The Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations

The Future of U.S.-Cuba Relations

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Susan Kaufman Purcell, independent consultant on Latin American issues and former director of the University of Miami's Center for Hemispheric Policy, discusses the future of U.S.-Cuba relations, as part of CFR's Academic Conference Call series.

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Susan Kaufman Purcell

Independent Consultant on Latin American Issues; Former Director, Center for Hemispheric Policy, University of Miami


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

IRINA FASKIANOS: Thank you. Good afternoon from New York and welcome to the CFR Academic Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Today’s call is on the record and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, if you would like to share it with your colleagues or classmates.

We are delighted to have Susan Kaufman Purcell with us today to talk about the future of U.S.-Cuba relations. Dr. Purcell is an independent consultant on Latin American issues. From 2005 to 2015, she served as director of the University of Miami’s Center for Hemispheric Policy. Her previous positions include vice president of the Council of the Americas, vice president of the Americas Society, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, as well as member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, and tenured professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Purcell holds a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia University and a prolific writer and speaker on Latin American issues.

Susan, thanks very much for being with us today.

PURCELL: It’s a pleasure, thank you.

FASKIANOS: We had our election here in the United States. It would be great if you could give us an overview of the current state of U.S.-Cuba relations and Cuba policy under the Obama administration and what you expect to see in the new administration of the 45th president.

PURCELL: OK. Well, thank you so much. And hello, everybody. Delighted to have this opportunity to give you some overview, and also to have the time to hear you questions and discuss the issues.

As Irina said, I want to start by just saying a few words about President Obama’s policy, not go into detail, but sort of the rationale behind it to a certain extent. Basically, Obama’s approach to Cuba fit in with his overall support for what’s called the policy of engagement. And that’s the idea that you can bring about—I mean, there are lots of parts to it—but the idea is that you can bring about political change more easily with a policy that creates various kinds of links—they could be business links, they could be cultural links, they could be person-to-person visits, some or all of the above.

And President Obama actually made a big point of using this policy—or trying this policy mainly with non-democratic regimes. And I’ll just cite the four obvious ones. In addition to Cuba there’s Venezuela, Russia, and Iran. Russia was the Russian reset. Iran was the nuclear agreement, et cetera. Venezuela, there were discussion, et cetera. And that policy of engagement is, in a sense, opposed or it’s very different from a policy of sanctions. He didn’t really believe in sanctions against these regimes, unless absolutely forced to do so.

OK, it’s not clear that the engagement policy works, but—in general—but the people who believe that it does argue—if you give them proof that it hasn’t really done very much they’ll say it takes time. But the amount of time is unspecified. So engagement versus sanctions or, you know, kind of clamping down against the government, those are the two big options that people often talk about when they talk about politics.

OK, so in addition, Obama also—in addition to his wanting to try and engage and change U.S. policy—so it’s not in addition, it’s a complement—is because he wanted—it was part of his legacy. He wanted to be the president that after so many years of difficult times between Cuba and the United States he would change the policy and we would see a big improvement and much less hostility in U.S.-Cuban relations. He thought that the time was right for this also because a variety of polls had indicated that younger Cuban-Americans, particularly in Miami or in south Miami, were leaning toward Democratic—the Democratic Party were more liberal than their parents or grandparents, at the same time that the older Cubans—or Cuban-Americans, those who had come here—were dying off. And they were the ones who were most hardline in terms of the kinds of policy—you know, in favoring the embargo, et cetera.

The recent election, however, showed—at least with regard to South Florida—that actually perhaps more of the Cubans were—or, how can we put it—fewer Cubans were as anti-embargo or tough on Cuba policy—wanted tougher—I’m sorry—wanted the opening than was relieved because they helped really—they made a significant contribution in the election to helping Trump win Florida and its 29 electoral votes. In fact, Trump got more of the Hispanics in general and the Cuban-Americans than Romney had gotten eight years ago.

OK, what’s been accomplished since the opening under President Obama, which began in 2014? To summarize it, we now—we’ve opened up embassies now in both countries. There have been some investments, but not so much—and I’ll explain it in a second—mainly in the area of telecom and tourism, particularly. And the U.S. is exporting telecom equipment, certain medicines, food, agricultural goods. And there are now banking ties that have begun between the two countries. There are now regularly scheduled commercial airline flights. And the restrictions on the—these are the most recent ones—on the import of rum and cigars have been loosened so that you can import them if you are carrying them yourself from you visit, you know, back from Cuba to the United States. But there’s no export business, supposedly, concerned with all of this. It’s for your personal use.

