Three recent news reports have muddied the waters about U.S. visitors to Cuba .
First, last year was a record year for tourism in Cuba with 4.7 million visitors pumping more than $3 billion into the country’s struggling economy. Travelers from the U.S. rose to 619,000, which is more than six times the pre-Obama level.
However, as a result of Hurricane Irma’s hitting the island last September and the Trump Administration’s hostility towards Cuba, including travel restrictions, U.S. visitors to Cuba dropped 30% last month according to Jose Manuel Bisbe York, the president of the Cuban state travel agency. Visitors from other countries also have decreased, but not as much as the U.S. This happened event though Cuba has fixed its tourism facilities over the last several months.
Second, to counter this recent drop in U.S. visitors to the island, on January 29, a score of US companies linked to the tourism sector met in Havana to proclaim that Cuba is a safe destination to which U.S. citizens can still travel legally. The meeting was organized by InsightCuba, a pioneer in organizing and promoting trips to the island.
An executive of American Airlines, which operates nine daily flights to Cuba, said, at the gathering, “We see many opportunities in Cuba, especially on the Havana-Miami route,” and “we have requested permission for 17 additional flights.” The president of the Association of Tour Operators of the United States, Terry Dale, added, “The message is that Cuba is open to business, safe, wonderful and legal for travelers from the United States” Another U.S. businessman said, “The reality is that Americans can continue to travel to Cuba almost as they did before the new regulations.”
Third, also on January 29 the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs told the Nuevo Herald of Miami that 19 U.S. citizens who had visited Cuba after September 2017 had reported medical symptoms similar to those of some U.S. diplomats who had been stationed there. 
The Department’s spokeswoman did not say whether US citizens reported hearing strange noises – as did some of the 24 diplomatic victims so far confirmed – nor whether they would have stayed at the Nacional or Capri hotels in Havana that previously had been identified as sites of some of the “attacks.” .Nor did it clarify whether U.S. doctors and investigators could have determined whether these travelers would have suffered the same kind of attack as diplomats. It encouraged “those who are concerned to seek medical attention.” For reasons of “privacy”, the Department will not disclose where the alleged attacks occurred or their symptoms or even what cities they had visited.
As explained in a prior post, the U.S. still has 12 general license categories that permit U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. Thus, it is legal for U.S. citizens to travel to Cuba. In addition, the latest revision of the State Department’s travel advisory system does not advise citizens not to travel to Cuba; rather, it suggests that citizens reconsider plans to travel to the island (Category 3 of the new advisory system) and only tells them to avoid Havana’s Hotel Nacional and Hotel Capri, where some of the alleged “attacks” on diplomats occurred.
The apparent inability of the U.S. Government after 14 months of investigations here and in Cuba to identify the cause or culprit of the so-called “attacks” on U.S. diplomats and now apparently some ordinary U.S. citizens is at best “perplexing” as State Department officials recently testified at a Senate Subcommittee hearing.
We all need to continue to pay close attention to ongoing developments on these issues.
The Cuban government has not yet released 2016 data on the country’s gross domestic product, exports, money supply and debt even though in June-July 2017 it did release other statistical information. The government even failed to respond to a Reuters question in January 2018 as to when this 2016 information would be released. 
Many speculate that this omission is deliberate to facilitate the Cuban government’s claims in late December 2017 that the economy grew in 2017 by 1.6% when Moody’s and the Economist’s Intelligence Unit had projected that the Cuban recession continued in 2017, while the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) had projected Cuba would have for 2017 an anemic growth of 0.5%.
“The abnormal delay in macroeconomic indicators for 2016 casts doubt on the official estimate of GDP growth in 2017,” said Carmelo Mesa-Lago , professor emeritus of economics at the University of Pittsburgh and author of numerous books on Cuba’s economy. This opinion was echoed by an anonymous Cuban economist, who said, “Whenever things are bad the response from the government is to hide information.”
In early January, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union (EU) for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, conducted an official visit to Cuba to celebrate and solidify the EU’s relationship with Cuba. The visit included her Magisterial Lecture at the San Gerónimo School in Havana; meetings with President Raúl Castro, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and other Cuban officials; and a concluding press conference.
This visit followed the two parties December 12, 2016, signing of the Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement and its July 5, 2017, ratification by the European Parliament and the entry into effect of most of its provisions on November 1, 2017.  Its main chapters concern the following:
Political dialogue, addressing issues, such as human rights, small arms and disarmament, migration, drugs, fight against terrorism and sustainable development;
Cooperation and sector policy dialogue, including areas, such as human rights, governance, civil society, social and economic development, environment as well as regional cooperation;
Trade and trade cooperation, dealing with principles of international trade and covering cooperation on customs, trade facilitation, technical norms and standards, sustainable trade and investment.
