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Wariness in Cuba toward the Obama Administration

Interviewee: Julia E. Sweig, Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies and Director for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 9, 2009

The recent demotion of two members of Cuba's cabinet has been puzzled over by Cuba analysts. Julia E. Sweig, CFR's director for Latin American studies, says the individuals that were replaced were those "that the outside world knows best as Cuba's international face." She says the changes are mainly about "Cuba's internal picture" and cautions against interpreting the shift as related to the United States. Sweig has advocated a normalization of relations by the United States toward Cuba. On a recent trip to Havana, Sweig says she sensed "skepticism that the Obama administration will move rapidly and responsively to open a new chapter for Cuba."

You've written a very interesting memo to President Obama advocating moving the United States into a more normal relationship with Cuba. You point out that the president should not expect any great change in the policy of the Cuban government. What's happened on this memo? Any action in Washington?

A few things are happening in Washington. In the president's campaign, he talked about allowing Cuban-American families to travel to see their family members on the island and to send remittances. Both remittances and travel had been highly restricted by the Bush administration. The White House has yet to indicate that through administrative measures it's ready to liberalize family travel, but in Congress, some legislation has been introduced, not only to lift the entire travel ban but also, as a first step, to allow Cuban families to travel to Cuba. And also, the omnibus spending bill now in the House and the Senate has a provision to eliminate enforcement funds with respect to Cuban-American travel. It would allow Cuban-Americans to visit family on the island in all likelihood once a year [instead of once every three years] and provides a general license for travel related to agricultural and medical sales. That may go through because it's part of a big spending package [Eds note: On March 10, Congress approved a bill that would ease some travel and trade restrictions against Cuba]. Still, the opponents of an opening in U.S. policy toward Cuba, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), and Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), are attempting to limit the extent of the openings should the spending bill become law. Even if they succeed in a limited fashion, this would mark the first legislative breakthrough, albeit modest, under this Congress and this administration. Although some strings may, as a result of these senators' opposition, be attached to the more flexible travel measures, this step will reverse Bush policy in important ways.

Regarding a breakthrough in relations, "some effort has been made to dampen those expectations, with respect to Cuba, by the administration."

In the State Department, in addition to the president's campaign pledges, during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing, she indicated that the State Department would undertake a policy review on a few different dimensions of the bilateral relationship. One, the family travel issue; two, the rationale for Cuba being on the State Department's list of countries supporting terrorism; three, the issue of agricultural sales between the two countries. And also the issue of environment as it's affected by oil drilling offshore that's taking place in Cuba.

When will Obama lay out his Cuba policy?

The Summit of the Americas, which takes place April 17 for a couple of days in Trinidad and Tobago, should be an opportunity for the president and the secretary of state to get to know their counterparts, and to indicate where they plan to take policies not just toward Cuba but toward Latin America. But there's a lot of expectations on Cuba because the Latin Americans themselves have laid the groundwork in different ways. For example, Caricom, the Caribbean Community, sent a letter to the president very explicitly suggesting that it's time for a new policy toward Cuba. We had in December a meeting of about twenty Latin American heads of state, hosted by Brazil, from which the only major headline that came out was that the United States should please get on with it with Cuba and open a new chapter. Privately, when Latin American heads of state and some Europeans are meeting with Secretary Clinton and President Obama, as they started with Bush, by the way, they're also bringing up Cuba. So the administration is getting a full-court press, publicly and privately. In the lead up to this summit, expectations will be very high. But some effort has been made to dampen those expectations, with respect to Cuba, by the administration.

You were recently in Cuba. What was your feeling talking to Cuban officials about their desires vis-à-vis relations with the United States? Were they willing to do much to get this accomplished?

I did meet with a number of Cuban officials and observed what I have been sensing for the last few years, which is that although the embargo is regarded as onerous and costly, getting it lifted and seeing the construction of normal relations is not the top priority for the Cuban government, at least not at the cost of giving up sovereignty, independence, and political control. Cuba has diversified its trade and diplomatic portfolio, and in the last year there's been an enormously active diplomatic pace. In the past year there were totally new cooperation agreements with the European Union, and of course there have been ongoing financial and political ties with Venezuela and a very new active role by Brazil. There have been high-level visits to and from China, Russia, and Brazil. And since the beginning of 2009, six Latin American heads of state visited the island with more to come from the region and from Europe. Cuba no longer seems to need to see the relationship with the United States improve as rapidly as it might well have, for example, when the Soviet bloc collapsed and it lost its Soviet subsidy overnight. In the 1990s, there was a much more aggressive push by the Cuban government to see a change in policy from the United States. Today Cubans are watching cautiously, waiting to see what the Obama administration will do. The government seems to be quite gratified by the consensus in Latin America and globally that the U.S. policy should change, but is clearly not willing to tie itself up into pretzels in order to satisfy an American demand that it reshape its politics in our image.

Right after you left Cuba, there was an announcement that two of the highest-ranking officials in the Cuban government were essentially fired. They were both youngish men, relatively speaking, who would have had a chance to be seen as eventual successors to the Castros. What's been the reaction of Cuban experts to these changes?

The high-profile personnel changes, which involve the removal from office of the foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque, and Carlos Lage, the vice president, were presented in the context of a major restructuring of government. Analysts of Cuba anticipated the restructuring. Raul Castro, a year ago when he took office, in his inaugural address, indicated that they were going to be shrinking ministries, eliminating some, taking big steps to reduce the size of the state and the bureaucracy in order to make socialism more efficient. A bureaucratic overhaul was a long time in coming. We can talk about it, perhaps, as a prelude to some of the other measures that he announced a year ago but that have not been implemented and why. As to the issue of the personnel changes--it has been confirmed that Fernando Remirez, who we also saw last week, is no longer in his post. Remirez had been a very senior party official and the chief strategist in the Communist Party on all things international. He was at the United Nations as a diplomat for several years in the 1990s and then came to Washington and developed a number of relationships during the Clinton period. He oversaw the Elian Gonzalez case [a Cuban child who was ordered by U.S. courts in 2000--against the wishes of many Cuban Americans--to be returned to his paternal father in Cuba after he arrived in the United States on a small boat in which his mother died when it capsized], and dealt with the ramifications of the shootdown of two small planes piloted by anti-Cuban exiles, in 1996. Fernando Remirez is one of the great talents of that revolution; the trajectory of his career remains unclear as to date, unlike the case of Perez Roque and Lage, there has been no official statement about him.

Cuba "seems to be quite gratified by the consensus in Latin America and globally that U.S. policy should change, but is clearly not willing to tie itself up into pretzels" to make that happen.

These are the three people that the outside world knows best as Cuba's international face. The foreign minister had been for the past fifteen years, after working very closely with Fidel, a very high-profile individual internationally. Likewise, Carlos Lage, who some people sort of equate to a minister without portfolio, had his hands in a number of things. Especially in the 1990s, he was very involved in the financial reforms that produced a limited opening [in the Cuban economy], and was involved in negotiating foreign investment deals after Cuba passed a joint venture law. He's another individual that many people around the world, in Europe and Latin America, know very well. And then Fernando Remirez at the Central Committee, in addition to his U.S. portfolio, is also somebody that is known in foreign capitals. Replacing those three with people that don't have that kind of profile and don't have the kind of institutional memory of managing Cuba's relationships with the outside world is an enormously significant step. It's also one that is disconcerting because the explanation that Fidel Castro gave for their removal implied that they had become too inured by power and thus vulnerable to outsiders.

He used the phrase "honey of power"?

Exactly, that they had been attracted to the "honey of power." He did not use that with respect to Remirez; nobody has said anything about Remirez yet.

At a time when there are big changes in Washington and anticipation of possible moves toward Cuba, do you think this is the Castros trying to say, "You can do what you want, but we're not dying to have you here"?

Yes, but hang on. First and foremost, the whole picture of what's unfolded this week should not be digested as about the United States. That kind of narcissism that it's all about us--even in a country in which the United States does have such a big presence in the national psychology--would be wrong. These are mainly changes that are about Cuba's internal picture, but they're made with acute cognizance of an international picture which has changed a lot in the last year. The global financial crisis is going to put a big squeeze on Cuba, and Cuba, because it's less open, is in a way less vulnerable, but the picture is very different and much tougher for Cuba than it was a year and a half ago when Raul and his team were first putting together what might unfold under his watch.

Second, the other big change that has happened is the three hurricanes that hit Cuba in the fall of 2008 and which cost the country 20 percent of its GDP [gross domestic product]. It's a $45 billion GDP, and they lost $10 billion in damages. So the global financial picture plus the cost of the hurricanes--not just the financial cost but the social cost and the personnel cost of delivering government services rapidly to get the reconstruction going and addressing the unhappiness that resulted from massive and very quick displacement from homes and food shortages--has taken an enormous amount of energy and momentum away from a government that came in a year ago talking about implementing salary reform, currency reform, in addition to bureaucratic restructuring. These were a number of steps clearly made with an eye to making people's lives easier, with a less onerous role for the state, all within the context still of socialism. We don't hear them talking about market reforms or political democracy, but one did get the sense a year ago from Raul Castro that when he talked about productivity and efficiency and eliminating the unfairness of having a workforce that doesn't work be paid at the expense of hard-working people who aren't paid enough, he was trying to make the system more fair, more efficient, more productive, sounding sometimes more like Margaret Thatcher than Karl Marx. That impulse still very much exists. We're going to see some of the steps around salary and currency and more freedoms to travel, and the continued intensification of a land reform that they just started, giving land away to people to produce privately. That will all continue, and one could make the case that the restructuring was necessary in order for it to be more effective.

I say all of that because it's important that readers understand that the likelihood or not of minor or even more significant policy changes coming from the United States is but one of many factors that this government is measuring when it decides to do a restructuring like this. What I picked up down there--and it may be too early to say--was skepticism that the Obama administration will move rapidly and responsively to open a new chapter for Cuba.

What's your guess, if Raul Castro died suddenly, who would replace him?

It's not a guess; just as there was in the case of the Fidel to Raul succession, there will be a process. Right now the first vice president is Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, who is one of the "historicos" that fought in the guerilla war in the 1950s with Fidel and Raul. He would be the successor. Then they would have to go through a process, as they did with Fidel, of a vote at the National Assembly and then a vote at the Council of State, but right now he's the number two.

I've seen a lot of speculation about older military men coming into power.

There are a lot of men from the military coming in, without a doubt. And many of them are people who have been with Raul many years and have been involved in managing big economic portfolios for the military itself because the military is very involved in Cuba's economy. Yes, he's surrounding himself with loyalists, loyal not only to him but who grew up within the institution of the armed forces. There are also a number of people from the party. Some of the people who have been promoted to run ministries also worked their way from municipal to provincial party leadership to national leadership. They are really born and bred revolutionaries who cut their teeth on the revolution after 1959.

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