Perspectives on U.S.-Cuba Relations Under Trump

Trump and Cuban Americans

President Trump announces his administration’s policy toward Cuba. / YouTube / Livestream TV News / Creative Commons

Reversing Obama’s Cuba Policy?

By William M. LeoGrande*

In the two years after President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro agreed to normalize relations, Obama tried to make his policy of engagement “irreversible” by opening up travel and trade that would create constituencies with a self-interest in defending engagement. He half-way succeeded. Despite the incendiary rhetoric in which Donald Trump cloaked his new policy when he rolled it out at a rally of Cuban-American hardliners in Miami, the sanctions he announced were limited.

Obama granted general licenses for all 12 categories of legal travel and relaxed other restrictions on who could visit Cuba. Trump rolled back only individualized people-to-people educational travel, so people-to-people visitors must once again travel on organized tours. But they can still go, and bring back rum and cigars.

Obama opened the Cuban market to U.S. businesses by licensing contracts with state enterprises in the travel, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, construction, agriculture, and consumer goods sectors. Trump prohibited only contracts with Cuban enterprises managed by the military, and even then he exempted all existing contracts, and future contracts involving ports, airports, and telecomm – the sectors in which all but a handful of current U.S. businesses operate.

Trump did not impose any restrictions on Cuban–American family travel and remittances. He did not break diplomatic relations or put Cuba back on the State Department’s terrorism list. He did not restore the wet foot/dry foot policy that gave Cuban immigrants preferential treatment after reaching the United States. He did not abrogate the bilateral agreements on issues of mutual interest negotiated by the Obama administration.

Why such a flaccid set of sanctions from a president who stood on the stage in Little Havana and demonized the Cuban regime as brutal, criminal, depraved, oppressive, murderous, and guilty of “supporting human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation all around the globe”?

Because Obama’s strategy of creating constituencies in favor of engagement worked. In the weeks leading up to Trump’s announcement, he was deluged with appeals not to retreat from engagement. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce argued in favor of expanding business opportunities, not constricting them. Farmers argued for expanding agricultural sales. Travel providers argued for expanding travel. Fifty-five U.S. Senators cosponsored a bill to lift all travel restrictions. Seven Republican members of Congress and 16 retired senior military officers argued that disengagement would damage national security by boosting Russian and Chinese influence on the island. Polling data showed that large majorities of the public, of Republicans, and even of Cuban Americans support engagement.

Even the executive bureaucracy was won over by the successes scored by the policy of engagement. During the last two years of Obama’s presidency, Cuba and the United States signed 23 bilateral agreements. When Trump ordered an inter-agency review of Cuba policy, the consensus of the agencies involved was that engagement was working and ought to be continued. Trump rejected that conclusion because it did not fit with his political strategy of currying favor with the Cuban-American right, but the agencies fought back successfully against more extreme proposals to roll back Obama’s policies entirely.

Trump’s vicious rhetoric and his open embrace of the goal of regime change – through sanctions, support for dissidents, and “democracy promotion” – risks destroying the atmosphere of mutual respect and good faith that made the gains of Obama’s policy possible. Already, hardliners in Havana who saw engagement as a Trojan Horse for subversion are saying, “We told you so!” Cuba’s private entrepreneurs, who Trump’s policy purportedly aims to help, will be hurt the most by the prohibition on individual people-to-people travel. However, the overall economic impact of his sanctions will be limited, both on U.S. businesses and in Cuba.

Cuba’s official response has been pragmatic but firm. A statement released shortly after Trump’s Miami speech declared, “The Government of Cuba reiterates its willingness to continue respectful dialogue and cooperation on issues of mutual interest, as well as the negotiation of pending bilateral issues with the United States Government…. But it should not be expected that Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence, nor will it accept any kind of conditionality.”

In all likelihood, political pressures from the constituencies Obama’s policy created will continue to constrain Trump’s impulse to beat up on Cuba, but his loyalty to the exile right and his penchant for bullying will make it impossible to realize further progress toward normalizing relations. That will have to wait until the White House has a new occupant motivated by the national interest rather than by a political IOU given to Miami’s most recalcitrant Cuban-American minority.

*William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2015).