Magisterial Lecture: “The EU and Latin America”
Agreement approved in December 2016 : “With the new political dialogue agreement, we have the opportunity to elevate our relations to a level that truly represents the close historical, economic and cultural ties that unite Europe with Cuba. This agreement opens new opportunities to increase our trade, our investments and to promote common solutions to global challenges such as migration, the fight against terrorism, nuclear disarmament and climate change. One example is the new cooperation program to promote the use of renewable energies that we are going to start with Cuba, especially in rural and isolated areas.
Move forward with Cuba:“Even in the most difficult moments of our common history, European and Cuban citizens have never turned their backs on each other. There are so many things that unite us, so many common values, that’s why we know well that the best way to accompany the updating of Cuba’s system is with commitment and dialogue. We want to continue moving forward with Cuba and work for a better future. ”
Strong rejection of the U.S. embargo (blockade) : “The blockade is not the solution. We have said this to our American friends many times and we have affirmed it repeatedly in the United Nations. The only effect of the blockade is to worsen the quality of life of Cuban women, men and children. The blockade is obsolete, illegal and the EU will continue working to put an end to it.”
Influence of Cuba and the EU in the world:“Experiences teach us that if the European Union and Cuba work together we can have a positive influence around the world. Together we have worked in favor of peace in Colombia, in the fight against Ebola in Africa, in the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and in pursuit of achieving the sustainable development goals of the United Nations and the 2030 Agenda. ”
Response to Hurricane Irma: “The assistance and support of the Cuban government to the victims of the hurricane were effective and professional, evacuating almost two million inhabitants to protect their lives. Europeans have contributed a humanitarian package to support the Caribbean countries, including nine million euros. We are facilitating monetary aid to contribute with shelter, food and tools to repair houses in the most affected areas of Cuba such as Villa Clara, Ciego de Ávila, Sancti Spíritus and Camagüey. With these resources we are also helping to recover affected agricultural areas.”
Strengthen the Cuba-EU dialogue on human rights:“We are working to formalize the dialogue between Cuba and Europe on human rights, which began in 2015. Although there are some differences in our respective positions, the openness and willingness to dialogue are always present.”
Common objectives:“The EU and Cuba may be geographically distant, but we have many things in common, not all, but many. We both believe in international collaboration and solidarity, we believe in the power of mediation and dialogue to solve all types of disputes. We believe that the only alternative to the current international disorder is a more cooperative, fairer and more united world order based on multilateralism and the United Nations system. We believe that sustainable development is the great challenge of this century and that the fight against inequalities throughout the world has a direct effect on our own security.”
The Cuban people have not and will not be alone in facing “those who want to build walls and close doors. Regardless of the changes in policy in Washington, the message I am bringing here is that Cuba’s friendship and relationship with the EU is here to stay. It’s solid, it’s stable and it’s reliable.”
Mogherini opened by referring to the EU-Cuba”agreement of political dialogue and cooperation, which is the first legal agreement ever signed between the parties. We have raised our relationships to a new level. The EU is already the first commercial partner, the first investor, and the first partner for the development of Cuba. This agreement now opens new opportunities to increase our trade, our investments, and to promote solutions to global challenges such as immigration and climate change.”
“We will soon sign a new cooperation program for the use of renewable energies worth 18mn (Euros), another for sustainable agriculture of 21 million (Euros), and we will increase and expand the program of cultural exchanges and experts for 10 million (Euros).”
On February 28 in Brussels she and Foreign Minister Rodriguez will preside over the first joint council to discuss how we can further advance our cooperation in concrete projects.
“We are also working to formalize the dialogue between the EU and Cuba on human rights, a dialogue that we maintain in more than 40 countries. Our dialogue with Cuba on human rights began in 2015, and since then, this dialogue has allowed us to address the human rights situation both in Europe and in Cuba. There are differences in our respective visions, but openness and willingness to dialogue are always present within mutual respect.”
“We also have agreed to intensify our cooperation in the area of culture, in particular in 2018 the European Year of Cultural Heritage and with a view to the year 2019 when the 500th anniversary of the city of Havana will be celebrated. Our participation as a European Union is also planned at the book fair and there will be a new edition of the European film festival in June.”
