following his trip to #Cuba

It's been nearly 90 years since a U.S. President visited Cuba. And for the past half century, the sight of an American president in Havana would have been unimaginable.

But this week, because we're working to normalize our relations with Cuba, I was able to cross the Florida Straits and meet with and listen to the Cuban people. They told me about their hopes and their struggles, and we talked about what we can do together to help Cubans improve their lives.

What I saw and heard this week will stay with me forever.

I'll remember the beauty of Cuba and the pride Cubans take in their culture. On our first night, Michelle, Malia and Sasha and I walked around Old Havana, where every building, path, and plaza seems filled with the spirit and storied history of the Cuban people. We had a wonderful dinner at one of Havana's paladares, the often family-run restaurants where Americans and Cubans can meet and talk over some tostones.

I'll remember the innovative spirit of Cuba's entrepreneurs, especially the cuentapropistas who are running their own small businesses like bed and breakfasts, beauty parlors, barber shops and taxi services. These men and women, many of them young, are the face of Cuba's small but growing private sector, and I was proud to announce new partnerships to help them start and grow their businesses. That includes helping more Cubans connect to the Internet and the global economy.

I'll remember the courage of the Cuban human rights advocates I met, many of whom have been harassed, detained or imprisoned simply for standing up for the equal rights and dignity of every Cuban. They told me about their work to advance freedom of speech, assembly, the press and religion, and I promised them that the United States will continue to stand up for universal human rights in Cuba as we do around the world.

I'll remember the passion of the Cuban people, especially when it comes to our shared love of baseball—la pelota. At Havana's ballpark, President Castro and I watched as the Tampa Bay Rays took on the Cuban national team, the first professional baseball game between our countries in 17 years. Let me just say that tens of thousands of Cuban fans cheering for their team is...intense. But when we all stood for our national anthems, it was an unforgettable moment that reminded us of the friendship and mutual respect between the American people and the Cuban people.

Perhaps most of all, I'll remember the Cubans who lined the streets, mile after mile, to greet us. They were men, women and children, smiling, waving, snapping pictures. Some were even waving American flags—another sight that not long ago would have been unimaginable. In the faces of these Cubans I saw hope for a brighter future.

The Cuban people are ready for a new relationship between our two countries. The majority of Americans—including many Cuban Americans—support our new approach as well. It won't be easy. The long road ahead will see progress and setbacks. But the Cubans I met this week reaffirmed my hope that we can succeed, together.

I believe in the Cuban people - creo en el pueblo Cubano.

Barack (via Facebook)

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Obama's Home Run in Havana

I took this photo as I made my way down a recently repaved back street leading to the Estadio Latinoamericano to attend the juego de pelota between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban National Team
March 22, 2016 - Ted Henken 

Wifi hotspot, corner of 23 & L, Havana, Cuba - With a rousing, historic speech in Havana's Alicia Alonso Grand Theater to a packed, expectant, and very appreciative crowd President Barack Obama launched a new era in US-Cuban relations today.

Peppered with multiple words and phrases spoken in a fluent Cuban Spanish and filled with frequent allusions to the two countries' shared history of conflict and collaboration, Obama's speech was met with frequent, and sustained applause from the Cuban audience especially following his many references to and quotes of the Cuban "apostle," poet and independence leader José Martí.

Indeed, after noting his resolve to continue to fight international terrorism following the attacks in Brussels today, Obama began his speech with the Spanish words: "Cultivo una rosa blanca," a line from a favorite Martí poem about friendship. Obama noted that the fraternal spirit of Martí is a great model to employ in the ongoing reconciliation between Cuba and the US in that Martí offered his white rose of friendship and peace to his friends and enemies alike.

While the speech was a model of diplomatic courtesy and respect given that Obama began by directly thanking Raul Castro and the Cuban government for the gracious welcome they had extended to him and his family, the US president did not shy away from clearly expressing his belief in what he called universal human rights and democratic ideals. Quoting Martí's words: "Freedom is the right of every man to be honest and think and speak without hypocrisy," Obama laid out his vision of a future where every Cuban would be equal under the law, children could count on quality education and health care, and access to food and housing. But he also emphasized the need to respect the right to speak without fear, to recognize the legitimacy of dissent and the ability to openly criticize the government, an end to arbitrary detentions, and the value of free and democratic elections.

