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#CubaNow Briefing: Rubio Takes Campaign Woes Out On U.S. Diplomacy

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Feb 12, 2016


There were many things to take away from the Iowa caucus results earlier this month, but a rejection by GOP voters of U.S.-Cuba policy—as some have curiously claimed—it was not. If that had in fact been the case, it seems unlikely that Sen. Marco Rubio, arguably the most outspoken opponent of normalization in the race, would have wound up fifth in the New Hampshire primary as he did this week. Businessman Donald Trump, who had previously declared he was “fine” with the U.S. and Cuba restoring relations, finished comfortably in first place.

We would not insult anyone’s intelligence by claiming that either of these recent results have hinged in any way on the candidates’ positions on Cuba. But the fact that Cuba policy has not become an issue in the GOP primary despite there being two Cuban-American senators and a former Florida governor in the running speaks for itself. Given the chance to go after normalization in debates before a national audience, the candidates have completely demurred. And given the pro-engagement positions of the Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, there is now even the possibility of a general election where both sides agree that the U.S. is ready to finally and fully lift a failed embargo policy. If the embargo was once a “third rail” in primary races, the power has been been cut.

This political consensus around the restoration of ties comes as no surprise to those of us who have seen poll after poll of American and Cuban support for changes of “D-17.” And it again means there is no reason for Congress to wait until Election Day or the next administration to act. As we see in this week’s briefing, more and more elected representatives are speaking out—with less and less patience—about the need to reform our trade and travel policies with the Island.

The alternative is the old hardliner stance on Cuba that has failed for over five decades to bring progress for the Cuban people – one that resembles less a policy than a pothole, and one that few Cubans seem to be enthused at seeing implemented at the presidential level.

Perhaps stung by the realization that he was about as popular at the New Hampshire polls as the embargo he seeks to uphold, Sen. Rubio on Thursday again blocked the nomination of Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson to serve as ambassador to Mexico. Or rather, he had another senator make the objection on his behalf. It is bad enough that Sen. Rubio continues his widely derided obstruction of a critically important diplomatic post as payback for her work on normalization. But we would hope that someone so apparently devoted to keeping U.S. diplomacy from functioning at full strength would at least show up and do the obstruction himself.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow

The Economist: Cubans Not Thrilled By Cruz Or Rubio

The Economist: “Informal Conversations And Press Chatter” Indicate Cubans Are “Underwhelmed” By The Prospect Of A Cuban-American President. “Neither Ted Cruz nor Marco Rubio fared as well in the hills of New Hampshire on February 9th as they did in the plains of Iowa a week earlier. Even so, the two Republicans (pictured) are both closer to winning the White House than any Cuban-American has come before. You might expect the citizens of the country from which their parents emigrated to take an interest in their political fortunes, and they do. But it is not a friendly one. ‘I’d rather vote for Donald Trump,’ harrumphs a professor in Vedado, part of Havana. To judge from informal conversations and press chatter (nobody is systematically canvassing opinion) Cubans are underwhelmed by the prospect of a Cuban-American president. A big part of the reason is that both Mr Cruz and Mr Rubio are hardliners on the subject of Cuba, the traditional stance of émigrés and their families. Mr Rubio, who is the better known because he is a senator from nearby Florida, would roll back the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States initiated by the countries’ presidents in 2014. He has threatened to put Cuba back on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. Mr Cruz is no friendlier to the new policy. The Obama administration is “being played by brutal dictators”, among them Cuba’s president, Raúl Castro, he thunders.” [The Economist, “The Havana primaries,” 2/13/16]

More Elected Officials Call For Further Action On Cuba

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp Urges Senate To Loosen Restrictions On Ag Exports To Cuba. “Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D. took to the Senate floor urging the Senate to pass her bipartisan bill that will make it easier for North Dakota producers to export agricultural products to Cuba. In January, the Obama administration loosened export restrictions to allow companies to sell nonagricultural products to Cuba on credit. But export restrictions on agricultural products are still in place. Heitkamp and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. introduced their bipartisan bill in April 2015 to make it legal for U.S. exporters to finance agricultural exports into Cuba. The bill followed Heitkamp’s visit to Cuba in February 2014, during which she met with Cuban trade officials to discuss the bilateral economic benefits of expanding agricultural exports from North Dakota and the U.S. to Cuba.

