Cuba: On Drugs

On Wednesday, Cuba got the results of its annual drug test. It passed. If we had to guess, no one on the island was sweating out the wait for the 2015 edition of the U.S. State Department narcotics control strategy report. But several pro-sanctions hardliners had to be disappointed by the results.

As required under laws passed by the U.S. Congress, the State Department monitors the performance of countries around the world on their efforts to control illegal drugs and chemical precursors, as well as how they enforce laws and meet global standards on money laundering and financial crimes.

Countries with low marks get branded as “major illicit drug transit or illicit drug producing” or “major money laundering” countries, and risk losing certain forms of U.S. foreign aid. Low marks or high, many nations question why the United States, a wealthy market for illegal drugs, should judge the internal law enforcement policies of others. Cuba, which is effective at counter-narcotics enforcement, resents such reports as intrusions on its sovereignty, and pays little heed to the threat of being penalized, since it receives no government aid from the U.S.

We’re shining a light on the report now because its findings are relevant to the domestic debate in the United States on President Obama’s decision to seek the resumption of diplomatic relations. The report’s findings support the notion that reversing Cuba’s diplomatic isolation and increasing bilateral cooperation on issues like counter-narcotics is in both countries’ self-interest.

Volume One of the report makes clear that Cuba is a high achiever on narcotics control. It gets good grades on measures like domestic law enforcement, prevention, and education programs; for devoting its scarce resources to interdiction, and for its bilateral agreements on counterdrug cooperation and policing with dozens of other nations.

In Volume Two, which identifies the major money laundering countries of 2014, Cuba gets good grades on so many measures it is placed in the least worrisome category of “Other Countries/Jurisdictions Monitored,” with nations like close U.S. allies Sweden, Norway, and New Zealand. This means that Cuba earned higher marks than Canada, Chile, China, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, and the United States itself.

In its country-specific report, the State Department makes special mention of Cuba’s cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard Drug Interdiction Specialist at the U.S. Interests Section, the sharing of tactical intelligence about suspected traffickers with the U.S., and its demonstrated willingness to apprehend and turn over U.S. fugitives involved in drug cases.

These findings align with the views of Randy Beardsworth, a former Acting-Undersecretary for Homeland Security, who also served as a Director for Defense Policy on the National Security Council Staff for two administrations, and is a retired Coast Guard Captain.

In an email written to Cuba Central staff, Beardsworth said, “Over the past 15 years the strongest and most professional functional relationship the U.S. has had with Cuba has been between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban TGF (Coast Guard) — and this relationship has been primarily based on maritime counter drug cooperation.”

Expanding diplomatic relations and opening embassies, in his view, offer the prospect of building on the relationship and expanding the effectiveness of both countries’ counter-narcotics strategy.

Beardsworth told us, “As the two countries normalize relations we will need both broader and deeper functional relationships in the counter drug arena. Neither country has a deep understanding of the other country’s agencies, laws, and processes. We need to learn how best to cooperate and we need to build on the trust and goodwill between the U.S. Coast Guard and the TGF. As a practical matter this means more functional liaisons and educational programs between relevant agencies.”

The Cubans are apparently ready to do this and more. Cuba has previously proposed intensifying the cooperation that now occurs on a case by case basis, by negotiating a formal agreement to fight drug trafficking. The Prensa Latina news agency reported that Cuba’s chief negotiator, Josefina Vidal, sees the diplomatic breakthrough giving new impetus to formal talks on this issue.

If diplomatic relations helps the U.S. and Cuba to expand cooperation and make more progress in their counter-narcotics programs, this will eliminate a familiar “drug of choice” talking point against President Obama’s policy. In just the last few months, hardliners have argued (here, here, and here) against diplomacy with Cuba, or removing it from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, for its alleged complicity with drug trafficking networks.

Of course, the State Department report demolishes such charges, and instead concludes that “enhanced communication and cooperation between Cuba and the United States… would likely lead to increased interdictions and disruptions of illegal drug trafficking.”

This is another good reason for full diplomatic relations, and could make the critics who are pressing so hard to derail the President’s diplomacy with Cuba vulnerable to the label “soft on drugs.”


