Normalization becomes the new normal

We promise to say this in 450 words or less. It is, after all, a holiday. And for many, the prospect of a nuclear agreement with Iran is closer to the top of mind than Cuba.

But can’t we just start this weekend by considering — and celebrating — what’s happened these last seven days?

Cuban and U.S. diplomats sat at the same table for unprecedented framework talks on human rights. U.S. policymakers dropped hints that Cuba would soon be dropped from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. AirBnB started offering U.S. travelers the ability to make on-line reservations in Cuba. A new poll showed majority support among Cuban Americans for President Obama’s new policies. And American University released a fascinating series of papers: Implications of Normalization.

On December 16th, 2014, any one of these developments could have been sufficient to lead the news and instill us with a healthy measure of optimism.

Back then (by which we mean just 109 days ago) there were two constants in U.S.-Cuba policy: the United States had an unbreakable commitment to facilitating regime change on the island by isolating Cuba’s government and immiserating the Cuban people; and that policy, because it was owned by powerful Cuban American hardliners, would never be changed.

In that era of decades-long hostility, every hopeful moment that unexpectedly arose also evanesced quickly. It seemed inevitable that events would force one or both governments to regress to the mean.

Since December 17th, a new narrative — one that values normalcy over hostility — has taken hold.

We’re not saying everything is better. The embargo remains in place. The U.S. still seems unable to wash the regime change mentality completely out of our system. Cuba’s government continues to seek and exert control (50% Internet usage by 2020? Really?); although loyalists dissent publicly from those holding onto their “siege mentality.” Of course, both capitals still hold divergent views on human rights and foreign policy and express them unreservedly.

Yet, something fundamental is changing. The sharp disagreements that drove us apart for decades are now being mediated in a process that is designed to narrow and resolve our differences.

Today, Americans are engaged by the possibility they soon could use their MasterCard while staying in an Airbnb in Havana, or that further changes in public opinion will encourage U.S. policy makers to abolish all remaining limits on travel and lift the embargo once and for all.

Ultimately, we think these changes will build on one another and, perhaps faster than we imagine, normalization will be the new normal for U.S.-Cuba relations.

With that, we wish a happy weekend and happy holiday to you all.


Airbnb expands to Cuba

Airbnb, the online bed and breakfast rental service, began listing accommodations in Cuba on Thursday, Bloomberg reports.

By offering U.S. travelers the option of booking overnight stays in Cuba online, this announcement by Airbnb is one of the biggest commercial developments since the Obama Administration initiated sweeping changes in U.S. policy toward the island in January of this year.

Travelers using Airbnb to search for accommodations in Cuba will find approximately 1,000 listings across the island, with 40% of those properties in Havana, the AP reports.

Cubans have been renting out private homes, or casas particulares, to tourists for over two decades, but the rentals are operated on a cash-only basis, and Cuba’s limited Internet connectivity has made making reservations difficult for many American tourists.

Airbnb sent company members to Cuba to encourage owners of casas particulares to use the online service. But, since so few Cubans — only about 5% — have access to the global Internet, the company worked with Florida-based VaCuba, an organization that is authorized to send cash remittances to Cubans, to make the Internet payments possible.

According to a company press release, the arrangement makes Cuban hosts “eligible for Airbnb’s Host Guarantee program, which reimburses up to $1 million USD for property damage. Airbnb will also expand its photography program to Cuba, currently through a beta program that utilizes the work of local photographers in Cuba’s independent entrepreneur community, to capture images of hosts’ unique spaces.”

Airbnb, which has evolved into a $20 billion global company since its 2008 origins as a San Francisco startup, joins Netflix and MasterCard as some of the first Internet-based companies to expand to Cuba. Netflix and MasterCard unblocked Cuba in February in moves that are, for the moment, largely symbolic, since very few Cubans have fast enough connections to stream video, and no banks have permitted MasterCard carriers to access their accounts from the island.

The number of tourists visiting Cuba has been steadily rising in recent years. Many of hotels are already fully booked for most of this year, highlighting Cuba’s need to expand its hospitality infrastructure. But, hotels can take years to build, and Cuba still lacks the means to update most of its dilapidated state-run facilities.

