Who Would Be Better for Cuba: Romney or Obama?

Few nations feel the fallout of a U.S election more than the island of Cuba, just ninety miles away, where millions have never known life without a U.S. bloqueo hanging over their heads. 

During the height of the Cold War, bringing down the Castro government, which was closely allied to the Soviet Bloc, was a matter of national security. But after the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba no longer mattered.  As long as Cuba wasn’t exporting revolution, serving as a hub for narco-traffickers, or gushing U.S.-bound rafter refugees, it no longer mattered whether U.S. policy objectives and tactics were realistic, effective or even in the national interest. 

From President Reagan to President Obama and the various Republican contenders who sought to replace him (including presumptive Republican nominee, Mitt Romney),  Cuba is a pit stop on the Florida campaign trail, and little else.  How else to explain Mitt Romney’s unfortunate “Patria o muerte, venceremos!” gaffe before a disgusted crowd of Cuban Americans during a 2007 campaign stop, when some careless campaign staffer must have thought it’d be great to throw in a  beloved Cuban expression to win fans in electoral-vote rich South Florida, but instead just fanned the flames of insult to injury by arming Romney with that famous Fidel Castro sign-off.  And of course, in the crucial election years of 2004 and 2006, President George W. Bush empaneled lofty commissions to plan every last detail of a Cuban transition to market democracy, and then update the plan, none of which has come to pass.  And though President Obama promised a “new beginning” with Cuba early in his presidency, it’s amounted to not too much more than a new beginning with potential swing Cuban American voters keen on visiting their families in Cuba whenever they like.   It was Barack Obama in 2004, by the way, who said in no uncertain terms that it was time for the U.S. to lift its embargo of Cuba.

(On the flopped ‘new beginning’ some will point to Cuba’s imprisonment of an American USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, for more than two years as the end of the new beginning. And while I think the Cuban government could and should show clemency toward Gross - and now a critic on the other side will say the U.S. could and should show clemency toward the Cuban Five - one cannot ignore the reality that the Obama administration’s continuation and stubborn defense of USAID democracy programs beefed up under the Bush administration that snuck Americans onto the island without host country consent to break that country’s laws, whatever we might think of them, might have played a role, a big one, in all of this.)

Obama’s approach, precisely because it seeks to cater to a more moderate segment of Florida’s electoral pool, is less strident and more reasonable than that of his predecessor, who was instead maximizing the hard-line faithful.  And yet, more reasonable doesn’t necessarily mean Cuba matters more to the current occupant of the White House any more than it did to the last.  President Bush was willing to separate families, while President Obama seems oblivious to the historic changes in Cuba underway today, both because real events and impacts on the island aren’t the point.  Domestic political advantage is. 

Perhaps that is why this pointed commentary from the internationally acclaimed Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, reflecting on Obama’s pragmatism and reminding us that while Cuba may not matter to the U.S., U.S. elections always matter in Cuba, may not cause a much-needed course correction in a Romney or Obama White House come 2013.

Roundup: Raul Castro in China, Food Duty Returns, and Cuban BIS Bank Deposits Plummet

Raul Castro, who rarely travels abroad, is in China and Vietnam this week. In China, he's been welcomed by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. He'll also be meeting with the vice-president and vice-premier, next in line for the top Chinese posts, signalling that this is a long-haul relationship. 

This is Castro’s first visit to China since becoming president. One Chinese scholar predicted that the leaders would sign agreements that will help speed up Cuban economic reforms: "Reforms need investment. Since Cuba faces difficulty in drawing investment from the West, closer China-Cuba economic ties constitute strong support for its reforms and development," he said. The two countries have signed 8 accords, including no-interest loan funds from China to Cuba. 

While the visit has so far clearly been a friendly one, it’s not clear there’s a whole lot more in the way of Chinese investment.  Perhaps more important is the opportunity for Raul Castro to observe the development there (compared with his two other visits over the last twenty years, before he became president of Cuba) and consider how and which similar policies to adapt in Cuba. Omar Everleny of the University of Havana’s Center for the Study of the Cuban economy encourages taking a look at and lessons from the significant investments undertaken by Hong Kong Chinese in mainland China, as Cuba has a large diaspora that is more and more willing – and welcome – to come home.

Can the BRICS Sink or Save Cuba?

Just as I was about to overlook news of the first visit to Cuba by an Indian Foreign Minister in nearly 25 years,  during which it was agreed to “open new horizons” in the bilateral economic relationship, the following headline caught my eye: “Will the BRICS rescue Iran?”  It’s an interesting commentary that reflects on Iran’s economic relationships over the last several decades and concludes not only will the BRICS not save Iran, but actually, one by one they seem to be abandoning ship.

