Cue the House of Cards metaphors. On February 9, Netflix announced via Twitter its release of content in Cuba. It’s been two months since the resumption of U.S.-Cuban diplomacy and Frank Underwood’s journey to the White House can now be viewed within sight of the Plaza of the Revolution.
Of course, few on the island actually received Netflix’s tweet. Approximately five percent of Cubans have regular internet access, Cuban broadband is among the slowest in the world and Netflix’s $7.99 monthly fee is prohibitively expensive for a vast majority of Cubans. For the foreseeable future, Netflix’s Cuban clientele will consist of tourists, visiting businesspeople and journalists, government personnel, and private computer owners with access to foreign subscriptions and/or cash remittances from abroad.
It may be a small and symbolic investment, but Netflix’s expansion into Cuba is an investment nonetheless. The tech giant’s foray is adding to a growing sense of commercial momentum that is attracting the attention of investors, drawing the island closer to North American capital and eroding support for the half century-old embargo. This momentum will begin to disabuse many U.S. firms of their “wait and see” approach to assessing Cuban markets and devising investment strategies. It will also give elected officials cover to rethink their advocacy for an unsuccessful policy toward Cuba and the chance to garner support from the business community. Though the embargo remains in place with congressional backing, it now faces unprecedented opposition.
That there would be a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations seemed inevitable. After all, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Castro brothers are getting on in years.
And yet, there is a sense that a new era is beginning with the joint Barack Obama–Raúl Castro announcement, and an air of optimism and hope in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The fact that Pope Francis, Obama, Castro, and the government of Canada all converged to bring an end to a relic of the Cold War is a major part of the story. My country, Canada, never went along with the U.S. embargo, imposed in 1960. This made Canada a facilitator, and a credible factor in bringing two mutually suspicious parties together. Meetings in Toronto and Ottawa occurred throughout 2013 and 2014 with Canadian assistance.
The first pope from the Americas, who seized the opportunity to make a difference, to build bridges, and to improve the lot of the Cuban people by using his good offices, may have been the closer on the deal. If Obama is the commander-in-chief, Pope Francis is the inspirer-in-chief.
Obama deserves much credit for his courage and his vision. Clearly, this president knows his history. Just as Nixon went to China and Truman set up the Marshall Plan for Europe in the post-World War II era, Obama knew that he had to do something different with a nation just 90 miles off the U.S. shore. In the realm of values and legacy, setting up diplomatic relations with Cuba is far better than sending prisoners to Guantánamo.
Cuba released 65-year-old former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross from prison today on humanitarian grounds, paving the way for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for alleged espionage after he was arrested in December 2009 for bringing satellite equipment to Cuba.
This month marked the 5th anniversary of Gross’ imprisonment, and his health has been deteriorating. “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end,” his wife, Judy Gross, said. A bipartisan group of 66 senators urged Obama to “act expeditiously…to obtain [Gross’s] release” in November.
The State Department has maintained Gross’ innocence and repeatedly demanded his release, stating that it is “an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”
President Obama publicly acknowledged last week that the U.S. was negotiating with Havana for Gross’ release. Obama is expected to announce Gross’ release at noon, along with a broad range of diplomatic measures expected to move towards normalizing the Cuba-U.S. relationship for the first time since the 1961 embargo.
Cuban President Raúl Castro is also expected to speak at noon about Cuba’s relations with the United States. Gross’ release comes ahead of the April 2015 Summit of the Americas, where Cuba is to participate for the first time and Obama is expected to meet with Castro.
If there are two things that inspire me it’s a ramped up, over-the-top, scurrilous AP story about democracy promotion and a Broadway musical--especially a Rodgers and Hammerstein production. So, here is my adaptation of the classic Sound of Music, “My Favorite Things,” based on the recent series of articles published by AP on USAID’s democracy program in Cuba. The non-bracketed, italicized parts are sung to the music of “My Favorite Things.”
[As in the Zun Zuneo story, where it refers to “agents of the US government, working in deep secrecy..” USAID officers are not agents. They may be poorly dressed, overly earnest bureaucrats. But agents? No one describes them that way--except AP.]
[As in the Zun Zuneo story which says that a key contact “slipped the phone numbers to a Cuban engineer” in London. Slipped? It’s a nice verb, but is there really evidence that the numbers were slipped, spy-like, to contact, say, on a park bench? The story doesn’t say that, but damn it sounds nice, doesn’t it? Shame it didn’t involve polonium and tea. Though who knows? Maybe it did. Let’s just say so, anyway.]
