Hardliners Offer Concessions on Cuba — Concessions to Reality

This week, we want to tell you a story about Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s sudden about-face on President Obama’s decision to drop Cuba from the state sponsors of terror list.

It’s a little “in the weeds,” but it dramatizes how much the debate on Cuba has changed since we learned that Presidents Obama and Castro agreed to restore diplomatic relations.

We begin on January 8 of this year when Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) introduced H.R. 204, the North Korea Sanctions and Diplomatic Non-recognition Act of 2015, to reverse a decision taken by the Bush administration to drop North Korea from the state sponsors list.

To accomplish this result, she wrote legislation which says in part, “Notwithstanding the decision by the Secretary of State on October 11, 2008,” to remove North Korea from the list, Congress was putting them back on the list and re-imposing the sanctions because “the Government of North Korea is a state sponsor of terrorism.”

When she introduced the legislation, no one questioned if Rep. Ros-Lehtinen had the authority to propose it. In fact, the Congressional Record published this definitive statement: “Congress has the power to enact this legislation pursuant to the following: Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution.”

If Rep. Ros-Lehtinen had the power to stick North Korea back on the terror list in January, what could possibly stop her from sticking it to President Obama in April with similar legislation once he decided to remove Cuba from the terror list?

She had ample advanced warning to write the Cuba version of this bill. It was 128 days ago that President Obama ordered a State Department review of Cuba’s terror list designation.

On April 7, when the State Department recommended that Cuba be dropped from the list, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen called out the President for “ignoring the Castro brothers continued policies in support of terrorism by providing safe haven to foreign terrorist organizations and repeated violations of international sanctions.”

Then, on April 14, when the President made his finding, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen released a statement condemning the administration for “rushing to embrace two decrepit tyrants in their twilight,” and concluded, “President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terror list is based on politics and not facts.”

It sounded to us that she was spoiling for a fight. That was until John Hudson left us gob smacked with this eye-popping breaking news report: Congress won’t block Obama from Delisting Cuba on Terror List.

Wait! Is that true? What will Rep. Ros-Lehtinen say about that?

“We can’t undo it,” she told Foreign Policy on Wednesday. “We just got the word from the parliamentarian: It’s a no-go.”

Thinking there must be some mistake, we turned to the Miami Herald, her hometown newspaper; what did she tell them?

“She changed course.” She changed course?

This is what the Herald reported: “Legally, Ros-Lehtinen said, Congress can’t prevent the White House from taking Cuba off the list because not all the statutes that govern designation of a country as a state sponsor of terrorism provide a way for Congress to block a de-listing.”

This is very hard to understand. In January, her “Reinstate North Korea as a terror state” bill had the Constitution on her side. In April, she collects 35 co-sponsors on her “remake Cuba a terror-supporting state” bill, but gets a surprise ruling from the House parliamentarian and “changes course”?

What is this new course? Cuba gets off the terror list without a fight, but she plans to file “broader legislation” that will protect U.S. national security and maintain our advocacy for human rights on the island.

What explains the Congresswoman’s about-face? Was it the parliamentarian or was it the polls? CNN reported today that 59% of Americans approve of the decision to remove Cuba from the terror list, and just 38% disapprove. Maybe it was just politics.

As Christopher Sabatini, a scholar of United States-Cuba relations at Columbia University, told the New York Times, “This was the hard-liners’ white flag. They had been planning to present a piece of legislation in the allotted 45 days to overturn the removal of Cuba from the list, but couldn’t get a majority. Rather than risk looking even more isolated, they abandoned it.”

Earlier this month, the hardliners called the decision to drop Cuba from the list a concession to the Castro dictatorship. That must make their decision to drop the legislation reinstating them a concession to reality.


Governor Cuomo’s trade delegation to Cuba reaches deals on software, medical research

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo led a trade mission to Cuba this week to build relationships between New York businesses and potential Cuban partners that quickly produced agreements on software and medical research, The Guardian reports. Mr. Cuomo is the first U.S. governor to visit the island since sweeping changes in U.S. policy were announced in December.

During the trip, planned and conducted with help from the Center for Democracy in the Americas, Governor Cuomo met with Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Josefina Vidal, the top official for U.S. affairs in Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Archbishop of Havana, and several Cuban small-business owners who have taken advantage of greater opportunities for private enterprise under recent reforms.

