Beyond irreversible: An embargo-free Cuba policy seems more and more possible

The embargo is a little like the 2016 election. Everybody wants to know, when will it be over?

Short answer is: Not yet, but the end is coming into view. Here’s one reason why.

For decades, the debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba stalled because the beneficiaries of ending the embargo were largely invisible, while its greatest defenders were visible, powerful, and determined not to lose. This imbalance made the prospects for change seem eternally grim.

As if led by the hidden hand of a community organizer, the beneficiaries of a more open, reciprocal relationship with Cuba have emerged these last eight years; starting with Cuban Americans who used their travel and remittance rights, expanded in 2009, to visit the island in droves, support their families, and seed the new businesses they started and help them grow.

Cuban Americans have since been joined by other beneficiaries of open travel and trade policies – the airlines, ferries, hotel managers, finance, and telecom firms, for example – with a deep stake in protecting the new policies and making them irreversible.

Since the White House issued its Presidential Policy Directive and additional regulatory changes a week ago, the list of increasingly visible, vested interests is growing in profoundly important and practical ways.

If you have cancer or diabetes, or know someone who does, your future health and well-being are affected by new Treasury rules that allow U.S. scientists “to freely collaborate with Cuban counterparts on everything from cancer therapies to combatting the Zika virus,” as Science Magazine reported.

An impressive list of Cuban medical breakthroughs – many undergoing trials or available for use outside of the U.S. for the treatment of lung and gastric cancers, diabetic foot ulcers, and other serious conditions – could soon be within reach for American doctors and their patients.

Access to these treatments is likely to lower drug prices, as Modern Healthcare reports. The new policy, which gives pharmaceuticals developed in Cuba a clearer regulatory path to being imported and sold, “could bring [Cuba’s] cheaper, reputable medicines to the U.S. if they’re approved by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Beyond health care, the new policies will create opportunities for U.S. businesses in Cuba that will yield profits and jobs here at home. As trade analysts have observed:

  • The new rules allow U.S. construction companies and contractors to build and repair infrastructure systems in Cuba including public transportation, water and waste management, electricity generation and distribution, hospitals, as well as public housing and schools.
  • They authorize the export of consumer goods including goods sold online, which will boost the development and growth of e-commerce in Cuba, allow U.S. companies in e-commerce to expand their consumer base, and further drive accessibility of the internet in Cuba.
  • They also empower “U.S. companies to develop, negotiate, and finalize business opportunities in Cuba for goods, services, or a combination of both,” and sign contracts contingent on getting regulatory approval. Prior to last week, companies had to seek regulatory approval first, which often scotched their chances to do any business in Cuba at all.

As the trade experts commented, “This is a big deal.”

Crowding the stage further with Cuba policy reform beneficiaries, we could mention passengers seeking seats with the airlines who are now selling one-way flights to Cuba for as little as $54, or the writers at Travel Weekly, who worried about protecting their sector’s gains under the banner headline “Trump’s Cuba policy could prove a setback for travel industry.”

Finally, there are pro-policy reform candidates running for office in Florida whose campaigns are now buoyed by thousands of Cuban Americans from both political parties who want the trade and travel bans to end. This week, for example, the Miami Herald endorsed Rep. Patrick Murphy (FL-18) in his run against the incumbent Senator Marco Rubio in part because “He supports the diplomatic opening to Cuba.” In addition, “(t)he Latin Builders Association, a prominent Miami industry group founded by Cuban exiles, recently endorsed Mrs. Clinton, the first time in its 45-year history it has supported a Democratic presidential nominee,” as the Wall Street Journal reported. This is in Florida, the ground zero of strident anti-embargo activity.

Peter Kornbluh, writing for The Nation, posed the question begged by the Obama diplomatic breakthrough of 2014 this way: “Could political, commercial, and cultural bridges between the United States and Cuba be constructed—and firmly reinforced—so that the process of normalization could withstand current and future enemies of reconciliation?”

The answer is yes, as the President’s reforms – surely irreversible – have shifted power from the embargo’s most strident supporters to the emerging beneficiaries of openness with Cuba.

No, the embargo isn’t over. But the process for ending it is firmly underway – thanks, in large part, to President Obama’s organizing vision that changed the political economy around this issue, which had stalled progress far too long.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cuba responds to Presidential Policy Directive and regulatory changes, prepares for annual UN anti-embargo vote

As Cuban officials praised changes in U.S. policy released last week – encompassed by the new Presidential Policy Directive on Cuba and additional regulatory reforms – they also released a list of 18 other actions he can take under his existing authority before he leaving office. An article in state newspaper Granma called the regulatory changes “on the right track but limited,” and noted the continuation of USAID programs aimed at forcing regime change in Cuba.

Cuban diplomats also focused on continuation of so-called “regime change” programs, despite assurances from National Security Advisor Susan Rice that the efforts would be transparent. “We are not stupid,” said Cuba’s ambassador to Mexico, Dagoberto Rodríguez, according to the Nation Magazine, in an interview with Proceso. “We realize that the policy of the United States continues to have the same objective” of subverting the revolution.

Meanwhile, in the run-up to the vote on Cuba’s resolution condemning the embargo in the UN General Assembly, Josefina Vidal, Director General for U.S. Affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, joined students at the University of Havana to call for the lifting of the embargo, and to urge countries to continue to oppose the embargo, reports the Huffington Post. Cuba has been leading a social media campaign with the hashtag #YoVotoVsBloqueo (I vote against the blockade), on the island and regionally. The vote on the non-binding resolution takes place on October 26, and is expected to pass with overwhelming support, as it has for the last 24 years.

