Direct Talks With Cuba Increasing, But Normal Relations Still Far Off
The ground under U.S. policy toward Cuba took a significant shift today.
Mauricio Funes was inaugurated as President of El Salvador and, as announced previously, he immediately restored diplomatic relations with Havana. That left Washington as the odd man out, the only country in the Americas without normal relations with its Caribbean neighbor and long-time thorn in its side.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in San Salvador for Funes' assumption of power, was nevertheless very upbeat in remarks to the press. She described the Obama administration's May 22 offer to resume bilateral migration talks with Cuba as "part of our effort to forge a new way forward on Cuba that advances the interests of the United States, the Cuban people and our entire hemisphere," adding that the Administration was "very pleased" with the Cuba's acceptance of the offer.
Last month, Washington rolled back the travel restrictions imposed by former President Bush in May 2004, telling Cuban Americans they can visit their relatives on the island as frequently as they want. Strict limitations on the amount of money they could send to family in Cuba were also lifted.
Lexington Institute's Cuba expert Phil Peters says "the Administration did well to fulfill its campaign promise to engage in direct diplomacy with Cuba."
In fact, the U.S. also offered to discuss direct postal service, which would remove the awkward and delaying use of third countries to move mail between then two nations.
On Saturday, Havana said yes to those talks also and added a few proposals of its own: counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism cooperation, as well as assistance in hurricane preparedness, an area in which the island excels, as recognized by the United Nations.
"The agreed agenda is narrow, which I think is a good thing," says Peters. "They won't be burdened by high public expectations and they won't go straight to the more difficult bones of contention between the two countries."
Until they agreed this weekend to the U.S. proposal to resume the migration talks, unilaterally suspended by ex-President Bush in 2004, the Cubans were cool to the steps taken by Washington. Former President Fidel Castro, who always kept tight control over anything to do with U.S.-Cuba relations, reacted rather sharply in a blog post to U.S. suggestions that Havana reciprocate with changes in the areas of human rights, political prisoners and democracy. He described Cuba as the victim of the five decade-long U.S. economic and trade embargo (always referred to in Cuba as the Blockade) and noted that one doesn't ask the victim to make concessions to its victimizer.
However, Cuba has for decades suggested areas of possible cooperation and was represented at the twice-yearly migration meetings in alternating countries by parliament president Ricardo Alarcon, a close confidant of Fidel Castro and his long-time point man on U.S.-Cuban relations. Havana had reacted angrily when the talks were scuttled and so it should be no surprise that they've reacted positively to the offer to resume them.
"These talks allow the two sides to press issues of concern [for the United States, including human rights] in a face-to-face setting, and to present other issues that could be on the bilateral agenda," says Peters. "This is a good way to start, by building confidence through progress on relatively easy issues."
But there is another backdrop to this scenario and it is playing out in the Organization of American States, whose foreign ministers are gathered in Honduras for a meeting that has Cuba squarely on the agenda.
"The Latin American countries led by Argentina, Mexico and Brazil, in particular, have gotten together and said, 'Enough! 'Basta! Cuba should be part of the regional neighborhood; it should be treated like any other country,'" points out Peter Kornbluh, director of the National Security Archive's Cuba Documentation Project, who has played a large role in the campaign to declassify pertinent government documents.
Most of the OAS member countries are pushing to repudiate the organization's 1962 vote to expel Cuba from the regional body. That, Kornbluh points out is not the same as asking the island to rejoin the OAS. It's more like rewriting history.
And it's not without precedent. One declassified document obtained by Kornbluh, entitled "Normalization of Relations with Cuba" was written in 1975, when Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was being jammed by Latin American Foreign Ministers to lift the multilateral sanctions that the United States had forced the OAS to adopt in 1964.
The document, written by Kissinger's deputy, says Kornbluh is very specific. It says "that Cuba is an intrinsically trivial issue and it is of value to the United States to get it off the domestic and the international agenda." In other words, stresses Kornbluh, "It's created more of a problem than the country is actually worth."
That's as true today, say observers, as it was then, particularly if the Obama administration is serious about repairing and strengthening its relations with Latin America and the Caribbean. In addition, they say, the U.S. is in a much weaker position now than it was then due to the revelations of torture at the Guantanamo Naval Base and in Iraq and to the emergence of several Latin American regional organizations without Washington's participation, including the Rio Group that Cuba joined last December. Furthermore, the international rejection of the U.S. economic and trade embargo against the island is nearly unanimous internationally and total in Latin America.
Clinton, however, has made it clear that the U.S. is not in favor of just inviting Cuba to rejoin the OAS, something which the island has vehemently said it does not want to do. According to Clinton, Washington's effort to open a dialogue is not a free meal ticket.
"At the same time, we will continue to press the Cuban government to protect basic rights, release political prisoners, and move toward democratic reform," she told the press in El Salvador.
Still, any easing of tensions with Cuba has raised hackles in certain sectors of the Cuban American population. The offer to resume the migration talks, for example, drew a joint statement from Florida's Cuban-American Congressional representatives Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who sharply condemned the move as "another unilateral concession by the Obama administration to the dictatorship."
And Cuban-American Senator Bob Menendez is threatening to cut off OAS funding if Cuba were to rejoin the organization.
On the other hand, the Cuban American National Foundation, the long time voice of Miami's anti-Castro exile community is publicly advocating more engagement with Havana, especially on topics of mutual interest, such as migration.
"Every President from Kennedy to Clinton has held some type of talks, not face-to-face but talks with the Cubans and several presidents have actually engaged in secret diplomacy to change the framework of U.S.-Cuban relations," notes Kornbluh who has successfully obtained the declassification of numerous relevant government documents.
There are lessons to be learnt from these past contacts, he notes, No. 1 being, "Cuba's socialist system is not on the negotiating table."
Secondly, he says, "The idea that the United States can ask for a quid pro quo, a tit-for-tat, in its talks with Cuba has failed in the past. Kissinger tried it, Carter tried that and it just didn't work."
That aside, it's worth recalling Phil Peters' testimony last April before the House Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs. "I believe," he said, "that a shift toward a policy of engagement with Cuba would serve U.S. interests at a time when our influence in Cuba is low and Cuba is at a turning point in its history. If the administration and Congress were to ease or end travel restrictions, greater contact on the part of American citizens and American civil society would increase American influence in Cuba."
There is a mood among the Cuban population that favors such a shift in U.S. policy but as some foreign diplomats in Havana point out, certain sectors of the Cuban leadership may fear just that and any dialogue between the two countries could be a very delicate balancing act. However, a combination of factors may favor dialogue. The Cuban economy is still reeling from $10 billion in damages from the 2008 hurricane season, high prices on food imports, low prices on its main export nickel, dropping tourism and the global economic crisis. With the new hurricane season already here, unseasonably high temperatures and the local media warning of blackouts, the pressure is on the Cuban Government to find some relief for the pressing daily problems facing the country. An easing of tensions with the United States and the potential influx of American tourists could be just the ticket.
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