Earlier this week, in the spirit of summertime backyard barbecues, NPR ran a story about Cuban charcoal.
It’s a remarkable tale about ingenuity and small but meaningful advances to connect our two countries. In short, Cuban farmers took an invasive weed – one that ransacks huge swaths of Cuban farmland – and turned it into a marketable good: clean-burning artisanal charcoal. Because the product is produced by worker-owned cooperatives in Cuba, 2016 U.S. regulatory changes permit its export to the U.S. The first shipment arrived in January 2017, and U.S. customers can purchase it online at a price of $42.95 for a 33-pound bag.
Other tales of ingenuity on the island abound.
A self-taught seamstress in Havana recently told us her story of small-business survival. When a change in Cuban law prohibited imports of foreign-produced garments for resale, she resolved to save her business by teaching herself how to sew. Only she didn’t have a sewing machine, and purchasing one from a store was cost-prohibitive. She went door to door in her neighborhood and the surrounding communities until she procured a used one. Now, she has two employees, and sells baby clothes to a Cuban clientele who, when they have extra money on hand, can afford to buy them.
Another example of small-business success: The Miami Herald reported on Julia de la Rosa, who, together with her husband, turned a mansion in disrepair on the outskirts of Havana into a popular bed-and-breakfast. Thanks to two decades of hard work – from renovating rooms to finding new parts for the swimming-pool filter – Julia now employs 17 people and hosts a clientele that’s about 75 percent U.S. visitors. She also works with other self-employed Cubans, known as cuentapropistas. “Cuentapropistas have created a network,” Julia told the Miami Herald. “We regularly seek out each other’s services to solve our problems.”
And another: One restaurateur we know, unable to find spices in Cuban markets, buys them in Miami and brings them back in her suitcase to share with Havana’s culinary community. By day, she teaches classes for up-and-coming Cuban chefs. By night, she feeds an ever-growing number of customers at her restaurant, 85 percent of whom are U.S. visitors.
These are snapshots of hard-working, creative, collaborative Cuban entrepreneurs whose businesses are flourishing, thanks in large part to engagement with the U.S. over the last several years.
In the days and moments before and after President Trump’s June 16 Cuba policy speech, Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted his view on forthcoming regulatory changes. He would likely know what the changes entail, as it has been widely reported he is the principal architect of the new policy. One tweet in particular stated that individual travel, soon to be prohibited under the “people-to-people” category will still be permitted for those travelers under the “support for the Cuban people” category.
In the Treasury Department’s eyes, support for the Cuban people has a narrow definition: “activities of recognized human rights organizations; independent organizations designed to promote a rapid, peaceful transition to democracy; and individuals and non-governmental organizations that promote independent activity intended to strengthen civil society in Cuba.”
What of the majority of Cubans who do not participate in organized activities to this end?
The Cuban people with whom we’ve spoken – many of whom are entrepreneurs – tell us that the best way to support them is through more avenues for personal and commercial engagement with the U.S.
Julia reports she will likely have to scale back expansion plans for her B&B. The restaurateur told us after President Trump’s policy announcement last month, she’s worried that her customer base is about to shrink. They and many others in Cuba’s private sector planned their businesses around a future with more U.S.-Cuba engagement.
As the administration puts the details on the policies announced by President Trump on June 16, we urge it to do so in a way that truly supports the Cuban people.
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This week, in Cuba news…
An expedition stemming from two bilateral environmental cooperation agreements signed in November 2015 found that Cuba’s coral reefs are more diverse and expansive than previously thought, the Associated Press reports. Researchers from institutions including Cuba’s National Aquarium and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) concluded their monthlong trip in June, and told the AP that Cuba’s reef system is healthy and likely contains a number of new reef species.
The mission was the product of a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Conservation and Management of Marine Protected Areas signed by NOAA, the U.S. National Park Service, and Cuba’s National Center for Protected Areas, and a Joint Statement between the U.S. and Cuba on Cooperation on Environmental Protection.
Dan Whittle, Senior Attorney and Senior Director of the Cuba Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, discussed some of the expedition’s findings as a featured contributor to last week’s Cuba Central News Brief, “Twilight Zone(s).”
Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies have about one week left to begin the process of drafting new regulations. You can find the Cuba Central Team’s comprehensive overview of what we do and don’t know about the President’s Cuba policy at this link.
According to Ricardo Cabrisas, Cuba’s minister of economy and planning, Cuba’s economy is on track to meet government projections of 2 percent growth in this year, Reuters reports. Speaking during a June 29 Council of Ministers meeting, Mr. Cabrisas cited growth in agricultural production and tourism as sparking economic growth, as Granma reported.
Last year, Cuba’s economy shrank by 0.9 percent, the first such decline since 1993. Mr. Cabrisas stated in December that the decline was attributable to a significant drop in subsidized oil shipments from Venezuela in 2016, a chronic lack of hard currency, and global falling prices for nickel, as Reuters reported at the time.
