This week, the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress sent contrary signals about the direction of U.S. policy on the subject of travel by Americans to Cuba.
The Department of Transportation awarded routes from the U.S. to Havana to eight commercial carriers, vastly expanding opportunities to visit Cuba for people-to-people travelers. However, an amendment to the Treasury Department’s budget bill that would have legalized all forms of travel to Cuba was set aside by the sponsor, because Speaker Paul Ryan was collecting votes to prevent its passage – and that was before the House adopted the bill and some pro-embargo provisions.
These developments – along with new reporting on Cuba’s energy conservation measures, action by U.S. Mayors calling for an end to the embargo, and the prospect of Congress acting in support of farm sales to the island – are summarized in our news brief below.
We curated these articles cognizant that our readers will be seeing them at the same time we in the U.S. are trying to understand the storm of violence that ripped through this country, north to south, in the last four days. It’s an awful moment when words are both insufficient and in excess supply, and yet it would be wrong not even to mention what is happening before us.
Let us simply say this.
Nearly fifty years ago, Robert F. Kennedy offered this advice to a suffering nation in a remarkable address that inspires us to this day.
“Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”
Thank you for reading what we have to offer today.
This week, in Cuba news:
U.S. gives tentative OK to flights to Cuba from 10 U.S. cities, Joan Lowy and Scott Mayerowitz, Associated Press
In a decision it calls “tentative,” the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has authorized eight U.S. airlines to operate direct flights to Havana beginning as early as this fall.
The carriers awarded routes include: American Airlines (four flights from Miami, one from Charlotte); Alaska Airlines (one weekly flight from Los Angeles); Delta, JetBlue, and United will each offer daily flights from airports in the New York metropolitan area; Spirit and Southwest Airlines also won routes, according to the New York Times.
The DOT allocated the flights to cities with substantial Cuban-American populations, as well as aviation hub cities: Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Orlando, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, New York City, Atlanta, and Charlotte. As the Associated Press notes, 14 of the 20 daily nonstop flights to Havana will depart from Florida airports.
Four carriers – Silver Airways, Dynamic International Airways, Eastern Air Lines and Sun Country Airlines – applied but were not approved. Under federal law, the decisions are tentative pending the completion of a comment period. After which, the Department will finalize the routes and carriers later this summer, and flights to Havana will begin operating within 90 days of a final decision.
Consumer interest in the flights to Havana is likely to be high; the Associated Press reports that Manuel Marrero, Cuba’s Tourism Minister, announced this week at a National Assembly commission meeting that the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba in the first half of 2016 was 83.9 percent higher than in the same period last year.
Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14), a sponsor of the Cuba Trade Act of 2015, said in a statement that commercial flights between Tampa and Havana “will strengthen family ties and open our communities to greater engagement and progress. … Tampa International Airport was successful due in large part to a united community that for years has relayed their support for these flights and for increasing engagement between our community and the island nation.”
Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, also commented on the expansion of flights to Havana, saying:
“This is great news. But … Congress must still act to restore the freedom to travel to Cuba for all Americans. Restoring our travel rights will be good for American travelers, good for U.S. airlines, and good for increasing contact and economic opportunity for the Cuban people.”
The authors of two amendments to the House Financial Services appropriations bill, one to end restrictions on legal travel to Cuba, and another to allow U.S. producers to extend credit to Cuba for agricultural imports, withdrew their proposals before they were subjected to votes on the House floor. Then, Thursday night, the House voted to approve the bill, which includes a provision that would limit people-to-people travel by narrowing the definition of educational exchange, and another that would forbid military-to-military cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba. Travel Weekly notes, however, that these measures are unlikely to become law, since the House appropriations bill now conflicts with the Senate’s version of the bill, and President Obama is likely to veto pro-embargo legislation.
Rep. Mark Sanford (SC-1), author of the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, legislation with 129 cosponsors, blamed the decision to withdraw the pro-normalization amendments on House Speaker Paul Ryan’s opposition to his proposal. “Given the fact that the speaker is working against this amendment, I see the handwriting on the wall so I think it is best to withdraw,” Sanford said in remarks on the House floor.
Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-1) told the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette in a telephone interview that he’d agreed to withdraw his amendment to support agriculture sales to Cuba with credit in exchange for commitments from South Florida legislators who support the embargo to work together on a long-term solution.
“I think they recognize we’re not doing it [agreeing to work together on a solution] to validate the Castro regime or to empower or endorse the president’s [Barack Obama’s] actions, but that we instead are doing this on behalf of United States agriculture producers,” Rep. Crawford said.