The trade mission also brought together CEOs from JetBlue Airlines, MasterCard, Chobani Yogurt, Pfizer, and other prominent New York businesses for meetings with the Minister of Finance, President of the Central Bank, heads of health and technology companies, representatives of the Mariel Port, and other Cuban counterparts.

Two participants in the delegation struck deals during the visit. The Roswell Park Cancer Institute, based in Buffalo, New York, reached an agreement with Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology to begin clinical trials of a lung cancer vaccine being developed by the Cuban firm.

“This agreement establishes a collaboration between our two institutions to develop a cancer vaccine in lung cancer,” Roswell CEO Candace Johnson said. “We are excited to take this to the United States to treat patients.”

Infor Global Solutions, a global provider of enterprise software based in New York City, reached agreements with Cuban information technology companies deSoft and Softel for integration of healthcare data, and the company also agreed to work with Cuba’s University of Information Sciences to provide software training.

“We were surprised and impressed with the level of technology and expertise they have in healthcare technology,” said Infor CEO Charles Phillips.

Governor Cuomo, who expressed his desire to increase trade between New York and Cuba, despite the obstacles posed by the embargo, also raised concerns about Cuba’s human rights record in meetings with Cuba’s Vice-President and at the Foreign Ministry.

“Isolation has not worked,” Governor Cuomo said in a roundtable discussion with New York and Cuban industry leaders. “Engagement and full relationships [are] the best way to have a dialogue on the issues that we agree with and on the issues that we disagree about.”

NBA visits Cuba for four-day training camp

Representatives from the National Basketball Association visited Cuba this week for a four-day training camp designed to promote the sport on the island, the AP reports. This is the first visit by a U.S. professional sports league since Presidents Obama and Castro announced that the two countries would seek to normalize diplomatic relations.

An NBA press release said that two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash, NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo, and WNBA Legend Ticha Penicheiro traveled to Cuba to lead the four-day camp with the Cuban Men’s and Women’s National Teams.

“As you know, basketball is a sport that can connect people, give them a bridge for cultural change,” Mutumbo said. “I’m glad that we’re about to build this bridge that will help so many young men and women here in Cuba to develop the game of basketball.”

The NBA is one of several U.S.-based sports leagues that have sought to engage with Cuba since President Obama’s announcement in 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. Rob Manfred, the Commissioner of Major League Baseball, said Thursday that he is hoping the League will play exhibition games in Cuba next year.


Cuba holds municipal elections, two opposition candidates run and concede defeat

On Sunday, some 7.5 million Cubans — including former president Fidel Castro — cast ballots in local elections to determine members of municipal assemblies charged with neighborhood-level tasks like street repairs and trash pickup, Granma reports.

Candidates for municipal positions are nominated by a show of hands in local meetings just weeks before the elections take place. In Havana, two candidates who are not members of the Communist Party — Hildebrando Chaviano, an independent journalist, and Yuniel Lopez, a member of a dissident political party — were nominated in what could be taken as a sign of growing tolerance for dissent on the island.

Both were defeated in the general elections. “The vote was clean,” said Chaviano. “The people don’t want change. They still want revolution.”

Municipal elections are the only time when Cuban citizens can directly elect public officials. According to the BBC, “Municipal assemblies… nominate candidates for half the representatives on provincial assemblies. The provincial assemblies then nominate candidates for half the members of the National Assembly, which elects Cuba’s ruling Council of State, which in turn elects the president. The other half of the candidates at municipal and provincial level is selected by a government electoral commission, ensuring continued Communist Party control.”

Election campaigns are illegal in Cuba, where voters instead rely on official candidate biographies to make their decision. According to the AP, “Chaviano’s government-edited official candidate biography described him as a counter-revolutionary, and mentioned that he had taken classes at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Lopez’s biography contained similar disparaging information.”

“We have to take advantage of the moment,” Chaviano said before the election. “The same as Obama wanted, we’re going to move things a bit … No one from the government was expecting us to be nominated and even less that we would become candidates.”

“Some people say that there’s fear in Cuba, and I say that people have lost a lot of their fear,” said Lopez. “I already feel like I’ve won.”

The Economist reports that voter turnout — 88% –was down 6% compared to 2012. Voting in Cuba is not mandatory, “but voters know that if they do not show up, it is likely to count against them — in university applications, for instance.”

