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.

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 Raúl Castro Says Cuba Can Work with the Trump Administration

 

On January 25 Cuba’s President, Raúl Castro, expressed “Cuba’s willingness to continue negotiating pending bilateral issues with the [U.S.], on the basis of equality, reciprocity and respect for the sovereignty and independence of our country, and to continue the respectful dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest with the new government of President Donald Trump.”[1]

Castro continued, “Cuba and the [U.S.] can cooperate and coexist in a civilized manner, respecting differences and promoting all that benefits both countries and peoples, but it should not be expected that to do so Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence.”

On the other hand, he said, “The [U.S.] economic, commercial and financial blockade persists, which causes considerable hardships and human damages that severely harm our economy and hamper development. Despite this, we continue immersed in the updating of our economic and social model and we will continue to fight to build a sovereign, independent, socialist, democratic, prosperous and sustainable nation.”

These comments were in the larger context of Castro’s speech at the summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)[2] held in Bavaro, the Dominican Republic, when he said, “Never has it been more necessary to effectively advance along the path of unity, recognizing that we have many common interests. Working for ‘unity within diversity’ is an urgent need.”

“To achieve this, strict adherence to [the group’s previous proclamation] is required, in which we commit ourselves ‘to strict compliance with their obligation not to intervene, directly or indirectly, in the internal affairs of any other State,’ and to resolve differences in a peaceful manner, as well as to ‘fully respect the inalienable right of every State to choose its political, economic, social and cultural system.’”

“It would be desirable for the new [U.S.] government to opt for respect for the region, although it is a matter of concern that intentions have been declared that endanger our interests in the areas of trade, employment, migration and the environment, among others.”

Subsequently the Summit passed resolutions applauding the U.S. termination of its “dry foot/wet foot” immigration policy for Cuban migrants while also urging the U.S. Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act; condemning the U.S. embargo (blockade); and calling for the U.S. to return Guantanamo Bay to Cuba.[3]

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[1] Castro, Never has it been more necessary to effectively advance along the path of unity, Granma (Jan. 25, 2017); Reuters, Cuba’s Castro Warns Trump to Respect Country’s Sovereignty, N.Y. Times (Jan. 25, 2017); Assoc. Press, Castro: Cuba Can Work With Trump if Sovereignty Respected, N.Y. Times (Jan. 26, 2017).

[2] CELAC consists of 33 sovereign countries in the Americas representing roughly 600 million people and is seen as an alternative to the Organization of American States and U.S. influence in the region.

[3] Morales, Dialogue and political agreement on the basis of mutual trust, Granma (Jan. 26, 2017); Special Declaration on the need to end the economic, commercial and financial blockade of the United States of America against Cuba, Granma (Jan. 26, 2017); Special Declaration: Return to the Republic of Cuba of the territory that occupies the naval base of the United States of America in Guantánamo, Granma (Jan. 26, 2017).

Washington Post Endorses Continued Normalization with Cuba

The Washington Post opens its January 10 editorial by properly recognizing that the “lasting foreign policy legacy of a president often doesn’t become clear until years after he leaves office. That may be particularly true of President Obama, because some of his most distinctive initiatives were, in large part, bets on long-term results. . . . [T]he president’s decision to reopen relations with Cuba without requiring any political liberalization by the Castro regime will be judged on whether greater engagement with the United States eventually helps to bring about that change.”[1]

The editorial concludes by urging President-elect Donald Trump to “improve on . . . [President Obama’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba]. A break with Havana would dash the hopes of millions of Cubans who still expect the [U.S.] to use its leverage to promote real change. Mr. Trump should freeze contacts with the regime’s security agencies and link any further U.S. economic concessions to an increase in political freedom.”

In between these words the editorial laments what it sees as a Cuban escalation of “[r]epression against the political opposition . . . since the death of Fidel Castro;” the decline of U.S. exports to the island; and what it sees as the slow pace of expansion of Cuban self-employment financed, in part, by U.S. remittances to Cuban family and friends.

