Friday, October 20, 2023

Johana Tablada Opens Cuba's Door

Cuba seeks to thaw Biden administration’s cold shoulder

"We are open and willing for more cooperation. We want to turn this relation into a relation not of aggression, but to a relation of respect, respect, cooperation. And also I don't think it's too much to ask the U.S. what they ask of every country: The United States will not even dream and Americans will not ever dream of another country intervening in their domestic affairs," said Johana Tablada.

Cuban officials are megaphoning their intent to open wide-ranging negotiations with the Biden administration amid persistent economic pain and growing emigration from the island.

The public relations offensive is a new tack for the communist government, frustrated with a stagnated bilateral relationship.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Hill at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, Tablada laid out the official Cuban perspective on U.S. attitudes toward the island and why their appeals for formal talks have been met with deaf ears.

“We always say, ‘OK, let’s talk about it seriously. Let’s put everything on the table with no exception.’ But it is very clear that the limit — in our opinion — is political will and electoral politics,” said Tablada.  

Cuba’s top priority is no secret: For the past three years, the island’s officials have publicly urged the Biden administration to remove the country from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Cuba was included in the list in the waning days of the Trump administration, raising the bureaucratic and political barriers the Biden administration would have to overcome to return to the Obama administration’s policy of rapprochement.

So far, the Biden administration has shown no willingness to open that political can of worms.

But Cuban officials say inclusion on the list also bears political costs for the administration.

“It triggered, immediately, a disproportional flow of migrants to the U.S.,” said Tablada.

She said including Cuba on the list also hurt the country’s social services network and is “a discredit to the commitment of the United States to fight terrorism,” given existing cooperation between Washington and Havana on law enforcement and terrorism.  

The Hill has reached out to the Biden administration for comment.

While the Trump administration’s Cuba policy was intended to reverse the Obama administration’s rapprochement, it only pulled the trigger on the terrorism list 10 days before President Biden took office.

“The inclusion of Cuba — fraudulent — in the terrorist list failed in its main object because the logic was the logic of [former Trump adviser] Mauricio Claver-Carone that the blockade is not working because it’s not perfect,” said Tablada.  

“So if you twisted and twisted enough to make the economic siege and financial siege perfect, the Cuban economy will collapse.”

The Cuban economy took a hit — on top of preexisting economic troubles — especially as foreign banks withdrew from the island rather than risk U.S. sanctions. The economic collapse did play a part in triggering massive protests on July 11, 2021, which Cuban officials say were allowed to take place, though international observers such as Amnesty International say “authorities responded with repression and criminalization.”

The degree of repression and the nature of the protests — economic, political or both — are debated, but the aftermath of economic collapse is not.

“So they failed in toppling down the Cuban government, but they were very successful and effective in harming the Cuban population. Results: More than 200,000 people emigrated from Cuba in just one year,” said Tablada. 

Another factor in increased emigration from Cuba was the country’s reform two decades ago to liberalize who could get a passport in the country, essentially dropping Cold War-era restrictions on Cubans leaving the island.

“Since the 1960s the migratory issue has been highly politicized, so I think that the change occurred 20 years ago, precisely as a sign of maturity — because it was the right thing to do,” said Tablada.  

“And also because I think it was a sign of the many things that we’ve been changing in Cuba for the last 20 years as part of our national debate,” she added, pointing to other popular reforms on the island, including the 2022 referendum to legalize gay marriage.

But Cuba’s system of government has been, since 1959, a barrier for U.S. presidents — with the exception of former President Obama — to directly negotiate with the island.

That notion frustrates Cuban officials, who note the United States carries on formal political and trade relations with other Marxist-Leninist one-party states and former Cold War rivals such as Vietnam, and even with current U.S. rivals.  

“China. Because the U.S. has a better relationship with China than with Cuba. Honestly,” said Tablada.

And from the Cuban perspective, a one-party state willing to discuss human rights, prisoners, migration and trade but not regime change would make a more suitable partner to the United States than other countries.

“[The] U.S. has political, diplomatic, economic relations with countries that are far, far, far away in their standards of human rights [from] where Cuba is right now. And I don’t want to mention any names, because we probably also have good relations with them.”

“But you can easily realize that that’s not the real object. If the real object of the United States toward Cuba priority would be human rights, the blockade would be removed because it’s hurting us too badly,” added Tablada.

Though Cuban officials meet with their U.S. counterparts on a number of issues ranging from patrolling the Straits of Florida to the environment, those meetings are restricted to specific topics

“What we have is just the [tip of the] iceberg of multilateral cooperation. This week, I visited different entities of the U.S. government or Justice Department. And I’ve met with other departments — I won’t mention which ones because I don’t want them to be subpoenaed to Congress,” said Tablada.

She said that light touch, added to the historical distrust between the two governments, amounts to a dysfunctional relationship between close neighbors.

“U.S.-Cuba relations are completely out of control; [they] are completely far away from the national interest of the two people, and as a signal today of distinction, a huge flow of migrants and a state of denial of the United States government that does not like to accept that there is a direct link between this,” said Tablada.

“I’m not talking about the 60 years of the embargo. I’m talking of the brand-new 200-and-something unilateral, coercive measures during Trump and Biden that trigger the highest emigration away from Cuba to the U.S., which is painful for us.”

