Obama’s Imprint on Cuba Policy: Historic. More than Rum & Cigars. More Left to Do.

Today, “Click Bait” and U.S.-Cuba relations met at the intersection of Rum and Cigars.

Chances are, if you read even one story about President Obama’s latest – and some say his last – Cuba policy announcement, the headline referred to “Cigars” or “Cigars and Rum.”

Even the august New York Times was unable to resist: “Obama, Cementing New Ties With Cuba, Lifts Limits on Cigars and Rum.”

Fair enough. But, let the word go forth – to paraphrase President Kennedy – that the torch being passed in this new generation of Cuba policy is about more than lighting that box of Montecristo cigars you want that BFF of yours to bring home from Havana.

The White House today issued something called a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-43) devoted to “United States-Cuba Normalization.”

At its core, the directive breaks, clearly and comprehensively, from the Cold War mold of U.S. policy toward Cuba, by setting forth, as the New York Times described it, “a new United States policy to lift the Cold War trade embargo and end a half-century of clandestine plotting against Cuba’s government.”

Going forward, it envisions other changes in U.S. policy – from ending the embargo to integrating Cuba completely in U.S. and global commerce. In doing so, it affirms the idea that both economies and both societies will benefit from normalized relations with one another.

Since President Obama revealed his diplomatic breakthrough with Cuba on December 17, 2014, we have written here about working to make his policy reforms irreversible. The directive he issued today is a historic step in that direction.

Across a dozen pages, it lays out the U.S. vision for normalization and how it fits with U.S. security interests, the goals for the new policy, and the actions required to implement the reforms the president has made. It spells out the roles and responsibilities for 16 federal departments and offices to achieve his goals. The directive offers a sharp reminder that until the embargo is lifted by Congress, normalization will not be complete.

In the context of U.S. politics, the directive sends a message to supporters and opponents of the Cuba opening – don’t reverse it, don’t stop it, do more. In this sense, it fixes our eyes – and the president’s successors – on the future.

Paradoxically, we cannot estimate the directive’s full value going forward, or evaluate its greatest vulnerability, without considering past presidential directives still hold a grip on U.S. policy.

Between 1982 and 1988, President Reagan issued more than a half-dozen National Security Decision Directives with policies as comprehensive as those articulated in President Obama’s directive issued today. Each of them – published publicly, but many with secret annexes – reflected his view of Cuba as a security threat to the U.S. that could only be combatted by measures aimed at overthrowing Cuba’s government.

Reagan’s directives ordered the departments of State and Defense, the CIA and the National Security Council to take actions that included speeding measures to tighten economic sanctions on Cuba; implementing plans to “raise the sense of threat to Cuba,” blacklisting ships calling at Cuban ports, curtailing tourism, and other efforts to “improve” the effectiveness and enforcement of the embargo; designing war plans for use against Cuba including an air/sea blockade; limiting family travel by Cuban Americans and imposing limits on financial support to their families, curbing scientific travel; cracking down on Cuba’s so-called abuse of humanitarian exceptions to the embargo; and providing support to Radio/TV Martí.

Within his executive authority, President Obama has tried to change everything that is wrong with imposing sanctions, dividing families, spreading fear, driving Cubans into poverty, and undermining Cuba by subversion, with what is right about diplomacy, empathy, exchange, respect, and a commitment to a common purpose.

In this respect, the directive sends a message to Cubans that U.S. policy will now support, not seek to undermine, their role in designing their own future.

It also offers reassurance to Cuban skeptics of U.S. intentions, at the highest levels, who devoted their lives to stopping what earlier directives had in mind for their government.

“As if to underscore a stark shift from decades of United States policy toward Cuba, which were marked by spying and suspicion,” the New York Times reported, “the document specifically requires that American-led “democracy programs” — which the Castro government has denounced as secret efforts to destabilize the country — be “transparent.”

In the words of Susan Rice, the President’s National Security Advisor, “The United States used to have secret plans for Cuba. Now our policy is out in the open – and online – for everyone to read. What you see is what you get.”

This alone merits a call to break out the cigars and rum.

