Cuba Reforms: Hope versus the Subcommittee of Many Syllables

The writers at West Wing would never let this into a script.

Next Tuesday, the first hearing on President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba takes place in …wait for it… the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues.

That’s more syllables than even Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke could handle. But, the panel’s chairman, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, must think he is up for the job (or maybe this job).

Senator Rubio, a big fan of travel and trade with China, supports tightening sanctions and cancelling negotiations with Cuba’s government due to its human rights policies.

Cuba hearings on Capitol Hill are normally cringe-worthy affairs dominated by hardliners backed by handpicked crowds, with moderates of both parties absent or silent, and with a few progressives checking in to remind everyone that policy didn’t work and never would.

This time could be different. Rubio, who strenuously opposes the diplomatic breakthrough, will not be peering down at the witnesses alone, even with all the prerogatives that come with banging his chairman’s gavel.

His panel has Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican Senator from Arizona, who just introduced bipartisan legislation to repeal all restrictions on the rights of U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba.

Senator Tom Udall – a cosponsor of the Flake bill, who joined the delegation that brought Alan Gross home from Cuba – sits on the Democratic side of the dais (he was chairman of the subcommittee when it had a much shorter name).

The presiding Democrat is Senator Barbara Boxer, who wrote about her first visit to Cuba in 2002 with CDA’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba campaign, in this column in which she endorsed the Obama reforms.

In sum, this hearing – in the Subcommittee of many syllables – offers the hopeful prospect of balance, a real departure from hearings held in the past (much like the policy itself).

We’re not naïve, but this is indicative of a different mindset emerging on Capitol Hill.

Members of Congress are clearly energized by increases in public support for diplomatic relations with Cuba – by the influential agricultural coalition that wants Congress to end the embargo – by businesses large and small eager to trade with Cuba – and by leaders like Governor Cuomo who seek to champion the cause of expanding trade. There’s even a bipartisan coalition for modernizing the policy in the U.S. House!

They may also feel bolder because both countries appear to be keeping their heads in the talks on diplomatic recognition. U.S. and Cuban negotiators got a nice shout-out from the New York Times this morning for being focused on the task – despite the distractions of domestic politics and the temptation to revert to divisive rhetoric, given the lack of trust with which each country eyes the motives of the other.

What does this mean for Tuesday?

Even if conflict and caterwaul resound during the first hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women’s Issues, hope could drown it all out.

The hope of José Daniel Ferrer, a leading dissident, quoted by the Times saying he has “reassessed his early concern that normalization of relations would embolden the Cuban government and hurt the cause of those who have been pressing for democratic reforms.”

The hope of Manuel Valdes, a young Cuban, who told NBC News, “I want to say to the good people of the States that finally we are not supposed to be enemies. I never felt that we are enemies, not at all, but our disagreeing politics, or political systems, pushed us to feel that way, and finally, that’s not happening anymore.”

The hope of Jim Donaldson, an American triathlete, who experienced one of the best examples of the benefits of engagement ever, “At the awards ceremony, a couple of Americans had won the juniors race, and they played the American national anthem…It was pretty exhilarating to hear the US national anthem played in Cuba.”

In a battle between the Subcommittee of many syllables and American athletes singing the Star Spangled Banner in Cuba with their hands over their hearts, who would you bet on?

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

In speech at regional summit, Castro says mutual respect key for U.S.-Cuba diplomacy

In his first extended comments since December on the diplomatic breakthrough with the U.S., Cuba’s President Raúl Castro stressed the importance of mutual respect in negotiations between the United States and Cuba:

“As I have repeatedly affirmed, both Cuba and the United States should learn the art of civilized coexistence based on respect for differences between our governments, and on cooperation in areas of common interest that may contribute to tackling the challenges facing the hemisphere and the world.

“However, no one should expect that to achieve that Cuba would renounce its ideals of independence and social justice or abandon any of our principles, or give in an inch in the defense of our national sovereignty.”

