CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: The Twilight Zone(s)

Daniel Whittle, Senior Attorney and Senior Director of the Cuba Program at the Environmental Defense Fund, is this week’s guest contributor to the Cuba Central News Brief.

 He directs EDF’s work to advance conservation of marine and coastal ecosystems in Cuba. He works with Cuban scientists, lawyers, and resource managers to identify and implement collaborative strategies for fisheries management, coral reef conservation, and sustainable coastal development in Cuba and the region.

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Twilight zone: “a situation or an idea that is unclear or confusing,” “a place that is mysterious, or a situation that cannot easily be explained.”

In the ’60s, we entered into this altered world through television. On June 16, after President Trump’s Cuba policy speech in Miami, it is fair to say that many of us felt that we had crossed over into a particularly unclear and confusing real-world twilight zone.

While promising to cancel President Obama’s “completely one-sided deal with Cuba,” and peppering his speech with threats and ultimatums, the actual text of President Trump’s National Security Presidential memorandum suggests that most of Obama’s Cuba policy remains intact. As Jorge Domínguez wrote in the New York Times, “the Trump administration has ratified bipartisan policies of engagement with Cuba.”

The scope of President Trump’s proposed regulatory changes on individual, self-directed travel and on transactions with the Cuban military is unclear and confusing to most Americans, as well as to those most likely to be adversely impacted by them—the Cuban people. It is, by all accounts, a situation that cannot easily be explained.

Just days before the President’s speech in Miami, a team of Cuban and American marine scientists completed a month-long trip to a mysterious place, and a different kind of twilight zone: “the lowest level of the ocean to which light can penetrate.”

Onboard the University of Miami’s R/V Walton Smith, and with the University of North Carolina at Wilmington’s Mohawk remotely operated vehicle, Cuba’s Twilight Zone Reefs Expedition circumnavigated the island, exploring Cuba’s diverse deepwater mesophotic coral reefs from 30 to 150 meters below the surface. The expedition was conceived of and made possible by the so-called “Sister Sanctuaries Memorandum of Understanding,” the first agreement of any kind signed by the U.S. and Cuban governments following the reestablishment of diplomatic relations in 2015 and left undisturbed by President Trump’s new policy.

Organized by scientists from the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University and several research centers in Havana, the team of experts explored underwater ecosystems that had never been studied before, discovering new species of marine life and collecting loads of data and images. Read the mission logs here—and don’t miss the one about the sponge party.

Thanks to Cubans and Americans working together, this twilight zone has just become a little less mysterious.

The final mission log for the expedition reads, “We came not knowing what we would find at most of the sites we explored. We now believe that we have seen what may be the most extensive, healthiest mesophotic reef habitat in the Caribbean, surrounding the entire island of Cuba … Carlos Diaz (Director of the National Center of Protected Areas) perhaps put our expedition in context the best, when he said that it was the most important scientific expedition in Cuban waters since 1970.”

Expedition scientists will get back together next week to recount their thrilling discoveries at Cubambiente, a major international environmental convention in Havana. These adventures will also be captured in a video directed by Jean Michel Cousteau.

Scientific exchange and environmental cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba have a rich history, which predates President Obama’s opening with Cuba in 2014, but which his administration significantly strengthened and expanded through governmental agreements and regulatory changes.

Thankfully, President Trump’s new directive on Cuba indicates that both will remain a priority.

Our hope is that, as exchanges and cooperation such as these continue, the president will come to learn the value of engagement with Cuba and the benefits accrued to the U.S., Cuba, and – in the case of our recent Twilight Zone Reefs expedition – the scientific community writ large.

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This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

State Department releases 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, keeps Cuba on Tier 2 Watch List

The State Department, which released its 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report this week, kept Cuba on its Tier 2 Watch List for the third consecutive year. Tier placement is determined by a country’s adherence to standards set in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA). As it did in 2015 and 2016, the department found that Cuba has made “significant efforts” across government ministries to combat trafficking, including prosecution of perpetrators and provision of services for victims of sex trafficking, the release of a written report on government efforts to combat trafficking, and the investigation of trafficking of Cuban citizens by foreigners. However, the report also determined that Cuba does not meet the TVPA’s minimum guidelines, citing the government’s failure to criminalize all forms of trafficking and to prohibit forced labor, domestically or for Cuban professionals abroad.

Under the TVPA, countries cannot be ranked on the Tier 2 Watch List for three consecutive years unless they have a written plan that will allow them to make “significant efforts” to meet the TVPA’s minimum standards. Cuba was granted an exception based on its new “zero tolerance” plan for combatting trafficking, which it presented to United Nations Special Rapporteur Dr. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro during her April visit to the island.

Dr. Giammarinaro, who visited the country at the invitation of Cuba’s government, said at a press conference in Havana that Cuba’s social welfare system reduces the country’s vulnerability to trafficking, but that its legal framework for preventing and prosecuting human trafficking needs improvement. Her complete findings and recommendations will be featured in an official report to the UN Human Rights Council next year.