As Travel Weekly reported, Rep. Sanford said support for normalizing relations in the House was strengthening, as indicated by the decision of the “chamber’s leaders” to strike a compromise with Rep. Crawford. “There is real momentum,” Rep. Sanford said.
Young Cuban-Americans get new impressions on island visits, Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press
The CubaOne Foundation, started last April by four Cuban Americans to bring Cuban-American millennials to Cuba for the first time, has completed its first trip to the island. Participants in the inaugural trip included first- and second-generation Cuban-American artists, writers, and entrepreneurs. The group toured the tobacco-growing region of Pinar del Rio province before traveling to Havana to visit independent businesses, reconnect with family members, and stay in casas particulares, or rooms rented out in private homes.
Giancarlo Sopo, a cofounder of CubaOne, said the foundation’s trips allow young Cuban Americans to form their own opinions about Cuba, and said, “For us, loving Cuba means going there to learn about our culture, meet family, and engage the people.”
During its annual meeting, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) adopted a resolution with nearly unanimous support, calling on Congress to end the embargo and to “remove all obstacles to a normal relationship” with Cuba, citing USCM leaders’ recent trip to the island in the rationale for establishing an official pro-normalization policy.
CDA executive director Sarah Stephens worked with Tom Cochran, CEO and Executive Director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, to organize the fact-finding delegation for USCM officers in May. USCM leaders in the delegation included then-President, Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; Vice President, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu; and the newly inaugurated President, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. The mayors met with Cuban officials to discuss education, healthcare, transportation, and the state of U.S.-Cuba relations.
Among the hurdles U.S. hotels face in Cuba: A booming Airbnb presence, Abha Bhattarai, Washington Post
U.S. hotel companies hoping to obtain licenses to start doing business in Cuba face competition from Airbnb, operating in Cuba since April of last year. Airbnb is subject to fewer regulations than hotel companies, and has grown popular for visitors to Cuba. As OnCuba Magazine reported in April, at its one-year mark on the island Airbnb had 4,000 houses registered in 40 cities and towns in Cuba, nearly half in Havana. Jodi Hanson Bond, President of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, told the Washington Post that Airbnb has been so successful in Cuba in part because currently, “Hotel capacity in Cuba simply has no way to keep up with demand” from ever-increasing numbers of visitors to the island.
Hipster Colonialism and the ‘Ruin’ of Cuba, Andrés S. Pertierra, The Nation
Andrés S. Pertierra analyzes expectations of what closer relations with the U.S. will mean for Cuba, starting with the common refrain of prospective U.S. travelers to Cuba: “I have to go before they ruin it.” Pertierra argues that this attitude is reductive and indicative of “hipster colonialism.” Hipster colonialism, he writes, paints Cuba as “an open-air Cold War museum,” and “implies that Cubans can’t be trusted to decide what works best for themselves.”
Venezuela’s energy woes spread to its closest ally: Cuba, Marianna Parraga and Alexandra Ulmer, Reuters
According to Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA, total shipments to Cuba of crude oil and petroleum products have decreased by 19.5 percent in the first half of 2016 as Venezuela’s economic situation has worsened; that includes a 40 percent decrease in barrels per day of crude oil. Smaller oil shipments from Venezuela, as Reuters notes, likely explain the energy-consumption cutbacks being implemented for some of Cuba’s state agencies and joint ventures. To make up for the reduction in crude oil shipments, Venezuela has augmented its shipments to Cuba of refined products including fuel oil, diesel, and liquefied petroleum gas. Cuba has relied on PDVSA’s medium- and light-grade crude oils like Mesa 30, particularly in the energy sector, but Venezuela has had to reduce its exports of Mesa 30 in order to use it to dilute heavy crude for use in-country, and is instead exporting heavier crude to Cuba and elsewhere, which complicates Cuba’s refining tasks. Additionally, Cuba has previously exported surplus oil and fuel at a profit, but reduced shipments from Venezuela will leave Cuba with little or no surplus.
Cuba strapped for cash, acts to avoid power blackouts – economy minister, Marc Frank, Reuters
Following last week’s report that Cuba’s government would soon begin rationing energy consumption for some state enterprises and joint ventures, Reuters reported that these measures are part of a broader spending-reduction initiative, and that some state agencies have begun cutting work hours and reducing their use of air conditioning and cars. The rationing and energy-conservation policies went into effect on July 1.
