Cuban Entrepreneurs Express Frustration and Confidence

A recent study based on interviews of 80 Cuban entrepreneurs found seemingly contradictory results.[1]

There was frustration. As expressed by the Miami Herald, “Like entrepreneurs in any country, Cuban entrepreneurs want more access to resources and fewer bureaucratic obstacles to expand and reinvest in their businesses.”

There also was optimism. Said the author of the study, Cuban-born economist Carmelo Mesa Lago, there was a “very high level of reinvestment that the self-employed engage in. Most, including those renting apartments and houses, reinvest.” The study also found a “high degree of satisfaction expressed by those who have decided to start a private business in Cuba, which has allowed them to gain autonomy and live better than those who depend on state wages.”

With virtual unanimity, the entrepreneurs complained about “the level of state interference” or over-regulations plus high prices for supplies, the absence of a wholesale market and high taxes.

The study looked at four segments of the so-called “non-state sector” of the Cuban economy: (1) the self-employed; (2) farmers who use state-owned parcels; (3) corredores   (brokers) of home sales as well as buyers and sellers of private homes; and (4) workers of non-farm production and service cooperatives. Another sector–owners of private restaurants known as paladares—was not included because, says Lago, they do not want to attract attention to their business.

The study– oces del cambio en el sector no estatal cubano (Voices of Change in the Cuban Non-State Sector)—is published by the Ibero-American publishing house.

Conclusion

This study confirms the existence of a thriving non-state sector of the Cuban economy, contrary to the Senate testimony of the new U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, as mentioned in a recent post.

The study also confirms the unsurprising difficulties and challenges the Cuban government faces in creating a mixed economy. Indeed, as covered in an earlier post, Raúl Castro in his role as the leader of the Communist Party of Cuba at its Party Congress last year stressed those difficulties and challenges while also acknowledging the essential and important contributions of the non-state sector for the Cuban economy.

Finally the study confirms the need for the U.S. to support the further development and success of this sector by continuing and enhancing the U.S. normalizing of relations with Cuba, especially the enabling of U.S. remittances to those on the island and thereby constituting a major source of capital for this sector. This very point has been emphasized by Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition, in its lobbying of the new Trump Administration.[2]

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[1] Gámez-Torres, Cuban entrepreneurs dream big, but the government gets in their way, Miami Herald (Jan. 26, 2017).

[2] U.S. and Cuba’s Efforts To Continue Normalization, dwkcommentaries.com (Dec. 9, 2016); Lobbying the Incoming Trump Administration To Continue Normalization with Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 18, 2017); Engage Cuba.

President Obama’s Reflections on His Pursuit of Normalization with Cuba      

Jon Lee Anderson, the author of a Che Guevara biography and a forthcoming book about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution, has written a fascinating article about President Obama and Cuba in The New Yorker.[1] It provides the following details about Obama’s March 2016 visit to the island and comments about his decision to seek normalization with Cuba beyond those already discussed in earlier posts.[2]

During his visit to Cuba, President Obama hosted an Entrepreneurship and Opportunity Event at La Cervecería (a beer hall) on Havana Harbor. Attending were invited American and Cuban entrepreneurs, government officials and journalists. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, told the group that Cuba was one of its fastest growing markets. In response to Obama’s question, he said his company was now valued at $25 billion after only eight years of operation, and Obama used this as an example of what could happen to a new business. Obama said, “Cuba should take ideas, steal ideas from wherever you see something working, not from where they are not. There are some economic models (like Cuba’s) that just don’t work. That’s just the objective reality. The American people are not interested in Cuba failing. We’re interested in Cuba being a partner with us.”

After Obama had departed the island, a member of Cuba’s security services said that this event was “as subversive as the Bay of Pigs.” Other Communist Party loyalists voiced similar opinions.

Later Obama admitted that he thought the Cuban pushback to his visit would be a lot stronger. The beer hall event, he said, intentionally bypassed the Cuban state in order to advertise and promote the possibilities of commerce freed of political constraint.

Obama also said after his trip that his decision to seek normalization with Cuba was based upon these premises: (1) “Cuba is a tiny, poor country that poses no genuine threat to the [U.S.]” (2) “In this era of the Internet and global capital movements, openness is a more powerful change agent than isolation.” (3) “If you are interested in promoting freedom, independence, civic space inside of Cuba, then . . . remittances to give individual Cubans some cash . . . that then allowed them to start a [business] . . . was going to be the engine whereby individual Cubans . . . can start expecting more.”

