The Frozen U.S.-Cuba Relationship

News from Cuba | Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations

Fifty years after the United States enacted an embargo on all trade and commercial transactions with Cuba, relations between the two countries remain at a standstill. Julia E. Sweig, CFR's director of Latin American studies, says the Obama administration has prioritized domestic politics over foreign policy in its relationship with Cuba, even as Cuban President Raul Castro has been "moving in the direction of the kind of reforms that every administration over the last fifty years has called upon Cuba to make." The case of American USAID contractor Alan Gross, currently serving a fifteen-year prison sentence in Cuba (CubanTriangle) on charges of attempting to upend the regime through a U.S.-authorized democracy promotion program, has also heightened tensions, she says. Meanwhile, Sweig adds, Cuba is strengthening ties with global powers like Brazil, as well as the Catholic Church, as the Castro administration seeks to open up new economic and social spaces for its citizens.

We've passed the fifty-year mark of the breakdown of diplomatic ties between Cuba and the United States. Where do we stand now? Is normalizing relations even remotely on the table on either side?

Let me start by talking about three geographical points on the map that are relevant to the answer. In Washington, the Obama administration, consistent with the approach of the Bush administration, has made a political decision to subordinate foreign policy and national interest-based decisions to domestic politics with respect to its Cuba policy. There is a bipartisan group of members of Congress--Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate--who represent Florida, a state where there are many swing votes that deliver the electoral votes for any president. Those individuals not only deliver votes, but they deliver campaign finance, and generally make a lot of noise, and that combination has persuaded the White House that reelection is more of a priority than taking on the heavy lifting to set the United States on the path of normalization with Cuba for now.

"Brazil is clearly stepping into a space where the United States should be, and the United States has made a decision to watch as that happens."

The second point is what's happening in Cuba. It's not realistic to expect the United States to undertake a series of unilateral moves toward normalization; it needs a willing partner. I believe we have one in Havana but have failed to read the signals. Raul Castro has now been in office since the beginning of 2008. Raul holds the reins on both foreign policy and domestic policy, and, domestically, the politics of implementing a fairly wide range of economic and political and social reforms are his priority. In a deal that was coordinated with the help of the Cuban Catholic Church and Spain, he released all of the political prisoners in Cuba. He also is taking a number of steps that imply a major rewriting of the social contract in Cuba to shrink the size of the state and give Cuban individuals more freedom--economically, especially, but also in terms of speech--than we've seen in the last fifty years. He has privatized the residential real estate and car market[s], expanded much-needed agrarian reform, lifted caps on salaries, and greatly expanded space for small businesses. He also is moving to deal with corruption and to prepare the groundwork for a great deal more foreign investment. He's moving in the direction of the kind of reforms that every administration over the last fifty years has called upon Cuba to make, albeit under the rubric of a one-party system. There's a broad range of cooperation--neighborhood security in the Gulf of Mexico, as Cuba has just started drilling for oil, counternarcotics, and natural disasters--between the two countries that is still not happening, and that gives me the impression that the United States has been unwilling to take "yes" for an answer and respond positively to steps taken by Cuba.

The third geographic part of the story is south Florida. When they're polled, the majority of Cuban-Americans say that the embargo has failed, and support lifting the travel ban or loosening the embargo or some steps along that continuum of liberalization and normalization. The one most significant step that Obama did take when he took office was to eliminate the restriction on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba. Cuban-Americans are now voting with their feet. If you go to the Miami airport, you will see thirty, forty flights to Cuba a week just out of Miami. Cuban-Americans are now investing in their families' small businesses on the island. The politics of this are strange because we are told by the Obama administration that we can't rock the boat of the Cuban-American vote, but those very voters are in fact demonstrating that they support a radically different set of policies than, in fact, the Obama administration has supported.

The ongoing case of USAID contractor Alan Gross (AP) has stoked tensions between the United States and Cuba. At the heart of the matter is the U.S. democracy promotion program that authorized Gross' travel to Cuba. What impact does this case have on U.S.-Cuba relations?

Precisely because we have no overarching framework for diplomacy in place and no political will to establish it for now, the Alan Gross case casts a huge shadow over U.S.-Cuban relations. The heart of the issue is the context in which those [pro-democracy] programs were being implemented. We have a full-blown economic embargo with extra-territorial dimensions that are felt in the banking and finance world--a very comprehensive and well-enforced sanctions program. The democracy programs sound very mom and apple pie--USAID has them around the world, its officials will tell you. But having them in Cuba is an extraordinary provocation. They were inherited from the previous administration's concept of regime change, and under Obama, they remain largely intact. The programs are purposely kept secret from the American public. There is no public information about the private and not-for-profit subcontractors in the United States and around the world, and Cuban institutions and individuals who may be targets of the programs are likewise not told they are part of such U.S. government programs. The democracy promotion programs have been deliberately politicized in order to provoke, and they have succeeded in provoking.

