Resumption of U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties hits one-year mark
In an onging rapprochement that was formalized with the restoration of
diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba on July 20, 2015, many
diplomatic steps have been taken. But there are still big areas of
contention between the two nations.
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
At a minute past midnight exactly one year ago, the United States and
Cuba finally put the Cold War behind them and resumed diplomatic
relations, opening a new chapter for the former adversaries. But there
are still lingering problems between the two neighboring nations.
Early that morning of July 20, 2015 in a State Department lobby, the
Cuban flag joined the flags of other nations with which the United
States has diplomatic relations and later that day the Cubans held a
ceremony marking the conversion of their interests section in
Washington, D.C. into a full-fledged embassy after a gap of 54 years.
Almost a month after the resumption of diplomatic ties, U.S. Secretary
of State John Kerry went to Havana to preside over the official
flag-raising at the U.S. Embassy — an event witnessed by the three
former marine guards who lowered the flag on Jan. 3, 1961.
“We are certain that the time is now to reach out to one another, as two
peoples who are no longer enemies or rivals, but neighbors,” Kerry said
shortly before the stars and stripes ran up the flag pole outside the
But despite a presidential visit, an agreement on resuming commercial
flights, many meetings on issues of mutual concern, resumption of direct
mail service, sports and cultural exchanges, the first cruise from Miami
to Cuba in more than 50 years, and the introduction of U.S. credit cards
to the island, analysts say Cuba has been slow on the uptake of some of
the Obama administration initiatives.
Some see tremendous progress in the relationship; others had hoped that
more might be accomplished at this point, especially in the economic realm.
“In spite of our differences with the Cuban government, the policy is
working. We’ve made significant progress since the reestablishment of
diplomatic relations,” said a senior State Department official
Wednesday. “We’re moving in the right direction in our bilateral
relations with the Cuban government and our relationship with the Cuban
people and we have the support of the majority of the American people.”
But some are disappointed that the past year hasn’t brought more
tangible progress for the Cuban people.
“I had expected the U.S. extending its hand would have allowed more
confidence for the future, but this really hasn’t changed much for them
[the Cuban people],” said Pepe Hernández, president of the Cuban
American National Foundation (CANF). “After so much work, such effort,
so much pain, now we’re like that book says Waiting for Snow in Havana
(an autobiographical book by Carlos Eire).”
The administration, for example, has loosened the rules for U.S.
businesses to engage with private entrepreneurs on the island, now
permits U.S. companies to have a physical presence on the island, allows
American telecom companies to enter into partnerships with the Cuban
government and has removed restrictions on payment and financial terms
for authorized exports and reexports to Cuba.
And there are visible signs of the new business relationship: Airbnb’s
growth in the Cuban home hospitality business, the recent rebranding of
a refurbished Havana hotel as a Four Points by Sheraton in partnership
with the Cuban government, telephone roaming agreements, and the ability
to use credit cards issued by Florida-based Stonegate Bank at some state
hotels and restaurants.
But many U.S. companies that have made proposals to Cuba under the new
rules say they are still waiting for Cuban approvals.
“It’s definitely a mixed result,” said Carlos Saladrigas, a
pro-engagement Miami business executive. “On one hand, everyone had
reason to think Cuba would take advantage of the changes. They didn’t.”
He said he had hoped the Cuban government would allow Cuba’s
cuentapropistas — the self-employed — to operate more freely and take
advantage of the new rules allowing U.S. businesses to engage with
private Cuban entrepreneurs. “It’s the only segment of the economy,
besides tourism, that is working but they close their eyes and refuse to
“Obama has said he would allow electricity to flow to the outlet, but it
is up to the Cubans to plug in,” said Saladrigas.
The State Department official said the United States has continued to
urge Cuba to make it less difficult for Cubans to start a business,
engage in trade and have access to information online.
There’s also a mismatch between the investment opportunities that Cuba
wants to prioritize vs. the areas where the U.S. government permits
American businesses to invest, said Alana Tummino, who heads the
Americas Society/Council of the Americas Cuba working group.
Now with Venezuelan largesse drying up for Cuba, it would seem that Cuba
might be more willing to entertain U.S. proposals: “The Cuban economy
can’t really do well without taking advantage of the huge market of the
United States,” said Peter Hakim, president emeritus and senior fellow
of the Inter-American Dialogue.
He said the main dangers to the rapprochement process at this point are
a tendency for the United States to be impatient when it undertakes a
new foreign policy initiative and Cuba’s resistance to change and
insistence on control.
“These two tendencies are in conflict with each other,” Hakim said.
Perhaps the most progress in the relationship has been made on the
engagement front with President Barack Obama leading the way with his
ground-breaking trip to Cuba in March. It was the first visit by a
sitting U.S. president to Cuba in nearly 90 years.
