Waiting for Godon’t

March 31, 2017

This is Day 71 of the Trump presidency.

During the presidential campaign last year, Mr. Trump promised to reverse President Obama’s new policy toward Cuba “until freedoms are restored.” Later in the campaign, as Breitbart.com reported, Governor Mike Pence assured Miami-Dade County Republicans, “When Donald Trump and I take to the White House, we will reverse Barack Obama’s executive order on Cuba,” giving that promise more of Day One feel. But when Rex Tillerson was asked, during his confirmation hearing to serve as Secretary of State, if he stood by Mr. Trump’s commitment, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Yes,” but he went on to add, “There will be a comprehensive review of current policies and executive orders regarding Cuba to determine how best to pressure Cuba to respect human rights and promote democratic changes.”

It isn’t Day One anymore. So it’s fair to wonder what’s happening with the policy review, why the apparent delay, and what the substance of a future action would be. Since we don’t have an independent line into the West Wing of the White House, we’ll tell you what we think we know (without getting too far ahead of the facts).

Note: As we prepared for publication this afternoon, a new report by Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald quoted Florida Senator Marco Rubio saying “I think without a doubt there will be changes in U.S.-Cuba policy,” which he expects President Trump to undertake “strategically.” (More about that below.)

On timing. We heard at a meeting of allies this week that the administration could take action on Cuba as early as the middle of next month, curiously close to the 56th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion. This would be desperately odd timing for President Trump to announce a reversal of the Obama policy and keep his promise to Brigade 2506, veterans of the failed invasion.

The review and the delay. With so many policy hardliners among the Trump transition and landing team staffs, we were skeptical that the policy review would amount to more than window dressing before the campaign promise on Cuba was kept. But the pervasive absence of political appointees across the government – coupled with the firing of Craig Deare, who served so briefly as the National Security Council’s Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere – means there hasn’t been a central White House figure managing the process. The foundational work quite properly was done by career staff at agencies like State and Treasury. These are foreign policy officers and civil servants with the experience to analyze the policy (they have also witnessed the positive results of the last two-plus years), but they lack the decision-making authority that would normally be exercised by appointees at the desks which now have empty chairs. Without them, it is unimaginable for the process to reach a conclusion.

It’s not just Cuba. Reuters reported today that preparations for the next G7 major powers meeting are being delayed by vacancies in both the deputy secretary of state positions and all six regional bureaus, with one European diplomat saying, “We no longer know who to talk to. It is slowing everything down.”

Under normal circumstances – even understaffed as it is, laboring under no deadline, statutory or political – it would cost the Trump administration nothing to slow down so that it could complete the Cuba policy review in an orderly and thoughtful way.

But these are extraordinary times. With the administration’s defeat on health care one week ago, along with chaos in the Capitol over Russian hacking of our election, The Economist is predicting – and we tend to agree – the President will forcefully and, as they say, “theatrically,” move into the “full-throated use of executive orders” to put some points on the board, especially by aligning them with his instincts about exercising power and keeping his campaign promises.

What’s next? President Trump’s approach to Cuba, which is bad for both countries, dispenses with diplomacy and tries to steamroll Cuba’s sovereignty.

Just as the President tried coercion over consensus-building in the House of Representatives, as the New York Times observes, in an unsuccessful effort to enact health care reform, we think he’ll use the same of approach of “threatening sticks and promising carrots” to Cuba, as he promised last fall.

Which was, by the way, exactly what Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart suggested he should do, as we reported last week, when he asked the administration to implement his plan – which gave Cuba’s government 90 days to meet our demands or face the re-imposition of sanctions – in exchange for winning his vote on health care.

That brings us back to what Sen. Rubio talked about with Mega TV host Oscar Haza earlier this week. When he said he expects the White House to address U.S.-Cuba policy “strategically,” was he referring to the President’s threat to restore every restriction President Obama eased unless Havana capitulates to his demands? Yeah, we think so.

Believe us. Obviously, we’d like to see a more favorable outcome. We’d prefer the Obama opening not just remain in place but be expanded to further serve the national interests of the United States and the Cuban people.

As the Cuba review continues, we feel like we’re waiting for Godot, and we’re reminded that April so often is the cruelest month.

