Wait a Minute, Mr. Postman
All the Cuba news right now seems to be on the 'communication' front. This month's announcement from the Obama administration that it plans to encourage "people to people" contacts with and travel to Cuba came just before Cuban authorities announced suspension of mail service to the United States. Ironic timing, but the two issues aren't otherwise connected. Though no one knows for sure, it would seem that the mail bomb packages from Yemen led to new restrictions and uncertainties- and heaps of mail returned to Cuba's postal authorities - got to be a financial burden. It's not clear why the third party shippers would return Cuban-origin mail, but the U.S. says it has not restricted Cuban-origin mail specifically. It's ironic, since the US and Cuba restarted mail talks nearly a year and a half ago, in hopes of restarting direct mail service between the two countries. This problem might not have cropped up had they been able to come to agreement. Now they can't even make indirect mail service work. Is it too much to hope that this suspension gives U.S. and Cuban authorities something to work toward for this summer's migration talks (since there's been no visible progress on that front)?
Meanwhile, an underwater broadband cable is making its way from Venezuela, though it's unclear at this point just how it may or may not change Cubans' digital lives. The Guardian reports that the priority will be to improve the incredibly slow satellite connection shared by government officials, academics, researchers, certain businesses and foreign hotels and other companies. Improving the efficiency of all of these priority sectors will be important to the success of the current economic restructuring underway on the island. But of course, questions are bound to be asked about how to increase access to the internet for the broader population. Rome wasn't built - or wired - in a day, but critics will nonetheless accuse the government of blocking average citizens' access. It would be nice to see internet cafes and public access points pop up and address the pent up demand. And frankly, many private businesses the government hopes can fill the income and employment gap it no longer wants to fill could benefit from use of the internet - particularly those that will prosper if they can better advertise to foreign clientele, like casa particulares and paladars.
And at a conference organized by the Center for International Policy today, Professor Phil Brenner, one of several panelists speaking about the Obama administration announcement on travel and on other issues ripe for progress on the Cuba policy front, made an interesting point about the small Cuban businesses and the Obama administration policy. Now that university students will no longer be practically incapable of studying in Cuba (Brenner says about 300 American students studied in Cuba last year, as opposed to some 10,000 six years ago before government regulations snuffed out most of the exchanges), they will be among the most likely Americans to frequent - and thus bolster - Cuban businesses like casas particulares and paladar restaurants. It's not as big an impact as, say, hundreds of thousands of Americans would have on these fledging businesses, but it's yet another reason why increasing academic exchanges is just plain good policy. I hope that's not what Senator Bob Menendez meant when he said he hoped to "limit the impact" of the administration's new policy.
[Note: I had to leave the above-mentioned conference early so I missed several of the presentations. Perhaps a summary will get posted on their website - but it's worth pointing out that one more avenue of communication with Cuba was on the docket - Radio and TV Marti. More on that as we get closer to budget negotiations in Congress.]