“YES YOU CAN” encourages the website of a travel provider specializing in tours of Cuba. Itineraries are listed for nearly every remaining week of 2011 and most of 2012. “The floodgates have opened,” it proclaims, offering visitors endless itineraries for educational and cultural tours. According to the Cuba's National Office of Statistics, the island has already received more than a million visitors this year, an increase of 11.9% over the same period in 2010. While the origin of Cuba’s visitors in 2011 mirror patterns of previous years, the majority arriving from Canada, Russia, Argentina, the UK, Chile and France, it seems Americans may very soon be walking Cuban streets in the greatest numbers seen in more than a decade.
U.S.-based Cuba travel service providers are ramping up operations in the hopes that large numbers of Americans will take advantage of the Obama Administration’s changes to regulations governing people-to people travel to Cuba, announced in January of this year. The changes greatly expand opportunities for educational and religious travel via general license, (the general license does not require the traveler to be pre-authorized for travel) as well as more limited opportunities for travel under the more cumbersome and restrictive, specific license which continues to govern travel for cultural and humanitarian purposes. (For a more detailed explanation about the regulations, see this excellent analysis by the Latin America Working Group)
Last week, I offered a rather bleak but honest assessment of the Obama administration’s track-record on Cuba policy thus far. As it happened, just a day or two later the Associated Press published an article about the potential up-tick in American visitors to the island in 2011 that may result from the the new travel policy. “The forbidden fruit of American travel to Cuba is once again in reach,” reads the opening sentence.
I couldn’t help but dwell on the absurdity illustrated by the juxtaposition of these two realities. On the one hand, we have an Administration that makes what is essentially its first major endorsement of a policy of greater exchange between Cubans and Americans late on a Friday afternoon, as if it were the ugly step child of its Latin America agenda, yet there are potentially tens of thousands of Americans eager to travel to Cuba, and their right to do so just happens to be supported by Americans and Cuban voices that span the political and ideological spectrum.
Dawn at the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Havana
During my visit to Cuba at the beginning of May, I was reminded of the mis-comprehension and suspicion that dominate both Havana and Washington.
Cubans were of mixed minds about the just completed VI Congress of the Communist Party. The published record had not yet been released, so my varied interlocutors were free to read as much or as little into press accounts of the results as fit their predispositions.
Regardless of whether positive or negative about what was accomplished in this round, everyone agreed Cuba is engaged in a substantial and irreversible evolution of its social and economic order.
Continuity of leadership was regarded as a holding pattern, symbolically disappointing but expected. Raul Castro solidified a reform minded administration but did not take any risk of unleashing internal rivalries by choosing as Second Secretary a prospective successor from a younger generation. The more revealing stage is next January's Party conference which will focus on political and personnel issues.
Cuba's revolutionaries know their domestic legacy is at risk. Failure to successfully renovate the socialist experiment opens Cuba not so much to a takeover by Miami counterrevolutionaries or Washington hegemonists as it does to a Russian style domestic oligarchy taking personal profit from five decades of collaborative struggle and sacrifice.
There are Cuban individuals both on and off the island who are disgusted by the Castro regime and who do not want to see any reforms in Cuba, but rather hope that the deteriorating situation will galvanize discontent and provoke a rebellion. There are others in Cuba, enjoying the privileges of the Communist system, who do not want any reforms so that they can go on enjoying the status granted them due to family ties, loyalty or simply ideological opportunism. Still, there are many others who would like to see Cuba initiate orderly reforms that gradually lead to a political and economic system consistent with all human rights-- civil and political, economic, cultural and social-- enshrined in the Universal Declaration.
The principal report to the VI Congress of the Communist Party, presented by Raul Castro, points to a Cuba in which none of the three groups may be satisfied. The proposed reform program inserts economic change into single-party political continuity. This formulation implies that it is possible to advance in terms of legitimacy, freedom and welfare in some areas, while in other areas there is no progress, or even reinforcement of authoritarianism. It envisages a Cuba that might combine prosperity and joyful consumption of market-oriented economic growth with the permanence of reprehensible acts of repudiation against political dissidents.
