US-Cuba relations have often been the captive of American domestic politics — perhaps never as critically as right now. As Raul Castro continues to delicately tinker with internal reforms and a new US President-elect has already blustered threats, things could get ugly.
Over fifty years and ten US presidencies, relations with Cuba have always been shadowed by suspicion and distrust. Now, just as the Obama administration has turned that around, according to Cuba expert Peter Kornbluh, a new era of confrontation may be on hand.
Kornbluh talks to WhoWhatWhy’s Jeff Schechtman about what might be next.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy, I’m Jeff Schechtman. 54 years ago with the height of the Cold War, John F. Kennedy addressed the nation and said the following:
“Acting, therefore, in the defense of our own security and of the entire Western Hemisphere, and under the authority entrusted to me by the Constitution as endorsed by the Resolution of the Congress, I have directed that the following initial steps be taken immediately:
To halt this offensive buildup, a strict quarantine on all offensive military equipment under shipment to Cuba is being initiated. All ships of any kind bound for Cuba from whatever nation or port will, if found to contain cargoes of offensive weapons, be turned back…
It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States…
Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right; not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.”
It’s hard to imagine that for young people growing up today to see the Middle East at the center of American military and foreign policy concerns. For over 50 years and eight presidents, Cuba had been at the center of American concerns. 90 miles off America’s shores for the entirety of the Cold War it represented the penultimate point were Americans and Soviets were eyeball to eyeball. Today, when celebrities have been traveling to Cuba for awhile, with the doors officially open, most people wonder what all the fuss was about, especially as the current president almost as a bookend to JFK, addressed the nation on December 14, 2014 and said the following:
“In the most significant changes in our policy in more than fifty years, we will end an outdated approach that, for decades, has failed to advance our interests, and instead we will begin to normalize relations between our two countries. Through these changes, we intend to create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people, and begin a new chapter among the nations of the Americas.
Neither the American, nor Cuban people are well served by a rigid policy that is rooted in events that took place before most of us were born. “
Inbetween these two speeches have been twists and turns in American policy, in US Cuba relations, and in American politics, that have profoundly impacted the relationship. nd now perhaps that relationship will be impacted again by the death today of Fidel Castro and the election of a new American president. Few understand all of this better than my guest Peter Kornbluh. Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project at the National Security Archive in Washington. He is co-author of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Nevada. And it is my pleasure to welcome Peter Kornbluh to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Peter thanks so much for joining us.
Peter Kornbluh: Well, it’s a pleasure to be with you on a historic, if sad, day.
Jeff: As we look at the death of Castro and comments from world leaders pour in, to what extent is his death at this point going to affect policy inside Cuba, Cuba’s relationship with the rest of the world, or Cuba’s relationship with the US?
Peter: Well, those are definitely loaded questions. Fidel Castro became an iconic figure, dominated the world stage as you said in your introduction. Certainly the shadow of his influence hung over the last 10 years of Cuban society, march forward under his more pragmatic and more modern forward-thinking brother, Raul. But US-Cuban relations also I think are going to be affected by this turn of events which comes at a very delicate moment in the history of the two countries with the advent of Donald Trump. And so the answer to your three-part question there is that if Cuba itself is going to transition really away from Castros altogether, as Raul Castro himself prepares to step down from power in a couple of years. It remains to be seen if any member of his family will succeed him, or which parts of the Cuban Communist Party leadership will kind of ascend in his wake. But clearly there is a debate in the struggle going on, this factionalism in the Cuban Communist Party about how far to go with these reforms that Raul has started and saw that particularly in the wake of Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba in March of this year, where some hard-liners stepped forward and said, “This is just a Trojan horse approach, killing me softly with your song-type of approach to changing our society in Cuba and we should reject it and tended to want to reject.” Also the move towards privatization as well. Because that frees up kind of independent sectors of the Cuban society. Fidel’s kind of legacy, his principles about socialism, the purism of his approach, will certainly be invoked by I think hard-liners in Cuba that don’t want to go that far forward with significant reforms and modernization that Raul has been leading. And oddly enough, in the wake of Fidel’s death, Raul’s own kind of