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#CubaNow Briefing: Yes to Guns, No to Chicken?

David Gomez

#CubaNow Briefing

May 27, 2016


An interesting development took place during President Obama’s recent trip to Asia that you may have missed. On Monday, the president announced the lifting of the arms embargo on Vietnam, along with over $16 billion in commercial agreements and the opening of Fulbright University Vietnam. Or to put it another way, a longstanding Cold War-era embargo on a Communist country—one with a troubling human rights record and a painful shared history with the U.S.—was brought to an end as part of fully normalizing relations.

You might think by the standards applied to U.S.-Cuba policy that certain members of Congress would respond with public denouncements and vows to reverse the changes. After all, if opening up embassies with Cuba is a “retreat” from freedom and democracy, surely critics like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) would find allowing the sale of lethal weapons a far more grievous offense. Yet, here is the senator’s scathing criticism:

“I support lifting the ban on arms sales to Vietnam.”


Without the dynamics of political opportunism that have historically revolved around the Cuban embargo, Sen. Graham’s position on dealing with one-party Communist states suddenly becomes devoid of heated rhetoric. The senator is not alone in his support, either. Fierce critics of normalization with Cuba like Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) have strongly pushed for ending the arms embargo. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ), no fan of the president’s other trip to a Communist country, proposed in 2014 that the U.S. “reconsider the arms embargo with Vietnam.” And the flurry of press releases from South Florida’s delegation that follow any action taken with Cuba have been conspicuously absent.

We have no stance on the decision to lift the Vietnam arms embargo itself. But rarely has there been a better opportunity to see the selective standard applied to Cuba. We hope these members of Congress have an answer for their constituents as to why selling lethal weaponry to Vietnam is good policy, but selling frozen chicken to Cuba on credit is a threat to freedom and democracy.

Elsewhere in Congress, efforts to lift the embargo gained serious steam this week as Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT) signed on to the Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act. That means legislation to repeal the travel ban is now officially cosponsored by over half the Senate. As Sen. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) claimed last March, “[if] we had that vote on the floor of the Senate tomorrow, we’d get well north of 60 votes.” The growing list of names on his legislation bears that out.

And on the Island itself, it would appear that the Cuban Communist Party congress last month had at least one more surprise in store. As the Associated Press reported earlier this week, the Cuban government is considering what could be a momentous reform by legalizing small and medium-sized private businesses.

While the details are still hazy, the proposed measure would recognize SMEs as legal entities separate from their owners, and make it easier for private Cuban businesses to import wholesale goods and export their own products and services. That’s a change Cubans have long waited for (recall the repairman interviewed recently in USA Today who was unable to import tools and had to use a hand-turned drill for his work instead).

If these changes were implemented, it would constitute one of the most sweeping economic reforms in Cuba to date. And granted, it is a very big “if.” But the very real fact that the Cuban government is proposing these reforms is a significant development in itself. Running a business in Cuba is hard: supplies are difficult to come by and many Cubans lack steady access to goods and remittances from abroad. Reforms aimed at addressing these obstacles could pull Cuba out of economic stagnation and slow a migration trend that is draining the country of its workforce. This is a promising development that we will be monitoring closely.

Thank you for your support and have a safe Memorial Day weekend,

David Gomez

Political Director, #CubaNow

Cuba Proposes Legalizing Small- And Mid-Sized Businesses

Cuba Announces “Master Plan” To Legalize Small And Medium-Sized Private Businesses. “Cuba announced Tuesday that it will legalize small and medium-sized private businesses, a move that could significantly expand the space allowed for private enterprise in one of the world's last communist countries. Until now, the government has allowed private enterprise only by self-employed workers in several hundred established categories like restaurant owner or hairdresser. Many of those workers have become de-facto small business owners employing other Cubans. But there are widespread complaints about the difficulties of running a business in a system that does not officially recognize them. Low-level officials often engage in crackdowns on successful businesses for supposed violations of the arcane rules on self-employment. Communist Party documents published Tuesday said a category of small, mid-sized and "micro" private business is being added to the party's master plan for social and economic development, which was approved by last month's Cuban Communist Party Congress. The twice-a-decade meeting sets the direction for the single-party state for the coming five years.” [AP, “Cuba to legalize small and medium-sized private businesses,” 5/24/16]