The dilemmas of economic reform
The Central Report to the PCC Congress reflects a set of proposals generally associated with unorthodox propositions by government supporters. Positions in favor of term limits, decentralization, revaluation of the market as a development tool, separation of party and state functions, increasing the representation of women, blacks, mestizos and youth in government leadership and in favor of checks and balances between the branches of government and the Communist Party of Cuba (PCC) have been present in Cuba's internal debates since the 80's.
In practice, the transition to a mixed economy model with a decentralized state and a major non-state sector, considered in the past as antithetical to the official communist ideology, has already begun. President Raul Castro has taken (some would say stolen) agendas promoted in the past by reformist groups or even opponents and has set out to implement them under the leadership of the PCC. It will be a challenge for a bureaucracy, steeped in hostility toward these very concepts, to do so.
Market oriented reforms and a reduction of the State's distributive role had already been decided. The questions put to the PCC concerned the speed, methods, sequence, scope and progression of the reforms. The report lacks clear answers. It insinuates a gradual approach by ruling out IMF-style shock therapy and sudden removal of the ration card. But there is still no overall vision or alternative economic model put forward and no discussion of the political risks that the PCC will face in implementing changes.
If, as the report states, contracts will be the "regulatory tool of interrelationships between economic actors," the government is way behind on legislation to accommodate this. There are no viable bankruptcy laws, credible legal mechanisms for dispute resolution between creditors and borrowers, or adequate consumer protection or antitrust laws.
Has the PCC adopted an economic model in which State, cooperative or private enterprises can go bust? How will the government respond when a borrower does not repay a loan? What are the rules for restructuring debt in the shortest time possible or accessing seized assets? What assets will be used as collateral when seeking credit?
At roughly this time last year the headline of a Reuters article proclaimed, “U.S-Cuba relations under Obama fall to lowest point.” The article chronicled a number of prickly moments between Washington and Havana, but largely attributed the backslide to the arrest of U.S. contractor Alan Gross in late 2009 and the unfortunate death of Cuban prisoner, Orlando Zapata Tamayo which occurred just a few months later.
Given President Obama’s remarks about Cuba to Univision last week, one might conclude U.S.-Cuba relations have reached a sort of second nadir. In response to a question about the reforms currently underway in Cuba, the president said,
“For us to have the kind of normal relations we have with other countries, we've got to see significant changes from the Cuban government and we just have not seen that yet.”
While senior Obama Administration officials have been following those same talking points for months, (see Cuba Central’s helpful chronology here), to hear them again, precisely as Cuba begins to implement some of the wide-ranging policy reforms recently endorsed by its political leadership, is a troubling signal of where this Administration is on Cuba policy. Despite the past year being one in which Cuba began an historic process of reform and agreed to a major prisoner release brokered by the Cuban Catholic Church, Obama’s comments have the ring of an all-too-familiar refrain that is increasingly incompatible with the facts on the ground in Cuba.
Oh, the glories of being a tourist. The long plane rides spent squished in a middle seat; the demeaning airport security checks, the exorbitant baggage fees and bad food. But then there is, of course, the redemption that comes with being reunited with friends and family living abroad, or simply becoming acquainted with new places and sights that provide us with that injection of wonder we seek from time to time to rejuvenate the soul.
Yet for the vast majority of Cubans, leaving their country at all is virtually impossible. Under current regulations, Cubans must obtain a “tarjeta blanca” or exit visa, in order to leave. To get it, applicants must jump though a number of bureaucratic hoops and pay exorbitant fees: a de facto travel ban. Along with preventing ordinary Cubans from simply visiting family in the U.S. or elsewhere, the ban has been used as a political tool to prohibit opposition figures such as Yoani Sanchez or Dr. Oscar Biscet from traveling abroad to accept awards or other honors that confer international recognition and legitimacy on their anti-government positions.
