As Manuel and Lisandra Plan Wedding, Hardliners wonder “Where is the love?”

We asked our friend Yamina Vicente, who runs Decorazón, an event-planning firm in Havana, if her business benefits from our Hallmark card-driven “holiday,” Valentine’s Day.

She wrote us back:

February 14th is a date chosen by many couples to celebrate their marriage. In Cuba, many couples fill spaces with flowers, music, and harmony. Our business,
Decorazón, gets asked for a wide range of services on Valentine’s Day. This year, we will celebrate the wedding of two young people – Manuel and Lisandra – who have decided to join their lives in marriage.

That’s romantic.  Even more, it’s a sign that Manuel and Lisandra believe that Cuba offers them a future.

***

This was an extraordinary week.  Hardly a day went by, here and abroad, without a hopeful sign that policy toward Cuba can change.

As the BBC reported, the European Union has agreed to reverse its 27-year-old “common position” and launch talks with Cuba to restore diplomatic relations with the island.

As the Miami Herald reported, USAID “has been left out of the $17.5 million appropriated for Cuba democracy programs this fiscal year, amid complaints over partisan political fighting and agency mishandling of the programs.”

Senator Heidi Heitkamp from North Dakota returned from her recent visit to the island saying, “I think 55 years of this relationship is probably enough, and it’s time to now transition to a different relationship.”

The Sun-Sentinel reported, “A growing number of aging Cuban exiles are returning to their birthplace, no longer willing to wait for the end of the Castro regime or to outlast the U.S. embargo before seeing their homeland.”

The Associated Press also found there are “a growing number of powerful South Florida Cuban-American business, civic and political leaders breaking the long-held public line on U.S. relations with Cuba and the Castro government.”

As Politico reported, former Governor Charlie Crist, hoping to win election in 2014 and move back into the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee, told Bill Maher this week: “It’s obvious to me that we need to move forward, and I think get the embargo taken away.”

None of these are trivial shifts. Then, the coup de grâce: the Atlantic Council released survey research which found, as the AP reported, that “56 percent of Americans and 63 percent of Floridians support engaging more directly with the communist island. In Miami-Dade County, home to the largest concentration of Cuban-Americans, 64 percent of adults said they favor changing U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba.”

Oh, the frenzy – just like the invective unleashed against Alfonso Fanjul, the exile sugar baron condemned as a ‘pathetic tycoon’ for wanting to replant his family flag in Cuba, the hardline supporters of Cuba sanctions went after the poll with all guns blazing.

First, they called it a “push poll,” defined by Elliot Abrams as a poll designed to elicit a certain result and then advertised as achieving that result.  So did Capitol Hill Cubans.  So did Babalú Blog.  Second, they argued the poll “undermines pro-democracy efforts in Cuba,” and said that it “ignores the democratic aspirations of the Cuban people.”

Most of all, they dismissed the findings as irrelevant.

“I don’t see the poll as changing the public policy of the Congress of the United States,” Sen. Bob Menendez told the Miami Herald.  Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the US-Cuba Democracy PAC, argued public opinion in Miami didn’t matter, because “every single Cuban-American elected official — in any position — in Miami-Dade County supports the embargo.”

Think about that. In the fight against tyranny in Cuba, sanctions supporters made the unusual argument that majority opinion in the United States meant…nothing.

Just so you know; the survey is statistically sound.  As for the assumption that “if you don’t agree with the 52-year-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba…You too must be a communist,” that’s absurd as Tim Padgett wrote this week.  Just so you know, Miriam Leiva, whose pro-democracy credentials are stronger than most, wrote in an essay that changing U.S. policy would help the nascent Cuban private sector and create a better climate for Cuba’s civil society.

The poll – and hats off to the Atlantic Council for doing it – demonstrates there’s more political space to change the policy.  Most of all, there are plenty of ideas for what can be done to fix it.  Ask Rep. Sam Farr, ask Rep. Kathy Castor, ask the Brookings Institution, or ask us.

What a week!  It would come as no surprise if the hardliners ended theirs wondering, “Where is the love?”

