Why Cuba Needs The US

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro focuses on the island’s troubled economy:

A big part of the calculus informing Cuba’s new openness to the U.S., though, is about economic necessity. With Cuba’s birth rate having fallen below replacement level as far back as 1980 (partly thanks to Cuban women’s universal access to reproductive health and abortions), and its work force shrinking, the country’s vaunted health system faces pressing concerns about how it will care for the huge number of citizens readying to retire. Simply put, Cuba’s economic planners realized long ago that their socialist system couldn’t survive without more sources of foreign cash.

Francisco Toro connects the US-Cuba deal to falling oil prices:

The reason is that the considerable help Venezuela sends Cuba is in the form of barrels, not dollars. As oil prices fall, the value of Venezuela’s aid falls. In the final quarter of last year, Cuba’s state finances began to look worse and worse.

He calculates that it would “take some 480,000 extra tourists next year to make up the fiscal hit just from the recent drop in oil prices”:

The only other plausible source of extra revenue on this scale is remittances from the Cuban exile community in Miami and beyond. This is a dicier proposition, as the money relatives send creates a space for independence from state control that Havana’s old-line Stalinist leaders clearly fear. But in an economy that’s still as thoroughly state-controlled as Cuba’s, there’s little doubt that remittance money “trickles up” from individual pockets to the state, as people spend their foreign currency in the state-owned “convertible peso” shops that have a monopoly on the sale of a whole range of consumer goods, from PCs to refrigerators.

Which is why Havana negotiated for — and got — much looser rules for remittances from stateside Cubans. The new limit quadrupled to $2,000 per year and the licensing regime was greatly simplified.

Reviewing a new paper on remittances, Drezner considers how that money might change Cuba:

Multiparty elections are the key mechanism through which remittances can affect democratization. It doesn’t matter if these elections are neither free nor fair, just that they happen, and the dominant party can be surprised by weak electoral support. So, a key U.S. foreign policy goal should be for Cuba to allow for multiparty elections, even if they seem like sham elections at the outset.

Playing Ball With Cuba

by Dish Staff

bialik-datalab-cubamlb

As Carl Bialik’s chart shows, Cuban baseball players are on the rise here in the US, and now with the thaw in US/Cuba relations, many are wondering about the implications for their shared national pastime:

Baseball has long been the most popular sport in Cuba and the island has long been a hotbed of baseball talent. Cubans have been playing professional baseball in the United States for nearly 150 years and even the embargo hasn’t stopped star Cuban players like Aroldis Chapman of the Cincinnati Reds and Jose Abreu of the Chicago White Sox from coming to the U.S. to play in the major leagues. But the embargo has meant that players who come to the United States have had to defect and suffer all sorts of risks to escape out of the country—including falling prey to smuggling rings.

But reforming the current, broken system will be complicated:

Fixing the smuggling problem, or at least mitigating it in some way, would likely require fully normalizing relations not just between the two governments, but between each nation’s baseball leagues as well. That first requires major policy changes between the American and Cuban governments. And even if that happens, Major League Baseball and Cuba’s government-run baseball federation would need to set up a system that allows Cuban players to transition from their league to the Majors in a way that is advantageous to both.

Ricky Doyle has the same concern:

[While] hundreds of professional-level Cuban players could become more readily available to MLB teams[, don’t] expect a free-for-all featuring open free agency, though. A more likely scenario would be the implementation of a new system that would allow Cuban players to make the jump to MLB while also ensuring that Cuba is properly compensated for what ultimately could be an exodus of talent. The system could be similar to how MLB clubs currently obtain players from Japan and Mexico.

Meanwhile, Buster Olney examines the possibility of an MLB franchise ending up in Cuba:

Cuban nationals who have defected describe a rabid appetite for baseball in their homeland, and you do wonder if many years from now — say, 25 years or so, depending on how the economy of the country evolves — if Havana might be a natural spot for expansion.

“While having an MLB team in Havana is a fascinating idea, it’s hard to imagine it happening within the next 15 or 20 years,” [agent and Cuban baseball expert Joe] Kehoskie wrote. “Even if Cuba were to become a capitalist country and then do everything it could to welcome foreign investment, it would likely take decades for the Havana area to build up enough wealth to support an MLB team. Adjusted for PPP (Purchasing Power Parity), Cuba’s per capita GDP (Gross Domestic Product) is currently estimated to be only one-third to one-fifth of that of the United States. In terms of the Caribbean region, Cuba is substantially less wealthy than Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Panama, none of which are remotely considered ready to support an MLB team.”

