Week in Review: When will we know if the President’s trip was a success?

We’re going to get into a discussion of President Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba, so please give the following observations a chance to breathe.During most of the Cold War, the speed of the arms race and the development of new weapons easily exceeded the ability of our diplomats to negotiate agreements to control them, which in turn exceeded the capacity of our politics to debate and approve them.

In this time, we live with a less threatening but ever present and concerning danger; that is, the news travels so much faster, and comes at us much more plentifully, than our capacity to absorb it. This, in turn, exceeds the ability of our politics to debate and understand how what is being reported will affect the way we understand our world.

Journalism figured this out years before the social media revolution accelerated the news cycle to warp speed.  They called it “instant analysis,” in which they interpreted reality the moment it began changing.  Nowadays, reporters and analysts and opinion mongers tell us what things mean before they even happen, and long before we can feel a change or interpret it for ourselves.

In this brief, we’ve succumbed to this tendency, from time to time, so we’re not too terribly pure when we point out others doing the same thing.  And here – yes, finally! – is how this tangent relates to the President’s visit to Havana which commences nine days from now.

As we have previously noted, the harshest critics of President Obama’s opening to Cuba have either already graded the trip a failure, or established a framework for trashing it ahead of time so they can quickly denounce it as it takes place.

Yes, we mean you, Investor’s Business Daily editorial board members, authors of “Obama’s Cuba Trip Showing Signs of Imploding.”  Yes, of course, we name you, The Washington Post, for writing that the president’s visit “will be an ignoble failure if he does not have a meaningful encounter (defined how?) with the island’s most important human rights activists.” The Post knows well the maxim, those who set the terms of the debate win it, but theirs is not the only metric for judging the President’s trip.

For starters, there could be progress even before the President sets off. This week, there were reports that the administration will announce changes in travel, trade and banking rules on March 17- which strikes us as a great way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.

Once the President arrives, if Cubans respond positively to his presence on the island, as we expect they will, that will serve as a proxy referendum indicating Cuban public approval of President Castro’s decision to end his country’s position of hostility toward the U.S. government – and, that in itself, will be a big deal.

Then, there is the matter of what the two presidents plan to say and do about the state of bilateral relations going forward.

By the end of the trip, we fully expect that supporters of normalization will count the trip as a remarkable success, and those who hate the Obama opening will be unashamed in their criticism of the trip as an abject failure.

But, we think the impact of the trip should be measured by a different and better standard; namely, by January 2017 and February 2018 – once President Obama finishes his term and when President Castro has said he will step down – will their successors build on the rapprochement or act to reverse it?

This trip isn’t a one-off, it is part of a process; a process that has been unfolding since the Cold War, albeit gradually even glacially, but one that has picked up momentum since December 17, 2014 when the two leaders’ made public their decision to normalize our countries’ relations.

This process is far from complete. In the United States, the work of normalization will outlive President Obama’s term in office, and that is why his administration continues working to try and make the new policy irreversible. The process, we believe, is also taking place in Cuba, but is opaque for reasons we all understand.

In fact, both countries are playing a longer game than the instant analysts who interpret the news for us will ever be willing to play.

But, in ways we find very refreshing, teachable moments about U.S. policy are taking place that we think are very important. For example, the public is learning that:

  • The U.S. embargo prohibits book publishers in our country from producing, distributing, and selling books and education materials in the Cuban market.
  • The U.S. embargo imposes regulatory barriers on Cuba’s breakthrough medical treatments from reaching sick people in the United States who will die or live lesser lives without them.
  • The U.S. embargo not only makes it illegal for Americans to visit the island as tourists, but also prevents U.S. hoteliers from building or operating hotels in Cuba to provide lodging for them.
  • Under the U.S. embargo, it continues to be a goal of our foreign policy to overthrow the Cuban system.

As these and other facts about our policy are becoming more broadly known as a result of the President’s trip, public officials and others in the U.S. are working harder, and more visibly, to change them.  Senator Amy Klobuchar is appealing to the administration to open up Cuba to investments by U.S. companies. MEDICC is offering policy ideas so that our people can lead safer, healthier lives, and publishers are arguing that “the U.S. trade embargo is harmful to book culture and runs counter to American ideals of free expression.”Most of all, the public is hearing in the plainest terms we’ve heard expressed a new point of view, a presidential challenge to the very philosophical or intellectual basis that have kept these harmful restrictions in place, which are so antithetical to how we see ourselves, far too long.