Important for Obama was growing up in underdeveloped Indonesia and “never [being] star-struck by revolution. [He believed that Cuba’s revolution had started because of good motives, but he] “was never persuaded that they had taken the right course of action.”

Obama also told Anderson that he believes Raúl Castro’s pursuit of normalization with the U.S. was based upon two conclusions. First, Castro recognized—“particularly in light of what’s happening in Venezuela—that sustaining their economic model over the next ten years becomes increasingly untenable. [Therefore,] how . . . [does he] make [the Cuban] economy run without giving up power. . . . [Second,] Raúl recognizes that any substantial change to their economic system, . . . their civil society, . . . their full political system—requires him to do some downfield blocking [i.e., preparatory work]. If a younger generation tries to pull this off without the revolutionary credentials, there will be too much pushback.”

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[1] Anderson, The Cuba Play, The New Yorker at 42 (Oct. 3, 2016).

[2] See posts listed in “Obama & Cuba, 2007-2014,” “U.S. & Cuba Reconciliation, 2014-2015,” and “Obama’s Visit to Cuba, March 2016” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

Developments in U.S.-Cuba Normalization

As noted in a prior post, on September 12, 2015, the U.S. and Cuba established an agenda for their bilateral commission to address various issues relating to normalization of relations. Since then there has been limited progress on that agenda.

On September 18, the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce issued new regulations to ease sanctions related to travel, telecommunications and internet-based services, business operations in Cuba, and remittances. The new rules will allow U.S. companies to establish offices and subsidiaries in Cuba, permit joint ventures between U.S. and Cuban firms and make it easier for airlines and cruise ships to import parts and technology to Cuba to improve the safety of their operations.[1]

Secretary Penny Pritzker in Cuba
Secretary Penny Pritzker in Cuba
Secretary Pritzker with Cuban children
Secretary Pritzker with Cuban children

 

 

 

 

 

On October 6 and 7, U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker was in Cuba to launch a new Regulatory Dialogue between the U.S. and Cuba focused on the impact of new U.S. regulations by her Department and by the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC). The Dialogue also gave Secretary Pritzker and additional U.S. officials from the Departments of Commerce, State, and Treasury the opportunity to hear from their Cuban counterparts on the structure and status of the Cuban economy. Secretary Pritzker also visited the Mariel Special Development Zone with U.S. charge d’affaires Jeffrey DeLaurentis.[2]

On October 27-30, high-ranking officials of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security visited Cuba to meet with leaders in the Cuban Ministries of Interior, Transportation and Foreign Relations. Issues discussed included aviation security, combating drug trafficking, cybersecurity and resumption of passenger ferry services between Havana and Florida.[3]

Secretary Mayorkas in Havana
Secretary Mayorkas in Havana

The DHS delegation was led by the Department’s Deputy Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas, who as an infant left Cuba with his family in 1960. On the last afternoon of his DHS trip, he visited a family cemetery, where his grandmother, great aunt and great uncle are buried as well as his father’s elementary school and steel-wool factory. His Cuban hosts, Mayorkas said, were aware of his personal history and “could not have been more gracious and kind” in presenting him with a gift: his family’s original Cuban government immigration file.[4]

The last week of October also was the occasion for the annual Havana International Fair. Attending was an U.S. Chamber of Commerce delegation of 40 U.S. companies including Caterpillar, Amway, Sprint and Cargill for meetings with Cuban officials and the first board meeting of the U.S.-Cuba Business Council, a group dedicated to trade between the two countries. Jodi Bond, the Chamber’s vice president of the Americas, said the council was optimistic that trade will begin to flow between the U.S. and Cuba as each country figures out how to harmonize clashing sets of byzantine regulations. “We want to see U.S. products as part of that beautiful build-out of Cuba,” Bond said. “We’ve done this in so many markets around the world we know that it just takes time.” One of the U.S. companies in the delegation, Sprint, signed an agreement with Cuba to broaden its service to the island[5]

The U.S. and Cuba also are discussing cooperation on baseball, including making it easier for Cuban players to join U.S. professional baseball organizations and for U.S. major league teams to play spring games in Cuba.[6]

Despite these developments, there are voices of disappointment that the process of normalization is not leading to more business transactions. Another post will explore possible reasons for the slow pace of such transactions.

