Bipartisan coalition in Senate introduce legislation to lift Cuba trade embargo

Washington, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senators Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., reintroduced major legislation to lift the Cuba trade embargo. The bipartisan Freedom to Export to Cuba Act would eliminate the legal barriers to Americans doing business in Cuba and pave the way for new economic opportunities for American businesses and farmers by boosting U.S. exports and allow Cubans greater access to American goods. The legislation repeals key provisions of previous laws that block Americans from doing business in Cuba, but does not repeal portions of law that address human rights or property claims against the Cuban government.

“Instead of looking to the future, U.S.-Cuba policy has been defined for far too long by conflicts of the past,” Klobuchar said. “Cuba is an island of 11 million people, just 90 miles from our border—lifting the trade embargo will open the door to a huge export market, create jobs here at home, and support both the American and Cuban economies. Our bipartisan legislation will finally turn the page on the failed policy of isolation and build on the progress we have made to open up engagement with Cuba by ending the embargo once and for all.”

“History has shown that the embargo with Cuba has not been very effective,” Enzi said. “This bipartisan legislation would benefit the people in America and in Cuba. It would provide new opportunities for American businesses, farmers and ranchers. We need to open dialogue and the exchange of ideas and commerce that would help move Cuba forward. It is time to work toward positive change.”

“Decades after the end of the Cold War we continue to impose punitive sanctions against Cuba, a tiny island neighbor that poses no threat to us,” Leahy said. “After more than half a century, the embargo has achieved none of its objectives. President Obama took a courageous and pragmatic step in opening diplomatic relations with Cuba, but President Trump has reinstated the failed isolationist policy of the past. It is up to Congress to end the embargo, which is used by the Cuban government to justify its repressive policies, and by foreign companies to avoid competing with U.S. businesses that are shut out of the Cuban market. Lifting the embargo will put more food on the plates of the Cuban people, allow them to access quality U.S. products, and encourage reforms in Cuba’s economy, all while benefiting American companies. I commend Senator Klobuchar for her steadfast leadership on this issue.”

Cuba relies on agriculture imports to feed the 11 million people who live on Cuba and the 3.5 million tourists who visit each year. This represents a $2 billion opportunity for American farmers annually. The Freedom to Export to Cuba Act repeals the current legal restrictions against doing business with Cuba, including the original 1961 authorization for establishing the trade embargo; subsequent laws that required enforcement of the embargo; and other restrictive statutes that prohibit transactions between U.S.-owned or controlled firms and Cuba, and limitations on direct shipping between U.S. and Cuban ports.

The legislation has been endorsed by Engage Cuba, the Washington Office on Latin America, the Latin America Working Group and Cargill.

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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: Arkansan sees path for Cuba trade bill; Crawford measure stalled in past, but key dissenters have since departed

With Democrats in the House majority and with a couple of key foes no longer on Capitol Hill, supporters of increased agriculture sales to Cuba see an opening for passage of a bill addressing the issue.

“I think our chances of moving our Cuba trade bill have increased tremendously, so we’re going to make that a priority issue,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Ark. “It’s widely supported.”

Presidential politics is a wild card, however. The White House last month signaled that it may adopt a harder line with Havana.

During the previous session of Congress, Crawford sponsored the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act, which would have allowed farmers and others to extend credit “to Cuba or to an individual or entity in Cuba.” The legislation also would have enabled Americans to invest in nongovernmental agricultural enterprises there.

While it would have allowed individuals to assume the financial risks, taxpayers wouldn’t have been left holding the bag if the debts went unpaid, Crawford has said.

The lawmaker from Jonesboro represents northeastern Arkansas and a string of counties up and down the Mississippi River. His district grows more rice than any other district in the country.

Critics say the ban on credit is the reason why U.S. rice sales to Cuba dropped from $64 million in 2004 to zero in 2009. It stayed there throughout then-President Barack Obama’s eight years in office and continued after Donald Trump became president.

Cuba, with a population of 11 million, imports roughly $2 billion worth of food each year. In 2017, only $291.3 million of those exports was from the U.S., according to the U.S. Census Bureau. None of that was rice.

Melvin Torres, director of Western Hemisphere Trade for the World Trade Center Arkansas, said Havana is eager to do business with the U.S.

“Cuba is ready to have the embargo lifted, and they’re just waiting for the United States to lift it,” he said.

Despite the differences between the two countries, U.S. visitors are well-received, he said.

“Americans are very welcome. You even see Cubans, just regular Cubans, with shirts that say ‘USA’ or hats that say ‘USA’ just walking down the street,” he said. “You talk to them and they’re excited. They don’t really seem to have any [bad] feeling against the U.S.”

Crawford’s measure had 43 Republican co-sponsors and 23 Democrats. A similar bill in the Senate had the backing of U.S. Sen. John B o o z m a n , R-Ark. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had also voiced support for dropping the ban on credit. But the proposal faced opposition as well, especially from Cuban-American members of the Florida congressional delegation, Crawford noted.

In the interest of party unity, then-House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., preferred to sidestep what he viewed as a “wedge issue,” even though he had once been a vocal supporter of free trade with Cuba, Crawford said.

“It wasn’t something that he was willing to walk the plank on or force his members to take a position on,” Crawford said.

Now Ryan is gone. So are two of the measure’s strongest Florida Republican foes.

One, U.S. Rep. Carlos Curbelo, was narrowly defeated by Democrat Debbie Mucarsel-Powell in last year’s midterm elections. Another, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, retired after nearly three decades on Capitol Hill. Her seat was filled by Democrat Donna Shalala.

Only one Cuban-American continues to represent a southern Florida House district: Republican U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. His office did not respond to requests for comment submitted Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

Another influential Cuban-American from Florida, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, is urging the White House to keep the embargo in place.

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba, said Crawford’s bill is a bad idea and will continue to face fierce opposition in the 116th Session of Congress.

“Even today there is a strong bipartisan coalition that does not want to do favors for the Cuban government,” said Calzon, whose group seeks “human rights … democracy and the rule of law on the island.”

Allowing Americans to extend credit to Havana is a bad idea, he said.

“The Cuba government, time and again, fails to pay what it owes,” he said. “It’s not only morally [bankrupt], it’s economically bankrupt.”

Trump, thus far, has taken steps to roll back some of Obama’s Cuba policies. In 2017, Trump made it harder for Americans to travel to the island and placed additional restrictions on those doing business there. That year, he also expelled 15 Cuban diplomats after reports of suspected sonic attacks targeting American officials in Havana.

The source of the alleged attacks was never determined.

Nationwide, polls have shown support for removing trade barriers with Cuba.

The Cuban-American community in south Florida, on the other hand, is divided over whether to support the embargo.

The Florida International Cuba Poll, which surveyed 1,001 Cuban-Americans in Miami-Dade County, Fla., between Nov. 14 and Dec. 1, found that 51 percent want the embargo to continue; 49 percent want it to end.

The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.

The generational gap between both sides is substantial, researchers said. Sixty-five percent of Cuban-Americans ages 18-39 opposed the embargo; 73 percent of Cuban-Americans 76 years of age or older favor it.

Across the U.S., “There’s a cultural divide, there is a political divide, there’s a geographic divide but … outside of Florida, probably upwards of 70 percent support this,” Crawford said. “I think that we just have to continue to press and, eventually, we’ll hit a critical mass of support and it’ll be harder to deny it.”

Crawford, who has traveled to Cuba three times, said singling out Cuba for adverse treatment makes no sense.

The U.S. already does business with a number of countries that are “in the same category as Cuba — or even worse,” Crawford said.

“Our good buddies in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Vietnam, Venezuela: There’s a laundry list of countries who are every bit as bad with regards to their human-rights records,” Crawford said.