It’s in Havana.  Where, as Yamina told us, Manuel and Lisandra are heading toward a life of “tangible happiness.”  Maybe they can build a future without U.S. policy telling them how it should be done.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

U.S. – CUBA RELATIONS

Atlantic Council: Public opinion poll finds majority of the nation favors new relations with Cuba

nationwide poll commissioned by the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center found that 56% of U.S. citizens favor more direct engagement or normalization with Cuba, reports The New York Times. Sixty-three percent of Florida’s voting-age residents support a change; Florida was in fact the state with the highest support for a new direction for U.S. policy. Sixty-two percent of Hispanics nationwide also support a policy change.

While Democrats and Independents expressed strongest support for engagement, the majority of Republicans, at 52%, also favored changes. Asked on MSNBC about the poll’s implications for a change in policy, pollster Paul Maslin stated, “I don’t think there’s a lot of political risk right now, for the President or frankly, for many Republicans.”

Among other findings, the poll results show that six of ten respondents want to be able to travel to Cuba, and for U.S. companies to be allowed to do business there. Fifty-two percent of respondents said that Cuba should be removed from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list, which would also loosen restrictions on trade and investment.

In an op-ed for the Miami Herald, Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) say the time is ripe for a new policy on Cuba. Speaking at the event when the poll was released, Senator Leahy remarked,

“It’s about time that somebody touched that third rail. Now it’s the responsibility of the White House and the Congress to have the courage to step up. Let’s end this Cold War in our own hemisphere.”

The full report on the poll’s findings is available here. For video of the Atlantic Council event presenting the poll results, see here.

Former Florida Gov. Crist calls for an end to the embargo

Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist, who is running for governor of Florida in 2014, has called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba, reports CNN and the Miami Herald. In an appearance on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher”, Crist announced his support for ending the embargo, and spoke of the potential job opportunities and economic benefits that removing the embargo could bring to South Florida. In a statement released later, he reflected,

“The embargo has done nothing in more than 50 years to change the regime in Cuba. If we want to bring democracy to Cuba, we need to encourage American values and investment there.”

Crist’s opposition to the embargo represents a major shift in his political stance. While governor from 2007 to 2011, he backed U.S. sanctions and created state legislation to crack down on travel agencies doing business with Cuba, the Miami Herald reports. In 2010, he reiterated his support for the embargo, saying he thought “the current policy in place is responsible.”

Crist’s opponent in the gubernatorial race, incumbent Governor Rick Scott called the statements “insulting,” and has reiterated his support of sanctions. However, Marc Caputo writing for the Miami Herald notes that Crist’s opposition to the embargo could be a plus given the results of the Atlantic Council poll.

State Department official defends U.S. sanctions against Cubaanon

An anonymous State Department official defended U.S. sanctions against Cuba on Wednesday, reports EFE. Asked to respond to Former Florida Governor Charlie Crist’s statements against the embargo and the Atlantic Council poll results showing that the majority of Americans support engagement with Cuba, the official said:

“We believe that the embargo provides an important resource for spurring more positive changes on the island, so we see its continued application as subject to the pace and nature of these changes…. The embargo represents just one aspect of U.S. policy toward Cuba, whose overall objective is to encourage a more open environment in Cuba and increased respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

According to EFE, the official also stated that the embargo “does not mean that the policy toward Cuba is static,” and mentioned policy changes the U.S. undertook in 2009 that have “expanded the range of humanitarian grants that can be exported through licenses granted in exceptional circumstances,” leading the U.S. to become “the largest provider of humanitarian assistance to the Cuban people.”

Senate delegation visits Cuba

A Senate delegation traveled to Cuba last week on a three-day trip to Havana and to the U.S Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay, reports the Associated Press and Havana Times. During the trip, Senators Tom Harkin (IA), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Bernie Sanders (VT) and Jon Tester (MT) discussed U.S.-Cuba relations, human rights, healthcare, agricultural cooperation and trade, and met with imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross. Upon their return, the Senators made statements about the embargo and current U.S. policy toward Cuba.

