As the United States and Cuba prepare to resume diplomatic relations Monday for the first time in 54 years, the debate over who got the better deal in the historic rapprochement continues to swirl, especially in South Florida, where Cuba-watching sometimes resembles a contact sport.
Some say they see positives for both sides and a plus for the United States or say it’s not about who got the upper hand in the negotiations to end more than a half-century of hostilities. Others, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, say they see “concession after concession” made to a Cuban government that continues to crack down on dissidents and human rights activists.
“What difference does it make who gains more, especially since there is no clear loser?” asks Helene Dudley, a former Peace Corps volunteer who now works with a micro-loan program. “The people of both countries benefit from this win-win deal, and it’s impossible to gauge the ripple effects. We should drop our pettiness toward Cuba. Each side has much cause for regret in actions over the last 100 years. It is time to move forward.”
But for the Cuban-American congressional delegation, the United States got the short end of the stick in the new relationship that officially begins Monday with the opening of respective embassies in Washington, D.C., and Havana.
“The so-called negotiations by the Obama administration have resulted in nothing but a Christmas in July for the Castros,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. “With nothing in return from the communist regime, the United States has managed to legitimize the Castro brothers with an American embassy in Havana, has given the Cubans access to financial institutions in the U.S., has promoted an infusion of American tourism to the island, and has delisted Cuba from the State Sponsor of Terrorism list.”
“President Obama continues to appease [the Cuban people’s] oppressors,” said South Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart. “The Cuban people are calling out for solidarity with their struggle for freedom, not collaboration with those that imprison them. If only we had a president that knew the difference.”
A Bendixen & Amandi poll based on 1,200 interviews with Cuban adults from across the island found that 97 percent thought reestablishing diplomatic relations with the United States would be a good thing.
Diaz-Balart noted that the Cuban government has arrested more than 2,000 dissidents and activists, although most were short-term detentions, since Dec. 17 when President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro announced that the two nations had achieved a diplomatic breakthrough after 18 months of secret negotiations.
Rubio, who is among a crowded field seeking the Republican presidential nomination, said he intends to block the confirmation of a U.S. ambassador to Cuba until issues such as the return of U.S. fugitives living in Cuba, the claims of U.S. citizens for property confiscated in Cuba, political freedom for the Cuban people, and removal of all restrictions on U.S. diplomats in Cuba are addressed.
A provision in the State Department funding bill that prohibits funds for an embassy or other diplomatic facility beyond what was authorized prior to Obama’s Dec. 17 announcement is still awaiting floor consideration.
For the record, during negotiations that stretched from January until July 1, when both sides announced they had a deal to open embassies, Cuba had two main objectives: its removal from the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism — a designation that carries sanctions — and finding a bank to handle the accounts of its diplomatic missions and employees in the United States. After losing its former banker, the missions had operated for more than a year on a cash basis. The Cubans were 2-2 on those issues.
Going into the talks, the main objectives of the United States were: unrestricted travel within Cuba for embassy personnel, unfettered access for Cubans trying to visit the embassy, removal of a staffing cap of 51 Americans, and a guarantee of secure shipments to the embassy.
Here’s what was agreed upon, according to a Congressional source: senior-most diplomats from both embassies can travel without prior notification to host governments, and other embassy personnel need to give notification of their travel plans but no longer have to wait for approval; Cuban authorities, who had maintained a checkpoint outside the Cuban Interests Section, will no longer require pre-registration of visitors; both sides will be allowed to increase staffing levels, but it’s unclear whether the current U.S. facility can accommodate personnel growth, and the Cubans agreed to the U.S. request for secure shipments.
“We are satisfied with the conditions agreed to, including access to diplomatic facilities, travel of diplomats, and the level of staffing,” said a senior State Department official. “We’re confident that our embassy in Havana will be able to operate similar to other embassies operating in restrictive environments. We will be able to meet and exchange opinions with a variety of voices and views both within the government and outside.”
As part of the opening, the United States also announced measures that will make it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba and do business and trade with private entrepreneurs and some Cuban government entities. As a separate gesture of goodwill, Castro released 53 political prisoners. But critics complain that more political prisoners remain in Cuban jails. The U.S. appears to have gotten most of the items on its checklist.
“The United States got something very important, the opening of the embassy,” said Carlos Alzugaray, a retired Cuban diplomat whose last posting was as ambassador to the European Union. It was something that Cuba didn’t particularly want, he said. “An American Embassy in Cuba is a problem for us. Remember, it’s an asymmetrical relationship.” Cuba also accepted the deal, he said, with the embargo largely in place.
Meanwhile, both sides have agreed to continue holding separate talks on issues such as human rights and migration.
All the debate over who got more “just baffles me,” said Vivian Mannerud, who runs Airline Brokers, a company that makes travel arrangements for Cuba trips. “What can Cuba give us? They didn’t take anything from us. They didn’t put any trade and travel sanctions on us. We took Guantánamo,” she said. “Have they taken away from the Cuban people, yes. But that is a different story.”
Still, the plight of the Cuba people is why Marta Hernandez, a retired school administrator from Miami, said the Castro brothers and the Cuban government are the “clear winners” in the new relationship. She doesn’t buy the argument that the embargo has been the main cause of hardship for the Cuban people. Other countries continue to trade with Cuba, she said, and “50 years of partnership made no difference to Cuba or its people. The problem in Cuba is not the U.S. embargo, it is the system.”
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, who was the chief U.S. negotiator in talks leading up to the embassy openings, said the old policy of isolation was harming U.S. relationships with the rest of the hemisphere and that the new policy has been well received around the Americas.
Looking at the potential economic benefits for both sides, Bruce Lamberto of North Miami Beach said it’s a win-win. “Cuba will eventually get massive economic development on the part of private companies signing design-build agreements with Cuba. [The island] also will benefit from the millions of U.S. tourists that will soon be visiting,” he said. “The U.S. benefits by allowing U.S. companies to take part in the development that was formerly done by foreign countries.”
The really big areas of contention — the embargo, U.S. property claims, the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo, the return of convicted felons, and Cuban calls for the end of Radio and TV Martí and for reparations for economic and human damages caused by the United States — are yet to be addressed.
With the opening of the embassies, Castro said earlier this week that the “long and complex” phase of normalizing the relationship between the two countries will begin.
“In the short run, certainly the Cubans got more. In the long run, we don’t know yet,” said Andy Gomez, a long-time Cuban scholar. “Reestablishing diplomatic relations is one thing, and reconciliation is another. And that could take a long time.”
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