Caricature of Barack Obama – Enjoying a Cuban


More on the U.S. and Cuba – A Conversation

* * *

Keith Bolender and Jim Palombo



 * * *

In keeping with the interests referenced elsewhere in this edition regarding U.S. and Cuban relations, especially in terms of the respective ideological struggles on the table, here’s a piece sent to me by a Canadian colleague, Keith Bolender. Keith has spent considerable time examining the Cuban experiment, which makes his insights particularly valuable. Importantly the Q & A format he utilizes provides an informative and easily understandable frame for anyone interested in the developments between the two countries. With this in mind please enjoy the read. And as always your comments and/or questions are welcomed.




 * * *

How will the United States and Cuba move towards normalization?


Following American President Barack Obama’s announcement of the historic agreement to normalize relations with Cuba there has been a considerable amount of speculation as to what happens next, and how normalization will take place between these two neighbors that have been estranged for more than 50 years.


A few questions and answers that may help clarify things –


Can Obama lift the embargo against Cuba?


Technically he can’t, because the legal foundation for the embargo is in the hands of Congress, codified to that branch of government in 1996 under Bill Clinton’s presidency. Previous to that American presidents could end the embargo with a stroke of a pen. What Obama can do, however, is ease a considerable amount of the embargo’s regulations by using his authority to permit greater flexibility for American businesses to operate in Cuba, as well as allowing Cuban imports into the USA. The expectation is that there will be an expansion of sales and exports in to Cuba of such items as building materials and agricultural equipment. The flip side is that Cuba may be permitted to start selling into the US market their medical technology, as well as more traditional items such as sugar, rum and those famous cigars. Financial transactions between US and Cuban institutions will now be allowed. There may still be the shell of the embargo under Congressional control, but Obama can hollow out the middle.


There is a symbolic measure Obama has under his control that could demonstrate his determination to do away with the embargo. That would be for him to stop signing the Trading With the Enemy Act, the legislative underpinning for the implementation of the embargo placed on Cuba in the early 1960s. TWEA can only be applied when America is at war or facing a national security threat; if relations are normalized that cannot apply.  Watch for what Obama does when the re-signing of the continuation of the act’s provisions comes up next September. If he refuses to resign, take that as proof of how serious he is in getting his Cuban policy implemented.


Regardless of any easing of the embargo, American companies will still have to abide by Cuban laws regarding foreign investment and business operations. These laws are often restrictive and highly controlled by the state.


What can Congress do to prevent normalization?


There has already been opposition to the president’s announcement, mostly from the Cuban-American congressmen who object to any movement towards normal relations. Speculation is opponents could delay funding the American embassy in Havana as well as block the nominee for ambassador. If Congress was able to pass legislation to that affect, Obama could veto it and there would unlikely be the two-thirds majority to override a veto. There will also be plenty of pressure from Republicans in farm states who want to do business with Cuba.


Could a specific incident derail the process?


In 1996, Bill Clinton seemed poised to move towards better relations with Cuba, but that ended when the Cuban side shot down two civilian planes who were conducting illegal flights over Havana. The result was passage of the Helms-Burton Act that put the embargo into the hands of  Congress. It’s different this time as the whole process of normalization is out in the open, agreed to by both sides, and both Obama and Raul have direct lines of communication now available to them if an incident were to occur.


CUBA photo

Havana, Cuba Photo by K.Hurley

Will American tourists be allowed to travel to Cuba?


As in the embargo, the travel restrictions on Americans going to Cuba are now under the control of Congress. Regular American tourists still won’t be able to get visas, but the US will allow travel for people in 12 categories: family visits, government business, professional meetings and research, journalistic, educational and religious activities, attending performances, workshops or athletic competitions and exhibitions, humanitarian projects or other activities in support of the Cuban people. That will mean a greater number of Americans will be able to see Cuba for themselves, under less restrictive  classifications. It’s estimated up to a million Americans would visit Cuba annually. Travellers to the country will be able to use US credit and debit cards and those returning to the States will be allowed to bring back up to $400 worth of goods, including cigars.


If Americans start flocking to Cuba, there may be another group of tourists not so happy – the Canadians. For years Canadian visitors have considered Cuba as their own, and many have expressed concern that if the Americans are allowed in, they might look for another beach destination. Those worries are unfounded, as there is plenty of room for everyone, although Canada’s designation as the number one nation to send tourists to Cuba might be in danger. Besides, the first Americans will probably gravitate to the cities, particularly Havana, while the Canadians prefer the beaches.


Will Obama visit Cuba?


He said that he wouldn’t rule it out, but he has only two years left as president so don’t hold your breath. More likely the first visit from a high ranking US official will be Secretary of State John Kerry.


What items will be on the agenda table when the two sides talk about normalization?


The two countries will co-operate on issues such as migration, counter narcotics, the environment, and human trafficking.  There may even be discussion allowing Cuban baseball players to come into the major leagues legally, without having to defect.  Will there be a pro baseball team in Havana in five years’ time? Don’t bet against it.


Why did Obama do this now?


Obama may see his Cuba policy as his legacy, like Nixon and China. Obama has changed his views on Cuba; while as a candidate he said the embargo must end, but as president he supported its continuation. Under his administration he did permit Cuban-Americans to travel back to the island without restrictions, and eased the amount of money they could bring. With the younger generation of Cuban-Americans living in Florida in favor of normalization, Obama may have felt now was the political time to announce this.  Florida has always been a key swing state for both parties, and the Democrats may have reasoned their chances in the next election two years from now increase with this strategy. And for public consumption the president simply noted it makes more sense to change Cuban policy than continue with a decades-old failed strategy. Hopefully it also means that the United States has finally come to realize that the Cuban people have the right to choose their own social/economic structure – and that punishing the Cubans for that choice is hardly the moral thing to do.


Will Cuba end its anti-American rhetoric?


Under Raul Castro since 2006 the anti-American statements have decreased, he has often publicly stated he’s willing to talk about any issue. But don’t expect either side to suddenly become all warm and fuzzy; the path to normalization will be filled with criticisms and complaints from both sides. The ideological differences haven’t disappeared, only the intransigence.


Will Cuba change its political make up?


Very unlikely, no more than Vietnam changed its socialist one-party system when the Americans ended that embargo and normalized relations more than 20 years ago. Since then Vietnam has become a regional economic powerhouse and a favored trading nation with the US. The political structure of the Cuban state will in essence remain the same, as long as the system has the support of the citizens – something the Americans have never understood since the revolution triumphed in 1959. Political changes will no doubt occur, however, when the first generation revolutionaries die off, or step down as Raul plans to do in 2018.


Will normalizing relations end Cuba blaming all its problems on the embargo?


Depends on the affect and how far the embargo is eased, or ended. Cuba has often blamed its economic shortcomings on the United States, with a certain level of justification. The American embargo has been the longest in history, and has cost the Cuban government billions. Combine that with the history of terrorist activities against Cuban civilian targets committed by Cuban-American organizations in Florida (often with the knowledge of the government) the result has been the creation of a siege mentality among Cuban leadership. End the embargo, normalize relations, give the Cubans space to follow their own path without the American hammer over their head, and the Cuban government should no longer be allowed to get away with blaming everything on US hostility. Normalization should bring a higher level of understanding, and respect, between the two nations. Just don’t expect the Cubans to stop criticizing the Americans when they see it appropriate, as will the Americans complain about the Cubans.


Will the United States remove Cuba from the State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism?


This is of great importance to the Cuban side, who strenuously object to being on that list, stating they remain on it for purely political reasons. They also point to American hypocrisy, claiming Cuban-American organizations in Florida have a long history of terrorism against Cuban targets, yet nothing has ever been done to stop them. (Those organizations were the reason the Cuban Five were sent to Florida, to try and prevent further acts of terrorism, the Cubans maintain.)  If Obama takes Cuba off the list, and he can do that without Congressional impute, it will have an immediate impact –  international banks would no longer be fined for doing business with Cuba, and other financial restrictions will be lifted. If Obama is serious about normalizing relations, he will take Cuba off this list by the spring. He indicated that process would begin shortly.


How will the pro-embargo side react?


With complete predictability. Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the hard-right Cuban-American congressman from Florida called Obama’s decision “ludicrous and pathetic”, reciting all the anti-Cuban rhetoric of the past 50 years. Other Cuban-American representatives in Congress also voiced their extreme displeasure, and there were the anticipated protests in Miami’s Little Havana. Don’t expect any change there.


What role did others play in bringing these two adversaries together?


Canada was able to provide secret meeting locations in Toronto and Ottawa for high ranking officials from the US and Cuba to sit down and work out this agreement. It most likely would have happened regardless, but Canada’s role certainly helped the process. And Pope Francis deserves credit as well for his part in bringing the two sides together.


What will Americans find out about Cuba if relations are normalized?


That the majority of Cuban people support their leadership, most want change and expanded freedoms economically and politically. But they want those changes to come under their control, not imposed by an outside power who has tried to destroy their political/economic system for the past 50 years.


So what does the announcement of normalization really mean?


The United States hasn’t abandoned its strategy of ending the Castro regime, it’s just changed the approach from the stick to the carrot. Obama has the ability to accomplish a great deal towards eliminating most of America’s hostile policies against Cuba, but he cannot end everything. Regardless, this is an historic shift in relations between the two countries. At the very least, the establishment of full diplomatic relations, the opening of embassies and the end to isolation is a new chapter in the relationship. Most importantly, it is tremendously positive for the citizens of Cuba and the United States.



About the Author

Keith Bolender is a Canadian based author of two books on Cuba-American relations and has been involved in Cuba for more than 25 years.