Heitkamp: Current U.S. Policy Towards Cuba Unnecessarily Ties Farmers’ Hands. “‘The agriculture economy is critical for my state, and crops we excel at growing – like black beans, peas, lentils and barley – are in high demand in Cuba. As we continue to open up relations with Cuba, it’s critical that our producers get access to this hungry market. That’s what my bipartisan bill with Senator Boozman would accomplish,’ Heitkamp says. ‘Our current policies are unnecessarily tying the hands of North Dakota farmers, preventing them from competing with Canada and Southeast Asia in a country that is just 90 miles from our shores. North Dakota farmers have told me time and time again that Cuba is a vital market, and they need access to this natural market for North Dakota crops.’” [AgWeek, “Heitkamp calls for easing restrictions on ag exports to Cuba,” 2/5/16]

Republican Congressman Rick Crawford: Trade Embargo Could Boost Arkansas’ Economy. “Cuba imports almost all its food, especially rice and chicken. The island country's dependence on outside food sources could provide a $36 million annual boost to Arkansas' economy, particularly farmers in northeast Arkansas. There's only one problem: the decades-old agriculture commodities trade embargo that might not be removed until after the presidential election this year, U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark., told Arkansas Business. Crawford was among the speakers at the annual Arkansas Rice Annual meeting Friday at the Arkansas State University Convocation Center in Jonesboro.” [Arkansas Business, “Crawford: Cuban Market Could Boost Arkansas, But Leaders Must Act Fast,” 2/7/16]

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson: Congress Needs To Act To Support U.S. Exports To Cuba. “Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who visited Cuba last year, said Vietnam and Brazil have gained footholds there because of their willingness to allow sales on credit. Hutchinson, the first sitting governor to visit Cuba since the U.S. and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations, has urged Congress to allow credit sales to Cuba. In November, Hutchinson wrote to congressional leaders in support of Crawford's bill and another by U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R.-Ark., urging them to act on credit sales of commodities. ‘The current cash-in-advance requirement limits a potential market of nearly $40 million for Arkansas products alone,’ Hutchinson wrote in the letter.” [Arkansas Business, “Crawford: Cuban Market Could Boost Arkansas, But Leaders Must Act Fast,” 2/7/16]

Congresswoman Kathy Castor Leads A Bipartisan Delegation To Cuba. “U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor is leading a congressional trip to Cuba on Saturday, her office said. The Tampa Democrat will be joined by Republican Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota and five other lawmakers. They will hold a news conference Saturday morning at Tampa International Airport. ‘Castor and Emmer last year filed legislation to lift the Cuban embargo and allow for businesses and the private sector to trade freely with Cuba,’ reads a release. ‘They are also cochairs of the House Bipartisan Cuba Working Group, started late last year to press for congressional action to build on progress. This is U.S. Rep. Castor’s first trip to Cuba since diplomatic relations with the United States were restored.’” [Tampa Bay Times, “Rep. Kathy Castor to lead congressional trip to Cuba,” 2/11/16]

Cuban-Americans Reengage With The Island

Cuban-American Home Improvement Expert Bob Vila Reconnects With Cuba In Restoration Work. “‘I come from a family background that is seriously anti-communist,’ Vila says. “My father had died by the time I went back the first time. I would never have gone while he was alive. I had said I wouldn’t go back, unless I was going with a mission.’ And then, about 10 years ago, Vila found his mission: helping restore Hemingway’s historic 12-acre Cuban estate, known as Finca Vigia, and its priceless contents. For the past decade, Vila has been traveling to Cuba with the Finca Vigia Foundation and its teams of preservation architects, structural engineers, document conservators and museum collection specialists. So far they’ve preserved Hemingway’s house, which is today the most visited museum in Cuba; his fishing yacht, Pilar; and thousands of documents, according to the foundation.” [Palm Beach Daily News, “TV personality Bob Vila’s deeply personal mission to Cuba,” 2/7/16]

Vila Hoped U.S.-Cuba Normalization Will Allow Other Cuban-Americans To Revisit Their Roots. “Because of the longtime U.S. trade embargo, Vila says Cubans involved in the project often didn’t have access to supplies critical for a preservation project of this scope in a hurricane-prone region, such as impact-resistant glass and storm-rated roof tiles. That changed in 2014, when President Obama loosened some trade restrictions…Vila, who has taken his wife on visits to Cuba, says he is thankful he found a mission that enabled him to reconnect with his Cuban roots and hopes the new-found openness between the United States and Cuba will allow other Cuban-Americans to do the same. ‘Going there that first time was kind of mind-bending for so many different reasons,’ he says. ‘Yet when I came home, I felt like I had opened a door on something that needed to be re-examined.’” [Palm Beach Daily News, “TV personality Bob Vila’s deeply personal mission to Cuba,” 2/7/16]

