Putin in Cuba, Groundhog Day in America

As Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Havana, and builds closer ties with Cuba’s senior leadership, it begs the question, “Haven’t we seen this movie before?”

Our six-decade stalemate with Cuba started at the height of the Cold War.  Cuba established formal diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union on May 8, 1960.  Washington, in turn, severed ties with Havana on January 3, 1961. By the time Vladimir Putin was a ten-year-old and Barack Obama was an infant, we had already lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, the establishment of the Lourdes signals intelligence center near Havana, and more, which brought the heat of the Cold War within a hundred miles of our shores.

Back then, the Eisenhower and Kennedy Administrations decided it just would not do to have what was called a “Soviet puppet” in what some still call our “backyard.”  President Kennedy, as Cuba scholar Daniel Erikson wrote, reinterpreted the Monroe Doctrine “to support American efforts to contain the expansion of Soviet influence into the hemisphere.”

From the Bay of Pigs invasion to diplomatic isolation to the tightest economic sanctions imposed on Cuba, driving the Soviets out and punishing the Cubans for inviting them in has been what U.S. policy was all about.  This was matched, year after year, by Cuba’s resolute resistance to whatever wallops Washington delivered, sustained for a decade by Soviet subsidies.

The fall of the Berlin Wall led, ultimately, to the collapse of Cuba’s economy.  When the Soviet Union broke-up in 1991, Cuba lost annual assistance estimated at approximately $4.5 billion. Its economy contracted by 35% more or less overnight.  Public transport essentially ground to a halt.  Calorie consumption in the average Cuban’s diet fell 30%.  Export earnings fell 80%.  By January 1, 1992, when the Soviets cut off all military and economic assistance to Cuba, the allies had gone through a nasty break-up.

This was the moment to declare victory. With Russia dislodged from Cuba, the U.S. could have reinvigorated diplomacy and reached a modus vivendi with Cuba.  The objectives of our Cold War era policy having been satisfied, we could have even brought some long overdue tranquility to our relationships in Latin America.

Instead, U.S. policymakers decided to try and finish the job, passing the Cuba Democracy Act, which tightened the embargo screws even further, with the expectation that Cuba’s economic travails would do Cuba’s government in. It could have been called “The Never Miss an Opportunity to Miss an Opportunity Act of 1992.”

What happened?  Well, Cuba’s government didn’t fall under the weight of the U.S. embargo.  Raúl and Fidel Castro organized a peaceful transition of power. Our insistence on shutting Cuba out of regional forums like the OAS backfired on us.  Now, a little more than two decades later, Russia is back.

Without apparent irony, Yuri Ushakov, a presidential aide, told a reporter that the Kremlin considers Cuba to be “one of Russia’s ancient partners in Latin America.”  To advance that partnership, even before President Putin landed on Cuban soil, Russia agreed to write off about $32 billion in debt Cuba owed to the Soviet Union.

This is a big deal.  The Voice of Russia news service references one analyst, Caroline Kennedy (no, we’re not kidding), Head of the School of Politics, Philosophy, and International Studies at the University of Hull, as it observed, “the writing-off of the historic debt is about trying to reinvigorate a relationship that had fallen into abeyance in the 1990s – something Putin himself has said that he regrets in recent speeches.”

In addition to writing off Cuba’s debt, Russia has been written into Cuba’s strategy for recovering oil from the vast offshore reserves it has sought to exploit in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico since the 1990s.  As Bloomberg reports, during Putin’s visit, two Russian state oil producers “plan to sign an agreement with Cuban company Cupet SA to carry out joint operations in Cuba’s offshore areas.”

It might interest you to know that on Putin’s last trip to Cuba fourteen years ago, he pulled the plug on the Lourdes signal intelligence center as his personal affirmation that the Cold War was over, a gesture he believed was snubbed and, as Progreso Weekly reported, he also reviewed the status of Cuba’s backlogged debt payments for previously acquired Soviet loans.

