Cuba: Dealing with the Global Pandemic

By Ricardo Torres*

Cuban nurses carrying the Cuban flag

COVID-19 Response: Over 100 Cuban Nurses Arrive Barbados / Flickr / Public Domain

Cuba faces a “perfect storm” – a global health crisis – that poses the latest in a long list of challenges to its government, but a systematic destabilization of the country is highly unlikely, if not remote, for now. The COVID‑19 pandemic has caused an unprecedented disruption to the world economy, the devastating effects of which no country has escaped. The Cuban economy is critically dependent on tourism and remittances, two areas that have been deeply affected. Those countries from which visitors and cash flow to Cuba are greatest – the United States, Canada, Western Europe, and China – have been hit hard.

  • The shock is compounded by a drop in Cuba’s average annual growth from 2.7 percent in 2010‑15 to 1.4 percent in 2016‑19. The causes of that decline include the economic crisis in Venezuela; the cancellation of medical services agreements in Bolivia, Brazil, and Ecuador; the end of the international tourism bonanza; and the effect of new U.S. sanctions. Washington’s actions have complicated trade, foreign investment, and travel. The measures have limited remittances, reduced Cuba’s ability to import fuel, and clamped down on foreign firms operating in Cuba, such as through the first application of Title III of the “Helms-Burton Act.”
  • Another factor has been the disappointing results of Cuba’s internal economic reform, which has been wrapped up in political contradictions and a lack of clarity of its objectives. One costly flaw in these circumstances has been the government’s inability to stimulate industries that provide essential products, particularly food. Combined with the international challenges, including fresh, tough sanctions by the United States, this problem has contributed to a situation in which the Cuban people face growing shortages of all kinds of products, including food, medicines, and fuel.

The government’s response to COVID‑19 has evolved from caution to the gradual imposition of increasingly radical measures.

  • In mounting a medical response, the centralization and verticality of the Cuban model allows authorities to adapt plans and resources in the face of new priorities. The Cuban health system, for example, is known for its national coverage and access to resources (including 848 doctors and 5.5 beds per 100,000 inhabitants), and it has experience dealing with epidemics. Decisions have been taken around the concept of epidemiological vigilance, including closing the borders on April 2 and bolstering research, although the inability to carry out massive testing has been a weakness. The government has also guaranteed workers’ income and employment, except for parts of the private sector and informal economy, and expanded food-rationing to a broader list of products.

The economic impact in the medium term should not be underestimated. GDP growth will enter negative territory. Financial problems will surely deepen. Shortages of an array of basic necessities are going to worsen. Restructuring of foreign debt is necessary.

  • Internally, Cuban policymakers are going to have to take into consideration the new socioeconomic structure of the country and the need to focus support where it’s needed most. The crisis provides a good opportunity to give substance to longstanding rhetoric about improving agricultural production. Greater flexibility in regulating private businesses is also an obvious policy option. Accelerating and broadening digital access throughout society should also be a priority under the wisdom of “not putting off till tomorrow what can be done today.”

The Cuban Government is not presiding over a terminal crisis, however. Even considering the system’s weaknesses before the pandemic, this perfect storm is not its responsibility. For the medical challenge, Cuba is prepared and probably will overcome some of the criticisms made abroad about its medical missions, as brigades of Cuban doctors deploy to 19 countries. The country’s biotechnology industry also stands to make advances. It’s too early to say whether Cuba will be able to profit from these opportunities, but Havana may benefit from its willingness and ability to be a responsible international partner.

  • Washington’s policies also put it in sharp contrast with China, which continues to provide help during these difficult times. If the pandemic has made anything clear in Cubans’ minds, it’s that the United States is disqualifying itself as a positive force for change on the island.

April 17, 2020

*Ricardo Torres is a professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

 

Cuba: Facing a Tough New Year

By Eric Hershberg, William M. LeoGrande, and Max Paul Friedman*

Intensified U.S. sanctions and the crisis in Venezuela are forcing renewed belt-tightening in Cuba and hindering the government’s ability to undertake even its modest economic reform agenda, but the country is not entering a new “special period” and significant instability does not appear likely in 2020 despite some increased social tensions. The big losers from U.S. sanctions are the small private-sector businesses — B&Bs, restaurants, and entrepreneurs — providing services to U.S. visitors, an estimated 638,000 a year before the Trump Administration clamped down over the course of 2019. But the government has also been forced to make major cutbacks.

