A Mother’s Day Message for President Obama and Vice President Biden

Earlier this week, Vice President Biden said Cuba had made some “small encouraging signs of change,” but that the administration still wants to see “real change.”

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t make headlines.  It’s a little sad but it’s not news that their two-year-old message about Cuba, “your change isn’t big enough,” still permeates the administration’s talking points.

They must have decided, if it worked for President Obama in September 2011, “We have not seen evidence they have been sufficiently aggressive in changing their policies economically,” to just keep repeating the message, even if the point they are making really isn’t so.

You might ask, what does any of this have to do with Mother’s Day?  We were just getting around to that.

To its credit, the administration has spent part of the last four years advocating for women to be equal partners in more just, prosperous, and more effectively governed societies.  It was just last week when Treasury Secretary Lew said:  “The facts are clear: empowering women is not only a question of equity, it is simply smart economics.”

The State Department has been all in, too.  They tweet about women.  They herald investment in women-owned enterprises as “one of the best ways to achieve economic, financial, and social impact.”  They have created a partnership program to expand women’s political and economic participation.

But Cuban entrepreneurs or “cuentapropistas” – and especially female small business owners – are rarely offered a seat at any of these tables.  That’s not a big surprise either – if they are not willing to admit that economic reform is happening at scale in Cuba, where the biggest changes in its economic model are taking place since 1959 – it wouldn’t occur to them to reserve a seat for a Cuban.

That’s a shame.  Paradoxically, what is happening in Cuba – with men and women leaving the state payroll for jobs in the non-state sector –happens to be consistent with the oft-stated desire by the U.S. for greater independence of the Cuban people.  It’s easy for us to talk about.  But, they are the ones who are taking great risks, taking on new and unfamiliar responsibilities, and making a leap at a disruptive time in Cuba’s changing economy.

A lot of these businesses fail, as do small businesses here in the U.S.  But, when they succeed, as an entrepreneur named Barbara told us in our report about the future of gender equality in Cuba, Women’s Work, exciting things can happen:

“My life has improved over the last several years with the possibility of working as a cuentapropista….More than anything, the benefit of being a cuentapropista is the ability to manage your own decisions. I can decide how to invest, what hours to work, whether I want to offer specials and other decisions regarding how to manage the business. In other words, I’m my own boss and I suffer the consequences, but also reap the benefits of my decisions. Moreover, economically, there are few, if any, jobs in the state sector that can compare with cuentapropismo when it comes to salaries. I’ve been able to save a little money, invest in fixing up my house, buy my daughter what she needs and put food on the table. In the end, I’m a more independent woman. My husband and I help each other but we both contribute and I don’t have to rely on him.”

It would be nice, but only a start, if the President and Vice President credited Cuba’s government with making the changes it has, and then recognized that women like Barbara actually exist.

But they could go even further.  The administration should end the backlogs and delays that cause many people-to-people groups and research institutions to wait for months to hear back on renewals and new applications, so that more Americans could visit Cuba and utilize the services in the growing private sector, helping to empower individual Cubans, just like their talking points say.  If Miriam Leiva’s White House petition is any test, steps like these would be warmly welcomed in Cuba.

They could also facilitate the flow of capital to entrepreneurs in Cuba by allowing imports of products made by Cubans working in small businesses and cooperatives.  They could stop freezing financial institutions with the fear of fines for engaging in legal transactions with individuals and institutions in Cuba.  They could make projects that help women in Cuba eligible for remittances under the president’s 2011 policy.

In fact, there’s a lot of serious progress that could be made if they included Cuba, Cubans, and Cuban women in their vision of a more just world built on gender equality.

It’s a thought for Mother’s Day and we hope they think about it.


Congressman Rush introduces bill to lift embargo and bring Alan Gross home

Rep. Bobby Rush (IL-1) introduced a bill calling for the normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba, including an end to the embargo and the removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terror list, all under the condition that Cuba releases imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross. Rush stated in a press release:

“Lifting the trade embargo with Cuba is long overdue…Cuba has a rich history and is a close neighboring country that offers access to cultural growth and learning for many Americans. We have shut the door on our two nations coming together to work to build a strong alliance. Cuba is no longer a threat to the United States and the continuation of the embargo on trade between the two countries declared in 1962 is not fulfilling the purpose for which it was established. We are the only nation in the Western Hemisphere that still maintains an embargo and its removal is long overdue.”

Rush’s introduction of this bill comes almost four years to the day after the introduction of his  2009 bill, the “United States-Cuba Trade Normalization Act,” a similar bill which did not advance beyond the committee level.