In addition to gradual economic reforms, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro has spoken of making changes to Cuba’s electoral system, but few details have surfaced about what those reforms may be.

Last month, Juventud Rebelde, one of Cuba’s main daily state-run newspapers, published the results of an online forum that asked readers to weigh in on Cuba’s electoral process. In responding to readers’ questions, the newspaper announced that the government was working on the enactment of a new “Electoral Law,” without giving more details.

In January, the government announced that the 614-member National Assembly would move back into the Capitolio, the building that held Cuba’s Congress before the 1959 revolution. Some in the U.S. have interpreted that announcement as a sign that Cuban authorities are looking to modernize the relationship between Cuba’s government and its people.


FARC and Colombia resume peace dialogue

Negotiators from Colombia’s government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) re-convened in Havana on Saturday just days after guerrillas attacked and killed 11 Colombian soldiers, the EFE reports.

Peace talks between the FARC and Colombia’s government have been underway in Havana since 2012, and the opposing sides have reached tentative agreements on a plan to bring an end to the 50 year-old civil conflict, which has taken some 220,000 lives and displaced 5.3 million people. Cuba has earned international praise for promoting peace between the government and the rebels.

Last week, Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos said that he had instructed military leaders to resume air raids on FARC outposts after an attack by the Marxist guerrillas left 11 Colombian soldiers dead. FARC negotiators blamed the attack on the atmosphere of insecurity they say prevails due to President Santos’ unwillingness to enter a bilateral ceasefire.

The attack last week represents the greatest challenge the two-year peace process has faced so far. President Santos briefly suspended the talks in November 2014 after guerrillas kidnapped an army general, but the general was quickly released and peace talks resumed the following week.

Adam Isaacson, who has been covering the Colombia peace process at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), writes, “This is shaping up to be the most damaging crisis that the FARC talks have faced in their two and a half years.” He said the best way to avoid similar attacks is “to agree to a bilateral cease-fire with a credible, impartial verification mechanism.” More coverage of the peace talks is available at WOLA’s blog, ColombiaPeace.org.

Pope Francis to visit Cuba on way to U.S.

The Vatican has confirmed that Pope Francis will visit Cuba before he travels to the United States this September, just months after he helped broker an historic agreement between the United States and Cuba, the AP reports.

Last fall, Pope Francis made personal pleas to both President Obama and President Raul Castro to resolve the cases of prisoners in both countries, which were major stumbling blocks to improved relations between the United States and Cuba.

In announcing his intention last December to normalize relations with Cuba, President Obama credited the Pontiff for his efforts. “In particular, I want to thank His Holiness Pope Francis, whose moral example shows us the importance of pursuing the world as it should be, rather than simply settling for the world as it is.”

Francis, the first Pope elected from Latin America, welcomed the U.S.-Cuban breakthrough. “The Holy Father wishes to express his warm congratulations for the historic decision taken by the Governments of the United States of America and Cuba to establish diplomatic relations, with the aim of overcoming, in the interest of the citizens of both countries, the difficulties which have marked their recent history,” the Vatican said in a statement.

At the time, a White House official characterized the importance of the Cuba issue to President Obama and Pope Francis’ relationship. “Cuba was a topic of discussion that got as much attention as anything else the two of them discuss.”

In 1998, Pope Francis, who was then Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the coadjutor archbishop of Buenos Aires, accompanied Pope John Paul II on his historic visit to Cuba. Following that trip, Bergoglio wrote, “The motives which led the United States to impose the embargo have been entirely superseded in the present time.”

Spanish firm will be first to build in Mariel zone

Hotelsa, a Spanish company that makes food and beverage products for hotels, will be the first foreign firm to build a factory in the Agrifoods section of the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone (ZEDM), EFE reports. Construction of the factory is expected to begin in June, and the first phase will be completed in early 2016.

In 2013, President Castro approved legislation authorizing the construction of the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM). The zone formally opened in 2014 and Cuba’s government reported in April 2015 that it has received over 300 formal requests for projects from an array of international companies.

The zone’s infrastructure was built primarily by the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, with $1.27 billion in financing from Brazil’s government and the Brazilian Development Bank.

The 179.7 square mile ZEDM covers six municipalities in the Artemisa province, 25 miles from Havana. The area has been divided into eleven zones, including a technology park, manufacturing area, agricultural processing center, oil service center, logistics zone, and nature reserve.

