What next for US-Cuba relations?

BBC | Monday, 15 August 2016 | Click here for original article

John Kerry attends the US Embassy re-opening in August 2015

John Kerry attends the US Embassy re-opening in August 2015

A year has passed since one of the most symbolic moments in the long and tangled history between the United States and Cuba: the official reopening of the long-shuttered US embassy in Havana.

On a stiflingly hot August morning, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, presided over the flag-raising ceremony and the speeches laden with pomp, emotion and bold statements of intent to move on from the hostilities of the past.

Since that day, a lot has happened between the former Cold War foes. Direct flights are due to begin this month, travel restrictions have been eased for US citizens and bilateral cooperation increased in science and the arts.

Plus of course, there was a historic visit by President Obama.

"I have come here to extend the hand of friendship to the Cuban people," he told the nation in a televised address.

But while many Cubans would happily accept another four years of Mr Obama, a new administration in Washington is coming. And the outcome could have a significant impact on the new spirit of cordiality between the two countries.

"Obviously the big problem in US-Cuban relations is the embargo. That is the elephant in the room," says Carlos Azugaray, a former Cuban diplomat.

John Kerry was in Cuba for the reopening of the US embassy in Havana

He says the key to the next phase of United States' normalisation with Cuba has to be the lifting of the decades-long economic embargo on the island: "The elephant has already started to leave the room, you already have the trunk out!

"We can see that with the recent opening of a Sheraton hotel in Havana, with the decision that some US credit cards can be used in Cuba, that travel restrictions have been eased."

If the Democratic Party regains control of Congress, he argues, they are "bound to do something about the embargo".

But most attention is on the race for the White House. So how would a Clinton or a Trump presidency affect the rapprochement with Cuba?

"I understand the scepticism in this community about any policy of engagement towards Cuba," Hillary Clinton recently told an audience in Miami.

"I've been sceptical too. But we can't wait any longer for a failed policy to bear fruit. We have to seize this moment."

The embargo on Cuba is obsolete she told them and needs to go "once and for all".

Whereas previously those sentiments might have spelt the end of a presidential candidate's hopes in Florida, in this election they were greeted with applause - admittedly among a select audience - in Miami.

However in Cuba, where people have long called for the embargo to be lifted and where the benefits of such a change in policy would actually be felt, many ordinary Cubans don't entirely trust Mrs Clinton.

Cubans remember how she supported her husband's decision to tighten restrictions on the island in 1996, including signing a measure that meant lifting the embargo must be approved by the US Congress.

Carlos Azugaray estimates that the "votes may be there" in the US House of Representatives to approve lifting the decades-long sanctions. But unless she can secure them, Hillary Clinton probably can't expect to receive the same warmth in Cuba that Barack Obama has enjoyed.

As for Mr Trump, his foreign policy position on the question of Cuba isn't entirely clear yet. However it may come as little surprise that he differs from many in his party on the issue.

In a televised debate on CNN earlier this year, he did say he was "somewhere in the middle" between President Obama's policy of engagement and Senator Marco Rubio's outright opposition to talking to the Castro government: "I don't agree with President Obama," he said, "but I do agree that something should take place. After 50 years, it's enough time folks!"

Cuba waits to see who will move into the White House

Pushed on whether that would mean he'd row back Mr Obama's policies, and even close the US embassy in Havana, or continue towards further rapprochement, Donald Trump opted for the former: "I would probably have the embassy closed until such time as a really good deal was made and struck by the United States," he said.

The first people affected by such a radical step would be the diplomats in Havana themselves.

The candidates' positions on Cuba

Hillary Clinton:

Told an audience in Miami: "The Cuba embargo needs to go, once and for all."

She's claimed she urged President Obama towards normalisation with Cuba while secretary of state.

But Cubans have lingering doubts - and remember how she supported her husband's decision to sign the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, which tightened restrictions on Cuba.

Donald Trump:

He said "the concept of opening with Cuba is fine" in a recent interview with The Daily Caller.

But added that the US "should have made a better deal" and claimed - during a debate on CNN - he would close the US embassy in Havana "until such time as a really good deal could be struck".

He has also written in favour of the trade embargo in the past.

The US Charge d'Affaires in Cuba is Jeffrey de Laurentis. I asked him about the potential consequences of the US presidential election on the relationship with Cuba, during an interview at the end of last year.

He said: "My wish is that when the campaign is over and the election is over and whoever is elected president is in the White House, he or she will recognise the value of the direction we've taken and wish to continue it."

For the time being the Cuban diplomats are staying similarly tight-lipped. Josefina Vidal heads the US affairs department at the Cuban Foreign Ministry.

"We expect that whomever is the next president of the United States will take into consideration what the majority of the American public and the majority of the Cuban-American population in the US thinks about this," she told the BBC, adding that the polls show they are in favour of the normalisation of relations.

Former diplomat, Carlos Azugaray, can speak a little more freely about the prospect of a billionaire conservative businessman as the next president. He sees two key problems with Mr Trump from a Cuban perspective: "Unpredictability: we cannot say that what he says is what he thinks. And the other thing is how far he will want to take his independence from the leadership of the Republican Party."

Ironically, as Cuba is gearing up for a record year in tourism, there is an argument that says the island's economy might benefit from having a hotel man in the White House.

He could well put the politics aside in favour of the economy, says Mr Azugaray.

"After all, the business of the United States is business!" he laughs.

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