Tag Archives: US-Cuba Relations

BACKLASH IN CUBA: OBAMA’S HISTORIC VISIT WAS A SMASH HIT IN HAVANA. FIDEL CASTRO WASN’T GOING TO TAKE THAT LYING DOWN.

By Ann Louise Bardach

Politico Magazine, June 10 2016

Original Article: BACKLASH IN CUBA

HAVANA—These days Fidel Castro doesn’t often leave his comfortable home in Siboney, a leafy suburb west of this city. But on April 19, the 89-year-old Cuban leader emerged, aides at his side, wearing a royal blue Adidas sports jacket over a blue plaid shirt, and was driven two miles to the immense Palacio de Convenciones. Inside he was greeted by a thousand members of the Communist Party, the ruling body that has been Cuba’s sole political party for half a century. They were wrapping up their four-day conference, generally held twice a decade.

Fidel is ailing and officially retired, having incrementally handed the reins of power to his brother Raul over the past decade. But he remains a history buff, a news junkie, and a man keenly concerned with his legacy. And he was not pleased with what he had been hearing.

zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzPresident Barack Obama had spent three high-profile days in Havana at the invitation of Raul. And the visit, to Fidel’s dismay, had been an immense public success, generating as much excitement and buzz on the island as the arrival of The Rolling Stones for a free concert a few days later. While state media treated Obama with cautious distance, there was no mistaking the thrill of ordinary Cubans as the president toured local sights, watched a baseball game, and drove through Havana with his family and entourage. They dubbed the president Santo Obama. “He’s more popular than the Pope!” one exultant habanera told me.

If the first state visit by a sitting president in 90 years struck Fidel as an unseemly and undeserved victory lap, there was troubling news as well from the Southern Hemisphere as well. Two of the island’s staunchest allies were fighting for their political lives. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was nearing impeachment; Argentina’s former president, Cristina Kirchner, was about to be indicted. Indeed, the entire left-wing coalition of Latin America, methodically cultivated by Fidel for decades, was unraveling. The death of Cuba’s Midas-like patron, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, had birthed a feeble successor who is unlikely to survive the next year; Ecuador’s leftist president was bowing out, while Castro champion Evo Morales of Bolivia had lost a referendum for another presidential term. Peru and Uruguay had lost their center-left leaders. If not a political tidal wave, a domino effect of sorts was shifting the Southern Hemisphere from left to right.

Fidel Castro, Cuba’s Maximum Leader, understood that something had to be done.

Cuba’s Party Congress sets the economic and political agenda of the island, and many, on and off the island, had anticipated that this year’s conclave would further crack the door open to more reform. As the U.S. and Cuba have navigated their rapprochement, their progress has continuously been buffeted by the alternating agendas of the two brothers: Fidel, the intransigent revolutionary, and Raul, the cautious reformer. Obama hoped that a state visit before the Congress would give a boost to Raul’s reform-minded approach, however modest.

Cubans, too, had their eye on the meeting, and many of them expected that the Party would at least start to retire its octo- and nonagenarian ruling elite, the historicos who came up with Fidel and Raul and have been governing the island since. Raul himself had fueled those hopes by urging an age limit of 70 for senior Party officials.

It did not happen that way. Instead the Party’s elders, with the blessing of Fidel, spent the first three days of the Congress issuing a series of retrograde edicts and re-establishing their hegemony. Rejecting the retirements of the old guard, they went on to quash reforms intended to rescue the country’s moribund economy.

For a finale, Fidel addressed the Congress for the first time since 1997. The date of his appearance, April 19, was not coincidental. It fell on the 55th anniversary of the doomed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, when Fidel’s army vanquished the CIA’s ill-conceived coup, captured thousands of U.S.-backed rebels, and utterly humiliated the world’s greatest superpower.

The days when Fidel routinely gave furious six-hour orations in olive-drab military garb are long gone. Now with hair white as the sands of Varadero Beach, he did not attempt to stand on his feet. Instead, he was helped to a chair at the center of the dais. “This may be one of the last times I speak in this room,” Fidel somberly told the throng.

Although Fidel spoke with a gravelly rasp, those looking to hear conciliatory words were quickly disabused of that hope. “The ideas of Cuban Communists will remain as proof on this planet,” he insisted, and their achievements “will endure.” And to that end, the firebrand Fidel exhorted those present —charged with setting Cuba’s agenda through 2030—“to fight without truce.”

“Soon, I’ll be 90 years old. Soon I’ll be like all the others,” Castro intoned as if giving his own eulogy. “The time will come for all of us.”

Then the old lion, albeit with a patchy beard and a thinning mane, roared again, one last time: “We must tell our brothers in Latin America—and the world,” he declaimed, “that the Cuban people will be victorious!”

In the closed, hermetic world of Cuban politics, Fidel’s speech marked a pivot in what has arguably been the country’s most remarkable three months since the Missile Crisis of 1962. The ceaseless whiplash includes a ballyhooed U.S. presidential visit, a Party Congress slamming the door on reform, a Fidel valedictory finale, and a series of fresh dramas in the long-running saga of the Brothers Castro.

On June 3, Raul turned 85, to be followed by Fidel’s 90th birthday on August 13, a pair of personal milestones that have the brothers keen to cement their legacies. “The Castros are robust and long-lived,” boasted Raul on his big day; he also chatted with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who called offering birthday wishes.

As the brinkmanship between the two Castros plays out, it’s likely to shape the course of U.S.-Cuban relations for the next generation. In that respect, it was possible to see the Congress as an episode in the long-running drama between two brothers to whom appearances matter deeply. Raul, the internationalist, got to produce the Obama Show. Fidel, the nationalist, won the right to orchestrate the Party Congress and to deliver his response to President Obama’s proposal of accelerated reform and cooperation with the U.S.

And Fidel’s message was unmistakable: Over my dead body.

This was hardly the step forward the White House had hoped for when it orchestrated its historic, if hastily planned, state visit in March. For Obama, Cuba was his “Nixon in China” moment, a legacy move to close the last chapter of the Cold War in our hemisphere.

It could not have contrasted more clearly with the previous U.S. presidential visit. In 1928, the Republican Calvin Coolidge sailed into Havana Harbor on a battleship. Obama, on the other hand, delivered his first words to the Cuban people before he even debarked from Air Force One. They came, cool, breezy and direct, in the form of a tweet. “¿Que bolá Cuba?” he tweeted, using the island slang for “what’s happening?” “Just touched down here, looking forward to meeting and hearing directly from the Cuban people.”

Cuban officialdom adopted a noticeably stiffer tone. Despite Obama being the single most important head of state to visit since 1959, Raul Castro—who has personally greeted more than one pope and innumerable national leaders upon their arrival—did not appear at the airport to welcome him. Instead, when the First Family touched down amid an insistent gray rain, they were met by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, who greeted the president on the tarmac with a cordial handshake.

The government-run media gave a similarly cool treatment. On the eve of Obama’s visit, Granma, the organ of the Communist Party, devoted its six thin pages to the arrival two days earlier of President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela, Cuba’s principal patron since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Havana, Maduro was robustly feted, even bestowed a new honorific title, with Raul declaiming that “we will never abandon our Bolivarian revolutionary friends.”

Obama’s trip had been something of a rush job, as state visits go, and behind the scenes, the U.S. had been on the back foot from early in the process. The date of the trip hadn’t been finalized until January. One consideration in the timing was to ensure the visit came prior to the Party Congress, with the White House hoping to be a moderating influence when it convened. But the driving force, according to sources at both State and the Vice President’s office, was that the president and first lady very much wanted a family trip, and the March 20-23 dates coincided with spring break at Sidwell Friends School for daughters Malia, who’s been studying Spanish, and Sasha.

The trip planning also augmented tensions between the White House and the State Department that dated back to the historic Cuban deal announced in December 2014. The landmark agreement had effectively ended the Cold War between the countries and began the process of normalization: Cuba agreed to release numerous political prisoners and return imprisoned USAID contractor Alan Gross along with a significant U.S. intelligence asset, Rolando Sarraff, in exchange for the U.S. returning the remaining three of the “Cuban Five” convicted spies. Although negotiations like this would normally be led by the State Department, Obama had deputized his trusted aide and speechwriter, Ben Rhodes, to make a deal with Cuba happen. The 18 months of secret negotiations largely bypassed the State Department; only one State veteran, Cuba policy specialist Ricardo Zuniga, who partnered with Rhodes, was fully trusted by Obama’s innermost circle, to maintain the secrecy demanded by the administration. Likewise, Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, known as MINREX, was exiled from negotiations. The key player on the Cuban side was none other than Colonel Alejandro Castro Espín, Raul’s 50-year-old son, a steely hard-liner widely believed to be his father’s heir apparent.

The rushed trip also gave the Cubans leverage to shape the agenda, or try to: No meetings with human rights activists, they insisted, and they would decide the guest list, including which U.S. reporters made the cut—a loaded issue with Cuba, which has a long history of barring American reporters who report seriously on the island.

Matters were not looking good, and the press around the reconciliation was getting worse, until Secretary of State John Kerry canceled a trip to Havana in protest weeks before the state visit. Kerry’s bluff worked, and from then on, the U.S. got what it wanted. The Cubans reluctantly issued visas for the reporters; the president had meetings with entrepreneurs, dissidents, human rights activists and even held a news conference, all to be recorded by live television coverage.