  • To cope with fuel shortages caused by U.S. sanctions against oil companies shipping Venezuelan oil to Cuba, the government reduced production in many factories to maintain energy supplies to consumers and avoid overly straining the power grid. Public transportation also faced drastic cuts, largely because of a lack of diesel fuel needed to distribute gasoline. Only some of the affected bus routes have since been restored.
  • Shortages of an array of necessities — from bread, coffee, meat, and many basic medicines to all energy products — have been severe and show no sign of abating as the economy sputters. Domestic demand for products that Cuba can produce, including electric bicycles and appliances, is strong, but financing is too tight. The government is phasing out the convertible peso (CUC) that it artificially pegged to the dollar and is establishing new hard-currency stores to capture dollars now flowing abroad as Cubans buy both consumer goods and inputs for domestic private enterprises in Panama and elsewhere at the rate of $25 million per month — hard currency the government desperately needs. Those dollars the government captures will supposedly be made available for domestic producers to import essential inputs. Cubans expect the CUC to become worthless paper sooner as some vendors now accept only foreign currency, and the street value of a dollar is now more than 1.15 CUC (compared to the official rate of 0.87 CUC).

One leading economist deemed 2019 to have been the worst year since 1993 — with growth essentially flat — and said the forecast for 2020 looks no better. State-owned enterprises are failing to perform efficiently despite years of rhetoric about rationalization and improvements. Foreign purchases, long hindered by a lack of hard currency, have been made even harder by the U.S. sanctions, as suppliers increasingly fear Washington’s scrutiny. The government has not responded to growing pressures by accelerating the sorts of meaningful reforms that have long been needed to increase production and efficiency.

  • Its strategy focuses on import substitution, according to a senior economic official, to reduce the need for hard currency by producing more consumer goods and inputs domestically. The tourism sector has boomed over the past decade, but more than half the hard currency revenue it generates goes to imported inputs. Cuba spends some $2 billion importing food while more than half its arable land lies fallow.
  • Financing investment needed to make import substitution a viable strategy is difficult. Cuban government officials speak of doubling domestic investment, now only 11-12 percent of GDP, but without increasing indebtedness — a huge task for such an inefficient economy. In addition to encouraging tourism enterprises to substitute local for imported inputs, the government hopes to improve conditions during 2020 by implementing a decades-old proposal to establish a closed dollar-based system in which companies retain a portion of revenues to finance investment and imports.
  • Foreign direct investment is the other potential but a largely elusive source for capital. Government fact sheets continue to emphasize the importance of the Mariel Special Export Zone, which has some 50 promised users, $2.5 billion in promised activity, and 7,000 promised jobs. Actual activity in the Zone, however, falls far short of that. The Trump administration’s activation of Title III of the Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (“Helms-Burton”), which allows the previous owners of property expropriated after the 1959 revolution to sue anyone benefiting from it, has made new investors hesitant.

While the economic outlook looks difficult indeed, there are few signs that the government is anxious about social frustrations and tensions becoming a serious challenge, much less an existential threat. The government continues to resist obvious (and relatively easy) reforms, such as allowing cuentapropistas licenses for multiple lines of business. Allowing the CUC to disappear gradually may be a precursor to addressing the years-old distortions caused by the country’s multiple currencies and exchange rates, but there’s still no sign that the government is ready to implement a unified peso. Havana apparently calculates that the country is hardly the pressure-cooker that U.S. policy aims to create by, as U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo reportedly told EU diplomats recently, “starving” the population so as to bring about a regime collapse.

  • Young independent journalists say that public organizing via social media is at times successfully pressing the government, which they deem largely ignorant of popular concerns, to revoke unpopular measures. Yet growing access to the internet may also serve to distract youth from more threatening forms of organizing. Giving people a sense of input on issues like the arts, animal rights, and sexual identity that do not threaten core government policies and processes is probably taking an edge off discontent.
  • The new year is likely to be difficult, particularly as the Venezuela crisis drags on, but, as observers say, “Cuba does ‘bad’ pretty well.” Hope is never a plan, but virtually everyone in Havana expresses hope that U.S. elections in November might bring back a pro-engagement U.S. policy that helps grow Cuba’s private sector and relieving pressure on sources of financing for Cuba to move ahead with its modest reform strategy.

January 7, 2020

*AU Professors Hershberg, LeoGrande, and Friedman traveled to Cuba in December.

U.S.- Latin America: Policy Shifts Ahead?

By Fulton Armstrong

Former White House National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks to reporters on events occurring in Venezuela Tuesday, April 30, 2019, outside the West Wing entrance of the White House.

Former National Security Advisor John Bolton speaks to reporters on Venezuela in April 2019/ Tia Dufour/ White House/ Wikimedia Commons

The sudden departure of President Trump’s outspoken national security advisor, John Bolton, is unlikely to result in changes in U.S. policy objectives in Latin America but could lead to the same sort of swings in tactics – harder or softer – that characterize other U.S. policies around the world. The continued weakness of the State Department’s input, aggravated by erratic staffing in its Latin America offices, further suggests that it will not play a balancing role.

Trump and Bolton’s statements over their 17 months together indicated no disagreement on objectives and tactics in Latin America, including immigration, close relations with Brazilian President Bolsonaro, efforts to rescue the Argentine economy, and Venezuela. They had identical positions on the waves of sanctions against Venezuela, U.S. commitment to remove President Nicolás Maduro, and unstinting support for National Assembly President Juan Guaidó’s claim to the Presidency, including backing Guaidó’s flopped coup in April. They both also explicitly linked taking down Maduro with achieving regime change in Cuba.

