With the conclusion on Tuesday of the first formal talks between Cuba and the United States on human rights, both countries agreed that they were capable of holding a “respectful, professional [and] civilized conversation” on the issue of human rights.
Representatives from both countries met yesterday in Washington DC in the first of many dialogues to be held between the U.S. and Cuba as part of the process to normalize bilateral relations, first announced by U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro on December 17, 2014.
The U.S. delegation was led by Tom Malinowski, the U.S. undersecretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor. Meanwhile, Pedro Luis Pedroso, deputy director of multilateral affairs and international law at the Cuban Foreign Ministry, headed the Cuban delegation.
Cuban Ambassador Anaysansi Rodríguez Camejo acknowledged “differences” between the two sides in terms of how human rights “are protected and promoted in their respective countries as in the international arena.”
Cuba is the Groundhog Day of the twentieth century. That the United States’ policy of isolation and permanent embargo went on into the 21st century is testimony to the endurance of both Americans and Cubans in making a failed policy become a third rail in U.S. domestic policy.
Not that there weren’t attempts at reconciliation over the last five decades. Nevertheless, changes are taking place now that will finally help move the United States beyond the outdated Cold War posturing to the realpolitik that its policy toward Cuba deserves.
Roughly three months have passed since President Barack Obama announced his policy shift on Cuba. The December 17 announcement, which took many by surprise, was long in the making. It reflected a cautious diplomacy that ended fifty years of a failed policy.
Almost everyone connected with Obama’s simple logic that if something has not worked after fifty years, it was time to try something new! But creating something new after such a long period of propaganda and disinformation will take hard work on the part of both the U.S. and the Cuban government.
After 50 years of Cuba’s isolation, it will take time to build trust between the two governments.
U.S.-based IDT Domestic Telecom, Inc. and the state-run telecommunications compnay Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba, S.A. (Cuban Telecommunications Enterprise, S.A.—ETECSA) have re-established a direct telephone link between the two countries. ETESCA announced the connection via a press release on Wednesday, but did not specify when the service went into effect. “The re-establishment of direct communications between the United States and Cuba will help offer greater ease and quality of communications between the people of both nations,” the statement said.
This marks the first commercial agreement between the two countries since the Obama administration announced in December 2014 that it would allow telecoms to operate in Cuba as part of its broader rapprochement with the island. However, IDT’s efforts to re-establish direct calls to Cuba precede these changes. “We had conversation for a period of years hoping there would be interest and nothing happened,” said Bill Ulrey, IDT’s Vice-President of Investor Relations, according to the Miami Herald. “But then we submitted it to them again last year and we began to negotiate it but it’s not clear whether their willingness was a part of the ongoing negotiations.”
Previously, calls between the U.S. and Cuba needed to be routed through a third country, elevating costs. IDT has not yet announced new rates for international calls.
On Saturday, Senator Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vermont) led the first official congressional delegation to Cuba since the restoration of diplomatic ties with the Caribbean island nation on December 17. Leahy’s office stated that the objective of the trip is to “seek clarity from the Cubans on what they envision normalization to look like, going beyond past rote responses such as ‘end the embargo.’”
The delegation—composed of five Democrats from Capitol Hill—boarded its flight to Havana one day after the U.S. Departments of Treasury and Commerce published their new regulations on travel to and trade with Cuba.
Although no formal agreements were reached and there was no indication that the embargo will be lifted, the tone of the delegation’s visit has been friendly and marked by guarded optimism. The American legislators talked with various government officials, including Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez, as well as anti-government dissidents, to hash out the details of establishing relations in trade, communications and agriculture.
While insisting that Cuba will maintain a one-party political system and centrally planned economy, Rodriguez was reportedly “open to every single issue,” welcoming the full package of new economic links. Meetings with non-governmental actors—such as Elizardo Sánchez, head of the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission—may have prevented the delegation from sitting down with President Raúl Castro, but they yielded a list requesting the release of 24 long-term prisoners in addition to the 53 just released by the Cuban government as part of the policy reset deal.
