Thursday, August 23, 2018

New Cuba travel advisory

The State Department has downgraded its Cuba travel advisory, urging travelers to exercise “increased caution” and no longer recommending that Americans “reconsider” travel to the island.

In the advisory, the State Department continues to say that “attacks” against U.S. diplomats took place in Cuba even though officials have arrived at no explanation for the harms that befell our personnel. Diplomats at multiple posts in China reported similar symptoms, but no attacks have been alleged there.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

A conviction in Havana with "due process" (Updated)

To its credit, the Trump Administration has maintained law enforcement cooperation with Cuba, holding regular dialogues and even building on some of the work of its predecessors. This fits with its border control/homeland security emphasis, and it surely rubs some of its political supporters the wrong way.

We now have details on the most notable instance of this cooperation, thanks to this Miami Herald story on the conviction of a defendant for a 2015 murder in Palm Beach. What is unusual is that while the crime took place here, and local prosecutors amassed evidence against the accused, the trial took place in a Cuban court, with Cuban prosecutors presenting evidence gathered in Palm Beach.

This is apparently due to the fact that the defendant, a Cuban national, was arrested in Cuba at the request of the United States through Interpol, but the Cuban government would not turn him over because of his Cuban nationality.

At some point, Cuba offered and the United States agreed to “transfer the prosecution” to Cuba, as the Herald puts it (on this part of the story, no details have emerged). A conviction was obtained in late May, and the convict is serving 20 years in a Cuban jail.

There has never been a case such as this, where U.S. authorities provided evidence that allowed Cuban prosecutors to bring a case in Cuban court for a crime committed outside Cuban territory – and in so doing, confiding in the Cuban judicial process to render a fair verdict.

To make it explicit, the Justice Department told the Herald something you would never expect from a Republican Administration: “The defendant was provided the procedural and due process rights afforded to criminal defendants under Cuban law, to include the right to counsel and cross-examination, and to review the evidence against him.”

The U.S.-Cuba Memorandum of Understanding on law enforcement, signed just days before President Obama left office, expresses a mutual intention to collaborate in the prosecution of a list of specific crimes and of “other transnational or serious crimes under jurisdiction of the Participants” (see Section III.1).

It’s hard to imagine a new, full-blown U.S.-Cuba extradition agreement that would replace the 1904 treaty that has never been abrogated, but has been a dead letter for six decades. In this case, with its very particular circumstances, the cooperation arrangements now in place yielded a result.

Which leads me to wonder if the Administration views this as a special action for this specific case, or if there is a policy decision that could lead to similar actions in the future. If it’s the latter, and if Cuba is on board, it could lead to trials of Medicare scammers who have fled to Cuba.

The State Department’s July 10 statement made a brief reference to this case, and I wrote about it here.


The Palm Beach Sherriff’s office issued a statement saying that county prosecutors traveled to Cuba to work with Cuban prosecutors, and one of its detectives testified at the Havana trial. It is the first time that “a Cuban citizen was put on trial in Cuba for a murder committed in the United States,” the statement says. 

And in another Florida case, this one involving vehicular manslaughter, a Cuban witness was allowed to provide video testimony from Cuba, where he exculpated the defendant and inculpated himself (Herald).

Friday, August 3, 2018

"Private property" in the constitution

Before and since the proposed new Cuban constitution (pdf) was released, there has been lots of talk about how it “could permit owning private property,” as a Washington Post editorial put it.

Sure enough, it deals with private property – but not exactly in that new-dawn-of-private-property way, which wouldn’t make sense because it is already permissible for Cubans to own private property, as we use the term. The vast majority of Cuban homes are owned outright with property titles and since 2011, residential properties are bought and sold on the open market. Many but not all individual farmers own their land and homes outright. Cars are owned and traded. Personal effects, of course, are privately owned.

What the new constitution does is to enumerate different kinds of property – and among these, to draw a distinction between personal property and private property. (See paragraphs 93 and 94 in the text linked above.)

