CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: Perhaps a Patient and a Pope Will Persuade the President

We will forever remember “D-17” as a day of magic.

D-17 is code for December 17th, 2014. On that day, Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro made choreographed statements to their astonished publics who had no idea they’d been negotiating with each other. An American, Alan Gross; Cuba’s “Three Heroes”; a long-imprisoned U.S. intelligence agent; and scores of Cuban political prisoners all walked free. Cubans and Americans stood in awe and cheered both presidents’ commitment to diplomatic recognition and mutual respect.

On December 17th, 2014, the first day of Hanukkah, the Feast of Saint Lazarus, the Afro-Cuban celebration of San Lázaro, and the birthday of Pope Francis converged mystically.

That spirit is still animating millions on both sides of the Florida Strait who are working in so many ways to make this rekindled relationship work. There is much more to do – because there are old grievances and unbridged differences in both countries – but now there is a channel, a means, for resolving these differences, and, most important, a level of mutual respect and confidence that never existed under the old policy.

Today, devoted public servants from all the key U.S. agencies are doing their jobs, despite the unusual public distractions, to finalize the Trump administration’s Cuba policy review.

They are involved in a discussion over whether U.S. interests and the interests of the Cuban people are best realized by a policy of engagement or estrangement.

We believe that engagement has won on the merits. The challenge is how to reconcile a policy that is working with a broad campaign promise and highly focused political pressure to roll it all back.

For starters, our champions in Congress, from both political parties, can tell the story of engagement to the administration because they have seen it with their own eyes while visiting Cuba.

Since December 17th, 2014, engagement has vastly increased contacts, information, and economic activity for growing numbers of Cubans, while freeing U.S. travelers and businesses to explore relationships and commercial opportunities on the island, as never before possible under Cold War-era sanctions and isolation.

Second, we can tell the stories of Americans for whom having a strong relationship with Cuba is literally a matter of life and death. Watch this video about a lung cancer patient named Mick Phillips. This 69-year-old Trump supporter, who owns an industrial pump factory near Green Bay, Wisconsin, is a stage 4 lung cancer patient who has been cancer-free for six years because he’s had access to a lung cancer treatment developed in Cuba, CimaVax, “that’s kept him alive longer than any doctor predicted.”

Mr. Phillips told PBS in a story broadcast this week, if Mr. Trump follows through on his promise to roll back reforms in U.S.-Cuba relations, “I am concerned that access to this medication will go away for many, many people.” Lung-cancer patients like Mr. Phillips (as well as Americans with severe symptoms of diabetes) need to have their stories shared and heard within the halls of power on the Potomac as the future of engagement is decided by the White House in the days and weeks to come.

Now, policymakers like Senator Marco Rubio don’t want these stories to be heard. This week, he told senior leaders from the U.S. intelligence community: “I continue to be concerned about the potential, and what I believe is the reality, of a concerted effort on the part of the Cuban government to recruit and unwittingly enlist Americans — business executives and others, even local and state political leaders (in) an effort to have them influence of U.S. policy making on Cuba. And particularly the lifting of the embargo.”

In other words, Americans who visit Cuba and return home wanting to intensify the process of normalizing relations should be discounted as dupes. As we report below, more than 285,000 U.S. travelers visited Cuba in 2016. That is a lot of dupes!

If we cannot rely on the free expression of Americans who can provide first-hand experience of what open relations means to them to sway the decision-making process, Professor William LeoGrande says we could find hope through Pope Francis I.

It has been well-documented just how meaningful it was that the Vatican supported, and pushed along at critical moments, the diplomacy that made D-17 possible.

As LeoGrande writes: “For Pope Francis, the first Latin American pope, the Vatican’s instrumental role in brokering the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations was a diplomatic milestone and a vindication of his commitment to a ‘culture of encounter.’”

President Trump is going to the Vatican on May 24th. We know that differences over “the wall” have kept the Pontiff and the President from seeing eye-to-eye. But, “the belief that adversaries can resolve their differences through dialogue and mutual understanding,” LeoGrande says, “has been the cornerstone of the Vatican’s foreign policy under Francis.”

