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#CubaNow Briefing: Cautious Optimism In Congress, Real Optimism in Miami

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Jul 8, 2016

Prior to this week's briefing, we want to begin by expressing our condolences to the victims of last night's terrible shootings in Dallas. Our hearts are heavy with the recent acts of violence around the country and few things are more condemnable than those who would carry out such acts during peaceful and democratic protests. We have had to note these tragedies far too often in the past year and a half, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the innocent lives that have suffered in their wake.-


Despite some promising developments on the Hill this past month, it looks as if legislative action on Cuba will have to wait a while longer. After the Senate Appropriations Committee voted overwhelmingly to add a number of Cuba-related amendments to an appropriations bill last month, the House had an opportunity to pass similar legislation, including a repeal of the travel ban and allowing Americans to finance agricultural exports to the Island. However, in exchange for commitments to work on a “long-term solution” to agricultural exports from House leadership and pro-embargo members of the Florida delegation, the respective sponsors of the travel and agricultural amendments withdrew these amendments this week.

Given the uphill battle these amendments faced in the House, it could be considered a sign of progress that Members like Rep. Carlos Curbelo and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen would agree to work on improving our trade policy toward Cuba. We welcome the cooperation of anyone who recognizes that our embargo policy has been counterproductive and are eager to see real and substantive progress out of this agreement. The last thing we need to add to the current patchwork of embargo sanctions are additional caveats, sanctions, and rollbacks of normalization that some members of Congress has been traditionally so fond of, even when the rest of the country wasn’t.

Whether Republican or Democrat, lawmakers should craft future legislation that reflects the words of President Obama, which resonated so powerfully across Cuba last March“El futuro de Cuba tiene que estar en las manos del pueblo Cubano.”

As we see in this week’s briefing, both the U.S. and Cuba faces a number of challenges in the wake of normalization and a changing global landscape, and it's heartening to see that many on the ground in Miami aren’t waiting for their representatives to lead before acting to strengthen ties themselves. Whether it’s the work of our friends at CubaOne to connect young Cuban-Americans to the Island for the first time, networking with Cuban entrepreneurs at the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, or the critical flow of remittances and goods to the Island that arrive from the heart of the Cuban-American community every year, South Florida’s contributions to the future of Cuba only continue to grow. We remain hopeful that their elected representatives will follow suit.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez

Political Director, #CubaNow

CubaOne Connects Younger Cuban-Americans To The Island

CubaOne Taking Younger Cuban-Americans To Visit And Learn About The Island. “Inspired by the reestablishment of diplomatic and business ties, the children and grandchildren of exiles are traveling to Cuba in increasing numbers, often as part of programs designed to support family reconciliation and political normalization. Among the most notable efforts is CubaOne, the new program that took Hernandez to Cuba. Inspired by Birthright Israel, a program that has sent 500,000 young Jews to Israel since 1999, CubaOne hopes to send three groups of Cuban-Americans to the island by February. Its founders are putting nearly $100,000 of their own money into the fledgling program and hope to raise enough funds for future years from individual donors and the American airlines, hotel companies and other businesses starting to establish footholds in Cuba.” [AP, “Young Cuban-Americans Get New Impressions on Island Visits,” 7/4/16]

CubaOne Founder Giancarlo Sopo: “For Us, Loving Cubans Means Going There To Learn About Our Culture, Meet Family, And Engage The People.” "Young Cuban-Americans love Cuba, but we express that love differently than our parents," said Giancarlo Sopo, one of CubaOne's founders and the son of a veteran of the U.S.-backed forces in the Bay of Pigs invasion. "For us, loving Cuban means going there to learn about our culture, meet family, and engage the people." At least four of the young people saw family members who they had never met, or had met only briefly, including Hernandez. She spent two days with her great-uncle Jesus Cervello Ruiz, the 78-year-old patriarch of the five family members who remain in Cuba. Some 15 more relatives live in the U.S. [AP, “Young Cuban-Americans Get New Impressions on Island Visits,” 7/4/16]

