Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Carlos Alzugaray Reflects on Obama's Visit


Learning from history: five years after Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba

Although he did not achieve all that he was pursuing with regard to Cuba, there is no doubt that Obama’s new policy opened a path of rapprochement with the island.

“The peoples who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat their mistakes.”

Paul Preston, British Hispanic historian

Susan Rice, current director of the Domestic Policy Council in the Joe Biden administration, was the second and last National Security Advisor to Barack Obama between 2013 and 2017. Although she had no public participation in the negotiations or in the execution of what was agreed between Raúl Castro and Obama on December 17, 2014, she was involved in the decision-making process. In fact, in her memoirs she said that she was a supporter of the broadest possible engagement. Rice highlighted the importance of that agreement saying that the joy for this historic policy change and its flawless execution were the culmination of her term as national security adviser, adding that it also turned out to be a longed-for turning point and that after a year and a half of relentless challenges and very few clear triumphs, a success that was a marvel of the next to come had finally been achieved.1

In the first installment of his memoirs, “A Promised Land,” former President Obama acknowledged that advisers from two different generations coexisted in his administration. Some, like Hillary Clinton, were staunch supporters of Cold War belligerent positions; others, such as Dr. Rice herself (who was his Ambassador to the United Nations in the 2009-2013 period), or Ben Rhodes, the architect of the negotiations with the Cuban government, had gravitated towards his electoral campaign “precisely because I was willing to challenge the assumptions that we often called the ‘Washington Playbook’”; that is, a traditional way of looking at American national security. Among these forms he cited several examples: “the policy on the Middle East, our position on Cuba, our aversion to diplomatic dialogue with our opponents.”

Obama le habla a Cuba: «Sí se puede»

This perspective helps to better understand two of the most controversial passages that the president used in his speech on March 22, 2016, five years ago, from the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana, broadcast live on Cuban national television . The first of these passages was:

“I know the history, but I refuse to be trapped by it.”

And towards the end he reiterated that concept with a whole paragraph in which he expressed the same idea:

“The history of the United States and Cuba encompass revolution and conflict; struggle and sacrifice; retribution and, now, reconciliation.  It is time, now, for us to leave the past behind.  It is time for us to look forward to the future together, a future of hope.”

What he meant—and he repeated—is that he refused to view the Cuban issue with the confrontational attitude typical of the Cold War. It was an appeal to all. The fact that he said it in Havana did not mean that it was a phrase only for the Cubans who live on the island.

The dissenting reaction of many Cubans regarding this phrase is largely explained because the prevailing perspective among Cubans who live on the island is that the conflict with the United States has not been motivated by the Cold War, but by a long history of U.S. hostility toward the existence of Cuba as an independent nation.

Hence, many considered that the president’s reference was an unwarranted appeal for not knowing the history. However, these assessments ignored the references that the president himself made to his personal career and to the fact that he was aware that the United States had caused harm to the Cuban nation.

The dissenting reaction to those phrases ignored what was likely the central message of the speech, something that no pre-1959 president had ever said:

“I’ve made it clear that the United States has neither the capacity, nor the intention to impose change on Cuba.  What changes come will depend upon the Cuban people.  We will not impose our political or economic system on you.  We recognize that every country, every people, must chart its own course and shape its own model.”

That position was reiterated in the Presidential Policy Directive — United States-Cuba Normalization that President Obama issued on October 16, 2016:

“We will not pursue regime change in Cuba. We will continue to make clear that the United States cannot impose a different model on Cuba because the future of Cuba is up to the Cuban people.”

On the other hand, since he began in national politics, Barack Obama has opposed the economic blockade and has insisted that it should be lifted unconditionally. He thus ratified it until the end of his mandate, in the last speech of the State of the Union, on January 13, 2016 before a joint session of Congress.

If President Obama’s attitude towards Cuba was bold when deciding to reestablish diplomatic relations and visit Havana, so was Raúl Castro’s, who agreed to start the normalization process without previously lifting the blockade.

The handshake in the Cuban Palace of the Revolution between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama marked another historic moment in bilateral relations. Photo: AP
The handshake in the Cuban Palace of the Revolution between Raúl Castro and Barack Obama marked another historic moment in bilateral relations. Photo: AP

It is probable that the then Cuban president was guided by that warning of José Martí in his essay “Honduras and the Foreigners,” published in Patria on December 15, 1894, in which he referred to “Our America” ​​but also to the America that is not ours, “whose enmity it is neither sane nor viable to foster, and of which with firm decorum and shrewd independence it is not impossible, and it is useful to be a friend.”

