Cuban "Normalization": Prospects for a New Relationship

Nicholas Partyka I Geopolitics I Analysis I December 31st, 2014

President Obama took executive action that many of his supporters on the left have been encouraging him to take for some time, which of course also angered many of his critics on the right. This general theme has played out several times of late in American politics as the President makes increasing use of executive action in order to bypass congressional gridlock, and make changes in various areas of policy. In the latest such move, the President has made the decision to take bold action to move the US and Cuba towards a better relationship. Of course this decision is wrapped up in political calculations concerning the tactics of inter-party politics in US domestic policy. Yet, nonetheless it represents a genuinely progressive step, albeit small, in the direction of a better, more rational policy towards Cuba. However, it is important not to get too carried away. Contrary to what some headlines have implied, Obama's actions do not constitute normalized relations, but only steps, the very first ones, toward normalization. In this regard the President's announcement of December 17th certainly is a historic step, one full of promise, but one not without risk, especially for the Cubans.

Obama's decision to change course on US-Cuba policy certainly represents the greatest easing of tensions in the bilateral relationship between the two countries since Jimmy Carter was President. As President, it will be remembered, Jimmy Carter did away the travel ban for US citizens, as well signaled a willingness to discuss easing, or even eliminating the blockade policy. Cuba's assistance to certain armed anti-colonial national liberation struggles in Africa was used by the hardliners in the foreign policy establishment as the reason for derailing the progressive agenda Carter desired when he came into office. Reagan then reversed the course set by Carter. Later on, President Clinton attempted to ease some aspects of US policy on Cuba with respect to travel. On the other hand, he also signed the Helms-Burton Act into law, effectively doubling-down on the blockade policy. George Bush then reversed Clinton's initiatives, once again tightening the travel restrictions on US citizens.

After making campaign promises about forging a new, more rational Cuba policy President Obama reversed Bush's tightening of travel and remittance restrictions. However, after these initial steps President Obama neglected to make any further moves toward a better policy toward Cuba. In the main the actions taken by Clinton and Obama, in terms of travel restrictions, have been to the benefit of Cuban-Americans and their families in Cuba. It is their travel to and from Cuba that both Presidents tried to make easier. Both expanded the ability of non-Cuban US citizens to travel to the island for a host of reasons, tourism not included, with the approval of the government. Yet, even under the relatively relaxed positions of these two administrations, such travel remained highly restricted, and tightly controlled. Violators of the travel ban and blockade policies were still subject to, the rather arbitrarily applied, and potentially massive (in some cases multi-million dollar) penalties by the US Treasury Department. Obama's initial measures on loosening US Cuba policy amounted to little in the bigger picture of US-Cuba relations. This loosening was by no means trivial to the many Cuban-Americans who could more easily travel to the island to visit, and as importantly, to provide their families some financial assistance.

It is all too easy in the wake of this recent, and indeed historic, news to fall victim to too much optimism and triumphalism. Though President Obama's actions open the door to a better relationship with Cuba, that is all they do. They open the door to beginning a process that will no doubt be highly contentious, and politically precarious for US politicians trying to pursue this opening. Far too many reports on this momentous news have presented the actual outcomes achieved by President Obama's executive actions as greater than they, in fact, are. First and foremost, without congressional action to fully lift the blockade policy, the next incoming US President will be able to undo everything Mr. Obama has accomplished in a trice.

Prisoner Swap: Pre-Requisite for a New Détente

Perhaps the biggest aspect of the story initially, at least from the US point of view, was the news of the release of Alan Gross from prison, and his return to the US. This is something that the US government has been seeking for the five years since his arrest. A close second was the announcement of a range of specific policy changes that would be implemented, and the new possibilities these changes would open up. Without question, from the Cuban point of view, the biggest aspect of the story was also the return of prisoners from unjust imprisonment in a foreign country. Namely, the remaining three of the Cuban Five. Cuban citizens, just like their American counterparts, cheered the diplomatic opening presented by this exchange of prisoners.

