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#CubaNow Briefing: Ringing In The New Year With A Vision

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Jan 8, 2016


We hope you had a happy holiday break and rang in 2016 with high spirits. The start of 2015 was marked with both excitement and apprehension over what the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba would mean. A year later, the politicization of Cuba continues to dissipate at a steady pace as more and more policymakers look to build on a growing consensus for expanding trade and travel. In what would have been unimagineable just a year ago, for example, officials this week in Miami-Dade County are reportedly looking at building a ferry terminal at PortMiami to begin ferry service to Cuba, a move even the mayor of Miami called “inevitable.”

As we saw over the holidays, however, Cuba’s challenges aren’t fading away anytime soon. Cuban president Raul Castro signaled late last month that lower oil prices will slow down the Cuban economy this year, despite a spike in American visitors as a result of rapprochement. Indeed, the AP reported that the absence of a wholesale market on the Island means Cuba’s growing entrepreneurial sector is competing with residents for basic goods. The lack of economic development and access to these resources is one of the primary factors contributing to the continued flow of migrants leaving Cuba in search of a better life.

Congress can and should take action to help alleviate this problem. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe recently returned from a trip to Cuba this week and called on lawmakers to “do the right thing for the citizens of the United States of America and the citizens of Cuba.” He was referring to current embargo restrictions which have made the U.S. a far less favorable market than it would be otherwise, and have led to a substantial decline in U.S. food exports to Cuba over the years. There’s no upside to upholding red tape that hampers the Cuban people from gaining access to American goods they badly need.

Meanwhile, the White House seems to be taking a presidential trip to Cuba into increasingly serious consideration. It would be the most historic visit by a sitting president since Richard Nixon went to China in 1972, and wouldn’t be without controversy. But while critics will charge that Raul Castro has not “earned” this visit, this argument falls into the too-easy trap of making our policy about a couple of individuals instead of focusing on the Cuban people. With the developments and obstacles that Cuba faces this year, there are 11 million people who will be looking for a tangible moment signifying that the U.S. stands with them and their future. A visit from a president more popular than either of the Castros wouldn’t be a bad start.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow

Cuba Facing A Tougher 2016 Despite Renewed U.S. Engagement

Cuban President Raul Castro Warns Cubans 2016 Will Bring Slower Growth Due To Low Oil Prices. “President Raul Castro warned Cubans on Tuesday to prepare for tough economic conditions in 2016 despite warmer relations with the United States. Castro said that while tourism is booming, low oil prices have damaged the outlook of an economy that depends on billions of dollars of subsidized oil and cash from Venezuela. According to state-controlled media, Cuba's president told the National Assembly to expect 2 percent growth in gross domestic product next year, half the rate his government reported in 2015. Foreign media are barred from the twice-annual meetings of the National Assembly.” [AP, “Raul Castro prepares Cuba for tough year despite US opening, 12/30/15]

AP: Cubans Growing Widely Dissatisfied Over Low Salaries And High Prices Of Essential Goods. “Despite the government's assertion that the GDP grew 4 percent this year, there is widespread dissatisfaction among Cubans over the widening gap between low salaries and the high price of essential goods, most particularly food. Castro appeared to be preparing Cubans for harder times ahead, saying that ‘we must cut any unnecessary spending and make use of the resources that we have with more rationality and with the goal of developing the country.’" [AP, “Raul Castro prepares Cuba for tough year despite US opening, 12/30/15]

Surge Of American Visitors In 2016 Brought More Cash To Cuba, But Lack Of A Wholesale Market Also Left Entrepreneurs Competing With Consumers. “More than 3 million tourists visited in 2015, an increase of nearly 20 percent in the wake of President Barack Obama's declaration of detente with Cuba. The surge in visitors pumped cash into the state-controlled tourist economy and the growing sector of private bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants, but it also drove up household inflation. In the absence of a wholesale market for private businesses in Cuba's state-controlled economy, entrepreneurs have been forced to compete with cash-strapped consumers, driving up prices by driving off with cartloads of basic foodstuffs like eggs and flour.” [AP, “Raul Castro prepares Cuba for tough year despite US opening, 12/30/15]

Washington Post Highlights Growing Struggle Of Cuba To Adjust To Rising Disparities. “Today, with U.S.-Cuban relations on the mend, this island has come to the edge of a new post-Castro era. The country’s ideological foundations are cracking, and new uncertainties are coming — perhaps none larger than whether the egalitarian values of Castro’s revolution will be swept away by rising inequalities and the breakdown of Cuba’s socialist welfare state. Communist Party elders want to keep a lid on market forces, but with every incremental opening, yawning income gaps emerge. The owner of a small private restaurant can earn hundreds of dollars a day, or more, in a country where three-quarters of the labor force works for the state and the average government salary is $20 a month. Tour guides and hotel chambermaids make more than scientists and doctors. Younger Cubans do not seem too troubled. But these disparities, authorities fear, bear the seeds of social tensions, resentments and crime.” [Washington Post, “A socialist vision fades in Cuba’s biggest housing product,” 12/29/15]

