Rubio, Cuba, and a tale of two speeches


On July 7th, Senator Marco Rubio delivered a speech said to be about reforming higher education and finding where the jobs of the future will be created. But, it was really about the failed ways of Washington and the character of strong leadership. In one key section he says:

We have learned, painfully, that the old ways no longer work – that Washington cannot pretend the world is as the same it was in the 80s, it cannot raise taxes like it did in the 90s, and it cannot grow government like it did in the 2000s. The race for the future will never be won by going backward.

Just one day later, Mr. Rubio published a column in the New York Times that turned the logic of his jobs speech on its head. He tore into President Obama for saying that the old way of our Cuba policy “hasn’t worked for 50 years,” for accepting that the world had changed since the Cold War, and for trying to help Cubans win their own race for the future by moving Washington away from policies aimed at destroying their country’s system.

The Rubio jobs speech got a respectful reception in the marketplace of ideas, e.g. “Florida senator and 2016 candidate casts himself as a ‘new president for a new age.'” But, in “Marco Rubio’s Embarrassing Defense of Cuban Embargo,” Jonathan Chait drenches his Times op-ed in ridicule.

Citing the evidence that the embargo hasn’t weakened the communist party’s grip on power, but rather has imposed huge and painful costs on the U.S. economy, the Cuban people, and U.S. diplomacy in the region, Chait examines Rubio’s attack on the Obama policy change and writes “The trouble with Rubio’s response is not so much that his response to this reasoning is weak so much as it is nonexistent.”

For the hardliners, this is a problem. In a moment when there are powerful forces at work reshaping the way our country, our people, and our public institutions think about and relate to Cuba, it is striking that one of the nation’s most prominent legislators and political leaders who supports the U.S. embargo cannot make a persuasive argument in that policy’s defense. The increasing anemia of pro-embargo arguments in the real policy arena is becoming increasingly evident.

As we report below, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina promised in December that he’d use all the powers of his office to block funding for the U.S. embassy in Cuba. Yet this week he had to watch the State Department budget bill that he wrote be approved by his own Subcommittee and pass easily through the full Senate Appropriations Committee without any such restrictions. This happened simply because he couldn’t get the votes.

Long-time hardliners are pledging to block the appointment of a U.S. Ambassador to Cuba and hoping to use the State Department budget passed by the House to close the embassy in Cuba, but presidential candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush quietly separated himself from the maximalist position. The Guardian reported that when asked if he would allow a US embassy in Havana to open, Bush replied, “I haven’t given thought about undoing a work in progress.”

There are more defections to come. Think about Senators from the Midwest. Cuba spends about $1.7 billion every year importing foreign food to feed its people because it cannot meet their nutritional requirements with domestic production. Even though it’s legal for U.S. producers to sell into the Cuban market, U.S. restrictions on trade and financing have caused Cuba to meet it needs by importing food from our foreign competitors, with whom trade and obtaining credit is much easier.

If you sit in the U.S. Senate representing Kansas and you know that Cuba has not imported U.S. wheat for five years, how much longer can you expect your farmers to sit still for explanations about why legislation to eliminate trade barriers to Cuba hasn’t moved in the Senate?

How much longer must a Senator from Iowa explain to his or her constituents that the nation’s number one producer of corn, pork, and eggs can’t maximize sales to a market of 11 million people 90 miles off our shores because we have a policy that prefers that Cubans remain hungry or that their government buys food from China?

Sooner or later those Senators are going to get off the fence and join the American Farm Bureau Federation, the American Soybean Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers, the National Farmers Union, and other commodity groups who are supporting legislation to end the trade embargo of Cuba. Why? Because it’s good for the Cuban people and money in the pockets of their constituents and farmers. As Senator Rubio says, the race for the future will never be won by going backward.

Don’t be surprised if this logic someday moves to Florida. Twenty-nine states have lower unemployment rates than the Sunshine State. A big driver of job creation in Florida can be found in the leisure and hospitality industries. And yet, when Florida’s Representatives in Congress vote to stop new flights and ferries from serving the Cuban market they’re really voting to take jobs away from OrlandoTampa, and Miami.