Dan Rosenheck considers how Cuba might look to benefit, as well:

To be sure, the government would salivate over the prospect of tax revenue from MLB contracts so large they can be measured in percentage points of Cuba’s GDP. Moreover, a rapprochement would in theory offer the SN [Serie Nacional, the Cuban baseball league], whose season is centred around winter months when MLB teams do not play, the opportunity to welcome back prominent defectors.

However, MLB has wielded an increasingly heavy hand with other Latin winter leagues, prohibiting high-priced players from participating or strictly limiting their usage to minimise the risks of injury and fatigue. If Cuba maintains its rule that players be available for the full SN season in order to approve contracts with foreign teams—a policy that would sharply reduce their value to MLB clubs—the best Cubans might still choose to follow the money and defect. That would exacerbate the devastation that defections have already wrought on the once-vaunted SN: in order to continue offering fans a quality product, it recently split its season into two halves, and lets the best teams draft players from the worst ones (which then disband) at midseason.

It will probably take years of fraught negotiations to devise a system for Cubans to play in America without defecting that satisfies MLB as well as the governments of both countries[.]

Why Not Open Up To Cuba? Ctd

by Dish Staff

Perhaps the most persuasive argument from skeptics of Obama’s historic opening with Cuba is that he didn’t extract enough concessions on democratization from the Castro regime. That’s the reason why Yoani Sánchez isn’t celebrating just yet:

What we have yet to hear is a public timeline that commits the Cuban government to a series of gestures in support of democratization and respect for differences. We must take advantage of these announcements to extract a public promise from the government, which must include, at a minimum  four consensus points that civil society has been developing in recent months: The release of all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience; the end of political repression; the ratification of the United Nations covenants on Civil, Political, Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the consequent adjustment of domestic laws; and the recognition of Cuban civil society within and outside the island.

Extracting these commitments would begin the dismantling of totalitarianism. As long as steps of this magnitude are not taken, many of us will continue to believe that the day we have longed for is still far off. So, we will keep the flags tucked away, keep the corks in the bottles, and continue to press for the final coming of D-Day.

Morrissey wonders why Obama didn’t demand more reforms:

It’s true that our 52-year embargo has failed to do anything to deflect the Castros from their oppression. The price signals from the American embargo may not have had the impact we hoped, but changing policies sends a signal, too. In this case, the signal seems to be weakness, or at least indifference to the regime’s continued oppression. We didn’t get very much out of this except our own people out and a handful of dissidents momentarily let out of prison. For that kind of shift, we should have demanded more reform from Cuba. Instead, we got an embassy and a likely return of Cuban cigars to American tobacco shops. With that in mind, small wonder most Republican contenders to replace Obama reacted negatively.

Chuck Lane expresses similar sentiments:

The one thing [Raúl Castro] does have is a clear goal, keeping himself and Cuba’s Communist elite in power, and a time-tested approach for doing so: permitting the minimum economic and political liberalization consistent with total control, and nothing more.

Greater engagement with the United States does indeed pose risks to the regime, not the least of which is that incoming tourists and businessmen will start to erode a pervasive system of social and political control. But Cuba’s authorities have years of experience manipulating foreign investors from Latin America, Canada and Europe, and with controlling Cubans’ interactions with foreign visitors, who tend to be more interested in exploiting the local population than liberating it.

Continetti, brimming with unreconstructed neocon absolutism, takes that criticism to the next level, calling Obama “a dictator’s best friend”:

The China option—foreign direct investment from America—is Raul and Fidel’s only play to sustain power over the society they have impoverished. And Obama says yes, yes to everything: an embassy, an ambassador, diplomatic relations, travel and exchange, status among nations, removal from the list of state sponsors of terror, and a serious opportunity to lessen the embargo that has kept the dictators caged for decades. In return, the Castro brothers give up … well, what? Alan Gross, a political prisoner and persecuted religious minority who shouldn’t have been imprisoned in the first place? A second man who has been in captivity for decades? Thin gruel. …

This isn’t giving away the store. This is giving away the shopping mall, town center, enterprise zone. And it is entirely in character with President Obama’s foreign policy.

But Drezner pushes back hard on this line of criticism:

[A]nyone who tells you that the sanctions just needed more a little time to work is flat-out delusional. After more than a half-century, they were never going to work.

By switching course, the United States reaps a few benefits. First, the odds of orderly liberalization and democratization in Cuba have increased. Not by a lot — maybe from 2 percent to 10 percent. But that’s still an improvement. Even if full-blown regime transition doesn’t happen, economic liberalization does make a society somewhat more free. Today’s Post editorial points to Vietnam as the worst-case outcome for the Cuba policy. But Vietnam now has a considerably more liberal climate than before the US opening, so I don’t think that’s the best example.

