US and Cuba: What Remains to be Done?

By Benjamin Willis

After a little more than six months since President Obama's and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro's historic announcements on December 17th, 2014 that the United States and Cuba would begin to re-establish diplomatic relations, a crucial step has been taken to usher both nations down the path of normalization. The formal establishment of embassies in both countries, announced July 1st and beginning July 20th with the official opening of the embassy of the Republic of Cuba in Washington, will be the first time in 54 years that the two countries will have formal diplomatic relations.

This rapprochement that has transpired over a little more than half a year has been universally lauded and a number of foreign dignitaries have been quick to act. In May, France’s President François Hollande visited Cuba and expressed Europe’s desire to normalize relations as soon as possible and called upon the United States to end the embargo. During Dilma Roussef’s visit to the White House last week both she and Obama released a joint communique saying:

President Rousseff praised President Obama’s policy changes towards Cuba, and the Leaders agreed that the latest Summit of the Americas (held in Panama, on April 10 and 11, 2015) demonstrated the region’s capacity to overcome the differences of the past through dialogue, thereby paving the way for the region as a whole to find solutions to the common challenges facing the countries of the Americas.

American citizens have been in overwhelming support of ending the embargo for years and the latest results of last month’s Chicago Council’s poll indicates that 67% echo that sentiment. Even a majority of Republicans (59%) think it’s time for an end to the extraterritorial anomaly that is the United States’ policy of economic strangulation.

The Cuban American community has also demonstrated in various polls, including electoral, that there is an ever-increasing majority of those who want normalization between the two nations. Since Obama’s change of Cuba policy started Cuban Americans have taken advantage of executive actions directed at them that gave the right to unlimited travel and to send remittances, albeit limited, to the island in 2009. In his 2012 re-election bid, Obama won the Cuban American vote in Florida and, emboldened, has continued to open up inroads within this powerful voting block in Southern Florida with his calls for normalization of relations.

As in most aspects, politicians usually lag behind society.

While the president has shown leadership it is up to Congress to dismantle the odious embargo codified in the Helms-Burton Act and also repeal other legislation that are aimed at punishing Cuba like the Torricelli Act of 1992 and the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966.

Although several measures that would chip away at the embargo have been introduced in both chambers, there are still many Congress members who take the word of a few “representatives” who espouse to champion the aspirations of Cubans and Cuban Americans as if they truly spoke for these citizens as a whole. This cabal of recalcitrant hardliners is tragically failing their constituencies and the people on the island, whose misery is perpetuated by the pro-embargo stance of these hypocritical, self-serving opportunists. Their continued presence in Congress is something that the 1.8 million Cuban Americans who reside in southern Florida are going to have to reckon with in upcoming election cycles.

Indeed, even when Senator Jeff Flake’s (R-AZ) S. 299 Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act has garnered 44 cosponsors and bipartisan support, the odds that it get to a filibuster-proof 60 votes is still low as reflected by govtrack.com having put the bill’s chances of passing at 11%. It would need that to avoid the histrionics of Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Bob Menendez (D-NJ). Each of these legislators have sworn through clenched teeth that they will not allow any gains made by Obama’s overtures towards Cuba to continue and, in Cruz and Rubio’s case, have vowed to reverse all progress made with the island if elected to the White House.

Travel to Cuba has been a hot topic and since December 17th’s announcements there has been a 36% uptick in Americans visiting the island. Celebrities, politicians, business leaders, and curious Americans have flocked to the island. Airbnb’s fastest growing market is Cuba. Even White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told a reporter that the president “would relish the opportunity” to visit Havana in 2016.

However, this past June 18th the House Appropriations Committee passed its FY 2016 Financial Services Appropriations bill. It contains three “Cuba-specific” prohibitions that were drafted by one of the most out-of-touch members of Congress – Mario Diaz-Balart. These prohibitions are a threat to the advancements in U.S.-Cuba relations and seek to effectively end president Obama’s highly successful “people-to-people” policy that has generated interest among all Americans to go to Cuba and see for themselves the devastating effects of the embargo. These measures will also hurt Cubans on the island who have benefited by the influx of tourism and those Cuban Americans who have invested in family businesses and enterprises in a nascent market economy. What will Diaz-Balart be facing on Election Day when a majority of his constituents have already voted against him and his draconian legislation with their feet by going to Cuba in the thousands and with their pocketbooks by sending millions to loved ones on the island?

With all that has been accomplished in the past several months it should be noted that any or all of it could be sabotaged by the misguided efforts of a few delusional congressional members who have done very little in their undistinguished careers except perpetuate the pro-embargo industry. All the bills and measures for free travel and more commerce can be introduced but as long as these obstructionists remain in office full normalization will be delayed longer than it should. Repealing the embargo will probably only happen if some, hopefully all, of these politicians are removed from office.

Normalization = Normal

Every day a new group or coalition appears that is in favor of travel and commerce with the island. James A. Williams, director of Engage Cuba and the New Cuba PAC, expressed this in an interview on June 16th on CNBC’s Squawk Box with Michelle Caruso-Cabrera.

MCC: “…There’s really nothing left to the embargo. What you’re calling for is an end to the embargo, essentially, right? Is there really anything left?”

