We start with a “hat-tip” to the editors of Project Syndicate, for invoking Gabriel García Márquez in an edition marking the Trump administration’s first hundred days.
Admittedly, it’s Day 99 and we don’t want to jinx our chances. But since we anticipated that the new administration would keep its promise to cancel the Cuba policy reforms of the last administration within the first 100 days, we’re relieved. And at least one South Florida hardliner, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27), sounds disappointed.
According to Channel 10 News in Miami, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen was concerned that a letter written by 16 retired military officers would lead the President to renege on his word to her South Florida constituents.
Their letter, reflecting U.S. history and military strategy, advised the Trump administration to continue normalizing relations with Cuba in travel, counterterrorism, border control, environmental protections, and trade to advance the security interests of the United States.
“We acknowledge the current regime must do more to open its political system and dialogue with the Cuban people. But, if we fail to engage economically and politically, it is certain that China, Russia, and other entities whose interests are contrary to the United States’ will rush into the vacuum.” With engagement, they wrote, “We have an opportunity now to shape and fill a strategic void.”
“If President Trump goes back on his word and doesn’t roll back on these concessions,” Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said, “I think a lot of our folks in our community will be quite displeased.”
The U.S. obsession with Cuba, originating in the early 19th century, is a narrative woven with threads as varied as race and rum. But they are all bound together with one fact as permanent as Cuba’s geography: its strategic location.
As this Geopolitical Futures tract observes: “Cuba lies between southern Florida and the Yucatán Peninsula, creating the Straits of Florida and the Yucatán Channel … Those 90 miles continue to be one of the most important sea lanes for the United States. The presence of Soviet submarines in Cuba threatened both straits. There are those who ask why the United States was so frightened of a small country. It wasn’t. The U.S. government was not concerned about the Cuban government. It was concerned about the use of Cuba by the Soviets.”
In breaking from the Cold War policy he inherited, President Obama sought to end Cuba’s isolation and fill the void with diplomacy, bilateral agreements, trade, and wider opportunities for contact between Cubans and U.S. visitors to the island.
By many reasonable measures, things are going well. For example, the decision to end the permissive migration policy, which induced Cubans to risk treacherous journeys to gain residency by simply setting foot on land, has caused illegal migration to plummet.
Cuban and U.S. authorities now have wider latitude to cooperate on environmental problems, drug interdiction, scientific research, and more. As the Associated Press reported earlier this week, reduced restrictions on U.S. travel enabled close to 300,000 American visitors to journey to Cuba in 2016, a jump of 76 percent over 2015. Their trips put money in the pockets of Cubans running small businesses, and contribute to the people-to-people interactions that are good for individuals, families, and businesses of both countries.
In sum, the new policies contribute to stability and closer relations, while also allowing the new administration to continue making progress with Cuba on the issues which divide us while continuing to collaborate on our vital mutual interests.
The retired flag officers made the right case for keeping the policy, especially if what Ana Palacio, the former foreign minister of Spain, said to Project Syndicate, is right – that the stars of National Security Advisor Lt. General H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are rising, and the “adults are back in charge.”
We’ll see. After all, the administration’s Cuba policy review continues in secret. Their new budget for the State Department, while cutting aid for development, appears to beef up by 900 percent at least one account from which “regime change” money has historically been drawn. The administration doesn’t end with its first hundred days, and the President can still keep the promises he made during the campaign, as reported by Channel 10, that “he’d be tough on Cuba and would roll back President Obama’s policy toward the island, even if it meant closing the newly opened U.S. Embassy.”
The question aptly raised by the retired military leaders – what do you want “filling the void”? – frames the choice before policymakers today.
Do you want refugees, oil pollution, and the navies of hostile powers roiling the waters between the United States and Cuba, or do you want two-way travel, grain shipments, and bilateral cooperation bringing stability and safety to our respective shores?
Let’s hope the adults are in the room.
This week, in Cuba news…
Speaking to a Spanish news outlet during a diplomatic trip to Europe, Bruno Rodríguez, Cuba’s Foreign Minister, said “The current government of the United States has said it is reviewing its policy towards Cuba. We reiterate our readiness for dialogue and cooperation on the basis of the absolute respect for our sovereignty,” reports the Miami Herald. Cuba hopes to continue the progress in relations made under the previous administration, he said, and to maintain “a civilized relationship [with the U.S.] despite the profound differences – which are known – that exist between the two governments.” Mr. Rodríguez mentioned several fronts on which U.S.-Cuba relations are progressing, citing the importance of U.S. travel to the island, and noting “Cooperation agreements that were signed during the last period are being implemented and there are some contacts at the level of the U.S. government agencies and its Cuban counterparts on that basis.”
The number of U.S. citizens visiting Cuba continued to climb during the first quarter of 2017, reports CubaDebate. Compared to the similar period one year ago, Cuba received 118 percent more visitors from the U.S., a total of 110,920 between January and the end of March 2017. Cuba’s government is projecting that a total 4.2 million people will visit the island this year. In 2016, Cuba received a record 4 million foreign visitors, and marked a 74 percent increase in U.S. visitors over 2015 (not counting Cuban American visitors, whom Cuba’s government tallies separately).
Four leading U.S. carriers – JetBlue Airways, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and Southwest Airlines – filed applications this week to the U.S. Department of Transportation for additional flights to Cuba, report the Miami Herald and Dallas Morning News. The continuing rise of U.S. travelers, and the interest in adding flights among carriers, demonstrates the continued vibrancy of Cuba as a travel destination and market.
