“That is an absolute lie.”
This is what Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart told the New York Times, after its correspondent, Damien Cave said “clearly a majority” of the American public supports a change in policy in Cuba.
Except it’s not a lie. The American public made up its mind years ago that the embargo ought to go. The results Mr. Díaz-Balart questioned from last month’s Atlantic Council poll weren’t off the mark; their results track just what Florida International University found in its 2011 poll and numerous others have, before and since.
Rep. Díaz-Balart disparaged the Council’s survey just as he did in February, using the same language Elliot Abrams used on Valentine’s Day; how Robin Wapner described the poll in the Los Angeles Times today. They call it a “push poll.”
Except, it wasn’t. Why would Glen Bolger, the highly-respected Republican pollster of Public Opinion Strategies — who’s worked for the Florida Republican Party, Governor Jeb Bush, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and the Wall Street Journal — produce a survey that rattled the embargo establishment and relied on what experts call “an unethical political campaign technique… masquerading as legitimate political polling.” Why would he do that? [Hint: he didn’t.]
Then there’s the case of Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, who delivered a speech on the Senate floor after visiting Cuba for a trip that examined “the strengths and weaknesses of Cuba’s public health system.” This was not Harkin’s first trip to the island; he first visited Guantánamo as an active duty Navy jet pilot during Vietnam, flying missions in support of U-2 planes that spied on Cuba.
This was too much for Senator Marco Rubio (neither a veteran nor a visitor to Cuba), who gave a floor speech that “ripped” Harkin, “destroyed” Harkin, “blasted” Harkin, and “unloaded” on Harkin, as his blogosphere fans said, for using what Rubio called unreliable statistics provided by Cuba’s government to admire the country’s infant mortality rate.
Except, Harkin was right. There are many statistics used to measure Cuba’s health system that are accepted globally — for example, to demonstrate that Cuba has fulfilled the primary education, gender equality, and child mortality Millennium Development Goals, or to gauge Cuba’s progress in achieving national literacy, expanding life expectancy, and reducing infant mortality, as the World Economic Forum has done. This doesn’t mean the figures should not be debated, they should; but it’s hard to dismiss them outright.
Next, consider Cuba’s economic reforms. More than ten percent of state jobs — close to 600,000 thousands positions — have been eliminated since 2009. Estimates vary, but at least 450,000 Cubans can now work in private sector jobs because of liberalizations championed by President Raúl Castro. This is a big change for Cuba, as we reported in Cuba’s New Resolve, and published this year on what the reforms mean for Cuban women.
We also hosted five Cuban nationals on a trip to the U.S. last year, who explained to the Washington policy community how the ability to start a business, employ other Cubans, make more money, and take their own decisions gives them greater ownership over their lives. Cuban-Americans in Florida sense that too; as the New York Times documented this week, “Some Who Fled Cuba Are Returning to Help,” they are sending investment capital, sharing business expertise, and promoting bilateral engagement – many after spending decades fighting the Castro government.
The naysayers about economic reform in Cuba are not the people making the trips to the island, but rather are the elected officials and embargo lobbyists who refuse to go, who won’t concede the Cuban economy is reforming, and who seek instead to maintain the embargo just as it is. Time and again, when Damien Cave asked about the Cuban-Americans who are traveling to Cuba and helping the reforms along, Rep. Díaz-Balart answered his question with a defense of the embargo.
This is a classic confusion of ends and means. Even if you support the embargo — we don’t, and we’re part of a large majority that even includes Yoani Sánchez hoping for its demise — what you presumably want is good things for Cuba’s people, not a perpetuation of the embargo for its own sake. And yet, if economic reform produces more prosperity and choice, or if public opinion among Cuban-Americans has shifted and they want to achieve their vision of Cuba through different means, the response of the hardliners is attack, discredit, rip, blast, and unload.
This strikes us as wrong. Democracies function better when they debate ideas rather than deny them. Without accurate information, democratic politics becomes impossible. If the embargo is more important than that, then what’s the point?
Cuba edged closer to ending its dual currency system, a long sought goal of economic reform. Cuba’s Ministry of Finance and Prices released regulations Thursday establishing broad guidelines for accounting norms and methods for determining prices once the country’s two currencies — the Cuban Peso (CUP) and the Convertible Peso (CUC) — are unified, reports Granma.
