(Illustration: Jasper Rietman for NY Times)
Tomorrow is January 20th. It’s official. Mr Trump will now be our President, and despite all the other issues to face internationally, this blog post is about one thing only — How “the Donald” will be handling Cuba/US relations and how you as an American can help shape policy and public sentiment.
On this first day at the Sundance Film Festival, we’d like to remind you to keep an eye on these films shot in Cuba. Mostly because they all exhibit a strong spirit of engagement, entering feet into the country to better understand the daily lives of our neighbors just 90 miles south.
What is the latest on the overall relations as we enter this new administration? Here’s the fat and skinny.
FROM THE US:
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order”, declares Trump, “which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do so unless the Castro regime meets our demands.”
“Aggression, pressure, conditions, impositions do not work with Cuba. This is not the way to attempt to have even a minimally civilized relationship with Cuba”, said Josefina Vidal, a foreign ministry department head (as told to the Guardian).
We realize this looks like a runaway train in a bad action movie. The train is going to drive off the cliff, right? Well, maybe not. That is, if you believe in “People Power”. Ok, so it didn’t work so well with the popular vote during elections (by over 3 million), but Americans DID gather in solidarity over the Dakota Access Pipeline. A coalition of climate activists and native Americans managed to raise enough awareness which resulted in the rerouting of the pipeline away from Sioux Reservation. As an idealist, I believe it’s our duty to exercise this “people power” each and every day. Before I begin spelling out action points for this particular cause, allow me to explain the landscape briefly.
We have come a long way in the last 2 years under Obama’s normalization era. While the Obama Administration has eased certain travel and trade restrictions, only Congress can lift the embargo. We have seen what isolation tactics have accomplished in the past 55 years — zilch. Just a bitter relationship between both nations. We have already seen that a policy change from hostility to one of engagement has benefited the Cuban people more in the past two years than in the last 50 years combined.
Improving the daily lives of the Cuban people is a top priority of normalizing relations with Cuba. For the past 55 years, the only people who have been hurt by the embargo are the Cuban people, as well as US Companies. Isn’t Trump’s mandate to create more jobs in the US? Will Raul Castro and Trump be able to strike a new deal? Essentially, the embargo has failed. Logically speaking, no business in the world would continue a strategy that has failed for 55 years. It has ended up punishing the Cuban people and isolating us from the rest of the world, especially our other allies in Central and South America.
(Obama meets with Raul in March 2016. Photo: Stephen Crowley/The New York Time)
Re-engagement is driving change on the island that is empowering the Cuban people.
Here’s a few main points to consider:
Cuba’s Private Sector:
Cuba’s private sector is the fastest growing industry in Cuba’s economy, estimated to have grown to about 1/3 of Cuba’s workforce. This boom in private sector employment is fueled by tourism – which would dramatically increase if we lift the embargo. The over 4,000 private restaurant owners, and 28,000 bed & breakfast owners, the growing number of taxi drivers, half a million private farmers, and millions more private sector employees in the tourism sector would benefit tremendously from lifting the embargo.
Increased Tourism benefits the Cuban People:
Increased travel to Cuba is fueling private sector growth that is empowering Cubans across the island. Cuba is becoming the number 1 tourist destination in the Caribbean. International tourism has skyrocketed, and with the reestablishment of commercial flights, experts expect a huge increase in American travel. The influx of American travel will come with certain expectations – expectations that cell phones will work, credit cards will work, access to internet won’t be severely limited – this will foster the kind of change that will not only benefit American travelers, but Cubans across the island. (p.s. As an American, you can travel to North Korea, Syria, Saudi Arabia — but you can’t travel to Cuba as a tourist. Cuba is the only country in the world that the U.S. government prohibits tourist travel)
Access to Internet:
In this era of relaxed relations, recently, the price of internet has been reduced to $1.50 cucs p/hr, down from $2 cucs. The State is also launching some home internet connections in Havana Vieja, as well as wiring the entire Malecon street with wifi early next year (which requires a paid login with a Nauta card). Just a few weeks ago, Google signed a deal with Cuba’s ETECSA to install servers on Cuban soil for faster service. Although some of the internet expansion are purely internal decisions, it is however, a perfect climate to work with American brands such as Google or other digital entities seeking to improve connectivity on the island. This benefits all Cuban people.
Year after year after year, every nation in the world, except the U.S. and Israel, votes at the United Nations General Assembly to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba. But even Israel trades with Cuba. Continuing 55 years of failed policy that has been repeatedly and publicly condemned by the international community as pointless and ineffective is weakening our stance abroad. Lifting the embargo would in fact strengthen our international credibility, not the other way around. Also, major international human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam all publicly support lifting the embargo because they believe it makes it harder to improve human rights.
