Escape Velocity? The Accelerating Pace of Change in U.S.-Cuba Relations

The Media General National Desk must like using edgy headlines for click bait. How else can they explain “Possible lung cancer vaccine another perk stemming from new U.S.-Cuba relations”?

A “perk”?

If a tumor-starving therapy that holds promise to greatly improve the lives of cancer patients can now be called a “perk,” that’s a telling sign of how quickly relations between Cuba and the United States are moving, just five months after the breakthrough diplomatic agreement reached by Presidents Obama and Castro.

That accelerating pace of change is happening on so many levels.

It’s evident in the travel space, where Airbnb is reporting that after just one month of operating in Cuba the island has become the fastest-growing market the on-line reservations site has ever served.

Those rooms in casas particulares, where American travelers can engage closely with their Cuban hosts, cannot come on line fast enough – as flights expand from Tampa, Baltimore, New York and elsewhere, and once ferries begin heading for Havana from ports along Florida’s coast.

The pick-up in the pace of change is evident in the cultural arena, as the Minnesota Orchestra hits the stage at the Teatro Nacional for a Beethoven-centered concert that will be broadcast on consecutive nights throughout Cuba starting this very evening.

It’s also evident on the diplomatic front. Just last night, the U.S. State Department announced that U.S. and Cuban negotiators will convene in Washington on May 21 – a little more than a week before Cuba comes off the terror list – setting aside one more obstacle to our two countries opening embassies and exchanging ambassadors.

You can even feel it in the Congress, where thirty-seven members of the United States Senate have cosponsored Senator Jeff Flake’s Freedom to Travel to Cuba legislation repealing the ban on legal travel so all Americans can visit  the island.

To say that this is a big change would be a gross understatement. You can’t even count the number of Senate cosponsors on travel legislation in the last Congress, because there weren’t any. Although a travel bill was dropped – and buried – in the U.S. House, nobody sponsored Freedom to Travel legislation during the 113th Session of the Senate; a sure sign that even the symbolism of supporting it wasn’t compelling for Senators who didn’t think a bill would go anywhere.

Now that there’s a herd – or heard – effect at work, it’s easy to imagine 37 cosponsors as a floor and not a ceiling for the Senate travel bill.

Ending the travel ban is not wishful thinking in the 114th Congress.

When you have 56% of Cuban Americans telling pollsters and 59% of respondents in a recent national survey (with many more showing the same result), supporting the unrestricted freedom to travel…

When you see the interests growing – as state governors, large businesses and trade associations, marine scientists and musicians, cancer researchers and cancer patients, and many others – for realizing the benefits of a new, more open relationship with Cuba…

When Senators who may have previously sat on the sidelines, or deferred to opponents with stronger opinions, increasingly hear the voices of all of these people demanding change, you know that more of them are going to move to the winning side.

As the late Lee Atwater used to say, “I am going to be for what’s going to happen anyway.” That’s Washington’s definition of pure momentum.

This doesn’t mean that everything’s perfect, that disagreements won’t arise in bilateral negotiations, or that unrepentant hardliners like Senator Rubio won’t reimpose sanctions on Cuba if elected President, as he pledged again to do this week.

Yes, we’re moving with increasing speed away from the Cold War into mutually respectful policies of the digital age, but we haven’t quite hit escape velocity yet.

Just watch our headlines. If you start seeing click-bait – Pet Food lawsuit attracts hundreds of calls, emails to the case! – you’ll know we’ve made it to the other side.

In the meantime, please enjoy the weekend with our Cuba Central News Blast, and take another listen to Jackson Browne’s Going Down to Cuba.  We expect to see you there soon.


Cuba ready to exchange ambassadors; Talks resume in Washington next week

On Tuesday, Cuba’s President Raul Castro said that Havana will be ready to exchange ambassadors with Washington once his country’s removal from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism is finally effective at the end of this month.

President Castro told reporters gathered at the airport in Havana covering the end of President François Hollande’s visit to the island, “This sort of unjust accusation is about to be lifted, and we’ll be able to name ambassadors.”

A review of Cuba’s designation was set in motion on December 17th of last year, when President Obama announced the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba. His decision in April to drop Cuba from the list triggered a forty-five day review period, and will take effect on May 29th.

On Thursday, the State Department released a statement indicating the U.S. and Cuban negotiators will reconvene in Washington on May 21st to “continue discussions on re-establishing relations and reopening embassies.”