The embargo has been a failure, according to Crawford, who visited the island in November.

“It’s not benefiting anybody, and it’s certainly not changing the trajectory in Cuba,” he said.

James Williams, president of the pro-trade group Engage Cuba, expressed hope that Crawford’s legislation will gain traction.

“I’d say, on the whole, it’s more promising than it’s been in a very long time,” he said. “I think we’re on much firmer footing than we were [a year ago].”

Cuba is ready to do business with its neighbor to the north, he said.

“Cubans want to buy U.S. products. They want to buy U.S. agriculture commodities,” he said. “If we’re able to trade with them like we do with everybody else, you’ll see a huge spike in purchasing from American farmers.”

Cuba won’t be flooding the U.S. market with products of its own, Williams noted.

“This is one-way trade,” he said. “It would be the most incredible, one-sided trade relationship that the United States has.”

There’s one potential land mine, however, according to Williams: the Helms-Burton Act. The 1996 statute allows lawsuits against businesses that are benefiting from property seized after Cuba’s socialist revolution roughly six decades ago.

The law enables presidents to suspend the property provisions; every president since Bill Clinton, including Trump, has done so.

But last month, the State Department announced it would launch a “careful review” to determine whether lawsuits should be allowed to proceed.

“We encourage any person doing business in Cuba to reconsider whether they are trafficking in confiscated property and abetting this dictatorship,” the department announced Jan. 16.

If the Trump administration clears the way for lawsuits, Williams said, then U.S.-Cuba relations would further deteriorate.

“It would basically kill U.S. business. It would hurt U.S. allies. The only ones who really wouldn’t be affected would be our adversaries who don’t care — like Russia, China, Iran,” he said.

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Prensa Latina: Cuba, EE.UU., y las perspectivas con la nueva Cámara Baja

El nuevo liderazgo demócrata en la Cámara estadounidense de Representantes abre oportunidades para legislaciones favorables al acercamiento a Cuba, consideró el titular de una coalición que busca el fin del bloqueo a la Isla.

James Williams, presidente de Engage Cuba, destacó en entrevista con Prensa Latina que las elecciones de medio término de noviembre pasado resultaron históricas en muchos sentidos, particularmente en lo concerniente a que la fuerza azul posee el control de ese órgano desde el 3 de enero último.

Sabemos que hemos tenido el apoyo de una mayoría bipartidista en la Cámara Baja desde hace algunos años, pero el liderazgo previo había evitado que temas relacionados con el levantamiento de restricciones a Cuba llegaran al pleno para ser sometidos a votación, señaló.

De acuerdo con Williams, cuya agrupación se centra en abogar por leyes que pongan fin al cerco de casi 60 años, la necesidad de ampliar el comercio agrícola, la eliminación de restricciones de viajes y el restablecimiento del personal de las embajadas serán prioridades en este año.

Resaltó que a finales de 2018 el anterior Congreso estadounidense, como parte de la Ley Agrícola, avaló una enmienda sobre Cuba que forma parte del proyecto Ley de expansión de exportaciones agrícolas, encaminado a impulsar el comercio de productos del sector entre ambos países.

En específico, el apartado aprobado en diciembre dentro de la legislación agrícola permitirá a los productores norteamericanos utilizar dólares de promoción del mercado federal con el fin de dar a conocer sus productos en la nación caribeña.

La enmienda representó la primera vez desde 2001 que se dio luz verde en el Capitolio de Washington DC a una legislación relacionada con el acercamiento a Cuba, destacó el titular de la coalición.

Mediante la Ley Agrícola se da un nuevo mecanismo de financiación para que los agricultores y las asociaciones de comercio de Estados Unidos viajen al territorio vecino a construir relaciones y promocionar sus productos, explicó acerca del apartado sobre la mayor de las Antillas.

Sin embargo, Williams recordó que el resto de las propuestas de la Ley de expansión de exportaciones agrícolas todavía necesitan aprobación, por lo cual una parte importante de su trabajo en los meses venideros estará enfocada en ese asunto.

Una demanda clave de quienes desean un mayor intercambio de productos del sector entre ambos países es la posibilidad de contar con créditos para financiar el comercio, pues las limitaciones impuestas por el Gobierno estadounidenses obligan a la Isla a comprar en efectivo y por adelantado.

Ese tema, de acuerdo con el titular de Engage Cuba, tiene un gran respaldo bipartidista. 'Sabemos que es algo que apoya la presidenta de la Cámara Baja, la demócrata Nancy Pelosi, pero también muchos miembros republicanos que se han pronunciado a favor en el pasado'.

A ese asunto se suman los esfuerzos de la coalición y de muchos otros sectores y grupos en Estados Unidos para que se levanten las prohibiciones que impiden a los norteamericanos visitar la nación caribeña como turistas.

El proyecto Ley de libertad de viajar a Cuba continuará siendo una prioridad significativa, explicó Williams, quien lamentó el impacto negativo que tiene sobre el sector privado del país vecino la decisión del presidente estadounidense, Donald Trump, de imponer más obstáculos a las visitas a ese territorio.

Creo que también veremos intentos en el Congreso de presionar más a la administración con el fin de que restablezca el personal en las embajadas y tener una presencia diplomática más robusta, consideró.

Desde el otoño de 2017 la legación diplomática norteamericana en La Habana y la de la Isla en Washington DC permanecen con una reducción significativa de sus cuerpos por decisión del Departamento de Estado.

El Gobierno de Trump adoptó esa medida bajo el argumento de incidentes de salud reportados por funcionarios norteamericanos, de los que hasta el momento se desconocen causas o responsables, y diversas fuentes han criticado la politización de ese tema con el fin de empeorar las relaciones bilaterales.

Según Williams, también pueden esperarse nuevos llamados que pidan el fin del bloqueo y otras iniciativas legislativas en el área del comercio, y remarcó que en particular están muy expectantes con respecto a la Cámara Baja.

En ese sentido, valoró de forma muy positiva la labor que realiza el Grupo de Trabajo sobre Cuba en el Congreso, el cual está integrado por representantes como las demócratas Barbara Lee y Kathy Castor, y los republicanos Tom Emmer y Rick Crawford.

Con relación al Senado, indicó que aún cuentan con miembros claves para exponer los temas relacionados con Cuba, como es el caso del integrante de la fuerza azul Patrick Leahy, pero calificó de pérdida sensible el retiro de la Cámara Alta del republicano Jeff Flake.

Todavía tenemos la pregunta de quién continuará presionando a favor de las legislaciones sobre Cuba de forma tan fuerte como lo estuvo haciendo él. Hay otros senadores republicanos que apoyan el acercamiento y continuarán ahí, pero su pérdida se sentirá, pues él llevó mucha atención y esfuerzo al asunto, estimó.

Sobre el apoyo que poseen las acciones de acercamiento a Cuba en los diferentes territorios de Estados Unidos, Williams apuntó que una de las cosas más emocionantes es ver el continuo respaldo y creciente compromiso a nivel estatal.

Celebró la creación de casi una veintena de consejos estatales de Engage Cuba alrededor del país, y adelantó que durante las próximas cuatro semanas podrían crear uno en Nueva Jersey.

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Bloomberg Law: Administration Mulling Tougher Cuba Embargo by Allowing Lawsuits B

“Depending on who comes out of the woodwork to file a claim it, could significantly affect U.S. industry,” James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, told Bloomberg Law. Engage Cuba, which represents companies working to end restrictions against Cuba, strongly opposes the move that would tighten the embargo by making it harder to conduct business in Cuba. The move could allow lawsuits against persons and corporations doing business in Cuba that had no connection to the original expropriation of property, Williams said.  “It’s not a done deal. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail." 

