Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Succession time

The departure of Raul Castro and the selection of a new head of state that didn’t fight in the revolution but rather grew up in it, is a momentous event for Cuba.

But it is not likely to bring a dramatic change in Cuba’s governance, as many outside Cuba seem to expect just because the Castro presidencies have come to the end of their run. Raul Castro remains until 2021 as head of the Communist Party, where policy is made. The next president, all but certain to be Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel who has now been formally nominated, emerges from the party and political system that has set current policies. A clean break is unlikely – the most likely question is how the next president will manage the process of change that the Raul Castro presidency initiated.

And for embarking on that change, Raul Castro’s presidency has been very consequential. He diagnosed Cuba’s economic woes as a threat to the system’s survival, and the party embraced that diagnosis. He led the party to develop and endorse a reform program that is changing Cuban socialism in ways his brother would never have contemplated: a smaller state, more foreign investment, and a substantial private sector.

The state has indeed shrunk by more than half a million personnel; the number of private entrepreneurs has more than tripled and the private sector accounts now for one in four workers; private farming is vastly expanded; and foreign investment flows are starting to expand.

Policies that were in place when he took office in 2006 – banning Cubans from having cell phone accounts in their own name or staying in tourist hotels, requiring advance government permission to travel abroad, banning the sales of cars and residential real estate, denying nearly all applications for new entrepreneurs to get business licenses – are all gone. Even as the one-party state remains in place, these have to count as human rights improvements.

These changes, along with more open U.S. policies and changed attitudes among Cuban emigres, have enabled a transformation in relations with the diaspora. Generations ago, those who left were disdained by the Cuban government and declared themselves exiles. Plenty still choose to stay away, but those who don’t are visiting, buying and improving properties, investing in businesses, and creating millions of avenues of communication and support. This is a quiet, gradual development with strategic significance for Cuba’s economy, politics, and security.

The reforms are incomplete and seem stalled. Agricultural reform is half-done, yielding commensurate results. The government itself admits the need to recharge the foreign investment approval process. The dual currency system persists, with ill effects that ripple throughout the economy. The private sector lacks an adequate supply system. New and potentially impactful laws that were put on the agenda a few years ago have not yet seen the light of day: an enterprise law, a law of associations (to establish how religious denominations and private organizations gain legal status), a media law, an electoral law, and constitutional reforms to limit top officials to two five-year terms in office and to downsize the national legislature.

Why have the reforms not been fully implemented? Part of the answer surely has to do with their complexity, and to political caution on the part of a government that sees potential dislocation in eliminating family food ration books or changing the monetary system overnight. There is also political resistance based on ideological orthodoxy, reluctance to change that exists in any bureaucracy (especially when the changes reduce the size and authority of government agencies), and discomfort with new inequalities in earnings resulting from a vastly expanded private sector.

Cuba’s next president will have to deal with all these tensions, without the benefit of the Castro surname. But absent an unlikely shift in policies that have been approved in two party congresses, the question will remain one of implementation.

And the stark fact remains that there is no viable Plan B. There is no turning back, if for no other reason than that Cuba’s private sector is now essential to employment, family income for millions, and even to the functioning of the tourism industry – and the   government cannot possibly replace the jobs it has created. Cuban governments are virtuousos when it comes to muddling through, but that option does not deliver the growth Cuba needs to keep young Cubans in Cuba, and to sustain popular social services guarantees.

It will be a new political environment, with a premium on consensus-building and coalition management. Cuban politics is about to get more interesting, and if it would get more transparent too, more than a few observers – not to mention Cuban citizens themselves – would appreciate it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Odds and ends

·      Student Emma Gonzalez is attacked for having a Cuban flag patch on her sleeve at the March for Our Lives. “Idiots” is the right word, from New Times.

·      Granma: a deal to bring Cuba’s diabetes drug Heberprot-P to the United States for clinical trials.

·      From Larry Press, interesting speculation on future steps in Internet development. In Granma, an outline of what is being done now (English here).

·      Granma: In Fort Lauderdale, a U.S.-Cuba dialogue on oil spill response.