And guess what? The Florida State Supreme Court has just ruled that when the Florida State Legislature created eight congressional districts through the use of illegal gerrymandering it operated with unconstitutional intent. Most of those districts are represented in Congress by Members of the Florida delegation who constantly vote to place restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba at the direct expense of their constituents’ jobs and basic right to travel freely. This can’t go on much longer.

We are witnessing a significant moment of Cuba policy reform. The old ways of doing things never worked before and won’t work now. In Rubio’s job speech, he offers a lesson about leadership in an era of profound change. Generations don’t overcome their challenges through resistance, but by adaptation:

Businesses integrating new technologies, workers learning new skills, and leaders leading in a new direction.

In Cuba policy, that new direction was charted on December 17, 2014.



Senate Committee leaves funding for U.S. embassy in Cuba untouched

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved the fiscal year 2016 budget for the State Department and its foreign aid programs without restrictions on funding to convert the U.S. Interests Section in Havana into a full-blown embassy.

Of the $49 billion for the State Department’s operations, the Obama administration has requested a relatively modest amount – $6 million, according to the Associated Press — to pay for improvements to the facilities used by Foreign Service officers representing the United States in Cuba.

The legislation, which now awaits consideration by the full Senate, differs sharply from the bill passed by the House Appropriations Committee on June 11th, which prohibits the State Department from spending any funds to establish or operate a U.S. embassy in Cuba.

The Senate bill also reflects a sharp departure from the expressed position of the bill’s sponsor, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Chairman of the State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee who has opposed President Obama’s opening to Cuba since it was announced on December 17th, 2014.

Hours after Presidents Obama and Castro disclosed their diplomatic breakthrough, Senator Graham tweeted: “I will do all in my power to block the use of funds to open an embassy in Cuba. Normalizing relations with Cuba is (a) bad idea at a bad time.”

When President Obama told the nation on July 1st that the U.S. embassy would open formally in Havana on July 20th, the Senator’s presidential campaign website released his statement which said in part, “As president, I would not honor this decision with Cuba and I would close the embassy until the Castro brothers actually change their behavior.”

Behind the scenes, Graham discovered that he couldn’t round up the votes to defund the embassy in his Subcommittee markup on July 7th, nor in the full Committee on July 9th.

According to The Hill, Graham told reporters, “On the Senate side, I’m not so sure we have all Republicans where I’m at in terms of not establishing an embassy… I don’t know if the votes are there on our side, quite frankly.”

The full Senate Appropriations Committee has yet to consider legislation to fund the U.S. Department of Agriculture and related agriculture programs, or legislation to fund the U.S. Treasury Department and related financial services, each of which have been targets for Cuba policy reform riders in past Congresses. Graham still holds out hope for rolling back Cuba policy reforms: “The House has good language which I support, so this thing is not over yet.”

U.S. cruise ships to Cuba on the horizon

In 2016, for the first time since John Kennedy served as President, a cruise ship carrying as many as 710 passengers from the United States will set sail for Cuba, if all goes according to plan. The vessel will be operated by Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise ship operator.

As the Associated Press reported, the U.S. Treasury Department has given the go-ahead to Carnival to run cruises to Cuba “through its new brand, fathom, which focuses on trips in which passengers sail to a destination in order to volunteer there.”

Travel to Cuba by U.S. residents for the purpose of tourism is illegal, and Carnival said in a press release that it “intends to operate fathom travel itineraries directly to Cuba for the purpose of providing cultural, artistic, faith-based and humanitarian exchanges” as authorized by the Treasury Department’s rules that allow travelers to visit the island to engage in activities that support the people of Cuba.

Carnival’s plan is contingent on approval by Cuba’s government. Given Thursday’s release of statistics touting rising cruise ship visits and passenger numbers by Cuba’s Transportation Ministry, this seems likely.

