Later this month, Cuba will celebrate a milestone in its history: On March 26, Pope Benedict XVI will fly from Mexico to Santiago de Cuba, kicking off a 48-hour whirlwind tour of the communist island.
After saying Mass at the city’s Antonio Maceo Revolution Square, he’ll visit the cathedral of Cuba’s patron saint, La Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre, as part of celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the virgin’s image.
The visit, which concludes with an outdoor Mass at Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución, will mark only the second papal tour to Cuba since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Yet one important anniversary isn’t being toasted at all — at least not on the streets of Havana.
Fifty years ago, on Feb. 7, 1962, President John F. Kennedy expanded the partial embargo that had been imposed more than a year earlier by his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, into a total economic embargo against Cuba that endures to this day.
That embargo, aimed at depriving the Castro regime of badly needed dollars, makes it impossible for average American tourists to frolic on the beaches of Varadero, only 90 miles due south of Key West, Fla. — even though U.S. law permits them to visit every other nation on Earth, including Syria, North Korea and Iran.
“El bloqueo,” as the embargo is known in Spanish, is supported enthusiastically by hard-line Cuban-American exiles in South Florida and elsewhere. Yet it deprives most American businesses of some 11 million potential customers. It also prevents U.S. petroleum companies from doing exactly what their Chinese, Canadian, Venezuelan, Indian, Vietnamese and Norwegian counterparts are all doing right now: drilling in promising offshore Cuban waters in the Gulf of Mexico.
“If this were 1962 and I told you all that it was more likely the United States would elect a black man president than lift the embargo against Cuba, I bet you’d have called me crazy,” said Ginger Thompson, Washington correspondent for the New York Times and the newspaper’s former bureau chief in Mexico City.
“But here we are,” she said. “The Berlin Wall has come down, the Soviet Union has disappeared, and still we have the embargo in place. It remains almost as solid today as when it was established to break Fidel Castro’s hold on power. This is one of the most polarizing debates on Capitol Hill, and recent actions by the Obama administration [to relax Cuba-related travel and remittance regulations] have done little to please those on either side.”
Thompson recently moderated a spirited debate between Colin Powell’s former chief of staff and a Cuban-born enemy of the Castro regime. The Jan. 18 faceoff, sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Washington, D.C., served as yet another reminder of how divisive the embargo remains, 50 years after its implementation.
It featured embargo critic Col. Larry Wilkerson on one side, and Mike Gonzalez — who supports a hard-line Cuba policy — on the other.
For Gonzalez, vice president of communications at the Heritage Foundation, this debate is deeply personal.
“I left Cuba at the age of 12, after my father died. I saw firsthand what it was like to live under that terrible regime. I remember how my teachers tried to get me to denounce my friends, my family and my church, which I didn’t do,” he said. “Cuba went from a first-rate economy to a barter economy. I remember how my father had to trade whiskey and cigarettes for milk for his kids. I made a career all over the world as a reporter to defend freedom for that reason.”
Indeed, Gonzalez spent 20 years as a journalist, 15 of them covering Europe and Asia for the Wall Street Journal. He left journalism to join the Bush administration, eventually joining the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based outfit that’s known for its deeply conservative views.
“Communism didn’t work in Korea, it didn’t work in Germany. What makes you think it’s going to produce wealth in Cuba?” he said. “The Cuban economy is in ruins today not because of the embargo, but because its socialist policies have failed.”
Wilkerson, who just returned from a trip to Havana, is a visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Va. Before being appointed Powell’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005 and associate director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, he served 31 years in the Army.
The problem today, he explained, is that Cuba policy isn’t a priority for an administration consumed with the war in Afghanistan, Iran’s nuclear aspirations and continuing economic strife.
“People don’t care about Cuba, and you can’t blame them,” he said. “After all, we’ve got Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and a financial situation in this country that I think is as profound as the Great Depression. So it’s very difficult to get Americans’ attention about 11.5 million people living on an island 90 miles off the Florida Strait.”
