This week, 5 Cubans changed the conversation in Washington

This week, five small business owners visiting Washington changed the conversation about Cuba to something deeper and far more interesting than what normally takes place when policymakers debate the future of Cuba and U.S. policy by themselves.

Take, for example, Yamina Vicente, who taught economics to college students in Havana and left her post to open Decorazón, a business that provides decorations and hosts parties for Cuban families. Her clients spend as little as $20 and as much as $500 for birthdays, baby showers, weddings, and even the celebration of Halloween.

When she was asked, “What does the ability to run a small business mean to you?”, her answer might have sounded familiar to anyone who has attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting in the United States.

“There are five advantages,” she said.

The first is increased income and financial opportunity.  Her personal situation “has improved a great deal” since she opened Decorazón.  The second is the ability to provide employment to others.  Third, she is able to offer services never before seen in Cuba.  Fourth, she said, “there is no longer a ceiling on what you can achieve.  Your efforts can take you anywhere now.”  Fifth, finally, she said she had regained lost hope, because running a business “combines my passions with what is objectively needed to survive.”

Yamina was joined by Nidialys Acosta and Julio Álvarez, whose fleet of rental cars allow tourists to see Cuba from seats inside restored Chevrolets from the 1950s; Niuris Higueras Martínez, owner of the fashionable Atelier paladar; and by Emilia Fernández, a human resources specialist in the state-run health system.

Julio and Nidialys are earning more running their business than they did as employees of the state.  They are learning more, as well, from foreign tourists who have advised them on everything from the amenities consumers expect (they now supply water and moist towelettes) to the design of their logo and website.  Their business is taking off; with more reservations than they could handle, they expanded payroll and hired more staff, and they are now formalizing a contract approved by Cuba’s Tourism Ministry to provide their rental cars for use by foreign tourists in packages run by Cubanacan, a state enterprise.

To Julio, who once stood outside the Hotel Nacional with his one taxi asking foreign tourists, “Do you need a taxi? Need a taxi? Taxi? Taxi?”, this is welcomed relief.

Emilia Fernandez, whose hospital provides surgery for patients with retinitis pigmentosa and other eye diseases, sees opportunity with the reforms.  Her institution can now access faster, more efficient maintenance and repair of its physical plant and stock its food service with fresher commodities because the state allows it to contract out to businesses run by self-employed workers.  Moreover, she plans to research the health effects of the entrepreneurial economy – for example, stress – and to offer advice to the self-employed on how to maintain their health as they build their businesses.

None of the Cubans declared their country’s private sector reforms had converted Cuba into an “entrepreneur’s paradise.”  As in the U.S., the majority of small businesses in Cuba fail.  They struggle due to lack of consumer demand, an inefficient system of allocating and obtaining credit, limits on their ability to buy wholesale goods, and limits on access to the Internet. These are problems native to Cuba’s system and cannot be fixed from the outside.

By the same token, the changes they are reporting, such as their growth in personal satisfaction, are also rippling through the society at-large in ways with implications for U.S. policy.

Earlier this year, Senator Marco Rubio ripped into visitors to Cuba, reminding them that the country (he has never visited) is not a zoo.  Our Cuban visitors, however, said that tourism was driving the expansion of their businesses and was the source of innovation.  They said Cubans are not only getting better pay, more jobs, and diverse services, but the private sector reforms are forcing the state enterprises to be more efficient and competitive.

After listening to the cuentapropistas tell their stories, Carlos Saladrigas of The Cuba Study Group called the U.S. embargo, put into effect to change Cuba, an obstacle to the changes happening in Cuba.  Lifting restrictions – encouraging more travel, opening the U.S. as an export market for goods created by the new Cuban businesses, allowing more support to flow from the U.S. into Cuba – is the right way to go if we want to support the transformation taking place.

Niuris came to Washington with a promotional video for Atelier. Its theme – antes y después, before and after – records the reconstruction of her restaurant, but it could also be a metaphor for what is happening in Cuba, and a guide for where U.S. policy should go – from the embargo to something different and better for both countries.

