CubaBrief: Revisiting the aftermath of the Obama Administration’s normalization of relations with Cuba

First and foremost the step taken by the Biden Administration on Cuba, to conduct an in depth investigation into what led to the brain injuries of scores of U.S. diplomats beginning in late 2016 in Havana is both right and necessary. Policy makers should also look at the Castro regime’s history of outlaw behavior and international terrorism when considering possible bad actors.

Hours before President Obama's arrival in Cuba on March 21, 2016 a member of the Ladies in White taken away by police.

Hours before President Obama’s arrival in Cuba on March 21, 2016 a member of the Ladies in White taken away by police.

Advocates for returning to the 2009 – 2017 Cuba normalization policy are wrong in the claims they continue to make. Tourism had unexpected and negative consequences for Cubans. Loosening sanctions benefitted the Cuban military that expanded its role in the national economy, while engaging in repressive behavior at home and abroad, especially in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Human rights violations worsened in Cuba during the Obama detente, and the promise of Havana’s increased engagement with the International Red Cross did not translate into visits to Cuba’s prisons.

Tourism to Cuba had unexpected outcomes reported The New York Times in 2016 that the impact of nearly 3.5 million visitors to Cuba in 2015 had caused a surging demand for food that led to “soaring prices and empty shelves” with basic food staples “becoming unaffordable for regular Cubans.” The paper of record concluded “tourists are quite literally eating Cuba’s lunch.”

Unintended consequences extended into other areas beyond food staples.

It was not the “fledgling private sector” that flourished under the last two years of the Obama Administration but the Cuban military and its conglomerate the “Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group” (GAESA) headed up by Raul Castro’s former son-in-law, General Luis Alberto Rodriguez. GAESA expanded into sectors previously controlled by civilians in the government.

Over 25 years Eusebio Leal, the city historian, and his office worked to restore Old Havana, and over this period it “became a center of power with unprecedented budgetary freedom” under the entity known as Habaguanex, and was viewed by some as a success story. According to the Associated Press in August 2016, ” the Cuban military took over the business operations of Leal’s City Historian’s Office, absorbing them into a business empire that has grown dramatically since the declaration of detente between the U.S. and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.”

According to Reuters, “the only hotel deal struck” prior to Trump cooling relations with Havana was between Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (Marriott International Inc) and Gaviota, a subsidiary of GAESA to manage a hotel in Havana owned by the military conglomerate. All the state hotels, stores and eateries in colonial Old Havana were taken over by GAESA in the last year of the Obama Administration.

The reality that the lack of human rights for Cubans also impacts the economic sphere was revealed with a high profile foreign investment that failed. In mid-February 2016 the Obama administration gave “its approval to the first American factory in Cuba in more than 50 years”, and ABC News also reported that “the move appears to have gained the support of the Cuban government as well.” Official communist publications Granma and Juventud Rebelde published stories praising the initiative.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Saul Berenthal in Havana, Cuba, on March 21, 2016. Credit: Photo by Pete Souza.

President Barack Obama shakes hands with Saul Berenthal in Havana, Cuba, on March 21, 2016. Credit: Photo by Pete Souza.

Ten months later in November 2016 the Cuban government said no. Turned out that one of the owners of the company that would set up the factory, Saul Berenthal, was Cuban American, and in his enthusiasm Mr. Berenthal had reclaimed his Cuban citizenship. This exposed an ugly truth. Average Cubans living on the island are not allowed to make large investments into businesses, and this led to the deal being rejected.

“The real reason for the rejection was that Berenthal, a 73-year-old retired software engineer who was born in Cuba and lived in the United States since 1960, had obtained permanent residence in Cuba, according to a knowledgeable source who asked for anonymity to speak about the issue. “Saul got enthusiastic,” the source told el Nuevo Herald. Berenthal’s “repatriation” put the Cuban government in a difficult position: accept the project, even though it would break its own ban on large investments by Cubans who live on the island, or reject it using an indirect argument. Officials chose the second option.”

There was not an explosion of positive change in Cuba, but to the contrary the number of arbitrary detentions against dissidents continued to rise geometrically over 2014, 2015, and 2016 as Human Rights Watch documented in their annual reports, but failed to mention rising acts of violence against dissidents such as the May 24, 2015 machete attack against Sirley Avila Leon. that led to the loss of her hand, and the use of both her knees in a politically motivated attack.

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Sirley Avila Leon: In Cuba in 2015 following the machete attack and exiled in Miami in 2016

Prior to President Obama’s March 2016 state visit to Cuba, “police arrested more than 300 dissidents as part of a crackdown on opposition leaders,” reported Human Rights Watch in their 2017 annual report.

The aftermath of the visit did not generate an improvement in relations. Two days after President Obama’s visit an official newspaper, Tribuna de la Habana, published an article about his visit titled “Negro, are you dumb?” Eight months later in November 2016 U.S. diplomats in Havana began to suffer brain injuries. On January 2, 2017, Raúl Castro presided over a military parade in which Cuban soldiers chanted: “Obama! Obama! With what fervor we’d like to confront your clumsiness, give you a cleansing with rebels and mortar, and make you a hat out of bullets to the head.”

The Trump Administration’s shift in Cuba policy did not worsen the human rights situation in Cuba, and on the economic front the regime in Havana in the summer of 2020 announced economic reforms that would have been celebrated during the Obama Presidency. The Obama Administration thought detente would lead to an improvement in human rights, and engagement with the International Committee of the Red Cross. It did not happen on his watch.

The last Red Cross visits to Cuban prisons were between 1988 and 1989 after the Reagan Administration, undid the Carter detente with Havana (1977-1981), placed Cuba on the list of terror sponsors, and pressured Havana at the United Nations Human Rights Commission and civil society organizations brought former Cuban political prisoners to give their testimony at an international forum in Paris in 1986. It was this that opened prisons in Cuba to international inspections for two years.

