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    U.S.-Cuba relations – A year of change

    U.S.-Cuba relations: A year of change

    First anniversary of new relationship is Dec. 17
    Symbolic and tangible changes mark the year
    Much work remains before there is a normal relationship

    In the year since the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement began, some things have
    seemed to move at warp speed, but others have smacked into the reality
    that the two former Cold War enemies still have two very different
    systems and have barely talked to each other in five decades.

    There have been important symbolic changes. An American flag now waves
    over a U.S. Embassy in Havana, and a Cuban flag flies at the Cuban
    Embassy in Washington, D.C., after an absence of more than 54 years.
    President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro have met
    face-to-face twice and talked by telephone three times, even joking
    about the famously long speeches of Fidel Castro.

    Cuba has been removed from the U.S. black list of state sponsors of
    terrorism, and there have been talks on prickly issues such as
    migration, human rights, and claims for confiscated property of U.S.
    citizens and corporations.

    Interactive timeline: A history of modern U.S.-Cuba relations

    But because expectations were so high and many U.S. businesses were so
    eager to engage after a half-century drought, some say Cuba has been
    slow in taking up the United States on the new business opportunities
    the Obama administration began outlining in January. Obama also has said
    he wants to work with Congress to lift the embargo.

    Expectations were high among the Cuban people, too, said Domingo
    Amuchástegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who left the island in
    1994, because “in Cuba’s political culture, when the president says
    something is going to be done, take his word, it will be done. Cubans
    who heard Obama thought this is the president’s word.”

    But such high hopes have been tamped down. It was apparent after the
    first round of normalization talks in Havana in January that
    rapprochement would be a slow process, he said.

    Some Americans imagined that U.S. companies with all their technical
    know-how would rapidly expand Internet access on the island or that
    Americans would be able to pick up a charger for their cellphone at a
    U.S. mobile storefront in Havana, soon be visiting Cuba via a ferry from
    Miami, and pulling out credit cards issued by U.S. banks to pay for
    their hotel stays and to withdraw cash from ATM machines in Cuba.

    All are theoretically possible under new U.S. rules, but it takes two to
    tango, and Cuba is yet to green-light any of those opportunities.

    Even though U.S. companies are free to form partnerships with Cuban
    government entities to improve the island’s Internet and telecom
    infrastructure, the only deals announced so far have been a few roaming
    and direct-connect arrangements. This summer, Cuba began rolling out new
    public Wi-Fi hotspots that now number 50, but most Cubans don’t have
    regular access to the Internet and desire for connectivity is huge.

    “It’s all about what your benchmark was at the beginning of
    rapprochement. If you had realistic expectations, then you see gradual
    progress,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political
    economy at the University of California-San Diego and a senior fellow at
    the Brookings Institution. “Both Obama and Raúl Castro say this will be

    Tangible change

    At the Summit of the Americas in April, Castro said that while the two
    countries still have their differences, “we are willing to discuss
    everything, but we need to be patient, very patient.”

    Castro’s more conciliatory words to Obama in Panama were a watershed
    event, Feinberg said. “Up until that time, the United States was the
    implacable enemy and a threat to the security of Cuba. His remarks
    changed the whole paradigm and atmosphere in Cuba.”

    The most tangible change in Cuba since last December has been the parade
    of U.S. visitors, including Obama Cabinet members and State Department
    delegations. On Wednesday, many baseball stars who defected, including
    Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals catcher
    Brayan Pena and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, also visited.

    For Alana Tummino, who accompanied a U.S. business delegation at a
    recent international trade fair in Cuba, the realization that things had
    changed significantly came as she sipped her morning coffee at the Hotel
    Saratoga in Havana.

    “A whole host of business leaders from the United States, including
    former hard-line Cuban Americans, passed by, and that really signaled to
    me that we’re in a different era,” said Tummino, who heads the Cuba
    Working Group at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

    American travelers have signed up for people-to-people tours in record
    numbers, helping Cuba set a new record for international visitors this
    year. There have been sports and cultural exchanges, U.S. governors have
    toured Havana in vintage automobiles, and countless U.S. business
    delegations have arrived in Cuba to test the waters.

