Two big changes have taken place since President Obama decided to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and reduce restrictions on the right of Americans to travel and trade with Cuba.
In just the last few weeks, the forces of reform have gotten bolder and bigger, while the opponents are looking smaller by comparison and, if we say so ourselves, considerably more weird (really).
In the U.S. Congress, legislation was introduced this week by Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota to repeal the trade embargo against Cuba — leaving human rights provisions of the law intact — with bipartisan support.
Organizations like the National Farmers Union, trade associations for farm commodities, leaders in the agriculture industry, and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack are all supporting efforts to lift the embargo and boost the sale of food to Cuba, a position warmly supported by U.S. farmers.
Governors, including Jay Nixon of Missouri and Andrew Cuomo of New York, and state businesses are lining up for trips to investigate business opportunities on the island. On behalf of Empire State citizens, including more than 74,000 Cuban Americans, Cuomo called Cuba “America’s newest economic partner,” and said “let us develop the relationship, let us open up the markets and let us get opportunities for New York companies,” in his State of the State Address.
Courage points go to the New Jersey business leaders who will visit Cuba in April despite opposition from their state’s senior Senator Bob Menendez, who turned up his nose at the Obama reform breakthrough, saying “I think it stinks.”
The six public opinion surveys we’ve covered since the December 17th announcement – by the Miami Herald, the Washington Post, CBS News, Pew Research, the Wall Street Journal/NBC News, and the Associated Press — show strong support nationally and among Cuban Americans for diplomatic recognition and, importantly, lifting the embargo itself.
This is great momentum. As we report below, the enthusiasm for the policy — and the prospects for what normal relations could bring — is shared by Cubans, especially Cuban youth, who are joyful about the changes and are carrying a torch of hope for a better future.
But not everyone has sent off flowers or boxes of candy to the White House. In fact, there are two Members of Congress who replaced their Valentine’s Day card to the President with a letter bursting with “dismay and outrage”!
What made Reps. Bob Goodlatte and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen so mad? Was it the upsurge in travel? The new delegations looking for business? Are they dismayed and outraged because some Cubans could have access to “House of Cards” when the thirteen episodes of Season Three become available on February 27th?
It is this vexing question –“Why Did Administration Help Cuban Spy Artificially Inseminate Wife?” — to which Mr. Goodlatte, the Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, Chairwoman emeritus of the Foreign Affairs Committee, are demanding answers.
They refer to one of the lovelier sidebars of the story about what had happened while the deal for diplomatic relations was negotiated in secrecy over 18-months; or, as one newspaper headlined it, “How artificial insemination conceived a new era in US-Cuba relations.”
This decision by the U.S. government to give Adriana Perez, wife of convicted spy Gerardo Hernandez, a chance to have a child while she waited for her long-imprisoned husband to come home, boosted confidence in the diplomacy that ultimately yielded freedom for a CIA asset, 53 Cuban political prisoners, and Alan Gross.
As if it was timed to coincide with Valentine’s Day, their letter to Federal Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels, Jr. asks: What statute of regulation authorizes the U.S. government to facilitate an artificial insemination in this manner? They ask who submitted the request and who approved it? They ask if there were precedent for “this sort of arrangement?” Who paid for it? And – ewwww – “To where was the specimen sent and who delivered it?”
In addition to proving these guys are no fun, and against the backdrop of meaningful evidence that the momentum behind Cuba policy reform is growing, it speaks volumes that these two hardliners had nothing more urgent in mind than coming out against an intended pregnancy by a woman in Cuba who just wanted to have a family.
While serious issues around human rights and much more are yet to be resolved, if the opponents of normalization have been reduced to asking, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” you’d have to say, we reformers are on a roll.
Besos Y Abrazos.
The U.S. State Department has published new rules that will allow Cuba’s private sector to export certain goods to the U.S., Reuters reports. According to the new regulations, U.S. buyers can import any good or service from Cuba with the exception of arms, agriculture products, live animals, tobacco, vehicles, mineral products, machinery, textiles, and chemicals.
