Normalizing relations with Cuba: not so fast
May 22, 2016 7:22 a.m.
Polls make it clear that the American public is way ahead of Congress in
supporting normalization of relations and reopening trade with Cuba. But
positive numbers from several polls don't mean that the
normalization process will be easy or fast. That was unequivocally
confirmed by Gonzalo Gallegos, Deputy Assistant for Western Affairs, at
a State Department briefing Monday for 30 members of the Association of
Opinion Journalists (AOJ).
Sixty-two percent in one key poll favor ending the embargo, even though
just 40 percent think it will restore democracy to Cuba. A majority of
the public approves of the way the Obama Administration is handling
The Administration's approach hasn't changed since Under Secretary
Roberta Jacobson spoke to AOJ last year: small steps to build trust,
enabling the two countries to deal gradually with some of the more
contentious issues dividing them. The immediate focus, therefore, is
strengthening people-to-people links, assisting entrepreneurs to tap
economic opportunities and working to open the internet and
telecommunications. That goal, Gallegos said, is so the "broadest swath
of Cubans" can better see what's happening in the world around them.
Focusing on the relatively easy activities (agriculture, maritime,
civil aviation, climate change, for example) helps deepen dialogue
around the more difficult challenges of human rights, press freedom,
claims, and fugitives.
"The President has said that the future of Cuba is for Cubans to
decide," Gallegos declared. Not all Cubans I spoke with there a year ago
are so sanguine. Many Cubans working on normalization are still uneasy
that Cuban culture will be diluted as American businesses enter the new
market. This month's Chanel runway show and the incursion of film crews
into Havana were seen by many Cubans as the cultural down side of
normalization. The people of Cuba are friendly, optimistic about the new
opening and proud of their heritage. They are quick to point out that
"big countries do what they want; small countries do what they must."
A current theme in Obama foreign policy is trying to help other nations
improve governance and fortify the underpinnings of their economies,
improving the conditions that drive immigration and crime. Of
particular concern is the situation in Haiti, where the "people deserve
to have their voices heard." The United States is pushing the interim
government to complete their electoral process and achieve a
democratically elected government.
Gallegos noted that 'our one true success in nation building has been
in Colombia,' where our embassy has grown from 500 individuals (in the
mid 1990's) to 3000. Conditions were ripe because the people of Colombia
wanted change and forced their government to respond, there were well
trained police and military to move against the criminal elements, and
the government was able to expend significant resources. For every
dollar the United States invested, said Gallegos, the Colombian
government put up $10.
The changing relationship with Cuba is unique. Gallegos, who served in
Cuba from 2002-2004 under President George W. Bush, declined to
speculate on any time table for regularizing relations. He certainly
wouldn't hazard a guess of how much progress would have to be made to
persuade Congress to lift the embargo ("There is no micrometer"), nor
would he predict what will happen when Raoul Castro leaves office as
expected in 2018.
The goal of a peaceful, prosperous and ultimately democratic Cuba is out
there. How far out is the great unanswered question.
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