This week Cuban leaders have held meetings in Havana with the foreign ministers of the European Union and Russia.
A previous post examined the recent history of Cuba’s relations with the European Union (EU), including their negotiations on improving relations in 2014 and earlier this month. Another set of such negotiations or meetings took place in Havana on March 23-24 with the EU’s 
The most recent meetings were with the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice President of the European Commission, Federica Mogherini.
She met with Cuban President Raúl Castro and Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla. Also present were Stefano Manservisi, Mogherini’s chief of staff; Herman Portocarero, EU Ambassador to Cuba; and Rogelio Sierra Diaz, Cuba’s Minister and Deputy Foreign Minister. (To the left is a photograph of Mogherini and Castro.)
In addition, Magherini met with the President of the National Assembly of Popular Power, Esteban Lazo Hernández; Vice President of the Council of Ministers and Minister of Economy and Planning, Marino Murillo Jorge; and Minister of Foreign Trade and Foreign Investment, Rodrigo Malmierca.
Afterwards Magherini said that although the pace of progress in the EU-Cuba talks on improving their relations was “slow,” it was gaining “political momentum” and that the two parties had “decided to speed up the rhythm of our negotiations, hopefully to manage to finalize the framework of our dialogue and agreement by the end of this year.” She also referred to the signing of a program between the island and the EU in the amount of 50 million euros until 2020, which will be used in commercial areas and especially in agriculture and complimented Cuba for its essential role in regional processes such as the Colombia-FARC peace negotiations taking place in Havana.
A Cuban newspaper reported the President Castro observed that “in a friendly atmosphere,” the two of them “exchanged ideas about the links between the EU and Cuba .They agreed on the importance of developing relationships of mutual respect, based on the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter. Also, they discussed issues of common interest of the international agenda.”
Bruno Rodriguez reiterated Cuba’s “willingness to work to advance these links and . . . constructive engagement with the negotiations for an agreement on political dialogue and bilateral cooperation that is underway.” He also noted Cuba’s appreciation for the votes of EU members in support of Cuba’s resolution against the U.S. blockade (embargo) at last Fall’s U.N. General Assembly meeting.
Magherini and Bruno Rodriguez will see each other at the Summit of the Americas on April 10-11 in Panama, to which both Cuba and the EU are invited for the first time before the two of them meet in Brussels on April 22. In addition, Cuban officials will attend a summit of European and Latin American leaders scheduled for June in Brussels.
On March 24, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met in Havana with Cuban President Raúl Castro. Also present were Mikhail L. Kamynin, Russian Ambassador to Cuba; Alexander V. Schetinin, the Director of Latin America at Russia’s Foreign Ministry; Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla; and Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister, Rogelio Sierra Díaz. (Above is a photograph of Larov and Castro.)
The participants discussed the excellent state of their relations and ratified the willingness to work together in the effective implementation of the bilateral economic agenda and deepen exchanges in areas of common interest. Castro thanked Russia’s support for ending the U.S. economic, commercial and financial blockade against Cuba and reiterated his country’s opposition to the unilateral sanctions imposed by the U.S. and its NATO allies against Russia.
Larov said, “Normalization between the United States and Cuba makes us happy. We salute this rapprochement,” and “we call for the lifting of the (U.S.) trade and financial blockade of Cuba as soon as possible.”
Earlier Larov met separately with Foreign Minister Rodriguez and with Ricardo Cabrisas, Vice President of Cuba’s Council of Ministers. They discussed bilateral cooperation and the interest of Russian companies in investing in Cuba’s development.
Simultaneously a Russian ship of the class generally used for intelligence gathering was in the Havana Harbor as shown in the photograph to the left by Desmond Boylan/Associated Press.
These meeting emphasize that Cuba’s redefining its relationships with the U.S. is not the only bilateral issue facing Cuba and that the U.S. is in competition with the EU and Russia for improving economic relations.
Another factor influencing all of these discussions is Cuba’s construction of a deep-sea port at Mariel to accommodate larger ships going through an expanded Panama Canal, which announced this week that the expansion should be completed next year. (To the right is a photograph of one portion of the expanded canal.)
Over the U.S. Presidents’ Day holiday (February 14-17), Democratic U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar (MN), Claire McCaskill (MO) and Mark Warner (VA) visited Cuba. They met with government and religious leaders and people on the street. 
