Navin R. Johnson’s UN Vote Preview

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?

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S. will not abstain from annual U.N. vote condemning the embargo on Cuba

Despite last year’s diplomatic breakthrough, the United States will oppose a U.N. resolution condemning the embargo against Cuba because the draft doesn’t “fully reflect” the new spirit of engagement between the U.S. and Cuba, according to an Obama administration official who spoke to the Associated Press this week on background.

“Regrettably the resolution tabled looks very similar to resolutions from previous years, and doesn’t appear to fully reflect the spirit of engagement that President Obama has championed as the best way to advance our shared interests with Cuba,” the official told the AP. In the unlikely event Cuba amends the text, the official left open the possibility that the U.S. would change its position and abstain. Last year, the resolution said the embargo has cost the Cuban people $833.7 billion, “a number the U.S. would never accept,” according to AP.

In September, AP reported that the Obama administration was considering an abstention from the annual U.N. General Assembly vote on October 27, a move which could have sent a powerful signal to Congress of Obama’s commitment to end the 55–year–old embargo.

Governor Chris Christie opposes flights between N.J. and Cuba, as new air and rail-to-cruise services are unveiled

Governor Chris Christie sent a letter to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey this week demanding that no flights be allowed to leave New Jersey’s Newark Liberty Airport until Cuba extradites Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, who fled to Cuba in 1984 seven years after her conviction in connection with the killing of a New Jersey State Highway Patrol trooper.

“It is unacceptable to me as Governor to have any flights between New Jersey and Cuba until and unless convicted cop–killer and escaped fugitive Joanne Chesimard is returned to New Jersey to face justice,” Christie wrote in a letter cited by Fox News. During his presidential campaign, Christie called Obama “dead wrong” for allowing the U.S. and Cuba to open embassies; he has also accused U.S. citizens traveling to Cuba of “participating in the oppression” imposed by Cuba’s rulers, according to

His letter came after United Airlines applied for permission from the Port Authority to start flights between Newark’s Liberty Airport and Havana. “We remain very interested in serving Cuba as soon as we are able to do so, and believe United’s service would benefit the airport and the region,” United Airlines told

Although General John Degnan, Chairman of the Port Authority, asked United to reconsider its service to Cuba after receiving the letter, the Port Authority Board met on Thursday and “decided the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, not the Port Authority, gets the final say on whether the flights can go ahead,” according to the Washington Times.

Meanwhile, Delta Air Lines hopes to expand services to Cuba, according to a published report. Delta recently placed Atlanta–Havana on its schedule and filed to operate on Saturdays beginning April 2, 2016 with a Boeing 737–800, according to Airways News. (There are no seats for sale yet, likely because a bilateral agreement leading to commercial flights has yet to be approved.

Vacations by Rail also announced a new, New York–Miami–Cuba rail–cruise cultural exchange itinerary with trips beginning in February of 2016. Prices for the nine–day cruise that includes visits to Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba, and Baracoa start at $5,353. Since the thaw in diplomatic relations, U.S. travel to Cuba has surged; in September, U.S. visits in 2015, not related to family travel, reached 100,000, exceeding the figure reached in all of 2014. The number of U.S. travelers is likely to rise as more Americans find ways to travel there.

Update: Bill introduced to terminate the Wet Foot/Dry Foot Policy

Today, U.S. Congressman Paul A. Gosar, D.D.S. (AZ-04) introduced a bill that aims to repeal the 1996 Cuban Adjustment Act, also known as the “Wet Foot/Dry Foot” policy, for Cuban immigrants. The bill, the Ending Special National Origin-Based Immigration Programs for Cubans Act of 2015 (H.R. 3818), would remove the special status given to Cubans when they immigrate to the United States and reverse a policy that has been maintained by nine U.S. presidents and Congress. Representatives Dave Brat, Mo Brooks, Scott DesJarlais, Trent Franks, Louie Gohmert, Walter Jones, Steve King and Ted Poe are cosponsors on the bill, which is endorsed by Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR)and NumbersUSA.