Although he did not achieve all that he was pursuing with regard to Cuba, there is no doubt that the new policy of President Obama opened a path of rapprochement with our country. In this sense, he issued a series of presidential orders that expanded the possibilities for economic contacts, although it must be recognized that they were insufficient when compared to the dense network of regulations that prevent them.

What followed the 2014-2017 opening is already known. Under the administration that succeeded him, most of what was agreed was reversed and 240 sanctions or unilateral coercive measures were adopted, even after the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak. There was also something that may have very negative repercussions: a substantial transformation in the state of opinion of citizens or residents of Cuban origin in South Florida, who went from supporting Obama’s policy to accepting and applauding the new aggressive sanctions and measures.

At the end of the first quarter of 2021, with Joe Biden in the high command of the White House, relations between the two countries are frozen and have not changed one iota from how the previous president delivered them, with several specifications It is worth remembering: unfairly, Cuba was once again included in the list of state sponsors of terrorism; under the pretext of the so-called “sonic” incidents, the staff of the embassies of both countries was reduced and the U.S. consular section in Havana was closed, which affects Cuban and Cuban-American families; Title III of the Helms-Burton Act was put into effect for the first time since its existence; and all the general licenses issued by President Obama as a method of making holes in the blockade were canceled.

The Biden administration has gone no further than stating that the measures taken by his predecessor are being reviewed, but that this is not a priority. Meanwhile, the debate on Cuba policy within the U.S. political system has intensified.

¿Puede Biden terminar lo que Obama comenzó?

What lessons do these events leave us? I will suggest the following as hypotheses:

  • The window of opportunity that opened with the new United States rapprochement with Cuba under Barack Obama was too short to allow time to substantially modify relations. Given the cyclical and, in some cases, seismic movements of U.S. domestic politics, any future opportunities must be seized by all stakeholders interested in normalizing relations. Given the prevailing obstacles, even a four-year presidential term might not be enough.
  • In Cuba, particularly in the governmental milieu, there was no consensus in assessing the nature and significance of the steps taken by President Obama, including his visit. For many it was a change of methods, but not of purpose. For others it was an opportunity that had to be seized.
  • Neither did certain sectors in the United States, especially among Cuban-American emigration, value the magnitude of the steps taken by the Cuban government.
  • There was excessive confidence that the reestablishment of diplomatic relations would “reinforce” the established ties against any attempt to revert them. They had to be complemented with a greater economic linking, although it must be recognized that two years would not be enough. The hardest things to overcome are old mindsets and prejudices, especially after 55 years of virtually uninterrupted hostility.
  • Even taking into account the above, it can be concluded that the economic possibilities offered were not used optimally. At this point it is valid that the economy has a decisive weight over the political. Stronger economic ties—among others—with sectors of emigration would have strengthened relations.
  • There was an underestimation of the role that Cuban emigration could play and the importance of advancing in the relationship with it, considering it an integral part of the nation. This migration turned out to be very volatile. In 2016, substantial majorities approved of Obama’s policy and voted for Hillary Clinton. Undoubtedly, due to the prevalence of the Cuban anti-government discourse during the last four years, these majorities have been substantially eroded. It will take time and work, both from Washington and from Havana, to reverse that trend.



1 See: “Tough Love: My Story of the Things Worth Fighting For,” p. 416.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Editorial Board of on Biden and Cuba


Editorial Board

Biden Should Return to Engagement With Cuba

It would benefit ordinary Cubans and put the onus on the regime to respond.


Editorial Board

March 11, 2021, 8:00 AM EST


House Democrats are reportedly pressing President Joe Biden to reverse U.S. policy on Cuba once again, returning to the detente that prevailed before Donald Trump took office. Biden should indeed take the first steps toward renewed openness — and put the onus on Cuba’s Communist leaders to respond.


