Think you had a bad day? It could be worse. You could be a suitcase belonging to the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto.
Packed and unpacked; for the meeting of Caribbean and Latin American leaders in the Dominican Republic. There, President Peña Nieto was a no-show; his trip cancelled without explanation.
Packed again for his meeting with President Trump at the White House on January 31, 2017, a beautiful, historic day, his suitcase got caught up in immigration politics. After the White House issued two Executive Orders on immigration, President Peña Nieto had little choice. He told the Mexican people in a televised address, “I regret and disapprove of the decision by the United States to continue with the construction of the wall,” and then broke the news to his luggage – their trip to Washington was off.
The president’s suitcase? It was a distraction. Distraction is the elegant ingredient of magic – by waving a shiny object, a wizard can pull the audience’s attention where the action isn’t happening, leaving the trick to remain undetected.
Journalists were dutifully distracted reporting each time one of President Trump’s nominees disagreed with him in public (think Russia and climate change) in their confirmation hearings. But the press has paid far less attention when his nominees agreed with him in private; for example, when they signaled Senators in writing about Cuba policy changes yet to be revealed.
Since Friday, two Questions for the Record (QFRs) have been released on Capitol Hill. These are canned questions sent by Senators to obtain canned responses by nominees to nail down commitments by the administration to policy changes that were promised in the presidential election campaign.
For example, when Treasury Secretary-designate Steve Mnuchin was asked if he’d reverse the executive orders by President Obama that loosened restrictions on travel and trade, he told the Senate Finance Committee, “If confirmed, I will enforce all statutorily-mandated Cuba sanctions to the fullest extent of the law.”
When asked if he’d stop American companies from doing business with state-owned entities controlled by the Cuban military he responded “If confirmed, I commit to fully and effectively enforcing all sanctions prescribed by [the Helms-Burton law] and other Cuba sanctions legislation.”
When asked if he’d favor U.S. farmers and manufacturers doing business in Cuba by supporting past easing of the sanctions, he said, essentially, “no.” Or in his words, “If confirmed as Secretary, I will implement and enforce Cuba sanctions pursuant to their statutory construct.”
President Trump can’t be paying Mr. Mnuchin by the word; otherwise, he’d be using more of them. In any case, what he said is news.
More discursive responses – by which we mean disheartening and troubling –came from UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. The answers she submitted to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before winning confirmation suggests the “fact-checkers” left her alone with the ideologues while she was polishing her answers.
When asked, “Do you agree that the U.S. should help support private entrepreneurs in Cuba with training or other assistance, so they can build businesses, market their products and services, and compete with state-owned enterprises?” She said, “Unfortunately, Cuba does not have private entrepreneurs and working independently is not a right but a privilege granted only to supporters of the regime.”
When asked, “Do you agree that after more than half a century the U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed to achieve any of its principle objectives?” She replied, “We should be clear about a few things. The goal of the embargo was never to cause regime change, but rather to raise the costs of the Cuban government’s bad behavior.”
When asked, “Will you continue the recent practice of abstaining to the UN General Resolution pertaining to the statutory U.S. embargo on Cuba?” She said, “No.”
[Too bad. Ambassador Samantha Power’s speech when the U.S. abstained on the embargo resolution last year was a truly great moment.]
And when Ambassador Haley was asked, “Do you support continued diplomatic relations with Cuba?” She submitted an 85-word response that didn’t directly answer the question; which, by today’s standards, means she testified truthfully.
President Raúl Castro spoke about U.S.-Cuba relations in remarks before the gathering of Caribbean and Latin American leaders we mentioned at the outset. “Cuba and the United States can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, respecting differences and promoting all that benefits both countries and peoples,” he said, “but it should not be expected that to do so Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence.”
On the surface, this coincides with President Trump’s inaugural address, where he said: “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather let it shine as an example.”
That could be read as respect for the sovereignty of others. But it’s probably just a distraction.
This week, in Cuba news…
Less than a week after President Trump’s inauguration, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro told a gathering of regional leaders, “Cuba and the United States can cooperate and live side by side in a civilized manner, respecting our differences and promoting all that is of benefit for both countries and people … But it should not hope that to achieve this Cuba will make concessions inherent to its independence and sovereignty,” reports Reuters. In his address before the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), President Castro also noted that U.S.-Cuba relations cannot be fully normalized until the embargo is lifted and the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base is returned to Cuba; CELAC also passed resolutions calling for an end to the embargo and for the return of the Guantánamo Bay territory.