What's key is the context. There's been no real diplomacy; there's no negotiating framework that I've seen for a very long period of time, and again, that has to do with domestic politics. It's very hard to understand otherwise why this guy's still in jail. The United States has repeatedly asked the Cuban government to release Gross unilaterally, with no commitments on our end. Asking for unilateral gestures, having rebuffed or ignored or failed to read the signals from Cuba, has created this impasse. Having said that, there can be a diplomatic, humanitarian solution, and I see no value to keeping Gross in jail and hope he will be released as soon as possible. But we will need real diplomacy and a framework for negotiating a range of issues both countries care about.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff paid a visit to Cuba recently, and it looks like Cuba's trying to formulate ties with an influential, rising Latin American power. How does this burgeoning relationship between Cuba and Brazil affect Cuba's relationship with the United States.?

Brazil is a regional power and a global power; it plays in a number of spaces well beyond Latin America. In the last couple of years it undertook some major investments, and those investments will grow in Cuba--in infrastructure, in agriculture, in perhaps energy as well, and others. Brazil is clearly stepping into a space where the United States should be, and the United States has made a decision to watch as that happens.

How does Cuba's human rights situation complicate the relationship between those two countries?

It doesn't seem to be complicating it at all. Rousseff--given her own history of having spent three years in jail and being tortured in the 1970s and having worked to make human rights more of a domestic and foreign policy--her presidency has quite a bit of standing with respect to talking to any government, including the Cuban government, about human rights. She was criticized by her own public, especially in the media, a great deal for choosing to have those discussions with Cuba privately. But I would suggest that having a public, browbeating, rhetorical approach has almost always backfired for major heads of state when dealing with Cuba, and if you look at the success that the Catholic Church and the Spanish government had around the political prisoner release, that success derived from a basic fundamental degree of respect, cooperation, and engagement as the framework for the relationship.

The Pope is set to make a highly anticipated visit to Cuba in March. What's the significance of this visit?

Pope John Paul II went to Cuba in 1998, and that was very significant because that was just a few years after a new constitution in Cuba had affirmed the right of religious believers to hold senior positions in government. In the decade-plus that's transpired since, the Catholic Church under Archbishop Jaime Ortega has become the most important provider of social services outside of the state. It has started its own business school; it has opened space for itself and for others for publications, opinion, and debate; it has worked in concert with the Cuban government, especially with Raul Castro, on a very nationalist project of building a more open society in Cuba. This Pope is a different person than Pope John Paul, and it's highly anticipated, but he's coming at a time when already there is substantial change under way in that country. The visit will help the Cuban Catholic Church create space for itself and continue to create space for itself, and signal to the Cuban government that it's an institution that can be relied upon to support the kinds of reforms that the government itself wants to make happen.

It's important to note that the Pope's going to Mexico on this trip, and Mexico's population of practicing Catholics is proportionally much bigger than Cuba's. In Cuba, the syncretic religions are widely practiced. The Catholic Church is an incredibly important institution, but it would be a mistake to think of Cuba the way we do Mexico, as a predominantly Catholic society.

Raul Castro held the First National Conference of the Cuban Communist Party last month. What was he hoping to accomplish?

This conference was preceded by a Party congress in April 2011, and you have to think about both in tandem. The biggest take-away from the Party conference was the formalization of term limits for senior officials in the Cuban government, both elected and appointed. That's a very significant step forward in terms of political reform, given that many of the top leaders in the politburo are over sixty-five and have been working in those positions or other senior positions for their entire careers. It's also an important sign to the junior people who are building their political careers that they're not going to be permanent.

"Political party space, like having a multi-party system, that's not the top priority for Cubans. But what is a top priority is having the opportunity to make good for themselves."

The broader consequences of the congress and the conference were for Raul to continue a process that has been pretty slow and difficult of building a consensus among the longtime beneficiaries of the status quo that the status quo needs to change. One key thing for the Communist Party is to get the Communist Party out of day-to-day government. The party is supposed to be a political party, sort of ideological ballast, but it isn't supposed to be running ministries or having the kind of major role bureaucratically and politically that it's had over the last fifty years.

The other piece is to institute accountability and transparency within the institutions of governance themselves. That process means a radical overhaul of the way things have happened for the last fifty years.

How strong is the Cuban society's desire to move beyond the one-party system?

It's very strong. Public opinion is complicated because on the one hand, Cubans want change and they want much more space--economic space, speech space. I would say political party space, like having a multi-party system, that's not the top priority for Cubans. But what is a top priority is having the opportunity to make good for themselves with the wonderful education they have and to run businesses and to have the state get out of the way, while continuing to provide the basic social services that the entire population has benefited from and gotten so accustomed to.

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