Christmas Twist: Cuba’s On Obama’s Fourth Quarter “Bucket List”

Last Spring, when President Obama addressed the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, he said to the reporters on hand at the annual ‘Washington Celebrates Itself’ Gala, “Welcome to the fourth quarter of my presidency.”

“I am determined to make the most of every moment I have left.” He said, “After the mid-term elections, my advisors asked me, ‘Mr. President, do you have a bucket list?’…Well, I have something that rhymes with bucket list.”

In a series of punchlines that the White House transcript dutifully reports as eliciting laughter and applause, the president mentioned taking executive action on immigration, climate change, and Cuba policy.

Funny thing was, he meant it. Roll the tape forward to this month – roll past diplomatic relations, Cuba getting off the terror list, new embassies, new travel and trade rules, State, Commerce, Agriculture Secretary visits and other changes – and the President is now telling the Wall Street Journal that he is prepared to do more.

Before considering what specific items that might add to the President’s “bucket list,” let’s take a step back and look at the big picture.

Last year, when President Obama announced he was determined to normalize relations with Cuba, he stood up against the policy he’d inherited from his predecessors, saying it “does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try to push Cuba toward collapse.”

The old policy – immiserating Cubans to force their government to succumb to our demands – was both cruel and futile. No American president had ever conceded that truth.

Secretary of State John Kerry was captured by the same thought on a walk he took following the flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. “Walking the streets of Old Havana, and seeing the faces of young Cubans, I felt the futility of trying to make them fit their dreams into a Cold War straight-jacket.

“They deserve more than that,” Kerry wrote, and “through our diplomacy we hope to help them achieve more than that.”

Yes, in 2016, we can expect to see intensified diplomacy between Cuba and the U.S. on a host of issues – law enforcement, property claims, human trafficking and human rights – that our two countries never discussed when the thrust of U.S. policy was trying to make Cuba’s system fail.

But, the president apparently will use what remains of his fourth quarter to do more than that.

“On Cuba,” the Journal says, “that means taking additional executive actions so Americans become accustomed to traveling to the island-nation 90 miles off the coast of Florida and U.S. businesses are deeply invested there.”

Reforms already implemented by the President this year have boosted travel by Americans to Cuba by over 70 percent over travel in 2014, as the Nation reported last week.  The surge in travelers will help fill the seats of planes poised to take advantage of the new agreement between Cuba and the U.S. to resume regularly scheduled commercial service.

But short of repealing the ban on tourist travel, which requires an Act of Congress, the President can substantially increase those visits by applying to individuals the same rules that currently apply to trips by groups under the people-to-people. He has the authority to do that today.

As Senators Flake and Leahy said in their letter to the President last week, he has the authority to increase substantially the flow of commerce between our countries. They advocate changes in regulations to increase access for Cubans to U.S. tools, equipment, and consumer products, and expanding the ability of Cubans in private enterprise to benefit from U.S. services in the areas of finance and planning.

Despite helpful and well-meaning policy changes the President already ordered to lighten the regulatory burden on companies who want to do business in Cuba, Bill LeoGrande makes a strong case – as others have – that U.S. firms are still “terrified” of running afoul of sanctions and incurring ruinous financial penalties.

To alleviate regulatory risks, LeoGrande says:

“Obama could license U.S. businesses to provide credit to Cuban customers to stimulate nonagricultural trade (agricultural credits are prohibited by law). He could authorize Cuban banks to establish correspondence accounts with U.S. banks to facilitate payments to Cuban customers. Finally, he could issue a general license to U.S. banks to process dollar-denominated transactions conducted by foreign banks (so-called “U-turn” transactions) that must be processed through a U.S. financial institution.”

Let’s be clear. Cuba has a lot of work that it can do to increase economic activity, as the government has already pledged to do, so it can address the island’s economic crisis and create a future for the Cuban people that is more compelling than migrating to the United States.
Cubans want this relationship to work for a host of reasons, not the least of which is to increase prosperity by increasing trade and travel income from the United States. Not all Cubans, as Tracey Eaton documents here, are sharing in the increased prosperity driven in part by President Obama’s reforms. Our friend Portia Siegelbaum tweeted a forlorn picture of dimmer Christmas lights in Havana than she saw, as we did, one year ago.