The move by both sides to engage in this prisoner swap is highly significant, and highly symbolic. The respective detention of Alan Gross and the Cuban Five was one of the most significant impediments to any increased normalization of relations, or simply relaxation of hostilities, between the two hemispheric neighbors. With this issue resolved both sides can move forward with some kind of negotiation about the nature of future relations. As long as both Mr. Gross and the remaining three of the Cuban Five were in prison, hardliners on both sides had national pride and indignation to fuel recalcitrance. This exchange, having defused that stalemate, allows for both sides to come to potential negotiations without having to be seen as having lost face. Both sides can approach future discussions about the nature of the US-Cuba relationship as equals; a condition, and not an unreasonable one, that the Cubans have, and continue to, insist upon in all diplomatic dealings.

For those who do not remember, Mr. Gross was a US citizen arrested in Cuba five years ago for being in possession of communications equipment (satellite phones and computer equipment) that it is illegal to bring into Cuba without government permission. He was working to set up internet access for some members of the Jewish community in Cuba. More concretely, he was working to create untraceable (by the Cuban government) satellite communications networks in Cuba. While undertaking this work Mr. Gross was acting in his capacity as a sub-contracted employee of United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The arrest of Alan Gross struck many in the US as an unjust imprisonment since Mr. Gross was doing "nothing wrong", and was just trying to help people. To many this case looked like a dictatorial regime abusing the "human rights" of a religious person trying to help some foreign coreligionists.

What is not mentioned in the reporting of this story from the US side are all the complicating factors which make the US's narrative appear all too conveniently simplistic. The first thing to mention is the well-known fact that USAID is very often used as a front for US intelligence and counter-intelligence operations around the world. As Allen Weinstein, one of the creators of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), said in a 1991 interview in the Washington Post, "a lot of what we [the NED] do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA". Organizations like the NED and USAID fund programs in foreign countries that help foment US-friendly political and economic policies under the guise of "democracy promotion", or "human rights". For those who are not familiar with what Mr. Weinstein is referring to as happening "25 years ago", he means the 'democratic' revolutions and coups the CIA covertly engineered and or sponsored in places like Iran, Guatemala, Indonesia, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chile.

It may surprise many Americans to learn about the role organizations like the NED and USAID play in fomenting coup attempts, but this is in no way a hidden reality to those in whose countries such operations take place. Thus, Mr. Gross's affiliation with USAID would certainly be a legitimate cause for concern on the part of a foreign government, especially one known to be a target of espionage. One need only look into the events and causes of the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to perceive the role played by the NED and USAID in the operations of US intelligence and espionage operations. I have discussed the role the NED and USAID play in Venezuela in a two-part series for The Hampton Institute.

One aspect of the story of the prisoner swap that flew somewhat under the radar, especially given the notoriety of the other prisoners released, is that there was one other prisoner released from prison in Cuba along with Mr. Gross. Little information was given about this second individual, except that this person was a US intelligence agent and had been imprisoned in Cuba for 20 years. Some media outlets also reported that this second person was allegedly responsible for exposing the identities of the Cuban Five, as well as two other alleged Cuban intelligence agents. This announcement is important to note because it is a rare instance of the US admitting, at least implicitly, that is conducts espionage against Cuba. By admitting that this other released prisoner is an intelligence agent, the US validates many of the claims that have been made by the Cuban government over the years as regards US interference in Cuba's internal affairs. Noticing this is significant in that it adds a needed measure of texture and context to the US view of the exchange.

The Cuban Five, one will remember, were arrested in 1998, and charged with spying for the Cuban government. The Five admitted that they were in the US to monitor the activities of the Cuban-American community in Miami. Beginning in the early 1960s elements of the Cuban-American community were consciously trained, funded, and armed by the US government and allowed to conduct terrorist and pirate attacks on Cuba. The incredible extent of the damage and loss of life in Cuba as a result of these attacks is almost totally ignored in the US. In the context of decades of attacks against Cuba, the Cuban government sent spies to the US to attempt to provide some advance warning of impending attacks or plots of attacks. In the proper historical context Cuba's decision to send spies to the US does not seem at all unjustified. Moreover, it would also appear enormously disingenuous for the US to have refused to engage in a prisoner swap - which the Cubans proposed years ago- on the pretext that the Five had been conducting illegal espionage, while Mr. Gross was simply an "innocent" human rights worker.

