Start the embargo debate now

The proclamation signed by President Kennedy in 1962 instituting the U.S. embargo against Cuba had a muscular beginning.

Vesting enormous powers in the hands of the President, it declared that the United States was prepared “to take all necessary actions to promote national hemispheric security by isolating the present Government of Cuba and thereby reducing the threat posed by its alignment with the communist powers.”

The blockade, as William LeoGrande recently reminded us, became the most comprehensive regime of economic sanctions against any country in the world.  Over the years, Kennedy’s embargo – a harsh but manipulable tool of U.S. foreign policy – became, in the words of Fidel Castro, “a tangled ball of yarn.”

Cuba sanctions in the hands of Congress – like a hammer in the hands of a child who discovers that everything is a nail – appeared seemingly everywhere; from travel to trade to foreign aid, to food security, trying to stop anything and everything that could put hard currency in Cuba’s treasury.

When good strategy might have occurred to us – in the form of drawing Cuba closer when the Soviet Union withdrew and left its economy near collapse, hotter heads and Cold Warriors in Washington prevailed.  Congress codified a long list of sanctions in the Cuban Democracy and Helms-Burton acts, and tried to turn the screws tighter.

Still, Cuba’s government remains in power, unwilling to bend to Washington’s will.

It’s hardly news that the embargo failed; in a study of U.S. sanctions applied on 174 occasions from World War I to 2006, sanctions only partially accomplished their political goal a third of the time.  In Cuba, they never got to first base.

And yet, the embargo remains in place, under President Obama, after his heroic efforts to partially peel it back through the exercise of his executive authority; after his historic trip to Havana last month; after saying in his moving speech, “What the United States was doing was not working…The embargo was only hurting the Cuban people instead of helping them,” even after he reprised his call to Congress to lift the embargo.

The debate about the embargo – do we repeal it because it didn’t work, as the President believes, or as the Miami Herald likes to say, until the Cuban government earns it, is falsely framed, because it focuses only on the ends we are trying to achieve rather than the means we have used to achieve them.

The goal of our policy has been to make Cubans so hungry, so isolated from their families abroad, so unable to earn a living, so miserable, that they’d take to the streets to confront their government.  In the course of maintaining this worthless, ineffective embargo, year after year, we lost sight of the damage we were causing to the people who were the supposed beneficiaries of our policy.

It is perfectly understandable to do follow-up on the President’s trip, and think about – as we do – the steps we can all take to protect his reforms and make them irreversible.

But, let’s not delay thinking about what could be done today to prepare for ending the embargo completely; if not through action by this Congress, as CDA allies Rep. Emmer, Rep. Castor, and Sen. Klobuchar have proposed, then by the next one.

Another Congress will be seated in 2017, but there’s nothing to lose and much to gain, by reinvigorating this debate now.  We will not try and offer the answers here, but several sensible ideas come to mind.

Normalization is good for the U.S. economy, and the public needs to hear that.  The President could convene a Cuba Trade Summit at the White House enabling the U.S. companies – who’ve lined up to make deals in Cuba – to remind policymakers and the press that doing business in Cuba, for the vast majority of our companies, remains illegal, and use this forum to make a loud, persuasive case that the embargo should end.

Further reforms will also be good for Cuba’s economy and its people.  As Gary Hufbauer has proposed in his roadmap for economic normalization, the President could allow Cuban sugar into the U.S. Sugar Re-export Program and boost Cuba’s export earnings without inciting a big domestic squabble among our producers.  He could set in motion permanent normal trade relations with Cuba by issuing a finding under the Jackson-Vanik amendment recognizing that President Raúl Castro has ended travel restrictions on Cuba’s people.

If the administration wants to clear the way for Cuba to move further, faster on updating its economy, and recognize its successes to date in reducing its foreign debts, it can signal the International Financial Institutions, as Cuban economist Ricardo Torres and Richard Feinberg, a U.S. expert, suggested, that we will support as much interaction with Cuba as its leadership wishes to have.

Last, we think the President should take a swing at the sanctions regime itself.  As Gary Hufbauer says, the Helms-Burton law contains waiver authority the president can use to drop sanctions.  He should use it.  Stephen Heifetz argued the same thing, in a New York Times piece last year titled, “Sanctions Worked, Congress.  Let them die.”

There’s a case to be made against much of Helms-Burton, as we suggested in the wake of the Supreme Court’s passport case ruling relating to diplomatic recognition, that the restrictions in Helms-Burton on the president’s authority to revoke the embargo are unconstitutional.  He can challenge them.

Pew and other polling organizations have found time and again, since Mr. Obama made his sharp departure from the Cold War policies of predecessors dating back to President Kennedy that ending the Cuba embargo and modernizing the policy have broad public support.

This is the moment to leverage it.  We think these new policies are popular not only because the old ones failed, and not just because Cuba has become a different place in the American mindset so long after the Cold War.  They’re popular because they reflect the presidency as a vital center of action at a time when the system embodies the opposite.  The reforms are a much needed jolt to our system.  Ending the embargo will be even better.

