William M. LeoGrande is Professor of Government at American University in Washington, DC, and co-author with Peter Kornbluh of Diplomacia encubierta con Cuba: Historia de las negociacones secretas entre Washington y La Habana (Havana, Cuba: Editorial Ciencias Sociales, 2017).
What is your analysis of the conditions that have led the US government to take these measures? Do you agree with them?
In the past two weeks, U.S.-Cuban relations have suffered a serious blow. President Donald Trump decided to withdraw most of the personnel from the U.S. embassy in Havana, expel most diplomats from Cuba’s embassy in Washington, suspend the issuing of visas for Cubans to travel to the United States, and issue a travel warning to discourage U.S. residents from visiting Cuba. All these measures are allegedly in response to the health problems suffered by 22 U.S. diplomatic personnel and family members since last November. The U.S. government has not accused Cuba of responsibility for the injuries because the identity of the attacker—if the injuries are the result of intentional attacks—remains unknown. The excuse used to justify the U.S. sanctions is Cuba’s failure to protect the members of the U.S. mission, despite the fact that Cuba has cooperated with the U.S. investigation, including allowing the FBI to operate in Cuba.
The real motivation for such harsh sanctions is the Trump administration’s opposition to President Barack Obama’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba, a policy Trump said he was “canceling” in a speech to cheering Cuban American exiles in Miami in June.
What could be the consequences of the current state of relations for different non-state actors?
The damage done by these sanctions to relations between the two governments is obvious, but ordinary citizens in both Cuba and the United States will suffer as well. The decision to withdraw U.S. diplomats from Havana and to suspend processing visas for Cubans seeking to enter the United States will have an immediate effect on Cubans hoping to emigrate to the United States or merely seeking to visit family members. The reciprocal expulsion of Cuban diplomats from Washington means that Cuban Americans will have a harder time visiting family on the island because the consular section of the Cuban embassy will be under-staffed. By halting visa processing in Havana, the Trump administration will also make it extremely difficult to continue educational and cultural exchange programs which have flourished in recent years to the benefit of both countries.
The expulsion of the entire commercial section of the Cuban embassy in Washington is a clear attempt to prevent the further development of trade relations between Cuba and the U.S. business community. Since December 17, 2014, several dozen U.S. corporations have signed commercial agreements with Cuba, and the U.S. business community has been one of the most important political voices in favor of normalizing relations. Hardliners in Washington who want to reverse President Obama’s policy of engagement with Cuba have an interest in silencing the business community by cutting off access to the Cuban market.
The travel warning advising U.S. residents not to travel to Cuba will deter some U.S. visitors from going to the island. Since 2014, the number of non-Cuban American visitors has grown dramatically, increasing by 77% in 2015 and another 74% in 2016. The increase in travel has supported the development of the Cuban private sector, especially private restaurants and bed and breakfast establishments. Reducing the number of U.S. travelers will do direct harm to those entrepreneurs and all the other Cubans connected to those businesses—family members, suppliers, and employees.
Do you believe that the political will of both governments exists to overcome this obstacle, or is it the beginning of the deterioration (again) of the bilateral relationship?
President Trump came to office after criticizing President Obama’s policy of normalizing relations with Cuba during the campaign, and he promised conservative Cuban Americans in Florida that he would reverse it. However, during the new administration’s review of policy, they discovered widespread support for engagement. The American people, including most Cuban Americans, supported it. The business community supported it. U.S. allies supported it. The government bureaucracy itself supported Obama’s policy because it was so successful in the two years after 2014. The opposition to reversing Obama’s policy was strong enough to force a heated debate inside the Trump administration about what to do. The result was a compromise. On June 16, 2017, Trump gave a very tough speech in Miami, filled with cold war rhetoric, but the actual economic sanctions he announced were very limited.
The health problems experienced by U.S. diplomats have created an opportunity for opponents of engagement like Sen. Marco Rubio to reopen the debate over Cuba policy and impose new sanctions using the excuse that they are intended to protect U.S. diplomats. Unfortunately, it will not be easy to reverse the damage being done to bilateral relations after the health issue is resolved. The Trump administration has no intention of improving relations with Cuba; the only question, from the beginning, has been how much of Obama’s policy it would reverse.
How would this conflict influence the new Cuban government to assume in 2018, and vice versa?
It now appears that Cuba’s new president will face a relationship with the United States that is tense and stagnant. Progress on issues of mutual interest will be stalled as a result of Washington’s refusal to send delegations to Havana to continue the discussions begun by Obama. People-to-people exchanges will be severely curtailed by the restrictions on travel caused by the difficulty in obtaining visas. Commercial relations will be stagnant as a result of the difficulty in communications and the new regulations Trump adopted in June. The new Cuban president will not be able to count on the economic benefits of increasing trade and tourism that good relations with the United States would provide. This means that Cuba will have to proceed with the updating of the economy in less favorable circumstances than it might have faced if relations had remained positive. But Cuba has half a century of experience surviving U.S. hostility.
VER EN ESTE DOSSIER
Emily Mendrala: “La forma en que se llevaron a cabo las expulsiones de los diplomáticos cubanos sugiere la presencia de influencia política por parte de los que se oponen a un mayor compromiso entre personas y empresas de Estados Unidos y Cuba”.