The announcement of the prisoner swap deal helps open up a path to discussions about a future normalization of relations because the case of the Cuban Five was seen as a highly symbolic issue of justice in Cuba. To many Cubans the case of the Five represented another instance of US imperialist arrogance toward Cuba. Mr. Gross, for his violation of the laws of the sovereign nations of Cuba, received only 15 years in prison. Three members of the five were given life sentences at the original trial; upon appeal two of these had their sentences reduced, but even these reduced sentences were longer than Mr. Gross's. In the US, there is a common perception that while it is legitimate for us to spy on others, it is egregious for other nations to violate US sovereignty by conducting espionage on its soil; as if our doing it isn't a violation of other nation's sovereignty.

What makes the US position in this matter untenable is exactly the denial that the US conducts intelligence and espionage operations against the Cuban government aimed at effecting regime change there. The Zunzuneo incident that came to light just this past summer removes any possible doubt about the reality of US-sponsored anti-government activity in Cuba. Whether Mr. Gross is an employee of some US clandestine intelligence service may never be established conclusively. But nonetheless, one can say with a fair degree of safety that, even if he is not, he was being used a tool for carrying out the plans of such agencies.

These issues aside, the return of the Cuban Five to Cuba, and of Alan Gross to the US paves the way for further talks, and negotiations about the future terms of the US-Cuba relationship. Given the salience of the cases of the prisoners on both sides in the domestic political debates of the US and Cuba respectively, this exchange makes possible more formal talks between the two nations, and actions on both sides toward normalization of relations. This prisoner swap was an important gesture for both parties, and is certainly symbolic. Prisoner swaps have been employed several times in the history of US-Cuban relations to achieve a diplomatic rapprochement. Every time either the US government or the Cuban government has tried to approach the other in the issue of normalization symbolic gestures of this kind have always been important as first steps, as signals of readiness to negotiate on the more difficult issues.

I want to point out, in this connection that according to the reports in the dominant media, the official sources on both sides are denying that the prisoner swap deal involved Alan Gross. If the official statements are to be believed, the remaining three of the Five were swapped for the unnamed US intelligence operative that was released along with Alan Gross. According to both the Cuban and US governments, Alan Gross was released on "humanitarian grounds", and this was not connected to the deal to swap the other prisoners. In addition, Cuba has also agreed, again independent of the prisoner swap deal, to release 53 detained persons the US considers to be political prisoners. However, the near simultaneous release of the prisoners makes the official explanation somewhat hard to believe. Without the freeing of Alan Gross, the news of a prisoner swap would not necessarily be grounds for thinking a change in US policy is in the offing. There are very likely reasons, largely to do with the public perception and domestic political concerns on both sides, why an official Gross for the remaining three of the Five swap could not be announced as the official deal. Regardless of these diplomatic nuances, the in practice swap of high profile political prisoners signals an opening for change in the relationship between the US and Cuba.

US Policy Changes: What Will Change, And What Won't

In addition, but unrelated (if one believes the official statements of both governments) to the prisoner swap, President Obama announced that he would be taking executive action to change certain elements of US policy to Cuba where he could. The first thing to point out is that though these changes constitute progress, they are not necessarily highly significant alterations. The biggest impediment to truly normal relations between the US and Cuba, namely the blockade, will not be effected by Obama's announcements. As a result of the passage of the Helms-Burton Act (officially the Cuban Liberty and Solidarity Act of 1996) it is beyond the power of the President to unilaterally end the blockade policy. To do so now requires congressional approval. The blockade policy was originally put in place and maintained by Presidential action. Up until the passage of Helms-Burton it was within the power of the President to end the blockage policy with the stroke of a pen. Given the current state of partisan rancor and dysfunction in both houses of the US congress, and the stranglehold on the strategic points in the legislative process that politicians controlled by the anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) have, it is very hard to imagine a bill ending the blockade making its way to the President's desk anytime soon.

