Cuba, One Year Later: What Has Changed?

In Cuba people talk about the enormous significance of D17, the day when both U.S. and Cuban presidents addressed their nations and explained that they planned to re-open diplomatic relations. These had been broken by Washington in January 1961, and the ensuing decades had brought a sad litany of tensions, of which the best-known were the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the Missile Crisis.

Now things were to change, the leaders promised. And indeed there have been many developments.

Several bilateral meetings have taken place between high-ranking diplomats. Many issues have been discussed—ranging from joint actions against terrorism and drug interdiction to the thorny issue of compensation. Raúl Castro visited the United Nations in September, taking time out to meet with President Obama, former president Clinton, New York mayor de Blasio, and Governor Cuomo. Significantly it was the first visit to the U.S. of Castro since he became president.

Government representatives have visited the each other’s country. From the United States alone the Secretaries of Commerce and Agriculture, as well as the Assistant Secretary of Economic and Business Affairs, and Alejandro Mayorkas, Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security (A Cuban-American) have all been to Havana. And of course Secretary of State John Kerry was on hand to inaugurate the U.S. embassy in August.

Washington has made two important symbolic decisions, removing Cuba from the list of countries that allegedly sponsor terrorism, and upgrading it from Tier 3 of the “Trafficking in Persons” list to the level below. Havana disputes both positions of Washington, which it regards as insulting–but the symbolism at the US government taking these decisions is worth noting.

Governors from several U.S. states have brought trade delegations to the island, most recently Greg Abbott of Texas, earlier this month. In October, nine of them appealed to the House and Senate leadership of Congress, asking them to end trade sanctions with Cuba. In doing so they reflect international sentiments: in October 191 countries at the U.N. General Assembly condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba—with only Washington and Israel supporting it.

The main focus of U.S. interest has been the business potential offered by Cuba, both for trade and investment. Dozens of U.S. companies were present at the International Trade Fair in November, hotel chain representatives have been circling potential resort areas, biotechnology companies have been exploring Cuba’s potential, as have farmers’ associations from across the United States. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has launched its own U.S.-Cuba Business Council. Scores of articles have appeared by instant Cuba specialists advising on how to do business with revolutionary Cuba—most of them shallow and superficial.

Cuba—for long the “forbidden fruit” has captured the popular imagination in the United States, and celebrities from the music and sports worlds have also visited the island. The path had been prepared by Beyonce and Jay Z, who had traveled there in 2014. This year they were followed by many others, including Katy Perry, Danny Glover, Jimmy Buffet, Paris Hilton and Rihanna, to name a few. Conan O’Brien and Anthony Bourdain produced their popular shows on the island, and R and B star Usher was even married in Cuba.

Tourism rates from the U.S. have increased 40%, and some estimates are that as many as 10 million Americans per year would visit when Washington allows this—at present U.S. citizens can only travel legally to Cuba if their activities fit into certain groups. Cruise lines are also ramping up their operations to take in stops in Cuba—for the first time in decades.

Closer cultural ties are also blooming. Sony Music Entertainment signed an agreement with Cuban state company EGREM to distribute Cuban music worldwide.   American directors and producers are participating in this month’s mammoth Film Festival in Havana.   In December the film “Papa”—on the life of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba–was premiered at the festival. This was the first U.S. film made in Cuba in over 50 years.

Meanwhile the Cubans have supported similar exchanges. The dance company of Lizt Alfonso has performed in several U.S. cities, while the Buena Vista Social Club actually sang in the White House. Cuban musicians now regularly perform in Miami, something that would have been inconceivable a decade ago, while the Gay Mens’ Choir of Washington recently toured Cuba.

This renewed interest in Cuba is supported by popular interest. Polls by Pew, Wall Street Journal, Gallup, Associated Press and most recently the Atlantic Council all show overwhelming support for the policy of President Obama towards Cuba. In the latter poll 68% support it, while 58% are in favour of ending the embargo. Editorials from many mainstream newspapers, such as the Washington Post, New York Times, and Boston Globe among others have all called for a major shift in U.S. policy.

The Challenges…

All of this would have been impossible before D17, and shows how far the two countries have come in seeking to understand each other better. Yet, while all of this is positive, there remain several major issues that will be extremely difficult to resolve. To a large extent this is because of an incomplete understanding on the part of Washington of fundamental dynamics at play in Cuba, and the exceptional nature of some deeply-rooted programmes made specifically to bring about regime change in Havana.

When he inaugurated the US embassy in Havana, Secretary of State Kerry noted “Having normal relations makes it easier for us to talk…” The trouble is that “normal” relations are a long way in the future—particularly from Havana’s perspective, since there are still several difficult challenges remaining.

Perhaps the most significant hurdle is the U.S. embargo—which can only be lifted by Congress. Imposed in 1960 and strengthened in 1962, this piece of legislation limits bilateral trade, and specifically prohibits Cuban imports. (This is unfortunate in so many ways. To take one example, U.S. citizens would benefit greatly from moderately priced drugs such as the Cimavax lung cancer vaccine or the Heberprot-P treatment for diabetics, which has reduced amputation of limbs by 75%). In recent years the Cubans have shown their displeasure at the embargo by reducing their purchases of US food. Imports this year will be less than $200 million—compared to $710 mn. in 2008.

Related to U.S. economic pressure is the question of penalties imposed upon foreign banks that fund trade with Cuba. They are routinely penalized for transactions using $US. In October 2015, for instance, the Credit Agricole bank was fined $787 million for using the $US in financing an operation. Cuba believes that they should be allowed to trade using the dollar without such draconian measures being applied.

Also damaging to relations is the continuation of several U.S.-funded government programmes. The Cuban Medical Professional Parole Program, for example, is designed to embarrass Cuba’s highly regarded medical cooperation efforts by encouraging Cuban medical personnel to defect—anywhere in the world. Ironically this occurs while many U.S. students (largely from underprivileged backgrounds) are studying to be doctors in Cuba.

Of lesser significance, but still viewed as insulting in Havana, is U.S. government support for Radio and TV Martí, stations bearing the name of Cuba’s national hero, which beam alternative programming into Cuba. In so doing they break international law—as Raúl Castro has pointed out.

Another significant irritant is the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, commonly known as the “wet foot-dry foot” policy. According to this, any Cuban who reaches American soil is allowed to stay there legally. No other nation is granted this privilege. Havana maintains that this encourages illegal emigration, with many people perishing on the journey. Instead it argues that a traditional immigration agreement should be put in place—similar to that which the United States has with any other country. Since October 2012 Cubans are allowed to leave the island—providing that they receive a visa to enter another country—but many are afraid that the CAA may be abolished as bilateral relations improve, and so there has been a significant increase in those leaving illegally.

The Obama government had vowed to close down the Guantánamo detention centre when he was first elected, unfortunately a commitment that is unlikely to be fulfilled. Cuba, though, would prefer the entire U.S. military base—occupied since 1903—to be returned to their control. Since 1960 they have not cashed the annual rental cheque of $4,085 sent by Washington. It is not large (45 square miles), and no longer has value as a coaling and naval station—but remains a major irritant for Havana, who see the US role as that of an occupying presence.

The thorny issue of human rights will remain a major challenge, with both sides holding opposing views on the nature of such rights. For Washington the right to political and civil human rights are of paramount importance, while for Havana the most significant are social, cultural and economic rights. The capitalist vs. socialist optics make this debate unresolvable. That said, the Cuban government has condemned the use of US government funding to support opposition groups and their activities—seeing them as provocative, with the goal of bringing down the government. Cuba’s position has been stated clearly by lead Cuban negotiator Josefina Vidal: “Decisions on internal matters are not negotiable”—while US funds are still provided to groups that seek the end of the revolutionary government.

At present there are ongoing conversations on compensation, with some 5,900 claims made by U.S. individuals and businesses. The current value (taking into account inflation) is approximately $8 billion. For its part the Cuban government is arguing that the impact of an embargo that has lasted over 50 years has resulted in a major cost for the nation—and estimates at the amount owed to Cuba range from $800 billion to $1 trillion.

There is also the question of terrorism against Cuba, sponsored directly and indirectly by the U.S., and the impact that it has had on the island’s population. CIA activities in the early years, assassination attempts against the Cuban leadership, epidemics affecting the Cuban economy, support for militant exile groups based in Florida, have all caused widespread suffering in Cuba. In addition Havana maintains that these acts of aggression have resulted in almost 3,500 deaths and over 2,000 people being injured. While for many in Washington this is “old history,” in Cuba this issue has not died out in government circles. Latins have a lot deeper historical memory than anglos—as licence plates in Québec attest. How can one provide compensation for such acts?

In Synthesis

There has been remarkable progress in improving bilateral relations since December 17, 2014. Governments now speak to each other, tens of thousands of Americans have visited in recent months, and cultural, academic and sports exchanges are flourishing. A conclusion had been reached by people on both sides of the Florida Strait, as John Kerry stated that “the time is now to reach out to one another, as two people who are no longer rivals, but neighbours”. Many wonder why it has taken so long to resolve conflicts between two nations just 90 miles apart.

Laudable as this goal is, it is important to inject a note of realism into any analysis. In many ways this warming of relations is fragile. The retirement from the scene of the two presidents in the coming years—the two protagonists of this diplomatic U-turn—poses a significant question: what happens next? While it is likely that the post-Castro government will stay the course, the candidacy of Republican candidates Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz raises all sorts of questions. The latter two are Cuban-Americans opposed to the Obama policy, while Bush during his years as governor of Florida was an ardent supporter of conservative exile groups. Ironically the flamboyant candidate Donald Trump is in support of the Cuba policy of Obama.

So, while we celebrate the improvement of a successful year in improving relations between the two countries, let us not lose sight of the fact that there are over five decades of bilateral hostility. That will not be overcome with diplomatic gestures. Despite Secretary Kerry’s wish for normal relations, the goal of normalization is still many years away.

Stephen Kimber, a professor of Journalism at the University of King’s College, is the author of What Lies Across the Water: The Real Story of the Cuban Five. John Kirk, a professor of Spanish and Latin American Studies at Dalhousie University, is the author or co-editor of 16 books on Cuba, most recently Healthcare Without Borders: Understanding Cuban Medical Internationalism.