CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: Waiting for Godon’t

This is Day 71 of the Trump presidency.

During the presidential campaign last year, Mr. Trump promised to reverse President Obama’s new policy toward Cuba “until freedoms are restored.” Later in the campaign, as Breitbart.com reported, Governor Mike Pence assured Miami-Dade County Republicans, “When Donald Trump and I take to the White House, we will reverse Barack Obama’s executive order on Cuba,” giving that promise more of Day One feel. But when Rex Tillerson was asked, during his confirmation hearing to serve as Secretary of State, if he stood by Mr. Trump’s commitment, he told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “Yes,” but he went on to add, “There will be a comprehensive review of current policies and executive orders regarding Cuba to determine how best to pressure Cuba to respect human rights and promote democratic changes.”

It isn’t Day One anymore. So it’s fair to wonder what’s happening with the policy review, why the apparent delay, and what the substance of a future action would be. Since we don’t have an independent line into the West Wing of the White House, we’ll tell you what we think we know (without getting too far ahead of the facts).

Note: As we prepared for publication this afternoon, a new report by Patricia Mazzei of the Miami Herald quoted Florida Senator Marco Rubio saying “I think without a doubt there will be changes in U.S.-Cuba policy,” which he expects President Trump to undertake “strategically.” (More about that below.)

On timing. We heard at a meeting of allies this week that the administration could take action on Cuba as early as the middle of next month, curiously close to the 56th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs invasion. This would be desperately odd timing for President Trump to announce a reversal of the Obama policy and keep his promise to Brigade 2506, veterans of the failed invasion.

The review and the delay. With so many policy hardliners among the Trump transition and landing team staffs, we were skeptical that the policy review would amount to more than window dressing before the campaign promise on Cuba was kept. But the pervasive absence of political appointees across the government – coupled with the firing of Craig Deare, who served so briefly as the National Security Council’s Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere – means there hasn’t been a central White House figure managing the process. The foundational work quite properly was done by career staff at agencies like State and Treasury. These are foreign policy officers and civil servants with the experience to analyze the policy (they have also witnessed the positive results of the last two-plus years), but they lack the decision-making authority that would normally be exercised by appointees at the desks which now have empty chairs. Without them, it is unimaginable for the process to reach a conclusion.

It’s not just Cuba. Reuters reported today that preparations for the next G7 major powers meeting are being delayed by vacancies in both the deputy secretary of state positions and all six regional bureaus, with one European diplomat saying, “We no longer know who to talk to. It is slowing everything down.”

Under normal circumstances – even understaffed as it is, laboring under no deadline, statutory or political – it would cost the Trump administration nothing to slow down so that it could complete the Cuba policy review in an orderly and thoughtful way.

But these are extraordinary times. With the administration’s defeat on health care one week ago, along with chaos in the Capitol over Russian hacking of our election, The Economist is predicting – and we tend to agree – the President will forcefully and, as they say, “theatrically,” move into the “full-throated use of executive orders” to put some points on the board, especially by aligning them with his instincts about exercising power and keeping his campaign promises.

What’s next? President Trump’s approach to Cuba, which is bad for both countries, dispenses with diplomacy and tries to steamroll Cuba’s sovereignty.

Just as the President tried coercion over consensus-building in the House of Representatives, as the New York Times observes, in an unsuccessful effort to enact health care reform, we think he’ll use the same of approach of “threatening sticks and promising carrots” to Cuba, as he promised last fall.

Which was, by the way, exactly what Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart suggested he should do, as we reported last week, when he asked the administration to implement his plan – which gave Cuba’s government 90 days to meet our demands or face the re-imposition of sanctions – in exchange for winning his vote on health care.

That brings us back to what Sen. Rubio talked about with Mega TV host Oscar Haza earlier this week. When he said he expects the White House to address U.S.-Cuba policy “strategically,” was he referring to the President’s threat to restore every restriction President Obama eased unless Havana capitulates to his demands? Yeah, we think so.

Believe us. Obviously, we’d like to see a more favorable outcome. We’d prefer the Obama opening not just remain in place but be expanded to further serve the national interests of the United States and the Cuban people.

As the Cuba review continues, we feel like we’re waiting for Godot, and we’re reminded that April so often is the cruelest month.

This week, in Cuba news…

In Cuba

Cuba to restrict sales of premium gasoline for month of April

According to a memo from Cuba’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, Cuba’s state oil company CUPET will stop selling premium-grade gasoline effective April 1, reports Reuters. The action reflects the impact of ongoing fuel shortages caused by decreased access to subsidized oil shipments from Venezuela. The memo, which was sent to fuel stations and others affected by the shortages, and shared by journalists on social media, says that CUPET “will not be delivering special [premium] fuel throughout April…the special fuel remaining in stock at the gas stations from April 1 will only be sold for cash and to tourists, until the inventory is depleted.”