Conclusion

I applaud the editorial’s recognition that the process of normalizing relations with Cuba is a long-term project that Trump should not abandon, but instead seek to improve.

The editorial, however, fails to acknowledge that Cuba is going through its own long-term project of moving from a state-owned to a mixed economy. This is not an easy task. Indeed, last April Raúl Castro in a speech to the Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba criticized the old habits of many within the state-owned enterprises; praised the economic contributions of the self-employed, now 30% of the national economy; and complained about some low-skilled workers like gas-station attendants earning more money than high-skilled workers like physicians.[2]

This Cuban long-term project is made even more difficult by the economic collapse of its ally Venezuela and the resulting reductions of the latter’s economic support of Cuba, which is briefly mentioned in the editorial along with the 1% decline of the Cuban economy in 2016.

Cuban repression of what we see as political dissent may be factually well founded. But our criticism of such repression needs to be tempered by recognition that the U.S. continues to conduct covert or under-cover so-called “democracy promotion” activities in Cuba and that Cuba has legitimate reasons to be concerned about such activities. This blog, for example, has repeatedly criticized such “democracy promotion” programs and urged that they be conducted only with the cooperation of the Cuban government.[3] Moreover, it would be short-sighted to condition further U.S. economic liberalization on improvements in Cuban human rights; this approach failed in its implementation from 1959 through December 2014.

Finally the U.S. needs to recognize and support Cuban entrepreneurs, many with funding from U.S. remittances, who are improving their own lives and those of their employees and who are becoming an important non-state source of ideas and advocacy.[4]

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[1] Editorial, How Trump could bring real change to Cuba, Wash. Post (Jan. 10, 2017).

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

[3] See posts listed in “U.S. Democracy Promotion Programs in Cuba” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical (Cuba).

[4] Here are some of the dwkcommentaries.com posts that touch on the Cuban economy: Cuba to Legalize Small and Medium-Sized Private Business, (May 25, 2016); Cuba Press Offers Positive Press About the Island’s Private Enterprise Sector, (June 1, 2016); Economists Discuss Current Cuban Economic and Political Situation, (Aug. 1, 2016); Cuba Faces Economic Challenges (Dec. 14, 2016); Cuba’s Economic Ties with Venezuela Are Fraying (Dec. 14, 2016); U.S. and Cuba’s Efforts To Continue Normalization (Dec. 9, 2016).

Three Experts Anticipate Little Change in U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba

Three partners in Washington, D.C. offices of major law firms expect little change in U.S. policies regarding Cuba.[1]

Harry Clark, a partner at Orrick Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP and chair of the firm’s international trade and compliance group, sees “the new administration leaving things where they are, by and large. It could roll back some liberalization, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it does so in incremental ways. But the political factors of keeping a harder-line sanctions policy on Cuba is often over-estimated. There won’t be a lot of political cost for sort of keeping things where they are. The fact that Fidel Castro has died made it less likely that there will be a dramatic re-imposition of sanctions.”

“The fact is, we still have an embargo on Cuba. The liberalization hasn’t been that far-reaching. There isn’t a lot of business you can do in Cuba; you can see the changes more in licensing policy. The current administration has adopted a relatively forgiving licensing policy, where it has been willing to license some activity forbidden by the embargo. I can see the administration not changing the rule very much, but they won’t be nearly as willing to give out licenses.”

Adam M. Smith, an attorney at Gibson Dunn & Crutcher LLP who previously served as a senior adviser at the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, said, “Before the death of Fidel, there was already a low likelihood [Trump would] . . . change the reality. The downside is too great and the upside is unclear. Companies have invested significant money there. Rollback is now a no-go, because of the clear downside to the companies that have already invested. Now that Fidel has died, Raul is trying to establish his authority in the absence of his brother. There could be an argument to reduce some [U.S.] relief if the [Cuban] human rights situation gets worse. But there are few concerns about the geopolitics here [in Washington].”

