Now that’s normalization: Pentagon removes Cuba from State Sponsors of Terror List

October 30, 2015
Without Tim Devaney, a reporter for The Hill who is either eagle–eyed or really well–connected, we might have missed this jewel of an item.  
“Friday’s edition of the Federal Register,” he wrote, “contains new rules for defense acquisitions from Cuba. Following President Obama’s call to repair relations with Cuba and in the footsteps of other federal agencies, the Defense Department’s Defense Acquisition Regulations System is removing restrictions it had placed on purchasing military equipment from Cuba.”
It turns out, that Cuba’s presence on the State Sponsors of Terror List affected its status under Pentagon procurement rules in two ways:  It prohibited DOD from purchasing “Commercial Satellite Service Services” from Cuba, and it prohibited the Pentagon from awarding a contract to a firm owned or controlled by Cuba.
The new rule posted today (you can read it here) removes those two provisions.  This action “only” took five months.
As a reminder, on December 17th, when President Obama announced his decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, he instructed Secretary Kerry to review Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terror.
Following a thorough review, Secretary Kerry recommended dropping Cuba from the list, and on April 14th, The White House submitted the report to Congress indicating the Administration’s intention to remove Cuba from the state sponsor’s list.
This produced one of the odder episodes in the Cuba policy drama.  The Miami Heraldreported that after signing up 35 cosponsors on draft legislation to reverse the President’s decision, Rep. Ileana Ros–Lehtinen (FL–27) decided against introducing the bill using the novel claim [cue: Sad Trombone] that Congress lacked the authority to prevent the decision from becoming effective.
In other words, she lacked the votes.
Forty–five days later, during which that legislation was actually in order, the Congressional review period came to an end, and the State Department made it official; effective May 29th, Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terror was rescinded.
Just as Cuba’s false designation had permeated its way through a variety of government policies, producing a ton of real world problems, eliminating those policies once Cuba was removed from the State Sponsor’s list required attention by several U.S. government agencies.
DOD finished the legal work dropping Cuba from its procurement regulations in June.  Whether the rule fell into a regulatory maze, or got lost in the White House clearance process, we don’t know.
Somehow, it took until today, October 30, a Friday (five months to the day Cuba came off the list on May 29th, which was also a Friday) for this rule to be issued.
In its own way, this is something worth celebrating.
First, this is a sign that the bureaucracy is still doing the hard but necessary work behind the scenes to implement President Obama’s policies, thoroughly and correctly.
Second, while Cuba may not currently be positioned to sell “Commercial Satellite Services” to the Defense Department, this does mean that, for example, the command at the Guantanamo Naval Station could begin buying goods and services from the Cuban government– rum, cigars, other supplies, you name it — starting today.
Third, beyond Tim Devaney and The Hill, this announcement — involving the national security of the United States and Cuba, after all — has not attracted, as of this writing, any attention; certainly not at the level of outrage caused by Beyonce’s visit to Cuba or the recent UN vote.
If quiet is the new normal when it comes to Cuba, give us more.

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Navin R. Johnson’s UN Vote Preview

October 23, 2015

Spoiler alert: On Tuesday, the United Nations General Assembly will consider Cuba’s resolution on the “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America on Cuba.” The vote is not in doubt; a similar resolution condemning the U.S. embargo was adopted by a 188-2 margin last year. We freely admit that virtually no one takes this process as seriously as we do; news organizations tend to yawn, since the General Assembly has adopted these measures for 23 consecutive years, and are likely to yawn harder this year, now that the State Department has denied the rumor the U.S. would abstain rather than vote against the resolution, taking away any remaining mystery about next week’s vote.

What’s the big deal? If the press doesn’t care, why should you? After all, we know how the vote will go down and, at this new, more hopeful stage in U.S.-Cuba relations, isn’t the resolution, the vote, and the analysis just a set piece from another day? That’s apparently what U.S. officials believe, who say they tried to get the Cubans to water down the resolution and take greater note of what diplomacy has produced so far, but felt rebuffed. In their telling, that ended the chance for a U.S. abstention. So, is there anything here that should concern any one of us?

