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#CubaNow Briefing: Actions Speak Louder Than Words

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Apr 22, 2016


We have long spoken about how the Cuban government is not monolithic as often depicted. While it is generally resistant to and skeptical of change, there exists an orthodox wing of the Cuban Communist Party that has spent so long railing against the embargo that the very idea of having a mutually respectful relationship with the United States is unacceptably disruptive. Even President Raúl Castro’s reforms and proposals, as gradual as they have been, have caused no small amount of discomfort with his own party’s hardliners.

So it was less than surprising to see that schism play out this past week as the Cuban Communist Party congress met to discuss the country’s future. While Castro criticized the lack of momentum behind state reforms and called for (eventual) age limits for top officials, there was also a noticeably hostile shift towards criticizing President Obama’s trip, with Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez disingenuously portraying it as an “an attack on the foundation of our history, our culture and our symbols.” State-run media, meanwhile, focused less on reform than the encroaching threat of U.S. opening up to Cuba.

There is no reasonable way to construe Obama’s visit to the Island as an attack on Cuban values. But the warm reception he received from the Cuban people has predictably spooked the more intransigent elements within the party, and the pushback coming out of this congress is largely about placating those fears. As the Financial Times put it this week, the Cuban government is in the “difficult straddling act between wanting change while also seeking to control it.” Thus, officials effortlessly pivot from decades of lambasting “el bloqueo” to fear-mongering over the outstretched hand of a president working toward its elimination. Thus, the total state control of the economy is acknowledged as inefficient, but the private sector they continue to expand is viewed as potentially subversive. Thus, a longtime supporter of the economic reforms underway is sacked for the flimsiest of reasons after having dared to criticize the slow pace of change.

Nonetheless, those changes continue to percolate. Just this morning, the Cuban government announced it was reversing its long-standing ban on Cuban-born people returning to the Island by commercial vessel. And whatever the internal differences within the Cuban government, they have had little choice but to address the disconnect with a Cuban people that has grown increasingly impatient for reform. They have opened up wholesale markets to deal with rising prices, cut prices for basic foods, launched microcredit programs to help local entrepreneurs, and—at least for now—seem to be taking a more open stance on contracting with American businessesDespite the political bluster and intolerance for public dissent, there is evidence that some in Cuba are focused on more than just re-litigating the Cold War.

Finally, on a programming note: thank you to everyone who tuned in to the inaugural episode of CUBAHORA this Tuesday on Univision America’s WQBA 1140 AM (also streaming live via Univision's Uforia app). For those asking, we are currently exploring how to make the episodes available for download—until then, be sure to tune in or stream the show at 12pm EST every Tuesday with host José Alfonso Almora and #CubaNow’s own Ric Herrero as they explore the future of U.S.-Cuba relations. Next Tuesday's guests will include FIU's Dr. Frank Mora, attorney Pedro Freyre, and young Cuban entrepreneurs from both shores. 

Thanks again for your support,

David Gomez

Political Director, #CubaNow

Cuba Lifts Ban On Cuban-Born Passengers Sailing To The Island

Cuba Announces It Will Lift Boat Travel Ban On Cuban-Born Visitors, Clearing The Way For Carnival Cruises. “Cuba said on Friday it would lift a ban on Cubans and Cuban-Americans entering and leaving the Caribbean island by commercial vessels, opening the way for cruise operator Carnival to set sail for the country next week… A statement carried by state-run media said that starting April 26, Cuban citizens would be authorized ‘independently of their migratory status to enter and leave as passengers and crews of cruise ships.’ Carnival received approval from the United States last year to sail to Cuba, and the green light from Havana a day after U.S. President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the country in March.” [Reuters, “Cuba Just Opened the Door for Carnival Cruise Ships to Sail to Havana,” 4/22/16]

Cruise Ship Will Be The First In Over 50 Years To Travel To Cuba From The U.S. “The first cruise ship to sail between the U.S. and Cuba in more than 50 years can now carry passengers who were born in Cuba, after the island nation eased its ban against native-born Cubans returning by boat. The cruise ship, operated by Carnival, is set to depart Miami for Cuba on May 1. ‘We made history in March, and we are a part of making history again today,’ Carnival CEO Arnold Donald says in a statement from the company. ‘More importantly, we are contributing to a positive future. This is a positive outcome and we are extremely pleased. We want to extend our sincere appreciation to Cuba and to our team who worked so hard to help make this happen.’” [NPR, “Carnival Says Its Cruises to Cuba Can Now Include Cuban-Born Passengers,” 4/22/16]

