A year after diplomatic relations between the two countries were reestablished on July 20, 2015, Granma International spoke with Josefina Vidal, director general for the United States at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations, to discuss Cuba-U.S. relations as they stand today
By Sergio Alejandro Gómez
July 20, 2016
“We have been working for many years for a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba,” stated Josefina Vidal, the main face representing Cuba in diplomatic negotiations with the United States to open a new chapter in bilateral relations between the two nations.
But the Cuban diplomat isn’t referring to the quarter of a century she has spent dealing with this issue. “You need to read history and see how Fidel, at different times, expressed Cuba’s willingness to discuss and resolve our differences with the United States through negotiations, without renouncing a single one of our principles. And Army General Raúl Castro Ruz, on assuming the leadership of our government, stated that we have always been willing to normalize relations with that country on the basis of equality.
“This process began on December 17, 2014, following more than half a century of resistance by the Cuban people to all kinds of aggression. A few months later, on July 20, 2015, diplomatic relations between the two nations were officially reestablished with the opening of respective embassies in Washington and Havana.”
A year on, Granma International spoke with Josefina Vidal, director general for the United States at the Cuban Ministry of Foreign Relations, to discuss Cuba-U.S. relations as they stand today.
What has been achieved?
To give the most complete assessment possible, we must examine a period stretching back more then a year. We must consider the process of negotiations which took place almost six months prior to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations.
So, I prefer to talk about what has been achieved in the last 19 months. Over this period we have seen results in priority issues for Cuba, in the political-diplomatic sphere, and cooperation and talks on matters of bilateral mutual interest.
Priority aspects for Cuba included the return of our Five Heroes who were serving prison sentences in the U.S., the removal of Cuba from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and renewing the Havana Club trademark registration in the U.S. In the political-diplomatic sphere I would highlight the creation of the Cuba-United States Bilateral Commission providing follow-up to the post-reestablishment of diplomatic relations agenda. To date, three meetings have taken place in alternating venues, while a further two are scheduled to be held.
It was important to have a mechanism of this type to address unresolved issues, cooperation in areas of mutual interest and talks on bilateral and multilateral matters. In regards to cooperation, 10 agreements have been signed, while others related to drug trafficking; application and adherence to the law; search and rescue; ocean oil-spill response; meteorology; seismic monitoring: and terrestrial protected areas are currently being negotiated. Substantial progress has been made on several topics that could be completed before the end of the year.
To give you an idea of the situation, from January 1, 1959, to December 17, 2014, Cuba and the United States only signed seven bilateral agreements, including three related to migration, and only five of which have survived to date. If we count the reestablishment of diplomatic relations, then that brings the total of agreements established in the last 19 months to 11.
Are these results irrelevant?
No, no I don’t think we can say they are, for two countries which have lacked relations for over half a century; nor can we say that sufficient progress been made, as much remains to be done.
How much progress has been made in the economic-trade sphere?
Preliminary agreements between Cuban and U.S. entities in sectors such as telecommunications services, hotel administration and cruise-ship operations, exploiting the still limited opportunities made available through measures adopted by the Obama administration to modify certain aspects of the blockade’s application, have barley been established. Much more could be done if the blockade were eliminated; however, the policy remains in force. Restrictions on exports from the U.S. in spheres vital to our economy continue; it is virtually impossible to import Cuban products to that country; U.S. investments in Cuba are not authorized under general licenses, except in the case of telecommunications. Thus far it has not been possible to normalize banking relations. All of this could be resolved if President Obama were to fully exploit his executive prerogatives.
The dissuasive and punitive components of the blockade, and its intimidating extraterritorial effects, continue to have negative consequences for Cuba. We are still unable to make financial transfers, we are denied services of this kind and payments are withheld, while the U.S. continues to impose fines on banks and foreign financial entities that do businesses with our country. This is why the lifting of the blockade continues to be a priority issue for Cuba and its elimination will be vital to advancing toward the normalization of relations. The blockade is an outdated policy and must end.
How is it possible that Cuba has still not been able to use the dollar in its international transactions, several months after the Obama administration lifted this restriction?
To date, Cuba has not been able to make cash payments or deposits in U.S. dollars. The 49 sanctions – totaling 14,397,416,827 dollars, a record amount in the history of the application of the blockade against our country – imposed by the Obama administration on U.S. and foreign entities for their legitimate associations with Cuba; continue to have an intimidating effect on U.S. and international banks.