It should go without saying that no state of affairs wherein the US maintains its blockade policy against Cuba could be described as "normal" relations between two equally sovereign and independent countries. From this perspective then, the prisoner swap and the recent announcements about change in US policy toward Cuba, are a nice first step, but a small first step, and that is all that one should see them as. There has been so little forward progress on a better relationship between the US and Cuba for so long, it is easy to see these recent developments as greater than they are, as achieving more than they do. At the same time, one does not want to downplay the significance of these developments, for they do represent and important opportunity to move toward a new and mutually beneficial relationship with Cuba, an opportunity that should not be squandered.

There is, unfortunately, a very great chance that this opening will indeed be squandered. This is precisely because attitudes towards, and perceptions of, Cuba in the US are not likely to change quickly enough, especially among the foreign policy establishment. One of the most striking, and highly disappointing, features of the reaction to the President's Cuba initiative is the continued insistence on the part of US that political changes, demanded by the US since 1960s, be implemented in Cuba as part of the normalization process. The US has been demanding that the Cubans adopt a style of democracy more amenable to the US since the first days of the revolution. I have discussed, in my series on Cuba for the Hampton Institute, several of the many significant ways that Cuba is misperceived by most US-based observers, whose ideological views on Cuba are little more than Cold War relics, based more on stereotype and propaganda than honest scholarship.

Raul Castro, President of the Cuba's Council of State and Council of Ministers, said in a statement about the recent diplomatic opening, "I have reiterated on many occasions our willingness to hold a respectful dialogue with the Unites States on the basis of sovereign equality, in order to deal reciprocally with a wide variety of topics without detriment to the national Independence and self-determination of our people". This is exactly the kind of dialogue that most in the US are not willing to have. Notice the words Castro chose, 'equality', 'reciprocally', 'independence', and 'self-determination'. The Cubans, not unreasonably, demand that they be treated as equals, as a sovereign nation that has the right to make laws for itself, and to decide for itself in what manner to govern itself, and all without inference from foreign powers. This is the basic right of all sovereign nations. The US has no right (though it does have the military and economic power) whatsoever to demand that another sovereign and independent nation adopt a particular form of government, or a particular law, simply because the US would prefer that more. There are many actual dictatorships in the world (of which Cuba is not one), but the US does not press them to change half as strongly as it does Cuba. There are still several monarchies in the world, but the US does not enforce blockades on them. Quoting Raul Castro again, "In the same way that we have never suggested the United States change its political system, we will demand respect for ours". It is precisely this respect that will not, or at least is not very likely to, be reciprocated by the US.

The biggest thing that will not be changing, and the principle reason any substantial change in our relationship with Cuba is unlikely to materialize, is that the basically hegemonic imperialist attitudes of most in the US, especially among the political class and the foreign policy establishment, towards all other nations seem to be more entrenched than ever. The US still feels that it has the right, and even perhaps the duty, to interfere in the internal affairs of any nation not powerful enough to prevent such interference. If and when the US feels its interests (in profiting from the exploitation of other nation's people or natural resources) sufficiently threatened it takes action to remedy the situation, ie. to re-impose the conditions under which it, or its proxies in the form of transnational corporations, derives the benefits it desires. Two examples from the last decade and half stand out prominently in this regard, namely the US interventions in Venezuela and Iraq. Either covertly, as in Venezuela, or with crushing military force, as in Iraq, the US takes action when its economic interests are threatened by the sovereign decisions of independent nations. The US has engaged, and continues to engage, in regime change anywhere and everywhere it perceives both the need to do so, and possesses the means to do so. An uninformed reader can look to Stephen Kinzer's excellent book Overthrow for an account of many of the most significant acts of regime change the US has undertaken from Hawaii in 1893 to Iraq in 2003.