Richard L. Matheny, III, a partner at the law firm Goodwin and the head of its National Security & Foreign Trade Regulation Practice, referred to Trump’s stated approach of seeking to make a “better deal” with Cuba. “Ultimately, it may matter little what this means substantively, because I don’t think Trump cares much for substance, so long as Trump is able to sell it as evidence of his alleged deal-making ability.” Moreover, there is

Substantial “momentum within the U.S. business community to build economic ties with Cuba . . . and will ultimately win out; we might not take steps forward on Cuba, but I don’t think we’ll go backwards either.”

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[1] Rubenfeld, Trump Will Continue Using Behavioral Sanctions, Unlikely to Change Cuba Very Much, W.S.J. (Jan. 6, 2017).

U.S. Reactions to the Death of Fidel Castro

The November 25th death of Fidel Castro has prompted comments from President-Elect Donald Trump and his aides, the Obama Administration, U.S. Senators and Representatives, U.S. editorial boards and columnists and U.S. business interests and others. All of this has fueled speculation about the future Trump Administration’s policies regarding Cuba. These topics will be explored in this post along with this blogger’s observations.

President-Elect Trump and His Aides[1]

On Saturday morning after Castro’s death the previous night, Donald Trump tweeted, “Fidel Castro is dead!” Later that same day he issued this statement:”Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty. While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.”

Vice President-Elect Mike Pence on Saturday voiced a similar reaction in a tweet: “The tyrant Castro is dead. New hope dawns. We will stand with the oppressed Cuban people for a free and democratic Cuba. Viva Cuba Libre!”

On November 28, Trump issued another tweet on the subject. He said, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”

These comments were corroborated by Trump’s top aides.

On Sunday, November 27, two of the aides said that Trump would demand the release of political prisoners held in Cuba and push the government to allow more religious and economic freedoms. Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, said the president-elect “absolutely” would reverse Mr. Obama’s policies if he didn’t get what he wanted from Cuba. “We’re not going to have a unilateral deal coming from Cuba back to the [U.S.] without some changes in their government. Repression, open markets, freedom of religion, political prisoners—these things need to change in order to have open and free relationships, and that’s what president-elect Trump believes, and that’s where he’s going to head.” Similar comments were made the same day by Trump’s spokeswoman, Kellyanne Conway.

On Monday, November 28, Trump spokesman Jason Miller gave this more nuanced statement to reporters: “Clearly, Cuba is a very complex topic, and the president-elect is aware of the nuances and complexities regarding the challenges that the island and the Cuban people face. This has been an important issue, and it will continue to be one. Our priorities are the release of political prisoners, return of fugitives from American law, and also political and religious freedoms for all Cubans living in oppression.”

The Obama Administration[2]

President Barack Obama’s statement extended the U.S. “hand of friendship to the Cuban people” and stated that “history will record and judge the enormous impact of this singular figure on the people and world around him.” According to the President, Cubans “will recall the past and also look to the future. As they do, the Cuban people must know that they have a friend and partner” in America.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry issued a similar positive statement. He extended “our condolences to the Cuban people today as they mourn the passing of Fidel Castro. Over more than half a century, he played an outsized role in their lives, and he influenced the direction of regional, even global affairs. As our two countries continue to move forward on the process of normalization — restoring the economic, diplomatic and cultural ties severed by a troubled past — we do so in a spirit of friendship and with an earnest desire not to ignore history but to write a new and better future for our two peoples.”

On November 28 White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest responded to several questions about Cuba and Castro’s death. Here are a few of those responses:

