#CubaNow Briefing: Hardline Hijinks With National Security
May 20, 2016
As we noted in last week’s briefing, polls have consistently shown that normalization has become the mainstream. It is a policy with strong support across the political spectrum and one that has already spurred more positive change in Cuba than the embargo ever has. It is also a policy that has allowed us to coordinate more effectively on serious challenges that pose a potential threat to both our countries. And while the debate over U.S.-Cuba relations is ongoing and passionate, very few would still suggest that a return to the Cold War status quo of yesteryear makes any sense.
Some of those very few, unfortunately, reside in Congress. Take the likes of Rep. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who recently introduced an amendment—adopted by the House this week as an amendment to the defense authorization bill—that bars bilateral contact with the Cuban military “unless Cuba adheres to every condition of the Helms-Burton Act that codifies the embargo.” This would include everything from settling all remaining property claims to the return of all fugitives to certification by the President to Congress that a “transition government” was in power. Why? To “strengthen national security,” says the congressman.
Rep. DeSantis seeks to do this by effectively cutting off the U.S. military’s ability to coordinate with their Cuban counterparts on the threat of oil spills. And drug trafficking. And combating cybercrime. And even the repatriation of Cuban migrants at sea. You may think at this point that this does not seem like a very national security-strengthening amendment at all—and you would be right. That’s because it has far less to do with defense policy than with a chance to throw red meat to a shrinking constituency in the middle of a Senate race. Should Florida at some point again face potentially billions in damages from another oil spill, we will just have to hope the Cuban government can become a full-fledged democracy fast enough to help.
To be sure, Rep. DeSantis’ amendment stands little chance of becoming law thanks to veto threats from the White House and the tireless efforts of pro-engagement supporters who have already beat back a number of regressive amendments in the past year. But the Congressman very likely already knows this. The alternative is almost too cynical to contemplate. The true aim of these amendments, rather, is being able to tout one’s Tough on Cuba™ credentials for political gain back in Florida.
This may have been a political winner in years past, but this year it stands to be a dud. In the past two presidential elections, Florida has picked a candidate who ran on policies of more open engagement with Cuba. 2016 has seen Sen. Marco Rubio, the most vehement opponent of restoring diplomatic ties with Cuba, lose in his own state’s presidential primary by an embarrasing margin to a pro-engagement candidate. And the Republican and Democratic favorites to fill his seat, Rep. David Jolly and Rep. Patrick Murphy, have both signed on to House legislation to repeal the travel ban. So while Rep. DeSantis may be quick to tout his amendment on the front page of his congressional website, it seems destined to join the pile of failed amendments aimed at dragging the U.S. and Cuba back into the Cold War. For the sake of Florida’s beaches and much more, let’s hope it is.
Thank you for your support,
Political Director, #CubaNow
Cuban-Americans And Normalizing Ties
Naples Daily News Reports On The Experience Of Returning To Cuba For Cuban-Americans. “School vacation periods are high season for Cuban families who want to make their trip home. More than 63,000 U.S. residents and citizens born in Cuba traveled to the island nation in the first quarter of 2016, said José Luis Perelló, Tourism professor at Havana University. He sees those who emigrated as a significant market for Cuba´s tourism sector. Some Cuban American families return regularly to the country. They wait in line at the Miami airport, their luggage full of clothing, coffee, soap, shaving machines, shoes, medicines, smartphones, and toys for their relatives. It´s only a few hours until they can hug their parents, siblings, sons and daughters or childhood friends they left behind.” [Naples Daily News, “Returning to Cuba for family, culture, and, for some, a painful past,” 5/14/16]
U.S. And Cuba Enter Third Round Of Bilateral Talks