If that is the case - that the tightened sanctions on Iran will eventually convince Iran to strike a real deal with the negotiating parties (who at the present moment are having a tough go of it), owing to the overwhelming nature of the economic sanctions, might we surmise that more pressure applied to Cuba could break that government’s will as well? 

I'm not so sure, as there are several key differences to consider.  Foremost is of course the fact that Iran sanctions are increasingly multi-lateral, led by the U.S., while Cuba sanctions are essentially unilateral – America is the holdout, not the leader.  I can’t think of another country that actually has active economic sanctions in place against Cuba. 

Rivera Takes Florida Law Targeting Cuba, Odebrecht to Washington

It's hard to imagine the U.S. embargo of Cuba could possibly get any tighter at this point, right?  Wrong.

First, a quick review of the fifty year-old entanglement of laws, regulations and presidential proclamations all designed to bring down the fifty three year-old Castro regime in Cuba starts with the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act  - an ironic bill as Cuba was our friend in 1917, but Cuba is now the only country in the world to which the Act still applies.  It also includes several major sanctions upgrades designed to punish Cuba in the wake of the Eastern Bloc collapse two decades ago and create conditions on the island that would lead to regime change there, also to block U.S. companies, including their subsidiaries, from doing business with Cuba, to penalize anyone foreigners that 'traffick' in expropriated Cuban properties, and to dissuade foreign companies from doing business there at all (including, for example, by prohibiting any vessel docking in Cuba from docking in the United States for 180 days).   Such sanctions and more can be found in the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act, the 1996 Helms-Burton Act (known more for its sponsors than for its aspirational title) and the 2000 Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act, which though it legalized heavily regulated cash in advance food and medicine sales to the island, it itched into stone, or public law, the United States' only remaining travel ban, against Cuba (such bans were previously a matter of presidential policy). 

There's more.  So much more that this 44-page report focused on the legal and regulatory framework of the embargo doesn't even cover it all.  Like, efforts that began under the Bush administration and have increased under the Obama administration to prevent Cuba from using or exchanging U.S. dollars in foreign banks (even when those dollars come from American relatives licensed to send them). 

Though there are hundreds of thousands of Cuban Americans who now no longer support the embargo or consider themselves exiles (as evidenced by their frequent trips home to the island), it only takes a couple of well-placed and dedicated lawmakers to buck the trend, and yes, it is possible, further tighten the five decade-old embargo.

One such legislator, Rep. David Rivera, is particularly interesting because he has spent so very much time on Cuba since arriving to the U.S. Congress in 2011.  Since arriving to Congress in January 2011, Rivera has introduced 9 bills, 5 of which focus on Cuba (even if they don't all contain the word 'Cuba').  The various bills focus on the two biggest threats to the ongoing US-Cuba Cold War, the ongoing normalization of Cuban Americans immigrants' dealings with Cuba (excluding, of course, those largely 'historico' generation Cuban Americans who think of themselves as exiles), and deep water oil exploration in Cuba.  But Rep. Rivera is now championing yet another Cuba-related initiative - what I'll call his Odebrecht Amendment, added to the Defense Appropriations Act of 2013 passed out of a House Committee last month - and that could have a far greater impact on U.S. foreign and trade policy beyond U.S.-Cuban relations if it catches on.

Hopes Dim on Cuban Oil, Foreign Investment, Havana Club Rum Rights

It’s not been a banner week – or month – for Cuba on the trade, investment and economic front.

After its second attempt in 10 years to find commercial quantities of oil in Cuban deep water in the Gulf of Mexico – its latest well came up dry – Spain’s Repsol is “almost certain” it won’t try again.  Repsol has the option to drill again later this year before the Italian-owned Scarabeo rig – which, due to the U.S. embargo, had to be specially built with no more than 10% of American parts for exploration in Cuba - moves on to Brazil.  Next up are two  Malaysian and Russian firms, whose explorations this summer could be crucial to Cuba’s near-to-mid-term hopes of accessing undersea reserves it estimates to be as high as 20 billion barrels (the U.S. estimates it to have around 5 billion). 