At Cuba’s Communist Party Congress, Suspicion Towards Change

Obama’s Visit “Widened An Ideological Gulf” Between The Cuban People And Their Government, “Wanting Change While Also Seeking To Control It.” “Mr Obama’s visit last month widened an ideological gulf between Cuba’s government and its people after he gave a series of well-received speeches on state television urging Cubans to embrace change and turn the page on a history of mutual hostility. Since then, the state press has cast Mr Obama’s visit as an ideological attack even as the government insists it would like the US Congress to fully lift the embargo. The result is a difficult straddling act between wanting change while also seeking to control it — a position reflected by Mr Castro at the end of the Congress. ‘This seventh congress will be the last one led by the historic generation,’ he said, stressing that changes would not be rushed as ‘that would only lead to failure’.” [Financial Times, “Cuba pops the bubble of high expectations,” 4/20/16]

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez: Obama’s Visit To Cuba Was An Attack On Cuban Values. “U.S. President Barack Obama's visit to Communist-led Cuba was an ‘attack’ on its history and culture aimed at misleading a new business class, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Monday, the latest sign of blow-back after the ground-breaking trip last month. ‘In this visit, there was a deep attack on our ideas, our history, our culture and our symbols,’ Rodriguez said at the Communist Party congress. Cuban leaders have hardened language against the United States since Obama became the first U.S. president to visit the island in 88 years, with Fidel Castro accusing him of sweet-talking the people.” [Reuters, “Cuba calls Obama visit ‘an attack’ as Communists defend ideology,” 4/18/16]

Cuban Officials Criticizing State-Controlled Inefficiencies But Suspicious Of Private Sector As A Potential Source Of Subversion. “Some of Cuba’s most powerful officials have criticised the creaking inefficiency of its state-controlled economy but identified its vibrant private sector as a potential source of US subversion. The comments on Monday illustrated the conundrum faced by a Cuban government simultaneously trying to modernise and maintain control in a new era of detente with Washington.” [AP, “Cuba congress says state’s ‘obsolete mentality’ is holding back economy,” 4/18/16]

State-Run Media Reports On Congress Focused Less On Reform And More On Political Orthodoxy. “[L]engthy state media reports on the four-day congress focused less on proposals for reform than on debates about political orthodoxy focusing on the need to protect Cuba’s socialist system from the threat of global capitalism and US influence in particular. A month after Barack Obama’s visit to Havana, the first by a US president in nearly 90 years, Cuban leaders have begun to consistently portray his trip as an attempt to seduce Cubans into abandoning the country’s socialist values in favour of a desire for free markets and multiparty democracy.” [AP, “Cuba congress says state’s ‘obsolete mentality’ is holding back economy,” 4/18/16]

Local Reaction Marked By Disappointment: “Am I Supposed To Wait Till I’m Their Age To See Some Real Change?” “Local reaction was one of disappointment that the country’s ageing leaders had barely begun to hand over the reins to a younger generation, or sought to deepen urgently needed economic reforms — as Mr Castro himself says he wants. Mr Castro last week said he wanted to see term limits and an age ceiling of 70 years for senior party leaders. He has also criticised the slow pace of economic reforms, such as those that allow small private businesses, which he launched five years ago. ‘I am very upset,’ said Julia Martinez, 52, a secretary in Havana, who asked that her real name not be used. ‘The same leaders and the same reforms . . . Am I supposed to wait till I’m their age to see some real change? Young people are not even listening, they have their minds set on leaving the country.’” [Financial Times, “Cuba pops the bubble of high expectations,” 4/20/16]

Richard Feinberg: Harsh Rhetorical Turn Suggests Ideological Wing Of The Communist Party Feels Vulnerable. “‘The harsh rhetorical push-back by the ideological wing of the Communist Party suggests their heightened sense of vulnerability,’ said Richard Feinberg, a former national security adviser to U.S. President Bill Clinton. Rodriguez accused Obama of coming to ‘dazzle’ the private sector, highlighting concern U.S. promises to empower Cuban entrepreneurs were aimed at building opposition to the single-party system in office since 1959. ‘Socialism and the Cuban revolution are the guarantees that there can be a non-state sector that is not that of big North American companies,’ he told state television.” [Reuters, “Cuba calls Obama visit ‘an attack’ as Communists defend ideology,” 4/18/16]

Cuba Expert Peter Kornbluh: Despite Harsh Tones, Cuba Has No Choice But To Attempt To Modernize. “An Obama administration official says he is not surprised by the harsh tone and that normalization of relations between the two countries will take time. Peter Kornbluh, co-author of the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, agrees. But he says Cuba's leadership will continue down the road toward opening up its economy. ‘Cuba has no choice — and Raúl Castro's leadership has been focused on this — but to attempt to modernize and evolve economically,’ he said.” [NPR, “At Party Congress, Fidel Castro Speaks Of His Mortality,” 4/20/16]

