Flag Poles to Public Opinion Polls – Is Congress (Finally) Getting the Message?

Today, we ask when the pageantry of diplomacy and the immense, growing public support for the new U.S.-Cuba policy will translate into actions by Congress to realize the promise of engagement.

That day may be closer than you think.

On Monday, the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations, the State Department installed the Cuban flag along a row 190 others in its majestic entrance, and Cuban diplomats, led by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, raised the Cuban flag at a celebration marking the reopening of the Cuban embassy, capped by the singing of Cuba’s Bayamesa and our Star-Spangled Banner.

In an extraordinary year that has seen a surge in U.S. travel to Cuba, Cuba removed from the terror list, the Presidents of Cuba and the United States seated together at the Summit of the Americas, and U.S. Congressional and business delegations welcomed in Havana, Monday was truly a spectacular day.

All of this progress, along with the wise exercise of executive power that made it possible, is winning in the court of U.S. public opinion in ways that are really catching our attention.

We’ve examined 12 polls conducted and released since January 1st. Time and again, these surveys find that public support for the Cuba opening is strong, growing, and pervasive. Support for the new policy is bipartisan. It is significantly high among segments of voters — such as Hispanics — that candidates running for office increasingly care about. Most of all, the latest research shows that public support is rising.

For example, support for ending the embargo was measured in July by the Pew Research Center at 72% and CBS News at 58%, in June by the Chicago Council on Public Affairs at 67%, and earlier this year by Gallup at 59% the Associated Press at 60%.

In this divisive, partisan political climate, when policies associated with President Obama normally draw distinctly differently levels of support from Democrats and Republicans, the new policy is now attracting real bipartisan support. The Chicago Council on Public Affairs poll reports that 59% of Republicans now favor ending the embargo. The Pew Research Center poll shows that, since January, Republican support has jumped sixteen points from 40% to 56% for reestablishing diplomatic relations, and increased 12%, from 47% to 59%, for ending the trade embargo.

Univision, the Spanish-language television network, interviewed 1,400 Hispanic registered voters in June, and drilled down hard on the question of whether a decision by a presidential candidate to support normalization of relations would affect their vote; meaning, would that position make it more likely, less likely, or make no difference in their vote for president.

Eighty percent of respondents said a decision by a candidate to back normalization would either make it more likely to support that candidate (34%) or have no impact at all on their vote (46%). Among Hispanic Republicans, 70% reached the same conclusion. Among Hispanics of Cuban heritage, just 26% said it would make them vote against a pro-normalization candidate.

The lesson here is that voters are not of a mind to punish candidates who entertain new thinking about Cuba.

But there’s also evidence that support for the Cuba opening is growing. The CBS poll has support for ending the travel ban at 81%. The July Pew Research Center survey shows a ten point increase in national support for diplomatic relations and a six point jump in support for ending the embargo, compared to January of this year. AP has support for diplomatic relations at 71%.

Now we are starting to see evidence that public support for America’s new Cuba policy is exerting its force on policymakers in the U.S. Congress.

Below you will find a detailed report on three amendments approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee this week to end the ban on travel for all Americans, to ensure that U.S. farmers have greater access to credit to finance agriculture sales to Cuba, and to make it easier for cargo vessels to return to the U.S. after doing business in Cuban ports.

We can point to Senator Dean Heller (NV), a prior recipient of campaign cash from the hardliner-funded U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, who succeeded Senator John Ensign, author of the Cuba Transition Act, a regime change proposal. Mr. Heller, who visited Cuba at the end of June, just signed up as a cosponsor of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act of 2015.

We can cite Representative Bradley Byrne (AL-1) who visited Cuba with our organization, changed his position to support President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the terror list, and is now talking to businesses in his Mobile district about reopening trade with Cuba.

Then, there are the growing numbers of U.S. businesses – like JetBlue, AirBnB, Infor, and so many others – who are forcing the discussion of how much damage policymakers will allow the embargo to do before they start protecting the economic interests of our country.

Yes, there is a ton of work left for us to do. But we are encouraged that Congress is beginning to close the gap between public opinion and public policy, and starting to think about how the change in U.S.-Cuba relations can benefit more Americans and help Cubans lead more prosperous lives.


History on fast-forward: The day the U.S. and Cuba reopened embassies

Just after midnight on July 20th, the United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations after a breach of fifty-four years.