We have seen this movie before.  It’s called “Groundhog Day.”  In that film, history on February 2nd repeats itself day after day until our love-smitten TV weatherman sets aside his self-destructive behavior and ends the tragic time loop by repairing his relationships and doing right in the world.   The cold of winter gives way, finally, to spring.

“Keep in mind that when Castro came to power,” President Obama said last year in Miami, “I was just born. So the notion that the same policies that we put in place in 1961 would somehow still be as effective as they are today in the age of the Internet and Google and world travel doesn’t make sense.”

Whether it’s inviting Cuba to join the Summit of the Americas, engaging with Cuba directly to protect the coast of Florida from the potential risk posed by a Ruso-Cuban drilling accident, or using his ample executive authority to go bolder and deeper, surely President Obama can summon the imagination and courage, not to drive Russia out, but to get our country back in the game.


U.S. finally ends AeroMartí program

The AeroMartí program, an aircraft-based television broadcast system, which tried and failed to circumvent the jamming of TV Martí of  by Cuba’s government, was quietly ended in April after seven years of operation, reports Foreign Policy. The cost of the program exceeded $35 million.

The demise of the program was first noted in the July 2014 Inspection of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting report, released Monday by the U.S. Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG).

The work-around itself failed, because Cuba’s government jammed the plane’s transmissions. Even though the plane was grounded and stored in a warehouse in rural Georgia, hardliners in Congress such as Senator Robert Menendez (NJ), Senator Marco Rubio (FL), Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25) insisted that AeroMartí be maintained at an annual cost of $79,524, so the plane could be ready to return to the air in the unlikely event that Cuba’s government were to reverse course and stop jamming the signal as it has done since the 1990s.  According to the report, Congress finally heeded repeated requests by the BBG to end a costly program that had failed to achieve its goals.

In other findings, the report documents:

  •  Staff complaints that the director of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB) holds town hall meetings, but engages in one-way communications, and that questions are not allowed;
  • Staff complaints that the acting general manager disempowers employees, prevents them from making decisions, and has them simply follow orders;
  • Deployment of an OCB product, Piramideo, discussed by Tracy Eaton here, “which is an SMS-based social network that makes it easier for people inside Cuba to share information and connect with one another” outside of the government’s control; and,
  • Normal procedures for contracting, purchasing equipment, and paying for travel were not followed, which allowed the acting general manager to run up excess costs for airfare between offices in Washington and Miami, his residence in Los Angeles and other West Coast locations.

The BBG continues to produce programming for Radio Martí and TV Martí, launched in 1985 and 1990 respectively. Collectively, the U.S. government has spent more than $500 million on Martí programming to date. The BBG plans to bring Martí programming to Cubans in new ways including through DVDs, flash drives, satellites, and smartphone applications.

To read the U.S. Department of State and the BBG’s July 2014 Inspection of the Office of Cuba Broadcasting unclassified report, see here. For past CDA coverage of the AeroMartí program, see here.

U.S. and Cuba hold biannual migration talks, discuss Alan Gross

Cuban and U.S. officials met in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday for biannual discussions of the 1994 and 1995 U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords, reports the Associated Press. The accords require the governments of the United States and Cuba “to promote safe, legal, and orderly migration between Cuba and the United States.”

Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary at the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Josefina Vidal, Director General for U.S. Affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, co-led these most recent talks. The meetings halted in 2011, the year that USAID subcontractor Alan Gross was convicted in Cuba, and resumed in 2013.

According to a statement by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MINREX), the officials discussed “actions carried out by the parties, both individually and collectively, to combat illegal migration, human smuggling and the falsification of migration documents.” As it has before, MINREX called on the United States to eliminate the Cuban Adjustment Act, which expedites citizenship for Cubans who arrive in the U.S. legally or illegally. The Latin American Herald Tribune reports that about 1.5 million of the 2 million Cubans living abroad reside in the United States.

