Posts in migration talks
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.
The fourth round of U.S.-Cuban migration talks wrapped up in Havana this week, with just two newsworthy tidbits. The Cuban government allowed Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson to visit with the American USAID subcontractor, Alan Gross, who has been detained in Cuba for more than one year now without charges, and, Jacobson and the American delegation visited with Cuban dissidents, in spite of the Cuban government's request that they not do so. The latter evoked an angry response from Cuba's foreign ministry, which described the U.S. delegation's visit as a "flagrant violation of the international norms and principles" under which the two countries should operate (my translation below):
"This act confirms once again that there's no change in the U.S. policy of subversion and interference in Cuban internal affairs, and that its priority continues to be to encourage internal counterrevolution and promote destabalizing activities, while it intensifies the embargo and the persecution of Cuban financial and comercial transactions around the world."
When this same thing happened last year, right down to the immediate and angry "we asked you not to" response from Cuba, I concluded it was all essentially a show; Cuba asks the U.S. not to use the occasion of diplomatic talks to visit (and, as they see it, elevate) internal critics, the U.S. delegation went ahead anyway, and Cuba threw a fit on principle. I still believe that to be the case, but I don't see the Cuban concerns, particularly as expressed this year, as cosmetic. What they are essentially saying is, 'you Americans come here (and leave here) saying how willing you are to cooperate with us, but out of the other side of your mouth, while you're still standing on Cuban soil, you make only gestures of disrespect, and oh by the way, in just this last year you've been trying to strangle us even harder than before - what gives?'
It might be a bit of Kabuki theater, but I find myself wondering if the Cuban side has decided to put up with these visits not because they don't really care (what impact do they truly have?) but because that's the price they must pay for continued talks. While we haven't seen a big agreement signing come out of these talks, they are an important way to raise concerns and build trust. And with big changes underway in Cuba, and the potential for President Obama to win a second and (presumably) less politically penned-in second term, I doubt either side wants to jeopardize this channel. Six, eight years ago, talks such as these could so easily be blown up by two very trigger happy sides.
Oddly enough, freshman GOP Senator (and Tea Party darling) Marco Rubio is counting on Democrat Bob Menendez to hold the line on Cuba policy reforms in the Senate this year. But, he told two hard-line Miami radio show hosts, he does plan to educate his fellow colleagues from agriculture states about political prisoners in Cuba (afterall, they’re “not communists” – they just don’t know any better).
Rubio disagreed with the Obama administration’s decision to ease restrictions on family travel in 2009 (see here for why), and tells the Miami-based Radio Mambi show that he thinks the administration may be looking to do more. (H/T to Politico's Ben Smith for posting the interview.) My informal translation follows:
“It’s important that this community and especially our elected officials, especially those holding federal office, express clearly that our position hasn’t changed and won’t change. If there’s something that has to change here, it’s in Cuba, there needs to be a change in government there. And if U.S. policy should change toward Cuba, then it should become even more tough.”
Does that refrain sound hopelessly familiar to anyone? I’m sure an hour on the internet could turn up numerous such statements from Florida politicians and Bush administration officials in the last decade alone.
Rubio, and anyone following Cuba news last year, knows well that the inter-agency approved new regulations for Cuba travel last summer. But perhaps he’s worried about any progress this week at the next round of twice-yearly bilateral talks on the 1994-95 migration accords.