Which President told the Cubans “I wish you well”?

Finally, a President went to Cuba and uttered the words we’ve longed to hear.

“I wish you well.”

Only, it wasn’t President Obama.

This message to Cuba’s people came from the President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Tom Donohue.

It came up,  as he wrapped up his visit to the island with an appearance at the University of Havana, and took questions from the press. When Daniel Trotta of Reuters asked Mr. Donohue, “Is Cuba a good investment?” he responded as follows:

“Cuba would be a better investment if it had issues like arbitration, and agreements that would protect intellectual property, and ways that we could resolve our differences. But I believe that Cuba, 91 miles from our shore, with the new and extraordinary port that’s being built here, has the potential to develop as a very good investment not only for Americans, U.S. citizens, but from people around the world, and I wish you well.”

To borrow a phrase from Vice President Biden, this is kind of a big deal.

In our reports on economic reform and gender equality, we discussed how Cuba’s own policies produced enviable achievements in critical areas like education and health but at unsustainable costs.  Since he became Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro has authorized greater liberties – from legalizing cell phones to overseas travel – while at the same time cutting the size of the state’s payrolls and opening employment opportunities for Cubans in the non-state sector.

In simple terms, Cuba’s project going forward is about addressing its economic crisis and bringing its assets and expenditures into a balance that future Cubans can live with.

This is at odds with the core objective of U.S. policy.  For more than 50 years, its goal has been to sink Cuba’s system by strangling Cuba’s economy.  The era of reform ushered in by President Castro has, at times, posed a paralyzing dilemma to President Obama.

On one hand, President Obama diverted from the orthodoxy in his first term by opening talks with Cuba on some bilateral issues, and by taking truly useful steps to reform U.S. policy; by giving unlimited travel rights to Cuban Americans and restoring some channels of people-to-people travel for Americans not of Cuban descent.

On the other, he has left the embargo mostly in place, stubbornly enforced sanctions against financial institutions to tie up Cuba’s capacity to engage in global commerce and trade, and distressingly allowed many excesses of our regime change program to remain in place.

Changing circumstances in Cuba have occasioned no fresh thoughts – and no Hamlet-like indecision – among the pro-sanctions hardliners.

Tim Padgett wrote perceptively this week about their support for policies that exact sacrifice and impose suffering on Cuba’s people.

“Incredibly, [the hardliners are] convinced that denying Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs more seed money, cell phones and sage advice – that keeping them in the micro-economic Middle Ages – is the best way to change Cuba.

“[W]hy wouldn’t the Cuba-policy hardliners want to help accelerate that process? One answer is that it’s too mundane: It doesn’t fit their more biblical vision of a Cuban Spring in which the Castros are ousted by a fiery, exile-led uprising.”

How else to explain their vitriolic reaction to the U.S. Chamber’s visit?

“Sen. Marco Rubio, the Wall Street Journal reported, “blasted Mr. Donohue in a letter last week, calling the trip ‘misguided and fraught with peril of becoming a propaganda coup for the Castro regime.'” Capitol Hill Cubans taunted The Chamber with a note suggesting they invest in North Korea.  Senator Bob Menendez chastised Donohue, saying conditions in Cuba “hardly seem an attractive opportunity for any responsible business leader.”

Donohue was cheerfully immune to all of this. He said, “the Chamber of Commerce takes human rights concerns seriously,” as the AP reported, “calling it an issue that should be part of a ‘constructive dialogue’ between the U.S. and Cuba.”

He knows -in ways the hardliners simply cannot accept – that the political problems that divide the U.S. from Cuba will never be solved through diplomatic isolation but through negotiation and engagement.

In this sense, the voices criticizing Donohue, powerful as they are, represent the past – and neither the U.S. Chamber nor the 44 members of the foreign policy establishment who appealed for reforms in a letter to President Obama are going back.

Instead, our policy going forward will be defined not by pressing for the system’s failure, but by the principle that Cubans are better off – and U.S. national interest best secured – by respecting the desire of Cubans to succeed in a future of their own design.

