Havana Handshake

by Jonathan S Landay - Feb 8, 2015 01:00 PM
Havana Handshake

The US has re-established diplomatic ties with Cuba after 55 years. But many unresolved issues remain, involving a Republican-dominated US Congress, the views of two million Cuban Americans, and how the Castro brothers view the future of Communism

Frozen for more than half a century, it was a welcome thaw and one waiting to happen. After months of secret negotiations in Canada and the Vatican City with the assistance of Pope Francis, US President Barack Obama, on December 17, announced that the United States and Cuba would re-establish diplomatic relations: ambassadors would be despatched to each other’s capitals and restrictions on trade and tourism lifted.


But a day after Obama announced his decision, Republican leaders who were to take control of Congress in January vowed to derail the most sweeping reversal of US policy towards the Communist-ruled island in 55 years.

“This entire policy shift is based on an illusion, based on a lie,” Marco Rubio, son of Cuban immigrants and a senator from Florida, told reporters on Capitol Hill. “The White House has conceded everything and gained little. I’m committed to doing everything I can to unravel as many of these changes as possible.”

Rubio is Chairman of a sub-committee of the Foreign Relations Committee which oversees US regional affairs. Cuban Americans are the third largest Hispanic group in the United States. And the majority of the total US-Cuban population of two million lives in Florida.

Rubio’s threat would at one time have dealt a serious blow to Obama’s policy reversal. Florida is a critical swing state in national elections where opposing the Castro regime was for years, obligatory, for anyone—Republican or Democrat—seeking the votes of the influential Cuban American community.

That, however, is no longer the case.

Most Cuban Americans, many experts say, no longer hold strident views about their native island. In fact, a significant percentage—particularly the young—may favour restoring diplomatic ties, ending travel restrictions on Americans and lifting a US trade embargo that has failed in its main goal of driving the Castro brothers and the Communist Party from power.

“The Cuban American population is no longer a monolith,” says Julia Sweig, director of Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Even Cuban Americans who for many, many years voted Republican, were staunchly anti-Castro and vowed never to go back with the Castros in power, are now feeling and voicing and acting on the notion that they want to participate in Cuba’s future.”

The shift in Cuban-American views apparently was a key consideration in Obama’s decision to pursue 18 months of secret talks on diplomatic normalization with Havana.

But the surprise agreement announced by Obama also featured perhaps the most bizarre side-deal in the annals of international diplomacy: the impregnation through artificial insemination of the wife of a Cuban spy serving a life sentence in the United States. While the secret talks were underway last year, the United States allowed the spy, Gerardo Hernández, to donate sperm that was used to impregnate his wife back in Cuba.

Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro

Hernandez, however, is no longer in prison. He was freed as part of the deal with Havana, one of three Cuban agents the Obama administration swapped for a former Cuban intelligence officer. The officer had been jailed for nearly 20 years for spying for the CIA, including providing the agency with the identity of Hernandez and members of his network arrested in the United States.

Also released by Cuba was Alan Gross, a subcontractor on a democracy-building project for the US Agency for International Development. He was arrested in 2009 for supplying Cuban Jewish groups with Internet access technology. He was convicted of espionage, but the Obama administration considered him a “humanitarian” release because of ill health, and it vehemently denied he was a spy.

Despite some limited reform in recent years, the regime in Havana maintains a monopoly of power, holds dozens of political prisoners, and subjects critics and human rights activists to arbitrary arrests, beatings, harassment and other mistreatment, according to human rights groups and the Obama administration.

The Cuban government launched a fresh crackdown on dissidents less than two weeks after the sides announced the normalization deal. Those arrested—most of whom were almost immediately released—included the husband of the country’s most popular anti-government blogger and a well-known performance artist who sought to test how far the regime might have changed in the wake of the agreement with Washington.

Not much at this point, it seems.

Yet, while it condemned the crackdown, the US administration made it clear that the arrests wouldn’t derail the deal.

“We have always said we would continue to speak out about human rights, and as part of the process of normalization of diplomatic relations, the United States will continue to press the Cuban government to uphold its international obligations and to respect the rights of Cubans to peacefully assemble and express ideas and opinions,” the State Department said.

The change in US sentiments towards Cuba isn’t restricted to Cuban Americans. Several polls taken after the normalization announcement found overwhelming approval among all Americans for re-establishing diplomatic ties with Havana that were severed in 1959, following the revolution that brought Fidel Castro and the Communists to power.

That support transcends even US political divisions, with the usually pro-Republican US Chamber of Commerce welcoming the new opportunities for trade and financial deals for American business and Cuba’s tiny private sector. “We deeply believe that an open dialogue and commercial exchange between the US and Cuban private sectors will bring shared benefits,” said the organization’s president, Thomas J Donohue.

