Visit Cuba. Talk to Cubans. Work it Out.

August 26, 2016

“Nothing ever becomes real till it is experienced – Even a Proverb is no proverb to you till your Life has illustrated it.” – John Keats

Cuba is not a zoo. It is not a theme park. While Cubans are generous hosts, Cuba should not be considered a place where “the natives welcome Americans with open arms,” no matter what the Cedar Rapids Gazette says [h/t Lou Pérez].

Whether you come to the island for official, research, and commercial purposes, or on a people-to-people license, Cuba is a great place to go: to learn, exchange, make friends, make progress and make bigger plans – so long as you can set the tropes aside, and come with ears to hear.

This week, the news is filled with examples proving that point.

For three decades, Cuba was falsely listed as a State Sponsor of Terror. Among the shifting set of bogus reasons was the empty allegation that Cuba allowed representatives of the FARC, who had been engaged in a civil war against the government of Colombia, to reside in safety on the island. They were there, but not for reasons that could justify Cuba’s stigmatization.

Cuba was finally removed from the terror list a year ago, and it is being rightly celebrated now that Colombia and the FARC have concluded a peace accord, bringing to an end, as USA Today put it, “the longest-running armed conflict in the Western Hemisphere.”

Cuba was instrumental in giving confidence to the FARC to negotiate, as Cynthia Arnson of the Wilson Center said, because it was “the country with the greatest credibility among guerrilla movements in the region.”

Before visiting the island in 2015, Representative Bradley Byrne (AL-1), a national security conservative, criticized President Obama’s decision to remove Cuba from the terror list as “premature.” After visiting the island Rep. Byrne said, “Cuba is not involved with the terrorists we see today which is [sic] mainly among Islamic groups in the Middle East. So, I think the President made the right decision to remove them from the terrorist list.” Only by coming to Cuba with open eyes did the facts come into Mr. Byrne’s view.

This week, as Prensa Latina, reported, “Specialists and officials from Cuba and Germany are…discussing possible areas of cooperation on environmental issues related to the prevention and reduction of the effects of climate change.”

Here, again, there are a constellation of issues that touch on Cuba’s economy, energy security, and the environment we share in common, that can only be resolved through direct contact, negotiation, and collaboration.

Cuba is 95 percent dependent on fossil fuels. As Dr. C. Juan Triana Cordoví observed this week, in an article titled Oil and Our Daily Dependence, while Latin America generates 20 percent of its electricity using renewable sources and globally it is about 12 percent, Cuba is at the stage where renewables meet just 5% of its needs. This is at a moment when fuel consumption is high, Venezuela’s concessionary oil shipments are declining, and Cuba’s economic growth targets can’t be met without more energy.

In the long term, Dr. Triana Cordoví writes, Cuba needs to invest $3.6 billion over 15 years in order to get 24% of its electricity from renewable sources, as its economic plan prescribes. In the meanwhile, it will continue drilling in the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico looking for the deposits of commercially-recoverable oil that the U.S. government and Cuba’s investor-partners believe are there.

This, in turn, makes even strong supporters of the new policy opening with Cuba very nervous. As the Tampa Bay Times editorialized earlier this month:

“It is critical that the United States continue to develop relationships with Cuba rather than turn back the clock as Sen. Marco Rubio and other Republican hard-liners prefer. If the United States cannot persuade Cuba to avoid or severely limit oil drilling in the gulf waters … it can at least share technology and expertise to prepare to jointly deal with any spills or rig explosions that would threaten Florida. That requires cooperation, not fighting the opening of a Cuban consulate in Florida or clinging to the outdated economic embargo.”

The idea of coming to Cuba for cooperation is at the heart of what makes the upcoming Cuba Energy and Infrastructure Summit so intriguing. The summit is “aimed at exploring…methods [of] linking foreign investors to the opportunities offered by the Cuban energy sector,” as Cuban state media described it.

Conversations about attracting investment to energy are happening all over the world, and for good reason. As the Nobel Prize Winning economist Michael Spence observed recently, public and private investments in infrastructure, such as those providing energy, are powerful engines of growth with more equitable gains than investments that typically reward those at the top. He says, “a green approach” to building clean energy, and using green finance to do it, will “not only stimulate additional growth; it would also be likely to increase the quality of growth, not to mention the lives of ordinary people.”

Economic powerhouses like China also believe that “the transition to low carbon growth has become an opportunity to spur economic growth.”

