It’s Just a Year Since Obama Announced He’d Been Talking to Castro

The Daily Beast

By: Peter Kornbluh

As part of the holiday festivities around Washington on Wednesday night, several hundred people—among them senators, songressional representatives, lobbyists, diplomats, current and former U.S. officials, business executives, advocates and activists—gathered for a “one year celebration of U.S.-Cuba ties.

“The weather may be freezing, but U.S.-Cuban relations are thawing,” declared the cheerful invitation from the Engage Cuba Coalition—a new lobby meant to mobilize support for normal ties between Washington and Havana. And, of course, there was only one suitable place to hold this soirée: the recently re-opened Embassy of the Republic of Cuba.

One year ago today, Dec. 17 or, as the Cubans call it, “17D,” President Barack Obama stunned the world by announcing that, after two years of stealthy, back-channel talks with Raul Castro’s government, the United States would “end an outdated”—that is, hostile—“approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries.” And over the last 12 months, Obama’s effort to turn more than half a century of estrangement into permanent engagement with Cuba has proved a unique, and rather rare (considering the current crises of terrorism and war), foreign policy success. 

At least for now.

Last Dec. 17, Obama and Raul Castro simultaneously broke the news of a dramatic prisoner swap—the USAID contractor Alan Gross and a CIA mole, Rolando Sarraff Trujillo, imprisoned in Cuba traded for three Cuban spies imprisoned for over 16 years in the U.S. The prisoner issue, a longstanding obstacle, suddenly was no more. Normalization was the new agenda.

Since then, with the clock ticking on Obama’s presidential tenure, he has moved quickly, with U.S.-Cuban relations fast-tracked in the foreign policy bureaucracy.

In a matter of months Obama met with Raul Castro face-to-face, removed Cuba from the State Department’s list of states that support terrorism, sent Secretary of State John Kerry on a high-profile visit to Havana to re-inaugurate the U.S. embassy there, and used his executive authority to open the floodgates of travel to, and at least limited commerce with, the island.

“This is what change looks like,” Obama stated as he announced the formal settlement to re-open the embassies during a Rose Garden ceremony last July.

Since then, Cuban and U.S. negotiators have met regularly to address issues in common and issues in conflict. Indeed, there is so much negotiation going on that Washington and Havana have been forced to create a bilateral commission, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Alex Lee, “to act as a traffic cop to sort through all the topics.”

Still, with all the different U.S. departments and agencies involved, some pro-normalization members of Congress are concerned about effective coordination.

This week Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, the leading Republican proponent of normalized relations, and Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy have called on the president to “designate a senior official to coordinate and ensure progress in the various federal agencies” and boldly exercise his executive authority to overcome 55 years of “regulatory inertia.”

Whatever the administrative difficulties, Obama gets high marks for keeping the momentum going. The president deserves “four stars out of four” for having “changed the entire mindset” on relations with Cuba, says Gregory Craig, White House counsel during the first year of Obama’s administration. Obama has “blown away the old guard that wanted to maintain the Cold War policy.”

Indeed, the expected opposition to engagement, particularly from the anti-Castro stronghold in Miami, has been muted. “The community has moved on,” says Ric Herrero, who directs #CubaNow, a Miami-based organization representing centrist Cuban-Americans who want to lift the embargo and normalize relations.

A generational shift, and Obama’s strategic decision to lift all restrictions on both remittances and Cuban-American travel to the island, have led to a deep emotional and financial commitment throughout the Cuban diaspora in the United States to support Cuba’s slow evolution from a strict, state-dominated economy to a market-oriented system.  On the island, of course, Cubans welcome the support.

“The good news is there is overwhelming support for normalization among the Cuban people,” President Obama stated in an interview this week, “and there is overwhelming support for normalization among the American people.” Indeed, a Pew poll taken last July shows some 72 percent of registered voters support the President’s policy. 

Obama, in his interview with Yahoo! News, left open the possibility that he would visit Cuba himself if "we’re seeing some progress in the liberty and freedom and possibilities of ordinary Cubans.” He wants to see greater room for dissent, and end the persecution of dissidents. But meanwhile, as more and more U.S. citizens flock to Cuba—over 140,000 visited this year—including high profile celebs such as Beyoncé and Jay Z, and high profile politicians such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo, engagement is likely to become exponentially more popular.

These factors bode well for Obama in the last year of his presidency as he undertakes a final phase of action to consolidate policy changes and render them irreversible in the next administration. But Obama still faces major obstacles, both in Havana and in Washington.

In Cuba, the government of Raul Castro has welcomed Obama’s policy of normalization and the tone with which the U.S. president has pursued ending the perpetual hostilities of the past. “In my opinion, President Obama is an honest man,” Castro proclaimed publicly at the April Summit of the Americas in Panama, where both presidents met formally for the first time.

But Cuban authorities have their own political and economic agenda, and their own pace for change, not to mention real limitations on institutional capacity and infrastructure. As masses of U.S. business executives have descended on Havana eager to make a deal, they have encountered Cuban officials unprepared, or unwilling, to match their zeal in drawing up the contracts and signing on the dotted line.

Earlier this year, for example, the Carnival Cruise line secured a license from the Treasury Department to initiate “people-to-people” cruises. But as the year comes to an end, the Cuban government has yet to agree to docking rights and other permissions necessary for the ships to sail. Indeed, despite a lot of chatter between U.S. business interests and Cuban authorities, only a handful of significant contracts have been signed since the thaw began.

But the biggest bottleneck to normal commercial relations remains the U.S. trade embargo—“the heart of the matter,” as Raul Castro called the sanctions—and the die-hard Congressional leaders who refuse to let it go. 

In early 1962, John F. Kennedy imposed the embargo through decree; for 34 years thereafter, a president could remove the embargo at will. But in 1996, in the wake of Fidel Castro’s decision to shoot down two small airplanes piloted by members of an anti-Castro group, Brothers to the Rescue, which had previously violated Cuban airspace over Havana, President Bill Clinton yielded to the demands of the arch-conservative Sen. Jesse Helms and allowed the embargo to be codified into law as part of the Helms-Burton bill.

So, until the recalcitrant Republican leadership in the Senate and House can be convinced to bring a bill to lift economic sanctions to the floor, or until they are voted out of office and replaced by more reasonable-minded legislators, the embargo will remain the law of the land.

Supporters of the president say they believe that enough Republicans can be converted to accepting the advantages of normalization to get this critical change made in the best interests of their constituents and their country. “It took Obama to break the ice,” predicts Ric Herrero, “but it will take Republicans to finish the job.” 

In the Senate, business lobbyists and policy advocates are focusing on obtaining Republican support for a bill introduced by Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota which would rescind many, but not all of the 53-year-old sanctions. Just this week in the House, Representative James McGovern announced the creation of a bi-partisan Cuba Working Group to, as he put it, “Seize this moment and continue to advance U.S.-Cuban relations.”

How long it takes to build a majority on Capitol Hill for the engage Cuba movement remains to be seen; swinging enough votes before the 2016 election seems unlikely.  For now, however, the advocates of a permanent reunion between the United States and Cuba have cause to celebrate advances that have been made, and the potential to consolidate them during Obama’s last year in office. “We are celebrating how far things have progressed in a very short period of time,” the director of Engage Cuba, James Williams, told The Daily Beast. “We are celebrating a new, normal, future.”