United States-Cuba Bilateral Commission Meets To Review Normalization Status                                                                                                

On May 16, in Havana the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission held its third meeting to review the status of the countries’ efforts to normalize relations. The U.S. delegation was headed by Ambassador Kristie Kenney, currently serving as Counselor of the Department of State, who was assisted by John S. Creamer, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Department of State; and by U.S. Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Chargé d’Affaires, U.S. Embassy, Havana, Cuba. The Cuban delegation’s head was Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, the Director General of the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Department of the United States.[1]

Before the meeting the U.S. State Department said it “will provide an opportunity to review progress on a number of shared priorities since the last Bilateral Commission meeting in November 2015, including progress made during the President’s historic trip to Cuba in March. The United States and Cuba expect to plan continued engagements on environmental protection, agriculture, law enforcement, health, migration, civil aviation, direct mail, maritime and port security, educational and cultural exchanges, telecommunications, trafficking in persons, regulatory issues, human rights, and claims for the remainder of 2016.”

Director General Vidal’s Press Conference

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At a press conference after the meeting, Director General Vidal said the meeting had been “productive” and conducted in a “professional climate of mutual respect.” (A photograph of Vidal at the press conference is on the left.) The parties agreed to hold the fourth meeting of the Bilateral Commission in September 2016 in Washington, D.C.

Vidal also said she had told the U.S. delegation that Cuba reiterates its “appreciation for the positive results from President Obama’s visit to Cuba” that had been mentioned by President Raúl Castro during Obama’s visit. Indeed, she said, Cuba believes this visit is “a further step in the process towards improving relations” between the two countries and “can serve as an impetus to further advance this process.”[2]

Vidal acknowledged that there has been an increase in official visits as well as technical meetings on topics of common interest resulting in nine bilateral agreements to expand beneficial cooperation.[3]

According to Vidal, both delegations agreed on steps that will improve relations, including conducting high-level visits and technical exchanges on environmental, hydrography, and implementation and enforcement of the law, including fighting trafficking in drugs and people, and immigration fraud. The two countries also are getting ready to conclude new agreements to cooperate in areas such as health, agriculture, meteorology, seismology, terrestrial protected areas, response to oil-spill pollution, fighting drug trafficking and search and rescue, among others. They also are ready to start a dialogue on intellectual property and continue those relating to climate change and regulations in force in the two countries in the economic and trade area.

However, Vidal said, progress has not been as fast in the economic area because “the blockade [embargo] remains in force” despite the positive measures taken by President Obama to loosen U.S. restrictions. There still are significant U.S. restrictions on U.S. exports to Cuba and imports from Cuba. In addition, U.S. investments in Cuba are not allowed except in telecommunications, and there are no normal banking relations between the two countries. Therefore, Cuba stressed again the priority of the “lifting the economic, commercial and financial blockade [embargo].”

More specifically Vidal said Cuba had told the U.S. representative that in the last six months two American companies and one French company had been fined by the U.S. for maintaining links with Cuba while Cuba has had problems with 13 international banks’ closing accounts, denying money transfers or suspending all operations with Cuba. In addition, six service providers have ceased providing services to Cuban embassies and consulates in third countries (Turkey, Austria, Namibia and Canada).

In addition, the Cuban delegation, said Vidal, had reaffirmed the need for the U.S. to return to Cuba the territory [allegedly] illegally occupied by the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo. It “is the only case of a military base in the world that is based in a territory leased in perpetuity, which is an anomaly from the point of view of international law.[4] There is no similar example in the world and is the only instance of a military base in a foreign country against the will of the government and people of that country.

Vidal also mentioned the following U.S. policies and actions that needed to be changed:

  • the U.S. preferential migration policies for Cuban citizens, expressed in the existence of the policy of dry feet/wet feet;
  • the U.S. Cuban Adjustment Act regarding those immigration policies;
  • the U.S. program of parole for Cuban health professionals;
  • the special U.S. radio and television broadcasts designed especially for Cuba (Radio and TV Marti); and
  • U.S. programs designed to bring about changes in the economic, political and social system of Cuba.[5]

These U.S. policies, according to Vidal, underscored “a huge contradiction” for the U.S. On the one hand, President Obama said in his speech in Cuba that the U.S. has neither the intention nor the ability to bring about change in Cuba and that in any case it was up to the people of Cuba to make their own decisions. On the other hand, the U.S. has programs with huge budgets ($20 million dollars every year) aimed at bringing about such change. If indeed there is neither the intention nor the ability to bring about change in Cuba, then there is no reason to have such programs.

