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.

U.S.-Cuba: Migration Policy Growing Tortuous, Dangerous

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban migrants

Photo Credit: Coast Guard News / Flickr / Creative Commons

The surge in Cuban migration – prolonged at this point by U.S. policy paralysis – may show a dip soon but is growing tortuous and dangerous.  Since January 12, chartered aircraft and buses have been carrying about 360 Cubans a week from Costa Rica to El Salvador, and then through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States, where they are admitted with special status.  The US$550 cost of the trip is being paid by the migrants or unidentified “donors.”  The air bridge has begun relieving pressure on Costa Rica, which has been caring for 8,000 Cubans since Nicaragua in October halted the underground railway transporting them up the Central American isthmus.  (Three thousand more are reportedly stuck in Panama.)  Despite the progress, an estimated 1,500 migrants have left holding facilities and turned to alien-smugglers to take them to Mexico (for $800) or to the United States ($1,500), according to press reports.

  • Cubans’ fear of a change in U.S. migration policy since reestablishment of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic relations is most often cited as causing the surge, estimated at some 40,000 in 2015. It does not explain the estimated 20,000 who crossed into Texas in 2014 and before, when alien-smuggling networks were less developed.
  • Ecuador’s agreement to establish visa requirements for Cubans promises to slow the immediate flow, but the crisis has revealed corruption among migration authorities throughout the region, which will make stopping it difficult.
  • Central American resentment of the welcome Washington gives illegal migrants from Cuba is growing – aggravated in part by the arrival of airplanes from the United States full of deported citizens in the same timeframe. Senior officials from Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Guatemala have blamed the surge in trafficked Cubans on the preferences the United States gives them.

The U.S. Coast Guard reports an increase in the volume and violence of seaborne migration.  Migrants interdicted in Fiscal Year 2015 (ending September 30) grew to almost 3,000 – 900 more than the previous year – and, according to press reports, surged to 1,500 in the last quarter of 2015.  The Coast Guard says the migrants have concluded that Cuba’s economy will not improve even after U.S.-Cuba normalization, and they want to go before U.S. migration policy changes.  The service has reported a spike in violent confrontations with Coast Guard officers, violence against fellow migrants, and even suicide threats..

The U.S. government’s mantra that it will not change policy toward either overland or seaborne migrants is not working – and could even be backfiring by reminding Cubans of the special treatment they receive upon arrival.  The airlift and bussing of thousands of migrants from Costa Rica to the United States helps Costa Rica deal with its crisis, but also signals yet again to Cubans remaining on the island how far the United States will go to bring them in.  Violence among seaborne migrants has traditionally been rare, but the increased aggressiveness suggests that migrants have the impression that they can act with impunity and still be welcomed into the country.  Overland migrants’ preference to use coyotes, known for violence, is another red flag.  The United States has expended political capital by washing its hands of the Cuban migrant mess in Central America, and grumbling among the region’s leaders suggests that options like airlifts will disappear soon.  U.S. law, including the Cuban Adjustment Act, fully empowers the President to turn off the green light to undocumented Cuban migration – and reality could very well nudge him in that direction soon.

February 4, 2016

U.S.-Cuba Migration: The Powerful “Pull” Factors

By Fulton Armstrong

Cuban women

Photo Credit: Guillaume Baviere / Flickr / Creative Commons

The Obama Administration’s repeatedly stated commitment to continue implementing the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966 is driving a surge in Cuban emigrants through dangerous human trafficking routes in Central America and causing tensions in a region already tied in knots over illegal migration.  The flow of Cubans up the isthmus has been increasing steadily – reaching some 45,000 over the past year – but seemed a manageable issue until Costa Rica broke up a smuggling ring last month.  The publicity prompted Nicaragua to close its borders to the underground railroad, which is carrying thousands each month northbound.  The migrants have been starting their journey by air from Havana to Ecuador (which until last month didn’t require a visa) and are escorted by coyotes as they bribe their way across borders headed north.  A summit of Central American foreign ministers two weeks ago failed to reach agreement on a Costa Rican proposal to create a “humanitarian corridor” for the Cubans by issuing them safe passage.  Relations between San José and Managua, already on edge as they await an ICJ decision this month on a territorial dispute, have turned bitter.

