U.S. Senator Jeff Flake and Former Google Executive Meet with Cuban President Diaz-Canel

On June 4, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ) and Eric Schmidt, former Google Chief Executive and now a member of the board of directors of its parent company, Alphabet Inc., met in Havana with Cuba’s President, Miguel Diaz-Canel. Others in attendance were Cuba Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez; the Foreign Ministry’s Director General of the United States, Carlos Fernández de Cossío Domínguez; Philip Goldberg, U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Cuba; and  Cuba Communications Ministry officials.[1] Below is a photograph of Flake and Diaz-Canel.

Google and Cuba have been discussing how the company can help connect Cuba to undersea fiber-optic cables that run relatively near to the island, which would allow Cubans faster access to data stored around the world.

Afterwards at a press conference, Flake said, “We had a good meeting with President Diaz-Canel. … We are hopeful for the future if we can have more connectivity, more travel, more meetings with Cubans and vice versa. We were talking specifically about connectivity, but also about the challenges that have come up. Obviously we have had some setbacks.”

Presumably they also discussed the unfortunately unilateral U.S. Cuba Internet Task Force at the State Department that presumably is seeking to improve Cuba’s internet access. On February 9, 2018, this blogger advised  the Task Force that it “is based upon false & illegal premise that U.S. unilaterally may & should decide what Internet services Cuba should have & then take unilateral steps to provide those services & equipment. Instead U.S. should politely ask Cuba whether there was any way the U.S. could assist in improving their Internet service.”[2]

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[1]  Reuters, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, Former Google CEO Meet With New Cuban President, N.Y. Times (June 4, 2018); Assoc. Press, Cuba’s new president meets with US senator, Google exec, Wash Post (June 4, 2018); Diaz-Canel received US Senator Jeff Flake and President of Google, Granma (June 4, 2008); Cuban President held a meeting with personalities from the United States, Cubadebate (June 4, 2018).

[2] See State Department Creates Cuba Internet Task force and Suspends Enforcement of Statutory Liability for Trafficking in Certain Cuban Expropriated Property, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 25, 2018); Cuba Protests U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 1, 2018); Objections to the U.S.’ Cuba Internet Task Force, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 9, 2018).

 

U.S. Clarifies Positions on Cuba and Venezuela in Preparation for Summit of the Americas

This coming Friday, April 10, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials will be in Panama for the Seventh Summit of the Americas. In preparation for this major meeting, President Obama and other officials have been clarifying U.S. positions about Cuba and Venezuela. The New York Times also chimed in with an editorial about U.S. and Cuba.[1]

Cuba

During a April 4th interview with New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, President Obama said, “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-à-vis [Cuba as well as Iran and Burma] . . . far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities. “

“You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies.”

The President made other comments about Cuba this week in an interview by National Public Radio. He said, “As soon as I get a recommendation [from the State Department on rescinding the designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”], I’ll be in a position to act on it.” The President added, “The criteria is [sic] very straightforward. Is this particular country considered a state sponsor of terrorism — not, do we agree with them on everything, not whether they engage in repressive or authoritarian activities in their own country. I think there’s a real opportunity here, and we are going to continue to make – move forward on it. Our hope is to be in a position where we can open an embassy there, that we can start having more regular contacts and consultations around a whole host of issues, some of which we have interests in common.”

Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser in the White House and a principal U.S. negotiator of the agreement with Cuba to engage in reconciliation, said this week that the terrorism review is likely in the final stages. “It made no sense that the [U.S.] consistently essentially made the decision to isolate ourselves from the rest of the Americas because we were clinging to a policy that wasn’t working. We would anticipate that this [rescission of the terrorism designation] does help begin to remove a significant impediment to having a more constructive engagement in the hemisphere, because we demonstrated an openness to engage all the countries in the Americas, to include Cuba.”

These remarks have prompted a lot of speculation that just before or at the Summit, the State Department will announce that it has finished its review of its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and concluded that it should be rescinded and that the President has decided to do just that.