Normalization, said Vidal, also needs to have protection of rights to trademarks and patents because there are Cuban companies owning well-known marks, which for reasons of the blockade and other reasons have been taken away from the Cubans.

Before the meeting, another Cuban Foreign Ministry official said that the parties previously had discussed, but not negotiated, with respect to Cuba’s claim for damages with respect to the U.S. embargo and the U.S. claims for compensation for property expropriated by the Cuban government. At the meeting itself, according to a Cuban statement, the Cubans had delivered a list of its most recent alleged damages from the blockade (embargo).

U.S. Embassy Statement

The U.S. Embassy in Havana after this Bilateral Commission meeting issued a shorter, but similar, statement about the “respectful and productive” discussions. “Both governments recognized significant steps made toward greater cooperation in environmental protection, civil aviation, direct mail, maritime and port security, health, agriculture, educational and cultural exchanges, and regulatory issues. The parties also discussed dialogues on human rights and claims, and the [U.S.] looks forward to holding these meetings in the near future.”

Conclusion

Since the actual meeting was conducted in secret, it is difficult to assess what was actually accomplished except through officials’ subsequent public comments.

On May 17, the two countries conducted their second Law Enforcement Dialogue, which will be discussed in a subsequent post.

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[1] U.S. Department of State, United States and Cuba to Hold Third Bilateral Commission Meeting in Havana, Cuba (May 12, 2016); Gomez, MINREX: relations between Cuba and the United States would advance more nonblocking, Granma (May 12, 2016); Reuters, Cuba and U.S. Officials to Meet Next Week to Deepen Detente, N.Y. Times (May 12, 2016); Francisco & Elizalde, Cuba-US Bilateral commission: a productive meeting, Josefina Vidal  (+ Photos and Video), CubaDebate (May 16, 2016); Assoc. Press, Top Cuba Diplomat: Obama Trip Positive, Created Momentum, N.Y. Times (May 16, 2016); Reuters, Cuba and United States Draw Up Roadmap for Talks to Deepen Détente, N.Y. Times (May 16, 2016); Gomez, Cuba and the United States defines ambitious agenda for the coming months, Granma (May 16, 2016); U.S. Embassy, Havana, Cuba, Third Bilateral Commission Meeting in Havana (May 16, 2016); Press release issued by the Cuban delegation to the Third Meeting of the Cuba-U.S. Bilateral Commission, Granma (May 17, 2016); Cuba and U.S. set ambitious agenda for coming months, CubaDebate (May 17, 2016).

[2] Vidal’s positive comment about Obama’s visit is in sharp contrast to the negative comments about the visit from Vidal’s superior, Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez at the recent Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba. (See Conclusion of Seventh Congress of Communist Party of Cuba, dwkcommentaries.com (April 20, 2016).)

[3] Beforehand an official of Cuba’s Foreign Ministry said that since the December 2014 announcement of détente the parties had signed nine agreements covering the environment, email, navigation safety, agriculture and travel. In addition, the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (ETECSA) had signed agreements with three U.S. companies for cellular roaming in Cuba; a U.S. company (Starwood) had an agreement to manage several Cuban hotels; and the Carnival cruise lines had made a maiden voyage to the island.

[4] The U.S., however, contends that the lease is not in perpetuity, but for so long as the U.S. uses it as a “naval station.” This is one of the potential issues to be resolved in an international arbitration as suggested in a previous post. (Does Cuba Have a Right To Terminate the U.S. Lease of Guantanamo Bay? dwkcommentaries.com (April 26, 2015).)

[5] Prior posts have concurred in the Cuban requests for ending all of these U.S. programs and policies. See Topical List of Posts—Cuba.

