Free Roberta!

The new play about Donald Trump, “Los Hijos de Trump,” or “Sons of Trump,” a comedy, is supposedly a big hit in Mexico City.
 
Putting Trump aside, however, U.S.-Mexico relations are no laughing matter. There is the crisis of Mexico’s drug cartels, problems facing the rule of law, the impact of Mexico’seconomic slowdown on the 80 million people in the U.S. and Mexico on our common border, and the reality – politicized or not – of migration and what to do about it.
 
No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, U.S.-Mexico relations would have to be considered near the top of our country’s foreign policy and national security priorities.
 
Moreover, having our country represented by a career career diplomat with the best credentials and tightest connections for the job should be, for lack of a better phrase, a “no-brainer.”
 
On Tuesday, we’ll have greater clarity on just how mindless opposition to the President’s policy on Cuba – yes, on Cuba – has become, when the Senate Foreign Relations Committeevotes on the nomination of Roberta Jacobson to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico.
 
Ms. Jacobson serves as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs.   She is a career Civil Service officer who began working at the State Department on South America during the Reagan Administration.   From 2003-2010, under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, she worked directly on U.S.-Mexico relations, from diplomacy to trade.
 
But, for the last five years, she has worked tirelessly at the frontlines of President Obama’s transformation of U.S. policy toward Cuba; first, as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere, when basic reforms such as the expansion of people-to-people travel took place, and then as Assistant Secretary. In this latter role, she has served with distinction in the bilateral normalization talks with Cuba; historic talks which have led to the reopening of embassies and the first bilateral dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba onhuman rights.
 
Ms. Jacobson was nominated to be U.S. Ambassador to Mexico on June 1. Although she is highly qualified for the post, and was endorsed by Senator Ben Cardin, the senior Democratic Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, two Senate obstacles arose at once.
 
As Politico colorfully put it, “Sources said Rubio, a Florida senator considered a top-tier 2016 candidate, and Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey who is facing federal corruption charges, are Jacobson’s primary opponents.”
 
Menendez promised Politico that Cuba had nothing to do with his decision to roadblock Roberta. “But,” Politico reported, “he wouldn’t say what his objections are or whether he will vote against her in committee or slow her nomination on the Senate floor.”
 
Then came the senior diplomat’s confirmation hearing, and the New York Times, in its outstanding editorial, “Confirm an Ambassador to Mexico,” takes up the story from there.
 
“During a July 15 hearing, Mr. Menendez questioned her trustworthiness without offering any convincing evidence. Mr. Rubio later submitted dozens of written questions to the State Department as a delaying tactic. On Oct. 8, Mr. Rubio placed a temporary hold on her nomination, without explaining why.”
 
For his part, Menendez seems transparently mendacious in his assertion that Cuba is playing no part in his opposition to Jacobson serving in Mexico. He opposed the nomination of Carlos Pascual to be Ambassador to Mexico back in 2009, because Pascual had helped write a pro-normalization Cuba policy paper, though Pascual ultimately was confirmed and served.
 
Rubio previously blocked blocked Jacobson in 2012, stalling a vote on her nomination to be Assistant Secretary of State to score points against President Obama’s people-to-people travel policy. He is also famously on record daring the administration to nominate a candidate for the now vacant position of U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, as we have written before.
 
By the same token, Rubio played a major role in opposing an Obama campaign donor whom the President had nominated to serve as U.S. Ambassador to Argentina on the more solid ground that the candidate had never set foot in the country. At the time, Rubio toldUSA Today, “Not every country can you send a political appointee to, and Argentina is one of those countries.”
 
You’d think he’d want a Civil Service officer with the experience of Roberta Jacobson to serve in Mexico given conditions in that country. But, Rubio’s resistance is clearly rooted in his rejection of Obama’s Cuba policy reforms and Secretary Jacobson’s diligence in implementing her boss’s policy.
 
Before President Obama took the decisive step of restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba, Senator Menendez spoke out on the Senate floor against opponents to the confirmation of qualified diplomats who the President sought to dispatch to points of foreign policy challenge around the world.
 
“The Senate standoff,” he said, “that has left so many career foreign service nominees in political and personal limbo is damaging our credibility, undermining our national security, and it must end now.”
 
Menendez has also spoken out strongly about the dimensions of the crisis in Mexico. He can prove his credibility on Tuesday by telling his Foreign Relations Committee colleagues that his opposition to the President’s Cuba policy will not stop him from taking a stand in favor of U.S.-Mexico relations and against divisive standoffs on diplomatic nominations by supporting Secretary Jacobson’s nomination in Committee and on the Senate Floor.
 
He’d do well to advise Senator Rubio to do the same. That might not be such a heavy lift after all. Word is that Rubio likes to skip his votes.

 

U.S.-Cuba Relationsrelations
 
In the Sprint for Market Access, U.S. Firms Hampered by Obstacles Highlighted at Cuba’s Trade Fair
 
The Havana International Trade Fair convened in Havana this week (FIHAV) with more than 900 companies, including more than two-dozen from the U.S., participating. U.S. firms with brands as big as PepsiCo and obscure as Cleber, an Alabama-based tractor manufacturer, participated in the trade fair, according to OnCuba.
 