During his remarks at the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States that took place this week in Costa Rica, President Castro also called on the U.S. to end the long-standing embargo against Cuba, return the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, and compensate Cuba for economic damages Cubans say they have incurred as a result of the U.S. embargo.

“The re-establishment of diplomatic relations is the start of a process of normalizing bilateral relations, but this will not be possible while the blockade still exists, while they don’t give back the territory illegally occupied by the Guantánamo naval base,” Castro said.

State Department Spokesperson Jen Psaki responded to questions about Castro’s comments in a press briefing on Thursday:

“There’s a difference between the re-establishment of diplomatic relations…and the longer process of normalizing relations. So the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, that would be things like opening of embassies in our respective countries so that we may work toward the longstanding list of issues that have festered over the last half-century and are more about normalization.

So our focus is on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations. There’s still a great deal more work to do there. We understand there are going to be demands that are put out there publicly, and we’ll certainly be discussing a range of issues in the negotiations.”

White House Spokesperson Josh Earnest said that the Obama Administration was not considering handing the Guantánamo base back to Cuba. “The president does believe that the prison at Guantánamo should be closed down,” Earnest said. “But the naval base is not something that we wish to be closed.”

In an editorial published Friday, The New York Times reiterated calls for a level-headed approach to tackling long-standing differences between the two countries. “With plenty of people in both countries skeptical about the merits of a thaw, Cuban and American officials will need to be pragmatic and patient as they begin to untangle a toxic relationship,” the article says. “Given the enthusiasm and expectation the new era has sparked among ordinary Cubans and Americans alike, allowing the détente to collapse would be a loss for both sides.”

Fidel Castro approves of U.S.-Cuba détente

Fidel Castro broke a months-long public silence this week by writing an open letter to Cuba’s Student Federation. Cuba’s former president has not been seen in public in over a year, but he occasionally issues written statements to be published in state newspapers. This is his first public comment since the announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic ties.

“I don’t trust the policy of the United States, nor have I exchanged a word with them,” Castro writes. “But this does not mean I reject a peaceful solution to conflicts or dangers of war.”

This is the first published comment by the former president since October, when he penned an article for the state newspaper Granma praising Cuban doctors fighting Ebola in West Africa. Rumors of his death circulated social media in early January, but were laid to rest when Argentine soccer player Diego Maradona announced that he received a letter from Mr. Castro. More recently, a Brazilian theologian Carlos Alberto Libanio Christo was able to see Cuba’s former leader and reported “the commander (Castro) enjoys very good health and is in very good spirits.”

Bipartisan Senate bill to end travel ban introduced

Senator Jeff Flake’s (AZ) bill to end all restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, co-sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Dick Durbin (IL), Tom Udall (NM), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Mike Enzi (WY), and John Boozman (AR), was introduced in the Senate on Thursday.

“I would favor lifting the entire embargo, myself. There’s still a difference of opinion on the entire embargo,” said Senator Flake. “There is overwhelming support here, in Florida, all across the country … for lifting the travel ban.”

A bipartisan companion bill, co-sponsored by Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-2) and Rep. Mark Sanford (SC-1) is expected to be introduced in the House of Representative next week, Politico reports.

Similar bills were introduced in 2009, but died in the House and Senate Foreign Relations committees.

Republican Senators call for Congressional action on trade with Cuba

Senators Rand Paul (KY), Jeff Flake (AZ), Jerry Moran (KS), Pat Roberts (KS), Mike Enzi (WY), John Boozman (AR), and Susan Collins (ME) wrote President Obama on Thursday endorsing regulatory changes made by the Treasury and Commerce Departments to boost trade and travel, and affirming the need for Congress to enact legislation making further reforms in U.S.-Cuba policy.

“With the significance of your recent announcements related to Cuba, we look forward to Congress turning its attention toward modernizing U.S.-Cuba policy to the benefit of U.S. citizens and the Cuban people alike,” the letter states. “Congress must play an integral role in reforming our policy toward Cuba.”

Cuban migration through Mexico and Florida Straits continues to rise

More than 6,500 Cubans have arrived in the United States since October 2014 by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, according to CaféFuerte. A total of 17,259 Cubans came to the U.S. through Mexico in the last (2013-2014) fiscal year.