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Caribbean Council: Farm Bill containing Cuba provision signed into law

President Trump has signed into law the US Farm Bill which contains a provision authorising funding from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) for market development in Cuba under its Market Access Programme (MAP) and Foreign Market Development (FMD) programme. A provision introduced by Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) prohibits the use of US taxpayer’s funds if such promotional activities are deemed by the US Treasury to be related to entities owned or operated by the Cuban military. In a statement, Engage Cuba, the US pro-trade business lobby, said that the Farm Bill had placed a first dent in the Cuban embargo in nearly 20 years. Noting that it had done so under an administration that had vowed to return to a policy of isolation, it said that engagement with Cuba remained a bipartisan issue and that it would continue to push for change in 2019 in the interests of trade and national security.

Click here to read Engage Cuba’s statement on the Farm Bill.

Nexstar Broadcasting: Farm Bill Cuba provision could mean big business for ArkLaTex farmers

WASHINGTON D.C. - The recently passed Farm Bill contained a change in Cuba policy that could open the door for farmers in rice and chicken producing states like Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. 

The change will allow farmers to use government subsidies to advertise their products inside Cuba. 

It represents the first change to the Cuba trade embargo in nearly 20 years. 

Washington D.C. correspondent drew Petrimoulx reports supporters hope it paves the way for additional trade normalization that could provide new opportunities for farmers to sell their products.

El Nuevo Día: Trump da paso a productos agrícolas hacia Cuba

En una movida que va en contra de su política de endurecimiento hacia Cuba, el presidente de Estados Unidos, Donald Trump, firmó una ley agrícola que incluye una disposición para permitir el uso de recursos estadounidenses en el mercado cubano, una medida que es contraria al embargo implantado por el país desde principios de los años sesenta del pasado siglo.

Trump firmó el jueves la Ley de Perfeccionamiento Agrícola de 2018, una legislación bipartita que buscar transformar competitivamente dicho sector de la economía de Estados Unidos, pero que incluye un apartado que permitirá a los productores agrícolas estadounidenses utilizar los dólares provenientes del gobierno federal para hacer exportaciones a Cuba.

Esta es la primera ley en casi 20 años que revierte parte del embargo estadounidense a Cuba. Una ley del año 2000 permitió la venta de alimentos estadounidenses en la isla, pero sólo mediante de pago adelantado y por efectivo.

“Esta es una victoria importante para los agricultores estadounidenses, y les posibilitará competir en unas bases más justas a la hora de vender nuestros productos agrícolas a Cuba”, dijo James Williams, presidente de Engage Cuba, una coalición de compañías y organizaciones privadas que buscan poner fin al embargo.

“Esto es una lección para los cubano-americanos de línea dura que se han aferrado a una política fallida de aislamiento durante los últimos 56 años. Los agricultores estadounidenses son los mejores del mundo, y es una burla que nuestras leyes arcaicas les hayan impedido abrir nuevos mercados tan cerca de nuestras costas”, agregó Williams, cuya organización encabezó el cabildeo a favor de la medida.

La disposición fue colocada en el proyecto por la senadora demócrata Heidi Heitkamp, de Dakota del Norte, y fue aprobada por ambas cámaras la semana pasada con amplio apoyo bipartidista.

Según los datos de Engage Cuba, la isla hace importaciones anuales de productos agrícolas con valor de 1,800 millones de dólares, pero pocos de ellos van al mercado estadounidense, que requiere pago por adelantado y en efectivo.

Los agricultores estadounidenses podrían beneficiarse de la venta de aves de corral, soya, harina, productos lácteos, frutas, fertilizantes, entre otros. Mediante la nueva disposición, los agricultores podrán vender a Cuba y utilizar recursos de promoción agrícola como “moneda”, en lugar de préstamos u otro tipo de financiemiento.

La sección fue incluida en la ley luego de que un grupo de más de 60 asociaciones agrícolas, de negocios y funcionarios de 17 estados enviaron una carta a los líderes de los comités congresionales pidiendo su respaldo.

“Los agricultores dependen únicamente del comercio para vender sus productos, mantener a sus familias y desarrollar sus negocios. Y con la aprobación de nuestra enmienda en el Proyecto de Ley Agrícola de 2018, estamos a un paso más cerca de dar a los productores de cultivos y ganado una posición más sólida en el mercado cubano, así como mayores oportunidades para las exportaciones”, dijo la senadora senadora Heidi Heitkamp, autora de la iniciativa.

“Cuba es un comprador natural de muchos productos oriundos de Dakota del Norte, tales como guisantes, lentejas, y frijoles comestibles secos. Esta enmienda reconoce el potencial de Cuba como socio comercial confiable y brinda a los agricultores las herramientas necesarias para incrementar la demanda de sus productos en la isla”, agregó.

El senador John Boozman, republicano por Arizona, indicó que “el incremento de las oportunidades para el comercio agrícola entre Cuba y los Estados Unidos constituye una victoria para los agricultores estadounidenses. Fomentar su capacidad de promover sus productos y crear relaciones en un mercado que importa el 80 por ciento de sus alimentos es exactamente lo que hay que hacer”.

En el sector empresarial, la oportunidad ha sido recibida con los brazos abiertos, por el potencial que tiene.

Betsy Ward, director general de la organización “USA Rice”, indicó que “Cuba fue en un momento el principal mercado para el arroz cultivado en los Estados Unidos, importando más de 200,000 billones de toneladas al año. Con las actuales interferencias en el comercio, y la economía agrícola sufriendo de excesivos años de descenso en sus precios, permitir el uso de los dólares de promoción de exportaciones para construir relaciones en Cuba representa un significativo primer paso hacia reconquistar nuestra presencia en Cuba”.

Vince Peterson, presidente del “U.S. Wheat Associates”, aplaudió el logro y señaló que sus representados esperan que “el creciente apoyo público y del Congreso a un comercio más abierto con Cuba, incluyendo la oportunidad de usar el financiamiento para conducir actividades de desarrollo del mercado, conlleve al final del embargo de los Estados Unidos en algún momento. Cuba es una nación que hace relevantes importaciones de trigo y nuestros agricultores pueden suministrarle trigo de alta calidad a un precio inferior del que Cuba paga actualmente para importar este producto de Canadá y de Europa”.

Esta es la segunda medida avalada por Trump en lo que va de semana. Antes se anunció que el Departamento del Tesoro otorgó una licencia a “Major League Baseball” para firmar un acuerdo que permite el libre flujo de peloteros cubanos con la Federación Cubana de Béisbol.

Ambas medidas ocurren en un momento en que Trump había cambiado la política hacia la isla y recrudecido las medidas de control económico, sobre todo, en el turismo.

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The Hill: Government deploys military, medical research arms in response to diplomats' 'targeted health attacks'

The State Department has called in assistance from medical experts in federal agencies and across the U.S. to investigate a series of mysterious incidents involving diplomats who fell ill after reporting hearing strange sounds while stationed overseas.

NBC News reported Friday that the Trump administration's ongoing efforts to respond to reports of diplomats reporting strange symptoms after deployments in Cuba and China now involve at least seven federal agencies and experts from four states, as the government seeks to unravel the mystery behind the attacks.

"There’s several research projects ongoing at the military," Dr. Michael Hoffer, a former military physician, told NBC. Hoffer worked with diplomats from Cuba alongside doctors from the University of Pittsburgh, according to NBC.

"This research is going to lead us to a solution, but we really have to support that research," he added.

Just under 400 U.S. officials have reportedly been tested for symptoms related to the mysterious attacks over the past year, with many calling for transparency from the federal government about what or who is behind what the U.S. has called "targeted health attacks."

