Cuba Policy, 2 Weeks Before Inauguration

Since we celebrated the second anniversary of President Obama’s decision to restore relations with Cuba last month, the forces supporting reform are using every spare minute to make the policy – here’s a bad locution for you – as irreversible as possible before President Trump takes office.

“Amid uncertainty about Cuba policy,” Alaska Public Media reported, Alaska Airlines launched a daily flight from the West Coast to Havana, using “a Boeing 737-900ER, which carries 181 passengers, for its Cuba flights.” This is Alaska Airlines, the only carrier awarded a West Coast route, capitalizing on a big bet, with a tweet heralding its January 5th inaugural flight “It’s a historic day.”

“As demand continues to grow for cruises to Cuba,” the Miami Herald reported, Carnival Corporation’s Fathom Brand also got attention by announcing it was combining Cuba and the Dominican Republic as destinations in a single itinerary. Trips on its 704-passenger Adonia vessel, focused on social impact, will start at $599, cheaper than other American cruise line offerings to Cuba, and are being bundled with service opportunities in the Dominican Republic and people-to-people exchanges in Cuba.

Travel to Cuba, as a result of the Obama reforms, is growing substantially, but trade is also working its way into the picture. Ever heard of “artisanal charcoal”? Starting January 18th, shipments of artisanal charcoal, produced by independent worker cooperatives in Cuba, will begin making their way into the U.S., having been granted approval by the U.S. government to be the first export from Cuba allowed into the United States in over a half-century. Warm up your pizza ovens!

The President’s policy of engagement enabled Google to ink a deal with Cuba’s government to accelerate connectivity with services like Gmail and YouTube. An important byproduct of the normalization process has been an increase in connectivity in Cuba, lower prices for Cubans to access Wi-Fi, and implementation by Cuba’s government of a project it planned to bring internet into residences in Havana, although overall rates of access remain very low.

Other tangible examples of engagement have been rolled out to remind the public, policymakers, and probably the President-elect that the Cuba policy offers real value. These included the announcement that clinical trials are starting to test Cuba’s lung cancer vaccine on patients in the U.S., along with an environmental protection agreement between Cuban and U.S. scientists to save coral reefs in our region using very special techniques.

As might be expected, Secretary of State John Kerry heralded the benefits of the President’s new Cuba policy in his “exit memo” released this week on the administration’s foreign policy accomplishments. But Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, caught our attention in his otherwise scathing review of the President’s “shaky legacy” on human rights, with a grudging concession that the normalization of relations with Cuba “was a positive human rights step” and that Mr. Obama, despite other shortcomings, did speak during his trip to Cuba about the need for progress on human rights.

During the remaining 13 days of the Obama presidency, we expect others to shine a light on the accomplishments of the opening even as we eye the clouds gathering in the skies above.

For example, as we read the celebratory coverage of the Alaska Airlines flight into Havana, we took note of comments by John Kirby, vice president of capacity planning for the carrier. “Will the incoming Trump administration change the rules?” a reporter asked.  “Your guess is as good as mine at this point,” Kirby said. “Obviously, there is always a potential that things could change. But since service has started, it is difficult to envision us taking a big step backwards.”

We also saw the news that investment analysts downgraded their estimates for shares of JetBlue’s stocks “on rising costs associated with expansion into new markets like Cuba,” Raymond James said. As we previously reported, price cuts and other competitive pressures are causing some carriers that recently opened new commercial routes to Cuba to cut back the number of flights they are offering.

This is what the hardliners, who are hoping that President Trump reverses the Obama opening, have wanted all along. Travel to Cuba – which we believe is good for both countries – helps to pay for Cubans’ health care and public education and stimulates the economy for the country’s public- and private-sector businesses. That’s why the opponents of the policy want to cut it back, or cut it off entirely.

José Cárdenas, a former Bush administration Latin America advisor, writing last month in Foreign Policy, urged reversing Obama’s travel policies and upping Washington’s spending on covert programs to topple Havana’s government. It was what five former Reagan and Bush administration foreign policy functionaries argued in their letter to President-elect Trump released this week. It read, in part, “Tourism, purchases of Cuban goods, and partnering with government entities should be prohibited, in accordance with current U.S. law.”

Dragging U.S.-Cuba policy back to its pre-Obama limits has a number of unappealing, even repulsive dimensions. It reflects the naïve belief, as the renowned Emily Morris explained in Foreign Affairs this week, that a sanctions-based policy devoted to wrecking the Cuban economy in the hopes it will be replaced by a free market system ignores what the last six or so decades have taught us about “the country’s history of weathering difficult storms. Cuba faces serious economic challenges, but its system has proved resilient, and the island’s future is likely to be one of reform rather than revolution.”

Reform is where President Raúl Castro has placed his bet. While assuring the hardliners listening to his December address before the National Assembly, “We’re not heading nor will we head toward capitalism,” he also called for overcoming an obsolete mentality full of prejudices against foreign investment.

