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Cuban-American Relations in 2017
BY SAMANTHA MENDIGUREN AND JORGE DUANY • APRIL 12, 2017

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Jorge Duany,
director of the Cuban Research Institute.

Upon ’s arrival to power in 1959, the United States and Cuba
built up an oppositional animosity toward one another. The US responded
to Cuba’s communist ideology with an in hopes of overthrowing
the regime.

Strict regulations were enforced until President Barack Obama began to
make progress toward normalizing this protracted animosity. On July 20,
2015, Washington and Havana marked the restoration of diplomatic
relations. This has led to an ease on remittances and , but
financial, economic and commercial restrictions still remain.

Although Obama made efforts toward removing hostility between the two
countries, shortly before leaving office he ended the
“wet-foot/dry-foot” policy implemented in 1995 allowing for Cubans to
remain in the US once they reached its shores. While the cancellation of
this policy coincides with the new Trump administration’s views on
tightening immigrant documentation, many US policies toward Cuba are up
for debate.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Jorge Duany,
director of the Cuban Research Institute and professor of anthropology
at Florida International (FIU). Born in Havana, Cuba, Duany
shares his insight on Cuban-American relations and predicts what will
come of this year.

Samantha Mendiguren: The US and Cuba reopened diplomatic relations after
more than 50 years. What effect has this had on Cuba?

Jorge Duany: On December 17, 2014, President Barack Obama announced he
would take several steps to normalize relations between the US and Cuba
— some of those steps have been quite significant, especially the
removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. And that
had a number of consequences — among them, from our little corner in the
world, that public universities in Florida were now able to cover travel
expenses to and from Cuba.

I mention that because that has been the most important consequence of
the change, not only for us but for Florida in general and particularly
for academic and cultural exchanges with Cuba. We don’t know what’s
going to happen with that particular move because the new secretary of
state under the Trump administration mentioned that he was going to
review this policy change, so that means that the Trump administration
might revert it.

The main impact of the changes in US policy toward Cuba has been to
increase the official contact between the US and Cuban governments at
all levels, from the president’s visit to Cuba last year in March to a
number of lower-level but still significant contacts between
representatives of both governments. Several agreements have been signed
to conduct and collaborate with scientific research, for instance, and
even more policy-oriented issues like drug trafficking, undocumented
migration and so forth. So I think that has been the major change in the
past two years and a few months, especially once the US and Cuban
embassies were opened in the two capitals.

In addition, there has been some impact on trade, communication and
travel. There are a number of other areas that still haven’t produced
significant results. For instance, there was a proposal to build
tractors in Cuba by a Cuban-American Jewish businessman, but
unfortunately it did not go through. That would have been the first time
there was direct by the US on Cuban soil for decades. So
there are some significant achievements and some failures in the
relationship between the two countries over the last two years.

Mendiguren: While the US and Cuba have amended diplomatic relations, the
commercial, economic and financial embargo still remains. Do you foresee
these positions changing with the new Trump administration?

Duany: As of now we’re waiting to see. And we’ve been waiting ever since
the new administration took office on January 20th. It’s been a little
more than a month and there has been no official change, specifically on
US’ Cuba policy, except for a couple of tweets by the president and some
very strong language regarding in Cuba, but so far we don’t
know what concrete measures will be taken by the new administration.

We’re still figuring out what the new administration will do about it
because we were expecting Trump to change it rather than Obama. So the
fact that Obama did it about one week before the new administration took
office was not only surprising but quite controversial.

I imagine that putting Cuba back on that black list of sponsors of
terrorism and even closing the embassy, which Trump mentioned at some
point during the campaign as a candidate, are very unlikely. All the
other changes are under revision, for instance the relaxation of
requirements for travel to Cuba, short of allowing — which is
not allowed under the embargo law — and some other minor changes. I
don’t know whether people will be able to bring cigars and rum or not
from Cuba, which was one of the latest changes in US’ Cuba policy.

Mendiguren: What needs to happen within Cuba for the US to seriously
consider removing the economic embargo?

Duany: The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 sets several conditions to be met:
free elections, competitive party politics, respect for human rights and
so on, which are very difficult to be met by any government, let alone a
communist government such as the one in power in Cuba. Short of those
major changes what could happen is that Congress decides to look at the
embargo again and, given the changes that have taken place between the
two countries, if a majority of Congress decides it’s time to lift the
embargo, that may take place.