As Jorge Pinon, a former oil executive and an expert on Cuba’s oil prospects, points out, once the only rig in the world that can drill in Cuban waters without violating the U.S. embargo moves on, it could be years before it’s available and another player is willing to invest millions in the gamble – especially when larger reserves beckon elsewhere around the world.  The prospect of an energy-independent Cuba was intriguing from a geopolitical standpoint, and surely a blow to Cuba’s hopes of digging out of its continuing economic troubles.   Just as some wondered if success in the Gulf could derail the economic reforms underway out of necessity, it might soon be time to ask if failure could spur on the painfully slow pace of the reforms.

The pace seems even slower for foreign investments on the island of late.  Cuban officials have cracked down on foreign investors and their domestic partners found to be involved in corruption – two British executives have recently landed in jail.  Other partners such as Unilever and a group of Israeli investors in Cuban citrus are on their way out following unsuccessful contract renewal negotiations.   It’s mystifying to watch Cuban officials working harder to chase off investors than to bring them in when, as one western diplomat put it, such concessions are “inevitable”.  With plans to drastically cut government payrolls (that the small domestic private sector can’t quickly or totally absorb), Cuba’s main benefactor and trading partner, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez’s health (and hold on power) uncertain, and big bills to pay with not enough hard currency earnings to pay them, it’s hard to understand what’s going on.  And that is exactly the sort of climate that will scare off investors for the time being.

And in perhaps the most bitter news for Cuba, the U.S. Supreme Court has rejected a petition over the U.S. trademark rights to the Havana Club rum name.  Given that the U.S. accounts for 40% of the worldwide rum market, CubaExport and its French distributor partner Pernod Ricard, which distribute Cuba’s flagship rum to more than 80 other countries around the world but not in the U.S. yet, had hoped the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) would hold their seat in the U.S. market until the embargo is eventually lifted.  That’s  because CubaExport had registered the U.S. rights to the name in 1976 (after the prior owner, who’s rum distillery was expropriated by the Cuban government, failed to renew the U.S. trademark rights in 1973), and renewed its rights every ten years thereafter in order to keep its rights current.

Rivera's Revenge on Cuban Immigrants Who Refuse to Be Exiles

You've got to hand it to U.S. Rep. David Rivera; he's nothing if not determined.  Tomorrow, the House Judiciary's Subcommittee on Immigration will consider (and likely approve) a bill, H.R.2831, introduced by Rivera that would withhold or rescind permanent residency status given under the 1966 Cuban Refugee Adjustment Act (commonly referred to as CAA) to any Cuban immigrant who dares to travel to Cuba for any reason before he or she becomes a U.S. citizen.  And since it can take years to officially become a citizien, Rivera is essentially prepared to keep families now accustomed to being together, apart. 

Why is a Cuban American legislator is proposing to limit the rights of his fellow Cuban-Americans (or, technically, soon-to-be Cuban Americans)?

Obama Administration Botches Cuban Visas

You know U.S.-Cuban relations have hit a bizarre new low when The Washington Post editorial board - which favors a harder line on Cuba policy than most - criticizes the Obama administration for taking too hard a line this time.

Late last week we learned that the State Department granted visas to Mariela Castro (a sexologist and GLBT rights advocate in Cuba, and, oh by the way, Raul Castro's daughter) and two other high level officials, Josefina Vidal (the Foreign Ministry's Director of its U.S. Section) and Eusebio Leal (the man behind the "living" restoration of Old Havana).  Predictably, Cuban American critics in Congress fired off statements of horror, particularly over Mariela Castro.  But they offered no gleeful appreciation for the administration's decision to turn away nearly a dozen of Cuba's most noted academic specialists in U.S.-Cuban relations, who were invited to the same conference, the annual meeting of the Latin America Studies Association, as Mariela Castro and some 60 other Cuban academics who did receive visas.

"The rejections send a message that a timorous Washington is somehow afraid of competing points of view from academics in a poor island nation with a shrinking population and an economy about the size of Arkansas’. It’s a message that conveys weakness, not strength.

So does the absurd outcry from Cuban American politicians, including members of Congress, bent out of shape that a visa was granted to Mariela Castro, the daughter of Cuban President Raul Castro and an advocate of gay and transgender rights. What are they so frightened of?

Radio-TV Marti and the not-so-great disappearing hatchet job

 

William Booth of the Washington Post broke an exceptionally important story this weekend about an editorial published on the website of Radio and TV Marti – the anti-Castro, taxpayer -funded government broadcasters –which called Cuba’s Cardinal Jaime Ortega a “lackey” and asserted the Cardinal espoused views that were “contrary to the doctrine of Christ.”