Cuba Expert Bert Hoffman: The Purpose Of The Congress Was To Downplay Expectations. “The Congress took place less than a month after Mr Obama’s historic visit to the island, when he said he wanted to end more than half a century of Cold War hostility. Since then, the government and state press have warned that the US has only changed its tactics but not its goal of regime change. ‘The key message [of the Congress] is to downplay expectations. Nothing changes,’ said Bert Hoffman, a Cuba expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies. “The price is a further erosion of legitimacy. Raúl himself had made generation change a priority — and he delayed it once again.” [Financial Times, “Cuba pops the bubble of high expectations,” 4/20/16]

Raúl Castro Proposes Age Limits For Party Officials

Castro Proposed Transitioning To Eventual Age Limit Of 70 For Communist Party Officials. “Raul Castro had proposed an age limit of 70 for top officials as the party gathered for the start of the congress over the weekend, raising expectations veterans would begin to step aside. But he said the next five years would be for transition and such rules would not be fully applied until then. The congress is not due to reconvene until 2021. Castro steps down as Cuba's president in 2018 and when he does he could either remain in the more powerful role as head of the party or retire from that post as well.” [Reuters, “How Raul Castro Held Onto Power In Rapidly Changing Cuba, 4/19/16]

Castro, Met With Silence Over Proposed Age Limits, Suggests Elderly Party Members Spend More Time With Their Grandchildren. “Raúl’s comments during a two-hour speech at the inauguration of the Communist party’s twice-per-decade congress were met with silence. ‘So serious! What silence is caused by this subject. Don’t think that just because you can’t be in the leadership of the country you can’t do anything,’ Castro said, suggesting the elderly continue as party activists and spend more time with their grandchildren. Before the congress, the party leadership faced some discontent among younger members critical of the slow delivery on promised economic reforms in the past five years and a lack of transparency.’” [The Guardian, “Prospective leaders of Cuba should retire at 70, says Raul Castro,” 4/17/16]

The Guardian: Growing Urgency In Cuba For Aging Leadership To Make Succession Plans. “Any future leaders of Cuba’s Communist party should retire at 70 to make way for younger blood, President Raúl Castro has said, suggesting older members hoping for promotion to the top table could play with their grandchildren instead. Cuba’s leadership includes several septuagenarian or octogenarian veterans of Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution. There is a growing urgency for them to make succession plans to keep the party alive once they are gone. Raúl Castro is 84 and, after his planned retirement from government in two years, the country is likely to be led by somebody with a different surname for the first time since his brother Fidel – who turns 90 in August – overthrew a pro-US dictatorship nearly 60 years ago.” [The Guardian, “Prospective leaders of Cuba should retire at 70, says Raul Castro,” 4/17/16]

Communist Party Reelected 85-Year-Old Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, An “Ideological Hard-liner” As The Second Secretary. “At the end of the congress, the first since 2011, the Communist Party said Castro had been re-elected as first secretary, with Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, 85, re-elected as second secretary. Machado Ventura, a doctor, fought alongside Fidel and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara in their 1950s rebellion. He is seen as a ideological hard-liner who has sought to slow a move to market economics, leading a campaign to reintroduce price controls after an inflation spike at the end of last year. The two men are close, but Castro is seen as more of a pragmatist who built Cuba's army and brought efficient management to some of the military's powerful companies during long years in the shadow of his brother Fidel, who ruled the country until 2008.” [The Guardian, “Prospective leaders of Cuba should retire at 70, says Raul Castro,” 4/17/16]

Cuba Announces Food Price Cuts

Cuban Government Cuts Basic Food Prices Following Complaints From State Employees. “The Cuban government has announced that it is cutting prices of some basic foods by 20 percent in state-run stores. The reductions taking effect Friday address widespread complaints that state employees earning about $25 a month cannot afford many staples, including rice and cooking oil. In an announcement on the state-run nightly news, the government said goods like chicken and cooking oil will be cut in stores that accept the convertible peso, a currency equivalent to the dollar. Those goods still remain out of reach for many Cubans. A liter of soy oil still costs nearly a tenth of the monthly salary.” AP, “Cuba Cuts Some Food Prices, Responding To Public Complaints,” 4/21/16]

