Orlando and “the other”


By coincidence, one of our first travel delegations landed in Cuba days before 9/11. It wasn’t long before we were heavy with grief and fear. But, we received lasting solace from a man in the Havana historian’s office who quoted José Martí.

The world can be divided into two kinds of men; those who love and create, and those who hate and destroy. I am pleased, he continued, that we (the people of Cuba and the U.S.) are both in the first group.

At a tragically unexpected time, his words were a revelation. Cubans – then, five decades into the U.S. embargo – could sweep aside history and politics to feel our tears on their faces.

It left an indelible impression on us. How could we not be reminded of it – when the White House turned up its nose at Cuba’s offer to send medical doctors to alleviate the suffering of the survivors of Katrina; when U.S. travel restrictions stopped Cuban Americans from attending family funerals on the island; when U.S. policymakers squeezed sanctions tighter without any concern for Cuban families made more desperate to put food on their tables; when U.S. policy falsely designated Cuba as a terrorist state, but let the conspirators who downed a Cuban airliner with a bomb onboard walk the streets of Miami with impunity.

Cubans have long been stigmatized as “the other” by a foreign policy that denies their humanity. Keeping that narrative frozen in place has been very much a hardliner goal – not just among some Cuban Americans, but for all in power who keep a candle burning for the Cold War.

A key element of their strategy is the ban on legal travel: stopping travel to Cuba for most of the last half-century denied the people of our country the chance to see the good or the bad of Cuba for themselves. The travel ban is a clever control over what most of us can learn about the difficulties of Cuban life or the appeal of the Cuban character – freezing in place their identity as “the other.”

As a strategy, it’s been effective. If you look here, you can see that the percentage of Americans who viewed Cuba favorably was stuck for years at or below 30% (in 1997, 81% of Americans viewed Cuba unfavorably). That lasted until 2011. But, after President Obama eliminated all restrictions on Cuban American travel and restored people-to-people travel in his first term, perceptions changed. The power of seeing Cuba – and meeting Cubans – once in the hands of a growing number of travelers has helped transform how our country views their country. Less like the other, more like us.

We can look to recent events large and small, constructive and tragic, for evidence that the idea that we share a common humanity with Cubans is being more broadly realized and redeemed.

This week, for example, Sylvia Burwell, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, signed an agreement with her Cuban counterpart for our countries to work together on aging, disease, and the fight against cancer.

The agreement, Secretary Burwell said, provided “a historic opportunity for two nations to build on each other’s knowledge and experience, and benefit biomedical research and public health at-large.”

This week as well, Senators from both parties voted to repeal completely the ban on travel by Americans to Cuba, and to eliminate restrictions on agriculture sales that made it more expensive for Cuba to obtain food from its nearest neighbor. Meeting and breaking bread with Cubans could soon be within reach for more Americans. This is what normalization is really about.

Then, there was Orlando. Alejandro Barrios Martínez and Christopher Sanfeliz, two Cuban men, were among the 49 human beings massacred at Pulse early Sunday morning.

Their loss is felt deeply in Cuba. The Cuban LGBTQ rights group Proyecto Arcoíris, planning its annual Kiss-in for Diversity and Unity in Havana later this month, told members on its listserv, “Let this also be our tribute to the LBGTQ community of Orlando.”

A statement from Mariela Castro, the director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, and the leading advocate in Cuba for LGBTQ rights, expressed her solidarity with the people of the U.S. and the LGBTQ community and her condemnation of violence that is an infringement of their human rights.

Her father, Raúl Castro, the President of Cuba, wrote to President Obama on Monday, sending “the most heartfelt condolences from the people and government of Cuba,” and reiterating Cuba’s rejection of any “act of terrorism or hate in any place.”

One of Cuba’s most hardened critics, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, an opponent of travel between Cuba and the U.S., wrote the U.S. Chief of Mission to Cuba Jeffrey DeLaurentis, to request his help in securing a visa for the mother of Alejandro Barrios Martínez, to come to Orlando and pay her respects, and “make the final arrangements to bring her family comfort.”

Love is love is love.

What a remarkable thing – even when horror forces us to see “the other” as ourselves, and we’re pushed further along on our journey to love and build rather than hate and destroy.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.–Cuba Relations

Obama Administration signs historic health agreement with Cuba, Dylan Scott, STAT

The United States and Cuba signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on health this week, agreeing to coordinate efforts on tackling global health issues. The MOU was signed by Sylvia M. Burwell, Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Cuba’s Minister of Health Dr. Roberto Tomás Morales Ojeda. The two countries have agreed to cooperate on societal and medical issues including research on infectious diseases (such as dengue fever and Zika), advanced cancer treatments, and how to deal with an aging population, as the Miami Herald reports. In a statement, Secretary Burwell said, “This new collaboration is a historic opportunity for two nations to build on each other’s knowledge and experience, and benefit biomedical research and public health at large.”