But, the unfinished work of the Obama administration – ending an embargo with its crushing weight on Cuba’s economy, removing restrictions on U.S. travel to the island, even silencing the propaganda still broadcast by Radio/TV Martí – must be completed before the promise of normalization is fully redeemed.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Obama Administration announces new Cuba policy directive, regulatory changes

As Ambassador Susan Rice, U.S. National Security Advisor, announced President Obama’s Presidential Policy Directive on United States–Cuba Normalization Friday, the Department of the Treasury released a new round of regulatory changes further loosening restrictions on travel, trade, and scientific cooperation.

The changes include measures to facilitate joint medical research and other scientific cooperation as well as the sale in the U.S. of FDA-approved pharmaceuticals developed in Cuba; measures allowing credit transactions for the export of agricultural equipment, including tractors and pesticides, although agricultural commodities remain subject to payment restrictions; a measure allowing non-U.S. vessels to enter U.S. ports to load or unload freight; and a measure authorizing more robust cooperation between U.S. and Cuban civil aviation authorities. The Treasury also lifted all restrictions on the value amount of alcohol and tobacco products U.S. travelers may bring home from Cuba.

Jacob Lew, Secretary of the Treasury, said in a statement, “Today’s action builds on this progress by enabling more scientific collaboration, grants and scholarships, people-to-people contact, and private sector growth. These steps have the potential to accelerate constructive change and unlock greater economic opportunity for Cubans and Americans.” The new policies take effect October 17.

In wide-ranging remarks delivered at an event hosted by former Rep. Jane Harman (CA), president and CEO of the Wilson Center, Ambassador Rice called on Congress to lift the embargo, saying “End this outdated burden on the Cuban people. End the restriction on Americans who want to do business with them. Help us secure a better future for both countries through the exchange of resources, goods, and ideas.”

She also urged the U.S. Senate to conduct a swift confirmation process for Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, whom President Obama nominated last month as the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in over five decades. She discussed how an effective U.S. Embassy in Havana is essential to the U.S.’s ability to continue the normalization process and to continue to speak openly and constructively with Cuban counterparts about points of contention and of mutual interest. Addressing Senators, she said, “Don’t just say you care. Empower the Embassy to do its job.”

While stating the U.S. remained committed to speaking its mind to Cuba’s government on human rights and other issues, Ambassador Rice stated that U.S. policy and regulatory changes are not and should not be contingent on changes in Cuba. Engaging with Cuba, Ambassador Rice stated, “is manifestly in our interest.” At the same time, she said, U.S. policy changes are not sufficient for Cuba to be more prosperous, and she encouraged Cuba’s government to accelerate the pace of its economic reforms, especially the unification of its dual currencies.

In response to President Obama’s new policy directive, Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, stated:

“At its core, the new policy directive is historic; it breaks clearly and comprehensively from the Cold War mold of U.S. policy toward Cuba, and it lays out a new direction which respects Cuba’s sovereignty and normalizes the idea that both economies and both societies can benefit from engaging directly with one another.”

The Treasury Department published a fact sheet explaining the full list of regulatory changes, available here.

U.S., Cuba hold second human rights dialogue

Diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba held their second round of talks on human rights in Havana on Friday. Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, and Mari Carmen Aponte, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, co-led the U.S. delegation.

Cuba’s delegation was led by Pedro Luis Pedroso, Deputy Director for Multilateral Affairs and International Law at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry.

During the first human rights dialogue, which took place on March 31, 2015 in Washington, the U.S. and Cuba set the agenda for future talks and committed to discussing a range of human rights-related issues.

John Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, David Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, Sarah Fox, Special Representative for International Labor Affairs, as well as representatives from the Department of Justice and the U.S. Election Assistance Commission were also a part of the U.S. delegation.

Southwest Airlines announces Cuba routes from Tampa, Fort Lauderdale

Daily direct commercial flights from Tampa to Havana will begin in two months. Although the carrier still requires final approval from Cuba’s government, tickets for the Southwest Airlines flights went on sale Thursday, for $59 one-way and $150 roundtrip, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Southwest will also begin daily service to Varadero from Fort Lauderdale on November 13, reports NBC6 in Miami.

At a press conference Thursday, Rep. Kathy Castor (FL-14) said that the Tampa-Havana flights are “good news for Tampa Bay area families who want to connect with their relatives on the island of Cuba.” Tampa is home to the third-largest Cuban-American population in the U.S. A spokesperson for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has previously objected to closer Tampa-Cuba ties and nixed the idea of a Cuban consulate in Tampa, told the Tampa Bay Times that the mayor “is in support of any opportunity for Cuban families to reunite.”