As Cuba announces record tourism numbers, Southwest to scrap non-Havana flights

Tourism generated over $3 billion in revenue for Cuba in 2016, up from $2.6 billion in 2015, according to José Alonso, business director of Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism, Reuters reports. According to Mr. Alonso, in the first semester of 2017, Cuba has seen a 22 percent increase in visitors to the island over the same period last year.

Mr. Alonso said these numbers put Cuba on track to reach its goal of 4.2 million visitors in 2017, even with increased U.S. travel restrictions. Four million people visited Cuba in 2016, of which just 7 percent came from the U.S. Earlier this month, Cuba announced that it has already received more U.S. travelers in 2017 than in all of 2016, as EFE reported. On Thursday, Carnival Cruise Line launched its inaugural Cuba voyage on the Carnival Paradise, the largest cruise ship by passenger capacity ever to dock in Havana, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

Even so, Southwest Airlines announced this week it will cease its once-daily flights to Varadero and Santa Clara on September 4, leaving the carrier with three daily flights to Cuba (two between Fort Lauderdale and Havana, and one between Tampa and Havana), reports the Dallas Morning News. In a statement, Steve Goldberg, Southwest Airlines Senior Vice President of Ground Operations, said, “There is not a clear path to sustainability serving these markets, particularly with the continuing prohibition in U.S. law on tourism to Cuba for American citizens.” U.S. citizens are prohibited from engaging in financial transactions for tourist activities in Cuba under the Trade Sanction Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.

In April, Southwest filed an application with the Department of Transportation for a third daily flight between Fort Lauderdale and Havana, as the Dallas Morning News reported at the time. American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, and Delta Air Lines also submitted requests for additional flights, moves that came after American and JetBlue had reduced service to Cuba earlier this year, citing lower than expected demand.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies have about two weeks left to begin the process of drafting new regulations. For a comprehensive overview of what we do and don’t know about the President’s Cuba policy, check out last week’s news brief.

In Cuba

Cuba lags in effort to drive up food production, government report shows

Production of key crops in Cuba largely stalled in 2016, and less than half of land dedicated to agriculture in the country is cultivated, according to the Agriculture, Livestock, Forestry, Fishing section of Cuba’s 2017 statistics yearbook, Reuters reports.

The report, which Cuba’s National Office on Statistics releases annually section by section, shows that harvests of vegetables, grains, citrus, and tobacco, among other crops, were lower than recent years’ averages, while yields of root vegetables and beans were relatively high. The report further reveals that just 27 percent of land operated by the state, and 51 percent of land owned privately or operated by cooperatives, is cultivated. The government has long focused on reducing Cuba’s imports of foreign-produced food, which constitute an estimated 60-80 percent of what finds its way to dinner tables across the country. Issues including drought, limited infrastructure and aging equipment have stymied the goal of improved agricultural production in Cuba.

Cuba’s National Office of Statistics (ONE) records sugar production statistics separately from the rest of the agriculture sector; according to ONE data, raw sugar accounts for nearly 80 percent of Cuba’s food exports. As Reuters reported in April, Cuba’s 2016-2017 sugar production season yielded 1.8 million tons of raw sugar, a 20 percent increase over the previous season. Still, the yield fell short of the 2 million ton goal set by AZCUBA, Cuba’s state sugar enterprise, due in large part to issues stemming from the ongoing national drought, currently in its third year.

What We’re Reading

Senate Floor Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy On President Trump’s Cuba Policy

Speaking on the Senate floor this week, Senator Patrick Leahy (VT) reiterated his opposition to President Trump’s Cuba policy, questioning the administration’s inconsistent messaging on human rights and stating that the government should not dictate where U.S. citizens can travel.

Don’t close markets for farmers, open them, Senator John Boozman, Harrison Daily Times

Senator John Boozman (AR) writes that President Trump’s Cuba policy shift puts the U.S. agriculture industry directly in harm’s way. Sen. Boozman is the lead cosponsor on North Dakota Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s Agricultural Export Expansion Act of 2017, which would allow U.S. exporters to sell agricultural goods to Cuba on credit.

New Trump Rules on Cuba Travel Leaves Winners and Losers, Andrea Rodríguez and Beth J. Harpaz, Associated Press

Andrea Rodríguez and Beth J. Harpaz write, “Five of 12 private bed-and-breakfast owners in Havana and Cuba’s southern colonial city of Trinidad told The Associated Press that they received cancellations after Trump’s June 16 announcement.”

How Will Trump’s New Policies Affect Cuba’s Economy?, Nathaniel Parish Flannery, Forbes

Nathaniel Parish Flannery speaks with Jason Marczak, director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, about the far-reaching implications for Cuba’s economy of President Trump’s policy change.