Monday, June 19, 2017

Trump's Cuba policy: more rhetoric than substance (June 19, 2017)

U.S. President Donald Trump outlined a partial reversal of his predecessor's policy towards Cuba on Friday. The plan he announced in Miami aims at prohibiting financial transactions between U.S. citizens and companies and Cuba’s military and intelligence services, and would restrict how U.S. citizens can travel to Cuba, reports the Washington Post. However the specifics will be detailed in regulations that will be drafted by the Treasury and Commerce departments.

Trump spoke in Little Havana, the Miami center for Cuban exiles and called former President Barack Obama's deal with the Cuban government "terrible and misguided," reports the New York Times. "Effective immediately, I am canceling the last administration’s completely one-sided deal with Cuba," he said.

But though the rhetoric was harsh, the policy Trump outlined doesn't change many of the fundamentals of his predecessor's policy, the core of normalization: diplomatic relations, unlimited travel for Cuban Americans to visit family on the island, increased maximums for remittances and money that can be taken on travel, and the end of the U.S. wet-foot dry-foot immigration policy that favored Cubans. Cruises and direct flights between the United States and Cuba will be protected under an exception from the prohibition on transactions with military-controlled entities.

The new policy demonstrates a shift towards the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, which sets strict conditions that must be met by Cuba before the U.S. embargo against the island can be lifted, reports the Miami Herald. While Obama's policies were aimed at doing as much as possible despite the ongoing embargo, the new announcement embraces the five decade policy that has been consistently criticized by the U.N. General Assembly.

 "Many of the gains of normalization remain intact," noted the Cuba Study Group, which is made up of business executives and professionals who support engagement. "At best, this is a partial victory for those who hoped to reverse increased bilateral ties."

The most relevant changes will prohibit individual travel by U.S. citizens to the island, notes the Wall Street Journal.

The restrictions are aimed at cutting off U.S. dollars in an attempt to pressure the Cuban government on issues of human rights and democracy, said Trump. Indeed, a restriction on U.S. citizens' spending military-controlled enterprises, like restaurants and hotels could seriously affect government revenue. But many observers say they will hit a nascent entrepreneurial class on the island much harder, reports the New York Times.

The requirement that U.S. citizens traveling to the island for cultural or educational purposes do so with a licensed tour group will significantly raise the costs of for those visitors and likely reduce a booming new industry catering to their needs. And the deep involvement of the military in the tourism industry complicates targeting money going there without affecting the Cuban economy at large, Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs told the NYT.

Cuba received a record 4 million tourists last year. Of those, more than 600,000 were U.S. visitors. Nearly 300,000 were non-Cuban American travelers, reports the WP. And that category of U.S. visitors has been on pace to double again this year. This growth was largely fueled by the Obama policy allowing U.S. citizens to travel independently -- and they favored the private sector of the island's tourist economy, unlike the Europeans and Canadians who gravitate toward government-owned resorts. "Fewer independent U.S. travelers probably would mean fewer dollars for independent Cuban businesses."

Cuba's government rejected the policy change, but reiterated "its willingness to continue the respectful dialogue and cooperation," reports the BBC.

The "hodge-podge of measures" that amounts to a partial reversal of Obama's policy will not produce advances in human rights on the island, but will provide fodder for the Cuban government to play victim of imperialism, argues Andrés Oppenheimer in the Miami Herald. "My opinion: Trump’s limited reversal of Obama’s opening to Cuba is political theater with very little real impact. It will not achieve what U.S. sanctions against Cuba failed to achieve in the past five decades. And it may backfire, by shifting world attention away from the Cuban regime’s oppression of its people to what Cuba will now claim is a new “U.S. aggression” against the island."

Former Obama advisor Ben Rhodes, who negotiated the rapprochement, said the rollback is a pointless mistake in the Atlantic. The new policies "represent a step backwards. By restricting engagement with large swaths of the Cuban economy controlled by the military, Trump is simultaneously demanding that Cuba embrace capitalism while making it harder for them to do so. Cuba will be exposed to less engagement from American companies and less incentives from American revenue. U.S. businesses can only press for reforms in how Cuba structures its economy—like allowing foreign companies to hire Cubans directly— if they can actually do business in Cuba. Meanwhile, the Cuban government is not going to let go of their holdings because the U.S tells them to; they’re far more likely to turn to Russia and China. By removing America from the equation, Trump delivered a better deal for Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping."

He also noted that "there are dozens of authoritarian governments; we do not impose embargoes on China or Vietnam, Kazakhstan or Egypt. Last month, President Trump travelled to Saudi Arabia—a country ruled by a family, where people are beheaded and women can’t drive."

