Engagement or Estrangement: What next for US-Cuban relations?

Irene Estefanía González / Inter-American Dialogue

On November 10, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted a debate about the future of US-Cuba relations. The debate featured Emily Mendrala, Executive Director of the Center for Democracy in Americas, Dr. Michael Bustamante, Assistant Professor at Florida International University and Dr. Jorge I. Dominguez, Antonio Madero Professor at Harvard University. Michael Camilleri, Director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, moderated the discussion.

For Emily Mendrala, the past two years of rapid normalization of relations proved, in fact, that the governments of Cuba and US can cooperate on a wide range of issues, including marine species protection, combatting terrorism, human trafficking, and narcotrafficking. Several days ago, however, the Trump administration announced new regulations that will likely negatively impact travel and financial transactions -- a fulfillment of the presidential policy announced in Miami in June. Mendrala argued that, despite these new measures, the outcomes of the Obama Administration's Cuba policy have been largely preserved. Under the Support for the Cuban People general license, individuals can travel without organized groups, and there is still a US Embassy in Havana and a Cuban Embassy in the US. Recently, during the Havana Trade Fair, two big US companies signed deals with Cuban state-owned enterprises, and both governments continue to hold bilateral talks. Although the language of the Trump administration’s travel warning is harsh, it was triggered by the removal of US diplomats in Havana and is more bureaucratic than ideological.

Michael Bustamante sustained that the Cuban American community is an important part of the Cuban economy as a result of remittances. If US airlines were to reduce the numbers of flights to and from Cuba, this would have a major impact on the island’s economy as these airlines are the primary bridge between the Cuban and Cuban American communities. Moreover, they are the main chain of supply for the nascent private sector and the black market in Cuba since the Cuban government restricts commercial importation for non-state actors. Bustamente also discussed changes in migration policy that have affected Cubans. After it was announced that relations would be re-established, there was a rise in the number of Cuban nationals immigrating to the US through the policy of “wet foot, dry foot.” The elimination of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy by the Obama Administration was consistent with the Trump goal of reducing immigration. In the past, support for greater engagement between Cubans and Cuban Americans has not translated into electoral victories for pro-engagement politicians. However, Bustamente argued that 2018 might represent a turning point in light of developments in Cuban-American relations.

Next, Jorge Dominguez spoke about the process of normalizing relations, explaining that the Cuban government views closing the Guantanamo Naval Base as part of this process. The Trump Administration has made clear that the President cares about the utility of Guantanamo, making it unlikely that President Trump will close this base. However, the Trump administration will likely continue to cooperate with Cuban law enforcement to maintain order in the area around the base. Regarding trade, President Trump has expressed that securing trade surpluses for the United States is a priority. While the volume of US exports to Cuba is not particularly high, because Cuba is not a major exporter itself, trade with Cuba would nonetheless generate a surplus. According to Dominguez, the airline industry is part of this surplus. Cubana de Aviación, Cuba’s flagship airline, is not allowed to travel to the US because of the embargo, and US airlines have enjoyed exclusivity on US-Cuba routes since commercial flights have been restored. As such, the airline industry serves as an example of how US businesses can benefit from economic engagement with Cuba.

The Obama administration’s approach to Cuba made Cuban officials nervous given that confrontational anti-American rhetoric has served as a tool for maintaining power in the past. However, President Obama’s attempts at normalization and his direct discourse toward the Cuban private sector and civil society generated feelings of sympathy for the US leader on the island. While President Obama enjoyed high regard among Cubans, President Trump does not seem to garner that same respect. Overall, however, the experts agreed that, despite the hostility between both governments, especially in these last weeks, they do not anticipate a dismantling of the US Embassy into a US Interest Section.

Watch the full recording of the event in C-SPAN 

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