The issue has driven a wedge in U.S.-Cuba relations, which improved under the Obama administration with the resumption of normal diplomatic ties with Cuba and the establishment of a U.S. Embassy in the country.

"These families who are not seeing each other, businesses that are not growing as a result and lives divided with not a really good solution and no prospects on the horizon for a fix," James Williams, president of U.S.-Cuba relations advocacy group Engage Cuba, told NBC. "It’s just untenable."

The State Department says the attacks seem to have slowed, as no new incidents have been reported recently. The department, however, has said medical attention was available for U.S. diplomats who suspect they may have been affected by such attacks.

"To date, each report has been carefully evaluated and there have been no new incidents that are cause for concern," the State Department said, according to NBC. "Medical screening is available around the world for embassy personnel who may raise a concern."

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NBC News: U.S. turns to military, medical research to solve diplomats' 'health attacks'

WASHINGTON — In the waning days of summer, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was quietly dispatched to a Pennsylvania brain clinic to investigate for himself what government doctors had described: American diplomats and spies suffering from a mysterious set of ailments.

For two years, the U.S. intelligence community and FBI investigators had tried and failed to solve an astonishing international mystery about who or what is attacking its diplomats overseas.

What researchers presented to Sullivan in late August didn’t answer that question. But over four hours and a working lunch, neurologists and researchers showed Sullivan how they were tracking water molecules traveling through the central nervous system to create computerized maps that confirm that the damage to the U.S. workers’ brains is real.

Medical experts in four states and officials from at least seven U.S. federal agencies are now actively on the case, including the Navy, the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They join other officials from the CIA, the State Department and allied governments who have been hunting for a culprit since U.S. diplomats and spies serving in Cuba and later in China started hearing strange sounds and falling ill in late 2016.

Now that the government is deploying its military and medical research arms, costs for research and treatment have run into the tens of millions of dollars, U.S. officials tell NBC News.

The mystery has weighed heavily on the patients, unsure if and when they’ll fully recover and how their health might be affected long term. Some still spend much of their time shuttling between doctors and rehab appointments as they struggle with visual, hearing and cognitive problems. Others have tried to move on with their lives or started new posts overseas, even while they demand information and accountability from the U.S.

The lack of answers has also had a profound effect on U.S. ties to Cuba, which were just starting to mend in 2016 after half a century of estrangement, and has put the U.S. on high alert for similar attacks elsewhere.

With the U.S. Embassy in Havana operating at only partial capacity, the CIA has had to shut down its station there, officials said, depriving the U.S. of a key source of information just as the island is in the throes of a historic change in leadership.

And half a world away, in China, about 70 U.S. diplomats and their families serving in China have undergone testing in the last few months amid concerns they could have been affected by health attacks, too, State Department officials said.

They join another 300 who were tested in China earlier this year after the U.S. disclosed that one of its workers in Guangzhou was "medically confirmed" to have the same symptoms as the Cuba cases.

In additional countries where U.S. diplomats serve, a few dozen more have also been tested. They’ve been given the Acquired Brain Injury Test, or ABIT, developed by the U.S. to test for health attacks. But officials wouldn’t name those countries or say what prompted the concerns.

"To date, each report has been carefully evaluated and there have been no new incidents that are cause for concern," the State Department said. "Medical screening is available around the world for embassy personnel who may raise a concern."

Since the incidents started in 2016 in Cuba, 26 U.S. workers who served there and about a dozen Canadians have been confirmed to have been affected by what the U.S. calls "targeted health attacks" from an unknown source. Cuba adamantly denies any knowledge or involvement in the attacks. One U.S. diplomat in China who reported strange sounds and sensations was confirmed in 2018 to have the same symptoms. The incidents caused hearing, balance and cognitive changes along with mild traumatic brain injury.

With the FBI investigation making little progress, the Trump administration has turned to the Defense Department to try to recreate the technology that harmed the Americans. The Office of Naval Research’s "Code 34" Warfighter Performance Department has been researching how different energy sources affect the human body and specifically the head.

"There’s several research projects ongoing at the military," Dr. Michael Hoffer, a former military physician who first evaluated the Cuba patients, said in an interview. "This research is going to lead us to a solution, but we really have to support that research."

Hoffer and his colleagues, including at the University of Pittsburgh, have briefed Pentagon officials about their findings and are supporting the Navy’s research. In connection with that research, federal spending records show that the Navy also awarded $363,000 this year in grants to the University of Pittsburgh to study how electromagnetic or sound waves interact with the cranium, including how changes to liquid in the head can form bubble-like waves of pressure that could affect various parts of the brain.

The Office of Naval Research declined to comment.

Meanwhile, at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, government doctors and scientists are developing an in-depth clinical research study to try to understand what’s happened to the diplomats’ bodies and how long the symptoms will last. Patients are undergoing five full days of testing on various bodily systems to learn more how they interact with the brain. The study is expected to include control groups and is awaiting Institutional Review Board approval.

A separate program is underway at the CDC, which is studying the incidents as a public health risk. The agency is working to create a formal “case definition” for the illness, including risk factors and a full list of common symptoms, to be used to better track its spread. CDC’s epidemiologists traveled to China this year to gather data from U.S. workers and relatives who complained of neurological symptoms, officials said.

And at the University of Pennsylvania, where the U.S. is sending its patients for treatment, doctors have proposed to the U.S. government that they be allowed to create a Comprehensive Brain Injury Clinic that would serve as a rapid triage center in the event there was a major outbreak somewhere in the world. Currently, Penn’s doctors only have the bandwidth to perform fewer than eight comprehensive evaluations a week when a diplomat is medevaced to Penn from overseas.

Sullivan traveled to Philadelphia on Aug. 28 to personally discuss the health attacks with doctors and review their latest medical findings. And in Congress, lawmakers have taken a renewed interest in the case, with Democratic and Republican staff from the House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting recently with the Americans flown from China after a NBC News report about their situation.

In the meantime, the deterioration in U.S. ties to Cuba has been compounded by President Donald Trump’s moves to tighten enforcement of longstanding sanctions. After the first tranche of diplomats in Cuba fell ill, the U.S. issued a travel warning for Cuba, withdrew most of its diplomats from Havana and ordered out all relatives of diplomats.

So for more than a year, the embassy has been operating with a skeleton staff and has stopped performing critical services such as issuing visas for Cubans who want to visit the U.S. Those who want visas must travel to the U.S. embassy in a third country such as Guyana, significantly increasing the cost and time involved.

Cuba’s Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to requests for comment. But James Williams, president of the U.S.-based group Engage Cuba, said the situation was taking a significant human toll on both Cubans and Cuban-Americans.

"These families who are not seeing each other, businesses that are not growing as a result and lives divided with not a really good solution and no prospects on the horizon for a fix," Williams said. "It’s just untenable."

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Travel Weekly: Sector - Policy

After November's historic midterm election, in which Democrats picked up 40 seats in the House of Representatives, the largest gain for the party since 1974, many wondered if the shift would impact Cuba travel policy.

The answer is yes, most travel executives and Cuba experts say, but they warn that it's unlikely to happen in 2019. With the Senate and White House still in Republican hands, a full return to the Obama-era relaxation of travel restrictions is unlikely.

"I think we'll see free-standing bills to undo the Cuba travel ban introduced in both chambers and perhaps even pass the House," said Eben Peck, ASTA's executive vice president for advocacy, who added that language to ease or undo altogether the travel ban included in budget legislation might pass one or both chambers.

But Peck said, "I think the chances of a repeal of the Cuba travel ban passing both chambers and being signed into law by the president remain slim, given the intensity of feelings on this subject among some members of Congress and President Trump's opposition to any new easing of Cuba policy."

