Cuba, US are warily, slowly improving relations
By Bryan Bender | GLOBE STAFF APRIL 20, 2014
HAVANA — The imposing, seven-story structure with darkened windows sits
just across from the Malecon, or sea wall, central Havana's communal
hangout. It is unadorned, flying no flags, offering few signs that
germinating inside are seeds of a better relationship between official
The United States cut off relations and imposed a trade embargo with
communist Cuba more than half a century ago. But at the so-called US
Interests Section in Havana, 50 US diplomats and 300 locally hired
Cubans are quietly working on a range of common challenges.
The two governments are cooperating to combat human trafficking, improve
airline security, and conduct search and rescue operations. They are
working on joint efforts to improve public health and guard against
environmental degradation. And "working-level" discussions are under way
to do more, officials say.
Ideas: Cuba, you owe us $7 billion
The Drug Enforcement Agency could soon be sending agents to work with
Cuban counterparts to track South American cartels, and the United
States has proposed reestablishing direct mail delivery between the
The behind-the-scenes work continues despite the recent controversy over
a covert US effort to provide Cubans access to a Twitter-like social
Another thorny disagreement is over the fate of Alan Gross, a US State
Department contractor who has been jailed in Cuba for four years,
accused of being a spy. Cuban officials insist they want something in
return; namely, three Cubans convicted in the United States on charges
that they were intelligence agents.
"There is a big over-arching political cleft. But we are doing a number
of things that have been politically blessed by both sides," said a
senior US diplomat who works at the diplomatic post.
The diplomat — who requested anonymity to speak, in compliance with
State Department rules — expressed frustration that interaction between
the two governments at higher levels is still officially prohibited.
The Obama administration, under pressure from politically powerful
Cuban-Americans in South Florida and their supporters in Congress,
insists that relations can be restored only when Cubans win "fundamental
human rights and the ability to freely determine their own political
Cuba's leaders, meanwhile, decry continuing US efforts to destabilize
their one-party system.
But a recent visit to this island just 90 miles from Florida, and
interviews with Cuban and American officials, revealed a slow but
unmistakable thaw on both sides of the Florida Straits. They are
realistic about the snail's pace of change, while describing pent-up
demand for better economic opportunities.
Nowhere is that more evident than at the US Interests Section, housed in
the former US Embassy that was completed just before the Cuban
Revolution in 1959, when Fidel Castro, along with his brother Raul, took
Each day, up to 800 Cubans line up seeking various services such as
licenses for cultural exchanges, passport services, and other travel
documents. That compares with about 100 per day last year, according to
US residents are now the second largest group of foreign travelers to
Cuba each year, behind Canada, including at least half a million
Cuban-Americans last year, who are now allowed to freely travel here
under relaxed rules instituted in 2009. Another 100,000 Americans
visited as part of educational and cultural exchanges approved by the US
According to a new report by the Havana Consulting Group, more than
173,000 US residents visited the island just between January and March
of this year.
Meanwhile, studies find that money and goods pumped directly into the
Cuban economy by Cuban-Americans — as much as $5 billion in 2012 — now
outstrip the country's four major sectors, including tourism as well as
nickel, pharmaceutical, and sugar exports. That is having a major impact
on a population of just 11 million people, most of whom barely eke out
an existence in the island's centrally controlled economy.
Cuban officials, who agreed to speak to a reporter only if they were not
named, denied the common view among Cubans that the government is
fearful of renewed ties with its neighbor to the north.
"We can defend what we have. We are not afraid," said a senior official
at Cuba's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. "We have spent 50 years preparing
the people for anything."
The gradual thaw in relations provides some hope for many average
Cubans. The country's economic anemia — the average Cuban earns roughly
$17 a month — is evident in daily life, from a crumbling infrastructure
that has seen little investment since the 1950s, to shortages of staples
such as eggs and meat, which for many Cubans are still rationed.
Darien Garcia Arco, 26, an electrical engineer who works for the
government, earns the equivalent of about $70 a month. That is more than
most Cubans, he points out, allowing him to have his own apartment, a
rarity for someone his age.
