A few words about markets, U.S. airlines, and that other travel ban (Cuba)

March 17, 2017

Today’s message, quite simply, is this: Recent headlines that read The Cuba travel bubble is popping and Now That Cuba Is Open, Americans Aren’t Going  got it wrong. So, we’ve written this essay to try and set the facts straight.

Travel from the U.S. to Cuba is going up, and it could be doing even better if policy makers would just legalize all forms of it, the way a majority of Americans want them to.

This is worth digging into. First, let’s start at a comfortable cruising altitude of 30,000 feet before diving into the weeds.

As Cuba Journal reminded us recently, “Cuba is the only country in the world where Americans face travel restrictions.” You can even visit North Korea as a tourist without asking permission from President Trump or Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, although it’s a risky place for U.S. travelers. Meanwhile, travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by U.S. law.

President Obama took significant steps to reduce U.S. restrictions on non-tourist travel to Cuba – ending limits on travel by Cuban Americans with family on the island, restoring people-to-people visits and, critically, using diplomacy with Cuba’s government to restart regularly scheduled commercial flights to the island by U.S. carriers in the middle of 2016.

As Brookings reported late last year, the relative trickle of 91,000 visitors to Cuba in 2014 rose to 161,000 visits in 2015, and to a veritable flood of over 280,000 visits in 2016, according to this recent estimate.

Before the recent changes, charter carriers remained stalwart for decades serving the Cuban market under onerous travel rules that restricted flights and kept prices high. When restrictions were loosened, traditional economic forces went to work. “As generations of U.S.- or U.K.-trained economists would predict,” a U.S.-trained economist told us, “prices fell and the total number of seats sold went up.”

Bloomberg, normally fact-based, got it wrong when it reported in February, “still, there are few Yankees heading to Havana.” On the contrary, U.S. demand is both strong and rising rapidly now, and the trend points the same way. As Travel Pulse reports, travel agents are seeing “an explosion of Cuba bookings” going forward. They say, “Nearly 22 percent of its leisure-focused travel agents have already booked clients for Cuba travel in 2017 while more than 59 percent said clients are interested in going this year.”

In fact, many of the carriers awarded routes to Cuba are doing well – this comes not from promotional materials but filings by American Airlines, Southwest, and Delta with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Southwest, for example, lists its 44th consecutive year of profitability and its decision to launch “service to Cuba with daily flights to Varadero, followed by service to Havana, our 100th city served, and Santa Clara” in its 2016 list of a dozen notable accomplishments.

By the same token, some U.S. airlines are dropping flights, as NBC News reported in its refreshingly informed piece. Silver Airways is dropping out the market entirely on April 22, explaining that “other airlines continue to serve this market with too many flights and oversized aircraft.” Frontier Airlines is terminating its Miami-Havana flight on June 4, saying “costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions.”

While claiming the mantle of “Economics 101,” Fabiola Sanchez, in her Miami Herald column, was actually practicing Cold War Ideology 1.0. “Blame over the lack of greater demand sits squarely with the paranoid and repressive Cuban state,” she writes, “which fails to modernize politically and economically, no matter how much this country and the rest of the world opens up to them.”

What is so important about travel to Cuba is that it allows Americans to visit the island, speak directly to Cubans, and learn from them how they view their lives, their opportunities and, yes, their government.  The portrait they paint can be both inspiring and worrisome in the same conversation. What is consistent is that Cubans don’t tell visitors from the States to go home, but to come back.

The adjustment taking place in the Cuban market is not about politics, but economics and regulation. One of the things that Bloomberg got right is that our airlines, “with no idea about demand, were overly ambitious when they jousted for the limited routes allowed by U.S. regulators. With a mandate for only 110 daily U.S. flights – 20 into Havana, the most popular destination – the carriers tumbled over each other last year to get a piece of the pie, leaving the island oversubscribed.”

It isn’t a surprise that Silver and Frontier are folding their tents, or that carriers like JetBlue have cut back. In a globalized economy, and with a new, emerging market, this happens all the time. Our friend the economist observes: “Airlines spend millions on programs to strategically and tactically game prices and routes, and flights to Cuba are now part of that game. Entrants will come and go, seasonal variations may increase, demand will be sensitive to US economic trends. All of this is normal. Year over year, the market continues to grow. That is the fundamental fact to date.”

