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).

The Inauguration of Cuba’s New President, Miguel Díaz-Canel

On April 19, Miguel Diaz-Canel officially became Cuba’s new President of the Councils of State and Ministers. Born after the Revolution in 1960, he grew up in the central province of Villa Clara, about three hours from Havana, the son of a schoolteacher and a factory worker. He studied electrical engineering at the Central University of Las Villas, where he was active in political life. After service in the Cuban military and a civilian mission to Nicaragua, he started work for the Communist Party of Cuba in 1993, and has advanced within the Party and the government to the position of First Vice President of the Councils of State and Ministers before his inauguration as President.[1]

President Díaz-Canel’s Inaugural Address

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, had the following introduction to the inaugural address: “On the morning of April 19, a historic date . . .  [which saw] the first defeat of Yankee imperialism [at the Bay of Pigs in 1961] . . . [and which now] . . . sees the inauguration of a new [Cuban] government that makes evident the continuity of the new generations with the legacy of the historic generation that founded the Cuban Revolution in the highest leadership positions of the country, compañero Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez,.”[2]

Below is a photograph of Díaz-Canel giving his speech.

Díaz-Canel began by recognizing the leadership of Army General Raúl Castro, the candidate for deputy to have received the most votes in the recent general elections; as well as the Comandante of the Revolution, “who on being in this room offers us the opportunity to embrace history.”

Díaz-Canel “also referred to the ‘dark attempts to destroy us’ of those who have not been able to destroy ‘our faith.’” (Emphasis added.)

With the inauguration of this new legislature, he emphasized, the electoral process comes to its conclusion. “The Cuban people, who have massively participated throughout, are conscious of its historic importance. They have elected their representatives based on their capacity to represent their localities, without media campaigns, corruption or demagoguery. Citizens have elected humble, hard-working people as their genuine representatives, who will participate in the approval and implementation of the country’s policies. This process has contributed to the consolidation of unity in Cuba.”

On the people’s expectations about this government, he stressed that the new Council of State must continue “acting, creating and working tirelessly, in a permanent bond with its dignified people.”

He also added that if anyone wanted to see Cuba in all its composition, it would be enough to look to its National Assembly, with women occupying decisive positions in the state and the government. However, he warned, it does not matter how much we resemble the country we are, if the commitment to the present and the future of Cuba is lacking. The raison d’être of the Councils of State and Ministers is the permanent link with the population.

Díaz-Canel pointed out that during the closing of the last Party Congress [in 2016], Army General Raúl Castro Ruz made it clear that his generation would hand over the flags of the Revolution and Socialism to the younger generations. This emphasizes the importance of the crucial mandate given by the people to this legislature, and as such its work in all areas of the nation’s life must be perfected.

“I assume this responsibility with the conviction that all we revolutionaries, from any trench, will be faithful to Fidel and Raúl, the current leader of the revolutionary process,” the new President of Cuba stated. (Emphasis added.)

He then stressed that the men and women who forged the revolution “give us the keys to a new fraternity that transforms us into compañeros and compañeras,” and highlighted, as another inherited achievement, the unity that has become indestructible within the Cuban Party, that was not born from the fragmentation of others, but from those who intended to build a better country.

For that reason, he said, “Raúl remains at the forefront of the political vanguard. He remains our First Secretary, as the reference that he is for the revolutionary cause, teaching and always ready to confront imperialism, like at the start, with his rifle at the ready in the moment of combat.” (Emphasis added.)

Regarding the revolutionary and political work of the Army General, he highlighted his legacy of resistance and in the search for the continued advancement of the nation. “He put his sense of duty ahead of human pain,” he said in reference to the loss of Comandante en Jefe Fidel Castro on November 25, 2016.

Likewise, he highlighted Raúl’s grandeur as a statesman, forming a national consensus, and the manner in which he led the implementation process of the country’s social and economic guidelines. He also highlighted how he had made the return of the Five Cuban Heroes [in December 2014] a reality, so longed-for by Fidel.

Raúl has marked Cuba’s international relations with his own spirit: he directed diplomatic relations with the United States; he led the rotating presidency of CELAC; Cuba’s hosting of the Colombian peace talks; and he has been present in all regional and hemispheric summits, always defending Our America. That is the Raúl we know, Díaz-Canel stressed.

The new Cuban President also recalled how the Army General, still very young, participated in the Granma expedition, undertook the struggle in the Sierra Maestra, was promoted to Comandante, and developed government experiences that would be applied in the country after the revolutionary triumph.

