Last week, we stuck our necks out.
We asked Members of Congress who support the opening with Cuba — and the companies which stand to benefit from it — to make their positions clear about the legislative riders cantering through the Appropriations Committee that seek to shut down new flights and new ferry services to the island.
Whoa Nellie. That seemed to be too much for Capitol Hill Cubans which, after calling us deceptive, dishonest, and alarmist, still agreed with our bottom line that President Obama could head them off at the pass with a wave of his veto pen.
These policies are popular. Okay: Sticking our necks out? Not so much.
The next piece of the diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba — opening full-flown embassies in Washington and Havana for the first time since 1961 — will fall into place next week.
After that, it will be time for both countries to put ambassadors into those embassies so they can represent their respective national interests accordingly.
Senators are supposed to consider nominations by the President for ambassadorial positions. That comes with the job description (see the Constitution).
If you had heard members of the Foreign Relations Committee last month, when several Senators waxed elegiac about our diplomats and Foreign Service officers who work overseas, you’d think this should not be an issue.
Senator Ben Cardin (MD), the Committee’s senior Democrat, said “American diplomats and development professionals are the best examples of talented people that are on the front line for America.”
Not to be outdone, Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), the Committee’s former senior Democrat added, “I think they are the unsung heroes of national security and national interest promotion for our country, and recognizing them is incredibly important.”
And they are right: supporting our diplomats and their missions overseas is important. Of course, as with the travel riders, there’s a hitch.
Opponents of the President’s new policy have already pledged to block any ambassadorial appointment.
For example, Senator Marco Rubio (FL), a Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, has said, “I anticipate we’re going to have a very interesting couple of years discussing how you’re going to get an ambassador nominated.”
Senator Bob Menendez (who praised the unsung heroes), also says “it would be very difficult to get an ambassador confirmed.”
Even Senator Cardin, on the Foreign Relations Committee and a champion of the President’s policy, says “I don’t think it’s useful to confront a situation that may not have a successful completion.”
That’s apparently Senate lingo for “Mr. President, if you’re thinking about nominating an ambassador to Cuba, don’t waste your time.”
What about Senator Jeff Flake, who has argued, as Politico reports, that “as more Americans travel to Cuba, it is essential that the U.S. have an ambassador there, if only to give added assurances that the rights of U.S. citizens will be fully protected.”
He must think if the President nominated a U.S. ambassador to Cuba, even his opponents would insist that our country be fully represented, right? He says, “I don’t think they’ll be persuaded,” even though, “we’re better off having an ambassador.”
Unfortunately, the “Advise and Dissent” crowd also wants to starve the new embassy of the funds it needs to make the building fully operational. Senator Lindsey Graham said that soon after the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic breakthrough occurred in December. Senator Rubio holds that position still.
In the short-term, their edifice complex will not stand in the way of progress. Since the State Department is not asking for funds to convert our Interest Section in Havana into an embassy, no budget rider can stop that from taking place.
This is not, however, the end of the story. When the “brand new” U.S. embassy throws open its doors as early as next week, its insides will show its age. Last year, an Inspector General report found our Interest Section in Havana had offices that lacked equipment and supplies, insufficient resources to repair buildings, and our diplomatic team was short-staffed in the face of a crushing workload (thanks, in part, to Cuba’s decision to remove restrictions on the right of its citizens to travel overseas and return).
It’s a shame that Congress cannot be expected to approve more money to maintain and upgrade our embassy in Havana. But, that cannot be blamed on hardliner politics alone.
The U.S. Congress has not renewed the State Department’s authorization for thirteen years. By contrast, as Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH) noted in April, the Congress has enacted new authority for the Defense Department for every one of the last 51 years.
Soon, it will be our diplomats in Havana — not our military — ushering in this new era of U.S.-Cuba relations. Congress must do its job, so they have the ambassador and fully functional embassy they need to do theirs.
President Obama has removed Cuba from the State Department’s state sponsors of terrorism list, NBC reports. This comes in the midst of reports that new embassies will open in Washington and Havana as early as next week.
President Obama requested a State Department review of Cuba’s designation last December. The State Department concluded its review in April, and certified as the law requires that “the Government of Cuba has not provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding six-month period and… has provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.”
President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the list then kicked off a 45-day review period during which opponents of the move were unable to block the decision.
Cuba was first placed on the State Department’s state sponsors of terrorism list in 1982 under President Reagan. As Secretary of State Kerry said in transmitting the report to the White House, “Cuba was originally designated as a State Sponsor of Terrorism because of its efforts to promote armed revolution by forces in Latin America.” But, as Richard Clark, a counter-terrorism adviser to the Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush Jr. administrations later admitted, Cuba remained on the list “not because they were sponsoring terrorism… it was because of U.S. domestic political reasons.”
The State Department’s 2013 report said “there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.” Libya was removed from the list in 2006, and North Korea was taken off in 2008.
Financial institutions that do business with countries that are designated by the U.S. as sponsors of terror risk hefty fines from the U.S. Department of Treasury, so Cuba’s removal from the list will make it easier for Cuba to engage in international transactions. Just last week, Florida-based Stonegate bank announced it would begin providing banking services for Cuba’s Interest Section in Washington, which spent over a year operating on a cash-only basis.
President Obama’s decision also removes what Cuba, itself a victim of terrorist attacks from Miami-based exiles, has long considered an affront to its national dignity.
John and Patrick Hemingway, grandchildren of the Nobel Prize winning American author Ernest Hemingway, took part in the Hemingway Billfishing Tournament this week off the coast of Havana, the Nuevo Herald reports.
The Hemingways boarded a boat in Cayo Hueso in Florida and arrived in Marina Hemingway outside of Havana a day later. John Hemingway commented that they had “come by boat from Cayo Hueso to show Americans that things are changing, that very soon it will be even easier to travel [to Cuba] and enjoy the island, the culture, and the people.”
The brothers traveled to Cuba last fall to promote U.S.-Cuban cooperation in protecting marine life in the tropical waters that separate the island from Florida.
Ernest Hemingway received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954 for “his powerful, style-forming mastery of the art of modern narration, as most recently evinced in ‘The Old Man and the Sea,'” as the New York Times reported when the honor was announced.
Hemingway was unable to leave Havana to attend the ceremony in Stockholm as he was recovering from injuries he suffered in two plane crashes in the months prior. In this video [start at 7:20], you can see the U.S. Ambassador to Sweden receive the award on Hemingway’s behalf.
U.S. tourism to Cuba has increased a whopping 36% since January, the AP reports. Since the first day of the year to May 9, 2015, 51,458 Americans have traveled to Cuba. In the same period last year, only 37,459 visited the country. One quarter of the American visitors recorded so far this year flew through third countries to avoid U.S. restrictions on tourism.
In January, President Obama eased restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba by allowing Americans to “self-certify” that their trip falls within one of twelve approved categories of travel to Cuba. Before that change, Americans had to seek special permission from the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control in order to travel legally to the island.
Today, tourism is still banned under U.S. law. However, the Freedom the Travel to Cuba Act of 2015, introduced by Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) in January, and a companion measure introduced by Rep. Mark Sanford (SC-1), would allow Americans to travel to Cuba freely. The Senate bill has picked up steam and is currently nearing 40 cosponsors in the upper chamber. The Sanford bill has attracted a bipartisan group of 29 cosponsors in the House.
Senator Tom Udall (NM) led a delegation of U.S. lawmakers to Cuba this week for meetings with Cuban diplomats and trade officials, the AFP reports. Joining him were Senator Al Franken (MN), Rep. Raul Grijalva (AZ-3), and Rep. John Larson (CT-1).
