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#CubaNow Briefing: One Year Later, Progress Still Can’t Come Fast Enough

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Jul 22, 2016


This week marked the anniversary of the U.S. and Cuba formally reopening embassies, a historic moment, though just one important step of many on the long road toward normalization. From Congress lifting the rest of the embargo to the Cuban government’s willingness to accelerate its own reforms, a number of complex obstacles remain. That’s why despite the unprecedented flurry of progress and activity, "slow" continues to be the word that best describes this process. 

Yet it’s a testament to our shared eagerness to reconnect that progress feels slow even when so much has changed after five decades of virtually non-existent ties.

This sentiment is largely owed to the rightful impatience of the Cuban and American people, who have long been far ahead of their respective governments in support of engagement. Many speculated this past week on whether the U.S. and Cuba will ever truly be allies or just wind up as tolerable neighbors. But you’ll be hard-pressed to see any ideological rift reflected on the ground. The number of American travelers to Cuba is skyrocketing ahead of last year’s numbers, while the flow of remittances and goods to Cuba is creating more demand for increased economic access on the Island. The ever-expanding cultural and scientific exchanges and the popularity of all things American in Cuba make clear that when policymakers in Havana and Washington fully normalize, they will be the last among us to do so.

And make no mistake: normalization will happen. Not just because it is right or because it is popular on both sides of the straits, but because the embargo policy’s lack of intellectual heft or seriousness is increasingly obvious to a weary American public.

Take New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s claim this week at the 2016 Republican National Convention that presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton “got almost nothing in return for ending the embargo.” Rarely do you see such a perfect encapsulation of phoned-in Cuba policy. Not only did Christie falsely claim that the embargo had already been lifted (by someone who was not in office at the time, no less), he was bucking his own party’s nominee who backs rapprochement. Apparently for some, a few minutes on Google is too much to ask when crafting foreign policy toward an Island of 11 million people.

No less embarrasing, South Florida’s representatives continue their “Japanese holdout” campaign for reversing normalization. Reiterating his vow to block an ambassador to Cuba, Sen. Marco Rubio this week arrogantly dismissed the overwhelming support in Cuba for renewed ties. “They’re hoping some new dynamic will change things,” he said, writing off the Cuban people’s desire to see an end to the embargo as nothing more than a shot in the dark. Unintentionally admitting to the failure of over 50 years of failed embargo policy, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen recently added that the “Cuban people are no more free today than they were before Obama’s terrible deal.”

Neither Marco nor Ileana could say what positive “new dynamics” the Cuban people could expect to come from blocking a U.S. ambassador or re-imposing a full travel ban, because there are none. The opposition to normalization rings more hollow than ever as Americans and Cubans continue to engage on every level of society. And while the process may take time and patience, nothing could be worse for the embargo if every day we’re still left wanting more.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez

Political Director, #CubaNow

U.S. And Cuba Hit One-Year Anniversary Of Renewing Diplomatic Relations

State Department Fact Sheet Highlights Progress In U.S.-Cuba Relations On The Anniversary Of Renewed Diplomatic Ties. “Since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, the United States and Cuba have expanded cooperation in areas such as the environment, transportation, agriculture, health, and law enforcement. Numerous high-level U.S. officials have visited Cuba to deepen relations, including President Obama, five cabinet secretaries, Members of Congress, governors, and mayors. Hundreds of representatives of U.S. civil society, business, and religious communities have also visited. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are interacting with the Cuban people through educational and cultural exchanges for the first time. We have made progress in many areas, but will continue to work through remaining challenges, including human rights, claims, and the return of fugitives.” [State Department, “United States-Cuba One Year Anniversary of Re-established Diplomatic Relations,” 7/20/16]

State Department Official: U.S. And Cuba “Making Slow And Steady Progress” One Year After The Renewal Of U.S.-Cuban Diplomatic Ties. “Marking the one-year anniversary of the renewal of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic ties, the former Cold War foes said on Wednesday they were working hard on further deepening their detente this year, as the clock ticks down on the Obama administration. Cuban and U.S. representatives will meet this week in Havana to sign a deal on fighting drug trafficking and hold further talks later this month in Washington on their countries' property claims against one another, a senior U.S. State Department official said. ‘Normalization is a long term process ... but we are making slow and steady progress,’ the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters on a conference call.” [Reuters, “On conference call U.S. and Cuba cite progress toward closer ties,” 7/20/16]