The distinction is immaterial to a capitalist but significant to Marxists, and it goes like this: “personal property” refers to personal effects that have no economic purpose, while “private property” is defined as private ownership of means of production.

Hence a socialist constitution that stresses the state’s predominant economic role will also enshrine this concept of property, and with it the private sector’s role in the economy.

A narrow way to view this is that the constitution is catching up with reality, because private entities, both individuals and cooperatives in farming and other sectors, already own their means of production.

Another way to view it is as a more solid legal foundation for future legislation governing the private sector, such as the pending laws on enterprises and cooperatives.

If, that is, the Cuban government decides to take advantage of it when it comes time to write those laws.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The proposed new constitution

Cuba’s National Assembly hashed through and approved the draft of a new constitution last weekend, its discussion guided by Homero Acosta, a sort of Publius-without-the-pseudonym who chaired the group that researched and studied constitutional issues and produced the draft. His day job is executive secretary to the Council of State.

Acosta’s title-by-title discussion of the draft is summarized briefly in Granma and can be seen in two long videos here and here.

The draft has not yet been published, and there are, according to Acosta, more than 50 new “norms” that will have to be legislated to accompany it once it is approved.

Starting with the presidency, what’s clear is that with the Castro era ended, the Cuban leadership has decided that it wants no one older than 60 assuming that office, it wants no one in it for more than two five-year terms, and it wants executive functions distributed between a president and newly created prime minister.

These conditions would have ended Fidel Castro’s presidency in 1986 and prevented Raul’s altogether.

Beyond that, not much is clear. Why was it decided in the first place that a prime minister is needed? Will the president’s power be limited, or will the prime minister be sort of a minister of the presidency who handles day-to-day functions such as overseeing executive agencies? Will the prime minister be subordinate to the president? Perhaps the full text will answer these questions when it is published. Perhaps they will be answered once a prime minister is in office. Or perhaps we will be guessing for years, because this is a political system where very little is known about high-level decisionmaking, and there’s no evidence that this is likely to change.

In the meantime, note that the incumbent president is second-in-command of the Communist Party and the prime minister is not; the president nominates the prime minister; the president can propose legislation and the prime minister cannot; the president has the power to promote and remove high-ranking military officers and the prime minister does not; the president has exclusive pardon power; and changes in the composition of the cabinet are initiated when the prime minister proposes changes to the president. In addition, there are unspecified powers that rested with the Council of State that now go to the president. None of this fits the thesis that the new structure is intended to clip the president’s wings.

Thursday, July 19, 2018

A win for the control freaks

Cuba has legalized the operation of private bars where a maximum of 50 customers can enjoy alcoholic beverages “in their natural state or in cocktails,” and there can be recorded music, or live performances as long as the artists are hired in full compliance with Ministry of Culture regulations.

This is a trivial aspect of Cuba’s new small business regulations, and like many over the years it legalizes something that has been going on already.

But it makes you think back to March 1968 when Fidel Castro railed against private bars and other businesses during his Ofensiva Revolucionaria (see speeches here and here). He professed shock that there were 955 bars in Havana. He disclosed that undercover investigations found that 72 percent of their patrons “maintain an attitude contrary to our revolutionary process” and 66 percent “are anti-social elements.” He didn’t like other private businesses either, nor the people who ran them. His speeches often included the descriptor “lumpen.”

So he closed virtually all Cuba’s remaining private businesses, tens of thousands of them, including all the bars, because of a perception that they weren’t needed and they engendered the wrong kind of thinking.

So if you root for the privados, 1968 is the low point in the Cuban government’s long struggle to figure out how much private property and private enterprise are to be permitted in the socialist system.

And 1968 is why Cuba had just a few thousand private businesses when it opened up trabajo por cuenta propia in 1993, and it’s why when Raul Castro took office a decade later and took a fresh look at the economy, he noted that the government was unnecessarily and badly running state enterprises to provide almost every service: repair services of all kinds, worker cafeterias, beauty and barber shops, etc.