That’s even more so in a presidential election year like 2012, said the retired colonel.
“Karl Rove once told Colin Powell, ‘Don’t touch Cuba because we want Florida’s 27 electoral votes,'” he recalled. “Dick Cheney also knew our Cuba policy was idiotic, but even he knew that you don’t touch Cuba policy. The Obama administration is the first to get into the White House without the hard-line Cuban vote in Florida, so they have a little more flexibility with regard to that reality. However, it’s still a very difficult move for the Democrats to make.”
Indeed, the Obama administration has moved cautiously with regard to Cuba policy. Like all presidents before him, Obama opposes lifting the embargo outright. Yet just over a year ago, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control relaxed rules that had been imposed seven years earlier by President George W. Bush to squeeze the Castro regime. The new rules allow “persons subject to the jurisdiction of the United States” to send up to $500 every three months, or $2,000 a year, to recipients in Cuba “to support the development of private businesses” in that country.
They also remove all limits on Cuban-American exile travel to Cuba; before, such people could travel to Cuba only once every three years and stay for only two weeks.
“Thanks to President Obama’s decision to allow Cuban-American families to visit the island and send remittances as much as they want, Cubans have received over 400,000 visits and roughly $2 billion from relatives in the United States,” said Ted Piccone, a senior fellow and deputy director for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “These are proving to be important sources of currency and commerce that are helping families cope with reduced subsidies, and they breathe life into the burgeoning private sector.”
Despite the limited opening, Cuba remains off-limits to regular tourists seeking sun and sand. It’s also one of only four countries still on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, along with Syria, Sudan and Iran.
Even Iraq, Libya and North Korea have long since been removed from that hated list — and that’s absolutely ridiculous, says Wilkerson, a long-time critic of U.S. policy in Latin America.
“Two different U.S. Coast Guard attachés attached to the U.S. Interests Section in Havana told me during this last trip that when it comes to terrorism, counter-narcotics and every other illicit activity, their relationship with the Cuban military is the best in the Caribbean, even better than with Mexico,” he said. “But our military wouldn’t like to publicize that because they feel like doing it on the sly will ultimately produce a more positive result than saying, ‘Hey, we’re working with the Cubans.'”
Jorge Alberto Bolaños, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, has declined repeated requests for an interview since arriving in January 2008. But Carlos Alzugaray, Cuba’s former ambassador to the European Union and now a visiting professor at New York’s Queens College, is eager to talk.
“I think getting Cuba off the State Department terrorist list depends to a great extent on the administration. They’re the ones who have to take this step. I don’t think politically it’s a major problem, though there’s going to be resistance from the Cuban-American right-wing Republicans,” he told The Diplomat. “No serious scholar believes Cuba is in any way linked to terrorism.”
Maybe so, but Cuba’s critics aren’t buying into the notion that the Castro brothers have nothing to do with the terrorists of the world.
“Col. Wilkerson wasn’t the only foreigner [in Cuba] last week,” the Heritage Foundation’s Gonzalez retorted. “Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was there too — and not to go to the beach, and not as many middle-age European men do, to seek sexual favors with young Cuban women. The organizing principle of the Cuban regime is anti-Americanism, the same which Ahmadinejad supports in Tehran. And that regime will be a very willing accomplice to any state or individual who means to do us harm.”
And despite the hopeful economic reforms ushered in by Raúl Castro, who formally took over for his older brother Fidel in 2008, “the dirty little secret about Raúl Castro is that he has unleashed a wave of violence and repression in the last six months,” argues Gonzalez. “Damas de Blanco [Ladies in White] is a group of defenseless women who try to march to church on Sundays, but they are beaten by goons bussed in by the regime. Two months ago, outside Cuba’s holiest shrine in Santiago de Cuba, a mob stripped them to the waist and dragged them through the streets.”
