A Hat Tip to the Patron Saint and the Ferry Godfather of Normalization

The Vatican has offered little explanation for this Sunday’s meeting between President Raul Castro and Pope Francis, apart from Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi‘s comment that it was “strictly private,” and not an official state visit.

Indeed, the first reports were about its timing — four months before the Pontiff is to visit Cuba — not the context.

Yet, comments by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, reported by Vatican Insider last month made clear that when Pope Francis touches down in Havana ahead of his September visit to the United States, his guiding purpose would be as much political as pastoral, to advance the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States.

“Clearly this process is only in the early stages, and remains fragile since after so many years of uncommunicativeness and incomprehension it is not easy to walk into a climate of trust and mutual understanding, which is the very foundation for diplomatic progress,” Parolin said. “The Pope’s visit is with the intention of encouraging this process, and to urge them not to be afraid of what it could involve.”

As the Wall Street Journal reported last December, “papal diplomacy was a key to the Obama administration’s push over the past 18 months to overturn half a century of U.S. policies built around shunning Cuba.”

The Pope had stellar qualifications to serve in this role.

As a Cardinal, Pope Francis accompanied Pope John Paul II on his historic visit to Cuba in 1998. He wrote following that trip, “The motives which led the United States to impose the embargo have been entirely superseded in the present time.”

Tim Padgett, in an analysis published earlier this year, ascribed interests to Pope Francis, an Argentine, that “stem from both his papacy’s emphasis on aiding the poor and his portfolio as the first Latin American pontiff.”

Cubans appear to sense and support the Pope for his investment in the process. As the Washington Post reported, eighty percent of 1,200 Cubans surveyed by Univision Noticias and Fusion Networks gave Francis a positive rating, an impressive result in a state with meager weekly church attendance.

The White House took to Twitter to signal President Obama’s support for the Papal visit. “President Obama is pleased that His Holiness Pope Francis will visit Cuba on his way to the US later this year,” tweeted Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

The visit by President Castro to the Vatican, along with Cuba’s decision to welcome the Pope for his visit in September, signal ongoing support for what he has done and continues to do to support the normalization process.

This would be a very good time for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to approve a resolution introduced by Senator Richard Durbin (IL), cosponsored by Ranking Minority Member Ben Cardin (MD), which commends Pope Francis for his leadership in securing the release of Alan Gross and for working with Cuba and the United States to achieve a more positive relationship. It has awaited action by the Committee since January.

If Pope Francis is the patron saint of normalization, than certainly President Obama is its “ferry Godfather.”

This week, the administration offered regulatory approval for American operators seeking to reinstate ferry service to and from Cuba for the first time since such travel was barred by the U.S. embargo.

In the intervening decades, air charters have been the only means of conveyance for Cuban Americans and others to visit Cuba on trips licensed by the federal government. As we’re reminded in this poignant story, refugees leaving the island braved the seas by themselves. While charters play an essential role, reinstating ferry service has profound economic implications.

As John Hay lucidly explains:

“Existing charter flights run at least $400 per round trip, and baggage overages for those bringing goods back to Cuba bump up the price substantially. The ferries promise to reduce those costs, increase transit regularity and scale, and build a 200-plus-pound-per-person cargo capacity into ticket prices. This could make the ferry lines functionally the largest everyday development in normalization to date.”

Bruce Nierenberg, president of United Caribbean Lines, sees an even broader impact. As he explained to Newsweek, “We are approaching the project not just as a ferry operation but as a new, important economic driver for both countries, and development of a ferry system for the Caribbean.”

Despite the President and the Pope’s divine intervention, two policymakers in the U.S. Congress remain unpersuaded. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, as we reported last week, has written restrictions into a Department of Transportation budget bill to stop the ferry service from ever leaving port.

