Reflecting back, proceeding forward

After celebrating President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, and his complex but hopeful address that asked both countries to leave the past behind; after enjoying the sight of the historicos, the Rolling Stones, belting out “Satisfaction” from the stage of the Ciudad Deportiva, we are reminded that normalization is a work in progress; that change in the foreign policies of the United States and Cuba of the magnitude championed by Presidents Obama and Castro require both memory and modesty to get us from where we are to where we’d like to be.

Less than a year ago, when Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez spoke to the press together before the flag-raising at Cuba’s embassy in Washington, Mr. Rodriguez emphasized that “lifting of the blockade, the return of the illegally occupied territory of Guantanamo, as well as the full respect for Cuban sovereignty” was “crucial to be able to move towards the normalization of relations.”

Less than two weeks ago, when President Obama and President Raul Castro spoke to the press together, Mr. Castro emphasized that removal of the U.S. embargo will be the essential to normalize bilateral relations, and, he continued, it will also be “necessary to return the territory illegally occupied by Guantanamo Naval Base.”  He said, as well, that “Other policies (that challenge Cuba’s sovereignty) should also be abolished for normal relations to develop between the United States and Cuba.”

Against this backdrop, it should have come as no surprise that Fidel Castro, Cuba’s former President, would write in a Reflection titled “Brother Obama,” a fierce defense of Cuba’s sovereignty, and an equally fierce call not to let loose of a past that lives so actively in the Cuban mind, his and many others.

While many U.S. commentators fixated on Fidel Castro’s tone and its contrast with the forward leaning words of President Obama, it is important to place his remarks in context (Mr. Castro published his statement after the president’s visit concluded) and to remember what he said and left unsaid once the visit was over. He neither sought to scuttle President Obama’s visit beforehand, nor did he criticize the deepening economic, political, and scientific contacts between Cuba and the U.S. under the new policy of mutual engagement.

His themes in counterpoint to the U.S. president’s objectives bespoke the traditional aims and principles of Cuban foreign policy.  His reading of our shared past – one he helped define for more than five decades – was as resolute as President Obama’s recitation of, and belief in, the American canon and creed.

In short, Fidel Castro did not use his pen to derail normalization, but he did remind people on both sides of the Florida Straits that making peace with long-time enemies is an endeavor to be undertaken thoughtfully; or, as our many Cuban friends like to say “just as porcupines make love; carefully.”

The real surprise is that some in our country were surprised by what he said, or that the actions implied by President Obama’s speech would be met with reactions of equal force in Havana.

If there were greater trust, what President Obama said in his speech at Havana’s Gran Teatro, “El futuro de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo cubano“-“the future of Cuba must be in the hands of the Cuban people,” would have been more broadly accepted.

In Cuba, the meeting of the 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party is swiftly approaching.  The last Congress, which met in 2011, set Cuba on a path to revise its economic model, including the contested decision to rely at times on market forces, and on small businesses, for some but not all of Cuba’s job creation going forward.  Five years later, the Party is reconvening, but it has so far left Cubans uncertain of where it is heading next.

As the Associated Press noted this week, “Days after President Barack Obama’s historic visit, the leaders of Cuba’s Communist Party are under highly unusual public criticism from their own ranks for imposing new levels of secrecy on the future of social and economic reforms.” In fact, alongside the elder Castro’s “Brother Obama” blog, was another article that addressed a behind the scenes debate that is now roiling in public that included criticisms of the Party for a lack of open discussion before the upcoming Party Congress. The unsigned article said these divisions were “a sign of the democracy and public participation that are intrinsic characteristics of the socialism that we’re constructing.”

There are vast differences in our systems and institutions, but we should relate to Cuba’s uncertainty about the way forward with this degree of modesty.  Here in the U.S., we won’t know until after the November election and the convening of the 115th Congress next January whether President Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba will regress back to our Cold War past or be enhanced by legislative action replacing his executive reforms with substantive legislation to repeal the trade embargo or the ban on travel.