Obama openly recognized the many flaws in US society but argued that democracy was the civil and open debate that societies need to confront and find solutions to such problems. He referenced the popular mobilizations of the 1960s civil rights movement as an example for Cuba where people came together to organize, protest, and challenge the system non-violently creating a path forward for positive change.

In what was perhaps his best line, Obama referenced the current, chaotic US presidential election. But instead of using it to highlight the flaws of American-style democracy, he pointed out that only in America could two Cuban-American children of immigrants, run against the record of a sitting African-American president, while a woman challenged a democratic socialist!

The speech was also notable in that it was addressed directly to and celebrated the ingenuity and sacrifice of the people of Cuba, both those on the island and those in the extensive Cuban diaspora abroad. Obama made clear that "el futuro de Cuba está en las manos del pueblo cubano," and highlighted the accomplishments of a new generation of Cuban entrepreneurs, celebrating some by name. He also inclusively honored the sometimes violent pain of the Cuban exile community in the US but noted with pride that if you want to know what Cubans are capable of you need to look no further than the booming city of Miami.

While Obama noted that some had encouraged him to make a "tear down this wall" declaration similar to what President Ronald Reagan had done in East Germany in the late 1980s, he instead declared that he would leave Cuba convinced and hopeful that the Cuban people - and especially its youth - had already begun "lift something up and build something new," including bridges to a shared and prosperous future.

He also celebrated the state-to-state collaboration between the two nations that had produced successful outcomes in combating Ebola in West Africa, peace in Colombia, and a shared honor of the life of Nelson Mandela in South Africa, repeating a rousing line from his December 17, 2014 speech: "Todos somos Americanos"

He stated that his administration had worked quickly to remove obstacles to such progress and collaboration, calling once again on the U.S. Congress to repeal the outdated embargo. However, he also noted that even absent the external embargo, not much would change on the island if the Cuban government did not also begin to remove the many internal restrictions and controls to greater freedom and prosperity for its citizens.

Finally, while he made clear that the U.S. does not seek to impose its economic or governmental system on Cuba and thus that Cuba need not fear the United States, he also spoke directly to President Raúl Castro telling him that given his "commitment to Cuba's sovereignty and self-determination," he need not "fear the different voices of the Cuban people - and their capacity to speak, and assemble, and vote for their leaders."

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Hope, Skepticism for @POTUS Visit to# Cuba


 Hope, Skepticism for President Obama's Visit to Cuba

Washington  -  March 18, 2016 —   In advance of President Obama's two-day visit to Cuba, the first visit by a U.S. president in nearly 70 years, Freedom House issued the following statement:

"President Obama should make this an opportunity to voice strong support for human rights and genuine freedom, for the people of Cuba" said Carlos Ponce, director for Latin America programs. "He should make clear that in exchange for closer political and economic ties, the United States expects genuine reform – including the release of political prisoners, ending spurious 'preventive' detentions, genuinely free elections, and guarantees for freedom of association."

Cuba is rated Not Free in Freedom in the World 2016, Not Free in Freedom of the Press 2015,  and Not Free in Freedom on the Net 2015

Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.
Join us on Facebook and Twitter (freedomhousedc). Stay up to date with Freedom House's latest news and events by signing up for our newsletter

@POTUS' Schedule in #Cuba

A Rich, Varied & Valiant Agenda Engaging the Cuban People: Here's What President Obama Will Be Doing in Cuba

In just a few days, President Obama will head to Havana, Cuba, becoming the first sitting president to do so in nearly 90 years. It's an historic trip — one that gives the President and First Lady a chance to meet with the Cuban government and hear directly from the Cuban people.

