China Climate Deal a Model for Big Reforms on Cuba

The deal President Obama struck with China’s President Xi Jinping committing both countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions enraged climate change deniers, elements of the coal industry, and its core supporters in Congress.

If you look at what made the breakthrough possible, how it happened, how it will be implemented, and what motivated both sides to reach the agreement, it should also make hardline supporters of Cuba sanctions very, very nervous.

President Obama went to China for the leaders’ meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, which promotes economic cooperation in the region, and for bilateral talks with China’s president.

Preceding the bilateral meeting with President Xi, diplomats from China and the U.S. negotiated agreements on trade, visas, and security; the latter referring to a U.S. priority to get China’s military to adopt international norms and reduce conflicts over borders as well as disputes over fishing and land rights.

The climate change agreement, which came about after “nine months of quiet dialogue between the two countries,” was described by Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations as “a serious diplomatic breakthrough after years of unsuccessful efforts to do something big and joint that goes beyond clean energy cooperation and gets to one of the most sensitive parts of climate policy.”

China and the United States are the world’s two biggest emitters of carbon pollution, the main driver of climate change. Opponents of climate change legislation in the U.S. consistently cite China’s reluctance to cap its carbon emissions as evidence that action by the U.S. would be a futile exercise. By negotiating a deal with Xi, Mr. Obama has taken that excuse out of play.

According to James Fallows writing in The Atlantic, China was moved to action because it recognized that “environmental damage of all kinds is the greatest threat to its sustainability — even more than the political corruption and repression to which its pollution problems are related.”

What most infuriates President Obama’s domestic political opponents is not just the forward movement he produced through bilateral diplomacy before the two summits in China, but the fact that the president can fulfill our part of the agreement by taking executive action.

By pledging to use the power of his office to do what Congress has proven unable and unwilling to do, the president’s climate deal was called by one analyst, “arguably as significant on pure foreign policy terms as it is on environmental terms. It sets a precedent of the U.S. and China not just cooperating on a difficult issue — as a very rich country and a poorer country, their climate policies are necessarily at odds — but cooperating on global leadership.”

Equally important, the president demonstrated that his foreign policy could walk and chew gum at the same time by scoring several critical agreements with China while also reaffirming his concerns about China’s record on human rights.

There is no clearer case for what President Obama should do in Cuba than what he just accomplished in China.

He used engagement and quiet diplomacy to reach agreements that reflected the national interest of both countries. He will implement the deal by executive action. By reaching an agreement that replaced inaction by China with a substantial climate change commitment, he removed the greatest barrier — at least rhetorically — to real action on climate by the United States. He managed to negotiate these complicated accords ahead of two key summits so that he wouldn’t have to travel to the region empty handed.

Today, the greatest obstacle to progress with Cuba is the continued imprisonment of Alan Gross on the island and the sentences being served by three Cuban spies in the United States. Gross broke Cuban law by engaging in regime change activities, and the Cuban spies broke U.S. law by failing to register as foreign agents as they investigated exile terror groups that had killed Cuban citizens.

President Obama can use the powers of his office to strike the deal that will free Mr. Gross and the Cuban prisoners while also removing the biggest impediment to greater U.S. engagement with Cuba on a variety of issues, including human rights.

There is nothing he can do to win over his most virulent opponents in Congress. Just yesterday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen denounced Cuba for its leadership in the fight against Ebola and criticized any effort to free Alan Gross that would include negotiations with Cuba.

But if the president wants to succeed at next year’s Summit of the Americas, where all of our nation’s hemispheric allies will be joined at the table by Cuba, he must make substantial changes in our foreign policy toward the island’s government, as Richard Feinberg argues here.

Just as he struck a deal with China to control carbon emissions over the objections of climate deniers while also restating our nation’s commitment to human rights, the president can overcome those invested in our current, polluted relationship with Cuba by changing the climate around U.S. diplomacy toward Cuba.


