A Note From Havana

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In Havana, December 17th was a day of miracles. The first day of Hanukkah, the Feast of Saint Lazarus, and the Afro-Cuban celebration of San Lazaro converged mystically. Magic was in the air.

It was a day for Alan Gross, echoing Judaism’s story of exile and return, to soar from confinement to freedom; a day for the island’s “Three Heroes” to land in Cuba as the faithful prayed to a saint who rose from the dead; a day when Afro-Cubans saw the hand of the “miracle worker” writing a new chapter of Cuban history; a day when Cubans could watch President Obama and President Castro speak on Cuban state television and cheer their commitment to diplomatic recognition and mutual respect.

By early morning, there were already unusual signs. A cryptic email message from Washington with the subject line: “Merry XMAS.” News readers on Cuban state television reminded viewers, again and again, tune in at noon. Hear President Castro speak about a “swap” to bring three Cuban intelligence agents home. And, later, watch his address on U.S.-Cuba relations.

Emilia Fernandez, an IT specialist at a Cuban eye surgery clinic, listened to colleagues call one another to get ready for the broadcast. A Cuban journalist glanced nervously at text messages piling up on her cell. Artists at a graphics studio near Havana’s Cathedral Square laid down pieces they had prepared for sale to gather in front of a Panasonic television; together with a few tourists, one estimated, they were twenty strong. As our conference came to order, Cuban and U.S. academics who had been waiting for this moment since President Obama’s election exchanged knowing glances, but in fact had no Earthly clue of what was to come.

Finally, noon arrived. The presidents spoke to their respective publics about more than a prisoner swap. They announced an end to the Cold War. When Raul Castro announced that Cuba would resume diplomatic relations with the U.S., Cubans cheered. They stood next to their chairs and sang Cuba’s national anthem with tears streaming down their faces. Scholars who barely knew each other hugged the person next to them and many could not let go.

For his part, Barack Obama conceded that America’s efforts to unseat the Castro government had ended in failure, and he pledged to begin removing the sanctions that force Cubans to live harder lives. After decades of rejecting Cuba’s existence, the U.S. would recognize it and treat Cuba like the sovereign state it is. All of us who have worked so hard to reach this moment sat as if we’d been stunned by a card trick of epic dimensions when we heard those words spoken.

Across town, Emilia said she sat at her work station and cried, thinking of broken Cuban families and people lost at sea attempting to reach the U.S. With restored diplomatic relations, her workmates could imagine more contact with relatives who had never looked back after leaving Cuba, and hoped they would now find their way home.

The reporter looked down at her phone. “We have to honor St. Lazarus,” the text message said, “for working this miracle on this day.”

An artist told us, “I had no idea it would be this big.” Andy, who used American flag picnic napkins and acrylics to assemble an astonishing work called Conflicto (Conflict), pronounced himself “contento.” He liked it when Obama said, “Liberty is the right of every man to be honest, to think and to speak without hypocrisy,” quoting Cuba’s George Washington, José Martí. It showed respect.

Guillermo Vantour, a painter, called the pledge for diplomatic recognition a guarantee of better conditions for investment by U.S. businesses. “I’ve been living my whole life under the blockade,” he said. “In one way or another, it affects all Cubans economically. And, for what?”

That question probably never crossed the minds of President Obama’s political opponents who have bashed him for cutting this deal with Raúl Castro instead of holding out for more concessions.

Not a single Cuban we spoke with said it would have been better to squeeze Cuba harder or for the U.S. to hold out longer. A Coco taxi driver told us, “It’s about time.” He had waited long enough.


U.S. will normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba

On Wednesday, President Obama announced that the U.S. will take several steps to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba:

  • The U.S. will open an embassy in Havana and will engage in high-level talks about normalizing relations.
  • A license for general travel to Cuba will cover the 12 existing categories and will be available for U.S. citizens wishing to visit the island using any service provider that complies with Treasury Department regulations.
  • U.S. citizens visiting Cuba will be able to use U.S. credit and debit cards and will be permitted to bring $400 worth of Cuban goods into the U.S., $100 of which can be for alcohol and tobacco products.
  • The cap on remittances that U.S. citizens can send to Cuban nationals has been raised from $500 per quarter to $2,000 per quarter.
  • U.S. businesses will be permitted to export building materials, agricultural supplies, telecommunications equipment, and other goods to Cuban entrepreneurs and small farmers, and will also be allowed to open accounts with Cuban banks.
  • The U.S. Department of State will launch an in-depth review of Cuba’s designation on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.
  • President Obama will attend the 2015 Summit of the Americas, set to take place in Panama in April, as long as Cuban civil society groups also participate.