Confirmation of U.S. ambassador to Mexico delayed by politics

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson’s appointment to serve as the next U.S. ambassador in Mexico City has been held up in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee since she was nominated by the Obama administration in June, Politico reports. According to Sen. Ben Cardin (MD), the ranking Democrat on the committee, the holdup has “everything to do with the Cuban policy.” Jacobson, the State Department’s assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, helped lead the negotiations that reestablished U.S. diplomatic ties to Cuba.

Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) and Sen. Robert Menendez (NJ), both Members of the Foreign Relations Committee, are both obstacles to Jacobson’s appointment, according to Politico. Menendez denied that his concerns over her nomination are connected to her participation in the Cuba negotiations. However, Rubio and Menendez have historically opposed and even blocked Obama administration’s nominees due to their views on Cuba.

The New York Times Editorial Board condemned “the pettiness of two senators,” pointing to a July 15th confirmation hearing when Sen. Menendez questioned Jacobson’s trustworthiness without offering evidence calling it into doubt, and also to a hold that Sen. Rubio placed on Oct. 8th to block progress on her nomination without explanation. Chairman Bob Corker (TN) has pledged to move the nomination along, promising a vote at the next committee meeting.

Cardin has called Ms. Jacobson “eminently qualified.

U.S. and Cuba agree to long-term shark protection plan

On Wednesday, Cuba launched an initiative in cooperation with the New York–based Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to protect sharks whose populations have been in rapid decline, Reuters and Miami Herald report. The action plan reached through two years of collaborative research with EDF will set aside protected areas and better monitor shark catches, in addition to creating size, capture, and seasonal limits on fishermen.

While Cuba has perhaps the best–preserved environment in the region, sharks have been decimated by over fishing. As a result, “[g]etting fishermen involved in collecting data has been critical,” Jorge Angulo, senior scientist with Cuba’s Center for Marine Research, said in an EDF statement quoted by Reuters.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

State Department Refutes Claims of Cuba’s Military Involvement in Syria

On Monday, Mark Toner, Deputy Spokesperson at the U.S. State Department told reporters that State Department experts and the U.S. intelligence community concluded there is no evidence to claims made by the University of Miami in a “Staff Report” that Cuban forces are working in support of the Russian military deployed in Syria.

In response to a reporter’s question, “is there anything new on reports that Cuba has been sending troops into Syria?” Toner said:

Sure. Well, you saw that the Cuban Government, in fact, denied those claims. And we discussed these allegations with our own experts here at State as well as in the intelligence community and have found nothing to substantiate or corroborate any of these reports. And moreover, no U.S. official has — who would be knowledgeable of Cuban military presence in Syria would corroborate any of these reports. I know one of the articles quoted a U.S. official, but I’m not sure who that was or what their level of expertise or knowledge about this instance or this allegation was.

On October 13th, in a “CUBA BRIEF:  CUBAN TROOPS IN SYRIA?” released by the Institute for Cuban and Cuban–American Studies at the University of Miami, the Institute claimed it had “received information that General Leopoldo Citra Frias, Head of the Cuban Armed Forces, visited Syria recently leading a group of Cuban military personnel sent by Cuba in support of Syria’s dictator Assad and Russian involvement in that country.”

Later, the report went on to say, “If this information about the presence of Cuban troops in Syria is confirmed, it would indicate that General Raúl Castro is more interested in supporting his allies, Russia and Syria, than in continuing to normalize relations with the U.S.”

Once “An unnamed U.S. official told Fox News that intelligence reports confirmed that Cuban paramilitary and special forces were on the battlefield in Syria,” as Newsmax reported, the conjecture contained in the University of Miami “Cuba Brief” was then reported as fact.

While Fox News reported that Cuban military operatives were spotted in Syria, where they said sources believe the troops are advising President Bashar al–Assad’s soldiers in fighting rebel forces backed by the U.S., White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the U.S. government had seen no evidence to indicate the reports of Cuba’s presence in Syria were true, according to Reuters and Fox News Latino.