Despite “Harsh Rhetoric” At Party Congress, Cuba Appears To Be Taking Major Step Towards Economic Reform. “The 32-page party document is the first comprehensive accounting of the decisions taken by the party congress, which was closed to the public and international press. State media reported few details of the debate or decisions taken at the meeting but featured harsh rhetoric from leading officials about the continuing threat from U.S. imperialism and the dangers of international capitalism. That tough talk, it now appears, was accompanied by what could be a major step in Cuba's ongoing reform of its centrally planned economy. Any such change will take months to go into effect. Major reforms like allowing new forms of business almost certainly must be formally approved by the country's National Assembly, which is expected to hold one of its biannual meetings by August.” [AP, “Cuba to legalize small and medium-sized private businesses,” 5/24/16]

Reuters: Proposals Come After Raul Castro Recognized That Entrepreneurs Were Working “Without The Necessary Legal Recognition.” “Cuba will recognize small and medium-sized private firms as legal entities, a Communist Party document published on Tuesday showed, a move that could remove obstacles for businesses and foster the emerging private sector. Cuba's government has relaxed restrictions on self-employment in recent years in an attempt to slash the state payroll and battle economic stagnation, leading to the creation of many independent businesses from hairdressers to restaurants. President Raul Castro recognized however at the Communist Party Congress last month that such businesses were working ‘without the necessary legal recognition,’ under rules designed for small, family firms only.” [Reuters, “Cuba to legally recognize private firms in move bolstering market reforms,” 5/24/16]

WSJ: Cuban Government Underscores Positive Role Of Private Property In Proposed Reforms. “Cuba’s government said it would move to legalize thousands of small- and medium-size businesses that have sprung up in recent years, a step that could encourage more entrepreneurship in the hemisphere’s lone communist country. The government also underscored that private enterprise has a positive role to play in the island’s future, marking a change in tone after decades criticizing the free market as the work of U.S. imperialism. ‘Private property in certain means of production contributes to employment, economic efficiency and well-being, in a context in which socialist property relationships predominate,’ said in a 32-page document released Tuesday.” [Wall Street Journal, “Cuba Moves to Legalize Small- and Medium-Size Businesses,” 5/24/16]

Richard Feinberg: Reforms Could Give “All Sorts Of Rights And Capabilities That Are Critical To Running A Business.” “Ms. Placeres complained of very limited and expensive access to the Internet, critical to a business geared to foreign tourists; the scarcity of quality food in state-owned groceries; and shortages of plumbing and other supplies needed to maintain her 80-year-old building. The changes announced won’t immediately fix those problems. But they should enable private companies to open bank accounts, do business with state-owned enterprises and engage in international trade, according to Richard Feinberg, an economist at the University of California San Diego. The move should give entrepreneurs ‘all sorts of rights and capabilities that are critical to running a business,’ he said.” [Wall Street Journal, “Cuba Moves to Legalize Small- and Medium-Size Businesses,” 5/24/16]

Life In A Changing Cuba

“Cultural Backlash” In Cuba Forms In Response To “Onslaught Of Big-Money Pop Culture.” “The triple tsunami of global capitalism that pounded socialist Cuba this month has spawned a fierce debate about the downside of detente with the United States. Artists, writers and intellectuals who believe deeply in Cuba's opening to the world are questioning their government's management of an onslaught of big-money pop culture. On an island that prides itself on egalitarianism, sovereignty and its long record of outsize accomplishments in the arts, many are openly critiquing opaque deals with multinational corporations seeking picturesque backdrops for car chases and summer frocks. ‘The essence of the thing is that we're a country with a particular history that has a particular culture. We have to be conscious of those values and keep them in mind when it's time to negotiate,’ said Graziella Pogolotti, an 84-year-old cultural critic who wrote a long editorial in state media calling for deeper thinking about Cuba's dealing with international entertainment brands.” [AP, “Vin Diesel, Chanel spark cultural backlash in Cuba,” 5/20/16]

