U.S.-Cuba relations: A year of change

In the year since the U.S.-Cuba rapprochement began, some things have seemed to move at warp speed, but others have smacked into the reality that the two former Cold War enemies still have two very different systems and have barely talked to each other in five decades.

There have been important symbolic changes. An American flag now waves over a U.S. Embassy in Havana, and a Cuban flag flies at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., after an absence of more than 54 years. President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro have met face-to-face twice and talked by telephone three times, even joking about the famously long speeches of Fidel Castro.

Cuba has been removed from the U.S. black list of state sponsors of terrorism, and there have been talks on prickly issues such as migration, human rights, and claims for confiscated property of U.S. citizens and corporations.

Interactive timeline: A history of modern U.S.-Cuba relations

But because expectations were so high and many U.S. businesses were so eager to engage after a half-century drought, some say Cuba has been slow in taking up the United States on the new business opportunities the Obama administration began outlining in January. Obama also has said he wants to work with Congress to lift the embargo.

Expectations were high among the Cuban people, too, said Domingo Amuchástegui, a former Cuban intelligence officer who left the island in 1994, because “in Cuba’s political culture, when the president says something is going to be done, take his word, it will be done. Cubans who heard Obama thought this is the president’s word.”

But such high hopes have been tamped down. It was apparent after the first round of normalization talks in Havana in January that rapprochement would be a slow process, he said.

Some Americans imagined that U.S. companies with all their technical know-how would rapidly expand Internet access on the island or that Americans would be able to pick up a charger for their cellphone at a U.S. mobile storefront in Havana, soon be visiting Cuba via a ferry from Miami, and pulling out credit cards issued by U.S. banks to pay for their hotel stays and to withdraw cash from ATM machines in Cuba.

All are theoretically possible under new U.S. rules, but it takes two to tango, and Cuba is yet to green-light any of those opportunities.

Even though U.S. companies are free to form partnerships with Cuban government entities to improve the island’s Internet and telecom infrastructure, the only deals announced so far have been a few roaming and direct-connect arrangements. This summer, Cuba began rolling out new public Wi-Fi hotspots that now number 50, but most Cubans don’t have regular access to the Internet and desire for connectivity is huge.

“It’s all about what your benchmark was at the beginning of rapprochement. If you had realistic expectations, then you see gradual progress,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California-San Diego and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Both Obama and Raúl Castro say this will be gradual.”

Tangible change

At the Summit of the Americas in April, Castro said that while the two countries still have their differences, “we are willing to discuss everything, but we need to be patient, very patient.”

Castro’s more conciliatory words to Obama in Panama were a watershed event, Feinberg said. “Up until that time, the United States was the implacable enemy and a threat to the security of Cuba. His remarks changed the whole paradigm and atmosphere in Cuba.”

The most tangible change in Cuba since last December has been the parade of U.S. visitors, including Obama Cabinet members and State Department delegations. On Wednesday, many baseball stars who defected, including Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, St. Louis Cardinals catcher Brayan Pena and Chicago White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu, also visited.

For Alana Tummino, who accompanied a U.S. business delegation at a recent international trade fair in Cuba, the realization that things had changed significantly came as she sipped her morning coffee at the Hotel Saratoga in Havana.

“A whole host of business leaders from the United States, including former hard-line Cuban Americans, passed by, and that really signaled to me that we’re in a different era,” said Tummino, who heads the Cuba Working Group at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

American travelers have signed up for people-to-people tours in record numbers, helping Cuba set a new record for international visitors this year. There have been sports and cultural exchanges, U.S. governors have toured Havana in vintage automobiles, and countless U.S. business delegations have arrived in Cuba to test the waters.

A supporter of such efforts is Alan Gross, the USAID subcontractor the Cubans accused of smuggling military-grade equipment into the country. He said recently that “while I served as an involuntary catalyst for this change, I hope now to help foster continued good relations between our countries and our citizens.”

But not everyone is in favor of engagement, and over the past year, members of the Cuban-American delegation in Congress have introduced legislation that seeks to limit the Obama opening. Congressional supporters of engagement, meanwhile, have been busy trying to line up co-sponsors for bills lifting the travel ban and the embargo.

South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said the opening hasn’t worked and that the progress the Obama administration sees “is not reflected in the mass arrests and the increase in Cubans fleeing that has marked this year.”

Human rights is among the more contentious issues between the two countries. While the United States has criticized the jailing of dissidents and insisted on the importance of respecting basic civil rights, such as freedom of speech, press and assembly, Cuba views human rights through a somewhat different prism of social well-being, emphasizing its free healthcare as an example of respect for human rights.

Although the number of political prisoners has fallen sharply in the past year, the number of political arrests is way up. Through November, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation has documented 7,686 political arrests, most resulting in short-term detentions of a few hours or days.

