Cuba and the US - Breaking bread with the beast

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Obama and Raul Castro shook hands at opening of the Americas summit in Panama

Following the historic announcement on 17 December 2014 that Cuba and the US would ‘normalise’ relations, representatives of both countries have met three times.

Prior to these talks in January, US President Obama announced a number of significant measures in relation to Cuba. By contrast, the talks have produced nothing concrete. Cuba has made it clear that the restoration of diplomatic relations must be preceded by several measures, notably the removal of Cuba from the US ‘State Sponsors of Terrorism’ list. The US has publicly stated that the objective of its policy toward Cuba remains regime change. James Bell reports.

On 16 January, Obama put in place a relatively limited set of changes to US policy on Cuba. Alongside a promised review of Cuba’s inclusion on the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list and the opening of embassies, many of the changes are extensions to operations already permitted by the US. For example, since September 2009, remittances from family members have been unlimited and only non-family remittances required a licence and were limited at $500 per quarter. Since the US changes, this has increased to $2,000 per quarter and no licence is required. Nevertheless, the decision to restore diplomatic relations is a significant change in the strategy and represents an explicit acknowledgement of US policy’s failure to undermine Cuban socialism. Obama put it best: ‘We will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests.’

In order to understand this new strategy, it is important to understand what has been omitted. This is highlighted by an interview on Cuban TV on the 12 February with Josefina Vidal, Director General for the United States at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations. She states that ‘[What] has happened is that the President of the United States… announced a series of measures modifying the implementation of some aspects of the blockade… he has [not] exhausted all of his prerogatives.’ Whilst Obama cannot end the blockade, Vidal states that he could ‘gut the blockade of its fundamental content’.

For example, Obama is unable to grant Cuba the ability to trade with a branch of a US company operating in another country. This is contained in the 1992 Torricelli Law and can only be removed by Congress. He could, however, allow that same company – if it were operating in the US – to do business with Cuba, both import and export. He has not. Whilst Obama cannot allow agricultural products to be traded with Cuba on credit, he could allow non-agricultural products to be traded with Cuba on credit. He has not. The list runs on.

Economic relations are key to this new strategy. All but two of the changes are related to the exchange of certain commodities in US dollars between the US and Cuba. For example, Obama has both loosened restrictions for 12 categories of travel to Cuba, and allowed travellers to use US credit and debit cards within Cuba. By increasing the exchange of commodities and dollars between the two countries, the US hopes to distort socialism, seducing Cubans with capitalist ideas. This is what Obama means by ‘engagement’ with Cuba.

Agreeing to disagree

Far from dutifully submitting to US demands, Cuba is standing by its principles. The present talks are evidence of this. The first round of talks, held on 21 and 22 January, only agreed the need to continue talking. Cuba used the opportunity to take the US to task on its record of human rights violations, including in the occupied territory of Guantanamo Bay.

A week later, Raul Castro demanded the return of Guantanamo Bay, stating that ‘The re-establishment of diplomatic relations is the start of a process of normalising bilateral relations, but this will not be possible while the blockade still exists, while they don’t give back the territory illegally occupied by the Guantanamo naval base.’ The US refused. Roberta Jackson, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs stated ‘the Cuban government has raised Guantanamo, we are not interested in discussing that’.

Josefina Vidal highlights the uneven nature of the talks, commenting that relations ‘between Cuba and the United States have historically been asymmetrical. Therefore, a focus cannot be applied … of quid pro quo – I give you something, and you give me something … there are many more things to dismantle on the US side than on the Cuban side.’ Whilst Cuba has never attacked the US, either militarily or economically, the US has led an unending economic and political war against Cuba, imposing the blockade since 1960, backing the military invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and ploughing $20m each year into ‘regime change’, a violation of international law.

A key goal for Cuba in the second round of talks on 27 February was its removal from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism list. Countries on this list face a ban on defence exports and sales and face restricted access to international credit. An important aspect of the list is that it prevents Cuba from banking in the US and from performing other basic business operations. These activities are essential in order for Cuba to have an embassy on US soil.

Cuba’s inclusion on the list is also directly influencing US banks, making them hesitant to open accounts with Cuban institutions. On 13 March the South Florida Business Journal published an article highlighting three reasons why US banks are reluctant to enter Cuba. Andres Fernandez, a partner at Holland & Knight law firm, is blunt; on top of the cost of satisfying US authorisation of each transaction, before a US bank would confidently engage, ‘Cuba has to be removed from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list’.

Obama has promised that Cuba’s position on the list will be reviewed and nothing further. The second round of talks came to the same conclusion. As John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, commented, ‘[the talks are] fairly normal negotiations with respect to movement of diplomats, access, travel, different things. The state sponsorship of terrorism designation is a separate process. It is not a negotiation.’ The third set of talks, held on the 16 and 17 March, concluded without agreeing a date for embassies to be opened in Cuba or the US.

Building pressure

Cuba will not shrink from its demands: Removal from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list, the return of Guantanamo and an end to the blockade. Furthermore, it has the upper hand. Pressure is building on the US government to lift the blockade of Cuba. On 12 February a cross-party group of US senators introduced a bill to congress that would see economic restrictions on Cuba lifted. The bill reflects economic concerns; they are no friends of Cuban socialism. Following this, on 2 March almost 100 representatives of 30 US agricultural companies visited Cuba calling for an end to the blockade.

What will become of the bill or of future negotiations between the US and Cuba only time will tell. Cuban socialism remains resolute in its defence of sovereignty, it will not back down.

As Vidal puts it, ‘I cannot say there has been a change in the objectives. I would say, a new stage has begun, a new stage in the relations between Cuba and the United States … political differences between Cuba and the United States, which are deep, are not going to disappear.’

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 244 April/May 2015