As with so many of his predecessor’s policies, Trump was quick to declare the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba a “bad deal” and began dismantling it wholesale, imposing or re-imposing more than 200 restrictions on travel, trade, and financial and diplomatic ties. The clampdown won Trump votes in southern Florida, but by almost any other measure it failed. Cuba’s Communist regime remains firmly entrenched. If anything, it’s grown even more dependent on U.S. rivals Venezuela, Russia and China. Hardliners in Havana have continued to crack down on dissent. Cuban entrepreneurs flourished when Americans were allowed to visit the island, but the combined impact of revived U.S. restrictions and the pandemic have left them struggling.

None of this serves U.S. interests. Under Obama, the U.S. and Cuba struck more than 20 agreements that addressed U.S. security concerns, on issues ranging from counter-narcotics to the environment. Biden should open the door to renewing such cooperation.

That will require lifting Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which the Trump administration imposed in its closing days with no real justification. Biden will also need to restore frayed diplomatic ties — appointing an ambassador, staffing up the U.S. embassy (taking additional security precautions while the cause of a mysterious illness that struck U.S. diplomats in recent years remains under investigation), and resuming consular services so Cubans can travel to the U.S. again. The two sides should cooperate on public health to combat the pandemic and restart talks on security issues.


Further opening should focus for now on improving the lives of Cubans on and off the island. The administration should lift restrictions on remittances. And it should allow travel to the island, because American visitors are good for local enterprise. That means permitting flights to cities other than Havana and people-to-people exchanges, while drawing up a shorter “restricted list” of entities with which Americans are forbidden to do business.


Cuba shouldn’t expect the U.S. to lift more targeted sanctions, however, let alone the decades-old embargo — whose provisions are now codified into U.S. law — unless it begins to move, too. Among other things, that means addressing certified claims for property seized after the 1959 revolution, now estimated at nearly $9 billion with interest. Cuba’s leaders should play a constructive role in resolving the Venezuelan crisis and improve their record on human rights at home. The government has recently taken some steps to rationalize the country’s currency system and promote the private sector, but should do more to open the economy to outside investment. The Communist Party transition next month, when 89-year-old Raul Castro is scheduled to step down, offers a moment for the regime to affirm its intention to reform.

Stubborn and suspicious as they may be, Cuba’s leaders should remember two things. First, all these measures are in their nation’s own best interests. Second, any thaw in relations will be temporary unless Biden can point to results. The Cuban regime made a big mistake in failing to build on Obama’s initiative, leading many in the U.S. to conclude that engagement was pointless. The next detente will fail unless it benefits Americans and Cubans alike.


To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg Opinion’s editorials: David Shipley at .

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Biden-Harris Petition Follow-Up

Update 4/11/21 

Following is an English translation of the full interview with Juan Gonzalez, the top ranking Western Hemisphere person at the National Security Council:

"On the subject of the visas, we have a promise, like you referred to, to process 20,000 immigrant visas per year based on the migratory agreement. We are not fulfilling that at this moment because we have to make sure that our personnel at the United States embassy is safe, and that they are not in danger of microwave attacks, or, I don't know what they're calling it today. That is the focus. The president also, during the campaign, clearly said that his commitments were to lift limits on travel and remittances, but to be very direct with you, Juan Carlos, it´s that, Joe Biden is not Barack Obama when it comes to his politics towards Cuba. I think that both, the political moment has changed in an important way. There has been a closing in the political space because the Cuban government has not responded in any way and in fact the oppression against Cubans is worse today than maybe it was during the Bush administration. So, I think that, at this moment these are the commitments that have been made. They will get done at some point, but we are focused on various crises around the world and on the situation domestically. But those who think that the United States, in this moment, is going to enter a dialogue of multiple years with Cuba, I think that they don´t understand the political moment of today, the situation in which we are living, or frankly, I'd say that the disorder we inherited from the previous administration, that might not be where we will invest our initial political capital or the time of this administration."

Contrast this with Gonzalez' interview with Univision pasted below.

There is some discussion about whether this is Gonzalez' own view, and ignorance of history, or reflects higher level opinion in the White House, but below that of the President and Vice-President. 

Does he or they not know that the Black Spring took place during the Bush Administration when Cuba responded to deliberate provocation with the arrest, show trials and imprisonment of 75 dissidents?

It certainly raises serious doubt about how much they really care about the well-being of the Cuban people or of their families in the US who can no longer provide desperately needed remittances or bring them here for family reunion visits or immigration.

Using the Havana Syndrome excuse for no immigrant visas is pure Trump.

