The State of the Union, Executive Power, and Cuba

Next week, President Barack Obama will deliver his fourth State of the Union Address before the U.S. Congress.

If this speech is anything like his address last year, he will talk for an hour and not mention Cuba once.

We will be listening for something else – how much the President pegs his program in 2014 on the exercise of his executive authority.  Without descending to an absurd level of tea leaf reading, meaningful hints that his administration will take a muscular approach to moving policy on either domestic or foreign affairs could bode well for action on Cuba.

First, some history: From the election of Thomas Jefferson to the retirement of William Howard Taft, presidents stopped climbing Capitol Hill to make a public address before the U.S. Congress, choosing to submit written statements instead.  President Woodrow Wilson broke the silence with a Congressional address urging passage of legislation to lower barriers to trade.

The larger significance of what Wilson did in 1913 is instructive as we wait for Obama to speak. Wilson’s speech, historians tell us, signaled an ending of absolute Congressional control over policy and the beginning of modern public rhetoric by Presidents to act, appeal to the public, and exert their dominance over the national agenda.

This theme was sounded in a speech about presidential power by then-Senator John F. Kennedy in 1960 as he started to campaign for the White House.  Although Kennedy, a biographer of the Senate’s most courageous figures, was a creature of Congress, he framed his run for the presidency as a response to Congressional inactivity and paralysis, brought on by six years of divided government.

The president, he argued, “must be prepared to exercise the fullest powers of his office – all that are specified and some that are not. He must master complex problems as well as receive one-page memorandums. He must originate action as well as study groups.”

We need, he said, “what the Constitution envisioned: a Chief Executive who is the vital center of action in our whole scheme of Government.”

That view of the presidency is what brought John Podesta, who served as President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, back into public service as an advisor to Barack Obama.  During the Clinton presidency, Podesta directed efforts that provided environmental protection for federal lands, declassified secret documents, and offered safeguards for medical privacy, during an era of searing partisan conflict and divided government, none of which required Congressional enactments.

In 2010, Podesta wrote a policy guide on executive authority that told readers “The U.S. Constitution and the laws of our nation grant the president significant authority to make and implement policy.”  He said, “President Obama’s ability to govern the country as chief executive presents an opportunity to demonstrate strength, resolve, and a capacity to get things done… Progress, not positioning, is what the public wants and deserves.”

Podesta can now evoke action from Obama as he seeks to secure a legacy for his presidency in this era of divided government.  So, we ask: Why not Cuba?

The preconditions for ending our Cold War policy approach to Cuba, and creating a new, normal relationship that reflects the conditions that prevail today could not be clearer.

  • To meet its own needs, Cuba has adopted sweeping reforms to update its economic model, giving opportunities to nearly a half-million Cubans to earn more money and exercise greater control over their own lives.  If anyone doubts these actions have implications for the island’s political system, read the reporting on what is happening in Holguín below.  These reforms also happen to be in alignment with historic goals of U.S. policy.
  • In the U.S., public support for ending the embargo is high, political assumptions about how candidates win presidential elections in Florida have been upended by President Obama’s last two campaigns, and many Cuban-Americans in Miami, exhausted by our nation’s economic crisis, and freely able to visit and support their families in Cuba, are preoccupied with improving their lives.  Even the staunchest hardliners in Congress have other problems on their minds.
  • Internationally, the European Union, Heads of State throughout Latin America, and the United Nations, have normalized relations with Cuba, confront the U.S. over our policy, or both.  We are out of step with the rest of the world.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas, the Brookings Institution, the Cuba Study Group, and other institutions have long advocated steps the president can take, without waiting for a divided Congress, to reform Cuba policy.  We just need a president to take them.

Hear, again, the words of John Kennedy:  “[T]he White House is not only the center of political leadership. It must be the center of moral leadership–a ‘bully pulpit,’ as Theodore Roosevelt described it.

“For only the President represents the national interest. And upon him alone converge all the needs and aspirations of all parts of the country, all departments of the Government, all nations of the world.”


Street protests in Holguín follow crack-down on cuentapropistas reselling household goods from state shops

Dozens of Cuban vendors and artisans reportedly took to the streets of Holguín to protest a government crack-down at the local market on the resale of household goods, reports the New York Times. The protesters marched to government offices demanding the ability to work without harassment after state inspectors visited a local market and confiscated imported products and goods from state-run shops that cuentapropistas were reselling at higher prices, which is prohibited in Cuba.

