Strait Talk: What Does D-17 Mean to You?

According to a survey released this week, there has been a striking increase in support among Cubans and Cuban Americans living in the United States for President Obama’s policies of engagement and reconciliation toward Cuba since he began making epic changes in the policy on December 17th, 2014.

Compared to the results Bendixen & Amandi reported a year ago, support among Cubans and Cuban Americans in the U.S. for President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba has risen from 44% to 56%.  Support for ending the embargo has spiked to 53% – a jump of nine points from a year ago.

When opinion shifts so significantly in a community that is the epicenter of pro-embargo sentiment – a community that is hardwired politically to Washington, and hardwired emotionally to family members in Cuba – we have to consider what the consequences and causes of that shift could be.

As Congress is leaving town, it is also leaving President Obama’s Cuba policy intact.  How unexpected is that?

The biggest threat to the President’s reforms resided in the ability of his opponents to use the Congressional power of the purse to reverse every one of the key actions the President took to expand travel, trade, and diplomacy itself.

After the Cold Warrior embargo supporters larded up the appropriations for four Cabinet agencies with legislation to reverse the new policies implemented by the President, the new budget agreement adopted by Congress to fund the government through September 30, 2016 dropped every provision.

As support among Cuban Americans for the president’s policy has gone up, the fear factor – by which we mean the old style, scorching hot opinion emanating from Miami and New Jersey which exerted relentless pressure on policymakers to keep the old policies in place – has subsided substantially.

No other community in the United States spends as much time in Cuba as do those with families living on the island.  What they hear – what they feel – when they visit is reflected in the polling and what we heard when we asked some friends in Cuba this week what December 17th meant to them.

Emilia Fernandez, a specialist in health and IT, and a state employee, sent us her thoughts with one precondition – that we published her name because, she said, “I’m not the kind who [likes] to hide its identity.”

What has the December 17th meant to her? “Nobody can deny the direct relationship between December 17th and the visit of famous artists to our country.  I can clearly see the joy of the people now that they [have] had the opportunity to see and enjoy their work live.  I’m very happy for that.

“But, I am very upset with the offensive behavior of some U.S. tourists, who are not showing respect for us, trying to demonstrate they are better than us, because of the money they spend loving our culture.”

Marta Núñez-Sarmiento, a sociologist at the University of Havana, took a similar tack to Emilia, but focused her reservations on the U.S. government.  She wrote, in part:

“December 17, 2014 became the first moment in our common history when the United States and Cuba decided to established diplomatic relations based on equal and mutually respectful terms. This is the opportunity for both countries to acquire new perspectives by learning from both nations, and to practice restraint from imposing preconceived judgments and values on the other…It is not a ‘quid pro quo’ discussion but one in which the U.S. must acknowledge that it has to lift more restrictions than on the Cuba side. Let us not fail in this course of action for we have much to win.”

Yamina Vicente, an economist who left academia to open up a decorations and party hosting business at an early moment in Cuba’s economic transformation, spoke with the greatest optimism about D-17:

“The resumption of relations between our countries awakens many dreams in Cuba. Within our sector, the ‘cuentapropistas’…receive benefits [from the diplomatic opening in] a direct form. Those companies that have foreign tourists as clients have doubled their sales…The imagination, the creativity has surfaced. Although, these have been short-term effects, the new relations also awaken long-term projects; business that could expand to both lands; imports, exports, and collaboration with others. It’s one word: HOPE.”

Not everyone shares her hopeful view.  When a reporter for IPS asked a middle-aged man shopping at a farmer’s market about D-17, he said, “You shouldn’t ask me, because in my view, nothing has changed.”

Maybe.  But, we close thinking about a man named Augusto Maxwell who was recently visiting Havana, according to CNN, when his daughter reached him on his cellphone.

“For most people, it would be an ordinary call — she was just checking in on him. But Maxwell’s daughter was in Miami and he was in Cuba — an island with no access to U.S. cell service just a year ago. Maxwell realized right away the call epitomized how much Cuba has changed in just a year. Then he cried.”

Tears of joy celebrating December 17th.

U.S.-Cuba Relations

 

U.S. and Cuba announce pact to restore scheduled commercial airline service

The U.S. and Cuba reached a long-anticipated deal to resume regularly scheduled commercial airline service between the two countries.  The Associated Press is reporting that the agreement could “allow as many as 110 regular airline flights a day,” potentially adding “hundreds of thousands more U.S. visitors a year.”

Carriers will have to apply for permission from U.S. regulators, according to Reuters, to fly specific routes.