Cuba And U.S. Hold Third Round Of Bilateral Talks. “Cuba and the United States will meet next week for a third round of talks on improving relations, Havana said yesterday, adding that the two former Cold War foes were not yet negotiating their multibillion-dollar claims against one another. A bilateral commission will meet next Monday in the Cuban capital to evaluate the progress made in putting their decades-old conflict behind them, and to identify new areas of cooperation, said Gustavo Machin, the deputy director for U.S. affairs in the Cuban foreign ministry. ‘We will set the agenda for the rest for the year,’ Machin told a news conference.” [Reuters, “Cuba and U.S. officials to meet next week to deepen détente,” 5/13/16]
Cuban Diplomat Josefina Vidal Says Obama’s Trip To Cuba Improved U.S.-Cuba Relations, Accelerated Normalization. “President Barack Obama's trip to Cuba advanced the normalization of relations between the Cold War foes and created momentum for more cooperation on agriculture, medicine and law enforcement, Cuba's top diplomat on U.S. affairs said Monday. Speaking after a meeting with U.S. officials in Havana, Director General of U.S. Affairs Josefina Vidal said President Raul Castro had seen his meeting with Obama as producing ‘positive results.’ Her portrayal contrasted with more negative characterizations of the visit, including those of former President Fidel Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who described Obama's trip as an ‘attack’ on Cuba's traditions and values.” [AP, “Top Cuba diplomat: Obama trip positive, created momentum,” 5/16/16]
Despite Previous Remarks From Other Cuban Officials Portraying Obama’s Visit As An Attack, Vidal Said It Was A “Step Forward.” “She said Obama's visit, which included a forum with private business owners and a speech calling on the Cuban people to look toward a better future, would help both sides accomplish that agenda. ‘We believe the visit was an additional step forward in the process of moving toward an improvement in relations, and that it can serve to add momentum to advance in this process, which is in both nations' interest,’ she said. ‘That's the opinion that President Raul Castro shared during his address to the press during Obama's visit.’” [AP, “Top Cuba diplomat: Obama trip positive, created momentum,” 5/16/16]
State Department: U.S. And Cuba Made “Significant Steps” Toward Greater Cooperation. “Commenting on Monday's meeting, The U.S. State Department said that ‘both governments recognized significant steps made toward greater cooperation in environmental protection, civil aviation, direct mail, maritime and port security, health, agriculture, educational and cultural exchanges.’ It said the two sides also discussed future meetings on human rights and claims for compensation by American citizens and firms whose property was confiscated in Cuba's 1959 revolution. Vidal praised a series of agreements struck directly with the U.S. government on topics like environmental cooperation, direct postal service and commercial flights, but said the continuing U.S. trade embargo on Cuba had made progress on business ties more difficult.” [AP, “Top Cuba diplomat: Obama trip positive, created momentum,” 5/16/16]-
Life In Cuba
Cubans Criticize Slow Pace of Change In Cuba. “Jorge González, a retired Spanish teacher in Havana, said Obama has done everything he can to improve trade and travel between the two countries. Like many other Cubans, he can recite the regulatory changes that the Obama administration has implemented, which allow Americans to travel to Cuba more easily and U.S. companies to sell their products and services to Cuban entrepreneurs and the Cuban government. But González said the ‘dinosaurs’ in Cuba’s government haven’t reciprocated. He said the government has not changed its own laws to take advantage of the openings created by Obama. Last month's meeting of Cuba's Communist Party Congress was expected to do that, but it ended with little more than an announcement of reduced food prices across the island.” [USA Today, “Once again, Cubans waiting for change,” 5/15/16]