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[1] U.S. Announces Concrete Improvements in Relations with Cuba (Sept. 18, 2015).

[2] Dep’t of Commerce, Secretary Penny Pritzker’s Trip to Cuba (Oct. 15, 2015)  Davis, U.S. Commerce Chief Makes a Pitch in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Oct. 6, 2015).

[3] Dep’t of Homeland Security, Readout of Deputy Secretary Mayorkas’ Trip to Cuba (Oct. 30, 2015).

[4] Markon, ‘I went with a nervous heart’: Top Cuban American DHS official makes emotional return to Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 4, 2015).

[5] Assoc. Press, US Companies in Cuba for Week-Long Celebration of Commerce, N.Y. Times (Nov. 3, 2015); Reuters, Cuba Signs Deal with Sprint, Says It Is Open for More Business, N.Y. Times (Nov. 2, 2015).

[6] Schmidt & Davis, U.S. and Cuba in Trade Talks, for Ballplayers to Be Named Later, N.Y. Times (Oct. 31, 2015).

Reactions to Reopening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies and Other Issues Regarding U.S.-Cuba Normalization

As discussed in an earlier post, on the morning of July 20, 2015, Cuba officially opened its Embassy in Washington, D.C., and the United States did likewise in Havana although the ceremonial opening of the latter will be on August 14 when Secretary of State John Kerry goes to Havana to preside over that event. Another post, that afternoon’s joint press conference at the U.S. Department of State by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez; yet another post, recent comments about Cuba by the White House Press Secretary.

Now we look at the reactions to the significant issues raised by these events: (1) restoration of diplomatic relations; (2) future changes in Cuba; (3) future changes in Cuban human rights; (4) ending the U.S. embargo (or blockade) of Cuba; (5) altering or terminating Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S.; (6) ending U.S. Radio and TV Marti; (7) ending USAID and other covert U.S. “democracy” programs in Cuba; (8) Cuba’s returning U.S. fugitives; and (9) nominating and confirming the appointment of an U.S. ambassador to Cuba.

1. Restoration of U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Relations?

There has been substantial U.S. approval of the restoration of diplomatic relations.

According to the Center for Democracy in the Americas (CDA), for instance, 12 public opinion polls conducted and released since January 1 show that “public support for the Cuba opening is strong, growing, and pervasive. Support for the new policy is bipartisan. It is significantly high among segments of voters — such as Hispanics — that candidates running for office increasingly care about. Most of all, the latest research shows that public support is rising. For example, support for ending the embargo was measured in July by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs at 67%, and earlier this year by Gallup at 59% and by the Associated Press at 60%.”[1]

Moreover, CDA sees “evidence that public support for America’s new Cuba policy is exerting its force on policymakers in the U.S. Congress.” It points to last week’s action of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s approving amendments eliminating House measures that would impede normalization in various ways[2] and to Republican legislators—Senator Dean Heller (NV) and Representative Bradley Byrne (AL)–who recently joined the ranks of supporters of normalization.

Despite the vigorous opposition to normalization repeatedly expressed by Cuban-Americans in Congress—Senators Marco Rubio (Rep., FL) and Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ) and Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (Rep., FL) and Mario Diaz-Balart (Rep., FL) [3]—there has been little organized opposition to normalization in the Cuban-American community, especially in Florida.[4]

This assessment has been confirmed by prominent Cubans in the U.S. and on the island. Pedro Freyre, a Cuban-born Miami lawyer with a national law firm representing several U.S. and foreign clients seeking to do business in Cuba and a former hardliner himself, said, “It’s over and done in Miami. It died with a whimper.” Indeed, he added that President Obama’s new policy was now widely accepted by South Florida’s 1.5 million Cuban exiles. Similar views were expressed in the Miami Herald by Mike Fernandez, a healthcare millionaire and Bush supporter, who said, “Cuban-Americans everywhere, but especially the diaspora in South Florida, have been awakening to the reality that Cuba’s isolation was and is not a sustainable strategy. It’s time to accept change. Let us not heed those relatively few voices who would go on continuing to trap our minds in hatred.” Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a former Cuban diplomat who is close to President Raúl Castro and his brother Fidel, put it best. He said, “The genie is out of the bottle. And once it’s out, you’re not going to be able to put it back in.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem., MN), who is the author of a bipartisan bill to lift the embargo, said this must be done for the U.S. to avoid losing investment opportunities that will come with loosening of travel restrictions to the island. She said, “Once millions of American tourists are going, they will need places to stay and they will need food to eat. … So when they come, they are going to be starting to sleep in Spanish hotels and eat German foods because those countries will be able to supply what they need in the tourism industry, not to mention the computers and Wi-Fi and everything else.”[5]