According to Havana human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez, the Castro regime also arrested 4,123 people for political reasons in 2011 — an average of 11 a day.
At the same time, Raúl Castro has embarked on a series of dramatic economic reforms aimed at improving the lives of average Cubans and introducing a nascent private sector while keeping discontent to a minimum.
The first major change was a new urban law approved by Cuba’s Communist Party late last year that allows ordinary Cubans to buy and sell houses for the first time since the revolution. That law imposes few legal requirements and forbids state interference in fixing prices, opening up a potentially huge local real estate market.
Then came something even more extraordinary: a decree that lets farmers sell their commodities freely and directly, without any state meddling, to state businesses and services, including hotels and restaurants. This represents a deadly blow to Acopio, the government’s hated fixed-price, forced-procurement system.
More recently, Cuba’s banking system was revamped to offer new services to private farmers, cooperatives, the self-employed sector, small businesses, individuals and all other players in the “non-state” or private sector. To date, more than 350,000 Cubans are now classified as “cuentapropistas” or self-employed.
But Cuba can’t do it alone, argues Richard E. Feinberg, professor of international politics at the University of California-San Diego. To really be economically successful, it needs help from international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
“Cuba today is increasingly globalized. It’s engaged with many developed, capitalist economies and emerging market economies. And most interestingly, there are some indications Cuba is now ready to engage with IFIs [international financial institutions] under certain circumstances,” said Feinberg, speaking at a recent Brookings conference.
He noted that 187 countries belong to the IMF and World Bank — literally every nation on Earth (not including microstates like Andorra, Monaco, Liechtenstein and San Marino) except for Cuba and North Korea.
“Now is the time for the international development community to engage in Cuba, to support the incipient economic reform process. Let’s be a part of history in the making. It’s time the IFIs complete their historic goal of full universality,” he said, noting that North Korea will one day be reunited with South Korea, and hence will be absorbed into a state that’s already a member of the IMF.
“That makes Cuba the only full country left out,” he said. “IFI engagement with Cuba should begin with technical assistance prior to membership, and the IFIs should beef up their expertise on Cuba.”
Meanwhile, to accommodate increased U.S. travel to Cuba — as well as trips by students, researchers, journalists, humanitarian groups and other licensed travelers — the White House has drastically expanded the number of U.S. airports allowed to offer direct charter service to Cuba to more than a dozen. Besides Baltimore Washington International Airport, these include Atlanta, Chicago, Fort Lauderdale, Houston, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Tampa, among others. Until last year, such charter flights could originate only from Miami, New York or Los Angeles.
Last month, the first charter flight to Cuba took off from Houston’s Bush Intercontinental Airport, carrying 80 passengers — mostly business people authorized to connect with professionals in Cuba.
Similar service had been scheduled to begin March 21 from BWI to Havana — which would have linked the D.C. area with Cuba’s capital by regular air service for the first time in history — but William Hauf, president of Island Travel & Tours, said he’s been forced to postpone such flights until the fall.
“We were premature in establishing the date of March 21, because the demand for these flights has not yet reached a level where they can be self-supporting,” said Hauf, noting that only three tickets had been sold as of Feb. 15.
Each round-trip ticket costs $895 (the Cuban airport landing fee alone is $194 per passenger), making it slightly more expensive than flying to London and back.
“It’s going to take some time to mature to the point where the community is fully aware of these flights,” Hauf said, adding that at $895 a ticket, at least 80 seats must be sold just to break even.
“The plane itself costs $50,000, and that combined with airport taxes, landing fees and commissions to be paid to the travel service providers bring the total costs over $70,000,” he explained. “This is a very expensive operation, and we don’t want to happen to us what we’ve seen with other cities, where they started prematurely and demand didn’t grow.”