***

It is nearly impossible to overstate the impact of President Obama’s arrival in Cuba. The shift in outlook was tectonic. In the course of the visit, I heard more than one habanero refer to Obama as “El Negro de Oro”—the Golden Black Man, a flattering pun on “black gold.” It didn’t hurt that to many Cubans, Obama just looks Cuban; his mixed-race background gives him something in common with the half the island’s population that identifies as mulato, black or mestizo today.

The Obama family made the requisite tourist stops, including the city’s grand Cathedral, built in 1777 from blocks of coral; they took a walking tour led by Havana’s remarkable official historian, Eusebio Leal. Despite failing health and being in considerable pain, Leal gamely guided the Obamas through historic Havana in and around the Plaza de Armas.

The buzz of la bola en la calle—Cuban street gossip—was that the visit had prompted previously unimaginable upgrades to parts of the capital. Every building that the Obama entourage passed had been repainted, and every road his limousine traversed had been repaved. Some streets were still being paved and re-striped just hours before his arrival. “Come visit us,” cried out residents of neglected, pot-holed barrios in what became a weeklong running joke, “y llevar el asfalto!” — “and bring the asphalt!”

The culmination of the trip was Obama’s exquisitely crafted speech, delivered in downtown Havana’s Gran Teatro with Raul Castro and the senior Politburo present, along with an array of invitation-only favored Cubans. “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” Obama began, thus ending the half century David-and-Goliath face-off that once almost brought the world to its end. The speech, written by Rhodes, hit every note. Millions of Cubans watched, many saying later they were overwhelmed by emotion, as an American president spoke directly to them, not at them.

“I had tears in my eyes,” said Marta Vitorte, who watched the speech in her Vedado apartment. A former official in the Foreign Ministry, Vitorte for the past decade has run one of Havana’s most popular and upscale casa particulars, or private home rentals. “This is the beginning of the future of Cuba,” she gushed.

But for the island’s 11-million-plus inhabitants, an even more jaw-dropping moment had come earlier in the visit. On Day Two, Obama had cajoled Raul into participating in a live news conference, taking unscreened questions from American reporters.

Considering Cuba’s antagonism towards a free press, Raul’s participation was stunning and, no doubt, a spontaneous decision he quickly regretted. The Cuban leader was plainly displeased by a question on human rights by NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, but he was infuriated by CNN’s Jim Acosta who asked, “Why are there Cuban political prisoners in your country?” Raul visibly bristled, having never endured an unfriendly press query. “Give me the list right now of political prisoners to let go of them,” Raul huffed. “Tell me the name or the names … And if there are political prisoners then before night falls, they will be free. There!” (Lists of prisoner names were promptly circulated on social media—none of whom are known to have been released since.)

“Oh my god,” said a former Cuban diplomat. “It made Raul look weak. No one here has ever seen anything like that.” | AP Photo

As the conference streamed live, Cubans watched a flustered Raul lose his cool, then abruptly end the news conference and march over to Obama to raise his arm in a victory salute. A bemused Obama was having none of it, and let his arm dangle. “Oh my god,” said a former Cuban diplomat. “It made Raul look weak. No one here has ever seen anything like that.”

***

Obama’s show-stopping appearances could only have mortified Fidel Castro, a public-relations genius, who was keenly monitoring the visit from his home. “Never abandon propaganda—even for a minute,” he had counseled compatriots in a 1954 letter. “It is the very soul of our struggle.”

Today, for hard-liners of Fidel’s generation, la lucha, the struggle, means just two things: keeping the principles of the Revolution alive in Cuba; and keeping themselves alive and in power.

At the very minimum, Obama had rewritten Fidel’s carefully scripted drama, in which the U.S. plays the rapacious foe. Suddenly, America seemed far less menacing. As the Cuban novelist Wendy Guerra wrote, in the wake of Obama’s visit: “Since you left, we are little more alone, because now we have to find another enemy.”

“The enemy always drove the story,” says Marilu Menendez, a Cuban exile and branding expert who now lives in New York. “It justified all of [Fidel’s] excesses.”

Even before Obama left the island, Fidel let it be known that that he took a dim view of the visit. Just days after Air Force One departed, an article appeared in the state-run Tribuna de la Habana that accused Obama of lording over a racist country and “inciting rebellion” in Cuba by meeting with pro-democracy activists. Its headline, roughly translated, “Black Man, Are You Dumb?” was a firebomb. “Obama came, saw, but unfortunately, with the pretend gesture of lending a hand, tried to conquer,” wrote Elias Argudín, a government loyalist, “choos[ing] to criticize and subtly suggest … incitements to rebellion and disorder, without caring that he was on foreign ground. Without a doubt, Obama overplayed his hand. Minimally, I can say is … ‘black man, are you dumb?’”

Following a wave of blowback, Argudín offered a quasi-apology for “causing offense,” noting that he himself was black. In a typically mysterious Cuban chess maneuver, the story was briefly deleted, then reposted on the paper’s website, while running in the print edition.

The column was only the first public salvo from hard-liners signaling their distress over the American president’s visit. A few days later, Fidel himself published a searing 1,500-word public letter, a full-throated denunciation of the visit and, by implication, Raul, who had hosted it. Entitled “Brother Obama,” it ran on Page 1 of Granma. Obama’s grand speech (which had begun with a famous line from the beatified patriot José Martí) was derided by Fidel as “honey-coated”—merely by listening to it, he warned, Cubans “ran the risk of having a heart attack.” And then Fidel dropped the hammer: “We don’t need El Imperio—The Empire—to give us any presents!”

Though Fidel and Raul’s lives have been anchored in decades of sibling love, collaboration and feuding, Fidel must have known, or quickly learned, that his public harpooning had gone just a bit too far. And so on April 8, a week before the highly anticipated Congress, Fidel made another unusual outing from his home. Wearing a white blousy sports jacket with a black wool scarf tied around his neck, Castro, aided by a cane, spoke briefly at the school named for his late sister-in-law, Vilma Espín.

Espín had been Raul’s wife and compañera in the Revolution from the early 1950s, and had served as Cuba’s de facto first lady. But when she died in 2007, Fidel did not attend her funeral. His own illness served as a reasonable excuse, but as one former Cuban official told me in Havana, none of Fidel’s family—neither his children nor his wife, Dalia—attended either. The snub deeply disappointed the family-centric Raul, who also serves as the Castro clan’s patriarch. Since then, the official said, Raul typically has a weekly family dinner, not with Fidel’s brood, but with his in-laws, the Espíns.

So it was impossible not to interpret Fidel’s tribute as a peace offering to Raul, in advance of the Congress, where it was imperative that the brothers present a unified front. “I’m sure that on a day like today, Vilma would be happy,” Fidel intoned to the schoolchildren in his weakened voice.

Vicki Huddleston, former chief of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, said the brothers knew they needed to project unity. “They do not want it to appear that there are divisions,” she said. Veteran Cuba negotiator and U.S. ambassador to Mexico, Roberta Jacobson, suggested that the brothers’ brinkmanship was sometimes simply ritual role-playing—a kind of “good cop-bad cop within the Castro family.”

***

The dynamic between the Brothers Castro is of great import to Cubans, of course, and also determines what issues they allow on the table with American negotiators, and at what pace they are willing to address them.

On many issues the brothers are genuinely in lockstep, such as ending the U.S. embargo. While Cuba relentlessly hammers on about “el bloqueo”—the blockade, the hyperbolic term it uses for the embargo—its current prohibitions have been whittled down to a fraction of what they once were. Through executive actions, the Obama administration has lifted an array of trade and investment restrictions. Completely normalized trade and banking will have to wait for Congress to rescind the embargo officially, but whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins, the Cubans think they will have the requisite votes in Congress to get it done. With GOP Senators Jeff Flake and Rand Paul leading the charge, they expect a vote to come at some point in 2017. But until then, the embargo continues to be useful propaganda about the bully “Empire” to the north.

The embargo can be seen as Cuba’s short game. The longer game is Guantánamo—the territory, not the prison. Even more than the embargo, this 45 square miles of Cuba’s easternmost province has long served as Exhibit A of the crushing foot of El Imperio. As Raul reminded Obama on Day Two of his visit: “It will also be necessary to return the territory illegally occupied by Guantánamo Naval Base.”

While the prisoners held in Gitmo are the issue attracting global attention, for Cuba, they’re simply helpful propaganda in its quest to get its land back. America does have a lease, a 1903 deal stipulating that Guantánamo and its deep-water harbors be used as a “coaling station.” (The rent is $4,085 annually, and the Castros proudly boast that they never cashed a rent check—although they did cash one in 1959.) Cuba now argues that America’s current use of the land is in violation of its lease. “If this was a straight-up landlord-tenant law, the landlord would kick your butt right out,” says Jose Pertierra, a Cuban-born lawyer who shuttles between Havana and Washington.

A former Cuban diplomat told me he expects the Gitmo crusade to get louder and more insistent going forward. “We don’t really care about the prison,” he said, “but [the government] is going to politicize it as a human-rights violation [and] a breach of the lease.” In Havana, I asked Ben Rhodes if the Cubans had put Gitmo on the table as a chip. “There are never discussions in which Guantánamo does not come up,” he answered.