Cuba needs energy. To protect the U.S. coastline and our shared ecosystem, the U.S. needs to make our technology available to Cuba as it drills in the Gulf, and allow our companies to play a supporting role as it tries to bring oil onshore to power its economy going forward. We need to build on the cooperation that has been taking place between Cuba and U.S.-based institutions in areas like science and conservation for over a century so that the search for and use of oil, as well as the transition to renewables, takes place as swiftly and safely as possible.

The United Nations Environment Programme and other multilateral institutions should ensure that conferences like the one next week in Havana can move from talking about investment to securing the new and innovative sources of green finance that are being created globally. This could enable Cuba to meet its investment targets and allow Cubans and the nations around them to breathe a little easier when it comes to its energy consumption and environmental commitments.

Direct contact and talking together do make a world of difference. U.S. Senator and Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine professed his faith in this idea, when he came out in support of President Obama’s Cuba policy.

“There are still issues between the United States and Cuba, and we should talk and seek an agreement on human-rights, issues, for example,” he said. “But we need to have a relationship with Cuba, like with other nations. Diplomatic relations aren’t a sign that everything’s perfect, but it’s a channel for dialogue, and I’m really glad that the relationship between the United States and Cuba is in a new chapter.”

So are we.

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Our summer reading list and a word about how lies travel

August 19, 2016

This week, we’re engaged in a little internet hocus-pocus.

Despite appearances, the staff behind the Cuba Central News Brief are on the beach, not behind our desks. In advance of our trip, we prepared a list of books and articles for you to relax with and read, while we have a chance to do the same.

There’s an old saying, “A lie can travel halfway around the world, while the truth is still lacing up its shoes.” Often attributed to Mark Twain, though ironically the wisdom spilled from someone else’s pen, we thought of this aphorism while reading a news item about TSA! (Yes. That does show we need to get more “vacay.”)

According to Homeland Security Today, the U.S. and Cuba reached an agreement which will allow federal air marshals on board certain flights to and from Cuba. Specifically, “US air marshals will be deployed on some flights between the US and Cuba when commercial air service between the two countries launches on Aug. 31.”

TSA said in a statement, “In the spirit of enhancing the security of international civil aviation, the United States and The Republic of Cuba entered into an aviation security agreement that sets forth the legal framework for the deployment of US in-flight security officers — more commonly known as federal air marshals — on board certain flights to and from Cuba.”

The air marshal agreement reflects the bilateral Memorandum of Understanding signed in February of this year by the two governments. In it, Cuba and the U.S. jointly committed to observing the international conventions that relate to civil aviation security, and pledged to honor “the security provisions required by the other Country for entry into, for departure from, and while within the territory of that other Country and to take adequate measures to protect aircraft and to inspect passengers, crew, and their baggage and carry-on items, as well as cargo and aircraft stores, prior to and during boarding or loading.”

We know that “LPD,” or Last Point of Departure, security is in place at Cuba’s airports. We also know that measures have been in place for decades to protect the security of travelers on the charter flights that currently provide service between the U.S. and Cuba. These are the flights that took nearly 400,000 Cuban Americans to visit the island for family travel, safely and securely in 2015; flights which in total, from Miami alone, took more than 900,000 passengers, including people to people travelers, back and forth to the island. As Martha Pantin, a spokeswoman for American Airlines, told the Miami Herald, “We wouldn’t fly to a place that we don’t think is safe.”

Neither would you. Neither would Cuba, which is depending on tourist revenue to keep its economy going. As Reuters reported recently: Tourism generated $2.8 billion in revenue for Cuba’s government last year.

Which brings us back to the time it takes the truth to lace up its shoes. Since the spring of this year, opponents of the Obama opening in Congress have been fear-mongering the aviation safety issue. Rep. Billy Long (MO-7), a Member of Congress, wrote in one of his local newspapers, “In a time when foreign fighters and radicalized terrorists are growing in number and ambition, we shouldn’t be rushing to open commercial air travel and new LPD airports with a system that practically welcomes those wishing to do America harm.”

In July, his colleague Rep. John Katko (NY-24) introduced legislation, as Homeland Security Today described it, “to prohibit all scheduled commercial air travel between the United States and Cuba until TSA certifies that Cuban airports have the appropriate security measures in place to keep Americans safe.”

Where was this concern before the announcement of the resumption of commercial airline service, when about 5,000 charter flights a year were going to Cuba and back to the U.S. with hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans flying to visit Cuba thanks to President Obama’s restoration of family travel? Where was the concern when the faithful traveled to the island to baptize Cubans, when scientists traveled over the Florida Strait to collaborate with Cuban counterparts to protect the U.S. coast from potential oil spills, or when students flew to Cuba for semesters of study?

