Hitting Doubles in Havana

The Obama administration is beginning negotiations, in earnest, with the Castro regime. But getting to democracy and free market capitalism may take a while.

Cuban President Raul Castro listens during the opening of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Summit, in Havana, on December 8, 2014. The summit -- bringing together the 15 CARICOM member states and Cuba -- aims to increase trade and cooperation within the group and with Cuba. AFP PHOTO / YAMIL LAGE (Photo credit should read YAMIL LAGE/AFP/Getty Images)

Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson arrives in Havana on Wednesday, Jan. 21, with an extra spring in her step. This is no ordinary trip to the region. It’s the first time since ties between the United States and Cuba were severed in 1961 that senior officials from the two countries have met in the open with the aim of restoring normal diplomatic relations. It’s a history-making visit that would’ve been impossible under what President Barack Obama described in his State of the Union address as a policy “long past its expiration date.”

Jacobson is heading a delegation to negotiate the details of a dramatic announcement made by Obama and his Cuban counterpart, Raúl Castro, just over a month ago. On Wednesday, talks will focus on migration. The day after, the agenda moves toward the monumental topic of normalizing bilateral relations, setting up embassies, and installing ambassadors in both capitals. Steeped in symbolism, the visit marks a crucial, public step toward ending five decades of estrangement between the United States and the Caribbean island.

“When what you’re doing doesn’t work for 50 years, it’s time to try something new,” Obama said in front of Congress on Tuesday night. “As His Holiness, Pope Francis, has said, diplomacy is the work of ‘small steps.’ These small steps have added up to new hope for the future in Cuba.”

Jacobson is surely conscious that this moment — long anticipated by critics of the punitive and anachronistic U.S. embargo against Cuba — is accompanied by high expectations and many uncertainties. She will have to navigate, with skill and sensitivity, in uncharted waters. While Havana wants to normalize relations with Washington, it is not altogether clear to what extent, at what pace, and under what conditions, the Cuban government will be prepared to open up its economic and political systems. The U.S. delegation’s two-day visit — tourism, trade, and civil aviation are among the topics — should offer a glimpse and sense of the possibilities for change on the Cuban side.

Despite the uncertainty regarding Castro’s interest in opening his country to democracy and capitalism, Jacobson arrives in Havana with a surprisingly strong hand. The policy shift has been widely lauded as a positive development, and critics of the administration have struggled to gain traction in selling the rapprochement as a dangerous concession to an authoritarian regime. A Pew survey found that 63 percent of Americans people support the turn toward engagement. Many Cubans have also responded favorably to the about-face, and are hopeful that the country’s struggling and isolated economy will see some relief as a result of increased tourism, commerce, and investment from the United States.

The powerful Cuban-American lobby in the United States now finds itself knocked back on its heels and on the losing end of the political argument. The eruption of protests that some predicted would be sparked by Obama’s announcement never materialized. Even among Florida’s Cuban-American community there emerged a split among those vehemently opposed and a more muted, wait-and-see camp.

To be sure, Cuban-American members of Congress, led by Senators Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), have been sharply critical of Obama’s new approach. It is doubtful that the Republican-controlled Congress will be keen to repeal the embargo, enshrined in the 1996 Helms-Burton law, over the next two years.

But key constituencies of the Republican Party, including leading business groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have enthusiastically embraced a policy they have supported for years and hope will lead to more business in Cuba. The regulations issued on Jan. 15 by the U.S. Treasury and Commerce Departments put flesh on the broad policy initiative and lay the groundwork for greater U.S. economic participation in Cuba.

Indeed, one of the chief effects of the Dec. 17 announcement has been to reveal how difficult life is on the island for ordinary Cubans, how severe the unemployment situation is, and how the economic measures undertaken under Raúl Castro have been too slow and modest, hardly enough to satisfy all but a tiny slice of Cuban society. Under those reforms, privately owned enterprises have grown, but they are subject to considerable restrictions and taxes, and the motor of the Cuban economy remains in government hands, with the military playing an increasingly powerful role. Havana desperately needs an infusion of capital, made even more acute by low oil prices that have taken a further toll on the deteriorating economy of Venezuela, Cuba’s main benefactor.

Since Obama unveiled the new policy, migration from Cuba has surged, thought to have been fueled in part by fears among Cubans that their immigration privileges to the United States are about to come to an end. Under the so-called wet-foot, dry-foot policy, Cubans who make it to the United States are eventually granted residency, while those found at sea are sent back. Jacobson has said that, for now, Washington has no intention of doing away with those privileges, though this may change under pressure from the Cubans, who would like to see them phased out.

Indeed, these economic difficulties are related to the Cuban government’s continued control over the country’s politics and its suppression of dissidents. In recent years, changes in the economic realm have fallen well short of targets, while in the political sphere they have been barely discernible. Bloggers have multiplied, and cultural activities have boomed, but direct political challenges to the government are another question.

In the two days of talks, Jacobson and her delegation are expected to raise issues related to human rights and democracy in Cuba, including expanded Internet access, for which telecommunication companies hope to develop the infrastructure. It is hard to argue that young Cubans living in the 21st century should not have Internet access, and U.S. officials will likely talk about opening telecommunications as distinct from democratic reforms, such as freedom of speech, assembly, and the press. That distinction allows the delegation to present Internet connectivity as a question of access to information, something the government has been eager to control but might be more difficult for the Cubans to resist than say, free and fair elections.

In his State of the Union address, Obama referred only obliquely to the question of democratic reform on the island, saying that his policy shift “removes a phony excuse for restrictions in Cuba.” It would be heartening, but surprising, if the Cubans evinced any inclination to budge on political reform. The hope is that, eventually, economic and communications reforms will be reflected in the political realm, but that is by no means guaranteed.

At the upcoming Summit of the Americas gathering in Panama this April, when Obama is expected to meet with Raúl Castro in a historic encounter, the challenge will be how to convey a commitment to engaging with Havana while at the same time taking a stand for democracy on the island. In this, Washington would like assistance from Cuba’s neighbors in encouraging democratic rule, but so far Latin American governments have only cheered the policy change. Much to the Obama administration’s chagrin, none have signed up to press Havana — at least publicly — on these issues.

Encouragingly — and to the relief of the Obama administration — the Cuban government has released 53 political prisoners discussed in talks preceding the rapprochement’s announcement. It would be surprising, however, if this welcome move signaled any meaningful short-term political reform. And should repression intensify, U.S. critics of the White House’s Cuba policy would only be strengthened. Such a development, though improbable, would put the normalization push at risk.

No one can predict with great confidence what will now happen in Cuba. But in light of Raúl Castro’s pragmatism, his government’s desire for more investment and growth, and Washington’s interest in engaging with Havana, it is reasonable to expect that changes — albeit modest and gradual — toward greater economic openness will take place over the next year. Not only will travel and visits from the United States increase substantially, but U.S. investments in private businesses, including restaurants and the agricultural and construction sectors, will also grow.

In April, Obama articulated a much-maligned step-by-step approach to foreign policy. Using an analogy that would resonate with Cubans, who count baseball among their passions, he said, “You hit singles; you hit doubles. Every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”

By doing away with an outdated Cuba policy, Obama arguably hit a home run. But now Washington is settling in for the long game, hoping mostly for singles and doubles.


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