The President has the capacity – and now we’re told the willingness – to drive this new policy much farther in the time remaining in the fourth quarter of his presidency. He can act knowing that his new policy has put him on the right side of history, and that taking additional steps will improve the lives of those his policy is designed to benefit – the Cuban people.
Sure, there will be dissent among the dwindling numbers of naysayers who want America to go back to the Cold War ways of doing things. To them, he can just say, “Bucket. Let’s make these changes irreversible,” and plough forward with more ambitious reforms.
It is, after all, the fourth quarter. Who could possibly argue with that?

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Prominent editorial boards call for further changes in U.S.- Cuba relations

Houston, we have a problem,” as Tom Hanks said in Apollo 13.  Except, it’s the hometown paper, The Houston Chronicle, making the statement, and it’s about the embargo against Cuba.

Following the one-year anniversary of the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic rapprochement marked last week,  the editorial boards of The New York Times,  the Los Angeles Times, and theHouston Chronicle this week called for additional reforms in U.S. policy.

The New York Times Editorial Board urged U.S. policymakers to end preferential treatment for Cuban migrants under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. The Los Angeles Times Editorial Board affirmed its support for negotiations with Cuba and for ending the embargo.

Perhaps, most strikingly, was the editorial published by the Houston Chronicle.  In arguing for repeal of the embargo, it calls the policy “a major hurdle to good relations and, in our opinion, to change on the island.”  The paper adds that the embargo’s “attempt at economic coercion only hardened the [Cuban] government’s resistance to change, gave it an excuse for the country’s problems and severely limited U.S. influence.”

Against the grain of tough talk dominating the debate over U.S. foreign policy, the paper concludes “In America, we’re accustomed to tough talk and bellicose foreign policy, but sometimes – maybe a lot of times – soft power works best. That’s what Obama is trying with Cuba. Congress can help by ending the embargo as quickly as possible so that American business can fully access the market and commercial ties between the two countries can grow.”

The New York Times called on Congress to repeal the preferential treatment enjoyed by Cuban migrants under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, saying it “has been a boon for human smugglers in Latin America and created burdens for countries from Ecuador to Mexico through which they move.”  Should Congress fail to act, the editorial went on to say that the Obama administration should use its executive authority to “negotiate a new agreement with the Cuban government that makes orderly immigration the norm. Cubans who arrive in the United States without authorization should be sent back unless they show a credible fear of persecution.”

The editorial also endorsed an end to the Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, a program which allows Cuban doctors working in third party countries to enter the U.S., which was adopted by an executive action under President Bush. Earlier this year, 14 Members of Congress called on the President to end this program, arguing in part that it undermines what Cuban medical professionals are doing globally for underserved communities and in response to crises like the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Like the Houston Chronicle, the Los Angeles Times Editorial Board endorsed ending the embargo, saying “The embargo has not only exacerbated the hardships faced by people living under the Castros’ totalitarian regime, it has harmed Americans and American companies without weakening the Castros’ grip on power.”

The editorial also urged the U.S. and Cuba to look to the future in its negotiations, particularly in the compromises needed to resolve longstanding compensation claims- saying, “The administration should ensure through these crucial negotiations that Americans who lost property to the Cuban revolution receive some measure of justice.”

Do editorials matter any longer in the public policy discourse?  Read this study “The Persistent Advocate: The New York Times Editorials and the Normalization of U.S. Ties with Cuba,” published last week by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, and reach your own conclusion.

A year in reflection, opponents and supporters of normalization speak out

Sunday, a prominent group of Cuban American businessmen, including Carlos Gutierrez, former U.S. Commerce Secretary under President George W. Bush, and Mike Fernandez, a top backer of Jeb Bush’s campaign, took out a full-page ad in the Miami Herald calling on their fellow Cuban-Americans to recognize progress in Cuba. Their words stood in sharp contrast to two open letters sent to President Obama last week in opposition to the administration’s Cuba policy.