So it is encouraging that the final version of the Lineamientos, Cuba's set of policy reform guidelines, mentions the possibility that Cubans may one day be permitted to travel abroad as tourists. The actual language reads, “Study a policy that facilitates Cubans living in the country to travel abroad as tourists,” (Num. 265). But given the enormity of the injustice that is the de facto ban, this vague statement of intent is hardly satiating to advocates of greater freedom and human rights.
While the Cuban government has for several years hinted it was entertaining such a policy change, ( President Raul Castro said as much back in 2008 shortly after his first formal inaugural address as president), it appears the idea hasn’t progressed much beyond that. Cuba’s incipient reform process has instead been defined by policy changes with comparatively lower political cost/higher economic returns. And if you are calling the shots in Cuba at this critical moment, it’s rather obvious why.
Uncle Sam is giving Cuba high marks for its drug interdiction efforts. At a time when Americans are concerned about the efficacy of Latin American nations’ collaboration with Washington’s “war on drugs” (mind you, there is plenty of Latin consternation about Washington’s collaboration in the effort as well), the 2011 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) tepidly applauds Havana’s efforts both to clamp down on drug flows through the Caribbean as well as to prevent the development of a domestic market. Even more intriguing is the State Department report’s admission that the Cuban government has formally proposed a bilateral counter-drug cooperation agreement.
The U.S. government would be well-advised to take advantage of this opening. In Washington’s short-term outlook it may seem like the drug war is all Mexico all the time, but that is partly due to the success with previous efforts to close down Caribbean drug-trading routes. Anti-drug efforts are notoriously susceptible to the balloon effect, so any future success in the current efforts to crack down on Mexican cartels could end up revitalizing the Caribbean trade.
The massive gathering of people in Mexico City’s zócalo this past Sunday to protest President Felipe Calderon’s war against drugs was a sign of the mounting public frustration with what has been an ineffective and costly campaign against the country’s cartels. But where protest leader Javier Sicilla wants the Mexican military off his country’s street, he also calls on the U.S. to do more to help Mexico fight this epic battle.
The recent exit of former U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Carlos Pascual made clear that ties with Mexico have hit a rough patch, but no one disputes the need for U.S. and Mexican diplomats to continue engaging each other, and for U.S. law enforcement agencies to continue sharing information with their Mexican counterparts. This cooperation and communication is all the more important given our two countries’ shared struggle against the scourge of illegal drugs.
Like Mexico, Cuba has the geographical bad fortune of finding itself between the largest drug-consuming region in the world, and the largest drug-producing one. While the majority of illegal drugs now enter the U.S. via our border with Mexico, until the 1980s, the Caribbean was the favored route in to the U.S. for South American-made cocaine, heroin and marijuana. While some have claimed Cuba provided traffickers access to Cuban waters, land and airspace during these years, accounts of such collusion, appear to be isolated incidents.
As Cuba watchers continue to digest the VI Party Congress, we wanted to share with you a newly-released New America Foundation (NAF) policy paper, “Change in Post-Fidel Cuba: Political Liberalization, Economic Reform, and Lessons for U.S. Policy”. In this new publication from NAF's U.S.-Cuba Policy Initiative, author Arturo Lopez-Levy explores the political context in which the VI Party Congress took place, the reform processes currently underway in Cuba, and the resulting implications for U.S. policy toward the island.
We previewed several excerpt of the paper a few weeks back, but are now pleased to be able to share it with you in its entirety.
Here are a few excerpts:
On the Cuban government and domestic opposition.
“Facing a more plural society, the government is being compelled to bargain in response to the emergence of citizen advocacy groups rather than simply rely on confrontation. Totalitarian practices have softened. There is undoubtedly a clear policy of confrontation employed against openly political opposition groups; however, in the last few years, a gray area has emerged where intellectuals and groups that promote citizen interests without directly challenging the state’s power are tolerated.”