John Kirby, spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said the pact “will enhance traveler choices and help, as we believe, to promote people-to-people links between Cuba and the United States.”

Once the agreement is implemented, charter flights operated by U.S. carriers will no longer be the only option for U.S. visitors to travel to Cuba; the agreement, which was announced on the one-year anniversary of the December 17th 2014 diplomatic breakthrough, will allow U.S. commercial airlines to sell tickets directly on their websites and operate flights connecting the two countries for the first time in decades.

Tourism remains illegal for U.S. visitors. Under the law, citizens must still fulfill one of the 12 categories of legal travel. Additionally, U.S. airlines will have to comply with Federal Aviation Administration procedures and safety inspections. That process could take between three and six months.

“While U.S. law continues to prohibit travel to Cuba for tourist activities, a stronger civil aviation relationship will facilitate growth in authorized travel between our two countries-a critical component of the President’s policy toward Cuba,” according to a U.S. State Department statement quoted by Reuters.

Despite the lack of regularly scheduled flights, Americans have visited the island in record numbers.  President Obama’s decision to ease travel restrictions to Cuba has, according to Reuters, “led to a boom in U.S. citizens’ visits to Cuba, which are up 71 percent this year, with 138,120 Americans arriving through November.”

“Interest in Cuba has reached levels not seen for a generation,” said JetBlue’s Senior Vice President, Scott Laurence.

Obama would like to visit Cuba in 2016 but lays out conditions

A year after announcing an historic breakthrough with Cuba, President Barack Obama told Yahoo! News this week he is interested in traveling to Cuba if the “conditions are right.”

“If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody,” the President said in an interview.  “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President [Raúl] Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s lead negotiator in the normalization talks, responded to the President saying, “The day that the president of the United States decides to visit Cuba, he will be welcome,” adding “I’d like to recall that Cuba has always said…it is not going to negotiate matters that are inherent to its internal system in exchange for an improvement in or the normalization of relations with the United States.”

Were President Obama to visit Cuba, it would be the first time a sitting U.S. president would have visited the island since President Calvin Coolidge attended the Sixth Annual International Conference of American States in Havana on January 16, 1928, according to ABC News.

 

On Capitol Hill:  Omnibus spending bill drops ominous Cuba provisions, Senate and House members press for more Reforms

On Tuesday, the Congressional leadership announced a deal to fund operations of the U.S. government through September 30, 2016 that included dropping four sets of restrictions on President Obama’s new Cuba policy that were adopted in appropriations measures by the House earlier this year.

Both Houses of Congress passed the measure and sent it to the White House for President Obama’s signature.

In response to the agreement, Sarah Stephens, executive director for the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), applauded the news in a statement saying, “This gives the U.S. and Cuba room and momentum to press forward, further and faster, on the process of normalizing relations.”

Also this week, Senators Jeff Flake (AZ) and Patrick Leahy (VT), the leading Republican and Democratic advocates for normalization in the U.S. Senate, sent a detailed letter to President Obama calling for new actions to made further reforms in U.S. policy.

The Senators called for the appointment of a senior official to coordinate changes in U.S. policy among the federal agencies with jurisdiction over Cuba; efforts to streamline people-to-people travel; actions to remove financial regulations that are still stalling commercial transactions with Cuba; and progress on stimulating trade with Cuba, among other measures.

In the U.S. House, the formation of a bipartisan working group on Cuba was announced on Tuesday. The twelve inaugural members, who form the Steering Committee of the Congressional Cuba Working Group, are Rep. Tom Emmer (MN-6), Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), Rep. Kevin Cramer (ND-AL), Rep. Barbara Lee (CA-13), Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-1), Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-2), Rep. Reid Ribble (WI-8), Rep. Sam Farr (CA-20), Rep. Ted Poe (TX-2), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (CT-3), Rep. Mark Sanford (SC-1) and Rep. Nydia Velázquez (NY-7).

New Survey shows growing support among Cuban and Cuban Americans in the U.S. for Obama policy

Bendixen & Amandi, a survey research firm based in Miami, released a new survey of opinion among Cubans and Cuban Americans in the U.S., and it shows growing support for President Obama’s policies toward Cuba including increased support for repeal of the embargo.

The survey taken in December 2015, shows that support for the President’s policies have jumped to 56% in favor to 36% opposed from a year ago, when opponents outnumbered supporters by a margin of 48% to 44%.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Fernand Amandi, managing partner of the firm, said “This is the first time we’ve seen majority support for ending the embargo.”