  • For the U.S., “I wouldn’t expect any impact [of Castro’s death] on the kind of progress that we’re committed to making on our end to begin to normalize relations with Cuba.”
  • “[W]e have seen . . . greater freedom for American citizens to visit Cuba, to send money to family members in Cuba, to engage in business and seek business opportunities in Cuba.  It also enhanced the ability of the [U.S.] government to maintain an embassy in Cuba where U.S. officials can more effectively not just engage with government officials in Cuba but also those activists in civil society that are fighting for greater freedoms. . . . They also facilitate the kind of people-to-people ties that we believe will be more effective in bringing freedom and opportunity to the Cuban people, something that they have long sought and been denied by the Cuban government.  And after five decades of not seeing any results, the President believed it was time to see something different. . . . [We] clearly haven’t seen all the results that we would like to see, but we’re pleased with the progress.”
  • Castro “obviously is a towering figure who had a profound impact on the history of not just his country but the Western Hemisphere.  There certainly is no whitewashing the kinds of activities that he ordered and that his government presided over that go against the very values that . . . our country has long defended.”
  • “[T]here is no doubt that we would like to see the Cuban government do more [on human rights], but this policy has not even been in place for two years.  But we certainly have enjoyed more benefits than was enjoyed under the previous policy that was in place for more than 50 years and didn’t bring about the kinds of benefits or the kinds of progress that we would like to see.”
  • “[T]hose Cuban citizens that do work in industries, like cab drivers or working in restaurants, even Airbnb owners, are benefitting from the enhanced economic activity between Cuban citizens and American citizens who are visiting Cuba.  They are paid at a higher rate, and they’re enjoying more economic activity than they otherwise would because of this policy to normalize relations with Cuba. . . . [T]here is a growing entrepreneurial sector inside of Cuba that is benefitting from greater engagement with the United States.  That’s a good thing, and that is a benefit that is enjoyed by the Cuban people directly.”
  • “[T]here certainly is no denying the kind of violence that occurred in Cuba under the watch of the Castro regime.  There has been no effort to whitewash the history, either the history between the United States and Cuba or the history of what transpired in Cuba while Mr. Castro was leading the country.”
  • “That’s why upwards of 90 percent of the Cuban people actually support this policy and they welcome the greater engagement with the United States.  They welcome the increased remittances that are provided Cuban-Americans to family members in Cuba.  They welcome the increase in travel by American citizens to Cuba.  There’s a lot to offer.  And the Cuban people certainly benefit from that kind of greater engagement.  And that’s why the President has pursued this policy.”
  • The U.S. “relationship with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, particularly in Latin America, is as strong as it’s been in generations. And all of that would be undone by the reinstitution of a policy that has failed after having been in place for more than five decades.”

The next day, November 28, Press Secretary Ernest announced that the U.S. will not send a formal delegation to Cuba to attend the Castro funeral but instead will dispatch a top White House aide and a principal Cuba-normalization negotiator, Benjamin J. Rhodes, to be joined by , the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba.

U.S. Senators and Representatives[3]

Senator Bob Corker (Rep., TN), the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stated, Under Fidel Castro’s brutal and oppressive dictatorship, the Cuban people have suffered politically and economically for decades, and it is my hope that his passing might turn the page toward a better way of life for the many who have dreamed of a better future for their country. Subsequently after meeting with Mr. Trump about a possible appointment as Secretary of State, Corker said Mr. Trump’s “instincts on foreign policy are obviously very, very good.”

The Ranking Member of that committee, Senator Ben Cardin (Dem., MD), said, “The news of Fidel Castro’s death brings with it an opportunity to close the deep divisions that have been suffered by Cuban society and by Cuban Americans in the U.S.  For Castro’s purported goals of social and economic development to be attained, it is now time for a half-century of authoritarian rule to give way to the restoration of democracy and the reform of a system the has denied Cuba’s citizens their basic human rights and individuals freedoms. As the United States awaits a new Administration, we must continue our partnership with the Cuban people as they seek to build a more hopeful future for their country.”

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American and Republican presidential candidate this year, said in a statement: “Sadly, Fidel Castro’s death does not mean freedom for the Cuban people or justice for the democratic activists, religious leaders, and political opponents he and his brother have jailed and persecuted. The dictator has died, but the dictatorship has not…The future of Cuba ultimately remains in the hands of the Cuban people, and now more than ever Congress and the new administration must stand with them against their brutal rulers and support their struggle for freedom and basic human rights.” Senator Bob Menendez (Dem., N.J.), a Cuban-American who has opposed Mr. Obama’s policy, issued a similar statement.