As his second term draws to a close, President Obama has made it a priority to make the normalization process irreversible. But, as we have observed in both countries, the Cold War is tough to bury. While it remains fresh in the minds of those who lived it, it is no longer the dominant narrative. Dr. Juan Triana Cordoví, an economist and writer for OnCuba, echoed this sentiment. In detailing his experience at the Rolling Stones concert surrounded by his fellow Cubans he wrote, “They haven’t, and neither have I, forgotten the past is a part of our story, but we were all there, enjoying the present and looking to the future.”

Our Recommendations

U.S. / Cuba Relations

Obama’s visit stirs call for change in Cuba – but will it last?, Josh Lederman, Associated Press

Josh Lederman, writing for the Associated Press, comments on President Obama’s visit to Cuba with an eye to the future. Lederman notes that the upcoming Party Congress, the forum in Cuba for determining and releasing major policy changes, will tell us more about the reaction by official Cuba to President Obama’s recent visit and the future of his policy reforms. Leading up to the President’s trip, White House aides explained a primary goal of the trip was to make rapprochement with Cuba irreversible.

Cuba after Obama left, Jon Lee Anderson, The New Yorker

Writing for The New Yorker, Jon Lee Anderson explores Cuban reactions after the President Obama left the Island. While many found President Obama’s speech in the Gran Teatro moving, Anderson describes a more complex, varied reaction. Anderson notes that, “The mood in Havana over the next couple of days was strangely moody.” Some he spoke to expressed frustration with Communist Party hard-liners who were quick to voice their displeasure both on Cuban television and in Granma editorials. Many awaited the reaction of Fidel Castro who published an open letter in Granma on Monday criticizing elements of President Obama’s speech. Anderson offers a look forward to the 7th Communist Party congress where he explains “…There, any differences of opinion about the direction of la coyuntura, as the present moment of change and reform is euphemistically described, will likely become clearer.”

Miami company the first U.S. business to open office in Cuba, Brian Brandell, South Florida Business Journal

Miami-based International Port Corp. (IPC) will be the first U.S. company to open a locally-staffed business office in Cuba, reported the South Florida Business Journal. IPC, a cargo shipping company, received its first license in July 2012 to move supplies between Miami and Havana for humanitarian groups. Since then, IPC has made use of recent regulatory changes to expand its services to shipments for commercial and diplomatic clients by land and sea.  While several other businesses have received licenses from the U.S. to operate in Cuba, they have yet to open physical facilities. IPC President Larry Nussbaum reports that his company leased a warehouse space in Havana and staffed it with six local employees using a Cuban government employment agency. “The opportunities are great. Cuba is open for business. Now we need the American legislation to make it legal for companies like mine to expand what we can legally do in Cuba,” argues Nussbaum.

Meet Cuba’s All-Female Orchestra, Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR

National Public Radio highlighted the work of Zenaida Romeu and her Cuba-based, all-female orchestra, Camerata Romeu. Founded 23 years ago, the group is headed by Romeu, the first Cuban woman to graduate from Havana’s conservatory as an orchestral conductor. Romeu explains she founded the group because women in Cuba are actively involved in society despite being from a small country, saying,  “I felt that we had something to share with the world.” Her orchestra has visited the U.S. four times previously, but not since 2001. Romeu underscores, “We want to open again those spaces for our orchestra. We have been working hard all this time. I would like to share this music, and the happiness of doing music.” Camerata Romeu plays a classical and contemporary repertoire, featuring composers from Mozart to Guido López-Gavilán, a celebrated Cuban composer who heads Cuba’s contemporary musical festival. To hear the full story, click here.

In Cuba

Brother Obama, Fidel Castro, Granma

As discussed above, Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro published his reaction President Obama’s visit to Cuba in Cuba’s state newspaper, Granma. To read the letter in English, please click here. To read the letter in Spanish, please click here.