A summary of the findings can be read here.

Defectors Yasiel Puig, Jose Abreu make triumphant return to Cuba

The Major League Baseball Association started its good will trip to Cuba on Tuesday. Cuban major league players, including Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena, Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, and shortstop Alexei Ramirez were welcomed by fans and the media at Hotel Nacional.

The Associated Press, in a poignant report, described “More than 100 Cuban boys wearing the uniforms of local baseball teams stood in rows, smiling nervously Wednesday as they got tips and training from some of their major league idols – men who were born on the island and were once disdained by the Communist government for defecting to the United States.”

The MLB has been interested in rebuilding ties with Cuba since the Obama administration announced plans for normalization last year; especially on the subject of allowing Cuban players to enter the MLB legally.

The MLB’s top lawyer, Dan Halem, was quoted saying, “It’s the goal of our commissioner and our owners to ultimately negotiate with the Cuban Baseball Federation, and with the cooperation of the U.S. government and the Cuban government, a safe and legal path for Cuban baseball players who desire to play Major League Baseball to reach the major leagues.”

Currently, Cuban players who wish to play in the Majors have to defect, and endure a difficult journey into the U.S. Players like Yasiel Puig are part of the many have fallen victim to preexisting Cuban and U.S. policies. The book, “Cuba’s Baseball Defectors: The Inside Story,” cites 102 national-level players who have left Cuba this year, nearly a third of all those who have departed since 1980.

Both the MLB and Cuban baseball authorities have expressed interest in developing this relationship. They are currently in negotiations to allow the Tampa Bay Rays to play a spring training game in Havana next year.

Cruises will begin arriving in Cuba this month

Starting this week, MSC Cruises, the world’s fourth biggest line, will be the first major cruise line with access to Havana. Although the trips are not yet available for Americans, bookings by Europeans and Canadians have increased.

MSC’s ship, Opera, will arrive in Havana on Dec. 18 and can carry up to 2,600 passengers. “Havana has never seen a ship this size” stated CEO of MSC, Gianni Onorato. He also noted that “Out of the main four global cruise lines in the world, we are the first one (into Cuba) and the only one not headquartered in the U.S.”

Carnival Corp, a Miami-based rival, is scheduled to begin trips to Cuba in May 2016 for “specialized cultural and humanitarian visits that fall within U.S. embargo guidelines,” according to Reuters.

In Cuba

Update: ETECSA announces compensation for email outages

Cuba’s state run telecommunications company, ETECSA, has announced that they will compensate Cuban citizens for technical difficulties experienced with the company’s email services last month.

In the final weeks of November, most Cuban citizens could not access their email addresses, as we reported here. The company will be giving two hours of free internet access, the equivalent of 4 Cuban convertible pesos to individuals with permanent “@nauta” email addresses.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba seals deal on debt restructuring with the Paris Group

Last Saturday, the French government announced that Paris Club creditor nations have forgiven $8.5 billion of Cuba’s $11.1 billion debt and restructured payments with forgiving terms.

The deal marks an “important step” for Cuba as it seeks to rejoin the international financial community. As part of the deal, the Paris Club agreed to forgive interest through 2020, after that a 1.5 percent interest will apply on remaining debt. Payment of Cuba’s debt is spread out over 18 years with payments increasing slowly from 1.6 percent in 2016 to 8.9 percent by 2033. If Cuba falls behind in its payments, the accord imposes severe penalties including nine percent interest until payment plus late interest on the delayed payment portion reports Reuters.

The deal is considered very lenient although the penalties for missed payments are large.  France, Cuba’s primary creditor in this agreement, led the negotiations. France’s Finance Minister, Michel Sapin, explains that, “This agreement opens a new path forward in relations between Cuba and the international finance community,” according to Univision.

President Castro began negotiations with creditors in 2009 as part of his economic reforms. For more on the Paris Group, check out our previous reporting.

Costa Rica’s president Luis Guillermo Solis meets with President Castro in Cuba

Luis Guillermo Solis, President of Costa Rica, arrived in Cuba last Sunday. While the visit to Cuba was planned before the Cuban migrant crisis, the estimated 6,000 Cuban migrants stuck in Costa Rica became the focus of his trip. The crisis occurred after a smuggling ring in Costa Rica was broken up and Nicaragua, Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico placed border restrictions on Cuban migrants.

President Solis stated, “We cannot maintain this task indefinitely” when discussing the efforts by the Costa Rican government to care for the Cuban migrants over the past two months.

