Restoring Relations and the Rashomon Effect

Earlier this week, the McClatchy News Service published an article which reported “the Castro government has carried out a campaign to diminish the importance of the historic visit.”
Of course, that piece came out just two days after the Associated Press reported “President Barack Obama’s trip to Cuba advanced the normalization of relations between the Cold War foes and created momentum for more cooperation on agriculture, medicine, and law enforcement, Cuba’s top diplomat, Josefina Vidal, on U.S. affairs said Monday.”
Today, AFP’s Havana bureau filed a story that the movie “Transformers 5” will begin filming tomorrow in Cuba’s Capital, just weeks after “Fast & Furious 8” brought its fast cars and a “pumped up Vin Diesel” to Havana and became the first American film since 1961 to shoot scenes in Cuba.
Of course, that piece came out just hours before the Associated Press reported that, “Artists, writers and intellectuals who believe deeply in Cuba’s opening to the world are questioning their government’s management of an onslaught of big-money pop culture.”
While Cubans are, as AP said, “Avid consumers of U.S. culture in pirated TV and films,” and many “love that the world is looking at us,” as Alberto O’Reilly told bureau chief Michael Weissenstein, many Cubans are not feeling the economic benefits of their country’s economic reforms or the diplomatic opening with the U.S.  And others simply don’t want to bring back the days when Americans viewed Cuba as their playground.
Earlier this year, when President Obama visited the island and spoke in national television, he told the Cuban people he wanted to “bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas.”
Of course, three days later, the U.S. State Department unveiled a program to train Cuban youth to build organizations that will actively support democratic principles in Cuba; a program modeled after Cold War era schemes to topple the island’s communist system, a rather hasty exhumation of the remnant buried by the president 72 hours earlier.
Yes, Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama have gambled their respective leadership legacies on restoring diplomatic relations.  Yes, we, and others, celebrate the power of cultural cooperation to bring artists and audiences together across national and ideological boundaries.  And yes, Cubans long for more prosperous lives and deeper connections with people and ideas from across the Florida Strait.
But, these truths coexist with expressions of dread driven by the experience that our diplomacy is just a soft power expression of our resolve to change the regime in Cuba; that our thirst for contracts and consumers will trample the beauty of Cuba and the individuality of Cubans; or that Cuba’s government won’t shake its bureaucratic lethargy or its doubts about U.S. intentions and goals to make use of the Obama opening while it still exists.
In this way, the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement contains its own Rashomon effect: where people in both countries – even ones who share the same values – are driven to contradictory interpretations of the same set of events. These contradictions, by the way, have real world consequences.
They slow down diplomacy in both countries.  They mute the effectiveness of reforms in the U.S. and Cuba which would otherwise provide more commercial opportunities for U.S. businesses on the island, more jobs and higher wages for Cubans and real benefits for U.S. tourists and consumers.  They occasionally stick both governments in the “glue” of past history and angry rhetoric.
Although the author would probably not describe his own writing this way, Fulton Armstrong, Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies, captures the Rashomon-like appearance of the normalization process in his recent piece titled “U.S.-Cuba Normalization: Entering a New, Challenging Phase.
While quite critical of the U.S. tendency to stick with initiatives that undermine Cuba’s confidence that Washington is serious, he points to several well-reasoned grounds for optimism starting with Cuba, where:
  • A robust debate and dialogue “within the revolution” is already taking place
  • More information is circulating among Cuban citizens, such as TV and other programming reproduced on thumb drives across the island, without the government shutting it down
  • More space exists for Cuban citizens to meet their economic needs including through employment and business creation in the private sector which, party leaders now say, contributes to the economy
  • Political change in Cuba, led by President Raúl Castro’s retirement, will likely produce greater dialogue among the country’s new leaders, and a larger role for Cuba’s parliament.

But Mr. Armstrong also expresses confidence in a constructive role that U.S. commerce, the Cuban American community, and U.S. NGO’s can play in keeping the process on track. The antidote, in essence, to relations bogged down by the Rashomon effect, is the virtuous circle created by the successes already delivered by the policy.

