This week, however, there was more evidence that the President has greater political space to negotiate with Cuba than he might have otherwise thought.
Florida International University, which has tracked opinion in the politically conservative enclave of South Florida since 1991, has just released its 2014 poll testing how Cuban Americans view U.S. policies toward Cuba.
According to FIU’s 2014 survey, majorities of Cuban Americans now support three big changes in U.S. policy – ending the embargo, ending restrictions on travel, and recognizing Cuba diplomatically – at the highest levels it has ever recorded.
FIU found support for diplomatic recognition among all respondents at 68%; among younger respondents at 90%; among all registered voters at 55%; and among non-registered voters at 83%. Since the major thrust of U.S. policy has always been to isolate Cuba and stifle contact between our two governments, finding outsized support levels among Cuban Americans for reestablishing diplomatic relations with Cuba is a really big deal.
We believe, and believe strongly, in the U.S. using diplomacy to end our self-imposed isolation and recognize Cuba. But even short of normalization, we advocate engagement to help us jointly solve the problems we and Cuba have in common.
During most of the 41 trips to Cuba we’ve hosted, Cuban officials, academics, and others have identified issues – such as law enforcement, terrorism, drug trafficking, and much else – where both countries would benefit by increasing or starting bilateral cooperation.
Our 21st Century Cuba publications zero in on subjects – such as protecting Florida from oil spills, and working with Cuban women as they seek greater economic benefits and autonomy in Cuba’s new era of reform – where the U.S. could collaborate, help Cubans and serve our national interest, if only U.S. policy and sanctions didn’t hold us back.
Last night, as we celebrated our 8th anniversary, CDA honored three allies whose work exemplifies engagement: Wynn Segall, the eminent sanctions lawyer, who has secured the research and people-to-people travel licenses that enable us to visit Cuba; Mario Bronfman of the Ford Foundation, who supported our 21st Century Cuba research program; and Carol Browner, the former EPA administrator, who has joined her leadership on climate change to the cause of engagement with Cuba.
Their actions, to dismantle barriers to collaboration and move relations with Cuba in a more positive direction, are the model for making progress on U.S. policy. With the FIU survey showing clear and increasing support in South Florida for dealing directly with Cuba, there is no political excuse left to hold the Administration back.
However, due to developments in the case of Alan Gross, there is even greater urgency for them to embrace engagement now. Mr. Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 for regime change activities our government knew to be in violation of Cuban law. He is in a hospital prison in Havana serving a 15-year sentence.
Since his arrest, our government has primarily called on Cuba to release him unilaterally, and dismissed Cuba’s offers to negotiate a solution that would bring him home. This strategy has produced nothing.
Dismayed by our government’s disengagement, Alan Gross said in an appeal for help to the White House last fall: “With the utmost respect, Mr. President, I fear that my government — the very government I was serving when I began this nightmare — has abandoned me.”
Having failed to stir action, Mr. Gross went on a hunger strike in April and later threatened to take his life if he found himself in prison by his next birthday. On Wednesday, we received word that his mother died from cancer, and learned last night that his brother-in-law also passed away this week.
In a statement issued following Gross’s mother’s death, Cuba reiterated its willingness to negotiate, and clearly linked the humanitarian concerns of Alan’s case to the three members of the Cuban Five still in prison here.
Resolving the Gross case is a prerequisite for moving forward on normalizing relations with Cuba, a virtue by itself. But, fruitful negotiations with Cuba could also restore faith here in presidential leadership and a core purpose of diplomacy: negotiating with our adversaries to get things done.
Consider the case of Colombia. This week, Juan Manuel Santos won reelection as Colombia’s president after beating Oscar Ivan Zuluaga in a runoff campaign.
Santos put his hold on power at risk and placed his faith in diplomatic negotiations with the FARC to end the civil war that has bloodied his country since 1964. Zuluaga, by contrast, as the Wall Street Journal reports, accused Santos of selling out Colombia at the bargaining table.