Senate Appropriations Committee approves four pro-reform Cuba amendments to financial services bill, Center for Democracy in the Americas

With strong bipartisan support, the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday adopted four amendments to a Treasury Department budget bill that make statutory changes to reform U.S. policy toward Cuba. If enacted into law, the provisions will legalize all travel to Cuba, make it easier to conduct agricultural trade with Cuba, help increase internet access on the island, and restore the ability to allow flights en route to Cuba to make “technical stops” at all U.S. airports. The Appropriations measure provides funds for the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, the principal regulatory watchdog for U.S. sanctions on Cuba.

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

“CDA strongly supports these amendments, which seek to bring U.S. law into alignment with the pro-engagement policies that are already producing positive results for the American and Cuban people. We commend Senators Boozman, Tester, Leahy, Moran, Durbin, Udall, Collins, and Chairman Cochran for their strong leadership, and we urge all Senators to support the passage of these pro-reform Cuba amendments when they are considered by the full Senate.”

Coming soon: American Airlines commercial service to Cuba, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald

Silver Airways and American Airlines have announced their regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba could begin as early as September 1 and 7, pending approval by Cuba’s government. This follows the Department of Transportations decision authorizing the first direct commercial flights from the U.S. to Cuba. Tickets went on sale late this week.

The American Airlines flight will depart from Miami International Airport to Cienfuegos. Also on September 7, American Airlines will start operating daily flights to Holguín, though those have yet to be scheduled. The South Florida Business Journal reported that Silver Airways has scheduled its first commercial flights to Cuba from Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport to Santa Clara, Cuba.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press reports that carriers selected to operate direct flights to Cuba are racing to work out the logistical issues before beginning service, including modifying check-in and luggage-scanning procedures at Cuba’s less technologically advanced airports to align with U.S. air travel security requirements and authorizing and training airport maintenance workers in Cuba to meet U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations.

Isabel Albee offers an explanation in BuzzFeed about what the beginning of commercial flights to Cuba will mean for U.S. travelers.

Florida bank issues first U.S. credit card for use in Cuba, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press

Stonegate Bank, headquartered in Florida, became the first U.S. bank to issue a credit card for use in Cuba, following the announcement by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control’s in January authorizing the use of credit cards by U.S. visitors to the island. The MasterCard will make it easier for U.S. travelers to make purchases in Cuba, both at state-run and privately owned enterprises; however, it may only be used at locations with point-of-sale devices, which limits its usefulness for the time being. Per regulations imposed by Cuba’s government, the AP notes that customers will not be able to use their cards to make cash withdrawals on the island. Until now, U.S. visitors have had to complete all transactions in Cuba using cash, and are subject to a 10 percent government transaction fee, which will be waived for this new credit card. Last year, Stonegate unveiled a debit card that could be used in Cuba as well.

In rare move, Cuba buys U.S. soyoil as South American supplies tighten, Michael Hirtzer, Reuters

With drought and heavy rains creating a strain on supplies and impeding usual trade patterns across Latin America, Cuba purchased 7,600 tons of soyoil from the U.S. earlier this month, its first such purchase in over five years. Under an exception to the embargo, U.S. producers are authorized to sell food products to Cuba but burdensome financial restrictions, such as the U.S. requirement that Cuba purchase goods with cash rather than using credit, have caused Cuba to meet its needs by importing food from other producers in whose markets obtaining credit is easier. In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture signed a Memorandum of Understanding to improve relations and encourage agricultural trade and, last month, Cuba accepted a shipment of rice donated from Missouri.

Saving sharks is one issue where U.S. and Cuba agree, Franco Ordoñez, Miami Herald

Franco Ordoñez examines how the U.S. and Cuba are working together to implement several environmental protection initiatives set out in diplomatic agreements, including preserving marine life and wildlife like sharks and coral reefs. Since reopening diplomatic relations, the two countries have signed three environment-related accords; as Dan Whittle, Director of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Cuba program, put it, “The environment was the lowest hanging fruit in these bilateral discussions.” About 20 percent of the world’s shark species live in the waters surrounding Cuba, and they are in danger of being hunted for their meat or fins. Their health affects the U.S. and our ecosystem, since many of them also migrate up through the Florida Straits. In addition to the over-hunting of sharks being poorly regulated, the anticipated environmental impact of increased tourism to Cuba has biologists and environmental activists on both sides of the Florida Straits concerned.