Nerd Alert: We think so. Typically, the embargo resolutions request the UN Secretary-General to compile a summary of how UN agencies and each member nation of the General Assembly are affected by the global reach of U.S. economic sanctions. Every year, that report is “embargoed” by the UN until the eve of the vote. When we get our copy, as we did this week, the effect it has on one member of our team would remind Steve Martin fans of Navin R. Johnson’s reaction when he discovers his name in the phone book for the first time.

Getting serious for just a moment, we suggest you either read the report yourself here, or take a look at the analysis that follows. In fact, what came back in the Secretary-General’s report is pretty interesting, and here are some of the big themes that captured our attention.

The diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba bought the U.S. a lot of good will. Comments filed by Member states – allies and adversaries alike – recognize the Obama administration for talking to Cuba and making an effort to have a respectful policy. While President Obama had in previous years made reforms on travel and remittances, and no country took notice, several nations and UN agencies mentioned the opening of embassies, ending Cuba’s listing as a state sponsor of terror,reforms that allow greater travel, the export of building materials to repair homes, and the like as welcomed steps forward. The report has never praised the U.S. before.

But that goodwill stretches only so far. Japan, for example, expressed support for the new,positive direction of the U.S.-Cuba relationship, but will support the resolution condemning the embargo because it imposes hardships on Cubans and because the extraterritorial reach of sanctions violates international law. Similarly, the European Union – allies whose policy toward Cuba is most like ours and welcomed the bilateral breakthrough – also believes “the United States measures are increasingly outdated and should be ended.”

Then, there are the comments by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights which says that coercive economic sanctions justified on human rights grounds more often than not fail to improve those conditions, and punish the poorest people, the intended beneficiaries,at the cost of increased unemployment and poverty and risks to their health. It stings to read the example it offers that there is increased risk of mortality in Cuba because our sanctions restrict its access to chemicals that would otherwise protect Cuba’s drinking water.

From Stinging to Strange to Stupid. Those who are cynical about the UN, those who are bored writing or reading the annual stories on General Assembly vote, might spend time reading the impact the embargo continues to have on vulnerable Cubans.

In the report, you can read about sanctions blocking Cuban access to diagnostic equipment for monitoring the treatment of leukemia patients; how sanctions prevent the sale to Cuban hospitals of devices critical for pediatric heart surgery patients; how sanctions hinder efforts by the UN Development Program getting medicine and support into Cuba for its 18,257 patients, people of all ages, living with HIV/AIDS. You can read about the month-long cutoff of funds that Cuba’s government needed to pay for the housing and food costs for the Cuban doctors who were deployed in West Africa to fight Ebola.

On a lighter note, Cuba wants you to know that while it could be buying baseballs from the Wilson Sporting Goods Co., headquartered in Chicago, Illinois at $5.80 apiece, the embargo forces it to turn to a Japanese baseball manufacturer and spend $9.50 so that each ball can make its way to Cuba.For some reason, Cuba would also like you to know that because of the U.S. embargo, it has to spend over $35,000 more buying saxophones for 334 student musicians than it would if only it could purchase instruments made by Selmer in Elkhart, Indiana. Cuba: Point taken!

The report lays bare the economic contradictions of our policy. The great change in direction offered by President Obama’s new policy is that we’re supposed to stop strangling Cuba economically and instead give support to what can help make Cubans prosperous.

With the embargo, however, our new policy still has the old effects. For example, the Secretary-General’s report is a reminder that we close off to Cuba its natural, most proximate export market.

The embargo stops Cuba from selling its biotechnology and medical services, its nickel,rum, cigars, coffee, lobsters, and honey to the eager consumers it would find in the U.S.A.The embargo stops Cuba from getting credit, it subjects Cuba to exchange rate risk, it places Cuban bank accounts and its funds in jeopardy of being seized, and it bans Cuba from using the U.S. dollar in international transactions. On top of the well-known problems that are due to Cuba’s own economic policies, our embargo is a brake on Cuban economic growth and increases the struggles of the Cuban people.

