CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: A Congressman and City Councils—Cooler Heads in Cuba

The last two weeks have seen a number of setbacks in the fight for engagement. This week, things took a turn for the better.

On October 14, Representative Mark Takano (CA-41) became the first U.S. Member of Congress to visit Cuba in the aftermath of the State Department’s announcement that it would shrink its diplomatic mission in Havana and reciprocally expel Cuban diplomats from the U.S. He is also the first Member of Congress to directly engage with Cuban officials in Havana since President Trump’s June announcement that he would instruct his administration to increase restrictions on trade with and travel to Cuba. Rep. Takano traveled on a delegation organized by CDA to advance dialogue and mutual exchange between U.S. and Cuban LGBTQ communities.

At the same time, a delegation of City Council members from the Florida cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg were in Havana, the first such official trips by a council in either city. That members from the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, which is home to the third largest Cuban American population in the U.S. behind Miami and New York City, were willing to vote in favor of a trip to strengthen U.S.-Cuba ties shows how far support for engagement has come.

Following their trips, Rep. Takano and the chairs of both the Tampa and St. Petersburg City Councils all expressed dismay at recent cutbacks to diplomatic missions, and voiced their support for closer U.S.-Cuba ties moving forward.

The visits are a marker of how officials from our government should interact—with a focus on mutual respect and collaboration.

They also came on a noteworthy date, as this week marks the 55th anniversary of U.S. spy planes photographing missile launch sites under construction in Cuba, thus sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis. Rising above the hysteria around him, President John F. Kennedy opened channels of communication with the Soviet Union, and ultimately the threat of war receded. Despite the fear it provoked, the Crisis is remembered as a time where an escalation of threats was ultimately solved by diplomacy and steady leadership. In other words, cooler heads prevailed.

On Monday, we were shown what impulsivity from the Executive Branch looks like, when President Trump stated, “I do believe Cuba is responsible” for mysterious symptoms suffered by U.S. diplomats, despite the fact that the U.S. has yet to conclude its investigation into what happened. The words reportedly sparked the State Department to send a cable to all overseas posts saying that it has “not assigned blame to the Government of Cuba.” The President’s comment was as unproductive as it was rash.

At this crucial moment, it is pivotal that our leaders be able to step back and see the bigger picture. As Rep. Takano said Wednesday, “By … accusing the Cuban government of harming American visitors without providing any evidence to that effect, the President is hurting entrepreneurs in Cuba’s growing private sector, as well as Americans with Cuban relatives, and American businesses with investments on the island.” Like the Representative from California, we believe that “direct engagement remains the most effective tool” for solving differences between our two countries.

The visits to Havana by Takano and the Tampa and St. Petersburg City Councils are a tangible reminder of how engagement brings our people closer together, and show us that the spirit of engagement wears on.

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This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

U.S. congressman visits Cuba, a first since policy shift announcement

U.S. Representative Mark Takano (CA-41) traveled to Havana this week, becoming the first Member of Congress to visit Cuba since President Trump announced in July that he would limit trade with and travel to the country. The visit, which was organized by CDA and primarily revolved around advancing dialogue on LGBTQ issues, came just two weeks after the State Department announced it would cut staff the U.S. and Cuban Embassies in each other’s capitals.

Rep. Takano, the first openly gay person of color elected to serve in Congress, met with representatives from Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, Ministry of Health, and National Center for Sex Education, as well as members of Cuban civil society. He was accompanied by a delegation of U.S. leaders in LGBTQ and public health issues.

In a statement on the trip, Rep. Takano said, “Direct engagement remains the most effective tool for bringing positive change to Cuba. The improving situation for the country’s LGBT population is a sign that such progress is possible. I am concerned that the [Trump] Administration’s heated rhetoric and hasty actions will do lasting damage to the Cuban people.”

Tampa, St. Petersburg city councils send delegation to Cuba

A delegation of city council members from the Florida cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg traveled to Cuba this week, meeting with government officials and expressing their support for continued engagement between the U.S. and Cuba.

The delegation met with representatives from Cuba’s Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment; Ministry of Transportation; and Ministry of Foreign Relations, and visited the Special Economic Development Zone at the Port of Mariel, according to Granma. Local 10, South Florida’s ABC syndicate, reports the group also discussed natural disaster preparation and recovery, as well as sea life conservation; additionally, the chairs of each city council, Yvonne Yolie Capin for Tampa and Darden Rice for St. Petersburg, made statements criticizing recent Trump administration actions to limit U.S.-Cuba engagement.

The trip was the first official delegation by either city’s council to Cuba, and came after each council voted in June to accept an invitation from Cuba’s Ambassador to the U.S. José Ramon Cabañas to visit the island.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations July 16. You can find the Cuba Central Team’s comprehensive overview of what we do and don’t know about the President’s Cuba policy at this link.

In Cuba

UN report downgrades 2017 economic growth projection for Cuba

An October update to a report on Cuba’s economy by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) shows a lowered projection for Cuba’s GDP growth this year, down to 0.5 percent from 1 percent. ECLAC’s estimates are historically similar to the numbers ultimately published by Cuba’s government.