As President Obama said in Miami late last week, “Keep in mind that when Castro came to power, I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

After more than a half-century of trying to get Cuba to fail, we should try listening to Cubans who want a chance for themselves and their country to succeed.

This week, in Cuba news…


President Obama says that U.S. policy toward Cuba needs to be updated

The irony of enforcing an embargo against Cuba that he is older than he is has not escaped President Obama.  At a fundraiser in Florida, held at the home of Jorge Mas Santos, President of the Cuban-American National Foundation, the president stressed the need for an updated U.S. policy toward Cuba that is creative and thoughtful, reports Reuters.

Havana Times noted that in choosing to use the word, “update,” Obama mirrored President Raúl Castro’s use of the same word to describe the economic changes occurring in Cuba. President Obama remarked,

“And we’ve started to see changes on the island. Now, I think we all understand that, ultimately, freedom in Cuba will come because of extraordinary activists and the incredible courage of folks like we see here today. But the United States can help. And we have to be creative. And we have to be thoughtful. And we have to continue to update our policies.”

President Obama also mentioned that some of the steps his administration has taken since being elected, such as allowing Cuban Americans to send remittances and travel to Cuba more easily, have had a positive effect.

Attendees at the fundraiser included U.S. Senators Bill Nelson (FL) and Michael Bennet (CO) as well as celebrated Cuban dissidents Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, and Guillermo Fariñas.  President Obama’s full statement is available here.

Around 50 Senators to issue letter to Obama regarding Alan Gross

Approximately 50 Senators are working to finalize a letter to President Obama asking that the president take “whatever steps are in the national interest” in order to free imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross, reports Foreign Policy. Alan Gross was accused of spying for the U.S. in Cuba, and was sentenced to 15 years in prison on the island in 2010. According to the report, previous drafts of the letter had been more explicit, asking Obama to take “any measures necessary” to secure Gross’ release, however the language has been softened due to strong opposition from Cuban-American Senators Bob Menendez (NJ) and Marco Rubio (FL), who plan to deliver their own letter to President Obama, asking simply for Gross’ “immediate and unconditional release.”

U.S. and Cuba officials meet in Florida to develop oil spill cooperation plan

According to the Tampa Tribune officials representing the United States and Cuba were to meet in St. Petersburg, Florida today to work on the Multi-Lateral Technical Operating Procedure, an oil spill response cooperation plan.

The meeting – with officials from the U.S. Coast Guard, Department of State, and Department of Interior – along with others from the governments of Mexico, the Bahamas, and Jamaica is part of an evolving process to formalize oil spill response procedures such as visa clearance for clean-up crews. The countries involved in the meetings are also signatories to the United Nations Cartagena Convention, which requires nations in the Caribbean region to protect and preserve rare and fragile ecosystems.

Captain John Slaughter of the U.S. Coast Guard stated that he and the other participants have attempted to keep the three-year process “fairly low-key because they are only technical discussions… not political.”

The working group plans to hold routine mock operations, reportedly considered military operations due to the Coast Guard’s involvement. The Coast Guard received permission in 2012 to enter Cuban waters and bring in private companies to respond to a spill. Although Slaughter is not sure that an agreement will be reached by the end of the year, he stated that what is being worked on is a “nonbinding technical agreement,” which, once approved by the working group, will not need high-level approval and can go immediately into effect.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) stated that the U.S. and Cuba have shared many other instances of cooperation on issues such as drugs and immigration, but that “it goes unnoticed by a lot of the hard-liners when it comes to Cuba and U.S. policy.”

The Center for Democracy in the Americas wrote a report in 2011, “As Cuba plans to drill in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. policy poses needless risks to our national interest,” which calls for increased cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba in its environmental emergency response plans as reflected in the planning meeting held today.

Cuban diplomats visited Miami area

Two diplomats from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. visited the Miami area this week, reports Miami Herald, to meet with travel companies that arrange trips between Cuba and the United States. According to travel company representatives, the diplomats discussed the state of the tourism business and inquired about the new system put into place at the Cuban Interests Sections to expedite the issuance of visas for Cuban-Americans to travel to Cuba.