The man who led the effort at the United Nations that opened up Cuba’s prisons to Red Cross visits in 1988 and 1989 was Armando Valladares, a former Cuban political prisoner, and in March 2016 he characterized President Obama’s state visit to Cuba as a mistake. Five years later, and reviewing the aftermath of that visit, and the detente with Havana, and “a mistake” is the best way to sum up the whole policy. The President of the United States normalizing relations with a state sponsor of terrorism that remains ideologically hostile to the existence of the United States, while denying that reality, was doomed to fail, and so it did.

14ymedio, March 17, 2021

Deserter From Nicaraguan Anti-Riot Police Reveals He Was Trained By Cubans

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Julio César Espinoza Gallegos, in an interview for the Nicaraguan channel “Noticias 12.” (Capture)

14ymedio, Havana, March 17, 2021 — Julio César Espinoza Gallegos deserted from the Nicaraguan police in August of 2018, four months after the beginning of the big repression in April, but only now has he spoken with his country’s press, which he told, among other things, that his training was carried out by Cuban officials.

“I passed my anti-riot course with Cuban people and the training is for psychological preparation: that we go forward, forward, and never back. One is prepared for those types of shocks,” he told

“They had come to Nicaragua with the objective of training men and not women. They would say that if we were going to back down, we had better get out of the ranks of the Police,” he says from his new residence in Costa Rica, where he exiled himself in November 2020 because of the threats he was receiving.

Espinoza, who is now 32, joined the corps in 2012, in the Department of Special Police Operations (DOEP). Today, he considers himself tricked by the Sandinista propaganda that, he says, insisted to new agents upon their entry on how much the government of Daniel Ortega does for each one of them and that convinces them that the protests by Nicaraguans are “sheer madness.”

As part of his training, the ex-agent speaks of mentions of a supposed Yellow Revolution. “They knew that at any moment what happened in April was going to blow up, because the anti-riot police were prepared for that,” he says.

In April of 2018, when Nicaraguans began their protests against social security reforms, Espinoza joined as a reinforcement. “They send me to Masaya, which is where it blows up, and I end up injured by a stone-throwing,” he says. That was what kept him apart during three months of active repression.

In that period, and especially starting from the incident in which various opposition figures were killed in a home in a fire started by police and paramilitaries, is when, he says, he opened his eyes and realized that he had not sworn to repress the population, for which reason he decided to resign.

“The commissioner…tells me to work with them because they’re going to promote me, they’re going to give me rank, they’re going to assign me a vehicle and a weapon. I tell them no,” he remembers. At that moment, two intelligence people from El Chipote, the feared prison of the Somoza era, interrogated him and warned him of the consequences if he didn’t return to work.

As he says, a few days later they came to find and arrest his entire family. Espinoza was accused of terrorism, vandalism, kidnapping, and treason.

“Because I didn’t want to repress, they take these reprisals against me,” he says now from an exile which the pandemic has complicated and while he waits for a response on his asylum request.

Although it wasn’t until this crisis that Espinoza left the corps, he accuses the police of having “bloodstained hands” since long before and maintains that those who participate do so because “they like to kill… The police isn’t a job that is going to fire you, in the police you have to receive orders and if you have to kill, you’re going to kill,” he affirms.

Nicaragua will go to the ballot box on November 7, a process that many fear will be irregular. This Sunday, the ex-guerrilla and ex-Sandinista minister of health Dora María Téllez, now a fierce critic of the regime, asked the European Union to take measures before a fraud can consume them. “The Ortega regime doesn’t understand sweet words, the Ortega regime understands blunt messages,” she said.

According to the EFE agency, this Tuesday the Commission of Good Will, made up of Nicaraguan intellectuals, announced a plan to unite the opposition, with the goal of confronting the elections as one bloc. The group finds itself “adjusting the strategy for the rapprochement of the democratic opposition blocs, for which reason working sessions are being developed with the support of the Organization of Independent Professionals of Nicaragua and the Protest Group for Nicaragua.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Herrera

Politico, March 11, 2021

OPINION | Washington and the World

Biden’s No. 1 Task in Cuba? Find Out What Happened in Havana.

We still don’t know exactly how 26 American diplomats were injured in Havana in 2016 and 2017. But the evidence suggests Cuba at minimum failed to protect them.

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03/11/2021 04:30 AM EST

Kimberly Breier served on the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department from June 2017-October 2018, when she was confirmed as assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs. She is also a former U.S. intelligence officer.

With President Joe Biden in the White House, Democratic lawmakers and Washington think tankers are bustling with ideas about how the United States might ease economic pressure against the Cuban regime. While the new administration has said U.S. policy toward Cuba is currently under review, Biden promised during the presidential campaign to reverse Donald Trump’s policies toward Cuba and return “in large part” to the level of engagement under his former boss, President Barack Obama, who took the step of normalizing relations with Havana.

But these are not normal times in which the United States has the luxury to debate the best approach to Cuba on normal terms—Republican or Democratic policies, sticks or carrots, maximum pressure or engagement. The starting point of any conversation about U.S. policy toward Cuba needs to be a piece of unfinished business from the previous administration: the still-unfolding mystery of how 26 American diplomats were injured in Havana in 2016 and 2017.

For one, neurospecialists in Miami, as well as at a premier U.S. brain injury center in Pennsylvania, have documented physical injuries in the victims. The latter group published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2018 documenting that the 21 victims who were studied “appeared to have sustained injury to widespread brain networks.” What’s more, it wasn’t just the cohort of Americans living in Cuba who were affected. U.S. officials who traveled to Havana on temporary duty, some for only a few days, also suffered injuries. So did at least 15 Canadian diplomats, who were working under less stressful conditions than their American counterparts, given that the Canadian government has long maintained a good relationship with the Cuban regime. Canada took the attacks so seriously that it, too, drew down its staff in Havana.

