Today, we obtained a copy of the UN report sent by the Secretary-General to member states before the General Assembly casts its annual vote on the resolution against the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
As the Washington Post reported last year, this resolution is not legally binding. But, every year since Cuba first offered the anti-embargo measure in 1992, “The United States has never garnered more than three other votes against it.” That year, according to Reuters, only Israel and Romania stood with the U.S., 59 countries voted to approve the resolution, and all other member states abstained.
By 2015 – the year President Obama restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, took Cuba off the terror list, and loosened restrictions on travel and trade – Cuba got 191 votes to condemn U.S. policy. Next month, when the roll call on this year’s resolution is completed, the U.S. and (most likely) Israel will almost certainly stand alone in defense of the indefensible.
We write about this vote every year, even though many news organizations barely pay it any mind. To them, if the United States is getting its diplomatic clock cleaned for the 24th – or this year, 25th – year in a row, that isn’t really news.
But, it might be news to many Americans – who could be forgiven if they think the embargo has gone away – that it is still in place, just as many are unaware that tourist travel to the island is still illegal and subject to punishing fines. After all, President Obama visited the island, JetBlue became the first commercial carrier to resume regularly scheduled flights, Vanity Fair took Rihanna’s picture in Havana, and Conan O’Brien danced and sang oh so memorably on his visit last year.
Despite such mesmerizing images, the embargo continues. Even if the inconvenience it imposes on us can be measured by the cigars we didn’t smoke or the rum we couldn’t drink, the damage our embargo visits on the Cuban people, as Joy Gordon wrote in Harper’s Magazine, “has been, and continues to be, pervasive and profound.”
Hardliners, who want the embargo to remain in place, like to pretend it has magical powers; it can “punish” the leaders of Cuba’s communist government, “starving the Castros of cash,” they like to say, while somehow sparing Cubans of its harsh effects.
Logic tells us that cannot be right, and the Secretary-General’s report affirms that our logic and reality are aligned. In it, the World Food Program shows how U.S. sanctions limit Cuba’s agriculture production and boost food insecurity by raising the bill for the food the country needs to import to feed its people. The UN Development Program reports that the embargo impairs Cuba’s ability to provide medical care and social services to more than 20,000 Cubans of all ages living with HIV/AIDS.
The embargo is, in fact, so pervasive that it runs up the costs of equipping 414 elementary school students enrolled in specialized music programs with violins, violas, and cellos. That might not break your heart, but this might: The embargo makes it extremely difficult for Cuba’s pediatric hospitals, indeed hospitals of all kinds, to obtain parts to repair diagnostic equipment and other supplies they need for patients in their care, and costly to find replacements from other foreign suppliers. The damage done by the embargo is immense, and no sector of Cuba’s economy is immune.
Neither are we. The embargo boomerangs on patients here in the U.S. for whom a raft of medicines and therapies – to reduce cholesterol, treat cancer, and cut down on the needless amputations of limbs for diabetics – are effectively kept out of reach. That’s heartbreaking, too.
We deeply admire President Obama for restoring relations, visiting Cuba, and working so hard to roll back this Cold War policy against Cuba that our country has been stuck with so long.
Yet as he wrote the historic speech he delivered in Havana, in which he called the embargo “an outdated burden on the Cuban people” and “a burden on the Americans who want to work and do business or invest here in Cuba,” didn’t he wonder about the impact of the fines levied by his administration – hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines in February 2016 alone – “for relatively small violations that took place years before,” as Harper’s reported – that would make global businesses and financial institutions afraid of doing business in Cuba?
This is the central theme of the Secretary-General’s report, echoed not just in Cuba’s comments but in those of our allies in the region and elsewhere: Financial enforcement of the U.S. embargo imposes burdens on Cuba’s economy that make it impossible for the country to reach its potential and for its citizens to live full lives. This, in turn, begs the question of whether President Obama can or is willing to do more before he leaves office to remove this core contradiction from U.S. policy.
This is not to cast a blind eye to those problems plaguing Cuba’s economy that are of its own creation. Dr. Ricardo Torres Pérez, a prominent, pro-reform economist in Cuba, identifies in a piece published by American University numerous decisions Cuba can take to get its own house in order. As the Associated Press reported, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, said in a press conference this week, “No one’s ignoring or aims to hide our problems, our limitations, our mistakes.”
But, Mr. Rodríguez went on to say, “President Obama reserves broad executive authority that he can use up to his last minute in the White House.” He’s right. In a letter organized by the Washington Office on Latin America, an NGO coalition including the Center for Democracy in the Americas offered a list of actions President Obama could take to further his Cuba policy advances, including assuring “the U.S. banking and financial services industry they would not face penalties if they take advantage of legal opportunities in Cuba.”