Helms-Burton As Unhelpful As Ever

Paypal Sanction By German Court For Applying U.S. Embargo Laws In Europe. “La empresa estadounidense de pagos electrónicos PayPal fue condenada por un tribunal de Alemania por haber aplicado las leyes del embargo a Cuba en el espacio judicial del país europeo, reporta la agencia estatal Prensa latina. En un procedimiento de urgencia, la Audiencia Provincial de la ciudad alemana de Dortmund ordenó a la sucursal europea de PayPal, con sede en Luxemburgo, desbloquear las cuentas de un cliente en el estado federado de Renania Norte-Westfalia. Según el fallo, el juzgado condenó a PayPal a pagar al cliente 250.000 euros si no desbloquea de inmediato la cuenta. A la par, los jueces de la tercera cámara civil prohibieron a PayPal bloquear las cuentas del cliente por haber usado las palabras ‘Cuba’ o ‘cubano’.” [Diario de Cuba, “Un tribunal de Alemania falla contro PayPal por aplicar en el país restricciones del embargo,” 4/20/16]

Pro-Embargo Members Of Congress Now Backing Local Flights To Cuba

The Hill: Even Pro-Embargo Lawmakers Are Fighting To Get Local Flights To Cuba. “Even some lawmakers who opposed the Obama administration's opening to Cuba are seeking help for their constituents. Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), a staunch defender of the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, urged the DOT to consider daily service from Ft. Lauderdale International Airport, which would be provided by Southwest Airlines. ‘The opening of people-to-people interactions has the power to change hearts and minds, and as President Obama’s plan further eases travel to Cuba, I support routing the flights from an airport in my South Florida community to better serve the families of my community,’ he said in a statement to The Hill. Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.) also signed a letter to Obama asking that he not ease the embargo. He is now backing the effort to allow JetBlue to fly to Cuba from Logan International Airport. Rep. Rob Woodall, a Republican from Georgia, used a post on his official website to try to defuse the idea that his support for the application from the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta — Delta’s main hub — is at odds with his criticism of Obama’s Cuba policy.” [The Hill, “Lawmakers backed embargo, but now want local flights to Cuba,” 4/18/16]

American Business Openly Contracting With Cuban Entrepreneurs

U.S. Talent Agency’s Contract With Cuban Entrepreneur Remarkable For Its Openness. “A U.S. talent agency signed a contract in Havana on Monday to work with a Cuban entrepreneur, a seemingly simple deal that marks a big change in the relationship between the two countries. Jonathan Blue, chairman and managing director of the Louisville-based investment firm Blue Equity, made a deal with Pedro Rodriguez, an entrepreneur licensed by the Cuban government to work in the entertainment field. Rodriguez will scout talent in Cuba for Blue's talent company, Blue Entertainment Sports Television, or BEST, which represents broadcasters, models and celebrities. The deal is not the first time a U.S. company has hired one of Cuba's entrepreneurs, a new segment of the population that works outside of the state-run economy. What's different is both parties' willingness to operate openly in public.” [USA Today, “U.S. talent agent deal with Cuban entrepreneur marks change in business climate,” 4/18/16]

Cuba Study Group’s Carlos Saladrigas: In The U.S., Everything Is Legal Unless It’s Prohibited; In Cuba, Everything Is Prohibited Until It’s Legal. “San Francisco-based Airbnb began working with private homeowners in Cuba last year, and U.S. companies have hired Cuban computer programmers, translators and fixers since the two countries announced in Dec. 2014 that they would re-establish diplomatic relations. Most of those deals have stayed deliberately under the radar, says Carlos Saladrigas, a Cuban-American businessman in Miami, and chairman of the Cuba Study Group, who travels frequently to the island and advises companies interested in working there. Regulations passed by the Obama administration allow U.S. companies to hire Cuban workers, and lets those workers establish bank accounts in the U.S. to make it easier to get paid. Saladrigas said the Cuban government has not kept up with its own changes, leaving Cuban entrepreneurs uncertain if they can legally work for American businesses. ‘The difficulty is that in our system, everything is legal unless it is prohibited. In Cuba, everything is prohibited unless it is made legal,’ said Saladrigas, who has briefed Obama about Cuba and traveled there for the president's historic visit last month. ‘That leaves Cubans in a legal limbo.’” [USA Today, “U.S. talent agent deal with Cuban entrepreneur marks change in business climate,” 4/18/16]

Blue And Rodriguez Held Signing Ceremony In Havana In A Public Ceremony And Press Conference. “Blue and Rodriguez are not hiding anything. On Monday, they held a signing ceremony and press conference at the José Martí Cultural Society headquarters in Havana announcing the new partnership. That openness, Saladrigas said, is what makes the deal unique. ‘That would be a first,’ said Saladrigas, who was not part of the deal.” [USA Today, “U.S. talent agent deal with Cuban entrepreneur marks change in business climate,” 4/18/16]-

