The Cuban Military Not So Transparent Act

Legislation introduced earlier this month by Senator Marco Rubio (FL) – the Cuban Military Transparency Act – isn’t transparent at all.

Rather than revealing something about Cuba’s military, the legislation conceals the intent of its authors; namely, to shame, harass, and try to stop every American from visiting Cuba or seeking to do business in Cuba, and to return U.S. policy to its pre-December 17, 2014 goal of starving the Cuban economy and the Cuban people along with it.

Why are the seven Senate sponsors relying now on such desperate measures? A few numbers – 43, 36, and 620,000 – tell the story.

  • We can now count forty-three Republican and Democratic Senators who’ve stepped forward to sponsor The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, legislation to make it legal for all Americans to travel to Cuba. We congratulate Senators Barbara Mikulski (MD), Patty Murray (WA), and Pat Roberts (KS), the chairman of the Agriculture Committee, for being the most recent among them.
  • President Obama’s decision to streamline regulations on purposeful travel to Cuba has galvanized interest across the United States in visiting Cuba. From January 1 to May 9th in 2015, there has been a 36% increase by Americans to the island over the same period last year.
  • For Cuban Americans who can visit Cuba on an unlimited basis, thanks to regulatory changes by President Obama, travel to the island is rising substantially. According to the Havana Consulting Group, family travel visits could 620,000 in 2015, a record.

This surge in visitors makes a huge difference for Cubans employed in transportation, lodging, restaurants, the owners of restaurants and beds and breakfasts, and the artisans and translators who get payments in hard currency or work in the “tip economy.”

According to 14ymedio, the number of self-employed persons in Cuba exceeded 500,000 for the first time at the end of May 2015, with young people and women benefitting enormously.  Studies show that travel and tourism are big drivers of employment and economic growth. As state-owned enterprises like hotels struggle to accommodate increases in tourism, the private sector will, as one analyst reported, fill capacity gaps, especially in the areas of lodging and restaurants, accelerating change in the structure of Cuba’s economy.

The economic reforms under President Raúl Castro enable Cubans to work for businesses that profit from the increase in travel taking place under President Obama’s policy reforms. Many Cubans are earning more money, and interacting and exchanging more with U.S. travelers. This is a virtuous circle producing better lives for Cubans in ways that simply couldn’t happen under 50 years of isolation and sanctions.

Most of us look at this emerging picture and think, “what’s not to like?” In contrast, the Senate sponsors of the Cuban Military Transparency Act see the fifty years of diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions they’ve supported coming to an end. That is why they are acting so desperately.

So, what does their legislation really attempt to do? If enacted into law, it would prohibit a U.S. person from engaging in any financial transactions with Cuba’s Ministry of Defense and Interior Ministry, senior officials employed by them, or entities they own or control.

It’s not a secret that in Cuba, a socialist state with a largely state-owned economy, the military is invested in state-owned businesses, and several of those – as the Senate bill says – are dominant players in Cuba’s tourist industry.

Given the military’s broad role in Cuba’s economy, any expenditure by U.S. travelers and businesses – including the cost of hotel rooms, telephone calls, airport taxes, the hotel occupancy tax, sales taxes on tourist purchases, resort fees – could be prohibited presumptively unless the traveler or company could persuade OFAC they spent their money in Cuba some other way.

How could they prove the negative? Who in Cuba will hand out the forms that say “that hotel room” or “that painting” or “that serving of ropa vieja” didn’t come from an enterprise owned or controlled by Cuba’s military? Of course, the sponsors aren’t interested in compliance with their bill – they simply want to fill Americans with fear so that they don’t pack their bags and go, doing incalculable damage on Cuban families and their prospects for the future.

And let’s be clear: this legislation covers ETESCA, Cuba’s telecommunications company. Should it become law, it would prohibit Google and Facebook from doing business in Cuba. Millions of Cubans waiting for better connections to the Internet could thank the 7 Senate “transparency act” sponsors for that result as well.

If there were a truth-in-naming rule in the U.S. Congress, they could have given this enormously damaging legislation a much more fitting title:

  • The No-Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act;
  • The Stop Cuban Americans From Visiting their Families in Cuba Act;
  • The Smother Free Enterprise in Cuba Act; or even
  • The Keep Google and Facebook from Connecting Cubans to the Internet Act

But no such rule in Congress exists, as is transparently the case.


U.S., Cuba ready to announce embassy openings in early July

Negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba to reopen embassies will wrap up in early July, Reuters reports. While in Cuba, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (AZ) made headlines this week calling the opening of embassies “imminent.”