And, if there’s a Spanish equivalent for the word “Chutzpah,” that would be an apt characterization of Senator Bob Menendez’s remarks, in which he told his erstwhile nemesis, The Daily Caller, “It’s hard to believe that ferry service which is more of a commute is going to actually promote purposeful travel which is still the law of the land versus tourism.”

He’s a U.S. Senator, after all, so he must know the law.

U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS

Treasury Department licenses ferry services to Cuba

The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has begun issuing licenses for the operation of passenger ferry services from Florida to Cuba, the Sun Sentinel reports. Ferry service between the two countries was common before Cuba’s revolution, but the last ferry left Havana bay in 1960, and none has traversed the Florida Straits since.

Now, the International Port Corp. of Miami, America Cruise Ferries, Baja Ferries, Havana Ferry Partners, United Caribbean Lines Florida, and Airline Brokers Co. are eligible to provide direct ferry service from potential departure locations that include Key West, Miami, Port Everglades, Tampa Bay, and Port Canaveral.

However, the newly-licensed ferry operators must receive approval from Cuba’s government in order to begin serving the market.

Once the carriers get their licenses and permits up to speed, they expect round-trip tickets to cost as little as $250, well under the $400-$500 cost of a round-trip charter flight to the island. The ferries could carry between 200 and 500 passengers, and at least one carrier is considering scheduling an overnight ferry passage.

To describe the sheer size of the vessels, one license-holder told us to envision a cruise ship sitting on top of a massive parking garage.

These new ferry services, which typically do not charge for baggage, will offer attractive cost-savings for many Cuban Americans who shuttle large amounts of consumer goods to Cuba for their families and for resale. As Robert L. Muse, attorney for Havana Ferries, noted, “This is a more friendly mode of transportation for many Cubans visiting relatives.”

“We applaud everyone getting their ferry license, because we know ours is coming,” said Brian Hall, a South Florida catamaran builder who soon expects to receive a ferry license for his company CubaKat. “One ferry company can’t pull this off by itself… so many people [want] to go to Cuba.”

JetBlue schedules New York — Havana flights

JetBlue Airlines announced this week that it will start operating a weekly flight from New York City to Havana in partnership with Cuba Travel Services, a charter company,Business Insider reports.

The service will be inaugurated on July 5th.

The airline, based in New York, is the first to advantage of President Obama’s relaxed rules for air carrier service to Cuba since sweeping changes in Department of Treasury regulations were implemented in January.

JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes joined Governor Cuomo’s trade mission to Cuba last month. “The Governor’s trade mission is helping position JetBlue as the leading carrier to Cuba,” Hayes said in a statement. “Our first flight from JFK to Cuba brings JetBlue’s award-winning experience to Cuba-bound customers and offers new direct travel options from New York, where many Cubans live today.”

According to the U.S. Census, more than 74,000 Cuban Americans live in New York State.

“JetBlue’s exciting announcement today is proof that our approach is delivering results for New York businesses,” Governor Cuomo said. “I commend JetBlue CEO Robin Hayes for his leadership in making JetBlue the first major carrier to announce a direct flight from New York to Cuba in this new era between our nations.”

As JetBlue made its announcement, charter company Island Travel & Tours said it would begin offering flights to Havana from the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport (BWI) twice a week, WUSA9 reports. BWI was gained approval from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in 2011 to facilitate flights to Cuba.

According to CBP, 19 airports in 10 states and Puerto Rico are currently authorized to offer flights to Cuba. When President Obama reintroduced people-to-people licenses in 2011, an amendment to Department of Homeland Security regulations allows U.S. airports that already offer international flights to request CBP approval for new flights to Cuba. Prior to that change, only the JKF International Airport in New York, the Los Angeles International Airport, and the Miami International Airport were allowed to offer such flights.

OFAC releases U.S.-Cuba travel guidelines

In the midst of increasing demand for U.S.-Cuba travel services, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) on Tuesday issued a set of guidelines clarifying who is legally permitted to travel to Cuba and how they are permitted to do it.

The document specifies that individuals subject to U.S. jurisdiction can travel to Cuba by aircraft or any commercial passenger vessel, which includes ferries and ships, as long as they fall into one of twelve categories of approved travel outlined in the Cuban Assets Control Regulations, are Cuban nationals present in the U.S., or are traveling on official business of the U.S. government, a foreign government, or an intergovernmental organization of which the U.S. is a member.

The OFAC guidance comes on the heels of last week’s mark up of a Transportation and Housing spending bill, drafted by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, who tucked two provisions in his bill to bar any new scheduled air or ferry travel to Cuba.

New Cuba PAC launched to promote end to embargo

A bipartisan group of political and business leaders launched a new Political Action Committee (PAC) and lobbying group this week in Miami, the AP reports. The New Cuba PAC and the Engage Cuba advocacy group are both headed by James Williams, who was previously the director of public policy for Trimpa Group, a fundraising and political consultancy for progressive organizations.

Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor whose release from a Cuban prison last December was part of a larger U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, headlined the Miami launch. Gross was arrested in Cuba in 2009 on charges of “acts against the independence or territorial integrity of the state.” Now, he is dedicated to changing U.S. policy toward the island, and he even plans to return to Cuba in the future.

“Alan supports the president’s initiative 100 percent and he believes that open travel and trade between our countries is the best thing for the people of Cuba and the people of our country,” noted Scott Gilbert, Gross’s attorney and host of the PAC launch event, which organizers hoped would raise more than $50,000.

Serving as advisers to New Cuba and Engage Cuba are Luke Albee, former chief of staff for Senators Mark Warner (VA) and Patrick Leahy (VT); Kirsten Chadwick, a Congressional liaison for President George W. Bush; Ric Herrero, founder and director of Cuba Now; Stephen Law, chairman of the powerful Republican PAC American Crossroads; Luis Miranda, former director of communications for Hispanic media at the Obama White House; and, Billy Piper, a former aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY).

Formation of the two organizations follows President Obama’s decision to normalization relations with Cuba, which, in turn, has stoked both determined opposition to any changes in the U.S. embargo as well as several initiatives ranging from lifting all travel restrictions to authorizing private credit for legal U.S. exports to the island and even ending the embargo altogether.

Lawmakers Support Obama in Letter Praising Cuba’s removal from terrorism list

Forty-three Members of Congress sent a letter to President Obama this week to express their support for his decision to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. President Obama announced his decision on April 14th, and Congress is now in the middle of a 45-day review period, during which opponents of a more open Cuba policy are not expected to press for legislative action to reverse the move.

“There are real costs and consequences to keeping Cuba on the List given that it no longer meets the standards used to designate nations as state sponsors of terrorism,” the Members of Congress said in their letter to the president.

“It diminishes the credibility of U.S. counter-terrorism policies. It forces the U.S. to expend enforcement resources on Cuba unnecessarily at a moment when efforts to protect the homeland and disrupt plots overseas must be focused where the risks of terrorism are the greatest.”

Cuba was first placed on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list in 1982 under the Reagan Administration, and remained designated for political reasons, as Richard Clark, a counter-terrorism adviser to the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush Administrations, later confirmed in an interview.

CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS

Japanese businesses seek stronger ties in visit to Cuba

A group of 30 business leaders led by Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida visited Cuba this week to explore business and trade possibilities with the island, Asahi News reports. The delegation, which included executives from Toyota, Mazda, and Komatsu, toured the Mariel port and special economic zone, which Cuba’s government hopes will become a hub for regional trade and manufacturing.

Japan and Cuba had strong economic ties in the 1970s, but that relationship deteriorated after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 brought about severe austerity measures in Cuba that drastically reduced imports. Now, renewed ties between Cuba and the U.S. have spurred new interest in the island among Japanese businessmen.

“We welcome the progress in Cuba’s rapprochement with the United States and support the development,” Kishida said.

“Cuba has the most potential to prosper in this region, given its 11 million population and high level of education,” said another Japanese official. “All Japanese companies are eager to jump on the bandwagon.”

After a meeting with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, his Cuban counterpart, Kishida promised to extend millions of dollars in aid grants to the island. In a forum after the meeting, Cuban officials raised the possibility of cooperating with Japan in pharmaceuticals and renewable energy sources.

According to Juventud Rebelde, a Cuban state-run newspaper, Kishida briefly met with Fidel Castro in the aging former leader’s home.

President Castro, in Russia, meets Medvedev, Putin

Raul Castro met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday in the Kremlin, Juventud Rebelde reports. Castro is in Russia to attend the Red Square parade set to take place on May 9 to mark 70 years since Russia’s 1945 victory over Nazi Germany. Castro also met with Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev on Wednesday.

The former Soviet Union was a strong ally of Cuba in the decades after the success of Cuba’s revolution in 1959. Cuba’s economy was deeply dependent on favorable economic and trade relations with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War. Once the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 the two countries grew distant.

In recent years, relations between the countries have warmed. For example, in July 2014, Russia forgave just over 90% of Cuba’s soviet-era debt as part of a larger strategy to increase influence in Latin America.

In March, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov praised the warming of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. “Normalization between the United States and Cuba makes us happy. We salute this rapprochement,” Lavrov said. “We call for the lifting of the (U.S.) trade and financial blockade of Cuba as soon as possible.”

While Castro was in Russia, the head of Russia’s legislature was in Cuba for a meeting with Cuba’s vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel, ACN reports.

Chinese company to build golf course near Varadero

Cuba’s government reached an agreement this week with the Beijing Enterprise Group to construct an 18-hole golf course on Cuba’s northern coast between Havana and Varadero, Juventud Rebelde reports.

China’s president visited Cuba last year and signed 29 bilateral accords addressing economic, cultural, and educational cooperation while also granting several interest-free loans for the construction of a port in Santiago de 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. In 2013, British firm Esencia reached a deal with Cuba’s government to build a $350 golf club in Veradero, and, according to Reuters, Cuba’s government aims to eventually have 12 golf resorts on the island.

Cuban medical team to aid Nepal earthquake recovery

Cuba’s government announced Wednesday that a 48-member Cuban medical team will be sent to Nepal to aid in the response to an April 25 earthquake that left 7,600 dead, Reuters reports. The team will be equipped with a field hospital containing a surgical unit, sterilization equipment, an intensive care unit, and diagnostic equipment including X-ray and ultrasound machines.

Cuba plays an outsized role in international disaster relief efforts. Today there are more than 50,000 Cuban health workers serving in over 60 countries. Cuba’s medical internationalism was on display most recently in the government’s response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Cuba was one of the first countries to respond to the WHO’s call for increased medical personnel in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, drawing praise from international figures like Secretary Kerry and WHO Director-General Margaret Chan.

See Laurie Garrett’s piece on how Cuba could stop the next Ebola outbreak in recommended readings below.

IN CUBA

CENESEX to host same-sex marriages to push for LGBT rights

A group of LGBT activists led by Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Center for Sexual Education (CENESEX) and daughter of President Raul Castro, will hold a series of “symbolic marriages” this weekend to push for greater LGBT acceptance on the island, the BBC reports.

Cuba’s constitution defines marriage as between and man and a woman, and, despite increasing tolerance on the island, gay marriage is still not legal.

A handful of American artists are set to perform, including singer and actress Thelma Houston, the rock band Quetzal, Reverend Troy Perry, Pastor Hector Gutierrez, and Reverend Mona West will also speak.

Mariela Castro made history last year by recording the first-ever “no” vote in the history of Cuba’s rubber-stamp legislative assembly to voice her disapproval of a series of labor laws that she felt did not contain adequate protection for the LGBT community.

