Gates, Walls and Doors

Not long after President Obama returned to The White House from his holiday vacation, he was greeted by headlines in the national press about attacks on his leadership by his former Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates.

In leaks from his forthcoming memoir, “Duty,” Mr. Gates writes of Obama’s skepticism toward his own policy on Afghanistan.  “For him,” he writes, “it’s all about getting out.”

While Bob Woodward, like others in the ranks of Washington pundits, reported this as a “harsh judgment” against the President’s leadership on national security, Ron Fournier, writing in the National Journal, took a more sympathetic view.

Where Gates attacks the President for complaining about a policy he inherited and for doubting his own commanders, Fournier writes:  “We need more of that.”

According to Fournier, the President was reflecting the desires of the public to exit two unpopular wars, and demonstrating the kind of skepticism, curiosity, and reflection that is the president’s job.  In other words, President Obama was leading by following the better angels of his nature to where they might lead him.

Before his election in 2008, President Obama said, “It is time for us to end the embargo against Cuba.”  He justified his position by saying the policy had not helped Cubans enjoy rising living standards; instead, it squeezed innocents and didn’t improve human rights.  “It’s time for us to acknowledge” he said, “that particular policy had failed.”

While then-Senator Obama adhered to the traditional goals of U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba, he also acknowledged the simple reality that the embargo failed to achieve them.

We don’t expect President Obama to seek repeal of the embargo anytime soon, but we do believe that 2014 could be a year of greater openings toward Cuba, even if it means the President has to be the same kind of leader that made Robert Gates so angry.

After all, he has done it before.  In reopening Cuba to travel by Americans of Cuban descent, restoring categories of people-to-people travel, and negotiating with the Cuban government on issues such as migration and postal service, we saw the President set aside the views of his opponents, and even members of his own party, like Senator Bob Menendez, to put forward important and effective policy reforms that reflect his principles, his pragmatism, and the views of the American public writ large.

Going forward, there is much that President Obama can do using his executive authority.

Like many of our allies, The Center for Democracy in the Americas supports making all forms of people-to-people travel possible using a general license.

We strongly support direct negotiations with Cuba’s government to produce an action plan on the environment –so essential as Cuba looks to resume oil drilling in 2015– and ending the bar on Cuba’s participation in next year’s Summit of the Americas, which would give the United States a greater opening in Latin America more broadly. In addition, our research on gender equality in Cuba has led us to support policies to help Cuban women weather the transition in the island’s economy and provide real support for Cubans who choose to open small businesses.

In his epic song, Muros y Puertas, our friend Carlos Varela writes, “Since the world began, one thing has been certain, some people build walls, while others open doors.”

In 2014, we hope the President’s policy continues to reflect just this spirit of openness.  It is better to open doors  than build walls, or even Gates, for that matter.


Cuba, US hold migration talks in Havana

Officials from the U.S. Department of State and Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations met in Havana on Thursday to continue talks on migration policy, reports the Miami Herald. Alex Lee, acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Josefina Vidal, director of the U.S. Division at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry led their government’s delegations.

Although the purpose of the talks is to discuss the implementation of bilateral migration accords agreed upon in 1994 and 1995, they have previously served as a forum for the discussion of other issues of bilateral concern. The Bush Administration discontinued the talks in 2003, as part of its pre-election toughening of Cuba policy. A previous round of talks was held in Washington, D.C. on July 17, 2013.

Following the talks, Cuba’s government issued a statement which, according to Reuters, praised “the respectful environment,” in which the discussions took place, but also criticized the Cuban Adjustment Act, which it called the “main encouragement to illegal departures and irregular arrivals of Cuban citizens in the US territory,” and an obstacle to orderly migration between the countries. “A legal, safe and orderly migration flow will not be able to be achieved between Cuba and the United States as long as the wet foot, dry foot policy and the Cuban Adjustment Act are not revoked,” the statement said.

Today, Alex Lee released a statement on behalf of the U.S. delegation, which stated: “Despite our historically difficult relationship, over the course of the past year and a half we have been able to speak to each other in a respectful and thoughtful manner…the U.S. and Cuba continue to seek opportunities to cooperate and advance our shared interests.” Lee also visited jailed U.S. subcontractor Alan Gross during the three-day trip. Regarding the Gross case, he said that “[t]hroughout the discussions we expressed our sincerest hope that the government of Cuba allows Alan Gross to return to his family…and we took note of what the Cubans said about their prisoners,” referring to the four Cuban intelligence agents currently imprisoned in the U.S.