Carlos Gutierrez and Mike Fernandez paid for Sunday’s ad explaining that, while visiting Cuba, “We saw progress beyond what we could have imagined…We saw entrepreneurs with a thirst for knowledge and families benefiting from the newfound freedom of enterprise…” The letter eschewed political interest affirming, “We have arrived at the point in our lives where we have no interest in personal advancement, but only in what would be good for ‘nuestra gente.'” Gutierrez, who has traveled to Cuba three times this year added, “It’s so difficult to have a point of view understanding the changes that are going on unless you go to Cuba.”

Those who signed the ad were denounced by unpersuaded members of the exile community.  Silvia Iriono, in Babalublog, wrote “These gentlemen are not my fellow Cuban Americans.” Another essay labeled the signers as dollar-hungry opportunists under the sway of handlers by the Cuban government.

Last week’s letters in opposition, one published jointly by the Cuban Resistance Assembly and the Democratic Directorate and the other published by former political prisoners, complain that the U.S. policy of normalization has had “negative consequences” for human rights on the island.

The Cuban Resistance Assembly and the Democratic Directorate publicized their letter at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies with Bertha Antúnez, sister of Jorge Luis García Pérez “Antúnez,” a prominent pro-democracy activist in Cuba, and Míriam and Mario de la Peña, parents of Mario Manuel de la Peña, one of four Brothers to the Rescue members shot down by Cuban forces in 1996. The letter from political prisoners highlights the increasing number of arbitrary detentions in Cuba as evidence that normalization has, in their words, “…has taken a bad situation and made it worse.”

By contrast, as the ad cosigned by the new Cuban American supporters of U.S. policy suggests, “As fellow Cuban-Americans, let us recognize the progress that has been made on both sides of the 90-mile Florida Straits, albeit halting, in the right direction. Just consider what has been accomplished in the last 12 months versus what has been accomplished in the last century.”

Cuba re-opens market to Arkansas poultry

This past Saturday, Tyson Foods and Simmons Foods announced that poultry trade will resume between Cuba and Arkansas this year, reports Arkansas Online. Governor Asa Hutchinson, who traveled to Cuba in September, said that Cuba’s government has ordered 4,500 tons of poultry from Arkansas companies scheduled to ship in January.

Cuba’s government banned poultry imports from Arkansas earlier this year after an outbreak of bird flu. Governor Hutchinson confirmed that, “Because of our trip we got this success story of the poultry contract.”

Global U.S. poultry and egg exports took a huge hit early in 2015, with export sales falling from $2.4 billion in 2014 to only $386.3 million over the same period in 2015. Most bans on U.S. poultry were lifted earlier in the year but Cuba remained a hold out.

n September, the governor led a 3-day trade mission to Cuba accompanied by poultry industry executives and others. For more on Governor Hutchinson’s trip to Cuba, check out our previous reporting.

In Cuba

Cuba’s economy grows 4 percent, boost over previous years

In a year of détente with the U.S., Cuba’s Gross Domestic Product grew by 4 percent reports state media. From 2011-2014, despite Cuba’s economic reform measures, the economy grew by only 2.3 percent.

The official economic report makes no mention of this year’s normalization process, highlighting instead that growth continues despite sanctions faced by Cuba, reports Reuters. Cuba’s government hopes to reach 7 percent economic growth for “significant development.”

State media reports a 30 percent increase in productivity for the first six months of 2015 and salary growth of 12 percent. This brings the Cuban monthly salary to roughly 700 Cuban pesos (CUP) or approximately 26 USD.

Falling import costs, including decreasing oil and food prices, likely boosted growth while declining export prices in oil products, nickel, and sugar likely constrained growth. The report does not mention sectors directly benefiting from normalization, namely tourism and remittances. It also remains silent on revenue from professional exports to Venezuela.

The report maintains that Cuba will provide the same level of basic service in education and health to the Cuban people for the coming year. This year’s economic plan will be presented for approval before the National Assembly on December 29.

For more on Cuba’s economic reforms, see our previous publications.

Cuba reports a new record in aquaculture production

Cuban aquaculture produced a record 27,228 tons of fish this year, which is 1,200 more than what they expected to produce in 2015, according to officials. The national director of aquaculture, Nelson Pérez, declared that they hope to close the year with 27,500 tons of fish. More than 20,000 of the fish are silver carp (or “tench”), 1,150 are tilapia, and 6,150 are “clarias.” Shrimp production also had a record year with more than 4,678 tons in 2015.