One sticking point in the negotiations to re-establish diplomatic ties appears to be whether Washington and Havana can agree on the removal of existing limits on the activities of their diplomats and their ability to travel freely around the countries where they are posted.

In its statement on the talks, the State Department obliquely referenced the bilateral disagreement (as well as domestic opponents in the U.S. to Mr. Obama’s opening) by stating “A U.S. Embassy in Havana will allow the United States to more effectively promote our interests and values, and increase engagement with the Cuban people.”

Reuters reports that the talks will focus on practical aspects of reopening embassies. NBC News says Cuban Foreign Ministry officials are hopeful for an announcement next week of the dates that the two countries will open their embassies. NBC also reported that Cuba is expected to open its embassy first, and then the U.S. will follow suit.

But, as the Voice of America noted this week, “Once diplomatic relations are restored, the longtime adversaries will work on the more complicated task of normalizing overall relations.” The U.S. trade embargo of Cuba can only be lifted by an Act of Congress.

Cuomo Trip Breakthrough Excites Renewed Interest In Cuba’s Biomedical Research

On April 22, Empire State Development and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute announced that the Institute had a signed agreement with Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology “to develop a unique lung cancer vaccine (“Cimavax”) with a clinical trial in the United States.”

Although Roswell Park had collaborated with its Cuban counterparts since 2011, after New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo visited Cuba last month, his trade mission facilitated the agreement and “enabled the two parties to hammer out the final details.”

Cimavax, which stops tumors from growing, was the product of 25 years of painstaking research by Cuba’s biomedical research industry and, as Wired magazine reported, has been available for free to Cuban patients since 2011.

Despite the U.S. embargo, and Cuba’s tiny, highly restricted economy, the breakthrough vaccine exemplifies how the nation’s unique investment in biotechnology and research has paid off.

Roswell Park’s CEO, Candace Johnson, according to USA Today, that believes that Cuba’s biotech industry “has thrived despite—and perhaps even because of—the U.S. embargo.”

Dr. Johnson said, “They’ve had to do more with less, so they’ve had to be even more innovative with how they approach things,” she says. “For over 40 years, they have had a preeminent immunology community.”

Under the agreement, Cuba’s Center for Molecular Immunology will give the Institute all of the documentation needed for an FDA drug application (estimated at 1,000 pages); this will enable Roswell Park to start clinical trials within a year’s time, if the process goes smoothly.

According to the UK’s Independent, “Cimavax is reported to help lung cancer patients by encouraging the body’s immune system to attack a hormone (called epidermal growth factor, or EGF) known to encourage growth in tumors.”

As Dr. Kelvin Lee, the chairman of the Department of Immunology at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, told ABC News: “The idea is that … the Cimavax vaccine induces an immune response (to stop EFG production). “The tumor is being starved.”

“Investigators from around the world are trying to crack the nut of cancer,” says Thomas Rothstein, a biologist at the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research, “The Cubans are thinking in ways that are novel and clever.”

Florida company launches direct text messaging service between U.S. and Cuba

SMS Cuba, based in Ft. Lauderdale, became the first telecommunications company to offer direct mobile to mobile text messaging service between the United States and Cuba this week.

The company is counting on friends, family and businesses in Cuba with close ties to the U.S. to subscribe to its service given the high cost of telephone calls between the U.S. and Cuba, and the meager level of Internet penetration on the island.

SMS Cuba’s founder and CEO, Frank Caruso, noted, “I have been a student of the Cuban Telecom environment for the past 20 years. I have been creating practical solutions that give value to businesses and individuals. SMS Cuba is the first of these solutions.”

SMS Cuba’s website offers American customers unlimited texts to one Cuban contact for $5.00 per month, and unlimited texts to 5 contacts for $10.00 per month. Cubans, however, still have to pay the standard $0.90CUC for each international text. While the cost may be out of reach for most Cubans, who earn about $20 per month, SMS Cuba is currently working on a way for American customers to pay the bill of their Cuban counterpart through the SMS Cuba service.

Cuba’s entrepreneurs see opportunity in Airbnb

Brian Chesky, co-founder of Airbnb, tells Bloomberg Politics that Cuba has become the rental by owner website’s fastest growing market. The number of Cuban homes listed has more than doubled since Airbnb opened its doors to Cuba; it listed 1,000 homes last month and now the number tops 2,000.

