HAVANA TIMES — Cuban professor Esteban Morales is one of the most reputable experts on the issue of Cuba-US relations. He has just published a book titled De la confrontacion a los intentos de normalizacion (“From Confrontation to Normalization Efforts”), a volume crucial to understanding the bilateral conflict between the two countries. He agreed to devote part of his limited time to speak with us about the past, present and future of these relations.
Are changes in US policy towards Cuba coming?
Esteban Morales: We would need to do a detailed analysis of the past elections and the current makeup of the US Congress. Obama can’t lift the embargo, because that is a prerogative of Congress, but there are many things he can do. He can broaden academic exchange between the two countries, make it possible for US citizens to visit Cuba, take our country off the list of nations that sponsor terrorism, hold talks about the Guantanamo Naval Base, and increase the United States’ cooperation efforts in the fight against Ebola. Obama can also negotiate the exchange of Alan Gross for our three comrades serving prison sentences in the United States.
There are those who compare the United States coordination efforts in the Ebola campaign with its Ping-Pong diplomacy with China.
EM: Well, it does resemble it in the sense that it is kind of rapprochement that could open other doors. Many things can be done to lessen the pressure on Cuba and those applied on the United States, the pressure Latin America put on the US by inviting Cuba to the 2015 Summit of the Americas, for instance. Washington is paying an increasingly higher price for maintaining that policy of hostility.
Could bilateral talks be undertaken in the short term?
EM: I believe it is possible today. In 1977, with the Carter administration, the most important talks to date were held. The problem then was that the bilateral debate included multilateral issues, like Cuba’s presence in Angola and Central America and its relations with the Soviet Union.
What would be the obstacles today?
EM: The obstacles that existed in Carter’s time do not exist today. Our relations with Russia are different, we do not have troops in Africa and the situation in Central America has changed. Cuba’s international activism is of a different nature today – it has more to do with aid in areas of health, education and others.
What we have today are contradictory perceptions. Obama said the main obstacle is the case of Alan Gross, but that can be overcome easily. What happened with Gross is his fault and the fault of US intelligence services, who sent him to Cuba. His own family has said that Obama is responsible for the situation. Our government is offering to exchange him for the 3 Cubans still imprisoned in the US. Everyone would benefit from that.
Would Cuba be willing to release Gross in exchange of starting talks, or is the release of the three Cuban agents one of the conditions?
EM: I believe it’s a condition, because it’s a very painful situation for us – those men have been in prison there for 16 years. They went on a mission to protect Cuba and what they did to them there was unjust. I believe it is right that Cuba should make their release a condition for allowing Gross to return to the United States. The Obama administration has the power to do this and it would not involve high costs for it. The other day, they traded 11 Taliban prisoners for a US soldier.
Does Cuba want to begin negotiations there?
EM: Negotiations needn’t start there. In fact, we’re already working together in the fight against Ebola. We can debate other issues, but, sooner or later, we’re going to have to talk about these people in prison.
What would be on the agenda for Cuba?
EM: One of the issues we have to talk about is the blockade, particularly its financial aspect, which leads to things as absurd as the US $ 8 billion fine applied on a French bank. Cuba could also ask for US citizens to be allowed to travel to Cuba freely, because that would have a significant impact on the growth of tourism. We could address the lifting of restrictions on a number of medications we need and the US currently does not allow us to buy. We can negotiate the rules of trade with the United States, which today force Cuba to pay in advance and in cash. There are a number of things we can do.
To what extent would the Cuban government be willing to negotiate?
EM: The Cuban government is willing to negotiate everything the US government wants to, including the issue of human rights. What Cuba isn’t going to accept is for Washington to impose parameters on Cuba’s political system, demanding that it become a multi-party system or that it adopt a market economy. Those issues have to do with Cuba’s sovereignty as a country and we would never accept being told what to do in this sense.
Why did previous negotiations fail?
EM: The main cause was that the United States was never willing to negotiate on an equal footing – it always tried to impose its agenda on us. Washington tried to tell us what our international relations should be like, demanding that we break ties with the Soviet Union. They demanded that we leave Angola. That was the end of it, it made it impossible to make any headway, because Cuba could not accept having the US dictate its policy.
What could Cuba do to facilitate a rapprochement?
EM: Two years ago, Cuba advanced an immense number of issues where cooperation with the US was possible, including medical and educational issues. But we won’t arrive at an understanding while Washington continues to think that Cuba is far too small to address it as an equal. Our rhetoric today is very diplomatic vis-à-vis the United States and Raul Castro has said he is willing to talk about anything, anytime, but only on the basis of equality.
(*) Visit the website of Fernando Ravsberg.