Venezuela

Mr. Rhodes also tried to dampen Latin American outcries against the President’s March 9th executive order imposing sanctions against seven Venezuelans and stating that “[T]he situation in Venezuela . . . constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and [the President] hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”[2]

According to Mr. Rhodes this week, the wording of the executive order “is completely pro forma.  This is a language that we use in executive orders around the world.  So the [U.S.] does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security. We . . . just have a framework for how we formalize these executive orders.” Moreover, the executive order was not “aimed at targeting the Venezuelan government broadly or bringing about some type of dramatic change in terms of the government of Venezuela.  It was focused on a number of individuals who had been determined to be associated with human rights violations.  And we have executive orders like this around the world, and they’re a tool that allows us to have consequences associated with our support for universal values.” [3]

New York Times Editorial

An April 7th editorial in the New York Times recognizes the obvious: the change is unfolding slowly. “Untangling the web of sanctions the [U.S.] imposes on Cuba will take years because many are codified into law. The Cuban government, while publicly welcoming a rapprochement, seems intent on moving cautiously at a pivotal moment when its historically tight grip on Cuban society will inevitably be tested.”

Nevertheless, the Times argues, “it has already reset Cubans’ expectations about their future and their nation’s role in a global economy.” And “it has made it increasingly hard for [Cuba’s] leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the [U.S.].”

Moreover, the Times points out, “some early concrete steps are promising. Obama administration officials and business executives have met in recent weeks with Cuban officials to explore how American companies can help upgrade the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure and provide cheaper and more available Internet service. Executives from Google, whose platforms and services are widely desired in Cuba, visited the island in mid-March to make headway in the company’s goal of establishing its presence there.

In addition, “Airbnb, the company based in San Francisco that allows people to list their homes online for short-term rentals, announced last week that it had broken into the Cuban market, unveiling 1,000 listings there. That debut in Cuba could boost the small, but growing private sector in a nation where people have only recently been allowed to earn a living outside state employment.”

The new U.S. policy of engagement is gaining the increased support of Cuban-Americans. A “poll conducted last month by Bendixen & Amandi International found that 51 percent of Cuban-Americans agreed with the decision to start normalizing relations with Cuba, an increase from 44 percent in a survey in December.”

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[1] This post is based upon the following sources: Friedman, Iran and the Obama Doctrine, N.Y. Times (April 5, 2015); Nat’l Pub. Radio, Transcript: President Obama’s Full NPR Interview On Iran Nuclear Deal (April 7, 2015); White House, On-the-Record Conference Call on the P{resident’s Trip to Jamaica and Panama (April 7, 2015); Reuters, Obama Says Would Move Fast to Take Cuba Off Terrorism Sponsor List, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Closing In on Recommendation to Remove Cuba From State Terrorism List, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015); Davis, Latin American Trip Will Test Obama’s Push for Ties with Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 8, 2015); Neuman, White House Seeks to Soothe Relations with Venezuela, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015); Editorial, Cuban Expectations in a New Era, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015).

[2] The President’s executive order and the reactions in Latin America were subjects of posts on March 16, 18, 19 and 20.

[3] Mr. Rhodes’ dismissal of the preamble to the executive order, in my opinion, is undoubtedly correct as a matter of U.S. national security and is helpful in trying to calm Latin American nerves, But Rhodes’ comment raises a troubling question. I assume the preamble is based upon a federal statute allowing certain sanctions to be imposed in certain circumstances threatening national security. If that is the law and if, in fact, Venezuela does not impose a threat to national security, then is the executive order illegal under U.S. law?

 

New York Times Urges Normalization of U.S.- Cuba Relations

In an October 12th editorial the New York Times says, “For the first time in more than 50 years, shifting politics in the United States and changing policies in Cuba make it politically feasible to re-establish formal diplomatic relations and dismantle the senseless embargo.” Indeed, in the Times’ opinion, these changes in U.S. policy should be accompanied by ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.”[1]

 Editorial’s Commentary on Cuba’s Current Conditions

The Times points out that Cuba has “taken significant steps to liberalize and diversify the island’s tightly controlled economy.” This includes “allowing citizens to take private-sector jobs and own property.” encouraging foreign investment, constructing a major deep-sea port in Mariel with Brazilian capital and negotiating a cooperation agreement with the European Union. Although the pace of reform may seem slow and inconsistent, these are significant changes.

On the other hand, the Times asserts that the Cuban “government still harasses and detains dissidents . . . [and has not explained] the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of political activist Oswaldo Payá.” This is outweighed, however, by the Cuban government’s in recent years having “released political prisoners” and showing “slightly more tolerance for criticism of the [government’s leadership” while loosening travel restrictions “enabling prominent dissidents to travel abroad.”[1a]

Editorial’s Recommendations for U.S. Policy

End Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” The Times recommends that the U.S. “should remove Cuba from State Department’s list of nations that sponsor terrorist organizations . . . .   Cuba was put on the list in 1982 for backing terrorist groups in Latin America, which it no longer does. . . . [and Cuba now] is playing a constructive role in the conflict in Colombia by hosting peace talks between the government and guerrilla leaders.” [2]

End the Embargo. Just 16 days before the U.N. General Assembly is expected again to overwhelmingly approve Cuba’s resolution to condemn the embargo, the Times says the U.S should end its embargo of Cuba as it has become “clear to many American policy makers that the embargo was an utter failure.” In addition, now a slight majority of Cuban-Americans in Florida oppose the embargo.

