Washington, Cuba, and the Climate for Dysfunction

This headline – “Cuba plans to drill near Keys again in 2015” – helped us clarify the news this week about U.S. policy toward Cuba and the dysfunction that surrounds it.

As David Goodhue, reporting for the Florida Keys Keynoter, explained, Cuba will resume exploratory drilling off the Florida Keys next year.  But, the waters and beaches off Florida are still not protected against oil pollution were a spill to happen as a result.

Although Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, the United States and Cuba signed The Wider Caribbean Region Multilateral Technical Operating Procedures for Offshore Oil Pollution Response earlier this year (essentially a work plan for cooperation if an oil spill exceeds the boundaries of one nation and puts the territorial waters of others at risk), an effective emergency response is far from assured. The embargo remains a barrier to deploying U.S. technology and expertise as part of a timely effort to protect the oceans, fishing stocks, and tourist resources that contribute to Florida’s economy and well-being.

Floridians should already be worried. Many probably read about the report called “Risky Business” released this week that describes how much the Sunshine State is threatened by global warming and rising oceans.  It said, in part, “There is a 1-in-20 chance that more than $346 billion worth of current Florida property will be underwater by the end of the century.”  We know that Florida is already feeling the effects of rising sea waters and the dangers of an inadequate government response.

What is at stake – with oil spills and global warming – is more than just billions in property damage.  We need to protect the oceans because they are sources of food, employment, tourism, recreation, and more. They absorb carbon, which in turn helps dampen warming, and they foster biodiversity, which means they help sustain life.

This is why Secretary of State John Kerry hosted the “Our Ocean” Conference at the State Department this month, and why it was so sensible that Dr. Fabián Pina Amargós, director of Cuba’s Center for Coastal Ecosystems Research was invited to attend, as Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), among others, thought he should.  We do, after all, share an ecosystem and an ocean with Cuba.

Kerry’s conference produced an action plan (details here) whose recommendations are aligned with the agenda for bilateral cooperation that EDF and environmental leaders like Senator Whitehouse want the United States to pursue.  They want Cuba and the U.S. to collaborate and stop overfishing in shared waters, strengthen policies that facilitate two-way scientific research, develop a plan for an international network of protected marine areas, and strengthen cooperation on oil spill prevention and response.

Much of this could be accomplished by executive action, which the White House could put in motion, especially if the U.S. Congress didn’t get in the way.  Good luck with that.

While the Congress did legislate on Cuba policy this week, it was hardly a vote of confidence in engagement with Cuba (or good government for that matter).  The State Department budget written by House Appropriations directs the Secretary of State to cut down on issuing visas for Cuban officials.  It also tells the Department to spend more money on the democracy promotion work in Cuba that resulted in the conviction of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.

The bill to fund the Treasury Department budget blocks licenses for non-academic educational exchanges and orders Treasury to produce a report in 90 days analyzing trips it has licensed trip to Cuba since 2007 with data specifying the number of travelers, amount of money spent, and more.

The two champions of this bill, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (FL-4) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), were clearly fighting the Cold War, not protecting their Florida constituents or the state’s marine environment and coastline, when they shepherded the legislation to passage.

They are among the shrinking number of Floridians who believe that if you give the embargo enough time to work, someday it will.  We don’t believe that.  Neither do majorities in their state, nor do the majority of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County.

What happens on Cuba defines how the U.S. Capitol is captured by dysfunction.

While Members of Congress prop up the embargo because they want Cuba to fail, Cubans are seizing opportunities created by their country’s economic reforms to try and build more successful lives. While House Members try to stop the State Department from issuing visas, our scientists are trying to increase contacts with their Cuban counterparts to calm and protect the troubled waters between our countries.  While Cuba is poised to drill again in waters close to the Florida Keys, Members of Congress write bills to leave its coast defenseless.

When you think about how useless the embargo has been since it was first imposed by the Kennedy Administration in the 1960s, it was almost funny to read how Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen scolded the Administration for sticking with its “ineffective” Libya policy for three years.

