By Luis Brizuela (IPS)
HAVANA TIMES – Cuba continues to pay close attention to the US electoral campaign. A foreseeable decline in bilateral relations or the return to a dialogue that was interrupted over three years ago, depends upon the victory of one candidate or another on November 3rd.
US-Cuba relations are at their worst moment since Donald Trump stepped foot in the White House, in January 2017.
The Republican government has stepped up pressure against Cuba’s failing economy. The island suffers a negative combination with the effects of COVID-19.
The US justifies its hardline policy against Cuba for this country’s alleged role in Venezuela’s demise.
The US Embassy is still operating
In June 2017, Trump signed a memorandum in Miami. He said it voided the rapprochement process with Cuba inherited from his predecessor, Barack Obama (2009-2017).
However, the US president “hasn’t taken Obama’s policy completely apart. For example, the US Embassy in Havana remains open to keep the island under its watchful and aggressive eye. Even if he were reelected, he wouldn’t get rid of the Embassy. It would be a big mistake he wouldn’t make,” political expert Esteban Morales said in a conversation with IPS.
Ever since August 20th, US diplomat Timothy Zuniga-Brown has acted as the Chargé d’Affaires at the embassy. He has vast experience in the country. The diplomat used to work for what was the US Interests Section in Havana, in the late 1990s. Before that, at the US Department of State’s Office of Cuban Affairs.
“The rest of [Trump’s] policy continues to attack Cuba with the intention of getting rid of travel and remittances. It brought down the allowed amount relatives can send but didn’t get rid of them entirely. Doing so would harm votes in Florida,” added Morales an expert in US-Cuba relations.
Florida International University conducted a poll in early October. It showed that approximately 60% of Cuban-American voters in this swing state will back Trump. The finding keeps in line with the historical alliance this group has with the Republican Party.
The majority in Miami like the sanctions but…
Most of the Cuban American community encourages sanctions to bring about a “change in government” on the island. This majority also stands by the US embargo, but defends measures that Obama approved such as selling food and medicine, direct flights to every region in the country and upholding diplomatic relations, the study confirms.
The Cuban and US governments signed twenty-something agreements between December 2014 and January 2017. These were part of a complicated and (according to experts) slow process of normalizing relations between two Cold War adversaries. The two countries are separated by only 90 nautical miles.
The process included reestablishing diplomatic relations, opening embassies, authorizing commercial flights and unlimited remittances. Moreover, it extended licenses for travel to Cuba, making more flexible US legislation banning travel to Cuba for tourism.
The countries also reached cooperation agreements in mutually beneficial fields. These included the fight against terrorism, the war on drugs, human trafficking, tackling international crime, telecommunications and health.
The so-called “sonic attacks” justified the cooling of relations
However, the mysterious and never confirmed sonic attacks, reported publicly in August 2017 for the first time, were used by the US government to justify the withdrawal of most of its diplomatic personnel, as well as to suspend consular services in the Cuban capital.
The retreat included a reduction in validity of visas to enter the US. Moreover, it forced Cubans to travel to a third country in order to apply for a visa. Washington also suspended regular and charter flights to every Cuban city, except for Havana’s International Jose Marti Airport.
“I haven’t been able to travel to the US anymore to buy supplies for my business. By suspending these fights, US citizens who used to come and leave better tips than other visitors are no longer coming either,” said Ana Iraida Riveron, the owner of a rental home in Holguin, via email.
“I have neighbors and friends with relatives in Texas, New Jersey and California. They say it is more expensive and difficult for them to come and visit them now,” Riveron added.
Harder to travel and send money
On September 9th, Trump extended for another year the Trading with the Enemy Act, a law originally passed in 1917. It supports the economic embargo the US has imposed on Cuba since 1962.
Since the beginning of this year alone, the US Department of Treasury has established bans to prevent banking and financial entities from sending remittances to the island, which in September 2019, was limited to 1,000 dollars per quarter.
“Stopping family members from supporting each other amid a pandemic and food shortages in Cuba, and closing down channels for sending remittances without a viable alternative, is cruel and goes against US values,” read a statement issued by seven US organizations that encourage ties with Cuba, on September 29th.
The Center for Democracy in the Americas was one of the entities that signed the document. They recalled that each year the Cuban-American community – estimated at 1.2 million – sends some 3.7 billion USD to their family on the island.
Small businesses hard hit
However, in the first five months of 2020, this amount dropped by 518 million USD compared to the same period in 2019. The Center’s statement highlights the impact of this change in US policy on financial remittances.
“The deterioration of the political climate between the two governments had led to serious problems for thousands of self-employed. It has worsened the impact of the current economic crisis on the island on them,” said Oniel Diaz, founder and leader of consultancy firm Auge, which advises the Cuban private sector.
Obama’s policy towards Cuba prioritized the development of the private sector, which flourished as part of the economic updating process began in 2010, and which before Covid-19 involved over 600,000 people, approximately 13% of the country’s workforce.
Eighty percent of business owners believe that Trump’s policies towards Cuba have negatively affected their business, cutting their revenue. This contributes to an overall hostile and pessimistic environment for the private sector’s development and growth. This perception comes from an AUGE consultants study issued in September 2019.
“Research carried out in Havana revealed that 73% of business owners wanted the rapprochement process with the US to pick up where it left off. Sixty-nine percent want the blockade to end, while 40% wanted access to training programs in the US,” noted Diaz.
Democrat candidate Joe Biden, the VP under Obama, has said that if elected, he will change US policy towards Cuba. He would support remittances to the island, among other measures.
“We can’t expect anything from Trump. These are just some of the advantages we could have if Biden is elected. However, the only thing that can save us in the future is overcoming our economic crisis and seeing an end of the pandemic,” Esteban Morales weighed in.