Last December, when President Obama announced he had reached an agreement with President Raúl Castro to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, you’d have thought it was a dark day for diplomacy given the reaction of some Senators on Capitol Hill.
“I think it stinks,” New Jersey Senator Bob Menendez said of the breakthrough, “It’s a reward that a totalitarian regime does not deserve.” He later added that “18 months of secret negotiations produced a bad deal, a bad deal for the Cuban people.”
Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Florida Senator Marco said “By conceding to the oppressors in the Castro regime, the president and his administration have let the Cuban people down.” He also called President Obama “the worst negotiator that we’ve had as President since at least Jimmy Carter, and maybe in the history of this country.”
Just a side note: It was thirty-eight years ago this week the U.S. and Cuba convened talks that led to the signing of provisional maritime boundary and fishing rights agreements. Although these pacts contributed to the peace that has prevailed in the Florida Strait ever since, we’re guessing Rubio never sent President Carter a card wishing him a happy anniversary.
Were they right? Are these really dark days for diplomacy? We can think of four things that happened this week that show they are not:
1) Although Rubio and Menendez fought the Obama Administration’s support for Cuba attending the 7th Summit of the Americas meeting in Panama next month, Cuban dissidents Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Guillermo Fariñas, and Berta Soler will be taking part in civil society events, the Miami Herald reported. Cuba is unhappy about them being there, but they will arrive alongside a contingent of civil society activists attending with Havana’s blessing. Perhaps all can watch Presidents Obama and Castro shake hands again.
2) Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, deputy director of Cuba’s foreign ministry, announced Thursday that a delegation of Cuban diplomats will be in Washington next week for human rights talks with a U.S. team led by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State. While next week’s meeting is to discuss a framework for “future human rights talks,” and both countries criticize each other for their respective human rights records, “observers say even the start of a dialogue is an indication of progress in the countries’ broader move to normalize relations,” the Associated Press reported.
3) Although not a product of U.S. diplomacy, negotiations between Cuba and the European Union are also continuing talks on human rights as part of an accelerated commitment to normalize relations between Brussels and Havana. John Caulfield, who served in Cuba as head of the U.S. Interests Section until last year, linked the parallel negotiations in human rights, telling the Associated Press, “The very fact, I think, that Cuba is in a formal process where they agreed to talk about human rights to the European Union and the United States makes it more difficult for them to do the heavy-handed stuff they’ve done in the past.”
4) This week, a delegation of U.S. diplomats sat down in Havana with Cuban counterparts to discuss increasing Internet connectivity and access to information for the Cuban people. In a symbol of just how much has changed in a relationship that was forged during the Cold War era of the Teletype machine, Conrad Tribble, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Havana, tweeted about the talks here.
Although Cuba, in much of our country’s political discourse, will get no credit for fulfilling its side of the diplomatic bargain struck last December, what transpired this week could not have happened without Cuba’s government holding up its end. Carlos Varela, the Cuban singer-songwriter, writes in “Muros y Puertas, “there are those who build walls there are those who open doors.” In this week’s diplomacy, the doors swung open in both directions.
In his essay, Rubio Truly Hates Diplomacy, Daniel Larison, a senior editor at The American Conservative, lit into Senator Rubio for his instant condemnation of President Obama’s new Cuba policy. Larison acknowledged that diplomacy was not guaranteed to succeed, but said “Rubio wants to deny the U.S. and Cuba the possibility that engagement offers in order to cling to a confrontational policy that has yielded nothing but bitterness and poverty.”
Rubio said President Obama’s diplomacy “let the Cuban people down.” But, Yoani Sanchez, who will be covering the Summit of the Americas in Panama as a journalist, begs to differ.
“The truth is that on December 17 — St. Lazarus Day — diplomacy, chance and even the venerated saint of miracles addressed the country’s wounds,” she wrote. “Nothing is resolved yet, and the whole process for the truce is precarious and slow, but on that December 17th the ceasefire arrived for millions of Cubans who had only known the trenches.”
A delegation of U.S. diplomats led by Daniel Sepulveda, the U.S. State Department’s international communications coordinator, traveled to Cuba this week for talks on Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure.
The Latin Post said the delegation included representatives from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and the Federal Communications Commission. They met with a team of Cuban officials headed by Jose Luis Perdomo, Cuba’s deputy communications minister.
The delegations discussed “the scope of the new U.S. regulations,” as the Havana Times reported, to facilitate trade and commerce between the two countries in the field of telecommunications.
The officials exchanged information about Cuba’s computer systems and cybersecurity measures, according to a Voice of America report. In addition to the bilateral talks, the U.S. team also visited ETECSA, Cuba’s state-owned telecommunications company, and the University of Information Science
Since mid-January, the U.S. and Cuba have held three rounds of talks aimed at reestablishing diplomatic relations. President Obama has said he wants to see diplomatic ties restored before the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas in Panama, which both President Obama and President Raúl Castro are expected to attend.