It is up to President Obama to say the words, “I wish you well.”

But time is running out.  As Tom Donohue observed, “If [President Barack Obama] wants to get it done before the end of his term, he’s got two years, so he’ll have to get busy.”

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

U.S. Chamber of Commerce leaders travel to Cuba

Tom Donohue, President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), visited Cuba with a 12-member delegation this week to learn about the country’s economic reforms and its growing private sector, and to explore the potential for U.S. investment opportunities in Cuba, reports the BBC. Donohue, an advocate for lifting the U.S. embargo on Cuba, told Reuters he initiated the trip:

“[B]ecause of the evidence that we’re seeing in Cuba of an extraordinary expansion of free enterprise, the reduction in government jobs, and more private hiring, all of which is moving in the right direction.”

The delegation included Steve van Andel, Chairman of the Chamber’s Board of Directors and President of the Amway corporation, and Marcel Smits, Executive Vice-President and Financial Director of the Cargill corporation, along with other members of the USCC, according to Granma. This trip is the first by USCC executives since July 1999, when Donohue traveled to Havana for three days.

During the visit, the delegation met with Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Foreign Minister and Rodrigo Malmierca Díaz, Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment. It also toured an auto repair cooperative that, for ten months, has been privately operated rather than state-run, according to the Associated Press.

Donohue gave a speech to officials and university students at the University of Havana on Thursday. He praised the economic reforms that Cuba has already implemented, but also urged Cuba’s government to open its markets and increase the number of private businesses, wrote the AP: “We deeply believe that countries with strong private sectors free of excessive government control and ownership will have the most successful and productive economies.” He said that supporting commercial ties with Cuba is not equivalent to disregarding human rights problems in the country:

“Those of us who oppose the embargo are often accused of excusing or ignoring the Cuban government’s record on human rights and personal freedom. … In fact they need to be addressed by our governments in a constructive and ongoing dialogue.”

Donohue met with President Raúl Castro on Thursday. According to CNN, they discussed how both countries can help to move relations forward in the future. Donohue said, “It was positive and we expect to talk again.” The delegation returned to the U.S. on Friday.

To see a clip of the press conference that Donahue gave in Cuba, click here.

The Chamber’s trip to Cuba was harshly criticized by Cuban-Americans in Congress.  Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) decried the visit as “just another Potemkin village tour.” Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, accused Donohue of supporting a government that “jails foreign business leaders without justification, violates international labor standards and denies its citizens their basic rights.” In response, Donohue stated:

“I’ve been free to go where I want. I’m talking to people from the private and the public sector. We’re going to meet with small businesses. We’re meeting with people from other countries that are operating here. I think we’ll get a fair look and we’re enjoying ourselves. …The great thing about the United States is that everybody is entitled to their opinion including the Members of the Congress and the Senate. We happen to have a different view. We think this is a very positive opportunity.”

DeWayne Wickham, Dean of Morgan State University’s School of Global Journalism and Communication, published an op-ed in USA Today expressing hope that the Chamber of Commerce trip would help to change this “blockade against U.S. businesses,” and arguing that the U.S. misses out on investment opportunities in Cuba because of the embargo.

OFAC seeks $10 billion fine from French bank BNP Paribas

BNP Paribas, France’s largest publicly-traded bank, may be fined $10 billion by the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in order to resolve an investigation into claims that the bank dodged U.S. sanctions against Iran, Sudan, and Cuba, reports France24. According to the report, OFAC also wants BNP to fire twelve employees involved in the illegal transactions, to accept the temporary suspension of all transactions in and out of the United States, and to plead guilty to the charges brought, which would jeopardize the company’s U.S. banking license.

If imposed, this penalty would represent one of the largest fines ever levied on a bank and, according to analysts, would be a 5% hit to the company’s book value. The last time Cuba Central reported on OFAC’s investigation into BNP, the bank was setting aside $1.1 billion of its profits in anticipation of paying the fines.

