"There's a complicated history between the United States and Cuba," President Obama acknowledged in his December 17 announcement of a new opening to Cuba. He couched the new approach to relations in terms of the need to abandon the failed policy of the last 54 years.
A longer look at the history of U.S.-Cuban relations, however, suggests that much of the newly opened debate over future engagement rests on some of the same assumptions that shaped previous relations in the decades before the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959). In jettisoning one failed policy, the U.S. government—and the people of Cuba—should be wary of resurrecting the habits of an earlier, equally dysfunctional relationship. It is a history about which Cubans are constantly reminded, but which most Americans all too easily forget.
As Spanish control weakened throughout the nineteenth century, American policymakers assumed that Cuba would pass from the Spanish to the American orbit—a danger that José Martí, Cuba's liberation hero, warned against before perishing in the War of Independence in 1895. With nationalist insurgents poised to win independence in 1898, the U.S. intervened and occupied Cuba in a bid to dictate the island's future.
In 1902, Cuba became a nominally independent republic, but one in which the Platt Amendment to Cuba's Constitution reserved Washington the right to intervene for "the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty." U.S. troops landed on the island three more times in the next 20 years. U.S. ambassadors mediated among Cuban political factions, whose power could rest as much on the State Department's blessing as on support among Cubans.
That there would be a thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations seemed inevitable. After all, the Cold War ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Castro brothers are getting on in years.
And yet, there is a sense that a new era is beginning with the joint Barack Obama–Raúl Castro announcement, and an air of optimism and hope in the restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
The fact that Pope Francis, Obama, Castro, and the government of Canada all converged to bring an end to a relic of the Cold War is a major part of the story. My country, Canada, never went along with the U.S. embargo, imposed in 1960. This made Canada a facilitator, and a credible factor in bringing two mutually suspicious parties together. Meetings in Toronto and Ottawa occurred throughout 2013 and 2014 with Canadian assistance.
The first pope from the Americas, who seized the opportunity to make a difference, to build bridges, and to improve the lot of the Cuban people by using his good offices, may have been the closer on the deal. If Obama is the commander-in-chief, Pope Francis is the inspirer-in-chief.
Obama deserves much credit for his courage and his vision. Clearly, this president knows his history. Just as Nixon went to China and Truman set up the Marshall Plan for Europe in the post-World War II era, Obama knew that he had to do something different with a nation just 90 miles off the U.S. shore. In the realm of values and legacy, setting up diplomatic relations with Cuba is far better than sending prisoners to Guantánamo.
Cuba released 65-year-old former U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross from prison today on humanitarian grounds, paving the way for normalizing relations between the U.S. and Cuba. Gross was sentenced to 15 years in prison for alleged espionage after he was arrested in December 2009 for bringing satellite equipment to Cuba.
This month marked the 5th anniversary of Gross’ imprisonment, and his health has been deteriorating. “Alan is resolved that he will not endure another year imprisoned in Cuba, and I am afraid that we are at the end,” his wife, Judy Gross, said. A bipartisan group of 66 senators urged Obama to “act expeditiously…to obtain [Gross’s] release” in November.
The State Department has maintained Gross’ innocence and repeatedly demanded his release, stating that it is “an impediment to more constructive relations between the U.S. and Cuba.”
President Obama publicly acknowledged last week that the U.S. was negotiating with Havana for Gross’ release. Obama is expected to announce Gross’ release at noon, along with a broad range of diplomatic measures expected to move towards normalizing the Cuba-U.S. relationship for the first time since the 1961 embargo.
Cuban President Raúl Castro is also expected to speak at noon about Cuba’s relations with the United States. Gross’ release comes ahead of the April 2015 Summit of the Americas, where Cuba is to participate for the first time and Obama is expected to meet with Castro.
At the beginning of President Barack Obama’s first term, moves toward normalization between the United States and Cuba briefly seemed possible. Restrictions on travel and remittances were loosened, and Obama hinted at bigger changes during the April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.
