U.S. Reactions to the New President of Cuba

A prior post reported the April 19 election of Miguel Díaz-Canel as the new President of Cuba. U.S. reactions to that election  have been unanimous: at least initially there probably will be no major changes in Cuba’s international and domestic policies, and many also say there was not a democratic transition of power. Here is a sampling of these U.S. reactions.

U.S. Reactions

Soon after Raúl Castro in his April 19 speech referred to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s leaving the Summit of the Americas, Pence tweeted the U.S. will not rest until Cuba “has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free! #CubaLibre.”[1]

On April 18 a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council told an independent Cuban news outlet, “The United States has no expectation that the Cuban people will see greater liberties under Castro’s hand-picked successor. We will continue to show solidarity with the Cuban people in their petition for freedom and prosperity, so we are not expected to change our policy of directing funds to the Cuban people and away from Cuba’s military, security and intelligence services.”[2]

The previous day the spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Heather Nauert, said, “As we watch what’s taken place at the Cuba national assembly, we certainly see that that’s not a democratic transition. So when we see that something is not a democratic transition, that’s of great concern to us. We would like citizens to be able to have a say in their political outcomes, and this certainly does not seem like regular folks will have a say. . . . They basically don’t have a real or meaningful choice because it’s not a democratic process. We hope that Cuba’s new president will listen to the Cuban people. We’re not sure that that’s going to happen. We would like a more free and democratic Cuba. We will be watching but aren’t overly optimistic, because this isn’t a democratic process.”[3]

A New York Times editorial stated, “Rául Castro, who handpicked this loyal apparatchik as his successor, remains at the helm of the Communist Party and the armed forces; his son runs the intelligence services; his ex-son-in-law runs the military’s vast business interests. In his first speech, Mr. Díaz-Canel vowed there would be no “capitalist restoration” and concluded with a slogan that has not roused the masses for some time now: “Socialism or death! We will triumph!”[4]

The Times’ editorial also stated, “President “Trump should join with Cuba’s other neighbors to encourage the new Cuban leader to expand the private economy, release political prisoners, increase access to the internet, decentralize power and in other critically needed ways finally break his country out of the Castro cocoon.”

After noting his concurrence in not expecting major changes in Cuba, Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and executive director of Global Americans, urges changes in U.S. policies regarding the island. He says, “While it is not in America’s interest to promote investment to prop up an anachronistic, repressive regime, it is also not in its interest to stand by while a neighbor’s fragile economy crumbles under the weight of its failed policies. In the worst of cases, an economic implosion would produce social unrest and waves of migrants to American shores.” To that end, he suggests, “Multilateral banks like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, at Washington’s urging, could be given special allowances to offer economic assistance to the next Cuban government while providing international cover for American-led efforts. Any aid should come with a strong message from Washington and the banks that the Cuban government must refrain from repression in response to protests.” Sabatini also recommends that the U.S. restore the full staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.[5]

Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition of businesses and others that supports U.S.-Cuba normalization, issued two statements about this change.[6]

The first one said this “is a historic and potentially transformative change. The new Cuban president will face an internal political struggle between continuity and reform. I hope that they choose reform and openness, including greater support for the private sector and access to the internet.” It added, “The [U.S.] must also seize this historic moment. After 60 years of a failed embargo, it is time to recognize that with this Cuban transition comes opportunity. We must show leadership and constructively engage. If President Trump is willing to meet with the hostile leader of North Korea, surely we can talk with Cuba. If the U.S. abandons Cuba and fails to lead, we can be sure our adversaries in China and Russia will fill the void, and the losers will be the Cuban people.”

The second press release from Engage Cuba stated the following:

