Progress vs Congress, Lead Them Not Into Temptation

There’s a lot to like about what has happened since Presidents Obama and Castro declared their intentions to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.

Forget that stuff the hardliners say that President Obama is the worst negotiator since Neville Chamberlain, and start by remembering what Cuba’s government agreed to do and has already done.

As a result of the December 17th agreement, the Cuban government freed 53 political prisoners. They released a spy who worked for the CIA who they’d held for nearly two decades. They agreed to joint talks on human rights and have already met with U.S. diplomats to develop a framework for those negotiations.

They’re acting on a pledge to increase Internet access and cut costs while opening hundreds of new cyber cafés that will be available to public. Direct phone service between our countries is being restored. Alan Gross is home and, as Southwest Airlines might say, he’s free to roam around our country.

And there’s more progress in the offing as diplomats on both sides work on opening embassies, exchanging ambassadors, and forging potential agreements on matters from civil aviation and telecommunications to extraditing fugitives from justice in both countries.

The Cuban people like what has happened so far. Changes in U.S. policy are already responsible for an uptick in travel by Americans to the island, generating more business for the private entrepreneurs who run the growing number of restaurants, beds-and-breakfasts, and tourism-related services, like the taxi and chauffeur company operated by our friends at Nostalgicar. An economic forecast published by Translating Cuba estimates that this new activity will produce an additional increase in Cuba’s GDP by a half-percent.

Small wonder that a Fusion/Univision poll conducted in Cuba last month found that “A near-unanimous majority — 97 percent — say that better relationship with the U.S. would benefit Cuba.”

Xinhua, the official press agency of the People’s Republic of China, thinks so too. In a news analysis it published this week, Xinhua said, “As Havana aims to normalize relations with Washington, it is inevitable for the island state to carry out political and economic reforms.”

The enthusiasm for closer relations among Cubans is matched by measurably growing interest among Americans to visit the island.  Sojern, a marketing firm in San Francisco, found a 360% increase in on-line searches for Cuba travel the day after the December 17th announcement. The survey also found that online searches for travel to Cuba from the United States “shot up 184% in the first three months of this year,” compared with the same period in 2014.

Sojern’s findings are consistent with another poll released this week by YouGov and financed by Airbnb, which began offering rentals in Cuba in March. The survey, conducted April 23-24, found that thirty percent of Americans are planning or would consider a holiday to Cuba within the next two years. Among Latino Americans, the number reaches 40%.

With Airbnb open for business in Cuba, and with robust demand for existing charter services kindling a growing desire among U.S. airlines for regularly scheduled commercial routes, contact between the people of the United States and Cuba is likely to blossom.

That is precisely what U.S. religious leaders are praying for.  The promise of closer relations is already being fulfilled by pastors from places like Utah, who are seeing the beginnings of a religious renaissance on the island.

The visual evidence of their pastoral work is compelling. Is it possible, however, that off-camera the Episcopal Diocese of Utah’s Bishop and ten other Episcopal Bishops also made time for “snorkeling, cigar factory tours, salsa dancing lessons, and other obvious tourist activities”?

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25) seems to think so. Diaz-Balart, who serves as chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee which funds the U.S. Transportation Department, won approval this week for provisions blocking the new flights and ferry cruises to Cuba made possible by President Obama’s reforms. We don’t expect the bill to pass both Houses of Congress, and it would likely face a presidential veto if it did.

Nonetheless, Diaz-Balart called President Obama’s lifting of restrictions on people-to-people travel “an obvious attempt to circumvent the tourism ban.” He went on to say, “allowing cruises to dock in Cuba would violate both the spirit and the letter of U.S. law.”

“Under these circumstances,” he declared, “Congress cannot remain idle.”

Yep. With so many things moving in the right direction, and with U.S. companies now eying Cuba as an export market for fertilizers, now would be just the time for Congress to shake off its lethargy and act.

God help us.


Congress goes uphill on trade, downhill on travel

Last week, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (ND) and Sen. John Boozman (AR) introduced legislation to allow private banks and companies to offer credit for the sale of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. The bipartisan Agriculture Export Expansion Act was cosponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (NM) and Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ).