These regulatory changes are the result of the “new course” for U.S. policy toward Cuba set by President Obama on December 17th. The State Department is also expected to complete a review of Cuba’s designation as a “state sponsor of terror” in coming months.
It is unclear what this regulator change means for Cubans who want to export their goods. With the exception of private artists, self-employed Cubans, also known as cuentapropistas, are not allowed to independently export their products without approval from Cuba’s government.
Senator Amy Klobuchar (MN) introduced legislation on Thursday to end restrictions on U.S. businesses looking to trade with Cuba, The Hill reports. The bill, titled “The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act,” is supported by a bipartisan group of co-sponsors including Senators Mike Enzi (WY), Jeff Flake (AZ), Debbie Stabenow (MI), Patrick Leahy (VT), and Dick Durbin (IL).
“It’s time to turn the page on our Cuba policy,” said Sen. Klobuchar said in a statement on her website. “Fifty years of the embargo has not secured our interests in Cuba and has disadvantaged American businesses by restricting commerce with a market of 11 million people just 90 miles from our shores.”
While the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act repeals legal restrictions against doing business with Cuba, it does not repeal human rights provisions or provisions relating to property claims against the Cuban government, the Senator’s statement said.
The regulatory changes implemented by the Obama Administration in January significantly eased travel and trade restrictions, but the embargo, which was codified into U.S. law by the 1992 Torricelli Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, can only be repealed by Congress.
Cuba has been a topic of intense debate in the new Congress. On January 20th, President Obama called on Congress to lift the embargo in his State of the Union Address. In late January, bipartisan bills to repeal the ban on U.S. travel to Cuba were introduced in the House and Senate; and, earlier this month, the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees held hearings evaluating the new policy course toward Cuba set by the Obama Administration.
The online video streaming service Netflix became available in Cuba this week, Bloomberg reports. The U.S.-based company is one of the first to offer a new service to Cuba since the process of normalizing relations began.
Cubans looking to use Netflix, which costs $7.99 per month, will need both Internet access and an international method of payment — neither of which are available to the vast majority of Cubans. The Independent reports that around 23% of Cubans have access to Cuba’s intranet, and only 5% have unfettered access to the World Wide Web.
“Cuba has great filmmakers and a robust arts culture, and one day we hope to be able to bring their work to our global audience,” said Netflix CEO Reed Hastings.
Restrictions on telecommunications exports to Cuba were significantly eased in the regulations released in January following President Obama’s December 17th announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic relations. The hope of the Obama Administration is that increased telecommunications exports to Cuba will open access to Internet on the island and catalyze a transition toward a more democratic political system.
U.S. airline JetBlue, which partners with ABC Charters for Cuba-bound flights, is adding one weekly flight from Tampa to Cuba starting June 5, The Miami Herald reports. JetBlue is the largest U.S. airline operating in the Caribbean and has been running flights to Cuba since 2011 in partnership with charter companies.
JetBlue is one of a handful of airlines — including American, Delta, Southwest, and United — that have expressed interest in increasing flights to Cuba following in the wake of President Obama’s decision that along with normalizing relations, the government would ease restrictions on people-to-people travel and that certain U.S. companies, including airlines, would be permitted to conduct business in Cuba without requiring a specific license from the Department of Treasury.
According to Newsweek, the number of charter flights to Cuba has dramatically increased following the December 17th announcement. In a year-over-year comparison, while Marazul (a charter and travel agency) received 30 requests for travel to Cuba from U.S. groups in the second half of January 2014, that number shot up to 1,300 such requests in the comparable period this year.
Last December’s announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic relations distracted attention from an Associated Press story that broke just days before that exposed an effort by USAID to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop community and encourage rappers to increase the anti-Castro content of their lyrics.
For Cuban rappers, though, the consequences of this program are far from over. Cuban authorities’ censorship of the artists’ music has tightened in the wake of the revelations.