The market is going to continue to adjust, and Cuba’s government and its tourism industry will have to be part of that adjustment if it wants first-time travelers to return, rather than losing them to equally warm and less expensive destinations in the Caribbean.

But, the airlines need to step up as well. They’re running this advertisement in Washington, appealing to President Trump to protect American jobs and to enforce the so-called “Open Skies” Agreement which, they say, benefits U.S. airlines, workers, and passengers.

If they want to continue doing business in Cuba, their voices need to be heard – loudly, urgently, presently – to stop the administration or Congress from rolling back our hard won rights to visit Cuba now, and urge the end of the unconstitutional ban on tourist travel as soon as possible.

Cuba isn’t North Korea, and America needs to act like America and demonstrate it knows the difference.

This week in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Engagement versus Estrangement

March 10, 2017

Congressman James Comer, a first-term Republican from the 1st District of Kentucky, just returned from a five-day trip to Cuba on a fact-finding delegation led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

On Wednesday, his office released a statement about the trip, which read, in part: “Congressman Comer strongly supports lifting the current trade embargo on Cuba, and will be a leader in Congress in passing legislation to reopen trade with this key neighbor of the U.S.”

“The first district is a strong agriculture area,” Congressman Comer said, “and opening trade barriers for agriculture products would be a major benefit for the district and all of Kentucky.”

Congressman Comer’s story – his experience of going to Cuba, talking directly to Cubans about their lives, and deciding, unbound by party or dogma, that engagement is better than sanctions for advancing his constituents’ interests – is important.

Even more, it places him in the vital center of practical and principled thought on the conduct of U.S.-Cuba relations – which is all about exploring and securing the benefits of engagement.

Engagement has paid off diplomatically. Engagement with Cuba restored relations, reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana, and secured bilateral agreements on combatting diseases from cancer to Zika, fighting drugs and human trafficking, responding to oil spills and the other pollution threats in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida, and providing united support for the final end to Colombia’s long, bloody civil war.

Engagement is creating and supporting more, better paying jobs in the U.S. telecommunications, hospitality and travel industries, and among the Cuban-owned private-sector businesses that are providing food and lodging to travelers coming from the U.S. and elsewhere.

The benefits of engagement were expanded by U.S. policy decisions that boosted the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba to historic levels, and increased the flows of remittances to Cuban family members on the island to as much as $3 billion annually. At the same time, Cuba opened up legal work in the private sector for 25 percent of the island’s workforce, and significantly increased Wi-Fi connections, at reduced costs, for Cuba’s people.

Politically, engagement is at the center of where public opinion is among the 75 percent of the U.S. public which wants to lift the embargo, 63 percent of Cuban-Americans who oppose the embargo, and 97 percent of Cubans on the island who think normal relations with the U.S. is good for Cuba.

With the mutually reinforcing benefits of diplomacy and economic change strengthening public support for engagement, this has opened even greater space for elected officials like Congressman Comer to build coalitions for changes in the laws governing U.S.-Cuba relations.

These coalitions have gathered in support of legislation to increase agriculture trade to Cuba, to end legal barriers to tourist travel, and to lift the embargo entirely. Passing these bills is in the U.S. national interest.

Fifty years of futility passed our eyes when we read the remarks of White House spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré in an interview Wednesday with the Spanish news agency EFE. “With all the things [Cuba] has been given,” she said, the government has not made any “concessions” within the process of normalization of bilateral relations. Before assuming office, President Trump said he would reverse the reforms and restore estrangement as the basis of U.S. policy, unless the Cubans make concessions.

This position of no negotiations until the Cubans compromise was the policy of every president since Eisenhower, except one, and all but one were disappointed.

The Trump administration is reviewing the policy. We’d like to see President Trump find a way forward that doesn’t let Congressman Comer or his constituents down.

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Calling Rex Tillerson

March 3, 2017

Where do things stand with the Trump Administration and U.S.-Cuba relations?