In Cuba

Three million visitors to Cuba in 2016 thus far

Cuba has received three million visitors so far this year, marking a 12 percent increase over the same period last year, EFE reports. Cuba has also seen record numbers of U.S. travelers; in June alone, 61 percent more U.S. travelers visited Cuba than in June 2015.

Hurricane recovery and cleanup efforts continue in Eastern Cuba

Hurricane Matthew hit Cuba’s eastern Guantánamo province on October 4, battering the historic city of Baracoa, where it destroyed homes, crops, roads, and electricity infrastructure; no fatalities were reported. Recovery efforts began the next day. Inter Press Service reports that the rains brought by Hurricane Matthew have not eased the ongoing drought, Cuba’s worst in 115 years.

The United Nations World Food Programme is providing food assistance to 180,000 people in Cuba over the next six months as the country confronts significant crop damage in the hardest-hit areas. A shipment of 375 tons of construction materials and machinery arrived from Venezuela this week to help rebuild homes and infrastructure damaged by high winds and storm surges, Granma reports.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Algeria’s Prime Minister visits Cuba

Abdelmalek Sellal, Prime Minister of Algeria, met with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro in Havana to discuss bilateral cooperation in health, tourism, education, research, and hydraulics, EFE reports. Prime Minister Sellal, who traveled with Algeria’s Minister of State and Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the Minister of Health, Population, and Hospital Reform, also met with Cuba’s former president Fidel Castro, Granma reports. Reuters reported last month that Sonatrach, Algeria’s state oil company, would ship 515,000 barrels of crude oil to Cuba in October, though neither country has confirmed the story. Cuba’s subsidized oil shipments from Venezuela dropped by 40 percent this year.

Cuba expresses support for Colombia-ELN peace talks

Cuba’s government stated that it will “continue to contribute in every way possible…to the achievement of a final peace accord” between Colombia and the ELN, reports AFP. Negotiations between representatives of Colombia’s government and the ELN begin October 27 in Quito, Ecuador. El Espectador reports that the ELN has pledged to release all hostages before peace talks begin.

In a referendum that saw remarkably low turnout, Colombia’s voters rejected the peace accord between Colombia’s government and the FARC by a slim margin on October 2; days later, Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to secure a peace accord to end 52 years of devastating civil war. Negotiators returned to Havana to try to reach a new accord, and President Santos announced Friday the extension of the ceasefire between the army and the FARC through the end of 2016, Reuters reports. Supporters of the peace process continue to hold mass demonstrations, to which President Santos responded via Twitter: “I will not betray the hope of peace #ElPresidenteEscucha” or “the President is listening.”

Recommended reading: The Long Way to America, Karl Vick, Time

Time chronicles the journey of several Cuban migrants on their way to the U.S. by way of Guyana, then by bus to Brazil, plane to Peru, another bus to Ecuador, overland to Panama, a plane to Mexico City and then a second flight to Matamoros, Texas, to finally cross into the U.S. The Americas Society/Council of the Americas offers statistics, a timeline, and an interactive map of Cubans’ migration over the last several years.

Recommended reading: Cuban farmers caught in ‘perfect storm’, Will Grant, BBC

Will Grant spoke with farmers in Cuba whose planting and harvest seasons suffer not only from alternating drought and heavy rains, but also from the lack of modern agricultural technology, which they hope to eventually be able to obtain from U.S. vendors. Onil Beltrán, owner of Finca Santa Rosa in the Mayabeque province, said, “If relations continue to improve with the U.S. and they lift the embargo, we could acquire better tools, better seeds.” New U.S. regulations announced Friday allow credit financing for the export to Cuba of equipment such as tractors.

Recommended viewing: Dr. Jill Biden’s visit to Cuba

As we reported last week, Dr. Jill Biden, wife of the U.S. vice president, visited Cuba October 6 through October 8, where she met with Cuban women leaders, entrepreneurs, and artists, as well as health officials and educators. In a video posted on Twitter, Dr. Biden spoke about the importance of engagement in strengthening ties between the U.S. and Cuba. Speaking about the people she had met on the island, she remarked “From the moment we arrived in Cuba I met with many, many strong women.”

Editor’s note: CDA is now accepting applications on a rolling basis for our Winter-Spring 2017 internship in areas including policy and advocacy and social media. Applications are due by November 15. Please visit our website for more information about how to apply.

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