The visit to discuss telecommunications was announced last month by Roberta Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, during a press conference after the second round of normalization talks took place in Washington. A delegation led by Sepulveda, she said, “will travel to Havana to work with the Cuban Government on increasing its capacity for greater internet connectivity to better support access to information by the Cuban people.”
The leader of the Cuban team, Jose Luis Perdomo, told Prensa Latina in 2010 that Cubans’ access to internet is limited because of technical constraints, not political considerations by Cuba’s government. Perdomo affirmed the government’s desire to extend internet access to the general public, but pointed out that Cuba’s designation on the U.S. “State Sponsors of Terrorism” list keeps many U.S.-based websites like Google from operating on the island.
Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel has reiterated Perdomo’s statements. “The development of information technology is essential to the search for new solutions to development problems,” he said during a speech in Mexico in 2014. “But the digital gap is also a reality among our countries, and between our countries and other countries, which we must overcome if we want to eliminate social and economic inequalities.”
In February, New Jersey-based telephone company IDT reached an agreement with Cuba’s state telecommunications company to establish a direct long-distance phone connection between the U.S. and Cuba for the first time in over 16 years. The agreement went into effect earlier this month.
In January, the Obama Administration announced sweeping changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, significantly easing restrictions on exports of telecommunications products and services to the island.
A meeting proposed by Cuba’s government to discuss human rights issues with U.S. diplomats will take place in Washington next Tuesday, the AFP reports. This will be the first bilateral discussion on human rights since President Obama’s December 2014 announcement of a “new course” in U.S. policy toward Cuba.
Pedro Luis Pedroso Cuesta, deputy director of Cuba’s foreign ministry, said that the “dialogue on human rights… demonstrates Cuba’s readiness to address any issue despite our differences,” Granma reported. In January, as a part of the larger agreement to improve relations with the U.S., Cuba released 53 political prisoners.
Cuesta said Cubans “hope this dialogue will unfold in a constructive tone, on the basis of reciprocity…. We are aware that we have profound differences with the government of the United States in the areas of political systems, democracy and human rights, and international law.”
The AP writes: “The discussions seem unlikely to lead to short-term changes in the way either country views rights issues. The U.S. is expected to press Cuba to allow its citizens greater freedom of speech, assembly and political activity. Cuba likely will respond with its own critiques of poverty, insufficient health-care coverage and excessive police force in the United States.”
The U.S. Treasury Department removed 45 individuals and companies from the Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) on Tuesday, according to a department press release.
According to the Treasury Department website, the SDN list is “of individuals and companies owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of, targeted countries… Their assets are blocked and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from dealing with them.”
Writing for the Havana Journal, Rob Sequin noted that “most” of the entities removed from the list were from Panama, the host nation for next month’s gathering of the Summit of the Americas.
Reuters reports that most of the companies and individuals removed from the list were “dead people, defunct companies, or sunken ships.” Four of the six people removed from the list were already dead, and the ships “had either sunk or were otherwise not operational.”
Also this week, the AP reported that OFAC reached a $7.7 million settlement with PayPal, which failed to properly screen transactions that went to Cuba, Iran, and Sudan over the past several years, the agency said.
On Tuesday, Florida’s State Senate passed a purely symbolic measure voicing opposition to the Obama Administration’s efforts to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, the Tampa Bay Times reports.
“I know you’ve seen the pictures of the beautiful beaches were the tourists can go,” said State Senator Anitere Flores of Miami, whose mother left Cuba to come to the U.S. She then added, “No one who is a Cuban citizen can go to those places,” a statement that is known to be untrue by the Cuban American families who visit those beaches with their relatives on the island.
More than a decade ago, the United States Supreme Court held, in its Crosby v. National Foreign Trade Council decision, that the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution preempts statutes enacted by state legislatures that undermine U.S. foreign policy or weaken the ability of the President “to speak for the Nation with one voice.”
The Florida State Legislature, however, appears unable to hold its tongue.
A similar measure has been passed by the State Affairs Committee in Florida’s lower chamber, but has not seen action by the entire House.
Meanwhile, Arkansas’s Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a resolution passed by the state legislature supporting the growing movement to end the U.S. trade and travel embargo against Cuba.
USA Rice Chairman Dow Brantley said, “We thank the General Assembly and Gov. Hutchinson for supporting our effort to open the emerging Cuban marketplace to Arkansas agriculture… Rice is one of the many commodities that could see significant gains for our farmers and Arkansas’s economy if the federal government eases its decades-old trade embargo on Cuba.”