Josefina Vidal, Director General of the U.S. Department of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, issued similar remarks about the course of U.S.-Cuba relations last week in an interview with The Guardian.
[More about CELAC in Cuba’s Foreign Relations below.]
Threats by Florida’s Governor Rick Scott to strip state funding from ports that signed agreements with Cuba caused Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach to cancel plans to sign cooperation agreements with officials from Cuba’s National Port Administration, the Miami Herald reports.
The delegation representing Cuba’s port authority is visiting six major U.S. ports in four states this week and next, and had come to the U.S. intending to sign Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with four of the U.S. ports, reports Reuters.
The Cuban delegation was set to sign nonbinding MOUs with South Florida’s Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach January 27, but when Governor Scott announced Wednesday – first via Twitter – that he would request that the state legislature withhold funds from ports that entered into agreements with Cuba, both ports withdrew plans for agreements.
According to the Miami Herald, if the ports signed the agreements and then the legislature had backed up the governor’s threat, funding losses could have amounted to “$37 million over the next five years for Port Everglades…and $920,000 over the same period for the Port of Palm Beach.” The Cuban port delegation visited Port Everglades Thursday and the Port of Palm Beach Friday; the latter issued a statement affirming its commitment to exploring avenues of commercial cooperation with Cuba despite scrapping the MOU. The Miami Herald obtained a copy of the draft agreement between Port Everglades and the National Port Administration of Cuba.
Earlier in the week, officials from Cuba’s National Port Administration, Cuba’s Embassy in the U.S., and trade officials met with state- and municipal-level counterparts and policymakers at the ports of Houston and New Orleans. Although Port Everglades’ and the Port of Palm Beach’s MOU signings were canceled, the meetings between the Cubans and the Floridians were not. Still to come are meetings at Virginia’s Port of Norfolk, and Tampa, where the delegation will sign MOUs with the ports of Tampa Bay and the Port of Mobile, AL. The delegation will meet with lawmakers at the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday.
A shipment of marabú charcoal from Cuba arrived in Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades on January 24th, the result of a landmark deal between U.S. company Coabana Trading LLC and Cuba’s state export enterprise CubaExport earlier this month, reports the Miami Herald. The artisanal charcoal is made from the invasive woody marabú plant and is produced by worker-owned cooperatives, and will be distributed under the brand name Fogo online and to restaurants. Coabana is a subsidiary of Reneo Consulting LLC. (We reported on the deal and the details in our January 6 news brief.)
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
During the fifth summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), which took place this week in the Dominican Republic, Cuba and representatives of the 32 other member countries, including ten heads of state, expressed concern about President Trump’s plans for U.S.-Latin America relations under his administration, citing differences over trade and migration, the Associated Press reports.
In addition to U.S.-Cuba relations, Cuba’s President Castro spoke about the importance of fostering regional unity, peace, and equitable socioeconomic development, and offered an outlook on U.S.-Latin America relations under President Trump: “It would be desirable for the new United States government to opt for respect for the region, although it is a matter of concern that intentions have been declared that endanger our interests in the areas of trade, employment, migration and the environment, among others.” President Castro also reaffirmed Cuba’s support for the peace process between the government of Colombia and the FARC-EP – the result of four years of peace talks in Havana – and the ongoing peace talks between the government and the ELN, now taking place in Ecuador.
As Granma reports, diplomats from the Dominican Republic and Ecuador echoed calls for regional unity and further economic integration.
Long before Obama, bridges to Cuba were being built, Álvaro Fernández, Progreso Weekly
Álvaro Fernández reminds readers of the long history of the work toward normal relations with Cuba, beginning in the 1960s – much of it by people who today go unrecognized. Férnandez urges readers to learn about the lives of Carlos Muñiz Varela and others who paid dearly for their work to create peaceful connections between Cuba and the U.S. – this work, he points out, “laid the groundwork for Obama’s step forward in 2009 and thereon.”
Obama’s Cuba Doctrine…and why Trump should keep it, Philip Peters, The American Conservative
Phil Peters, President of the Cuba Research Center, examines the history of U.S. Cuba relations and how President Obama broke with that history to craft a new policy toward Cuba centering diplomacy and engagement. That approach, Peters writes, has brought substantial benefits to both countries, and should guide President Trump’s Cuba policy as well. “In practical terms,” Peters writes, “the ‘better deal’ lies in building on the Obama policies to reap greater benefits from engagement,” in agricultural exports, security, property claims, and business.