Economic Reform Advocate Fired From Havana Think Tank

Reform Advocate Omar Everleny Perez Fired From University of Havana Think Tank As Cuban Leaders Attempt To “Quash The Widespread Jubilation” Following Obama’s Visit. “One of Cuba's most renowned advocates of economic reform has been fired from his University of Havana think tank for sharing information with Americans without authorization, among other alleged violations. The dismissal of Omar Everleny Perez adds to a chillier mood that has settled over much of Cuba as the country's leaders try to quash the widespread jubilation that greeted President Barack Obama's historic trip to the island last month. The Cuban Communist Party's twice-a-decade Congress ended Tuesday after four days of officials issuing tough warnings about the need to maintain a defensive stance against what they called the United States' continuing imperialist aspirations.” [U.S. News & World Report, “One of Cuba's most renowned advocates of economic reform has been fired from his University of Havana think tank for sharing information with Americans without authorization, among other alleged violations,” 4/21/16]

Perez: Cuban Authorities Were Seeking To Make An Example Out Of Him For His Criticism Of Slow Pace Of Economic Reforms. “Perez said he believed Cuban authorities were seeking to make an example of him not because of the allegations in the letter, but because of his critical writings about the slow pace of economic reforms. ‘Sometimes they don't like what you write or think,’ he told the AP. Perez was one of the first state economists to begin publishing in non-government publications, including several run by the Catholic Church. In 2010, he became a key consultant in reforms implemented by Raul Castro that include the legalization of hundreds of new types of private businesses, a loosening of restrictions on foreign investment, the opening of a real estate market and the handing of unused agricultural land to small farmers. ‘I'm still a revolutionary and a nationalist and I believe in many of the reforms that Raul Castro is undertaking,’ he said.” [U.S. News & World Report, “One of Cuba's most renowned advocates of economic reform has been fired from his University of Havana think tank for sharing information with Americans without authorization, among other alleged violations,” 4/21/16]

Carnival Begins Booking Cuban-Born Americans Ahead Of May 1 Voyage

Carnival Cruise Lines Announces It Will Delay Its May 1st Voyage If Cuba Does Not Overturn Restriction On Boat Travel For Cuban-Born Travelers. “As legal and political pressure has continued to mount, Carnival softened its stance on Monday. The company announced that it would begin accepting bookings from Cuban-born people in the hopes that the Castro government will overturn its Cold War-era directive by May 1. The directive prohibits Cubans from traveling to and from Cuba by sea. If Cuba does not rescind the directive — Carnival is trying to persuade the government to do so — the company said it would delay the May 1 voyage. ‘We remain confident that we will reach a positive outcome and we continue to work full speed ahead in preparing for our every-other-week sailings from PortMiami to Cuba,’ Arnold Donald, Carnival’s president and chief executive officer, told employees in a letter Monday.” [New York Times, “Carnival’s Maiden Voyage to Cuba Draws Ire and Bias Charges,” 4/18/16]

Normalization Reopens Cuba For Florida Professors And Students

FIU Students And Professors Free To Once Again Travel To Cuba For Educational Purposes. “The trip to Cuba is called ‘A Revolutionary Perspective on Education.’ It promises stunning museum collections, conversations with college professors and plenty of free time to wander the streets of Old Havana. For seven days, Florida International University will help lead the tour for educators, even offering a small federal subsidy to help pay for the trip. Until recently, such a trip would have been illegal. For a decade, state law made it impossible for Florida colleges and universities to use public money or even private grants to travel to the island 90 miles south. That changed when the American flag was raised over the U.S. Embassy in Havana last summer, marking the restoration of diplomatic ties and with it, the evaporation of the last travel restrictions keeping Florida professors from visiting the island.” [Miami Herald, “Quietly, FIU students and professors resume long-banned travel to Cuba,” 4/17/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Chef Jose Andres: Empowering The People Of Cuba Is A Win-Win Scenario For The United States. “‘If we don’t want hundreds of thousands of Cubans ending in the shores of Florida the best thing America can do is what President Obama is doing; find a way to create business for American companies in Cuba and to help Cuban companies,’ he said. ‘You want to take care of America, empower the people of Cuba. That’s a true national security move forward,’ he added, noting that increased U.S. tourism to Cuba was a ‘smart and very fun way’ to improve relations.” [Univision, “Change in Cuba is cooking, says celebrity chef Jose Andres,” 4/18/16]