Happening In Cuba

Increased Internet Access And Visits From Americans Growing Demand For Material Goods In Cuba. “Cubans have long turned to their relatives abroad for support in the face of chronic shortages plaguing the isolated island nation. The amount of remittances to Cuba is estimated at more than $2.5 billion annually, much of it coming from the more than 1 million Cubans living in greater Miami. Now, as more American visitors arrive bearing the latest technological accouterments, and increased Internet access reveals a realm of material goods previously unimaginable, some Cubans are developing a taste for luxuries….Most Cubans continue to lack some necessities, despite the reestablishment of relations with the United States, the growth of small businesses and the greater influx of money. Shelves in many stores are nearly empty. The average monthly salary, for those lucky enough to have a job, is less than $25. At the same time, the easing of Internet access has opened a window to the larger world that many on the island are hungrier for than food. It's not just the fancy goods that they want, as some see it, but also the connection to modern life that such things represent.” [Washington Post, “Ray-Bans, iPhones and Nikes: Some Cubans are getting a taste for luxuries,” 7/5/16]

Obama Administration Reforms Have Expanded Access To Goods For Cubans. “The Obama administration has made it easier for Cubans to get such stuff in several ways. Gone are the limits on cash remittances that can be sent to islanders from family members and non-relatives. A new broad category, ‘Support for the Cuban People,’ allows gifts of cooking equipment, building materials and telecommunications gear. The eventual start of ferry service and the resumption of U.S. mail delivery to the island are expected to open new channels for the shipment of such goods.” [Washington Post, “Ray-Bans, iPhones and Nikes: Some Cubans are getting a taste for luxuries,” 7/5/16]

Pollution From Old And Dated Car Parts In Cuba Contributing To Environmental Trouble In Cuba. “Because of the 50-plus years U.S. embargo, replacement parts for these vintage cars have not been available for decades. For years Cubans have been repairing the engines using parts pulled from Ladas and other vehicles from the Soviet Bloc in order to keep their cars on the road. Back in the '80s and '90s it wasn't uncommon to ride a once luxurious '50s Cadillac with Lada pistons, no electronics and home-made window cranks…Unfortunately, the combination of low-grade diesel and older engines with no emissions control is causing a major environmental problem for the city. You can see the black clouds of diesel exhaust discharging behind every old car. With the economy picking up, there are more and more cars on the road. The stink of burnt diesel is everywhere. And since most homes and restaurants don't have air conditioning, there is no way to escape the fumes.” [NBC News, “Cuba’s Vintage Cars Are Cool, But Not Their Exhaust,” 7/5/16]

Freak Waterspouts Injure Dozens In Southern Cuba. “A freak waterspout was captured by onlookers on Saturday (July 2) just off the coast of Playa Caimito in southern Cuba. Witnesses say they saw as many as seven waterspouts take form, before running for their own safety. Many took shelter inside homes, not built for such severe storms. ‘It was an enormous disaster. My children and I were inside my home and thank God, my neighbour put my children under the bed. I was in the living room with all the rubble on top of me. It was horrible,’ said Playa Caimito resident Madelin Barban. Waves of up to 16 feet (4.9m) in height crashed along the shore toppling an estimated 30 homes and properties. At least 38 people were injured in the storm, though no fatalities have been reported.” [Reuters, “Cuban waterspouts injure dozens,” 7/5/16]

World Religion News Reports On Cuba’s Small But Practicing Muslim Community. “Practicing Islam in Cuba is tough. There are many challenges. Prominent among them is finding a place to worship. The state's first and only mosque was opened just last year. The new mosque is located in Old Havana, next to The Arab House, Cuba's only Islamic museum. Before that, the Cuban Muslims had to worship in their homes. The mosque has Spanish-Arabic copies of the Koran. Observing the holy month of Ramadan is yet another challenge. Traditionally, an iftar meal has to have dates, but there are no dates in Cuba. Cuba has found a friend in the Saudi embassy who supplies Muslims in Cuba with dates, as well as with halal meat and traditional garments.” [World Religion News, “What Is It Like To Be Muslim In Cuba,” 7/6/16]