Thus far, the U.S. government has failed to issue a political statement or legal document explaining to world banks that operations with Cuba are legitimate, and that they won’t be sanctioned.
Although attention is always focused on the blockade, Cuba has other important demands on its agenda toward normalization… are they also on the negotiating table?
The blockade, the return of the territory illegally occupied by the Naval Base in Guantánamo, the United States’ migratory policy exclusively directed at Cubans, subversive programs, illegal radio and television broadcasts, compensation, and industrial property protection are permanent issues on Cuba’s agenda in official talks with the U.S. There isn’t one single path to resolving these issues. For example, Cuba was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in a matter of a few months, a priority for us. The decision was in the hands of the executive branch of the U.S. government. But there are issues which will take more time. The solution to some of these also depends on Congress.
The return of the illegally occupied territory in Guantánamo, which is the only case in the world of perpetually and illegally occupying a military base, against the will of the government and people of the country where it is situated, is also important for Cuba. Just like the blockade we have presented this issue in every meeting. In order to advance in improving relations, other policies which the U.S. government continues to implement and are detrimental to Cuban sovereignty, must also be removed. These are policies inherited from an earlier period of confrontation and hostility, which affect Cuba, and do not reflect the current bilateral climate.
As it stands an unprecedented process of bilateral relations coexists with the continuation of policies from the past, which reaffirms to us, and as we have previously stated, that the process toward the normalization of relations with the United States will be long and complex. But we will persist just as we have always done.
We often hear that all the changes this year have come from the U.S. side and Cuba hasn’t given anything in return. Must we give something in return in order to achieve justice?
You can’t call the rectification of erroneous policies by the government of the United States, concessions.
Both countries have taken sovereign measures as part of this process to improve the bilateral climate.
However, relations between Cuba and the U.S. have been asymmetric; therefore it is up to the U.S. to dismantle hostile unilateral policies which gave a confrontational character to relations between the two countries. Cuba doesn’t have any comparable policies.
Respect is a word that has been used a great deal since December 17, 2014. Is it simply a formality?
The U.S. government took 56 years to recognize Cuba’s legitimate government. However, it is very important to clarify that every time revolutionary Cuba has sat down to negotiate with the U.S., even at sporadic moments in the past, it has always done so on equal terms, and on the basis of respect, reciprocity, without conditions or concessions of any type on matters related to the principles of our domestic and international policy.
One of the most important moments of this past year, and an example of such recognition, was President Barack Obama’s visit to Cuba. Several months later, do you believe his trip contributed to advancing Cuban interests and the process of normalization of relations?
It was an important step in the process to improve relations. It was also an opportunity to convey to him our position on priority issues for the country. It is important to point out that Obama came to revolutionary, socialist, sovereign and independent Cuba to meet with the historic leadership of the Revolution; and not like the only other U.S. President to travel to the island, Calvin Coolidge, who visited neo-colonial Cuba, subject to the Platt Amendment and dictatorship of Gerardo Machado, 88 years ago.
U.S. officials, including Obama, have said that the government is changing its methods toward Cuba but not its objectives. What does this mean for Cuba?
By reestablishing relations, we agreed, on equal terms and a basis of reciprocity, to develop relations of respect and cooperation, based on the principles and objectives of the United Nations Charter and International Law.
We have clearly outlined the regulations and will continue to demand their fulfillment. The United States has a history of failing to adhere to these principles… Relations with the U.S. have always been a challenge for Cuba. Since the beginning they have been marked by the contradiction between the United States’ desire to control the island and the Cuban people’s determination to be free and independent, and this is not going to change.
We are not naïve, we are aware of their strategic objective and we will not let down our guard. We will always remain alert.
Meanwhile, the current bilateral process represents opportunities to advance for the first time toward resolving pending issues – not only from the last 56 years, but also centuries ago – and secure benefits for the country and its development, stemming from cooperation on issues of mutual interest, the gradual dismantling and eventual definitive lifting of the blockade, which will enable us to sell and place Cuban products and services in the U.S. market.
It’s about exploiting opportunities while maintaining clarity and managing the challenges.
Are we prepared?
In the same way we prepare ourselves to deal with a hostile and confrontational policy, we are preparing ourselves for this new period in bilateral relations.
