CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: Wave the Flag

This week marked the two-year anniversary of the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, the ceremonial event to mark the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba.

August 14, 2015 was a hot day in Havana. Pristine classic cars were parked behind the speakers’ podium, just in front of the Malecón, providing a scenic backdrop for a historic event.

Diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba, severed in 1961, had been restored weeks earlier, and the Cuban flag was already flying above its newly-reinstated embassy in Washington, DC.

Secretary Kerry, who presided over the ceremony, was the first Secretary of State to travel to Cuba in 70 years. His message was simple: the ceremony was to be “truly a memorable occasion – a day for pushing aside old barriers and exploring new possibilities.”

In the weeks and months that followed, both the U.S. and Cuban governments moved quickly to put in place the building blocks of normal diplomatic relations. They established mechanisms for cooperation on issues such as law enforcement and health, signing 22 bilateral agreements between November 2015 and January 2017.

Two years after the flag was raised at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the merits of bilateral cooperation are self-evident. Civil aviation experts are discussing ways to enhance security at our airports, and law enforcement officials are collaborating on criminal investigations. To reverse course would have obvious negative consequences.

President Trump’s National Security Presidential Memorandum, made public in mid-June, directs departments and agencies to “ensure that engagement between the United States and Cuba advances the interests of the United States and the Cuban people.” Most importantly, this memorandum directs continued engagement. The embassies will not be closed, and collaboration on important issues will advance.

It is especially important to have channels of dialogue on areas of disagreement or when things go awry. In the wake of accounts of a sonic incident affecting U.S. diplomats in Havana, both the U.S. and Cuban governments have stated their commitment to cooperate in an investigation.

At the flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy two years ago, high-level U.S. and Cuban government officials came to participate in the making of history. But the true guests of honor were three marines who lowered the U.S. flag in 1961 and returned to Havana to see it raised again over fifty years later. Their presence served as a reminder of the long-term resilience of the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, able to weather the most uncertain of times, and ultimately overcome obstacles for the benefit of our citizens.

In the words of one of the marines, Corporal Francis “Mike” East, to see the U.S. embassy building without its flag felt “like something was wrong, something was missing.” As we reflect on the important gains from engagement achieved in the last two-and-a-half years, we are hopeful that our governments will continue to reaffirm that the U.S. and Cuba are made stronger by cooperation, and that we cannot afford to let that spirit go missing again.

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This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Source of U.S. diplomats’ hearing loss still unknown, Secretary of State Tillerson says

Speaking to reporters during an August 11 press conference at the Trump National Golf Course in Bedminster, New Jersey, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the State Department has “not been able to determine who is to blame” for “health attacks” that caused some U.S. and Canadian diplomatic staff working in Havana to suffer hearing loss, and that he will “hold the Cuban authorities responsible” for determining the source, the Associated Press reports.

Secretary Tillerson also stated that it is Cuba’s responsibility to defend the “safety and security” of U.S. officials in the country, after State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert suggested last week that Cuba was not fulfilling its responsibilities under the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which guarantees protection of diplomatic agents.

As we reported last week, the U.S. State Department asked two diplomats at Cuba’s embassy in Washington to leave the country in May, after an undetermined number of officials at the Embassies of the U.S. and Canada in Cuba had to return to their respective home countries after suffering “a variety of physical symptoms,” including, in some cases, permanent hearing damage, while at their personal residences in Havana. Cuba’s government has released a statement indicating its desire to assist with the ongoing investigation and reiterating its commitment to the 1961 convention.

Cruise lines expand Cuba voyages amid high demand

This week, Carnival Cruise Line announced that it would conduct five new cruises to Cuba in 2018; Azamara Club Cruises stated it would add new overnight stays in Havana in 2018 and 2019 due to “the incredible popularity and high demand” of Cuba trips; and Pearl Seas Cruises reported that it would conduct four cruises involving Cuba in November and December.

