Wave the Flag

August 18, 2017

This week marked the two-year anniversary of the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, the ceremonial event to mark the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

August 14, 2015 was a hot day in Havana. Pristine classic cars were parked behind the speakers’ podium, just in front of the Malecón, providing a scenic backdrop for a historic event.

Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, severed in 1961, had been restored weeks earlier, and the Cuban flag was already flying above its newly-reinstated embassy in Washington, DC.

Secretary Kerry, who presided over the ceremony, was the first Secretary of State to travel to Cuba in 70 years. His message was simple: the ceremony was to be “truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities.”

In the weeks and months that followed, both the U.S. and Cuban governments moved quickly to put in place the building blocks of normal diplomatic relations. They established mechanisms for cooperation on issues such as law enforcement and health, signing 22 bilateral agreements between November 2015 and January 2017.

Two years after the flag was raised at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the merits of bilateral cooperation are self-evident. Civil aviation experts are discussing ways to enhance security at our airports, and law enforcement officials are collaborating on criminal investigations. To reverse course would have obvious negative consequences.

President Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum, made public in mid-June, directs departments and agencies to “ensure that engagement between the United States and Cuba advances the interests of the United States and the Cuban people.” Most importantly, this memorandum directs continued engagement. The embassies will not be closed, and collaboration on important issues will advance.

It is especially important to have channels of dialogue on areas of disagreement or when things go awry. In the wake of accounts of a sonic incident affecting U.S. diplomats in Havana, both the U.S. and Cuban governments have stated their commitment to cooperate in an investigation.

At the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy two years ago, high-level U.S. and Cuban government officials came to participate in the making of history. But the true guests of honor were three marines who lowered the U.S. flag in 1961 and returned to Havana to see it raised again over fifty years later. Their presence served as a reminder of the long-term resilience of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, able to weather the most uncertain of times, and ultimately overcome obstacles for the benefit of our citizens.

In the words of one of the marines, Corporal Francis “Mike” East, to see the U.S. embassy building without its flag felt “like something was wrong, something was missing.” As we reflect on the important gains from engagement achieved in the last two-and-a-half years, we are hopeful that our governments will continue to reaffirm that the U.S. and Cuba are made stronger by cooperation, and that we cannot afford to let that spirit go missing again.

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This week, in Cuba news…

August 11, 2017

We’ll be back with a full-service Brief next week.

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Dysfunction and Evolution

August 4, 2017

This week, senators prepare to depart Washington for the annual August recess, already delayed by the dramatic failure of proposed healthcare legislation in the Senate. Gridlock leaves little to show for the 2017 work session to date, and deadlines on the debt ceiling and government funding are looming upon the members’ return.

Considering the hyper-partisanship that has characterized Congress of late, it would be surprising to find bipartisan cooperation anywhere on Capitol Hill. Yet, there is—in the most unlikely of places.

In just two years since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in July 2015, we have seen a remarkable evolution in what had been for decades a seemingly immovable political “third rail.”

In January 2015, Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ) introduced, with eight bipartisan cosponsors, a bill to restore the right of Americans to travel to Cuba freely. By the end of 2016, it had garnered 54 total signatories. Flake reintroduced the same bill in May 2017 with 55 total original cosponsors, and he is confident that the bill would garner close to 70 votes in the Senate, closely reflecting overwhelming public support in the U.S. for engagement with Cuba. (73% of Americans support ending the embargo entirely.)

In the House, support for bills that would help the U.S. engage with Cuba continues to grow apace. In October 2015, Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-01) introduced the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act with two of his Republican colleagues, and by the end of 2016 Crawford had secured 49 total cosponsors. Crawford reintroduced his bill in January 2017 with 26 original bipartisan cosponsors, and now counts 56 total signatories covering the entire political and geographical spectrum. Among them is Rep. James Comer (KY-01), who traveled to Cuba with CDA in March 2017 and returned with a strengthened resolve to end the embargo. This week, with Rep. Comer’s leadership, Kentucky became the 17th state to inaugurate an Engage Cuba State Council, bringing together leaders in business, agriculture, and government to advocate for ending the embargo on Cuba. According to Rep. Comer, if a bill to end the embargo received a vote, “it would get about 75 percent of the votes in Congress. It would be a veto-proof majority.”

