Congressman James Comer, a first-term Republican from the 1st District of Kentucky, just returned from a five-day trip to Cuba on a fact-finding delegation led by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.
On Wednesday, his office released a statement about the trip, which read, in part: “Congressman Comer strongly supports lifting the current trade embargo on Cuba, and will be a leader in Congress in passing legislation to reopen trade with this key neighbor of the U.S.”
“The first district is a strong agriculture area,” Congressman Comer said, “and opening trade barriers for agriculture products would be a major benefit for the district and all of Kentucky.”
Congressman Comer’s story – his experience of going to Cuba, talking directly to Cubans about their lives, and deciding, unbound by party or dogma, that engagement is better than sanctions for advancing his constituents’ interests – is important.
Even more, it places him in the vital center of practical and principled thought on the conduct of U.S.-Cuba relations – which is all about exploring and securing the benefits of engagement.
Engagement has paid off diplomatically. Engagement with Cuba restored relations, reopened the U.S. embassy in Havana, and secured bilateral agreements on combatting diseases from cancer to Zika, fighting drugs and human trafficking, responding to oil spills and the other pollution threats in the Gulf of Mexico and the Straits of Florida, and providing united support for the final end to Colombia’s long, bloody civil war.
Engagement is creating and supporting more, better paying jobs in the U.S. telecommunications, hospitality and travel industries, and among the Cuban-owned private-sector businesses that are providing food and lodging to travelers coming from the U.S. and elsewhere.
The benefits of engagement were expanded by U.S. policy decisions that boosted the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba to historic levels, and increased the flows of remittances to Cuban family members on the island to as much as $3 billion annually. At the same time, Cuba opened up legal work in the private sector for 25 percent of the island’s workforce, and significantly increased Wi-Fi connections, at reduced costs, for Cuba’s people.
Politically, engagement is at the center of where public opinion is among the 75 percent of the U.S. public which wants to lift the embargo, 63 percent of Cuban-Americans who oppose the embargo, and 97 percent of Cubans on the island who think normal relations with the U.S. is good for Cuba.
With the mutually reinforcing benefits of diplomacy and economic change strengthening public support for engagement, this has opened even greater space for elected officials like Congressman Comer to build coalitions for changes in the laws governing U.S.-Cuba relations.
These coalitions have gathered in support of legislation to increase agriculture trade to Cuba, to end legal barriers to tourist travel, and to lift the embargo entirely. Passing these bills is in the U.S. national interest.
Fifty years of futility passed our eyes when we read the remarks of White House spokeswoman Helen Aguirre Ferré in an interview Wednesday with the Spanish news agency EFE. “With all the things [Cuba] has been given,” she said, the government has not made any “concessions” within the process of normalization of bilateral relations. Before assuming office, President Trump said he would reverse the reforms and restore estrangement as the basis of U.S. policy, unless the Cubans make concessions.
This position of no negotiations until the Cubans compromise was the policy of every president since Eisenhower, except one, and all but one were disappointed.
The Trump administration is reviewing the policy. We’d like to see President Trump find a way forward that doesn’t let Congressman Comer or his constituents down.
This week, in Cuba news…
In an address before the summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA) in Caracas, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro condemned the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda, which he said “threatens to unleash an extreme and selfish trade policy.” He also called the plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border “irrational.”
Cuba’s President said the new administration’s protectionist trade policy “will have an impact on the competitiveness of our foreign trade; it will violate environmental agreements in order to favor the revenues of transnational companies,” and he criticized the administration’s plan to “hunt down and deport migrants.”
In expressing “Cuba’s solidarity with the people and government of Mexico,” President Castro added, “You can’t contain poverty, catastrophes and migrants with walls, but with cooperation, understanding and peace.” President Castro’s remarks are available in full (in Spanish) at Progreso Semanal.
Since the new administration took office, President Castro has affirmed that Cuba hopes to continue the last two years’ progress in relations with the U.S. The Trump administration began a review of U.S. policy toward Cuba last month. As we reported last week, no policy changes have been announced to date.
More about ALBA in Cuba’s Foreign Relations below.
The State Department’s annual report on human rights, as in years past, criticizes Cuba’s human rights record, but noted that Cuba’s government had for the first time “hosted a structured bilateral dialogue in which Cuban authorities provided substantive comments about human rights problems in the country.” The report identifies the lack of a multiparty political system, restrictions on internal migration, detention and abuse of dissidents, freedom of assembly and the press, and increased monitoring and suppression of dissident groups and non-state media on the island as continuing areas of concern. Additionally, the report identifies several academics and intellectuals who were made to leave their posts after criticizing the government or its policies, including the economist Omar Everleny Pérez Villanueva.
The report also says that “some religious groups reported greater latitude to express their opinions during sermons and at religious gatherings, although most members of the clergy continued to exercise self-censorship,” and that “religious leaders in some cases criticized the government, its polices and even the country’s leadership without reprisals.”
The report noted that Cuba increased citizens’ internet access in 2016 public Wi-Fi hotspots, but criticizes government restrictions on home internet access and telecommunications privacy.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not present the report; instead, a “senior administration official” held a teleconference briefing for reporters. When asked about the Cuba section of the report, the official referred the reporter to Secretary Tillerson’s statement during his confirmation hearing, saying, “He stated very clearly that he looks forward to working with our congressional partners to ensure that we’re not relaxing the pressure on Cuba to reform its oppressive regime, and we continue that effort.”
Air Cargo World reports that FedEx is seeking to push the start-date for its air cargo service between the U.S. and Cuba back by six months, from April 15 to October 15. Its request to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) cites “inextricable dynamics, such as securing and establishing business relationships with Cuban service providers, in relation to air operations support services, customs clearance, and ground/delivery operations” as reasons to delay entry into the market. Last July, DOT approved FedEx’s application to be the first all-cargo airline to provide scheduled flights to Cuba from the U.S., initially slated to begin between January 15 and April 15 of this year with once-daily weekday service between Miami and Matanzas.
Cuba’s government has approved five new projects for its Mariel Special Development Zone, including a tourism-services joint venture with Spanish hotel chain Iberostar, a car paint factory with Spanish company Tot Color, and an engineering and construction-services project by the Portuguese firm Engimov, Reuters and EFE report. The other two projects are logistics-focused joint ventures with Brazilian company Fidas do Brasil and Panamanian firm Autocentro, EFE reports. Cuba’s government has now approved 24 business proposals for Mariel worth $966 million in investment, up from the 19 proposals approved as of last November.
On March 8th, Cuba’s government also announced that it is in the midst of negotiations to attract foreign investment for 21 projects related to the food industry, valued at a total $762 million, EFE reports. Among ongoing negotiations for food-related projects are a new Nestlé factory, which would be the island’s third, and a Cristal beer production plant, both of which would be built in the Mariel special development zone.
Nestlé and Cuba’s government expect to reach a deal soon for the Swiss multinational to construct a factory at Mariel in a $50-60 million joint venture, Nestlé Vice President Laurent Freixe, head of the company’s Americas division, told Reuters. The factory would begin producing coffee, cookies, and cooking products in the second half of 2019 and would employ about 300 workers. Visiting Havana this week, Freixe told Reuters that Nestlé and Cuba’s government are renewing one of their existing joint ventures on the island, an ice cream factory, for a period of 20 years (the other produces bottled water and other beverages). Freixe told Reuters, “Tourism is going to double in the coming years, meanwhile demand is today only partially covered by local production,” and that Nestlé and Cuba’s government hope the new factory will help meet increased demand.
During the Havana International Trade Fair last November, Cuba’s government announced that it was seeking foreign investment for 395 projects in 15 key sectors including food and agriculture, tourism, industrial, mining, biotechnology, and renewable energy, with the goal of bringing in $2 billion annually in foreign investment.
Cuba has received over 1 million visitors so far this year and, according to the Ministry of Tourism, it reached that milestone on March 4, a full week earlier than in 2016, CubaDebate reports. The Ministry also projected that the country will receive 4.2 million visitors this year, topping last year’s record-breaking 4 million, EFE notes. As CubaDebate reported last month, 43,200 U.S. and 31,000 Cuban American travelers went to Cuba in January alone, a 125 percent and 78 percent increase, respectively, over the same period last year.
The U.S. cruise company Norwegian Cruise Line has begun bringing U.S. travelers to Cuba, with its ship “Marina” docking in Havana harbor on March 9, reports EFE. Norwegian received approval late last year, and announced last month that it would be adding more Cuba cruises to its summer and fall schedule, as the Orlando Sentinel reported. On the arrival of the cruise ship, a representative for Cuba’s Tourism Ministry announced that in 2016 a total 88,000 visitors from around the world arrived on cruise ships, and so far this year 55,000 have cruised to Cuba, EFE reports.
Cuba’s Foreign Relations
During the 14th extraordinary summit of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas–Peoples’ Trade Agreement (ALBA-TCP) last weekend, President Castro and leaders including Bolivia’s President Evo Morales and Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro urged regional unity and economic integration, and respect for regional and national sovereignty, reports Granma. Leaders voted to “reactivate a joint fund meant to provide legal advice and financial support” for migrants from the region living in the U.S., reports TeleSur. President Castro reiterated Cuba’s support for the government of Venezuela and other leftist presidents and former presidents in the region.
Leaders also paid tribute to Hugo Chávez, former president of Venezuela, who died on March 5, 2013, and to Fidel Castro, who died last November.
Bolivia’s President Evo Morales returned to Bolivia on March 7 after receiving a diagnosis and treatment for a virus that had caused him to lose his voice the week before; he will return to Cuba next month once he has finished his course of medication so that doctors can perform an operation to remove a nodule in his vocal cords, reports Reuters. Mr. Morales had traveled to Cuba for a medical examination last week, Cuban state media reported.