Moisés Naím offers another obvious counterpoint – i.e., that political reform doesn’t always happen by proclamation, and that the Castros may have a hard time maintaining their vice-grip on a more open economy and society:

Cuba is unlikely to embark on a political opening any time soon, unless the current regime suddenly implodes. Cuba’s dictatorship has proven very resilient to political pressures, and systematically and brutally clamps down on dissidents. The government will surely try to maintain its chokehold on the population; at times, the repression may even become harsher as the need to reassert the regime’s power mounts.

But in the long run, it will be hard for the Castro regime to maintain a tightly controlled political system if it allows more freedom of communication, travel, commerce, and investment. It’s easier to keep a lid on politics when a country is closed, hungry, and isolated than when it’s more open to the world.

In the aftermath of the agreement, the Cuban government will no longer be able to blame the island’s bankruptcy on U.S. policies. Throughout Latin America, the embargo has been perceived as a relic of heavy-handed U.S. intervention in the region. But that symbol is now fading for critics of the United States.

What Does Cuba Mean For 2016?

by Dish Staff

Cuba Parties

Rand Paul came out in support of President Obama’s historic opening with Cuba yesterday, putting him at odds with his putative primary competitors:

“The 50-year embargo just hasn’t worked,” Paul said. “If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working, and probably, it punishes the people more than the regime because the regime can blame the embargo for hardship. “In the end, I think opening up Cuba is probably a good idea,” he said.

The senator’s approach separates him from several potential Republican presidential hopefuls, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Govs. Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Bobby Jindal of Louisiana and Paul’s Senate colleagues Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas. His more libertarian outlook could win him support in agricultural states like Iowa, which holds the nation’s first presidential caucuses. Paul’s comments also parallel those of Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wrote in her book “Hard Choices” that the embargo was a failure that gave the Castro regime “a foil to blame for Cuba’s economic woes.”

Kilgore expects Paul to pay a political price for that position:

Perhaps Paul is calculating that no one will care about Cuba policy by the time the 2016 nominating contest gets serious, and that could be true. But if, say, Marco Rubio is in the field, I don’t think Paul will be able to avoid the issue.

And I’ll betcha the other candidates will gang up on him just as they did on Ron about Iran, even as they largely refused to challenge his crazy monetary policy ideas or his long association with extremists. Conservative mistrust of the Paul family on national security issues hasn’t gone away by any means, and it’s surprising he’s giving it new life, even if he’s absolutely right on policy grounds. I’m quite sure Jennifer Rubin is writing a blog post on this fresh evidence of his “isolationism” as we speak.

Indeed, Rubio was quick to swat back that Paul “has no idea what he’s talking about”, to which Paul replied in a series of tweets, including this zinger:

Larison doubts that Rubio’s black-and-white approach to Cuba will win over very many voters:

It’s hard to see how Rubio benefits by becoming the leading opponent of a policy change that most Americans, most Floridians, and most Cuban-American Floridians support. He will win more applause from other hard-liners in his party, but that’s not something that a candidate running for re-election in a “swing” state normally wants. If it has an effect, it probably does more to hurt him in Florida, especially because of the positive effects that restored relations will likely have on Florida.

I fail to see how becoming the leading defender of an outdated and failed policy that most of his constituents reject improves Rubio’s chances of re-election. Yes, it raises Rubio’s national profile and it will get him a lot more attention in the coming year, but it’s not clear that Rubio benefits from being identified primarily with his hard-line foreign policy views. It is conceivable that Rubio could end up losing his Senate re-election bid because he becomes so closely identified with trying to block a change in policy that most people in his state say they want.

Waldman agrees:

On this issue, [Marco Rubio] is kind of like the teenager who wears a bow tie to school and agrees fervently with the senior citizens who are so fond of him that kids today have no respect, and ought to shut off that awful hip-hop and listen to some real music, like Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller. … But I don’t think he’s going to run anyway. He’s up for re-election to his Senate seat in 2016, so he’d have to give it up to run for president—and if he didn’t get the nomination, he’d be left with nothing. He’s only 43 years old, so he could run in 2020, 2024, or pretty much any time in the next quarter-century. He’s a pretty good politician, but he’s not so spectacularly skilled that he can reasonably look over the field and say, “I can take all of these bums.” So it’d probably be best for him to sit it out. And when he does run, Cuba probably won’t be an issue anymore.

But Greg Sargent isn’t so sure:

I would like all of this to be true. But here’s an alternate possibility: There may be no downside for Rubio here, particularly given what he needs to accomplish in the short term if he is running for president. After all, if Obama’s move does produce some successes in “accelerating change and democracy” in Cuba or in any other ways, it seems unlikely that they will be even acknowledged at all  inside the Conservative Entertainment Complex or among the GOP primary voters Rubio is apparently trying to reach. So where’s the gamble in getting this wrong?