The Society has long advocated lifting the Cuba travel ban. In 2017, in response to Trump's rollback of the relaxed Obama-era policies, Peck said that "our government should not be in the business of telling Americans where to travel or not to travel."

Tom Popper, president of the tour operator InsightCuba, also said he thinks there won't be much change over the next two years, though he's not ruling anything out.

"It's too early to really tell," he said recently. "However, it's likely that we may see more bipartisan efforts from the House in favor of Cuba travel. Whether they go anywhere with the Senate and the White House is difficult to say."

Popper said the next few weeks and months will be important, as special-interest groups try to curry favor with the incoming Congress regarding Cuba policy.

"It will be interesting to see how the various committees shape up and what their priorities might be," Popper said.

While InsightCuba remains in a wait-and-see mode, Popper, whose tours run within the parameters of legal Cuba travel, said that despite Trump's policy rollback, his business is up 25% this year.

"The good news is travel to Cuba remains an easy and a popular choice for Americans," Popper said.

However, there are some indications there could be real Cuba policy change.

One of the more significant developments to come out of the midterm election is the change in South Florida's political landscape. In 2019, there will be only one Cuban-American Republican from South Florida in the House of Representatives for the first time since 1993, Mario Diaz-Balart. Two other Cuban-American Republican candidates lost their races.

James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a coalition of private companies and organizations advocating an end to the travel and trade embargo, said this South Florida voting shift has been years in the making and is finally showing results.

"Flipping the two Cuban-American House seats in Miami, held for decades by hardliners, creates a new opportunity in Congress," Williams said.

Williams added that for many years it has been the House, not the Senate, that blocked any legislation to end the embargo. The Freedom for Americans to Travel to Cuba Act of 2017, a bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), would have eliminated restrictions on travel to Cuba. Although 56 senators voted for it, the House blocked it.

"We've had luck in the Senate in the past, even under Republican control," Williams said. "The issue has really been the House. So there's no guarantee, but there's certainly a much better situation now than before the election."

The wild card, Williams said, is Trump. "It's anyone's guess on a daily basis what this White House will do," he said. 

Judging from recent action, the administration does not appear to be backing down from its hard line on Cuba. The State Department recently added 26 businesses to the list of places that are off-limits to American tourists because of their relationship to the Cuban military, including 16 hotels.

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El Nuevo Dia: Figuras del béisbol cubano celebran el acuerdo con las Mayores

Higinio Vélez anda estos días tan feliz que su rostro curtido por el sol tras años de ganarse la vida en un terreno de béisbol no puede ocultar una sonrisa repleta de satisfacción al anunciar que Cuba pactó con Major League Baseball (MLB) el más complejo acuerdo económico en la historia de las autoridades deportivas cubanas.

“Hoy es un día feliz para el béisbol cubano, para el béisbol en todo el mundo”, dijo Vélez, un veterano entrenador que es hoy el presidente de la Federación Cubana de Béisbol (FCB), organismo que negoció con MLB un complejo acuerdo que permitirá a los jugadores de Cuba ser contratados legalmente en Estados Unidos.

El directivo cubano explicó en el Estadio Latinoamericano de La Habana que tras tres años de negociaciones se logró montar un andamiaje que consiguiera la autorización de una licencia por parte del Departamento del Tesoro de Estados Unidos.

“Hemos obtenido el permiso del Gobierno de Estados Unidos con una licencia, porque existe un pago a los atletas y a la FCB”, indicó Vélez, quien explicó que la FCB cobrará una tasa por “derechos de formación” que variará por jugador, pero que será separada del dinero del pelotero, el cual le será entregado de manera íntegra.

Los recursos que vayan a las arcas de la FCB serán utilizado estrictamente en el desarrollo de la pelota cubana, sobre todo, en la estructura de categorías menores y la mejora de instalaciones deportivas.

Vélez, exdirigente del Equipo Nacional de Béisbol, manifestó que el acuerdo llega “en un momento imprescindible para nuestro deporte”, por el éxodo que ha desangrado a ese deporte y que se ha llevado sobre 300 de los mejores prospectos en los pasados cinco años.

“Las familias y los jugadores pueden estar tranquilos, porque este es un camino legal para los jugadores. Ya no tendrán que ser parte de algo peligroso para sus vidas”, dijo, al referirse a que los peloteros cubanos abandonaban el país ilegalmente, en su mayoría en lanchas rentadas por redes de trata humana, o desertaban en competencias oficiales para poder llegar al mercado beisbolero de Estados Unidos, el cual les estaba vetado por vías normales a causa del embargo económico y las regulaciones en Cuba.

“¿A quién no les conviene este contrato? A quien vivadel sudor de nuestros atletas. Este contrato da una vía segura de poder jugar y regresar a Cuba con su familia”, mantuvo.

Vélez calificó el acuerdo como histórico, pues es el único de su tipo en América y sólo estaba reservado hasta ahora a las ligas asiáticas de Japón, Corea del Sur y China Taipei.

Recalcó que es sólo prospectivo y que las estrellas cubanas de las Grandes Ligas, en este minuto, no podrán hacer uso del pacto para, por ejemplo, jugar por Cuba en competiciones internacionales.

Bajo el acuerdo, todos los jugadores cubanos con seis campañas en la Serie Nacional y más de 25 años serán elegibles para ser firmados por equipos de las Mayores. El plan de la FCB es que ese proceso de liberación de talento sea gradual, para evitar que se desangre el torneo local.

Los jugadores sancionados no podrán acogerse al acuerdo y los que sean menores de 25 años o no hayan cumplido seis temporadas en la liga cubana tienen la libertad de buscar un contrato, pero como agente libre aficionado, lo cual perjudicaría sus posibilidades económicas.

PUBLICIDAD

El pacto, igualmente, abre posibilidades para que los cubanos puedan firmar en ligas reconocidas por MLB, como las invernales del Caribe o la de verano en México.

La firma del acuerdo ha sido bienvenida por diversos sectores de la pelota cubana, entre ellos glorias del béisbol que en su momento pudieron haber jugado en las Mayores, pero no tuvieron el mecanismo para lograrlo.

“Pienso que todo llega en su momento. Hubiésemos querido, no sólo yo, sino muchos de nuestros atletas, que fuese antes, porque quienes jugamos en la década de los 80 y los 90, teníamos calidad para eso. No nos tocó, pero en este 2018 llegó el acuerdo y esperamos que sea para siempre”, dijo Omar Linares, el extercera base del Equipo Nacional que está considerado el mejor jugador cubano de todos los tiempos.

“Yo tuve oportunidad de jugar contra profesionales y sabía que teníamos el nivel para llegar, pero siempre quise hacerlo de forma normal, saliendo por un aeropuerto. Me alegra mucho esta noticia, sobre todo, para los jóvenes jugadores, y será muy beneficiosa para el desarrollo de nuestro béisbol”, dijo el excampocorto Rodolfo Puentes, también una estrella de su época.

Las reacciones comenzaron a llegar desde fuera de Cuba. Engage Cuba, organización que cabildea a favor de la mejora de las relaciones entre Cuba y Estados Unidos, celebró la decisión.

“Permitir que los peloteros cubanos firmen con equipos cubanos sin forzarlos a desertar, va a poner punto final al horrible tráfico humano de jugadores cubanos y permitirá a las familiar permanecer juntas”, dijo James Williams, presidente del organismo sin fines de lucro.

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Cuba Business Report: Engage Cuba Applauds Major League Baseball Cuba Deal

Today, Major League Baseball (MLB) signed a deal with the Cuban Baseball Federation (FCB) that will allow U.S. major league teams to sign Cuban baseball players living in Cuba.