No matter what Cuba does or fails to do now, the battle to preserve the Obama opening against a feared onslaught by his successor is more likely to be won in Washington than Havana. That is why, as Peter Kornbluh describes in The Nation, “A full-court press to convince the incoming administration to stay the course on Cuba—high-profile media interviews, opinion pieces, press conferences, Congressional lobbying, reports by moderate Cuban-American leaders, letters signed by Cuban entrepreneurs, and behind-the-scenes approaches to Trump appointees—is being launched around several key arguments”:

  • Engagement with Cuba is good for U.S. business
  • Engagement with Cuba is good for Cuban businesses, and
  • Engagement with Cuba is good for U.S. interests

If the 45th President is sincerely interested in getting a better deal, and not just pulling out the Obama policy root and branch, Professor Julie Sagebien has pulled together a remarkable list of suggestions based on the old dealmaker’s tactics. We hope he reads them before making any hasty decisions.

All of this activity is focused on preserving a new approach to Cuba, just two years old, which has done much more for the United States and the people of Cuba than the Cold War policy Mr. Obama inherited at the outset of his presidency.

Will this campaign work? We’ll know in two weeks. For now, advocates are doing the best we can until the clock runs down. As the saying goes, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. If we run out of candles, we can start using charcoal made from Cuban marabú. As the Chicago Tribune reported, “the first delivery is scheduled for Jan. 18, two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president.”

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S. company to import Cuban charcoal for sale in U.S., first Cuba import in 50 years

Coabana Trading LLC will import its first shipment of marabú charcoal produced by worker-owned cooperatives in Cuba on January 18; this will be the first Cuba-produced good exported from Cuba for sale in the U.S. in fifty years, reports the Associated Press. This week, Coabana Trading LLC, a subsidiary of Reneo Consulting LLC, released a statement saying it had reached a deal with the state export enterprise CubaExport to begin importing the clean-burning artisanal charcoal made from the invasive woody marabú plant.

According to the AP, cooperatives produce the charcoal and sell it to a local packager, which then sells it to CubaExport. Coabana will then sell the charcoal under the brand name Fogo online and to restaurants, which use it for bread and pizza ovens. In a deal made possible by an Obama administration reform which seeks to facilitate trade between the U.S. and Cuba’s growing independent sector, Coabana’s first purchase will be 80 tons of charcoal at $420 per ton. Isabel O’Reilly, director of CubaExport, told CubaDebate, “This is a first contract but we hope to continue our relationship for many years and not just with vegetal charcoal, but other products that we have ready to export like honey and coffee.” According to Ms. O’Reilly, Cuba sells between 40,000 and 80,000 tons of marabú charcoal to companies in Italy, Germany, and other countries annually.

Scott Gilbert, chairman of Reneo Consulting LLC, said in a statement the deal “marks the beginning of a new era of trade between the United States and Cuba. This is a perfect example of a win-win for both our countries.” Asked what he foresees for U.S.-Cuba relations under the Trump administration, Mr. Gilbert told CubaDebate, “We hope to work with the new government just as we have done with that of Barack Obama.” Mr. Gilbert was the lawyer for imprisoned USAID subcontractor Alan Gross when Mr. Gross was released by Cuba on December 17, 2014.

Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act reintroduced for 115th Congress

Rep. Mark Sanford (SC-1) and Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-2) reintroduced the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act in the House of Representatives. If passed into law, the Act would remove all restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba. As of Friday afternoon, the bill has six cosponsors: Representatives Tom Emmer (MN-6), Thomas Massie (KY-4), Justin Amash (MI-3), Ted Poe (TX-2), and Barbara Lee (CA-13). In 2015, Rep. Sanford sponsored the same legislation and ultimately attracted support from 131 cosponsors before the last Congress adjourned in December.

Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, said in a statement: “With 81 percent of Americans supporting the removal of all restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, it’s time for Congress to respect the will of the American people and restore the right of Americans to travel freely to Cuba. … We commend Congressmen Mark Sanford (SC-01) and Jim McGovern (MA-02) for their leadership on opening travel for all Americans.”

Secretary Kerry highlights importance of U.S.-Cuba rapprochement

In a publicly released exit memo to President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized the importance of continuing to normalize relations with Cuba, stating, “Going forward, if we want to deepen the connections that bind our nations and our peoples, it is critical for Congress to lift the embargo on Cuba, an outdated burden on the Cuban people that continues to impede U.S. interests.” Secretary Kerry also noted that improved U.S.-Cuba relations have “also removed an irritant in our relationships throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

U.S., Cuba sign further environmental research and protection agreements

Late last month, the U.S. and Cuba signed two memoranda of understanding in Washington pledging cooperation in wildlife protection and meteorology, reports EFE. Manson Brown, Deputy Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Fernando González, Cuba’s First Vice-minister of Science, Technology, and the Environment, signed an accord to support research collaboration and data sharing in hurricane prediction, oceanography, fighting climate change, and pollution. Mr. González and a representative from the U.S. Department of the Interior signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to cooperate in faunal conservation and national protected areas in each country.