Cuban Critic Desiderio Navarro: “We’re Not In The 1930s Or ‘40s And We Mustn’t Repeat The Errors Of The Past.” “For some Cubans, the flashy spectacles recalled the pre-revolutionary days when wealthy Americans viewed Cuba as a sexy tropical playground, ignoring the problems of the people who lived on the island. Fidel Castro famously shut down the country's casinos and most sordid nightclubs when he came to power. ‘It's very important that we don't give the “Ugly American" reason to come back,’ said Desiderio Navarro, a widely respected critic and editor. ‘We're not in the 1930s or '40s and we mustn't repeat the errors of the past.’” [AP, “Vin Diesel, Chanel spark cultural backlash in Cuba,” 5/20/16]

Hugo Cancio: Cuba Is Evolving Into Something That Will Be Different From American Capitalism Or Pre-1959 Cuba. “I think it’s falling short. And I think that’s in part because there’s still an economic embargo. So there’s only a few categories approved by the Obama administration to do business in Cuba. On the Cuban side, they’re still picking and choosing who they do business with. You have got to understand that there’s been 56 years of hostilities between the two countries. And now American companies are rushing into Cuba – and learning that there is a lot of relationship to build, a lot of hardship and a lot of misunderstanding to brush aside. I also anticipate that the Cuba that will flourish in the near future is not where you will see a thousand McDonalds. It’s socialism evolving into something else, but it’s not going to be the kind of capitalist system we have in the United States – or the Cuba that existed prior to 1959. [WLRN, “Hugo Cancio, The Man Who Straddles The Straits, Tells U.S. Business To Learn Cuba,” 5/23/16]

Bipartisan Minnesota Delegation Urges Business Community To Keep Pushing For An End To The Embargo.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar And Rep. Tom Emmer Call On Business Leaders To Promote Ending The Embargo. “The Cuban trade embargo will almost surely not be lifted this year, but business leaders were urged Wednesday to keep promoting the benefits of selling to and buying from the U.S.’s southern neighbor. Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Rep. Tom Emmer sang a bipartisan chorus of support for lifting the half-century old ban on doing business in Cuba to a group of visiting Minnesota business leaders during a meeting in Klobuchar’s Capitol Hill office. Klobuchar and Emmer have sponsored bills in their respective chambers to open up commerce between Cuba and the U.S. But both acknowledged the difficulties of overcoming old battles with North America’s major communist regime and fending off new tirades against free trade in America’s 2016 presidential race.” [Minneapolis Star Tribune, “Keep pushing Cuban trade, Klobuchar and Emmer tell business leaders,” 5/25/16]

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu To Travel To Cuba As Part Of Mayoral Delegation. “Mayor Mitch Landrieu traveled to Cuba on Wednesday as part of a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the first trip the group has made to the island country since 1978. The visit comes as the United States is expanding its diplomatic relationships with Cuba, something New Orleans officials are hoping could boost trade through the city. ‘The city of New Orleans and Cuba share cultural and commercial connections that date back to our city’s founding in 1718,’ Landrieu said in a news release. ‘As the United States continues to increase diplomatic relations with Cuba, we remain poised to develop robust trade relations and cultural exchanges that will subsequently increase overall economic activity for our region.’” [The Advocate, “Mayor Mitch Landrieu travels to Cuba as New Orleans hopes for trade boost amid diplomatic thaw,” 5/25/16]

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon To Take Trade Mission To Cuba. “Gov. Jay Nixon will lead a delegation of Missourians on a trade mission to Cuba from Sunday to June 1, is office announced Tuesday. With the recent progress toward normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba, the trade mission will focus on growing Missouri farm exports to the island nation of 11 million. ‘The growth of Missouri exports has gone hand in hand with our revitalized economy,’ Nixon said in a statement. ‘Cuba represents a market of 11 million consumers that has been largely untouched by U.S. exports for more than 55 years. Missouri is moving forward to take advantage of this opportunity, particularly when it comes to rice, one of the staples of the Cuban diet.’” [Kansas City Star, “Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon to visit Cuba,” 5/24/16]

Lawyer Conference In Havana Cancelled Over Speech Concerns

Inter-American Bar Association Abruptly Relocates Annual Gathering From Havana, Citing Government Concerns Over Content. “An intercontinental association of lawyers in the Western Hemisphere has been forced to abandon plans to gather in Havana for its upcoming annual gathering. The reason, according to organizers, was the Cuban government’s concern about who would be speaking at the meeting and what they would say about the Communist regime and its allies in Venezuela.The Inter-American Bar Association informed its members this week that their meeting would now be in Miami. The abrupt venue change came after its president, Carlos Lopez, flew down to Havana Tuesday at the urgent request of Cuba’s government-sanctioned bar association, according to Mr. Lopez.” [Wall Street Journal, “International Lawyer Gathering in Cuba Abruptly Cancelled,” 5/20/16]