  • Trump and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, widely seen as his top referent on Latin America and related political matters, are trying to signal that after Bolton’s departure the Administration is going to turn up the heat on Venezuela and Cuba. In apparently coordinated tweets between them, Trump said, “In fact, my views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!” This complements rumors that Trump has been frustrated that Bolton’s strategy in Venezuela, particularly the fact that Maduro supporters had tricked him into false confidence in Guaidó’s failed coup, has not removed Maduro from office. (It is unclear if one of his concerns is that U.S. sanctions are worsening the refugee flow challenging neighboring countries.)

Most Washington-based observers believe, however, that Latin America is the least important of the five issues that, according to press, caused friction between Trump and Bolton. The President’s personal involvement has been much greater with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, in efforts to achieve regime change in Iran, in talks with the Taliban for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, and in maintaining good relations with Moscow despite the complex situation in Ukraine.

  • Trump has appeared to lack deep interest in Latin America policy and sees it as primarily a domestic political tool for consolidating his base – among anti-Maduro and anti-Cuba voters in Florida, an important state in his re-election calculus, and among supporters for his wall on the Mexico border and other anti-migration measures. Long ago he essentially handed the Venezuela and Cuba issues over to Senator Rubio, and the National Security Council brought a Rubio ally, lobbyist, and blogger, Mauricio Claver-Carone, to the White House to work the issue. They appointed Elliot Abrams, despite baggage from the Iran-Contra era and the Bush-Cheney Administration, to handle diplomatic operations on Venezuela for them.
  • By all appearances, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo has subordinated his own Latin America team to the White House operators, essentially stifling a traditionally important voice at the policy table. When Assistant Secretary Kimberly Breier resigned last month, only nine months after being confirmed by the U.S. Senate, she said it was to spend more time with her family, but her bureau’s marginalization left questions about her policy impact. Her acting successor, veteran State Department lawyer Michael Kozak, who has spent much of the last 10 years managing “democracy promotion” programs in Latin America and elsewhere, is not likely to challenge Rubio and Claver-Carone unless Pompeo takes the lead, which he shows no sign of doing.

The new national security advisor will have more urgent problems to deal with than wrestling with Rubio, Claver-Carone, and their allies. Indeed, Trump may even give them a green light to escalate provocations even further. For example, Administration allegations that Colombian guerrillas and narcotics-traffickers receive crucial aid from Caracas – buttressed by invocation of the Rio Treaty last week – are logical ways of laying the political groundwork for some sort of military action, perhaps jointly with Colombia, against alleged camps in hopes that the Venezuelan military finally tells Maduro that it’s time to go. 

  • President Trump’s trademark approach to thorny problems has been unpredictability and experimentation with wide-ranging alternatives, including face-to-face negotiations and deal-making with opponents that pose much tougher challenges to U.S. interests than do Venezuela and Cuba. Such flexibility notwithstanding, with the U.S. elections just 14 months off, Trump’s electoral calculus strongly suggests he’s going to stay the course with policies toward Latin America that he’s told are popular in South Florida.

September 17, 2019

U.S.-Cuba: You Can’t Get There from Here

By William M. LeoGrande

ventas en cuba

Small Business in Cuba / Alberto Yoan Arego Pulido / https://www.flickr.com/photos/albertoyoan/8775169259

U.S. President Donald Trump’s new economic sanctions against Cuba, imposed earlier this week, include limits on travel and family remittances aimed at crippling the Cuban economy and causing regime collapse, but the biggest losers are the small entrepreneurs, intellectuals, and artists who have been agents of change on the island. Senior administration officials, foremost among them National Security Adviser John Bolton, have been explicit that the goal is to rid the hemisphere of “socialism,” starting with the government of Venezuela and proceeding to Cuba and Nicaragua. Bolton previewed the new sanctions in Miami on April 17  – the anniversary of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion. Now we know the details.

  • Remittances, which were unlimited under President Barack Obama, will be limited to $1,000 per recipient household every quarter – enough to supplement a family’s meager state salary, but not enough to start and sustain a business. The new limits will hit Cuba’s nascent private sector hardest because funds from the United States were the start-up capital for many small businesses, and their supply chains reach back through Miami.
  • Trump has eliminated the people-to-people category of educational travel, which Bolton denounced as “veiled tourism.” This category covered educational tours not involving academic credit – tours run by organizations like National Geographic, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Smithsonian. Authorized originally by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s, people-to-people travel was eliminated by President George W. Bush in 2003, in response to complaints from conservative Cuban-Americans in South Florida. President Obama restored it in 2011. Trump, like Bush, appears to be pandering to the Cuban American Republican base in Miami in the run-up to the next presidential election. Last year, 638,000 U.S. residents who were not Cuban Americans traveled to Cuba – at least two-thirds if not more under a people-to-people license, mostly on cruises, which Trump also banned. These new travel restrictions will cost Cuba upwards of $300 million dollars annually in lost revenue.

Cuba’s private sector will suffer disproportionately from these measures. In addition to losing start-up capital and access to supplies, these businesses will lose their principal client base. U.S. travelers arriving by air are more likely stay in Airbnb rentals and eat at private restaurants than the Canadians and Europeans who come on tourist vacation packages and stay at the big hotels on the beach. Trump’s first restriction on people-to-people travel in 2017, banning individuals from designing their own people-to-people trips, caused a 44 percent slump in private B&B occupancy. The new restrictions will wipe out many of them.

  • U.S. business and people will take a hit too. In 2017, Engage Cuba, a coalition of business groups favoring trade, released an analysis concluding that U.S. visitors to Cuba generated $1.65 billion in revenue annually for U.S. businesses and accounted for more than 12,000 U.S. jobs in the hospitality sector, most of which would be lost if Trump cut off travel. Most importantly, the new restrictions deprive most U.S. citizens of their constitutional right to travel, a right affirmed by the Supreme Court in 1958 in Kent v Dulles. The Court said the right should be limited only in cases of dire threats to national security.

As usual, tougher economic sanctions will make life tougher for ordinary Cubans, but sanctions won’t bring down the Cuban government, which has survived the U.S. embargo for half a century. Economic hardship and U.S. hostility will heighten Cuban leaders’ sense of being besieged, making them less likely to reform the economy or allow any expansion of free expression. Economic, professional, educational, and cultural ties between people in the United States and their counterparts in Cuba will be harder to sustain, impoverishing both. Cuba’s private entrepreneurs, who could be an engine for economic transformation and who Trump claims to support, will suffer from the loss of business from American travelers. U.S. travel companies will lose access to one of the biggest and fastest-growing tourism markets in the Caribbean. But maybe, just maybe, this latest assault on the liberties of Americans by the Trump administration will motivate Congress to finally pass a “Freedom to Travel” bill, assuring that no president can take away the constitutional right to travel just because he thinks it will help him win re-election.  

June 6, 2019

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University.

Cuba: U.S. Sanctions Underscore the Need for Meaningful Reform

By Ricardo Torres*

Cruise ship at Havana Harbor in April 2018/ kuhnmi/ Flickr/ Creative Commons

Washington’s new measures to tighten the embargo will hurt the Cuban people, especially the private sector, but Havana has little choice but to double-down on reform and make its economy more efficient and independent. Holding Cuba responsible for Venezuela’s resistance to U.S. regime-change policies in that country, and for alleged “acoustic” incidents harming U.S. diplomats in Havana, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton last week announced steps that, taken together, amount to almost full reversal of the engagement that former Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro announced four and a half years ago, in December 2014.

  • Among key measures is full enforcement of Title III of the Helms-Burton law of 1996 – ending waivers that three predecessor administrations had invoked – and allowing even Cuban-Americans who were not U.S. citizens at the time to sue companies involved in business dealings (“trafficking”) involving properties nationalized by the Cuban government since 1959. The U.S. officials have also pledged regulations clamping down on remittances to Cuba (which had already been regulated to ensure that senior government officials did not receive them); prohibiting dollar transactions through third-party financial institutions; and stopping “non-family” travel to the island. Details will not be known until the regulations are published, a process that usually takes several months.

The U.S. actions come at a delicate moment for the Cuban economy, will certainly worsen the country’s balance-of-payments situation by increasing the cost of international transactions, and will directly affect key sectors that depend on tourism and remittances.

  • Among the hardest hit will be Cubans engaged in private businesses, who depend on remittances for investment and foreign visitors as customers. At the end of 2018, a little more than 1.4 million formal jobs were in the non-state sector, including the self-employed (cuentapropistas), members of cooperatives, and private farmers – almost equal to the 1.6 million in state enterprises. Many others work in the informal sector to supplement their incomes.
  • The perceived increased risk posed by the U.S. measures will also cause foreign companies to postpone or cancel entirely plans to invest in Cuba.

Trump Administration efforts last year to reverse Obama-era policies, coupled with other challenges – including the weakening of the Venezuelan economy and the shift of a previously key partner like Brazil – are taking their toll on the Cuban economy. In addition, an accumulation of important internal problems has made the country vulnerable. Austerity measures announced as early as in summer 2016, including a reduction in imports and energy rationing in the public sector, have already hurt. Even in the context of a good international environment and improving ties with the United States, the Cuban economy grew slowly over the past decade. The ups and downs in policies dealing with the private sector, agriculture, and in the derailed process of reform in the dominant state sector – as well as setbacks in efforts to attract foreign investment – underscore the economy’s deep structural flaws and damage caused by deficient responses and successive delays.