The most recent research—including a State Department-commissioned report released last year by the National Academy of Sciences—has concluded that the victims’ symptoms and experiences are consistent with the effects of directed, pulsed radio frequency energy on brain networks. The study concludes further that directed energy is the “most plausible” explanation for the symptoms suffered. Directed energy is not new as a tool of espionage; it has been used for years, including against the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in the 1970s.

The United States can draw three reasonable conclusions from the research suggesting pulsed energy was involved. First, the energy had to have been directed by actors, meaning at least one nation-state likely was involved. Second, U.S. and Canadian diplomats were deliberately targeted. Third, the “incidents” can appropriately be called “attacks” for which the Cuban government is at least partially responsible. Even if the original intent was spycraft and even if Cuba itself did not author the attacks, they continued for months after the United States had told the Cuban government that U.S. personnel were injured on Cuban soil, and Cuba failed to protect those Americans from injury.

It is possible that a third-country actor was involved in the attacks or was the primary actor. Media reports have pointed to Russia as the most likely perpetrator, or sometimes Iran or China. In 2017 and 2018, U.S. personnel in Guangzhou, China, experienced injuries consistent with those in Cuba. There also have been subsequent media reports of attacks against U.S. government personnel in Poland, Georgia, Australia and Taiwan.

Even if other countries were involved, however, it is impossible to conclude that dozens of attacks could have taken place in Havana without at least the knowledge—and tacit support—of the Cuban government. The Cubans are known for having air-tight control of the population in Havana, including closely tracking dissidents and foreign diplomats. Some of the American victims were staying in Cuban government-owned hotels, several of which were included in the travel warnings issued by the State Department in 2017 as a result of the attacks. In one case, a U.S. diplomat was attacked within hours of arriving in country. It is implausible that Cuban security services had no idea American travelers were attacked—and far more likely that the security services, or some factions within them, facilitated or carried out the attacks.

As to the Cubans’ potential motive, the timing is suggestive. Fidel Castro, the country’s longtime leader, died on November 25, 2016, just a month before the first attacks were reported to U.S. leadership at the embassy in Havana. Some observers have floated theories about internal tension within the Cuban regime after Fidel’s death, with different factions holding competing views about the opening with the United States, the Cuban economy and other policies. The attacks, the thinking goes, might have been the work of a faction that opposed warmer relations with Washington.

So, what should the new U.S. administration do now? The Biden administration recently signaled a continued focus on the Havana attacks by appointing a high-level coordinator in the State Department, mirroring the Trump administration’s tapping the deputy secretary of State to be the lead official coordinating the response. This is a good first step, but it is not sufficient. Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are urging the new president to lift restrictions on Cuban travel and remittances, as well as the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. These calls demand nothing in return from the Cuban government—neither progress on human rights and democracy nor the cessation of support for the Maduro dictatorship in Venezuela, much less answers to how at least 26 Americans were injured in Havana.

Cuba almost certainly has information about the tools and method of attacks that could help the United States protect its personnel around the world. The United States should not ease economic pressure until that information is shared. If the new administration were to do so without first holding Cuba to account for the attacks, this would send the message that U.S. diplomats all over the world are fair game. The implication would be that there is no cost for injuring Americans, and in fact doing so wins you U.S. tourism and dollars.

The Biden administration has signaled that it will use a variety of strategies to hold other countries to account for their actions. The United States recently sanctioned Russian officials for the poisoning of a Russian opposition leader, for example, and launched airstrikes after rocket attacks against the U.S. facilities in Iraq. The administration must send a clear message that attacking or facilitating attacks on U.S. diplomats is not acceptable either. Accountability for the injuries of these 26 Americans must begin where the attacks started, in Havana.

From the Archives

The Washington Post, March 21, 2016


I was a prisoner of Castro’s regime. Obama’s visit to Cuba is a mistake.

Ahead of President Obama’s historic visit, Castro’s Cuba is more oppressive than ever.

President Obama and Cuba’s President Raul Castro shake hands during their meeting in Havana on March 21, 2016. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

President Obama and Cuba’s President Raul Castro shake hands during their meeting in Havana on March 21, 2016. (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

By Armando Valladares

March 21, 2016 at 6:00 a.m. EDT

An Afro-Cuban dissident who spent time in Fidel Castro’s gulags, Oscar Biscet is one of many people that represent the real Cuba, the people who will be hidden from sight as President Obama visits this week. While the president basks in the Cuban sun and in photo-ops with its heavy-handed dictator, the fate and freedom of political resisters like Biscet remains grim. Biscet is free now in technical terms, but in reality, he remains among a cohort of dissenters who still live in an invisible prison: a society still very much under the thumb of a totalitarian regime. And this week, Obama will provide that very regime with dangerously unwarranted legitimacy in the form of a diplomatic visit.

Biscet and I were convicted of the same crime: fidelity to our consciences. Biscet, a doctor, blew the whistle on corruption and abuse in Cuba’s health-care system. The government called it “disrespect.” My crime was in refusing to put a simple sign on my desk that said, “I’m with Fidel.” He and I and countless others who refused to go along with the Castro regime’s flagrant human rights violations were sentenced to decades in jail, where the government showed no restraint in trying to break us into submission.

And while both of us are technically free men now, Biscet and others like him living in Cuba go about their lives bearing the invisible shackles of a government that tolerates not a word of protest.

The entire island of Cuba lives garroted by these unseen chains. And despite glossy magazine ads inviting travelers to come for the mojitos and pristine beaches, and cheerful state visits from the likes of John Kerry and Obama, nothing has changed. Rather, as countless organizations have attested, human rights abuses have only escalated, and Cuba is in violation of basic stipulations in its diplomatic agreement with the United States by refusing to allow workers from the Red Cross and United Nations to come and lift the palm-studded hood and take a look.