No one ever made a speech that explicitly threw the thinking of 1968 out the window, but that is what happened when small enterprise regulations were significantly liberalized in 2010. Individual entrepreneurship has since quadrupled in Cuba, from about 150,000 to nearly 600,000, now comprising 12 percent of a labor force where about one in three persons is employed outside the state. These entrepreneurs are essential sources of job creation, tax revenue, and services. Their bed-and-breakfasts sustain tourism centers such as Trinidad and Vinales where hotel capacity is minimal. They are in every city and dusty small town, with the common characteristic that they improve family income, usually quite a lot.

The new regulations (linked here), a package of new norms signed by Raul Castro and various ministers between February and July, are advertised as “updating, correcting, and strengthening” trabajo por cuenta propia.

Actually, “controlling” might be a better word.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

“New bilateral cooperation” in law enforcement

Well this is interesting, and good news: The United States and Cuba held a fourth set of talks in Washington on law enforcement, after which the State Department’s statement mentioned “new bilateral cooperation that resulted in the conviction of a Cuban national who murdered an American citizen and who had fled prosecution in the United States.” Cuba’s statement was less specific, referring to cooperation that has enabled the “prevention of crime and the prosecution of violators of the law.”

For some time there has been discussion in Havana of a person who fled to Cuba after being accused of committing a murder in Miami. After talks between the two governments, the story goes, it was decided that the person would be tried in Havana; he was tried with evidence provided by U.S. authorities, and was convicted in May. I have found no confirmation of these details, nor any court documents. But with the U.S. statement, it seems that the story is starting to come out.

There are several points of interest here.

Law enforcement cooperation has been going on for decades, mainly involving drugs and alien smuggling cases. The Obama Administration brought greater structure and regularity to these contacts, and the Trump Administration has continued this process and built on it, noting that “new bilateral cooperation” made the conviction possible.

It would be good to get legal records or some official account of the legal process in Cuba to see how U.S. evidence was employed in the prosecution, and how the defense functioned. Also, is it possible under Cuban law for a Cuban to be tried in Cuba for a crime committed abroad, or was it necessary to bring charges for related crimes committed in Cuban territory?

There are many obstacles to establishing functioning extradition agreements between the United States and Cuba. Among these are U.S. distrust of Cuba’s court system, and U.S. reluctance to assume a commitment to send persons to a place where they will not get a fair trial. The obstacles are not going away soon, so extradition agreements remain a distant prospect. But in this case, the U.S. side is clearly pleased at a conviction obtained in a Cuban court. Will this be a precedent, and could it lead to action against Medicaid scammers and others who have fled charges in the United States?

In related news, deportations to Cuba are up under Trump, according to New Times.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Luis Posada Carriles, R.I.P.

He certainly was one of “a group of fighters who dedicated their best years to fighting the Fidel Castro regime,” as a Miami television station put it when he was featured on its recent “Legends of Exile” series. He was also someone willing to put his life on the line, and to use violence in service of his ideals, and to direct his violence against civilians – tourists in a hotel at the wrong place at the wrong time, or young Cuban athletes on a plane returning from an international competition – which made him a terrorist too. While many scoffed at the Bush Administration’s failed attempt to nail him on immigration charges, this was more than any U.S. Administration attempted to do. He lived out his retirement in Miami, finding social acceptance in a segment of the community consisting largely of lifelong sedentary revolutionaries who admired a man of action and had no moral qualms about his tactics. He died last Wednesday.

Coverage here from the New York Times, Granma here and here, the Herald, and 14yMedio.

Odds and ends

·      I wrote recently that state employment in Cuba had dropped by more than half million. Actually, it’s double that. See this article by Prof. Ricardo Torres, showing that the state shed 998,000 jobs between 2009 and 2016.

