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Cuba Expert on Obama’s Détente With One-Time Foe: It’s About Time

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President Barack Obama’s historic meeting with Raúl Castro in Panama last month didn’t produce a widely expected announcement that the U.S. would remove Cuba from its list of states that support terrorism.

But three days later, on an otherwise slow April 14 news day, the White House did, indeed, proclaim it would strike Cuba from its inventory of international terror sponsors (only Sudan, Iran and Syria now remain on the list). The de-listing removed a deep stain on the Latin American nation’s international reputation and helps smooth a path toward normalized diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba after more than 50 years of hostility.

The official White House press release announcing the president’s executive action came in the middle of The Washington Diplomat’s interview with Julia Sweig, a respected expert on Cuban-American affairs, the author of the best-selling book “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” and a former director of Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Photo: University of Texas, Austin
Julia Sweig

Sweig told The Diplomat that the first formal meeting of Cuban and American presidents in over half a century during the Summit of the Americas in Panama was hugely symbolic and opened the door to a raft of expected changes in policy between the two nations, including the removal of Cuba from the terrorism list and the eventual opening of embassies in Washington and Havana. Obama’s executive action days after the summit cemented the importance of the meeting, she said.

“It finally takes the issue off of the table, where it had clogged and poisoned the discussions for so many decades — at least the last two — and hurt America’s standing in Latin America so drastically,” Sweig said as she perused a White House email announcing the decision. “This is a major historic event.”

The United States designated Cuba as a sponsor of terrorism in the 1980s in reaction to its backing of leftist insurgent groups in Latin America. Cuba has also harbored a number of dangerous U.S. fugitives, including Charlie Hill, who is accused in the 1971 murder of a New Mexico policeman before fleeing to Cuba on an airliner hijacked from the Albuquerque airport.

But leaders from Latin America said the designation always had more to do with politics than facts — and populist presidents from Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela and elsewhere held it up as an anachronistic symbol of Yankee imperialism.

Sweig said the White House decision to take Cuba off the terror list — as well as Obama’s willingness to meet publicly with Castro — not only bodes well for Cuban-American relations, but for America’s reputation across Latin America.

“Latin America — and I mean all of Latin America; there are no exceptions here — has repeated the same message to Washington going back at least to [former U.S. President] George W. Bush: That having embargoes and sanctions against Cuba, and this dyspeptic relationship, was an impediment to American credibility as a 21st-century partner in Latin America,” Sweig explained.

“Now, the political will is there and I expect to see more in the next two years — much more,” predicted Sweig, who recently became a senior research fellow with the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin.

The first major signs of a thaw in the longstanding deep freeze in Cuban-U.S. relations came in December when Obama made a speech calling for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations — a “new chapter” for the former Cold War adversaries, as he described it. The American president also announced several new executive decisions, including the easing of limits on remittances from the U.S. to Cuba and a relaxation of rules governing U.S. citizens’ travel to the Caribbean country. (Obama does not have the power, though, to end the 1962 trade embargo, which only Congress can lift.)

The removal of Cuba from the U.S. terrorist list also paves the way for Washington and Havana to reopen embassies in each other’s capitals, although the Obama administration has said that Cuba first needs to let American diplomats travel around the country freely and cannot keep tabs on Cubans who visit the U.S. Embassy.

“We will end an outdated approach that for decades has failed to advance our interests,” Obama said in his December speech. “Neither the American nor the Cuban people are well-served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born.”

Obama also suggested that time heals wounds, noting that the U.S. and Vietnam — a communist country like Cuba that engaged in a fierce war against the U.S. — today have enjoyed 20 years of normal relations.

“Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas,” Obama said.

Not everyone in Washington cheered news of the historic meeting or Cuba’s removal from the terror list. That includes many older members of Cuba’s exile community in Florida, a powerful voting bloc that still remembers fleeing the communist island when Fidel Castro took power. Rep. John Boehner, the Republican House majority leader from Ohio, said he was “disappointed” in the developments, while Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican of Cuban descent, accused the White House of acting “only for political reasons and not in accordance with the law.”

“Since President Obama came into power, his administration’s policy toward the Castro regime has been: ask, and you shall receive,” said Ros-Lehtinen, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But this unwise decision to remove Cuba from the list illustrates that the Obama administration is willing to concede to the demands of the Castro brothers in order to set up an embassy in Cuba.

“Removing Cuba from the terrorist list does not help the Cuban people, as they are still left oppressed and without even basic human rights while emboldening its oppressors,” she said.

But supporters of Obama’s rapprochement point out that the State Department terrorism designation deals with just that — terrorism, not human rights abuses, political prisoners or other issues that will be the subject of diplomatic talks. They also argue that half a century of isolation, not to mention various covert attempts at regime change, have failed to dislodge the Castros from power. Opening the communist island to American ideas and investment, they say, would better help Cuba’s 11 million people.

Sweig said the inclusion of Cuba on the terrorism list has had dire implications for the country’s economy, preventing Havana from accessing the U.S. financial system. (Even Cuba’s Interests Section in Washington has to operate only in cash because banks won’t work with it).

“It is a significant disincentive not only to American trade and investment in Cuba but to trade and investment in Cuba generally,” she said, explaining how U.S. counter-terrorist measures related to banking and finance since Sept. 11, 2001, have hurt Cuba, even though the rules are primarily aimed at nations such as Iran, Syria, North Korea and Libya. “Removing Cuba from the list will begin to take that stigma off and send a symbol to the international community that Cuba is becoming kosher, or is kosher, for foreign trade and investment.”