·      Cuba’s likely next president calls on the press to, as this article paraphrases, “stand up to the imposition of a standardized culture that breaks with the historical memory of peoples and fractures identities, also as a method of domination.” Elsewhere, he calls for emphasis on learning English, “in spite of the opposition by some.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

New rules coming for Cuba's entrepreneurs

The news starts about ten paragraphs into this Granma story on a Central Committee meeting on economic policy. New “legal norms” affecting Cuba’s more than 580,000 cuentapropistas have been signed and will soon be issued, and there will be some kind of “training” for them and 30,000 officials, presumably to promote tax and regulatory compliance.
Apart from that, monetary unification remains a high priority, there are plans to continue investing in the industries (construction materials, etc.) that enable improvement of housing stock, and work continues on constitutional reform to make Cuba’s constitution reflect “the principal economic, political, and social transformations” resulting from the last two party congresses. No mention of term limits or new laws governing the election process, comminications media, or non-government entities, all of which have been said to be under consideration.
Reuters story here.

Friday, March 23, 2018

John Bolton on Cuba

John Bolton, President Trump’s new national security advisor, has some history on Cuba.

In the year before the United States launched the 2003 Iraq war, which was predicated on erroneous (and some would say politicized) intelligence assessments about Iraq developing weapons of mass destruction, John Bolton was trying to make the same allegation about Cuba.

The problem was that Bolton’s allegation about Cuba – that it had a biological weapons “program” – was not supported by the U.S. intelligence community. When State Department analyst Christian Westermann corrected a 2002 Bolton speech draft to reflect then-current assessments, Bolton tried to have the analyst relieved of his duties. To his credit, Westermann and his superiors held firm. (See coverage here and here.)

Later, in 2004, the U.S. intelligence community re-assessed the Cuba situation in light of the Iraq debacle. The new assessment noted the obvious – that Cuba, with its substantial biotechnology industry, had the technical capacity to engage in weapons research – but held that the intelligence agencies’ unanimous view was that “it was unclear whether Cuba has an active biological weapons effort now, or even had one in the past.”

Apart than that, he has conventional views on Cuba among many Republicans. When President Obama announced his opening to Cuba, he called it an “unmitigated defeat for the United economic lifeline to the regime precisely at the time when we should be increasing pressure.”

Saturday, March 17, 2018

A wholesale market!

Granma reports that the first wholesale food market has opened in Havana, fulfilling a longstanding policy commitment to create wholesale supply outlets for the growing private sector.

For now, the clientele will be restricted to non-farm cooperatives (former state restaurants converted into private cooperatives). Later, it will serve entrepreneurs renting space in state facilities, and it makes no mention of serving the thousands of private paladares and cafeterias that also need access to these supplies – not to mention their customers who would appreciate lower prices, and Cuban consumers who don’t enjoy seeing entrepreneurs at their local food store buying 12 cases of beer or 10 kilos of cheese at a time.

Every time the subject comes up, Cuban officials speak of the need to move gradually, and they express worry about the cost of excess inventories in their retail system (for example, here and here and here). So it’s not surprising that stores will only open in other provinces after this one in Havana is in a state of “optimal functioning,” an official explains in the article.

But it’s a start.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Another Elian?

The elements are all there in this Herald report: the child is in the United States, the mother deceased, the father in Cuba and described in the press as the mother’s husband, he wants custody and a Miami relative has it temporarily. One difference is that the child, born in the United States, can become a U.S. citizen by birth and a Cuban citizen by parentage. Another difference may be that the father would rather live here than there; from the Herald story, it seems that a visa application was in the works.

The Elian case turned into a political battle, but what mattered in the end was the principle – which the U.S. government asserts all around the world when American parents are separated from their kids – that if a minor child has one fit parent, then parent and child should be united.

We’ll see how this one turns out.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The transnational opposition

“Cuba se transnacionalizó” in recent years, a friend of mine said, referring to all the cross-border activity that before was rare or impossible but is now routine: Miami Cubans investing in businesses and real estate in Cuba; Cubans maintaining roots, livelihoods, and legal residency inside Cuba and out; emigrants returning to start businesses; etc., etc.

I thought of this when I saw today’s news about an event in Havana organized by dissident Rosa Maria Paya, who lives in Florida since 2013, admitted as a refugee. She returns to Havana from time to time to engage in politics or to tend to the family home, a sort of visiting dissident. She is far from the first in Cuban history to engage in political activism from abroad – it’s a tradition that spans centuries, with activists over the years reflecting the possibilities of their time. Whether it’s possible to move beyond media events and gain traction as a political leader with occasional visits is an open question, but times are changing, and we’ll see. Cuba’s political opposition, such as it is, is transnational now.