In these changing times, appeals to “Resist!” are no longer enough. Aggravated by the U.S. measures, the expected worsening of the economic situation will disproportionately affect the most vulnerable of the Cuban people. The external problems could be the argument that the Cuban government needs to push aside obstacles to domestic economic reform. The country has immense internal potential but has been held hostage to the ideological purism that many profess.

  • The government of President Díaz-Canel has already announced new measures to stimulate the development of state enterprises, cooperatives, and the private sector itself. Foreign dependence has proven to be disastrous for Cuba. No foreign power is going to come to resolve the flaws of the Cuban model. Broadening and deepening reform, liberating the domestic productive powers, seems to be the only possible way forward in addition to rethinking international alliances and embracing markets more broadly.

April 23, 2019

*Ricardo Torres is a professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Venezuela: When Will the Military Flip?

By Fulton Armstrong

venezuelan military marching

A military exercise in Caracas, Venezuela. / Cancilleria del Ecuador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Venezuelan leader Juan Guaidó and his backers, including the Trump administration, are increasingly focused on swaying the country’s security forces to switch allegiance from Nicolás Maduro to the National Assembly President.  Guaidó has appealed to the military to support his efforts to “restore constitutional order” and is pushing through the legislature a law giving amnesty to cooperating officers for certain crimes committed since President Chávez took office in early 1999.  U.S. officials, apparently to shake up the armed forces, continue to say that “all options are on the table”; National Security Advisor John Bolton held a notepad at a press briefing referring to “5,000 troops to Colombia.”  Maduro, for his part, continues to orchestrate loyalty pledges from senior officers and preside over military exercises.

  • Several small units of the military have flipped, and Maduro’s military attaché in Washington – serving there for a number of years to get medical treatment – has declared loyalty to Guaidó. The vast majority of the officer corps, however, still maintain an appearance of commitment to Maduro.

The most common explanation for the military’s apparent loyalty cited by Maduro’s opponents is that the high command has been bought off by opportunities to engage in corruption.  Other factors, however, may better explain why the institution has stuck with him this long.

  • Ideological reasons? Most available information suggests that Madurismo – with its gross, incompetent mismanagement of the economy, corruption, and thuggery – is not attractive to the officer corps.  But they appear to know that Chavismo has deep roots; that the elites, including the more hardline opposition, don’t understand the significance of change since 1999; and that efforts to return to the pre-Chávez era would be destabilizing and bloody.
  • Financial reasons? Although historically and perennially corrupt, senior officers arguably have been able to do more corruption under Maduro than under another regime.  That said, in their heart of hearts, they probably know a lot of their activities will continue under any government.
  • Distrust of the opposition? The military traditionally has communicated better with opposition moderates, such as Henrique Capriles, and in recent years has shown no trust in the faction that Guaidó comes from and its leader, Leopoldo López.  Information is very limited, of course, but many officers may believe that this group’s obsession with overthrowing Maduro and its no-negotiation stance has contributed to the crisis.  Senior officers’ confidence in Maduro’s ability to hold the country together seems to have evaporated, but the opposition have not presented a viable, comprehensive alternative.
  • Concern about the López-Guaidó faction’s ties with Colombia and the U.S.? Good information is elusive, but senior officers’ posture suggests that they see Bogotá’s strategic objective to keep Venezuela weak and Washington’s objective to purge the country of Chavismo and themselves.
  • Concern that the “international community” will not give them a fair deal? Distrust of Washington seems obvious, but – within their logic – senior officers almost certainly are suspicious of OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro, the Lima Group, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, and others as intolerant and biased.
  • Belief that, in the face of total chaos and widespread bloodshed, they can force a last-minute peaceful solution onto Maduro? Senior officers presumably have good enough intelligence to know when and how to intervene – and persuade Maduro to accept a peaceful solution and fly into exile.  The bigger problem at this point is that they do not see a viable alternative to sticking it out.
  • Fear that Maduro’s people have deeply penetrated officer ranks, and their lives will be at stake if they move against him? As the scope of the crisis grows and the credibility of Maduro’s power begins to slip, this would appear now to be less important.  Officers talk among themselves more than outsiders think.

The Venezuelan military’s threshold for intervening against civilian governments of any stripe has always been high, amplified by the embarrassment of the reversed coup against Chávez in 2002.  None of the factors that, on balance, still appear to favor sticking with Maduro is unmovable.  Distrust of the United States, OAS, and the Lima Group – the outside forces that legitimized Guaidó’s claim to power – leave the military with no reliable allies; Cuban, Russian, and Chinese friends can provide no solace.  A credible negotiation proposal from someone like Mexican and Uruguayan Presidents López Obrador and Vázquez, especially if backed by Pope Francis, could conceivably give them a credible direction in which to push Maduro.  But at this moment – subject to rapid change – the balance still argues in favor of the military fearing a new course.

Cuba: Opening Pandora’s Box?

