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#CubaNow Briefing: Time Is On Our Side

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

Mar 4, 2016


The legendary Rolling Stones announced this week that they would play a free concert in Cuba, one scheduled just days after President Obama’s visit and a “landmark” performance set to be the biggest show on the Island since the Peace Without Borders concert in 2009. It’s a marked difference from the days when just playing The Beatles was prohibited, and an event that will also bring top-quality musical instruments to Cuba’s many talented artists.

They might be a British rock band, but the Stones’ concert is another sign that Cuba’s gradual opening to the U.S. and the rest of the world is a trend that is quickly becoming harder to reverse. With the additional announcement that President Obama will also attend an exhibition baseball game between the Tampa Bay Rays and Cuba’s national team, and the enthusiastic push for more commercial flights to Cuba, the U.S. and Cuba are increasingly sealing the “normal” in normalized relations. And this progress is already resulting in visible changes, as William LeoGrande wrote in the New York Times:

“Engagement has already borne some fruit. Expanding commercial relations are reinforcing the economic liberalization that began in Cuba in 2011. Internet access is growing. Debate within Cuban civil society about the island’s economic and political future is more robust than ever. As Mr. Obama’s deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, who negotiated the 2014 agreements, noted, ‘We see everything that we’re doing as being in the net positive for the lives and human rights of the Cuban people.’”

Given these changes, the idea of Congress or the next president rolling things back to where they were before “D-17” has become more dubious over time. It is difficult to imagine the next president cutting off over two years of increased commercial and diplomatic ties with little explanation beyond their reiterated support for a failed embargo. Perhaps that is why Cuba has yet to come up in the many, many election debates this season. Perhaps that is why the Miami Herald, in their endorsement of Sen. Marco Rubio for the Republican presidential primary, still took time to note their disagreement with him over his position on Cuba policy. And perhaps that is why the senator, rather than addressing the debate over Cuba on the national stage, still resorts to using arcane Senate maneuvers to block the nominations of those who served their country in U.S.-Cuba talks.

But we could be wrong. With the Florida primary less than two weeks away and the next GOP debate next week in Miami, it will be interesting to see how candidates approach the issue of post-normalization Cuba. Will they follow the lead of a Cuban-American community increasingly supportive of diplomatic ties, or resort to attacking the new policy with platitudes about an embargo that no longer has the support of either major political party? Those expecting to win going with the latter option might find…you can’t always get what you want.

Thank you for your support,

David Gomez
Political Director, #CubaNow

Kerry Cancels Trip To Cuba

Secretary Of State John Kerry Cancels Trip To Cuba, Unable To Nail Down Agenda. "Mr. Kerry told lawmakers last month he had planned to go to Cuba during the first two weeks of March for a human-rights dialogue. The State Department began preparations for that trip to take place on Friday, but the U.S. and Cuba couldn’t nail down an agenda, including for Mr. Kerry’s plans to meet with civil society members, the U.S. official said. 'The secretary is still interested in visiting in the near future, and we are working with our Cuban counterparts and our embassy to determine the best time frame,' State Department spokesman John Kirby said." [WSJ, “Kerry Won’t Visit Cuba Before Obama’s Trip,” 3/3/16]

Rolling Stones Announce They’ll Play In Cuba

Rolling Stones To Play Free Show In Havana. “The Rolling Stones are set to play Cuba this Easter, the band have confirmed. The Stones will perform in Havana at Ciudad Deportiva, a sports complex built in 1957. The news was announced in the country’s official newspaper Granmawhich said the concert would be ‘a historic moment that will open the doors for other great bands to arrive in Havana’. It will be the first open air concert in the country by a British rock band. In a statement, the group said: ‘We have performed in many special places during our long career but this show in Havana is going to be a landmark event for us, and, we hope, for all our friends in Cuba too.’” [The Guardian, “Rolling Stones confirm they will play Cuba at Easter,” 3/1/16]

The Stones Will Play In A Cuba That Once Banned The Beatles From Being Played. “Many of the Rolling Stones’ Cuban contemporaries could only listen to smuggled rock tapes or records in the 1960s and 1970s. Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro himself balked at what he saw as the crass consumerism and decadent influence of Western rock and banned Beatles’ recordings in 1964. One Havana woman, now in her fifties, recalls listening to her one Beatles records in her bedroom with her girlfriends all gathered around and the volume turned very low. But by 2000 and even before all that had been forgotten and forgiven by Cuba’s leaders. With All You Need is Love playing in the background, Fidel Castro himself unveiled a life-sized bronze statue of John Lennon in a Havana park on the 20th anniversary of Lennon’s death on Dec. 8, 2000.” [Miami Herald, “Rolling Stones to rock Cuba in free concert,” 3/1/16]