This week, eight hip hop artists each contributed one minute to a track with the chorus “A mi no me pueden comprar,” which translates as “I can’t be bought,” directed at the Associated Press and USAID. The track criticizes the USAID program and accuses the AP of attempting to “discredit” Cuban rappers.
“We were not complicit in this scandal; we artists are the victims of it,” says Diddier Santos, a Cuban filmmaker whose company allegedly received money from USAID to support a music and arts festival USAID hoped would promote an anti-Castro message. “It is the Cuban government who comes out on top here, because now [the report] gives them free reign to censor hip-hop like they have wanted to do for so long. All they have to say is ‘you’re getting American money!’ and that’s it.”
The USAID hip-hop program is just one of several covert “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba that have been funded by the 1996 Helms-Burton Act. In investigative reports published earlier last year, the Associated Press revealed that USAID was behind ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like social media and text messaging platform that sought to send anti-government messages to thousands of Cuban subscribers, as well as the “travelers” program that sent Latin American youths undercover into Cuba to foment dissent.
USAID has stood by its program. “It’s not something we are embarrassed about in any way,” said spokesman Matt Herrick last December.
Reporters from Fusion played the Cuban rappers’ track for USAID Deputy Administrator Mark Feierstein in an interview this week. “Our programs there are pretty straightforward and I believe they should be uncontroversial for anyone who cares about promotion of democracy and rights,” Feierstein said in response. “None of our programs are covert.”
In what the State Department has said is merely a coincidence, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah announced he would be stepping down just one day before President Obama gave his speech unveiling a “new course” in U.S. policy toward Cuba.
The AP also has defended its work. “We stand by our coverage,” a representative told Fusion.
ETECSA, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company, plans to have over 300 public “cyber points” across the island for Cubans to access the Internet by the end of 2015, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports. That’s almost double the 155 centers that were operating at the end of 2014.
Seventy-three centers will be added in the first quarter of this year in youth clubs, many of which already have computers but can only access Cuban websites. In the new “cyber points,” Cubans will have access to the global Internet, with the exception of certain restricted sites.
It will cost $4.50 per hour to use the services at these Internet centers, which is prohibitively expensive in Cuba, where the average wage is just over $20 per month.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
South Korea’s Foreign Ministry announced this week that the country will seek to establish a diplomatic mission in Cuba this year, the Yunhop News Agency reports. Before this week, no diplomatic relationship existed between the two countries.
“The Korean government is seeking to normalize its relations or promote cooperation with all countries beyond ideology and the (political) system,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Noh Kwang-il.
South Korea also signed an agreement that extends a $67.9 million line of credit to Cuba’s Central Bank and establishes a procedure for ensuring payments for Korean goods shipped to Cuba. In the past, Korean exporters had to use a third-country bank to confirm credit payments from Cuba.
Last year, as part of the global response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, South Korea donated $1 million worth of protective suits worn by Cuban doctors while treating Ebola patients.
The effort to improve relations with the island also includes an agreement South Korea signed with the United Nations World Food Program to join a $3 million project to encourage greater food production in Cuba.
Representatives from South Korea will be present at the upcoming Havana Book Fair to promote Korean literature that has been translated into Spanish.
Turkey’s President Tayyip Ergodan was in Cuba this week for an official visit, Reuters reports. After a meeting with President Castro, Ergodan said he had proposed building a mosque in Havana similar to one in Istanbul. Cuba’s government has not released a statement about the proposal.
Last November, Ergodan drew media attention by claiming that Muslims discovered the Americas some two hundred years before Christopher Colombus’ arrival in 1492. His theory, rejected by most scholars of Latin American history, is based on an observation that Colombus made in his diary that certain rock formations he had seen in his travels that were similar to the shape of a mosque.
