The Year of Living Diplomatically

“We have a new course in U.S.-Cuba relations…and we’re trying to make as much progress as possible so the policy is viewed as in the best interests of the U.S. and irreversible.”

Our man in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Havana, made these comments to the Xinhua news agency this week summarizing what’s been accomplished through diplomacy in the year since the U.S. Embassy reopened in Havana.

Diplomacy has produced a substantial body of work, as the fact sheet released by the State Department makes clear. The U.S. and Cuba have signed ten agreements with another seven in train and may be ready before the end of this year. Fifty-five years of stalemated statecraft saw only five agreements between the two countries that remain in force today, as Cuba’s chief negotiator in the normalization talks, Josefina Vidal, observed in comments to Granma. This is what happens when the U.S. talks to Cuba, and Cuba talks to us.

But, while we rightly celebrate this first year of diplomacy with Cuba, the Cold Warriors and party poopers who pine for the old policy of punishing of Cuba with tighter sanctions view the success of negotiations as a failure. As Tim Padgett wrote this week, “They’ve declared engagement with Cuba a flop because it hasn’t achieved in 365 days what isolating Cuba couldn’t do in 55 years.”

For example, in case you thought Senator Marco Rubio was posturing for his presidential campaign by blocking the appointment of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba, he is pledging to do the same thing next year, now that he is running for reelection to the Senate in Florida this year.

He told Politico on Wednesday, “A U.S. ambassador is not going to influence the Cuban government, which is a dictatorial, closed regime.” He doesn’t even want an Ambassador in Havana with direct access to highly placed Cuban officials to give it the old college try.

Rubio’s antipathy toward diplomacy is shared by like-minders on the other side of the U.S. Capitol. If the State Department budget bill written by the House Appropriations Committee becomes law, Ambassador DeLaurentis will be prohibited from adding staff or enlarging his already inadequate facilities.

Such limits are ideological, not rational. They come at a moment, as Senator Jeff Flake said, when “There are going to be too many Americans traveling to Cuba and doing legal business in Cuba to deny them the opportunity to have a full-fledged diplomatic presence there.”

From now to the end of President Obama’s term, rationality is likely to prevail; if only because he is unlikely to sign legislation that reverses the long-sought gains of his Cuba policy, and Congress – on a seven-week recess now and in Washington for just a month this fall before skipping town to campaign for reelection – is not going to work long or hard enough to repeal them.

With the President’s term winding down, there’s much left to do and shrinking time to do it. As the Miami Herald observed this week, “daunting issues remain [including] the embargo, claims for confiscated property of U.S. citizens and corporations, differences over human rights, migration, return of fugitives from justice, and Cuban demands for reparations for damages from the embargo and the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay.”

We encourage the Obama administration to take advantage of the Congressional absence, and put the accelerator to the floor on U.S.-Cuba diplomacy to try and get done as much of this as possible.

Negotiating is a sign of strength, not weakness; as the great Cold Warrior, Winston Churchill, famously said:  “To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.” Getting more agreements in place, as Ambassador DeLaurentis said, will be in both countries’ interests and will help make the policy irreversible.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

On anniversary, U.S. and Cuba cite progress toward closer ties, Sarah Marsh and Matt Spetalnick, Reuters

A year after the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic ties and reopened embassies in their respective capitals a senior State Department official told reporters that U.S.-Cuba relations have seen “slow and steady progress.” Along with a teleconference briefing Wednesday, the State Department released a fact sheet listing some of the two countries’ diplomatic accomplishments since last July highlighting:

  • President Obama’s nationwide address to the Cuban people during his visit to the island in March;
  • The agreement to resume direct, regularly scheduled commercial flights between Cuba and the U.S.;
  • The large increase in visits by U.S. travelers to Cuba following actions by the administration to ease restrictions on non-tourist travel, as well as greater participation by Cubans in fellowship and entrepreneurship programs in the U.S.;
  • The resumption of direct transportation of mail between both countries for the first time in 43 years;
  • Cuba’s decision to allow U.S.-based telecommunications companies to offer roaming to their cellphone customers visiting the island; and
  • Intensified diplomacy to resolve outstanding property claims, a bilateral commitment to increase environmental protection and cooperation to preserve marine-protected areas, the Memorandum of Understanding on improving security in travel and trade and exchange of law-enforcement information in areas like human smuggling, counterterrorism, and cybercrime.

Against this background of progress, as USA Today reported, the State Department official also told reporters that Cuba’s government needs to allow more trade and connections between citizens and businesses of both countries.

By contrast, Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s Foreign Minister for North American Affairs and the lead negotiator for Cuba in the normalization talks, noted that that the continued imposition of the U.S. trade embargo continues to be a “priority issue.” In an interview about the achievements of the normalization process with Granma, Ms. Vidal also said, “We are seeing new forces and sectors showing their support for the changes. I believe this trend will prevail, as it reflects the desire of the vast majority of U.S. citizens.”

