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

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.
U.S.-CUBA RELATIONS
In separate addresses before the UN General Assembly on Monday, President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro devoted portions of their remarks to call for an end to the U.S. embargo on Cuba, as The New York Times and other news agencies reported.
 
President Obama told the General Assembly he was “confident that our Congress will inevitably lift an embargo that should not be in place anymore.” In a speech later that afternoon, President Castro said the two countries had embarked on “a long and complex process [toward] the normalization of relations [which] will only be achieved with the end of the economic and social blockade against Cuba.”
 
President Obama received his biggest applause from General Assembly delegates when he referred to U.S.-Cuba normalization efforts. He said, “Change won’t come overnight to Cuba, but I’m confident that openness, not coercion, will support the reforms and better the life the Cuban people deserve, just as I believe that Cuba will find its success if it pursues cooperation with other nations.”
 
As Reuters reported, President Castro’s speech at the U.N. was the first by a Cuban president since Fidel Castro spoke to the Millennium Summit in 2000.  When he turned to the unfolding diplomatic process with the U.S., he reaffirmed Cuba’s long-held position that fully normalized relations would only be achieved “with the return to our country of the territory illegally occupied by Guantanamo Naval Base; the cessation of radio and TV broadcasts, and of subversion and destabilization programs against the island; and when our people are compensated for the human and economic damages they still endure.”
 
The resolution of property claims is something negotiators for both nations hope to resolve by the 2016 elections and the change in U.S. administrations.  It is highly contentious.  “According to the U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission,” the Miami Herald said, “there are nearly 6,000 certified claims of expropriated U.S. properties in Cuba worth $1.9 billion, not counting interest.”
 
Richard Feinberg, a former senior Clinton administration official, told the Herald that President Castro’s demand for compensation “is in part about domestic Cuban politics, (b)ut also, no doubt it’s a bargaining posture: The Cubans are seeking to reduce the overall compensation payments for expropriated U.S. properties, especially by slashing interest payments.”
 
On Tuesday, after a brief photo op, the two leaders met behind closed doors to discuss further the normalization process. A White House Press release explained that the two presidents discussed Pope Francis’ recent visit, U.S. regulatory changes, progress in establishing diplomatic relations and continued reform in Cuba. According to the release, “The President also highlighted steps the United States intends to take to improve ties between the American and Cuban peoples, and reiterated [U.S.] support for human rights in Cuba.”
 
Josh Earnest, White House press secretary, explained, “The president, as he always does, reaffirmed our commitment to seeing the Cuban government doing a better job of not only respecting but also actively protecting the human rights of the Cuban people.” Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s foreign minister, noted that the meeting was “held in a respectful and constructive climate.”
 
As world leaders gathered in New York for the opening of the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly, “A number of leaders,” according to the Latin America Daily Briefing, “including Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff and Chilean President Michele Bachelet mentioned their approval of the new relationship between Cuba and the U.S. Rousseff said she hoped the process would culminate in the end of the embargo, ending the Cold War-related dispute between the two countries.”
 
While in New York, President Castro also held an informal meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping and met with former President Bill Clinton and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio. Cuba’s resolution condemning the U.S. embargo against Cuba will come up for a vote again on October 27 as we reported here. Last year, the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of ending the embargo with 188 countries voting in favor.
 
U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker will travel to Cuba for two days next week, October 6-7, to engage in high-level talks with Cuban counterparts regarding travel and business policy. The New York Times reported that Secretary Pritzker’s trip is “intended to facilitate more effective implementation of new U.S. policies toward Cuba.”
 
Secretary Pritzker is the second member of President Obama’s cabinet to travel to Cuba, following Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit to Havana to raise the flag over the U.S. embassy.
 
Secretary Pritzker’s trip comes on the heels of new regulations announced by the Department of Treasury and the Department of Commerce two weeks ago. We reported on the regulatory changes here. The new regulations allow U.S. businesses to open offices and bank accounts in Cuba as well as establish joint ventures with some of Cuba’s government entities and hire Cuban workers, reported the Washington Post.
 