In December, 481 Cuban migrants attempting to reach the U.S. in makeshift boats were detained by the U.S. Coast Guard compared to just over 220 in December 2013.

The Washington Post reports that rumors in Cuba of changes to U.S. immigration policy are causing a spike in attempts to reach the United States. A 1996 revision of the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act known as “wet foot, dry foot,” allows Cubans who reach U.S. soil to obtain residency and eventually become U.S. citizens, while those caught at sea are sent back to Cuba.

Last week in Havana, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee, who led the U.S. delegation for the biannual migration talks, said the policy would remain in place. “We explained to the Cuban government that our government is completely committed to upholding the Cuban Adjustment Act,” Lee said.

This week, the U.S. Coast Guard rescued 16 Cubans in waters near Puerto Rico, where their boat had started to sink. Also this week, a Disney Cruise Ship rescued five Cuban migrants who were spotted floating in a homemade vessel 20 miles off Cuba’s shore.

There is growing support among Cuban-Americans to address the immigration policy. Last week, the Miami-Dade County Commission voted unanimously to ask Congress to review the Cuban Adjustment Act.

In a New York Times Op-Ed, journalist Ann Louise Bardach says “the repeal of this Cold War relic of immigration policy is long overdue… Are Cubans seeking a better way of life really more deserving than, say, refugees fleeing death squads or drug cartels?”

Minnesota Congresswoman introduces legislation to end Radio Martí

Representative Betty McCollum (MN-4) introduced legislation this week that would cut funding to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which is responsible for producing Radio and TV Martí programs intended to broadcast anti-Castro messages to Cuba from Florida.

“Radio and TV Martí are outdated Cold War artifacts,” McCollum said. “Our taxpayers should not be funding propaganda broadcasting. Instead, we should be working to facilitate efforts for the American people to engage directly with the Cuban people.”

The programs were created in 1983 to provide “accurate, unbiased” news and entertainment to listeners and viewers in Cuba. Cuba’s government jammed the signal shortly after the program’s launch, and today the broadcasts reach less than 1% of Cuba’s population, according to a Government Accountability Office audit.

The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the parent agency for Radio and TV Martí, has repeatedly drawn criticism for unfair labor practices and wasteful management.

According to a statement on Rep. McCollum’s website, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting has cost U.S. taxpayers $770 million in 30 years. She visited Cuba last year for the first time on a trip hosted by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

U.S. companies make preparations for business in Cuba

USA Today has a report on a “wave of U.S. business leaders … preparing to flood [Cuba] to explore new opportunities and to learn about a market that has been largely closed for 50 years.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo plans to take a state trade delegation to the island this spring. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon will also lead a trade mission for his state’s farmers and livestock owners.

“Americans in general have wanted to know more about Cuba for half a century,” said Paul Johnson, vice chairman of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba. “They have an opportunity to go and see Cuba and bring 11 million Cubans into the global marketplace.”

Other key players in various industries expressed interest in Cuba this week:

  • U.S. telecommunications companies are gearing up to take advantage of Cuba’s underdeveloped market, The Hill reports. “You can leap over the last five generations of telecommunications technology and build out a pretty robust system,” says Scott Belcher, head of the Telecommunications Industry Association.
  • American Airlines announced plans to start commercial flights to Cuba “as soon as it’s legally allowed,” President Scott Kirby told the AP. The airline already operates regular charter flights to the island, and it adds its name to a longer list of airlines — including Delta, United, and JetBlue — that have expressed interest in flying to Cuba.
  • Flight and hotel information for Cuba travel began appearing Thursday on Kayak.com, a popular website for making travel arrangements. “There’s been a lot of press coverage about this and people are interested in traveling to Cuba,” Kayak’s marketing officer Robert Birge tells USA Today.
  • American Express said it would start allowing cardholders to carry out credit and debit transactions in Cuba, Fortune reports. The move follows a similar announcement made last week by MasterCard.

