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

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…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Obama’s Last 100 days: Cuba and Castros edition, Olivier Knox, Yahoo News

As President Barack Obama enters his final months in office, a senior White House official says the administration will do more to push forward the normalization of relations with Cuba. Possible moves include nominating an ambassador to Cuba – though the official told Yahoo News, “I don’t think we’d be optimistic about the confirmation process” – as well as a final round of regulatory changes related to travel and building economic ties between the two countries. According to the official, the administration plans to encourage more U.S. investment and nonprofit work in Cuba, and will continue to raise awareness and understanding of the regulatory openings already instituted, particularly those loosening restrictions on financial transactions; the administration intends to “test how far we can get” with measures proposed in the Senate to end the travel ban and loosen other restrictions. Secretary of State John Kerry will also make another trip to Cuba, while President Obama will continue to call on Congress to lift the embargo.

U.S. air marshals will be aboard Cuba flights, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald

At the end of the month, when regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba resume for the first time in decades, U.S. federal air marshals will be stationed on some flights, in accordance with the U.S.-Cuba commercial air travel Memorandum of Understanding reached in February. As Larry Mizell, a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) representative, stated in testimony to the House of Representatives this spring, the U.S. and Cuba agreed upon several aviation security measures including: stationing of federal air marshals on public charter flights – which began last month – and on commercial carriers upon beginning service, as well as passenger and baggage screening in adherence to international standards. Martha Pantin, an American Airlines spokesperson, told the Miami Herald, “We wouldn’t fly to a place that we don’t think is safe.”

Separately, Cuba’s aviation authorities announced that the Santa Clara airport, where the first U.S. commercial flight to Cuba will land on August 31, is prepared to receive commercial flights from the U.S., after expanding and remodeling facilities and training airport personnel.

American and Cuban bankers hold historic meeting, Mimi Whitefield, Bradenton Herald

About 100 representatives from U.S. banks, Cuba’s Central Bank, and financial regulatory agencies from the U.S. and Cuba met in Havana last month to exchange information about the two countries’ banking systems and regulations. Representatives from the U.S. Departments of State, Treasury, and Commerce, and the Federal Reserve attended; most U.S. bankers at the meeting were from Florida. David Schwartz, head of the Florida International Bankers Association, told the Herald, “The interaction was probably better than anyone expected. …There were a lot of things they didn’t understand about our banking system and we didn’t know a lot of things about their banking system either. It was pulling back the veil.”

David Seleski, President of the South Florida-Based Stonegate Bank, which offers the first – and so far only – U.S. debit and credit cards eligible for use in Cuba, said of banking with Cuba, “We feel very strongly about what we’re doing. It’s been because it’s the right thing to do, not about making a whole lot of money. It’s about building a relationship. …It’s important for U.S. banks and Cuban banks to increase the dialogue.” Fernando Capablanca, a banking consultant, told the paper he expects the two countries to hold a follow-up meeting in early 2017, as most U.S. participants in the meeting left feeling they had more to learn.

In Cuba

Fidel Castro’s 90th birthday

Fidel Castro turns 90 on August 13. News outlets offer their take: AFP published “90 years of Fidel Castro in Six Snapshots,” while the Associated Press’s Michael Weissenstein takes stock of the economic and social changes in the ten years since Castro stepped down from the presidency.

In April, during Cuba’s Communist Party Congress, Castro delivered a farewell address, saying, “This may be one of the last times I speak in this room,” and urging the party to carry forward the ideals of the Revolution.

Australian oil sleuths are still evaluating Cuba’s Block 9, Rachel D. Rojas, Progreso Weekly

Progreso Weekly spoke with Peter Strickland, Executive Director of MEO Australia, the company exploring Cuba’s Block 9 for offshore drilling opportunities; Strickland said that while the company has not yet hit oil productive oil reserves, he “expect[s] that may occur in one to two years.” Last September, MEO Australia and Cuba’s national oil company (CUPET) signed an 8.5-year production sharing contract for several phases of exploration of the Block 9 area, including “research, the acquisition of seismic data, and the drilling of wells,” should the company find a productive well. Resulting revenues will be divided between MEO and CUPET.

Recommended Reading: When Revolution Came to the Kitchens of Cuba, Suzanne Cope, The Atlantic

Suzanne Cope looks at food insecurity and innovation during Cuba’s Special Period in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union, through the influential career of Nitza Villapol, host of the cooking show “Cocina al Minuto,” which aired from 1949 until 1993. During the most difficult years of the Special Period, Villapol used her show to show to “teach Cubans to be innovative with their food in the face of hunger, desperation, and disempowerment,” using ingredients available on the island. Her legacy is apparent not only in recipes used daily by Cubans on the island and in the U.S., Cope writes, but also in the development of urban farms and gardens in Cuba, supplying cities with relatively stable sources of locally grown produce.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Canada-Cuba Relations Poised for Progress under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, John M. Kirk, AULA Blog

John M. Kirk, Professor of Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University, examines the possibilities for a new, closer phase of relations between Canada and Cuba, in business and diplomacy alike. “Canada-Cuba relations are at this point characterized by political commitment to improve ties, largely untapped commercial potential, and anxiety about the ramifications of closer U.S. ties with Cuba,” Kirk writes. “The big question is whether Canadian trade and investment will provide the energy to propel relations beyond their special past status into a new era of collaboration.”

Cuba and Panama sign climate change agreement, Granma

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations announced in a statement that Cuba’s Meteorology Institute and Panama’s Electricity Transmission Company S.A. signed an accord to promote collaboration between the two countries in climate change and weather forecasting research. The goals of the scientific collaboration are to develop research projects in food security, health, and energy, with an eye toward mitigating the detrimental effects of climate change on the Caribbean countries.

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