When the president announced his intention to reopen diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, he said, “I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.” What followed was to be expected from a dictatorial government that has reigned through violent oppression with nothing but ruler slaps from world governments. Cuba also has cover from international institutions like the U.N., where it sits on the Human Rights Council ranting yearly about “human rights abuses” in other countries. And now, to secure its rewards like state visits and relaxed sanctions from the United States, it will escalate political crackdowns. The government, which no doubt doesn’t want to scare away American tourists with visions of bloodied protesters being dragged from the streets, is sending a message to dissidents louder than ever: Shut up or be locked up. As a Washington Post editorial said, there were more than 8,000 political arrests in 2015, up by thousands from years prior. The crackdown on dissidents is so bad that it prompted Kerry to cancel a trip he had scheduled just weeks before Obama’s visit.

The president’s decision to go anyway sends a message of favoritism for the strong at the expense of the weak. Dictators dream about friendly visits from heads of state; such a favor from the president of the United States is the ultimate fantasy. It provides an endless trove of propaganda material that helps lend legitimacy to the Castro regime, whose agenda of late consists of courting big corporations desperately needed to boost a failed experiment in socialism on the one hand, and bulldozing house churches on the other.

Antagonizing believers is a particular specialty of the Castro regime. To them, faith is especially dangerous, because it kindles the conscience and keeps it burning when enemies advance. “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” were the last words of so many of my friends who were dragged to the shooting wall. Eventually, the government realized this was a battle cry for freedom, one that came from the deepest part of the men they were killing, and one that was only inspiring more men to die faithful to their consciences and to something greater than Fidel Castro. Their executioners realized that an expression of faith was more powerful than the explosion of a gun. So eventually, they gagged them.

The same men who did this are still in power today. In agreeing to meet with Raul Castro, Obama rewards a regime that rules with brutal force and systemically violates human rights. He shrugs his shoulders at the little man. He shows a callous disregard for the human conscience, the single greatest threat to any ruler.

In a March 10 letter responding to an angry message from the Damas de Blanco, an opposition movement of the mothers, wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents known for their all-white attire, Obama thanked them for being “an inspiration to human rights movements around the world.”

I wonder how many more women will be made into Damas by his trip to Cuba.

Acton Institute Powerblog, August 12, 2020

Cuba loosens restrictions on private businesses to battle COVID-19

by Joseph Sunde • August 12, 2020

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Over the past decade, Cuba’s private sector has experienced slow-but-steady growth thanks to a mix of entrepreneurial grit and incremental policy changes. Although the Communist government continues to waffle on the scope and duration of various restrictions, the number of self-employed Cubans has risen from 150,000 to 600,000 since 2010 – that is, until the outbreak of the global health pandemic.

COVID-19 has brought new challenges to the Cuban economy. Declines in travel and tourism have meant less commerce and less hard currency for the government, as NPR reports. By early summer, an estimated 139,000 private businesses had returned their business licenses, according to the Associated Press. “It’s become common to find ‘closed’ signs on private cafes, bars, restaurants and lodging houses,” writes the AP’s Andrea Rodriguez, “to say nothing of the paralyzed taxi and car services … that accounted for some 50,000 of those private business licenses.”

Now, with the country’s coronavirus caseload finally in decline, the Cuban government is easing a range of restrictions against private businesses, hoping to reignite the economy and spur a return of needed services and foreign trade. After a series of economic reforms made throughout July, Labor Minister Marta Elena Feito announced that government’s approach had proven “too restrictive” and changes were needed. “We cannot continue doing the same thing,” she said on state television, “because the current economic model isn’t producing results that Cuba needs.”

Rodriguez summarizes the latest policy changes as follows:

The government last month announced that it would allow private restaurants to buy wholesale for the first time. Ministers also announced that private business people could sign contracts to import and export goods through dozens of state-run companies with import/export licenses.

Within four days of its opening to private business, 213 restaurant owners signed up to buy beer, flour, yeast, shrimp, sugar, rum and cooking oil at a 20 percent discount off retail at the Mercabal wholesale market in Havana, state media reported. A similar market has been opened to entrepreneurs in the eastern city of Holguin, according to state media. …

Along with limited wholesale, importing and exporting, the government has promised to allow the formation of small and mid-sized private business. Until now, the only legal category of private work has been a license for self-employed people, even though in many cases the self-employed are in fact owners of flourishing businesses with numerous employees. The government also said it would allow extensive business between private and state-run enterprises, allowing private business to buy and sell from state companies.

Earlier this summer, some business owners had hoped for such an outcome. For Cuban entrepreneur Gregory Bliniowsky, whose restaurant closed due to the economic crisis, the pressures of the pandemic could have positive implications for economic liberalization. “This crisis could shake the state and decision-makers to be more open and to make changes within Cuba that help entrepreneurs, such as permitting us to import raw materials,” he said. “They can’t permit themselves the luxury that the non-state sector collapses.”

While Bliniowsky’s predictions seem to have merit, many remain skeptical about the government’s willingness to follow through. “Many of these measures have been announced before several times, so the proof will be in the speed and efficiency and implementation of these measures,” says economist Richard Feinberg. “Of course, there is no transparency; it’s hard to know,” said Feinberg, “but perhaps the reformers have gained the upper hand with the support of President [Miguel] Díaz-Canel.”

In aligning our expectations, it’s worth remembering that Cuba’s Communist government still regularly reverts to its ideological origins. In a recent Acton lecture, John Suarez explains this ongoing struggle which is manifest, for example, in the continued funneling of the country’s resources not to the Cuban people, but to such ideological allies as Venezuela, Columbia, North Korea, and Iran.

The government’s “top priority is maintaining power, spreading their revolution in the hemisphere, creating more Cubas, and building coalitions around the world to advance their revolutionary Communist agenda,” Suarez explains.

