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.