Cuba and the Audacity of Hope, 2016 Edition

Last week, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough offered a teaser about the year ahead: He said, “We’ll do audacious executive actions throughout the course of the year, I am confident of that,” in comments reported by The Hill.

We can’t say what those executive actions involve since “McDonough did not hint on which areas the president will sidestep Congress and set policy on his own.” Since, however, Congress may not act, and there’s much within the President’s power to expand on the new policy, and to trim back on the old, we hope Cuba’s on the agenda.

Trim back on the old? As we have said before, if President Obama’s new direction in Cuba policy were like a painting, it would be more like pentimento than an entirely new piece of work. This is when traces of an underlying image become visible despite the top layers of more recently applied paint. In seeing such a painting, the viewer must ask her or himself whether the artist changed his mind thoroughly, or if the old parts peeking through suggest indecision present in the artist’s mind.

Yesterday, USAID published a notice reminding us – and we thank Tracey Eaton, the journalist who brought it to our attention – that the U.S. government is still funding activities with regime-change money under programs enacted by Congress to overthrow Cuba’s government, despite the renewal of diplomatic relations.

Dressed up as “humanitarian assistance to political prisoners and their families, and politically marginalized individuals and groups in Cuba,” Tracey underscores the circular reasoning on which the $6 million grant program is based. He cuts to the core in his typically genteel way:

I think it’s worth pointing out that many of those arrested for political reasons are taking part in programs funded by the U.S. government or U.S. government-financed organizations. I am not arguing for or against such programs or saying there are no human rights violations in Cuba, but I find it interesting that existing U.S. government programs are used to help justify and fuel the need for new programs.” [our emphasis]

The timing – and of course the substance – of this announcement is really telling. This declaration, and it’s not the first, that the U.S. is still in the regime change business comes one month to the day after the USAID Inspector General released a sharply critical report on how the agency’s recently-exposed debacles raised serious legal and regulatory questions about how these programs are administered.

The IG report focused on the faux twitter program, ZunZuneo, which “was secretly created to stir unrest and raised concerns about the legality and covert nature of the project,” and another effort in which an HIV prevention workshop was used as “a guise to recruit young Cubans to anti-government activism” and how it “undermined the credibility of USAID’s health work around the world.”

Note and reminder: the existence of both programs was brought to light by excellent investigative reporting by the Associated Press.

Just these two programs, the IG reported, were plagued by conflicts of interest (a fancy, high-dollar contract was awarded to a grantee’s family member without competition) and needlessly high expenses. Because these efforts were undertaken covertly to prevent the Cuban government from detecting or disrupting them, excessive secrecy led to the creation of bank accounts to place agency money in the Cayman Islands, and to practices that concealed to Cuban participants the knowledge that they were involved in programs funded by regime change dollars.

But, their government did find out. The IG determined that the programs lacked safeguards to prevent them from being penetrated by the Cuban government and subverted by Cuban intelligence, and left Cubans participating in the programs vulnerable to being denigrated and threatened.

So, it’s reasonable to ask – did USAID take any of the IG’s findings on board, or is it happening again? There’s language in yesterday’s new announcement – “the primary goal of the program,” USAID seeks creative and innovative approaches in the design and delivery of the monies – that begged questions about what is really being funded.

Tellingly, USAID did offer cautions informed by Alan Gross’s arrest – to avoid the use of American citizens, recruit personnel who are fluent in Spanish and who’ve worked in Cuba before, and make it clear that recipients can’t sue USAID if they are caught, injured or killed (literally) – suggesting that something bigger is afoot than the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

Undoubtedly, there’s a regime change devotee in the USAID bureaucracy ready to dismiss these legitimate questions with the pettifoggery that we heard from the agency when ZunZuneo and the ‘not-really-an HIV-workshop’ debacles were first exposed. Then, the audacity of deceit ruled the day.

So, yes, we’d favor a long list of executive actions to increase travel and trade with Cuba, especially ones that free U.S.-Cuba commerce from the shadow of excess enforcement stemming from the old policy.

But, we’d like to see more. From the outset, President Obama’s new direction in Cuba policy was predicated on the idea that it does not serve America’s interests, or the Cuban people, to try and push Cuba toward collapse.

In 2016, is it too audacious for the President to cut the funding for – or at least reform – these efforts, so that the entire government, including USAID, speaks with one, clear voice when it comes to engaging with Cuba during his last year in office?

We can only hope.

U.S. – Cuba Relations

Cuban migrants arrive from Central America; Coast Guard official says others are ‘frantic’

On Wednesday, government officials from Costa Rica, Belize, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Panama and Mexico who met in Guatemala City called a pilot trip undertaken by 180 Cubans migrants from Costa Rica to the U.S a “success.” This initial group of migrants represents a fraction of the estimated 8,000 Cuban migrants who were stranded in Costa Rica in November when Nicaragua closed its border. The group arrived late last week in Laredo, Texas before continuing their journey in the U.S. to Miami, reports CNN.