Later, Cuba’s government categorically refuted the reports.  Gerardo Peñalver, who serves as the Cuban Foreign Ministry’s Director General of Bilateral Affairs, released a government statement that denied the “irresponsible and unfounded information regarding the supposed presence of Cuban troops in the Syrian Arab Republic,” Reuters reports.

In “Stories on Cubans in Syria Lack One Thing: Evidence of Cubans in Syria,” Adam Johnson reminds readers that Cuba hasn’t engaged in overseas military operations in decades. However, for those who echoed the claims about Cuban forces in Syria, this wasn’t “seen as a red flag that the story is suspect, but rather as an invitation to frame their supposed secret expedition as a significant departure from 25 years of foreign policy.”

In Cuba

Cuban artist released from jail after 10 months without a trial in Cuba

Cuban artist Danilo Maldonado, better known as “El Sexto” (The Sixth), was released from jail on Tuesday morning after being held since he was arrested last December for what Cuban authorities called “disorderly conduct.” On December 24, 2014, El Sexto was arrested in Cuba on his way to put on a performance art piece named after George Orwell’s Animal Farm called “Rebelión en la Granja,” which included two pigs decorated with the names Fidel and Raúl, according to the Human Rights Foundation.

In September, Maldonado went on a 22–day hunger strike in jail until Cuban authorities said they were considering his release. Maldonado’s case attracted attention from U.S. lawmakers and civil rights groups, like Amnesty International, who placed Maldonado on their “Prisoner of Conscience” list. In a statement to the Washington Post, Erika Guevera Ross, Amnesty International Americas Director, applauded the release by saying,

Danilo’s release is great news but he should have never been jailed in the first place. Peacefully expressing an opinion is not a crime… This long awaited positive move must open the door for much needed political reform in Cuba, where people are routinely harassed, arrested and thrown in jail on spurious charges for speaking their minds… This needs to change urgently if Cuba is serious about respecting human rights, including the rights of people opposing the Cuban government.

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson tweeted, “#ElSexto released from jail in #Cuba. Live your art, son of @MDCollege. #HumanRights #FundamentalFreedoms” Since his release, he has expressed desires to spend time with family, particularly his daughter, as he recovers from months of hard conditions. Maldonado hopes his case will help “stretch the line of prohibition” in regards to artistic liberty and freedom of expression in Cuba, according to the Miami Herald.

Cuba plans to resume deep water oil exploration in 2016

Cuba plans to drill exploratory deep–water wells in the Gulf of Mexico by the end of 2016 or beginning of 2017, officials from the state oil monopoly told Reuters on Wednesday. Cuba–Petroleo (Cupet) has contracts with Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA and Angola’s Sonangol to drill exploratory wells as deep as 7,000 meters (223,000 ft) in waters of up to 3,000 meters in production.

The announcement that Cuba will drill for oil in deep water creates “an added urgency and the urgency is to do things before drilling begins,” as Lee Hunt, chair of the Safe Seas, Clean Seas conference that took place in Havana this week, told CCTV.

Currently, the U.S. trade embargo does not allow Cuba to purchase oil rigs fitted with American drilling and safety devices or oil recovery equipment that could alleviate safety concerns over a major oil spill in Cuba waters.

Previously, as the Tampa Tribune reported this summer, “Five nations with Caribbean shorelines — Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Cuba and the U.S. — spelled out how they’ll react when a spill extends beyond one nation’s territorial waters.”  Additionally, the Obama administration’s new Cuba policy “calls for the U.S. Department of Commerce to license for export to Cuba any items deemed necessary for protection of U.S. coastal environments.”

While executive authority exists for the Obama administration to do more to protect the coast line in advance of Cuba and its partners resuming the search for oil in the Gulf, there is still debate over how expansive that authority is.

Previous efforts by Cuba to find commercially recoverable deposits of oil with several global partners have ended in failure, though experts believe great quantities exist offshore.

