Monday, December 7, 2020

The Battle Over Biden's Cuba Policy

Post-election Pressure on Biden-Harris

Not surprisingly, there is debate within the Biden-Harris transition team on how quickly to implement  pledges to restore the Obama travel policy on Cuba.   In part this is in response to pressure coming from those who opposed the previous opening but supported Biden over Trump.

a top Biden foreign policy adviser told Reuters on condition of anonymity last week that the Democrat would "reverse the decisions that are separating families, limitations on family travel and remittances" if he won the White House.
But the adviser added that while the incoming president wants to "empower" the Cuban people, "we can't turn back the clock to January 2017."

The most explicit negativity came from John Kavulich a long term critic of Obama's policies who asserted within days of the election that, for reasons of domestic politics, relations, "will not soon return to the United States-Republic of Cuba bilateral commercial, economic, and political landscape that existed prior to 20 January 2017".  He predicted continued restrictions on remittances and severe limits on travel by non Cuban-Americans as well as prohibitions on cruises and use of hotels and state owned restaurants.

Such published reports led to a level of passivity within the industry.  Travel Agent Central reported

After assuming office in 2017, the Trump Administration undid President Barack Obama’s moves to restore U.S.-Cuba relations, including the move to open up travel as far as the law allowed (which ASTA supported). A top Biden foreign policy adviser reported that Biden would reverse these decisions by Trump, but it wouldn’t happen overnight. “Given all that will be on President-elect Biden’s plate next year, we expect action on Cuba to come slowly,” ASTA says.

Juan Triana is a prominent reform oriented economist in Havana.   Surprisingly in an On Cuba article he seems to have been totally taken in by Kavulich -- unless he is trying to overcome any tendency in the Party to avoid making necessary changes because the door is reopening to the US.

On the other hand, at least two members of the Biden "landing team" for the State Department were deeply involved in the Obama policy of engagement.  And Robert Malley, President of the International Crisis Group, a prominent foreign policy adviser to President-elect Biden, wrote in a New York Times Op Ed

"A few words in Mr. Biden’s inaugural speech about his commitment to multilateralism, diplomacy and human rights would set the right tone. On Nov. 4, the Trump administration officially withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, but Mr. Biden can easily rejoin it on his first day in office, as he has vowed to do. He can prevent our withdrawal from the World Health Organization, which doesn’t take effect until July 2021. The new president can also restore President Barack Obama’s Cuba policy, reaffirm the United States’ commitment to NATO, and replace Mr. Trump’s partisan and often unqualified appointees. But there is only so much low-hanging fruit... 

This is not determinative, but a just retired member of Malley's board is Jake Sullivan who will become National Security Adviser.  Malley and the new Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have been friends since high school in Paris.

The priority Biden and Harris give to fulfilling their pledges on Cuba will be partially based on their own convictions and partially based on how they expect it to play in their first days in office .  They know there will be loud criticism from old-guard Cuban Americans and allies in Congress when they take action.  In addition to the strong national poll data favoring restoration of Obama's policies, they need to hear from people who elected them about how important immediate action is for the recovery of the US travel industry and for the well being of Cuban providers.



An AP story which appeared in the Washington Post only quoted anti-engagement sources on Biden's position on remittances.

I made this comment to the Post and to AP: 

The Trump-Rubio Administration has delivered its final vengeful act against Cuban Americans who are more loyal to their families than to hard line exile politicians.

John Kavulich and Andy Gomez are either guilty of wishful ideological thinking  or of seeking to create disinformation to disquiet pro-engagement majorities in the US and Cuba.
The third expert source cited by AP, Manuel Orozco, is also suspect when he predicts "that it would take a minimum of six months" to restore remittances.  His employer Creative Associates International is infamous for the ZunZuneo regime change project undertaken covertly in Cuba with democracy funding from USAID.

