By Helen Yaffe on March 31, 2023
In January 2023, Dr José Ramón Cabañas travelled to Britain to talk about his book, US-Cuba Relations: The Inside Story of the 2014 Breakthrough. Dr Cabañas was head of Cuba’s US Interests Section on 17 December 2014, when Presidents Raúl Castro and Barack Obama announced rapprochement and the restoration of diplomatic relations. His new book explains the background and significance of this historic moment in international relations. Helen Yaffe caught up with Cabañas in London.
Helen Yaffe: What is your view of the current state of Cuba-US relations? Can you put this in a historical perspective?
José Ramón Cabañas: Between 2015 and 2017 we created the foundations for any future negotiations between Cuba and the United States. There are accomplishments that go beyond the MOUs [Memorandums of Understanding] for instance. One clear message is that Cuba was, and is, ready to talk on several subjects any time you come to the table with respect and reciprocity. That has been a consistent position of Cuba. What happened under Trump goes beyond Cuba-US relations, with very conservative political forces trying to erase any legacy from the previous administration, increasing political polarization in the United States.
The Trump administration didn’t press so hard in the first two years. But from 2019 and 2020, Cuba was not treated as an independent subject, it was linked to US strategy against Venezuela. Late 2019 and 2020 they had the perfect scenario; the effects of an enhanced blockade and the Covid-19 pandemic combined. It was about waiting and seeing; a little more pressure and then that’s it.
HY: Meaning the collapse of Cuba’s revolutionary government?
JRC: What they didn’t get in 1962, what they didn’t get in 1992; it goes in 30-year cycles. It should have happened around 2020, but it didn’t. Biden was elected and his national security team inherited the vision of the region. The United States’ Cuba policy has been a bipartisan policy for many years. Over the years they have elaborated a state policy towards Cuba, which is basically to change the status quo, and the only debate is about how to do that; putting pressure and the military option, or by being friendly. Obama was the second option in general terms.
Most of Biden’s team and his bureaucrats had participated in many decisions and actions taken under Obama. But they inherited that approach; to wait for another six months, or a year. They confirmed Trump’s last-minute decision to put Cuba back onto the US list of countries that allegedly sponsor terrorism. They waited for the implosion in Cuba. They believed ‘something will happen, we don’t have to do anything’. It didn’t happen when they planned it [July 2021]; they reprogrammed for the end of 2021. It didn’t happen again. Then there were consequences. If you don’t comply with the migratory agreements and you put enormous economic and political pressure on Cuba, what do you expect? If you impose a war on Libya, or Iraq, you have immigrants as collateral damage. The same thing happened in Cuba. It’s not a war where you hear guns but the consequences are basically the same; migratory flow, as has happened in the past. There were a large number of immigrants from the island, but total numbers include Cubans from third places going to the United States as well. Cubans here in the UK, or in Spain, or Europe in general, Central America, they said: ‘opened doors…that’s it.’ So the figure is large but not all migrants were going directly from Cuba.
Migration is always an important subject for them in terms of national security, but there were other issues. In US Federal agencies, officials involved in technical subjects, not political declarations, for instance law enforcement, started to ask: what did we accomplish by doing this? For instance, last year we provided information to US authorities about 57 Cuban Americans involved in drug trafficking in the Caribbean, from Central America into the United States. Seven of them were included on Interpol’s ‘red alert’. We received no answer from US authorities. This does not impact Cuba, but we traced information that is relevant to prosecute them in the United States which is where the narcotics are going.
Finally, some clever guys said ‘we didn’t accomplish anything. We have no control over the migratory flow, and we are missing opportunities to fight criminals, to enforce legislation’. That is not to mention cooperation in the fields of medicine, health or the sciences in general, and more pragmatic fields like civil aviation. There are flights to Cuba and over Cuba to other destinations, and they need to check information with us. Not to mention climate change, oil spills in the Caribbean, hurricanes. That is a pragmatic list, most of the subjects related to the MOUs we signed, and you have a lot of experts involved. In addition, polls in the United States show that most people want a different approach to Cuba. I am not referring to the semantic debate about ‘normalisation’ – no one knows what that is. But at least communication, at least specific cooperation.