Arab culture, dating back to the eighth century, had a pronounced impact on Spain long before Colombus set sail. Moorish influence, transmitted to Cuba’s culture, is evident across the island in architecture, cuisine, music, and more, especially in places like Trinidad, a UNESCO world heritage site.
According to a 2009 Pew poll, there are just over 9,000 Muslims in Cuba, constituting about 0.1% of the population. Since there is currently no mosque in Cuba, most Cuban Muslims gather to pray in private homes. There is an Arabic cultural center in Havana called the “Casa de los Arabes,” but it is primarily used by Muslim tourists.
Cuban believers predominantly practice Catholicism, Santeria or a mixture of the two. While Cuba was an atheist state in 1959, restrictions on religious expression were eased after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. In 1998, Pope John Paul II made a public visit to the island, as did Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.
More recently, Pope Francis served as a guarantor of the diplomatic rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba, inviting negotiators from both countries to the Vatican to sort out the final details of the deal that was announced in December of last year.
Cuba’s baseball team has won the Caribbean Series, a regional international baseball tournament held yearly, in a 3-2 victory over Mexico, ESPN reports. This is Cuba’s first win since 1960, when baseball players were barred from playing overseas professionally. Cuba’s team had taken the Caribbean Series title in seven out of the eleven years immediately preceding the ban on professional overseas play.
The diplomatic rapprochement between Cuba and the U.S. has raised questions about the future of Cuban baseball. For decades, top talent in Cuba has left the island in the hands of professional smugglers in hopes of landing a multi-million dollar contract with a Major League Baseball team.
The Caribbean Series, held this year in Puerto Rico, attracted a host of baseball scouts looking to survey the Cuban talent pool. Last week, as news broke that the MLB would begin allowing Cuban baseball players to sign with major league teams without having to apply for a license from the U.S. Department of Treasury, two Cuban players abandoned their team mid-tournament to apply for residency in the U.S.
In Cuba, likely Castro successor keeps a low profile, Tracy Wilkinson, LA Times
First Vice President of Cuba and likely successor to Raul Castro, Miguel Diaz-Canal, is well liked despite spending most of his time overshadowed by the leadership of Raúl and Fidel Castro. “There is nothing but Castro in our heads,” asserts one citizen, though he recognizes that Diaz-Canal “is a good negotiator who will help our community.”
Banking issues must be ironed out as U.S., Cuba repair relations, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald
The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, D.C. has been without banking services for over a year. As negotiations continue to improve US-Cuban relations, the US government is reviewing Cuban targeted financial regulations and Cuba’s spot on the US terrorism watch list. However, American banks still need to be persuaded to open themselves up to Cuban business after years of restrictions.
En las calles de Cuba, crece la esperanza de una vida mejor, El Nuevo Herald
Hope is growing in Cuba as the news of improving US-Cuba relations spreads across the island. Children, bypassing shirts printed with the image of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, can be seen roaming the streets with the American flag or even President Obama’s face on their clothes while their parents wait on increased US trade and tourism to bolster their salaries.
Cuba’s government has committed itself to protecting its land and water more than most other Latin American nations, according to recent reports from state media. There are over 200 protected areas in Cuba, about half of which have a staff dedicated to the area’s conservation. According to this report, “Cuban experts expect these areas to increase, as well as more involved management of areas already registered.”
Cuba moves into new luxury niche: purebred horses, Anne-Marie Garcia, The Associated Press
A small number of Cuban horse trainers have been breeding horses imported from the Netherlands for sale in private auctions that often bring in more than $40,000 per horse. Cubans have been breeding horses since the 1500s, but after the 1959 revolution horse racing was banned along with professional sports and gambling. But, amateur breeders and racers have produced a pool of talent they can now cash in on as Cubans look for new ways to earn hard currency.
What does Cuba’s youth think of US thaw?, Will Grant, BBC
The BBC’s Will Grant speaks to young Cubans marching in Havana in a celebration commemorating the birthday of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero. The young people Grant spoke to expressed overwhelming support for the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement announced at the end of last year.