Tag Archives: International Relations

U.S.-Cuba: Where Things Stand

U.S.-Cuban negotiations aimed at restoring full diplomatic relations between the two formerly hostile countries have seemingly stalled once again. The latest round of high-level talks, held at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. over the course of several days last week, reportedly failed to produce significant progress, and formal mutual embassies in the American and Cuban capitals remain unopened.

Thanks to several recent breakthroughs in the diplomatic normalization process, including President Barack Obama’s decision last month to remove Cuba from the U.S. State Department’s infamous list of state sponsors of terrorism and the Cuban government’s resulting acquisition of much-needed banking services for its U.S. diplomatic mission with the Florida-based Stonegate Bank, the opening of embassies in Washington and Havana in the very near future seemed like a viable possibility ahead of last week’s talks. That said, American and Cuban negotiators in D.C. were unable to overcome critical disagreements over the degree of freedom that U.S. diplomats operating in Cuba should be afforded.

The Cuban government argues that the journalism training courses and information technology that American personnel at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana regularly provide to Cuban dissidents is illegal, specifically violating a Vienna Conventions ban on diplomats meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. They demand an immediate end to the practice and also want to maintain existing restrictions on Cuban-based U.S. diplomats’ freedom to travel outside of Havana. Persistent discord between American and Cuban negotiators over these contentious issues effectively neutralized last week’s talks in Washington.

Speaking to the press in the wake of the most recent negotiations, Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. State Department’s top official for Latin America, stressed the need for Cuba to conform to her country’s standards of diplomatic procedure: “There are a range of ways in which our embassies operate around the world in different countries…We expect that in Cuba, our embassy will operate within that range. It won’t be unique. It won’t be anything that that doesn’t exist elsewhere in the world.”

The authoritarian Castro regime, which strictly prohibits most types of subversive media in Cuba, is justifiably fearful that certain American diplomatic, aid and intelligence staff operating in Cuba are bent on fomenting anti-government sentiment among the population of the Caribbean island. The U.S. has a well-documented history of relentlessly attempting to oust the Castro government since it took power in 1959, and provoking a regime change or, at the very least, reform in Havana remains an avowed central goal of White House’s current diplomatic normalization and democratization efforts in Cuba.

Though the most recent round of negotiations between the U.S. and Cuba appear to have been decidedly unimpactful, representatives of both governments were optimistic about the overall progress of U.S.-Cuban diplomatic normalization in their statements to the press following the meeting. Furthermore, they refused to write off the talks as a failure. Josefina Vidal, Cuba’s director of North American affairs, called the negotiations “respectful and professional,” while Jacobson described them as “highly productive.” Neither party was willing to go into detail about substance of the negotiations.





Cuba Removed From U.S.’s State Sponsors of Terror List

Cuba will finally be removed from the U.S. State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism according to statements by White House officials on Tuesday. The announcement comes on the heels of a historic face-to-face meeting between American President Barack Obama and Cuba’s Raul Castro in Panama over the weekend during the Summit of the Americas -a multilateral regional conference attended by representatives from the Cuban government for the first time this year.

Cuban officials have consistently cited the U.S. government’s continued designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism as a major obstacle to the preservation of the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement so recently publicly initiated by President Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro. The White House’s pronouncement today promises to reignite this, seemingly stalled, process of diplomatic reengagement between the two formerly hostile governments and paves the way for the long-awaited opening of formal embassies in Washington and Havana.

More broadly, the State Department’s stubborn and persistent inclusion of Cuba on its infamous list has become something of a diplomatic embarrassment for the United States, uniting Latin and South American governments in opposition to what many see as a politically-motivated, outdated policy of U.S. imperial hostility toward the Caribbean nation. Cuba’s removal from the list can only serve to improve relations between the U.S. and its neighbors to the south.

“We will continue to have differences with the Cuban government, but our concerns over a wide range of Cuba’s policies and actions fall outside the criteria that is relevant to whether to rescind Cuba’s designation as a State Sponsor of Terrorism,” White House press secretary Josh Ernest explained to the media.

Cuba’s material and moral support to anti-colonial, nationalist and/or leftist third world insurgent groups first landed it on the American government’s state sponsors of terrorism list in 1982. Today, only Iran, Sudan, Syria and Cuba remain on the State Department’s list. 