In Cuba

Cuba’s National Assembly meets; government reports nearly 1 percent drop in GDP

Last year, Cuba’s GDP decreased by 0.9 percent, marking the first time since 1993 that the country’s economy has shrunk, reports Reuters. In a presentation to the National Assembly on December 27th, Ricardo Cabrisas, Cuba’s Economic Minister, reported on the state of the economy and predicted a 2 percent increase in GDP in 2017. As reported this week in CubaDebate, the National Assembly approved the 2017 budget, which devotes 72 percent of state spending to social services and programs, including education, social security and pensions, public health, culture, and sports. Mr. Cabrisas emphasized the importance of pursuing foreign investment, and projected that in 2017 Cuba would produce 4.65 percent of its energy using renewable sources, compared to 4 percent in 2016.

The decline in GDP is largely attributable to the significant decrease in subsidized oil shipments from Venezuela last year, as well as a reduction in payments to Cuban doctors working abroad. A chronic lack of hard currency, and global falling prices for nickel, one of Cuba’s major exports, have also damaged the economy. At the same time, as Mr. Cabrisas stated, the U.S. embargo continues to limit the growth of Cuba’s economy and its ability to do business with countries around the world in spite of the positive steps taken by President Obama. Although Cuba received a record 4 million visitors last year, the income from increased tourism did not offset the country’s economic troubles. As Cuban economist Pavel Vidal told the Associated Press, “Raúl Castro’s government has a year left and it should be planning what needs to be done. Above all, it will be managing a crisis.”

Cuba’s first computer factory; pilot project brings internet to some Havana homes

On December 23rd, Cuba has opened its first computer and tablet factory, which is owned and run by the state enterprise Industrial Company of Informatics, Communications and Electronics.  The Chinese company Haier provided the technology and equipment, as well as staff training, for the plant. When it is operational, the factory is expected to produce 120,000 Intel laptops and 8- and 10-inch tablets annually, reports EFE, but the start date for production has not been made public. Technicians from Cuba’s University of Computer Science will lead the process of building operating systems and software for the computers and tablets. According to state statistics current to 2015, over 546,000 of the 1,071,600 registered computers in Cuba had internet connections.

Separately, Reuters reports that a two-month pilot project bringing free internet connectivity to about 2,000 homes in the city’s Old Havana neighborhood has begun. ETECSA, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications company, announced plans for the project, along with an initiative to provide internet access on cell phones, in late October. Currently about 5 percent of people in Cuba have home internet access.

In the last week of December, the AP reports, Cuba reduced the price of public internet access to $1.50 per hour, from the previous $2.00 per hour.

Military parade in Havana marks 60th anniversary of Granma landing

A popular march and military parade took place in Havana on January 2nd to commemorate two milestones: the 60th anniversary of the landing of the yacht Granma in Santiago de Cuba, which marked the beginning of the revolution, as well as the 58th anniversary of the revolution’s victory over the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. The march is usually held every five years on December 2nd, but was postponed by a month due to Fidel Castro’s death on November 25 and the national mourning period that followed, notes Reuters. Progreso Weekly published photos from the celebration, during which President Castro and Jennifer Bello of Cuba’s Council of State addressed the crowd.

Recommended Reading

Interview: Roswell Park Cancer Institute launches trial to test Cuban lung cancer vaccine, Jennifer Southall, HemOnc Today

The Roswell Park Cancer Institute has launched a clinical trial to assess the effectiveness of CIMAvax, the Cuban-developed lung cancer vaccine. This is the first time a U.S. research center has received FDA permission to sponsor a trial offering a Cuban-made therapy to U.S. patients.

In an interview with HemOnc Today, Dr. Candace Johnson, President and CEO of New York’s Roswell Park Cancer Institute, discussed the clinical trial and Roswell Park’s collaboration with Cuba’s Centro de Inmunología Molecular (CIM). Dr. Johnson and a team from Roswell Park accompanied New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on his 2015 trade mission to Cuba, which CDA helped organize, during which Roswell Park signed a partnership agreement with CIM. “It was truly a visionary moment that initiated the momentum that propelled us to where we are today,” she said.

Cuba’s Road Ahead, Emily Morris, Foreign Affairs

Dr. Emily Morris, a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank and an expert on Cuba’s economy, examines what lies ahead for Cuba in 2017. “Cuba faces serious economic challenges,” she writes, “but its system has proved resilient, and the island’s future is likely to be one of reform rather than revolution.”

Why Cuba’s Muslim Population is Growing, Lucy Westcott, Newsweek

Newsweek’s Lucy Westscott looks at the history of Islam in Cuba and the growth of the country’s Muslim community. “The religion is now quietly growing in Cuba, where there are as many as 9,000 Muslims,” she writes. “While they represent a tiny segment of Cuba’s 11.3 million population, it’s a significant increase from roughly a dozen in the early 1990s.”

Editor’s note: CDA is hiring! We are now accepting applications for the position of Development and Operations Coordinator. For more information, please click here. We are also accepting applications for the 2017 Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Fellowship – click here for information about how to apply.

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