Cuban diplomats have to receive permission from the U.S. Department of State before traveling outside of Washington, D.C. while officials at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana similarly require permission to leave that city.

Key West to Cuba flight service delayed

The November 15th launch date of small charter flights by Air Marbrisa airlines from Key West to Cuba is delayed for one month, reports Florida Keys Keynoter. Bob Curtis from Air Marbrisa explained that the delay was due to Air Marbrisa’s lack of a 380 certificate. This certificate, which is provided by the U.S. Department of Transportation, establishes an operator as a public charter. Curtis delayed the flights until around December 15th so that the service will be in accordance with federal rules and regulations.

MEDICC receives multi-million dollar grant to improve medical cooperation with U.S.

The Atlantic Philanthropies, a private U.S. foundation, has awarded a grant of $5.8 million to Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba (MEDICC), to provide funding for low-income students to attend the Latin American Medical School (ELAM) in Havana, reports Cuba Standard.  The grant will also provide for the launch of a program to bring U.S. community leaders and academics to Cuba to study “health-equity” projects, promote general travel exchanges between the U.S. and Cuba by professionals, and increase the supply of international medical journals to Cuba.

U.S. doctors attending the 31st Havana International Trade Fair last week lauded the public health system in Cuba, reports Prensa Latina. Dr. Joel Maurer, a professor at the University of Michigan, stated, “We are impressed to know that the Cubans have developed products for diabetes, nerve repair and other treatments that do not commonly appear in the United States,” referring to Heberprot-P, the diabetic foot ulcer medication that is fueling debate as supporters seek to introduce the drug for testing in the U.S. Larry Jacob, a doctor delegation leader, stated, “If you have a neighbor like Cuba, so close, and you work together, your work would be much more efficient, and it wouldn’t make sense not to collaborate even more.”

William Potts, returned from Cuba, pleads not guilty to air piracy charge

Last week, we reported that William Potts had returned to the U.S. to potentially face federal charges. This week, Potts plead not guilty in a U.S. federal court for charges of air piracy, reports Reuters. Potts faces 20 years to life in prison for hijacking a U.S.-destined plane in 1984 and forcing it to re-route to Havana. Having served 13 years in a Cuban prison, Potts hopes that the U.S. will take time served into consideration. Potts’s bond hearing will be next week.


Cuba elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council

Cuba won its bid to serve on the United Nations Human Rights Council, reports Reuters. Cuba will have a seat on the Council for three years beginning next year.  Other nations joining Cuba on the Council include China, Russia, South Africa, Namibia, Mexico, Algeria, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and France.

Cuba’s government called the selection a “new victory for the Cuban people,” reports the Associated Press. Anayansi Rodriguez, Cuba’s ambassador to the UN, stated:

“Cuba’s selection is nothing less than a recognition of its consistent stance of rejecting double standards and the persistent efforts by Western powers to use the Council for political ends, to manipulate the issue of human rights in service of its interests and to convert this body into an inquisitor tribunal for the nations of the (global) South who don’t submit to their designs.”

This year there were 16 candidates for 14 open seats on the Council; Uruguay and South Sudan were not elected. Countries need at least a majority of the 193 country votes to be elected. Cuba received 148 votes and will be the only member on the Council from the Caribbean.

This decision comes two weeks after 188 members of the UN General Assembly condemned the U.S. commercial, economic and financial embargo against Cuba for the 22nd straight year.

World Council of Churches presses U.S. to end embargo and normalize relations with Cuba

The Geneva-based World Council of Churches passed a resolution condemning U.S. sanctions against Cuba and calling for the normalization of relations between the two nations at its 10th Assembly meeting in South Korea, reports Ecumenical News. The resolution states, “We believe that the economic, commercial and financial blockade against any country causes enormous pain to its people, especially the poor and vulnerable.” The assembly drew about 5,000 participants. The WCC represents some 560 million Christians worldwide. Last month, U.S. religious leaders penned a letter to President Obama urging him to normalize relations with Cuba.