But, for her constituents and their beach front property?  Not so much.


Wife, lawyer of Alan Gross say he is suicidal, call on U.S. to bring him home

Judy Gross, the wife of imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, and Scott Gilbert, one of his lawyers, report from Havana that Gross is increasingly despondent, especially after the death of his mother last week, reports the Havana Times. They have been in Cuba visiting Mr. Gross since Tuesday.

Judy Gross spoke to NBC about Mr. Gross’s current condition:

“He is absolutely the worst. He’s normally a gregarious, funny guy, but I couldn’t even get a joke out of him yesterday. … I’m very worried about his emotional health. He has said he is going to do something drastic. Seeing him yesterday makes me believe that.”

In statements on Wednesday, Scott Gilbert and Judy Gross emphasized  the necessity of action by  the U.S. government to get Alan released. Gilbert said, “Both governments [of Cuba and the United States] should know that Alan plans to end his life as a way to end this agony.”

Judy Gross said, “If we can redeem five members of the Taliban to bring home an American soldier, I’m sure we can find a way to bring home an American citizen in a Cuban prison.”

She said further that returning to the U.S. is the only thing that would relieve her husband’s despair:

“He’s had so many disappointments that it’s hard for him to believe anything positive that I say. … Part of what he’s dealing with right now is grief, and we talked about his mother’s death, but honestly, I don’t think there’s much anyone can say to him at this point, except when he lands on U.S. soil.”

Cuba’s government has repeatedly offered to negotiate for Gross’s release in exchange for the release of the three members of the “Cuban Five” still imprisoned in the U.S. But, as CBS reports, the U.S. government has refused to enter into negotiations on the grounds that the cases are not comparable.

Crist says he will not travel to Cuba this summer

Charlie Crist, Democratic candidate for governor in Florida, said on Monday that he has decided not to travel to Cuba before the November election, reports the Tampa Tribune. Crist, who came out against the embargo in February, had also said in May that he planned to travel to Cuba over the summer.

According to the Miami Herald, Crist said that he needed to make a decision about the best use of his time during the campaign, and that meant focusing on Florida. The Herald also reported that Crist complained of delays in getting his travel license approved by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

Crist emphasized that his position against the embargo has not changed and that he will travel to Cuba in the spring of 2015, if he wins in November. He is running against the incumbent, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican. Capitol Hill Cubans called Crist’s reversal a flip-flop of his flip-flop. He had earlier supported the embargo.

State Dept. Trafficking in Persons Report ranks Cuba in lowest category

The U.S. Department of State classified Cuba as a “Tier 3” country, the lowest ranking in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, which was released on Friday, June 20.

The State Department report finds that in Cuba there is child and adult sex trafficking and a history of forced labor on government-sponsored international work missions. The report notes that Cuba’s laws prohibit many forms of trafficking, however not all, and that much of the legislation conflates human trafficking with prostitution and pimping. It also says that “reports of coercion by Cuban authorities in [work programs] do not appear to reflect a uniform government policy of coercion; however, information is lacking.”

In 2013, Cuba’s government provided, for the first time, a report of actions taken to fight sex trafficking, including the prosecutions and convictions of ten traffickers.

Josefina Vidal, the Director General of the United States for Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, released a statement condemning the report. She accused the U.S. of having one of the worst human trafficking problems in the world, and said that the U.S. was not qualified to advise Cuba on how to combat its problem. She stated:

“The Government of Cuba categorically rejects as unfounded this unilateral exercise that offends our people. Inclusion on this list, which is completely politically motivated, as is the designation of Cuba as a State Sponsor of International Terrorism, is aimed to justify the embargo.”

The report tracks government actions taken to combat human trafficking throughout the world. According to the report, ranking is not based on the size of the human trafficking problem, but rather what actions are being taken by the government to remedy the problem.