Bi-weekly flights from Costa Rica to Mexico are set to begin February 4, with Central American government officials planning to meet mid-February for a reassessment of the program. The New Yorker reports that 45 additional flights are planned. Officials did not comment on the number of Cubans they hope will benefit from these flights but they did note that priority will be given to pregnant women, children, and families.

The newly arrived Cuban migrants restarted their journeys last Tuesday, flying from Costa Rica to El Salvador. In El Salvador, the migrants boarded buses to Mexico where the Mexican government provided them with temporary visas granting the migrants twenty days of legal passage to make it to the U.S. border.

The pilot program officials agreed to in early January required Cubans to pay between $350 and $555 for safe passage to Mexico from Costa Rica. This fee includes entrance and exit taxes, plane tickets and connecting bus tickets according to Fusion.

CNN reports that Senator Marco Rubio used a campaign event in New Hampshire to blame President Obama’s Cuba policy reforms for the onset of the migration crisis, and also criticized the administration for ‘not doing enough’ to stem the tide.

William LeoGrande, author of “Backchannel to Cuba,” writes “The Obama Administration has two problems. One is the striking contrast between the treatment of Cubans looking for economic opportunity and Central American families fleeing gang violence. The second problem is that the open door for Cubans on the Texas border, combined with the greater freedom to travel the Cuban government has given its people since 2013, means the flow of Cubans through Mexico is not going to diminish anytime soon.”

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. Prominent editorial boards and some Members of Congress have called for its revision or removal. For more on these efforts, see our previous reporting.

However, the Obama Administration denies it intends to curtail the scope of the CAA and, according to the Associated Press, “the Coast Guard has warned migrants and their relatives in the U.S. that no change is imminent” for over a year.

Yet, the AP is reporting that arrivals by sea are increasingly desperate; security aboard Coast Guard vessels enforcing the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy has been increased; and migrants intercepted by Coast Guard vessels are reportedly engaging in frantic attempts, such as poisoning themselves to be taken ashore for treatment.

In 2015, more than 43,000 Cubans arrived in the U.S. between January and September, a roughly 80% increase over the same period in 2014.

FCC removes Cuba from Exclusion List

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) removed Cuba from its Exclusion List, allowing U.S. companies to offer telephone and Internet services to Cuba without the need for special approval from the FCC. Cuba was the last country on the Exclusion List authorized by the Communications Act of 1934.

Previously, companies hoping to do business with countries on the Exclusion List had to apply for special authorization. According to the FCC’s press release, “this action allows carriers seeking new international Section 214 authority for facilities-based service to Cuba to receive such authority sooner, and permits carriers with existing global Section 214 authority to provide services between the United States and Cuba without additional authorization.” Citing State Department recommendations and “public interest,” the FCC made the change effective upon release allowing companies to take advantage of the opening quickly.

Prior to the FCC’s action, only Sprint Corp., a Newark, N.J.-based IDT Domestic Telecom, Inc., a prepaid calling company, and Verizon were approved to offer service to Cuba. Now, any U.S. company can enter into direct communications with the Cuban government-run telecom provider Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA).

Beyond traditional telecommunications companies, the FCC’s decision opens new doors for U.S. businesses like medical device maker Medtronic Plc. Medtronic Plc encouraged the FCC to remove Cuba from the list arguing that more carriers and more connectivity would allow for greater exchange of medical information between the U.S. and Cuba, reports Bloomberg BNA. Currently, roughly two million of Cuba’s 11 million citizens are connected to a cell network. Cuban officials say they hope to reach 60 percent mobile-phone access by 2020, reports CNBC.

The FCC’s decision removes one impediment to doing business with Cuba. But experts, such as Francisco Montero, managing partner of Arlington, Va.-based Fletcher, Heald & Hildreth, a law firm specializing in telecommunications, warn that the adoption of U.S. telecommunications into Cuba is likely to occur in “baby steps.” “The Cuban government is going to watch this carefully in terms of the kind of access to outside information that this allows their population to have access to; it’s still a controlled economy and society.”

In addition to expanding travel, reforms in U.S. policy since President Obama’s first term have included a focus on telecommunications. Many Cubans also acknowledge that efforts to reform the economy and engage the country’s youth depend on increasing connectivity.

In Cuba

Cuba’s government implements price controls, hopes to halt rising food prices

Reuters reported that Cuba is backtracking on some key agricultural reforms and restoring limited price controls in an effort to curtail rising food prices.

