For more than a year, we’ve been forced to think about the work we and others do – making President Obama’s opening to Cuba permanent and irreversible – in the context of the larger dialogue taking place in our country and around the world.
“Ever since the world’s existed
There’s one thing that is certain
There are those who build walls
And those who open doors”
“Muros Y Puertas,” music and lyrics by Carlos Varela
In many ways, the last three decades were about doors being opened and walls, in places like Berlin and elsewhere, coming down. The rise of technology and trade, the more rapid exchange of ideas and culture have made the world more open and better connected.
Viewed in the arc of recent history, President Obama’s opening to Cuba – politically risky and hard-fought as it was to achieve – was a late arrival at a party that had raged for some time. Not just late, but counterproductive. As the President said at the UN this month, a nation ringed by walls only imprisons itself.
“Ah but this my love I’m thinking you already knew.”
After December 17, 2014, the astonishing moment when Presidents Obama and Castro disclosed that the broken connections of our nations’ diplomacy and commerce would be restored, we could see how restoring postal service and direct-dial calls, the growing harvest of newly opened hotspots in Havana, U.S. cellphone customers roaming – literally and figuratively – in Cuba all fit into a greater world of lowered barriers. Cuba policy, no longer out of step, fit into that world well.
“At some point on the horizon
Sky can be confused with earth
Some people dream of God
While others dream of wealth”
Now, President Obama’s 2014 opening – irreversible as we believe it to be – is situated in a different context. In 2015, as the Washington Post reported earlier this month, “work started on more new barriers around the world than at any other point in modern history. There are now 63 borders where walls or fences separate neighboring countries.”
The fortifications weren’t summoned from the ground on their own. “Even as globalization was working its magic on trade, mobility and investment,” the Post writes, “a seditious resentment was brewing among those left behind,” an audience for nationalists and populists speaking to their fears, in continental Europe earlier this year; audibly and worryingly here; whose fears, in fairness, need to be addressed.
We met Carlos Varela, the remarkable singer-songwriter, fifteen years ago during our second visit to Cuba. Carlos is revered for capturing in his songs what his generation of Cubans thinks and feels about their lives. And when they hear him singing these things out loud – so candidly and so beautifully – he fills them with hope.
Since 2001, Carlos has met with dozens of delegations led by our organization, the Center for Democracy in the America (CDA), and inspired dozens of Congress members to do the right thing to change our policy toward Cuba. During the days when our governments were determined not to speak to each other, Carlos expressed an abiding faith that our isolation would end. “Music,” he said once, will not bring a quick end to 50 years of political conflict. Music does not move governments, but it can move people. And people can move governments.”
This spring, Jackson Browne brought an audience to its feet when he sang Carlos’s song, “Muros Y Puertas,” before a packed concert in Virginia. At a time when the chants of “build the wall” dominated our public discourse, hearing “Walls and Doors,” and its optimistic appeal to freedom and openness filled us with hope, too.
“It’s how it’s always been
And I know you know it
There can be freedom only when nobody owns it
Let me say that again
Because I know that we both know it
There can be freedom only when nobody owns it.”
Earlier this year, during the visit of President Obama’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, we introduced Carlos to Dave Matthews, the Grammy-winning musician who was part of the distinguished delegation. They played “Muros Y Puertas” in Havana, as you can see and hear to stunning effect.
In honor of our organization’s 10th anniversary, Carlos and Dave are playing together again, this time in Washington. Their musical collaboration symbolizes our belief that bringing people together to talk, engage, and heal is indispensable for reconciling Cuba and America and closing the breach between Cubans and Americans. We need that same process to unfold in the days and weeks to come to heal our country, too.
We’re hoping that these great artists and generous supporters of our work will sing “Walls and Doors” together again. Maybe you’d like to hear them sing it for yourself. A limited number of tickets for their performance, on sale to benefit CDA, are available by contacting us at 202-234-5506 or email@example.com.
