An indefensible amendment

Three years ago, Rep. Kathy Castor helped solve a missing children’s case.

Following her first visit to Cuba, Cole and Chase Hakken, two boys in her Tampa District, ages 4 and 2, were kidnapped and taken by boat to the island.But, Rep. Castor used contacts she made on her trip to link the Hillsborough County Sherriff’s Department, Cuban officials, and U.S. diplomats. Their ability to talk and work together meant the boys could be speedily returned to their grandparents entrusted with their care. In the end, the right of Elián González’s father to bring his son home to Cuba was vindicated in much the same way, although it took considerably longer.

A family crisis, a migration crisis, a missile crisis – crises that have roiled the waters between Florida and Cuba; none could have been resolved had the U.S., Cuba, and the former Soviet Union not been willing or able to engage.

In fact, the installation of a hotline between Washington and Moscow on August 30, 1963, less than a year after a crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, was a signal achievement of John F. Kennedy’s presidency. The following year, a national election in the U.S. buried beneath a pile of hand-picked daisy petals any notion that we’d disconnect that hotline.

But, just as our risk to crisis never wanes, the self-defeating devotion to disconnection never dies.

Despite the presence of ongoing risks – posed by narcotics trafficking in the Caribbean, a surge in illegal migration from Cuba that continues without abate, the prospect for more off-shore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, and more – legislation is now pending in Congress to sever  “any bilateral military-to-military” contacts between the U.S. and Cuba.

See for yourself here: The language crafted by Rep. Ron DeSantis (FL-6) as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act contains no exceptions. One safety valve – just one – is provided by the amendment. No matter the gravity of a potential crisis, contacts can only resume if the government of Cuba were to meet every condition imposed on it by the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.

Can you imagine? If the amendment were to pass, and a blowout oil spill the size of the Deepwater Horizon were to take place, the amendment says that no U.S. military commander, no Pentagon official, could pick up a phone and contact a Cuban counterpart to ask, “what’s going on?” Or “how can we help?” They could only place a call to see if Cuba had become a fully functioning democracy – something U.S. sanctions have never produced after a half-century of exertion – and most unlikely to occur in the middle of a crisis.

It’s actually even worse than that. As many of our allies have said in the days since the amendment became public, this amendment would reverse or halt cooperation that is already taking place – or is soon yet to be.

A few examples:

  • For years, the U.S. forces at Guantánamo and their Cuban counterparts have held monthly, face-to-face, across the fence discussions, ensuring clear communication and avoiding the risk of a misunderstanding spinning out of control. We talked about this in our “9 Ways” report in 2009.
  • Last week, we discussed the visit in South Florida that brought together the U.S. military and a Cuban team on the topic of drug interdiction.
  • Below, we report on a pact to provide for a joint U.S.-Cuba response to a massive oil spill.

None of this could take place if the Congress were to yield to the temptation of disconnection.

The amendment, quite frankly, is a danger unto itself. But it also connects to a larger purpose, to themes dating back to a prior time – to “ideas” of Cuba as a security risk, to Cubans as “the other,” and of the U.S. as the arbiter of Cuba’s future – along with the misbegotten notion that you don’t talk to your adversaries, no matter what.

These are the foundational elements of the Helms-Burton law. Twenty years ago, it codified the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Cuba, penalties that were never meant to come off, until Cuba cried uncle.

By preventing U.S.-Cuba military-to-military collaboration, even during moments that threaten U.S. national security, the wording of the amendment calls our attention to Helms-Burton, and how it harms our national interest, in ways the author probably did not intend.

The House of Representatives considers the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 – and the DeSantis amendment – next week.

Our Recommendations

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cuba and U.S. officials to meet next week to deepen detente, Reuters

On Monday in Havana, diplomats from Cuba and the U.S. will hold their third round of discussions on normalizing relations, as Reuters reported.

Gustavo Machín, Deputy Director for U.S. Affairs in Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, told press that the two countries will use the meetings to “set the agenda for the rest of the year.” A State Department press release stated that the talks will seek to further the momentum in relations after President Obama’s visit, and that “The United States and Cuba expect to plan continued engagements on environmental protection, agriculture, law enforcement, health, migration, civil aviation, direct mail, maritime and port security, education and cultural exchanges, telecommunications, trafficking in persons, regulatory issues, human rights, and claims for the remainder of 2016.”

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s Foreign Minister for North American Affairs, will lead Cuba’s delegation, while State Department Counselor Kristie Kenney will head the U.S. delegation.

Mr. Machín expressed optimism about prevailing public opinion in the U.S., which supports an end to the embargo adding “We’ll do our part…We hope that the next president of the United States acts in accordance with what that society, that country, demands,” the Associated Press reports.

Experts: U.S. and Cuba on verge of historic oil spill accord, Paul Guzzo, Tampa Bay Times

The U.S. and Cuba are nearing a bilateral agreement to collaborate in future oil spill cleanup operations in the Gulf of Mexico. However, an official announcement may still be months away, according to energy and environmental experts in the U.S. The coming accord would represent a step toward pledged environmental conservation efforts. The agreement is expected to lay out a protocol for preparation and response to a possible oil spill, which would involve cooperation among the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy and their Cuban counterparts.

As the Center for Democracy in the Americas reported in the first volume of our 21st Century Cuba series, the absence of bilateral cooperation to protect the Gulf of Mexico due in part to restrictions imposed by the embargo which make the U.S. vulnerable to environmental damage from oil spills. Although previous efforts by Cuba to drill for off-shore oil were unavailing, Cuba’s is now partnering with Sonangol, Angola’s state petroleum company, in a renewed effort to explore deep-water oil wells.

