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Cuban envoy: “Everything is possible once we sit down at the table”

Following State Department official Bisa Williams‘s trip to Havana last month, the discussion of changes to U.S. Cuba policy has taken off, bringing together an unusual amalgamation of progressive internationalists and old-bull realists centered around the common realization that a window for engagement may be opening. “I am a diplomat but I think there is ...

579550_091009_cuban2.jpg
579550_091009_cuban2.jpg

Following State Department official Bisa Williams's trip to Havana last month, the discussion of changes to U.S. Cuba policy has taken off, bringing together an unusual amalgamation of progressive internationalists and old-bull realists centered around the common realization that a window for engagement may be opening.

"I am a diplomat but I think there is an opportunity. I think we are ready to take that opportunity," Jorge Bolaños Suarez, who represents Cuba in Washington in lieu of a formal ambassador, told a group of policy wonks at a Thursday reception on the USS Sequoia, organized by the New America Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank.

Following State Department official Bisa Williams‘s trip to Havana last month, the discussion of changes to U.S. Cuba policy has taken off, bringing together an unusual amalgamation of progressive internationalists and old-bull realists centered around the common realization that a window for engagement may be opening.

“I am a diplomat but I think there is an opportunity. I think we are ready to take that opportunity,” Jorge Bolaños Suarez, who represents Cuba in Washington in lieu of a formal ambassador, told a group of policy wonks at a Thursday reception on the USS Sequoia, organized by the New America Foundation, a centrist Washington think tank.

Bolaños related a story in which Obama’s State Department recently denied a visa to Ricardo Alarcon de Quesada, the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, three days before he was to come to Washington for a conference. Upon hearing the news, Alarcon asked Bolaños to thank the State Department because it was the first time they had actually given three-days’ notice that his visa would be denied.

“This is an improvement. I assure you this is an improvement,” Bolaños joked, adding on a more serious note, “There is a lot of hiding and issues on both sides, but everything is possible once we sit down at the table, and everything is possible if we both respect sovereignty, a sense of equality and sole determination for each country.”

The U.S. embargo against Cuba, which was instituted following Fidel Castro’s 1958 overthrow of the U.S.-supported Batista regime and strengthened due to Castro’s alignment with the Soviet Union, has not been significantly revisited despite the Cold War ending almost 20 years ago.

The audience at the Bolaños event was eclectic, ranging from Dana Marshall, a former economic advisor to Vice President Al Gore, to Phillip Peters, vice president of the conservative think tank the Lexington Institute, and retired Maj. Gen. Paul Eaton, now with the left-leaning National Security Network.

Steve Clemons, New America’s foreign-policy chief and the editor of The Washington Note, organized the event and has been building a left-right coalition of thinkers who believe there is simply no continued rationale for America’s refusal to thaw the relationship.

“During the Bush-Cheney years, the only place in the world where the Cold War actually got colder was in U.S.-Cuba policy,” said Clemons, referring to travel restrictions and remittance caps that Bush put forth and Obama has since repealed.

U.S.-Cuba policy has been held hostage by some in the Miami Cuban community, but even that community’s views are evolving as a new generation takes over, said Clemons. But although family issues are involved, the core argument of Cuba engagement advocates is that reforming the Cuba approach is simply sound strategy.

“The unilateral embargo that the U.S. has maintained for five decades has failed to produce any positive results,” said Clemons. “Fixing this — and putting U.S.-Cuba relations on a constructive course would be an easy win for the Obama administration. Cuba is the least expensive, lowest-hanging fruit among foreign policy challenges facing Obama.”

The loose coalition of foreign-policy thinkers calling for this goal is still being formed. It now includes former Secretary of State George Schultz (who last year said “I think our policy of sanctions against Cuba is ridiculous”), former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

Richardson, who traveled to Cuba in August, gave a speech Friday calling for Cuba engagement at the New Democrat Network, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.

“For the sake of improving our image in Latin America and our interests, it makes sense to normalize relations with Cuba,” he said, saying that the first step should be for Obama to issue an executive order lifting the travel ban, followed by exchanges of cultural, medical, and academic delegations.

He warned that congressional resistance would be tough to overcome, including the strong influence of New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, who strongly supports the embargo. In 1996, Congress passed the Helms-Burton Act strengthening the embargo, which is still in effect.

Advocates of lifting it recognize that the goal is not in the offing anytime soon. They point to symbolic gestures, such as the turning off of propaganda signs at the American interests section in Havana, as small steps in the right direction.

Meanwhile, there is at least a perception that the Cubans haven’t responded to Obama’s overtures.

“You Cubans have got to do something; you’ve got to reciprocate with suggestions,” Richardson said he told his Cuban interlocutors. But he added that Obama’s positive image and the small concessions he has offered are changing attitudes in Cuba as well.

“They like the guy,” said Richardson. “So I think that’s a positive step.”

Photo: Sandy Choi for FP

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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