Miami Herald: U.S.-Cuba diplomatic ties: What a difference two years and a new president makes

Miami Herald

As the clock ticked past midnight two years ago, the United States and Cuba officially reestablished diplomatic relations and later in the day that July 20, diplomatic missions in Washington and Havana once again became embassies.

During a flag-raising event at the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C., Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez hailed the rapprochement, saying: “Today marks an opportunity to begin working to establish new bilateral relations unlike anything that has existed in the past.”

Three weeks later, the United States held its formal flag-raising event in Havana and the Stars and Stripes flew over the U.S. Embassy. Former Secretary of State John Kerry — the first secretary of state to set foot in Cuba since 1945 — hailed the event as a time to “unfurl our flags, raise them up, and let the world know that we wish each other well.”

But what a difference two years and a new president makes.

During a speech in Miami when President Donald Trump announced his new policy on Cuba, he said: “Now that I am your president, America will expose the crimes of the Castro regime and stand with the Cuban people in their struggle for freedom.”

He called the rapprochement that former President Barack Obama began with Cuba on Dec. 17, 2014 — after 18 months of secret negotiations — a “terrible and misguided deal.” His intent, Trump said, was to keep cash from U.S. travel and trade out of the hands of the Cuban regime by eliminating individual people-to-people travel to the island and drafting regulations that would bar U.S. business dealings with companies owned or controlled by the Cuban military or intelligence services, which includes a broad swath of Cuba’s better hotels and travel services.

At the same time, Trump said he wanted to support Cuba’s fledgling entrepreneurs. U.S. travelers also are expected to be under more scrutiny to make sure they are traveling to Cuba legally and not making tourism trips to the island.

For some in Miami, it was a much needed reset of Cuba policy.

“I’m glad Trump came along and said this has to change,” said radio commentator Ninoska Pérez. “I think he knows as a businessman that there is no point in investing in Cuba under current conditions. What is the point in promoting travel to a military dictatorship if you know the money is going to end up in the hands of the dictatorship?”

Essentially, she said, U.S.-Cuba policy stands where it was before the rapprochement began with the Cuban regime is still abusing human rights: “In the end, nothing was gained during the Obama era and a lot was lost.”

Cuban exiles Alexis Herrera and Magaly Mendoza expressed their disagreement in Miami with the Obama administration’s opening to Cuba. They took part in a protest called by several Cuban exiles organizations at Versailles restaurant on Friday, August 14, 2015, the day of the formal flag-raising ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.

But Carlos Saladrigas, a South Florida business executive and chairman of the Cuba Study Group, said Trump’s stance harkens back to an era of confrontation between the two countries and “gives enormous impetus to hardliners on the island who are fighting reforms in Cuba. If he ends up hurting the progressives in Cuba and encouraging the hardliners, what is the point of all this?

“I don’t see this as a climate where Cuba will think it can loosen up,” Saladrigas added. “I think the economy will get worse and repression will increase.”

Helms-Burton Act

While Obama tried to chip away at the embargo by issuing a series of executive orders and regulatory changes that made it easier for Americans to travel to the island and to engage in business and trade, the Trump administration has made it clear that it wants to hew closely to U.S. law on Cuba.

That would be the Helms-Burton Act, passed in 1996 in the heat of Cuba’s shoot-down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes, resulting in the deaths of four South Florida pilots. Lifting the embargo used to be a presidential decision, but Helms-Burton sets a series of conditions before it can be lifted such as release of all political prisoners, legalization of all political activity and a public commitment in Cuba to organize free and fair elections for a new government that would be held within 18 months.

During testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in June after Trump’s announcement, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emphasized that Cuba policy needed to be brought into alignment with “statutory obligations.”

While developing business ties with Cuba is “the sunny side of the relationship,” Tillerson said Cuba “continues to be a very oppressive regime” and there are concerns that as new business relationships are being developed, “are we inadvertently or directly providing financial support to the regime?

“We are supportive of continued economic development as long as it is done in full compliance with our existing statutes to not provide financial support to the regime,” he added. “We think it is important that we take steps to restore the intent of the Helms-Burton legislation, which was to put pressure on the regime to change.”

In Miami, Trump made his bottom line clear: Cuba needs to meet the conditions set forth in the Helms-Burton Act as well as return fugitives from American justice such as Joanne Chesimard, also known as Assata Shakur, a former Black Panther who fled to Cuba after escaping a new Jersey prison where she was serving a life sentence for the murder of a state trooper.

Further negotiations with Havana, Trump said, will depend on “real” progress toward these and other goals. “When Cuba is ready to take concrete steps to these ends, we will be ready, willing, and able to come to the table to negotiate that much better deal for Cubans, for Americans,” he said.