James Williams, the President of Engage Cuba, a major bipartisan group promoting this normalization, issued a statement on the reopening of embassies. He said, “we begin a new chapter of engagement between our two countries. American diplomats will now be much better equipped to engage with the Cuban people and civil society. They will be in a stronger position to elevate issues of concern, like human rights, as well as expanding on areas of cooperation with Cuba.” He pointed out that the “vast majority of the American people, and 97% of the Cuban people support opening relations. We applaud both governments for taking this important step to move forward beyond the Cold War policies of the past and call on Congress to play a constructive role at this historic moment of transition.”[6]

John Dinges, Associate Professor at Columbia University’s School of Journalism and an expert on U.S.-Cuba relations, said for the U.S. “the new relationship with Cuba removed a stumbling block in relations with the entire region, where the US attitude [was] considered irrational and stupid.”[7]

However, others argue that this change is misguided and erroneous. For example, Edward Gonzalez, professor emeritus of political science at U.C.L.A., stated that “in the face of potentially destabilizing change and high expectations at home, Cuban officials are tightening state controls in the short term.” Moreover, “given the regime’s totalitarian proclivity and apparatus, the state’s repression of dissidents and civil society, and its control over the lion’s share of the island’s economy, it is likely to continue into the distant future.” Therefore, he continues, the new U.S. engagement with Cuba “makes the [U.S.] complicit in propping up the regime both economically and politically, while leaving Cuban society even more isolated and defenseless vis-à-vis the all-powerful, coercive state.”[8]

Moreover, Senator Marco Rubio and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, currently two of the many contenders for the Republican nomination for president in 2016, have said that if elected president in 2016, they would rescind the diplomatic relations. And Senator Tom Cotton (Rep., AK) has pledged to “work to maintain and increase sanctions on the regime, block the confirmation of a new ambassador, demand the extradition of U.S. fugitives from justice, and hold the Castro regime accountable.”[9]

Secretary of State John Kerry in his July 20 interviews,[10] responded to these threats to rescind the relations with Cuba. Kerry said that whoever is elected president in 2016, including Marco Rubio, will have “the ability to make a decision [on whether or not to rescind the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba]. Congress, obviously, has an ability to have an impact on that.” [11] But I think it would be a terrible mistake [to rescind such diplomatic relations]. The vast majority of the American people believe this is a very good thing to do. It doesn’t make sense. I mean, we had diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union. We had diplomatic relations with then-called Red China. We have to have relationships with countries to do business. And American citizens get hurt when we don’t do that.” Moreover, Kerry added, “I believe . . . President [Obama] has taken an irreversible step. I do not believe a next president, Republican or Democrat, will change it.”

Kerry continued, “Given the fact there are so many Cuban Americans, people who have family in Cuba, to not have a relationship where we can advocate for people, advocate for human rights, advocate for fairness, for elections, for democracy, for travel, for engagement, and all these things that make a difference in the quality of life of Cubans would be a terrible, terrible mistake. So I think, as time goes on, people will see the benefits that come from this policy.”

2. Future Changes in Cuba?

As Foreign Minister Rodriguez’s July 20 statement and Secretary Kerry’s statements made clear and as both governments previously had recognized, the opening of the embassies did not mean the process of normalization had been completed. Indeed, it has just started.

Secretary Kerry, in his interviews, observed, There are “key issues in the normalization process, and . . . [Minster Rodriguez and I] both said today that it will be long and complex. . . . [T]he measure of progress and success is really going to come from what happens in the next months as we go through this early diplomatic rekindling of a relationship. My suspicion is that there’s a possibility it could move faster than people think, simply because I think the Cuban people want it. And as we are there doing diplomacy, more present, able to engage, we actually can work at these kinds of issues more effectively than we’ve been able to for the last 50, 60 years.”

Kerry added that if Cuba is “willing to embrace it, we can bring them a tremendous leap in their economy. We could bring a better standard of living to their people. We can bring technology. We can bring various modern instruments of education, of health delivery, of communications. And I believe that over time things will change . . . at a pace that will be acceptable and, frankly, helpful to Cuba.” Kerry also said, the U.S. wants to see “a true, deep engagement [by Cuba], a willingness to work through these issues. There’s so much that we can cooperate on right now. We want to cooperate on law enforcement, . . . the environment, . . . our visas, . . . health, education, the rights of people, . . . hemispheric issues and interests like the war in Colombia or the relationship with Venezuela.”

