U.S. Reactions to the New President of Cuba

A prior post reported the April 19 election of Miguel Díaz-Canel as the new President of Cuba. U.S. reactions to that election  have been unanimous: at least initially there probably will be no major changes in Cuba’s international and domestic policies, and many also say there was not a democratic transition of power. Here is a sampling of these U.S. reactions.

U.S. Reactions

Soon after Raúl Castro in his April 19 speech referred to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s leaving the Summit of the Americas, Pence tweeted the U.S. will not rest until Cuba “has free & fair elections, political prisoners are released & the people of Cuba are finally free! #CubaLibre.”[1]

On April 18 a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council told an independent Cuban news outlet, “The United States has no expectation that the Cuban people will see greater liberties under Castro’s hand-picked successor. We will continue to show solidarity with the Cuban people in their petition for freedom and prosperity, so we are not expected to change our policy of directing funds to the Cuban people and away from Cuba’s military, security and intelligence services.”[2]

The previous day the spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, Heather Nauert, said, “As we watch what’s taken place at the Cuba national assembly, we certainly see that that’s not a democratic transition. So when we see that something is not a democratic transition, that’s of great concern to us. We would like citizens to be able to have a say in their political outcomes, and this certainly does not seem like regular folks will have a say. . . . They basically don’t have a real or meaningful choice because it’s not a democratic process. We hope that Cuba’s new president will listen to the Cuban people. We’re not sure that that’s going to happen. We would like a more free and democratic Cuba. We will be watching but aren’t overly optimistic, because this isn’t a democratic process.”[3]

A New York Times editorial stated, “Rául Castro, who handpicked this loyal apparatchik as his successor, remains at the helm of the Communist Party and the armed forces; his son runs the intelligence services; his ex-son-in-law runs the military’s vast business interests. In his first speech, Mr. Díaz-Canel vowed there would be no “capitalist restoration” and concluded with a slogan that has not roused the masses for some time now: “Socialism or death! We will triumph!”[4]

The Times’ editorial also stated, “President “Trump should join with Cuba’s other neighbors to encourage the new Cuban leader to expand the private economy, release political prisoners, increase access to the internet, decentralize power and in other critically needed ways finally break his country out of the Castro cocoon.”

After noting his concurrence in not expecting major changes in Cuba, Christopher Sabatini, a lecturer at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and executive director of Global Americans, urges changes in U.S. policies regarding the island. He says, “While it is not in America’s interest to promote investment to prop up an anachronistic, repressive regime, it is also not in its interest to stand by while a neighbor’s fragile economy crumbles under the weight of its failed policies. In the worst of cases, an economic implosion would produce social unrest and waves of migrants to American shores.” To that end, he suggests, “Multilateral banks like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, at Washington’s urging, could be given special allowances to offer economic assistance to the next Cuban government while providing international cover for American-led efforts. Any aid should come with a strong message from Washington and the banks that the Cuban government must refrain from repression in response to protests.” Sabatini also recommends that the U.S. restore the full staffing of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.[5]

Engage Cuba, a U.S. coalition of businesses and others that supports U.S.-Cuba normalization, issued two statements about this change.[6]

The first one said this “is a historic and potentially transformative change. The new Cuban president will face an internal political struggle between continuity and reform. I hope that they choose reform and openness, including greater support for the private sector and access to the internet.” It added, “The [U.S.] must also seize this historic moment. After 60 years of a failed embargo, it is time to recognize that with this Cuban transition comes opportunity. We must show leadership and constructively engage. If President Trump is willing to meet with the hostile leader of North Korea, surely we can talk with Cuba. If the U.S. abandons Cuba and fails to lead, we can be sure our adversaries in China and Russia will fill the void, and the losers will be the Cuban people.”

The second press release from Engage Cuba stated the following:

  • “U.S. policy . . . [should] encourage the change we’d like to see. For almost 60 years we have pursued an embargo policy that has failed. With new generational leadership in Cuba, we now have an opportunity to reimagine our policy for the 21st century. We know that continuing the embargo will not work, so let us not double down on 60 years of failure. President Trump and Congress should seize this moment, support the Cuban private sector, let American businesses compete, and look to the future with a modern policy of constructive engagement. After all, the American and Cuban people overwhelmingly support engagement and improved relations. Washington politicians should listen to them for a change.”
  • “Diaz-Canel inherits the challenges of Castro’s Cuba, particularly on the economic front. In the interest of institutional continuity, reforms under Diaz-Canel are expected to be gradual. But market distortions caused by the country’s multiple exchange rates, slow GDP growth, and declining exports will test the new president’s ability to balance badly needed reform with preserving Cuba’s brand of socialism.”
  • “The transition comes at a time of historically low diplomatic engagement between the U.S. and Cuba. The health incidents affecting U.S. diplomats remain an unsolved mystery,which the State Department has used as a rationale for slashing U.S. embassy staff in Havana. Diplomatic personnel have been reduced to 40 percent capacity (12 officers), with no consular services for Cubans seeking U.S. travel or immigrant visas.”
  • “In this transitional period, the fragile U.S.-Cuba relationship poses national security risks for the U.S. Both Russia and China have ramped up exports and investment in Cuba and expressed interest in increasing military and intelligence presence in the region. Further U.S. withdrawal from Cuba could jeopardize the dozens of agreements and joint security initiatives between the two nations.”

The leading long-time U.S. opponent of normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), stated, “The sham ‘elections’ in Cuba were nothing more than a predetermined charade by the Castro regime. With Raul Castro stepping down today, and his appointed crony Miguel Diaz-Canel taking his place, Cuba will continue to be imprisoned under the rule of an oppressive single-party political system. The Cuban dictatorship portrays this election as a step towards change, yet we know that Diaz-Canel and the regime will remain an enemy of democracy, human rights and the impartial rule of law. If Castro really wanted democratic change for Cuba, he would allow the Cuban people to determine their fate through free, fair, and multi-party elections. “[7]

Cuban Reactions Through U.S. Eyes

 According to a U.S. journalist in Havana, no Cubans seemed to have been watching and listening to the televised April 19 speeches by Díaz-Canel and Raúl Castro. “Instead, a collective sense of apathy seemed to permeate Havana, a feeling that appeared to have been fostered, at least to some degree, by the government itself.” This was coupled with “a sense of hopelessness.”[8]

Conclusion

As apparent from many previous posts, this blog consistently has called for U.S.-Cuba normalization, rescinding the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, restoring the full staffing of our Havana Embassy and of Cuba’s embassy in Washington, D.C., rescinding the recent U.S. warning about U.S. citizens traveling to the island, ceasing U.S. efforts that seek to change Cuba’s regime, continuing the bilateral meetings that address issues of common concern and engaging in efforts to resolve other long-pending issues (U.S. claims for Cuban compensation for expropriation of property owned by American interests, Cuban claims for damages from the embargo and other actions and disputes about Cuba’s lease of Guantanamo Bay to the U.S.).

Such changes in U.S. policies would do a lot to encourage changes in Cuba’s policies and improve the lot of the Cuban people.

It must also be said that U.S. does not have standing to criticize  Cuba’s not having a national popular election to choose its president. How can anyone forget that the U.S. still uses an antiquated indirect way (the Electoral College) to choose its president and vice president while some state voting laws have been designed to discourage voting by African-Americans.

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[1] Assoc. Press, The Latest: Pence tweets response to Cuba’s Raul Castro, Wash. Post (April 19, 2018).

[2] The White House rules out changes in its policy towards Cuba, Diario de Cuba (April 19, 2018).

[3] U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-April 17, 2018.

[4] Editorial, A New Cuba After the Castros? Not Quite, N.Y. Times (April 20, 2018).

[5] Sabatini, We Shouldn’t Ignore Cuba, N.Y. Times (April 17, 2018). 

[6] Press Release, Engage Cuba Statement on Selection of New Cuban President (April 19, 2018); Press Release, Engage Cuba Statement on Cuba’s Presidential Transition (April 19, 2018).

[7] Press Release, Rubio Statement on Sham Cuban “Elections,” (April 18, 2018).

[8] Ahmed, Cubans Doubt a Change at the Top Will Bring Change at the Bottom, N.Y. Times (April 21, 2018).

Developments Regarding the Summit of the Americas 

Later this week the Summit of the Americans takes place in Lima, Peru. Interesting  developments regarding the Summit have taken place from the U.S. and Cuba.

U.S. Developments[1]

On April 10 President Trump cancelled his scheduled attendance at the Summit of the Americans in Peru. The stated reason was his need to attend to the new crisis in Syria: the Syrian regime chemical weapons attack on some of its citizens and President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. was considering a military response.

The New York Times reporter, Julie Davis, said, “Scrapping the trip spared Mr. Trump potentially unpleasant interactions with leaders of Latin American nations whose citizens have been insulted by his harsh language about their countries as sources of illegal immigration, criminal gangs and illicit narcotics. White House officials said Vice President Mike Pence would attend the summit meeting in the president’s place.

“Skipping the Summit of the Americas sends a terrible message about U.S. disengagement in our hemisphere, compounding negative message of Trump’s Cuba, NAFTA and immigration policies,” was the opinion of Benjamin J. Rhodes, who served as a deputy national security adviser in Mr. Obama’s White House and who was the principal negotiator of the U.S.’ opening to Cuba in December 2014.

A similar opinion was voiced by Richard E. Feinberg, a senior Latin America fellow at the Brookings Institution and professor at the University of California San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. He said, “Trump’s dropping out of the Lima summit is an appalling demonstration of disrespect for Latin America. “This has to be seen in the context of a president who has been ranting and railing against Latin America continually for the last several years. They’re his bête noire. They’re his scapegoat for everything that’s wrong in America, from immigration to narcotics to alleged loss of jobs from trade.”

A more nuanced opinion was offered by Christopher Sabatini, executive director of Global Americans, a group promoting better engagement in the region. He said,  “The truth is, given the level of discourse on trade, immigrants and intervention coming from this administration, not paying much attention to the region may be welcome by a number of governments as they search for their own alternatives. The question though is what it means for U.S. leadership, not just now but over the long term.”

The region’s leaders  seemed to be taking the U.S. decision in stride, reflecting some of the unease generated by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and growing economic self-confidence in a region long resentful of Washington’s dominance.

The U.S. State Department announced that Acting Secretary of State John J. Sullivan will accompany Vice President Mike Pence at the Summit, where the U.S. “will promote priorities of mutual interest to the region, including supporting democracy; addressing the political and humanitarian crisis and restoring democracy in Venezuela; stemming corruption and transnational crime, and promoting economic prosperity.” Sullivan will meet separately with leaders from Peru, Brazil, Haiti, Mexico, Bahamas, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

The State Department noted that Sullivan “will also engage with members of Cuban and Venezuelan independent civil society.” Apparently he will avoid meeting with Cuban President Raúl Castro.

In another release the Department said it had “received numerous, credible reports that the Cuban government prevented, and continues to prevent, members of independent civil society from traveling to Peru to participate in the Summit . . . .  Cuban authorities prevented these individuals’ travel through arbitrary stops at the airport, short-term detentions, and visits to individuals’ homes to warn them against trying to leave the island.”

The Department’s release further stated that the U.S. “condemns these actions. We call on the Cuban government to facilitate full, robust participation in the Summit by allowing the free and unrestricted travel of its citizens, a universal human right.” As a result, the U.S. “stands with the brave activists facing repression by the Cuban regime. We are working with the Government of Peru and civil society to promote a Summit that features open, inclusive dialogue with the full participation of independent civil society representatives from Cuba and the hemisphere.”

At the Press Briefing the same day, the Department said that on April 12 Sullivan would be meeting with “with Cuban NGOs and opposition leaders,” but there was no meeting scheduled with Castro.

Cuba Developments[2]

Cuba has an official delegation of people from its purported civil society, who already are in Peru to attend the alternative Peoples Summit that has been organized by Peru’s General Confederation of Workers (CGTP). Its leader said it would express “support for the Cuban Revolution and reaffirm the commitment to progressive and left governments of Latin America and the Caribbean currently being ‘sabotaged by imperialism.”’ On April 12 they have planned an anti-imperialist rally called “Trump out of Peru,” but with Trump not coming, they will have to have a different theme.

The official Cuba delegation of civil society has criticized “attempts by mercenaries and groups with links to terrorists to pass for supposed representatives of Cuban civil society.” The official delegation’s official statement expressed their desire “to contribute the experience of the Cuban Revolution that has, over almost 60 years, constructed a consensus in favor of our political, economic, and social system, forged through participative, socialist democracy, in which human beings constitutes the highest priority, and in which government is exercised by the people.”

These Cubans vandalized a Lima billboard that said in Spanish (here in English translation): “Cuba, enough of corruption, repression and impunity, stop human rights violations.”

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[1]  Davis, Trump Cancels Trip to Latin America, Citing Crisis in Syria, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2018); Assoc. Press, Latin America Takes Trump’s Forgoing of Summit in Stride, N.Y. Times (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Acting Secretary Sullivan Travel to Lima, Peru, To Participate in the Summit of the Americas (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, On Cuba’s Restriction of Civil Society Participation in the Summit of the Americans (April 10, 2018); U.S. State Dep’t, Department Press Briefing-April 10, 2018.

[2] Gómez, People’s Summit kicks off in Lima, Granma (April 10, 2018); Statement from Cuban delegation to 8th Summit of the Americas parallel forums, Granma (April 9, 2018); ‘Shock troops’ of the Cuban regime in Lima vandalize the fences that denounced the repression, diario de Cuba (April 11, 2018); “CUBA in #Cumbre”, Cuba Debate.