The other revision that’s important is that President Obama lifted many restrictions on U.S. travel. There are still these 12 categories of tourists—or Americans have to say they belong in order to go to Cuba. That used to be checked by an office of the U.S. Treasury Department, and now it’s sort of on an honor system. You just kind of say that, you know, you belong in one of these groups because you do X, Y, or Z, and no one checks you and everybody knows that you’re not going to be checked. Then the other important thing is—the last thing I’ll mention—is that most recently in October the Obama administration’s reforms allowed more of the remittances and other kinds of financial benefits to go not only to, you know, the Cuban people or tourists—the Cuban people, but also to members of the government who now are benefitting more directly—workers in government, et cetera.

So now what’s happening? Well, before that, actually, one more thing. There were some complaints that the Cuban government wasn’t opening to, you know, private business as much as had been anticipated. Some small businessmen said they never got an answer or if they got an answer from the government nothing really happened. And the Cubans themselves—well, let me—and another factor was that you have to keep in mind that in Cuba there really isn’t the rule of law. There isn’t an up-to-date of any kind of regulatory system in Cuba. So that puts your investments at risk of the government’s decisions. And, of course, the embargo still remains in place, as the embargo can only be lifted by the U.S. Congress.

So there’s that aspect of the pre-Trump period. But also, you could argue that the government—the Cuban government is going slowly—or more slowly than everybody thought for two reasons. One is, this—that the government is afraid it might lose some control if the economy really opens up. And tied to this is a sense among—I guess among Republicans in general, this is one of their critiques, that the Cuban government saw President Obama as too eager to cut a deal for his—you know, to benefit his legacy, et cetera. So the Cuban government, every time President Obama seems to have made a decision, the Cuban government seems to have added another demand.

OK, so that’s—enough of the background. And let’s go into President-elect Trump now. Now, initially Trump said that—when asked about the embargo—this is before his election—he said he’s OK, you know, with the opening to Cuba. But he really feels that President Obama didn’t cut a good deal. The U.S. didn’t get enough in return. And so that’s where he started from. As he got closer to November 8th elections, he went from saying that initial statement to basically moving to say we just about got nothing in return and that this—the deal that was negotiated is very weak, and that he started talking about, you know, negotiating a new deal in which he would want political and religious freedom, the relief of political prisoners. And he said that he wasn’t—this is his most recently statement—he wasn’t going to pay Cubans for the supposed, or he said—used the word “alleged” losses they suffered as a result of the embargo.

So putting it all together, President-elect Trump is in the position now of having said it’s a weak deal, he wants to renegotiate it, and if the Cubans don’t respond to—the Cuban government—don’t respond to this, then he’s going to reverse the opening. And the—he could do that because President Obama didn’t have congressional support—didn’t make any of this new Cuba policy as a result of congressional support or congressional involvement. Instead, they were executive offers which he said he could change the policy with, you know, the stroke of his pen or a phone call. And that’s sort of what he did.

Now, the downside for—with regard to executive orders is that while they can be made very easily, they can be just as easily reversed. So it wouldn’t be so hard for President-elect Trump, once he’s president, to reverse everything, and so to do what he’s saying he would like to do. If he were to decide—I mean, first he would try to get a better deal, as he himself said. After all, we all know he’s a negotiator. But if he can’t get the Cubans to budget, the Cuban government to budge, then he might very well start reversing some or all of these things because he argued that the deal basically benefitted the Cuban government, giving it access to lots of resources, and did nothing for the Cuban people in terms of political freedom, et cetera. So that’s his stance.

And there’s no way really of predicting it at this time. The Cubans claimed they were going slowly, or people thought that the main explanation is that they still really are trying to—I forgot to mention this—they were trying to get the embargo lifted. And they felt they were going to keep making demands until—at each time either—if President Obama said, you know, OK, and gave them what they wanted, that then made them ask for more, not only for the reason I mentioned, that they thought Obama wanted the deal too badly so they could ask more and more stuff, but also when President Obama said yes, they still needed to keep pushing that they were not going to have some leverage. They had to hold something back in order to get—to negotiate the lifting of the embargo.

But, of course, now with the new Republican Congress—the House and the Senate—it remains less likely than ever in the past that—you know, since President Obama took over—that Congress would vote to lift the embargo. So where we are now is that we’ll have to see what President-elect Trump decides once he’s in power. I do not expect his doing anything dramatic, or even focusing on Cuba during the first hundred days because he has several other high priority items. Cuba is not a high priority item for him right now. He’s got to get the U.S. economy moving as he sees it. And so there’s no definitive answer. However, if I were a businessman, I wouldn’t be that interested right now in getting more involved with Cuba until the situation gets somewhat clarified by Trump, once he becomes president.