According to the New York Times, reactions to the protest were mixed. Some residents who were interviewed dismissed the protests as invalid, saying that the cuentapropistas involved were breaking the law, while others characterized the protesters as “brave” and “justifiably angry.” Sources also varied on the amount of people who participated in the protest. While some said that there were around 500 people involved, others said that there were fewer than 100. A YouTube video purporting to show the protest can be viewed here.

Cuba’s government broadens real estate reform

For the first time in fifty years, Cuban citizens will be able to rent commercial and residential properties through state-run real estate agencies, reports Cuba Standard. Previously, real estate agencies only rented to foreigners and state-run companies. Resolution 551-2013 will allow Cubans to rent buildings as office space, storage sites, and commercial and private dwellings. Buildings cannot be rented for use as news agencies, non-governmental organizations, international schools, or diplomatic sites such as embassies or consulates. Juventud Rebelde reported that this resolution:

“Provides new impetus and support for self-employed entrepreneurship and other forms of non-state management…Cuban entrepreneurs now can ‘base’ their economic initiatives […] in sites and buildings to which they had no previous access, and thus enter new segments of the market.”

Minimum rental fees for the buildings range from 5 CUC to 7 CUC per square meter, depending on the purpose for its use (residential or commercial). Rental fees that go beyond the minimum rate must be agreed to between the renter and the state real estate agency, reports Havana Times, noting that consideration is given to the “patrimonial” value of buildings, parking, swimming pools, and other facilities.

Taxi reforms go into effect nationwide

Reforms to Cuba’s state-run CubaTaxi services will go into effect nationally this month, reports Progreso Weekly, noting that many CubaTaxi employees will now become self-employed or take second jobs “because the conversion brings with it a notable ‘payroll reduction’.”

CubaTaxi oversees more than 5,000 taxis on the island, reports La Gaceta del Taxi.Under the new reforms, CubaTaxi employees will have the option of renting the cars they were originally assigned, in which case they will assume responsibility for the vehicles’ upkeep. Those who own their own cars will now be able to sign contracts with the state-run taxi agency, and drivers will be able to purchase fuel at reduced rates.

The reforms will also lead to changes for workers in public auto repair shops. Instead of being on the state payroll, those workers will lease the repair shops and service taxis as well as other cars brought in for repairs by the general public.

A conference in Washington cohosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas and featured in this brief film here, included comments by Nidialys Acosta and Julio Álvarez, self-employed workers who operate Nostalgicar. Mr. Álvarez discussed his transition from employment as a taxi driver for the state to his new role running a business, which features restored Chevys from the 1950s, which employs other Cuban workers who are now able to earn more.


Second CELAC summit to be held in Cuba next week

The 2nd summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) will be held in Cuba January 28-29. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro assumed pro-tempore presidency of CELAC following the organization’s first summit in Santiago, Chile last January. At this summit, he will pass leadership to President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, in what will be the first visit of a Costa Rican president to Cuba since the 1959 revolution, reports La Nación. Costa Rica resumed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2009.

Heads of State and other representatives from the 33 member nations are expected to attend the summit. Panama has sent Floreal Garrido to the summit, a relatively low-ranking official in Panama’s Foreign Ministry, reports Miami Herald. An anonymous ministry source told the Herald, “We will send them our fifth-ranking official to Havana to show our displeasure with their total lack of cooperation on the matter of the North Korean ship.” Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto will attend the summit, marking his first trip to Cuba, reports EFE. Vanessa Rubio, Mexico’s deputy foreign secretary, said Peña Nieto’s visit to Cuba comes at a “key moment” that the countries will use to strengthen ties that have only gotten closer since former President Felipe Calderón visited Cuba in April 2012. Presidents Castro and Peña Nieto will review recent accords between the nations.

UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, and OAS Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, will also attend the summit, reports Havana Times. The appearance by OAS Secretary General Insulza will mark the first time in fifty years that the head of the organization visits Cuba. Insulza is currently being considered for a position in newly re-elected President Michele Bachelet’s cabinet as Interior Minister in his native Chile.

Cuba’s Foreign Ministry has set up a website to provide information about the conference. According to various statements on that site, topics to be discussed during the summit include nuclear disarmament, healthcare, poverty eradication, education, energy, and regional cooperation.

Cuba’s government is preparing the city of Havana for the summit and its related events. The Juventud Rebelde newspaper published this week a list of street closures, detours, and other relevant notices. According to AFP, the owners of small private restaurants, paladares, expect to see their business booming as around 2,000 foreign visitors come to town.

