The top U.S. diplomat in Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, arrived in Havana on Wednesday to begin discussions with the Cuban government on restoring diplomatic ties, just one day after President Obama urged Congress to end the 53-year embargo in his State of the Union address. It is the first visit of an assistant secretary of state to the island in more than three decades.
While Wednesday’s discussions will reportedly be focused on migration matters — something routinely discussed between the two historic adversaries — talks on Thursday are expected to center on the logistics and details of re-opening embassies in Washington and Havana (the U.S. has had an interests section in Cuba since 1977, housed in its former embassy).
Since last month’s historic announcement that the two countries would seek to restore diplomatic ties severed under U.S. President Eisenhower back in 1961, Obama has already eased restrictions on travel and business for Americans to the Caribbean island. The Cuban government, meanwhile, has fulfilled a promise to release 53 detainees, many belonging to the dissident group Patriotic Union of Cuba, though Havana refuses to recognize the individuals as “political prisoners.”
Among the expected demands of the Cubans will be an end to the so-called “wet foot, dry foot” U.S. policy, which allows Cubans who arrive on American soil to remain in the country. They will also seek removal from the U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism, something the State Department is already reviewing. While Cuban diplomats hope to push for the long-term goal of ending the U.S. embargo with the island, this policy can only be changed through a law passed by U.S. Congress. The embargo, tightened in the 1990s, has been condemned almost unanimously every year at the U.N. for more than 20 years.
Meanwhile, the United States will be seeking to ease restrictions for American diplomats in Cuba and for open access for all Cubans to a future U.S. embassy, with more long-term goals focused on human rights and the loosening of tight government control over the economy and politics.
On the latter point, an anonymous senior Cuban official told the Associated Press in the lead-up to the talks that, while renewing diplomatic ties is a step in the right direction, the “process of normalization is much longer and deeper.” While optimistic about future relations, he said this would be contingent on the U.S. not meddling in the country’s centrally planned economy or one-party system.
Talks come after recent U.S. operations revealed
The announcement that the U.S. and Cuba would seek to normalize relations came at the end of a year in which the world learned of ill-conceived plans by the U.S. government’s humanitarian aid and development arm, USAID, to foment opposition among Cuban citizens against their government.
The first such scheme, revealed in April 2014, was the agency’s creation of a “Cuban Twitter,” known as ZunZeo, introduced with the hope it would provide a social media platform from which an Arab Spring-style movement would undermine the Castros’ rule. As reported by the AP, the program’s legality was unclear, and it was denounced even by U.S. lawmakers once revealed.
Then, less than a week before the White House’s announcement of the historic agreement seeking to renew diplomatic relations, the AP reported an attempt by USAID to infiltrate Cuba’s hip-hop scene and stir up an anti-government youth movement. This failed operation also ended up undermining many artists who had provided much of the strongest criticism of the government since Fidel Castro came to power.
Past efforts at Cuban regime-change far worse
Compared with previous operations to topple the Cuban government, however, these plans seem rather modest. The Bay of Pigs invasion — a failed CIA-sponsored paramilitary operation to overthrow the government — and the many assassination attempts against Fidel Castro are simply the most famous of these efforts.
Lesser known is Operation Mongoose, which saw several acts of sabotage and economic warfare carried out by the CIA against the Cubans and included plans for false flag operations to create a pretext for a U.S. invasion. Arthur Schlesinger, the “court historian” to John F. Kennedy during this time, said the president wanted to release the “terrors of the earth” on Cuba. These plans were key in the build up to the Cuban Missile Crisis.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, long the Cubans’ economic lifeline, the U.S. tightened the embargo with the Helms-Burton Act, a move condemned by even U.S. allies for its alleged violation of international law and sovereignty.
Hope for more friendly relations, a freer Cuba
Despite the history of hostility and the American government’s attempts to forcefully overthrow or non-violently undermine the Cuban government, it appears that the march toward full diplomatic relations and an eventual lift of the embargo are all but inevitable.
While Obama can only do so much from the executive branch, and Congress — particularly Republicans — will likely resist lifting the embargo in the immediate future, the U.S. isolation of Cuba has always been an unpopular policy internationally. It is also increasingly unpopular domestically, particularly among younger Americans, and even Cuban-Americans.
Normalized relations are unlikely to bring about immediate reform to the economy or the political system. But ultimately, those harmed by the economic woes — exacerbated by the embargo — are the Cuban people themselves. Trade will benefit those who have suffered from the long-mismanaged economy.
Increased interaction with the outside world through travel, tourism, and improved telecommunications will also, over time, increase the chances of a political opening in the Cuban government as people begin to demand more from their public officials and are given tools to better organize and build Cuban civil society. What is nearly certain is that none of these new policies could be less effective that those of the last 53 years.
As Obama said in his speech on Tuesday, “We are ending a policy that was long past its expiration date. When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new.”