Horse-Trading on Health Care Put Cuba Opening at Risk

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.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Poll finds majority of Cubans on the island support normalizing relations with U.S.

A poll of 840 Cubans on the island conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago between October 3 and November 26, 2016, found that 55 percent of Cubans say that normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations “will be mostly good for Cuba.”

Respondents identified potential economic and financial growth; open ports of entry and exit for travel; the elimination of the embargo, and an increase in living standards on the island as the top reasons to believe normalized relations with the U.S. would be good for Cuba.  Among the 3 percent of respondents who said normalizing relations would not be good for Cuba, the most feared “we would lose the country/or [the U.S. would] take over Cuba.”

That said, 77 percent of respondents expressed either a strongly favorable or somewhat favorable view of the U.S.  Only China, at 85 percent, ranked higher.

In other results, just over half of respondents said Cuba is going in the right direction generally, while 36 percent said it is going in the wrong direction; 7 percent did not know, and 4 percent did not answer.

Asked to identify their top goals for themselves and their family, 67 percent hoped to travel internationally (8 in 10 hoped to go to the U.S.), while 56 percent wished to start their own business, and 56 hoped to buy a car. About half expressed a desire to live abroad; 67 percent of those wished to live in the U.S. Sixty-four percent of respondents have family members living abroad, three-quarters of whom live in the U.S. Nearly half receive funds from family or friends living abroad.

Finally, NORC found that a vast majority of respondents get most of their news from state-owned media outlets, while young people are more likely to get some of their news from foreign news sources and that “those who access foreign media … are more positive about the national economy and their personal financial situations,” and “are more likely to be critical of some aspects of Cuban society” and are “more likely to set aspirational goals such as traveling abroad, starting their own business, and buying a car or home.”

NORC’s full analysis of the results are available in this report, and the topline results are available at this link.

Trump pick for Secretary of Agriculture reiterates support for trade with Cuba

Sonny Perdue, former governor of Georgia and President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Agriculture, said during his confirmation hearing that if confirmed he will seek to expand agricultural trade with Cuba, saying, “We would love to have Cuba as a customer,” reports The Hill.

This is in keeping with policy positions he has previously expressed; Governor Perdue cited the agricultural trade mission he led to the island in 2010, saying, “we have products they need and they would like the product[s],” but that “I found then … the problem there regarding the demand was the ability to pay and finance as much as anything.” He encouraged Congress to seek ways to use private financing to trade with Cuba and said “I would support their efforts if we could get private financing.” U.S. sanctions law prohibits U.S. exporters from extending credit to Cuba for purchases of agricultural goods (Cuba must pay cash in advance). There are bills in the Senate and the House that would lift that restriction.

In Cuba

Cuba state telecom to expand home internet access, public Wi-Fi hotspots in 2017

ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications company, announced it will sell in-home internet access to up to 38,000 additional residences, offering up to 30 hours of internet access monthly, costing between 15 and 105 convertible Cuban pesos (about the same as USD), depending on the speed of the service purchased. A representative from ETECSA told reporters the company aims to expand home internet access to the entire capital (and ultimately to the rest of the country), using a recently completed pilot project as a guide, reports EFE.

ETECSA also announced plans to lower the price for internet access nationally beginning next month from 25 cents to 10 cents per hour (in convertible Cuban pesos, about the same as USD), and that it will continue reducing the price. The company also plans to install 180 additional public Wi-Fi hotspots by the end of the year, 42 of which will be in parks in Havana, according to EFE. According to ETECSA’s website, there are currently 327 Wi-Fi hotspots around the island.

Separately, ETECSA announced a project to bring internet access to students for a program in collaboration with Cuba’s Ministry of Education called Cuba Educa (Cuba Educates), which will allow students around the country to connect with professors, reports TeleSur.

Recommended Reading

The next year will determine Raúl Castro’s economic legacy, Mimi Whitefield and Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald

The Miami Herald spoke with experts on Cuba’s economy about the country’s economic priorities and prospects in the last year of President Raúl Castro’s term, which is set to end February 24, 2018. Although projections for Cuba’s tourism and sugar industries are positive, each is vulnerable to external factors – for tourism, there is possibility that the Trump administration may roll back regulations that have allowed for a rapid increase in U.S. visitors to the island, while possible weather events put the sugar harvest at risk. Economists identified President Castro’s top challenges as stimulating economic growth nationally, unifying Cuba’s dual currencies and increasing state salaries, “managing the uncertain economic relationship with Venezuela,” and bringing in foreign investment. 

As Cuba’s economy flat-lines, retirement has become notional, The Economist

Cuba’s population is aging, but, as The Economist reports, the country’s pension system is no longer equipped to allow many older Cubans to comfortably stop working at retirement age. “Though revolutionary Cuba had one of the region’s earliest and most comprehensive pension systems, in recent years retirement has almost vanished,” reports The Economist. “According to the most recent government statistics, from 2010, a third of men past retirement age are working. Three-fifths of older people say they often have to go without necessities.”

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