What's Next for Cuba?

Tuesday, August 10, 2021
Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

Reporter, Cuba and U.S.-Latin American Policy, Nuevo Herald and Miami Herald

Professor of Cuban and Caribbean History and Director, Cuba Program, University of Florida

Partner, Poblete Tamargo; President, Global Liberty Alliance


Director, McLarty Associates; CFR Term Member

Panelists discuss what sparked recent protests in Cuba, how the Cuban government has responded, and what policy options the Biden administration might take to address the situation.

MCKEAGUE: Thank you. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting, “What’s Next for Cuba?” My name is Kezia McKeague. I am a CFR term member and a director in the Latin America practice at McLarty Associates. And I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion.

Very pleased to have an extremely diverse panel of both Cubans—all of us Cubans or Cuban Americans. We have a reporter, a historian, a lawyer, consultant in my case. Some born in Cuba, others in the United States, with differing views on both the reality on the island and the appropriate U.S. policy response. Just a word on my own connection to Cuba, despite my very Anglo name my mother and, indeed, my whole sense of extended family is Cuban. My mom left Havana as a child as part of the first wave of exiles in the 1960s and hasn’t returned. But I became the first person in my family to travel to the island in 2001—twenty years ago now—and have traveled there regularly since then.

Cuba’s also been an important component of my professional life in Washington, D.C., in both government and the private sector. And I’m a very proud member of the Cuba Study Group, which seeks to empower Cuban civil society and also advocate for a pro-engagement approach with the island that holds the regime accountable, but also supports the Cuban people. I should add that it’s very ably led by a fellow CFR member, Rick Herrero, and founded by Carlos Saladrigas.

I’ll start with Nora, our reporter today. Nora Gámez Torres is a reporter for both Nuevo Herald and Miami Herald, covering Cuba and U.S. Latin American policy. Nora, let’s talk about what everybody has in mind today, the massive protests that spontaneously erupted across Cuba on July 11th. They were extraordinary not only in their size, but also their geographic diversity. Without precedent, perhaps, in sixty-two years in the Cuban Revolution, though may have talked about comparisons to 1994. They really shattered this myth that mass protests are impossible in Cuba. And it, of course, put Cuba on the front pages of international press, it’s why we’re talking about it today. Can you tell me about why Cubans were protesting on July 11th, and some of the clearly interlocking economic and political grievances that played into these protests?

GÁMEZ TORRES: Sure. Thank you, Kezia. Thank you for the invitation.

Yes, what happened on July 11th was indeed an island-wide anti-government uprising. And as you said, it was unprecedented in its scale, but not entirely surprising. We had been saying for a while that the island’s economy was getting worse, that repression against activists, artists, independent journalists was getting worse. And at the same time, the population was getting more daring in their criticisms of the government. The poses, for example, by young artists and activists in solidarity with the members of the San Isidro Movement that were on hunger strike last November seem to have set a kind of a precedent for this uprising too.

So you had a perfect storm of conditions leading to the July 11th demonstrations. You have dwindling support from Venezuela. You have Trump sanctions to cut revenue from tourism and remittances. And then COVID pretty much shut down the country. But above all, you had a socialist government running a centralized economy and refusing to implement key reforms despite being unable to feed its population and produce pretty much anything.

However, I think it would be misleading to portray the protests are revolting around the lack of food or vaccines. Yes, people were fed up with the widespread shortages of food and medicines, with the blackouts. But in their own words, they wanted freedom, a change of system, they call for the end of the dictatorship, they chanted “down with Diaz-Canel,” Cuba’s hand-picked president who has been a target of so much anger. I have talked to people that took part in demonstrations—dissidents, independent journalists. And they say this is about freedom and a population that has realized that a socialist system has not fulfilled its promises, and it has little to offer to them after, you know, sixty years.

I think this feeling, it’s better encapsulated by the patria y vida slogan that they were chanting, which is a flip on the patria o muerte revolutionary slogan. And by the way, they all told me that no one was calling for the end of the embargo during the protest—that this is not about the embargo, as the Cuban government claims, but about the (destruction ?) of a six-decade-old regime.

I know that Jason will talk a little bit more about the crackdown that followed the protests, but I also just want to mention that also a month after the first demonstrations, also the COVID situation on the island is taking, you know, very dramatic turns. There are very disturbing videos coming out of Cuba about people dying without getting treatment first. There are shortages of medicines, of PCRs. Cuba now has become the epicenter of the pandemic in Latin America. So one crisis, it’s kind of piling up top of the other. And right now the country—the population is in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

MCKEAGUE: Absolutely. Sadly I think a very acute humanitarian crisis at the moment. Jason, we’ll turn to you. Jason Poblete is a partner at PobleteTamargo and president of Global Liberty Alliance. He’s spending much of his days currently working on helping Cubans get out of jail. And as Nora said, I’d love for you to talk about what’s happened in the month—it’ll be a month tomorrow since July 11th. How has the government responded, with a mix of mostly sticks but a couple of carrots? Tell us about that crackdown on dissent and the cost of dissent in Cuba for these protesters?

POBLETE: Thank you, Kezia. And thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for hosting this panel. It’s a pleasure to be here with you.

Lookit, for the first time in—like Nora was saying—probably since the beginning of the revolution in 1959, we’re seeing something that is expected. A lot of us have been Cuba watching as long as some of have—I’m closing in on 51 this year. It’s something that was bound to happen. So our organization has been working for several years now. In work that we do in other countries and work that we do here in America, we work with lawyers, we team with lawyers that are on the front lines of civil liberty battles, fundamental right battles. And we’ve been hearing this in places like Cuba, that something’s happening. And in Cuba in particular, for a while now we’ve had different cases which—well, we have hundreds on our docket. And it’s all across the island.

