Q&A with Dr. Michael J. Bustamante and Dr. Arturo López-Levy on the visit of Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz-Canel to New York.
Q: Last week, a Cuban delegation led by President Díaz-Canel participated in the 73rd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. While in New York, the Cuban leader delivered remarks before the General Assembly and met with corporate leaders, Members of the U.S. Congress, the Mayor of New York, civil society leaders, Cuban residents in the U.S., and global leaders. At the conclusion of a very busy and high-profile week-long agenda, CDA asked Cuba experts to respond to the question: What are your impressions of President Díaz-Canel’s first UNGA?
BUSTAMANTE: Miguel Díaz-Canel’s visit to New York was nothing if not busy. In addition to speaking at the UN General Assembly and meeting with a number of heads of state, Cuba’s president kept a packed schedule of engagements with a range of actors from the United States. In a well-choreographed blitz, he met with representatives of the U.S. agriculture and travel industries, technology companies (at Google’s Manhattan offices no less), and even Robert De Niro (alongside other notables from the arts and entertainment fields). He paid his respects at the 9/11 Memorial. From a public relations perspective, one would have to qualify the visit as a success. Concrete results—like just-announced MOUs with Google or the perfectly timed Sept. 26 announcement of a U.S.-Cuba Innovative Immunotherapy Alliance—point to progress too. At times, it seemed that the halcyon days of the normalization process under Barack Obama and Raúl Castro had returned.
Yet we know the reality is not so rosy. While Díaz-Canel’s non-UN agenda was surely intended to signal a willingness to pick up where the Obama administration’s normalization efforts left off, his speech at the UN General Assembly pulled no punches in denouncing U.S. positions on a number of global and regional issues. The Trump administration also came in for strong criticism for its handling of the “sonic incidents” affair (or whatever we’re calling it these days). In a pointed rebuttal to president Trump’s own words in front of the General Assembly, Díaz-Canel insisted that capitalism, not socialism was responsible for the worst of the world’s ills. This verbal game of ideology won’t get us far.
President Díaz-Canel’s robust defense of socialism also brings into relief several tensions between the foreign policy posture on display during his visit and dynamics unfolding inside Cuba itself. Defending socialism while meeting with a technology venture firm literally called “Revolution” is perhaps no more contradictory than other aspects of Cuban economic policy in recent years. But members of Cuba’s own small business sector will likely smart at their government courting potential foreign investors in the United States while recently announcing rules that constrain their own ability to grow. Defending dialogue through culture and the arts, as Díaz-Canel did when chatting with De Niro, is no doubt important. But parts of Cuba’s own cultural and artistic sector are also concerned that new regulations on their work (Decreto 349) will restrict the parameters of such dialogue internally. Finally, President Díaz-Canel’s meeting with select members of the Cuban community in the United States also represented a gesture of calibrated openness, especially because some of those in attendance run non-state (albeit not oppositional) media outlets on the island that Cuba’s president had previously regarded with suspicion. Yet practical policies that many members of the diaspora have called for—lower customs fees, the right to travel to Cuba under an acquired citizenship, a legal framework to invest openly, or more effective representation in the government—have not materialized.
President Díaz-Canel showed himself an able diplomat, but the domestic and foreign policy uncertainties his government faces should not be overlooked. “We are continuity, not rupture,” he told the General Assembly. Cubans on the island still eager for steady economic and political progress without shock therapy may understandably consider this is a false choice.
Cuban president’s visit to New York for the annual session of the UNGA illustrates how post-revolutionary Cuba’s foreign policy works beyond the passing of the historical generation. The hectic agenda covered by president Diaz-Canel in the public and private meetings was methodically prepared and accompanied by a high level of mobilization within the US system the new president covered a broad spectrum of diverse and at times conflictive interests and perspectives within the American society. In a range that goes from the most radical groups of the Afro and Latino communities, with whom he met at the Riverside Church in Harlem, friendly territory to Cuba since the visit of Fidel Castro to the neighborhood in 1960, to the business sectors, art celebrities, and the plural Cuban community, Diaz-Canel was able to structure and offer each sector an agenda of bridges and incentives for a less conflictive bilateral relationship with Washington.