Here’s Reuters on the Cuban government blocking some foreign participants from attending the event, and here’s Prensa Latina gloating about it.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

An opening to apps developers? (Updated)

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The February 26 issue of Cuba’s Gaceta Oficial contains a September 2017 resolution from the communications ministry (No. 256/2017) that appears to allow both enterprises and entrepreneurs who are licensed to work as programmers to develop and sell applications under that license, if they apply for a separate permit for that purpose.

I say “appears” because it would be nice to have some coverage in Cuban media or a policy statement that explains the intent. But the resolution’s language is clear, and it looks like a positive step at a time when the wind is blowing in the opposite direction. Cuba’s IT sector is proficient but its commercial activity has been restricted to state enterprises. If this is a recognition of the value of young UCI grads developing apps on their own, then it’s a sign that someone is doing something about a self-imposed obstacle to innovation, economic development, and smart young Cubans staying in Cuba. Let’s hope it continues.

Update: The Ministry of Communications published the resolution here.

Friday, March 2, 2018

The embassy decision: keep it small

So here’s Secretary Tillerson’s verdict: the U.S. Embassy in Havana will operate with a staffing level “similar to” the minimal presence we have now, and diplomats will not be accompanied by family. Right now there’s no political section, no economic section, no human rights officer, and a consulate that handles American citizen emergencies but issues no visas (except for health emergencies and officials). There is still no conclusion as to what happened; maybe things will change when investigations conclude. The travel warning remains intact. In the meantime, private sector engagement will continue – regular travelers, exchanges, business visits – while we wait for the government to sort things out.

Regarding the scientific article cited yesterday, here’s a worthwhile (and plain English) discussion by two of its authors.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Odds and ends

·      Just in: an academic paper that speculates on the possible cause of the sounds heard by U.S. diplomats in Havana, but not on the cause of the harms.

·      Cuba turns to SES Networks of Belgium to expand its connection to the global Internet and to improve connectivity internally. The contract is described in the company’s press release and in Granma.

·      Dissident Eliecer Avila, on extended stay in the United States, praises the U.S. health care system after his first child was born in a Virginia hospital. Medicaid covered all the costs.

·      From Max Boot’s new biography of the CIA’s Edward Lansdale, an excerpt on Operation Mongoose and the “remote, romantic myth” of creating a Cuban opposition movement from the outside. It turns out that Lansdale hated the Cuba assignment and wanted out the whole time.

·      A sharply written first-person article in Granma on a section of Cuba’s central highway in Villa Clara that is in disrepair and causing fatal accidents.

·      A new anglicism, “buldoceada,” in a Granma story about the war against marabu. The Real Academia doesn’t recognize it, but it means “bulldozed.”

·      In Cubadebate, a progress report on the Mariel economic zone.

·      As we debate Russian interference in the 2016 election, Granma scoffs that we’re getting a taste of our own medicine.

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Havana health mystery, clear as mud

It’s no fault of reporters and investigators that as they generate more information on the Havana health mystery, we no greater understanding of what happened to U.S. diplomats, much less how it happened.

This ProPublica piece by Tim Golden goes far beyond any other journalistic account, describing the sequence of events in Havana, the U.S. Embassy’s reaction, and apparent disagreement between the FBI and the CIA. Golden reports on an aspect that until now has not been covered:  the experience of the Canadians in Havana, which affected fewer people and is apparently different than that of the Americans. His article makes clear that U.S. reluctance to collaborate with Cuban investigators is based on suspicion that Cuba may be the perpetrator. He also reports that the FBI consulted an insect expert at Barry University in Florida whose assessment was that the recordings made in Havana sounded “like cicadas,” which is kind of funny considering the snickering that greeted the same statement when Cuban investigators made it.

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) gives the results of the authors’ review of the medical records, and basically describes patients with concussion-like symptoms but no concussion. Or, in their words, they “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks without an associated history of head trauma.” Neither the symptoms nor the circumstances were uniform across the 21 affected persons, and among those who reported sounds, they described different kinds of sounds, from high-pitched squeals to the repetitive thud you experience when driving fast with a car window slightly open. The authors discount the hypothesis of “mass psychogenic illness.” A summary in Science magazine is here.

Oddly, the article says that the diplomats were exposed to “an unknown energy source” without offering evidence that this is the case. In the podcast cited below, one of the authors avers that the “energy source” concept was merely their “best guess.”