“Fully ending the embargo will require Congress’s approval,” which may be difficult to obtain in this time of a dysfunctional Congress, but the Administration could “lift caps on remittances, allow Americans to finance private Cuban businesses and expand opportunities for travel to the island.”

Ending the embargo, according to the Times, “could also help American companies that are interested in developing the island’s telecommunications network but remain wary of the legal and political risks. Failing to engage with Cuba now will likely cede this market to competitors. The presidents of China and Russia traveled to Cuba in separate visits in July, and both leaders pledged to expand ties.”

In addition, ending the embargo would eliminate Cuba’s using the embargo as an excuse for the Cuban government’s shortcomings.[3]

Restoration of Diplomatic Relations. Says the Times, “Restoring diplomatic ties, which the White House can do without congressional approval, would allow the United States to expand and deepen cooperation in areas where the two nations already manage to work collaboratively — like managing migration flows, maritime patrolling and oil rig safety.[4] It would better position Washington to press the Cubans on democratic reforms, and could stem a new wave of migration to the United States driven by hopelessness.”

Closer ties could also bring a breakthrough on the case of an American development contractor, Alan Gross, who has been unjustly imprisoned by Cuba for nearly five years.[5] More broadly, it would create opportunities to empower ordinary Cubans, gradually eroding the government’s ability to control their lives.

In the opinion of the Times, Restoring relations would improve U.S. “relationships with governments in Latin America, and resolve an irritant that has stymied initiatives in the hemisphere.” The most current example of that irritant is “Latin American governments . . . [insisting] that Cuba, the Caribbean’s most populous island and one of the most educated societies in the hemisphere, be invited” to next year’s Summit of the Americas in Panama over U.S. opposition.

Moreover, “The [Cuban] government has said it would welcome renewed diplomatic relations with the United States and would not set preconditions” while a significant majority of Cuban-Americans favor restoring diplomatic ties, mirroring the views of other Americans.

Reactions to the Editorial 

I concur in all of the Times’ recommendations, but believe it understates the economic reasons for these changes in U.S. policy. Here is a fuller exposition of those economic reasons.

This month Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the Chief of Mission, Cuban Interests Section, said that the U.S. was running the risk of becoming economically irrelevant to Cuba. Many foreign countries, especially China, and foreign companies are developing good commercial relationships with Cuba and its new private businesses with ordinary commercial terms, unlike the U.S. sales of food and agricultural products under an exemption to the U.S. Helms-Burton Law that requires Cuba to pay in advance and in cash for such products. This U.S. practice is not a good way to encourage future business. Moreover, the new Mariel port and its adjacent business park is attracting interest from companies all over the world, and if all the space in that park is committed to these foreign companies, there will be nothing left for U.S. companies.

The geographical setting of the new Mariel port is strategic in terms of trade, industry and services in Latin America and the Caribbean. On the northern cost of Cuba only 45 km west of Havana, it is located along the route of the main maritime transport flows in the western hemisphere. As the largest industrial port in the Caribbean, it will be equipped with state-of-the-art technology to handle cargo from the larger container ships that will begin to arrive when the expansion of the Panama Canal is completed in December 2015. Those larger ships can carry up to 12,500 containers, triple the capacity of the current ships, and the port’s warehouse capacity is 822,000 containers. Here are some photos of the development of this port.

Mariel PortMariel3

The Mariel project includes highways connecting the port with the rest of the country, a railway network, and communication infrastructure. In the adjacent special zone, currently under construction, there will be productive, trade, agricultural, port, logistical, training, recreational, tourist, real estate, and technological development and innovation activities in installations that include merchandise distribution centers and industrial parks.

The special zone is divided into eight sectors, to be developed in stages. The first involves telecommunications and a modern technology park where pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms will operate. Other sectors include renewable energies, agriculture and food, chemical, construction materials, logistics and rental equipment. For the last four sectors Cuba is currently studying the approval of 23 projects from Europe, Asia and the Americas.