Cuba to open economy to greater foreign investment

Pedro San Jorge, the director of economic policy at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, announced that a new proposed law would ensure a greater role for foreign investment on the island, reports AFP and Cuba Standard. San Jorge made the statements at a forum held for a British delegation visiting the island. The new legislation will be discussed by Cuba’s National Assembly in March.

Whereas a 1995 law stipulates that foreign investment play only a complementary role to Cuba’s economy, this new law looks to continue ongoing efforts by Cuba’s government to overhaul its economy by allowing foreign investment in sectors such as agriculture. San Jorge added some of the new legislation would be “in-line” with laws regulating the free-trade Mariel Development Zone.

EU foreign ministers to discuss Cuba on Feb. 10

José Manuel García Margallo, Spain’s Foreign Minister, announced that European Union foreign ministers will meet on February 10 to discuss EU relations with Cuba, reports the Associated Press. García Margallo said some countries have discussed the possibility of an association agreement with Cuba that could increase trade relations with the country.

EU foreign ministers were initially set to debate the EU’s 1996 Common Position toward Cuba on January 20, but the meeting was postponed indefinitely as the EU’s diplomatic corps, the External Action Service, works to “fine-tune” the Agreement for Political Dialogue and Cooperation with Cuba, another accord which could potentially replace the Common Position. In 2010, the EU published a useful memo on its policy toward Cuba which is available here.

Cuban landline and mobile phone bills can be paid from abroad

People living outside of Cuba are now able to pay landline bills online for their relatives on the island, report Cuba Standard. Irish company now offers services for those living abroad to pay prepaid re-fills on both mobile and landline phone bills in Cuba. previously allowed international users to buy credit exclusively for mobile phones.

Brazil to double Cuban doctors to 11,000

Brazil’s ambassador to Cuba announced plans to bring the number of Cuban doctors in Brazil from 5,400 to 11,000, reports Cuba Standard. The doctors are participating in Brazil’s Mais Medicos (“More Doctors”) program, which began in September of 2013, and contracts foreign doctors to help meet healthcare needs in the country’s impoverished and rural zones. Cuba Standard reports that the ambassador’s statements come early, as Brazil’s government had said in December that it would re-evaluate its need for additional doctors in March.


FY2014 budget allots $17.5 million for “democracy programs” in Cuba

On January 17, President Obama signed into law a 2014 fiscal year omnibus appropriations measure that pares back funding for so-called “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba to $17.5 million, down from the $20 million originally allotted in the House version of the bill. The measure also states that none of the funds “may be obligated by USAID for any new programs or activities in Cuba (our emphasis).” Moreover, the joint statement explaining the measures directs that of the $17.5 million, not less than $7.5 million shall be provided directly to the National Endowment for Democracy, and not more than $10 million shall be administered by the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) and Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Under its general description of “democracy programs,” the legislation states the DRL and USAID “shall regularly communicate their planned programs to the NED.” Last month, the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL) issued a call for statements of interest — in essence, a request for grant applications by non-governmental organizations — for its Democracy and Human Rights Programs in Cuba. The program plans to issue grants ranging from $500,000 to $1.5 million to organizations with programs to “support democracy and human rights in Cuba,” totaling an estimated $5 million.

Cuba’s government considers such programs subversive, and they are illegal under Cuban law.

Last year, Tracey Eaton reported on a speech delivered by Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, in which he argued that the fight for democracy in Cuba is an international pursuit.

“To those who say that defending this principle in the case of people fighting for democratic rights against a home-grown dictatorship is interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, we should recall what Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in his Nobel Lecture in 1970: ‘There are no INTERNAL AFFAIRS left on our crowded Earth! And mankind’s sole salvation lies in everyone making everything his business.'”

The FY2014 appropriations measure also provides $27,043,000 for Cuba broadcasting, about $3.2 million more than the Administration’s request. The measure also allots $8 million to the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ (BBG) for the purchase of equipment and construction and improvement of facilities for its international broadcasting operations, which include TV and Radio Martí.

Earlier this week, the BBG announced that it established an interim management structure this week for its International Broadcasting Bureau as it searches for a new CEO. André Mendes, Robert Bole, and Suzie Carroll will oversee the Office of Cuba Broadcasting until the CEO position is filled. Jeffrey Shell, the chair of BBG’s governing board, stated the restructuring is to “set the stage for important agency reforms.”

