In 2020, two political events that have importance for the Cuban nation could coincide. On the one hand, the government expressed the will to convene the 4th Conference of the Nation and Emigration to be held in Havana this year.  If it can be held, it will be the first conclave of this type since the previous one in March 2014, that is, six years ago. Since then until now, much has changed in Cuba and in its emigration, but also in the United States and in bilateral relations.
The 2014 conference took place when an incipient thaw between Cuba and the United States had begun and just eight months before the historic agreement between Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama to initiate a normalization process starting with the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, even before the blockade was lifted, as Cuba had rightly insisted.
This time it would take place in a completely different bilateral climate. Relations have been substantially deteriorated by the aggressive actions of President Donald Trump and his administration, led by two representatives of the right-wing Cuban-American lobby, Marco Rubio and Mauricio Claver Carone. At this time, not only has the economic, commercial and financial blockade been strengthened, but it has been refined to cause the greatest possible damage to the Cuban people and government, with the clear support of the most recalcitrant Cuban-American emigration from the right.
On the other, there will be presidential elections in the United States on November 3. With respect to Cuba, these elections will have interesting characteristics. It is true that our country is no longer a high priority issue as it was, for example, in 1960. However, it had the dubious honor of being mentioned by President Donald Trump, in his State of the Union address on February 3, when he said: “If we had not reversed the failed economic policies of the previous administration, the world would not be witnessing now this great economic success of the United States. That is why my administration reversed the previous administration’s failed policies on Cuba.”
But this year, for the second time in the long history of relations between the two countries after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, there will be a clear difference between the candidates of one or the other party on what position they will hold with respect to Cuba. The ruling party, with Donald Trump at the helm, will defend the continuation of its “regime change with prejudice” policy. From the opposition, whoever the Democratic candidate is, Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, will be obliged, at the very least, to defend the return to the Barack Obama policy, based on the agreement mentioned above. (I’m not going to enter here into the debate on whether Obama was still pursuing the strategic objective of “regime change” but through other means or if he had abandoned that purpose, as he alleged both in his March speech in Havana and in the October 2016 Presidential Directive.)
Donald Trump, like other presidents who preceded him, especially Republicans, is carrying out his policy against Cuba based on an anachronistic but effective electoral calculation: to be reelected, he must win Florida; to win Florida, he has to get the Cuban-American vote; to get the Cuban-American vote, he has to adopt an aggressive position against Cuba and Venezuela. That is why he referred to our country in the aforementioned address. This statement had little electoral repercussion, even in spite of its perverse logic: that of Barack Obama, who according to Trump failed, was a policy that was barely two years old, the one his administration is following now is the same one that did not have the result sought for 55 years, between 1959 and 2014.
However, the statements that did put the Cuban issue at the center of the electoral debates, for at least a few days, were those made by Bernie Sanders regarding Cuba and Fidel Castro on February 23 in “60 minutes,” the popular Sunday program of the U.S. television channel CBS. Those statements sparked an angry reaction in two different environments. First, in extreme Cuban-American circles in the city of Miami , where he was condemned for not “being sensitive to the suffering of that community.” Second, within the Democratic Party itself, partly because Sanders was the leader in the race for the nomination of his party after winning or doing very well in the initial three primaries, and partly because the rest of his competitors and some congressmen in Florida believed it risky not to put distance between themselves and those protests in such an important election year.
These reactions are paradoxical because Sanders said nothing that was really new or insulting. He limited himself to pointing out that on the Island “not everything was bad” and gave as an example the 1961 Cuban literacy campaign, which has been praised both in academic studies and by UNESCO, the organization that deals precisely with world education. Incidentally, Sanders did not limit himself to that statement. He took the opportunity to criticize some traditions of U.S. foreign policy and specifically the policies that the administration is pursuing at this time. This incident happened in the context pointed out: Donald Trump has viciously reversed the policy of his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama, who at the time also praised Cuban achievements in social matters.
In this context, it is incongruous that the Democratic candidates who criticized Sanders have not also referred to the evident failure that this policy has had over the years, it’s not the one that the citizens of that country prefer with respect to Cuba, as various polls have shown and that is obviously detrimental to the national interests of the United States. This policy, in addition, is rejected by the main allies of the United States, constitutes a clear violation of public international law and imposes damages for the Cuban people.
