Obama and the Future of Cuban-U.S. Relations

How can we understand the prospects for U.S.-Cuba relations with the election of a Democratic president to the White House and a change in leadership in Cuba? What domestic constraints and opportunities does Barack Obama encounter as he seeks to open new channels of dialogue with Cuba? The domestic political ground is shifting and relations between Latin American nations are also in flux. Both factors will play a role in shaping U.S. relations with Cuba and with Latin America more broadly.

May 12, 2009

During a recent trip to Chile, Joe Biden, Vice President of the United States, affirmed that there was no plan under an Obama administration to lift the 47-year-old U.S. embargo against Cuba. Yet despite this tough stance, there have been other signs that U.S.-Cuba relations are improving. How can we understand the prospects for U.S.-Cuba relations in the current period, with the election of a Democratic president to the White House and a changeover of leadership in Cuba? What domestic constraints and opportunities does Barack Obama encounter as he seeks to open new channels of dialogue with Cuba?

Early on in the primary debates with Hillary Clinton, Obama had said he would be willing to open dialogue with Cuban leader Raúl Castro if he was elected. While raising ire from some sectors, this also gave hope to others, who have been waiting for an end to the embargo in the wake of the Bush administration. But on this issue, there are various signs of continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations.

There is at least a faction of the Obama administration that wants to continue the Bush policies. Officials like James Steinberg, who is second to Hillary Clinton in the State Department, have made statements reinforcing a policy of non-engagement with Cuba. Obama has not yet replaced Bush's top State Department official for the Western Hemisphere, Thomas Shannon. There is also ongoing influence of Cuban-American senators like Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, who oppose all efforts to end the travel ban and embargo.

Obama is aware that he must appease these politicians and court the hard-core sectors of the Miami-Cuban community if he is to appeal to this electorate, as many Democrats before him have done. Indeed, it was under a Democratic president – Bill Clinton – that some of the most punitive bills strengthening the embargo were passed. Obama has shown signs of continuing this policy. During the primaries, Obama gave a public address to the conservative exile Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, promising to maintain the embargo on Cuba.

But there is still some hope for a change in U.S. foreign policy toward Cuba. Obama’s election comes at a time when various groups in the United States are pushing for an end to the embargo – including farmers and agricultural groups, the Catholic Church, the tourism industry, and many Cuban-Americans, particularly those who have migrated in recent years and do not hold the intransigent views of their predecessors.

Obama himself has indicated a greater willingness to negotiate. Under Obama, there has already been a relaxation of the highly unpopular restrictions placed on Cuban-Americans, who under the Bush administration were only permitted to travel to Cuba for two weeks every three years. They are now being allowed unlimited visits, and to stay for as long as they like. Restrictions on gifts and cash payments have been eased and US telecom companies have been allowed to expand service to the island.

The greater flow of resources and travel to Cuba – particularly in support of maintaining family ties – come at a time when the administration is contemplating dialogue and negotiation with the Cuban leadership. In early April, a delegation of seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus met with the Castro brothers. The meeting was the first diplomatic initiative to take place under the Obama administration and one of the few meetings with foreign officials that Fidel Castro has held since falling ill a few years ago.

During the meeting Representative Barbara Lee pushed for student, medical and biotech exchanges between the two countries. The trip was criticized by much of the conservative and mainstream media within the United States; the Washington Post criticized the Black Caucus for only meeting with Cuban officials and not Afro-Cuban dissidents, for instance. But perhaps the Caucus recognizes the limited role of dissidents within Cuba and is aware that by engaging an evolving Cuban leadership there is more potential for real change in Cuba.

The approach of openings and dialogue differs somewhat from that of the Bush administration, which focused solely on so-called “regime change.” Money was channeled into various dissident organizations, while making life more difficult for those on the island by limiting tourism revenue and remittances, a policy which only served to further embitter the Cuban people against the United States.

Legislators have introduced bills in the House and the Senate with bipartisan support, which would allow unrestricted travel by all U.S. citizens to Cuba. The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act, HR 874, has over 120 bipartisan supporters, including agricultural groups, the Catholic Church, and Cuban-Americans.

It is important to note that the passage of HR 874 would not rescind the trade embargo, although some supporters of this Act are in favor of an end to the embargo. But the possibility of ending the travel ban without addressing the larger injustice of the embargo has provoked concerns among some that transfers of money and resources through private hands and the growth of the tourism sector will promote greater inequalities between those who work in tourism or have relatives abroad, and those who do not.

The election of Obama was heralded with some optimism in Cuba because of the prospects for a change from Bush-era policies. And for some Afro-Cubans, the election of an African-American president also held symbolic value due to the close historic ties between African-Americans and Afro-Cubans. But in other parts of Latin America, people have been somewhat more cautious, given the hostile remarks that have been made by Obama towards leaders such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who Obama accused of “impeding progress” and “exporting terrorism.”

At the Fifth Summit of the Americas, held in Trinidad and Tobago from April 17 to 19, Obama came face to face with many Latin American leaders for the first time. As various Latin American leaders exhorted Obama to consider ending the embargo, he responded that it would depend on Cuba’s efforts at liberalization. There was also an attempt made at resuming U.S.-Venezuela relations, as Obama personally approached Chávez at the Summit. Chávez later presented Obama with a copy of Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, an account of the pillage and destruction of the continent by imperial powers. Indicating his willingness to dialogue, Chávez announced that Venezuela would reinstate an exchange of ambassadors.

Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and others declined to sign the final statement of the Summit, stating that it excluded Cuba and did not come up with a viable future plan to resolve the continent’s economic crisis. Cuba was not permitted to attend, despite vigorous lobbying by Chávez. Meanwhile, Raúl Castro indicated that Cuban leaders would be willing to engage in open talks with the U.S., including over human rights, freedom of the press, and political prisoners. Obama welcomed this overture, saying that as long as there were problems of human rights and freedom of speech in Cuba he could not contemplate ending the embargo.

An open discussion of these issues, however, would require the U.S. to address the issue of its own political prisoners, including the former Black Panther Assata Shakur who lives in political asylum in Cuba with a one million dollar bounty on her head by the FBI. It would be hypocritical for Obama to support those New Jersey politicians calling for Assata’s extradition, while simultaneously criticizing the Cuban leadership for imprisoning dissidents.

Can recent overtures herald a new era of diplomacy emerging after years of estrangement and hostility? Perhaps it is too early to say. Obama has made some indications of continuity with Bush-era policies. And while Obama was making overtures to leaders like Chávez in Trinidad, his appointed advisor for the Summit, Jeffrey Davidow, continued with his anti-Chávez rhetoric.

Obama met with Colombian president Álvaro Uribe at the meeting to discuss a renegotiation of the free trade agreement, a surprising move given his expressed opposition to the agreement with Colombia during his presidential campaign. He also met with Mexican president Felipe Calderón prior to the Summit, promising more funds for the war on drugs. Obama is strengthening ties with old allies in the region, as he is trying to bridge the divide with former adversaries. This is a strategy that may eventually backfire, particularly as Latin American leaders consolidate their own inter-regional ties. But the balance of forces – both domestically in the United States and among Latin American countries – is still shifting, and this will play a crucial role in determining the future of U.S. policy towards Cuba and Latin America.

Sujatha Fernandes, a member of NACLA’s editorial committee, teaches Sociology at Queens College, City University of New York (CUNY). She is the author of Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (Duke University Press, October 2006).

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