I am aware of the concerns and expectations at a moment like this, but I know the strength and wisdom of the people, the leadership of the Party, the ideas of Fidel, the presence of Raúl and Machado, and knowing the popular sentiment, I state before this Assembly that compañero Raúl will head the decisions for the present and future of the nation.” (Emphasis added.)

I confirm that Cuban foreign policy will remain unchanged. Cuba will not accept conditions. The changes that are necessary will continue to be made by the Cuban people.” (Emphasis added.)

He also called for the support of all those who occupy leadership responsibilities at different levels in the nation, but, above all, of the people. “We will have to exercise an increasingly collective leadership. Strengthening the participation of the people.”

“I do not come to promise anything, as the Revolution never has in all these years. I come to fulfill the program that we have implemented with the guidelines of Socialism and the Revolution.” (Emphasis added.)

And as for the enemies of the revolutionary process, he said: “Here there is no space for a transition that ignores or destroys the work of the Revolution. We will continue moving forward without fear and without retreat; without renouncing our sovereignty, independence and development programs.”

“To those who through ignorance or bad faith doubt our commitment, we must tell them that the Revolution continues and will continue. The world has received the wrong message that the Revolution ends with its guerrillas.” (Emphasis added.)

Former President Raúl Castro’s Response

 Immediately after the inaugural address, Raúl Castro, the former President and still the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, closed the second plenary session of the National Assembly of Popular Power [Cuba’s national legislature], with the following remarks:[3] Below is a photograph of Castro during his speech.

Castro recalled the victory of Cuba during the mercenary invasion of Playa Girón [Bay of Pigs]. “That moment was of great importance, especially when Fidel declared the socialist nature of the Revolution, he said.”

“He also pointed out the opportunity of recognizing the work carried out by the electoral commissions and of candidates to all the instances, as well as of the set of institutions that collaborated for the good performance of the elections. He also congratulated the elections of the National Assembly to the State Council of the country.”

Castro  “said that Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez had worked as an engineer, and his work as an officer of the FAR. Then he was proposed as a professional cadre of the Union of Young Communists, from where he gradually rose to achieve his promotion as a Professional Party cadre.”

He pointed out that Díaz-Canel, during the [most acute phase of the] Special Period “was a member of the Provincial Party Committee in Villa Clara, where he spent nine years. Then he spent six years in Holguín. “He was born in Villa Clara, where he was quiet, because it was a territory he knew well; and it was after that that he was sent to one of the great provinces of the east, Holguin, as we did with more than a dozen young people, most of whom came to the Political Bureau, but who failed to be promoted. He was the only survivor.

Castro also stressed that Díaz-Canel had been a member of the Central Committee since 1991 and was promoted to the Political Bureau 15 years ago. He fulfilled a mission in Nicaragua and graduated from the National Defense College. In 2009 he was appointed Minister of Education. Five years ago he was elected First Vice President of the Councils of State and Ministers; and since then “a group of members of the Political Bureau had the feeling that we had hit the nail on the head,” referring to Díaz’s ability to assume the presidency. He was responsible in the ideological sphere of the Central Committee of the Party.

Raul pointed out that the election of Diaz-Canel is not a coincidence “because of his preparation he is the best and we know that because of his dedication he will have absolute success in the task entrusted to him by our supreme body of ‘Popular Power.” (Emphasis added.)

Comrade Díaz-Canel over the years he has demonstrated work capacity, ideological solidity and commitment to the Revolution.

The National Assembly of Popular Power has 42% new members and a female representation of 48.4%. Castro emphasized that women, young people and people of color occupy decision-making positions in the life of the nation.

“It is up to the Party, the State and the Government to fulfill and enforce, with due intentionality, the promotion of young people, women and mestizos, to posts that guarantee the renewal of the revolution.

He welcomed the ratification of the presidency of the National Assembly, and the proposal of Diaz-Canel, as allowed by the Constitution, so that the Council of Ministers will be made known at the next session of the Assembly, which will take place in July, because that it will allow for a prudent time for the movements of paintings to be made.

I will continue to serve as Second Secretary of the Central Committee of the PCC, in what is my second and last mandate, which ends in 2021, when we will complete the transfer to the new generations. From then on, I will be one more soldier with the people defending this Revolution. So that there is not the slightest doubt, I want to emphasize that the PCC, in the figure of its First Secretary, will continue supporting the [new] president.” (Emphases added.)

Regarding the new generations, he warned that one of the permanent bets of the enemy is to penetrate, confuse and alienate youth from the ideals of the work and the revolutionary culture leading them instead towards disengagement towards ethics, solidarity and the sense of duty.