Rejecting allegations of appeasement, Santos said, “What is important, as Nelson Mandela said, is what is negotiated at the table.” Apparently, a majority of Colombians agreed.
What a good reminder to President Obama who, just six months ago, shook hands with Raúl Castro at Mandela’s memorial.
Evelyn Gross, the 92-year-old mother of imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, died on Wednesday, June 18, reports Reuters. She was diagnosed with lung cancer just a few months after Gross was arrested in December 2009, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune.
In a statement released by his family, they said that Mr. Gross had tried to obtain a humanitarian furlough to visit his mother before she died, but that Cuban officials did not grant this request. Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) released a statement that expressed sympathy for the Gross family, reiterated its willingness to negotiate for Gross’s release, and also responded to the issue of the furlough:
“Given the doubts expressed by the persons who wonder about the reasons why Mr. Gross was not able to visit his mother, it is necessary to clarify that neither the Cuban penitentiary system nor the US penitentiary system provides the possibility for inmates to travel abroad, no matter the reason. It is necessary to remember that when Carmen Nordelo – the mother of Gerardo Hernández Nordelo, one of the Cuban Five … passed away, he was not allowed either to travel to visit and say farewell to her.”
U.S. Department of State spokesperson Jen Psaki clarified in a press briefing on June 18 that the U.S. is now requesting that Gross receive a furlough to attend his mother’s funeral and be with his family to mourn. A reporter asked about the conditions of such a temporary release:
QUESTION: Do you have to provide some guarantees that you would ensure that he would return?
MS. PSAKI: I’m just not going to get into any greater level of detail on that front.
Judy Gross, Alan Gross’s wife, expressed her family’s desire that the Obama Administration increase its efforts to bring Gross back to the U.S. permanently:
“This is a devastating blow for Alan and our family. … I am extremely worried that now Alan will give up all hope of ever coming home and do something drastic. Surely, there must be something President Obama can do to secure Alan’s immediate release.”
CDA released a statement following news of Evelyn Gross’s passing, saying:
“If this moment of loss produces nothing more than politics and finger-pointing, that will do nothing to address Alan Gross’s situation. Nor will it produce any more progress than another round of demands for his unconditional release. … [Obama] can accept Cuba’s offer to sit down and talk.”
On Friday, National Security Council spokesperson Patrick Ventrell said that President Obama sent a message through Uruguay’s President José Mujica, asking President Raúl Castro to release Gross, reports Reuters.
Uruguay’s President José Mujica has met in recent months with President Raúl Castro and Fidel Castro and with President Obama, with the aim of facilitating progress in U.S.-Cuba relations, according to the Uruguayan newspaper El Observador.
President Mujica first took on this role when he met with Fidel and Raúl Castro in Havana in 2013 and suggested trying to reconcile with the U.S. After meeting with Obama in May 2014, Mujica reported that Obama was amenable to an “accord” with Cuba. Finally, on June 14 at the G77+China summit in Bolivia, according to a local newspaper, La Búsqueda, Mujica discussed the possibility of such an accord with President Castro, who seemed “interested” in the idea.
Last month, President Mujica agreed to accept six prisoners from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo, after which he urged President Obama to release the three members of the Cuban Five who remain imprisoned in the U.S.
The majority of Cuban Americans in Florida’s Miami-Dade county support greater engagement with Cuba, according to the poll released by Florida International University (FIU) on Tuesday, June 17.
Under the leadership of Professors Guillermo J. Grenier and Hugh Gladwin, FIU surveyed 1,000 randomly selected Cuban American residents of Miami-Dade County between February and May 2014. Seventy-one percent said they thought the embargo is not working very well or not at all, and 52% oppose continuing the embargo, up from 44% in 2011, the last year in which FIU conducted a Cuba poll. As the graphic below shows, this is a big change from 1991, the first year FIU conducted the survey, when only 13% opposed continuing the embargo.