In less than two months the Biden Administration will begin as promised during the campaign to restore the Obama policies of engagement with Cuba.   High on their list will be unlimited remittances through established channels and general licenses for travel to Havana and regional cities, and, when covid permits, cruises.

As Robert Malley, Biden adviser and head of the International Crisis Group, wrote in a November 11th Op Ed in the New York Times, "The new president can also restore President Barack Obama's Cuba policy, reaffirm the United States' commitment to NATO, and replace Mr. Trump's partisan and often unqualified appointees", all "low hanging fruit".
AP should seek more reliable sources about the intentions of the Biden administration. 


Reasons to move quickly on Cuba

1)  the private sector of casas, paladares, drivers, artists, handicraft makers, etc. in Cuba is desperate

2)  they will benefit most from independent travelers and group tours organized by independent Cuba specialist agencies that will be quickest off the mark of legal reopening

3)  it will reinforce the space that seems to be opening within economic reforms for Cuban SMEs in the travel sector

4)  the big multi-destination tour operators and the cruise lines, university faculty-led programs and cultural exchanges require lots of lead time to get up to speed; the earlier they know legal travel is back, the sooner they can start packaging and promoting it, necessarily months in advance

5)   it is a high visibility and doable symbol of Biden's determination to undo Trump's damage and a morale booster for his supporters even if they are not interested in Cuba per se (his higher priorities will be harder to accomplish)

6)  public opinion is more strongly in favor of restoration of normalized travel than about the complicated higher priority issues

7)  anti-Trump steps restoring the rights of Cuban Americans (remittances, regional flights, visas for reunions and immigration) are equally popular in the community despite voting patterns

8)  announcing both steps affecting Cuban Americans and the rest of us at the same time shows that Biden does not distinguish between two kinds of Americans (national interest rather than special interest)

9)  delay will create distrust in Cuba, enabling Party hard liners to confirm the nonsense from Kavulich, that the Biden Administration wants to releverage steps already taken and exploit their suffering, shortages and economic reforms for additional political goals; trust is essential for solving the mysterious maladies and other bilateral differences

10)  quickly Undoing the Damage creates momentum and space to Build Back Better by the summer (Leahy and McGovern travel bills, comparable Ag legislation) 


The Russian Dimension

The Cubans went from enthusiastic friendship and multi-level political, economic and personal relationships to deep disillusion when the Soviet Union collapsed.  The incredible hardship of the Special Period in the 90s was caused by the end of Soviet/COMECON subsidies.  There was also ideological dissonance between Cuban socialism and Russian capitalism.  The super-ugly Russian embassy in Havana was not very occupied and with some acrimony the Russians closed down the Lourdes electronic spying center targeted at the US in 2001.

Putin visited Cuba in July 2014 and Russia canceled 90 percent of the island's $35 billion debt. 

His visit was overshadowed by the potential relationship with the US that began with the Obama-Castro announcement of normalization of relations on December 17, 2014.  US tourism accelerated as a growing sector of both the state and private economy and a process began that could lead to the erosion and repeal of the embargo. 

The first big reversal under Trump was the effective shutdown of the US embassy and consulate in Havana in September 2017, ostensibly because of sonic attacks that began in late 2016.   All of the US theories of cause have fallen apart.  The most credible case for cause was made by medical examinations and scientific investigation of Canadians who suffered similar medical problems.  Canadian specialists at Dalhousie University identified chemical nuerotoxins as the cause of all of their problems. You can find the scientific information here.   

Their theory of the source was extra insecticide sprayed by the Canadians to protect against zika.   This politically convenient theory is not sufficient. Jeff Delaurentis, the head of the US embassy at the time, said the US did not undertake similar spraying.  An alternative theory is topical application in homes and hotel rooms where symptoms were experienced.

Given the Russian proclivity to using chemical weapons applied to surfaces, they are an obvious focus of suspicion, including by Senator Rubio although without this explanation of means.  The consequence of the withdrawal of US intelligence operatives (the initial target) and diplomats certainly benefited the interests that Putin had begun to rekindle before the Obama-Castro breakthrough.

However, Trump's embrace of Rubio hard line exile politics did not have real teeth until John Bolton and Mauricio Claver-Carone were in the NSC in 2018-19.  During the Guido shadow war with Venezuela, threats of US military intervention were made and it was suggested that Havana was their real target.  The Cuban response was to move closer to the Russians, the only game in town as a geopolitical balance.  That culminated in President Diaz-Canel's October 2019 visit to Moscow.  As AP wrote:

Russian-Cuban ties are still far from the Cold War era of near-total Cuban dependence on the Soviet bloc, which saw the island as a forward operating base in the Americas then largely abandoned it in the 1990s. But observers of Cuban and Russian foreign policy say there is a significant warming between the former partners, prompted in part by the Trump administration’s reversal of President Barack Obama’s opening to Cuba.

Cuba and Russia are also heavily supporting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, whom the U.S. has been trying to overthrow.

Speaking to Putin, Díaz-Canel said his government considers developing ties with Russia its top priority and hailed a recent visit by Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. “We observe the growing role of Russia that resists the U.S. attempts at domination,” he added.

The picture that accompanies the AP story is of a glum Diaz-Canel and a happy Putin.

Notable is that the Diaz-Canel welcomed Biden's victory early in the process.  Has Putin even now?

Perhaps as a side note, Fiona Hill observed during her impeachment deposition that the Russians were suggesting they would recognize US Monroe Doctrine prerogatives over Venezuela and the Western Hemisphere if we extended the same authority to them over Ukraine.   I assume the Cubans noticed.

Like other aspects of Trump's policies that have benefited the Russians, there are obviously other factors and motives at play.  The gain for Putin in Cuba may be purely coincidental but it is worth deeper investigation. 

Clearly if Biden-Harris follow through quickly on their campaign pledges, the dynamic will change.  The restoration of the embassy and the consulate will require some resolution of the medical problems.   Some stories appeared in October that pointed the finger at the Russians, but still on the sonic wave premise.   

The National Academies of Sciences (NAS) finally produced a scientific assessment that the State Department tried to hide for four months. It was "leaked" to NBC and to the New York Times in December. The full report can be downloaded here or read on-line here. The conclusion that was acknowledged as only "the most plausible mechanism" alleged that "directed, pulsed radiofrequency energy" was responsible but did not identify the source. The State Department acknowledged that "each possible cause remains speculative".

The more credible study produced by Dalhousie University was dismissed by NAS on pages 20-23.

Neither government has been particularly forthcoming. The Trump Administration fled the scene of the crime, completely surrendering to its perpetrator. It provided limited evidence to the Cubans, enabling them to dismiss the charges as phony or psychosomatic. It appeared that neither side wanted to find out what really happened or who was responsible.  If it turns out the Russians were responsible using chemical toxins or unknown pulsed radiofrequency energy, I do not expect that to be stated publicly but the Cubans will make sure the attacks are not repeated.

We can throw into the mix with absolutely no basis for linkage except my fevered imagination a November 16 post election raid by one branch of Cuban intelligence (military) on the headquarters of another branch (state) as reported by right wing exiles in Miami

 A May 2019 Foreign Policy article by Rebecca Bill Chavez, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs under Obama, described the impact of Trump sanctions on Cuba.  Salient excerpts:

By exacerbating the economic downturn in Cuba, Trump and his ideologically driven national security advisors are pushing Cuba into the arms of China and Russia. ...
This super-embargo won’t hasten a democratic transition in Cuba. Instead, it will help both China and Russia achieve their stated policy goals of expanding their influence in the Americas. ...
As deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs under Obama, I witnessed firsthand the benefits of his policy of engagement with Cuba for U.S. security, including cooperation in areas such as counternarcotics, migration, cybersecurity, and military medicine.

No comments:

Post a Comment