So I’ll stop there. And please feel free to ask any questions that you wish.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you so much, Susan, for that overview.

Let’s open it up to the students for questions.

OPERATOR: At this time we will open the floor for questions.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

FASKIANOS: This is a shy group. Susan, can you talk a little bit about the United States relationship with Cuban immigrants? So Cubans who reach U.S. soil may remain or are eligible for legal permanent residency, is that correct, while Cubans caught at sea between the two nations are repatriated back to Cuba?

PURCELL: Yeah, I forgot to mention that. He’s called—the colloquial name for it is the wet foot, dry foot policy, that if you have at least one foot on U.S. soil then you can come in, you know, spend a year, and then you’re eligible for citizenship. Now, what’s interesting about that policy is, first of all, many people perceive that it’s unfair, especially now that there are more normalized relations. Why should Cubans get this benefit while other people who try—you know, who are waiting in line to get to the United States and waiting long times don’t have this benefit.

But also, too many—I don’t have numbers here—but too many of the people, the Cubans—or, let’s say, there’s been a number of them who came to the United States under this rule, stay a year, get their citizenship, and then go back to Cuba, which kind of raises questions about the extent to which they really felt persecuted. And so even someone like Senator Marco Rubio is talking about the need to change that policy, that it’s kind of outlived its—you know, its reason for being.

And that may be behind the recent surges in immigration—out-migration from Cuba over the last two years. The numbers have been very, very high. And a lot of the reason—a lot of people think the reason so many people are leaving Cuba—I mean, people have left Cuba straight through, mainly for economic reasons, some for political. But that the reason the numbers have surged in the last two years is precisely they’ve heard rumors that, you know, because of normalization that may be the end of the wet foot, dry foot policy. So they want to get here while they can.

So that—we’ll see what happens with that policy. That hasn’t been mentioned by the president-elect.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.


(Gives queuing instructions.)

Our first question comes from American University.

Q: Yes. Hello.


Q: Yes, good afternoon. My name is Walter (sp). I’m with American University.

A question in regards to clearances. I currently have a clearance and I’m planning on traveling to Cuba next semester. Would you know—

PURCELL: I’m sorry, do you mean you have permission from the Treasury, or what do you mean by a clearance? Or are you working for the U.S. government?

Q: I have a—so I was in the Army. Then when I got out I had a top-secret clearance. So I currently have that still. And so the question is, if I travel to Cuba will that affect the clearance? And if someone who has—doesn’t have a clearance and is applying to have a clearance, and they travel to Cuba, would that affect them receiving a clearance?

PURCELL: See, I’m reluctant to answer the question because it’s pretty specific in terms of—how can I put it? In theory, you should have—in theory—(laughs)—you should have the right to just, you know, tell the U.S. government you fit into this group or that group. And then you can go and supposedly they don’t check it. But in your case, it seems to me—and I’m just talking from—it’s a gut feeling I have, but I’m not basing it on anything I know for sure—since you have, you know, a high level of clearance and you’re former military, I would—I would check it through the U.S. Treasury Department.

What is it, the office of—I can’t remember—there’s a specific office called OPAC or OFAC, something like that, of the Treasury, that put out those rules. And just to be certainly, because I certainly don’t want to give you bad advice or the wrong advice—same thing I guess—in terms of—you know, in answering your question. So I would be safe. I would play it safer rather than sorry, and just check it through the U.S. Treasury.

Q: OK, thank you.

PURCELL: You’re welcome.

FASKIANOS: OK. Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from University of Minnesota.

Q: Hi. This is Sheri Breen. I’m an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, Morris, and I’m also a coordinator or study abroad programs.

PURCELL: Of what kind of programs? I’m sorry.

Q: Study abroad.

PURCELL: Oh, study abroad, right. OK.

Q: Mmm hmm. And I was in Cuba last December and I’m currently working on some possibilities for study abroad programs. And when I was in Cuba, we met a number of college students—Cuban college students who expressed strong interest in coming to the United States to go to college, and were expressing their difficulty in doing so. So I’m wondering if you have any forecasts about what might be changing in terms of Cuban college students coming to the United States and U.S. college students going to Cuba.

PURCELL: Well, U.S. college students can already go to Cuba. I think they are—you know—are you saying no?

Q: No, no, I’m agreeing with you. But I’m wondering if you see any changes coming. But especially the other direction, I wondered if that might be changing too.

PURCELL: Well, I’m not—I think there are Cuban students already in the United States in certain schools. And that’s usually negotiated by the schools, as I understand it. I would check with your—oh, you’re the head of the study abroad office?

Q: I’m a faculty coordinator. I’m not the head of the study abroad. We have staff doing that, but I hope the faculty develop programs.

PURCELL: Oh, I see. OK. Well, I would check with your study abroad program at your own university and see what their policy is toward accepting Cuban students. As of now—I hope I’m not misleading you—but as I understand it, especially under the opening under President Obama, I think Cuban students have been coming to the States. But again, I don’t want to mislead you either. So I think you should check it with your school because I think that—I mean, I know someone who ran programs. I don’t know if he went to Cuba or Ecuador, or whatever. But the reason I’m mentioning it is that everything went through some kind of agreement between the school and the university on the other side. So that’s why I suggest you check with your office.

Q: Thank you.

PURCELL: You’re welcome.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from St. Edwards University.

Q: Hello. My name is Keith Salazar (sp). And I am a student at St. Edwards University.

PURCELL: Thank you for calling.

Q: Yes. I have a question. Is it possible for Cuba to make businesses in the United States?

PURCELL: Well, let’s see. I think we’re—oh, no, that’s all importing. It’s mainly importing and exporting. I’m not aware of Cuban businesses in the United States at this point, because they have a pharmaceutical industry and I know we’re going to start buying some things from them. I’m not sure how much they have for us to buy from them. In terms of setting up businesses here, I’m really not aware of any. I don’t know the law on it, but I’m not aware of any. I’m not aware of Cuban products. I’m not aware of Cuban hotels. I’m not aware of Cuban small businesses. I mean, Cuban-Americans, of course, have lots of businesses in the States, but that’s not what you’re asking.

Q: It’s all right, because if—for example, if Trump says that a lot of businesses are leaving the United States, and could it be possible for, like, countries near the U.S. to create businesses in the U.S. to make, you could say, the economy—like, to improve the economy a little bit more?

PURCELL: Well, the problem is that whether Cubans can leave depends on their own government first. And I’m not sure where they would get the money to invest if basically they’ve been in Cuba. The only Cuban people, frankly, with lots of money are members of the government, and particularly the Cubans that—members of the Cuban military that run the big state enterprises, unless they were to come and get it from relatives. But I don’t—I just don’t see where the resources come from. And most people—almost everybody who’s leaving Cuba are coming—are coming across, in a sense, in theory, illegally, unless, you know, one of their feet touches the U.S. soil. So the whole issue of Cubans investing in the United States—other than Cuban-Americans—I just don’t see it. If it’s happening, it’s been—and I live in Miami—I haven’t seen any signs of it.

Q: Thank you. Can I ask you another question, thought? It’s simple, in saying that can U.S. citizens just move into Cuba? Since some people, like, tried to move to Canada because of the whole election process?

PURCELL: Well, I’m not—well, if you go to Cuba, I’m not sure if there’s a limit on how long you can stay, both in the U.S. side in terms—if there’s something that limits your stay. I haven’t seen that, but I haven’t read all the laws. And on the Cuban side—I mean, the Cubans who have become U.S. citizens have gone back and stayed a long time, including criminal elements like Robert Vesco. So I guess—I’m thinking on the basis of that you could go back and stay, but I’m not sure whether you can come back and—you know, what kinds of laws exist in terms of thwarting any ability of you to suddenly decide after a number of times you want to come back and live here. I just don’t know. And I don’t know what will happen under president-elect—you know, under a Trump presidency.

FASKIANOS: We have a number of questions, so I think we should move on.


OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from Indiana University.

Q: Hi. This is Nick Cullather at the School of Global and International Studies.


Q: I just had a question about how the—how the Obama reforms have affected the Cuban economy in Cuba. So have remittances—has there been an outpouring of remittances, or has that be slow to start? And what about trade? Has the volume of trade increased as a consequence of the changes?

PURCELL: Well, I personally feel that the main beneficiaries of—starting now with the new—change—recent change in the laws are clearly going to be the Cuban government and the Cuban military, because the other beneficiaries are basically small business—Cuban small-business people that have set up so-called paladares—you know, restaurants—hotels. And, you know, are making things that help meet the demand of tourists, in particular, or potential investors because the number of Cuban hotels has increased. Or, you know, it’s mainly—it’s mainly very small businesses.

Now, I would also add that those businesses are taxed very, very highly. And that’s part of the Cuban government’s desire not to see too many Cubans get too rich because, one, they claim that, you know, that will create bad feelings within Cuban because of growing inequality, but the other reason, which they don’t say, is because people with more money, you know, become—Cubans with more money will be less and less dependent on the government. So that then weakens control. And the Cubans themselves, Cuban government itself has said that they really prefer foreign investments when—this is a different topic, but it’s related—they prefer foreign investment in Cuban state enterprises rather in any private kind of enterprises. And that’s all part of the nature of their political system.

Now, I can’t remember if I answered everything or even the gist of your question. So if you could tell me if I missed something.

Q: Yeah. So remittances, are remittances coming in?

PURCELL: Yeah, more so than before.

Q: Is that noticeable?

PURCELL: Well, you know, the limit to the amount of money and who can send the money has been loosened considerably. You know, there used to be a couple of hundred dollars a year, then it rose. It used to be mainly from relatives. Now almost anybody—just about anybody can send to anybody. And there are just no limits on the amount of money that can be sent.

Now, that has also led to some, you know, charges within Cuba that that’s inherently unfair because it’s mainly the wider and, you know, relatively more economically well-off Cubans, as opposed to the vast majority of the population who are black, who benefit mainly because the chances are greater that the whiter Cubans will have relatives in the United States because many—most of the immigrants, even the illegals, who’ve come over the years, particularly the first bunch of Cubans who were higher and middle class, and then of course it’s gotten—they’ve got less wealthy as time’s gone by. But they’re the ones with the contacts in the United States who could send money and things. And to the best of my knowledge the black population is poorer and doesn’t have these kinds of contacts in the United States.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the University of the Pacific.

Q: Hello, Dr. Purcell. My name is George Cruz (sp). And I’m an undergraduate here at the University of the Pacific.

PURCELL: Hi. Beautiful school. (Laughs.)

Q: Yeah. My question is, based on what was stated about President-elect Trump’s stance, will we see any drastic change with Cuba-U.S. relations in the next four years?

PURCELL: Yeah, but it may go in a direction that many people might not want, because—if there’s change, I don’t see it—I mean, we’re all hypothesizing here. You know, it’s a big guess at this point. And we all know that, you know, President-elect Trump has said different kinds of things that change or have sometimes even contradicted each other. So this isn’t a sure bet one way or the other.

But it seems to me that if there is a big change, it might go in the direction of—that he announced, you know, that renegotiating a deal to push for more—to guarantee a certain number—a certain amount of new freedoms, political and religious freedom, et cetera. Or it may close down. He may undo President Obama’s executive order. So to me, either you’re going to get the status quo for a while, and maybe through the who first four years, or if he acts on it earlier than that, that it may go toward closing down more because the Cuban government isn’t accepting and responding positively to demands that he has said he will make.

Q: OK. Thank you.

PURCELL: You’re welcome.

FASKIANOS: Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Georgetown University.

Q: Good morning. I’m an adjunct faculty teaching demography and development.

I’m very well-aware so many Cubans come to the U.S., take U.S. citizenship. If, when they’re older, they want to retire to Cuba, does the banking system now allow them to draw their Social Security benefits, which could be a very advantageous flow of foreign exchange?

PURCELL: No, they can’t draw their Social Security benefits. I’ve not read a single thing about that. And the banking ties are not extremely well-developed yet. There’s one bank in particular that’s facilitating, I think, the use of credit cards, et cetera, or perhaps, you know, that some progress will be made there. But I have—I have seen and read and heard nothing about being able to use Social Security.

Q: Thank you.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

PURCELL: You’re welcome.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Fordham University IPD program.

PURCELL: Which program?

Q: Hi, Susan. Good afternoon. I’m a graduate student here at Fordham.

And I have a question—it’s actually kind of two part. One is about—I understand that the higher education system in Cuba is free for its citizens, and that when they finish they are—they owe some service back to the government. But, you know, like recently the government positions have been cut. So I was wondering if there would be any effect on the—the effect of—like, would they have to pay now? How would that affect—you know, how would that affect the free tuition system. Do you have any idea?

PURCELL: No, except that Cuba’s economic system, despite the remittances that are coming in, something bad is happening to them now, which is that they were dependent on subsidized oil shipments from Venezuela. And I just—I just read that the—Venezuela’s in such bad shape now, and their production of oil has been declining—you know, it’s declined from like 3.5 to under—a little under 2 now. And I think one report that it’s under 2 million barrels a day. So it’s—so that means the Cuban subsidy is disappearing, its oil subsidy. And it’s still not really producing oil to satisfy its needs. And in fact, the Cubans got extra money from the Venezuelan oil because they took a part of it and then—they were getting it at, you know, this subsidy, and then they sold it on the global markets, which enabled to capture the price—you know, higher price.

Of course, now the price of oil is much lower. It’s essentially cut in half from what it was, you know, a number of years ago when it reached its high at over $100 a barrel. And now it’s—the last I saw it was, like, 45. So there’s going to be an economic problem because of the oil shortages given—you know, which result from Venezuela’s deteriorating, or very deteriorated, economy. So in cases where—you know, when the government doesn’t have enough money in the past to sustain a program, they started to trying to direct people into doing something else.

Like, when they—when it turns out that they didn’t have enough employment for the people in the countryside and, you know, mills were closing or whatever, the sugar mills were closing, they just declared that, you know, tens of thousands of people suddenly had to go work and earn their money in other ways, and to join the so-called private sector, which—you know, if you had an unthrottled private sector, then maybe it would be generating lots of jobs. It’s also not so easy for people from the countryside to be told they got to go in, find some other kind of work. So my guess is that, in terms of the university question, if there’s not enough of a government subsidy, you know, to the students, fewer students will be able to attend.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

Our next question comes from St. John’s University.

Q: Yes. Gary Prevost, professor of political science and Latin American studies at St. John’s University in Minnesota.


Q: Just wanted to follow up—hello. Just wanted to follow up on the question of Congress. I picked up your pessimism about that. And I received four days after the election from Engaged Cuba, one of the main lobbying organizations, an analysis that overall in members of Congress coming out of the election that there was a greater number that would be in favor of ending the embargo. And I’m familiar with my state, Minnesota, our entire congressional delegation—10 members, seven Democrats and three Republicans—will all likely be in favor of voting to end the embargo and the travel ban sooner rather than later. So if you could just share a little more of the basis of your pessimism on the lack of action in Congress.

PURCELL: Well, it’s kind of interesting. You know, during President Obama’s first two years he had control over Congress. I mean, the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. And he didn’t have enough votes to get it lifted then. And even later when, you know, Republicans took control of Congress he did not—he did not even try putting any kind of legislation to lift the embargo, sending it to Congress, because he knew that it didn’t stand a prayer of being passed.

Now, the Republicans have even more control now. And it’s not clear that all the Democrats could be counted on either to vote in favor of lifting the embargo. So I’m just judging by President Obama’s actions. I mean, if President Obama during his eight years in power, two of which—two of which his party had total control of Congress, and after which the Republicans had control, and he never sent anything regarding the embargo to Congress, and decided to do it as executive orders, which didn’t have to go to Congress—although you can’t do that with the embargo—I don’t think things have changed enough—particularly now with a president-elect who is on record as being not too keen about the kind of deal that was negotiated under President Obama.

So I think you might be right about your state, because it’s very much—you know, has—it has lots of agricultural interests, which I think they could be exporting now to Cuba, some of their agricultural products—but in any case, I don’t think that the situation has changed for the better in terms of lifting the embargo. Otherwise, why—you know, why wouldn’t President Obama have tried it while he was still in power?

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Syracuse University.

Q: Hi. My name is Roberto Perez (sp), Cuban-American, came to the U.S. in the ’90s—late ’90s.

I have two questions—quick questions. One is to listen—you said you lived in Miami. I was wondering if you have any statistics about the Cuban-Americans that voted for Trump. And then if they will receive any concession to them after he takes office. And the second question is, there’s the search of many dissidents in Cuba. And I recently read something about that the government has a lot to do with that. Do you know anything about that too? I mean, I can—

PURCELL: Wait, I’m sorry? What was the question about dissidents? I didn’t get the first part.

Q: There’s like a surge, a of a lot of dissents in Cuba right now.

PURCELL: Oh, in Cuba, uh-huh.

Q: Yeah, in Cuba. And I heard for Cuban-Americans another trend, that the government has a lot to do with that, like maybe making their own dissidents. Do you know anything about it?

PURCELL: Why would they make their own dissidents? What would they be hoping to achieve by that?

Q: What?

PURCELL: Why would they be fomenting their own dissidents. I’m not sure what the thinking is there.

Q: I heard that a lot of the dissidents work for the government too.

PURCELL: Yeah, I just don’t understand what they’re hoping to achieve by that. I mean, I could see as a result of engagement that anti-government dissidents might be growing in number because, you know, they feel they have some leverage, you know, now that there’s been more of a normalization. And they feel maybe they can help. That would encourage them to press their government more. I’m not sure why the government would encourage, you know, is people to act as dissidents, because—you know, I just don’t understand that, to tell you the truth, and I can’t answer that because it doesn’t make sense to me. (Laughs.)

Q: Well, I heard from Cubans in Cuba, and like I say I have family in Cuba and I’m a Cuban-American—a lot of the dissidents are, like, secret service from the government. So—

PURCELL: I know, but what is the goal of having them take to the streets? I just don’t understand.

Q: To stop or get information from the other, real dissidents. I just don’t know. I don’t know if you have—I mean, I—that’s what I heard.

PURCELL: Oh, you mean they might be infiltrating real dissidents in Cuba.

Q: Yes. Yes, yes.

PURCELL: Oh, OK, now I understand. Well, that’s an interesting tactic, if you can get the dissidents—

Q: Sorry about that.

PURCELL: Yeah, that’s OK. It could get—I mean, in a sense, it puts the real dissidents at some amount of risk because the government is—you know, has their name and, et cetera, or whatever. So that makes sense to me. So that if the United States, you know, reverses its policy or something like that—you know, or any kind of excuse where the government wants to crack down on the real dissidents—it has the information it needs now if they didn’t have it before, you know, to do so. It makes dissidents within Cuba—if the government acts against the dissidents, you know, based on the increased information they have—which, as I said—just said, is why they don’t have some of it. But in any case, there’s always a risk when you demonstrate against a non-democratic regime. But you know, then the government will be able to blame, you know, what’s been happening with the dissidents on the reversal in U.S. policy, if there is such a reversal. That’s the only thing I can think of.

Q: And the first question?


Q: The first question?

PURCELL: I’m sorry, what?

Q: The first question, about the people that lives in Florida, the Cuban-Americans that voted for Trump, and—

PURCELL: Oh, right. You asked me that, right? Is this the same person?

Q: —Mr. Trump has to return the favor?

PURCELL: I’m sorry, what? Hello?

Q: Yes.

PURCELL: Oh, you wanted to know—are you the same person who wanted to know what—you know, what percentage of Cuban-Americans voted for Trump?

Q: Yeah. And how’s that demographic—is it changing? Like, still Cuban, more conservatives in South Florida or that new Cubans are more, like, to the center maybe?

PURCELL: Yeah. Well, I mean, this is interesting because as I mentioned in my opening remarks, you know, the conventional wisdom was that the younger generation would be more open to relations with Cuba and lifting the embargo and all of that. But it looks like a lot—I haven’t seen the data broken down into how many of the Hispanics were Cuban-Americans. We do know, as I mentioned, that more Hispanics voted in this election for Trump than had voted earlier for the Republican candidate when it was Romney. But, so, the perception that the Cuban-Americans were becoming more liberal, particularly as the older ones who were more conservative were dying out, that still might be true.

But then maybe it means that they didn’t vote because maybe they’re part of the so-called Millennial generation, which a lot of them stayed home or voted for Gary Johnson, the independent candidate—although toward the end people deserted that option as being, you know, sort of a waste of a vote. But Millennials have a reputation for not turning out as much as older voters. And the more conservative voter’s probably older. And they have very high turnout rates. Not only because they’re Cuban-Americans, that older voters in the United States in general tend to have higher rates of turnout in elections. And the third thing is maybe they didn’t like Hillary Clinton. You know, they wanted Bernie Sanders. So that got them to stay home too. I’m not sure.

Q: Thank you.

PURCELL: You’re welcome.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

FASKIANOS: Susan, can you talk a little bit about Guantanamo and what you think—or has Trump-elect said anything about that?

PURCELL: I haven’t seen anything about Guantanamo. It’s now—there are now very few prisoners left there. But given the big emphasis that, as a candidate, he put on security and security issues and, you know, getting—defeating ISIS, et cetera, et cetera, I do not think—oh, and the fact that President Obama’s repeated efforts to try and close Guantanamo were usually strongly opposed by Republicans—again, that leads me to think that that’s a no-win issue for—and maybe—not only might it be a no-win issue for President-elect Trump once he’s president, but also he himself doesn’t see the point—wouldn’t see the point of it because you need a high security prison, I would guess, and that there was a lot of opposition when President Obama started looking around for, you know, high security or maximum security prisons on the U.S. mainland. You know, it was one of these not in my backyard kinds of protests. Nobody wanted it near them. So I don’t see—the only reason he might want to close it down would be financial. But when you balance financial against security, I’m not sure how it would come out under a President Trump.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Vanguard High School.

Q: Hello. This is Mark Klarman. And I teach upper school history and foreign policy at Vanguard High School in New York.


Q: And I’m wondering—hi there. I’m wondering if we could step into the—sort of the viewpoint or the shoes of the Cuban government for a moment. Can we foresee any kind of possible changes either in the government or in their politics over the next four years that could create either new opportunities or restrict possible progress during a Trump administration?

