A Guy from TV Marti Walks into a Bar

Stop us if you’ve heard this one.

A civil servant from TV Martí walks into a bar, orders 12 shots, and starts drinking them as fast as he can.

The bartender interrupts him to ask, “Why on Earth are you drinking so fast?”

The guy says, “You’d be drinking fast, too, if you had what I have.”

The bartender asks, “What do you have?”

The Martí man replies, “75 cents.”

Okay, that was a joke.

But, when Tracey Eaton reported earlier this week that our government is spending “U.S. tax dollars for parodies of Cuban politicians,” he was dead serious.

Tracey’s item pointed to a solicitation from the Broadcasting Board of Governors posted on an e-government website at the end of August.  This agency is home to Voice of America and, importantly for our story, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting – or OCB – which operates Radio and TV Martí.

Under the memorable title “OCBSatire,” the Office of Cuba Broadcasting announced that it has “a requirement for exclusive, non-transferrable rights for a Cuban satirical variety and comedy sketch show for inclusion in its programming.”

You will be forgiven for assuming the word “requirement” indicates a desire on OCB’s part to spice up its dry reporting about Cuba.

Instead, the requirements are really, well, requirements that the businesses submitting proposals must observe to have their shows picked in exchange for an unspecified amount of money.

This solicitation, as if spelling out a detailed regulation to control air pollution, is quite granular. The OCB wants scripts for ten shows. Scripts must be thirty minutes in length.   “Each skit should ideally be comprised of 3 segments with accompanying commercial breaks followed by a formal close.”

OCB is not looking for just any kind of comedy to entertain its Cuban audience.

“These skits must be able to parody public figures, politicians, government officials, entertainers, as well as recognizable members of Cuban civil society groups who are active in the political and civil sphere and widely known throughout the Island.”

Of course, no U.S. government contract to secure sketch comedies to promote American-style free speech in Cuba would be complete without provisions giving the Office of Cuba Broadcasting the right to prescreen and censor the content as it sees fit. Really.

But, here’s the best requirement.  “These parodies must be uniquely funny, ironic, satirical and entertaining to a wide cross-section of the Cuban population.”

The U.S. government is going to decide that?  Earlier this week, we wrote the contracting officers at the BBG and asked “who will determine which proposal is selected?”  We never heard back.

If the BBG lacks in-house capacity to decide what’s “uniquely funny,” maybe they’ll get advice from  the  team that put up a prime time comedy show on Radio Martí that featured a cast whose actors were mostly dead, as The New York Times reported in 1985, by the time the program aired.  Or maybe they’ll get help from the producers of “The Chief’s Office,” described by the Associated Press as “a satire on the life behind the scenes in the fictional office of a military leader with an extraordinary resemblance to Fidel Castro.”

No need to sound “spoiler alert” before saying these previous attempts at satire – not to mention other not-so-hilarious episodes featuring an invasion, acts of terror, exploding cigars and poison-secreting wet suits – have been completely ineffective at upending Cuba’s government.

As bad as this all sounds, our complaints about OCBSatire go deeper.

First, if the contract goes to Cubans applying from the island, they would be exposed to legal jeopardy under Law 88.  It forbids collaboration “in any way with foreign radio or television stations, newspapers, magazines or other mass media with the purpose of … destabilizing the country and destroying the socialist state.”  Law 88 was written with Radio and TV Martí in mind; thus, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting is giving Cubans the chance to fall victim to the same law that got Alan Gross in trouble.

Second, as we have pointed out before, there are government loyalists in Cuba, as Michael Bustamante described them in his piece for Foreign Affairs, “A Cuban Conundrum,” who passionately believe that President Raúl Castro is making a mistake in his diplomacy with the United States, and think our “opening” of doors to more travel and trade is simply regime change by another name.

His article identifies what concerns hardliners in Cuba the most: the “deleterious impact” of U.S. media and U.S. offers to expand Cubans’ access to the Internet for free.  Jokey Cuba Broadcasting Office sitcoms play right into their fears.

Third, when ABC News asked Susan Rice, the president’s National Security Advisor, why Radio and TV Martí were still pumping out anti-Castro government articles even after the President said ‘we’re no longer in the business of regime change,’ Ambassador Rice responded “We will continue to say and do what we think is appropriate to advance our interests in human rights and democracy in Cuba… we’re not going to change just because the Cuban government may wish that we did otherwise.”  So, there’s no one  can say that the Office of Cuba Broadcasting went rogue on this.  The Administration owns it.

Fourth, as Bill LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh remind us in their invaluable book “Back Channel,” activities by Radio and TV Martí have previously been used by Cuba to bring hoped-for diplomatic progress to a dead-end conclusion.