“By allowing Cuban players to sign to U.S. teams without forcing them to defect, it will finally put an end to the horrific human trafficking of Cuban players and allow Cuban families to stay together,” said James Williams, President of Engage Cuba. “It shows the concrete benefits that can be achieved for the Cuban and American people through a policy of engagement after more than 50 years of a failed embargo policy.”

Previously, under MLB rules and U.S. and Cuban government restrictions, major league teams could only recruit Cuban players who had established residency outside of Cuba. The new agreement will allow FCB players older than 25 or with at least six years of experience in Cuban leagues to be signed out of Cuba and apply for a U.S. work visa while maintaining their Cuban residency.

The FCB will collect a “release fee” on MLB contracts signed by Cuban players. Former FCB players signed by MLB will be able to return to Cuba during the off-season and play in off-season tournaments with permission from their U.S. team.

The deal models existing MLB agreements with Japan, China, and South Korea, which allow players to “post” for recruitment to MLB clubs before they meet their home leagues’ free agency requirements. This has allowed the MLB to recruit younger professional players who no longer need to meet nine-year minimums for posting eligibility.

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Reuters: U.S. Cuba lobby celebrates a farm bill win despite worsening ties

U.S. legislation funding $867 billion in food and agriculture programs scheduled to be signed by U.S. President Donald Trump this week includes Department of Agriculture funds to help American farmers promote their products in Communist-run Cuba.

The measure is the first approved by Congress related to heavily sanctioned Cuba in nearly two decades and represents a symbolic victory for the lobby favoring normalization of ties whose fortunes rose under former president Barack Obama and have crashed under Trump.

Congress first authorized agricultural sales to Cuba for cash in 2000.

The farm bill approved by both houses of Congress last week goes a step further by including Cuba for the first time in the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program which help U.S. farmers offset the costs of overseas marketing, although it still does not provide credit for such sales.

“Now, we can interact with more levels of Cuban society including cooperatives, farmers, and end-users to do research and market our products,” Paul Johnson, Chair of the U.S. Agricultural Coalition for Cuba, said.

The coalition is made up of more than 100 soy-to-wheat farm and industry groups.

With close to $6 billion in sales to Cuba since 2000, U.S. agribusiness and farmers have pushed to normalize trade and win permission to sell food on credit in hopes of capturing more of Cuba’s nearly $2 billion annual purchases of food abroad.

Trump, in alliance with hard-line Cuban exiles, has promised to undo the fragile detente begun by his predecessor.

The administration has tightened travel regulations, forbidden doing business with or patronizing military-controlled Cuban entities and cut back on the negotiations begun by the Obama administration.

Under Trump, the State Department last year slashed staff at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana and expelled 17 diplomats from Cuba’s Embassy in Washington after a series of still unexplained health incidents that affected 25 U.S. diplomats.

James Williams, President of Engage Cuba, an organization working to normalize relations with Cuba, said the measure was significant as it passed a Republican Congress, adding that he is hoping for progress on credit for food sales this year.

Before passage, Senator Marco Rubio tweaked the farm bill to ensure it would not benefit the Cuban military which operates a broad swath of businesses on the Caribbean island.

“Should it be found that taxpayer dollars are being used to benefit the military, appropriate action must be taken,” Rubio’s spokesperson Olivia Peres-Cubas said, responding to an e-mail query.

Despite the deteriorating political climate between the old Cold War foes, much of the economic thaw begun under Obama, from food sales to travel and communications, remains in place. That is in large part due to the political clout of agricultural groups whose membership often support the Republican Party.

“Agriculture does have an advantage despite the current political environment,” Johnson said. “The agriculture issue has bipartisan support, and the fact that food touches everyone’s life in Cuba rather than one sector or group of people.”

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Politico Pro: Farm bill unlocks Cuba opportunity for U.S. farmers

The farm bill provision is "the first piece of pro-engagement Cuba legislation we've seen in almost 20 years," said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a coalition that supports normalized U.S.-Cuba relations.

"It really is highly symbolic that there's widespread agreement that American farmers should be more competitive in this market — and a big marker for things to come," he added.

Williams expressed hope that more could be done in the next Congress, with a Democratic majority in the House, but noted that increasing trade opportunities with Cuba has become an issue that draws support from lawmakers in both parties.

"It's not about government money. It's a business decision to get increased access to a market," Williams said.

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The National Interest: It's Time for a Policy Change on Cuba

Where are you from?” asked the 20-something as he passed me on the street in Havana. America, I replied. “I love America” he declared, before turning into one of the many restaurants near the Malecon, or waterfront. He likely was on staff, a member of Cuba’s growing private workforce.

However, opportunities for young Cubans are still too few. Many are responding, noted the  Economist, “not by agitating against the system but by plotting to escape it.” Communist rule is changing, but not enough. Despite leadership shifts and constitutional revisions, state controls continue to stifle the economy.

Ironically, among the biggest barriers to reform are President Donald Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio, and old-line Cuban-American leaders, who seem determined to preserve the fading Castroite dictatorship. They remain committed to isolating the regime, despite the failure of half a century of economic warfare. Vicki Huddleston, who once headed the U.S. interest section in Havana, reported that the embargo “has not influenced the country’s leadership to change its communist government or to improve human rights on the island.” To the contrary, she explained: “we are harming Cuba’s people much more than we are the Cuban government.”

Increased economic ties to the United States are the best, and perhaps only effective means for Americans to undermine the regime. Yet the Trump administration partially reversed President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba. This switch hurt the island’s many private businessmen and women, who complained to me on a recent visit that they cannot even get a hearing from the administration.

American involvement in Cuba goes back to the Spanish-American War, after which Washington turned the “liberated” island into a de facto U.S. protectorate. In 1959, Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries swept the corrupt Fulgencio Batista from power. Alas, they proved to be far better at tyrannizing opponents than uplifting citizens. They impoverished the island economically, politically and spiritually.

Fidel & co. turned to the Soviet Union, while Washington imposed an economic embargo and attempted to oust the regime. Any claim that Cuba posed a security threat died with the Soviet Union. The consequent end of Moscow’s subsidies sparked a rapid economic contraction known as the “Special Period.” But Florida’s politically active Cuban-American community blocked any change in policy. Even as the case for the embargo faded, restrictions were tightened.

One counterproductive impact of the embargo was to turn Cuba’s nearby market over to other nations. For instance, Europeans invested and traded even after America’s departure. Now Russians are back and Chinese are arriving. Moscow is promoting defense cooperation, supplying oil, investing in infrastructure projects including the rail system and forgiving the bulk of Havana’s old debt to the Soviet Union. China has become Cuba’s largest trading partner, is restructuring debt, advising Cuba’s military, and is supplying cars, telecommunications equipment and additional products. One of my tour guides observed that two Chinese hotels were being built: “In five years we all will be speaking Chinese.”

President Barack Obama broke precedent and relaxed federal controls—many cannot be repealed except by Congress—allowing more travel and business. He also re-established full diplomatic relations. When he visited the island in 2014, people treated him like a rock star. Years later Cubans told me how he gave them hope for a better future. Cars still sport stickers with his photo.

U.S. companies entered the Cuban market and U.S. tourists visited the island. Caroline Anderson of the American Security Project argued: “Airbnb’s advancements offer proof for the success of business expansion into Cuba. Airbnb increases the amount of money distributed directly to Cuban citizens, raises tourist levels, and helps build U.S.-Cuba ‘person-to-person’ relations.” I stayed in a retired lady’s Airbnb apartment on my most recent trip. The private sector grew to account for an estimated one-fifth of the economy.

