Havana Hangover

Advocates of easing relations with Cuba who celebrated President Obama’s moves towards normalization are now suffering from a morning-after affect. Enthusiasm that the U.S. and Cuba could re-establish diplomatic relations after more than 50 years of hostilities have been dampened by the realization the president could not lift all obstacles---and that the Cuban government wants its own demands satisfied before there’s a permanent change in the often tortured relationship.

“People have forgotten that when President Obama made his announcement, he did not tell Cuba ‘Be what you want to be. We’re just opening the door and do with us what you want,’” said John Kavulich, senior policy adviser for the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council.

To Kavulich, the steps Obama took are aimed at changing Cuban society by liberalizing U.S. contacts with the island---steps that are likely to create some anxiety in the Cuban government.“The goal is to tear the social fabric in Cuba and create a middle class that the Cuban revolution sought to extinguish,” he said. “Whether [Obama’s actions] are impactful depends upon whether the Cuban government can steer them away from things that causes it anxiety.”

Cuba has reacted to the U.S. overtures warily, placing several conditions on the restoration of diplomatic ties. Do both sides have second thoughts, or will the hangover pass?

Last December 17, Obama announced he would use executive authority to ease restrictions on U.S. travel to Cuba, but only by certain types of Americans intent on “purposeful travel” that does not include tourism. These trips  to Cuba were legal before, though the changes eased restrictions somewhat. Obama also broadened the types of goods Cuba can purchase from the U.S., adding construction materials, telecommunications equipment and other things to food and medicines, which have been legal to sell to Cuba for nearly 15 years. Obama also relaxed some banking rules, including allowing the use of U.S. credit cards in Cuba. And he raised the limit on remittances on U.S. citizens who are not Cuban-American can send to Cuba.

More importantly for many, Obama said he wanted to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

More than 50 years ago, Cuba and the U.S.  knocked down the diplomatic status of their embassies in each other’s capitals to “Interest Sections.”Advocates of ending the embargo are more optimistic than Kavulich about the impact of those changes.

“It’s a hugely significant shift,” said former White House staffer Luis Miranda, a political consultant for Cuba Now, an anti-embargo group that has bought billboards in the DC Metro. “It creates a new opportunities under the new Cuba regulations and it also opens up the political arena for further debate for real steps.”

Miranda said Obama released oppressed views and emotions about Cuba.“People were holding their tongues and not saying where they stood on Cuba, but now there are more candid,” Miranda said. “It removed a big hurdle mentally for people.”

What Miranda and others who are critical of the hardline stance on Cuba are seeking is an end to the embargo, which the Cuban government insists is a “blockade.”The embargo was imposed during the Kennedy administration in a series of steps intended to weaken and destroy Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government.Obviously that didn’t happen. Full authority to end the embargo has been stripped from the president by a series of sanction-tightening bills approved by Congress since 1992 such as the Helms-Burton Act.  It now would take an act of Congress to lift the embargo.

But Obama argues some authority over the embargo remains still at the White House and he used it to ease sanctions.  The president announced his new Cuba policy after 18 months of secret talks from the pages of a spy novel, talks that were set in Canada and the Vatican, among other places. As part of the deal, the U.S. released four Cuban intelligence operatives arrested in 1998 and convicted of espionage, members of the so-called “Wasp Network.” The Cuban government had turned the four men, and another who had served his sentence and had been freed, into heroes. They were greeted with a parade upon their return.

Cuba agreed to release 53 political prisoners and an American called Alan Gross, a subcontractor for a company with a $6 million U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contract aimed at “democratizing” Cuba. Gross had made several trips to Cuba, bringing in advanced telecommunications equipment, including satellite phones, and was arrested during his sixth visit to the island. He was convicted of subversive activities and sentenced to 15 years in jail.

The Cubans also released Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, a former Cuban intelligence officer  serving a 25-year sentence for espionage, who was supposedly in the service of the CIA. Obama said Trujillo was “safe on U.S. shores.” But the shadowy Trujillo seems to have disappeared, and has yet to surface in public or to contact his parents, whom he had been dutifully calling from prison. Conspiracy theories abound, such as him being a double agent passing on false information to the U.S.