  • “U.S. policy . . . [should] encourage the change we’d like to see. For almost 60 years we have pursued an embargo policy that has failed. With new generational leadership in Cuba, we now have an opportunity to reimagine our policy for the 21st century. We know that continuing the embargo will not work, so let us not double down on 60 years of failure. President Trump and Congress should seize this moment, support the Cuban private sector, let American businesses compete, and look to the future with a modern policy of constructive engagement. After all, the American and Cuban people overwhelmingly support engagement and improved relations. Washington politicians should listen to them for a change.”
  • “Diaz-Canel inherits the challenges of Castro’s Cuba, particularly on the economic front. In the interest of institutional continuity, reforms under Diaz-Canel are expected to be gradual. But market distortions caused by the country’s multiple exchange rates, slow GDP growth, and declining exports will test the new president’s ability to balance badly needed reform with preserving Cuba’s brand of socialism.”
  • “The transition comes at a time of historically low diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Cuba. The health incidents affecting U.S. diplomats remain an unsolved mystery,which the State Department has used as a rationale for slashing U.S. embassy staff in Havana. Diplomatic personnel have been reduced to 40 percent capacity (12 officers), with no consular services for Cubans seeking U.S. travel or immigrant visas.”
  • “In this transitional period, the fragile U.S.-Cuba relationship poses national security risks for the U.S. Both Russia and China have ramped up exports and investment in Cuba and expressed interest in increasing military and intelligence presence in the region. Further U.S. withdrawal from Cuba could jeopardize the dozens of agreements and joint security initiatives between the two nations.”

The leading long-time U.S. opponent of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), stated, “The sham ‘elections’ in Cuba were nothing more than a predetermined charade by the Castro regime. With Raul Castro stepping down today, and his appointed crony Miguel Diaz-Canel taking his place, Cuba will continue to be imprisoned under the rule of an oppressive single-party political system. The Cuban dictatorship portrays this election as a step towards change, yet we know that Diaz-Canel and the regime will remain an enemy of democracy, human rights and the impartial rule of law. If Castro really wanted democratic change for Cuba, he would allow the Cuban people to determine their fate through free, fair, and multi-party elections. “[7]

Cuban Reactions Through U.S. Eyes

 According to a U.S. journalist in Havana, no Cubans seemed to have been watching and listening to the televised April 19 speeches by Díaz-Canel and Raúl Castro. “Instead, a collective sense of apathy seemed to permeate Havana, a feeling that appeared to have been fostered, at least to some degree, by the government itself.” This was coupled with “a sense of hopelessness.”[8]

Conclusion

As apparent from many previous posts, this blog consistently has called for U.S.-Cuba normalization, rescinding the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, restoring the full staffing of our Havana Embassy and of Cuba’s embassy in Washington, D.C., rescinding the recent U.S. warning about U.S. citizens traveling to the island, ceasing U.S. efforts that seek to change Cuba’s regime, continuing the bilateral meetings that address issues of common concern and engaging in efforts to resolve other long-pending issues (U.S. claims for Cuban compensation for expropriation of property owned by American interests, Cuban claims for damages from the embargo and other actions and disputes about Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S.).

Such changes in U.S. policies would do a lot to encourage changes in Cuba’s policies and improve the lot of the Cuban people.

It must also be said that U.S. does not have standing to criticize  Cuba’s not having a national popular election to choose its president. How can anyone forget that the U.S. still uses an antiquated indirect way (the Electoral College) to choose its president and vice president while some state voting laws have been designed to discourage voting by African-Americans.

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[1] Assoc. Press, The Latest: Pence tweets response to Cuba’s Raul Castro, Wash. Post (April 19, 2018).

[2] The White House rules out changes in its policy towards Cuba, Diario de Cuba (April 19, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-April 17, 2018.

[4] Editorial, A New Cuba After the Castros? Not Quite, N.Y. Times (April 20, 2018).

[5] Sabatini, We Shouldn’t Ignore Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 17, 2018). 

[6] Press Release, Engage Cuba Statement on Selection of New Cuban President (April 19, 2018); Press Release, Engage Cuba Statement on Cuba’s Presidential Transition (April 19, 2018).

[7] Press Release, Rubio Statement on Sham Cuban “Elections,” (April 18, 2018).

[8] Ahmed, Cubans Doubt a Change at the Top Will Bring Change at the Bottom, N.Y. Times (April 21, 2018).

Developments Regarding the Summit of the Americas 

Later this week the Summit of the Americans takes place in Lima, Peru. Interesting  developments regarding the Summit have taken place from the U.S. and Cuba.

U.S. Developments[1]

On April 10 President Trump cancelled his scheduled attendance at the Summit of the Americans in Peru. The stated reason was his need to attend to the new crisis in Syria: the Syrian regime chemical weapons attack on some of its citizens and President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. was considering a military response.