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Horse-Trading on Health Care Put Cuba Opening at Risk

March 24, 2017

Earlier today, leaders from Congress and the White House tried to find a majority to pass a major overhaul of the U.S. health care system.

On a close and controversial issue like this, just one vote can make a difference. That’s how a proposal to end President Obama’s opening to Cuba got kicked into play this week, and how the debate over legislation to end Obamacare put the aspirations of Cuba’s people at risk.

On Wednesday, the Miami Herald reported that Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart (FL-25), who said then he was “leaning no” on the health care bill, had written a memo titled “A Good Deal that Upholds the Law and Protects National Security,” that was being passed around the White House.

The memo, available here at the Latin America Goes Global website, outlined an ultimatum to the government of President Raúl Castro. Unless Cuba met demands contained in the Helms-Burton law within 90 days, the Trump administration would take back every measure that increased opportunities for travel and trade with Cuba that were put into place after diplomatic relations were restored in 2015.

Keep in mind the Helms-Burton Act has been on the books for 21 years – the embargo has been in place for more than 50 – and at no time has Cuba ever been willing to alter its political system to meet demands imposed by Washington.

Did Rep. Díaz-Balart and the White House, as the Miami Herald put it, explore “a little old-fashioned horse trading — a ‘Yes’ vote on healthcare for swift action on Cuba?” The Congressman conceded as much when he told a reporter, “I wish that they would’ve given me a commitment on something, but that is just made up.”

According to Fabiola Santiago, a columnist for the paper, the Congressman’s district has the fourth-largest number of health care market enrollees in the United States.

“If it’s true that U.S. Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart tried to trade his vote for ‘Trumpcare’ for a commitment from the administration to take a tough stance on Cuba, then the obsession of Cuban-Americans in Congress with U.S.-Cuba policy has hit a new low,” she wrote. “Voting for the American Health Care Act is going against the interests of all who need affordable health insurance in South Florida.”

In offering to swap his vote on health care to cut off travel and trade, the Congressman was also working at cross-purposes with the expressed interests of Cubans on the island.

Their interests come through clearly in a survey released this week by NORC at the University of Chicago, a highly respected non-partisan research organization. The survey was conducted in Cuba and consisted of in-person interviews with 840 Cuban adults, from October 3 to November 26 last year.

The survey was not filled with happy-talk results. When asked about their country’s biggest problems a majority of the respondents labeled crime “an extremely or very serious problem.” Another 4 in 10 identified poverty, and 38 percent said corruption.

But when asked about what they wanted from their government in the future, Cubans said they “would like to see the government focus on economic growth and maintaining stability over the next 10 years.”

They were pretty clear-eyed and nearly unanimous about how economic growth would be achieved. Eighty-four percent said Cuba should encourage more tourism. Eight in 10 said tourism to Cuba should be expanded. Most believe expanded tourism will improve the country’s economy and create more jobs.

And given that a rising number of visitors arriving on Cuban shores are coming from the United States, it is no surprise that a majority of Cubans believe the normalization of relations with our country is good for Cuba. Or that 70 percent of respondents age 18 to 29 – those who have the greatest stake in their country’s future – support normalization for that reason.

Their vision of a more prosperous and stable future for Cuba is, in turn, deeply dependent on whether the U.S. policy of normalization continues moving forward or is dragged off course.

Since we started collecting these thoughts earlier this afternoon, we’ve seen two striking developments. Rep. Díaz-Balart told reporters he changed his mind and planned to vote yes on the bill to repeal Obamacare, and President Trump told the Washington Post he’s pulled the bill to repeal the health care law because there aren’t enough votes to pass it through the House.

By a simple twist of fate, the people of Cuba – who have no representation in the U.S. Congress yet are profoundly affected by policy choices made in their name but without their consent – get to dream another day. For now, this leaves their aspirations intact.

Where this leaves Rep. Díaz-Balart and his constituents (or his “deal” with President Trump’s White House) is not ours to guess.

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A few words about markets, U.S. airlines, and that other travel ban (Cuba)

March 17, 2017

Today’s message, quite simply, is this: Recent headlines that read The Cuba travel bubble is popping and Now That Cuba Is Open, Americans Aren’t Going  got it wrong. So, we’ve written this essay to try and set the facts straight.

