Ending the Embargo: Can “Brand America” Bail Obama Out?

Not a great week for President Obama or his resilient support for the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

With heads of state and government gathering at the United Nations for the 69th Session of the General Assembly, Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, President of El Salvador, spoke out strongly against the U.S. embargo.

Santos said, “I have faith that the United States and Cuba can form a working relationship that allows the United States to lift the embargo that from my point of view has failed.”

In his first General Assembly speech as president, Sánchez Cerén said, “In the pursuit of peace efforts, and of equitable development there is no place for the disdain of fundamental principles and freedoms which is found in the economic, trade and financial blockade against the sister republic of Cuba.”

These strong words, coming from leaders of America’s staunchest allies in the hemisphere, merely echo what has already been said by influential foreign policy voices – like Hillary Clinton, Yoani Sánchez and, yes, John Oliver.

Earlier this year, former Secretary of State Clinton described to Jorge Ramos why she now favors lifting the embargo.

“I think it has propped up the Castros because they can blame everything on the embargo…You don’t have freedom of speech, you don’t have freedom of expression, you know, you’re still having political prisoners, everything is blamed on the embargo.”

Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban dissident, who has gone from communicating with the outside world with flash drives, to winning a Yahoo! fellowship at Georgetown University, wants the U.S. to end the embargo for a similar reason.

“I come from a generation of Cubans that have grown up with an official discourse constantly running through my ears that has expertly used the embargo as its foremost excuse — blamed for everything from the lack of food on our plates to the lack of liberty in the streets.”

Commenting on President Obama’s decision this month to extend Cuba’s status as the only nation on Earth subject to trade sanctions under the World WWI-era Trading with the Enemy Act, John Oliver told his HBO audience this week:

“Cubans blame the embargo for everything — the economy, the weather, the complete collapse of Homeland in its second season which, to be fair, Cubans probably haven’t seen but if they do they’ll hate it and they’ll blame the embargo for it.”

Clinton, Sánchez, and Oliver make a point President Obama has not fully absorbed; namely, it’s possible to have differences with Cuba’s government, political system, and economy and still see that the embargo, started by the Kennedy Administration and held together by a law enacted in 1917, has completely “failed.”

If the President wanted to consider a “newer” approach, he might read the remarks on Burma by Charles H. Rivkin, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs.

As you may know, our State Department is extremely critical of Burma’s systemic human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, restrictions on speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement, and for its 45 prisons, 100 government labor camps, and 60,000 prisoners.

In Burma, however, Rivkin sees no place for an embargo. He’s heard “what American companies faced — or have faced in the wake of sanctions. They range from other foreign investors taking advantage of our absence to our own reporting requirements.”

Instead, he believes the U.S. business community – representing “Brand America” – will help take Burma where it needs to go: “towards a more connected, vibrant, and prosperous future.”

He argues this: “When people buy American, they buy into our values and beliefs as well as our culture of practicality and trust in the open market.”

Admittedly, this is the homeliest argument we’ve heard for ending sanctions and promoting U.S. investment in countries whose political systems we oppose. But, if the President buys it and applies it to Burma, he should seize it as a rationale for ending the embargo of Cuba — particularly now.

In the next few weeks, the UN General Assembly will turn its attention to Cuba, where resolutions condemning the embargo have been adopted by increasingly lopsided margins for 22 consecutive years.

As John Oliver observed Sunday night, “It’s been a while since Cuba was a genuine threat, and by continuing the embargo, we’re not just pissing them off, we’re pissing off almost the entire world.”

We can’t do any worse than the vote in 2013, which the U.S. lost by 188-2, even after the U.S. has spent the last year cranking up the embargo machinery against many of our closest allies.

But why even try?

If “Brand America” can ride to the President’s rescue, he should probably saddle it up.


Murillo named Economy and Planning Minister

Cuba’s Vice President and “economy czar” Marino Murillo has been appointed to serve again as Minister of Economy and Planning by President Raúl Castro, Reuters reports

Murillo returns to the Ministry he previously led from 2009 until 2011.  At that time, he was named Chairman of the Economic Policy Commission of the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, which approved President Raul Castro’s program to update the country’s economic model. For years, he has been at the forefront of the country’s efforts to implement the changes.  Last year, he exhorted Cuba to stimulate greater economic growth by eliminating “all of the obstacles that the current economic model places in the way of the development of productive forces.”