Cuban Government Still Hasn’t Allowed Cuban Entrepreneurs To Import Products From The U.S. “As the country waits for that to happen, people like Eliud Sierra remain stuck. Sierra has worked as a model from time to time, but spends most of his days sitting behind a table on a front porch in Havana fixing anything that people bring. He is one of the 500,000 private entrepreneurs that Raúl Castro has allowed to work outside the state-run economy, and the target for a lot of the economic openings created by the Obama administration…Sierra laughed when I asked how the opportunity to buy tools and parts directly from American companies would help him. ‘Look at this drill,’ he said, grabbing an ancient-looking drill that he turns by hand. ‘Imagine the time I’d save if I could buy an electric drill.’ For now, the Cuban government hasn’t allowed Cuban entrepreneurs to import products from the United States So Sierra, like the rest of the country, must continue to wait.” [USA Today, “Once again, Cubans waiting for change,” 5/15/16]
Cuba’s Sugar Harvest Winds Down After Rough Year. “The first of Cuba's 13 sugar-producing provinces has met its production plan for this year, official media reported on Monday, and only one more province is expected to do the same in a season ravaged by drought and out-of-season rainfall. AZCUBA, the state-run sugar monopoly, has not given a forecast for national raw sugar output this year. Reuters estimates this at around 1.6 million tonnes, based on scattered provincial reports and sources, compared with the 1.9 million tonnes produced during the previous season. Central Sancti Spiritus province's Communist Party newspaper, Escambray, reported on Monday its three mills had met their plan of 135,000 tonnes of raw sugar, but less than expected sugar content (yields) in the cane meant it had taken 70,000 tonnes more cane than planned.” [Reuters, “Cuba’s weather-ravaged sugar harvest winds down,” 5/16/16]
Cubans Speak To THUMP On What They Expect From The Embargo Being Lifted. “First things first, there is still an embargo, so we have to wait for it to fully be lifted before we can really talk about this. Who knows how long that will take, so it could be a while before we can see any real differences. If [the embargo] is only partially lifted, then you're really never going to know what the real effects are. But if the embargo is lifted properly, then yes, there will be tons of new opportunities for Cubans—both artists and not.” [THUMP, “We Asked Some Cubans How They Think Their Lives Will Change If the American Embargo Ends,” 5/17/16]
New York Times Reports On The Ingenuity Of Cooking In Cuba. “Despite a shift in the political and cultural landscape that has brought a Rolling Stones concert and private restaurants so jammed with tourists that reservations are a must, stocking a Cuban home kitchen remains one of the biggest challenges of daily life. Although there are pockets of wealth among Cuba’s 11 million people, the average government salary is around $22 a month. Almost everyone finds a way to make extra income on the side. Still, all the money in the world can’t help if the markets are out of onions and your cooking-oil connection has run dry. So the Cuban home cook has to be agile, thrifty and lucky, making good use of both the state-issued monthly ration book and a reliable roster of black-market traders. Crucial, too, is an intimate understanding of the byzantine system of government-run grocery stores, bakeries and farmers’ markets.” [New York Times, “For Cuban Home Cooks, Ingenuity and Luck Are Key Ingredients,” 5/17/16]
Congressman DeSantis And The Terrible, Horrible, What-The-Hell-Is-He-Smoking? Cuba Amendment
Rep. Ron DeSantis Introduces Amendment That Would Block Any Bilateral Contact With The Cuban Military—Without Exception. “As the United States and Cuban governments work toward an agreement to help each other contain and clean oil spills that threaten both nations' coasts, a U.S. representative from Florida is preparing to lobby for an amendment that would make such cooperation impossible. Rep. Ron DeSantis, a Jacksonville Republican, drafted an amendment for the National Defense Authorization Act stating that unless Cuba adheres to every condition of the Helms-Burton Act that codifies the embargo, the U.S. cannot have any bilateral contact with the Cuban military. The amendment will be introduced for consideration on Tuesday. There is no language in the amendment allowing for any exceptions.” [Tampa Bay Times, “Rep. Ron DeSantis moves to block cooperation with Cuba,” 5/18/16]