The special treatment that Cubans receive upon setting foot in the United States – including automatic access to permanent residency in one year – is the main stimulus of the flow.  The Clinton Administration adjusted how it handled those intercepted at sea, establishing a distinction between intending migrants with “wet feet” and “dry feet,” which reduced the seaborne flow somewhat.  But Cuba’s decision in 2013 (long urged by the U.S. and international community) to stop requiring citizens to get exit permits; the flow of a billion-plus dollars into Cuba through remittances and small businesses (with which to pay coyotes and corrupt officials along the way); and the growing sophistication of smuggling networks in Central America have fueled a shift in the flow overland.  Despite the Administration’s no-change pledge, some intending migrants say the current rush is being driven by fear that U.S.-Cuba normalization will end the preferences granted to Cubans who reach U.S. soil.

The Adjustment Act authorizes – but does not require – the President, through the  attorney general, to grant parole to Cubans arriving into the United States illegally and grant them permanent residency one year later.  In the absence of any change in Washington’s approach, Cubans will certainly try to avail themselves of its generous provisions.  To move the thousands stuck in Central America off the front page there, Washington may issue them expedited visas and help them with transportation to the United States.  Such gestures, however, will have a high political cost throughout Central America, where the U.S. has asked governments to stanch the movement of their own citizens fleeing violence and dire poverty, and where even well-off, law-abiding citizens have to jump through hoops and pay hundreds of dollars for tourist visas.  As the impasse in Central America grew intense last month, the State Department tweeted a reminder that “There exist legal and safe options for Cubans who want to migrate to the United States.”  Reversing policies that encourage illegal and unsafe migration – while proposing that Congress support a doubling or tripling of the current 20,000 Immigrant Visas the Embassy in Havana issues each year – would make a lot of sense.

December 7, 2015

AULABLOG will examine the powerful “push” factors driving migration from Cuba in a subsequent article.

Cuba’s Limited Absorptive Capacity Will Slow Normalization*

By Fulton Armstrong

Photo Credit: PBS NewsHour / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: PBS NewsHour / Flickr / Creative Commons

As the U.S. embargo – the main obstacle to expanding U.S.-Cuban economic ties – is relaxed by presidential regulatory action and eventually lifted by Congress, limits on Cuba’s own willingness and ability to conduct trade, absorb investment, utilize information technology, and even accommodate tourists risk putting a brake on the normalization of economic relations.  Five decades of embargo and failed socialist models have rendered key sectors in Cuba ill-equipped to take advantage of the surge in U.S. business interest in the island.  In some areas, the political will to open up and reform is crucial.  These problems do not translate into a rejection of normalization but rather into a slower timeline than many on and off the island would hope for.

The advantages of economic engagement are well known.  Foreign investment will help provide the $8.7 billion Cuba wants for its “Portfolio of Foreign Investment Opportunities” – some 246 projects in energy, tourism, agriculture, and industry.  Havana also wants growth rates to rise to 4-5 percent per year (from an estimated 1.5 percent in 2014), fueled by at least $2 billion in annual foreign investment.  Trade, investment, and tourism are all potentially powerful engines for growth and employment in Cuba.  Private farmers have long out-produced their state competitors and many cooperatives, making them ideal for engagement under current U.S. regulations if the Cuban government facilitates it.  The small private sector, currently employing over a million people, could – with a more supportive infrastructure – provide many more vital goods, services, and employment that the Cuban government years ago admitted it could not provide.  Sectors utilizing Cuba’s specialized and skilled human capital, such as biotechnology, could also benefit quickly and generously from the new U.S. relationship.

Cuba has a lot going for it – such as its deep reserve of potential human capital – but it is also is held back by a variety of problems, many of which are prolonged by political caution.

