A few years back, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen invited a Congressional reporter to observe her daily ritual of making Cuban coffee.  She percolated a pot of Café Bustelo, placed “a healthy amount of sugar,” in a separate cup, and then added “a few drops of coffee into the sugar.”

She stirred aggressively, “that’s what makes the ‘espuma’ or the foam” she explained. “Thicker foam makes for better coffee.  That’s the mystique.  Well, that and the sugar.”

As she tells her staff: “You can’t have too much sugar.”

Now, thanks to Alfy Fanjul, whose recent interview in the Washington Post triggered a reaction among embargo supporters akin to an immense sugar rush, she’s probably cutting back.

If tobacco bound the agonized history of the American South to the broader national experience, sugar is the commodity that has tied the United States, Cuba, and Florida – our people, our economies, our politics – together for three centuries.

Louis Pérez, in his landmark work, On Becoming Cuban, chronicles the pervasive influence of U.S. corporations on the island felt most powerfully at the sugar mill.  Sugar was the feedstock for the wealth and power amassed by Cuba’s most influential families for generations before the revolution; among them, the Fanjul family, which started its sugar operations in the 1850s.  Fidel Castro’s father, Ángel Castro raised sugar cane; and his son experienced the allure but also the exclusion of foreign corporate sugar interests which, according to one history, “enraged” him.

The United States was Cuba’s largest market for sugar exports.  The industry’s mills were among the first U.S. assets nationalized by the revolution.  President Eisenhower in December 1960 retaliated by prohibiting the imports of sugar in the U.S.; the following year, sugar plantations were targeted for bombings and shipments of Cuban sugar were targets for contamination.

The Fanjul family fled the island for Florida, which soon replaced Cuba as this country’s sugar bowl.  They reestablished their business, and began selling sugar under brand names like Domino and Jack Frost. According to one report, their holdings include more than 400,000 acres of land, with holdings that comprise as much as 12% of Palm Beach County, operations in 20 U.S. states, Canada, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico.

With politics as their industry’s protection, the Depression-era farm program that props up domestic sugar growers has been immune to the cuts that have hit nearly all other federally-supported commodities. This has enriched the Fanjuls, some estimates say, by as much as $60 million annually, while raising food prices, as Progreso Weekly reports, for us all.

Naturally, a fraction of this money is recycled into the system through campaign contributions to friends in Congress who vote with Big Sugar, philanthropy to public causes, and support to the institutions painstakingly built in Florida and Washington to keep the embargo in place, while the most hardened enemies of the Cuban government cling to the embargo and wait for the Castro brothers to die.

This notion of a “biological solution” fixing Cuba, so alive in the minds of some exiles, has never succumbed to realities such as the long life spans of Fidel and Raúl Castro or the implausibility of their successors giving up what they spent their lives creating.  Paradoxically, there is a counterpart notion in the minds of Cuba policy reformers; namely, that this stupid embargo policy will never die until patriarchs like Alfy Fanjul “age out” of the South Florida political demographic as well.

In his interview with the Washington Post, Mr. Fanjul told reporters about his travels to Cuba, his meetings with the foreign minister, and his willingness to make investments in Cuba.

Significantly, Mr. Fanjul would invest without waiting for Cuba to satisfy the preconditions written into the Helms-Burton law by public officials, many of whom his family has supported financially, which otherwise require the embargo to remain in place.

As Phil Peters wrote this week, “Short of Jorge Mas Canosa arising from the dead and saying, ‘Never mind,’ it’s hard to think of a bigger shift in the Miami political landscape than the news that the Fanjul brothers have traveled to Cuba and would like to invest there.”

To put it mildly, these statements from someone the Post called “one of the principal funders of the U.S. anti-Castro movement,” enraged leading supporters of U.S. sanctions on Cuba.  Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who last year published an op-ed denouncing Cuba’s government for “enforcing political conformity” using “public acts of repudiation,” repudiated Mr. Fanjul for deviating from the hardliner’s hardline.

Rep. Diaz-Balart said, “Some might be blind to the Castro regime’s brutality and ruthless oppression, but Alfonso Fanjul’s betrayal is compounded because he knows better. In her statement, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, “it’s pathetic that a Cuban-American tycoon feels inspired to trample on the backs of those activists in order to give the communist thugs more money with which to repress.”