Although not in direct response to the reopening of the embassies, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro in his July 15 speech to Cuba’s legislature (the National Assembly of People’s Power)[12] asserted, “We will continue the process of transformations in Cuban society at our own pace, which we have sovereignly chosen, with the majority support of the people, in the interest of constructing a prosperous and sustainable socialism, the essential guarantee of our independence.” (Emphases added.) He reiterated this theme near the end of his speech with these words: “Changing everything which must be changed is the sovereign and exclusive domain of Cubans. The Revolutionary Government is willing to advance in the normalization of relations, convinced that both countries can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, to our mutual benefit, beyond the differences we have and will have, thus contributing to peace, security, stability, development and equity in our continent and the world.” (Emphases added.)

A New York Times editorial said, “The full normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba will take years and will be an arduous process. Issues that will be hard to resolve include the disposition of American property the Cuban government seized in the 1960s, and the fate of the United States Navy base in Guantánamo Bay, which the Cuban government considers an illegally occupied territory.”[13]

Professor Dinges offered a similar assessment of the future. He said, “’normal’ relations are not compatible with the [U.S.] travel ban, with [the U.S.] economic embargo, with a recent history of semi-clandestine operations by the [USAID] to promote economic and social discontent. I hope to see in the near future gestures of friendship and rapprochement. For the [U.S.], it is important to dismantle the Guantanamo prison, and the minimization of military forces at the base. On behalf of Cuba, a gesture of detente toward the Miami Cubans would not cost anything and could have huge benefits. . . . There is distrust, there is a long history of [U.S.] aggression [against Cuba]. . . . [He believes future] “changes will be economically, technically, diplomatically. It would be illusory to expect radical changes in political structures in Cuba. Equally unrealistic to think that the US will stop talking about democracy and human rights.”

3. Future Changes in Cuban Human Rights?

Probably the leading U.S. desire for future changes in Cuba is with respect to human rights. For example, in one of his July 20 interviews, Kerry said Cuba does not “want [domestic] interference, but they know we’re not going to stop raising human rights issues. We made that very clear. . . . [W]e’re not giving up the DNA of the [U.S.], which is a deep commitment to human rights, to the values of democracy, freedom of speech, and so forth. So those . . . will be on the agenda. But on the other hand, the great step forward here is that neither of us . . . [is] taking one of our issues of contention and making it a showstopper. We want to engage, and when you get to that point, that’s what begins to break down the barriers.”

Kerry also told Andrea Mitchell, “There’s been a little bit of give . . . [by Cuba] with respect to some agreement on human rights. And I think that over time the elections discussion and the more pointed human rights issues are going to be very much part of the discussion. They are in every country where we have an embassy and an ambassador. We are fearless in our determination to walk in and talk to the authorities and give them a shared our sense of the problems that exist.”

According to the non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, there were 2,822 politically related detentions in the first six months of 2015, less than half the 5,904 registered in the same period last year. Many of those detained this year, however, report being treated more roughly, however.[14]

The previous source also reports, “more than 20 U.S. lawmakers have come to Cuba since February without meeting with opposition groups that once were an obligatory stop for congressional delegations.” This was apparently due to “Cuban officials . . . [having] made clear that if Congress members meet with dissidents, they will not get access to high-ranking officials such as First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, the man expected to be the next president of Cuba” and to U.S. assessment that “talking with Cuban leaders is clearly the most promising way to promote reform on the island.”

On the issue of Cuban human rights, I submit that there is an enormous cognitive dissonance in the minds of U.S. opponents of normalization. Here are the reasons for that conclusion:

  • First, any objective student of history has to conclude that the U.S., especially since the start of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, has committed and threatened serious acts of hostility towards Cuba, including the embargo, the 1961 U.S.-supported invasion of Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, the 1962 threatened bombing of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the embargo of the island and CIA attempts to assassinate Cuban President Fidel Castro. Moreover, U.S. hostility toward Cuba started at least in 1898 when it intervened in Cuba’s war of independence from Spain. Indeed, Foreign Minister Rodriguez’ July 20 speech referred to the late 19th century warning by José Marti of the U.S. “excessive craving for domination [over Cuba].”
  • Second, Cuba, therefore, has good reason to be fearful of the much larger and more powerful U.S. and as a result to take steps to protect itself against such perceived threats by restricting dissent. What would you do if you were in the Cubans’ shoes? It, therefore, will take time for Cuba to develop a sense of trust of the U.S. and as a result modify its restrictions on free speech and assembly.
  • Third, the self-proclaimed advocates of Cuban human rights like Rubio and Jeb Bush do not appear to be aware of the first two points. In addition, they apparently do not appreciate that their very hostility towards Cuba and normalization, purportedly on the ground of promoting Cuban human rights, instead contributes to Cuban skepticism about the good intentions of the U.S. and to the prolonging of Cuba’s restrictions on free speech and other civil liberties.

4. Ending the U.S. Embargo of Cuba?

Ending the embargo or blockade, of course, is a key demand by Cuba, and President Obama has asked the Congress to do just that. As discussed in previous posts, various bills to end the embargo have been introduced in this Session of the Congress, and supporters of normalization or reconciliation of the two countries, like this blogger, urge the Congress to approve such bills as soon as possible.

Such congressional action is in the U.S. national interest because the embargo has failed for over 50 years to produce positive change in Cuba, the embargo clearly has harmed or damaged the island’s economy, and Cuba has insisted on its removal as a key requirement for full normalization of relations.

In addition, there are at least two additional reasons for ending the embargo that this blogger has not seen mentioned in all the public discussion of this issue.

  • First, last October at the U.N. General Assembly Cuba alleged that the damage to Cuba from the embargo or blockade totaled $1.1 trillion, and the longer the embargo remains in effect that number will only increase. For a U.S. business this would require at least a footnote to its balance sheet identifying this as a contingent liability and explaining whatever reasons the business has for challenging the claim or the alleged amount of the claim. The rational action for such a business would be to terminate the conduct allegedly causing the damage, especially when it is not producing some benefit to the business.
  • Second, because of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement of last December, other countries, especially the European Union and its members, are accelerating their efforts to obtain beneficial trade arrangements with Cuba. In short, the longer the U.S. waits to end the embargo, the further behind the U.S. will be with respect to competitors from around the world seeking to do business with Cuba.

Wake up, Congress!

5. Altering or Terminating the Cuba-U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay?

As previously noted, Foreign Minister Rodriguez at the July 20 reopening of the Cuban Embassy and at the subsequent joint press conference with Secretary Kerry reiterated Cuba’s request or desire to have its lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S. terminated and the territory returned to Cuba. Although the Foreign Minister did not set forth any alleged legal basis for this claim, he did mention that the 1906 lease occurred during a period of U.S. military occupation of the island that “led to the usurpation of [this] piece of Cuban territory”and thereby suggested that the lease was unfairly or coercively obtained.

Interestingly Rodriguez did not mention a previous legal theory advanced by the Fidel Castro regime: that the lease purportedly runs in perpetuity and, therefore, is illegal under Cuban law. Nor did Rodriguez mention another theory for ending the lease: the U.S. operation of a prison/detention facility at Guantanamo that allegedly is not permitted by the lease and, therefore, the U.S. has breached the lease.[15]

At that same joint press conference, Secretary Kerry immediately rejected U.S. willingness to return Guantanamo to Cuba. However, there were caveats in his comment: he said, At this time, there is no discussion and no intention on our part at this moment to alter the existing lease“ and “I can’t tell you what the future will bring but for the moment that is not part of the discussion on our side.” (Emphasis added.) This was reiterated, with similar qualifications, on July 22 by National Security Advisor Susan Rice at a White House press conference.[16] She said, “We’ve been clear that we’re not, at this stage, at all interested in changing the nature of our understanding and arrangements on Guantanamo.  And they may choose to raise it, but we’ve been equally clear that, for us, that’s not in the offing at the present.” (Emphasis added.) Do these caveats indicate an U.S. willingness in the future to discuss altering or even terminating the lease? I could understand a lease amendment increasing the amount of the rent and perhaps making administrative changes, but would be surprised if the U.S. would be willing to discuss termination of the lease and returning Guantanamo to Cuba.[17]

Although Cuba has not mentioned the U.S. operation of a detention facility at Guantanamo and the alleged U.S. torture of some of the detainees as a reason for Cuba’s desire to have the territory returned, it should be noted that President Obama has been trying to close that facility since the start of his first term.