Reuters reports both countries have sought in recent months to overcome “potentially divisive incidents,” citing Cuba’s decision not to offer safe haven to Edward Snowden, and what it calls the U.S.’s deft handling of the seizure by Panama of a North Korean ship carrying Cuban weapons in possible violation of U.N. sanctions.

Additionally, the U.S. and Cuba have cooperated recently on issues of mutual interest, including working toward an oil spill protocol and reopening direct postal services between the countries.

President Castro calls on the U.S. to establish civilized relations with Cuba

During the final session of Cuba’s National Assembly for 2013, President Raúl Castro called for the U.S. to establish civilized relations with Cuba, reports Reuters. President Castro highlighted various meetings which took place throughout the past year between U.S. and Cuban officials — on migration, disaster prevention and reestablishing postal service — to demonstrate that relations between the two countries could be civilized. President Castro warned, however, that Cuba would not negotiate its political and social system and said both countries must learn to accept differences in order for relations to truly improve:

“We do not demand that the United States change its political and social system, nor do we accept negotiating ours. If we really want to move forward in our bilateral relations, we have to learn to mutually respect our differences and become accustomed to peacefully living with them.”

Speaking at an event in Florida last November, President Obama said U.S. policy toward Cuba needs to be updated. Last month, the two leaders shook hands at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

Key West flight to Cuba lands in Havana

Last week, commercial airline service resumed between Key West, Florida, and Cuba for the first time in 54 years, reports the Associated Press. The inaugural flight left the Key West International Airport for Havana at 10 a.m. on December 30 with 9 passengers, five of whom were embarking on a “people-to-people” trip organized by the Florida Keys Tropical Research Ecological Exchange Institute. U.S. Customs and Border Protection approved the flight just 90 minutes before it departed. While the first flight was initially set for November 15th, 2013, the launch date was delayed while the carrier Air Marbrisa’s awaited approval from the U.S. Dept. of Transportation.

Peter Horton, Key West International Airport’s director, deemed the flight a “test run”. “Whether this is going to come and be a regular service I don’t believe has been determined yet,” he stated.

Craig Cates, Mayor of Key West, ceremonially accompanied the group to the Havana airport and returned to Florida the same day. Cates stated that the flights will “be great for the city of Key West,” reports the Florida Keys News Bureau. Prior to 1960, there were regular flights between the destinations.

Cuban immigration reform and the relaxing of U.S. – Cuba travel restrictions have led to a boom in travel between the two nations in the last three years.

On the U.S. side, the Obama administration initiated reforms that allow unlimited family travel, reopened categories of purposeful travel, and facilitated the process for airports to gain permission to host flights to the island. Although twelve airports gained permission for Cuba flights following those reforms, the Miami Herald reports that commercial service to Cuba has remained concentrated in Florida, primarily for financial and logistical reasons.

For its part, Cuba relaxed restrictions on travel in January 2013, allowing nearly all Cubans the right to leave the island and return without restrictions.

University of Tampa baseball team to play exhibition games in Cuba

The defending national champion baseball team at the University of Tampa will travel Sunday to Cuba for a week to play four exhibition games against some of Cuba’s best teams, reports Tampa Bay Times. The trip, designated as a cultural exchange trip, will include a tour of Colonial Havana, meetings with local youth, and the opportunity to train with the Cuban Baseball Team and the Matanzas Baseball Team.

Tampa City Council Chairman, Charlie Miranda, who co-captained and played on a youth all-star baseball team in Cuba in 1954, believes that this will be an unforgettable experience for these University of Tampa players. Miranda explains,

“Baseball is a way of communicating throughout Latin America and the United States. I think it’s a great opportunity for these young individuals to go, see, look and feel what it is that’s been missing between these two countries for a long time. I’m talking about baseball.”

The University of Tampa was able to arrange this trip because it is a private university – public universities are restricted from funding travel to Cuba by Florida law.


Dutch Foreign Minister calls for changes in EU’s Common Position

Frans Timmermans, the Dutch Foreign Minister, says that it is time for the European Union to update its Common Position toward Cuba, reports the BBC and Progreso Weekly. The EU Common Position was agreed upon in 1996 and links EU diplomatic ties and trade with its objective to “encourage a process of transition to a pluralist democracy and respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as sustainable recovery and improvement in the living standards of the Cuban people.”

Timmermans, on a visit to Cuba, argued against isolation, instead saying that dialogue would both improve relations and achieve the EU’s objectives in Cuba. While acknowledging the economic reforms Cuba has put into place, Timmermans said he still hopes the government will allow more openness in society.