One critic predicted Fanjul would soon be hiring Cuban slaves to produce sugar.  Another demanded a Congressional inquiry into his travel and concluded his post: Mr. Fanjul, “your travel papers please.”  The former staff director of the House Foreign Relations Committee proposed a policy change to deny any recipient of farm subsidies the right to travel to Cuba.

It’s hardly a surprise that the Fanjul interview sparked such a vitriolic family feud.  Change is unsettling, but never more so when the prospect of change occupies such a distant horizon, as it has in Cuba and the U.S. for so many decades.  Located there, change can be foreboding, not hopeful.

We’ve been tantalized and disappointed by the auguries of change before.  And yet, what is happening now makes so much sense: movement toward normalization before the revolutionary generation in Cuba “ages out,” sped forward by a 76-year-old exile living in South Florida who says he just wants to do business back home and reunite the family.

Most of us believe this is where history was taking us anyhow.  If this leaves a bitter aftertaste with the remaining supporters of the embargo; well, isn’t that what sugar is for?


Survey shows most Americans who travel to Cuba become more supportive of ending sanctions

A survey conducted by Friendly Planet Travel found that after traveling to Cuba, 88% of individuals were more likely than before to support ending the embargo against Cuba, reports the Associated Press. The survey further noted that these trips shift attitudes and opinions toward Cuba, dispelling myths and improving Cuban and U.S. traveler’s views of one another. The informal survey polled 423 U.S. citizens who traveled to Cuba in December

Findings were supported anecdotally by travelers and guides from other agencies. Jeff Philippe, a guide with Insight Cuba, said “Some people go back and say they want to write letters to their senators…I’ve had several people say to me, ‘I want to make this my personal mission to end the embargo.’” Ellen Landsberger, a people-to-people traveler, told the BBC after her trip to Cuba:

“I think U.S.-Cuban relations should be open. People should be talking to each other. People should be sharing. We have this tiny little island that is no threat to the U.S. that we’re isolating from the world. It doesn’t make sense.”

Approximately 70,000 to 100,000 U.S. citizens legally travel to Cuba each year. Internationally, it is also one of the fastest growing destinations for long-term holiday vacations, and Cuba saw a 0.5 percent increase in foreign tourism arrivals for 2013. Sarah Rainsford, covering Cuba for the BBC News filed this story discussing people-to-people trips to Cuba and the results of the survey.

U.S. ship first to bring business to Mariel port

A container ship from Florida was the first to dock at the new Mariel container port, which opened in Cuba last week, reports the Sun-Sentinel. Crowley Maritime Corporation, based in Jacksonville, Florida, sent a ship to Mariel from Port Everglades in South Florida, reportedly carrying 50 shipping containers primarily of frozen chicken. Most food and agricultural commodities are exempt under U.S. sanctions against Cuba. Sales of such goods are authorized granted that they occur on a cash-only basis, or through a third-country bank that does not conduct business with the U.S., as Cuba is barred from accessing U.S. credit. Upon his return to the U.S. Jay Brickman, vice president of Crowley, said that the Mariel port “could be a game-changer for the Cuban economy.”

Government-funded TV and Radio Martí criticizes Rep. Castor

A report broadcast by taxpayer-funded TV and Radio Martí criticized Representative Kathy Castor (FL-14) after she attended a recent Tampa Chamber of Commerce meeting, along with José R. Cabañas Rodríguez, Chief of Mission of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington. In the segment, Ralph Fernández, a Tampa attorney, suggests without evidence the visit had an ulterior motive, and the TV Martí reporter, Jorge Riopedre, directly states that the meeting was a “continuation” of Castor’s relationship with the Cuban government.

Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) released a statement condemning the piece and describing it as biased, unjust and inflammatory:

“To be against the embargo is a position protected by the First Amendment and U.S. tax dollars should not be used for McCarthyist campaigns against a federal representative, insinuating inappropriate relations with a foreign government.”

In 2012, Rep. Jim McGovern with four House colleagues penned a letter to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemning an Office of Cuba Broadcasting/TV-Radio Marti’s editorial about Cardinal Ortega, which called him a “lackey.” The State Department had highlighted and supported Ortega’s efforts to promote religious freedom, provide charitable services to the Cuban people, and criticize the government’s human rights abuses. Like CAFE, McGovern pointed out the contradiction between administration policies and the Office of Cuba’s Broadcasting’s criticism:

“These words, published in the name of the U.S. government, are unacceptable and should not be allowed to stand without comment or rejection by the Administration.”