An accompanying JAMA editorial is a somewhat easier-to-read guide to a case where a “unifying explanation for the symptoms…remains elusive.” The concussion analogy, it says, “may be unnecessary as many of the symptoms described also occur in other medical, neurological, or psychiatric conditions.” The “similarities among the 21 cases,” it argues, “merit consideration of a common medical, environmental, or psychological event as the potential cause.”

The Guardian sums up the science debate in this article and in this very useful 30-minute podcast, where one of the JAMA authors, a skeptical scientist, and a Cuban investigator are interviewed. Dr. Douglas Smith of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the JAMA authors, says that “almost all” of those affected reported hearing sounds, “a range of audible phenomena.” He adds that the authors “do not think that the audible phenomenon caused any kind of injury to the brain,” and the “audible phenomenon was more a side effect of something else.” If the psychogenic hypothesis interests you, you will want to listen to Dr. Robert Bartholomew, starting about 10 minutes in.

Meanwhile, the State Department has formed an “Accountability Review Board” to investigate the matter; these boards are established by regulation to conduct “thorough and independent review of security-related incidents” in diplomatic missions.

Good luck to them. But as the State Department leadership approaches a decision on the future posture of our Havana embassy, now with a skeleton staff and a chief of mission on a short-term assignment, it seems increasingly possible that the investigations may yield nothing that clarifies what happened, how it happened, or who if anyone was behind it.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Havana health mystery

It’s enough to wake you from a long nap.

Two dozen U.S. diplomats and a handful of Canadians in Havana suffered a disparate set of symptoms centering on hearing and cognitive problems. Unnamed U.S. officials were soon speculating in the press about attacks by unseen, sophisticated devices beaming sound waves. Within weeks Senator Rubio was urging the Secretary of State to expel all of Cuba’s diplomats and to close its Washington embassy. Eventually the State Department pulled most U.S. diplomats out of Cuba and forced Cuba to do the same from Washington.

This is a doozy even in the context of U.S.-Cuba relations.

The single common characteristic of all the U.S. persons affected is that they all worked in the U.S. Embassy. Presumably the embassy building has been investigated for its environmental factors, acoustic and otherwise – but the parts of the U.S. investigation that have been most discussed in public have involved their homes and hotels where some were living temporarily, and where they are said to have experienced “unusual sounds or auditory sensations,” according to a State Department doctor.

The shorthand for what happened in Havana quickly became “sonic attacks,” even though there is no evidence of attacks, sonic or otherwise.

What we really have is a health mystery that has confounded U.S., Canadian, and Cuban investigators.

The FBI, after sending agents and their equipment four times to Havana, has concluded that there is no evidence of a sonic attack, according to AP. And experts in acoustics scratch their heads at the idea that there could exist a device that can direct sound waves of any kind – within, above, or below the audible spectrum – with the strength required to injure a targeted person without affecting anyone else nearby.

But you have to hand it to Senator Rubio and his allies: “Sonic attacks” is quite a branding triumph. Without having to argue the merits of having diplomatic relations with Cuba, they scored a substantial policy victory that has hobbled diplomatic relations. When he called for expulsion of all Cuba’s diplomats in a letter last September, Rubio alleged that U.S. diplomats had suffered “’acoustic’ attacks;” today he has retreated from that position and instead argues that whatever happened, Cuba surely knows and won’t say.

Secretary Tillerson agrees. He doesn’t argue that this is some kind of Operation Mongoose in reverse, but rather that “someone within the Cuban government can bring this to an end.”

The State Department also uses the term “attacks” consistently, such as in this testimony last week – which seems a little foolish when in the same breath the same officials testify that they don’t know what happened, how it happened, or who did it. (No Senator pressed the point.) A friend speculates that the repeated use of the term is a way to link the issue to the Vienna Convention’s requirement that governments “take all appropriate steps to prevent any attack” on the “person, freedom or dignity” of diplomats in their territory.

I don’t doubt that harms occurred, but it’s hard to put stock in any of the theories put forward so far. The sonic theory seems debunked. The idea that a third country carried out attacks on Cuban territory is hard to believe, not least because no one who advances it shows evidence or explains why a state would venture such a deeply hostile act against Cuba. Maybe there’s a rogue element of Cuban intelligence, but those who break with the system in Cuba tend to leave rather than risk their necks causing trouble at home. In his hearing, Senator Rubio was quite sure that no one from Miami could be involved. A CIA hand, recalling acts against our Moscow embassy years ago, guesses that it could have been a surveillance effort gone wrong. In last week’s hearing, the State Department mentioned the possibility of a virus.