PURCELL: Oh, OK. It’s a good question. Well, the most obvious change might be if finally Raul Castro died. I mean, Fidel can’t govern anymore because, from everything I hear, he’s kind of senile. He’s certainly not writing the articles that have his name under them. And in fact, I’ve heard notice that he was a little bit senile years ago in the ’80s, when I was working—when I was a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and Fidel came to lunch. And even then, he seemed not to be able to remember lots of things. So, I mean, I’m sure he’s not—he can’t govern now. He’s too old and sick.

Raul is also, you know, in his 80s now. And so that would be the most obvious change, if someone in his 80s died. And the betting now would be that possible successors—you know, one or two of them named—but one of them is his son. (Laughs.) So that doesn’t mean that he would govern—I mean, Raul was a less authoritarian ruler than Fidel. And so the son, if it is the son, would probably—you know, at least he would be a more modern-seeming man. But that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t sustain an authoritarian or dictatorial regime. It doesn’t mean he’s going to switch it.

I don’t—I don’t think anybody that would succeed to power after Raul would be in favor of opening up—you know, changing the political system. There are a lot of vested interests down there. The whole military, frankly. If you look at the whole structure of the big state enterprises, as I mentioned, they’re all run by military men. And the possibilities for corruption and making—you know, making a lot of money and sending it to Panama or something, or other places, they’re very great. So going to younger people, even more modern-seeming people, doesn’t make them pro-democracy or even pro partial democracy. So I’m very skeptical. I think that it’ll have a nicer—the government will have a nicer face, you know, but it wouldn’t be all that different, frankly.

Q: Thank you.

PURCELL: You’re welcome.

FASKIANOS: I think we have time for one last question.

OPERATOR: OK. Our next question comes from St. Edwards University.

Q: Hello. This is David (sp) from St. Edwards University.

I was wondering if you could speak about the state of the Cuban sugar industry, and if there is still opposition from the United States from economic and sugar interests. I know we have, you know, protectionist policies in place for our own sugar industry, but it seems like we’ve sort of declined on that front in the United States. Would opening up of Cuba represent a challenge to Cuban sugar? And would U.S. policymakers be opposed to opening Cuba on that—on that basis?

PURCELL: Well, I mean, I just wonder—you know, we have—frankly, I mean, Miami—Florida is the state with very powerful sugar interests and a very powerful sugar lobby. You know, if they could invest in sugar, maybe they’d want to, you know, if they felt they could make money by, you know, exporting it elsewhere. Sometimes Cuban sugar—sometimes sugar prices are high, sometimes they’re low. Sugar is a potential component in ethanol. And in the United States, however, ethanol is corn-based. Brazil is the biggest producer of sugar-based ethanol.

So, I mean, I think that, you know, in the States, particularly from what I know of Florida, that they are big multinational corporations at work here. And the Cuban—I would guess, the Cuban mills have not had big infusions of capital or new technology or whatever. So they’re not—they’re not exactly good buys right now. So I don’t—I don’t really see any changes. In fact, some of the mills have closed because their production levels had been going down the whole time. I still remember—I don’t remember which year, maybe ’71, but it reached 10 million tons of production. But it’s been nowhere near that, you know, for the last several decades.

So, I mean, like most things in Cuba they’re slowing down, their deteriorating, there isn’t enough money to put into them. Now, a lot of money has come in with the remittances, and it will be interesting to know what happens to it—(laughs)—you know, what it’s being used for, because from what I’ve heard in terms of the hospitals, et cetera, I mean, we don’t know where the money is going. But, you know, some of it is obviously going into foreign bank accounts.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much, Susan. I’m just going to be—I think—if there’s any—one last question?

OPERATOR: No, ma’am. I’m showing no further questions in queue.

FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Then we’ll end a couple minutes before the appointed hour. So, Susan Kaufman Purcell, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us today. And thanks to all you across the country for your questions. They were really terrific.

Our next and final call of the semester will be on Wednesday, November 30th at 12:00 p.m. Eastern Time. Edward Alden, CRF’s Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow will lead the conversation on U.S. trade policy. And that will be—we will send out the invitation for that. I also encourage you to follow CFR’s academic outreach initiative on Twitter, at @CFR_Academic for information on new CFR resources and upcoming events.

So thank you, again. And, Susan, thank you very much.

PURCELL: Well, thank you. And thanks to all of you for excellent questions. And I enjoyed it.

FASKIANOS: Great. Happy holidays—Thanksgiving holidays, everybody.

PURCELL: Thank you. Bye.


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