Mogherini said that the EU is a “predictable and solid” partner that can help Cuba manage a political transition and slow, halting economic opening.”We are consistent and we do not have unpredictability in our policies, or sudden shifts,” in an obvious reference to President Trump’s reversal of some elements of President Barack Obama’s opening with Cuba.
The EU has a consolidated opposition to the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba. “The foreign policy priorities and orientations of the EU are autonomous, independent. They are decided in Brussels by the 28 Member States, with the participation of the European Parliament that has supported the finalization of the agreement we have now with Cuba, and we follow our path.”
“We regret that the current U.S. administration has apparently changed policy towards Cuba. We are convinced – as we were one year ago and as we were two years ago, that it is in our European interest; it is in the Cuban interest and it is in the international interest at large, to have relations, to discuss issues of disagreement and to deepen and extend cooperation or partnership on issues that are of mutual interest. For instance, I mentioned climate change, migration which are issues on which the Sustainable Development Goals, the ONE agenda, on which we believe the European Union and Cuba can work well together and we remain convinced of that.”
“A delegation from the European Investment Bank is going to visit Cuba at the end of January to explore possibilities for working together.”
“The world is appreciating, in this moment, the value of having the EU as a solid, reliable, predictable partner. We have differences, but you can always know what to expect from the EU. We are consistent, we do not have unpredictability in our policies or sudden shifts. The process we have launched two years ago of discussing, negotiating an agreement, was leading in a very solid manner to the signature of the agreement, the provisional entry into force of the agreement, the proceeding of ratifications. The might take time to decide but once it is decided it’s solid and there is no element of unpredictability.”
Mogherini expressed what every reasonable person should desire in every relationship, personal and international. The Trump Administration hostile actions and rhetoric against Cuba has provided opportunities for the EU and other nations to expand their connections and relationship with Cuba comes at the expense of the U.S. economic and national interest.
A prior post discussed President Trump’s hostility towards Cuba as providing greater opportunities for Russia’s enhancing its relationship with Cuba. Now American University Professor William LeoGrande, a noted scholar about Cuba, placed the recent expansion of Cuba-Russia economic deals in a broader perspective.
He says their rapprochement began in 2000 “when Putin “succeeded Boris Yeltsin as Russian president and began rebuilding Russia’s global influence by repairing relations with traditional allies.” The first step was “Putin’s 2000 trip to Havana, which resulted in expanded trade deals. . . . That was followed by Raul Castro’s 2009 visit to Moscow during which the two governments signed 33 cooperative agreements, including $354 million in credits and aid for Havana.“
Five years later, observes LeoGrande, “in July 2014, Putin visited the island again and agreed to forgive 90 percent of Cuba’s $32 billion in Soviet-era debt, with the remainder to be retired through debt-equity swaps linked to Russian investments. By the time Raul Castro returned to Moscow in 2015, Russia had signed agreements to invest in airport construction, the development of the Mariel port and metallurgy and oil exploration, and had also agreed to lend Cuba 1.2 billion euros—about $1.36 billion at the time—to develop thermal energy plants.”
In another pre-Trump deal, “in September 2016, Russia announced a new package of commercial agreements in which it will finance $4 billion in development projects focusing on energy and infrastructure, and Cuba will begin exporting pharmaceuticals to Russia.”
Beyond these expanded economic ties, LeoGrande emphasizes, “As Putin tries to restore Russia’s status as a global power, Cuba is an attractive partner right at the doorstep of the [U.S.]. A Russian presence in Cuba is a reminder to Washington that Moscow will respond in kind to the expansion of U.S. influence into Russia’s ‘near abroad’ in places like Ukraine. For Cuba, a closer relationship with Moscow serves as a counterweight to Washington’s renewed hostility under President Donald Trump.”
“Both Havana and Moscow refer to their relationship as a ‘strategic partnership’ that has diplomatic and military components. Diplomatically, Cuba supports Moscow’s positions on Ukraine, Syria and NATO expansion. Militarily, Russia is refurbishing and replacing Cuba’s aging Soviet-era armaments. Russian naval vessels visit Cuban ports, and Russia reportedly wants to establish a new military base on the island.”
The major obstacle to a more robust Cuba-Russia relationship is Cuba’s persistent lack of funds due to few goods for export and its dependence on tourism, remittances and export of medical services to try to make up the difference.
LeoGrande’s comments re-emphasize for this blogger the utter stupidity from the standpoint of U.S. national security and economic interests of the Trump Administration’s hostile rhetoric and actions regarding Cuba. The same lesson should also be evident from the European Union’s strengthening ties with Cuba symbolized by the visit to the island starting today by the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, that will be discussed in a future post.