DeSantis Amendment Would Prohibit Cooperation Over Oil Spills, Human Trafficking, And Counternarcotics. “An oil spill in Cuban waters could reach the Florida Keys in less than a week. The U.S., say experts, not only has the best technology to contain and clean oil spills but can arrive in Cuban waters quicker than any other nation. Though Cuba is not currently drilling, and past explorations have come up dry, the island’s government hopes to try again within the next 18 months through a partnership with Angola. Other areas of Cuba-U.S. mutual interest that would require bilateral military contact include fighting human and drug trafficking.” [Tampa Bay Times, “Rep. Ron DeSantis moves to block cooperation with Cuba,” 5/18/16]-
Louisiana Committee Seeks To Reestablish Trade With Cuba
Louisiana State Senate Committee Asks State To Reestablish Trade Ties With Cuba. “A Louisiana Senate committee approved legislation Tuesday to restore the historic connection between this state and Cuba. The House-adopted resolution asks Louisiana Economic Development to develop trade relations with the communist government of Cuba and analyze ‘current and future opportunities to establish Louisiana as the predominant trade partner with Cuba…House Concurrent Resolution 37 was approved without objection but after a lot of good-natured discussion by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and International Affairs. The resolution by state Rep. Patrick Connick, R-Marrero, now goes to the full Senate for consideration.” [The Advocate, “Louisiana committee asks state to reestablish trade with Cuba,” 5/17/16]-
Cuban Migration Continues Unabated
Cuban Migrants In Panama Facing Deadline To Reach The U.S. “The days pass slowly at Los Planes, a camp for undocumented Cuban migrants in the western Panama province of Chiriquí, where Keily Arteaga has lived for nearly one month. The 29-year-old woman is one of the more than 350 Cubans who are afraid of losing the opportunity to travel to the United States before May 20 — the end of an agreement between Panama and Mexico to allow more than 3,800 Cuban migrants stranded in Panama to travel to the Mexican border with the United States. Arteaga knows she's lucky in some ways. She's covered by the bilateral agreement that already has allowed 1,985 Cubans to pay $805 to fly to Ciudad Juarez and then cross into the United States.But she does not have the money for the trip, and she's afraid of ending up alone more than 1,000 miles from her home in Cuba.” [InCubaToday, “U.S.-bound Cubans stranded in Panama must leave before May 20 deadline,” 5/18/16]
Texas Shelters Facing Potentially Overwhelming Demand From Arriving Cubans. “Shelters and churches in El Paso, Texas are preparing to receive as many as 350 Cuban immigrants a day — and there is concern the demand will be overwhelming. They will come through the Santa Fe International Bridge that connects with Ciudad Juarez, where in recent weeks planeloads of Cuban migrants have been flown from Panama, Costa Rica and other Central American countries that don’t want them there. Through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) federal program these immigrants get financial support, roughly $420 a month, as they go through the work authorization process and apply for employment services. But the aid, which is being channeled exclusively through the Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services, may be insufficient given the proportions of the current influx. [Fox News Latino, “Texas shelters, churches fear sudden influx of Cuban migrants will overwhelm them,” 5/18/16]
¡No Me Digas!
Transformers Sequel To Begin Filming In Cuba. “Michael Bay is returning to direct one (for real, this time) final installment in the Transformers movie franchise, the Hasbro toy-based film series that has grossed nearly $3.8 billion worldwide in theaters alone…Additional casting updates for Transformers: The Last Knight should be arriving sooner than later, seeing as Bay has confirmed (via Instagram) that production on the movie will be getting underway in Cuba this week.” [Screenrant, “Transformers: The Last Knight Begins Filming in Cuba This Week,” 5/18/16]
“House Of Lies” To End Series With A Finale Filmed Entirely In Havana. “No kidding, ‘House of Lies’ is going out in grand style. The Showtime comedy is wrapping its five-season run with a finale filmed entirely on location in Havana. This marks the first time an American scripted series has been shot in Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic relations, according to Showtime, which made the announcement on Tuesday. The episode, titled ‘No Es Facil’ (‘It's Not Easy’), premieres June 13.” [AP, “Showtime’s ‘House of Lies’ Ending After 5 Seasons – in Cuba,” 5/17/16]