The Stones Will Also Spearhead “Musician To Musician Initiative” Aimed At Donating Musical Instruments To Cuban Musicians. “Dubbed the ‘Concert for Amity,’ it will cap the band's ongoing ‘America Latina Ole’ of South America and be recorded for posterity by a team directed by Paul Dugdale, the statement said. The concert venue, which seats 15,000 and is home to Cuba's national volleyball team, is a 30 minute drive from the grim Combinado del Este prison from which 53 dissidents were released in January as part of a deal with the U.S. aimed at normalizing relations between the two countries. The Stones are also spearheading a ‘musician to musician initiative’ aimed at getting donated top quality instruments like Gibson and Gretsch guitars, as well as other gear like Zildjian cymbals and Pearl drums, into the hands of Cuba's talented but equipment-challenged musicians.” [NBC News, “The Rolling Stones to Play March 25 Show in Havana, Cuba,” 3/1/16]

Cuba’s Future In The Pictures Up To The Cuban Government

Cuba’s Potential To Become A Regular Hollywood Location Depends On Ongoing Filming Difficulties. “And the shoot, starring Don Cheadle and Kristen Bell, wrapped last month as part of a once-unimaginable surge of interest that could transform communist Cuba into a regular Hollywood location — or fade rapidly because of the difficulty of working on the island. A year after Presidents Raul Castro and Barack Obama declared detente, the mega-franchise ‘Fast and Furious’ is awaiting U.S. and Cuban permission to shoot its eighth installment in Havana, and there is talk of a major U.S. car commercial being shot here, too. Actor Ethan Hawke said he wants to make a film in Cuba. And ‘Papa,’ an Ernest Hemingway biopic approved before the detente was announced, premiered in Havana in December.” [AP, “Filming in Cuba under détente, 3/1/16]

Filming In Cuba Still Requires Script Approval From The Cuban Government. “The producers of both ‘House of Lies’ and other productions shot in Cuba said the 55-year-old U.S. trade embargo posed the primary obstacle to U.S. entertainment companies’ hopes to turn the island into a tropical backdrop. But Cuban difficulties, in particular, could also prevent U.S. productions from regularly working on the island. The Cuban government demands script approval, only accepting productions that put the country in a good light. There are so few international-quality hotel rooms that Cuba-based producers regularly cancel shoots for lack of beds for cast and crew members.” [AP, “Filming in Cuba under détente, 3/1/16]

Cuban Sports In The World Spotlight

President Obama To Attend Exhibition Game Between The Tampa Bay Rays And The Cuban National Team. “The Tampa Bay Rays will travel to Cuba to play the Cuban National Team in an exhibition game on March 22, and U.S. President Barack Obama is expected to be in attendance. ‘Americans and Cubans share a love of baseball, and this is yet another powerful reminder of the kinship between our peoples as well as the progress we can achieve when we leverage those natural ties,’ a White House official said Tuesday. The announcement of the president's planned attendance was first made on SportsCenter. The game will be televised on ESPN and ESPN Deportes. SportsCenter and Outside the Lines begin live coverage March 20 of the Rays' trip to Havana.” [ESPN, “President Obama expected to attend Rays-Cuba exhibition game,” 3/1/16]

Maykel Reyes Becomes First Professional Cuban Football Player In Over Half A Century. “The obscurity of Mexican football's third division is not exactly the place to start a revolution but Cuban football fans are hoping one began there on Saturday. When Cuban international Maykel Reyes played the second half for Cruz Azul Premier that day, he made history. In front of 300 fans in the city of Texcoco, the 22-year-old became the first Cuban professional in more than half a century to play football with the backing of his government. Since the concept of signing a professional sports contract was outlawed by Fidel Castro's communist regime in 1961, Cuban footballers who have played professionally have done so without the blessing of the country's football association. ‘It is historic because of the motivational boost it will give to new generations of Cuban players,’ Mario Lara, a Cuban football historian, told CNN.” [CNN, “Cuban revolution: Cuba embraces pro soccer after years out in the cold,” 3/1/16]

Facing Low International Rankings, Cuba Changed Regulations On Players Signing Contracts—Three Years Ago. “The problem was that Cuba's national side refuses to field those players who have defected. However, a team currently lying 139th in the FIFA rankings needs to expose its players to foreign leagues to improve. So as part of the Caribbean island's increasing westernization, regulations were changed three years ago to allow locals to sign professional sports contracts overseas -- just so long as taxes were paid back to the Cuban government on any income. Nevertheless, the deal seemed too good to be true, which partly explains why no player had taken advantage of the amendment until now.” [CNN, “Cuban revolution: Cuba embraces pro soccer after years out in the cold,” 3/1/16]

