Once Estranged, Couples Reunite Over a Quiet White House Meal with Cuba on the Menu

In case you missed it, President Trump made big news during his epic press conference at the White House this week. He broke bread with Senator Marco Rubio.

During the presidential primaries, then-candidate Trump and Sen. Rubio traded insults on the campaign trail, but then traded endorsements in advance of their successful runs for the presidency and reelection to the Senate.

Having won his election, Sen. Rubio resumed his plainspoken disagreements with the new President – tweeting one day, “We are not the same as #Putin,” and later adding his support for including the “Flynn situation” in the Senate Intelligence Committee probe of Russia’s interference in the U.S. election.

Both men now appear to have the situation in hand. Wednesday evening, as CNN reported, the President, the Senator, and their wives gathered for dinner in the Blue Room at the White House.

Things must have gone well. As President Trump said, “We had dinner with Senator Rubio and his wife, who is, by the way, lovely. And we had a really good discussion about Cuba because we have very similar views on Cuba.”

And now: President Trump is heading to Florida for a campaign-style rally at the Orlando-Melbourne International Airport on Saturday. What would Scooby say? Ruh-oh.

Politico, in a profile of Senator Bob Corker, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote that he, “like the rest of Washington…is still figuring out who’s actually in charge in the Trump White House and how to get things done given the multiple power centers that seem to be shaping foreign policy.” Sen. Rubio may have cracked the code.

During the final stretch of the 2016 presidential campaign, as we previously reported, Mr. Trump returned to Florida to reverse his prior support for lifting the embargo by adopting an anti-engagement position aligned with hardliners like Sen. Rubio and the three Cuban American representatives from South Florida. After the election, President-elect Trump stocked his transition team with advocates who want the U.S. to return to its Cold War posture of isolating and sanctioning Cuba.

Loyalty casts a long, influential shadow. Despite results showing that Mr. Trump lost Miami-Dade County – and lost the Cuban American vote nationally – he credits voters in the Cuban community for his win in Florida last November. As he said at his press conference, “Cuba was very good to me in the Florida election, you know, the Cuban people, Americans.”

In response, supporters of engagement with Cuba have massed around a retro strategy of trying interest the new administration in preserving the last administration’s reforms by presenting them with “the facts.”

Representative Tom Emmer (MN-6) related how closer relations with Cuba, including the economic impact of loosening restrictions on U.S. travel and trade, contributed to transformative changes on the island that are making life better for the Cuban people.

“Consider the following statistics,” Rep. Emmer writes in a column called Continuing the Shift on Cuba. “From 2008-2015: the number of mobile phone subscriptions in Cuba has increased to 3 million; the number of Wi-Fi hotspots on the island increased from zero to 65 by the end of 2015 and continues to grow; and the percentage of the island’s workforce in the Cuban non-agricultural private sector (which consists largely of self-employed entrepreneurs known as cuentapropistas) has grown from 17 to 29 percent.”

Pedro Freyre, a noted international lawyer and Columbia Law School Professor, laid out the economic consequences of shutting down travel and trade in the Orlando Sentinel. “A drastic change in U.S. policy toward Cuba would also result in a loss of U.S. jobs not only in the travel industry but more significantly in pharmaceutical manufacturing, and most sensitive of all, in the agricultural sector that currently does substantial business with Cuba.”

Even more, as the economist Ricardo Torres, writing for Progreso Weekly, says: A policy reversal would compromise the objectives that U.S. policy ought to be embracing.

Cuba, for its purposes, has engaged in evolutionary change for several decades, by deepening its engagement with the international economy. Dr. Torres writes: “Today, more people than ever are coming to Cuba. More Cubans travel abroad for various reasons than at any previous time. A growing number of businesses operate in the country, both commercial and investment companies.”

Then, he adds, “The transformation is huge, and several elements indicate that it can accelerate in the next several years.” So long as the U.S. doesn’t abruptly change course.

Politico contrasts the Democratic opposition to the Trump presidency, which it calls “divided and demoralized,” with Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, who are “waging a public war of press releases against what they see as Trump’s dangerous challenge to America’s role in the world.”

“Rather than turning their fire on a prickly president who clearly takes criticism personally,” Politico says Sen. Corker is pursuing a third path, “arguing in the backstage councils of Capitol Hill that they should seek to influence Trump more quietly.”