The Cuban Interests Section in Washington, the Associated Press reported, marked the occasion by “switching its Twitter account to say ’embassy’,” while in Havana, “the U.S. Interests Section uploaded a new profile pictures to its Facebook and Twitter accounts that says US EMBASSY CUBA.”

Shortly after 4:30am, “the single-star Cuban flag was added to the array of more than 190 other flags in the State Department’s cavernous marble lobby,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

Across town at 10:35am, the Cuban flag was hoisted above the building which first opened as Cuba’s embassy in 1919. Demonstrators supporting the opening with Cuba alongside Cuban government opponents — some chanting “Viva Cuba” and Viva Fidel,” while others called out “Free Cuba,” USA Today said – raised their voices across 16th Street from the Meridian Hill mansion located in Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood.

Inside the building that had served as “The Cuban Interests Section,” since 1977, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez praised the “wise leadership of Fidel Castro, the historic leader of the Cuban revolution whose ideas we’ll always revere,” and called on the U.S. to return Guantánamo Bay Naval Base and end the trade embargo against Cuba.

Hours later, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry received Cuba’s top diplomat for talks that touched on bilateral cooperation on law enforcement, counter-narcotics, telecommunications, the Internet, human rights and human trafficking, as well as the environment, the Miami Herald reported. They emerged from their meeting and held a joint press conference at 1:45pm.

Appearing with Minister Rodríguez, Secretary Kerry hailed the thaw “as a time to start repairing what has been broken, and opening what for too long has been closed.” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest issued a statement calling the embassy openings in Washington and Havana “another demonstration that we don’t have to be imprisoned by the past.”

Attending the flag raising at Cuba’s new embassy, Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said on Monday, “This is a historic day and a banner year for U.S. and Cuban diplomacy. We are witnessing the long overdue opening of a new era in which the people of both of our countries, our businesses, and our governments can engage, do business, treat each other with respect, and begin to live more normal lives.”

Cuban American lawmakers denounced the diplomatic developments. U.S. Senator and Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio (FL) said, “History will remember July 20, 2015 as Obama’s Capitulation Monday.” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) warned, “The Cuban people’s oppressors will not hesitate to use this ’embassy’ as a spy hub, as they have done in the past to threaten our homeland.” Her colleague, Rep. Mario Diaz Balart (FL-25) echoed her fears for U.S. national security, saying, “A Cuban embassy will represent the Cuban military and intelligence services that perpetuate human rights abuses against them.” Senator Bob Menendez dismissed the events as “empty ribbon-cutting ceremonies.”

While the U.S. Interests Section in Havana opened for business as the Embassy of the United States on Monday, as CNN reported, the festivities and flag-raising will have to wait for Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit — the highest-level trip by a U.S. official to Cuba since the 1959 revolution ,” which he announced on Monday will take place on August 14th.

Speculation is already turning to whether President Obama will visit Cuba before the end of his term in office in January 2017. El Nuevo Herald reported this week that a decision on a possible trip would be evaluated early next year “based on the progress achieved by Cuban authorities on issues that the U.S. government considers to be important, such as human rights.”

Senate Appropriations Committee adopts amendments to allow Cuba travel and trade 

On Thursday, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved three amendments to expand travel and trade with Cuba as it considered legislation funding the U.S. Treasury Department and other agencies, reports the Washington Post. These were the first successful appropriations amendments this year that ease restrictions on Cuba policy, and they passed with bipartisan support.

Kansas Senator Jerry Moran’s amendment to end the travel ban to Cuba was passed by an 18-12 vote. “I’m of the view that we have the opportunity to increase the likelihood that the Cuban people have greater liberties and freedom with the ability to connect with them,” said Sen. Moran following the vote. Sen. Patrick Leahy (VT) pointed out that U.S. citizens are free to travel to any other country, even North Korea and Iran, with which relations are even more strained. “The only country where Americans are told they can’t go and spend their own money is Cuba,” Leahy said. “It does not make sense. We ought to be allowed to go there.”

Sen. Jon Tester (MT) offered an amendment to end the 180-day quarantine of maritime vessels coming from Cuba to the U.S. Sen. John Boozman (AR) also got his proposal through the Committee to “repeal a law that prohibits banks and other U.S. businesses from financing sales of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba,” as Arkansas Online described the measure. Both amendments were adopted on voice votes.

Their amendments are now included in what is called The FY2016 Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill, which would next be considered by the full Senate.