“It was a huge success on the ground,” said Tummino, who was in Havana
for the visit. “It resonated with the Cuban people and I think his
speech to the Cuban people is one that we all will remember for a long
The impending resumption of commercial airline service to Cuba after
some five decades of being grounded is another major milestone, she
said. The first flights to cities outside the capital are expected to
resume in September and flights to Havana later in the year.
“Commercial airline service will not only support the new policy of
engagement but it also allows a normal relationship with Cuba, like with
any other country, where you’re able to go online and book your airline
ticket,” Tummino said.
New rules that make cultural exchanges easier mean there will be a major
Cuban exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in the fall and
that six feature films produced in Cuba will be shown in 10 U.S. cities
and the Sundance Film Festival will screen two films in Cuba next year.
The Smithsonian will feature Cuba in its 2017 Folklife Festival.
Sports exchanges have even brought the likes of Shaquille O’Neal to
Havana to bounce around basketballs with Cuban kids in his role as a
State Department sports envoy.
But many difficult roadblocks remain as the United States and Cuba
continue on the path to normalization.
When Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez made his first visit to
Washington last July for the reopening of the embassy, he said that only
if the U.S. ends the economic embargo on the island, returns the
Guantánamo military base and respects Cuba’s sovereignty “will the
historic event we are witnessing today make any sense.”
Despite the establishment of a bilateral commission to systematically
work toward normalization, little progress has been made on thorny
issues such as settling claims for confiscated property, migration, the
return of fugitives from justice wanted by both countries, and respect
for human rights.
“Pro-democracy advocates, like the Ladies in White, are regularly
detained and arrested for daring to exercise their right to free
speech,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“Normalization is a long-term process,” said the senior State Department
official. “Human rights, property claims and the return of fugitives
from U.S. justice are complex and thorny issues but we’re making slow
and steady progress.”
The official said the two sides are working on scheduling another
meeting on human rights issues.
But there has been progress on a number of issues.
While there is still a travel ban that doesn’t allow Americans to go to
Cuba for tourism a much larger percent of Americans can visit for
“purposeful travel.” Cuba and the United States also have explored ways
to cooperate on counterterrorism, development and disaster response and
environmental and marine protection agreements have been signed.
With embassies now open, it also has changed the way diplomats carry out
their business — but not enough to satisfy some critics.
After months of discussions on conditions to reopen the embassies,
negotiators agreed that diplomats from both countries would have greater
freedom to travel and engage with the people of each nation.
But Mauricio Claver-Carone, one of the founders of the pro-embargo
U.S.-Cuba Democracy Pact and executive director of Cuba Democacy
Advocates, said he has “yet to see U.S. embassy personnel visiting the
provinces regularly, let alone to visit democracy activists.”
In contrast, he said, “Castro regime officials are traveling throughout
the U.S., propagandizing, lobbying against U.S. policy and being given
visas without hesitation.”
Since the resumption of diplomatic ties, Cuban Ambassador José Ramón
Cabañas has traveled extensively across the United States, attending
conferences and speaking to various groups. He often tweets about his
experiences and new developments in the Cuba-U.S. relationship.
Ros-Lehtinen said she wishes U.S. embassy personnel would engage in more
outreach: “U.S. pro-democracy advocates have complained that they have
less access to the embassy and their visas are being denied, even though
Castro sympathizers have their visas granted,” she said.
And some exile activists complain that the United States has done little
in the past year to further an agenda that includes respect for human
rights in Cuba.
“We have yet to see how the embassy has helped promote human rights on
the island better, amid growing repression. To the contrary, the silence
is deafening,” said Claver-Carone.
Tens of thousands of Cubans also continue to leave the country — either
by taking to the sea or risking a perilous overland journey through
Latin American countries to reach the United States.
Some note that with the new status between the United States and Cuba,
they’re fearful of the potential end of preferential migration policies
for Cuban such as the Cuban Adjustment Act and the wet foot/dry foot
policy, which allows Cubans who set foot on U.S. soil to remain while
those interdicted at sea are generally returned to the island.
Hernández said he sees little chance that preferential status for Cubans
will survive the next presidency — regardless of who wins.
The high numbers of Cuban migrants indicate they fear a change in U.S.
immigration policy for Cubans and see little hope that their lives will
change at home, Hernández said: “I think things in Cuba have turned a
notch for the worse in the past year. There is so much uncertainly.
Another exodus — a big exodus — is my concern now.”
Still, Saladrigas said the renewal of diplomatic relations “has been
incredibly positive all in all” — even though he had hopes more would be
Despite his displeasure at the speed of Cuban economic reforms,
Saladrigas said he still gives a lot of credit to Raúl Castro for
forging a new relationship with the United States.
“I think it was a bold move — and a move not liked by some political
elites in Cuba,” he said. “I speculate that Raúl clearly understood that
this was the one really hard nut that had to be cracked, and he couldn’t
leave it to his successor.”
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