If Mick Phillips’ story doesn’t reach the President, perhaps he’ll succumb to the influence of a higher authority.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

State Department official says U.S.-Cuba policy review likely to end in heightened human rights focus

This week, Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, provided the first official comments about the likely outcome of the Trump administration’s review of Cuba policy, stating, “I think one of the areas that is going to be a high priority is ensuring that Cuba continues to, or makes more substantive progress toward a greater respect for human rights inside the country.” Speaking at the Washington Conference on the Americas, an event co-hosted by the Council of the Americas and the State Department, Mr. Palmieri said that while “it’s a little premature for me to talk about the changes that the policy review will come to,” he anticipates “that there will be important differences” in the new administration’s Cuba policy upon completion of the review process. Video of the event is available on the Americas Society/Council of the Americas website.

Study predicts continued increase in U.S. travel to Cuba

Annual U.S. visitors to Cuba could reach up to 2 million by 2025, even with current travel restrictions, according to a new report from the Boston Consulting Group, reports the Miami Herald. The report, which predicts 20-50 percent annual growth of U.S. visitors through 2020, suggested that current U.S. restrictions prohibiting tourist travel to the island have not significantly slowed Cuba’s rise as a destination for U.S. travelers.

Between 2015 and 2016, the number of U.S. visitors to Cuba rose by 74 percent, from to 161,000 to 285,000. In the first quarter of 2017, the number of U.S. visitors was 118 percent higher than in the corresponding period in 2016, according to Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism. To put these numbers in context; last year, Cuba received a record 4 million international visitors, of which U.S. visitors were just 7 percent.

Last month, four U.S. airlines filed applications with the U.S. Department of Transportation to expand service to Cuba, as the Miami Herald and the Dallas Morning News reported, while U.S. cruise line Royal Caribbean International announced this week it will continue cruises to Cuba at least through spring 2019, reports the Miami Herald.

Going forward, Cuba’s limited tourism infrastructure and ability to accommodate the rapidly growing number of visitors from around the world, alongside the looming possibility that the Trump administration may increase U.S. travel restrictions, are the most significant factors that could potentially slow growth rates in U.S. travel to Cuba, the author of the study, Marguerite Fitzgerald, observes.

Coast Guard interdicted no Cuban migrants in April

No Cuban emigrants were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard in April, the first such occurrence in seven years, reports the Wall Street Journal. According to Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft, “On a typical day at this time last year, [the Coast Guard] would probably pick up anywhere from 50 to 150 Cuban migrants.” Adm. Zukunft attributed the decline to the Obama administration’s having rescinded the preferential “wet foot, dry foot” policy toward Cuban migrants in January.

Last month, the Coast Guard announced that it had intercepted fewer than 100 migrants at sea since the January 12 repeal of “wet foot, dry foot,” as the Washington Post reported at the time. According to the Congressional Research Service, the Coast Guard intercepted 5,213 Cuban migrants during FY2016, and “the number of maritime interdictions in FY2016 was higher than in any other year during the FY1995-FY2016 period.”

In Cuba

UN report: Cuba’s refined oil exports down 97 percent since 2013

Cuba’s exports of refined oil products dropped from $500 million to $15.4 million between 2013 and 2016, representing a 97 percent drop, according to the United Nations Comtrade Database annual report, Reuters reports.

The steep reduction in exports is tied to the decrease in oil shipments from Venezuela, where domestic oil production has been on the decline, falling by nearly 10 percent last year. Since 2000, Cuba has imported oil from Venezuela at subsidized rates, relying on shipments from PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, for the majority of its domestic consumption. Cuba then re-exports small quantities of refined products and fuel. As PDVSA’s production has fallen, it has exported less medium- and light-grade crudes – which Cuba’s refineries are better equipped to handle than heavy crudes – while continuing to export heavier crude to Cuba and elsewhere. In the first half of 2016, Venezuela’s overall oil shipments to Cuba dropped by 20 percent, and by this spring, shipments to Cuba fell by half, according to the Associated Press. Consequently, Cuba has little or no surplus to re-export, and has been contending with a fuel shortage. Last summer, the government imposed energy-rationing measures for most state enterprises and joint ventures, and, since last month, the government is restricting sales of high-octane premium gasoline. In 2016, Cuba’s economy contracted for the first time since 1993, which President Raúl Castro attributed in part to reduced oil shipments from Venezuela.

However, as we reported last week, after an eight-month freeze on light crude oil shipments, PDVSA sent 1.39 million barrels of the light Mesa 30 crude to Cuban refineries in March, a surprise development after the long stretch of declining supplies to its ally. Separately, Russia’s state oil enterprise Rosneft signed an agreement on May 3 to send 250,000 tons of oil and diesel fuel to Cuba.