“Successes in people-to-people relations, business dealings, and other interactions appear the most likely path to building trust, maximizing mutual benefit, driving regulatory and legislative change, and propelling the relationship into the future.”

In the end, he says, “The people of both countries are ready for more normal relations.”

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U.S. / Cuba Relations

Top Cuba diplomat: Obama trip positive, created momentum, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press

U.S. and Cuban diplomats met in Havana on Monday to set an agenda for making progress in bilateral relations in the final months of President Obama’s term.  While both sides released details about future meetings and issues they plan to tackle, Cuba’s Foreign Minister for North American Affairs, Josefina Vidal, wrote the headline in public comments noting the positive effect that President Obama’s visit had on bi-relations.

“We believe the visit was an additional step forward in the process of moving toward an improvement in relations, and that it can serve to add momentum to advance in this process, which is in both nations’ interest,” Ms. Vidal said. “That’s the opinion that President Raúl Castro shared during his address to the press during Obama’s visit.”

As the AP reported, her characterization of President Obama’s March trip contrasted with “more negative characterizations of the visit, including those of former President Fidel Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who described Obama’s trip as an ‘attack’ on Cuba’s traditions and values.”

Ms. Vidal indicated that top U.S. agriculture, health, and security officials would be visiting Cuba in the coming months.  The U.S. State Department said the two sides would meet on human rights and property claims by U.S. citizens and businesses whose property was appropriated after Cuba’s revolution.  Ms. Vidal said the two countries have a “very ambitious agenda” going forward, according to the Voice of America.

This was the third meeting of the so-called Bilateral Commission, established last year by Secretary of State Kerry and Foreign Minister Rodríquez, to focus attention on issues to be resolved before the end of President Obama’s term.

Days prior to the Commission’s meeting, U.S. and Cuban officials met in Havana to exchange technical information on the prevention and investigation of money-laundering, according to the Spanish News Agency, EFE.  On Tuesday, Homeland Security officials met in Havana with counterparts from Cuba’s Interior Ministry on topics ranging from drug interdiction to illegal migration.

Update: House adopts DeSantis’ amendment barring cooperation on voice vote

Last week, we reported on Rep. Ron DeSantis’ (FL-6) amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act which would reverse or halt “any bilateral military-to-military” cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba unless Cuba complied with the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 and became a democracy. This week, the U.S. House of Representatives adopted the DeSantis amendment by a voice vote.  Without a roll call locking Members into their positions, adopting the amendment in this manner could make it easier for the amendment to be pulled later in the legislative process.

In Cuba

Cuba reports wider 2015 trade deficit in goods as commodity crash bites, Marc Frank, Reuters

According to information released by Cuba’s National Statistics Office this week, Cuba’s trade deficit increased by $1.5 billion in 2015. The growing deficit reflects a 24 percent decrease in the value of exports and a 3 percent increase in imports. Over the past year, the value of key Cuban exports fell, causing Cuba to cut its import orders for 2016 and prompting Cuba’s President Raúl Castro to note that he expected economic growth to slow from 4 to 2 percent in 2016. Previously, Cuba has partially compensated for its trade deficit by exporting professional workers, including doctors. Though official statistics are not available, Reuters reports that revenue from the sale of professional services likely decreased because the price oil-rich countries like Venezuela pay for Cuba’s professional services are tied to oil prices; accordingly, as oil prices fall, so too does the return on one of Cuba’s key exports.

Cuba’s weather-ravaged sugar harvest winds down, Marc Frank, Reuters

Cuba’s state media reported this week that the first of Cuba’s 13 sugar-producing provinces had met its production plan.  Factors including drought and out-of-season rainfall impeded the growing season, so just two provinces, Sancti Spiritus and Ciego de Ávila, are likely to meet their production goals for the season. Reuters estimates that total raw sugar output this year will be 300,000 metric tons short of last year’s, despite ongoing attempts to harvest sugar through June. Cuba consumes between 600,000 and 700,000 metric tons of sugar annually, and plans to sell China 400,000 metric tons this year. The rest of the sugar will be sold on the open market. The price of sugar closed on the futures market at 16.70 cents per pound yesterday; in 2011, sugar prices fluctuated from highs of 29 cents to lows of 21.  While sugar was once Cuba’s most important export, today it ranks eighth in importance, after sectors including tourism, tobacco, nickel, and pharmaceuticals.

