President Obama’s trip to Cuba marks a historic milestone in the normalization process between the US and Cuba.
Since President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced that the two countries would initiate a new era of relations 15 months ago, they have expanded cooperation across a range of areas for the benefit of the citizens of both the US and Cuba.
According to Obama, the two countries are advancing their shared interests and working together on complex issues that for too long defined – and divided – our relationship. Obama has stated that his Cuba policy allows the US to more effectively improve the lives of the Cuban people, advance our interests and values, and build broader ties of cooperation across the Americas.
Connecting the US and Cuban People
As President Obama stated in his State of the Union address, he has sought ways to increase opportunity for Americans and improve the lives of the Cuban people, including by opening the door to increased travel and commerce between our two countries. The President believes that the best way to achieve that goal is by facilitating more interaction between the Cuban and American people, including through travel and commercial opportunities, and through more access to information.
On March 15, the Department of the Treasury authorized US citizens to travel to Cuba provided that, among other things, the traveler engage in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. Previously, Americans were required to travel to Cuba under the auspices of an organization and be accompanied by a representative of the sponsoring organization.
In December 2015, the US and Cuba reached an arrangement to re-establish regular, direct flights between the US and Cuba for the first time in more than 50 years. US carriers have applied to the Department of Transportation for an allocation of the new opportunities to provide scheduled flights, which will begin later this year. Thirteen US carriers have applied to provide direct flights to Havana from 20 US gateway cities, as well as one-stop flights from three additional US cities. In addition, seven US carriers have applied to provide scheduled flights to the other nine international airports in Cuba from five US gateway cities.
The US and Cuba have re-established the direct transportation of mail between the two countries. On March 16, the first direct flight of mail from the US arrived in Cuba after 53 years. One letter sent on the first direct mail flight was a personal letter from President Obama to Ileana R. Yarza, in response to a letter she sent to the White House.
The US and Cuba have begun to collaborate on port security and have conducted reciprocal port visits. The US Coast Guard assessed that Cuban ports meet international port security standards and lifted the Port Security Advisory on Cuba. This step helps clear the way for ferry and cruise ship services between the US and Cuba to begin.
The US and Cuba signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that recognizes the mutual interests and challenges of both countries in improving services for maritime navigation safety to protect the marine environment and promote safe maritime economic activities. The MOU will facilitate the exchange of data to update nautical charts, monitor and forecast tides and currents for ports, and other related activities. Improved navigation services are important for commercial mariners and recreational boaters alike, particularly as travel and trade increases between the two countries.
For the first time, Cuba will be included as a participating country in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program, which brings 200 outstanding mid-career professionals from developing countries to the US for non-degree study and related professional experiences, and the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program, which offers grants for US undergraduates of limited financial means to pursue academic studies or internships abroad.
The goal of 100,000 Strong in the Americas, the President’s education initiative in the Western Hemisphere, is to increase the number of student exchanges in the Americas to 100,000 in both directions by 2020. As part of the President’s visit to Cuba, the US announced a new $1 million commitment from the Cuban American community to the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund, which provides opportunities to create university partnerships that enhance regional competitiveness and provide new study abroad opportunities. This funding will support Cuba-specific Innovation Competitions in both countries, to advance student exchanges focused on entrepreneurship, with a secondary focus on agricultural management, business and social innovation, environmental and sustainable energy, language learning, international trade and development, study abroad infrastructure, and cultural collaborations.
The 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund will also launch the 10th Innovation Competition: Promoting Study Abroad Partnerships for Innovation and Collaboration. This competition is supported through a contribution from Santander Bank as part of their $1 million commitment to 100,000 Strong in the Americas. All higher educational institutions in the Western Hemisphere that promote study abroad programs between the US and other countries in the hemisphere are eligible to compete.
At the request of and in coordination with the Cuban Government, the US will send English-language specialists to work with the Cuban Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education for programs to support English teacher training this spring and summer. The US also will offer a selection of online courses for Cuban teachers of English from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education later this year.
Over 250 young leaders from the US and the region will take part in Youth Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) fellowships this year that enable them to develop joint business and civil society initiatives while at universities, businesses, and other institutions in the US. The US will welcome 10-15 Cuban participants among the 250 YLAI Fellows who will be in the US in the fall of 2016.
The US will invite up to 10 Cuban entrepreneurs to this year’s Global Entrepreneurship Summit (GES) in Silicon Valley June 23-24. The event will include 700 entrepreneurs, representing every country in the world. A total of 100 entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean will participate. GES provides an opportunity for entrepreneurs to build new skills, grow their networks, and connect with peers, mentors, and investors from around the globe.
In June 2016, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal will travel to Cuba for a Sports Envoy Program focusing on youth in Havana. The program will be the first in which US Embassy in Havana will partner with the Cuban Ministry of Sports. In November 2016, Misty Copeland, the American Ballet Theatre’s first Principal Dancer of color, will travel to Cuba to conduct master classes and speaking engagements. She will also lead dance clinics for minority youth and hold inclusion workshops for coaches, with a special focus on building athletic programs for female youth.
Expanding Business and Commercial Ties
The Obama Administration has taken a number of steps to ease certain travel, trade, and financial transaction restrictions applicable to Cuba. These regulatory changes have made it easier for US businesses, educational entities, and NGOs to engage with Cuban counterparts to provide resources, share information, and help the private sector grow. Regulatory changes by the Departments of the Treasury and Commerce are encouraging more engagement by US telecommunications and Internet companies in Cuba to support better connectivity and access to information for the Cuban people. We have also made it easier for Cuban entrepreneurs to access resources and best practices from the US.
Society and Human Rights
In March 2015, the US and Cuba held the first planning session in Washington, D.C., for a Human Rights Dialogue at which both governments raised issues to pursue.
The US and Cuba share common ground on the importance of combating human trafficking and have each agreed to invite the U.N.’s Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons to conduct an official visit in their respective countries.
Health and Science Cooperation
The US and Cuba have committed to deepen scientific and public health cooperation, focusing on communicable diseases including arboviruses such as Zika, dengue and chikungunya, as well as on the prevention and treatment of chronic non-communicable diseases such as cancer. In the coming months, the US and Cuba intend to work toward finalizing arrangements to strengthen our collaboration in these and other scientific and health areas.
Obama’s policy change has increased the ability for American and Cuban experts to collaborate on important science and technology issues of mutual interest such as sister parks, oceans conservation and disease monitoring and reduction. Foundations and philanthropies in the US have been critical to the funding of a wide range of joint research projects. The Department of State plans to convene a working group with US-based philanthropies and the scientific community to investigate areas where they might work to enhance collaboration between our two research communities to tackle common challenges.
The Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture developed an MOU to increase bilateral cooperation in agriculture, recognizing the mutual interest of both countries in advancing agricultural technologies, agricultural productivity, food security, and sustainable natural resource management. Additionally, USDA is working with the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture to schedule a visit to the Caribbean Climate Sub Hub in Puerto Rico in late May of 2016. The hub supports applied research and provides information to farmers, ranchers, advisors, and managers to support climate-related decision making. During this visit, USDA and the Ministry of Agriculture will exchange information on tools and strategies for climate change response that help producers cope with challenges associated with drought, heat stress, excessive moisture, longer growing seasons, and changes in pest pressure. Cuba has long had institutional and legal frameworks to address climate change and has established a robust national disaster risk reduction framework that supports its early warning system for extreme weather events.
USDA will also allow industry-funded Research and Promotion (or “Check-off”) programs and Marketing Order Committees to use their resources for certain authorized research and information exchange activities with Cuba. Research and Promotion and Marketing Order Boards, Committees and Councils have an opportunity to participate in this partnership as certain information exchanges with Cuban Government and industry officials, and industry-funded health, science, nutrition, and consumer-oriented research activities with Cuba will be permitted.
Climate, Energy, and the Environment
The US and Cuba recognize the threats posed by climate change to both our countries, including worsening impacts such as continued sea-level rise, the alarming acidification of our oceans, and the striking incidence of extreme weather events.
Building on the successful conclusion of the December 2015 Paris Agreement, the US and Cuba intend to sign and join the Paris Agreement as soon as feasible this year. The US will also work with Cuba to pursue cooperation in the areas of disaster risk reduction, addressing ocean acidification, advancing climate-smart agriculture, and sharing best practices and lessons learned through international initiatives focused on adaptation and low emissions development.
The US has invited Cuba to join Caribbean and Central American countries at the Energy Summit on May 3-4 in Washington, D.C. to be chaired by US Vice President Biden. The Energy Summit focuses on enhancing energy security, regional cooperation, renewable integration, and coordination of international partners.
US and Cuban Government representatives held technical exchanges on counternarcotics, fraud identification, human smuggling, and cybercrime, and they continue looking at better ways to share information and coordinate law enforcement activities. The US and Cuba are also working toward an arrangement to combat illicit trafficking in drugs. In addition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Cuban Ministry of Interior are working toward finalizing an MOU to establish a working group, nestled within the framework of the Law Enforcement Dialogue, focused on trade, travel security, and border security.