Surprisingly Substantive Summit

If the past inevitably was prologue, Western Hemisphere leaders attending the 7th Summit of the Americas in Panama could simply mail (or email) in the predictable results.

The U.S. President would brush aside criticisms of having ignored the region, yet again. He’d lecture the attendees on reducing deficits and trade barriers and raising democratic standards, and pose awkwardly with his counterparts, perhaps in a gaily decorated Guayabera, before rounding up the Secret Service and jumping aboard Air Force One.

This year the Summit is different. It’s not a complete departure from the past, but a welcome break with what has come before.

President Obama entered the Summit Friday morning having created a different context. The United States and Cuba are on the cusp of restoring diplomatic relations. He welcomed the chance to sit with Raul Castro at the table with the rest of our hemisphere’s leaders. His administration has deported two of the most notorious Salvadorans who can now face responsibility for heinous human rights violations during their country’s civil war. He drew the line last fall on Congressional inaction and used his executive authority to reform U.S. immigration policy, and followed up with a significant aid package for the region.

One misstep that should not be minimized is the administration’s decision to slap sanctions on seven Venezuelans, claiming that violations of human rights and the democratic process in their country threatened U.S. national security. At least it provided a useful reminder of the gap that still exists between the region’s adherence to the principle of sovereignty and our country’s belief in the universality of human rights and consequent self-assigned role of enforcer.

Cuba walks on the Summit stage for the first time, not as a sidekick in a unique set of negotiations, but as a regional actor in a complicated and nuanced place itself. Cuba is playing a central role in peace talks which hold the promise this year of settling the civil war between Colombia and the FARC. It joins a Summit largely united behind its greatest ally, Venezuela, and against the United States on the issue of sanctions. But it also finds itself in a region collectively hobbled by a slowing economy and declining prices for oil and natural resources.

For the moment, the Summit is a milestone for Cuba’s diplomacy and Raul Castro’s leadership. Looking forward, however, Cuba must find a place less defined by Cold War hostilities of the past, and more focused on how it can pass along a viable economy to a next generation that is committed to staying on the island and keeping its values relevant and alive. Fist fights on the streets of Panama City over competing definitions of “civil society” are not the way to the future.

There are real issues — compelling and important — on the conference table that need to be considered outside the Cuba-U.S. context. “Prosperity with equity, and the challenge of cooperation in the Americas,” may be a mediocre slogan, but it is a reasonably fair statement of what might bring the North and South together. Summits rarely end with decisive results, but this one could be heading in the right direction.

There is every indication that Cuba will finally come off the U.S. state sponsors of terror list. When this happens, the restoration of diplomatic relations will not be far behind. We can soon count the days before a Cuban raises his country’s flag above his nation’s embassy on 16th Street in Washington, and our country’s flag flutters in the breeze off the Malecón in Havana. These vivid images will illustrate how President Obama’s belief in engagement is being vindicated by results.


Summit of the Americas underway in Panama

The seventh Summit of the Americas is underway in Panama City. The meeting became historic from the moment the leaders of Cuba and the United States sat down with the other heads of state from throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Cuba, which had been barred from participating since the Summit first convened in Miami in 1994, quickly moved from its status of exclusion to the center of attention:

  • Cuba remains in negotiations with the United States on issues connected to restoring diplomatic relations. President Obama had built expectations that an agreement would be reached and embassies would open before the Summit, but progress between the two sides slowed in recent weeks, and last minute diplomacy visible in Venezuela and Panama City highlighted the fact that a deal had not been struck.
  • Cuba remains on the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list. On Wednesday, though, the State Department announced that it was sending a recommendation to President Obama that Cuba be removed from the list. President Obama is expected to act on that recommendation as early as Saturday.
  • Cuba’s alliance with Venezuela, as well as the general principle of non-interference in a state’s internal affairs so basic to Latin American history and governance, is at the fore. The U.S. has been forced to defend the sanctions it has imposed on seven Venezuelan officials, even as U.S. official walked back from the boilerplate language in President Obama’s order asserting human rights violations in the Bolivarian Republic threaten the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.
  • Tensions between U.S. conceptions of universal rights and Cuba’s national sovereignty erupted into violence on the streets of Panama City, with pro-government protestors intimidating and engaging in violence — captured on film in front of the Cuban embassy — against Cuban dissidents.  Berta Soler, Manuel Cuesta Morúa, and Guillermo Fariñas were among them; they arrived at the Summit with the support of the United States to participate in a civil society dialogue. While the video evidence does not reveal who triggered the violence, the confrontation took place after pro-government Cubans protested the failure of Summit organizers to provide them with proper credentials, despite attending at the invitation of their government. They also expressed shock that Felix Rodriguez, the former CIA operative blamed for the killing of Che Guevera, was in attendance. In the U.S., opponents of President Obama’s new Cuba policy used the violence to denounce the diplomatic opening.