Castro said that in the next constitution there will be no changes in the strategic objective of the Party, which our people will support as in 1976, when Cubans voted in favor of the current constitution with 98% support.

He pointed out that in the Plenary Session of the Central Committee held in March of this year, the economic and social status of the nation was analyzed. The new constitution has lagged behind us, he clarified, because the country’s main problems are not resolved, because the participation of the organisms from the base was not achieved for the adequate implementation of the adopted policies.

We never had any illusions that it would be a short and easy process, because its dimensions reached all sectors of society, and we had to overcome egalitarianism and its negative consequences in the national economy, he added.

In the case of the socioeconomic context of the nation, Castro assured that the experiment of the non-agricultural cooperatives will continue and with respect to the monetary duality he said that he continues to give serious headaches, as well as the need for wage reform. He also emphasized the need for a coherent communication policy. (Emphasis added.)

He also recalled the difficult circumstances in which the country’s economy had to develop, and the considerable damages caused by the intense drought of the last 3 years and the recent hurricanes that affected most of the country. (Emphasis added.)

With regard to foreign debt, he stressed that a renegotiation has been carried out, which has helped to free the new generations of a sword of Damocles and the consequent restitution of the credit prestige of the country. The Army General congratulated the Minister of Economy, Ricardo Cabrisas, on his performance in that process.

He also made a call to save resources, claiming that we usually ask for too much, so we have to plan better.

“Defend unity, resist and resist, that is the duty of revolutionaries,” he said.

Regarding foreign policy issues, said the recent Summit of the Americas  was marked by the neo-hegemonic attitude of the United States, whose commitment to the Monroe Doctrine was ratified, especially with the exclusion of Venezuela from that international event. (Emphasis added.)

It was known that they would set up a show, and Cuba went to Lima with its own right and its head high, which confirms the determination of the Cubans to defend their principles and their values. The Cuban delegation, together with that of Bolivia and other countries, prevented a single front against Venezuela. The interventions of our foreign minister, on behalf of the government and Cuban people, constituted a worthy response against the contents of the interventionist speech of the Vice President of the United States, Raul said. (Emphasis added.)

“The members of civil society defended the voice of Cuba and the peoples of America with vigor. I take this opportunity to congratulate all the members of the Cuban delegation that participated in this event, “he said.

The Army General stressed Cuba’s commitment to ALBA because we are the world’s region of greatest inequality in the distribution of wealth, and the gap between rich and poor is huge and growing despite the efforts made in the past decades, when Progressive governments pushed for policies to mitigate this evil, he said.

He rejected accusations of human rights violations in Cuba. He highlighted diplomatic relations with the European Union and the progress of ties with China. (Emphasis added.)

“In just 11 days our people will march together united by our streets and squares commemorating the International Labor Day and showing the majority support of the Cubans to the Party and its Revolution.

Conclusion

As anticipated, these comments by Díaz-Canel and Castro demonstrate a collective intention to continue Cuba’s current direction, domestically and internationally. Their mutual admiration is shown in the photograph below.

In another post we will look at U.S. reaction to the change in Cuba leadership. Some of that reaction was recorded before the actual inaugural of Díaz-Canel.

 

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[1] Ahmed & Robles, Who Is Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s New President? N.Y. Times (April 19, 2018); Cordoba, After 59 Years, a Castro Is No Longer Official Leader of Cuba, W.S.J. (April 19, 2018).

[2] Miguel Díaz-Canel: I assume this responsibility with the conviction that all the revolutionaries will be faithful to Fidel and Raúl (+Video), Granma (April 19, 2018).

[3] Raúl Castro: The Communist Party will continue to support the new President, Granma (April 19, 2018).

 

Upcoming Cuba Restrictions on Free Enterprise?  

As has been discussed in previous posts, in recent years Cuba has seen a growing private sector of its economy. For example, the number of Cubans working with self-employment licenses rose to 567,982 people in mid-2017, compared with 157,731 in 2010. In response to this growth the Cuban government over the last year has imposed various restrictions on this sector. [1]

Although President Raúl Castro at the 2016 Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba criticized the lethargy of many of the state-owned enterprises and praised the innovations of the growing private sector, Cuba has been struggling with the challenges of creating and managing a mixed economy. The biggest challenge for the regime has been the increasing wealth of those in the private sector and thus the rising economic inequality on the island. [2]

New Draft Economic Regulations [3]

Now Reuters reports that a “draft of new Cuban economic regulations proposes increasing state control over the private sector and curtailing private enterprise.”

