July 1, 2015
President Barack Obama announced Wednesday that the United States and Cuba will reopen embassies in their respective capitals on July 20, officially restoring diplomatic ties between the two countries. The opening of a U.S. embassy in Havana for the first time in over 54 years would be the most tangible sign of progress in the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement since Obama announced his intentions to normalize relations in December 2014.
Wednesday’s news came after months of bilateral talks between Cuban and U.S. delegations, both in Havana and, most recently, in Washington on May 21 and 22. The U.S. cleared its biggest hurdle to opening an embassy in Cuba when it removed the country from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list on May 29.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Obama reaffirmed his administration’s commitment to working with the Cuban government and moving beyond what he called a “policy of isolation” that “hasn’t worked for fifty years.”
“American engagement,” he said, “...is the best way to advance our interests and support human rights."
While significant, the reopening of embassies is only a step in what will be a bumpy road to reestablishing functional ties between Washington and Havana. The U.S. economic embargo on Cuba remains codified in U.S. law and can only be lifted by Congress. In light of the President’s announcement, the Cuban government said Wednesday that ending the embargo was “indispensable for the normalization of relations” between the neighboring countries.
While a majority of Americans favor normalizing their country’s relationship with Cuba, some members of Congress have expressed opposition to the process. Hard-line politicians who feel the President’s agenda wrongly legitimizes the Castro government, such as Cuban-American senator and presidential candidate Marco Rubio, have promised to block the confirmation of any potential ambassador to Cuba. Others have introduced legislation that would restrict the funding of an embassy in Havana.
Americas Quarterly publisher Americas Society/Council of the Americas (AS/COA) welcomed the decision to reopen embassies in Washington and Havana. “The overwhelming support that this new course has received from leaders and people around the hemisphere and the world confirm that the Obama administration is moving in the right direction,” said AS/COA's President and CEO Susan Segal. “We look forward to seeing Congress further the goals of these new policies to bring positive tangible benefits to the people and businesses of the U.S., Cuba and the region."
June 19, 2015
Cuba still lags far behind its Latin American counterparts on internet access, despite this week’s announcement that the government will provide Wi-Fi access to 35 state-run computer centers. Since the country’s first, humble 64kbit/s connection was established in 1996, not much has changed. Only 3.4 percent of Cuban households are connected, and a mere five percent of the population has occasional access to the Web, thanks largely to state agencies, foreign embassies and black market deals. As a result, it’s no surprise that the country continues to rank as having one of the world’s most repressive climates for information and communication technologies.
Internet usage has increased by over 100 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2008, where 44 percent of the population enjoyed regular internet access in 2014 (figures that align with worldwide trends in connectivity). In Cuba, however, the government’s telecommunications monopoly, ETECSA, strictly regulates citizens’ network access. The majority of Cubans are only allowed to see a kind of intranet, which mostly comprises a Cuban encyclopedia, Cuban websites, a national email network and foreign websites that support the Cuban government.
Barriers to internet access in Cuba are not only a question of political will and weak infrastructure, but also of affordability. Thursday’s announcement revealed that, in July, the hourly price of internet access will be reduced from $4.50 to $2–a price that remains highly unaffordable for most on the island.
May 29, 2015
The era of acrimonious relations between Cuba and the U.S. may soon come to a close as Cuba’s designation on the U.S. Department of State’s list of state sponsors of terrorism (SSOT) has officially been rescinded after a final decision from Secretary of State John Kerry today.
On April 14, President Barack Obama announced his plan to remove Cuba from the list after declaring that Cuba had “provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” Cuba’s inclusion on the SSOT list—where it was listed alongside Iran, Sudan and Syria—had been cited by Cuba as a major impediment to restoring relations.
Congress’s 45-day window to block Obama’s decision to lift the SSOT designation expired today with no override from Congress—despite the fact that Obama’s decision was initially met with mixed reactions. Cuba will also be removed from the Department of Treasury’s sanctions list, “a place reserved for nations that repeatedly provide support for international acts of premeditated, politically motivated violence against non-combatants,” according to the Bradenton Herald.
April 15, 2015
On Tuesday, President Obama’s announcement of his intention to remove Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism (SSOT) was received with both praise and dissent from Cuban and U.S. politicians. Despite the controversy, the announcement marks a significant change in not only U.S.-Cuba relations, but also U.S.-Latin America relations.