As Reuters notes, the majority of cars and buses in Cuba use regular fuel, while more modern vehicles – most of which belong to state enterprises and joint ventures, foreign diplomats, and other foreigners living on the island – use the higher-octane premium fuel. A worker at a joint venture that uses Mercedes-Benz vehicles told Reuters that although the government memo had advised entities to use regular grade fuel in the absence of premium, she was concerned that “it is bad for the engines. …. But what can you do, if there is no special fuel?”

[Note to readers: the wording in the memo did not adequately define the exception carved out for tourists or specify fully how cash or “fuel card” transactions would actually be handled.]

Cuba’s renewable energy push slowed by low investment

Thanks to a recent investment from China, Cuba’s largest creditor, construction began recently on a biomass plant in Ciro Redondo in the central Ciego de Ávila province which is Cuba’s “first utility-scale renewable energy project,” Reuters reports. The plant is being constructed by Biopower, a joint venture between Azcuba, Cuba’s state sugar enterprise, and a British company called Havana Energy.

Initiated six years ago, the project is slated to build five biomass plants attached to sugar mills at an estimated cost of $800 million to add about 300 megawatts to Cuba’s power grid.  But it has been chronically short on funding.

Cuba is working to get 24 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030, up from the current 4 percent, a project that will require significant foreign investment.

Other renewable energy projects, such as deals between Cuba’s government and Spanish company Gamesa to build seven wind-powered plants, and a deal with Siemens for broad-based updates of Cuba’s “creaking power grid,” remain in the preliminary stages, still without financing or contracts. Financing agreements for projects have proved troublesome because, as Reuters notes, “On top of the U.S. trade embargo, which frightens banks from offering Cuba loans, Cuba’s payment capacity is questionable,” although Cuba did repay over $5 billion in debt to foreign creditors last year.

In February, Reuters reported on the growing importance of China’s investments in Cuba, particularly as Cuba feels the effects of Venezuela’s economic crisis and the significant reduction of subsidized oil shipments, which has caused fuel shortages on the island since last summer.

Reduced rates for browsing Cuba-based websites; Cuba tops worldwide growth in social-media use

ETECSA, Cuba’s state telecommunications company, announced March 30 that it had reduced the cost for browsing websites hosted in Cuba from 25 cents per hour to 10 cents per hour (in convertible Cuban pesos, approximately equivalent to USD), reports Granma. A fact sheet released by ETECSA clarifies that it maintains a separate, higher rate of 1.50 convertible Cuban pesos per hour to browse internationally based websites.

As we reported last week, ETECSA announced it will sell in-home internet access to up to 38,000 additional residences in Havana, and that it plans to install 180 additional public Wi-Fi hotspots nationwide by the end of the year, 42 of which will be in Havana. According to ETECSA’s website, there are currently 327 Wi-Fi hotspots around the island.

Separately, Americas Society/Council of the Americas reported that Cuba topped the charts for greatest increase in social media use worldwide during 2016, according to a study conducted by Hootsuite and We Are Social. Cuba’s total social media users increased by 368 percent, and mobile social media users went up by 385 percent over 2015. The increase in mobile usage is likely tied to the rapid increase in Wi-Fi hotspots around the island, which Cuba’s government more than tripled over the course of 2016.

LGBT rights laws expected in 2018

Mariela Castro, director of the Cuban National Center for Sex Education (CENESEX), told reporters that a “legislative package” to provide legal recognition of LGBT rights is set to come before Cuba’s National Assembly following the country’s next round of constitutional reforms, expected to take place in 2018, reports the Washington Blade and the website Diario de Cuba.

According to Ms. Castro, a decision had been taken last year, prior to the 7th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, that “as soon as the Constitutional amendments” go through, a series of legislative changes could be considered. Speaking to reporters following the signing of an agreement with the United Nations Population Fund’s Cuba Office and the Netherlands to promote a CENESEX project on sexuality and sex education, Ms. Castro did not elaborate on the content of the anticipated legislative changes; however, the Inter Press Service cites sources within CENESEX who said that the hoped-for reforms include laws allowing for equal marriage, family, and adoption rights for the LGBT community.

On May 17, Cuba will celebrate its 10th annual International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. The Inter Press Service (in Spanish) offers further details about the upcoming festivities.