So when we had the perfect storm of the pandemic, shut down tourism, travel to Cuba. You had the lawyers getting cases upon cases, up to July 11th. Then July 11th happens. And now you have several NGOs out there, Cubalex, a few of them in Spain, others, collecting data on actual arrest and detention. Some estimates are about five hundred. I think it’s a little higher than that. And we’re going through a process of trying to figure out what exactly is happening. But we’re having forced detentions, alleged rapes, minors under arrest. And I have a quick little anecdote for you about a reaction from the Cuban government, or regime, a few days ago on that issue. Disappearances. We have four people that—people I consider brothers and sisters have been missing since the week of July 11th. And it’s very frustrating to get any information about where these people are.

There’s an American who has been unlawfully imprisoned in Cuba for four—almost five years now. Her name is Alina Lopez from Florida. So we’re concerned about here and many other people too. And what’s interesting, though, in the reaction—to answer that bit of it—you see something interesting. A few weeks ago you had the head of the (Fiscal General ?), Yamila Peña Ojeda; Rubén Remigio Ferro, who’s the Tribunal Supremo president; and the head of the Bufetes Colectivos; they all had this press conference with Bruno, the foreign minister, and talking about the actual detentions, and the due process violations, and what have you. And they’re speaking a lingo, frankly, I haven’t seen coming out of Cuba in a long time, but they were contradicting each other.

I’ll give you one example. During his press conference, the foreign minister had said no minors have been arrested in Cuba. Well, he was quickly corrected by la fiscal general saying, no, there had been people—minors detained in the protest. In addition to that, the head of the Tribunal Supremo made a comment which I found fascinating. Even though it’s in Cuba’s constitution that there’s independence of the branches, I’ve never heard a head of a—of a department say this in public: Independent judiciary in Cuba. The courts will make decisions on their own. And that was interesting to hear. It was kind of a shock. And I think it caught them a little off-guard what happened. Again, this was island-wide. I think they were unprepared. Frankly, I think a lot of us on this side were unprepared, in the U.S. government. We’ll talk a little bit about that later.

So, you know, in summary, there have been a lot of detentions. It continues. It hasn’t stopped. And I’m hoping that the sunshine, you know—I’ll close with a quote from Natan Sharansky, which I think is very fit for this, that the actions of a few dissidents, coupled with strong backing from the world, can play a pivotal role in the opening a closed society. And too often, leaders in the free world have proved to be a disappointment to dissidents. But what we have today in Cuba is—it poses this way, that citizens of free nations need not be. And that’s what we’re seeing. You can’t hide this anymore. And I think that’s the unique part of this. And I’m glad you’re doing this program. I look forward to talking some more about it.

MCKEAGUE: Thank you.

I’ll bring Lilly into the conversation. Lillian Guerra is a professor of Cuban and Caribbean history and director of the Cuba Program at the University of Florida. Lillian, I’d like to ask you the key question about leadership. What was interesting about these rather organic protests that erupted on July 11th is that they appeared to be leaderless. They were spontaneous. They were horizonal in nature. But there’s also an emerging artist movement on the island, Movement San Isidro. Tell us about leadership within Cuban civil society and also what’s happening within the Cuban government which, as you know, is very opaque. But could there be some kind of power struggle happening within the government? Under a leader who is the first member of a younger generation to lead Cuba since the revolution, Miguel Canel. Would love to delve into those questions.

GUERRA: Well, first, I think it’s very important that we remember that the reason that the Communist Party achieved the kind of stability that it had from 1961 to 1991 is that it created and then maintained control over material resources, control over the economy, and control over public discourse. And then with the adoption, particularly in 1991 to 1995, of the right to self-employment and the right of artists, intellectuals, writers, musicians of all varieties to create their work and to sell and distribute it independently of the government—the combination of those two things allowed for the emergence of what we would think of as civil society, something that is autonomous of the state.

And while it was restrained in many respects, that really kind of was unleashed as a—as a reality because of Cubans increasing access to the internet, their right to buy cellphones that came down the pike in around 2011-2012. Then in about 2018, the fact that people could finally get internet coverage on their cellphones allowed for them not to have to rely on computers, laptops or, you know, whether legal or illegal, connections at their workplaces. So there was—those are the sort of background things that one has to remember.

Then I think there are four areas of leadership that have been there, and that are not the result of the last three to four years, and that have been emerging. And one that may be the least obvious to us is that is average citizens became extremely comfortable with violating the laws of containing their ability to criticize overtly the leadership. So these laws have been on the books. They were enforced through the 1980s. People became very comfortable with criticizing, with launching all kinds of artwork or otherwise jokes about the leadership, anger about the policies of the state.

And they got away with it. And the fact that they got away with it for now basically two generations has meant that you have a huge percentage of the population that actually believes that they do have the right to not support the revolution, to not support socialism. And they don’t have those rights. And so in fact in response to this reality the Cuban state in 2019 passed a new constitution that spells it out—that in fact it’s the duty of every citizen, it’s obligatory, to support socialism. And it is a unique one-party system of rule that is irrevocable.

So I will say that the other three areas of leadership, one is clearly the small, entrepreneurial business sector with which the state has been completely unable to compete in the rendering of the quality of services, the diversity of services, the quality of the products, and the diversity of products. It has restrained constantly the ability of that sector to grow, and the government currently controls about 82 percent of the economy, largely through one giant conglomerate that many of us know is controlled and owned by the armed forces. But the small business sector is very important because that sector owes nothing of its existence, really, to the government. And so political autonomy and economic autonomy go hand-in-hand.

