CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: “It hurts to be going backwards”

Today, President Trump – surrounded by the architects of his new policy – told the world what he thinks is a “better deal” on Cuba. 

We’ll get straight to the point. President Trump’s partial rollback of engagement, to adopt the President’s parlance, is a bad deal.

In a National Security Presidential Memorandum signed Friday in Miami, President Trump laid out his policy: Effective in the coming months, Americans may still travel to Cuba, but only in groups with travel providers; the administration will also seek to limit U.S. transactions with entities controlled by Cuba’s military, a category encompassing most of the tourism industry, which would not only place limits on companies seeking to do business on the island but would restrict where U.S. visitors can stay and eat. Prohibiting individual people-to-people travel, as the New York Times put it today, “is expected to increase the costs of traveling to Cuba and significantly reduce the number of American visitors.”

Embassies and diplomatic channels for cooperation on a range of key issues are to remain open, though President Trump’s harsh rhetoric today could change the tone of the relationship. According to the Memorandum, regulations allowing unlimited remittances to Cuba will remain in place, and the President will not impose any limits on Cuban Americans’ travel to visit family on the island. Based on the reports we’ve read so far, U.S. businesses with existing operations in Cuba – like commercial airlines, cruise lines, cell phone companies, Google, and Marriott’s Starwood Hotels Inc., which manages a Four Points Sheraton in Havana – may still operate on the island.

But within just a few months, there may be a lot of empty seats on those commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba. Hosts of private accommodations like Airbnb could find themselves short of bookings for U.S. travelers, who in the last two years have become a key source of income.

And, as Marla Recio, who founded an event-planning business in Havana to help U.S. visitors plan celebrations on the island, told the New York Times, “It’s not just the people who have rental homes or who have a private business specifically targeted at an American audience like myself. … There are also the people who have simple cafeterias or beauty salons whose audience is mainly Cuban, and those people are also stimulated by the flow of people who bring money to the island.”

Last week, we pondered President Trump’s strategic vision for any rollback of engagement, and came up empty. Now that he’s made his announcement, proclaiming “I am cancelling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” we’re still not seeing much strategy or vision. And, in the course of the last week, a bigger, louder, and more varied chorus of voices – from both sides of the Florida Straits, from both sides of the aisle in Washington – spoke out to tell President Trump that engagement with Cuba has not been one-sided, but rather has been and will continue to be mutually beneficial for the U.S. and Cuba, and that it would be a mistake to roll back any of the policies of engagement.

Sure, he and Senator Marco Rubio (FL), who’s had the President’s ear on Cuba since before the inauguration, are now touting Cuban entrepreneurs as those intended to be the beneficiaries of the new travel and trade regulations. But listen to some of Cuba’s entrepreneurs:

Marta Deus founded an accounting firm and courier service in Havana and works primarily with other private entrepreneurs. “It hurts to be going backwards. To roll back the engagement will only manage to isolate us from the world,” she told Reuters. “We need clients, business, we need the economy to move and by isolating Cuba, they will only manage to hurt many Cuban families and force companies to close.”

Enrique Montoto rents out rooms in his home using Airbnb. “It’s going to really hurt me because the majority of my clients are from the United States,” he said. “With things going to pot, I’ll have to tighten my belt.”

Perhaps you, like us, watched President Trump’s Friday afternoon speech and read the tick-tock accounts in the Miami Herald and Politico of how the new policy came to be, shaped by a small cohort of advisors and Florida politicians. All of this gave us a pretty clear idea of who the President has listened to on Cuba policy – and it’s not the people who will be most affected by it. Or, it seems, anyone who has been to Cuba in recent memory.

Speaking in Miami’s Artime Theater, a venue named for one of the leaders of the Bay of Pigs invasion’s Cuban-exile Brigade 2506 – whose veterans endorsed then-candidate Trump last October – President Trump was joined by several cabinet officials and a host of Florida politicians who favor the embargo.

Watching the President’s speech, it was clear to us that he did not listen to the Cuban entrepreneurs who wrote him soon after he was elected to urge him to continue engagement with Cuba, or to the group of Cuban women entrepreneurs who wrote First Daughter and Assistant to the President Ivanka Trump asking her to weigh in with the President on their behalf.

Nor does he appear to have heeded the calls of young Cuban-Americans who favor engagement, U.S. businesses that have made major investments in Cuba, or leading human-rights advocacy organizations that stated publicly that any rollback of engagement with Cuba would not advance human rights. He did not even listen to a majority of his own party, which according to a recent poll, stands at 60 percent in favor of engagement with Cuba. He did not listen to agencies in his own administration, whose policy review, it’s been widely reported, found that engagement with Cuba is the best policy for the U.S. and the Cuban people.