Just weeks after Sen. Flake reintroduced his bill, President Trump made a Cuba policy speech in Miami, asserting that he would make good on campaign promises to reverse the previous administration’s Cuba initiatives. However, the policy document unveiled at the speech accepts many aspects of recent advances in engagement; it embraces diplomatic relations with Cuba, continues bilateral dialogue on issues of mutual concern, and states the intent of U.S. policy to support Cuban entrepreneurs.

The primary architect of the new policy direction was Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), who has long been against the U.S. opening any kind of relationship with Cuba until all the conditions of the embargo laws are met. The substance of the new policy, and Sen. Rubio’s involvement, demonstrate that such hardline positions are things of the past.

Despite President Trump’s rhetorical support, Cuban entrepreneurs are concerned about the potential impacts of the announced policy. They expressed their apprehensions and brought policy recommendations to Congress and the administration during a trip to Washington earlier this month organized by CDA, Engage Cuba, and Cuba Educational Travel. We take it as a sign of the times that the group received a warm reception in Congress from Republicans and Democrats alike, notably including at a press conference with Sens. Patrick Leahy (VT), Amy Klobuchar (MN), and Flake.

While Congress is steadily catching up with the U.S. public on Cuba policy, the administration’s new Cuba policy likely represents a step backward, as it is ostensibly intended to restrict individual travel to Cuba and to make it more difficult to do business with entities that have even peripheral ties to the Cuban military. Like our Cuban entrepreneur friends, we hope that the final rules, currently being drafted at the U.S. departments and agencies, don’t set back the constructive evolution in U.S.-Cuba relations that we have seen over the past two years. Even Congress could agree on that.

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Cuba news roundup

July 28, 2017

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Cuban entrepreneurs go to Washington

July 21, 2017

Yesterday marked the second anniversary of the U.S. and Cuba restoring diplomatic relations. Though the weather in D.C. closely resembled that of July 20, 2015—those who were present that day at the Cuban Embassy’s flag-raising ceremony will vividly recall the sweltering heat—we find ourselves in a very different policy environment.

On June 16, President Trump announced he would unravel significant pieces of the previous administration’s Cuba policy, including the March 2016 provision allowing Americans to travel to Cuba as individuals. He stated that his impending policy changes will “support the Cuban people.”

This week, together with partner organizations Engage Cuba and Cuba Educational Travel, CDA brought a delegation of eight Cuban entrepreneurs to Washington. The delegation shared their views on President Trump’s plans to further limit travel to and trade with Cuba, and they shared how the U.S. can support them, their families, and their businesses.

The entrepreneurs brought an urgent message. As Yamina Vicente, owner of the party planning and decorations business Decorazón put it this week to a roomful of Members of Congress, “If you want to help us, don’t roll back the advances in U.S.-Cuba engagement.”

This week, Yamina, and seven other Cuban entrepreneurs from sectors ranging from hospitality to media, delivered their message to the Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce. You can read the entrepreneurs’ letter here.

The group also met with Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. On Tuesday, they held a press conference with Senators Patrick Leahy, Jeff Flake, and Amy Klobuchar, publicly releasing their recommendations for how U.S. policy could truly support them. You can read their full policy recommendations here.

Celia Mendoza, owner of Concierge Habana, which plans VIP tours of the island and works with private restaurants, taxi services, and bed and breakfasts, explained the stakes of President Trump’s plans to prohibit individual travel. Since President Trump’s policy announcement a month ago, “I have received nine cancellations.” U.S. travelers, she said, have started canceling trips out of fear that their travel may no longer be legal, though the regulations to implement the policy have not yet been released. Celia’s business, like many others, depends almost entirely on U.S. clientele, and she made plans based on the expectation that engagement would continue.

