CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: On Russia and a Retirement

In this space last week, we paid special attention to the letter written to the White House by 16 retired and highly respected U.S. military officers. If the new administration fails to uphold our existing policy of engaging politically and economically with Cuba, they wrote, “it is certain that China, Russia, and other entities whose interests are contrary to the United States’ will rush into the vacuum.”

We also detected a note of frustration in the voice of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (FL-27) about the yet-unrevealed conclusion of the administration’s Cuba policy review. “If President Trump goes back on his word and doesn’t roll back on these concessions,” she said, referring to President Obama’s reforms, “I think a lot of our folks in our community will be quite displeased.”

On Sunday, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen made public her decision to retire from Congress rather than run for another term in office. On Wednesday, we learned that Russia had sent a shipment of 249,000 barrels of refined oil products to energy-short Cuba and had signed a long-term supply agreement with Cuba’s government.

These are not unrelated events. The convergence of Russia’s oil shipment and Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s announcement is simply the latest, vivid reminder that the old, beaten path of trying to isolate and sanction Cuba into submission is exhausted and long past its retirement age.

Since the end of the Cold War, the United States kept an unyielding grip on a policy that reliably undermines U.S. interests. After the Soviet Union pulled out of Cuba, and Mikhail Gorbachev pulled down the banner of the U.S.S.R., nearly a quarter-century elapsed before the U.S. Secretary of State and Cuba’s Foreign Minister could stand side by side and watch their nations’ flags whip in the wind together.

While the U.S. and Cuba have real differences, what prevented us from restoring diplomatic relations before, and hampers our ability to build confidence and enjoy the fruits of a more normal relationship now, is our domestic politics. As Vox wrote in 2014, “those domestic politics are driven by the extremely strong preferences of a politically active Cuban-American exile community concentrated in the electorally crucial swing state of Florida.”

Rep. Ros-Lehtinen is an authentic and durable figure, and not just derivative of her South Florida political milieu. As Marc Caputo wrote in Politico, she was “the first Hispanic woman and first Cuban American ever elected to Congress and, before that, the Florida state legislature.” Political opponents called her a “role model for millions of Latinos looking to break barriers in electoral politics.”

Although her conservative foreign policy views, as U.S. News and World Report observed, also encompassed support for programs like PEPFAR, which effectively fights HIV/AIDS in Africa, her commitment to the ossified policy of trying to overthrow the Cuban regime, seemingly by any means necessary, was unwavering (she opposed U.S. negotiations to gain the release of Alan Gross, for example).

As with her like-minded allies, who tirelessly advocate for tougher sanctions on Cuba and oppose travel to Cuba by others but have never visited the island to see it for themselves, she used her politically secure seat to gain and accrue greater power to keep a failed policy in place. Despite its immense costs, Cuba policy hardliners succeeded in doing this until President Obama made the decisive change in U.S. policy on December 17, 2014.

So Rep. Ros-Lehtinen’s decision to leave Congress – and separately, the threat of legal jeopardy menacing Senator Robert Menéndez of New Jersey – is significant because of the intersection between politics and policy.

From 1980 to 2000, Republican candidates for president won, on average, 78.67 percent of the Hispanic vote in her Miami-Dade County. As the Miami Herald recently reported, in Miami-Dade County, where one out of three residents is Cuban-American, Secretary Clinton ran ahead of then-candidate Trump by 30 points, 64 percent to 34 percent.

In the House, Rep. Ros-Lehtinen represents one of only two majority Cuban-American congressional districts in the nation. But the demographics of her district have changed. The earliest arrivals from Cuba are aging out. Party registration has shifted. Members of the community have moved, inter-married, visited relations in Cuba, and have horizons – and demands for jobs, education, health care, and more – that extend beyond Cuba as a policy issue.

