U.S.-Cuba: How to Stop the Backslide in Relations

By William M. LeoGrande*

Raúl Castro sits at a table with two men.

Cuban President Raúl Castro. / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Relations between the United States and Cuba are on a downward spiral due to the mysterious injuries suffered by staff at the U.S. embassy in Havana last year, and there is no clear escape path from the vicious circle of recriminations that have damaged the interests of both countries.  Washington’s initial response to the reported injuries a little over a year ago was to work quietly behind the scenes with Cuban authorities, even arranging visits by the FBI to Cuba.  However, once the story went public, calling the injuries “sonic attacks,” the Trump Administration bowed to pressure from Cuban-American legislators – Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio foremost among them – to impose sanctions on Havana.  Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in late September issued an “ordered departure,” pulling most U.S. diplomats and family out of Havana and closing the consular section.  Days later, he expelled an equal number of Cubans, including their embassy’s consular staff and entire commercial section.  Soon after, Washington issued a travel warning that “we believe U.S. citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba.”

  • The most recent blow to relations came on March 2, when the State Department announced that the staffing cutbacks would be permanent. Although it has been six months since the last recorded injury, Tillerson refuses to return U.S. diplomats to Havana until the mystery is solved or Cuba provides “credible assurances” that whatever happened will not happen again, but he has not said what assurances would count as credible.  Going forward, the U.S. diplomatic presence in Cuba will be weaker than at any time since former President Jimmy Carter opened the U.S. Interests Section in 1977.  With these actions, Cuban officials have begun to see the whole acoustic episode as an excuse manufactured by the Trump Administration to reverse President Obama’s normalization policy.

The absence of diplomatic boots on the ground means fewer cultural, educational, and business exchanges; slower progress on issues of mutual interest; less help for U.S. visitors who need consular services; and new hardships for Cubans seeking to emigrate to the United States, who now have to travel abroad to get a visa.  The travel warning has already reduced the number of U.S. visitors, hurting the owners of private rental homes (casas particulares) and restaurants (paladares).  U.S. study abroad programs have been hit hardest because many universities prohibit sending students to a country under a warning.  Neither government has suspended technical talks on issues of mutual interest like counter-narcotics and safe and orderly migration, but the State Department’s refusal to meet in Havana is certain to test Cubans’ patience.

As the last incident recedes in time, the chances of solving the mystery recede with it, which does not bode well for U.S.-Cuban relations.  Next month, Raúl Castro, the principal patron of normalization on the Cuban side, will retire from the presidency, raising the question whether his successor will persist in trying to improve relations when there appears to be so little interest in Washington.  Both U.S. and Cuban diplomats seem sincere about finding a way out of this impasse, get their embassies back up to full strength, and resume the dialogues that were underway, but this is a “permanent” reduction in staff without laying out the conditions – such as a particular period of time without new incidents or enhanced security measures – for restoring personnel.  The longer the two embassies operate with skeletal staff, the more damage will be done to the broad range of issues of mutual interest the two countries share.  Without an operating consulate, moreover, the United States will likely fail to meet its commitment – rooted in a 1994 agreement maintained by Presidents from both parties – to issue 20,000 immigrant visas to Cubans each year.  The United States and Cuba made surprisingly fast diplomatic progress in the last two years of the Obama Administration, signing two dozen bilateral agreements and dramatically expanding trade and travel.  Ending the Cold War in the Caribbean was overwhelmingly popular among ordinary citizens in both countries.  The current freeze in relations puts those gains at risk, giving both governments good reason to re-double their efforts to find a way out.

March 13, 2018

* William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University.  This article is an adaptation of his analysis that appeared in Americas Quarterly on March 6.

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