The May 2014 visit to Cuba by a delegation from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce evidences U.S. businesses’ cognizance of these economic and commercial realities. The delegation’s head and the Chamber’s president, Thomas Donohue,  said in a speech in Havana, “For years, the US Chamber of Commerce has demanded that our government eliminate the commercial embargo on Cuba. It’s time for a new approach.” At the conclusion of the trip he said the delegation and Cuban officials had “talked about steps forward that might be taken by both countries” to improve U.S.-‪Cuba relations and that their meetings with President Raul Castro had been “positive.” In addition, the Chamber in congressional testimony has called for an end to the embargo and has supported proposed legislation to end the ban on U.S. citizens traveling to the island and easing restrictions on U.S. exports of farm and medical products.

Another sign of U.S. companies’ interest in Cuba is the visit to the island this past June by Google executives. They said they discussed increasing Cubans access to the Internet and Cuba’s need for improving its Internet technology.

These U.S. economic concerns were highlighted in February 2014 by U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, who earlier had led a visit with four other Senators to Cuba. Leahy said, “Trade with Latin America is the fastest growing part of our international commerce.  Rather than isolate Cuba with outdated policies, we have isolated ourselves.  Our Latin, European and Canadian friends engage with Cuba all that time.  Meanwhile, U.S. companies are prohibited from any economic activity on the island.” Therefore, the Senator said, “It is time – past time – to modernize our policies and the frozen-in-time embargo on Americans’ travel and trade with Cuba that have accomplished nothing but to give the Cuban regime a scapegoat for the failures of the Cuban economy.  Change will come to Cuba, but our policies have delayed and impeded change.  It is time to elevate the voice of a crucial stakeholder:  the American people. Thanks to this [recent public opinion] poll, they are silent no longer. It is time to recognize that U.S. policy toward Cuba has been unsuccessful in achieving any of its objectives.”

Given the limited space for an individual editorial, the New York Times editorial does not discuss any of the other many issues that need to be addressed by the two countries in order to establish truly normal relations. Nor does it discuss how this normalization process can happen or be facilitated.

In contrast, this blog repeatedly has suggested both counties need a neutral third-party with the resources and commitment to act as mediator and has called for such a third-party to step forward to offer such services, rather than waiting for the U.S. or Cuba to make such a proposal unilaterally or for the two countries to agree to such a mediation. [6]

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[1] Interestingly the online version of the editorial is titled “End the U.S. Embargo on Cuba” with a linked Spanish translation while the print version is titled “The Moment to Restore Ties to Cuba.”

[1a] This month Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez, the Chief of Mission, Cuban Interests Section, emphasized that Cuba now has term limits on every governmental office, including president: two terms of five years each for a total limit of 10 years, and Raul Castro has announced that this applies to him and thus ends his term as president in 2018. Dr. Cabañas also emphasized that many younger people are taking over many governmental positions and that there has been a decentralization of power to municipalities.

[2] This blog has provided detailed criticism of the ridiculous, absurd, stupid and cowardly rationales provided by the U.S. for such designations in 2010, 2011, 2012 (with supplement), 2013 and 2014.

[3] This blog has provided criticisms of the embargo.

[4] This month Dr. José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez also said that the U.S. and Cuba in recent years have had bilateral discussions regarding migration, drug trafficking, search and rescue in the Florida straits, stopping oil spills in the Caribbean, airline security measures, scientific exchanges and restoration of direct telephone and mail services. In addition, the U.S. has invited or permitted an invitation to Cuba to attend a Clean Oil Conference in San Antonio, Texas in December 2014.

[5] Although it certainly is debatable whether Mr. Gross was unjustly convicted in Cuban courts for violating Cuban law, I agree that it is in the U.S. national interest to have him released and returned to the U.S. Cuba, however, has argued that the three of the “Cuban Five” still in U.S. prisons should also be released and allowed to return to their homes. At a minimum, I believe that negotiations between the two countries could and should lead to at least a one-for-one exchange with the U.S. President commuting the sentence of one of the three Cubans to time served.

[6] This blog has called for normalization of Cuba-U.S. relations and has criticized the U.S. for insisting on preconditions for holding any talks with Cuba to improve relations. Another blog post was a public letter to President Obama recommending reconciliation with Cuba. In addition, this year a group of 50 prominent Americans issued a public letter to the President urging him to take executive action to expand U.S. involvement with Cuba. Another blog post criticized recent opposition to pursuing such reconciliation.