By: Richard Cores, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
On Monday, July 20, 2015, Cuba opened its embassy in Washington, DC to much fanfare. Many were the cheers in support of this momentous occasion, which formally brought an end to an outdated and ineffective American foreign policy toward Cuba based on punishment, rather than engagement. By contrast, the opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana was dull and muted. To be fair, the re-opening ceremony in Havana will take place on August 14th, when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Cuba to officially inaugurate the new U.S. Embassy and hoist the American flag once more. Mr. Kerry, the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the island in over 70 years, has clearly stated that “…the interests of both countries are better served by engagement than by estrangement.”  The opening of the U.S. Embassy in Havana is perhaps the most significant symbol of this new policy.
Although the usual pomp and rituals were missing on that Monday in Havana when the U.S. Interest Section officially became the U.S. Embassy, what was palpable in the air was the hope and optimism of the Cubans present outside the well-known building in the Vedado district. The sun shone bright and amidst the scourging heat several Cuban citizens held signs which read “Welcome USA” and “We Are Friends”, as members of the news media, photographers and onlookers gathered in front of the newly opened embassy waiting to see if anything more would occur. After only a few hours, the small crowd had dissipated and all was back to business as usual. However, for the future of U.S.-Cuba relations, the status quo will no longer be sufficient. As the last few months have shown, the road ahead is full of changes, obstacles, and unprecedented challenges for both nations.
Remaining Political Opposition
Perhaps the biggest challenge to this new policy of engagement lies in the small, but vocal opposition, in the United States Congress. Although this opposition seems to gradually diminish, there are still those who believe the U.S. has given too much too fast in exchange for what they say is a bad deal for the U.S. and the Cuban people. When the Cuban Embassy officially opened, some South Florida politicians, including Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Mario Diaz-Balart and Carlos Curbelo, claimed that the Cuban Embassy would serve as a center for espionage in the United States, and as such, would pose a national security risk.  Others who oppose further engagement, such as presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, only offered inflammatory rhetoric and promises to abolish everything President Obama has done in regard to Cuba. Mr. Rubio has also vowed to block any appointment for Ambassador to the new U.S. Embassy, as well as any funding for its operation.
Great changes should not cease in the face of opposition. In fact, there has been talk about the possibility of opening up a Cuban Consulate in Miami, and the city’s Mayor has vowed to oppose any such measure. However, the U.S. State Department has the legal authority to approve the opening of a Cuban Consulate and should use it to do so. There is a high demand for consular services in Miami-Dade County, where most Cuban-Americans live in the U.S., and it would benefit them greatly to have a Consulate there. Poll after poll has shown that the majority of Cuban-Americans support the path to normalization and restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba.   Therefore, neither a city’s Mayor nor a small band of radical politicians, should be able to stop projects that would help the majority of Cuban-Americans in the State of Florida. Some of these people take costly trips to Washington, D.C. each year to receive consular services, which could be easily provided in Miami if a Consulate were established there.
Although the words of these anti-engagement politicians are popular among a dwindling number of Cuban-American supporters in Miami and a few in Congress, they offer no real solutions on how to improve the lives of ordinary Cubans other than by overthrowing the government. In fact, they would rather follow the same ineffective approach that has not worked for nearly six decades. Senator Rubio and Mr. Bush certainly do not rant against dealings with Saudi Arabia – a military and economic ally of the United States – and one of the most brutal regimes in the world, where homosexuality is punishable by imprisonment, flogging or even execution, and where women can be legally arrested for merely driving a car. Surely Mr. Rubio and those who oppose dealing with Cuba due to the lack of a multi-party liberal democratic system in the island, as well as allegations about its record on human rights, are well aware that Saudi Arabia is a theocratic monarchy – not a liberal democracy – which tramples on the basic civil liberties and human rights of its citizens as it sees fit.