The AP reports that, in addition to issues of migration, the countries’ officials discussed Alan Gross, human rights violations on the island, U.S. fugitives who have fled to Cuba and the renewal of direct mail services between the two countries. The State Department emphasized in its statement that at the talks, the U.S. “reiterated its call for the release of Alan Gross.”

The State Department reminded the public that the talks are “routine” and should not be considered any indication of a new outlook on relations with Cuba.

Senator Menendez accuses Cuba of smear plot against him

Senator Robert Menendez (NJ) has accused Cuba’s government of spreading a 2012 story that he paid underage prostitutes for sex in the Dominican Republic and is asking the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the alleged plot to smear him, reports the Washington Post. The Associated Press reports that Senator Menendez believes Cuba’s government may also have had a role in allegations that led to an ongoing federal investigation of the Senator’s ties to Dr. Salomon Melgen, a Dominican ophthalmologist who is being investigated for Medicare fraud.   However, MSNBC reports that after speaking to numerous intelligence officials, it has found no credible evidence linking Cuba’s government to the story.

Senator Menendez, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the strongest supporters of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, believes that the story, which broke right before the November 2012 elections, came from Cuba’s plot to prevent his re-election.  As Menendez said to the AP:

“To the extent [Cuba would] like to see the United States engage them more on their terms, which is not to observe democracy and human rights, they probably feel that I’m the single most significant impediment to their goals.”

The federal government is still examining whether Menendez received donations in return for doing political favors for Dr. Melgen.  In April 2014, Menendez’s lawyer, Stephen M. Ryan, sent a letter to the Justice Department asking for an investigation. CNN calls this latest move by Menendez’s legal team a “legal Hail Mary” meant to complicate the current federal probe of the Senator.


Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping visit Cuba

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping will both visit Cuba as part of larger tours of Latin America scheduled around the 6th annual BRICS Summit in Brazil — a meeting of the leaders of five emerging international economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa — report RIA Novosti and Progreso Weekly.

Putin visits Cuba July 11 before attending the BRICS Summit and Xinping will visit Cuba — as well as Venezuela and Argentina — after the Summit.  At the BRICS Summit, which will take place July 14-16, Putin will attend the BRICS-Latin American Leaders’ Dialogue Forum. Jinping will meet with members of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) while in Brazil.

In Cuba, Putin and President Raúl Castro will reportedly discuss “developing trade, economic and investment ties, and implementing joint projects in energy, transport, civil aviation, peaceful use of outer space, and healthcare,” according to a Kremlin press release. The press release anticipates the two leaders will sign several bilateral accords. Putin will also meet with former President Fidel Castro. This will be his first visit to Cuba in 14 years, reports Progreso Weekly.

Putin’s trip follows a strengthening of ties between Cuba and Russia in recent months. In May, the two countries signed a cooperation agreement on security. Later that month, Cuba and Russia signed cooperation agreements allowing two Russian oil companies to drill offshore in Cuban waters in exchange for Cuban students studying at a Russian university.

Xi Jinping’s visit to Cuba was preceded by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s Latin America tour in April, during which he met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla. China is Cuba’s second most important economic ally after Venezuela, reports AFP.

Russia to forgive 90% of Cuba’s debt

On Wednesday, Russia’s Federation Council cancelled 90% of Cuba’s $35.2 billion debt to Russia for loans Cuba received when Russia was part of the Soviet Union, The Moscow Times reports. The agreement was passed by Russia’s Duma last Friday, the same day that Putin’s trip to Cuba was announced. Cuba will have to pay Russia back 10% of its loans, about $3.5 billion, over a period of ten years beginning on October 25, 2014, reports Progreso Weekly. Russia will reinvest the payments it receives from Cuba into Russian projects in Cuba.

While Russia historically has argued that Cuba owed this money since the Soviet era, Cuba’s government has made the case that the Russian Federation should have compensated Cuba after breaking bilateral relations in the 1990s and the privation that followed during what became known as the “Special Period.”