Entrepreneurs like her who built their businesses from the ground up “have overcome a lot of obstacles,” she said. “But this is one obstacle that I don’t see that we are going to be able to overcome.”

Julia de la Rosa, who runs the bed and breakfast La Rosa de Ortega, employs 17 people and hosts a clientele that’s about 75 percent U.S. visitors. Over the last two-and-a-half years, she said, restored diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba and engagement with increasing numbers of U.S. travelers had brought her and many other entrepreneurs not only business success but “more confidence in the market.” But Julia is worried that this will all fall away.

Yamina, who left her post as a professor of economics at the University of Havana in 2013 to found her business, said that while her clientele is mostly Cubans who live on the island, “my business, like so many others, depends on the success of the businesses whose clientele is U.S. visitors—depends on them and their employees being successful so that my business can be successful. Whatever affects those businesses affects businesses like mine, too.”

Julio Álvarez, co-owner of the classic car repair shop and chauffeur service NostalgiCar, asked the following of the policymakers and reporters he spoke with: “If you really want to help us, please encourage people to travel to Cuba—we need their support.” At the end of the delegation, Julio told us, “It means a lot to us to be able to help keep the doors open between the U.S. and Cuba, to be able to help our businesses as well as our communities.”

It means a lot to us, too. As President Trump puts the details on his new policy toward Cuba, we hope that he takes the voices of these entrepreneurs into account.

You can check out some of the press coverage of the entrepreneurs’ visit in the Miami Herald and OnCuba Magazine (in Spanish), and take a look at our Facebook and Twitter accounts for the updates we posted throughout the week.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

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Cuentapropismo en Cuba

July 14, 2017

Yamina Vicente, a former professor of economics at the University of Havana who now owns a party planning and decorations business in Cuba called Decorazón, is this week’s featured contributor to the Cuba Central News Brief. Yamina will join other Cuban entrepreneurs next week in meetings with U.S. policymakers, recommending ways for U.S. policy to support the Cuban private sector. In 2013, Yamina traveled to Washington to participate in CDA’s conference on Cuba’s new economy, and in December 2016, she was one of more than 100 signatories on a letter from Cuban entrepreneurs to then-President-elect Donald Trump urging him to continue building U.S.-Cuba ties.

Para leer este ensayo en español, haga click aquí.

Just a few decades ago, Cuba’s private sector was nonexistent. Entrepreneurship had been all but forgotten. Some years back, as a result of the economic crisis of the 1990s, Cuba’s government began to revive a number of self-employment activities that relieved the Cuban economy by generating employment and income sources for the population. However, this space remained concentrated in just a few types of businesses until the last decade, when the range of legalized activities was expanded to include 211 types of business licenses. Consequently, today we have private taxi drivers, stores, beauty salons, restaurants, gyms, designers, event planners, and more.

This change, which some may consider trivial, inspired hopes and dreams. Many young Cubans whose first choice would have been emigration could now choose family projects within Cuba. The growth of this sector expanded creativity and aesthetics, revived the internal economy, built small chains and productive linkages among cuentapropistas (entrepreneurs), produced community and sustainable development projects, and diversified options for both domestic and foreign clients. Many of the small privately owned businesses served as stimuli for state-run centers. The benefits of the establishment of the private sector in Cuba are innumerable.

Many of the successful businesses in the country are directly tied to the reestablishment of U.S.-Cuba relations. The growth of U.S. travel, and the improvement of telecommunications that this process brought with it, have stimulated the development of the incipient private sector.