Travel from the U.S. to Cuba is going up, and it could be doing even better if policy makers would just legalize all forms of it, the way a majority of Americans want them to.

This is worth digging into. First, let’s start at a comfortable cruising altitude of 30,000 feet before diving into the weeds.

As Cuba Journal reminded us recently, “Cuba is the only country in the world where Americans face travel restrictions.” You can even visit North Korea as a tourist without asking permission from President Trump or Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, although it’s a risky place for U.S. travelers. Meanwhile, travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by U.S. law.

President Obama took significant steps to reduce U.S. restrictions on non-tourist travel to Cuba – ending limits on travel by Cuban Americans with family on the island, restoring people-to-people visits and, critically, using diplomacy with Cuba’s government to restart regularly scheduled commercial flights to the island by U.S. carriers in the middle of 2016.

As Brookings reported late last year, the relative trickle of 91,000 visitors to Cuba in 2014 rose to 161,000 visits in 2015, and to a veritable flood of over 280,000 visits in 2016, according to this recent estimate.

Before the recent changes, charter carriers remained stalwart for decades serving the Cuban market under onerous travel rules that restricted flights and kept prices high. When restrictions were loosened, traditional economic forces went to work. “As generations of U.S.- or U.K.-trained economists would predict,” a U.S.-trained economist told us, “prices fell and the total number of seats sold went up.”

Bloomberg, normally fact-based, got it wrong when it reported in February, “still, there are few Yankees heading to Havana.” On the contrary, U.S. demand is both strong and rising rapidly now, and the trend points the same way. As Travel Pulse reports, travel agents are seeing “an explosion of Cuba bookings” going forward. They say, “Nearly 22 percent of its leisure-focused travel agents have already booked clients for Cuba travel in 2017 while more than 59 percent said clients are interested in going this year.”

In fact, many of the carriers awarded routes to Cuba are doing well – this comes not from promotional materials but filings by American Airlines, Southwest, and Delta with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Southwest, for example, lists its 44th consecutive year of profitability and its decision to launch “service to Cuba with daily flights to Varadero, followed by service to Havana, our 100th city served, and Santa Clara” in its 2016 list of a dozen notable accomplishments.

By the same token, some U.S. airlines are dropping flights, as NBC News reported in its refreshingly informed piece. Silver Airways is dropping out the market entirely on April 22, explaining that “other airlines continue to serve this market with too many flights and oversized aircraft.” Frontier Airlines is terminating its Miami-Havana flight on June 4, saying “costs in Havana to turn an aircraft significantly exceeded our initial assumptions.”

While claiming the mantle of “Economics 101,” Fabiola Sanchez, in her Miami Herald column, was actually practicing Cold War Ideology 1.0. “Blame over the lack of greater demand sits squarely with the paranoid and repressive Cuban state,” she writes, “which fails to modernize politically and economically, no matter how much this country and the rest of the world opens up to them.”

What is so important about travel to Cuba is that it allows Americans to visit the island, speak directly to Cubans, and learn from them how they view their lives, their opportunities and, yes, their government.  The portrait they paint can be both inspiring and worrisome in the same conversation. What is consistent is that Cubans don’t tell visitors from the States to go home, but to come back.

The adjustment taking place in the Cuban market is not about politics, but economics and regulation. One of the things that Bloomberg got right is that our airlines, “with no idea about demand, were overly ambitious when they jousted for the limited routes allowed by U.S. regulators. With a mandate for only 110 daily U.S. flights – 20 into Havana, the most popular destination – the carriers tumbled over each other last year to get a piece of the pie, leaving the island oversubscribed.”

It isn’t a surprise that Silver and Frontier are folding their tents, or that carriers like JetBlue have cut back. In a globalized economy, and with a new, emerging market, this happens all the time. Our friend the economist observes: “Airlines spend millions on programs to strategically and tactically game prices and routes, and flights to Cuba are now part of that game. Entrants will come and go, seasonal variations may increase, demand will be sensitive to US economic trends. All of this is normal. Year over year, the market continues to grow. That is the fundamental fact to date.”

The market is going to continue to adjust, and Cuba’s government and its tourism industry will have to be part of that adjustment if it wants first-time travelers to return, rather than losing them to equally warm and less expensive destinations in the Caribbean.

But, the airlines need to step up as well. They’re running this advertisement in Washington, appealing to President Trump to protect American jobs and to enforce the so-called “Open Skies” Agreement which, they say, benefits U.S. airlines, workers, and passengers.

If they want to continue doing business in Cuba, their voices need to be heard – loudly, urgently, presently – to stop the administration or Congress from rolling back our hard won rights to visit Cuba now, and urge the end of the unconstitutional ban on tourist travel as soon as possible.

Cuba isn’t North Korea, and America needs to act like America and demonstrate it knows the difference.

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Engagement versus Estrangement

March 10, 2017

Congressman James Comer, a first-term Republican from the 1st District of Kentucky, just returned from a five-day trip to Cuba on a fact-finding delegation led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

On Wednesday, his office released a statement about the trip, which read, in part: “Congressman Comer strongly supports lifting the current trade embargo on Cuba, and will be a leader in Congress in passing legislation to reopen trade with this key neighbor of the U.S.”

“The first district is a strong agriculture area,” Congressman Comer said, “and opening trade barriers for agriculture products would be a major benefit for the district and all of Kentucky.”

Congressman Comer’s story – his experience of going to Cuba, talking directly to Cubans about their lives, and deciding, unbound by party or dogma, that engagement is better than sanctions for advancing his constituents’ interests – is important.

Even more, it places him in the vital center of practical and principled thought on the conduct of U.S.-Cuba relations – which is all about exploring and securing the benefits of engagement.

Engagement has paid off diplomatically. Engagement with Cuba restored relations, reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana, and secured bilateral agreements on combatting diseases from cancer to Zika, fighting drugs and human trafficking, responding to oil spills and the other pollution threats in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida, and providing united support for the final end to Colombia’s long, bloody civil war.

Engagement is creating and supporting more, better paying jobs in the U.S. telecommunications, hospitality and travel industries, and among the Cuban-owned private-sector businesses that are providing food and lodging to travelers coming from the U.S. and elsewhere.

The benefits of engagement were expanded by U.S. policy decisions that boosted the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba to historic levels, and increased the flows of remittances to Cuban family members on the island to as much as $3 billion annually. At the same time, Cuba opened up legal work in the private sector for 25 percent of the island’s workforce, and significantly increased Wi-Fi connections, at reduced costs, for Cuba’s people.

Politically, engagement is at the center of where public opinion is among the 75 percent of the U.S. public which wants to lift the embargo, 63 percent of Cuban-Americans who oppose the embargo, and 97 percent of Cubans on the island who think normal relations with the U.S. is good for Cuba.

With the mutually reinforcing benefits of diplomacy and economic change strengthening public support for engagement, this has opened even greater space for elected officials like Congressman Comer to build coalitions for changes in the laws governing U.S.-Cuba relations.

These coalitions have gathered in support of legislation to increase agriculture trade to Cuba, to end legal barriers to tourist travel, and to lift the embargo entirely. Passing these bills is in the U.S. national interest.

Fifty years of futility passed our eyes when we read the remarks of White House spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré in an interview Wednesday with the Spanish news agency EFE. “With all the things [Cuba] has been given,” she said, the government has not made any “concessions” within the process of normalization of bilateral relations. Before assuming office, President Trump said he would reverse the reforms and restore estrangement as the basis of U.S. policy, unless the Cubans make concessions.

This position of no negotiations until the Cubans compromise was the policy of every president since Eisenhower, except one, and all but one were disappointed.

The Trump administration is reviewing the policy. We’d like to see President Trump find a way forward that doesn’t let Congressman Comer or his constituents down.

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Calling Rex Tillerson

March 3, 2017

Where do things stand with the Trump Administration and U.S.-Cuba relations?

Recall that President Trump and Vice President Pence made clear, as candidates, that without concessions from Cuba’s government, they would reverse President Obama’s major changes in U.S.-Cuba relations on Day One. This threat continues to rattle Cubans.

President Raúl Castro, speaking in January, made clear that no one should expect Cuba to “renounce its ideals of independence and social justice or abandon any of our principles, or give in an inch in the defense of our national sovereignty.”