Looking ahead, Cuban diplomacy will have to work more broadly on the relationship with the big press and communication with the American population as a whole. Here was a missed opportunity. The opening of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the US since 2014 changed the official American perception of the island from “threat” to “country in transition.” Expectations for a new face in the Cuban leadership allowed the Trump administration to be circumvented with a more friendly and refreshing projection towards the U.S. Those opportunities were not used to their full potential. The challenge was great but so were the possible returns. In a context marked by the paralysis of the improvement of the relationship due to the withdrawal of diplomatic personnel in Washington and Havana by President Trump following alleged attacks on diplomats in Havana without credible explanation, an interview with the Cuban president with The New York Times, NBC, CBS or CNN, could set the tone. It is difficult not to see in that space a lost opportunity.
A turning point was recorded in the meeting with the Cuban community in the U.S. In that meeting in which this author participated, the new president presented the emigration as part of the nation itself and called those who oppose U.S. policy to participate more actively not only against the embargo/blockade but also in the politics of the country and the process of discussing constitutional changes. Apart from the political differences between the majority of the emigrants present, President Díaz-Canel was a Cuban of these times, born after 1959, who knows that Cuba is a transnational, plural society, increasingly connected to the world and that there are necessary, difficult and urgent changes to be made.
Díaz-Canel received a warm welcome by the majority of the compatriots with whom he spoke. He did it, with humility and astuteness. In my exchange with the president, I talked about our common origins and relationships, in [the city of] Santa Clara, at the center of the island. The visit nothing had to do with those who present him as a mere instrument of the historical generation of the Revolution. He is a president with light and dignity of his own.
Michael J. Bustamante, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Florida International University. Dr. Bustamante specializes in modern Cuba, Cuban America, and the Caribbean. Previously, Dr. Bustamante served as Research Associate for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.
Arturo López-Levy, Ph.D., is Visiting Assistant Professor and Bruce Gray Post-Doctoral Fellow in Political Science at Gustavus Adolphus College. He is an expert on Latin America, Cuba, and U.S.-Cuba relations. Dr. López-Levy is the co-author of the book “Raúl Castro and the New Cuba: A Close-Up.”
This week, on U.S. Cuba news…
Filings with the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) reveal that American Airlines plans to cancel its nonstop flight between Havana and Charlotte, North Carolina, and replace it with a flight between Miami and Havana. According to The Charlotte Observer, American has reported that the route averaged only about half-full flights during the first semester of this year. In the filings with the DOT, the airline states that “The evolving restrictions on travel to Cuba have caused sharp changes in demand for U.S.- Cuba scheduled service, creating unique challenges for carriers.” According to The Charlotte Observer, most travelers transited Charlotte to connect flights en route to Havana, and will not be affected by the moving to Miami International Airport, the airlines’ main hub for Latin America.
In November 2017, the Treasury and Commerce Departments published new Cuba regulations curbing U.S. travel to and trade with Cuba, as we reported then. According to the motion submitted by American Airlines, “The cuts to Havana service that began in 2017 have reduced Havana seats by nearly 20 percent from the Department’s initial allocation in 2016, even accounting for the new services that will begin later this year.”
American Airlines also announced plans to open a flight from Miami to Santiago de Cuba in 2019, el Nuevo Herald reports.
Blondie, an iconic U.S. rock band, will travel to Cuba in March 2019 to perform in Havana’s Teatro Mella as part of a four-day cultural exchange, reports Variety. They will be joined on stage by several renowned Cuban artists, including Alain Pérez, David Torrens, and Síntesis. “We’ve been talking about it for ages, and now it’s finally happening. Havana is such an incredible scene, such an incredible city. I’ve always been fascinated by their music and their wildly creative culture. It’s going to be an amazing trip, and we’re all really looking forward to it,” said a band statement cited by Rolling Stones. Blondie will join the ranks of Audioslave, the Rolling Stones, Air Supply, Diplo, and Major Lazer who have also played in Havana in recent years.
