CLALS and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) convened a small group of Cuba experts to discuss the course that U.S.-Cuba relations could take now that Presidents Obama and Castro have decided to reestablish diplomatic relations. A two-page summary of conclusions – not coordinated with workshop participants – and “wildcards” that would alter events can be found here. Here are highlights:
- The two presidents are committed to using their remaining time in office – Obama until January 2017 and Castro until February 2018 – to burnish their legacies as leaders who solved an historic impasse.
- The timelines for full normalization of ties between the two countries – including political, economic and social relations – certainly will go beyond their terms in office, and the process will take time and energy beyond their offices and governments.
- The Summit of the Americas in April can be a crowning jewel to both Presidents’ efforts if issues such as civil society representation at the event can be resolved. The timing of the Summit will hold the White House’s attention for this period.
- Greater emphasis by the Obama administration on the tangible benefits to the U.S. made possible by steps toward normalization would serve it well, including formalization and expansion of bilateral cooperation in counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and environmental and health issues. The criteria for policy success should consist of benefits to the American people, rather than “helping” Cubans or facilitating “regime change” in Cuba, as the Castro government will (as any government would) remain firm that its political system is not negotiable.
- The potential for trade will be strong enough to persuade U.S. business to press for the broadest possible implementation of the new measures and, if the Cubans can articulate a clear strategy to attract (and protect) investments, for embargo-loosening legislation in Congress.
- Potential obstacles require attention, but none appears insurmountable. Provocateurs in both countries could undertake actions intended to torpedo the normalization process. In addition, the Washington’s “democracy promotion” programs for Cuba – which are unlike any others around the world – will certainly strengthen hardliners in Havana arguing for a go-slow engagement with the U.S. With the stroke of a pen, President Obama could suspend the Bush-era program to persuade Cuban doctors to defect to the United States, a policy that hinders bilateral medical cooperation and threatens to sour talks.
- Hardliners in the U.S. Congress will continue to be rhetorically opposed to improved relations – because they oppose Cuba or Obama – but the Obama policy has plenty of running room before needing legislation to advance.
- Cuba may have limited capacity to effectively manage the various processes of change in the bilateral relationship. This may slow down the process and dictate the need to proceed sequentially rather than along many fronts at once.
- Several “wildcards” – including leadership changes – could impact the normalization process.
February 11, 2015