Our Recommendations

U.S. / Cuba Relations

U.S. companies make case for keeping Cuba organic, Jenny Hopkinson, Politico

Representative Chellie Pingree (ME-1), together with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, will lead a delegation of food policy experts and executives from major food companies to Cuba in May, reports Politico. Focused on organic food, the delegation will include representatives from Honest Tea, Stonyfield Farm, and Global Organics, among others. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s farmers have tended their crops without chemical fertilizers and pesticides, making Cuban organics a highly attractive market to U.S. food producers. In general, the U.S. market for organics is robust; sales topped $39 billion in 2014, an 11-percent increase from the year prior, but organic farming in the U.S. accounts for less than one percent of domestically grown crops. Currently, the U.S. embargo prohibits the importation of non-agricultural and agricultural products from Cuba, including Cuban organics.

LatAm in Focus: Congressman Rick Crawford on U.S. Agricultural Trade with Cuba, Elizabeth Gonzalez, Americas Society / Council of the Americas

Speaking to the Americas Society/Council of the Americas on Monday, Representative Rick Crawford (AR-1) highlighted the importance of agricultural trade between the U.S. and Cuba. Rep. Crawford argued that trade between our countries would vastly increase  if American producers could offer Cuban purchasers credit instead of requiring cash in advance as currently mandated under U.S. law. In October, Rep. Crawford introduced the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (H.R.3687) to lift the cash in advance requirement. The bill currently has 24 cosponsors. While regulatory changes in March did permit credit financing for some goods, agricultural goods are excluded under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act (TSRA).

Cuba poised to slash landing fees as commercial flights near, Paul Guzzo, The Tampa Tribune

Cuban officials, speaking with U.S. charter operators, say that high landing fees paid by U.S.-based flights traveling to Cuba are expected to fall once commercial carriers begin to land on the island. Currently, if a Boeing 737 with a weight of 79 metric tons lands in Cuba, it costs a non-U.S. carrier roughly $390. In contrast, if the same plane were operated by a U.S.-based charter company, it would cost $24,000 to land in Cuba. In February, the U.S. and Cuba signed a non-binding aviation agreement to address landing fees, among other issues. The aviation agreement will permit up to 20 U.S.-based commercial flights from the U.S. to Havana each day, and up to 10 daily flights to each of the other nine Cuban cities with international airports. Recent reports estimate that a current flight prices for U.S.-based travelers to Cuba could fall from $439 per roundtrip ticket to between $150 and $250.

Airbnb expands Cuba service to non-U.S. travelers, InCuba Today

Airbnb, which entered Cuba last year, has announced it will begin offering rentals in Cuba to more than just U.S. customers. This move comes as a result of regulatory changes made by the U.S. Treasury Department last month. Cuban homeowners welcome the shift, noting that Airbnb charges a relatively low commission compared to other providers. According to Airbnb, the Cuban market currently provides 4,000 registered homes in 40 cities and towns in Cuba, with the majority of opportunities concentrated in Havana. Notably, Airbnb’s expansion in Cuba has not gone entirely smoothly, as the Miami Herald reports. Spotty Internet service sometimes leads to difficulty in confirming reservations and hosts must pay Cuba’s government a 10 percent tax on income earned in their Airbnb rentals, in addition to a monthly fee.

Music Review: ‘Trade Winds: Cuba,’ Matt Geraghty Project, Tom Moon, NPR

Monday, NPR reviewed the work of New York bassist Matt Geraghty and Brazilian saxophonist Ze Luis, who spent 21 days in Cuba collaborating with over 100 musicians throughout the country. The two artists recorded unscripted musical encounters and compiled their experiences in their recently released album, “Trade Winds: Cuba.” NPR reviewer Tom Moon explains, the “Trade Winds project is different. Though some of the jams drift into generic jazz fusion, there is a genuine conversation going on, unfolding in real time and alive with the spirit of exploration.” To listen to the review and a brief selection of music, click here.

Is Normalization With Cuba Irreversible? Peter Kornbluh, The Nation

Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, assesses President Obama’s recent trip to Cuba, in this article published by The Nation.  Kornbluh praises Mr. Obama’s use of “president-to-people” diplomacy to accelerate the normalization process. Kornbluh notes, “the timing, itinerary, and presidential entourage were all designed to advance that goal. By going now, rather than waiting until he’s a lame duck after the November election, Obama will have more time to use the power of the presidency to deepen normalization.” While underscoring that the road to normalization will be long, Kornbluh echoes Cuban comedian Pánfilo: “It isn’t easy, but it isn’t difficult either!”