However, the political space in the United States quickly closed after USAID contractor Alan Gross was detained by Cuban authorities in late 2009. Meanwhile, the continued detention of three members of the “Cuban Five” since 1998 by the United States remained a major irritant for Cuba.
This is not the first time that the fate of prisoners has played a significant role in U.S.-Cuban relations. During the 1960s, Cuban authorities detained four CIA agents who were engaged in covert activities on the island. Their status was a sticking point during discussions between the two countries about repairing relations. Carter administration officials met with Cuban counterparts, including Fidel Castro. When the administration inquired about the release of the CIA agents at the end of the 1970s, Castro pressed the United States to release Puerto Rican nationalists imprisoned for violent attacks during the 1950s. [Editor’s note: This is not to imply that Alan Gross was a CIA agent or that he was engaged in espionage. The blog is simply drawing a parallel between to roughly similar moments in U.S.-Cuba relations and history and their relationship to the late Bob Pastor, who had been a contributor to Americas Quarterly.]
A new, 27-minute documentary entitled “The Non-Trade Trade,” explores the similarities between the prisoner releases of the late 1970s and the status of the prisoners being held today. Produced by Soraya Castro, a professor at the University of Havana, the film draws heavily on an oral history with the late Robert A. Pastor. Early in his career, Pastor served as the senior director for Latin America on President Carter’s National Security Council. [Disclosure: While I was not involved in the making of the documentary, Pastor was my dissertation supervisor at American University.] Both Pastor and the documentary argue for releasing the prisoners and improving U.S.-Cuban relations.
If the U.S. wants to keep the Summit of the Americas process on track and regain some measure of influence in the hemisphere, it will have to change its Cuba policy, pronto. Reframing our policy and saving the Summit process isn’t as tough as it seems; it just takes leadership.
In coming months, the United States is going to face a tough choice: either alter its policy toward Cuba or face the virtual collapse of its diplomacy toward Latin America. The upcoming Summit of the Americas, the seventh meeting of democratically elected heads of state throughout the Americas, due to convene in April 2015 in Panama, will force the Obama administration to choose between its instincts to reset Cuba policy to coincide more closely with hemispheric opinion and its fears of a domestic political backlash.
During her visit to Washington on September 2, Panama’s vice president, Isabel Saint Malo, indicated her intention to invite Cuba to the Summit, but public U.S. statements failed to commit President Obama’s attendance.
The periodic inter-American summits have become more important than ever for U.S. regional diplomacy, but our Latin American neighbors have said—firmly and unanimously—that unless Cuba is invited, their chairs will be empty. At the same time, the alarming specter of photos of Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro conversing around the same table, apparently as equals, will set off a political reaction among the Cuban-American hardliners, Democrats and Republicans alike—the thought of which gives the White House politicos heartburn.
Diplomacy during the Cold War, wrote Sam Tanenhaus in last Sunday’s New York Times, may have been more of a high wire act than a chess match—but diplomacy, neither then nor now, is a tug of war.
Unfortunately, that’s the way it’s being conducted in the U.S.’ delinked Cuba-Venezuela policies—hostages to age-old vendettas, anachronistic policies and the persistent failure to develop policy in the hemisphere through a broader geostrategic lens.
In this case, our ability to play a larger, more constructive role in the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela is being held back by our utter lack of leverage over Cuba.
Since Hugo Chávez took the oath of office in 1999, the former lieutenant colonel’s Bolivarian Revolution has been a beneficiary of Cuban intelligence and planning services that have helped the movement reorganize the intelligence services, gut the electoral council and create community militias (the now-infamous colectivos).
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, Florida sugar magnate Alfonso Fanjul said he is ready to do business with Cuba “under the right circumstances.” The questions are: “what are the right circumstances?" and “who benefits when American companies ‘do business’ with communist Cuba?”
The Fanjul family left Cuba in 1959 when Fidel Castro confiscated all of its holdings. Eventually settling in Florida, the family rebuilt their lives and fortunes, benefitting from the price supports extended to American-grown sugar by Congress, and Fanjul corporations are now international in scope.