Cuba reaffirms wish to negotiate with U.S. over Alan Gross

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, stated that Cuba is willing to negotiate with the U.S. over imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross, reports Cubadebate. Cuba’s government has previously expressed that it would welcome discussions with the U.S. to resolve the case. Rodríguez again raised the issue of the Cuban Five, but rejected comparisons between Gross’s case and that of René González, who, he explained, completed his “unjust” 13-year sentence and was serving out parole in Florida until a U.S. judge ruled last week that he could return to Cuba permanently if he renounced his U.S. citizenship.

Appeals court affirms lower court ruling against anti-Cuba Florida law

A federal appeals court ruled against Florida’s 2012 law that would ban the state from awarding contracts to companies whose parent companies or subsidiaries do business in Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. The ban on awarding contracts of over $1 million would have significantly hurt many companies operating in Florida, including Odebrecht USA. While the company itself does not work in Cuba, its Brazilian parent is involved in developing Cuba’s Mariel Port. The law also would have also severely affected European and Canadian companies with operations in Florida as well as Cuba.

Mariela Castro travels to Philadelphia for Equality Forum, urges U.S.-Cuba dialogue

Mariela Castro, daughter of Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, spoke in Philadelphia at a panel on the status of LGBT people in Cuba, and received an award for her activism around LGBT rights, reports The Advocate.  Sarah Stephens, CDA’s executive director, also participated as a panelist.

While in Philadelphia, Ms. Castro said the “dream” of normalized U.S.-Cuba relations, would one day become a reality: “I wish … I was a magician or (one of those) people who knows everything. That’s not the case,” but, “that dream is going to be a reality someday,” reports the Associated Press. Upon her return to Cuba, Castro reiterated the calls made during her visit to the United States for a respectful U.S.-Cuba dialogue, “without conditions,” reports EFE.

Ladies in White co-founder Miriam Leiva creates White House petition supporting people-to-people travel

Miriam Leiva, independent journalist and co-founder and former member of the Ladies in White, initiated a White House petition asking the Obama administration to continue allowing people-to-people travel to Cuba, as the exchange is “helping open minds.” The petition reads:

“Keep your people to people policy towards the Cuban people. People on the Island are thankful for your allowing remittances, Cuban-Americans visiting, and Cuban and American scholars, artists, etc., in both directions. Your proactive policy and its impact on the improvement of people’s daily lives due to assistance and exchanges with family and friends destroy Cuban authorities propaganda, blaming the US for all the regime’s wrongdoings. The embargo should be lifted, since it has being counterproductive, although I know you cannot do it now, but you can go further in your current policy. We pray for Alan Gross’ returning to U.S. ASAP.”

In 2009, Leiva testified on camera at a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs advocating for the U.S. to lift the travel ban.

Americas Media Initiative organizes Eastern Cuba tour for documentary filmmaker

As part of its “Closing Distances/Cerrando Distancias” project, Americas Media Initiative, a U.S. non-profit that works with Cuban filmmakers, has organized a tour of Eastern Cuba for U.S. documentary filmmaker Minda Martin. From May 17-24, Martin will travel to Bayamo, San Pablo de Yao, Guantánamo province, and Baracoa to screen her films and participate in question-and-answer sessions with Cuban audiences. This is the second film tour organized by Americas Media Initiative in less than a year, working in collaboration with the Havana-based Young Directors Film Festival (Muestra Joven).


Díaz-Canel speaks out against media control, urges open discussion within Cuba

Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s First Vice President, declared Monday that attempting to control the news is an “impossible illusion,” reports EFE. In a televised statement at a meeting of professional educators, Díaz-Canel stated:

“The news today comes from all sides, good and bad, manipulated and truthful, it circulates over the (online) networks, it gets to everyone, people know all about it. So what is the worst possible choice? Silence.”

Noting that censorship makes no sense, Díaz-Canel particularly encouraged educators attending the seminar to hold meaningful debates and discussions within the classroom. Earlier this year, he had commented that the state media sources were “limited” and require improvements.

Cuba now able to house over 60,000 tourists, continues to expand tourism industry

Over the past year, Cuba has opened eight new hotels, and is now able to offer lodgings to 60,552 tourists, reports Café Fuerte, adding that the goal for 2020 is 85,500 rooms.  In the last two years, Cuba has added 8,000 new rooms, over 60% of which are categorized as four- and five-star. Manuel Marero, Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, stated at the International Tourism Fair in Varadero, that Cuba is looking to diversify and expand its tourism industry, “in accordance with the times we’re living in,” reports EFE. The anticipated strategy features hotel expansion, modernization, and construction in Holguín, Varadero, Trinidad, and Camagüey, as well as investments in other tourist destinations throughout the island, according to Granma.

Cuba to introduce updated identification system

Cuba will initiate a gradual shift to a new form of identification for citizens, beginning in July, in an effort to update the system of citizen registration and reduce the possibility of identity fraud, reports Café Fuerte. Under the new system, personal identification cards will feature a barcode by which the data on the card is electronically verifiable. In a process expected to continue through 2019, the Office of Identification and Registration, a branch of the Ministry of the Interior, will issue millions of new identification cards each year.


