The Contradiction on Cuba, Mutual Respect vs. Conditionality By John McAuliff

17 July, 2009 — The Havana Note


‘Let me be clear: America cannot and should not seek to impose any system of government on any other country, nor would we presume to choose which party or individual should run a country. And we haven’t always done what we should have on that front. Even as we meet here today, America supports now the restoration of the democratically-elected President of Honduras, even though he has strongly opposed American policies. We do so not because we agree with him. We do so because we respect the universal principle that people should choose their own leaders, whether they are leaders we agree with or not.’ — President Obama in Moscow 7/7/09

‘As you know, we are engaged in discussions with the Government of Cuba about matters that we believe are important – migration, for example. But we have made it very clear that we could not do much more in dealing with Cuba unless Cuba changes. The political prisoners need to be released. Free and fair elections need to be held… So we are opening up dialogue with Cuba, but we are very clear that we want to see some fundamental changes within the Cuban regime.’ — Secretary Clinton interview with Globovision 7/7/09

If the President’s words in Moscow are applied to relations with Cuba, and the US manifests the spirit of ‘mutual respect’ he so eloquently advanced in earlier visits to Turkey and France, the conflict between the US and Cuba is all but over.

However, as Secretary Clinton’s interview reflects, some officials seem determined to fly the tattered flag of conditionality. They insisted Cuba respond to authorization of family travel disproportionately by freeing political prisoners and moving toward approved forms of democracy before the US took any other positive steps. They opposed Cuba regaining its seat in the OAS without such internal changes. Nor, they insist, will the embargo be lifted until this happens (a sentiment unfortunately found in Obama’s own campaign oriented language).

Practical steps are passed over in favor of hoary hostile rhetoric. Spokespersons ignore Cuba’s repeated offer of reciprocal gestures to end imprisonments each side considers political. Denunciations of discriminatory fees for the exchange of dollars are preferred to ending Bush imposed constraints on Cuba’s international financial transactions which prompted the 10% surcharge.

Old language and concepts survive, embodying paternalistic and interventionist attitudes that have plagued US relations with Cuba for more than a century. Conditionality is not only a problem in principle, violating national sovereignty, but is counterproductive when Cuba’s independence from the US has been the focal point of its revolution. Those who advocate it either intend that nothing change, or are ignorant of history.

In part, conditionality is due to political advisers who give priority to accommodating Senator Bob Menendez (D, NJ), no matter how damaging his behavior is to broader Administration agendas. Menendez cost the Administration days of politically damaging delay in passage of the omnibus appropriations bill, put an anonymous hold on key science appointments, frustrated announcement of non-tourist travel, threatened the OAS budget (prompting a misleading Clinton spin of the OAS decision to end Cuba’s suspension), and reportedly opposes confirmation of fellow-Cuban American Carlos Pascual as ambassador to Mexico. (Pascual’s sin is co-leading with Vicki Huddleston the broad based Brookings Institution project which produced the first creative road map for normalizing relations.)

In part, growing unease focuses on the role of the NSC’s key staff member for Latin America, Dan Restrepo. It seems he either has been tasked to pacify old guard Cuban Americans, or has become their agent in the White House. His words have often and gratuitously poisoned the atmosphere, notably in background briefings given for the Cuban American travel announcement, the Summit of the Americas and the OAS Assembly in Honduras. Restrepo uses language about Cuba which is either tone deaf or deliberately provocative, undermining other efforts to overcome fifty years of suspicion and conflict.

Heading in a different direction has been Tom Shannon whose final months as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs confirmed professionalism and regional understanding obscured during his tenure under George Bush. Not least among his accomplishments was the appointment of Jonathan Farrar as head of the US Interests Section in Havana, bringing for the first time since Vicki Huddleston the potential of serious diplomacy on the ground.

A significant change under the aegis of Shannon and Farrar is that Cuban academics, artists and religious leaders are receiving visas again to come to the US. Farrar also brought to Cuba for the first time a non-political Community College scholarship program which is in the normal portfolio of US embassies. (An illustration of the different tone between Shannon and Restrepo on the OAS Assembly can be seen here.)

An important meeting between Cuba and the US was held in New York this week. The public focus was resumption of twice yearly migration talks ended for political reasons by the Bush administration in 2004. The topic is consequential (see excellent article by Nick Miroff here). However both countries had in mind a broader agenda. How far they got largely depended on resolution of the contradiction of mutual respect and conditionality.

When the President focuses personally on Cuba, as he did at the Summit of the Americas, the recognition of reality and openness to a new US role in the world that inspired his supporters, reflects favorably on this most emotionally loaded but yet most resolvable of problems.

— John McAuliff

Adapted from the July newsletter of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development which can be seen here.