Havana lashes out against Obama directive on friendlier Cuba policy
BY NORA GÁMEZ TORRES
President Barack Obama's recent directive to make his friendlier
policies toward Cuba "irreversible" got applause from many interested
parties and travelers — particularly with the end of limits on the
amount of Cuban cigars and rum visitors can bring back from the island.
But Havana appears a lot less enthusiastic.
The government showed its discontent during a series of protests across
the island that paralyzed universities and other schools under the
slogan "Hornet's nests against the blockade," a reference to the U.S.
"Obama is finishing his term, but the blockade remains," Josefina Vidal,
head of the U.S. department at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, declared
during a rally on Monday at the University of Havana.
The Obama administration, in a race against time to consolidate policies
it views as a key part of its legacy, on Friday lifted the limits on
personal purchases of tobacco and rum as part of new regulations that
take effect this week.
Vidal's message in Havana seemed clear: The Cuban government is
conditioning any progress on bilateral relations to an end of the
embargo. In the meantime, any new easing of U.S. sanctions will be
courteously received but likely will not be implemented.
"It's hard work to implement and carry out" Obama's regulatory reforms,
Vidal added, "because they retain restrictions that do not allow us to
The new U.S. regulations "are positive" but have a limited reach and
benefit "more the United States than Cuba and the Cuban people," Vidal
said. She noted several times in her speech to students that Obama can
still use his presidential powers to sidestep other parts of the embargo.
Some Cuba watchers in the U.S. business sector agree that the embargo
remains a powerful impediment to investing on the island.
"Nothing will happen with the big American companies until the embargo
is lifted," said Saul Berenthal, president of Cleber LLC, which plans to
assemble farm tractors in Cuba.
Vidal expressed the Cuban government's disappointment that Obama has not
authorized direct U.S. investments in the island outside of the
telecommunications sector, and has not allowed increased U.S. exports to
Cuba or imports from Cuba, with the exception of some pharmaceutical
products. All those are essential for an economy hammered by the recent
plunge in Venezuelan subsidies.
She also noted that Obama made no changes in U.S. banking restrictions
on Cuba. "Until today, Cuba has been unable to make deposits … or make
payments to others" in U.S. dollars, even though that restriction was
eased in previous Obama reforms. "Banks around the world are still
terrified to work with Cuba," she said.
The diplomat, who heads several of the Cuban teams negotiating with U.S.
counterparts, did not mention that the administration did approve the
export of consumer goods for personal use, or that U.S. companies can
now provide services to state enterprises or individuals related to the
development or maintenance of infrastructure that directly benefits the
population, such as hospitals and water and transportation services.
Such services, like the approval of investments in telecommunications,
would require an interest on the part of Cuban officials, who until now
have preferred to do business with other countries, like China. The
government also has done nothing to facilitate the import of U.S.
products by Cuban individuals — approved by Obama in early 2015.
Following a visit by U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker in October
of 2015, Cuban authorities announced that all exports to Cuba would
follow "established channels" and that no changes were planned for the
state monopoly on imports.
The "wait and see" strategy appears to have generated some progress.
Cleber LLC, for example, announced during a recent Miami conference on
doing business with the island that it had obtained a U.S. license to
sell agricultural and construction equipment to state enterprises. That
suggested that the U.S. government has accepted that doing business with
the state sector in Cuba is inevitable.
"We have designed the policy very much to have the maximum benefit to
the Cuban people broadly. But in so doing, we are not restricting
engagement with the Cuban state," one high-ranking U.S. official said
during a teleconference with journalists to explain the new regulations.
Some experts said that Cuba's unwillingness to act is part of a strategy
to force the U.S. to acquiesce to their demands.
"It is not surprising that the Cuban government is waiting as long as it
can, thinking that the longer it waits, the better deal it can get,"
said John Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Economic and Trade
Council. "This is a strategy that makes sense because the Obama
administration is willing to do anything to create a commercial,
economic and political scenario that can survive" the end of his presidency.
What appeared to have most irritated the Cuban government was the
presidential directive itself, which will continue to support democracy
programs on the island.
Vidal described it as "meddlesome" because "it does not hide that the
goal of U.S. policy is to advance its own interests in Cuba … and
questions profoundly our political system."
Cuban officials view the democracy programs as part of U.S. efforts at
"regime change," and the state-run Granma newspaper immediately
questioned whether increased transparency would make them "less subversive."
But even within the critical outbursts, Vidal's comments also reflected
some progress in bilateral relations.
She described the Obama directive as "a significant step … toward
normalization" and praised it for recognizing "the Cuban government as a
legitimate and equal partner" in negotiations. But she also told the
University of Havana students more than once that the Obama directive
did not make his new policy toward Cuba irreversible.
"The president who succeeds him is under no obligation to continue it,"
The upcoming presidential elections may well put a temporary halt to the
effort to warm up U.S.-Cuba relations. The two governments have agreed
to seven more negotiating sessions this year and to speed up work on six
bilateral accords, Vidal said in September.
The bilateral accords "are not a waste of time," said Kavulich, although
over the last 600 days, Cuba's imports of U.S. agricultural products
have continued to drop; only American Airlines and JetBlue have received
Cuban permission to open offices on the island; and the plan to assemble
tractors in Cuba has not moved forward.
"U.S. companies still cannot export directly to private companies in
Cuba. And on the U.S. side, there's only one product that can be
imported: coffee," Kavulich said. "So there's a lot that both countries
can do during these last days."
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter:@ngameztorres
Source: Havana lashes out against Obama directive on friendlier Cuba
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