Given the limited Internet access on the island, the numbers demonstrate both interest and ingenuity on the part of Cubans with the licenses that allow them to rent their homes, or rooms in their homes, Cuba’s “casa particular” system is practically tailored to the Airbnb business model. Homestay-style casas already exist all over the country, and given the earnings in hard currency, the popularity of Airbnb is surging with a little help from intermediaries.

According to a 2015 study, 7% of Cuban entrepreneurs make their living by renting out their homes to travelers. Though Cubans have already been able to use other room-rental websites, like Homestay, Airbnb is appealing because it takes a lower cut of the renters’ profits from each transaction.

“President Obama has a desire to bring these two communities together — Americans and Cubans,” Chesky said. “What better way to bring them together than actually in their homes?”

Airbnb Cuba is currently only available for travelers from the United States, meaning only Americans can access the site, but the company is working on licensing to allow travelers from all countries to utilize the service.

Cuban Migration to Miami Surges Amidst Fears Over U.S. Policy

Cuban migration to the U.S. has risen sharply after the historic December 17th announcement to normalize relations between the two countries.

In the first three months of 2015, 9,371 Cubans arrived in the United States, an estimated 118% increase from the same period in 2014. That number counts the Cubans who made it to the shore; the U.S. Coast Guard reports it has spotted 2,500 migrants since October 2014.

The reason for the surge is thought to be fear of the abrogation of the “wet-foot dry-foot” law, which puts Cubans at the front of the line before other immigrant groups when applying for American citizenship.

Some Cubans are under the impression that their special status as migrants to the U.S. will soon go away. A 23 year old resident of Santa Cruz, Cuba, described the reason for her multiple migration efforts. She said. “I had to try again because I heard the law was going to change.” She made it to Miami on December 28.

Currently, Cubans who migrate to the U.S. can receive a green card as a permanent resident after just one year of living on American soil. Although it is possible the advantage would disappear once US-Cuban relations are normalized, the administration has never proposed such change.

In fact, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency clarified in a recent statement that “the Administration’s recent announcement regarding Cuba has not changed or altered in any significant way the Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act.”

Minnesota sends first U.S. orchestra to Cuba since 1999

The Minnesota Orchestra, which arrived in Cuba this week, became the first American orchestra to visit the island since the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra played there in 1999. The 120-member orchestra is set to play two shows at Cuba’s Teatro Nacional during Havana’s International Cubadisco Festival this weekend.

After President Obama announced he would use his executive authority to ease travel and trade restrictions, several U.S. orchestras lined up to be the first to play in Cuba. But, the Minnesota Orchestra was prepared to travel more quickly than the others. Neeta Helms, president of Classical Movements, which helped organize the tour in Cuba, believes that Cuban officials also may have offered the Minnesota Orchestra a spot in the festival as a sort of symbolic welcome back gesture. The Minnesota Orchestra had played in Cuba before…in 1930.

For a tour that might normally take years to organize, Helms and the Minnesota Orchestra pulled it all together in mere months. The organizers tackled major logistical hurdles: finding and chartering the right aircraft to carry 160 travelers with large and fragile instruments; getting permission to fly directly to Havana from Minneapolis-St. Paul’s Airport; navigating complicated U.S. regulations to get approval; and finding 160 hotel rooms in a city that is becoming consistently overbooked.

With the logistical miracle in hand, once Osmo Vänskä, the orchestra’s Finnish born conductor, raises his baton to begin the performance, the concert will be broadcast live on Cuban television this Friday and Saturday night.


French President Concludes Historic Visit to Cuba

French President Françios Hollande made history this week, becoming the first French president to visit the communist state, and the first Western head of state to visit the island since the U.S.-Cuban agreement to normalize relations. Hollande called on the U.S. to end the embargo, and stated that France will be a “faithful ally” to the Caribbean island as its economy transitions.

Speaking at the University of Havana, the French President stated that “France will do everything it can to aid the process of opening Cuba and help get rid of measures that have so seriously damaged Cuba’s development.” Hollande met with both President Raúl Castro and former President Fidel Castro, discussing human rights, the economy, and the opening of the island to the United States.

The state visit was also accompanied by the press of commerce; as the Wall Street Journal reported, CMA CGM SA, a French firm, entered an agreement with the government of Cuba “to build a logistics hub at the Cuban port of Mariel as part of the largest infrastructure investment the island nation has seen in decades.”

As French daily Le Monde wrote this week. “European businesses, especially French and Spanish ones, have had a head start on the island thanks to the US embargo. They will soon have to contend with U.S. competition.” The recent wave of island visits has not gone unnoticed.