    The Obama administration has outlined an array of commercial activities
    that U.S. businesses may engage in legally, even though most trade is
    still prohibited by the embargo and U.S. investors can’t invest in Cuba.

    To empower the Cuban people, the opening allows U.S. companies to trade
    with Cuba’s private entrepreneurial sector. But there has been little
    progress in that area — other than increased remittances trickling into
    the hands of Cuban entrepreneurs to start and expand their businesses
    and the entry into the Cuban market of San Francisco-based Airbnb, which
    hooks travelers up for stays at private homes.

    “There is the feeling that Obama freed up a lot restrictions [on doing
    business with Cuba] with the new regulations and now it’s on the Cubans
    to show their willingness to work in various sectors,” Tummino said.

    She said one reason for the seemingly slow uptake on the part of the
    Cuban government is a difference in priorities.

    U.S policy puts a lot of emphasis on empowering and engaging the
    non-state sector, she said. “But from the Cuban government’s viewpoint,
    that’s a small percentage of the overall economy. They are very focused
    on large projects in energy, biotechnology and tourism and those
    projects are largely off the table in terms of American investment.

    “We’re seeing the Cubans taking their time to see what the opportunities
    really are. For them, that requires a longer time of trust-building,”
    Tummino said. “Hopefully we’ll see all the business meetings and
    collaborations start coming to fruition over the next few months.”

    The opportunities are there under the new regulations, said Saul
    Cimbler, a Cuban-American who is president of U.S.-Cuba Business
    Advisory. “Not withstanding the political rhetoric, there is forward

    “Most people going to Cuba these days are looking to hit a home run but
    that is putting the cart before the horse. You need to assess what is
    really practical,” said Cimbler, who said lately he has been spending 10
    to 12 days a month in Cuba on business trips.

    To get business deals done in Cuba, he said, requires a lot of work and
    creativity. Another important thing to remember, Cimbler said, is
    business isn’t and won’t be conducted the way it was before the 1959
    Cuban Revolution.

    It’s not just business people interested in engagement with the island.
    A supporter of such efforts is Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor the
    Cubans accused of smuggling military-grade equipment into the country.
    He said recently that “while I served as an involuntary catalyst for
    this change, I hope now to help foster continued good relations between
    our countries and our citizens.”

    But not everyone is in favor of engagement, and over the past year,
    members of the Cuban-American delegation in Congress have introduced
    legislation that seeks to limit the Obama opening. Congressional
    supporters of engagement, meanwhile, have been busy trying to line up
    co-sponsors for bills lifting the travel ban and the embargo.

    South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the opening
    hasn’t worked and that the progress the Obama administration sees “is
    not reflected in the mass arrests and the increase in Cubans fleeing
    that has marked this year.”

    Human rights is among the more contentious issues between the two
    countries. While the United States has criticized the jailing of
    dissidents and insisted on the importance of respecting basic civil
    rights, such as freedom of speech, press and assembly, Cuba views human
    rights through a somewhat different prism of social well-being,
    emphasizing its free healthcare as an example of respect for human rights.

    Although the number of political prisoners has fallen sharply in the
    past year, the number of political arrests is way up. Through November,
    the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation has
    documented 7,686 political arrests, most resulting in short-term
    detentions of a few hours or days.

    In its November report, the commission said the Castro regime was
    reacting with “ever greater repressive fury” against those who only want
    freedom for political prisoners and respect for civil and other basic

    Not only has there been “disappointment by the naive view of the White
    House regarding its misguided policies toward communist Cuba,”
    Ros-Lehtinen said, but “little has changed for the average Cuban while
    the Castro brothers continue to rejoice that they have an ally on
    Pennsylvania Avenue.”

    Ros-Lehtinen said in the coming year she expects Obama to offer more
    concessions to the Cuban government, including possibly the release and
    pardon of Ana Belen Montes, a former senior analyst at the U.S. Defense
    Intelligence Agency who pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in
    October 2002 for spying for the Cuban government.

    Financial front

    Francisco “Pepe” Hernández, president of the Cuban American National
    Foundation and a Bay of Pigs veteran, said he has mixed feelings.

    Although he regards the resumption of diplomatic ties as positive and
    says it has created tremendous interest in all things Cuban, he worries
    that along with it has come “an acceptance by the international
    community of the political and economic system in Cuba such as it is.”