Cuba has many strengths, such as the Cuban people’s patriotic sentiment, devotion to our independence and sovereignty, national unity, strong national culture – including cultural policy – solidarity, in addition to many other values which have been cultivated throughout our history and consolidated over almost 60 years of socialist Revolution under the leadership of our Party, who will accompany us in this stage. We can not cease to cultivate our values and continue passing them down from generation to generation. At the 7th Party Congress, Fidel stated that the Cuban people will triumph, and I believe this is so.
A counter-offensive by right-wing forces is currently underway in Latin America, at the same time as the change in relations between Washington and Havana is occurring. Some have tried to manipulate the facts. Does pursuing a civilized relationship with Washington mean sacrificing the Revolution’s anti-imperialist aims?
Absolutely not. Just as Cuba has never been anti-U.S., it is and will continue to be deeply anti-imperialist. The fact that we are trying to build a new type of relationship with the U.S. doesn’t mean in the slightest that Cuba is renouncing its foreign policy, committed to the just causes of the world, the defense of the peoples’ right to self-determination and support for sister nations, without renouncing a single one of its principles.
A strong debate around Cuba is going on in the U.S. Congress, with legislators both for and against. How has the U.S. Congress reacted over this last year?
The reestablishment of diplomatic relations – given the bilateral activity it is generating and interest it is stimulating within the U.S. – is a step which can contribute to accelerating the process toward resolving pending issues, including the lifting of the blockade. We have seen as such in polls, which show that 60% of U.S. citizens support President Obama’s change in policy toward Cuba, and the lifting of travel restrictions to the island and the elimination of the blockade. All of this is creating a growing movement of support which is being reflected in Congress.
There still exist two divergent forces: those opposed to the normalization process are attempting to reverse the advances made to date, and are increasingly isolated and lacking support, although they still have a certain amount of leverage and internal mechanisms; and those in favor of the current policy and the lifting of the blockade, who belong to both parties and have support from the majority of public opinion and broad sectors of U.S. society.
So far various initiatives both for and against normalization of relations have been presented in Congress, all of which were excluded from bills being debated and thus failed to be approved in 2015. Some analysts believe that the same could happen in 2016, an election year in which non-priority matters are usually put to the side.
We are seeing new forces and sectors showing their support for the changes. I believe this trend will prevail, as it reflects the desire of the vast majority of U.S. citizens.
How much more can Obama do before he leaves the Oval Office?
Important matters to Cuba have been included in the package of measures adopted by the U.S. government to modify certain aspects of the application of the blockade, among them the authorization of private credits and use of the dollar and recognition of the Cuban socialist state enterprise in bilateral trade, although its implementation has been affected by blockade regulations. Cuba has reiterated how important it is for President Obama to use his executive prerogatives to continue introducing changes to the policy as much as possible, which will help contribute to continuing the current process in the future. In short, Obama can do a lot more to make the process irreversible looking toward the future.
Where do you think the policy change toward Cuba will figure in the Obama’s legacy?
Having led a change in the policy toward Cuba, which was implemented by his 10 predecessors, will undoubtedly go down in history and be part of President Obama’s foreign policy legacy.
For this reason and given the resilience of Cuba and its people, and the recognition of the failure of a policy implemented for over five decades, the harm that it has inflicted on the Cuban people and resulting isolation it caused the U.S., especially within Latin America and the Caribbean, December 17, was a highly important moment, both within the U.S. and at a global level. The world recognizes what has been achieved, but it is also conscious of the fact that much more can be done, making its voice heard every year in the United Nations General Assembly, as it calls for the lifting of the blockade.
How could the U.S. elections affect relations with Cuba?
We hope the next U.S. President, whoever that might be, act in accordance with the wishes of the vast majority of U.S. public, which overwhelmingly supports the current policy toward Cuba.
What can we hope to see from a “normalization of relations with the United States”? Is this even possible?
In my opinion, even if, one day all the pending issues are resolved, including the blockade and the return of the illegally occupied territory in Guantánamo, essential to normalizing relations with the United States, it would also have to give up its historic ambition to decide and control Cuba’s destiny, otherwise, normal relations will not be possible.
In any event, it might be possible to establish a relationship of civilized coexistence, based on respect, and not on differences, which will continue to exist, but rather on the benefits it could provide for both counties and peoples.”