·      Physician Carlos Lage became a vice president of Cuba’s Council of State and served as a quasi-prime minister until 2009 when he and a few others of his generation lost their political footing and were expelled from office. 14yMedio looks at his life now, practicing medicine again at the Policlínico 19 de Abril.

·      Financial Times on Cuba’s drive for foreign investment.

·      It may be that no te importe tres pepinos, but here’s a Twitter thesaurus of Cuban slang.

·      Billboard on the weekly paquete as a music promotion platform.

·      Granma’s “Today in History” feature on the sinking of a German U-boat in Cuban waters during WWII.

·      The new U.S. threats to sanction foreign companies that do business with Iran recall the extraterritorial U.S. sanctions in the Helms-Burton law, former Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt explains, while calling on Europe to resist.

·      Prof. Larry Press rounds up the information on the public record about the views of Cuba’s new President on Internet development.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

And now, a China health mystery

I don’t doubt that U.S. personnel assigned to our embassy in Havana suffered some kind of harm.

But the Trump Administration’s handling of this matter has seemed political to me. Consider yesterday’s news about a U.S. diplomat in Guangzhou, China who suffered symptoms “very similar and entirely consistent with the medical indications that have taken place to Americans working in Cuba,” according to Secretary of State Pompeo.

What was done in response? The State Department issued a straightforward health alert to inform the public about the China incident. It noted that the cause of the diplomat’s symptoms is unknown. The Department did not change its China travel advisory, which tells U.S. travelers to exercise caution due to arbitrary arrests. No U.S. official has referred to “attacks” in China.

The Cuba advisory, on the other hand, is at a higher level on the State Department’s scale – it urges Americans to “reconsider” travel anywhere in Cuba, even though the incidents affected only U.S. diplomats and only in Havana. (Canada saw some of its diplomats affected in Havana; it informed the public but made no similar warning to Canadian travelers.) As in China, the Department has no idea what happened in Cuba, but that doesn’t stop U.S. officials from referring constantly to “attacks” in Cuba. Whereas Cuba’s offer of investigative assistance was treated at arm’s length, Secretary Pompeo announced that our Chinese friends “have responded in a way that is exactly the right response,” and “We’re working together to resolve it.”

Apart from the disparity in numbers, the two situations are similar: communist country, same symptoms, cause unknown. One is being handled normally, with actions that fit the situation and the lack of evidence. Cuba is handled differently because, let’s face it, the Trump Administration has essentially made Senator Rubio the Undersecretary of State for Cuba.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Tourism down, from U.S. and overall

Contrary to some media reports that I cited, tourism is down seven percent in the first four months of 2018, according to the tourism ministry cited by ACN. Cuban officials still hope to reach 5 million visits this year, after 4.7 million last year. The four million mark was hit in 2016, and the three million mark just two years earlier. U.S. visits dropped 56 percent due to the new Trump Administration rules and the travel warning (Reuters). U.S. cruise ship visits appear to be substantial; this article says that 74 percent of U.S. visitors arrive by air. Finally, more hotel news: a hotel of “approximately 42 floors” will be built at 25th and K in Vedado (Cubadebate), apparently where there is now a large depression across from the Methodist church.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Odds and ends

·      What were the main changes during Raul Castro’s presidency? Granma and 14yMedio sum it up and are not very far apart.

·      Profiles of President Diaz Canel, by the New York Times and AP.

·      Faced with the same issues our embassy in Havana faced, Canada’s foreign ministry decides to keep its diplomatic staff in place and withdraw spouses and children. Also in Canada’s statement: “There is no evidence to suggest that Canadian travelers to Cuba are at risk.”

·      In Politico, a nonfiction bodice-ripper from Peter Kornbluh of all people, set in the Kennedy/Johnson years.