There are small signs that they recognize the need to talk on these issues. There were talks on migratory issues (in April and November 2022), US law enforcement experts recently went to Cuba (in January 2023). They are not enforcing limits on scientific and cultural exchanges; more people are travelling from universities and research centers. These are signals of a very partial reversal of Trump’s maximum pressure strategy. But the window is 12 months.
HY: That’s related to the US election, right? How do you assess the recent small steps taken by the Biden administration on the issue of migration in January 2023 and to what extent is it linked to the US electoral cycle?
JRC: These decisions are positive but limited. We have to wait and see. In the United States you have a statement, then you have legal norms – how they are written – then you have interpretation of the norms, and finally, you may have a legal judgment. You have to go through four different steps.
The statement itself is not that meaningful, but it is something a little different from what we got before. There are more official talks. The important factor in the midst of this is the Latin American and Caribbean context and how Cuba fits there. The Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles was basically a fiasco. Despite having Latin America experts in the State Department, in National Security, or whatever, Biden felt he had to nominate a former Senator (Chris Dodd) as his liaison with regional leaders. The US needs to realign its Latin America policy to face the new scenario; a consistent position from Mexico, changes in Brazil, changes in Colombia.
Former Colombian President Iván Duque criticized Cuba’s relationship with Colombia’s ELN (National Liberation Army) and its role in the Colombian peace process. That was a key pretext for the United States putting Cuba back on its list of state sponsors of terrorism. Now the new Colombian government criticizes this and demands Cuba is removed from the list, so there are no arguments to support Cuba’s inclusion. The scenario has changed dramatically. The new president of Colombia didn’t wait two weeks to state this, he said it on his very first day. It has been said by Colombia’s Minister for Foreign affairs, by Ambassadors, everyone. It’s a message that comes from the grassroots in Colombia, people in communities, people who lost relatives, trade unionists, whoever. It’s a huge message. If you want to have peace and stability, Cuba has been a factor, because it’s a place to meet and negotiate. Cuba has accompanied the peace process. Now, what do they want to accomplish in terms of Venezuela? It has a more comprehensive policy, maybe more constructive. The scenario in Latin America has changed. Let’s remember what happened immediately after the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena (2012).
HY: After that Obama authorized the secret talks with Cuba…
JRC: Obama decided that he was ill-advised on Latin America and he changed the bureaucracy. Biden didn’t decide that, but to nominate Senator Chris Dodd as responsible for Latin America says many things.
HY: It is a positive sign?
JRC. He is a person with a brain, with a huge responsibility. The team that you select to conduct a process is a factor. We were productive and efficient in negotiations between 2015 and January 2017 because they were able to structure a team that found background information and learned how to negotiate with Cuba. From the beginning they said, ‘we know that only through respect and reciprocity will we accomplish something’. And we said ‘Yes, that’s it.’
HY: The United States is alone in the world in sanctioning Cuba; but it uses its leverage over the international financial system to make the blockade of Cuba extraterritorial. Can you explain how it does that? For example, Cuba is excluded from multilateral development banks, so in a scenario like Covid-19 or an economic crisis, it doesn’t have a lender of last resort.
JRC: Beyond being excluded from those mechanisms, the issue is the clearing system based in New York. 90% of international transactions with US dollars go through that system. It is connected with the Federal Reserve, major banks, and so on. Under that system any transaction with the letters C, U, B, and A is automatically frozen, whether payments from the Cuban National Bank or a Cuban living in Spain. Beyond that you have bilateral actions against foreign banks; direct pressure put on people; a phone call to a bank in Japan to tell the CEO, ‘30% of your business is with us, 0.20% of your business is with Cuba. You must decide.’ Cuba has spent many years without being involved in the IMF or the World Bank. We are not a large economy, we can have some space. But putting pressure on creditors, having this automatic response in the clearing system, makes it difficult for us to operate. We went to euros and other currencies, but it is still difficult for us. We are 90 miles away from the United States. We are very close, and we need to use US dollars in many transactions.