President Obama’s announcement of these changes can be seen here. “Let us leave behind the legacy of both colonization and communism, the tyranny of drug cartels, dictators and sham elections. A future of greater peace, security and democratic development is possible if we work together,” Obama said, “Todos somos Americanos.”

The announcement of this rapprochement came just moments after Alan Gross, who had spent five years imprisoned in Cuba after being arrested for bringing illegal communications equipment into the country, arrived in the U.S. after being released by Cuba’s government on humanitarian grounds. Mr. Gross’ comments, made shortly after he landed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, can be seen here. In his brief address, Gross thanked President Obama for his work arranging the release, and he expressed his full support for the President’s announcement.

At the same time, the two governments made good on a spy swap that saw the release of three Cuban agents, sentenced to lengthy prison terms in the U.S. in 2001, in exchange for a CIA agent that has been in prison in Cuba for more than twenty years.

As President Obama made his remarks, President Raúl Castro was also addressing the Cuban people in a speech (English transcript available here). He announced the restoration of diplomatic relations, saying “While acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to dialogue on all these issues.”

This breakthrough came after more than 18 months of secret negotiations between a top team of Obama aides and Cuban diplomats. Talks took place in Canada, and a final meeting in Vatican City sealed the deal in October. Pope Francis, who acted as a guarantor for the agreement, had previously sent personal letters to Presidents Obama and Castro urging them to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.

The response in Cuba was one of joy and excitement. “This opens a better future for us,” Cuban citizen Milagros Díaz told the AP. “We have really needed something like this because the situation has been bad and the people very discouraged.”

In Miami, home of the largest population of Cuban-Americans in the U.S., reactions were mixed.

“It’s amazing,” Hugo Cancio, a Cuban-American who has lived in the U.S. since 1980. “This is a new beginning, a dream come true for the 11.2 million Cubans in Cuba.” At the same time, older Cubans – who arrived in the U.S. as political refugees who fled the revolution – retain passionate resentments against the Cuban government and attacked the rapprochement President Obama announced.

Their feelings were voiced in Washington by Cuban-American Members of Congress and other supporters of sanctions. Senator Marco Rubio (FL) was particularly bitter. “I know the Cuban regime and its true nature better than this president does or anybody in his administration does,” he said. “I don’t care if the polls say that 99 percent of people believe we should normalize relations in Cuba…. This is my position.”

Senator Rubio, who made several media appearances to respond to President Obama’s announcement, also promised to use his role as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee for the Western Hemisphere in the new Congress to oppose funding for any future U.S. diplomatic mission in Cuba. Rubio even criticized Pope Francis for his central role in the negotiations, saying he would “ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy.”

For the most part, policymakers on both sides of the political aisle applauded the news. Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz praised the move as an important development for the freedom of U.S. citizens to travel.

Senator Jeff Flake, who was a part of the delegation that brought Alan Gross back from Cuba, said in a statement, “When I visited Alan last month, he expressed the hope that his ordeal might somehow lead to positive changes between the United States and Cuba. With today’s significant and far-reaching announcements, I think it already has.”

White House spokesman: USAID democracy programs will continue in Cuba

Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez had three words for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in response to revelations by the Associated Press that the agency sent operatives to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop scene and spark unrest: “go to hell.”

Despite the widespread backlash, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday that the controversial democracy promotion programs will continue, even though current USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah is stepping down.

“The USAID programs that have been in place and that have drawn the criticism of the Cuban regime will continue even after Dr. Shah transitions out of his current job,” Earnest said. The White House denies that Shah’s departure is related to the decision to normalize relations with Cuba.

Puig smuggler enters guilty plea

Gilberto Suarez, the man who helped baseball star Yasiel Puig defect from Cuba, has pled guilty to alien smuggling conspiracy charges, the AP reports. The trafficking of Cuban baseball players is a lucrative business for smugglers, who usually receive a portion of the player’s contract once the player is signed in the MLB. Documents show that Suarez received $2.5 million of Puig’s contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

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.

Last month, 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.


New CUP-CUC exchange rate set for mixed and foreign enterprise employees

New resolutions passed by Cuban officials establish that each convertible peso (CUC) of foreign capital invested in a particular enterprise will be worth two Cuban pesos (CUP) for its Cuban employees, Granma reports. The new exchange rate is a significant increase from the 24-1 CUP-CUC rate currently in place for the general population.

The government announced last year that the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), introduced in 1994 by then-President Fidel Castro to attract hard currency in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, would gradually be eliminated from circulation, leaving the Cuban national peso (CUP) as the sole currency.

Since then, Cuba’s central bank has announced that it plans to increase circulation of the CUP and to introduce CUP bills of higher denomination leading up to unification. But, specific details about the process, such as a timeline for unification or information about future exchange rates, remain undisclosed.