Recall that President Trump and Vice President Pence made clear, as candidates, that without concessions from Cuba’s government, they would reverse President Obama’s major changes in U.S.-Cuba relations on Day One. This threat continues to rattle Cubans.

President Raúl Castro, speaking in January, made clear that no one should expect Cuba to “renounce its ideals of independence and social justice or abandon any of our principles, or give in an inch in the defense of our national sovereignty.”

Even though the battle has yet to be joined, we’ve seen this array of forces before: the immutable force of Washington’s demands for existential changes in Cuba’s system poised to collide with the immovable object of Cuban sovereignty.

To be clear, we are 43 days in and the administration has made no changes to the policy. We’re not trying to jinx that. We’re trying to understand it. The administration is going out of its way to honor campaign promises. It is stocked with embargo defenders. Key leaders in Congress support rolling back travel and trade reforms and beefing up programs to take down Cuba’s system of government. We expected to be disappointed and playing defense much sooner.

One explanation could be disarray in the foreign policy machinery. As we discussed last week, the President has his second National Security Advisor in his young administration. The White House fired Craig Deare, its senior national security advisor on the Western Hemisphere, just two weeks ago. The Washington Post is asking, “Where in the world is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?” and gamely reporting that “Tillerson’s diplomacy has been conducted out of sight.” This is the man in charge of the Trump administration review of Cuba policy.

The State Department, according to The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe, has the comparative feel of a ghost town. She writes, “There hasn’t been a State Department press briefing, once a daily ritual, since the new administration took over five weeks ago.” Observing that the briefings are not just for journalists, Ioffe says the silence from the State Department podium deprives U.S. diplomats all over the world of a “crucial set of cues…With no daily messaging, and almost no guidance from Washington, people in far-flung posts are flying blind even as the pace of their diplomacy hasn’t abated.”

For a host of reasons that go beyond our interest in Cuba, it is unfortunate that we don’t have in place the traditional structures to mediate or understand what is happening with U.S. foreign policy.

The President, in his Inaugural Address, kicked the concept of sovereignty into play when he said, “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

This week, in his first Joint Session of Congress address, he revisited this subject in much the same way. “We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations. Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people – and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path.”

At the same time, in the Trump administration’s forthcoming FY2018 budget request, the White House is proposing a 30 percent cut in State Department funding and a 40 percent cut in USAID funding to help prioritize a sharp increase in defense spending. Priorities which have prompted some critics to call the President an “isolationist” or a “militarist.”

Again this week, in what the Washington Post described as a “sharp break from U.S. trade policy,” the Trump administration said it may ignore “certain rulings by the World Trade Organization if those decisions infringe on U.S. sovereignty.”

If sovereignty is the defining principle of Trump administration foreign policy, that is resonant with implications for the Page One issue of Russia and for our principle concern, Cuba.

In an article published last year by Vox, Fiona Hill, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia, examined the motivation behind President Putin’s campaign to hack the U.S. elections. Ms. Hill wrote, “Putin wants the United States and other Western governments to stop funding, as part of their foreign policies, organizations that promote political and economic transformations in Russia. He also wants to block US officials from meeting with opposition figures and parties. From Putin’s perspective, democracy promotion is just a cover for regime change.”

Most Americans don’t like Russia’s interference in our democratic process. This isn’t about moral equivalence: it’s natural for people to want to protect their nation’s governance from outside interference. While it may be a permanent part of our national character to preach to others about the value of our system – and it has value – it is something entirely different to try and impose it on others. This is where we hope the Trump doctrine’s devotion to sovereignty extends.

The U.S. has a long history of trying to overthrow the Cuban system through measures that included the Bay of Pigs invasion, covert operations, efforts of the kind that landed Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, in a Cuban prison for five years, and more. President Obama’s Cuba policy put an end to most of that. Now, advisors to the new administration, such as José Cárdenas, who testified before Congress this week, want President Trump to exert economic pressure on the Cubans and bring the old policies back. The administration will probably do so.

Yet there is another, more hopeful course, and both presidents have spoken to it. In the remarks we quoted above, President Raúl Castro also said, “As I have repeatedly affirmed, both Cuba and the United States should learn the art of civilized coexistence based on respect for differences between our governments, and on cooperation in areas of common interest that may contribute to tackling the challenges facing the hemisphere and the world.”