American is requesting seven additional weekly flights from Miami to Havana, which would begin October 5; JetBlue is requesting six additional weekly flights from Fort Lauderdale to Havana, as well as a new route from Boston to Havana, to begin November 1, the Herald reports. Southwest applied for an additional daily flight between Fort Lauderdale and Havana, according to the Dallas Morning News, while Delta applied for seven additional weekly flights from Miami to Havana, which would begin December 15, reports the Sun-Sentinel.
American and JetBlue had previously announced reductions in flights to Cuba, citing lower than expected demand; American announced late last year that it would reduce the frequency of flights from Miami to Holguín, Santa Clara, and Varadero, and JetBlue, which is planning to open a commercial office in Havana, announced in February that it would switch its Cuba flights to smaller planes.
The announcements come less than two weeks after Spirit Airlines announced it will end service to Cuba on June 1, citing to low demand, joining Frontier Airlines and Silver Airways as the third airline to cancel service to the island.
As Cuba experiences a worsening fuel shortage, decreased oil shipments from Venezuela, reduced payments for Cuban doctors and other professionals serving abroad, and a chronic lack of hard currency, the government will implement spending cuts in its 2018 budget for the third consecutive year, Reuters reports. Reuters cited a report in state newspaper Granma following a meeting of the Council of Ministers called to review Cuba’s economic performance in the first quarter of 2017 and to begin shaping the economic plan for 2018. According to Granma, “The basic premise (of the 2018 plan) is to meet production and service goals through efficiency and a lowering of costs to levels less than in 2017.” The government is “seeking coherent and sustainable solutions” to the economy’s troubles, while it also continues to update the country’s economic model and its infrastructure, to meet the demands of increased tourism.
In 2016, Cuba’s GDP decreased by 0.9 percent, marking the first time since 1993, following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, that the country’s economy contracted. As we reported earlier this year, the Cuba Standard Economic Trend Index predicts that Cuba’s GDP will continue to fall this year, by between 0.3 and 1.4 percent.
Venezuela has reduced subsidized oil shipments to Cuba by approximately 50 percent, causing fuel shortages across the island. Last summer, Cuba’s government imposed energy-rationing measures for state enterprises and joint ventures, some oil refineries have either stopped or lessened their output, and at the beginning of the month Cuba’s government announced restrictions on sales of premium high-octane fuel.
Michael Weissenstein of the Associated Press offers an overview of the current state of Cuba’s economy, and how Venezuela’s economic crisis is affecting daily life even as tourism continues to increase. “The replacement of oil money with tourism dollars has accelerated both the decline of Cuba’s ailing state-run businesses and the growth of its small private sector,” particularly private restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and taxi services, writes Weissenstein.
Meanwhile, as Reuters reports, migration to the U.S. from Cuba, both by land and by sea, has dropped precipitously since the end of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy on January 12 of this year. The U.S. Coast Guard reports that in February and March it intercepted just 49 Cubans in the Florida Strait, compared to 407 in the same period last year. As Sarah Stephens, executive director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas, commented, “That drop is pretty significant when you consider that in 2016, Cuba’s economy contracted for the first time in a generation.”
Internet users in Cuba can now store content on Google’s Global Cache service, the first time a foreign internet company has hosted content locally on the island, reports the Miami Herald. Storing content on locally based servers allows users to browse Google websites, such as Gmail and YouTube, at faster speeds. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications company, signed an agreement in December 2016 to allow Google to house four servers on the island. Internet connections on the island come through an undersea fiber optic cable between Cuba and Venezuela, and connections are generally slow; Google’s deal on the island is speeding service for those who already have internet access.
In March, ETECSA announced it would expand in-home internet access in Havana and lower browsing costs across the country. The rate to browse websites hosted in Cuba is currently 10 cents per hour (in convertible Cuban pesos, approximately equivalent to USD), while ETECSA maintains a separate rate of 1.50 convertible Cuban pesos per hour to browse websites based internationally. According to ETECSA, there are now 353 public Wi-Fi hotspots on the island.
A pilot program to test the use of 3G data on mobile phones began earlier this month in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba’s second largest city, reports EFE. According to ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications company, the project is bringing 3G data to the island for the first time. It will be expanded gradually to the rest of the Santiago province, and will result in improved data service for ETECSA customers who use prepaid phones. 2G data has been accessible in Santiago de Cuba since 2010.
Pennsylvania’s Rum Run, Brian O’Neill, Cuba Trade Magazine
Brian O’Neill writes about the Pennsylvania state legislators who, following a recent trade mission to Cuba, may be planning to circumvent the U.S. embargo to purchase Cuban rum for resale in their state, arguing their case on the basis that the 21st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which ended Prohibition, grants states the right to regulate the purchase and sale of alcoholic beverages. If Pennsylvania is permitted to buy rum from Cuba, O’Neill argues, the argument for the federal government’s ability to regulate the embargo will be all but eliminated. Says Rep. Adam Harris, chair of Pennsylvania’s House Liquor Committee, “We’ll all go home and be ambassadors for Cuba and encourage our government to end this unjust embargo.”
Engagement with Cuba is a Bipartisan Issue, William M. LeoGrande, Huffington Post
William M. LeoGrande, Professor of Government at American University, writes that in the midst of the Trump Administration’s review of Cuba policy, the administration should consider the widespread popularity in the U.S. of relations with Cuba. LeoGrande writes, “In our hyper-polarized politics, engagement with Cuba is one of the few issues that enjoys bipartisan support. Poll after poll in the United States has shown that engagement is widely popular, even among Republicans.” He notes that recent polls show that over 70 percent of Americans — including over half of Republicans and Cuban Americans — support U.S.-Cuba engagement.