President Obama will be in Cuba from March 20 to March 22, a short window to meet with Cubans from different walks of life who have different perspectives on how we can move forward in rebuilding a productive relationship between the United States and Cuba — one that is good for both our countries, and that improves the lives of the Cuban people.
Here's a first look at some of the key stops the President will make while in Havana, and why they are significant to both the Cuban and American people:

Sunday, March 20
Old Havana Walking Tour

On the day he touches down in Cuba, President Obama and his family will visit Old Havana. When the First Family visits the Havana Cathedral during their walk, they will be met by Cardinal Ortega, the Latin Rite Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Havana and a Cardinal of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church played an integral role in supporting the opening between the U.S. and Cuban governments. As Pope Francis arrived in Havana last year on his own historic visit to both Cuba and the United States, he said:

"For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement."

Havana is a source of great pride to the Cuban people. The President will walk past a few places that illustrate the history, cultural significance, and beauty of this historic city, including Havana Cathedral, Plaza de Armas, Museo de la Ciudad, Plaza Vieja, and Plaza de San Francisco.

Monday, March 21
José Martí Memorial

The following day, the President will lay a wreath and sign a guestbook in a ceremony at the José Martí Memorial. José Martí, known as "the Apostle of Cuban Independence," was an influential poet, journalist, and political theorist who became a symbol for the Cuban people's bid for independence. The concepts of freedom, liberty, and self-determination feature prominently in his work. As Martí said: "Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think, and to speak without hypocrisy."

Discussion on Entrepreneurship and Opportunity

Our Cuba policy is focused on helping the Cuban people improve their lives. Since charting a new Cuba policy, the United States has made regulatory changes to open up commercial ties between our countries at a time when a growing number of Cubans are self-employed. In Havana, the President will meet with Cuban entrepreneurs, or cuentapropistas, to hear their experiences. The event will include American entrepreneurs who will share their own experiences with their Cuban counterparts and look for opportunities to build long-term relationships.

Bilateral Meetings and State Dinner at the Revolutionary Palace

During the day, President Obama will hold a bilateral meeting with Cuban President Raul Castro at the Revolutionary Palace to discuss a full host of bilateral and regional issues. The two leaders will discuss the progress that has been made on normalizing relations, review areas where we can use the President's visit to accelerate those efforts, and have a candid exchange about areas where we differ. Later that evening, the President and First Lady will return for a State Dinner.

Tuesday, March 22
Meeting with Civil Society Members

Just as he will meet with the government, the President will meet with a group of Cuban civil society, including human rights activists. A critical focus of the President's Cuba policy is our continued support for universal values and human rights — including respect for the right to free speech and assembly. We continue to have strong disagreements with the Cuban government on these issues, and believe that engagement puts the United States in a better position to raise those differences directly with the government, while also hearing directly from civil society.

Remarks to the Cuban People

When the President announced a new policy toward Cuba more than a year ago, he said, "America extends a hand of friendship". President Obama will again have the opportunity to speak directly to the Cuban people with remarks at the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater, formerly known as the Gran Teatro de la Habana. His remarks in Havana will underscore that continued spirit of friendship, and lay out his vision for the future relationship between our two countries, and the extraordinary potential of the Cuban people. President Coolidge delivered remarks at the same theatre the last time a sitting president was in Cuba in 1928.

Major League Baseball Game

Baseball is a great example of the cultural ties between the United States and Cuba and a powerful reminder of the shared experience between people that transcends our difficult history. The Tampa Bay Rays are traveling to Cuba to represent Major League Baseball in an exhibition game against the Cuban National Team at Estadio Latinamericano, which first hosted Jackie Robinson's Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. The President is looking forward to the ballgame.
It's a lot to fit into two days in Havana, and charting a new course with Cuba does not begin and end with the President and First Lady's visit. We have confidence that interactions like this — and between all Americans and Cubans — will lead to a better future for both countries.

Friday, February 26, 2016

What Obama said when accepting the Nobel Prize...

Peter Hakim reminds us of this important section of Obama's Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

"… in a world in which threats are more diffuse, and missions more complex, America cannot act alone… The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone. At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach — condemnation without discussion — can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Solution to #Cuba's Problems Does Not Live in the White House

I just published an op-ed (in Spanish) in El Nuevo Herald entitled "The Solution to Cuba's Problems Does Not Live in the White House."

In the article, I take on the same topic that Ed Rogers does in his recent Washington Post op-ed - Obama's impending trip to Cuba - but I make a different argument and come to a different conclusion.