For his part, President Trump told the U.S. Congress, “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace, wherever peace can be found.”

If Rex Tillerson can be found, he might suggest to Bruno Rodríguez, his Cuban counterpart, that sovereignty could be just the thing to bring the two leaders together.

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The McMaster of Cuba Policy Destiny

February 24, 2017

We’ve been reading an analysis about how a new approach to foreign policy went horribly wrong.

The President, we are told, came to office and dismantled essential elements of the National Security Council. He preferred to rely on task forces and an “inner club” of trusted advisors in national security and foreign affairs. His structural changes weakened access by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the president, whom the new administration viewed with suspicion. The old guard in the Pentagon was relegated to a “position of little influence.”

President John F. Kennedy’s ad hoc decision-making style, his freezing out of top military advisors, and diminishment of the National Security Council’s role backfired in the early months of his presidency. Without a formal systematic review, he went forward with the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba. The invasion not only collapsed in failure, but also resulted in the President distancing himself from his senior military advisors and trusting them even less.

This practice of “consulting frankly only with his closest advisors, and his use of larger forums to validate decisions already made would transcend [Kennedy’s] administration,” the author writes, with its consequences spilling into President Johnson’s decisions and leading us deeper into Vietnam.

The responsibility for what he calls “one of the greatest American foreign policy disasters of the 20th century” lies with President Kennedy and the arrogance of the New Frontier, as well as with President Lyndon Johnson, who allowed domestic political considerations to dictate military strategy in the conduct of the war. But, echoing the title of his book, “Dereliction of Duty,” H.R. McMaster also calls out the Joint Chiefs of Staff for failing to confront President Johnson with their objections to his strategy for conducting the war, and deceiving the Congress by appearing to support it.

On Monday, as the author, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, became National Security Advisor, we could only imagine how he processed what occurred in the first month of the Trump Administration, and what that, in turn, could mean for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy going forward – including U.S. policy toward Cuba.

If Lt. General McMaster has priors on Cuba, we haven’t seen them. His passages on the Bay of Pigs and the Missile Crisis in “Dereliction of Duty” contained no bugle-blowing or hand-waving about “finishing the job” in Cuba. He may harbor such feelings, but we did not see them in his book or in this week’s coverage about his appointment to lead the National Security Council.

Once the administration’s review of Cuba policy concludes, and before the rollout of a new policy begins, Lt. General McMaster will have a chance to lead as he wishes members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had done some 50 years ago.

He knows what happens to U.S. foreign policy when the decision-making process is broken, when too much deference is given to domestic politics, and when the voices of reason, including our nation’s military, rest on the sidelines or fail to be heard: Foreign policy goes off the rails. That hurt us in Vietnam before; it can hurt us in making U.S. policy toward Cuba again.

The Washington Post called Lt. General McMaster a “soldier who can say, ‘no, sir.’” If he finds himself standing between the President and a plan to roll the last two years’ Cuba reforms back, we hope he makes his voice heard.

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Once Estranged, Couples Reunite Over a Quiet White House Meal with Cuba on the Menu

February 17, 2017

In case you missed it, President Trump made big news during his epic press conference at the White House this week. He broke bread with Senator Marco Rubio.

During the presidential primaries, then-candidate Trump and Sen. Rubio traded insults on the campaign trail, but then traded endorsements in advance of their successful runs for the presidency and reelection to the Senate.

Having won his election, Sen. Rubio resumed his plainspoken disagreements with the new President – tweeting one day, “We are not the same as #Putin,” and later adding his support for including the “Flynn situation” in the Senate Intelligence Committee probe of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election.

Both men now appear to have the situation in hand. Wednesday evening, as CNN reported, the President, the Senator, and their wives gathered for dinner in the Blue Room at the White House.

Things must have gone well. As President Trump said, “We had dinner with Senator Rubio and his wife, who is, by the way, lovely. And we had a really good discussion about Cuba because we have very similar views on Cuba.”

And now: President Trump is heading to Florida for a campaign-style rally at the Orlando-Melbourne International Airport on Saturday. What would Scooby say? Ruh-oh.