For the past several years, with almost predictable regularity, The Associated Press (AP) has been producing a series of articles supposedly revealing the secret, unaccountable cloak-and-dagger misdeeds of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in its Cuba program. For all the implied sinister intentions, bureaucratic overreach and shades of John le Carré-like intrigue, though, all the AP has exposed are really just democracy programs—not that different from those that have been conducted in many other countries, often with the support of human rights organizations, local citizens and the international community. The problem is, this is Cuba, where nothing’s ever straightforward.
To be sure, there’s plenty to complain about and cloud U.S. policy toward Cuba even—or especially—when it comes to the work of the U.S.’ official development agency, USAID. First, there’s the odious, ridiculous policy of a 50-plus-year embargo on the island. Sadly, USAID’s democracy work was added to that failed policy in 1997, when Congress forced USAID to develop a democracy assistance program as a component of the Helms-Burton Law.
The law politicized USAID’s democracy work from its inception. Helms-Burton (or, as it is officially and unironically named, the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity (Libertad) Act) codified the U.S. embargo into law, and established an unprecedented set of human rights and democracy standards that would have to be met before the president could even ask Congress to lift the embargo, thereby unconstitutionally tying the president’s hands in conducting foreign affairs. It also explicitly tied USAID’s development policy to Congress’ political agenda and was (let’s just say) a unique law in U.S. foreign policy.
This week’s top stories: USAID is accused of running a secret program in Cuba; Mexican energy reform passes in the lower house; U.S. Republicans pass immigration bills before recess; the value of the Argentine peso drops over debt woes; a bridge in Montería, Colombia collapses.
USAID and Cuba: In a statement this morning, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has criticized an Associated Press report that alleges that the agency secretly sent non-Cuban Latin American youth to Cuba to recruit anti-government activists on the island. USAID states that their work “is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover,” and that it was part of “democracy programming in Cuba.” The program, which the AP says was run by USAID and the Washington-based Creative Associates International, allegedly recruited a dozen young people from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico to “identify potential social-change actors” while running civic programs in Cuba, such as an HIV prevention workshop.
Mexico’s lower house passes energy reform: Mexico’s lower house passed secondary legislation to reform the Mexican energy sector on Saturday, making small modifications to proposals submitted by Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and the Mexican Senate. The reforms, which must now be re-approved by the Senate, are expected to bring billions of dollars of investment in the production of Mexican oil and shale gas. The reforms will allow private companies to produce oil under production-sharing and profit-sharing contracts with the Mexican government for the first time in nearly seven decades. One of the most controversial components of the legislation is a requirement that the federal government, financed by Mexican taxpayers, pay a portion of Petróleos Mexicanos (Pemex) and the Comisión Federal de Electricidad (CFE)’s pension liabilities.
Immigration bills: In last-minute votes on Friday before the August recess, the Republican-led House of Representatives passed two bills that would modify a 2008 anti-human-trafficking law in order to make it easier to deport unaccompanied minors from Central America, and also block the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportations for undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. The Republican bills have come under criticism from Democrats and U.S. immigrants’ rights groups, who say that the legislation would return children to the violent situations in their home countries that they are trying to flee. Bishop Eusebio Elizondo of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops called the legislation “a low point for our country.” Those in favor of the bills say they will strengthen enforcement and reduce incentive for young immigrants to come to the United States. The legislation approved $694 million in funding for federal agencies to address the surge of migrants, far less than the $3.7 billion requested by President Barack Obama. Congress is on recess this month, and the measures are unlikely to become law due to strong opposition. President Obama said on Friday that he was “going to have to act alone” due to the lack of funding to respond to the surge of young migrants.
Argentine peso could drop 10 percent in value: After last month’s failed negotiations between Argentina and holdout creditors over Argentina’s debt, investors expect a 10 percent drop in the value of the Argentine peso over the next 90 days. Traders’ expectations for the peso hit a six-month low on August 1—at 9.15 per dollar—two days after the country missed its July 30 deadline to pay $539 million in interest to restructured bondholders. The Argentine government has argued that the country is not in default because it has continued to make deposits to its bondholders with the BNY Mellon, though the payments are being held back due to the court ruling by the U.S. district court judge Thomas Griesa, who ruled that holdout creditors must be paid first. Argentina has asked Judge Griesa to find a replacement for mediator Daniel Pollack as negotiations continue, saying that he has been biased in favor of the holdouts.
