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#CubaNow Briefing: The Washington Post’s Editorial Board Celebrates Groundhog Day

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Feb 5, 2016


If you read the Washington Post’s latest Cuba editorial this past Sunday, you could be forgiven for thinking that Groundhog Day had come a little early. After all, it seems like just yesterday that we were yet again discussing the Post’s tired arguments in favor of upholding the embargo on Cuba, arguments that they refused to apply to any other country that currently has both diplomatic relations with the U.S. and a poor human rights record. “Failure in Cuba” read this week’s headline as the editorial board found the lack of “sea change” after one year sufficient enough evidence to declare the policy a bust.

When former USAID subcontractor Alan Gross calls your editorial “a bit premature,” there is reason to listen. As Paul Pillar pointed out in The National Interest, the editorial’s reasoning is “ludicrously” inconsistent in criticizing one year of fits and starts in ending over 50 years of failed policy. To say the Obama Administration’s efforts to expand trade and travel under existing embargo law have led to insufficient reform—and to do so in defense of the embargo—is like the old joke about a restaurant’s food being terrible…and in such small portions.

As if on cue, news also broke Sunday that Cuba is launching a pilot project to bring broadband home Internet to Cubans. It’s a significant step forward for the Island given Cuba’s historically restricted access and poor connection speeds. Even the Post’s editorial board should be able to admit a positive development here, having cited Cuba as having “some of the lowest connectivity rates in the world.” But we won’t hold our breath.

If the Post wants to take issue with our Cuba policy, they should address the risk of leaving the job of normalization half-done. Failure to fully normalize means we will continue to see Cuban migrants leave the Island and put their lives at risk, a trend that also has the effect of weakening Cuba’s own ability to sustain itself. It means Afro-Cubans will be left behind by any economic liberalization as embargo laws restrict assistance and commerce for those who lack access to family remittances. It means Cuban farmers will continue to lack the capital and equipment they need to efficiently cultivate their land. It means that as the U.S. and Cuba face a spreading Zika virus outbreak that could be potentially pose great risks to pregnant women, politically-motivated senators are threatening to cut funding to keep our two countries from coordinating on national security. We could go on, but you get the point.

As we see in this week’s briefing, there are too many serious challenges facing Cuba to keep recycling the same, worn-out arguments about who “deserves” engagement and when. We know right now who deserves the benefits that the American people can provide: the 11 million Cubans living on the Island. If critics at the Post and elsewhere believe that the reforms of the past year have not moved fast enough for their liking, they should call on Congress to finish the job of ending the embargo.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow.

Cuba Announces Pilot Project To Launch Broadband Home Internet

Cuba Announces It Will Launch Broadband Home Internet Pilot Project. “Cuba announced Sunday night that it is launching broadband Internet service in two Havana neighborhoods as a pilot project aimed at bringing home access to one of the world's least connected nations. State telecommunications company ETECSA said it would allow Cubans in Old Havana, the colonial center that is one of the island's main tourist attractions, to order service through fiber optic connections operated with Chinese telecom operator Huawei. Odalys Rodríguez del Toro, ETECSA director for Havana, told state media that the government would also begin allowing cafes, bars and restaurants to begin ordering broadband service. Del Toro offered no timeline for the pilot project or rollout of broader access and said prices would be announced in the future.” [AP, “Cuba says it will launch broadband home internet project,” 1/31/16]

AP: Fiber-Optic Home Connections Would Be An Important Milestone In Cuba, A Country With Highly Restricted Internet Access. “Still, any fiber-optic home connections would be an important milestone in Cuba, where broadband home service is currently legal only for diplomats and employees of foreign companies who pay hundreds of dollars a month for Internet links that are a fraction of the average speed in other countries. Some Cuban citizens have dial-up home service or restricted mobile phone connections that allow access only to state-run email. General public access to broadband Internet began only last year, with the opening of dozens of public WiFi spots that cost $2 an hour. That is about a tenth of the average monthly salary in Cuba. Del Toro said ETECSA would open 30 more WiFi spots in Havana alone in 2016, which by itself would double the number of access points in Cuba. She did not say how many more were planned for other cities.” [AP, “Cuba says it will launch broadband home internet project,” 1/31/16]

Cuba’s Farmers Struggle To Achieve Self-Sufficiency

Reuters: Cuba Importing Over Two-Thirds Of Its Food And Struggling To Reach Self-Sufficiency Despite Rich Farmland. “Like many of its Caribbean neighbors, communist-governed Cuba imports more than two-thirds of its food, despite having rich farmland and hundreds of urban farms sprouting up in old parking lots, rooftops, or other small plots of unused land. The country spends more than $2 billion a year importing rice, meat, grains and other foods which analysts and local farmers say could be produced at home. The government, under President Raul Castro, says it is serious about producing more food for Cuba's 11 million citizens, and some environmentalists have praised it for supporting organic urban farming, which uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers. But local farmers and analysts say Cuba will not achieve self-sufficiency in food in the near future, despite improved trade with the United States after Washington re-established diplomatic relations last year with its former Cold War foe. ‘The government is trying to make more of these organic farms,’ urban farmer Antonio Loma told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. ‘But it's a lot of work for very little money.’” [Reuters, “As Cuba struggles to feed itself, lack of cash slows rise of urban farming,” 2/4/16] 