While the fair is an annual event, this is the first one Cuba has hosted since the normalization process began last December.
 
Coincident with the fair, Cuba’s government offered a portfolio of projects aiming to draw over $8 billion in foreign investment. It also approved operations for 8 foreign businesses to operate in the Mariel Port’s Free Trade Zone. Perhaps the biggest news, however, was an agreement with the U.S. telecommnications carrier Sprint.
 
Under a deal signed by Sprint with ETESCA, Cuba’s telecommunications company, Sprint customers will enjoy roaming services when they travel in Cuba. Sprint’s announcementcame during a trip to Cuba by members of the recently-formed U.S.-Cuba Business Council, and was reported by Reuters, USA Today, and Granma.
 
Marcelo Claure, CEO of Sprint, applauded the deal by saying, “We signed this agreement in record time… They were a pleasure to work with. Like with anybody else, there were tense moments… But it’s a start.” Vivian Iglesias, director of ETECSA International Services, added that payments for these services will continue to be made through banks in third countries and in currencies other than the U.S. dollar, given the continued blockade on Cuba, Granma reports.
 
The circuitous route for payments exemplifies both the policy and political challenges faced by U.S. firms in trying to gain access to Cuba’s market.
 
As Orlando Hernández Guillén, the President of Cuba’s Chamber of Commerce, pointed out during remarks to the Business Council, trade and investment opportunities will really open up to U.S. businesses when the blockade is completely eliminated, Granma reports. Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment, met with Myron Brilliant of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce earlier this week, and discussed the Cuban economy and the obstacles to trade as a result of the embargo.
 
While it did not go unnoticed that, in many speeches at the fair, the only mention of the U.S. focused on the “blockade” it maintains on Cuba, market access opportunities are also impeded by the slow pace of Cuba’s economic reforms. This was referenced by Cuba’s Foreign Trade Minister, Rodrigo Malmierca, whose remarks opened the fair, when he said: “We are continuing to create the conditions for separating state and business functions and to improve the role that should be played by socialist state enterprises… guaranteeing more flexible functioning.”
 
 
Alabama-based Cleber LLC attended the International Trade Fair in Havana with the hopes of receiving final approval from the Cuban government to ship tractors from their U.S. plant to the Port of Mariel. The deal got done.
 
It “is the first company from the United States authorized by Cuba to set up in the Mariel Special Development Zone,” according to a news bulletin on state television that broadcast pictures of co-founder Saul Berenthal presenting prototypes of the small tractor based on a model dating to the 1940s.
 
Cleber plans on shifting to use materials and workers from Cuba within five years. “From the get-go, the Cubans have said they want investment in Cuba, they don’t want exports to Cuba. That gives us an advantage,” said Saul Berenthal, according to USA Today.
 
Florida produce wholesaler waits for final approval from Cuba’s government to set up facility
 
Florida Produce of Hillsborough County Inc. is negotiating a lease agreement with Cuba’s government to open a warehouse and distribution center on the island, The Packer reports. In 2001, Florida Produce was the first company in Florida licensed to conduct food sales in Cuba, the Tampa Tribune explains.
 
This week, Florida Produce partners Manuel Fernandez and Mike Mauricio visited Havana to “see what Cuba will allow,” the Tampa Tribune reported. The company needs permission from Cuba’s government to set up a facility that will store fresh fruits, vegetables, and equipment, according to The Packer. “This is the first step toward more open trade with Cuba,” Mauricio said in a release quoted by The Packer. “We look forward to assisting U.S. businesses, both with providing a physical location to conduct trade on Cuban soil, as well as through private consultation services on how to properly and legally navigate business channels in Cuba.”
 
 
David Thorne, a senior advisor to Secretary of State John Kerry, said the Obama Administration may pursue additional reforms in U.S. Cuba by taking executive action. Thorne added that the administration may not demand human rights progress from Cuba as the price for further changes in U.S. policy. “As in other parts of the world, we are really trying to also say: Let’s find out how we can work together and not always say that human rights are the first things that we have to fix before anything else.”
 
Unlike some of the travel and trade restrictions that have been lifted, President Obama cannot act unilaterally on the embargo. As the Obama administration continues to normalize relations with Cuba, lifting the embargo is a major hurdle that remains unresolved, because it requires an affirmative vote by Congress. There are no signs that the House or Senate will take up measures to repeal the embargo prior to the 2016 elections, and many Members regard laws like Helms-Burton as bargaining chips to put as pressure on Cuba’s government.
 
Nevertheless, Thorne confirmed with Reuters, “We are making progress. We are making regulatory changes. We’ll make more.” On a related note, the National Lawyers Guild passed a resolution last week to urge the administration to cease impending enforcement actions against embargo opponents and to take actions consistent with the President’s new Cuba policy.
 