However, Donald Trump and his collaborators have tried to legitimize that policy through a discourse demonizing the Cuban government, such as the one given by John Bolton in Miami on April 17, 2019. It is much more incongruous that these passions are still fueled if it is taken into account that the object of these statements by the “Cuban exiles” and the Democratic candidates, the historical leader of the Cuban Revolution, has not ruled Cuba for twelve years and died four years ago.
Sanders’ words put him in a unique category for a presidential election campaign in the United States: he did it with complete honesty; accepted what is obvious, that there is no reason to maintain the blockade against Cuba, as was accepted by Barack Obama when he carried out his presidential campaign in 2007; and that there are many things to learn from the Cuban government. Something, by the way, that Obama himself said on several occasions. It can be concluded, therefore, that the most consistent follower of the last Democratic president’s policy towards Cuba is not who his vice president was, Joe Biden, but Senator Bernie Sanders.
On the other hand, Sanders’ words confirmed something that was to be expected: the Cuban issue will somehow figure in the battle for the 2020 election.
In this context, it would be advisable for Cuba to take a look, albeit briefly, at the evolution of this phenomenon that we might well call “Cuba: the nation, emigration, and the presidential elections in the United States.”
1960-1980: presidential campaigns and Cuba policy
A first stage in the evolution of this political phenomenon took place in the elections of between 1960 and 1980, that is, in six presidential campaigns, three of which were won by Republican candidates and 3 by Democrats. As it is easy to verify, from the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 and until 1980 the policy towards Cuba appeared as an almost always recurring topic of debate in the U.S. presidential campaigns, with the exception of that of 1976. The result was almost never beneficial for Cuba or for bilateral relations. This was the case even in 1960, when the first magistracy was contested by Vice President Richard Nixon for the Republican Party and Senator John F. Kennedy for the Democratic Party.
Perhaps it’s worth recalling what Fidel Castro himself said to French journalist Jean Daniel during his private conversations in November 1963 that unfortunately coincided with the fateful murder of the President of the United States on the 22nd of that month: “I have not forgotten that Kennedy focused his electoral campaign against Nixon on the issue of maintaining a firm stand on Cuba.”
The then Cuban Prime Minister explained to Daniel:
“I think Kennedy is sincere,” said Fidel. “I also believe that expressing that sincerity today may have political significance. I will explain what I mean. I haven’t forgotten that Kennedy focused his electoral campaign against Nixon on the issue of maintaining a firm stand towards Cuba. I have not forgotten the Machiavellian tactics and the mistake, the invasion attempts, the pressures, the blackmail, the organization of the counter-revolution, the blockade and, above all, all the vengeful measures that were imposed before, long before the pretext of communism existed. But I feel that he inherited a difficult situation: I don’t think the President of the United States is ever really free, and I think Kennedy is right now feeling the impact of his lack of freedom. I also believe that he now understands the extent to which he has been deceived, especially, for example, with Cuba’s response during the Bay of Pigs invasion. I also think he is realistic: he is now understanding that it is impossible to use a magic wand to make us, and the explosive situation in all of Latin America, disappear.”
Obviously, Fidel Castro was rationalizing the secret contacts that the Cuban and U.S. governments had begun to maintain at that time on the initiative of President Kennedy with a view to exploring the viability of a process of normalization of relations, as several researchers have shown, including Peter Kornbluh and William Leogrande in their essential volume Back Channel to Cuba.
With his sights set on that, the Cuban leader explained that Kennedy probably acted as he acted not because he was convinced that he was doing well, but because in the presidential electoral campaign he had promised to do it without considering its consequences. This would be a recurring “modus operandi” among the candidates in the presidential electoral campaigns from that moment on. And Fidel Castro valued it exactly like this when he received the first messages from New York about the American interest in seeking an understanding. That was precisely what the Cuban leader had sought before and after the Bay of Pigs attack.
For many observers, the statements made by presidential candidates in the United States during their electoral campaigns, particularly in foreign policy, should not be taken seriously if the context in which they express them is not analyzed. They tend to make attractive statements to their constituencies. In reality, these statements are often without foundation or support, even if they intend to do the opposite when they assume power.