Direct flights from Denmark and Poland to fly to Cuba in time for high tourist season

Direct, bi-monthly flights from Denmark and Poland will begin in time for Cuba’s high tourist season, reports Cuba Standard. The inaugural flight from Poland arrived to Cuba last Saturday with 250 tourists, while the first flight from Denmark is expected to arrive next Wednesday, also carrying 250 travelers. Both services are in place for the European winter season vacations and will be offered until early spring. CubaDebate reports that by mid- December, Cuba expects to have received a million visitors for the sixth consecutive year, with most of the tourists coming from Canada, Germany and Russia.

Cuba to implement Havana Bay clean-up plan

Cuba will implement a 20-year plan to clean the Havana Bay, reports Prensa Latina. The plan is the product of 18 months of collaboration with experts from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). It will include the renovation and expansion of sewage, storm drain, and waste water treatment systems. Cuba will also partner with a Spanish company to construct four wastewater treatment plants in Havana to control the quality of runoff into the harbor.

Adán Torres, environmental director of the body charged with the bay’s clean-up, stated that water quality in the bay has showed signs of stabilizing in the last three years, including the reappearance of marine flora and fauna. The Havana Bay has an area of 5 square kilometers and an average depth of 9 meters.


Granma publishes article responding to public outcry on 3D theater ban

An article written in Cuba’s official newspaper, Granma, reports on the negative reaction among Cubans to a recent ban on 3D home theaters, reports the Associated Press. After the ban was announced on November 2nd, consumers, small business owners and the general public spoke out against the decision, protests which the Granma article takes into account. Phil Peters, President of the Cuba Research Center and long-time Cuba analyst, further commented on the article:

“It’s extraordinary because the government made a very clear decision, and now it seems it’s being walked back. That’s not something that happens every day…It could mean that this is a constituency [entrepreneurs] that the government wants to take into account.  Raul Castro’s government does not view these entrepreneurs as a necessary evil … They’re viewed as necessary to the economy.”

The swift reaction from Granma could hint that the government will reconsider the ban.

Around the Region

Office of Salvadoran human rights organization “Pro-Búsqueda” invaded; documents destroyed

The Association Pro-Búsqueda, an organization dedicated to aiding searches for children who were lost or stolen from their families during El Salvador’s civil war, was broken into by three people on Thursday morning, reports La Prensa Gráfica. Case files and legal documents were burned and money and computers were taken.

Linda Garrett, CDA’s Senior Policy Analyst on El Salvador, notes that this is the first outright attack on a human rights organization in recent years, and that the incident comes shortly after the closure of Tutela Legal, the country’s Catholic Church’s human rights offices. The Salvadoran Supreme Court recently decided to consider whether the post-war 1993 amnesty law should remain in effect. Pro-Búsqueda’s statements regarding the break-in can be found here, in which they also report that on the same morning a Pro-Búsqueda employee was followed by three people while trying to go to work.

Among the documents burned were documents relating to three cases that El Salvador’s Supreme Court is considering, which name retired military members who may be held responsible for the forced disappearances of minors, reports El Faro. Fortunately, those documents are backed up elsewhere, Pro-Búsqueda reported. El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes has condemned the break-in and destruction of documents, saying “we will work with Pro-Búsqueda’s leadership to clarify the case and find those responsible,” reports La Prensa Gráfica.

Congressman Eliot Engel speaks out for human rights in Honduras and in favor of U.S. neutrality in upcoming elections in El Salvador

Representative Eliot Engel (NY-16), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke at the Council of the Americas this week about the upcoming elections in Honduras and in El Salvador, where emphasized the progress El Salvador has made since the country’s civil war and the strong relationship between the U.S. and El Salvador since the FMLN began to govern.

Referring to El Salvador’s upcoming election, Engel stated:

“To the State Department: it is imperative that you show, by words and deeds, that the US is relentlessly neutral in these elections. It is not enough for us to say we are not involved. We must overcome: the unfortunate baggage left by some past US administrations that have historically been nakedly partisan in Central American politics (…) It is likely easier to say this than to do it. But by words and deeds, the burden is on us to actually persuade our Central American friends that we do not have a finger on the electoral scale, and that we will work with whoever is elected. The historical context calls for nothing less.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Juan Vargas (CA-51) has circulated an appeal urging his colleagues to sign onto a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry supporting U.S. neutrality in El Salvador’s upcoming elections.