credibility and reputation, and his own intent to change Cuban society and create a situation for what he calls sustainable socialism will become all the more important. But certainly, there will be a struggle to invoke Fidel’s name and of course Raul Castro is his brother, and so still for at least a couple of years, commands more significant kind of influence in that debate. On US-Cuban relations, the real issue here is that Fidel’s death has kind of elevated Cuba onto the agenda of American politics at a time when it would’ve been much preferable for Cuba to just lay low. The whole issue of communications with the incoming Trump administration becomes a quiet thing for everybody to settle down, and see what Trump is really going to approach this. And instead, you have Trump, you know, having taken the opportunity to say things, not as hard as he could have said them, but so far, but still, implicitly suggesting that he’s going to be much more forceful in trying to change Cuban society and Cuban politics than Obama had been. And of course the Cubans will get worried that the United States, the incoming Trump people, will think that this is some opportunity for them to intervene, one way or another, in Cuban affairs and they’ll become very defensive and very negative and that kind of rhetorical war will escalate quickly. That’s my greatest concern. In terms of Cuba’s relationship with other countries in the region, Fidel had a very prominent legacy around the world, and he gained that legacy for himself and for Cuba by standing up for the anti-apartheid movement, supporting Nelson Mandela before anybody else did, sending troops into Angola to fight the colonial powers in the CIA, sending doctors around the world to help improverished societies. He has a lot of respect, Cuba has a lot of respect in the Third World, and I think that’s going to show in the commemorations and tributes and in the memorial service that Cuba is going to have fairly soon for Fidel. So that’s what I think the situation is now.
Jeff: You’ve written about the degree to which the efforts on the part of the US, the part of the Obama administration to normalize relationships have gone so far at this point that it’s going to be very difficult to put the genie back in the proverbial bottle. Talk about that.
Peter: President Obama deserves a lot of credit that he hasn’t really gotten yet for really going the extra mile to try and support, make irreversible the kind of the normalization of relations with Cuba by opening the portals of diplomacy, evenhanded diplomacy with the Cubans, something hard to imagine Trump emulating, by opening the floodgates of commerce, authorizing direct plane flights for example to Cuba which invests all the airline companies in carrying passengers to Cuba and makes them kind of ready lobbyists to sustain the normalization process, in opening the door for literally tens of thousands of US citizens to go. Even though there’s still technically a travel ban this week, we can all designate ourselves as people to people ambassadors and go to Cuba and many people are doing that. And all of those people have, are also constituency for going forward with the normal relations. So, Obama has tried to build these bridges in the few weeks, couple of years that he had left after his announcement of normalizing diplomatic ties. And then after his trip to Cuba last March, which I had the great honor of going on as well, he had seven, eight or nine months left. Now he’s really got literally six or seven weeks left. So, he’s pushed this forward and deserves credit. The truth of the matter is this pretty much what Donald Trump says however, which is that all because the Republicans in Congress have said no to Obama at every turn, not just on Cuba policy but on just about everything – the embargo still stands. And what Obama has been able to accomplish has been by executive order, and Trump started going around Miami trying to get hard-line Cuban-American votes by saying everything Obama has done by Executive Order can be rescinded and reversed by the next president, and I will reverse his executive orders unless Cuba meets our demands. And one of the lessons of the book that I did with Bill LeoGrande about the whole history of secret talks with Cuba, negotiations with Cuba, is that Cuba doesn’t yield to US demands. That’s not the way we move forward and have moved forward and that’s not the way Obama moved forward. Trump seems to feel that we can make some kind of deal here with the Cubans that gets them to change their political system, and change their independence, in return for lifting the embargo. He’s got to realize that, you know, 10 presidents before him, made that kind of suggestion of the Cubans. They basically said, what Che Guevara said back in 1961 to the first Kennedy emissary, “Our system of governance is not on the negotiating table.” And so we’re just not going to move forward, and what I fear is that we’ll move backwards, particularly if a rhetorical war breaks out between Donald Trump, who is clearly going to be using the bully pulpit of the presidency in a much more bullyish way, than the Cubans who absolutely refuse and have refused for more than 50 years to be bullied by the United States of America.
Jeff: Is there any reason to be hopeful or to think that there’s anything positive in those 50 years of on-and-off behind-the-scenes back channel negotiations, that it set any kind of predicates that could be useful given the pressures that will be brought to bear today.