As talks between the countries haltingly advance, it is on domestic economic and political issues where the internal Cuban factions part company. In the 1990s, with the collapse of their Soviet patron, Raul began to see Cuba’s future very differently than his older brother. Raul had studied and visited China and Vietnam, and he liked what he saw: economic powerhouses fueled by competitive capitalism but all under the steely control of the Communist Party.

Fidel, on the other hand, mistrusted any version of capitalism, however dressed up as socialist entrepreneurism. He had railed against perestroika and glasnost and repeatedly warned Mikhail Gorbachev it would be the beginning of the end. (And indeed, it was the end of the Soviets’ billion-dollar patronage of Cuba.)

Unlike his brother, Raul has acknowledged cracks in the pillars of Cuba’s 65-year-old political system; insiders consider them serious. “There is no more discipline within the traditional ranks,” a retired government official told me. “No one wants to belong to the CDR [Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood snitch organs]. No one feels they have to belong to the Communist Party.” He added: “Five years ago, if you didn’t belong to the CDR or the Party, you weren’t going to get a promotion or could get in trouble. But there is no more fear about it.”

Likewise, such bastions of the Revolution as the Federation of Women, the Workers Union, and the Young Communists League are losing members, I was told. All these organs that have buttressed the Revolution are in decline, losing momentum as membership oozes away. “Everybody’s looking down the road about how to be an entrepreneur or a capitalist,” said a man who has turned his home into a casa particular.

For the past two years, Raul has been beseeching allies and trading partners—Russia and much of Europe—to forgive loans and debts incurred over decades, an estimated $51.5 billion, according to Emilio Morales of the Havana Consulting Group. (That figure that doesn’t even include debts owed to Venezuela and Brazil.)

And there is a relatively new reality on the island: corruption. “It’s a daily event,” he said. “If you have money, there’s nothing you cannot get,” then lowering his voice, “even a visa to leave Cuba.“

While Fidel may choose to turn a blind eye to the domestic woes of his country, he is keenly attuned to the fact that there are larger, inexorable forces at work. The Southern Hemisphere is plainly drifting away from Cuba. In 2006, as he lay gravely ill, Fidel could gaze out at Latin America—populated by Lula in Brazil, Evo in Bolivia, the Kirschners in Argentina and his adoring student and patron, Hugo Chavez—and rest serene that fidelismo and Cuba’s future were secure. If Fidel had died that year, as he has said he very nearly did, he would have been one satisfied soul.

But 10 years later, he has lived to confront a radically different picture. Cuba has lost all its patrons, except for the dramatically reduced oil shipments from Venezuela. Both Russia and China have set limits on their future largesse. Meanwhile, the U.S. rapprochement is making it inescapably clear that Cuba’s economic salvation lies, once again, as it did in the first half of the 20th century, in American investment and tourism—meaning ever-deepening ties to Fidel’s lifelong bête noire, the U.S.

So despite the rhetorical saber-rattling, and the alternating star turns of Raul and Fidel, Cuba is going through the only door that, for now, is open: Making friends with Uncle Sam. With no fanfare or pronouncements, U.S. and Cuban negotiators met recently and laid out an agenda for meetings well into the next year covering property claims, trade, environmental concerns and cooperation on narcotics.

In late May, the Cuban government announced that small and medium-size businesses would be legalized. The Party Congress may have repudiated change, but change is happening nonetheless.

Most crucially, there is the daily bonanza of ever-multiplying dollars from U.S. tourism. “More than 94,000 Americans have visited Cuba from Jan-Apr 2016,” proudly tweeted Josefina Vidal, a Cuban official who heads the U.S. division of the Foreign Ministry in May, “a 93% increase with respect to same period 2015.”

Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s most famous living writer, recently tried to explain his country’s contradictions. “If you say [Cuba] is a communist hell or a socialist paradise, you’re missing all the nuances,” he told EFE, the Spanish news agency. “Cuba is a society that apparently has not changed, but it really has.”

That assessment could apply just as well to Raul. Both a “reformer” and a “historico” by definition and personal loyalty—having fought alongside Fidel since 1952 and, since 1959, having run the Cuban Army, the country’s most powerful political organ—Raul has evolved into a pragmatist of necessity over the past 25 years. At the same time, Fidel has doubled down his resolve to resist reform. And like Cuba, the relationship between the deeply bonded brothers apparently has not changed, but it really has.

At his birthday last week, when Raul was toasted by family and friends after hosting a Caribbean summit, there was much to celebrate—replete with historical ironies. Fidel may have rescued Cuba from the clutches of the U.S., but it is Raul who is rescuing Cuba from Fidel.

Ann Louise Bardach is the author of Cuba Confidential (2002) and Without Fidel: A Death Foretold in Miami, Havana and Washington (2009), as well as the editor of The Prison Letters of Fidel Castro and Cuba: A Travelers Literary Companion. She interviewed Fidel Castro in 1993 and 1994 and met Raúl Castro in 1994.

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A POLICY LONG PAST ITS EXPIRATION DATE: US ECONOMIC SANCTIONS AGAINST CUBA

William M. LeoGrande

Social Research: An International Quarterly, Volume 82, Number 4, Winter 2015, pp. 939-966 (Article)

Original Article: US Economic Sanctions Against Cuba, William LeoGrande

ABSTRACT

The embargo against Cuba is the oldest and most comprehensive U.S. economic sanctions regime against any country in the world. It comprises a complex patchwork of laws and presidential determinations imposed over half a century. Presidents have tightened or relaxed it to suit their own strategy—some seeking to punish the Cuban regime by economic pressure, other seeking to improve relations by resorting to soft power rather than hard. The impact of U.S. sanctions has also varied, at times inflicting serious harm on the Cuban economy, and at times being merely as an expensive annoyance. But the embargo has never been effective at forcing Cuba’s revolutionary regime out of power or bending it to Washington’s will.

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U.S. WELFARE FLOWS TO CUBA

“They’re taking benefits from the American taxpayer to subsidize their life in another country.”

Original Article Here: U.S. Welfare Flows to Cuba

By Sally Kestin, Megan O’Matz and John Maines with Tracey Eaton in Cuba

Orlando Sun-Sentinel,  October 2, 2015

Read  previous investigations into special treatment for Cuban immigrants

Cuban immigrants are cashing in on U.S. welfare and returning to the island, making a mockery of the decades-old premise that they are refugees fleeing persecution at home.  Some stay for months at a time — and the U.S. government keeps paying.

Cubans’ unique access to food stamps, disability money and other welfare is meant to help them build new lives in America. Yet these days, it’s helping some finance their lives on the communist island.

America’s open-ended generosity has grown into an entitlement that exceeds $680 million a year and is exploited with ease. No agency tracks the scope of the abuse, but a Sun Sentinel investigation found evidence suggesting it is widespread.

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Cuban arrivals in Florida

Unlike most immigrants to the U.S., Cubans are presumed to be refugees and can access special assistance. Since 2003, more than 329,000 Cuban immigrants arrived in Florida and were eligible for this aid, which includes cash, medical care and job training. They now make up nine out of 10 foreigners getting refugee services in Florida.

Fed-up Floridians are reporting their neighbors and relatives for accepting government aid while shuttling back and forth to the island, selling goods in Cuba, and leaving their benefit cards in the U.S. for others to use while they are away.

Some don’t come back at all. The U.S. has continued to deposit welfare checks for as long as two years after the recipients moved back to Cuba for good, federal officials confirmed.

Regulations prohibit welfare recipients from collecting or using U.S. benefits in another country. But on the streets of Hialeah, the first stop for many new arrivals, shopkeepers like Miguel Veloso hear about it all the time.

Veloso, a barber who has been in the U.S. three years, said recent immigrants on welfare talk of spending considerable time in Cuba — six months there, two months here. “You come and go before benefits expire,” he said.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah hears it too, from constituents in his heavily Cuban-American district, who tell of flaunting their aid money on visits to the island. The money, he said, “is definitely not to be used … to go have a great old time back in the country that was supposed to be oppressing you.”

The sense of entitlement is so ingrained that Cubans routinely complained to their local congressman about the challenge of accessing U.S. aid — from Cuba.

“A family member would come into our office and say another family member isn’t receiving his benefits,” said Javier Correoso, aide to former Miami Rep. David Rivera. “We’d say, ‘Where is he?’ They’d say, ‘He’s in Cuba and isn’t coming back for six months.’”

The money “is definitely not to be used … to go have a great old time back in the country that was supposed to be oppressing you.”

 “They’re taking benefits from the American taxpayer to subsidize their life in another country.’”

One woman told Miami immigration attorney Grisel Ybarra that her grandmother and two great aunts came to Florida, got approved for benefits, opened bank accounts and returned to Cuba. Month after month, the woman cashed their government checks — about $2,400 each time — sending half to the women in Cuba and keeping the rest.   When a welfare agency questioned the elderly ladies’ whereabouts this summer, the woman turned to Ybarra, a Cuban American. She told Ybarra her grandmother refused to come back, saying: “With the money you sent me, I bought a home and am really happy in Cuba.”

Cubans on the island, Ybarra said, have a name for U.S. aid.  They call it “la ayuda.” The help.

Special status abused

Increasing openness and travel between the two countries have made the welfare entitlement harder to justify and easier to abuse. But few charges have been brought, and Congress and the Obama Administration have failed to address the problem even as the United States moves toward détente with Cuba.