Tonight, President Obama will deliver the annual Statue of the Union address to Congress. Foreign aid contractor and recently returned political prisoner Alan Gross will be seated beside First Lady Michelle Obama—a good indication that the president will address Cuba policy in his speech. Tomorrow, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson will travel to Havana to negotiate the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, which was officially closed in 1961 but has remained partially active as a “special interests section” since 1977. The State Department is considering removing Cuba from the list of states that sponsor terrorism and will continue to dismantle embargo-related sanctions.
Americas Society/Council of the Americas published “Open letter to President Obama: Support for a New Course on Cuba” yesterday, cosigned by 78 stakeholders, policy experts and former U.S. officials, applauding the restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba and urging the U.S. government to continue working with Congress to update legislation.
The United Nations General Assembly voted for an end to the U.S. economic embargo of Cuba for the twenty-third time on Tuesday. For the second year in a row, 188 countries voted in favor of a non-binding resolution calling for the end of the embargo, with Palau, Marshall Islands and Micronesia abstaining. Only two countries—Israel and the U.S. itself—voted against the measure.
The vote, which has become an annual occurrence in the General Assembly, was first approved in 1992, with 59 votes in favor, three votes against, 71 abstentions, and 46 countries refused to participate at all. Since the end of the Cold War, however, support for the embargo has waned. The European Union lifted sanctions on the island in 2008, and agreed to begin negotiations to restore bilateral relations with Cuba on February 10 of this year, leading to speculation that the U.S. would follow its lead through executive action.
While it would take an act of Congress to formally repeal Helms-Burton, which codified the U.S. embargo into law, President Barack Obama has recently taken steps to ease travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban-Americans and reinstate people-to-people travel to the island.
Brazil is betting on an eventual opening in Cuba. The bet is more than economic; it’s linked directly to a larger geopolitical project intended to draw Cuba toward its own model of economic and political organization as Cuba wakes up from its 55-year slumber under the Castro regime.
The process has already started with a series of market-oriented reforms initiated by Raúl Castro—brother to Fidel—and will only accelerate with the passing of the octogenarian Castro brothers and their guerrilla field comrades. Unfortunately, as Brazil engages in a wise game of hemispheric chess, the U.S. is playing solitaire: the result of the self-imposed embargo that has prevented economic, diplomatic and even routine contact with an island 90 miles away from the United States.
In the last five years, Brazil financed the majority of the $957 million deep water Mariel port project in the northwest of the island built by infrastructure giant Odebrecht. The port, and the 180-square-mile free-trade and development zone that surrounds it, is intended to service wide draft ships that will be able to pass through the expanded Panama Canal—a requirement that many U.S. ports won’t be able to meet when the updated canal completes its expansion by 2015. And it’s only the beginning. Recently, when he was in the country to tour the facility, former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced the acquisition of the iconic beer company Bucanero by the Brazilian beer giant, InBev, and there is talk that Brazil’s recent investments in Cuba’s Mariel port facility and free trade zone are only the tip of the iceberg.
Author's Note: A year ago, I wrote a blog about a handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and President Raúl Castro of Cuba. While the gesture was one of courtesy and little else, I expressed the hope that the relationship of isolation and embargo, started in 1960, would be replaced by one of engagement. Today, both countries restored full diplomatic relations. One of the remaining relics of the Cold War era is now a matter of the past. This is an historic day .
Pope Francis, who did some significant behind-the-scenes diplomacy , was quick to express his support. Canada is also said to have played a significant role, and this should not be a surprise. Canada has maintained a relationship with Cuba despite the U.S. embargo.
There remain some outstanding issues to be resolved. There may have been a humanitarian component behind the release of Alan Gross, the imprisoned American aid worker, but this was, above all, a political event and diplomacy at its best.The embargo remains with some easing, but the future is most promising. This will be part of Obama's legacy and marks the beginning of a new dynamic in Latin America.
I invite you to re-read my blog post on December 16, 2013. It is still relevant.
During the course of the first leg of the Mandela funeral celebrations last week, one event made news around the world—U.S. President Barack Obama shaking hands with Cuban President Raul Castro. Speculation immediately surfaced about whether it was a planned event, and whether it meant an eventual new beginning for Cuban‒U.S. relations.