Cuba uses WTO to challenge Australia’s “no label” laws on tobacco

Cuba sought the aid of the World Trade Organization to overturn Australia’s laws on tobacco products, reports the New York Times. Cuba claims that Australia’s laws banning the use of labels and brand names on tobacco products have created “technical barriers” to the sale of Cuban tobacco in Australia. Ukraine, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras joined Cuba in challenging these laws. Cuba and Australia will have 60 days to resolve the matter before the establishment of a WTO dispute resolution panel.

Cuban doctors to be dispatched to Brazil

Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, Brazil’s Foreign Minister, announced that Brazil will contract for about 6,000 Cuban doctors, who will be deployed in underserved communities, mostly away from urban centers, reports the BBC. Although details have not been finalized, the announcement indicates growing cooperation between Brazil and Cuba, including the development of the Mariel Port Special Development Zone, biofuel production, and food safety programs, points out Cuba Standard, as well as planned collaboration in the production of medicines for sale in Brazil and abroad.

The two countries also signed a $176 million accord to modernize five of Cuba’s airports. Gastão Vieira, Brazil’s Minister of Tourism, announced that the first non-stop flight between Cuba and Brazil will take off on June 10, reports Cuba Standard. Offered by Cubana Aviación, flights will go between São Paulo and Havana once per week.

FAO sends congratulations to Fidel Castro

Following a visit to Cuba last week, José Graziano da Silva, Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), congratulated Fidel Castro for Cuba’s early compliance with FAO goals, reports Prensa Latina. At the 1996 World Food Summit, the FAO established the goal of halving the number of undernourished people worldwide by 2015. Cuba and a number of other Latin American nations have already achieved that goal.

Around the Region

Venezuela’s President Maduro tours Southern Cone, makes Petrocaribe announcements

Last weekend, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro announced at a Petrocaribe summit in Caracas that Honduras and Guatemala have been added to the program, reports the Associated Press. Petrocaribe, initiated in 2005, offers its 18 member countries Venezuelan oil at a preferential payment rate.

In the lead-up to Venezuela becoming president pro-tempore of Mercosur, President Maduro toured the Southern Cone securing political endorsement of his presidency as well as promises of expanded trade and cooperation. Maduro began his trip in Uruguay, signing an oil agreement with President José Mujica, reports MercoPress. From there he traveled to Argentina, where he attended a political rally, was awarded the Order of the Libertador San Martín, and signed 11 bilateral agreements with President Cristina Fernández, reports the Buenos Aires Herald. In Brazil, he met with President Dilma Rousseff, who promised to amplify trade and cooperation, and with ex-President Lula da Silva, reports Reuters. Addressing a university audience in Brazil, Maduro said, “Let’s build a social, workers’, farmers’ and productive Mercosur, with which to promote joint enterprises.”

Meanwhile, the governments of the U.S. and Venezuela continue to spar. In response to President Obama’s comments regarding post-election “crackdowns” in Venezuela during his trip to Mexico, Venezuela’s government released a statement on Monday affirming Venezuela’s respect for democracy and human rights, and rejecting Obama’s statements.

Recommended Reading

A future in oil for Cuba?, Interview with Jorge Piñon, Progreso Weekly

In an interview with Progreso Weekly, energy affairs expert Jorge Piñon discusses Cuba’s prospects for oil and alternative energy sources, and explains that while Cuba’s oil exploration thus far has not been fruitful, hope is not lost for the future of Cuba’s oil industry. Piñon states, “If we find what we hope for, within five to seven years, Cuba could produce 250,000 barrels per day.”

It’s Time to Delist Cuba, Arturo López-Levy, Foreign Policy in Focus

Cuban scholar Arturo López-Levy argues that Cuba simply does not fit the definition of a state sponsor of terrorism and should be removed from the State Department’s list of terrorist-supporting countries. The recent addition of former Black Panther Assata Shakur, who was given asylum in Cuba decades ago, to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorist list does not provide a satisfactory reason to continue this designation. “Characterizing Cuba as a terrorist state–and more generally implying that the island in any way poses any threat to U.S. security–hinders the United States’ ability to develop a strategic vision for post-Fidel Cuba,” he concludes.

Recommended Viewing

Cuban spy back in Havana: No grudge against U.S., Portia Siegelbaum, CBS News

In an interview of René González, one of the Cuban Five, after his return to Cuba, González discusses his decision to renounce his U.S. citizenship and remain on the island. He says he has no grudge against the United States after his imprisonment, and expressed gratitude at being able to return to his family. He comments briefly on the case of Alan Gross, saying he wishes him well, and that a humanitarian solution should be pursued.

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