Next Steps? After a really exciting year for U.S.-Cuba diplomacy, and strong leadership in the President Obama on behalf of engagement, the Secretary-General’s report reminds us that the embargo is still in place and it cuts pretty sharp.

For its part, Cuba’s resolution and its lengthy section in the UN Report is focused on nudging President Obama to try harder, to use his executive authority again and again, because Congress doesn’t have the votes to lift the embargo.

Cuba wants President Obama to help Cuba secure credit, use the dollar, open the banking system to Cuban entities and financial transactions, allow it to use the International Financial Institutions, and permit U.S. investment. He can do those things, and he should, but a year from now, are we going to be having the same debate, over the same resolution, covered or ignored by the same cynical press corps? Or, are there things that both governments are prepared to do in order to move the process along, further and faster?

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News about a Florida Poll, and reflections on travel and trade

October 16, 2015
By a greater than two-to-one margin, Floridians favor opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to the Sunshine State Survey released this week. 

When asked, “Do you favor freeing up diplomatic relations with Cuba?,” 56% of Floridians indicated support and only 26% opposed the idea. 

While the fact that diplomacy with Cuba enjoys majority support in Florida is important by itself, and has been reported in surveys before, what is most interesting about this poll is who is expressing that support most:  respondents who live in Miami and Palm Beach.

The survey, conducted jointly by University of South Florida School of Public Affairs with Nielsen, shows the highest support for diplomatic relations in the counties with the highest representation of Cuban Americans in the United States. 

Interestingly, Sunshine State Survey, in the field from July 30-August 16th, primarily had questions about the biggest threats to Florida’s economy.  In reporting the results, the University of South Florida factsheet said:

“There is strong support for economic development efforts aimed at keeping and expanding businesses and opening up diplomatic relations with Cuba.[our emphasis]”

By folding together the themes of economic growth and diplomacy with Cuba, the results reveal that all Floridians, but especially those in Miami and Palm Beach, are expressing views all but identical to the majority of Americans in the other 49 states who have understood and experienced Cuba from a greater distance, geographically, intellectually, and emotionally.

More and more, as these distinct perspectives merge, with the important policy actions taken by President Obama to remove restrictions on travel and trade through executive action, there is a lot more momentum behind those who want to think and act anew about Cuba policy, pulling away from the Florida–centric, sanctions–centric debate that prevailed for so long.

A note to readers

This week, the staff of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, publisher of your Cuba Central News Blast, is largely located in Cuba, handling back-to-back-to-back delegations that included Members of Congress and Congressional staff.  So, if we seem a little heavy on words and analysis and light on news summaries today, we hope what we have to say in this edition will still be of interest to readers.  We’ll be back to normal next week (we hope!)


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You didn’t hear him knocking (Obama’s Cuba policy)

October 9, 2015

From today to the inauguration of the next U.S. president, two themes will likely shape our analysis of U.S.-Cuba relations over the next 67 weeks. 

The first is what we call the “Power Shift,” the ongoing transformation in “who calls the shots” in the Cuba policy debate; the second is the growing, and increasingly broad-based interest in creating “facts on the ground” that will make the Obama reforms that started on December 17, 2014 irreversible. 

Together, these themes explain why there’s more political space to think differently about Cuba and the conversation around the policy. 

Think back to last summer.  The Treasury Department made news when it released a nine-page report by its Office of Inspector General (OIG) which concluded that Jay-Z and Beyoncé had traveled to Cuba legally, had not violated U.S. sanctions, and that OFAC’s decision not to start a formal investigation of their visit, as demanded by Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and Diaz-Balart in 2013, “was reasonable.” 

Sure, it was fun to read a U.S. government report that began with the words “This memorandum represents the results of our review of a trip to Cuba by the couple Shawn Carter (whose stage name is Jay-Z) and Knowles-Carter (Beyoncé) to determine whether the trip violated U.S. sanctions.” 

But, the facts that this ginned-up controversy lasted over a year, wasted taxpayer money, and trivialized a big issue (Cuba as the one destination for U.S. travelers where it is a crime to be a tourist) were vivid examples of where hardliner dominance over Cuba policy had taken us. 

