President Obama’s Reflections on His Pursuit of Normalization with Cuba      

Jon Lee Anderson, the author of a Che Guevara biography and a forthcoming book about Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution, has written a fascinating article about President Obama and Cuba in The New Yorker.[1] It provides the following details about Obama’s March 2016 visit to the island and comments about his decision to seek normalization with Cuba beyond those already discussed in earlier posts.[2]

During his visit to Cuba, President Obama hosted an Entrepreneurship and Opportunity Event at La Cervecería (a beer hall) on Havana Harbor. Attending were invited American and Cuban entrepreneurs, government officials and journalists. Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb, told the group that Cuba was one of its fastest growing markets. In response to Obama’s question, he said his company was now valued at $25 billion after only eight years of operation, and Obama used this as an example of what could happen to a new business. Obama said, “Cuba should take ideas, steal ideas from wherever you see something working, not from where they are not. There are some economic models (like Cuba’s) that just don’t work. That’s just the objective reality. The American people are not interested in Cuba failing. We’re interested in Cuba being a partner with us.”

After Obama had departed the island, a member of Cuba’s security services said that this event was “as subversive as the Bay of Pigs.” Other Communist Party loyalists voiced similar opinions.

Later Obama admitted that he thought the Cuban pushback to his visit would be a lot stronger. The beer hall event, he said, intentionally bypassed the Cuban state in order to advertise and promote the possibilities of commerce freed of political constraint.

Obama also said after his trip that his decision to seek normalization with Cuba was based upon these premises: (1) “Cuba is a tiny, poor country that poses no genuine threat to the [U.S.]” (2) “In this era of the Internet and global capital movements, openness is a more powerful change agent than isolation.” (3) “If you are interested in promoting freedom, independence, civic space inside of Cuba, then . . . remittances to give individual Cubans some cash . . . that then allowed them to start a [business] . . . was going to be the engine whereby individual Cubans . . . can start expecting more.”

Important for Obama was growing up in underdeveloped Indonesia and “never [being] star-struck by revolution. [He believed that Cuba’s revolution had started because of good motives, but he] “was never persuaded that they had taken the right course of action.”

Obama also told Anderson that he believes Raúl Castro’s pursuit of normalization with the U.S. was based upon two conclusions. First, Castro recognized—“particularly in light of what’s happening in Venezuela—that sustaining their economic model over the next ten years becomes increasingly untenable. [Therefore,] how . . . [does he] make [the Cuban] economy run without giving up power. . . . [Second,] Raúl recognizes that any substantial change to their economic system, . . . their civil society, . . . their full political system—requires him to do some downfield blocking [i.e., preparatory work]. If a younger generation tries to pull this off without the revolutionary credentials, there will be too much pushback.”

=====================================================

[1] Anderson, The Cuba Play, The New Yorker at 42 (Oct. 3, 2016).

[2] See posts listed in “Obama & Cuba, 2007-2014,” “U.S. & Cuba Reconciliation, 2014-2015,” and “Obama’s Visit to Cuba, March 2016” in List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: Cuba.

U.S. Clarifies Positions on Cuba and Venezuela in Preparation for Summit of the Americas

This coming Friday, April 10, President Obama, Secretary of State Kerry and other U.S. officials will be in Panama for the Seventh Summit of the Americas. In preparation for this major meeting, President Obama and other officials have been clarifying U.S. positions about Cuba and Venezuela. The New York Times also chimed in with an editorial about U.S. and Cuba.[1]

Cuba

During a April 4th interview with New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, President Obama said, “engagement,” combined with meeting core strategic needs, could serve American interests vis-à-vis [Cuba as well as Iran and Burma] . . . far better than endless sanctions and isolation. He added that America, with its overwhelming power, needs to have the self-confidence to take some calculated risks to open important new possibilities. “

“You take a country like Cuba. For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so [there’s no reason not] to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies.”

The President made other comments about Cuba this week in an interview by National Public Radio. He said, “As soon as I get a recommendation [from the State Department on rescinding the designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”], I’ll be in a position to act on it.” The President added, “The criteria is [sic] very straightforward. Is this particular country considered a state sponsor of terrorism — not, do we agree with them on everything, not whether they engage in repressive or authoritarian activities in their own country. I think there’s a real opportunity here, and we are going to continue to make – move forward on it. Our hope is to be in a position where we can open an embassy there, that we can start having more regular contacts and consultations around a whole host of issues, some of which we have interests in common.”