We may never know.

This being a Cuba issue, politics has entered the picture, in some cases in ways that may make the investigation less effective.

·      Senator Rubio and the State Department claim that Cuba absolutely must know what happened. That’s a politically convenient thing to say, but it’s cheap and not credible. Cuban intelligence services are quite good, but neither they nor any foreign service bats 1,000. In recent history there have been terrorist attacks and drug operations carried out in Cuba without prior detection.

·      The removal of U.S. diplomats was for safety reasons and the Cubans were sent home for reasons of reciprocity. But the State Department calls it an expulsion and gave the Cuban Embassy a list of names of those ordered to leave. That sounds like a punitive action more fitting in a case where the Administration is assigning blame, something it has not done. It sounds even more like acquiescence to Senator Rubio, who from the first wanted Cuba’s diplomats expelled and its embassy closed.

·      The use of the word “attacks” in the absence of evidence sounds quite political too.

·      When it comes to the investigation, it is to be expected that U.S. agencies would not share every shred of evidence, every source and method. But Cuba is clearly investigating and its ability to do so is limited by an arm’s-length U.S. posture. For example, why is it not possible to give detailed medical information to Cuban investigators, with identities stripped to protect privacy? Why not assent to Cuba’s request for a meeting between its medical team and ours?

·      In the months that have passed, it is not clear that the two sides have worked out a system for immediate response in the event that a new incident is reported.

Meanwhile, there are costs.

Cuba’s consulate in Washington is barely staffed, slowing the processing of passports, visas, and legal documents. In Havana, the U.S. consulate is handling U.S. citizen emergencies and issuing visas only for diplomats and persons needing to travel due to acute health emergencies. Cuban applicants for immigrant visas have to travel to the U.S. consulate in Bogota, Colombia, where they are told to plan to spend two weeks. Applicants for non-immigrant visas may travel to any U.S. consulate to apply. (In each case, for 99 percent of Cuban applicants, these options are impossible.) The result is that travel in both directions is hampered, especially for Cubans wishing to travel to the United States. Academic and cultural exchanges are stopping. The United States will not meet its pledge, undertaken in the 1994 immigration accord, to issue 20,000 immigrant visas annually. In the face of a State Department travel warning (now slightly softened), Americans are continuing to travel to Cuba, but apparently in reduced numbers. Cuban private restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and other businesses that serve American travelers are suffering, as are entrepreneurs who supply them with goods and services.

As for the non-consular side of the U.S. Embassy, there are no staff in the political and economic sections, so there is extremely limited reporting capacity at a time when Cuba is about to go through a leadership transition and the uncertainty that will come with a government that, for the first time in 60 years, is not led by a Castro.

There is no clear way out.

In March, Secretary Tillerson will have to decide what to do with the Havana-based diplomats who were withdrawn, still formerly assigned to Havana but left to cool their heels in Washington.

He has said that he wants “assurances” from Cuba, but given that Cuba insists that it did not cause this problem and hasn’t discovered its cause, the only assurances it is likely to offer are that it will continue to investigate and to beef up protection. (Cuba’s foreign minister discusses the topic here, and this program describes Cuba’s investigation.)

The Secretary could send our diplomats back to Havana, but in the AP story cited above he said: “I’d be intentionally putting them back in harm’s way. Why in the world would I do that when I have no means whatsoever to protect them? I will push back on anybody who wants to force me to do that.”

Our diplomats’ labor union is less risk-averse. Contrary to what you would expect from a union, its president, Barbara Stephenson, said last September that danger is “our reality…We’ve got a mission to do…The answer can’t be we just pull the flag down and move American presence from the field.”

In sum, three factors have brought us to where we are: an unsolved health mystery, a Secretary of State who is admirably extremist about employee safety, and some actors leveraging all this to shut down diplomacy, consular services, and contacts. Formally speaking, U.S. policy may not have changed, but the diplomatic apparatus that allows it to work is partially mothballed. And the United States’ reduced presence in Havana has us flying blind, worse than when we had just an Interests Section. It is not clear that this last factor matters to Secretary Tillerson.

With the passage of time, is it too much to hope that our diplomatic presence could be restored and then altered only if evidence provides a reason to do so?