During a meeting of the National Assembly’s economic commission, as Granma reported, Marino Murillo, Cuba’s Minister for Economy and Planning and Vice President of the Council of Ministers, stated that Cuba must cut spending as much as possible, and that the energy-use cutbacks will help avert electricity blackouts while allowing the government to provide services to citizens. The Associated Press reported that Mr. Murillo cited falling global prices of nickel and oil, as well as lower-than-expected sugar production as causes of Cuba’s financial troubles.
Jorge Piñon, energy analyst at the University of Texas, told the AP that while Cuba’s energy-generating capacity has been essentially static, energy consumption in the non-state sector has increased by 30 percent over the last five years as people have begun operating or working for small businesses, including restaurants and cafeterias which use electric appliances like ovens and microwaves. Meanwhile, the tourism industry, particularly hotels with air conditioning, consumes significant amounts of energy as well.
In preparation for the legislative session that began July 8, the 10 permanent commissions of Cuba’s National Assembly of People’s Power met earlier this week. As Granma reported, these 10 specialized commissions reviewed and affirmed their support for the updated Economic and Social Policy Guidelines produced by the Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba in April, focusing on methods for implementing the guidelines throughout the country. Granma and Prensa Latina reported extensively on discussions and debates in each commission over the three days of meetings; each commission’s president will report their findings and recommendations, particularly as to policy implementation, to the National Assembly.
Members of the National Assembly’s Economic Affairs Commission analyzed the performance of Cuba’s economy in the first half of the year, Granma reports. As mentioned above, Marino Murillo told the commission that Cuba’s slower economic growth in the first semester is attributable to the downturn in oil and nickel prices, and stated that Cuba’s government is committed to continuing to provide basic services to the population. The commission also took up the topic of social indiscipline, illegalities, and corruption, and their impact on the national economy, which Cuba’s Comptroller General Gladys Bejerano Portela discussed at last week’s Council of Ministers meeting. The Services Commission discussed possible methods for more efficient internal accounting and financial management in state enterprises, Granma reports.
Commissions reviewed Cuba’s public health system’s response to Zika virus and Dengue fever, as well as Cuba’s challenges as its population ages; proposed measures for drought relief; supporting women and young people entering the workforce; and the process of increasing internet and computer access in the public and private sectors, including the tourism industry. Additionally, they discussed finding ways to increase young people’s civic engagement.
Dozens injured as severe weather batters Cuba, Al Jazeera
A severe thunderstorm off Cuba’s southern coast produced a series of waterspouts that moved onshore in Playa Caimito, damaging buildings in the area and injuring at least 38 people. A clean-up operation is underway after 14 homes were destroyed and 6 more were damaged. Waterspouts form over water during severe thunderstorms, which are common in Cuba during this time of year.
Cuba’s small Muslim community marks end of Ramadan, Alexandre Grosbois, AFP
Without a dedicated mosque or strong Arabic skills, Havana’s Muslim community managed to follow traditions and observe the holy month of Ramadan. Worshippers meet for prayer in a building in Havana’s historic quarter and read from copies of the Quran translated into Spanish. The embassies of Turkey and Saudi Arabia have supported the Cuban Muslims by pledging to help build a mosque in Havana and providing them with traditional halal meat and dates to break their fast during Ramadan. In April, Spanish photographer Joan Alvado published a photo series shedding light on the experiences of Cubans who have converted to Islam.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
United States, Cuba, and Mexico: Resolving Maritime Boundaries, U.S. Department of State
The State Department announced that representatives from Mexico, Cuba, and the United States held technical meetings this week in Mexico City to move toward delineating the boundaries of the oil- and gas-rich Eastern Gap in the Gulf of Mexico. International law grants countries control over resources in oceans within 200 nautical miles of their shores, but because the Eastern Gap affects territory of all three nations and has no obvious boundaries, it is up to the countries to determine the boundaries and claims to resources. Cuba does not yet have an agreement with Mexico regarding this area, though the U.S. and Mexico already have one. Reuters’ sources stated that the renewal of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba had prompted discussion of a Mexico-Cuba agreement on the area in question, also referred to as the “Doughnut Hole.”
Finnish court jails 6 Cuban volleyball players in rape case, Matti Huuhtanen, Associated Press
A District Court in Finland has ordered six members of Cuba’s national men’s volleyball team to be held in police custody until August 26 at the latest, for further questioning in regards to an alleged case of aggravated rape. The team was competing in the Volleyball World League tournament in Tampere, 105 miles north of Helsinki, where the reported crime took place. In an official statement earlier this week, the Cuban Volleyball Federation denounced any form of sexual assault and violence as it does not align with “the ethics and principles with which we have been educated.”