Letter From Havana: Obama’s Cuba Policy Turns Two

December 16, 2016

Whatever else endures from President Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Cuba, what will remain irreversible is the simple truth he acknowledged: that Cuba is a sovereign country with a legitimate government and whose independence must be respected and considered permanent.

This was a radical departure for U.S. foreign policy. In fact, the opposite approach – that the island’s identity and destiny should be determined by the American republic – was not a response to Fidel Castro’s revolution, but predated it by nearly two centuries.

John Adams, himself a revolutionary, called Cuba “an object of transcendent importance to the political and commercial interests of our Union.” He went on to say, “It is scarcely possible to resist the conviction that the annexation of Cuba to our federal republic will be indispensable to the continuance and integrity of the Union itself.”

More than any single sanction, it is this centuries-old current – running through Adams to the Monroe Doctrine to occupations of Cuba by U.S. troops after its war of independence, to the embargo itself – which President Obama dedicated the final years of his presidency to trying to reverse.

To be clear, we do not minimize – indeed, we celebrate – the achievements of the President’s opening to Cuba, and there are many. His reforms have provided tangible benefits to Cuba’s people and to ours (we list some and hyperlink to others in the summary below).

But none of them could have been realized by adhering rigidly to the harshest regime of sanctions we’ve imposed on any nation. Or by refusing to talk to Cuba on any subject, with the telling exception of regulating migration, until Cuba relinquished its communist system.

This policy, with its conceit that we know better than Cubans how to organize their internal affairs, inevitably shaped Cuba’s conception of its own sovereignty and its closest neighbor. Against this backdrop, it is hardly a surprise that Cuba’s government never buckled. Unlike every one of his predecessors since Eisenhower, only Obama got the joke.

So he replaced the search for Cuban concessions with a more practical logic: that Cuba’s success was better for the United States than its failure, and that acknowledging Cuba’s sovereignty was a precondition for a diplomacy capable of producing agreements that realized our mutual interests.

This meant that President Obama also understood, as Fulton Armstrong, an early architect of normalization, said in Havana this week, that “Cuba’s own vision for its future – if successfully implemented – had many elements that benefited both countries, both countries’ interests, and both peoples.”

This also reflected, he went on to say, “two sub-judgments: that Cuba had a plan for its future and that its implementation would indirectly validate normalization and deepen it.” Thus, President Obama could both respect Cuba’s sovereignty and honor Cuba’s right to organize its internal affairs without “our help.”

The fact that President Obama would shake President Castro’s hand, meet with him publicly in Panama at the Summit of the Americas, take questions with him from the press corps in Havana, salute Cuba’s role in fighting Ebola in West Africa and in ending the fighting in Colombia’s civil war – all of this built confidence essential for holding successful negotiations.

Now, there are bilateral agreements reconnecting Cuba and the U.S. by postal service, direct telephone service, and regularly scheduled commercial air travel. Now, as the Washington Office on Latin America’s Geoff Thale said in Havana this week, there are direct cop-to-cop contacts between Cuban authorities and their DEA and FBI counterparts. There is real-time contact between our two countries’ Coast Guards and Border Patrol, to conduct effective operations when ships are lost at sea.

Thanks to direct negotiations with the Cubans, “American patients are getting access to a lifesaving Cuban lung cancer vaccine, Cubans are getting greater access to the internet, and Cuban entrepreneurs are getting greater access to U.S. travelers who are now visiting their restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and small businesses in record numbers,” said Sarah Stephens of the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

These results and others, as Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy said last week, give lie to statements by the most vociferous opponents of the Obama opening. “They continually say that the only Cubans who have benefited from the new opening are Raul Castro and the Cuban military.”

In fact, Sen. Leahy continued, “the Cuban people, particularly Cuban entrepreneurs, have benefited and so have the American people. And they overwhelmingly want this opening to continue. Those who label the policy of engagement a failure after just two years,” he concluded, “because the Castro government continues to persecute its opponents are either naïve or not to be taken seriously.”

Thanks to the eminent scholar Dr. Soraya Castro, Fulton, Geoff, and dozens of us were together in Havana this week to consider whether the era of engagement, which started on December 17th 2014, would continue or whether a new era of estrangement would soon commence.

Hanging over this conversation was the reality that as President-elect Trump’s administration starts in January, the final thirteen months of President Castro’s tenure will begin.

We’ll know, soon enough, whether someone who treasures American sovereignty, the security of our borders, and the essential value of fair, two-way trade, as Donald Trump does, can build on what the Obama-Castro diplomatic partnership produced. Assuming he gets the joke, and treats President Castro seriously in his search for a better deal.

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Cuba: President-elect Trump’s Other “Repeal and Replace” Problem

December 9, 2016

“Please don’t turn your back on us.”

On Wednesday, countless words were spoken in Washington, but these seven cut through the din. Speaking to journalists and Members of Congress in the U.S. Capitol, four Cuban women who run small businesses on the island urged President-elect Trump to maintain the reforms in U.S. policy that have helped make their businesses grow.

Yamina Vicente, an event planner and interior decorator; Marta Elisa Deus Rodríguez, who runs an accounting business; Julia de la Rosa, who runs a bed-and-breakfast; and Marla Recio Carbajal stood together. They represented over 100 Cuban private business owners on the island who signed this letter. It connects the improved climate for doing business in Cuba to the increases in travel to the island, improved access to the Internet, direct calling, and easier financial transactions brought about by a more open U.S. policy toward Cuba.

As Reuters reported, the letter was organized by Cuba Educational Travel, a U.S. company that arranges trips to the island, and coordinated with Engage Cuba. It was signed by Cuban entrepreneurs who operate family-owned restaurants, car services, hair salons, startup companies and other small-scale businesses.

Marla, who received her undergraduate degree in economics at the University of Havana, returned to Cuba after earning a graduate degree at the University of California, San Diego, to start a business that helps U.S. visitors plan events on their trips to Cuba. She credits President Raúl Castro’s opening Cuba’s private sector and the sharp increase in U.S. visitors for creating this opportunity.

On Wednesday, Marla told a crowd of U.S. legislators and journalists, “I want to be in Havana and I look forward to a future that is better for the American and the Cuban people” –  so long as President Trump doesn’t turn his back on her, her fellow entrepreneurs, and the mass of Cubans who want the policy of closer U.S.-Cuba ties to stick.

There is a fear of being forsaken  expressed by many Cubans as they eye the incoming Trump administration and its threat to undo President Obama’s opening to Cuba.

Earlier this week, Tim Padgett wrote in the Miami Herald of his encounter with Caridad Limonta, who served as one of the first female vice-ministers of small industry in Cuba. She left government to start what has become a successful clothing business. She can’t understand why Mr. Trump would reverse U.S. policy to normalize relations. “Why would he want to asphyxiate Cubans like me?” Limonta asks.

The economist Ricardo Torres, writing in Progreso Weekly, is as worried by the potential fallout that the unraveling of U.S. travel and trade would have inside Cuba’s governing counsels as he is by the damage that “could be felt in sectors such as tourism or remittances.”

He writes, “It would also confirm the warnings of groups [resistant] to U.S.-Cuba rapprochement in the sense that the U.S. is not a trustworthy partner. Washington would again turn its back on Cuba, precisely when the island needs more integration and relations with the world, so as to lay down the foundation for the new Cuban model.”

In U.S. politics, there is a fierce debate over how the President-elect can keep his campaign promise to repeal and replace “Obamacare,” when there is no workable alternative to forcing 20 million Americans to relinquish their health insurance and fall through the cracks.

On his first day in office, it won’t be hard for President Trump to pull the regulatory rugs out from under businesses like Airbnb, Sprint, Verizon, Marriott, Western Union, United Airlines, and the Carnival Cruise lines – the ones that helped Marla, Marta, Julia, and Yamina ramp up their small businesses. He can terminate their deals with a swipe of his pen in as much time as he takes to type out a tweet, and turn his back on them on all.

Repealing is, in fact, dead easy. Replacing? Not so much. The alternative to the new policy is the old policy – that Cold War okie-doke of broken diplomatic relations and squeezing the Cuban economy to force its people to lead harsher lives.

Backsliding like this, as Rep. Tom Emmer (MN-6th) said Wednesday, standing beside the entrepreneurs from Cuba, would fit the definition of insanity: “doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”

For the President to turn his back on Marla, her brother and sister small business owners, and on the hopes that the vast numbers of Cubans who work in the service of their government share with them; it would be more than insane. It would be indecent.

This was the right time for Marla to raise her voice. And the right moment to do it.

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Cuba After Fidel; Trump After Fidel

December 2, 2016

Before you read further, take a look at this luminous photograph of Cubans massed together in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution.

The picture was taken Tuesday evening, when senior members of Cuba’s government were joined by foreign leaders to pay posthumous tribute to Fidel Castro, following his death last Friday night. The Cuban and foreign officials, seated in places of honor at the José Martí Memorial, are indistinguishable in this shot.

Commanding our attention instead are thousands of Cubans crowded into an image that is at once familiar but also different. The picture is a celebration by citizens who’ve come to their national square of their own accord. The Cubans who came alone or with friends, the families who assembled with their children, stayed long into the night as part of the first mobilization of the post-Fidel Castro era, as if inhabiting this very public space for the first time.


Poor Justin Trudeau. Canada’s Prime Minister, by issuing a statement expressing sorrow at former President Castro’s death, stepped way out of line. He was promptly denounced by Breitbart.com, which, enjoying its new role as an informal extension of U.S. state media, called him a “pretty little liar.” The Washington Post deployed its fact-checkers to challenge the Prime Minister’s tributes to Cuba’s systems of education and health. Others joined them, decrying Trudeau’s failure to toe the party’s line.

If Canada’s Prime Minister failed to read the memo on how to memorialize Fidel Castro’s passing, so did China’s President Xi Jinping. He visited Cuba’s embassy in Beijing on Thursday, and said in a statement that Castro was a “great friend of the Chinese people.” Pope Francis wrote President Raúl Castro and said “I express my sentiments of sorrow to Your Excellency and other family members of the deceased dignitary, as well as to the people of this beloved nation.” In Russia, more than 50,000 tweets were recorded on the subject of Fidel Castro’s death.

Many U.S. policymakers live in a black-and-white world, seeing Fidel Castro’s place in Cuba’s history, as President-elect Trump described it, as “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.” But that is ironic, to say the least.

At the end of a campaign marked by so many people saying to themselves that they didn’t see Donald Trump coming, it might do him and all of us good to step beyond our carefully curated bubbles and spend a moment listening to what a broader audience of interested parties – especially Cubans on the island and in the diaspora – is saying about the late president of Cuba and Cuba’s future.

Yes, it’s true, as the Miami Herald reported, that news of Fidel Castro’s demise caused thousands of Cuban Americans to dance, sing, and honk their car horns to celebrate his death. It’s true, as the Associated Press wrote, that “as Cuba silently bid farewell to Castro’s ashes Wednesday, an ice cream shop in Miami’s Little Havana district was selling ‘go to Hell Fidel,’ a mix of chocolate with red peppers.”

But there were also shades of grey.

As Michelle González Maldonado, a scholar of religion at the University of Miami, wrote, “when I heard the news of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s death, I did not feel any sense of sadness, relief or joy. Instead, as a daughter of Cuban exiles, I experienced a mix of all those emotions.”

Achy Obejas, the celebrated Cuban writer who lives in the U.S., wrote in the New York Times about her cousins in Miami heading to the streets to chant for a free Cuba; about an ex-girlfriend who grew up in Cuba and who stated “I feel nothing.” And about her father, who loathed Fidel Castro but identified with him because of how “Fidel had outsmarted so many American presidents, and how Fidel had cunningly dodged all those assassination attempts.”

In Cuba, the mourning for Castro, the New York Times reported, “reached near-religious peaks of public adulation.” Some of the mourners, holding his picture, flowers, and the Cuban flag, were part of the older generation that is the backbone of support for the revolution. But Tim Padgett interviewed a young woman who didn’t quite fit that mold.

Marianela Pérez, he wrote, “is an independent Cuban entrepreneur who owns Pizzanella, a popular paladar, or private restaurant, in Havana’s Playa district. So why would a model capitalist like her mourn the passing of Fidel Castro, whose dictatorial communist rule railed against free enterprise?” “I’m one of many people who thank the Cuban Revolution for the education and other benefits that prepared me to run a business,” Pérez told Padgett. “I don’t consider that a contradiction.”

Reuters tells the story of Roberto, a 29-year-old engineer who earns $25 a month and only gets by on his state salary by doing odd jobs. “We´d like to have more freedoms, to be able to surf the internet, to have better wages. But there are values stemming from the revolution that no-one wants to lose, like free health and education.”

Nick Miroff of The Washington Post wandered El Romerillo after Fidel Castro’s death, and reported on the Cubans who lived in what he called “the socialist slums of Fidel Castro’s Cuba,” where there are no gangs or guns, and virtually no drugs. “Cubans have a special term for this sort of cradled existence,” he wrote: ‘tranquilidad social,’ which means something like ‘social peace’ but also law and order, a rare thing in a region with some of the highest crime rates in the world.”

When President-elect Trump tweeted this week, “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate (the) deal,” these were the voices we heard, and wondered – who is he actually speaking for?

Not Deymar Rodríguez, a 24-year-old schoolteacher, who told the Wall Street Journal, “If Obama’s promises are stopped, it would hurt us a lot. They gave us hope that we could travel, have jobs that pay decent wages and lead a better life.”

Not Elaine Díaz, who wrote in The Guardian this week of the two points that get general agreement among the vast majority of Cubans: “the U.S. should return Guantánamo to Cuba and the embargo must be lifted.”

Not the great many Cubans, as Jon Lee Anderson wrote in The New Yorker, “Who are not communists but who are proud nationalists, and who, whatever their feelings about Fidel or his brother, will take umbrage at Trump’s casual antagonisms.”


We write these things because they need to be recorded and remembered. Admittedly, they are subtleties, and perhaps they have no place in the 140-character world we all seem to be about to enter.

In the days before his inauguration, we hope the new president – before acting to implement his Cuba policy – will look at that picture of Revolutionary Square. He as much as anyone should be able to appreciate the possibilities that reside in people occupying public spaces as if for the first time, as the Cuban people, in all their complexity, gather and ponder their future.

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