Gross has stayed under the radar as well. At his press conference, the Maryland resident gruffly walked off without speaking to reporters. Yet many questions remain as to what he was doing in Cuba in the first place. Among other wacky attempts to bring democracy to Cuba, USAID has attempted to set up a Twitter-like social media platform, and subvert hip-hop artists.

But it was Gross’release that allowed members of Congress seeking better relations with Cuba to resume visits to Havana---trips that had been curtailed greatly  after Gross’ arrest in 2010. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was among those on the first congressional delegation trips to Cuba after Gross’ release. Meeting with key Cuban officials, including Miguel Díaz-Canel, the country’s vice president and presumed heir-apparent to Cuban President Raul Castro, Pelosi said there is “great enthusiasm” in Congress for lifting the embargo.

That may be, but Kavulich and others say Congress is not about to do that for a number  of reasons.

“Even those in Congress who want to see the embargo lifted won’t do so because as long as Fidel and Raul are breathing, they don’t want to reward them by lifting the embargo,” Kavulich said, acknowledging a “deference in Congress to members of the House and Senate of Cuban descent.”

Those Cuban-American lawmakers, which include Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., are the strongest supporters of the embargo on Capitol Hill – and harsh critics of Obama’s actions. But the reaction among Cuban hardliners has softened somewhat,perhaps due to other distractions. Sen. Menendez may soon face criminal charges from the Justice Department, and Sen. Rubio is contemplating a run for president in 2016.

On the other hand, Miranda said Obama’s actions has put pressure on Congress to act on ending the embargo.“They can be actively engaged or they can be bystanders,” Miranda said. “And members of Congress don’t want to be bystanders.”

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a liberal Democrat from Connecticut, was one of the lawmakers who traveled with Pelosi to Havana in February. She’s visited Cuba before and has been, for 15 years, a member of the Cuba Working Group, a bipartisan coalition of members of Congress who want an end to the embargo. The group has shrunk in membership in recent years, a victim of retirements and electoral defeats.

DeLauro said the Cuban officials the delegation met with asked for several things, including an end to Cuba’s inclusion on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorists, an exclusive club that includes Syria, Iran and Sudan.

The Cuban officials say that inclusion on the terrorist list hurts Cuba’s ability to open accounts in  foreign banks or obtain credit. The Cuban Interest Section in Washington lost their U.S.  bank more than a year ago because the institution feared it would face U.S. sanctions and fines. Because of Cuba’s status on the terrorist list “U.S. banks cannot work with the Cuban government,” DeLauro said.

According to her and other embargo foes, that should be changed. In announcing his Cuba policy changes, Obama ordered the State Department to spend no more than six months reviewing Cuba’s status on the terrorist list. After Obama reviews the State Department’s recommendation, he must give Congress 45 days notice if he wants to make a change to the terrorist list. The clock is ticking, but according to many, this change is soon to occur.

Cuba said any attempt to move toward full diplomatic relations would be difficult if the island is left on the list.“It would be a contradiction, the re-establishment of diplomatic relations, if Cuba still remains on the list of countries sponsoring international terrorism,” said Gustavo Machin, deputy director of American affairs at the Cuba Foreign Ministry.

In meetings with Rep.DeLauro and other member of Congress who have visited Havana and in stepped-up bilateral talks between Roberta Jacobson, head of the State Department’s Western Hemisphere division, and Josefina Vidal, a senior Cuban foreign ministry official, Cuba has pressed other long-standing demands. Those included repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act, a law that allows any Cuban that reaches U.S. soil to live legally in the United States. Cuba says the law encourages migration, often under dangerous conditions, from Cuba.“’The president went as far as he could go.’ That’s something we tried to tell the Cubans,” Rep. DeLauro said.

And in a speech at the CELAC summit of Latin American nations in February, Cuban president Raul Castro added that normalization would not occur until the U.S. returned the naval base at Guantanamo, notorious for detaining members of Al Queda. The U.S. seized this land at Cuba’s easternmost tip at the end of the Spanish American War, and in 1903 pushed through a perpetual lease for $2000 in gold coins annually (about $50,000 today). Each year, the U.S. sends Cuba a check in payment, and each year Cuba refuses to cash it. As can be expected, the U.S. frostily replied that Guantanamo was not on the table.

