Returning to the Obama Era with Cuba Is Not in the Cards

Benjamin Ziff, charge d’affaires of the United States embassy in Cuba.

“It’s hard to go back,” said Benjamin Ziff, the US chargé d’affaires at the Havana embassy.

By Cubencuentro

HAVANA TIMES – Things have changed since President Barack Obama implemented a rapprochement policy with Cuba and although some measures have been put into effect in recent months to bring families separated by the Florida Strait closer together, the Biden government does not see it as easy to return to those times of closer ties, reports Gisela Salomon, of the Associated Press.

“It’s hard to go back,” said Benjamin Ziff, the US chargé d’affaires at the Havana embassy. “The world has changed since Obama’s time and now we have to deal with today’s reality,” he said. in an interview with The Associated Press.

In 2014 Obama and then Cuban President Raul Castro announced the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, the beginning of a series of agreements that included the reopening of the embassy in Havana, immigration cooperation, academic and family trips, facilitating the sending remittances, among other things.

Throughout his two presidencies, Obama resorted to executive orders to improve bilateral relations and weaken the US trade embargo, which has been in place for more than six decades and can only be lifted by Congress. With the arrival of Donald Trump to power, in 2017, a large part of these measures were discarded.

Biden was vice president during the Obama administration and his arrival at the presidency renewed hopes in some sectors that he would return to the policies of that time. His administration has put into effect relief for the sending of remittances, allowed more flights and humanitarian assistance to the island, but they are far from resuming the flexibility and rapprochement promoted by Obama between two historical enemies of the Cold War.

Ziff, who serves as the highest representative of the United States on the island, said that the measures adopted in recent months aim to improve the lives of Cuban families, but stressed that it is not easy to deal with the island’s authorities.

“The relationship with the United States for historical reasons, political reasons, human rights reasons, is difficult,” said the diplomat, who has been on the island for six months. “I would define the United States’ relations with Cuba as correct and pragmatic,” he said.

Ziff believes, “change in Cuba must come from Cuba, from the Cubans, it does not depend on anyone else.” He said that “the United States can support, help, encourage, advocate, pressure, everything, but basically the future of Cuba depends on the Cubans.”

After nearly five years in which the US embassy in Havana remained with a minimum of staff after mysterious health incidents and then the coronavirus pandemic. Officials and employees returned to work in July 2022.

Consular services, which had been suspended since 2017, resumed in January, 2023, and the embassy is offering “hundreds” of appointments daily for immigrant visas, including those for family reunification, the diplomat said.

Talks between the two governments have resumed and the most important issue on Washington’s agenda is human rights, after massive street protests in July 2021 that provoked a harsh response against protesters and opponents, Ziff said.

“That is our number one priority, to ensure that the Cuban population can have a future without repression and with economic hope,” explained the diplomat, who spoke mostly in English, interspersed with some responses in perfect Spanish.

He said it is very difficult to talk to the island’s authorities about human rights issues. He even noted that when US officials have wanted to meet with political opponents, some have been jailed. He did not offer names, however.

The resumption of consular activities coincides with a historic wave of Cuban migration to the United States that led the Biden government to take measures to curb illegal arrivals.

In the last two years, US authorities have detained nearly 300,000 Cubans on the border with Mexico, and thousands more trying to reach the Florida coast by sea. Some have been returned to the island, but the vast majority have remained under immigration rules dating back to the Cold War. That figure is equivalent to almost 3% of the inhabitants of Cuba.

As part of the resumption of dialogue with the Cuban authorities, the issue of illegal migration, a matter of national security for the United States, stands out. “The lack of hope is what is driving the rate of irregular migration,” said the diplomat.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times

6 thoughts on “Returning to the Obama Era with Cuba Is Not in the Cards

  • February 7, 2023 at 3:27 pm

    Roscoe, you and several older Cubans I have known stick to being Fidelistas defending what I consider the undefendable and as a back up always saying Fidel always had the peoples’ interest at heart and did the right thing at the right time with noble intentions.

    First of all you may recall that during the 70s and 80s when the Soviet subsidies where streaming in: oil, food, machinery, etc. and favored trade, Fidel didn’t hardly talk at all about the embargo and his government only started to complain in a big way in the early 90s when the Soviet union no longer existed.

    The root causes of a lack of food production in Cuba was never the embargo. Fidel had the chance to make Cuba self-sufficient food wise in the decades when the investment rubles were there. Numerous countries much poorer than Cuba produce much more food per capita than Cuba and don’t have the idle land and water and even technical assistance available in Cuba.

    Fidel’s grandiose strategies were very costly to the Cuban economy. Let me list a few:
    The 1970 10-million ton sugar disaster, and the fruit tree to coffee belt disaster around Havana. His show cow producing 100+ liters, but his farms never being able to produce enough milk for it to be readily available for people of all ages. Forcing cooperative and individual farmers to sell at prices that didn’t compensate their work, and the main investment being in inefficient State farms and ranches like a sink hole.

    All of these hairbrained ideas, and many more, which he could impose at will with no opposition had nothing to do with the embargo, which again I never supported.

    Numerous agronomists and economists recommended strategy changes but Fidel always new best and opposing his policies was never very well accepted, to say the least. The monopoly media always, to this day, glorifies his absurd and failure proven ideas.

    Obviously the US government was no friend of the Cuban leader or the Communist Party but the fact is the treatment Fidel and Cuba got from the Soviet Union and Socialist bloc was far more advantageous for Cuba’s development if investment had not been squandered at one man’s whim.

    A similar thing happened in Venezuela with the over $100 a barrel price. Chavez had the opportunity to convert his country with much good land into a major food producer thinking of possible future lean times, but instead he squandered the bonanza as if it was never going to end. Part of that gave new life to Fidel’s efforts to survive off of anti-imperalist handouts.

    And then we have the situation today in Cuba with so little production on all fronts and little money to import what the people need to have a minimal consumption life.

    As to US imperialism being the reason the Soviet Union collapsed I think it was more of an internal implosion of failed policies.

    And speaking of imperialism I gather you most likely support Putin’s imperialist invasion of Ukraine as some kind of a defense measure. I find that outrageous. Personally there is no good imperialism neither from the US, Russia, China or others.

    Again if the ever so popular Fidel, or Raul or what’s his name, had to debate publicly with their opposition and then face other candidates in an election it would be quite interesting to see how they fare. The monopoly government/party media is nothing more than a propaganda machine and their allowed analysts lucky that nobody can question their ideas.

    So as nearly everybody who can is trying to leave the island, especially the under 40 crowd, I personally don’t think Putin’s mafia capitalism is going to reverse the trend. We will have to wait and see.

  • February 7, 2023 at 9:12 am

    With your comment that the US has not made the failed Cuban agricultural policies, that they were/are home grown, you are overlooking the fact that those failed policies were, and no doubt the objective result of the US embargo which makes your statement partially true however dismissive of its the root causes, the embargo.

    And with your statement here: “One might ask why didn’t Fidel work to implement policies to make Cuba food self-sufficient during the two+ decades when the Soviets provided tens of billions in subsidies…”
    Not withstanding that the statement is historically inaccurate, I think you again ignore the gravity to which The Embargo had on Cuba’s political economy, which created a situation of Cuba being forced to rely solely on the USSR for Political and economic allegiance and support. It was a situation, as I understand it, that Fidel ernestly attempted to avoid with his appeals of economic partner proposals to the US immediately following the revolution. In those early years of Cuba’s victory, it was the arrogance and greed of the US and not that of Fidel’s that made that partnership impossible.

    Over looking the degree to which Fidel’s regime was politically and economically devestated by the fall of USSR in 1989, (again a result of US/Western imperialist agenda), makes it conviently easy to highlight Fidels failures or mistakes following his successes leading up to that point. And I’m certain that there are many if not most Cubans who were given the short end of the stick and who are knowledgable of those conditions and or experienced it themselves who would not prefer to return to the pre revolution Cuba, for in fact, that was why the revolution was successful.

    That Fidel reversed his open social and economic reforms that eleviated some of the sharp edges of the post USSR in the decade leading up to Raul’s leadership made life for most Cubans increasily difficult is unquestionable and naturally incomprehensible to many. The only option for a revolutionary such as Fidel Castro, besides that of tightening his belt and digging in further to not bow down to the enemy was to bow down to the enemy. In that way, he was the last true revolutionary who in reality, can only be judged by other true revolutionaries resisting imperialist subjugation and there aren’t any left. ( Putin’s not a revolutionary. But he is resisting….)

    And the fight continues now with slightly different options of which will not please everyone. And as your name here suggests, I assume you can sympathize with this logic.

  • February 6, 2023 at 3:22 pm

    Roscoe, The US embargo on Cuba has been a catch-all excuse for poor agricultural and ranching policies by Fidel and those that followed him. (As well as the disastrous situation with education, health care, transportation, etc.) If one travels from end to end of Cuba you can see so much land going to waste and this despite all the reservoirs made decades back to provide irrigation. The US has not made the failed Cuban agricultural policies, they were/are home grown.

