US-Cuba relations have been troublesome since the Cuban Revolution brought Fidel Castro to power in 1959, and even more so since 1962 with the economic embargo imposed by Washington. Yet despite the blockade, the United States is still the largest exporter of foodstuff to the island, and US visitors account for the second largest share of tourism revenue in the country. Migratory ties have historically been very close between the two nations; even before the Cuban Revolution, about 150,000 Cubans lived in the United States.
In a frank and open discussion on April 4, president of the Inter-American Dialogue Michael Shifter welcomed José R. Cabañas, chief of the Cuban Interests Section in Washington D.C., to share his thoughts on the situation in Cuba, bilateral relations with the United States and Cuba’s role in the hemisphere.
Regarding domestic politics, Cabañas highlighted an “update” of the political-economic model that is underway on the island in order to decentralize decision making and professionalize governance.
The veteran diplomat, who assumed his position in Washington five months ago, made a plea for a change of what he considered “failed” US policy towards the island. “The majority of the US population does not support that policy,” he asserted. Cabañas admitted that there were many political and ideological differences between the two countries, yet “we are neighbors and have to take care of the same environment.” In this regard, he pointed to transnational challenges like drug trafficking, organized crime and climate change, issues that have to be dealt with jointly. “We believe there’s a chance to sit down, talk about our differences and reach agreements,” Cabañas added optimistically. “We believe there are many opportunities to expand the relationship, but what I regret is that we are missing many opportunities that could be beneficial to our peoples,” he said.
Cabañas took issue with what he regards one-sided media coverage of Cuba. As an example, he cited the recent visit of US celebrity Beyoncé to the island, which initially went uncovered, whereas Cuban dissident and blogger Yoani Sánchez received plentiful media attention on her tour of the United States: "Too much attention has been devoted to this lady [Yoani Sánchez], taking a lot of attention from the most important news that has been happening these days in regards to Cuba," the diplomat said, "including the presence of Beyoncé, the singer, who is today in Havana, enjoying a lot of attention from the public. But it's not covered by the media." Cabañas also contended that Cuba’s achievements as a hemispheric provider of public services ought to be increasingly reflected in the press. “If today there is no cholera in Florida this is due to Cuba,” he posited, referencing the doctors that his country sent to Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake and the subsequent cholera outbreaks.
Many analysts have concluded that—absent Hugo Chávez’s oil lifeline under the Petrocaribe scheme—Cuba must be desperately searching for foreign investment. Cabañas contended, however, that Cuba envisioned a different path of development for itself. “We are not hungry for foreign investment,” he stated, because Cuba would consider foreign investment as merely a complement to the national efforts to modernize the economy. He argued Cuba was less dependent on Venezuela than ordinarily portrayed, and that the dependence, if there is any, would be mutual, pointing to the Cuban doctors that are crucial for the Venezuelan healthcare system.
Yet a major constraint of the Cuban economy remains the dual currency, which was introduced by the Castro government along with a series of reforms to counteract the hyperinflation of the Cuban peso and regain monetary stability. Yet many economists see the dual currency as a hindrance to growth and development, creating manifold distortions and inverse incentives in the Cuban economy. Cabañas echoed these concerns: “We are enemies of the dual currency,” he contended, yet he did not present any government plans on how to change the current currency regime.