·      Granma reports on the Hotel Paseo del Prado, being built at Prado and Malecon, due to open next year. It is being built on a lot that was cleared years ago, at one time awaiting a China-financed hotel that never panned out. Across Prado and a block uphill, there’s the soon-to-open Hotel Packard, a large project that incorporates an old façade that was propped up by scaffolding for about 20 years. Spain’s Iberostar will manage it. From Skift in 2016, here’s a survey of hotel development in Cuba. Hotel construction is proceeding in Trinidad too; on a recent visit I saw two long-stalled projects under way, one a few blocks from the Plaza Mayor, and another way up the hill behind the church on the Plaza Mayor; this one is incorporating the ruins of a very old church that has just a few walls remaining.

·      There's a drop in U.S. travelers that is making many place in Cuba feel like 15 years ago (all Europeans and Asians, no Americans), and overall visits are down seven percent so far over 2017 (ACN). (Preceding sentence is corrected; some media reports noted growth rather than the seven percent decline.) And while some U.S. airlines have dropped out, those who continue to operate Cuba routes continue going to the Department of Transportation to bid for available routes (Forbes).

·      These scientists demonstrated that two ultrasound emissions on conflicting frequencies can cause a screeching sound – but this doesn’t explain any possible injury. Apparently, ultrasound can be used both in listening devices and in devices to interfere with them. Radio interview here.

·      This Kenyan medical school professor wants Cuba’s help not just with doctors, but in organizing the country’s public health system.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

The presidential speeches

If you were looking for a roadmap to his presidency, a differentiation of style or emphasis or direction, you probably found the inaugural speech by President Diaz Canel disappointing.

He used the occasion to set a tone and to mark the moment. He delivered a message of continuity and expressed reverence for the Revolution’s elders (those seated around him and those departed), or the “historical generation” as they call it. To hammer home the continuity point, he addressed those who “by ignorance or bad faith doubt the commitment of generations that today assume new responsibilities,” and followed with a paragraph that paraphrases a famous Fidel Castro declaration about the meanings of “revolution” (a “sense of the historical moment,” “to change all that must be changed,” etc.) 

By way of assurance, or to acknowledge the Party’s constitutional role, he said that “knowing public sentiment,” he affirms that Raul Castro, “as first secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, will lead the most important decisions about the present and future of the nation.”

There was also perhaps a hint about coalition-building: “We must exercise leadership and management that is ever more collective.”

In his speech, Raul took a different approach and made more news.

He said the constitution will be amended – a complete redraft, it appears, to “reform” it “according to the transformations that have occurred in the political, economic, and social order.” Top officials will be limited to two five-year terms in office, and this will apply to Diaz Canel. The work will begin in the July session of the National Assembly and the new document will be submitted to a referendum.

He said Diaz Canel will replace him as party chief in 2021 – “It has been planned this way,” he said – and by serving ten years in that post, Diaz Canel will have three years overlap with his successor. (All this provided that he “works well” and is re-elected to his party and government posts, Raul added.) As for Raul himself, he will then be “one more soldier” defending the Revolution.

He said that in an apparent break from normal procedure, the naming of the new cabinet (council of ministers) will be be postponed until the July National Assembly session, at the suggestion of Diaz Canel.

He joked that Diaz Canel is the “sole survivor” of his generation, alluding to the ousted Lage, Perez Roque, etc.

Issue by issue, he reaffirmed his commitment to economic reform and admitted a failure of  “social communication about the changes that have been introduced.” Regarding private entrepreneurship, he said: “We have not renounced the pursuit of expansion of trabajo por cuenta propia” in part because it allows the state to shed “the management of activities not of strategic value for the country’s development.”

Off script, he digressed about Cuba’s war of independence and the U.S. role in it, from the defeat of the Spanish fleet at Santiago to the United States’ treatment of Cuba upon Spain’s surrender. If you have never understood why Raul and his fellow revolutionaries consider 1959 the date when Cuba’s true independence was fully achieved, it’s a good primer.

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.