On the Cuban side, talks are all take and no give

HAVANA: A sign with the government slogan “Homeland or Death” faces the U.S. Interests Section, which is slated to become a full embassy soon.
HAVANA: A sign with the government slogan “Homeland or Death” faces the U.S. Interests Section, which is slated to become a full embassy soon. Bloomberg

President Obama’s Cuba initiative represents, as Dr. Johnson said of second marriage, the triumph of hope over experience.

“We’ve been neighbors,” the president said in the White House Rose Garden, “now we can be friends.” Oh, if it were only that simple.

When it comes to Cuba, nothing is simple. And hasn’t been since Fidel and his barbudos marched triumphant out of the Sierra Maestra. Fidel is now 88 and frail. His revolution is 56 and was sputtering until Obama threw brother Raúl a life preserver. A revolution preserver, really, because the Cuban leader vows that nothing about Cuba's socialist revolution will change. Except who the country's sugar daddy is. The Soviet Union played that role for decades, then Venezuela until oil markets went kerplooey and now Cuba's new benefactor, somewhat unbelievably, is us, the running dog Yankee imperialists.

Sec. of State John Kerry will travel to Havana later this month to raise the flag over the U.S. “Interests Section” and — shazam!— transform it into an embassy. Cuba will raise the flag over its stately headquarters in Washington, which has been spiffed up nicely, on July 20th. The Cubans are expected to name their ambassador quickly. Could it be Josefina Vidal, who was impressive as she led the Cuban side in the four negotiating sessions (that we know about) with U.S. diplomats over the last seven months?

But just how did those talks end with the embassy agreement just announced? We still don't if several thorny issues were resolved. One is Cuba's nasty habit of poking around in U.S. diplomatic pouches, a serious breach of security and diplomatic protocol. Another big issue: What will happen with the U.S. fugitives from justice like Joanne Chesimard and perhaps 70 others? And will Cuban police continue to harass Cubans who want to enter the U.S. embassy?

President Obama shed light on only one of the disputed issues, saying that U.S. diplomats will be able to move freely around the island to speak with dissidents or anyone else as long as they give the Castro government 24-hour notice. That’s progress on one important issue, but myriad details about the others remain unknown. Also unknown is exactly what constitutes “normalization,” plus our human rights demands.

“I think we lost the first round,” says James Cason, the Coral Gables mayor and retired U.S. career diplomat who headed the U.S. Interests Section in Havana from 2002-2005, “We made all the concessions and Havana made none. We don't know what's been gained in terms of normalization.”

Cason calls the embassy openings purely symbolic: “Nothing much will change on the ground.”

The whole point of Obama's Cuba policy is to achieve change on the ground for the average Cuban, to give him and her a chance to live more freely and escape the freedom-strangling clutches of the Castro regime.. “Will the Cuban people benefit?” asks Andy Gomez. a retired professor and Cuba scholar at the University of Miami. “I don't think they'll benefit, especially Afro-Cubans who make up about 60 per cent of the population.”

They are the ones who rarely receive remittances from abroad, don't have access to dollars and may be growing restless. For them, as for many others on the island, full diplomatic relations won't mean a pollo in every pot.

What the Castro government clearly wants from its new relationship with the U.S. is to be able to buy on credit on the world markets. Problem is, Cuba wants to buy an estimated $14 billion on imports but has only $3 billion a year to spend. For years, the Cubans have been buying millions of dollars in agricultural products from the U.S. (mainly to feed tourists) and all purchases must be made in cash. Now, the biggest advocates for giving Cuba the right to buy on credit are members of Congress from farm states that produce poultry, pork, beef, rice, beans and the like. Havana wants all that and more and will seek loans from the World Bank and IMF now that it's off the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Of course, they'll never be able to pay back those loans under their current economic system. They've long been one of the biggest deadbeat countries in the world.

The next step in the process is up to Congress. Just last month the House voted 247-176 against easing travel restrictions to the island. Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake, a libertarian Republican, is sponsoring a bill to ease travel restrictions, while Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat from Wisconsin, is the main sponsor of bill to lift the embargo. The former is a long shot, the latter has no chance. Sen. Marco Rubio is leading the fight to block a $6 million request to overhaul the U.S. embassy in Havana; he and House allies like Rep.Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami, also vow to block the confirmation of a new U.S. ambassador to Cuba.

Reaction in Miami to all these recent developments has been curiously muted. “The Cuban community is sitting on the edge of its seat, waiting to see what happens next,” says Prof. Gomez. So are we all. But it will be a long and fraught process.

Adding to the combustible mix is the 2016 presidential race. Hillary Clinton, naturally, supports Obama's Cuba initiative while only one Republican may — Rand Paul. All the others, starting with Jeb Bush, call the Cuba initiative a colossal mistake and point to the regime's ferocious crackdown recently on pro-democracy activists.

Sadly, the president is evidently willing to turn a blind eye to flagrant human rights abuses for the sake of his legacy — the president who opened Cuba. The crowning moment will be his expected visit to Havana. He'd better get there before November 2016 because if a Republican wins the White House, all bets with Cuba will be off.