(MintPress) – With the appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state last week, many are hopeful that the former Massachusetts senator can jumpstart the moribund U.S.-Cuba relationship, defunct for more than 50 years.
Despite major policy and economic differences, President Raul Castro has extended an olive branch to the U.S., saying he is “willing to speak” with the Obama administration about any topic, as long as it is a conversation between equals. Ending the trade embargo may be a tall order in the next four years, but confidence-building measures focusing on the freeing of political prisoners is well within reach.
The two countries can turn a new page by talking about the release or swapping of political prisoner Alan Gross for the “Cuban five.” Both Alan Gross and the Cuban Five are being held for charges of espionage and intelligence gathering.
Cold War conflict without Cold War threat
The economic embargo remains a reminder of the extent to which Washington is willing to implement a collective punishment against Cuba’s 11 million citizens since 1962, after Cuba officially allied itself with the Soviet Union, Washington’s main Cold War adversary.
Fidel Castro’s decision to expelling U.S. corporations and the vestiges of the old U.S. imperial footprint on the island solidified Washington’s opposition to the new Cuban regime.
Historically, this embargo runs counter to international opinion, which has consistently opposed the U.S. embargo on humanitarian grounds, where the U.N. voted for the 21st time to condemn the U.S. embargo of Cuba in November in a landslide.
“It’s not just the U.S. against Cuba, it is the U.S. against anyone who deals with Cuba,” said Anya Achtenberg, a representative of the Minnesota Cuba Committee in a recent statement to Mint Press News. Active since 1990, the Minnesota Cuba Committee officially supports the immediate end to the U.S. embargo and travel ban while also promoting the normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba through local activism by educating the community by organizing art exhibits, speakers, film festivals and other events that helps people in the Twin Cities.
Manufacturers, using even small components originating from Cuba, are subject to the U.S. embargo, creating a ripple effect that isolates the Cuban state when corporations and in other countries suspend ties because of the U.S. economic blockade.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba no longer poses any security threat to the U.S. However, proponents of free market capitalism continue to oppose Cuba’s centrally managed, socialist economy.
“We talk to the Russians, we talk to the Chinese, we have normal relations even with Vietnam,” said Wayne Smith, former U.S. diplomat to Cuba. “We trade with all of them. So why not with Cuba?”
Although countries like China and Vietnam retain Communist labels, these countries have made a bevy of market-oriented reforms, opening their economies to trade with the United States. Cuba remains one of the lone countries in the world committed to a centrally-planned economy.
Long-time critics of Cuba’s centrally-planned economy welcome the small opening of free markets, previously eschewed by Havana as corrupting the aims of the revolution.
The government legalized the private sale of homes and apartments August 2011 and has since allowed some small, privately-owned businesses to open. Cubans can now own and operate small restaurants, taxis and hotels. However, the bulk of the economy remains centrally planned.
Previously, all property was owned by the government and all workers were employed by the government.
One of the biggest sticking points in the U.S.-Cuba relationship remains the close relationship Cuba maintains with Venezuela, a leftist state led by the much-maligned Hugo Chavez. As Chavez continues to recover from his latest cancer treatments in Cuba, a once solid relationship has been thrown asunder.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the client state of Moscow went through decades of economic isolation and decline. Filling the void was Venezuela, a major oil producer led by a Bolivarian government favorable to Cuba’s interests. Cuba has secured much needed petroleum in exchange for doctors and medical supplies.
Under a bilateral trade agreement, Cuba receives 96,300 barrels of oil from Venezuela each day, totalling more than $3.5 billion at market prices. In exchange, more than 30,000 Cuban physicians work in Venezuela, mostly in poor rural communities.
Easing travel restrictions
Travel restrictions have been eased considerably in the past four years. President Obama has taken steps allowing a few academic and religious organizations to receive travel permits through the U.S. Treasury Department.
Americans with a passport, visa and appropriate paperwork can now go on guided tours of Cuba through approved groups. Reasons for visits include: persons visiting immediate family in Cuba, full-time graduate students conducting academic research to be counted toward a graduate degree, undergraduate or graduate students participating in a study abroad program of at least 10 weeks in length or approved religious missions to the island.
Achtenberg reports that The Minnesota Cuba Committee, one of the groups originally granted a “people-to-people” license has been pleased with trips to Cuba and remains hopeful that more Americans can continue to travel on similar trips to meet everyday Cubans.
Since 2009, the number of Americans traveling to Cuba has nearly doubled from 52,000 per year to 103,000 in 2012, according to statistics compiled by the firm the Havana Consulting Group.
“The idea of a travel ban to Cuba is insane. There is no sound reason for this,” added Achtenberg.
Despite being issued a people-to-people license in 2011, The Minnesota Cuba Committee has not be reissued a license to bring people to the island. Paperwork to receive a license exceeds 300 pages and can be revoked at any time.
In 1997, Kerry supported easing travel restrictions further, allowing U.S. citizens to travel there without guided tour groups in the future. Kerry even voted in favor of Congressional legislation approving travel for Cuban-Americans and humanitarian missions.
In 2011 Kerry delayed the release of more than $150 million for “democracy promotion” programs. “There is no evidence that the ‘democracy promotion’ programs, which have cost the U.S. taxpayer more than $150 million so far, are helping the Cuban people,” Kerry said.
Indeed critics charge that the work of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is promoting propaganda against the Castro regime while attempting to topple his government.
President Obama has also eased restrictions on Cuban Americans who can now travel freely to the island with just a passport. “There are now hundreds of thousands of Cubans who go to the island every year,” Achtenberg added positively.
Cuban Americans can also now send remittances to relatives and friends on the island, previously banned under the terms of the strict embargo.
Freeing political prisoners: a chance for confidence building
One of the few areas where the U.S. and Cuba can work toward greater cooperation and understanding is on the issue of prisoner swaps. The exchange of Alan Gross for the Cuban Five has been posited as a logical exchange.
Gross was detained during his sixth trip to Cuba in 2009 despite having all his work sanctioned by USAID and the Cuban government. While it is still unclear as to whether Gross was conducting any covert operations, his release could be a small but important step toward easing U.S.-Cuban hostilities.
Cuban authorities arrested Gross while he worked on a USAID project to set up satellite communications gear that would allow members of Cuba’s Jewish community to connect to the Internet without going through government servers.
The Cuban government sentenced him to 15 years in prison, but has hinted at the possibility of a prisoner swap for the “Cuban Five,” a group of Cuban nationals accused of spying on right-wing terrorist groups plotting attacks in Cuba.
In September 1998, the Cuban and U.S. nationals were imprisoned for trying to stop violence against their country. “They infiltrated into right-wing groups planning attacks against Cuba, someone had to do it.” Achtenberg added.
The Cuban Five spied on right-wing groups, planning attacks against the Cuban government. The intelligence gathered was handed over to U.S. authorities, but resulted only in arrests against those trying to stop terrorist attacks.
The U.S. State Department can also remove Cuba from its list of “State Sponsors of Terror” list, a logical delisting considering Havana’s willingness to host peace talks between the FARC — a group of leftist rebels — and the Colombian government.
The U.S. Department of State issues the label “State Sponsor of Terror” to countries which have “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” The listing was created in 1979 and is updated annually based upon intelligence reports and available data.