The upcoming reopening of commercial flights will happen. Protective measures are in place.  So, the hand-waving about airport security can only be understood as the means to scare off Americans, who can legally travel to Cuba, from doing so. Maybe to reduce Cuba’s revenues as they work to spread fear.

As the Canadian scholar Julie Sagebien wrote recently, tactics like these “are starting to feel like a scorched-earth retreat policy. Perhaps Congressional efforts would be better spent thinking about ways to make this new relationship fruitful, peaceful and long lasting.”

You will be hearing from us next week! Read the rest of this entry »

“Fidel es Fidel,” but Cuba’s Absorbed by Its Present and Future

August 12, 2016

For decades, U.S. policy has had an unhealthy fixation on Fidel Castro’s health. Think of the hundreds of assassination attempts. The decision by major news organizations to keep personnel in Havana waiting for “breaking news.” The U.S. national intelligence director’s estimate in December 2006 that his end was drawing nigh. The plan to stage a big party at Florida’s Orange Bowl to celebrate his passing.

Tomorrow, Cuba’s former president celebrates his 90th birthday.

Good thing that President Obama decided to break ranks from this obsession and change the terms of the U.S.-Cuba relationship without waiting for what was called “the biological solution.” Like Richard Nixon’s determination to deal with China while Mao was still in power, the new bilateral relationship will be passed on to successor leaders in Cuba with legitimacy only the Castro brothers could convey.

“Soon I’ll be like all the rest. Everyone’s turn comes,” he said, when he last spoke in public at the 7th Communist Party Congress in April.

In keeping with that somber valedictory spirit, the press is offering a few mostly straightforward reflections – like this one – summarizing the toplines of his record running Cuba:

  • In 1961, he all but eradicated illiteracy with an ambitious rural education campaign.
  • Human Rights Watch (has) sharply criticized Castro’s “highly effective machinery of repression.”
  • Castro was a hero to revolutionary movements and independence struggles worldwide.

More subtly, the Associated Press is using the occasion of his 90th to push off against the present.

“When Fidel Castro turns 90 on Saturday, the man who nationalized the Cuban economy and controlled virtually every aspect of life on the island will celebrate his birthday in a far different country than the one he ruled.”

The great flaw in both the Cuban Democracy Act and the Helms-Burton law is the premise that we must keep U.S. sanctions in place until Fidel and his brother, President Raúl Castro, pass from the scene. What happens if neither brother leaves? What happens if Cuba starts changing while they’re still in power?  The policy is frozen in the amber of its own ineffectiveness.

Yet, change is underway. As the AP reports, “Hundreds of thousands of Cubans are running private businesses, buying and selling their homes and cars, and checking the internet on imported cellphones.”

The Columbia Journalism Review noted recently the barriers to information are starting to fall and the opportunities for expression – within the system, at least – are rising. Cuban news programs and newspapers did provide “full renditions” of President Obama’s speeches and interviews while he was in Cuba. The World Bank and the International Telecommunications Union estimate that upward of 30 percent of Cubans “have at least semi-regular access to the online world, nearly double the percentage of five years ago.” Academics tell us that Cubans are flocking to Facebook and other corners of the online world as WiFi hotspots become available and smartphones proliferate.

Yes, these changes are taking place against the backdrop of high Cuban migration to the U.S., cutbacks in the flow of oil from Venezuela, and continuing economic hardships. While Fidel Castro has passed from power, the expansion of Cubans’ economic liberties could not have taken place without his approval or at least his acquiescence. We know from the reflection he posted after President Obama’s visit, there is much about the state of the U.S.-Cuba relationship that he doesn’t much like. Yet, these things are happening anyway.

As the Obama opening proceeds, most minds are opening here in the U.S., even among figures who once advocated for tougher and tougher sanctions on Cuba, with the goal of overthrowing the system Fidel Castro built. Carlos Gutiérrez, a Cuban-American corporate executive and lobbyist, who served President George W. Bush and helped write a transition plan to replace the regime’s system, now “believes it is time to end the embargo and offer Cubans and Cuban-Americans a new future for the island,” as McClatchy reported this week.

It is a bold stand that has drawn stinging criticism from others in the diaspora who want the architecture of sanctions to remain in place no matter how long the Castros live.

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart simply says Gutiérrez has sold out. “When it’s an outright case of just literally doing it for the money on an issue that he was a big believer in, I’m sorry – I have zero respect for that.”

But Gutiérrez is moving because he can see past Florida’s ossified politics. He’s been to Cuba. He is advocating for policies that have a better chance of making things better for the next generation of young Cubans, like Ernesto González, a 25-year-old dance producer, who told the AP he sees Cuba “as a trending topic.”