As we have previously reported, funding bills written in the U.S. House of Representatives include provisions that seek to roll back and prevent further policy changes that would open relations with Cuba.

Support in the Senate for maintaining and advancing more open relations with Cuba was also evident in the State Department funding bill approved earlier this month, when Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) was unable to find the votes for his amendment to cut-off funding for the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Before becoming law, the House and Senate appropriations bills must be reconciled in a conference – including reaching agreement on how to handle pro-opening and pro-sanctions amendments – after which identical measures must clear the House and Senate before being presented to the President.

The White House has already begun advising Congress that President Obama will veto bills that attempt to reverse the new policy of engagement with Cuba.

Businesses and policymakers seek to expand trade and telecommunications with Cuba 

Airbnb, MasterCard, and Netflix are among the companies seeking to position themselves favorably in Cuba for the time when U.S. firms can do business freely on the island. At the same time, lawmakers are seeking to address embargo restrictions through permanent changes in law, reports U.S. News and World Reports.

Congressman Kevin Cramer (ND-At large) introduced bipartisan legislation with Rep. Peter Welch (VT-At large) that would enable U.S. telecommunications firms to offer services in Cuba. The legislation is an identical House version of the Cuba DATA Act, introduced in the Senate by Sen. Tom Udall (NM), as we reported in May. Increasing affordable Internet access in Cuba is a priority for Cubans, particularly the small but growing class of technology entrepreneurs on the island.

A 2014 study by Freedom House found that only 26% of Cubans have basic Internet access and less than 5% have unrestricted access to broadband connections. A central impediment is cost. Typical hourly access at a government-run Internet cafe is more than $4, roughly a fifth of the average Cuban monthly salary. The state-run telecommunications company Etecsa has recently opened 35 new public internet hot-spots and reduced the price to about $2 per hour to bring the Internet more within reach. This is part of Cuba’s long-term plan to bring broadband access to half of the island’s homes by 2020.

Speaking about his bill, Rep. Cramer said, “Not only would our telecommunications companies have the opportunity to upgrade Cuba’s infrastructure, but our farmers and entrepreneurs would be able to conduct business in Cuba utilizing 21st century communication methods.”

Banking agreement with Cuba will facilitate U.S. business deals 

On Tuesday, Stonegate Bank of Pompano Beach, Florida announced that it has reached a deal with Banco Internacional de Comercio S.A. (BICSA) to open the first correspondent account with Cuba. The Wall Street Journal reports that the account, which will allow direct payment and transactions between the U.S. and Cuba without going through a third country, will be up and running within three to four weeks. As we reported in May, Stonegate previously agreed to open a commercial bank account for transactions used by Cuba for its consular and diplomatic operations in the U.S.

Banking regulators in the U.S. closely scrutinize transactions with foreign countries via correspondent accounts, particularly in countries considered to present risks for money laundering or criminal activity. The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), a multilateral organization that combats international money laundering, listed Cuba as a “high risk” country in 2014, but recently praised Cuba for taking strong actions to police its financial system. As we reported in October 2014, FATF has ceased to monitor Cuba for compliance with anti-money-laundering and anti-terrorist finance rules, due to its progress in domestic enforcement.

Of the decision to pursue direct ties with BICSA, Stonegate Bank president Dave Seleski told reporters, “We did an extensive risk-management approach to this… We feel very comfortable that we did something that is very low risk.”

Peterson Institute economist Gary Hufbauer cites the development as an important step in facilitating business between the U.S. and Cuba. The move lays basic groundwork for the future use of U.S. credit cards in Cuba, which are allowed under Treasury Department regulations announced in January. Atlantic Council analyst Jason Marczak agrees that credit will be important as travel and tourism to the island increases.

Cuba may drill for oil using U.S. equipment 

As Cuba continues to pursue offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico to explore for commercially-viable deposits of petroleum, the Obama Administration has put into place a new policy that “calls for the U.S. Department of Commerce to license for export to Cuba any items deemed necessary for protection of U.S. coastal environments,” the Tampa Tribune reports.

Under the embargo, equipment containing more than ten percent U.S.-made or -developed technology cannot be used for economic activity in Cuba. Oil industry and environmental experts are concerned with this restriction, arguing that that superior U.S. equipment should be used to provide the best protection and mitigation of possible oil spills and resultant ecological disasters, as CDA found in our report on Cuba’s plans to drill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Lee Hunt, a Houston-based oil expert who helped organize a multilateral coordination on future spills following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, is now spearheading a symposium in Havana in October 2015 to further deepen the cooperation between the U.S., Cuba, Mexico, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. Hunt maintains that “It is in our benefit to want every drilling operation in Cuba to have the same standard as is mandatory in the U.S. for the prevention of pollution.”