Arkansas Senator John Boozman said in a statement, “Cuba represents a remarkable opportunity for American farmers, and it’s also an opportunity for Cubans to gain access to safe, affordable, and high quality agriculture products from the United States.”

American farmers and medical producers have been permitted to export to Cuba on a cash-only basis since the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act was passed in 2000 under President Clinton.

In December, when President Obama announced his agreement with President Castro to restore diplomatic relations, he also unveiled several U.S. policy reforms that included an easing of financial regulations that had hampered U.S. agriculture sales to Cuba. But, many barriers remain for greater trade, including the ban on the extension of credit to Cuban importers.

“While farmers in North Dakota and all across the country dedicate their lives to feeding folks around the world, we have to make sure our producers have the opportunities they need to get their products to market,” said Sen. Heitkamp. “Especially in light of our country’s new policy toward Cuba, there isn’t any reason why Cuba should buy its black beans, peas, and lentils from Canada instead of North Dakota.”

The legislation earned praise from Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas’s Governor, who called the measure “a good step.” A spokesman for Tyson Foods, Dan Fogleman, added: “We’ve been doing business with Cuba under the existing rules, and we welcome any reforms that will help simplify these transactions in the future.”

While Senators sought to increase momentum behind President Obama’s trade reforms, hardliners in the U.S. House acted to tamp down travel by cutting funds in a 2016 fiscal year budget bill.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee that provides funds to the U.S. Department of Transportation, introduced legislation to block any new licenses for commercial air travel from the U.S. to Cuba.

His 156-page bill, approved by his Subcommittee on Wednesday, would stop any “new” flights to Cuba that weren’t in operation prior to March 31, 2015. This would have the effect of barring the expansion of existing charter services and thwarting the potential for regularly scheduled commercial flights once Cuba and the U.S. renew their lapsed civil aviation agreement.

In January, a bill to restore the freedom to travel to Cuba for all Americans was introduced in the U.S. House by Representative Mark Sanford (SC-1) and cosponsored by a bipartisan coalition of supporters. A companion measure was introduced in the U.S. Senate by Jeff Flake (AZ).

Commerce Secretary plans business delegation to Cuba

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker plans to lead a business delegation to Cuba once diplomatic relations are restored, the Miami Herald reports.

“Companies are already going,” Pritzker told the Miami Herald. “You’re seeing people going to visit. That’s because, as I said, there’s enormous excitement — excitement from the entrepreneurial community in Cuba and excitement here in the United States about that. I think they deserve our support.”

Pritzker was a keynote speaker at a forum held last month in Tampa to discuss emerging opportunities for Tampa-Cuba trade. “What we’ve seen is enormous eagerness by the Cuban people as well as by the American people and American businesses to see more,” she said at the forum. “But this is going to take time. This is not something we can get done overnight.”

Earlier this month, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo led a trade mission to Cuba which produced agreements on running a clinical trial for a lung cancer vaccine developed on the island, as well as an enterprise software solution to facilitate the exchange of health care information within Cuba and with Cuba’s Caribbean neighbors.

CDA participated in planning the trip and worked with the Governor and delegation members during their visit to Cuba.

Nashville airport eyes Havana flights, Plattsburgh, N.Y. throws hat in ring

Officials at the Nashville International Airport told the Tennessean they are planning a connecting flight to Cuba that could start as early as June. Choice Aire, a charter firm which serves destinations in the Caribbean for travelers in the Eastern United States, proposed the new service and is seeking permission from Cuban officials to establish the route.

“We want to be positioned in front of other airports to have that connection,” said Trudy Carson, director of air service development for the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority.

Upstate New York is also exploring flight options, according to North Country Public Radio. Garry Douglas, a business leader in Plattsburgh who helped create the Plattsburgh International Airport, says flights from his town to Cuba could be possible in the future because of high demand in Montreal, just an hour’s drive north. Douglas was part of the trade mission to Cuba led last week by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Several airlines — including United, Southwest, and Delta — announced their intentions to begin regularly scheduled flights in the wake of President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba and permit greater travel and trade. American Airlines and JetBlue Airways, which already operate charter flights to and from the island, also announced plans to begin commercial services.