He is almost certainly right; the question is whether he is too late. We’ll be watching what happens tomorrow in Orlando, and in further developments down the road, in case Sen. Rubio cracked the code by getting invited to a quiet White House dinner first.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cruise lines receive go-ahead for additional Cuba voyages; 3 airlines scaling back Cuba service

Several U.S. cruise operators have received approval for additional voyages to Cuba through the end of the year. Although a new survey by Travel Pulse reports that travel agents say bookings for Cuba trips are on the rise, several U.S. airlines are cutting back on the number of seats they’re offering customers traveling to the island.

In June, Carnival Corp.’s Carnival Cruise Line will start bringing U.S. visitors to Cuba on vessels replacing the company’s Fathom brand, whose Cuba cruises end in May, reports the Orlando Sentinel. Last May, Fathom’s Adonia became the first U.S. line to operate regularly scheduled cruises in nearly five decades. Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line, which each received their approvals late last year, are each adding Cuba cruises from spring and early summer through November and December, respectively, according to an Orlando Sentinel report.

Travel Pulse, a tourism industry publication, published a story Wednesday headlined “Agents Seeing an Explosion of Cuba Bookings,” based on a survey of travel agents which reported rising numbers of clients booking travel for Cuba. The findings corroborate numbers released by Cuba’s government and cited in this chart by the Americas Society/Council of the Americas which shows U.S. travel to Cuba in 2016 was up 74 percent from 2015.

At the same time, several U.S. airlines, which have engaged in a price war, are now reducing flights and plane size for their Cuba service; as one carrier, Silver Airways, put it in an interview with the Sun Sentinel “to best match demand.” JetBlue announced that beginning May 3, smaller planes will serve its Cuba routes, while this week American Airlines reduced its routes from Miami to Holguín, Santa Clara, and Varadero to one per day (the airline announced the change in December) in order “to remain competitive in the market,” as the Sun Sentinel reports.

Budget battle over Florida ports highlights stakes of cutting commerce with Cuba

Earlier this month, we reported on Florida Governor Rick Scott’s threat to cut a total $176.6 million in state funding for ports that did business with Cuba, which effectively scuttled planned agreements between Cuba’s National Port Authority and two major Florida ports, Port Everglades and the Port of Palm Beach. When the Florida state legislature’s session begins on March 7, lawmakers will determine whether Governor Scott’s recommendation to slash funding for port improvement projects remains in the budget.

As the session approaches, the Miami Herald’s Mimi Whitefield reports on the specifics of the budget recommendation and what it could mean for Florida’s trade with Cuba. According to an analysis by the trade data company Datamyne, commerce between “several Florida airports and seaports and Cuba” (including the aforementioned ports) totaled nearly $65 million in 2016, $46.4 million of which was exports to Cuba processed by just three seaports along with Miami International Airport. In 2016, Florida ports’ biggest exports to Cuba were frozen chickens and chicken parts (totaling $28 million); the ports also exported charity and relief donations, medicine and pharmaceuticals; cookies and chocolate, and clothing donations.

But the dent that Gov. Scott’s budget reductions might put into Florida’s trade with Cuba remains in dispute, dependent upon whether the ports – or the companies that use them for shipping – are penalized.

McKinley Lewis, deputy communications director for Governor Scott, told the Miami Herald that the governor’s budget measure would not apply to businesses that use Florida ports to trade with Cuba, but rather to business a port itself might conduct with Cuba. The measure, said Lewis, is “directed at the ports, not private companies. … Any private company will have to make their own decisions regarding their partnership or involvement with the Castro dictatorship.”

However, as the Miami Herald notes, “Florida ports don’t actually trade with Cuba. Their private customers do.” Ellen Kennedy, a spokesperson for Port Everglades, told the Herald, “We don’t have any authority to tell port users who they can do business with. We just have land leases with them. The port is like a shopping mall. We lease the space to tenants but we don’t sell the t-shirts.” That means that ports’ funding is not put at risk by, for example, allowing cruise ships operating trips to Cuba to lease space, or by allowing companies to ship goods to and from Cuba.

For more details on Florida ports’ shipments to and from Cuba, read the Miami Herald piece here.

In Cuba

Cuba enacts new parental leave laws, aiming to mitigate demographic shift

As part of an effort to increase the country’s fertility rate and make it more affordable for women and families to raise children, Cuba’s government announced that it is offering paid parental leave to the grandparents of newborn children, lowering day-care costs for parents who have multiple children, and offering tax reductions for women and caregivers employed in the non-state sector, according to the Washington Post and an official notice in Granma.

