Editor’s note: The December issue of The Washington Diplomat went to press two days before Fidel Castro’s death. We have updated this online version to reflect new developments.
EXCLUSIVE — This month marks two years since President Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, surprised the world with their announcement — at noon on Dec. 17, 2014 — that Washington and Havana would restore full diplomatic ties after over 50 years of enmity.
But the budding friendship between these two former Cold War adversaries — which rapidly began making up for lost time despite objections by Cuba’s former leader, Fidel Castro, who died in late November — could come to a screeching halt if Donald Trump gets his way.
Just as he has threatened to gut Obamacare, pull the United States out of NAFTA, rip up the multilateral Iran nuclear agreement (see related story) and end all U.S. efforts to combat climate change, the president-elect has also vowed to reverse his predecessor’s rapprochement with Cuba and stop Americans from traveling there (see related story) — as they’ve begun to do in large numbers since the relaxation of arcane U.S. laws dating from the early 1960s.
In September, Trump, at a campaign stop in Miami, outlined his Cuba policy, promising to roll back one of the president’s signature foreign policy achievements.
“All of the concessions Barack Obama has granted the Castro regime were done through executive order, which means the next president can reverse them, and that I will do unless the Castro regime meets our demands,” he told an adoring crowd of hardline Cuban exiles. “Not my demands. Our demands,” he added, referring to longstanding U.S. calls for Cuba to release political prisoners and ensure religious freedom.
Would the billionaire real estate developer actually follow up on those threats?
We put that question to José Ramón Cabañas Rodríguez, who arrived in Washington in 2012 as chief of the Cuban Interests Section but officially became Cuba’s “embajador” on Sept. 17, 2015, once relations had been upgraded.
“Technically speaking, any president, whoever it is, can reverse any executive action taken by the previous president,” Cabañas said, though he added that with more U.S. businesses and Americans interacting with the island, closing the U.S.-Cuba opening may be difficult. “If we take one subject, let’s say travel, companies are involved now that weren’t involved before. Remember that a few years ago, when tourism arrivals were not even comparable, a few politicians from South Florida essentially tried to reverse the advances, but politically speaking, they couldn’t deliver because the majority of South Florida’s population now supports travel to Cuba.”
Pushed further about what President Trump might do or not do come Jan. 20, 2017, Cabañas declined to say.
“We are not in the business of speculating what could happen,” he told The Washington Diplomat in our meeting, which took place barely a week after one of the most divisive, bitter presidential campaigns in U.S. history. “We’ve been through this process 12 times. We’re used to it.”
Mourning, Celebrating Fidel’s Death
On Nov. 25 — nine days after that meeting and less than two months before Trump’s inauguration — Fidel Castro died in Havana at the age of 90. The fiery revolutionary ousted the U.S.-backed dictatorship in 1959, ushered in communist rule over Cuba, pushed the U.S. to the brink of nuclear war and spent much of his life relishing his role as a thorn in Washington’s side who defied 11 U.S. presidents.
His death sparked a nine-day period of national mourning and an emotional outpouring of grief by ordinary Cubans, most of whom had never known another leader until Fidel (as he’s known on the island) reluctantly turned power over to his quieter younger brother Raúl in 2006.
In South Florida, the reaction was quite the opposite: Thousands of revelers in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood partied late into the night upon learning that the man they despised most in the world had finally passed on.
“History will never absolve him. But perhaps now the voices of Cuba will be heard,” Alan Gross, a former high-profile U.S. prisoner on the island, told The Diplomat by email. “Speak up, Cuba.”
Carlos Alzugaray, the country’s former ambassador to the European Union and now a retired professor in Havana, criticized Miami-based exiles — chief among them Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — for “bad-mouthing Fidel” upon learning of his death.
“They probably feel it as a political necessity that does not have concrete policy implications and neutralizes the hardliners,” Alzugaray told us in an email from Cuba. “But it is a dangerous game which does not gain them friends in Havana…. It makes the hardliners look mean and petty. In any case, there is profound sorrow for one of the greatest political leaders of the 20th century.”
Many others, however, have labeled him one of the greatest dictators of the 20th century. Trump reacted to news of his death with a four-word tweet proclaiming “Fidel Castro is dead!” — followed up with a much longer one in which he called Castro a “brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for six decades.” He said he hoped Fidel’s passing gave Cuban-Americans “the hope of one day soon seeing a free Cuba” and that “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.”
While Raúl, who lacks the charisma and unifying power of his brother, may hunker down in an effort to preserve the old guard, Trump may step up calls for democratic change.
Trump has already signaled that he may seize on Castro’s death to press the regime for more openness or else he will scrap Obama’s policy of renewed engagement. In a Nov. 28 tweet, the president-elect warned that “if Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.”
Curiously, not once in our hour-long conversation did Cabañas utter Donald Trump’s name. It’s clear that Cuba’s ambassador to the United States didn’t get where he is by speaking off the cuff or getting himself in trouble.
What’s also clear is that Cabañas, in his first-ever exclusive interview with any U.S. media outlet, relishes his role as Cuba’s envoy to the United States at a pivotal time in bilateral history. After all, the 55-year-old diplomat was born in 1961 — only two years after Fidel’s rise to power and the same year as the Bay of Pigs fiasco — so in some sense, Cabañas has waited his entire professional life for this moment.
“It was Dec. 17, 2014, when both President Obama and President Raúl Castro made the announcement at 12 noon. They surprised everybody,” he said. “We were a little bit surprised too, as we were not involved in the secret negotiations.”
Those delicate talks, in which the Vatican played a key role, culminated in the release of Gross — a Maryland resident and subcontractor for the U.S. government who had been imprisoned in Cuba for five years on subversion charges — in exchange for the return of three convicted Cuban spies serving long sentences in U.S. jails.
That paved the way to begin the long process of repairing relations between the two countries, which are separated in the Florida Strait by only 90 miles of ocean.
On May 29, 2015, the State Department finally took Cuba off its list of state sponsors of terrorism where it had been for 33 years, and on July 20 that year, Cabañas and his staff triumphantly raised the Cuban flag over their stately mission on 16th Street, which up until that point had officially been an annex of the Swiss Embassy.
Less than a month later, the Stars and Stripes went up over the six-story U.S. mission along Havana’s Malecón waterfront at an emotional ceremony led by Secretary of State John Kerry.
Since then, there’s been a flurry of developments, including Obama’s historic trip to Havana — the first by a sitting president since Calvin Coolidge visited Cuba in 1928 — and a loosening of restrictions on commerce, trade and travel with the communist island. For example, the changes now allow Americans to use U.S.-issued credit and debit cards on the island and companies to invest in certain small businesses in Cuba and even ship building materials to private Cuban companies.
No longer are Cuban diplomats prevented from traveling more than 25 miles from Washington, D.C. (a similar restriction also applied to U.S. diplomats in Havana). Cabañas may now travel wherever he wants and meet anyone he wishes to meet.
“At the personal level, the most important change in the last two years is that we have been able to talk to the United States with respect and reciprocity,” the ambassador said. “Before that, we were talking only with the State Department. Now we talk with the departments of energy, education, transportation, you name it. There were also restrictions on our movement. We had to not only notify the State Department of our travel plans but also ask for permission. And in my case, that permission was not always given. And during the Bush administration, permissions were not even requested; our diplomats stayed inside the Beltway all the time.”
Cabañas also noted the signing of 13 memoranda of understanding, including the establishment of direct flights between the two countries (also see “Cuba Opens Itself to American Travelers, But Change Won’t Come Overnight” in the October 2016 issue).
In fact, U.S. travel to Cuba is up 80 percent this year compared to 2015. The ease with which average Americans can now go online and book $99 flights via JetBlue, Frontier and American from South Florida to nearly a dozen Cuban cities is a far cry from just a few years ago, when such travel was unthinkable and prohibitively expensive.