Despite tour operators’ concerns about interest in travel to Cuba, cruise lines have expressed enthusiasm in continuing to work on the island. Last week, Norwegian Cruise Lines President and CEO Frank Del Rio told shareholders “no new destination has had quite the impact of Cuba” on the company’s earnings, as the Sun-Sentinel reported. Last month, Victory Cruise Lines announced it would begin Cuba voyages in February 2018. There are currently eight cruise lines authorized to conduct trips to Cuba.

At present, U.S. cruise passengers can travel to Cuba on a general “people-to-people” license, though travelers are likely to face restrictions in their on-shore activities once the Trump administration issues its new Cuba policy regulations.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations July 16. You can find the Cuba Central Team’s comprehensive overview of what we do and don’t know about the President’s Cuba policy at this link.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba releases 2016 report on foreign trade: China replaces Venezuela as top trade partner; imports from U.S. increase

Cuba’s National Office of Statistics (ONE) has published its 2016 annual report on the country’s external sector, showing decreases in both imports and exports in 2015, particularly with regard to key trading partner Venezuela, Reuters reports.

According to the report, Cuba imported $10.2 billion and exported $2.3 billion worth of goods in 2016, values which are respectively 12 and 31 percent lower than in 2015. Cuba’s top imports included machinery parts and agricultural goods such as grains and meat products.

Meanwhile, the report showed Cuba traded $2.6 billion in goods with China ($2.3 billion in imports), making Beijing Cuba’s largest trade partner, the first time Venezuela has not been Cuba’s top partner this decade. The country’s total trade with Venezuela was 47 percent lower than in 2015, and has declined by 69 percent since 2014. In December, President Castro stated that Cuba’s 2016 economic contraction, the country’s first since 1993, was partially attributable to a decline in subsidized oil imports from Caracas, as Reuters reported at the time. According to the ONE report, Venezuela accounted for just 18 percent of Cuba’s total trade last year, down from 41 percent in 2014.

Separately, imports from the U.S. grew by 37 percent, from $180 million in 2015 to $246 million in 2016, according to U.S. Census data. Nonetheless, trade between the two countries remains comparatively low. The U.S. sent at least $300 million in goods to Cuba each year from 2004 to 2013, with trade peaking at over $700 million in 2008. U.S. embargo law requires Cuba to pay cash in advance of receiving any U.S. goods; in recent years, Cuba, facing a limited supply of hard currency and seeing an increase in the number of suppliers that allow the island to make purchases on credit, has turned elsewhere for imports. In January, Representative Rick Crawford (AR-1) introduced the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, a bill to allow agricultural exports to Cuba to be financed on credit; the bill has accrued 57 cosponsors thus far.

Venezuela’s President Maduro visits Cuba

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro traveled to the city of Santiago de Cuba on Tuesday, part of a previously unannounced two-day trip to the island in honor of Fidel Castro’s birthday, the Associated Press reports. President Maduro visited the late President Castro’s tomb alongside Cuba’s current President, Raúl Castro, and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Bruno Rodríguez; it is unclear if President Maduro participated in any official meetings while in the country.

Cuba’s government has been vocal in its criticism of statements and actions it perceives to be violations of Venezuela’s sovereignty. On Sunday, Ana Teresita González, Cuba’s vice minister of foreign affairs, posted a series of tweets condemning President Trump’s statement that the U.S. was considering a “military option” in Venezuela.

What We’re Reading

US and Cuban Researchers to Meet in Havana, Bob Grant, The Scientist

The Scientist publishes an interview with former New Jersey Representative Rush Hult, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, on the future of U.S.-Cuba cooperation in scientific research. Says Hult, “For science to thrive, you must have free exchange of people and ideas.”

Cuban entrepreneurs have created a market that exceeds $3 billion annually, Emilio Morales, Cuba Trade Magazine

Emilio Morales, president and CEO of the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group, discusses in Cuba Trade Magazine how Cuban “entrepreneurs [are] developing very successful and profitable business models” across a wide range of sectors.

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