In an interview on Thursday with Prensa Latina and Itar-Tass, Cuban and Russian state news agencies respectively, Putin detailed the type of cooperation he would like to see between Russia and Cuba in the future. He said that Russian businesses that specialize in “manufacturing metal and plastic products, spare parts for cars, in tractor assembly and in assembly of heavy equipment for the rail industry” were interested in investing in the Special Economic Zone at Mariel, and added that the two countries hope to establish a transportation exchange through Mariel Port and by constructing an international airport at San Antonio de los Baños in Cuba.

Tourism continues to rise in Cuba: first six months of 2014 see 4.6% increase

The number of tourists traveling to Cuba in the first six months of 2014 was up by 4.6% over the same period last year, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports. This increase amounts to a total of 1.67 million foreign tourists traveling to Cuba during the first half of the year. In May, Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI) found that 60,000 more tourists traveled to Cuba from January-April 2014 than during those months in 2013.

Container terminal at Mariel Port handles 57 ships

Fifty-seven ships have used the container terminal at Mariel Port in the six months since it opened, amounting to a total of 15,000 containers, reports EFE. According to the report, the terminal has the capacity to handle up to 822,000 containers per year.

President Raúl Castro signed legislation authorizing the creation of the Special Economic Development Zone at Mariel Port in September 2013. The Special Zone is meant to connect Cuba internationally, encourage foreign investment to boost Cuba’s lagging economy, and provide employment opportunities for local Cubans. The project at Mariel Port, along with the Foreign Investment Law passed in March 2014, is part of Cuba’s recent effort to attract foreign investment. Cuba is currently considering 23 proposals for foreign investment in the Port.


President Raúl Castro assesses Cuba’s economy

Last weekend, President Raúl Castro addressed the National Assembly in Havana and discussed the slow pace of economic progress in Cuba, reports the Associated Press.

As we reported two weeks ago, the government slashed its initial estimates for GDP growth in 2014 from 2.2% to 1.4%.

President Castro recognized in his 25-minute speech to the National Assembly that Cuba’s economy was not improving as desired, but also insisted that the country is, in fact, taking the necessary precautions and ‘appropriate gradualness’ to ensure future economic stability and growth:

“Gradualness is not a whim, much less a desire to delay the changes that we must make. On the contrary, it is about a need to ensure order and avoid gaps that would lead us directly to mistakes that distort the proposed objectives.”

In acknowledging the “modest” improvement of Cuba’s economy, President Castro cited the absence of “foreign revenue,” “climatic conditions” and the “internal shortcomings” in the way Cuba’s government regulates the economy, reports Havana Times. His speech also emphasized the need for a national “fighting spirit” and “optimism” in order to “reverse the situation and recover the rhythms of progress to ensure a socialist development on sustainable and irreversible foundations,” reports Granma.

Cuba to increase customs restrictions in September

Starting in September 2014, Cuba’s government will impose new restrictions on the goods it allows through customs, as well as a new customs tax, reports Café Fuerte. This policy is part of an effort to reduce the trafficking of goods sent by third parties into the country. The  Resolution published by Cuba’s customs office details regulations for 381 categories of items that those entering the country can declare for personal use.

Electronic and information goods will experience the most drastic limitations; in addition to cutting down the number of items allowed into the country, the new regulations say that in order to bring certain electronic technology into the country, travelers will need to obtain a letter from the Ministry of Communications. Goods that require explicit permission include wireless fax machines, switchboards, wireless microphones, routers, and walkie-talkies.

A reduced number of other goods, including food and clothing items, will be allowed into the country, though no letter will be required for them. In addition to these new regulations, travelers will have to pay an increased customs tariff in an unspecified amount and currency (Cuban pesos or CUC).

