CUBA CENTRAL NEWS BRIEF: Dysfunction and Evolution

This week, senators prepare to depart Washington for the annual August recess, already delayed by the dramatic failure of proposed healthcare legislation in the Senate. Gridlock leaves little to show for the 2017 work session to date, and deadlines on the debt ceiling and government funding are looming upon the members’ return.

Considering the hyper-partisanship that has characterized Congress of late, it would be surprising to find bipartisan cooperation anywhere on Capitol Hill. Yet, there is—in the most unlikely of places.

In just two years since the restoration of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in July 2015, we have seen a remarkable evolution in what had been for decades a seemingly immovable political “third rail.”

In January 2015, Sen. Jeff Flake (AZ) introduced, with eight bipartisan cosponsors, a bill to restore the right of Americans to travel to Cuba freely. By the end of 2016, it had garnered 54 total signatories. Flake reintroduced the same bill in May 2017 with 55 total original cosponsors, and he is confident that the bill would garner close to 70 votes in the Senate, closely reflecting overwhelming public support in the U.S. for engagement with Cuba. (73% of Americans support ending the embargo entirely.)

In the House, support for bills that would help the U.S. engage with Cuba continues to grow apace. In October 2015, Rep. Rick Crawford (AR-01) introduced the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act with two of his Republican colleagues, and by the end of 2016 Crawford had secured 49 total cosponsors. Crawford reintroduced his bill in January 2017 with 26 original bipartisan cosponsors, and now counts 56 total signatories covering the entire political and geographical spectrum. Among them is Rep. James Comer (KY-01), who traveled to Cuba with CDA in March 2017 and returned with a strengthened resolve to end the embargo. This week, with Rep. Comer’s leadership, Kentucky became the 17th state to inaugurate an Engage Cuba State Council, bringing together leaders in business, agriculture, and government to advocate for ending the embargo on Cuba. According to Rep. Comer, if a bill to end the embargo received a vote, “it would get about 75 percent of the votes in Congress. It would be a veto-proof majority.”

Just weeks after Sen. Flake reintroduced his bill, President Trump made a Cuba policy speech in Miami, asserting that he would make good on campaign promises to reverse the previous administration’s Cuba initiatives. However, the policy document unveiled at the speech accepts many aspects of recent advances in engagement; it embraces diplomatic relations with Cuba, continues bilateral dialogue on issues of mutual concern, and states the intent of U.S. policy to support Cuban entrepreneurs.

The primary architect of the new policy direction was Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), who has long been against the U.S. opening any kind of relationship with Cuba until all the conditions of the embargo laws are met. The substance of the new policy, and Sen. Rubio’s involvement, demonstrate that such hardline positions are things of the past.

Despite President Trump’s rhetorical support, Cuban entrepreneurs are concerned about the potential impacts of the announced policy. They expressed their apprehensions and brought policy recommendations to Congress and the administration during a trip to Washington earlier this month organized by CDA, Engage Cuba, and Cuba Educational Travel. We take it as a sign of the times that the group received a warm reception in Congress from Republicans and Democrats alike, notably including at a press conference with Sens. Patrick Leahy (VT), Amy Klobuchar (MN), and Flake.

While Congress is steadily catching up with the U.S. public on Cuba policy, the administration’s new Cuba policy likely represents a step backward, as it is ostensibly intended to restrict individual travel to Cuba and to make it more difficult to do business with entities that have even peripheral ties to the Cuban military. Like our Cuban entrepreneur friends, we hope that the final rules, currently being drafted at the U.S. departments and agencies, don’t set back the constructive evolution in U.S.-Cuba relations that we have seen over the past two years. Even Congress could agree on that.

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This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cuba criticizes U.S.’ Venezuela sanctions

Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Relations (MINREX) released a statement this week criticizing the Trump administration’s decision to levy sanctions against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro following Sunday’s widely criticized vote to form a Constituent Assembly to rewrite Venezuela’s constitution, Reuters reports.

In its statement, MINREX called the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control’s actions “unprecedented, arbitrary sanctions that violate international law,” adding, “We are very familiar with these interventionist practices.”

Last week, during remarks at Cuba’s National Rebellion Day celebration, José Ramón Machado Ventura, the second secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party, stated Cuba would not participate in international negotiations regarding the situation in Venezuela, and, “It is up to the Bolivarian people and government, alone, to overcome their difficulties.”