JW: “Yeah, well, there are pieces of.., it depends on what you call the embargo. I mean, what I think we’re saying is we’re not interested in the debate around the democracy programs and some of these other issues that I think, you know, are still contentious and deserve a full debate, but I think we can all agree that trade and travel restrictions need to be lifted immediately.

MCC: “I’m confused, so when it comes to the democracy programs you just don’t want to talk about them? You don’t support them? You do support them?

JW: “It’s just not an issue we’re focusing on. You know our campaign is led by the private sector on its ability to travel freely, trade freely, uh, and have the opportunity for Americans to compete.”

I’d like to thank James Williams for graciously ceding the floor to those of us who have been “focusing on” these “contentious issues” for more than a few months. During the Obama era, it has been imperative for moderate Cuban American voices to defend the President’s actions and to call for the normalization of relations. A number of organizations, with which I have had the pleasure and honor of working, have been at the forefront of the U.S-Cuba conversation within the Cuban American community, denouncing U.S. policy that includes “democracy promotion”, and not working “behind the scenes” as Williams claims to have been doing these years.

The so-called “democracy promotion” programs have ham-handedly put the lives of Cubans and Americans in danger because of the illegal nature of said programs. Alarmingly, these programs have seen their budget increased to $30 million for FY 2016- a fifty percent increase from the $20 million in 2015. Alan Gross’ five-year imprisonment was the result of his activities as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), a benefactor of this increase. His wife sued the American government in 2013 for more than $60 million dollars for having sent him “on five semi-covert trips to Cuba without proper training, protection, or understanding of Cuban laws.” The case was eventually settled for $3.2 million a week after the historic announcements that released him on December 17th of last year. When Engage Cuba launched it did so in the residence of Scott Gilbert, Gross’ lawyer, with Gross present as a spokesperson for the endeavor. Using Gross as a spokesperson and then not wanting to talk about “democracy programs” defies credulity.

Some of Williams’ newfound friends (read backers), Cuban Americans who represent the Miami power base and until just recently had poured millions into the pro-embargo lobby, also didn’t want to focus on “contentious” issues like Cuba’s designation as a States Sponsor of Terrorism these past six years. So it’s no surprise that Engage Cuba doesn’t want to talk about the “democracy programs”. Nor do they want to broach the topic of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo and the violation of Cuban sovereignty that it represents. Nor do they have much to say about the recent immigration crisis brought upon by Cubans realizing that they won’t be able to take advantage of the Cuban Adjustment Act much longer if relations are truly normalized. The United States unfair policy encourages Cubans to test their fate with the swirling currents of the Straits of Florida on homemade rafts and this perilous exodus will persist as long as U.S. law encourages it. Will it also be left to “others” to call for the immediate closure and abandonment of Radio and TV Marti, a $28 million taxpayer footed boondoggle that doesn’t even reach Cuban audiences? In short, if it’s not travel and trade Engage Cuba isn’t interested in commenting on it, for now.

Whether or not these supposed champions of “engagement” want to address the myriad obstacles that still stand in the way of full normalization, the Cuban government has, and will continue to call for an end to these hostile policies that violate Cuban law and international norms established in the Vienna Convention and the 1970 Declaration of the United Nations General Assembly on principles of international law concerning friendly relations of cooperation among states.

In an official statement by the Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Cuba on July 1st, the Cubans delineated a number of issues that would need to be rectified in order to fully normalize relations:

“There can be no normal relations between Cuba and the United States as long as the economic, commercial and financial blockade that continues to be rigorously applied, causing damages and scarcities for the Cuban people, is maintained, it is the main obstacle to the development of our economy, constitutes a violation of International Law and affects the interests of all countries, including those of the United States.

To achieve normalization it will also be indispensable that the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo Naval Base is returned, that radio and television transmissions to Cuba that are in violation of international norms are harmful to our sovereignty cease, that programs aimed at promoting subversion and internal destabilization are eliminated, and that the Cuban people are compensated for the human and economic damages caused by the policies of the United States.”

So no, it’s not just as easy as saying that restrictions on travel and trade need to be lifted immediately. The Cubans want a normalization that is actually “normal” and not just an influx of tourists and businessmen who either come to the island led by the perverse American provincial thought that Cuba needs to “be seen before it’s ruined” or by the repugnant philosophy that American dollars will fix every Cuban’s problems.

Besides, as long as the embargo exists there will always effectively be a travel ban because there is no infrastructure for all the Americans who suddenly want to go to visit. And, if Cuba cannot receive the international financing that it needs to truly make the recent economic reforms function, then no American business is going to be willing to invest any significant amount in a country where it can still be penalized by Uncle Sam.

After more than 50 years of animosity both nations are going to need diplomatic corps that aren’t hindered by extraterritorial legislation that puts them at odds. There is much work to be done in order for the United States and Cuba to trust each other and if there is a pre-ordained policy for regime change then that trust will never fully be forged.

Benjamin Willis is a founding member of Cuban Americans for Engagement (CAFE) and Co-Director of the United States Cuba Now PAC. www.uscubanowpac.com

Originally published in Counterpunch Online Magazine July 6, 2015