Third round of U.S.-Cuba talks end quietly (except for the speculation)

The third round of talks to re-establish diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba took place on Monday, and ended without public comments, the AP reports.

The surprise announcement that the previously unscheduled negotiations would occur, the decision to minimize public contact with the press, and the speed with which the talks ended stirred speculation about the status of the discussions including whether the two parties could conclude a meaningful agreement prior to the Summit of the Americas, which gathers in Panama three weeks from now.

On Friday, March 13th, after the daily State Department press briefing began at 1:02pm, spokeswoman Jen Psaki answered questions from a reporter on whether another round of talks about reestablishing diplomatic relations would take place. Ms. Psaki said in response, “Well, we are in ongoing discussions. In terms of the next round, I don’t have anything to update you on at this moment. I expect we will soon, so stay tuned.”

In a matter of hours, the Department opened a “Background Briefing on Discussions With Cuba,” a teleconference for reporters featuring an unnamed official who said, “This will be quite quick on my part. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson is going down to Havana. She’ll be leaving on Sunday to go down to Havana. This is a continuation of the conversations that we’ve been having.”

State Department officials “sought to play down expectations” for the talks, as the New York Times reported. Indeed, the official who spoke on background said, “these really are just continuing conversations. There’s not a historic nature to this one, and…there won’t be any announcements coming out of the results of this trip.”

In responding to a question from Pamela Dockins with Voice of America, who asked, “Can you clarify will it be a one-day meeting, or do you expect to stay further into the week?,” the official began by declining to predict. “The conversations begin on Monday. I honestly can’t be exactly sure of when they’ll end.”

Rather than stopping there, the official went on to say, “I don’t expect these to be very lengthy, not a huge number of days. So I think we’ll probably be coming back by mid-week.”

But, the talks lasted just a day and, unlike the previous two rounds, they ended without public comment.

This outcome opened the door in the U.S. press for speculation about the health and direction of the negotiations; speculation that comments by the State Department, which said the discussions were “positive and constructive,” and from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, which said the meeting happened in a “professional atmosphere,” and would continue in the future, failed to tamp down.

In an article headlined “U.S.-Cuba Talks on Restoring Diplomatic Ties End Abruptly,” the New York Times tied the lack of a breakthrough to “sticking points” that arose “in an atmosphere of rising tension over Venezuela.” The Wall Street Journal wrote, “U.S., Cuba End Third Round of Talks; No Date Set for Reopening Embassies.”

An official from the State Department told the AP that the topic of Venezuela did arise in Monday’s talks, but did not cause any tension or complicate negotiations.

Paul Webster Hare, a former British ambassador to Cuba who also served in his country’s embassy in Caracas, in comments to the Associated Press, said of the talks, “They’re entering a tricky phase.”

Richard Feinberg, a former Clinton White House adviser on Latin America, told U.S. News and World Report, “The jockeying may be to strengthen bargaining hands and/or to parlay pressures from domestic hardliners.”

Christopher Sabatini, a Cuba scholar at Columbia University, said to the New York Times, “I think they are both playing it close to their vest to not create unrealistic expectations and to not add to people picking apart and second-guessing the progress.”

While the speculation was fueled, in part, by the absence of solid information coming from either government, the question of when the talks would bear fruit became fraught, due to comments made by President Obama in an interview with Reuters earlier this month.

The President made headlines when he expressed his hope that the two countries could formally reopen their embassies in Havana and Washington ahead of the Summit of the Americas.

Having the talks end abruptly seemed to dash those expectations, leading his State Department spokesperson, Ms. Psaki, to comment, “I don’t think we set a timeline or a deadline.”

If the sides don’t announce some progress ahead of the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas, as former Ambassador Hare said, “then clearly people are going to begin to talk about whether the thing will be stalled for a period of time or might even go backward.”

In remarks that may have been little noticed at the time, the State Department official, who briefed reporters prior to the negotiations, signaled that the Obama Administration’s “Plan B” strategy for the talks could be to obtain ‘half-a-loaf’.

“Now on the question of the reestablishment of diplomatic relations and opening of embassies, let me say I think what the President has said and what I tried to emphasize in the past, which is legally and diplomatically those two things can be separate.”