As reported in The Post, Alfonso Fanjul’s comments and meetings with Cuban government officials were promptly condemned by Cuban-American members of Congress who didn’t hesitate to point out that the interview included no discussion of the absence of civil liberties and labor and human rights in Cuba that foreign corporations already exploit.
Foreign companies “doing business” in Cuba are best described as “minority partners” of the Cuban government. Such companies don’t “do business” with Cuban entrepreneurs, they “do business” with the Cuban government, which obligingly “rents” those companies a compliant, uncomplaining labor force.
Cuba’s government sets the rental price that companies pay to the government. In turn, the government pays the employees somewhat less (usually a lot less), and keeps the difference. Complaining employees are fired —not by the company, but by the government—and replaced by someone “willing to work.” This is how Cuban communism works and finances the repression that sustains it.
I’m not a betting man, but if I were, this is what I’d bet. With a series of statements by leading Cuban-Americans, stories of change inside the island, and growing public pressure and attention to liberalize the U.S. embargo toward Cuba, I’d wager that soon the Cuban government will do something to halt the process.
Further, I’d wager that when it does, hardliners in Congress and the dwindling number of groups that advocate for the embargo will react predictably: denouncing those who argued for more freedom in the restrictions as naïve, and insisting that now is not the time to open up—that in fact, now is the time to close down even those small, but effective, openings that have already been made.
Why do I think this? Because this has been the pattern for decades, whether it was the regime’s crackdown on the broad-based alliance of democratic activists, Concilio Cubano, in February 1996, in the tragic shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue planes that same year, or the arrest of USAID contractor Alan Gross in 2009.
In each of these cases, talk of easing the embargo had grown just before the act of aggression by the Cuban government. And in each case, hardliners responded to ensure that the Cuban government got what it needs—isolation.
For more than a decade, Cuba’s Castro brothers (Fidel and Raúl) and their U.S. advocates have lobbied Congress to lift U.S. trade sanctions. Finally recognizing that Congress isn’t likely to do so, the focus of the Castro lobby has now shifted to getting Cuba removed from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.
There are two ways Cuba, which has been listed since 1982, could be removed from the list:
The first is for President Obama to certify to Congress that there has been a fundamental change in Cuba's leadership and policies and that it disavows support of international terrorism now and for the future. No serious observer of Cuba will argue there has been any "fundamental change" in the Castro dictatorship, which has ruled Cuba with an iron-fist for 54 years.
The second is for the president to vouch to Congress that Cuba hasn’t provided any support to international terrorism in the preceding six months and has provided "assurances" to the United States that it won’t in the future. This was the vehicle used by the Bush Administration in 2008 to mistakenly remove North Korea from the list. As has now been proven with the Kim family, to rely on assurances of better behavior from the Castro brothers would be to commit foreign-policy malpractice. The Castro dictatorship brutally continues its repression of the Cuban people, routinely foments anti-Americanism around the world, and since December 2009 has held American aid worker Alan P. Gross for the crime of helping members of Cuba’s Jewish community connect to the Internet. Moreover, the Castro government has made it clear that Gross will stay in its prisons until the United States releases five convicted Cuban spies—an act of political coercion ("terrorism" as defined under U.S. law).
Tuesday’s election results were not unexpected. The question now is what will they mean for U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere. The outlines are already clear: expect a sharper tone across the board of Congressional oversight and initiative toward the Administration in trying to impact policy. Here are a few predictions for regional policy based on the midterm election results.
The new chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee will be Ileana Ros-Lehtinen; the chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee will be Connie Mack. Together with newly-elected Senator Marco Rubio, this troika of Florida Republicans may well seek to reverse the Obama Administration’s slow motion liberalization of Cuba policy. Expect also a harder line coming from Congress toward Venezuela and the possible renewal of an effort to sanction Venezuela as a state sponsor of terror. As well, Chairman-To-Be Ros-Lehtinen has earned strong pro-Israel credentials and is a strong supporter of Iran sanctions; further moves of Brazil or Venezuela toward Tehran could well prove to be a point of friction between the Administration and Congress if the Administration is perceived as downplaying their significance.