Recommended Reading

Going Way Back With Cubans, Tampa Leads Push Forward, Lizette Alvarez, The New York Times

“Decades before Miami danced to a Cuban rhythm, Tampa’s Ybor City grew up and got rich to the sounds of Cuban-inflected Spanish as thousands of workers rolled cigars by day and plotted the island’s independence from Spain by night… Today, Tampa sees itself as pivotal to Cuba once again: The city is taking the lead in the Obama administration’s effort to rekindle diplomatic ties to Cuba, a move that runs counter to the anti-engagement orthodoxy of Miami and Florida’s state government.”

How Cuba Could Stop the Next Ebola Outbreak, Laurie Garrett, Foreign Policy

Garrett proposes combining the resources of the U.S. with Cuba’s rapid-response medical internationalism to rejuvenate West Africa’s medical system, which was devastated by the Ebola epidemic that killed hundreds of healthcare workers. “A joint U.S.-Cuban physician-training effort would not only solve the human resources crisis in the Ebola-hit nations, but would further open the doors of diplomatic cooperation between Washington, and Havana.”

My Trip to Cuba, Steve Nash, Players Tribune

Former NBA star Steve Nash traveled to Cuba in April with a team of NBA representatives for the first-ever visit by a U.S. professional sports leave since Presidents Obama and Castro announced that the two countries would seek to normalize diplomatic relations. “I’ve been home for a few days now,” Nash writes, “but the memories of my short visit still linger.”

Will stock investors ever profit from a more open Cuba?, Leslie Kramer, CNBC

Havana’s stock exchange was once the largest in Latin America, before being shut down after the 1959 revolution. Today, investment opportunities from tourism to biotechnology are growing, and investment expert Tom Herzfeld thinks a Cuban stock exchange could re-open in three to five years.

What’s in a name? Cuban cigars plant legal seeds for U.S. future, Zachary Fagenson and David Adams, Reuters

Cuba’s government has moved aggressively to block trademarks for Cuban cigar brands like Cohiba from being registered in the United States. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Cuba’s favor, telling a Swedish company that their Dominican-made Cohiba brand violated trademark law. This strategy is designed to keep the market for Cuban cigars open when the U.S. embargo is finally lifted.

Airbnb Shows How Companies Can Crack the Cuban Market, Reem Nasr, NBC News

“Like many other American companies, Airbnb was banned from doing business in the communist nation until this year. But the company found early success when it launched in Cuba with 1,000 listings on April 2. A month later, it’s consistently adding more listings to the site.”

The Cuban town Mr. Hershey built, Nick Miroff, The Washington Post

Hershey, a town in Cuba built in the early 1900s by U.S. chocolate tycoon Milton Hershey, “is a place to excavate a buried U.S. legacy in Cuba, and one that doesn’t fit the government caricature of scheming mobsters and predatory capitalists.” Today, Hershey residents have mixed feelings about the town’s tumultuous past, but all are optimistic about what the future holds now that the home country of the town’s founder has extended a hand of reconciliation.

Cuba’s Abandoned Nuclear City, Darmon Richter, Foreign Affairs

In 1982, the Soviet Union opened a new city west of Cienfuegos, Cuba built around a nuclear reactor that was intended to meet 15% of Cuba’s energy needs. The Soviet Union collapsed a few years later, and the project was never completed. “Today, although the city is a mess of half-built homes and unfinished concrete towers, a few hundred Cubans-and a handful of Russians-still call it home.”

Recommended Viewing

Questlove releases mini-documentary on his time in Havana

Questlove, American DJ, music journalist, record producer, and drummer for The Roots released a mini-documentary this week called “Quest For Cuba” that chronicles the three days he spent in Havana in April. In addition to two nights of DJing at the Fabrica de Arte Cubano alongside Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Josh Klinghoffer, he visited famous studios to learn about classic Cuban records and meet Cuban musicians.

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