U.S. athletes compete in Havana triathlon

Triathletes from the U.S. competed in the Ibero-American Triathlon Championship in Havana this week, the AFP reports. The race, held just weeks after the US and Cuba announced they would begin to re-establish diplomatic relations, marks the first time American athletes have competed in a triathlon in Havana.

“At the awards ceremony, a couple of Americans had won the juniors (race), and they played the American national anthem,” says Jim Donaldson, one of the U.S. competitors. “It was pretty exhilarating to hear the US national anthem played in Cuba.”

The athletes traveled to Cuba under a special license granted by the U.S. Department of Treasury. However, under the new regulations released two weeks ago, the paperwork burdens involved in acquiring a license are removed, and U.S. citizens will be able to travel to Cuba on a general license as long as their travels falls within one of twelve approved categories, which include athletic events.

IN CUBA

Self-employed sector sees continued growth

The number of self-employed Cubans or cuentapropistas rose to 483,396 — up 4,445 since last month, ACN reports.

In 2010, Cuba legalized nearly two hundred categories of self-employed work as a part of the reform process led by President Raúl Castro. Additional categories, including real estate, agricultural wholesale, and telecommunications were approved in 2013.

Cuba’s government seeks to shrink the state payroll by eliminating state jobs, and hopes that the growing private sector will absorb many of those workers. In 2014, Cuba’s economy grew at a sluggish rate of 1.3%, barely more than half the 2.2 percent that had been projected at the outset of last year.

Twitter adds Cuba as location option

Twitter users in Cuba can now select their country from a list of “location options” from which Cuba was previously excluded, Mashable reports. Cuba is one of 28 countries added to the “location options” list by the social media application this week.

The article explains, “This seemingly minor change, which was implemented on Tuesday without much fanfare, gives users in those 28 countries the chance to take advantage of various features they could not access before. Until now, a user from Cuba, for example, could not select her own country when she registered for an account in her account settings — she would have to pick another one or pick the ‘worldwide’ option.”

Cubans march to celebrate José Martí’s 162nd birthday

ACN reports that, in a tradition stretching fifty years back into Cuba’s history, university students marched Wednesday in Havana to celebrate the birthday of Cuba’s national hero José Martí, a poet and journalist who led Cuba’s struggle for independence from Spain in the late 19th century.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Cuba eyes win-win bioenergy development

Scottish scientists working in Cuba for the past four years have developed mutually beneficial land use and energy production techniques that could benefit both clean energy and sugar production, The Scotsman reports. The researchers have successfully generated energy from harvesting the ubiquitous invasive marabu shrub, brought to Cuba from Africa as a decorative flower, which has made cultivation of arable land extremely difficult for Cuban farmers.

Researchers also developed ground-clearing methods that make it economically feasible to clear marabu and plant sugar cane, once Cuba’s central cash crop that accounted for 35 percent of the world market. After harvest, the leftover sugar cane detritus, or bagasse, can also be harvested for electricity generation fuel.

This development has potential to revitalize Cuba’s sugar industry and help diversify the oil-dependent economy with renewable energy. British energy firm Havana Energy has already inked a £500 million deal to build five renewable energy plants that will run on the marabu and sugar cane bagasse and generate more than 300 MW or almost 5 percent of Cuba’s installed electrical generation capacity.

Canada leads in number of tourist visits to Cuba

Of the over three million tourists that visited Cuba last year, 1,075,077 were Canadian, according to data from Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information reported by EFE. That figure marks an increase of 6.3% since 2013.

Last year, Cuba received over three million tourists. Many came from newer markets like Venezuela and China, but the leading sources continue to be Canada, Germany, the UK, Italy, and France.

Tourism is the second largest source of export income for Cuba, after the export of services like education and healthcare.

Iberia airlines resumes Madrid-Havana flights

Iberia airlines will resume flights to Havana after having suspended the service for nearly two years, Cubasi reports. The flights will take place five times weekly.