Judging from the reactions of both presidents’ spokespeople, it was a circumstantial meeting. To not shake hands would have been more significant.
Back in the spring of 2012, both Canada and the United States could not agree with their Latin American and Caribbean partners on a communiqué about the outcome of the sixth Summit of the Americas—in part because both the Canadian and American leaders opposed the formal inclusion of Cuba at the next summit. Last week’s event between Obama and Castro should not be interpreted as a change of heart.
Yet, basking in the accolades and homages to Nelson Mandela and his spirit, one cannot escape the thought that Mandela himself would have approved of the gesture as a first step to an eventual normalization of relations between these two antagonists.
A few weeks ago, a member of the House of Representatives wrote to President Obama to urge him to delete Cuba from the list of countries supporting international terrorism. In her appeal, Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D-FL) included text from a discredited report prepared by Ana Belén Montes, a confessed spy for Havana who was arrested in September 2001 and who is now serving a 25-year sentence in a federal penitentiary.
Several days ago, the Justice Department announced the indictment of another former American official charged with spying for Cuba, Marta Velázquez. Velázquez allegedly took Montes to Havana for spy training, but when Montes was reported to be cooperating with the authorities after confessing, Velázquez resigned from her job at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and fled the country. In 2004, a grand jury in Washington DC issued an indictment against Velázquez (also known by her aliases “Marta Rita Kviele” and “Barbara”), but it remained under court seal until a few days ago.
That few American policy makers are aware of the great harm done to the United States by Montes, Velázquez and other spies working for the Castro brothers can be explained by the fact that when both stories broke, more significant stories were being covered by the American press: the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and last month’s terrorist attack in Boston.
Be that as it may, congresspeople are not supposed to send disinformation from the Cuban government to the U.S. president.
Some ignore the stories of Ms. Montes and Ms. Velázquez because they raise questions about an innocent, non-threatening narrative about Cuba. In order for that narrative to be credible, the Velázquez and Montes stories—as well as Cuba's current role in the Venezuelan electoral crisis and Havana's strong ties to Iran, Syria and North Korea—need to be discussed as little as possible.
Former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn are back in the United States after enjoying the hospitality of Fidel and Raúl Castro in Havana and visiting with Alan Gross, an American serving a 15-year sentence for giving away a satellite telephone and a laptop to Cubans. They also met with Cuban dissidents, notably mothers and wives of political prisoners and Yoani Sánchez, the Cuban blogger who has received substantial international attention in recent months.
Of course there are already some who have expressed their outrage at what they say was President Carter’s emphasis on the need to lift the U.S. trade embargo and his “feeble efforts” to bring home Alan Gross, who Carter reports lost 88 pounds during more than 15 months in Cuban jails.
Nevertheless, the Carters should be given credit where credit is due. While the eyes of the world are focused on the struggles against dictatorship in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya and the nuclear disaster in Japan, the Carters’ journey helps remind international opinion not only about U.S.-Cuba policy but about the 52-year-old Cuban dictatorship, Havana’s political captives, and the courage of Cubans who continue to face harassment, beatings and imprisonment for their desire to bring to an end the last dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere.
U.S.-Cuba dynamics continue to follow the traditional script of mixed signals. The romance is there; the trust is not.
Shortly after U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Bisa Williams returned from extended talks in
Another kicker came on Thursday when the Cuban Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodríguez, told reporters that immigration talks in
Part of the Cuban agenda presented to the government of the United States is a proposal for a new immigration agreement and solidifying cooperation in the fight against people trafficking,” Rodríguez is translated as saying in English by Reuters. Let’s hope that
The imprisonment of Mr. Gross (or “Harold,” as he was first named to me in early December) serves as a good reminder of the criminals-in-office we are dealing with in
Why didn’t we complain louder about Gross’ continued detention? For one, the man and his family did not sign a privacy waiver with the State Department, and without that waiver the U.S. Department of State and U.S. embassies and consulates abroad cannot release information on an individual—even when it hurts our national interests.