Senator Jeff Flake (Rep., AZ), who has supported normalization and is the lead author of a Senate bill to end the embargo, merely said, “Fidel Castro’s death follows more than a half century of brutal repression and misery. The Cuban people deserve better in the years ahead.”

Minnesota’s Senator Amy Klobuchar (Dem.), the author of a Senate bill to end the U.S. embargo of the island, said the following: “Passing my bill with Republican Senator Jeff Flake to lift the trade embargo with Cuba would create jobs and increase exports for American farmers and businesses, and it could create unprecedented opportunity for the Cuban people. For far too long, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined by the conflicts of the past instead of the realities of today and the possibilities for the future. The Cuban and American people are ahead of their governments in terms of wanting to see change. We need to seize this opportunity and lift the trade embargo.”

Minnesota’s other Senator, Al Franken (Dem.) said that, in the wake of Castro’s death, he hopes the Obama administration’s work to repair relations with the island nation is upheld by a new administration. “Over the past few years, we’ve made important strides to open up diplomatic relations with Cuba, and now I urge the country’s leadership to put a strong focus on improving human rights and democracy.”

On the House side, one of Minnesota’s Republican representative and an author of a bill to end the embargo, Tom Emmer, said that Congress should seize the opportunity to “assist in the transition to a democracy and market economy” in Cuba and denounced “isolation and exclusion.” He added, “The passing of Fidel Castro is yet another reminder that a new day is dawning in Cuba. As the remaining vestiges of the Cold War continue to fade, the United States has a chance to help usher in a new Cuba; a Cuba where every citizen has the rights, freedom and opportunity they deserve.”

The statement from the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (Rep., WI), stated, “Now that Fidel Castro is dead, the cruelty and oppression of his regime should die with him. Sadly, much work remains to secure the freedom of the Cuban people, and the United States must be fully committed to that work. Today let us reflect on the memory and sacrifices of all those who have suffered under the Castros.”

U.S. Editorial Boards and Columnists[4]

The New York Times’ editorial opposed any retreat from normalization. It said such a move would be “extremely shortsighted.” The new process of normalization, it says, “has helped establish conditions for ordinary Cubans to have greater autonomy in a society long run as a police state. It has also enabled Cuban-Americans to play a larger role in shaping the nation’s future, primarily by providing capital for the island’s nascent private sector. While the Cuban government and the Obama White House continue to have profound disagreements on issues such as human rights, the two governments have established a robust bilateral agenda that includes cooperation on environmental policy, maritime issues, migration, organized crime and responses to pandemics. These hard-won diplomatic achievements have benefited both sides.”

 If, on the other hand, said the Times, the normalization process is abandoned, U.S.-Cuba “cooperation is likely to wane. That would only embolden hard-liners in the Cuban regime who are leery of mending ties with the United States and are committed to maintaining Cuba as a repressive socialist bulwark. In Mr. Trump, they may find the ideal foil to stoke nationalism among Cubans who are fiercely protective of their nation’s sovereignty and right to self-determination.”

The editorial from the Washington Post, while criticizing some aspects of President Obama’s opening to Cuba, stated U.S. policy should “align itself with the hopes of ordinary Cubans and the legitimate demands of the island’s pro-democracy movements. That does not necessarily mean reversing the renewal of diplomatic relations and relaxed restrictions on the movement of people and goods; most Cubans still want that. But it should mean that official exchanges with the regime, and any concessions that benefit it, should be tied to tangible reforms that benefit the public: greater Internet access, expansion of space for private business and tolerance of critical speech and assembly by such groups as the Ladies in White.”

Conservative columnists and commentators welcomed Fidel’s death. George Will hoped, if not reasonably expected, “to have seen the last of charismatic totalitarians worshiped by political pilgrims from open societies. Experience suggests there will always be tyranny tourists in flight from what they consider the boring banality of bourgeois society and eager for the excitement of sojourns in ‘progressive’ despotisms that they are free to admire and then leave. Carlos Eire, a Cuban exile, author and the T.L. Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University, suggested a 13-point negative epitaph for Fidel’s tomb. The first point was: ”He turned Cuba into a colony of the Soviet Union and nearly caused a nuclear holocaust.” The last point was this: “He never apologized for any of his crimes and never stood trial for them.”

