Cuba policy, 2 weeks before inauguration

Since we celebrated the second anniversary of President Obama’s decision to restore relations with Cuba last month, the forces supporting reform are using every spare minute to make the policy – here’s a bad locution for you – as irreversible as possible before President Trump takes office.

“Amid uncertainty about Cuba policy,” Alaska Public Media reported, Alaska Airlines launched a daily flight from the West Coast to Havana, using “a Boeing 737-900ER, which carries 181 passengers, for its Cuba flights.” This is Alaska Airlines, the only carrier awarded a West Coast route, capitalizing on a big bet, with a tweet heralding its January 5th inaugural flight “It’s a historic day.”

“As demand continues to grow for cruises to Cuba,” the Miami Herald reported, Carnival Corporation’s Fathom Brand also got attention by announcing it was combining Cuba and the Dominican Republic as destinations in a single itinerary. Trips on its 704-passenger Adonia vessel, focused on social impact, will start at $599, cheaper than other American cruise line offerings to Cuba, and are being bundled with service opportunities in the Dominican Republic and people-to-people exchanges in Cuba.

Travel to Cuba, as a result of the Obama reforms, is growing substantially, but trade is also working its way into the picture. Ever heard of “artisanal charcoal”? Starting January 18th, shipments of artisanal charcoal, produced by independent worker cooperatives in Cuba, will begin making their way into the U.S., having been granted approval by the U.S. government to be the first export from Cuba allowed into the United States in over a half-century. Warm up your pizza ovens!

The President’s policy of engagement enabled Google to ink a deal with Cuba’s government to accelerate connectivity with services like Gmail and YouTube. An important byproduct of the normalization process has been an increase in connectivity in Cuba, lower prices for Cubans to access Wi-Fi, and implementation by Cuba’s government of a project it planned to bring internet into residences in Havana, although overall rates of access remain very low.

Other tangible examples of engagement have been rolled out to remind the public, policymakers, and probably the President-elect that the Cuba policy offers real value. These included the announcement that clinical trials are starting to test Cuba’s lung cancer vaccine on patients in the U.S., along with an environmental protection agreement between Cuban and U.S. scientists to save coral reefs in our region using very special techniques.

As might be expected, Secretary of State John Kerry heralded the benefits of the President’s new Cuba policy in his “exit memo” released this week on the administration’s foreign policy accomplishments. But Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, caught our attention in his otherwise scathing review of the President’s “shaky legacy” on human rights, with a grudging concession that the normalization of relations with Cuba “was a positive human rights step” and that Mr. Obama, despite other shortcomings, did speak during his trip to Cuba about the need for progress on human rights.

During the remaining 13 days of the Obama presidency, we expect others to shine a light on the accomplishments of the opening even as we eye the clouds gathering in the skies above.

For example, as we read the celebratory coverage of the Alaska Airlines flight into Havana, we took note of comments by John Kirby, vice president of capacity planning for the carrier. “Will the incoming Trump administration change the rules?” a reporter asked.  “Your guess is as good as mine at this point,” Kirby said. “Obviously, there is always a potential that things could change. But since service has started, it is difficult to envision us taking a big step backwards.”

We also saw the news that investment analysts downgraded their estimates for shares of JetBlue’s stocks “on rising costs associated with expansion into new markets like Cuba,” Raymond James said. As we previously reported, price cuts and other competitive pressures are causing some carriers that recently opened new commercial routes  to Cuba to cut back the number of flights they are offering.

This is what the hardliners, who are hoping that President Trump reverses the Obama opening, have wanted all along. Travel to Cuba – which we believe is good for both countries – helps to pay for Cubans’ health care and public education and stimulates the economy for the country’s public- and private-sector businesses. That’s why the opponents of the policy want to cut it back, or cut it off entirely.

José Cárdenas, a former Bush administration Latin America advisor, writing last month in Foreign Policy, urged reversing Obama’s travel policies and upping Washington’s spending on covert programs to topple Havana’s government. It was what five former Reagan and Bush administration foreign policy functionaries argued in their letter to President-elect Trump released this week. It read, in part, “Tourism, purchases of Cuban goods, and partnering with government entities should be prohibited, in accordance with current U.S. law.”

Dragging U.S.-Cuba policy back to its pre-Obama limits has a number of unappealing, even repulsive dimensions. It reflects the naïve belief, as the renowned Emily Morris explained in Foreign Affairs this week, that a sanctions-based policy devoted to wrecking the Cuban economy in the hopes it will be replaced by a free market system ignores what the last six or so decades have taught us about “the country’s history of weathering difficult storms. Cuba faces serious economic challenges, but its system has proved resilient, and the island’s future is likely to be one of reform rather than revolution.”

Reform is where President Raúl Castro has placed his bet. While assuring the hardliners listening to his December address before the National Assembly, “We’re not heading nor will we head toward capitalism,” he also called for overcoming an obsolete mentality full of prejudices against foreign investment.

No matter what Cuba does or fails to do now, the battle to preserve the Obama opening against a feared onslaught by his successor is more likely to be won in Washington than Havana. That is why, as Peter Kornbluh describes in The Nation, “A full-court press to convince the incoming administration to stay the course on Cuba – high-profile media interviews, opinion pieces, press conferences, Congressional lobbying, reports by moderate Cuban-American leaders, letters signed by Cuban entrepreneurs, and behind-the-scenes approaches to Trump appointees – is being launched around several key arguments”:

  • Engagement with Cuba is good for U.S. business
  • Engagement with Cuba is good for Cuban businesses, and
  • Engagement with Cuba is good for U.S. interests

If the 45th President is sincerely interested in getting a better deal, and not just pulling out the Obama policy root and branch, Professor Julie Sagebien has pulled together a remarkable list of suggestions based on the old dealmaker’s tactics. We hope he reads them before making any hasty decisions.

All of this activity is focused on preserving a new approach to Cuba, just two years old, which has done much more for the United States and the people of Cuba than the Cold War policy Mr. Obama inherited at the outset of his presidency.

Will this campaign work? We’ll know in two weeks. For now, advocates are doing the best we can until the clock runs down. As the saying goes, it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness. If we run out of candles, we can start using charcoal made from Cuban marabú. As the Chicago Tribune reported, “the first delivery is scheduled for Jan. 18, two days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as U.S. president.”

(From Cuba Central)

Photo at top of workers in Ciego de Avila, Cuba, preparing shipments of marabú charcoal for export. (Photo from Radio Rebelde)

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