On Nov. 28, the same day Cubans began lining up by the thousands to pay their final respects to Fidel — JetBlue and American began direct commercial flights from New York’s JFK to Havana.
And that’s not all, according to the ambassador.
“We will sign an MOU on law enforcement. It’s a conversation that encompasses 12 U.S. agencies and several Cuban institutions,” he said. “There are now three contracts for management of Cuban hotels, and we’re now waiting for a fourth license. There’s also an MOU on health care. What we can do in health is endless.
“Other countries have taken several years [to do] what we have done in a few months,” Cabañas said. “Some people think we’re moving too slow, others think we’re too fast. But for me, the core issue is the way we have been able to talk with respect.”
Respect and Hypocrisy
On that front, the U.S. took a symbolically important step Oct. 26 when — for the first time in 25 years — it abstained in the U.N. General Assembly’s annual ritual condemning the U.S. trade embargo, instead of casting its traditional “no” vote. Previous votes had always delivered lopsided victories for the Cuban side, with only a few countries — generally Israel and a handful of Pacific microstates — siding with the United States on the issue.
“This exercise takes place year after year. The fact the U.S. abstained this time is an expression of the belief that the embargo is a failed policy,” said Cabañas, citing Cuban government estimates that the “blockade,” as it’s known in Cuba, has cost the island’s economy more than $750 billion since its inception. “We believe that the executive power has the capacity to make changes, but some fundamental limits have to be removed by Congress.”
Indeed, despite the historic détente that Obama has orchestrated, the trade embargo remains firmly in place and, thanks to the Helms-Burton Act of 1996, can only be repealed by Congress.
America’s decades-old policy of economically isolating the island has failed to oust the communist regime from power and has been a source of worldwide derision. A growing number of Americans has also begun to question the usefulness of what many consider to be an outdated relic of the Cold War. But Congress is unlikely to lift the embargo any time soon. A core group of Republicans and Democrats, backed by influential anti-Castro voters in Florida, still strongly back the embargo and refuse to reward a regime that they say deprives Cuba’s 11 million people of democracy and freedom.
There has been tepid progress in prying open Cuba’s economy. Small businesses such as restaurants, hostels and market stalls are now permitted. Cell phones and Wi-Fi are also widespread. In addition, thousands of political prisoners have been released since Raúl took power.
Despite the gains, however, Cuba’s one-party system continues to dictate life on the island. Political opposition is stifled. Independent media is muzzled. Roughly 80 percent of the economy is still controlled by the government, whose state-run enterprises are woefully inefficient. And despite high-quality universal health care and education, Cubans struggle to get by on meager salaries and staples like milk continue to be rationed.
Yet Cabañas blasted what he called the hypocrisy of successive U.S. presidents for punishing Cuba while enjoying close relations with monarchies and authoritarian governments — he wouldn’t single any out by name — that have far worse human rights records than his own.
“For years, the United States maintained perfectly good ties with many countries that don’t have elections, with countries lacking human rights. Some of these countries not only don’t have freedom of the press, they don’t have press at all, and you’re not concerned about that. When you talk about foreign policy, you have to be consistent.”
Tracey Eaton is a prominent Cuba expert who for years served as Havana bureau chief for the Dallas Morning News.
“If the U.S. and Cuba ever want to resolve their differences, they’ve got to communicate. They’ve got to get to know each other and try to understand their differences,” he said. “That’s why it’s important that Cuba have diplomats in Washington, and that the U.S. have a presence in Havana. End that and relations will only get worse.”
Eaton told us that even under the Obama administration, the federal government — mainly through USAID — spends millions of taxpayer dollars each year to support the island’s internal political opposition, adding tension to the bilateral relationship.
“Donald Trump is an unknown quantity when it comes to Cuba. Maybe he’ll get that elusive better deal, one that both improves diplomatic relations and forces Cuba to improve human rights,” Eaton said. “Or maybe it will be a disaster and Trump will usher in a new era of hostility.”