Politico, in a profile of Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote that he, “like the rest of Washington…is still figuring out who’s actually in charge in the Trump White House and how to get things done given the multiple power centers that seem to be shaping foreign policy.” Sen. Rubio may have cracked the code.

During the final stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, as we previously reported, Mr. Trump returned to Florida to reverse his prior support for lifting the embargo by adopting an anti-engagement position aligned with hardliners like Sen. Rubio and the three Cuban American representatives from South Florida. After the election, President-elect Trump stocked his transition team with advocates who want the U.S. to return to its Cold War posture of isolating and sanctioning Cuba.

Loyalty casts a long, influential shadow. Despite results showing that Mr. Trump lost Miami-Dade County – and lost the Cuban American vote nationally – he credits voters in the Cuban community for his win in Florida last November. As he said at his press conference, “Cuba was very good to me in the Florida election, you know, the Cuban people, Americans.”

In response, supporters of engagement with Cuba have massed around a retro strategy of trying interest the new administration in preserving the last administration’s reforms by presenting them with “the facts.”

Representative Tom Emmer (MN-6) related how closer relations with Cuba, including the economic impact of loosening restrictions on U.S. travel and trade, contributed to transformative changes on the island that are making life better for the Cuban people.

“Consider the following statistics,” Rep. Emmer writes in a column called Continuing the Shift on Cuba. “From 2008-2015: the number of mobile phone subscriptions in Cuba has increased to 3 million; the number of Wi-Fi hotspots on the island increased from zero to 65 by the end of 2015 and continues to grow; and the percentage of the island’s workforce in the Cuban non-agricultural private sector (which consists largely of self-employed entrepreneurs known as cuentapropistas) has grown from 17 to 29 percent.”

Pedro Freyre, a noted international lawyer and Columbia Law School Professor, laid out the economic consequences of shutting down travel and trade in the Orlando Sentinel. “A drastic change in U.S. policy toward Cuba would also result in a loss of U.S. jobs not only in the travel industry but more significantly in pharmaceutical manufacturing, and most sensitive of all, in the agricultural sector that currently does substantial business with Cuba.”

Even more, as the economist Ricardo Torres, writing for Progreso Weekly, says: A policy reversal would compromise the objectives that U.S. policy ought to be embracing.

Cuba, for its purposes, has engaged in evolutionary change for several decades, by deepening its engagement with the international economy. Dr. Torres writes: “Today, more people than ever are coming to Cuba. More Cubans travel abroad for various reasons than at any previous time. A growing number of businesses operate in the country, both commercial and investment companies.”

Then, he adds, “The transformation is huge, and several elements indicate that it can accelerate in the next several years.” So long as the U.S. doesn’t abruptly change course.

Politico contrasts the Democratic opposition to the Trump presidency, which it calls “divided and demoralized,” with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who are “waging a public war of press releases against what they see as Trump’s dangerous challenge to America’s role in the world.”

“Rather than turning their fire on a prickly president who clearly takes criticism personally,” Politico says Sen. Corker is pursuing a third path, “arguing in the backstage councils of Capitol Hill that they should seek to influence Trump more quietly.”

He is almost certainly right; the question is whether he is too late. We’ll be watching what happens tomorrow in Orlando, and in further developments down the road, in case Sen. Rubio cracked the code by getting invited to a quiet White House dinner first.

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

“Extreme Bipartisanship”

February 10, 2017

Three weeks into President Trump’s term, the debate over Cuba policy has yet to be joined.

Washington is immersed in an acid bath of partisanship.

The discussion about preserving engagement, diplomacy, travel, and trade with Cuba has been stilled by constitutional and foreign policy conflicts.

Cuba policy is being reviewed by the administration, under the radar –  a review conducted by opponents of diplomatic relations with Cuba’s government (although, news bulletin, Elliot Abrams, the veteran Cold Warrior, who was interviewed by President Trump to be Deputy Secretary of State, will not be among them).

Have you ever had one of those catastrophic slips…which are actually over in an instant…but time slows down and you feel yourself falling…you know you’re going to hit the ground and there’s nothing you can do to stop it?  That feeling of inevitability could easily pervade our outlook for action by the administration on Cuba.