However, candidate Trump played to the most extreme, and older, Cuban-American activists. “They want revenge. This is vendetta politics,” observed Cuban university professor Ricardo Torres Perez. Taking a similar position is Sen. Marco Rubio, who, Cubans point out, has never visited the island and refused to meet entrepreneurs who visited America. Restaurateur Niruys Higueras told me she wished “to make him understand how much damage he is causing the private sector.”

The president originally threatened to “cancel” the Obama opening, but instead banned business with any of 180 enterprises allegedly tied to the military. He claimed doing so would “channel economic activity away from the Cuban military and to encourage the government to move toward greater political and economic freedom for the Cuban people.” This was play-acting. Money is fungible and payments to any state enterprise go back to the government.

More significantly, the administration prohibited individual “people-to-people” trips. Groups are still allowed to organize such travel. Individuals may visit for specific educational, humanitarian and professional purposes. Unfortunately, the new rules, complained the Engage Cuba Coalition, create a “more convoluted, confusing and counterproductive approach,” which scares off potential tourists. To be safe, tourists can use groups familiar with the regulations such as Cuba Educational Travel (CET), which handled my trip. However, many Americans simply choose to go elsewhere.

Unfortunately, the new restrictions have hit the nascent private sector hard. William LeoGrande and Richard Newfarmer of the Brookings Institution noted that “although President Trump’s policy purports to boost Cuba’s private sector, the prohibition on individualized people-to-people travel will likely hit the private sector hardest.” LeoGrande and Newfarmer figure that “some 60 percent to 70 percent of this spending goes to Cuban workers for wages, to local suppliers, and maintenance and utility expenditures largely unaffiliated with the military.” By stifling private sector growth, the president forced Cubans to continue relying on the state.

I found this to be the reality on the ground. “A lot of private business feels crushed,” complained CET’s Collin Laverty. “So many people opened businesses for American tourists,” said Julia de la Rosa, who owns an Airbnb with her husband, Silvio Ortega. “Now there is little demand.” American tourists are well-liked—they generally tip well and behave responsibly, I was told more than once. They also are more likely to stay at Airbnbs and bed and breakfasts, use taxies, patronize private restaurants, hire individual tour guides, and the like. In contrast, official tour operations, which are better acquainted with federal regulations, are more likely to deal with larger state enterprises, including tourist agencies and hotels. “We don’t have the American market anymore. Everything is going down,” one tour guide told me.

Many entrepreneurs invested in expectation of more tourists. A tour guide complained “some people sold all they had to open a business, restaurant or bar.” For instance, the Airbnb owned by de la Rosa and Ortega began with just a couple of rooms. They have since equipped the entire house for business. Alas, bookings have dropped significantly. So, too, demand for Ortega’s taxis. Other businessmen and women I met complained that the new rules triggered a rash of cancellations and pushed down future bookings. The impact was particularly hard on enterprises, such as Airbnb, which catered to Americans.

Yamina Vincente, an interior designer whose clients are mostly Cuban, said she also is suffering since “Cuban people don’t have the money.” She added: “Many people are scared about the future, so they don’t organize a party.” Also hurt are “all the people you are going to hire for the restaurant, to make the beds, etc.,” said Ortega, whose Airbnb employs twenty-three people. Vincente said she no longer hires as many musicians, make-up artists and clowns for events, including birthday parties. Higueras complained of Washington: “you should know what you are doing before you implement regulations.”

Of course, socialism failed because it always fails. Revolutionary Cuba provided little reward for entrepreneurship, enterprise and hard work. Still, with Moscow’s help it once “looked like socialism worked,” commented a retired government official who believes economic reform to be necessary. Then came the end of Soviet subsidies, when the island’s real economy shrank by more than a third. Today the regime is unable to feed, pay or otherwise care for its people.

When I first visited the island in 2003, Cubans showed me their ration books and complained that some goods, such as milk and eggs, generally weren’t available. Today is more of the same. Richard Feinberg of the University of San Diego observed “persistent shortages of consumer staples, energy rationing, and price inflation are features of daily life. Take-home pay in many public sector jobs fails to cover basic household needs (even taking into account various government consumption subsidies).”

When I commented during my latest trip on a gas station which sported an “open 24 hours” sign, I was told that “most of the time stations don’t have oil or gas.” A tour guide complained that one has “to struggle to eat.” Former CIA intelligence officer Kevin Hulbert notes that the official food supply typically lasts just a couple weeks, after which Cubans must “resolviendo,” or resolve the problem. “So they pilfer food from work, fill up extra jugs of gasoline when they fill up the company car, work illegally running taxis, restaurants, unregistered commerce of whatever type, selling cigars they stole from the factory, and too many other scams and efforts to mention.” Cubans also take side jobs: I met an anesthesiologist washing dishes at a private restaurant, which paid more than medicine.

Overall, Cuba has lost ground compared to the rest of Latin America. A recent study by economist Pavel Vidal found that Havana vastly overstated national income. Cuba’s GDP is down more than a third since 1985; investment is among the lowest in Latin America. Vincente observed: “years ago in Cuba young people only thought of leaving Cuba to get [a] better lifestyle. After 2011, people thought of staying if they could stay and have a good lifestyle. Now we are moving backwards. People are thinking of leaving Cuba. It is very sad.”

After Raúl Castro took over, observed one Cuban, “the people thought within a couple years things would change.” But his minimal reforms fell far short. Feinberg cited the “frustratingly slow bureaucratic approval process” resulting from “ideology, senior personnel and incentives.” Several entrepreneurs name economic controls and confiscatory taxes when noting how hard it is to comply with the law and prosper.

Havana has “been too timid to bring about meaningful change to the Cuban economy, and the regime is now backtracking on some of them,” complained Antonio Rodiles and Erik Jennische, of the Forum for Rights and Liberties and Civil Rights Defenders, respectively. Last year the government suspended issuance of new licenses after Raoul criticized firms for conducting unlicensed activities and evading taxes. Said one tour guide, “it’s never easy in Cuba.”

Even now needed reforms languish. Last year Raúl Castro declared that currency reform, merging the convertible peso and Cuban peso, “cannot be delayed any longer.” Despite its insistence that the revolution is irreversible, the Cuban government wants foreign investment, which the minister for foreign trade and investment, Rodrigo Malmierca, said “has become an essential issue for the country.” However, the country remains economically inhospitable.

Unfortunately, much-touted constitutional reform will largely reinforce the status quo. The revised document legalizes private business and employment and limits public expropriation, but the new rules also increase public exactions and limit private growth, for instance, barring entrepreneurs from holding more than one license. The Communist leadership wants to loosen restrictions just enough to grow the economy while confiscating most of the gains.

The ongoing leadership transition—Raúl Castro yielded the presidency to Miguel Diaz-Canel, who was born after the revolution—so far has had limited impact. Still, many Cubans, including some younger Communist Party members, hope that the passing of the Castros will open the island’s politics. “The days of one person making decisions are over,” argued Laverty. A journalist told me that “people who come later won’t be able to rule like Fidel and Raúl. They know they have to do this differently. It won’t work if they don’t.” An American living on the island was more optimistic, telling me Raúl’s retirement had created “a completely new scene.”

Unfortunately, U.S. sanctions continue to provide the regime with an excuse for failure. Opposition activists complained to me on my first trip that communist apparatchiks blamed America for their failure. Today the regime hides behind President Trump’s policy.

America could have a huge positive impact. LeoGrande noted that “among ordinary Cubans, the desire for a better relationship with the United States is almost universal.” I saw a young man wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with an American flag and another man driving a car with an American flag on the dashboard. Yet Washington stands in the way. Cuban entrepreneurs blame the Trump administration for punishing them, damaging their businesses and destroying their investments.