For example, Senator Sanders, in a press release on his website, declared,

“American businesses are losing billions of dollars because of the economic embargo. Meanwhile, Canadians and Europeans are creating jobs through their investments in Cuba. My hope is that Cuba moves toward a more democratic society while, at the same time, the United States will respect the independence of the Cuban people.”

Cuban Interests Section still without bank after March 1st deadlinecisbank

The U.S. State Department “[does] not know if the Cuban missions will have a new bank by March 1,” reports the Tampa Tribune. In an email to the Tribune, the State Department wrote, “We have reached out to more than 50 banks and understand that several are currently exploring whether to provide the Cuban missions with banking services. M&T, the New York-based bank that currently services Cuba’s Interests Section in the U.S., as well as the country’s mission to the UN, has said it will cease its service to Cuba at the end of the month, and will stop accepting deposits from the missions on Monday, February 17.

Without banking service in the U.S., Cuba is not able to complete consular activities, like the issuing of travel visas. With eyes on the impending deadline, the Associated Press reports that agencies that organize travel to Cuba are rushing to submit visa and passport applications. Representative Kathy Castor (FL-14) stated “It’s hard when it comes to

Cuban policies to be optimistic. … But so much is at stake for the families of our area.”

Shortly before press, the Cuban Interests Section released  a note saying:

“…it has been impossible for the Interests Section to find a bank with a branch in the U.S. that will assume the accounts of the Cuban diplomatic missions. For this reason, the Interests Section is forced to suspend consular services on this date [February 14], until the reestablishment of banking services is secured. As stated last November, only cases of humanitarian nature will be attended. The Interests Section regrets the inconveniences that this situation will cause for Cuban citizens and for U.S. citizens, who require services from our offices, and the negative consequences that this will have for family visits, and interchanges…between Cuba and the U.S.”

M&T had originally suspended service to Cuba in November, but granted a temporary extension through March 1.

U.S. condemns Cuba’s detention of dissidents

The U.S. Department of State expressed concern on Monday over a reported increase in the detention of activists in Cuba. The statement concludes,

“We condemn the Cuban Government’s continued harassment and repeated use of arbitrary detention, at times with violence, to silence critics, disrupt peaceful assembly, and intimidate independent civil society. We urge the Government of Cuba to end the practice of arbitrary detentions and to allow Cuban citizens to express their opinions freely and to assemble peacefully.

Human Rights Watch recently released a report criticizing the practice of arbitrary detentions in Cuba. As HRW has said before, the report notes the U.S. embargo against the country has “done nothing to improve the country’s human rights.”

Yale University Glee Club to perform in Cuba in March

Yale University’s Glee Club will perform in Cuba in March, reports Progreso Weekly. The university choir will perform at churches in Matanzas and Havana on March 12 and March 13, respectively. The students will also participate in cultural exchanges with Cuban musical groups during their trip.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba releases Canadian businessman

Sarkis Yacoubian, a Canadian businessman who was held for over two years in a Cuban prison on charges of bribery, tax evasion, and activities damaging to the economy, was unexpectedly released and allowed to go back to Canada this week, reports the Associated Press. Yacoubian says he is happy to go back home, and will make his full story available to the public once he has had the chance to consult with his lawyers. Yacoubian said that no reasons were given to him as to why he was being released. The Canadian also expressed his concern for a fellow Canadian businessman, Cy Tokmaakjian, who has spent two years in jail with no charges filed.

Tokmaakjian and Yacoubian were arrested as a part of President Raúl Castro’s ongoing national campaign to eradicate corruption. The campaign has sparked audits and arrests in state companies as well as foreign ventures.

Negotiations with Cuba to launch after EU Foreign Ministers issue final authorization

The foreign ministers of the European Union (EU) gave final approval to authorize and launch negotiations with Cuba, reports Reuters. The EU intends to negotiate with Cuba on issues ranging from trade and investment to human rights. Negotiators are hopeful that a bilateral Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement will be signed with Cuba by the end of 2015. Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Policy Affairs, stated:

“I am confident these negotiations will help consolidate our engagement with Cuba. I hope Cuba will take up this offer, and that we can work soon towards a stronger relationship. This is not a policy change from the past. Just as we want to support reform and modernisation in Cuba, we have consistently raised human rights concerns which will remain at the core of this relationship.”