Except – there are brave souls, public servants, kicking against the pull of political gravity, who see a way forward on Cuba. In these times, that makes them unique.

At a moment when some attach the adverb “extreme” to a participle like “vetting” to weaponize language, we could say these leaders are making progress by engaging in “extreme bipartisanship.”

They are going against the grain and building coalitions across party lines on one of the few issues that can bring legislators together: Cuba.

Leani García, writing for Americas Quarterly, calls Representatives Rick Crawford of Arkansas, Tom Emmer of Minnesota, and Mark Sanford of South Carolina “The GOP Congressmen Who Could Sell Trump on Cuba.”

All are “vocal supporters of the new president,” and each has sponsored legislation aimed at “upending two pillars of the U.S.’ embargo on Cuba: travel and trade” – all bills with lengthening lists of bipartisan supporters.

Rep. Emmer, along with principal Democratic cosponsor Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, has sponsored legislation to lift the Cuba embargo, with support from eight Democrats and seven Republicans.

Rep. Sanford, author of the bill to legalize travel to Cuba for all Americans, has support from eight Republicans and four Democrats, including principal cosponsor Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts.

Rep. Crawford, author of legislation to boost agriculture sales to Cuba, has 22 Republican and 10 Democratic co-sponsors.

These leaders are also working to merge the policies in their legislation with the narratives that drive their involvement in politics. As Ms. Garciá says, Rep. Emmer promotes his campaign to lift the embargo by emphasizing “that free markets are a fundamental American value,” and that trade offers U.S. citizens a chance “to build and strengthen relationships with the Cuban people.”

Rep. Sanford’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017, as Americas Quarterly reported, is about dropping restrictions on travel that he says run counter to American values.

Rep. Crawford is selling his bill on agriculture exports to Cuba in language that conforms to the President’s views on trade: “(The president) has stated many times – and I agree – that bilateral trade agreements are the best trade agreements because (they’re) easier to manage, easier to enforce … and they’re more transparent,” Crawford said. “I think he’ll look at this as an opportunity to engage in bilateral trade that’s meaningful for both, but a good deal for the United States.”

These legislators have even greater traction by operating with backing from the House Cuba Working Group, an informal advocacy group on Capitol Hill whose members by rule are drawn from both political parties.

The Brookings Institution, which recently examined the threats of corrosive partisanship, distrust, and dysfunction in Congress, believes that caucuses like the Cuba Working Group offer a promising way to rebuild bipartisanship on Capitol Hill.

Research shows these caucuses build the “cross-partisan relationships and shared knowledge needed for legislative consensus” in important policy areas, and that legislators who pursue bipartisan strategies are more effective than those with partisan records, and that cooperating with colleagues across the aisle increases their probability of reelection.

The effort to preserve and build on the past administration’s opening to Cuba is going to be an uphill battle. The smart money, as former Pentagon official Frank Mora said this week, is on those who want engagement to fail. The smart money is not even on the airline industry executives representing carriers with routes to Cuba (Delta AirlinesJetBlue AirwaysSouthwest Airlines, Alaska Air Group) who met with President Trump this week in the White House and who, according to the meeting transcript, said nothing publicly about preserving travel to Cuba.

But we’re with the leaders who are linking arms with counterparts across the aisle who believe that by working together we can realize our aspirations for preserving the opening to Cuba.

They’re extremely bipartisan.

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Ab-normalization: Florida Imposes Sanctions on Itself

February 3, 2017

When Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus folded its tent last month, 400 Floridians lost their jobs. Now, Florida’s Governor Rick Scott appears determined to turn his state’s drive for jobs into a Cuba policy clown show.

Gov. Scott, on the eve of a “jobs summit” that he is staging, unleashed a twitter storm and released a state budget to pressure port officials and cut off funds for port projects to stop Florida ports and businesses from trading with Cuba.

At a time when the Governors of nine states, between 2015 and 2017, have brought trade delegations to Cuba for the express purpose of doing deals and creating two-way trade with Cuba, Gov. Scott, uniquely, seems determined to kill jobs – or prevent jobs from being created – in his own state. Simply because those jobs would depend on Florida having commercial relations with Cuba.

