On respect, readiness, and what keeps you up at night

“Yes, but what keeps you up at night?”

The question, at first, seemed to startle our friend Emilia, standing with us last Friday night in Havana.

We began our conversation talking about why warmer relations with the United States meant so much to her. She is a state employee who stands to benefit little, if at all, from the surging number of visitors from the U.S.

To her, the opening created by Presidents Obama and Castro is relieving the crushing burden of separation that has weighed on Cubans like Emilia since our paths divided in 1959.

Her eyes, which had flashed with excitement discussing Cuba’s removal from the terror list, quieted and became serious.

“What keeps me up at night? Two things do,” She said. “First, when the increase in travelers comes from the United States, we will not be ready, and you may ask ‘why did we come?’”

And then, more serious still, “The second thing I worry about is that you will not think we have something to offer; that you will not respect us in return.”

If the hardliners in Congress get their way, Cubans will have unlimited time to get ready for more visits from the United States. As we reported last week, they are using the budget bills moving through the House to shut down President Obama’s travel reforms and other features of our historic diplomatic opening with Cuba.

New flights and ferry services would be cut off under provisions of the THUD (Transportation, Housing and Urban Development) appropriations bill. The President’s new approach on sending exports to Cuba – a shot in the arm for the nascent small business sector– are also undermined by spending limits in the Commerce Department funding bill.

These measures, if signed into law by the president, would last for just the forthcoming fiscal year, however legislation introduced this week by Senator Marco Rubio would more permanently stop the flow of money to Cuban businesses associated in any way with Cuba’s military and any entities it controls. As the Latin Post reported yesterday, passage of this legislation would even subject U.S. citizens wishing to travel to Cuba to potential penalties.

Of course, U.S. firms can easily do business with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China – among many other countries – and U.S. travelers freely visit those places (as Senator Rubio’s Deputy of Chief of Staff did last year on an all-expenses paid trip to Beijing).

It seems like the guiding principle in efforts like Senator Rubio’s is not human rights, but hatred of the Castro government and adherence to the Cold War era strategies of trying to starve the island and its people in order to bring that government down.

Emilia wouldn’t see the respect she is hoping for in recent columns by Andres Oppenheimer and Jose Cardenas. These commentators aren’t at all concerned by U.S. businesses doing deals in Cuba; both are convinced there’s nothing there. Cardenas calling “Cuba” bankrupt, saying it’s like “an overripe mango waiting to be plucked by American business,” and Oppenheimer calling Cuba “one of the most backward countries in Latin America.”

Perhaps they could try seeing Cuba through the same set of open eyes Congressman Bradley Byrne from Alabama brought to the island last week.

Byrne, who visited Cuba with the Center for Democracy in the Americas (we publish the Cuba Central News Blast) with four of his House colleagues, came to Cuba having opposed the President’s decision to remove Cuba from the terror list.

On his return, however, he told WKRG, a local Mobile television station, “Cuba is not involved with the terrorists we see today which is mainly among Islamic groups in the Middle East. So, I think the President made the right decision to remove them from the terrorist list.”

President Obama has promised to veto the budget measures and protect the opening he created with President Castro last year. Week by week more members, like Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, are joining legislative efforts in the House and Senate to lift the ban on travel to Cuba in its entirety.

By many different metrics, Cuba is not ready for a huge influx of tourists from the United States. It suffers from a shortage of hotel rooms as well as infrastructure problems that concern Cuban economists and others we talked with in Havana last week.

But as one of them said, “That’s our problem,” and she urged Rep. Byrne and the other policymakers not to patronize Cuba by withholding U.S. policy changes that ought to be undertaken because they are right things to do.

Prepared or not for an influx of tourists, Cubans are waiting for the respect that all countries deserve from the United States. If we can alleviate that worry of Emilia’s, perhaps we’ll all sleep a bit better.


House votes to defund Obama’s Cuba travel reforms

The House voted Thursday to preserve budget limits in the 2016 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development spending bill authored by Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25) that would halt any newly scheduled flights or ferry travel to Cuba. By a vote of 176-247, the House rejected an amendment by Rep. Barbara Lee (CA-13) to strike the anti-Cuba travel language from the bill.

In debate on her proposal, Rep. Lee argued, “Not only are the current provisions in this bill wrong for diplomacy, they’re patently anti-business.”  Since President Obama announced the opening to Cuba in December 2014, using his executive authority to streamline non-tourist travel opportunities to the island, Jet Blue and other carriers have stated their intentions to increase the frequency of charter service to Cuba, and ferry companies are seeking permission in Cuba to begin operating there.