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuba constitutional reform

Reading about the constitutional reform project in Cuba. / Twitter: @SoberonGuzman

The constitutional reform process that the Cuban government is undertaking — controlled and cautious — and adjustments to one or two regressive regulations may be setting in motion political dynamics that will fuel pressure for more change.  After months of consulta popular, the constitutional drafting committee is preparing a new draft for consideration by the National Assembly during a two-day session beginning December 21.  Current plans are still for it to be subjected to a referendum vote in February 2019.

  • Skepticism about the real impact of the consulta, which reportedly resulted in hundreds of thousands of written comments, is deep, but most non-governmental observers believe that participation was so strong that the popular input had an impact. Debate about Article 68 — establishing the constitutional right of same-sex marriage — was most obvious.  Evangelical churches, with Catholic support, led the push against it, organized demonstrations, and circulated posters easily visible on Havana streets.  Local observers report that government officials were surprised by the mobilization and, fearing the article will spark abstention from the referendum or votes rejecting the whole constitution, now face the challenge of balancing the forces for and against it.
  • Debates are reportedly also taking place, including among senior officials, about the role of the Communist Party. Observers say that the party has accepted its subordination to the constitution and laws of the country, but — while it will remain the “fuerza dirigente superior de la sociedad y del Estado” — there reportedly is no consensus on its exact role and relationship with the government.  Another controversial provision deals with vague limits on the “concentration of property” versus the “concentration of wealth.”

The government’s handling of opposition to regulations announced last summer (but scheduled to take effect this month) has also left opponents — justifiably skeptical about any government signals of compromise — wondering where process and policy are headed.

  • The day before a regulation tightening controls on private sector businesses was to be implemented on December 7, the government rescinded several harmful provisions. Under the original version, Cubans could hold only one business license, and private restaurants could have no more than 50 chairs, but both measures were overturned as a result of private sector complaints, according to Labor and Social Security Minister Margarita González.  In a speech to law students, President Díaz-Canel reportedly emphasized the importance of cuentapropista input as well.  There were also hints of a softening of a regulation increasing government control on artists — requiring their credentials to hold shows be validated by a government office — when the government delayed implementation and said it was subject to further elaboration.  With both regulations, officials tried to appear to be listening to the strong opposition they faced.
  • The government has left in place, however, new controls on private transportation operators, particularly the ancient private vehicles (almendrones) running on established routes where public buses are lacking. The government claimed drivers were overcharging, not paying taxes, and not maintaining their cars adequately.  The measure itself, as well as many private drivers’ work slowdown and surrender of their special transport licenses in protest, have significantly hindered Havana citizens’ ability to get around the city.  The government has announced that it is importing several hundred microbuses to cover the routes but has given no sign of compromise on the regulation.

The road to reform in Cuba is littered with unfulfilled expectations; the skepticism of common folk affected by the revised constitution and various regulations, as well as government opponents, is not unwarranted.  It is impossible that the National Assembly could give the thousands of proposed changes to the constitution draft serious consideration in a two-day session.  But some aspects of the ongoing processes, such as the government’s recognition of affected sectors’ concerns, appear likely to create new expectations of government attentiveness and even civic participation.  Non-fulfillment of those expectations may not lead to destabilizing protests in the short term, but it would be yet another negative signal about the Party’s willingness to allow the country to evolve toward the new and more stable model it has claimed interest in establishing since 2011.  The public statements of former President Raúl Castro, President Díaz-Canel, and others suggest awareness that, in the post-Castro era, legitimacy will come from economic results and improved living standards – which require broader and deeper public inputs into policymaking.  Everyone will be watching whether the recent, partial consultations were a short-term show, an experiment, or a hint of a shift in approach.

December 18, 2018

Brazil: Far-Right Foreign Policy Ahead?

By Gilberto M. A. Rodrigues*

John Bolton and Jair Bolsonaro

U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton (left) and Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro (right). / Prensa Latina / Creative Commons

Brazilian President-elect Jair Bolsonaro appears to be moving ahead with promises to steer the country’s foreign policy in the direction of his own far-right ideology.  He has accused the Workers’ Party (PT) of former President Lula da Silva (2003-10) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-16) of pursuing a foreign policy with a partisan left-wing ideology, and now he wants to “liberate” Itamaraty, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from what he considers an inappropriate ideological bias.