Peter: There are a whole list of lessons that presidents before Trump learned, and if Trump was patient enough, have the attention span to learn, would greatly benefit him. Obama to his credit learned those lessons. One, was Cubans don’t yield to demands. Two, was it doesn’t mean they’re not interested in negotiating and working with United States, and having a peaceful coexistence with the United States. Quite the contrary. Fidel Castro, even with all the anti-American rhetoric and yelling about Yankee imperialists, actually reached out to every president since Kennedy with some kind of olive branch about modus vivendi in a peaceful coexistence. So the Cubans understand that from a security point of view and just from a validation of the revolution point of view, it would be better to have normal peaceful relations with the classes of the North than to be in a state of perpetual hostility. But they’re ready to be in that state, and they have been in that state for over 50 years until Obama came along and finally understood that it’s not that you make a deal with the Cubans, you move forward because of your own unilateral interest, in the interest of the United states of America, and you say to the Cubans we’re going to move forward because it’s in our interest. We think this is going to have an impact on you down the line, but we’re really not demanding anything of you in return. We need Allen Gross, the prisoner, to be released. And we’d like to see other political prisoners released, human rights improved, but we’re not building quid pro quos here. This is the right thing to do and it’s high time that we do it. And most importantly, treating Cuba with respect and respect for their sovereignty, and respect for their independence, and adopting a tone of equals. Che Guevara at one point back in 1961 said to a Kennedy White House official Richard Goodwin, “Thank you for the Bay of Pigs, you’ve allowed us to consolidate the revolution, allowed us to transform ourselves from an aggrieved little country into an equal.” And Cuba sees itself, even though it’s much smaller, as an equal in international stature to the United States, and wants to be treated with respect. And Obama in his tone, in his approach in the secret negotiations, the public negotiations, has adopted this very magnanimous and kind of evenhanded tone, which I had mentioned, hard to imagine after January 20, 2017. So that’s where we stand. Trump could learn from all of this if he wants to move forward. It remains to be seen if Trump the businessman prevails, understands it’s good for business to maintain positive relations with Cuba. Or Trump the politician, who promised these Cuban-Americans that he was going to roll back the normalization process, and you know, try and get a deal with Cuba and that Cuba meet our demands.
Jeff: The fact that there are diplomatic relations at the moment, that there’s been this exchange of embassies, to what extent can that be helpful?
Peter: It’s very helpful, but it doesn’t necessarily change things if a war of words breaks out. And you have on the one hand a president whose incredibly thin-skinned. And on the other hand a country that has suffered US aggression for over half a century and is very sensitive to the slightest hint of national security threats from United States of America. Let’s not forget that the CIA tried to assassinate Fidel more than a dozen times and that we invaded Cuba, and that we stood poised to obliterate the island during the Cuban Missile Crisis if the Soviets hadn’t pulled those missiles out, and that the embargo was originally intended to squeeze Cuba economically until it imploded. Now the embargo has many holes in it because of Obama’s use of his executive authority to open avenues of commerce, but for many years it didn’t. So the Cubans are kind of used to aggression, and there’s some people, some of the older members of the Castro government even prefer that kind of place in history, of standing up to the classes of the North, but it’s obviously in nobody’s interest, not Cubans, not US interest, to escalate any tensions. But we’re now at a time which is very delicate. We were at a delicate time before Fidel died, and today we’re at an even more delicate time. And kind of the road forward to this incredible process of normalizing relations between, what Wayne Smith once called the closest of enemies.
Jeff: In this process of normalization, has it had as yet any real economic impact on Cuba?
Peter: I think so. I’ve been to Cuba six times this year. I have gone regularly four, five times a year, for the last five or six years. Anybody who has traveled regularly to Cuba has seen a remarkable kind of transformation just on the street since Raul Castro took over from Fidel. And that’s part of this effort to privatize at least part of the economy, open Cuba up. Cuba’s recovered largely from the special period, but it’s in very difficult straits now because of the political crisis in Venezuela. It’s trying to get new kind of suppliers of oil to try to pay its bills so they can get international credit. So Cuba is not out of the economic woods but there’s a dynamism at least to the tourist sector that’s pretty extraordinary, and people are gravitating towards that sector, and to the degree that Raul Castro continues to allow the slow privatization of certain parts of the economy, that’s the degree to which Cuba rebuilds a new kind of resource base for the future, and for the social welfare services that they want to give to their people. They really can’t do it any other way, and that’s why they’re doing it this way. So I think change has happened. Could that change be reversed? Hard to know who’s going to be the authority figure and who’s going to carry this forward. Raul is 86 years old. His brother died at 90. So we’re really talking substantial changes between, over the next 2 to 4 years in Cuba, in terms of leadership. It’s truly unclear who has the authority to move the country forward. And since we don’t know who it is we can’t really say for sure what kind of positions they’re going to take.