Florida extends ban on educational exchange with Cuba

The Florida State Board of Higher Education moved this week to extend a controversial ban on educational exchange with Cuba that has been in place for 10 years, the Miami Herald reports.

The original language of the state law from which the ban was derived forbids students and professors at state universities from using any funds to travel to countries that are designated as state sponsors of terrorism.

Earlier this month, President Obama announced his decision to remove Cuba from the list pending a 45-day review period by Congress. Embargo supporters indicated last week that they would not challenge his action legislatively.

Despite Cuba’s imminent removal from the state sponsors of terrorism list, which will make it easier for Cuba to access the global financial system, Florida’s Board of Higher Education has sought to keep the ban on educational exchange in place, writing in an email to Florida International University that, “In addition to being removed from the list, the United States also has to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba before faculty or students can engage in scholarly activities in Cuba.”

But, as the Miami Herald explains, “a careful review of the ‘Travel to Terrorist States Act,’ passed by the Florida Legislature in 2006, shows that there is no mention about diplomatic relations having to be normalized.”

“This is a political opinion, not a legal one,” said Howard Simon, executive director of ACLU’s Florida chapter. “Now the Board of Governors and FIU have created a barrier to academic research where none existed before.”

“Agricultural, economic, and political changes in Cuba directly affect the people of Florida,” Simon added. “Enforced ignorance helps no one.”

Cuban-American woman loses bid to tap BNP payout for settlement of Cuba claims

A federal court has ruled that Marilyn Wiederspan, a Cuban-American woman who won a $63.6 million judgment in a Florida court for claims that Cuba’s government tortured and killed her father, will not be granted access to any of the $9 billion that French bank BNP Paribas agreed to pay the U.S. last year for violations of sanctions programs in Sudan, Iran, and Cuba, Bloomberg reports.

Wiederspan sought to settle her claims using BNP forfeiture funds under the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act of 2002, which allows a claimant to seize “blocked access of a terrorist party” to fulfill a settlement. Her lawyer argued that she was entitled to the funds because $1.7 billion of the illegal BNP transactions were made with Cuba, whose designation as a state sponsor of terror will soon be lifted.

U.S. District Court Judge Lorna Shofield said that Wiederspan is not allowed to intervene in the BNP forfeiture because her case is against the Republic of Cuba, not BNP. Shofield also said that Wiederspan did not adequately prove that Cuba had any ownership of the funds BNP is forfeiting.

In addition to the $9 billion fine, which is the largest fine ever imposed for violating U.S. sanctions, BNP, the 4th largest bank in the world, was banned from processing dollar payments for an entire year, and in October it asked JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, and Citi Bank to help it clear energy transactions in U.S. dollars.

Wiederspan’s case is similar to that of a number of Cuban-American families that won court rulings against Cuba’s government for the murder of family members under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which allows U.S. citizens to sue foreign countries designated as terrorism sponsors in U.S. courts. In August 2014, a federal judge in Manhattan upheld a Florida court’s ruling that Cuban-American claimants could settle their claims using Cuban funds frozen in Spain’s Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria.

American religious leaders call on Congress to lift embargo

A group of 29 U.S. religious leaders sent a letter to Congress on Monday calling on lawmakers to end the 55 year old embargo. Signers include Bishop Warner Brown, president of the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church; Rabbi Elhanan Schnitzer, President of the Cuba America Jewish Mission; and Dr. Sayyid Syeed, National Director of the Islamic Society of North America.

The letter, which says “A relationship of mutual respect and free exchange between our nations will benefit both our peoples,” concludes as follows:

“We pray for full normalization, which promises to benefit U.S. citizens and our Cuban brothers and sisters. We urge Congress to seize this moment and remove all obstacles to normalization within its power, helping create a better future for Cuba and a wiser course for the United States.”

