OPINION-CUBA/US: Catching a Glimpse of the Possible Future

Leonardo Padura

Leonardo Padura

*By Leonardo Padura
HAVANA, Jan 21 2015 (IPS)

All Cubans, on either side of the Florida Straits, but in places like Spain, France or Greenland – where there must be a couple of Cubans – as well felt it was a historic moment that included each and every one of us, when U.S. President Barack Obama announced on Dec. 17 the normalisation of relations after half a century of hostility.

Those of us who are in Cuba felt that way precisely because we live here; and those who live abroad felt it because of the various motives that prompted them, at different times and for a range of reasons, to move away and rewrite their lives.

The great majority met the news with joy and hope; a smaller percentage felt a sensation of defeat and even betrayal; and another small group perhaps felt little about what the decision might mean for their futures.

But what is indisputable is that each one of us was shocked by the announcement, which some media outlets even dubbed “the news of the year” – extraordinary, really (even if you consider it an exaggeration), given that we’re just talking about the normalisation of ties between the United States and a small Caribbean island nation that is not even decisive in the economy of the region and supposedly does not influence the world’s big political developments.

But for years Cuba’s small size, in terms of both its geography and economy, has been far out of proportion to its international stature and influence, and the “news of the year” really was (or may have been) such due to several reasons, besides the emotional ones that affected us Cubans.We Cubans who live on the island have already felt a noticeable initial benefit from the announced accords: we have felt how a political tension that we have lived in for too many years has begun to ease, and we can already feel it is possible to rebuild our relationship with a neighbour that is too powerful and too close, and relate to each other if not in a friendly way, then at least in a cordial, civilised manner.

This was because of its symbolic nature as a major step towards détente and as a final stop to the long-drawn-out epilogue to the Cold War, as acknowledgement of a political error sustained by the United States for far too long, because of its weight in inter-American relations, and because of its humanistic character thanks to the fact that the first concrete measure was a prisoners swap, which is always a moving, humanitarian move.

And it also was so because in a world where bad news abounds, the fact that two countries that were at a political standoff for over half a century decided to overcome their differences and opt for dialogue is somewhat comforting.

Three weeks later, the machinery that will put that new relationship in motion has begun to move. On the eve of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson’s visit to Havana to start high-level “face-to-face” talks with the Cuban government, President Obama announced the introduction of his government’s first measures towards change.

The policies will make it easier for people from the U.S. to travel to Cuba, expand the remittances people can send to Cuba, open up banking relations, increase bilateral trade in different areas, and help strengthen civil society by different means, including improved information and communications and economic support for entrepreneurs.

Cuba, meanwhile, released prisoners with regard to whom Washington had expressed concern.

The measures recently implemented by Obama could be extremely significant for Cuba. Above all because they have punched holes in the straitjacket of the half-century embargo and have practically made its removal a question of time, and since they eliminate many of the fears that investors from other countries had with regard to possibly investing here.

Cuba, in the meantime, is waiting to be removed from the U.S. government’s list of nations that sponsor terrorism, which it has been on for years.

And on both sides of the Straits, Cubans have an understandable sense of uncertainty about the future of the Cuban Adjustment Act, which guaranteed U.S. residency to any Cuban who set foot on U.S. soil – an issue that will surely be discussed during Jacobson’s visit.

But while the political agreements are moving along at a surprising pace, we Cubans insist on asking ourselves how this new situation created since Dec. 17 will play out on the island.

Because while Obama’s intention is to bring about a change in policy that will lead to a transformation of the system in Cuba, at the same time there are decisions that the Cuban government will be adopting internally to take advantage of the useful aspects of the new relationship and eliminate potential dangers.

The possible massive arrival of U.S. citizens to Cuba could be the first visible effect.

Today the island receives three million visitors a year. That number could double with the new regulations announced by Obama. Everyone is asking themselves whether the country is prepared for this – and the answers are not overly encouraging in general.

After a lengthy crisis triggered by the disappearance of the Soviet Union and its generous subsidies, and the stiffening of the U.S. embargo with the Torricelli Act [of 1992] and the Helms-Burton Act [of 1996, which included extra-territorial effects], Cuba today is a country with serious problems of infrastructure in communications, roads, transportation, buildings and other areas.

The lack of resources to make the necessary investments also affects the purchase of products that the presumed visitors would demand and will create difficulties for domestic consumption, where there are already problems of high prices and occasional shortages.

Perhaps the first to benefit from the massive arrival of U.S. citizens to Cuban shores will be the small businesses that offer accommodation (and the thousands of other people connected to them).

Currently in a city like Havana there aren’t enough rooms in the hotels (which belong to the state or are joint ventures with foreign companies), let alone quality service in the state-owned restaurants that would make them competitive.

That means a significant part of the money that will circulate will pass through the hands of those involved in private enterprise (the so-called “cuentapropistas” or self-employed) – a sector that even though they must pay high taxes to the state and extremely high prices for inputs purchased in the retail market (because the wholesale market that they are demanding does not yet exist), will make major profits in the scenario that will take shape in the near future.

And this phenomenon will contribute to further stretching the less and less homogeneous social fabric of this Caribbean island nation.

Another of the major expectations in Cuba is for the chance to travel to the United States because, even though this has become much more of a possibility in recent years, obtaining a visa is still a major hurdle.

And there are new questions among those who hoped to settle down in the United States under the Cuban Adjustment Act, and who now have the added possibility of not losing their citizenship rights on the island under the protection of the migration laws approved two years ago by the government of Raúl Castro, which eliminated the rule that if a Cuban stayed overseas for a certain amount of time, their departure was automatically seen as permanent, and they lost their rights and assets on the island.

And then there is the less tangible but no less real aspect of discourse and rhetoric. Half a century of hostility on many planes, including verbal, should begin to wane in the light of the new circumstances.

The “imperialist enemy” and “communist menace” are sitting down at the same table to seek negotiated solutions, and the language will have to adapt to that new reality to achieve the necessary comprehension and the hoped-for political accords.

In the meantime, we Cubans who live on the island have already felt a noticeable initial benefit from the announced accords: we have felt how a political tension that we have lived in for too many years has begun to ease, and we can already feel it is possible to rebuild our relationship with a neighbour that is too powerful and too close, and relate to each other if not in a friendly way, then at least in a cordial, civilised manner.

For that reason many of us – I include myself – have felt since Dec. 17 something similar to waking up from a nightmare from which almost none of us believed we could escape. And with our eyes wide open, we can catch a glimpse of the future, trying to see shapes more clearly through the haze.

Edited and translated by Stephanie Wildes

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS – Inter Press Service. 

The Bahamas’ New Motto: “Sand, Surf and Solar”

The Bahamas is focusing on renewable energy as it tries to preserve gains in tourism. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

The Bahamas is focusing on renewable energy as it tries to preserve gains in tourism. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

*By Kenton X. Chance
ABU DHABI, Jan 21 2015 (IPS)

When it comes to tourism in the 15-member Caribbean Community (CARICOM), The Bahamas — 700 islands sprinkled over 100,000 square miles of ocean starting just 50 miles off Florida — is a heavyweight.

With a gross domestic product of eight billion dollars, the Bahamian economy is almost twice the size of Barbados, another of CARICOM’s leading tourism destinations.”Reducing our various countries’ dependence on fossil fuels, ramping up renewable energy, building more climate change resilience is incredibly important for us.” — Environment Minister Kenred M.A. Dorsett

Visitors are invited to “imagine a world where you can’t tell where dreams begin and reality ends.”

However, in the country’s Ministry of the Environment, officials have woken up to a reality that could seriously undermine the gains made in tourism and elsewhere: renewable energy development.

In 2014, in a clear indication of its intention to address its poor renewable energy situation, The Bahamas joined the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

The Abu Dhabi-based intergovernmental organisation supports countries in their transition to a sustainable energy future. IRENA also serves as the principal platform for international cooperation, a centre of excellence, and a repository of policy, technology, resource and financial knowledge on renewable energy.

The Bahamas has also advanced its first energy policy, launched in 2013, and has committed to ramping up to a minimum of 30 per cent by 2033 the amount of energy it generates from renewable sources.

“Currently, we are debating in Parliament an amendment to the Electricity Act to make provision for grid tie connection, therefore making net metering a reality using solar and wind technology,” Minister of Environment and Housing Kenred M.A. Dorsett told IPS on the sidelines of Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week (ADSW).

ADSW is a global forum that unites thought leaders, policy makers and investors to address the challenges of renewable energy and sustainable development. The week includes IRENA’s Fifth Assembly, the World Future Energy Summit, and the International Water Summit.

But Dorsett was especially interested in the IRENA assembly, which took place on Jan. 17 and 18.

At the assembly, ministers and senior officials from more than 150 countries met to discuss what IRENA has described as the urgent need and increased business case for rapid renewable energy expansion.

Dorsett came to Abu Dhabi with a rather short shopping list for both his country and the CARICOM region, and says he did not leave empty-handed.

“Our involvement in IRENA is important because the world over is concerned with standardisation of technology to ensure that our citizens are not taken advantage of in terms of the technology we import as we advance the renewable energy sector,” he told IPS.

“We certainly were able to engage IRENA in discussions with respect to what the Bahamas is doing, and our next steps and they have indicated to us that they will be able to assist us on the issue of standardisation,” Dorsett tells IPS.

Minister of the Environment and Housing in The Bahamas, Kenred Dorsett. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

Minister of the Environment and Housing in The Bahamas, Kenred Dorsett. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

He says IRENA has developed a programme that looks at practical consideration for the implementation or ramping up of renewable energy, including assistance in developing regulations for ensuring that standards are maintained.

“So, I think from our perspective, it is clear to us that IRENA would be prepared to assist us on that particular issue, and I think that generally speaking, what I certainly found was that the meeting was very innovative, particularly in light of the fact that there was a lot of technical support for countries looking to implement or deploy renewable energy technologies,” he said of Bahamas-IRENA talks on the sidelines of the assembly.

Dorsett also wanted IRENA to devote some special attention to CARICOM, a group of 15 nations, mostly Caribbean islands, in addition to Belize, Guyana and Suriname.

At a side event — “Renewables in Latin America: Challenges and Opportunities” — ahead of the Assembly, there was no distinction between Caribbean and Latin American nations.

“… I think that’s very, very important for us as region, as we move to ensure that CARICOM itself is a region of focus for IRENA, that we are not consumed in the entire Latin America region and there is sufficient focus on us,” he told IPS ahead of the assembly.

Dorsett is now convinced that CARICOM positions will be represented as Trinidad and Tobago, another CARICOM member, and the Bahamas, have been elected to serve on IRENA Council in 2015 and 2016, respectively.

“We do know that deployment of renewable energy in our region is important, we are small island development states, we live in [low-lying areas] and sea level rise is a major issue for us in the Caribbean region.

“Therefore, reducing our various countries’ dependence on fossil fuels, ramping up renewable energy, building more climate change resilience is incredibly important for us,” he told IPS.

Meanwhile, Director-General of IRENA, Adnan Amin, said that his agency is “trying to develop a new type of institution for a new time”.

“We know that the islands’ challenges are very particular. We have developed a lot of expertise in doing that, and we know in a general sense the challenge they face is quite different from mainland Latin America,” Amin told IPS. “So we see them as logically separate entities in what kinds of strategies we will have.”

He says IRENA has been working in the Pacific islands — early members of the agency — and is moving into the Caribbean.

Adnan Amin, Director-General of the International Energy Agency, says the Caribbean has “particular” renewable energy considerations that are distinct from Latin America. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

Adnan Amin, Director-General of the International Energy Agency, says the Caribbean has “particular” renewable energy considerations that are distinct from Latin America. Credit: Kenton X. Chance/IPS

IRENA is already working in the Caribbean nations of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Grenada, and Jamaica, and this year agreed to lend St. Vincent and the Grenadines 15 million dollars to help fund its 10-15 megawatt geothermal power plant, expected to come on stream by 2018.

Dorsett is also pleased that at the assembly the Bahamian delegation was able to get a briefing on the advances of technology that stores electricity generated from renewable sources.

“That also can prove to be very important for us as many Caribbean counties are faced with addressing the issue of grid stability,” he told IPS, adding that the ability to have storage that is “appropriately priced and that works efficiently” can help the Bahamas to exceed the average of 20 to 40 per cent of electricity generated by renewable sources by many countries.

The Bahamas woke up to the realities of its poor renewable energy situation in 2013 when Guilden Gilbert, head the country’s Renewable Energy Association, decried the nation for not doing enough to advance renewable energy generation.

The call came after the release of a report by Castalia-CREF Renewable Energy Islands Index for the Caribbean, which ranked the Bahamas 26 out of 27 countries in the region for its progress and prospects in relation to renewable energy investments.

The 2012 edition of the same report had ranked The Bahamas 21 out of the 22 countries on the list.

In the two years leading up to the announcement of the “National Energy Policy & Grid Tie In Framework”, The Bahamas established an Energy Task Force responsible for advising on solutions to reducing the high cost of electricity in the country.

The government also eliminated tariffs on inverters for solar panels and LED appliances to ensure that more citizens would be able to afford these energy saving devices.

The government also advanced two pilot projects to collect data on renewable energy technologies. The first project provided for the installation of solar water heaters and the second project for the installation of photovoltaic systems in Bahamian homes.

Dorsett tells IPS that he thinks that it is “incredibly important” that CARICOM focuses on renewable energy generation.

“I think CARICOM, as a region, has to look at renewable energy sources to build a sustainable energy future for our region as well as to ensure that we build resilience as we address the issues of climate change,” he tells IPS.

However, in some CARICOM nations, there is a major hurdle that policy makers, such as Dorsett, will have to overcome before the bloc realises its full renewable energy potential.

“There are very special challenges in the Caribbean. For example, many of the utilities are foreign-owned and they negotiated 75-year-long, cast-iron guarantees on their existence,” Amin tells IPS.

“They were making money off diesel. They have no incentive to move to renewables, but we are moving ahead,” the IRENA chief says.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at Kentonxtchance@gmail.com

Follow him on Twitter @KentonXChance