Source: FIU 2014 Cuba Poll
Sixty-three percent of respondents also said they wanted Cuba to remain on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Grenier addressed this result in a Reuters article:
“The results show that the [Cuban] government and the [Cuban] people are seen differently. … There’s a certain willingness to throw the embargo under the bus, if there’s an alternative way to exert pressure on the government.”
The survey attributed changes in public opinion to demographic shifts. As the authors wrote:
“The increase in the opposition to the embargo continues a trend fueled not only by an ideological shift among exiles frustrated with the inability of the embargo to bring about the desired changes on the island. It is also the result of the profound shift in the demographic composition of the Cuban origin population in the Miami area. More than a third of all Cuban Americans living in Miami today have arrived since 1995. In our survey, these respondents are most likely to oppose a continuation of the embargo. They are also the least likely to be registered to vote.”
The Havana Times noted the difference between public opinion and the opinion of elected representatives, and attributed this difference to the large number of unregistered Cuban Americans who might support engagement:
“Even though 57% of registered voters told this poll that they would vote for a candidate ‘who supports replacing the embargo with a policy that increases support for independent business owners in Cuba,’ lawmakers who disagree with this sentiment 100% have been elected and re-elected term after term.”
FIU has conducted seven Cuba polls since the first two surveys were conducted in 1991. Facing a drastically changed dynamic since those first two polls, the pollsters concluded, “It is a record of a transition as dramatic and far-reaching as the transitions occurring on the island. This is our transition and it’s happening daily, poll or no poll, as Cubans everywhere look to the future with the hope that, indeed, todo tiempo futuro tiene que ser mejor [the future must be better].”
Facundo Bacardi, chairman of Bacardi, Ltd. told Cigar Aficionado magazine that his family is internally divided over the U.S. embargo on Cuba, reports Cuba Standard. The Bacardi family left Cuba after the revolutionary government took over the family rum business. According to the report, Facundo Bacardi took pains not to take sides on the issue, stating:
“We have a big family, and as in every big family, we have differences of opinion…Some family members are pro-embargo, and others are anti-embargo. One thing is that we’re not politicians. The people who really care about Cuba, not from a commercial perspective, but from a true desire to help Cubans, whether you’re pro-embargo or anti-embargo, those on both sides of the issue are already doing that.”
The family-owned company, which also owns Grey Goose, Bombay Sapphire, and Dewar’s, has historically taken a hardline approach toward Cuba; in 1999, for example, it exerted political pressure to pass legislation which stripped Cuba of its U.S. trademark for Cuba-made Havana Club rum. Cuba Standard writes that the legislation “continues to put the U.S. government at odds with allies and the World Trade Organization, and has the U.S. Chamber of Commerce concerned.”
According to the report, “The tone and substance of the company’s position on the embargo and Cuba was harsher under Facundo Bacardi’s predecessor, Manuel Jorge Cutillas.” Mr. Cutillas passed away in November of 2013.
This week, it was announced that Cuban diplomats in Jamaica and Barbados are now allowed to shop at member-only PriceSmart warehouse stores, reports the Jamaica Observer. The U.S.-owned PriceSmart had banned Cuban Embassy buyers in accordance with the U.S. embargo on Cuba. Jamaica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade announced that PriceSmart had eliminated the ban, saying:
“The ministry understands that PriceSmart has formally advised the Cuban Embassy that it has been authorised to sell consumer merchandise to Cuban diplomats and consular officers, as well as their dependents who are staying at Cuban Embassies and Consular Missions outside Cuba.”
Officials at Cuba’s Embassy in Barbados welcomed the development, reports Barbados Today. As we reported in March, similar measures against Cuban diplomat customers were also taken in the Dominican Republic and El Salvador.
