Castro: Frozen assets to be released this year

Cuba Standard:

Cuba will free the remainder of hard-currency assets owned by foreign companies that have been held back in national bank accounts
since 2008, President Raúl Castro said in his closing speech after the National Assembly’s summer session.

A partial restructuring of foreign debt with Cuba’s main lenders has helped “reduce hold-backs of transfers abroad and put us in conditions to approve that they will be lifted for good before the current year ends,” Castro said, adding that a “tense situation” continues to affect the country’s external finances. ” We will persist in gradually recovering the international credibility of the Cuban economy.”

Cuba has not published comprehensive data about its foreign debt since 2007.

Hit by extensive hurricane damage, higher oil and food prices, and dropping tourism, nickel and sugar revenues in 2008, the government faced a cash crunch that has been gradually improving over the past two years, as Cuba cut back spending and imports, and exports have been rising.

Cuba to allow sale of private homes for first time since revolution

Cuba plans to allow people to buy and sell their homes for the first time since the 1959 revolution brought Fidel Castro to power, the BBC reports.

The decision came during the first congress held by the ruling Communist Party in 14 years.

No details were released on how the new property sales could work, but President Raul Castro is likely to elaborate on a wide-range of economic refroms during a closing speech today in Havana, The Miami Herald reports.

Cubans currently can could only pass on their homes to their children, or work out complicated, and often corrupt, swaps, the BBC reports.

While loosening the power on sale of property, Castro warns that the concentration of property would not be allowed.

Fidel Castro, 84, wrote in an editorial in the party newspaper Monday that he embraces the economic reforms. He no longer holds an official government or party post.

With Castro’s departure from a party position. the person elected to fill the No. 2 spot will be a major clue as to the direction of the country, The Miami Herald notes.

Cuba to consider term limits for leaders: Castro

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba will consider placing term limits on its leaders to assure new blood in the goverment, President Raul Castro said on Saturday in a speech kicking off a Communist Party congress on the island he and his brother led for more than five decades.

He said the government does not have “a reserve of well-trained replacements with sufficient experience and maturity” to replace the current leaders, most of whom are in their 70s and 80s.

“We have reached the conclusion that it is advisable to recommend limiting the time of service in high political and state positions to a maximum of two five-year terms,” he told 1,000 delegates at the congress, where economic reform is the main agenda item.

Castro, 79, said he would not be excluded from the limits, which will be discussed not at this congress, but a party conference next January.

Cuba’s geriatric leadership has been a topic of concern for a government intent on assuring the survival of Cuban socialism and new faces could be elected to high party positions during the congress.

Long-tenured officials have been a trademark of Cuba since the 1959 revolution that put Fidel Castro in power.

Fidel Castro, who is 84 and did not attend the congress, ruled for 49 years and younger brother Raul Castro was defense minister for the same amount of time before taking over the presidency in 2008.

In the line of succession, first vice president Juan Machado Ventura is 80 and second vice president Ramiro Valdes is 77.

“It’s really embarrassing that we have not solved this problem in more than half a century,” Castro said.

“Although we kept trying to promote young people to senior positions, life proved that we did not always make the best choice,” he said.

Raul Castro was expected to be elected the party’s First Secretary, a post he has filled unofficially since Fidel Castro fell ill in 2006. Fidel Castro only recently disclosed that he had left the post.


Closely watched for any signs of new blood will be the selections for Second Secretary, the post Raul Castro has held, and for the Central Committee and Political Bureau.

Due to the “laws of life,” this is likely the last party congress for Cuba’s aging leaders, President Castro has said.

He told the congress, the party’s first in 14 years, it would consider 311 proposed reforms during the four-day meeting, all aimed at remaking Cuba’s creaking, Soviet-style economy.

The changes will reduce the size of the state and expand the private sector, while maintaining central planning.

Many of the changes are already in place, including a program to slash more than a million jobs from state payrolls, cut subsidies and allow more self-employment.

He said more than 200,000 Cubans had taken out licenses for work for themselves since October.

Castro said more than 8 million Cubans had attended pre-congress meetings to give input on the reform guidelines, with a proposal to end Cuba’s universal monthly food ration getting the most comment.