Low Pay Means Cuban Farmers Lack Means To Boost Production. “Small farmers say they want to expand their organic range, but getting loans to improve their farms is difficult. Loma, for example, thinks organic chicken would be popular but he doesn't have the money to build coops. The low pay of the average Cuban means there is not enough money circulating in the broader economy to boost production, traders and farmers said. ‘Sometimes it's hard for us to get products (from local farms),’ said Ricardo Sanchez, who runs a stall in one of Havana's food markets. ‘People don't want to work in the fields as they don't get paid enough,’ he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation as shoppers picked through overripe tomatoes and wrinkled carrots.” [Reuters, “As Cuba struggles to feed itself, lack of cash slows rise of urban farming,” 2/4/16] 

Bad Weather Cutting Into Cuba’s Sugar Harvest. “Cuban farmers spent January slogging through mud to harvest cane with low sugar yields as unseasonal rain and heat dashed hopes of equaling last year's output. AZCUBA, the state-run sugar monopoly, had already reduced growth plans due to a severe drought last year but still hoped to equal the 1.9 million tonnes produced during the 2014-2015 season. Now, reaching even that reduced goal appears unlikely. Provincial reports from across the country tell of flooded plantations, shut-down mills and less-than-expected sugar yields from the cane that made it to processing.”  [Reuters, “Cuban sugar harvest bogged down by rain and humidity,” 2/2/16]

Cuba “Will Be Lucky” To Top Sugar Production Levels From 2013-2014. “The weather phenomenon El Niño caused severe drought over the summer rainy season, reducing estimates of cane availability by 10 percent compared with the previous harvest, and by up to 25 percent in parts of eastern Cuba. Forecasters predicted El Niño would cause unusually heavy rainfall from December through March, a prognosis that has proved true to date. The harvest runs from late November through April, with cane usually yielding the highest sugar content from January through March. To date the yields of harvested cane have been well below the previous season. ‘They started out hoping to reach 1.9 million tonnes of raw sugar and now, if forecasts prove correct and the bad weather continues, they will be lucky to top the 1.6 million tonnes produced in 2013-2014,’ said one expert with ties to the industry, requesting anonymity to protect his access to information.” [Reuters, “Cuban sugar harvest bogged down by rain and humidity,” 2/2/16]

Cuba Expert William LeoGrande: Obama Needs To Keep Momentum Up On Cuba 

Professor William M. LeoGrande: Normalization Could Hit A Dead End Without “Some Notable Commercial Successes.” “Without some notable commercial successes, the business community could lose interest in Cuba and in lobbying Congress to lift the embargo, leaving Obama’s normalization project dead in the water. Like the dog that didn’t bark, several anticipated regulatory changes were left out of the new package. The prohibition on U.S. investments (except in telecommunications) remains intact, as does the prohibition on almost all imports from the island, rendering trade with Cuba a one-way street that the government in Havana is loathe to accept as normal. From low-end commodities like sugar and nickel to high-end luxury goods like rum and cigars, Cuban products would find a ready market in the United States.” [Foreign Policy, “Obama Needs to Stop Playing Small Ball With Cuba,” 2/1/16] 

“Finance Is The Lifeblood Of Commerce; If Funds Cannot Be Easily Transferred, Business Will Not Get Off The Ground.” “U.S. financial institutions are still barred from processing most international dollar-denominated transactions between Cuba and foreign firms or banks (so-called u-turn transactions). This extraterritorial extension of the embargo has led to billions of dollars in fines against foreign banks, hampered Cuba’s reintegration into the global economy, and angered U.S. allies. President Obama could have issued a general license for U.S. banks to process these transactions. That would ease the fears that many banks, both foreign and domestic, have of doing business with Cuba because the current financial regulations are so complex. Finance is the lifeblood of commerce; if funds cannot be easily transferred, business will not get off the ground.” [Foreign Policy, “Obama Needs to Stop Playing Small Ball With Cuba,” 2/1/16] 

