Former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega says he thinks the United States will renew diplomatic relations with Cuba soon and that the president will take steps to end the lease on the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay before the end of his term.
But that doesn’t mean he agrees with President Barack Obama’s new policy of engagement with Cuba. “I sincerely pray that President Obama is right in this risky venture. I don’t think he is,” said Noriega, now a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
During a panel Tuesday on the new Cuba policy at the University of Miami Center for Hemispheric Policy’s 10th Latin America Conference, attitudes ranged from Noriega’s doubtful support for engagement to outright condemnation.
The new policy announced Dec. 17 by Cuba and the United States includes renewing diplomatic relations and opening respective embassies. The embargo remains in effect but the United States has allowed more Americans to travel to the island and has proposed a limited commercial and financial opening to Cuba.
“Engagement and activity are the only way to have a semblance of influence in the future of Cuba,” said South Florida executive Carlos Saladrigas, chairman of the Cuban Study Group. “Openness continues to be and has always been the best antidote to totalitarianism that has ever existed. Isolation is absolutely the wrong prescription.”
However, Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart introduced legislation Tuesday to undercut the new Cuba travel policy. A provision attached to a transportation spending bill would block regularly scheduled flights and potential cruise ship travel to Cuba.
José Azel, a senior research associate at UM’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, said the idea that economic engagement can lead to political change in Cuba is “demonstrably false.” The impact of the White House’s new Cuba policy, he said, will be “fundamentally nothing.”
While proponents of the new policy say that supporting Cuba’s fledgling private sector by allowing U.S. trade with cuentapropistas, Cuba’s self-employed, will make them less dependent on the Cuban government and perhaps more likely to demand change, Azel disagreed, saying, “Now they have something to lose.”
The new policy, said Saladrigas, “unleashes a revolution of expectations.” Now, he said, if the Cuban government doesn’t deliver, the Cuban people will be looking at their own officials rather than Washington to blame. Far from offering concessions to Havana, the new policy “challenges the Cuban government,” Saladrigas said.
Dan Restrepo, who served as senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012, said now the challenge is how to use the instability created by departure from the status quo — more than half a century of isolationist policy — to create real opportunity for the the Cuban people and the Cuban diaspora.
However, Noriega said Obama is so intent to renew relations and open embassies that “he will agree to anything,” so he expects Cuba and the United States will reach an agreement on embassies soon. He also said he expected steps would be taken to end the Guantánamo lease before the end of the president’s term. But under the Helms-Burton Act, the United States can only enter into negotiations to return Guantánamo or to renegotiate the current lease with a a democratically elected government in Cuba. The White House has said the prison at Guantánamo should be shut down, but not the naval base.