U.S.: Cuba Should Do More To Allow More Trade And Connections For Its Citizens. “A senior State Department official told reporters in a briefing that there have been signs of progress over the past year, including increased travel between the two countries and productive discussions between government officials. But the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly discuss the new relationship, said the Cuban government needs to allow more trade and connections between citizens and businesses of both countries. For example, the Obama administration now allows U.S. businesses to export goods to Cuba's growing class of private entrepreneurs, but the Cuban government has not allowed those entrepreneurs to import the goods.” [USA Today, “U.S. urges Cuba to do more to improve relationship,” 7/20/16]

U.S. And Cuba Agree: Normalization Won’t Be Easy. “The diplomats in Washington and Havana did agree on one point in their separate commentaries: normalization isn’t and won’t be easy. ‘The process toward normalization of relations with the United States will be long and complex,’ Vidal said. ‘But we’re going to persist as we always have.’ ‘Normalization is a long-term process,’ said the senior State Department official. ‘Human rights, property claims, and the return of fugitives from U.S. justice are complex and thorny issues but we’re making slow and steady progress.’” [Miami Herald, “After a year of U.S.-Cuba relations: Budding friends or frenemies?”, 7/20/16]

GOP Opposition To Lifting The Travel Ban Eroding In Congress. “Republican opposition to lifting the Cuban travel embargo is beginning to erode on Capitol Hill. As President Obama looks to restore diplomatic relations with the country, a small but growing number of Republicans are getting behind a measure from Sens. Jeff Flake's (Ariz.) and Jerry Moran (Kan.) that would lift the restrictions on American tourism in Cuba. The bipartisan Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act from Flake has 51 co-sponsors so far, and gained an additional 14 Republican supporters this year alone in the House and Senate. Bolstering Flake’s effort, presumptive Republican nominee has Donald Trump has also expressed support for opening up Cuba, saying that he is ‘fine’ with Obama’s attempt to normalize relations.” [The Hill, “GOP warming up to Cuba travel,” 7/17/16]

Critics Of The Embargo: Policy Only Worsens Human Rights Abuses In Cuba. “[C]ritics of the embargo say keeping it only place only worsens the human rights abuses that critics invoke. ‘The more tourists you have with cameras, at some point it begins to put pressure on the Cuban government to treat their people more appropriately,’ Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) told The Hill. ‘Are the security forces more or less likely to beat up a lady in white if there are a bunch of tourists holding video cameras?’ Cassidy signed on as a co-sponsor of Flake’s bill last month.” [The Hill, “GOP warming up to Cuba travel,” 7/17/16]

Cuban Diplomat Josefina Vidal Defended Slow Progress By Cuban Government, Saying U.S. Needed To “Disassemble The Hostile, Unilateral Politics” Of The Embargo. “Cuba's lead negotiator with the United States, Josefina Vidal, defended her government's progress, saying Cuba remains severely limited by a continued U.S. economic embargo, which only the U.S. Congress can lift. So far, it has no intention of doing so. ‘It's up to the United States to disassemble the hostile, unilateral politics that created a confrontational character on the links between the two countries,’ Vidal said in an interview published Wednesday in Granma, Cuba's state-run newspaper. ‘Cuba doesn't have similar policies toward the United States.’” [USA Today, “U.S. urges Cuba to do more to improve relationship,” 7/20/16]

Former Cuban Diplomat Jesus Arboleya: Normalization More Like The “Coexistence Of Opposites.” “In a reconciliation that was long unthinkable, the two countries restored ties on July 20, 2015, 54 years after severing them in the aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. The moment was marked by the reopening of Cuba's embassy in Washington, followed by the official reopening of the US embassy in Havana four weeks later. But don't confuse diplomatic relations with friendship, cautioned former Cuban diplomat Jesus Arboleya. ‘Cuba and the United States have never been friends and probably never will be,’ he said. The restored relationship is more like a ‘coexistence of opposites,’ he told AFP.” [AFP, “A year on, US, Cuba no longer enemies, not exactly friends,” 7/18/16]