Charter airlines have already been forced to scale back Cuba-bound flights from Chicago, New York’s JFK, Atlanta and San Juan, Puerto Rico, after the demand was just not there. At present, Miami offers 60 flights a week to Cuba; in second place is Tampa, with four flights a week. In fact, demand out of Tampa has been so high that airlines reportedly have had to stagger the number of passengers per flight to make room for all the gifts and baggage they’re taking with them to Cuba.
To that end, Hauf remains hopeful. “We’ve gotten calls from diplomats, the State Department, high schools, music teachers, colleges and universities,” he said. “This is a long-term market, with gradual growth to get up to the number of passengers that will create a breakeven point.”
However, if Mitt Romney wins the White House in November, entrepreneurs like Hauf may find themselves out of luck.
Romney has come a long way since 2008, when he offended Cuban-American exiles in Miami by ending his campaign speech with “¡Patria o muerte, venceremos!” — Fidel Castro’s traditional signoff.
Exit polls showed Romney the clear favorite among Cuban-Americans who voted in Florida’s Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary. He won Miami-Dade County, home to many Cuban Americans, by a 2-to-1 margin over his top rival, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Romney’s decisive win in Florida — a big improvement over four years ago, when he came in second to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) — is the result of better advice on how to win the votes of Cuban American conservative voters.
Romney’s top advisors are among the embargo’s fiercest defenders. These include Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee) and Mario Diaz-Balart, both Cuban American Republicans representing heavily Hispanic districts in South Florida.
Diaz-Balart, who did not support Romney in the 2008 presidential race, now says the former Massachusetts governor is “super solid” among the exile community. “He clearly understands that appeasing state sponsors of terrorism is a recipe for disaster, [and] he has a very strong position on denying hard currency to the regime.”
Romney’s views on Cuba are important because — although he’s dogged by several GOP rivals — conventional wisdom says he’ll eventually become the Republican nominee for the White House. It’s also likely he would select GOP Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a Cuban American and strong supporter of Cuba sanctions, as his running mate.
If Romney wins the nomination and goes on to defeat Obama in the November presidential election, Romney has vowed to reinstate Bush-era restrictions on travel and remittances to Cuba that Obama abolished in 2009, and “strictly adhere” to the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, including Title III, “to place maximum pressure on the Cuban regime.” Title III allows Americans to sue people or companies who use Cuban property seized after Castro’s 1959 revolution. But no lawsuits have been filed because U.S. presidents consistently waive enforcement of Title III.
Romney would also demand the immediate release of Alan Gross, a 62-year-old American arrested more than two years ago for distributing high-tech communications equipment in Cuba through a U.S. Agency for International Development “democracy building” program.
In this regard, Romney is following in the footsteps of Obama, who has also demanded Gross’s immediate release.
In January, the Cuban government announced it would release 2,900 prisoners, including 86 foreigners, ahead of Pope Benedict’s visit this spring. But Gross wasn’t one of them.
Despite the pontiff’s short stay in Cuba, the trip has generated much excitement among Cubans both on the island as well as in the United States.
“We think his visit will spread a message of hope, peace and moral values — in sharp contrast to what Cubans experience on a daily basis,” said Tony Jimenez, co-founder of a Miami-based student group known as Raíces de Esperanza (Roots of Hope). “It’s an opportunity for Catholics and others to see what’s really going on in Cuba.”
In fact, many U.S. Catholic leaders plan to travel to Havana for the event. Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski will be conducting his own pilgrimage to Cuba during the pope’s visit there. Wenski told local media outlets that if the response merits, he’d like to book two charter flights to Cuba that week, with each jet holding up to 250 passengers.
Non-Catholics have endorsed Wenski’s pilgrimage to Cuba. “The presence of the Holy Father will benefit all Cuban Christians regardless of denomination,” said Bishop Leo Frade of the Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida. “I welcome his visit and applaud Archbishop Wenski for his courage of accompanying the pope in Cuba and his desire for reconciliation among Cubans on both sides of the Straits of Florida.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.