DeLauro is convinced a bill to end the embargo “would pass on a bipartisan basis,” if GOP leaders in the House and Senate allowed votes on the legislation. But realistically, DeLauro said, normalizing relations with Cuba faces challenges and “some things may happen more quickly than others...No one has their head in the sand. No one is wearing rose-colored glasses.”

It may be too soon to measure the impact of Obama’s move to normalize relations with Havana.

There are preliminary reports of a slight increase in trips by Cuban Americans and other U.S. citizens who are allowed to travel. And some of those travelers were able to use U.S.-based MasterCards credit cards. With a swipe, those Americans ended their cash-only status, a result of the embargo’s ban on the presence of U.S. banks on Cuba.

But it appears the use of MasterCard has been very limited. Often transactions don’t go though, press reports say. And credit cards can only be used in the large hotels and stores that accept them.

Most Cuban businesses don’t. MasterCard was the first U.S. credit card company to say it would unblock their card’s use in Cuba, but it did not return repeated calls asking how that new policy was faring in Cuba. American Express has also expressed interest in allowing its cards to be used on the island.

As far as trade goes, there seems to be little immediate impact from Obama’s initiatives.The U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council reported that there was $34.5 million in U.S. goods sold to Cuba in January of 2014. That dropped to $24.8 million in January of 2015, a decrease of nearly 30 percent.

Yet Kavulich said the policy changes will have some impact.He calculates that if for the remainder of 2015, there is an increase by 60,000 licensed travelers and each spends approximately $1,200 in Cuba, the total gross revenue to Cuba would be $72 million. Plus additional revenues to Cuba relating to charter flight operations could be approximately $12 million.If each additional travelers spends an average of $400 on alcohol, tobacco, artwork, souvenirs and other products, another $24 million in revenues would be raised.

Critics in Congress, which include Sen. Rubio, have vowed to block the president’s initiatives. Rubio said he would “make every effort to block this dangerous and desperate attempt by the president to burnish his legacy at the Cuban people’s expense.” That includes denying funding for an embassy and blocking anyone Obama nominates as ambassador.

But it’s not clear how successful they will be, especially with polls showing that sizeable majorities support Obama’s action---and an end to the embargo. One place Rubio may have some impact is on the confirmation of Obama’s choice to be the next ambassador to Cuba because one senator can block a nomination.

Yet the president may be able to work around congressional obstacles. Jeffrey DeLaurentis, a career member of the Foreign Service, is the Chief of Mission at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana and the mostly likely candidate to be Obama’s choice to reestablish full diplomatic relations. DeLaurenti is already performing most of the tasks of an ambassador.

As this issue of LATINO went to press, there was talk Obama would use the controversial tactic of a “recess appointment,” which allows the president to bypass the Senate confirmation process by  appointing a senior U.S. official during a congressional recess. To remain in effect, a recess appointment must be approved by the Senate by the end of the next session of Congress, but Obama would be leaving office by then.

The U.S. Interests Section in Havana is  very well staffed, so blocking funding would not prevent it from becoming an embassy. Kavulich said he’s confident full diplomatic relations will be established: “The symbolism of the American flag going up at the Interest Section is going to be a big event.”  There seems to be symbolism everywhere.  To many, it’s not the impact of Obama’s executive actions but the fact he firmly denounced longstanding U.S. policy toward Cuba as wrongheaded that’s important---and symbolic.

Obama’s actions emboldened companies like Netflix to announce they would jump on the new opportunity to enter the Cuban market, even as they may have no more than a handful of customers on the island because of limited internet access and wages that average $10 to $20 a month.

Netflix’s entrée is also considered symbolic, as are those first customers using American credit cards and the announcement by some U.S. airlines that they want to establish regular, commercial service to Cuba. That’s problematic because the Cubans insist on reciprocity and any Cuban jet that lands in the United States is likely to be seized to help satisfy U.S. property claims.

Still, Obama has dangled the key that would unlock the door to normalization with Cuba...it remains to be seen whether Castro will enter.

By Ana Radelat