Another Washington Post columnist, Kathleen Parker, agreed that Fidel was a terrible dictator, but argued that Mr. Trump “should understand that Fidel Castro loved the embargo more than anyone because, as ever, he could blame the [U.S.] for his failures. For Trump to fall into this same trap [by keeping the embargo] would be a postmortem gift to Castro and breathe new life into a cruel legacy — the dictator’s final triumph over the [U.S.] and the several American presidents who could never quite bury him.”

U.S. Business Interests and Others[5]

Important interests that typically are regarded as important by Republicans are arguing against any retreats from the Obama Administration’s pursuit of normalization of Cuba relations

First, many U.S. companies are now deeply invested in Cuba under the current administration’s policy. These companies include major airlines, hotel operators and technology providers, while big U.S. phone carriers have signed roaming agreements on the island. “I think the American business community would be strongly opposed to rolling back President Obama’s changes, and strongly in favor of continuing the path toward normalization of economic and diplomatic relations,” said Jake Colvin, vice president of the National Foreign Trade Council.

Second, the U.S. farming industry is strongly supportive of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. For example, Kevin Paap, president of the Minnesota Farm Bureau, does not want the next administration to take any steps that would put U.S. farmers at a further disadvantage in the Cuban market. “Every other country in the world has diplomatic and trade relations with Cuba, and what we don’t want to do is lose that market share to the European Union, Brazil, Argentina.” Mr. Paap added that U.S. market share in Cuba has decreased in recent years as other countries are able to provide better financing.

But agricultural producers across the country, from rice producers in Louisiana to Northwest apple farmers to Kansas wheat growers have pushed for more, including lifting a ban prohibiting Cuba from buying American agricultural goods with U.S. credit.

Cuba’s wheat consumption is about 50 million barrels a year, said Daniel Heady, director of governmental affairs at the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. Although not a huge market, “it’s right off the coast and it would be extremely easy for us to deliver our product.” “It is something that Kansas farmers are extremely interested in,” Heady said. “In a world of extremely depressed commodity prices, especially wheat, 50 million bushels looks extremely good right now.”

Republican governors from Texas, Arkansas and elsewhere have led trade delegations to Cuba, along with their state farm bureaus and chambers of commerce.

A U.S. journalist with extensive experience with Cuba, Nick Miroff, echoed these thoughts. He said, “A return to more hostile [U.S.-Cuba] relations . . . could also bring a new crackdown in Cuba and further slow the pace of Raúl Castro’s modest liberalization  measures at a time of stalling economic growth. Hard-liners in Cuba’s Communist Party would gladly take the country back to a simpler time, when the antagonism of the United States — not the failure of government policies — was to blame for the island’s problems, and the threat of attack, real or imagined, was used to justify authoritarian political control.’

Moreover, according to a Wall Street Journal report, any U.S. abandonment of normalization with Cuba “could drive a new wedge between Washington and Latin America . . . not only by leftist allies of Cuba like Venezuela and Bolivia but also by conservative governments in Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Colombia. It would also likely complicate regional cooperation on a range of issues, from immigration to security and anti-drug efforts.”

In Miami, many of the island’s exiles and their children and grandchildren took to the streets, banging pots and pans, waving American and Cuban flags, and celebrating in Spanish: “He’s dead! He’s dead!”

Meanwhile in faraway Minnesota, even though it has relatively few Cuban exiles, celebrated its Cuban connections. They range from festivals and restaurants in the Twin Cities that preserve and highlight Cuban culture. Its politicians in Washington, D.C. have been leaders in efforts to lift the trade embargo on Cuba, citing the potential for economic and political advancements and job growth. Christian communities in Minnesota also value their religious and moral obligations to Cubans. Cuba’s expanded Mariel Port could carry Minnesota-made goods. Other Minnesota-based companies, including Sun Country Airlines, Radisson Hotels and Cargill, could benefit from lifting the embargo.