  • Bolsonaro says that President Trump is his inspiration, his “model” of leadership, and he has made policy coordination with Washington a priority. After a congratulations call to Bolsonaro, Trump tweeted that he and the president-elect “agreed that Brazil and the United States will work closely together on Trade, Military and everything else!  Excellent call, wished him congrats!”  Bolsonaro met last week with Trump’s National Security Adviser, John Bolton, to discuss joint efforts to achieve regime change in Cuba and Venezuela, among other topics.
  • Even before that, Bolsonaro had ramped up his already strong rhetoric against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and reversed a long-standing policy of cooperation with Cuba, taking aim first at the 8,300 Cuban doctors in Brazil’s Mais Medicos. “We can’t allow Cuban slaves in Brazil,” he said, “And we can’t keep feeding the Cuban dictatorship.”  Havana began withdrawing the doctors before Bolsonaro could expel them.
  • Bolsonaro has barely mentioned UNASUR and is downplaying relations with Argentina, Brazil’s main strategic partner in the region, while emphasizing relations with what he calls “developed nations.” In addition to the United States, he is focused on Italy, Hungary – due to leaders’ far-right political affinities – and Israel.  The evangelical political forces who backed his election are pressing him to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, respecting “a sovereign decision of Israel.”  The Trump administration will warmly welcome the move, but Bolsonaro will face a potentially significant loss of trade among Middle Eastern and Asian partners.  The president-elect has yet to show his hand on China – Brazil’s main trading partner – and the other BRICS countries.  The Trump administration’s increasingly tough criticism of China’s activities in Latin America may temper the new government’s enthusiasm for closer ties with Beijing.

Bolsonaro has taken positions that set him at odds with the rest of the hemisphere.  He has denied the excesses of Brazil’s past dictatorship, advocated the use of torture against criminals whom he classifies as “terrorists,” used aggressive rhetoric against minorities (LGBTI, women, indigenous peoples, Afro-Brazilian Quilombolas, and migrants), and promised to reduce certain social rights.  Brazil’s diplomatic capital as a leader on environment and climate change is also at risk due to his domestic priority to promote agricultural business and the need to preserve “total” sovereignty over the Amazon Basin at the expense of protecting the rainforest.  He has cancelled Brazil’s commitment to host crucial UN climate change talks (COP25) in 2019, a deal negotiated by the government of President Temer just months ago.

Bolsonaro’s choice of his new foreign minister may be emblematic of his approach to international relations.  He met his commitment to choose a career diplomat, but his choice was Ernesto Araújo, an unknown who was recently promoted without ambassadorial experience who is a self-declared anti-globalist, anti-communist, and Trump’s enthusiastic “intellectual disciple.”  This appointment violates the tradition, observed even during the military governments, of selecting senior, skillful, and experienced ambassadors not directly linked to any ideological trend.  Further questions are raised by the military’s influence in the cabinet.  Two retired generals, Vice President Hamilton Mourão and the future head of Institutional Security Cabinet, Augusto Heleno, are expected to be the president’s right-hand men.  They and an empowered Ministry of Defense certainly will exercise huge influence in promoting a military vision of foreign policy in addressing issues such as borders policy and the Venezuela crisis, and could become a “second track” on Brazil’s foreign policy.

December 4, 2018

* Gilberto M.A. Rodrigues is Professor of International Relations at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC) in Brazil, and was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2017.

Cuba: Sticking to the Plan

By Fulton Armstrong

Miguel Diaz Canel

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel. / Irene Pérez / Cubadebate / Flickr / Creative Commons

As Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel passed the six-month mark in office this month, his administration – not surprisingly – continued to produce no surprises.  His rhetoric and policies, similar to the package of constitutional reforms now undergoing consulta popular and scheduled to be approved by referendum next February, are an extension of Raúl Castro’s tightrope walk between continuity and gradual change.

  • Speaking at the UN General Assembly in September, Díaz-Canel condemned the “selfishness and exclusion” of capitalism as the cause of poverty, instability, climate change, and other ills. He also proclaimed, “The generational change in [Cuba’s] government should not deceive the enemies of the revolution; we are continuity, not rupture.”  He welcomed the almost-friendless Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro to join one of his biggest public appearances.  Showing his pragmatic side, however, Díaz-Canel also met in New York with U.S. technology companies and icons of U.S. capitalism – Google, Bloomberg, Microsoft, Twitter, and others – declared his hope to “computerize [Cuban] society,” and welcomed the announcement of the first U.S.-Cuban biotech joint venture.  Upon his return to Havana, he launched his own Twitter account.
  • On economic reform, Díaz-Canel has continued the same halting approach toward market socialism as did Raúl. New regulations announced in July, to be implemented in December, seemed designed to restrain the growth of the private sector rather than accelerate the reform program.  New mechanisms to ensure that cuentapropistas pay more taxes and operate within the law will dampen their growth in the short term and aggravate contradictions in current policies – for example, curbing black-market purchases of supplies without creating wholesale markets for them.

Ongoing national discussions on constitutional reforms, launched by the National Assembly in July, are compatible with Díaz-Canel’s approach to change.

  • The new document reaffirms two tenets of the Communist Party’s revolutionary platform – the party’s continued leading role as sole political representative of the Cuban nation, and a commitment to a socialist system in which state property predominates and universal social services remain free. But, importantly, the draft omits the goal in the 1976 constitution of “building a Communist society,” signaling the leadership’s recognition that private property and markets will be a permanent feature of the new Cuban model.  It reconfigures policymaking processes to increase efficiency (such as by formalizing the position of Prime Minister), increases the autonomy of local government, and separates more clearly executive and legislative functions.  An amendment allowing same-sex marriage has sparked heated public debate and given rise to an unprecedented political organizing drive by churches opposed to it.
  • The amended constitution does not significantly expand the space for private enterprise, but it provides a stronger legal foundation for the reforms that have already been implemented in various waves since 1992. The draft also strengthens protections of Cuban and foreign-owned private property and investment, providing guarantees against future expropriation.