This matters.  Joshua Hersh pointed out this summer in his excellent review of the Alan Gross case that Cuba will inevitably raise objections to the regime change programs that threaten its sovereignty in the negotiations to normalize relations – which, as we report below, resumed in Havana today.

We will wager that when the Cuban delegation took its seats, Deputy Assistant Secretary Alex Lee did not begin his remarks by saying, “Two Cuban brothers dressed in army fatigues stop into a bar for a drink.  Stop me if you’ve heard this one.”

In its solicitation for regime change sitcoms, BBG cuts off the application process next Monday.  It would be nice if someone in the White House and State Department twisted the money spigot off on this dumb waste of taxpayer money before BBG goes further and puts the larger purposes of President Obama’s diplomatic achievement with Cuba at risk.


Update: President Obama maintains authority to modify Cuba sanctions by renewing Trading with the Enemy Act

As we predicted last week, President Obama picked a Friday afternoon to renew Cuba’s status under the Trading With the Enemy Act (TWEA). The 1917 law underpins U.S. sanctions against Cuba under the Cuban Assets Control Regulations. This action preserves his executive authority to continue easing restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba, ABC News reports. With the memorandum signed today by President Obama for the Secretary of State and the Secretary of the Treasury, Cuba’s TWEA listing will expire on September 14, 2016.

Diplomats start talks in Cuba on negotiations leading to normalization

Negotiators representing Cuba and the United States met in Havana today to advance the process of normalizing bilateral relations.  The meeting was announced via press statements released Wednesday by Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations in Havana and Thursday by the U.S. Department of State in Washington.

This was the first meeting of the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission which was unveiled when Secretary of State John Kerry visited Cuba for the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy. Josefina Vidal, Director General of the U.S. Division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Cuba, and Alex Lee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, led the two countries’ delegations.

According to Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, negotiators began by defining the agenda for the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission’s discussions. The talks will first address areas for cooperation, including the protection of the environment, prevention of natural disasters, health, civil aviation, and drug trafficking. Next, U.S.-Cuba talks will focus on bilateral and multilateral interests, including human rights, climate change, and global health. Lastly, the commission will discuss compensation for damages incurred by the U.S. embargo and compensation for U.S. companies nationalized in Cuba, as well as the protection of brands and patents. The Cuban delegation emphasized that lifting the embargo is fundamental to normalize bilateral relations, Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations reported.

As the Miami Herald reported, the U.S. delegation also included David McKean, director of Secretary Kerry’s policy planning staff, and Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who serves as charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy. (Be sure to see our story on the status of Cuba’s normalization talks with the European Union below.)

Foreign Affairs Committee in Congress holds hearing on agricultural trade with Cuba

When the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade held a hearing on agricultural trade with Cuba, Members of Congress could only agree that the island had potential as a market for U.S. producers of food and fiber, as Agri-Pulse reported.

Rep. Ted Poe (TX-2), the Subcommittee chairman, a long-time advocate for free trade with Cuba, criticized the “half-in/half-out” regulatory climate which face farmers such as the rice growers who live in his Congressional district.  Poe noted that while U.S. law specifically exempts the sale of food to Cuba from the embargo, other constraints impede sales.

“It’s clear our current policy when it comes to agriculture exports to Cuba is not working,” Poe said, pointing to remaining financial restrictions on credit.

Under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TSRA), U.S. producers can apply for licenses to export agricultural commodities, medicine, and medical devices to Cuba. In 2008, the value of exported U.S. agricultural commodities to Cuba peaked at $ 658 million; however, in recent years, this has dipped sharply with less than $300 million dollars’ worth of agricultural commodities exported last year, according to Reuters.

Opponents of trade with Cuba took the position that increasing food sales to Cuba would further entrench the Cuban government.  Rep. Joe Wilson (SC-2) said, “It’s hard to believe the increased trade will help the Cuban people. The evidence is clear: The Castro regime had 30 years of subsidized trade with the Soviet Union and billions of dollars in European investment, yet none of the profits made its way to the Cuban people.”  He added, “What makes us think that adding U.S. to the equation would be different except to prop up a corrupt dictatorship?”

The Subcommittee heard testimony from three Obama Administration witnesses:  John Smith, acting head of the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), Phil Karsting, Administrator of the Foreign Agricultural Service at the Department of Agriculture, and Matt Borman, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security.

According to the World Food Programme, Cuba imports 70-80 percent of its food, primarily from Brazil and Europe. Karsting testified that states producing chicken, wheat, corn, and soy would likely benefit most from increased trade with Cuba. Some lawmakers expressed concern about verifying that exports would reach their intended recipients. Borman explained that U.S. policy restrictions on trade with Cuba’s communist party, government, and the military remains in place.