U.S. Senators visit Cuba, see Alan Gross

U.S. Senators Jeff Flake (AZ) and Tom Udall (NM) returned from their three-day visit to Cuba this week after meeting with “Cuban officials and religious and business leaders to discuss the impacts of the embargo and travel restrictions on American and Cuban families,” according to the Associated Press. The Senators also spent time with Alan Gross at the Havana prison where Gross has remained since his 2011 conviction.

Their trip was sponsored by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

CNN reports that the Senators “feel we are closer” to seeing Gross returned to the United States. Alan Gross is the USAID subcontractor who is serving a 15-year prison term for conducting a ‘democracy promotion’ project funded by the U.S. government under the Helms-Burton law. Such programs have been illegal in Cuba for over a decade.

Last week, the New York Times published an editorial calling on the Obama Administration to release three Cuban spies serving prison sentences in the U.S. since 2001 in exchange for Gross’ return to the United States.

During his twelve-year tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, Flake was a forceful advocate for ending the ban on travel by all Americans to Cuba and normalizing relations with the island’s government. In a 2008 interview with ReasonTV, he said, “Every American should go to Cuba.” Mr. Flake ranks fifth in seniority among Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which gives him additional influence now that his party has won control of the upper chamber.

Flake issued a statement upon his return calling for fundamental changes in U.S. policy:

“My recent trip to Cuba has only reconfirmed the necessity of modernizing our failed policy toward the island. While the significance of Cuba’s recent economic changes remains to be seen, there is now a burgeoning small-business community there, much of which is funded by remittances from the United States. Rather than continuing to provide the regime an all-too-convenient scapegoat and wasting money on boondoggle aid programs, it’s time to take commonsense steps to support these entrepreneurs, expand the participation of U.S. businesses in the Cuban economy, and lift the ban on non-Cuban American U.S. citizens travelling to the island.”

Senator Udall also supports repealing the travel ban. After visiting Cuba this week, Senator Udall released a statement that asked for changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba. It read, in part:

“The Cuban regime is antidemocratic and has many flaws, but our current policy has proven ineffective and has primarily served to isolate the people of Cuba. It’s time for a 21st century approach that opens up opportunities for New Mexicans and other American interests.”

In an interview with the International Business Times, CDA Executive Director Sarah Stephens said the senators’ visit was “helpful to creating a climate for something to happen” regarding Gross’ release, but added “The only way anything’s going to happen is when the U.S. and Cuba directly negotiate with each other based on humanitarian interests and needs of both countries. It can very well be happening right now, and I hope it is.”

Reuters is also reporting this afternoon that a federal appeals court in Washington has rejected the lawsuit filed by Alan and his wife Judy Gross against the U.S. government, seeking damages because he was not adequately warned of the risks involved in USAID’s regime change program against Cuba.

“The appeals court panel on Friday upheld the district court’s finding that the U.S. government has sovereign immunity because damage to Gross occurred outside the country” Reuters said.

USAID may end regime change programs in Cuba

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is reviewing its semi-covert ‘democracy promotion’ programs in order to increase transparency and “examine risks that might constrain effective implementation of the projects,” according to the AP.

On Monday, Jen Psaki, the State Department Spokesperson, said the AP report referenced “internal discussion and deliberations that haven’t yet been finalized.” But USAID issued a statement saying it would issue new rules that balance safety and security risks “that might constrain effective implementation of the projects or undermine the safety of our partners.”

As USAID publicly acknowledged over a decade ago, Cuba in 1999 made it a crime to cooperate with the regime change activities authorized by the Helms-Burton Act. Toward the end of the Bush administration, USAID issued contracts to intensify the program, which lead to Alan Gross smuggling into Cuba “laptops, smartphones, hard drives and networking equipment,” as well as a “specialized mobile phone chip that experts say is often used by the Pentagon and the CIA to make satellite signals virtually impossible to track,” as the AP reported in 2012.