In a press conference held in Havana, Senator Franken commented on the turning tide of opinion in Washington. “I think that it’s a very small minority, really, in the Senate, in the Congress, who have a strong objection,” he said. Senator Udall followed up, stating, “it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen tomorrow… but the steps are taking place.”
Earlier this month, Senator Udall introduced the Cuba Digital and Telecommunications Advancement Act, (the DATA Act), which would enable U.S. telecommunications and Internet companies to provide services in Cuba. According to Udall, the DATA Act “will allow American companies to help Cuba build the 21st-century telecommunications infrastructure necessary in today’s global economy and empower Cubans to realize their full potential.”
Udall continued, “Access to the Internet will help improve the lives of everyday Cubans and enable them to connect with the best ambassadors for democratic change — the American people.”
This delegation of U.S. lawmakers is one of many to visit the island in the wake of President Obama’s December 17th announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would restore diplomatic ties. Also this week, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto visited the island on a “manufacturing trade mission,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports.
In January, Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) led a group of Congressmen including Senators Dick Durbin (IL), Sheldon Whitehouse (RI), Barbara Mikulski (MD), and Rep. Peter Welch (VT). In February, The Center for Democracy in the Americas led a visit by Senators Mark Warner (VA), Claire McCaskill (MO), and Amy Klobuchar (MN) to the country for meetings on expanding agricultural trade.
While in Miami for meetings about hurricane preparedness, President Obama made an unscheduled visit to a shrine dedicated to the Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba’s patron saint, the Miami Herald reports.
“The President is visiting the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Miami to pay his respects to the Cuban-American diaspora that worships there,” said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan in a statement. “He will honor the sacrifices that Cuban-Americans have made in their pursuit of liberty and opportunity, as well as their extraordinary contributions to our country.”
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Cuba has approved five more foreign firms to invest in Havana’s Mariel Special Development Zone, EFE reports. The companies will operate in agribusiness, light industry, electronics, chemicals and transportation. Five of the six companies were approved with 100% foreign capital, an idea unthinkable just a few years ago in Cuba, which previously required foreign firms to participate as minority members of joint ventures.
In 2013, Cuba adopted 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 investments. Cuba Standard reports that thousands of containers from Europe and Asia already pass through the port on a weekly basis.
Cuban and Norwegian officials called on Colombia’s government and the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) to reach a bilateral ceasefire and continue working toward a peace treaty to end over 50 years of civil war, Telesur reports. Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos has in the past refused to agree to such ceasefires.
Last week, the FARC suspended a six month-old unilateral ceasefire after a government raid killed 27 FARC fighters. One of those FARC members killed was Jairo Martinez, who has been a member of the peace negotiating team since early this year. The Bogotá-based Peace and Reconciliation Foundation found that the FARC’s unilateral ceasefire had reduced the intensity of the conflict by close to 90 percent.
Peace talks between Colombia’s government and the FARC have been underway in Havana since 2012, and Cuba has earned international praise for promoting peace between the government and the rebels. Talks were briefly suspended in April after guerrilla fighters killed 11 Colombian soldiers, prompting Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos to announce the resumption of air strikes on FARC outposts.
Brazilian soccer legend Edson Arantes do Nascimento, known by fans as Pele, will join the New York Cosmos, his former team, for an exhibition match against the Cuban national team set to take place next Tuesday in Havana, Reuters reports.
The New York Cosmos announced the match in March in the first of many steps U.S. sports teams have taken to engage with Cuba. In April, representatives from the NBA visited Cuba for a four-day training camp. Also last month, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said he was looking to hold exhibition games in Cuba as early as next year.
Enrique Garcia, president of the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF) told Reuters this week that Cuba could soon become a CAF member. “We hope this can move relatively quickly. I don’t mean next month, but there’s a pretty clear understanding,” he said. “We’re very optimistic.”
The CAF, which was founded in 1970 and consists of 19 Ibero-American countries and 14 regional private banks, is a top lender for development projects across Latin America.