This is what deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said this week. “The fact of the matter is we don’t have any expectation that Cuba is going to transform its political system in the near term…Even if we got 10 dissidents out of prison, so what? What’s going to bring change is having Cubans have more control over their own lives.”

Should these ideas have the attention and space to enter the discourse, and if they’re given a chance to permeate the discourse over the next twelve to twenty-four months, we think the President’s trip will be judged by history to be a huge success, because the new policy can’t really become permanent until the debate about it is reframed.

We’ll just have wait and see.

Our Recommendations

U.S. – Cuba Relations


Lawmakers to go to Cuba with Obama, who mulls more trade moves, Patricia Zengerle and Matt Spetalnick, Reuters
On March 7, Reuters revealed that up to 20 Members of Congress will accompany President Obama on his upcoming trip to Cuba. While the White House has not released the list of participants, it is aiming for a bipartisan delegation to symbolize increasing support for the administration’s Cuba policy among both Democrats and Republicans. Senator Jeff Flake (AZ), a long-time and leading GOP voice in favor of easing embargo restrictions on Cuba, will travel with the President along with Senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Heidi Heitkamp (ND), and several other members of Congress.

U.S. to announce further easing of Cuba restrictions March 17 – sources
, Reuters
Congressional sources indicate that the Obama administration will announce new measures to relax trade and travel restrictions between the U.S. and Cuba through use of its executive authority. The measures could make “people to people” travel to Cuba easier for U.S. citizens, and ease certain trade and banking rules. The administration last released regulatory changes on January 27. For a summary of what changed then, clickhere.

What steps should the Obama administration take on Cuba policy in its last year?
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) has released a report suggesting policy steps the Obama administration should take towards Cuba this year. The report advises the following: 1) providing a general license so that U.S.  philanthropies can support more grants to organizations working on Cuba and to individual Cubans, 2) expanding travel by extending the general “people-to-people” license from group travel to individual travel, 3) having the president affirm that the Cold War is over while he is in Havana, 4) having the Treasury Secretary make a statement that the U.S. supports Cuba re-engaging with multilateral financial institutions, 5) ending the Cuban Medical Professionals Parole Program, which creates incentives for Cuban doctors to immigrate to the United States, 6) suspending government-funded “democracy promotion” programs and regime change strategies that anger the Cuban government,  and 7) having the Attorney General use her authority to end preferential treatment for Cuban migrants.

Senator urges rule changes so U.S. hotels can operate in Cuba
, Richard Lardner,Washington Post
U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, the Chair of the Senate Travel and Tourism Caucus, has written to the Secretaries of Treasury and Commerce asking for regulatory barriers that prevent U.S. hotels from accessing Cuba’s market to be lifted. Lifting these barriers would allow these hotels to compete with U.K. and Spanish chains already negotiating deals on the island.  Carlson Companies, a global hotelier whose properties include Radisson Hotels and Park Plaza Hotels, has its headquarters in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

United to Cuba: Support United’s proposed service to Cuba
, United Airlines
United Airlines has applied with the Department of Transportation to provide flights to Havana from the United States. These flights would operate from four of the ten largest Cuban-American communities in the country. United is asking the public to sign a letter of support addressed to the Department of Transportation, backing their proposed travel services to Cuba.

White House and Cuba Maneuver Over Obama’s Visit
, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, New York Times
The New York Times reports on the U.S. and Cuba’s careful planning to ensure that President Obama’s upcoming visit to the island goes smoothly and has a positive outcome for both parties. Agreements for Obama’s trip include a meeting with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro, and there is a planned a speech to the Cuban people. Meanwhile, visits with Fidel Castro and a trip to Guantanamo Bay have been ruled out. Ben Rhodes,Deputy National Security Adviser, and a key figure in the normalization process explained, “This is new for everybody. There may be irritants, there may be potholes, but people in both countries want this to happen.” For more commentary from Ben Rhodes, please be sure to check out his town hall remarks at Miami-Dade Community College today.

Cuba issues bristling editorial ahead of Obama visit
, Marc Frank, Reuters
This week, Granma, Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper, released a lengthy editorial arguing that President Obama could do more to improve U.S. policy towards Cuba. The editorial urges Obama not to meet with Cuban dissidents, lists a number of prominent world leaders – including Francois Hollande, Pope Francis, and Patriarch Kirill I – who all oppose the U.S. embargo, and defends Cuba’s revolution and its ideals. The editorial welcomes President Obama’s visit to the island while affirming that Cuba’s government will not change as a result. Click here to read Granma’s full editorial.