The 166-page document “would allow homes only one license to operate a restaurant, cafeteria or bar. That would limit the number of seats per establishment to 50. Many of Havana’s most successful private restaurants currently hold several licenses enabling them to have a seating capacity of 100 or more.”

This draft, which is dated Aug. 3, 2017, and signed by Marcia Fernández Andreu, deputy chief of the secretariat of Cuba’s Council of Ministers, states that it ”strengthens control at a municipal, provincial and national level.” In addition, it provides that enforcement against infractions will be more “rigorous.”

The draft apparently was recently sent to provincial and national organs of administration for consultation. Its leak is suspected to gauge public opinion and could lead to revisions.

Reactions

Even before this new draft was released, the Miami-based Havana Consulting Group had warned that the recent Cuban restrictions on the private sector would generate an annual “flight of local capital abroad” of between 280 and 350 million dollars. Those restrictions also probably would be a negative factor for new foreign investment on the island. [4]

In addition, the new proposed regulations probably would prompt some younger Cubans to lose hope of change in their country and prompt their desire to emigrate, thereby exacerbating Cuba’s problems associated with an aging and declining population.

Finally for the very reasons that Raúl Castro advanced at the recent Party Congress, the proposed regulations could adversely affect Cuba’s employment opportunities and gross national product.

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[1] See posts listed in the “Cuban Economy” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA

[2] Raúl Castro Discusses Socio-Economic Issues in Report to Seventh Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 19, 2016). 

[3] Reuters, Exclusive—Cuba Draft Rules Propose Curtailing Fledgling Private Sector, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2018).   

[4] Study: The obstacles of the regime to the private sector generate a flight of millions abroad, Diario de Cuba (Feb. 20, 2018). 

Trump’s Hostility Towards Cuba Provides Opportunities for Russia              

As noted in previous posts, President Donald Trump in only one year in office has expressed hostility towards Cuba in various ways. Those actions have created opportunities for other countries to increase their connections with Cuba and thereby damage U.S. business relations with the island and potentially U.S. national security.

Opportunities for Russia

The foremost beneficiary of these U.S. changes has been Russia.

On December 16, in Havana Cuba President Raúl Castro and Economy Minister Ricardo Cabrisas met with the head of Russian oil company Rosneft, Igor Sechin, for discussions about increasing Cuba’s purchases of oil from Rosneft and modernizing the island’s oil refinery in Cienfuegos. Also participating in the meeting was Mikhail L. Kamynin, Russian ambassador in Cuba.[1]

This May Rosneft started shipping some oil to Cuba, the first significant such sales since the early 1990s. The resumption of this relationship is in response to the U.S. hostility and discouraging U.S. business with the island and to the significant reduction of Venezuela’s shipments of such products to Cuba and the resulting shortages of fuel and electricity for Cubans.

Other Russian beneficiaries are Avtovaz, Russia’s biggest carmaker; KAMAZ, Russia’s largest truck manufacturer; and Sinara, a large locomotive manufacturer. Next month Avtovaz will ship 300 new shiny Lada automobiles to Cuba and hopes to ramp up such exports, thanks to financing from Russian government development bank VEB. Last month Sinara delivered the first of 75 locomotives worth $190 million ordered by Cuba in 2016.[2]

In addition, Russian Railways (RZD) is negotiating to upgrade more than 1000 km of Cuban railroads and to install a high-speed link between Havana and the beach resort of Varadero, in what would be Cuba’s biggest infrastructure project in decades worth $2.26 billion

Aleksandr Bogatyr, Russia’s trade representative in Cuba, said that there Has been a “renaissance” as he forecast bilateral trade could grow to $350 million to $400 million this year, one of its highest levels in nearly two decades, up from $248 million in 2016.

A major obstacle to all of these deals is Cuba’s lack of cash and Russia’s own economic problems. Yet in 2014 Russia forgave 90 percent of Cuba’s $35 billion Soviet-era debt and started providing export financing to Russian companies looking to sell to the cash-strapped island.

An outsider to the Russian connection, Jason Marczak, Director the U.S.-based Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, observed, “Russia sees it as a moment to further its own relationship with Cuba” and “the more the Russian footprint increases in Cuba, the more that will reinforce hardened anti-U.S. attitudes and shut out U.S. businesses from eventually doing greater business in Cuba.”

Challenge to U.S. National Security

All of this also represents a national security challenge to the U.S. This April a group of high-ranking military officers wrote an open letter to the Trump administration urging continuation of the U.S. opening with Cuba. One of the letter’s signatories, retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis, said, “If Russia is willing to offset oil supplies from Venezuela and some other things, maybe Cuba doesn’t have much of a choice but to let them re-establish political warfare operations there.”