Secondly, the class of artists—because it’s more than just, you know, a group. It is a class of people who are writers, musicians, filmmakers, many of whom have become very, very wealthy from the mid-1990s to the present. Those who are not so wealthy perhaps but are very prominent in the popular culture include rap artists, who were the first really in the mid-’90s to step forward and become the voice of discontent, of anger and outrage over the hypocrisy of the revolution, and in particular hit hot buttons like the myth that Black people are entirely grateful to the revolutionary government and utterly loyal.

So the fact that this movement has coalesced is not, you know, insignificant, but it’s also something that’s been long in the process. Again, the government tried to nip that in the bud very recently. And in 2018, you know, light years before the pandemic, it passed Decree 349, which effectively rolled back the opening—the reforms that I mentioned at the beginning, that allowed for artists not to self-employ, but to not have government intervention in the content and sale and distribution of their works. So that meant that for the first time really you had a platform on which all kinds of creative people could agree and converge and actually work in solidarity with one another.

So we saw that, as Nora mentioned, in November 2020, when you had the first huge sit-in—three hundred artists, hours long, demanding that the state recognize their right to freedom of expression and that of others. And that has continued to be at the—at the forefront. And so these are organized people. This is not just the San Isidro Movement. It’s the 27th of November Movement. And then it’s a number of people that have created online Facebook communities, or WhatsApp communities. So that’s the third group.

And then finally, I’d say the fourth group of leadership is the unexpected group that might actually be there, because when you look at the structure of the state it is not a monolith. It’s not a monolith certainly within the Communist Party. But beyond that, the armed forces—which in many respects in the history of Cuba have been the sort of turning—the pivot of change, because—you know, for all the reasons we can imagine. But in this case, they have, you know, a military where really only the very top brass—the generals who have been generals forever and will remain generals forever because nobody ever retires—those folks have been the ones to benefit the most from control over the economy through the conglomerate corporation GAESA.

And then you have this middle-ranking group of people who are very large in number and who have been colonels forever, you know? And are happy to move on, but they will not advance in their careers. And they’ve also been sort of blocked in their ability to create and consolidate their own status within this new set of reforms that Raul passed, including the right to buy and sell cars, the right to sell—buy and sell property. Really, you have a kind of one percent in Cuba that is mostly comprised of military officers. But it’s very much at the top of that group.

So I’ll end my point by saying that the cracks in the system are there. I don’t think, in fact, that the state really can rely on the, you know, hundreds of thousands of males who are supposed to be the reserve fighters for this regime. And it fears—the leadership at the top fears its own people in the middle, precisely because they haven’t been able to benefit and because they, like the people in general, are very powerless to change policies and to change leadership.

MCKEAGUE: Very interesting. In light of all of that, and going back to the title of this discussion, “What’s Next for Cuba,” a quick poll among the three of you. How transformative are these protests? Are we potentially at a point of no return or are we a long way off from seeing any kind of real political or economic transition in Cuba? Are we potentially witnessing the beginning of an extended, violent period of unrest? How likely are we to see further demonstrations? Going back to you, Nora.

GÁMEZ TORRES: Yeah, I think that the July 11th protests mark a milestone. People have now tasted, even if briefly, how freedom feels like and there’s no turning back, they said. One activist told me that everything changed for him that day and that he felt like he was living in a different country. I think the demonstrations show that the discontent is so widespread, and that—and that was a significant crack in the symbolic hegemony of the state, because now they have to rule through open oppression. And I think that would only lead to either more conflict or, you know, more reforms. We’ll have to see.

MCKEAGUE: Do you think, Nora—just a quick follow up on that—do you think some of the responses from the Cuban government to those demands—like lifting of import duties on food and medicine or the recent SME law—are they too little too late? Or do you think they’ll go—perhaps they signal more reforms in that direction?

GÁMEZ TORRES: I think people want more. Of course, the government might do the smallest amount of change needed to survive the crisis. But I think, you know, this time people just showed that they were not only concerned about the economic state of the country, but also they wanted, you know, political rights.

MCKEAGUE: Right. Jason, what’s your view on what’s next? And do you think—and this gets us to a little bit of a beginning of a conversation about U.S. policy. But do you think the lack of an escape valve, ever since Obama eliminated the wet food dry foot policy after many years of Cubans who were unhappy with the government fleeing the island, play any role in all of this?

POBLETE: Yeah, I think—and just to build upon what Nora and Lilly have been saying, and it’s important to kind of put in context a few things. One, I think policies have been a success. And I’m open to discuss this with anyone. I think what we’ve done, if we had followed U.S. law to the letter, we’d be having a different conversation a while ago. A lot of the people that are on the streets there today, and also folks in the San Isidro Movement—let’s not forget, these men and women stand on the shoulders of a lot of dissidents and opposition leaders like Berta Soler, Ladies in White, Felix Navarro, Jose Daniel Ferrer, Vladimiro Roca, Oscar Biscet, Marta Beatriz Roque, René Gómez Manzano, Angel Moya, Dagoberto Valdes, so many religious leaders I can’t really mention all of them, and independent artists. I mean, there were folks out in Cuba—you know, Aldo from the Lo Haldenals (ph) I think they were called—

MCKEAGUE: Los Aldeanos.

POBLETE: Yeah, Los Aldeanos. And Barbaro Bano (ph). There’s a lot of folks out there that have been quietly out there that we don’t ever hear about them unless we follow Cuba closely. And these are the people that—and others that I left out. I know I left a lot of people out— cuenta-propistas, independent media like Henry Constaintin and Yoani Sanchez. These are the people that these folks are out there building on because the changes that are happening now are very difficult, frankly, to—I don’t really know. I don’t know how this is going to manifest itself a year, much less a week or two from now.

