Letter From Havana: Obama’s Cuba Policy Turns Two

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.

This week, in Cuba news…

U.S.-Cuba Relations

Engagement with Cuba at 2-year mark

Saturday, December 17, marks two years since President Obama and Cuba’s President Raúl Castro announced simultaneously that the U.S. and Cuba would renew diplomatic relations and embark on the process of normalizing bilateral relations.

The dramatic day unfolded as the U.S. released three Cuban agents, imprisoned since 1998, in exchange for a CIA agent who had been jailed in Cuba for over twenty years, and Alan Gross, the imprisoned USAID subcontractor, was also released by the Government of Cuba on humanitarian grounds.

In the succeeding months, President Obama met publicly with President Castro at the Summit of the Americas, the U.S. State Department removed Cuba from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, the two countries’ “Interests Sections” in Havana and Washington were replaced by full-flown embassies, and the two governments formed the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission to organize teams of their diplomats for negotiations.

The U.S. and Cuba have since signed agreements restoring direct telephone and mail service and regularly scheduled commercial air services, as well as memoranda of understanding on agriculture, health, cancer research, environmental cooperation, maritime navigation, and more.

Representatives of Cuba and the U.S. have held high-level technical exchanges on law enforcement, security, counter-narcotics, property claims, human rights, public health, the environment, trade and investment, banking, agriculture, telecommunications, and intellectual property in talks taking place in both countries.

The administration – through the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce – approved five rounds of regulatory changes that have significantly increased the number of U.S. travelers visiting Cuba, reopened specific channels of trade for U.S.-based companies, and facilitate collaboration in medicine, science, and environmental protection.

The historic announcement on December 17, 2014, came after 18 months of secret negotiations between U.S. and Cuban officials, with mediation by the Vatican and the Cuban Catholic Church. (Among the detailed accounts published since, we recommend the authoritative Back Channel to Cuba by Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande.)

In the U.S., engagement with Cuba has more public support than ever. A national poll released this week by the Pew Research Center found that 75 percent of U.S. adults support President Obama’s move to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba and 73 percent support lifting the embargo. Enthusiasm for the new policy has proved resilient; in July 2015, a Pew poll found public support for scrapping the trade embargo and restoring relations at nearly identical levels.

As we have reported, the triumphant Trump presidential campaign will enter office on January 20, 2017 having promised to shift the course of U.S.-Cuba relations unless Cuba’s government offers concessions to change its political system. In the four-plus weeks remaining in President Obama’s term, senior officials said this week, the administration remains committed to making the progress in U.S.-Cuba relations as “irreversible” as possible, by continuing to cement business ties and government-to-government agreements.

Reuters reports that President Obama planned to speak with President-elect Trump this week and that he would urge the President-elect to continue the normalization process. As Bloomberg BNA reports, business leaders with interests in Cuba are worried about the President-elect’s plans for Cuba policy, while the Miami Herald spoke with Cubans on the island who worry that they will lose the economic benefits they’ve gained from renewed ties with the U.S.

U.S.-Cuba Economic, Renewable Energy working groups meet

Bilateral technical exchanges and negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba continue apace. This week, diplomats from the U.S. and Cuba held two dialogues. On December 12 and 13 in Washington, the Bilateral Economic Working Group, led by Mark Wells, the State Department’s Deputy Coordinator for Cuban Affairs, along with working-level representatives from the departments of the Treasury, Commerce, and State, discussed implementation plans for the most recent round of U.S. regulatory changes, which went into effect October 17. On December 14, the inaugural technical exchange meeting of the U.S.-Cuba Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Working Group took place in Washington, led jointly by the U.S. Departments of State and Energy. The working group also includes representatives from Cuba’s Ministries of Energy and Mines; Foreign Relations; Science, Technology and Environment; Foreign Trade and Investment; and Industry.

Google, Cuba sign agreement to speed access to Google services on island

Google and ETECSA, Cuba’s state-run telecommunications monopoly, signed a deal this week that will allow Google to house four servers on the island, speeding access to web services including Google Chrome and YouTube videos, reports Reuters. The agreement was signed by Eric Schmidt, chairman of Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, and Mayra Arevich Marin, president of ETECSA.