Last year the Minnesota Orchestra took a historic trip to Cuba as the first U.S. orchestra to perform there since Obama began negotiations in 2014. Next June, some Orchestra members will perform in Cuba again along with Minnesota Youth Symphonies. They also will be joined by Cuban-American jazz musician, Ignacio “Nachito” Herrera, and his wife, who works as an attorney. Herrera grew up during the Cuban Revolution and credits Castro’s leadership for the career opportunities he and his wife have achieved. Indeed, Herrera met Castro in the 1980s while being recognized in a Classic World Piano competition. Castro was humble, Herrera said, and deeply curious about his accomplishments.

Concluding Observations

This blog consistently has applauded the U.S. pursuing normalization with Cuba. The death of Fidel Castro does not change that opinion and advocacy. Fundamentally I agree with President Obama that the 50-plus years of U.S. hostility towards Cuba has not worked—it has not persuaded or forced Cuba to change its ways and it has interfered with our having friendly relations with countries throughout the world, especially in Latin America.[6]

Indeed, the countries of the Western Hemisphere in their Summits of the Americas have made it clear to fellow member the U.S. that they would no longer reluctantly acquiesce in the U.S. desire to exclude Cuba from such Summits, and at the last such gathering in 2015, after the announcement of U.S.-Cuba normalization they praised both countries for this move.[7]

The broader world disapproval of the U.S. hostility towards Cuba is shown by the annual overwhelming approvals of resolutions condemning the U.S. embargo of the island by the U.N. General Assembly. Nor should the U.S. continue to ignore its very large contingent liability to Cuba for its alleged damages from the embargo. (The U.S., of course, disputes this contingent liability, but prudence for any nation or entity facing such a large contingent liability dictates cutting off that risk by stopping the behavior that allegedly triggers the risk.)[8]

Opponents of normalization usually point to Cuban deficiencies on human rights and democracy. But such opposition fails to recognize or admit that the U.S. does not have a perfect record on these issues, including this year’s U.S. election and efforts at voter suppression and the U.S. indirect election of the president and vice president via the Electoral College. Moreover, such opponents also fail to recognize or admit that at least some Cuban limits on dissent and demonstrations undoubtedly are triggered by their fear or suspicion that the U.S. via its so-called covert or undercover “democracy promotion” programs in Cuba is financing or otherwise supporting these efforts at regime change on the island. Finally as part of the efforts at normalization the U.S. and Cuba have been having respectful dialogues about human rights issues.[9]

Another issue sometimes raised by opponents of normalization is Cuba’s failure to provide financial compensation to U.S. persons for Cuba’s expropriation of their property in the early years of the Revolution. But such criticism fails to recognize that Cuba has paid compensation to persons from other countries for such expropriation, that it is in Cuba’s interest to do the same for U.S. persons, that the two countries have been respectfully discussing this issue as well, and there is no reason to expect that this issue cannot be resolved peacefully.[10]

Opponents of normalization also seem to believe or assume that only the U.S. and Cuba are involved in these issues. That, however, is not true. Perhaps precipitated by the December 2014 announcement that Cuba and the U.S. had agreed to seek normalization and reconciliation, other countries, especially the members of the European Union, have been accelerating their efforts to resolve differences with Cuba so that the U.S. will not beat them to gain competitive advantages with the island. China also is another competitor.[11]

Finally Cuba’s current major ally, Venezuela, obviously is near collapse and being forced to reduce its support of Cuba, thereby threatening Cuba’s stability and viability. The U.S. does not want to see Cuba become a failed state 90 miles away from the U.S. Such a situation is even more dire today according to Tom Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations. He asserts at page 270 that it “may even be more difficult [for inhabitants of a failed state to reconstitute itself] in the age of accelerations. The lifelong learning opportunities you need to provide to your population, the infrastructure you need to take advantage of the global flows [of information], and the pace of innovation you need to maintain a growing economy have all become harder to achieve. . . . Catching up is going to be very, very difficult.”

