In normalization talks, U.S. gives, Cuba takes

IN HAVANA: Private restaurants are growing in number, but many question whether Cuba’s business climate is safe for investors.
IN HAVANA: Private restaurants are growing in number, but many question whether Cuba’s business climate is safe for investors. AP

Ever since President Obama began charting a new policy track toward Cuba, I have followed the negotiations carefully and have remained cautiously optimistic. Until now.

As we pass the half-year threshold of his decision, sadly, all I see so far are several important concessions on the American side of the ledger and not a single significant, conciliatory gesture on the part of the Cuban government.

I recently shared a café with Orlando Gutierrez Boronat, who heads the Cuban National Directorate. He affirmed that he is “not surprised in the slightest” that the Cubans have been unyielding. “What would truly have been surprising is if they had budged on human rights or democratization issues.”

Gutierrez Boronat further explained that many (including me) assumed that the Cuban government would be negotiating from a vulnerable position — given the somber economic state to which Obama responded. “The Castros have never preoccupied themselves with their country’s economic well-being. Their primary obsession has always been to maintain power. The Cuban government,” Gutierrez Boronat continued, “is negotiating, at least in their minds, from a position of strength. They perceive the Obama olive branch as a sign of weakness — a loss of American political and ideological resolve and will.”

Perhaps that assessment of the Cuban government’s mindset is the reason why Cuba’s contribution in the diplomatic talks has been so paltry and uninspiring. The last couple of weeks have been a public-relations nightmare for Raúl Castro and his monolithic regime and their quest for the normalization of relations with the United States.

While the United States scratched Cuba from its terrorist list, Cuba summarily shut down a Ladies in White protest; detained, harassed and censored Tania Bruguera, a Cuban installation and performance artist, along with several members of opposition groups throughout the island; and apparently made underwhelming impressions on a couple of groups of Florida attorneys and investors who were in Cuba on fact-finding missions.

One of the investors was Miami Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross, who put the kibosh on the Cuban government’s best laid plans by stating on CNBC that, “You need a government that really wants change, that really wants business and really wants to see growth, and (in Cuba) you don’t really have any of that feeling at all.”

This week I spoke with several attorneys from a group of Florida Bar members who went to the island to learn more about Cuba’s business environment. Gauging from most of their reactions, the presentations made by the Cubans were less than convincing. “Cuba is a long way away,” Miami attorney Jim Meyer expressed. “I could not advise a client to invest in Cuba because the issue of rule of law is imperative in offering a potential investor stability and confidence — right now Cuba’s legal system is nowhere near where it needs to be.”

Another Miami attorney who went on the trip, Barbara Alonso, was not willing to give the green light for investors quite yet, though she explained that, “for those who have a higher tolerance for risk, Cuba may offer some opportunities.” Alonso also shared her perception of the upbeat spirit among the Cubans she spoke to in Havana. “There are more signs of entrepreneurism, and that was good to see.”

While the subjects of entrepreneurial enterprise and private property were bandied about in Havana, I couldn’t help wonder what the Cuban government intends to do with the properties they expropriated (euphemism for “stole”) from families like mine. “I suspect not much for now,” legal consultant Nicolas Gutierrez shared with me. “But that issue will soon come up. Generally, most, if not all, confiscated owners have been recognized by the new governments in every single formerly communist Central/Eastern European country and Nicaragua.”

Regrettably, up to this point, the conversations between the United States and Cuba have been remarkably one-sided. I will continue to monitor their progress, but not as optimistically as I once did.