A law signed by Florida Governor Rick Scott on Friday aims to cut down on smuggling and trafficking of Cuban baseball players into the U.S., reports Reuters. According to the law’s provision, MLB teams who allow players in Cuba to sign contracts directly rather than enter the amateur player draft will receive tax breaks from the state of Florida. The provision was included in a tax incentive package the state legislature passed in April 2014. If they comply, the law would qualify the Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays to receive up to $3 million per year in tax incentives.
As has been highlighted by the case of L.A. Dodgers star Yasiel Puig, human trafficking of sports players out of Cuba has become an increasing issue for the MLB.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
After Russian oil companies Rosneft and Zarubezhneft signed oil drilling agreements with Cuba last month, concerns are rising about the environmental dangers of drilling in the Gulf, reports the Sun Sentinel. The Gulf Stream flows toward Florida, and it would take only a week for a slick from a major oil spill to reach “Florida’s beaches, reefs and marine sanctuaries.” In March, the U.S., Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas signed an agreement that would streamline the emergency response process in the case of a major oil spill.
Former Senator Bob Graham (FL) has long advocated on the issue of oil drilling safety; he spoke out in May on the danger of preventing Cuba from acquiring advanced drilling technologies, stating: “The Russians have little experience with deep-water drilling and … the U.S. embargo of Cuba prohibits the use of American technology to prevent or respond to a spill.”
Dan Whittle of the Environmental Defense Fund noted the pressure Cuba faces to drill offshore, saying:
“The Cubans were very frustrated by the first round of drilling, but there is still a lot of optimism and hope, and a sense of urgency with what’s going on in Venezuela. … They are determined to move forward with more exploration next year.”
Prensa Latina reports that Cuba hosted the 9th International Congress on Disasters this week in Havana. Attendees discussed issues ranging from environmental vulnerabilities and risk management to disaster training including the reorganization of health services in disaster situations.
The report by The Center for Democracy in the Americas on the risk of oil spills and how the embargo leaves the U.S. exposed to damage from them can be accessed here.
Ileana Núñez Mordoche, Cuba’s Vice Minister of Foreign Trade, will travel to the United Kingdom and Spain, to discuss foreign investment in Cuba. On June 23, Vice Minister Núñez Mordoche will participate in the Cuba Initiative Business Conference in London.
On June 26, Vice Minister Núñez Mordoche will meet with Jaime García-Legaz, Spain’s Vice Minister of Foreign Trade, to discuss Spain’s investment opportunities, reports ABC. Núñez Mordoche will be accompanied by six leaders of Cuba’s Ministries of Industry, Commerce, Energy, and Tourism.
Spain joins a list of many other countries from which Cuba’s government has been pursuing investments in recent months to support its struggling economy. On June 29, Cuba’s new Foreign Investment Law goes into effect, easing the process of foreign investment on the island.
The Commemorative Summit for the tenth anniversary of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) will take place in Havana, Cuba this December, reports Cubadebate. ALBA’s Political Council, which concluded its meeting on June 10 in Caracas, Venezuela, issued this decision as part of its final declaration. The declaration explained that holding the anniversary celebration in Havana would be a “commemoration of that dream made reality by Commanders Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.”
This week, at the 50th annual Group of 77 Summit, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon lauded Cuba for hosting peace talks in Havana between Colombia’s government and the country’s main rebel group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), reports Colombia Reports. The ongoing talks have been fruitful and the two groups have resulted in agreements on the topics of agrarian reform, political participation rights, and illicit drugs.
The G77 Summit, which began in 1964 when 77 countries came together to protect and improve the economic interests of their countries, now consists of over 130 countries and over 60% of the world’s population, explained Colombia Reports.
At this year’s G77 Summit in Bolivia, member countries and China –which was in attendance in solidarity with the group’s ideals– decried economic sanctions on Cuba, reports the Argentinian newspaper La Gaceta. In addressing the Summit, President Raúl Castro called for the political will for sustainable development among member countries, reports Progreso Weekly.
