Stop and Smell (the Cuban) Coffee (or what would Goethe say?)

As he departed the presidency in 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower summarized the foreign policy accomplishments of his administration. Ending the Korean War and preserving peace in the Middle East were among them.  But, he also noted a few of the world’s continuing dangers, starting with what he called the “Communist penetration of Cuba” which he labeled a real and serious threat.

Defining the challenges of his final year in office, President Obama used his last State of the Union address to make his most forceful appeal to Congress to “lift the embargo” on Cuba since he announced the new U.S. policy toward Cuba in December 2014.

“Fifty years of isolating Cuba,” he said, “had failed to promote democracy, setting us back in Latin America. That’s why we restored diplomatic relations, opened the door to travel and commerce, and positioned ourselves to improve the lives of the Cuban people. You want to consolidate our leadership and credibility in the hemisphere? Recognize that the Cold War is over. Lift the embargo.”

Congress had heard the appeal before; during last year’s address, after explaining the purpose behind his shift in policy, the President said, “Congress should begin the work of ending the embargo.”

Tuesday night he hit it harder – making it two years in a row that he urged Congress to take down what presidents dating back to Eisenhower had built up.

Everything is happening so fast.  Our compassion, concerns, and anxieties are pulled in a dozen different directions.  But, isn’t this a time when we could stop and admire the beauty of this historical moment?

Two years in a row a U.S. president actually said the state of the union would be stronger by ending the embargo against Cuba.  “The mere knowledge that such a work could be created makes me twice the person I was,” Goethe said.

Tuesday night we felt that way, too; even more, after dozens of Members of Congress heard what the president said and rose from their seats to applaud.  Stop for a minute and smell that coffee!

As we previously reported, there is majority, bipartisan support nationally for ending the embargo, including among Floridians and Cuban Americans.   With Congress hesitant to act, the upcoming election, and the impending close of President Obama’s second term, there is a greater sense of urgency in Washington and Havana to push Cuba policy forward in 2016.

In just a few weeks, Representatives Tom Emmer (MN-6) and Kathy Castor (FL-14), lead sponsors of legislation to repeal the trade embargo, are bringing a partisan delegation from the U.S. Congress to visit Cuba to build support for opening travel and trade relations with Cuba among the new or uncommitted colleagues who will accompany them.

Aside from the difficult task of adopting such sweeping legislation in an election year, diplomacy has brought changes to the U.S.-Cuba relationship, such as the restoration of commercial airline service, direct mail service, and direct phone service, and U.S. ports and U.S. businesses are seeking ways to use the new authorities granted by administration policies to create commercial relationships with Cuban counterparts. All of this builds on the policy opening in anticipation of a new president taking office in January 2017.

Josefina Vidal, who leads the Cuban side of the normalization talks, told the official Cuban News Agency that she’s “beginning to feel a certain bit of realism as the electoral process in the United States approaches; we don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Neither do we.  But, just like Governor McAuliffe hit the accelerator of the 1957 Chevy he drove through the streets of Havana during his trade mission to Cuba last week, we’re part of a larger effort to encourage policymakers, business leaders, advocates and experts to wrench as much change as possible out of U.S. policy before the next president is sworn in.  We have a year and hope to put it to good use.


Cuba will participate in U.S. co-sponsored regional security conference

Cuba will participate in an annual Caribbean regional security conference in Jamaica later this month co-sponsored by the U.S. military’s Southern Command later this month, according to Marine Corps Gen. John F. Kelly. “We’ve normalized now and, regardless of how we think of each other in terms of politics, we have very, very common challenges,” Gen. Kelly said at a briefing at the Pentagon, AP reports.

Senior military officials from 16 Caribbean countries, the U.S., UK and others will participate in the three-day conference, which will focus on cooperation to combat the drug trade, human trafficking, and weapons smuggling. Cuba may use the conference as an opportunity to raise its objection to the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, AP reports. Gen. Kelly thinks the U.S. Navy base could be run jointly with the Cubans, but recognizes that “It wouldn’t be appropriate” at this stage in relations.

Port of Miami eyes new ferry terminal to Cuba, showing evolution in Miami politics

Last week, Juan Kuryla, Miami-Dade port chief, discussed the possibility of a new ferry terminal in Miami after receiving several requests from major worldwide ferry operators for a location to launch ferry service from Miami to Havana, the Miami Herald reports.