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, issued a statement reflecting on the progress in the year since the reestablishment of diplomatic relations:

“In the last year, normalization has meant that thousands of Americans have met and learned from Cubans through people-to-people travel, while U.S. corporations continue to prove that it’s good business to seek deals in Cuba. President Obama has become the first sitting U.S. president in 88 years to visit the island, and American diplomats have worked alongside Cuban diplomats to begin resolving problems that went unsolved under the old policy.”

U.S. and Cuba sign counter-narcotics accord, set date for claims talks

Diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba signed an agreement Thursday outlining cooperation on drug interdiction, during their third technical exchange on combating narcotics trafficking held in Havana. The U.S. delegation included representatives from the State Department, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement–Homeland Security Investigations. They also set July 28-29 for the next round of talks regarding certified claims that will take place in Washington. As Josefina Vidal, Chief Minister for North American affairs noted, the counter-narcotics accord is the U.S. and Cuba’s eleventh diplomatic agreement in the last eight months.

Separately, Acting Assistant Secretary Mari Carmen Aponte told the Spanish news agency EFE this week that while the U.S. may eventually modify its migration policy toward Cuba, including the “wet foot, dry foot” provision, “other things would first have to be changed” in U.S. policy and the normalization process would need to progress further in order to proceed with migration policy reform.

DOT Approves First Scheduled All-Cargo Service to Cuba, U.S. Department of Transportation

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) approved FedEx’s application to be the first all-cargo airline to provide scheduled flights to Cuba. Beginning January 15, 2017, FedEx will operate daily flights Monday through Friday between Miami and Matanzas. After the U.S. and Cuba signed a Memorandum of Understanding in February permitting air transportation, FedEx was the only all-cargo carrier to seek a license for scheduled services to Cuba. FedEx had originally applied to fly between Miami and Havana, but retracted that bid in June, instead requesting clearance to fly a smaller aircraft from Miami to Varadero in the Matanzas province. As the Wall Street Journal reported last month, FedEx also plans to operate multiple trucking routes between the Varadero airport and Havana, the Mariel Economic Development Zone, and Santiago.

Bangor airport gets license to refuel foreign flights serving Cuba, Bangor Daily News

The Treasury Department issued a license to Maine’s Bangor International Airport authorizing it as a refueling stop for planes to and from Cuba. U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree (ME-1) and Bruce Poliquin (ME-2) introduced a bill in April to permit planes going to and from Cuba to stop to refuel at U.S. airports. Senator Susan Collins (ME), who also proposed similar legislation in the Senate, said in a press release that this exception to Cuba sanctions will “allow the Bangor [International] Airport to compete for airlines’ business and help create jobs in eastern Maine.” Until now, Cuba-bound foreign flights have been prohibited from making stopovers in any U.S. airports.

Cuba objects to U.S. lawmakers’ attempts to stop flights, Sarah Marsh, Reuters

With U.S. lawmakers introducing legislation to stop all regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba until TSA certifies that Cuba’s airports are in compliance with U.S. security standards, the head of the Aviation Security Department for the Civil Aeronautics Institute of Cuba (IACC) discussed the advanced safety measures that Cuba’s airports have already implemented in adherence to U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) regulations.

In an interview this week, Armando Darío Garbalosa Cruz told CubaDebate, a government-run website, “Our airports are safe, and not because we say it, but because the specialists of the TSA say it.”

In a hearing before the House of Representatives transportation security subcommittee in May, TSA officials praised Cuba’s aviation security, stating, “The Cuban representatives associated with IACC are highly professional and eager to achieve the best security possible. They maintain the required aviation security posture at all [last point of departure] airports, despite challenges posed by limited access to equipment and training.”

In comments tweeted to OnCuba, the Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal asked “Does this campaign about the supposed lack of security of the Cuban airports that is now being discussed… have something to do with the elimination of restrictions of travel to Cuba?”

Representatives from TSA have visited Cuba 33 times since 2000. Reuters notes that it is unlikely that the measure to ground flights to Cuba would advance in Congress.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture announces plans to establish USDA “physical presence” in Cuba

To further its cooperation with Cuba, the U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to station an official on the island to work in conjunction with State Department officials. Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, in remarks before the National Governors Association meeting held in Iowa, spoke about agricultural trade and production opportunities with Cuba. He said Cuba represents “an over $1.8 billion market opportunity” for the U.S. Video of Mr. Vilsack’s remarks is available here; he begins speaking about Cuba at about 47:20.

In March, Secretary Vilsack traveled to Cuba with President Obama and signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, Cuba’s Minister of Agriculture.

Religion in Cuba: Diverse, Vibrant, and Dynamic, Shaun Casey, State Department DipNote

Shaun Casey, the State Department’s Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs, wrote about his trip to Cuba earlier this month, during which he met with representatives of religious communities on the island. On the trip, Mr. Casey met with Catholic Church leaders, as well as representatives from several other faiths including Protestant denominations, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Santería.

