Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

How Much Are the US & Cuba Willing to Give?

Borja / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Q: The Obama administration reportedly wants to open an embassy in Havana by April, when the next Summit of the Americas is scheduled to convene in Panama. Meantime, Cuban President Raúl Castro has demanded that the United States remove his country from its State Sponsors of Terrorism list before opening an embassy, as well as returning Guantanamo Bay Naval Base to Cuban control. Will such sticking points derail the thaw between Washington and Havana? To what extent are the United States and Cuba willing to negotiate on issues such as Guantanamo and protection of human rights in Cuba? How is the multi-billion-dollar foreign claims settlement process likely to play out?

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue: “U.S.-Cuba reconciliation is most threatened by a clash of national character flaws: Washington’s impatience in foreign affairs and Havana’s stubborn resistance to change. Cuban-American relations since 1959 have been a narrative of U.S. impatience versus Cuban defiance. In less than a year, Eisenhower was seeking to topple Fidel Castro. After just months in office, President Kennedy launched the Bay of Pigs invasion. Although Obama has been a relatively cautious commander in chief, he has an important stake in the pace of Cuban reforms. Human rights and political change are high on his agenda. He plans to support dissidents, bolster the incipient private economy, expand access to information and aid other democracy-building initiatives. Distrustful Cuban authorities could see such initiatives as ‘promoting regime change.’ Cuba is proud of its half-century of defiance–and not ready to yield to U.S. pressures. With a troubled economy and declining Venezuelan aid, the Cuban government wants a thaw in relations. But Raúl Castro promises to keep Cuba’s governing systems intact, underscored by the sluggishness of his economic reforms and continuing centralized control. Castro’s pre-conditions for a normalization–lifting the embargo and returning Guantanamo–are another signal Cuba will not be rushed. Secret negotiations opened the way to reconciliation, but the process now requires transparency and no surprises. Covert operations, like Alan Gross’ venture and clandestine assistance to dissidents, should be replaced by fully public initiatives as the Obama administration has promised. The Cuban government should begin respecting international norms on human rights-abandoning such practices as mass arrests, harassment of dissidents and cruel treatment of political prisoners. These could produce a backlash in the United States against the emerging rapprochement. The United States must appreciate that enduring changes can come only from the Cubans themselves. It should urge respect for human rights and democratic principles, but should also keep its word to forego heavy-handed demands, pressures and deadlines. These may backfire, provoking Cuba to greater resistance.”

A: Frank Calzon, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba: “President Obama and several think tanks and advocacy groups have bought the Castros’ narrative on Cuba. The ‘Embassy in Havana’ is a red herring. The United States has had a diplomatic mission in Cuba since 1977 with the largest diplomatic presence on the island. Similarly, removing Cuba from the terrorist list will ignore the fact that the FBI is currently offering ‘up to $1 million for information directly leading to the apprehension of Joanne Chesimard.’ She escaped from prison after shooting and killing a New Jersey policeman ‘execution-style at point-blank range,’ according to the FBI. Cuba is the only government that appears on the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism to publicly acknowledge providing safe haven to a person on the FBI’s Top Ten Most Wanted list, and the only government on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list that has several of its officers under indictment by a U.S. grand jury for terrorism and murdering Americans. Cuba is also the only country on that infamous list that attempted to smuggle warplanes and war material to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions. It tried while carrying out secret negotiations with Washington. The Obama Cuba policy has been tried for more than 50 years by the Europeans: millions of tourists, unrestricted trade and full diplomatic relations. Without demanding real change in Cuba, both sanctions and engagement will accomplish nothing. Raúl Castro wants the Americans out of Guantanamo but welcomes Russian spy ships and a Russian spy station in Cuba. Cuban secret police agents continue to abuse Venezuelan students. Putin would love nothing better than to turn the Guantanamo facilities into a Russian Navy station.”

A: Kirby Jones, president of Alamar Associates in Bethesda, Md.: “Without doubt, the announcement on Dec. 17 by Presidents Obama and Castro was groundbreaking. For the first time in history perhaps both presidents spoke to and about each other in respectful and ordinarily diplomatic terms. But that was the easy part. As the last few weeks have shown us, the hard part is in the implementation. People from both sides are overly optimistic about the prospect of immediate changes: having just returned from Cuba, I can say that the people in Cuba think that some new prosperity is around the corner. Back home, U.S. companies expect to begin operations right away. But hold your horses: although U.S. companies announce they want to do something, in Cuba actually doing so is a different story. How, for example, can a U.S. manufacturer sell anything directly to private farmers if it is illegal in Cuba for private individuals to import anything? It takes two to tango, and the United States has concentrated on doing only what it wants, ignoring what the Cubans may want. The United States has, so far at least, not lived up to its promise to deal with Cuba being on the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and has not dealt with banking regulations to allow Cuban diplomats even to have bank accounts. So first things first. This new dance will take some time. Realistic expectations on both sides need to be established. There is no derailing now, but it will not be a smooth ride either. To do this all by April? Maybe. As for settlement of claims, both countries have extensive experience doing this around the world. Cuba had always acknowledged an obligation regarding the claims and a willingness to sit down and meet. The United States has been the party that has historically refused.”

A: Jaime Suchlicki, professor and director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami: “There are four main reasons to tone down our expectations. First, the Raúl Castro military regime is not about to provide any major concessions to the United States. On the contrary, General Castro remains a steadfast Stalinist, allied with Iran, Russia, North Korea and Venezuela, and a supporter of terrorist groups such as Hamas, Hezbollah and ETA. He is no Deng Xiaoping, no reformist and no believer in market reforms. For him and his octogenarian military allies, the way to preserve and transfer power to their selected heirs is by maintaining tight political control with no major political reforms in Cuba. Human rights conditions will deteriorate rather than improve. It would be difficult for President Obama to justify further U.S. concessions. Castro’s demands at the CELAC meeting in Costa Rica raise the bar for normalization ridiculously high. Return of Guantanamo, ending the embargo, closing of Radio and TV Martí, removal of Cuba from the U.S. terrorist list and massive indemnification for the embargo are issues that likely will derail, or at best, postpone for a long time the process of normalization. Second, President Obama faces strong opposition in Congress to any unilateral concessions to the Castro brothers. A unified and powerful coalition of Republican and Democrat legislators will thwart the president’s attempt to give too much and get little from the Castros. The abolition or modification of the Helms-Burton Law, which codifies the embargo, must be approved by Congress, a most unlikely event. Third, the foreign policy challenges facing the president will prevent his continuous attention to the Cuba issue. Relations with Russia; conflict with Iran; violence and instability in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; increasing tensions in the Korean Peninsula; international economic instabilities; and growth of worldwide and domestic terrorism will more than fill the president’s plate. Finally, dismantling the embargo is a complex and slow process. Navigating the maze of laws, regulations and issues surrounding the Helms-Burton Law will require time, effort and significant finesse.”

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