Washington and Havana have taken the first steps toward normalizing relations after half a century of estrangement, but many tough issues remain to be resolved, and time is of the essence. President Obama has only two years left in his presidency, and Raúl Castro has only three. The pace at which the two presidents make progress will determine whether their rapprochement survives the coming successions.
No one expects Cuba’s leaders to dismantle their political system and adopt multi-party electoral democracy in exchange for better relations with the United States. That’s the demand Washington made for decades while trying to coerce Cuba into compliance. As President Obama pointed out in announcing his new policy on Dec. 17, 2014, it just didn’t work.
That said, there a number of things Cuba can do to move the normalization process forward without compromising its sovereignty. The steps below flow directly out of the 18 months of secret talks between Washington and Havana. Except for the last, they are things to which Cuba has already agreed in principle but has not yet done.
Send a broadly representative civil society delegation to the Summit of the Americas.
After blocking Cuban participation in past summits, the United States is now prepared to welcome Cuba to the Seventh Summit in April — if Cuba is represented at the civil society consultations that are part of the summit process. Working with the host country, Panama, Cuba should assure the United States that its delegation is broadly representative of its robust civil society, which is not limited to self-proclaimed dissidents (as the U.S. government has sometimes thought) or to official mass organizations (as the Cuban government has sometimes implied).
No civil society organization is more important in contemporary Cuba than the Catholic Church, and under Cardinal Jaime Ortega’s leadership, the church has developed a good working relationship with the government. Together the church and state should put together a civil society delegation that reflects Cuba’s diversity of views, including artists, writers, independent entrepreneurs, trade unionists, women, students, clergy, and laity.
Cooperate with the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In the secret talks with the United States, Cuba agreed to increase its cooperation with the ICRC and UN. The ICRC is interested in resuming inspections of prison conditions, which ended in 1989. In 2013 the UN Human Rights Council made 290 recommendations to improve human rights practices on the island. Cuba should move quickly to allow ICRC visits to resume and announce what additional steps it will take in response to the UNHRC recommendations. The sooner Cuba fulfills these commitments, the harder it will be for opponents of normalization to wield the human rights issue to derail the process.
Expand Internet access.
Cuba has the lowest Internet access rate in Latin America, limited by both infrastructure deficiencies and political concerns — concerns exacerbated by USAID’s attempts to build digital networks outside the government’s control and use social media (including the infamous ZunZuneo message service) to foster opposition. Nevertheless, Cuba’s leaders have concluded that the Internet is indispensable for economic development and are publicly committed to extending access throughout the nation.
Obama’s decision to license the sale of U.S. telecommunications equipment and services gives Cuba the opportunity to rapidly expand the island’s meager bandwidth. It will be good for the Cuban economy and do more to reduce the alienation of youth than any other policy the government could adopt. To be sure, the pace of expansion will depend in part on how eager U.S. telecom companies are to jump into the Cuban market, but Havana can put negotiations with the Cuban telephone company (ETECSA) on a fast track if it wants to. The first agreement, between ETECSA and IDT Telecom, is a good sign.
Facilitate U.S. trade with the private sector.
Commerce with Cuba’s growing private sector is another area in which President Obama has licensed an exception to the embargo. President Bill Clinton did something similar in 1999 when he licensed sales of agricultural inputs to Cuba’s private farmers, but Havana refused to cooperate and the initiative fizzled.
Raúl Castro’s new economic model envisions a dynamic private sector that provides significant employment and contributes to economic growth. Cuban agriculture, in particular, would benefit from access to inputs from the United States. With Cuba’s cooperation, this exception to the embargo could become an even larger source of trade than the sale of food, which peaked at $710 million in 2008. Large-scale trade will also solidify the U.S. business community’s support for lifting the embargo entirely.
However, managing U.S. trade with hundreds or even thousands of small businesses will represent real challenges for Cuba’s state bureaucracy. Cuba should prepare now for the deluge of inquiries from U.S. exporters, because nothing stifles international trade and investment as effectively as an unresponsive government bureaucracy.
Work with the United States to refocus democracy programs.
Washington’s programs to promote democracy in Cuba stem from the 1996 Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act (Helms-Burton), which also wrote the embargo into law. The unequivocal goal of Helms-Burton is regime change, so the Cuban government has always regarded these programs as irredeemably subversive. It passed laws making any cooperation with Helms-Burton a criminal offense.
Cuba demands an end to these programs, but U.S. officials have been equally adamant that they are not going away. Those same officials are well aware, however, that the covert and provocative nature of the programs is incompatible with the new relationship President Obama is trying to build with Cuba. Therein lies an opportunity to reorient the programs away from regime change, instead focusing them on supporting authentic ties between Cuban and U.S. civil society — ties not manufactured or manipulated by government.
The United States has programs around the world that seek to strengthen civil society openly, with the knowledge and at least tacit consent of host governments. If Havana were willing to work with Washington to refocus the democracy programs in a way that is not an affront to Cuban sovereignty, a very large stumbling block on the road to normalization could be removed.
The burden for making faster progress toward normal U.S.-Cuban relations does not fall solely on Havana, of course. There are many things Washington could and should do to accelerate the process. But as President Obama comes under political attack for getting “nothing” in return for his opening to Havana, Cuba’s leaders have an opportunity to demonstrate that Obama made the right call — that engagement and coexistence produce results.
William M. LeoGrande is a co-author, with Peter Kornbluh, of Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana (University of North Carolina Press, 2014).