The Republican Party itself is split. A Twitter battle erupted after Obama’s announcement, between Rubio and Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party favourite from Kentucky. Both men are expected to contest for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.

Havana Handshake

“I want closer ties with Cuba, but those have to come about as a result of a policy that will also ultimately lead to freedom,” Rubio said on a recent television show. “I’m okay with changing policy towards Cuba. But it has to be a policy change that has a reasonable chance of achieving freedom—freedom for the Cuban people.”

When Rand Paul accused Rubio of “acting like an isolationist”, Rubio shot back by deriding what he called the “Obama-Paul foreign policy on Cuba”.

It remains to be seen how the conflict will play out in the new Republican-controlled Congress, whose approval is required to lift the US trade embargo that the Cuban government estimates has cost $1.126 trillion in lost trade and which—instead of its own policies—it blames, for the deep poverty to which the regime has confined most of its people.

Lawmakers opposed to the new initiative will almost certainly block both the nomination of whoever Obama taps to be the US ambassador to Havana and the funds needed to transform the US Interest Section in Havana into a full-fledged embassy.

It’s not clear, however, how much further the opponents will be able to advance their goal of blocking any normalization until Cuba holds free and fair elections and establishes a democratic government that doesn’t include President Raul Castro—who has pledged to retire in 2018—and Fidel Castro, who relinquished the top position in 2006.

Obama doesn’t need Congressional approval to restore relations, which require a simple exchange of diplomatic notes rather than a treaty that must be ratified by the Republican-controlled Senate. Moreover, Obama plans to kickstart his initiative by using his executive powers to circumvent Congress and lift restrictions on travel, commerce and financial dealings with Cuba.

Among other measures, the Treasury Department is expected to ease limits on US agricultural exports to Cuba and establish banking regulations that will make it easier to finance exports of US products. It also plans to quadruple the amount of money—from $500 to $2,000—that Americans can send every four months to Cubans. Those remittances, which now total about $2 billion a year, are critical for helping ordinary Cubans take advantage of reforms allowing the establishment of small businesses.

“It’s now a patriotic thing to have your own small business in Cuba,” says Sweig. “By expanding remittances to not just the 11 million Americans of Cuban descent, but to all Americans, (we are) really talking about the potential for a lot of capital to go down to that island.

Havana Handshake

The Commerce Department, meanwhile, is expected to eliminate restrictions on the sale of telecommunications equipment and the State Department is conducting a review on removing Cuba from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. Havana’s removal from the list—which it has been on since 1982—would pave the way for a restoration of full economic relations with Washington DC.

The assessment at the core of Obama’s decision is that the wider the opening to Cuba, the greater the potential for ordinary Cubans to prosper and step up pressure on the regime to implement reforms. “I believe we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement,” Obama said. “After all, these 50 years have shown that isolation has not worked.”

Critics were fast to point out that such an approach has largely failed with China, where the Communist Party remains in complete political and economic control 35 years after Washington and Beijing normalized relations.

Cuba, however, is not China.

Raul Castro, Sweig points out, is 83 years old and there is no other Castro waiting in the wings to take the helm when he retires in 2018.

In order to maintain social stability, Raul Castro realized that the country’s flailing, indebted economy—cut adrift by Moscow years ago—must open up more widely to the rest of the world and normalization with the United States will do just that, she says. She believes that Fidel Castro, 88, supports the move.

“That’s a goal that needs to be implemented and fast,” said Sweig. “I’m not talking about multiparty democracy, but I am talking about the pulling back of the Communist Party from government, the receding of ideology, the attempt to create a well-functioning mixed economy to have a more open society.”

A lot can go wrong, of course, and the next few months could see Obama’s policy shift facing several major tests. Obama said US negotiators will push Havana for further improvements in human and political rights. Another major question is whether the ruling Communists crack down further on dissent.

Speaking to Cuba’s National Assembly on 20 December, Raul Castro made it clear that ending Communist monopoly of power won’t be a subject of discussion with Washington DC. “In the same way that we have never demanded that the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours,” he said.

Another test comes in April in Panama at the next meeting of the Summit of the Americas, the annual conclave of heads of state belonging to the regional forum, the Organization of American States. Raul Castro plans to attend it for the first time, setting up a potential first meeting with Obama since they agreed to the normalization deal.


What remains to be seen is the extent to which Castro allows Cuban human and political rights activists to attend the gathering. “Havana, my guess is, will want to show some flexibility about what other Cubans attend,” says Sweig. “There’s always at these summits…sort of sidebar activities in which civil society, private sector, human rights, NGO groups attend. And I would expect to see Cubans send their own batch as well.”

She spoke, however, before the regime’s latest crackdown on its critics.

Jonathan S. Landay, the senior national security and intelligence correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers, has written about foreign affairs and US defense, intelligence and foreign policies for nearly 30 years.
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