Even with those qualifiers in mind, the latest developments still give us plenty of reasons to celebrate, however cautiously. As Suarez concludes, lasting regime change and liberalization is likely to come not from policy tweaks or personnel changes at the top, but from amplifying the struggles of dissidents and breaking Cuba’s “information monopoly” at the levels of institutional engagement and everyday life.

Although this is surely not the goal of Cuba’s latest economic reforms, even the smallest seeds of liberty are likely to bear fruit, spreading to Cuba’s rising class of entrepreneurs, independent creators, and consumers.

‘’This is positive,’’ says 59-year-old cafeteria owner Elba Zaldívar. ‘’I think there will be more products in the future. … In the end, it’s the Cuban people who win.”

(Photo credit: Che Guevara looks over a Cuban market. Public domain.)

Reuters, June 15, 2017

Cuban military’s tentacles reach deep into economy

By Marc Frank

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HAVANA (Reuters) – American tourists strolling the ample squares and narrow streets of colonial Havana may not know it, but from novelist Ernest Hemingway’s famed Floridita bar to Sloppy Joe’s eatery, they are probably patronizing businesses owned by Cuba’s military.

It is that lucrative line of business that President Donald Trump will target when he rolls out his new Cuba policy Friday in Miami, the heart of the country’s hard-line exile community, according to U.S. officials who have seen a draft presidential memorandum.

Trump will significantly restrict U.S. companies from doing business with some military-linked enterprises, the officials said.

“Any ban on using military-owned tourism facilities would make it very difficult to bring groups larger than seven people because for logistical reasons you need to work with the government,” Collin Laverty, president of Cuba Educational Travel, said.

The number of Americans traveling to Cuba, mostly in large groups due to U.S. regulations, has nearly tripled in recent years and was expected to reach around 400,000 in 2017, according to U.S. travel agencies.

Trump’s expected limits on U.S. business deals will target the Armed Forces Business Enterprises Group (GAESA), a conglomerate involved in all sectors of the economy that is headed up by General Luis Alberto Rodriguez, reportedly President Raul Castro’s son-in-law.

That is bad news for the pro-engagement U.S. politicians and hundreds of businesses that flocked to Cuba in the last few years in search of new opportunities.

The only hotel deal struck to date may prove the last for now, at least in the capital. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, which is owned by Marriott International Inc, signed on to manage a Gaviota hotel in Havana under the Sheraton brand which opened in 2016.

Gaviota is part of GAESA and tourism development projects in Havana and other choice locations are almost exclusively in its hands.

U.S. Gulf Coast ports and the Port of Virginia, which have signed letters of intent to work with the new Mariel container terminal, will most likely have to look elsewhere for shipping partners as it is controlled by Almacenes Universales, another GAESA company.

The terminal feeds a surrounding Chinese-style development zone which allows investors 100 percent ownership and which was visited by dozens of U.S. business delegations beginning in 2015, though no deals were signed. It also is controlled by Almacenes Universales.

GAESA does not run Cuba’s airports, or its cruise ship terminals, meaning U.S. airlines and cruise operators might not be directly impacted, but it does control the marinas.

All the state hotels, stores and eateries in colonial Old Havana are owned by Habaguanex, which was recently taken over from the city historian’s office by GAESA.

GAESA began modestly enough in the 1980s as an effort to bring modern management to the civilian sector mired in the ways of Soviet-style administration.

It has grown dramatically over the last decade since Raul Castro took over for his ailing and now deceased older brother, Fidel.

Today GAESA boasts dozens of companies that control anywhere from 40 percent to 60 percent of the Caribbean island’s foreign exchange earnings, according to Cuban economists.

GAESA’s books, like those of other state-run companies, are not public.

Some Cuba experts and diplomats believe the military is feathering its own nest and perhaps preparing to cash in if the government falls.

But others believe revenues flow to the cash-strapped state.

A former British ambassador to Cuba, Paul Hare, who lectures at Boston University’s Pardee School of Global Studies, said the military was viewed as a guardian of the Revolution.

“Their function is to ensure that private Cubans and foreign investors do not undermine the principles of ‘socialism’,” he said.

The holding company controls virtually all of the thousands of stores, supermarkets and malls in the country that sell imported products ranging from food and beverages to clothing and appliances, and hundreds of gas stations and eateries.

That means when you enter a shop in Cuba to purchase a bottle of water, soda or beer, you probably are patronizing a military establishment.

If you want to rent a condominium or satellite TV service, you have to go through a GAESA company.

The holding company also controls two banks and all credit card and money transfer transactions through Fincimex. RAFIN, the conglomerate’s mini hedge fund, owns shares in the telecommunications monopoly ETECSA.

Associated Press, September 9, 2016

Cuban military expands its economic empire under detente


September 9, 2016

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HAVANA (AP) — At the height of Cuba’s post-Soviet economic crisis, a man with the obscure title of city historian began transforming Havana’s crumbling historic center block by block, polishing stone facades, replacing broken stained glass and repairing potholed streets.

Over a quarter century, Eusebio Leal turned Old Havana into a painstakingly restored colonial jewel, a tourist draw that brings in more than $170 million a year, according to the most recent available figures. His office became a center of power with unprecedented budgetary freedom from the island’s communist central government.

That independence is gone. Last month, the Cuban military took over the business operations of Leal’s City Historian’s Office, absorbing them into a business empire that has grown dramatically since the declaration of detente between the U.S. and Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014.

The military’s long-standing business wing, GAESA, assumed a higher profile after Gen. Raul Castro became president in 2008, positioning the armed forces as perhaps the prime beneficiary of a post-detente boom in tourism. Gaviota, the military’s tourism arm, is in the midst of a hotel building spree that outpaces projects under control of nominally civilian agencies like the Ministry of Tourism. The military-run Mariel port west of Havana has seen double-digit growth fueled largely by demand in the tourism sector. The armed forces this year took over the bank that does business with foreign companies, assuming control of most of Cuba’s day-to-day international financial transactions, according to a bank official.

