U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson Criticizes Aspects of U.S.-Cuba Normalization          

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on June 13 criticized at least some aspects of U.S. normalization of relations with Cuba. He did so during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing over the State Department’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2018 (October 1, 2017—September 30, 2018) that is 30% less than the current budget, including a total elimination of funding for so-called democracy promotion programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). [1]

The Committee Chair, Bob Corker (Rep., TN), said that he knew President Trump would announce certain changes to Cuba policy this Friday in Miami and asked Mr. Tillerson to explain these upcoming changes. The Secretary responded as follows:

  • “The general approach is to allow as much of this continued commercial and engagement activity to go on as possible because we do see the sunny side…we see the benefits of that to the Cuban people. But on the other hand, we think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior in the regime in Cuba, its treatment of people, and it has little incentive today to change that. In fact, our concern is they may be one of the biggest beneficiaries of all of this, which just again promotes the continuance of that regime. As we’re developing these business relationships and as we’re enjoying the benefits of the economic and development side, are we inadvertently or directly providing financial support to the regime? Our view is we are.”

Senator Corker said he understood that American businesses are eager to operate in Cuba, but cited Cuba’s continuing shortcomings in free expression and other civil liberties. The Senator added, “I do hope we end up with a policy that, over time, will cause the Cuban people themselves to be able to reach their aspirations. It’s a country that has incredible potential.”

Tillerson also said the Obama policy of engagement had “financially benefited the island’s government in violation of U.S. law” and that Cuba “must begin to address human rights challenges” if it wants the U.S. to continue such normalization. Tillerson acknowledged that normalization has led to an increase in U.S. visitors and U.S. business ties. However, Tillerson added: “We think we have achieved very little in terms of changing the behavior of the regime in Cuba …. and it has little incentive today to change that.”

Tillerson agreed that moves toward more normal relations with the United States have helped some Cubans lift themselves out of poverty and provided opportunities for U.S. companies. But, he observed, there is a “dark side” to relations with Cuba, noting that the government in Havana continues to jail political opponents and harass dissidents. “We are supportive of the continued economic development, as long as it is done in full compliance with our existing statutes to not provide financial support to the regime,” Tillerson said. “That’s the focus of our current policy review.”

The State Department’s proposed budget’s elimination of so called “democracy promotion” programs for Cuba and other countries through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) drew the attention of Senator Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), a Cuban-American and fierce critic of U.S.-Cuba normalization. He said, ““I am appalled that you have completely zeroed out Democracy Assistance for countries including Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. As brave citizens continue to risk their lives advocating for the basic freedoms we enjoy here, this budget sends a message that the United States is no longer on their side, and abandoning the pursuit of justice. It effectively withdraws American leadership around the world, pushing the door open for Russia and China to increase their scope of influence.”

As a result, Menendez asked Tillerson, “Does this administration believe that support of democracy and human rights is a reflection of American leadership and values?” After Tillerson said “Yes,” Menendez asked, “How can you say that then when the budget completely zeros out assistance for democracy assistance?” Tillerson then tried to avoid the question by saying that other parts of the budget could be used for the task.”

More generally at the hearing Committee members, both Democrats and Republicans, expressed great skepticism over the proposed budget’s 30% reduction. Senator Corker said he and his staff had quit trying to analyze the details of the proposed budget because such an effort was “a total waste of time” as the proposed budget “is not going to be the budget that we’re going to deal with. It’s just not.” Another member, Senator Lindsay Graham (Rep., SC) became almost “derisive” as he contrasted global needs with the proposed budget that, he said, was putting the lives of U.S. diplomats at risk.

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[1] Rumors of Upcoming Trump Administration Rollback of U.S. Normalization of Relations with Cuba, dwkcommenetaries.com (May 25, 2017): Reuters, Tillerson Signals Tough Trump Administration Stance on Cuba, N.Y. Times (June 13, 2017); Harris, Will Cuts Hurt Diplomacy? Tillerson Tries to Ease Senate’s Worries, N.Y. Times (June13, 2017); Schwartz, Trump Plans Rollback of Obama Cuba Policy, W.S.J. (June13, 2017); Press Release: Corker Credits Secretary Tillerson for Unprecedented Outreach (June 13, 2017); Press Release: Menendez Pushes Tillerson on Cuts to State Department Human Rights (June 13, 2017); U.S. State Dep’t, FY 2018 Budget Testimony (June 13, 2017).

 

Uncertainty Over Future Cuban Policies of Trump Administration

Journalists at an April 4 Miami conference voiced the unanimous opinion that the future Cuban policies of the Trump Administration were uncertain.[1]

This is not a surprising opinion due to the failure of the Administration to appoint senior State Department officials under new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the proposed large reductions in the Department’s budget for the next fiscal year, the overall disarray within the Administration and its preoccupation with other issues. In short, Cuba is not high on the Administration’s list of priorities.

In the meantime, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control apparently is continuing to grant licenses to U.S. companies to operate on the island and to contract with Cuban state enterprises.[2]

At least this uncertainty and continuation of OFAC licensing is better than a return to overt U.S. hostility towards Cuba as has been suggested by President Trump himself and by some of the people involved in the Trump transition and Administration.[3]

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[1] Hernandez, Panel: Relations between Cuba, U.S. remain uncertain under Trump, Miami Herald (Apr. 4, 2017).

[2] Torres, Trump administration continues to issue OFAC licenses authorizing business with Cuba, Miami Herald (April 4, 2017).

[3] See posts listed in “U.S. & Cuba in the Trump Administration, 2017-“ at the end of List of posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA.