Respect and the Wisdom of Letting Change Happen

Before next week’s opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, we wanted to say one last thing about last month’s opening of Cuba’s Embassy in Washington.

Three days after the Cuban flag was hoisted at the Embassy, it was lowered to half-staff, as Rosa Miriam Elizalde reported here. This action, consistent with Cuban protocol dating to the early 1960s, was a response to the official mourning period ordered by President Obama after the act of domestic terrorism in Chattanooga took the lives of four Marines and a Navy reservist.

Cuba’s show of respect, so recently removed from the state sponsors of terror list, seemingly ignored by the U.S. press, should come as no surprise.

As we observed in the electric reactions in Havana to the video footage of President Obama shaking hands with President Castro at Nelson Mandela’s memorial, and the euphoria after Cubans watched their President announce full diplomatic relations with the U.S., and ours quoting Jose Martí, Cubans have longed for a relationship that recognized their country’s sovereignty and dignity.

This agreement is still rejected on principle by President Obama’s hardened critics because he chose to negotiate with President Raúl Castro’s government — and assert he got fleeced in the process — rather than wait for Cuba’s system to collapse under the weight of U.S. sanctions.

But, as former U.S. Senator Gary Hart wrote recently, “We don’t negotiate with our friends; we negotiate with our adversaries. We don’t negotiate with our adversaries to do them a favor; we do it because it is in our national interest.”

Precisely! President Obama determined that a respectful relationship with Cuba — real diplomacy on issues like human rights and U.S. fugitives, opening up Cuba for American travelers and businesses — had a better chance to realize our interests with Cuba and Latin America than the policy he inherited from our long, Cold War.

What about Cuba’s interests? What does it get out of this opening?

Some in Cuba are as skeptical as U.S. hardliners. They suspect that the U.S. businessmen and travelers are coming to the island riding a Trojan horse; to them, regime change differs little whether it comes through the back door in the form of USAID urging an uprising or through the front door with a mojito in its hand.

President Raúl Castro has tried to reassure those anxious voices by saying Cuba will not “renounce its ideals of independence and social justice or abandon any of our principles, or give in an inch in the defense of our national sovereignty.”
At the same time, he is trying to manage the high expectations of Cubans who are convinced that normal relations with the U.S. will lead quickly to easier lives in Cuba, and respond to the low expectations of Cuban youth who think that nothing will ever change.

As Time Magazine wrote recently, “Over the last few years the Cuban government has relaxed controls over certain sectors of the economy, but reforms have been slow and halting.” Factors undercutting opportunity, as the Miami Herald reported this week, include the dual currency system, restrictions on Cuba’s self-employed, and lack of free access to the Internet. Cubans expected things to get better faster and sooner.

So, President Castro has to keep one eye on the clock — he’s promised to leave office in 2018 -and another eye on the polls.  As the Washington Post reported this spring, 69% of Cubans ages 18-34 want to leave Cuba and live in another country, 75% of the same demographic want to start their own businesses, and only 15% are satisfied with the economic system.

Yesterday, the New York Times put names to those numbers in its story “Cuban Youth See New Embassy, but Same Old Drab Life.”

“As much as the young welcome political opening and economic reform,” the New York Times reported, such changes are unlikely to filter down to their lives anytime soon.  “Change?  My life won’t change,” Yunior Rodriguez Soto, 17, told the paper. “They won’t let it happen,” he said, referring to the Cuban government. “It’s just how they are.”

This is what makes what President Obama has set out to do so important.

Changing a policy that was written in Washington to determine Cuba’s future was not doomed to failure simply because the Cuban revolution resisted it. It failed because it wasn’t right.

The purpose of isolating Cuba and imposing stifling sanctions on its economy was to make Yunior’s life harder. Dropping barriers, opening travel and trade, tacks in the opposite direction; the new policy respects Cuba’s sovereignty, puts our country on the side of Yunior succeeding, and recognizes that it’s up to Cuba’s government to let change happen.



Foreign Relations committee threatens subpoena on Human Trafficking Report upgrading nations including Cuba

After Reuters reported Monday that political appointees at the State Department overruled the findings of human rights experts on annual report grading global efforts to fight human trafficking, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing and threatened the Department with a subpoena should it fail to provide documents underlying more than a dozen disputed decisions.

