In the days before President Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address, we wrote about the promising dimensions of his new direction in Cuba policy – it’s strong emphasis on expanding travel, encouraging diplomacy, broadening engagement by “ball players and marine scientists, artists and experts,” and bringing the business community farmers, businesses, and individuals with property compensation claims into the process to increase the momentum for reform.
In the last year, all of this – and more – has come to pass.
During the first days of the New Year, we got to see first-hand the benefits of the policy when we joined a trade delegation led by Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe – a visit that produced cooperation agreements between the Cuban and Virginia Port Authorities, and between Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Havana.
The first clears the way for businesses in Virginia to build and grow relationships with counterparts in Cuba; the second means students from both countries will be able to expand their horizons through academic exchanges and joint research projects.
McAuliffe, who delighted onlookers by driving a 1956 pink Chevrolet Bel Air named Lola around Havana, concluded his visit to Cuba by previewing an appeal he promised to make to Paul Ryan, the House Speaker, Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, and to Members of the House and Senate across the political aisle:
“2016 needs to be the year that we move our relationship forward, that we end this embargo, and we do the right thing for the citizens of the United States of America and the citizens of Cuba.”
He also told reporters, he’d be surprised if the President didn’t visit Cuba. The President’s Deputy National Security Advisor, Ben Rhodes, delivered the same message to reporters over the weekend, as he laid out the administration’s foreign policy priorities for the coming year.
What’s exciting to us is that the administration continues moving forward on efforts to broaden and deepen the reforms. Reuters broke an exclusive story this afternoon saying the U.S. government is finally considering putting to an end the program that lures Cuban doctors and nurses off their foreign postings with promises of easy entry into the United States.
A year ago, Rep. Rosa DeLauro and more than a dozen colleagues urged the administration to cancel this program, especially after lauding what Cuba had done to fight the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa. Cancelling this program – conceived under President George W. Bush as a brain-drain effort – is not just consistent with President Obama’s new direction, it is long overdue.
The progress we have seen in the last year was made possible by smart and strategic policy initiatives but also by patient diplomacy that set aside the kinds of distractions which left us trapped in the Cold War mindset
If this can be the steady state of our diplomacy it augers well for the state of the U.S.-Cuba reunion.
U.S. Cuba Relations
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe leads successful trade mission to Cuba
On Sunday, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe flew to Cuba leading a 30-member trade delegation. Spanning three days, the Governor’s trade mission resulted in agreements with Cuba’s Mariel port authorities and the University of Havana. Governor McAuliffe is the fourth U.S. governor to travel to Cuba since the U.S.-Cuba diplomatic breakthrough, and the second whose visit was organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
“I’ve got to go where the customers are,” McAuliffe explained in an interview with the Washington Post, “For many of these countries you can’t do it with a phone call.” The governor met with the Cuban Minister of Commerce and Foreign Investment, Cuban Vice President Ricardo Cabrisas Ruiz, and Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega among others.
On Monday, the Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Havana signed a Memorandum of Understanding, representing a first for a Virginia university. The agreement was “…a firm acknowledgement that our societies and our institutions must work together and openly engage with one another in order to improve higher education in both Cuba and the Commonwealth of Virginia,” explained Virginia Secretary of Education Anne Holton. The Memorandum of Understanding lays a foundation for further academic exchange and collaborative research.
Top Virginia businesses, including Smithfield Foods and Perdue Agribusiness, accompanied Governor McAuliffe and got access to Cuban trade and other officials. Over the last decade, as the Richmond-Times Dispatch reported, Virginia exported about $400 million worth of agricultural products to Cuba, including $25 million last year.
On Tuesday, Virginia’s port authority became the first U.S. port operator to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Cuba’s Mariel port authorities, reported Reuters. The nonbinding port agreement seeks to bolster cooperation between Virginian and Cuban ports in light of the forthcoming completion of the Panama Canal expansion. The expansion will increase the size of cargo ships coming through the Panama Canal and prompt shippers to look for ports with the capacity to handle these larger vessels. Both the Port of Mariel and the Port of Virginia are up to the challenge, a position not shared by many regional ports.