That’s not to say U.S. investors are planning the modern-day equivalent of a gold rush in the dilapidated country. Since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, about 60 percent of businesses propped up by foreign investment in Cuba have failed. The country’s tight-fisted regulatory environment poses major entrepreneurial hurdles. Further, the Helms-Burton Act of 1996 expanded the U.S. trade embargo, and only Congress has the authority to repeal that, a distant prospect, at best.

“For large-scale American capital investment in Cuba, Helms-Burton needs to be repealed or significantly changed,” Sweig said. “The legislature has to act. That’s why we heard the president say in the State of the Union [speech] that Congress needs to do its thing, too.”

Sweig said U.S. companies are naturally reticent about engaging with Cuba because of the longstanding rules and laws that disallowed it. She suspects that will begin to change.

“If a couple of big business deals, or even small but symbolic and important deals, can be agreed to between American companies and Cuba, that is going to create momentum for further changes in the regulatory framework,” she said. “There are in a lot of places regulations I think that are purposely silent and that is a way of saying there is a grey area here, so go and explore and push the boundaries.

“I think the more that that happens it will create a kind of virtuous circle where more will be possible and the White House will do more on the regulatory side,” she added.

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Photo: Maria Patricia Leiva / OAS
Cuba's Raúl Castro speaks at the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, where he met President Obama in the first face-to-face meeting between a Cuban and U.S. head of state in over 50 years.

During Raúl Castro’s lengthy speech in Panama, Obama listened intently as the 83-year-old leader, who formally took over for his brother Fidel in 2008, outlined a litany of “imperialist aggression” by the United States. The former revolutionary referenced America’s “wars, conquests and interventions” in the region and said the U.S. had been a “hegemonic force that plundered territories throughout the Americas.” Castro noted that Congress authorized military intervention in Cuba in the late 19th century and that a U.S. military base in Guantanamo still “occupies our territory.” Obama said recently that his failure to close the deeply controversial facility was one of the biggest regrets of his presidency. But while he criticized U.S. policy, Castro also absolved Obama of any responsibility for America’s past actions.

“I always appreciate the history lesson,” Obama said wryly after Castro’s speech.

Sweig said Castro’s pointed remarks were skillfully diplomatic. They spoke to deep, lingering resentments toward American intervention in Latin America — including helping to topple democratically elected regimes in the 1970s and 1980s — but also offered an olive branch.

“That history is very meaningful, so he was reciting it yet again in the presence of the president while at the same time apologizing to the president and absolving him of responsibility and saying, ‘Let’s move forward,’” she said. “[Obama] sat there and listened to it…. What really hit home to me in the body language and the statements over the last several days was that these two people have figured out how to talk to one another. They are crystal clear about where they are going.

“They are actually getting to know one another … and they are managing their own publics and expectations,” she added.

Sweig also pointed out that for all of its geopolitical baggage and international isolation, Cuba is deeply respected in the realm of diplomacy, as was evidenced by its preparation and dynamic participation at meetings with U.S. officials in Havana last month. (Havana is also hosting peace talks between the Colombian government and FARC rebels to end a decades-long insurgency in that country).

“Cuba is known internationally as one of the most professional [diplomatic corps] anywhere,” she said. “Cuba has a long history of punching way above its weight, as it does in terms of having prominence for itself that is larger than what its island status and small population would suggest. Cuba was a founding member of the World Trade Organization, for example. There is this deep bench of experience with diplomacy there.”

Instead of focusing on detrimental Cuban behavior — human rights violations and sometimes brutal suppression of its political dissidents — Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have recently hailed the country for its work in disaster-relief zones.

Cuba is often a first responder to international crises. Its doctors and health workers were among the first in Liberia when the recent Ebola outbreak occurred, and the country was also on the scene in 2005 and 2010 when Pakistan and Haiti were rocked by devastating earthquakes. According to an academic analysis, Cuba sent more doctors to Ebola-stricken countries than the Red Cross, Doctors Without Borders and any other nation.

“Cuba’s greatest tool is probably in public health and medical diplomacy around the world — boots on the ground sending people to crisis places,” Sweig said, recalling how Fidel Castro even offered to send relief workers to help in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina but was rebuffed by the Bush administration.

“These are different times,” she said. “I think this administration, as the president said, recognizes there will continue to be disagreement on how we organize our societies, but where global cooperation is possible we ought to do it. Cuba excels in the health field and the U.S. can’t be everywhere. It’s a real opportunity that pays real dividends outside of ideological battles.”

Turning the tables to domestic politics and the 2016 presidential race, Sweig said it’s too soon to predict how Cuba will play in the upcoming campaign. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, is firmly on board with Obama’s push toward normalization. The Republican candidates are a bit less predictable.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio, both Florida Republicans, are not supportive. Florida has a long history of animosity toward the Cuban government, as the state has taken in thousands of Cuban refugees who fled Fidel Castro’s repressive regime. Cuban Americans in Florida have long tended to vote Republican in support of the party’s more hardline approach to Cuba, but that could be changing, especially among younger voters.

“The organic flow of people and money and stuff between Florida and Cuba is what is going to eventually change the politics of this issue in Florida,” Sweig said. “The Florida politicians are behind their own voters and public opinion among Cuban Americans has also shifted. You see travel, remittances, connecting back with their families and also the last several polls show a majority of Cuban Americans support some level of opening or lifting the travel ban for everybody at a minimum.

“Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush have been adamant in their opposition to this,” she said, “but I think that’s more about campaign politics than it is about their own constituents.”


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on May 11, 2015