Murillo, who also holds a position on the influential 14-member Political Bureau of the Communist Party, replaces former Economy Minister Adel Yzquierdo, who will become Murillo’s Vice Minister.

Cuba loses 7,000 teachers

Nearly 7,000 Cuban teachers left the profession during the 2013-2014 school year, according to an article published in Trabajadores, the weekly publication of the Workers’ Central Union of Cuba (CTC), EFE reports. The article points to low salaries, bureaucratic red tape, and low social esteem as primary reasons for those who leave the classroom.

In August, Cuba’s Ministry of Education (MINED) announced it was expecting almost 2 million students for the 2014-2015 school year, but had filled only 93.1% of 183,100 teaching positions, a deficit of about 12,000 teachers. MINED announced plans to make up the deficit by increasing teacher workloads and bringing retired teachers back into the workforce.

Sugar a growing source for renewable energy and foreign investment

Azcuba, Cuba’s sugar production company, is developing a plan to use bagasse, a byproduct of the mechanical process that extracts juice from sugar cane, as a source of renewable energy for the island, the IPS reports.  Experts say that “around 90% of renewable energy production in Cuba comes from biomass resulting from the sugar industry.”  Sugar mills in Cuba can already generate their own electricity using sugar byproducts, and today the sugar industry provides as much as 3.5% of the country’s electricity. “The CO2 produced in the generation of electricity [using this method] is the same that is absorbed by the sugar cane as it grows, so there is an environmental balance,” says Liobel Pérez, spokesperson for Azcuba.

The plan will increase the sugar industry’s contribution to 14% of Cuba’s energy grid by 2030, which would increase the total contribution of renewable resources to 24%. Currently, renewable energy only accounts for 4.6% of electricity generation. The rest is produced by fossil fuels.

The installation of modern bioelectric plants in the sugar mills will require an estimated $1.29 million, which Azcuba hopes to procure from government grants and foreign investment. Of the fifty active sugar mills in Cuba, Azcuba is allowing for foreign investment in twenty.

The first plant would begin production in 2016. Construction is expected to take place in Ciego de Avila under a joint project by Cuba’s state-run Biopower and the British company Havana Energy Ltd. Total investment in this project is expected to be between $45 and $55 million.

Private sector growth: restaurants and cooperatives

Cuba’s government will turn over nearly 9,000 state-owned restaurants to the non-state sector, gradually selling them to private operators beginning in 2015, AFP reports. Cuban entrepreneurs will be able to buy the restaurants from the government at a negotiated price, according to a CNN report.

Private restaurants have played a small role in Cuba’s economy ever since the first paladares were authorized by Fidel Castro in 1993. The sector has since grown in size and importance, and there are currently 1,261 such restaurants offering higher quality dishes at higher prices than state restaurants.

Cooperatives have also become more prevalent in the restaurant sector. The government approved nearly 500 new non-agricultural cooperatives in the past year, as reported by EFE. In July, Cuba’s National Assembly allowed 200 new categories of cooperatives, including restaurants.

Changes along the path to currency unification fail to address high prices

Cuban pesos (CUP) are becoming more widely accepted by Cuba’s retail sector, where previously only convertible pesos (CUC) were accepted, El Nuevo Herald reports. However, the change has done little to lower the high prices of basic goods.

Cuba’s dual currency system originated in 1994, when then-President Fidel Castro introduced the convertible peso (CUC), which was pegged to the dollar and aimed at attracting hard currency in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Today, the dual currency system is widely regarded as inefficient, and, in 2011, Cuba announced that currency unification would be at the top of a list of planned economic reforms. Although the government has yet to announce when and how this will take place, Cubans are anxious, especially now that steps leading to the unification – such as preparing state-run companies and training personnel on how to deal with a new system – are already underway.

In the meantime, Cubans have seen little progress in bringing down consumer prices in a country whose median wage is the equivalent of $20-$30 a month. “If a bottle of oil costs 2.50 CUC, then in [CUP] I have to pay 60 pesos. The situation is the same because the salaries are still less than one could make,” says Carlos Miguel, a telematics worker in Cuba. “I still don’t have enough to buy pants or shoes. For that I have to save up each month little by little.”