Timmermans is the first Dutch Foreign Minister to visit Cuba since 1959. In the European Union, the Common Position cannot be eliminated without unanimous agreement, and Germany, the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic have said they will not support a change without significant advances on human rights in Cuba. In June of 2013, Catherine Ashton, the High Representative for Foreign Policy of the European Union, stated that the EU continues to review the possibility of modifying its Common Position toward Cuba, reports Havana Times. Despite the Common Position, Cuba has signed bilateral agreements with about 15 European nations.

Raúl Castro: “Cuba will not abandon Haiti”

In a speech commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, President Castro reiterated Cuba’s support for Haiti and the Haitian people, reports CubaDebate. Acknowledging that the anniversary coincides with the 210th year of Haitian independence, President Castro discussed how both events affected Cuba since many Cubans have Haitian ancestry. He also said,

“Upon addressing this subject, I wish to reiterate to our brothers, the Haitian people and its government, that Cubans will never abandon them and that they can always count on our modest collaboration.”

Following Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, Cuba sent thousands of doctors to the neighboring island who were instrumental in caring for those injured in the earthquake, and played a lead role in response to the subsequent cholera epidemic. Cuban doctors remain on the island, where they aid in community health and other programs.

Pope Francis receives Cuba’s new Ambassador to the Holy See

Pope Francis received and accepted the official credentials of Rodney Alejandro López Clemente, Cuba’s new Ambassador to the Holy See, reports Café Fuerte. Following the meeting with Pope Francis, the Ambassador met with the cardinal Secretary of State, Pietro Parolin. Ambassador López Clemente has previously served as a diplomat in Germany, Afghanistan, Italy, Romania and Great Britain, and was the Second Secretary of the Cuban Mission to the UN. He replaces Eduardo Delgado Bermúdez who served as Ambassador to the Holy See since 2009.

Venezuela’s President Maduro visits Cuba

Venezuela’s President, Nicolás Maduro, visited Cuba to commemorate the 19th anniversary of former President Chávez’s first trip to the island, reports CubaDebate. President Maduro met with former President Fidel Castro and presented him with General O’Leary’s complete works on Simón Bolívar. President Maduro also used the time to mark the 9th anniversary of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). The Latin American Herald Tribune reports that before leaving Cuba, President Maduro met with President Raúl Castro and René González, the only member of the Cuban Five who completed his sentence and was able to return to Cuba.


Fidel Castro makes first public appearance since April

Former President Fidel Castro attended an art studio opening in Havana on Wednesday, making his first public appearance in 9 months, reports the Associated Press. Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia published photos of the visit. According to the AP, Castro’s last public appearance had been in April 2013 at the opening of a Havana school. Last month, Castro released a statement published a column about his brother, President Raúl Castro’s, recent handshake with President Obama.

President Castro delivers speech commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution

On January 1st, President Raúl Castro delivered a speech commemorating the 55th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution, report Cuba Debate and BBC News. An event marking the anniversary took place at the symbolic Parque Céspedes in Santiago de Cuba, where former President Fidel Castro declared victory in 1959. President Raúl Castro spoke about the struggles and successes of Cuba’s Revolution, while also indicating the future direction Cuba’s government seeks to take. He stated,

“It’s been 55 years of constant struggle against the plans of 11 US administrations, that with varying hostility, have not stopped in their goal to change the economic and social regime brought about by the revolution….The revolution’s programme will be updated every five years so that it can always answer to the true interests of the people and promptly correct any errors.”

For a full transcript of the speech in Spanish, see here.

State to privatize taxi industry

New reforms published by Cuba’s government on Wednesday will privatize part of the state-run taxi industry, making taxi drivers the newest to join Cuba’s growing number of self-employed workers, reports Reuters. The drivers will be removed from state payroll and expected to lease their vehicles from the state firm to work on their own or in cooperatives. The private drivers will be able to accept fares in both Cuban pesos and foreign currency. The reforms will build off of pilot programs that were established in Havana and Varadero in 2010. According to Reuters, the number of workers in the island’s private sector has grown to nearly 450,000.

Large markups shock Cubans as cars go on sale following reform

After last month’s announcement of reforms which allow Cubans to purchase new and used cars from state-owned dealerships without special permission, a severe hike in prices has led to anger and disappointment among the population, reports Reuters. Most new vehicles have been marked up by 400% or more.

The price list released by CIMEX, Cuba’s state-run import-export commercial corporation, is available in English from Havana Times. According to the list, the least expensive new car is a 2013 Peugeot 206 priced at over the equivalent of $100,000, while the least expensive used vehicle is a BMW SMOD 1997 priced at around the equivalent of $16,000. Reuters spoke to a state taxi driver, who said, “I earn 600 Cuban pesos per month (approximately $30). That means in my whole life I can’t buy one of these. I am going to die before I can buy a new car.”