U.S. petitioned to release information on exiles accused of planning Cuba attacks

This week, two U.S. groups filed joint Freedom of Information Act requests asking the U.S. government to release information about the four Miami exiles arrested in Cuba for allegedly planning attacks against the island, reports Reuters. The anti-war ANSWER Coalition and the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five requested information from the FBI, CIA, and the Department of State. The coordinator of the National Committee to Free the Cuban Five, Gloria La Riva, remarked, “Cuba has asked the U.S. government for cooperation and the public has a right to know the truth.”

José Ortega Amador, Obdulio Rodríguez González, Raibel Pacheco Santos, and Félix Monzón Álvarez were arrested on April 26, and said to admit to “planning an attack with the objective of inciting violence.” Cuba’s Interior Ministry claims that the four exiles “maintain close ties” with Luis Posada Carriles – a former CIA operative and Cuban exile living in Miami who has been involved in killings and terror attacks in an effort to overthrow the Cuban government for decades.

For more information on the case, see our previous coverage.

Miriam Leiva, independent journalist, advocates for engagement at events in the U.S.

Miriam Leiva, a long-standing critic of Cuba’s government and the U.S. embargo, met in Washington last week with representatives of the State Department, the U.S. Congress, and the White House. In comments to EFE, she expressed support for President Raúl Castro’s reforms, but said they don’t go far enough. In her view, increased engagement between Cuba and the U.S. could pressure Cuba to accelerate changes, especially if U.S. sanctions could no longer be blamed for problems in Cuba.

Leiva and her late husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, worked for Cuba’s government before leaving their positions and becoming public critics of the government. In 2013, she initiated a White House petition in support of the Obama Administration’s loosening of travel restrictions policies.

Yoani Sánchez releases interview with Vice President Biden

Dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez published an April interview with Vice President Joe Biden on her newly launched online newspaper, 14ymedio. The Q&A includes questions about U.S. investment in Cuba, as well as freedom of expression and access to telecom services that are currently unavailable to Cubans due to the embargo. When asked about U.S. policy, Biden said:

“Our objective is to promote positive change on the island so that Cubans can enjoy a normal and productive life in their own country, have the freedom to express their points of view, and benefit from an inclusive and democratic political system.”

The Cuban American Alliance, a DC-based organization of Cuban-Americans, wrote a piece that criticized the interview as a way for Biden to reiterate tired talking points on U.S. policy toward Cuba. Pointing to Sánchez’s question about a possible U.S. invasion and Biden’s categorical denial, the organization wrote, “This was a case of putting up a straw man in order to knock it down, or lobbing a softball at a batter who is waiting for it.”

Sánchez launched 14ymedio last week, but an hour after the website went live, it was hacked and viewers were redirected to a website criticizing Sánchez. People in Cuba could not access the website until Saturday, May 24, according to Reuters.  As recently as May 25, Fox News Latino reported that the site continued to be accessible on the island. However, Daniel Trotta, Chief Correspondent for Reuters in Cuba, posted to Twitter on May 28: “The new site @14ymedio by @yoanisanchez is still blocked in Cuba. Could this be permanent?”

Amateur sports license allows Americans to fly 90 miles to run 26 in Havana

U.S. citizens will be allowed to travel to Cuba to participate in the Havana marathon this November for the first time since the race began in 1987, according to Outside magazine. Tom Popper, president of Insight Cuba, stated that he was able to gain approval for runners to travel under an amateur sports license. Insight Cuba is the first commercial U.S. tour company to receive this type of license, and plans to bring 156 runners from the U.S. to participate in the marathon.

Previous to Popper’s efforts, running the Havana marathon would not have been possible for U.S. citizens who are not of Cuban descent. Participation in the event was not possible even under President Obama’s 2011 people-to-people travel reforms, as it would not fit the definitions governing educational or cultural licenses. Popper said that U.S. participation in the marathon represents an important type of engagement between the U.S. and Cuba: “We thought this would be a great way to get Americans side by side, literally, with Cubans and have a really meaningful interaction.”

Former U.S. Secretary of the Interior calls for change in Cuba policy

Ken Salazar, the former U.S. Secretary of the Interior, spoke in favor of improving U.S. relations with Cuba at the Tribuna EFE-Casa de America forum in Madrid, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. The forum focused on the status of the Hispanic community in the U.S.