Licensing under the new Commerce Department policy would enable that. As Dan Whittle, Cuba program director at Environmental Defense Fund, says “The new rules give favorable review to certain kinds of exports including those in the environmental sector that benefit the U.S.”

Jorge Piñon, director of the Latin America and Caribbean Energy Program at the University of Texas, believes the regulation can be interpreted even more broadly. “An argument can made that you need every piece of its equipment to be top notch because if any one fails during drilling, there can be an accident,” Piñon said. “So make the whole rig exempt from the 10 percent rule.”

The rule itself as it applies to oil rig equipment may now be changing. This week the Commerce Department implemented new regulations following the removal of Cuba from the State Sponsors of Terrorism, permitting the re-export to Cuba of foreign-made products with up to 25% U.S.-origin content.

Cuba’s government plans to drill two deep water wells by the end of 2016 and has received interest from Angola’s Sonangol and Venezuela’s PDVS. However, the advanced Norwegian-built offshore rig Scarabeo 9, which was built specially in China to ensure U.S. content was below the 10% legal limit, and was previously used to explore offshore in Cuban waters in 2012, may not be available in the timeframe desired by Cuban authorities.



Latin America says yes to greater U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties 

A new survey by the Pew Research Center found that majorities in Latin America strongly support closer U.S.-Cuba relations, reports NBC News. A median of 77% of respondents across five Latin American countries approve of the U.S. re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba. The strongest support was found in Chile (79%), Argentina (78%), and Venezuela (77%), followed by Brazil (67%) and Mexico (54%).

When asked their opinions about the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, Latin Americans overwhelmingly supported lifting the embargo: Argentina (79%), Chile (77%), Venezuela (76%), Brazil (71%), and Mexico (55%).

The poll found that respondents with higher incomes tended to more strongly support ending the embargo than lower-income respondents. In Argentina, the income divide was most evident, with 82% of high earners supporting and 66% of lower earners in support.

Overall opinions of Cuba were split across the six countries surveyed: a median 40% of respondents view Cuba favorably while 44% view Cuba unfavorably. Chileans showed the strongest favorable feelings about Cuba at 49%, while majorities of Brazilians and Mexicans view Cuba negatively. Leaders of Latin American countries have widely praised the thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations.

German minister is pleased by results of his visit to Cuba 

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier expressed optimism following his recent trip to Cuba, reports Progreso Weekly. Minister Steinmeier spent two days in Havana meeting with senior government officials and visiting agricultural sites.

President Castro and Minister Steinmeier met for almost two hours to discuss how Cuba can open up to increased foreign investment, an important cornerstone of Cuba’s economic plans. Steinmeier sees potential for German companies to invest in several sectors in Cuba, including medical technology, logistics, renewable energy, and especially agriculture. Germany is already involved in Cuban agriculture through donations that help fund the urban Havana farm Vivero Alamar.

Steinmeier also addressed human rights concerns in meetings with Cuban officials. Following the trip he said, “We will continue to hold different views on our attitudes to democracy and human rights concerns. But right now we want to try to get past the phase of mutism… I believe that this is the right time to readjust our relations.”

A key result of Steinmeier’s trip was the signing of framework accords to further formalize bilateral relations, which included commitments to respect human rights. This is in keeping with the evolution of the European Union Common Position on Cuba. The EU is in talks with Cuba to improve bilateral relations, and hopes to have more formalized accords by the end of the year.



Cuban reservoirs far below capacity amid drought 

Cuba is experiencing a serious drought in what is usually its rainy season, reports the Latin American Herald Tribune. According to numbers released by Cuba’s National Water Resources Institute (Instituto Nacional de Recursos Hidraulicos, or INRH), May and June saw less than 11 inches of rain, less than 75% of the normal amount for this time period. The drought is being felt most acutely on the western side of the island, which has received 71% of its normal rainfall so far in 2015.

Cuba’s water reservoirs are currently at 37% of their capacity on average. More than 160 reservoirs are at less than 50% and 111 are down below 25% capacity. The current drought began in late 2014, affecting more than half the country and putting pressure on farms, livestock, and drinking water supplies.