The announcement followed President Obama’s meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro at the Summit of the Americas in Panama last week, where Cuba made an inaugural appearance and where the two countries’ heads of state met officially face-to-face for the first time since 1959. Cuba’s designation as an SSOT was one of the “sticking points” in the negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba.
President Obama said that Cuba had "provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” White House press secretary Josh Earnest added that although the U.S. still had differences with Cuban policies and actions, they were not "relevant" to the terror list.
The director of U.S. relations at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal, acknowledged the U.S.’s move in a statement: “The government of Cuba recognizes the just decision made by the President of the United States to remove Cuba from a list on which it never deserved to belong [...] As the Cuban government has reiterated on multiple occasions, Cuba rejects and condemns all acts of terrorism.”
April 14, 2015
On Tuesday, the White House announced that it plans to remove the designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism (SSOT), representing another step forward in the normalization of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.
The first announcement of this nature was made on December 17, 2014, when U.S.–Cuba rapprochement was first announced. President Barack Obama instructed the U.S. State Department to review Cuba’s status as an SSOT. This was completed on April 9, prior to the Summit of the Americas held last week in Panama, with Secretary of State John Kerry recommending that Cuba be removed from the list.
Cuba was designated as an SSOT on March 1, 1982. The removal of the SSOT designation will allow a broader range of goods to be exported to Cuba, certain federal financial assistance to be directed towards Cuba, and will ease companies’ disclosure requirements of activities involving Cuba, among other changes.
In order for the SSOT designation to be officially lifted, the U.S. State Department's report must justify that Cuba has not provided support for international terrorism in the past six months, and that the Cuban government will not do so in the future. Congressional leadership has 45 days to review and act on this report.
Although the removal of Cuba from the SSOT list is an important diplomatic step towards normalizing U.S. relations with Cuba, the key provisions of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, including restrictions on investment, trade, and financial transactions with Cuba, will remain in place.
More from AQ:
Monday Memo: Summit of the Americas—Venezuela–U.S. relations—Citibank Inspection—Bolivian Missile Trial—Canada-Venezuela Oil
April 6, 2015
This week’s likely top stories: The Summit of the Americas commences in Panama; petition criticizes U.S. action against Venezuela; Argentine Central Bank inspects Citibank; TSJ initiates missiles trial in Bolivia; Canada and Venezuela discuss investment in Venezuelan oil.
Americas Summit Begins This Week in Panama: The seventh Summit of the Americas will take place this week from April 10 to 11 in Panama City, the first summit in which the leaders of all 35 countries in the hemisphere—including Cuba—will participate. Topics such as climate change, immigration, violence, and energy needs will be on the agenda, although U.S.–Cuba relations may dominate the summit. Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro will meet in person for the first time since they announced renewed diplomatic relations in December 2014, and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson confirmed on Friday that there would be an “interaction” between the two leaders. Meanwhile, Cuban dissidents have been invited to a separate meeting for civil society at the summit. Cuban dissident Rosa María Payá A. stated on Twitter yesterday that Panamanian authorities stopped and searched her at the airport upon arrival in Panama, and she was released after several hours.
Petition against Obama’s Action on Venezuela Gains Ground: Critics of President Barack Obama’s March 9 executive action that declared Venezuela a national security threat have circulated a petition that had gained over 8 million signatures by Saturday. The petition began in Venezuela, although many countries throughout the region have expressed their support for Venezuela. In March, all member nations of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) rejected Obama’s action against the country, which also included sanctions against select Venezuelan officials accused of human rights abuses and corruption. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro thanked supporters via Twitter on Sunday. Growing tension between the U.S. and Venezuela, which have not had full diplomatic relations since 2008, threatens to overshadow other issues to be discussed at the Summit of Americas this week.
Argentina’s Central Bank Sends Inspectors to Citibank for Supervision: On Monday, the Argentine Central Bank sent regulators to Citibank headquarters in Buenos Aires for an inspection. Central Bank president Alejandro Vanoli said that the inspection aimed to ensure that Citibank would be able to run normally without CEO Gabriel Ribisich, who was dismissed by the Central Bank on Wednesday for not following local regulations regarding Argentine interest payments on restructured debt. The Central Bank gave Citibank 24 hours to find a replacement for Ribisich, but the deadline was extended to Monday, due to the closure of banks for local holidays. Local entities, such as the Argentine Banks Association, the Argentine Business Association and the United States Chamber of Commerce in Argentina expressed their support for Citibank and criticized the decision. Citibank could still appeal the decision today.