In fact, neither the new nor the previous U.S. policies were motivated by a desire to foment democracy in Cuba, argues Oppenheimer, rather both were the result of domestic politics. In Trump's case the true motivation is "Florida Sen. Marco Rubio (R), who sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee that is investigating the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia, and Miami Republican congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, a key member of the House appropriations committee."

Politico piece reports that Rubio and Díaz-Balart recommended Trump announce the policy on his own, before it could be undermined by government agencies in favor of engagement.

The announcement has little to do with Cuban reality, writes Carlos Manuel Álvarez in El Estornudo. Apart from a marked lack of efficacy in policies aimed at economically punishing the government, targeting military run industry is likely to be less straightforward than the blustering announcement would seem to indicate, he writes. "The Republican administration, unless it is even more inept than the world has already confirmed it is, must be aware that it has left a wide and comfortable range of maneuver to Raúl Castro ... "

On the other side of the divide, Mary Anastasia O'Grady also decries the embargo as useless, and instead recommends a truth commission that would permit Cubans to expose how their rights have been systematically violated by the government, she writes in the Wall Street Journal.

The announcement appeased nobody in the polarized Cuba policy debate -- neither hardliners nor proponents of engagement were satisfied by Friday's announcement, reports the Miami Herald separately. In Havana the speech was not followed closely, but caused anger once the details became known, according to the Washington Post. In the U.S. hardliners denounced that the new policies do little for "oppressed" Cubans, while engagement proponents predicted they would backfire in their stated intentions, notes the NYT.

Another Politico piece emphasized the symbolic nature of the announcement, and how in Cuba it hits at a hopefulness inspired by Obama's approach.