In 2011, Cuba’s government enacted a reform allowing Cubans to buy and sell used cars among themselves.  Before last month’s announcement, the purchase of new vehicles, available only at state retailers, required government authorization.

Geely, the Chinese automaker that produces the top-selling cars in Cuba, announced it will open an assembly plant in Cuba, moving the final stages of production abroad, reports Cuba Standard. The move indicates that the company is poised to grow its market in Cuba and the region. The Cuban plant will be one of the company’s 15 plants set to open abroad in 2015. The company stated: “At the request of several ministries in Cuba, including the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, the Ministry of Communications, and the Ministry of Metallurgy Industry, Geely International is now preparing to launch the SKD [assembly] project in a local place.”

Cuba set to reform foreign investment law in March

President Raúl Castro announced to the National Assembly that a draft to reform the foreign investment law will be presented to Parliament for discussion in March, reports Cuba Standard. Castro stated that foreign investment is of “crucial importance to speed up the economic and social development of the country.” In September, Cuba’s government published the rules and regulations governing the Mariel Special Development Zone, a project that is expected to expand capacity for foreign exchange and investment.

Cuba relaxes loan requirements for small businesses

Cuba’s government has relaxed requirements on business loans, reports the BBC. The minimum lending amount has dropped from 3,000 to 1,000 pesos, and the repayment period has been extended from five to ten years. Homes and jewelry will also become acceptable collateral for loans. Individual Cubans have been able to take out loans since 2011, but the BBC reports that only around 500 Cubans have done so.

State law firm reports trademarks on the rise

The head of a state law firm in Cuba reported to official media that trademark registration is on the rise, reports Cuba Standard. Private business owners have increasingly registered business names, labels, signs, logos, advertising slogans and other trademarks and brands of their companies with the law firm. Private businesses registering with the firm include restaurants, graphic design firms and information technology companies.

Cuba’s customs office reports rise in drug interception

Cuba’s General Customs office has reported a rise in narcotics interceptions in 2013, reports Cuba Standard. In a televised report, the office stated that there were 43 cases in 2013, 40 in 2012, and 23 in 2011. Havana’s international airport was the site for 35 of the drug seizures in 2013.

The U.S. Department of State’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report profiles Cuba’s accomplishments and states:

“In 2012, Cuba maintained a significant level of cooperation with U.S. counternarcotics efforts…. In 2011 the Cuban government presented the United States with a draft bilateral accord for counternarcotics cooperation, which is still under review. Structured appropriately, such an accord could advance the counternarcotics efforts undertaken by both countries…. Upgraded links between the United States, Cuba, and regional partners, along with improved tactics, techniques, and procedures, would likely lead to increased interdictions and disruptions of illegal trafficking.”

Cuba passes sexual orientation and gender workplace discrimination legislation

Cuba’s Parliament approved legislation last month to protect individuals from workplace discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation, reports Gay Star News. The country’s labor code will be amended to reflect the changes.

The Havana Times recently profiled Adela, otherwise known as José Agustín Hernández, the first transgender individual to be elected to office in Cuba. In the article,Adela reflects on her first year in office and the treatment of LGBT people in Cuba. “Every country makes mistakes and Cuba made them in the way it treated us, but it has had the courage to acknowledge this…. Now I have the right to choose how to live, to the point that, soon, they are going to issue me a new ID card where I figure as a woman.”

Mariela Castro, President Raúl Castro’s daughter, is the head of the National Sexual Education Center (CENESEX) and is a strong advocate for LGBT rights in Cuba. She had reportedly also proposed changing the legislation to include protections against discrimination based upon HIV status and gender identity. According to the report, President Raúl Castro has stated that the additional proposals will be examined by a commission.

Earthquake felt on both sides of the Florida Straits

A 5.1 magnitude earthquake was felt in Havana on Thursday evening, reports the Associated Press. Though the earthquake caused medium-rise buildings to sway, no damages or injuries were reported. The earthquake lasted around thirty seconds and was centered some 112 miles east of Havana, but the U.S. Geological Survey does not report the risk of a tsunami. The quake was also felt in Key West, reports the Weather Channel.

Around the Region

Former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores faces corruption scandal

Former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores, who led the country between 1999 and 2004, spoke this week before an investigative commission organized by the country’s National Assembly, reports El Faro. Ex – President Flores until recently was the main campaign advisor for ARENA presidential candidate Norman Quijano, the mayor of San Salvador. Flores acknowledged that during his presidency, he received at least $15 million in donations from the government of Taiwan, saying that this was given in exchange for El Salvador’s support for the recognition of Taiwan as an independent country.