MLB Submits Plan To Treasury Department Seeking “Safe Passage” For Cuban Players To Sign Directly With Pro Teams. “Major League Baseball is in discussions with the US government to try and alleviate human trafficking associated with Cuban athletes defecting to play baseball in the United States. MLB has submitted a proposal to the Treasury Department which would allow Cuban players to sign directly with pro teams, MLB lawyer Dan Halem said in a report published on the league's website on Wednesday. There has been increased pressure recently on MLB and the White House to create a way to allow for safe passage for players from the communist-ruled island to the US leagues. Approximately 125 prospects have left Cuba in the past 20 months seeking contracts, a report on the league's website said.” [AFP, “MLB seeks safe passage for Cuban players,” 3/3/16]

Sen. Marco Rubio Continues Holding U.S.-Mexico Relations Hostage Over Cuba

Reuters: Rubio’s Continued Blocking Of Ambassador To Mexico Fueling Concerns About The State Of U.S.-Mexico Relations. “Republican presidential hopeful Marco Rubio has no plans to allow a vote on President Barack Obama's nominee to be ambassador to Mexico, a spokesman said on Thursday, despite calls from his fellow Republicans and Democrats in the Senate to let her confirmation move ahead. The long delay in confirming career diplomat Roberta Jacobson has contributed to concerns about the state of U.S.-Mexico relations fueled by aggressive rhetoric against its citizens in the race to be the 2016 Republican nominee. Three Democratic and one Republican U.S. senator held a news conference on Thursday calling for her nomination to move ahead. There has been no U.S. ambassador in Mexico City for nine months. Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has labeled Mexicans drug runners and rapists and called for a massive wall along the border. Rubio and fellow Republican Senator Ted Cruz have also proposed building a wall.” [Reuters, “No sign of end to fight on U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Rubio holds firm,” 3/3/16]

Rubio Blocked Jacobson Over Her Work On Normalizing U.S. Relations With Cuba. “Obama nominated Jacobson in June. She has faced resistance from Rubio and some other lawmakers, however, for reasons including her role in helping negotiate Obama's easing of relations with Communist-ruled Cuba and what they say is the administration's failure to prioritize human rights. Rubio, a Cuban-American from Florida, has been a leading opponent of the policy, saying Havana should improve its rights record before trade and travel restrictions are eased. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved Jacobson's nomination in November, with Republican and Democratic support. But Rubio has been blocking her, under a Senate rule allowing any member to "hold" a nomination indefinitely.” [Reuters, “No sign of end to fight on U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Rubio holds firm,” 3/3/16]

Zika Virus Arrives In Cuba

Cuba Announces First Diagnosed Case Of Zika Virus. “Cuba announced Wednesday that it had detected the first case of the Zika virus on the island, which had been one of the last nations in the Western Hemisphere free of the disease. The Ministry of Health said in state media that a 28-year-old Venezuelan post-doctoral student in gastroenterology arrived in the country Feb. 21 and a day later came down a high fever and rash. The government says the woman was under medical quarantine in Artemisa province outside Havana with other newly arrived doctors when her symptoms were detected.” [AP, “Cuba Announces First Case Of Zika, Imported From Venezuela,” 3/2/16]

Cuban Authorities And Health Workers Launching Intense Fumigation Campaign Against Disease-Carrying Mosquitos. “President Raul Castro announced Feb. 22 that the country was militarizing its fight to kill disease-carrying mosquitos, assigning 9,000 soldiers to spray for the insects nationwide. Since then, soldiers, police and health workers have launched an intense door-to-door effort to fumigate for mosquitos. Gaps had been increasingly obvious in the effort to spray homes and businesses for the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which has infected thousands of Cubans with the dengue virus and dozens with chikungunya, a disease that causes fever and severe joint pain. Cubans frequently claimed allergies or asthma to put off fumigation crews composed of public health workers and teenagers completing obligatory military service. Those days appear to be ending as troops deployed across the country with hand-held foggers are now armed with the threat of fines for anyone who resists fumigation and fog-spraying trucks and small airplanes are blanketing the capital and other cities with white clouds of pesticide.” [AP, “Cuba Announces First Case Of Zika, Imported From Venezuela,” 3/2/16]