Dan Whittle, Director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Cuba Program, who has long advocated for environmental collaboration between the U.S. and Cuba, particularly in defending both countries’ coasts from an oil spill, said, “Ecosystems and marine life don’t know where a nation’s boundaries are…What happens in Cuban waters affects us.”

The Tampa Bay Times’ editorial board also urged President Obama to prioritize signing an oil spill agreement with Cuba.

T Mobile Strikes Roaming Deal with Cuba’s State Telecom, Joshua Jamerson, Wall Street Journal

U.S. phone carrier T-Mobile signed a deal this week with Cuba’s state-run telecom company ETECSA allowing customers to use roaming data in Cuba and make cheaper calls to Cuba from the U.S. The agreement will take effect this summer. Sprint and Verizon already offer roaming services in Cuba, and representatives from AT&T say the company expects to ink a similar agreement soon.

Engage Cuba, USACC Expand State Analysis on Benefits of Industry Trade with Cuba, Engage Cuba/ USACC

Engage Cuba, in collaboration with the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, released its second study on the benefits to U.S. agribusiness of trade with Cuba. The report includes analysis focused on Alabama, Indiana, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, and North Dakota. James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, noted, “This report shows, yet again, how congressional failure to act is not only hurting U.S. farmers who are unable to compete in Cuba’s growing market, but also Cubans who rely on imports for up to 80% of their agricultural needs.” While the U.S. farmers rank fifth in agricultural exports to Cuba, they continue to lose market share due to U.S. policy on agricultural exports to Cuba.

Caterpillar ready to move into Cuban market once embargo lifted: CEO, Sarah Marsh, Reuters

Doug Oberhelman, CEO of construction equipment producer Caterpillar, visited Cuba this week to discuss business prospects on the island. Asked about the timeline he expects for Congress to lift the embargo, Oberhelman affirmed, “For me, the answer is not soon enough.” Caterpillar has taken steps to ensure that it is first in line to do business with Cuba after the embargo is lifted, by naming an official dealer for Cuba, the Puerto Rican company Rimco.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Rousseff’s fall in Brazil casts cloud on Cuba, Marc Frank and Anthony Boadle, Reuters

Reuters examines potential political and economic fallout for Cuba in the aftermath of Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension from office. Centrist Michel Temer has assumed the presidency for an interim period of up to 180 days. Under Ms. Rousseff and her predecessor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, both of the leftist Workers Party, Brazil provided economic aid to Cuba, including loans to fund the expansion of the Port of Mariel, in exchange for Cuban doctors working in Brazil. In April, Ms. Rousseff extended Cuba’s medical services contract by three years, but Congress has yet to approve the measure.

Panama closes border with Colombia to stem migrant flow, Reuters

Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela announced that Panama will close major points along its southern border to stop undocumented migrants from Cuba and Africa from entering the country. Panama and Mexico announced last week that they would fly nearly 3,500 Cuban migrants, who had been stopped at Panama’s border with Costa Rica since December, to an area near the U.S.-Mexico border. The first group from Panama arrived in Ciudad Juárez on Monday, CNN reports. In light of Cuba’s “new exodus,” the New York Times editorial board, among others, urged the Obama administration to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act late last year.

The BBC offers a video explaining the link between the renewal of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba and the rapid increase in the number of emigrants from Cuba to the U.S., investigates the conditions Cubans face as they attempt to travel north through Central America.

Cuba Foreign Minister visits Germany, ACN

Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez visited Germany this week, where he met with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. According to ACN, Steinmeier’s July 2015 visit to Cuba, during which the two countries signed framework accords furthering bilateral relations, was the first by a German foreign minister in a quarter-century.

During his visit to Berlin, Mr. Rodriguez told press that the U.S. embargo is a last remaining “iceberg of the Cold War,” and that U.S. moves to lift it have been “very limited,” the Associated Press reports. While he expressed optimism about the state and direction of U.S.-Cuba relations, Rodriguez emphasized that the normalization process will take time.

Lebanese Economy Minister Announces Visit to Cuba, Prensa Latina

Alan Hakim, Lebanon’s Minister of Economy and Trade, will visit Cuba next month with a delegation of businesspeople looking to make investments on the island. In advance of the visit, Cuba’s Ambassador to Lebanon, René Caballo, and Mr. Hakim have discussed possibilities for increased foreign investment in Cuba, especially as the U.S. and Cuba renew ties.

In Cuba

The future of dance in Cuba

In two pieces for the New York Times, Brian Seibert discusses the future of modern dance and ballet in Cuba, as changes occur on the island and in U.S.-Cuba relations. Each story features a photo series.

Iconic Cuban band Buena Vista Social Club prepares to sing adiós, Alan Gomez, USA Today

Four of the Buena Vista Social Club’s founding members will play two farewell concerts at Havana’s Karl Marx Theatre this weekend, ending the band’s internationally acclaimed two-decade-long career. Though this may be the group’s official end, Eliades Ochoa, a Buena Vista Social Club band member, reminds audiences that “Buena Vista isn’t going to end. The film remains. The discs remain. And the memories remain that Buena Vista has left in the hearts of people around the world.”

Recommended Listening

Daymé Arocena – Tiny Desk Concert, National Public Radio

Check out Cuban singer Daymé Arocena’s recent concert at NPR, featuring songs from her debut album, Nueva Era. As Felix Contreras writes, “Arocena’s performances are fueled by her surprisingly mature songwriting (she’s only 24), as well as an irrepressible personality that projects warmth and fun, not to mention a million-watt smile.”

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