Ernesto is not absorbed by history. “The future lies with the young people,” he said, “and young Cubans are not waiting for things to come to them.”

This week, in Cuba news… Read the rest of this entry »

Cuba may be the one issue on which Mr. Trump and Sec. Clinton agree. What happens next?

August 5, 2016

In this unique, black swan, unicorn, once-in-a-life time election, the question of U.S.-Cuba policy stands out.

Fourteen presidential elections have taken place in this country since the Cuban revolution. This is the first campaign in which both major party candidates favor lifting sanctions on Cuba.

As the Council on Foreign Relations reports in its side-by-side comparison of the candidates’ stands on the major issues of the day –

“The former secretary of state embraces the normalization of ties with Cuba and in July 2015 called for lifting the economic embargo.”

“In a break with much of his party, Donald Trump says he supports diplomacy with Cuba. ‘The concept of opening with Cuba is fine,’ he said in September 2015, adding, ‘but we should have made a better deal.’”

So, this is great news for pro-Cuba policy reformers, right? If they both agree on getting rid of the embargo, and one of them is elected, he or she will have the wind of a democratic election at their back to complete the normalization process pushed forward so skillfully by President Obama. Isn’t that right?

We’d certainly think so. But, if past is prologue, this seemingly straightforward truth for us may be one subject to interpretation by others. Lest there be surprises later, please stay with us and consider the following.

First, Florida has reemerged as a “tipping point” state. As defined by the election analyst Nate Silver, this means, “if you line up the states in order of their two-party vote margin,” Florida will be the one that “pushes the winning candidate over the Electoral College threshold.” The Upshot, a New York Times political site, says Florida has a 17 percent chance of providing the deciding vote in the 2016 presidential election.

Florida could decide this election? Is that important (for lifting the embargo and stuff)? The Council on Foreign Relations certainly thinks so. “An estimated 1.2 million of 1.6 million Cuban-Americans live in Florida and represent an important voting bloc with outsized influence on U.S. Cuba policy.”

Holy hanging chad! Understanding that we’re in the dog days of August, and we’re roughly 96 days from Election Day, and the whatever-animal days of November, and we can’t predict what will happen tomorrow, what do we know about what’s happening in Florida now?

That brings us to our second point: The vote in Florida looks kind of close.

According to Real Clear Politics, the average of the last three polls indicates that it is: Clinton 44.7 percent and Trump 42 percent.

Our third point is this: The race could be a lot closer, but for indications that candidate Trump has what Univision calls “a big Hispanic problem in Florida.”

According to Univision’s latest survey, Mr. Trump is enjoying the support of only 12.9 percent of Florida’s Hispanic voters. This compares to the 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in Florida that went to Senator John McCain and Governor Mitt Romney, both of whom lost Florida, in the prior two presidential elections.

The most recent Florida state poll, the Suffolk University poll, shows Sec. Clinton leading Mr. Trump in the Sunshine State, 48 percent to 42 percent – with her lead credited to women and voters in southern Florida.

This is interesting because, as Pew reports, “The majority of Hispanic Republican registered voters are located in South Florida,” and Cuban Americans are the backbone of the Republican Party in that region.

That’s interesting, too, as Politico reported last year, because “Florida’s Cuban-American vote, once strongly Republican, appears more up for grabs than ever…Once strongly opposed to lifting the embargo, Cuban-Americans increasingly favor lifting it and normalizing relations.”

Now, let’s take a time-out to take stock. We’ve said Trump and Clinton have the same position on Cuba. The election could be decided by Florida. In Florida, while the race looks close, Sec. Clinton is drawing historic numbers of Hispanic voters, and is receiving significant support from South Florida where Cuban-American voters wield the greatest influence. And, by the way, this very demographic is increasingly favoring the Obama policy on Cuba.

So, what happens next?

Mark our words, no matter the result, there will be an effort to control the narrative and interpret the election as a vote for stopping progress on Cuba policy reform in its tracks. Despite the fact that both nominees are anti-embargo, despite the fact that President Obama – who won Florida twice – openly campaigned on a platform for Cuba policy reform, analysts repeatedly argue that because “all five Cuban-American congressmen and three senators are all opposed to lifting the embargo.” In essence, their votes and voices should matter above ours, above all others.

Or, as Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, told Politico: “I’d remind Secretary Clinton (or he could have said Mr. Trump)…No one has ever won a statewide election in Florida on a platform that opposes the embargo, including Obama in 2008 and 2012.”

This year looks like an exception. This year, the majority will rule.

The week, in Cuba news…

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