Q&A with Dan Erikson on U.S.-Cuba relations
Dan Erikson is Managing Director for Latin America at Blue Star Strategies, Senior Fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, and former Special Advisor to Vice President Biden. He is a member of CDA’s board of directors.
Q: You have 20 years of experience studying U.S.-Cuba relations as a scholar and policymaker. Given your experience and perspective, what U.S. approaches do you think have been the most effective for advancing U.S. interests?
A: I think that it would be great to have a policy towards Cuba based on advancing U.S. national interests. My experience has been that U.S. policy towards Cuba is more often driven by instincts than interests. Nearly 60 years after the Cuban Revolution, I still do not think the United States government as a whole, or maybe even in part, has developed a consensus around how our national interests should be defined and prioritized with respect to Cuba. Both the George W. Bush Administration and the Obama Administration produced Presidential Policy Directives on Cuba, and the two documents show how big the gap is between competing visions of Cuba policy. Of course, it is easy to make a list: democracy, security, stability, prosperity, settling property claims, managing domestic politics, stable migration arrangements, environmental protection and so forth. But scratch the surface and it gets difficult. What trade-offs are we willing to make? Are we willing to prioritize democracy over stability? Or compensation for properties over prosperity? If the United States cannot agree on how to prioritize our interests, then it becomes hard to maintain a policy to advance them. That creates a vacuum that is then filled by instincts, which may be punitive, humanitarian, or diplomatic, depending on the day and the topic. Moreover, while I think U.S. economic sanctions are a legitimate foreign policy tool and can be effective in some cases, I have yet to be convinced that Cuba is one of those cases.
I supported President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba and was honored to be part of the team that negotiated the agreement to re-open the embassies for the first time since 1961. I think that some of the steps taken during that time helped to expand access to the internet, create new opportunities for entrepreneurs and lay the groundwork for bilateral cooperation on discrete topics, in addition to tactical gains like the release of 53 political prisoners and the liberation of USAID contractor Alan Gross. But it was also clear that U.S. policy towards Cuba had entered a period of historical exceptionalism that gained velocity in the last year of the Administration, especially with the President’s 2016 trip. So I always suspected a retrenchment was coming. The United States was likely to cool off and pull back a bit, no matter who won the U.S. presidency, especially as the Cuban side’s ambivalence created bottleneck and disappointments. Obviously, the magnitude of the retrenchment has been amplified by President Trump’s election and his laser-like focus on delivering for his base. However, despite the dramatic rhetorical flourishes, the Trump Administration’s policies are actually mostly within the bell curve of what my expectations would be for any Republican administration. Even with the tougher rhetoric and curtailed trade and travel and the drawdown of U.S. embassy staff, the American flag still flies in Havana, and U.S citizens are traveling there, and most of the business on the sidelines would have found Cuba to be beyond their risk tolerance in any event. By many measures, U.S. policy towards Cuba provides more avenues for engagement today than was true at the end of Obama’s first term in office – even if many of the policies from Obama’s second term have clearly been rolled back.
In summary, I think that U.S. interests would be best served in Cuba by allowing a much wider swathe of American society to engage with the island. Governments are notoriously bad at picking winners and losers. Having served in the U.S. government, I don’t think we are serving the American people effectively by trying to micromanage how, when, and why they engage with the Cuba people. I think that my fellow citizens are perfectly capable of deciding which church or school or museum to visit, where to travel, and how to best experience Cuba in ways that will build ties of friendship and respect with the Cuban people and lead to positive change.
Q: The U.S. and Cuba are living important political moments that are shaping the process of political decision making. What opportunities do you foresee for the U.S bilateral relationship with Cuba?
A: When I wrote my book on “The Cuba Wars” in the 2000s, the policy environment was actually more dynamic than it is today – but also more dysfunctional. Even though the Trump Administration has adopted a more aggressive tone regarding Cuba, it often seems kind of perfunctory, like they are phoning it in. Their real passion in the hemisphere is directed towards Venezuela, which of course is connected to Cuba, but has also surpassed it as a U.S. foreign policy focus. As far as I can tell, the U.S. bilateral relationship with Cuba is in suspended animation right now, with a few exceptions. There is intermittent cooperation and blame-shifting going on with respect to the mysterious “health incidents” affecting diplomats at the U.S. embassy. I think that it is a good sign that the U.S. embassy has not been closed down completely, but it seems like many of its main functions have been gutted with respect to migration and refugee policy and political and economic monitoring. There is a great line in the classic novel The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, where Daisy Buchanan asks: “Do you always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it? I always watch for the longest day of the year and then miss it.” Well the United States watched for sixty years for the transition to post-Castro Cuba, and then we missed it. Fidel Castro died shortly after President Trump’s election, and then Raúl Castro stepped down from power in April, and where was the United States? Mostly out of the action, and certainly not driving a set of events or even shaping the overall narrative. After five years as Cuba’s first vice president, and now as Cuba’s president, President Miguel Díaz-Canel remains mostly unknown to the United States. That does not strike me as smart diplomacy. I am encouraged that the U.S.-Cuba bilateral commission is still meeting and that there is some basic cooperation in terms of law enforcement and other issues. I do think that there is resilience and strength in the partnerships that exist between the United States and Cuba among universities, civil society groups, religious denominations, families, and just regular people. It is important that those ties continue to exist, because that is what will be needed to rebuild in the future.
Q: The new Cuban Constitution’s draft includes explicit recognition of the importance of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) for the economic development of the country and declares that the State promotes it and offer guarantees. How do you see the current situation for investors on the island?