Rather than continuing the double-game of undermining Cuba’s economy while simultaneously pursuing U.S. diplomacy, there are steps the President can take, even now, before the UN votes next month – to help Cuba’s economy right itself, generating more jobs and opportunities, for the Cuban people and U.S. businesses.
What the hardliners say is fantasy. Our embargo is hurting the Cuban people, and the President should try to reduce their pain before he leaves office.
Ultimately, normalization will not be complete until the U.S. Congress votes to end the embargo. That’s going to take a lot of work and effort extending into the administration of whomever succeeds Mr. Obama as president. Perhaps our elected leaders could turn for inspiration to the Vatican’s section of the Secretary-General’s report, quoting Pope Francis:
“For some months now, we have witnessed an event which fills us with hope: the process of normalizing relations between two peoples following years of estrangement. It is a process, a sign of the victory of the culture of encounter and dialogue, ‘the system of universal growth’ over ‘the forever-dead system of groups and dynasties,’ as José Martí said.”
The Pope went on to say, “I urge political leaders to persevere on this path and to develop all its potentialities as a proof of the high service which they are called to carry out on behalf of the peace and well-being of their peoples, of all America, and as an example of reconciliation for the entire world.”
The vote at the UN will take place on October 26th.
This week, in Cuba news…
A poll released by Florida International University shows “the largest measure of opposition to the embargo in [FIU’s] 25 years” experience of polling Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County.
In this year’s survey, FIU found that an unprecedented 63 percent of all respondents in Miami-Dade County are opposed to the embargo; and, of those, 72 percent of Cuban Americans aged 18 to 59 oppose the embargo. Additionally, 64 percent of Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County “strongly favor” or “mostly favor” President Obama’s policy changes toward Cuba. Registered voters, who comprised 55 percent of respondents, support the policy changes.
FIU began conducting this poll in 1991 in Miami-Dade, which has long been considered the epicenter of opposition to Cuba’s government. Guillermo J. Grenier and Hugh Gladwin, who created and conduct the FIU poll, see what they call a “South Florida transition” taking place. They write, “Two decades of polling have taught us a great deal. The Cuban-American population is far from homogeneous and its heterogeneity spans social, cultural, economic and political dimensions. There are Cubans and there are Cubans.” They also note the “slow weakening of the Republican Party’s hold on registered Cuban-American voters,” from 70 percent when the polling began, to just 53 percent this year.
Other findings include: 74 percent of Cuban Americans polled in Miami-Dade County support the freedom to travel to Cuba and 75 percent support people-to-people travel (a figure that grows to 92 percent support among those who arrived from Cuba after 1995); 57 percent support expanded U.S. business activity in Cuba; and 81 percent said that the embargo was “not working at all” or “not very well.” About 45 percent of respondents had visited Cuba since leaving; 42 percent of those are registered voters.
In light of the changes the poll shows over the last quarter-century, Grenier and Gladwin conclude, “the bell signaling the beginning of the future of U.S.-Cuba relations has rung. It is likely that it cannot be unrung – at least, if the growing Cuban diaspora has anything to say about it.”
Executives see little progress on easing Cuba-U.S. financial services, Dan Freed, Reuters
U.S. representatives from multinational financial companies including General Electric, Credit Suisse, Western Union, and Visa participated in a workshop on financial transactions with Cuba, with government and financial officials from the U.S. and Cuba sought to clarify U.S. regulatory changes and encourage the financial sector to engage with Cuba. The workshop, held in New York, was part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s U.S.-Cuba Business Council’s first U.S.-Cuba Financial Services Forum. In a press conference following the workshop, Mark Feierstein, Special Assistant to the President at the National Security Council, said that although the U.S. has loosened restrictions on financial transactions with Cuba, “we frankly still see hesitance on the part of U.S. international banks” to handle any Cuba-related transactions, for fear of harsh sanctions.
In July, about 100 representatives from U.S. banks (mostly from Florida), Cuba’s Central Bank, and financial regulatory agencies from the U.S. and Cuba met in Havana to exchange information about the two countries’ banking systems and regulations.
U.S., Cuba hold technical exchanges on legal, economic, and intellectual property cooperation
Diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba held a series of technical exchanges over the last week.
The inaugural meeting of the U.S.-Cuba Legal Cooperation Working Group, part of the law enforcement dialogues, took place in Havana on Thursday. Representatives from the departments of Justice, State, Homeland Security, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation attended.
The first economic dialogue took place Monday in Washington, covering areas of long-term economic engagement and policy including trade, investment, regulatory and banking issues, telecommunications and internet, labor, energy, small business, and intellectual property. Co-leading the U.S. delegation were Charles Rivkin, Assistant Secretary for Economic and Business Affairs, and Matthew Borman, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for the Bureau of Industry and Security, while Ileana Núñez Mordoche, Cuba’s Vice Minister of Commercial Policy at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Investment, chaired Cuba’s delegation. John Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Mexico and Western Hemisphere Affairs, and Ziad Haider, Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs, also joined the U.S. delegation.