Therefore, if a clean human rights record and American democratic values were the standard for normalized diplomatic relations with other countries, then the United States would be at a loss for friends in most regions of the world, since dozens of Washington’s most treasured military and economic allies such as Bahrain, Egypt, Vietnam, and China suffer from tarnished human rights records and continue to suppress dissent of any kind. Nevertheless, the U.S. has pursued its own interests in regard to these States and has continued to support their governments with money, weapons sales, and rhetoric. For instance, the U.S. State Department calls Bahrain a vital U.S. partner in defense initiatives. The U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is hosted by Bahrain and the U.S. designated Bahrain a Major Non-NATO ally in 2002.   This is all despite the fact that Bahrain has one of the world’s worst human rights records and its oppression of the majority Shiite population by the minority Sunni rulers goes unchecked. The U.S. has consistently claimed that alliances with these regimes benefit the American people due to their geostrategic and military value.
The same can be said for the U.S. alliance with Egypt. According to Human Rights Watch, since General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi took office through a military coup in 2013, human rights violations such as mass killings, mass arrests, mass death sentences, torture, violence against women, violations of due process and restrictions of civil liberties continue to occur. Furthermore, “not a single police or army officer has been held accountable for the repeated use of excessive force and other serious abuses.”  Even with all of these atrocious events taking place, the U.S. has continued to bestow millions of dollars upon Egypt’s leaders, as well as military weapons, Apache helicopters, and words of praise  . It wasn’t that long ago when the United States had words of support and affirmation for Mr. Hosni Mubarak, one of Egypt’s longest ruling tyrants, and an extremely close friend of the United States. It was only after the Arab Spring uprisings that the U.S. decided to turn a blind eye on its complicit long-time support of his regime and pretend it had never been on his side.
The U.S. has also had its own detestable record of human rights violations in Latin America. Since its founding, the U.S. has intervened many times in the affairs of Latin American countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Nicaragua and Cuba – in clear violation of their sovereignty – in order to maintain political and economic control over its “backyard” and in pursuit of often narrow corporate interests at any cost. These interventions and violations have not only been military or political in scope, but have gone even further. In Guatemala, the U.S. government launched a medical experiment program in the 1940s and 1950s, in which hundreds of Guatemalans were deliberately infected with sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea.  Numerous such examples, including CIA-backed coups in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Panama can be written about which would necessitate much more space than is being allotted for this article. However, one point remains clear: Cuba is no Egypt or Bahrain and its citizens are not routinely killed nor tortured en masse. Why then would the U.S. continue to apply a hypocritical policy toward the island?
History has shown that sanctions and isolation only serve to punish innocent citizens and may do absolutely nothing to cause a nation’s leadership to alter its course. The outdated U.S. foreign policy based on isolation and punishing sanctions could not possibly achieve anything positive or constructive for the Cuban people. Instead, a policy of engagement can bring about greater opportunities to interact with the Cuban people and to mutually cooperate and learn from one another. Although Cuba has continued to make progress in the areas of telecommunications and Internet access, more interaction and the sharing of technical know-how with American companies will allow it to further advance a system that is tailored to the needs of the island and its people. Most of the Cuban youth is smart and technologically savvy despite the obstacles they have had to endure caused by decades of economic hardship. By eliminating the embargo and the remaining barriers that exists between the two nations, Cubans – young and old – will undoubtedly use their resourceful and inventive nature to strengthen their civic institutions and contribute to the betterment of their own societies.
The Thaw Continues
Despite the opposition from some, there are signs that the thaw that began on 17, 2014 with President Obama’s announcement of a new policy toward Cuba, continues to gain strength. Recently, Stonegate Bank reached an agreement with Cuba’s Banco Internacional de Comercio (BICSA), which will open up more opportunities for commerce and benefit American companies wanting to do business in Cuba.  Stonegate is also the bank handling the accounts of Cuba’s diplomatic missions in the U.S. More banks are sure to follow in the coming months, since the U.S. Treasury Department has amended its regulations to allow American banks to open correspondent accounts in Cuban banks. Americans traveling to the island are already allowed to use their debit cards and credit cards in Cuba under the new regulations. As more banks follow suit, financial transactions will become more efficient and practical.
