The Long Arm of the Cuban Ancien Régime

On Feb. 3, the US Treasury Dept. demanded successfully through Starwood Hotels that the Sheraton Maria Isabella in Mexico city evict a group of Cuban nationals who were staying there for a meeting with a group of American oil executives to discuss drilling off the Cuban coast. Really. From the Times story:

“The hotel in Mexico City is a U.S. subsidiary, and therefore prohibited from providing a service to Cuba or Cuban nationals,” said Brookly McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the Treasury. “In this instance, we are simply following our usual procedures, applying the law.”

The law? Are the statutes of other countries a non-law sort of thing now? The Mexicans, pretty much across the board, are apesh*t. The Times:

Ricardo Ruiz Suárez, a spokesman for the Mexico City government, said the hotel’s owners could be prosecuted under several Mexican laws that ban discrimination based on national origin or ideology.

“There are laws, federal as well as local, that obligate service providers to provide those services in a general manner, without any discriminatory attitudes,” he said.

Indeed Titulo X, Articulo 206 of the Penal Code of the Distrito Federal (the state in which the hotel is located, analogous to DC) provides criminal penalties including fines and prison for denying rights on the basis of a long list including national origin. We (see below) haven’t yet found a solid national law on this (lectores, ayudo por favor).

There was a time when

(i) trashing a promising opening to an alienated neighbor that could generate nice profits for investors close to the administration,

(ii), just to throw some meat to a bunch of reactionary Cubans in South Florida who have learned nothing, forgotten nothing, and are proud of it,

(iii) pursuing a policy of decades that has accomplished precisely nothing beyond the continued impoverishment of the Cubans in Cuba, and their oppression by a really nasty dictator, and

(iv) infuriating a bordering country of 80 million people with whom we have a lot of important issues to work on by demanding a local business violate Mexico’s own laws inside Mexico, would be a really unbelievable blunder. But we’re so used to the administration’s pervasive culture of incompetence, arrogance, and failure at the most rudimentary procedures of governance that this hardly rates a nod. And that’s really amazing.

It’s apparently not that simple inside Mexico, either; rather than using the law cited above, the Mexico City government proposes to close the Sheraton for not having a menu in Braille, not enough parking places, and for having about 30,000 more square feet of space than its building permit allowed. The bureaucratic mind transcends nation and culture, I guess. My friend Roberto Hernandez, a prof at CIDE, writes:

Thousands of hotels and commercial facilities violate those regulations, but the Mexico City government won’t shut them down. They will try to shut the Sheraton down because of what they did to the Cubans but they won’t say that’s the real reason. I would have preferred a legally weak attempt to use whatever antidiscrimimantion provisions they had to create at least a symbolic precedent that you can’t do this (I say symbolic because there is no stare decisis in Mexico). Anyway, the decison to shut down the place will probably be challenged through an amparo that could take 12 years to litigate in Mexican federal courts and it will most likely be abandoned in a few months. [The Sheraton has in fact already filed an amparo that will delay any action for at least six months — MO’H]

But the deeper problem is that the idea of equal treatment in Mexico is weak or invisible or not thought of as the real policy to pursue. In terms of Mexican law, the decision to shut down might be correct and theoretically defensible, but it is an unequal enforcement policy, so to speak. And this is so often the case in this country, I could point to so many examples. What the Sheraton did to the Cubans is wrong but there does not seem to be any national legislation to protect them. What the city government will do to the Sheraton is legally accurate but it is an unequal application of the law, and it is further unlikely that it will actually succeed when this is challenged in courts, which the Sheraton most certainly will do immediately. The City won’t succeed unless it wants to put a lot of money in to litigate this, and I doubt that they will.

Update: My colleague John Ellwood hypothesizes that the Treasury was merely the tool of one group of oil investors trying to sabotage the deal being made by another.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.