Cubans Continue To Migrate To The U.S., Fearful The Adjustment Act Will End

New York Times: Over 3,500 Cubans Have Made It To The U.S. Or Been Repatriated Since October. “Since President Obama renewed diplomatic ties with the island in December 2014, Cuba has undergone significant change. Airplane travel between Miami and Havana is booming. Cubans are expanding private microbusinesses with the help of stateside relatives. One thing that has not changed, however, is the desperation of Cubans to set sail in rickety boats for the United States — a sign that fears are increasing, not decreasing, as Cubans worry that protections, not available to other immigrants, offering them legal status are in danger of being rescinded. Since Oct. 1, more than 3,500 Cubans have either made it to the shores of the United States, allowing them to stay here legally, or been picked up at sea by the Coast Guard and sent home. The numbers arriving this year may reach numbers not seen since the balsero exodus of the 1990s.” [New York Times, “From Cuba to Miami by Providence and a Homemade Boat,” 5/23/16]

Cuban Migrants Motivated By Belief Congress Is Ready To Repeal Cuban Adjustment Act. “They come for two reasons. Life in Cuba remains incalculably difficult, especially for those outside the hustle and bustle of Havana. Freedom of expression remains severely limited, and wages can be as low as $16 to $22 a month. They are also motivated by panic. They believe that Congress is ready to repeal the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act, which gives Cubans a unique privilege — automatic residency one year and a day after their arrival in the country. Attempts at a repeal have so far been unsuccessful, but anti-immigrant sentiment in Washington makes it a possibility, especially because Cubans are now viewed here as economic, rather than political, migrants.” [New York Times, “From Cuba to Miami by Providence and a Homemade Boat,” 5/23/16]

Cuban-American Author Releases Book On Growing Up As An Exile In Minnesota

Cuban-American Author Marisella Veiga Pens Book On Assimilating In Minnesota After Leaving Cuba. “Cuban-American author Marisella Veiga first tried to tell the story of her Minnesota childhood eight years ago. She wasn’t ready. Her upbringing in the 1960s was all about suppressing the memory of her homeland and finding a foothold in her adoptive state — a mind-set that complicated the task of delving into the past. It took some soul-searching and an emotional return to Cuba to prepare the author to write about her years in Minnesota. The resulting book, ‘We Carry Our Homes With Us,’ from Minnesota Historical Society Press, came out earlier this spring, at a time of heightened interest in the Caribbean nation since the thaw in relations with the United States. ‘The process of assimilating and acculturating can be really painful,’ said Veiga, a poet, writer and writing instructor who now lives in Florida. ‘The loss of the homeland is a major trauma.’” [Minneapolis Star-Tribune, “Cuban-American author Marisella Veiga revisits her childhood in 1960s Minnesota,” 5/20/16]

¡No Me Digas!

A Look At How Obama And Pánfilo Connected Ahead Of The President’s Visit To Cuba. “When White House officials were brainstorming about how to establish a connection between the Cuban people and President Barack Obama earlier this year, the winning answer was ‘Pánfilo.’ Pánfilo, a comedian, is the star of the highest-rated show in Cuba. If there was a vehicle that would give the president maximum exposure in the living room of Cubans across the island, it was through Pánfilo, officials decided. ‘When I first arrived in Cuba 18 months ago, everybody was talking about Pánfilo,’ said Jeff DeLaurantis, current chargé d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in a behind-the-scenes video obtained exclusively by Fox News Latino. ‘I started tuning in myself and he comments on the way on the way of life and different difficulties that people have but in a way that everyone can relate to.’ That led to a first segment, taped and aired before Obama's historic arrival in Havana, in which Pánfilo, an elderly quirky character who is played by actor Luis Silva, calls the White House to speak with Obama.” [Fox News Latino, “Behind-the-scenes video about Obama’s skit with Cuba’s top comedian,” 5/20/16]