After entering the country five times using a tourist visa as cover, Mr. Gross was arrested by Cuban authorities in 2009 and sentenced to fifteen years in prison in 2011.

USAID’s decision to review projects of this nature has been welcomed by advocates of improving U.S.-Cuba relations. “That’s a good thing,” said Senator Jeff Flake (AZ), who was in Cuba this week to visit Alan Gross. “[The projects are] not just a source of tension between the countries, it puts Americans in danger and really cheapens AID’s mission around the world.”

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an editorial calling for an end to these “stealthy programs,” which “have been a magnet for charlatans, swindlers and good intentions gone awry.” According to the Times, the U.S. has spent $264 million on anti-government programs in Cuba in the past 18 years.

Starting before the arrest of Mr. Gross, USAID faced criticism of its efforts, funded under Section 109 of the Helms-Burton law, to hasten the overthrow of Cuba’s government. In 2006, the General Accountability Office identified what it called “questionable transactions and expenditures” by grantees who used USAID funds to purchase “a gas chainsaw, computer gaming equipment and software (including Nintendo Gameboys and Sony Playstations), a mountain bike, leather coats, cashmere sweaters, crab meat, and Godiva chocolates.”

This year, the AP reported that USAID contracted Creative Associates International, a Washington-based development firm, to create ZunZuneo, a text-messaging service similar to Twitter that sent anti-government messages to Cuban subscribers from 2009 to 2012. Cubans receiving the messages were not aware of any connection between ZunZuneo and the U.S. government.

A second AP report that broke in August revealed that Creative Associates had carried out a separate operation that sent Latin American youths, posing as tourists, into Cuba to stir unrest and recruit anti-Castro activists. That program used an HIV-prevention workshop as a front for identifying “change agents,” and some of the operatives were paid as little as $5.41 an hour for work that could have resulted in decades-long imprisonment. The program began just weeks after Alan Gross was arrested.

Smuggler of Cuban baseball players sentenced to prison in the U.S.

Eliezer Lazo, the leader of a trafficking operation that brought hundreds of Cubans, including the star baseball player Leonys Martin, to the U.S., was sentenced to 14 years in prison by a U.S. District Court, the AP reports.

Lazo charged $10,000 per person to smuggle Cubans from the island to Mexico. Once in Mexico, the migrants would travel by land to the U.S. border, where they can present themselves to Customs officials and request asylum under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA). The “wet foot, dry foot” provision of the CAA allows Cubans that reach U.S. soil to apply for residency, while those intercepted at sea are repatriated.

During the journey from Cuba to Mexico, migrants are at the mercy of their smugglers, and they often find themselves being held for ransom, threatened, and beaten. Smugglers also work closely with Mexican gangs and drug cartels that control much of the territory through which the migrants pass on their way to the United States.

Cuban baseball players are particularly lucrative for smugglers, who usually receive a portion of the player’s contract once the player is signed in the MLB. Lazo coordinated the smuggling of Martin, a twenty-six year old outfielder, who later signed a $15.5 million contract with the Rangers in 2011.

Lazo is not the first to face charges in the U.S. for trafficking Cuban baseball players. In September, Gilberto Suárez, the man charged with smuggling Yasiel Puig into the country, pled not guilty in a Miami court to charges of alien smuggling, a federal crime.

Cuba’s domestic intelligence apparatus keeps tabs on star players and encourages them to inform authorities about players who are involved in trafficking or who plan to leave the island. In August, as Cuba Central reported, a Cuban court sentenced three baseball players to prison for their involvement in a trafficking operation allegedly run by Puig, who secured a $42 million MLB contract after defecting to the U.S in 2012.

Cuban doctors in Venezuela migrating to U.S. at record levels

From September 2013 to September 2014, some 700 Cuban medical workers — more than double the previous year’s figure — left their posts in Venezuela. Most were seeking residency in the U.S., according to the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal.