Even though the battle has yet to be joined, we’ve seen this array of forces before: the immutable force of Washington’s demands for existential changes in Cuba’s system poised to collide with the immovable object of Cuban sovereignty.

To be clear, we are 43 days in and the administration has made no changes to the policy. We’re not trying to jinx that. We’re trying to understand it. The administration is going out of its way to honor campaign promises. It is stocked with embargo defenders. Key leaders in Congress support rolling back travel and trade reforms and beefing up programs to take down Cuba’s system of government. We expected to be disappointed and playing defense much sooner.

One explanation could be disarray in the foreign policy machinery. As we discussed last week, the President has his second National Security Advisor in his young administration. The White House fired Craig Deare, its senior national security advisor on the Western Hemisphere, just two weeks ago. The Washington Post is asking, “Where in the world is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?” and gamely reporting that “Tillerson’s diplomacy has been conducted out of sight.” This is the man in charge of the Trump administration review of Cuba policy.

The State Department, according to The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe, has the comparative feel of a ghost town. She writes, “There hasn’t been a State Department press briefing, once a daily ritual, since the new administration took over five weeks ago.” Observing that the briefings are not just for journalists, Ioffe says the silence from the State Department podium deprives U.S. diplomats all over the world of a “crucial set of cues…With no daily messaging, and almost no guidance from Washington, people in far-flung posts are flying blind even as the pace of their diplomacy hasn’t abated.”

For a host of reasons that go beyond our interest in Cuba, it is unfortunate that we don’t have in place the traditional structures to mediate or understand what is happening with U.S. foreign policy.

The President, in his Inaugural Address, kicked the concept of sovereignty into play when he said, “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

This week, in his first Joint Session of Congress address, he revisited this subject in much the same way. “We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations. Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people – and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path.”

At the same time, in the Trump administration’s forthcoming FY2018 budget request, the White House is proposing a 30 percent cut in State Department funding and a 40 percent cut in USAID funding to help prioritize a sharp increase in defense spending. Priorities which have prompted some critics to call the President an “isolationist” or a “militarist.”

Again this week, in what the Washington Post described as a “sharp break from U.S. trade policy,” the Trump administration said it may ignore “certain rulings by the World Trade Organization if those decisions infringe on U.S. sovereignty.”

If sovereignty is the defining principle of Trump administration foreign policy, that is resonant with implications for the Page One issue of Russia and for our principle concern, Cuba.

In an article published last year by Vox, Fiona Hill, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia, examined the motivation behind President Putin’s campaign to hack the U.S. elections. Ms. Hill wrote, “Putin wants the United States and other Western governments to stop funding, as part of their foreign policies, organizations that promote political and economic transformations in Russia. He also wants to block US officials from meeting with opposition figures and parties. From Putin’s perspective, democracy promotion is just a cover for regime change.”

Most Americans don’t like Russia’s interference in our democratic process. This isn’t about moral equivalence: it’s natural for people to want to protect their nation’s governance from outside interference. While it may be a permanent part of our national character to preach to others about the value of our system – and it has value – it is something entirely different to try and impose it on others. This is where we hope the Trump doctrine’s devotion to sovereignty extends.

The U.S. has a long history of trying to overthrow the Cuban system through measures that included the Bay of Pigs invasion, covert operations, efforts of the kind that landed Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, in a Cuban prison for five years, and more. President Obama’s Cuba policy put an end to most of that. Now, advisors to the new administration, such as José Cárdenas, who testified before Congress this week, want President Trump to exert economic pressure on the Cubans and bring the old policies back. The administration will probably do so.

Yet there is another, more hopeful course, and both presidents have spoken to it. In the remarks we quoted above, President Raúl Castro also said, “As I have repeatedly affirmed, both Cuba and the United States should learn the art of civilized coexistence based on respect for differences between our governments, and on cooperation in areas of common interest that may contribute to tackling the challenges facing the hemisphere and the world.”

For his part, President Trump told the U.S. Congress, “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace, wherever peace can be found.”

If Rex Tillerson can be found, he might suggest to Bruno Rodríguez, his Cuban counterpart, that sovereignty could be just the thing to bring the two leaders together.

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