The day after Kuryla made the public announcement, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez clarified that, “We don’t do business with countries. We just do business with carriers… Where the ferry services decided to go in order to make money, etc., well, that’s up to the ferry service as long as it’s legal.” Xavier Suarez, Miami-Dade County Commissioner, added that “We don’t want to get left behind if ferry service is in fact started,” according to NPR.

Mayor Gimenez and County Commissioner Suarez are both Cuban-Americans. Their statements reveal a growing interest in economic possibilities that, in turn, are reshaping politics in Miami around Cuba. “There was criticism from some in the Cuban-American community, but compared to the firestorm anything involving Cuba has often sparked in the past, it’s a sign that in Miami, times have changed,” NPR noted.

Several U.S. operators have already been granted ferry licenses from the U.S. Treasury, but approval in Havana has taken longer than expected and executives estimate that Florida-Cuba ferry service isn’t likely to start until late 2016. “Cuba needs to develop terminal facilities for proposed ferries from Florida, complete with customs and immigration processing and room to handle passengers and freight. That requires millions of dollars in investment,” the Sun Sentinel reports.

Meanwhile, three U.S.-based cruise lines are awaiting permission from Cuban authorities to begin sailing to Havana from Miami this winter and spring, according to the Miami HeraldReuters reported in December that Switzerland-based MSC Cruises was the first of the four global cruise lines in the world to start operations in Cuba.

Update: First group of Cuban migrants in Costa Rica flown to El Salvador, headed for the U.S.

On January 12, 180 Cubans were flown from Costa Rica to El Salvador and taken on a bus to Mexico and on to the U.S., according to the Economist. On January 13, Granma, the Cuban state-run newspaper, reported that the group of Cuban migrants arrived in Mexico, where the National Institute of Migration (INAMI) provided permission documents to allow them to continue their journey to the U.S. “This disjointed itinerary is the result of an agreement among several Central American countries and Mexico to allow the migrants through while discouraging new arrivals,”the Economist explains.

In November, Nicaragua closed its borders to Cuban migrants, leaving 8,000 stranded in Costa Rica and 2,000 in Panamá, according to Univision. The International Organization of Migrations said the first group was selected based on their ability to afford the trip, which costs about $550, Univision reports. Katia Rodríguez, Director of Costa Rica Migration, said that the countries involved will meet next week to decide the next stages for those who remain.

In 2015, more than 43,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S. between January and September, an 80% increase over the same period in 2014.This significant uptick in migration is often attributed to a fear that as relations with the United States improve, Cubans will lose the special immigration status they receive under the Cuban Adjustment Act (CAA) of 1966, as we have reported. The editorial boards of several major newspapers, including the New York Times, have called for ending the CAA, and one bill has been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives which would do just that.  Others, like CubaNow executive director Ric Herrero, argue that the CAA should be dealt with at the same time as the embargo itself.

Sommerhoff, Miami-Dade’s director of Emergency Management, says the county is ready to “absorb” the 8,000 Cuban migrants who are currently stranded in Central America, reported the Miami Herald in December 2015. “Not everyone has family in the United States – and although the mayor of Miami is concerned that the city’s not prepared, at the county, there’s confidence.Que vengan. Let them come,” the Miami Herald advocated.

Musicabana Foundation announces Major Lazer concert in Cuba

Major Lazer – whose records include Peace Is the Mission and Free the Universe -will be one of the first major American musical acts to perform in Havana since U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic relations, announced the Musicabana Foundation, a new nonprofit organization developing year-round U.S.-Cuba cultural events. Major Lazer will perform in Havana on Sunday, March 6, 2016 as part of the four-day Musicabana festival.

Fabien Pisani, founder and festival director of Musicabana, expressed his excitement about partnering with Major Lazer, as well as his hope to highlight “Cuba’s music scene[, which] is bursting with the same raw talent and energy of decades past.”

Musicabana will host concerts in three venues, Plaza San Francisco de Asis, Salon Rosado of la Tropical, and La Piragua. The festival will be free to the Cuban public; international visitors will be able to purchase special travel packages and VIP tickets.

