December 17, 2014. Three years ago this week, Presidents Obama and Castro gave simultaneous addresses signaling to the world a historic shift in relations between the two countries. The announcement represented a move away from a policy that had failed for decades, yet oftentimes appeared interminable, and a step toward common-sense cooperation between two neighbors. It felt, as we wrote at the time, like “a day of miracles.”
Three years later, the euphoria has subsided. Though bilateral cooperation continues, recent U.S. policy changes and harsh rhetoric have cast a shadow over hopes of a swift end to this dangling Cold War remnant.
Speaking to reporters at the White House Sunday, President Trump acknowledged the anniversary. He said, “Hopefully everything will normalize with Cuba, but right now, they are not doing the right thing. And when they don’t do the right thing, we’re not going to do the right thing. That’s all there is to it.”
The President’s words amount to an admission of guilt – he acknowledges that his revamped U.S. policy toward Cuba isn’t “the right thing.”
He also continues, as we wrote two weeks ago, to recycle words from his predecessor. Three years ago, in his speech announcing the U.S. would pursue normalized relations with Cuba, President Obama said, “We are making these changes because it is the right thing to do. Today, America chooses to cut loose the shackles of the past so as to reach for a better future – for the Cuban people, for the American people, for our entire hemisphere, and for the world.”
In any context, “the right thing” can be a subject of debate and contention. We won’t argue that here. What’s more concerning is that in recent months, U.S. policy has done a number of the wrong things, including curbing the rights of Americans to travel freely, imposing restrictions that will hurt U.S. and Cuban businesses, and separating families by slashing consular services.
President Trump went on to say, “We have to be strong with Cuba. The Cuban people are incredible people. They support me very strongly. But we’ll get Cuba straightened out.”
Of course, Cuba has yet to hold a straw poll on the Trump presidency. But we do know that engagement is overwhelmingly popular on the island – in a 2015 Washington Post/Univision poll, 97 percent of Cubans said that normalization is “good for Cuba,” and 96 percent of Cubans said the U.S. embargo on Cuba should be eliminated.
Attempts to dictate what the Cuban people may or may not support should not come from Washington or South Florida. Instead, we believe that by lifting its onerous restrictions, the U.S. can allow Cubans to be the determinants of their own future.
This sentiment is reflected in the words of Julia de la Rosa, Niuris Higueras, Marla Recio, and Yamina Vicente, four female Cuban entrepreneurs who took to the Miami Herald last week to stress the negative impact of the President’s Cuba policy.
They wrote, “Rhetoric, finger pointing, and restrictions are not the type of ‘support’ the Cuban people want and need. What we want are fully functioning embassies and the freedom of travel for Americans and Cubans alike. We can take care of the rest.”
The President’s words this week mirrored a common refrain of detractors of normalization: that the U.S. should wait for Cuba’s government to make reforms before engaging. But as Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The time is always right to do what is right.”
This week, in Cuba news…
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed 160 Cubans from the country in fiscal year 2017, up from 60 in 2016 and 40 in 2015, according to an ICE report. Despite the increase, the number represents just a fraction of the over 37,000 Cubans with deportation orders, as El Nuevo Herald reports. (That number was 28,400 last December.)
As we reported last week, U.S. apprehensions of Cuban migrants at sea and ports of entry declined by 64 and 71 percent, respectively, in fiscal year 2017. Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft has attributed the precipitous drop in migrant interceptions to the Obama administration’s January decision to rescind the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, which previously allowed Cuban migrants a path to become legal permanent residents upon reaching U.S. soil.
Raul Castro confirmed Thursday that he will remain Cuba’s president until April, two months longer than previously expected, AP reports. The announcement comes as parliament extended the political cycle citing delays made necessary by Hurricane Irma’s devastation in September. Many Cubans and outside observers expect First Vice President Miguel Diaz Canel will serve as Cuba’s next president. Castro is expected to retain his position as head of the Communist Party.
Cuban Vice President Marino Murillo, who is also the head of the Cuban government’s reform commission, announced new controls and regulations for the non-State sector that come on the heels of earlier restrictions around the middle of this year. Reuters reports the restrictions stem from concerns of excess accumulation of wealth, inequality, and tax evasion. Murillo said there will be no new approvals for the time being for non-agricultural cooperatives, and maximum and minimum earnings will be limited to avoid the existence of de-facto private businesses. Cooperative leaders’ income levels will be capped at no more than three times the average wage of members. Business licenses will be limited to a single activity per entrepreneur, and private cooperatives will be limited to one province.
The Cuban government said Thursday that after a recession in 2016, the economy grew 1.6 percent this year, a better performance than expected due largely to a 4.4 rise in income from tourism, along with smaller increases in transport, communications, agriculture and construction. Reuters reports that, while damage from Hurricane Irma totaled nearly 13.2 billion pesos, the number of foreign visitors to the island grew by nearly 20 percent in the first 11 months of the year.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
The meeting came two days after Granma wrote that Cuba’s Cienfuegos oil refinery, which was founded as a joint venture between Cuba and Venezuela, has been operating as a solely Cuban state entity since August. According to Granma, the factory has produced just eight million barrels of oil this year, despite averaging over double that number over the last decade. In March, Venezuela’s state oil company PDVSA resumed exports of light crude oil to the Cienfuegos refinery after an eight-month freeze on shipments, but at a rate well below historic averages. Cuba 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.
Venezuela’s slipping involvement in Cuba’s oil sector has created a void which Russia has sought to fill. In May, Cuba signed an agreement with Rosneft to purchase nearly 1.9 million barrels of oil and diesel fuel, the largest agreement between Cuba and Russia since the early 1990s. In October, Rosneft stated that it intended to increase ties with the island, including possible work at the Cienfuegos refinery. This week, Reuters reported that Russia exported $225 million in goods to Cuba in the first 9 months of 2017, an 81 percent increase over the same period in 2016. Prior to the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow supplied the majority of Cuba’s energy through subsidized oil sales.
Representatives from the trade bloc ALBA, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America, met in Cuba this week for the 16th ALBA Political Council. Attendees included Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro.
In a joint statement on the summit, representatives from the group’s 11 member states called for closer ties among Latin American and Caribbean states, criticized the recent hardening of U.S. policy toward Cuba, encouraged continued dialogue within Venezuela regarding the country’s ongoing political issues, and expressed concern over turmoil in Honduras following presidential elections held last month.
What We’re Reading
This week, the Center for Democracy in the Americas launched its Cuba Leadership Circle, comprised of corporate and individual supporters of U.S. engagement with Cuba. CDA Executive Director Emily Mendrala stated, “We are proud to help promote commercial and citizen engagement opportunities with the knowledge that they will serve to benefit the Cuban people and increase ties between people in our two countries.”
U.S. and Cuban researchers join forces to bring lung cancer patients new hope, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald
The Miami Herald’s Mimi Whitefield reports on ongoing collaboration between U.S. and Cuban scientists on the CIMAvax lung cancer vaccine. The New York-based Roswell Park Cancer Institute started clinical trials with the vaccine earlier this year, after signing an agreement with Cuba’s Center of Molecular Immunology during New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 trip to Cuba.
A renewed Harvard-Cuba connection, Harvard Gazette
Mark C. Elliott, vice provost of international affairs at Harvard University, and Aurora Fernández, Cuba’s vice minister of higher education, signed a Memorandum of Understanding at Havana’s Hotel Nacional this week to “support faculty and student research and study in Cuba,” as well as to “encourage Cuban students to apply for admission to Harvard and programs through normal channels.”