The federal budget for FY2014 gives the Cuba broadcasting program over $27 million, roughly $3.2 million more than the Administration requested. The budget also allots $8 million for technology and facility upgrades to the Broadcasting Board of Governors for international broadcasting, which includes TV and Radio Martí programming.

 “Hackathon for Cuba” held in Miami

Three teams of computer programmers were awarded $1,000 cash prizes for developing technology solutions to facilitate the dissemination of information throughout Cuba at “Hackathon for Cuba,” reports the Miami Herald. The event was organized by the student and youth organization Roots of Hope, supported by Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez and featured the stipulation that “the solutions being developed could not violate U.S. or Cuban laws.” The winning projects included solutions largely based on using email applications as means to navigate web content without access to Internet.

Sen. Menendez and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen allegedly aided fugitive Ecuadoran bankers

Senator Robert Menendez (NJ) and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) advocated to federal agencies on behalf of William and Roberto Isaías, bankers who have lived in the U.S. since 2000 and were convicted in absentia of embezzlement in Ecuador in connection with the 1998 collapse of Filanbanco, reports the Daily Beast. Menendez is the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman, and Ros-Lehtinen is former Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

While serving as Chairwoman, Ros-Lehtinen reportedly penned a letter on behalf of William and Roberto Isaías to federal agencies regarding their request for residency in order to avoid extradition to Ecuador. A federal investigation has been launched into Menendez, who reportedly  wrote letters and made phone calls on their behalf. The Isaías family donated $23,700 to Ros-Lehtinen’s campaign during three election cycles and $10,000 to Menendez’s 2012 campaign. William and Roberto Isaías reside in Coral Gables, Florida, in Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s district.


EU approves mandate to pursue bilateral agreement with Cuba

The permanent ambassadors from the European Union (EU) approved a mandate to begin talks on a bilateral agreement with Cuba, reports EFE. Permanent representatives from the EU are expected to authorize and give final approval of the decision next Monday during the EU Council of Foreign Ministers. The final approval, which does not require debate, will allow the EU and its chief of European diplomacy, Catherine Ashton, to open talks officially with Cuba. According to the Associated Press, negotiations will focus on broadening political exchanges and economic cooperation. A senior EU official also told the AP that this decision is in “full understanding with Washington,” adding without elaboration that the U.S. position on Cuba is also relaxing. The official stated that both the U.S. and the EU hope that Cuba will continue to implement further reforms, adding “Therefore this is not an issue where our paths diverge.”

Uruguay and Ecuador may assist in Colombian peace talks; other complications arise

During his visit to Havana last week for the second Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), Uruguay’s President José Mujica met with members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) peace negotiation team, reports El Tiempo. Cuba’s government has been acting as a host for Colombia’s peace negotiations with the FARC, which began in November of 2012. President Mujica has in the past offered support for Colombia’s ongoing peace talks, last year presenting Uruguay as a possible location for peace talks between Colombia’s government and the smaller leftist guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN).

Ecuador’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño has stated that Colombia’s government has asked for possible assistance from the government of Ecuador in the event of peace negotiations with the ELN, reports NTN24. Ecuador’s government is willing to provide support, Patiño said.

However, problems outside of the negotiations themselves have arisen, such as the revelation that “loose wheels” in Colombia’s military have been monitoring communications in Havana between government officials and members of civil society, as detailed in the Pan-American Post. Meanwhile, Café Fuerte asks if Cuba’s new regulations on banking transactions related to terrorism will result in the freezing of funds belonging to the FARC.

Cuba to head World Health Assembly in May

Cuba will head the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 67th World Health Assembly in Geneva, reports ACN. Cuba is known internationally for its achievements in healthcare and has deployed medical assistance to at least 60 countries around the world. The World Health Assembly is the decision-making body of the WHO, and issues discussed when the organization meets in May could include WHO reform and a plan to eliminate tuberculosis by 2025.


State newspaper hails private sector; announces expected growth of markets for entrepreneurs

Granma, Cuba’s state newspaper, has published an article that examines the state of the private sector in the country and predicts an increase in the range of goods available to entrepreneurs in 2014.

The article includes the most recent figures for Cuba’s growing private sector. At the end of November 2013, the tally of self-employed workers was 444,109. That number was 156,000 in October 2010. Thirty-two percent of private sector employees are considered “youth”, and are primarily contracted workers rather than business owners. Women represent 26% of private sector workers. According to Rodolfo Jiménez Polanco of the Central de Trabajadores de Cuba (CTC), the total number of workers organized into unions was 257,639 at the end of October 2013.