Cuba is one of several countries receiving a disputed classification, including China, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Thailand, and Uzbekistan.

According to Reuters, analysts in the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (J/TIP), the Department’s office set up to make independent assessments of global efforts to fight human trafficking, were “repeatedly overruled by senior American diplomats and pressured into inflating assessments of 14 strategically important countries in this year’s Trafficking in Persons report.”

Nineteen other countries were downgraded in the 2015 Report.

Sarah Sewall, Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, testified before the Foreign Relations Committee, and “faced detailed questioning about the rankings for Cuba, India and Malaysia, in particular,” the Associated Press reported.

Senators, dissatisfied by Sewall’s testimony, threatened that the Committee would issue a subpoena unless they receive all communications related to the process of ranking of countries’ human trafficking efforts, as The Guardian reported.

The 2015 Report improves Cuba’s human trafficking classification from a Tier 3 state to a Tier 2 “Watch List” state, as we have previously reported. Tier 3 classification applies to countries that fail to comply with U.S. minimum standards; Tier 2 “Watch List” applies to countries that merit continued scrutiny. Analysts at J/TIP contend that Cuba’s categorization should not change because it has not improved its record.

For over a decade, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has rejected the findings of the Trafficking Report, claiming it distorts Cuba’s role in human trafficking and forced labor and punishes Cuba for political reasons.

Critics cite concerns over possible political manipulation of the report. Senator Marco Rubio told the Miami Herald that “The decision to favor politics over policy has jeopardized the integrity of the TIP Report which has played a vital role in combating human trafficking the past 15 years.”

Last month, when the State Department published the report, Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) expressed concern that Cuba’s upgrade was “determined by political considerations” rather than its record.  As Politico reported, “I find it difficult to believe that Cuba has been elevated this year from Tier 3 to Tier 2 Watch List solely based on the Cuban regime’s record.”

Senator Bob Menendez (NJ), a Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, said “Upgrades for Malaysia and Cuba are a clear politicization of the report, and a stamp of approval for countries who have failed to take the basic actions to merit this upgrade.”

Responding to criticism, State Department officials told El Nuevo Herald that final decisions followed procedure “scrupulously,” discussions were rigorous, and Secretary of State John Kerry gave final approval.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said, “The goal here is to help nations improve their efforts to stop human trafficking and to fight modern slavery…And that’s the goal, pure and simple, and we stand by the process by which we arrive at those conclusions,” according to Voice of America.

Beyond the political and symbolic implications of the dispute, a Tier 3 designation could have further complicated Cuba’s reintegration into global markets.  Governments subject to penalties under Tier 3 face U.S. opposition to assistance from international financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Much of the Senate panel’s criticism, it should be noted, was voiced by lawmakers who oppose the trade agreement called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a major 12-nation trade agreement that is a centerpiece of President Barack Obama’s economic legacy.  They say Malaysia, which up to now declined to sign onto the agreement, was upgraded despite its failure to remedy its human trafficking problems.

Major players in hospitality industry eager for permission to operate in Cuba 

Tucked into its editorial calling on Congress to end the embargo [see A Final Word below], The New York Times reported that Arne Sorenson, CEO of Marriot, had returned from Cuba alarmed by the competitive disadvantage faced by the U.S. hospitality industry.

“With travel to Cuba now surging, existing Cuban hotels are full and hotel companies from other countries are racing to tie up as many of the new hotels as they can before the likes of Marriott and our U.S. competitors show up,” Sorenson said in a statement.

More and more, hoteliers and other members of the hospitality industry, are clamoring for entry into the Cuban market, alongside the charter services that arrived first, the airlines lining up to offer regularly-scheduled commercial service, and the ferries and cruise liners that are angling for Cuba’s approval to arrive with passengers on-board.

Much of this, however, depends on repeal of the U.S. trade sanctions.

An August 5 press release from Euler Hermes Economic Research reported that it expects the U.S. to become the main “economic winner” if the U.S. lifts the embargo on Cuba. The report estimates that the U.S. would gain an average of $1 billion in exports per year. U.S. firms Cruise Line Holding Ltd. and Choice Hotels seek to enter the market as soon as possible.