Since Presidents Obama and Castro announced their bilateral breakthrough last December, Cuba and the United States have held four rounds of talks aimed at restoring diplomatic relations, opening embassies, and addressing the roles of rights of each country’s diplomats. The fourth round was held last month in Washington and “made progress,” according to press accounts, but failed to reach resolution on remaining issues.

Unresolved items are said to include freedom of movement by diplomats in the respective countries, the security and amount of shipments to the embassies, and disagreement over U.S. diplomats’ activities that Cuba finds objectionable, including teaching of journalism classes and providing Internet access at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana. Reuters reports that these issues are expected to be resolved before the announcement in July.

An unmistakable symbol of the changing bilateral relationship could be seen in the front yard of Cuba’s future embassy in Washington last week, when staff of the Cuban Interests Section installed a flagpole – awaiting the moment when they can hoist their nation’s flag.

What we now call the U.S. Interests Section in Havana functioned as an embassy until January 3, 1961 when President Dwight Eisenhower severed diplomatic relations. President Carter, who had sought to normalize relations with Cuba, established the U.S. Interests Section in Havana (and agreed to the opening of a Cuban Interests Section in Washington); each of which have operated under the auspices of the Swiss Embassy since 1977.

Secretary of State John Kerry was expected to fly to Havana for the ceremonial flag raising at the future U.S. Embassy in Havana, but his recent bicycle injury, and ongoing negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, may have caused him to delay his trip to the island.

Republican Presidential Primary Pack Divides on Cuba

According to Lesley Clark, White House correspondent for McClatchy, Donald Trump told reporters during a campaign stop in New Hampshire on Wednesday that he supports the new direction in Cuba policy initiated late last year by President Obama.

Reporting on Twitter, Clark quotes Trump saying, “It’s time, it’s fine,” and “I don’t mind Cuba happening, but the U.S. could’ve struck a better deal.”

Also this week, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, speaking at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire, appeared to soften his opposition to President Obama’s decision to expand travel rights for all Americans, according to a report filed for NJ Advance Media.

“If you’re allowed to (travel to Cuba) everybody’s got to make their own free choice,” Christie said. “I’m just giving my opinion on it, which is I don’t know why you would want to support that regime given the way they treat their own people.

“I couldn’t do it,” Christie added, but “Others will have to make their own choice.

This libertarian approach differs from Christie’s earlier statements. In April, Governor Christie called Obama’s policy a “national disgrace.” Last year, after the President announced the diplomatic breakthrough, he demanded that Cuba return Joanne Chesimard to the U.S. before “any further consideration of the restoration of diplomatic relations with the Cuban government.”

By contrast, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who announced his candidacy for president this week, was clear in opposing the new direction in policy. If elected in 2016, he promised never to visit Cuba until he could “go to Havana in solidarity with a free Cuban people.”

Senator Rand Paul (KY), also a presidential aspirant, has dismissed supporters of the U.S. embargo as “isolationists.”

Sprint, T-Mobile offer calling plans to Cuba (¿Puedes escucharme ahora?)*

Sprint and T-Mobile will offer calling plans to Cuba, CNET reports. Sprint will offer a “Cuba 20 Plus” plan, providing 20 minutes of calling to any Cuban number for $20 per month, plus 70 cents for additional minutes.

“With the recent government expansion of relations with Cuba, and Miami being an important market…we wanted to combine a promotion with a way to give back to Cuban-Americans and make it easier for them to call friends and family in Cuba,” said Dow Draper, president of Sprint prepaid.

T-Mobile will offer a similar deal, with is prepaid arm MetroPCS, to offer 20 minutes of calls to Cuba plus unlimited calling and texts to 75 other countries for $10 per month.

Currently, a third party line is necessary to call Cuba from the United States. Companies like HablaCuba and DimeCuba offer services to call Cuba for 70 cents per minute.

*Apologies to Verizon.

Google, other tech companies head to Cuba to talk Internet connectivity

A Google executive is heading to Cuba this weekend to meet with government officials regarding Internet access in Cuba, Politico reports. Google has already made an undisclosed offer to Cuba’s government on this subject, and Cuba has promised to increase Internet access universally by 2020.

Brett Perlmutter, the Google executive headed to Cuba, works for Google’s Ideas unit which, according to its website, is “a team of engineers, researchers and geopolitical experts who build products to support free expression and access to information, especially in repressive societies.” He will be joined by about a dozen U.S. business representatives to “focus on helping the Cuban government think through their publicly-stated goal of improving Internet access,” a Google spokesperson said.

The trip was organized and facilitated by the New York-based Council of the Americas whose goal is promoting free trade, democracy and open markets throughout the Americas. “A lot of companies are very interested,” said Alana Tummino, director of policy at Council of the Americas. “It’s an intriguing market because it’s a virgin one for growing IT and telecom infrastructure.”