Thus, for example, in 1992 Bill Clinton constantly criticized his opponent, President George W.H. Bush, for his intentions to grant China the most-favored-nation clause despite alleged violations of the Asian government’s human rights, and then do exactly the same when he was elected. Obviously, candidate Clinton preferred ideologically “pure and simple” rhetoric, while President Clinton opted for a pragmatic defense of specific American interests, in this case that of companies with large investments in China that exported their “Made in China” manufactures to the opulent U.S. market.
What Fidel Castro was saying to Jean Daniel is essential to understand Cuban policy towards the United States and particularly why it is important for those of us who live on the island to follow the presidential electoral campaigns and the influence that they may have on the U.S. position towards Cuba. Between 1960 and 1980 this demagogic tendency for ideologically harsh rhetoric with negative results, manifested itself in almost all cases without the factor of Cuban emigration and its political influence in the state of Florida mediating. In Cuba it was believed then, and with reason, that it did not matter who was elected President of the United States (Lyndon Johnson in 1964, Richard Nixon in 1968 and 1972, and James Carter in 1976) or who his defeated opponent was (Barry Goldwater in 1964, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, George McGovern in 1972, and Gerald Ford in 1976), there was very little chance that the “regime change through coercion” policy would be altered. That conviction led Fidel Castro to use the famous saying “Juana and her sister are the same thing” when referring to the 1964 confrontation between Johnson and Goldwater, even though that did not prevent him from continuing covert exchanges with the former, as demonstrated by Kornbluh and LeoGrande in the mentioned work.
Throughout these years (1960-1980) the role assigned to Cuban emigration by the factual American powers was fundamentally that of an instrument of established policy, regime change through coercion, coercion and violence that did not vary substantially until Jimmy Carter came to power in 1976. They did not participate in or influence politics as happened years later.
Paradoxically, the first most active intervention of Cuban emigrants in bilateral relations was precisely through Presidents Fidel Castro and Jimmy Carter, who did it separately, the first calling for Dialogue with the Cuban Community abroad in September of 1978 and the second indicating that this Dialogue would be well seen and supported by the White House.
The specialized literature on the process of importance of Cuban emigrants in U.S. politics is abundant and includes, among others, Cuban sociologists and political scientists (Jesús Arboleya and Antonio Aja, for example), Americans (Susan Eckstein, Patrick Haney, Walt Vanderbrush and Canberk Koçak) and Cuban-Americans (Lisandro Pérez, Guillermo Grenier and María Cristina García) and even a Japanese, Hideaki Kami, whose recent book Diplomacy Meets Migration: US Relations with Cuba during the Cold War is an extremely interesting contribution to literature by someone who can investigate it “from the outside.”
The case of Jimmy Carter’s election and his policy towards Cuba deserves reflection. Exceptionally, the issue of Cuba had little relevance in the 1976 campaign despite the fact that since 1975 there had been secret conversations promoted by Henry Kissinger after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 and the rise to the presidency of Gerald Ford because of the Watergate scandal. President Carter, once inaugurated in January 1977, moved quickly towards normalization, proposing to the Cuban side the establishment of relations at the level of Interest Sections. However, his administration had great difficulty moving forward due to its internal contradictions and the constant creation of “artificial crises” by Republican politicians with the help of the media.
In the heat of that thaw, numerous Democratic senators traveled to Havana in support of normalization and in attempts to establish talks with the Cuban government. At the same time, Cuba established a dialogue with representatives of the Cuban emigration, as already indicated. These steps and initiatives had an unintended consequence: they motivated the activation of powerful interests of the so-called “historical exile,” grouped around the RECE (Cuban Representation in Exile) and its leader, Jorge Más Canosa. Eventually, that group would form the hard core of what would later be called the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) created with the support of the Reagan administration as we will see in the next installment.
It’s worth noting that the attempt at normalization initiated between the Cuban government and the Jimmy Carter administration in 1977 failed four years later, not because the so-called “historical exile” had the influence it later acquired, but because important U.S. political sectors torpedoed it, even from within the White House itself, in this case by National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, as Cuban historian Elier Ramírez has recently shown. Carter lost the campaign for reelection not because of his policy towards Cuba but because of a combination of factors which involved the economic situation and what was perceived as a humiliation at the hands of the Iranian revolutionaries who took over the United States Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
 When beginning to write this text, the Cuban government had announced the convocation for April 10-12. Before finishing it, it was announced that it would be postponed due to the coronavirus crisis. Although it is not yet known what the new date will be, I assume that the will of the national authorities is to hold it this year.