If you want to join the debate, you can do so by going to the new serious debate site @Parlio and adding your (thoughtful and respectful) two (or 25) cents.

We are dealing here with two separate but related issues:

1) The historically antagonistic relationship between the U.S. government and the Cuban government, where Cuba has successfully convinced much of the world that it is a victim of the US imperial bully via the embargo (with some reason and a lot of cynical manipulation),


2) The ongoing victimization of the Cuban people by the Cuban government via an "internal embargo" on their fundamental freedoms.

If in trying to normalize relations with the Cuban government - which I believe is in US interests - we can successfully remove ourselves as the Cuban government's bête noire (both in the eyes of the world and of the Cuban people) and use the normalization as a way to more effectively empower the Cuban people in terms of economic prosperity and access to modern technology, then both the normalization and the Obama visit are well worth the risk of implicitly recognizing Cuban sovereignty under the current undemocratic government.

But our necessary recognition of Cuban's national sovereignty (under the Castros or another future government) should in no way exempt the government from recognizing that its sovereignty - like that of any nation - is derived from the popular sovereignty of each and every one of its citizens - whom it has long preferred to treat as subjects.

This approach has the added potential of reminding both Cubans on the island and the international community that no one but the Cuban government itself will be left to blame for Cuba's internal "blockade" on prosperity and a whole host of fundamental civil liberties and political freedoms. In other words, it will allow us to change the conversation from one that is always about "el bloqueo" to one that is about the Cuban people and their struggle for freedom and prosperity.

Our failed past policy of isolation and impoverishment was always born more by the long-suffering Cuban people than it ever was by the Party stalwarts or members of the Castro Clan. But it did serve very effectively in giving the Castros a flag to rally nationalist ire around and a foreign Goliath against whom it could implant a siege mentality - both devastating for the development of any independent civil society.

However, this means Obama's trip can't be a shallow photo-op exclusively with government leaders or a "fun" celebrity show a la Rihanna. Obama must take advantage of the visit to stand up forcefully and unapologetically (if respectfully) for American values (a free press, human rights, representative government) and make clear to the Cuban people that our engagement with the Island is aimed primarily at making their daily lives "un poco más fácil" (a little bit easier) in terms of bread and butter issues (starting with entrepreneurship and Internet but including salaries, housing, and the price of food).

Obama must also make meetings with a broad cross section of Cuban civil society a central part of the trip - first so he can listen to what they have to say (including both those dissidents who support his policy and the others who have criticized it), and second so he can use the visit as a way to publicly and symbolically legitimize them to the world and to their fellow Cubans (including to the government itself).

It is supremely ironic that the Cuban government is capable of sitting down with its erstwhile enemy "Tio Sam" but is totally incapable of and unwilling to sit down with its own diverse and often dissenting citizens.

Marco Rubio once (in)famously compared Americans visiting Cuba to tourists visiting caged animals in a zoo. Last night Yoani Sánchez spoke here in NYC and said that while the metaphor may be somewhat apt, she understands it through the eyes of one of the caged (but courageous) animals inside. Some visitors may stare at the poor animals, but others can use the visit as a way to reach through the bars and help those inside - even going so far as to pass them a key that may open the lock.

If you never make the trip, you simply abandon those inside the cages to their fate.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

¡Nos vemos en La Habana!

President Obama tells Cubans:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Obama is going to Cuba. Here's why:

Cuba is only 90 miles from Florida, but for a long time the distance between our two countries seemed a lot greater.

For more than fifty years, the United States pursued a policy of isolating and pressuring Cuba. While the policy was rooted in the context of the Cold War, our efforts continued long after the rest of the world had changed.

Put simply, U.S. Cuba policy wasn't working and was well beyond its expiration date.

Cuba's political system did not change.
The United States was isolated within our own hemisphere — and in the wider world — which disagreed with our approach.
Most importantly, our policy was not making life better for the Cuban people — and in many ways, it was making it worse.

So in 2014, President Obama changed course. And on March 21–22, President Obama and the First Lady will visit Havana, Cuba.

He will be the first American President since Calvin Coolidge in 1928 to visit Cuba; President Coolidge traveled to Cuba on a U.S. battleship, so this will be a very different kind of visit.

