A Window of Opportunity Opens for Cuba and the United States to Build a Functional Relationship – Interview with Carlos Saladrigas

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For more than 20 years, the Cuba Study Group, a non-profit organization made up of Cuban-American business leaders and young professionals, has contributed to the roadmap for devising and proposing possible paths towards building a relationship between Cuba and the United States. The institution has worked on reestablishing relations between the two countries from the perspective of empowering Cuba’s civil society and the Cuban-American community. In addition, it has sought to assist in rebuilding the fabric of the private business sector in Cuba, while fostering its connection with the Cuban-American diaspora. Last month, this think tank published the paper Relations between the United States and Cuba in the Biden Era, where they make a series of recommendations to relaunch bilateral relations. Lenier González spoke with businessman Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group and a member of the Inter-American Dialogue, regarding the proposals made to the Biden Administration and the prospects for rapprochement between Cuba and the United States.

What is unique about this moment between Cuba and the United States? What is different today compared to four years ago? What issues and opportunities arise from this context?

Another opportunity is brewing for Cuba and the United States. It may well be the best and last opportunity for a long time to come, as a window of possibilities is opening for both countries to achieve a functional and mutually beneficial relationship that will withstand the test of time and overcome future political cycles in the United States, especially in Florida.

To achieve this, we must have a profound understanding of why it was so easy for Donald Trump to reverse the vast majority of Obama’s opening-up measures. Likewise, additional steps must be taken to establish the bilateral relationship in such a way that any reversal would exact a high political and economic cost for both countries. It is clear to us that Obama’s opening-up policy failed to find widespread popular support due to the non-inclusion, in the process, of the Cuban diaspora, the island’s civil society, and US companies in the Cuban economy.

There is a certain angst in their proposal to the Biden Administration, stemming from the pressing need to take bold steps as soon as possible. Which steps to take? Who should take them? In what direction?

We are concerned and afraid that neither country will take the necessary steps with the requisite urgency and speed, due to political fear, bureaucratic resistance, and the overwhelming number of priority issues facing the Biden Administration. It is obvious that the Cuban people need and clamor for these steps leading to a bilateral rapprochement with increasing urgency. The Cuban economy must undergo radical, profound, decisive, and immediate changes.

We recommend that the Biden Administration urgently reverse the measures taken by Trump, which have caused the Cuban people so much hardship. Among the main aspects to reconsider are travel restrictions, family remittances, the family reunification program, and the restoration of consular services. Likewise, we recommend that direct negotiations be quickly established with Cuba to discuss on a priority basis the issues that are fundamental to the bilateral relationship, such as confiscated properties, Cuba’s participation in the International Monetary Fund, and the opening of a constructive dialogue on human rights. This time, we believe that preference should be given to the most important and enduring elements of the bilateral relationship, so that the process enjoys more widespread popular support, therefore making it more resistant to the political “counterforces” of both countries.

What would be the most strategic approach (on both shores) to shield any potential progress made against unpredictable political cycles?

For the bilateral relationship to endure, the relationship must gain widespread support among a broad base of constituents who perceive the benefits thereof and defend it against political attacks. It should be stressed that such attacks occurred both in Cuba and in the United States; therefore, that constituent base must be built up on both shores.

Although there are many ways of cementing a bilateral relationship, Cuba’s size, in terms of both its population and its economy, and the tangible lack of investment opportunities, detract from the relationship’s importance. Furthermore, certain political sectors perceive and derive more electoral value by forestalling the relationship than by fostering it. It is important for Cuba to appreciate the obvious imbalance that exists in this relationship. Cuba needs a functional relationship with the United States way more than the United States needs one with Cuba. To see it any other way would be childish and illusory.

Precisely for this reason, our proposal urges the Cuban government to take serious and major steps to encourage widespread popular support for the bilateral relationship, beginning with economic reforms that allow, facilitate, and promote US investment in Cuba’s private sector. A solid economic foundation could be a good starting point to subsequently or concurrently develop social and emotional ties between both countries.

In its proposals, the Cuba Study Group (CSG) has always emphasized that Cuban-Americans should be a strategic asset to kickstart bilateral relations and the Island’s economic development. But how to put this into practice given the current circumstances?

We have always thought of the Cuban diaspora as an integral part of the nation. Although historically the diaspora in the United States has been an adversary in this conflictive relationship, there is no denying their potential as a strategic asset for building a thriving and prosperous economy and a more open and inclusive future for Cuban society.

Many countries have turned their diasporas into preferred investors. Mexico, India, Vietnam, China, and Taiwan are good examples of how to reintegrate diasporas into their countries’ economies and societies. The mechanisms to achieve this are many, but they all revolve around a clear, simple, reliable, and deep-seated economic opening up, as well as a political and economic welcome for the return and reintegration of the diaspora, with special incentives.

We are recommending that the Biden Administration soon allow its citizens, under a general license, to make private investments in Cuba’s private sector. At the same time, we recommend that the Cuban government legalize and confer legal personality to the private sector as soon as possible. This would formalize the family investments that have flowed into the country in recent years, while at the same time fostering greater interest in future investments.

The reintegration of the Cuban-American diaspora into Cuba’s life and economy would resoundingly and effectively help to build that base of constituents that would support the evolutionary process of a better and deeper bilateral relationship, which in turn would bode well for the full normalization of relations, dramatically changing the direction of the political winds in South Florida.

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