By Patricia Grogg (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – Today, the US Embassy in Cuba is just a symbol of what it could have been during the brief détente. Its flag still flaps in the wind on one side of the building, but with the US returning to a position of conflict, its activity has been reduced to the bare minimum and reminds us of the worst moments in the long years of bilateral tensions.
Republican president Donald Trump’s hostility for this Caribbean nation has been growing ever since he entered office in January 2017. He has completely wiped away the path towards normalized relations that was paved by his predecessor Barack Obama (2009-2017) and former president Raul Castro (2008-April 2018) since December 2014.
Havana and Washington reestablished diplomatic relations in July 2015, over half a century of conflict. The rapprochement process led to Obama visiting Cuba (March 20-22, 2016), during which he stressed that his government doesn’t see Cuba “as a threat to the US”.
[Despite the popularity of Obama’s words addressed to the Cuban people in Havana, the late Fidel Castro’s sharp attack shortly after his visit set the tone for an end to any significant advances in relations. Obama’s last minute ending of the Wet foot / Dry foot law that favored Cuban immigration, and the coming of the Trump administration, sharply enhanced the chilling affect.]
Prince Charles of England, the heir of the British throne, and his wife, Camila, also chose March to visit Cuba. The royal couple arrived in Havana on Sunday the 24th for a four-day trip which, according to the Cuban government, proves that they are willing to continue strengthening bilateral relations in every aspect.
This contrasts with weak Cuban-US relations and regional tensions, centered around Venezuela’s political crisis and Cuba’s support for this country. Within this context, Cuba is fully aware of Trump administration’s threats that “all the cards are on the table”, including the military option.
“The danger of a US-led military invention in Venezuela isn’t very likely, but we can’t rule it out completely,” Arturo Lopez Levy, an assistant professor of International Relations at the Gustavus Adolphus College, in Minnesota, told IPS, from Saint Peter.
However, the expert warned that “Trump’s administration has proved that it won’t hesitate to use any means it deems fit with its short-term interests,” in the run-up to the presidential election in 2020. Still on this subject, he also added “subordinating national interests to electioneering demands is the priority of the day.”
Keeping the promise he made during his electoral campaign, Trump signed an executive order in Miami in June 2017, in front of an anti-Cuban government crowd, aimed at stopping any advances made after bilateral ties were reestablished. “I am suspending any bilateral agreement made by the former government (Barack Obama’s),” he announced.
His new policy leaves most of the 20 agreements, signed between Obama and Castro, in the air. Negotiations that had just started were cut short, such as the ones looking for a solution to the issue of compensations for US companies that were nationalized in the ‘60s.
Some 6000 US citizens and companies have filed complaints for expropriations during this time. Any possibility of negotiating a compensation agreement between these companies and the Cuban government will be thwarted if Washington extends these complaints to Cubans emigres who became US citizens after 1959.
These demands could be likely if Title III of the Helms-Burton Act (Freedom Act) is applied, which has been suspended every six months since it was created in 1996 by the Clinton administration (1993-2001), George W. Bush (2001-2009) and Barack Obama.
Trump did something similar during the first two years of his time in office, but in January this year, he only suspended it for 45 days and then for another 30 days, which is only valid until April 17th now. The Cuban government has said that the Helms-Burton Act, which codifies the US embargo in a single law, isn’t applicable in Cuba, as it’s a US law.
Mysterious and unexplained sonic incidents that apparently caused health problems for US diplomats in Havana, which were made public in 2017, were the perfect excuse to reduce diplomatic personnel at the embassy, which has affected trade and travel particularly.
As part of one of its most recent measures, which came into effect on March 18th, Washington placed restrictions on tourist and exchange visas for Cubans, which are now only valid for three months and one entry alone. Up until now, these documents were valid for five years, and allowed for multiple entries and exits.
Cuba’s budding private sector are among those most affected by this decision, as this extended visa allowed them to travel to the US to buy the supplies they need for their businesses, from spices to equipment, and also visit their relatives and friends.
Getting a visa to the US was already a complicated process, but now with the lack of diplomatic personnel at the Consulate in Havana, Cuban citizens have to go to a third country to make a visa application.
This implies an expense that most Cubans can’t afford. For example, an entrepreneur traveled to the Mexican town of Merida and spent 1200 USD for the plane ticket, accommodation and visa.
“This alteration of US visa policy is just proof of the unraveling of communication with Cuba that is being implemented, (…) The people behind these policies are reducing exchanges between these two societies as much as they can, trying to see how far they can go without a negative reaction,” Lopez-Levy stated.
“In this respect, illusions about Venezuela and its crisis exacerbate the emotions and longings of a critical group of Cuban emigres who support the defeat of the Cuban government, creating greater pressure for an implosion in Cuba, or at least a greater opening,” the expert concluded.
From Madrid, Chilean political analyst Ximena de la Barra had the following to say about this subject: Florida is extremely important within the US electoral system and the vast majority of Cuban emigres living in the US live there.
“This is why US politicians are especially agreeable with a group that has disproportionate political power,” she pointed out and mentioned Marco Rubio, the Republican politician of Cuban descent, who is currently the Senator of Florida and president of the Senate’s Intelligence Committee.
Lopez-Levy stressed that Rubio “doesn’t represent the entire Cuban-American community, but a vast majority of them, not only those belonging to the historic exiles, vote for him, and support his anti-Communist discourse of yesteryear, which reaffirms their special status as political exiles compared to other Hispanic immigrant groups.”
Rubio, alongside Mike Pompeo (US Secretary of State), John Bolton (National Security Adviser) and more recently Elliott Abrams (US special envoy to Venezuela), “are in charge” of overthrowing the governments in Cuba and Venezuela by any means necessary, according to De la Barra.
“All of their strategies have failed up until now,” she underscored.