This general Russian threat to the U.S. is recognized in the National Security Strategy of the United States of America that was released on December 18. At the very start on page 2 it states,, “China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence.” This was made specific with respect to Cuba  on page 51 with the following statements: “In Venezuela and Cuba, governments cling to anachronistic leftist authoritarian models that continue to fail their people. Competitors have found operating space in the hemisphere. . . . Russia continues its failed politics of the Cold War by bolstering its radical Cuban allies as Cuba continues to repress its citizens.”  (Emphases added.)

The U.S. National Security Strategy reacts to the Russian challenge by saying that  the U.S. with Canada and “key countries in the region . . . . will build a stable and peaceful hemisphere that increases economic opportunities for all, improves governance, reduces the power of criminal organizations, and limits the malign influence of non-hemispheric forces. . . . We will catalyze regional efforts to build security and prosperity through strong diplomatic engagement. We will isolate governments that refuse to act as responsible partners in advancing hemispheric peace and prosperity. We look forward to the day when the people of Cuba and Venezuela can enjoy freedom and the benefits of shared prosperity, and we encourage other free states in the hemisphere to support this shared endeavor. (Emphases added.)

But this presidential document fails to acknowledge that this Russian involvement was precipitated, in part, by the Trump Administration’s own hostility towards Cuba and that a continuation of normalization of relations with Cuba would not have provided “operating space” in Cuba for “competitors” like Russia.[3]

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[1] Reuters, Cuba’s Castro and Russian Oil Executive Meet in Havana, N.Y. Times (Dec. 17, 2017); Raúl receives Igor Sechin, Granma (Dec. 18, 2017).

[2] Reuters, Cuba Boost Trade Ties with Cold War Ally Russia as U.S. Disengages, N.Y. Times (Dec. 19, 2017).

[3] White House, National Security Strategy of the United States of America (Dec. 2017).

 

 

 

Is Cuba-North Korea Cooperation Good or Bad for U.S.? 

On November 22-24 North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho was in Havana to meet with Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and President Raúl Castro. Was this a positive or negative development for  the U.S., which has simultaneous strained relationships with both countries?[1]

Background

Since 1960, soon after the Cuban Revolution assumed control of the island’s government, Cuba and North Korea have had close diplomatic relations. It started with a 1960 visit to North Korea by Che Guevara, who praised the North Korean regime as a model for Cuba to follow.

In 1986 Fidel Castro visited North Korea and met with the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and his son and successor, Kim Jong-il (the grandfather and father, respectively, of the current North Korean leader).

In July 2013, a North Korea-flagged vessel was seized by Panamanian authorities carrying suspected missile-system components hidden under 10,000 tons of sugar bags upon its return from Cuba. Cuba claimed the weapons were going to North Korea for repairs and were to be sent back. However, the next year a United Nations panel of experts concluded that the shipment had violated sanctions placed on North Korea, although Cuban entities were not sanctioned in the aftermath despite protests from the U.S.

In 2015, Cuba’s First Vice President and foreseeable successor to Raúl Castro, Miguel Díaz-Canel , was received by Kim Jong-un in the North Korean capital.

In December 2016, a North Korean delegation to the funeral of Cuban leader Fidel Castro emphasized that the two nations should develop their relations “in all spheres” — a comment that was echoed by Raúl Castro, according to state media reports at the time.

This year the Kim regime has been strengthening its ties with Cuba with a view to breaking its diplomatic isolation, before the tightening of sanctions imposed by the international community. In January, Cuban Vice President  Salvador Valdés Mesa  received the number three of the North Korean regime, Choe Ryong-hae. In May the North Korean trade union leader Ju Yong-gil visited  Havana as part of a meeting of the World Federation of Trade Unions and reportedly returned with a message of solidarity from President Raúl Castro.

The Ho-Rodriguez Meeting

Ho’s first meeting in Cuba was with Foreign Minister Rodriguez and below is a photograph of the two men at that meeting. 

Afterwards Cuba’s Foreign Ministry stated that the two officials  had “reviewed the satisfactory status and positive evolution of bilateral relations, which [are] based on the traditional bonds of friendship established by the historical leaders Fidel Castro Ruz and Kim Il Sung and the links that exist between both peoples, parties and governments.” They also asserted their “respect for peoples’ sovereignty, independence and free determination, territorial integrity, the abstention or threat of the use of force, the peaceful settlement of disputes and non-interference in the internal affairs of States.”