Cuba is continuing to experience a demographic strain with ramifications for the economy and Cuban society. It is contending simultaneously with an aging population, a low fertility rate, a rate of life expectancy which, at about 78 years is the same as in the U.S., and a population drain driven by the loss of between 60,000 and 80,000 Cubans who emigrate annually, many of them young people. “The challenge of raising the birthrate in Cuba is a challenge that cannot be put off,” the Granma report stated. The Washington Post notes that “Cuba appears to be the first Latin American country to offer [paid paternal leave] benefits to grandparents.”

Drought in Cuba continues

According to Cuba’s National Institute of Hydraulic Resources, last month’s lower-than-average rainfall left 139 municipalities in a drought, with 53 of them in an extreme drought; the hardest-hit areas are Santiago de Cuba, Cienfuegos, and Camagüey, reports Granma. The first half of February has also seen rainfall far below past years’ averages. Since the onset of the drought in late 2014 – the island’s worst in 116 years – Cuba’s agricultural sector has suffered, and farmers have had to resort to using the island’s rapidly depleting reservoirs to water their crops, as IPS reported last summer.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

President of Ireland visits Cuba

Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, met with Cuba’s President Raúl Castro in Havana February 15 to discuss bilateral cooperation and potential trade, as well as EU-Cuba relations, and issues including human rights, civil society, and LGBT rights, reports the Irish Times. President Higgins also addressed the conference of the Society for Irish Latin American Studies at the University of Havana’s Colegio Universitario San Gerónimo on February 17. As the President Higgins’ official website notes, he is the first sitting president of Ireland to visit Cuba. President Higgins’ visit is part of his tour of Latin America, during which he also visited Peru and Colombia. Ireland and Cuba signed a political dialogue agreement in 2015.

Cuba, Iran sign cooperation accords

The governments of Cuba and Iran signed 12 economic cooperation accords during the sixteenth session of the Cuba-Iran Intergovernmental Commission for Economic and Scientific-Technical Cooperation; the agreements will further bilateral cooperation in the energy, agriculture, pharmaceutical, and public health sectors, reports Granma. The accords were signed by Iran’s Minister of Health and Medical Education and Iran’s ambassador to Cuba, and Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Trade and Investment Rodrigo Malmierca as well as Cuba’s Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero and Rogelio Sierra, Deputy Minister of Foreign Relations. The previous meeting of the commission took place in 2011. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani made an official visit to Cuba last September.

China’s investments grow in importance to Cuba

Reuters offers an overview of China’s investments in Cuba, including a recently opened computer and tablet factory, as well as Cuba’s imports from China which were valued at $1.8 billion last year. China, Cuba’s largest creditor, has become increasingly important to the island’s economy, at a moment when Cuba is feeling the effects of Venezuela’s economic crisis, and the significant reduction of subsidized oil shipments to Cuba is causing fuel shortages.

China’s investments on the island include buses, trucks, tractors, domestic appliances, Wi-Fi infrastructure, projects in pharmaceuticals, bioelectricity, and a container terminal in the port of Santiago de Cuba. Last month, Cuba and China signed an accord to increase cooperation in renewable energy, including a joint venture with Chinese company Haier to “establish a renewable energy research and development facility.” Cuba’s imports from China were $1.9 billion in 2015, which Reuters notes marked nearly a 60 percent uptick from the annual average over the previous decade.

China’s Prime Minister Li Keqiang and President Castro signed about 30 economic cooperation agreements in Havana last September, covering science, environmental protection, energy, public health, agriculture, and the extension of credit for certain projects.

Recommended Reading: U.S.-Cuba Relations: Cooperation at Sea, CubaJournal

“The actual sea that separates the two nations has been a long-standing source of cooperation,” CubaJournal writes of U.S.-Cuba maritime cooperation. Even before reestablishing diplomatic relations in 2015, the U.S. and Cuba conducted scientific collaboration and counter-narcotics operations – which relied upon communication channels between the U.S. Coast Guard and the Cuban Boarder Guard – and since reestablishing relations, the U.S. and Cuba have signed several sea-related cooperation agreements, ranging from oil spill prevention and cleanup to search and rescue and navigation protocols.

Recommended Listening: How the Internet’s Just Starting to Transform Cuba, Pia Gadkari and Aki Ito, Bloomberg

Pia Gadkari and Aki Ito spoke with Cuban entrepreneurs in Havana about how increased access to the internet and Wi-Fi Hotspots is has allowed them to grow their businesses and is changing their lives more broadly.

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