Official in charge of currency unification says it won’t cause price increases

Marino Murillo, Vice President of Cuba’s Council of Ministers and the man responsible for spearheading Cuba’s economic reforms, stated on Saturday that the unification of the dual currency system will not have an adverse effect on the Cuban people’s purchasing power, reports Havana Times. Though currently the exchange rate between the two currencies is 24 Cuban Pesos (CUP) to 1 Convertible Peso (CUC), the currency reform will eventually eliminate the CUC so that only the CUP remains in circulation.

Some Cubans who have savings in CUC are concerned about possible ramifications of currency reform, but Vice President Murillo insists that the end of dual currency “will have no effect” and will not cause prices to increase. While Vice President Murillo expressed support for this economic reform, he also recognized that unifying the two currencies will not solve all of Cuba’s economic problems.

Minister of Agriculture announces reforms to boost agricultural productivity

At the National Assembly on July 4, Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, Cuba’s Minister of Agriculture, announced new reforms aimed at increasing the agricultural sector’s productivity, reports EFE. The reforms will go into effect in three stages between now and the end of 2015. Changes include the elimination of 6,441 mostly administrative state jobs in the agricultural sector and the relaxation of some restrictions on cooperatives that “slow down agricultural development.” These changes represent a 41% personnel reduction and are expected to save the government 15,067,007 Cuban pesos (CUP), reports El Mundo.

EFE reports that the government is also likely to eliminate UNA, a distributor of agricultural goods that acts as an intermediary between farmers and the agricultural market, which currently manages 378 markets. El Mundo reports that UNA is “inefficient and corrupt.”

Days before the reforms were announced, Ulises Guilarte, Secretary General of the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba, announced that Cuba was spending $2 billion annually on importing food, Cartas Desde Cuba reports. These reforms will try to make production within Cuba more efficient.

Rodríguez Rollero acknowledged in his presentation to the National Assembly that agricultural cooperatives, which employ 66% of agricultural workers, have the highest production levels in the agricultural sector. Marino Murillo, Vice President of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, said that while almost a third of the land owned by the state lies fallow, 90% of the land owned by the private sector and the cooperatives is productive.

Schools to become more individualized under education reforms

In the coming school year, Cuba’s Ministry of Education will implement reforms that will give individual schools more autonomy and better prepare teachers, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports. Minister of Education Ena Elsa Velázquez announced the reforms, adding that they were created with input from students, teachers, and officials.

According to the report, principals will now be able to structure the curricula and activities within their specific schools to best serve their particular communities. Velázquez said that while the education system will become more personalized under the reforms, schools still have to meet standards:

“Flexibility does not mean that each school will do what it wants. The study plan must be respected and carried out with more rigor, and professors must … prepare themselves better [so] that no class is left out.”

The reforms also give teachers more time to prepare class material, add more vocational training classes for students, and emphasize increased communication between school councils and students’ families. The Ministry of Education is also working on a long-term project to improve curricula and textbooks.

The status and quality of Cuba’s educational system, a hallmark of the Cuban Revolution, has recently become a subject of debate on the island. In June, a scandal over exam cheating that led to eight arrests was reported by the Associated Press.

Cuba Posible co-founders discuss their new publication

Roberto Veiga, the former editor of Espacio Laical, says that the purpose of his new publication, Cuba Posible, is to provide a space for debate, inclusive of many perspectives, that will help affect moderate change, reports El ToqueLast week, Veiga and his former co-editor Lenier González, who left Espacio Laical in May, announced that they would embark on a new project —Cuba Posible — which is currently in very early stages.

El Toque reports that Veiga provided more details about their vision for the publication:

“We will try not to make our project considered subversive, because it does not intend to dismantle anything, but rather complete a work. … Many of the achievements of the Revolution are just but must be developed, because they are affected by the social and economic crisis. Additionally, there are other demands of society that have not been achieved, but pursuing them does not mean dismantling [the Revolution] but rather completing it.”

In an interview with Global Voices, González discussed the project’s goal of balance, saying that it will be a space for “channeling all opinions and proposals, for facilitating greater economic and social stability in the country.”