For Cabañas, the president-elect is only the latest U.S. politician to appear on the world stage since Fidel took power in 1959 in the name of the Cuban revolution. Before then, Cuba had spent much of the early 20th century as a “neo-colony” of the United States under a series of dictators, culminating with the corrupt Batista regime in the 1950s.
The armed rebellion led by the Castro brothers along with Ernesto “Che” Guevara and other revolutionary heroes managed to overthrow Batista on Jan. 1, 1959 — just two and a half years before Cabañas was born in the coastal city of Matanzas, about 100 kilometers east of Havana.
A 1983 graduate of Havana’s Raúl Roa García Higher Institute of International Relations, Cabañas joined Cuba’s Foreign Service the following year and was eventually posted to Canada. After running the Foreign Ministry’s Division of Cuban Residents Abroad and Consular Affairs for eight years, he was named Cuba’s ambassador to Austria, with accreditation to Croatia, Slovenia and the international organizations in Vienna.
Cabañas returned to Havana in 2005 as director of the Foreign Ministry’s Division for Document Management, and in 2009 he received a doctorate in political sciences from the University of Havana. That same year, he was named deputy minister of foreign affairs — a post he held until his transfer to Washington in 2012.
As a student of history, Cabañas has a deep sense of the complex relationship between Cuba and the United States — one with a painful history despite the two countries’ shared love of baseball and other cultural affinities.
“For all those years, we were not exactly a partner of the United States,” he said. “Our market was open to any product coming from the U.S., but we never had the capacity to play as an equal. In fact, our revolution wasn’t against the United States, but only to change the status quo in Cuba. Politicians talk a lot about human rights and communism, but even before Fidel visited the United States in April 1959 to explain the situation, people here were already plotting against him to defeat the revolution.
“Back in 1959, you never found anyone talking about human rights. Even civil rights was a bad word at that time. It was simply because the Cuban revolutionary government was talking with its own voice, and not following commands coming from Washington,” Cabañas said.
“At some point, I have promised to publish a book about all the arguments for not having better relations with Cuba,” he told us. “In the early ’60s, we couldn’t have better relations because of our links with the Soviet Union. In the ’70s, it was the Cuban presence in Africa. We were put on the State Department terrorist list in 1982 without any evidence that we supported terrorism; it was simply because Ronald Reagan was paying back the CANF [Cuban American National Foundation] for the votes they had provided.”
In the ’80s, according to Cabañas, the U.S. government came up with new excuses why it could not have diplomatic ties with his country.
“Yes, Cuba supported the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but today they’re in power. Cuba supported the FMLN in El Salvador, and they’re the ruling party today.”
Even after the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba remained a communist bastion on America’s doorstep — and a thorn in Washington’s side. Fidel Castro, in fact, took great pride thumbing his nose at the Yankee government that he says tried and failed to assassinate him multiple times.
Today, however, times have changed in both Cuba and the United States.
As home to the world’s largest Cuban exile community, South Florida was once the epicenter of violent opposition to the Castro regime. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion was hatched from Miami, as was the bombing of a Cuban jetliner off the coast of Barbados in 1976 that left 73 people dead.
Yet just as images of vintage American cars parked in front of Havana’s elegant Hotel Nacional don’t reflect the real Cuba, scenes of old men in guayaberas playing dominoes in Maximo Gomez Park or plotting the next revolution at the nearby Versailles Restaurant in Little Havana don’t reflect today’s Miami, says Cabañas, who’s been there several times.
“Miami is different than it was in the ’60s and ’70s. As head of the consular services, I visited Miami the same way I visited Madrid, and I’ve witnessed how Miami has changed,” he said. “I have many friends there from those years.”
Part of the reason for the change is that a new generation of Cuban-Americans, who were never exposed to Castro’s takeover of Cuba, is less averse to engagement with the regime than their elders are. Another reason is that people-to-people interactions are on the rise.