This week, in Cuba news…
Speaking during the Havana International Trade Fair, Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s Foreign Commerce Minister, announced the ministry’s intention to quicken negotiations with investors, and introduced Cuba’s new portfolio of 395 projects seeking foreign investment, Reuters reports. The projects total $9.5 billion of investment, up by $1.3 billion compared to last year’s portfolio. Projects seeking investment vary widely, and cover areas including transportation, healthcare, tourism (for projects primarily outside of Havana), food and sugar production, as well as mining and renewable energy. Cuba’s annual investment goal, as Mr. Malmierca noted, is $2 billion; Cuba’s government has approved just $1.3 billion worth of projects since loosening its foreign investment statutes in 2014.
This year, Cuba has approved 11 business proposals for the Mariel Special Economic Development Zone, bringing the total number of approved ventures to 19, Reuters reports. On Friday, Unilever began constructing its toothpaste and soap factory in the Mariel Special Development Zone, a joint-venture project approved in January.
Of the proposals still under review, two are U.S. prospects. Cuba’s government had initially considered three U.S. projects, but rejected the proposal from Cleber, the Alabama-based tractor company because, as Reuters put it, “the factory would not have used enough high technology.”
Cleber, the Alabama tractor company that received a Treasury Department license in February to build a factory in the Mariel Special Development Zone, was notified this week that Cuba’s government has denied the final approval the company needed to build at Mariel. Cleber has already begun discussions with Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture and Cuba’s import-export authorities to investigate possibilities to import Cleber’s tractors to Cuba rather than producing them in Cuba, reports the Miami Herald.
Saul Berenthal, a co-founder of Cleber, told the Miami Herald that he hopes Cleber and Cuba’s government can eventually work out a deal for on-island production, if the import business goes as hoped. “We’re not giving up. We’re here for the long run,” he told the Herald. “We understand the process.”
As Reuters reported this week, hundreds of U.S. companies, as well as state and local officials, have met with Cuba’s government to explore trade and investment opportunities, but progress has been slow due to delays on the part of both governments. “You are trying to undo 55 years of enmity and that requires patience,” Pedro Freyre, chair of international practice at Akerman LLP, told Reuters.
Broadening a partnership dating to 2002, representatives from Rutgers University and the University of Havana re-signed a Memorandum of Understanding to further collaborate in population health and wellness, engineering and scientific research, urban policy and community development, as well as exchange programs for students and faculty, reports the Rutgers-Camden News Now. The partnership, signed during the International Conference on Cuba held on Rutgers’ Camden campus, now includes the entire Rutgers University system, whereas the original partnership was only between Rutgers University-Camden and the University of Havana. The expanded collaboration is also supported by a U.S. Department of Education grant.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
Cuba and the European Union are scheduled to sign a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement on December 12 to formally end the EU’s so-called “common position,” which predicated renewing diplomatic ties on Cuba undertaking democratic reforms, reports EFE. Herman Portocarero, the EU ambassador to Cuba, said in a press conference at the Havana International Trade Fair that the agreement will lay the legal groundwork for EU-Cuba relations to move forward. The dialogue will cover topics including human rights and politics. The European Commission adopted proposals on the signing of the agreement and eliminating the “common position” in September; members of the Council of the European Union then reviewed the proposals.
The United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund will devote $5.3 million to Cuba’s post-Matthew recovery efforts, ACN reports. According to Myrta Kaulard, UN resident coordinator for Cuba, the aid will go to home-rebuilding, food security, water supply, sanitation, health, and education in the Guantánamo and Holguín provinces.
Tampa and Cuba, Once Cold War enemies, now work together to save the ocean, Paul Guzzo, Tampa Bay Times
Paul Guzzo reports on cooperation between U.S. and Cuban marine experts, as well as between the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and Cuba’s National Aquarium. Margo McKnight, Vice President of Biological Resources at the Florida Aquarium, said of the aquarium-to-aquarium collaboration, “It started as a conversation about how we can help each other while remaining separate. It became a question of how we can work together as one unit.”