Cuba Opposes UN Resolution Declaring Internet Access A Human Right. “In a sign of the times, as well as the entrenchment of the internet in nearly every aspect of life, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring online access as nothing less than a human right. Various nations – many known for their tight control on all kinds of freedom of expression – vigorously opposed the resolution. These included Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, South Africa, India and Indonesia, who rejected the resolution’s support for the ‘promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet.’… The resolution, which passed with little fanfare last Friday, calls for the release of people who have been jailed for expressing certain ideas online. It now will be adopted by the United Nations Human Rights Council.” [Fox News Latino, “United Nations declares internet access a human right; Cuba, Venezuela oppose move,” 7/6/16]

Cuba Faces Energy Shortage Following Increased Demand

Cuban Officials Warn Of Energy Problems In The Coming Months. “Cubans face tough times in the energy sector in the coming months, official media warned Tuesday amid orders from authorities to implement power-saving measures and some state-run entities reducing hours of operation. Tourism Ministry official Yamila Rombaut said fuel allotments for the agency's vehicles had been cut in half. ‘The outlook is tight,’ Rombaut told The Associated Press. ‘These will be difficult months.’ Speaking to members of parliament, Marino Murillo, Cuba's vice president in charge of economic matters, said Monday that the country's financial situation has been hurt by falling prices for nickel, a key export; missed production targets in the sugar industry; and problems in other unspecified sectors.” [AP, “Cuba warns of energy problems, cuts some work hours, 7/5/16]

Increased Activity In Cuba From Tourism And Small Business In Cuba Has Lead To A Similar Increase In Power Consumption. “About half of Cuba's energy needs are covered by oil it receives on preferential terms from South American ally Venezuela, a little under 100,000 barrels a day. Jorge Pinon, an energy analyst at the University of Texas, said maritime traffic data suggest there has been no reduction in those shipments despite Venezuela's deepening economic and political crisis. But, he said, in the last five years Cuba has seen energy consumption rise 30 percent in the non-state sector as nearly a half million people began running or working for restaurants, cafeterias and other private small businesses opened under economic reforms. Generating capacity, meanwhile, has remained about the same, he said. In addition, travel to Cuba is booming amid the diplomatic detente with the United States. Pinon noted that high-end hotels can't simply turn off air conditioning without discouraging tourism, which is an increasingly important pillar of Cuba's economy. ‘You have all the self-employed workers who are now running electric ovens, microwaves or whatever, and the hotels are full,’ Pinon said. ‘So the electric power system, in my opinion, is at its max of capacity.’” [AP, “Cuba warns of energy problems, cuts some work hours, 7/5/16]

Deputy Director Of Granma Warns Street Protests Like Those In 1994 Could Return With Any Electricity Blackouts. “The deputy director of Cuba’s official Granma newspaper has warned that street protests like those that erupted in Havana the summer of 1994 are possible if reports hinting at electricity blackouts this summer are true. ‘A perfect storm is brewing … this phenomenon of a cut in fuel, a cut in energy,’ Karina Marrón told a meeting of the Union of Cuban Journalists (UPEC). ‘People, this country can’t withstand another ’93, another ’94 … we don’t want to see protests on the streets.’ Hundreds of Havana residents erupted in unprecedented street protests in the summer of 1994, amid daily electricity blackouts sparked by the end of Soviet subsidies and the collapse of the Cuban economy. The outburst, known as the Maleconazo, was followed by the Balsero exodus, when 35,000 Cubans left aboard homemade rafts.” [Miami Herald, “Granma deputy editor warns of protests if blackouts return,” 7/2/16]

On Visiting Cuba Without Fetishizing Its Troubles

Andrés Pertierra: People Should Not View Cuba As A Place To Visit “Before It Got Americanized.” “The problem does not lie with those who worry that in the push to modernize Cubans will forget how precious these achievements are. The problem lies with those who see Cuba’s leaving behind its economic backwardness and relative isolation as an opportunity to plant their flag in its soil. For these Americans, Cuba exists solely as an idealized socialist paradise, in almost complete stasis since the Cold War, which has yet to be befouled by the corrupting influence of other Americans. For them, the island nation is the land of the noble savage on the verge of contact with the advanced but impure outside world, sure to despoil its backward, but charming, ways. These people don’t want to see the real Cuba. They want to be able to say that they were there before it got Americanized.” [The Nation, “Hipster Colonialism and the ‘Ruin’ of Cuba,” 7/6/16]