On December 21, 2017, Cuba’s National Assembly determined that Raúl Castro’s term as President would be extended from February 24 to April 19. The stated reason for the extension was the delay in the start of the electoral cycle caused by Hurricane Irma.
Some, however, speculate that the real reason for the extension is trying to cope with Cuba’s many economic and political problems—slower economic growth (if not decline), declining support from struggling Venezuela and increased U.S. hostility. Perhaps a clearer indication of what is happening will be provided by the March meeting of the Central Committee of Cuba’s Communist Party to discuss the results of the economic guidelines, or reforms, introduced under Castro and talk about a strategy for the coming years.
Indeed, during this session of the National Assembly President Castro said, “Next year will also be complicated for the external finances of the nation, however, we will continue credibility of our economy and reiterate to the creditors the fulfillment of the agreed commitments, and we thank support and understanding for the transitory difficulties that we face.” However, Castro did say, “when the National Assembly is constituted, my second and last term [as] . . . the head of the State and the Government [will end] and Cuba will have a new president.”
Simultaneously the Cuban Government announced new regulations on the emerging private and cooperative sectors of the nation’s economy to more closely regulate the income distribution by cooperatives so that no one may earn more than three times of others in the cooperative. This resulted from investigations revealing that in some non-agricultural cooperatives the president earned fourteen times more than the workers, that this is not a cooperative, but rather a private company and cannot be allowed.
In addition, a cooperative may operate in only one province where it has a legal domicile, and business licenses will be limited to one per person.
Cuba’s Vice President Marino Murillo, who is also the government’s economy czar, said there will be no new approvals for the time being for non-agricultural cooperatives, while their maximum and minimum earnings will be limited to avoid the existence of de-facto private businesses.
According to Michael Bustamante, an assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International University, these new regulations “suggest a continued slowing down, if not an undoing, of the economic reforms implemented between 2010 and 2016.”
 As reported in a December 1 comment to a post about Cuba’s elections, Domingo Amuchastegui, a former Cuban intelligence analyst who now lives in Miami, said, “The fatherland is in danger; it is facing very difficult economic circumstances plus the threat of aggression from a historical enemy. Facing difficult circumstances, revolutionary leaders don’t back down. These are not times to enjoy life in Varadero and spend time with the grandchildren.”
As noted in previous posts, President Donald Trump in only one year in office has expressed hostility towards Cuba in various ways. Those actions have created opportunities for other countries to increase their connections with Cuba and thereby damage U.S. business relations with the island and potentially U.S. national security.
Opportunities for Russia
The foremost beneficiary of these U.S. changes has been Russia.
On December 16, in Havana Cuba President Raúl Castro and Economy Minister Ricardo Cabrisas met with the head of Russian oil company Rosneft, Igor Sechin, for discussions about increasing Cuba’s purchases of oil from Rosneft and modernizing the island’s oil refinery in Cienfuegos. Also participating in the meeting was Mikhail L. Kamynin, Russian ambassador in Cuba.
This May Rosneft started shipping some oil to Cuba, the first significant such sales since the early 1990s. The resumption of this relationship is in response to the U.S. hostility and discouraging U.S. business with the island and to the significant reduction of Venezuela’s shipments of such products to Cuba and the resulting shortages of fuel and electricity for Cubans.
Other Russian beneficiaries are Avtovaz, Russia’s biggest carmaker; KAMAZ, Russia’s largest truck manufacturer; and Sinara, a large locomotive manufacturer. Next month Avtovaz will ship 300 new shiny Lada automobiles to Cuba and hopes to ramp up such exports, thanks to financing from Russian government development bank VEB. Last month Sinara delivered the first of 75 locomotives worth $190 million ordered by Cuba in 2016.
In addition, Russian Railways (RZD) is negotiating to upgrade more than 1000 km of Cuban railroads and to install a high-speed link between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero, in what would be Cuba’s biggest infrastructure project in decades worth $2.26 billion
Aleksandr Bogatyr, Russia’s trade representative in Cuba, said that there Has been a “renaissance” as he forecast bilateral trade could grow to $350 million to $400 million this year, one of its highest levels in nearly two decades, up from $248 million in 2016.
A major obstacle to all of these deals is Cuba’s lack of cash and Russia’s own economic problems. Yet in 2014 Russia forgave 90 percent of Cuba’s $35 billion Soviet-era debt and started providing export financing to Russian companies looking to sell to the cash-strapped island.
