The Frozen U.S.-Cuba Relationship
Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for
America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Brianna Lee, Production Editor, CFR.org
February 28, 2012
Fifty years after the
States enacted an embargo on all trade and commercial
transactions with Cuba,
relations between the two countries remain at a standstill. Julia E. Sweig,
CFR's director of Latin American studies, says the Obama administration has
prioritized domestic politics over foreign policy in its relationship with Cuba, even as Cuban President Raul Castro has
been "moving in the direction of the kind of reforms that every
administration over the last fifty years has called upon Cuba to
make." The case of American USAID contractor Alan Gross, currently serving
a fifteen-year prison sentence in Cuba (CubanTriangle) on charges of attempting
to upend the regime through a U.S.-authorized democracy promotion program, has
also heightened tensions, she says. Meanwhile, Sweig adds, Cuba is strengthening ties with global powers
as well as the Catholic Church, as the Castro administration seeks to open up
new economic and social spaces for its citizens.
We've passed the fifty-year mark of the breakdown of diplomatic ties between
Cuba and the . Where do we stand
now? Is normalizing relations even remotely on the table on either side? United States
Let me start by talking about three geographical points on the map that are relevant to the answer. In
the Obama administration, consistent with the approach of the Bush
administration, has made a political decision to subordinate foreign policy and
national interest-based decisions to domestic politics with respect to its Cuba policy.
There is a bipartisan group of members of Congress--Democrats and Republicans,
House and Senate--who represent Florida,
a state where there are many swing votes that deliver the electoral votes for
any president. Those individuals not only deliver votes, but they deliver
campaign finance, and generally make a lot of noise, and that combination has
persuaded the White House that reelection is more of a priority than taking on
the heavy lifting to set the United States on the path of normalization with
Cuba for now.
is clearly stepping into a space where the United
States should be, and the United States has made a decision
to watch as that happens."
The second point is what's happening in
Cuba. It's not
realistic to expect the United
States to undertake a series of unilateral
moves toward normalization; it needs a willing partner. I believe we have one
in Havana but
have failed to read the signals. Raul Castro has now been in office since the
beginning of 2008. Raul holds the reins on both foreign policy and domestic
policy, and, domestically, the politics of implementing a fairly wide range of
economic and political and social reforms are his priority. In a deal that was
coordinated with the help of the Cuban Catholic Church and Spain, he released all of the political
prisoners in Cuba.
He also is taking a number of steps that imply a major rewriting of the social
contract in Cuba to shrink the size of the state and give Cuban individuals
more freedom--economically, especially, but also in terms of speech--than we've
seen in the last fifty years. He has privatized the residential real estate and
car market[s], expanded much-needed agrarian reform, lifted caps on salaries,
and greatly expanded space for small businesses. He also is moving to deal with
corruption and to prepare the groundwork for a great deal more foreign
investment. He's moving in the direction of the kind of reforms that every
administration over the last fifty years has called upon Cuba to make,
albeit under the rubric of a one-party system. There's a broad range of
cooperation--neighborhood security in the Gulf of Mexico, as Cuba has just started drilling for oil,
counternarcotics, and natural disasters--between the two countries that is
still not happening, and that gives me the impression that the United States has been unwilling to take
"yes" for an answer and respond positively to steps taken by Cuba.
The third geographic part of the story is south
Florida. When they're
polled, the majority of Cuban-Americans say that the embargo has failed, and
support lifting the travel ban or loosening the embargo or some steps along
that continuum of liberalization and normalization. The one most significant
step that Obama did take when he took office was to eliminate the restriction
on Cuban-American travel and remittances to Cuba. Cuban-Americans are now
voting with their feet. If you go to the Miami
airport, you will see thirty, forty flights to Cuba
a week just out of Miami.
Cuban-Americans are now investing in their families' small businesses on the
island. The politics of this are strange because we are told by the Obama
administration that we can't rock the boat of the Cuban-American vote, but
those very voters are in fact demonstrating that they support a radically different
set of policies than, in fact, the Obama administration has supported.
The ongoing case of USAID contractor Alan Gross (AP) has stoked tensions between the
United States and . At the heart of the matter is
the Cuba U.S. democracy promotion
program that authorized Gross' travel to . What impact does this case
have on U.S.-Cuba relations? Cuba
Precisely because we have no overarching framework for diplomacy in place and no political will to establish it for now, the Alan Gross case casts a huge shadow over U.S.-Cuban relations. The heart of the issue is the context in which those [pro-democracy] programs were being implemented. We have a full-blown economic embargo with extra-territorial dimensions that are felt in the banking and finance world--a very comprehensive and well-enforced sanctions program. The democracy programs sound very mom and apple pie--USAID has them around the world, its officials will tell you. But having them in
is an extraordinary provocation. They were inherited from the previous
administration's concept of regime change, and under Obama, they remain largely
intact. The programs are purposely kept secret from the American public. There
is no public information about the private and not-for-profit subcontractors in
the United States and around
the world, and Cuban institutions and individuals who may be targets of the
programs are likewise not told they are part of such U.S. government programs. The
democracy promotion programs have been deliberately politicized in order to provoke,
and they have succeeded in provoking.