According to the Associated Press, cruise ships registered outside the United States already offering Havana as a port of call have experienced a five-fold increase in visits to the island between 2012 and 2014. During the same period, the number of cruise ship passengers jumped from 6,770 in 2014 to 37,519. The Ministry says that figure had already ballooned to 62,183 passenger visits in the first five months of 2015.

Reaction to Treasury’s approval of the Carnival Cruise plan echoed from Washington to Havana and back to Miami. James Williams, the head of Engage Cuba, a coalition of businesses and interest groups that support the normalization of relations, said on Twitter, “This is huge news. Now Congress should do its job and end the travel ban,” as El Pais reported.

Arnold Donald, president and CEO of Miami-based Carnival told the press this week, “These licenses today are historic. This will be the first time in well over 50 years that a cruise ship can take passengers from the United States to Cuba and return in any kind of repeated basis.”

Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, [and, full disclosure, a former CDA staffer and writer for the Cuba Central News Blast] told the Miami Herald in an email the Carnival announcement, “represents a great leap forward in terms of the U.S. government restoring the rights of Americans to travel freely, while at the same time posing a significant challenge to Cuba and its approach to trade, travel and investment going forward, and how cruise ships fit into the country’s development strategy.”

Carnival anticipates heavy demand for its new cruises to Cuba, which will set sail from Miami and cost close to $3,000 per passenger.



Cuba eliminates mother-to-child HIV transmission

Cuba is the first country recognized by the World Health Organization for having eliminated mother-to-infant transmission of HIV as well as syphilis.

“Eliminating transmission of a virus is one of the greatest public health achievements possible,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General. “This is a major victory in our long fight against HIV and sexually transmitted infections, and an important step towards having an AIDS-free generation.”

With as many as 40 countries reported to be closing in on the same goal, WHO officials told CNN that Cuba’s achievement shows that an end to the AIDS epidemic is possible.

As Time Magazine reported, the breakthrough by Cuba stems in part from a five-year program by WHO and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to eliminate transmission of HIV in Latin America.

“The program has included testing for pregnant women and treatment for women who test positive. Effective treatment of HIV in pregnant women can reduce the risk of passing the disease to a child to just 1%, down from as high as 45% otherwise,” Time said.

Medical News Today described the program as follows: “The initiatives ensure early access to prenatal care, and to HIV and syphilis testing for pregnant women and their partners. Where pregnant women test positive, they and their babies receive prompt treatment, plus the babies are delivered by cesarean section and are not breastfed. Another feature of the initiative is that programs for HIV and sexually transmitted infections are offered as an integral part of mother and child health programs in equitable, accessible and universal health systems.”

A number of countries, including the United States, have extremely low mother-to-child transmission rates, but are yet to be validated by the WHO. In the U.S. case, the national transmission rate is very low, but there are significant discrepancies between different socio-economic communities. There are 0.1 transmissions per 100,000 births to white mothers, and 1.7 to Hispanic mothers, but 9.9 out of 100,000 births to African American mothers.

“We visit municipalities, regions and specific sites within a country,” noted Sonja Caffe, a regional adviser on HIV and the Pan American Health Organization, the WHO regional office for the Americas. The WHO monitors make sure to visit even the lowest performing health care centers to make sure the quality of care is sufficient. “In Cuba, it was difficult to identify the lowest coverage areas because it has very high coverage of preventive services in all areas,” she says.

Cuban dissidents report being attacked by government security forces

Prominent Cuban dissidents Antonio Rodiles and Berta Soler report that protesters were detained and harassed by government security forces last Sunday. Rodiles reported that he was attacked by a State Security agent and other unidentified men when he refused to stop shouting “Long Live Freedom” after being arrested and handcuffed at a protest march that included Las Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White). Rodiles underwent surgery at a local hospital after suffering a broken nose in the attack.

Writing for #CubaNow, Cuban American activist Ric Herrero condemned the violence against the protesters, stating, “The attack suffered by Rodiles is inexcusable, and every one of us should be rightfully outraged by such a vulgar act of violence.”