The New York Times reporter, Julie Davis, said, “Scrapping the trip spared Mr. Trump potentially unpleasant interactions with leaders of Latin American nations whose citizens have been insulted by his harsh language about their countries as sources of illegal immigration, criminal gangs and illicit narcotics. White House officials said Vice President Mike Pence would attend the summit meeting in the president’s place.

“Skipping the Summit of the Americas sends a terrible message about U.S. disengagement in our hemisphere, compounding negative message of Trump’s Cuba, NAFTA and immigration policies,” was the opinion of Benjamin J. Rhodes, who served as a deputy national security adviser in Mr. Obama’s White House and who was the principal negotiator of the U.S.’ opening to Cuba in December 2014.

A similar opinion was voiced by Richard E. Feinberg, a senior Latin America fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. He said, “Trump’s dropping out of the Lima summit is an appalling demonstration of disrespect for Latin America. “This has to be seen in the context of a president who has been ranting and railing against Latin America continually for the last several years. They’re his bête noire. They’re his scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in America, from immigration to narcotics to alleged loss of jobs from trade.”

A more nuanced opinion was offered by Christopher Sabatini, executive director of Global Americans, a group promoting better engagement in the region. He said,  “The truth is, given the level of discourse on trade, immigrants and intervention coming from this administration, not paying much attention to the region may be welcome by a number of governments as they search for their own alternatives. The question though is what it means for U.S. leadership, not just now but over the long term.”

The region’s leaders  seemed to be taking the U.S. decision in stride, reflecting some of the unease generated by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and growing economic self-confidence in a region long resentful of Washington’s dominance.

The U.S. State Department announced that Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan will accompany Vice President Mike Pence at the Summit, where the U.S. “will promote priorities of mutual interest to the region, including supporting democracy; addressing the political and humanitarian crisis and restoring democracy in Venezuela; stemming corruption and transnational crime, and promoting economic prosperity.” Sullivan will meet separately with leaders from Peru, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico, Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The State Department noted that Sullivan “will also engage with members of Cuban and Venezuelan independent civil society.” Apparently he will avoid meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro.

In another release the Department said it had “received numerous, credible reports that the Cuban government prevented, and continues to prevent, members of independent civil society from traveling to Peru to participate in the Summit . . . .  Cuban authorities prevented these individuals’ travel through arbitrary stops at the airport, short-term detentions, and visits to individuals’ homes to warn them against trying to leave the island.”

The Department’s release further stated that the U.S. “condemns these actions. We call on the Cuban government to facilitate full, robust participation in the Summit by allowing the free and unrestricted travel of its citizens, a universal human right.” As a result, the U.S. “stands with the brave activists facing repression by the Cuban regime. We are working with the Government of Peru and civil society to promote a Summit that features open, inclusive dialogue with the full participation of independent civil society representatives from Cuba and the hemisphere.”

At the Press Briefing the same day, the Department said that on April 12 Sullivan would be meeting with “with Cuban NGOs and opposition leaders,” but there was no meeting scheduled with Castro.

Cuba Developments[2]

Cuba has an official delegation of people from its purported civil society, who already are in Peru to attend the alternative Peoples Summit that has been organized by Peru’s General Confederation of Workers (CGTP). Its leader said it would express “support for the Cuban Revolution and reaffirm the commitment to progressive and left governments of Latin America and the Caribbean currently being ‘sabotaged by imperialism.”’ On April 12 they have planned an anti-imperialist rally called “Trump out of Peru,” but with Trump not coming, they will have to have a different theme.

The official Cuba delegation of civil society has criticized “attempts by mercenaries and groups with links to terrorists to pass for supposed representatives of Cuban civil society.” The official delegation’s official statement expressed their desire “to contribute the experience of the Cuban Revolution that has, over almost 60 years, constructed a consensus in favor of our political, economic, and social system, forged through participative, socialist democracy, in which human beings constitutes the highest priority, and in which government is exercised by the people.”

These Cubans vandalized a Lima billboard that said in Spanish (here in English translation): “Cuba, enough of corruption, repression and impunity, stop human rights violations.”

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[1]  Davis, Trump Cancels Trip to Latin America, Citing Crisis in Syria, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2018); Assoc. Press, Latin America Takes Trump’s Forgoing of Summit in Stride, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Acting Secretary Sullivan Travel to Lima, Peru, To Participate in the Summit of the Americas (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, On Cuba’s Restriction of Civil Society Participation in the Summit of the Americans (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-April 10, 2018.