Some continue to blame prospects for change in U.S. policy on the surge of Cuban immigration. The normalization process has sparked fears that the “wet-foot, dry-foot,” the law that gives Cuban immigrants a path to citizenship if they successfully make it to U.S. soil, will come to end. “It’s up to the U.S. to administer its laws and it’s up to us, the victims of these laws, to administer them too,” he said during a news conference quoted in The Tico Times.

However, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana stated in an interview with Reuters that “The bottom line is that we don’t have at this time plans to change any aspect of our migration policy” and urged “the countries involved to seek solutions. We’re very concerned about the human rights of the migrants.”

Although no changes have been made, President Solis has promised not to deport the migrants to Cuba and to continue to look for way to get them to the US.

Recommended Reading

Cubans Want to Know When They Will Feel the Effects of Thaw with U.S.IPS News, Patricia Grogg

While economic indicators in Havana have improved in the last year, some Cubans say they have not felt the effects of the normalization of diplomatic relations.

How Cuba is, and isn’t, changing, one year after the thaw with the U.S., Washington Post, Nick Miroff

A Latin America Correspondent for The Washington Post describes the psychological and physical impacts of the announcement last December 17 to begin normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations.

Why US-Cuba Normalization is Accelerating, The Nation, Peter Kornbluh

Peter Kornbluh reflects on the year of diplomacy and engagement with Cuba, and attributes growing momentum behind the normalization process to support for the policy shift in U.S. public opinion surveys, and support from former anti-Castro hardliners like Carlos Gutierrez who offers political cover to Republican businessmen and politicians, among other factors.

Changes Coming for Health Care in China and CubaThe New York Times, Donald McNeil

In the past, Cuba and China have been effective in public health intervention policies. This article gives an overview of past success and potential changes.

Prevention better than cure in Cuban healthcare systemBBC News, Fiona Hill

This article provides an in-depth analysis of the nature of Cuba’s public health system, which focuses on prevention.

Recommended Viewing

Cuban musicians orchestrate growing harmony between U.S. and Cuba, CBS News, Dean Reynolds

Young Cuban jazz musicians perform in Chicago after meeting with Chicago Jazz Philharmonic’s Artistic Director, Robert Davis, in Havana a year ago.

Obama wants to meet with dissidents in Cuba, Yahoo!, Oliver Knox

Yahoo News exclusive interview with President Obama, who states, “If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody.”

December 17 Reflections from Havana

Yamina Vicente, Economist, Entrepreneur

“The resumption of relations between our countries awakens many dreams in Cuba. Within our sector, the ‘cuentapropistas,’ some business(es) receive benefits in a direct form. Those companies that have foreign tourists as clients have doubled their sales. This results in an increase in the liquidity of the population and with that, the reanimation of the internal economy. New businesses opening in Havana discover you day after day. The imagination, the creativity has surfaced. Although, these have been short-term effects, the new relations also awaken long term projects; business that could expand to both lands; imports, exports, and collaboration with others. It’s one word: HOPE…”

Marta Núñez-Sarmiento, Sociologist, University of Havana

“Cuba and the U.S. have a long history of interconnected events. People living in this island conquered territories in Florida a century before the pilgrims landed from the Mayflower. Our national cultural identities have influenced one another. But the powers that be in America kept Cuba under their control for decades and the purpose of regime change is still present.

“December 17, 2014 became the first moment in our common history when the United States and Cuba decided to established diplomatic relations based on equal and mutually respectful terms. This is the opportunity for both countries to acquire new perspectives by learning from both nations, and to practice restraint from imposing preconceived judgments and values on the other. The process of normalizing relations among two countries with strong asymmetries and hostilities could become an example of good policy making as long as both sides ponder what needs to be solved by each country. It is not a ‘quid pro quo’ discussion but one in which the U.S. must acknowledge that it has to lift more restrictions than on the Cuba side. Let us not fail in this course of action for we have much to win.”

Emilia Fernandez, Ophthalmologist

“Nobody can deny the direct relationship between December 17th and the visit of famous artists to our country. I can clearly see the joy of our people now that they [have] had the opportunity to see and enjoy their work live. I’m very happy for that, and suppose they are too. I also celebrate the increase in the academic exchanges.

But, and there is always a BUT, I’m very upset with the offensive behavior of some U.S. tourists, who are not showing respect for us, trying to demonstrate that they’re better than us, because of the money they can spend loving our culture.

And the worst for me is that the tears shed because of people trying to get the US illegally continue. The existence of the law – Ley de Ajuste Cubano, means the sorrow will continue.”

 

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