In late July, Representative Tom Emmer (MN-6), who also attended the hearing, introduced legislation with Representative Kathy Castor (FL-14) to repeal the trade embargo. Emmer’s bill is identical to the embargo bill introduced in June by Senators Jerry Moran (KS) and Angus King (ME), as we previously reported.

In an April 2015 hearing before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, agriculture industry representatives and experts from Arkansas, Minnesota, Kansas, and Texas made the case for easing trade restrictions with Cuba.


Pope Francis visit prompts release of prisoners

Ahead of Pope Francis’ upcoming visit, Cuba’s government pardoned 3,522 prisoners, marking the largest release of prisoners since the Cuban Revolution according to ABC. Pope Francis will arrive in Cuba on Saturday, September 19, at Havana’s Jose Martí International Airport, where he will offer remarks at approximately 4:05pm.

Today, Cuban media reported that “Among those pardoned are people aged over 60, those under 20 with no previous criminal record, the chronically ill, women, many who were due to meet the time limit established for parole in 2016, some of those serving a sentence on work release programs, as well as foreigners, provided that their country of origin guarantees repatriation.”

This prisoner release echos past practices prior to papal visits. Ric Herrero, Executive Director for #CubaNow noted, “By any measure, the Cuban government’s decision to release over 3,500 non-violent offenders ahead of Pope Francis’ visit represents progress…it is safe to say that this would not be happening if not for the Holy Father’s role in changing U.S.-Cuba relations… At the same time, we are disappointed by reports suggesting that political prisoners may not be among those pardoned, and urge the Cuban government to reconsider as a gesture of goodwill.” The decision to release prisoners will take effect in 72 hours.

Pope Francis’ visit marks the third trip by a Catholic Pontiff to Cuba; a visit which will highlight the changing relationship between Church and state, as Reuters reported this week. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI visited Cuba and celebrated mass outdoors in Havana and Santiago; we wrote about it here.

Pope Francis, the first pope from Latin America, played a key role in brokering the rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who will accompany the papal visit, told the Miami Herald that “Cuba becomes a bridge for Francis’ trip to the United States. In that sense it is very significant.”

A meeting with former leader Fidel Castro is not on the agenda, and will depend on Castro’s health, reports the Guardian. The pontiff will meet with President Raúl Castro. Eight in 10 Cubans gave positive ratings to Pope Francis in the survey of 1,200 Cuban residents sponsored by Univision Noticias and Fusion networks, including 92 percent of Catholics.

31 percent of Cuba’s youth work in private sector

This week official figures from Cuba’s government showed that 31 percent of employed young people in Cuba work in the private sector, reported Fox News Latino.

Primary forms of employment for youth include food preparation and sales, cargo, and passenger transport according to the head of employment in the Labor and Social Security Ministry, Jesús Otamendiz.

The majority of Cuban youth continue to be employed in the state sector. In the context of a country where the percent of those above the age of 60 is expected to rise to 30 percent by 2030, employment is a central issue in addressing a contracting workforce.

The movement of workers from the state sector to the private sector is one of President Raúl Castro’s stated goals as part of Cuba’s economic evolution. In 2010, Castro announced plans to eliminate 500,000 state sector jobs as part of his “update” to socialism.

That roughly corresponds to the 500,000 Cubans, according to Bloomberg Business, who have registered as self-employed workers in professions legalized by the government’s reforms, “but economists figure the actual number is closer to 2 million-40 percent of the workforce-including state workers and farmers who moonlight in the private sector.”

Experts at the Center for Youth Studies (Centro de Estudios sobre la Juventud) explain that alternative forms of employment to state jobs are interesting to students, offering opportunities as well as challenges.

The Center for Democracy in the Americas published a report on the evolution of Cuba’s economy that can be found here.


EU and Cuba open new round of normalization talks

This week, the European Union and Cuba began the toughest round of talks on normalizing ties, according to Reuters.

After five rounds of discussions that left agreements on trade and cooperation nearly complete, the bilateral talks have now shifted to discussing a new political agreement to replace the now-abandoned “Common Position” of the EU.

Ambassador Herman Portocarero, the EU’s top diplomat in Havana, reaffirmed the EU’s commitment to advocating for human rights in Cuba, but looks forward with a pragmatic approach, saying “Our differences aren’t new and we didn’t just discover them in June. We agree on a lot of points, but on other issues we are so far agreeing to disagree.”