Analyzing President Obama’s Approach To Cuba

Cuba Expert William LeoGrande: Critics May Attack Cuba Policy, But The Cuban People Overwhelmingly Support It. “While critics denounce engagement as a betrayal of the Cuban people, the Cuban people themselves overwhelmingly support it. Anyone who was in Cuba, as I was, on Dec. 17, 2014, can testify to the jubilation with which they greeted the announcement. People applauded, hugged one another and cried. Church bells rang across Havana. In April 2015, an independent poll on the island found that 97 percent of the 1,200 Cubans sampled thought better relations with the United States would be good for Cuba. And lest anyone think people were afraid to speak honestly, the poll also found that Mr. Obama was more popular than either Fidel or Raúl Castro (80 percent positive and only 17 percent negative, as compared with 50 percent negative for Fidel and 48 percent negative for Raúl). Mr. Obama can expect a warm welcome in Havana. [New York Times Op-Ed, “Obama’s Long Game for Cubans’ Rights, 3/2/16]

LeoGrande: Dissidents Who Support Engagement See Unique Opportunity To Help Cubans. “The political activist Antonio Rodiles has argued that American sanctions failed because they were ‘anemically imposed.’ But the dissident community is not monolithic. Miriam Leiva, one of the founders of Ladies in White, a group of women related to jailed dissidents, applauded Mr. Obama’s policy as ‘a unique opportunity to assist the Cuban people.’ Elizardo Sánchez, who founded the Cuban Committee for Human Rights and National Reconciliation and reports monthly about political arrests, also endorsed engagement, saying, ‘It’s better to resolve differences in this way, not to make war, either cold or hot.’” [New York Times Op-Ed, “Obama’s Long Game for Cubans’ Rights, 3/2/16]

President Obama Is Betting Engagement Will Create A More Open Cuba Than A Failed Policy Of “Making Imperious Demands And Issuing Ultimatums.” “In short, human rights has never been off the agenda of Mr. Obama’s Cuba policy, but experience has taught him that making imperious demands and issuing ultimatums did nothing to advance the cause. Instead, he is playing a long game, knowing that his strategy of engagement and persistent persuasion will not produce dramatic change overnight. Still, the president is gambling that his formula will create the conditions that draw Cuba inexorably toward a more open body politic and economy. All gambles are uncertain, of course. But the president is on to something: Engagement has a better chance than the policy of hostility, which has been a losing bet for more than half a century.” [New York Times Op-Ed, “Obama’s Long Game for Cubans’ Rights, 3/2/16]

Chris Sabatini: If President Obama Doesn’t Use His Trip To Speak Directly To The Cuban People, It Would Mar The Very Legacy He Seeks To Leave. “The mere fact of a President going to a country isn’t a Good Housekeeping seal of approval of a government’s behavior. Instead, it can be used to send a strong signal of solidarity with local citizens, rather than an endorsement of the receiving government. If it’s done right. If the President doesn’t use the trip as an opportunity to speak directly to the Cuban people it will not just be a lost opportunity, it will be a stain on the Cuba legacy that he so desperately wants to leave.” [Latin America Goes Global, “Obama and Cuba: Should he stay or should he go,” 3/1/16]

Sabatini: Obama Would Do Better Employing Subtle Diplomacy In Getting His Message Across. “That doesn’t mean publicly harassing or squeezing specific concessions from the Cuban government before or after the trip. In fact, as anyone who has worked with Cubans can tell you, trying to do so would fail publicly and miserably. One of the things the Cuban government most wants to get out this trip is to be treated with respect—and after decades of name calling and ridiculous plots to invade their country by proxy, kill their leader, sow discontent, and even kill innocent Cuban citizens (all plans either hatched by the U.S. or former CIA operatives)—one can understand the importance they place on it. Rather than publicly lecturing Cuban officials about democracy, the President needs to deal in subtle messages and gestures to the Cuban officials and, most importantly, to the Cuban people anxious to see and potentially meet not only a U.S. president but the first U.S. black president.” [Latin America Goes Global, “Obama and Cuba: Should he stay or should he go,” 3/1/16]

¡No Me Digas!

Major U.S. Airlines Have Applied For More Flights Than Will Be Available. “The major U.S. airlines have signed up to fly to Cuba. American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and JetBlue have all submitted applications to the U.S. government to fly commercial flights to Cuba. They're asking for so many flights, that the requests exceed the government cap. The government will allow 20 daily round-trip flights between the U.S. and Havana and 10 daily round-trips to nine other Cuban cities with international airports. The Department of Transportation is expected to make a decision on the flights this summer.” [CNNMoney, “U.S. airlines sign up for commercial flights to Cuba,” 3/3/16]