In Cuba

Indian laborers help build Cuba hotels as foreign labor ban weakens, Marc Frank, Reuters

French construction company Bouygues is outsourcing labor from India to build two hotels in Havana and a resort in Varadero, employing over 200 Indian workers, with plans to hire more. In 2014, Cuba’s government passed a foreign investment law permitting companies to hire foreign workers under “exceptional circumstances,” and allowing foreign firms to pay foreign workers more than they are permitted to pay Cuban laborers.  According to Reuters, Bouygues is the first to hire such a large number of non-Cuban laborers for a project on the island. Bouygues is partnering with state construction companies to complete the hotel and resort projects.

A diplomat in Cuba told Reuters that the Indian laborers “are being paid around 1,500 Euros a month, more than 10 times what their Cuban counterparts receive,” and said that because Cuban laborers receive such low wages, “there is little motivation.” A Bouygues spokesperson told Reuters that the Indian laborers it employs in Cuba will be training Cuban tradesmen.

Cuba warns cabbies not to raise fares amid energy crunch, Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press

José Conesa González, Provincial Director of Transportation in Havana, told CubaDebate that local authorities are stepping up enforcement measures and will revoke the operating licenses of private taxi drivers who attempt to raise prices in response to energy rationing. With government orders for fuel and energy rationing, Havana’s taxi drivers face instability in fuel costs and availability and are struggling to maintain the 10 peso (40 cent) base fare, which has remained steady for the last decade.

Cuba y los interesados presagios: ¿Por qué la situación de hoy no es la de los 90?, Randy Alonso Falcón, CubaDebate

When Randy Alonso Falcón, the frequent host of Mesa Redonda Internacional, speaks, Cubans hear the voice of “official Cuba.” That makes the publication of this article – following remarks by Cuba’s President Raúl Castro about Cuba’s current economic challenges, and numerous news stories speculating whether Cuba is facing another “Special Period” like in the 1990s – so interesting.  In it, he identifies the ways Cuba’s economy is better equipped now to deal with the current economic downturn. For example, Cuba now has international lending partners and more foreign investment, while its tourism and biotechnology industries are in a far better position now than two decades ago. Falcón also cites the development of Cuba’s non-state sector and renewed relations with the U.S. as factors that have made Cuba’s economy more resilient.

These Afro-Cuban women are fighting the last battle of the revolution, Walter Thompson-Hernández, Fusion

Afro-Descendent Organization for Women is working to combat day-to-day discrimination faced by Afro-Cuban women as well as to address anti-black racism, with support from Cuba’s government. Lucila Insua Brindis, the founder of the Havana-based organization, says the Cuban Revolution created a more inclusive society, with universal access to healthcare and education, but that racism often persists in interpersonal relationships. The Afro-Descendent Organization hosts educational workshops and advocates for positive portrayals of Afro-descendants in Cuban media and society. With the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Ms. Brindis told Fusion that she hopes the organization can connect with movements like Black Lives Matter, stating, “We support our brothers and sisters in the U.S. and we are connecting with other networks around Latin America because we are all fighting for the same thing: racial equality and to shatter negative stereotypes about black people.”

Recommended reading: All Eyes on Cuba in AQ’s New Culture Issue, Americas Quarterly Online

In its inaugural edition of “Cultura,” a new biannual online magazine showcasing Latin American music, art, and literature, Americas Quarterly looks at Cuban culture and the island’s contributions to the arts region-wide. The first issue of “Cultura” features interviews with up-and-coming Cuban musicians, like young jazz singer Daymé Arocena, and explores intersections between art and activism.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba signs loans deal with Saudi Arabia for $80 million, Reuters

Cuba and Saudi Arabia signed two deals worth a total of about $80 million – for a five-year revolving credit of $50 million for the import of goods including agricultural machinery, and for a $29 million loan to improve hydraulics infrastructure in the Matanzas province. According to ACN, the investment loan will be used to fund the construction of infrastructure to more efficiently distribute hydraulics-produced power as well as for the “rehabilitation of water supply systems and sanitation in the city of Cárdenas, Matanzas.” As Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment, told ACN, the two agreements signed this week are “the fourth and fifth accords” that Cuba has brokered with Saudi Arabia since 2010.

Cuba and Japan Interested in Expanding Economic and Trade Ties, Prensa Latina

Hitoshi Kikawada, Japan’s Parliamentary Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, met in Havana with Ricardo Cabrisas, Cuba’s newly appointed Minister of Economy and Planning and a Vice President of the Council of Ministers, to discuss progress in Japan-Cuba trade relations, according to Granma. Mr. Kikawada also met with Rogelio Sierra, Cuba’s Deputy Foreign Minister; the two addressed prospects for furthering Japan’s investments in Cuba.

Siemens signs energy cooperation agreement with Cuba’s utility enterprise UNE, Siemens

Willi Meixner, CEO of Siemens’ Power and Gas Division, Rubén Cid, Cuba’s Vice Minister of Energy and Mining, and Liván Arronte Cruz, Director General of Cuba’s state-run utility company Unión Eléctrica (UNE), signed a Memorandum of Understanding in Havana to improve energy infrastructure in Cuba. The companies agreed to take on projects to improve power generation and distribution services, as well as to explore opportunities for renewable energy and infrastructure improvements. The MOU also promotes knowledge-transfer initiatives between Germany and Cuba focusing on technical training in new production systems for UNE engineers.

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