U.S. hardware arrives in Cuba to protect Hemingway possessions, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press

The U.S. sent supplies to Cuba to help preserve Finca Vigía, the historic Havana estate of Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway’s estate, opened to the public as a museum since 1961, has been protected by Cuba within its capacity and resources. For decades, our sanctions policy frustrated efforts by U.S. experts to collaborate with the Cuban authorities and museum officials on efforts to preserve documents and original possessions on site threatened by Cuba’s climate and the march of time. “Preserving Hemingway’s legacy brings honor and dignity to North Americans and Cubans alike,” Ada Rosa Alfonso, director of the Finca Vigía museum, told the AP. With the new equipment from the U.S., she hopes the site can serve as an example for future historic preservation projects in Cuba.

Cuban TV Programming to be Broadcast in U.S., Alan Gomez, USA Today

U.S. television provider DISH announced the creation of a new channel called CUBAMAX TV, which will feature Cuban television shows, children’s programming, and music videos, and will be available to DishLatino subscribers. Alfredo Rodríguez, DishLatino’s Vice President, stated, “With an estimated two million Cubans living in the U.S. and many others eager to learn about the island’s rich culture, we’re excited to provide a window into the arts and entertainment world of Cuba.”

Editor’s Note: CDA was proud to facilitate and join the historic cultural mission of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities (PCAH) in April. Our report on the cultural mission is now available on the PCAH website. To read the report, please click here.

In Cuba

Two million visitors to Cuba thus far in 2016, Granma

In the first five months of 2016, a record two million people visited Cuba. According to a statement by Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, this marks an 11.9 percent increase over the same period last year. In 2015, Cuba welcomed a record-breaking total of 3.5 million visitors, and is on track to top that this year. As Reuters reported last month, in the first quarter of 2016, Cuba received 94,000 U.S. visitors (a 93 percent jump from the same period last year), and 115,000 Cuban-American visitors, whom Cuba’s government categorizes separately from other U.S. visitors. Confronting this rapid influx of visitors, Cuba’s tourism industry is working to expand and update infrastructure, especially in Havana.

Cuba sees nickel output steady at 56,000 tonnes; low prices bite, Sarah Marsh, Reuters

Metal prices have dropped worldwide over the past four years, causing a significant decrease in Cuba’s nickel revenue. One of the two state-run Cubaniquel plants on the island has been performing at lower capacity, in an effort to reduce energy costs, while the downturn in what Cuba can command for nickel sales in the world market is challenging the factories’ financial viability. National economic reforms raising wages for state workers, including those in the nickel industry, have increased the factories’ expenses even as they attempt to cut costs to mitigate the impact of lower revenue; although a production manager told Reuters that higher wages have corresponded with higher productivity from the workers in the plants. As Cuba’s nickel-producing facilities anticipate lower revenues and output for this year than was initially projected, the government has sought foreign investment to bolster the industry.

Far From Silicon Valley, Cuba Cultivates Startup Scene, Leani García, Americas Quarterly

Despite barriers like limited internet access and lack of funding, Cuba’s young entrepreneurs are finding success through technology startups. “Cuba is an emerging market where there are a lot of opportunities and talented professionals. You can’t invest at the moment, but in a short amount of time conditions can change. We’re preparing the field for the future,” Eliecer Cabrera Casas, one of the founders of the Yelp-like app Conoce Cuba, told Americas Quarterly. Last month, the Guardian spoke with innovative Cuban millennials who are creating opportunities on the island for new work in technology, like the A La Mesa dining app.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba hopes détente will finally break curse on investment, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press

Cuba’s progress in securing foreign investment has moved more slowly than the expectations created by the decision by the U.S. and Cuba to normalize relations. However, as the AP reported this week, Cuba’s government expects to approve over a dozen additional international projects at the Mariel Economic Development Zone. Additionally, the Montreal-based developer 360 VOX is breaking ground on a set of construction projects, including new luxury hotels, villas, and golf courses along Cuba’s west coast, that were several years in the making. Although the development of the Mariel port has begun to facilitate international investment on the island, and the Obama administration has loosened regulations for Starwood Hotels & Resorts, among other companies and industries, the U.S. embargo continues to limit investment in Cuba significantly; not only from U.S. companies, but also from foreign companies with U.S. subsidiaries.

Cuba and Vietnam to Strengthen Relations in Construction, Cuba Headlines

René Mesa Villafana, Cuba’s Minister of Construction, met with Vietnam’s Deputy Minister of Construction Pham Hong Ha during an official visit to Hanoi, where the two discussed future cooperation to improve Cuba’s infrastructure and its transportation industry. Their meeting comes at a time when the island is receiving higher-than-ever numbers of tourists. The two pledged to explore the possibility of forming a joint venture company to produce toilets and wall and floor tiles in Cuba and, as VietnamNet reports, they also discussed Cuba’s shortage of building materials and the potential for Vietnam to contribute its expertise in construction as part of future collaboration.


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