Over 30,000 Cuban health professionals work in Venezuela as part of an arrangement between the two governments. Medically-underserved Venezuelans, many of whom have never seen a doctor, began receiving primary and other forms of medical care after Havana and Caracas inked an agreement that provides Cuba with an estimated $3.2 billion annually in Venezuelan oil.

During the Bush administration, however, the director of the U.S. Citizen & Immigration Services, Emilio González, whom the Wall Street Journal identified as a staunchly anti-Castro exile, launched a plan to undermine Cuba’s deployment of doctors overseas. The Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program lures Cuban medical personnel off their posts by making them eligible for special immigration rights simply by presenting themselves at U.S. diplomatic posts abroad.

The U.S. program, as the Los Angeles Times reported in September, is particularly active in Venezuela.


Individual loans from Cuba’s Central Bank on the rise

Cuban citizens have received billions of pesos (some $135 million) in loans since the passing of a 2011 reform that allows Cuba’s Central bank to lend money to individuals, Granma reports. More than 60% of the loans were used for the private construction of homes.

However, Central Bank Vice President Francisco Mayobre Lence tells Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, that the number of loans issued to cuentapropistas fell short of what was anticipated. “Surveys have been conducted and it has become clear that cuentapropistas have many doubts and frustrations with the Bank’s work.”

To meet increasing demand for these loans and better serve the needs of self-employed workers, the Bank plans to lower the minimum loan amount and extend loan periods beyond ten years. Plans to open new branches in Havana are also being considered.

Steps toward energy security: more renewables, less oil, less fraud

Cuba’s government plans to rely on renewable energy sources to generate 24% of the island’s electricity by 2030, teleSUR reports. In addition, Cuba has approved an action plan to reduce its consumption of oil for electricity generation by 20% in the next fifteen years, according to the AP. Cuba produces less than half of the oil it uses and remains dependent on imports from Venezuela.

If implemented successfully, the plan would save Cuba some $780 million annually from reduced spending on fossil fuels, and complement Cuba’s efforts at environmental preservation. This week, Cuba announced a joint project with the UN Development Program to open a plant that will incinerate chloroflourocarbons (CFCs), a substance that damages the Earth’s ozone layer.

Currently, biofuel made from a sugar mill byproduct called bagasse provides 90% of the country’s renewable electricity, according to an IPS report, and Cuba’s government has worked to increase foreign investment in diversifying and improving energy alternatives.

Nearly $55 million is expected to be invested in a joint project for bagasse-producing sugar mills by Cuba’s state-run company Biopower and British company Havana Energy Limited. Last week, at the Havana International Fair, Cuban officials presented some $9 billion worth of investment opportunities for renewable energy initiatives.

Energy fraud has presented itself as an obstacle to Cuba’s energy goals — Havana lost 16.7% of the electricity generated for the city to illegal energy consumption practices, according to EFE. Cuba’s government aims to combat these practices by deploying inspectors that will seek out and fine violators of energy consumption regulations.

State newspaper Granma asks readers for feedback

Granma has conducted a survey of its readers for the first time since the state newspaper began publication in 1965, reports EFE. The poll offered readers the chance to weigh in on the content, style, and design of the newspaper.

“The intention is to become closer to the interests of the people,” says Efe Lisett Mencia, who leads the initiative. “Changes may not be apparent immediately,” she says, but “we want to know the views of our readers.” The team has also traveled across the island to speak directly with its readers, conducting group and individual surveys.

The poll may have been sparked by President Raul Castro’s criticisms of state media as “triumphalist” and “apologetic,” and by comments made by Vice President Diaz-Canel, who has “called for a new press model in keeping with ‘the current demands of our development and ‘of our society,’” as the Global Post reported last year.

Tim Cole, the British Ambassador to Cuba, expressed his optimism for the impact the survey could have on Cuba’s press in a blog post.