Collapse of bridge in Montería, Colombia leaves at least 27 wounded: A bridge being built to reduce traffic at Los Garzones airport in the city of Montería in northern Colombia collapsed around 9 p.m. on Sunday and left at least 27 workers wounded, while one worker remains trapped in the debris. It is unclear why the bridge collapsed, although some believe that it may have been an error in engineering in the construction’s wooden framework. Transport Minister Cecilia Álvarez will visit the zone today to make an inspection.
Chinese President Xi Jinping kicked off a two-day tour of Cuba last night, stirring hopes that the China will invest heavily in Cuba’s developing economy. President Xi will meet with President Raúl Castro today in Havana before flying to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.
While China and Cuba are close political allies, instability in the Cuban economy stifled efforts to act on deals signed by the two countries for large Chinese investments in Cuba’s nickel, hotel and oil industries between 2000 and 2009. President Castro’s economic reforms—along with the new foreign investment law that offers tax breaks for joint-ventures and more investment security, and development of the Mariel Special Development Zone, which will offer tax and contract incentives unavailable elsewhere on the island—are expected to be used as an incentive for Chinese investment in Cuba’s pharmaceutical and automotive sectors.
President Xi’s visit to Cuba culminates his four-country tour of Latin America. During his visit to the region, the Chinese executive also met with Argentine, Brazilian and Venezuelan officials to finalize key investment deals and launch the new Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa (BRICS) development bank.
China is currently Cuba’s largest creditor and second-largest trade partner.
I, like many others, was one of those who sent an e-mail to the U.S. State Department inquiring about the visa status of a number of Cuban economists coming to the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) last week in Chicago. Most, though not all of them, received visas after becoming lodged in the State Department’s labyrinthine processes.
Sadly, I couldn’t have done the same for Manuel Cuesta Mora, a Cuban human rights activist who requested a visa from his government to travel to the same LASA conference. The Cuban government denied his visa, and I don’t have much pull with those guys, unfortunately.
Denied. [But the Joke’s on the Cuban Government]
The news of Cuesta Morua’s visa denial arrived just before the LASA conference started. According to the Cuban government the reason for Cuesta Morua’s inability to leave his country was that he had previously been arrested for participating in a peaceful protest in late January 2014, expressing citizen opposition to yet another regional platitudinous summit that failed to recognize the democratic values it purports to uphold.
In this case it was the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) summit held in Havana. Dozens of activists were rounded up by the Cuban government to preempt any embarrassing expressions of “democratic-ness.” And most Latin American presidents didn’t say a word, though many have benefitted from the sort of democratic openness or its defense under other less-leftist regimes.
Cuban dissident Yoani Sánchez launched 14ymedio, an online-only newspaper, on Wednesday morning. The outlet is meant to be an alternative to the state-controlled media, but Sánchez said that it will not serve as a platform to criticize the government. Rather, it will “contribute information so that Cubans can decide, with more maturity, their own destinies,” Sánchez said.
Activist Reinaldo Escobar, the paper’s editor-in-chief and Sanchez’ husband, said 14ymedio would avoid tension with the government by remaining a digital-only title and steering clear of loaded words like “dictatorship” and “regime.” While the first edition ran an interview with jailed opposition writer Ángel Santiesteban, the paper also covers issues beyond politics, like sports and style.
14ymedio will likely have limited readership, given that Internet access is sparse in Cuba and information is tightly controlled by the government. Three years ago, the Venezuelan government built a high-speed fiber optic cable, bringing more online access to the island. And though there are now some 300 public Internet cafes across the country, Internet use is prohibitively expensive—sometimes costing a week’s worth of public employee wages.
The Cuban government announced a process of decentralization as part of what President Raúl Castro termed Cuba’s “most complex” series of reforms, in the state-run Gaceta Oficial on Monday. The new reforms allow the more than 2,800 state-run enterprises—which represent 80 percent of Cuba’s economic activity—to open secondary businesses outside of the enterprises’ primary focus, retain 50 percent of their profits, sell excess goods at market prices, and set their employee’s salaries independent of the state.
While state-run enterprises will still be subject to government production quotas, Granma—Cuba’s official newspaper—reports that the reforms are part of a “gradual decentralization process” that transfers more responsibility to the companies’ directors. The new reforms come on the heels of Cuba’s much-anticipated Foreign Investment Law approved by the National Assembly on March 29.
These changes represent a series of economic reforms championed by President Castro since 2011, meant to stimulate the island’s stagnant economy and attract foreign investment. While the effects of the reforms have been modest—the economy grew by just 2.7 percent in 2013—the non-state sector has grown to 450,000 workers who now make roughly $100 a month, five times that of state employees.