“Slow Jam” the Embargo a Little Faster

We couldn’t watch President Barack Obama on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon Slow Jam the News – the racy, ribald segment that’s a sendup of a Barry White soul tune – without smiling at his line “Orange is not the new Black” and thinking, that’s our President.

But, when Mr. Obama snuck a look at his watch and reminded the audience he has a Hawaiian vacation booked “in about 223 days, but who’s counting?” a bit of melancholy crept in.

“The American people face an important decision this fall,” he said. “The entire world is watching and they look to us for stability and leadership. Now, I know that some of the presidential candidates have been critical of my foreign policy. I don’t want to name any names.   But, I believe it is of the utmost importance to work alongside of other world leaders. That’s why I signed the Iran Nuclear Deal. That’s why we reopened diplomatic ties with Cuba.”

Earlier the same day, his deputy national security advisor, Ben Rhodes declared the President’s opening to Cuba is “irreversible.” Rhodes said, “The fact of the matter is that the American people and the Cuban people overwhelmingly want this to happen…Frankly, whatever the political realities in either country, for somebody to try to turn this off, they would have to be working against the overwhelming desires of their own people.”

Turning it off, however, is exactly what Speaker Paul Ryan has in mind. In the National Security plank of his “Better Way” program, Mr. Ryan states “we cannot blindly follow the administration’s normalization plan with communist Cuba,” and promises “to hold the Castro regime accountable, and make sure any further accommodations are met first with real concessions from the Cuban government.”

In other words, no matter who wins the election in November and no matter what the public wants, the Speaker of the U.S. House is committed to sending U.S.-Cuba policy back to the dreadful days of deadlocks and dead-ends.

Which leads us to ask, is the policy irreversible enough? Will the right thinking impulse to work alongside foreign leaders be passed forward?

From now to January 2017, assuming continued Congressional inaction (a safe assumption, we safely assume), every additional reform secured through the exercise of executive authority is a step in the right direction.

Warmer, warmer, right direction, we thought, when we learned Friday that the U.S. Department of Transportation has authorized six U.S. airlines to begin regularly scheduled flights to five cities in Cuba this fall.

This decision was only possible because U.S. and Cuban diplomats sat down and hammered out an agreement in February enabling commercial service to resume for the first time in decades.

Not only is this good for U.S. travelers and airlines, it’s also a victory for the art of diplomacy; a victory that never would have happened under the “Better Way” approach, had we required a concession from Cuba to  give U.S. citizens this liberty back.

To be sure, this decision should provide an economic incentive – what the Washington wags call “skin in the game” – to vest the U.S. travel industry in the Obama Cuba opening and get them to work to make the opening wider still.

At the same time, we hope the administration is thinking even bigger. It’s one thing – a good thing – that the President has been upfront in calling on Congress to end the embargo. It would be ever better if the U.S.–Cuba diplomatic dialogue – on critical matters such as fugitives from justice, property claims, and human rights – could settle differences that are used by the hardliners, the “Better Way” crowd, to hold up the normalization process.

That would take additional bold actions by the leadership of both countries. But, with 222 days left on the President’s watch (yes, we’re counting), this is the right time to “slow jam” the embargo a little faster.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Opening to Cuba is ‘irreversible,’ senior Obama aide says, Karen DeYoung, Washington Post

Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes, whose behind-the-scenes diplomacy helped lead the U.S. to restore relations with Cuba, spoke at the Cuba Cultural Diplomacy Forum held by the Meridian International Center on June 9. Rhodes predicted the trade embargo and remaining limits on travel may be lifted “sooner than people think.” The Washington Post notes, however, that while bipartisan legislation has been introduced to lift restrictions on travel and trade, no Congressional action on this legislation has occurred. However, Rhodes said, “The fact of the matter is that the American people and the Cuban people overwhelmingly want this to happen.”

Senators Bill Cassidy (LA), Steve Daines (MT), and Joe Manchin (WV) recently cosponsored the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, boosting the number of Senate supporters to 51, a majority.

Editor’s Note:  To spur Congressional action, the annual town meeting in Brookline, MA called for an end to the embargo this week. This is the first such local resolution passed on the east coast, following several similar resolutions adopted locally in the San Francisco Bay Area. As with resolutions adopted by the state and local units of government in Florida to tighten restrictions on Cuba, these are symbolic statements not binding on Congress.

U.S. approves flights to Cuba by six American carriers, Susan Heavey and Tim Ahmann, Reuters

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced it had authorized direct scheduled flights to Cuba for six U.S. airlines departing from five U.S. cities, effective this fall. Flights were authorized for American, Frontier, JetBlue, Silver Airways, Southwest, and Sun Country. These carriers are now approved to operate flights to several cities in Cuba, from Miami, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis.