Cuban-American Architect Mario Cartaya: “It Is The Right Time In History To Get Off The Sidelines.” “Since its days as a Spanish colony, Cuba has always belonged to the Cuban people; never to a foreign government or individual ruler. As Cuban-Americans we must realize that fact, stop the vitriol, end the hate and jump aboard this growing New Cuba Deal. It is the right time in history to get off the sidelines. During this delicate time, Cuban Americans must support these changes and assist the Cuban people in learning those lessons that allowed us to become one of the most successful minorities in U.S. history. By educating, challenging and influencing the young Cuban entrepreneurs on the island, we can facilitate their dreams, hopes and experiences so when it is their turn to lead, they will have the tools needed to allow Cuba to rejoin the rest of the free world, with a successful economic and political systems. [Sun-Sentinel Op-Ed, “Support the new Cuba deal,” 2/5/16]

New Jersey Star-Ledger Editorial On Criticism Of Lawmakers’ Trip To Cuba: “Please.”

Star-Ledger Editorial: Plenty Of Valid Reasons For New Jersey Lawmakers To Visit Cuba, Including Second Largest Population Of Cubans Outside Of Cuba. “U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez wonders why anyone would pick Cuba as a destination, given the Castro regime and its refusal to hand over Joanne Chesimard, who fled to Cuba after being convicted in the shooting death of a New Jersey State Trooper. Fair question. This group decided to go for a number of reasons, including personal interest. New Jersey also has the second largest population of Cubans outside of Cuba, and states like New York have already sent their leaders to Cuba to explore economic opportunities. We may have something to learn from the country's medical school, too, which accepts students from across the globe for free and has made real advances in treating diabetes and prostate cancer.” [Star-Ledger Editorial, “Nice time of year to go to Cuba,” 2/5/16]

Star-Ledger On Claims Lawmakers Were “[Creating] An Impression Of Legitimacy” Of Cuba’s Repressive Practices: “Please.” “This was a fact-finding mission, not unlike other delegations to Turkey or Israel, the lawmakers say. Yet Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo, another Cuban American, argues they should have alerted the public before going to Cuba. ‘By its very nature, the fact that they are state legislators creates an impression of legitimacy’ for the repressive government, he said. Please. What about Turkey, which has a repressive government too? Are we going to bar all legislators from traveling to China? Palestinian Americans might make the same argument about Israel. The U.S. has relaxed restrictions on travel to Cuba, so there is no longer any difference. And since when do legislators need public permission to travel anywhere?” [Star-Ledger Editorial, “Nice time of year to go to Cuba,” 2/5/16]

Progress In Cuba…

Pope Francis And Patriarch Kirill To Hold Historic Meeting In Cuba. “The heads of the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox churches will hold a historic meeting Friday in the threadbare international airport of an officially secular, communist-run tropical island. Odd as the location seems, Pope Francis' and Patriarch Kirill's attempt to reconcile their churches after centuries of estrangement will set the tone for a year of peacemaking in Cuba, a nation trying to shed its historic role as international socialist provocateur. In addition to the meeting of the church leaders, Cuban President Raul Castro is expected to welcome President Barack Obama to Havana as early as this spring to celebrate the detente the two men declared at the end of 2014, ending a half-century of hostility. And four years of talks in Cuba between Colombia's government and its main rebel group appear set to produce an accord ending the Western Hemisphere's longest-running conflict, perhaps as early as mid-year.” [AP, “Church Talks Help Make Cuba ‘Perfect Place for Negotiations,’” 2/11/16]