Orlando Hernández Guillén, president of the Chamber of Commerce of Cuba said that the 3rd Foreign Investment Forum will take place on October 30 and 31, Prensa Latina reports. According to Mr. Hernández Guillén, exhibitors have reserved over 23,000 sq.mts. of exhibit area. The Cuban official confirmed that large delegations from Russia, China, Mexico, Canada, Venezuela, South Korea, Japan, and Europe are expected to participate in the forum.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
Canada’s government has teamed with a group of brain injury experts in Nova Scotia to probe the health incidents suffered by Canadian and U.S. diplomats in Havana. According to The Star, Mark Zaid, a Washington-based leading lawyer in cases that involve U.S. national security, said that the U.S. National Security Agency “had admitted to us that there was at least one country that was using microwaves as weapons against U.S. personnel.” The Star cited Dr. Michael Hoffer, a brain injury specialist at the University of Miami who saw many of the Americans that reported symptoms, who recently stated that the cause of the ailments still remains unknown.
Canada’s Global Affairs Ministry recalled family members of diplomats in Havana in April of this year, although no new cases among Canadians have been reported since October 2017, according to The Star.
Cuba’s Minister of Tourism, Manuel Marrero Cruz, visited Canada this week and held meetings with his Canadian counterpart, the Minister of Tourism, Official Languages and La Francophonie, Mélanie Joly, reports Cubadebate. According to the article, Mr. Marrero Cruz met with travel and tourism companies that work with Cuba as well as with Air Canada.
Canada remains the top market for Cuba’s tourism industry. According to Travelweek, this February, Cuba reported that 1.1 million Canadian visitors traveled to the island in 2017.
Their Havana pastry shop was so successful they decided to expand—to Kendall, Sarah Moreno, Miami.com
The article features the success story of two Cuban entrepreneurs who opened their first bakery in Havana in 2013, which now employs 25 people. The business has grown so much that they reached their limits in Cuba. Cuba’s regulations restrict private enterprise to one business per person for some industries, including the food industry. Rather than expand unofficially risking their bakery and put the employment of their 25 workers in jeopardy, the Cuban entrepreneurs opened a bakery in Miami.
EVENTS IN THE U.S.
Cuba’s son music ensemble El Septeto Santiaguero in D.C., October 8, Millenium Stage, Kennedy Center
The Cuban Grammy-nominated and Latin Grammy winner son ensemble El Septeto Santiaguero will perform at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage next Monday. Founded in Santiago de Cuba in 1995 by the tres guitar player Fernando Dewer, the band has been designated as “Cuba’s foremost son music ensemble. Son is a music form born in eastern Cuba around the beginning of the 20th century.
Manuel Mendive’s exhibition Nature, Spirit, and Body, Now-November 4, Bronx Museum of the Arts
First premiering at the Kennedy Center’s Artes de Cuba Festival, Cuban artist Manuel Mendive’s artwork is now on display at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. His work is inspired by African oral traditions and their influence on Cuba.
EVENTS IN CUBA
FIHAV 2018, October 29-November 2, Expocuba
The 37th edition of the International Fair of Havana is the most important gathering for those interested in doing business with Cuba. Representatives from public and private companies from virtually all of Latin America and the Caribbean participate in this annual event.
U.S.-Cuba Agriculture Business Conference, November 8-10, Hotel Nacional de Cuba.
The U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba will host a business conference in Havana in November at which business representatives, farmers, and officials are expected to be present.
MEDICC A Healthy Cuba Healthy World Conference: Celebrating History, Community & Culture, December 5-10, Meliã Santiago Hotel in Santiago de Cuba
MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba), a non-profit that strives to foster collaboration between the medical community in the U.S. and Cuba will host its 2018 conference in Cuba in December.
Blondie in Havana, March 10-14, 2019, Teatro Mella.
One of America’s most renowned rock band is performing in Havana. Along with concerts in the art-deco-style Teatro Mella, the trip will be an immersive experience in Cuba’s culture. Guided visits to Havana’s most iconic places and dinners in local paladares (private-owned restaurants) are included.