Cuba and the United States Play ‘Béisbol’ Diplomacy
, Peter Kornbluh, The Nation
Cuba and the United States have a long history of “baseball diplomacy.” In 1974, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger considered – but ultimately rejected – sending a U.S. baseball team to Cuba as part of a normalization initiative. It took 24 years before President Bill Clinton finally picked up the ball and authorized a series of two exhibition games played between the Baltimore Orioles and Cuba’s national team. President Obama’s upcoming trip to Cuba and presence at a long-anticipated match between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban team presents a similar opportunity to improve relations between the U.S. and the Cuban people through a mutual love of baseball.

Diplo Cruises Cuba, Talks Historic Havana Concert With Charlie Rose
, Jon Blistein, Rolling Stone
Last week, Major Lazer became one of the first U.S. artists to perform an outdoor concert in Cuba since the two countries normalized relations in December 2014. See abrief clip shot from the stage which shows the roughly 400,000 guests who attended the concert staged outside the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The performance included DJ trio Diplo, Walshy Fire, and Jillionaire. Of note, Fire is from Jamaica though he grew up in Florida, Jillionaire is from Trinidad, and Diplo grew up among large Cuban communities in Florida. Fire told Entertainment Weekly, “It wasn’t so much an American act coming to Cuba as it was a global entity, something that kind of represents the world, which is what we try to push for.”

Top Cuban diplomat visits Sonoma State University
, Eloísa Ruano González, The Press Democrat

Miguel Fraga, who serves as first secretary at Cuba’s newly reopened Washington embassy, visited California this week and made several appearances in the state. On Monday, at Sonoma State University, he called on the U.S. government to lift the embargo on Cuba. “We’re losing an opportunity right now because the embargo is there,” Fraga argued, emphasizing that both Cubans and Americans would benefit from a more open trade and travel policy. Fraga also spoke on the state of U.S. – Cuba relations at a number of other venues including the California State Senate floor – making him the first Cuban diplomat invited there in five decades – and at Bay Area college campuses.

In Cuba

Cuban entrepreneurs build network of private schools
, Michael Weissenstein, The Associated Press

Cuba’s budding entrepreneurial community has created a network of schools that closely resembles private education. These afterschool and weekend programs are providing arts and foreign language education to thousands of students. While private schools are illegal in Cuba, these programs operate legally as cooperatives of licensed private language teachers, one of the t new categories of self-employment authorized under Cuba’s economic reforms. Denise F. Blum, an educational anthropologist and author of the 2011 study Cuban Youth and Revolutionary Values: Educating the New Socialist Citizenargues that this model is “…splintering the collective identity, stratifying society more and making the gap between the haves and have-nots great.” However, many Cuban parents see this development as a way to brighten their children’s future and prepare them for changes in Cuba’s economy.

Homenaje a Vilma Espín en el Segundo Frente (Cuba honor’s Vilma Espin on national women’s day)
, Eduardo Palomares Calderón, Granma

On March 8, Cubans in the city of Santiago celebrated International Women’s Day by memorializing national icon, Vilma Espín. Espín, who died in 2007, was a revolutionary, feminist, and chemical engineer.  She was married to current President Raúl Castro. The memorial service was led by Emilia Neuris Lemes Acuña, member of the Bureau of the Party in the Santiago area and Alicia Martinez, who worked closely with Vilma Espín for many years.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

EU pact to establish full ties as Cuba’s thaw with West progresses
, Nelson Acosta,Reuters

On Friday, the European Union and Cuba signed an agreement in Havana to establish normalized bilateral relations. The pact, signed by Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, will significantly help Cuba come closer into the international community and establish economic cooperation with the European Union and its twenty-eight member nations. This new policy is a significant shift, following twenty years of E.U. policy towards Cuba that was focused on bringing about regime change.

Recibió Raúl al Enviado Especial del Secretario General del Partido Comunista de Vietnam (Cuba’s Raúl Castro meets with Special Envoy of the General Secretary of the Vietnamese Communist Party)
, Granma
On Tuesday, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro met with Hoang Binh Quan, Special Envoy of the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Vietnam Nguyen Phu Trong. During the meeting in Havana, the two men celebrated their countries’ close historical ties and reaffirmed their joint commitment to strengthening bilateral relations between Cuba’s and Vietnam’s governments

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