President Donald Trump signs a memorandum on strengthening Cuba surrounded by Cuban Americans and Vice President Mike Pence at the Manuel Artime Theater in Little Havana.

Cuban leader Raúl Castro, meanwhile, has said repeatedly that Cuba wants to continue negotiating with the U.S. on areas of common interest as long as such meetings are carried out with mutual respect and equality.

While denouncing efforts to strengthen “the blockade,” the Cuban term for the embargo, and to manipulate the human rights issue against Cuba, Castro nevertheless said: “Cuba and the United States can cooperate and coexist, respecting differences and promoting everything that benefits both countries and peoples, but it shouldn’t be expected ... that Cuba will make concessions inherent to its sovereignty and independence … or negotiate its principles or accept conditions of any type.”

Saladrigas said making demands isn’t the way to bring Cuba to the negotiating table. “We keep forgetting that just like the Cubans here, the Cubans on the island are proud people. We don’t negotiate under pressure. It’s never happened.”

During the Obama era, Cuba released dozens of political prisoners as a gesture of goodwill, not because the United States demanded it.

During the Obama administration, Cuban and American delegations traveled back and forth between the two capitals negotiating agreements and signing memorandums of understanding on everything from cancer research and migration matters to environmental and counter-narcotics cooperation. The first regularly scheduled commercial flights to Cuba from the United States in more than half a century resumed, as did direct mail service. U.S.-based cruise ships once again are visiting Cuban ports.

Since Trump took office, there haven’t been any bilateral talks between Washington and Havana, although the areas of cooperation hammered out between Cuba and the United States remain in effect. Educational, sports and cultural exchanges that have brought Major League Baseball players and iconic ballerina Misty Copeland to Cuba continue to flourish.

Dozens of U.S. trade and political delegations have visited Cuba since the opening, although Cuba has been slow on the uptake in approving business deals with U.S. companies that were allowed under the Obama rapprochement.

As one of his final actions on Cuba, Obama rescinded the controversial “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans who reached U.S. territory, even if brought by people smugglers, to stay and generally sent back Cubans interdicted at sea. Trump doesn’t plan to reinstate it. Trump also hasn’t mentioned restoring Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Although individual people-to-people travel will be eliminated, other categories of permissible travel for Americans will remain the same, and Trump hasn’t touched Obama’s more liberal remittance policy.

“Despite the red meat in Trump’s Miami speech, there is a lot more continuity [with Obama policy] than change,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor at the University of California, San Diego and a senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs in the White House under President Bill Clinton.

“During the last two years, the U.S. and Cuban governments succeeded in building solid constituencies for normalization in both countries — among governments, businesses and public opinions — such that the Trump administration felt compelled to abandon any plans for across-the-board rollbacks, deciding ultimately to maintain most of the engagement measures,” Feinberg said.

Frank Calzon, executive director of the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, said the rapprochement with Havana has largely been a one-way street: “The normalization of relations and making concessions to Havana wouldn’t have been a mistake if something had been obtained in return.”

Calzon said he welcomed Trump’s statements in Miami and the memorandum he signed to strengthen U.S. Cuba policy, but hopes that many key positions on Latin America and human rights issues that are still vacant will be filled soon by the Trump administration so that his policies can be implemented. “I’ve learned that personnel is policy,” he said.

While Saladrigas agrees that on the face of it, the Trump changes might appear minor, “the implications of what he has done could have quite far-reaching and dangerous results.” He’s especially worried how the changes will impact Cuba’s budding self-employed sector, which now numbers more than 500,000 workers.

“When the regulations do come down and tighten up American travel to Cuba, I expect there will be dire consequences for the entrepreneurial class,” Saladrigas said, adding that some businesses, dependent on serving American travelers to the island, will fold.

The new regulations could be written rather benignly or broadly so that they could stifle big chunks of trade and travel to the island.

“We’ll have to wait and see how the regulations are actually written, but the confusion already surrounding the recently announced directive could have far-reaching negative consequences,” said James Williams, president of Engage Cuba, a public policy group that supports normalization. “Cuba’s private sector has already been hit with a wave of cancellations from American visitors who are confused about whether they can even legally travel to Cuba.”

While he was pleased that Trump had said he wants to help the island’s private sector, Williams said he hoped that the administration would engage more with Cuba’s entrepreneurial class and “get their insight when writing these regulations so that they do not cause greater harm to this important change in Cuba.”

A group of Cuban entrepreneurs who were in Washington this week sent a letter to the Departments of State, Treasury and Commerce in which they said they were encouraged by Trump’s declaration of support for the private sector. But they recommended keeping individual people-to-people travel, allowing Cuban entrepreneurs more access to U.S. exports and making it easier for Cubans to open U.S. bank accounts.