Cubans fuel increase in Florida costs

The U.S. opens its borders and wallets to Cubans like no other immigrant group. The number of Cubans coming to the U.S. is increasing, along with the expense of supporting them. The cost of food stamps, welfare and short-term cash assistance for Cuban immigrants in Florida has increased 23 percent since 2011, compared to five percent for refugees from all other nations.

Adding it up

Florida’s costs are only part of the picture. To calculate the total cost of public assistance for Cuban immigrants, the Sun Sentinel included estimates for federal refugee assistance and welfare for seniors and the disabled. The $682 million total is conservative.*

Cubans’ extraordinary access to U.S. welfare rests on two pillars of special treatment: the ease with which they are admitted to the country, and America’s generosity in granting them public support.

Cubans are allowed into the U.S. even if they arrive without permission and are quickly granted permanent residency under the 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act. They’re assumed to be refugees without having to prove persecution.

They’re immediately eligible for welfare, food stamps, Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income or SSI, cash assistance for impoverished seniors and disabled younger people.

Most other immigrants are barred from collecting aid for their first five years. Those here illegally are not eligible at all.

The Sun Sentinel analyzed state and federal data to determine the annual cost of taxpayer support for Cuban immigrants: at least $680 million. In Florida alone, costs for welfare, food stamps and refugee cash have increased 23 percent since 2011, the last year data was available.

Not all Cubans receive government help. Those arriving on visas are ineligible, and some rely on family support. And many who receive aid do so for just a short time until they settle in, as the U.S. intended. Cubans over time have become one of the most successful immigrant groups in America.

“They come to the U.S. to work and make a living for their family,” said Jose Alvarez, a Cuba native and city commissioner in Kissimmee. “I don’t believe that they come thinking the government will support them.”

But some take advantage of the easy money — and then go back and forth to Cuba.

A public housing tenant in Hialeah, who was receiving food stamps and SSI payments for a disabled son, frequently traveled to Cuba to sell food there, records show. She admitted to a city housing investigator in 2012 that she “makes $700 in two months just in the sales to Cuba.”

Another man receiving food stamps admitted to state officials “that he was living in Cuba much of 2015.”

A recent arrival with a chronic illness got Medicaid coverage and turned to attorney David Batchelder of Miami to help him get SSI as well. But the man was “going back and forth to Cuba” so much that Batchelder eventually dropped the case. “It was just another benefit he was applying for.”

Concerns about Cubans exploiting the aid are especially troubling to exiles who came to this country decades ago and built new lives and careers here.  Dr. Noel Fernandez recalls the assistance his family received from friends and the U.S. government when they immigrated 20 years ago, help that enabled him to find work as a landscaper, learn English and complete his medical studies. Now medical director of Citrus Health Network in Hialeah, Fernandez sees Cuban immigrants collecting benefits and going back, including three elderly patients who recently left the U.S. for good.

“They got Medicaid, they got everything, and they returned to Cuba,” he said. “I see people that said they were refugees [from] Cuba and they return the next year.”

State officials have received complaints about Cubans collecting aid while repeatedly going to Cuba or working as mules ferrying cash and goods, a common way of financing travel to the island.

Another way of paying for the trips: cheating. Like other welfare recipients, some Cubans work under the table or put assets in others’ names to appear poor enough to meet the programs’ income limits, according to records and interviews. Some married couples qualify for more money as single people by concealing marriages performed in Cuba, where the U.S. can’t access records.

Florida’s refugee costs by nationality in 2014

The United States accepts refugees from around the world if they can prove persecution at home. Cubans don’t need such proof – they are the only nationality with open-ended access to the U.S. and government benefits.

 “Stop the fraud please!” one person urged in a complaint to the state. Another pleaded with authorities to check airport departure records for a woman suspected of hiding income. “It would show how many times she has traveled to Cuba.”

Florida officials typically dismissed the complaints for lack of information, because names didn’t match their records or because the allegations didn’t involve violations of eligibility rules. Travel abroad is not expressly prohibited, but benefits are supposed to be used for basic necessities within the U.S.

“Our congressional folks should be looking at this,” said Miami-Dade County Commissioner Esteban Bovo Jr., a Cuban American. “There could be millions and millions of dollars in fraud going on here.”

Money to Cuba

Accessing benefits from Cuba typically requires a U.S. bank account and a willing relative or friend stateside. Food stamps and welfare are issued monthly through a debit-type card, and SSI payments are deposited into a bank account or onto a MasterCard.

A joint account holder with a PIN number can withdraw the money and wire it to Cuba. Another option: entrust the money to a friend traveling to Cuba.

Roberto Pizano of Tampa, a political prisoner in Cuba for 18 years, said he worked two jobs when he arrived in the U.S. in 1979 and never accepted overnment help. He now sees immigrants “abusing the system.”

“I know people who come to the U.S., apply for SSI and never worked in the USA,” he said. They “move back to Cuba and are living off of the hard-earned taxpayer dollars.”

Roberto Pizano of Tampa, a political prisoner in Cuba for 18 years, said Cubans are signing up for U.S. benefits and moving back to Cuba, “living off of the hard-earned taxpayer dollars.“ Photo by Taimy Alvarez

Federal investigators have found the same scenario in other cases.  A 2012 complaint alleged a 75-year-old woman had moved to Camaguey two years earlier and a relative was withdrawing her SSI money from a bank account and sending it to her. Social Security stopped payments, but not before nearly $16,000 had been deposited into her account.

Another recipient went to Cuba on vacation and stayed, leaving his debit card with a relative. Social Security continued his SSI payments for another six months — $4,000 total — before an anonymous caller reported he had gone back to Cuba.

One woman reportedly moved to Cuba in 2010 and died three years later, while still receiving SSI and food stamps, according to a 2014 tip to Florida welfare fraud investigators. A state official couldn’t find her at her Hialeah home, cut off the food stamps and alerted the federal government.

Former congressman Rivera tried to curb abuses with a bill that would have revoked the legal status of Cubans who returned to the island before they became citizens.

“Public assistance is meant to help Cuban refugees settle in the U.S.,” Mauricio Claver-Carone of Cuba Democracy Advocates testified in a 2012 hearing on the bill. “However, many non-refugee Cubans currently use these benefits, which can average more than $1,000 per month, to immediately travel back to the island, where the average income is $20 per month, and comfortably reside there for months at a time on the taxpayer’s dime.”

Rivera recently told the Sun Sentinel that he interviewed welfare workers, Cubans in Miami and passengers waiting for charter flights to Havana. He said he found overwhelming evidence of benefits money going back, especially after the U.S. eased travel restrictions in 2009.

The back and forth undermines the rationale that Cubans are refugees fleeing an oppressive government, Rivera said. And when they return for visits, they boast of the money that’s available in the U.S., he said. “They all say, ‘It’s great. I got free housing. I got free food. I get my medicine.’ ”

Five Cubans interviewed by the Sun Sentinel in Havana said they were aware of the assistance and knew of Cubans who had gone to America and quickly began sending money back. Two said they believed it was U.S. government aid.

“I don’t think it’s correct, but everyone does it for the well-being of their family,” said one woman, Susana, who declined to give her last name.

Outside welfare offices in Hialeah, the Sun Sentinel found Cuban immigrants who had arrived as recently as three days earlier, applying for benefits. They said family and friends told them about the aid before they left Cuba.

“Back in the ’60s, when you came in, they told you the factory that was hiring,” said Nidia Diaz of Miami, a former bail bondswoman who was born in Cuba. “Now, they tell you the closest Department of Children and Families [office] so you can go and apply.”

Crooks collect in Cuba

Miami bail bondswoman Barbara Pozo said many of her Cuban clients talk openly about living in Cuba and collecting monthly disability checks, courtesy of U.S. taxpayers.  “They just come here to pick up the money,” Pozo said. “They pretend they’re disabled. They just pretend they’re crazy.”  SSI payments, for those who cannot work due to mental or physical disabilities, go up to $733 a month for an individual. Most other new immigrants are ineligible until they become U.S. citizens.

Cubans collect, others don’t:

Some Cubans try to build a case for SSI by claiming trauma from their life under an oppressive government or the 90-mile crossing to Florida.  Diaz, the former bondswoman, said she has heard Cuban clients talk about qualifying: “‘Tell them that you have emotional problems. How did you get these problems? Well, trying to get here from Cuba.’”

Antonio Comin collected disability while organizing missions to smuggle Cubans to Florida, including one launched from a house in the Keys, federal prosecutors said. Comin claimed he rented the home to celebrate his birthday — after receiving his government check.

Casimiro Martinez was receiving a monthly check for a mental disability — but his mind was sound enough to launder more than $1 million stolen from Medicare. Martinez was arrested at Miami International Airport after returning from a trip to Cuba.

Outside welfare offices in Hialeah, the Sun Sentinel found Cuban immigrants who had arrived as recently as three days earlier, applying for benefits.

Government disability programs are vulnerable to fraud, particularly SSI, with applicants faking or exaggerating symptoms. Some view SSI as “money waiting to be taken,” said John Webb, a federal prosecutor in Tennessee who has handled fraud cases.

While benefits are supposed to be suspended for recipients who leave the United States for more than 30 days, the government relies on people to self-report those absences, and federal audits have found widespread violations.

The government could significantly reduce abuses by matching international travel records to SSI payments, auditors have recommended since 2003. The Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security are still trying to work out a data sharing agreement — 12 years later.

Jose Caragol, a Hialeah city councilman and Havana native, said aid for Cubans “was meant to assist those who were persecuted and want a new life. The bleeding has to stop.”

 

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U.S.-CUBA AGRICULTURAL TRADE: PAST, PRESENT, AND POSSIBLE FUTURE

Full Document Here: US-Cuba Agricultural Trade, Past, Present and Perspective, USDA,2015

By Steven Zahniser, Bryce Cooke, Jerry Cessna, Nathan Childs, David Harvey, Mildred Haley, Michael McConnell, and Carlos Arnade, all from the United States Department of Agriculture

Abstract

Establishment of a more normal economic relationship with Cuba has the potential to foster additional growth in U.S.-Cuba agricultural trade. Prior to the Cuban Revolution of 1959, bilateral agricultural trade featured large volumes of Cuban sugar and smaller volumes of molasses, tobacco, and pineapple from Cuba and rice, lard, dried beans, wheat, and wheat flour from the United States. In 2000, the U.S. economic embargo on Cuba was loosened to allow for U.S. exports of agricultural products and medicine. As a result, the United States soon became Cuba’s leading supplier of agricultural imports. The remaining prohibitions on issuing credit to Cuba, however, give other exporting countries a competitive advantage in the Cuban market, and the United States slipped to being the second leading supplier in 2013 and the third leading supplier in 2014. A more normal economic relationship between the two countries would allow Cuba to resume exporting agricultural products to the United States, while U.S. agricultural exporters would be able to develop commercial ties in Cuba that approximate their business relationships in other parts of the world.

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CUBA’S CHALLENGE: WHAT DID THE CUBAN REVOLUTION ACCOMPLISH AND WHERE CAN IT GO FROM HERE?

BY SAMUEL FARBER, June 10, 2015

Original Essay from “JACOBIN” Here:  Cuba’s Challenge

Samuel Farber was born and raised in Cuba. He is the author of Cuba Since the Revolution of 1959: A Critical Assessment.

When in the 1950s, along with many of my high school classmates, I became involved in the struggle against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista, one of our teachers remarked that we had no real reason to criticize the state of our country because so many other nations in the region — such as Bolivia and Haiti — were much worse off than us.

His description of Cuba’s comparative position was accurate, but incomplete. On the eve of the 1959 Revolution, Cuba had the fourth highest per capita income in Latin America, after Venezuela, Uruguay, and Argentina.

And although average per capita income is an insufficient, and sometimes misleading, indicator of general economic development, other indicators support his picture of the pre-revolutionary Cuban economy: in 1953, Cuba also ranked fourth in Latin America according to an average of twelve indexes covering such items as percentage of labor force employed in mining, manufacturing, and construction, percentage of literate persons, per capita electric power, newsprint, and caloric food consumption.

Yet, at that time the country’s economy was also suffering from stagnation and the pernicious effects of sugar monoculture, including substantial unemployment (partly caused by the short sugar cane season of three or four months). Most importantly, the national indexes of living standards hid dramatic differences between the urban (57 percent of the population in 1953) and rural areas (43 percent), especially between Havana (21 percent of Cuba’s total population) and the rest of the country. The Cuban countryside was plagued by malnutrition, widespread poverty, poor health, and lack of education.

For my teacher, it seems, the fact that other people were worse off made him more accepting of his own life circumstances. But he was the exception. To the extent that Cubans compared themselves with the people of other countries, they preferred to look up to the much higher standard of living of the United States rather than console themselves by looking down at the greater misery of their Latin American brethren.

As a 1956 report of the United States Bureau of Foreign Commerce put it: “the worker in Cuba . . . has wider horizons than most Latin American workers and expects more out of life in material amenities than many European workers . . . His goal is to reach a standard of living comparable with that of the American worker.”

This underlines the fundamental mistake of assuming instead of ascertaining that comparisons of economic performance have any meaning to the people who live in those economies. Taken to an extreme, this mistake leads to an “objectivist” analysis that stands outside history as it is actually lived by its actors and is likely, as in the case of my high school teacher, to result in a conservative commitment to the existing social order, as opposed to a questioning of, or opposition to, the existing social order and its ruling group.

For those who are affected by it, economic development has a meaning that goes beyond economic data and requires an understanding of popular aspirations and expectations, which are based in part on the existing material reality and in part on past history.

In terms of its material reality, the Cuba of the fifties was on the one hand characterized by uneven modernity, fairly advanced means of communication and transportation — especially the high circulation, by Latin American standards, of newspapers and magazines — and the rapid development of television and radio. On the other hand, there were abysmal living conditions in the Cuban countryside.

As far as its history, the Cuba of the 1950s was still living the effects of the frustrated revolution of 1933, a nationalist revolution against dictatorship with an important anti-imperialist component and the participation of an incipient labor movement, then under Communist leadership.

Although this revolution had achieved some significant reforms equivalent in the Cuban context to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, it failed to achieve major structural changes in Cuban society, such as real national political and economic independence from US imperialism (beyond the abolition of the Platt Amendment in 1934) or any meaningful agrarian reform and diversification away from the one-crop sugar economy with all it implied in terms of economic instability, large-scale unemployment, and poverty.

These were the economic issues brandished by the Cuban opposition at that time to struggle for more or less radical reforms to the existing order, instead of pondering and celebrating Cuba’s comparative high rank among Latin American economies. Thus Eduardo Chibás, the leader of the reform Ortodoxo Party, of which Fidel Castro was a secondary leader, proposed in 1948 a series of modest reforms to improve the life of the Cuban rural population.

Five years later, after Batista’s coup against the constitutional government, Castro — in his “History Will Absolve Me” speech at his trial for his failed attack against one of Batista’s military installations — proposed a more radical series of measures, including giving property titles to peasants holding up to 165 acres of land, with compensation granted to landlords on the basis of the average income they would have received over a ten-year period. He also added new elements to his reform agenda, such as his radical plan for the employees of all large industrial, mercantile, or mining concerns, including sugar mills, to receive 30 percent of profits.

Fidel, 1956

Fidel and Rebels, 1956

After 1959

Immediately after the victory of January 1, 1959, in response to many Cubans’ pent-up expectations, Castro’s revolutionary government engaged in a vigorous policy of redistribution. There was an urban reform law to substantially reduce rents, a left-Keynesian policy of public works to combat unemployment, and a radical, albeit not a collectivist, agrarian reform law proclaimed in May 1959.

Then, in late 1960, in part in response to the hostility of US imperialism and in part based on the political inclinations of the revolutionary leaders, the large majority of both urban and rural property was nationalized by the Cuban state.

In April 1961, Castro declared Cuba to be “socialist,” and it became, in structural and institutional terms, a replica of the model in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Although Cuba’s one-party state placed more emphasis on popular participation than its equivalents in the Eastern Bloc, its political control was before long just as absolute.

Like the supporters of the Cuban status quo before the revolution, the supporters of today’s Cuban system assert that it is economically superior to other countries, particularly in Latin America. In terms of GDP — which, as previously mentioned, is not by itself a reliable indicator of economic well-being, although the Cuban government relies on it in a modified form — Cuba has fared poorly in comparison with its neighbors.

Whereas in 1950 Cuba ranked tenth in per capita GDP among the forty-seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, almost sixty years later, in 2006, it ranked near the bottom of the list, only ahead of Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Paraguay. GDP has increased little since then with a 2 percent average rate of growth in the last five years.

The government’s supporters point to Cuba’s achievements in education and health (in particular, its low infant mortality) as conclusive evidence for its more progressive economic policies. And indeed Cuba has performed very well in the Human Development Index (HDI), which combines income, health, and education statistics.

But while this index does a good job of measuring critical aspects of well-being in the less developed capitalist countries, it does not adequately capture the shape of state-socialist economies such as Cuba. It does not quantify the hardships that people suffer in countries where the economic problems of underdevelopment intersect with those particular to Soviet-style societies.

Take income, for example. Unlike capitalist societies, in Cuba, access to many luxury or high-cost goods is often obtained by the ruling groups through extra-economic, in kind, political means, rather than through the expenditure of monetary income. Although this situation has become more complicated since Raúl Castro took office in 2006 and expanded private economic activity to cover approximately 25 percent of the labor force, obtaining high-end goods still depends to an important degree on political access.

One example is traveling abroad. For the majority of Cubans who don’t have sufficiently wealthy relatives overseas, it is political access to state-sponsored travel — for example, officially sanctioned attendance to political, economic, cultural, or academic conferences — rather than private income that remains the principal way to venture outside the island.

A similar situation exists in terms of Internet access. In Cuba — a country with one of the lowest levels of web availability in Latin America and the Caribbean — many people can connect to the Internet only at their workplace or school, but only for strictly work-related purposes. Otherwise, they run the serious risk of being reprimanded or even losing their ability to go online.

Privately, they can get on the Internet by paying rates unaffordable to average Cubans, and only at tourist hotels or at the centers sponsored by the state telephone monopoly. However, free access to the Internet is the norm for those who are well-situated in terms of political power or have connections to those who do.

Besides the issue of monetary income, the HDI ignores other factors that make living conditions in Cuba difficult. These include the irregular supply and quality of food, housing, toiletries, and birth control devices for women and men. The same applies to the poor state of roads, inter-urban bus and railway transport (premium transportation services exist but are costly and therefore out of the reach of most Cubans), and the delivery of basic necessities such as water, electricity, and garbage collection.