On July 22, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest confirmed “that the administration is, in fact, in the final stages of drafting a plan to safely and responsibly close the prison at Guantanamo Bay and to present that plan to Congress. That has been something that our national security officials have been working on for quite some time, primarily because it is a priority of the President.  He believes it’s in our clear national security interest for us to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay.” Earnest also said the President has decided to veto a defense spending bill now being negotiated in Congress if it includes provisions that would make it harder to close the prison.[18]

A few more details about the plan to close the detention facility were offered on July 25 by Lisa Monaco, one of Obama’s top national security aides, who said that such a plan was nearing completion. It will call for the U.S. to step up the transfers of 52 detainees cleared for resettlement in other countries and for the transfer to U.S. “Supermax” or military prisons for trials or continued military detention of at least some of the other 64 detainees still at Guantanamo who are deemed too dangerous to release. Efforts will be made to reduce the size of the latter group through “periodic review boards” that have been used to clear others for transfer.[19]

6. Ending U.S. Radio and TV Marti?

Another Cuban request is for the U.S. to stop its radio and TV broadcasts aimed at Cuba (Radio and TV Marti), again mentioned on July 20 by Minister Rodriguez. On July 22 National Security Advisor Rice stated, apparently in response to this request, the U.S. ”will continue to say and do what we think is appropriate to advance our interests in human rights and democracy in Cuba. . . . we’re not going to change just because the Cuban government may wish that we did.”

7. Ending USAID and Other Covert U.S. “Democracy” Programs in Cuba?

Prior posts have discussed recent “discreet” or covert programs in Cuba operated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) through private contractors purportedly to promote democracy in Cuba and the latter’s objections to same. Rodriguez in his July 20 speech did not specifically mention such programs, but did so indirectly by objecting to the U.S. seeking “obsolete and unjust goals” (i.e., regime change) by “a mere change in the methods.”

These prior posts have expressed this blogger’s objections to such USAID programs. The New York Times has done the same.

8. Cuba Returning U.S. Fugitives?

Although not specifically mentioned last week by Secretary Kerry or Minister Rodriguez, the issue of Cuba’s returning U.S. fugitives remains a top priority for many in Congress and in the U.S. generally. On July 24 Representative Jerry McNerney (Dem., CA) raised the issue with respect to Charles Hill, who is the sole surviving member of a group who hijacked an airliner in 1971; Hill and two others were fleeing charges relating to the killing of a New Mexico state trooper. McNerney, who was on that hijacked airliner, wants Hill to be returned to the U.S.[20]

9. Nominating and Confirming U.S. Ambassador to Cuba?

With respect to congressional threats to not provide funds for the U.S. embassy in Cuba and to not confirm an ambassador to that country, Kerry observed, “it always matters when Congress is sort of stepping in the way of something being able to . . . be fully effected. . . . [W]hy are they going to do that? Are they going to do that because the [old] policy [purportedly] has been so successful? Are they going to do that because they can show so much change that’s taken place in the last 60 years that this is a crazy path? . . . [It] just doesn’t make sense to prevent our diplomats from carrying the message . . . [of human rights and democracy]. To not be able to meet with more people in Cuba to know what is going on is a huge cutoff of opportunity. So I just think it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face and it’s a shame.”

Kerry also said, “Well, it depends on whom, obviously, the next president is, and we don’t know that now. So you can’t bet on it that way. You have to do what you think is right. You have to do what’s appropriate and make the difference. Nobody can guard against every eventuality of the future. But I believe the President has taken an irreversible step. I do not believe a next president, Republican or Democrat, will change it.”

Conclusion

The time has come for all U.S. citizens to support full normalization of our relations with Cuba!

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[1] Center for Democracy in Americas, Flag Poles to Public Opinion Polls—Is Congress (Finally) Getting the Message (July 24, 2015)

