On December 17, 2014, Barack Obama and Raul Castro announced that the United States and Cuba would restore full diplomatic ties for the first time in more than fifty years. The agreement came after eighteen months of secret talks between U.S. and Cuban officials that were encouraged and brokered by Pope Francis. As the first sitting U.S. President to visit Cuba in 88 years Barack Obama will travel to Havana in the end of March of 2016. President Obama’s three-day visit will focus on deepening long-neglected commercial ties between the United States and Cuba, but also drawing a harder line on human rights abuses by the Castro government.
In a conversation with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, Alejandro A. Chafuen, President of the Atlas Newtwork, comments on what has happened since President Obama’s announcement, the main challenges to President Obama’s new policy towards Cuba, and where the presidential candidates stand on the issue.
Dr. Chafuen, what has happened since President Obama’s announcement? What were the first steps undertaken to revive relations between the US and Cuba?
Since President Obama issued his announcement regarding shifts in the United States’ Cuba policy, his administration has been working to reduce tensions between the two governments in order to facilitate the flow of money, people, and information between the countries—despite rampant criticism that he is implicitly condoning a potentially volatile state with a poor human rights record. His meetings with Raul Castro during the Summit of the Americas in Panama marked the first time that the heads of state of the U.S. and Cuba engaged in face-to-face discussions in half a century. These conversations were followed by the announcement that diplomatic ties between the two countries would be restored. On July 20, 2015, the embassies in D.C. and Havana reopened. In August, Secretary of State John Kerry traveled to Cuba to preside over the flag-raising ceremony outside the U.S. embassy. Kerry has been the highest ranking U.S. official to set foot in the island in decades, at least until President Obama’s visit later this week.
Following the restoration of diplomatic ties, the Obama administration has sought to issue a series of financial and political changes that will promote further engagement between the U.S. and the island. One such change is travel; commercial flights between the U.S. and Cuba were restored for the first time in over 50 years following the visit of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx to the island on February 16 to sign a new aviation agreement. The agreement should result in about 110 commercial flights per day between the countries, and airlines are currently bidding for travel routes. It is important to note, however, that although categories under which travel visas can be issued have expanded, travel for tourism cannot be lifted while the embargo remains in place—and despite ongoing pressure from the Obama administration, Congress has not approved this shift in policy. Currently, travel to the island from the U.S. is allowed but must have educational purposes. Visitors arrive at the island and travel around in pre-approved, well-monitored tours, which according to recent New York Times article, are rife with pro-government propaganda.
The Obama administration also aims to facilitate economic interactions with the island. Earlier this week, the Treasury Department approved financial transactions from Cuba or Cuban citizens through U.S. banks; banks will be able to open accounts for Cubans living in the U.S. who intend to send money that they’ve earned within the country back to relatives or friends in Cuba. However, none of these changes can be considered permanent until the embargo is lifted; for now, whether or not these measures will remain in place will depend on who occupies the Oval Office next presidential term.
[Mariana Zepeda conducted research for this section.]
What are the main challenges to President Obama’s new policy towards Cuba? And how will the re-establishment of diplomatic relations impact or change the situation in Cuba?
Obama can’t run for reelection, but public opinion polls reflect support for the shift, especially in areas like Miami, which boast a high density of Cuban-Americans. According to Pew Research Center, 63% of Americans approve of the deal—yet only 32% believe that renewed ties to the U.S. will make Cuba a more democratic country.
After living so many decades with little or no hope, most of those on the island also favor the deal. Even some Cuban exiles—who complain the current agreement has ignored the rights of the victims of communism—believe there is a chance that the material conditions will improve. The transition might be like Vietnam, where the communists still rule, but living conditions improved. I agree with the forecast of Cuban-born Otto J. Reich, former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela. He believes that the Cuban communists will follow the model of Putin’s Russia. The military will likely maintain power after the Castros’ deaths and will try to capture businesses inside and outside the country, thus consolidating power. The Obama policy, and any increased liberalization that ignores human rights abuses will be continued to be monitored and criticized by independent human rights organizations, and will make it harder to lift the embargo.
Are US-Cuba relations a hot-button issue in the 2016 presidential election? Where do the presidential candidates stand on the issue?
After the release of Cuban terrorists in exchange for the release of Alan Gross, the first move towards the thaw, Sen. Marco Rubio, who recently retired from the Presidential race sounded very much like Donald Trump. Sen. Rubio stated that the deal was “disgraceful for a president who claims to treasure human rights and human freedom. This president is the single worst negotiator we have had in the White House in my lifetime.” Sen. Ted Cruz, who is also an American of Cuban origin, labelled this first step “a tragic mistake.” He also argued that “just like the administration did with Iran, right when the [Iranian] administration was feeling the maximum pain, [Obama] throws them an economic lifeline and continues the brutal repression and dictatorship of the Castro brothers.” I expect that Cruz will continue to have the most principled opposition to what seems to be a unilateral approach of the Obama administration, asking very little in return, removing most pressures even if Cuba continues to violate human rights. Donald Trump will likely be more pragmatic. Speaking about the change in policy, for instance, Trump said “I think its fine. I think its fine, but we should have made a better deal.” In typical fashion, Trump has not detailed how he would improve the strategy with Cuba. Two of the foreign security experts who have endorsed Trump, Gary Berntsen, a former CIA senior officer, and J.D. Gordon, a former Navy commander officer and former Pentagon spokesman, have worked in the region and have a very good knowledge of Cuban malfeasance in Latin America. In this topic I think Hillary Clinton’s policies will be similar to Trump’s, only slightly less focused on Cuba’s continued human rights violations. I expect that both Trump and Clinton would make an effort to promote bottom-up entrepreneurship, but also approve crony deals with the Cuban government. Sanders, in the unlikely case Clinton is indicted, will put no pressure on Cuba.