News Briefs
  • At least three people were killed and a dozen injured in a bombing at an upscale Bogotá mall on Saturday, reports the Miami Herald. The explosive device was placed in the women's bathroom of the Andino shopping center. Colombian authorities are offering a $34,000 reward for information about the bombing, reports the Miami Herald separately. President Juan Manuel Santos said authorities were working on three hypothesis, but did not elaborate further. He did suggest yesterday that enemies of the historic peace deal with the FARC could be behind the attack. Suspicion first fell on the still active National Liberation Army (ELN), but they denied involvement.
  • Peace and prosperity in both Central American and the U.S. will depend on controlling the illegal drugs flow in the region, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly told regional leaders in the second day of the  Conference on Security and Prosperity in Central America. He said his as the head of the U.S. Southern Command gave him perspective on the intense violence caused by the region's drug traffickers and street gangs. But he also acknowledged that U.S. demand is behind the business, reports the Miami Herald. At the end of the day, Mexican Interior Secretary Ángel Osorio Chong said five participating countries agreed to work "in a comprehensive fashion from a regional perspective....It is paramount that we generate joint solutions," but offered no details. Kelly also said that Northern Triangle officials brought up the issue of Temporary Protected Status granted to their citizens in the U.S. and up for renewal next year, potentially exposing tens of thousands to deportation.
  • Haitian activists in the U.S. criticize Haitian President Jovenel Moïse for being insufficiently concerned with the 58,700 Haitians in the Temporary Protected Status or TPS program, reports the Miami Herald. They want him to lobby more directly for the migrants who will lose legal permission to live and work in the U.S. as of next January. In a visit to Miami, Moïse said the U.S. government would not immediately deport TPS migrants.
  • The number of Venezuelans seeking asylum -- mostly in the U.S. -- tripled between 2015 and 2016, as the country descended further into political and economic chaos, according to a new U.N. report. About 34,200 Venezuelans sought asylum in 2016 — up from 10,200 claims the previous year. Of those asylum applicants, 18,300 sought refuge in the United States, reports the Miami Herald
  • The U.S. will not immediately eliminate protections for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as small children. But the White House says no decision has been reached regarding the long-term fate of the program, reports the New York Times.
  • Prominent Mexican human rights lawyers, journalists and anti-corruption activists have been targeted by advanced spyware, purchased by the Mexican government with the explicit agreement that it be used only to investigate criminals and terrorists, reports the New York Times. Targets of the Pegasus spyware created by an Israeli cyberarms manufacturer include lawyers involved in the Ayotzinapa investigation, an academic involved in drafting anti-corruption legislation, two of Mexico’s most influential journalists and an American representing victims of sexual abuse by the police. The company that made the software said it was intended to be used only to battle terrorists or the drug cartels and criminal groups. Instead, it has been used against outspoken government critics. Intelligence experts say illegal surveillance is standard practice. The hacking attempts were highly personalized, notes the NYT. Prominent journalist Carmen Aristegui was targeted by a spyware operator posing as the United States Embassy in Mexico, instructing her to click on a link to resolve an issue with her visa. The Mexican government denies "that any of its members engages in surveillance or communications operations against defenders of human rights, journalists, anti-corruption activists or any other person without prior judicial authorization." And the spyware leaves no fingerprints, which means it is impossible to determine exactly who is behind the hacking attempts. Earlier this year, the New York Times reported that advocates of a soda tax had been hacked by the same invasive spyware. 
  • Honduran journalist Victor Funez who was running for a congressional seat was shot to death outside his home last week in the Caribbean coast city of La Ceiba, reports the Associated Press. He was better known as "El Masa" and directed the nighttime show "Panorama Nocturno" on the local channel 45 station.
  • The trial has begun for four of the eight suspects accused of murdering Honduran environmentalist Berta Cáceres last year. Three of them are directly linked to Desarrollos Energéticos S.A (DESA), the private company behind a hydroelectric dam Cáceres prominently fought against, reports Radio Progreso.
  • U.S Border Patrol raided a humanitarian aid camp set up to give shelter and water to migrants crossing the border in the Arizona desert, an operation activists say will endanger lives, according to the Guardian.
  • The sprawling Operation Car Wash investigation into corruption in Brazil has resulted in prison terms for politicians and business executives, but also mass layoffs in once-leading companies, reports the Washington Post. Top executives negotiated plea deals, but their employees fell victim to the companies' crumbling fortunes.
  • Meat industry tycoon Joesley Batista accused Brazilian President Michel Temer of asking for money multiple times in recent years in exchange for political favors. Temer rejects the allegations and his lawyers said they'd file a lawsuit against Batista today, reports the BBC. Batista is behind the leaked recording in which Temer appears to condone hush-money payments to a corruption witness. (See May 18's post.)
  • OAS foreign ministers gather next week in Cancún to discuss matters affecting the region. A key issue: how to move on Venezuela, reports Latin America Goes Global. But funding -- namely the U.S. attempting to get out of it -- is also going to be a central topic.
  • Venezuela needs an unprecedented solution, argues Enrique Krauze in a New York Times Español op-ed. He calls the country the Zimbabwe of Latin America: "A shameless alliance of corrupt politians and military, obedient to the dictates of Cuba, with the involvement of may in drug trafficking, has kidnapped a nation rich in petroleum wealth and attempted to appropriate it in perpetuity, no matter the human cost." He advocates an implementation of the so-called Bettancourt doctrine, which proposes a cordon sanitaire to isolate regimes that do not respect human rights. Such an approach can hardly be expected of dictatorial governments in Russia, China and Cuba he writes, nor is the U.S. an apt interlocutor, which leaves the Vatican, the European Union and regional governments to act, in his opinion.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro condemned Twitter as an expression of fascism after some pro-government accounts were suspended, reports the BBC.
  • Hundreds of members of the indigenous Warao tribe in Venezuela are migrating to Brazil, driven by lack of food, reports the Los Angeles Times. More than 12,000 Venezuelans have moved to neighboring Brazil since 2014, according to Human Rights Watch.
  • Imprisoned Argentine social activist Milagro Sala is being held in reasonably humane conditions, according to a Inter-American Commission on Human Rights committee that visited her, reports La Nación. CELS, Amnesty International and various rights groups have denounced that she is being held illegally for a year and a half. the Commission is expected to emit judgement on the case in July. Committee members noted the intense pressure Sala finds herself in, given the high number of cases brought against her and uncertainty over how they will proceed. She has been illegally detained for more than 500 days, reports Página 12. More insider baseball reporting on the questionable case against Sala, at Pagina 12.
  • Much publicized safety policies and remodelation promises for Rio de Janeiro's favelas have priced out the informal neighborhoods' poorest families, reports the BBC. In In 2010, then-Mayor Eduardo Paes pledged to upgrade and integrate every favela into the formal city by the year 2020. Since then rising rents have pushed families into squats with no sanitation, running water or security.
  • Three million people participated in São Paulo's gay pride parade, under the motto: "Whatever our beliefs, no religion is law," reports the BBC.
  • A recent crackdown on São Paulo’s Cracolândia, was portrayed by Mayor João Doria as a way of eradicating the downtown neighborhood where hundreds to thousands of crack-cocaine users and drug dealers have congregated over the past twenty years. (See May 30's briefs.) Instead the violent crackdown has scattered homeless drug users and threaten to displace poor families living in the area -- a renewal initiative that could open the door to "redevelopment," writes Patricia Rodrigues Samora in the Conversation. The piece mentions Programa de Braços Abertos (Open Arms Programme), which offered housing, meals, part-time work, social services and health care to the area’s homeless drug users.

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