According to current estimates, about 5% of Cubans have Internet access, a figure that rises to a bit over 20% by including illegal dial up services in homes. This month, Cuba’s government proposed an ambitious plan to increase Internet access incrementally, with the goal of reaching universal access by 2020. The plan involves the installation of Internet in more government offices and all schools before other sectors, but is unprecedented nonetheless. Cubans are eager to access the World Wide Web at reasonable costs, and the demand exists for the government to move further and faster.

U.S. universities beginning to recruit Cuban students

With the warming trend in U.S.-Cuba relations, U.S. universities are beginning to recruit Cuban students. The nonprofit organization Educational Testing Services is working to certify test centers in Cuba. This will soon enable Cubans to sit for entrance exams such as the GRE for graduate school and the TOEFL, an English proficiency test. Four Cuban students will take the TOEFL test later this month, and the GRE is expected to offered in October. Technology and, in some cases, limited computer stations, are proving to be hurdles, as well as arranging for new payment mechanisms (in lieu of standard online credit card payment).

 Richard Blanco, Inaugural poet, visits Cuba, notes change

Richard Blanco, the Cuban American who delivered the Inaugural poem at President Obama’s second inauguration, visited the island along with longtime friend Ruth Behar, the New York Times reports. The two just launched a popular bridge-building poetry project between the United States and Cuba that focuses on the cultural and personal side of the historic change.

Blanco hadn’t been to the island since 2009, and was shocked by the changes he saw. “For a moment I forgot I was in Cuba. Everything had become so much easier to do,” he said. He noted the high quality of restaurants and a play he and Ms. Behar attended during his trip.

Blanco and Behar also noted the pain of realizing most of their younger relatives had left for abroad, as many Cuban families are split up. Blanco said he “hoped families and the countries’ two governments can work to develop new relationships that lead to a more sustainable Cuban system.”

“How,” he asked, “can you take the good from everything, put it all together and make it better?”


Cuban representatives will call for end of Puerto Rico’s “colonial status” at UN

The official Cuban News Agency has reported that Cuban diplomats will call for “self-determination and independence” for the people of Puerto Rico on June 22. The draft resolution on the “colonial status of Puerto Rico” will be submitted to the Special Decolonization Committee of the United Nations.

According to the Cuban News Agency, “It calls on the U.S. government to assume its responsibility in this process so that Puerto Ricans enjoy their rights.”

Currently, Puerto Rico belongs to the United States, but is not a part of the United States, and its political status has been debated for over half a decade.

This issue came before the U.N. sixty-two years ago. As the Latin Post reported, The United Nations General Assembly voted in 1953 to recognize the island’s self-government and removed it from its list of non-self-governing territory[ies].”

State newspaper Granma noted that “Among the most significant elements to be presented … will be that of demanding that the government of the United States assume the responsibility of embarking on a process that would allow the Puerto Rican people to fully exercise their inalienable right to self-determination, to independence and to decision-making in a sovereign manner.”


Cuba’s government announces Wi-Fi expansions and cheaper Internet

US News reports that Cuba’s government is expanding Internet access on the island by creating 35 new government computer centers in July. In addition, hourly use of Wi-Fi will halve in cost from $4.50 to $2 beginning on July 1. The lowered price is still 10% of the average Cuban’s income, but the decrease will give Internet access to many who currently do not have it.

“The Internet space is opening up here and I think this is a significant step,” said Norges Rodriguez, a blogger and telecommunications engineer in Havana. “A year or two ago, we didn’t have anything like this.”

The proposed connectivity changes, though miniscule in comparison to universal Internet access, will help to meet the demands among Cubans for greater Internet access in one of the world’s least connected countries.

Cuba likely to end dual-currency system by the end of the year

The Financial Times reports that two years after Cuba’s government announced it would work to end the dual currency system in Cuba, economists on the island predict the CUC will be taken out of circulation by the end of the year.

Cuba currently has two currencies — the national money, Cuban pesos (CUP), is what government workers are paid in and what is used at state food markets. 24 CUPs amount to one U.S. dollar. The convertible Cuban peso (CUC) was introduced in 1994 as Cuba began to open its economy to tourism and more foreign ventures. The CUC is pegged to the U.S. dollar one-to-one.

“It is my understanding that the CUC will be removed from circulation before the next Communist Party Congress in April,” said a Cuban economist with knowledge of reform efforts.

Restaurants and markets in Cuba that once only accepted CUCs began to accept CUPs this year, a harbinger for impending reforms. In addition, higher-valued CUP bills were introduced this year, ranging from 200 to 1,000 pesos.

The Financial Times reports that the move would “continue President Raúl Castro’s efforts to introduce market elements and remove price distortions, and improve accounting transparency and the efficiency of state companies.”