“I am delighted to be able to announce that Iberia is returning to Cuba,” said CEO Luis Gallego. “When we suspended Madrid-Havana services two years ago we pledged to return as soon as we could make the route sustainable over time, and that moment has arrived.”

Foreign investment leader bullish on Cuban potential

David Pathe, CEO of the Toronto-based Sherritt International Corp, a nickel mining firm, foresees a slow, progressive opening of potential, new foreign investment in Cuba, particularly in natural resource development and power generation, Bloomberg reports. Sherritt, which generates almost 75% of its total revenue in Cuba, has been operating in Cuba for two decades.

Pathe acknowledges the difficult realities of doing business in Cuba, particularly due to the extraterritorial provisions of the Helms-Burton law, which prohibit him and his family from entering the U.S. because his company trades with Cuba. He is, however, optimistic that with the new rapprochement opportunities are increasing for patient investors that can build trust with Cuban authorities.

Spain Helps Bring Solar Power to Cuba

A project sponsored by Spain’s Agency for International Cooperation will install solar panels to power water pumps in Guama municipality in Santiago de Cuba, ACN reports. Cuba is increasingly turning to renewable energy sources in hopes of lessening dependence on the billions of dollars of oil it receives from Venezuela each year under an arrangement that pays for Cuban doctors deployed there. Cuba’s first solar power plant opened in 2013.

Recommended Reading

Three articles in the Huffington Post’s 90 Miles series caught our eye this week:

Many in Cuba fear that increased tourism and economic development could spell trouble for Cuba’s “natural assets — its 4,000 undeveloped keys, expansive mangrove forests, remarkable marine life and healthy coral reefs.” Whittle argues that eco-friendly economic development is possible in Cuba as long as sustainability remains a priority for Cuba’s government and people.

Reed writes that the U.S. healthcare system is missing out on Cuban medical innovations like the medication Heberprot-P, which has shown to lower the risk of foot amputations for diabetic patients by 75% but which cannot be bought in the U.S. because it is manufactured in Cuba.

Anderson, leader of the Latin America Working Group’s Cuba program, praises the unsung heroes of the new US-Cuba policy — the non-governmental organizations, activist groups, and “citizen diplomats” that worked behind the scenes to raise grassroots support for a smarter Cuba policy.

Cuban youth build secret computer network despite Wi-Fi ban, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press

Internet access, government sanctioned or not, is coming to Cuba, Weissenstein writes. Cuban youths have managed to connect more than 9,000 computers across the island to SNet, or streetnet, a locally and independently constructed Wi-Fi network. Weissenstein, Havana bureau chief for the Associated Press, reports that SNet is used primarily for games, chatting with friends, watching popular TV shows, and reading copies of Wikipedia articles.

Lifting the Embargo Means Cuba Can No Longer Play Victim, Jose Miguel Vivanco, TIME

Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch argues that lifting the embargo would allow the US to pursue new policies toward Cuba that will support Cuban civil society instead of maintaining the status quo.

Recommended Viewing

Young Cubans ‘Excited’ As Cuba, U.S. Turn the Page, NBC News

Young Cubans discuss their excitement about new US-Cuba relations and the opportunities that these changes present to them.

Head of US delegation to Cuba: New policy will empower Cuban people, José Díaz-Balart, MSNBC

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson sits down with José Díaz-Balart to explain the new U.S. approach to Cuba.

Recommended Listening

Obama’s Top Negotiator in Cuba Says Human Rights, Private Sector Will Be U.S. Drumbeat, Tim Padgett, WLRN

Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson discusses U.S. priorities, including human rights and the development of Cuba’s private sector, with WLRN’s Tim Padgett.

Conserving Cuba’s Coral Reefs, Ira Flatow, Science Friday

David Guggenheim, the marine scientist known as the “Ocean Doctor,” tells Science Friday about conservation efforts in Cuba and their success in preserving Cuba’s coral reefs. He delves into the lessons that other nations, particularly those in the Caribbean, can learn from Cuba and its flourishing coral. “If we can learn from this living laboratory how a healthy coral reef is supposed to look and function, than those are very valuable insights,” Guggenheim says.

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