Developments just this week illustrate how much the entire conversation has changed. 

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported, in its “Power Moves” column, that former Senator Olympia Snowe (ME) and former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano joined The Cuba Consortium, a bipartisan group formed to advise businesses and others about the normalization process. 

Good story placed in an important, pro-embargo paper, and no backlash. 

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson returned from his trip to Cuba saying “he looks forward to the possibilities of trading with Cuba,” according to KARK-TV news.

 Former Bush Administration Homeland Security official, who took special pride in making Cuba sanctions bite harder, pirouettes on the policy, no suffers no pushback. 

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Rick Crawford, who represents the First Congressional District of Arkansas, introduced legislation cosponsored by the Chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, Michael Conaway, and Rep. Ted Poe, both Texas Republicans, to remove restrictions in U.S. law that impede the sale of agriculture products to Cuba. 

The Miami Herald, which editorialized again this week against lifting the embargo, also covered a big new positive development in the Cuban reality; namely, progress in getting more Cubans access to the Internet in this excellent article “Cuba: A nation gets connected.” 

Perhaps, most remarkable of all, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker visits Cuba, delivers a message to Cuban officials “to make sure that you understand how our regulations work, because I think there’s business opportunity in that,” and adds “What we’re trying to do is be as open as we can until the blockade is lifted.” 

Blockade? As the New York Times helpfully explained, blockade is the word that Cubans use to refer to the U.S. embargo. 

In covering the trip, neither the New York Times nor the Washington Post quoted any blowback from the entrenched sources of pro-embargo political support. None. 

They could have quoted – or called – Senator Bob Menendez (NJ) who delivered a stinging indictment of President Obama’s Cuba policy in a floor speech on Wednesday. 

Although it might seem a little snarky, another sign of the Power Shift can be found in the meager coverage Menendez’s speech attracted.  He could barely be heard. 

On Google this morning, we found 234 articles on Secretary Pritzker’s trip. A similar search found the Senator’s speech was covered by El Nuevo Herald, the Voice of AmericaTexas TribunePJ Media, and three news distribution services (including “noodls,” the self-described “killer app” for the media relations industry). 

This is not to say the battle’s won; the Obama policy rules!  No.  There is still much work to be done. 

As Nick Miroff wrote in the Washington Post after Pritzker’s trip, there are economic impediments on the Cuban side — along with serious human rights issues and related concerns on both sides — that are slowing the creation of “facts on the ground.”  These delays mean fewer incentives for U.S. corporations and political figures in the U.S. Congress to speed the ultimate removal of the embargo. 

Of course, given the inability of the House to elect a presiding officer, it’s easy to understand why repealing the embargo will take more time. 

But, our point is this.  At last, we’re talking about big things rather than small ball; we’re directly engaging with Cuba’s government on matters ranging from trade to human rights, and not debasing ourselves with debates over Rihanna showing her backside in Vanity Fair or whether the Rolling Stones should ask Cubans when they tour next March, “Can’t you hear me knocking?”

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Letter from Cuba – Where Technology is More Than Bright Shiny Objects