Cuba’s only newspaper, Granma, in its English-language edition, had a prominent article about the senators’ meeting with Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs,  and Josefina Vidal, General Director of Cuba’s U.S. Division in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the official in charge of Cuba’s current negotiations with the U.S. Granma stated that the meeting “addressed relevant topics, such as the process of reestablishing diplomatic relations between both nations and the lifting of the economic blockade [embargo].” Cuba’s official statement about the meeting emphasized that Senator Klobuchar had “presented a legislative bill to Congress which aims to eliminate blockade restrictions.”
The English-language edition of Granma had a longer article featuring this color photograph of the three senators at their concluding press conference in Havana and a video of the conference. It reported that the senators had “expressed optimism in regards to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, and progress toward normalization.” One of the Cuban journalists asked if the senators thought they had visited a terrorist state, and the answer was “no.”
After identifying Senator Klobuchar as the author of a bill to end the embargo, the Cuban newspaper reported the she expressed “confidence that the visit would help to broaden the prevailing view of Cuba in Washington, which should strengthen the bipartisan effort to eliminate blockade restrictions on trade and maritime transport, among others.” She also noted “that changes will not be immediate, but emphasized the need to hold a discussion involving both major U.S. parties.”
According to Granma, Senator McCaskill said there are “no problems which could not be addressed, and expressed optimism in regards to the [current U.S.-Cuba] talks.” She also reported that “the delegation had visited the Port of Mariel and the adjacent Special Development Zone, emphasizing the possibilities opening up for U.S. imports to Cuba.” (A prior post discussed this deep-sea port development to accommodate larger container ships going through an enlarged Panama Cana while a 11/07/14 comment to that post mentioned difficulties Cuba was experiencing in attracting foreign investment in the project.)
Senator Warner, according to Granma, mentioned the need to eliminate U.S. restrictions that made it more difficult for Cubans to buy goods under exemptions from the embargo.
As the three senators prepared to leave Cuba, they learned that the second round of talks for the two countries would take place in Washington, D.C. on February 27th., and according to U.S. press coverage of the press conference, they so announced to the journalists. Senator Warner said, “We look with hope and expectations to the meetings next week in Washington between the Cuban government and the American State Department to make progress.” 
McCaskill added, according to the U.S. journalists, “Frankly I’m optimistic because the negotiators are two women and we know how to get things done.” Perhaps more importantly, she said, largely Republican agricultural interests in the Midwest supported lifting the embargo as “they really want to sell rice [and other agricultural products] down here. So it is the business community and agricultural community who I think might have the most influence on helping us make this effort more bipartisan.”
McCaskill said right-wing opposition to other bills has been overcome when House Speaker John Boehner had allowed the entire House to vote on them, contrary to the so called Hastert Rule or Practice that would not allow a bill to come to floor of the House for a vote unless it had the support of a majority of the Republican caucus. McCaskill hoped, “This could be one of those times, especially if the Chamber of Commerce and the commodities groups and the Farm Bureaus of the world really start putting political pressure on their own party.”
Afterwards Klobuchar told a Minnesota journalist that the Cuban people often mention the date “December 17th,” the day Presidents Obama and Castro announced their countries’ agreement to pursue reconciliation, and she saw people selling artwork using the newspaper’s front page of Obama’s decree.“We met with every-day people who had started businesses who are excited. There is a real interest in buying American products.” Indeed, with U.S. trade restrictions removed, she said, Minnesota could be selling more pork, poultry, corn and soybeans, farm machinery and perhaps renewable energy technology to Cuba that could easily double its current $20 million in annual agricultural exports to the island.
These conversations led Senator Klobuchar to conclude that Cubans have a couple of top priorities: normalizing currency and getting better access to high-speed Internet and cell phones. “Once they get Internet and once they get communications,” she asserted, “ I believe there will be improvements to everything else.”
News of Senator Klobuchar’s bill to end the embargo with her photograph had appeared on the front page of Granma, causing many Cuban people to recognize her as she walked down the street. She felt like a celebrity.
 In a separate, very short article, Granma’s Spanish-language original reported the second round of talks would take place in Washington on February 27th. (Second round of cuba-US talks, Granma (Feb. 17, 2015)(English by Google Translate).)
In an October 12theditorial 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.”
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.” 
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.
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. 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. 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.
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. 
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.