US-Cuba relations: On first anniversary, still on the path to normal?

A year after Cuba and the US reopened embassies, the picture is mixed. More government contacts and tourists are probably here for good, but deeper changes like improved human rights will be harder to accomplish.

Enrique de la Osa/Reuters
Men work in front of the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, July 20.

A year after the United States and Cuba normalized relations and reopened embassies in Havana and Washington, ties between the two cold-war foes would indeed appear to be on their way to normal.

More Americans than ever are traveling (legally) to the formerly off-limits communist island, university educational exchanges are in the works, and US commercial airlines have been approved to commence flights between the US and Cuba – as early as this fall.

Even Shaquille O’Neal has been received in Havana as the State Department’s first sports envoy to Cuba.

But at the same time US engagement has done little or nothing to sway the Cuban government in its respect for human rights, critics of President Obama’s engagement policy insist. If anything, they add, stepped-up diplomacy with Cuba’s communist government has only legitimized a regime that denies its people basic democratic and human rights.

The mixed picture forming one year after re-established relations suggests that while changes like more intergovernmental contacts and higher tourist volume are probably here for good, deeper changes like improved human rights and broader economic freedoms will be harder to accomplish.

“Normalization is a long-term process … but we are making slow and steady progress,” says a senior State Department official. Twelve months into that process, “the shift from isolation to engagement” has proven to be “the right course for supporting the aspirations of the Cuban people,” adds the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss US Cuba  policy.     

But not everyone is on board with that upbeat assessment. Indeed as President Obama prepares to leave office, the most many critics of the engagement policy are willing to grant it is a begrudging acceptance that it is here to stay. The conflicting results on Cuba are likely to mean that enough has changed to forestall a reversal of the Cuba opening, they say – but not enough to maintain the level of enthusiasm for engagement with Cuba that the Obama administration demonstrated.

“At this point we’re not going to see a reversal [of normalization] – even the harshest critics of the president’s Cuba policy realize that train has left the station,” says Ana Quintana, Western Hemisphere policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. “But I also think we’re going to see a more tepid approach to Cuba no matter who wins the White House – in large part because the opening has not produced any kind of meaningful change for the Cuban people.”

The Republican Party platform calls for maintaining the trade embargo on Cuba and returning US policy to a focus on the human rights violations of the “loathsome regime” in Havana. Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has said she supports Obama’s normalization policy but at the same time wants closer ties to Cuba’s human rights advocates and stronger US efforts to promote respect for human rights in Cuba.

“Either way we’ll be seeing an administration again standing with the dissidents,” Ms. Quintana predicts. “What that means is that no matter who gets in, there will be the potential for positive modification of the policy,” she adds. “I think the approach of looking away from blatant rights violations for the sake of policy and a president’s legacy will go out with Obama.”

Mr. Obama has stressed in recent Cuba comments that his goal is to see his opening to the former adversary set in stone by the time he leaves office. Administration officials say the long list of changes cementing governmental, people-to-people, and private-sector ties between the two countries mean that the opening is here to stay.

Pointing to everything from regular intergovernmental dialogues on issues like migration, maritime security, public health, and the environment, to eased contact between Cubans and the Cuban-American community, the State Department official says, “All of these things have helped institutionalize the process.”

But that “institutionalization” does not extend to Congress – which holds the keys to the trade embargo and to other key pieces of a normalized relationship.

Congress show no signs of moving any time soon on approving an ambassador to Cuba, for example.

At the same time Cuban officials – who remain publicly wary of US motivations behind the renewed diplomatic ties – are doing nothing to allay congressional unease over the opening.

Last month, the Cuban government denied visas to members of Congress who wanted to assess security arrangements at the island’s airports before commercial flights to the US commence this year. This month, some members of Congress filed legislation that would prohibit commercial flights – until Congress’s safety concerns are answered.  

“At a time when the Obama administration is rolling out the red carpet for Havana, the Cuban government is refusing to be open and transparent with the Representatives of the people,” the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul, (R) of Texas, said in a statement.

Yet despite congressional distaste for Obama’s opening to the Castro regime, many analysts see Cuba policy post-Obama escaping any intense scrutiny or efforts at reversal simply because Cuba is not a burning national-security concern.

In other words, Cuba just doesn’t excite the passion and degree of concern that another hallmark of Obama’s “dialogue with adversaries” – Iran – does.

“Definitely Iran and the nuclear deal are much greater national security concerns than Cuba, so of course the next administration and Congress are going to be paying much more attention to Iran and to addressing the implications of Obama’s policy there,” Quintana of Heritage says.

Yet even as Cuba moves off the front burner, she says concerns about the Cuban government’s rights record and slow economic reforms will be enough to stall the process of normalizing relations.

“Enough people have qualms about a normal relationship with the only military dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere that additional advances in that relationship will be slow,” she says.

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