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Talking to Cuba

Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Director for Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Robert McMahon, Editor, CFR.org
January 25, 2013

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The Cuban government's easing of travel restrictions this month marks another sign of its commitment to reforms and changing sentiments in Havana, says Julia Sweig, CFR's director for Latin American Studies. Washington should seize on such moves, she says, to initiate a new dialogue and begin solving the many problems impeding normalization of ties between the countries--such as the case of detained U.S. citizen Alan Gross--and U.S. influence in the region. "There are geostrategic reasons within the region, leaving apart the bilateral relationship, why it makes a great deal of sense for a strategy of rapprochement with Cuba," Sweig says.

Cuban authorities this month eased a fifty-year-old travel restriction by allowing Cubans to travel with just a passport, and permitting lengthy stays away. How significant is this?

This is a major step for Cuba domestically, for the Cuban economy, for Cuba in the world, and for Cubans living on and off the island. On the domestic front, this has been one of the most significant sources of unhappiness for the Cuban public, to not be able to travel freely. And what the Cuban government did when it announced this was explain that this is an attempt to bring Cuba in line with other countries. Cubans now need a visa still from the countries they want to visit, and they have to buy their plane tickets, but unlike the previous era, they won't risk losing their property or their residence status. They can travel abroad as economic migrants, come and go, live for a while abroad in the United States, presumably, go back and invest in their businesses, have two residences--really a huge potential economic boon for the country.

In an interview with CFR.org a year ago, you said the United States now had a willing partner for normalization of ties with Havana but was failing to read the signals. Is this step one of those signals?

This step is largely a domestic, reality-based policy decision. But there are knock-on effects that Washington could conclude suggest that Havana is taking another step in building a more open society and boosting the human rights of its population. If Washington chose to take this as a sign of greater freedom granted by the government to its citizens, it could surely be digested in that way. But I don't think pleasing Washington is the prime motivation.

How should we read Cuba's parliamentary elections scheduled for February 3?

As another big demographic and political development: some 67 percent of the candidates for 612 spots are completely new picks, and of these, more than 70 percent were born after 1959. Women comprise 49 percent of the candidates, and Afro descendents 37 percent. Cubans will be asked to check yea or nay from this new list--so it's not a direct competition between candidates. But if you want to understand where the successors to Fidel and Raul may come from, I'd look closely at the new group that comes in next month.

These elections also tell us something about decentralization: the municipal and provincial deputies are going to have a lot more power to tax and spend than ever before--on everything but health, education, and the military, as I understand it--while the new National Assembly may well start passing a lot more laws than before, to implement a slew of economic, legal, and governance reforms that are under way or coming down the pike. Finally, Ricardo Alarcon, who served as National Assembly president for the last nineteen years, before that as UN ambassador, and who for decades has taken the lead on U.S.-Cuban relations, will not appear on the electoral slate.

Washington continues to point to what it says is the biggest impediment, which is the case of Alan Gross, the U.S. citizen who U.S. officials said was in Cuba to help with Internet access; Cubans say he was subverting the state. He continues to languish in Cuba. How to resolve this issue?

"Havana's attempt to use [jailed U.S. contractor Alan] Gross to launch a dialogue, in addition to dealing with all of the myriad issues on the table, in its essence is also about pushing Washington to deal with Havana as a government."

Well, like governments resolve issues, they get in the room and they talk. And they put the issues on the table that are connected indirectly and intrinsically to that particular issue. By the way, the DAI (Developments Alternative International), which was Alan Gross's employer, just released the contracts (PDF) between DAI and Alan Gross, and there is a lot of information in there about the equipment that Gross brought down there and reasons why he was bringing that equipment. And that will just, unfortunately, reinforce the sense that this wasn't just benign development or benign Internet assistance.

This was part of a program funded by the U.S. government intended to destabilize the Cuban government, and the documentation really clearly shows that. And the lawsuit, now that the Gross family has filed against the State Department, also says that USAID should have trained Gross in counterintelligence. So, the way to stop this Alan Gross issue from becoming a political Frankenstein is to get in the room and settle a number of issues, including the Gross issue, including the Cuban 5 issue [five Cuban intelligence agents arrested by federal authorities in Miami in 1998 on charges of espionage], including other bilateral issues.

Some see the case of Alan Gross as playing into a narrative that the Cubans are using this case for leverage and are not genuinely interested in justice or in properly handling this case. How do you respond to that perspective?

Well, they are interested in using the case as leverage. President Obama, at the first Summit of the Americas he attended, pledged to open a new chapter in U.S.-Cuban relations and acknowledged that the embargo and U.S. policy had failed. Then he left in place the very policies he had inherited from George W. Bush. Some call them democracy promotions; some call them regime change--explicitly designed to destabilize Cuba. Which is very, very consistent with the bipartisan approach to Cuba over the last fifty years.