Remittances to Cuba increased in 2013

According to The Havana Consulting Group, family members brought $3.5 billion worth of “in-kind” remittances to their Cuban relatives in 2013, reports Café Fuerte. Although in 2012 Cuba’s government imposed restrictions on goods brought to the island, in-kind remittances to Cuba have increased. A study carried out by the Havana Consulting Group found that in 2013, the value of goods sent to Cuba increased by about $750 million dollars from the $2.7 billion dollar value of the transported goods in 2012.

Of all the merchandise arriving in Cuba, over half (54%) arrives via passengers who come to the island. A substantial amount (43%) of the merchandise comes from agencies that the Office of Foreign Assets Control for the Treasury Department licensed to participate in the Cuban market.

Of the goods sent to Cuba, 70% are durable goods such as electronic devices, construction materials, and machines and 30% are perishable goods such as clothing, food, and medicine.

U.S., Russian, Cuban, and Venezuelan forces to cooperate in fighting drug trafficking in Nicaragua

This Tuesday, Nicaragua’s Congress agreed to allow over 300 military troops, as well as ships and aircraft from the U.S., Russia, Cuba, Venezuela, and Mexico into Nicaragua to counter drug trafficking operations and provide humanitarian aid, reports El Universal. The legislation, proposed by President Daniel Ortega, passed with 80 out of 91 votes.

The international effort is aimed at combating drug trafficking in the Pacific Ocean as well as the Caribbean Sea around Nicaragua, which includes 90,000 kilometers that the International Court of Justice allocated to Nicaragua in 2012 after a legal battle with Colombia. The international mission will also provide training to Nicaraguan troops.

Nicaragua’s Parliament also endorsed the arrival of an undisclosed number of humanitarian troops from France, Taiwan, Jamaica, Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize. According to El Universal, Nicaragua will also send 180 soldiers to Venezuela, Russia, Cuba, and Mexico, but El Universal does not indicate the purpose of the mission.


Council of Ministers approves new reforms, evaluates Cuba’s economy

Cuba’s Council of Ministers approved new reforms and assessed the state of Cuba’s economy last Saturday, reports Granma.

The Council approved new measures to implement non-state management of “businesses that provide food, personal, and technical services.” The state will maintain ownership of the “major means of production,” but equipment and tools will either be leased or sold. According to Marino Murillo Jorge, Vice President of the Council, the transition to non-state management will take place in an “organized and gradual way.” Prices at these establishments will be determined by supply and demand, with the exception of those which are set centrally. He explained the need for the reform, stating:

“Entities that have so far incorporated themselves into non-state forms of management have achieved favorable results; workers increased their income; the places of business have been revived; service hours were extended, while prices have increased in correspondence with an increase in the quality and variety of offerings.”

The Council also approved policies to spur the development of renewable energy sources and increase the efficiency of the production, distribution, and consumption of electricity. The government will launch a campaign to reduce energy consumption, and establish “a special regimen of incentives,” including credit and pricing, to encourage the purchase of energy-efficient appliances and the use of renewable energy sources. According to Murillo Jorge, renewable energy accounts for only 4.3% of the country’s electricity. The project will be financed by both the Cuban Government and “direct foreign investment”.

At the meeting, Adel Yzquierdo Rodríguez, Minister of the Economy and Planning, presented a report on Cuba’s economic performance in the first semester of 2014, as well as the estimates for the balance of the year. The government expects GDP to grow 1.4% by the end of the year. December 2013 estimates had predicted growth of 2.2%, reports Reuters. Yzquierdo Rodríguez said that in the first semester of 2014, Cuba’s GDP is expected to grow by 0.6%. Yzquierdo Rodríguez attributes the slow rate of growth to “the planned foreign investments [that] have not been achieved; adverse weather conditions; and internal inadequacies that our economy continues to face.” He noted that all of these factors are in the greater context of a “complex international situation” and the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Granma reports that the manufacturing industry showed the slowest growth. Agriculture, the sugar industry, and restaurants and hotels were among the industries that showed the highest growth. Many other industries maintained the same growth rates as in the first semester of 2013.

Murillo Jorge also provided a progress report to the Council on the implementation of the Guidelines, or lineamientos, approved by the 6th Communist Party Congress in 2011 for the “updating” of the economy.