Earlier in the week, when Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez met to discuss the status of diplomacy, it was the highest level meeting between U.S. and Cuban diplomats in over fifty years.  On Friday morning, a White House official told reporters that President Obama and President Castro spoke by phone on Wednesday night. The leaders will share the stage at the Summit on Friday, and a face-to-face meeting and handshake are expected to take place, before the meeting ends on Saturday.

Supreme Court rejects Alan Gross Lawsuit

The U.S. Supreme Court has decided not to hear Alan Gross’ appeal of a $60 million lawsuit that accuses the federal government of neglecting to inform Gross of the risks of working as a government agent in Cuba, NBC News reports. The decision upholds a federal appeals court ruling from 2014 that the U.S. government has sovereign immunity when the damage to a plaintiff happens outside the United States.

Alan Gross was working as a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) when he was arrested during his fifth trip to the island in 2009 for engaging in activities funded by the regime change provisions of the Helms Burton law. A Cuban court charged Gross with “Acts Against the Territorial Integrity of the State,” and Gross’ imprisonment became the primary stumbling block in better U.S.-Cuba relations.

In 2012, while Gross was in prison, his lawyer sued the federal government on his behalf for failing to prepare Gross properly for covert work in Cuba.

Soon after the arrest, Cuba’s government demonstrated a desire to negotiate Gross’ release. An agreement nearly materialized in 2010, but the deal was botched by USAID as pro-embargo hardliners continued to carry out Helms-Burton-funded “pro-democracy” programs despite U.S. negotiators’ reassurance that such programs would end.

In December 2014, as part of a larger deal between Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro to re-establish ties between the U.S. and Cuba, Cuba released Alan Gross on humanitarian grounds and the U.S. exchanged three jailed Cuban agents for a Sarraff Trujillo, a Cuban-born CIA spy that had been in a Cuban prison for 20 years for espionage.

Gross and his wife reached a confidential settlement in 2013 with Development Alternatives, INC, the USAID contractor that sent Gross to Cuba. After he returned to the U.S. in December 2014, the couple reached a separate $3.2 million settlement with USAID.

Latest poll shows continued support for engaging Cuba

An MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist poll released on Wednesday found that 59% of Americans approved President Obama and President Castro’s decision to normalize diplomatic relations, as do 56% of Latino voters. As we reported last week, a series of independent polls released since last December has shown overwhelming support for engaging with the island and lifting the embargo.

Orlando Airport to begin offering Cuba flights

Orlando International Airport will begin offering weekly flights to Havana starting July 8, the Orlando Sentinel reports. The round trip flight, which will operate every Wednesday under the coordination of Tampa-based charter company Island Travel & Tours, will cost $429 per ticket.

The only flights currently operating between the U.S. and Cuba are scheduled by charter companies used predominantly by Cuban-Americans returning to the island to visit their families. The new Department of Treasury regulations released in January allow commercial airlines to begin offering regularly scheduled flights to the island, but such flights will not take place until a civil aviation agreement is reached between the countries — a process that could take as long as a year.

In March, Cuba Travel Services, a charter company with offices in Florida and California, announced that it would begin offering the first weekly flights from JFK International Airport in New York to Havana.

NBA to host first-ever basketball camp in Cuba

The National Basketball Association announced this week it would team up with the International Basketball Federation to host a basketball development camp in Havana in late April, according to an NBA press release.

According to the release, “Two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, and WNBA Legend Ticha Penicheiro will lead the four-day camp with the Cuban Men’s and Women’s National Teams, and community outreach projects in association with the Cuban sports ministry, INDER, and the Cuban Basketball Federation (CBF).”

“We’ve seen the bridges that basketball can build between cultures,” NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum said. “We look forward to sharing the values of our game with Cuban youth and learning together through the common language of sports.”

Joining Nash, Mutombo, and Penicheiro are Orlando Magic Head Coach James Borrego, Utah Jazz Head Coach Quin Snyder, Utah Jazz Assistant Coach Brad Jones, USA Basketball Youth Development Coach Don Showalter, and Director of Basketball Academy of the Americas Victor Ojeda.

According to the Sun Sentinel, a team official from the Miami Heat was upset by the decision. “The NBA never consulted with us. This was undertaken unilaterally,” an unnamed Heat executive told the Miami Herald on Wednesday. “The minute we found out, we registered our vehement objection to the league office. Neither the Heat nor any personnel will be participating.”

The NBA is not the first U.S. sports entity to seek engagement with Cuba since President Obama’s announcement last December. The North American Soccer League’s New York Cosmos announced last month they would be traveling to Cuba to play Cuba’s national soccer team in June. Also in March, the head of Major League Baseball, Rob Manfred, said publicly that he is hoping to play exhibition games in Cuba next year.