U.S. Policymakers Seeking More Engagement With The Island

White House To Decide On Whether President Obama Will Make The Trip To Cuba In His Final Year. “The White House will decide in the next couple months about a potential trip by President Barack Obama to Cuba and wants both countries to take steps to ensure the thaw in relations is irreversible, U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said on Saturday. Rhodes, who was a key architect of the shift in U.S. strategy to the island nation, said Washington wanted to see Cuba improve its record on human rights and spur greater economic activity such as allowing private companies to operate in the communist country. Cuba also needed to give its people more access to information and the Internet, he said. ‘The key test for us is whether the president’s going to Cuba would help advance those priorities,’ Rhodes told reporters in Hawaii, where Obama is vacationing. ‘That’s something I think we’ll make a decision about ... in the next couple months.’ A trip by a U.S. president would be historic and the White House is eager to use that leverage to press Cuba to make reforms.” [Reuters, “White House: decision on Obama Cuba trip in next couple months,” 1/2/16]

Virginia Governor Returns From Trip To Cuba And Calls On Congress To End The Embargo. “McAuliffe, who is vice chairman of the National Governors Association, said he would be in Washington on Thursday, pressing for a full end to what he called the United States’s ‘foolish’ trade embargo against Cuba. ‘I’ll be meeting with the speaker of the House of Representatives, the Senate majority leader, other members of the House and Senate, as well as administration officials,’ he said. ‘And I will clearly use that opportunity to say, “2016 needs to be the year that we move our relationship forward, that we end this embargo, and we do the right thing for the citizens of the United States of America and the citizens of Cuba.”’” [Washington Post, “McAuliffe, in Havana, says Obama ‘should come and will come visit Cuba,” 1/5/16]

Virginia And Cuba Reach Agreements On Ports And Academic Cooperation. “Just two deals were officially inked during McAuliffe’s Cuba trip — and both are nonbinding. The port agreement was a memorandum of understanding under which officials in Cuba and Virginia agreed to look for ways to cooperate. Both ports are eager to become major hubs for the huge ‘post-Panamax’ ships that will be coming when the Panama Canal expansion project is completed. The other completed deal was also a memorandum of understanding, in which Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Havana promised to explore academic exchanges and joint research projects.” [Washington Post, “McAuliffe, in Havana, says Obama ‘should come and will come visit Cuba,” 1/5/16]

Miami-Dade County Officials Looking To Build Ferry Terminal For Cuba Travel. “The largely undeveloped plot of land at PortMiami where David Beckham once wanted a soccer stadium is poised to test just how much the politics of Cuba have changed in Miami. County officials want to transform the waterfront property into a bustling terminal for ferries running between Miami and Cuba. The initiative could position Miami as the prime jumping-off point for a fledgling ferry industry that hopes to provide affordable travel and shipping between the longtime enemies. And it marks a milestone for the administration of Mayor Carlos Gimenez, which until now has not openly pursued economic opportunities with a country whose outlaw status has long been an axiom of local politics.” [Miami Herald, “Miami-Dade pursuing ferry service to Cuba from PortMiami,” 1/6/16]

Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado: “Inevitable” That The County Offer Ferry Service To Cuba. “The ferry plan would put the Cuban-born Gimenez in the position of advocating for a new commercial link with Cuba as his 2016 reelection race heats up. He’s facing Raquel Regalado, a school board member and daughter of Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, long a leading hard liner when it came to the Castro regime. On Wednesday, Mayor Regalado said he would not oppose ferry service to Cuba. ‘It’s inevitable,’ he said. Raquel Regalado said she did not yet have a position on the issue. Hernández, Gimenez’s spokesman, noted flights to Cuba have long flown out the county’s Miami International Airport and that a port ferry terminal would have no direct ties to Havana. ‘Miami-Dade County doesn’t conduct business with countries,’ he said. ‘It conducts business with carriers.’” [Miami Herald, “Miami-Dade pursuing ferry service to Cuba from PortMiami,” 1/6/16]

