Cuba Central News Brief 8/25/2017

August 25, 2017

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

More individuals affected by sonic “incidents” than previously thought

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters Thursday at least 16 U.S. diplomats and family members have suffered from a series of mysterious sonic “incidents” in Havana, and CNN reports that 5 Canadian diplomats and family members have been affected, both more than had previously been reported. Meanwhile, CBS News reports U.S. and Canadian diplomats were treated by doctors at the University of Miami for a range of conditions beyond hearing loss, including, in some cases, “mild traumatic brain injury, and … likely damage to the central nervous system.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Nauert told reporters that the incidents began in December 2016, and on Thursday added, “The incidents are no longer occurring.” (CNN reports that incidents “stopped this spring.”)

The source of these incidents has stymied U.S., Canadian, and Cuban officials, who are collaborating on an ongoing investigation. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that he holds Cuba responsible for determining the cause of the events and for ensuring the “safety and security” of U.S. diplomats; earlier this month, Ms. Nauert questioned Cuba’s compliance with international standards for protecting diplomats as outlined by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Cuba’s government has released a statement expressing its determination to resolve the situation and reiterating its commitment to the 1961 convention.

Marriott eyes future expansion in Cuba

Marriott International, Inc. is looking to expand its operations in Cuba, according to Tim Sheldon, the hotel chain’s president for the Caribbean & Latin America, the Miami Herald reports.

According to Sheldon, Marriott is hoping to move forward with plans to renovate and manage the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana, and is “waiting for clarity from the current administration” on its ability to pursue other unspecified projects on the island.

Marriott currently manages the Cuban government-owned Four Points Sheraton hotel in Havana. Though President Trump’s Cuba policy memorandum bans transactions with entities related to Cuba’s military, according to the Treasury Department, operations that “were in place prior to the issuance of the forthcoming regulations” (like Marriott’s current activities) will be permitted. On June 15, the day before President Trump’s Cuba announcement, Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson released a statement saying, “It would be exceedingly disappointing to see the progress that has been made in the last two years halted and reversed,” as Reuters reported at the time.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations July 16. 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.

In Cuba

Number of air passengers to Cuba surpasses 2016 total

A record four million passengers flew into Havana´s Jose Marti International Airport in the first 8 months of 2017, surpassing the total number of visitors to Cuba by plane in 2016, the Cuban News Agency (ACN) reports.

Though data on the number of visitors by sea this year is not yet available, the ACN report likely means that the total number of travelers to the island this year has surpassed the 2016 total, as virtually all visitors to Cuba travel by air (over 99 percent in 2016, according to data from Cuba’s National Office of Statistics).

In June, Cuba announced that it had already received more U.S. visitors in 2017 than in all of 2016, as EFE reported; that same month, José Alonso, business director of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, stated that Cuba is on track to reach its goal of 4.2 million visitors in 2017, even with increased U.S. travel restrictions. There are currently six U.S. airlines operating flights to Cuba.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Mexico’s foreign minister visits Cuba for talks on Venezuela, bilateral ties

Mexico’s Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray traveled to Cuba on Saturday for a two-day working visit to ask for Cuba’s assistance resolving the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, and to discuss bilateral ties and offer the country an expanded credit line with Mexico’s national bank, Reuters reports.

According to Mexico’s Secretariat of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Videgaray met with his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodríguez, to discuss progress in trade and technical exchanges between the two countries, note that Mexico will eliminate visa requirements for Cuban officials in order “to facilitate exchanges and joint bilateral initiatives,” and announce a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the countries’ respective national banks to extend Cuba’s line of credit for imports from Mexico. A statement from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted that the ministers also discussed “issues on the international agenda.”

A separate Reuters report this week suggested that Mexico is exploring providing oil to Caribbean countries should Venezuela’s oil industry find itself unable to meet its export agreements. Last month, Reuters reported that Cuba, which depends heavily on subsidized oil imports from Venezuela, imported just 72,000 barrels per day of crude oil from Caracas in the first half of 2017, compared with 83,000 barrels per day in the first half of 2016 and over 100,000 barrels per day in the first half of 2015.

Last month, José Ramón Machado Ventura, the second secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, stated, “It is up to the Bolivarian people and government, alone, to overcome their difficulties.”

What We’re Reading

Interview: Vicki Huddleston, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba Trade Magazine

Vicki Huddleston, former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, tells Cuba Trade Magazine that U.S. policy toward Cuba must allow for “communication, transportation, the ability to talk to the country’s leaders, and to work together on issues of mutual interest.”

Cuba: How politics has become a hurdle for its researchers, Bryn Nelson, Science News

Bryn Nelson discusses in Science News how the U.S. embargo prevents Cuban scientists from obtaining important research equipment and publishing in U.S. journals, limiting our ability to understand our shared ecosystem.

Truck Manufacturers Keep Eyes on Cuban Market, Craig Guillot,

Car manufacturers are hoping to drive up interest in legal exports to Cuba, which once served as a top market for the U.S. auto industry.

What We’re Listening To

Cuba and the USA: healing the emotional embargo, BBC World Service

Ruth Behar, co-creator of the Bridges to/from Cuba blog, discusses the “emotional embargo” against Cuba: “the sense that Cubans have had for nearly 60 years of holding our breath and not knowing what is going to happen next.”

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Wave the Flag

August 18, 2017

This week marked the two-year anniversary of the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, the ceremonial event to mark the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

August 14, 2015 was a hot day in Havana. Pristine classic cars were parked behind the speakers’ podium, just in front of the Malecón, providing a scenic backdrop for a historic event.

Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, severed in 1961, had been restored weeks earlier, and the Cuban flag was already flying above its newly-reinstated embassy in Washington, DC.

Secretary Kerry, who presided over the ceremony, was the first Secretary of State to travel to Cuba in 70 years. His message was simple: the ceremony was to be “truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities.”

In the weeks and months that followed, both the U.S. and Cuban governments moved quickly to put in place the building blocks of normal diplomatic relations. They established mechanisms for cooperation on issues such as law enforcement and health, signing 22 bilateral agreements between November 2015 and January 2017.

Two years after the flag was raised at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the merits of bilateral cooperation are self-evident. Civil aviation experts are discussing ways to enhance security at our airports, and law enforcement officials are collaborating on criminal investigations. To reverse course would have obvious negative consequences.

President Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum, made public in mid-June, directs departments and agencies to “ensure that engagement between the United States and Cuba advances the interests of the United States and the Cuban people.” Most importantly, this memorandum directs continued engagement. The embassies will not be closed, and collaboration on important issues will advance.

It is especially important to have channels of dialogue on areas of disagreement or when things go awry. In the wake of accounts of a sonic incident affecting U.S. diplomats in Havana, both the U.S. and Cuban governments have stated their commitment to cooperate in an investigation.

At the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy two years ago, high-level U.S. and Cuban government officials came to participate in the making of history. But the true guests of honor were three marines who lowered the U.S. flag in 1961 and returned to Havana to see it raised again over fifty years later. Their presence served as a reminder of the long-term resilience of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, able to weather the most uncertain of times, and ultimately overcome obstacles for the benefit of our citizens.

In the words of one of the marines, Corporal Francis “Mike” East, to see the U.S. embassy building without its flag felt “like something was wrong, something was missing.” As we reflect on the important gains from engagement achieved in the last two-and-a-half years, we are hopeful that our governments will continue to reaffirm that the U.S. and Cuba are made stronger by cooperation, and that we cannot afford to let that spirit go missing again.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

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This week, in Cuba news…

August 11, 2017

We’ll be back with a full-service Brief next week.

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Dysfunction and Evolution

August 4, 2017

This week, senators prepare to depart Washington for the annual August recess, already delayed by the dramatic failure of proposed healthcare legislation in the Senate. Gridlock leaves little to show for the 2017 work session to date, and deadlines on the debt ceiling and government funding are looming upon the members’ return.

Considering the hyper-partisanship that has characterized Congress of late, it would be surprising to find bipartisan cooperation anywhere on Capitol Hill. Yet, there is—in the most unlikely of places.

In just two years since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in July 2015, we have seen a remarkable evolution in what had been for decades a seemingly immovable political “third rail.”

In January 2015, Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ) introduced, with eight bipartisan cosponsors, a bill to restore the right of Americans to travel to Cuba freely. By the end of 2016, it had garnered 54 total signatories. Flake reintroduced the same bill in May 2017 with 55 total original cosponsors, and he is confident that the bill would garner close to 70 votes in the Senate, closely reflecting overwhelming public support in the U.S. for engagement with Cuba. (73% of Americans support ending the embargo entirely.)

In the House, support for bills that would help the U.S. engage with Cuba continues to grow apace. In October 2015, Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-01) introduced the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act with two of his Republican colleagues, and by the end of 2016 Crawford had secured 49 total cosponsors. Crawford reintroduced his bill in January 2017 with 26 original bipartisan cosponsors, and now counts 56 total signatories covering the entire political and geographical spectrum. Among them is Rep. James Comer (KY-01), who traveled to Cuba with CDA in March 2017 and returned with a strengthened resolve to end the embargo. This week, with Rep. Comer’s leadership, Kentucky became the 17th state to inaugurate an Engage Cuba State Council, bringing together leaders in business, agriculture, and government to advocate for ending the embargo on Cuba. According to Rep. Comer, if a bill to end the embargo received a vote, “it would get about 75 percent of the votes in Congress. It would be a veto-proof majority.”

Just weeks after Sen. Flake reintroduced his bill, President Trump made a Cuba policy speech in Miami, asserting that he would make good on campaign promises to reverse the previous administration’s Cuba initiatives. However, the policy document unveiled at the speech accepts many aspects of recent advances in engagement; it embraces diplomatic relations with Cuba, continues bilateral dialogue on issues of mutual concern, and states the intent of U.S. policy to support Cuban entrepreneurs.

The primary architect of the new policy direction was Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), who has long been against the U.S. opening any kind of relationship with Cuba until all the conditions of the embargo laws are met. The substance of the new policy, and Sen. Rubio’s involvement, demonstrate that such hardline positions are things of the past.

Despite President Trump’s rhetorical support, Cuban entrepreneurs are concerned about the potential impacts of the announced policy. They expressed their apprehensions and brought policy recommendations to Congress and the administration during a trip to Washington earlier this month organized by CDA, Engage Cuba, and Cuba Educational Travel. We take it as a sign of the times that the group received a warm reception in Congress from Republicans and Democrats alike, notably including at a press conference with Sens. Patrick Leahy (VT), Amy Klobuchar (MN), and Flake.

While Congress is steadily catching up with the U.S. public on Cuba policy, the administration’s new Cuba policy likely represents a step backward, as it is ostensibly intended to restrict individual travel to Cuba and to make it more difficult to do business with entities that have even peripheral ties to the Cuban military. Like our Cuban entrepreneur friends, we hope that the final rules, currently being drafted at the U.S. departments and agencies, don’t set back the constructive evolution in U.S.-Cuba relations that we have seen over the past two years. Even Congress could agree on that.

URGENT APPEAL – Preserve engagement with Cuba! Click HERE to support CDA’s advocacy work!

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