Recommended Reading

Investing in Cuba, Financial Times

This week, the Financial Times released a ten-part Special Part series on investing in Cuba. The report covers an assortment of topics, from the significance of warming relations to Cuba’s move to a single currency to the new port at Mariel. The topic of property claims in Cuba is also broached, along with the co-operative system in Cuba.

A Havana journalism professor is testing the limits of media freedom in fast-changing Cuba, Joyce Hackel, PRI

Following a year as the Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Cuban journalist Elaine Diaz is beginning an independent online citizen’s news project in Cuba. “I don’t expect too much support from the government. I’m kind of expecting tolerance, but I’m not sure if I can count on that,” Diaz, author of the blog La Polémica Digital, says. “It’s going to be really challenging.” The news project will focus on vulnerable communities, and it has not been approved by the government. Diaz advertised for three more journalists upon her return this year, and she received 96 applications.

Cuban Artist Puts on Hair Competition to Bolster Black Pride, The Associated Press

Afro-Cuban performance artist Susana Delahante put on a black hairstyle competition in Havana’s cultural center as a “rare commentary” on race and beauty standards in Cuba, where prejudice lingers. “This is a first step in reclaiming this type of hair,” said competitor Ania de Armas, a 22-year-old art history graduate who competed in the natural hair category. 70 women competed in the exhibition, and over 300 spectators watched and cheered on the winners.

Obsesión, perhaps Cuba’s best-known hip-hop group, address questions of beauty and conformity in their song titled “Los Pelos,” available for listening and viewing here.

Could Cuba be Vietnam in the Caribbean?, Richard E. Feinberg, Financial Times

Richard Feinberg, Professor of International Political Economy at the University of California, San Diego, and non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, asks what Cuba could learn – and improve upon – from Vietnam’s example.

“Cuba has the requisite resources — natural and human — and the location to create a balanced economy. It has fertile soil. Capable scientists have begun building a biotech cluster and the many computer engineers await opportunities that will come with global interconnectedness. The island could again become a shipping and logistics hub. And exotic Cuba could draw a variety of tourists, offering urban culture, eco-resorts, maritime sports, as well as traditional sun and surf.

“As it evolves into a more open and market-driven economy, Cuba can improve upon Vietnam’s experience. Cubans can study Vietnam’s mixed and diversified economy, while eschewing rampant corruption and offensive inequalities and conserving impressive social achievements.”

Cuba after the Castros: the likely scenario, Jose Azel, The Wall Street Journal

Offering a more pessimistic take on Cuba after President Raúl Castro steps down in 2018, Jose Azel, a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, University of Miami offers his predictions in the Wall Street Journal. Spoiler alert: the military men will take ownership of the economy.

A witness to history, Cuban exile ready to visit the island, Mimi Whitefield, Naples Daily News

Jack Skelly, age 89, whose father ran the railroad in Cuba for the United Fruit Company, wants to return to visit Cuba for the first time in 56 years. He worked in Cuba as a journalist, fielded requests from President Eisenhower to help win the release of U.S. prisoners, and, because he could speak English, worked for a short-time as the International Press Coordinator and translator for Fidel Castro. But he soon became disillusioned with the Revolution and fled to the United States, where he supported John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, and later helped with speeches dealing with Latin American affairs.

He welcomed President Obama’s decision to seek normal relations with Cuba. “I thought it was about time. I was against the embargo; I thought there was no reason for it.”

Trip to Cuba a home run for Corban’s baseball team, Bill Poehler, Statesman Journal

The Corban University men’s baseball team traveled to Caimanera, Cuba to play an away game unlike any other this week. Corban University is a private Baptist university in Oregon. The team was met by a crowd of 1,500 Cuban fans and the game commenced against a local team. The crowd began chanting “USA. USA.” after Corban’s first run. The team was also involved with missionary work on the trip, and “has already been invited back.”

U.S. children’s choir aims to break down barriers with Cuba concert, Adam Justice, International Business Times

A Los Angeles children’s choir has embarked on an 11-day tour of Cuba in an effort to increase U.S. engagement with the island through music. Director of the Young Men’s Ensemble Steven Kronauer will be teaming up with local Cuban choir Cantoria Coralillo for a choir workshop before they take to the stage for a series of concerts. The group will perform their last concert in Havana on June 21.

Recommended Viewing

For better or for worse — what would an end to the embargo mean for Cuba?, The Cuban Evolution, PBS NewsHour

PBS has begun a new video and written news series titled “The Cuban Evolution,” documenting relevant topics regarding change in today’s Cuba. The first part of the series tackles the subject head-on, discussing what the end of the embargo would mean for Cuba. We will be following along and continue sending links so you can too.

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