Cuba is no stranger to natural disasters associated with hydro-meteorological events, such as droughts and hurricanes. The island endured a severe drought in 2004-2005, which affected the entire country and cost some $3 billion in economic losses. The current drought and lack of reserves led President Castro to call for water rationing last week during the plenary session of the National Assembly.



Thanks to one observant reader, we made a weekend correction to last week’s opening essay. In the version we circulated by email, we were mistaken in writing that the U.S. flag would be raised at the new U.S. embassy in Havana on July 20. In fact, as we report above, that will not take place until August 14th when Secretary Kerry will be in attendance. The corrected version appears here, and we apologize for an instance when we permitted the rhetoric to get ahead of the facts.


Recommended Reading

Hope Takes Over Havana, James Williams and Ricardo Herrero, Miami Herald

James Williams, President of Engage Cuba Coalition, and Ricardo Herrero, Executive Director of CubaNow, talk about their optimism for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations following their recent trip to the island.

Regime change or not?, Manuel Gomez, Progreso Weekly

Manuel Gomez discusses U.S. attitudes towards opening relations with Cuba, and examines possible underlying regime change motivations he observes in the rhetoric of prominent U.S. policymakers who support engagement with Cuba. Mr. Gomez serves as a board member of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which publishes the Cuba Central News Blast.

Cuba and America: The End of an Estrangement, Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker

Jon Lee Anderson argues that both the U.S. and Cuba have benefitted on the whole from restoring relations.

What’s Next for Cuba and the U.S.?, Editorial Board, The New York Times 

The New York Times Editorial Board characterizes the internal debates that must take place in Cuba as the governments of Cuba and the U.S. proceed in deepening ties.

Why African Americans Should Be 1st in Line to Cuba, DeWayne Wickham, The Root

DeWayne Wickham describes historical ties between African Americans and Afro-Cubans and urges African Americans to visit Cuba.

How to Build a Relationship With Havana, James Stavridis, Foreign Policy

Former NATO Supreme Allied Commander James Stavridis offers ideas to build on existing areas of U.S.-Cuba cooperation to deepen ties constructively, with an eye to geopolitics.

Not Your Grandma’s Cuba: A New Day in the Caribbean, Otaviano Canuto, WorldPost 

IMF Executive Director Otaviano Canuto describes the complicated economic and political transitions in Cuba and urges constructive engagement by the U.S. and other countries.

Passage to Cuba: An Up-Close Look at the World’s Most Colorful Culture, Cynthia Carris Alonso, Skyhorse Publishing

Veteran photojournalist Cynthia Carris Alonso has captured Cuban life in many visits to the island over the past 20 years. “Passage to Cuba” is her first book and was released this summer to critical acclaim.

21 US MDs Graduate from Cuba’s Latin American Medical School, MEDICC

Havana’s Latin American Medical School (ELAM), the world’s largest socially-accountable medical school, graduated 21 new MDs from the U.S. on Tuesday. This brings the total to 136 U.S. doctors trained in Cuba since ELAM’s founding in 1999.

A Timeline of U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement, Elizabeth Gonzalez, Americas Society/Council of the Americas

Elizabeth Gonzalez presents an infographic timeline of how the U.S. and Cuba came to restore diplomatic relations, beginning with the first meeting between White House officials and Cuban officials in Ottawa in June 2013.


Recommended Viewing

Interview with José Pertierra and Peter Kornbluh at Opening of Cuban Embassy in Washington, Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! 

Amy Goodman interviews José Pertierra, the prominent immigration attorney and Cuba expert, and Peter Kornbluh , director of the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive and co-author of “Back Channel to Cuba,” the morning of July 20th, just an hour before the Cuban flag was raised above the Embassy.

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Talks With David Muir About Historic “New Chapter” in Relations, ABC News

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez talks with ABC’s David Muir from the newly re-designated Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla joint news conference about U.S.-Cuba relations, C-Span

Complete coverage of the joint press conference marking the restoration of diplomatic relations on July 20, 2015.

Cuban Embassy Flag Raising Ceremony, C-Span

U.S.-Cuba relations were officially restored with the re-opening of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. In this video, the same flag that was lowered 54 years ago was raised outside the Cuban Embassy.

Inside the offices of Granma, Cuba’s government newspaper, BBC News 

BBC reporter Will Grant gets an inside tour of Granma.

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