Canadian bank considering expanding to Cuba

Toronto-based Scotiabank is considering opening a branch in Cuba, the Wall Street Journal reports. “Canada has 70 years of diplomatic relationships with Cuba,” bank CEO Brian Porter said Thursday. “And we’re the pre-eminent bank of the Caribbean, so it is logical for me to go there.”

Porter recently visited Cuba to explore opportunities for financing the sale of agricultural and medical products to Cuban firms. Canadian companies that do business with Cuba are banned from the U.S. financial system, and the company’s executives are not allowed to enter the United States.

“Scotiabank once had a notable presence in Cuba. The Canadian bank first entered the country in early 1906 when it opened a branch in Havana. It eventually grew its footprint to eight branches across the country,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “But in 1960, the Cuban Government nationalized all banks on the island. That prompted Scotiabank to withdraw its services from all eight locations before its Cuban businesses was transferred to Banco Nacional de Cuba.”


Cuba is only country in Latin America to reach UNESCO primary education goals

Cuba is the only country in Latin America to have achieved all of the “Education for All” goals set by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2000, according to a UNESCO press release issued this week. The goals are (1) expanding early childhood education, (2) compulsory primary education, (3) expanding adult education, (4) improving adult literacy by 50%, (5) eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education, and (6) improving teacher quality and setting measurable learning outcomes.

Thirteen percent of Cuba’s GDP was dedicated to education last year, Prensa Latina reports. In the U.S., World Bank data shows that only 5.4% of the GDP was spent on education in 2010, the last time such data was made available.

State media to publish section for sale and purchase of private goods and services

Although it sounds like an oxymoron, Cuban consumers will soon be reading classified ads.

Cuba’s National Information Agency will begin offering “Ofertas,” an online and print publication listing goods and services provided by entrepreneurs, cooperatives, and state businesses, Granma reports. The publication will be 16 pages long in full color, and 60,000 copies of the first edition will be circulated.

For years, black market entrepreneurs have circulated classified ad listings in pamphlets and online to bring the products and services of self-employed Cubans to customers who have been unable to find the goods they need in state-run stores.

“This project began with the intention to create a reliable, legal, and attractive space for readers and advertisers,” the Granma article says. “Both in terms of the quality of the contents and the prices, which are very competitive in comparison to other such publications available in the country.”

Obama, Cuba’s health and education systems enjoy higher approval than Castros in rare poll

A public opinion poll conducted in Cuba by Bendixen & Amandi reveals that Cubans’ approval of the decision made by President Obama and President Castro to re-establish diplomatic ties is nearly unanimous.

Head to head, however, President Raul and former President Fidel Castro fare badly in comparisons with President Obama in the minds of Cuban respondents.

Only 47% of Cubans see President Raúl Castro positively, while 48% view him negatively. His brother and former president Fidel Castro enjoys only a 44% approval rating, while 50% of Cubans view him negatively. By comparison, 80% of Cubans see U.S. President Barack Obama in a positive light.

Seventy percent said they wanted to start their own business. In response to the question “what do the people of Cuba need most at this time,” 72% said improved economy or quality of life. Twenty four percent said that Cuba most needs a more open political system.

The data were collected in in 1,200 in-person interviews without the approval of Cuba’s government. The methodology is more deeply described in this Washington Post article.

“While some believe the Cuban government privately conducts focus groups and surveys, there are not regular public polls. So the Univision poll provides a rare glimpse of Cuban opinion at a historic time, given the changing relations with the United States,” the Washington Post reports. “The survey was conducted… by local Cuban residents who were trained in survey interviewing. Thirty-nine percent of households where interviews were attempted completed the survey.”

Fidel Castro makes first public appearance in over a year

Fidel Castro met a group of visitors from Venezuela last week, according to a report from Cubadebate, which also published pictures of the former president shaking hands with visitors through the window of his vehicle. This is Castro’s first public appearance since January 2014, when he attended the opening of a cultural center in Havana run by the artist Kcho, who made headlines last month by opening the first free, publicly available Wi-Fi center in the country.

Fidel Castro has mostly stayed out of the public eye since he handed the presidency over to his brother, Raúl Castro, after falling ill in 2006. He has written occasional columns in the state newspaper Granma. In January, over a month after President Obama announced that the U.S. would be easing sanctions on Cuba, Fidel Castro wrote an article granting the rapprochement lukewarm approval and silencing rumors of his death that had been circulating in social media.

In March, Cubadebate published photographs of Castro meeting with the five Cuban intelligence agents known as the “Cuban Five” in his home.