Then, of course, there’s the money. As Kenneth Vogel and Tarini Parti discover, wealthy opponents of normalization are already lining up to line the pockets of the “right” candidates:

Since Obama’s announcement, top Cuban-American donors have been reaching out and offering support to the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, a leading opponent of normalization, according to the group’s director Mauricio Claver-Carone. “You’re definitely going to see a boon,” predicted Claver-Carone. “It will carry through the next cycle and will translate over to Jeb and Marco,” said Claver-Carone, whose group has hosted both Bush and Rubio at recent events, including a gala headlined by Bush last month in Miami that raised $200,000. …

And there’s an even deeper-pocketed group on the same side of the issue backed by the Koch brothers’ political operation. The LIBRE Initiative, which courts Latino voters with a conservative economic message, is registered under a section of the tax code – 501(c)4 – that allows it to shield its donors’ identities and requires only bare-bones financial disclosure and only well after Election Day. From July 2012 through June 2013, the group raised $5 million, according to its tax filings, and sources say it spent millions in this year’s midterms attacking Democrats in Texas, Arizona and Florida. The sources expect it to increase its spending in 2016, including potentially on ads opposing normalization.

(Chart showing majority Republican support for normalizing relations with Cuba from a February Atlantic Council report (pdf).)

Obama Scraps Our Failed Cuba Policy, Ctd

by Dish Staff

Previous input from the in-tray here. Another reader gives a shoutout to Francis: “For the pope to be a broker for the deal makes the whole story even more interesting.” Another looks at the opening of Cuba with realist eyes:

There is no hypocrisy in maintaining normal relations with China, Saudi Arabia, and other violators of human rights while denying that status to Cuba. Saudi Arabia has lots of oil and a strategic position in the world producing world. It is a relationship of economic convenience, and both sides understand that. China offers huge trade opportunities, and in the beginning of our relationship, a counter to the Soviet Union. You have diplomatic relations with states when it is necessary and prudent.

Cuba offers nothing to the USA or its citizens other than another tourist destination, cigar, and rum. There are practically no consequences to US citizens for not normalizing relations other than opening up yet another Caribbean tourist destination, and providing access to cigars, and rum. Just because Cuba has not liberalized its society doesn’t make our foreign policy a “failure” any more than other nations who have diplomatic relations with Cuba “failed” to effect an opening.

I’m not opposed to ending the travel ban, but we should have gotten a lot more out of Cuba for normalizing relations. At a minimum, Obama should have required Castro to lift all restrictions for Cubans to have Internet access.

Update from a reader:

Normalizing relations doesn’t give us anything in terms of security? Really? Here’s a simple thought experiment: is it better to have friendly relations with neighbors or antagonistic relations with neighbors?

Another relates to Will’s criticism:

Just amazes me how the left romanticizes Cuba, even as it attempts skepticism. I just got off the phone with a friend from Cuba. Her family is sending a blood pressure machine to a relative in Cuba because none are to be found.

Another provides some family history:

Nothing steams me up more than one of the comments from your reader:

We all know the real reason: political posturing. Castro stripped Cuban aristocrats of their wealth. They fled to Florida and have been propping up anti-Castro policy ever since. There are no principles here.

Well, here is a story about one such “aristocratic” family. My mother’s mother, with her eight children between the ages of 15 and 1, left Cuba in 1960 with nothing but a tiny suitcase and the clothes on their backs.  She would meet her husband in Miami, where they would begin a new life.  They left family, friends, their homes, their country.  Slowly, many of her family and friends also left for Miami and elsewhere after thinking that Fidel would be the answer to all of Batista’s corruption.  My grandmother never saw her mother again, who passed away in 1977.

My grandfather was the son of a middle-class family in Havana, nicknamed Barbarito because he was born on Sta. Barbara’s Saint Day.  During the time Batista was in power, my grandfather was imprisoned for six months for, in his words, “Conspirando” (conspiring).  After their emigration from Cuba, he remained active in conspiring, but to overthrow the Castro regime and to return home.  He always believed he’d return. My grandfather passed away in 1990, my grandmother passed away in 1992, never having returned to Cuba.

My mother, who left Cuba when she was 10, visited Havana in the mid-nineties. She was allowed to go to her grandmother’s home, though only allowed in the front salon. The man who lived in the lower part of house kept many of her grandmother’s items, including photos of her and her family.  They were little snapshots of their daily life in Cuba, remembrances of what they left.  She was able to take them back to her brothers and sisters.