“Unlike other regional financial institutions, such as the Inter-American Development Bank, CAF does not require member countries to be part of the Organization of American States, which Cuba has been out of since 1962,” Reuters reports. “Still, before joining CAF, Havana would have to adapt to a series of norms and regulations, such as declassifying information on its reserves and opening up its accounting books.”
The Havana Convention Center will host the 25th meeting of the Internet Addresses Registry for Latin America and the Caribbean in May of 2016, the Trinidad and Tobago Guardian reports. This is the second time the event will be hosted in Havana. It will be facilitated by the Cuban State Telecommunications Company, ETECSA.
Cuba aims to double its Internet connectivity by 2020. In a speech in February, First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel promised to increase Internet access for all.
Cuban performance artist and political dissident Tania Bruguera was briefly detained this week during a performance being held in her Havana home in which she and a handful of other dissidents read aloud from “The Origins of Totalitarianism” by Hannah Arendt, the Los Angeles Times reports. She was released hours later. Bruguera was previously detained by Cuban authorities in January after organizing a “participatory performance” event in Havana’s Revolution Square.
Column: A new era in U.S.-Cuba relations, Wayne S. Smith, The Tampa Bay Times
Wayne Smith, a former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana who left the Foreign Service because of disagreements with the Reagan Administration about U.S. policy toward Cuba, writes, “The United States and Cuba will still have disagreements, but once diplomatic relations have been restored, there will be an established framework to discuss and hopefully resolve most of them. We have entered a new era in relations, and there seems to be no turning back.”
$75,000 will get you a lot of house in Havana — if you’re Cuban, Nick Miroff, The Washington Post
For now, Cuban and U.S. laws prohibit Americans from buying property in Cuba. But, “with the two countries moving to restore diplomatic relations and end decades of estrangement, it is not difficult to imagine a day when pent-up global market forces will wash over this city’s sagging buildings and mansions in distress.”
How Shifting Immigrant Tides Encouraged Normalization with Cuba, Tom Hayden, The Nation
“Recent generations of Cuban immigrants to America, like most other immigrants, come for economic reasons, not to join an army led by Batista’s ghost. While the first generation proclaimed ‘We shall return’ as conquerors, like Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific, the new generations expect to return often and freely.”
What we know about Cuba’s Economy, Drew Desilver, Pew Research Center
A new Pew study reveals five important trends in Cuba’s economy: (1) in spite of the embargo, there is a trade relationship that has existed between the U.S. and Cuba since 2000; (2) Cuba’s economic growth has slowed in recent years; (3) state-owned entities, though shrinking, still play a central role in Cuba’s economy; (4) the number of private sector workers is on the rise; and (5) Cuba mostly imports goods and exports services.
Airbnb capitalizes on island traditions for brisk growth in Cuba listings, Mimi Whitefield, The Miami Herald
“Airbnb has grown rapidly in Cuba because it took advantage of two well-established patterns: the tradition of renting out rooms to travelers to earn extra money and the kindness of friends and neighbors with Internet connections.”
Ice skating on Havana’s waterfront, Will Grant, BBC News
American artist Duke Riley put on an artificial ice skating rink on Havana’s Malecón for the 12th annual Havana Biennial. The artist was inspired to create the rink in Havana because “it doesn’t really make any sense at all.” The rink also serves as a metaphor for the diplomatic ice beginning to melt between Cuba and the United States.
A FINAL WORD
Since last fall, this publication has been produced, edited, posted and, generally, made more excellent thanks to Cullen Moran. Cullen is CDA’s third Stephen Rivers Memorial Fellow, a position we created in honor of a great activist and cultural bridge-builder. This is the last edition that will bear his imprint. Cullen is returning to college this fall. While the Cuba Central Newsblast will continue bringing you news and analysis about U.S.-Cuba policy and what’s happening on the island, we will miss Cullen’s steady editorial hand.