Las Damas de Blanco have faced increasing resistance from government forces during their weekly protest march conducted after Sunday Mass services. This is due, in part, to high-profile Cuban dissidents having joined their marches, which advocate the release of political prisoners. This past Sunday, an estimated 100 protesters, primarily members of Las Damas, were detained and arrested by government security forces.

While condemning the attack, Mr. Herrero offers a comprehensive analysis of human rights conditions in Cuba, leading him to say “Obama’s Cuba Policy is already working.”

John Kirby, a State Department spokesman, said the incidents will not change U.S. policy with regard to resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, which will be reestablished on July 20 with the reopening of embassies in the two capitals, Reuters reported.

“In fact, it reinforces the need to move forward with reestablishing diplomatic relations because opening that embassy, we believe, will advance our human rights agenda by opening up channels of official engagement,” he said.

Cuba launches 35 Wi-Fi hotspots around the island

Thirty-five Wi-Fi hotspots opened around Cuba last week, according to reporting by Reuters. To make access more affordable, Etecsa, Cuba’s state-owned telecommunications company, cut rates to connect to the hotspots from 4.50 CUC an hour to 2 CUC an hour – a significant cut from the previous rates for Internet café usage, but still unaffordable for many Cubans. Cubans arrived with smart phones in hand to take advantage of one such hotspot at La Rampa, a popular gathering place in the center of Havana.

“Historically, Cuba has had probably the worst Internet access in the hemisphere. Clearly, the Cuban government has decided that broad Internet access is essential to a 21st century economy. The Internet cafes and now this Wi-Fi network show that the government is serious about expanding Internet access,” said William LeoGrande, professor of government at American University.

The new Wi-Fi hotspots went live just days after a document of Etecsa’s plan to expand Internet access to 50% of Cuban homes by 2020 was leaked by Cuban blogger Carlos Alberto Pérez at La Chiringa de Cuba. According to Larry Press, a U.S.-based telecommunications expert who follows related developments in Cuba, Etecsa did not disavow the information in the leaked presentation but stated that it was just used for training purposes. Press wrote about the plan on his blog, and worries that Etecsa is planning to connect Cubans to the Internet using “yesterday’s technology.”

“Cuba has a big opportunity to jump its infrastructure directly into mobile phones and skip cable as African countries are doing,” Google Ideas Executive Brett Perlmutter told the digital magazine On Cuba during a recent visit to the island.

The Miami Herald reports that multiple sources confirmed that Google made an offer to the Cuban government to help them expand – and essentially pay for – increased access to the Internet. A Google spokesperson did not confirm the report, but said the company “is working to help the Cuban government think through their publicly stated goal of improving Internet access. We have not given money to Cuba to develop Internet connectivity.”



Europeans among businessmen hurrying to negotiate deals in Cuba

With the thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations, European companies are eager to get to the island and explore business opportunities before the U.S. embargo is lifted.

According to reporting by Reuters, seventy-five companies accompanied the Spanish Minister for Industry, Energy and Tourism on his trip to Cuba this week, and 140 Italian companies joined Italy’s deputy minister of economic development on his trip. Similar delegations from the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have also visited the island recently. The German Foreign Minister also planned a trip with 100 businesses, but had to delay it due to the Greek financial crisis and the ongoing nuclear talks with Iran.

While European observers acknowledge that normal trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba are unlikely to materialize in the near term, European businesses see an opportunity in the meantime. “No one wants to miss the train,” said the European Union’s Ambassador to Cuba, Herman Portocarrero.

Evidence of Cuba’s appeal is growing in other regions as well. A group of Lebanese businessmen founded the Lebanese Cuban Business Council (LCBC) in May, and began their efforts in earnest with a trip to Havana in early June, which brought 20 Lebanese businessmen on a mission to meet Cuban officials and gain a hands-on understanding of Cuba’s recently reformed foreign investment laws.