An outsider to the Russian connection, Jason Marczak, Director the U.S.-based Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, observed, “Russia sees it as a moment to further its own relationship with Cuba” and “the more the Russian footprint increases in Cuba, the more that will reinforce hardened anti-U.S. attitudes and shut out U.S. businesses from eventually doing greater business in Cuba.”
Challenge to U.S. National Security
All of this also represents a national security challenge to the U.S. This April a group of high-ranking military officers wrote an open letter to the Trump administration urging continuation of the U.S. opening with Cuba. One of the letter’s signatories, retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis, said, “If Russia is willing to offset oil supplies from Venezuela and some other things, maybe Cuba doesn’t have much of a choice but to let them re-establish political warfare operations there.”
This general Russian threat to the U.S. is recognized in the National Security Strategy of the United States of America that was released on December 18. At the very start on page 2 it states,, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” This was made specific with respect to Cuba on page 51 with the following statements: “In Venezuela and Cuba, governments cling to anachronistic leftist authoritarian models that continue to fail their people. Competitors have found operating space in the hemisphere. . . . Russia continues its failed politics of the Cold War by bolstering its radical Cuban allies as Cuba continues to repress its citizens.” (Emphases added.)
The U.S. National Security Strategy reacts to the Russian challenge by saying that the U.S. with Canada and “key countries in the region . . . . will build a stable and peaceful hemisphere that increases economic opportunities for all, improves governance, reduces the power of criminal organizations, and limits the malign influence of non-hemispheric forces. . . . We will catalyze regional efforts to build security and prosperity through strong diplomatic engagement. We will isolate governments that refuse to act as responsible partners in advancing hemispheric peace and prosperity.We look forward to the day when the people of Cuba and Venezuela can enjoy freedom and the benefits of shared prosperity, and we encourage other free states in the hemisphere to support this shared endeavor. (Emphases added.)
But this presidential document fails to acknowledge that this Russian involvement was precipitated, in part, by the Trump Administration’s own hostility towards Cuba and that a continuation of normalization of relations with Cuba would not have provided “operating space” in Cuba for “competitors” like Russia.
A friend has provided me with an illuminating article on Cuba’s current round of elections and the upcoming transition from the Castro brothers presumably to Miguel Diaz-Canel, that was written by William LeoGrande, a professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. and a noted author and commentator on Cuba.
LeoGrande emphasizes that the elections come “at a delicate political moment. Castro’s ambitious economic reform program, the “updating” of the economy, is still a work in progress and has yet to significantly raise the standard of living of most Cubans. Moreover, it is encountering resistance from state and party bureaucrats who are loath to lose control over the levers of economic power and the perks those provide. The economy has also been struggling because of declining oil shipments from Venezuela, which sells oil to Cuba at subsidized prices, helping to ease Cuba’s chronic shortage of hard currency. . . . The resulting energy shortage has forced Cuba to impose drastic conservation measures and pushed the economy into a mild recession last year.”
Hurricane Irma has been another major problem for Cuba. According to LeoGrande, it inflicted “several billion dollars’ worth of damage as it tracked along the north coast before turning toward the Florida Keys. The storm hit some of Cuba’s most lucrative tourist resorts, cutting into the one sector of the economy that has enjoyed sustained growth in recent years. Most of the major hotels predicted they would reopen for business quickly, but the storm did enormous damage to the power grid, leaving large swaths of central Cuba in darkness.”
All of these problems have fueled “popular discontent over the economy and impatience with the slow pace of improvement . . . . In an independent opinion poll taken in late 2016, 46 percent of Cubans rated the nation’s economic performance as poor or very poor, 35 percent rated it as fair, and only 13 percent rated it as good or excellent. Solid majorities reported not seeing much economic progress in recent years for the country or themselves, and they had low expectations for the future.”
Moreover, Cuban people have “become more vocal in expressing . . . [their] discontent. The expansion of internet access, the ability of Cubans to travel abroad without state permission and Raul Castro’s own calls for more open debate about Cuba’s problems have fueled an increasingly robust public sphere.”
This discontent, however, faces major hurdles in electing candidates with these views. They have “formidable obstacles. First, no overt campaigning is allowed, so it is hard for candidates to run on an alternative policy agenda. In the absence of a formal campaign, people learn about candidates by word of mouth.” And the Communist Party of Cuba has the ability “to influence elections by mobilizing its members against candidates it regards as dissidents.”
Nevertheless, the next president, presumably Diaz-Canel, will face the challenge of balancing “the need for economic reform with the fear of change prevalent within key sectors of the political elite.”