In addition to condemning a lack of political will from developed countries’ governments to change their economic policies, the Summit’s attendees denounced the “electronic espionage” of “some countries” in their Final Declaration, reports Progreso Weekly. Section 194 of the Final Declaration says, “We see with consternation that some countries have recently carried out activities of surveillance or interception of communications [that have been] extensive, arbitrary, and illegal.”
The trial of Cy Tokmakjian, president of the Canadian Tokmakjian group, began in Cuba this week, reports Reuters. Tokmakjian is being tried on charges of bribery, tax evasion, and corruption. Since his arrest in 2011, he has been held in Cuba for three years, and during two and a half of those years he was held without charges.
The arrests of Tokmakjian and his high-level managers were part of a larger government focus on reducing corruption in Cuba, reports the Associated Press. The Tokmakjian group is a trading company that in Cuba mainly sold “transportation, mining, and construction equipment.”
Tokmakjian’s trial is scheduled to end Friday, though a verdict might not appear for several weeks. The trial comes a week before Cuba’s new foreign investment law goes into effect on June 27. Potential investors are scrutinizing this case to judge the climate in Cuba for foreign businesses and investors. The timing of this trial, reports Café Fuerte, is most likely strategic:
“With the Foreign Investment Act just days from taking force and the urgency of attracting foreign capital to boost the ailing national economy, finding a solution for this case seems most reasonable.”
A number of websites previously blocked by the Cuba’s government have been unblocked, reports Progreso Weekly. Websites unblocked include Radio/TV Martí; the Miami-based Cubanet, a site that publishes the work of “dissident” journalists; Cubaencuentro; Twitter; Skype; and Revolico, an ad-site which poses a threat to Cuban state-run shops by offering competitive prices, reports the Miami Herald.
It is unknown whether the unblocking of these websites is purposeful or accidental, temporary or permanent.
For now, Cuban citizens with access to Internet connections are able to explore these once-forbidden sites and connect with people globally through Skype. As one woman described of her Skype experience with an Italian friend, “It’s thrilling to speak for the first time with the whole world.”
UPDATE: As we went to press, the Miami Herald updated this story, reporting that these websites have been re-blocked.
The average state salary in Cuba rose one percentage point in 2013, according to a report posted on the website of Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) on Tuesday, June 17. In 2013, the report said, state workers on average earned 471 pesos ($20) per month, as compared to the 466 pesos ($17) they earned on average in 2012, reports EFE.
EFE said that the average state salary has consistently, though very slightly, increased over the past eight years. As we reported in May, Cuba’s government is maintaining its position that for salaries to increase significantly, so must productivity.
The province with the highest average pay in 2013 was Ciego de Ávila, at 520 pesos, and the province with the lowest was Guantánamo, at 442 pesos. The report also broke wages down according to sector. The sector with the highest average wage was construction, at 582 pesos, and the one with the lowest average wage was “business, restaurants, and hotels,” at 391 pesos per month. Every sector and every province, besides Matanzas, showed an increase from 2012.
Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health is reporting six cases of the Chikungunya virus in Cuba, reports state newspaper Granma. According to the report, almost all those infected had connections to the black market and had traveled recently, either to Haiti or the Dominican Republic. The health of all those infected is reportedly improving.
Cases of the virus have also been reported in the United States -specifically in Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee — with a total of 57 reports to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention in 2014, reports CNN.
Chikungunya is transmitted by mosquitoes infected with the virus and causes symptoms that include fever, joint/muscle pain, nausea, and rashes, according to the World Health Organization. Treatment is focused on symptom relief, as there is currently no cure. The virus is usually found in Africa and Asia, but since December 2013, cases have begun to appear in the Caribbean. The Pan American Health Organization reported that over 4,500 cases have been confirmed in the Caribbean as of June 2014, and over 165,000 cases are suspected.
Because Cuba is in its summer monsoon season, viruses transmitted by mosquitoes are more likely to occur now, reports the Associated Press.