Whether he is acting out of “principle” or acting out of self-interest, Gov. Scott is “acting out” and most abnormally for a government official.

Except. Wait a minute. Tweeting? Pushing people around? Breaking trade deals? This seems awfully familiar.

When it comes to Cuba, Florida – to put it kindly – has always been a paradox unable to come to terms with itself. No state in the union has worked harder to impose sanctions on Cuba, and no state has benefited more from trade and travel with the island.

Since 1959, it has been the center of resistance to the existence of the Cuban system. Now, majorities in the diaspora community and across Florida support an open policy. Florida’s airports, slowly then dramatically, have filled with hundreds of thousands of Cubans and Cuban Americans flying back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba. After the passage of a revised trade sanctions law in 2000, the state’s ports saw off the ships sailing to Havana, and then to Mariel, with containers of food and the other limited but legally traded items U.S. businesses could sell to the island.

Until January, as the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council points out, it was the state’s policy under Governor Scott to make normal trade with Cuba a priority for Florida’s seaports. “Due to the proximity of the state to Cuba and the cultural ties, expanded trade opportunities could be dramatic.” Some business leaders believed Sunshine State trade with Cuba could one day create 20,000 local jobs.

Yes, trade with Cuba does build profits for U.S. businesses and create U.S. jobs. Not just for Florida. Since these opportunities are also open to ports up and down the Atlantic coast, and along the southeast states on the Gulf, Florida has competition; to preserve and expand employment, it has to keep up its investments in trade with Cuba.

Enter the ringmaster. While others wait for the Trump Administration to review Cuba policy (Reuters says that’s happening now), Rick Scott leapt into the ring.

As officials at Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach prepared to welcome Cuban counterparts from Cuba’s National Port Administration and sign Memoranda of Understanding (MOU) to build cooperation between their ports and Cuba, Gov. Scott made it clear he didn’t want Florida ports to make deals with Cuba.

Scott tweeted in English and Spanish, as the Miami Herald reported, “We cannot condone Raul Castro’s oppressive behavior,” and added that he’d ask “state legislators to cut off funding for any Florida ports that ‘enter into any agreement with [the] Cuban dictatorship.’”  This caused the knees of Port Everglades and Palm Beach to buckle; there, officials agreed to meet the Cuban delegation but not to sign the MOUs. And, as we report below, it had the same effect on the Port of Tampa, with a spokesperson even denying it ever planned to sign an MOU with Cuba to a reporter who filed a story with a copy of the agreement in his hands.

Yes, the Scott saga even comes with an alternative set of facts. As Paul Guzzo wrote, “The truth is, according to an internal document obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, Port Tampa Bay had already drawn up a memorandum, gotten approval from the federal office, circulated the word in maritime circles and garnered congratulations for its efforts.”

Deciding, apparently, to enlarge rather than quell the problem, Scott put language in his budget, as the Miami Herald reported, that says no money can be “allocated to infrastructure projects that result in the expansion of trade with the Cuban dictatorship because of their continued human rights abuses.”

The Bradenton Herald slammed the governor for his “inconsistency” for supporting trade with China, and added that “Scott’s threat puts Florida at a competitive disadvantage to ports along the Gulf Coast, East Coast, Caribbean islands and Central America [which are] signing agreements with Cuba.”

We asked Dr. Michael Bustamante, a scholar at Florida International University, to interpret the Governor’s behavior. “It’s clear Governor Scott is returning to an old playbook, one in which U.S.-Cuba policy – or in this case Florida-Cuba policy – is a function of domestic politics, not national or state interests.”

The day Gov. Scott released his budget and doubled down on his investment in stopping bilateral trade with Cuba, the Miami Herald observed, “the first legal maritime shipment from Cuba to the U.S. in more than 50 years” had made its way to Miami-Dade County, after reaching Port Everglades the week before. It was two containers of “artisanal” Cuban charcoal. And more may be coming to a pizza oven near you, even if Governor Scott succeeds in sanctioning businesses in his own state, in the name of shutting down trade with Cuba.

What a circus.

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