Benjamin J. Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser in the White House and a principal U.S. negotiator of the agreement with Cuba to engage in reconciliation, said this week that the terrorism review is likely in the final stages. “It made no sense that the [U.S.] consistently essentially made the decision to isolate ourselves from the rest of the Americas because we were clinging to a policy that wasn’t working. We would anticipate that this [rescission of the terrorism designation] does help begin to remove a significant impediment to having a more constructive engagement in the hemisphere, because we demonstrated an openness to engage all the countries in the Americas, to include Cuba.”

These remarks have prompted a lot of speculation that just before or at the Summit, the State Department will announce that it has finished its review of its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism” and concluded that it should be rescinded and that the President has decided to do just that.

Venezuela

Mr. Rhodes also tried to dampen Latin American outcries against the President’s March 9th executive order imposing sanctions against seven Venezuelans and stating that “[T]he situation in Venezuela . . . constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States, and [the President] hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.”[2]

According to Mr. Rhodes this week, the wording of the executive order “is completely pro forma.  This is a language that we use in executive orders around the world.  So the [U.S.] does not believe that Venezuela poses some threat to our national security. We . . . just have a framework for how we formalize these executive orders.” Moreover, the executive order was not “aimed at targeting the Venezuelan government broadly or bringing about some type of dramatic change in terms of the government of Venezuela.  It was focused on a number of individuals who had been determined to be associated with human rights violations.  And we have executive orders like this around the world, and they’re a tool that allows us to have consequences associated with our support for universal values.” [3]

New York Times Editorial

An April 7th editorial in the New York Times recognizes the obvious: the change is unfolding slowly. “Untangling the web of sanctions the [U.S.] imposes on Cuba will take years because many are codified into law. The Cuban government, while publicly welcoming a rapprochement, seems intent on moving cautiously at a pivotal moment when its historically tight grip on Cuban society will inevitably be tested.”

Nevertheless, the Times argues, “it has already reset Cubans’ expectations about their future and their nation’s role in a global economy.” And “it has made it increasingly hard for [Cuba’s] leaders to blame their economic problems and isolation on the [U.S.].”

Moreover, the Times points out, “some early concrete steps are promising. Obama administration officials and business executives have met in recent weeks with Cuban officials to explore how American companies can help upgrade the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure and provide cheaper and more available Internet service. Executives from Google, whose platforms and services are widely desired in Cuba, visited the island in mid-March to make headway in the company’s goal of establishing its presence there.

In addition, “Airbnb, the company based in San Francisco that allows people to list their homes online for short-term rentals, announced last week that it had broken into the Cuban market, unveiling 1,000 listings there. That debut in Cuba could boost the small, but growing private sector in a nation where people have only recently been allowed to earn a living outside state employment.”

The new U.S. policy of engagement is gaining the increased support of Cuban-Americans. A “poll conducted last month by Bendixen & Amandi International found that 51 percent of Cuban-Americans agreed with the decision to start normalizing relations with Cuba, an increase from 44 percent in a survey in December.”

===========================================

[1] This post is based upon the following sources: Friedman, Iran and the Obama Doctrine, N.Y. Times (April 5, 2015); Nat’l Pub. Radio, Transcript: President Obama’s Full NPR Interview On Iran Nuclear Deal (April 7, 2015); White House, On-the-Record Conference Call on the P{resident’s Trip to Jamaica and Panama (April 7, 2015); Reuters, Obama Says Would Move Fast to Take Cuba Off Terrorism Sponsor List, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015); Reuters, U.S. Closing In on Recommendation to Remove Cuba From State Terrorism List, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015); Davis, Latin American Trip Will Test Obama’s Push for Ties with Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 8, 2015); Neuman, White House Seeks to Soothe Relations with Venezuela, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015); Editorial, Cuban Expectations in a New Era, N.Y. Times (April 7, 2015).

[2] The President’s executive order and the reactions in Latin America were subjects of posts on March 16, 18, 19 and 20.

[3] Mr. Rhodes’ dismissal of the preamble to the executive order, in my opinion, is undoubtedly correct as a matter of U.S. national security and is helpful in trying to calm Latin American nerves, But Rhodes’ comment raises a troubling question. I assume the preamble is based upon a federal statute allowing certain sanctions to be imposed in certain circumstances threatening national security. If that is the law and if, in fact, Venezuela does not impose a threat to national security, then is the executive order illegal under U.S. law?