Challenges facing US and Cuba talks

Challenges facing US and Cuba talks

No one said normalising relations between the United States and Cuba would be easy. After more than 50 years of mutual distrust, there are sensitive areas on both sides which require careful negotiation to build mutual confidence, writes Dr Joseph S. Tulchin.

Both sides see long-term strategic benefits from improving relations and expanding legitimate contacts between them, so we can expect the two sides to achieve their common goal after negotiations.

There is already a constructive tone in the exchanges and clear evidence of mutual respect. Respect is one of the basic requirements.

There should be no illusions. There are real obstacles to improving relations.

On the US side, there is the power of the Cuban-American group which now occupies critical positions in both houses of Congress. This group is determined to block the Obama administration’s efforts and its leverage is significant now that Republicans control both houses.

The only possible chink in their political armour is that many of the economic interests favouring more trade and investment with Cuba have strong Republican ties and may dilute the voting base on which the Cuban-American hardliners rely.

On the Cuban side, there is political opposition on the part of some of President Raul Castro’s closest colleagues. They fear that rapprochement with the US will

reduce the Cuban Revolution’s symbolic power and the influence revolutionary symbolism has had, and still has, in Latin America and other parts of the world.

In my view, Cuba will be welcomed with enthusiasm at the April Summit of the Americas in Panama. That will show President Castro that respect for his government, crucial to the negotiations, is shared by other nations in the hemisphere, so that he is likely to allow his negotiating team to be more forthcoming.

The sorry state of Cuba’s economy and the backwardness of information technology is more significant than internal politics on the Cuban side.

Any surge in trade or investment will exacerbate a growing tendency towards income inequality in Cuba, while opening communications will make it more difficult to control the population’s unmet demands and the activity of those who want more democracy and human rights.

Two major obstacles have been encountered in the early stages of the talks - removing Cuba from the list of nations supporting terrorism and allowing Cuban diplomats to open bank accounts in the US.

The first is a mystery. Nobody actually working with the Cubans considers Cuba a nation which encourages terrorism - including the executive branch of the US government.

But removing Cuba from the list has to go before Congress and, there is the rub. Submitting such a recommendation is certain to rouse the Cuban-Americans and create a furore.

The second issue needs an exemption for one or more US financial institutions so they can offer banking services to the Cubans. Without this exemption, banks would be in violation of embargo laws.

The Obama administration wants results from bilateral talks before dealing with Congress. This will not work.

The Obama administration has to confront the minority of extremists in Congress and move on. US strategic interests require normal relations with Cuba.

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