[2] Gómez, People’s Summit kicks off in Lima, Granma (April 10, 2018); Statement from Cuban delegation to 8th Summit of the Americas parallel forums, Granma (April 9, 2018); ‘Shock troops’ of the Cuban regime in Lima vandalize the fences that denounced the repression, diario de Cuba (April 11, 2018); “CUBA in #Cumbre”, Cuba Debate.

 

Lobbying the Incoming Trump Administration To Continue Normalization with Cuba  

Major supporters of U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba have been lobbying the incoming Trump administration to continue that policy. This includes Cuban entrepreneurs, as discussed in a prior post, and most recently U.S. agricultural and business groups.

Agricultural Groups[1]

On January 12 over 100 U.S. agricultural trade groups, including the American Farm Bureau and the American Feed Industry Association, sent a letter to President-Elect Trump. It said, ” we urge you to continue to show your support for American agriculture by advancing the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba and building on the progress that has already been made.”

The letter cited a recent deep dip in farm income to bolster their argument that U.S. farmers needed more trade. “Net farm income is down 46 percent from just three years ago, constituting the largest three-year drop since the start of the Great Depression.”

They also mentioned that under an exception to the U.S. trade embargo from the year 2000, Cuba may import agricultural products for cash, but this cash limitation limits the ability of U.S. agriculture to export to Cuba. Therefore, the letter calls on Trump to allow normal trade financing and credit so the sector can better compete for the Cuban market.

The letter concluded with these words: “As a broad cross-section of rural America, we urge you not to take steps to reverse progress made in normalizing relations with Cuba, and also solicit your support for the agricultural business sector to expand trade with Cuba to help American farmers and our associated industries. It’s time to put the 17 million American jobs associated with agriculture ahead of a few hardline politicians in Washington.”

Business Groups[2]

On January 17 the Cuban Study Group, an organization of Cuban-American business leaders, led a group of advocates for U.S.-Cuba normalization, in submitting to the President-elect a memorandum entitled “U.S. Policy Toward Cuba: the Case for Engagement.”

It argued that continued engagement with Cuba will create U.S. jobs and facilitate more positive change on the island. It states “constructive engagement — including the reduction of travel and commercial barriers — is the best strategy for supporting the Cuban people and boosting U.S. jobs and exports.” Indeed, further progress toward normalization stands the best chance of improving security just off U.S. shores, reducing irregular migration, enhancing the management of U.S. borders, and encouraging continued, positive evolution inside the island.” More specifically, continued engagement with Cuba should produce the following benefits to the U.S.:”

  • “U.S. Job Creation. Further engagement would allow the United States to regain lost market share in emerging Cuban markets from economic competitors such as China, Vietnam, and Brazil and employ thousands of U.S. workers in agribusiness, infrastructure, tech, and tourism.
  • Cuban-American support. Lifting restrictions on remittances and travel allows Cuban-Americans to support their families in Cuba and provide critical seed funding for the island’s nascent private sector.
  • Cuba’s burgeoning entrepreneurial sector. In just a few years, Cuba’s private sector has grown to account for 30% of the country’s workforce. U.S. travelers to Cuba have become the principal source of revenue for many small businesses.
  • Greater access to information. Internet access is growing, and continued engagement can further contribute to connectivity and the development of civil society in Cuba.”

Moreover, they say, “to reflexively reverse course could have pernicious consequences for U.S. economic and foreign policy interests and the prospects of evolutionary change in Cuba.”

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[1] Engage Cuba, Over 100 U.S. Agriculture Groups Urge Trump to Strengthen U.S.-Cuba Trade Relationship (Jan. 13, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Farmers Ask Trump to Stay the Course on Cuba, N.Y. Times (Jan. 12, 2017).

[2] Engage Cuba, Cuba Groups to Trump: Reversing Course Could Harm Cuban People and U.S. Interests (Jan. 17, 2017); Reuters, U.S.-Cuba Detente Supporters Make Last-ditch Effort to Sway Trump, N.Y. Times (Jan. 17, 2017).