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cuba had highest rate of U.S. non-immigrant visa denials in 2016

According to the State Department, the U.S. turned away a higher percentage of Cuban visa requests than it did for applicants from any other country in FY2016. The U.S. refused 81.9 percent of B visitor visa applications for tourist or business purposes filed by Cuban citizens, an increase of about 8 percent over 2015. MarketWatch offers a breakdown of results, and the full list of countries and non-immigrant visa refusal rates (in alphabetical order) is available on the State Department’s website. Analysis by the law firm Steptoe & Johnson, LLP, published last November, explains that “Cuba’s high B visa denial rate is tied to the requirement of non-immigrant temporary intent. Applicants have the burden of establishing that they will leave the U.S. at the end of their visit, in compliance with the terms of the category. … Younger applicants are often denied due to doubts as to their intent to leave the U.S. and return to Cuba after their trip. This concern, in turn, is heightened by the Cuban Adjustment Act,” which until January 12 of this year, provided a fast-track to permanent residency status for Cubans who reached dry land in U.S. territory under the now-revoked “wet foot, dry foot” policy.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

President of Colombia to lead trade mission to Cuba

Juan Manuel Santos, President of Colombia, along with Colombia’s Minister of Trade, Industry, and Tourism, and representatives of 37 Colombian businesses, will begin an official visit to Cuba on April 2nd, seeking to strengthen and expand bilateral commercial ties, reports AFP. Colombia exported about $33.5 million worth of goods to Cuba last year. Cuba’s relations with Colombia have become closer in recent years as Cuba acted as host and guarantor of the four-year process of negotiations between Colombia’s government and the FARC which culminated in the peace accord now being implemented.

Cuba sends disaster-relief medical brigade to Peru

As heavy rains and devastating flooding continue in Peru, state news outlet CubaDebate reports that Cuba has sent a crew of 12 doctors, 10 health care professionals, and an administrator to Peru for a month “with sufficient medicine and supplies to treat thousands of people.” Flooding throughout the country has displaced 700,000 people and has killed 94, damaging crops and infrastructure as well, reports the Los Angeles Times. Cuba joins the U.S., China, France, South Korea, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, and the Vatican, in offering disaster relief.

Evo Morales returns to Cuba for throat operation

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, returned to Cuba on March 29 for an operation to remove a nodule from his vocal cords, reports Reuters. As we reported earlier this month, President Morales traveled to Cuba several weeks ago, first for a medical examination and then a second time to receive a diagnosis and treatment for a virus that had caused him to lose his voice.

Recommended Reading

Despite some tensions, evangelical churches booming in Cuba, Andrea Rodríguez, Associated Press

The Associated Press reports on the growth of religious participation in Cuba, particularly in evangelical churches. “Pastors and worshippers say Cuba is in the middle of a boom in evangelical worship, with tens of thousands of Cubans worshipping unmolested across the island each week,” reports the AP, and evangelical churches are starting to offer social services including health- and agriculture-related projects, as well as disaster relief, as the Cuban Catholic Church has done for years. “There’s a revival of these churches, of the most diverse denominations in the country, and all of them are growing, not just in the number of members, but in their capacity to lead and act in society,” Presbyterian pastor Joel Ortega Dopica, president of Council of Churches of Cuba, told the AP.

Cuba’s government “now recognizes freedom of religion” but, as the AP notes, “outside groups have accused Cuba of systematically repressing the island’s growing ranks of evangelicals and other Protestants with acts including the seizure of hundreds of churches across the island, followed by the demolition of many.”  Trump administration officials have identified religious freedom as “one of the key demands they will make of Cuba when they finish reviewing former President Barack Obama’s opening with the island.”

Venezuelans in Tampa Bay hope Floridians show interest in homeland’s plight, Paul Guzzo, Tampa Bay Times

Paul Guzzo spoke with members of the Venezuelan community in the Tampa Bay area who are concerned about their family and friends who remain in Venezuela are vulnerable amid the country’s ongoing economic crisis. We’re pleased to note that Dr. Dan Hellinger, who authors Caracas Connect, the Center for Democracy in the Americas’ periodic report on Venezuela, offered economic and political analysis for the piece.

Don’t Let the Facts Get in the Way of a Good Meme

Apparently, Adam Leposa, Online Managing Editor at Travel Agent Central, didn’t read the memo. Or maybe he’s a sunny optimist. He just published an article titled “New Sunrise Airways Flights to Havana Top Latest Cuba Travel News” which reported that “Sunrise Airways expanded its Cuba service recently with the launch of its first-ever flights to Havana.”

We bet Adam’s article, which contradicts the conventional wisdom, won’t get as much as airplay as “More airlines cut service to Cuba,” which appeared earlier this month in the Los Angeles Times, and others like it. Ever interested in covering stories like a horse race, or a political campaign [Cuba travel is exploding! Cuba travel is shriveling!], these stories set aside the fact that demand for travel to Cuba is rising. They were mesmerized or confused, perhaps, by equally true reports that the carriers which bid against each other for entry into a previously closed market could not predict at the front end how many competitors would be approved by regulators once commercial flights became a thing last year. A shake-out ensued even after the number of visitors from the U.S. and elsewhere swelled. The herd that followed reports like the Times’ wouldn’t let the facts get in the way of a good meme. Hat tip to Mr. Leposa for reporting the news.