HY: You said that this even affects Cubans outside of Cuba, but as you know it affects us all. I am affected as a UK citizen sending money to a Belgian bank account. Last summer, a new international campaign was set up with groups in Britain, Europe and Canada, to challenge the illegal imposition of unilateral US sanctions by non-US banks in violation of those countries’ laws – the 1 cent for Cuba campaign (www.1c4cuba.eu/).
JCR: I know about this campaign. It is very important, not only in terms of the outcome, but more so in terms of informing people about this situation. During the tough period of 2021, I wrote that, ‘what the United States is doing to Cuba is described in the Genocide Convention.’ Some people felt it was too strong a statement. But they reacted without reading it. Please read what the Genocide Convention says. The US impose these limits and pressures on a country with few resources; there are documents from the US government stating that the aim is to put Cuba on its knees. They know many of these transactions are related to health services. People are literally dying, for example, when we could not obtain oxygen. For many families these measures, the blockade, is not abstract. It has a direct impact and people are dying or not recovering from diseases. People who cannot receive a prosthesis, many things. Not to mention the impact on importing food or products that affect food production in Cuba.
In the midst of that our authorities have made a tremendous effort to confront Covid-19, which has been a second blockade. We are used to the regular blockade. Trump enhanced the blockade, and then we had the pandemic. We are a country with limited resources, we don’t have oil, we don’t have gold. We have human capacity, but we don’t have natural resources. How do you face this situation?
Our critics claim that these are the consequences of the failure of the Cuban government. I say this: impose the same limits on any other country, neighboring countries, the United States, countries in Europe. What will the outcome be? How will people react? In many places people would be killing each other to survive. In our case, we have had demonstrations, of course. We have had some people with funding from United States to go to public places, to attack banks and stores, to destroy property. But in the midst of that situation we discussed and passed a new Constitution (2019) and a new Families Code (2022), which went through 24 drafts. A huge exercise in democracy! We know democracy is not related to how many parties you have in parliament.
HY: In November 2022, Cuba’s President Miguel Díaz Canel visited Algeria, Turkey, Russia and China. How important was that trip for Cuba in the current context you described and for strengthening counter-hegemonic forces internationally?
JRC: They were important visits. We have historic links with those countries, and we had the chance to update them. There are new issues and even new wars in the world. The geopolitical map is changing dramatically, and that’s well before what is happening in Ukraine. There are new leaderships. People talk about multipolar world, we prefer to talk about multilateralism because it is not about poles, it is about equality between people and in international relationships and how we face the future. Countries are interested not just in what they can offer Cuba, but what they can receive from Cuba. Many countries are getting ready for the next pandemic. We have gathered knowledge and experience on that and we feel ready for the next one; most countries are not. They would like access to our knowledge and in some cases the discoveries, vaccines, and similar things. There are many other fields in which those countries have an interest in developing links with Cuba, from culture to sports, to science to education, many areas. They have been meaningful visits with concrete outcomes. After the presidential visit, you have experts, ministers, diplomats going, negotiating and signing documents.
HY: China has donated $100 million dollars to help Cuba cope with basic goods shortages and energy crisis.
JCR: It’s meaningful and important, but beyond donations there are specific programs, investment, results that will multiply the effects of the visit.
This interview was originally published in Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 293, April/May 2023.
Helen Yaffe is a lecturer in Economic and Social History at the University of Glasgow, specialising in Cuban and Latin American development. Her new book We Are Cuba! How a Revolutionary People have survived in a Post-Soviet World has just been published by Yale University Press. She is also the author of Che Guevara: The Economics of Revolution and co-author with Gavin Brown of Youth Activism and Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid, Rouledge, 2017.
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