    Even if you were right, which I disagree, that Fidel was really so concerned about food self sufficency, his time worn failed policies, implemented at his whim, would have booted him from office in any country where people have a choice of candidates. But he stayed for nearly 50 years and those after him have only continued his failures or new variations on them.

    Following your logic that Cuba cannot do any better because of the embargo it looks like things can only get worse for decades to come. I guess the only option is for everyone to leave and the last person to turn out the light of the Morro. Unless, the new talk of allowing Russian style oligarch capitalism to design major reforms and facilitate the creation of chosen Cuban millionaires and billionaires proves successful.

    One might ask why didn’t Fidel work to implement policies to make Cuba food self-sufficient during the two+ decades when the Soviets provided tens of billions in subsidies and soft loans. Answer: He thought the party would never end. The same went for the golden years with Hugo Chavez, who managed to run his country’s economy into the ground with Maduro putting on the final touches. There is no need for self-sufficiency if the sugar daddy is going to last forever, but do they?

  • February 6, 2023 at 1:36 pm

    The Anti-Imperialist,
    I didn’t state that the Embargo is why rationing lines are so long.

    However, I do believe that they would be greatly shortened if the Trade Embargo was lifted across the board and that the less than 10% of what the US exports to the island were able to be paid with credit instead of cash as it is, etc.

    I disagree with your statement that Castro never cared about food self-suffiency.
    He cared a great deal about energy self-sufficiency and self-sufficiency of the people by making it possible for them to become literate. Why on earth would he not care about feeding them?
    You can’t serve two Gods simutaneously my friend.
    That Fidel was imperfect and sometimes misguided in his many attempts at curbing the disastrous economic stranglehold that the Embargo created is well documented.
    After all, he was attempting to defend his country against a Mammouth with a sling-shot.

    But, I consider it disengenuous to suggest, let alone declare that the Cuban people suffered and continue to suffer from among other things malnutrition that lead to other health problems as a condition to be dropped at his feet as if the US embargo delivered only correlative effects upon Cubans economy and social structure hence its people when in fact, inspite of Fidels failures, the embargo is the main cause of their economic suffering and existential griefe. Remove that stranglehold without hamstrings and lets see what happens.

    And for the record, it takes a steady supply of varried, quality grain with which to feed and breed not only chickens but other livestock to create, if not booming one at least a sustainable, quality meat production apparatus.

  • February 5, 2023 at 10:14 am

    Roscoe, one point in your comment that stands out. That the embargo is the reason Cubans spend so much time in lines trying to buy scarce food rations. What a joke after 60+ years living with “the enemy” 90 miles away, Fidel never cared about food self-suffiency and his agriculture and ranching policies only meant less national production. Raul, and now his hand picked dull successor, talk big about production while their policies continue to lead to less production. Cuba needs to import chicken from the United States and sugar from France… what a joke. And yes, I totally oppose the embargo but US politics says it will remain for a good while so maybe change is needed. Russian mafia capitalism may be what’s next, I personally don’t see the benefit for the average Cuban.

  • February 5, 2023 at 8:50 am

    Ziff believes, “change in Cuba must come from Cuba, from the Cubans, it does not depend on anyone else.” He said that “the United States can support, help, encourage, advocate, pressure, everything, but basically the future of Cuba depends on the Cubans.”

    What a joke and insult to the Cuban people these hollow words are!
    The US has had and continues to have no problem interfering in the politics of other sovereign nations to bring about what it claims as needed change for the people of those countries. But, somehow with Cuba, who the US and the rest of the Western world has been practically starving for the past six decades, it is the people of Cuba who are soley responsible for being able to eat, work and play and express their political opinions without fear of persecution or death and without any external intervention or support. And when Russia for example offers a plan; it’s denounced as one of oligarchical treachery.

    It’s business as usual as I see it. And obviously the Biden regime’s talking heads believe now what they believed then, that by starving the nation with the continued embargo, (An embargo that Obama had no intentions what so ever of ending inspite the political rhetoric and empty platitudes with which to gain the moral support of the Cuban people), the Cuban people will simply change their adress by leaving the island and there with weaken the Cubas political moral.

    There is a good reason why the Biden regime has an open border policy for anyone except Cubans at this stage. And the US/Cuban nationals in Florida know what that reason is.

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