Recommended Reading

Airbnb Awaits Boom in Cuba Tourism, Tom Risen, U.S. News & World Report 

“A move by Airbnb to launch its services in Cuba shows the island nation is attracting attention from the tech and tourism industries, but any investment will prove largely symbolic until the Obama administration completes its goal of normalizing U.S. trade and diplomatic relations with the communist dictatorship,” Risen writes. The company is looking to work with established casa particulares, private homes that are available for tourists to rent.

Coding for a More Open Cuba, Kejal Vyas, The Wall Street Journal

As Cuba and the United States work towards normalized relations, citizens of both countries are excited by the possibility of increased internet access and improved telecommunication services for the island. U.S. engineers and entrepreneurs will convene in California this month to participate in the Code for Cuba “hackathon,” hoping to provide greater connectivity and access to technology in Cuba while also remaining within the confines of domestic law.

U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, but what about Cuba-Cuba, Jaime Hamre, Americas Quarterly

Hamre, a former fellow at CDA who is now in Panama reporting on the Summit of the Americas, comments on the friction between pro- and anti-government Cubans that has taken place on summit’s sidelines. “As the leaders of almost every nation in the Americas arrive in Panama, this opening act has set the stage for the rest of the summit — appropriately centered on the ‘challenge of cooperation in the Americas.’ One can only hope the long-awaited U.S.-Cuba thaw will set the example for Cuba’s own internal reconciliation.”

We have three recommendations from the New York Times:

For Eager Cubans, Big Opening in U.S. Relations Is More Like a Crack, Randal C. Archibold

“In theory, the new rules [announced by the U.S. in January] would allow for support of small business like hers. But business experts say that a lack of clarity on the new rules, lingering questions about financial transactions and remaining provisions of the longstanding trade embargo – coupled with the Cubans’ slow approach to making deals – have made the big opening more like a crack.”

Cuban Expectations in a New Era, The Editorial Board

“Whether, and how quickly, [Cubans’] aspirations for greater prosperity and for better communications within Cuba and the rest of the world are met will depend largely on their own government. One change is already clear: the Obama administration’s gamble on engaging with Cuba has made it increasingly hard for its leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the United States.”

Cuba’s Wildlife on Notice, Constance Casey

Allowing more Americans to visit Cuba may be good for the island’s economy; however, it may also put Cuba’s wildlife at risk. “Cuba’s long isolation, difficult for people living there, has been a blessing for other living creatures,” Casey writes.

And three recommendations from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business:

Tripping Over Wires: The Risks of Doing Business in Cuba

Panelists at the University of Pennsylvania’s Cuba Opportunity Summit argue that companies should approach recent business opportunities in Cuba with caution. Firms are encouraged to research compliance programs, corruption risks, and other foreign competitors in Cuba’s markets. “Like any emerging market or any new market that a company wants to go into, there’s always opportunity and there are threats for businesses,” Ware stated.

How Artists are Creating a Model for Cuba’s Entrepreneurial Future

“The new generation of entrepreneurs emerging in Cuba owes a debt of gratitude to Cuban artists who pioneered economic self-determination in the country,” asserts art collector Boris Hirmas. The expansion of small businesses in Cuba can trace its roots back to economic reforms from the early 1990s that encouraged the creation of internationally admired Cuban art.

Foreign Investment in Cuba: Will ‘Serious Changes’ open a Floodgate?

Cuba is increasingly opening itself to foreign investment, with hopes that it could attract $2 billion to $2.5 billion per year. As U.S. companies concurrently look to expand their business to Cuba, panelists at the Cuba Opportunity Summit note that even though navigating the island’s regulations on foreign direct investment can be difficult, “companies that take careful consideration will find an unexpected stability in which to thrive.”

Recommended Viewing

EEUU: recomiendan retirar a Cuba de lista de paí­ses terroristas, Telesur

Telesur interviews CDA executive director Sarah Stephens about the U.S. State Department’s recommendation to President Obama that Cuba be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list.

Cuba on deck?, ESPN

The number of Cuban baseball players defecting to the United States has increased in the past five years, with no indication that it will slow down without serious efforts for reform. In this interview, Orioles player, Henry Urrutia, who left Cuba for the United States four years ago, talks about his decision to leave the island and his journey to the United States.

Recommended Listening

Communist Cuba Once Produced Capitalist MBAs – And Needs To Graduate A Lot More, Tim Padgett, WLRN

Tim Padgett interviews Guennady Rodriguez, one of only a small number of Cubans that has received an MBA in Cuba. Between the years of 2010 and 2013, President Raúl Castro allowed aspiring entrepreneurs to work towards an MBA in the hopes that more private businesses would provide a necessary boost to Cuba’s economy.

Correction: An earlier version of this post erroneously reported that the Island Travel & Tours flights from Orlando to Havana cost $249 per ticket. The actual cost per ticket is $429. We regret the error.

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