Here's how we got here:

Early in the Obama administration, we made it easier for Cuban-Americans to travel and send remittances to Cuba — because the President believed that Cuban-Americans are our best ambassadors to the Cuban people.

We later pursued many months of secret negotiations hosted by the Canadian government and supported by Pope Francis and the Vatican. And on December 17, 2014, President Obama announced — along with President Raul Castro of Cuba — that the United States and Cuba would begin a new chapter and take steps to normalize relations.

Since then, we have made progress in opening up relations between our two countries. Last summer, we restored diplomatic relations and Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Cuba to raise the American flag over our Embassy. This enhanced diplomatic presence makes it much easier for the United States to advance our interests and values in Cuba, as we do in countries around the world.

We've been able to engage Cubans from all walks of life. We've facilitated visits to Cuba by U.S. lawmakers, businesses, and academics. Changes in U.S. policies and regulations have allowed for greater travel and commerce between our countries. In fact, over this period, the number of authorized American visitors to Cuba has gone up by 54 percent, enabling increased people-to-people engagement. This will continue to increase, as earlier this week, the United States and Cuban governments reached an agreement that will restore direct flights between our countries for the first time in over 50 years — a change that will allow up to 110 direct flights to Cuba from the United States each day.

We've already seen indications of how increased engagement can improve the lives of the Cuban people. Cuba's nascent private sector — from restaurant owners to shopkeepers — has benefited from increased travel from the American people. Increased remittances to Cuba from the United States has helped Cuban families. Openings for American companies also hold the potential of improving the lives of ordinary Cubans — for instance, American companies will be enabling travelers to stay in Cuban homes and setting up a factory that will provide equipment for farmers.

The Cuban government has taken some steps to fulfill its commitment to expand access to the Internet, expanding wireless hotspots and announcing an initial broadband connection. These are steps that should be built upon to increase connectivity to the wider world and access to information for the Cuban people.

Still, this progress is insufficient. There is much more that can be done — by the United States, and by the Cuban government — to advance this opening in ways that will be good for Cubans, and good for the United States. That is why President Obama is traveling to Cuba. We want to open up more opportunities for U.S. businesses and travelers to engage with Cuba, and we want the Cuban government to open up more opportunities for its people to benefit from that engagement. Ultimately, we believe that Congress should lift an embargo that is not to advancing the Cuban people's individual well-being and human rights, and remove onerous restrictions that aim to dictate to Americans where they can and cannot travel.

Even as we pursue normalization, we've made clear that we will continue to have serious differences with the Cuban government — particularly on human rights. While Cuba released Alan Gross, a number of political prisoners and recently hosted the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, we continue to oppose and speak out against restrictions on rights like freedom of speech and assembly — and space for independent civil society — that the United States supports around the world.

While we do not seek to impose change on Cuba, we strongly believe that Cuba will benefit when the Cuban people can exercise their universal rights. President Obama has raised these issues in his discussions with President Castro, and will continue to do so.

As the President has said, Cuba will not change overnight, nor will all of the various differences between our countries go away. But the guiding principle of our Cuba policy — our North Star — remains taking steps that will improve the lives of the Cuban people.

That will be the President's message on his trip — where he'll have the opportunity to meet with President Castro, and with Cuban civil society and people from different walks of life. Yes, we have a complicated and difficult history. But we need not be defined by it. Indeed, the extraordinary success of the Cuban-American community demonstrates that when we engage Cuba, it is not simply foreign policy — for many Americans, it's family.

Our opening to Cuba has also created new possibilities for the United States in Latin America — a region that used to uniformly oppose our Cuba policy, and which now welcomes our new beginning.
We have worked with Cuba and other countries to support President Santos and the Colombian people as they are pursuing an end to a decades-long civil war. Following the President's trip to Cuba, he and the First Lady will travel to Argentina — a country with a new President who wants to begin a new chapter of improved relations with the United States.

This is yet another indication that the future is bright for the United States in our own hemisphere.

You can follow along as we prepare for the President's trip by visiting

Ben Rhodes
White House Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications & Speechwriting.
There was an error in this gadget