Cruise Line Holdings Ltd. (NCLH), one of three major cruise lines that account for more than 80% of global passengers, applied for permission to operate to Cuba, according to a Travel Pulse article from August 4.

NCLH CEO Frank Del Rio believes that “Once Cuba opens totally it’s going to be a real windfall for the [cruise line] industry.” Despite policy changes in December, NCLH still needs approved licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) and the Commerce Department, along with permission from the Cuban government before moving forward. Del Rio continues, “We don’t know the timing of when any of those will come through, but we hope they do before the year is out.”

John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council, tempered the enthusiastic aspirations of many observers, describing business opportunities in Cuba as “a process, it’s not an action.”

But, Choice Hotels International (CHH) president and CEO, Steve Joyce, voiced interest in doing business in Cuba in a CNBC interview this week.

CWU joins growing list of U.S. academic institutions seeking research cooperation with Cuba

Central Washington University was one of 12 academic institutions in the U.S. chosen to participate in a U.S.-Cuba partnership program administered by the nonprofit Institute of International Education (IIE), the Seattle Times reported on Tuesday. The six-month program will help universities develop strategic plans to partner with counterparts in Cuba and organize a series of bi-national conference calls and briefing papers to facilitate U.S.-Cuba cooperation.

Universities in the U.S. are also eager to engage in sports collaboration. On August 6, Coastal Carolina will send the first Division 1 men’s basketball team to Cuba. The team will lead clinics for players and coaches in Havana and Matanzas, in addition to participating in community service programs.

First formal U.S.-Cuba aquarium research partnership: Florida Aquarium & National Aquarium in Havana

Tampa’s Florida Aquarium and Havana’s National Aquarium established the first U.S.-Cuba aquarium partnership focused on healthy coral reefs. They signed a memorandum of understanding early this week.

Thomas Hall, chairman of the Florida Aquarium Foundation, traveled to Havana in October 2014 to explore the possibility of a relationship, according to Tampa Bay Times. Representatives will meet for the first time in November in Cuba at the Tri-national Initiative for Marine Research & Conservation in the Gulf of Mexico & Western Caribbean and the International Marine & Coastal Science Conference.

“For over 50 years, Cuba and the U.S. managed marine life and habitats separately when it should have been done together. We know where each nation’s boundaries lie but marine life does not. It is all one habitat,” Dan Whittle, director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s 15-year-old marine and coastal conservation work in Cuba, shared with The Tampa Tribune.

Whittle is a long-time proponent of environmental cooperation, as we have previously reported. He has argued for “good science, careful planning, and strong political will. In the case the U.S. and Cuba, it starts with exchange, and cooperation.” Thanks to warming relations between the U.S. and Cuba, scientific cooperation is already expanding beyond ocean conservation to an orchid research project, as we reported last week.

Cuba opens its doors to cooperation on autism research

Monday, Autism Speaks, an American autism science and advocacy organization, reported on its meetings with the Cuban Ministry of Public Health to discuss collaboration on the study of autism.

Autism Speaks Executive Vice President for Strategic Communications Michael Rosen and Director for Public Health Research Michael Rosanoff write that the organization undertook the trip to learn about the low incidence of autism in Cuba and collaborate with Cuban health organizations to better track its prevalence.

In 2004, Cuba’s government released a survey showing that only 1 in 2,500 Cuban children have autism. This reflects a rapid rise from the three years prior, but experts note that the global prevalence is closer to 1 in 100. The Cuban Ministry of Public Health is interested in improving its collection of autism statistics, and Autism Speaks officials would like to better understand how increased early detection, more doctors per capita, and free medical treatment assist with Autism treatment.


Switzerland’s instrumental role in U.S.-Cuba relations

Newly-released documents provided to Foreign Policy by the Swiss government reveal details about Switzerland’s role as middleman between Havana and Washington for the last 54 years.

During the Cold War, the Swiss ambassador to Havana, Emil Stadelhofer, played an important role in de-escalating U.S.-Cuba and preventing a “third world war.” According to the Swiss documents, Stadelhofer helped prevent Cuba’s government from nationalizing the U.S. Embassy and converting it into the Cuban Ministry of Fishing in 1964.