Private investment also has a significant political impact. A desperate communist government has been forced by necessity to allow emergence of a growing private sector which provides up to 40 percent of the island’s jobs. People shifting from safe government employment to more remunerative but less certain private work are unlikely to be docile communist drones. Moreover, as people grow more prosperous, people tend to make more political demands. “If you want to create more space for debate, expanding the entrepreneurial class is one way,” argued Laverty. The fact that working privately, even at seemingly menial labor, pays substantially more than government bureaucracies has unsettled those who labor for the Communist machine.

Also, tourists do more than spend money. Jorgensen pointed to a survey last year which found that U.S. visitors engaged owners about politics and culture. Indeed, Professor Perez observed that the island had changed markedly in recent decades. “Compared to twenty years ago you can see many enormous differences.” Particularly important, the regime no longer possesses an information monopoly.

Controls were tight on my earlier visit, but no longer. People have increased access to cell phones, wifi hotspots, flash drives, and a relatively free internet. The latter is expensive, and anti-Cuban websites backed by the U.S. government are unavailable, but otherwise “there is very little internet censorship” one regular user told me. The authorities complain about online news sources but has so far left them alone. Hardliners “want to control the Internet—but can’t,” noted Laverty. A staff member at a Communist publication told me that he was “not saying that people have free access to information, but they have more,” including through shared USBs. He figured that perhaps 80 percent of people received alternative news sources.

The regime treats opponents harshly. For instance, the Ladies in White, who demonstrate on behalf of husbands, fathers and brothers arrested by the regime, have been treated roughly by the police and state-organized mobs. Other targets, according to Cuba Study Group (CSG): “a prominent alternative ‘think tank,’ university professors writing for non-state publications, and even street purveyors of pirated foreign media and TV.” Advocating “changing the political system is a red line,” explained one well-connected Cuban. Such talk is “counter-revolutionary.”

Still, criticism of government is heard. The latter source said “you can talk about making the system better, improving efficiency, increasing growth.” Added a widely-traveled artist, “it should be possible to make the revolution more flexible, democratic.” This broader discourse, explained CSG, “occurred not by fiat, but because a variety of actors in a fraught middle ground forged space to engage in robust analysis and debate.”

The Obama opening helped. He “was very good for us,” said one Cuban. American University’s William M. LeoGrande observed that “the political space available not for dissidents, but for people that you might call independent critical voices calling—broadly, civil society—calling for reforms in the socialist system, and sometimes dramatic ones, but not calling for its replacement that political space for those people, in my judgment got wider after the normalization of relations.”

The regime felt threatened. Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez denounced Obama’s “deep attack on our ideas, our history, our culture and our symbols.” A Western journalist told me “Obama’s visit was tremendously challenging, like Kryptonite,” for the government. “They completely underestimated his popularity.”

The Communist Party turned to repression. Ted Henken and Armando Chaguaceda respectively of Baruch College, City University of New York, and the Universidad de Guanajuato noted that “Havana has responded by circling the wagons of the state and doubling down on political centralization,” but that “a variety of actors in Cuban society—including political dissidents, independent digital journalists and the island’s innovative entrepreneurs—have staked increasingly bold claims to the public spaces that have emerged in recent years as a result of Havana’s limited economic reforms.”

Also putting pressure on the regime is the flight of the young. A former government official said only one of his four grandchildren remains in Cuba. In Brazil, doctors sent to labor under contract by the Cuban government have filed lawsuits demanding their full salaries. Even younger communists with whom I spoke acknowledged the need for meaningful reform, while insisting that they were not dissidents.

Despite this ferment, President Trump’s approach forecloses any dialogue or interaction which might encourage Havana to loosen controls. He said: “we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban regime until all political prisoners are freed, freedoms of assembly and expression are respected, all political parties are legalized, and free and internationally supervised elections are scheduled.” Taking the president at his word, he expects the Communist regime to dismantle itself—something he has not demanded of even worse dictatorships he befriended.

Nor would any government comply. One Cuban reformer told me: “it is very naive to think that more pressure on the Cuban government will get it to do what the U.S. wants.” Indeed, administration policy makes positive change less likely. Demanding the regime’s surrender ensures hardliners will work harder to prevent the rise of a Cuban Gorbachev. One Cuban who wanted change said there were officials who desired to chart a more moderate course, but “when U.S. policy becomes more aggressive, it complicates the jobs of these people.” Similarly, argued Laverty, “U.S. hostility leads to an under-siege mentality in Cuba, limiting space for debate and calls for change.”

Mid-level government officials with whom I spoke were conciliatory but not obsequious. “We are very open to American companies,” said one, and recent history “shows that we have common ground and we should build on that.” But they denigrated U.S. policies made to satisfy Cuban-Americans and dismissed making political changes under pressure. Even a reform-minded journalist who belonged to the Communist Party said “let Cuba do it in its own way.” U.S. pressure is “colliding with national pride. If Washington says to do something, some people say no, because the U.S. says so,” he explained.

Perez argued that Cuba “won’t get dramatic change at once.” Instead, he predicted change “more as gradual evolution” with a “transition toward a different society.” The process “will necessarily take some time.” Washington’s policy should be “to nurture this process.”

Further complicating the U.S.-Cuban relationship is the possible sonic attack on American diplomats, which caused Washington to essentially empty its embassy and shift visa operations successively to Colombia and Guyana. U.S. intelligence figures the Cuban government was not to blame—which makes sense, since it negotiated the opening to America. Russia has been suspected, but Moscow would risk much launching such an operation in Cuba. Unfortunately, the administration appeared to treat the controversy as an opportunity to ratchet up pressure on Havana, again mostly hurting the Cuban people.

Of course, it will be best when the Cuban dictatorship disappears. But the president’s action is the triumph of ideological blindness over painful experience. If nearly sixty years of embargo and other sanctions won’t create democracy on the island, his arbitrary tightening won’t do so.

Far better to send more Americans, more money, more goods, and more opportunities to Cuba. More Western employment and contact would spread the virus of liberty. Amnesty International’s Marselha Goncolves Margerin argued that “increased political dialogue, travel, and trade between the United States and Cuba is fundamental to advancing human rights.” The embargo should be lifted entirely, though any relaxation would be a move in the right direction. Particularly useful would be allowing Americans to travel freely to Cuba.

That wouldn’t guarantee change, of course, but President Obama’s promise of a different future greatly unsettled the Cuban government. The latter’s repressive response demonstrated the regime’s weakness, not strength. Washington also should look for practical areas where the two governments can work together for mutual advantage. Geoff Thale and Marguerite Rose Jimenez of the Washington office on Latin America noted, “While cooperation has survived during periods of great hostility, it has thrived during periods of increased engagement.” 

“Just about anything can go wrong in a country like Cuba,” one person told me. So true, but that is to be expected. As a serious governing philosophy, communism is dead in Cuba. Observed Feinberg: “Over six decades, the vanguard party has become the rearguard party.” Those leaders serious about the island’s future have begun to consider a freer way forward. Reformers looked to the U.S. and lauded Obama’s strategy. None had anything positive to say about his successor.

“We need the Americans back,” one businessman desperately exclaimed. De la Rosa asked me to let people in Washington “know they are hurting us. They are hurting common people.” And empowering opponents of change in Havana. Alas, the president continues to treat Cuba as a political issue, important only because of its impact on the next election. I found many Cubans enormously frustrated by the refusal of American policymakers to look beyond the exile community to those living on the island.

There may be no better test of a public policy than the more than half-century U.S. embargo on Cuba. A foreigner living in Cuba complained of “magical thinking in Miami” which contends that “this time we are almost there” in overthrowing the communist regime. But President Trump knows better. He broke with precedent to engage North Korea. He should offer Cuba the opportunity to join the rest of the world, making political gains as well as economic benefits likely.

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