Airbnb’s move clears those hurdles, since no construction or real estate acquisition is necessary for the company to operate. “The idea here is to support growth in travel that isn’t disruptive, that actually celebrates and preserves Cuba as a distinct destination,” said Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk.

“We believe that Cuba could become one of Airbnb’s biggest markets in Latin America,” added Airbnb regional director Kay Kuehne. “We are actually plugging into an existing culture of micro-enterprise in Cuba. The hosts in Cuba have been doing for decades what we just started doing seven years ago.”

The company’s expansion could also be a positive development for diplomacy. Dan Restrepo, a former adviser to President Obama on Latin America, said the expansion “creates connectivity between peoples in a way that is outside the reach of government on both sides.”

Despite the challenges, casas particulares have been successful in attracting hard currency in Cuba’s struggling socialist economy. Many owners have re-invested their earnings in the remodeling of their homes, which in turn has attracted more customers. “You’re starting to see places that can compete with three- and four-star hotels,” says Collin Laverty, director of Cuba Educational Travel.

Before President Obama announced in December of 2014 that the U.S. would significantly ease trade and travel restrictions on Cuba, Airbnb, like other U.S. service providers that operate online, was forced to block Cuban access to their websites. After many restrictions were officially lifted in January, Airbnb executives worked with U.S. officials to approve the company’s plan to operate on the island.

Under the new regulations put in place by the Obama Administration, U.S. travelers can visit Cuba as long as they fall into one of twelve categories of approved travel, including family visits, professional research, people-to-people exchange, journalistic activity, and humanitarian work.

This week, a U.S. official said Cuba’s government has committed to reaching 50% Internet penetration on the island by 2020, raising the possibility of a rapid growth in online companies looking to do business in the country.

Secretary Pritzker confident in future of U.S. businesses in Cuba

At a conference in Tampa, Florida titled “Tampa at the Forefront of Historic Change,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker expressed optimism for the future of the U.S.-Cuba trade relationship, the Tampa Tribune reports.

“What we do know from other countries who have gone through this transformation is that over time there will be more opportunities,” Pritzker told Tribune reporters after the forum. “The early and first often have an advantage, and that may mean you have to invest your time.”

First formal talks on human rights held in Washington

Cuban and U.S. diplomats met in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday to establish a framework for future discussions on human rights, Reuters reports. The Cuban delegation was headed by Pedro Luis Pedroso, a deputy director in Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the U.S. team was led by Tom Malinowski, the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Democracy.

The plan to meet was first disclosed in Havana last week by Mr. Pedroso, who told Granma that the “dialogue on human rights… demonstrates Cuba’s readiness to address any issue despite our differences.”

A State Department official told Reuters, “This preliminary meeting reflects our continued focus on human rights and democratic principles in Cuba.”

President Obama has kept Cuba’s human rights record a priority for U.S. policy since he announced the decision to reestablish diplomatic relations last year. In January, as a part of the larger agreement to improve relations with the U.S., Cuba released 53 political prisoners.

“There’s still many short-term, arbitrary detentions taking place. Cuba is in the process of an electoral reform but we don’t see any indication that they will allow a multi-partisan democracy to occur,” said Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson at the Cuba Opportunity Summit hosted by the University of Pennsylvania. “People can’t exercise freedom of expression or association. Cuba thinks that it’s meddling on our part but we believe those are international obligations.”

Assistant Secretary Jacobson added, “You have to engage even with people you don’t agree with if you want to get to a point where you can bring about change.”

In an interview with ABC News, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s chief negotiator said, “We know that this is the way the United States government presents its policy toward Cuba, but what we believe is that we can respect each other’s differences and at the same time work together on issues of common interest as neighbors.”

U.S. Official: completion of terror list review could happen soon

Stefan Selig, the Assistant Secretary of International Commerce, told an audience at the Cuba Opportunity Summit held this week in New York that Cuba’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism “could occur in the near future,” the Miami Herald reports.

Last December, President Obama said he was instructing Secretary of State John Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a terrorism sponsor. In the months following President Obama’s announcement, Cuban officials have stressed that getting their country off the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism is a priority.