The groundwork for this announcement was laid in February, when the U.S. and Cuba reached agreement on a Memorandum of Understanding to allow the resumption of regularly scheduled commercial airline flights.

The regulatory change will allow up to 20 daily round-trip passenger flights or all-cargo services between the U.S. and Havana. For domestic flights between Cuba’s nine other international airports, DOT allocates up to 10 daily round-trip flights per airport.

Sarah Stephens, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said in response to the announcement:

“Getting regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba announced and underway is a big victory for the freedom to travel and the art of diplomacy. …It’s good for American travelers, good for U.S. airlines, good for increasing contact and economic opportunity for the Cuban people, and good for diplomats from both countries who took courageous steps leading to this day.”

Cuba and the U.S. agree to continue cooperation against terrorism (in Spanish), EFE

The U.S. and Cuba held their first Counterterrorism Technical Exchange in Havana on Wednesday to discuss planning and coordination of bilateral counterterrorism efforts. Representatives from the Department of State, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations met with representatives from Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior and customs officials.

In reporting on the talks, EFE, the Miami Herald, the New York Post, and NBC News reported on rumors that an exchange could be negotiated involving jailed Cuban spy Ana Belén Montes and Assata Shakur, a U.S. fugitive who has lived in Cuba for over three decades, but Cuba has consistently ruled out extraditing U.S. citizens to whom they have granted asylum.

A report by Fox News Latino said “U.S. officials have not confirmed or denied the rumors.” In response to the speculation, Senator Marco Rubio (FL) issued a statement Thursday calling the rumored swap “a non-starter.”

Puerto Rico plans commercial office in Cuba to promote trade, Marc Frank, Reuters

Puerto Rico’s government is moving to strengthening bilateral economic ties with Cuba and plans to open offices in Havana to encourage trade and cultural exchange. Alejandro García Padilla, the Governor of Puerto Rico, attended the Association of Caribbean States Summit in Havana last weekend as an observer, marking the first-ever visit by a sitting governor of Puerto Rico to Cuba. Representatives from Cuba and Puerto Rico also discussed the spread of Zika virus in the Caribbean.

New Victory cruise line plans trips from Florida to Cuba, Arlene Satchell, Sun Sentinel

Victory Cruise Lines Ltd., a newly founded Miami-based cruise line, is seeking approval from Cuba’s government to operate cruises from Florida to Cuba, according to Bruce Nierenberg, President and CEO of United Caribbean Lines, Victory’s corporate partner. If approved, Victory will offer cruises beginning late October, departing from Miami and making stops in Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Cienfuegos.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba Says to Caribbean Countries That It Will Not Return to OAS (In Spanish), Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press

At the Association of Caribbean States Summit, President Raúl Castro affirmed that Cuba will not return to the Organization of American States (OAS) as a member nation. Cuba was expelled from the OAS in 1962, but its suspension was revoked in 2009, provided that Cuba complied with a series of steps to rejoin the organization. The restoration of diplomatic ties with the U.S. sparked a conversation about whether Cuba might return to the OAS. However, following a dispute between the OAS and Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro over Venezuela’s current political and economic crisis, President Castro declared the OAS “an instrument of imperialist domination,” and, as Reuters reports, pledged his “robust and unconditional support” to President Maduro. The 7th Summit of the Association of Caribbean States (ACS), which brought to Havana heads of state and diplomats from the region and beyond, ended on June 4.

South Korea, Cuba hold first foreign ministerial talks, Lee Haye-ah, Yonhap News Agency

Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se, who by attending the ACS summit as an observer became the first South Korean foreign minister to visit Cuba, met with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla. The counterparts discussed sustainability and tackling the effects of climate change on the region.

EU, Cuba hold second human rights dialogue

Representatives from the European Union and Cuba conducted their second bilateral meeting on human rights Monday in Havana, addressing freedom of association, as well as issues of discrimination based on gender, race, or country of origin. This was the first such meeting to take place in Cuba; according to an official EU statement, the date and venue for the next dialogue are yet to be determined.

