Many scholars of the conflict between Cuba and the United States have expressed the opinion that a thaw in relations between the two neighbors can only be possible in the second term of any president in the northern nation. In the recent book by Peter Kornbluh and William LeoGrande about the hidden story of negotiations between Havana and Washington, Fidel Castro is quoted stating this to a group of retired US ambassadors in 1994, during Bill Clinton’s second year in the White House. Around the same time the Republican Party achieved a landslide victory in the midterm elections, as it happened in the past elections of November 4th.
One might add that a thawing process as such has always been more likely with a Democrat than with a Republican president. Since the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, only 4 presidents were re-elected: Republicans Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton. None of the first three made the slightest effort to improve or normalize relations with Cuba in their second terms. Clinton, who privately disagreed with blockade, had an ambiguous rec6ord, largely motivated by circumstances created by himself. His positive gestures toward the island include the migration agreements signed with the Cuban government in 1994-1995, he promoted cooperation in fighting narcotics smuggling, returned the boy Elian Gonzalez to his father in 2000 and at the end of his presidency approved the widest flexibilization for US citizens to travel to Cuba since James Carter.
The link between the electoral process and the evolution of US policy toward Cuba is a fact that has been broadly analyzed by different specialists. It is not, as many believe, that the issue is purely domestic or that the lobby or the Cuban-American voters to be determinant in the policy towards Cuba. This one was created and implemented by the American power sectors in the 1960s when Florida did not have the electoral importance that today has and Cuban Americans were mere instruments of the institutions dealing with the issue of Cuba, the CIA, the State Department and Pentagon fundamentally.
What happens is that Washington is not a single rational actor and foreign policy in general and in particular cases are the result of the correlation of forces existing within the ruling class and the power elite, their political budgets, their ideological preferences and their perceptions about their interests and how to realize them. Given the structure and dynamics of the American political system, elections become struggle arenas among different sectors to set the agenda and policy. You can not lose sight of the fact that, barring exceptional situations like the one immediately after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, since the 1960s, the political class in Washington is divided and polarized without the emergence of a faction that can impose its will to the rest.
Hence, despite majority tacit acknowledgment that the policy toward Cuba has failed and must be changed, it remains as such, and has even become the official position of the northern state through the Torricelli and Helms-Burton Amendments adopted by the Congress in 1992 and 1996, thus curtailing the power of the President in the matter. It is worth remembering that both years were election years.
The essence of the conflict lies in the contradiction between the sovereign will of the Cuban nation to conduct its affairs without external interference, which already caused several damage in the past, and the hegemonic obstinacy on the island that still prevails within the ruling class but that had its origins in the “doctrine of ripe fruit,” prepared by John Quincy Adams in 1823. This is what Professor Lou Perez has called an “obsessive-compulsive syndrome.”
In the long term, the US State will have to give up at some point to this “ripe fruit syndrome ” and start with Cuba a process leading to more civilized relations of interest to both nations. This political accountability depends on the US president. If someone is able to do this is President Barack Obama, who in the past has shown signs of understanding the need for change. In 2004, while still a senator, he argued against the so-called “embargo”; during the 2008 election campaign he said he would be willing to sit and talk with any adversary, including Cuban President; in 2009 at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad Tobago he called for “a new beginning”; and in 2013 he suggested the intelligent and creative “upgrade” of the policy towards Cuba, nothing more and nothing less than in the city of Miami, while doing something that no president had done so far, he shook the hand of President Raul Castro during Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
It is noteworthy that the current president was elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012, winning in both cases in the state of Florida, even though he had a considerably less aggressive position towards Cuba than that of his opponents, John McCain and Mitt Romney. It can be said then that he shattered a myth of American domestic politics: to win a presidential election you must take the hardest possible position in the Cuban issue in order to ensure victory in the state of Florida. This myth became infamous in 2000 when Cuban-Americans were decisive in Al Gore’s doubtful defeat by 517 votes in that state, which gave George W. Bush a “victory” in the most controversial election in modern history of that country.
However, as in many other issues, President Obama has disappointed by his paradoxical tendency to pronounce grandiloquent speeches in which he appears as the transformational leader by whom many Americans voted in 2008 and 2012, and that the world applauded, to then show weaknesses in implementing policies in line with his grandiose goals.
Under Obama administration, the US government has embarked on a difficult and slow process of redesigning the policy toward Cuba that began with the punitive measures that George W. Bush imposed in 2003 for Cuban Americans interested in maintaining a normal relationship with their homeland and discontinued, in fact, two grotesque initiatives implemented by his predecessor that obeyed the desires of the most reactionary sectors of the ruling class and the Cuban-American right: the creation, within the Department of State of a Commission for a free Cuba and the position of a Coordinator for Cuban Transition. Obama has reduced the level of anti-Cuban rhetoric. Additionally, he adopted a policy of relaxing “people to people” contacts, although justified it as a means to achieve the same old goal: regime change in Cuba. Finally, he has resumed migration talks and has initiated negotiations on technical issues such as restoring regular postal service between the two countries.
In fact, under Obama the policy remains virtually the same in purpose and tools highlighting, among others, the continuation of the unilateral and illegal economic, trade and financial sanctions that Cuba and the United Nations call blockade and US qualifies as embargo; maintenance of the Island on the list of state sponsoring terrorism, which consequently leads to apply additional, highly damaging sanctions; ineffective and pathetic efforts to isolate Havana diplomatically; subversive politics channelled through USAID; and an official rhetoric that disqualifies the legitimacy of the Cuban government, against the grain of the unanimous opinion of the international community.
Cuba’s position to this issue has been clearly stated by President Raúl Castro late last year:
“If in recent times we have been able to sustain some exchanges on issues of mutual benefit between Cuba and the United States, we believe we can solve other issues of interest and establish a civil relationship between the two countries as our people and the vast majority of US citizens and Cuban migration want.
“As far as we are concerned, we have expressed on many occasions the willingness to sustain a respectful dialogue with the United States, in equality and without compromising the independence, sovereignty and self-determination of the nation. We do not claim the United States to change its political and social system neither we accept to negotiate ours. If we really want to advance in bilateral relations, we must learn to mutually respect our differences and get used to live peacefully with them. Only in this way; otherwise, we are willing to endure another 55 years in the same situation. ”
If taking into account a series of recent public demonstrations by the President himself, Secretary of State John Kerry and Ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, especially those by the latter in relation to the Cuban-American cooperation in the fight to eradicate Ebola in West Africa, we could find ourselves at the threshold of what could eventually become a process to normalize relations. But we should not underestimate the great obstacles in the way, including the need for a change of mind and purpose with respect to Cuba as The New York Times suggested in a series of 6 editorials that have been published up to this day since the end of October. These publishing show how much it has grown into the dominant class and the power elite a different view on relations with Cuba that gives hope that we may be on the eve of the end of the “ripe fruit syndrome.”
The New York Times editorials and the open Cuban-American cooperation in the fight to reverse the epidemic of Ebola in Africa are not the only symptoms that the thaw may have begun. There are other factors and variables to consider.
One is the latest evolution of the international system. On one hand, the US is not experiencing one of its best moments. It remains the leading world power, but its influence is diminished. Major competitors have emerged in various fields such as China and Russia, and some allies show increasing signs of autonomy. Barack Obama needs successes in his foreign policy to counterbalance Washington’s international image, as he did recently in China with the signing of an agreement on climate change. That is precisely the initial argument of the first editorial in The New York Times on October 12th. If you consider that there is a growing conviction that the presence of Cuban President at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, in April 2015, will be inevitable, perhaps the President and his advisors come to the conclusion that it is better to become necessary into a virtue and not just greet Raul Castro, as he did last year in Johannesburg, but to give some step further, especially since the media will be responsible for providing a huge coverage to this meeting. In any case, sitting at the same table with Cuba would break a core budget of US policy, the alleged illegitimacy of Havana government.
From the internal point of view, the partial elections of November 4, with all the detriment to the President and his party, did not change much the picture of the different sectors that have an interest in policy toward Cuba. Proponents of maintaining the current policy did not obtain any significant success. Replacing Joe Garcia, the Cuban Democratic congressman by the Republican Carlos Curbelo was not the result of the latter to have a very different vision from his predecessor, David Rivera, on the subject. Rather, it could be argued otherwise, he did not know how to get away from them. However, Charlie Crist, who clearly did statements against economic sanctions, although he lost the election to Rick Scott, had a much more decorous election result and won counties like Miami-Dade, where a high percentage of Cubans vote. Another important element of this election cycle is that the likely presidential candidate for the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, who campaigned on behalf of her coreligionists, openly spoke also for a change in policy toward Cuba.
Finally, the loss of control of the Senate by the Democrats means that its Foreign Relations Committee will no longer be led by Cuban Bob Menendez, who from his influential position had obstructionist attitudes against Obama’s few efforts of change. His possible replacement, Senator Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), has not Menendez’s ideological zeal and falls within the moderate wing of his party. It would certainly be easier for the Administration to work with Corker than with Menendez on Cuba. This does not mean that Menendez, along with John McCain and Marco Rubio, for example, will stop criticizing any changes. But State Department officials involved in a possible improvement of relations with Cuba can breathe more easily at the prospect of a battle for the nomination to a position of responsibility.
The long agenda of pending problems in relations between Cuba and the United States can be divided into two broad categories: those can be solved by the president without the participation of the Congress and have an immediate effect because its persistence makes them significant obstacles; and those that would involve a more or less lengthy negotiation process at two levels, within the American political class and between the Cuban and American government, for instance, the lifting of economic sanctions and the establishment of normal diplomatic relations. It would be very difficult for President Obama to undertake this latest agenda in the little time he has left, though the editorial of The New York Times’ and Hillary Clinton’s public statements have put them on the table.
Perhaps the administration will feel able to undertake the more immediate agenda that would include: attendance and meeting of the two presidents at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, matter that seems resolved; removing Cuba from the list of states sponsoring terrorism; the continued flexibilization for US citizens to travel to Cuba; and mutual release on humanitarian grounds of Alan Gross and the 3 Cuban anti terrorist condemned to long unjust sentences in the United States, Gerardo Hernandez, Antonio Guerrero and Ramón Labañino.
The presence of Raul Castro in Panama would not be limited to only a token participation. In fact, it would mean the entry of Cuba, for the first time, in a diplomatic process that will discuss and negotiate common interests with the US in areas in which both countries are already working bilaterally, such as in the fight against drug trafficking, but also in other important areas. The Cuban diplomacy, which creditworthiness can be little doubt, would be present in the future in the preparatory processes of future summits, with all that that means. Recall that Havana put as a condition that its participation was on an equal basis and unconditionally. This implies both rights and responsibilities to the future of this project.
The cancellation of the classification of Cuba as a state sponsoring terrorism is probably the most feasible and desirable measure that President Obama can adopt before the summit as there would certainly be an act of justice to Havana and would result in the elimination of certain penalties that have been very damaging even for operation of bilateral relations. Like the president acted just weeks before the 2009 Summit in Trinidad Tobago adopting the measures announced toward Cuba, we can not rule out a similar step in Panama, which would be not only a gesture toward the government of Havana but to the governments of the region, including Canada. It would have the virtue that other Presidents would not be forced to touch the subject, including the one from Colombia, who has already expressed his disagreement with this measure.
The relaxation for US citizens to travel to Cuba has been one of the most important steps that Obama administration has taken. It has the virtue that it can be defended in terms of that it is a constitutional right. Although the President and his advisers have insisted that their purpose is to “promote democracy and citizen autonomy” in Cuba, the fact is that it contributes to undermine the demonization undertaken by the island and its government. It is likely that this flexibilization will continue, though it will continue being criticized by its opponents.
Finally, regarding the short-term agenda, both parties could negotiate a humanitarian measure of mutual trust to remove from the table two cases of citizens of their countries who were arrested, tried and convicted by the other for activities deemed illegal in their respective legislations. Both cases are highly sensitive to both societies but hinder progress on other issues on the agenda. It is in the interest of both governments to give a quick solution to them in a humanitarian spirit.
Although once again we could be facing a false start of a process of normalization, a sign that this time the government of the United States is really interested in starting the thawing of relations may be the recent appointment of an experienced diplomat, connoisseur of Cuba, to head its representation in Havana, Ambassador Jeff Delaurentis. One of the lessons derived from Kornbluh and LeoGrande´s exhaustive study of secret negotiations between Havana and Washington is the importance of not erring in mutual perceptions. Cuban late Foreign Minister, Raul Roa, once said the characteristics of a good diplomat include “the skilful handling of tactics, feel and touch.” Usually, the Cuban government has put in charge of negotiations with the United States to its best diplomats, people with a great knowledge of our northern neighbor. That has not always been the case with the United States, sometimes they have even sent to Cuba as head of the US Interests Section to people solely interested in provoking a rupture of the scarce existing relationships, as in the case of the infamous James Cason.
This trend seems to have reversed with Delaurentis, who has been in permanent mission in Cuba twice before, in the late 1980s and early 1990s and more recently in the early century. At this Cuban experience in situ we must add having worked the Cuban issue from the National Security Council in Washington in mid 1990. As such, he participated in some very sensitive negotiations told by LeoGrande and Kornbluh, those concerning to the message that President Fidel Castro sent to President Bill Clinton through Gabriel Garcia Marquez in May 1998, proposing collaboration in the field of anti-terrorist struggle. Delaurentis´ last post before coming to Havana was the one of US Alternate Delegate to the United Nations, a position in which he performed under the supervision of Ambassadors Susan Rice (current National Security Adviser of President Obama) and Samantha Power (one of the most influential people in the management of US foreign policy).
The existence of a thawing process is still incipient in Cuban-American relations is a major challenge for Cuba, for its government and its citizens. It is crucial not to give wrong signals. The US policy toward Cuba has generally focused on the existing perception in the ruling class, the power elite and their institutions on Cuba and the survivability of their government. This perception is not unique. It has always been the subject of considerable debate. If we’ve reached this point is just because Cuban diplomacy has continued to send two clear signals. On one hand the willingness to rebuild the broken bridge and reshape the relations on basis of mutual respect. On the other, we demonstrate in words and deed the willingness to resist. But we should also keep in mind what was said by Raul Castro last year in the last session of the National Assembly when he stated: “If we really want to advance in bilateral relations, we must learn to mutually respect our differences and get used to live peacefully with them.”