Rep. Engel also spoke forcefully about the human rights situation in Honduras and the U.S. role in this. Regarding recent threats to Bertha Oliva, the founder of The Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), Engel said:

“A very thick skin is required to be a human rights defender in a place like Honduras, and Bertha is unusually fearless. But in the past week, the volume and nature of attacks impugning her have grown to a level that causes us to be concerned for her safety. And what triggered this was her trip last week to Washington to visit members of Congress and their staffs. This is, to say the least, alarming. This campaign of threats and intimidation to Bertha must cease. I ask the Honduran government to ensure her safety and that of her staff, as well as the safety of all human rights defenders in Honduras.”

Recommended Reading

Washington event puts spotlight on Cuban entrepreneurs, Cuba Standard

The Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, the National Foreign Trade Council’s USA*Engage program, and Cuba Educational Travel hosted a half-day conference about “Cubans in the New Economy” this week. The event featured five Cuban guests, who discussed how their lives have been affected by the economic reforms in Cuba, as well as U.S. academics and policymakers. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) and Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, delivered remarks. A press release is available here, and video footage of the conference will be posted on our website shortly.

President Obama: In Search of a Creative Policy Towards Cuba Arturo López-Levy, Huffington Post

Arturo López-Levy makes the case that the central theme in President Obama’s statements that U.S. policy toward Cuba is has been overlooked by the media. López-Levy explores the shortcomings of current policy and provides suggestions on how it can be improved. Addressing President Obama’s call for creativity in U.S. policy change toward Cuba, he advises President Obama to facilitate change through the Constitutional powers at his disposal.

We have to update our policies,” Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle

Phil Peters reflects on President Obama’s recent statements regarding U.S. policy toward Cuba, recalling that the changes made during his first term have had an enormous positive impact, while noting there are a vast array of “creative” changes that could still be made, even within the restraints of the Helms-Burton law: “…If President Obama is really taking the long view back to 1961, maybe he will think about the posture he would adopt toward Cuba if he had not inherited a set of policies that have piled up year by year, like old junk in a closet, ever since the Kennedy Administration.”

Cuba’s Emerging Middle Class And Growing Private Sector Johanna Mendelson Forman, Huffington Post

Johanna Mendelson Forman contends that Cuba has a growing middle class, building her argument on the new report by Richard Feinberg for the Brookings Institution: “Soft Landing in Cuba? Emerging Entrepreneurs and Middle Classes.” She explores the economic changes under President Raúl Castro that have created the context for such growth. “Why does this matter? Because when a nation has a middle class they can become an important force for modernization,” she writes.

New Cuban port, economic zone a potential lifeline, but US embargo rules still a challenge, the Associated Press

The Associated Press reports from the Mariel, Cuba, where the major transformation to a $900 million port and special economic zone is underway. The author speculates on the effect the new project will have on Cuba’s economy as the U.S. trade embargo still holds tight.

Reunion of Africa and Cuba Yusimi Rodríguez, Havana Times

Yusimi Rodríguez details the journey of the Reunion exhibition which opened in Havana at the Casa de Africa on November 2nd. This exhibition includes photographs from Sergio Leyva and sculptors from Alfredo Duquesne. The photographs and sculptures included in the exhibition are inspired by Cubans visiting the homeland of their ancestors in Africa for the first time as chronicled in the forthcoming documentary They Are We. Rodríguez provides snippets of conversation with both Leyva and Duquesne on the development of the exhibit and includes a photo gallery of the exhibit as well.

Recommended Viewing

Havana’s new wave of entrepreneurs: A Rollercoaster ride, Conner Gorry

Conner Gorry, a blogger, writer for MEDICC, and co-founder of Cuba’s first English-language bookshop, gives her insights on the good and the bad of small business ownership under Cuba’s economic reforms.

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