The report does not give a reason for the downgrade, but analyst Pedro Monreal writes that lower-than-expected rates of foreign investment and second semester declines in international nickel, sugar, and oil prices are likely to blame for the drop. The updated ECLAC report projects that Cuba’s economy will also grow by 0.5 percent in 2018.

In July, Ricardo Cabrisas, Cuba’s minister of the economy and planning, told Cuba’s National Assembly that the country’s GDP grew by 1.1 percent in the first six months of 2017, and was on pace to grow 2 percent across the year, as the Associated Press reported at the time. Last year, Cuba’s economy shrank by 0.9 percent, due in large part to a reduction in subsidized oil shipments from Venezuela, a chronic lack of hard currency, and foreign debt repayments amounting to $5 billion.

Cuba makes Paris Club debt payment

Cuba has made a payment of $60 million on its $2.6 billion debt to the Paris Club, a group of foreign creditor nations including France, Japan, and Spain, Reuters reports.

The Club agreed last year to forgive $8.5 billion of the then-$11.1 billion debt Cuba collectively owed the nations, in exchange for priority access to foreign investment projects on the Caribbean island. Cuba made an initial $40 million payment on the debt in October 2016.

In his July speech to the National Assembly, Mr. Cabrisas raised concerns that Cuba’s lack of hard cash prevented it from settling its unpaid debts, which in turn prevented international vendors from selling Cuba goods on credit.

Cuba’s agricultural production down, report shows

Production of key, non-sugar agricultural crops in Cuba declined in the first half of 2017, and is expected to decrease further due to the effects of Hurricane Irma, Reuters reports.

According to data from Cuba’s National Office of Statistics, Cuban farmers harvested fewer tubers, citrus, and beans in the first semester of 2017 than in the corresponding period in 2016. Production of rice and vegetables slightly increased.

The full effects of Hurricane Irma on the agricultural sector remain to be seen, but the storm left fields flooded and crops destroyed. According to Granma, Irma damaged 300,000 hectares of sugarcane crops and 40 percent of sugar refineries in Cuba. Cuba harvested 436,000 hectares of sugarcane in 2015, the last year for which data was available.

Cuba to offer in-home Wi-Fi in seven Havana neighborhoods

ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications agency, will expand its in-home Wi-Fi program, Nauta Hogar, to include seven Havana neighborhoods, CubaDebate reports. Service in Havana was previously limited to the Old Havana neighborhood.

According to CubaDebate, by the end of October, Nauta Hogar will be offered to Cubans living in East Havana, Central Havana, and Miramar, among other areas. The program has rapidly expanded since the completion of a pilot project for in-home service in February; last month, ETECSA announced that it would offer Nauta Hogar for some Cubans living in the cities of Pinar del Río, Viñales, Las Tunas, Holguín, Bayamo, Guantánamo, and Baracoa. Prior to September, the program was available only in Havana, where over 600 Cubans have purchased contracts for service.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Israel’s Latin America Chamber of Commerce to visit Cuba

The Israel-Latin America Chamber of Commerce will take a group of Israeli business executives to Cuba in December, the first such trip by the Chamber, the Times of Israel reports. Israel and Cuba have not had normal diplomatic relations since 1973, and Israel is the only country that has consistently joined the United States in opposing the annual UN Resolution on ending the U.S. embargo against Cuba. (Both the U.S. and Israel abstained from the vote in 2016, a first for either country.)

According to the Times, the delegation will include 15-20 executives working in areas including agriculture, pharmaceutics, and renewable energy.

Israel does not have restrictions on trade with Cuba, but according to data from Cuba’s National Office of Statistics, the two exchanged just $21 million worth of goods in 2016.

What We’re Reading

Emily Mendrala in Cuba Posible

CDA Executive Director Emily Mendrala writes that “Policies of engagement remain in the best interests of the U.S. and Cuban people.”

Punishing Without Evidence: The Trump Administration’s Gratuitous Steps To Roll Back Progress Between The United States And Cuba, Senator Patrick Leahy, Huffington Post

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy writes in the Huffington Post writes that recent State Department actions to punish Cuba are premature and counterproductive, as the U.S. has not yet concluded its investigation into attacks on diplomats in Havana.

Bewilderment for Cuban migrants over paperwork in Colombia [in Spanish], Mario J. Pentón, El Nuevo Herald

El Nuevo Herald’s Mario Pentón writes that Cubans are concerned about the logistical and economic burdens thrust upon them by the State Department’s decision to reroute all Havana visa applications through the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá.

Cuba After Castro: The Coming Elections and a Historic Changing of the Guard, William M. LeoGrande, World Politics Review

William LeoGrande, Professor of Government at American University, writes that Cuba’s current election cycle, which will culminate in Raúl Castro stepping down from the presidency, comes at a critical political and economic moment for the country.

What We’re Watching

Cubans Speak: On Separated Families, Cuba Educational Travel

Cuba Educational Travel profiles Irina Garcia Iglesias, a Cuban lawyer whose mother and brothers live in the U.S. Garcia discusses her fear that the decision to suspend the processing of visas at the U.S. Embassy in Havana will prevent her from seeing her family.

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