Colombia and the FARC release documents from peace agreement draft

Colombia’s government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) have released documents outlining three of the six agenda items of the peace agreement being drafted in Havana, reports the AP. The documents address agrarian reform, political participation for FARC members, and strategies for combating the drug trade.

Peace negotiations have been underway in Havana for nearly two years, and the sides have made significant progress toward peace. However, several aspects of a potential agreement remain unresolved, and no ceasefire has been put in place to date.

The release of the documents comes as Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos seeks to quell criticism from former President Alvaro Uribe and his supporters, who accuse Santos of overlooking crimes committed by FARC forces and granting too much power to FARC leaders. “There’s all sorts of speculation about what was agreed,” Santos said. “Some of the speculation has a clear goal of misleading public opinion.”

“Today’s release makes clear that the negotiators weren’t holding back any bombshells that, if revealed, the public would find to be outrageous,” Adam Isacson told Bloomberg. Isacson is a senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. “The text of the documents definitely weakens the position of those on Colombia’s right who say that Santos is handing the country over to the FARC.”

Cuba boosts contribution to Ebola crisis as preparatory team arrives in Sierra Leone

Three Cuban health professionals have arrived in Sierra Leone to begin planning for the hundreds of medical personnel Cuba’s government will send to West Africa to help address the ongoing Ebola crisis, reports El Nuevo Herald. The advance team, led by Dr. Jorge Delgado, is tasked with identifying where to deploy the doctors and nurses that will arrive in October.

Cuba initially announced that it would be sending 165 health workers to Sierra Leone, but on Friday Cuba’s medical relief agency said it would increase that number by 300 and would extend services to Guinea and Liberia, according to a report by Al Jazeera. 6,200 people have contracted the disease in those countries. The boost comes as European health officials chastise the global community for “months of inaction and neglect” that have allowed the crisis to spin “utterly out of control.”

The Cuban doctors and nurses bound for West Africa are currently receiving training at the Pedro Kouri Tropical Medicine Institute (IPK) in Havana, where they are learning how to use the special equipment and garments required for fighting Ebola. “We will return all alive, we are going to protect ourselves,” said one nurse training at the IPK in an interview with AFP. “Our families can be reassured that we are following all the steps they are teaching us here.”

On Sunday, Granma reported that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon met with Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Relations, to express his gratitude to for Cuba’s help with the crisis.

Cayman Islands and Cuba reach migration agreement

The rise in migration from Cuba has had political and economic implications for the Cayman Islands, whose government on Tuesday signed an agreement speeding up the deportation process for detained Cuban migrants in an effort to discourage balseros from seeking refuge in Cayman ports, according to the Cayman News Service.

Cubans attempting to reach Honduras by boat often pass the Cayman Islands on their way. Last month, Reuters reported that a makeshift boat carrying ten Cuban migrants seeking refuge from rough seas was turned away by Caymanian officials. The Miami Herald reported on a similar incident in June when more than sixty balseros were turned away after being anchored offshore for weeks.

Under a 1999 agreement between the two countries, Cayman officials cannot provide aid to Cuban migrants, but they can allow them to pass through Cayman territorial waters. Cayman authorities have complained that, when they do detain Cuban migrants, Havana does not process repatriation requests quickly enough, forcing the Cayman government to allocate more funds for the detention and processing of Cubans. The lengthy deportation process has even led to riots in some detention facilities.

South Africa and Cuba agree on economic aid agreement

South Africa’s government has reached a new $30 million economic assistance agreement with Cuba, reports SA News, South Africa’s Government News Agency. The agreement aims to stimulate bilateral trade and assist agricultural development and reconstruction of infrastructure that was damaged in the devastating hurricane season of 2008. South Africa’s Minister of Trade and Industry, Rob Davies, hopes that the agreement will “act as a catalyst for strengthening commercial relations.”

Some $4 million will be set aside for Cuba to purchase seeds. A small percentage of that must be purchased from the South African market. $10 million of the agreement will be used for Cuba to purchase goods from South Africa, and another $20 million will be extended as a line of credit.

The South Africa-Cuba alliance dates back decades to the island nation’s support for movements in Africa that fought apartheid and colonial rule. As we wrote last year, Cuba’s Africa policy won the admiration of Nelson Mandela, who said in a speech delivered in Cuba.