  • Cuba is updating laws governing investments, property, and labor – a new foreign investment law in March 2014 and related regulations are steps in the new direction – but the multi-year, incremental process has been too slow to keep ahead of burgeoning opportunities. Regulations on how foreign firms select, pay and release Cuban employees are also antiquated.  Paperwork for approving foreign direct investment remains formidable and must pass through multiple levels.  The country lacks the basic institutions necessary to license import and export transactions for beneficiaries outside government ministries.  Much of the bureaucracy – chronically underpaid and, during periods of party dominance, neglected – has yet to grow into a new, more professional role.
  • Unifying Cuba’s two national currencies is absolutely essential but, despite the government’s repeated declarations of intent, it has still not been done. The existence of a different, lower exchange rate for state enterprises creates distortions that will worsen as demand for imports rises.  The financial system, moreover, is too over-burdened, secretive, and lacking in agility, and continued blocks to Cuba’s access to IMF, World Bank, and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) funds deny it important breathing room to reform.
  • Cuba lacks an information and communications technology (ICT) framework capable of harnessing and nurturing its human capital and driving growth and efficiency – which will retard progress in a number of priority areas.
  • De-industrialization over the past 25 years has further reduced Cuba’s absorptive capacity. Many key sectors – including textiles, clothing, metals, machinery, transportation equipment, and more – have contracted between 50 and 100 percent.  Much of the infrastructure is dilapidated.  The transportation sector is in dire need of repair and modernization; and the construction industry is inefficient and poorly resourced.

Cuba’s challenges in taking advantage of new opportunities are not insurmountable – with political will and time.  The pace of reform and corresponding expansion of Cuba’s absorptive capacity may be maddeningly slow for many Cubans and Americans alike.  But insofar as the U.S.-Cuba normalization process is irreversible, so too is the conviction in Cuba on the need to “update” the system through reform in order to take advantage of the opportunities it brings.  Cuban national pride and the Communist Party’s fear of losing control could very well be assuaged as the island experiences the benefits of engagement.  Foreigners, especially the United States, who push too hard, too fast, and too haughtily could fail and even delay this aspect of normalization, just as Cubans who move too passively, too slowly, and too skeptically could stymie the process as well.

October 27, 2015

*This blog post is excerpted from the third in a series of policy briefs from the CLALS Cuba Initiative, supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.  Read the full brief here.

U.S.-Cuba Diplomatic Ties: Beyond Symbolism

By William M. LeoGrande*

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement to the international media after President Obama announced plans to re-open a U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Photo Credit: U.S. Government / Public Domain

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers a statement to the international media after President Obama announced plans to re-open a U.S. Embassy in Cuba. Photo Credit: U.S. Government / Public Domain

The reopening of embassies in Washington and Havana is symbolic of the change in U.S. policy that President Obama announced last December 17—replacing the hostility and subversion dating back to the break in diplomatic relations 54 years ago with engagement and cooperation.  As he declared on July 1, “This is what change looks like.”  Beyond symbolism, reopening the embassies has important practical benefits.

  • Cuba and the United States have had diplomatic representation in each other’s capitals since 1977, but those “Interests Sections” were restricted in their operations. Having full embassies will create better channels of communication between the two governments, facilitating negotiations on other issues that must be resolved before bilateral relations are fully normal.
  • Diplomats will have greater freedom to travel and speak with citizens of the host country.  Diplomats’ travel has been restricted to the capital regions of both countries since 2003, when the George W. Bush administration imposed controls on Cuban diplomats, and Cuba reciprocated.  Negotiations on opening the embassies were delayed by Cuban concerns that U.S. diplomats would travel around the island promoting opposition to the government—a common practice during the Bush administration.  The restoration of diplomatic relations returns to the pre-2003 status quo, when diplomats could travel freely upon simply notifying the host government.
  • For Washington, the move will have benefits beyond Cuba ties.  The policy of hostility persisted through ten U.S. presidential administrations, gradually isolating the United States from allies in Latin America and seriously endangering U.S. relations with the entire region.  It was no coincidence that President Obama noted that the new approach to Cuba would also “begin a new chapter with our neighbors in the Americas.”

Congressional opponents of the opening to Cuba can do nothing to stop the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, but they can slow down broader normalization processes.  The Constitution vests the power to recognize foreign countries with the president alone.  But whoever the president nominates as the new U.S. ambassador to Cuba will face tough sledding in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ) have declared unwavering opposition to normalizing relations.  In the House of Representatives, Republicans have introduced legislation to deny funds to upgrade the Interests Section to a full embassy—a move that only punishes U.S. diplomats in Havana, prospective Cuban immigrants, and visiting and U.S. citizens who need consular services.  Moreover, opponents will not allow any legislation in the next 18 months that would make Obama’s Cuba policy look like a success.  That means U.S. economic sanctions—the embargo and ban on tourist travel—will remain in place at least through the next presidential election since lifting them entirely requires changing the law.