The new pricing regulations, published in the Gaceta Oficial, designate the Cuban Peso (CUP) as the “functional currency” and lay out pricing guidelines intended to improve efficiency, stimulate competition between national producers, and provide incentives for exports and import substitution. The Granma article says:
“The new pricing methodologies contribute to the solution to a number of current problems in the economy, such as the connection between domestic prices and international market activity; continuity between retail pricing and wholesale pricing; the capacity to affect prices through financial processes; and transparency in the administering of subsidies, among others.”
The Gaceta Oficial notes that one of its intentions is to release such guidelines before the date of currency unification (referred to as Day Zero) in order to familiarize businesses and the general public with the policy. Granma announced that the Ministry of Finance and Prices will conduct seminars across the country to train managers and workers on the new protocols established in the guidelines.
Cuba passed legislation in October 2013 to take steps toward eliminating the country’s dual currency system under which both the Cuban Peso (CUP) and Convertible Peso (CUC) circulate simultaneously at different values.
As CDA our report, “Cuba’s New Resolve: Economic Reform and its Implications for U.S. Policy,” Cuba’s dual currency system has created distortions in the country’s financial system and created divides between those who have ready access to CUCs, the currency pegged to the U.S. dollar, and those who do not.
Teresa Sanchez, in VOXXI, further describes complications that have arisen in Cuba as a result of the dual currency system.
President Raúl Castro has called for a national analysis of Cuba’s ongoing efforts to update its economic model, report state outlets ACN and Granma. At a meeting of the Council of Ministries last week, President Castro called for an evaluation process with participation by officials and leaders from all levels of government. President Castro stated,
“What we are doing is not perfect, sometimes we lack experience in some issues and we make mistakes; therefore, each issue has to constantly be subjected to critical observation…We have been accustomed to receiving advice only from higher levels and this must change. Governmental bodies from the town of Sandino to Maisí have to issue opinions in the appropriate place, time and in a correct manner.”
At the meeting, officials also discussed higher education, ways to improve geologic research, the possibility of opening a new category of business for the formation of cooperatives, and the development of a national land registry.
This week, ETECSA, the state-owned telecommunications company, launched mobile phone e-mail service, reports Cubadebate. Cubans with an @nauta.cu email account may now access their accounts via mobile phone at a rate of 1CUC per megabyte. Email addresses with the domain may be requested at ETECSA Internet access points across the island. Payment will be deducted from customers’ phone credit; it will not affect e-mail service fees. The Ministry of Communications regulations, which cap the price at its current rate, will be reviewed in one year.
The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reported 1,051 arrests which it considered to be politically motivated in the month of February, reports Reuters. The numbers were reported by Elizardo Sánchez, the commission’s president. Sanchez says activists around the island report such arrests to him. He has not released further information on how he came up with the figure, and Reuters was not able to independently verify his report. Cuba’s government considers the commission illegal and counterrevolutionary.
The Council of the State, with the approval of President Castro, appointed a new Minister of Culture this week, reports Havana Times and Café Fuerte. The former Minister of Culture, Rafael Bernal, was dismissed and replaced by Deputy Minister of Culture, Julián González Toledo. Cuba’s government offered no reason for Bernal’s replacement, but said that he “will be assigned other duties.” Bernal had served two years as the Minister of Culture. His replacement comes just days after the revelation that dozens of items from the National Museum of Fine Arts in Havana were stolen.
A total of 320,032 tourists visited Cuba in January 2014, 9.3% higher than the number of total visitors in January 2013 and a new record for the month, reports Cuba Standard. Tourism to Cuba has continued a growth trend, and overall numbers for 2013 fell just .5% below projections.
Cuba’s sugar harvest is currently 20% behind schedule in what may be the third consecutive year that Cuba fails to meet production targets, reports Reuters. Officials from state-run enterprise AZCUBA, mill workers, and sugarcane cutters cite heavy and continuous rainfall and poor quality in repairs among the top problems affecting the harvest. This season, AZCUBA had planned to produce 1.8 million tons of raw sugar.
Reuters notes that poor performance could potentially hasten reported plans to open the sector up to greater foreign investment. At the beginning of February, Cuban-American Alfonso Fanjul, whose family owns the sugar conglomerate that includes Domino sugar, told the Washington Post that “under the right circumstances,” he would be open to investing in Cuba.
