What’s Up with Cuba Policy?

By William M. LeoGrande

Photo by Rinaldo W. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo by Rinaldo W. / Flickr / Creative Commons

A little over six months into President Obama’s second term, the administration is giving hints that something is afoot in relations with Cuba.  Back in 1994, Fidel Castro told a group of former U.S. ambassadors that he needed a two-term U.S. president to normalize relations with Cuba because no first-term president would have the political courage to do it.  Could Barack Obama be that president?  Efforts to engage with Cuba during his first term were frozen after the 2009 arrest of USAID subcontractor Alan Gross.  Despite evidence that Gross had violated Cuban law, the administration insisted that Gross had done nothing improper and demanded that he be freed immediately.  When he wasn’t, the U.S. position hardened: there would be no improvement in relations with Cuba, not even on issues of mutual interest, until Gross was released.  Gross is still in jail four years later; the non-negotiable demand strategy failed utterly.

The second Obama administration appears to be trying something new.  In May, the Department of Justice dropped its insistence that René González, a member of the “Cuban Five,” serve out his probation in Miami rather than Cuba.  Shortly thereafter, Cuba granted Alan Gross’ request to be examined by his own doctor.  In late May, Josefina Vidal, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official in charge of relations with the United States, met in Washington with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson – the highest-level U.S. official to meet with a Cuban diplomat in several years. After this reportedly constructive encounter, the State Department announced the resumption of bilateral talks on immigration (suspended since January 2011), and on re-establishing direct postal service. Working-level diplomats have resolved most points of disagreement on a postal accord, a Coast Guard search and rescue accord, and an oil spill containment protocol – although the U.S. side is loath to use the word “agreement,” lest it stir up trouble with a small but loud contingent in Congress.

Although U.S. policy is no longer completely paralyzed by the predicament of Alan Gross, it remains tentative, cautious, and incremental – far from the bold stroke that Fidel Castro was hoping for from a second-term president.  In May, the State Department again listed Cuba as a “state sponsor of terrorism” in its annual report, although the rationale read more like a justification for removing Cuba from the list—a move reportedly under discussion by the Obama team.  When the administration sent its FY2014 budget request to Capitol Hill, it again requested $20 million for “democracy promotion” in Cuba, continuing programs like the one that got Alan Gross arrested.  Radio and TV Martí, which cost U.S. taxpayers $28 million a year, continue to beam programs below Voice of America standards to a shrinking radio audience and non-existent TV viewers.  (Cubans call TV Martí “la TV que no se ve” —No-See TV.)  If Obama had the mettle to make the bold stroke, these provocative, ineffectual programs  would be on the chopping block in tough budgetary times.  More positively, the president could take the initiative by appointing a special envoy to talk turkey with Havana, and he could promote a U.S. policy debate on Cuba that’s long overdue.  Incrementalism will only take us so far.  Real change in U.S.-Cuban relations requires vision and courage – qualities Obama displayed on comprehensive health care and immigration reform.  After all, as Lyndon Johnson once said, “What the hell’s the presidency for?”

Dr. LeoGrande is Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Impasse in U.S.-Cuba Relations Enters 54th Year

Three American University professors recently traveled to Cuba for research and discussions on Cuba’s reform process – called “Updating Socialism” – and the island’s relations with the United States.  Today’s entry looks at the bilateral relationship.

Flags in front of U.S. Interests in Malecón.  By: Luiza Leite "Luiza" | Flickr | Creative Commons

Flags in front of U.S. Interests in Malecón. By: Luiza Leite “Luiza” | Flickr | Creative Commons

U.S. and Cuban experts at a conference in Havana in December observed that, despite important areas of mutual interest, the Obama Administration has so far shown little inclination to accept a dialogue.  Some experts opined that the imprisonment of USAID contractor Alan Gross has become a convenient excuse for Obama to avoid any serious engagement.

Other key points:

  • There is no effective political channel for resolving bilateral problems – indeed, no contacts at all at political levels.  The Interests Sections in each other’s capitals handle routine matters, but Washington has rejected Cuban requests to continue semi-annual migration talks.  Cuba gave the United States a proposal for resolving the Gross situation, which the State Department has not even acknowledged receiving.
  • In addition to reiterating longstanding frustration that U.S. policy is stuck in the regime-change mode forged by President George W. Bush, Cuban experts lamented that many Americans latch onto every challenge Cuba faces – such as whether the passing of Venezuelan President Chávez will lead to reductions in oil supplies – as evidence that the Cuban government will “collapse” and therefore that dialogue with it would be foolish.
  • Cuban rhetoric espousing the swap of the “Cuban Five” for USAID contractor Alan Gross has fueled powerful political expectations in Cuba, but Havana’s bottom line on the elements of a humanitarian release is far from clear.  Experts from both countries are perplexed that Washington will not have a dialogue at any level to discuss whether a deal is possible.
  • Many Cuban and American experts believe that one incentive for the United States to improve relations is to rebuild its image in Latin America.  But they note – ruefully – that Latin American does not seem to be a priority for the Obama Administration anyway.

The Gross situation is merely the most recent of a long string of issues blamed for the dysfunctional relationship.  The real causes of the impasse at this point are whether Washington can shift away from policies and well-funded programs fashioned to achieve regime change in Cuba, and whether the two governments can manage the influence that both have given ultra-conservatives unprepared to broach compromise – be it Cubans opposed to releasing Alan Gross while four of the “Cuban Five” remain in U.S. jail, or Cuban-Americans benefiting from the sort of regime-change operations that Gross was conducting.  The lack of a reliable channel for political leaders above both bureaucracies to talk creates the risk of manageable problems spinning out of control, to the detriment of both countries’ interests.