U.S., Cuba sign MOU to fight cancer, hold medical exchange

During an official visit to Havana, Sylvia M. Burwell, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, signed a memorandum of understanding with Cuba’s Minister of Public Health pledging bilateral cooperation in the fight against cancer, Cuban state media reported. Ms. Burwell, along with U.S. experts on tropical diseases, also attended a three-day meeting with Cuban counterparts to exchange information on research into insect-borne infectious disease including Zika, dengue, and chikungunya, the Associated Press reports. The MOU promotes collaborative research projects between the U.S. and Cuba, and meetings and workshops for scientists and public health officials to exchange best practices for cancer research, treatment, and prevention. This cooperation agreement builds on the agreement signed in June, in which the U.S. and Cuba initiated their commitment to health cooperation in a variety of areas including infectious diseases, cancer, health security and technology, and biomedical collaboration.

Among the regulatory changes it unveiled last week, the Treasury Department announced measures to facilitate scientific cooperation, U.S.-Cuba joint medical research, and the sale in the U.S. of FDA-approved pharmaceuticals developed in Cuba. As Science Magazine’s Richard Stone reported last week, the U.S. government “is also lifting restrictions that have mostly barred Cubans from receiving U.S. grants, scholarships, and awards for research.”

Daily JetBlue flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana to begin Nov. 30, cheapest in market so far

JetBlue will begin operating daily Fort Lauderdale-to-Havana flights, and is now selling one-way tickets for $54, the Miami Herald reports. The routes begin November 30, with an additional flight beginning December 1, which will fly every day but Saturdays. The carrier’s flights to Havana from New York’s JFK airport and the Orlando (Florida) International Airport begin November 28 and 29, respectively.

AT&T opens roaming in Cuba

AT&T customers may now roam in Cuba, make cheaper calls to the U.S. and use data, the company announced in a statement. The carrier signed an agreement in August with ETECSA, Cuba’s state-run telecom company, joining Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile, which reached roaming agreements earlier this year.

In Cuba

Havana government temporarily stops issuing new private restaurant licenses, conducting inspections

The provincial government of Havana announced in state media Wednesday that it has temporarily stopped issuing new licenses for paladares – privately owned restaurants – and is conducting inspections to attempt to mitigate unlawful activity by restaurant owners, reports the AP. Isabel Hamze, Acting Vice President of Havana’s Provincial Administration Council, told CubaDebate, “This measure is temporary and will be in force while we complete the auditing process…We recognize that these businesses are important for the city, and the government wants them to be successful, but to operate within the law.” CubaDebate published a list of the issues, including purchasing goods on the black market, prostitution, drug use, and noise ordinance violations, which city officials are discussing with restaurant owners. Havana now has over 500 private restaurants, Reuters notes.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Mariel Port construction halted as Brazilian contractor’s loans frozen

Odebrecht, the Brazilian company constructing the container terminal at Cuba’s Special Economic Development Zone at the Port of Mariel, has halted activities in the port because its loans from Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) have been frozen, according to reporting by OnCuba Magazine. Brazilian loans related to the Mariel project have been under investigation by Brazil’s Department of Justice since this summer, as has the alleged use of his office and influence by former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to benefit Odebrecht’s projects overseas. The company’s former CEO Marcelo Odebrecht is currently serving a 19-year prison sentence for corruption, and remains embroiled in corruption and money laundering allegations connected to Brazil’s oil company Petrobras. Brazil’s top prosecutor leveled further corruption charges against Lula and Marcelo Odebrecht last week for graft related to Odebrecht’s contracts in Angola. Cuba’s government has not commented on the status of the port modernization project.

Recommended Reading

Normalization of Relations With Cuba Is All But Irreversible Now, Peter Kornbluh, The Nation

Writing for The Nation magazine, Peter Kornbluh, who directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, says Presidential Policy Directive and regulatory changes announced last week “will make it harder for the next president to reverse course” on the last two years’ policy reforms.  By shifting the policy from one which “mandates positive engagement, as opposed to perpetual hostility, as the modus operandi of future U.S. policy toward Cuba,” Kornbluh writes, “Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba will become a case study in the history of U.S. foreign policy,” writes Kornbluh.

Amid a Struggling Economy, Cuban Real Estate Is Booming, Carrie Kahn, National Public Radio

Carrie Kahn reports on the growth of Havana’s real estate market, which is “taking place in select areas and is an anomaly in Cuba’s otherwise sputtering economy, where austerity measures, electricity cuts and fuel shortages take a toll on everyday life.” Over the last several years, as Cuba has implemented economic reforms, homeownership and the buying and selling of property has increased on the island; only Cuban residents may purchase homes, and the embargo prohibits persons subject to U.S. jurisdiction from doing so, but, Kahn reports, “that hasn’t stopped foreigners from finding loopholes and fueling the frenzy.” However, as real estate agent Yoandi Rizo Fiallo stated, “The problem is that we are selling houses for a million dollars for a city that is not ready for millionaires.”

Interview: El Tipo Este Is Still Pushing Cuban Hip-Hop Forward, Luna Olavarría Gallegos, Fader

Hip-hop artist Alexey Rodríguez Mola, or El Tipo Este, cofounder with Magia López of the Cuban hip-hop duo Obsesión, reflected on the group’s influential career in Cuba’s hip-hop scene over the last two decades, and the power of music as a tool for activism and confronting racism. Asked about his hopes for Cuba, he says “Prosperity for my country. Equality in every sense. A sense of diversity. More culture, more exchanges, that we get rid of the blockade. … I think that Cuba, for the first time after the revolution is going to be free of pressure to do what it desires and it will be a huge lesson for us because I think there’s also an internal blockade.”

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