On September 8 and 9, Daniel Martí, U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator, along with representatives from the Department of State, the U.S. Copyright Office, and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, met with Cuban counterparts in Havana to discuss both countries’ intellectual property laws including trademark, patent, and copyright protections, reports EFE.
House panel advances bill to halt Cuba flights, Melanie Zanona, The Hill
In the U.S. House of Representatives, the Homeland Security Committee adopted legislation to stop direct commercial flights to Cuba, which resumed over two weeks ago. Rep. John Katko (NY-24), who sponsored the bill, and other lawmakers who oppose expanded travel, are seeking to prohibit commercial flights to Cuba until Congress receives a full report confirming that Cuba’s aviation security measures adhere to international standards. Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and Robert Menendez (NJ) introduced companion legislation last week.
Separately, the Transportation Security Agency amended earlier statements on aviation security cooperation with Cuba, announcing that while an agreement placing federal air marshals on public charter flights between the U.S. and Cuba is in effect, the U.S. and Cuba have not yet finalized such an agreement for commercial flights.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
The Pan-American Health Organization’s (PAHO) first Zika-prevention summit will take place in Havana on October 20-21, according to Cristian Morales, PAHO’s representative on the island. The organization selected Cuba as the host for the conference because of its remarkably successful efforts which, to date, have contained the virus over the last six months. Cuba has kept its total number of cases to just 33, with only three locally contracted cases. Representatives from all PAHO member countries, including the U.S., will attend the summit, along with forty experts and researchers on Zika.
As the Associated Press reported earlier this month, a group of U.S. scientists will join Cuban counterparts in Havana in November for a two-day meeting to exchange information on Zika and other animal-borne viruses.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will become the first Japanese head of state to visit Cuba next week when he meets with President Raúl Castro to discuss a proposed debt relief measure, investment on the island, and relations with North Korea. As Kyodo-Bloomberg reported, Prime Minister Abe will offer to forgive two-thirds of Cuba’s $1.75-billion (180 billion yen) debt to Japan. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary, said in a press conference that Japan’s government “aim[s] to support Japanese companies’ expansion [in Cuba] by encouraging Cuba, which has attracted global attention since the resumption of diplomatic ties with the United States last year, to improve its business and investment environment.”
Prime Minister Abe will also consult with Cuba’s government about responding to issues related to North Korea’s military and its nuclear program, as well as kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korea.
Separately, Reuters and Xinhua report, China’s Premier Li Keqiang will visit Cuba at the end of the month, after participating in the UN General Assembly and visiting Canada; Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment, stated that Cuba and China will sign several “important economic cooperation agreements” during the premier’s visit.
MEO Australia aims to focus more on Cuba, Daniel J. Graeber, UPI
MEO Australia, the company exploring Cuba’s Block 9 for oil drilling opportunities, intends to sell some of its holdings in offshore wells near Australia to generate more resources for projects including its Cuba exploration. Peter Strickland, Managing Director and CEO of MEO Australia, said in a statement that Cuba is a priority for the company. MEO Australia and Cuba’s national oil company (CUPET) are one year into 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.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani will meet with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro and former president Fidel Castro in Havana this weekend after a visit to Venezuela for the summit of the Non-Aligned Movement countries and a meeting with Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro. He will continue on to New York for the UN General Assembly.
Cuba: Time to Move Ahead with Reforms, Ricardo Torres Pérez, AULA Blog
Dr. Ricardo Torres Pérez, of the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy, writes that Cuba’s current economic troubles offer “a painful reminder of the country’s chronic structural problem: the inability to generate enough hard currency to develop the economy and the failure of efforts to overcome that obstacle so far.” In considering implementation of economic reforms, writes Dr. Torres, Cuba must find a way “to fix its foreign trade to supply oxygen for dynamic activities, such as its booming private sector. …Today’s challenges are an opportunity to remove the obstacles to changes that have already been announced, such as by accelerating the heretofore slow and ineffective implementation of agreed policies on foreign investment.”
Dissident calls off hunger strike after seeing faked internet report, Michael Weissenstein and Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press
Guillermo Fariñas, a Cuban dissident, ended a hunger strike of nearly two months after a falsified website claiming to be the blog of the European Parliament announced the passage of a “Fariñas Amendment” to condition EU relations with Cuba on human rights advances, in addition to a proposal to make Fariñas a special parliamentary advisor on Cuban civil society. The site has since been taken down; the creator of the posts has not been identified.