Jeff: I guess to your point before whether Trump approaches this from a political perspective or a business perspective really does seem to be a key indicator, because clearly the business opportunities that will present itself are going to be substantial given normalization at the moment.
Peter: You know there was this great story that came out during the campaign of Trump in the 1990s surreptitiously sending a team of businessmen to Cuba to explore the idea of opening casinos there, and illegally paying them for their fees to go to Cuba, and the money that they charged him, upwards of $68,000, completely circumventing and evading the embargo laws, particularly in the 1990s, which said you couldn’t pay people to go to Cuba and try and do business there. And so he clearly remembers the time when he was interested in the hotel industry and the casino industry in Cuba. And you know he’s a guy who’s always had an eye out for making a buck, and you know it’s clear that normalization is better for business, and that Cuba is open for business, than to use the embargo to try and shut off Cuba again. And I think Trump ironically, certainly understands that if you close the doors of US commerce to Cuba, Cubans open it more with the Canadians, the Spanish, and the Mexicans, and the Chinese. Particularly the Chinese. So it’s not particularly in US business interests. And on the other hand he’s a guy who likes to tell other people what to do, and he likes to bully them into doing it, and that’s the formula that worries me the most. There are some countries out there that will deal with him on that level. The Cubans are not one of them.
Jeff: What allies are there that Cuba has at the moment that might be helpful in providing perhaps a buffer between Cuba and the US through all of this?
Peter: I think that’s a very good question. I think you’re going to see the entirety of every major country in Latin America rally together to push Trump to sustain this policy normalization with Cuba because the rest of Latin America, and many other countries, believe that it’s in their interest as well. And those same countries ganged up on Obama when he first became president eight years ago to change the policy. And they certainly were incredibly influential in giving him a stark choice, either the United States accepted the inclusion and return of Cuba into the inter-American system through an invitation to the sum of the Americas, or the rest of Latin America is going to boycott the summit, and all the economic perks and deals and integration that happens at these big meetings was going to go by the wayside because of the Cuba issue. So Obama did understand that the rest of Latin America wanted this to happen. Whether that kind of thing has an influence on Donald Trump or not is hard to tell. He doesn’t strike me as the person who thinks diplomatic argument is significant. He wants to make America great again, and it seems to be defining that as pushing other countries around to make the deal that we want them to make, and as I say, the history of secret talks and negotiations with Cubans, with the Cubans, Fidel Castro, and then Raul, shows that Cuba just isn’t going to be pushed around to make a deal. They don’t do the tit for tat. They don’t do the reciprocity. They don’t do the quid pro quos. They will respond to initiatives but on their own kind of timetable. They certainly are interested in better relations and I know that they hope that this normalization process goes forward.
Jeff: And finally, what kind of pomp and circumstance can we expect to see as Fidel is laid to rest?
Peter: I’ve been trying to explore that today and it seems like there is a whole set of different memorials, kind of citizens participation. There’s an event in Havana, I think, the day after tomorrow. Fidel’s ashes are going to be carried from Havana to the other end of the island, Santiago de Cuba, which is the reverse of the famous revolutionary march that he made in the first week of January 1959, when Batista fled and the revolution triumphed. And he took a caravan of jeeps and drove from Santiago to Havana, and now his remains are going to go back the other way which is kind of a poetic circle. And I know that the older Cubans will appreciate that. And then he’s going to have his ashes interred on December 4th in Santiago de Cuba, and it appears that there’s going to be a ceremony on December 3rd, and a ceremony on December 4th. It’s just not clear to me yet if one of these is going to be a major international event with dignitaries, etc., or if they are all kind of on equal footing depending on who’s where in the country for Cubans to pay their respects to Fidel Castro, the father of the revolution.
Jeff: Peter Kornbluh, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Peter: It was a great pleasure. I hope your listeners get something out of it, and that they stay engaged in the Cuba policy debate.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast, I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate