Another U.N. Condemnation of the U.S. Embargo of Cuba

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U.N. General Assembly
U.N. General Assembly

On October 26, the United Nations General Assembly voted, 191 to 0 (with two abstentions), to adopt a resolution proposed by Cuba to condemn the United States embargo of Cuba. For the first time in the 25-year history of the annual vote on such resolutions, the U.S, rather than opposing the text, cast an abstention, prompting Israel to do likewise.[1]

This post will examine the resolution’s text, its presentation by Cuba, its support by other countries and the arguments for abstention offered by the U.S. and Israel. This post will then conclude with a brief discussion of reaction to the abstention in the U.S. Prior posts discussed the similar General Assembly resolutions against the embargo that were adopted in 2011, 2014 and 2015.

The Actual Resolution

The actual resolution, “Necessity of ending the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the United States of America against Cuba” (A/RES/71/5 and A/71/L.3) had two principal operative paragraphs.

It reiterated “its call upon all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures [like the U.S. embargo against Cuba] . . . in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law, which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation (¶ 2). It also urged “States that have and continue to apply such laws and measures to take the steps necessary to repeal or invalidate them as soon as possible in accordance with their legal regime (¶ 3).

The resolution’s preamble reaffirmed “the sovereign equality of States, non-intervention and non-interference in their internal affairs and freedom of international trade and navigation, which are also enshrined in many international legal instruments” and recited the previous General Assembly resolutions against the embargo. It then welcomed “the progress in the relations between the Governments of Cuba and the [U.S.] and, in that context, the visit of the President of the [U.S.], Barack Obama, to Cuba in March 2016” while also recognizing “the reiterated will of the President of the [U.S.] to work for the elimination of the economic, commercial and financial embargo against Cuba” and “the steps taken by the [U.S.] Administration towards modifying some aspects of the implementation of the embargo, which, although positive, are still limited in scope.”

Cuba’s Presentation of the Resolution

Bruno Rodriguez
Bruno Rodriguez

Speaking last in the debate, Cuba’s Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla, presented arguments for adopting the resolution. Here are extracts of that speech:

“[T]here has been progress [between Cuba and the U.S. since December 2014] in the dialogue and cooperation on issues of common interest and a dozen agreements were signed [and] reciprocal benefits reported. Now just announced the vote of the US abstention on this draft resolution.”

“The [U.S.] president and other top officials have described [the embargo/blockade] as obsolete, useless to advance American’s interests, meaningless, unworkable, being a burden for [U.S.] citizens, . . . [harming] the Cuban people and [causing]. . . isolation to the [U.S.] and [have] called [for the embargo/blockade] to be lifted.”

“We recognize that executive measures [to reduce the scope of the embargo] adopted by the government of the [U.S.] are positive steps, but [have] very limited effect and scope. However, most of the executive regulations and laws establishing the blockade remain in force and are applied rigorously to this minute by U.S. government agencies.”

“Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has not approved any of the 20 amendments or legislative initiatives, with bipartisan support, . . . [for] eliminating some restrictions of the blockade or even all of this policy. [Moreover,] there have been more than 50 legislative initiatives that threaten to reinforce key aspects of the blockade, preventing the President [from] approving new executive or implementing measures already adopted.”

“It cannot be underestimated in any way the powerful political and ethical message that [action by this Assembly] . . . sends to the peoples of the world. The truth always [finds] its way. Ends of justice prevail. The abstention vote announced surely is a positive step in the future of improved relations between the[U.S.] and Cuba. I appreciate the words and the efforts of Ambassador Samantha Power.”

“[There] are incalculable human damages caused by the blockade. [There is no] Cuban family or industry in the country that does not suffer its effects on health, education, food, services, prices of goods, wages and pensions.” For example, the “imposition of discriminatory and onerous conditions attached to the deterrent effects of the blockade restrict food purchases and the acquisition in the U.S. market for drugs, reagents, spare parts for medical equipment and instruments and others.”

“The [embargo/] blockade also [adversely] affects the interests of American citizens themselves, who could benefit from various services in Cuba, including health [services].”

“The [embargo/] blockade remains a massive, flagrant and systematic violation of human rights of all Cubans and qualifies as an act of genocide under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948. It is an obstacle to cooperation [in] international humanitarian areas.”

“The blockade is the main obstacle to economic and social development of our people. It constitutes a flagrant violation to international law, the United Nations Charter and the Proclamation of Latin America and the Caribbean as a Zone of Peace. Its extraterritorial application adds further to its violation of international law nature of magnitude.”

“Other causes, in addition to [the blockade/embargo] . . . , determine our economic difficulties: the unjust international economic order; the global crisis; the historical distortions and structural weaknesses caused by underdevelopment; high dependence on energy and food imports; the effects of climate change and natural disasters; and also . . . our own mistakes.”

“Between April 2015 and March 2016, the direct economic damage to Cuba by the blockade amounted to $4.68 billion at current prices, calculated rigorously and prudently and conservatively. The damages accumulated over nearly six decades reach the figure of $753 billion, taking into account depreciation of gold. At current prices, [that is] equivalent to just over $125 billion.”

“On 16 April 2016 President Raul Castro Ruz said, ‘We are willing to develop a respectful dialogue and build a new relationship with the [U.S.], as that has never existed between the two countries, because we are convinced that this alone . . . [will provide] mutual benefits.’ And last September 17, he said ‘I reaffirm the will to sustain relations of civilized coexistence with the [U.S.], but Cuba will not give up one of its principles, or make concessions inherent in its sovereignty and independence.’”

“The government of the [U.S.] first proposed the annexation of Cuba and, failing that, to exercise their domination over it. The triumph of the Cuban Revolution . . . [prompted the U.S. adoption of the embargo whose purpose] was ‘to cause disappointment and discouragement through economic dissatisfaction and hardship … to deny Cuba money and supplies, in order to reduce nominal and real wages, with the aim of causing hunger, desperation and overthrow of government. ‘”

“The [new U.S.] Presidential Policy Directive [states] that the Government of the [U.S.] recognizes ‘the sovereignty and self-determination of Cuba’ and [the right of] the Cuban people to make their own decisions about their future.’” It also states “the U.S. will not seek a ‘change of regime in Cuba.’”[2]

But the Directive also says “’the [U.S.] will support the emerging civil society in Cuba and encourage partners and non-governmental actors to join us in advocating in favor of reforms. While the United States remain committed to supporting democratic activists, [we] also [will] participate with community leaders, bloggers, activists and other leaders on social issues that can contribute to the internal dialogue in Cuba on civic participation.’ The Directive goes on to say: “The [U.S.] will maintain our democracy programs and broadcasting, while we will protect our interests and values, such as Guantanamo Naval Base … The government of the United States has no intention of modifying the existing lease agreement and other related provisions.’”