The HDI does not quantify the hardships of daily life associated with these inadequacies either — for example, the amount of time people have to spend going from place to place and standing in line to obtain a wide variety of goods. Economic indexes can also be deceptive insofar as they don’t take into account the maintenance and upkeep of systems that deliver key services.

Take water, for example. Viewed in one way, Cuba ranks well in that regard, with 95 percent of its population officially having access to drinking water. But serious water shortages are a normal condition of life in Cuba. This is partially due to seasonal droughts in certain regions, particularly in the eastern half of the island. But the most important cause of that shortage is the deteriorated infrastructure — broken pipes and numerous leaks — going back to well before the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

For these reasons, more than half of the water pumped by the country’s aqueducts is lost, especially in the Havana metropolitan area. This is much of the daily material reality Cubans face, and it shapes their aspirations and expectations.

Strong Thumbs, No Fingers

The Cuban government and its supporters claim that most of these economic problems are the result of the criminal economic blockade of the island imposed, for more than fifty years, by the United States and which remains mostly in force despite the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

There is no doubt that the embargo has been damaging, particularly in the early years of the revolution, as Cuba was forced to reorient most of its economic activity towards the Eastern Bloc. Repealing the 1996 Helms-Burton Act and ending the blockade would be a very welcome development for both principled and practical reasons. Such a move would also considerably increase economic activity in Cuba, most likely in the fields of tourism and, possibly, biotechnology and the production and export of certain types of agricultural commodities such as citrus.

However, the US blockade did not prevent Cuba from trading with industrialized capitalist countries in Asia and Europe, and particularly with Canada and Spain. The principal obstacle to Cuba’s economic relations with those non-US industrial capitalist countries was Cuba’s own lack of goods to sell and thus its lack of hard currency with which to pay for imports, whether capital or consumer goods. Nevertheless, Cuba received more than $6 billion in credits and loans from many of the industrialized capitalist countries until Cuba suspended the service of these debts several years before the collapse of the Soviet bloc.

More important than the damage caused by the US economic blockade is Cuba’s inadequate capital, as well as other problems typical of economically less developed countries — the export of commodities such as nickel and sugar amid unstable world prices — which in turn interact with the myriad economic shortcomings and contradictions of Soviet-style economies, including the failures of agriculture and the scarcity and poor quality of consumer goods.

In truth, Cuba’s achievements and failures resemble those of the Soviet Union, China, and Vietnam before these countries took the capitalist road, suggesting that systemic similarities are more significant than national idiosyncrasies and variations on the general Soviet model.

Konstantin Chernenko fidel castro cuba ussr Soviet Leonid BrezhnevFidel and Leonid

Cuba shares with the USSR what the political scientist Charles E. Lindblom called “strong thumbs, no fingers.” Having “strong thumbs” allows the government to mobilize large numbers of people to carry out homogeneous, routinized, and repetitive tasks that require little if any variation, initiative, or improvisation to adapt to specific conditions and unexpected circumstances at the local level — precisely the tasks that require subtle fingers rather than undiscriminating thumbs.

This explains how a Soviet-style government can organize a massive vaccination campaign, while at the same time its bureaucratic, centralized administration and lack of “nimble fingers” prevent it from acquiring the necessary precision for timely coordination of complicated production and distribution in all economic sectors — especially agriculture, among the least homogeneous and predictable areas of the economy.

Cuba’s deficiencies, particularly in the production of consumer goods, also stem to a large extent from its principal leaders’ ideological inclinations. While these leaders have clearly favored the production and delivery of certain collective goods like education and health care, they have tended to be indifferent if not hostile to goods normally consumed by individuals or families.

This is rooted in a deeply ascetic strain of some leftist traditions. The most prominent and consistently austere among the revolutionary leaders was Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who as minister of industry in the early days of the revolution shaped many aspects of the Cuban economy.

When serious shortages of consumer goods began to occur in Cuba in the early 1960s, Guevara spoke critically of the comforts that Cubans had surrounded themselves with in the cities, comforts which he attributed to the way of life to which imperialism had accustomed people, and not to a standard of living resulting from the relative economic development of the country and especially to the working class and popular struggles in the pre-revolutionary era.

Guevara argued that countries such as Cuba should invest completely in production for economic development, and that because Cuba was at war, the revolutionary government had to ensure peoples’ access to food, but that soap and similar goods were non-essential. It is clear however, that his hostility to consumer goods was by no means specific to a war economy.

As he put it in his private reflections shortly after he left the Cuban government in the mid-1960s, “in Cuba, a television set that does not work is a big problem but not in Vietnam where there is no television and they are building socialism.” He added that “the development of consciousness allows for the substitution of the secondary comforts which at a given moment had transformed themselves into part of the individual’s life, with the overall education of society allowing for the return to an earlier era that did not have this need.”

Later, after the failure of the grandiose plans for economic growth that Guevara and other revolutionary leaders articulated, these ascetic politics came to be shared by the entire Cuban government leadership. They were soon consecrated in the Cuban revolutionary ideology as hostility to the “consumer society” of the economically developed world, a view that was never part of the ideology of the pre-revolutionary Cuban left, Communist or otherwise.

It was therefore entirely fitting that during the Cuban economic cycles associated with the spirit and politics of Guevara, the emphasis was always on capital accumulation instead of increased consumption. This was the case, for example, with the Guevarist-type economic period of 1966–1970 (shortly after he left the Cuban government).

As the prominent Cuban economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago points out, at this time the national plan called for a sharp increase in national savings that was to be generated by a cut in consumption through the expansion of rationing, the export of products previously assigned for internal consumption, and the reduction of imports considered unnecessary.

Material incentives sharply decreased, and the population was exhorted to work harder, save more, and accept deprivation with revolutionary spirit. Accordingly, the share of state investment going to the sphere of production increased from 78.7% to 85.8% between 1965 and 1970. This was indeed a Cuban high point of what the Hungarian theorists Ferenc Fehér, Agnes Heller, and György Márkus have called the “dictatorship over needs.”

The Special Period

Until the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the Cuban government was able to deliver for the majority of its people an austere standard of living that, on the whole, guaranteed a minimum of economic security and the satisfaction of basic needs, in spite of serious deficiencies in areas such as housing and consumer goods.

Notwithstanding the serious problems and contradictions of a Soviet-style economy, this was made possible by the USSR’s massive economic subsidies, which helped the Cuban government finance a generous welfare state with an extensive education, health services, and social security system. These massive subsidies were the result of Cuba joining the Soviet state as its junior partner in an international alliance that did confront strategic obstacles in Latin America (because the USSR was reluctant to challenge the US in its own sphere of influence), but that ended up being much more viable and successful in Africa despite some tactical differences.

Although overall literacy was at 76.4% before the revolution, it was much lower in the countryside; the government has succeeded in almost entirely wiping out illiteracy. It has also expanded secondary and higher education, promoting a substantial degree of social mobility facilitated by the massive emigration from the island of its upper class and large segments of its middle classes.

The dramatic enlargement of the military also allowed for the rise into officialdom of many Cubans of humble origin. Black Cubans in particular benefited, with the elimination of the informal but substantial racial segregation that had existed in pre-revolutionary Cuba, especially in the area of employment.

Racism was by no means eliminated. The Cuban government, implicitly identifying racism only with its segregationist form, soon declared the problem solved, with policies of “affirmative action” not even considered, in a context where blacks were not allowed to organize independently to defend their interests.

In general, however, Cuba became a more egalitarian society, attaining in the mid-1980s a Gini coefficient of 0.24 (although this measure also suffers from the political access problems discussed above). It was this, along with the growth of a nationalist and anti-imperialist consciousness that ensured a large base of popular support for the government. At the same time, however, critical voices even inside the Castro administration were systematically suppressed, and political dissidents (as well as petty offenders — Cuba has one of the highest imprisonment rates for common crimes) were jailed in large numbers.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc provoked a massive economic crisis, reflected in the quick and sharp 35 percent GDP drop. Cubans went very hungry in the first half of the nineties, the worst years of the crisis, leading to serious nutritional deficiencies that provoked an outbreak of optical neuropathy in 1991 that affected more than fifty thousand people until it was partially controlled in 1993.

Services such as public transportation went into a tailspin, from which they have only partially recuperated. Inequality has grown significantly, particularly between those with and without access to the hard currency provided by remittances from abroad. Real wages in the public sector, which still accounts for at least 75 percent of the labor force, dropped precipitously, and as late as 2013 they had only reached 27 percent of 1989 levels.

The “Special Period” also had a noticeable impact on the health care system, reducing the gains achieved in the previous thirty years. There are shortages of medical supplies and of family doctors and specialists, who are often working abroad as a part of international programs.

Patients have to even bring their own bedding to the hospitals, and “gratuities” to medical personnel have become increasingly common. Teachers have fled the education field in search of higher wages in other sectors such as tourism; at one point the government even tried to replace those educators with television sets and quickly trained high school graduates, with predictably negative results.

The system of social security, which made great advances in the 1960s with universal coverage and the unification of the previously existing patchwork of pension and retirement plans, went into a sharp crisis as the peso-denominated pensions fell to a fraction of their previous purchasing power.

Most importantly, during the quarter century that has elapsed since the fall of the USSR, the support of the regime has fallen quite substantially, particularly among young people. This does not mean that they have begun to openly oppose the government. They are far more likely to look for individual ways to resolve these problems. They would rather leave the island than politically confront a government that despite having released most political prisoners and allowed for a significant degree of social liberalization (for example, in terms of religion and emigration) still maintains a one-party state and an apparatus of repression. (Although it typically employs close monitoring, harassment, and frequent short-term arrests of dissidents instead of the long prison terms that were the norm under Fidel Castro’s rule.)

The Critique from the Left

Supporters of the government, especially abroad, continue to defend the system as if nothing happened during the last twenty-five years, and keep pointing to poor countries such as Haiti — which were worse off than Cuba before the 1959 Revolution — as evidence of how better off Cuba is. But for the most part, the Cuban people are not comparing their standard of living to those of other less developed countries.

Older Cubans are much more likely to compare their current hardships with the greater security and predictability they experienced before the Special Period, and remember nostalgically the early 1980s when the opening of the farmers’ markets, after the mass exodus from the Port of Mariel in spring 1980, allowed Cubans to reach perhaps their highest living standards since the 1960s.

For many Cubans, and particularly for the disenchanted young who are keenly aware of contemporary cultural trends in fashion, music, and dance, the existence of a large Cuban-American community in South Florida has also become a major standard of comparison.

And the nascent critical left in Cuba — like the oppositionists of the 1940s and 1950s — does not celebrate, in the manner of the official Communist party press and foreign supporters, Cuba’s good performance in the HDI. Instead, it is trying to organize under extremely difficult conditions, on behalf of the political liberties necessary to defend the standard of living of the Cuban people and open up the possibility for a popular and democratically self-managed economy and polity.

sam-farberSamuel Farber

 

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Ted Henken: EIGHT QUICK TAKEAWAYS ON FUTURE OF US-CUBA RELATIONS FROM THE SUMMIT OF THE AMERICAS

2015-04-11t201325z_1868389586_gf10000056251_rtrmadp_3_panama-usa-summit_x1x_jpg_1718483346Ted Henken has some quick and cogent comments on the Cuba US Mdeetings at the OAS Summit of April 2015. They are presented below.

The original is on Prof. Henken’s Blog here: QUICK TAKEAWAYS ON FUTURE OF US-CUBA RELATIONS
Sunday, April 12, 2015

 1. Embarrassing lack of tolerance and “civility” on part of Cuba’s official civil society delegation (major contrast with Raul Castro’s warm and respectful approach to Obama). Failed the test of tolerance but will have to learn as the days of the exclusive, official “Cuban delegation” representing the island at international events are over since the migration reform of 2013. Question: Cuba can open up to the US (and vice versa) but can it open up to ITSELF – listen to the diverse and often dissenting views and organizations of its emergent civil society?

2. Surprising personal regard Raul Castro expressed for Obama as “an honest man” who has “no responsibility for past US policy” – I loved when Raul admitted he had cut that part from his speech, then put it back, then cut it, & finally decided to include it and was “satisfied” with his decision. History is made in the details.

3. Obama’s clear understanding of the key role of civil society and public support for Cuban civil society – expressed both in his terrific speech at the civil society forum and by meeting with Manuel Cuesta Morua & Laritza Diversent. Obama later stressed that these two leading Cuban dissidents support his “empowerment through engagement” policy.

4. Obama-Castro historic handshakes, joint press conference, & private meeting – “agree to disagree,” “work together where we can with respect and civility,” “everything on the table based on mutual respect,” “patience x 2!” – Obama looking forward and not trapped by ideology or interested in re fighting Cold War battles that started before he was born (but appreciates lessons of history); Raul still passionate (and long-winded) about past US wrongs but admits that can disagree today but “we could agree tomorrow.”

5. Obama’s unequivocal clarification that “On Cuba, we are not in the business of regime change; we are in the business of making sure the Cuban people have freedom and the ability to shape their own destiny,” stressing that “Cuba is not a threat to the United States.”

6. Maduro/Venezuela issue did not steal the show as some had feared (or hoped); Maduro did not get support for his condemnation of US sanctions and even had to endure some countries expressed concern for his own jailing of dissidents.

7. Shift in the region away from ideology toward economic pragmatism fueled in part by China slow-down, Russia nose-dive, & Venezuela implosion. US ready to step in with strategic economic engagement and oil diplomacy – especially to Caribbean Basin (H/T to Andrés Oppenheimer).

8. Also, various economically and diplomatically powerful Latin American nations have big domestic corruption scandals (Brazil, Argentina, Chile) or violence and security issues (Mexico, Central America) that make them wary of any confrontation with the US

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Ted Henken

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Washington Post: NEW POLL ON CUBAN CITIZENS’ VIEWS ON NORMALIZATION, THE POLITICAL SYSTEM, THE ECONOMIC SYSTEM, THE LEADERSHIP AND MORE

Washington Post, April 8, 2015

By Joshua Partlow and Peyton M. Craighill

Original article here: NEW POLL ON CUBAN CITIZENS’ VIEWS

FULL RESULTS FROM THE CUBA POLL 

MEXICO CITY — The vast majority of Cubans welcome warmer relations with the United States, holding high expectations that closer ties pledged by the two countries will shake up the island’s troubled economy, according to a new survey of Cuban citizens. But they are doubtful that the diplomatic detente will bring political reforms to their Communist country.

The poll of residents on the island shows a people unhappy with the political system, eager to end the U.S. embargo and disenchanted with their state-run economy. More than half of Cubans say they would like to leave the country for good if they had the chance.

The survey, conducted in March through 1,200 in-person interviews by the Miami-based Bendixen and Amandi International research firm on behalf of the networks Univision Noticias and Fusion, is reported in collaboration with The Washington Post.

New Picture (12) New Picture (13) New Picture (14) New Picture (15) New Picture (16)

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ENTERPRISING CUBA: CITIZEN EMPOWERMENT, STATE ABANDONMENT, OR U.S. BUSINESS OPPORTUNITY?

 AU-SSRC Implications of Normalization: Scholarly Perspectives on U.S.-Cuban Relations April 2015

 TED A. HENKEN AND GABRIEL VIGNOLI

Original here: ENTERPRISING CUBA

After cautiously consolidating his new government once becoming president in 2008, Raúl Castro made a series of unprecedented moves in late 2010 to encourage the reemergence of private self-employment (known as trabajo por cuenta propia or cuentapropismo in Cuba)—explicitly ending Cuba’s previous policy under Fidel Castro that, according to Raúl’s own bold assessment, had “stigmatized” and even “demonized” it.

Subsequently, both the number of legally allowed private occupations (up from 178 to 201) and of Cubans licensed to practice them have grown significantly, with the island seeing a veritable “boom” in entrepreneurial activity between 2011 and 2015. Indeed, in that time, the number of Cuba’s cuentapropistas (self-employed workers or micro-entrepreneurs) has more than tripled, growing from less than 150,000 in 2010 to nearly half a million by early 2015. Additionally, 498 new non-agricultural cooperatives have been authorized to operate on the island between 2013 and 2014, with another 300 under review at the start of 2015.

Moreover, on December 17, 2014, as part of a momentous diplomatic thaw between Washington and Havana, the Obama Administration announced a new policy of engagement targeted explicitly at “empowering” Cuba’s new class of private entrepreneurs by allowing U.S. companies to “support the emerging Cuban private sector,” in Obama’s historic words.

How might Washington’s new policy of “empowerment through engagement” and the larger bilateral process toward normalization impact the island’s emerging entrepreneurs as well as the emergent “non-state sector” of its economy? While there are many potential economic benefits of concerted U.S. private sector engagement with Cuba’s cuentapropistas, the monopolistic Cuban government poses significant challenges to those who want to do business on the island, reach out to island entrepreneurs, and hire Cuban workers—as many European and Canadian companies can already attest. How will this work in practice, who will be the likely winners and losers (both in Cuba and abroad), and how can the Cuban government deal effectively with the growth in socioeconomic inequality that will inevitably follow an expanded private sector?

Direct U.S. engagement with Cuban entrepreneurs through freer travel and more remittances; access to banking and other financial services; increased exports of badly needed inputs to island cuentapropistas; the import of private or cooperatively produced Cuban goods and services to the U.S.; and technology and know-how transfer are all encouraging elements of Obama’s new Cuba policy. These changes have the potential to both “empower” individual entrepreneurs—the stated goal of the U.S. policy shift—and incentivize the initial, if exceedingly cautious, private sector reforms already begun by the Cuban government.

However, to increase Cuba’s economic independence and overall prosperity, the U.S. should focus on addressing the specific economic needs of Cuban entrepreneurs, rather than framing its engagement as a way to effect “regime change” by other means. That is, given the need to build bilateral diplomatic trust after more than fifty years of mutual antagonism, Washington should eschew any “Trojan horse” approaches to entrepreneurial engagement that aim to empower the Cuban people by undermining the government. Such an antagonistic and divisive approach has not worked in the past and could derail Obama’s promising effort to encourage the incipient pro-market reforms already underway.

At the same time, a U.S. policy based on empowerment through economic engagement—even when motivated by the best and most transparent of intentions—will be a dead letter if the U.S. Congress insists on clinging to the outdated and counterproductive embargo and the Cuban government stubbornly refuses to ease its own auto-bloqueo (or “internal embargo”) against island entrepreneurs. As it implements a self-described economic “updating of socialism,” will Cuba continue to hold fast to its monopolistic “command and control” economic model—one that “ya no funciona ni para nosotros” (“no longer works even for us”), as Fidel Castro himself famously admitted in a rare moment of economic candor in 2010?