According to Murillo Jorge, 249 of the 498 cooperatives authorized in April 2013 have been formed.  He stated that that over 467,000 people have received self-employment licenses, according to figures updated to May 2014. Borrowing by businesses has continued to grow, but new means for obtaining credit have not been fully exploited. Citing a figure from April 2014, he stated, “272,332 credits have been issued, totaling 2.48 billion pesos.”

Referring to the agricultural wholesale markets that opened experimentally in Havana, Artemisa, and Mayabeque provinces in December 2013, Murillo Jorge said that despite the slight increase recorded in the supply and diversification of supply, production is still insufficient and market prices remain high. Additionally, Murillo Jorge stated that the approved timeline for ending the country’s dual currency system remains in effect.

Foreign investment law slated to go into effect this weekend

Cuba’s Foreign Investment Law is scheduled to go into effect this Saturday, June 28, reports AFP. The law was passed by Cuba’s National Assembly on March 29, but lawmakers had 90 days to add regulations, reports Cuba Standard.

As we reported in March, the law provides many tax incentives to foreign investors: it eliminates the labor tax, exempts investors from the income tax, and cuts the profit tax in half. It also allows investors to fully own their ventures in Cuba, contrasted with the 49% ownership that was allowed prior to the law.

Leading up to the law’s enactment, the Cuban Ministry of Industry hosted “Cubaindustria 2014,” an international congress promoting foreign investment opportunities, from June 23-27, reports Prensa Latina. Representatives from 29 countries and 200 companies attended the various workshops and seminars, according to Adriana Barcelo, the Director General for Industrial Management at the Ministry of Industry.

A delegation of Cuban officials led by Ileana Núñez Mordoche, Vice Minister of Foreign Trade, has been in Europe this week promoting foreign investment opportunities, as we reported last week. On June 26, the delegation attended a conference hosted by the Council of Spanish Chambers of Commerce, reports Progreso Weekly.

Manuel Teruel Izquierdo, the chairman of the Council, spoke about the Special Economic Development Zone at Mariel Port, calling it “a pole of attraction” that “opens the possibility that new companies, major companies may enter the island.” Progreso Weekly reports that Spain has submitted 44 applications thus far to pursue projects in the Special Zone. On June 27, Núñez Mordoche and Gonzalo Robles, General Secretary of the Spanish Cooperation Agency, signed an agreement ensuring cooperation between the two countries on international development, reports Prensa Latina.

ETECSA to provide Internet to cooperatives

ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications company, will provide Internet service to non-agricultural cooperatives with already-existing phone service, reports EFE. The services will become available starting on June 29, reports state news agency ACN. The change was approved last year, but the law allowing for this was published in the Gaceta Oficial on June 18.

Cooperatives will receive service only in their official location, to prevent others from taking advantage of it, reports Juventud Rebelde. Cooperatives will also have to pay the same amount that state-owned companies pay for Internet access.

This expansion of Internet service follows the inauguration in 2013 of cyber cafes available to the public, though at a high price. Internet access in Cuba is among the lowest in the world.

ETECSA also began providing mobile email service in March of this year. The service is currently in such high demand that ETECSA is establishing 80 new base stations throughout the island, reports EFE.

Commission for Human Rights publishes list of 2014 political prisoners

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCHRNR) came out with a list of political prisoners this week, stating that 114 people are incarcerated for “political reasons or implications,” reports dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez’s new online journal 14ymedio. With 60,000-70,000 total incarcerated Cubans — as the newly released document states — the percent of Cubans imprisoned for political reasons is 0.6-0.7%. The work of the CCHRNR is illegal according to Cuba’s government, but it continues nonetheless.

