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

U.S.-Cuba: Rhetoric and Reality

By Fulton Armstrong

Obama speaks to Raul Castro / Official White House Photo by Pete Souza / Public Domain

Obama speaks to Raul Castro / Official White House Photo by Pete Souza / Public Domain

The decision by Presidents Obama and Castro to normalize relations is truly historic – for which they and their advisors deserve enthusiastic applause – even though both leaders’ rhetoric seems intended to suggest that they don’t know how deep the uncharted waters ahead run.  Their statements since last Wednesday sound solicitousness toward their right flanks.  President Obama launched his statement by proclaiming that the United States of America is changing its relationship with “the people of Cuba” and, while conceding that past strategies to “push Cuba toward collapse” have failed, cast his new policy as a better way of helping the Cuban people “enjoy lasting transformation.”  President Castro told the National Assembly this last weekend that he wasn’t jettisoning Cuba’s revolutionary project either.  Cuba is not going to give up, he said, “the ideas for which it has fought for more than a century and for which its people have spilled much blood and gone through the greatest risks.”

It’s true that the nature of the relationship is unlikely to change fast, and that neither President can ignore the legal strictures built up during 54 years of tensions.  Obama can’t lift the embargo and permit, for example, tourist travel without Congressional approval.  Cuba’s “Law 88 for the Protection of National Independence and the Economy of Cuba” remains on the books, and Castro’s not about to welcome the U.S. Government’s “democracy promotion” activities soon.  But normalization will significantly reduce both governments’ ability to restrain nongovernmental contacts and will unleash forces that will make the Presidents’ rhetoric look old-fashioned and unnecessary.  Both countries have to learn how to talk to each other, and time-tested people-to-people contacts show that citizens with shared interests are better than governments at learning the language of cooperation and problem-resolution – without ideological agendas.  It stands to reason that pressure will grow on Obama and Castro to pursue concrete interests, especially trade, and to manage their dreams, respectively, of “lasting transformation” and “updated communism.”

No model for this new bilateral dance is perfect.  China and Vietnam show that trade-driven economic change – even with U.S. most-favored-nation status – doesn’t necessarily drive a country to democracy.  An educated and healthy people with strategic needs, the Cubans are prepared to work hard to build their country, but they’re not going to work in factories with anti-suicide nets under the dormitory windows.  That sort of political awareness argues for change, but the Cuban revolution implanted in the Cuban psyche a certain set of values and expectations – ranging from social programs to an almost obsessive sense of dignity – that won’t always coincide with U.S. values.  The Cubans will want to go a la carte with us on political matters, and they, like every country of Asia and Latin America emerging from difficult times, will almost certainly expect us to give them the space to do change their own way.  The United States worked with Mexico under one-party rule for 70 years last century.  If Washington and Havana approach the challenge of building a healthy relationship with respect and open minds, they should able to find a middle ground and grow together a lot faster than that.

December 22, 2014