Supporters of Diaz-Balart’s language argued that traveling to airports or seaports that had been owned by Americans and confiscated by Cuba’s government amounted to trafficking in stolen goods. It is estimated that Fidel Castro nationalized over $850 million of U.S. property in 1960 after President Eisenhower slashed the U.S. import quota for Cuban sugar. By prohibiting new travel to such properties, Diaz-Balart is seeking to shut the door to new visitors.

Rep. Mark Sanford (SC-1), one of 18 Republicans to support the Lee amendment, said during the debate, “If I travel on Delta Airlines to Moscow, it does not mean that I support Putin. If I travel on Royal Caribbean to Shanghai, it does not mean I support the Chinese regime.” Rep. Sanford is the sponsor of H.R. 664, legislation to end the ban on travel to Cuba for all Americans.

The full House vote on new air and ferry travel to Cuba came one day after a House Appropriations Subcommittee voted to block new expenditures on a U.S. embassy in Cuba as part of a larger bill funding diplomatic and foreign operations. The State Department has said it will need to make more than $6.6 million in badly needed improvements to the building it currently operates as a U.S. Interests Section in Havana, in order for it to serve as a fully-equipped embassy.

The White House has stated it will veto spending bills that cut back on President Obama’s Cuba policy changes.

Rubio says he’ll block U.S. Ambassador to Cuba

On Monday, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry vowing to block an ambassadorial nomination and the re-establishment of full diplomatic relations with Cuba, unless the Administration satisfactorily addresses four areas of concern. In his letter, Rubio demands “substantive progress” on political reforms and human rights, the repatriation of U.S. fugitives living in Cuba, resolution of uncompensated U.S. property claims, and removal of restrictions on U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

Although the Obama administration has requested funding for maintenance and upgrades to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, it has been silent on whether it intends to name an ambassador and on when it will decide to do so.

Should the President nominate an ambassador, and the Senate votes the choice down or bottles it up the nominee, President Obama could make a recess appointment which, if made during a Senate recess of at least ten days, would not have to be approved by the Senate. Any recess appointee would essentially serve out the remainder of President Obama’s term, but could not be recess-appointed again.

During two terms in office, President Clinton made 139 recess appointments and President George W. Bush made 171 recess appointments. As of February 1, 2015, President Barack Obama has made 32 recess appointments in office, some of which were struck down in court.

Jacobson, lead U.S.-Cuba negotiator, nominated to be Ambassador to Mexico

President Obama has nominated Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson to be the next U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Jacobson, who oversees U.S. Western Hemispheric affairs at the State Department, has been leading the negotiations between Washington and Havana. Her nomination could mean that the talks to re-establish formal relations and re-open embassies are nearing completion.

Jacobson, a career diplomat in Latin America and expert on Mexico, is widely respected in her field. Many see the nomination as “a nod by the Obama administration toward the importance of the relationship with Mexico.”

Although Secretary Jacobson has previously won Senate confirmation, given the current backlog of more than 30 Ambassadors awaiting action by the Senate, her nomination won’t likely be going anywhere fast.

Rep. Bradley Byrne reexamines terror policy stance after Cuba trip

Rep. Bradley Byrne (AL-1), a Member of the House Armed Services Committee, has endorsed President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror, following a trip to the island with four House colleagues.

In comments reported by WKRG-TV, a Mobile affiliate, Byrne said: “”Cuba is not involved with the terrorists we see today which is mainly among Islamic groups in the Middle East. So, I think the President made the right decision to remove them from the terrorist list.”

Byrne’s visit, sponsored by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, took place between May 27 and May 31, and included meetings with senior Cuban government officials and the Catholic Church, as well as visits with Cuban entrepreneurs and musicians in their homes.

When President Obama removed Cuba from the list, as WKRG reported, Rep. Byrne criticized him saying, “I have a hard time understanding how the President can make this decision.”

During his visit, the Congressman saw trade opportunities in Cuba. “I went to the Port of Mariel… I see there are some things we can do there with transshipments of goods and containers that are coming through the Panama Canal and transshipping on to Mobile and other ports in the Gulf.”