Flores stated that he had received money in the form of foreign aid on four occasions from the president of Taiwan; as an emergency response to the 2001 earthquakes, combat kidnappings, later to fight drug trafficking, and finally to fight gangs and organized crime. Flores was however unable to detail the amount of money received in those instances, the dates the money was received, or where the money wound up. El Salvador’s Attorney General’s office is currently investigating, reports the Associated Press.

Recommended Reading

John Cavanagh’s Letter to President Obama, John Cavanagh, Institute for Policy Studies

John Cavanagh, the director of the Institute for Policy Studies, has written a letter to President Obama asking that the United States pursue a more open policy toward Cuba and free the Cuban Five. “In so doing,” he writes, “you would again both be addressing a case of unjust sentencing, and you would open the door to a new chapter in U.S. relations with Latin America by taking a major step toward reestablishing relations with a key neighbor.”

Analysis: How the Cuban economy performed in 2013, José Luis Rodríguez , Cuba Standard

José Luis Rodríguez, former Minister of Economy and Planning in Cuba, offers a summary of the triumphs and travails of the Cuban economy in 2013, and gives predictions about the year to come.

Democrats breaking GOP’s long lock on Cuban vote, Michael Mishak, Associated Press

Michael Mishak analyzes the generational shift in Cuban-American politics exemplified by the election of the first Cuban-American Democrat to Congress, Representative Joe García. Mishak argues that these developments are particularly troubling for the GOP and their interest in winning a majority of the Hispanic vote in Florida.

Pope Francis & the Holy Market: On Cuba’s Reform Process, Fernando Ravsberg, Havana Times

Fernando Ravsberg uses Pope Francis’ position on the limitations of the free market to remind readers that economic growth in Cuba will not necessarily lead to inclusion and equity. Instead, he writes, the interests of the market may devour the progress achieved in “fragile” sectors such as education, health care and culture.

Is the Cuban embargo eternal?, Tim Ashby, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Senior Research Fellow for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, Tim Ashby, writes a piece on the seemingly eternal political strategy that is the U.S. embargo against Cuba. He concludes, “The U.S. propensity to act with dignity and provide a solution to diplomatic problems in other parts of the world seems to be beyond Washington’s ability when applied to Cuba. Washington would be wise to understand that, if it has any hope for even a remotely respectable policy towards Cuba, it must give up its lunatic stance that has no prospects for success or respectability.”

What it’s Like to Watch Béisbol in Cuba, John W. Miller, The Wall Street Journal

Miller describes the experience of watching baseball games in Cuba, from the fans’ intense passion for the game, to the very human interactions between the players and the fans: “In Cuban baseball, the scoreboard offers inning tallies and run, hit and error totals. No batting averages, pitch velocities or fun facts. And it never, ever tells you when to cheer. And so the gasp that comes with every pitch is because of the pitch. The horns hammer on incessantly during tense parts of the game because of the game. A big hit sparks furious roaring.”

Oil partnership could unite Mexico and Cuba, ex-diplomat says, Progreso Weekly

Progreso Weekly examines the recommendation by Ricardo Pascoe Pierce, Mexico’s former Ambassador to Cuba, that Mexico and Cuba develop “a strategic partnership on matters of energy.” Pascoe Pierce sees the upcoming CELAC summit in Havana as an opportune time for Mexico to repair relations with Cuba after ties suffered during the administration of former President Vicente Fox.

Recommended Viewing

Cuba economic reforms felt at the dinner table, Portia Siegelbaum, CBS News

Portia Siegelbaum takes a look at the effects of the economic reforms on food markets and individual purchasing power in Cuba. In her report, Seigelbaum says “Cuba is moving away from being a welfare state for all and earmarking aid for those who need it the most.”

Senator Bob Menendez becoming the Dems’ Jesse Helms, Steve Clemons, The Washington Note

Steve Clemons comments on recent legislation proposed by Sen. Menendez (NJ) which would impose additional sanctions on Iran if it violates the terms of the interim nuclear deal being negotiated between Iran, the U.S. and the EU. Clemons writes: “With all due respect to many of the good things Senator Robert Menendez has done in the domestic policy arena, in foreign affairs he is positioning himself more and more as the Democratic version of Jesse Helms. Unlike recent Democratic and Republican chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – including Joe Biden, Richard Lugar, and John Kerry himself – Menendez tilts towards ideological and emotional crusades, not strategic frameworks.”

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