A: When it comes to foreign investment opportunities in Cuba, I do not see it expanding beyond a small group of people who have infinite patience, and who can figure out how to get on the right side of current and possible future U.S. and Cuban policies, might do okay. Cuba has the same love-hate relationship that many Latin American countries have had with foreign investment, but it is elevated to a kind of cosmic, epic scale. They know they need foreign investment, but really hate the fact that they need it, and therefore tend to self-sabotage their efforts to attract it. Based on what I have seen, the new constitution is offering greater recognition for foreign direct investment – but recognition is not the same thing as protection. Right now, foreign investors are hesitant about Latin America generally, so Cuba would need to work twice as hard to establish the island as an attractive destination for foreign investment. I think that is tough to do without 100% commitment, and I think the new constitution is a small step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done to change investor perceptions that have been around for sixty years and show that Cuba has real economic potential. The Cuban leadership may have infinite patience for incremental change, but most investors do not.
This week, in Cuba news…
El Nuevo Herald reports that the Accountability Review Board (ARB), a U.S. Government panel convened to study the Department of State’s response to the health incidents in Havana, concluded that no official of the State Department committed errors or serious faults in the handling of the health incidents. A summary of the report, which was presented to the U.S. Congress Thursday, noted the ARB report issued 30 recommendations to improve security and the exchange of information in these cases. Among the recommendations are to create a new office in charge of the long-term assistance of those U.S. diplomats affected by the health incidents. The ARB report is not expected to be publicly released.
Science Daily reports a professor of medicine at University of California San Diego School of Medicine sees strong ties between symptoms suffered by members of the U.S. Embassy community in Havana and effects of pulsed radiofrequency/microwave electromagnetic radiation. Beatrice Golomb, MD, PhD, will publish a paper in the September 15 issue of Neural Computation describing her findings, which dispute the conclusions of U.S. government agencies, such as the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Cancer Institute, that assert low- to mid-frequency, non-ionizing radiation, such as that emitted from microwaves, is harmless. “Such research is needed not only to explain and address the symptoms in diplomats, but also for the benefit of the small fraction — but large number — of persons outside the diplomatic corps, who are beset by similar problems,” Dr. Golumb says, according to Times of San Diego.
The Trump Administration is expected to name Mr. Mauricio Claver-Carone as the National Security Council senior director for Western Hemisphere Affairs, McClatchy reports. The Miami-native, who grew up in Spain and Orlando, previously lobbied in Washington and ran the Capitol Hill Cubans blog, which opposes engagement with Cuba. Mr. Claver-Carone is currently the acting U.S. Executive Director at the International Monetary Fund, and a fierce critic of President Obama’s decision to re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba.
During the 2016 Republican primary debates, Claver-Carone regularly criticized candidate Donald Trump via his Capitol Hill Cubans blog on issues ranging from Trump’s stance on Cuba to his foreign policy views on the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Russia, once publishing, “Trump would place the moral, international leadership of the United States at risk.” Claver-Carone is well acquainted with Republican political circles; Jeb Bush tweeted in support of an announcement that Claver-Carone would join President Trump’s team. However, Claver-Carone’s senior role in the Trump Administration would be in contrast to the Administration’s decisions to forego appointments for others in the GOP’s Never Trump movement, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’ reported rescission, just last week, of an employment offer to a former official for his past “Never Trump” comments.
Cuban poet Carilda Oliver Labra passed away Wednesday at the age of 96, Granma reports. Ms. Oliver Labra, was a prominent poet and won Cuba’s National Prize for Literature in 1998. She was an icon of erotic poetry and used her verses to promote feminism and buck conventions.
CUBA’S FOREIGN RELATIONS
On Tuesday, Morocco and Cuba formally normalized bilateral relations, which were interrupted in 1980 after the Government of Cuba recognized the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR). Cuba’s new Ambassador to Morocco Elio Rodríguez Perdomo presented papers to Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, reports CGTN.
Getting a Taste of Cuba, Peter Kornbluh, The Nation
Kornbluh reviews “A Taste of Cuba: A Journey Through Cuba and Its Savory Cuisine,” a book compiled by photographer Cynthia Carris Alonso, which shares a recount of 75 recipes from Cuba. The article describes the impact that President Trump’s measures have had on Cuba’s private restaurateurs and the inventiveness and determination of Cuba’s culinary entrepreneurs.
A Brief History of Miami’s CIA Ties and Propaganda Efforts, Jerry Iannelli, Miami New Times
Miami New Times revisits the history of U.S. Government anti-Cuba propaganda.
Manuel Mendive’s exhibition Nature, Spirit, and Body, August 1-November 4, Bronx Museum of the Arts
First premiering at the Kennedy Center’s Artes de Cuba Festival, Cuban artist Manuel Mendive’s artwork is now on display at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. His work is inspired by African oral traditions and their influence on Cuba.
MEDICC A Healthy Cuba Healthy World Conference: Celebrating History, Community & Culture, December 5-10, Meliã Santiago Hotel in Santiago de Cuba
MEDICC (Medical Education Cooperation with Cuba), a non-profit that strives to foster collaboration between the medical community in the U.S. and Cuba will host a 20th-anniversary conference in Cuba in December.
FYI: Check out the Facebook account of the Platform for Innovation & Dialogue with Cuba. The Platform for Innovation and Dialogue with Cuba (“the Cuba Platform”) is led by CDA’s founding Executive Director Sarah Stephens and aims to foster conversation and collaboration with Cuba and the Atlantic Fellows.
CDA’s team wishes you a joyful Labor Day weekend.