For more information about the history of Cuba’s search for offshore oil and the impediments posed by the U.S. embargo in protecting our coasts, read this study

by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
Fidel Castro’s son blames bureaucratism, conservatives, and corruption for “immobility”

Fidel Castro’s third son, Alex Castro, recently blamed “bureaucratism,” conservatives, and corruption for the slowness of changes in Cuba in an interview on a Chilean news channel, cited by El Nuevo Herald. “It’s moving very slowly. I am one of the people who would like things to move more quickly. There are very conservative people. The conservative currents are dangerous, because a change is for the better and if it is not, you change again,” he said without specifying who made up this conservative group.

At the same time, he also said that economic changes on the island are being implemented in ways to avoid subjecting the people to “a policy of shock where many can be on the street, homeless.”

Alex Castro is the third son of Fidel; the second from his second marriage to Dalia Soto del Valle. He studied electrical systems engineering and currently works as professional photographer. Although not an official of the state, he has a public image as Fidel’s son, and, the opinions he expressed align closely with the perspective of his uncle, President Raúl Castro, who implemented the economic reforms and policy of engagement with the U.S.

Alex Castro complained about the pace of the reforms, particularly the Cuban Communist Party’s hope to unify the dual currency system back in 2011. He declared that he hopes to see major progress in foreign investment in Cuba and more opportunities for Cubans who want to grow their business into major corporations. Alex also dismissed rumors that the government might promote political reform to move away from a one–party state, but added “Here in Cuba, the family dynasty does not exist.”

Recommended Reading

What It’s Like to Launch an Independent News Outlet in Cuba, Ernesto Londono, New York Times
Interview with Elaine Diaz, the first Cuban journalist to receive a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, after she has launched an independent news outlet Periodismo de Barrio.

Capitol Facelift: Restoring a Cuban Landmark, Mark Trevor Burrel, Miami Herald
Cuba’s “Capitolio” is undergoing renovation. When complete, the building will again be the seat of government for the first time since 1959. The restoration, Spain, Italy, Germany, and Mexico have provided material; Cuba has provided funding for the project.

Cuba-Illinois trade could boost ag economy, U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos says, Chuck Sweeny,
U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos went to Cuba last week on a trade mission, hoping to increase Illinois agribusiness exports to Cuba. “We also should build relationships with Cubans,” Bustos said, “it would be good for Cuban farmers to come to a farm here to learn about modern farming methods. I have a whole tour worked out for them. They’re using 50–year–old Russian tractors, which they somehow manage to keep running.”

Cuba’s Limited Absorptive Capacity Will Slow Normalization, Fulton Armstrong, American University Center for Latin America and Latino Studies
A discussion of Cuba’s economic institutions and how they’re strength could affect normalization with the U.S.

Recommended Viewing

HBO showing film it saw on ‘Cuba’s Dylan’ at Tampa Film Festival’ Paul Guzzo, The Tampa Tribune
“The Poet of Havana” will be televised at 8 p.m. today, October 23, on HBO Latino. HBO discovered the documentary at the sold out world premiere screening in March at Tampa’s Gasparilla International Film Festival.

The sensual photography of the American artist loved by Cuba, CNN
Select images from photographer Peter Turnley who has covered Cuba for the past 40 years.

DIY drone video captures unseen views of Cuba, Patrick Oppman, CNN
Drone footage of various scenes of Cuba. After years of strict regulations, Cubans have recently been able to fly drones on the island.

Cuba: How A Nation Comes Online, Social Media Week Miami
Experts discuss the availability of technology and access to social media platforms on the island, the opportunities this has created, the technological tools that are not yet in use in Cuba, the challenges to the introduction or adoption of such tools, and the opportunities that may arise if technology and social media were more widespread on the island.

VIVA LA (DIGITAL) REVOLUCION, Desmond Boylan, Fusion
Photos of people on cellphones at popular WiFi hotspots in Cuba.

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