The Directive also asserts that Cuba “remains indebted to the [U.S.] regarding bilateral debts before the Cuban Revolution.”

The U.S. needs to “recognize that change is a sovereign matter for Cubans alone and that Cuba is a truly independent country. It gained its independence by itself and has known and will know how to defend [its] greatest sacrifices and risks. We are proud of our history and our culture that are the most precious treasure. We never forget the past because it is the way never to return to it. And we decided our path to the future and we know that is long and difficult, but we will not deviate from it by ingenuity, by siren songs, or by mistake. No force in the world can force us to it. We will strive to build a sovereign, independent, socialist, democratic, prosperous and sustainable nation. We will not return to capitalism.”

Other Countries’ Statements of Support[3]

During the debate the following 40 countries expressed their support of the resolution:

  • Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic (for Commonwealth of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)), Ecuador, El Salvador, Jamaica (for Caribbean Community (CARICOM)), Mexico, Nicaragua, Saint Vincent and Grenadines, Uruguay and Venezuela (for Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)).
  • Africa: Algeria, Angola, Libya, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger (for African States), South Africa, Sudan and Tonga.
  • Middle East: Egypt, Kuwait (for Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC)) and Syria.
  • Asia: Belarus, China, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea [North Korea], India, Indonesia, Iran, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Malaysia, Myanmar, Russian Federation, Singapore (for Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)), Thailand (for Group of 77 and China) and Viet Nam.
  • Europe: Slovakia (for European Union (EU)).

U.S. Abstention[4]

Samantha Power
Samantha Power

The U.S. Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Samantha Power, announced the U.S. abstention before the debate and voting on the resolution. Here are extracts of her speech about that vote.

“For more than 50 years, the [U.S.] had a policy aimed at isolating the government of Cuba. For roughly half of those years, U.N. Member States have voted overwhelmingly for a General Assembly resolution that condemns the U.S. embargo and calls for it to be ended. The [U.S.] has always voted against this resolution. Today the [U.S.] will abstain.”

“In December 2014, President Obama made clear his opposition to the embargo and called on our Congress to take action to lift it. Yet while the Obama Administration agrees that the U.S. embargo on Cuba should be lifted, . . . we don’t support the shift for the reason stated in this resolution. All actions of the [U.S.] with regard to Cuba have been and are fully in conformity with the U.N. Charter and international law, including applicable trade law and the customary law of the sea. We categorically reject the statements in the resolution that suggest otherwise.”

“But [today’s] resolution . . . is a perfect example of why the U.S. policy of isolation toward Cuba was not working – or worse, how it was actually undermining the very goals it set out to achieve. Instead of isolating Cuba, . . . our policy isolated the [U.S.], including right here at the [U.N.].”

“Under President Obama, we have adopted a new approach: rather than try to close off Cuba from the rest of the world, we want the world of opportunities and ideas open to the people of Cuba. After 50-plus years of pursuing the path of isolation, we have chosen to take the path of engagement. Because, as President Obama said in Havana, we recognize that the future of the island lies in the hands of the Cuban people.”[5]

“Abstaining on this resolution does not mean that the [U.S.] agrees with all of the policies and practices of the Cuban government. We do not. We are profoundly concerned by the serious human rights violations that the Cuban government continues to commit with impunity against its own people – including arbitrarily detaining those who criticize the government; threatening, intimidating, and, at times, physically assaulting citizens who take part in peaceful marches and meetings; and severely restricting the access that people on the island have to outside information.”

“We [,however,] recognize the areas in which the Cuban government has made significant progress in advancing the welfare of its people, from significantly reducing its child mortality rate, to ensuring that girls have the same access to primary and secondary school as boys.”

“But none of this should mean that we stay silent when the rights of Cuban people are violated, as Member States here at the [U.N.] have too often done. That is why the [U.S.] raised these concerns directly with the Cuban government during our [recent] historic dialogue on human rights . . ., which shows that, while our governments continue to disagree on fundamental questions of human rights, we have found a way to discuss these issues in a respectful and reciprocal manner.[6] We urge other Member States to speak up about these issues as well.”

“As President Obama made clear when he traveled to Havana, we believe that the Cuban people – like all people – are entitled to basic human rights, such as the right to speak their minds without fear, and the right to assemble, organize, and protest peacefully. Not because these reflect a U.S.-centric conception of rights, but rather because they are universal human rights – enshrined in the U.N. Charter and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – which all of our 193 Member States are supposed to respect and defend. Rights that are essential for the dignity of men, women, and children regardless of where they live or what kind of government they have.”

The U.S. concedes that it “has work to do in fulfilling these rights for our own citizens. And we know that at times in our history, U.S. leaders and citizens used the pretext of promoting democracy and human rights in the region to justify actions that have left a deep legacy of mistrust. We recognize that our history, in which there is so much that makes us proud, also gives us ample reason to be humble.”

“The [U.S.] believes that there is a great deal we can do together with Cuba to tackle global challenges. That includes here at the [U.N.], where the decades-long enmity between our nations has at best been a distraction – and at worst, an obstacle – to carrying out some of the most important work of this institution and helping the world’s most vulnerable people.”

U.S. Reactions[7]

Engage Cuba, a U.S. national coalition of private companies, organizations and state and local leaders working to lift the embargo, said, “Year after year, the international community has condemned our failed unilateral sanctions that have caused great economic hardship for the people of Cuba and continue to put American businesses at a competitive disadvantage. The fact that the Administration and Israel abstained from voting for the first time ever demonstrates the growing recognition that the U.S. embargo on Cuba is a failed, obsolete policy that has no place in today’s international affairs.”

Senator Marco Rubio (Rep., FL), on the other hand, blasted the abstention, saying the Obama administration had failed to honor and defend U.S. laws in an international forum. Similar negative reactions were registered by Senators Ted Cruz (Rep., FL) and Robert Menendez (Dem., NJ), Republican Representatives from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart, and the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC.

As an U.S. citizen-advocate for ending the embargo as soon as possible, I am pleased with the U.S. abstention and agree with Ambassador Power that this vote does not mean the U.S. agrees with the resolution’s stated reasons.

Moreover, too many in the U.S. believe the Cuban damages claim from the embargo is just a crazy Cuban dream, but I disagree. Given the amount of the claim, Cuba will not someday tell the U.S. to forget it. A prior post, therefore, suggested that the two countries agree to submit this and any other damage claims by both countries for resolution by an independent international arbitration panel such as those provided by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague in the Netherlands.

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[1] U.N. Press Release, U.S. abstains for first time in annual UN vote on ending embargo against Cuba (Oct. 26, 2016).

[2] A prior post replicated the Presidential Policy Directive while another post provided reactions thereto.

[3] U.N. Press Release, General Assembly Plenary (Oct. 26, 2016); The defeat of the blockade is the world’s largest moral and political victory for the people of Cuba against the empire, Granma (Oct. 26, 2016) (Venezuela’s statement); Today not only do we vote against the blockade, we voted for hope, Granma (Oct. 26, 2016) (Bolivia’s statement).

[4] Ambassador Power, Remarks at a UN General Assembly Meeting on the Cuban Embargo (Oct. 26, 2016).  Israel, which also abstained, merely said that it welcomed the improved U.S.-Cuba relations and hoped it would lead to a new era in the region.

[5] A prior post reviewed President Obama’s eloquent speech in Havana to the Cuban people.

[6] A prior post reviewed the limited public information about the recent human rights dialogue.

[7] Ordońez, For 1st time, U.S. changes its position on U.N. resolution blasting Cuba trade embargo, InCubaToday (Oct. 26, 2016); Engage Cuba, Press Release: Engage Cuba Praises First Ever Unanimous Passage of United Nations Resolution Condemning the Cuban Embargo (Oct. 26, 2016); Lederer & Lee, US abstains in UN vote on Cuba embargo for the first time, Wash. Post (Oct. 26, 2016); Rubio, Rubio: Obama Admin Ignoring U.S. Law on Cuba Embargo, Giving More Concessions to Castro Regime at U.N. (Oct. 26, 2016).

Cuba and Nine Other Countries Reject Accreditation of Free Press Group To Participate in U.N. Meetings 

On May 26, a United Nations committee rejected, 10 to 6, an application for accreditation to attend U.N. meetings from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an international, independent group that monitors attacks on journalists around the world and campaigns for the release of those who are jailed.[1]

The 10 negative votes came from Cuba along with Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan and Venezuela. The yes votes came from Greece, Guinea, Israel, Mauritania, the United States and Uruguay. The abstentions were by India, Iran and Turkey, the latter two having reputations for persecuting journalists.

At the committee meeting U.S. Ambassador Sarah Mendelson made a lengthy statement advocating accreditation for CPJ, which, she said, is “a reputable non-governmental organization that promotes press freedom worldwide and defends the right of journalists to report the news without fear of reprisal.” Such a group has shown that “a free press remains a critical foundation for prosperous, open, and secure societies, allowing citizens to access information and hold their governments accountable. Indeed, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reiterates the fundamental principle that every person has the right ‘to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’”[2]

Afterwards the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, said, “It is increasingly clear that the NGO committee acts more and more like an anti-NGO committee.” She also said that the U.S. would appeal the committee’s decision to the full 54-member U.N. Economic and Social Council.

CPJ stated, “It is sad that the U.N., which has taken up the issue of press freedom through Security Council and General Assembly resolutions and through the adoption of the U.N. Action Plan, has denied accreditation to CPJ, which has deep and useful knowledge that could inform decision making. A small group of countries with poor press freedom records are using bureaucratic delaying tactics to sabotage and undermine any efforts that call their own abusive policies into high relief.”[3]

This April CPJ’s annual report ranked Cuba 10th on its list of the 10 Most Censored Countries. Key for this ranking was Cuba’s having “the most restricted climate for press freedom in the Americas. The print and broadcast media are wholly controlled by the one-party Communist state, which has been in power for more than half a century and, by law, must be ‘in accordance with the goals of the socialist society.'” In addition, CPJ stated, “The government continues to target critical journalists through harassment, surveillance, and short-term detentions.”[4]

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[1] Sengupta, Press Freedom Group’s Application for U.N. Accreditation is Rejected, N.Y. Times (May 26, 2016); Assoc. Press, UN Committee Denies Credentials to Press Freedom Group, N.Y. Times (May 26, 2016); Reuters, U.N. Panel Rejects Press Freedom Watchdog Accreditation Request, N.Y. Times (May 26, 2016).

[2] Mendelson, Remarks at the UN Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations Regarding the Accreditation of the Committee to Protect Journalists, U.S. Mission to the U.N. (May 26, 2016).

[3] CPJ, CPJ denied ECOSOC consultative status after vote in UN NGO Committee (May 26, 2016).

[4] Cuba Gets Low Marks on Press Freedom from Committee to Protect Journalists, dwkcommentaries.com (April 18, 2016).

New York Times Reiterates Call for Ending U.S. Designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism”

On December 15th a New York Times editorial, “Cuba’s Economy at a Crossroads,” called for the U.S. to end its designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” This recommendation first was made on October 11th in the Times’ initial editorial in its series “Cuba: A New Start.”

Summary of the Editorial

Now, however, ending the designation is seen as a way the U.S. could assist a struggling Cuban economy. Surprisingly this editorial does not mention ending the U.S. embargo of the island as another, and more important, way the Cuban economy could be aided by the U.S. Instead the Times makes a vague suggestion of the U.S.’ “relaxing sanctions through executive authority and working with the growing number of lawmakers who want to expand business with Cuba.”

Most of the editorial is devoted to discussing the many problems of the Cuban economy.

The 1959 Cuban Revolution’s “[c]ommunism brought an ever more anemic and backward economy, one propped up largely by Moscow. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, so did Cuba’s economy.” After that collapse, Cuba found Venezuela as a “new benefactor” that provided “heavily subsidized oil” to the island, but now that country’s “worsening economic and political crisis” threatens that subsidy.

Low wages and poor prospects have forced many Cubans to leave the island “in recent years in search of a better life.” This could be accelerated by the elimination of the country’s two-currency system, which the government plans to do.

“The country’s birthrate is declining, while its elderly are living longer.” Couple these facts with the exodus of working-age citizens presents Cuba with an enormous demographic challenge.

“The agricultural sector remains stymied by outdated technology and byzantine policies. A foreign investment law Cuba’s National Assembly approved in March has yet to deliver a single deal.”

Cuba’s leaders have adopted various measures to reform the economy, but the “pace [of economic reform] has been halting, with plenty of backtracking from the government’s old guard.”

Yet these reforms have created a “small but growing entrepreneurial class.” All of them “struggle with the [Cuban] bureaucracy, since they are unable to import legally items as basic as mattresses and pillows. Bringing items from the United States is onerous and complicated by American sanctions.” Changes in U.S. policies could make “it easier for Americans to provide start up-capital for independent small businesses. Doing that would empower Cuban-Americans to play a more robust role in the island’s economic transformation. More significantly, it would gradually erode the Cuban government’s ability to blame Washington for the shortcomings of an economy that is failing its citizens largely as a result of its own policies.”

Continuing U.S. antagonism, on the other hand, “is only helping the old guard.”

Reactions

I concur in the Times’ call for ending the U.S. designation of Cuba as a “State Sponsor of Terrorism.” It is an unfounded, stupid, absurd action that is only counter-productive as has been argued in posts in 2010, 2011, 2012 (with supplement), 2013 and 2014.

But I do not see ending this policy as the linchpin for the U.S.’ helping the Cuban economy. Instead it is ending the embargo, which the Times on October 11th recommended, but which is not mentioned in the latest editorial.

Moreover, I think the latest editorial understates the troubled state of the Cuban economy even though a prior post expressed optimism about Cuba’s attracting $8.0 billion of foreign investment for the Mariel port’s industrial park now under construction. Further reflection raises the following points that question that optimism:

  • First, the Cuban economy by itself is obviously unable to afford to purchase the many commodities that presumably will be unloaded from the new super-container ships that will be able to cross the expanded Panama Canal.
  • Second, for the commodities to go elsewhere will require the unloading of the super-container ships at Mariel and then reloading those commodities in smaller container vessels to go to the major countries on the northern and eastern sides of the South American continent: Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. How big are those markets?
  • Third, presumably the major Latin American countries with coasts on the Pacific Ocean like Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Chile will not be markets for commodities transshipped from Mariel.
  • Fourth, unless there is U.S.-Cuba reconciliation, the largest potential market for such transshipment, the U.S., presumably would not be importing commodities from the Mariel port.

Similar skepticism about Cuba’s ability to attract foreign investment for other reasons have been voiced by foreign investment experts. The Inter-American Dialogue, which is the leading U.S. center for policy analysis, exchange, and communication on Western Hemisphere affairs, has provided the following four such skeptics.

Matthew Aho, consultant in the corporate practice group of Akerman Senterfitt in New York, said, “While the [Cuban] rhetorical message was positive: ‘Cuba is open for business,’ little has changed to improve Cuba’s general investment climate, and foreign companies there report few changes to their dealings with Cuban counterparts. In fact, many businesses say the same bottlenecks, delays and idiosyncrasies that have long frustrated investors have been exacerbated recently by growing wariness among major banks to handle legitimate Cuba-related transactions.” He added, “While Cuba clearly has potential, most mainstream investors will steer clear until the Cubans define clearer rules of the road and improve their track record with new and existing partners.”

According to José R. Cárdenas, director of Visión Américas in Washington, “Eight billion dollars is a wildly exaggerated figure that Cuba has no chance of ever realizing. [Foreign investors] demand such things as transparency, legal guarantees and predictability, which the Cuban government is incapable of providing. Witness the widely publicized ordeals of Canadian businessman Cy Tokmakjian and Englishman Stephen Purvis, among others, who wound up in incarcerated in Cuba’s Kafkaesque legal system for unclear reasons. There may as well be a ring of flashing red lights surrounding the island warning foreign investors of the exorbitant risks to doing business in Cuba. . . . Any progressing economy needs the freedom to innovate, take risks and guarantee that one will reap the benefits of their efforts. Cuba, like China, cannot ultimately offer such conditions. As long as the primacy of the Communist Party remains the Cuban lodestar, the country will continue to head into an uncertain future.”

Scott J. Morgenstern, associate professor and director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the University of Pittsburgh also was skeptical. He said, “Cuba must create new opportunities for private employment. Thus, while the reforms are making some investment possible, investors will not find wide-open markets and streamlined bureaucratic procedures. In many areas, there are severe limits concerning where people can invest and the types of businesses they can open. Currency convertibility will also be a critical issue for any business; currently there are two currencies, only one of which is convertible. Foreigners, formally, are only allowed to use the convertible currency, and the official exchange rates distort the currency values. Reforms are promised, but the uncertainty will likely discourage some investors. One other important concern for investors is the size of the Cuban domestic market. The country is attracting several million tourists per year, and many Cubans do receive financial support from abroad, but purchasing power is still limited.”

Carlos A. Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuba Study Group and Regis HR Group offered these comments. “Cuba’s economic reforms so far have been too little, too late and too timid to result in significant economic performance . . . . [Cuba’s] continuing economic mismanagement, the numerous distortions in Cuba’s economic and political systems, a stubborn ideology, an obtuse and weighty bureaucracy and the fears of change harbored by Cuba’s leaders all play even more heavily in keeping Cuba’s economy from reaching its full potential. Cuban leaders continue to expect ‘silver bullet solutions’ to their economic woes. The port of Mariel is a perfect example. Pinning hopes of an economic recovery on mega-projects or a few foreign investments take attention away from the core distortions and inefficiencies plaguing the entire domestic economy. Fear of change and ideological rigidity can be clearly seen in Cuba’s eight-month-old foreign investment law. Since the law was passed, Cuban authorities still don’t have any significant major investment projects to report. The foreign investment law was a great missed opportunity to really send a message to the world, and specifically to the United States, that Cuba is ready for business. Such a message would have added great momentum to the anti-embargo movement, which is building momentum in the United States and in Miami. Yet, they chose more of the same, leaving arbitrariness, lack of clarity and burdensome regulations.”

Similar skeptical opinions about the Cuban efforts to develop the Mariel port were expressed by Richard Feinberg, the Brookings Institution’s Nonresident Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Latin American Initiative. He said, “the industrial sites are not yet fully leveled nor are they hooked up to basic infrastructure! But the problems run much deeper: previous Cuban efforts to launch free trade zones floundered on the requirement of hiring expensive labor through government employment agencies, and the continuing closure of the most logical export market, the nearby [U.S.]. Cuba’s newly revised foreign investment laws appear to allow investors greater flexibility in setting wage scales, but this potentially promising reform, and its impact on labor costs, remains to be fully tested in practice.”

Finally, Miguel Coyula, a retired Cuban government official on a trip to Washington before returning home to the island, stated ““Mariel is the most promoted place in Cuba, with special development zones for investors. But soon it’ll be a year after the opening of Mariel, and there is absolutely nothing. Even the container terminal in Havana was moved to Mariel to give it a sense of activity, but no one will invest there. For one thing, potential foreign investors in Mariel don’t like the fact that they can’t hire employees on their own, but instead must pay a government employment agency in dollars for that labor. The agency, in turn, pays workers in Cuban pesos. That’s because the Castro government wants to avoid creating a class of highly paid Cubans who work for foreign companies, ‘but inequalities are there whether you like it or not.’”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

U.N. General Assembly Again Condemns U.S. Embargo of Cuba

U.N. General Assembly Voting Results Screen
U.N. General Assembly   Voting Results Screen

On October 28, 2014, the U.N. General Assembly by a vote of 188 to 2 again condemned the U.S. embargo of Cuba. The two negative votes were cast by the U.S. and by Israel while three small Pacific nations abstained–Marshall Islands, Micronesia and Palau. All the other U.N. members supported the resolution. [1]

 The Resolution

The resolution [A/69/L.4] reiterated the General Assembly’s “call upon all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures of the kind referred to in the preamble to the present resolution [‘the economic, commercial and financial embargo imposed by the [U.S.] against Cuba’ and the Helms-Burton Act], in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law, which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation.”

The resolution also “again urges States that have and continue to apply such laws and measures [i.e., the U.S.] to take the steps necessary to repeal or invalidate them as soon as possible in accordance with their legal regime.”

Cuba’s Statement Supporting the Resolution

Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla
Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla

Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla, the Cuban Minister for Foreign Affairs, introducing the resolution, said that in recent times “the economic, commercial and financial blockade imposed by the [U.S.] against Cuba had been tightened, and its extraterritorial implementation had also been strengthened through the imposition of unprecedented fines, totaling $11 billion against 38 banks . . . for carrying out transactions with Cuba and other countries.” In addition, Cuba’s “accumulated economic damages of the blockade totaled $1.1 trillion . . . [and] human damages were on the rise.”

Nevertheless, “Cuba had offered every possible form of assistance to the [U.S.] in the wake of disasters there, such as in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Cuba had never been a threat to the national security of the [U.S.].  Opinion polls showed that there was increasing support from all sectors of [U.S.] society for lifting the blockade.  Religious leaders had citied legitimate, indisputable ethical and humanitarian reasons.“

In addition, ”the blockade was harmful to . . . the [U.S.]. The ‘absurd and ridiculous’ inclusion of Cuba on the [U.S.] list of States that sponsored international terrorism redounded to the discredit of the [U.S.].  Cuba would never renounce its sovereignty or the path chosen by its people to build a more just, efficient, prosperous and sustainable socialism.”  Neither, he continued, would his Government “give up its quest for a different international order, nor cease in its struggle for ‘the equilibrium of the world.’”

Rodríguez also invited the U.S. government “to establish a mutually respectful relation, based on reciprocity. We can live and deal with each other in a civilized way, despite our differences.”

Other Countries’ Statements Supporting the Resolution [2]

The following Latin American countries voiced support for the resolution: Argentina (MERCOSUR [3]) (embargo was “morally unjustifiable” and violated “the spirit of multilateralism and was immoral, unjust and illegal”); Barbados (CARICOM [4]); Bolivia (Group of 77 [5] and China); Brazil (Group of 77 and CELAC [6]); Colombia; Costa Rica (CELAC)); Ecuador; El Salvador (Group of 77 and CARICOM); Mexico; Nicaragua; St. Vincent and the Grenadines (CARICOM, Non-Aligned Movement, [7] Group of 77 and CELAC); Uruguay; and Venezuela.

The African supporters of the resolution that spoke were Algeria (Non-Aligned Movement, Group of 77, Group of African States [8] and Organization of Islamic Cooperation [9]); Angola; Kenya (Group of 77, Non-Aligned Movement and African Group); Malawi (African Group); South Africa (Group of 77, Non-Aligned Movement and African Group); Sudan (Group of 77, Non-Aligned Movement and Organization of Islamic Cooperation); United Republic of Tanzania; Zambia (Non-Aligned Movement) and Zimbabwe (Non-Aligned Movement, Group of 77 and African Group).

From Asia and the Pacific were Belarus; China (Group of 77); Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea); Indonesia (Group of 77);  India (Group of 77 and Non-Aligned Movement); Iran (Non-Aligned Movement); Lao People’s Democratic Republic; Myanmar (Group of 77 and Non-Aligned Movement); Russian Federation; Solomon Islands; and Viet Nam (Non-Aligned Movement, Group of 77 and China).

Middle Eastern countries speaking in favor of the resolution were Egypt, Saudi Arabia (Organization of Islamic Cooperation); and Syria (Non-Aligned Movement, Group of 77 and China).

The sole European supporter of the resolution that spoke at the session was Italy (European Union [10]), which said the U.S.’ “extraterritorial legislation and unilateral administrative and judicial measures were negatively affecting European Union interests”).

U.S. Statement Opposing the Resolution

Although Israel voted against the resolution, it chose not to speak in support of its vote. Only the U.S. by Ambassador Ronald D. Godard, U.S. Senior Advisor for Western Hemisphere Affairs, tried to justify the negative vote.

Ronald D. Godard
Ronald D. Godard

Ambassador Godard said the U.S. “conducts its economic relationships with other countries in accordance with its national interests and its principles. Our sanctions toward Cuba are part of our overall effort to help the Cuban people freely exercise their human rights and fundamental freedoms, and determine their own future, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the democratic principles to which the United Nations itself is committed.”

Ambassador Godard also said, “the Cuban government uses this annual resolution in an attempt to shift blame for the island’s economic problems away from its own policy failures. The Cuban government now publicly recognizes that its economic woes are caused by the economic policies it has pursued for the last, past half-century. We note and welcome recent changes that reflect this acknowledgement, such as those that allow greater self-employment and liberalization of the real estate market. But the Cuban economy will not thrive until the Cuban government permits a free and fair labor market, fully empowers Cuban independent entrepreneurs, respects intellectual property rights, allows unfettered access to information via the Internet, opens its state monopolies to private competition and adopts the sound macro-economic policies that have contributed to the success of Cuba’s neighbors in Latin America.”

According to Ambassador Godard, the U.S. “remains a deep and abiding friend of the Cuban people. The Cuban people continue to receive as much as $2 billion per year in remittances and other private contributions from the [U.S.]. This support . . . was made possible . . . by U.S. policy choices. By the Cuban government’s own account, the [U.S.] is one of Cuba’s principal trading partners. In 2013, the [U.S.] exported approximately $359 million in agricultural products, medical devices, medicine and humanitarian items to Cuba. Far from restricting aid to the Cuban people, we are proud that the people of the [U.S.] and its companies are among the leading providers of humanitarian assistance to Cuba. All of this trade and assistance is conducted in conformity with our sanctions program, which is carefully calibrated to allow and encourage the provision of support to the Cuban people.”

Furthermore, the U.S. “places the highest priority on building and strengthening connections between the Cuban people and [our] people. U.S. travel, remittance, information exchange, humanitarian and people-to-people policies updated in 2009 and 2011 provide the Cuban people alternative sources of information, help them take advantage of limited opportunities for self-employment and private property and strengthen independent civil society. The hundreds of thousands of Americans who have sent remittances and traveled to the island, under categories of purposeful travel promoted by President Obama, remain the best ambassadors for our democratic ideals.”

Ambassador Godard continued, “[The U.S.] strongly supports the Cuban people’s desire to determine their own future, through the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba. The right to receive and impart information and ideas through any media is set forth in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is the Cuban government’s policies that continue to prevent enjoyment of this right. The Cuban government now claims to share our goal of helping the Cuban people access the Internet. Yet the Cuban government has failed to offer widespread access to the Internet through its high-speed cable with Venezuela.  Instead, it continues to impose barriers to information for the Cuban people while disingenuously blaming U.S. policy.”

“Moreover, the Cuban government continues to detain Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen who was sentenced to 15 years in prison for facilitating Internet access for Cuba’s small Jewish community. [[11]] The [U.S.] calls on Cuba to release Mr. Gross immediately, [[12]] allow unrestricted access to the Internet, and tear down the digital wall of censorship it has erected around the Cuban people.

 {T]his resolution only serves to distract from the real problems facing the Cuban people. . . . Though Cuba’s contributions to the fight against Ebola are laudable, they do not excuse or diminish the regime’s treatment of its own people. We encourage this world body to support the desires of the Cuban people to choose their own future. By doing so, it would truly advance the principles the United Nations Charter was founded upon, and the purposes for which the United Nations was created.”

Media Coverage of the Resolution and Debate

 U.S. media coverage of this important U.N. vote was almost non-existent. It was not mentioned in the “World” or “Americas” news sections of the New York Times, and only its “Opinion” section had a short article about the issue. It got no mention whatsoever in the Wall Street Journal. Not even the Miami Herald, which has a separate page for Cuba news, mentioned it. [13]

At 2:37 p.m. on October 28th the Associated Press published a release on the subject, and the Washington Post published it online while the StarTribune of Minneapolis/St. Paul picked it up the next day in its online, but not its print, edition.

Cuba’s state-owned newspaper, Granma, of course, headlined this vote while stating that the embargo has caused $1.1 trillion of damage to the Cuban economy and “incalculable human suffering.” Its article also emphasized that this was the 23rd consecutive such resolution with a table showing that the number of votes in favor of the resolutions has increased from 59 in 1992 to 188 in 2012-2014, that the largest number of votes against the resolutions was only 4 in 1993 and 2004-2007 and that the number of abstentions has decreased from 71 in 1992 to 1 in 2005-2007 and now 3 since 2010.

Conclusion

This overwhelming international opposition to the U.S. embargo in and of itself should be enough to cause the U.S. to end the embargo. Moreover, the embargo has not forced Cuba to come begging to the U.S. for anything that the U.S. wants. The U.S. policy is a failure. The New York Times recently called for abandonment of this policy as has this blog in urging reconciliation of the two countries, in an open letter to President Obama and in a rebuttal of the President’s asserted rationale for the embargo and other anti-Cuban policies.

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[1] This post is based upon the sources embedded above and upon U.N. General Assembly Press Release [GA/11574], As General Assembly Demands End to Cuba Blockade for Twenty-Thjrd Consecutive Year, Country’s Foreign Minister Cites Losses Exceeding $1 Trillion (Oct. 28, 2014); Londoño, On Cuban Embargo, It’s the U.S. and Israel Against the World, Again, N.Y. Times (Oct. 29, 2014); Associated Press, UN General Assembly Condemns US Cuba Embargo (Oct. 28, 2014); U.S. Dep’t of State, Explanation of Vote by Ambassador Ronald D. Godard on the Cuba Resolution in the General Assembly Hall (Oct. 28, 2014). The General Assembly also has videos of the debate (A and B). A prior post reviewed the 2011 General Assembly’s adoption of a similar resolution against the embargo.

[2] Many of the cited statements supporting the resolution were issued on behalf of, or aligned with, larger groups of nations as noted above. In addition, prior to the October 28th session of the General Assembly, the U.N. Secretary General submitted a report containing statements against the embargo from 154 states and 27 U.N. agencies.

[3] MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market) is a customs union and trading bloc of five South American countries with five other associate members in the continent.

[4] CARICOM (Caribbean Community) is a group of 15 Caribbean countries with five associate members for economic cooperation.

[5] The Group of 77 was established in 1964 by 77 developing countries to promote their collective economic interests and South-South cooperation; now there are 134 members that have retained the original name for historical significance.

[6] CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) is a group of 33 states in the region to deepen economic integration and combat the influence of the U.S.

[7] The Non-Aligned Movement is a group of 115 developing countries that are not aligned with or against any major power bloc. Its current focus is advocacy of solutions to global economic and other problems

[8] The African Group is a group of 54 African states that are U.N. Members.

[9] The Organization of Islamic Cooperation is a group of 57 states that seek to protect the interests of the Muslim world in the spirit of promoting peace and harmony in the world.

[10] The European Union is a group of 28 European states that have combined for a peaceful, united and prosperous Europe.

[11] The activities in Cuba by Mr. Gross are not so simple. A Cuban court in 2011 found him guilty of participating in a “subversive project of the U.S. government that aimed to destroy the revolution through the use of communications systems out of the control of authorities,” and sentenced him to 15 years in prison. According to his own lawsuit against the U.S. Government, and subsequent disclosures, Gross alleged the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and its contractor, DAI, sent him on five semi-covert trips to Cuba without proper training, protection or even a clear sense of the Cuban laws that led to his detainment. The case highlighted the frequent haste and lack of attention to the risks of the USAID programs in Cuba under the Helms-Burton Act, which allowed for money to be set aside for “democracy building efforts” that might hasten the fall of Fidel and Raúl Castro.

[12] In discussions with the U.S., Cuba already has expressed a willingness to exchange Mr. Gross for one or more of the three of “the Cuban Five” who remain in U.S. prisons.

[13] Nor did I find any mention of the vote in London’s Guardian or Madrid’s El Pais.

 

Continued Bad News about U.S. Policies Regarding Cuba

Bad news about U.S. policies regarding Cuba continues to accumulate. The U.S. refuses to budge from outdated hostility towards the island nation when the U.S., in my opinion, should be pursuing reconciliation with Cuba. One glimmer of hope for rationality on this subject was provided by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh in The Nation magazine.

Bad News

First, on September 5, 2014, President Obama issued a terse memorandum to the U.S. Secretary of State to extend for another year or through September 14, 2015, the application of the U.S. Trading with the Enemy Act to Cuba for another year. This statute, which was enacted during World War I in 1917, gives the President authority to prohibit, limit or regulate trade with hostile countries in times of war. It is a statutory foundation on which the entire range of U.S. sanctions toward Cuba rests. In a statement for the Secretaries of State and of the Treasury, Obama labeled the move “in the national interests of the United States” without any explanation.

On September 8th  Cuba denounced this decision. Cuba said the main goal of the embargo or blockade is to cause “harm and suffering” to the Cuban people” despite the embargo’s having been denounced by the U.N. General Assembly on 22 consecutive occasions since 1992.

Second, as anticipated Cuba has announced that on October 28th it will offer at the U.N. General Assembly a new resolution on the need to end the U.S. blockade against Cuba. A Cuban report in support of the resolution stresses the blockade has been described as a genocidal policy by the international community since it prevents the island from acquiring medicines, reagents, spare pieces for medical equipment and other inputs, forcing it to trade with distant markets, thus increasing the costs. The Cuban report also alleges that the embargo/blockade has caused $116.8 billion of damages to the island’s economy.

Once again, this resolution is expected to be overwhelming approved by the General Assembly.

Third, there was good news that Latin American leaders are insisting that Cuban representatives be present at the next Summit of the Americas in Panama in April 2015. Last month the Panamanian Foreign Minister visited Havana to issue such an invitation personally to Cuban President Raúl Castro. Such an invitation is supported by other Latin American countries. As Uruguay’s Foreign Minister, Luis Almago, recently said, “The Latin American countries without exception formulated in the last Summit held in Cartagena that Cuba should be part of the 2015 Summit. Panamá has welcomed this desire and I believe that the invitation sent to Cuba is good news for the inter-American family.”

The U.S., however, is opposed to Cuban attendance. A State Department representative recently made the following rather innocuous comment on the subject:

  • “Panama is the host country for the summit, and as the host country they will make the decisions on invitations to that summit.  I think the invitations in a formal sense have not yet been made. . . [We] have said from the start that we look forward to a summit that can include a democratic Cuba at the table.  We also have said that the summit process, ever since Quebec in 2001, has made a commitment to democracy, and we think that’s an important part of the summit process.  But the decision about invitations is not ours to make, and obviously there’s been no invitations formally issued to the United States and other countries.  And so there is no acceptance or rejection yet called for or made.”

More vigorous opposition was expressed by U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, a Cuban-American and the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a letter to the Panamanian President, Menendez expressed “dismay” over Panama’s intended invitation. According to Menendez, “Cuba’s participation would undermine the spirit and authority of the Summit of the Americas as a space to reaffirm the principles enshrined on the Charter of the United Nations, the Charter of the Organization of American States, and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, as well as commitments made at past Summits.”

After railing against Cuba as “the hemisphere’s most enduring dictatorship,” Menendez concluded his letter by saying such an invitation “sends the wrong message about the consolidation of democracy in the Americas, will dramatically weaken the democratic credentials of the premier meeting of heads of state in the hemisphere, and ultimately will undermine the validity of the Summits’ declarations.” This proclamation was coupled with perhaps an implied threat of adverse consequences for Panama from the U.S. should Panama proceed with the invitation; Menendez said, “I remain committed to strengthening the partnership between the U.S. and Panama.”[1]

Fourth, Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, remains in poor health in a Cuban prison after his conviction for violating Cuban laws. In my opinion, it clearly is in the interest of both Cuba and the U.S.to have him released from that prison and returned to the U.S. before he dies and thereby creates another obstacle to improving relations between the two countries. Cuba, however, by all reports is trying to negotiate an exchange of Gross for at one or more of the three remaining “Cuban Five” in U.S. prison.

Frank Calzon, the Executive Director of the Center for a Free Cuba, however, has issued what, in my opinion, is a counterproductive suggestion. He says, “There . . . comes a time when something more [than negotiating through diplomatic channels] is needed. That time is now in Cuba. Only when U.S. government raises the stakes — the political and economic risks facing Cuba — will Alan Gross be allowed to come home, and only then will Havana have to think twice before taking another hostage.

Fifth, in 1976 then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Gerald Ford Administration was in charge of a top-secret group of senior officials that developed plans to conduct, after the 1976 presidential election, air strikes on Cuban ports and military installations and to send Marine battalions to the United States Navy base at Guantánamo Bay to “clobber” the Cubans. The plan also included proposals for a military blockade of Cuba’s shores. Fortunately with Jimmy Carter’s victory in the 1976 election, this plan never was implemented,

Kissinger instigated this planning because he personally was infuriated that Fidel Castro in late 1975 had sent Cuban troops to newly independent Angola to help in its repelling attacks from South Africa and right-wing guerrillas and thereby ignored Kissinger’s behind-the-scenes effort to improve U.S. relations with Cuba.

These revelations are in documents, now available online, that recently were declassified by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.

Glimmer of Hope

BackChannel book

William M. LeoGrande (Professor of Government at American University’s School of Public Affairs) and Peter Kornbluh (Director of the National Security Archive’s Cuba and Chile Documentation Projects) have published a new book, Backchannel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, which I want to read. [2] This book forms the basis for their recent article in The Nation magazine, Six Lessons for Obama on How to Improve Relations with Cuba. Here are those lessons.

  • Even at moments of intense hostility, there have always been reasons and opportunities for dialogue.
  • Cuban leaders instinctively resist making concessions to US demands, but they are willing to take steps responsive to US concerns so long as those steps come at Havana’s initiative.
  • Cuban leaders have had a hard time distinguishing between U.S. gestures and concessions.
  • An incremental approach to normalizing relations has not worked. It is slow and easily disrupted by other events. “Incremental steps do not fundamentally change the relations and, therefore are easily reversed.” Every incremental step gives U.S. opponents of reconciliation the opportunity to obstruct the process. Instead, the “alternative is a bold stroke that fundamentally changes the relationship (even if it doesn’t resolve every issue) and leaves opponents facing a fait accompli. Nixon’s trip to China is the paradigmatic example.”
  • Domestic politics is always an issue on both sides.
  • Cuba wants to be treated as an equal, with respect for its national sovereignty.

 Conclusion

Although I do not have the depth of knowledge of LeoGrande and Kornbluh I endorse their lessons as should be evident from this blog’s many posts on the subject of U.S.-Cuba relations.

Perhaps the bold stroke they mention as the way towards improved relations could be made by a third party—another country or an international organization or a nongovernmental organization—stepping forward with a public announcement of a desire and commitment to serve as a mediator to resolve the many issues between the two countries and inviting them to send representatives at a set time and place to discuss the procedures for such a mediation. Such an initiative, in my judgment, to have any chance of success would have to be by an entity that was neutral, that was respected by both sides and the world at large, that had the resources to be engaged in such a process for a long time and that would not be discouraged by any initial negative responses by either country. This blog made such a suggestion in 2011 and 2012.

Such a mediation would remove the desire of at least the U.S. to avoid taking the first step toward normalization. It also, in my opinion, would be in the national interest of both countries.

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[1] A rebuttal to the Menendez letter was issued by the Center for Democracy in the Americas.

[2] LeoGrande and Kornbluh have been interviewed about the book.

Tom Hayden: Will U.S.-Cuba Normalization Fail Again?

[This is a re-posting of an August 15, 2014, article in The Democracy Journal by Tom Hayden, political activist for social justice, author and Director of the Peace and Justice Resource Center. Article licensing information appears on tomhayden.com (http://tomhayden.com/), which granted permission for this re-posting. Many similar posts have been published on https://dwkcommentaries.com/tag/cuba/.%5D

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On May 12, President Obama held a confidential conversation in the White House with Uruguay’s president, Jose Mujica, the former Tupamaro guerrilla leader. The meeting was a fateful one. Did they discuss Uruguay’s becoming the first Marijuana Republic? Perhaps. Did they discuss the US-Cuba diplomatic impasse of 55 years? Most certainly, because three weeks later at an Organization of American States (OAS) meeting in Uruguay the delegates reaffirmed a decision to officially invite Cuba to a summit in Panama next May.

The Obama administration will have to accept Cuba’s recognition by the OAS this spring or sit sheepishly in isolation. Fifty years ago, the OAS voted 15-4 to terminate all diplomatic relations and trade with revolutionary Cuba. Uruguay was one of the four dissenters in those days, when the revolutionary Mujica was underground, and has not changed its position over time. One doesn’t need gray hairs to observe that the US policy towards Cuba is obsolete and counter-productive. Ten years ago, then state Senator Barack Obama called for diplomatic recognition. Hillary Clinton recently revealed her support for recognizing Cuba as secretary of state. Recent polls, even in Florida, show majorities in favor of normalization. Inner circles in both countries are trying to explore a rapprochement, wary of pitfalls and domestic critics.

The most important recent change in US policy is the lifting of the travel ban on Cuban-Americans visiting the island. As many as 500,000 travel back and forth every year, visiting family, sharing dialogue, spending millions in remittances. On the Cuba side, all agree that Raul Castro has opened significant space for private investment and entrepreneurs once condemned as counter-revolutionary. Businesslike bilateral talks are underway about issues of mutual interest, from currency exchanges to potential oil spills.

The biggest obstacle, from the Cuban view, is a persistent US program of covert “democracy promotion” – or, regime change – aimed at subverting the Cuban government by funding dissident networks in Cuba. “Stupid, stupid, stupid!”, is how US Sen. Patrick Leahy recently described the leaked revelations about a secret social media “Cuban twitter” program called ZunZuneo, after a Cuban hummingbird. One among fifty years of subversion projects, ZunZuneo was launched in 2009 after Obama spoke of building a new relationship. Its sponsor was the US Agency for International Development [AID], even after an AID contractor, Alan Gross, was arrested in Cuba for distributing communications equipment in violation of Cuban law.

Gross, now serving a 15 year sentence, is at the center of the heightened tensions now threatening normalization. Gross, 65, is widely reportedly in poor health and threatening to take his own life if he’s not released by next year. Should that occur, according to one top US official, it would end any hope of Cuba winning the return of one of its agents, Gerardo Hernandez, one of the Cuban Five who were captured in DATE while surveilling anti-Castro Cubans flying into Cuban airspace to drop propaganda materials. When two exile pilots were shot down by the Cubans after warnings conveyed directly to the US government, the Five were imprisoned on conspiracy and espionage charges. Two have served their time in federal prisons and returned to Cuba. Two others will finish their terms shortly, leaving Gerardo Hernandez facing a double life sentence.

Prisoner swaps have occurred before, for example in 1978-79 when President Jimmy Carter and Fidel Castro orchestrated the release of Puerto Rican nationalists who were imprisoned for shooting up the US House of Representatives in 1954. Although the releases were described as unrelated, the Puerto Ricans were pardoned and returned to their island while separately the US received a group of its agents held in Cuban prisons.

It would be logical therefore to swap Gross for Gerardo Hernandez, even if arranged separately, but nothing seems logical about the US-Cuban deadlock. According to interviews with participants, such a staged swap finally was being considered a few weeks ago – until the fiasco of the Obama administration’s trade of five Taliban officials for the return of the American POW, Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl. Republicans, some Democrats and the mainstream media complained that the five-for-one deal favored the Taliban, and then the issue became inflamed by hazy reports that Bergdahl had abandoned his Afghan base and was perhaps “anti-war.”

The Obama team was flat-footed in their response, failing to notify even their top Congressional allies. That  failure violated a legal requirement that Congress be informed thirty days before any such deal, an obstacle that most likely would have killed the swap. But Democratic leaders were furious at not even being informed of the move.

That’s why Alan Gross remains behind bars in Cuba with no deal for his release remotely possible. With the Gross matter unresolved, the entire process of normalization could go off track.

Many in Washington view the Cubans as too stubborn in the Gross case. But the Cubans have been burned by unfulfilled promises and miscommunications many times over the decades, and leaving Gerardo Hernandez behind is unacceptable to them – just as Obama argued that leaving Pfc. Bergdahl behind was out of the question.

The Cuban dilemma is that if anything should happen to Gross they will never see Gerardo back and a rapprochement could slip away. It may sound shocking to many Americans, but the death of Alan Gross in a Cuban prison would serve the interests of some in the anti-Castro Cuban lobby that is deeply threatened by the prospects of normalization. The death of Gross would serve the narrative that Castro’s Cuba operates a heartless gulag, ignoring the many proven examples of Cuban exile terrorism directed from Miami against Cuban civilians, like the 73 Cubans killed in an airline bombing in 1976. Cuban exiles have been a perfect examples of the “cancer on the presidency”, the metaphor once used by Nixon aide John Dean. They were the lead conspirators in the 1972 Watergate break-in, and the 1976 assassinations of Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronnie Moffett, on embassy row in Washington DC. Their violent attacks on Cuba from a Miami enclave are too numerous to document.

Cuba will make its own decision for its own reasons in the Gross case, and may have to make it soon. Since the Obama administration fears any appearance of a quid pro quo in the wake of the Bergdahl fiasco, should Cuba expect nothing in exchange for the release of Gross as a humanitarian gesture? That might depend on the initiative of the many in the US Congress who recognize that it’s long past time for a better relationship with Cuba. They could, for example, communicate private guarantees of White House action. They could try deleting the $20 million in federal funds for “democracy programs” in the wake of the ZunZuneo scandal. They could send a letter to Obama requesting Cuba’s removal from the list of four countries designated as “terrorist” states, which hampers Cuba’s access to financial capital. They could urge the president to lift the ban on Americans traveling to Cuba or spending US dollars there, thus undermining the current embargo. If they can’t do anything in response to a release of Gross, they could watch the prospect of normalization drift away.

Another recent crisis may shadow the US-Cuban process, revealing the complications of the impasse.. A long-planned improvement of relations between Russia, Cuba and Latin America is underway just at the moment when clouds of the Cold War are darkening the horizon over the Ukraine. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has just forgiven ninety percent of Cuba’s $30 billion debt owed to Russia for three decades, fueling the anti-communist suspicions of the Cuban Right. The arrangement is helpful to Cuba’s economy, long embargoed by the US, and adds a new counterweight against the US pressures on Cuba. If initial reports that Russia re-establishing a spy base on the island, that might chill the relationship further. Cuba, of course, has a sovereign right to accept a Russian base, especially as US regime change programs continue.

Whatever the spillover from the Bergdahl affair and the growing Russian-American conflict, however, nothing can stop the clock ticking towards 2015 when Obama has to decide whether to join the Organization of American States in restoring Cuba to equal membership. If that’s what the president’s confidential White House meeting with Uruguay’s Mujica in May was all about, the process of normalization may yet survive the remaining obstacles to resolution after five long decades.