Significantly, the budget bill omits language from an earlier House Appropriations Act that would have ended all funding to license and otherwise oversee people-to-people travel to the island and required new reporting from the Treasury Department on family travel and remittances. However, it also drops a provision in an earlier Senate bill that would have authorized general license travel for professionals and their staff to attend meetings and conferences in Cuba.

Tracey Eaton, an investigative journalist, has published extensive reporting on USAID’s democracy promotion programs in Cuba and on related topics such as the BBG’s strategy toward Cuba, in collaboration with CDA.

Cuba to resume offshore oil drilling in 2015

Cuba’s government plans to resume offshore oil drilling in 2015, according to Bob Graham, who served as Florida’s governor, a U.S. Senator, and co-chair of the National Commission on the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling, reports the Sun Sentinel. Graham recently returned from Havana.

Graham says Cuba will search for oil in “an area north of Cuba that could be 10,000 to 12,000 feet deep…It could be considerably deeper. And the deeper it gets, the riskier it is.” Graham advocates cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba on offshore oil drilling. He stated, “If there were a spill of any significant size, without question it would impact Florida.” U.S. sanctions against Cuba complicate both countries’ capacity to prevent and respond to potential spills. “In terms of safety issues, [Cuban] standards are high – in some instances they even exceed U.S. standards…The question is their capability to meet those standards,” Graham explained.

One Floridian wrote to the Sun Sentinel after it published Graham’s statements. W. Frick Curry from Boca Raton argues:

“Floridians may have the United States embargo against Cuba to blame if oil washes ashore on our beaches. … Should there be an accident at a Cuban well, the free movement of equipment and know-how necessary to address the problem would likely be obstructed by our embargo. The end results of our failed 50-year-old economic embargo against Cuba could literally despoil Florida’s greatest natural resources – our beaches and coral reefs.”

The House Resolution, H.J. Res. 59, that was passed on December 26, 2013 approves an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico for oil exploration in the Gulf of Mexico, but amends the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act to state specifically that it is not to be construed as authorization for the Secretary of the Interior to “participate in any negotiations, conferences, or consultations with Cuba regarding exploration, development, or production of hydrocarbon resources in the Gulf of Mexico along the United States maritime border with Cuba.”

Earlier efforts by Cuba and foreign partners to locate commercially-viable deposits of oil in the Gulf ended in failure. The Spanish oil company Repsol found minor deposits north of Havana in 2012, but at the time said that the findings were not worth the cost of extraction. Last year, Zarubezhneft, a Russian company, conducted unsuccessful exploration efforts just off the Cuban coast. But, Graham said that promising results from seismic testing have spurred Cuba’s government to continue with the search:

“In fact, they have either made a commitment or are negotiating commitments for drilling in 10 additional blocks of the area north of the Cuban coast, and they hope to have some drilling started as early as 2015…They are satisfied that these [seismic tests] show enough commercially promising oil deposits that they are proceeding forward aggressively.”

Graham was joined by several experts, including William K. Reilly, who served as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund on a delegation to Havana last week.

State-owned Cuba Petroleo (CUPET) also announced plans this week for new onshore wells 60-100 miles east of Havana, according to a national TV newscast reported by EFE. The wells will be drilled using a horizontal technique for accessing crude oil located a few miles offshore. CUPET completed 10 similar wells in 2013.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas published 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.

Human Rights Watch: The embargo ‘has done nothing to improve’ human rights in Cuba

The most recent country report for Cuba by Human Rights Watch concludes that U.S sanctions have not helped improve the human rights situation in the country, reports Café Fuerte. The report names the U.S. as a “key international actor,” and states:

“The United States’ economic embargo of Cuba, in place for more than half a century, continues to impose indiscriminate hardship on the Cuban people and has done nothing to improve the country’s human rights. At the United Nations General Assembly in October, 188 of the 192 member countries voted for a resolution condemning the US embargo.”

The report also recognizes the positive effects of Cuba’s immigration and travel reforms that took effect last year. The report while criticizes the practice of arbitrary detentions and short-term imprisonments, as well as the government’s treatment of “human rights defenders,” government control of the media and poor prison conditions.