Today, there are nearly half a million self-employed workers in Cuba, with significant female representation – people who decided to risk what little they had in pursuit of a dream. A major portion of the clientele for large restaurants, galleries, and homes for rent are Americans. A reversal of achievements in relations would be disastrous for them. But they would not be the only ones affected; the businesses that are directed toward domestic clients would also feel a negative impact, though indirectly. Many of the clients who commonly look to buy these products or services are family members of cuentapropistas, and reducing their income would lessen demand. Without a doubt, having less liquidity in the general population would affect small businesses in general.

For the Cuban cuentapropistas and their families who depend on their businesses, a reversal of U.S. policy toward Cuba would not only represent a “stop,” but a “step backward” in the work they dreamed of, and with much effort, built, for their children.

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Support for the Cuban People

July 7, 2017

Earlier this week, in the spirit of summertime backyard barbecues, NPR ran a story about Cuban charcoal.

It’s a remarkable tale about ingenuity and small but meaningful advances to connect our two countries. In short, Cuban farmers took an invasive weed – one that ransacks huge swaths of Cuban farmland – and turned it into a marketable good: clean-burning artisanal charcoal. Because the product is produced by worker-owned cooperatives in Cuba, 2016 U.S. regulatory changes permit its export to the U.S. The first shipment arrived in January 2017, and U.S. customers can purchase it online at a price of $42.95 for a 33-pound bag.

Other tales of ingenuity on the island abound.

A self-taught seamstress in Havana recently told us her story of small-business survival. When a change in Cuban law prohibited imports of foreign-produced garments for resale, she resolved to save her business by teaching herself how to sew. Only she didn’t have a sewing machine, and purchasing one from a store was cost-prohibitive. She went door to door in her neighborhood and the surrounding communities until she procured a used one. Now, she has two employees, and sells baby clothes to a Cuban clientele who, when they have extra money on hand, can afford to buy them.

Another example of small-business success: The Miami Herald reported on Julia de la Rosa, who, together with her husband, turned a mansion in disrepair on the outskirts of Havana into a popular bed-and-breakfast. Thanks to two decades of hard work – from renovating rooms to finding new parts for the swimming-pool filter – Julia now employs 17 people and hosts a clientele that’s about 75 percent U.S. visitors. She also works with other self-employed Cubans, known as cuentapropistas. “Cuentapropistas have created a network,” Julia told the Miami Herald. “We regularly seek out each other’s services to solve our problems.”

And another: One restaurateur we know, unable to find spices in Cuban markets, buys them in Miami and brings them back in her suitcase to share with Havana’s culinary community. By day, she teaches classes for up-and-coming Cuban chefs. By night, she feeds an ever-growing number of customers at her restaurant, 85 percent of whom are U.S. visitors.

These are snapshots of hard-working, creative, collaborative Cuban entrepreneurs whose businesses are flourishing, thanks in large part to engagement with the U.S. over the last several years.

In the days and moments before and after President Trump’s June 16 Cuba policy speech, Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted his view on forthcoming regulatory changes. He would likely know what the changes entail, as it has been widely reported he is the principal architect of the new policy. One tweet in particular stated that individual travel, soon to be prohibited under the “people-to-people” category will still be permitted for those travelers under the “support for the Cuban people” category.

In the Treasury Department’s eyes, support for the Cuban people has a narrow definition: “activities of recognized human rights organizations; independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; and individuals and non-governmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”

What of the majority of Cubans who do not participate in organized activities to this end?

The Cuban people with whom we’ve spoken – many of whom are entrepreneurs – tell us that the best way to support them is through more avenues for personal and commercial engagement with the U.S.

Julia reports she will likely have to scale back expansion plans for her B&B. The restaurateur told us after President Trump’s policy announcement last month, she’s worried that her customer base is about to shrink. They and many others in Cuba’s private sector planned their businesses around a future with more U.S.-Cuba engagement.

As the administration puts the details on the policies announced by President Trump on June 16, we urge it to do so in a way that truly supports the Cuban people.

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