On the way to Havana: the promise of Obama’s visit

“…By emphasizing the commitment of both presidents to prioritize the improvement in relations during the time that is left in their mandates, the visit should serve to motivate their governmental bureaucracies to accelerate the pace of the changes.”

Puede leer aquí la versión en español de este artículo

This text belongs to the file titled “Five Years after the visit of Barack Obama to Cuba.

Within a few weeks, five years will have passed after the visit of president Obama to Cuba. As it happens with many events, the pictures that circulated in the media from the very beginning of this visit, as well as the inner mechanisms of memory, have contributed to mythologize them with some sort of mark. Given these circumstances, Temas invited a group of scholars on inter-American relations from the United States, Latin America and the Caribbean, and particularly from Cuba, to reflect on their connotation. We are retrieving these observations because of their effectiveness to think critically and equably about some problems of today and about future scenarios.

*Published March 21, 2016

The journey of President Barack Obama to Cuba on March 21st and 22nd marks a crucial moment in the normalization process between Cuba and the United States. During the fifteen months that have passed since Raúl Castro and Obama declared the end of the Cold War in the Caribbean, on December 17, 2014, there has hardly been sufficient progress to justify this historical presidential visit. There is much more left to do. By emphasizing the commitment of both presidents to prioritize the improvement in relations during the time that is left in their mandates, the visit should serve to motivate their governmental bureaucracies to accelerate the pace of the changes.

After a slow start (the opening of the embassies took six months), diplomatic progress has advanced extremely rapidly. The diplomatic teams that negotiated the restoration of diplomatic relations were transformed into bilateral commissions that meet quarterly to supervise and prioritize two dozen working groups and technical discussions that are busy with a broad spectrum of issues—from human rights, mutual reclamations of properties, migration, people trafficking, application of the law, cooperation in anti-drug operations, maritime security, and even environmental protection between coast-guards and topics of global health.

During the last seven months, the Secretaries of State, Commerce, Transport and Agriculture of the United States have traveled to Havana, and the Cuban Ministers of Exterior Relations, Exterior Commerce and Investments have visited Washington. Up to now, the two governments have signed four cooperative agreements on the protection of the Caribbean maritime region and of the environment in the broadest possible way, on civil aviation and postal services. The agreements on cooperation on global health and anti-drug operations seem to be at the point of conclusion, perhaps just subject to final presidential approval.

However, progress on the economic front has been agonizingly slow. A key part in Obama’s strategy has consisted in lowering the application of economic sanctions so as to promote solid commercial ties with Cuba. The aim consists both in awakening a domestic support basis in the business sector interested in the continued opening with Cuba after Obama leaves the presidency and in creating conditions in Cuba that would favor a higher economic freedom, as Obama commented to Yahoo News in an interview held on the anniversary of December 17th last year: “The more they see the benefits of North-American investments, the presence of North-American tourist dollars in their economy, the opening of telecommunications, and Cubans receiving information free of censure, the stronger will be the base for the greater changes that will take place in the future.”

The opening of Cuba has created great interest among North-American entrepreneurs. More than twelve commercial delegations have travelled south, four of them directed by ruling governors: Andrew Cuomo of New York, Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, Greg Abbott of Texas, and Terry MacAuliffe of Virginia. But only a handful of contracts have been signed; any real progress has been diminished by the obstacles arising in Washington and Havana.

The first round of changes in the North-American regulations, in January of 2015 and aimed at facilitating commerce, revealed their ignorance on the Cuban regulatory system, so that the majority of the opportunities that were proposed were illusory. The three following rounds (the last of which was announced last Tuesday) have created more realistic possibilities by allowing United States businesses to establish offices on the Island and allowing them to sell to State enterprises to the benefit of the Cuban people.

The new regulations also ended the prohibition of the use of the American dollar in international financial transactions—an essential component to allow both North-American and foreign enterprises to work in Cuba. They also made the travel restrictions more flexible, allowing United States residents to prepare their own educational visits on a people-to-people basis, without having to do this using pre-arranged travel packages.

But North-American enterprises still cannot invest on the Island, nor associate with State enterprises, except in the field of telecommunications, nor can Cuban State enterprises export products to the United States.

Last month, Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker openly mentioned to Rodrigo Malmierca, Minister of Exterior Commerce and Foreign Investment, the question of the obstacles on the Cuban side. Foreign enterprises in Cuba cannot freely contract workers, they have to do it through a State enterprise. Cuban regulations are not transparent and it takes time to make the decisions on the proposed commercial contracts. Penny also requested the Cuban government to make the regulations relating to the private sector more flexible, making it easier for these entrepreneurs to do business with the United States.

The visit by Obama is an opportunity to achieve that the Cuban government eradicate these obstacles so that North-American enterprises can enter the Cuban market in a more reasonable way, so that the normalization policies can be made “irreversible”, to use the term of Ben Rhodes, the Assistant Advisor of National Security.

Some critics have considered that Obama’s journey is not happening at the right moment, arguing that there have been few changes in Cuba resulting from the normalization, particularly in the area of human rights. Speaking of his next trip last December, Obama himself seemed to raise the bar high when he said: “I would like to use the visit as a means to call attention to this progress […] I’m not interested in just validating the current status quo.

But, as Rhodes has indicated, by travelling now, the administration has ten months to work out the details to implement agreements that the two presidents could reach in principle. If Obama had waited until the end of the year, his trip to Cuba would really just have been “a holiday.”

The topic of human rights will be a priority on Obama’s agenda. At the request of the United States, Cuba has recently permitted some veteran dissidents to travel out of the country. But the brief clampdowns on dissent reached their highest point in five years last January; and the second round on the bilateral dialogue on human rights that Secretary of State John Kerry had planned to direct was postponed. The White House has announced that Obama will meet with the dissidents during his visit, as well as with a wide representation of leaders of civil society. He will deal with the question of human rights in a private setting with Raúl Castro, as he has done in previous meetings, and publicly, when he has addressed the Cuban people.

What are the “submissions” that can be most hoped for in the March visit? Will it be new agreements of cooperation on topics of common interest or some changes in the Cuban commercial regulations, to facilitate exchange? The journey could also motivate discussions now in progress on more difficult topics, like property reclamations, emigration and the application of the law. New commercial agreements could be announced at the same time as the visit, including one that would allow Cuban baseball players to sign contracts with Major League teams without abandoning their homeland. The most recent reform of the North-American regulations have created conditions that would allow Cubans, including athletes, to accept salaries from the United States.

In 1972, the trip of then-president Richard Nixon to China marked the beginning of a new chapter in Sino-North American relations. Washington abandoned the illusion that isolating China would provoke a change of government, and recognized that North-American interests would benefit more from a compromise. The historic journey by Obama to Cuba marks a similar moment, equally significant in the changes to North-American politics. Not all pending issues between the two countries will be solved—as was also the case with Nixon’s journey. But it does symbolize the decision by this president to make progress in the relations towards normalization in such a way that there will be no going back.

Traduccion: Catharina Vallejo


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