Cuba recalca que fin del bloqueo debe ser acto unilateral de EE.UU.(Cuba stresses that the end of the embargo should be a unilateral action by the U.S), Prensa Latina

In an interview published Wednesday, Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez argued that lifting the embargo must be a “unilateral” action on the part of the United States. He emphasized that lifting the embargo should not be tied to “concessions” on the part of Cubans, 77 percent of whom were born under the embargo. He saidthat Cuba is amenable to dialogue and cooperation with the United States, but this does not imply that Cuba will renounce the principles of the revolution or forget its long, complicated history with the U.S.

Party Congress less than a month away, Granma

Monday, Granma published an unsigned article detailing its response to public criticisms of the swiftly approaching 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party. The Party Congress, set to begin April 16 and run through April 19, is the first since 2011. When the meeting takes place, delegates will discuss six documents which critics complain have not been fully debated by the Cuban people.

On Sunday, Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a Cuban journalist, published an open letter addressed to President Raul Castro expressing his concerns. In his letter, Rodriguez Cruz laments that the documents were not reviewed in the same manner as those for the Party Congress five years ago, which was preceded by a grassroots debate and access by the population to draft guidelines pertaining to the update of Cuba’s economic model. He also called for postponing the Party Congress until July to give more time for discussion.

In publishing the article, Granma explained that “The editorial office of this newspaper has received, by various means, expressions of concern from Party members (and non-members, as well) inquiring about the reasons for which, on this occasion, plans were not made for a popular discussion process…” Roughly, two dozen people, “…many identifying themselves as party members, posted lengthy comments on the Granma’s website that criticized the article and the secrecy surrounding the upcoming party congress” according to the Associated Press.

The Granma article continued, “the 7th Congress will culminate discussions held in assemblies at the grassroots, municipal and provincial levels” and affirmed that “The balance sheet on what has been accomplished in five years reveals that 21% of the guidelines have been implemented, while 77% are in the process. The remaining 2% (five guidelines) have not been carried out for different reasons…Given all of the above, rather than launching another process of discussion on a national level, half way along the road, what is more appropriate is finishing what has begun – continuing to carry out the people’s will expressed five years ago, and continuing to advance in the direction charted by the 6th Congress.”

The Granma piece also summarizes the documents that the 7th Party Congress will consider.One document will evaluate Cuba’s economy during the five year period, 2011-2015; another will assess the implementation of guidelines; a third will update the guidelines for 2016-2021; a fourth will conceptualize “Cuba’s socio-economic model of socialist development,” a fifth will detail the Economic Development Program through 2030, and the sixth will evaluate the implementation status of the First National Conference’s objectives approved in 2012.

Pleased to meet you: Rolling Stones treat Cuba to spectacular and historic gig, Jonathan Watts, The Guardian

Last Friday, the Rolling Stones completed their Latin American tour with a wildly popular concert in Havana’s Ciudad Deportiva stadium. While official estimates were difficult, spectators guessed roughly 200,000-500,000 fellow concert goers attended the free show. Rolling Stones’ lead singer, Mick Jagger, addressed the crowd in Spanish saying, “We know that years ago, it was difficult to listen to our music in Cuba, but now here we are in your beautiful land. I think that, finally, the times are changing. That’s true, no?” The two-hour show concluded with “Satisfaction” and praise from various Cuban concert attendees, “It was amazing. Awesome…How much better could it get? Only if the Beatles were able get together and come, but that’s impossible.” To see the clips from the concert, click here.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Declaración del MINREX sobre acuerdo entre Gobierno colombiano y ELN (MINREX Statement regarding an agreement between Colombia’s government and the ELN), Progreso Semanal

Cuba’s Ministry of External Relations celebrated the decision of Colombia’s government and the Army of National Liberation (ELN) to hold official peace talks. They made the announcement on Wednesday, a week after Colombia’s government and the FARC missed a deadline to reach a peace deal. Cuba has played a key role in discussions between Colombia’s government and the FARC taking place in Havana. Discussions with the ELN will begin in Ecuador, and then continue to Venezuela, Brazil, Chile and Cuba. All five countries, plus Norway, will serve as guarantors for the negotiations.

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