In its November report, the commission said the Castro regime was reacting with “ever greater repressive fury” against those who only want freedom for political prisoners and respect for civil and other basic rights.

Not only has there been “disappointment by the naive view of the White House regarding its misguided policies toward communist Cuba,” Ros-Lehtinen said, but “little has changed for the average Cuban while the Castro brothers continue to rejoice that they have an ally on Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Financial front

Just in time for the Christmas season, the United States and Cuba reached agreement Dec. 10 on a pilot program for direct-mail service that will take mail directly from the United States to Cuba several times a week, rather than through third countries. And Wednesday, both sides said they had reached an understanding to restore regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries.

There have already been two environmental agreements — one that establishes sister relationships between marine sanctuaries in Cuban waters and the Florida Keys and a more far-reaching accord that will make it easier for U.S. and Cuban scientists to work together to protect the environmental resources of both nations.

On the financial front, there has been both progress and frustration. Pompano Beach-based Stonegate Bank became the first U.S. bank to establish a correspondent relationship with a Cuban financial institution and recently announced that its debit cards would work to pay bills at government hotels, restaurants and other card-accepting merchants on the island. But other banks have remained wary and have exercised extreme caution when dealing with any Cuban-related business, sometimes holding up payments that are completely legal.

Many challenges remain. One immediate one is the more than 3,000 Cubans stranded in Costa Rica because Nicaragua, an ally of Cuba’s, won’t let them pass through its territory on their route north to the United States.

“The Central American crisis is part of a much bigger migration problem. The route through South and Central America [often taken by Cuban migrants] is like a highway to the United States where everyone is dry-foot,” said William LeoGrande, a government professor at American University.

Cuba also wants to engage on sensitive issues. Castro has said he wants the lifting of the embargo, the return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, and the end to Radio and TV Martí and other acts of hostility against Cuba by the United States. Cuba also wants reparations for human damage caused by U.S. incursions against the island, as well as economic damages due because of the embargo.

The United States, meanwhile, would like to see meaningful progress on compensation for $1.9 billion ($8 billion, including interest) in claims by U.S. citizens and corporations who had their Cuban property seized.

“I think the Cubans would be wise to do some big deals [with U.S. companies] that make people think this is really going to pay off,” said LeoGrande. “But you’ve got the embargo still in place, and I think it’s part of the reason the Cuban response has been slow. They know it is not going away until at least 2017 and maybe after.”

The new U.S.-Cuba relationship

Jan. 3, 1961 — The United States breaks diplomatic ties with Cuba.

Feb. 7, 1962 — U.S. imposes complete economic embargo on Cuba.

Dec. 17, 2014 — The United States and Cuba announce they will begin a process of normalizing relations. As part of the deal, the United States releases three of five remaining Cuban spies serving long jail terms and Cuba releases a CIA agent serving a long term in Cuba. As a humanitarian gesture, Cuba releases USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who had spent five years in a Cuban jail. A limited economic and travel opening toward Cuba also is announced.

Jan. 15, 2015 — U.S. Commerce Department and Treasury roll out new regulations that expand trade with and travel to Cuba.

Jan. 22, 2015 — First round of normalization negotiations takes place in Havana. Talks on migration issues also held.

Feb. 13, 2015 — U.S. releases rules on what types of goods and services may be imported from Cuba’s self-employed sector.

April 11, 2015 — President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro hold talks on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas in Panama.

May 29, 2015 — State Department removes Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. It had been on the black list since 1982.

July 20, 2015 —The United States and Cuba renew diplomatic relations and open their embassies. Cuba holds a formal flag-raising ceremony.

Aug. 14, 2015 —The United States holds a flag-raising ceremony to officially reopen its embassy in Havana and Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Cuba.

Sept. 18, 2015 — U.S. releases another set of Cuba regulations that allows U.S. companies to have a storefront or warehouse on the island, loosens some banking regulations, makes travel easier and permits ferry companies and cruise lines to offer Cuba itineraries without seeking prior U.S. licenses.

Sept. 28, 2015 — Raúl Castro delivers his first speech at the United Nations. He calls for the embargo to be lifted, return of the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, reparations for damages caused by the embargo, and the end to Radio and TV Martí.

Sept. 29, 2015 — President Obama and Raúl Castro have bilateral meeting on sidelines of U.N. General Assembly.

Oct. 27, 2015 — United Nations approves a resolution condemning the embargo 191-2. The U.S. and Israel cast the only dissenting votes.

Dec. 8, 2015 — U.S. and Cuban delegations open dialogue on dealing with claims on property confiscated from U.S. citizens and corporations and Cuban counter-claims for damages caused by the embargo and U.S. hostility against the Cuban people.

Dec. 10, 2015 - The United States and Cuba reach agreement to start a pilot program that will take mail directly to Cuba from the United States, rather than through third countries.

Source: Miami Herald staff