Former British Ambassador To Cuba Paul Hare: Both U.S. And Cuba Know Signs Of “Normality” Will Be Interpreted As Ideological Surrender. “But despite the lingering tension, there are visible changes on the ground. Cruise ships now sail from Miami to Havana. Travelers can stay at the Four Points by Sheraton, recently opened by American hotel group Starwood. And regular commercial flights between the two countries are due to begin in the coming months. ‘It's a very young process,’ said Arboleya. But it started from ‘total divorce,’ he added. The former British ambassador to Cuba, Paul Hare, said both sides remain ‘wary’ of each other. ‘They know that every sign of “normality” will be interpreted as a kind of ideological surrender,’ he said. ‘So they want to keep relations low-key and neither friendly nor antagonistic. Discussions on transport, the environment, security, etc. will continue to be the low-risk strategy.’” [AFP, “A year on, US, Cuba no longer enemies, not exactly friends,” 7/18/16]

VICE Reports On Cuba’s Black Market

Cuba Expert Ted Henken: Black Market Popular In Cuba, But Millenials More Likely To See “Wheeling And Dealing” As Normal. “Ted Henken, president of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy and author of Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape, says nearly every Cuban resident touches the black market in some way. Elderly men who buy newspapers each morning and resell them for a profit are so widely accepted they're known as viejos del barrio — the old guys from the hood. Import mules smuggle electronics in from overseas. Bartenders replace bottles of fancy rum with their own homemade moonshine and then peddle the leftovers. ‘Everybody has a side hustle,’ he says. ‘It's the law of the jungle.’ But Henken argues that the drive to hustle has exploded among Cuba's younger generation in recent years because millennials on the island were born after the start of the country's Special Period, when the collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in an era of extreme poverty and scarcity. ‘Folks under the age of 30 have grown up in a system that's been in freefall for 26 years,’ he says. ‘They're likely to see wheeling and dealing as normal. They have less moral compunction against getting involved in the black market because they're less likely to believe in the ideals of socialism.’” [Vice, “Meet the young hustlers cashing in on Cuba’s booming black market,” 7/15/16]

Cubans On Another Possible “Special Period”

Cuban Economist Pavel Vidal: Cuba Has Not Done Enough To Prepare Its Economy For The Venezuelan Crisis. “But here’s the real headline, according to some experts: ‘The most striking part of this is that we could see it coming,’ said Cuban economist Pavel Vidal, among various experts who had long predicted that Venezuela's economic and political crisis would force the Cuban government to rethink its economic strategy and accelerate the warming of relations with the United States. ‘It was clear the Venezuelan crisis at some point would have a negative impact on the Cuban economy. Nevertheless, the commercial and financial dependence on Venezuela remained high and not enough was done to search for alternatives,’ he said. ‘Cuban diplomats have renegotiated with debt-holders and opened new spaces for international integration as alternatives to Venezuela, but until now that has not translated into bigger flows of trade, finances or investments,’ Vidal added.” [InCubaToday, “Economic hardships in Cuba spark rumor of new ‘Special Period,’ 7/18/16]

Cuban President Raul Castro Denied Predictions Of A New “Special Period,” Said Cuba Was Better Prepared This Time Around. “Castro ruled out, however, dire predictions of a new ‘Special Period’ along the lines of the concerns expressed recently by the deputy editor of the Communist Party's Granma newspaper, Karina Marron, about possible outbreaks of large-scale protests against the government. ‘As was expected, in an effort to spread despondency and uncertainty among the people, we are starting to see omens and speculations about the imminent collapse of the economy and a return to the worst part of the Special Period we faced at the beginning of the 1990s — and which we knew how to survive thanks to the Cuban people's capacity to resist and its unlimited trust in Fidel (Castro) and the (Communist) Party,’ he said. ‘We do not deny that we could have problems, perhaps even worse than the ones we have now, but we are now more prepared and in better condition to overcome them.’” [InCubaToday, “Economic hardships in Cuba spark rumor of new ‘Special Period,’ 7/18/16]