Cuba’s Council of Ministers has approved the creation of 228 new non-agricultural cooperatives, effectively doubling the number of such cooperatives functioning on the island, report AFP and Cuba Standard. These new non-agricultural cooperatives primarily offer retail and food services. There are now 452 non-agricultural cooperatives in Cuba. Cuba Standard reports that in 2013, agricultural cooperatives were widely profitable while agricultural state enterprises suffered losses.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Cuba’s government has officially accepted negotiations proposed by the European Union, reports Cuba Standard and Reuters. Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, first received a letter from the EU High Commissioner for External Affairs inviting Cuba to begin talks three weeks ago. Rodríguez accepted the proposal this week, stating:
“On the basis of equality and mutual respect, Cuba is completely willing to discuss any topic, including human rights, about which we have many concerns about what is happening in several European countries.”
The EU agreed last month to open negotiations with Cuba, and has said that talks will discuss trade opportunities, and also seek to open a dialogue about human rights. Since 1996, the European Union’s foreign policy toward Cuba reflected its so-called “common position,” which 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.”
According to El Nuevo Herald, an anonymous State Department official told news agency EFE:
“We understand that the question of human rights and fundamental liberties in Cuba will be part of the negotiation…The United States encourages all nations with diplomatic missions in Havana to participate openly with Cuban civil society through their embassies in Havana and during the visits of officials to Cuba”
After negotiating with Cuban authorities, Arthur Chioro, the Brazilian Health Minister, announced that the wages of nearly 7,400 Cuban doctors in Brazil would be raised this month, report EFE and Havana Times. Brazil pays 10,000 reals, or approximately $4,300 per doctor per month to the Pan-American Health Organization, which under an agreement then transfers an undisclosed portion of those payments to Cuba’s government. Cuba then uses this money to pay its doctors’ salaries.
Under the previous arrangement, doctors received $1,000 per month: $400 to an account in Brazil, and $600 per month to an account in Cuba that would only be available upon their return the island. Under the new agreement, doctors will receive $1,245 directly in Brazil, representing an increase of $245/month, a difference which will be made up by an increase in the amount Cuba pays the doctors.
Salary negotiations commenced after two or more Cuban doctors defected while on duty in Brazil due to dissatisfaction with their pay. The doctors are part of the “Mais Médicos” (More Doctors) program that aims to improve healthcare access of those in isolated rural and urban areas. Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, recently posted an article on her Facebook page titled, “Cuban Revolution in the Health Centers” detailing the impact that Cuban doctors have had in Brazil through the program. To read her post and the article in Spanish, see here.
President Raúl Castro traveled to Venezuela on Wednesday to pay tribute to Venezuela’s late President, Hugo Chávez, on the first anniversary of his death, report El Universal and Prensa Latina. President Castro laid a white rose on President Chavez’s tomb, and attended a ceremony commemorating Chávez’s life. President Evo Morales of Bolivia and President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua also attended.
Speaking on Thursday in Geneva before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, Abelardo Moreno, Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs condemned actions by “destabilizing groups in Venezuela,” reports Prensa Latina. Progreso Weekly reports that Moreno also said:
“To Cuba, the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and noninterference in the domestic affairs of all states must be defended at all costs because, without them, the United Nations could not survive and the small and weak nations would be abandoned to the mercy of the big and strong ones.”
As we went to press, we received news that Ana Alliegro, former Congressman David Rivera’s campaign manager, has been arrested in Nicaragua. A Nicaraguan newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, reports that there was a warrant for Alliegro’s arrest. The Miami Herald is now reporting that Alliegro, under investigation in Florida for crimes including conspiracy, illegal campaign donations and false statements, is being deported to Miami. More information here.
Rivera, a Republican, lost to Joe García in the November 2012 election.
Raymond McGrath, Cuban Affairs Coordinator at the U.S. Department of State, participated in a panel on Cuba at The New York Times Travel Show last weekend, reports CNBC. In response to commentary about U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba, McGrath said:
“It is U.S. policy to encourage purposeful travel … as well as family travel to Cuba. I’m very encouraged by what my co-panelists are saying today. It gives me a little hope that things may be changing with respect to their relationship with the organizers in Cuba, because the Cuban government controls your movements pretty carefully, and if that’s changing, that’s great.”
McGrath said of recent cooperation between the two governments:
“We’re trying to find a way that we can work with the Cuban government on … issues that are so clearly in the U.S. national interest, that regardless where you fall on the political spectrum you pretty much have to agree. …Over the last couple years we’ve … lowered the volume of the two-way rhetoric….