Castro’s daughter leads Cuba’s biggest ever Pride parade amid calls for LGBT reforms, Nick Duffy, PinkNews

Mariela Castro, head of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), led a parade through Havana last weekend, commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The parade was part of the 7th Jornada Cubana contra la Homofobia which lasts from May 5 until May 24 across Cuba. The Jornada, featuring symposiums, lectures, films, art, and more, aims to counter homophobia and advocate for the rights of the LGBT community. In Cuba, same-sex couples do not have the right to marry; however, Mariela Castro supports marriage rights for same-sex couples, stating that same-sex couples should have the right to form unions “just as heterosexual couples have.” Several notable activists from the U.S. flew to Havana to take part in the Jornada including, Evan Wolfson, President of Freedom to Marry, Tico Almeida, President of Freedom to Work, and well-known transgender actress Candis Cayne.

Cuba to cut prices on certain foods and children’s shoes, EFE

Cuba’s Ministry of Finance and Prices announced price reductions for certain goods, including powdered milk and children’s shoes. Other prices cuts, ranging from 9 to 30 percent, include canned meats and vegetables, rice, beans, and gelatins. Milk prices will decrease by 9 percent for powdered milk and 20 percent for liquid milk. The new measure also reduces the price for children’s shoes by 6 percent. The ministry announcement noted that the new measures were meant to show the “political will of Cuba’s Communist Party and the government to benefit the population, especially children and older adults, and to pay particular attention to the implementation of societal strategies to confront the effects of current demographic dynamics.”

For Cuban Home Cooks, Ingenuity and Luck Are Key Ingredients, Kim Severson, New York Times

Tagging along with Yolanda Horruitiner as she does her daily food shopping in Havana, Kim Severson learns about the struggles Cubans face in finding affordable food. Tracing Horruitiner’s steps through cooperatives, supermarkets, and government markets with capped prices, Severson explores the options available to Yolanda on her $8-a-month pension in markets that often lack desired ingredients.

Ms. Severson writes, “The Cuban home cook has to be agile, thrifty and lucky, making good use of both the state-issued monthly ration book and a reliable roster of black-market traders. Crucial, too, is an intimate understanding of the byzantine system of government-run grocery stores, bakeries and farmers’ markets.” Food shortages during the Special Period have left their mark on Cuban cuisine, prompting home cooks to make do with what they are able to buy. Horruitiner commented that in the case of Cuban cooking, “Innovation comes from the lap of desperation.”

The New York Times food columnist accompanied the delegation organized by the Center for Democracy in the Americas, and led by Rep. Chellie Pingree (ME-1) that visited Cuba this month with chefs and organic food company executives.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Spain signs transportation agreement with Cuba, Cuba Business Report

Spanish and Cuban officials have signed a memorandum of understanding, positioning Spain to play an essential role in the future of Cuba’s transportation and infrastructure development. Spain, Cuba’s second largest trade partner according to Spanish Secretary of State for Trade Jaime Garcia-Legaz, has strong ties to Cuba’s tourism industry, and Spanish hoteliers have operated properties on the island since the 1990s.

Earlier this month, Spain and Cuba also signed a debt-restructuring agreement for Cuba’s medium and long-term debts, reports EFE. Spain’s role in Cuba, according to Spain’s acting Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo, “is what it’s always been: very close bilateral relations and a certain leadership mission in the European Union for obvious historical, cultural and affinity reasons.” Of the future of EU-Cuba relations, Mr. García-Margallo said, “Spain is looking to accompany the rapprochement process between Cuba and the European Union. The agreement between the EU and Cuba has just been signed. Now the dialogue between the two sides continues and Spain must play a leadership role in that negotiation,” reports EFE.

Evo Morales Begins Official Visit to Cuba Friday, Prensa Latina

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales is set to arrive in Cuba on an official visit. Mr. Morales and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro will likely discuss new programs to further integrate the Caribbean and the rest of Latin America.

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