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 America, Texas Tribune, PJ 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?”
Concluding a two-day visit to Cuba, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker reiterated President Obama’s goal of ending the trade embargo saying “The president wants to see the embargo lifted, but the president realizes it will take time.”
During her brief stay, Secretary Pritzker met with Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodriguez, and the Vice-President of the Council of Ministers, Ricardo Cabrisas.
A statement from Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said the purpose of the dialogue with Secretary Pritzker was to “exchange over the reach and limitations of the measures recently taken by the U.S. government to modify some aspects of the application of the embargo against Cuba.”
Secretary Pritzker began her trip to Cuba with a tour of the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM) where she was briefed by port officials. The ZEDM, 28 miles to the west of Havana, opened in 2014 and is designed to incentivize foreign investment, and anticipates an increase in maritime commercial activity in Cuba once the expansion of the Panama Canal is operational in 2016, and trade with the United States becomes more active.
Under current U.S. law, vessels that dock in Cuba must wait six months before docking in the United States unless they are issued a specific license from the U.S. Treasury Department. A Cuban port official told Secretary Pritzker that this “hamstrings” business between the U.S. and Cuba. Among three Cuba-related amendments adopted the Senate Appropriations Committee, one offered by Sen. Jon Tester (MT) would repeal the 180-day quarantine, as we reported in July.
The Mariel Port is both a practical example of Cuba’s desire to increase economic growth and a symbol of its increasing involvement with the global economy. It was financed largely by Brazilian capital, operates using Chinese equipment, and is managed by a Singaporean port management firm.
Secretary Pritzker dined with Cuban entrepreneurs on Tuesday night and co-chaired a Regulatory Dialogue with Cuban officials on Wednesday.
The Secretary noted that Cuba’s dual currency and “inadequate” regulatory system are obstacles to attracting large-scale foreign investment, issues which Cuba is addressing in its plans to update key aspects of its economic system.
She concluded her visit to Cuba by encouraging Cuba’s government to ease trade for Cubans saying, “We urge President Castro and his government to make it easier for Cuban citizens to trade and travel more freely, to enjoy the fruits of their labor, to access the Internet and to (be) hired directly by foreign companies.”
To address the island’s economic problems, Cuba’s government has trimmed roughly half-a-million positions from the state payroll, and actions it has taken to update its economic model have spurred the creation of cooperatives and non-state sector businesses, as the Havana Times reported, “have primarily benefited private activity in the food and services industries but have not yet reached higher professional spheres.”
It was reported in June by 14YMedio that the self-employed sector now exceeds half-a-million.
Secretary Pritzker’s trip follows the release of new regulations from the Department of Commerce and the Department of Treasury in September, as we reported 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.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas, which publishes the Cuba Central Newsblast, published a book about Cuba’s contemporary economic evolution, which is available here.
U.S. Representatives Cheri Bustos (Il-17) and Rodney Davis (Il-13), Democratic and Republican officeholders from Illinois, will depart for Cuba next week with officials from Illinois business and farm groups.
According to the Galesburg Register Mail, they plan to visit Cuba to promote new economic development and trade opportunities for Illinois farmers.
The delegation is said to include officials from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Illinois Farm Bureau, Illinois Soybean Growers, Illinois Corn and AGCO, an American farm equipment manufacturer based in Duluth, Georgia, and is sponsored by the Illinois Cuba Working Group.
Bustos released a statement saying, “Illinois farmers have what it takes to compete and succeed on the global economic playing field. So I’m deeply concerned about how the Cuban embargo has limited their ability to grow and create jobs across our state.
Congressman Davis said, “We’ve allowed the sale of certain agricultural products to Cuba since 2000 but because of government restrictions we’ve put Illinois farmers, and the Cuban people, at a disadvantage. I’m looking forward to learning more about how improving agricultural trade with a country that imports roughly 70 percent of its food and is located just 90 miles from our coast can create greater opportunities for Illinois farmers.”
As the trip was announced, Reuters reported that Cuba has resumed purchasing U.S. chicken “ending a two-month suspensión that Cuba attributed to a bird flu epidemic affecting the U.S. poultry industry.”
Congressman Rick Crawford (AR-1) has introduced legislation that would steadily increase trade with Cuba. If enacted into law, the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act would “repealrestrictions on export financing and give producers access to Department of Agriculture marketing programs that help the U.S. compete in foreign markets.”Representative Crawford’s bill would allow the U.S. to export more food commodities without wholly lifting the embargo.
The bill amends the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 (TRSA), which allows exports of agricultural goods and medicines to Cuba with restrictions prohibiting financing.Crawford’s proposal removes the requirement for Cuban buyers to provide cash in advance, a definition which was loosened by the Obama administration this year, and goes further by allowing the extension of private credit.
The bill also provides for use of the federal agricultural export promotion programs and for direct investment in the Cuban agricultural sector. The application of these programs would be restricted to entities not affiliated with Cuba’s government. ALIMPORT is the Cuban government entity that oversees all agricultural imports from the U.S.
The bill is co-sponsored by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conway (TX-11), Representative Ted Poe (TX-2), and Representative Ralph Abraham (LA-5). In a press release, Representative Crawford stated:
“The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act would allow our producers to compete on a level playing field in the Cuban market, a significant opportunity for American farmers and ranchers. I believe that agriculture trading partnerships with Cuba will help build a foundation of goodwill and cooperation that will open the door to long-sought reforms in the same the way that American influence has brought reform to other communist states.”