Veiga described to Reuters why it is so important to him and González that the project remain moderate:

“Cubans want a change, a big change, but generally they yearn for a change without disruption, change without confrontation, without annihilation. … They want peaceful change within a process of inclusion.”

El Toque reports that Cuba Posible currently remains unfunded and notes that this project, unlike Espacio Laical, will not be protected by the large Church institution. González strongly rejects rumors that he and Veiga are trying to form a political party. Rather, Veiga said they are responding to the needs of the Cuban people:

“A friend always tells us: if [José] Martí had to declare a ‘Necessary War,’ today we have to establish a Necessary Peace. The people of Cuba are tired of fighting and need progress and balance.”

Recommended Reading

Cuba’s New Labor Code and Foreign Investment Law: Implications for Workers, Geoff Thale, Washington Office on Latin America

Geoff Thale, Program Director at WOLA, breaks down these two recently passed laws, analyzing what they will mean for Cuban workers.

Democrats’ Florida Push Calls for US Shift on Cuba, Michael Mishak, Associated Press

Mishak reports on broadening support for ending the embargo, especially among prominent Democrats, such as Charlie Crist and Hillary Clinton. He emphasizes that the changing political climate surrounding Cuba has made this support possible.

Re-engaging Cuba: A visitor makes the case for a thaw in relations, Editorial Board, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

After a visit by José Ramón Cabañas, Chief of Mission at the Cuban Interests Section, to Pittsburgh last week, the Post-Gazette looks at points he made during his visit about opportunities for improved relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

Miami Stores Enjoy Thriving Business From Cuban Shoppers, Greg Allen, NPR

NPR reports on the successes of businesses dedicated to providing affordable products for Cuban Americans and Cubans to sell upon arrival on the island.

Can the Internet spur economic growth in Cuba?, Ambassador Tim Cole, FCO Blogs

Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba, writes about the benefits that increased Internet access for Cubans could bring.

The Forbidden Fruit, Jaime Hamre, The Center for Democracy in the Americas

Jaime, CDA’s Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Intern, reflects on her most recent trip to Cuba co-leading a people-to-people delegation.

Cuba-United States – Something Is Moving, Ignacio Ramonet, Inter Press Service

Ramonet writes about shifting views on Cuba and compares Hillary Clinton’s recently-announced opposition to the embargo to the “limited, largely symbolic, gestures” that President Barack Obama has made toward engaging with Cuba.

Cuba Rediscovers Clara Porset, Mayra Pombo García, Cuban Art News

Mayra Pombo García interviews Jorge R. Bermúdez, author of “Clara Porset, Diseño y Cultura,” about the life of Cuban furniture and interior designer Clara Porset (1895-1981), whose design career took her to the United States, Mexico, and back to Cuba.

On Cuba, we’re stuck in a time warp, Paul Waldman, The Washington Post

Waldman argues that the U.S. government can’t seem to ditch its Cold War mentality toward Cuba. He writes, “Perhaps it was less than crazy to believe that the embargo would bring Castro down in 1964, or 1974, or 1984. But it’s 2014, and it hasn’t worked yet. Acknowledging that doesn’t make you ‘soft’ on the commies. It makes you sane.”

Recommended Viewing

Home to Havana, Carrie Seidman and Elaine Litherland, Sarasota Herald Tribune

This feature by Carrie Seidman with video and photography by Elaine Litherland follows Ariel Serrano, a Cuban ballet performer who defected with his wife. Now, he and his wife are back in Cuba with their son Francisco Serrano and other students from their ballet school to participate in a 10-day workshop on the island. The feature includes video, photographs, and written materials, as well as reflections by the reporters on their travel experience.

The end of a propaganda program aimed at Cuba, Lawrence O’Donnell, The Last Word

MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell weighs in on the termination of the U.S. sponsored AeroMartí program in Cuba.

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