“Despite Virginia’s export success to Cuba, there is currently no direct container service between Virginia and Cuba,” noted Tom Capozzi, Chief Sales Officer of Virginia International Terminals. Capozzi said that Virginia “agribusiness companies that ship products in containers could benefit from enhanced cooperation between our port terminals and the Port of Mariel, especially as Mariel becomes an important trans-ship service provider for the region.”
Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne added, “The Port of Virginia is the Commonwealth’s gateway to the world. This new agreement benefits the agriculture industry and opens Virginia’s and the nation’s doors to new markets as relations with Cuba continue to strengthen.”
While McAuliffe’s focus on trade meant several meetings with Cuban trade officials, McAuliffe also used the opportunity to urge members of his trade delegation to use Virginia’s port to trade with Cuba. Upon learning that Smithfield Food ships its pork products through Jacksonville instead of Norfolk, McAuliffe exclaimed it was the “dumbest thing” he had ever heard, continuing that, “I do not want to hear about one more Smithfield pork [product] shipping out of Jacksonville…How do we fix that?” Smithfield Foods and Virginia port officials said the shipping arrangement was a problem of scale. Virginia does not presently export enough to Cuba to justify Virginia container ships travelling to the island.
Other businesses participating in the delegation included Perdue Agribusiness; Virginia Natural Beef; Forever Oceans, T. Parker Host shipping, Onduline North America, and Mountain Lumber Co.
Virginia exported $800,000 in apples in soybeans to Cuba in 2003, marking the first Virginia exports to the island since the implementation of the trade embargo in 1962. Last year’s trade between Virginia and Cuba was valued at $25 million according to The Washington Post. While this number is small compared to big Cuban trading partners like Canada and China, it has potential for growth.
At the conclusion of his trip, McAuliffe, headed directly to Washington for a National Governors Association meeting, “It is now up to us to do our work back in Washington to make sure our Virginia businesses can effectively do business here in Cuba.” McAuliffe, who serves as vice chairman of the National Governors Association, intends to press his fellow governors to support further normalization between the U.S. and Cuba.
Governor McAuliffe’s interest in Cuba has been building over time. Prior to his election, McAuliffe traveled to Cuba in 2009 as a volunteer pitchman for Virginia apples and wine. In October of last year, Governor McAuliffe signed a bi-partisan letter with eight other governors calling on Congress to end remaining travel and trade restrictions. The governor reiterated his support for ending the embargo during his trade mission. Comparing his trips, McAuliffe noted, “There’s a whole different feeling I can tell, even from last time I was here…Much more open feeling, much more willingness to do business.”
President still considering a trip to Cuba
On Saturday, Reuters reported that the White House will decide on President Obama’s potential trip to Cuba in the coming months. U.S. deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes, reiterated that the President wants to take steps to ensure that progress toward normalization becomes irreversible.
Rhodes reiterated a point made by President Obama late last year that he would like to see Cuba improve its human rights record, allow for greater public information and Internet access, and continue to open its economy. Rhodes told reporters that the “The key test for us is whether the president’s going to Cuba would help advance those priorities.”
Obama made it clear that he was interested in visiting the island in an interview for Yahoo in December saying he “very much” hoped it would be possible. “If I go on a visit, then part of the deal is that I get to talk to everybody,” Obama said. “I’ve made very clear in my conversations directly with President Castro that we would continue to reach out to those who want to broaden the scope for, you know, free expression inside of Cuba.”
Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that an inert U.S. Hellfire missile was shipped to Cuba in 2014. Federal investigators are not sure if the unintended delivery reflects human error or deliberate subversion.
Hellfire missiles are air-to-ground missiles used by the U.S. to combat terrorism. They are often carried by Predator drones used in U.S. airstrikes in Yemen and Pakistan. Although U.S. officials do not expect Cuba to try and dissemble the missile on its own in hopes of creating similar technology, officials are concerned that Cuba’s government could share the sensitive military technology.