Pertierra: Change In Cuba Is Being Implemented From The Top Down, But It Originates At The Grassroots Level.” “The reforms being implemented in Cuba are not the result of the US government’s imposing change on the island, as happened in Guatemala in 1954 or, less directly, in Chile after 1973. They are being implemented from the top down; but as demands, they originated at the grassroots level. If anything, these reforms are an attempt to preserve the best of the Cuban Revolution and not to change the essence of the system. They are a tacit admission that the old reality was unsustainable. ‘Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same,’ observes a character in the classic Italian novel The Leopard. So that education, health care, and other programs may continue, the system must be reformed. It is possible to worry that reforms could accidentally erase the achievements of the revolution without fetishizing the poverty that resulted from the system’s own failures or viewing the process with a sense of entitlement about how Cubans should run their own country. The future of Cuba is in the hands of Cubans.” [The Nation, “Hipster Colonialism and the ‘Ruin’ of Cuba,” 7/6/16]

Cuban Migration Crisis Continues

Emails Show DNC Members Pushed For Addressing The Cuban Adjustment Act As Part Of The Official Democratic Platform. “Jorge Quintana, a DNC member from Montana, also emailed on the issue of revising the Cuban Adjustment Act, which Democrats said will be discussed this week. He said that his family and friends have benefited from the policy that allows Cubans to stay in the United States if they can make it to its shores, but it’s time for the 50-year-old policy to be updated. ‘Our immigration system is broken, not just with regards to Cuba, but this is one part of it,’ he said, suggesting an increase in the number visas for Cubans and more travel visas might be appropriate. ‘Cubans are risking their lives to get here on a boat,’ one Democratic superdelegate added. ‘Getting rid of the wet-foot, dry-foot policy could create separate conditions without them having to go to extremes.’” [Buzzfeed, “Emails: Democrats Disagreed on Puerto Rico And Cuba In Lead Up To Platform Release,” 7/6/16]

Democrats Countered Cuba Was Not “Ripe” Enough To Include In The Platform. “But Democrats said the Cuba issue is likely not ‘ripe’ enough to include in the current platform and that the Obama administration has thus far resisted efforts to make a change because of fears that scores of Cubans could be spooked into making the dangerous trek to the U.S., which could lead to deaths because the coast guard is not as well-staffed as it was in the 1990’s.” [Buzzfeed, “Emails: Democrats Disagreed on Puerto Rico And Cuba In Lead Up To Platform Release,” 7/6/16]

Cuban Migrants Stranded In Colombia After Panama Closes Borders. “Unable to move forward and with little to return home to, many migrants are attempting to enter Panama though the Darien Gap, one of the most forbidding stretches of mountainous jungle and swamplands in the Americas - as well as an operations base for Colombian FARC rebels and drug traffickers. Boarding boats in Turbo, the migrants - men, women and children - are dropped off near the border where they continue their journey on foot through the Darien Gap. It is a journey that takes days, and Cuban migrants in Turbo told Al Jazeera that people get lost in the inhospitable jungle and can die there. Raicel Rosaval was among a group of Cubans who attempted the trek but were intercepted by Panamanian soldiers and sent back to Turbo.” [Al Jazeera, “Migrants stranded in Colombia as route to US closed,” 7/7/16]

¡No Me Digas!

United Airlines Pushing For Direct Route From Washington To Havana. “Major airlines are competing for a limited number of flights to Cuba, with the Obama administration considering whether to allow a direct route to the island from Washington, D.C. The Transportation Department has been tasked with divvying up the flights, which were negotiated as part of an agreement between the Obama administration and Cuban government. Most carriers are proposing flights out of Florida, where there is a large Cuban-American population. But United Airlines is also pushing for Washington-to-Havana service that would connect lawmakers and diplomats in the capitals. The airline is also applying for flights out of Chicago, Houston, and Newark, N.J. To win a route, United must fend off competition from about a dozen other carriers, including Delta Airlines, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.” [The Hill, “Airlines vie for Cuba flights,” 7/6/16]