    Cuba, he said, needs an economic transformation and improvement in human
    rights but “now there seems to be this acceptance that Cuba is owned by
    the extended Castro family — and they are preparing to maintain their
    political and economic power.”

    Even Cuban-Americans, he said, are starting to lose touch with what is
    happening inside Cuba. “The American people think everything is going to
    be OK and there will be no bad consequences but the Cuban people don’t
    believe it. Let’s see what happens when Raúl surrenders his official
    powers,” Hernández said. Castro has said he plans to retire on Feb. 24,
    2018. He has named First Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel as his successor.

    In Cuba, there’s a lot of talk about economic and even political reforms
    floating around, said Amuchástegui, “but I don’t know if they will show
    up at the Communist Party Congress.” It’s tentatively set for April.
    During the last Congress, a series of limited market-economy reforms

    Amuchástegui said that until 2018, he thinks the Cuban leadership will
    be cautious, slow and seek to avoid tensions and conflicts. “Nothing
    much will be happening until after 2018,” he said.

    “Raúl Castro is increasingly a lame duck. Whether his administration has
    the energy to accelerate change, we’ll have to see,” said Feinberg. “He
    may think that he’s done enough.”

    The coming year is pivotal, said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow at the
    Brookings Institution, because there’s quite a bit of uncertainty when
    it comes to U.S. politics. Some Republican presidential hopefuls have
    said they will reverse the Obama opening.

    Obama may feel he needs to do as much as possible, using his executive
    authority, to further the relationship with Cuba and enhance his legacy
    in his remaining time in office, say some analysts.

    The president has said he wants to visit Cuba, but there is a sense in
    Washington that he wants to see more compromise and deliverables on the
    part of Cuba before scheduling a trip.

    “I think the idea now is that it would be good for Obama to go just
    before his presidency is over to cement his legacy,” said Tummino.
    “After the 2016 elections might make the most sense.”

    Several analysts said they expect to see progress soon on agreements on
    civil aviation and counter-narcotics. Feinberg said it’s also possible
    Cuba will give approval for the first U.S.-based ferry and cruise
    service to Cuba in 2016.

    Just in time for the Christmas season, the United States and Cuba
    reached agreement Dec. 10 on a pilot program for direct-mail service
    that will take mail directly from the United States to Cuba several
    times a week, rather than through third countries. And Wednesday, both
    sides said they had reached an understanding to restore regularly
    scheduled commercial flights between the two countries.

    There have already been two environmental agreements — one that
    establishes sister relationships between marine sanctuaries in Cuban
    waters and the Florida Keys and a more far-reaching accord that will
    make it easier for U.S. and Cuban scientists to work together to protect
    the environmental resources of both nations.

    “Even if the next president does not share President Obama’s desire to
    go forward with normalized relations with Cuba, the agreement puts
    bilateral environmental cooperation on a secure and lasting footing,”
    said Elizabeth Newhouse, director of the Center for International
    Policy’s Cuba Project. The Center has been a long-time advocate of
    easing restrictions on scientific exchanges with Cuba.

    On the financial front, there has been both progress and frustration.
    Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Bank became the first U.S. bank to
    establish a correspondent relationship with a Cuban financial
    institution and recently announced that its debit cards would work to
    pay bills at government hotels, restaurants and other card-accepting
    merchants on the island. But other banks have remained wary and have
    exercised extreme caution when dealing with any Cuban-related business,
    sometimes holding up payments that are completely legal.

    Many challenges remain. One immediate one is the more than 3,000 Cubans
    stranded in Costa Rica because Nicaragua, an ally of Cuba’s, won’t let
    them pass through its territory on their route north to the United States.

    Preferential U.S. migration policies, such as the Cuban Adjustment Act
    and wet foot/dry foot, which allows Cubans who arrive on U.S. soil —
    even without a visa — to stay while those interdicted at sea are
    generally sent back, have acted as a magnet for Cubans migrants.

    “The Central American crisis is part of a much bigger migration problem.
    The route through South and Central America [often taken by Cuban
    migrants] is like a highway to the United States where everyone is
    dry-foot,” said William LeoGrande, a government professor at American

    Unless the United States ends the wet foot/dry foot policy, he said,
    Cubans will continue to find alternative routes to the U.S. through the
    Caribbean and Latin America.