“These are challenging issues and suggest the Granma editor really is interested in readers’ views. Will we see the results of the Granma survey published? I hope so. Will we see, in a few months, Granma looking like The Guardian, El Mundo or The Washington Post? Perhaps that’s too much to ask. Or is it?”


Cuba challenges UN resolution on human rights in North Korea

Cuba is pushing to eliminate language in a United Nations General Assembly resolution that calls on the UN Security Council to refer North Korea’s government to the International Criminal Court for alleged human rights abuses, Reuters reports.

The amendment proposed by Cuba would “adopt a new cooperative approach for the consideration of the human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” It has drawn support from many developing countries in Latin America and Africa among worries that UN resolutions targeting specific countries could establish “a dangerous precedent that could be applied in the future against any developing country,” according to a draft of the resolution obtained by Reuters.

Ties between Cuba and North Korea drew renewed international attention in August 2013, when the North Korean ship Chong Chan Gang was intercepted by Panama. The ship was discovered to be illegally transporting arms from Cuba stashed beneath tons of sugar. In July of this year, Ocean Maritime Management, which operated the ship, was blacklisted by the UN for its role in trying to circumvent UN sanctions against arms sales to the country.

Doctors from across Latin America attend Ebola course in Havana

More than one hundred doctors from 19 Latin American countries were trained in Ebola prevention and containment at a medical conference in Havana, reports AFP. The conference was organized by leaders of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) during last month’s regional meeting planning a strategy to protect Latin America from the Ebola outbreak that has plagued West Africa in the latter half of this year.

Recommended Reading

New York Times goes on a Cuban crusade, Thomas Sparrow, BBC Mundo

The BBC comments on the recent New York Times editorials calling for normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations: “The motivation behind the paper’s month-long crusade is that the editors believe that ‘for the first time in more than 50 years,’ the situation in both Cuba and the U.S. favours such deep political change.”

Urban planner offers tough talk on Cuba’s economic prospects, Larry Luxner, News is my Business

On a recent trip to Washington, D.C., Cuban architect Miguel Coyula predicted in an interview with Larry Luxner that Cuba’s government will begin making good on its promise to merge Cuba’s two currencies in December of this year. He also predicted that Cuba’s population will continue to decline and that foreign investment in the Port facility at Mariel will underperform against expectations. Mr. Coyula’s trip to Washington, during which he met with Members of Congress and administration officials, was organized by CDA in conjunction with Cuba Educational Travel.

Cuba’s Retired Population Struggles with Economic Reforms, David Strug, NACLA

Cuba’s economic reforms have done little to improve the quality of life of Cuba’s senior citizens, many of whom receive pensions of only $11 per month while the cost of food and services rises. Addressing the needs of the country’s aging population will be a constant challenge for President Castro, whose reforms aim to dramatically reduce the number of employees working in the state sector.

Cuban dancers return home after stardom abroad, Andrea Rodriguez, The Associated Press

Jose Manuel Carreno of London’s Royal Ballet and eleven other Cuban born dancers returned to Cuba for the International Ballet Festival of Havana. “For me, to return to Cuba is to come home,” Carreno says.

Recommended Viewing

The Cuban raft exodus, Reuters

Reuters digs up archived photographs from the 1994 balseros exodus. “A look at who made it to America and what they’re doing now.”

HT Cuba Photo Contest Winners 2014, Circles Robinson, Havana Times

The winners of the 6th Havana Times Cuba Photo Contest capture a raw, alluring side of Cuba.


Announcement: CDA is looking for an intern for spring 2015. The intern will assist CDA staff with our weekly Cuba Central Newsblast, conduct policy research, and help with maintenance of CDA’s website and social media outlets.

The intern will be selected based on knowledge of U.S.-Cuba relations, Latin American history, work experience, Spanish language proficiency, computer skills, and academic performance. A more detailed job posting can be seen here.

Interested students should submit a cover letter, resume, and short writing sample to The position is open until filled.

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