Many Cubans fear the social and political consequences of ending the ration, or “libreta,” but Castro made it clear that eventually it will go only to those in need.

The ration has become “an unsupportable burden for the economy and a destimulus of work,” he said.

Before the congress convened, Cuba staged a military parade to mark the 50th anniversaries of the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion and the declaration of Cuban socialism.

On April 16, 1961, fearing U.S. invasion was imminent, Fidel Castro finally told Cubans what the 1959 revolution he led from the Sierra Maestra mountains was all about.

“What the imperialists can’t forgive us … is that we have made a socialist revolution right under the nose of the United States,” he proclaimed in speech paying tribute to victims of pre-invasion bombing raids the previous day.

On April 17, a force of CIA-trained Cuban exiles, backed by U.S. ships and planes, came ashore at the Bay of Pigs 100 miles southeast of Havana in a bloody attempt to spark a counter-revolution.

Castro rallied tens of thousands of troops and citizens to the battle and two days later declared victory as the attackers fled or were killed or captured in the botched invasion.

The triumph by tiny Cuba versus the superpower 90 miles away won Castro favor at home and abroad and is portrayed by Cuban leaders as one of their greatest accomplishments.

Former President Jimmy Carter to visit Cuba

HAVANA (Reuters) – Former President Jimmy Carter and wife Rosalynn will visit Cuba next week to meet with President Raul Castro and discuss ways to improve U.S.-Cuba relations, a Carter spokeswoman said on Friday.

The visit raised the possibility that Carter would get involved in the case of U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross, recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for providing illegal Internet access to Cuban groups.

Carter was to arrive in Havana on Monday and leave on Wednesday in a brief trip “to learn about new economic policies and the upcoming (Communist) Party congress and to discuss ways to improve U.S.-Cuba relations,” said a statement from Carter spokeswoman Deanna Congileo.

He was to meet with President Castro and “other Cuban officials and citizens,” the statement said.

It said the trip was a follow-up to the Carters’ May 2002 visit to the island 90 miles from Florida and was a “private, non-governmental mission under the auspices of the not-for-profit Carter Center.”

During his time in the White House, Carter took steps to improve relations with Cuba, but the island ultimately added to his re-election woes when the Cuban government allowed 125,000 boat people to flee to the United States in 1980.

Carter lost to Ronald Reagan in his bid that year for a second four-year term.

There have been persistent rumors that Carter would step into the Gross case to seek his freedom and help remove a major obstacle to progress in U.S.-Cuba relations.

Gross, 61, has been jailed in Havana since December 2009 for his work in a U.S.-funded program promoting political change in Cuba.

Cuba views the program as part of longstanding U.S. efforts to undermine the government.

After a two-day trial in the Cuban capital, a panel of judges sentenced him to 15 years in jail for “acts against the independence and territorial integrity of the state.”

Washington has said there will be no major attempts to improve relations with Cuba as long as Gross is held.

His wife, Judy Gross, has pleaded for his release on humanitarian grounds because both their 26-year-old daughter and his 88-year-old mother have cancer.

Travel to Cuba with us!

U.S. approves eight more airports for Cuba flights

HAVANA (Reuters) – The government has given permission to eight more airports to offer direct charter flights to and from Cuba in the latest small opening in the 49-year-long trade embargo against the communist island.

Customs and Border Protection said on Tuesday Cuba flights would now be allowed from airports in Atlanta, Baltimore, Dallas/Fort Worth, New Orleans, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Tampa and San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Previously, Cuba flights could be flown only from Miami, New York and Los Angeles. It was not yet known when flights would begin from the new cities.

President Barack Obama said in January Cuba charter service would be expanded. At the same time, he announced a loosening of restrictions for some groups on U.S. travel to Cuba.

The embargo, imposed since 1962 with the aim of toppling the communist government put in place after a 1959 revolution, prevents most Americans from going to Cuba. Only charter flights, not regular air service, are allowed to operate on U.S.-Cuba routes.

Obama has said he wants to recast U.S.-Cuba relations. He previously removed limits on Cuban American travel to the island located 90 miles from Florida and on the sending of remittances.

Cuban Americans have flooded into the country, packing the flights available and making Americans among the top nationalities numerically to visit Cuba.

Under Obama and President Raul Castro, the longtime ideological foes also have initiated talks on migration issues and the possible resumption of direct mail service.

Some Cuban American leaders and groups have opposed Obama’s measures, saying they help the Cuban government that was run by Fidel Castro for 49 years before his younger brother Raul Castro succeeded him in 2008.

Progress in the long-hostile relations came to a halt in December 2009 when Cuba arrested U.S. aid contractor Alan Gross for working in a U.S.-funded program to promote political change on the island.

The approval of the new airports comes as a Cuban court decides Gross’s fate following a two-day trial last week for what prosecutors said was his involvement in “subversive projects” to “defeat the Revolution.”

He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.

Don’t Expect Revolution in Cuba

Cuban dissidents and Cuban-American leaders have started to ask why Cubans haven’t followed the lead of oppressed populations in Egypt and Tunisia in overthrowing long-entrenched regimes. Wake Forest University Associate Professor of Political Science Peter Siavelis said he doesn’t expect to see demonstrations for democracy in the streets of Havana anytime soon.

Political and economic conditions in Cuba are more similar to North Korea than Egypt or even Libya, said Siavelis, an expert on Latin American politics. “The level of repression is much more systemic and substantial than in Egypt.”

The Communist government’s security apparatus is pervasive and quick to shut down any opposition or protests before they have a chance to grow, he said. Fidel and Raul Castro still have the support of the military and secret police. And, because the government controls the media and only the Communist Party elite has Internet access, many Cubans might not even know about the popular uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, he said.

“Cuba is a small, insular place,” Siavelis said. “The government maintains a vice grip over any exchange of information. There is a real sense of isolation among the people, which has limited their ability to build any social capacity for change.”

There are some similarities between Cuba and Egypt, Siavelis said, including a long-standing oppressive regime, high unemployment, an increasingly younger  population, and a lack of opportunities for even the well educated.

Unlike Egypt, Cuba lacks any significant organized opposition, any private enterprise beyond a small number of self-employed people, and a free flow of information, both within the country and in news coming from other countries, he said. Few Cubans — primarily Communist Party leaders and members — even have access to a computer, and there are tight controls on the Internet, Siavelis said.

Cuba is one of the last centrally controlled economies in the world. The government employs about 85 percent of the population. President Raul Castro has made some economic reforms, such as allowing more workers to be self-employed, since he succeeded his brother Fidel in 2008.

Castro announced last year that about 20 percent of government workers — around one million people — would be laid off beginning this month. But on Monday, he announced that the layoffs have been postponed, perhaps with an eye toward avoiding any protests like the ones that sparked the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, Siavelis said.

“Even though Raul has instituted some significant reforms — allowing for some private-sector ownership of businesses for instance — the economy is still in the hands of the government, which lessens any chance of political reform,” Siavelis said.

And there’s still the matter of the 50-year-old U.S. embargo, which Siavelis believes hurts the cause of democracy because it limits the flow of people, goods and information into the country. “The government still waves the flag of national sovereignty and plays up U.S. hostilities. The Castro regime has outlasted presidents going back to Eisenhower, so you have to think at some point that it’s not working.”

Siavelis sees more similarities between Egypt and Venezuela than between Egypt and Cuba: an educated, urban, mobile population; unified opposition; access to outside media sources; and oil money being diverted to support other oppressive regimes, including Cuba.

Siavelis and other Cuba watchers will be watching closely when the Cuban Communist Party Congress convenes in Havana for the first time in 14 year next month. Siavelis expects decisions to be made then about the future of the country’s leadership. Fidel Castro is expected to resign as head of the Communist Party and to be succeeded by Raul Castro. Raul Castro has said that the congress will officially adopt reforms to modernize the Soviet-style economy, but how far those reforms will go remains to be seen.

Siavelis expects Cuba to follow the model of Vietnam and China: slowly embracing limited economic reforms, while maintaining tight political control. “But economic reform does unleash a demand for political reform, and then the question becomes, is the government able to repress that,” he said. “In Vietnam and China, because of the tremendous economic success, the government has been able to do that. But I don’t see Cuba being able to replicate that economic success.”

As Cuba reforms, less blame for U.S. “blockade”

HAVANA (Reuters) – A touch of self-deprecating humor, along with prosperous allies, is helping Cuba shrug off a U.S. trade embargo it has blamed for decades for its economic woes and brandished as proof of Washington’s “inhumanity.”

Since taking over from his brother Fidel three years ago, President Raul Castro has poked fun at a Cuban tendency to blame all the country’s problems on the American sanctions, while focusing the government more on domestic problems.

“Without denying the negative implications the U.S. blockade has had, and still has, on Cuba’s economy and society, we cannot keep attributing all the country’s problems to it,” said Luis Suarez of Havana’s Higher Institute of International Relations.

He said he believed Castro wanted to keep emphasis on internal solutions that would not be conditioned by whether or not U.S. President Barack Obama lifted or eased the sanctions.

Revolutionary leader Fidel Castro overthrew pro-U.S. dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and installed a communist government 90 miles from Florida. Soon after, Washington imposed a trade ban as the bearded guerrilla fighter seized U.S. assets on the Caribbean’s biggest island.

For most of the five decades since, anger at the embargo was a key feature of Fidel Castro’s fierce speeches, and daily fodder in the government-run media. It was used to help explain economic privations on the island, especially after the collapse of long-time benefactor the Soviet Union in 1991.

But there has been a shift since his brother took over in 2008. Paint is fading on billboards that detail the human cost of the ‘bloqueo’ (blockade), as the embargo is known in Cuba. At the annual May Day march, exhortations to work hard and be efficient are now more common than anti-imperialist slogans.

Then, in a speech to parliament in December, President Castro cracked a joke, saying a Vietnamese official had asked a colleague about why traditional coffee-grower Cuba was now buying the beverage from its Asian Communist ally.

“I don’t know what the Cuban replied. I’m sure he said ‘It’s because of the blockade,'” Castro said, to laughter.

The wisecrack echoes a long-standing joke on the island that blames everything on the embargo. Why didn’t you turn up for work? The blockade. Late for school? The blockade.

While the joke was old, it was surprising for many to hear it from the president.


That is not to say Cuba has dropped its opposition to the embargo, which is condemned every year by almost all nations at the United Nations and mentioned in pro-Cuba campaigns.

But, in a Communist Party strategy document outlining plans for a major overhaul of the Cuban economy, the embargo receives just one perfunctory mention. Instead, attention is piled on domestic problems holding the nation back. For many on the streets of Havana, the change is welcome.

“We can’t blame the blockade for everything, sure it’s important, but there are many other internal problems that we are responsible for,” said Angel, a builder who asked that his last name not be used. He said there were shortages of construction materials because low-paid workers stole concrete and bricks to sell on the black market.

In part, Cuba can afford to direct less blame at the United States now because it has built strong commercial ties with allies such as China, Venezuela and Brazil, who ignore U.S. pressure and do business with the island. A doctors-for-oil deal with Venezuela provides billions of dollars in fuel and cash each year and lessens the need for U.S. trade.

The embargo has cost billions of dollars in lost trade. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year said the Castros had no interest in ending it because “they would lose all excuses” for the island’s woes.

U.S. President Barack Obama has eased travel restrictions to the island for some U.S. citizens in an apparent response to Raul Castro’s decision to release a group of 52 political prisoners. Most have been freed but 11 are still in jail.

Obama has stopped short of lifting the travel ban for all U.S. citizens and says the embargo is used as leverage by the United States to press for democratic change in Cuba.

But an upsurge of Cuban-Americans visiting relatives on the island since 2009, under relaxed travel regulations, has helped undermine the trade sanctions in a small way.

Flashy smart phones, Ray Ban sunglasses and flat screen TVs all come over on flights from Miami, in some cases to feed a burgeoning black market in consumer goods.

In addition, an authorized exception in the embargo since 2000 allowed the United States to be Cuba’s top food provider for years, although U.S. food sales to the island fell sharply last year as Havana bought more from allies.

Inside Cuba, small businesses ramp up tourism offer

(Reuters) – Communist Cuba’s recent easing of red tape for private enterprise is improving services for tourists in provincial towns on the Caribbean island, with hundreds of new restaurants and lodgings opening up.

“Mom-and-pop” small businesses have begun to boom in Cuban cities and towns following reforms by President Raul Castro to boost private enterprise and lay off state workers to improve efficiency in one of the world’s last Soviet-style economies.

In the quaint south coast port city of Cienfuegos, the number of private restaurants has jumped from two to 16 in just a few months. There are now more than 100 home-based ‘bed and breakfast’ lodgings, local entrepreneurs say.

That is a welcome relief for visitors to the town, nestled between the foothills of the Escambray mountains and a palm-lined bay. Both foreigners and locals have grumbled in the past about the poor food and accommodation on offer in the Cuban interior, away from the capital and main tourist resorts.

Cienfuegos’ 400,000 residents and wandering tourists, who last year struggled to find refreshment in the often sweltering city, can now choose between dozens of home-based snack outlets serving pizza, pastries, coffee and soft drinks.

“Competition means you have to improve your service and that’s a good thing, everyone gains, you, the tourists and the country,” said Orestes Toledo, owner of the Perla Hostal, a two-room bed and breakfast.

“Now even the state will have to shape up,” he added, sipping coffee on his roof-top terrace overlooking the bay.

Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro nationalized all small businesses in 1968 and only after the collapse of longtime benefactor the Soviet Union in 1991 begrudgingly allowed their return under tight regulation.

But after a few years, his government stopped issuing new private self-employment licenses that underpinned small business. Many small businesses were strangled by red tape.

Fidel’s brother, Raul Castro, became president in 2008 and has now struck out in a different direction with plans to turn much of the retail sector over to leasing arrangements, cooperatives and private entrepreneurs.

Cienfuegos is 150 miles east of Havana, near the restored colonial town of Trinidad and a few hours from the popular Varadero beach resort. Foreign visitors to the city usually pass through for a day or two.


Cienfuegos’ new private entrepreneurs believe their businesses will now steadily improve and seem to relish the challenge of more joining their ranks.

“I think a lot of people are going to open restaurants. I calculate you might eventually see 40 or 50 and a lot of cafes,” said Tony Azorlin, a strapping former forest ranger.

Azorlin and his wife doted over clients last week at the Ache ‘paladar’, or home-based restaurant.

“I think there is a market for that many, as long as tourism holds up,” he said. Azorlin added the sky would be the limit for local private business if the United States lifted its ban on most Americans visiting the island.

This ban persists under the decades-old U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which U.S. President Barack Obama slightly eased earlier this month, to allow more trips by American professors and students, artists and church groups.

Some 2.5 million foreign tourists visited Cuba last year, the government reported.

The Ache was one of 18 ‘paladares’ that opened in Cienfuegos in the 1990s when small family businesses were first allowed. All but two closed over the years under ensuing over-regulation imposed by a state loath to allow competition.

Azorlin said under rules introduced in the last few months, his taxes were now lower. He also could have more seats, hire employees and serve what he pleased, with beef, shrimp, lobster and potatoes no longer banned from private restaurant menus.

At a government office in Cienfuegos issuing private business permits, Arlina Rodriguez estimated she and colleagues had issued more than 200 licenses since Castro lifted restrictions in October, proclaiming small business vital to the country’s future.

“It hasn’t stopped and doesn’t appear it will any time soon,” said Rodriguez, busy dealing with eight people seeking licenses at her poorly lit hole-in-the-wall office.

Nationwide, the government reports more than 75,000 self-employment licenses have been granted so far.

The Ache is a quaint, upscale eatery, but right next door neighbor Carlos Alberto is of a more ambitious breed. He has just opened the Casa de Chango restaurant and bar, a splashier and lower-priced establishment, operating around the clock.

Carlos Alberto said he wanted to take full advantage of new regulations allowing him to hire labor and rent space.

“I have decided to expand and open a second Casa de Chango, and eventually will have three, four or five,” he said, insisting local authorities and Chango, the most powerful deity in the Afro-Cuban Santeria religion, would bless his ambition to found the first private restaurant chain in the country.

Cuba trades doctors for dollars

HAVANA, Cuba — “$100 a barrel oil in sight,” read a recent headline in Granma, Cuba’s communist party newspaper, and not long ago, such news would likely have been followed by hand-wringing admonitions to conserve electricity or brace for transportation cuts and rolling blackouts.

Not anymore.Raul and Chavez

In today’s Cuba, climbing oil prices are channeling much-needed cash into government accounts, even though the island is years away from commercially developing its own offshore reserves or becoming a significant energy exporter.

Instead, Cuba is turning a tidy profit on other nations’ crude.

Over the past decade, in a feat of political and diplomatic ingenuity, Cuba’s leaders have transformed the country from a place hurt by high oil prices into one that rides their rise straight to the bank. Through service agreements that send Cuban doctors, nurses and other skilled professionals to energy giants like Venezuela, Angola and Algeria, the Cuban government is compensated on a sliding scale pegged to the price of oil.

The exact terms of those service contracts have not been made public, but the basic formula is that when energy prices go up, Cuba earns more. Last year, the island accumulated a $3.9 billion trade surplus, and services — such as health care — accounted for $9.4 billion out of $13.6 billion in total export revenue, according to the government’s National Statistics Office. Those earnings now dwarf Cuba’s traditional export commodities, such as sugar and nickel.

The added revenue is helping to ease the cash shortage that forced the Castro government to freeze accounts of foreign businesses operating in the country and defer payments on its estimated $20 billion in foreign debt. It has also provided a cushion to Cuban authorities at a time of economic tumult, as 500,000 state workers — 10 percent of the island’s workforce — are due to be laid off or reassigned in the coming months.

Analysts who track Cuba’s energy sector said the country’s increasingly lucrative service agreements are “a game changer.”

“Any exponential rise in oil prices will continue to increase export revenues,” said Jonathan Benjamin-Alvaro, a Cuba energy expert at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

During the leanest years of the so-called Special Period, the post-Soviet economic collapse that gripped Cuba in the 1990s, frequent blackouts left Cubans simmering in their cramped apartments. The island had imported most of its fuel from the Soviet Union, and with the oil spigot shut off, Cuba’s power plants and transportation networks sputtered.

Today power outages are rare. And with help from foreign companies, Cuba now produces roughly 50,000 barrels per day of domestic crude to run its power plants. The island receives some 100,000 barrels from Venezuela as well, some of which is processed on the island and re-exported to other countries in the region through the Petrocaribe agreement.

Cuba’s most profitable service agreement continues to be with top ally Venezuela, where about 40,000 Cuban professionals are running health clinics, training athletes and working inside the Chavez government. While Cuban doctors and social workers have helped shore up political support for Chavez among Venezuela’s poor, Venezuelan hydrocarbons have helped pull the Castro government back from the brink of financial ruin.

The service arrangements have strained Cuban families and the island’s own health system, but Cuban workers typically welcome the chance to go abroad, even to faraway places like Qatar or Angola, since they can earn far more than the $20-a-month average salary they would get at home.

The island’s economic fortunes will be even more entwined with world energy prices in the coming years, as Cuba has signed more than a dozen deals with foreign companies to develop its offshore reserves. A sophisticated Chinese-built deepwater drilling rig is due to arrive into Cuban waters this summer, where a foreign consortium led by Spanish energy giant Repsol will try to tap undersea deposits that geologists believe hold billions of barrels of oil.

A large discovery will accelerate Cuba’s transformation from fuel-deficient importer to significant regional energy player.

The Venezuelan government has also invested more than $6 billion to upgrade Cuba’s Cienfuegos refinery, turning the southern port city into one of the region’s largest petrochemical centers. A similar expansion is also underway along Cuba’s north coast in Matanzas, and the two projects will more than double the island’s refining capacity.

Even with those projects years away from completion, economist Ricardo Torres said there’s no longer a sense of alarm in Cuba now when oil prices increase. But he cautioned that it’s difficult to calculate the exact benefit to Cuba, because the terms of its service contracts with foreign oil producers like Venezuela have never been disclosed.

There are other risks as well, he noted. “Those agreements were negotiated based on strong ties with those countries. But if you think of a situation in which one of those governments changes, Cuba will have to negotiate a new agreement. So it’s still vulnerable to political developments in those countries.”

Prediction for the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations

COHA: The Mid-Term Elections: An Easy Prediction for the Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations

As the April 2009 Summit of the Americas drew to a close in Trinidad and Tobago, President Obama’s statement that the U.S. was prepared to seek new relations with Cuba favorably resonated with the assembled Latin American leaders. But up to now, only minimal progress has been made in implementing a new policy, with the exception of relaxed restrictions on travel and remittances for Cubans living in the United States. Echoing the same formulaic slogans uttered by former U.S. presidents for half a century, Obama, on the relatively rare occasion that he has anything to say about Latin American issues, continues stress a “wait and see” approach, in which Havana will have to earn the right to be a negotiating partner.

Undeniably, in the year and a half following the 2009 summit, Cuba repeatedly has demonstrated its willingness to begin thawing its frozen ties with Washington, giving Obama a timely opportunity to make substantial changes in U.S. policy towards the island. However, since then, the administration has appeared to be increasingly uninterested in moving matters forward. Placing the Cuba issue within the broader context of U.S.-Latin American relations, the hope for a bold revision of hemispheric policy under Obama’s administration has been diminished. Simply put, U.S.-Latin American diplomacy hovers alarmingly close to nonexistence, and is almost indistinguishable from what it was during the Bush presidency. What is more, it is unlikely that much will change with a right wing majority-Republican House taking over in January.

The Implications of the Mid-Term Election Results

Although a handful of surviving House liberals and centrists will continue to maintain a strong opposition to travel restrictions and the trade embargo, Cuban policy is likely to remain on the backburner for the time being in Washington, if not completely at a standstill. Veteran Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, herself a Cuban-American, is expected to block any remaining efforts to change the U.S.’s modest policies. Taking over as chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) will replace Democratic Representative Howard L Berman, who collaborated with Republican Senator Richard Lugar in April 2009 to formulate a convincing argument in favor of terminating the embargo.

Ros-Lehtinen’s track record and her sustained, aggressive stance on Latin American issues demonstrate that she has little tolerance for regional dissidents who oppose the United States’ hemispheric policies. Her extremist line of moderation when it comes to the U.S.-hemispheric issues is shockingly uncompromising. For example, in 2006 she candidly stated, “I welcome the opportunity of having anyone assassinate Fidel Castro and any leader who is oppressing the people.”1 Additionally, she has supported every coup that has attempted to overthrow left-leaning governments in Latin America. In 2002, shortly after the coup in Venezuela, she declared that Venezuelan Pedro Soto, who called for Hugo Chávez’s overthrow, was a “great patriot,” despite the fact that Chávez had been elected through a fair and democratic process. In a similar situation, she strongly supported last year’s coup in Honduras, and she continues to help block any movement by U.S. diplomats favoring dialogue with Venezuela and its fellow ALBA nations.

Bill H.R. 4645, known as the Travel Restriction Reform and Trade Enhancement Act, would end travel restrictions to Cuba for all

Americans—a very significant change in U.S. policy. Nevertheless, the bill has remained stationary for months now, with no signs of forward movement. With Ros-Lehtinen as chairwoman, it is certain that any movement in favor of a detente will be blocked at the passing.

Allied with Ros-Lehtinen will be newly elected Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, who has taken a strongly defined stance against lifting sanctions on Havana. The son of Cuban-exiles, Rubio aspires for the U.S. to eventually have a close relationship with post-Castro Cuba, and has made it clear that he would only approve of lifting the embargo after the Castro regime has been replaced. Rubio insists that Cuba’s economic problems are not due to the embargo, but rather a result of “socialism and incompetence…[which are] both the same thing.”2 Furthermore, he insists that the Castro regime benefits the most from Cuban-American travel to the country and remittances, which he alleges help fund their operations. Early in his campaign, Rubio proclaimed, “Our message to Hispanics is going to be driven by values.”3 But on closer inspection, these ‘values’ veil certain contradictions. For instance, after facing pressure from the conservative right, Rubio reversed his opposition to SB1070, choosing to support the Arizona immigration legislation, which gives law enforcement officials the right to ask for the documentation of any individual they believe to be illegal.4

Castro’s Initiative

For Miami legislators, it appears that despite a whole series of initiatives that should inspire negotiation on Washington’s part, Castro has not provided sufficient concessions to persuade the U.S. to move ahead with lifting restrictions. Indeed, by the Castro brothers’ actions and rhetoric, there is solid ground to believe that the Cuban leadership has shown a genuine desire to make transformative changes to the island’s policies, but these changes have not received acknowledgement from the Obama administration or from incoming Republican legislative leadership. After the summit, President Castro made it clear that he welcomed conversation with the U.S., provided that such a conversation is a balanced, two-way dialogue. Castro was open to discussing “anything” with the United States as long as both the Cuba and the U.S. were permitted to raise issues that they felt were pertinent.

In addition, after Fidel Castro, who remains head of the Communist party, suggested in September that the Cuban economic model was no longer working, Raúl revealed his plans to break Cuba from the traditional state socialist mold by privatizing more businesses. He projected that, by early 2011, 500,000 jobs would be cut in order to reorganize the labor force, 90 percent of which would be from the state sector. Eventually, the government will prepare to lay off close to one million employees, in the hope that they will find employment within a private sector that has been liberalized by means of moderating restrictions imposed on private enterprise. In addition, President Castro intends to reduce government handouts, such as food rations, which he believes are preventing productivity gains in Cuba.

Moreover, President Castro made the decision last July to release 52 political prisoners who were to seek asylum in Spain over the following three to four months. Although a small number of political prisoners remain after Castro’s November deadline, the releases demonstrate the Cuban president’s willingness to address one of the nation’s most controversial human rights issues.

Most recently, President Castro called for the congress of the Communist Party to convene for the first time in fourteen years, though it was originally supposed to be held every five. He issued this call during a meeting with Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez, on November 8th. Castro announced that the “Sixth Congress will concentrate on solving problems in the economy, on the fundamental decisions updating the Cuban economic model, and will outline the economic and social policy of the party and the revolution.”5 A document entitled “Guidelines of Economic and Social Policy” contains all of the president’s plans for Cuba’s economic future, and will be presented to the congress when it convenes. While he maintains, “…only socialism is capable of overcoming difficulties and preserving the gains of the revolution,”6 Raúl Castro will discuss his plans to reduce the state’s hold on Cuban society.

Such initiatives coming from Havana, however, apparently have not proved sufficient for President Obama, and these positive developments will likely go unacknowledged by ideologues such as Rubio or Ros-Lehtinen, despite the fact that their unwavering hard-line views on Cuba no longer seem to accurately reflect widely held opinion.

Change: The Sensible Will of an Overwhelming Majority

On October 26th, the U.N. voted to condemn the embargo for the 19th consecutive year, declaring the sanctions against Cuba a “cruel Cold War anachronism.” Altogether, 187 member states voted in favor of the U.S. embargo’s termination, while just two (the U.S. and Israel) voted in favor of upholding it. Russia, China, Venezuela, and even close allies to the U.S. such as Canada and Brazil continue to invest in Cuba’s natural resources, tourism, and biotechnology.

Advocacy for U.S-Cuban policy reform prevails not only among the majority of U.N. member-nations, but also within a new generation of the Cuban-American community, a group formerly renowned for its hard-line views on the subject. Indeed, recent polls indicate a growing consensus among a new generation of Cuban-Americans and the broader American public: the U.S. should seek a new direction for its Cuban policy. In fact, in 2009, 64 percent of Cubans and Cuban-Americans residing in the U.S. supported a change in policy, with 50 percent indicating that they “strongly support” such developments. The groups polled were more divided in regards to the commercial embargo, which has been hindering Cuba’s economic growth for over 40 years; 42 percent believe it should be continued, while 43 percent support its termination.7

As former U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, Wayne Smith, explains, “There is a small minority blocking the sensible will of the majority.” Despite such a forceful push for reform across the globe, Washington has repeatedly failed to show a willingness to alter its Cuban policy. A misreading of the conciliatory attitude from Miami’s Cuban community has kept timorous Washington politicians from daring to think boldly when it comes to Cuba. In spite of a new congressional make-up and a desk filled with challenges coming from around the world, President Obama’s commitment to “new relations” with the island should be seen through. Given the new environment in which he will be working, a normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations will only happen if Obama makes it a primary objective, should he decide that it is worth the political investment.