“GAESA is wisely investing in the more international — and more lucrative — segments of the Cuban economy. This gives the military technocrats a strong stake in a more outwardly oriented and internationally competitive Cuba deeply integrated into global markets,” said Richard Feinberg, author of “Open for Business: The New Cuban Economy.”

Castro has never publicly explained his reasoning for giving so much economic power to the military, but the armed forces are widely seen in Cuba as efficient, fast-moving and relatively unscathed by the low-level payoffs and pilferage that plague so much of the government. Economic disruption also is viewed as a crucial national security issue while the government slowly loosens its once-total hold on economic activity and renews ties with its former Cold War enemy 90 miles to the north.

While U.S. President Barack Obama has said detente was meant partly to help ordinary Cubans develop economic independence from a centrally planned government that employs most of the island’s workers, the Cuban government says the U.S. should expect no change in Cuba because of normalization with the U.S.

The takeover of Old Havana shows how the Cuban government is, so far, successfully steering much of the peace dividend into military coffers.

The announcement nearly two years ago that the U.S. and Cuba were restoring diplomatic relations set off a tourism boom with Old Havana at its epicenter. The cobblestone streets are packed with tourists browsing souvenir stands, visiting museums and dining in trendy private restaurants. World figures and celebrities from Madonna to Mick Jagger to Pope Francis and Obama have all visited. Hotels are booked well through next year.

The largest business arm of the historian’s office, Habaguanex, named for a pre-Columbian indigenous chief, directly runs some 20 hotels and 30 stores and more than 25 restaurants in Old Havana.

Under a special exemption by the ruling Council of State, the office has been allowed to use its revenues as it sees fit rather than returning them to the national treasury and receiving a yearly budget allocation from the central government. That 1993 measure is widely credited for giving Leal the power and flexibility to restore Old Havana to international standards while much of the rest of Havana suffers from neglect that has left buildings collapsing and streets rutted with big potholes.

A towering figure in Cuba’s intellectual and political life, Leal, who turns 74 on Sept. 11, is often chosen to deliver meditations on Cuban history and culture at major public events. He has never groomed an obvious successor. He has appeared frail and thin in some recent public appearances and close associates say he has been receiving treatment for a serious illness.

“I’m giving up everything that I think should be, under current conditions, better directed,” Leal told The Associated Press when asked about the military takeover of his financial operations. “There’s a reality. I was trained and educated to work in cultural heritage, and that’s my calling.”

Through its economic wing, the blandly named Business Administration Group, the Cuban armed forces have become the nation’s biggest retailer, importer and hotelier. The military corporation Cimex, created two decades ago, counts retail stories, auto-rental businesses and even a recording studio among its holdings. The military retail chain TRD has hundreds of shops across Cuba that sell everything from soap to home electronics at prices often several times those in nearby countries. Gaviota has 62 hotels with 26,752 rooms across Cuba, pulling in some $700 million a year from more than 40 percent of the tourists who visit Cuba.

Cuba welcomed more than 3 million tourists last year, a nearly 20 percent rise over 2014.

“It’s obvious that the military has an economic power far beyond what’s needed for its national-security responsibilities,” said Arturo Lopez-Levy, a political science lecturer at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

The Cuban government did not respond to a request for comment on the military’s business operations.

The Business Administration Group, known by its Spanish acronym GAESA, formally took over the city historian’s office on Aug. 1, according to three employees with the office who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk with the press.

“They’re going to carve everything up and it’ll be absorbed by military businesses that are already operating. The hotels go to Gaviota, the restaurants to Cimex and the stores to TRD,” said one of the officials.

Going forward, the historian’s office will be responsible only for cultural projects and will retain only the proceeds of museum entry fees and souvenir stores, officials told the AP.

“They’re going to impose discipline and probably it’ll function better that way,” said another official in the business wing of the historian’s office. “It will affect those of us on the business side, but I don’t think it will affect cultural projects. The Cuban military isn’t stupid.”

The New York Times, December 8, 2016


Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Keeps Food Off Residents’ Plates


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HAVANA — For Lisset Felipe, privation is a standard facet of Cuban life, a struggle shared by nearly all, whether they’re enduring blackouts or hunting for toilet paper.

But this year has been different, in an even more fundamental way, she said. She has not bought a single onion this year, nor a green pepper, both staples of the Cuban diet. Garlic, she said, is a rarity, while avocado, a treat she enjoyed once in a while, is all but absent from her table.

“It’s a disaster,” said Ms. Felipe, 42, who sells air-conditioners for the government. “We never lived luxuriously, but the comfort we once had doesn’t exist anymore.”

The changes in Cuba in recent years have often hinted at a new era of possibilities: a slowly opening economy, warming relations with the United States after decades of isolation, a flood of tourists meant to lift the fortunes of Cubans long marooned on the outskirts of modern prosperity.

But the record arrival of nearly 3.5 million visitors to Cuba last year has caused a surging demand for food, causing ripple effects that are upsetting the very promise of Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

Tourists are quite literally eating Cuba’s lunch. Thanks in part to the United States embargo, but also to poor planning by the island’s government, goods that Cubans have long relied on are going to well-heeled tourists and the hundreds of private restaurants that cater to them, leading to soaring prices and empty shelves.

Without supplies to match the increased appetite, some foods have become so expensive that even basic staples are becoming unaffordable for regular Cubans.

“The private tourism industry is in direct competition for good supplies with the general population,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and specialist on the Cuban economy. “There are a lot of unanticipated consequences and distortions.”

There has long been a divide between Cubans and tourists, with beach resorts and Havana hotels effectively reserved for outsiders willing to shell out money for a more comfortable version of Cuba. But with the country pinning its hopes on tourism, welcoming a surge of new travelers to feed the anemic economy, a more basic inequality has emerged amid the nation’s experiment with capitalism.