I am also part of the diaspora, having been born in England to a Guyanese father, coming to Miami in 1980, now living in Los Angeles.  I consider myself Cuban. In memory of my grandparents, I have chosen not to go to Cuba until conditions change and the Castro regime topples.  This week’s news is part of that change, though I am undecided as to my feelings about it and am still processing what that means for my uncles, aunts and friends.

When I read the comment above, as well as all the jokes about McDonalds and the Americanization of Cuba, I am shocked at the disregard for the suffering millions of people have had on both sides of the Florida Strait for the past fifty plus years.  This week’s news should not be about making jokes, making blanket statements about what one thinks happened in the fifties and sixties, about Republicans and Obama, or about one’s vacations plans.  The news is about peoples homes and loved ones, regardless of political leanings.

Another reader is also “thrilled by the news”:

Cuba is the most depressing place I’ve ever been. I flew from Merida to Havana as part of my trip around the world in my mid 20s. Everyone I met was in their mid-late 20s and very attractive but short due to protein deficiency (they talked about eggs once a week). They all had masters. None of them worked. The highlight of their day was meeting up with me to get a Coke and an ice cream in the park using the dollar line (I happily treated).

I still recall one conversation I had with the guys I met up with every day. They couldn’t believe that there were poor people in Mexico. That got me thinking. Mexicans can’t believe there are poor people in the United States. Both a simple and extremely complicated concept to consider.

Another dissents:

Your blog fails to mention the gross human violations the Castro brothers have committed over the past 50 years.  The alacrity and glee your blog has greeted the diplomatic opening with a government comprised of thugs is breathtakingly hypocritical and disappointing.

Details of that despotism from Raúl Castro here. Another reader thinks of the birds:

Far more worrisome than Golden Arches spoiling all those picturesque Havana ruins is the prospect of Cuba‘s coastal areas, some of the most pristine in the hemisphere, getting turned into resorts. The jailing/isolation of Cuba has been a blessing for birds and wildlife, which enjoy nearly pre-Columbian conditions in some spots. I am eager for theCuban people to enjoy more freedom, and I think it’s all but certain they would embrace an more American-like lifestyle very quickly if given chance. That’s one of the things the people griping about Obama’s “betrayal” forget or ignore – the allure of the bonuses of our system. But Cuba‘s coasts are a rare world treasure.

And another disparages one of the main conduits of commentary this week:

Hard to feel much sympathy for anyone feeling his comments maligned after posting them on Twitter, e.g., the funky Cuba vs McDonalds kerfuffle.  If Twitter is inherently inadequate for in-depth analysis, then don’t use it to express your views and then expect to be cut slack because there was no space to get at an issue more profoundly.  Best, I would imagine, to confine oneself to pith and snark, or otherwise accept the likelihood of being misunderstood, willfully or not.

Is Obama Due For A Comeback?

by Dish Staff

Earlier this week, Beinart made the case that Obama is bouncing back:

This year’s dominant storyline was about Obama and the midterm elections. Most key Senate races took place in red and purple states where Democratic candidates distanced themselves from Obama, thus magnifying the media’s perception that he was a political pariah.

Next year, however, the story won’t be 2014 but 2016. And the Democratic story, in all likelihood, will be Hillary Clinton’s march toward her party’s nomination. While Obama was certainly unpopular this fall in states like Kentucky, he remains quite popular among the liberal activists who play an outsized role in Democratic primaries. In fact, Obama retains a connection to many them that Hillary Clinton has never enjoyed. The closer she comes to the nomination, the more nostalgic some of those grassroots liberals will become about Obama. And this new context—Obama versus Hillary among Democratic activists—rather than Obama versus Alison Lundergan Grimes among Kentucky midterm voters—will cast him in a more favorable light.

That may be true, but Waldman isn’t expecting Obama to win the approval of many Republicans:

[P]artisan identification has sorted and sharpened, and people on both sides are even less willing to give the other side’s guy credit for anything. Bush’s approval among Democrats was in the single digits for most of the last three years of his presidency, and Obama’s approval among Republicans has hovered around 10 percent (sometimes even lower) since 2010.

What that means is that if Obama has a revival in approval, it’ll look not like the 65 percent Clinton had at the end of his term or Reagan had just before Iran-Contra, but more like 50 or 55 percent. That represents most everyone from his party, and a little over half of independents. There are actually very few true independents; most lean to one party or another. Obama won’t get approval from the Republican-leaning ones, but he can get the Democratic-leaning ones, and if things are going well, most of the true independents (who represent maybe 10 percent of the population). Add that all up and it’ll come out to something like that 55 percent number.