Cuba, Port of Houston sign Memorandum of Understanding

The Port of Houston and Cuba’s National Port Administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in Havana on Wednesday to expand trade and bilateral ties, ABC reports. The agreement is the first of its kind since President Donald Trump announced his policy limiting trade with and travel to Cuba.

The agreement follows a visit by Cuban port officials to Houston in January. Last September, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner led a trade delegation to Cuba, his first international trip as mayor, as the Houston Chronicle reported at the time.

Cuban port officials signed a similar MOU with the Port of Virginia following a trade delegation organized by CDA, and have also made such agreements with the Alabama State Port Authority, Port of New Orleans, and Mississippi’s Ports of Gulfport and Pascagoula. Florida’s Port Everglades, Port of Palm Beach, and Port Tampa Bay each scrapped plans to sign Memoranda of Understanding with Cuba after Governor Rick Scott threatened to cut funding for any port entering into an agreement with Cuba’s government.

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.

In Cuba

Cuba restricts issuing of licenses for some entrepreneurs

Cuba will temporarily halt the issuing of new private business licenses for cuentapropistas (entrepreneurs) in certain fields, including for those wishing to rent rooms in casas particulares (bed and breakfasts) or operate a paladar (restaurant), while entirely ending new licenses for entrepreneurs wishing to sell agricultural products, the Associated Press reports.

According to an article in Granma, the new policy will not affect entrepreneurs who currently hold licenses, but “New authorizations for a group of activities will not be granted until self-employment has been perfected.” Cuba currently has over 500,000 cuentapropistas, up from less than 150,000 in 2010, per Cuba’s National Office of Statistics.

The announcement comes two months after Cuba’s National Assembly voted to approve documents loosening regulations on private businesses, as EFE reported at the time. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro foreshadowed the changes in remarks before the National Assembly last month, stating that the country’s Council of Ministers would issue measures regarding Cuba’s entrepreneurship policies based on observed “violations of existing legal regulations”; even so, President Castro stressed that “we have not given up the unfolding and development of self-employment.”

Such temporary measures are not uncommon in Cuba. Last October, the provincial government of Havana announced that it would temporarily suspend the issuing of new licenses for paladares in order to complete an “auditing process” of myriad suspected legal violations by restaurant owners, as Reuters reported at the time.

Nearly half of territory in Cuba remains affected by drought

Cuba’s ongoing drought, now in its third year, continues to affect 43 percent of the country’s territory, according to the Cuban Meteorology Institute, CubaDebate reports; this number is down from the 71 percent of affected territory EFE reported in March.

The drought, Cuba’s longest in over 100 years, has affected 94,000 people on the island, with the central regions of Santa Clara and Cienfuegos currently the most severely impacted. In April, Cuba’s National Institute for Hydraulic Resources (INRH) stated that it would take two years of normal rainfall for the country to recover from the drought, as EFE reported at the time.

According to the INRH, infrastructure problems such as leaky pipes and chronically low reservoir levels have exacerbated the drought’s effects, while poor irrigation and drainage systems contributed to lower-than-expected yields in Cuba’s sugar industry this year, as Reuters reported in April. The Institute has begun digging wells, constructing desalination plants, and reusing groundwater in attempts to mitigate the effects of the situation.

What We’re Reading

State Department considers scrubbing democracy promotion from its mission, Josh Rogin, Washington Post

The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin writes about an internal State Department email suggesting the Department will remove references to “democracy promotion,” the historical justification for controversial and politically-charged programs in Cuba, from its mission statement.

Cuba has trained 170 U.S. doctors through free education program, EFE

Spanish news agency EFE reports that Havana’s Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), which trains doctors to work in underserved communities, has graduated 170 U.S. doctors, with 83 more currently enrolled.

U.S. should do more, not less, to push exports to Cuba, Randy Veach, Arkansas Business

Randy Veach, president of the Arkansas Farm Bureau, muses on the potential value of Arkansan agricultural exports to Cuba.

What We’re Watching

Where to train the world’s doctors? Cuba, Gail Reed, TEDMED

Gail Reed, executive director of Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba, speaks at a TED Talk medical conference about the importance of supporting international exchanges like ELAM.

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