Gonzalez casually blows off the campaign statements of Biden and Harris when they promised to "promptly restore" Obama's policies.  Whether or not Joe Biden is Barack Obama on Cuba, he is not Donald Trump and Gonzales should not be Mauricio Claver-Carone.

"Done at some point" is morally and politically unacceptable.  Cuba policy is a salient example of the "disorder inherited from the previous administration".  Inaction cannot be excused by other priorities.

Hopefully Gonzalez on-the-record statement will provoke enough angry response that it leads the Administration to want to show it was not true.

The same vehicles suggested below still apply.  Make your sentiment about Gonzalez' interview known on the White House contact form and by asking for action by your Representative and Senators.

--John McAuliff

1)  Use the White House contact form to personally convey your views.  If you were a campaign supporter (phone bank, donations, letter writing. etc.), mention what you did.  Explain why it is important to you (and to people you know in Cuba) to stop the delay in restoring Obama travel and trade policies

2)  If your Representative or Senators support engagement with Cuba, go to her or his web page and click on Contact.  On the form post as appropriate the link to the letter by Rep. Jim McGovern to the President or the statement by Senator Patrick Leahy

Ask he or she to send a similar letter to the White House or forward McGovern's or Leahy's with a note of endorsement.  Mention your reason for asking, personal experience in Cuba, etc.

House members could also be asked to make their own McGovern style floor speech

New Resources
Pod Save the World  Broad ranging discussion between key Obama negotiator Ben Rhodes and Ric Herrero of the Cuba Study Group at 58.42

US-Cuba Bilateral Relations Under the Biden Administration  Panelists: Richard Feinberg, UC San Diego; Michael Bustamante, Florida International University; Javier Corrales, Amherst College; Ted Henken, Baruch College, CUNY; William LeoGrande, American University. Moderator: Margaret Crahan, Colombia University.  Recorded on 03/25/2021


Biden-Harris Administration Statements

On the problematic side, Jan Psaki said in a White House briefing on March 10

Perhaps because of complaints, Ned Price said this at the State Department a day later:

Department Press Briefing - March 11, 2021 - United States Department of State

QUESTION: Hey, Ned. On Cuba, the White House says a policy shift with Cuba is not a top priority for President Biden. Does that mean that the administration finds value in the current policy, or is it quite literally just not a top priority and something that you imagine you’ll get to later?

MR PRICE: It is a policy that we are reviewing. Secretary Blinken spoke to this yesterday. He spoke to the core principles that animate that review.
First, support for democracy and human rights will be at the core of our efforts, because we believe it is the means to empower the Cuban people to determine their own future; and second, as we’ve said before, we also know that Americans, especially Cuban Americans, are in most cases the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba. We are committed to both of these principles. Our review is being animated by both of those principles. We have also committed – and you heard this from Secretary Blinken up on the Hill yesterday – to consult closely with members of Congress as we undertake this review. So it is not that – it is not that this is in any way on the back burner. It is something we’re looking at very closely, and as that review progresses, we’ll consult with members of Congress. And when we have something to share, we’ll let you know.

The Secretary of State's responses at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee the day before are also worth listening to.  He adroitly mollified his hostile Cuban American questioners although they will try to hold him to their interpretation of what he said.

[Use the "Search this transcript" box for "Cuba".  The transcript itself is not 100% accurate but clicking on each arrow gives you the video.]

Secretary Blinken did not let himself be boxed in but it was unfortunate his only Cuba questions came from hard line opponents of normalization.  Why were our allies on the Committee silent?

Univision Interview with Juan Gonzalez, National Security Council Western Hemisphere Director 2/5/21

The Latin American director of the National Security Council was also consulted on biden's political approach to Cuba. In this regard, he said that the president "is also very clear that he seeks to lift the boundaries to remittances and also the possibility of Americans being able to travel to Cuba."

Gonzalez criticized the policy tightening towards the island maintained by the previous government, noting that they "only penalize American Cubans and the Cuban people in the middle of a pandemic," because many families were prevented from sending money to their relatives, and Trump "did nothing to try to advance a democratic future in Cuba."

"President Biden and spokes staff (Jen) Psaki have made it clear that his policy is based on two things: what are the national interests of the US and number two, what is the policy that will help put Cubans as owners of their own future."