Cuba: Trump’s “New Policy”

 

By Ricardo Torres*

The “new policy” toward Cuba that President Trump announced to great fanfare in Miami last Friday features little that is new while seeking to restore oxygen to a failed approach advocated by extreme sectors of the Cuban-American community. While adopting language reflecting the worst traditions of American foreign policy, Trump’s declaration implicitly blessed much of the rapprochement between the two countries introduced by President Obama – diplomatic relations will remain intact, for example. But the new measures he announced have symbolic and practical implications. His Cuban-American backers expended great political capital to change the policy in hope of accelerating regime change on the island, but the Trump approach will instead retard change – while increasing the pain of the Cuban people. Moreover, it will undermine the activities of legitimate U.S. citizens, companies, and groups interested in contact with the island and compromise U.S. citizens’ freedom to travel. They have acted against Trump’s campaign promise to create jobs (threatening thousands of workers who depend on U.S.-Cuba interaction) and increase national security (putting U.S.-Cuba cooperation in counternarcotics, counterterrorism, and illegal migration at risk). The new approach also runs counter to Secretary of State Tillerson’s repeated assertion that U.S. policy is not to impose its values and standards on others.

U.S. national interests seem to have taken a back seat to internal U.S. political factors, particularly the opposition to Obama’s policies among certain groups of the Cuban Americans that had seen their political influence decline over the past decade.

In addition to its symbolic weight, the Trump approach is likely to be felt most strongly in several principal areas. Despite continuing differences between the two countries, both governments had decided to move ahead together. It is difficult to overstate the sense of hope created during the Obama era, with immediate and tangible benefits for both.

Cuba’s internal situation has been changing recently, due to a gradual opening internally and to other nations. A steady increase in visits by foreign businessmen and Cuban travel overseas are evidence of this change. Trump’s rhetoric and actions will only strengthen those sectors inside Cuba that exaggerate the external threat and want to reduce the space for debate in the country.

The economic impact that Trump and his backers want – to hurt the Cuban government – cannot be separated from the harm it will cause the Cuban people. The new measures will probably reduce tourism, which provides a significant flow of revenue to vast sectors of the Cuban population that, in formal or informal jobs, benefit from that industry. Indeed, the much bandied-about private sector has been one of the principal beneficiaries of tourism development.

The Cuban government will assess its options in relations with the United States as well as in domestic policies. It will naturally have to let the U.S. government know that cooperation has yielded mutual benefits to both countries and that this step backward will not be limited to areas that Washington prefers. Havana might look for more ambitious ties with alternative partners, including both allies and competitors of the United States. Internally, rather than slow down, Cuba’s transformation should accelerate. The legitimate needs of the Cuban people should not be postponed in the face of this new adversity. The pace of Cuban reform should never be tied to external threats. As for the Cuban people, they will once again tell all who will listen that they themselves – not those on the other side of the Florida Strait – represent their interests. President Trump has empowered a small group of Cuban Americans to speak for people in Cuba whom they do not know, at the cost of sacrificing U.S. prestige and an array of its national interests. The absurd has become the accepted norm in American politics.

*Ricardo Torres is a Professor at the Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana and a former CLALS Research Fellow.

Cuba: Preparing for President Trump

By Fulton Armstrong

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Photo credit: Day Donaldson / Flickr / Creative Commons

Cubans are already calibrating their expectations for relations with the United States under President Trump – hoping the normalization process does not unravel but preparing for a return to a sanctions-based policy from Washington.  Conversations in Havana reveal deep concern that the President-elect’s tweets and statements about Cuba, Mexico, and Latinos in the United States will translate into efforts to slow, stop, or reverse normalization.  The past two years of dialogue have focused on mutual interests, without ignoring remaining differences between capitals but not allowing them to blot out hopes of mutually beneficial cooperation.  Cuba will interpret a return to bombastic rhetoric, exaggerated conditions to reach a “deal,” and the pressure tactics of the pre-Obama era as a sign of U.S. willingness to put bullying a small neighbor eager for improved ties ahead of its own national interests.

Cubans present the stiff upper lip in conversations and, not surprisingly, defiantly note that they’ve already survived decades of U.S. pressure, but their disappointment is palpable.

  • Most concerned are entrepreneurs in Cuba’s small but growing private sector, who depend on investment from U.S.-based relatives and friends. More than 100 Cuban private businessmen wrote a letter to Trump last week urging restraint.
  • Nationalism has precluded Cubans from saying that normalization would be a major driver of their long-promised economic reforms, but few deny that improving ties with the United States would eventually present Havana important opportunities. U.S. retrenchment will remove important incentives for the government to move ahead with its reform strategy.
  • Rumors about tensions between Cuban proponents of normalization and conservative opponents may have some merit, but Cubans across the spectrum will close ranks if Trump gets aggressive.

Cuba’s reactions to Trump’s election, including President Raúl Castro’s congratulatory message to him, so far suggest that it will hold its tongue and resist being provoked.  A U.S. return to full-bore Cold War tactics would not pose an existential threat to Cuba, even considering the country’s difficulties dealing with unrelated problems such as the crisis in Venezuela.  Popular reactions to the passing of Fidel Castro last month are being construed as evidence of residual political legitimacy for the government and support for it to deliver on promised improvements.  Moreover, Cuba’s progress in normalization; its effective contribution to the Colombia peace accord; its new political dialogue and cooperation agreement with the European Union; and the recent Havana visit of Japanese Prime Minister Abe have boosted the country’s international image – and blame for collapse of normalization will surely fall solely upon the United States.  However difficult it will be for the proud people of Cuba to resist rising to whatever bait the Trump Administration throws its way, showing forbearance in the bilateral relationship and moving “without hurry but without pause,” as Raúl Castro said, with its national reform plan would protect the investment that Cuba has already made in normalization.

December 19, 2016

Implications of Fidel’s Passing

By Fulton Armstrong

KODAK Digital Still Camera

As a tribute to Fidel Castro, flowers and posters adorn the gates outside the Cuban Embassy in Buenos Aires. / Gastón Cuello / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The death of Fidel Castro last Friday night has drawn largely predictable reactions from largely predictable quarters, but the analysis of the meaning of the comandante’s passing that matters most belongs to the Cuban people.  History may ultimately absolve Fidel of his most egregious excesses and errors over the last six decades, but Cubans are the ones who will decide which parts of his revolution to keep – and which to reject or allow to fade away.  By all accounts, Cubans want to preserve some of the gains of the revolution, including their sense of national dignity and some social benefits, while seeking a vastly improved living standard.  But no one can claim to know exactly what “the people” want – and how they want to achieve it.

  • The economic reforms that President Raúl Castro launched years ago have been halting and hampered by policy contradictions and bureaucratic obstacles rooted in elites’ fears of losing political control. Processes like the 7th Party Congress’ Conceptualización have been so muted as to undermine change and breed cynicism among the population.  Raúl and his team have a roadmap that, while as unorthodox as ever, will move the economy in the right direction.  Fidel’s departure is a signal that the old-timers, perennially blamed for slowing change, represent an eventually diminished threat.  The next generation of Party leaders knows full well that their legitimacy is going to have to come from concrete results, especially improving living standards, and it needs to move ahead with the hundreds of lineamientos, laws and regulations that have already been approved.  It’s their own plan, and the excuses for non-implementation of at least the easier measures are getting thin.  Major reforms such as unifying exchange rates will be a big challenge, as for any country, but the new team at some time will have to bite the bullet.
  • On the political side, Raúl lags even farther behind. Fidel’s passing puts a lot of pressure on him to flesh out his plan to step down as President in 15 months (a commitment that so far seems solid).  Some of Raúl’s actions indicate a desire to build institutions, perhaps even the National Assembly as it moves back into the Capitolio this month; improve decision-making processes; and reduce party intervention in day-to-day matters.  But his handover of power to a new generation won’t work if his policy team stays in the shadows forever.  His vision entails them learning how to do politics among themselves and, increasingly, with the Cuban people – which implicitly entails respect for the plurality of legitimate views across Cuban society.  The Cuban people have shown they’ll not form lynch mobs the moment political space opens up.

Cubans can find support for their evolutionary change in every corner of our Americas, except perhaps one.  Reactions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean differed in tone and effusiveness, but they uniformly showed respect for the deceased comandante and support for the Cuban people.  Regional leaders called him a “giant in history” and “a leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba as well as Latin America” and the like, while one merely tweeted “condolences to the Cuban government” and had staff explain he’d miss the funeral because the logistics of flying to Cuba were “not easy.”  But the region’s best wishes for Cubans to find a stable path from a Castro-dominated past into the future that they collectively – in the Party and “the people” – wish to find were strong.

The outlier is, again, the United States.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s messages were statesmanlike and consistent with Washington’s sensitivity toward any country in mourning even if it has different interests and values.  President-elect Trump took a different approach.  His condolence statement focused on issues from the past and his affiliation with combatants from the Bay of Pigs invasion who tried to oust Castro in 1961 and endorsed his own candidacy last month.  He tweeted that he will “terminate the deal” of normalization if Cuba is “unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban-American people, and the U.S. as a whole.”  Obama’s staff prematurely declared normalization “irreversible,” and Trump may be equally premature in threatening to reverse it.  Cuba’s changing on its own, and Fidel’s passing will probably give change on the island, if not in Washington, a push.  Efforts to return to a Cold War posture would probably put Cuba on the defensive and slow its transition processes – but not even Fidel could stop the march of time.

November 29, 2016

Cuba: Raúl Clarifies the Lack of Clarity on Future

By Fulton Armstrong

raul pcc congress

Photo Credit: Alexandre Seltz and Sarumo74 (modified) / Google Images / Creative Commons

The report that Cuban President Raúl Castro delivered to the 7th Party Congress last weekend walked a tightrope between pressing harder for change – embracing the importance of the small, emerging private sector – and reassuring party conservatives that the basic tenets of the revolution will not be touched.  He reiterated his commitment to step down in 2018 and promote younger cadre, but he left unclear what he proposes the Cuban system look like in the future.  He defended his decision to normalize relations with the United States, but used Washington’s continuation of the embargo and “democracy promotion” and immigration policies as a rationale for not letting down the Party’s guard.  Among key points:

On Conceptualización.  Castro said this Congress was basically to give “confirmation and continuity” to policies set five years ago to update Cuba’s economic and social model,  but it kicks off a process of consensus-building around a conceptualización, which he said “outlines the theoretical bases and essential characteristics of the economic and social model that we aim for as result of the updating process.”  Private property is a major topic, and Raúl sought to reassure the party that respect for it does not mean – “in the slightest bit” – a return to capitalism.

On reforms approved previously.  The road has been difficult, he said, held back by “an obsolete mentality that gives rise to an attitude of inertia and an absence of confidence in the future.”  He referred to the foot-draggers as “having feelings of nostalgia for other, less-complicated moments in the revolutionary process,” such as when the USSR and socialist camp existed.  But he insisted that the reforms have continued advancing at a steady pace – “without hurry but without pause.”

On upcoming reforms.  Castro talked more about what will not happen rather than any new vision.  He firmly ruled out “shock therapies,” and he said that “neoliberal formulas” to privatize state assets and health, education, and social security services “will never be applied in Cuban socialism.”  Economic policies can in no case break with the “ideals of equality and justice of the revolution.”  But he confirmed that one of the potentially most disruptive reforms – unifying currencies and exchange rates – must be done as soon as possible to resolve and many distortions.  On foreign investment, he called on the party “to leave behind archaic prejudices about foreign investment and to continue to advance resolutely in preparing, designing, and establishing new businesses.”

On Cuba’s economic model.  Castro acknowledged “the introduction of the rules of supply and demand” and claimed they didn’t contradict the principle of planning, citing the examples of China and Vietnam.  “Recognizing [the role of] the market in the functioning of our socialist economy,” Castro said, does not imply that the party, government, and mass organizations stand by and watch abuses occur.

On private and state enterprises.  He said the “non-state sector” – which includes “medium, small, and micro-enterprises” – is providing very important goods and services, and expressed hope for its success.  This sector will continue to grow, he said, “within well-defined limits and [will] constitute a complementary element of the country’s economic framework.”  Castro also called for greater reform efforts to strengthen the role of – and, simultaneously, the autonomy of – state companies, telling managers to overcome “the habit of waiting for instructions from above.”    He noted that the creation of cooperatives outside agriculture “continues in its experimental phase,” with some achievements and shortfalls.

On U.S. policies and intentions.  Castro criticized Washington’s efforts to drive political change in Cuba, which he called “a perverse strategy of political-ideological subversion against the very essence of the revolution and Cuban culture, history, and values.”  He said, “We are neither naive nor ignorant of the desires of powerful external forces that are betting on what they call the ‘empowerment’ of non-state forms of management as a way of generating agents of change in hopes of ending the revolution and socialism in Cuba by other means.” Castro said that U.S. officials recognize the failure of past policy toward Cuba but “do not hide that the goals remain the same and only the means are being modified.”

Rhetoric about forever rejecting capitalism (and multi-party democracy) is standard, especially for a Party event meant to assuage anxieties of conservative factions reluctant to give up their familiar, if failed, models.  The re-election of 85-year-old Vice President Machado Ventura is another sop to the aging right as the country inches each day to its biologically imposed transition, as Fidel Castro made explicit in his closing remarks.  The pace of change in Washington is also slow in some areas, particularly the embargo and the Administration’s “democracy promotion” strategies,  but pro-normalization voices cannot be faulted for lamenting that Cuba could more effectively influence U.S. policy through simple regulatory measures encouraging business deals that will give momentum to embargo-lifting initiatives in the U.S. Congress.  All politics is local, however, and both governments seem content holding off on changing their paradigms for now.

April 21, 2016

Spain: Too Distracted to Play in Latin America?

By An Observer*

Rajoy Latin America

Photo Credit: La Moncloa Gobierno de España and Heraldry (Modified) / Flickr & Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Spain’s political crisis and problems facing the European Union have undermined Madrid’s ability to pursue interests in Latin America at a time of new opportunities.  Amidst countless months of lameduck government and the failure of either the Partido Popular (PP) or the Partido Socialista (PSOE) to form a government, the country is also tied in knots over corruption scandals, including some touching a Cabinet member and the royal family, and Cataluña’s persistent challenges to central authority.  Even before the current mess, Prime Minister Rajoy had shown only modest interest in Latin America, and King Felipe hadn’t yet demonstrated the mettle of his father, who once famously told Venezuelan President Chávez to shut up at an Ibero-American Summit.  Adding to Spain’s distractions are a series of EU challenges, ranging from refugee crises to terrorism and the Mediterranean countries’ debt overhang.  Spanish elites, who remain committed to the EU vision, are seized with concerns about Brexit, the UK’s flirtation with withdrawal, and perplexed by the absence of a renewed integration project.

Madrid’s declining role coincides with changes in Latin America that would normally grab its attention.  President Obama and Raúl Castro’s historic normalization of diplomatic relations has opened the door to at least one major U.S. hotel firm signing contracts to refurbish and manage several Cuban hotels – an industry in which Spain previously had extraordinary advantages.  Having played “good cop” with Cuba for many years, compared to Washington’s “bad cop,” Madrid’s future role on the island is at most uncertain.  The election of market-friendly President Macri in Argentina, where the previous government nationalized a Spanish energy company and adopted other policies causing bilateral estrangement, also represents an opportunity for Spain.  The near-completion of peace talks between the Colombian government and guerrillas should be the crowning jewel of a foreign policy in which Spain made a strong political investment early on, but Madrid has receded to the role of bit player.  At a time that Latin Americans continue to espouse support for CELAC and other regional organizations that exclude Spain (and the United States), Spain-sponsored Cumbres Iberoamericanas since 1991 have – even more than the U.S.-sponsored Summit of the Americas – lacked dynamism and produced little as the beacon of the Spanish transition was dying down

By turning inward, Spain risks losing what remains of its special cachet as Latin America’s link to Europe and as a country that made a successful transition to democracy with inclusion, human rights, vibrant media, and increasing transparency.  Its political capital in the region is running low, and budgetary constraints have diminished its aid budgets (from 0.5 percent of GDP to 0.13 percent).  But opportunities remain.  Big Spanish companies – Telefónica, Banco Santander, BBVA, Repsol, and others – and numerous mid-sized firms have shown interest in Latin America.  Cuba’s reluctance to embrace U.S. ties too tightly and too fast gives Spain important space to play a role if it wants.  Moreover, Spain’s diplomatic skills, critical for Central America’s peace processes and elsewhere, could still be a positive force in that subregion.   If it weren’t for former Spanish Prime Ministers’ contradictory roles in Venezuela, where U.S. baggage undermines Washington’s approach to political, economic, and security problems, Spain could be active there too.  But the Prime Minister and his cabinet have not given the Foreign Ministry the green light to get more deeply involved.  It’s not too late for Spain to turn things around and get back into the game in Latin America.  For that to happen Spain needs more consistent governance.

April 18, 2016

* The writer is long-time non-academic observer of Spanish foreign policy in Latin America.

A Major Gig for Buena Vista

By Ana Serra* 

Photo Credit: OtherDrK / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: OtherDrK / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Buena Vista Social Club Orchestra’s performance at the White House last week was a celebration of the ongoing normalization process between the United States and Cuba and of the musical collaboration – considered illegal at the time – that made this group possible.  Playing in commemoration of Hispanic Heritage month and the Educational Excellence of Hispanics, it was the first visit to the executive mansion by a Cuban band in more than 50 years, and part of its Adiós World Farewell Tour including a number of U.S. states before traveling to Puerto Rico and Latin America.  Buena Vista Social Club (BVSC) is a brand, starting as a 1940s club in Havana and revived by a 1997 album produced by Ry Cooder with Cuban and US musicians, a 1999 documentary film directed by Wim Wenders (chronicling concerts in Amsterdam and New York), and decades of fame-garnering recognition of Grammies and film awards.  At a time that the U.S. administration is taking steps to relax the terms of the embargo, the invitation auspiciously recognized Ry Cooder’s inaugural ice-breaker, which was investigated as a violation of the Trading with the Enemy Act.  While tied to the commercial success of the band, the concert inadvertently has progressive implications in a racial context.

The invitation to play at the White House amounts to a diplomatic gesture, and as such it was both cautious and optimistic.  The event resonated with many other people-to-people exchanges that have made thaw a reality, and highlighted the prominence of Americans of Cuban descent among Hispanics in the U.S.  The band is tried and true – if fully predictable – in its powerful evocations of a memorable past.  Its traditional musicians evoke the Havana music scene of the 1940s, a time of intense exchange and collaboration between Cuban and U.S. musicians.  In addition, it may cause for some a nostalgia for a supposedly harmonic relationship between the two countries, despite decades of strong U.S. intervention in political and economic affairs during the two administrations of Fulgencio Batista.  The album’s son, bolero, guajira, and danzón rhythms do not challenge expectations and the lyrics talk about love, beautiful women, and tropical landscapes.  Ry Cooder’s role in forming the original band – he apparently brought piano virtuoso Rubén González away from a shoe-shining job – represents the current dream of many art representatives hoping to go down to Cuba and “discover” or “bring to light” hidden talent.

Fans of Cuban music may be disappointed that far more interesting Cuban musicians – in terms of novel song styles or political messages – were not invited.  BVSC’s tunes have become so familiar as to make the minds of listeners numb: they have been played to exhaustion in tourist sites in Havana, and added to the ambiance of many a foreign venue aiming to evoke the irresistible rhythms of Latin American music.  A silver lining, however, are the progressive implications of what the band represents in a racial context.  The original Buena Vista Social Club was a so-called “club de negros” in the 1940s, in which the 1997 BVSC performer Compay Segundo had played.  These clubs were closed down after the 1959 revolution, since their emphasis on black identity was deemed divisive.  At the time of #blacklivesmatter in the United States, it is fitting that the first African-American president hosted this historic band in the White House.  Beyond the problematic background of a beautiful diplomatic gesture the event establishes a bridge between some of the common struggles in the U.S. and Cuba.

October 22, 2015

* Ana Serra is an Associate Professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies in the Department of World Languages and Cultures at American University.

U.S.-Cuba: Must “Democracy Promotion” Obstruct Normalization?*

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: Martin Burns / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Martin Burns / Flickr / Creative Commons

“Democracy promotion” has been one of the most contentious aspects of U.S. policy toward Cuba – and one of the most counterproductive – but it doesn’t have to be either.  The concept of democracy promotion is ingrained in U.S. policy culture, and the bureaucracies and programs they’ve been charged with conducting over the years are as bullet-proof as any in Washington.  Democracy promotion in different forms has been a main element of U.S. policy toward Cuba for decades. In the 1980s and early 1990s, the U.S. Interests Section conducted an array of outreach programs, engaging with Cuban academics, journalists, and officials – people tolerant if not deeply supportive of the Cuban government – as well as human rights activists and others “outside the system.”  These activities informed and nurtured the aspirations of Cubans in and outside the system who were eager to find Cuban solutions to their country’s mounting problems.  The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 moved democracy promotion into a more aggressive mode, explicitly linking it to regime change.  President Clinton spent token amounts on initiatives related to Cuba’s future transition, but the Bush Administration launched an expansion that has since cost U.S. taxpayers more than $250 million.  The arrest, conviction, and five-year imprisonment of USAID sub-contractor Alan Gross shed light on one such operation.  He smuggled sophisticated communication equipment onto the island to set up secret networks.  Associated Press investigative reporter Desmond Butler uncovered other programs involving communications and political operations against the Cuban government.

The investment has yielded some operational successes, but the impact toward promoting democracy has been negligible and, in important ways, counterproductive.  The program has delivered food, medicines, and other support to the families of imprisoned dissidents (many of whom have been released since Presidents Obama and Castro announced reestablishment of relations last December), but more provocative operations have arguably led only to arrests.  The amateurish clandestine tradecraft of the contractors and program activists, moreover, made it easy for Cuban counterintelligence to penetrate and manipulate their ranks.  The “private libraries” that U.S. taxpayers have paid for do not exist, and communications systems involving expensive satellite gear and satellite access fees have been compromised.  The secretive modus operandi of the operations has given credibility to draconian Cuban government measures, like Law 88 for “Protection of Cuba’s National Independence and Economy,” imposing prison terms for certain contact with foreigners “aimed at subverting the internal order of the nation and destroying its political, economic, and social system.”  Authentic people-to-people exchanges have been tainted as Cubans in the government and on the street are wary that any contact could be part of Washington’s regime-change efforts.

The democracy promotion ideology and bureaucracy seem unstoppable, but Presidents Obama and Castro can take the edge off this irritant with a little effort and flexibility, and even make it mutually beneficial.  The State Department and USAID have pledged to continue the Cuba democracy promotion programs and are asking Congress for $20 million to fund them again this year, but the President’s statement that “it is time for us to try something new” suggests acknowledgment that they need not be so ineffective and counterproductive.  For starters, the Administration could stop citing Helms-Burton authorities, which are explicitly for regime change, and establish criteria for operations in Cuba similar to those in other countries with whom the U.S. has diplomatic relations and is trying to improve bilateral ties.  It could restore and expand what worked in the past, such as the distribution of books and clippings; support for exchange visits; promotion of academic and cultural events; and other non-political activities that include people with government affiliation.  Perhaps most importantly, to decontaminate the programs, the organizations that have already spent millions trying to drive regime change should step aside and let a new generation – based on real people-to-people interests – try something different with the funds.  Both Presidents can trust their citizens to develop the historic roadmap that will define the relationship into the future.  Both the United States and Cuba stand to benefit.

September 25, 2015

*This article is excerpted from the second in a series of policy briefs from the CLALS Cuba Initiative, supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation. To read the full brief, please click here.

A Web Forum: Implications of Normalization of U.S.-Cuban Relations

By Eric Hershberg

Image Courtesy of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Image Courtesy of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies

Anyone concerned with Cuban affairs will remember “D‑17” – the day in 2014 that Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro simultaneously announced their intention to restore diplomatic ties and endeavor to normalize relations.  Catalyzed by a year and a half of secret negotiations by senior confidants of the two presidents, bypassing normal diplomatic channels, the unexpected announcements provoked elation in most quarters.  After 55 years of estrangement and hostility, the two presidents acknowledged that an alternative path based on mutual respect was both possible and desirable.  Momentum toward restoring diplomatic relations is advancing steadily, but the path toward “normalization” is replete with obstacles, for there never has existed a “normal” state of affairs in U.S.-Cuba relations.  Despite widespread relief and optimism, a long road lies ahead.

Countless op-ed pieces have been written since D-17, and many of them have been very insightful, but the genre tends toward soundbites rather than deep analysis of the implications of change.  In this context, the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University and the Cuba Program at the Social Science Research Council today launch a Web Forum that delves more deeply into the ramifications of changes in U.S.-Cuba relations, drawing on the scholarship of the contributors and on the substantial body of academic research that can inform our understanding of the present conjuncture and potential trajectories in the future.

Edited by Eric Hershberg and William M. LeoGrande, the Forum encompasses a variety of themes – from U.S.-Cuba relations, to hemispheric dynamics, to the consequences for ongoing political, societal, and economic change in Cuba.  What does it mean to contemplate “normalization” between two countries with such a fraught history of interaction?  How might experiences of “normalization” between the U.S. and other countries with which it sought to reduce longstanding hostilities provide lessons for those who seek to understand the likely course of events involving the U.S. and Cuba?  To what degree does D-17 and its aftermath alter the landscape of international relations in the Western Hemisphere?  How might Cuban cultural production and everyday life engage differently with U.S. audiences and with members of the Cuba diaspora?  Will rapprochement between the U.S. and Cuba have consequences for Cuba’s political trajectory?  What impact will changed bilateral relations and a relaxation of U.S. sanctions have on ongoing efforts to “update” and perhaps transform Cuba’s economic model?  The organizers hope that the Forum enriches debates about these and other matters, with contributions from leading experts from Europe, Latin America, and Canada as well as from the U.S. and Cuba.  We encourage readers to download the essays and to circulate them widely. View the Forum at http://www.american.edu/clals/implications-of-normalization-with-ssrc.cfm

April 2, 2015

U.S.-Cuba: What Now?

Diego Cambiaso and Y. Becart / Flickr / Creative Commons

Diego Cambiaso and Y. Becart / Flickr / Creative Commons

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

Cuba Welcomes “Normalization,” But Only on its Own Terms

By Eric Hershberg

Photo Courtesy of Philip Brenner

Photo Courtesy of Philip Brenner

Cuban President Raúl Castro is undoubtedly as serious about normalizing diplomatic ties as President Barack Obama is, but the island’s government arguably faces more pressing challenges than working out the details of a rapprochement with Washington.  Commentators have observed that after the initial euphoria following the December 17 announcement, officials now speak of a long road ahead.  Full normalization, while welcome, is not the foremost concern of Cuban policymakers.  The paramount objective of Cuban authorities is the survival of the revolution and the one-party state that it engendered.  Top diplomats reiterated on January 23, after the first round of talks in Havana, that there will be no concessions to continued American insistence on changes in Cuba’s domestic political arrangements.

Economic revitalization is imperative.  Despite the reforms introduced by Castro, the Cuban economy remains woefully unproductive, incapable of meeting the needs of its citizenry or generating the foreign exchange that any small island developing state requires to import goods that it cannot produce domestically.  Growth rates are anemic, reaching only 1.3 percent in 2014, and independent projections call into question last month’s official announcements predicting 4 percent expansion during 2015.  Agriculture remains stagnant despite reforms aimed at putting fallow lands to productive use, so imports of food account for $2 billion in the extremely tight state budget put forth for 2015.  The severe shortage of cash, moreover, impedes public investment in Cuba’s crumbling infrastructure, which hinders autonomous producers from securing vital inputs for their businesses or distributing what they produce.  Ideally, foreign investment would supply resources where domestic sources cannot, but for the most part this is not happening either.  A 2013 foreign investment law has to date yielded little fresh capital:  European and other investors with experience on the island explain privately that the conditions for conducting business are such that they are reluctant to commit good money after bad.  The new changes in U.S. regulations may produce some increase in investment flows – primarily in the form of remittances from Cuban Americans to families and friends – and thus continue to provide some economic oxygen, but the likely scale of these flows should not be overestimated.  Washington’s new regulations seem likely to continue blocking investments that could increase the Cuban state’s ability to develop the infrastructure necessary to promote economic growth.

Because the intertwined goals of state security and economic revitalization are paramount, Havana’s engagement with the United States will be conditioned on its compatibility with those objectives.  Critics of the American opening who lambast Barack Obama for acceding to a deal with minimal Cuban concessions are right that Havana did not abandon its position that its political system is non-negotiable.  If by joining the rest of the western hemisphere in acknowledging the Cuban state Washington embarks on a path that will fuel economic activity in Cuba, the two countries will proceed, however gradually, away from confrontation.  The trajectory of U.S. relations with China and Vietnam in recent decades offers an instructive precedent for how this can be achieved and be mutually beneficial.  But if the Americans perceive greater engagement with Cuba as a tool for regime change, or strive to limit financial flows exclusively to private actors, their Cuban counterparts naturally will limit the scope of interaction.  A new round of State Department solicitations for bids to conduct democracy promotion activities in Cuba, like the U.S. negotiators’ insistence last week on getting a photo-op with dissidents before heading back to Washington, suggest that this message has yet to be absorbed by American officials.

January 26, 2015