Cuba’s new labor code, passed in December 2013, went into effect on Tuesday, June 17, when it was published in the Gaceta Oficial. The new code includes protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation, as well as specifications about private sector labor.
We reported in January that discrimination in the workplace against gender or sexual orientation would be illegal under new legislation.
El Nuevo Herald reports that the code did not go so far as to include language explicitly protecting transgender people and people with HIV, provisions for which Mariela Castro Espín, daughter of Raúl Castro and director of the National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), had fought.
The new Labor Code does make a big shift in that it specifies conditions for private sector jobs, reports CubaDebate. It says that the employer and employee must establish a contract that details duties and length of employment. It also establishes “minimum rights that the employer must guarantee:” an eight-hour work day with no more than 44 work hours per week, pay equal to or above the minimum wage, a day off at least once a week, and at least seven paid vacation days a year, and “conditions for safety and health at work.”
Cuban citizens and corporations will be allowed to invest in Cuba’s Special Economic Development Zone at Mariel Port (ZEDM), reports Martí Noticias. Yanet Vázquez Valdés, assistant director of the Office of the ZEDM, said that citizens living both in the country and internationally will be able to invest.
Only a handful of people in Cuba will be able to invest, as most lack the capital necessary to do so. Furthermore, Cuban-Americans are unable to invest because of limitations imposed by the U.S. embargo.
Why Isn’t Allen Gross on the Next Plane Home after Bowe Bergdahl?, Fulton T. Armstrong, The Jewish Daily Forward
Armstrong writes on the cases of Bowe Bergdahl and imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross. He argues for Gross’s release – via negotiations with Cuba’s government – adding, “Anyone working on behalf of the U.S. government deserves our most fervent efforts to bring him or her home safely and swiftly.”
South Florida Poll Confirms Big Shift in Exile Community on Cuba, Sarah Stephens, The Huffington Post
CDA executive director Sarah Stephens analyzes this week’s poll by Florida International University.
Until Moderate Cuban-Americans Vote, No Poll Will Change U.S. Cuba Policy, Tim Padgett, WLRN
Tim Padgett argues, based on the data from the FIU poll, that hardliner members of Congress continue to get elected because many of those who favor a more moderate policy are not registered to vote. He writes, “If Obama sees scant evidence that actual Cuban-American voters – the only Americans who care enough about Cuba to carry it into the ballot booth – have swung to the reformers, he’s not likely to budge.”
Miami exiles pressure U.S. to loosen policy on Cuba, David Adams, Reuters
Adams talks to several Cuban exiles who have recently traveled back to Cuba and who now support U.S. engagement with the country.
Denying Visas to Cuban Scholars Cripples Obama’s Policy of Engagement, William M. LeoGrande, Huffington Post
LeoGrande discusses the arbitrary results of the Obama Administration’s visa-denials.
Cuban economist predicts ‘Day Zero’ for currency merger, Vito Echevarría, Cuba Standard
Echevarría reports on discussion and analysis of Cuba’s currency unification during a conference at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York, highlighting commentary by leading Cuban economist Pavel Vidal as well as World Bank economist Agusto de la Torre.
The end of El Exilio?, Phil Peters, The Cuban Triangle
Phil Peters writes that while the traditional “Cuban exile” mindset may be a fixture in the immigrant community, that community is becoming increasingly diverse and inclusive of a variety of opinions.
Cuba: grandmothers who care, Helen Hernández Hormilla, Latin America Bureau
Hormilla writes about the status of elderly women in Cuba, noting that many continue to work after retirement.
WSJ Live interviews Professor Guillermo Grenier, who led the Florida International University poll on Cuban American attitudes toward U.S.-Cuba policy.
Guantanamera, Playing for Change
This video features Cuban musicians from around the world singing the famous song, Guantanamera, based off of the poetry of José Martí. Jackson Browne, a founder for the Playing for Change project, expressed that this video offers a “good portrait” of the Cuban people.