The other signers of the memorandum are the American Society/Council of the Americas; the U.S.-Cuba Business Council; the Center for Democracy in the Americas; Ted Piccone, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institution; Richard E. Feinberg, Professor, UC San Diego and Senior Fellow (non-resident), Brookings Institution; William M. LeoGrande, Professor of Government, American University; Engage Cuba; Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA); Latin America Working Group; National Foreign Trade Council (NFTC); Christopher Sabatini, Executive Director, Global Americans and Lecturer, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; The National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA) National Tour Association (NTA) United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) TechFreedom The American Society of Travel Agents NAFSA: The Association of International Educators; the National Foreign Trade Council, the American Society of Travel Agents and the Association of International Educators; Christopher Sabatini, Executive Director, Global Americans and Lecturer, Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs; The National Cooperative Business Association CLUSA International (NCBA CLUSA); National Tour Association (NTA) United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA); TechFreedom; The American Society of Travel Agents; NAFSA: The Association of International Educators.

 

Different Views of the Cuban Health-Care System? 

 

Christopher Sabatini
Christopher Sabatini

A prior post referenced criticism of the Cuban health system from Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and director of Global Americans, a research institute focused on the foreign policy of human rights and social inclusion.

Although he recognized that there have been health-care advances in Cuba with Cuban life-expectancy the second-highest in Latin America and that Cuba justifiably is proud of its medical education and sending its physicians to other countries, Sabatini said “advanced health care is flagging” in Cuba with “the health system used by average Cubans in crisis” and hospitals “generally poorly maintained and short of staff and medicines.”

Sammy Almashat
Sammy Almashat

Sammy Almashat, a M.D. and M.P.H. researcher with Public Citizen’s Health Research Group, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, in a letter to the Washington Post takes issue with Sabatini. Almashat asserts that “Sabatini’s sweeping critique of Cuba’s health-care system was strikingly bereft of evidence and relied entirely on scattered anecdotes from a few reports to support his claims. This is not surprising given that the evidence overwhelmingly contradicts his analysis.”[1]

Whereas Sabatini claimed that Cuba’s advanced health care is “flagging,” Almashat says “Cuba has cutting-edge research centers in fields such as genetic engineering and neuroscience, and academic journals in all major medical specialties. According to the organization Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba, Cuban doctors have performed more than 6,000 liver, kidney and heart transplants. Cuba’s biotech sector also has long been a leading exporter of pharmaceuticals.”

Almashot also disputes “Sabatini’s claim of a Cuban physician shortage as Cuba has far more physicians per capita than the [U.S.], which does suffer from a shortage of primary-care physicians. Cuba’s physician workforce includes more than 20,000 specialists in more than 60 fields, almost as many specialists per capita as the [U.S.] has in physicians overall.”

Even assuming that Almashat’s factual assertions are well founded, he overstates his criticism of Sabatini.

First, Sabatini’s article obviously was not intended as a thorough examination of the Cuban health system. Instead, he mentioned the system as only one of five so called “myths” about the alleged greatness of the Cuban system.

Second, Sabatini claimed that Cuban “advanced health care is flagging,” which is directed to the health care actually delivered to patients. The existence of Cuban medical research centers, academic journals and manufacturing and exporting pharmaceuticals does not rebut Sabatini’s assertion. The claim that Cuban doctors have performed 6,000 liver, kidney and heart transplants, on the other hand, again if true, suggests at least a qualification to Sabatini’s statement.

Third, Sabatini did not claim there was a general shortage of Cuban physicians, but rather that Cuban hospitals generally were “short of staff,” without specifying what kind of staff. Thus, Almashat’s citation of the number of Cuban physicians per capita and the number of Cuban specialists does not meet the point made by Sabatini.

This commentary is merely based upon a close reading of the article and the letter. I do not have any independent knowledge or data to confirm or deny the assertions of either author. The conflict of these two authors instead suggests that while there is much to admire in the Cuban medical system, it is not without problems. It is neither heaven nor hell.

I, however, do believe, on the basis of news reports that Almashat correctly observes that Cuba has a large number of qualified primary-care physicians while the U.S. “does suffer from a shortage of primary-care physicians,” a problem that is projected to become worse, for example, in the State of Minnesota with an aging population, especially in rural parts of the state.

I, therefore, wonder whether the U.S. and Cuba could come to an agreement for Cuba to provide primary-care physicians to the U.S. This may well require revisions in state medical qualification standards, but given the recent legalization of health-care providers other than physicians, as an outsider I think this should not be an insurmountable problem.