In a statement accompanying the release of the new rules, Pritzker said, “The regulations published today are designed to empower the Cuban people and support the emerging Cuban private sector, bringing us one step closer to achieving President Obama’s historic policy goals. These actions build upon previous Commerce regulatory revisions, and will ease restrictions on authorized travel, enhance the safety of Americans traveling to the country, and allow more business opportunities for the nascent Cuban private sector.”
 
Although U.S. airlines are “eager” to offer full-blown, regularly scheduled, commercial service to Cuba, the Wall Street Journal reported this week “it isn’t likely technical and regulatory challenges can be overcome for services to be launched this year.”
 
The Journal’s report contrasted with the optimism expressed earlier this week that Cuba and the U.S. could reach a deal restoring scheduled airline service by the end of this year, asReuters reported. Officials from six U.S. government agencies and their counterparts at the Cuban Foreign Ministry and Cuban Institute of Civil Aviation concluded two days of bilateral talks in Havana on Tuesday, and they are expected to meet again before the end of the year.
 
Both sides seek to fulfill their own objectives in the talks and, as the Miami Heraldreported, “Cuba has made it clear it wants reciprocity – meaning it would also like its airlines to offer scheduled service to the United States.”
 
The existence of civil judgments against the Cuban government, filed by those who claim to have suffered abuses at its hands, complicates the ability of Cuban airlines to fly into the U.S. for fear the aircraft will be seized.
 
Regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba were suspended in the early 1960s. Since then, presidential administrations have eased and tightened travel restrictions on Cuba, even briefly banning charter flights in 1996-1998.
 
Since coming to office in 2009, President Obama has used his executive authority to expand legally-permissible, non-tourist travel to Cuba.  Reforms he authorized gave Cuban Americans the unlimited right to visit their families on the island, and restored the categories of people-to-people travel that existed under the Clinton Administration, authorized by law in 2000, but largely set-aside during the Bush years.
 
In January 2015, the Obama administration announced new regulations authorizing commercial U.S. airlines to fly to Cuba and allowing Americans to visit Cuba without first obtaining a license from the Treasury Department. However, travelers flying from the U.S. must still book tickets through licensed charter companies because commercial airlines cannot sell tickets to Cuba, absent a civil aviation agreement that will include provisions to allow regularly scheduled commercial flights.
 
Now, as the Wall Street Journal reported, “Big U.S. carriers including American Airlines Group Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and JetBlue AirwaysCorp. all stand to benefit from a deal between the U.S. and Cuba to resume scheduled flights between the countries for the first time in decades.”
 
On Monday, JetBlue announced that it will add another charter flight to its existing service from New York’s JFK Airport. On Wednesday, BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport launched its first charter flight to Cuba in partnership with Island Travel & Tours, Ltd. There are currently 19 U.S. airports authorized to offer services to Cuba according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
 
Trade delegations from Arkansas and North Carolina lead successful trips to Cuba
On Sunday, a 28-member trade delegation from North Carolina headed to Cuba to meet with Cuban counterparts and explore opportunities for trade. On Monday, Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson held a teleconference from Havana during which he urged the U.S. Congress to allow food companies to sell to Cuba on credit.
 
North Carolina expects to export poultry and apples to Cuba, but trade representatives want to open the market to export more agricultural goods. If adjusted to current prices, the value of trade between North Carolina and Cuba amounted to roughly $600 million in the 1950s and economists predict that current trade opportunities could be even more profitable.  Keith Beavers, a Duplin County farmer, noted “When you get right down to it, the Cuban people are wonderful, the American people are wonderful. It’s the politicians that get in the way.”
 
For Arkansas, trade with Cuba could also be lucrative. Arkansas is one of the top three U.S. states for poultry production, and it also accounts for nearly 50% of the U.S. rice crop. Governor Hutchinson says that allowing food companies to sell to Cuba on credit is “the next logical step.” The governor told Reuters that “Once that is done, then let’s see commerce be extended and increase. Hopefully the rules of the Cuban government will be more relaxed as well. And then … Congress will take additional steps down the road.”
 