A 2013 State Department report found “no indication that the Cuban government provided weapons or paramilitary training to terrorist groups” in recent years, a conclusion supported by public statements made by former Cuban president Fidel Castro in 1992 renouncing Cuban support for insurgents abroad. Since a government needs to have engaged in terrorist activity in the past six months to be included among the State Department’s designated state sponsors of terror, Cuba’s removal from the list is only natural. 

Still, there will be a 45-day review period before Cuba is officially stricken from the list, during which time opponents of the move, and of President Obama’s Cuba policy generally, in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives could abort Cuba’s prospective re-designation with a joint resolution. Congressional opposition to closer ties between the U.S. and Cuba is bipartisan, but is especially strong among segments of the Republican Party. Earlier today, one of the more vocal critics, Florida Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, decried the White House’s decision in public statement. She argued that Cuba’s removal from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terror “would be nothing short of a miscarriage of justice borne out of political motivations not rooted in reality.”

Another hardliner, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, formally announced his 2016 presidential bid yesterday. 



Slowdown in Negotiations Between the U.S. and Cuba

In an interview with Reuters on March 2, U.S. president Barack Obama expressed his desire to reopen an American embassy in Cuba before the April 10-11 Summit of the Americas in Panama City -this year marks the first time that the Cuban government has been invited to that particular summit.

“My hope is that we will be able to open an embassy, and that some of the initial groundwork will have been laid” by the time of the regional conference, the president optimistically explained.  

Several weeks later, and with the date of the summit fast approaching, neither the U.S. nor Cuba appear any closer to reestablishing official embassies in one another’s countries. On the contrary, the process of diplomatic normalization so recently initiated by the two formerly hostile governments has now apparently stalled. 

A third round of talks between the U.S. and Cuban governments, held in Havana on March 16, disappointed many when it failed to produce a target date for the reopening of embassies. Unlike after the previous two talks, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, and the director of U.S. affairs for the Cuban Foreign Ministry, Josefina Vidal, -who each lead their respective delegations during the negotiations- did not speak publicly following the talks’ conclusion. Subsequent statements by both governments regarding the outcome of the talks were decidedly muted.

“At the end of the meeting, which took place in a professional environment, the two delegations agreed to maintain communication in the future as part of the process,” Ms. Vidal later told the press, failing to mention any concrete progress resulting from the talks. 

“We’re open to it,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki cryptically told reporters after the talks when asked whether the U.S. would open an embassy in Cuba ahead of the regional summit in mid-April, striking a much more cautious tone than the president’s earlier pronouncements.

Both governments maintained their commitment to holding further negotiations in the near future.

One critical stumbling-block slowing down diplomatic normalization efforts between the two countries is Cuba’s continued presence on the U.S. government’s list of state sponsors of terror. In the past, Cuban officials have cited Cuba’s removal from the list as a prerequisite for the full restoration of relations. 

Additionally, American and Cuban governments remain starkly at odds over developments in Cuba’s top ally Venezuela, a country which U.S. recently placed new sanctions on, and it may be this issue that undermined the seemingly fruitless recent talks in Havana. 

Not so, says Cuban academic and longtime diplomat Carlos Alzugaray however, who was quick to dismiss the notion that disagreements over Venezuela could seriously threaten the restoration of diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba.

“It will always have some impact, but I don’t see any signal from Cuba that it is not interested in moving forward, nor do I see it from the United States.” Alzugaray told reporters. “For me, those are the accepted rules of the game.”


Venezuelan Stumbling Block

American hostility toward socialist Venezuela -a longstanding Cuban ally- could seriously undermine the U.S. and Cuban governments’ fledgling diplomatic normalization efforts. In a strongly worded statement published in Cuba’s official media outlet Granma on Tuesday, the Cuban government offered “unconditional support” to struggling Venezuela and condemned the newest set of sanctions imposed by the U.S. on that country as “arbitrary and aggressive.”

The statement also derided the American government’s claim that Venezuela poses a national security threat to the United States and ultimately attributed the recent sanctions to “the interventionist nature of U.S. foreign policy.”

“Thousands of kilometers away, without strategic weapons and without employing resources nor officials to plot against US constitutional order, the [White House’s] statement is unbelievable, and lays bare the intentions of those who have come up with it,” the statement said.

The new sanctions -implemented through an executive order on March 8th- freeze the American assets of seven high-level Venezuelan security officials and ban them from doing future business in the U.S. The order cites ongoing human rights abuses by the Venezuelan government and Venezuela’s deteriorating civil society as having prompted the sanctions.