I also suggest that Sabatini and Almashat confer and collaborate on a joint article about the Cuban medical system. I suspect that they would find a lot of agreement.

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[1] Almashat, Letter to Washington Post: Cuba’s health-care system remains cutting-edge, Wash. Post (April 8, 2016). Almashat also has written a more general article about the Cuban health-care system. Almashat, The Cuban Health System at the Dawn of Détente, Huff. Post (Mar. 23, 2016).

Other Reactions to Fidel Castro’s Commentary on President Obama’s Visit 

Fidel’s commentary on President Obama’s recent visit to Cuba, which was discussed in an earlier post, has received a lot of coverage in the international press, but most articles merely summarize what Fidel said with little analysis. Here are substantive reactions to Fidel’s commentary.

Sebastian Arcos’ Reaction

The Wall Street Journal offered an analysis by Sebastian A. Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, who said Fidel is “essentially an old man ranting in the background, [his essay is} rambling, it’s incoherent. It’s definitely not on topic.” This is consistent to my reaction as stated in the prior post.[1]

Yoani Sanchez’s Reactions

My prior post also expressed disagreement with Fidel’s assertion that Cuba could produce all the food it needed. According to the Wall Street Journal, this assertion also was challenged by Yoani Sanchez, a dissident Cuban blogger, She points out that cash-strapped Cuba spends nearly $2 billion a year importing 80% of the food that its 11 million residents consume. Yoani also reported that Mr. Obama’s speech has been distributed extensively on the island, with high-resolution videos of the address on computer memory drives.

Christopher Sabatini’s Reactions

Another point of disagreement with Fidel, as noted in the prior post, was regarding his contention that the Cuban Revolution had swept away racial discrimination.

Also disagreeing with this Fidel contention is Christopher Sabatini, an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and director of Global Americans, a research institute focused on the foreign policy of human rights and social inclusion. He says that Cuba’s purported racial utopia is a myth. Sabatini contends that according to a 2011 study “’black and mixed populations, on average, are concentrated in the worst housing conditions’ and tend to work in lower-paying, manual-labor jobs.” Moreover, racial “structural disparities have increased” with “blacks and mestizos occupy[ing] only 5 percent of the lucrative higher-end jobs (managers and technicians) in the tourism industry but are heavily represented in low-level jobs.” Yet another index of racial disparities was foreign remittances to Cubans “overwhelmingly go[ing] . . . to its non-black population.”[2]

Another myth about Cuba, says Sabatini, is the alleged greatness of the Cuban health system. Although there have been health-care advances in Cuba with Cuban life-expectancy the second-highest in Latin America at 79.1 years and although Cuba justifiably is proud of its medical education and sending its physicians to other countries, “advanced health care is flagging” in Cuba with “the health system used by average Cubans in crisis” and hospitals “generally poorly maintained and short of staff and medicines.”

I am not a physician and do not have personal knowledge on this issue, but on my first visit to Cuba in 2002 I visited a polyclinic in the city of Matanzas and observed poor, unsanitary conditions, and on every mission trip to Cuba members of my church always take large supplies of over-the-counter medicines that the church then dispenses as a de facto pharmacy. In addition, an Ecuadorian ophthalmologist and a retired emergency room physician have told me that they have had to solve medical problems created by poor care from visiting Cuban medical personnel, but I do not know if these are isolated or widespread instances.

 White House Reactions

On March 28 White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest made extensive comments about Fidel’s commentary and the President’s visit to Cuba. The Secretary said, “the fact that [Fidel Castro] . . . felt compelled to respond so forcefully to the President’s visit . . . is an indication of the significant impact of President Obama’s visit to Cuba.  We obviously were quite pleased with the reception that President Obama received from the Cuban people.  [We are] . . . also pleased with the kind of conversations that President Obama was able to have with other Cuban government officials.  There was an opportunity for us to discuss what additional steps can be taken to normalize relations between our two countries.”[3]

Earnest continued, “The President made clear time and time again, both in private meetings with President [Raúl] Castro, but also in public when he delivered a speech to the Cuban people, that the U.S. commitment to human rights is rock-solid, and that’s not going to change.  And we’re going to continue to be leading advocates — and President Obama is going to continue to be a leading advocate — for universal human rights, not just in the Western Hemisphere but around the world.”

