It Has Been Demonstrated that Cuba and the US Can Build a New Kind of Relationship

By Josefina Vidal on December 17, 2017

I thank again the Center for International Policy Research (CIPI), its US Team and Dr. Soraya Castro Mariño, for organizing this magnificent annual event on Cuba-US relations, the most important that takes place in our country on this subject and for the invitation extended to me to close it, which I am honored to do before such a select audience of the most important American and Cuban experts in the field.

During the four weeks that followed the completion of this Workshop, in December 2016, we were involved in intense work with the previous US Government, which allowed us to complete in that brief period, 10 new agreements in areas of common interest, some of particular relevance to bilateral relations, such as the Joint Declaration on migration issues and the Memorandum of Understanding for cooperation in law enforcement

When we met here last year, the government of President Obama was still in place, I would now like to make a concise summary of the results achieved in bilateral relations in the last two years of his administration:

  • Important issues for Cuba were resolved, including the release and return of three of the imprisoned Cuban Five; the exclusion from the list of States sponsoring terrorism; the elimination of the policy of dry feet-wet feet and of the Parole Program for Cuban Medical Professionals, and the renewal of the registration of the Havana Club rum brand in the USA, among others.

• There were important advances in the diplomatic sphere: the restoration of diplomatic relations and the reopening of embassies; 3 meetings between the presidents of the two countries; 25 high-level visits in both countries; and the creation of the Cuba-US Bilateral Commission.

  • Significant progress was made in the area of cooperation: there were 22 bilateral agreements signed 54 technical meetings and cooperative iniatives on issues of mutual interest; and 25 meetings in the framework of various dialogues on bilateral and multilateral issues.
  • Americans traveling to Cuba grew exponentially (76% in 2015 and 74% in 2016), as well as exchanges between both countries (more than 1200 groups in 2016) and the first economic-commercial agreements were concluded in more than 50 years.

There were very important issues pending for Cuba, some of which were in the hands of the executive branch, such as the dismantling of a large part of the blockade through a broader use of the President’s prerogatives and the suspension of regime change programs; while others depend on congressional decisions, such as the total lifting of the blockade, the elimination of intrusive radio and television broadcasts, the end of financing for subversive projects and the return of the territory occupied by the US Naval Base in Guantánamo.

In those two years it was demonstrated that Cuba and the US can try to build a new kind of relationship, based on respect and equality, which at the same time recognizes the existing differences, without making them the center of our negotiations, but rather focus on issues that essentially can benefit the two countries and their people.

During the current year, a significant setback has been consummated in the relations between Cuba and the US, with respect to the level they were at in January 2017, and the bilateral climate as a whole has deteriorated, as a result of the decisions taken by the government of President Donald Trump.

The first signs of this setback were evident in the final stretch of the campaign to the 2016 presidential election, when the then Republican candidate, who had previously supported the rapprochement with Cuba, threatened to completely reverse Obama’s policy.

This process started shortly after President Trump was in office when he ordered, on February 3, 2017, a review of US policy towards Cuba and, in the meantime, the stop of the majority of official exchanges and established bilateral cooperation mechanisms. As a result, several technical meetings initially planned in the area of law enforcement (confrontation with drug trafficking and terrorism, and judicial assistance in criminal matters) were canceled and exchanges were only maintained regarding migration, aviation security, and search and rescue. A little earlier, during the period of transition of the government, the US side declined Cuba’s proposal to hold in Havana the planned meetings of two of the Working Groups of the Economic Dialogue (intellectual property, and trade, investment, and economic cooperation).

The setback had its first formal expression in the “Presidential National Security Memorandum on the Strengthening of United States Policy towards Cuba,” signed and released by President Trump on June 16, 2017, in Miami. Through this document, which repealed Obama’s directive of October 14, 2016, entitled “Normalization of Relations between the United States and Cuba,” it was clearly evident that the policy of the US government in the future would not be to normalize bilateral ties, but to return to the old failed policy of intensifying the blockade and subversion against Cuba.

The state of bilateral relations worsened significantly, based on the decisions adopted in September and October by the US Government, to substantially reduce the personnel of its Embassy in Havana and to expel, unilaterally, unfounded and arbitrary, 17 officials of the Embassy of Cuba in Washington, on the pretext of alleged incidents that would have affected the health of some of their diplomats and relatives, and that the Cuban government had not taken all appropriate measures to guarantee their  protection and security.

But this was not enough and the US Government escalated its reaction issuing a warning to travelers to dissuade them from visiting Cuba and published a notice about accommodation restriction in some hotels in Havana. Previously, it had suspended all travel of official delegations and government officials to Cuba.

These measures are unjustified and politically motivated, as they are not based on evidence or conclusive investigative results.

I reiterate today that the Cuban government has no responsibility whatsoever for the incidents reported. Cuba, which has been a victim in the past of attacks against members of its diplomatic staff, who were murdered, disappeared, kidnapped or assaulted in the exercise of their duties, complies with all its obligations rigorously, and has an impeccable record in the protection of diplomatic agents never allowing any action against  their physical and moral integrity.

The investigation carried out by the Cuban authorities, which until now have received very limited attention or cooperation from the United States, has shown that there is no evidence whatsoever about the occurrence of the alleged incidents or the causes of the notified health conditions, or that these have been caused by an attack of any nature. It is worth noting that the specialized agencies of the United States do not have evidence to confirm the occurrence of “attacks”, nor hypotheses about the origin of the health problems of their diplomats.