Cuba has ‘urgent’ need for sanctions relief, island’s diplomat tells U.S. officials 


A Cuban diplomat met with a top State Department official last week in Washington D.C., a previously unreported meeting that underscores renewed efforts by the Cuban government to seek relief from U.S. sanctions as the economic crisis in the island deepens. On Oct. 10, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Eric Jacobstein met with Johana Tablada de la Torre, a top official dealing with U.S.-Cuba relations at the Cuban Foreign Affairs Ministry. According to a State Department spokesperson, the officials discussed “diplomatic facilities, consular services and irregular migration.” The spokesperson said human rights, a focal point of tension between the two governments, were also part of the agenda. Jacobstein “pressed Deputy Director Tablada for Cuba to release the approximately 1,000 unjustly detained political prisoners incarcerated and to allow Cubans to exercise their fundamental freedoms,” the State Department official said. In an interview with The Hill, Tablada said she “visited different entities of the U.S. government or Justice Department. And I’ve met with other departments — I won’t mention which ones because I don’t want them to be subpoenaed to Congress.” The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security did not reply to emails seeking information about the meetings. In interviews with U.S. outlets, Tablada said her trip had one purpose: to improve relations with the United States and persuade the Biden administration to lift sanctions that she says are affecting Cuba’s population. “Relations are not going very well,” she told CNN en Español. She said Cuban authorities were “trying to improve relations, move towards a more constructive position…and also honestly, trying to imbue our counterparts in the government, in civil society, in the United States Congress of the urgency we have to change the policy of United States towards Cuba at least in some of the aspects that are most difficult today and that have a greater impact on the lives of the citizens.” Cuba is under a long-standing U.S. trade and financial embargo, though exports of food, medicines and other supplies for the benefit of the Cuban people are authorized. Cuban officials continue to voice their frustration that President Joe Biden has kept in place sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. Those measures effectively pushed the Cuban military out of the business of remittances from abroad, a significant revenue stream for the Cuban government. In particular, they have insisted on Cuba being removed from the list of countries that sponsor terrorism, which they said has further scared banks, creditors and companies from doing business with the communist island. The country is going through dire times, with shortages of food, medicines and oil and a crumbling infrastructure that cannot provide essential services. The government fought islandwide demonstrations in July 2021 with a crackdown—which Tablada denied at the time— and new legislation banning criticism of the authorities and the Communist Party. More than 400,000 Cubans have fled the deteriorating situation to come to the United States in the past two years, a historical migration wave that Tablada squarely blamed on U.S. sanctions. While sanctions have contributed to the current crisis, reducing the flow of money going to government coffers, experts also point out several other factors, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the slow recovery of tourism, dwindling support from Venezuela, a poorly implemented monetary reform that led to soaring inflation and, ultimately, the government’s reluctance to embrace broader market reforms to increase food production and attract foreign investment. The Biden administration has said it has facilitated sending humanitarian aid to the island and is focusing on supporting an emerging private sector that could help meet the population’s needs. Last month, U.S. officials signaled they were getting ready to announce regulations allowing Cuban private entrepreneurs to open bank accounts in the United States to facilitate their operations. But the official announcement has been inexplicably delayed. One main obstacle to better relations with Cuba remains: the fate of hundreds of peaceful anti-government protesters and dissidents who are in prison. Despite repeated calls by the U.S. government, the European Union and the Vatican, Cuban authorities have signaled their unwillingness to release them unless the gesture is reciprocated by the Biden administration taking Cuba off the list of sponsors of terrorism. Repeating Cuba’s main talking points on the issue, Tablada said the United States has used human rights as a justification for its harsh policies on Cuba. She was not asked about the release of the political prisoners. Cuba’s diplomatic push comes amid some changes in the U.S. policy landscape towards Latin America and the Caribbean and a broader discussion about the efficacy of sanctions. On Tuesday, the United States welcomed a deal it helped broker between the Nicolas Maduro government and the opposition in Venezuela. A State Department spokesperson told the Miami Herald that the administration is willing to consider “modifications to U.S. sanctions” if the Maduro regime takes concrete democratic reforms and meets conditions for free and fair elections in 2024. Tablada’s trip to Washington came after U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, a Cuban American, was forced to quit his chairmanship of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as he faces bribery charges and accusations of having acted as a foreign agent for Egypt. Menendez has been a fierce advocate for maintainig the sanctions on the Cuban regime. His replacement, Sen. Ben Cardin, is perceived as being more willing to work with the Biden administration on foreign policy issues. In that context, Tablada appealed to the administration’s more pragmatic approach to dealing with authoritarian governments. “[The] U.S. has political, diplomatic, economic relations with countries that are far, far, far away in their standards of human rights [from] where Cuba is right now,” she told the Hill. “And I don’t want to mention any names, because we probably also have good relations with them.” But she mentioned China “because the U.S. has a better relationship with China than with Cuba. Honestly.” 

NORA GÁMEZ TORRES 305-376-2169 Nora Gámez Torres is the Cuba/U.S.-Latin American policy reporter for el Nuevo Herald and the Miami Herald. She studied journalism and media and communications in Havana and London. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from City, University of London. Her work has won awards by the Florida Society of News Editors and the Society for Professional Journalists.