Cuba’s Migrant Crisis Continues Into 2016

Cuban Migrants Stranded In Costa Rica Begin Resume Travel Towards The U.S. “The first flight for Cuban migrants stranded in Costa Rica will leave on Tuesday, the Central American country's foreign minister said on Wednesday. A group of around 180 people will be able to leave on a flight to El Salvador on Tuesday evening, they will then have ground transportation to the Guatemala-Mexico border, Manuel Gonzalez, Costa Rica's foreign minister said. Subsequent flights from Costa Rica will depend on the success of this one. The flow of migrants from Cuba has surged as the process of a detente between Washington and Havana stirs fears that preferential U.S. asylum rights for Cubans may soon end. [Reuters, “First Cuban migrant flight to leave Costa Rica next week,” 1/6/16]

Pope Francis Calls On Central American Countries To Show “Generosity” Towards Cuban Migrants Passing Through. “Pope Francis has called for Central American countries to show generosity in dealing with the rising numbers of Cuban migrants stranded in the region. Several thousand Cubans are stranded at the border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, hoping to reach the United States by land. Nicaragua has refused to allow the migrants to pass through its territory. The Pope said many of the Cubans passing through Central America were victims of human trafficking. ‘I invite the countries of the region to renew with generosity all necessary efforts in order to find a rapid solution to this humanitarian drama,’ the Pope told tens of thousands of people at the Vatican's St Peter's Square.” [BBC, “Cuban migrants: Pope Francis urges quick solution,” 12/27/15]

Former Cuban Diplomat Jesús Arboleya: Increased Economic Development Is Probably The Only Way To Deter Migration. “Jesús Arboleya, a former Cuban diplomat, said it should be of no surprise that young people have been leaving Cuba. The nation produces more human capital than the labor market can absorb, making the country a ‘factory’ of potential migrants, he said. Increased economic development is probably the only thing that will deter migrants in the future, said Arboleya, author of a book about Cuban migration. Many arriving Cubans post photos on Facebook showing scenes from their new American life: Visiting Walmart, driving a car, trying on a pair of work boots, cooking chicken legs on a backyard barbeque. They smile for the camera, but say their mood is bittersweet as they remember relatives left behind.” [NBC News, “Cubans Who Recently Left Island Long for Those Left Behind,” 1/3/16]

A Closer Look At A Changing Society In Cuba

Washington Post: Some Cubans Who Left The Island Returning As “Trailblazing Entrepreneurs.” “The returnees are a smaller, quieter countercurrent to the surge of Cubans leaving, and their arrival suggests a more dynamic future when their compatriots may come and go with greater ease, helping to rebuild Cuba with earnings from abroad. Not since the early years of Fidel Castro’s rule, when his leftist ideals brought home a number of exiles initially sympathetic to the 1959 revolution, have so many Cubans voluntarily returned. The difference is that today’s repatriates are not coming back for socialism. They are coming back as capitalists. Which is to say, they are returning as trailblazing entrepreneurs. Prompted by President Raúl Castro’s limited opening to small business and his 2011 move allowing Cubans to buy and sell real estate, the repatriates are using money saved abroad to acquire property and open private restaurants, guesthouses, spas and retail shops.” [Washington Post, “Amid historic wave of emigration, some Cubans are returning home,” 1/1/16]

Cuban Authorities Reportedly Processing An Increasing Number Of Repatriation Applications Since 2012. “Cuban authorities said they could not provide up-to-date statistics, but in 2012, immigration officials said they were processing about 1,000 repatriation applications each year. The numbers appear to have increased since then, at least judging from anecdotal evidence and the proliferation of new small businesses in Havana run by returnees. Communist authorities no longer stigmatize such Cubans or view them as ideologically suspicious, provided they’re not coming back as anti-government activists. Virtually all Cubans who emigrated are eligible for repatriation unless they are deemed to have committed ‘hostile acts against the state.’” [Washington Post, “Amid historic wave of emigration, some Cubans are returning home,” 1/1/16]

NYT’s Damien Cave Takes An Inside Look At “36 Hours In Havana.” “Havana is no longer frozen in time, at least not completely. With Cuba’s guarded openness to private enterprise grabbing hold, classic American cars and salsa singers now share the cityscape with new and inventive offerings in food, culture, night life and hospitality. No other city in Latin America, or perhaps the world, can claim to be having just the kind of moment that Havana is experiencing now after so many decades gasping for change. For visitors, the capital is a mash-up of past and present, freedom and restriction.” [New York Times, “36 Hours in Havana,” 1/6/16]