Switzerland agreed to act as a “protecting power” of U.S. interests in Cuba at the request of the Eisenhower administration in 1960. Switzerland provided reciprocal representation for Cuba in the U.S., processed passport and visa documents, and exchanged diplomatic notes between the two countries when Interests Sections were established in Havana and Washington in 1977.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations visited Cuba’s U.N. Mission in July

For the first time in over 54 years, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, made a visit to Cuba’s U.N. Mission in New York on July 31, according to U.S. News.

Ambassador Power and Rodolfo Reyes Rodriguez, Cuba’s U.N. Ambassador, discussed the normalization of relations and priorities at the United Nations, according to U.S. Mission spokeswoman Hagar Chemali. Ambassador Power believes that diplomatic relations “will ultimately do more to help the Cuban people than the outdated policy of the past.”


Plans for papal visit take shape

Like Pope John Paul II in 1998, and Pope Benedict XVI in 2012, Pope Francis will say mass in the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana on September 20th as part of his first visit to Cuba.

The plaza, an iconic site in Cuba’s capital, with its memorial to José Martí faced by a large portrait of Ernesto Che Guevara, was the backdrop of countless speeches by Fidel Castro, during his service as president, with a million-plus Cubans often in attendance.

Pope Francis played a pivotal role in the secret negotiations conducted between the U.S. and Cuba leading up to the announcement, by Presidents Obama and Castro on December 17, that the U.S. and Cuba would resume diplomatic relations.  He was attacked by Senator Marco Rubio (FL) for helping to end more than five decades of open hostilities of open hostilities between the two countries.

The Pontiff’s visit to Cuba is a pastoral mission as well as a continuation of his political role.  Father Jose Feliz Perez, a spokesman for the Cuban Bishops Conference, told the AFP that Pope Francis “will tell all the people of Cuba that we need to reverse attitudes of hostility, indifference and contempt.” Pope Francis is also likely to talk about poverty, emigration, and political prisoners during his visit.

He will give a second mass on September 21 in the basilica of the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre.  The Lady of Charity, who also represents Ochún to the Afro-Cuban faithful, was declared a patroness of Cuba by the Vatican in 1916, and crowned the patron Saint of Cuba during Pope John Paul II’s 1998 visit.

The Guardian reports that Berta Soler, leader of the Damas de Blanco, a human rights group in Cuba, has asked for a meeting with the Pope while he is in Cuba. She recently met with Pope Francis in Rome and received his blessing to continue her work according to Vatican Insider. Colombia’s FARC rebels, currently negotiating a peace deal in Havana, have also requested a meeting with Pope Francis.

The Pope will meet with President Raúl Castro; however no official meetings are currently scheduled between the Pope Francis and Fidel Castro.

Two New York Times pieces highlight life in Cuba: “No es facil” (It’s Not Easy)

Changes in Cuban photography over the years are the subject of an exhibition that will open next week in Long Island, according to The New York Times“¡Cuba, Cuba!” the exhibit sponsored by The International Center of Photography, features works by Cuban and American photographers spanning 65 years. Iliana Cepero, a Cuban-born art historian who helped curate the show, explains that “Cuban photographers, and this includes women, everybody has fought for something, very strongly and in difficult conditions. Women fought for having a space in this male-controlled field, Cuban photographers in general have fought for self-expression in a society ridden with censorship and prohibitions.”

Another New York Times article describes how youth in Cuba understand and navigate their conditions. The author describes “an air of cynicism among the Cuban youth who see the ideals of Fidel Castro’s revolution as dated as the battered cars that traverse Havana’s streets.” He observes that many young people welcome political and economic reform, but few expect changes to filter down to their lives quickly. He quotes many young Cubans in the article, one of whom explains “Everyone speaks revolutionary, but we live day to day.”

Public wifi access outdoor in Havana

23rd Street in Havana, known as La Rampa (The Ramp), is one of five places in Cuba’s capital and 35 places across the country that has been offering public WiFi at a reduced price since July 1. These outdoor WiFi locations, made possible by large Chinese-made Huawei antennas, have speeds of 1 MB per user. Earlier this summer, Google Ideas executive Brett Perlmutter was quoted in the Miami Herald as saying, “Cuba has a big opportunity to jump its [Internet] infrastructure directly into mobile phones and skip cable as African countries are doing.”

Cuba hopes to increase Internet connectivity from 3.4 percent households with access to 50 percent by 2020. Demand for Internet certainly exists and frequently overwhelms the island’s network capacity. The prepaid WiFi cards sold by state telecom monopoly ETECSA are usually bought up by “resellers” and sold for profit on-site. Cubans have also found ways to allow multiple users to share one card by setting up parallel WiFi networks and converting laptops or mobile devices into mini-antennas.

Cuban WiFi users have access to most sites, though government servers block some anti-Castro sites and Skype; most Cubans use Imo, a video chat program, to connect with friends and family abroad.

Recommended Reading

Cuban dancer, Carlos Acosta, principal guest artist at the Royal Ballet of London, confirmed his determination to start a company in Cuba, Prensa Latina

Carlos Acosta will host auditions on August 10 & 11, 2015 in Havana.

Cuba ha recibido 54% más de estadounidenses tras el deshielo, AP, El Nuevo Herald (Spanish)

This article explains how travel by U.S. residents to Cuba has increased by 54 percent from January to July this year.

Want to improve the health of millions of Americans? Lift the embargo on Cuba, Peter Bourne, Roll Call

Physician Peter Bourne makes the medical case for why lifting the embargo could make Cuban health innovations accessible to many Americas.

Cuba y los organismos financieros internacionales. ¿Llegó la hora?, Ricardo Torres, Progreso Semanal (Spanish)

Torres discusses possible paths forward and potential consequences of Cuba’s reintegration into global financial institutions like the IMF and the World Bank.

Young Cubans deserve to be heard, Giancarlo Sapo, Huffington Post

Cuban American commenter Giancarlo Sapo discusses changing views among young Cuban-Americans and young Cubans in favor of normalization.

U.S.-Cuba agricultural trade: Past, present, and possible future, Steven Zahniser and Bryce Cooke, United States Department of Agriculture

This research from the United States Department of Agriculture describes how American agriculture stands to benefit from engagement with Cuba.

Recommended Viewing

Emmer discusses the Cuba Trade Act of 2015, Representative Tom Emmer (MN, 06)

Congressman Emmer explains why he introduced the Cuba Trade Act of 2015 in the August 3rd installment of his “Ask Tom” video series.

Jose Pertierra: Opening embassies a milestone in Cuba-US relations, Jose Pertierra, CCTV

Immigration attorney and Cuba expert José Pertierra speaks about the significance of the recent embassy openings on CCTV.

Reinventing Cuba, CCTV

CCTV America will present a documentary about baseball, art, entrepreneurship and medicine in Cuba on Sunday, August 9 at 7pm EST.


The New York Times Urges End to Cuba Embargo: You read it here first

The New York Times published an editorial Monday calling on the “Congress to help make engagement the cornerstone of American policy toward Cuba.”  It cited the restoration of diplomatic relations and the overwhelming majorities in Cuba and the United States who want the embargo repealed.

The editorial made special mention of Representatives Tom Emmer, Republican of Minnesota, and Kathy Castor, Democrat of Florida, who introduced legislation in the U.S. House last week to lift the embargo, as well as Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, who sponsored legislation restoring trade relations with Cuba last February.

All three lawmakers made their first visits to Cuba on Congressional delegations sponsored by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

Significantly, the Times paid special attention to changes in U.S. public opinion, the bipartisan support in favor of repealing all trade restrictions, and how hardline supporters of the embargo running for president – Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush – are isolating themselves from prospective Latino voters by opposing President Obama’s opening to Cuba.

We made this case on public opinion last Friday.

A week ago, in the essay that opened this newsletter, we also pointed to the framing chosen by Rep. Emmer and Secretary Clinton, calling it the “language most likely to win the most valuable new converts to their cause: those least likely to change their minds because they are angry at Cuba’s government or still hold out hope that after more than 50 years sanctions will finally begin to work.”

The Times concluded its editorial by saying: “Hillary Rodham Clinton made a forceful appeal to end the embargo by noting that Cubans want broader contact with the United States:  “They want to buy our goods, read our books, surf our web and learn from our people,” she said. “That is the road toward democracy and dignity, and we should walk it together.”

We liked that line, too.  Admittedly, more people read about it in the New York Times than in the Cuba Central News Blast.  But, our subscribers had a special advantage over theirs’ – they read it here first.

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