CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: We’ll Miss Having You in Congress, Senator Flake

These are strange times in Washington. Though this town is accustomed to politicking, today’s climate seems exceedingly fractured. Indeed, as the Pew Research Center noted this week, partisanship among the U.S. public and in Congress is “now wider than at any point in the past two decades.”

On Tuesday, however, we were delivered a sharp rebuke of the current state of affairs, when Arizona Senator Jeff Flake took to the Senate floor to deliver a speech excoriating his congressional colleagues for purportedly putting politics over the country’s best interests. Sen. Flake also used his speech to announce that he will not seek re-election at the end of his term in 2018, because, as he told the Arizona Republic, “there may not be a place for a Republican like me in the current Republican climate or the current Republican Party.”

His retirement is undoubtedly a loss for congressional bipartisanship, and those pushing for positive legislative changes to Cuba policy will miss having Sen. Flake at their side. In his 17 years in Congress, Sen. Flake has fought vigorously to build a bipartisan coalition of Members of Congress who support engagement with Cuba. Nowhere are the fruits of his labor more evident than in his own Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act, a bill to lift restrictions on travel to Cuba which, as the senator has repeatedly noted, “do not exist for travel by Americans to any other country in the world.”

Sen. Flake originally introduced the bill in January 2015 with eight cosponsors. Gradually, he built support for the common-sense legislation, and in May 2017, reintroduced the same bill with 55 bipartisan cosponsors. In June, he stated of the bill, “I am convinced it would pass the Senate with upwards of 70 votes.”

The growth represents the widespread support for engagement across the U.S. public. Over 70 percent of Americans, including 62 percent of Republicans, support ending the trade embargo against Cuba.  Meanwhile, this week also saw a bipartisan pair of House Representatives, Democrat John Conyers (MI-13) and Republican Jodey Arrington (TX-19), sign on to Rep. Rick Crawford’s Cuba Agricultural Exports Act to allow for the use of credit in agricultural sales. The bill now has 62 cosponsors, 43 of whom are Republican.

Indeed, support for engagement with Cuba is now a mainstream opinion among the public and in Congress. And yet, somehow, a minority group of lawmakers continues to stymie engagement. As Sen. Amy Klobuchar, herself the sponsor of the bipartisan Freedom to Export to Cuba Act of 2017, said this week, “We cannot completely derail the relations that we’re building with Cuba, because we know that over 50 years of a failed policy isn’t good for either of our countries.”

For the Executive and congressional leadership to continue to ignore the desires of a majority of the U.S. Senate and the American public is, to borrow a line from one administration official, a dereliction of duty. As Sen. Flake told the Senate Tuesday, “When we remain silent and fail to act … we dishonor our principles and forsake our obligations. Those things are far more important than politics.”

While Sen. Flake’s contributions to the Senate will be missed, we remain hopeful that the spirit of bipartisanship and levelheaded decision-making he championed will remain, or rather, soon return, in Washington.

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This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cuban Airport Security Act passes House

The Cuban Airport Security Act of 2017 passed the U.S. House by voice vote on Wednesday, and has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. The bill, which was introduced Rep. John Katko (NY-24), would require Department of Homeland Security officials to brief Congress on various security features at each of Cuba’s 10 international airports, require U.S. air carriers who employ Cuban nationals to publicly disclose the text of any agreements between the air carrier and the Cuban government, and place restrictions on which Cuban nationals may be employed by these companies.

The level of support for the bill in the Senate is unclear. In 2016, Senators Marco Rubio (FL) and Robert Menendez (NJ) introduced a bill, which did not advance, to similarly require an evaluation of Cuban airport security, although their version would have prohibited commercial air travel to Cuba until such a study was completed.

Cuban officials speak out about U.S.’ diplomat health issues story

Cuba has dedicated 2,000 security officials and intelligence experts to investigate alleged attacks on diplomats’ health in Havana, three officials from Cuba’s Ministry of Interior said in an interview with Reuters this week.

The officials said they have interviewed over 300 people in the neighborhood where most U.S. diplomats live, analyzed air and soil samples in the area, and medically tested dozens of Cuban citizens, but have still been unable to uncover information regarding the cause of the incidents, NBC News reports.

The officials also expressed confusion over the mysterious and wide-ranging symptoms and frustration at the degree of cooperation of U.S. officials, saying that the U.S. has reported just 14 cases to Cuba, despite State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert telling reporters last week that the department has “medically confirmed” 24 individual cases. Both countries, along with Canada, have repeatedly expressed their desire to cooperate in order to resolve the issue.

U.S. names new chargé d’affaires at Havana Embassy

The State Department has named Lawrence Gumbiner chargé d’affaires, ad interim at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. Mr. Gumbiner, a career foreign service officer, previously served from 2014-2017 as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Lima, Peru.

He fills the roll left behind by former chargé Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, who left the Embassy at the completion of his three-year term in Havana in July. Former Deputy Chief of Mission Scott Hamilton served as chargé in the interim.

*Note: This story has been updated to correctly reflect Ambassador DeLaurentis’ departure date.

Editor’s note: Per President Trump’s National Security Memorandum on Cuba policy, relevant agencies began the process of drafting new regulations July 16. We anticipate revised regulations could be published as early as next week. 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.

In Cuba

Cuba prepares for international trade fair

Cuba’s largest trade fair, the 35th Feria Internacional de La Habana (FIHAV), will take place next week, with over 400 companies from 60 countries expected to present, EFE reports.

Sixteen U.S. businesses, including Crowley Maritime and General Electric, will attend; representatives from the Alabama State Port Authority, Maryland Department of Agriculture, and Virginia Department of Agriculture are also slated to present. The 2016 FIHAV included 395 products worth $9.5 billion, including 40 U.S. companies.

EFE cites Rodrigo Malmierca, Cuba’s minister of foreign trade, as stating that the 2017 FIHAV will focus on agriculture, tourism, mining, biotech, oil, and renewable energy.

What We’re Reading

Mariel is Cuba’s big industrial gamble. Could U.S. companies be among investors?, Mimi Whitefield, Miami Herald

The Miami Herald’s Mimi Whitefield writes that Cuba’s rapidly developing Mariel Special Economic Development Zone could provide a major boon to the country’s industrial sector, and be a key access point for U.S. companies looking to work on the island.

For Cubans, Wi-Fi means family, Alexandre Meneghini and Sarah Marsh, Reuters

A photo essay published in Reuters shows how the expansion of Wi-Fi access in Cuba is connecting families across the Florida Straits.

Cuban Art Outshines Politics, Abby Ellin, New York Times

New York Times contributor Abby Ellin writes, “With its politics in flux, Cuba may be more fascinating than ever for Americans already intrigued by its music, culture and art.”

Cuba unveils Jose Marti statue, a gift from Trump’s hometown, Sarah Marsh, Reuters

Cuba this week unveiled a gift from the Bronx Museum of the Arts, a replica of a José Martí statue located in Central Park.

What We’re Listening To

Radio Ambulante on Cuban Emigration to the U.S. [in Spanish]

This two-part podcast from NPR’s Radio Ambulante recounts the journeys of two Cuban migrants on their way to the U.S.

Editor’s note: CDA is seeking interns for the Spring 2018 semester! Applications are due by November 15. Please visit our website for more information about how to apply.

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