Brantley joins a growing number of agriculture and business leaders calling for an end to the embargo. In early March, a group of 95 agriculture leaders, including former Agriculture Secretaries John Block and Mike Espy, traveled to Cuba with the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, which is chaired by Cargill executive Devry Boughner Vorwerk.
In mid-March, the National Cooperative Business Association launched the U.S.-Cuba Cooperative Working Group “to promote mutually beneficial engagement between the U.S. and Cuba’s cooperative sectors in an effort to support US cooperative growth and Cuban economic progress.” The group plans to visit Cuba later this year.
Next week, a group of 19 lawmakers from California’s General Assembly will visit Cuba on a trade delegation, the LA Times reports. “The Assembly wants to do everything we can to create more jobs and business in California, and this trade delegation is one way to help California companies gain a competitive edge,” said Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins.
Not everyone applauds such delegations. Before a farm group earlier this week, Florida’s Senator Marco Rubio likened trade with Cuba to “trafficking in stolen goods.”
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Federica Mogherini, the European Union’s chief foreign policy official, was in Cuba this week to build momentum for talks aimed at normalizing relations between Cuba and the EU, Reuters reports.
“We decided today to speed up the rhythm of our negotiations, hopefully to manage to finalize the framework of our dialogue and agreement by the end of this year,” Mogherini told reporters.
Since December 1996, the EU’s relations with Cuba have been governed by the Common Position, which suspended economic and diplomatic cooperation with Cuba pending “improvements in human rights and political freedom” and an “irreversible opening of the Cuban economy.”
In 2008, the EU lifted all sanctions against the island but kept the Common Position in place. The policy is largely symbolic, however, since it applies only to the EU as a political organization, while individual EU member states are free to conduct trade and diplomacy with Cuba as they please. In fact, the EU is Cuba’s second largest trading partner behind Venezuela.
Negotiations to end the Common Position began in April of last year, and teams from both parties made substantial progress toward reaching a bilateral accord during the second round of negotiations in August. A third round of negotiations took place in early March of this year.
Cuba and the EU are set to meet again at the Summit of the Americas, which will take place in Panama April 10-11. This will be the first time that either the EU or Cuba has attended the Summit of the Americas. Another meeting between Mogherini and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez has been scheduled for April 22 in Brussels.
Several Cuban dissidents will be present as civil society representatives at the Summit of the Americas, the Miami Herald reports.
The group includes Manuel Cuesta Morúa, Guillermo Fariñas, Berta Soler and Saily Navarro of the Ladies in White, and Miriam Celaya and Amel Oliva of the Cuban Patriotic Union (UNPACU).
Members of the Pro-Free Art Association, which includes Tania Bruguera, the performance artist jailed in December for staging a protest in Cuba’s Revolutionary Square, are also expected to attend. Blogger Yoani Sánchez will be present as a journalist.
According to the Herald, Cuba’s government has denounced the dissidents’ participation as a “provocation.” Cuba has invited representatives of some 300 organizations to represent Cuban civil society.
The AP reports that the secretary of state from the Vatican, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, will also attend the Summit. Last fall in the Vatican, Pope Francis hosted the final of a series of secret meetings between the U.S. and Cuba to finalize the terms of a historic rapprochement announced by President Obama and President Castro in December.
The Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development (KFAED) signed an agreement with Cuba this week for a $25 million loan to refurbish Cuba’s water supply system and sewage network, the Kuwait News Agency and Granma report. The KFAED has issued a series of loans to Cuba since 2012 for various drinking water and sewage projects.
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently hosted Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel in New Delhi for talks regarding the two countries’ economic ties, El Nuevo Herald reports. The officials discussed greater cooperation between their two nations in a variety of different areas, including health, sports, trade, renewable energy, and more. The Prime Minister expressed his appreciation for Cuba’s work to fight the spread of Ebola in West Africa and accepted President Raul Castro’s invitation to visit Cuba.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Cuba Tuesday for meetings with top Cuban officials as part of a diplomatic tour of Latin America, Reuters reports. In between meetings with President Raúl Castro and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, Lavrov praised President Obama’s recent push for normalization with Cuba but emphasized that these steps are not enough. “We call for the lifting of the (U.S.) trade and financial blockade of Cuba as soon as possible,” he said.
New statistics from Cuba’s National Statistics and Information Office (ONEI) reveal that 771,678 tourists visited Cuba in January and February of this year, Prensa Latina reports. On March 21, Cuba’s ministry of tourism announced that the 1 millionth visitor of 2015 arrived on the island. In 2014, the 1 millionth visitor didn’t arrive until April.