Rising prices for staples like onions and peppers, or for modest luxuries like pineapples and limes, have left many unable to afford them. Beer and soda can be hard to find, often snapped up in bulk by restaurants.

It is a startling evolution in Cuba, where a shared future has been a pillar of the revolution’s promise. While the influx of new money from tourists and other visitors has been a boon for the island’s growing private sector, most Cubans still work within the state-run economy and struggle to make ends meet.

President Raúl Castro has acknowledged the surge in agricultural prices and moved to cap them. In a speech in April, he said the government would look into the causes of the soaring costs and crack down on middlemen for price gouging, with limits on what people could charge for certain fruits and vegetables.

“We cannot sit with our hands crossed before the unscrupulous manner of middlemen who only think of earning more,” he told party members, according to local news reports.

But the government price ceilings seem to have done little to provide good, affordable produce for Cubans. Instead, they have simply moved goods to the commercial market, where farmers and vendors can fetch higher prices, or to the black market.

Havana offers stark examples of this growing chasm.

At two state-run markets, where the government sets prices, the shelves this past week were monuments to starch — sweet potatoes, yucca, rice, beans and bananas, plus a few malformed watermelons with pallid flesh.

As for tomatoes, green peppers, onions, cucumbers, garlic or lettuce — to say nothing of avocados, pineapples or cilantro — there were only promises.

“Try back Saturday for tomatoes,” one vendor offered. It was more of a question than a suggestion.

But at a nearby co-op market, where vendors have more freedom to set their prices, the fruits and vegetables missing from the state-run stalls were elegantly stacked in abundance. Rarities like grapes, celery, ginger and an array of spices competed for shoppers’ attentions.

The market has become the playground of the private restaurants that have sprung up to serve visitors. They employ cadres of buyers to scour the city each day for fruits, vegetables and nonperishable goods, bearing budgets that overwhelm those of the average household.

“Almost all of our buyers are paladares,” said one vendor, Ruben Martínez, using the Cuban name for private restaurants, which include about 1,700 establishments across the country. “They are the ones who can afford to pay more for the quality.”

By Cuban standards, the prices were astronomic. Several Cuban residents said simply buying a pound of onions and a pound of tomatoes at the prices charged that day would consume 10 percent or so of a standard government salary of about $25 a month.

“I don’t even bother going to those places,” said Yainelys Rodriguez, 39, sitting in a park in Havana while her daughter climbed a slide. “We eat rice and beans and a boiled egg most days, maybe a little pork.”

Mrs. Rodriguez’s family is on the lower end of the income ladder, so she supplements earnings with the odd cleaning job she can find. With that, she cares for her two children and an infirm mother.

Trying to buy tomatoes, she said, “is an insult.”

Another mother, Leticia Alvarez Cañada, described what it was like to prepare decent meals for her family with prices so high. “We have to be magicians,” she said.

The struggle is somewhat easier now that she is in the private sector and no longer working for the government, she said. She quit her job as a nurse to start a small business selling fried pork skin and other snacks from a cart. Now she earns about 10 times more every month.

“The prices have just gone crazy in the last few years,” said Mrs. Cañada, 41. “There’s just no equilibrium between the prices and the salaries.”

While many Cubans have long been hardened to the reality of going without, never more than during what they call the “Special Period” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new dynamic that has emerged in recent months threatens the nation’s future, experts warn.

“The government has consistently failed to invest properly in the agriculture sector,” said Juan Alejandro Triana, an economist at the University of Havana. “We don’t just have to feed 11 million people anymore. We have to feed more than 14 million.”

“In the next five years, if we don’t do something about it, food will become a national security issue here,” he added.

The government gives Cubans ration books to help provide staples like rice, beans and sugar, but they do not cover items like fresh produce. Tractors and trucks are limited and routinely break down, often causing the produce to spoil en route. Inefficiency, red tape and corruption at the local level also stymie productivity, while a lack of fertilizer reduces yield (though it keeps produce organic, by default).

Economists also argue that setting price ceilings can discourage farmers and sellers. If prices are set so low they cannot turn a profit, they argue, why bother working? Most will try to redirect their goods to the private or black market.

“From the point of view of the farmer, what would you do?” asked Dr. Feinberg, the California professor. “When the differentials are that great, it requires a really selfless or foolish person to play by the rules.”

Paladares sometimes go directly to farms to buy goods, and even provide farmers seeds for specialty products that do not ordinarily grow in Cuba, like arugula, cherry tomatoes and zucchini.

Most acknowledge that they distort the market in some ways, and this year the government stopped issuing licenses for new restaurants in Havana. But some restaurant owners argue that it is the government’s responsibility to create better supply.

“It’s true, the prices keep going up and up,” said Laura Fernandez, a manager at El Cocinero, a former peanut-oil factory converted into a high-priced restaurant. “But that’s not just the fault of the private sector. There is generally a lot of chaos and disorder in the market.”

On the outskirts of Havana, Miguel Salcines has cultivated a beautiful farm. Rows of tidy crops stretch toward the edge of his modest 25 acres, where he employs about 130 people.

Though he grows standard products on behalf of the government, there is no product he is more excited about than his new zucchini. A farmer for nearly 50 years, he had never grown the crop before, but planted a batch two months ago.

Now, the vegetables are coming into shape, the spots of bright orange flowers visible amid the green plumage. He knows this crop is not for the regular market, or for the government. It is like the arugula he grows.

It is for the tourist market and, by extension, the future.

“We are talking about an elite market,” he said. “The Cuban markets are a market of necessity.”

Hannah Berkeley Cohen and Kirk Semple contributed reporting from Havana, and Frances Robles from Miami.