The decisions of the US Government has negatively impacted the functioning of the Cuban Embassy in Washington, in particular the Consulate, and has caused serious damage to our services to Cubans residing in the United States who wish to visit their relatives in Cuba and American citizens as well interested in traveling to our country. Also, by dismantling the Economic-Commercial Office, they have left US business sector without an interlocutor to connect those interested in exploring and identifying business opportunities.

At the same time, the drastic reduction of US diplomatic personnel and the suspension of the granting of visas at the Consulate, unprecedented since the opening of an office in Havana in 1977, has paralyzed the procedures of Cuban citizens to emigrate or visit the United States, which now have been moved to third countries, making them totally unfeasible. 

These measures have also had a negative impact on bilateral cooperation on issues of mutual interest, exchanges and travel between the two countries, family ties and migratory relations.

The first adverse effects are already being felt: the trips of US Geological Service officials were not authorized by the State Department and the Center for Disease Control could not participate in scientific and events with experts in Cuba; a technical meeting on agriculture initially agreed for September was postponed; cooperation in health has been paralyzed; cooperative actions on the environment have not been completed, with the exception of some scientific expeditions; and the meetings originally planned in Havana, the Bilateral Commission, the migratory round and several work groups of the Implementation and Compliance Dialogue of the Law were postponed and rescheduled for Washington.

Many Cubans have been unable to attend cultural, sporting, scientific and academic events in the US, because they cannot receive their visas in Havana, and the visits of dozens of American groups, including university students have been canceled.

In overall figures, due to the cumulative effects of the first months of the year, US citizens traveling to Cuba still show a significant increase between January and November 2017, compared to the same period of 2016 (579,288 trips by Americans with a 248.7% growth, and 386,388 trips of Cubans residing in the US with a 140% growth, in total.  In the first eleven months of 2017, we received 965,676 US visitors, with 189.7% growth). However, in recent weeks there has been a noticeable slowdown in the growth rate, due to the combined impact of the unusual warning from the State Department and the government’s measures against travel.

In this context, starting on November 9, the regulations to implement the measures announced by President Trump in June, which harden the blockade, generate confusion as to what is allowed and what isn’t, creating an intimidating and dissuasive effect. All of this only confirmed the serious setback that has taken place in the relation between both countries.

The issuance of an arbitrary list of “restricted Cuban entities”, allegedly linked, in an unfounded manner, to the defense and national security sector, with which US transactions are prohibited in the future, and to prohibit individual travel of Americans in the category of “people to people” exchanges, not only harms the Cuban economy and its state and private sectors, but also the American citizens as well, whose right to travel to Cuba is now even more restricted. It also further restricts the U.S. business community who are deprived of interesting business opportunities in the face of their competition.

All these steps have been accompanied by repeated disrespectful and offensive pronouncements towards Cuba by President Trump and other high officials of his government, which has the hostile rhetoric up to levels not seen since the periods of greatest antagonism, adding an additional negative component that irritates the bilateral climate.

The regression in relations would of been greater, as was the wishes of extreme right-wing elements of Cuban origin and some allies within the government, had it not been for the strong opposition of members of Congress from both parties and numerous sectors, including businessmen, academics, retired military, scientific and educational entities, travel agencies, diverse organizations, Cuban residents and even government agencies, who during two years enjoyed and received the benefits of a different relationship with Cuba.

According to what has been published, this is what made it possible for the policy directive announced by President Trump, to preserve in its text the cooperation with Cuba on issues of mutual interest and to maintain unchanged other regulations promulgated in President Obama’s time that modified the application of some aspects of the blockade.

In this complex situation, the Cuban government has reiterated several times its willingness to continue the respectful dialogue and cooperation on issues of mutual interest, as well as the negotiation of pending bilateral issues with the US Government, without impositions or conditions.

This has not been seen on the declaratory level, but in correspondence with this position, Cuba has taken concrete steps to maintain a civilized and mutually beneficial relationship with the United States.

Among other actions, in recent months, we have submitted to the Department of State 7 plans for the implementation of signed memoranda of understanding on cooperation in hydrography and geodesy, protected terrestrial areas, seismology, meteorology, cancer control, animal and plant health, and national parks collaboration. We have reiterated the proposals for bilateral cooperation in confronting human trafficking, terrorism, and migratory fraud, money laundering, as well as aid for navigation and topographic mapping.

We are waiting for the responses of the US authorities.

At the same time, in the midst of the challenges imposed by the restrictive framework of the regulations and the laws of the blockade, which is the main obstacle to economic, commercial and financial relations between the two countries, the interest and persistence of Cuban and American companies have made it possible to complete some new businesses in priority sectors, such as transportation, equipment for infrastructure, agriculture, and tourism. At the same time, progress is being made in the negotiations of new agreements in other important sectors such as health, energy and biotechnology.

But, the will of one of the parties is not enough. In December of last year, when closing this same Workshop, I referred then to the possibility that part or all of the process initiated towards the improvement of relations could be reversed and I affirmed: “The future government of the United States has the word now. We will see if common sense triumphs or if the old habits prevail that for so many years did not take us anywhere “.

As far as we are concerned, we will continue to work with all people of good will in the United States, aware that there is a general consensus in Cuban and American societies favoring better relations between our two countries and peoples.

Source: Cubadebate translation Resumen Latinoamericano, North American Bureau