“We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defense of one of us.”

Cuba to build pharmaceutical plant in Bolivia

Cuba’s state-run pharmaceutical company Labiofam plans to build a plant in Bolivia that will provide basic medications to the Bolivian population, reports Reuters. The project was requested by Bolivian President Evo Morales, and it will be funded by Bolivia’s government.

“This is basically for poor people because they can’t afford the prices set by the transnationals,” said Labiofam Director General Jose Antonio Fraga. “These industries will be subsidized by the state or their products will be sold at a very small profit margin.” Any excess production of pharmaceuticals would be sold to neighboring countries.

Cuba seeks to diversify tourism sector

Cuba’ Ministry of Tourism (MINTUR) is participating in a two-week long tourism fair in Paris, where representatives hope to strengthen relationships with European tour agencies, reports the ACN. MINTUR and other representatives from Cuba’s tourism sector hope to appeal to the French market with offers including sites in Cuba with historical ties to France, colonial towns that are celebrating their 500th anniversary, and Cuba’s numerous beach resorts.

The Ministry will also begin building a modern terminal for cruise ships in Cienfuegos, reports Granma. Officials say they expect over fifty Cruise ships to dock in Cienfuegos during the upcoming tourist season.


Cuban balseros detained by Mexico’s Navy released as migration to U.S. rises

Fourteen Cuban migrants, rescued off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula, have been released on humanitarian grounds by Mexican authorities and given official residency, Reuters reports. These particular balseros are survivors of the worst migrant boat disaster in twenty years, when fifteen Cubans died before their makeshift watercraft was discovered.

Shortly after the migrants were discovered in Mexican waters, Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) and Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25) wrote a letter to Eduardo Medina-Morca Icaza, the Mexican ambassador to the U.S., urging his government not to deport the migrants. Mexico’s government previously indicated that the migrants would be deported, but on Tuesday the Cubans were released from a detention center in the Yucatán.

Several members of the group are reportedly beginning a journey to the U.S-Mexico border, where they will be able to present themselves to immigration officials and gain automatic U.S. residency under the “wet-foot, dry-foot” provision of the Cuban Adjustment Act. One woman has already made it to Texas, where she reunited with her husband after a year of separation, according to Reuters.

According to U.S. authorities, 16,200 Cubans have arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border without visas in the past 11 months — the largest such number in a decade. In total, some 22,500 Cubans have entered the U.S. without visas in that time period, also a ten-year high. El Nuevo Herald has a report on the possible causes of the recent exodus.

The number of Cuban migrants intercepted in the Florida Straits has also risen. In the past ten days, 53 Cuban migrants have been detained and repatriated by the U.S. Coast Guard, which estimates that it has processed well over 3,000 balseros in the 2014 fiscal year.

This week, according to Reuters, nine Cuban men reached the shore of Key Biscayne, a wealthy island community near Miami, in a homemade boat after what they say was a ten-day journey by sea. Video footage from the journey captured on one migrant’s cell phone can be seen here. An interview with one of the survivors can be seen here.

Presidents of Colombia and El Salvador say U.S. Embargo on Cuba has failed, should end

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos expressed his desire that the U.S. lift its decades-old trade embargo on Cuba, EFE reports. Santos said that the sanctions have failed, and that it is possible for the U.S and Cuba to have a “working relationship.” He pointed to the relationship he had with deceased Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez as an example of how two countries with different economic and political models can cooperate.

As teleSUR reported, the President of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, made a similar point in his address before the General Assembly:

“In the pursuit of peace efforts, and of equitable development there is no place for the disdain of fundamental principles and freedoms which is found in the economic, trade and financial blockade against the sister republic of Cuba.”

For the last twenty-two years, the UN General Assembly has debated and approved resolutions offered by Cuba condemning the U.S. embargo.  In 2013, the General Assembly voted by 188-2 to call upon the U.S. to end the embargo.  The 69th Session of the General Assembly began this week, and general debate among world leaders in attendance extends through October 7th.  A vote on the Cuba resolution will take place thereafter.

President Obama recognizes the work of the Ladies in White

President Obama expressed admiration for Berta Soler, leader of the Cuban dissident group Ladies in White, in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York on Tuesday. Obama’s remarks praised the work of civil society groups across the world, including those in Russia, Senegal, Palestinians, Burma, and Cuba.