When introducing changes over the years, the government has routinely, if not obsessively, emphasized continuity – and Díaz-Canel’s administration is proving to be no different.  The signs of change are often nuanced, whereas hardline positions, which tamp down progressives’ expectations and assuage conservatives’ anxieties, are unmistakable.  Díaz-Canel’s adherence to Raúl’s program gives him both essential political cover emphasizing continuity as well as a platform for continuing gradual change.  That formula doesn’t help him with some major challenges, such as the need to unify the country’s two currencies, that have loomed large for several years.  But Díaz-Canel’s gradualist approach – particularly if enshrined in a new constitution next year – is compatible with the view held by many Cubans that change should be evolutionary, not disruptive, even if they wish it went faster.  Washington’s curtailment of bilateral normalization is depriving the private sector of much-needed resources to drive change, but the country’s continued international outreach and expansion of internet access have given entrepreneurs a moral, if not economic, lifeline.  Cubans have often said they’ll do change “their own way,” and Díaz-Canel, with his abundance of caution, may be leading that process. 

October 31, 2018

U.S.-Cuba: How to Stop the Backslide in Relations

By William M. LeoGrande*

Raúl Castro sits at a table with two men.

Cuban President Raúl Castro. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Relations between the United States and Cuba are on a downward spiral due to the mysterious injuries suffered by staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana last year, and there is no clear escape path from the vicious circle of recriminations that have damaged the interests of both countries.  Washington’s initial response to the reported injuries a little over a year ago was to work quietly behind the scenes with Cuban authorities, even arranging visits by the FBI to Cuba.  However, once the story went public, calling the injuries “sonic attacks,” the Trump Administration bowed to pressure from Cuban-American legislators – Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio foremost among them – to impose sanctions on Havana.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in late September issued an “ordered departure,” pulling most U.S. diplomats and family out of Havana and closing the consular section.  Days later, he expelled an equal number of Cubans, including their embassy’s consular staff and entire commercial section.  Soon after, Washington issued a travel warning that “we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”

  • The most recent blow to relations came on March 2, when the State Department announced that the staffing cutbacks would be permanent. Although it has been six months since the last recorded injury, Tillerson refuses to return U.S. diplomats to Havana until the mystery is solved or Cuba provides “credible assurances” that whatever happened will not happen again, but he has not said what assurances would count as credible.  Going forward, the U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba will be weaker than at any time since former President Jimmy Carter opened the U.S. Interests Section in 1977.  With these actions, Cuban officials have begun to see the whole acoustic episode as an excuse manufactured by the Trump Administration to reverse President Obama’s normalization policy.

The absence of diplomatic boots on the ground means fewer cultural, educational, and business exchanges; slower progress on issues of mutual interest; less help for U.S. visitors who need consular services; and new hardships for Cubans seeking to emigrate to the United States, who now have to travel abroad to get a visa.  The travel warning has already reduced the number of U.S. visitors, hurting the owners of private rental homes (casas particulares) and restaurants (paladares).  U.S. study abroad programs have been hit hardest because many universities prohibit sending students to a country under a warning.  Neither government has suspended technical talks on issues of mutual interest like counter-narcotics and safe and orderly migration, but the State Department’s refusal to meet in Havana is certain to test Cubans’ patience.

As the last incident recedes in time, the chances of solving the mystery recede with it, which does not bode well for U.S.-Cuban relations.  Next month, Raúl Castro, the principal patron of normalization on the Cuban side, will retire from the presidency, raising the question whether his successor will persist in trying to improve relations when there appears to be so little interest in Washington.  Both U.S. and Cuban diplomats seem sincere about finding a way out of this impasse, get their embassies back up to full strength, and resume the dialogues that were underway, but this is a “permanent” reduction in staff without laying out the conditions – such as a particular period of time without new incidents or enhanced security measures – for restoring personnel.  The longer the two embassies operate with skeletal staff, the more damage will be done to the broad range of issues of mutual interest the two countries share.  Without an operating consulate, moreover, the United States will likely fail to meet its commitment – rooted in a 1994 agreement maintained by Presidents from both parties – to issue 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans each year.  The United States and Cuba made surprisingly fast diplomatic progress in the last two years of the Obama Administration, signing two dozen bilateral agreements and dramatically expanding trade and travel.  Ending the Cold War in the Caribbean was overwhelmingly popular among ordinary citizens in both countries.  The current freeze in relations puts those gains at risk, giving both governments good reason to re-double their efforts to find a way out.

March 13, 2018

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University.  This article is an adaptation of his analysis that appeared in Americas Quarterly on March 6.