Non-government sources have projected that last year’s downturn will continue in 2017; a report by the Cuba Standard Economic Trend Index, which correctly predicted Cuba’s economic contraction in 2016, forecasts that Cuba’s GDP will drop by between 0.3 and 1.4 percent in 2017. President Raúl Castro is expected to give a full report on the economy to the National Assembly later this month.
Private farmers now work over 30 percent of Cuba’s agricultural land, Marino Murillo, vice president of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, said at the June 29 Council of Ministers meeting, the Associated Press reports. Mr. Murillo also announced that Cuba’s government will extend the maximum land rental lease from 10 years to 20, with an option of renewal.
Mr. Murillo, who served as Cuba’s minister of economy and planning from 2009-2011 and 2014-2016 and is now the head of the commission leading the process of updating the country’s economic system, stated that the government has rented 1.9 million hectares of farmland in usufruct to private farmers since 2008 as part of a series of economic reforms designed to reduce the country’s dependence on agricultural imports, as Granma reported. Data from Cuba’s National Office of Statistics shows that the percentage of land worked by private farmers was around 20 percent 5 years ago.
Even so, according to Mr. Murillo, demand for farmland remains low because of relatively low yields, the geographic isolation of many farms, and the widespread infestation of the marabú weed (the plant that is the source of Cuba’s only export to the U.S., artisanal marabú charcoal). Last week, Reuters reported that the production of key crops in Cuba largely stalled in 2016, and that less than half of land dedicated to agriculture in the country is cultivated.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
European Union Members of Parliament (MEPs) voted Wednesday to approve a Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement to normalize bilateral relations with Cuba, allowing the agreement to enter into effect for EU competences while awaiting “ratification by all of the member states,” according to an EU Parliament Press Release. The deal was signed by EU and Cuban officials in December and approved by the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee last week.
The agreement, which was passed by 567 votes to 65, with 31 abstentions, aims to “expand bilateral trade, promote dialogue and economic cooperation and provide for joint action on the world scene.” MEPs also added a resolution to the text of the agreement, calling on Cuba to improve human rights conditions and warned against policies “with extraterritorial effect,” a thinly veiled criticism of the U.S. embargo (MEPs removed language from a previous draft explicitly condemning the embargo). The resolution passed by 487 votes to 107, with 79 abstentions, according to EFE. Elio Rodríguez Perdomo, director for Europe and Canada at Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, issued a statement praising the vote, though the International Relations Commission of Cuba’s National Assembly released a statement rejecting the resolution added by MEPs, calling it “contrary to the principles of respect” of the original bilateral agreement.
After suffering a stroke, Timoleón “Timochenko” Jiménez, National Secretariat of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), traveled to Cuba last weekend for treatment and recovery, Reuters reports. Cuba’s government will finance Timochenko’s medical treatment and security during his stay.
In May, representatives from the FARC and National Liberation Army met in Havana to discuss the peace accord signed between the FARC and Colombia’s government last November. In a joint statement following the meeting, the groups stated their intent to “join forces for the political solution to the Colombian conflict.” Cuba acted as host and guarantor of the four-year process of negotiations between Colombia’s government and the FARC that culminated in the peace agreement now being implemented.
What We’re Reading
Cuban entrepreneurs brace for President Trump’s new Cuba policy, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald
The Miami Herald’s Mimi Whitefield spoke with Cuban entrepreneurs who say their businesses are already being affected by President Trump’s planned policy shift, including Nidialys Acosta of Nostalgicar, a car restoration and taxi service which has seen several tour group cancellations since the President’s June 16 announcement.
Editor’s note: During President Trump’s policy announcement, CDA was on the ground in Havana. We discussed our experience in our essay called “Notes from Havana: One Step Forward, Then 20 Back.” Real-time reactions from Cuba’s entrepreneurs are available here.
Cuba’s food scene is on fire. Exploring the paladares, cantinas and fincas of Havana and beyond, Matt Kettman, Los Angeles Times
Matt Kettman of the LA Times profiles the burgeoning culinary scene in Cuba, including the rapidly expanding number of private paladares and the commonplace use of organic and farm-to-table ingredients in restaurants.
In Cuba, Growing Numbers Of Bloggers Manage To Operate In A Vulnerable Gray Area, Carrie Kahn, National Public Radio
NPR’s Carrie Kahn discusses the growing blogosphere in Cuba, and the implications of President Trump’s policy shift for the expansion of internet access on the island.
What We’re Listening To
Can Cuban Charcoal Turn Up The Heat On U.S.-Cuba Relations?, Carrie Kahn, National Public Radio
Carrie Kahn discusses U.S.-Cuba trade relations through the lens of Cuba’s lone stateside-bound export, artisanal marabú charcoal.