Thanksgiving Special: Taking Stock of an Extraordinary Year in U.S.-Cuba Relations

In the United States, we’re on the eve of our Thanksgiving holiday.

Tomorrow morning, millions of children will be huddled around television sets watching massive helium-filled balloons – featuring Trolls, Red Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Ronald McDonald, and Red Angry Birds – fly high as they lead the parade down the Avenue of the Americas in New York.

In the afternoon and evening, football fans will change the channel to watch (we’re not kidding) the Redskins versus the Cowboys, and the Steelers play the Colts.

By game time, all of us will know which of the turkeys named “Tater” and “Tot” received one of the last Presidential pardons of the Obama administration.

Many of us, before gathering with family or friends, will spend at least a part of Thanksgiving Day taking stock of what makes us feel grateful and happy. As you make your list, we’d like to share ours with you.

Since last Thanksgiving, there have been a succession of changes in U.S.-Cuba relations that made us hopeful and extraordinarily happy. In 2016 alone:

  • President Obama visited Cuba, making him the first sitting U.S. president to do so in 88 years;
  • A bilateral agreement produced the resumption of direct transportation of mail between the U.S. and Cuba for the first time in 43 years;
  • The U.S. and Cuba signed memoranda of understanding on agriculture, health, cancer research, environmental cooperation, commercial air travel, maritime navigation, and more;
  • U.S and Cuban diplomats had face-to-face discussions on law enforcement, security, counter-narcotics, property claims, human rights, public health, the environment, trade and investment, banking, agriculture, telecommunications, and intellectual property;
  • The administration issued rules giving U.S. travelers the right to visit Cuba under individual people-to-people licenses, the ability to choose among more affordable, regularly scheduled commercial flights to the island, to book passage on a Carnival cruise ship, and reserve a room at an Airbnb rental or a Sheraton-managed hotel;
  • Cuba and major cellphone carriers including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile reached agreements allowing their customers to talk, text, and roam in Cuba, and travelers may now use MasterCard credit cards from two U.S. banks to complete transactions and withdraw money on the island;
  • Patients in the U.S. suffering from lung cancer got good news when New York’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute received both FDA approval to conduct the first U.S. clinical trial of Cuba’s life-saving lung cancer vaccine and Treasury Department approval to form a joint business venture with the Cuban research institute that developed the vaccine;
  • Last month, President Obama issued a Presidential Policy Directive on Cuba policy, charting a course for the full normalization of relations, as National Security Advisor Susan Rice called on Congress to lift the embargo, and stated that engaging with Cuba is “manifestly in our interest”;
  • The U.S. FINALLY! abstained from voting on the UN resolution condemning the embargo against Cuba, as UN Ambassador Samantha Power affirmed that the U.S. has “chosen to take the path of engagement.”

These great advances in 2016 – drawn from a far larger list – demonstrate how much progress our two countries make when we talk to each other (a principle Congress should remember as the nomination of Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis to serve as the first U.S. ambassador to Cuba in over five decades languishes without a confirmation hearing).

As we wait for the next administration to clarify its intentions for Cuba policy going forward, we are deeply grateful for the changes we’ve seen, participated in, and documented for you over the course of this extraordinary year.

We’ve enjoyed reporting on each of these developments over the last year – so we would be remiss if we did not thank our loyal Cuba Central readers.

In closing, we don’t want to ruffle your feathers. Instead, perhaps, we’ll dwell on eagles not turkeys, and hope for statesmen to keep normalization on course, rather than red-colored, gas-filled balloons leading the policy backward in time to a colder, angrier age.

You’ll hear from us next week with a full rundown of the news. To tide you over for the holiday weekend, we offer our take on the week so far in Cuba news, plus a piece of recommended reading.

If you’d like to support our work bringing you the news, week in and week out, please consider making a donation to CDA. We’ll be so grateful for your contribution.

Happy Thanksgiving.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

As U.S. businesses plan effort to keep Cuba rapprochement on course, President-elect adds pro-embargo lobbyist to transition team

USA Today reports that a coalition of U.S. businesses engaged with Cuba will urge President-elect Trump to walk back his campaign promises to undo President Obama’s advances in trade, travel, and diplomatic relations and push for continued progress in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Companies in the coalition include major airlines and cellphone carriers serving U.S. travelers to the island; tech companies Google and Cisco, each of which have ongoing projects on the island; Carnival Corp., which began operating cruises to Cuba in May; Starwood Hotels and Resorts (owned by Marriott), which is managing three Cuban-owned hotels on the island; Airbnb, through which over 8,000 Cubans are renting out rooms to travelers from around the world; and banks offering U.S. credit and debit cards for use in Cuba.

Investing U.S. commercial interests in closer relations with Cuba has been instrumental to President Obama’s strategy to chip away at the regulations that make up the embargo, and to make these changes irreversible.

Separately, the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) is urging the incoming administration not to roll back the regulatory changes that loosened restrictions on travel to Cuba. Erika Richter, ASTA’s director of communications, told Travel Pulse that undoing the regulatory openings in travel would be “much more complicated than simply reversing the executive orders. The changes under the Obama Administration have led to new business licensing and new commercial flights, along with the corresponding regulatory improvements led by various government agencies.” She added, “The repercussions are simply much bigger than preventing tourism.”

Meanwhile, the President-elect has appointed pro-embargo hardliner Mauricio Claver-Carone to his transition team for the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Mr. Claver-Carone, executive director of the pro-embargo U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, served as an attorney-advisor to the Treasury during the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, the Miami Herald notes.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, as of October 28, the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC donated a total $494,500 to pro-sanctions legislators during the 2016 election cycle. Although President-elect Trump has held several positions on U.S. policy toward Cuba in recent years, as we wrote last week, the appointments he has announced thus far, now including Mr. Claver-Carone, signal a commitment to his pro-embargo stance, at least for now.

Commercial flights to Havana to begin next week

The first U.S. commercial flights to Havana in over a half-century begin next week, with American Airlines beginning service from Miami on November 28. Later in the week, JetBlue, Spirit, and Frontier begin flights from Fort Lauderdale, while Delta begins service from Miami and New York’s JFK airport. Southwest Airlines’ twice-daily flights from Fort Lauderdale begin December 12.

Governor of West Virginia visits Cuba

Earl Ray Tomblin, outgoing Governor of West Virginia, conducted a two-day trade mission to Cuba, which he hopes will foster trade ties between his state and the island, reports the West Virginia MetroNews. In meetings with Cuba’s government, Gov. Tomblin’s delegation, which included state officials and business leaders, discussed opportunities for trade between Cuba and West Virginia. In Havana on Saturday, Governor Tomblin expressed his support for the normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, saying, “I can’t predict what the new president will do … but I think that [relations] will continue to progress. The barriers of the last 50 years hopefully will come down some day,” WSAZ-NBC News reports. Keith Burdette, West Virginia Secretary of Commerce, who also joined the trip, told the MetroNews that the trade mission “was a really unusual opportunity that we think might create some jobs in West Virginia.”

Recommended Reading

Caracas Connect, November 2016 Report: Venezuela’s Agony Intensifies, Dan Hellinger, Center for Democracy in the Americas

Dr. Dan Hellinger offers analysis of the situation in Venezuela, including ongoing food and medical good shortages, mediation between the government and the opposition, and the National Electoral Council’s decision to postpone a possible recall election of President Nicolás Maduro. Dr. Hellinger also examines the prospects for U.S.-Venezuela relations under the Trump administration, as well as what the near-term may hold for Venezuela’s relations with Cuba and other countries in the region.

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