Three rounds of negotiations to restore diplomatic ties and re-open embassies have been held so far, and President Obama declared his goal of restoring ties before the Summit of the Americas meeting convenes next week in Panama. Cuba will attend the Summit for the first time after decades of exclusion at the behest of the United States.

Financial institutions that do business with countries that are designated by the U.S. as sponsors of terror risk hefty fines from the U.S. Department of Treasury. Cuba’s removal from the list will make it easier for Cuba to engage in international transactions, and may even enable Cuban diplomats in the U.S. who have been without banking services for over a year to conduct normal consular services.

U.S. officials have asserted that they are working to complete the review as quickly as possible. But, Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters that a decision on Cuba’s status is “being pursued separately” from the current negotiations.

Cuba was first placed on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1982 during the Reagan administration for reasons that have been increasingly difficult for the U.S. to justify. The State Department’s 2013 report said “there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

New poll shows majority of Cuban Americans supports normalization

A public opinion poll released this week by Bendixen & Amandi International shows that 51% of Cuban Americans support President Obama’s move to normalize relations with Cuba, while 40% oppose the new policies. This shows a strengthening of support for reform compared to a similar poll of 400 Cuban American adults conducted last year following President Obama’s announcement, which found 44% of Cuban Americans supported the move and 48% disagreeing.

Another poll conducted this week by Reuters/Ipsos shows that only 5.5% of Americans think Cuba is an “imminent threat” to the United States. Out of Republicans surveyed, only 13% labeled Cuba an “imminent threat,” compared to 35% of Republicans who placed President Obama in that category.

These are just the latest in a series of public opinion surveys that have shown remarkable support for normalizing relations with Cuba and lifting the embargo.

  • A Beyond the Beltway poll released in March showed that 64% of Americans favor lifting sanctions against Cuba, and 72% want to see expanded travel and trade with the island.
  • A February Gallup poll showed that 59% of Americans favor ending the embargo.
  • A February FAU poll shows that 79% of Hispanics in the U.S. support re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba.
  • An AP poll in February found that 60% of Americans want the U.S. to lift the embargo.
  • A January Wall Street Journal poll showed that 60% of Americans approve of President Obama’s December 2014 announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic ties.
  • A Washington Post-ABC poll in December showed 68% support for ending the embargo.
  • A poll conducted by CBS in December found 54% approval for re-establishing diplomatic relations with the island.

Senator Menendez,indicted on 14 federal counts, steps aside on Foreign Relations Committee

Senator Robert Menendez has voluntarily relinquished his position as the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after being charged in a fourteen-count indictment for alleged violations including bribery and the denial of “honest services” to his nearly 9 million New Jersey constituents.

According to USA Today, Menendez will be replaced by U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (MD) as he battles the corruption charges brought by U.S. Justice Department prosecutors. Menendez has been a “vocal critic of the White House on its handling of Iran and Cuba,” The Baltimore Sun reported.

Contrasting the Senators’ approaches on Cuba, the National Journal writes: “Unlike Menendez, Cardin has pushed for Congress to ratify and expand upon Obama’s moves to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.”

In wake of the indictment, the New York Times and the Newark Star-Ledger editorial boards called on Menendez to resign his Senate seat. The Newark paper said, “The state needs a respected senator who is focused on his job, not a tarnished defendant who spends his days fending off credible charges of corruption and raising money for his legal defense.”

Menendez, however, promised his supporters in a video released this week, “I will never give up.”


Cuba announces over 300 requests for Mariel investment

Cuba’s government announced this week that is has received over 300 formal requests to invest in the Mariel special economic zone, Prensa Latina reports.

Legislation approving the construction of the Mariel Special Economic Zone was authorized by President Raúl Castro in September 2013. Brazil’s development bank BNDES financed $682 million of the almost $1 billion being spent on the project.

The deep-water port, built by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and managed by Singapore’s PSA International, is designed to process post-Panamax ships, and the port’s four crane cables can load and unload cargo faster than any port in the region, according to Cuba Standard.

Cuba hopes that the port and special development zone will turn into a hub for regional trade, and in doing so attract much-needed hard currency investments. Cuba Standard reports that tens of thousands of containers from Europe and Asia already pass through the port on a weekly basis.