Recommended Reading

EDF Partner In Cuba Visits US for “Our Ocean” Conference, Shannon Switzer, EDFish

Switzer interviews Dr. Fabián Pina Amargós, a Cuban marine scientist, about his marine research in Cuba and his collaboration with Dan Whittle and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Dr. Pina Amargós was in Washington for the “Our Ocean” Conference last week. The South-Florida Sun Sentinel published an editorial this week which notes: “If a major spill were to occur near the Florida Straits, the embargo would hamstring our nation’s ability to work with the Cuban government in capping the well and preventing an ecological disaster.”

Growing numbers of influential voices are calling for the Obama administration to lift the longstanding U.S. embargo of Cuba, Albor Ruiz, New York Daily News

Albor Ruiz writes about the public figures, such as Hillary Clinton and Alfonso Fanjul, who have recently advocated for a change in U.S.-Cuba policy, and how this trend reflects changing public opinion across demographics.

After decades of GOP support, Cubans shifting toward the Democratic Party, Jens Manuel Krogstad, Pew Research Center

Krogstad, writing for the Pew Research Center, reports on the changing political composition of the Cuban American community.  Taking into account increases in the U.S.-born population, variations in the political leanings of voters based on their arrival in the U.S. and other factors, Krogstad finds that the number of Cuban Americans who support the Republican Party has dropped from 64% a decade ago to 47% now.

Cuban American Group Explains Why It’s in Washington, Maria Isabel Alfonso and Arturo López Levy, Roll Call

Maria Isabel Alfonso and Arturo López Levy, members of the organization Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE), which advocates for normalized U.S.-Cuba relations, are currently in Washington, D.C. with a group of CAFE members for their 3rd trip to the city. They write, “A new generation of Cuban Americans has come of age, and we’re ready to talk about engaging with Cuba.”

U.S.-Cuba policies are wasted on the old, Julia Cooke, Al Jazeera America

Drawing on recent polls, Cooke argues that what most divides opinions on U.S.-Cuba relations in the United States is age, writing that: “Older Cuban-Americans, many of whom came to the U.S. in the first waves of moneyed, politically savvy migrants from Castro’s Cuba, hold considerable political and economic clout and control the narrative of American policy on Cuba.”

The Party and the Army: Civil-Military Relations in Cuba, William LeoGrande, World Politics Review

LeoGrande writes about the history of relations between Cuba’s military and the rest of Cuban society. He argues that Cuba’s military and the Communist Party are complementary forces.

Gay Fiestas Highlight Divisions in Cuba’s LGBTI Community, Ivet González, Inter Press Service

González explores the evolving attitudes toward the LGBTI community in Cuba, focusing on the increasing number of bars and clubs that cater to the gay community. This development could prove problematic because, as one activist said, “[The bars and clubs] don’t arise autonomously from the LGBTI community but are an attempt to cash in on the legend that the ‘pink market’ is prosperous.”

The true colors of Cuba: Part 1, Peggy Goldman, Friendly Planet Travel

Goldman talks to a Friendly Planet people-to-people trip participant who describes the surprises he encountered and his interactions with those running private businesses.

Recommended Viewing

New Polls Show Shifting Attitudes On The Embargo, HuffPost Live

Marc Lamont Hill hosts a discussion about change in Cuba featuring Julia Sweig, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of The Nation; Jorge Benitez, Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council; and Guillermo Grenier, one of the authors of the Florida International University poll on Cuban American attitudes toward U.S. policy that was released last week.

Recommended Listening

Heirs of the Revolution: A Changing Cuba, NPR special series

This special series by NPR includes multiple stories about the ongoing changes taking place in Cuba, focusing on its growing small business sector and featuring interviews about the pace of change, the U.S. embargo, and the Mariel Port Special Economic Development Zone. One segment, “Cuba’s Budding Entrepreneurs Travel A Rocky Road Toward Success,” tells the story of Barbara Fernández Franco, a seamstress who began her own baby clothes business in 2010 whom we feature in our most recent book, “Women’s Work: Gender Equality in Cuba and the Role of Women Building Cuba’s Future.”

The rhythm that’s a way of living, Frannie Kelley, NPR

Kelley talks to Cuban percussionist Dafnis Prieto about the complexity of Afro-Cuban music and the polyrhythms it often employs.

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