Cuba criticizes U.S. sanctions against Venezuela

At an emergency meeting of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), President Raúl Castro criticized the new U.S. sanctions against Venezuela announced by President Obama on March 9, the BBC reports.

“The U.S. needs to understand once and for all that it cannot seduce or buy Cuba, just as it cannot intimidate Venezuela,” Castro said.

Last week, in response to the sanctions, a statement released by Cuba’s government expressed “unconditional support” for Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela’s embattled president and successor to revolutionary leader Hugo Chávez, who passed away in 2013.

While a State Department official said the U.S. is “disappointed” with Cuba’s statement, the Department is establishing — at this stage — a studied sense of separation between what Havana does in its foreign policy and what the U.S. is trying to achieve in its bilateral talks with Cuba.

“I don’t know that we were surprised…Venezuela’s been an ally of Cuba in the past. But what I will say, and I want to be very clear about this, is it will not have an impact on these conversations [to restore diplomatic ties] moving forward.”

The official went on to say that “Assistant Secretary Jacobson and her counterpart who handles the United States and North America will continue to have the conversations on our bilateral relationship in a way that’s professional and courteous and respectful and will not be overly impacted by what may happen at an UNASUR meeting on Venezuela. So I’m not overly concerned about that. I expect that we’ll be able to continue to have this dialogue and conversation regardless of what comes out of that meeting of South American countries.”

On Tuesday, Cuba’s former leader Fidel Castro, who acted as a political mentor to President Chávez and, later, to President Maduro, penned an open letter in Granma expressing solidarity with Venezuela. “Venezuela has stated precisely that it is always ready for peaceful and civilized discussion with the U.S. government, but it will never accept threats or impositions on the country,” the letter said.

Carlos Alzugaray, a Cuban diplomat and academic, does not think the new U.S. sanctions against Venezuela will hinder the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement. “I don’t see any signal from Cuba that it is not still interested in moving forward, nor do I see it from the United States.”

First New York — Havana charter flight takes off

A weekly charter flight from JFK International Airport in New York to the José Martí International Airport in Havana began Tuesday, The Guardian reports. The new service is operated by Cuba Travel Services.

Last December, President Obama announced a significant easing of restrictions on U.S. citizens’ travel to Cuba. Travelers still must fall within one of 12 categories of approved travel, but they no longer need to apply for specific licenses from the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

The CTS flight is the first of its kind from New York since President Obama’s announcement. Several commercial airlines have expressed interest in opening flights to the island, including United, JetBlue, American, and Southwest. Before that happens, however, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration must reach a civil aviation agreement with Cuba.

Talks between the two governments on civil aviation and air travel links took place earlier this month and were characterized by an unnamed U.S. official as “quite productive,” according to reporting by the Miami Herald.

New York Cosmos to take on Cuban national soccer team

The New York Cosmos, which competes in the North American Soccer League, will play Cuba’s national soccer team on June 2, the AP reports. The Cosmos will be the first professional soccer team to visit Cuba since 1978.

“This is bringing the people together more than presidents, more than secretaries of state, because nothing stops sports fans from enjoying their sports,” said Rep. Charles Rangel (NY-13), an advocate for normalizing relations with Cuba, in a press conference on Monday. “The love and affection that the Cuban people and the American people have had for each other have withstood all of the political pressures that presidents here and Castro there have tried to do.”

According to Cuban Soccer Association vice president Antonio Garces, the match is a direct outgrowth of the decision by Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama to restore U.S.-Cuba relations. “The shift of last Dec. 17 is a great step, very beneficial for our soccer,” Garces told the Associated Press. “The United States plays excellent soccer, so for us it will be great preparation for the knock-out phase of 2018 World Cup” qualification.”

Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-5), a longtime advocate for ending the embargo, hailed sports diplomacy as an effective approach for bringing countries together. “All you have to do is be around when the World Cup is going on, and I don’t care where you are in the world, when the World Cup is on, people are sitting and they’re engaged.”


Daughter of former Ladies in White leader denounces Berta Soler

Laura María Labrada, daughter of the late Laura Pollán, a co-founder and former leader of the Ladies in White, has spoken out against the group’s current leader, Berta Soler, the AP reports.