"There have been changes. Now you can buy and sell in a way that you
couldn't before," Arco said at a small social gathering in a dilapidated
high-rise (which, like most buildings, still has a Committee for the
Defense of the Revolution post on its ground floor, a mainstay of Cuba's
surviving police state apparatus).
"Things are changing but they should have changed years ago,'' Arco
said. "They are still not being felt widely."
The older generation, which appears most committed to the socialist
model spearheaded by the Castro brothers, also openly expresses a desire
for greater opportunity. Maria Cirules, who fought with some of the
leading Marxists who took power in 1959 and is now in her 70s, recounted
some of the hard-won achievements of Cuba's socialist political system:
Health care for all. Near-total literacy. No starvation.
"That is a conquest for us," she proudly declared.
Yet when asked what her late comrade, socialist visionary Ernesto Che
Guevara, might think of modern Cuba's economic situation, she was just
"He wouldn't like it," she said. "He was very exacting."
There have been a series of reforms instituted since Raul Castro took
over as president in 2009 from his ailing brother, who ruled for nearly
Dozens of private restaurants, known as casa particulares, have appeared
in the past few years, usually located in private homes or apartments,
an easily visible sign that the government is allowing more of a
free-market economy to emerge. A few state enterprises have also been
turned into cooperatives.
The Cuban government has recently welcomed some foreign investment,
including a port project and industrial zone underway on the western
part of the island that is financed by Brazilian investors. Also, the
parliament is considering a broader foreign investment law.
Most striking to longtime observers was the announcement last year that
Cubans, who have largely been prisoners in their own country, can apply
to travel out of the country. There is also a small but vibrant
blogosphere emerging on the government-controlled Internet, including
some commentators who are openly critical of the government.
One US official who has had a unique viewpoint into the changes is
Representative James P. McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who has long
advocated for normalizing relations.
"It is difficult but it is not oppressive," McGovern, visiting Cuba at
the same time as a Globe reporter, said of the political atmosphere
here. "It is not to minimize the human rights challenges, but there have
been changes here that have resulted in more political space."
McGovern, who has traveled here more than a dozen times since his first
trip in 1979, nevertheless believes the Obama administration, acting
independently, can do far more to encourage change here, and he has
taken his case directly to Secretary of State John F. Kerry, his former
Bay State congressional colleague.
"I firmly believe that now is the time to take more significant steps
that address our relationship with Cuba," he said.
Among the steps McGovern and his allies in Congress are advocating is
permitting US firms to offer goods and services to the privately run
businesses and cooperatives and increasing the number of Americans who
can apply for a license to travel to Cuba for educational and cultural
Another plea falls directly under Kerry's purview: removing Cuba from
the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, which would
clear some of the legal impediments to greater diplomatic engagement.
("Nobody can explain to me why they are on the terrorist list," McGovern
The State Department says it has no plans to remove Cuba from the list.
But a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs said that
such sanctions against Cuba are "only one aspect of US policy."
"The administration has taken steps to improve conditions for Cuban
citizens through initiatives aimed at increasing the flow of
information, resources, and humanitarian relief," said Angela M.
Cervetti. "We will continue to think creatively about appropriate policy
changes that will enhance the Cuban people's access to human rights and
fundamental freedoms, and their ability to freely determine their own
She also said that Gross's continued detention "impedes our ability to
establish a more constructive relationship with Cuba on matters
affecting both countries."
For longtime Cuban officials like Gladys Rodriquez, there remains a deep
sense that the road to normalization will require more struggle.
"I will admit that I still believe the day the United States will lift
the blockade or embargo is far away," said Rodriquez, an official at
Cuba's National Council of Heritage.
She has worked for more than a decade with Boston-based Finca Vagia
Foundation to restore the Cuban legacy of American novelist Ernest
Hemingway, a project McGovern helped launch and that, like the broader
relationship, has suffered from some fits and start.
"But I do have the conviction that sooner or later, the process we are
all waiting for shall take place and our two countries will have normal
relations," she said.
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter
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