LCBC Treasurer Marwan Dimas noted that the excitement around Cuban investment opportunities goes beyond the detente with the United States: “The Cuban government is wisely opening up its economic system to foreign investments as new laws and regulations have been passed to create a more favorable business environment.”

Cuba, Chile and others call for de-escalation of FARC conflict

The peace negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC rebels appeared to be in danger of a serious setback as violence between the Colombian military and the Marxist rebels escalated significantly in recent weeks, the Spanish news agency EFE reports.

FARC suspended its most recent ceasefire on May 22, and they have traded raids and bombings with Colombian government forces in the weeks since, including a June attack on an oil pipeline that contaminated water for 16,000 residents in northern Colombia and an attack on an electricity pylon that cut power to more than half a million residents.

Peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels have been held since 2012 in Havana, with Norway, Venezuela, Chile, and the host country Cuba supporting the talks.

This Tuesday, the four nations issued an urgent plea to move beyond violence and return to the bargaining table, releasing a statement reading, in part, “These steps are essential to guarantee the conditions and the propitious climate that will permit agreements to be reached on the pending questions on the agenda of the talks, including the adoption of a bilateral and definitive cease-fire.”

FARC responded the next day, announcing on Wednesday that they would begin a unilateral ceasefire to begin on July 20, with the hope that the ceasefire would become a bilateral truce. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos tweeted in response, “We appreciate the gesture of a unilateral ceasefire by the FARC, but more is needed, especially concrete commitments to speed up the negotiations.”


Recommended Reading

Obama’s Faustian Bargain with Cuba, Marco Rubio, New York Times

Writing in the New York Times, Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) states his case against President Obama’s Cuba policy reforms. Meanwhile, The New York Times finds no love lost for Rubio on the streets of Cuba, which doesn’t bother Senator Rubio.

Marco Rubio’s Embarrassing Defense of Cuban Embargo, Jonathan Chait, New York Magazine

Jonathan Chait issues a scathing response to Senator Rubio in New York Magazine, arguing that Rubio fails to make a coherent case for continuing a policy of isolation toward Cuba.

Could Cuban detente bring a new energy dawn?, Alex Pashley, RTCC

News and analysis website Responding to Climate Change (RTCC) examines how Cuba’s environmental protection policies and efforts to diversify its energy sources will fare with the increased commercial and economic activity likely to accompany warming relations with the U.S. Author Alex Pashley discusses Cuba’s plans for both renewable energy and oil production expansion in the context of its fossil fuel dependency.

More tough talks ahead as U.S., Cuba seek to normalize relations, Hannah Allam and Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald

Allam and Whitfield offer a look beyond the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, to several complicated issues remaining on the road to normalizing relations. Among the most important concerns are human rights, the return of fugitives sought by each country, settlement of claims to property and damages, and possible cooperation in sectors such as telecommunications and biotechnology.

Increasingly Visible, Cuba’s Elián González Champions Island’s Government, Ernesto Londoño, New York Times

Ernesto Londoño, a New York Times editorial board member, analyzes the increasingly public role of Elián González, the Cuban boy who was at the center of an international custody battle after being rescued by fisherman off the coast of Florida in 2000 and subsequently returned to Cuba. Elián is now a 21-year old engineering student in Cuba who has begun to take on a public role in recent months, making statements on U.S.-Cuba relations.


Recommended Viewing

‘Cuban Chrome’ Trailer: First U.S. Series to Be Shot in Cuba Releases Preview Clip, Latin Times

Discovery Channel will debut “Cuban Chrome,” its first Cuba-based reality series on July 13th, and the first U.S. television series to be shot on location in Cuba. Earlier this year, late night TV host Conan O’Brien shot an episode of his show in Cuba, the first such activity since 1962.

Che Guevara’s son on Cuba’s coming identity crisis, Jeffrey Brown, PBS NewsHour

Omar Perez is a Cuban poet, artist and son of famed Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara. Perez discusses his perceptions of Cuban society and how detente with the United States will shape the island’s identity.

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