What's key is the context. There's been no real diplomacy; there's no negotiating framework that I've seen for a very long period of time, and again, that has to do with domestic politics. It's very hard to understand otherwise why this guy's still in jail. The
United States has repeatedly asked
the Cuban government to release Gross unilaterally, with no commitments on our
end. Asking for unilateral gestures, having rebuffed or ignored or failed to
read the signals from Cuba,
has created this impasse. Having said that, there can be a diplomatic,
humanitarian solution, and I see no value to keeping Gross in jail and hope he
will be released as soon as possible. But we will need real diplomacy and a
framework for negotiating a range of issues both countries care about.
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff paid a visit to Cuba recently, and it looks like Cuba's trying to formulate ties with an influential, rising Latin American power. How does this burgeoning relationship between
and Brazil affect 's
relationship with the United States.? Cuba
rights situation complicate the relationship between those two countries? Cuba
It doesn't seem to be complicating it at all. Rousseff--given her own history of having spent three years in jail and being tortured in the 1970s and having worked to make human rights more of a domestic and foreign policy--her presidency has quite a bit of standing with respect to talking to any government, including the Cuban government, about human rights. She was criticized by her own public, especially in the media, a great deal for choosing to have those discussions with
Cuba privately. But I would suggest
that having a public, browbeating, rhetorical approach has almost always
backfired for major heads of state when dealing with Cuba, and if you look at
the success that the Catholic Church and the Spanish government had around the
political prisoner release, that success derived from a basic fundamental
degree of respect, cooperation, and engagement as the framework for the
The Pope is set to make a highly anticipated visit to
in March. What's the
significance of this visit? Cuba
Pope John Paul II went to
in 1998, and that was very significant because that was just a few years after
a new constitution in Cuba
had affirmed the right of religious believers to hold senior positions in
government. In the decade-plus that's transpired since, the Catholic Church
under Archbishop Jaime Ortega has become the most important provider of social
services outside of the state. It has started its own business school; it has
opened space for itself and for others for publications, opinion, and debate;
it has worked in concert with the Cuban government, especially with Raul
Castro, on a very nationalist project of building a more open society in Cuba. This Pope
is a different person than Pope John Paul, and it's highly anticipated, but
he's coming at a time when already there is substantial change under way in
that country. The visit will help the Cuban Catholic Church create space for
itself and continue to create space for itself, and signal to the Cuban
government that it's an institution that can be relied upon to support the
kinds of reforms that the government itself wants to make happen.
It's important to note that the Pope's going to
Mexico on this trip, and Mexico's population of practicing Catholics is
proportionally much bigger than Cuba's.
the syncretic religions are widely practiced. The Catholic Church is an
incredibly important institution, but it would be a mistake to think of Cuba the way we do Mexico, as a predominantly Catholic
Raul Castro held the First National Conference of the Cuban Communist Party last month. What was he hoping to accomplish?
This conference was preceded by a Party congress in April 2011, and you have to think about both in tandem. The biggest take-away from the Party conference was the formalization of term limits for senior officials in the Cuban government, both elected and appointed. That's a very significant step forward in terms of political reform, given that many of the top leaders in the politburo are over sixty-five and have been working in those positions or other senior positions for their entire careers. It's also an important sign to the junior people who are building their political careers that they're not going to be permanent.
"Political party space, like having a multi-party system, that's not the top priority for Cubans. But what is a top priority is having the opportunity to make good for themselves."
The broader consequences of the congress and the conference were for Raul to continue a process that has been pretty slow and difficult of building a consensus among the longtime beneficiaries of the status quo that the status quo needs to change. One key thing for the Communist Party is to get the Communist Party out of day-to-day government. The party is supposed to be a political party, sort of ideological ballast, but it isn't supposed to be running ministries or having the kind of major role bureaucratically and politically that it's had over the last fifty years.
The other piece is to institute accountability and transparency within the institutions of governance themselves. That process means a radical overhaul of the way things have happened for the last fifty years.
How strong is the Cuban society's desire to move beyond the one-party system?
It's very strong. Public opinion is complicated because on the one hand, Cubans want change and they want much more space--economic space, speech space. I would say political party space, like having a multi-party system, that's not the top priority for Cubans. But what is a top priority is having the opportunity to make good for themselves with the wonderful education they have and to run businesses and to have the state get out of the way, while continuing to provide the basic social services that the entire population has benefited from and gotten so accustomed to.