Secretary Salazar spoke about the Cuban-American community, stating that many Cuban-Americans were looking toward a new future of engagement. Salazar signed last week’s open letter to President Barack Obama, which urged him to make incremental changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Mexico, South Korea explore investment in Cuba

Mexican and South Korean officials have held meetings about potential investments in Cuba, following last month’s announcement of Cuba’s new Foreign Investment Law.

Earlier this month, Ildefonso Guajardo Villareal, Mexico’s Minister of Economy, led a business delegation to Cuba. While Cuba Standard wrote that 30 people participated in the delegation, other sources, such as the Caribbean Journal, put the number at 60 businesspeople.

The delegation toured the Special Economic Development Zone at Mariel (ZEDM), where Cuban officials hope the new port will usher in a new era of global commercial integration, as we reported in January.

During the trip, Guajardo helped to open a new ProMexico trade office in the Miramar neighborhood of Havana. Bilateral trade between Cuba and Mexico reached $386 million in 2013, making Mexico one of Cuba’s most important trading partners.

In comments to Prensa Latina, Francisco González, General Director of ProMexico, Mexico’s foreign investment agency, said, “We seek a strong presence at the ZEDM because we think this could be a launching point for many markets.”

This week, Ileana Bárbara Núñez Mordoche, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Trade and Investment Minister, traveled to South Korea where she attended an investment fair and met with business leaders to promote investment in Cuba’s “agricultural, food, electronics, tourism and medical sectors,” reports Progreso Weekly. Núñez Mordoche is the highest Cuban government official to visit South Korea since the countries broke off diplomatic relations in 1959.

Cuban oil technicians will train at Russian university

Russian oil companies  Rosneft and Zarubezhnetf signed agreements with Cuba’s state-run oil company CUPET (CubaPetróleo) at the end of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which a delegation from Cuba attended. The agreement with Rosneft enables Cuban engineers to study at Gubkin Russian State University of Oil and Gas, reports Progreso Weekly. Through the program, Cuban students will be able to receive Master’s or Doctoral degrees in petro-chemistry. Cuban students have been absent from the University since 1992. The agreement also included a provision allowing Rosneft to establish a logistics base at the Mariel Economic Development Zone, reported Prensa Latina. President Vladimir Putin attended the signing ceremony and said he looks forward to future cooperation.

The Cuban delegation participated in a forum to discuss collaboration between the Russian and Latin American economies, which Emilio Lozada, the Cuban ambassador to Russia, said Cuba’s new foreign investment law would encourage, according to Granma. Lozada also said that the Cuban delegation’s attendance at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum served as a rejection of U.S. sanctions against Russia.

IN CUBA

Banking regulations established for non-agricultural cooperatives

Last week, Cuba’s Central Bank established regulations for banking services for non-agricultural cooperatives (CNAs) in Cuba in a resolution published in the Gaceta Oficial last week, reports Juventud Rebelde.

Although the government authorized the formation of CNAs last year, this is the first time that it has detailed the steps necessary for CNAs to secure a bank account. Under the regulation, CNAs can use only one bank of choice to open accounts at one branch. CNAs will have the option of maintaining several different kinds of bank accounts, including checking, savings and expense accounts. CNAs will also have access to escrow services.

Cuba’s government has authorized non-agricultural cooperatives, composed of both self-employed workers and state employees, on an experimental basis. They have approved the formation of just under 500 CNAs, while over 200 of those are currently in operation. Workers at CNAs retain the same jobs they had when the businesses were state-run, but they now have the opportunity to make business decisions themselves.

Recommended Reading

Tweak Cuban embargo for sake of safe drilling, Sen. Bob Graham says, Dan Christensen, Miami Herald

Former Florida Senator Bob Graham advocates reducing U.S. restrictions on selling U.S. technology to Cuba that would help prevent disastrous oil spills. Spills would endanger Cuba and Florida, as well as the Gulf Stream ecosystem.