Continue reading: AU-SSRC-Henken-Vignoli-Enterprising-Cuba-FINAL 

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CAPITULO TORMENTOSO EN LAS RELACIONES CUBA-ESTADOS UNIDOS-VENEZUELA

El proceso de negociaciones distendido y promisorio entre Cuba y Estados Unidos peligra debido a la    gran confrontación motivada por la Orden Ejecutiva del Presidente Obama el 9 de marzo contra 7 altos cargos chavistas, al declarar estado de emergencia nacional porque Venezuela constituía una amenaza a la seguridad de Estados Unidos.  Se  ha argumentado que esa es la redacción establecida para la imposición de las sanciones, adoptadas por ambas cámaras del Congreso y  aprobada por el presidente el 18 de diciembre de 2014, un día después del anuncio de Raúl Castro y Barack Obama sobre el restablecimiento de las relaciones diplomáticas y la apertura de embajadas.

Sin embargo su implementación llegó en un momento  delicado,  y ha desviado la atención de la represión a la oposición y los demás problemas internos en Venezuela. Los cubanos en la isla han pasado del optimismo al temor de volver a vivir en gran  tensión y que las medidas anunciadas por el presidente Obama sean obstruccionadas por el gobierno de Cuba, nuevamente pretextando la confrontación.

Nicolás Maduro recién había visitado a Fidel Castro, y acusado al gobierno de Obama de  fomentar un golpe de estado para justificar la detención de dirigentes opositores, establecer visado para todos los norteamericanos, ordenar la reducción del personal de la embajada norteamericana en Caracas a igual cantidad que la venezolana en Washington, y que los funcionarios tendrían que reportar sus actividades  y solicitar permiso para efectuarlas. Respondió a la Orden Ejecutiva con la demanda a la Asamblea Nacional de una Ley Habilitantes Antiimperialista, enardecidas concentraciones y  demanda de Cumbres de la Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (UNASUR) y ALBA-TCP, aunque no logró una de CELAC.   Los cancilleres de Colombia, Ecuador y Brasil y el secretario general de UNASUR habían estado en Caracas el 6 de marzo en una infructuosa gestión de promoción de diálogo con la oposición y  la participación en las próximas elecciones parlamentarias. Todos los cancilleres se reunieron en Quito, su sede, el 14 de marzo para aprobar una declaración de apoyo al gobierno de Maduro.  Ese día, el canciller Bruno Rodríguez  visitó a Maduro para declarar que Estados Unidos no puede tener una política de zanahoria con Cuba y una política de garrote con Venezuela.

La Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América-Tratado de Comercio de los Pueblos (ALBA-TCP)  realizó el 17 de marzo una Cumbre Extraordinaria de solidaridad con Venezuela y  para coordinar una posición común con vista a la VII Cumbre de las Américas (10-11 de abril). En la Declaración se rechazó

“la Orden Ejecutiva injusta e injustificada, que constituye una interferencia contra el principio de soberanía y el principio de no intervención en los asuntos internos de los Estados”. Se ratificó “el compromiso y apoyo irrestricto con la hermana República Bolivariana de Venezuela en la búsqueda de mecanismos de diálogo con el gobierno de Estados Unidos, para que cesen las agresiones de este gobierno contra Venezuela”, y se propuso crear un Grupo de Facilitadores de CELAC, UNASUR, ALBA-TCP y CARICOM “para facilitar una diplomacia de compromiso entre los gobiernos de Estados Unidos y Venezuela para aliviar las tensiones y garantizar la resolución amigable”.

Raúl Castro se expresó fuertemente contra Estados Unidos y llamó a que eliminara la Orden Ejecutiva y normalizar las relaciones con Venezuela.  Manifestó que

“Estados Unidos debería entender de una vez que es imposible seducir o comprar a Cuba ni intimidar a Venezuela. Nuestra unidad es indestructible. Tampoco cederemos ni un ápice en la defensa de la soberanía e independencia, ni toleraremos ningún tipo de injerencia ni condicionamiento en nuestros asuntos internos.  No cejaremos en la defensa de las causas justas en nuestra América y en el mundo, ni dejaremos nunca solos a nuestros hermanos de lucha”.

Reveló los objetivos para la VII Cumbre de las Américas:

“Rechazaremos con determinación toda tentativa de aislar y amenazar a Venezuela, y reclamaremos el fin definitivo del bloqueo a Cuba.  La sociedad civil cubana será la voz de los sin voz, y desenmascarará a los mercenarios que presentarán allí como sociedad civil de Cuba y a sus patrones”.

Llama la atención que antes y durante el año y medio que duraron las negociaciones que culminaron el 17 de diciembre, las relaciones de Estados Unidos y Venezuela se deterioraban intensamente, lo que no impidió que Raúl Castro llegará a los sorprendentes acuerdos con Barack Obama. En 2010 quedaron sin embajadores; en 2013 comenzaron y se suspendieron negociaciones, y Maduro ofreció asilo a Edward Snowden; Kelly Keiderling, encargada de negocios y dos diplomático fueron expulsados, supuestamente por alentar acciones de sabotaje; en 2014 Maduro acusó al gobierno  norteamericano de estar detrás de las protestas como parte de un plan en su contra.

La sorpresiva  tercera ronda de conversaciones para el restablecimiento de las relaciones diplomáticas entre Roberta Jacobson, subsecretaria de estado, y Josefina Vidal, directora general de Estados Unidos en la Cancillería cubana, y  el alejamiento de la prensa indicaron la urgencia para tratar  la confrontación Estados Unidos-Venezuela,  en La Habana, el 16 de marzo. Resultaba obvio que el proceso sería complejo y prolongado, pero no se esperaba la abrupta interferencia de este diferendo.  En poco menos de un mes se requieren muchas negociaciones y voluntad de resolver asuntos muy complejos. La Cumbre de las Américas junto a la novedosa participación del gobierno de Cuba y el encuentro de Raúl Castro y Barack Obama, debería ser un espacio de diálogo constructivo y relanzamiento de las relaciones  Estados Unidos-América Latina y el Caribe.

La Habana, 18 de marzo de 2015

Miriam Leiva

Miriam Leiva, Periodista Independiente

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WHO OWNS CUBA? AS CUBA-U.S. RELATIONS THAW, THE THORNY MATTER OF PROPERTY DISPUTES HEATS UP

CRAIG OFFMAN

HAVANA — The Globe and Mail, Published Friday, Feb. 13 2015, 3:28 PM EST

Original here: WHO OWNS CUBA?

Tonito Ring Ring was a Latin-looking boy with a dial for a belly and a target on his head. In the 1950s, he was the cartoon mascot of the Cuban Telephone Company, then owned by American firm International Telephone & Telegraph. When the Revolution came in 1959, workers at company headquarters in Havana came looking for him. They tore Tonito down from the wall, thrust him into a coffin, walked him down Calle Aguila to the Malecon, and tossed him into the sea. The Communists, meanwhile, seized the entire Yanqui phone company and, in the ensuring three years, confiscated $1.6-billion worth of U.S property across the island.

Almost six decades later, the United States is intent on making the Cubans pay. Literally.

Now the property of the state-run phone monopoly ETECSA, the telephone company is just one of roughly 6,000 confiscated assets, estimated to be worth a total of more than $7-billion, to which American firms and citizens hold claims. If the Cubans want the United States to lift its gruelling economic embargo – now a possibility, after U.S. President Barack Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations in December – they’re going to have to address the thorny issue of compensation. With Mr. Obama’s presidency winding down, and Cuba’s economy suffering even more than usual thanks to the woes of petro patron Venezuela, pressure is beginning to build to tackle the elephant in the room.

Although Cubans have long considered the embargo a form of slow genocide, America clearly feels differently. In its eyes, Mr. Castro and his comrades took part in nothing less than illegal seizures of property, and should now pay for what they stole if they want to normalize trade. In fact, a two-decade-old American law dictates that there will be no normalization in trade until the claims are settled.

Compensation is a freighted emotional issue for these antagonists, whose mutual antipathy long precedes the revolution. It’s not just about land or assets, communism versus capitalism. It’s about the right to claim victimhood. “Cuba’s crime is not that it’s communist,” political scientist Rafael Hernandez told me as we sat down to talk in his Havana living room last month, the day before Assistant Secretary of State Roberta S. Jacobson made her historic visit to Cuba. “The two countries have a long way to develop a relationship that surpasses a century of mistrust.”

Mr. Obama’s announcement may bring an economic revolution to Cuba. Although the short-term aims include lifting travel and financial restrictions, and even moving toward an exchange of embassies, the long-term goal is to normalize trade.

But Ms. Jacobson has said that the two sides won’t broach the topic of compensation until much further down the road. For the payment issue, even the process is complicated. As previous Cold War-era attempts at land claims have proved, establishing a rate for repayment will be no small feat. For one thing, no one knows whether the United States, which represents all the claims, will seek to settle in one lump sum or want to address each case individually.

q1 001Q4 001Q2 001Tables from Archibald Ritter, “The Compensation Issue in U.S. – Cuba Normalization”, Chapter 16 in A. Ritter and J. Kirk, Editors, Cuba in the International System: Normalization and Integration, Macmillan Press Ltd, 1995 United Kingdom 

Continue Reading: Who Owns Cuba

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