LeoGrande: Obama Can Move U.S.-Cuban Relations To The Top Of The Cuban Government’s Agenda With A Trip To Havana. “To break through the timidity of the Washington bureaucracy, the White House must stay on top of the issue, continually reminding officials from cabinet secretaries on down that advancing relations with Cuba is a presidential priority, and that their marching orders are to find ways to get it done, not find excuses why they can’t. President Barack Obama has less influence over Havana’s bureaucracy, but there is one way he could put U.S.-Cuban relations at the top of the Cuban government’s agenda: Go to Havana to make the case in person.” [Foreign Policy, “Obama Needs to Stop Playing Small Ball With Cuba,” 2/1/16]

Miami Debates A Cuban Consulate, Ferry Service 

Alan Gomez: Some Fear A Cuban Consulate In Miami Could Spark Violence That Hasn’t Been Seen In Decades. “There used to be a time in this city when being too supportive of the Castro brothers could get you killed...Even speaking out against the violence was a dangerous endeavor. In 1976, Cuban-American radio host Emilio Milián, who dared to call the bombers terrorists, had his legs torn off by a car bomb outside his Miami radio station. That level of violence hasn't been seen here for decades; it has been replaced by impassioned, but harmless, protests. Yet some fear that those dark days could return if the Cuban government is allowed to open a consulate in Miami. The U.S. and Cuba have been working to normalize relations over the past 14 months, re-opening embassies in Washington, D.C., and Havana and exchanging diplomats. The next logical step could be a Cuban consulate here, the heart of the Cuban-American community in the U.S.” [USA Today, “Cuban consulate in Miami sparks debate,” 2/3/16]

Gomez: While It’s Understandable That Cuban-Americans Would Struggle With A Cuban Consulate In Miami, Resorting To Scare Tactics Isn’t. “I understand that many in Miami don't want a Cuban consulate down here. I've seen my own family, who fled Castro's revolution and haven't returned since, struggle with President Obama's decision to re-engage Cuba in hopes of affecting change there. The emotions are still too raw for that older generation of Cuban-Americans, the ones who had their homes confiscated, their loved ones incarcerated and their lives upended by Fidel Castro's regime. I can see why it would be difficult to stomach a building in their adopted hometown suddenly filled with Cuban government officials who now live in their old homes and drive their old cars. But what I can't understand is resorting to scare tactics to push away a Cuban consulate that would be incredibly helpful to tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans who regularly travel back to their homeland.” [USA Today, “Cuban consulate in Miami sparks debate,” 2/3/16] 

Miami Herald: PortMiami Looking At Ways To Launch Ferry Service To Cuba. “Interest in Cuba-bound ferries has been high enough at PortMiami that officials are looking for ways to create temporary terminals to accommodate operators wanting to launch overnight runs to Havana every day. Planning for a new passenger-and-cargo route to Cuba is detailed in hundreds of emails and internal documents obtained by the Miami Herald through Florida’s open-records laws. They show multiple ferry operators with newly secured licenses from Washington eager to lock down space at the port, which at one point was planning on the Cuba-bound vessels launching in March. The documents show a yearlong effort by PortMiami to get ready for what could be a significant new enterprise there. Industry leaders predict the ferry routes will be popular with Cuban-Americans not only visiting their homeland, but bringing large stores of goods from the U.S. for family on the island.” [Miami Herald, “PortMiami preparing for daily ferry service to Cuba,” 2/1/16] 

Industry Executives Say Cuban Government Slowing Down Ferry Service To Cuba. “There was significant momentum in May when the Obama administration issued Cuba-ferry licenses to United Caribbean and other operators in talks with Port Miami. But industry executives say the Castro regime is holding back the approvals and port construction needed to welcome ferries from the United States. ‘They told us they want to wait,’ Nierenberg said Monday of Cuban officials. ‘They decided in the fall there were other infrastructure projects they had to do first.” Nierenberg now expects U.S. ferries to be sailing to Havana by late 2016 or early 2017.” [Miami Herald, “PortMiami preparing for daily ferry service to Cuba,” 2/1/16]

The Washington Post’s Editorial Board Gets It Wrong On Cuba—Again 

Paul Pillar: Washington Post’s Editorial On Cuba Is Glaringly Flawed In Ignoring The Embargo’s Decades Of Failure. “With regard to Cuba, this deficiency of the argumentation is even more glaring because the alternative to Mr. Obama's opening—i.e., a continued attempt to isolate and ostracize Cuba—has had an enormously long time to show what it can, or cannot do. In fact, it's had half a century to show that; the United States instituted a full economic embargo on Cuba in 1962. The U.S. embargo and attempted isolation of Cuba are the archetype of a failed policy. That policy has failed to bring about hoped-for change either small (the Post editorial talks about rates for wi-fi service in Cuba) or large (fundamental political change in the Castro regime) or much in between (including various human rights issues). The inconsistency of the standards being applied in the editorial, as far as time and expectations are concerned, is ludicrously large.” [The National Interest, “Inconsistent impatience on Cuba,” 2/1/16] 