Some 300,000 Cuban-Americans visit the island annually, and roughly 70,000 Cubans have visited the United States.
“We have so much back and forth now, with cultural exchanges, university exchanges and people-to-people travel. Many Cuban-Americans are now legal advisors for companies trying to do business in Cuba,” Cabañas said. “We have to go by statistics. You have seen how Cuban-Americans vote, and what they think about the embargo and bilateral ties with Cuba. They’re pretty similar to what average Americans think. And among those 35 and younger, the numbers are even more pronounced. So if that’s what the majority thinks, why don’t politicians go along?”
One reason is that opposition to the Castro regime was traditionally a bipartisan cause, with Democrats such as Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey joining their GOP colleagues — notably Florida Republicans like Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart — to block any relaxation of the travel ban or the embargo itself.
But even among top-level U.S. officials, there’s been a marked turnaround in recent years.
Cuban-born Carlos Gutierrez, who as secretary of commerce during the Bush era was a proponent of tough sanctions against Cuba, did an about-face after Obama’s surprise announcement in 2014 and now advocates ending the embargo immediately and forging business ties with the same regime he once condemned.
“Many of us have been involved in trying to take U.S. businesses to Cuba,” said Gutierrez, chairman of the Meridian International Center Board of Trustees. “But now we need to lift our expectations and have not just a transactional relationship where we sit down and negotiate. Why don’t we shoot for being great friends? It’s hard to have a friendship without understanding history, values and customs. There’s nothing like culture to help each country walk in the other’s shoes.”
Cuba and the United States are unlikely to become the best of friends any time soon. Nevertheless, Cabañas said there are plenty of areas of practical cooperation that would benefit both sides.
He said ending the embargo would enable both nations to cooperate far more closely on issues like environmental protection, predicting hurricanes, avoiding oil spills in the Gulf of Mexico, even fighting terrorism.
And of course, U.S. multinationals are chomping at the bit to get into a market that’s essentially been closed off to them for 55 years.
“American companies feel they’re missing out. All ports in the southeastern U.S. are looking to Mariel as an opportunity,” said Cabañas, referring to the billion-dollar container terminal and industrial-free zone just west of Havana. “Mariel is not a dream; in roughly three years, we went from a plan to a reality. The Panamanians finished the expansion of their canal and now post-Panamax ships call at U.S. ports. All of them are eager to do business with Mariel and to invest in the economic zone surrounding Mariel. How would you explain to all those people that they cannot do business with us?”
Another industry that would thrive in a post-embargo Cuba is biotechnology.
Roswell Park Cancer Institute, based in Buffalo, N.Y., is partnering with Cuba’s Center of Molecular Immunology to develop a therapeutic lung cancer vaccine. Roswell Park is now awaiting FDA approval to conduct an early-stage clinical trial for patients with advanced lung cancer.
“After a diagnosis in Cuba, such patients live 10 to 12 years with a good quality of life. In the U.S., it’s only five years. We are also trying to reach a deal with the U.S. to sell a product called Heberprot-P to fight diabetes,” said Cabañas. “You have 100,000 amputations a year because of diabetes, but in Cuba, we have stopped 73 percent of those amputations. What politician would tell 100,000 patients that he wants to reverse this progress? How would he explain that to the families?”
Cabañas didn’t mention Trump by name, but he didn’t have to; it was obvious the ambassador was talking about the nation’s 45th president and his threats to not only prevent Congress from lifting the embargo but to undo all the progress achieved by the Obama administration in the last eight years.
“We are born optimists, even under the toughest circumstances,” he said. “During an early 1990s visit to the U.S., an economics professor told me we were going downhill, that we had no future. My response to that respected professor was this: How do you measure Cuban pride, or the way our young people smile or the way we dance? If we didn’t have the embargo in place, imagine all the things we’d be able to do.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner, news editor of The Washington Diplomat, was editor and publisher of the monthly CubaNews from 2002 to 2013 and a frequent visitor to the island. He went back to Cuba this past September for the first time in 12 years.