New website for analysis and opinion writing on Latin America set to launch

On May 18th, a new website for analysis and opinion on the hemisphere will go public. Latin America Goes Global, created by former Americas Quarterly editor Christopher Sabatini, will provide analysis and opinions from leading scholars written and packaged for policy impact and popular debate.

The topics and research addressed by leading scholars of and from the region will include democracy and human rights, international economics, social inclusion, crime and violence and foreign affairs.

Regular contributors include leading experts from Columbia University; Facultad de Derecho, Universidad de Buenos Aires; Georgetown University; Universidad de los Andes; Florida International University; Universidad Diego Portales; Rutgers University; National Defense University; American University; Webster State University; and New York University.


Mexico and Cuba’s new extradition agreement enters into force

A bilateral extradition treaty between Cuba and Mexico went into effect this week, Prensa Latina reports. The treaty was signed in 2013 and ratified by Mexico’s Senate in December, replacing a previous agreement that had been in place since 1925.

The treaty requires each party to return persons wanted for willful or negligent crimes that would warrant no less than one year of incarceration under the requesting party’s laws, and it allows each country to decline an extradition request if it deems the request motivated by political opinion, religion, or nationality. Extradition for military crimes can also be denied.

On the same day last December that it approved the new extradition treaty with Cuba, the Mexican Senate also ratified bilateral agreements on law enforcement and economic cooperation.

Cuba and Mexico, long allies, nearly severed ties during the Presidency of Mexico’s Vicente Fox, following Mexico’s handling of a bus-crashing at its Embassy in Havana, and Fidel Castro’s release of a recording of his telephone conversation with former President Fox, in which he asked Castro to arrive late to Summit hosted in Mexico to avoid “complicating” Mexico’s relations with then-President George W. Bush.

Cuban-Mexican relations have been steadily improving ever since then President Calderon made a visit to the island in 2012 before leaving office. President Peña-Nieto’s Foreign Secretary, Jose Antonio Meade, has made several trips to the island.

Maduro travels to Havana for Workers’ Day parade

Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro was in Havana on Friday for the annual May Day parade and rally, the AFP reports. Maduro’s visit comes as Venezuela faces continued political and economic turmoil at home and sanctions imposed by the U.S.

Venezuela and Cuba have had close political and economic ties for over a decade, and have signed a series of economic cooperation agreements under which Venezuela has sent tens of thousands of barrels of oil per day to Cuba in exchange for the services of Cuban specialists in healthcare, education, and technology.

Cuba’s government rose to Venezuela’s defense in response to U.S. sanctions imposed in March. Former President 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.

British companies plan millions in Cuba investments

According to members of a British business delegation that visited Cuba this week, British companies will invest $400 million in Cuba’s agriculture, tourism, and energy industries, the Telegraph reports.

In 2013, British firm Esencia reached a deal with Cuba’s government to build a $350 golf club in Veradero, one of the most popular beaches in Cuba.

Cuba has sought to increase foreign investment in its with long leases for foreign investors and a foreign investment law that went into effect last year and offers tax cuts for foreign companies that enter joint ventures with Cuba’s government.

Five Cuban boxers heading to 2016 Olympics

Five Cuban boxers have earned spots as competitors in the 2016 Olympics set to take place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the AP reports. Cuba is an international boxing powerhouse, sending eight boxers to the 2012 Olympics and coming home with two gold and two bronze medals. Cuba is currently the only undefeated team in the World Series of Boxing.


Ministry of Education sets lofty goals for Internet connectivity in schools

Fernando Ortega, director of computer education for the Ministry of Education, said his department aims to connect all of Cuba’s 295 pre-university schools and 329 polytechnic schools by May of next year, Granma reports. The announcement comes just weeks after a U.S. State Department official told reporters that Cuba’s government has set a goal of 50% Internet penetration by 2020.

Ortega says he hopes to see over 26,000 Cuban students connected to the Internet in their schools in 2016; and, by 2017, his ministry aims to connect all secondary schools and special education schools. By 2018, he says, all of Cuba’s primary schools will be connected.