75% of U.S. adults approve of the decision last year to re-establish U.S. relations with Cuba, while nearly as many (73%) favor ending the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, according to a new national survey by Pew Research Center conducted Dec. 1-5. Also, it is important to note that Florida did not go Trump because of the Cuban-American population. Trump’s Florida win was in fact due to votes from white voters in the I-4 corrider section of Florida. The Cuban-American vote was a non-factor. (read this thoroughly researched article on what happened in Florida). In fact, 63% of Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade county support lifting the embargo, according to a FIU poll released Sep., 2016. In fact, Hillary actually out-performed Obama in Miami-Dade — a testament to how far Cuban-Americans have evolved in this area of discussion.
(Cubans stand in support of the opening of the US Embassy in Cuba, 2016)
WHAT DO CUBANS WANT?
Mostly all Cubans I have spoken to on the island welcome the reconciliation efforts made by President Obama. After half a century of butting heads, both sides are fatigued from the hostility. It was evident when you saw the faces of joyful Cubans during Obama’s visit. A young journalist, Elaine Diaz Rodriguez (the editor-in-chief of a Havana-based independent news digital magazine, Periodismo de Barrio) expressed it bluntly yet eloquently when describing this new “frenemies” relationship between US and Cuba.
“There can be no true friendship between the governments of Cuba and the United States. They represent two opposing political systems and the first has long been denying the right of the second to exist and vice versa. The most we can expect is tolerance and respect. And that is exactly what we achieved, in a way, after December 17,2014 under Barack Obama’s administration”. She continues, “but people do not have to play by the same rules as governments. There has always been true friendship between the people of Cuba and the people of the US”.
The rest of how this story plays out will take time. We presume it will be a slow burning relationship that needs to be fostered and healed over the next few years, as we focus instead on the few things we DO have in common, as well as our general mutual interests.
(Young Cubans enthusiastic to catch a glimpse of their first US President visit in 88 years when Obama strolled through Havana Vieja, March 2016. Photo: © Carlos Barria / Reuters)
Elaine closes her letter to Trump with the affirmative answer: “Both leaders have spoken loudly: we want relationships, we want embassies, we want the negotiations to keep going, we want to reach an agreement in every area and we are open to dialogue. We people want to be close, not far. We want to build bridges, not walls”.
It’s safe to say that lots of Cubans feel as she does. And now for the next steps.
To affect real change as Americans, we need to mobilize our constituents around the US. If you’re an American and are in favor of bettering Cuba/US relations, here is a basic overview of how “people power’ can help push this forward.
Contact your representative:
Constituents outreach has been incredibly helpful in gaining support from Republican members of Congress for lifting the embargo. Here is a link with a sample script for folks to call Congressional offices, as well as a sample letter to send to Representatives. Although the majority of my readers are from LA, NY, MIAMI, I strongly encourage everyone to reach out to Republican members of Congress.
Contact the Administration:
While only Congress can lift the embargo, as you know, the Administration has a lot of latitude in terms of easing or tightening sanctions. Trump’s nominee for Treasury is Steve Mnuchin (read about the Hollywood movie financier). So to all my Hollywood friends and readers, if you have a connection to Mnuchin, reach out and urge him not to roll back changes. A lot of the regulatory changes have happened through the Dept. of Treasury.
Here is a link to donate to the Engage Cuba Foundation. Engage Cuba is a national coalition of private business, organizations, and local leaders dedicated to advancing federal legislation to lift the embargo. Currently, there are three bipartisan bills that Engage Cuba is actively advocating for in Congress. Read more about their legislative priorities here. If you care about the embargo being dropped, this is the organization to support. Donations to the Engage Cuba Foundation (a 501(c)3 non-profit) are tax deductible.
1- Book: Open for Business, Building the New Cuban Economy to better understand the new private sector in Cuba, and the need to support Cuban entrepreneurs.
2- Newsletter: Go to EngageCuba.org and subscribe to their newsletter to stay in the loop on Cuba/US Affairs.
Go online and voice your opinion:
If you’re at Sundance this week and if these films resonate with you, post a social media message or write a blog post (if you’re not at the festival, spread the word anyways).
1- We ask Trump not to rollback regulations on Cuba. See #GiveMeFuture @Diplo @MajorLazer to see real engagement #LiftTheEmbargo @Engage_Cuba
2- It’s time to engage w/Cuba & show solidarity with the Cuban people #GiveMeFuture #LiftTheEmbargo @Engage_Cuba @majorlazer