Five years ago, on July 1, I walked into the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Affairs and exchanged letters with my Cuban counterpart from our respective heads of state, setting in motion the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Havana and Washington. A heavy page was turned, weighted down by 55 years of pain, suffering, regrets and recriminations.
A new chapter in relations had begun — or so I thought.
Fast forward to today: It’s as if the Trump administration has rewound history. They are deporting Cubans seeking asylum in the United States, limiting the ability of Cuban Americans to send remittances to the island to support their families and restricting opportunities for trade and travel. The State Department designated Cuba as “non-cooperative with U.S. counter-terrorism efforts,” one step short of returning Cuba to the state sponsor of terrorism list. Most punitive measures are sure to come with similarly little or no justification between now and the November elections.
Today, those in the administration driving the “maximum pressure” policy toward Cuba know it will not lead to the regime change they advocate — that it strengthens Cuba’s (and Iran’s) hand in Venezuela, with Russia and China occupying the vacuum we left behind. They nevertheless continue down this path, trying to manipulate an important political bloc understandably frustrated and impatient for change on the island they love.
Indeed, what is unfolding is a feckless approach predicated not on America’s national interests but on domestic politics. It’s a hollow imitation of a policy that failed the United States for nearly 60 years — and a policy on which I thought we had finally turned the page. Meanwhile, hardliners in Cuba smile from ear to ear. They know how to deal with this playbook exceedingly well; it is far more comfortable for them than engagement.
Between 2015 and January 2017, our two governments were in perpetual contact. On our side, engagement was viewed not as an end in itself but rather a means to advance a wide range of American interests. We re-established diplomatic relations, opened embassies, signed 23 agreements and initiated 17 dialogues that would improve the security and well-being of both countries. Our international and regional initiatives and priorities were progressing more smoothly given Cuba’s outsized stature in the global south. People-to-people travel expanded to hundreds of thousands on safe U.S. commercial airlines. Business, educational and cultural delegations large and small arrived, leading to increased commerce, exchange and understanding. Americans were seizing the new opportunities we had provided them.
Meanwhile, the flow of information, to, from and within Cuba mushroomed. Cuba’s private sector — which now accounts for 15 percent of GNP — was dynamic and growing. Living conditions for the Cuban people, especially those courageous enough to venture into burgeoning private enterprises, were improving. Mentalities were changing. Younger Cubans were enthusiastic about the future, some putting their energy into the island’s future rather than plotting to leave. Their counterparts in the United States were coming to re-connect with their heritage, meet their counterparts and explore opportunities.
Today, all of this progress has been halted. Where is the human-rights dialogue we launched? Where are the negotiations we began on expropriated properties? Anyone who thinks they will be compensated through a Helms-Burton Title III claim is dreaming. And what is the administration’s record on bringing home fugitives from American justice? Nada.
The administration’s hypocrisy is breathtaking. While we hear plenty about human-rights abuses in Cuba, much of the rest of the world gets a pass. Look at the administration’s silence on civil and political rights in Egypt, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Closer to home, Washington has been mute on the excesses and threats to democracy by the leaders of El Salvador and Brazil. It’s as if we have regressed to the 1980s, when we looked the other way at the abuses of right-wing dictators and excoriated only those on the left. Never mind what is happening within our own borders. American leadership and soft power are being frittered away, our leverage on the island now in tatters.
Hardliners in the White House like to say that engagement didn’t lead to positive change. Yet the notion that nothing changed on the island is just false. Our engagement was helping to make the lives of the Cuban people better and positive change more likely. I saw it firsthand.
For decades the U.S. objective was supposed to be about helping improve Cubans’ lives, consistent with U.S. interests and values. But this was in permanent tension with our actual policy. President Obama in 2014 asked correctly how can we keep doing the same thing and expect a different result.
I ask this question, again, now.
Ambassador (ret.) Jeffrey DeLaurentis is a Distinguished Resident Fellow in Latin American Studies at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He was charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, from 2015-17.