 
Last month, Major League Baseball’s top legal official, Dan Halem, met with one of Fidel Castro’s sons, Antonio, according to the New York Times and the Seattle Times. Since Antonio is a “senior international baseball official” and the Cuban National team’s doctor, the meeting demonstrated interest in changing the ability for Cuban players to enter the MLB.
 
For years, many Cuban nationals, including major leaguer Yoenis Cespedes, have risked jail time and their lives to defect and pursue a career in American baseball. According to the New York Times, the league would eventually like to see a process in which teams could scout players on the island and, if signed, help the player and their family to receive legal visas to travel between the two countries.
 
In October, MLB officials travelled to Cuba to examine fields and facilities with the possibility of allowing major league teams play there this coming spring. Roberto González Echevarría, Professor of literature at Yale University and the author of “The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball,” believes major regime changes would need to occur before the MLB could operate freely in Cuba. He states, “The regime has total control over players there and picks what teams they play for – the players have no freedom there…” The current system presents another major hurdle for the league officials. In order to negotiate contracts, teams would essentially need to discuss compensation with a part of Cuba’s government, which goes directly against the embargo.
 
 
Deputy Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection R. Gil Kerlikowske met with leaders in the Cuban Ministries of Interior, Transportation and Foreign Relations in Havana last week to develop memorandums of understanding and increase cooperation in aviation security, combating drug trafficking and cybersecurity. “I’m very happy that I went, both personally and professionally,” said Mayorkas, Washington Post reports.
 
Cuba’s Foreign Relationsfreal
 
 
This Thursday, President Raul Castro began his first official trip to Mexico since becoming president. President Castro met with President Enrique Peña Nieto upon arrival with Cuba’s Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel also in attendance. President Castro will visit Mexico until November 7. The agenda will include discussions on primary political and economic issues including new agreements on trade and tourism, reports the Havana Times.
 
Mexico has become one of Cuba’s largest export markets; bilateral trade is worth over US$500 million and Mexico owns two of the seven companies that received approval to develop the Cuban port of Mariel. In the last year alone, Mexico doubled its import quota for Cuban cigars from 1 million annually to 2 million, in addition to being set to import 1.35 million liters of Cuban rum, US$2.2 million worth of medicine, 300 tons of lobster, 100 tons of shrimp and US$700,000 worth of clothing, according to Telesur.
 
Discussions will also include the recent surge in Cuban immigration through Mexico to the United States. According to Al Jazeera, Mexico processed 6,447 Cubans headed to the U.S. in the first nine months of the year, more than five times as many as in 2014 Peña Nieto has sought to warm relations since taking office in 2012.
 
 
Cuba’s First Vice President of the Councils of State and Ministers, Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, Cuba’s Parliament President Esteban Lazo, and other members of the Politburo presided over a 40th anniversary celebration of “Operation Carlota.” Cuba’s military mission in Angola was named after Carlota, a rebel slave of the Triunvirato sugar plantation who led one of the largest slave rebellions in Cuba in 1843, Escambray reports.
 
On behalf of the Angolan Head of State José Eduardo dos Santos, Minister of Former Combatants and Motherland Veterans, Cândido Pereira dos Santos Van-Dunem, traveled to Cuba to participate this week. Earlier this year, in July, Cuba’s vice-chairman of the Ministry of Councils, Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, told the Angolan press on a trip to Luanda that Angola’s state-run Sonangol and its Cuban counterpart Cupet will restart Cuba’s deepwater exploration by 2016 or 2017, according to OnCuba.
 
In Cubaincuba
 
 
Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero, has noted that renovation plans are being implemented throughout the Cuban aviation sector to offer better quality of service.
Plans to purchase new equipment and remodel terminals aim to improve passenger service facilities. Other changes include an adjusted cost of jet fuel to match competitive prices and the elimination of the exit tax, which is now added to the price of tickets.

Recommended Readingrr
 
Atlantic Council will host an event on November 17 to unveil poll results on where voters from Iowa, Ohio, Tennessee, and Indiana stand on U.S.-Cuba policy.
 
Cuba’s Island of Broken Dreams, Nick Miroff, The Washington Post
An in-depth look at the history and way of life of Cuba’s “Isle of Youth.”
 
Juan Carlos Coello, company manager of Lizt Alfonso Dance Company, describes challenges to U.S. tour. “The biggest, most complicated issue is always the visa process, particularly for the US. It is one you cannot control, in the hands of someone who doesn’t know you or your work. We don’t need permission to leave Cuba. We need permission to get into the US, which is, in my opinion, ridiculous. I think they fear someone is going to defect, but they could have done that in Mexico or Canada, and they didn’t.”
 
The Cuban Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology presented various biotechnological innovations at the international trade fair this week.
 
Recommended Viewingrv
 
A glimpse at American photographer and LGBT advocate Mariette Pathy Allen photo exhibit documenting the growing transgender culture in Cuba, including photos from her most recent book, “TransCuba.”
 
Faces of Cuba, Johnny Harris, Vox
A photo essay to capture the stories of Cubans and essence of human struggle and creativity.
 

 

Until next time,
The Cuba Central Team

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