For the U.S., once again, to act like an arrogant bully towards Cuba will not achieve any good result. All U.S. citizens interested in Cuba’s welfare and having good relations with the U.S. need to resist any efforts by the new Administration to undo the progress of the last two years.

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[1] Assoc. Press, Trump Slams Recount Push as ‘a Scam,’ Says Election Is Over, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Reuters, Trump Says He Will do All He Can to Help Cuban People, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Assoc. Press, Vice-President-Elect Pence Says ‘New Hope Dawns’ for Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Assoc. Press, Trump Aides Say Cuban Government Will Have to Change, N.Y. Times (Nov. 27, 2016); Flaherty, Trump aides say Cuban government will have to change, StarTrib. (Nov. 27, 2016); Schwartz & Lee, Death of Fidel Castro May Pressure Donald Trump on Cuba Promises, W.S.J. (Nov. 27, 2016); Mazzei, Trump pledges to ‘terminate’ opening to Cuba absent ‘better deal,’ Miami Herald (Nov. 28, 2016); Cave, Ahmed & Davis, Donald Trump’s Threat to Close Door Reopens Old Wounds in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Nov. 28, 2016).

[2]   White House, Statement by the President on the Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); U.S. State Dep’t, Secretary Kerry: The Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/28/16; White House, Press Briefing by Press Secretary Josh Earnest, 11/29/16; Harris, Obama to Send Aide to Fidel Castro’s Funeral, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016).

[3] Sen. For. Rel. Comm., Corker Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Griffiths, Corker praises Trump as State Department speculation continues, Politico (Nov. 29, 2016; Sen. For. Rel. Comm, Cardin Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Rubio, Rubio: History Will Remember Fidel Castro as an Evil, Murderous Dictator (Nov. 26, 2016); Menendez, Senator Menendez on Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Flake, Flake Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Ryan, Statement on the Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016);The latest: US House Leader Urges Remembering Castro Cruelty, N.Y. Times (Nov. 26, 2016); Klobuchar, Klobuchar Statement on Passing of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016); Emmer, Emmer Statement on Death of Fidel Castro (Nov. 26, 2016).

[4] Editorial, Threatening Cuba Will Backfire, N.Y. Times (Nov. 29, 2016); Editorial,Editorial, Fidel Castro’s terrible legacy, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Fidel Castro’s demise can’t guarantee freedom for the people of Cuba, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016); Will, Fidel Castro and dead utopianism, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Eire, Farewell to Cuba’s brutal Big Brother, Wash. Post (Nov. 26, 2016); Parker, Don’t give Fidel Castro the last laugh, Wash. Post (Nov. 29, 2016). Eire is the author of Learning To Die in Miami: Confessions of A Refugee Boy (2010) and Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003).

[5] DeYoung, Trump’s threat to terminate opening to Cuba may draw opposition from business, Republican states, Wash. Post (Nov. 29, 2016); Miroff, Cuba faces renewed tensions with U.S., but without Fidel Castro, its field marshal, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016); Dube & Johnson, Donald Trump’s Line on Cuba Unsettles Latin America, W.S.J. (Nov. 28, 2016); Klobuchar, Minnesota Artists, Leaders Reflect on Castro’s Legacy (Nov. 26, 2016);  Miroff & Booth, In wake of Castro’s death, his legacy is debated, Wash. Post (Nov. 28, 2016).

[6] See List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[7] Previous posts have discussed the Seventh Summit of the Americas in April 2015. https://dwkcommentaries.com/?s=Summit+of+the+Americas.

[8] Previous posts have discussed the U.N. General Assembly resolutions on the embargo in 2011, 2014, 2015 and 2016 and the suggested international arbitration to resolve the disputes about Cuba’s damage claims resulting from the embargo. (See posts listed in “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[9] See posts listed in “U.S. Democracy Promotion in Cuba,” “U.S. & Cuba Normalization, 2014-2015” and “U.S. & Cuba Normalization, 2015-2016” sections of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[10] See posts listed in “U.S. & Cuba Damage Claims” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.

[11] See list of posts in “Cuba & Other Countries” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.