AS/COA’s Alana Tummino: It’s The “Beginning Of The End” For Cuba’s Internet Isolation. “Cuba's announcement of launching broadband Internet service in two pilot projects in Havana is historic. This is welcome news to the growing number of cultural and business travelers to the island that have ballooned just this past year alone -- up 17.4% globally and 77% from the United States -- to a record 3.52 million visitors. But more importantly, the initiative must extend beyond business and tourism and be the start of truly connecting Cubans with each other and the outside world. The pilot projects will allow residents in Habana Vieja to order broadband through fiber-optic connections operated by Chinese telecommunications provider, Huawei. To be clear, we are far from walking the winding streets of Havana glued to our smartphones. But we are witnessing a beginning to the end of Cuba's status as a country with one of the lowest Internet penetration rates in the hemisphere -- and world.” [CNN Op-Ed, “Cuba’s Internet isolation beginning to lift,” 2/10/16]

Caterpillar Signs Distribution Deal To Prepare To Sell Equipment In Cuba. “American earth-movers are coming to Cuba. Caterpillar, the construction equipment maker, said Wednesday it has signed a deal with a distributor to begin the process of selling its products in Cuba, becoming one of the first U.S. manufacturers to enter the island nation that is emerging from decades-long trade restrictions. Its distribution partner, Rimco, is familiar with Caterpillar, serving as its distributor in the island where it’s headquartered, Puerto Rico, and the Eastern Caribbean. ‘Cuba needs access to the types of products that Caterpillar makes and, upon easing of trade restrictions, we look forward to providing the equipment needed to contribute to the building of Cuba’s infrastructure,’ said Philip Kelliher, Caterpillar's vice president for the Americas & Europe distribution services division.” [USA Today, “Caterpillar signs distribution deal in preparation for Cuba entry,” 2/10/16]

U.S. Embassy’s Charge D'affaires Jeff DeLaurentis: Adding Staff In Havana Is Critical To Accommodate Americans Visiting The Island. “The embassy needed supplies from the United States, including some in secure containers that would not be opened for inspection. And American officials wanted their diplomats to be free to travel in Cuba without first securing permission from the government. Adding staff is critical, DeLaurentis said, because of the rapid growth in the number of Americans visiting the island. He’s hoping to expand citizen services and public affairs staffs to handle ‘many, more educational and cultural exchanges.’ Most trips are for ‘purposeful travel,” such as tour on which I traveled to the country. Artists and entertainers are showing up in increasing numbers too: As The Wall Street Journal observed in a Jan. 29 article headlined ‘The American Invasion of Cuba' ‘culture always moves faster than government.’” [GovExec, “Cuba Diary: Inside the American Diplomatic Effort,” 2/5/16]

…And More Of The Past

Protestant Church And Pastor’s Home In Cuba Reportedly Demolished By Officials, 200 Members Detained And Beaten. “Emanuel Church in eastern Cuba, affiliated to the Apostolic Movement – an unregistered Protestant denomination – was surrounded by officials including police, state security and the military at 5am last Friday. They detained Rev Alain Toledano's wife before demolishing both the church and the pastor's home. Property found inside the church including pews, chairs and a piano were confiscated. Toledano was in the United States at the time of the incident. Approximately 200 leaders and members of the church were also detained. Around forty were held in a local school and the rest were taken to police stations, apparently to ensure there were no protests against the demolition. CSW says church leaders reported that many were beaten during their detention.” [Christian Today, “Church destroyed and 200 hundred [sic] members detained in Cuba,” 2/9/16]

Cuba’s Organic Honey Becomes An Increasingly Valuable Commodity

Cuba’s Organic Honey Becomes A Valuable Export As Bee Populations Decline In The Rest Of The World. “Long known for its cigars and rum, Cuba has added organic honey to its list of key agricultural exports, creating a buzz among farmers as pesticide use has been linked to declining bee populations elsewhere. Organic honey has become Cuba's fourth most valuable agricultural export behind fish products, tobacco and drinks, but ahead of the Caribbean island's more famous sugar and coffee, said Theodor Friedrich, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization's (FAO) representative for Cuba. ‘All of (Cuba's) honey can be certified as organic,’ Friedrich told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. ‘Its honey has a very specific, typical taste; in monetary value, it's a high ranking product.’” [Thomson Reuters, “Cuba’s organic honey exports create buzz as bees die off elsewhere,” 2/9/15]

Bee Keepers: Cuba’s Honey Industry Could Become Lucrative If The Cuban Government Chooses To Support The Industry. “Now that the United States is easing its embargo following the restoration of diplomatic ties last year, Cuba's organic honey exporters could see significant growth if the government supports the industry, bee keepers said. Cuba produced more than 7,200 tonnes of organic honey in 2014, worth about $23.3 million, according to government statistics cited by the FAO. The country's industry is still tiny compared with honey heavyweights such as China, Turkey and Argentina. But with a commodity worth more per liter than oil, Cuban honey producers believe they could be on the cusp of a lucrative era.” [Thomson Reuters, “Cuba’s organic honey exports create buzz as bees die off elsewhere,” 2/9/15]