The ZEDM’s crown jewel is TC Mariel, S.A., a modern container terminal operated by Singapore-based PSA International and designed to receive post-Panamax ships.

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.

Cuba, EU foreign ministers meet in Brussels

Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez Parilla, met with his European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, in Brussels this week, to make progress towards completion of a Cuban-EU Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement by the end of 2015.

Foreign Minister Rodriguez said, “I feel we have achieved progress, that we have moved forward in a mutually respectful and constructive spirit on a reciprocal basis in order to strengthen the relations and comprehensive cooperation between the EU and Cuba.”

The two ministers met in Havana last month.

Ramon Jauregui, a Minister in the European Parliament who chairs of the Delegation to the Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly, highlighted the potential outcomes of Cuba’s ongoing conversations with the EU and the U.S.

“I think Cuba’s opening to democracy and full respect for human rights will come largely through doors opened by these agreements with the United States and Europe: technological doors, economic doors, and the exchange of people. All this will probably mean that Cuban socialism also will have to become more democratic.”

Latin American Development Bank to explore Cuba membership

The Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) is planning a two-day conference in Havana at the end of April, the Miami Herald reports. CAF president Enrique García says he plans to discuss the possibility of Cuba joining the bank, which is the only multilateral development bank owned by developing countries.

García said, “The new U.S.-Cuba relationship obviously facilitates the opportunity to do things. We are very pleased to see the way the situation is turning out. It’s very positive for Cuba, for hemispheric relations.”

In contrast to the InterAmerican Development Bank, the CAF does not require members to also join the Organization of American States, which Cuba has not been a part of since it was suspended in 1962. The OAS lifted the suspension in 2009, but Cuba has not expressed interest in joining the organization,

“Cuba’s admission to other international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, however, is much more problematic,” the Miami Herald writes. “Not only does the Helms-Burton Act require the United States to oppose Cuban admission to such international institutions but it also requires the United States to reduce its funding to them if Cuba is admitted over U.S. objections.

Recommended Reading

Chesimard’s status should not affect Cuba-U.S. détente, New Jersey Star-Ledger Editorial Board

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has criticized President Obama’s intention to remove Cuba from the state sponsors of terrorism list because Cuba has yet to extradite JoAnne Chesimard, who was convicted for the murder of a New Jersey state trooper and fled to Cuba in 1984, where she was granted political asylum.

But, the Editorial Board argues, “One cannot connect Chesimard to a state-sponsored terrorist attack or consider her a threat to the U.S…. So it goes without saying that any country on the Sponsor of Terrorism list should first be guilty of sponsoring terrorism. Otherwise, it’s just a political device for demonizing regimes that we can’t overturn.”

The editorial goes on to say, “the old relationship didn’t lead to Chesimard’s capture for 32 years – just as it hasn’t helped Cuba capture CIA-sponsored terrorists who blew up its jets, killed its people, bombed its hotels, orchestrated invasions, and tried, ceaselessly, to kill its president. And the new relationship may not, either.”

For Cuba’s young people, the time is now, Douglas Volk, The Boston Globe

Douglas Volk reflects on his 12-day journey through Cuba and the impressive people he met, writing, “Despite the hurdles, optimism is in the air, especially among the young. Everywhere we went, we heard about dreams of prosperity.”

These 5 Facts Explain the Economic Upsides of an Opened Cuba, Ian Bremmer, Time Magazine

Ian Bremmer lays out the various economic opportunities for the United States and Cuba with a more open relationship, including tourism and increased remittances.

Amid optimism, US-Cuba relations challenge baseball players, Ricardo Zuniga, The Associated Press

“Players in Cuba talk openly about wanting to play in the United States, commenting in ways that used to be considered sinful by authorities who severely punished big league dreams,” Zuniga writes. Cuban baseball players in the United States are intently watching the negotiations between the two nations, hoping that they will soon be able to visit their loved ones that still live on the island.

The Pipeline: How baseball-mad Cuba develops top-tier talent, Anne-Marie Garcia, The Associated Press

Cuba’s baseball academies, originally intended to bolster the national team, seem to be backfiring as more athletes leave for the United States. “As more Cuban talent leaves the country, that nation’s academies have become a sort of unintended farm system for big league teams, which scout the players mostly during international tournaments with the national team.”

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