Pillar: The Slowness Of Change Is An Indictment Of The Continuing Embargo, Not Normalization. “The big, important condition regarding U.S.-Cuban relations is that the economic embargo is still in effect. The Obama administration has been limited to changes it can make through executive action; the embargo stays in effect as long as a majority in Congress refuses to end it. When the Post editorial writers complain about meager Cuban purchases of U.S. goods and little evidence of opportunities coming to the private sector in Cuba, that is properly considered an indictment of the continuing embargo rather than, as the editorial portrays it, a deficiency in the steps the administration has taken.” [The National Interest, “Inconsistent impatience on Cuba,” 2/1/16]

Concern Grows Over Afro-Cubans Being Excluded From Economic Reform In Cuba

Reuters: Lack Of Access To Capital And Remittances Leaving Afro-Cubans Behind In Cuba’s Economic Liberalization. “New hotels and restaurants are opening around the capital famous for its colonial architecture and 1950s American cars, and Cubans with money to invest in businesses have seen living standards improve. But with no access to capital, and no family living abroad to send back money, 54-year-old Perez said he and other black Cubans are being excluded from the benefits of economic liberalization. ‘The black people don't have powerful families, and that continues generation to generation,’ Perez, a musician and former soldier, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. ‘The people benefiting from remittances are white; the landlords are white.’ As capitalism creeps into Cuba more than 60 years after a revolution that promised social equality, local residents and analysts are concerned about the gap between the haves and have nots and the ethnic undertones of growing inequality on the island.” [Reuters, “In Cuba, racial inequality deepens with tourism boom,” 2/2/16]

The Nation: Cuba Preparing For Potential Zika Virus Outbreak

The Nation: Zika Virus Breaking Out In The Americas Is “Circling” Cuba. “Over in Cuba, Zika has yet to make an appearance. It’s circling. There have been cases in Haiti, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and other Caribbean islands. But for the last few years, well before the current Zika outbreak, Cuba’s Ministry of Public Health has been carrying out an aggressive ‘lucha antivectorial’ (anti-vector struggle) against the Aedes aegypti, with campaigns to fumigate and clean up the places where mosquitos breed and to monitor fevers. Cuba’s public-health campaigns are famous, and this one started specifically in response to an earlier regional outbreak of dengue and chikungunya.” [The Nation, “Zika Is Circling Cuba. What Will Happen When It Lands?” 2/2/16]

Spread Of Zika May Be Hastened By Tourists And “Explosion Of Plastic And Rubber Solid Waste” That Provides Ideal Breeding Grounds For Mosquitoes. “Maintaining public health is part of Havana’s broader socialist ethos, but also essential for its critical tourist industry. When dengue and chikungunya began to spread, the government stepped up its efforts at vector control, committed to contain any outbreak that might scare visitors away. Cuba finds itself trying to avoid the trap: Cuba needs tourists; tourists spread Zika; Zika scares away tourists. Another threat to Cuba’s public-health system is its increasing integration into the global political economy, which is accelerating due to improving relations with Washington. As Osterholm writes, the spread of Zika, and similar mosquito diseases, is made worse by ‘an explosion of plastic and rubber solid waste [that] now litters virtually all parts of the globe, particularly in the developing world. Non-biodegradable containers, used tires and discarded plastic bags and wrappers—whether in the backyard, a roadside ditch or an abandoned lot—make ideal habitats for these mosquitoes to lay their eggs. All they need is a little rainfall.’”[The Nation, “Zika Is Circling Cuba. What Will Happen When It Lands?” 2/2/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Treasury Department Announces Updated Regulations Allowing Americans To Profit From Musical Events In Cuba. “The United States Treasury Department has announced updated regulations that allow for American citizens to profit from musical events produced in Cuba. Previously, under the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Americans could perform on the island, but only if any concert profits were donated to an independent, non-governmental organization in Cuba, or a U.S. charity. Artists were also required to hold workshops and clinics for Cubans during their time on the island. Billboard has confirmed with the Treasury Department that under the new rules, an organizer can keep the money from musical events if they make a profit once production and logistical costs are met.” [Billboard, “Treasury Department Begins Allowing U.S. Citizens to Profit From Cuban Concerts,” 2/1/6]

U.S. Regulations Require American-Promoted Cultural Activities To Ensure That The Cuban Public Has Access To The Event. “The U.S. regulations still require promoters of concerts and other cultural activities to ensure that the Cuban public has access to the event, either free of charge or at a price, in Cuban pesos, that Cuban citizens can afford. Organizers may charge foreigners higher fees in dollars, either through ticket sales or incorporating concert fees into travel packages for educational trips that include attending the concert.”  [Billboard, “Treasury Department Begins Allowing U.S. Citizens to Profit From Cuban Concerts,” 2/1/6]