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Cuban-American Relations in 2017

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April 12, 2017 10:44 EDT

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

Upon Fidel Castro’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 embargo 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 travel, 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 University (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 investment 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 human rights 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 tourism — 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.

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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 army, 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 Spain 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 food 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.

Photo Credit: merc67

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