So, Gross is leverage, unfortunately, and Washington's position now seems to be, "There are lots of things we can do, but we won't do any of it until you first unilaterally release Gross." Havana's position is: "Washington has promised us things before and not done them. We have no incentive to do anything unilaterally because once we give you what you want, neither do you." Because the status quo of domestic politics dominating this issue and perverting it and the status quo of a pretty safe and regular flow of people between Havana and Miami and a succession that is very stable in Cuba means there is very little incentive for Washington to move aggressively toward a better Cuba policy.

Havana's attempt to use Gross to launch what it calls a political dialogue, in addition to dealing with all of the myriad issues on the table, in its essence is also about pushing Washington to deal with Havana, government to government. That is sort of a deep strategic driver on this [Gross case].

One of the biggest regime surprises of the last year was Myanmar, a country that had very poor relations with Washington. Suddenly there seemed to be this breathtaking series of events and you have the president of the United States at the end of the year visiting the country. Are there any lessons we can take from what happened there and apply it toward Cuba?

This is a very unpopular view in this town, but I'll say this: The Cuban government has far more legitimacy among its population. Cuba doesn't have a military junta running the country. I'm not saying the Cuban Communist Party gets universal high marks from Cubans, but even then there have been some significant reforms intended to make the party far less involved in government and far less imposing of its ideology on people's lives.

Stripping this whole thing bare, as far as I can tell, there is really no foreign policy reason why the United States does not have a normal, or least more natural, diplomatic and economic relationship with Cuba. In fact, there is a serious foreign policy downside for not having that. In Latin America, we just saw the president earlier in 2012 attend the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, where there was a full court, unanimous message from the center, center-left, right, center-right, and every single country in the region, including Washington's closest allies, telling Washington to get it together with Havana, it is time to move forward.

"The fact is that with events in Venezuela, the United States is sitting on the margins of one of the biggest political moments in Latin America, [which] runs through Havana."

Take Colombia, where President [Juan Manuel] Santos has a great relationship with Washington and with Havana, which is hosting talks between his government and the FARC [rebel group] right now. Yet Washington keeps Havana on its terrorist list. Another moment we are living through right now: President Hugo Chavez is very, very ill in Havana, and it seems to me that the shuttle diplomacy that is taking place doesn't involve anybody from Washington. It involves Cubans, Venezuelans, Argentines, and Brazilians. The fact is that with events in Venezuela, the United States is sitting on the margins of one of the biggest political moments in Latin America, [which] runs through Havana. So there are geostrategic reasons within the region, leaving apart the bilateral relationship, why it makes a great deal of sense for a strategy of rapprochement with Cuba.

Some have claimed Cuba is in a very strong position to influence the succession in Venezuela. Is that true?

There are really three or four phases of the Cuba-Venezuela relationship, and the contemporary period starts before Chavez became president after he tried to stage a coup and failed in 1992 and flew to Havana. And that began a decade-long, and more, relationship with Fidel Castro. And over the course of this past decade, from around 2002 until now, until his illness, that relationship has gotten much deeper. Havana's influence on the transition is absolutely clear--very direct. And what has happened since, let's say around 2002, when there was a brief and failed coup against Chavez, is that Cuba has become very involved in many aspects of Venezuelan domestic life. The political actors around Chavez, in Chavez's party, have likewise deepened their relationship with Havana.

Let's get back to the Cuban leadership. The Castros are both over eighty, and there are a number of other leading officials in their seventies. What kind of cadre is waiting in the wings, and to what extent has the United States reached out to them?

We have a second- and third-generation wave of leaders coming up in the ranks, and Washington doesn't know them. Fidel stepped aside in 2006, and fairly rapidly after that, Raul Castro replaced almost every cabinet member and got rid of a couple of key people who had been working with Fidel for quite some time. He's made it very clear that leadership successors, potential successors, are going to come from the ranks of people who are problem solvers, holding office in what in the United States would be thought of as governorships, the provincial party heads. There are fifteen provinces in Cuba and the heads of the Communist Party in each province are now in their forties and fifties, almost all of them. Many of them are women, or men, and women of African descent.

Right now, we can count on one hand, at the most, the number of people who are the old original revolutionaries from 1959, who might have fought with Fidel, those called the historicos, who are still in major government posts. Almost none of the founding generation are actually wielding portfolios of significance other than Raul Castro and a few others.

The Obama administration, part two, is now beginning, and there is some congressional turnover. Can you talk about any significant changes and how they might influence Cuba policy?

Let's start with Florida, because I noted that our policy toward Cuba isn't foreign policy; it's domestic. And what we saw in this election was that Obama won almost 50 percent of the Cuban-American vote. He won 36 percent of it in 2008. What does that tell us? It tells us that more and more Cuban-Americans are voting as Americans, not as special interest Cubans focused only on American policy toward the island. Number two, it shows us that Cuban-Americans are not punishing Obama for the openings he did make under his first term in allowing Cubans to commute, invest, and travel pretty much whenever they want to, to the island. And the third thing it means is that in a second term, the president has far more running room than he did even in the first term to go farther, if he wants to, in terms of a broader opening with Havana.

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