Around the Region

El Salvador Presidential Election Preview, 2014, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, CDA Senior Policy Analyst on El Salvador, presents a thorough breakdown and analysis of the upcoming presidential elections in El Salvador taking place on February 2nd. If you would like to receive updates about El Salvador from CDA via email, please contact:

Ecuador’s President Correa will not seek re-election

In an interview in the El Telégrafo newspaper, Ecuador’s President, Rafael Correa ruled out plans to seek re-election in 2017, reports the Associated Press. President Correa assumed office in 2007, and was re-elected in 2009 (after a new Constitution was adopted), and again in 2012. The current constitution stipulates that Presidents can only be re-elected once. Although President Correa considered amending the Constitution to allow indefinite re-elections last year, the interview appears to reflect a change of heart. President Correa explained his decision by saying,

“It is a great harm when a person becomes indispensable, having to change the Constitution to affect/alter the rules of the game. There are people capable of taking the Presidential post/being President.”

President Correa’s statements were later confirmed to the AP by his subsecretary of communications, Andrés Michelena.

Correa also said this week that the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador had too many military officers stationed in it, reports the Associated Press. A U.S. Embassy press officer stated that received no formal notification from Ecuador on this subject.

Honduras’ outgoing Congress fast-tracks secrecy bill, faces backlash

Outgoing lawmakers gave fast-track approval to an unpopular government secrecy bill, titled the Law of Official Secrets and Declassification of Public Information, just days before they were set to turn their offices over to new legislators elected in November 2013, reports CNN en Español. The law is now under review by a committee to see where it contradicts previous transparency legislation. The legislation would allow officials, including the country’s president, to deem information secret in the interest of national security, and depending on the level of secrecy, withhold that information for up to 25 years, reports La Prensa. The bill has been strongly criticized by Honduran civil society as well as the country’s Institute for Access to Public Information, the Pan-American Post notes.

Recommended Reading

Reach Out to Cuba, Ted Piccone, The Brookings Institution

Ted Piccone, foreign policy director at the Brookings Institution, commends President Obama for the steps he has taken to normalize relations between the U.S. and Cuba, and urges him to do more. Piccone lays out specific steps the President should take — among them, removing U.S. trade restrictions to help foster Cuba’s emerging class of 450,000 entrepreneurs.

Miami Dade’s False Step for Educational Exchange, John McAuliff, The Havana Note

John McAuliff delves into the details of last week’s news that 15 Cuban students will be studying at Miami Dade College this semester. He concludes: “While foreign student programs everywhere in the world, including in Cuba, are motivated by a desire to create goodwill and long term friendships, it is unfortunate that the first program to bring a group of Cubans to the US has more explicit political goals.”

Welcome to Mariel, Cuba – the new port giving berth to hope, Jonathan Watts, The Guardian

Jonathan Watts examines the impact that the special economic development zone underway at the Port of Mariel will have on the economy of the rest of the island. He concludes: “It is too early to say whether that will herald a shift in US policy, but one thing is clear: the policy change that could make the biggest difference to Cuba will be decided not in Havana or Mariel, but in Washington.” Mariel is touted as a “transport hub and warehouse center”; thus, it is of potential commercial interest to U.S. businesses seeking to export goods to Central and Latin America.

Cuba’s lovers check in to a golden age thanks to economic reforms, Jonathan Watts, The Guardian

Jonathan Watts looks into the effect of economic reforms on an overlooked small business sector — rooms-by-the-hour. Watts interviews one business owner, who says, “In the past two years, it has become much easier because what we do is legal. I can rent out rooms at any time now, whereas in the past I sometimes had to tell people to come back at midnight because I was worried we were being watched. We don’t have to hide now so I’m making more money.”

Cuba cab ends journey in museum, Press Association

The Press Association tells the story of Tony Caccavone, a London cab driver who painted the Cuban flag on his cab to show his solidarity with the Cuban people against U.S. sanctions after traveling there in the 1990s. The cab made its final run on the streets on London and has been given to a motor museum in Havana. “The Americans need to realise, enough is enough, if they would only drop this embargo, it would change the whole world,” Caccavone stated.

Recommended Listening

Poll Findings: On Cuban-Americans And The Elusive ‘American Dream’, Greg Allen, NPR

NPR’s Morning Edition discusses a recent poll about the Latino community’s financial woes, and the finding that although the Cuban-American community has “prospered” greatly in the U.S., 45% of Cuban-Americans report that their finances are “not-so-good or poor;” a rate higher than other Latino groups. While the report says that statistic likely has much to do with the high concentration of Cuban-Americans in Florida and Miami, where the unemployment rates has been above the national average for years, it also may reflect shifting demographics: “The Cubans arriving now are way poorer. They’re getting hired at minimum-wage jobs. They get very little, very few benefits. And their English is not great,” notes sociologist Guillermo Grenier.

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