The new rate will likely increase overall wages for Cubans working in mixed or foreign enterprise. However, a number of obstacles to efficiency remain. For example, foreign firms cannot directly hire Cuban workers. Instead, Cuban workers are employed by Cuban employment agencies, which negotiate a contract with foreign firms and then send the agreed number of Cuban employees to work for the firm. Employment agencies can charge the firm up to 20% of each worker’s salary for these services.


FARC calls unilateral ceasefire, Santos rejects conditions

On Wednesday, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) issued a unilateral ceasefire on the condition that Colombia’s military refrain from carrying out attacks on FARC forces until a peace agreement between the two sides is released, the New York Times reports.

Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have been underway in Havana for over two years, and the parties have made substantial progress toward an accord.

Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos rejected the terms of the ceasefire on Thursday, saying that he would not agree to a ceasefire until a deal is reached to end hostilities permanently, the AP reports. In the past, the FARC has used temporary ceasefires to re-consolidate military power.

President Santos, despite his unwillingness to agree to the truce, said he appreciated the FARC’s gesture and commitment to winding down a 50-year old conflict that has claimed over 200,000 lives.

Recommended Reading

Our Cuba Policy Is Our Berlin Wall, And It’s Starting To Crumble, Sarah Stephens, Talking Points Memo

CDA Director Sarah Stephens, in Havana when President Obama made his announcement, writes that we in the U.S. should celebrate that “the remaining voices of the Cold War—the defenders of U.S. sanctions—have been overtaken by the voices of those who want a foreign policy toward Cuba that is appropriate for this century.”

Cuba Isolationists Just Don’t Get It, Senator Rand Paul, TIME

Paul, who is considering running for president in 2016, writes in support of President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba. Growing up, Paul was vehemently anti-communist, and he remains so today. But, he says, the best way to bring about positive change in Cuba is to engage with Cubans with more tourism, trade, and diplomacy.

Welcome Back, Cuba!, Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times

Wednesday’s breakthrough should have happened long ago, Kristof says. “Few initiatives failed more catastrophically than the American-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. Yet while an armed invasion failed, I bet that we would have done better if we had permitted invasions of tourists, traders and investors.”

Marco Rubio’s fury over the Cuba shift shows why Obama made the right move, Dana Milbank, The Washington Post

Marco Rubio had strong words for President Obama this week: “absurd,” “disgraceful,” and “willfully ignorant of the way the world truly works,” among others. Rubio, Milbank says, lives under an illusion of “absolute certainty of outcomes that cannot be knowable,” a trait that lends credence to the fact that outdated U.S. policy toward Cuba needed to change.

Not much of a chance of Congress stopping Cuba policy, Deb Riechmann, The Associated Press

There is little consensus within the GOP about how to respond to President Obama’s Cuba move. Many Republicans, including Chamber of Commerce head Thomas Donahue and presidential hopeful Rand Paul, have spoken in favor of the rapprochement. The next Congress will face pressure from agriculture and business interests to continue opening up to Cuba, and even if a bill defunding a U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana were passed, President Obama would likely veto it.

Obama’s Unambiguous Message to Putin About Cuba: We Win and You Lose, Eric Roston, Bloomberg

President Obama’s announcement marked an important geopolitical shift. The U.S. has recognized the importance of maintaining a close relationship with Latin America to ward off increasing Russian influence in the region.

Cuba’s Economy at a Crossroads, The New York Times Editorial Board

In hindsight, the tenth in a series of articles by the New York Times calling for a change in U.S.-Cuba policy seems to predict exactly what President Obama would do just two days later: “President Obama could help expand the role of Cuba’s small but growing entrepreneurial class by relaxing sanctions through executive authority and working with the growing number of lawmakers who want to expand business with Cuba.”

Cuba y Estados Unidos: ¿un milagro de San Lázaro?, Leonardo Padura, El País

In Cuba, December 17th is the day of Saint Lazarus, also known as Babalú Ayé in Afro-Cuban religious traditions descended from Yoruba religious practices. Saint Lazarus is venerated as a healer of wounds. On this year’s day of Saint Lazarus, the damaged relationship between the U.S. and Cuba began to heal. “On this 17th of December I think that many candles were lit for Saint Lazarus,” Padura writes.

Recommended Viewing

A History of Cuba-U.S. Relations in 13 TIME Covers, Lily Rothman, TIME

Major changes in U.S.-Cuba history can be seen from Fulgencio Batista’s 1937 appearance on the cover of TIME to the 1998 cover featuring Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II.

White House Photostream

Pictures from Alan Gross’ return to the U.S. were captured by White House photographers.

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