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.

What lies across the Water- Why History, International Law and American Values matter in the case of the Cuban five


The following text is my presentation at the panel organized by Wayne Smith about the book "What lies across the Water", at the Center for International Policy, April 18, Washington DC.

I want to thank Dr. Wayne Smith and the Center for International Policy (CIP) for the invitation to discuss the book “What lies across the Water”. As a Cuban-American who thinks constantly about the difficult relations between Cuba and the United States, it is an honor to be part of the effort of the CIP to improve the knowledge about the complex history of these links and the need to approach them with creativity and goodwill.

Whatever you might think about the Cuban Five, if you want to know how their case fits into the history of relations between Cuba and the United States, you must read this book. The author Stephen Kimber presents a well written short narrative about how the Cuban five ended up in US prisons. The book reads more as reportage for the general public than as an academic report.  The author has studied the long history of conflict between Cuba and the United States and the use of terror as a political weapon by Cuban right wing groups in Florida.

Quandary Over Cuba: Will There Be a 7th Summit of the Americas?

With the inconclusive 6th Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia wrapping up this weekend, will there be any way to bridge the gaps – most visibly over Cuba’s exclusion and between the United States and many of its most crucial partners in the region – and keep these presidential level summits between the countries of North and South America going in the future?

First we have to ask whether the region’s leaders want these Summits badly enough?  Many of the countries the U.S. has the strongest differences with might well prefer to let the Summit of the Americas die and to promote instead CELAC, a new 33-member regional organization which includes all countries in the Western Hemisphere (including Cuba) except for the United States and Canada.  As for those countries not at ideological odds with the United States, such as Brazil and Colombia, don’t they project the greatest possible strength as regional leaders when holding their own in forums that include, rather than exclude, the United States?  And certainly the United States would rather be inside the tent than outside of it, for that is the best way to exercise broad influence in the region.

Though there are other significant policy debates between the United States and others in the hemisphere, the Cuba issue has become a major and potentially irreconcilable obstacle to moving forward.  When the 34 leaders in attendance in 1994 agreed to uphold and defend the principles of representative democracy and universal human rights, Cuba was not invited to participate (and, at the time, Cuba’s suspension from the Organization of American States, from which these summits grew, was still in place).   But today, nearly all of the region’s  players  - Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Ecuador, to name the most outspoken - are calling for there to be no more Summits of the Americas without Cuban representation. 

Does this reflect a lesser, or relative, commitment to democracy and human rights by these countries?

Missing An Opportunity at the Summit of the Americas


“For the most part, the tension over Cuba seems mostly to be behind Mr. Obama — a not insignificant consideration in a presidential election year in which Florida, the bastion of anti-Castro sentiment, could be a critical swing state.”         --New York Times, 4/13/12

The White House projected a lot of self-satisfaction on the eve of the summit of the Americas. 

It is hard to tell whether that is just the normal spin (accentuated by the pre-election dynamic), based on diplomatic assurances from the major players, or just the normal disregard about how we are seen by our neighbors.

Bottom line, the Administration could have used the Summit to increase US stature by showing we have finally moved beyond the Cold War, neoconservative agendas and the Monroe Doctrine.  Instead we are at best going to stay even. 

To preclude a photo opportunity of Barack Obama shaking Raul Castro's hand, the US has assured the Summit will be shaped by the absence of Cuba and debate over how to address the problem.

Instead of throwing its weight around and using consensus as a veto mechanism, Washington should have adopted the Quaker practice of "standing aside".  We could have maintained our opposition, whether due to principle or electoral calculation, but not blocked the overwhelming sentiment of other participants--among whom there was certainly no consensus to exclude Cuba.

In addition to upping Cuba's sympathetic profile, we have strengthened the case for CELAC, a regional organization designed to separate the hemisphere from the asymetric power and wealth of the US, similar to how the Association of South East Asian Nations functions in relation to China, India and Japan. 

Cuba and the Inter-American system: A smoldering "fire"


Early in March, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos traveled to Cuba to tell Raul Castro that he could not invite him to the VI Summit of the Americas in Cartagena de Indias due to a lack of hemispheric consensus. Once back in Bogota, Mr. Santos said that Colombia had "put out a fire" and pledged to discuss Cuba's participation in the inter-American system at the summit in order to prevent this issue from flaring up again before the next presidential conference scheduled for 2015 in Panama.

The Colombian decision triggered reactions from both Cuba and the US. It's hard to say whose discourse was more anachronistic. The statements made by Cuba's Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez read as an impassioned harangue to the revolutionary Tricontinental of 1966. Hillary Clinton's responses to Ileana Ros-Lehtinen before the House Foreign Affairs Committee appeared to be addressing a rest home for Cuban-Americans who landed in Miami in 1962. Instead of adopting a conflict resolution approach, Cuba and the US traveled back to the Cold War, to a multilateral inter-American system that no longer exists. With one swipe, they erased five decades of changes in the hemispheric balance of power and the adoption of standards such as ideological pluralism, non-intervention and democratic governance.