This is a sharp turnaround from when Governor Hutchinson, then-serving as Under Secretary of Homeland Security, traveled to Miami to “tout,” as his department’s press release said, his department’s enforcement of the embargo.
 
Governor Hutchinson is the first U.S. governor to visit Cuba since New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s trip to Cuba in April 2015. Previous Arkansas travelers to Cuba include former Senator Blanche Lincoln and former Rep. Marion Berry (AR-1), who visited the island in 2000. CDA, which publishes the Cuba Central Newsblast, also hosted a trip for a delegation that included former Rep. Vic Snyder (AR-2) in 2002, and Rep. Berry’s return trip in 2007 with a delegation focused on agriculture led by Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT-3) in that same year.
 
IN CUBA
From early November to mid-December, Cuban officials will conduct their tenth national audit of Cuban companies led by the Cuba’s National Audit Office, according to EFE. Sectors subject to the audit include services, agribusiness, energy and biotechnology.
 
Vice President Gladys Bejerano explained that the audit will focus on sectors that have a “large impact” on gross domestic product.  Bejerano notes that this audit is intended to avoid errors as Cuba’s economy transforms, insisting that the audit is primarily “preventative and educational” in nature.
 
The Cuban military will also revisit its payroll, its use of funds, and its allocation of construction materials to the general population. The National Audit Office was created in 2009 to fight corruption and supervise companies and state enterprises.
 
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
On Tuesday, President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam concluded his two-day visit to Cuba. The president travelled to Cuba to “strengthen” and “diversify” Vietnam’s economic and commercial relations with Cuba according to Cuban news sources.
 
While in Cuba, President Raúl Castro awarded President Tan Sang the Order of José Martí, the highest decoration that the Council of State can bestow. The two leaders also signed agreements to foster cooperation between Cuba’s Chamber of Commerce and Vietnam’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry as well as Cuba’s national bank and Vietnam’s Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development, Agribank.
 
Representatives from Vietnam and Cuba delineated a timeline for the construction of a joint venture in the Special Economic Development Zone of Mariel to produce detergent in Cuba. Channel NewsAsia reports that, after China, Vietnam is Cuba’s biggest trading partner in Asia with the value of trade totaling US$269 million last year.
 
The Special Economic Development Zone of Mariel is an economic development project 28 miles to the west of Havana designed to incentivize foreign investment. Large scale traffic is expected to begin in 2016 when the expansion of the Panama Canal is complete. Earlier this year, Cuba approved five new firms for investment in the zone, as we reported.
 
Recommended Reading
U.S.-Cuba: Must “Democracy Promotion” Obstruct Normalization? Fulton Armstrong, American University Cuba Policy Initiative
In this analysis, Fulton Armstrong describes how so-called “democration promotion” initiatives under the Helms-Burton law run counter to the new policies of engagement initiated by President Obama, and he offers six proposals for bringing the policy into alignment with the diplomacy now being practiced by both governments.
 
This story chronicles the experience of Jews in Cuba, offering a glimpse into  the ebb and flows of Cuba’s relationship with religious tolerance.
 
In Cuba’s Holguín province the Centro de Investigaciones y Servicios Ambientales y Tecnológicos (Holguín’s center for environmental research) has launched a new project aimed at protecting threatened mountainous ecosystems. The purpose of this project is to protect biological diversity from the mountains to the coast.
 
Recommended Viewing
Last Sunday, marked the season six premiere of Anthony Bourdain’s award-winning travel show, Parts Unknown.  This time, the chef headed to Cuba to learn about the island’s culture while sampling dishes ranging from sushi to lechoncubano (a corn-and-pumpkin pig head soup).
 
This photo gallery showcases Cubans of all ages going about their daily lives.
 
Returning from obscurity, the Cuban-Soviet film “Soy Cuba” (I am Cuba) will screen this Friday on Miami Beach, 50 years after it was filmed. To see the trailer, please click here.
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