Currently, there are 201 licensed private sector activities. The food industry accounts for the majority of private sector employment, and employment is concentrated in the provinces of Havana, Matanzas, Villa Clara, Camagüey, Holguín, and Santiago de Cuba, which count for 65% of private sector workers.

The feature hails the positive effects self-employment has had in Cuba since the first comprehensive reforms were announced in October 2010, proclaiming that “In addition to generating new jobs, self-employment has freed the state from the obligation to pay several categories of small benefits that represented a substantial economic burden.”

Through interviews with self-employed workers, the article examines different aspects of Cuba’s private sector, including the role of women, the politics of unionization, and the major triumphs and travails of new business initiatives. The piece highlights the private sector’s capacity to generate higher wages and to add a diversity of high-quality services and goods to the market:

“Running a private business requires dedicating oneself to it full-time, but your income is considerably higher than the purchasing power of the average citizen, and you have the possibility of creating and putting into practice any idea to make it more attractive — always within strict adherence to what the license establishes.”

The article reports that small business owners are most frustrated by the difficulty of accessing a stable supply of goods for their operations. “They don’t always find the necessary supplies; that is to say, the availability and quality of the supply in the commercial network is unstable, whether it’s in Cuban pesos (CUP) or in CUC (convertible pesos).” According to the article, steps are being taken to address this problem, and Odalys Escandel, First Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Interior Commerce, announced at the most recent session of Parliament that in 2014 the range of items in the market will expand to benefit private sector operations.

Private sector credit application rates remain low

Although banks in Cuba have offered those in the private sector the opportunity to apply for credit, application rates remain low, reports Cuban News Agency. Ernesto Medina, the Minister-President of the Central Bank in Cuba, suggested that perhaps the private sector doesn’t yet consider credit lines to be advantageous to business, and notes that Cuban society is unaccustomed to this relatively new initiative. The article notes that credit applications have increased amongst new cooperatives, citizens planning to renovate their homes, and for small loans to purchase kitchen equipment.

UNESCO report highlights Cuba’s leading role in education

In the annual United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) report, Teaching and Learning: Achieving Quality for All, Cuba received the highest Index in the Development of Education (IDE) in Latin America. The IDE evaluates the quality of countries’ education systems from early childhood to adulthood, gender parity, and adult literacy. Cuba’s IDE of 0.983 is the highest in the Latin America and Caribbean region, and is also higher than that of the United States, which receives a slightly lower rating of .982.

To read and find out more information about the report, see UNESCO’s website, here.

4.3 magnitude earthquake 100 miles east of Havana

A second earthquake in less than a month hit off the northern coast of Cuba on Tuesday, reports the Miami Herald. The earthquake, 4.3 in magnitude, was felt in the Florida Keys and Naples. While the National Weather Service in Miami-Dade ruled out any threat of tsunami, there were dozens of minor aftershocks. The earthquake did not cause any major damage or injury.

Around the Region

El Salvador and Costa Rica to hold runoff elections

On Sunday, February 2nd, both Salvadoran and Costa Rican citizens headed to the polls to elect a new president for the next five and four years, respectively. When the votes were counted, it was established that both countries would have to hold runoff elections in order to elect their new president, reports The New York Times.

In El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the candidate for the leftist FMLN party, obtained 48.9% of the votes – slightly less than 50% plus one vote majority needed to win the election outright.  Norman Quijano, the nominee of ARENA, Sánchez Cerén’s principal opponent, received 38.9% of the votes. This year’s election differed from others held since El Salvador’s 1992 peace accords, due to a third political force in the running. Former president and UNIDAD candidate Tony Saca received 11% of votes. Salvadoran media speculates that both the FMLN and ARENA will seek to form an alliance with Saca in order to win the second round, which will take place on March 9th.

In Costa Rica’s run-off election, the progressive Citizens Action Party’s Luis Guillermo Solís will compete with Johnny Araya, candidate for the centrist National Liberation Party, which is currently in power. Thirteen candidates initially competed for the Costa Rican presidency, and only Solís and Araya remain. The runoff election will take place on April 6th.