“And the kind of engagement that President Obama was able to pursue in the context of his visit is the kind of engagement that would not have been possible had he not made the trip.  The President was able to go to Cuba and urge President [Raúl] Castro in person about the importance of human rights.  The President was able to stand before a news conference, the assembled global media, and make a forceful case for the Cuban government to better protect universal human rights.  That also created a venue where a couple of your colleagues were able to ask President [Raúl] Castro about this issue directly.

That’s the kind of thing that’s never happened before.  And there’s no denying that creates some additional pressure on the Cuban government.  And again, the fact that the former President [Fidel Castro] felt compelled to respond I think is an indication that the trip had its intended effect.“

Ernest also said the U.S. was “ constantly in a position to be urging the government of Cuba to do a better job of protecting the universal human rights of their people, but we’re also making a specific push to look out for those that we know are being targeted because of their political views.  So that is to say our call for greater respect for human rights on the island of Cuba is both a generalized call about respecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people, but it’s also a specific call about making sure that individuals who have been victimized or targeted or rounded up or tortured because of their political views are freed.”

“Those efforts are going to continue.  And importantly, the United States and our government is not the only one encouraging Cuba to take these important steps.”

“One of the benefits of this policy change that the President has announced is that, for a long time, our policy toward Cuba served as an impediment to our relations with other countries throughout the hemisphere.  And for a long time, we saw countries in the Western Hemisphere who were more focused on the U.S. policy toward Cuba than they were on the policy of the Cuban government toward its own people.  Now that impediment has been removed, and now we are seeing greater scrutiny applied toward the Cuban government and, frankly, tougher questions being raised about the way that the Cuban government treats its own people.  That’s a helpful thing.  And that added pressure will only be a good thing for the Cuban people in the long run.”

“The President did have an opportunity in the course of his conversations to make clear that the kind of work that’s currently being done in law enforcement channels to try to coordinate the return of some of these fugitives is a priority of his.  And he made that clear at the highest levels of the Cuban government.  And we’re going to continue to push for those kinds of issues to be resolved because they’re a genuine irritant in our relationship.”

In “every meeting that the President had with a Latin American leader in the first few years of his presidency, . . . that at some point, the discussion was actually consumed by the nonsensical U.S. policy toward Cuba.  And that was getting in the way of the ability of the United States to engage in the kinds of conversations that actually are helpful to our national security interests.  And in some cases, that actually has opened up and created space for the President to have a conversation with other world leaders about the human rights situation in Cuba, which, after all, is actually the whole point of this exercise and was the point of that policy.  And that’s why the President viewed it as a failed policy that had negative consequences for our relationship with other countries in Latin America — that too often they were talking about the embargo and not about the serious human rights situation inside of Cuba.”

Cuban Foreign Minister’s Reactions

On March 29 Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said that ending the embargo (blockade) had to be the unilateral act of the U.S. It would not be the result of any negotiation with Cuba or any concessions by Cuba. He also said the U.S. still has the strategic objective of dominating Cuba economically and politically, but that Cuba would never give up the principles of the Revolution or its independence. This point was made, Rodriguez said, in the timely reflection of Fidel Castro with his extraordinary historical authority when he said Cuba does not need gifts from the U.S.[4]

Conclusion

In short, Fidel Castro overstates the case for the Cuban Revolution. Yes, it has made improvements in many aspects of Cuban life. But the Revolution did not create an utopia. Cuba is neither heaven nor hell. There is still room for improvement. The same is true of the U.S., as President Obama acknowledged in his speech to the Cuban people.

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[1] Vyas, Fidel Castro Lashes Out at Obama After Cuba Visit, W.S.J. (Mar. 28, 2016)

[2] Sabatini, 5 myths about Cuba, Wash. Post (Mar. 25, 2016),

[3] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh earnest, 3/28/2016 Also on March 28, a U.S. Department of State spokesman said Fidel Castro “can speak for himself and his views of the troubled U.S.-Cuban history. . . . [The U.S.] believes “engagement’s the best way forward. . . . Nobody expected that the normalization process with Cuba was going to be linear or easy or quick. We all recognize there are still differences – human rights being one of them.”.

[4] Prensa Latina, End the blockade must be US unilateral act, Granma (Mar. 29, 2016).