Radio and TV Martí, U.S. Broadcasters to Cuba, Emerge From Cold War Past Facing Uneasy Future, Lizette Alvarez, The New York Times
“Three decades after becoming a Cold War staple — regularly criticized for anti-Castro, one-dimensional slant and advocacy — Radio and TV Martí are at a crossroads, scrambling to stay relevant as the relationship between Cuba and the United States inches toward a thaw.”
Cuba flirts with free speech, Marc Frank, Financial Times
“Havana’s decision to open up on the once-taboo subjects of the electoral system and civil society — by allowing Cubans to question policy in two online forums — is reminiscent of the early days of free speech in what was the Soviet Union in the 1980s.”
How Obama outmaneuvered hardliners and cut a Cuba deal, Warren Strobel, Matt Spetalnick, and David Adams, Reuters
Reuters interviewed over a dozen people who had first-hand knowledge of the 18 months of negotiations that took place before President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would begin the process of normalizing diplomatic relations.
Giving Cubans a Chance, Parris Glendening, The Baltimore Sun
Former Maryland Mayor Parris Glendening says he understands why Cuban-Americans are increasingly supporting more diplomatic engagement with Cuba. “At some point, when things do not work, you have to re-evaluate and reinvent,” he says. “That does not mean your values change, it means you need to find a better way to promote them.”
Cuba: Stuck In A Robinson Crusoe-Like Singularity?, Yoani Sánchez, Huffington Post
Sánchez asks how the developed world — and especially the tourists that live in it — will respond to Cuba’s seemingly imminent modernization. “Will it accept that we no longer appear as a country of ‘beautiful’ ruins, with people sitting around on street corners because it makes no sense to work for such low wages, and a population smiling at tourists because, among other reasons, these foreigners have access to the longed-for hard currency? Will the world allow us to find our identity if we no longer cling to this Robinson Crusoe-like singularity?”
Exciting new prospects for crocodile conservation in Cuba, Natalia Rossi, National Geographic
“Normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba by President Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro could mean that conservationists will have more opportunities to collaborate, forge new international partnerships, and provide new or additional employment opportunities for the highly educated Cuban conservation workforce, whose local expertise and knowledge will enable scientists working in Cuba to better serve the goal of biodiversity conservation.”
Tourists flocking to Cuba ‘before the Americans come’, Andrea Rodriguez and Peter Orsi, The Associated Press
Tourism has risen in Cuba since President Obama announced that the U.S. and Cuba would seek to normalize diplomatic relations. One Israeli tourist told the AP he “wanted to see [Cuba] before the American world … comes here.” But, Cubans are ready for change. “Where foreigners see charming, historic architecture, bright 1950s-era American cars and vast stretches of white-sand beaches, locals see decaying buildings in need of repair, new vehicles priced beyond their reach and a lack of economic opportunity.”
A Cuban Protest Singer On The State Of U.S.-Cuba Relations, Eyder Peralta, NPR
NPR interviews nueva trova singer and songwriter Carlos Varela, whose music has defined what it means to think critically, yet constructively, about Cuba’s revolution and governance. His lyrics have given voice to a generation of Cubans who grew up during the revolution and are ready for a brighter future.
An Object of Desire: Hope and Yearning for the Internet in Cuba, Robert Siegel and Eyder Peralta, NPR
Only about 5% of Cubans have unfettered access to the global Internet. Cuba’s government blames the U.S. embargo, which raised costs of improving telecommunications infrastructure. For many young Cubans, though, the blame lies on Cuba’s government. “Cuba does not want us to know the things that happen in other countries,” said one young Cuban interviewed.
With Improved Relations, Are the U.S. and Cuba Ready to Play Ball?, Robert Siegel and Eyder Peralta, NPR
“Like the rest of the country, Cuban baseball has been in crisis. But as the U.S. and Cuba have moved to normalize diplomatic relations, hope is bubbling that the rapprochement could bring new opportunities, stop Cuba’s top talent from fleeing and perhaps lead to reconciliation between those who’ve left and those who’ve stayed.”
A Fraying Promise: Exploring Race and Inequality in Havana, Robert Siegel and Eyder Peralta, NPR
Siegel and Eyder walk through Havana with Cuban economist and architect Miguel Coyula to survey the city’s crumbling buildings. “The buildings in Havana tell the story of two intersecting problems: one that everyone talks about — housing — and one that is typically discussed with great discretion — race and inequality. Both of them have the potential to be hugely affected by a thaw in diplomatic relations with the United States.”
PHOTOS: Cuba’s Cowboy Culture, Alexandre Meneghini, Reuters
Reuters photographer Alexandre Meneghini visits a Cuban rodeo in Havana.
Cuba’s only woman boxer leaves to pursue her dream, Will Grant and Alberto Moreno, BBC
Namibia Flores, Cuba’s only known female boxer, has been barred from competition in Cuba because she is a woman. So, she decided to leave the island to compete in the U.S.