So far, only three companies have publicly announced that they will be carrying out projects in the Mariel zone, including a German orthopedics manufacturer, a Vietnamese trade and investment conglomerate, and a Mexican meat packing company.

Ebola workers return from West Africa

The last of the over 250 Cuban medical workers who joined international efforts to contain the Ebola epidemic that killed over 10,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea have returned home, Granma reports.

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-Genera Margaret Chan.


Cuba shoots for 50% Internet penetration in five years

A U.S. State Department official told reporters Monday that Cuba’s government hopes to extend Internet access to 50% of Cuban households and to reach 60% mobile phone access by 2020, Reuters reports. “I believe they are extremely eager to do so,” the official said.

Only 5% of Cubans have unfettered access to the Internet. Approximately 20% of Cuba’s population uses the state-run intranet that can only access Cuban websites.

As ABC reports, many Cubans spend hours waiting outside state-run cyber cafés just to check email or log onto Facebook. Using the Internet on the island can cost as much as $5 per hour — a cost few can afford in a country where the average monthly salary is $20.

“They are falling behind, and that’s denying their people access to knowledge and to the opportunity to grow as an economy and as a people, and they’re aware of that,” the State Department official commented. “As long as the Cubans create an environment that’s attractive to investment… and attractive to the delivery of services, I believe those services will reach the island.”

In December, U.S. President Barack Obama announced sweeping changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, significantly easing restrictions on exports of telecommunications products and services.

Last week, a delegation of U.S. diplomats led by Daniel Sepulveda, the U.S. State Department’s international communications coordinator, traveled to Cuba for talks on improving Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure.

First gluten-free bakery established in Havana

A gluten-free bakery, the first in Cuba, will open its doors in the coming weeks exclusively for the use of Cubans with Celiac disease, a genetic disorder that prevents some people from being able to eat gluten, the Cuban News Agency reports.

Luis Carlos Góngora, the director of Cuba’s Provincial Food Industry enterprise, said the bakery will be the first of many that will gradually be introduced across the country for use by Cuba’s Celiac patients.

Recommended Reading

Cuban baseball, standing on second, waits for a sign, Nick Miroff, The Washington Post

“Just as the country’s economy is somewhere between old Soviet orthodoxy and a slow-opening hybrid, Cuba’s baseball guardians say they are adapting to global market forces while trying to preserve their pastime as a source of socialist glory. It’s not at all clear how that is going to work.”

Inside Fidel Castro’s hometown: What next for Cuba?, Georgia Birch, The Telegraph

Birch interviews the citizens of Birán, Cuba, Fidel Castro’s hometown. “Fidel was a rebel at the time rebellion was necessary,” says Muriel Ramirez, who has spent her entire life living next to the farmhouse where Fidel was born. Now, she says, “we need someone to sort out our economy.”

12 Young Cubans Reveal What They Really Think of the US, Travis Mannon, Policymic

Arian, a professional dancer from Santa Clara, says, “I think that the changes are great for Cuba and the U.S. Both will benefit, but only up to a certain point. I don’t think either of us should change our thinking or our politics just because of this simple [economic] change. I think we can reach an arrangement where we can make our economy better while maintaining our thinking and our political views.”

On Cuban isle once home to Americans, a look back and ahead, Milexsy Duran, The Associated Press

As the United States and Cuba work to normalize relations, the dispute over American property confiscated after the 1959 must eventually be addressed. “Contentious issues over lost land, homes and businesses will have to be resolved before the transition is complete,” Duran writes.

The Cuban Money Crisis, Patrick Symmes, Bloomberg

Cuba’s government introduced the Cuban Convertible Peso, pegged to the dollar and initially reserved only for tourists, in 1994 to attract hard currency in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Today, the dual currency system is a drag on the economy and a driver of growing inequality on the island. Returning to a single currency is one of the primary targets of President Raúl Castro’s economic reforms.

10 Things You Didn’t Know You Could Import From Cuba, J. Scott Maberry, The National Law Review

“One aspect of the dramatic shift in U.S. policy toward Cuba that has not been widely reported is a relaxation of the old rule prohibiting imports of most Cuban goods and services,” Maberry writes. Now, Americans can import Cuban jewelry, base metal articles, perfume, and an array of professional services.

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