While upwards of 500,000 Cuban workers are self-employed, the remainder of the workforce, roughly 70 percent, is government employed. The buying power of some Cubans in the non-state sector has increased as Cuba’s economy has evolved. This, coupled with rising demand, has led to an increase in food prices outpacing salary increases for state workers.

Economy Minister Marino Murillo noted that low income Cubans spend 75 percent of their salary on food. According to Juventud Rebelde, a newspaper produced in Cuba by the Union of Young Communists, the cost of a family’s basket of basic foods rose 28 percent in 2014 while government data shows only a 13 percent increase in wages for the same year.

President Raúl Castro’s administration is seeking to reconcile food costs and wages by buying, distributing and selling more food at fixed prices. Cuba’s government has ordered some private trucks to unload at wholesale markets and curtailed opportunities for street vendors.

The shift to old strategies has resulted in a smaller variety of food choices but also some lower prices. “The government had to do something so I support this, even if there is less variety,” homemaker Graciela Costa told Reuters. She continued, “Hopefully they can force speculators to lower their prices.”

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

President Raúl Castro will travel to France in February

Monday, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister Rogelio Sierra confirmed that President Raúl Castro will pay a short official visit to France from February 1-2. The trip was officially announced at the end of December and is seen as an opportunity to expand and deepen bilateral relations, reports Cuba’s state media. President Hollande’s office, also confirmed the trip, and explained in a statement that the visit marks “a new stage in the strengthening of relations between the two countries.”

President Hollande visited Cuba in May of last year. Hollande was the first French president to visit Cuba since 1898 according to the BBC. During that visit Hollande pledged that France would advocate that “the measures which have so badly harmed Cuba’s development can finally be repealed.”
Notably, France, Cuba’s main creditor, led the Paris Club in voting for a debt restructuring deal last month to annul $4 billion of Cuba’s debt. For more on the Paris Club, see our previous reporting.

Cuba becomes pro tempore president of Association of Caribbean States (ACS-AEC)

Tuesday, Cuba assumed the pro tempore presidency of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS-AEC), a regional body that promotes “consultation, cooperation and concerted action” amongst its members. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla affirmed Cuba’s commitment to ACS-AEC and announced that the 7th ACS-AEC Summit will take place in Havana. Cuba will retain this position until 2017.

The change in leadership occurred during a two-day meeting of ACS-AEC members and observers in Haiti. In his statement, Cuba’s Foreign Minister highlighted the Caribbean legacy of cooperation but noted that members “need to define priorities and act in mobilizing collective resources to advance towards our objectives.” Specifically, Cuba’s minister cautioned that climate change presents a significant challenge to the region.

Santiago de Cuba shaken by small earthquakes over the weekend

Sunday into Monday, Cubans living in Santiago de Cuba felt the earth tremble as a series of small earthquakes shook the city, reports the Havana Times. The largest, rated a 5.0 on the Richter scale, occurred on Sunday.

Cuba’s Civil Defense reported no building collapses. Concerned residents made their way to Ferreiro Park to wait out the quakes. Of the 74 tremors reported by Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Sismológicas (CENAIS), only 19 small quakes were perceptible to residents, explains Progreso Semanal. Prensa Latina reports that the first tremor took place near Baconao Beach, the most active seismic area in Cuba.

Recommended Reading

The Cuban Migrant Crisis, Jonathan Blitzer, The New Yorker

Blitzer contextualizes the present Cuban migration issue, exploring its roots, challenges, and present implications.

Cuba trip opened Cuomo’s eyes to Roswell Park’s cancer vaccine research, Robert J. McCarthy, Buffalo News

The impact of Governor Cuomo’s trip to Cuba continues to influence state policy. Last week, Governor Cuomo released his proposed budget which does not include any cuts to the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. “Cuba made such a difference because it really put Roswell Park in the governor’s mind,” said Donna M. Gioia, a Roswell Park board member.

Recommended Viewing

CBS reports on “House of Lies” filming episode in Cuba, The CBS Morning News

When the Showtime network’s “House of Lies” became the first scripted program to film an episode on the island in more than 50 years, reporter Ben Tracy was there to explore how Hollywood is casting itself in a role to improve U.S.-Cuba relations.

In Chelsea, a Trio of Galleries Bring Cuba Stateside, Kat Herriman, The New York Times

Continuing the trend of Cuban art exhibitions in the U.S, Herriman’s piece showcases three exciting new opportunities ranging from pre-revolutionary art to contemporary works.

CubaNetwork Set to Launch This Spring, Thomas Umstead, Multichannel

While there’s nothing to see here yet, there may be some quality viewing opportunities coming in our direction in April. CubaNetwork and Vubiquity have teamed up pledging the creation of “thousands of hours of original and exclusive programming originating from a production facility in Havana in both English and Spanish.” Stay tuned!

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