The EU is currently Cuba’s top foreign investor and second largest trading partner after Venezuela. The EU Common Position on Cuba, which governs EU relations with Cuba, will remain in place during the negotiations.

Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, told Androulla Vassiliou, the EU’s Education

Commissioner, that Cuba hopes negotiations between Cuba and the EU will inspire the U.S. to extend a similar gesture, reports Reuters. Vassiliou stated, “He said if negotiations with the EU start, it would be a good message also for the U.S. and that we hope that President Obama will be able to also proceed with a similar gesture without any political costs.”

France and Cuba to sign pharmaceutical accord

Cuba’s Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center will sign a bilateral association accord with Abivax, a French company, reports Prensa Latina. They will work together to produce and market a Cuban Hepatitis B vaccine, as well as other vaccines and medications for infectious diseases and for cancer. According to the report, Cuba will do the clinical work to develop the vaccine, and Abivax will register and commercialize the products in Europe and Asia.

IN CUBA

Aide to former National Assembly president convicted of espionage

Miguel Álvarez, who was senior advisor to Ricardo Alarcón, the former president of the National Assembly, was convicted of spying in December along with his wife, Mercedes Arce, reports the Miami Herald. The couple has been sentenced to 30 and 15 years respectively. The articles report that Álvarez passed along secrets to Arce, who then sold analysis on Cuba to private Mexican firms. Cuba has not made any comment on the sentencing, or on what or how much material was leaked. The sentencing takes places 22 months after the couple was detained in Havana in March 2012.

Cuba intends to update foreign investment law; may postpone until AprilApril

The adoption of a new foreign investment law for Cuba may be delayed from March to the end of April, reports Reuters. The delay is reportedly due to the fact that the details are still being finalized for approval by the National Assembly. Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Foreign Trade and Investment Minister told Androulla Vassiliou, European Education Commissioner, that a decision about the foreign investment law’s adoption would be postponed until April, according to a member of Vassiliou’s staff. It had previously been expected that the new law would be announced during the meeting of Cuba’s National Assembly in late March.

Cuba Standard provides analysis on what might be expected from Cuba’s new foreign investment law here.

Cuba close to completing largest diesel plant

Cuba is close to finishing construction of its largest diesel power plant near the nickel mining town of Moa in Holguín, reports Cuba Standard. The plant, which is approximately 90% complete, was toured by one of Cuba’s Vice Presidents, Ramiro Valdés, on February 6th. The energy generated by the plant is expected to power nickel mining activities in the area, as well as provide power to the municipalities of Baracoa and Moa.

The Moa plant is part of Cuba’s “Energy Revolution” program, which seeks to improve the country’s electrical system. Because the country’s electrical supply system suffers from damage due to natural disasters and outdated technology, in 2006 the country decentralized its electricity system, placing fuel-oil generators throughout the country for a more resilient electrical grid.

Around the Region

Three killed, more injured in Venezuela protests; court orders arrest of opposition leader Leopoldo López

Following two weeks of opposition-led protests in Venezuela, demonstrations took a deadly turn in Caracas on Wednesday during a march to the Public Prosecutor’s office, reports the Pan-American Post. The march, which was called to demand the release of students arrested in previous protests, reportedly turned violent when protesters began throwing rocks and clashed with police. Shortly after, witnesses report that an unidentified man began shooting into the crowd. Two students and one pro-government demonstrator were killed, at least 23 people were injured, and some 70 were detained by police. Varying reports blame the opposition, the police, and pro-government groups for the violence.

Opposition leader Leopoldo López of the Popular Will party had been leading a two-week call for nationwide protests on the issues of crime, shortages and inflation as a part of a campaign he has called “The Exit,” meaning that Maduro must leave office. After Wednesday’s violent clash a Venezuelan court ordered his arrest on charges including incitement to riot and terrorism, reports TIME.

President Maduro has called López a fascist and accused him of fomenting the recent violence and of attempting a coup, recalling the protests that temporarily ousted President Chavez in 2002.