Reuters reports Cubans in talks with China’s Huawei on telecomm

It’s no secret that Cuba needs telecommunications to modernize its economy; telecommunication infrastructure investments are needed in Cuba to provide Internet access, voice and data transmission, banking, credit card transactions and more.

On December 17, 2014, President Obama announced he would allow U.S. telecom companies “to establish the necessary mechanisms, including infrastructure, in Cuba to provide commercial telecommunications and Internet services, which will improve telecommunications between the United States and Cuba.”

Companies based in the U.S. hope to provide many such inputs and services over the long-term; but, as those firms get accustomed to operating under U.S. law and the new regulations released in January 2015, companies like Huawei, supported by countries like China that historically supported trade with Cuba, have a head start.

In Mexico, while attending the World Economic Forum, Cuban Finance Minister Lina Pedraza said that the Chinese telecom firm, Huawei, which already has a presence in Cuba, is “very advanced in negotiations with a Cuban company.” Earlier this year, a Huawei representative also confirmed talks were underway to help Cuba with establishing networks on the island.

President Castro Visits Pope Francis, Leaves Vatican Professing his Faith

As we discussed in last week’s blast, Cuban President Raúl Castro paid a visit to the Vatican on Sunday for a meeting prior to the Pontiff’s trip to Havana later in September. The Cuban President thanked Pope Francis for his efforts in support of normalizing U.S.-Cuban relations.

In gushing about the Pontiff at a news conference, President Castro mentioned his own Jesuit roots. “When the Pope goes to Cuba in September, I promise to go to all his Masses, and with satisfaction.”

The Cuban Revolution brought with it a staunch state commitment to atheism. Following Marxist-Leninist ideology, Cuba was a strictly secular state until 1992 when restrictions on religion were eased and Cuba’s government dropped the commitment to atheism from the Constitution. Members of the Catholic Church were only allowed to openly join Cuba’s Communist Party following this change.

Pope Francis is the third head of the worldwide Catholic Church to visit Cuba since 1998. The first visit from Pope John Paul II in 1998 spurred the reinstatement of Christmas as an official holiday. His successor, Pope Benedict XVI, visited Cuba in 2012. But, the visit by Francis, the first South American Pope, and an instrumental force in the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement, is likely to enjoy a reception unlike the others.

In a recent survey of 1,200 Cuban residents by Univision Noticias and Fusion, eight in ten Cubans gave Pope Francis positive relations including, as the Washington Post reported, 92 percent of Catholics.

He even appears to have an adherent in the Presidential Palace. As President Raúl Castro said on Sunday, “I read all of the Pope’s speeches…if the Pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic Church — and I’m not saying this jokingly.”

Recommended Reading

Cuba Technology Development: Cell Phones, Internet Remain Rare On Island Stuck In The Past, Cristina Silva, International Business Times

On an island on the brink of change, cell phone and internet connectivity remains hard to come by. Around 5% of Cubans — comprised largely of academics, artists, and some state workers — have unfettered Internet access. Surprisingly, though connectivity is rare and expensive, smartphone devices and laptops are becoming more common. Cubans with cell phones can talk and text, but 3G and 4G technology is not yet available. As a result, landlines are still extremely popular in Cuba.

Marco Rubio’s Cold War Approach On Cuba Is Losing Him Voters, Sam Bradley, Mother Jones

Senator Marco Rubio’s staunch and unwavering support for keeping the U.S. embargo is losing popularity among its formerly avid supporters. Not only have recent polls shown rising support in the Cuban American community nationally for ending the embargo and reestablishing diplomatic relations, 97% of Cubans surveyed by Univision Noticias and Fusion in April said the normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S. is “good for Cuba.”

Yet, Rubio who gave an address on foreign policy Wednesday at the Council on Foreign Relations pledged “I would reimpose sanctions” if he was elected president.

Recommended Viewing

Cuba’s answer to an offline world, Michael Voss, CCTV

CCTV reporter Michael Voss documents the phenomenon that is “el paquete” in Cuba, or, “the package.” Despite the lack of Internet access for a majority of Cubans, they have come up with a new to share information, music, videos, even magazines and books: through external hard drives and memory flash drives known as “el paquete.” As a result, you will find anything from Justin Bieber music blasting out of Havana’s cars to high schoolers watching “Gossip Girl” on their desktop computers at home.

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