While these trends are actively reshaping the 10-16 metropolitan areas in Florida and elsewhere in the U.S. that have measurable Cuban-American populations, even the New York-New Jersey region is dwarfed in size by the adjoining districts represented by Rep. Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart. While Rep. Ros-Lehtinen may be ending her four-decade career in politics for utterly human and apolitical reasons, her decision to give up a Congressional seat in Miami-Dade County matters: The changes in her district are broadly indicative of a power shift that will mute the ability of pro-sanctions Cuban Americans to block engagement with Cuba over the long term.

This shift has already given greater voice to the “large pro-engagement coalition that includes lawmakers from both parties, businesses and young Cuban-Americans, (which) is calling on the White House to build on the foundation of engagement it inherited,” as the New York Times said in its powerful editorial this week.

We still don’t know what President Trump has in mind for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations as his review of the policy winds down. We already know, as the retired flag officers wrote prophetically last month, that his policy choices will determine whether we create or fill the void that exists between our two countries. If he doesn’t believe the officers, he can always ask Russia.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Trump signs U.S. government budget bill with “regime change” funds for Cuba

Congress passed a budget bill, keeping the lights on at the federal government through September 30 for the 2017 fiscal year, with $20 million for so-called democracy promotion (regime change) programs in Cuba, up from the Obama administration’s requested $15 million, and equal to the FY2016 appropriation. The Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Office of Cuba Broadcasting, which produces the much-criticized and little-heard Radio and TV Martí, receives $28.065 million, an increase of about $1 million over FY2016, with more money for its digital programs. As in previous years, the bill prohibits the use of funds to close the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base.

Late last week, Foreign Policy published a PDF of the White House’s proposed FY2018 budget for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The proposal recommends a total 38.9 percent overall cut in aid to Western Hemisphere countries, a larger percentage cut than other programs in the State Department budget. This week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson circulated a survey asking some of the Department’s 75,000 employees to identify activities they’d like to see discontinued.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Venezuela, Russia increase oil shipments to Cuba

With Cuba facing an ongoing fuel shortage, Venezuela and Russia have both sent major oil shipments to the island, Reuters reported this week. Russia’s oil shipment to Cuba is by far its largest in this century, while the surprise disclosure of Venezuela’s shipment took place in the midst of that country’s economic and political crisis.

According to data from PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, Venezuela sent 1.39 million barrels of light crude oil to Cuba’s refineries in March, the first such shipment in eight months, Reuters reports.

Contending with low production levels and a political and economic crisis at home, Venezuela had previously halted light crude oil exports to a jointly run refinery in Cuba’s Cienfuegos province in mid-2016 while the plant closed for maintenance, as Reuters reported at the time. Since then, Venezuela has sent roughly 500,000 barrels per month of heavy crude oil blends to a refinery in Havana, although overall subsidized oil shipments have dropped by approximately 50 percent. Since 2000, Venezuela has sold oil to Cuba at a subsidized rate in exchange for services such as placing Cuban doctors in underserved areas under an agreement reached between the two countries’ now-late Presidents, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez.

Separately, Reuters reports that a shipment of 249,000 barrels of refined oil from Rosneft, Russia’s state oil company, will arrive in Cuba May 10, the first installment under an agreement for Rosneft to supply Cuba with 250,000 tons of oil and diesel fuel. Reuters notes that Rosneft’s announcement of the deal did not offer any specifics, but Jorge Piñon, energy analyst at the University of Texas, said the deal amounts to about 1,865,000 barrels of oil, valued at about $105 million, Reuters reports. Between 2010 and 2015, Reuters notes, Russia’s oil shipments to Cuba were valued at a total of $11.3 million. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow helped supply the majority of Cuba’s energy through subsidized oil sales.