Developments in U.S.-Cuba Engagement

Cuban Delegation Tours Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary To Study How Tourism Can Impact The Ecosystem. “As Cuba prepares for a spike in tourism, a group of the island nation’s scientists and government officials got a firsthand look at how the United States has been able to restore its sensitive underwater ecosystem. The Cuban delegation, all of whom are guests of federal scientists and the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, started the day on Monday with a briefing at the sanctuary. ‘The sanctuary is 9,800 square kilometers in size,’ said Billy Causey, the sanctuary’s director. The group then headed to Looe Key, a large protected reef off Big Pine Key. Once there, they got a close-up look at how tourism can have a negative impact on coral and fish populations. ‘That gives them a good understanding of what we’re dealing with, and they can see it,’ said Causey. The delegation is very interested in learning how overfishing and too many boats can damage coral and the creatures that call it home. ‘We’re seeing your experiences, and how you’ve managed tourism, and how you can conserve coral,’ said Carlos Diaz Maza, the director of the National Center for Protected Areas in Cuba, through a translator. ‘We have the natural resources, with a very high level of conservation, because tourism never intervened.’” [WSVN, “Cuban delegation tours coral reef, nursery off Fla. Keys,” 7/18/16]

Assistant Secretary of State Mari Carmen Aponte: U.S. Changes To Adjustment Are “Possible” But Would Only Come After The End Of The Embargo. “Changes to the United States' immigration policy toward Cuba are ‘possible’ but would only occur after the two countries have completed the process of normalizing their bilateral relations and the decades-old economic embargo on the Communist-ruled island has been lifted. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Mari Carmen Aponte made the remarks in an interview with EFE coinciding with the first anniversary of the upgrading of the two nations' respective interests sections to embassies on July 20, 2015. ‘I think in the future - when (other) situations are being contemplated ... (and) where other things would first have to be changed - that could be possible,’ Aponte said of the potential repeal of special immigration policies that favor Cuban migrants.” [EFE, “Aponte: Changes in U.S. immigration policy toward Cuba ‘possible’ but far off,” 7/20/16]-

Marco Rubio Renews Vow To Block Ambassador To Cuba

Analysts: Chargé D’affaires In Cuba Can Fulfill The Role Of Ambassador, But Lack Of An Actual One “Could Be A Symbolic And Ultimately Diplomatic Hindrance.” “The U.S. and Cuba officially restored ties on July 20, 2015, after more than five decades of estrangement. In the year since, the U.S. Embassy in Havana has been overseen by Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a highly regarded American diplomat with extensive experience in Cuba who holds the title chargé d’affaires. Analysts say DeLaurentis can do just about anything that an ambassador could. But as the relationship between the two countries evolves and expands, not having an ambassador could be a symbolic and ultimately diplomatic hindrance.” [Politico, “Rubio vows to keep up fight against U.S. ambassador in Cuba,” 7/20/16]

Republican Sen. Jeff Flake: “Once The New President Nominates An Ambassador, You Can’t Just Say We’re Going To Sit On That And Hold It.” “Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who has joined forces with the Obama administration to champion engaging Cuba, says the nomination of an ambassador might have to wait until the next president takes office. Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has signaled support for the new Cuba policy, and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton also backs the restored ties. ‘Once the new president nominates an ambassador, you can’t just say we’re going to sit on that and hold it,’ Flake said in a reference to the recalcitrant senators, during a phone interview earlier this week. ‘There are going to be too many Americans traveling to Cuba and doing legal business in Cuba to deny them the opportunity to have a full-fledged diplomatic presence there.’” [Politico, “Rubio vows to keep up fight against U.S. ambassador in Cuba,” 7/20/16]

Rubio On Cubans’ Support For Normalization: “They’re Hoping Some New Dynamic Will Change Things.” “That said, Cubans have largely expressed pleasure with the restoration of diplomatic ties. That sentiment is not lost on Rubio, despite his insistence that the Cuban government, not the people it governs, will reap most of the benefits of the new deal with America. Ordinary Cubans have ‘been living in this trap for close to 60 years, and they’re hoping some new dynamic will change things,’ Rubio said. ‘I understand it. I do.’” [Politico, “Rubio vows to keep up fight against U.S. ambassador in Cuba,” 7/20/16]

¡No Me Digas!

In RNC Speech, Chris Christie Falsely Claims Hillary Clinton Ended The Embargo. “In Cuba, Hillary Clinton supported concessions to the Castro brothers and got almost nothing in return for ending the embargo.” [, “Chris Christie’s full speech at RNC 2016 where he prosecutes Hillary Clinton,” 7/19/16]