WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
12 Aug 2015 | News

Amid Changes in Cuba, U.S. to Officially Open New Embassy: WOLA in Havana

Havana, Cuba—Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba on Friday to raise the U.S. flag over the newly-opened embassy in Havana, the first visit to Cuba by a Secretary of State since 1945.
As a research and advocacy organization that has monitored U.S.-Cuba policy and advocated for engagement for decades, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is on the ground for the historic visit. WOLA Program Director Geoff Thale, a Cuba specialist who has regularly traveled to the island since the 1990s, is in Havana for the ceremony.

“It’s a whole new era: after 50 years of hostility, the opening of embassies will finally allow us to discuss our differences in a civilized manner,” said Thale. “Sweeping changes are underway on both sides of the Florida Straits. Cuba is undergoing huge societal and economic changes, and the U.S. public – even Cuban Americans – overwhelmingly favors deeper engagement.” 

Secretary Kerry’s visit comes as Cuban society is undergoing major political, societal, and economic reforms, which WOLA has highlighted in an accompanying fact sheet. Among the most significant changes on the island in recent years are:

  • The elimination of the “exit visa” requirement in 2013, which allows citizens to leave the country without advance approval.  In the first year following this announcement, travel abroad increased by 35 percent.
  • Increased access to cell phones and internet, with a growing number of Wi-Fi hot spots and internet cafes, and more than 2 million cell phone users on the island today.
  • Moves toward a mixed economy, with a surge in the number of self-employed individuals. More than 500,000 Cubans are currently self-employed, accounting for 11 percent of the workforce; another 10 percent are involved in cooperatives or private agricultural ventures.
In the United States, meanwhile, there is growing bipartisan support  for improved relations with Cuba. Recent weeks have seen a wave of legislative initiatives from Republicans as well as Democrats, including a bill by Representative Tom Emmer (R-MN) which would effectively end the trade embargo on the island.  Additionally, public opinion polls show broad support for improved relations among members of both parties, as well as in the Cuban-American community.

“In the process of normalizing relations, this is the champagne-popping moment.” said Thale. “WOLA started advocating for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations when sometimes it seemed like a quixotic and lonely venture. This is an incredible moment to witness, and leaves me hopeful for what continued engagement could mean for both countries.”


Geoff Thale
Program Director, WOLA
(53) 5847 1655
[email protected]