Please Don’t Call Yoani Sánchez A Hero If You Really Don’t Want To Help Her, Tim Padgett, WLRN

Tim Padgett questions Cuban-American hardliners who voice support for Yoani Sánchez as well as the embargo. Sen. Marco Rubio has called Sánchez “one of Cuba’s most courageous” dissidents, and “an aspiring Cuban media entrepreneur.” But, “[e]ven as Rubio exalts Sánchez as a dissident, he and every other Cuba-policy hardliner are essentially thwarting her as an entrepreneur – when in today’s Cuba the latter might be more important than the former.”

Cuba Embargo Under Pressure as Obama Urged to Ease It, Bill Faries and David Lerman, Bloomberg News

Following the recent open letter to President Obama and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s visit to Cuba, Faries and Lerman argue that there is a window of opportunity to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba.  “The approaching end of the Castro regime, shifting political dynamics in the Cuban-American hot spot of Florida…and an eagerness among some in the U.S. business community for trade have combined to make an opening possible.”

A Millennial’s Plea for a New Cuba Policy, Hector Luis Alamo, Jr., Latino Rebels

After last week’s open letter to President Obama, Alamo writes that “for many, especially the younger generation, there’s only one response to such news: It’s about damn time.” Alamo discusses the collective yearning of Latino Millennials to travel to Cuba and the unique perspective this group has regarding Cuba: “It’s not like we think the Castros are a wholesome bunch; we simply believe time has proven the embargo ineffective, and that, if anything, the embargo does more to hurt the Cuban people and keep the regime in power.”

Analysis: Cuba’s new real estate visa, José M. Pallí, Cuba Standard

Pallí explains the provisions of last week’s new category of visa. He also compares these new regulations to the ways that the U.S. attempts to attract foreign investment.

Cuba a problem for Crist, Scott, William March, Tampa Tribune

March writes about risks Florida’s gubernatorial candidates face in taking a stance on Cuba. March argues that Governor Scott’s pro-embargo position divides Republicans and Crist’s pro-change position divides Democrats.

Homophobia in Cuba: The Work Ahead of Us, Luis Rondón Paz, Havana Times

Rondón Paz questions the 2012 National Population and Housing Census’ failure to register same-sex partnerships and its implications for future reforms pertaining to Cuba’s LGBT community.

Cuba plans tentatively for life after a socialist Venezuela, Cécile Chambraud, Guardian Weekly

Chambraud discusses Cuba’s strategy for decreasing its economic risks to political upheaval in Venezuela.

Miami’s Venezuelans Are Starting To Drive U.S. Policy Like Their Cuban Neighbors, David Noriega, BuzzFeed

Noriega compares the influence and ideology of the emerging Florida-based Venezuela lobby with Miami’s Cuban-American lobby, arguing that many lawmakers are trying to apply a “distinctly Cuban-American outlook to the latest ideological conflict in Latin America.”

Recommended Viewing

What It’s Like to Be Transgender in Cuba, David Rosenberg, Slate

Rosenberg shares a sampling of Mariette Pathy Allen’s photos of the transgender community in Cuba from trips she took there in 2012 and 2013. Allen’s new book, TransCuba, examines the transgender experience in Cuba and its evolution under Mariela Castro’s leadership of the Cuban National Center of Sex Education.

Cuba’s Own ‘Mad Man’, Brett Sokol, The University of Miami Magazine

Fans of the U.S. television drama series Mad Men will love these vintage advertisements by one of Cuba’s top advertising agencies, Fergo-Arregui Advertising.

Daily Life Scenes in the Cuban Capital, Elio Delgado Valdes, Havana Times

Havana Times presents a collection of photos depicting a typical day in Cuba by freelance photographer Elio Delgado Valdes.

The day I said goodbye to Cuba, Simon Watts and Claire Tailyour, BBC News

Witness, a World Service radio program that provides accounts of moments in history as “told by the people who were there,” follows the journey of writer and journalist Mirta Ojito — a Cuban woman who came to the U.S. in 1980 as part of the Mariel boatlift.

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