Sancti Spriitus, Camagüey, and Villa Clara produced largest supply of fish. Pérez attributed the result to better organization, fishing gear insurance, better feed supply, and management collectives, along with more motivation between workers and management collectives.

The majority of aquaculture production is used as primary material in the production of croquetas, embutidos, picadillo, and other Cuban foods products. The director highlighted the success despite the drought in the country, which affected some fish stations.

Aquaculture in Cuba depends on the importation of feed and other products; development in this sector requires large investments. When U.S. agriculture leaders visited the island in March 2015, they noted that “Aquaculture is a sophisticated growth industry, and the Cuban waters ‘are pristine.'” The Norwegian government currently supports an aquaculture facility in the Bay of Pigs, but U.S. investment in this area is still restricted by the economic embargo.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Update: Costa Rica suspends its SICA membership over Cuban migration, region fails to agree on solution

Effective last Saturday, Costa Rica will no longer give Cuban migrants temporary visas. President Luis Guillermo Solis explained, “the national capacity to address the migrants has reached its limit.”

Previously, the government of Costa Rica pledged that no Cuban migrant would be deported from Costa Rica, a promise it continues to honor for over 5,000 Cuban migrantsalready within its borders. New migrants entering the country will be deported according to President Solis who strongly discouraged would be migrants from attempting to enter Costa Rica.

Friday, Costa Rica suspended its membership in the Sistema de Integración Centroamericana (SICA), a regional body designed to mediate issues between participants. Leading up to the meeting, Costa Rica refused to participate in the SICA summit unless the issue of Cuban migrants was discussed. While the issue surfaced, no agreement was reached, causing a frustrated President Solis, to withdraw all political participation with SICA according to Progreso Semanal. Costa Rica will remain a participant in the economic, commercial, and technical bodies of SICA.

Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Belize refuse to allow Cubans passage through their territory for the migrants headed northward. As we have reported previously, the uptick in Cuban migration is at least in part due to suspicions among Cubans that the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act (which established the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” policy allowing Cubans to expedite their path to permanent residency in the U.S) will end as relations normalize.

This week, The New York Times Editorial Board called on Congress and the Obama administration to end the CAA. For more, see our story above.

Last week, U.S. Representative Carlos Curbelo (FL-26) introduced legislation to begin treating Cuban immigrants like immigrants from other countries, reports the Miami Herald. Under his legislation, Cubans would be required to file a claim for asylum and enter the pipeline for approval, a process that can take years. Curbelo acknowledged that his legislation, HR 4247, could be seen as a “first step” in rewriting CAA, although the legislation as written only amends the Refugee Education Assistant Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act, and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996.

Representative Curbelo is not the first to propose reforms to the CAA, Representative Paul Grosar (AZ-4) introduced a bill in October to repeal the CAA as we previously reported,and hardliners including Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) and Mario Diaz-Balart (FL-25) have proposed curtailing the benefits of CAA for some migrants, reports the Sun Sentinel.

Recommended Reading

A New Cuban Exodus, The Editorial Board, The New York Times

The New York Times Editorial Board favors ending the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. Failing congressional action, the Editorial Board encourages the administration to use its “discretion” in admitting Cuban immigrants.

Cuba reparations talks should look to future, not past, The Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times

The Editorial Board of the Los Angeles Times urges the Obama administration to continue moving forward with normalization and urges the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo.

End Embargo Against Cuba, The Editorial Board, Houston Chronicle

In calling for an end to the trade embargo against Cuba, the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board says, “Obama’s rapprochement with the island put U.S.-Cuba policy in line with our relations with China and Vietnam, both communist-led countries that have embraced ‘market socialism’ but not democracy.”

In Cuba, Change at a Caribbean Pace, Alex Brooks & David Prodger, Real Clear World

Writing just prior to December 17, British diplomats Alex Brooks and David Prodger offer their reflections on change in Cuba one year post-normalization.

Meet Lazaro Armenteros, the next Cuban baseball star, USAToday, Bob Nightengale

Recommended Viewing

What a Year for Latin America!, Stephen Kurczy, Americas Quarterly

In this photo essay, Kurczy highlights major shifts in Latin American leadership and policy over the past year.

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