Lopez has said the government is using him as a scapegoat, proclaiming “I’m innocent. I have a clear conscience because we called for peace.” His tactics, however, seem to have caused a rift in Venezuela’s opposition, and the extreme wing has been accused of donning masks and starting fires, throwing stones and damaging buildings, reports Reuters. Armed pro-government groups have also taken to the streets.

As of now, López had not been arrested.

The Pan-American post has been providing in-depth reporting on the happenings in Venezuela in their newsletter, published daily.

El Salvador’s Presidential Election to the Second Round: What happened, why, and what’s next?, Linda Garrett, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Linda Garrett, CDA’s Senior Analyst on El Salvador, gives an update on the country’s recent presidential election. Here, she discusses the issues at stake, the political campaigns, and what might be expected from the March 9th runoff election.

Recommended Reading: Atlantic Council poll

The Atlantic Council presented the results of their poll on U.S. views of current Cuba policy at an event on February 11. The video footage is available here. For a deeper dive into the results and analysis, we suggest:

America, Florida Want Cuba Policy Change Because They Want Change In Cuba, Tim Padgett, WLRN

Padgett comments that this week’s discussion on Cuba policy, fueled by the results of the poll, “reflect[s]…that Americans, Floridians and Cuban-Americans are coming to more thoughtful conclusions about the best ways to bring change to a time-warped neighbor.”

Is The Cuba Embargo Still A Third Rail For Politicians?, Joshua Keating, Slate

Keating looks at the context of the results of the poll, concluding that for politicians, “the numbers indicate the downside isn’t as bad as it once was.”

Support For Cuba Embargo Continues To Decline, Daniel Larison, American Conservative

Larison contends the results of the poll give reason to rejoice: “Even though [the end of the embargo] will happen many decades later than it should have, it is encouraging to know that there is some limit to how long such senseless policies can endure.”

New U.S., Cuba Relations Poll Shows Growing Skepticism, Daniel Rivero, Fusion

Rivero breaks down the stats offered by the poll to leave us with the most important highlights.

Time To End The Cuba Embargo, Sun-Sentinel

The Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board echoed the call for an end to the embargo.

Next Steps: How President Obama Should Advance US-Cuba Relations, Ted Piccone, The Atlantic Council

Piccone offers specific steps for improving relations with Cuba that are within President Obama’s executive powers.

Changing the Political Calculus on Cuba, Bill LeoGrande, The Atlantic Council

LeoGrande explores the political implications of the poll. He concludes: “The political muscle of the much-feared Cuba Lobby is weakening day by day, as this new Atlantic Council poll attests, giving the president greater freedom of action on Cuba than any president has had in recent decades.”

The Beginning of the End, Pedro Freyre and Matthew Aho, The Atlantic Council

Freyre and Aho argue that, “Whether this poll will affect policy decisions at the White House remains unclear. But it should. President Obama has clear authority to further expand categories of licensed travel to Cuba and other forms of engagement.”

Time for a new policy on Cuba, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Miami Herald

Senators Leahy and Flake discuss the economic harm the embargo has caused to Cuba and to the U.S., and urge for a new U.S. policy: “Rather than isolate Cuba with outdated policies, we have isolated ourselves,” say Leahy and Flake.

Other Recommended Reading:

Law blocks Florida marine scientists from Cuba research, Paul Guzzo, The Tampa Tribune

Florida law prohibits state-university employees, including professors and scientists, from using state funds for travel to Cuba. Guzzo argues that due to Cuba’s proximity, Florida’s marine ecosystem is intimately tied to that of Cuba’s, and Florida researchers should be afforded the same access to Cuba that other state-university researchers are allowed. In an editorial, The Tampa Tribune condemns the law: “Florida’s sanctions against the free exchange of ideas and research is a policy more appropriate for a totalitarian state, not a democracy.”

Cuba’s Reward for the Dutiful: Gated Housing, Damien Cave, The New York Times

Through the construction of a new, exclusive housing complex, Cave explores the balance Raul Castro must maintain between his ever-loyal military and the new wave of entrepreneurs he has helped create with the new economic reforms.

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