U.S. Radio and Television Broadcasts to Cuba at Crossroads

In 1983 the Cuban American National Foundation, a once-monolithic lobbying group of Cuban exiles, helped persuade the Reagan administration to establish Radio Martí, which started broadcasting from Miami to Cuba in 1985, and TV Martí began in 1990. [1]

For most of its 30 years, the Martí services have been known for their anti-Castro, one- dimensional slant and advocacy. As a result, the Cuban regime has been very hostile to these services. It has made them illegal and often blocks their reception on the island.

The Martís, with a budget of $27 million, also have U.S. critics, including former American diplomats in Cuba. These critics “have considered them taxpayer-funded relics controlled by Cuban exiles that too often slide into propaganda, which has damaged their credibility.” In addition, “reports by congressional staff members and federal agencies, like the Inspector General for the State Department, have delivered stinging assessments” of Martí; the most recent such report came last summer accusing the Martís of ‘a lack of balance, fairness and objectivity,’ of cronyism, malfeasance and, most recently, low employee morale.”

More recently Martí has “focused on diversifying coverage of Cuba and ramping up a Martí website. [This includes] bringing more Cubans into the conversation through video, articles, texts, blogs and social media. “ This includes an expansion of a “cadre of journalists in Cuba who file videos and articles, with their names made public at great risk. Some of those interviewed by the reporters are also identified, a sign of diminishing fear.” In addition, Cubans now “can post their own blogs and news items through features like “Reporta Cuba,” which often spreads news of detentions.” “And a separate social network created by the Martís, Piramideo, allows Cubans to use cellphones or email accounts to gain access to a site that circumvents government restrictions. From there, they can send messages to hundreds of Cubans in Cuba about nearly anything.”

Another goal at Martí “was to lift journalistic standards, [especially attempting] to offer more diverse views of Cuban life and [U.S.] foreign policy. Reporters now call the Cuban government to get its response for certain stories.”

Now Martí presents “snippets of life on the island, like examples of the recently unleashed zeal for private enterprise. So one of the hosts, as part of an effort to bolster Cuba’s fledgling independent businesses, recently promoted “Hilda in Havana,” who is offering desserts and decorations for events and restaurants. Next up was a listing from a Havana man peddling his churro cart.” Other topics are housing problems in Cuba, the latest small-business ventures (public bathrooms in private homes, 25 cents for a quick stop, 50 cents for longer visits), dissident detentions, how to find the rare Wi-Fi hot spots.”

In addition to their live broadcasts, every month, Martí distributes nearly 15,000 DVDs of its programming in Cuba and circulated through flash drives. The goal of all of these efforts is to provide news and information about Cuba to Cubans without Cuban censorship.

In the last few years, Martí has been challenged by increased competition. “Cubans now use flash drives that are loaded with television shows and movies from satellite dishes and sold on the black market.”

With the December 17, 2014, announcement of the U.S. and Cuba intent to pursue normal diplomatic relations, the future of the Martí ventures is under re-examination.

“While Obama administration officials support the Martís, they are eager to cut the Office of Cuba Broadcasting loose from the federal mantle. In its budget for next year, the administration proposed consolidating the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and Voice of America’s Spanish-language programs, turning them into a nonprofit. The organization would be funded by federal grants, with federal oversight, but would not be part of the government. [This is the way that] Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which gained prominence during the Soviet era and served as the model for the Martís, has long operated this way.”

In January, Cuba’s President Raúl Castro called for an end to the Martís as a condition for normalizing relations with the United States, but this proposal has not been mentioned in the limited publicly available information about the negotiations between the two countries.

There is a bill in Congress to terminate the two broadcasting services: H.R.570, Stop Wasting Money on Cuba Broadcasting Act. It was offered by Minnesota’s Democratic Representative, Betty McCollum. As of March 25, there had been no action on the bill in the House of Representatives although it has gained four Democratic cosponsors—Barbara Lee (CA), Raul Grijalva (AZ), Richard Nolan (MN) and Jose Serrano (NY).

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[1] This post is based upon Alvarez, Radio and TV Martí, U.S. Broadcasters for Cuba, Face New Obstacles, N.Y. Times (Mar. 24, 2015),