State Department Press Briefing  2/5/21

QUESTION: Oh, great, thanks. The EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, called on the Biden administration to reverse Trump’s redesignation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terror. I’m wondering, has the State Department made a decision to do so yet? Or if not, and it’s still under review, what does that review entail, and do you have a timeline on when that review might be wrapped up? Thanks.

MR PRICE: Well, let me speak a little bit about our overall overarching policy when it comes to Cuba, and it’s a policy that will be governed by two principles. First is the support for democracy and human rights. It will be at the core of our efforts through empowering the Cuban people to determine their own future. And second, we believe that Americans, and especially Cuban Americans, are the best ambassadors for freedom and prosperity in Cuba. We’re committed to making human rights a core pillar of our U.S. foreign policy. That certainly applies to Cuba, just as you’ve heard me reference it across the board, and includes redoubling our dedication to human rights throughout our own hemisphere.

Despite, human rights defenders around the world continue to look to the United States to – for support against authoritarian regimes. This is one of those issues that we will continue to rally our allies and partners against. And in the administration we’ve also committed to carefully reviewing policy decisions made in the prior administration, including the decision by the outgoing administration to designate Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. I wouldn’t want to go into any further details. But as we take a look at this issue into our broader policy with Cuba, those principles will continue to be front of mind.



On-line zoom briefing 

"Mapping Out Change:
The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement"
Originally on line Friday, February 26, 2021  2:00 p.m. - 3:30 p.m. ET

Organized by Center for Democracy in the Americas and Washington Office on Latin America

Congressional sign on letter to the President

Sponsored by Representatives Rush, Cohen and Moore.  Supported by 80 members of House.  
Text and signers here  

Cuba Study Group
A Case for Making Engagement Resilient as a Means of Providing Long-Term Support for the Cuban People
32 pages, view by clicking here

The United States and Cuba: A New Policy of Engagement
28 pages, view by clicking here

"56 Groups Urge the Biden-Harris Administration to Take Immediate Action to Normalize U.S.-Cuba Relations"
View sign-on Letter by clicking here 

Open Letter to President Biden organized by La Joven Cuba
For English version with initial signers, click here 
For Spanish version with 800 signers including many prominent Cuban intellectuals and artists, click here.


Articles of Interest

The Editorial Board of  persuasively argues the case for the distinction between restoration and review of Cuba policy here

That will require lifting Cuba’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, which the Trump administration imposed in its closing days with no real justification. Biden will also need to restore frayed diplomatic ties — appointing an ambassador, staffing up the U.S. embassy (taking additional security precautions while the cause of a mysterious illness that struck U.S. diplomats in recent years remains under investigation), and resuming consular services so Cubans can travel to the U.S. again. The two sides should cooperate on public health to combat the pandemic and restart talks on security issues.

Further opening should focus for now on improving the lives of Cubans on and off the island. The administration should lift restrictions on remittances. And it should allow travel to the island, because American visitors are good for local enterprise. That means permitting flights to cities other than Havana and people-to-people exchanges, while drawing up a shorter “restricted list” of entities with which Americans are forbidden to do business.


"Biden to resume remittances, travel to Cuba, but other Obama-era overtures will take a while"
  by Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times  2/12/21

Now the Biden administration says it will lift some of Trump’s restrictions on business and travel between the U.S. and Cuba, and renew diplomatic talks.

But President Biden’s initial actions will disappoint advocates longing for the more robust relationship that was emerging in the Obama years.

Although he promised during the campaign to aggressively reverse Trump’s Cuba policy, Biden’s plans will have to roll out more slowly than some of his advisors had hoped....

Since Biden assumed office, his aides have become more circumspect about the plans for Cuba, repeating publicly that the policy is “under review.”

However, Juan Gonzalez, an Obama administration alum who is now head of Western Hemisphere affairs for Biden’s National Security Council, last week confirmed broad strokes of the new policy.

Biden’s “commitment on Cuba is to lift the limitations on remittances and make possible the travel of Americans to the island,” he said in Spanish to Spanish-language news channel Univision.

Cuban Americans move to try to influence Biden’s new U.S.-Cuba policy
The right wing rallies mostly Republican forces in Miami to try to prevent restoration but includes videos from Senator Menendez and Rubio, click here

Cuba opens door to most small business initiatives

By Marc Frank  Click here

HAVANA (Reuters) - In a major reform of the state-dominated economy, the Cuban government will allow small private businesses to operate in most fields, eliminating its limited list of activities, state-run media reported on Saturday.