On Feb. 3, 1962, President John F. Kennedy signed into law “Proclamation 3447: Embargo on All Trade with Cuba.”
Sixty years and 11 presidents later, that embargo—known in Cuba as “el bloquéo” or blockade—has endured in one form or another, crippling the Caribbean island’s economy and preventing ordinary Americans from visiting Cuba as tourists.
And that’s deeply unfair, says Lianys Torres Rivera, Cuba’s ambassador in Washington since January 2021—especially after expectations that President Joe Biden would reverse the anti-Cuba rhetoric of his predecessor, Donald Trump, and resume the thaw initiated by the Obama administration when it re-established full diplomatic relations with Havana in 2015.
“In terms of US policy toward Cuba, it is the same as the previous administration. The Cuban people are enduring the same sanctions,” she said. “It is a terrible mistake to continue to implement these sanctions, even during a pandemic. Cuba has always been willing to move forward with the US—even with the Trump administration. The only thing that we ask is respect for our self-determination, and no interference in international affairs.”
Torres Rivera made her comments during a March 3 webinar hosted by American University’s School of International Service. The ambassador spoke with AU Professor Philip Brenner, an expert on US-Cuba relations and co-author of the 439-page book “Cuba Libre: A 500-Year Quest for Independence.”
Since 1985, Brenner has served on the advisory board of the National Security Archive, working to declassify and disseminate documents on US foreign policy, including those related to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Torres Rivera is the first woman ever to represent Cuba as ambassador in the United States, replacing Havana’s longtime man in Washington, José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez. Prior to her arrival, she was Cuba’s ambassador to Vietnam for three years.
‘We have a lot of common ground for cooperation’
Born in 1971, Torres Rivera earned a bachelor’s in international economic relations from Havana’s Instituto Superior de Relaciones Internacionales Raúl Roa García in 1994. Assigned first to the North American division of Cuba’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Minrex), Torres Rivera worked at the then-Cuban Interests Section in Washington as an attaché (1995-96).
Her other overseas postings include stints as third secretary at the Cuban Embassy in Denmark (1998-2002), and as first secretary at the Cuban Embassy in Malaysia (2007-11). From 2015 to 2017, Torres Rivera was part of the Cuban delegation that met with US authorities to discuss the renewal of full diplomatic relations between the two sides.
She said that Obama—who reopened the US Embassy in Havana amid hopes the embargo would eventually be abolished—showed that a less contentious bilateral relationship was possible.
“During the Obama administration, we signed 22 memos of understanding in areas like agriculture, telecommunications, programs for teaching English, law enforcement, public health and environmental issues,” she said. “All these documents are in the interests of both peoples. We are neighbors, and we have a lot of common ground for cooperation.”
But then Trump came to power and quickly undermined Obama’s efforts to improve relations with the Pennsylvania-sized island of 11.3 million that had been ruled by Fidel Castro from 1959 until 2008.
Besides imposing more than 140 bans on travel and financial transactions, Trump—in his last week in office—also put Cuba back on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism, along with Iran, North Korea and Syria.
“Cuba is not a state sponsor of terrorism, nor does it represent a threat to the US,” she insisted. “There is a huge misinformation campaign about the situation of Cuba, and how the sanctions work. US citizens would sympathize with Cuba’s plight if they understood the extent to which their government has blockaded the country and its people.”
Cuba abstains in UN vote to condemn Russia
Partly due to COVID-19—which forced Cuba to shut its doors to foreign arrivals for nearly two years—the island’s GDP has fallen by 15%, though Torres Rivera claimed that “even in the midst of economic restrictions, more than 200,000 jobs have been created in Cuba.”
This past January, 86,000 foreign tourists arrived in Cuba—up from 22,000 in January 2021—and agricultural production is growing, she said. What the ambassador didn’t say, however, is that Cuba’s 2022 sugar harvest won’t even match last year’s production of 800,000 tons, the worst since 1908.
In much the same vein, Brenner challenged the ambassador to explain why Cuba chose to abstain rather than support the March 2 resolution at the United Nations General Assembly condemning Russia for its bloody invasion of Ukraine. The resolution passed overwhelmingly, with 141 countries voting in favor, five against and 35 (including Cuba) abstaining.
“As you know, the Cuban people have had a very close relationship with the Ukrainian people,” she said, recalling how in 1986—following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster—more than 25,000 children were airlifted to Cuba and treated for thyroid cancer and other diseases resulting from exposure to radiation. “Of course, it is impossible for us to make an honest examination of the current situation in Ukraine without carefully assessing the historic factors that have led to this unfortunate situation and conflict.”
She never actually said why Cuba abstained. Instead, she rambled on about how “we have always opposed the use of force against any country.”
The real reason Cuba didn’t condemn the invasion—despite her lofty pronouncements—is that Russia remains one of Cuba’s chief financial backers; in February, the island’s cash-strapped communist government announced it would deepen ties with the Kremlin and boost bilateral collaboration in transportation, energy, industry and banking.
In fact, right before the vote, Cuba’s envoy to the UN, Pedro Luís Cuesta, blamed the war on Washington’s determination to keep expanding NATO toward Russia’s borders. Various reports said some Cubans have been arrested for leaving flowers at the Ukrainian Embassy in Havana.
Cuba enacts harsh crackdown on internet access
Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering that last July saw some of Cuba’s largest anti-government protests since the Castro regime came to power in 1959. Thousands of ordinary citizens, enraged by a lack of freedom and an economy worsened by COVID-19, chanted “freedom” amid demands for the resignation of President Miguel Díaz-Canel. Police beat protesters, some of whom threw rocks at officers and overturned vehicles.
Yet Torres Rivera dismissed the protesters as nothing more than vandals and troublemakers.
“I was in Havana on July 11, and what I was going on there was anything but peaceful,” she said. “These people were involved in vandalism, assaults on authorities, and damage to public property including a pediatric hospital and a police station.”
A month after the demonstrations, Cuba passed a draconian cybersecurity law that criminalizes calls for public disturbances or spreading information that “denigrates the revolutionary process,” in the words of one Cuban official.
Not exactly a shocking development, considering that Cuba remains one of only five communist regimes left in the world, along with China, Laos, Vietnam and North Korea.
Asked why such a law was even necessary, Torres River said “the real story here, Phil, is that the internet is used in destabilizing attempts aimed at subverting constitutional order in Cuba.” She claimed that platforms such as Facebook and Twitter “encourage toxic operations” against Cuba.
It’s worth noting that Torres Rivera made her comments the day before Cuba’s ally and best friend, Russia, banned Facebook and made calling Putin’s war in Ukraine a war, or referring to the invasion as an invasion, crimes punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
“No country including the US allows agents financed by foreign actors and foreign governments to use the internet to advance a foreign political agenda,” she said. “Hate speech that calls for violence and acts of aggression cannot be, and will not be, tolerated in Cuba. That is my answer to your question.”