According to press accounts, Cuba’s government has refused to return the missile. Reacting on Twitter, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (FL-26) said, “Castros have benefited from myriad concessions from the @BarackObama Admin, but we can’t get a single missile back?”
The Wall Street Journal reported that the missile followed a circuitous route before showing up in Havana. . It was shipped by its manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corporation from Orlando to Spain for use in a NATO exercise in early 2014. From there, the missile was supposed to ship to Frankfurt, Germany before heading back to the U.S.
Instead, flight officials for the Frankfurt flight noticed the missile was not among the cargo. It appears the missile was loaded onto another truck operated by Air France which took the missile to Paris where it ended up on Air France flight headed to Havana. By the time officials realized the flight was bound for Havana carrying the missile, it was too late. The flight landed in Havana where the cargo, clearly labeled as material subject to extensive export controls, was spotted and seized.
Lockheed Martin and the State Department have declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. The mix-up, intentional or unintentional, raises concerns about the safety of international commercial shipping for military shipments. Each year the State Department’s office of Political-Military Affairs discloses roughly 1,500 instances of potential violations of the Arms Export Control Act; however, this is the first instance officials can recall of a U.S. missile ending up in a sanctioned country.
“We talkin’ or we racin’? Hollywood asks Cuba, filming interests grow on the island
This week Universal Pictures announced that it is exploring filming Fast and Furious 8 in Cuba, reports Variety. If the studio selects Cuba and receives permission from both governments, it will use Cuba as one of several backdrops for the film which will start production this spring.
Though fans are clearly revving their engines, it will likely be some time before the film gets the greenlight. “Universal Pictures is currently in the process of seeking approval from the United States and Cuban governments to explore shooting a portion of the next installment of the ‘Fast & Furious’ series in Cuba,” a spokeswoman for the studio said.
Universal Pictures is not the only entertainment enterprise interested and active in Cuba. This week British musician Ozzy Osbourne arrived in Cuba to film part of a documentary for the History Channel. Previously, Conan O’Brien shot an episode for his late-night show in Havana and Showtime recently announced that House of Lies will film part of its fifth season on the island, the first U.S. series to do so since the announcement of normalization last December.
National Assembly meetings conclude, economic growth of 2 percent projected
On December 29, at the conclusion of the bi-annual meeting of Cuba’s National Assembly, President Raul Castro projected 2 percent GDP growth for 2016. Castro saying that Cuba must cut “unnecessary spending and make use of the resources that we have with more rationality and with the goal of developing the country” according to state media.
Foreign media is not allowed inside meetings of the National Assembly. Castro noted that falling oil prices have “affected our relationship of mutual aid with various countries, particularly the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, the target of an economic war aimed at undermining popular support for its revolution.” Castro’s remarks seemed to warn Cubans of upcoming struggles. Castro noted, “the history of our revolution is full of glorious pages despite difficulties, risks and threats.”
Cuba’s economic struggles come in spite of the tourist boom currently taking place in Cuba. More than 3 million visitors in 2015 brought much-needed cash to the Cuban economy while driving up household inflation.
Cuban salaries remain low with the average Cuban earning roughly $25 per month. Cuba relies primarily on tourism, nickel mining, and the exportation of government-employed professionals for income. While reliable statistics are hard to come by, Castro affirmed that lower nickel prices have also damaged the country’s economic outlook.
Cuba’s economy grew by 4% in 2015. The National Assembly convened with 531 delegates in late December to review 2015 accomplishments and set goals for 2016.
Cuba’s Santeria priests offered gloomy predictions in their annual New Year’s address. The priests forecast growing migration and widespread social unrest, reports Reuters.