The Cuba Agricultural Exports Act has been referred for consideration to the House Agriculture Committee where it awaits further review. It is similar to Senator Heidi Heitkamp’s (ND) and Senator John Boozman’s (AR) Agricultural Export Expansion Act, the Crawford’s legislation adds to the growing number of legislative proposals that lift restrictions on travel and trade with Cuba. Most recently, Representatives Tom Emmer (MN-6) and Kathy Castor (FL-14) introduced legislation to lift the embargo in late July, as we reported here.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than 27,000 Cubans entered the U.S. during the first nine months of the 2015 fiscal year, a 78% increase over the same time period last year. Pew reported that the majority of the Cubans who came into the U.S. arrived through the Laredo sector in Texas. Entries through Miami, while smaller, doubled over the previous year.
As EFE reported, “Cubans who immigrate to the U.S. receive special treatment,” compared to migrants of all other nationalities, enabling them to stay by arriving on dry land, and are able after one year of residence in the U.S. to apply for permanent residence.
The Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) announced last weekend that it would allow people in other countries to pay for Cubans’ Internet use, according to the Havana Times. To receive a top up of Internet service, the Cuban on the island must have a permanent Nauta Internet account with ETECSA.
The service took effect on Tuesday and, for approximately $11.50, an individual outside Cuba can pay for five hours of Internet service for someone in Cuba. Over the summer, ETECSA rolled out 35 new WI-FI hotspots on the island. By the year 2020, Cuba’s government pledged to expand Internet access to all of its citizens.
Today, only about 5 percent of Cubans can connect to the web. The WI-FI offered by ETECSA offer meager coverage and it is difficult to obtain. According to NPR, Cuban citizens must purchase a card from the government and pay about “$2 for an hour of Internet use, while the average state salary in Cuba is about $20 a month.”
Further, access is predominantly available in tourist areas or downtown parks; away from where most citizens spend the majority of their time. Despite these challenges, Cubans do seek out the Internet to connect with loved ones abroad according to the Miami Herald.Further desire for Internet and media access is seen by the widespread and growing use of “El Paquete Semanal;” a digital package of media sold on the island containing news and entertainment from abroad, which we reported on here.
Last month, the Obama administration announced policy changes that would allow telecommunications companies access to Cuban markets in an effort to improve infrastructure and increase connectivity. However, this action has been met with some skepticism from the Cuban government. Vice President José Ramón Machado Ventura said, “Some want to give it to us for free, not so Cubans can communicate but to infiltrate us for ideological work. … We have to possess the Internet our way, knowing the imperialists aim to use it to destroy the Revolution.”
When septuagenarian rockers ask Cubans, “Can’t you hear me knocking?” they really mean it.
News sources ranging from Cuban state media to the Guardian are abuzz with reports that Mick Jagger is in Cuba this week to scout out a possible concert venue for the Rolling Stones’ upcoming Latin America tour.
Mick Jagger told Granma, Cuba’s state newspaper, little about his trip except that “…it could be related to a concert that the Rolling Stones want to give in Cuba.” Stones’ bassist Darryl Jones performed in Havana in February with the group The Dead Daisies, according to Travel Pulse. Jagger’s comments build on speculation started by lead guitarist Keith Richards when he told Cuban sources that the band is eyeing Havana’s Latin American stadium for a March 2016 concert.
Chad’s foreign minister, Moussa Faki Mahamat, and Solvakia’s Prime Minister, Robert Fico, and the United Arab Emirates, Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Abdullah, each visited Cuba in separate official visits this week. Chad’s foreign minister came to Cuba toreaffirm bi-lateral relations with Cuba while Slovakia’s Prime Minister made his first visitto meet with President Raúl Castro and discuss existing accords, reports Cuban news sources.
Cuba’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, met with Foreign Minister Moussa Faki Mahamat on Wednesday. Minister Rodríguez emphasized the importance of Cuban relations with the Africa Union and Cuba’s continued commitment to strong bi-lateral relations with Chad. Minister Mahamat expressed solidarity with Cuba’s government and praised Cuba’s “independence” and “resistance” before signing new agreements regarding diplomatic passports between Chad and Cuba.
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico was greeted by Cuba’s Vice Minister of Foreign Relations, Ana Teresita González Fraga, upon his arrival in Cuba on Wednesday. During his official visit, Prime Minister Fico will meet with President Raúl Castro and visit the José Martí Memorial. Between 2012 and 2015, Slovakia and Cuba have signed several agreements related to education, finance, culture, and the economy. Since 1996, Slovakia has voted in favor of an end to the U.S. embargo at the United Nations.
Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Abdullah arrived Wednesday and was greeted by first vice president Miguel Diaz-Canel. During his 24-hour visit, Sheikh Abdullah signed new according to “deepen cooperation” between Cuba and the UAE regarding renewable energy and aviation.
Six Lessons In Innovation From Cuban Entrepreneurs, Ricardo Herrero, Huffington Post
Herrero writes, “As Cuba seeks to reintegrate itself into the global economy, its harsh conditions have inadvertently given fruit to one of the greatest assets a workforce can possess in the 21st century: a deep-rooted culture of constraint-based innovation and collective ingenuity – one that often remains at odds with the government’s rigid central planning offices.”
What the Pope Francis effect hasn’t delivered in Cuba, Nick Miroff, The Washington Post
In his review of Pope Francis’ visit to Cuba, writer Nick Miroff compares the accomplishments of Pope Francis to his predecessors.
This musical by director Dámaso Rodriguez tells the story of life in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Centered on the life of a struggling musician, “Cuba Libre” is a story with deep political and cultural roots in what is known as Cuba’s Special Period.
Cuba and U.S. Agree to Work Together to Protect Marine Life, Victoria Burnett, The New York Times
Government agencies in the U.S. and Cuba have agreed on a partnership to protect reef and other marine life in the region.
Until next time,
The Cuba Central Team