Labrada told reporters she “has decided from now on to not allow Berta Soler to use the name of my mother or to associate her name with conduct that goes against the principles that my mother always defended.” She also said that Soler is no longer welcome in her mother’s house, which serves as a headquarters and meeting place for the organization.

The Ladies in White, founded in 2003 after 75 Cuban dissidents were tried and sentenced to prison for terms of upwards of 28 years, has in its ranks over 200 Cuban women who protest political arrests in weekly marches.

The group has been praised by lawmakers in the U.S., but is mostly unknown on the island and has minimal support from Cuban citizens. As Reuters reports, “The group survives largely on donations money from anti-Castro exiles in the United States, and each of the Ladies receives $30 for participating in the Sunday marches, Soler said, an amount greater than the typical monthly salary in Cuba.”

Pollán died in 2011 after spending ten days in a Havana hospital for dengue fever. Berta Soler, who has since taken over leadership of the organization, has faced criticism for alienating and expelling members of the group who challenge her leadership.

In February, 16 Miami-based Ladies in White called for Soler’s resignation after a video appeared on YouTube that shows some members of the group shouting down Alejandrina Garcia de la Riva, a founding member, for having called Soler’s leadership into question.

The next week, 100 members of the group signed a letter calling for a referendum on Soler’s leadership. After initial resistance by Soler, a referendum was held in early March.

Soler told the New York Times that she won 180 of just over 200 votes cast. The votes, however, were a simple “yes” or “no” on Soler’s leadership rather than a competitive race between multiple candidates.

Attempted theft of millions of eggs ends in prison sentences

Over a dozen Cubans were handed prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years for the theft of over eight million eggs from a state-run distributor for sale on the black market, the AP reports. Several company executives were accused of hatching the plan and misappropriating an estimated $356,000 worth of eggs using fraudulent receipts.

Cuba’s government has scrambled to crack down on corruption with a hard-boiled approach that has landed dozens of government officials and even foreign business executives in prison.

For travelers, Cuban exit tax to be included in price of flights

A $25 exit tax that must be paid by travelers leaving Cuba will be included in the price of airline tickets starting May 1, Granma reports. ECASA, the state-run company in charge of airports and air travel services, made the change to eliminate a cumbersome step for travelers passing through Cuban airports.

In 2013, President Raúl Castro eliminated the exit visa Cubans were previously required to obtain before leaving the island. Today, Cubans can leave and return to the island freely.


EU Foreign Policy Chief plans Cuba visit

Federica Mogherini, head of foreign policy for the European Union, plans to visit Havana March 23-24, according to a press release from the EU’s External Action Service. Mogherini will meet with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and other Cuban officials, as well as leaders of civil society including Cardinal Jaime Ortega, head of the Catholic Church in Havana.

“Cuba is facing a very interesting period and the European Union is keen to see how we can take the relationship forward with strong momentum,” Mogherini said in a statement. “The EU has been closely following the developments in Cuba and its relations with key international players, which create new dynamics in the region and in Cuba itself, and provide new opportunities for all.”

In April 2014, Cuba and the EU began negotiations to bring an end to the Common Position, which was adopted in 1996 and suspended economic and diplomatic cooperation with Cuba pending “improvements in human rights and political freedom” and an “irreversible opening of the Cuban economy.” The third round of negotiations took place in the first week of March.

Ebola workers to return to Cuba “with their mission completed”

The brigade of Cuban health workers that joined Ebola treatment and prevention efforts in West Africa in October will be returning home in coming weeks, EFE reports. In the past four months, the brigade has saved the lives of over 50 people who contracted the virus in Liberia. The virus has claimed over 10,000 lives since the outbreak began last summer.

Cuba was one of the first countries to respond to the WHO’s call for increased medical personnel in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. The island nation’s contribution has been the largest to date, an effort that has drawn praise from international figures like Secretary Kerry and WHO Director-General Margaret Chan.

Mexico detains Cuban migrants

Mexico’s navy has detained 15 Cuban men found in a hand-made boat off the Yucatan coast, the AP reports. The migrants are being held at a naval station and are expected to be sent back to Cuba in accordance with a 2008 repatriation agreement between the countries.