Santeria, a West African religion, is practiced by millions of Cubans. The New Year’s predictions are widely anticipated and do not apply to Cuba exclusively or specifically. The priests, called babalawos, did not offer specifics for their predictions. Priest Lazaro Cuesta explained, “The predictions of Ifa (divination system) warn world leaders that if no action is taken, we may lead our people to a massive migration provoked by different things, desperation among them.” On a more positive note, the babalawos offered predictions of increased foreign investment and increased bilateral relations, again without offering specifics.
However, in Cuba, with migration up 80 percent and food prices soaring over 50 percent in the last four years, this religious prediction hits close to home. The priests urged leaders to reach agreements on migration and seek balance between salaries and cost of living.
The latest Santeria predictions come on the heels of National Assembly meetings in Cuba which forecast lower than expected economic futures. For more on their meeting, see our reporting above. Santeria, also known as the Way of the Saints, traces its origins to Yoruba beliefs mixed with elements of Roman Catholicism. For a profile of Santeria beliefs and practices, click here.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
Over the holidays, Central American countries agreed to pilot a program allowing Cubans to continue their northward journey from Costa Rica. The pilot program, scheduled to start on January 12, sponsors flights from Costa Rica to El Salvador and buses from El Salvador to Mexico according to Reuters.
The pilot program will begin with flights for 250 Cubans to El Salvador. Cubans will pay between $350 and $555 for safe passage to Mexico. The fee includes entrance and exit taxes, plane tickets and connecting bus tickets. It is unclear what will happen when the migrants reach Mexico according to Fusion.
The program will be subject to revision according to Mexican officials. Nicaragua has repeatedly refused Costa Rica’s request for the creation of a humanitarian corridor northward to facilitate Cuban migration. “We are just establishing the logistics of the operation and developing the mechanism [for the Cubans to leave]. We hope it works and we can’t do more,” said Costa Rica’s Foreign Minister Manuel Gonzalez.
To move the estimated 8,000 Cubans currently inside Costa Rica to Mexico would cost roughly $4million. Cuban migrants found themselves stranded in Costa Rica after Nicaragua closed its borders to Cuban migration in November in response to Costa Rica’s issuance of transit visas for 1,000 Cubans.
On December 27, in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis urged action saying, “I invite the countries of the region to renew with generosity all necessary efforts in order to find a rapid solution to this humanitarian drama.” The Pope will visit Mexico in February where migration is expected to be a focus of his visit reports the BBC.
The surge in migration is reportedly being driven, in part, by fears among Cubans that preferential treatment that Cuban migrants receive the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act could be taken away. For more on the ongoing migration crisis, please see our previous reporting.
Nevadans stand ready to help Cuba join 21st century, Otto Merida and Peter Guzman, Las Vegas Sun
“We recognize that the Cuban state stands to benefit from greater engagement, but not as much as the Cuban people. We think that connectivity, people-to-people interaction and growth will spell change for the island, strengthening Cuba as a society and opening the doors to economic and personal freedom” write Otto Merida, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce in Las Vegas and Peter Guzman, president of the Latin Chamber of Commerce Community Foundation in Las Vegas.
Illinois Pols Forge Cuba Connection, Rich Rovito, BGA
Illinois Cuba Working Group sets sights on restoring productive trade relationship between Cuba and Illinois.
Upcoming Webinar! A New Era of Cooperation between Cuba and the US Established through MPAs by Billy Causey, Pedro Ramos, and Daniel Whittle
Sign-up here to participate (free and open to the public)
Friend of CDA, Dan Whittle will be doing a webinar on January 14 at 1 pm EST with officials from the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration and National Park Service about the announcement between NOAA and NPS on sister sanctuaries. They will discuss the historic agreement between the US and Cuba to work together to protect vital marine ecosystems from rising manmade threats such as overfishing, habitat damage and climate change.
TIME showcases the work of French photographer Thierry Le Goues who photographed amateur boxing in Cuba for almost a decade.
36 Hours in Havana, Damien Cave, New York Times
The New York Times offers a six-minute spot on Cuba’s changing scene complete with music, food, and the Malecon.