In 2008, the EU began to reexamine its Common Position on Cuba, which predicates restoring deeper ties with Cuba on democratic reforms. Citing the failure of the Common Position to achieve its goals as well as fundamental changes taking place in Cuba on the socio-economic dimension, the EU decided to move forward in pursuing improved bilateral relations, according to top EU negotiator Christian Leffler.

Leffler views U.S. engagement with Cuba positively, saying in a March news conference that U.S.-Cuba rapprochement “lifts a cloud that has been hanging over the region … for a long time (and) opens new possibilities. The two processes complement each other and we very much welcome the step of the United States away from confrontation.” For his part, Jesús Posada, speaker of the lower house of Spain’s parliament, expressed hope this week that “Spain as a member of the European Union will do all it can” to help U.S. and Cuba chart a “positive path,” according to Fox News Latino.

Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel leads official delegation to North Korea

On Saturday, Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel met with Kim Jon Un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, to celebrate 55-years of bilateral relations between North Korea and Cuba according to the International Business Times.

North Korean officials visited Cuba in 2013 and in 2015. The latest visit of North Korean officials to Cuba likely included a request for food aid, according to Progreso Weekly. Historically, Cuba-North Korea relations have been “fraternal” and Cuban news sources affirm that governmental ties between the two countries are “strong.” In 1960, Che Guevara visited North Korea and in 1986, Fidel Castro traveled there.

Last week, Diaz-Canel visited both Russia and China to reaffirm bi-lateral relations. Vice President Diaz-Canel is expected to replace President Raúl Castro when Castro retires in 2018.

Chilean lawmaker arrested during Ladies in White protest

On Monday, Chilean lawmaker Felipe Kast claimed that he was detained in Havana for participating in a protest with the Ladies in White in Havana. The Ladies in White were formed by mothers and daughters of dissidents jailed in Cuba following a crackdown in 2003.

Kast told reporters upon his arrival back in Santiago on Monday that, “Without any dialogue, a shock group of the Castro regime arrived; they proceeded to beat those of us who were marching, without asking us for any identification and they arrested us.” Kast does not believe that the police knew he was a Chilean lawmaker. Kast calls his detention an “excess of violence” and claims that he was beaten, questioned, and kept out of communication for three hours, according to CNN Chile.

Kast went to Havana to visit relatives and did not inform Chile’s embassy that he would participate in the protest. Chilean Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz finished his official visit to Cuba on September 5, the day before Kast’s arrest. Kast thanked Muñoz and Chile’s Ambassador to Cuba, Gonzalo Mendoza, for working to obtain his quick release.

Kast requested that Foreign Minister Heraldo Muñoz submit a note of protest on his behalf. Muñoz communicated that he would ask Gonzalo Mendoza for more information on what happened while Kast was in Cuba.

Recommended Reading

Despite Better U.S.-Cuba Relations, Guantánamo Set To Stay In U.S. Hands, David Welna, NPR News

Despite warming relations, the U.S. has no plans to eliminate the Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, even though Cubans regard the presence of the U.S. base as a violation of their nation’s sovereignty.

Why AirBnB thinks Cuba Can Become a Case Study, Miguel Helft, Forbes

Since Airbnb opened in Cuba in April, listings have increased from 1,000 to over 2,600. Nate Blecharczyk, co-founder and CTO of Airbnb, describes how Cuba is not a meaningful revenue source now, but could become one over time.

Leon Rodriguez’s Jewish Journey From Cuba to Top Immigration Post, Nathan Guttman, Forward

Leon Rodriguez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, is of both Jewish Cuban descents, whose parents emigrated from Havana in 1961. Rodriguez describes his understanding of the U.S. immigration system and the reforms it needs.

Cuba’s Key Change, Aaron Thomas, SBS

Aaron Thomas travels to Cuba to understand the role of music in political and social life.

Clinton and the Bungling of Cuba Policy, Robert Sandels and Nelson P. Valdés, Counterpunch

An overview of legal restrictions, primarily the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Helms-Burton) Act as U.S. and Cuba move toward normal relations.

In Cuba, Architecture and Design Blossom Under New Laws, Julia Cooke, Curbed

This article explores how formerly defunct buildings are being transformed into usable spaces by groups, like Habana Re-Generación.

Recommended Viewing

A Year in Cuba, Alan Taylor, The Atlantic

This piece showcases Reuters photographer Alexandre Meneghini’s work documenting life in Cuba over the past year.

Cuba, “So Near And Yet So Foreign”: A Wolfsonian Glimpse Into An Era of Easy Access from the U.S. by Ship, Frank Luca, The Wolfsonian FIU

Frank Luca, Wolfsonian Chief Librarian, offers a glimpse at travel materials representing Cuba before the travel ban.

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