A version of this article appears in print on December 9, 2016, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Cuba’s Surge in Tourism Is Keeping Food Off Its Residents’ Plates.

Huffington Post, May 11, 2016

A Revolution With Promises to Keep

Barbara E. Joe, Contributor, author, human rights activist, Spanish interpreter

Avila recovering from injuries

Avila recovering from injuries

05/11/2016 05:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

“Fidel promised that the Revolution was for us, for campesinos, rural farmers like me,” sighed Sirley Avila, a slender 56-year-old former Cuban community activist, who has lived under Castro leadership her whole life. “Then, look,” she said, “this is what happened.” From her wheelchair, she extended the stump of her left arm, where her wrist and hand had been amputated. Lifting her trouser-legs, she revealed scars on her knees. Then, defiantly, she raised her remaining hand in the Cuban dissident “L” sign for Libertad, Liberty.

I met Avila on April 2 at Miami’s convention center, where I was participating in Amnesty International (AI) USA’s annual conference. She was accompanied by John Suarez of the Cuban Democratic Directorate. Avila had come to Miami for rehabilitation arranged by the Directorate. My own past professional experience with rehab services has made me hopeful that she can regain the ability to walk and also learn to use a left-hand prosthesis.

Back in June 2015, at a book talk at a New York City public library, an audience member had asked me about Sirley Avila, the first time I’d ever heard her name. She had been attacked on May 24. I’d tried to find out more, but reliable information from Cuba is not easy to obtain. Now, less than one year later, here she was, sitting with me and Gabriele Stein, a fellow human rights volunteer from Germany, telling us her story in Spanish, which I translated for Gabriele.

Avila told us she lives alone on a little farm with fruit trees located outside Las Tunas, a small city in central-eastern Cuba. From 2005 to 2013, she was elected three times by her community as an unpaid delegate to Poder Popular, an official legislative body, half of whose members are elected locally. In 2010, the region’s rural school was closed because it had only a few pupils. Avila protested that meant children had to walk too far, up to 12 km., but the school remained closed, although she was still reelected to her position. After continually being thwarted on the school issue, two years after its closing, on Sept. 8, 2012, Avila took a fateful step, speaking openly about her frustrations on Radio Martí. She was immediately labeled a mercenary, but no charges were brought against her and the community continued its support. She then joined UNPACU, Unión Patriótica de Cuba, an opposition group, and participated in hunger strikes in solidarity with two political prisoners, Luis Enrique Lozada and Angel Yunier, hunger strikes each lasting more than three weeks.

In December 2013, after a few days’ absence to tend to her elderly mother with Parkinson’s, Avila returned home to find her dogs and other animals all dead, apparently poisoned. The interior of her home had also been vandalized, with her bed set on fire and the cords cut to her refrigerator and television set with their motors short-circuited and burned out. (In Cuba, appliances are very expensive and hard to replace.) Then, she found her well had been poisoned after hundreds of pounds of yucca had been dumped inside and had decomposed. It took her a full two months with the help of sympathetic neighbors to remove it and restore the water quality. All that proved an ominous warning; the worst was yet to come.

Avila had dared to report the damage to her home and property to the police, accusing state security of being behind the attacks against her. Meanwhile, her neighbors remained steadfastly loyal, asking her to continue to represent them, but, instead, her district was eliminated and apportioned among other districts. In February 2014, when the long-closed school was finally reopened, community members clamored to have her reinstated and the law allowed for a protest by 25% of voters. She went to Havana and met with activist Elizardo Sánchez’s brother, Gerardo, to discuss this possibility.

One evening, after Avila had returned home, a young woman friend, Yunisledy López, called to warn her about plans to kill her, but, soon after, López herself was found murdered.

On May 24, 2015, a couple Avila had hired to help her out on the farm, Osmany Carrión and Mariela Hidalgo, suddenly turned on her and viciously assaulted her. Wielding a machete, Carrión slashed her shoulder, collarbone, and knees and, as she raised her arm to shield her head from his blows, he sliced off her left wrist and hand. His wife then threw the severed hand into the pigsty, contaminating it so it could not be reattached. After that, a judicial hearing was held on the attack, but Avila was not allowed to attend or to submit testimony. She doesn’t know what, if anything, happened to Carrión, but she was told that in court, he had accused her of trying to recruit him for dissidence. In September, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights supported Avila’s complaint that she was in a “serious and urgent situation.”

Surely if the Cuban government did not condone or facilitate the attacks on Avila, it had a duty to protect her — the universal duty of any government toward citizens acting non-violently and within the law. Yet, it is no secret that brutal actos de repudio, acts of repudiation, are officially encouraged. Some Cubans seem to genuinely relish such invitations to beat up fellow citizens, while others claim only to be reluctantly following orders. At the 2011 party congress (another has just concluded), President Raúl Castro issued a call for the expression of righteous wrath against traitors and mercenaries: “It is necessary to make clear that we will never deny our people the right to defend their Revolution. The defense of the independence, of the conquests of socialism, and of our streets and plazas will still be the first duty of every Cuban patriot.”

Avila arranged her own trip to Miami, tricking authorities who had blocked her efforts by getting two round-trip flights for herself and her son from Las Tunas to Havana, but having her son return home alone while she boarded a flight to Miami instead. She had already obtained a U.S. visa. She plans to stay in Miami for three months undergoing treatment, fully intending to return home again to her farm, her aging mother, and her two sons, also to rejoin Cuba’s peaceful struggle for free expression and association. “We Cubans deserve personal liberty, just like all other human beings,” she says. “Yes, I’m still afraid, but unless we are willing to put heart and body on the line, nothing will change for us or for our children. My problem has been that I still enjoyed community support despite all the government’s efforts against me and they just couldn’t tolerate that.”

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Sirley Avila showing the “L” sign for “Liberty,” with Gabriele Stein and Barbara Joe in Miami on April 2, 2016