CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: Calling Rex Tillerson

Where do things stand with the Trump Administration and U.S.-Cuba relations?

Recall that President Trump and Vice President Pence made clear, as candidates, that without concessions from Cuba’s government, they would reverse President Obama’s major changes in U.S.-Cuba relations on Day One. This threat continues to rattle Cubans.

President Raúl Castro, speaking in January, made clear that no one should expect Cuba to “renounce its ideals of independence and social justice or abandon any of our principles, or give in an inch in the defense of our national sovereignty.”

Even though the battle has yet to be joined, we’ve seen this array of forces before: the immutable force of Washington’s demands for existential changes in Cuba’s system poised to collide with the immovable object of Cuban sovereignty.

To be clear, we are 43 days in and the administration has made no changes to the policy. We’re not trying to jinx that. We’re trying to understand it. The administration is going out of its way to honor campaign promises. It is stocked with embargo defenders. Key leaders in Congress support rolling back travel and trade reforms and beefing up programs to take down Cuba’s system of government. We expected to be disappointed and playing defense much sooner.

One explanation could be disarray in the foreign policy machinery. As we discussed last week, the President has his second National Security Advisor in his young administration. The White House fired Craig Deare, its senior national security advisor on the Western Hemisphere, just two weeks ago. The Washington Post is asking, “Where in the world is Secretary of State Rex Tillerson?” and gamely reporting that “Tillerson’s diplomacy has been conducted out of sight.” This is the man in charge of the Trump administration review of Cuba policy.

The State Department, according to The Atlantic’s Julia Ioffe, has the comparative feel of a ghost town. She writes, “There hasn’t been a State Department press briefing, once a daily ritual, since the new administration took over five weeks ago.” Observing that the briefings are not just for journalists, Ioffe says the silence from the State Department podium deprives U.S. diplomats all over the world of a “crucial set of cues…With no daily messaging, and almost no guidance from Washington, people in far-flung posts are flying blind even as the pace of their diplomacy hasn’t abated.”

For a host of reasons that go beyond our interest in Cuba, it is unfortunate that we don’t have in place the traditional structures to mediate or understand what is happening with U.S. foreign policy.

The President, in his Inaugural Address, kicked the concept of sovereignty into play when he said, “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world – but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

This week, in his first Joint Session of Congress address, he revisited this subject in much the same way. “We will respect historic institutions, but we will also respect the sovereign rights of nations. Free nations are the best vehicle for expressing the will of the people – and America respects the right of all nations to chart their own path.”

At the same time, in the Trump administration’s forthcoming FY2018 budget request, the White House is proposing a 30 percent cut in State Department funding and a 40 percent cut in USAID funding to help prioritize a sharp increase in defense spending. Priorities which have prompted some critics to call the President an “isolationist” or a “militarist.”

Again this week, in what the Washington Post described as a “sharp break from U.S. trade policy,” the Trump administration said it may ignore “certain rulings by the World Trade Organization if those decisions infringe on U.S. sovereignty.”

If sovereignty is the defining principle of Trump administration foreign policy, that is resonant with implications for the Page One issue of Russia and for our principle concern, Cuba.

In an article published last year by Vox, Fiona Hill, a former U.S. national intelligence officer for Russia, examined the motivation behind President Putin’s campaign to hack the U.S. elections. Ms. Hill wrote, “Putin wants the United States and other Western governments to stop funding, as part of their foreign policies, organizations that promote political and economic transformations in Russia. He also wants to block US officials from meeting with opposition figures and parties. From Putin’s perspective, democracy promotion is just a cover for regime change.”

Most Americans don’t like Russia’s interference in our democratic process. This isn’t about moral equivalence: it’s natural for people to want to protect their nation’s governance from outside interference. While it may be a permanent part of our national character to preach to others about the value of our system – and it has value – it is something entirely different to try and impose it on others. This is where we hope the Trump doctrine’s devotion to sovereignty extends.

The U.S. has a long history of trying to overthrow the Cuban system through measures that included the Bay of Pigs invasion, covert operations, efforts of the kind that landed Alan Gross, the former USAID subcontractor, in a Cuban prison for five years, and more. President Obama’s Cuba policy put an end to most of that. Now, advisors to the new administration, such as José Cárdenas, who testified before Congress this week, want President Trump to exert economic pressure on the Cubans and bring the old policies back. The administration will probably do so.

Yet there is another, more hopeful course, and both presidents have spoken to it. In the remarks we quoted above, President Raúl Castro also said, “As I have repeatedly affirmed, both Cuba and the United States should learn the art of civilized coexistence based on respect for differences between our governments, and on cooperation in areas of common interest that may contribute to tackling the challenges facing the hemisphere and the world.”

For his part, President Trump told the U.S. Congress, “America is willing to find new friends, and to forge new partnerships, where shared interests align. We want harmony and stability, not war and conflict. We want peace, wherever peace can be found.”

If Rex Tillerson can be found, he might suggest to Bruno Rodríguez, his Cuban counterpart, that sovereignty could be just the thing to bring the two leaders together.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

State Department report highlights counter-narcotics cooperation with Cuba, criticizes Cuba’s anti-money-laundering regime

The Department of State’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report praises Cuba’s drug interdiction and use-prevention programs and highlights U.S.-Cuba cooperation in counter-narcotics efforts in 2016, including an accord and technical exchanges on law enforcement, but names Cuba among the world’s “major money laundering” countries primarily due to lack of transparency in its financial sector.

Last year’s report did not list Cuba as a major money laundering country. We read both reports, and found no account of what the State Department believes changed from 2015 to 2016 leading Cuba to be identified this year as a major money launderer. (Those listed as major money laundering countries also include Canada and the United Kingdom.)

Cuba gets high marks in Volume I of the report, which focuses on drug and chemical control activities. In it, the State Department says “Cuba is not a major consumer, producer, or transit point of illegal narcotics,” and that it “dedicates significant resources to prevent illegal drugs and their use from spreading, and regional traffickers typically avoid Cuba.”

Among its 40 bilateral international counter-narcotics cooperation agreements, Cuba has an accord with the U.S., signed July 2016, which formalized contact and information sharing between Cuba’s anti-drug authorities and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Cooperation between the U.S. Coast Guard and Cuba’s law enforcement and Border Guard, in effect since before the renewal of diplomatic relations, continues (see this CubaJournal article for an overview of U.S.-Cuba maritime cooperation). The report also notes that “Cuba has assisted in U.S. judicial proceedings by providing documentation, witnesses, and background for cases in U.S. state and federal courts.”

Although the Department acknowledges that “the government-controlled banking sector, low internet and cell phone usage rates, and lack of government and legal transparency render Cuba an unattractive location for money laundering through financial institutions,” it still names Cuba as a major money laundering country in Volume II of the report. The report identifies “strategic deficiencies” in Cuba’s anti-money-laundering capacities, and recommends that Cuba “increase the transparency of its financial sector and expand its capacity to fight illegal activities,” as well as increase transparency of investigation and prosecution procedures, and strengthen its protocols for international legal cooperation.

While the report points to a “cash-based black market [which] operates parallel to the heavily subsidized and rationed formal market dominated by the state,” it also says that the State Department and the DEA’s Office of Global Enforcement/Financial Operations held a technical exchange working group on money laundering with Cuban officials last year.

In Cuba

Cigar sales up 5 percent in 2016

Cuba’s cigar manufacturer, Habanos S.A., reported that its sales worldwide were up by 5 percent last year, reaching $445 million, according to Reuters. The announcement came during Cuba’s annual Habanos cigar festival, which began February 27 and lasts until March 4 and draws international retailers and, as Reuters puts it, “wealthy tobacco aficionados,” showcasing Habanos brands including Cohiba, Monte Cristo, and Romeo y Julieta. Cuba leads the world market for hand-rolled cigars, except in the U.S. due to the embargo. Last October, the Obama administration lifted the limits on the value of tobacco and alcohol U.S. travelers to Cuba may bring back to the U.S., which coincided with an uptick in sales on the island, but the embargo still prohibits wholesale imports to the U.S.

Reuters also spoke with U.S. visitors to the cigar festival who worry that the new administration may reinstate cigar and rum restrictions.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba, Panama sign migration accord

Diplomats from Cuba and Panama signed a memorandum of understanding on migration, agreeing to cooperate to ensure secure, regular and orderly migration and mitigate human trafficking, and continue intelligence-sharing between authorities, reports CubaDebate. The agreement concluded the two countries’ fourth round of bilateral migration dialogues, held in Havana on February 28 and March 1 and led by Ana Teresita González Fraga, Cuba’s Vice Minister of Foreign Relations, and Javier Carrillo Silvestri, a top Panamanian official with responsibilities in public security and migration.

There is uncertainty around what may be next for the nearly 500 Cubans who are currently being held in Panama, many of whom had been on their way to the U.S.; El Nuevo Herald spoke with a source in Panama’s National Migration Service who said they may soon be sent back to Cuba.

Americas Quarterly and the Pew Research Center each offer overviews, statistics, and infographics detailing increased Cuban migration through the Americas over the last several years. Up until January when the U.S. ended the “wet foot, dry foot” migration provision for Cubans reading the U.S., many Cubans undertook long overland journeys up through South and Central America and Mexico en route to U.S. ports of entry, though over the last year some Central American countries closed their borders to Cubans.

Association of Caribbean States to meet, hold cooperation conference in Havana

The Association of Caribbean States (ACS) will hold its inaugural Cooperation Conference in Havana on March 8 to evaluate the status of regional cooperation programs and identify new areas for potential cooperation, particularly in technology and sustainable development and tourism, reports Granma. Parties will also discuss region-wide efforts to promote economic integration and cooperate in confronting climate change and natural disasters. The 22nd Ordinary Meeting of the ACS Council of Ministers will take place March 10, also in Havana. Formed in 1994, ACS’s core areas of concern are disaster risk reduction, sustainable tourism, trade, transport, and marine preservation. It is composed of 25 member states and eight associate states which have voting rights on certain issues. Cuba currently holds the presidency pro tempore of the Council of Ministers.

Recommended Reading

Will Cuba Embrace the Internet Revolution? Will Grant, BBC News

BBC Cuba correspondent Will Grant reports on the status of the internet and Wi-Fi in Cuba, including public Wi-Fi hotspots and a two-month pilot project that is bringing free home internet connections to about 2,000 homes in the capital’s Old Havana neighborhood. José Antonio Ruiz, who is participating in the project, told Grant that though the connection is fairly slow, having internet in his home has helped his business renting out rooms to visitors, which he does using Airbnb and other websites, as he can now correspond with clients more quickly and easily. Blogger Ariel Montenegro anticipates that the pace of internet growth in Cuba will accelerate, and said that the full “digital transformation” he hopes to see in Cuba would include online banking and bill paying.

Cuba has ‘largest pool of untapped IT talent in the Americas,’ Nora Gámez Torres, Miami Herald

Nora Gámez Torres examines the progress and potential for U.S.-Cuba ties in information technology and computer programming, as Cuba’s universities graduate talented programmers and a number of U.S. companies are beginning to employ and outsource work to Cuban programmers. John McIntire, chairman of the Cuba Emprende Foundation, said, “I know of half a dozen companies, all based in Miami, that already have software development teams in Cuba and there are probably more that I don’t know about.”

Preparing for a business career in Cuba takes persistence, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald

The Miami Herald’s Mimi Whitefield spoke with Liber Puente, a Cuban entrepreneur who is trying to start Cuba’s first IT cooperative, runs a consulting company called Puente Cubano that works with South Florida companies interested in doing business in Cuba, and is currently completing a master’s degree in Britain. Puente hopes that U.S.-Cuba relations will continue to progress, and said, “Trump can’t build a wall around the world. We Cubans are very creative. I strongly believe that business people will continue to find a way to keep developing relations. I don’t think Trump would want to stop everything.”