Rep. Byrne remains interested in the national security dimensions of the U.S.-Cuba relationship. Speaking of the President’s terror list decision, he said, “it’s a step in the right direction and I’m glad the president took it and I’m ready to build on that by getting some mutual agreements with the Cubans with regard to our internal security, their internal security and the security of this region.”

The Mobile Representative also said he witnessed the spirit of the island, “Cuba is a beautiful country and the people there are really great.”  He was joined on the trip by Rep. Mark Sanford (SC-1), Rep. Buddy Carter (GA-1), Rep. Tom Emmer (MN-6), and Rep. Don Beyer (VA-8).

Declassified documents shed light on Luis Posada’s role in 1976 Cubana airline bombing

The U.S. State Department has declassified documents documenting the role of Cuban exile Luis Posada Carriles in a 1976 terrorist attack on a Cuban airplane, the Miami Herald reports. The documents show that Posada, a trained CIA informant, alerted the Central Intelligence Agency of his plans to bomb the Cuban airliner en route from Panama to Havana.

The documents show that the CIA passed the information on to other departments, but failed to act, and failed to alert Cuba of the plans. The Miami Herald points out that the documents do not necessarily implicate Posada, as his alert could have just been a stunt to see what the reaction from the United States would be. His lawyer claims the reports were made in order to stop the attack on the plane.

Yet, years of documentary evidence assembled by the National Security Archive and others put him at the center of the plot to bomb the airline in an attack that killed all 73 persons aboard.

Posada Carriles, a former CIA asset, has publicly claimed responsibility for 1997 tourism bombings in Cuba that resulted in the death of an Italian businessman.

In 2004, he was arrested in Panama carrying over 200 pounds of explosives, and allegedly plotting the assassination of Fidel Castro. He was pardoned in 2004 and, one year later, slipped into the United States seeking asylum.  He successfully fought charges following his entry into the United States, and currently resides in Miami.

American ports jockey to be first in line for future Cuba trade

U.S. ports along the Gulf Coast of the United States are competing for future trade with Cuba. Officials from New Orleans, Tampa, and Houston are working Commerce officials in both countries on behalf of their ports.

“Whatever is allowed by law, we want to jump in and take advantage of,” said Bob Rohrlack, president of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

The Port of New Orleans director Gary LaGrange pointed out that “Prior to the embargo, the largest trading partner with Cuba was the Port of New Orleans.” He noted that though the change won’t take place overnight, New Orleans could be heavily involved in commercial transactions taking place overtime. LaGrange cited analysts who estimated that trade with Cuba could add 7,000 to 12,000 American jobs.

The government of Cuba has indicated by its commitment to the $1 billion development zone including the Mariel Port outside of Havana that it expects foreign investment and foreign trade to swell once the U.S. embargo is lifted.

Cuba is currently undergoing a liberalization of its economy, with President Castro relaxing restrictions on small businesses, liberalizing real estate markets, making it easier for Cubans to travel abroad and expanding Cubans’ access to consumer goods.

With legal American tourism to Cuba on the horizon, infrastructure is needed

With U.S. visits to Cuba up 36% since President Obama’s decision to open travel and trade with Cuba, and the potential for additional visitors if the travel ban is repealed, there is new focus on the ability of Cuba’s infrastructure to support an estimated 10 million American tourists annually.

American Airlines and JetBlue are both eager to expand service to Cuba once a bilateral civil aviation agreement is signed and both governments give them the green light.

Richard Anderson, chief executive officer of Delta, is worried about what these changes mean. “I mean, Cuba has no infrastructure. It doesn’t have a real economy,” he recently told the Associated Press. “How do we think this suddenly is going to support dozens and dozens of nonstop flights a day?”

Airlines will also have to be cautious about flight planning. “Cuba remains a bit of a black box for airline planners. There’s none of the traffic, fare, or population data that helps to undergird most new routes elsewhere in the region.”

A ready supply of overnight accommodations and services will accompany the renewal of cruise ship visits to Cuba—modes of transportation with built in infrastructure. “Many observers see the cruise industry as a way Cuba might ease into tourism with the U.S. All three of the major lines—Carnival, Royal Caribbean Cruises, and Norwegian Cruise Line—have already expressed interest in adding Cuba to their itineraries.”

A World Affairs Council official described the need for a “really delicate dance” on Cuba’s part in order to develop the way they want to. This is “opposed to the way a lot of Americans are going to want it, which is very Wild West.”

New York soccer team scores in Havana

The New York Cosmos made history by playing a match with Cuba’s national team this Tuesday, reports ABC News. Despite rainy weather, fans filled Havana’s Pedro Marrero stadium, and listened as both national country’s national anthems were played before the game.

Soccer legend Pele joined the trip as an honorary president of the organization.

“I felt like the atmosphere from the fans was phenomenal,” said New York forward Lucky Mksona. This is the first time a professional U.S. soccer team has played in Cuba since the Chicago Sting played in 1978, during the administration of President Jimmy Carter. The Cosmos won 4 to 1.

The Cosmos are also the first professional U.S. team to visit Cuba since December’s detente, but it appears they won’t be the last. Major League Baseball has expressed interest in Cuba, and there are reports about the Baltimore Orioles returning to the island at some point this year.

On the street where Rubio’s family lived, opinions on the Senator and his candidacy are mixed

The International Business Times reports that Senator Marco Rubio is unpopular in his family’s former neighborhood in Central Havana. The Senator often cites his family’s emigration from Cuba as background for his opposition to the government of Cuba. Rubio was born in Miami to Cuban American parents, his mother worked as a hotel maid, his father a bartender and school crossing guard.

International Business Times reporter Cristina Silva found the Rubio family’s former street, and interviewed the neighbors on Calle Maloja.

“You like to hear that one of your own is going to be president,” said Yuniel Salazar, 41, who has lived here all his life. “But if he thinks that way, he shouldn’t be president. Haven’t we had enough of that?”

Another neighbor was shocked to hear of the Cuban-American’s ambitions to be President of the United States. “Cubans can run for president?” he asked when told about Rubio’s White House campaign. “Imagine that. A Cuban president of the United States. That’s why people go there, right?”

Recommended Reading

Ministry of Rap: In Castro’s Cuba, Even Hip-Hop is State-Run Justin Rohrlich, Slate

Cuban rappers have long walked a fine line between cultural expression and anti-government commentary in their music. Founded in 2002, the Cuban Rap Agency aims to promote rappers on the island, while curbing their ability to express complaints about the government and nationalizing the industry. Documentary artist Jauretsi Saizarbitoria recorded its effect of rap on the island in her documentary East of Havana.

As ideology fades in Cuba, spirituality and popes intervene, Nick Miroff, The Washington Post

Cuban spirituality has come a long way from the days when believers were sent to labor camps and atheism was enshrined in the Cuban Constitution. President Raul Castro recently made headlines when he told reporters at the Vatican he might return to the pews. As Miroff points out, he’s not alone. A recent poll showed that 70 percent of surveyed Cubans have a favorable opinion of the Roman Catholic Church, and 80 percent rated Pope Francis positively.

Havana Days Isabel Albee, The Huffington Post

“People often say the more you learn about Cuba, the less you know.” American college student, and CDA intern, documents everyday life in Havana after a semester living with a Cuban family and studying at the University of Havana. A handful of anecdotes about potatoes, dead chickens, and student performances sufficiently and succinctly describe the nuances of Cuba’s today.

U.S. journalism courses rile Cuba amid effort to heal rift, Ben Fox, The Associated Press

U.S. journalism courses are under renewed scrutiny by Cuba’s government in light of recent diplomatic changes that could normalize relations between the two countries. American officials defend the program, “It’s a very open, transparent program. What we were doing was not ideologically driven except for the fact I guess that part of our ideology is that people should have a right to free expression,” said John Caulfield. A Cuban student agreed, “I don’t consider myself counter-revolutionary, on the contrary…I just want a change for the better for the country.”

Recommended Viewing

Happy Together/Felices juntos, OnCuba Staff, OnCuba Magazine

Twelve Cuban joined forces with twelve American artists for this year’s Biennial to create the exposition “Happy Together”, or “Felices juntos”. In the exposition, twelve American cartoons and characters were reinterpreted by Cuban artists, and twelve Cuban icons were reinterpreted by American artists. The exposition is meant to show the dynamic interaction and coexistence between the two countries. OnCuba Magazine has acquired fourteen of the art pieces to share online. One piece depicts Bart Simpson dressed like a Cuban flying down Havana’s streets on a wooden cart. Check them out.

Cuba removed from list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, John Oliver, HBO

In this short video, John Oliver commends President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the terror list, and questions why Cuba was there in the first place. John Oliver is no stranger to Cuba coverage, as his 2014 take down of the rationale behind the embargo went viral last April.

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