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 keeping with its agreement with the U.S., Cuba has taken steps to expand Internet access on the island. Shortly after the December 17th announcement that the two countries would resume diplomatic relations, Etecsa announced that the number of state-run cyber cafés in Cuba would nearly double — from 155 to 300 — by the end of 2015.

In March, a cultural center in Havana began offering Cubans free wireless access to the Internet. State telecommunications company Etecsa allowed Cuban artist Kcho to extend his personal Internet connection, which is authorized by the Ministry of Culture, to the general public.

A delegation of U.S. diplomats led by Daniel Sepulveda, the U.S. State Department’s international communications coordinator, traveled to Cuba last month as well for talks on improving Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure.

Downpour brings end to severe droughts and heat throughout Cuba

Havana experienced flash flooding on Thursday that resulted in the death of two city residents, Granma reports. Twenty-four buildings have collapsed as a result of the high water levels, with most of the collapses occurring in Central Havana and Old Havana.

The rain brought an end to two massive forest fires that had broken out in Pinar del Rio, Cuba’s westernmost province that produces 80% of the tobacco grown on the island, as a result of a severe drought that left the region’s water reservoirs at only 28% capacity, the Latin American Herald Tribune reports.

A drought in Guantanamo, Cuba’s easternmost province, has led local officials to limit water supply to state-owned entities and urge residents to limit consumption of drinking water, which is now being delivered by truck, according to Radio Cadena Agramonte. Rainfall in the province has fallen 76% below the seasonal average.

Cuba’s government has been taking steps to address climate change, which poses a significant threat to the island nation that hosts a range of unique ecosystems. Officials announced last year that Cuba plans to rely on renewable energy sources to generate 24% of the island’s electricity by 2030, and they approved an action plan to reduce the country’s consumption of oil for electricity generation by 20% in the next fifteen years.

Recommended Reading

Spies, artificial insemination and the pope: how Cuba came in from the cold, Dan Roberts, The Guardian

Roberts summarizes the series of secret talks that led to the diplomatic breakthrough announced by President Obama and President Castro last December. Today, “mounting optimism that the deal will hold has finally emboldened those involved [in the negotiations] to reveal a fuller picture, and a shift in US attitudes with far-reaching consequences.”

What Are the Consequences of Taking Cuba Off the State Sponsors of Terrorism List?, Arturo Lopez Levy, The Huffington Post

Lopez Levy, a Cuba scholar at the University of Denver, lists seven implications of what he calls “the most important, concrete step towards normalization of diplomatic relations with Havana taken by the U.S. government since the Carter Administration.”

Cuba’s removal from terrorism list may prove more symbolic than business-friendly, Mimi Whitefield, The Miami Herald

“With the Cuban-American delegation saying last week that it wouldn’t be mounting a challenge to the de-listing, Cuba is set to come off the list in late May… But the impact of the de-listing will be muted because there’s still a thicket of sanctions imposed under the embargo, the Helms Burton Act and other U.S. laws that remain in effect, including provisions that require U.S. banks to block transactions with Cuba or Cuban nationals that aren’t in the permitted category.”

Juan Antonio Picasso: Cuban artist with famous ancestor keeps a low profile, Julie Collazo, The Guardian

As more and more Americans take advantage of eased restrictions on travel to Cuba, many Cuban artists are looking to cash in. “One artist who tourists probably won’t visit, however, is one who could stand to gain a lot from the historic policy change. His name is Juan Antonio Picasso. Yes, Picasso. And yes, he’s related to that Picasso.”

Recommended Viewing

“History Is Finally Moving On”: Tom Hayden on Thawing of U.S.-Cuba Relations Despite GOP Opposition, Democracy Now

Civil rights and environmental activist Tom Hayden, who was a member of California’s state legislature from 1982 to 2000, speaks to Democracy Now about his new book, “Listen, Yankee!: Why Cuba Matters,” which is based on interviews with Cuban and American officials and discusses the historic breakthrough in relations between the U.S. and Cuba that was announced last year.

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