Musicabana will feature performances by Cuban and international artists including Pablo Milanés, Carlos Varela, Los Van Van, Sean Paul, Habana d’Primera, Carlinhos Brown, Ibeyi, Yoruba Andabo, Juana Bacallao & Tembla Tierra, Interactivo, and Kelvis Ochoa. Cubadebate quotes Diplo, one of the members of Major Lazer, who explained that “Cuba has played an influential role in my love for music.”


Cuba’s 2016 Economic Outlook

The self-employed sector in Cuba continues to capture U.S. attention and investment. The majority of “cuentapropistas,” self-employed Cubans, work in food services, followed by transportation, and house and event space rentals, according to data from the Ministry of Work and Social Security cited by EFE. The Ministry of Work details that of the total number of cuentapropistas, 17% are Cubans who maintain state sector jobs, 30% are youth, 30% are women, and 12% are retired Cubans.

On Monday, EFE published an article on the status of Cuba’s self-employed sector, citing a slight decrease in the number of Cubans working in outside the state sector since June 2015. On the same day, OnCuba published an article by Cuban economist Dr. C. Juan Triana Cordovi, who reports that the self-employment sector employs 27% of the country’s work force. While Dr. Triana is optimistic about the growth of the self-employment sector, he is advocating further changes in his country’s economic model.  Specifically, he hopes 2016 will bring access to wholesale markets and an increase in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) to mitigate the negative factors of the decline in economic growth, which President Raul Castro announced will be 2% in 2016. According to Reuters, President Castro attributed the decline to “financial limitations associated with the fall in earnings from traditional exports,” including nickel and sugar.

Unilever invests $35 million in joint venture at Mariel Special Development Zone

On Monday, Unilever announced its plans to return to Cuba with a $35 million investment in a joint venture, Unilever-Suchel S.A., to create a toothpaste and soap factory in the Mariel Special Development Zone. The Dutch-British company is the ninth firm to get approval from Cuba’s government to operate in Mariel. Cleber LLC, a tractor assembly company based in Alabama, was the first U.S. firm to receive approval in November 2015.

Last week, the Dutch Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation Lilianne Ploumen announced that she hopes that the Netherlands will “acquire a pole position” in Cuba,according to Forbes. Representatives from major Dutch companies, including Philips and Heineken, joined Minister Ploumen on her trip to Cuba, Telegraph reports.

In 2012, Unilever left Cuba after a dispute over the stipulation that the state hold the majority stake in joint ventures with foreign companies. “Now Unilever NV will have a majority 60 percent stake compared to 40 percent for the Cuban state company Intersuchel S.A.,” Reuters explains.

The factory, planned to open by 2018, will produce shampoo, detergent, soap, and toothpaste, items that are in high-demand on the island and especially in the growing tourism sector.


Update: FARC peace talks continue in Cuba

On Wednesday, the FARC-EP delegation and the Colombian government resumed discussions to end the armed conflict that has persisted in their country for more than a half century, according to Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, MINREX. They have sustained peaceful negotiations in Havana since November 2012.

In September 2015, President Juan Manuel Santos and FARC-EP leader, Timoleón Jiménez, announced that they would sign a peace accord on March 23, 2016. However, the FARC-EP negotiator, Joaquín Gómez, said that there are factors that could make it difficult to sign an accord by that date.

Recommended Reading

Cuba prevails in Havana Club rum dispute with Bacardi, Mimi Whitefield, Havana Club

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office renewed Cubaexport’s trademark registration for Havana Club this week. Cubaexport, a government company, has been battling Bacardi over the trademark for more than 20 years.

Cubans, Fearing Loss of Favored Status in U.S., Rush to Make an Arduous Journey, Frances Robles, New York Times

Thousands of Cuban migrants have been stranded in Costa Rica on their way to the United States since Nicaragua closed its border to Cubans in November 2015. This article highlights the experiences of some of these individuals, as well as the plan to get the Cubans to the United States.

Virginia businesses begin wary courtship with Cuba, Laura Vozzella, Washington Post

While no contracts were signed, business leaders on Governor Terry McAuliffe’s Virginia trade delegation explored possibilities for investment and manufacturing. “The important thing for this trip was to establish a vision,” a VA business president said. “What’s left is to determine what’s feasible.”

In Cuba, there is nothing permanent except change, Richard Feinberg, Brookings Institute

Richard Feinberg describes the emerging private sector in Cuba and the increasing brain drain as government officials abandon the public sector and many Cubans emigrate to the United States, Spain, Mexico, and Canada.

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