We’ve been working to take a more pragmatic approach. What we don’t want to end up with is an oil spill off the west coast of Cuba, coming up into Florida, or some other kind of problem-a plane going down in the straits-and we’re reaching for our Rolodex and trying to figure out who the heck to call.”
Other participants on the panel included John McAuliff, director of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development, Yves Marceau of Road Scholar and Antonio Díaz Medina, a University of Havana professor and economist, and former vice president of Cuba’s tourism agency Havanatur.
Díaz Medina, who traveled from Cuba to participate, said that service at Cuban hotels and restaurants has improved over recent years, and that Cuba needs foreign investment to continue making improvements. He added that “We also need advice from here… that spirit of entrepreneurship.”
PriceSmart, a U.S. grocery chain with locations throughout the Americas and the Caribbean, removed diplomats representing Cuba’s government in El Salvador from their shopping memberships, reports Diario de Cuba. The general manager of the store in El Salvador wrote a letter to Iliana Fonseca, Cuba’s ambassador in El Salvador, explaining that the memberships were revoked because, “PriceSmart El Salvador is the subsidiary of a U.S. company.”
In his letter, the general manager stated that because of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, PriceSmart El Salvador “cannot conduct sales or business with Cuban citizens who are not permanent residents in the country.” PriceSmart has already enforced similar measures against Cuban citizens in Guatemala, Barbados, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago.
EdX, a free online course provider, will block access in Cuba to their upcoming course “Flight Vehicle Aerodynamics,” taught by MIT faculty, to adhere to U.S. sanctions against Cuba, reports the Harvard Crimson. Unlike course provider Coursera, which was forced to suspend service in Cuba altogether in January, edX has a license issued by the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to provide courses to Cuba. However, certain courses in science, technology, engineering, and/or math aren’t covered under the general license and require independent consideration by OFAC. EdX reportedly worked for months to receive OFAC’s approval for the course. In a statement, edX president Anant Agarwal asserted:
“EdX has made every effort to ensure that any learner with an Internet connection can access high quality education through edX. …
We don’t know why these STEM courses were excluded from the licenses, and we don’t know when we may hear from OFAC regarding this course. So, our only recourse at this moment is to temporarily block students from these countries for this one course, based on their IP addresses.
We are deeply sorry to have to block any student anywhere from taking an edX course. This is completely antithetical to the vision and foundational values of edX and [Massive Open Online Courses]. We will continue to work diligently with the U.S. government until every student, from any country in the world, can take any course they choose on edX.”
EdX is collaboratively run by Harvard University, University of California, Berkeley, MIT, and the University of Texas system. Students from Sudan and Iran, two other sanctioned countries, are also affected.
A delegation of members of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce will travel from Orlando to Cuba this April, reports Cuba Standard. The people-to-people trip, titled “A Taste of Cuba,” will include visits to the Plaza de la Revolución and Hemingway’s finca La Vigía. This trip comes after the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce traveled on a non-business delegation to Cuba last year.
Cuban musical groups Interactivo and Habana Abierta are currently in Miami, where they will perform on Saturday at a large concert with several other artists, reports El Nuevo Herald. Cuba’s Ministry of Culture briefly banned Robertico Carcassés, the lead singer of Interactivo, from public performances following the singer’s public call for direct presidential elections and free access to information on the island at a nationally-televised concert in Havana in September. “I say what I think and what I still think, and I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” he told El Nuevo Herald. When asked about being sanctioned by the Ministry of Culture, he responded, “I’m working, everything’s fine with me, really.”
Around the Region
On Thursday, Reuters reported that two Venezuelans died “in a confused melee sparked by the opposition’s barricading of a Caracas street.” According to Al Jazeera, one civilian and one National Guard member were killed, and though witnesses say shots were fired from within a crowd of protesters, Diosdado Cabello, president of Venezuela’s National Assembly said the deaths were caused by “snipers” on the roof of a building. A total of 20 deaths have resulted from prolonged protests in the country.
Although some Venezuelans celebrated the extended Carnival holiday at the beach this past weekend, others demonstrated and marched in the capital, reports Reuters.
On Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of the death of President Hugo Chávez was the occasion for tens of thousands of supporters to gather for a military parade in Caracas, and for other events throughout the country, reports Reuters. For further details on the protests and developments in Venezuela, see analysis from Jennifer McCoy and Michael McCarthy, as well as a recent piece by Miguel Tinker Salas.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met this week in Geneva with Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Elias Jaua, reports the BBC, and called for a peaceful resolution to the violence. Later, a number of independent UN human rights experts called for an investigation into allegations of arbitrary detention and excessive use of force by Venezuelan authorities, reports the UN News Centre.
Also this week, Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro announced that Venezuela would break diplomatic and political ties and freeze trade relations with Panama, reports CNN. President Maduro explained his decision, alleging that Panama was conspiring with the U.S. against his country, calling for a meeting of the OAS in response to the crisis in Venezuela. His decision was made, “in defense of the homeland’s sovereignty.” Reuters reports that the Panamanian ambassador and three other diplomats have until Saturday to leave the country. Panama’s government expressed its “surprise” at Venezuela’s decision, adding that “Panama only wishes for this sister nation to find peace and strengthen its democracy.”
President Maduro has called for a meeting of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which, unlike the OAS, does not include the United States, reports Al Jazeera. The foreign ministers of the UNASUR countries are expected to meet next Wednesday in Chile to discuss events in Venezuela, reports Reuters. More details about the meeting as well as on developments in Venezuela can be found on the Pan-American Post.
President Maduro was also interviewed on CNN this week,where he defended his government’s position. “What would happen in the United States if a group said they were going to start something in the United States so that President Obama leaves, resigns, to change the constitutional government of the United States?” he asked. The interview comes after his going back on threats to expel CNN en Español, saying on February 21st that they were free to continue reporting in the country.
Mediators of El Salvador’s gang truce have affirmed that the truce is still in effect, reports El País. This announcement comes in response to National Civilian Police Chief Rigoberto Pleités’ claim last week that the truce “exists no more.” Raúl Mijango, moderator and ex-guerrilla commander, told El País, “The truce between Salvadoran gangs remains in effect; that is what the gang leaders have expressed to us. …Saying otherwise seems like a rash declaration on the part of the authorities.”
As Cuba’s Economy Opens a Bit, Some Who Fled Castro Return to Help, Damien Cave, The New York Times
The NYT reports on Cuban-Americans who are now increasingly supporting entrepreneurs on the island. Niuris Higueras Martínez, who spoke at the conference CDA co-sponsored on Cuba’s economic reforms in November 2013, speaks here about how the help she received from Cuba Emprende, a Cuban-American organization which provides small business training to those on the island, has a multiplier effect on the island: “If you have 15 employees, you have at least 10 families whose troubles are suddenly resolved…If you open a little, you get a lot.”
Venezuela joins Cuba in hothouse of Florida politics, Marc Caputo, Miami Herald
Marc Caputo looks at how Republicans and Democrats are using recent tension and violence in Venezuela as a platform to court Hispanic voters, especially in Florida, which has a significant Venezuelan population.
The Prospects for Improving U.S.-Cuban Relations, William LeoGrande, E-International Relations
Dr. LeoGrande lays out the history of Cuba’s foreign relations in the context of U.S.-Cuba policy. He concludes, “The lack of progress in U.S.-Cuban relations has not been for lack of Cuban attempts to move beyond the status quo,” and suggests specific steps President Obama can take to “[fulfill] his promise.”
Washington’s Missed Opportunities: Cuba Successfully Engaging the World, Lauren Foiles, Council on Hemispheric Affairs
Foiles highlights the benefits other nations reap from their trade relationship with Cuba, arguing that the U.S. is missing out.
Progreso Weekly releases the footage from an event honoring the late Francisco Aruca, who founded Progreso Weekly and Radio Progreso, on the one-year anniversary of his death. Aruca was a pioneer who advocated for dialogue leading to the reconciliation of the Cuban family. CDA wrote about his life’s work in March 2013.
Fábrica de Arte Cubano (F.A.C.), Cuba Absolutely
Cuba Absolutely magazine features photos of the Fábrica de Arte Cubano (Cuban Art Factory), an artist’s collective that just found a new home for its activities in El Cocinero, a space that was previously an electricity plant and then an olive oil factory.
Key West Cuba Flight, Nancy Klingener, NPR
Klingener reports on the first flight from Key West, Florida, to Cuba in over 50 years.