Will That Cohiba Taste The Same Without The Mystique?

by Dish Staff

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Roberto Ferdman deflates some of the hype surrounding Cuban cigars, which Americans will soon be able to buy more easily:

Each year, Cigar Aficionado, the leading industry magazine, publishes a list of the top 25 cigars in the world. Last year, the number one cigar was the Montecristo no. 2, which is made in Cuba. But only two of the remaining 24 also came from the country. By contrast, 11 were from the Dominican Republic, and 10 were made in Nicaragua. The magazine has yet to reveal its top pick for 2014, but among the remaining 24 the vast majority are once again from countries other than Cuba. And a similar pattern can be seen in virtually every year that the publication has issued its rankings. “The playing field has been leveled,” said David Savona, executive editor of Cigar Aficionado.

Alison Griswold suspects that the storied tobacco derives its reputation from scarcity as much as from anything else:

“It’s a forbidden fruit,” explains Eric Newman, president of Tampa, Florida-based J.C. Newman Cigar Company, a cigar manufacturer. “The biggest market in the world prohibits them from entering the marketplace.” Rather than deterring U.S. consumers, that ban may have in fact proved the biggest selling point for Cuban cigars over the last 50 years. People in the industry compare their allure to that of Coors beer before it became easily available beyond the American west. So great was the East Coast’s unrequited love for Coors in the 1970s that the quest to bring the beer from West to East was depicted in the popular 1977 film Smokey and the Bandit.

With both Coors and Cuban cigars, the question has been whether the product is ultimately worth the hype surrounding it. “Coors isn’t a bad beer, but is it the best beer in the world?” [president of Corona Cigar Company Jeff] Borysiewicz asks. “Cuban cigars are kind of the same way.”

But Dylan Matthews relays some evidence that Cubans really are superior:

So Cuba produces some excellent cigars. But do they, on average, surpass those of other countries? A 2003 paper in the Quarterly Journal of Economics and Finance suggests yes. The University of Virginia’s David Freccia and Wesleyan’s Joyce Jacobsen and Peter Kilby collected Cigar Aficionado quality ratings and price data for 689 different cigars, and sought to identify determinants of both high prices and high ratings. They took into account a battery of subjective factors — did the Cigar Aficionado review describe the cigar as mild? as well built? as smooth? was it nutty or cocoa-y or creamy? — as well as national origins.

They found that the single most important determinant of both prices and ratings was whether or not the cigar originated from Cuba. Being from Cuba bumped up a cigar’s rating by 4.05 points on a 100-point scale, on average; by contrast, being described as “well built” only gained a cigar 1.28 points, and being “leathery” only resulted in a 1.87 point gain.

(Photo by Alex Brown)

Why Not Open Up To Cuba?

by Dish Staff

Screen Shot 2014-12-18 at 12.43.00 PM

Aaron Blake flags one argument that won’t get much traction – that Cuba is a genuine national security threat:

Despite Cuba’s proximity to the United States (about 90 miles from Florida) and its alliance with other antagonistic countries like North Korea and Russia, Americans have grown progressively less and less concerned that the island country actually poses a threat to the United States. A CNN/Opinion Research poll earlier this year, in fact, showed that just 5 percent of people viewed Cuba as a “very serious threat” and 21 percent said it was a “moderately serious threat.” Another 72 percent said it wasn’t a threat at all or “just a slight threat.” Back in 1983, two-thirds of Americans viewed Cuba as at least a “moderately serious threat,” but that numbers has fallen steadily since then.

Zack Beauchamp notes that another favorite talking point of anti-Cuba hardliners – calling the country a state sponsor of terrorism – is a bit outdated:

The US government designated Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism in 1982, which imposed financial penalties on the Cuban government. At the time, the US accused Cuba of supporting the Spanish Basque terrorist group ETA and the FARC militants in Colombia. Though the US continues to label Cuba a terrorism sponsor, that’s just transparently untrue. According to the State Department‘s most recent annual review of terrorism worldwide, “there was no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups.”

“Cuba’s ties to ETA have become more distant, and that about eight of the two dozen ETA members in Cuba were relocated with the cooperation of the Spanish government,” the report reads. And “throughout 2013, the Government of Cuba supported and hosted negotiations between the FARC and the Government of Colombia aimed at brokering a peace agreement between the two.” That doesn’t sound much like a state sponsor of terrorism.

In fact, FARC announced a unilateral ceasefire yesterday, possibly (though not necessarily) pointing the way to peace in Colombia. Richard McColl wonders whether these two events were connected:

How much influence Cuba had in the decision taken by the FARC is up for speculation since Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been making conciliatory overtures in his statements to the press in recent weeks. Now the question in Colombia, is, will a bilateral ceasefire be announced in coming days? In the past, Santos has been stubbornly opposed to a bilateral ceasefire, but his position on the issue may be shifting. In an interview with W Radio in Bogota on Wednesday morning before the news about Cuba broke, he said that he was waiting for concrete actions from the FARC that would enable a deceleration of the conflict. Less than six hours later, the FARC potentially came good on the challenge.

Larison pushes back on the notion, per Elliott Abrams, that Obama’s opening to Cuba will embolden other enemies of the US:

Restoring diplomatic relations with Cuba isn’t going to have negative “repercussions” around the world. For one thing, persisting in a useless policy towards Cuba doesn’t tell us anything about Washington’s willingness to back up its guarantees elsewhere in the world. It does hint that the U.S. is eventually capable of recognizing policy failure when it is staring it in the face, and that has to be modestly reassuring to our allies and regional neighbors. If there are any repercussions from this decision, they are all likely to benefit America. Latin American governments will have less of a reason to fault U.S. policy towards Cuba. The U.S. will be able to demonstrate that it is still capable of resuming relations with states that it has previously treated as pariahs, and that might make U.S. diplomacy more effective in other places.

Ishaan Tharoor finds it odd that Republicans who tout the benefits of trade liberalization everywhere else don’t extend the same optimism to Cuba:

It’s a strange irony that some of Washington’s biggest proponents of free trade don’t want to see the United States enable such liberalizing changes in Cuba. Closer ties to Cuba, including trade links, will ideally lead to a deepening of Cuba’s own curtailed civil society. That, at least, is the current message of the Obama administration. The more open Cuba gets, the more access its people may have to the Internet and to outside channels of information. That, the hope goes, may speed political reform in Havana.

Critics may point to countries like China and Vietnam, where decades of economic development and free enterprise have yet to yield any real liberal, democratic dividend. But Cuba is fundamentally different; it exists in the U.S.’s shadow and its links to the American mainland, including some 1.5 million Cuban Americans, mean that even the most dogged authoritarian leader will struggle to inoculate the regime from American influence — that is, once Washington finally chooses to engage with Cuba.

Joe Klein makes a similar argument:

Those who favor a continuation of our failed Cuba policy are a reflexive lot with a muddled argument. They’re the usual myopic tough guys–John McCain and Lindsey Graham immediately jumped on the President after his Cuba announcement today–who have no idea of the seductive power of the American way of life in the rest of the world. I can understand why the corroding Iranian regime would want to keep us out (a sign in Tehran: “When the Great Satan praises us, we shall mourn”). I’ve always thought: then let’s recognize the hell out of them. Let ‘em mourn. Let the Revolutionary Guard try to fend off Kanye West and Star Wars. Good luck with that.

Rich Lowry, however, insists that easing trade restrictions won’t spur the growth of free enterprise in Cuba, but rather will only enrich the Castro regime:

Consider tourism. The Cuban military has a enormous holding company called GAESA. One of its companies, Gaviota, operates an extensive network of hotels and resorts from which it earns a bonanza of foreign exchange, according to the strategic consultancy Stratfor. Imagine if the Pentagon owned the Radisson, Marriott and Hilton hotel chains. That is the Cuban tourism industry in a nutshell. If tourism were the key to empowering and eventually liberating the Cuban people, the country would be a robust democracy by now. About a million Canadian tourists go to Cuba every year. In total, more than 2 million tourists visit annually, and yet the Castro regime is still standing.

Michael Daly, meanwhile, points out that Cuba still harbors a number of American fugitives, including the infamous Assata Shakur:

Among the roughly 80 other American fugitives in Cuba is Ishmael Ali LaBeef, who hijacked an airplane after he and four buddies murdered eight innocents during a robbery at a Virgin Islands golf course in 1972. There is also Victor Gerena, who is wanted in connection with a $7 million armored car robbery in Connecticut in 1983. And then there is William Morales of the Puerto Rican independence group the FALN. He lost most of both hands while assembling a device in an FALN bomb factory in 1979, but managed to escape from a hospital ward where he was being fitted for prosthetic hands after being convicted of weapons charges and sentenced to 99 years.

Obama Scraps Our Failed Cuba Policy, Ctd

by Dish Staff

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Erik Voeten notes that, in one respect, Cuba isn’t the only country that’s been internationally isolated by the US embargo:

The United Nations General Assembly has voted since 1992 on an annual resolution on the “necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba.” In 1992, with the Cold War just ending, fewer than 50 percent of all member states voted in favor of the resolution (more than half abstained). The graph above shows how quickly any semblance of support for the embargo evaporated.  In its latest iteration only Israel joined the Americans in voting against the resolution, although, to its credit, the United States did get the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau to abstain.

U.N. General Assembly resolutions have mostly symbolic value as they do not create binding legal obligations. Yet, U.S. isolation probably undermined the effectiveness of the embargo.