U.S. announces new changes in visa requests for Cubans

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana has switched to an online system to schedule meetings for Cubans wishing to request a U.S. visa, Café Fuerte reports. The $11 scheduling fee has also been eliminated. Meetings were previously scheduled by phone. Cubans without access to Internet will still be able to make their appointment by phone and will not have to pay the scheduling fee. Earlier this month, the Interests Section announced an increase in the cost of family reunification visas.

Upcoming Event: William LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh at the Brookings Institute

William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University, and Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, will present their new book, Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, at the Brookings Institute on October 6, 2014. Register for the event here.

Recommended Reading

Cuban Salsa Singer Split Between Island and U.S., Christine Armario, Associated Press

Manuel González, a Cuban musician who moved to Miami in 2001, says he will return to Cuba permanently.  In his song, “The Bridge,” written in Miami and performed in Cuba for the first time in 2000, the singer, known as “The Salsa Doctor,” wrote about Cubans in Havana and Miami freely moving between the two cities.  This capped a period of controversy for the singer when his music was banned from Cuban radio, and he was forbidden from staging public performances. Despite this history, he still wants to return to the island and continue working as an artist. “That’s my country,” he says.

Hypocrisy and the Right to Travel to Cuba, Arturo López-Levy, Huffington Post

Arturo López-Levy, writing about the all-expenses-paid junkets to China taken by staff members of Senator Rubio and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen,  points to the scandal as a “painful example” of “political hypocrisy and cynicism.”

It’s Time to Talk About Cuba, Kate Oberdorfer, Huffington Post

Kate grew up talking about Cuba with her grandfather. Now, she says, it is time for everyone to talk about the fifty-year-old embargo that the U.S. continues to impose on its neighbor.

Cuban baseball opening runs trouble, Anne-Marie Garcia and Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press

Cuba’s attempt to slow the drain of its star baseball players by allowing some to play professionally overseas has done little to stop the flow of talent toward the United States.

‘Eau De Revolution’: Cuba Scents Honor Che, Chávez, Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press

Cuba’s state-run chemical company Labiofam has developed two new colognes to honor national hero Che Guevara and the late President of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez. “We didn’t want to create propaganda, but rather pay homage to them and help their names endure,” said Biochemist Mario Valdes, who led the team that designed the scents.

Beliefs in Cuba, Margaret Atkins, Cuba Absolutely

Atkins discusses religion and spirituality in Cuba after a forty-year ban on religion.

Recommended Viewing

Happy in Havana, Progreso Weekly

A Cuban-made music video set to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” features Cubans dancing in the streets of Havana. The “Happy in Havana” video can be seen here.

Cuban Embargo, John Oliver, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Comedian John Oliver comments on President Obama’s renewal of the U.S. embargo on Cuba earlier this month.

Recommended Listening

When Havana was Friki: AIDS, Politics and Heavy Metal in Cuba, Radio Ambulante: Unscripted, PRI

This broadcast of Radio Ambulante: Unscripted provides a brief history of Cuba’s heavy metal scene, which has struggled for acceptance in Cuba since its origins in the 1980s.

AFTERWORD: Lisa’s Last Blast

Within minutes after we hit send tonight, and get this week’s edition of your weekly news blast out the door, Lisa Ndecky Llanos will gently close the door on her tenure at our Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA). While it’s the last blast on which she’ll leave her imprint, her impact here – making CDA more effective in the world and a more pleasurable place to work for all her colleagues – is positive, pervasive, and permanent.

Lisa started at CDA as an intern, and leaves as director of our project on women in Cuba. What a multivariate talent. She can do policy, lead trips, organize events, and run our books like a rock star. She’s fluent in Spanish and Portuguese. But even more, she can translate apparent differences in culture or class, bridge gaps between good intentions and hidden agendas, and move with a calm and confident hand when confronted by any crisis – from a collapsing itinerary in Haiti to the occasional case of “Cuba fatigue,” a condition that periodically grips the donors and foundations who support our work.

Since coming to CDA, Lisa’s made outsized contributions to virtually everything we’ve done. We’re going to miss her terribly. And so might you, our readers, unless we work extra hard to make you as happy as Lisa has done – for you and for all of us – these last four, remarkable years. What else can we say? Working with Lisa has been a blast.

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