During the 2014 fiscal year, close to 25,000 Cubans came to the United States without visas through land and sea routes, according to reports by the New York Times. The vast majority of the migrants reached the U.S. by flying or sailing to Central and South America and then traveling by land to the U.S.-Mexico border. Once reaching U.S. soil, a Cuban citizen can gain residence and a path to citizenship by invoking the 1996 Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA).

Recommended Reading

Havana Bound: Cuba Rapidly Becomes a Favorite Member Destination, Alex Brown, National Journal

Brown, in describing the uptick in Congressional travel to the island, quotes Sarah Stephens of CDA who said: ‘”The reason that things have picked up right now is in part because of the attention that the administration has given to the issue…’People want(ed) to be part of that solution and be part of opening things up.'”

Yoani Sánchez: In Cuba, “there is no going back to December 16” (in Spanish), Nora Gámez Torres, El Nuevo Herald

“I think December 17 opened a scenario we should take advantage of,” Sánchez, one of the best-known Cuban bloggers, told an audience at a conference on women and human rights in Latin America at Florida International University. “Beyond political activism, in the streets of Cuba, people feel a little bit of hope. Cuban activists face a challenge: to seize the opportunity, with so many eyes directed at the island, to highlight the repression that continues, and to look for new, creative methods that get closer to the population.”

Better Than You Think: Reframing Inter-American Relations, Richard Feinberg, Emily Miller, and Harold Trinkunas, Brookings

In the most recent Brookings paper on Latin America, the authors argue that U.S. efforts to renew the diplomatic relationship with Cuba has helped moved the U.S. “toward a more mature relationship with the states in the Americas.”

Filmmaker Won’t Weep for the Cuba He Left Behind, David Gonzalez, The New York Times

Gonzales profiles Leon Ichaso, a Cuban filmmaker who came to the U.S. as a teenager in the 1960s and who now wants to make a movie in Havana. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” he says. “A movie can buffer you; it’s a very specific universe. I’m already writing something. I’m getting my passport.”

3 months out of a Cuban prison, Alan Gross savors his freedom, Patrick Oppmann, CNN

It’s been three months since Alan Gross’s humanitarian release by Cuba’s government. Since then, he has met President Obama and Pope Francis, replaced the teeth he lost while in prison, and traveled to Jerusalem.

Three reasons why U.S. banks aren’t entering Cuba–yet, Nina Lincoff, Tampa Bay Business Journal

Despite changes in U.S. regulations, banks have avoided Cuba for three reasons, according to Lincoff. (1) Cost of compliance: it will be expensive for banks to ensure that their clients traveling in Cuba are complying with U.S. regulations. (2) The State Sponsors of Terrorism List: banks that conduct business in countries on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list put themselves at risk of facing harsh penalties from the U.S. Department of Treasury. Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terror is currently under review by the State Department. (3) Unknowns: there are many regulatory uncertainties for banks looking to do business in Cuba. Those unknowns are expected to be clarified as banks’ clients travel to Cuba in greater numbers.

Growing Pains in Cuban Dance, Joan Acocella, The New Yorker

“What effect will Obama’s easing of trade and travel between the United States and Cuba have on the island’s most important artistic exports, music and dance?,” asks Acocella. “Plenty, no doubt, and soon.”

Opening of embassy in Cuba sets up showdown over U.S. ambassador, Andrew O’Reilly, Fox News Latino

O’Reilly writes: “When the U.S. and Cuba officially restore diplomatic ties next month, will the newly reopened embassy have an ambassador in the office? The answer: Yes, no and sort of.”

Street dogs find homes in venerable Cuban institutions, Michael Weissenstein, The Associated Press

“More than a dozen state institutions ranging from Cuba’s Central Bank to a public toilet have taken street dogs under their wings in recent years, assigning them official IDs and housing and granting them year-round medical care and protection from the city dogcatcher animal protection officials say.”

Recommended Viewing

Grenada Invasion: Anniversary of historic 1979 uprising marked, CCTV

This CCTV documentary documents the 1979 revolution in Grenada and ensuing U.S. invasion, the only time U.S. and Cuban troops directly exchanged fire.

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