In another sign of growing support toward normalization, the GOP-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee recently voted to lift the travel ban to Cuba. It also voted to repeal the law prohibiting banks and other U.S. businesses from financing sales of U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba.  Even though the embargo with its many economic and trade restriction remains in place, chipping away at the policies that restrict further interaction with the Cuban government and its people will continue to create a better climate for positive changes to occur. Such a step is also being explored by the U.S. government as it considers making changes to the requirements of “People to People” travel, one of 12 categories authorized by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, in order to allow individual travelers, not just groups, to visit the island.  The current regulations make these group trips extremely pricey (some in excess of $3,000), thus preventing many people who legitimately fall into this licensed category from visiting Cuba. Although opposition to further interaction remains in the House Appropriations Committee among others, it is clear that the tide is shifting and that new initiatives are gaining momentum.
President Obama’s Trip to Cuba
In a recent meeting at the White House, Administration officials stated that President Obama would consider visiting Cuba next year, and that the evaluation of such a trip would most likely take place in January depending on the progress achieved by the Cuban authorities on a number of issues at that time. However, these same officials have stressed that progress in itself would not be a prerequisite for a possible trip.  The last sitting United States President to visit Cuba was Calvin Coolidge in 1928 – 87 years ago – when Cuba’s President was General Gerardo Machado. Coolidge had traveled to Cuba in order to address the Sixth Annual International Conference of American States in Havana. Times were very different then. Joseph Stalin ruled Russia, Benito Mussolini ruled Italy, and the animosity between the U.S. and Cuba had not yet occurred. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter also visited Cuba in 2002 at Fidel Castro’s invitation and then again in 2011 at Raul Castro’s invitation. In Carter’s own words, his goals were “to establish a dialog with Castro, to reach out to the Cuban people, and to pursue ways to improve U.S.-Cuban relations.”  Obama’s visit will most likely seek to accomplish the same thing. However, this trip comes at a time of unprecedented warming in relations between the two countries. Both Obama and Castro are seemingly driven less by ideology than pragmatism. This may be a good thing with respect to U.S.-Cuba relations, especially in a political climate fraught with radically divisive rhetoric. President Obama has said that “isolation shuts America out of Cuba’s future, and it only makes life worse for the Cuban people.”  His visit to Cuba would serve to consolidate his new foreign policy and would send a clear message of solidarity and hope to the Cuban people.
Remaining Issues and the Path Forward
In speaking about the re-establishment of U.S.-Cuba relations, President Raul Castro said, “while acknowledging our profound differences, particularly on issues related to national sovereignty, democracy, human rights and foreign policy, I reaffirm our willingness to dialogue on all these issues.”  Such an open invitation does not solve the list of contentious issues still remaining on this new path forward. The U.S. government has expressed its desire to obtain compensation from Cuba for expropriated U.S. properties – currently valued at over $8 billion. Cuba also asserts counter-claims for damages caused by the U.S. economic embargo as well as other hostile measures toward the island, which it estimates at nearly $200 billion. Under the Helms-Burton law in the U.S., Cuban exiles who became naturalized U.S. citizens are eligible to receive compensation for property confiscated by the Cuban government after the Revolution of 1959. However, although Cuba has acknowledge and is willing to cooperate with the U.S. on the legitimacy of U.S. claims, it rejects any type of compensation claims from the Cubans who fled the island. America’s desire to bring its brand of democracy and human rights to the island is also a heated issue. Cuba regards these areas as internal matters and has always maintained that any intrusion into Cuba’s own system is a violation of its sovereignty. Other issues such as ongoing trade and travel restrictions, Internet access, the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo, law enforcement issues (such as Cuba returning fugitives wanted in the U.S.), ending the U.S. embargo and more perhaps will go unresolved for many years to come.
Nevertheless, the door of cooperation and dialogue necessary for the establishment of trust and concrete policies between both nations must remain open. Each day more progress is made in the U.S. Congress, as bipartisan bills aimed at lifting the embargo and easing restrictions continue to gain ground.  A relationship that has been plagued with antagonism, hostility and distrust for decades cannot possibly be mended in a few months. Meaningful and substantial changes will take time. At a recent briefing in the new U.S. Embassy in Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, Chargé d’Affaires ad interim, said that “engaging, rather than punishing, will bring us closer to the goal of a prosperous and democratic Cuba.” It would seem that only this policy of engagement will in due time bear the fruit of positive change and prosperity that will benefit both countries alike.
By: Richard Cores, Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
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Featured photo: US Embassy in Havana By: Fripp Prioleau