Although full normalization—with robust trade, social, cultural, and political ties—will take a long time, there is more that can be done to expand government ties.  Washington and Havana have a half-dozen working groups on a wide range of topics, and we could soon see bilateral agreements on issues of mutual interest like law enforcement cooperation, counter-narcotics cooperation, environmental protection in the Caribbean, the restoration of postal service, and more.  President Obama also could use his licensing authority to further expand commerce with Cuba, in particular, licensing U.S. banks to clear dollar-denominated international banking transactions involving Cuba, a prohibition that is today one of the major impediments to Cuba’s international commerce with the West.  The president could restructure democracy promotion programs so that they support authentic exchanges in education, the arts, and culture, rather than promoting opposition to the Cuban government.  The issues between the United States and Cuba are complex and multi-faceted.  Resolving them will require overcoming half century of mutual distrust.  But the re-establishment of normal diplomatic relations constitutes the first necessary—symbolic and practical—step toward the future.

July 14, 2015

*William M. LeoGrande is professor of government in the School of Public Affairs at American University.  This blog is adapted from his op-ed on Fox News Latino.

Journalism in Cuba: Unstoppable Change

By John Dinges*

Jaume Escofet / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Jaume Escofet / Flickr / Creative Commons (modified)

Cuban journalism is changing rapidly – both in and outside the official media.  Developments in media reflect the dynamic changes taking place in Cuba and are likely to drive even deeper change in the future.  Journalists outside the system have long been seen as eager to create alternatives to the centrally controlled media that have dominated for decades.  Now, although many inside the government-run media still generally seek continuity of the Cuban revolution, a timid but slowly growing number of them are showing signs of openness to shifting away from their traditional role as a propaganda machine for a one-party state.  Together, the non-official and official journalists are part of a process of change that is robust, unstoppable, and healthy from the perspective of journalistic values.  Among the indicators:

  • The official Communist Party daily, Granma, now dedicates a page each Friday to letters from readers with a host of complaints about daily life – inefficiency of government offices, long lines at stores, and delays in government benefits. In Cubadebate and other official blogs, there are been numerous analytical articles that could be called “loyal criticism.”
  • Yoani Sánchez – a star among the non-governmental bloggers – and others are sharp critics of the lack of political freedoms and proponents of radical but peaceful change. Their audience in Cuba is small, because of low connectivity on the island, but their voices occupy an important part of the spectrum of the country’s new journalism.
  • A new kind of media – individuals who identify as journalists and not as political dissidents – appears likely to have an even greater impact. The most successful of these, OnCuba, is a glossy bimonthly magazine distributed on the daily Miami-Havana charter flights.  It runs commercial covers – one recently featured a woman smoking a Cohiba – but also carries articles on sensitive political and economic issues.

OnCuba is an extraordinary experiment launched three years ago by Cuban-American businessman Hugo Cancio and employing 12 full-time Cuban journalists in a well-appointed Havana office – all with the necessary Cuban government approvals.  The editors say the publication’s only objective (other than paying its bills) is to serve as an intellectual bridge between Cubans in Cuba and Miami, casting a critical eye to both.

OnCuba and its nascent genre probably judge that walking the line between the two extremes – rejecting both “officialist” and “dissident” labels – increases their chances of landing on their feet if and when deeper change occurs in Cuba.  A recent episode involving leaked government documents, however, underscored the complexity of their balancing act.  An independent blog called La Chiringa de Cuba published a PDF of a sensitive Ministry of Communications plan to massively expand broadband access in Cuba by the year 2020, and OnCuba prepared a long article describing and analyzing its importance.  Despite the importance of broadband for the nation, the official media have so far neither reported on the leak nor – importantly – have they condemned it.  While the course of all these changes is uncertain, one thing beyond doubt is that, when it comes to journalism in Cuba, it’s now “Game on.”

June 19, 2015

*John Dinges teaches journalism at Columbia University and is the author, among other titles, of “The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents” (The New Press 2004).