El Salvador’s Supreme Court orders investigation into civil war massacre

El Salvador’s Supreme Court ordered Attorney General Luis Martínez to reopen an investigation into the alleged civil war massacre of civilians by army troops in 1981, reports Reuters. The massacre is said to have taken place in the community of San Francisco Angulo, in the municipality of Tecoluca, killing about 45 people including women and children, reports ElSalvador.com.

While no charges resulted from the previous investigation, this time, the Supreme Court required that the prosecutor’s office charge guilty parties and publicly release its findings. The Supreme Court acknowledged Martínez’s previous failure to complete a thorough investigation and that Martínez violated the rights of citizens who filed legal complaints about the massacre, stating,

“The court orders the General Prosecutor to carry out a serious, far-reaching, diligent and conclusive investigation, within a reasonable time.”

Recommended Reading

U.S. policy change on Cuba stalled – by Obama, David Adams and Daniel Trotta, Reuters

While Obama has used executive authority in the past to improve relations with Cuba, such as changing travel restrictions, he seems hesitant to use this authority again to challenge leaders in Congress who support the embargo and strong anti-Cuba lobbies. They write: “In his State of the Union speech last month, Obama promised to act alone when Congress refuses. But so far he has given little indication that Cuba policy is a priority.”

In Cuba, change comes slow, Stephen Wicary, National Post

Stephen Wicary, a freelance journalist living in Havana, debunks the “popular imagination” of Cuba as a country “ruled with an iron fist by a regime that ignores the will of the people” and paints us a more nuanced view. “Cuba is changing,” he writes, “The state is loosening its grip on the economy and creating space for small private businesses to operate. Some punitive restrictions on daily life are being lifted. And there’s even a burgeoning tolerance for those who criticize the government.”

A conversation with Judy Gross, Tracey Eaton, Along the Malecón

Journalist Tracey Eaton speaks with Judy Gross, the wife of Alan Gross, a U.S. government subcontractor currently serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba. Gross shares her frustration with the lack of U.S. government efforts to free her husband, and calls upon President Obama and Secretary Kerry to make his case a priority.

53 years later, Bay of Pigs fiasco goes on, James Carroll, The Boston Globe

Carroll reflects on his recent visit to Cuba, and compares the Bay of Pigs invasion during the Kennedy Administration with the current U.S. embargo on Cuba. “The Bay of Pigs was yesterday’s catastrophe; the vengeful embargo is today’s,” he writes.

The Economist Explains: Why El Salvador has a pact with its gangsters, The Economist

The Economist looks at El Salvador’s ongoing gang truce and questions the unwillingness on the part of politicians from all sides to give meaningful support: “But for all the moral hazard of striking deals with some of the world’s most violent criminals (…) the truce is worth saving—if only in order to build on it to create a more lasting peace.” The Economist’s print edition builds off of this idea. “The truce has saved lives,” they write. “But the deals must be done in daylight.”

La hipocresía del Caso Flores, Héctor Silva Hernández, ContraPunto

In this post originally published by Salvadoran online journal ContraPunto, Héctor Silva Hernández, staff intern for the Center for Democracy in the Americas, reminds readers to weigh the personal records of those politicians charged with investigating corruption. Silva Hernández writes: “It is evident that something inappropriate happened with those $10 million donated by Taiwan, and ex-president Flores’ attitude is doubtless unacceptable and cynical. But it is equally unacceptable that those who question and prosecute him be treated as heroes – because they know, and we all know, that they are not.” Read the rest in Spanish here.

Recommended Listening

When you’re bringing Cuban students to the US, how do you choose?, Bradley Campbell, Public Radio International

Baruch College professor Ted Henken talks about how the program for Cuban students at Miami Dade College came about. While he supports the program, Henken notes that bringing Cuban students to the U.S. who represent the full political spectrum in Cuba would be much more meaningful.

Recommended Viewing

El Salvador 2014 Elections: Oscar Speaks at Soyapango School Voting Site, The Center for Democracy in the Americas

Sarah Stephens, CDA’s Executive Director, and Linda Garrett, CDA’s senior policy analyst on El Salvador, led a delegation to observe last week’s presidential election. There, they spoke with Oscar Mejia, a member of the Barrio 18 gang who has joined the gang truce effort. He spoke to CDA about his work observing the elections, helping to keep the peace between gangs who enter each other’s territory to vote. “Today the country is really different. There isn’t the same culture of violence today. We are showing the youngest to really search for a real future,” he reflects.

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