French Photographer Captures Cuba’s World-Famous Boxers. “To be an amateur boxer in Cuba is something to be proud of – not so much for the monetary compensation, as none of the athletes have achieved affluence through their fame, but for the widespread recognition as the whole country cheers the achievements of its players. As Alberto Puig de la Barca, president of Cuba Boxing Federation, once said to CNN: ‘Our boxers may not have a million dollars, but they have 11 million Cubans who support them.’… With the world’s highest number of gold medals in its trophy collections, (outnumbering the U.S. by quite a few), amateur boxing continues to thrive in Cuba. But despite the fascinating aura of the game, navigating the intricate system of boxing rings, players, coaches and gamblers is no easy task. It requires shrewd familiarity with undercover networks and their main actors, an ability that high-profile French photographer Thierry Le Goues has honed over the last 10 years.” [Time, “Meet Cuba’s Amateur Boxers,” 1/5/16]

Cuban Authorities Detain Dissidents Released After Rapprochement

Five Dissidents Released Following Rapprochement Back In Custody. “Five dissidents freed as Havana launched a high-profile diplomatic rapprochement with the United States are back in custody in Cuba, a human rights group said Monday. The five were among 53 political prisoners released in 2014 and early 2015 as the Washington and Havana moved to restore ties after a half-century break. The Cuban Commission on Human Rights, an officially outlawed but tolerated group, said the five ‘were confined in high-security prisons in the second half of 2015.’… All five were jailed ‘as a result of rigged trials and without due process,’ it said. Cuban authorities did not comment. But the Americas' only communist government routinely denies it is holding political prisoners and says those jailed are in for common crimes.” [AFP, “Five freed in US-Cuba rapprochement back in custody: rights group,” 1/4/16]

Reversing Cuba Policy Quickly Becoming A Pipe Dream

Vox: A Republican President May Tinker With Cuba Policy, But Would Find It “Politically Untenable” To Make Further Changes.
 “If a Republican with hard-line Cuba policy gets elected in 2016, it’s likely he will at least tinker with the Obama administration’s regulations, perhaps closing embassies or putting light restrictions on travel. But taking any further action might prove politically untenable. Not all Republicans even agree anymore on the orthodoxy of the embargo; Rand Paul, for example, opposes it on libertarian grounds, and Donald Trump has declared it bad for business. Overall, 59 percent of Republicans surveyed in a July Pew Research poll favor ending the embargo altogether, which could put pressure on the eventual Republican nominee.” [Vox, “Traveling to Cuba is easier than ever. Will that change if a Republican becomes president?” 12/30/15]

“It’s One Thing To Stand In Opposition To Democrats; It’s Another To Alienate America’s Business Community.” “Public opinion aside, pledges to roll back the steps the US has taken toward normalization ignore the deep business interests that have sprung up in the short time since Obama made his initial announcement. It’s one thing to stand in opposition to Democrats; it's another to alienate America’s business community. ‘The toothpaste is out of the tube, and you cannot put it back in,’ Columbia's Sabatini said. ‘You can make some marginal changes, you can make some noise – but there are too many interests who have a stake in this to go back.’ So if you’re contemplating spending a future winter break in Cuba, it’s a good bet your plans are a go.” [Vox, “Traveling to Cuba is easier than ever. Will that change if a Republican becomes president?” 12/30/15]

¡No Me Digas! Hollywood Edition

Showtime’s “House Of Lies” To Become First Scripted U.S. Series To Film In Cuba.
 “Don Cheadle’s Showtime comedy ‘House of Lies’ will film one episode of its fifth season in Havana, making it the first U.S. scripted series to film in Cuba since the countries’ diplomatic relations were restored last summer. The dramedy stars Cheadle as a fast-talking and cunning management consultant who heads the firm Kaan & Associates…The shoot is done in compliance with the U.S. Department of Treasury pursuant to an Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) license and follows all appropriate U.S. laws. ‘Marty and the Pod have traveled the world to land clients,’ said Cheadle. ‘But this historic trip to Cuba is definitely Kaan & Associates’ biggest and wildest adventure yet. It’s sure to be one for the record books, for both our characters and for our cast and crew. We’re grateful to Showtime, our production team and everyone who worked so diligently to make this trip happen.’” [Variety, “Showtime’s House of Lies’ To Be First U.S. Scripted Show Filmed in Cuba,” 1/6/16]

Universal Studios Seeking Approval To Film “Fast and Furious” Sequel In Cuba. “Universal’s ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise may be going where no major studio film has gone before. While plans are still being worked out, Variety has learned that the studio behind the hugely popular series wants to shoot part of the eighth film in the ‘Fast and Furious’ series in Cuba. The filmmakers have made a research trip to the country to look at possible locations, though an insider cautions that things are in the exploratory phase. ‘Universal Pictures is currently in the process of seeking approval from the United States and Cuban governments to explore shooting a portion of the next installment of the ‘Fast & Furious’ series in Cuba,’ a spokeswoman for the studio said.” [Variety, “‘Fast and Furious 8’ Wants to Shoot in Cuba,” 1/6/16]