A few members of the Cuba Central Team are in Havana today, recording reactions among Cuban entrepreneurs to President Trump’s policy announcement in real-time. Next week, we’ll report on what they heard in Havana, with a full analysis of what’s new and what’s staying the same in President Trump’s Cuba policy.

For now, we’ll leave you with a brief overview of the week in Cuba news – including a roundup of just some of the voices we heard this week urging President Trump to continue advancing engagement with Cuba.

This afternoon, the Center for Democracy in the Americas, which produces the Cuba Central News Brief, released a statement: “Now, as ever, CDA will continue to bring people together, and we will redouble our work building relationships and fostering cooperation and dialogue on both sides of the aisle here in Washington, and on both sides of the Florida Straits. Talking to each other, sharing views and experiences, recognizing and overcoming differences—this is the way forward in U.S.-Cuba relations.” The full statement is available on CDA’s website, at this link.

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This week, in Cuba news…

Number of U.S. visitors to Cuba in 2017 surpasses 2016 total

Nearly 285,000 U.S. travelers visited Cuba between January and May, surpassing the total number of U.S. visitors during all of 2016 (284,900), according to data from Cuba’s National Office of Statistics, EFE reports. The numbers, originally posted on Twitter by José Cabañas, Cuba’s Ambassador to the U.S., and Josefina Vidal, Director of North American Affairs in Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations, represent a 145 percent increase over the 116,000 U.S. travelers who visited Cuba in the first five months of 2016. According to CubaDebate, over 166,000 Cuban Americans have visited Cuba thus far this year, 45 percent greater than the 114,000 who visited during the same time period in 2016.

Once the Trump administration’s planned restrictions on travel regulations enter into effect, prohibiting individual people-to-people travel to Cuba, many are predicting those numbers will drop off for the rest of the year.

Cuba sets municipal election dates

Cuba will hold elections on October 22 to select delegates for two-and-a-half year terms to municipal assemblies, Reuters reports. According to Granma, a second round of elections will occur on October 29 for races where no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote. Elections for delegates to provincial assemblies and for the 612 deputies to the National Assembly, all of whom serve five-year terms, have not yet been scheduled.

Candidates for municipal assembly elections are nominated at local meetings several weeks prior to the vote. As described by the BBC, “Municipal assemblies also nominate candidates for half the representatives on provincial assemblies. The provincial assemblies then nominate candidates for half the members of the National Assembly, which elects Cuba’s ruling Council of State, which in turn elects the president. The other half of the candidates at municipal and provincial level are selected by a government electoral commission.”

Voices in Support of Engagement

As the President’s Cuba policy announcement approached, we took note of the broader-than-ever support for engagement with Cuba – in Congress, in local government, in Cuba, and in organizations and businesses throughout the U.S. (Editor’s note: This is by no means an exhaustive list.)

Bipartisan congressional support: News of an impending decision from the Executive to roll back Cuba policy was met with an outpouring of opposition in Congress. Seven House Republicans and three Senate Republicans, as well as 14 Senate Democrats, sent letters to the administration. Senators Patrick Leahy (VT), John Boozman (AR), and Jeff Flake (AZ), as well as Representatives Rick Crawford (AR-1), together with Sen. Boozman, and Ted Poe (TX-02) penned op-eds urging engagement.

Immediately after President Trump’s announcement, the bipartisan Cuba Working Group released a statement reiterating its commitment to working toward normalization; Reps. Tom Emmer (MN-06), Rick Crawford (AR-01), and Jim McGovern (MA- 02) were three of the first Cuba Working Group members to release statements of their own.

State and municipal policymakers also spoke out. Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who visited the island in 2016 with the Center for Democracy in the Americas, released a statement calling for engagement; Michigan’s State Senate and the Helena, Montana City Commission passed resolutions urging for the end of travel and trade restrictions.

Support for engagement in Cuba: In Cuba, the announcement was met with concern and apprehension. Officials from Cuba’s Interior Ministry warned that rolling back engagement policy could negatively impact the U.S. and Cuba’s joint efforts to reduce narcotics trafficking. The New York Times, Associated Press, ABC, and Reuters all spoke with Cubans on the street bracing for economic blowback. A group of female entrepreneurs from Cuba wrote to Ivanka Trump, and some spoke with NBC about the positive impact of engagement on women in Cuba.

Support from U.S. organizations and businesses: Organizations from a wide array of sectors have spoken out about the importance of engagement with Cuba. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Oxfam all released statements endorsing engagement as the best avenue to address human rights issues. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Marriott, the U.S. Grains Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Security Project, Associated Equipment Distributors, TechFreedom, and a coalition of conservative “free market groups,” including Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, all spoke out in favor of engagement.

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