Hours after Booth’s story was published, the editorial disappeared from the website, and links that were once live instead produced a message “Esta página no existe,” [This page does not exist], although the piece for Spanish readers can currently be found here

Name-calling against the Cardinal is considered fair game among some hardliners in the exile community who worry that successful efforts by the Church to help free political prisoners and to open spaces for debate in Cuba on economic reform and human rights convey an image of openness on the island inconsistent with their preferred views of the Castro government.

In those precincts, it’s commonplace to read language like this, “The Pope came and went from Cuba, salsa dancing with the excommunicated Fidel (in 1962), saying not a word about, nor once acknowledging, never mind meeting with, any of the dissidents,” which is both harsh and consistent with expression in a free society.

Fire in Miami Cuba Travel Office Raises Eyebrows, and Spectre from the Past

While the FBI investigates a fire that destroyed, or in the owner’s words, “pulverized” the offices of a company that offers flights to Cuba (and coordinated a Cuban American delegation to the island for Pope Benedict’s recent trip), news that a K-9 alerted for accelerant on the premises  almost immediately raises the spectre of firebombings past in Miami.   More than a decade has passed since the last reported incidents of Cuban exile terrorism targeting Cuban Americans in Miami that seen as too soft on or cozy with Cuba. 

"There are people that had a lot of torture, a lot of killings back on the island, and they don't appreciate A, the new wave of Cubans that are coming over and the new immigrants that are coming over that just don't have a recollection of what happened to the previous generation," said Ian Martinez, who works in an office at the building.

"Una Noche" Actors Go Missing: Why Do Cubans Defect?

Two Cuban actors making their way to the Tribeca Film Festival opening of “Una Noche” last week have disappeared – and presumably defected – after arriving in Miami.  Apparently, just like the characters they play in the film, they’ve chosen to leave the island for a better life in the United States.  The third actor, who did not defect, said, "I have my family there, my friends, my girlfriend," he said. "Here, I don't know anyone."  On the other hand, what foreign actor (especially one im Cuba) wouldn't want the chance to "make it" in the United States?

I’ve not had a chance to see the film, and as such I can only draw educated guesses about the way in which it treats the characters’ decisions to emigrate.  But I’m going to guess that, taken together, the film and its actors’ real life developments illustrate the complex and toughest realities of living in Cuba – and that includes having the same loves and dreams as anywhere else (and far fewer opportunities to pursue them than one would have in the U.S. for instance), and an inordinate amount of getting creative and hurrying up and waiting, and yes, for some and for all, fear and limits. 

It can be a particularly depressing reality for twenty-somethings in a country is proud of its broad-based educational achievement but offers the vast majority of Cubans little to do with that education.  And though Cuba is undergoing significant economic changes that will surely change the course of Cuba’s future, it will take time for the benefits to be felt broadly and deeply enough to convince so many disaffected youth that there is a reason to stay.  So, whether you’re ‘fleeing’ a prison guard, or whether you’re ‘fleeing’ a place that feels like a dead-end, it’s not hard to imagine the impulse young Cubans have to leave their country. 

But, it’s also not unreasonable to ask a few rhetorical questions, like, aren’t there millions of people the world over who also have good reasons – perhaps even better ones – to flee their country for ours?  Are Cubans the most miserable people on the planet, or is there added – and significant – reason that contributes to so many making the decision to defect (or emigrate)?   Cuba policy wonks know the answer to this question, and it causes us to gnash our teeth and pound the table for emphasis – to make sure the listener is actually listening:

Thanks to the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act and the 'wet-foot, dry-foot' policy in place since the mid-1990's, Cubans may arrive in the United States by any means (yes, including illegally), and not only walk free in our country, but they will receive government adjustment assistance (intended for refugees, though they don’t have to actually prove they are refugees), be eligible to work, and have the right to a green card after just one year.  What other illegal immigrant group gets this sort of treatment in the United States of America?  Certainly not Haitians or Afghans.  Not Iranians, North Koreans nor any other group that could make a case for it.  The policy is an anomoly of the 1960's; it was never intended to leave the door open for fifty more years.  But it has, and no president has been tough enough to close it.

Cuba is undoubtedly as hard a place to live as it is beautiful.  The much-publicized defections to the U.S. by Cuban actors and athletes – and the thousands of more anonymous rafters and go-fast boat riders who arrive from the island – surely capture our imaginations.  But it is not only the island that drives them here.  The United States beckons too, with its well-dressed Miami relatives disembarking their planes laden with gifts, with its promise of opportunities across this great country, as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and, most crucially, with an unparalleled, favorable immigration policy crafted especially for Cubans.