U.S.-Cuba thaw: voices from the street, Ueslei Marcelino, Reuters Wider Image

Reuters photographer Ueslei Marcelino spoke with Cubans in Havana about President Obama’s recent visit, and took pictures of them posing in front of U.S. and Cuban flags. To view the photo gallery, click here.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Israel hopes to renew ties with Havana following U.S.-Cuba thawThe Jerusalem Post

This week, Modi Ephraim, Director General for the Latin American and Caribbean division of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said that Israel will look to reinitiate relations with Cuba “when it is possible.” The two countries have not begun a discussion of restoring formal diplomatic ties, said Mr. Ephraim, but they maintain connections in the areas of health, culture, agriculture, and tourism. Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Israel in 1973, and no sitting Israeli prime minister has ever visited Cuba. Also, Israel has voted with the U.S. against the annual UN General Assembly resolution condemning the U.S. embargo. Mr. Ephraim cited the U.S.’ diplomatic rapprochement with Cuba as a positive sign for relations throughout the hemisphere, and indicated that this could be a go-ahead for Israel to do the same.

Kazakh president arrives for first official visit to CubaEFE

Last weekend, Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev began his first visit to Cuba, meeting with President Raúl Castro to discuss collaboration in energy and other sectors, according to EFE. Presidents Nazarbayev and Castro signed Memoranda of Understanding related to the oil and gas industries, labor, employment, and social protection. They also discussed future partnerships in healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology, reports the Astana Times. Kazakhstan’s Minister of Energy Kanat Bozumbayev, who attended the meeting with his Cuban counterpart Minister of Energy and Mines Alfredo López Valdes, told Kazakh press that the two delegations also agreed to cooperate in exploring oil off the coast of Cuba. Diversifying Cuba’s portfolio of energy sources is an important goal of the country’s domestic and national security policies.

In Cuba

Cuba’s future economic model in spotlight at party congress, Christine Armario and Andrea Rodriguez, Associated Press

Cuba’s seventh Communist Party Congress will begin next Saturday, April 16, and last until April 19. As we reported last week, the Party Congress will address six key documents and is likely to set the tone for Cuba’s continuing economic reform. Of what he expects from the party congress, retired Cuban diplomat Carlos Alzugaray told the AP, “First we have to resolve the economic problem, that’s a priority… But there is a particular juncture in Cuba right now, which I call a general transition. And we need to create institutions that will help that new generation govern the country effectively.”

Fidel Castro makes rare public appearance after Obama visit, Frank Jack Daniel, Reuters

To mark the birthday of Vilma Espín, revolutionary heroine and the late wife of President Raúl Castro, Fidel Castro made a rare public appearance this week. The former president visited with school children and their teachers at a school named for Vilma Espín. He praised her contributions to the revolution saying, “Everybody who dies fighting for the revolution leaves their energy on the way, they leave their effort and struggle.” Fidel Castro’s appearance comes on the heels of his recent essay in Granma critiquing President Obama’s visit to Cuba, and shortly before the coming seventh Party Congress. Ms. Espín, who passed away in 2007, led the Federation of Cuban Women, and was a champion of women’s rights on the island.

What, Reserve a Table? Cubans Confront a New Dining Culture, Michael Y. Park, The New York Times

Michael Park investigates how economic changes on the island and greater engagement with U.S. travelers have changed Cuba’s dining culture. While there are an ever-increasing number of paladares (privately owned restaurants), many have also become more crowded and – in a first for many Cubans – require reservations days or even weeks in advance. Seating limitations and difficulty maintaining food supplies, as well as tourists’ expectations of dining experiences and their dietary restrictions, pose challenges for restaurateurs in Cuba. These changes have also made way for innovation, as diners can now use apps like AlaMesaCubana to search and rate restaurants in Havana.

President Raúl Castro receives Sun ZhengcaiGranma

Cuba’s President Raúl Castro met in Havana on Tuesday with Sun Zhengcai, member of the Communist Party of China’s Political Bureau and secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Committee. The two discussed the results of, and economic and social targets determined at, the recently-held fifth plenum of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, and reaffirmed strong bilateral relations between Cuba and China.

Belgian officials set to cooperate with Cuba on port projectEFE

In Cuba on Tuesday, Belgian port officials announced that they are prepared to collaborate with Cuba in the Mariel Special Development Zone (ZEDM). The officials traveled to Cuba as part of a 26-company-strong trade delegation led by Geert Bourgeois, minister-President of Flanders. The port authorities traveling with Bourgeois represent the Belgian port of Antwerp, Europe’s second-busiest port.

Carmen with cha-cha-cha: adaptation with all Cuban cast opens in Paris, Kim Willsher, The Guardian

On Wednesday, Carmen la Cubana opened in Paris’ Théâtre du Châtelet, featuring an all Cuban cast. The adaptation intertwines opera, salsa, mambo, and cha-cha-cha to reimagine Georges Bizet’s classic work. Set in 1958, Christopher Renshaw’s Carmen la Cubana tells the story of Carmen and company living in Santiago and dreaming of life in Havana. Renshaw explains, “I have always wanted to set the story of Carmen in a Latin American atmosphere, or more precisely Cuba, because I’m totally entranced with the culture of the island … I felt it was time to take a real look at Cuba, away from the tourist postcard image, via the story of this fascinating woman called Carmen.”

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