U.S. And Cuba Coordinate on National Security

Cuban Delegation Meets With U.S. Officials In Miami To Discuss Cooperating On Human Trafficking And Migration Fraud.
 “A colonel in Cuba’s Ministry of the Interior led a Havana delegation that met with U.S. officials in Miami this week on ways to battle human trafficking and migration fraud during a session at the office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Cuba’s Foreign Ministry reported in a statement that the island delegation was led by Col. Mario Méndez Mayedo, head of the Identification, Immigration and Foreigners department at the Ministry of the Interior. Other Cuban officials also participated in the talks.” [Miami Herald, “Cuban colonel meets in Miami with U.S. officials,” 2/5/15]

William LeoGrande: U.S. And Cuba Can Do More To Deepen Cooperation On National Security. “U.S. and Cuban military professionals have been interested in deepening contacts with one another for years, but they were blocked by hostile diplomatic relations. Inviting Cuba to the Caribbean regional security conference was a good first step, but much more could be done in light of the coincidence between the missions of U.S. Southern Command and Cuba's Revolutionary Armed Forces. Southcom's 2015 annual posture statement identifies transnational crime (especially narcotics and human trafficking) and natural disasters as key threats to regional security. These are priorities for Cuba as well. The Department of State's 2015 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report praised Cuba's counter-narcotics policies, and Cuba is world famous for sending rapid response medical teams to countries struck by disaster, most recently Haiti after the 2010 earthquake and West Africa during the 2014 Ebola epidemic—occasions when U.S. and Cuban responders worked together effectively on the ground.” [World Policy Blog, “Unlikely Allies: U.S. and Cuban Armed Forces, 2/11/16]

LeoGrande: U.S. Should Invite Cuba To Cooperate On Regional Joint Exercises Focused On Responding To Organized Crime And Natural Disasters. “To deepen cooperation, Washington could invite Cuba to participate in U.S. training and support programs on drug interdiction, and to participate in regional joint exercises. Southcom's annual ‘Tradewinds’ exercise focuses on improving the capability of Caribbean nations to counter transnational organized crime and respond to a natural disasters. The ‘Fuerzas Aliadas Humanitarias" (Humanitarian Allied Forces) exercise focuses on providing responding to natural disaster. Cuba could contribute to both.’” [World Policy Blog, “Unlikely Allies: U.S. and Cuban Armed Forces, 2/11/16]

LeoGrande: Building U.S.-Cuba Cooperation Will Benefit The U.S. Through Strengthened Regional Capacity And Communication.
 “Building military-to-military cooperation offers benefits for the United States: it will strengthen regional capacity to deal with narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, and humanitarian crises. It will open channels of communication for use in an emergency to avoid misunderstandings that could lead to conflict. And it will build confidence in the broader process of normalizing relations among those who have traditionally been most skeptical—the military forces who have seen each other as enemies for half a century. As Cuba and the United States build a more normal bilateral relationship, military cooperation is an important piece of the puzzle.” [World Policy Blog, “Unlikely Allies: U.S. and Cuban Armed Forces, 2/11/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Tattoo Parlors Coming Back In Cuba Despite Legal Gray Area. “During the sinful heydays of the 1950s, tattoos were for the sailors prowling Havana's waterfront and boozy tourists lurching from sex shows to gambling dens. The socialist revolution drove tattooing even further underground, with health inspectors and police raiding studios seen as health hazards and vestiges of capitalist immorality. Now skin art is on the rebound in Cuba, with hundreds of tattoo parlors operating largely unmolested across the country…Like so many other activities in Cuba, tattooing is neither illegal nor explicitly permitted and regulated, leaving it operating in the gray area Cubans refer to as ‘alegal,’ meaning simply that something lacks any legal status, positive or negative. And like so many other goods, tattooing supplies can't be purchased from state businesses, meaning ink, needles and other goods must be imported in travelers' luggage. ‘Tattooing remains in limbo,’ said Leo Canosa, La Marca's owner.” [AP, “Tattoos on the Rebound in Cuba After Years Underground,” 2/8/16]