[2] The Senate Committee on July 23 voted, 18 to 12, to lift the “decades-long ban on travel to Cuba . . . . to block enforcement of a law prohibiting banks and other U.S. businesses from financing sales of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba. . . . [and] to lift restrictions on vessels that have shipped goods to Cuba from returning to the U.S. until six months have passed.” A journalist asserted, “The panel’s votes reflect growing sentiment, even among some GOP conservatives, to ease the five-decade-plus Cuba trade embargo and travel restrictions to the island, which have failed to move the Castro regime toward democracy.” (Assoc. Press, GOP-Controlled Senate Panel Votes to Life Cuba Travel Ban, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2015); Davis, Senate Panel Takes Small Step Toward Easing Travel Restrictions with Cuba, N.Y. Times (July 23, 2015); Shabad, GOP-led Senate panel votes to lift travel ban to Cuba, The Hill (July 23, 2015).) This move in the Senate Appropriations Committee is part of a Democratic Senators’ strategy of attacking House riders in appropriation bills that imperil U.S.-Cuba reconciliation. (Shabad, Dems show their hand in budget poker, The Hill (July 26, 2015),)

[3] Menendez, Menendez Statement on Cuban Embassy Opening (July 20, 2015;    Ros-Lehtinen, Opening of Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C. Harms Our National Security, Says Ros-Lehtinen (July 20, 2015); Diaz-Balart, Embassy in Washington, D.C. Will Represent the Castros, Not the Cuban People (July 20, 2015).

[4] Reuters, Cuban-American Resistance to Diplomatic Thaw Proves Tepid, N.Y.Times (July 21, 2015); Assoc. Press, Poll: Majority of Americans Favor Diplomatic Ties With Cuba, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2015); Reuters Video, Cubans enthusiastic about reopening of U.S. embassy in Havana, N.Y. Times (July 21, 2015).

[5] Klobuchar, News Release: Klobuchar: Opening of Cuban Embassy Marks Next Chapter in Relationship (July 20, 2015).

[6] Engage Cuba, Statement from Engage Cuba on Official Opening of U.S. and Cuba Embassies (July 20, 2015).

[7] Elizalde, John Dinges on Cuba-US relations: ‘I’m optimistic,’ CubaDebate (July 23, 2015)

[8] Gonzalez, Letter to Editor: Effects of Our Cuba Policy, N.Y. Times (July 24, 2015)

[9] Carney, GOPer doubles down on pledge to block Obama on Cuba, The Hill (July 20, 2015).

[10] Dep’t of State, [John Kerry] Interview with Steve Inskeep of National Public Radio (July 20, 2015); Dep’t of State, [John Kerry] Interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC News (July 20, 2015).

[11] This blogger disagrees with Kerry’s saying Congress had a role in deciding to recognize a foreign government; such a congressional role appears to be unconstitutional in light of a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that the president has the exclusive constitutional authority to recognize foreign governments.

[12] Speech presented by Army General Raúl Castro Ruz: ‘We will continue the process of transformations in Cuban society at our own pace, CubaDebate (July 15, 2015.

[13] Editorial, Formal Restoration of Diplomatic Ties with Cuba Is Just a Beginning, N.Y. Times (July 20, 2015).  The Washington Post, on the other hand, continued its opposition to normalization with Cuba with an editorial that focused on the human rights problems in Cuba and urging our diplomats to concentrate on those issues. (Editorial, U.S. diplomats in Cuba would do well to focus on human rights, Wash. Post (July 20, 2015).) As Secretary Kerry emphasized in his remarks, the U.S. continues to concentrate on those issues.

[14] Assoc. Press, Cuban Dissidents Feel Sidelined as Focuses on State Ties, N.Y. Times (July 23, 2015).

[15] A prior post suggested that Cuba’s best argument for terminating the lease was the U.S. operation of the prison/detention facility. However, Dr. Michael Strauss, an expert on this lease, asserts that at least in 2002 Cuba offered to facilitate U.S. transportation of detainees to Guantanamo; such conduct should weaken, if not demolish, such an argument for Cuba. (Strauss, Cuba and State Responsibility for Human Rights at Guantanamo Bay, 37 So. Ill. Univ. L.J. 533, 546 (2013).)

[16] White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 7/22/15.

[17] A prior post discussed these issues about the Guantanamo lease and recommended that the parties submit any unresolved disputes about the lease to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands.

[18] Assoc. Press, White House Finishing Up Latest Plan for Closing Guantanamo, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2015) Guantanamo, N.Y. Times (July 22, 2015).

[19] Reuters, Some Guantanamo Inmates Would Go to U.S. Under New Plan: Obama Aide, N.Y. Times (July 26, 2015)

[20] Hattem, House Dem demands fugitives in Cuba be returned to the U.S., The Hill (July 24, 2015). A prior post explored the issues regarding extradition under a U.S.-Cuba treaty on the subject and recommended submitting any unresolved disputes about extradition to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague.