Warming up of US-Cuba relations, but…

Starting with the prisoner swap t seems we are witnessing a great breakthrough in US-Cuba relations as talks about full diplomatic relations will start. Why now, what challenges you see in this process? Read few comments.

W. Alex SanchezResearch Fellow, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

1. The deal was a prisoner swap between Alan Gross who was held in Cuba and the remaining Cubans that were imprisoned in the U.S. as members of the Cuban 5. So certainly for all of us who want to see relations between the US and Cuba improve this is an important step forward.

2. The next challenge? the 2015 Summit of the Americas in Panama. We all remember the last one in Colombia, with Washington saying that Cuba could not participate, and the Colombian government essentially had to “un-invite” Cuba, even though everyone else in Latin America and the Caribbean wants Cuba to be part of the summit. I did a commentary a few months ago about how the US already has declared that it disapproves that Cuba may go to Panama. Could the Gross-C5 signal a change of heart within the US government? We will have to wait till 2015 to find out.

3. One obvious challenge is that the embargo will remain, because only the US congress can fully abolish it. But the problem is that the US congress will be fully controlled by the Republicans in 2015 due to the Midterms, and I don’t see a Republican-led Congress overturning the embargo.

4. As for the Cuban government and its attitudes.. hopefully they will keep opening up their government, which will give the international community more reason to advocate for the embargo to be lifted. Allowing Yoani Sanchez and other Cubans to travel from the island without requiring “approval” from the government was a huge deal, as well as allowing Sanchez to have her digital newspaper, 14ymedio I think, to go online. I hope this trend will continue, but we will have to wait and see what kind of leadership emerges after Raul steps down from power.

5. As a disclaimer, I would say that whenever we see some positive development between the US and Cuba, another incident appears. I remember months ago when the zunzuneo/Cuban Twitter scandal broke out and it brought back Washington-Havana relations a few steps back… and now we see that, in spite of the zunzuneo incident, both sides agreed to swap prisoners. If nothing else, this highlights that five decades of Washington-Havana tensions is marked by both positive and negative developments and one positive development does not necessarily mean a long-term breakthrough.

Antoni KapciaProfessor of Latin American History, Director, Centre for Research on Cuba/Cuba Research Forum, University of Nottingham

What has happened (i.e. the exchange of Gross for the three remaining Cubans convicted of spying) is significant at one level, because, after many months of denying any such deal, it is clear that the ‘back channels’ that always operate between Washington and Havana have been working overtime. Gross’s imprisonment (although undoubtedly compromised by recent revelations in the Washington Post about US AID’s efforts to fund dissidence in Cuba) was always said publicly to be an obstacle to better relations, but one always suspected that this was to some extent rhetorical, since neither side could afford to be seen to be weakening their stance. So the fact that it’s happened does tell a story.

As for the other story which is now running, that talks will soon commence on normalizing relations between Cuba and the USA is one that we should, for the moment, treat with some caution. What everyone who sees the end of the US sanctions as imminent seems to forget is that 1996 legislation (Helms-Burton Act) which hardened the sanctions, also did two things: (a) they locked the embargo into legislation with the force of a treaty, requiring a two-thirds majority of both Houses of the US Congress to change the embargo and (b) forbade any change as long as there was a Castro in charge of Cuba. Since Raul Castro will be president till 2018, and since the US Senate (as well as the House of Representatives) will be dominated by Republicans from January, there seems little likelihood of sanctions ending for a while yet.

However, sanctions do not preclude recognition, so it is possible for the USA to upgrade the level of its diplomatic recognition of Cuba (in 1977, there was a mutual partial recognition, which saw Interest Sections open in both capitals, in third-party embassies – the Czechoslovak embassy in Washington and the Swiss embassy in Havana -, for low-level diplomatic exchange and communication, so recognition has long been there, if not at full ambassadorial level), without ending sanctions. It’s also possible to allow post-1996 measures (put in place by the Bush Administration) to be repealed, without offending against the 1966 law; indeed, Obama has been doing that since 2008, i.e. returning to the pre-2000 status. So something like that may well be happening, within what is legally possible. And the fact that officials are talking of opening a full embassy ‘within the coming weeks’ may refer to the Obama Administration’s need to get any such move through, by presidential decision, before the Senate changes hands in January.