They then “strongly rejected the unilateral and arbitrary lists and designations established by the US government which serve as a basis for the implementation of coercive measures which are contrary to international law.” In addition, they “expressed their concern over the escalation of tensions and the increased military activity in the [Korean Peninsula].”

The Ho-Castro Meeting

After the two officials’ meeting, the official note of the meeting released on Cuban official television stated, “In the fraternal meeting both parties noted the historic bonds of friendship that exist between the two nations and discussed international issues of common interest.”

Implications for the U.S.

On November 23 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the possibility that the North Korea-Cuba relationship was a positive development for the U.S. and the world. He said that last year he had discussed with Castro the possibility of working together to defuse global tensions with North Korea. “Can we pass along messages through surprising conduits?” Implicitly answering “yes” to his rhetorical question, Trudeau said. “These are the kinds of things where Canada can, I think, play a role that the United States has chosen not to play, this past year.”

Canada had an interest in seeking such solutions, not just because of regional security but also because the flight path of possible North Korean missiles would pass over its territory, Trudeau said.

An unnamed Asian diplomat had a similar thought: “We often ask the Cubans if they can talk to [the U.S. about North Korea].”

A more negative assessment was offered by an anonymous U.S. State Department official who said that the U.S. had made clear it wanted a peaceful resolution to the North Korean nuclear issue, but North Korea’s “belligerent and provocative behavior demonstrates it has no interest in working toward a peaceful solution.” Also skeptical was Anthony Ruggiero, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former U.S. Treasury Department official, who said,  “A key element of the Trump administration’s sanctions effort is isolating North Korea. The U.S. should warn Cuba about the dangers of a relationship with North Korea.”

Conclusion

Although this blog desperately hopes for a de-escalation of tensions between the U.S. and North Korea and the avoidance of a nuclear war, I doubt that Cuba or Canada via Cuba can make a significant contribution to that objective.

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[1] Reuters, Castro Meets North Korean Minister Amid Hope Cuba Can Defuse Tensions, N.Y. Times (Nov. 24, 2017); The North Korean chancellor brings to Raúl Castro a ‘verbal message’ from Kim Jong-un, Diario de Cuba (Nov. 24, 2017); MacDonald, North Korea relations could be cooled using Cuba, Trudeau says, Global News (Nov. 23, 2017); Reuters, Cuba, North Korea Reject ‘Unilateral and Arbitrary U.S. Demands, N.Y. Times (Nov. 23, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, The Cuban Foreign Minister met with his counterpart from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (Nov. 22, 2017); Gomez, Bruno Rodriguez receives Foreign Minister of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Granma (Nov. 22, 2017); Reuters, North Korean Foreign Minister Heads to Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 20, 2017); Taylor, Amid growing isolation, North Korea falls back on close ties with Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 17, 2017).

 

 

Update on Hurricane Irma’s Impact on Cuba

Now that Hurricane Irma has left Cuba, greater details have emerged about its impact.

Early Reports

On the morning of Sunday (September 10) Reuters reported that “waves of up to 36 feet (11 meters) smashed businesses along Havana’s sea-side drive, . . . pummeling famous hotels such as the Copacabana, which were evacuated along with flooded neighborhoods.  Although the hurricane “did not hit Havana directly and brought only moderate wind and rain, . . .  the storm surge was still driving giant waves over the sea wall.” Associated Press added, “Seawater penetrated as much as 1,600 feet (500 meters) inland in parts of the city. Trees toppled, roofs were torn off, cement water tanks fell from roofs to the ground and electrical lines are down.” As a result, “emergency workers in inflatable boats navigated flooded streets Sunday along Havana’s coastline, where thousands of people left their homes for safer ground before Hurricane Irma hit Cuba.”[1]

Late Sunday afternoon Cuban authorities warned that the floodwaters in Havana could linger for more than a day as waves as high as 20 feet (6 meters) continued to pound the city. The U.S. Embassy astride the Malecon was damaged; its black perimeter fence, exterior panels, windows and doors were damaged. High-end hotels Melia Cohiba and Rivera also were damaged.

72 miles (116 km) east of the capital, Varadero, the country’s most important tourist resort, was whipped by winds, but it appeared to escape the full fury of the storm. The head of civil defense for the province said, “Our preliminary estimate of damage in Varadero is that it was concentrated in metal structures, false ceilings, and some buildings.”