Rich nations use Cuba debt in hopes of prying open opportunities, Marc Frank, Reuters

Several of Cuba’s trading partners are attempting to make bilateral debt deals with Cuba before the U.S. and Cuba fully normalize economic relations. Countries including France, Italy, Japan, Spain, and Russia seek to swap debt forgiveness contracts for potentially lucrative investment deals in Cuba. Spain and France are set to forgive $700 million in outstanding debt in exchange for development projects on the island. Japan and Italy will likely follow suit; however, thus far, no development deals on the island have come about through debt relief agreements. Cuba, while cautious in its dealings with foreign investors, is looking to secure more foreign investments in the near term to spur domestic economic growth. Since President Raúl Castro entered office in 2006, increasing foreign investment has been a key tenet of Cuba’s evolving economic model, particularly in the areas of transportation, renewable energy, and tourism.

Japan Trading Houses Knocking on Cuba’s Door Amid U.S. Opening, Stephen Stapczynski and Ichiro Suzuki, Bloomberg

Japan’s largest manufacturers and trading houses, including Mitsubishi Corp. and Mitsui & Co., are interested in starting more business in Cuba. Moody’s predicted in December 2015 that Cuba’s economy would grow by 3 percent in 2016, but at the bi-annual meeting of Cuba’s National Assembly, President Raúl Castro projected only 2 percent growth. Polina Diyachkina, an analyst at Macquarie Group Ltd., told Bloomberg, “It’s the job of trading companies to find new markets. Cuba has been closed for so many years and has been a market that has been very poor. There must be rich opportunities on the industrial side and infrastructure, as well as consumer products such as automobiles.”

Panama Papers show Cuba used offshore firms to thwart embargo, Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald

With the release of the Panama Papers, at least 25 off-shore companies can be traced back to Cuba. These connections date as far back as the early 1990s, when Cuba’s economy crashed following the end of the Soviet Union’s economic support to the island. According to the Herald, the companies appear to have been formed to circumvent the U.S. embargo and facilitate commercial transactions between Cuba and foreign partners.

British Solar Company Lights the Way for Utility-Scale Solar in Cuba, The Cuba Business Report

Hive Energy, a U.K. solar energy company, has announced a contract with Unión Eléctrica de Cuba to build Cuba’s first utility-scale solar project. Cuba has begun seeking to diversify its energy sector and to invest in renewable energy sources, aiming to increase the island’s use of renewable energy from 4 percent as of last year to 20 percent by 2020. The project will be housed in the Special Development Zone at Mariel Port.

In Cuba

Josefina Vidal on a changing Cuba, Elizabeth Gonzalez, Americas Society /Council of the Americas

Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s Foreign Minister for North American Affairs, discussed the next steps for improving the economy and relations with the U.S. with the Americas Society/Council of the Americas this week. Specifically, Ms. Vidal spoke about Cuba’s intention to legalize private small and medium-sized businesses, following decisions taken by the Communist Party Congress in April. While expressing hope that the next U.S. president will continue working to normalize relations with Cuba, Ms. Vidal noted that the embargo and the “wet foot, dry foot” policy for Cuban immigrants remain issues in need of redress.

Cuba: Women with Disabilities Debate Violence and Discrimination, Prensa Latina

The First Regional Seminar-Workshop of Women Leaders with Disabilities began on June 7 with representatives from 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries. Topics of discussion included violence, discrimination, the role of the family, and sexual orientation. Of the 600 million people in the world who have disabilities, 50 million live in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Cuba same-sex marriage campaign gains traction, Michael K. Lavers, Washington Blade

A petition in favor of same-sex marriage is circulating in Cuba and gaining support, as part of a campaign called “Nosotros También Amamos” (“We Also Love”), launched in December by the LGBT activist group Babel Sociocultural Project. Although Cuba’s constitution defines marriage as between a man and a woman, the National Assembly passed a measure in 2013 banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Last month, Cuba held its 7th Conference Against Homophobia in Cuba, an annual event celebrating Cuba’s gay community and commemorating the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia with a parade led by Mariela Castro, the Director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, CENESEX. On a related note, Prensa Latina reports that Ms. Castro urged the United Nations this week to strengthen its condemnation of the embargo, which hampers Cuba’s efforts to combat HIV/AIDS.

Tribute to MEDICC Founder Ernesto De la Torre Montejo

Professor Ernesto De la Torre Montejo, founder of MEDICC, a nonprofit organization working to enhance cooperation among the U.S., Cuba and global health communities, and Cuban Co-Chair of its Academic Council for nearly a decade, passed away at the end of May.

Dr. De la Torre was a leading health expert, and served as an advisor on health affairs to former President Fidel Castro. On June 6, a tribute was held in his memory with Professor María Carmen Amaro, Vice President of the Cuban Society of the History of Medicine, eulogizing, “[For us, he] will always be that pediatrician, that man of great sensitivity in the face of another person’s suffering, who committed his life to simply doing good.”

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