But what’s clear is that policy, U.S. support, standing behind liberty movements. If we’re willing to do it in places like Burma, Hong Kong, Ukraine, you name it, ninety miles away we can do this. And there’s many different tools. We should bring all tools of state, every single one, to bear on this—not just sanctions. And we should talk less, act more. Give those people backing. I mean, this is what we’ve been preparing for, whether you’re Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative. People out there asking for help. And I think it’s incumbent on us to have broader conversations, like these, that go beyond the narrative of pre-July 11th.

And let’s get talking about some serious things, reach across party aisle, figure out a way to work together and back these people up. Because this is a lot of sacrifice, a lot of work. People have died. You know, I’m all about selling—you know, I want to have a lot of business with Cuba. I think that’s phenomenal. But Cuba—the people at the very top, in conclusion, need to understand that access to the U.S. market is a privilege not a right. And we should be doing a little bit more, that I hope we’ll talk about later, about sending a message to these people who are treating lots and lots of folks in a very poor way from a cross-section of human society. And it’s a good time right now to be having this conversation, because there’s a lot more we should and can be doing.

MCKEAGUE: Well, before we delve a little deeper into that U.S. policy debate, Lillian, what’s your view on post-July 11 Cuba? How far off are we from some kind of significant change? Or is—or is this a one-off event?

GUERRA: Oh, I don’t think it’s a one-off event, precisely because, you know, if you go onto the various Twitter accounts that are run by folks on the island and who are collecting the data—journalists and others—you see, and you’re seeing daily, testimonies by relatives of people who have been detained. And when you see these people, you realize that they are really representative of the majority of Cubans. And they are generally poor people—very poor people, who are also pretty simple in their discourse. That really refutes and rebukes the government’s position that, you know, everybody is either a delinquent, a criminal, or some marginal to the revolutionary process. On the contrary, they’re typical.

The other thing that makes that important is that in the past Cuba’s dictatorships have not fallen through military victories. That of 1933, that of Batista, 1959, they fell as a result of moral victories. You know, it wasn’t the three hundred guys in the Sierra who defeated, you know, the 12,000-person army. It was thousands of underground activists across the island. The same was true in 1933 when Machado fled the country. You had—you also had cracks in the military that happened in large part because the moral wave of support for change became unstoppable. And people lost their fear.

So does this take some time? Yes. Will it be faster than in the past? Very much so, I think, because the way in which people are communicating and subverting the state is through the internet, and it is through a source of social media, a source of organization that was previously unknown in history. So I don’t expect that this is somehow going to die down and go away and everything, go back to normal. I hope that we turn to the question of what could be done because to support the moral cause there one needs to be present. And, you know, my view is that we need to have a diplomatic presence in Cuba and, you know, leave it to these guys to tell us no.

You know, I mean, if they’re so in favor of the ending of hostilities and the end of the embargo, well then, you know, let the Cuban government tell the U.S. government that they really don’t want us there. You know, and relations on their part. That we so far—we have kind of limited status there. And I think we need to take full advantage of that and be present there, as a pillar of stability for pluralism as the cause, and moral right as the cause here.

MCKEAGUE: Yeah, and perhaps one element that many analysts have talked about that we can add to this discussion is the role of heightened expectations in the wake of sort of the tail end of the Obama opening. And, of course, internet access, as you’ve talked about, Lillian, which has really transformed the island in the last five years. But the role of those heightened expectations perhaps even more important than the food and medical shortages right now.

We are very close to bringing our audience into the conversation with Q&A, but I would like to go back to Nora, because you are following, of course, also what’s happening in Washington and Miami in the wake of the July 11 protests. And the U.S. policy debate perhaps has gotten even more complicated. The protests have created a challenge, I think, for a U.S. administration that’s shown little inclination until now to revive the political and economic opening to Cuba, implemented by President Obama. It’s left in place the highly restrictive sanctions environment implemented by Trump. By all accounts was very close to fulfilling campaign promises to lift restrictions on family travel and remittances, but in the wake of the protests the political constraints have gotten much more difficult.

Nora, do you think there’s some kind of Biden third way that might emerge that’s not Obama or Trump? What is the Biden policy to date? And what do you expect going forward, given the intense pressure to support the Cuban people, but also punish the Cuban government?

GÁMEZ TORRES: Well, I—there’s a lot of political calculations right now going on at the White House. They thought they were going to go in one direction, then these demonstrations completely changed the game. You take, for example, the Cuban American community, which they think—they say they’re taking feedback from. And the community, yes, of course, you know, reacted immediately in support, coming out and supporting the demonstrators. But even within the community, there’s not a clear sense of what to do. For example, I know there’s a handful of people mobilizing to send aid to the island. I think that’s something people might agree on. But on other policies just there’s no consensus.

Take, for example, you know, the issue of remittances that the Biden administration is trying to figure out, you know, how to restore without, you know, getting too much revenue to the government. But for example, people here, they tell you that they want to help their families. But at the same time, they say, well, but this is not a good time to, you know, quote/unquote, “bail out” the government by restoring, you know, official remittance channels. So sometimes, you know, even in one issue people have contradictory feelings about what to do. And that’s probably going to get reflected on U.S. policy.

Here, for example, I mean, of course this has become a very politicized issue. I’m hearing, like, some criticisms of what the administration has done so far. For example, there are people saying that they’re not aware that the White House is talking to Cubans on the island—for example, some of these dissidents or even independent journalists, like Yoani Sanchez that Jason mentioned. Then you have criticisms of the people that have been invited to some of these meetings at the White House, that they’re not the most representative of the Cuban exiles, or that they might be too far removed from the realities in Cuba. And then you have, you know, Cuban American elected officials mostly, Republicans, complaining that the White House is sidestepping them and not taking any advice from them.

I mean, there’s a lot of—it’s difficult for the Biden administration. And also, you know, they also have to bring Senator Menendez to the conversation and take into account what he wants. So for what I understand, there’s a lot of policy debates going on and meetings, and they’re trying to get feedback. But still they haven’t figured it out, you know, how they’re going to do, for example, restoring remittances. That’s still—that’s still on the—you know, a debate issue.

MCKEAGUE: Yeah. I think there’s a difference between perhaps their own political—or policy preferences and the political constraints. You alluded to the pivotal role of Senator Menendez and the fifty-fifty Senate, for example.

At this time, I’d like to invite our members to join our conversation with their questions. As a reminder, this meeting is on the record. And the operator will remind you how to join the question queue. Please queue the operator every time you’d like to ask a question.

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take our first question from Tom McDonald.

Q: Hi. Good morning. Great program. Tom McDonald, partner Vorys Sater law firm in Washington. Also former U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe. I’m actually proud to say I was instrumental in saving the lives of two Cuban doctors who sought asylum at my embassy in 2000. One is a M.D. and the other is a dentist. They’re married with kids, you know, in Miami-Dade. And they were in Zimbabwe in jail, which you never want to be, and were in the crosshairs of Rodolfo Saracino at the time, was the Cuban ambassador.

I wanted to ask a question related to Africa in sort of taking this discussion in a different way. Will these demonstrations impact the close relationship between the Cuban government and Africa? And where do you see that south-south relationship going between the Cubans and the African governments, especially those that came out of the liberation struggles?

MCKEAGUE: Mmm hmm. Thank you. Very interesting question. I think how the Latin American governments have responded would also be an interesting angle, since we tend to focus so exclusively on the U.S.-Cuban relationship. But the Africa one is super interesting. I don’t know, Nora, if you follow this at all, or who would like to tackle that.

GÁMEZ TORRES: I haven’t seen, honestly, a reaction come from, you know, African governments. It might be the case that we are not paying attention. We have seen, you know, how some allies in the region have reacted. They have sent aid. They have supported the government. But I’m afraid that’s a good question, and that’s something we can take a look.

POBLETE: And I think, you know, briefly, I think it will be interesting to see if these ideologically aligned governments come to a defense of Cuba the way they used to. I think here in Latin America, for example, you’re seeing some of that in Peru, where you’re seeing a little bit of shifting happening. But that’s where U.S. leadership comes to play. I think if we were to become a little more proactive in this process, we can help shift that. A lot has changed. You know, we have five presidents since the end of the Cold War, from Bush all the way to President Trump, that had one way to view this issue.

This is a post-July 11th. I think it’s important to focus the discussion a little bit that way. And it’s post-July 11th, I still believe Cuba’s 1989 can still happen in 2021. But U.S. leadership will be essential in helping corral international forces, the way the Trump administration did on the Venezuela policy. Whether we agree it was good or not, it should be marshalled. It’s part of U.S. law, by the way. It’s part of the LIBERTAD Act. We’re supposed to be bringing nations around to U.S. policy on Cuba. It’s never been done. I think it should be done. And it’s an issue that I think with African and Latin America we can make a lot of headway if we focused efforts on it.

GUERRA: Could I add something?


GUERRA: I think that, you know, so far we haven’t heard anything negative, really, other than from some folks in Holland. I mean, we haven’t really heard something that’s—you know, that’s significant, in terms of breaking radically or even slightly with support for the Cuban government’s narratives. Now, what really matters is whether Africa gets vaccines or doesn’t get vaccines. I mean, right now the percentage of people who are vaccinated in Africa is in the single digits.

I do think that the Cuban government had the expectation that they would create a much more powerful vaccine earlier on, and that it wouldn’t take three shots, and that they would have one of the five working, you know, if not two sufficiently that they could then export that and make money from it. Not just, you know, make money from it, I should say. Rather make a lot of sort of, you know, hay, as we would call it from—in Kansas—(laughs)—from it. The notion that they would gain in prestige and they would gain in terms of the marketability of their main source of income right now, which is the exporting of doctors and the contracting of doctors abroad, as well as, you know, other—as well as other engineers.

So I think that we need to think about that too, because that isn’t—that is definitely on, you know, the desktop of the Diaz-Canel.

MCKEAGUE: Yeah. Yeah, I would also maybe just add that many countries around the world view the U.S. policy towards Cuba as such a domestic issue. There’s a lack of support, unfortunately. And at least for the Latin American left, perhaps the African left as well, there’s a lot of vestigial nostalgia for the Cuban Revolution. And it’s easy to just focus on criticizing the embargo rather than the Cuban government. Go ahead.

GUERRA: I want to say something really quick, because it never comes up and it really matters in the state of Florida. And this speaks to—not just to the past, and nostalgia for the past, but the reality that the Cuban government is currently—or, Cuba is on the list of states that support terrorism. Trump put it back on the list. And that, you know, from the perspective of people in Nigeria is a little ridiculous. You know, it’s even more ridiculous when you think about the implications that we have here in the state of Florida, because we have our own law that inhibits our ability to bring somebody like Yoani Sanchez here to give a talk, because once we have Cuba on a list of terrorist states once again, you know, we are completely manacled to the status quo. We can do nothing financially as institutions, and otherwise. So I really want to point that out.

MCKEAGUE: Yeah. Let’s—well, let’s move onto the next question in our queue.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Anne Nelson.

Q: Hi. I’m Anne Nelson from Columbia University.

And I’ve overseen research on the internet and digital media online and offline, as in El Paquete in Cuba, that has been published at as well as the Center for International Media Assistance at NED, National Endowment for Democracy. Some years ago, I also did a State Department review of Radio Marti and had the opportunity to listen to twenty-four hours of programming. And my finding—I don’t think this is betraying a confidence—was that when it moved from Washington to Miami, there was some loss of journalistic practice that occurred. So I’d love to hear your comments, first of all about whether there’s been any significant advance in internet penetration in Cuba over the last few years; second, if El Paquete remains a force in society in the ways that you’re describing; and, third, whether Radio Marti—or, what role Radio Marti is playing right now in the events you describe. Thank you.

POBLETE: On the first one, I can say without a doubt the internet has had an impact, but the challenge remains. It's a censored internet. So it has been blocked. It’s been blocked, you know, certain websites and applications you can’t use there. And it’s heavily censored. And look what happened, they shut it down after what happened in Antonio Banos. It spread. They caught on. They cut it off. But we always have issues with the people we work with—lawyers that do defense work down there—they notice it. And we can get deeper into that if you want later.

On the question of the Paquete, it’s still used. I know a lot of folks who use it down there. They rely on it for news. And I think the one—to answer your last question—there’s not one source. I think everybody relies on different sources of information. But Radio TV Marti are still listened when it’s not jammed. It’s been, as you know, a perennial problem, the jamming issue. But it gets around, and there’s a lot of different ways that they get information. I think the internet has been a great platform to force amplify not just one resource, but many resources.

MCKEAGUE: Mmm hmm. Nora and Lillian, nothing you’d like to add to internet? And also I think the very interesting debate that’s playing out around U.S. policy, many voices calling for the U.S. government to vocally support a free and open internet in Cuba and around the world. Lillian.

GÁMEZ TORRES: Yeah, I mean, providing—oh, sorry.

GUERRA: Go ahead. Go ahead.

GÁMEZ TORRES: I mean, providing the internet is something that everyone agrees. You know, like inside of the debate people want the U.S. to help Cubans to be connected on the island because, yes, the government, you know, delayed giving internet access to its citizens until the last minute. But they have to do it also for, you know, economic reasons. But now, of course, they’re confronting exactly, you know, what people can do with the internet. But at the same time, they put together all this infrastructure with Chinese technology that was used to censor the internet during the events. So the question is, you know, how to help Cubans to circumvent state censorship. And there’s, you know, a number of initiatives that the administration is looking into, but as with Radio Marti, those signals can be jammed. Either, you know, if you beam internet through a satellite, or balloons—I mean, everyone agrees that it’s a challenge. That’s not going to be easy.

But, of course, you know, the role of the internet has been key. And so some Republicans, just to finish, here—Cuban elected officials here are calling for, of course, more—to increase the budget of Radio and TV Marti, which is kind of, you know, controversial in its way because, you know, the agencies have been troubled for such a long time. And they have been, you know, immersed in a lot of scandals. So we have to see. They could—they could play a role, but it’s unclear if they’re going to be, like, the main agency that the administration is going to use to send internet to the island. We still don’t know.

MCKEAGUE: Quick comment from Lillian, since we haven’t brought you in yet.

GUERRA: Yes. I would hope that we do not rely on the same strategies as the past. And that would include, you know, bulking up Radio Marti with more money and resources when, in fact, that doesn’t represent pluralism. The best part of the United States that Cubans witness when they come here, or that they witness when they encounter an American—not somebody even like me, but like un Americano (verdad ?)—is their tremendous appreciation for pluralism. And that means multiple points of view. You know, Voice of America in so many ways is—or, the BBC is much more radical and has a much more radical impact on democratization in Cuba than Radio Marti does, you know, in part because Radio Marti for—as mentioned—for years was really just 180 degrees in the other direction.

And the Cuban state very successfully argued that Radio Marti was just propaganda. And Cubans know what propaganda sounds like because they’re heard it their entire lives from the Cuban state. So when you have—now, I will say that Radio Marti has diversified its programming, and the quality and nature of content has really changed since the—since the ’90s. But that doesn’t change—but does not really overall make a case for their being the primary agency of the means by which we promote and lead through example the notion of what freedom of expression and free media mean.

MCKEAGUE: Jason, if it’s quick—yeah. This is an important question—

POBLETE: Yeah, it’s quick. Yeah, it’s quick. This is a good example of a place where we can use U.S. power to leverage, get reporters on the island. Why are there not more American journalists being allowed on the island? It’s very controlled. Why aren’t we using access to our market to demand—and, yes, demand—that the internet—if we’re going to pay billions of dollars a year in remittances and in telecom services and licensing that have been preferred under U.S. law since 1992—they go to Cuba pretty much sanction-free—why don’t—aren’t we demanding an open internet?

Why aren’t we using that power to get in there and let American companies do the right thing, sell those apps, do whatever they got to do? And also allow more journalists from U.S. bureaus. As you know, there’s not many over there because the Cuban regime doesn’t allow them. So we need more Cuban—more American journalists down there reporting, and not being intimidated and threatened by the government, which they have been before.

MCKEAGUE: I think we could probably spend another hour talking about the role of the internet in societies like Cuba, but we’ll move onto the next question in the queue.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Michael Skol.

Q: Yes. This is Michael Skol of Skol & Serna.

Let me ask about the implications of what’s happening in Cuba on Venezuela. As we all know, the Venezuelan regime of Chavez and then Maduro was consciously modeled on the Cuban regime. And they achieved their dictatorship much faster than the Cubans did. Now, what effect do you think this will have—what is happening in Cuba—on what may happen in Venezuela?

MCKEAGUE: And of course, Venezuela and the lack of financial—or, the dwindling financial support it can offer to Cuba has played a role in what we saw happen on July 11th, the collapsing economy. Nora, is this a question you’ve been following? I imagine so, given the close relationship between the two governments. Or is anybody—would anybody else like to volunteer for that important question?

GÁMEZ TORRES: Sure. I’m sure Jason has a lot to say on that one. (Laughter.) But I’m just going to say that Maduro is still sending oil to Cuba. He quickly mobilized to send oil to see, you know, if he can help getting Cuba out of this, you know, crisis. The question about Cuban Venezuela policy, it’s interesting because the previous administration, the Trump administration, tied them together in the sense, for example, that some of the sanctions against the Cuban government were used through Venezuela sanctions programs. So and it has been very difficult for the current administration to untangle these two—these two regimes.

As we know, like, the Cuban regime has provided, like, security and intelligence services to the Maduro regime. And then, you know, in turn, Maduro has been pretty much bankrolling the Cuban government. But he’s on his own crisis as well. The economy is also, you know, bottomed out. And there’s—like, they have all sorts of, you know, crisis at the same time. So pretty much the Cuban government cannot only rely on Venezuela in the future. And I think they already know that. So that’s going to be the—it’s going to be a different scenario from them from now on. I don’t think they can—even, you know, if they continue exporting doctors to Venezuela, I don’t think they’re going to get the same amount of money and oil subsidies than before.

POBLETE: I mean, to add on to what Nora was saying, I mean, I’d love to see a reorientation by—I mean, I’m not a foreign policy expert—but the people who do this for a living, to take a look at the Cuba issue outside the Cuba issue. Not just look at it in a vacuum. And what I liked on the prior administration is the linking—there may have been some question about the execution maybe, and the targeting may have been a little overbroad—but, you know, sanctions are not a policy, right? But I do think that we can have a huge impact if we start with Havana. And also, let’s not leave out China and Russia, and what they’re doing in Venezuela, in Nicaragua, in Havana.

But I think Havana and Cuba are the crown jewel of this process. And the left’s not going to give it up easily. It’s going to be a long struggle. But U.S. policy, again—here again—they can come in and use existing law. While they’re checking everything out they should do a bottom-up review, I hope, that looks at not just Cuba but the hemisphere, and looks at Cuba. What can we do now? We can do a lot right now to send signals that would impact in Venezuela and engage, for example, in expelling the sons and daughters of regime officials from U.S. territory here on visitor visa. We can enforce LIBERTAD Act, that brings the region together, that brings the world together with a common purpose.

A lot of other things can be done post-July 11th. We have opportunities here. I’m not saying there’s a silver bullet here that’s going to make it all perfect and go away fast. No. I think all the people here talking today are sharing this is difficult, it’s complex. But it’s not unexpected. And there’s a lot we can do. We don’t have to remake the roadmap, but there are—there needs to be some new approaches. And I think both sides of the aisle follow these issues. I think the one thing I hope we do is that we look at this outside the U.S. domestic political framework and focus first on U.S. national interests in the region. And I think we will get a lot better results down the road in Venezuela, in Nicaragua, and in Cuba—all three places.

MCKEAGUE: Thank you. And thanks to the excellent questions so far.

Operator, we’ll move on to our next one.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Carlos Saladrigas.

Q: Thank you for hosting. Thank you to the CFR for hosting this very interesting session.

What happened on 7/11, as I like to call it, was unprecedented in many ways. But two things sort of stand out. Number one is the incredible empowerment of civil society that occurred over the previous seven to eight years as Lillian Guerra very well mentioned here today. But number two, it shows that the Cuban regime has absolutely run out of reserves of legitimacy. And they have not been able to find alternative ways to refresh that legitimacy—i.e., producing economic results, which tend to bolster, to some extent, legitimacy, as it has in governments like China, and Vietnam, and others.

But what worries me is we can talk ad nauseum about the revolts on 7/11, on what it means and what happened. Scores of these revolts have happened throughout the world over the last twenty years, and only a very small fraction of these things have succeeded, if we define success in overtaking—in overtaking or creating a regime change and instituting a new system. And many of them, including Venezuela, which is very close to us, has massive demonstrations, tremendous sanctions. And they’re still around, Maduro’s still around, and nothing happens. So we cannot rely on the fact that the regime is on the verge of collapse, or that this is about to happen.

If this doesn’t become for the United States and for the Cuban opposition—of which the Cuban American community is part of—if it doesn’t become an inflection point, similar to the one that we experienced in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet order, and if we don’t use this inflection point to come up with a more—with a smarter, more effective set of actions going forward, and if we simply double down on failed policies that we did back in the 1990s, we may find ourselves seven, eight years from now, ten years from now, with a similar or the same regime in place, the Cuban people more impoverished. And all we will have done is contribute to what I call the Haiti-ization of Cuba, which is clearly in progress right now.

Dr. Guerra mentioned very clearly, rightly, there is—in the last eight years, particularly during the Obama administration, there was the wisdom to see a lot of cracks developing and to use those cracks to strengthen civil society and empower civil society. And now I am afraid that I am seeing an emotionally charged environment in Miami that reminds me of the last—of the aftermath of the Elian Gonzalez affair, and a tendency to simply go back into the bunker, close the hatch, and not the willingness to explore other opportunities. As well as a growing dependence that reminds me of my father. My father came in ’62 to the United States and died in ’78. And in his death bed, he was—he was sure Los Americanos would solve the Cuban problem.

MCKEAGUE: Carlos, just for the sake of time, I’m sorry to interrupt because I agree with everything you’re saying, but any question you’d like to pose for the panel?

Q: Well, the question is, what are some of the smart things that we could be doing going forward that may help us really channel this energy in a more effective direction?

MCKEAGUE: Yeah. And for everybody on the call, I’d highly recommend Carlos’ op-ed in the Miami Herald that came out a few days ago, arguing that there shouldn’t be an either/or option for U.S. policy. We should be able to both strengthen the Cuban people and weaken the regime. Who’d like to respond to that?

POBLETE: Briefly, I’ll just respond. Hey, Carlos, how are you? I think we have to move beyond, for example—and I had a great conversation with former Congressman Frank Wolf from Virginia, right here in our hometown. And we were talking about the human rights movements and all these battles. And he feels strongly the issue of Cuba. And the one example he used with me that I’ll share with the group is that we got to break from this—and he used the example of #BringBackOurGirls, the whole crisis through Nigeria where it became this hashtag sensation, and people were tweeting things. And the equivalent may be recently #SOSCuba or patria y vida or #SOSVenezuela. That’s fine, but we have to do more.

And as Carlos was saying, we have an inflection point here. We have to, think, focus on Cuba for Cubans, resolve Cuba’s problems, amongst Cubans here and there. We need someone to help bring all that together. And America can play a constructive role there. That’s number one. Number two, I’d keep the OAS and the U.N. out of this. I’d keep third countries out of this. The Cuban community can work together here and there to solve problems. They’ve done it before. They’ve done it all throughout history. They can do it again. Finally, the Biden administration, please don’t give up the pressure points you have.

Before we start easing sanctions again, have a roadmap. Have red lines. And do it in a way that we can show measurable goals connected to U.S. national interests, first and foremost. If we start doing some of that and start talking with each other, even people that disagree with each other, we’re going to move product in a very good way. But we have to talk to people on the island. That’s where it has to happen. Those are the folks taking the risks. Those are the folks that need our support.

MCKEAGUE: Lillian, if you have a quick point, and then I’d like to try to fit in another question in our queue.

GUERRA: Oh, wow. OK. Well, I’ll be very quick. I mean, I think that Biden has at his—whether he wants it or not—he has no power to change the embargo. It has to happen through Congress. And that allows him to then do other things. And I think that he needs to take Cuba off the terrorist list. He needs to restaff the diplomacy in Havana. He needs to have consular services in Havana, which were taken away under the Trump administration and send to third countries.

These kind of things—and he needs to find, as Nora said, to get some remittances to Cuba without the Cuban military, you know, gaining from every dollar we send. These are ways that the United States can stop playing the scripted role that the Cuban state has granted them, and it continues to benefit from. And we need to stop being the bad guy, you know? And if we are—if we’re going to stop being the bad guy and we’re going to ignore, in fact, all of the temptations to play the bad guy role that the Cuban state gives us, that doesn’t necessarily include that we take absolutely no moral stances on the repression.

I mean, from Havana, in Havana, you know, we as a presence there can bring the opposition to the embassy. We can demand or issue statements about what’s happening on the ground. We can be witnesses. And as long as we have no presence there, then we allow the Cuban state to continue to create the narratives it does, to spin those narratives, and to distribute those narratives, you know, worldwide. And so I think we need—you know, without using the word “engagement,” because I think it’s something different. I think it’s radical friendship. I think it’s—you know, it’s moral right. You know? We should be there as witnesses. Not as imperial manipulators of the scenario in Cuba.

POBLETE: One quick point. We’d love to be there. But guess what? When those of us were not even allowed to go, and we want to visit with the dissidents and the opposition in Cuba. We should be allowed to go. And the Biden administration maybe should tell the Cuban government: If you want us to have travel, let’s allow Americans to visit with dissident leaders, and not end up in jail—like a client of mine has been for five years, and other Americans arrested. It’s not that easy to go to a police state. Why should we go to an embassy? I think we should meet everywhere we can. Everywhere we can.

GUERRA: Well, I know that. I mean, I’m sure that I’m going to have all kinds of trouble going there. I mean, I may not be able to get in. I do think that there are things that you say publicly as part of your policy, and then there are things that you don’t say publicly. And if you start making demands publicly, the Biden administration puts all its cards on the table, then he’s got no way to negotiate. So there are things that one—that he needs to be careful to keep in the pocket, you know? That become the negotiating principles for our presence there, you know, and for remittances. And the Cuban state is desperate for cash, even if it pretends it’s not. You know, and it’s desperate for tourism, even if it is minimal and it is family-based, right?

So anyway, I’ll stop. Go ahead. I’m sorry.

MCKEAGUE: No, actually, I think perhaps then this is the best way for us to wrap up, with a little bit of a glimpse into the lively debate even within the Cuban American community. You know, I tend to agree with you, Lillian, that the embargo has played the role of the perfect scapegoat for the Cuban government for many decades. But, you know, I think all—both of you have made fantastic points. I know Nora, unless you have something to add, but you play the role of the more objective reporter rather than the one making policy recommendations.

And while it is very difficult for Cubans to end on time, I know that CFR is a stickler. (Laughter.) So, and it is now 1:00 p.m. So I’d like to thank everybody so much for joining today’s virtual meeting. And a big thank-you to our speakers. Please do note that the audio and transcript of today’s meeting will be posted on CFR’s website. Thanks so much.


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