Dr. Julia Sweig
Dr. Sweig believed that the stasis that existed between Cuba and the U.S. for decades would remain unchanged for the foreseeable future, but everything changed with the simultaneous announcements made by Raul Castro and President Obama in December, 2014 that a process would begin towards normalized relations between the two countries.
This was a giant upheaval in the relationship, which was symbolized as recently as last week when photos were taken of Obama and Castro sitting together at the Latin America Summit and chatting amicably about how to further the process along. The political will has dramatically changed.
Another significant development occurred in the last few days when Cuba was taken off the list of nations supporting terrorism. This move further opens up the door to trade between the two nations and signals that further steps are certain to come while Obama is still in office.
The first significant occurrence indicating the shift was the return of Alan Gross to the U.S. He had been a long-term political prisoner in Cuba. It took Obama’s entire first term in office to build up enough experience in dealing with Cuba to establish a fruitful path towards the relationship that paved the way for the release and the other steps towards normalcy.
In addition to Gross’s release the improved relationship allowed for the release of other political prisoners and eliminating most of the travel bans that prevented Cuban travel. Now those wishing to travel to Cuba can apply on line and using the honor system check a box for one of the allowed categories of travelers that are allowed to go. There are also opportunities for investing in small businesses in Cuba (micro investing) that previously were only allowed between family members. And on the Cuban side, Cubans are now allowed to purchase items from the U.S.
Dr. Sweig stated that the Pope had aided the negotiations by serving as a backdoor conduit for discussions and by encouraging the parties to change the situation. The Pope was interested in improving the relationship between all Latin American countries and the U.S by reducing the imperial attitude, which most Latin American countries perceived as the U.S. position. He also wanted the church to no longer be considered as opposition to the Cuban government, but as a body that could work with the government toward improving the Cuban people’s lot. Aiding the U.S. efforts toward these goals was the secret work of Vermont’s Senator Leahy who made clandestine trips to Cuba for discussions that later resulted in the public announcements.
There were other motivating factors behind the U.S. policy change including the importance of Florida’s Cuban trade and bringing about a major legacy for the Obama administration.
Helping change the Cuban attitude are the facts that Raul Castro is more pragmatic than his brother Fidel. He does not have the antipathy towards money and business that Fidel historically has held. And he wants to reorganize Cuban structure making it more open. In this way he can offer a brighter future to young Cubans and stop them migrating to other countries. An indication of these changed attitudes are Raul’s speeches, which don’t focus on castigating the U.S. and its trade embargo the way Fidel’s speeches always did.
Cuba is not going to change into a Jeffersonian democracy, but will probably adapt a hybrid model that takes some elements from countries like Vietnam where there is still strong government control, but with much more economic freedom as well as intent to preserve social welfare for the disadvantaged. Dr. Sweig feels that the Internet when it becomes generally available will be a huge factor in bringing about change to Cuba.
Q. What did the Pope do and what is the outlook for the remaining political prisoners?
A. The Pope met with Obama in Rome where they discussed the situation and what could be done. He also was an intermediary for messages between Obama and Castro as well as passing on messages from the bishops who supported change. He also appointed a messenger to communicate with Ortega and Castro. There are still some political prisoners, but Cuba recognizes that these are a hindrance to further progress and wants to relieve that problem.
Q. Was replacing Venezuela as an oil source an incentive for Castro?
A. Yes. Castro was interested in diversifying his sources for important goods. This became increasingly important when the price of oil fell and Venezuela could no longer support Cuba the way it had in the past.
Q. Who will succeed Castro and how will the political system evolve?
A. Castro’s successor has already been named and he will succeed. There will not be a multi-party election in Cuba for some time if ever.
Q. What influence does Fidel have over Raul and will the Castros continue their influence even after Raul steps down?
A. Fidel has huge influence, but he is totally behind what Raul is doing. He knows the old ways don’t work. But the Castro brothers will continue to influence as long as they are alive. In some ways this is good because they have the status of revolutionaries and if they support change then it keeps the old guard in check.
Q. How important is the embargo status and does it impede business to a significant degree?
A. It is still a big problem. It presents banking problems and big investments that’s why Obama wants Congress to lift it.
Q. Do you think that Cuba will ever again become a vacation destination the way it once was?
A. Yes, but without the gambling, prostitution and machine guns. But they will have to be careful to protect the environment, which so far hasn’t been affected because the traffic is so light.
Q. What about Guantanamo Bay?
A. The lease says it will stay in effect until both sides decide it should end. Cuba wants it ended and never cashes the rent checks the U.S. sends. The U.S. won’t end it until all the prisoners are gone. Then it might because it doesn’t serve any strategic purpose.
Q. Does your optimism about Cuba extend to Venezuela?
A. No. Cuba is organized and gets things done. Venezuela is a mess.
Q. Can you comment on the Cuban crisis period?
A. Not really. It happened before I was born, but Cuba is not a part of any crisis scenario anymore.
Q. How is Fidel’s health?
A. I can’t say definitively, but he is looking very frail and is not appearing at big events, which would indicate some problem.
Q. Old property claims used to get in the way of future development like those surrounding the nickel mines. Are these getting resolved?
A. These claims no longer have monetary value in the U.S. They have to be negotiated with the Cubans.
Q. What is the U.S. doing about all the Communist issues?
A. Ideology is no longer a major problem. Refugees now are no longer trying to escape an ideology, but are coming for economic opportunity.
Q. Cuba is developing a major port. Where is the money coming from?
A. Brazil is loaning the money for the port. Other sources of money will come from extended credit.
Q. Why is Fidel afraid of the freedom model for Cuba?
A. With complete freedom you lose control, which is a concern. Fidel also has a huge skepticism when it comes to capitalism and big business. He saw the way big business dominated Cuba and much of Latin American and doesn’t want that to happen again.