“Please don’t turn your back on us.”
On Wednesday, countless words were spoken in Washington, but these seven cut through the din. Speaking to journalists and Members of Congress in the U.S. Capitol, four Cuban women who run small businesses on the island urged President-elect Trump to maintain the reforms in U.S. policy that have helped make their businesses grow.
Yamina Vicente, an event planner and interior decorator; Marta Elisa Deus Rodríguez, who runs an accounting business; Julia de la Rosa, who runs a bed-and-breakfast; and Marla Recio Carbajal stood together. They represented over 100 Cuban private business owners on the island who signed this letter. It connects the improved climate for doing business in Cuba to the increases in travel to the island, improved access to the Internet, direct calling, and easier financial transactions brought about by a more open U.S. policy toward Cuba.
As Reuters reported, the letter was organized by Cuba Educational Travel, a U.S. company that arranges trips to the island, and coordinated with Engage Cuba. It was signed by Cuban entrepreneurs who operate family-owned restaurants, car services, hair salons, startup companies and other small-scale businesses.
Marla, who received her undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Havana, returned to Cuba after earning a graduate degree at the University of California, San Diego, to start a business that helps U.S. visitors plan events on their trips to Cuba. She credits President Raúl Castro’s opening Cuba’s private sector and the sharp increase in U.S. visitors for creating this opportunity.
On Wednesday, Marla told a crowd of U.S. legislators and journalists, “I want to be in Havana and I look forward to a future that is better for the American and the Cuban people” – so long as President Trump doesn’t turn his back on her, her fellow entrepreneurs, and the mass of Cubans who want the policy of closer U.S.-Cuba ties to stick.
There is a fear of being forsaken expressed by many Cubans as they eye the incoming Trump administration and its threat to undo President Obama’s opening to Cuba.
Earlier this week, Tim Padgett wrote in the Miami Herald of his encounter with Caridad Limonta, who served as one of the first female vice-ministers of small industry in Cuba. She left government to start what has become a successful clothing business. She can’t understand why Mr. Trump would reverse U.S. policy to normalize relations. “Why would he want to asphyxiate Cubans like me?” Limonta asks.
The economist Ricardo Torres, writing in Progreso Weekly, is as worried by the potential fallout that the unraveling of U.S. travel and trade would have inside Cuba’s governing counsels as he is by the damage that “could be felt in sectors such as tourism or remittances.”
He writes, “It would also confirm the warnings of groups [resistant] to U.S.-Cuba rapprochement in the sense that the U.S. is not a trustworthy partner. Washington would again turn its back on Cuba, precisely when the island needs more integration and relations with the world, so as to lay down the foundation for the new Cuban model.”
In U.S. politics, there is a fierce debate over how the President-elect can keep his campaign promise to repeal and replace “Obamacare,” when there is no workable alternative to forcing 20 million Americans to relinquish their health insurance and fall through the cracks.
On his first day in office, it won’t be hard for President Trump to pull the regulatory rugs out from under businesses like Airbnb, Sprint, Verizon, Marriott, Western Union, United Airlines, and the Carnival Cruise lines – the ones that helped Marla, Marta, Julia, and Yamina ramp up their small businesses. He can terminate their deals with a swipe of his pen in as much time as he takes to type out a tweet, and turn his back on them on all.
Repealing is, in fact, dead easy. Replacing? Not so much. The alternative to the new policy is the old policy – that Cold War okie-doke of broken diplomatic relations and squeezing the Cuban economy to force its people to lead harsher lives.
Backsliding like this, as Rep. Tom Emmer (MN-6th) said Wednesday, standing beside the entrepreneurs from Cuba, would fit the definition of insanity: “doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”
For the President to turn his back on Marla, her brother and sister small business owners, and on the hopes that the vast numbers of Cubans who work in the service of their government share with them; it would be more than insane. It would be indecent.
This was the right time for Marla to raise her voice. And the right moment to do it.
This week, in Cuba news…
The U.S.-Cuba bilateral commission held its fifth meeting in Havana this week. Diplomats reviewed the commission’s agreements from its last meeting, held September 30, and assessed the advances made since its inaugural meeting on September 11, 2015.
Within weeks, according to a U.S. State Department statement released Wednesday after the meeting, the two countries “expect to sign agreements formalizing cooperation on law enforcement, conservation, seismology, meteorology, search and rescue, and oil spill response protocols.”
The U.S. delegation was led by Mari Carmen Aponte, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, which also included Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Chargé d’Affaires for the U.S. Embassy in Havana, and John Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. Cuba’s delegation was led by Josefina Vidal, Director General for U.S. Affairs.
The bilateral commission was formed by the two governments and announced August 14, 2015, the day the U.S. flag was hoisted above the newly opened U.S. embassy in Havana. Under its auspices, senior diplomats from Cuba and the United States meet periodically to define outstanding issues and to focus negotiations on areas where progress can be made to resolve them.
Reviewing the last 18 months’ progress in relations, the State Department highlighted 11 non-binding bilateral agreements and memoranda of understanding in areas ranging from counter-narcotics to cancer research; high-level delegations including cabinet-level officials, governors from states including New York and Virginia, and upward of 80 Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle. The full statement is available here.