However, I think it’s very unlikely that it’s going to happen given that
the majority of Congress is in Republican hands. And again, there are
few signs on the Cuban government’s side that it will move in the
direction stipulated by the Helms-Burton Act.

Mendiguren: Why do you believe that Cuban Americans supported Trump in a
much higher degree than other Latin American groups in the United States?

Duany: I think Trump made one of the last stops of his campaign in late
October of last year when he came to Miami, and of course he was here
several times, has strong connections to south Florida and made a very
strong promise to revert all of President Obama’s executive orders
regarding Cuba. He got the support of the veterans of the Bay of Pigs
invasion, which had not endorsed any presidential candidate in the past
five decades. The veterans reflect a broader sector of the community,
particularly the early wave of Cuban refugees from the 1960s, who tend
to be more conservative. Probably that sector of the community did give
him a majority support.

However, there is a lot of argument here in Miami as to exactly what
percentage of the Cuban-American vote went to Trump. I’ve seen some
estimates that suggest something like 60%, which I think is a little
exaggerated; others are closer to 50-52%, a slight majority. I don’t
think there’s any doubt that Trump got a much larger percentage of the
Cuban-American vote than any other Latino community, but we don’t know
yet what specific percentage actually did. Once Trump sided with the
more conservative sector of the Cuban-American electorate, which means
older, first generation, better-off exiles and their children, he did
get the majority of the vote.

However, there’s also a growing number of Cuban Americans, both those
who were born in the US and those who have come in the last three
decades, who are increasingly leaning toward the Democratic Party and
there’s also quite a lot of evidence that that particular sector of the
community tended to favor Hillary Clinton. But in the final analysis I’d
say that because many of these more recent immigrants aren’t US citizens
or aren’t registered to vote, they’re still a minority in terms of the
electorate of Cuban origin.

Mendiguren: Obama ended the wet-foot/dry-foot policy. How do you think
this affects the Cuban-American community? Do you think Trump will
change this policy?

Duany: We’re still figuring out what the new administration will do
about it because we were expecting Trump to change it rather than Obama.
So the fact that Obama did it about one week before the new
administration took office was not only surprising but quite
controversial. Some of the polls that have been conducted, especially
here at FIU in the past couple of years, have found that the majority of
the Cuban-American community does support the wet-foot/dry-foot policy
and the Cuban Adjustment Act. However, when you break it down by age and
time of arrival, the earlier Cuban refugees probably wouldn’t support as
strongly that particular policy measure.

The main reason is because of the concern in south Florida about the
abuse of the wet-foot/dry-foot policy by some Cuban immigrants, who are
not necessarily political refugees and who go back to Cuba once they get
their permanent residence. That issue got a lot of media coverage here
in south Florida, and even in Washington. Marco Rubio, for instance, and
Carlos Curbelo were two of the main critics of the policy and even the
Cuban Adjustment Act.

However, because of political party affiliation, when Obama decided to
cancel the wet-foot/dry-foot policy, that put the new government in a
difficult situation because the incoming president had said that he
would revert all of Obama’s executive orders. But this one is likely to
stay, because it seems to fit within the discourse of the new
administration of reducing undocumented migration to the US, which was
facilitated by the wet-foot/dry-foot policy toward Cubans.

Mendiguren: How has Fidel Castro’s death affected Cuba and its relation
to the US? What implementations have been set by Raúl Castro and what do
you expect from him in the future? What will happen when he leaves his
position?

Duany: Fidel was out of the picture for about 10 years since his
retirement and mysterious medical emergency. He was coming out of his
house every so often and made public appearances, and wrote that column
that probably wasn’t written by him in Cuba’s official press, Granma.
But as far as I can tell, looking back at those years, there had been a
transition or a succession of power from Fidel to Raúl, and Raúl was
pretty much the one who was leading the Cuban government and actually
made some changes.

But Fidel still had a strong symbolic influence, for instance when he
criticized Obama’s visit in calling him “Brother Obama” and saying some
very nasty things about his visit; whereas Raúl was very friendly with
Obama, sat next to him at the Tampa-Cuba baseball game and so on.

So, with Fidel out of the picture, one theory is that Raúl will finally,
in whatever time he remains in power, be freer to continue his reforms
than when he was under the shadow of Fidel. Another theory is that there
was never that kind of big brother/younger brother distinction in terms
of their actual thoughts and actions.