In Cuba

Cuba’s raw sugar production reaches 1.8 million tons

Cuba’s 2016-2017 sugar production season yielded 1.8 million tons of raw sugar, a 20 percent increase over the previous season and equal to production in 2014-2015. But it fell short of the 2 million-ton goal set by AZCUBA, Cuba’s state sugar enterprise, reports Reuters. The shortfall is attributable in large part to the extended drought that has been gripping the county for three years. Cuba’s sugar industry, once the country’s most important sector, has declined since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1991, for example, Cuba harvested nearly 8 million tons of sugar. However, raw sugar has recently accounted for nearly 80 percent of Cuba’s food exports, according to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics. The sector appears to be enjoying a bit of a sweet comeback.

Raúl Castro’s successor unclear, says daughter Mariela

Mariela Castro, director of Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, offered surprising comments about the future of Cuba’s leadership after her father, President Raúl Castro, leaves office on February 24, 2018.

Speaking to students at the University of Havana’s School of Communication, she said, “There are several people with qualities” and she had “no idea” whom she would prefer to take over as president. “In all [the candidates] I look at, I see virtues and defects, including in my father,” stated Ms. Castro, as the Miami Herald reported. Miguel Díaz-Canel, who became Cuba’s First Vice President in 2013, is first in the line of succession pursuant to Cuba’s constitution.

The status of succession planning, which Cuba’s government treats as a matter of national security, is opaque, leaving most speculation about the passing of power to Raúl Castro’s political heir simply that. Cuba followed the Constitutional order during the transition in presidential power that took place following Fidel Castro’s illness in 2006. Raúl Castro served as provisional head of government until February 2008 when he was elected President of the Council of State by Cuba’s National Assembly, making him head of state and government.

Following Ms. Castro’s comments, the Associated Press reported on “speculation” in Cuba that “Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, a forceful public speaker who has represented Cuba on the international stage for eight years,” could emerge as an alternative to Mr. Díaz-Canel. The AP said that Mr. Rodríguez “has taken on a slightly higher profile in recent months.”

Speaking during a May 3 press conference at Cuba’s National Center for Sex Education, Ms. Castro rejected speculation that she would consider the position, reports Reuters. As the Miami Herald notes, Col. Alejandro Castro Espín, who is Ms. Castro’s brother and is the head of Cuba’s National Defense and Security Commission, has received far less media attention than Mr. Díaz-Canel both internationally and in Cuba, but is also thought of by some as a potential successor to his father, and “has received more international attention after it became publicly known that he played a lead role in negotiations with the U.S. government to exchange prisoners and restore diplomatic relations.”

Cuban military plane crashes, killing eight

A Cuban military plane crashed into a mountain in Artemisa province on April 28, killing all eight on board, according to a statement from Cuba’s Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. The Ministry is currently investigating the cause of the crash, the most significant in the country since an Aero Caribbean flight crashed in 2010, killing 68, reports Reuters.

Cuba celebrates May Day

Cuba held its annual International Worker’s Day celebration on May 1, with 50,000 youth leading a march in Havana, according to Granma, and over 6 million Cubans participating in rallies countrywide, according to state television, reports Reuters. The festivities, which paid homage to the late Fidel Castro, were briefly disrupted in Havana by a protester carrying a U.S. flag; subsequent international focus on the incident drew sharp criticism from Cuban state media, which publicized the dissident’s existing criminal record and suggested that international media should focus instead on the 800,000 marchers in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución.

A CNN virtual reality video provides a 360-degree view of the parade through the Plaza.

Recommended Reading

Push and Pull on Cuba, Editorial Board, New York Times

The New York Times Editorial Board urges the Trump administration to consider in its review of Cuba policy the advances made in U.S.-Cuba relations over the last two-plus years, including bilateral agreements on health care, environmental protection, and counter-narcotics efforts, as well as improvements in Cuba on issues such as internet access. “Instead of waiting for the Cuban government to ‘make a better deal with the Cuban people’ — whatever that means — Mr. Trump can continue to make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and do business with Cubans,” writes the Editorial Board. “It would empower Cubans as they contemplate the future they want for their country.”