So, if it does happen, it will of course change some things, and allow fuller talks, and even allow more US commercial transactions. But it does not necessarily mean the imminent end of the embargo. Indeed, at least one probable Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, has confirmed that, as president, he would keep the embargo in place if elected.

Jonathan Benjamin-Alvarado, Professor of Political Science and Cuba policy specialist at the University of Nebraska Omaha

The “exchange” of political prisoners clears the table so that the two sides can begin substantive talks that may lead to the normalization of relations between the US and Cuba.

First, and most importantly, will be the reformatting of the immigration policy between the two countries. For too many years the special nature of Cuban emigration to the US has enticed many to leave the island by raft, risking their lives with countless losses at sea. This must change. Cuba has already changed its policy regarding the return on emigres and the US must facilitate this process if it is going to work.

Second, the US must relax elements of the embargo against the Cuban people. This means facilitating trade and exchange of food and medicine as well as facilitating the exchange of technologies and project management techniques that will be beneficial to both sides. This includes agricultural exchanges, infrastructural redevelopment, energy and communications modernization. This is central to the transitions currently underway in Cuba and will create both investment and employment opportunities on the island.

Third, continued cooperation in the areas of disaster relief, human trafficking and drug interdiction in the region. Cuba has been a solid American partner in the latter two and the a regional leader in the former. The Cuba medical and disaster relief teams are a model in the Americas that will produce immediate responses to the critical needs of people in the wake of natural disasters.

Finally, the two sides must enhance the small scale people to people exchanges that the proponents of normalization have been engaging in for the past 25 years. This will allow both sides to see the exiting realities of both societies and craft policies that are responsive to the needs of citizens on both sides of the straits of Florida.

Victor Bulmer-ThomasProfessor, Associate Fellow, Chatham House

Ever since the handshake between Raul Castro and Barack Obama at the funeral for Nelson Mandela, it has been clear that a new approach to Cuba by the US could be anticipated. This has recently become more urgent with the prospect of the two leaders sitting together at the Summit of the Americas in Panama in April next year. The release of prisoners by both governments has now paved the way for formal talks aimed at normalisation and the restoration of full diplomatic relations.

The process is not simple, however. Although the two governments already cooperate on a range of issues such as drugs trafficking and migration, there are other matters which require decisions by the US Congress. The most important of these is lifting the US trade embargo. There are therefore many obstacles that still lie ahead, but the normalisation of relations between the two countries is one of the areas that could define President Obama’s legacy and one to which he will therefore give a high priority.

Carlos Seiglie, Professor of Economics and Chairperson Department of Economics, Rutgers University

I think that an improvement in US relationships with Cuba are occurring at this time for several reasons. First off, Pres. Obama has always favored them but political circumstances prohibited him from implementing them whether it was because of his second term election or midterm elections in Congress where Democratic candidates could be vulnerable to a policy change. A majority of Republicans in Congress, many of whom favor strengthening trade ties with Cuba because of agricultural interest in their home districts, and his lame duck status makes this the perfect time to propose changes. He will have the support of Congress and make an imprint on US foreign policy towards Latin America by his decision.

On the Cuban side, Cuba realizes that they are faced with severe economic hardship in the future. The declining production of oil in Venezuela along with declines in the price of oil will reduce Venezuela’s financial support to Cuba enormously. These events also bold very poorly for Maduro’s presidency in Venezuela and therefore, for the possible disappearance of one of Cuba’s strongest political ally. As a result, Cuba was very receptive to any rapprochement from the US.

The challenges to this process Is that Cuba will need to have credit extended to it in order to import US goods and this raises an issue whether US taxpayers should be subsidizing the Castro regime. There are many Republicans now in Congress that question the approach of the US’s Export-Import Bank in subsidizing trade. The silver lining in all this is that Cuba will have to accelerate its market reforms.

Sebastian Arcos, Associate Director, Cuban Research Institute, Florida International University

The events announced today look like a breakthrough indeed, but so far a very one-sided breakthrough. We should all be happy for Mr. Gross and his family, because his unjust imprisonment has finally ended. However, based on the information available now it looks like the US caved in to Cuban demands and went back on its word not to release the three Cuban spies in exchange for Mr. Gross release. Furthermore, it looks like the US is announcing further unilateral changes to US policy without any Cuban concessions. If this will be the standard procedure for future negotiations between the US and Cuba, then it does not bode well for US interest or the welfare of the Cuban people.

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