The first, and perhaps most significant, of the changes announced by Obama is that he will be instructing Secretary of State John Kerry to begin negotiations with the Cuban government for reciprocal opening official embassies in each nation's capital. This is a real step toward improved, and eventually normalized, relations between these two nations. It is true that the US formally severed diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961. But the two nations have been in diplomatic contact throughout the period in which they have had no formal diplomatic relationship. For many many years the diplomatic relationship between the US and Cuba was carried out through the use of "interest sections" attached to the official embassies of neutral nations. The US government maintained its US Interests Section (USINT) in Havana as part of the Swiss embassy. During the Cold War the Cubans maintained an interest section as part of the Czechoslovakian embassy. After the end of the Cold War the Czechs decided to discontinue their participation in this arrangement. At present both the Cuban and US interests sections are maintained as part of the Swiss embassies in the respective capitals. Opening official embassies in each other's capital will be an important milestone in the construction of a new relationship between the US and Cuba.

Second, Obama's changes will make it easier for US citizens to travel to Cuba; though the official travel ban remains in place, the range of exceptions to this will be expanded. The US government will still require that all US citizens obtain a license for travel to Cuba. There are a dozen categories of exceptions for which the US government will license travel to Cuba. Though not explicitly stated, one would think that, in line with this easing of restrictions, acquiring a license to travel to Cuba may also become easier for institutions and organizations who desire one. Moreover, licensed travelers will now be allowed to bring Cuban goods worth up to $400 back into the US. Under the old policy travelers were technically only allowed to bring "cultural materials" back from Cuba (music CDs, art works, newspapers, books, etc). Most types of goods, for example the kinds of items one might buy a touristy souvenir were counted a 'handicrafts', and hence illegal to bring back to the US.

One of the more salient changes Obama made in this connection was to also allow licensed travelers to bring back to the US $100 or less worth of Cuban tobacco or alcohol products. This change will in practice allow US consumers to purchase Cuban cigars legally in the US for the first time in decades. Moreover, Obama will further ease remittance policies, as well as other trade, banking, and economic policies. The potential changes in banking policy are highly significant from the Cuban point of view. Eased restrictions would allow the Cubans to conduct more normal international banking transactions. This will not only save the Cubans time and money as they navigate around the effects of the US blockade policy, but can also therewith increase the pace of economic development in Cuba.

In a third important step toward normalization of relations, Obama announced that he will take action to remove Cuba from the list of "state sponsors of terror" kept by the US government. Within six months John Kerry is to present a report to Obama on Cuba's sponsorship of terrorism. This step is significant, because the designation as a state sponsor of terror comes with a host of legal and diplomatic implications. Getting relations between the US and Cuba to a more normal state will certainly require, if it is to be stable and long lasting, Cuba's removal from this list. It must be mentioned in this regard that Cuba's being on this list in the first place is preposterous. Cuba's designation as a state sponsor of terror has never been based on any facts about Cuba funding or training terrorists. Cuba was put on this list so as to impose the legal and diplomatic penalties that come with such a designation, thus augmenting the blockade regime with further sanctions. Much like the rest of the extra-territorial sanctions applied to Cuba by the US, a designation as a state sponsor of terror makes it harder for Cuba to do legitimate business with third-party countries. Many third party nations will avoid doing business, either trade or banking, with Cuba so as to avoid complications imposed by the US for their doing business with a country the US claims sponsors terrorism.

Full Normalization: Risks and Rewards

Although the Cubans have been seeking normalization of relations for many decades, this process is not without risk for them, especially, as mentioned above, since the US still very explicitly aims to cause regime change in Cuba. It is still, and very obviously so, the position of most of the US political class and foreign policy establishment that Cuba must reform itself, and by this they mean must revert to a capitalist economy, which the US may then manipulate and exploit as it pleases, much as it did from 1898 to 1959. Despite some misleading reporting, what Obama's announced changes amount to is not a normalization of relations, it is only a re-establishment of formal diplomatic relations and a slight easing of some aspects of the blockade policy. A full normalization of US-Cuban relations would be the outcome of what will surely be a long and difficult process of negotiation, a process that President Obama's recent policy changes open the way to beginning.

For the US there is little in the way of rewards to be gained from normalizing relations with Cuba, save the abolition of a manifestly outdated and failed policy, and the subsequent cessation of the now annual condemnatory UN votes on the blockade. In the main, the economic benefits to be gained by the US are quite minimal, at least as compared to overall size of the US economy. Expanded trade with Cuba would no doubt be beneficial to certain firms in the US, for example exporters of agricultural products, or machinery and tools. But in the main, expanded trade with Cuba will not have much in the way of large-scale effects on the US economy. In terms of risks, there are also few for the US. Perhaps the biggest risk is the unfavorable way important aspects of US society compare to Cuban society, which would be increasingly noticed by US citizens if free travel to the island were allowed. If and when free travel to Cuba were permitted, many US citizens would likely start to ask uncomfortable questions, e.g., Why does a nation with far far fewer resources than the US achieve equal, if not better, general healthcare outcomes for its citizens?

The situation is just the opposite for the Cubans. The potential benefits to be gained by the lifting of the blockade policy and the travel ban are enormous, but so too are the risks of increased contact with its imperialist-capitalist neighbor to the north. Especially in light of what was mentioned above, namely that Cuba's northern neighbor retains as its basic outlook that the only route to true (i.e. acceptable to the US) democratic reform and closer relations is the wholesale abolition of their entire system of government and economy. One need only look to the experience of Venezuela's Bolivarian government since it came to power to understand the dangers entailed for the Cubans by more open relations with the US. The 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chavez (among other recent US coup attempts against democratically elected governments in South America), winner of the greatest number of democratic elections in the Americas, shows quite clearly the view US elites take toward regimes that direct substantial portions of their resources toward the development of the poorest of their citizens, and reject the suzerainty of the US and its economic and political interests. The example of Venezuela also very clearly displays the kinds of tactics and methods that US imperialism will employ as it attempts to destabilize and overthrow the democratically elected government of Cuba.

Despite the obvious risks, the Cubans strongly desire normalized relations with the US, as this would be a critical ingredient to the success of Cuba's efforts to transform its economy. However, there still remain many significant issues the settlement of which must be negotiated before a full normalization of relations could be achieved. Perhaps the largest of these issues to be resolved, at least from the US point of view, is that of the outstanding claims of US citizens and firms for financial compensation for property nationalized after the revolution. On one very basic way of reckoning, the total value of outstanding claims by US citizens against the government of Cuba for nationalization of property amounts to somewhere in the neighborhood of $7-8 Billion. This latter figure comes from the US government, through the Foreign Claims Settlement Commission at the Department of Justice. According to the Cuban government on the other hand, the total value of the damages caused by the illegal US blockade and US-sponsored terrorist attacks amount to somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.1 Trillion. This accounting would in no way account for the loss of Cuban life associated with these US-sponsored terrorist attacks, for such losses cannot be treated purely economically. Let us not fail to note that the Cubans have sponsored no similar programs to launch terrorist attack against the US.


Many have hailed President Obama's decision as historic, and to some degree that assessment is correct. However, it is critical to place these moves within the larger context of the history of US-Cuban relations, and even more so in the context of contemporary political developments in the Americas. It is certainly possible to understand Obama's decisions as fairly cynical attempts on his part to achieve certain political ends. First, given the changing nature of the Cuban-American community, and its view on the proper way to deal with Cuba, President Obama could be understood as trying to pave the way for the 2016 democratic nominee for President to win plenty of votes in Florida, which will once again be a "swing state" in the next election cycle; and one of the swing states with the most electoral college votes.

One might also see Obama's decisions as a way for the US to save face internationally with regard to the Cuba issue. After the last Summit of the Americas in 2012 it was made crystal clear to President Obama by nearly all the heads of state of Central and South American nations that unless Cuba were invited to the next Summit, there would be no next summit. Were the US to capitulate in this it would appear to the world that these smaller nations had forced the mighty US to accede to their demands, and do something that it had refused to do for decades. Excluding Cuba from regional political bodies like the Summit of the Americas and the Organization of American States was a main pillar of US-Cuba policy. While this does not diminish the importance of these recent announcements for the Cuban people, it certainly makes the timing appear suspicious as the next Summit of the Americas is scheduled for April of 2015. The announcement of Obama's changes to US-Cuba policy allows the US to drop its opposition to Cuba's participation in the upcoming Summit without appearing as though its hand was forced; a not insignificant benefit in the game of international relations, wherein perception often counts for more than reality.