Congressional Opponents of U.S.-Cuba Reconciliation Accept Terrorism Rescission

On April 23 U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL), a Cuban-American, announced that congressional opponents of U.S.-Cuba reconciliation reluctantly had accepted President Obama’s decision to rescind the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” that was the subject of a prior post. [1]

She said that she and 35 other representatives had been preparing to draft a resolution opposing the rescission before a joint decision was made not to go forward. The reason was their conclusion that a “joint resolution to repeal President Obama’s de-listing of Cuba from the state sponsor of terrorism list would not have the far-ranging implications that many had assumed it would.” Legally, Ros-Lehtinen said, Congress cannot prevent the White House from taking Cuba off the list because not all the statutes that govern designation of a country as a state sponsor of terrorism provide a way for Congress to block a de-listing.

The Congressional Research Service and the State Department, on the other hand, earlier had said a joint resolution by both houses could block the rescission, provided the resolution withstood a veto by Mr. Obama.

Several analysts had cast doubt on whether there was enough support in Congress to try to block Mr. Obama’s decision. Indeed, Christopher Sabatini, a scholar of U.S.-Cuba relations at Columbia University, suggested that the Republicans’ legal review provided cover for the possibility that the votes to oppose rescission were not there.

“This was the hard-liners’ white flag,” Mr. Sabatini said. “They had been planning to present a piece of legislation in the allotted 45 days to overturn the removal of Cuba from the list, but couldn’t get a majority. Rather than risk looking even more isolated, they abandoned it.”

Nevertheless, according to Ros-Lehtinen, she and the other 35 representatives “are concentrating our efforts on promoting legislation that will hold the Castro regime accountable for its nefarious activities. We plan to file broader legislation regarding Cuba that will help ensure that U.S. national security is protected and that our country continues to advocate for human rights on the island. Removing Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list does not truly lift significant sanctions as many sanctions remain codified in law.”

A week earlier just such a bill, the Cuban Human Rights Act of 2015 (H.R.1782) was introduced in the House by Rep. Chris Smith (Rep., NJ), the chair of the House global human rights subcommittee; the cosponsors (as of April 23) are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep.,FL), Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL), Albio Sires (Dem.,NJ), Carlos Curbelo (Rep., FL), Leonard Lance (Rep., NJ),Tom MacArthur (Rep., NJ), Mark Meadows (Rep., NC), Rodney Frelinghuysen (Rep., NJ), Frank LoBiondo (Rep., NJ), Peter King (Rep., NY) and Dana Rohrsbacher (Rep., CA).

According to the official summary, H.R.1782 expresses the sense of Congress that the U.S.-Cuba relationship should not be changed, nor should any federal law or regulation be amended, until the government of Cuba ceases violating the human rights of the people of Cuba; the U.S. should overcome the jamming of radio and television signals of the Radio y Television Marti by the government of Cuba, and the Broadcasting Board of Governors should not cut staffing, funding, or broadcast hours for Radio y Television Marti; if certain human rights conditions are not met the U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. should oppose and encourage other U.N. members to oppose Cuba’s continued membership on the U.N. Human Rights Council; and the annual Stae Department trafficking-victims report to Congress should include an in-depth analysis of the facilitation of or involvement in severe forms of human trafficking by any official of the government of Cuba or of companies wholly or partially owned by the government of Cuba.

On the other hand, the summary says the bill may not be construed as: prohibiting the donation of food to nongovernmental organizations or individuals in Cuba; restricting the export of medicine or medical supplies to Cuba, or abrogating any requirement that such exports be verified in conformity with the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 or any other applicable federal law; or prohibiting or restricting any other form of assistance specified in the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, including telecommunications, mail, and support for democracy.

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[1] This post is based upon the following: Ros-Lehtinen, Press Release: Any Legislation Regarding Cuba Must Be Substantive and Have Significant Legal Effect (April 23, 2015); Archibold, Cuba Moves Closer to Exit U.S. Terror List, N.Y. Times (April 24, 2015); Whitefield, Republicans won’t challenge Cuba’s removal from terrorism list, Miami Herald (April 23, 2015); Whitefield, Cuba human rights bill introduced; State says Cuba will talk about return of fugitives, Miami Herald (April 15, 2015); Chris Smith, Press Release: Bill to Promote Cuban Human Rights introduced in House of Representatives, (April 15, 2015).