April 1, 2015
With the conclusion on Tuesday of the first formal talks between Cuba and the United States on human rights, both countries agreed that they were capable of holding a “respectful, professional [and] civilized conversation” on the issue of human rights.
Representatives from both countries met yesterday in Washington DC in the first of many dialogues to be held between the U.S. and Cuba as part of the process to normalize bilateral relations, first announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on December 17, 2014.
The U.S. delegation was led by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Meanwhile, Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, headed the Cuban delegation.
Cuban Ambassador Anaysansi Rodríguez Camejo acknowledged “differences” between the two sides in terms of how human rights “are protected and promoted in their respective countries as in the international arena.”
March 18, 2015
Cuba is the Groundhog Day of the twentieth century. That the United States’ policy of isolation and permanent embargo went on into the 21st century is testimony to the endurance of both Americans and Cubans in making a failed policy become a third rail in U.S. domestic policy.
Not that there weren’t attempts at reconciliation over the last five decades. Nevertheless, changes are taking place now that will finally help move the United States beyond the outdated Cold War posturing to the realpolitik that its policy toward Cuba deserves.
Roughly three months have passed since President Barack Obama announced his policy shift on Cuba. The December 17 announcement, which took many by surprise, was long in the making. It reflected a cautious diplomacy that ended fifty years of a failed policy.
Almost everyone connected with Obama’s simple logic that if something has not worked after fifty years, it was time to try something new! But creating something new after such a long period of propaganda and disinformation will take hard work on the part of both the U.S. and the Cuban government.
After 50 years of Cuba’s isolation, it will take time to build trust between the two governments.
March 13, 2015
U.S.-based IDT Domestic Telecom, Inc. and the state-run telecommunications compnay Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, S.A. (Cuban Telecommunications Enterprise, S.A.—ETECSA) have re-established a direct telephone link between the two countries. ETESCA announced the connection via a press release on Wednesday, but did not specify when the service went into effect. “The re-establishment of direct communications between the United States and Cuba will help offer greater ease and quality of communications between the people of both nations,” the statement said.
This marks the first commercial agreement between the two countries since the Obama administration announced in December 2014 that it would allow telecoms to operate in Cuba as part of its broader rapprochement with the island. However, IDT’s efforts to re-establish direct calls to Cuba precede these changes. “We had conversation for a period of years hoping there would be interest and nothing happened,” said Bill Ulrey, IDT’s Vice-President of Investor Relations, according to the Miami Herald. “But then we submitted it to them again last year and we began to negotiate it but it’s not clear whether their willingness was a part of the ongoing negotiations.”
Previously, calls between the U.S. and Cuba needed to be routed through a third country, elevating costs. IDT has not yet announced new rates for international calls.
January 20, 2015
On Saturday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) led the first official congressional delegation to Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island nation on December 17. Leahy’s office stated that the objective of the trip is to “seek clarity from the Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo.’”
The delegation—composed of five Democrats from Capitol Hill—boarded its flight to Havana one day after the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce published their new regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba.
Although no formal agreements were reached and there was no indication that the embargo will be lifted, the tone of the delegation’s visit has been friendly and marked by guarded optimism. The American legislators talked with various government officials, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, as well as anti-government dissidents, to hash out the details of establishing relations in trade, communications and agriculture.
While insisting that Cuba will maintain a one-party political system and centrally planned economy, Rodriguez was reportedly “open to every single issue,” welcoming the full package of new economic links. Meetings with non-governmental actors—such as Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission—may have prevented the delegation from sitting down with President Raúl Castro, but they yielded a list requesting the release of 24 long-term prisoners in addition to the 53 just released by the Cuban government as part of the policy reset deal.
Tonight, President Obama will deliver the annual Statue of the Union address to Congress. Foreign aid contractor and recently returned political prisoner Alan Gross will be seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama—a good indication that the president will address Cuba policy in his speech. Tomorrow, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will travel to Havana to negotiate the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, which was officially closed in 1961 but has remained partially active as a “special interests section” since 1977. The State Department is considering removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism and will continue to dismantle embargo-related sanctions.
Americas Society/Council of the Americas published “Open letter to President Obama: Support for a New Course on Cuba” yesterday, cosigned by 78 stakeholders, policy experts and former U.S. officials, applauding the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and urging the U.S. government to continue working with Congress to update legislation.
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