First mass by transgender pastors held in Cuba

Three transgender pastors held mass on May 5 at a Matanzas branch of the international Metropolitan Community Church, the first such mass in Cuba, Reuters reports. The mass, hosted by pastors from Brazil, Canada, and the U.S., was part of a three-day conference on transsexuality and theology hosted by the Matanzas church ahead of Cuba’s 10th annual commemoration of the May 17 International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia, and Biphobia.

Sex reassignment surgeries have been permitted under Cuba’s free public health system since 2008. In March, Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education, stated her intention to present to Cuba’s National Assembly a “legislative package” to provide legal recognition of LGBT rights during the country’s next round of constitutional reforms, expected to take place in 2018, as the Washington Blade reported at the time.

As drought continues, April rainfall in Cuba exceeds historical average

Cuba received a national average of 3.8 inches of rain in April, a 133 percent increase over the month’s historical average, according to the country’s National Institute for Hydraulic Resources (INRH), reports Granma. April rainfall surpassed its average mark in 13 of Cuba’s 15 provinces. In the eastern provinces of Santiago de Cuba and Granma, water in reservoirs increased by 45.4 and 32.5 million cubic meters, respectively, the largest such gains in the country.

In spite of the increased rainfall, Cuba remains in the grip of an intense drought, now in its third year. In March, EFE reported that 71 percent of Cuba’s territory was affected by drought, primarily in the central and eastern provinces, and the country’s reservoirs held just 38 percent of their capacity. In April, INRH representatives declared that it would take Cuba two years to recover from the drought with normal rainfall.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

FARC, ELN representatives meet in Havana

Representatives from two Colombian guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN), met this week in Havana to discuss the peace accord signed between the FARC and Colombia’s government last November. Cuba acted as host and guarantor of the four-year process of negotiations between Colombia’s government and the FARC that culminated in the peace agreement now being implemented. In February, the ELN, which is Colombia’s second-largest guerrilla group, and Colombia’s government held a first round of negotiations to reach a peace deal of their own. Talks will resume on May 16 in Quito, Ecuador. (The Washington Office on Latin America offered this explainer on the ELN peace talks in February.)

In a joint statement released on May 11, Timoleón “Timochenko” Jiménez, National Secretariat of the FARC, and Nicolás Rodríguez Bautista, Commander-in-Chief of the ELN, affirmed their intent to “join forces for the political solution to the Colombian conflict.” During a news conference in Havana, Rodríguez said that he anticipates the ELN will not reach a peace deal Colombia’s government prior to the 2018 parliamentary elections, as Reuters reports. As part of the peace deal with the FARC, Colombia’s government agreed that the FARC will become a political party and former FARC guerrillas will eventually be able to hold seats in Colombia’s parliament.

A recent New Yorker article by Jon Lee Anderson examines the status of the FARC-Colombia reconciliation process.

Recommended Reading

Cuba’s New Luxury Hotels Look to Lure Waves of U.S. Tourists, Aili McConnon, New York Times

Aili McConnon looks at the development and renovation of luxury hotels and boutiques in Havana, the demand for which has grown as increasing numbers of international tourists visit the island. Most of the new hotels and boutiques are joint ventures with foreign companies, a trend that has accelerated since 2014 when Cuba’s government passed a revised foreign investment law to facilitate growth in key sectors, from tourism to renewable energy. McConnon describes several new, high-end hotels in Havana, including the 5-star Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, which will open in June above the recently opened Manzana de Gómez mall. The Manzana – which housed boutiques, theatres, restaurants, a skating rink, and a shooting range prior to the Cuban Revolution – is Cuba’s first luxury mall, and home to L’Occitane, Mont Blanc, and Lacoste stores. The Associated Press and NPR also provide profiles of the Manzana mall.

Cuban town hooked on pirate social network, Alexandre Grosbois, AFP

A rural town in Cuba has its answer to Facebook, reports the Agence France-Presse. Residents of Gaspar, Cuba can share photos and videos through “Gaspar Social,” a local social network that started as a video-gaming platform and became a medium to connect the entire town — two months before state telecommunications agency ETECSA installed Gaspar’s first Wi-Fi hotspot. Though technically illegal, the network has thus far been accepted by local authorities, reports Alexandre Grosbois. “Gaspar Social’s founders were called in last month after the network’s success came to the attention of the ruling Communist Party. They thought they were going to get shut down — but the officials gave them instructions on applying for a permit, raising hopes that the state may authorize projects like theirs.”