“This is an implementation of what we’ve been working on for months, which is cracking down on those who are violating human rights and abusers and those who are cracking down on civil society,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday. 

Last month, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro arrested and jailed Mayor Antonio Ledezma of Caracas -a prominent leader of Venezuela’s political opposition- for allegedly planning a U.S.-sponsored coup. U.S. officials denied accusations that Ledezma’s arrest precipitated this week’s new sanctions or that they were attempting to engineer a Venezuelan coup.

In 2002, the U.S. government supported and was involved with a short-lived coup in Venezuela that temporarily drove Maduro’s predecessor Hugo Chavez from power. Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington D.C.-based Centre of Economic and Policy Research, argues that the U.S. government has cumulatively spent hundreds of millions of dollars on attempts to topple Venezuela’s socialist government throughout the past 15 years.

Despite its history of hostility, the U.S. is Venezuela’s largest trading partner. The U.S. relies on Venezuelan crude oil and can’t afford to implement the same kind of trade embargo on the country that it currently maintains on Cuba. Even so, the U.S. government remains highly critical of President Maduro’s regime, especially with regard to its apparent mismanagement of Venezuela’s economy in recent years.

President Maduro, in turn, maintains that the U.S. and its allies are conducting an economic war against Venezuela -and Russia- by flooding international energy markets with cheap oil in an effort to drive down global gas prices and cripple his country’s economy, which -along with Russia’s- is highly reliant on oil exports. He says that the effort is part of a larger conspiracy by the U.S. government to punish and oust the Venezuelan and Russian governments -both of which regularly buck Washington’s foreign agenda.

“It’s a strategically planned war … also aimed at Venezuela, to try and destroy our revolution and cause an economic collapse,” Maduro said on Venezuelan state TV.

The degree to which these developments will impact the U.S. and Cuba’s diplomatic reengagement is unclear at this point. The Castro government’s unflinching support for President Maduro’s regime may complicate future negotiations. 




Soccer Diplomacy

In a welcome respite from the tedious political machinations that have thus far characterized the recent process of diplomatic reengagement between the U.S. and Cuban governments, the New York Cosmos will reportedly be traveling to Havana in the coming months for an exhibition match on June 2nd against the Cuban national soccer team. The prospective game marks the first time in 16 years that an American pro-sports team will play on Cuban soil; the Baltimore Orioles beat Cuba’s national baseball team 3-2 in a similar exhibition match in 1999 -only to lose in a subsequent return game against the Cuban team in Baltimore a few weeks later. There is hope among many that the upcoming match in June -along with other cultural exchange initiatives like it- will help to establish links of friendship between the Cuban and American populations and encourage further diplomatic normalization efforts by the governments of both countries. 

The all-star Cuban team that the Cosmos will be facing-off against will feature players preparing for July’s Concacaf Gold Cup -an international soccer tournament held every other year featuring teams from the Caribbean and North/Central America.

The Cosmos may be a second tier American team, but their current rooster includes soccer titans Raúl and Marcos Senna -two former Spanish World Cup stars- along with a number of famous players from Central and South America. That line-up, along with a strong international brand, make the Cosmos a sensible pick for June’s groundbreaking match.

Though the Cosmos have frequently played the Cuban national soccer team in past international matches, June’s game will be the first time that they actually set foot in Cuba. Their most recent match with the Cuban team took place in Sandy, Utah during the 2013 Cocacaf Gold Cup and was a win for New York. The coming exhibition game will take place during a lull in the New York team’s regular North American Soccer League schedule.

Prior to the 1959 Cuban Revolution, visits from American teams were a regular feature of the Cuban sports scene. Throughout the 40s and 50s baseball teams like the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Yankees frequently held their spring training in Cuba. All of that changed after the implementation of the U.S. embargo in 1960, which severely restricted American travel to and trade with Cuba for the next half century and into today. 

Cuba’s traditional national pastime is baseball, and the Cosmos allegedly had to beat-out the Boston Red Sox in their bid to be the first American sports team to play in Cuba in more than a decade. Former Cuban leader Fidel Castro is personally a baseball fanatic and the country maintains a system of official state-sanctioned baseball fan clubs. Even so, like in the U.S., soccer is growing increasingly popular there, and the choice of an American soccer team -as opposed to a baseball one- for June’s honor is further evidence -if only symbolic- of the changing nature of the U.S. and Cuba’s previously hostile relationship.