The Google-ETECSA agreement will not expand internet or intranet access on the island, but will improve existing service. By the end of 2015, Reuters reported, only 5.6 percent of homes in Cuba had intranet or internet access. In a statement, Google said, “This deal allows ETECSA to use our technology to reduce latency by caching some of our most popular high bandwidth content like YouTube videos at a local level,” while a telecommunications technician in Havana told Reuters that Google servers being installed on the island “may improve reception of cached materials, but not for example email which depends on local bandwidth.”

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month that the Obama administration was encouraging Cuba’s government to reach business deals with Google and General Electric.

Commercial flights resume between Tampa and Cuba

Southwest Airlines operated the first Tampa-to-Cuba commercial flight in over five decades. The Tampa Bay Times’ Paul Guzzo reported on the scene at the Tampa International Airport before takeoff, and at Havana’s José Martí International Airport once the flight landed, reuniting some Tampa-area Cuban Americans with family and friends for the first time in decades.

Cuba’s Foreign Relations

Cuba offers to settle debt to Czech Republic in rum

The Associated Press reports that according to a spokesperson for the Finance Ministry of the Czech Republic, Cuba has suggested paying off its $276 million debt to the Czech Republic in rum instead of cash. Michal Zurovec, the spokesperson, said that the Czech Republic “would still prefer the debt was at least partly paid in cash,” as the AP put it.

EU, Cuba sign accord for new relations

The European Union and Cuba signed an agreement to normalize relations. The accord will go into effect once all EU member states have ratified it, though parts of it have been provisionally applied, effective immediately, reports the Associated Press. On December 12, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla and Frederica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, signed a political dialogue and cooperation agreement, which lays the groundwork for political dialogue, cooperation and sector policy dialogue, trade, and trade cooperation.

Ms. Mogherini said that the incoming Trump administration “will not affect in any way relations between the European Union and Cuba,” while Mr. Rodríguez emphasized that relations “between the EU and Cuba do not go by Washington,” although the U.S. embargo remains a “major obstacle to trade relations between the EU and Cuba.” Ms. Mogherini also stated, “the European Union has raised concerns about the extraterritorial effect of U.S. sanctions on Cuba. We will continue to do so because we believe that this is not only in the interest of the island and its people – all of them – but most of all in our case, it’s in the interest of Europeans to tackle this issue.”

As we reported last week, the EU repealed the so-called “common position,” thereby removing conditions the EU sought to impose on Cuba in order to have normal relations.

In Cuba

Cuba expects a total 3.7 million tourist visits by end of this year, predicts over 4.1 million visits in 2017

As of October, Cuba had received 12 percent more visitors than in 2015 and about 168 percent more U.S. visitors than last year, reports Granma. Cuba’s Ministry of Tourism projects that by the end of this year, the island will have received a total 3.7 million visitors; officials expect 2017 numbers to continue increasing to a predicted 4.1 million on the year. This projection depends in part on the assumption that U.S. visits will continue to rise, which in turn depends on the Trump administration leaving the Obama travel reforms unchanged.

The Ministry of Tourism reports that there are now over 17,000 privately run bed-and-breakfasts in Cuba, known as casas particulares.

Recommended Reading

How a Changing Economy Is Leaving Afro-Cubans Behind, Arthur Williams, Americas Quarterly

Arthur Williams of Americas Quarterly examines the income disparities that have emerged in the last few years as Cuba’s non-state sector has grown, between those who are financially able to take advantage of opportunities to start their own businesses and those who are not. “A big part of the problem can be traced to Afro-Cubans’ limited access to capital,” he writes. “An estimated 70 to 80 percent of Cuba’s small businesses are funded with remittances from abroad or through family money, but the percentage of Cubans living off the island is heavily skewed towards the white population.” President Obama had pledged to cooperate with Cuba’s government to mitigate income inequality on the island.

Editor’s note: We are now accepting applications for our 2017 Stephen M. Rivers Memorial Fellowship. Applications are due by January 20. Please visit our website for more information.

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