Juan Carlos Hidalgo applauds Obama’s decision to re-establish relations:

The president’s move should be uncontroversial. U.S. policy toward Cuba has been a blatant failure. It has not brought about democracy to the island and instead provided Havana with an excuse to portray itself as the victim of U.S. aggression. It has also served as the scapegoat for the dilapidated state of Cuba’s economy. Moreover, according to government reports, the embargo has also become somewhat of a U.S. security liability itself. As for the economic measures, they are significant in symbolism, yet limited in their likely impact as long as Cuba retains its failed communist economic system. The 114th Congress should pick where the president left off and move to fully end the trade embargo and lift the travel ban on Cuba.

The Bloomberg View editors argue that Obama’s move will hasten the end of the Castro regime, especially if (as is unlikely) Congress plays along and lifts the trade embargo:

The opening of embassies will also have beneficial effects diplomatically. It sucks some air out of the most fevered denunciations of the U.S. by fellow Cuban travelers such as Venezuela, makes it easier for the U.S. to partner with countries such as Brazil, and helps transform the doddering Castros from symbols of resistance to minor diplomatic players.

Of course, as long as the U.S. embargo remains in place, the Castros will retain some of their revolutionary cachet, not to mention their grip on Cubans’ livelihoods. For that to go away, and for Cuba to leave socialism and its 1950s Chevrolets in the rearview mirror, the U.S. Congress must act: Under the terms of the Helms-Burton Act and other laws, the embargo can’t be fully lifted without its concurrence.

Fallows calls the embargo the stupidest American policy of the last 35 years:

I choose “at least 35 years” as the demarcation point for undeniable irrationality because that is when the U.S. fully normalized its relations with mainland China. If successive Republican and Democratic administrations could see the merit of trying to engage (rather than exclude) a one-party repressive communist-run state, even when that state had four times as many people as the U.S. did, and is nuclear-armed, and is a regional rival of several U.S. allies, how much more obvious is the case for a tiny little island practically within eyesight of the American mainland and certain to fall under the sway of U.S. cultural and economic influence if given a chance?

Not to mention that recognizing the People’s Republic of China meant cutting off America’s relationship with the people and government of the Republic of China on Taiwan, which itself has twice the population of Cuba and nearly 10 times as large an economy. There is no comparable tit-for-tat cost for the U.S. in normalizing relations with Cuba.

Keating wonders, however, what Castro’s motives are:

“I do think that they’re trying to lay the groundwork for a process of change in which they can keep their scalps and guide the country toward a more sustainable political system,” Christopher Sabatini, senior policy director and chairman of the Cuba Working Group at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas, told Slate.

The other big factor at play here is the turmoil in Venezuela. The South American nation threw the tottering Cuban economy a lifeline during the regime of Hugo Chávez, providing the island with 100,000 barrels of oil per day. Today, in the aftermath of Chávez’s death and bruised by political turmoil and the plummeting price of oil, Venezuela’s economy is in chaos and the government is on the verge of defaulting on its debt. “You don’t need to be a capitalist to realize that Venezuela’s economy is in very dire straits,” said [Christopher] Sabatini. “It’s getting worse literally by the day. So they’re going to lose that benefactor.” Add the Venezuela situation to the Castros’ advancing years and you can understand what’s driving Raúl toward a more accommodating stance.

Jason Koebler highlights what a big deal it will be for Cuba to finally get the Internet:

What’s this all have to do with the internet there? Well, the ​submarine cable system that connects much of the world with fiber optics has basically bypassed Cuba. Instead, the country has been relying on extremely old and slow satellite technology to give its people (limited and censored) internet access. Obama specifically said he will allow American telecom companies to work with Cuba. …

That’s huge. Internet access in the country is abysmal. Only 5 percent of Cubans have internet access, and barely anyone had internet in their homes until this year, when the state-owned Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba began offering very limited, very slow internet connections to some residents. Before that, the internet was only available at 118 kiosks, where residents had to pay $4.50 an hour (an astronomical sum in Cuba) to use computers.

Yglesias Award Nominee

by Dish Staff

“It’s been a half century now. Unless and until someone can show me something besides political talking points to the contrary, the embargo was simply not working. The Castros remain in power and the government has not significantly changed. And as we have repeatedly demonstrated in our negotiations regarding sanctions and punishment of other nations such as Iran, Iraq or Russia, sanctions and embargoes do not work unless you can get significant buy-in from your allies. Nobody is joining us on this. Canadians regularly vacation in Cuba. Nearly every other western nation trades with them. We simply don’t have any backup here,” – Jazz Shaw, Hot Air.