    Cuba also wants to engage on sensitive issues. Castro has said he wants
    the lifting of the embargo, the return of the U.S. Navy base at
    Guantánamo Bay, and the end to Radio and TV Martí and other acts of
    hostility against Cuba by the United States. Cuba also wants reparations
    for human damage caused by U.S. incursions against the island, as well
    as economic damages due because of the embargo.

    The United States, meanwhile, would like to see meaningful progress on
    compensation for $1.9 billion ($8 billion, including interest) in claims
    by U.S. citizens and corporations who had their Cuban property seized.

    Feinberg, who released a Brookings white paper on claims earlier this
    month, said it’s possible there could be an agreement — even within the
    next year — if both countries decide settlement of property issues would
    serve their national security interests.

    For the United States, a satisfactory agreement would encourage Congress
    to lift the embargo, he said. “In Cuba, it could be a good deal, too,
    because it would result in increased investment flows and more access to
    international capital markets.”

    A settlement could turn a conflictive problem into a win-win situation,
    he said.

    “I think the Cubans would be wise to do some big deals [with U.S.
    companies] that make people think this is really going to pay off,” said
    LeoGrande. “But you’ve got the embargo still in place, and I think it’s
    part of the reason the Cuban response has been slow. They know it is not
    going away until at least 2017 and maybe after.”

    Jan. 3, 1961 — The United States breaks diplomatic ties with Cuba.

    Feb. 7, 1962 — U.S. imposes complete economic embargo on Cuba.

    Dec. 17, 2014 — The United States and Cuba announce they will begin a
    process of normalizing relations. As part of the deal, the United States
    releases three of five remaining Cuban spies serving long jail terms and
    Cuba releases a CIA agent serving a long term in Cuba. As a humanitarian
    gesture, Cuba releases USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who had spent
    five years in a Cuban jail. A limited economic and travel opening toward
    Cuba also is announced.

    Jan. 15, 2015 — U.S. Commerce Department and Treasury roll out new
    regulations that expand trade with and travel to Cuba.

    Jan. 22, 2015 — First round of normalization negotiations takes place in
    Havana. Talks on migration issues also held.

    Feb. 13, 2015 — U.S. releases rules on what types of goods and services
    may be imported from Cuba’s self-employed sector.

    April 11, 2015 — President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro
    hold talks on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama.

    May 29, 2015 — State Department removes Cuba from the list of state
    sponsors of terrorism. It had been on the black list since 1982.

    July 20, 2015 —The United States and Cuba renew diplomatic relations and
    open their embassies. Cuba holds a formal flag-raising ceremony.

    Aug. 14, 2015 —The United States holds a flag-raising ceremony to
    officially reopen its embassy in Havana and Secretary of State John
    Kerry travels to Cuba.

    Sept. 18, 2015 — U.S. releases another set of Cuba regulations that
    allows U.S. companies to have a storefront or warehouse on the island,
    loosens some banking regulations, makes travel easier and permits ferry
    companies and cruise lines to offer Cuba itineraries without seeking
    prior U.S. licenses.

    Sept. 28, 2015 — Raúl Castro delivers his first speech at the United
    Nations. He calls for the embargo to be lifted, return of the U.S. Navy
    base at Guantánamo Bay, reparations for damages caused by the embargo,
    and the end to Radio and TV Martí.

    Sept. 29, 2015 — President Obama and Raúl Castro have bilateral meeting
    on sidelines of U.N. General Assembly.

    Oct. 27, 2015 — United Nations approves a resolution condemning the
    embargo 191-2. The U.S. and Israel cast the only dissenting votes.

    Dec. 8, 2015 — U.S. and Cuban delegations open dialogue on dealing with
    claims on property confiscated from U.S. citizens and corporations and
    Cuban counter-claims for damages caused by the embargo and U.S.
    hostility against the Cuban people.

    Dec. 10, 2015 – The United States and Cuba reach agreement to start a
    pilot program that will take mail directly to Cuba from the United
    States, rather than through third countries.

    Source: Miami Herald staff

    Source: U.S.-Cuba relations: A year of change | Miami Herald –