The next meeting will take place in Washington, D.C. but has not yet been scheduled.
In a press conference following the meeting, Ms. Vidal emphasized the importance of the commission’s work, and stated that Cuba’s government hopes to sign most of the 12 accords still under negotiation before President Obama’s term ends, Reuters reports. Asked about President-elect Trump’s statements on his plans for U.S.-Cuba relations, Ms. Vidal said, “Cuba would hope the new U.S. government takes into account the results we have achieved… that are backed by the majority of the Cuban population (and) U.S. citizens.”
Separately, a group of 100 Cuban entrepreneurs (known as cuentapropistas) sent a letter to President-elect Trump urging him to maintain and continue building economic and diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba. A bipartisan group of three Members of Congress and three U.S. Senators joined four cuentapropistas to release the letter on Capitol Hill. Yamina Vicente, a former economics professor at the University of Havana who now owns a party-planning and decorating business in Havana called Decorazón (“from the heart”), said, “I hope that the next president of the United States, as a businessman, understands our needs. … A few years ago, a new era of dreams in Cuba began. I hope that my children will be able to dream, too,” reports Reuters.
Meanwhile, support is building for the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act in the Senate. The bill, sponsored by Senator Jeff Flake (AZ), now has 53 cosponsors. The most recent additions are Florida Senator Bill Nelson and Idaho Senator Mike Crapo. Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, commented: “Senator Nelson’s decision taken after the 2016 election shows that keeping Cuba open to travel continues to have momentum and ensures we maintain a majority for passage in the next Congress.”
Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings became the second and third cruise lines, respectively, to obtain approval to bring U.S. passengers to Cuba, reports the Miami Herald. In a statement, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings announced it would begin its Cuba cruises March 7, from the Port of Miami. Carnival Corp.’s Adonia has been operating cruises to the island since May. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that one additional cruise line, Pearl Seas Cruises, also expected to receive a license soon.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
The Council of the European Union voted to sign a political dialogue and cooperation agreement with Cuba on December 12th which will serve as the legal framework for relations. The EU has repealed the so-called “Common Position,” thereby removing conditions the EU sought to impose on Cuba in order to have normal relations, according to an EU Council press release. The European Parliament must first consent to the new policy before Frederica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the EU foreign ministers, and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla sign the accord at a ceremony next week. The agreement lays the groundwork for political dialogue, cooperation and sector policy dialogue, and trade and trade cooperation. Ms. Mogherini said in a statement, “through the new agreement, the EU is ready to support Cuba’s process of economic and social modernisation, and I am looking forward to further advancing our bilateral relations.” As we reported, the European Commission adopted proposals on the signing of both actions in September.
Following the first high-level Cuba-Russia Science-Technology Exchange Workshop, Cuba and Russia agreed to cooperate in areas including astronomy and outer space, medicine, agriculture, use of natural resources, nuclear energy, and nanotechnology, reports EFE. According to Danilo Alonso, Cuba’s Vice Minister for Science, Technology, and the Environment, the accord is the “first step” in what promises to be a “very relevant and fruitful” collaboration.
In a brief, private ceremony on Sunday, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro interred Fidel Castro’s ashes in his tomb in Santa Ifegenia cemetery in Santiago de Cuba; he then announced that per the elder Castro’s wishes, no monuments or streets would bear Fidel Castro’s name. With the nine-day national mourning period ending Monday, and the temporary prohibition on alcohol sales and live and recorded music lifted, the Associated Press reported that Cuba was beginning to “return to normal.” Mailen Fuentes, a bartender in Santiago, told the AP that “it’s going to take time to get used to the idea that Fidel is no longer here. We feel sad. It’s too soon.”
The Miami Herald published this article, “Castro’s tomb, meant to resemble a kernel of corn, becomes an instant attraction.” The Associated Press offered a compilation of photos from the week of mourning.
Trump faces decision on letting Americans sue over Cuba property, Paul Guzzo, Tampa Bay Times
Paul Guzzo discusses the possibility that President-elect Trump may allow U.S. citizens to pursue outstanding claims on property nationalized by Cuba. Robert Muse, an expert in U.S. law related to Cuba, stated, “Title III would produce several hundred thousand lawsuits against Cuba for untold billions of dollars. This will effectively end for decades any attempt to restore trade between the U.S. and Cuba.”
Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Keeps Food Off Residents’ Plates, Azam Ahmed, New York Times
Azam Ahmed reports on the difficulties Cubans are encountering trying to purchase staple goods as the private restaurant industry enjoys a tourism-fueled boom. Part of the problem, she reports, is that there are no wholesale markets for restaurants to use, so restaurateurs buying in bulk clear the shelves. Economist Juan Alejandro Triana adds that as tourism has increased, Cuba’s government has not adjusted its approach to food security: “The government has consistently failed to invest properly in the agriculture sector. We don’t just have to feed 11 million people [the population of Cuba] anymore. We have to feed more than 14 million.”