With Fidel out of the picture, in the next year or so when Raúl has said
he would retire, he might, for instance, accelerate some of the reforms
he started but that Fidel and his entourage didn’t support. I’m thinking
especially of the US-Cuba normalization process. Fidel didn’t
particularly like this, he didn’t stand in the way of the process but he
did make a couple of critical comments about the process of
reestablishing diplomatic relations with the US.

In about a year from now, [Raúl] has declared that he wants to retire
from the presidency and that has led to all kinds of speculations as to
who’s next in line. Miguel Díaz-Canel, the vice president, seems to be
the heir to the throne, so to speak, although some people speculate that
it might be somebody from the Castro family itself and the inner circle
— we don’t know that yet either.

But if he does retire there’s still the question as to whether he will
remain as the first secretary of the Communist Party, which is really
the power behind the throne, or as the commander-in-chief of the armed
forces, and it doesn’t look like he’s going to let go of those very
powerful positions. So, there might be a new president who doesn’t
really have control over the main institutions in Cuba (the , the
Communist Party), and become the figurehead of the Cuban government.

Then when you go, you find yourself being treated sometimes as a
foreigner, sometimes as a Cuban. You have to pay more, you have to use
the more expensive currency — there’s all kinds of experiences that make
you feel like you’re not at home.

What I think is now at a crossroads is the question of what kind of
relationship Castro will establish with the new US administration. Raúl
has restated that he’s willing to negotiate, that he’s willing to talk
to the new government like he had said before with the Obama
administration, but there hasn’t been much in the way of a response from
Washington either, so it’s kind of a standstill at this point. And it’s
unclear where the Trump administration wants to move with this, or just
keep it the same or return to December 16, 2014.

Mendiguren: You’ve written extensively about Cuban identity and the
diaspora. Can you explain the cultural and political divide between
Cubans and Cuban Americans — do you think that this chasm can be
reconciled into one national identity?

Duany: It’s a long history of love and hate between Cuba and the US. In
fact we just held a conference where we used what I think is a good icon
of that relationship. It’s an image of a cigar box from Key West,
Florida, in 1898, that shows the symbols of Cuba and the US as these
very strong women giving each other the gift of tobacco — a cigar —
which was then processed in Key West and sold to the US market.

And that of course alludes to migration to the US from Cuba, which is
really a long and protracted process. It began more than a century and a
half ago with the Cuban War of Independence against and continued
throughout the first half of the 20th century. It became massive after
1959, so these very strong historical and cultural links between the US
and Cuba, particularly with Florida, are now stronger than before.

And despite the lack of diplomatic relations and the lack of economic
ties between the two countries over the last 60 years or so, you do find
links between the two places. For instance, travel between Miami and
Havana is very strong now; depending on your sources it could be as many
as 400,000 people of Cuban origin based in the US traveling to Cuba for
a visit. The telephone calls, the remittances, the money that people
send their relatives to the island is in the millions of dollars —and
then more recently, I think as part of this opening about, the
increasing number of artists, musicians, writers and even academics who
have expanded and strengthened these personal and family links between
Cubans on and off the island.

Now, the division is still very much there and all kinds of restrictions
are still difficult to overcome, including visas and passports. Since I
was born in Cuba, I have a very difficult time traveling there because I
either have to get a Cuban passport, which I don’t have right now (I’m
still waiting for one since I applied in July, but no response yet), or
I can apply for a one-time only Cuban visa, which is very expensive.

Then when you go, you find yourself being treated sometimes as a
foreigner, sometimes as a Cuban. You have to pay more, you have to use
the more expensive currency — there’s all kinds of experiences that make
you feel like you’re not at home.

Yet at the same time, you were born there, you have family, and you’re
familiar with the culture, the language, the and the music. In any
case, it’s an issue for many Cuban Americans of various generations,
both my own generation and my children’s generation, to decide for
themselves in terms of their identity and how they want to define
themselves. If you’re a US citizen but your parents were born in Cuba,
even the issue of traveling to Cuba is a major dilemma. I know that a
lot of young Cuban Americans won’t go to look for their roots on the
island because their parents or grandparents went through such a
difficult, traumatic experience that they don’t want to offend them.

In fact, some FIU students will wait until their parents and
grandparents have passed so that they respect that experience. This
issue of identity of the second generation and the links between the
island and the US are very intractable. They’re still difficult to
overcome especially in this, what seems to be, a Cold-War division
between Cuba and the US.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not
necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Source: Cuban-American Relations in 2017 –
www.fairobserver.com/region/latin_america/cuba-america-relations-trump-castro-news-20170/

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