On Sunday morning Raúl Castro as the President of the National Civil Defense Council issued a statement that the hurricane “has strongly impacted electrical infrastructure in practically the entire country, which impedes the concentration of brigades of specialized linemen in a particular zone.”[2]

Early Sunday afternoon that Council’s Advisory No. 6 stated, “Although Irma is gradually moving away from the island, it continues to represent a threat to Cuba. Its outer bands continue to affect the country’s central and western regions, with heavy and locally intense rainfall. Tropical storm strength winds continue to be felt from Sancti Spíritus to Artemisa, as well as storm surges along the northwest coast from Matanzas to Artemisa, the northern coast of the provinces of Sancti Spíritus and Villa Clara, and the southern shoreline from Camagüey to Matanzas.”

The Miami Herald has been publishing photographs of the effects of Irma in Cuba.[3]

Center for Democracy in the Americas’ Special Report

On Monday, the Center for Democracy in the Americas issued a special report, which is reprinted here in its entirety.[4]

“Hurricane Irma slammed into Cuba over the weekend, leaving 10 dead and causing destruction and flooding across the island. Irma, which made landfall in the country’s northeastern provinces as a Category 5 storm, was the strongest storm to hit Cuba in 85 years, according to Reuters.”

Damages

“The hurricane wrought havoc in Cuba’s keys, badly damaging most structures and all but destroying the international Jardines del Rey airport in Cayo Coco. Cuba’s President Raúl Castro released a statement Monday, saying, ‘Given the immensity of [Irma’s] size, practically no region has escaped its effects.’”

“Though Havana avoided a direct hit, the capital city saw extensive flooding, with 36-foot waves rising well over the Malecón (seawall) and seawater reaching one-third of a mile inland, according to Reuters and the Associated Press. The U.S. Embassy in Havana, which is located along the Malecón, saw structural damage to its fence and severe flooding inside the building.”

“According to CubaDebate, 7 of the 10 reported deaths across Cuba occurred in Havana, mostly due to falling structures and live electrical cables lying in the city’s flooded streets. Much of the island remains without power or cell service.”

“Cuba had evacuated over 1 million people, including over 8,000 tourists, prior to the storm’s arrival.”

Economic Impacts

“Irma has brought consequences for a number of Cuba’s principle economic sectors, including the sugar and tourism industries.”

“According to Granma, 300,000 hectares of sugarcane crops and 40 percent of sugar refineries in Cuba suffered some degree of damage from the storm. Cuba harvested 436,000 hectares of sugarcane in 2015, the last year for which data was available.”

“Meanwhile, the extensive damage to the Cuban Keys has left many of the country’s most popular resorts uninhabitable. President Castro stated that damages ‘will be recovered before the start of the high season’ for tourism.”

Response

“In his statement, President Castro said, ‘It is not time to mourn, but rather to rebuild what the winds of Hurricane Irma tried to destroy.’ Countries including Ecuador, Bolivia, and Russia have stated their intention to deliver aid to the island.”

“Prior to the storm reaching Cuba, the country sent nearly 800 doctors to affected Caribbean islands, according to Granma.”

President Castro’s Public Statement

The previously mentioned statement on Monday morning, September 11, by President Raúl Castro.[5] said “practically no province was spared [Irma’s] effects,” especially “severe damage to [the island’s] housing, the electrical system, and agriculture.”

“It also struck some of our principal tourist destinations, but damage will be repaired before the beginning of the high season. We have on hand for this the human resources and materials needed, given that this constitutes one of the principal sources of income in the national economy.”

“The days that are coming will be ones of much work, during which the strength and indestructible confidence in the Revolution of Cubans will again be demonstrated. This is not a time to mourn, but to construct again that which the winds of Irma attempted to destroy.”

Economic Impact

New York Times reporters talk about the problem of rebuilding tourist infrastructure facing many Caribbean islands, including Cuba.[6] They report, “Travel and tourism accounts for a higher share of the Caribbean region’s gross domestic product than it does in any other region in the world, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council, supporting more than 2.3 million jobs. . . . In Cuba, the long-term implications could be even worse. The hardest-hit parts of the islands contain a significant share of its tourist infrastructure and bring in precious foreign currency for the communist nation. Without that, the country loses one of its primary sources of income to purchase items on the global market, including the construction materials it will need to repair the damaged infrastructure.”

On Monday, they report, “President Raúl Castro recognized the importance of resorts to the Cuban economy and promised they would be rebuilt before the start of the peak season, which runs from December to April. The target is ambitious, but with Venezuela, the island’s main economic partner, racked by its own crises, Cuba can’t afford to miss it. The Cuban government announced on Monday that 10 people had died as a result of the storm, bringing the death toll in the Caribbean to at least 37.”

Cuba’s sugar industry, another important Cuban industry for employment and export earnings, suffered significant damage. According to Liobel Perez, spokesman for AZCUBA, the state sugar monopoly,  “Some 300,000 hectares (740,000 acres) of cane were affected to different degrees” and 40 percent of the country’s mills were also damaged, as were warehouses and other parts of the industry’s infrastructure.[7]          

Conclusion

To meet the huge problem of rebuilding Cuba’s housing and infrastructure this blogger suggests that Cuba rescind its new restrictions on cooperatives that engage in construction that were discussed in a prior post.  Cuba needs all the help it can get as soon as possible.

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[1] Reuters, Irma’s 36-Feet Waves Slam Havana, Winds Pummel Varadero Resort, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuba Sees Devastation as Hurricane Irma Veers Toward Florida, N.Y. Times (Sept. 10, 2017); Assoc. Press, Waves from Irma Flood Havana Coast Even as Storm Moves Away, N.Y. times (Sept. 10, 2017); Advisory No. 6 from the National Civil Defense General Staff regarding Hurricane Irma, Granma (Sept. 10, 2017); Cuba responds to Irma, Granma (Sept. 10, 2017); Irma disappears the melecón of Havana, Cubadebate (Sept. 10, 2017) (photos of Havana); Irma: The sad trace of an unwanted visitor, Cubadebate (Sept. 10, 2017) (photos of Havana); In photos, trees shot down by Irma in several places in Havana, Cubadebate (Sept. 10, 2017); National Civil Defense Council General Staff announcement regarding deaths associated with Hurricane Irma, Granma (Sept. 11, 2017).

[2]  Instructions from President of the National Civil Defense Council, Granma (Sept. 10, 2017).

[3] Photo gallery: Hurricane Irma Cuba/Sun,. Sept. 10, 2017 , Miami Herald (Sept. 10, 2017); Hurricane Irma in photos: heavy flooding on the Cuban coast, from Matanzas to Havana, Miami Herald (Sept. 10, 2017); Photo gallery: Hurricane Irma strikes Cuba/Sat., Sept. 9, 2017, Miami Herald (Sept. 10, 2017).

[4] Center Democracy in Americas, Cuba Central News Brief Special Report: Cuba Recovers After Irma (Sept. 11, 2017).

[5] Castro,  A call to our combative people, Granma (Sept. 11, 2017).

[6] Ahmed & Semple, In the Caribbean, Rebuilding Nations—and the Tourism Industry, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2017); Reuters, Hurricane Irma Kills 10 in Cuba, Castro Calls for Unity, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2017).

[7] Reuters, Irma Severely Damages Cuban Sugar Industry, Crop: State Media, N.Y. Times (Sept. 11, 2017).

Granma’s Positive Views on Cuban Free Enterprise 

Granma, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba, recently praised the achievements of Cuban “small business” or free enterprise that have emerged over the five years since the 6th Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba permitted “economic activity by foreign investors, cooperatives, small farmers, those working land granted in usufruct, renters of state property, and the self-employed.”[1]

In those five years “the non-state sector has grown exponentially. While employment in the state sector constituted 81.2% of the total in 2010, it stood at 70.8% in 2015. Likewise, there were 157,371 registered self-employed in September of 2010, and more than 500,000 at the close of 2016.”

As Raúl Castro, First Secretary of the Party noted at its 7th Congress in April 2016, “The increase in self-employment and the authorization to hire a work force has led, in practice, to the existence of private medium sized, small, and micro-enterprises, which function today without the appropriate legal standing, and are governed by law within a regulatory framework designed for individuals working in small businesses undertaken by the worker and family members,” developing is an atmosphere which does not discriminate against or stigmatize non-state work.

The changes over the last five years include “’pay per performance,’” which means that wages for workers in state and non-state enterprises are increasingly linked to results obtained.” In other words, wages will not be equal, but instead will vary based on performance.

The article also emphasizes that the Cuban “economic system would continue to be based on the entire people’s socialist ownership of the fundamental means of production, governed by the principle that distribution (also socialist) would be based on ‘from each according to their capacity, to each according to their work.’”

These changes over the last five years and into the foreseeable future “are taking place within a reality marked by little population growth, with low birth rates and longer life expectancy, a negative migratory balance, increasing urbanization and aging of the population, which imply great social and economic challenges for the country.”

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[1] González, Small business in Cuba, Granma (Mar. 16, 2017).  Earlier blog posts about the Cuban economy are listed in the “Cuban Economy” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.