Latin America Advisor

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Would Conciliatory Gestures From the United States Lead to Change in Cuba?

Cuba's embassy in Washington, D.C. after its reopening in 2015. Photo: Difference Engine.

Eighteen former Latin American and Caribbean leaders signed a letter that was released Nov. 2, calling on the United States to end its six-decade embargo on Cuba and also remove the Caribbean country from its state sponsors of terrorism list. The letter’s release came just ahead of an annual vote in the United Nations in which member states voted overwhelmingly for the 30th year to condemn the embargo. While U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has made some friendly moves toward Cuba, such as offering $2 million in hurricane relief, it has also been critical of Cuba’s human rights record. How likely is the United States to make more conciliatory gestures toward Cuba, and what can the United States expect in return? What is the state of Cuba’s private sector, and how much opportunity does it offer to Cuban entrepreneurs? How developed are business ties between the countries, and how likely are they to get stronger?

Kezia McKeague, regional director at McLarty Associates: “Despite dire macroeconomic conditions and ongoing political repression, the Cuban private sector has expanded at a steady clip since the Cuban government granted legal status to small and medium-sized enterprises (known as MiPYMEs) in September 2021. As part of a Cuba Study Group delegation that traveled to Havana this month for meetings with Cuban independent society, I witnessed first-hand the creativity of entrepreneurs and the challenges they face, from lack of raw materials and financing to high employee turnover due to rampant emigration. Nevertheless, numerous MiPYMES are taking full advantage of unprecedented flexibility to innovate, import and export goods and services, and scale. Indeed, as Cuba’s centrally-planned economy collapses, the private sector is increasingly filling the void left by uncompetitive state enterprises. While entrepreneurs’ efforts represent a hopeful opening in an otherwise bleak economic and political context, the key question asked by foreign diplomats in Havana is whether the rapid evolution of private enterprise is here to stay—or whether, as in the past, the government will crack down once conditions improve. Cuban officials’ mixed messaging towards entrepreneurs, though more favorable as of late, still fuels the uncertainty. In Washington and Miami, however, interest in further conciliatory gestures towards Cuba will remain scant until the hundreds of protesters jailed for participating in the anti-government protests of July 11, 2021, are released. Nonetheless, the Biden Administration should issue a general license to allow direct US private sector investment in private MiPYMES—in keeping with its policy goal of supporting the Cuban people.”

Coco Fusco, professor at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York: “The Biden administration has not reverted to Obama-era policies; only moderate adjustments to the Trump administration’s hardline policies have been adopted. This is partly due to the fact that the Cuban government did not respond to Obama’s loosening of some embargo rules as Washington had anticipated. Instead, the Cuban government has increased control and taxation of independent businesses, cracked down on human rights activists and issued laws that criminalize independent cultural activity and journalism. The utopian idea that business would be a motor of political change was popularized by the Obama administration. The problem with that idea now is that Cuban social and economic realities have changed radically since 2015. The Cuban economy plummeted during the pandemic due to the near-total loss of tourism, which had been the critical source of clientele for small businesses. The Trump administration’s travel restrictions hampered the informal binational trafficking of consumer items that had been resold by Cuban entrepreneurs. The current Cuban migration wave—more than 220,000 Cubans entered the United States in the last year—is the largest in history. The majority of those departing the island are young adults, many of whom tried their hand at private businesses but abandoned them because they could no longer make a living. What continues to thrive are highly exploitative businesses based in Mexico and Miami with island-based employees that resell plane tickets to Nicaragua and Florida at outrageous rates and overpriced online supermarkets that obligate Cuban exiles to spend exorbitant sums to feed their relatives on the island.”

Fulton Armstrong, senior fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and former U.S. National Intelligence Officer for Latin America: “The regional leaders’ letter and the U.N. vote (again) underscore U.S. isolation on the Cuba issue and the Biden administration’s willingness to sacrifice the credibility of U.S. foreign policy in pursuit of favor with hardline Cuban-American voters whose hearts it will never win. It deserves some credit for the minor tweaks of some Trump policies—even if the implementation has been halting and partial—but it has kept the most egregious elements, such as the putting Cuba back on the State Department’s list of ‘state sponsors of terrorism’ in the total absence of evidence. The administration has also been afraid to undo Trump measures taken in response to alleged ‘sonic attacks’ in Havana—of which the U.S. intelligence community has absolved Cuba of any role or knowledge. When President Obama saw similar isolation and damage to our credibility throughout Latin America, he replaced key advisors and initiated the process that culminated in the normalization of relations with Cuba in December 2014. The Florida results of the midterm elections this week could conceivably make the Biden administration feel free to do the same, but staff can easily argue that a big win validates the strategy of clinging to Trump policies, and a big loss means they have to push harder. It’s true that elements of the Cuban-American community applaud the Trump/Biden strategy, but to gain support among Cuban-Americans, the Biden administration should strive for a Cuba policy that is different from that of the Republican Party, rather than the same one. This is the strategy that Presidents Clinton and Obama employed, and it worked for them. It will work for Biden too.” 

Lorena Barberia, professor in Department of Political Science at the University of São Paulo: “The benefits of engaging with Cuba for the United States far outweigh the gains from economic sanctions on Cuba. It is in the U.S. interest to signal to Latin America that it understands the importance of beginning a new chapter in U.S.-Latin American relations, and that step begins with enacting bold steps that signal engagement and partnerships with all nations in the hemisphere. The United States stands to benefit from ending sanctions. There are multiple areas, including on protecting the environment, combating climate change, responding more effectively to natural disasters and increasing academic and scientific exchanges that can produce gains in areas that are strategic to U.S. interests.”

Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Cuban Studies Institute: “"If the Democrats retain control of the Senate in the midterm elections, the administration may offer new concessions to the Cuban government. But the United States should expect very little in return from the regime in Havana. Cuba remains an enemy of the United States and an ally of Iran, Russia and North Korea. Cuba is unwilling to renounce this alliance in exchange for an uncertain relationship with the United States that may change again after 2024. Cuba’s policies are likely to continue closer in line with regimes that are not friendly to the United States and demand little from Cuba in return for generous aid. Raúl and his regime in Havana remain followers and cheerleaders of Fidel’s anti-American policies. Any major move to reject ‘Fidel’s teachings’ will create uncertainty among Cuba’s ruling elites—party and military. It could increase instability as some would advocate rapid change while others cling to orthodox policies. Cubans could see this as an opportunity for further mobilization, demanding faster reforms. The critical challenge for the Cuban regime will be to balance the need to improve the economy and satisfy the need of the population while maintaining political control. Too-rapid economic reforms may lead to an unraveling of political control, a fact feared by the military and other allies keen on remaining in power. A partial solution may be to provide more consumer goods but without any structural economic changes. The current president, Miguel Díaz-Canel scoffed at the idea of profound changes: ‘I was not chosen to be president to restore capitalism’ he emphasized, ‘I was elected to defend, maintain and continue to perfect socialism and not to destroy it.'”

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