October 2, 2015
This week, we visited Cuba with a delegation of highly knowledgeable and engaged women leaders;  enabling us to share what we have learned, expand what know, and engage with Cubans – new and familiar, in government, civil society, and among the self-employed -with fresh eyes and ears.
One story of this trip – and there were many – can be told by talking about five pieces of technology we encountered during a week-long journey from Havana to Pinar del Rio and back.
The LG smart phone.  At dinner in a privately-owned restaurant, far from the big city, where the distance from farm to table was a matter of paces, the proprietor startled her guests when she cued up a music video on her phone.  Using her finca’s WIFI connection, she played a pop song and the accompanying video with scenes of dreamy lovers shot in her nearby dewy fields.  As you might expect to see here in the U.S. or elsewhere in the developed world, this was not just a music video but a product placement…for a paladar…in Cuba.
As we were reminded time and again, Cuba has a demographic problem.  By 2030, 30% of Cubans will be age 60 or over.   Following the December 17th diplomatic breakthrough between Cuba and the United States, the Cuban government created 36 hotspots, apparently with the understanding that if young Cubans can’t find a signal for their smart phones on the island, they will search for access to the Internet someplace else.
With a few exceptions – e.g. dissident websites and the web presence of Radio and TV Martí – Cuba’s web is unfiltered, so there are Cubans living on Facebook and accessing more.  Ted Henken tweeted this week he was perfectly able to get El Nuevo Herald, Café Fuerte, and the Havana Times from his hotel; there and elsewhere, those sites are available to Cubans whose phones are within range.
The environmentally-sensitive car wash.  In Cojimar, with assistance from the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation, residents of this neighborhood near Havana have started a private sector car wash with an unusual spin.  Earlier this week, the owner of Planta De Fregado, assisted by the former bartender and warehouse manager he employs, described how they built and now operate a car wash whose filtration system is capable of separating water, oil, and solid waste as they clean the grit and grime from their customers’ cars.  They are driven to do this because he and his neighbors, coordinated by a magnificently-talented organizer, have been engaged in a decade-long effort to reclaim their community from the grip of pollution and decay.  Now, with the government’s emphasis on removing workers from its payroll and services from its books that are best performed in the private sector, the carwash is competing against operations in Havana on environmental quality and price in Cuba’s increasingly private economy.
The water meter.  The organizer’s name is Maritza Fortún Gonzalez.  Her pride in helping Cojimar clean-up and become more efficient in its use of water resources has a practical dimension.  You can find it in her sidewalk.  There, the government has installed a water meter to go along with a new system of price-sensitive usage.  Before, the supply was unlimited at a price of 1 peso; soon, when she exceeds (an estimated) 1-2 cubic meters, the charge will slide to two pesos.  Yes, water is dirt cheap; perhaps, some might argue, unreasonably so.  But, this is illustrative of something bigger happening in Cuba.  Electricity prices are up; gas is being metered too.  There is a 19-page (don’t be envious, IRS) tax code on the books.  As Cubans pay more for what they get, their interests in having more say in how things are done will only rise. What the meters are measuring is a gradual redefinition of the relationship between Cuban citizens and the Cuban state.
The Packet.  Our jaws dropped when a state employee told us she was all caught up watching “House of Cards.”   She is able to watch the unseemly rise and dissipating fall of President Frank Underwood thanks to “Paquete Semanal,” distributed by flash drive to subscribers and others, tasting offline what we are privileged to encounter in the digital world here.   The packet has been described by The Guardian here and NPR here.    Its significance is about more than entertainment and culture and the growing community of Cubans who are seeing the news and information on the flash drive as it is passed hand to hand.  “We are over-controlled,” she said, and the packet is forcing the government to confront its own determination to exert control over the content that Cubans can see.
The sewing machine.  Barbara, clutching her baby in her living room, laid out the baby dresses she had designed turned out by the seamstresses she employs who work on the sewing machines she keeps on the second floor.  She loves having the chance to “be my own boss.”  The clothing she sells now is for other Cubans, and her line of clothes has put friends to work and her growing family in a larger flat.   Two hours away, we also visited a cooperative employing nine women with their own machines finishing a project turning out uniforms for workers in a state-run restaurant.  Their leader enjoys the autonomy of private work, when they can make their own decisions – what contracts to take, what price to sell their goods – and earn better wages.  “This is the future of our country,” she says.
It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to be beguiled by the new technology.  Poor Cubans, we were told, in this period of change, are doing worse, not better.  Young people are still leaving, many more than the numbers of those who are coming back.  Not all the faithful who wanted to see Pope Francis had safe passage to hear him say mass.  This, and more, is true.
But, these things are also true:  Not a single Cuban spoke to us against their country’s opening with America.  They see the restoration of diplomatic relations as the removal of a huge psychological burden from their shoulders.  The changes in their lives, embodied by the technology we saw in Cuba this week, are emblematic of greater mobility and even larger expectations for the future.  They don’t want these developments reversed – not the changes in their lives, and not the reforms in U.S. policy – and neither do we.